Anything you recognise is either JK's, George's or Disney's. Anything else probably belongs to them too.
As I took a few seconds to mentally kick myself for calling out to Mr. Murphy, the Jedi carefully lowered the crystal lights to the floor amid the blaring alarms and flashing lights. Every guard in the room began reading their forearm bracers as information flashed across them.
"Right, well, I'll go sort this out," I said to no one in particular.
Satine did not sound enthusiastic. "By what right do you believe you can simply order-" she began.
I simply talked over the top of her, pointedly ignoring her words and addressing her bodyguards directly. "Get the Duchess to safety and enact all your security protocols," I said, voicing what should be their standing orders. Anyone that wanted to object, or even delay, would be actively putting her in danger.
Besides the Duchess herself, only the pugnacious Jedi seemed to be keen to object. He pushed himself forward and demanded that I stand down and let the Jedi deal with the situation.
I didn't bother responding. Trusting that Obi-wan would keep the fellow in line, I just took a few steps back, turned and left.
There were some shouts, but they soon turned into grunts and nauseous gagging as I cast a Point Me. Hopefully Obi-wan wouldn't be too upset with me, but using magic was the fastest way for me to give the Jedi something to think about. Other than killing me, that is.
I exited the room and followed the hallway in the direction my wand pointed. I fished out my comm and called HK. I got a fair way along the corridor before he answered. He sounded giddy with excitement at having so many playmates to enjoy terminating.
It was frustrating to try and get answers from him in the relatively few moments he wasn't discharging his weapons at the enemy. He gave me a punctuated rundown of the situation, before requesting to end the conversation, to better focus on the pleasure at hand.
I rolled my eyes and disconnected the call. The wand shifted in my hand, and I turned a corner. Feylis and the Mandalorians were coming the other way at a run; my lawyer audibly puffing and wheezing.
"The contract has been… signed. I assume we… are under attack," the Bothan gulped out, with rather less alarm than expected from a lawyer in a combat situation. He waved the rolled parchment to punctuate his statement.
I nodded, pleased. "HK says there are a few dozen ships out there. Most landed and let some armed passengers disembark, but then took off again. They've formed a screen to keep reinforcements from landing."
Axl smashed a fist into his palm. "Do you have information on troop strength? Numbers? A positive identification?" he demanded.
With a shrug, I replied, "The ships are all different; there's no consistent class, so it's probably not a single force. HK thinks that they're bounty hunters after me, and I've no reason to disbelieve him."
One of the Mandalorians stared at me. "If there's a bounty you, we could…" he began in an evaluating tone before suddenly groaning and doubling over.
Axl snapped his head around. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing, I just…" the distressed man ground out through a clenched jaw before a loud gurgling came from his lower abdomen. A second later there was, as in HK's inimitable style, an audible voiding of bodily waste.
His armour, while fully covering his entire body, proved to not be hermetically sealed. The nearest Mandalorians paled and took a couple of steps away, a couple of them gagging.
"What is the matter with you? Axl demanded, prudently turning his head and taking a few steps backwards himself.
"He's probably just shitting himself at the thought of going into battle," I offered, knowing full well that the loyalty contract he'd just signed was the direct cause of his gastronomical misery. "Cowardice manifests in all sorts of disgusting ways."
Feylis grinned at me and nodded, before looking closely at the distressed mercenary. He was clearly fascinated at the way the contract acted.
"No!" the sorry sod managed, the weak denial sounding hollow as another wave of contract magic caused another noisy rectal outburst. He sank to his knees, causing some oozing and leakage through the joints of his armoured legs.
The looks of disgust from his fellows was warming to see. "Just… get yourself cleaned up,"Axl demanded. "You're not getting on the ship unless your armour is pristine. The rest of you, Form Up! Move Out!"
I led the group away from the miserable bugger. Feylis got some odd looks from the mercenaries. "We don't need a lawyer," one insisted with impressive condescension. "We need to fight, not talk."
The Bothan shrugged, still trying to catch his breath. "I'll have you know that I've… personally inflicted billions in damages to… organisations spanning entire sectors."
That claim drew a mixture of disbelief, curiosity and respect. "How?"
He gave an evil grin. "You'd be surprised what damage…you can do with a… meticulously-timed Cease and Desist."
I grinned with appreciation. That sort of bureaucratic bastardry was the reason I'd retained ABPY's services.
Feylis continued, "However, I am a Bothawui Naval veteran. I've been in combat before. I will remain at the rear and provide what support I can. I will not be a liability."
Axl growled, clearly unimpressed. "We still have no idea what we're facing. Can you contact your droid? We need more intel."
I pulled out my communicator and activated it once again. HK's image flickered into existence. The holographic representation of my droid spun and weaved, the blaster in each hand flicking from front to side, discharging rapidly all the while. "Salutations: Greetings Master. You appear to be attracting so many more bounty hunters than I expected," he said, ducking behind a wall. He discarded one of the guns and pulled another off a nearby body.
"Glad you're enjoying yourself. Listen, I've got a bunch of Mandalorians here who want in on your fun. We're coming to you, but we need some intel," I said, hoping I was using the word correctly.
Axl didn't wait for a response before he started barking questions about troop numbers, quality and formation. I was lost in the flood of military jargon and truncated words, but the Mandalorians seemed quite capable of following it.
Finally, Axl shook his head in disgust. "We don't have nearly enough firepower to repel such a force."
I raised an eyebrow. "What? You didn't bring your heavy arms to a peace conference?" I asked with mock outrage.
Apparently that was a bit too subtle. "Of course we did. They were checked when we landed," he spat, sounding outraged at such treatment.
Before I could respond, HK spoke up. "Attention: Master, a number of meatbags have broken off from the main force. Rather than fight past me, they appear to be making their own entrance into the building using demolitions."
As I processed that, the building shook again, accompanying a nearby explosion. Axl glanced around, assessing.
"This corridor is not suited for a defensive position," he declared.
I raised my wand and began transfiguring the floor and walls. Several thick stone blocks surged up and out, providing the desired defensive positions.
Axl stared at me. "You're a Jedi?" he blurted.
"Let's not get bogged down with definitions and debates," I answered, taking cover behind one of my conjured defences. "Take positions, and I'll get you weapons."
The bemused mercenaries crouched behind the new structures, though a few did run their hands over the edges or punch the sides, checking their suitability as defensive cover. I couldn't see their expressions behind helmets, but their body language hinted that they were satisfied with the unexpected cover.
Ahead, two Duchy guards appeared around a corner, retreating rapidly under an onslaught of blaster bolts. One copped a shot to the shoulder, going down with a yelp. I summoned them through the air, to some high-pitched, vocal astonishment. "Take cover, you silly buggers," I told them.
Through their shock, they managed the presence of mind to scrabble behind one of the low blocks, the injured one wriggling along the floor rather than crawling. "We're under attack!" the uninjured one exclaimed.
I shared a look with Axl. "Top of his class, that one," I offered.
The Mandalorian snorted, unimpressed. "You see what I mean about the decline of our culture?" he snarled.
I shrugged. "I've seen it before. I understand your motivation," I answered carefully.
Before Axl could respond, the vanguard of the hunters rounded the corridor's corner ahead. They sprayed our barriers with blaster fire as the group marched forward. Duracrete chips exploded off my transfigured barriers, but they held strong.
"Well?" Axl shouted over the din. "Are you going to get our weapons before we are overrun?"
I held up a finger. "Timing is important," I said over the noise. With a grin, I continued, "And I never said I'd be getting your weapons."
The group of hunters, recognising that we were not shooting back, began advancing at an incautious rate on our defensive positions amid a hail of covering blaster fire. Once they were nearer to us than the corridor bend from where they'd appeared, I cast that wide-angled summoning charm. The air filled with blasters and rifles of all shapes and sizes; wrenched from their owners' grasp and holsters. At the right time, I cancelled the spell, causing the assorted weaponry to fall to the floor among my allies, bouncing haphazardly off the edges of the defensive blocks.
My Mandalorian allies proved professional enough that their shock lasted barely more than a second. As one, they scooped up the provided weaponry with only minor, temporary, tug-of-war disputes over choice pieces. They soon began discharging them back at their previous owners.
The hunters, whose tactical superiority had been swiftly reversed, attempted a rapid retreat, but the steady blaster fire left the majority of the group needing attention from either a physician or mortician.
A few were lucky or swift enough to get back around the corner with nothing more than superficial wounds.
"Forward!" Axl ordered, hefting a particularly large gun not unlike HK's earlier favourite.
I made a mental note to get HK to provide me with a record of his perspective. A large group of bounty hunters entering a self-constructed/destructed entryway in the side of the building, then a small fraction of that group exiting with alacrity not long after, retreating under sustained fire from their own weapons.
It would make great recruiting material for my Mandalorians, if nothing else.
We reached the ragged hole in the outer wall and took up defensive positions. I transfigured the blackened and twisted edges of the hole into far more useful contours for our purposes. My mercenaries started exchanging fire with the bounty hunters outside in earnest.
I gestured to get Axl's attention. "All right, I'm going out there. Once I break up their defensive line, you push from here," I said.
"How do you intend to do that?" Axl demanded.
"Not sure yet. You'll know it when you see it." With a grin, I whipped my cloak out and around me. I gave him a jaunty wave before covering my head and hands.
He swore in a language I didn't understand.
I located a distant spot off to one side of the firefight that I could see from my current position, and apparated there. From my new vantage point, I could evaluate the entire attacking force.
It was troublingly abundant. Larger than HK had reported, though the reason quickly became obvious.
Some ships landed at different points around the plaza and disgorged handfuls of mismatched figures. Clearly the hunters had formed a large syndicate to take the prize on my head. Once the frontline warriors had exited, the ships took off and joined the screen keeping the Ducal Starfighters from strafing the hunters, only to be replaced by other landing ships, adding to the ground forces.
From this distance, I could not make out HK himself, but I could see, from the large number of corpses and smoking equipment, where my droid had established a defensive position.
How to break up the growing group? I could transfigure the plaza duracrete beneath them, letting them fall into crevasses and then sealing them in, but I had no idea how thick the structure was. Not to mention that it would inconvenience my allies just as much. Controlling the leaders with the Imperius was not likely to be successful; a motley crew like this would not have a clear command structure. Illusions were possible; or I could transfigure one of the smaller, grounded ships into huge Padfeet to join the fray.
I looked up at the huge statue guarding the building. It looked like a pacifistic librarian, a good eighty feet tall. It stood proud aside the entrance to the ducal palace, looking like the Statue of Liberty's smaller, more studious brother. It stood with a narrow stance, holding a rolled stone scroll perhaps twenty feet long.
I had a sudden vision of Dumbledore entering the fray in the Ministry a lifetime ago, and couldn't stop the grin from forming on my face.
I was tempted, truly I was. But the amount of power needed to animate that mass would put me on my knees.
My left hand brushed my lightsaber. I looked down at the weapon… and then my grin grew wider.
I scanned the battlefield, searching for the smallest group of hunters within eyeshot. There were a pair off to one side, hidden behind one of the grounded hunter ships, struggling with some malfunctioning equipment. With my wand in my right hand and lightsaber in my left, I apparated to their location.
They didn't hear the small implosion of displaced air amid the cacophony of battle. The crystal burst of my lightsaber igniting did draw their attention, albeit briefly.
I swept the obsidian blade left-to-right through the neck of the first, before ending the swing as a thrust, buried in the chest of the other.
The dual pulse of power coursing up my arm did not overwhelm me this time, not now that I was expecting it. It even felt somewhat welcoming, encouraging even.
With the lightsaber clutched tightly in my left hand, I swung my wand around with my right. The animation spell drew down hard on the power I'd just absorbed, taking it all and more. Across the battlefield, the librarian-titan twitched and shifted, then tore itself loose of its moorings. With its feet (around size seven-hundred, at a guess, probably extra-extra-extra-wide) trailing debris, the enormous statue moved cumbersomely into the middle of the battle.
The firefight below it faded almost into non-existence. I think HK was the only combatant to retain wit enough to continue shooting.
The huge statue raised one foot and stomped down on the nearest of the landed ships. The stone limb smashed through the relatively thin metal hull, rendering the ship grounded for the foreseeable future.
Some of the nearest flying ships angled inwards and began firing blasters at the behemoth. I'd not bothered to give the thing the ability to speak, so it took the punishment in silence. It responded by swinging its huge rolled scroll at the swooping ships.
The long cylinder made a deafening roar as it arced through the air, looking to be in slow motion, but, deceptively fast. The second and third ships managed to evade the lumbering swing, but the end clipped the engine of the first ship, sending it crashing to the ground in the middle of a group of hunters, stupefied at the sight of an eighty foot stone pacifist rampaging through their forces.
Despite only two ships and who knows how many ground forces flattened, morale among the hunters shattered. Some screamed at their team to run away, others fled in terrified silence, though there were a few more disciplined shouted orders to retreat.
Axl was clearly a leader with the ability to adapt to the unexpected, because his team surged out of the hole in the wall and advanced on the fleeing hunters, taking down more in the course of their panicked rout than the entire battle beforehand.
I amused myself by vanishing various components from nearby grounded ships, rendering them incapable of exiting the atmosphere. If the pilots didn't notice before taking off, that would be something exciting to discover.
After a few minutes, the rout was in full flight. Most of the fighter screen chose to depart and leave their brother hunters behind. That left the ducal snubfighters free to shoot down the ships attempting to take off.
My comm pinged, the sound almost lost amid the carnage. I apparated off to one side of the battlefield to take the call, away from most of the noise, stray bolts or bits of shrapnel. It was Feylis. His azure image was crouched behind cover, and holding a blaster in what looked to be a competent manner. His clothing looked to be under quite some strain, especially the buttons of his vest. All in all, he was the very image of a veteran soldier, albeit one with a great deal of recent experience with rich food and soft beds.
"Captain, I take it the tide has turned? Our Mandalorian friends broke cover and charged once the incoming fire ceased."
I grinned at him. "You haven't looked out of the building, I take it?"
"I have not, as I'm not wearing protective armour. Should I?"
"You're not going to want to miss it," I informed him.
His image rose. "Very well. Incoming fire has completely sto- BY THE FORCE!"
I couldn't help but laugh. "Nice, eh?"
"You animated a twenty-five metre statue?" he blurted.
I glanced over at the behemoth as it swiped at another swooping ship. This ship looked to have more powerful guns, if the cracked shoulder and deep, blackened pits in my statue's chest were any indication. I tossed a repairing charm its way. "I did. Do you think we could keep it?"
To his credit, Feylis barely hesitated. He just swallowed and let his legal instincts take over. "I suspect removing it from the planet may pose some logistical difficulties, let alone the legal ramifications. Not to mention that such a monstrosity would violate any number of trade route ordinances, and seriously strain the structural integrity of Godric's Hollow."
I nodded sagely, secretly amused that he'd treated my quip with such seriousness. "True enough. Well, I'll let it wander around for a bit to perform some disproportionate retribution. I'll put it back when I'm done."
Feylis' image turned away from me. "Er, it might be time for you to come back to the ducal palace and put some minds at ease. Some of the guards here are showing a shocking lack of professionalism."
"Work, work, work," I sighed.
There was more than a hint of fear in Duchess Satine's mid-winter eyes as she glared at me, even if her greatly expanded personal guard entourage failed to give that away. The idea that the scruffy-haired chaos magnet in front of her could both attract and single-handedly rout an army put her in a conflicted mood.
"I demand you restore the Colossus!" she shrieked, hiding behind three guards and a Jedi.
Before I got a snarky retort out, the willowy Jedi Fay placed a hand on the duchess' shoulder, possibly to calm her down, but more likely for balance. The Jedi had a greenish pallor, and looked unsteady on her feet. "Please, your Grace, emotions are running high. It would behove us all to remain calm," she ground out, her voice indicating that she was on the verge of retching.
"Remain calm? He just brought a giant statue to life!"
I opened my mouth to retort, but was beaten by my friend. "Satine," Obi-wan said firmly from one side, a few steps behind her. "Enough."
Her eyes bulged as she spun to face him. "You dare speak to me thus?"
I opened my mouth once more, and once again, had to shut it unused when the young Jedi beat me to it. He stepped up to her, uncomfortably close. "I am trying to prevent you from making an unnecessary enemy; one you simply cannot afford. Please! Listen to Master Fay."
The act of people standing up for me after one of my usual chaotic adventures was novel enough that I was momentarily speechless.
The member of Satine's guard with the most colourful epaulets cleared his throat. "Your Grace, I strongly advise you to listen," he said, looking me up and down while completely ignoring the armed Mandalorians. "I cannot guarantee your safety in this man's presence."
My clansmen visibly stiffened at the insult, but any potential violent unpleasantness was trumped by some biological unpleasantness as Master Fay doubled over and vomited all over Satine's shoes.
"Master Fay? Someone summon a medic!" the Duchess cried.
"She doesn't need a medic," growled the other Jedi from behind the ducal party. "She needs to be away from this abomination!"
"Baator," Obi-wan said warningly. "Harry and the clansmen wish to leave, and Duchess Satine would no doubt prefer that as well. Insults and goading are counter-productive."
"Excellent!" I said gaily, determined to get at least one word in edgewise. "We're all in agreement then. I'll go and bugger off world. That will suit your Duchess and Jedi Fay, here. I'd appreciate it if you could send me any holorecording of the battle out there that you have. I give all my employees a bonus for every bounty hunter they kill, you see. Well, every one they kill who was after me, at least. It always avoids arguments about who gets what bonus if there's security footage. Cheerio."
Once it was clear I was prepared to leave immediately, the bureaucrats and guards couldn't be more helpful. Axl and his men received their confiscated weapons so rapidly that they were all but thrown back at them, and we were not so much given clearance to depart as begged to do so.
I invited myself aboard Axl's ship. Feylis walked at my side, babbling about some legal update to one of the myriad cases against me. Obi-wan and HK followed behind, both clearly unhappy about leaving, though for diametrically opposing reasons.
We had barely cleared Mandalore's atmosphere before Axl barked a command that we assemble in the ship's conference room. Around the wall were several consoles, similar to those set up on the Sorosub yacht in the business suite. The central table was set up to accommodate over a dozen people, but about ten of those present were holograms.
Instead of congratulating themselves on the outcome of the talks and battle, the group looked to be fuming. Axl started, berating me for my actions at a thunderous volume.
I tried pointing out that I'd done something impossibly clever.
He shot that down quickly. "No! Your actions were idiotic!"
I shrugged. "Hey, they worked. That makes them smart," I snarked.
Axl snarled at me, unimpressed. "No, that makes you lucky. Your actions were still stupid. You hold the Darksaber, and that makes you the nominal leader of the Mandalorian clans, but we will not follow you into battle. Not when you are as idiotically disruptive as you've demonstrated!"
Many heads around the room nodded in agreement.
"Did you not just see what I can do?" I demanded, wondering why they weren't happier.
"What I see is a boy!" Axl spat. "A boy with untold power but no direction who has grown into an undisciplined man-child."
I felt my face flush. I began to retort, but he was on a roll.
"If you were under the command of any Mandalorian clan, we could fulfil Mandalore's vision of galactic conquest. But you stand there, proud of your power, unaware or uncaring that you present just as much a danger to your allies as your enemies!"
Anger flushed through me. "I've gone to my death to protect my friends!" I shouted.
"As has everyone here!" Axl roared back, his arm gesture taking in his warriors, live and hologram.
Either he misunderstood me, or that phrase meant something different here. The minor confusion made me pause enough for him to continue, though in a much softer tone.
"You've never led an army into battle, have you?" Axl asked, though it was far more a statement than question. "A small group, less than ten, I'll wager, and you've lost badly. But you've never led an army."
"No," I offered, not trusting myself to say any more.
Axl nodded, grimly satisfied. "I will never again send my clan onto a battlefield where the laws of reality can be twisted randomly on a whim. If you want us to follow you, you need to treat us with the respect due allies."
I glanced down at his stomach. Either he had a gut of duracrete, or he genuinely believed that my actions had broken the contract he'd just signed. Had I? Feylis gave me a questioning look, clearly wondering the same thing.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I could probably achieve my goals with just hired thugs, but having a ready-made army willingly following me would make my life a lot easier.
Besides, as uncomfortable as it was, he had a point. A big one. "You're right, I've never led more than half a dozen people into a fight. And you're right that we weren't exactly successful either. I've learned to work alone, or with only a couple of people."
"Obviously," he snapped. "Well, how do you intend to deal with us? Are you going to kill us all because we won't follow you?" he demanded with a jut of his jaw.
I frowned. "What makes you think that I would kill you for not following me?"
Axl jabbed a finger in HK's direction. "Your droid's designation is HK-47, is it not? We know of its history, and who created it. Revan shattered the Mandalorians at Malachor Five, thousands of years ago. HK-47 was his creation, and it later fought alongside the leader of clan Ordo, who became Mand'alore. For that droid to agree to follow you, you are likely a Sith Lord."
I blinked. "I'm not some Sith-slash-Jedi reborn. HK follows me because I attract the sort of chaos you saw down on your home. I'm not going to kill you for choosing not to follow me. Anyone who knows me would just assume that meant you weren't insane!"
"Hear, hear," Obi-wan muttered, just loud enough for me to hear.
Axl's glare didn't waver. "Then what do you propose? We will not follow you, no matter what you offer."
I shook my head slowly. "I don't want you to follow me! I don't need sycophants. Would you work with me? How about this; if I want you to do something, I'll tell you my objectives, and delegate control over planning and how they are accomplished to you. During your planning, I'll offer my abilities for you to incorporate into your strategy, but the final decision will always be yours. Acceptable?"
Axl stared at me intently. "You'll place yourself under my command during these operations of yours?"
I hesitated, not having the slightest desire to take orders again. But this was perhaps an opportunity for me to learn about leading groups, rather than individuals. I nodded slowly. "The operations I give you, yes I will. So long as I'm consulted during the planning. I won't kill without reason, and it has to accomplish one of my goals, but I won't hesitate if it's necessary. I'll leave the tactics to you and your clan."
The Mandalorians exchanged silent glances, but eventually small nods spread through the population. "Acceptable," Axl said, and the tension in the room slowly drained away.
I nodded myself. "Good. My first goal then. During the Trade Federation's recent blockade of Pantora, some Pantorans were taken and sold to Jabba the Hutt. I want to recover them, and any other slaves there. They're being held at Jabba's Palace on Tattooine."
Axl stared at me and gave a small snort of amusement. "Not starting small, are you? Jabba won't let the loss of slaves go without retribution. You'll have to kill the Hutt as well. And then you'll be on the Hutts' list."
I gave a shrug. "I've plenty of reasons to kill slavers. I'm more interested in making sure the slaves we free aren't going to immediately be blown up by any implanted bombs."
One Mandalorian took off her helmet. "I'll locate the specifications of the slave inhibitor devices Jabba uses," she said, moving over to one terminal.
Another took the terminal next to her. "I'll get the blueprints of Jabba's Palace."
A third sat down. "Security detail strengths and patrol routes," he added.
I raised my eyebrows at the scene as more of the group verbally laid claim to locating various information packets for planning out the assault. Clearly, these hardened warriors were not just muscle for hire, but professional soldiers. I mentally revaluated them.
Axl gestured to me. "What can you tell me of your Force abilities?" he asked. "If I'm to make the most of your skills, I need to know what you can do, and what your limits are."
I grinned at him. "Why don't we take a seat? This will take a while."
The trip from Mandalore to Tattooine was consumed entirely with detailed planning.
Excruciatingly detailed planning.
I hadn't been convinced such efforts were necessary until I plastered on a fake smile and sat in on their strategy sessions. Where I would have stopped as soon as I'd located the current specifications of the explosive devices implanted in the slaves, the Mandalorian responsible for getting that also held brainstorming sessions to determine how Jabba may have modified them to take into account what the Hutt knew of my abilities. They came up with a few worst-case scenarios that made me nauseous to think about.
The team worked out that the most likely change would be making the devices active rather than passive receivers. They could be adjusted to explode if they did not receive a regular signal, rather than detonate on receiving notification to do so.
That thought raised the hairs on the back of my neck. From what I'd heard, Jabba was just the sort of giant arse who, if I just charged in and killed everyone to release the slaves, would have blown them all up regardless.
It was at that point that I realised that I was an amateur playing with professionals, and began paying more attention.
It was determined that infiltration would be the necessary strategy. We had the manpower and firepower to level Jabba's palace, but not in such a short amount of time that the slave's inhibitor devices couldn't be set off before we captured the control systems.
After explaining (and having to repeatedly demonstrate, to my initially disbelieving audience) my conjuring and transfiguration abilities, Axl's team decided that Jabba's penchant for collecting rare, dangerous creatures could be exploited.
I would send a message to Godric's Hollow, requesting the Gryphon meet us en-route to Tattooine, bringing some serious weaponry, a few R2 units, and anyone who wanted in on the action. Once on Tattooine, HK would pose as my envoy, ostensibly to open a dialogue to negotiate the release of the Pantorans. My droid would take a cage with a large, dangerous creature as an offering. At an opportune time, a disillusioned R2 droid and I would locate the control systems and determine a method of preventing the slaves from being killed. Once notified, I'd find the slaves, portkey them to safety, then join with HK to hunt down the Hutt.
The Mandalorian planning sessions broke down each different phase of the operation and came up with multiple ways they could go wrong.
It was strangely humbling. I didn't want to reflect on the number of shitty situations in my life that could have been avoided by putting in this amount of effort working out what could have gone wrong.
First off, if HK turned up at the front door with an offering, the Mandalorians pointed out that Jabba's minions would undoubtedly put something called a restraining bolt on him. HK predictably suggested indiscriminately slaughtering anyone who attempted to confine him in such a way, but I managed to convince him that I'd change his physical structure enough that the bolt wouldn't work on him.
He only willingly agreed to be thusly modified once I pointed out that the looks on their faces when they realised he was unrestrained would be utterly hilarious. And brief, of course, but hilarious all the same.
Second, knowing the Hutt's reputation, it was a galleon toss as to whether or not Jabba would kill the offered creature at the first meeting. I sure as hell wasn't about to bet my life on the mercurial Hutt, so I'd be populating the cage with a transfigured creature, rather than occupying it in my animagus form.
Third, there was some concern that the R2 droid wouldn't be able to move around with enough freedom to locate the control systems, but I assured them that I could make the droid all but unnoticeable by any living thing.
Then there was the possibility that the control systems were not housed in the palace, or that they had an offsite backup. That thought spawned some sub-committees tasked with planning their neutralisation.
As the planning sessions droned on, identifying and countering each potential problems, I grew more and more withdrawn. I'd always thought that my constant bad luck had been due to some metaphysical entity laughing at me from across the dimensions. The thought that it may just have been all down to my lack of vision and preparation caused some disturbing self-reflection.
A few days out from Tattooine, the Mandalorian armada rendezvoused with the Gryphon. She was piloted by Lumpy, and carried a fair number of aggressive Wookiees and other ex-slaves keen to help out with the operation. Artoo, C9, and Dobby were also aboard, responding to my request.
C9 immediately went to work evaluating the operation's probability for success, and made a few suggestions that Axl's team agreed would work. I made a mental note to see if the droid would like to be called Hermione, once I gave it a vocal processor.
Artoo volunteered to join the mission, and sounded quite keen to be physically modified to be able to ignore restraining bolts. I obliged, expanding the internal spaces of all my droids, hiding their actual components, and implanting a set of fake electronics that looked realistic for that kind of droid, and would quite happily accept a restraining bolt without doing any actual restraining.
The thought of creating an unrestrainable R2 droid would probably not cause the same level of galactic anxiety as the thought of an unrestrainable HK-47.
Not that I personally wanted my droid restrained. That would defeat the purpose of having him.
The operation began just fine.
The droids and I were inserted onto Tattooine with minimal difficulty, and travelled to Jabba's Palace with a hovering cage. A womp rat snoozed happily behind the bars, transfigured into the form of an adult Gryphon. Artoo and I sat under my invisibility cloak with my back against its feathers, periodically reapplying a cooling charm under the twin suns' heat.
I wore a Mandalorian helmet, one with a narrow, T-shaped visor that looked extremely restrictive. The internal mechanisms however, included a miniature holo-display on which information could be shown, including images from all around me, which meant that I still had effective peripheral vision. There were constant digital updates scrolling past my eyes from the various clan warriors as they reached their designated positions. Some were hiking overland to positions where they overlooked the palace with powerful sniper rifles capable of putting a bolt of plasma through an eye socket from a kilometre away. Some were inserted into nearby settlements, observing the local muscle, and preparing to neutralise them the instant Jabba summoned them.
A squadron of snubfighters positioned themselves in the shadow of the Gryphon, which was in geosynchronous orbit above an armpit of a settlement called Mos Eisley.
We approached the huge front door of Jabba's Palace that more closely resembled something suitable for an atomic test site. HK smashed his fist on the metal, and a robotic eye-stalk popped out to challenge my droid in an unknown language.
HK lashed out and grabbed the stalk in a death grip. He snarled something in the same language – some grisly threats, presumably. The eyeball responded in a much more submissive tone. A short conversation ensued, and we were quickly admitted. Some minions were just inside the entrance, and a short cylinder was immediately affixed to HK's torso; presumably the expected restraining bolt. The psychotic droid gave me a hand signal to indicate that it was not interfering with his protocols.
I grinned at the thought of the consternation that fact would cause. HK was under orders to record any expressions for posterity.
HK and the cage were dragged down a long corridor before being presented to the Hutt. Artoo and I silently removed ourselves from hovercart just before we reached the giant slug's presence.
Surrounded by numerous sycophants and flunkies in a fairly large room, Jabba sat on a mechanical dais, though reclined was probably a better description. HK started speaking in Huttese, but got only a short way into his speech before an order from Jabba had every blaster firing at the transfigured womp rat.
It exploded into a mess of feathers, fur and gore.
I swallowed and made a mental note to give Axl and his team a bonus for predicting that Jabba may do that. I placed a tracking charm on the Hutt, then cast a couple of other spells on Artoo and me, activating Notice-Me-Not and Muggle-Repellent fields. The droid and I eased our way towards the exit as the assembly laughed and goaded HK at their blatant violation of RSPC(M)A guidelines.
Jabba laughed darkly and said something that included my name. Clearly, HK was associated with me enough that the assembly thought I was trying to use him to infiltrate the palace.
Without a reliable translator, I couldn't understand the conversation, so I chose to leave my unrestrained droid to his debate. Artoo and I set off down a corridor towards the palace's system control room. To my great surprise, the system control room on the building designs turned out to be the actual control room. The latest schematics provided by the Mandalorian data analyst were accurate.
There were exactly two guards here; the exact number expected at this time of day, as per the information provided to the planning sessions.
I put them to sleep, adding a petrification charm to keep them upright for the four watching cameras.
Everything was proceeding according to our plans.
While my sense of impending doom grew considerably, Artoo plugged a phallic probe into a socket on one of the consoles and twisted the port back and forth for a few moments. The droid activated a screen on the console, indicating that the code to deactivate the slaves' implants had been located. A moment later, it had been copied and the system sliced to prevent anyone sending the reactivation or explode codes without warning. It probably would only take another R2 unit the same length of time to undo the sabotage, but hopefully that would be enough time to secure the slaves.
A moment later, Artoo flashed another message on the screen, saying that the local communications system had been suborned and used to send a data burst to the ships in orbit. A message appeared on my visor, indicating that the information had been received and was being used to prepare the medbay aboard the Gryphon for both signal shielding and bomb-removal. It would be ready to receive the slaves within a few minutes.
I tapped my acknowledgement on the top of the droid's dome. We silently left the control room, the droid seeming perfectly calm. I was just about to jump out of my skin. Things were going so well.
With Artoo's job done, we made our way towards the entertainment area. The holographic representation on my visor showed extensive tunnels underneath the main reception hall of the palace. There were several slave pens in one area of the tunnels, which was my intended destination.
We drifted silently past the few patrols encountered, incrementally making our way downwards. There was a security door that I could have apparated us past, but Artoo again plugged his thingy into a nearby round whatsit, and opened the door in short order. The pig-faced creature manning the security point grunted with confusion at the door opening for no one visible, so it was probably overkill to confound it.
Confound it I did, however, on the basis that HK didn't believe in overkill. Artoo and I moved deeper into the rough-hewn catacombs. I made sure we avoided the area that was marked as the animal pens. If Jabba was not impressed with a fully grown gryphon, I didn't really want to press my luck by turning the wrong corner and dealing with the local equivalent of circus lions. It would be difficult to do that and remain silent.
I could tell as we got closer to the slave pens. My helmet did nothing to filter out the smell. It got stronger and more intense the closer we got. Bile, blood and fear permeated the area, and the stained rock did nothing to mitigate the evil ambience.
My first sight of the pens made me grind my teeth. It just made no sense to me to keep people in these circumstances. Even making them do hard labour would have at least had the value of getting some benefit out of them. But just locking them up? What was the point?
My heightened paranoid provided an answer.
Well, our study of Jabba's personality meant that the slaves and I were not going to be killed quickly, not when our deaths could be entertainingly drawn out. With Artoo's subjugation of the control system, the slaves weren't going to be blown up on a moment's notice, but I still needed to move quickly.
I whipped off and stowed my cloak, then removed the charms on Artoo and me.
My sudden appearance caused a fair amount of panic among the slaves. My rather recognisable helmet added to their distress. I had to do some fast talking, including stretching the truth somewhat. I removed the helmet and claimed that I was here at the behest of the Pantoran government to reclaim their citizens, and would be extracting them and any other slaves I could.
One blue-skinned woman seemed to be in charge. "We cannot leave," she insisted, to my surprise.
"Why not?" I hissed, aware that every second not moving forward with our escape plan was another second something could go wrong.
"We are not the only prisoners. A child was taken by some mercenaries." With a sneer, she added, "They wore that helmet. If we escape, she will be killed."
"Is that what they told you?" I asked.
She, and a number of other Pantorans, nodded. Most of the other slaves didn't seem to care, and just wanted to get out of there.
"Was the child's name Riyo? Riyo Chuchi?" I asked. At her surprised expression, I grinned. "I already saved her. She was held on one of Pantora's moons. I killed the leader of the mercenaries holding her. Let's go."
"What about the other pens?"
I blinked. "Other pens?"
Artoo whistled and produced a small radar dish that spun around for a few seconds. With a low, mournful tone, the droid displayed a holographic map of the tunnels for all to see. Two nearby areas flashed. They did not look at all familiar.
I frowned. "They weren't on the map we had!"
A slave shrugged. "We excavate new tunnels all the time."
I grunted, then pointed to a larger cavern nearby. "Right, you lot meet me here. I'll find the rest of the pens and bring everyone I find. You," I said, pointing to the Pantoran woman who seemed to be nominally in charge, "come with me. I don't want to get bogged down with repeating myself."
The Pantoran woman came along with no arguing. It still took nearly ten minutes to locate the new pens and get all the objections and questions out of the way, but soon there were close to eighty slaves assembled in a large cavern.
"Right, come closer, and I'll set up your passage out of here," I said.
The slaves drew closer eagerly, but a bone-chilling roar suddenly echoed through the rough-hewn tunnels. As one, the group shrieked and bolted back towards their cells.
I spun to face the direction of the noise, wand in hand and a shield charm on my lips. The source turned out to be an enormous creature; perhaps twelve feet tall, with disproportionately long arms ending in hands with 4 long, thick fingers. It advanced laboriously through tunnels just large enough to accommodate it uncomfortably, grabbing outcroppings along the walls and hauling itself along.
Despite the incongruously small mouth, the beast looked rather menacing, though that probably had more to do with the fact that it was close enough to smell in an area where there was little room for escape. Its pointed teeth inferred a carnivorous diet, and there was no hiding the animal cunning behind its beady eyes.
Meh. A Hungarian Horntail would have it for breakfast. And then want another for pudding.
Booming laughter filtered down to me from above, sounding exactly like an evil Santa. I glanced up and saw a viewing platform through an oblong trapdoor. Through it, I could see several silhouettes around a big blob – presumably Jabba.
Wonderful, an audience. I put one cupped hand next to my mouth. "Nice pet," I called up. "Is it house trained?"
My lack of concern seemed to douse the celebratory mood above temporarily, though a few forced out some booming laughs to cover the sudden dearth of humour. I drew my attention back to the beast, as it squeezed itself through the tunnel entrance and into the relatively large cavern I stood in.
It rose to its full height, and I mentally adjusted my estimate from twelve feet tall to fifteen.
One brief wand wave and incantation later, and it was somewhere between twelve to fifteen inches tall.
It sounded exactly as if someone had cast a silencing charm over the cheering crowd above me.
With a grandiose levitation charm and a vicious grin, I called out to the voyeurs above, "Catch!" With that, I banished the little beastie upwards towards the group, cancelling the shrinking charm once it had cleared the viewing hole. "Artoo! We're discovered. Send the signal!" I shouted, slamming my helmet back on my head.
The droid beeped amid the cacophony of shouts, screams, bellows and bestial roars from above. The noise was chaotic enough that I figured I'd be able to get the slaves out without being interrupted. A couple of people from the viewing gallery actually tried leaping down into the tunnels with me to escape the beast. Judging from what could be heard of their pained yelps over the bodily rending above us, they'd broken something important against the unyielding ground.
I ensured that they were dead before searching for the cowering slaves.
It took me a little time to calm them down enough to listen. They'd been expecting the creature – a 'rancor' apparently, if I could make out the babbling – to whet its appetite on me, then gorge itself on Pantoran flesh. With the liberal use of cheering charms, I got them in the right frame of mind.
The rope portkey was long enough that they could all grab hold. I tied one end around one of Artoo's legs, and then said the command word to send the poor wretches to the Gryphon in orbit. They'd be safe in the shielded medbay until any explosive devices could be found and removed.
Alone, I returned to the room with the hole in the ceiling. A notification appeared on my visor's screen, notifying all forces that Objective One had been accomplished. I had no desire to retrace my path back through the labyrinth. The noise from above lowered gradually, and I decided to risk it. I looked through the still-open trapdoor and willed myself back up there. The room was empty.
Well, not empty-empty. There were plenty of bits of people. A bit here, and a bit there. Hanging around, generally. If you combined them all, you might make a handful of complete individuals, and perhaps be the inspiration of the next Frankenstein story. With the tight helmet on, I couldn't cast a bubblehead charm to prevent the smell from triggering my gag reflex at an inappropriate time.
Breathing through my mouth, I figured that being caught speaking aloud now wouldn't, or couldn't, trip any more alarms, so I activated the direct comms in the helmet. The transparent screen in front of my eyes flickered and a holographic stream of information appeared. It scrolled so fast that I couldn't make heads nor tails of it. "Infiltration One reporting success," I said to the Mandalorian overseeing the operation from the command ship. "Infiltration Three has been returned with the targets."
His voice crackled to life in my ear. "Acknowledged, Infiltration One. All teams have engaged their targets. Ugly Mother's security teams are unable to respond to any request. The Gryphon reports having received seventy-eight individuals. The removal of their inhibitor devices has started."
"Good. Ugly Mother is running from something, a rancor, I think it's called." The trail of gore down one wide passageway was a pretty good hint as to the direction everyone ran. I pointed along the gory path, hoping the chap on the other end of the call could work out which way I was indicating. "Are there any traps or hazards I need to be aware of down that way?"
"Searching," he said, pausing for a couple of seconds. "Negative. The hangar bay is the likely destination. Ugly Mother has two sailbarges docked." Another pause. "One has just departed. Minimal armed escort, six speederbikes. Infiltration Two's transponder is aboard. Sending coordinates to available units."
"Don't blow it up from orbit just yet, Infiltration Two would be annoyed. I can chase it down, just give me some air support as cover," I said. I jogged down the messy passage, following the holographic directions sent to my visor. I passed a number of less blood-spattered passages.
"Infiltration One, response from command. Affirmative, you are best positioned to tail the sailbarge."
The hangar bay was fairly large, and the air was much drier, given that one entire side was exposed to the Tattooine dessert.
The imposing rancor was covered in blood and blaster burns, and was giving a valiant effort towards ripping the side plating off a vehicle that looked like a floating barge. A cannon that would no doubt receive the HK-47 Seal of Approval was attached to the deck. A couple of fellows were trying to adjust it so that it fired down towards the rampaging beast, but ended up shooting a hole in the decking. I'd have thought the cannon would at least have some sort of clip-on inhibitor preventing it from shooting its own ship. There appeared to be an intense argument going on about that.
Off in the distance, I could make out an identical ship, clearly running away at speed. On my visor, a blue triangle appeared over the ship with HK's designation hovering above, indicating that my droid was aboard. Remembering that Axl said that decoys may be used, I checked the tracking charm I'd placed on Jabba. Nope, the Hutt was definitely on the distant ship.
Figuring that the enormous, carnivorous enemy of my enemy had things well in hand, I took out my bike and returned it to its full size. I kicked it into life and roared away after the retreating slug.
The heat of the desert hit me hard as I left the relatively cool, subterranean warrens of Jabba's palace. I opened the throttle and urged the Bonnie forward, quickly bringing it up to its top speed.
I felt several needle-link pings of pain on the exposed skin of my hands as tiny grains of sand hit. The helmet kept my eyes and face safe, but it was uncomfortable to fly at speed through a smattering of sand grains.
The ground beneath me turned into a blur as I tore through the air, my loose clothing flapping and snapping behind me. The cliff off to my right broke into occasional canyons that changed the echo of my bike's motor as I shot past them, causing a rise and fall of the roar.
Even though some bits of my anatomy were being slowly sanded away, I grinned. Merlin's beard, I loved this bike.
My visor flashed several idiotic warnings about hazardous speeds. The voice in my ear crackled to life again. "Infiltration One, air support is unavailable."
A few distant specks broke away from the barge before I got a response. They quickly resolved into small speeders, coming my way. Where was the reserve squadron?
My heart leapt when flashes of light arced towards me. The bastards were armed! I swore and tried evading, but my speed made it difficult to control such high-speed hijinks. I managed to evade the first salvo by diving closer to the ground, then pulling up, but that was a temporary measure at best.
Dealing with half a dozen armed thugs on flying bikes was going to be difficult out in the open.
The voice through my headset requested an update.
"Under attack! Six speeders," I managed. Unable to bleed off enough speed to make this manoeuvre remotely safe, I pulled hard to the right and aimed at one of the canyons in the cliff. The narrow fissure zig zagged left and right, causing me to tighten my fingers around the handlebars in a death grip.
A couple of blaster shots blew chunks of rock from the walls. The bastards were following me at speed.
"Infiltration One, we're sending ground support to your position. ETA two minutes, forty seconds."
That was way too long to be of use. I took a breath and focused completely on the shape of the canyon ahead of me. For a few seconds after even the mildest turn I was hidden from my pursuers, but any straight of sufficient length gave them a prime target.
I leaned hard left, trying to take a turn as close to the canyon wall as possible. I could have reached up and touched the rock as I shot past it at a few hundred kilometres an hour. If I wanted to lose a finger, that is.
I skirted an outcropping, and sucked in a gasp of shock. Almost immediately, the fissure turned to the right. I shrieked a curse and wrenched the bike up and over, leaning hard to the right now.
It wasn't enough. The turn was sharper than the Bonnie could make at this speed.
My heartrate spiked as I leaned at ninety degrees, trying desperately to will the bike to make a turn it was not capable of performing. The rough wall of the canyon rushed towards me, and the only thing I could think was, I should have used my firebolt.
I hit the canyon wall hard.
The wheels and suspension took the brunt of the impact. The frame, seat and cushioning charms managed to take enough of the rest that my spine was just jarred rather than crushed. But I was still almost thrown from the seat.
The bike wobbled, causing the spells embedded in the mechanism to slow me down. I cursed and tried to pull the bike away from the canyon wall, barely managing to take flight again before running into a spur running down the fissure. Now aloft, I was still lying sideways and rapidly losing altitude I couldn't afford. I forcibly pulled the bike upright so that I didn't land on the canyon bottom sideways.
It cost me all the momentum I had. With a shield charm on my lips, I glanced behind just in time to see that my fractional lead was gone. The goons following behind me took the turn at full speed.
Their speeders didn't have wheels or suspension coils.
In less than a second, there were six distinct flashes and concussions as each of them failed to make the same turn. They didn't hit the same spot, some tried going high, one tried going low, but they all left afterimages on my retinas and a blackened spot on the rough rock.
Not much of an epitaph, really.
I released the throttle and landed the bike as gently as I could. The cushioning charms no longer worked, if the flash of pain up my spine was any indication. I placed one hand on my heart, the other on my lower back and stretched, wincing at the soreness. I took a deep breath, finally noticing that the voice in my ear had been yelling for some time.
"Infiltration One? Sir? Report!"
I blew out the breath. "Hostiles taken care of. Support not necessary. I'm resuming my pursuit."
There was a brief silence at the other end. I began running my eye over the Bonnie, giving the bike a quick examination. "Er, confirm, Infiltration One? All hostiles eliminated? The six-man hit squad?"
She had some kinks in bits that were supposed to be straight and some dents in bits that were supposed to be flat, but she seemed to be operational. I wouldn't be winning any races though; not until I repaired her. Gently urging the bike forward and into the air, I said, "Yeah, they're gone. What's happening with the air support?"
There was a brief pause. "Our reserves are deployed defending the support fleet. Multiple enemy ships are attacking our position. The Gryphon is proving, er, inexplicably effective. Several standard deviations beyond all our models' best case scenario for the smallest Marauder-class cruiser in production."
I blinked. "A what class?"
"Marauder-class. The Gryphon – it's a Marauder-class cruiser."
I was momentarily speechless. "That's… that's just beautiful. That's absolutely perfect," I said wistfully.
"Never mind. Do you know who the hostiles are?"
"Negative. The attack pattern suggests paramilitary, aligned with Ugly Mother's defense force. They were ready for us, attacking only once we were committed. The Gryphon and our reserves are proving capable of fending them off. But we cannot provide heavy air support to ground forces."
It was much less nerve-wracking travelling back through the canyon at a quarter of the speed. The bike pulled down and to the left a bit, but I could compensate. Back out on the dessert flats, my visor indicated the direction I needed to travel.
Even at my much slower speed, I gained steadily on Jabba's barge. There was a lot of activity as I approached. Including a few people manning a huge cannon that looked similar to the one back on the other barge.
I tapped my visor. "HK? You hearing me?" I asked in English.
"Acknowledgement: Affirmative, Master. The meatbags on this sorry excuse for a vehicle are all preparing for your arrival. I am in the main cabin, but there are forces congregating on the stern deck. The forces within the ship itself are setting defensive positions, giving me a delightfully unimpeded view of their unprotected backs."
"Splendid. Do me a favour and give them something more immediate to think about while I board."
"Satisfaction: I kill to serve."
A few moments later, through the windows of the barge, I could see dancing flashes of crimson, suggestive of a lightsaber being used to great effect. The solid knot of passengers on the deck preparing to repel my boarding began dispersing, unsure what was going on beneath their feet. I began evaluating ways to get on board without getting killed.
My earpiece crackled to life once again. "Infiltration One, we can track the sailbarge while it's on the surface, but there are caves nearby that could enable escape. Our scans from your vid feed show that the barge could be disabled. Can you target the repulsor coils? They are located beneath the armour plating at the target points on your visor." A pair of reticules appeared on my visor screen, hovering over each side of the rear of the barge.
"Probably. What will removing them do?" I asked.
"Removing, or destroying them, will drop the sailbarge to the sand, making escape impossible except by foot. Boarding resistance will be minimised."
"I'll give it a shot, but warn Infiltration Two for me," I grunted, urging the Bonnie closer. The action turned out to be more difficult than I expected. I had to try and keep the lurching bike steady with one hand while aiming with the other. It took me four attempts to vanish the armour plating over the first coil, another two to remove the second. Rather than try to hit a relatively small component, I just summoned the buggers from their housing.
The two coils tore free from the barge's undercarriage with a metallic squeal, and I had to duck as they flew past my head. Instantly, the ship dropped like a rock, landing hard and leaving a deep furrow in the sand punctuated with bodies thrown from the deck.
I ended up overshooting the damned thing, wheeling my bike around and settling it to the ground a few dozen metres from the listing barge.
I dismounted and shrank the bike. I was prepared to let HK have all the fun inside the barge, but I wanted to make a bit of a visual statement about my intentions. As I moved closer, I transfigured dozens of Padfeet from the stones littered around. The hoard of canines shot forward with a cacophony of howls and savaged all who had fallen from the barge, living or injured.
The screams echoed off the nearby canyon wall. The lucky few of Jabba's minions who'd managed to remain on the deck struggled to the railing, staring down in horror at the fate of their friends.
I called on Dumbledore's firewhip, and lashed out with my wand. The searing coil wrapped around a pair of Gamoreans and I pulled them from the relative safety of the deck. They landed hard on the ground, and were set upon by some prowling grims.
That caused the last few heavies on the ship to flee down into the inner cabins. The deck now clear, I apparated aboard, appearing right next to the big gun. Pointing my wand at my throat, I said, "Sonorus. JABBA! YOU WORTHLESS SLUG! I'M COMING FOR YOU!"
The noise from under my feet increases markedly. I gave the occupants of the barge a few moments to heighten the anticipation, then, rather than go in through the door, I tore the plating of the deck away with a swish, a flick, and a magical wrench. Plate by plate, I methodically exposed the cabin beneath.
HK was clearly enjoying his work. He was holding a green-skinned corpse as a shield while methodically dismembering everyone that he managed to get close to. He'd clearly hit something flammable with his lightsaber, as much of his metal frame was burning. It made little difference to his efficiency, but it did add a demonic flair to his already menacing aura.
Jabba cowered behind two pig-faced guards, who both wielded long pikes that radiated some sort of energy field. A quick Concidio and Eveberus sliced one in half and pulverised the other's chest.
I leapt down in front of the petrified Hutt. Jabba roared something unintelligible at me. The tone didn't sound complimentary. I decided to see if this alien slug would act like a slug from Earth.
I transfigured the dais it sat on into a pile of salt.
The multi-tonne Hutt sank into the pile of salt crystals. The roaring quickly morphed from terrified rage into pain, and was joined by a great deal of thrashing. As the outer layer of skin dissolved, the frenzied movements peaked, then slowed, then stopped with the finality of death.
I made the decision at that moment to add air scrubbers, or a permanent bubblehead charm to the inside of my helmet.
"Command, Objective Two confirmed complete. Repeat, Ugly Mother has been squashed."
"Acknowledged, Infiltration One. All forces, disengage and fall back to rendezvous point Alpha."
I glanced back and saw that HK was toying with the last couple of enemies. I shook my head and looked back at Jabba's remains, only to spot some movement behind the pile of toxic sludge.
I stepped around the mess to see a Twi'lek, naked except for some shredded cloth remnants and a collar with a short length of chain. Her back and sides were scrapped and bleeding, her chin was stained with vomit, and she was curled into a tight ball of terror.
I removed my helmet and moved a little closer. Her eyes met mine, and I could tell without any sort of mind arts that she was terrified past the point of catatonia.
"Shh," I said as soothingly as I could, given the recent violence. "It's all right. You're safe now. No one will hurt you anymore."
I stunned her between one disbelieving blink and the next. I put my helmet back on. "Command, please notify the Gryphon they are going to receive one more patient," I said, rising from my crouch. I checked her collar and chose to turn it into a portkey.
"Infiltration One, acknowledgement received. Awaiting delivery."
I activated the portkey. "Sent. Thanks. HK, finish up, would you. We need to go and steal some stuff and then catch our ride."
HK refused point blank to be shrunk again for transport. I think he was banking on the fact that with the twin suns' heat was affecting me more than him, I did not want to have an extended argument.
Unfortunately, the Bonnie's side car wasn't engaging properly either, so my droid and I ended up travelling back to Jabba's palace on my carpet. It wasn't as fast as my bike, and it was way more exposed. Even with repeated cooling charms, I was in a grumpy mood by the time we got back to the ex-Hutt's place.
The palace was a slaughterhouse. And it wasn't just the rampaging rancor that had spilled copious amounts of vital bodily fluids, there were dead bodies that had been felled by blaster bolts as well. I didn't have the training to forensically determine the circumstances of each death, but HK did. He could examine a body in passing and deduce the way death had occurred. It seemed that significant fraction of the deaths had been from score-settling.
The rancor itself was dead. Its bulk blocked a corridor that was particularly blood-smeared. It seems that the sheer number of blasters in the hands of the residents were just enough to finally overwhelm the creature.
I sent HK off to collect the memory cores from every control system in the Palace while I looted Jabba's treasury. It turned out to be a common idea, and I had to use lethal force to convince the other enterprising individuals to leave the room and its contents to me. I collected their plunder as well, filling my mokeskin pouches with lots of lovely loot.
All too soon, the tactical information on my visor alerted me to the fact that all squads of my Mandalorians had fully disengaged from their various engagements and had retreated into hyperspace. The Gryphon alone remained in orbit, waiting for me and HK to portkey up. The voice in my helmet warned that the remnants of Jabba's mercenary forces had broken off and were converging on the palace. Probably with the intention to strip the place of valuables once it was confirmed that Jabba was no more.
I was absorbing this as HK returned to my location – at a dead run. He reported that he had extracted all the memory cores, an action that had apparently incapacitated the primary regulator on the main power generator, which was going to go critical soon and that we really needed to evacuate, right now.
I'd never made a portkey so fast. It took us up to the Gryphon's bridge, to the vocal surprise of the occupants. From the viewport, my crew and I watched from orbit as a bright flash on the distant surface indicated the complete levelling of the evil Hutt's home.
It was somewhat satisfying to know that even with all the planning in the world, I was still going to be in life-threatening danger wherever I went.
The operation's debriefing took place via hologram, with over a dozen insubstantial Mandalorian figures sitting around a large table. HK and I were joined by Lumpy, Bark and Bite in a hastily configured conference room.
From his own ship, Axl's image reported a four point eight percent casualty rate among his forces. He did not react well to my offer of sympathy. Apparently, that sort of thing was considered disrespectful to their sacrifice.
It turned my stomach that some people had lost their lives, but these men and women were militaristic in the extreme. They were all prepared to die so that the mission objectives were accomplished successfully.
I doubted I'd ever get used to it. I thought it was much easier to kill than accept someone dying for you.
The topic of our continued collaboration was raised and discussed. It was clear that my ability to follow a plan and provide impossibly effective support were points in my favour. Curiosity about the Gryphon's speed and manoeuvrability ran rampant. Video feeds from my helmet were reviewed and debated. Suggestions for more effective tactics were recorded and scheduled for analysis.
All in all, the positive outweighed the negative, and the outcome of the deliberations became apparent.
Axl waited until all members of the holographic council had indicated agreement before turning to me. He gave a short nod. "It is agreed. We shall extend the arrangement we made. We will choose which objectives you give us to accept, on the understanding that operational control is in our hands."
I nodded back. "Then I look forward to a long, profitable relationship. When you and the clans are ready, come to my station at Overt. I'll have our next objective ready and waiting."
Axl frowned. "You've already decided," he said, rather than asked.
I gave him a grin. "Yep. You know the Hutts are going to be pissed at me for killing Jabba, right?"
The Mandalorian leader snorted. "More like livid that they didn't get the chance to steal Jabba's assets before you levelled the Palace."
Sounds like he knew more about Hutts than I did. "Maybe. Well, if they're going to be coming after me anyway, I figured we should may as well take the initiative and visit them first."
"You want to invade Huttspace?" he said, his voice awed.
I let my grin widen. "I'll have to upgrade your ships to be more like the Gryphon first, but yes. Imagine what people will say about the mercenary force that manages to successfully take on the Hutts."
There was no denying the hungry looks on the holographic faces around the table.
AN: Despite the unforgivable delay, I have not abandoned this story. Unfortunately, there have been some things happening that have been a higher priority. Things have settled down now, so with any luck, my life will be uninteresting enough that I can start writing regularly again.