"Tanner is that you?"
"Yeah it's me Crawl," Vin Tanner answered the grizzled blue skin alien that was staring back at him through the com screen on the console of his ship, the Tracker. "How are you doing?"
"How am I doing?" Crawl exclaimed with a hint of exasperation. "Going crazy wondering what happened to one of my best customers! Where the hell have you been?"
Vin shrugged, wondering if he ought to tell Crawl what he had been up to the last few months. When he was still a bounty hunter, the Modrek whose image was being transmitted to him through a scrambled frequency from Coruscant, had been the closest thing Vin ever had to a friend in the days before Chris and the rebellion. Crawl was a courier, the intermediary between himself and his paying customers. It was through Crawl he would get his assignments and Crawl had a good nose for people so he never led Vin astray. In his time, the Modrek had been quite a bounty hunter himself but that time was long past and Crawl spent his later years playing the middleman for the new generation of bounty hunters who now roamed the galaxy.
"Dare you to tell him," Alex said with a little smile as she sat comfortably in his co-pilots' seat. It surprised Vin to no end how good it made him feel seeing her there.
Vin gave her a look of sarcasm but the truth was, Crawl was a friend and a trusted one at that. He had acquired the reputation of respect from the bounty hunters who knew him because Crawl was no sell out and the secrets that were made known to him, remained with him. "I went the other way, Crawl. I'm out of it."
"You are the best my boy," Crawl retorted in open disbelief. "I've seen you track a mark half way across the galaxy until the poor bastard finally gave himself up just to be rid of you. What in the galaxy could make you throw away that talent? It's not a woman, is it? I know how you are with them."
Alex cocked a brow of interest and Vin gestured at her to remain quiet because he could see she was bursting to make light of that remark. "No, it's not for a woman. It's worse."
"A man?" Crawl asked suspiciously. Humans were odd and some were very bizarre indeed. Vin did not strike him as such but one could never tell.
"NO!" Vin exclaimed indignantly
Alex was almost splitting her sides trying to hold her laughter in. "Oh come on, you can't expect me not to say something!"
"Crawl," Vin ignored her and turned his attention back to his old friend gruffly. "I've walked away from the game. I'm a Jedi apprentice."
"You're a padwan learner?" The Modrek gasped, shock apparent on his furry and wrinkled face.
"You know what a padwan learner is?" He did not expect Crawl to know the term employed only by Jedi Knights to describe their apprentices.
"I have been around a great deal longer than you," Crawl said as a matter of factly. "I thought you were walking away from the game, not taking an even more dangerous path. It is not a good time to be a Jedi Vin, Palpatine is bent on wiping them out."
"I know," Vin answered, grateful for Crawl's concern but that was not the reason why he had contacted the man in the first place. Even as he spoke, he could see Gammorr approaching in the distance. Alex was feeding in the false registration codes provided by the rebellion to the docking authorities so that they could land. Chris' ship was in a holding pattern on the far side of Gammorr's moon. There was no way an X-wing could attempt to land at any civilized star system without alerting every Imperial ship in a 50 light year radius. "Look Crawl, this isn't a social call. I need some information."
"You know my rules," Crawl retorted, reminding Vin that he did not inform on other bounty hunters.
"I understand but I need to know if anyone has brought in a rebel named Buck Wilmington to the Empire," Vin asked.
"Not to the Empire but I hear Hutts are after a pilot named Wilmington," Crawl answered readily enough because this was common knowledge among the circle of bounty hunters and not exactly a secret. "Jabba's paid a lot of eyes to keep on the lookout for him."
"Jabba?" Vin mused with confusion. What would Jabba want with Buck? As far as Vin was aware, Buck had never even met the gang lord before. Buck's tenure as a commercial freighter captain was mostly in service to the rebellion, Vin had never heard of him mention any dealings with Nal Hutta. For that matter, Vin had something of a working relationship with Jabba and knew that Jabba had no use for outside help, he had a small fleet of his own ships. "What would Jabba want with him?" Vin found himself asking.
"Something to do with the Maw. I don't know whether or not they caught him but I hear Dengar was hot on his trail," Crawl added.
Vin suddenly had the suspicion that Dengar might have encountered Buck on Gammorr and somehow managed to coerce the pilot into leaving with him. It would certainly explain why Buck would use the Rogue's original registration codes when he slipped through docking authorities. It would have been the only way for the pilot to signal for help. However, Vin was still at a loss to know why Jabba would want him at all so much as to go through all the expense of hiring bounty hunters to acquire him. And more importantly, what had the Maw to do it?
"What's the Maw?" Alex asked quietly.
"I'm not sure," Vin muttered. "It's supposed to be some kind of a spacer legend." He pondered the question a little further before facing Crawl again. "Thanks for the help Crawl," Vin said to his old friend. "I'll be seeing you around."
Their conversations were often that way, short and to the point. In the past, it had to do with the fact that Vin was always on the move from one job to another. Now, it was simply because Vin was not about to risk Crawl's life by having anyone discover the Modrek's affiliations with a member of the Rebel Alliance not to mention a Jedi apprentice.
"If you're going down the road I think you are, I'd rather it be later than sooner," Crawl retorted, reaffirming Vin's belief that an amicable termination of their relationship at this point would be for the best.
"I understand," Vin nodded. "Goodbye."
"May the Force be with you." The Modrek smiled finally before his image disappeared off the screen.
Once the transmission was terminated, Vin eased back into his chair, feeling uneasy because he could not figure out this situation. If it were the Empire who had Buck, then at least Vin would know why that was. However, the introduction of Jabba the Hutt into the mix confused him. What would a Hutt gangster want with a rebel pilot? For that matter, why would Jabba be interested in an old legend like the Maw.
"I don't get it," he said out loud. "Why would he want Buck?"
"I don't know," Alex shrugged. "I thought Nal Hutta had its own pilots."
"They do," Vin declared firmly, aware of this information from personal experience. "And why the Maw?"
"You know what it is?" Alex asked again. She herself had never heard the reference but then if it was an old spacer's legend then it was understandable.
"I've heard something about it." He faced her as the automatic tractor beams on Gammorr docking authorities captured the ship and brought the Tracker into its appropriate landing berth. Once automation took over, there was little the pilots were required to do except sit back and enjoy the ride. "It's supposed to some treacherous part of the space that kills anyone that flies into it."
"Maybe he wants Buck to try it," Alex suggested.
"Maybe," Vin agreed that was definitely a possibility. "I can't see why Jabba would be interested in some old legends. He doesn't have a curious side to him, just a nose for making money."
"He's a Hutt," Alex retorted. "It's genetic."
"We better try and contact Chris," Vin finally decided. "Maybe he has some idea what the Maw has got to do with Buck."
The X-wing maintained its orbit of the small uninhabited moon that revolved every 32 hours around the planet Gammorr. Remaining on its far side, the X- wing stayed out of reach of planetary sensors and any other scanning devices that might be able to locate them. They had decided prior to leaving the rebel base that it would be best if Vin made inquiries after Buck on Gammorr since he knew the terrain better. Besides, with Alex who was a skilled information gatherer as well as covert operative, the duo were mostly likely to find out what had become of Buck Wilmington, rather than a Jedi and the most wanted rebel in the sector.
That is if they could stop arguing for more than a minute.
"You okay back there?" Chris asked Mary as he heard her moving around in the passenger seat behind him.
"I'm fine," Mary yawned, feeling the boredom of waiting around finally catch up to her. When she had agreed to accompany him on the X-wing it had mostly been because it seemed wiser at the time to let Vin and Alex conduct the investigation on Gammorr but Mary had no idea how tedious the inactivity of waiting around could be, even when it was routine. On the rebel base, when the others were away undertaking perilous missions, Mary had always busied herself with running her command but this was the first time where she had absolutely nothing to do. It was a disconcerting feeling.
Chris could sense what the waiting was doing to her and supposed it was hard for a woman who was accustomed to doing so much find herself with time on her hands. "It shouldn't be too much longer. If worse comes to worse, we'll set down."
Mary eyes the moon before her and saw a world that was largely barren that was covered in craggy terrain and felt no immediate to desire to see it up close. "I'm fine. I'm just not used to waiting around with nothing to do."
"I noticed," he replied. "Think of it this way, at least you're not sharing the same space with Captain Perkins."
He could feel her bristling without turning around to look. The emotions she exuded whenever Louisa's name was mentioned was stormy to say the least and he was surprised by the kernel of jealousy he sensed from her, regarding how he thought of Louisa. "Are you still thinking that I'm attracted to Louisa?"
"Of course not!" She scoffed but Chris could sense in her voice that her answer was not completely truthful. "I'm sure you have better taste."
"Taste has nothing to do with it," the Jedi said glad that he was forced to sit with his back to her for she would have certainly been furious at the smirk that was on his face at the moment of it. "She is attractive."
"I suppose to a man she might be considered pretty," Mary remarked with a shrug.
"Very pretty," Chris could not resist adding.
Mary felt silent for a moment. "Are you torturing me for a reason?"
"Yes," he said with a completely straight face. "You should know better by now."
Another silence fell over them following that statement and Mary felt her cheeks flush because something in the way he said that made her skin tingle and suddenly, Louisa was the farthest thing from her mind. They had not spoken about their feelings for each other like this before. Ever since Stephen's death, it had hung there awkwardly, like some no man's land that neither dared approach. Mary knew even though she admitted it to no one that despite the loss of Stephen and how badly that had affected her, her feelings for Chris were extremely passionate although she did not know how to deal with them in the wake of her husband's death.
"Should I?" She finally found her voice enough to speak.
"You should," he answered. "I...."
Suddenly, a voice crackled through the air from the com unit's speaker. "Chris, come in." The voice was clearly Vin's.
"What's up Vin?" Chris swallowed, brushing away the moment now that the opportunity was lost. "Have you found something?"
"Yeah," the apprentice's voice responded clearly. "I got in contact with a friend of mine in the business. Apparently, Jabba the Hutt has been after Buck."
"Why?" Mary blurted out first. "What would he want with Buck?"
"I don't know," Vin replied automatically. "But it's got something to do with the Maw."
"The Maw?" Mary responded with just as much confusion as Vin when he first heard the reference. "What's that?"
Chris was not listening. His mind was whirling back to the past where that name held its most potency. "Vin are you absolutely sure?" Chris asked after a moment. "Jabba wants Buck for the Maw?"
"Yeah," Vin confirmed it a second later. "What is it?"
Chris took a deep breath and answered. "The Maw is a collection of super black holes in the space between Yavin and Almania. The only way to fly through the thing without getting caught is to ride the event horizons until you get to the other side. It's considered impassable."
"Then why do they want Buck?" Mary asked aghast at anyone attempting to pass through such a heinous part of space.
"Because, Buck's the only one's whose ever made it across alive. Everyone else has died in the attempt," Chris said gravely with the realization that if Buck was in the Maw, then his hopes of getting to his old friend was next to impossible.
"Chris, theres more," Vin responded through the scrambled frequency. "Alex and I asked around and we found out that the bounty hunter Dengar who was after Buck was on Gammorr."
"Does he have Buck?" Chris asked.
"Im not sure." The confusion in the apprentices voice was plain. "He left here about the same time the Rogue, bound for Tatooine."
"Thats too much of a coincidence," Mary remarked.
"I agree," Chris nodded and fell silent for a moment. In truth, he was not at all happy at the idea of returning to Tatooine. He had promised Ben Kenobi to safeguard the secret that existed on that world and the best way do so was to stay away from the planet altogether. It would be extremely dangerous if the Empire or worse yet, Vader should take an interest in the world because of a rebel presence there. Still, it was clear that their enemies in this situation was not the Empire and he doubted if Jabba and his minions would have any interest in what the Jedi Master was doing on Tatooine if it had nothing to do with their personal affairs.
"So do we go to Tatooine?" Vin asked, perfectly aware as well as Chris why caution was needed.
Chris let out a sigh and saw no other way out of it. "I guess we do," he replied finally. "Since we dont have much of a choice otherwise."
The pod racer was a thing of beauty.
JD had seen enough of them in his lifetime to know one from sight, even it if was the Tatooine version of it. The craft gleamed under the twin suns of the Tatooine sky and seemed beckoned him with promises of speed and all things enchanting to one who loved to challenge themselves in this medium. As much as JD would love to say that his interest was purely for the love of the race, he saw himself an opportunity to survive his incarceration should Buck fail to cross the Maw. Even though, JD was of the firm belief that if anyone could survive the treachery of the Maw, it would be Buck Wilmington, he also realised that if he could escape, then Buck would not have to undertake the dangerous trip which would most likely get him killed.
Following their departure from the space port at Mos Eisley, the bounty hunter Dengar was met by more of Jabba's guards, a colorful collection of aliens that soon had JD bundled into the local version of an all terrain vehicle, called a land speeder, before departing the town all together. Once past Mos Eisley, JD came to the firm conclusion that Tatooine as a hellish place of seemingly endless deserts. It was beyond comprehension how any thing could survive in the searing heat but according to Dengar who did not mind talking to him now that he was about to deliver JD to Jabba, Tatooine was home to moisture farmers, sand people and jawas. JD seemed to recall that Vin had come from Tatooine and could not imagine how any human could call this world home.
JD recognised Jabba's palace the moment he saw it. The formidable structure, constructed on the edge of a cliff was once the temple to the Bomar Monks. The Bomars were a strange religious order who believed that the path to true enlightenment could only be attained if one were to discard ones body and exist in a mechanical receptacle that housed the brain only. Unsurprisingly, the order did not get many converts. Upon reaching the palace as Jabba's employees referred to it, the enormous doors heaved open and allowed the land speeder into the main compound. It was there that JD had spied the pod that was being prepared by its technicians for a race. JD had been involved in enough of them to recognise the fanfare that took place prior to such a contest.
"She's a beauty," JD remarked to the Twileki mechanic working under the hood when he was ushered off the speeder and led to make his audience with Jabba. "When does she race?"
"In two days," the Twileki responded.
The Gammorrean guard behind JD sniggered, inspiring the Twileki's annoyance to no end. "You think it is funny?" He hissed at the large porcine alien. "We will see how funny it is when his Excellency flays us alive for his displeasure!"
JD did not like the sound of that at all but simply could not contain his curiosity and had to ask. "Why?"
"His pilot angered him and so Jabba had him fed to the Sarlaac," Twileki grumbled. "Now we do not have any one who is good enough to fly this creation and if his Excellency is not represented in the race, it will be very bad for us."
May fortune favor the foolish, JD told himself. "I used to race."
The Twileki's eyes widened while the Gammorreans started to laugh. Even Dengar seemed amused but did not laugh, instead he gave JD what seemed like a look of concern.
"Do yourself a favor and shut up kid," Dengar warned.
"You are human," the Twileki pointed out. "Humans are not fast enough to pod race. Everyone knows that. No human has accomplished that in almost thirty years!"
"I won the pod races at home," JD said confidently. "Odete may have been a backwater but we knew how to race and I was the best. I might have gone on to Coruscant if I didn't get side tracked."
The Twileki stared at him critically. "I know of the races in Odete." The alien rubbed the long appendages that flowed from his skull like a flowing hat. "They race well there."
"They do," JD said with a little smile. "This little pod of yours looks like she might be worth a run. If you can convince Jabba to keep me alive, I might consider taking it out for you."
"Your presumption is beyond belief," the Twileki pretended to disregard the idea but JD could tell that he was very interested in the proposition not to mention the prospect of giving his prized creation a chance to prove itself. "His Excellency may choose to eliminate you and I doubt anything I have to say would change that but if you are as good as you say, I still may try."
"You do that," JD replied as Dengar finally shoved him forward to keep him moving and possibly from saying anything else to land himself into deeper trouble. "Just don't take too long, that race is in two days, I'll need to get a feel for her and the course."
When they had left the Twileki behind, JD found Dengar looking at him, a smile of bemusement on his craggy face. "I'll say this for you kid, you got guts."
"Thanks," JD answered, feeling a little pride at the compliment.
"Let's just hope we won't see it splattered on the course."
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