It was race day.

Despite being considered a barren wasteland in the backwater of space, Tatooine knew how to provide the pageantry necessary to make their race day something of a spectacle. Although Mos Eisley had appeared to him to be rather worn and lacking in any atmosphere, all that had changed on the day of the race. People were out in force; faces that were usually dour with having to exist on such a harsh, uncompromising world were filled with excitement and enthusiasm for the coming festivities. There was a kinetic energy moving in tandem with the people on the street as they made their way to the stadium where the race would begin.

Peddlers setting up their stalls to take advantage of the crowds that had come out today; adding to the already festive atmosphere flanked the road to the Stadium. Merchandise of every kind was being sold, expensive fabrics, trinkets, pottery, salvaged and most likely stolen ship parts, toys and eve life stock. Aromas from exotic foods that could be eaten at the stalls of their cooking or taken away drifted through the meandering streets and side alleys to give Mos Eisley a more enchanting scent than its usual stench of bantha manure. It was hard not to get caught up in the fanfare of the moment when one saw children of different races chattering happily among themselves as they went either with their parents or in large groups, waving flags of their favourite racers.

The stadium where the race would begin was filled to the brim with spectators. They came in all sizes and all species; eyes fixed on the pre race preparations being carried out at center court. Chris Larabee, who had stowed away with the rest of Jabba's entourage, peered down at the collection of vehicles in an effort to see JD. The young man was there of course, along with the pod he would be racing and the mechanic who had built it. Although it appeared as if he was focussed on the race ahead, Chris could tell that JD's mind was far from it. The young man was staring at Jabba's private viewing gallery, trying to see if his friends even though they would be little more than a small speck from that distance.

Chris remained hidden among the bulk of Jabba's entourage, keeping a close eye on Vin, Alex and Mary who would be viewing the race from within Jabba's gallery. So far his Jedi abilities had managed to keep his presence anonymous although he knew the time was coming when he would have to make his move. So far, Chris had come to the conclusion that JD's plan of escaping in a pod during the race was a good one. The only thing that he had to do was to ensure that when the time came, Jabba's men would have little opportunity to go after the young man. The Tracker was awaiting them in Mos Eisley's spaceport and JD had been instructed telepathically by Chris the night before to make his way there following his divergence from the rest of the contestants in the pod race.

The only thing that really concerned Chris at this time was the tracer that JD had been unfortunately fitted with. JD's attempts to remove it had proved unsuccessful and Chris had recalled Vin saying that such devices were extremely difficult to remove. The only way to really ensure the tracer's safe removal was for JD to be beyond the range of the activation device when he escaped. Somehow, they had to keep Jabba from detonating the tracer once learning JD had made his escape. As much as Chris disliked the idea, Vin was the only one who could keep that from happening because he was closest to Jabba. It would be up to Chris to get Mary and Alex out of harms way once Vin made his move.

His attention was momentarily distracted by the voice of the race announcer suddenly blaring through the audio amps placed throughout the stadium. Chris shifted his gaze to the racetrack and saw the pods being moved into place in a neat row. Mechanics were reluctantly pulling themselves away from the vehicles while the racers themselves started climbing into cockpit. JD's eyes searched once again for any sight of his friends before he too disappeared into the cockpit of Kah's prized masterpiece. He was one of two humans participating in the race and Chris hoped he was nearly as good as he believed this to be. All this would be for nothing if JD crashed.

There were easily a dozen pods, all ranging in colour, size and sophistication. All were unique in their design even though the fundamentals of pod racing had to be adhered to. They made a curious line of vessels and as the race official at the starter raised a dark green flag and waved it around, each pod began to ignite its engines. The powerful sound of combustion, charged ions and all other modes of propulsion employed by these vessels filled the air with a near deafening roar that was amplified by the stadium’s design. The activation of the engines ignited the crowd’s enthusiasm with a cheer that equaled the powerful intensity of the engines firing. Previously they had rumbled with impatience waiting for the event to begin but the pods coming to life seemed to infuse them with similar animation and now Chris could see their attention fixed singularly on the pods about to race.

The revving of engines died down to a low rumble that kicked up dust clouds and filled the air with the noxious smell of chemicals as the pods began to hover above the ground, preparing to go at an instant’s notice. A hushed silence fell over the stands as the spectators waited with abated breath for the signal to go. Chris saw JD inside the cabin of his pod; his eyes fixed on the path ahead, oblivious to all other contestants. Good, Chris thought to himself. He was focussing on what he had to do instead of the other competitors. If he could have finished the race, that tactic would most likely win it and Chris could understand why JD was one of the best gunners in the rebel fleet when he displayed this kind of concentration.

Suddenly a bright orange flag appeared from the corner of the track, it’s coloring a stark contrast to the dull hues of the dirt ground. Its appearance precipitated all kinds of noise, an explosion of sounds that trembled the walls of the stadium in its intensity. The crowd roared with excitement as the race began and engines fired with simultaneous bursts of energy as the pods surged ahead, moving so fast that blinking would make one lose sight. Chris felt his own anticipation swell and then inflated with satisfaction as the race got underway.

There was no leader at this infant stage of the race and at the moment, the pod drivers were more interested in navigating their crafts out of the stadium to run the course rather than make any headway for a lead. JD’s pod was lost with the others as it surged forward, carried away on a tidal wave of propulsion. There were stragglers of course, some who had been left behind because of engine failure or some other mishap. Fortunately, JD was not one of these and was fast rapidly making his way out of the stadium confines. The crowd followed their progress with wild cheering that did not seem to abate once the group left the stadium.

With the pods departure, the spectators’ attention moved to a large screen at a central location above them, giving them a birds eye view of the race as it progressed beyond the stadium walls. Now in open spaces, the speedsters were jockeying for position and while this tactical maneuvering was taking place, Chris made his move towards Jabba’s gallery. His personal entourage occupied the surrounding viewing boxes around the gangster’s gallery and it was here that Chris had been viewing the race so far. As he glanced at the Hutt, he could see Vin making similar moves as well. It would be up to Vin to prevent Jabba from activating the tracer when JD finally made his bid for escape.

The Jedi nudged his way past the gangster’s guests, keeping especially away from the Gammoreans guards who were also in attendance. The heavyset sentries were mediating their attention between the big screen and the surrounding area. It was their job to ensure that Jabba did not come to any harm whilst beyond the safety of his fortress. However, the Gammorreans were a slow-witted lot and it was easy for Chris to get by them without being noticed. Unfortunately, it was not the Gammorreans that Chris was most concerned with, rather the bounty hunter Dengar whose angry emotions were like a beacon in the night to his Jedi senses. He would not be so easy to fool. Dengar seemed to be focusing on Vin Tanner and Chris imagined that the bounty hunter felt slighted somehow because of Jabba’s clear favoritism towards his padwan learner.

It occurred to Chris that he would have to neutralize Dengar first or Vin would never be able to place himself in a position to be of any aid to JD. This was not an easy thing to do since this entire escapade relied so heavily upon timing. Neutralizing Dengar now would mean tipping their hand too early. They needed JD to make his move before they could act. Chris thought quickly what he ought to do and came to one conclusion; he would take Dengar out but only after JD had broken off from the race. This necessitated a slight alteration to his own plan. Instead of going after Mary and Alex, he would instead take position near Dengar, who would surely react the minute Vin made his move towards Jabba the Hutt. Chris intended to ensure that Vin’s back would be clear when the time came to attack.

Thus for the moment, he would wait for Dengar to attack and then he would.

JD had forgotten how truly exhilarating pod racing could be.

When he had been practicing alone on the course the feeling had eluded him. However, now that he was here, in the heat of competition, pushing his pod faster than it ought to be going, with competitors on either side attempting to keep him from getting any further, JD remembered with a torrent of elation, just how much he used to love the race. He was one of the four pods that had clearly staked out the distinction of being the race leaders. He had slowly nudged past two of the racers and had edged into third position. Up ahead but not far enough to give him any real concerns of catching up was a Rodian in a souped Triset Booster pod, distinct by its trio of engine nacelles in comparison to the standard two. The power he had at his disposal made him formidable but JD saw that his manourvering capabilities did not match the potential of his craft.

The leader was the only other human in the race. Surging forward in a pod that was little more than a collection of scrap metal held together by spit and will, it was painted in Corellian colours. JD had seen the boy, no more than a teenager, if that even, prior to the race. A lanky boy with russet colored hair and the cocksure attitude that reminded JD so much of Buck that it send shivers up his spine remembering what his friend was presently enduring for his sake. Kah had claimed that the odds on the boy, named Solo was fifty to one because he was just another wannabe from Corellia who was most likely to get himself killed in the first leg.

Kah was wrong. Not only had survived the first leg of the race, he was ensuring that JD did not overtake him. The skill behind the controls of the pod left JD in awe. The kid was good, JD thought to himself. He was really good. Solo was keeping his pace no matter how impossible the obstacles ahead of them seemed to be and no matter how much JD tried to force his pod past him, the Corellian managed to maintain his lead and to JD’s amazement, even lengthen it. The course was a dangerous series of dips and turns through meandering rock and high walls that soon narrowed into little more than slits where a human much less a pod would have trouble passing through safely.

JD pushed his own pod harder in an effort to catch up. The others had disappeared behind him and suddenly the race had become him and Solo. Around them, high canyon walls came and went in a blur, huge boulders that allowed them only the barest fraction of space to avoid it and still the two combatants sailed through the deadly track with ease. At the stadium, the crowd was going wild over the battle as the two humans went head to head in order to reach the finish line first. However, JD and Solo were oblivious to this. All they knew for certain that one of them would win and one would not.

Reaching the return marker, the two pods arched gracefully around the signal tube, vibrant in its color as it stood out against the sandy desert terrain. Solo's craft was still in the lead by a good pod's length and JD was determined not to let him widen the distance between them. Forcing his pod to go faster, JD knew he was in danger of exceeding the craft's capacity to maintain this devastating pace. Already, he could see lights flashing across the console panel, issuing all kinds of warnings. The constant adjustment he was making to his trajectory was bombarding him with gravitational forces arising from such high velocity. Solo who was in the lead and maintaining a steady course was unaffected by this because of minimal changes in his trajectory; however, JD was starting to seriously get disorientated by it.

JD was almost half way back to Mos Eisley and the stadium when he came to his senses and realised that what he ought to be doing was making his escape, not trying unsuccessfully to beat this demon in the pod in front him. Damn he was good, JD kept muttering to himself as he forced his pod ahead, trying to catch up with this boy who handled the controls as if they were an extension of himself. JD had only been able to achieve that kind of unity when he was in a gunnery turret although he had seen it in only one other person and that was Buck.

Solo flew like Buck Wilmington, with absolute confidence that he was the best.

With a powerful insight he might almost call the Force working its will upon him, JD came to another realization as well. He could not beat Solo. Even if he was willing to gamble his life and that of Buck's to complete the race, he knew deep inside that he could not win. Solo was better than him and JD was a man enough to admit it. Taking a deep breath, JD closed his eyes and disconnected himself mentally from the race. It was hard to do. The compulsion to win had damn near overridden his senses but the fact of the matter was, Chris, Vin, Alex and Mary had risked themselves to rescue him and he would not let him down.

Telling himself it did not matter how this went down, JD pulled his pod away from the rear of Solo's ship and tried to believe it as he fled for Mos Eisley.

"WHAT IS HE DOING?" Jabba demanded of one in particular but it was obvious that he wanted an answer.

On the large screen before the spectators showing the race being run beyond the walls of the stadium, the crowd had stared in muted silence as the close race they had been watching suddenly became an easy victory for Corellian pod piloted by the youth called Han Solo. Jabba was confused at first wondering whether or not it was engine trouble that caused his pilot to pull away from the neck to neck competition with the Corellian, however, it soon became evident that there was none of the customary signs that indicated malfunction. Jabba's pod had veered away from the race trajectory and had altered its course to head directly for Mos Eisley's space station.

Vin Tanner had been close by watching Jabba in anticipation of this exact moment. Mary and Alex had already moved into position. Neither woman was armed as there was no way to allow for it without bringing suspicion upon themselves. The best that they could do was stay out of the firing line when everything came to a head. Jabba was screaming angrily, his huge body shuddering with each furious demand to know what was happening. His guards were running to him, attempting to explain the unexplainable while Vin held back, preferring to keep watch for the Hutt's eventual retaliation.

"Where is Kah?" Jabba roared in Huttese and Vin had to admit feeling a pang of sympathy for the mechanic who would surely pay dearly for recommending JD to play the part of pod racer. "I'll have them both skinned alive!"

"He has the tracer your Excellency!" One of the Gammoreans guards reminded and Vin saw Jabba's large eyes narrow in calculation.

"The fool," the Hutt rumbled in pleasure realizing that he was not as powerless to let JD escape as he might be. "He will never get off this planet alive."

Mary and Alex did not understand Jabba's words but the look that Vin gave them was indication enough that something was about to happen. Vin let go of Alex's chain and Mary had withdrawn behind one of Jabba's bodyguards, unnoticed because of the drama unfolding. He watched as Jabba reached down to the platform upon which he was resting and removed a pentagonal shape object that Vin recognized almost immediately from a compartment on the floor. Even with Jabba's next to useless hands, the Hutt lord only had to twist the mechanism into place for the detonation device to activate. This was the appearance that Vin was waiting for and upon seeing it wasted no time in acting. He had kept his lightsabre carefully hidden because Jabba's guards had taken his gun as expected. Like the rest of the Hutt's organization, the guards had no idea that Vin was a Jedi, not that they would have been able to take his lightsabre from if they had discovered it. Especially after how long it took him to build th e damn thing.

The beam of light appeared suddenly and caught everyone by surprise. Vin ran forward with Jedi abilities fully displayed and swung the blade with expert precision, slicing the device in half with a small explosion of energy as it was torn apart. Jabba let out an indignant howl as the energy burned his hand and glared at Vin Tanner in absolute disbelief. His Gammorreans guards were quick to react and immediately opened fire. Vin deflected this easily enough because the guards were sluggish and not all that accurate with their aim. Had they been Imperial stormtroopers, he might not be able to deflect them as easily. Pandemonium broke out as the rest of Jabba's companions ran for cover, leaving the hired guns to do the hard work. Jabba himself had managed to slither to the corner of the gallery, trying to avoid the ricocheting blasts of energy that were spreading out in all directions.

Alex saw one of Jabba's Weequay warriors emerging from the corner of the room that led into the gallery floor, taking aim at Vin and swung the chain in her hands in his direction. The links of metal snapped easily around his weapon and Alex yanked back hard, pulling the blaster out of his reach. The Weequay screeched at her in anger but Alex did not give him much time to do anything else. She ran forward and delivered a high kick to his chin and sent him sprawling to the sandstone floor. In less than a second after that she was on him, the chain in her hand snapping around his throat in a vise like grip that blocked off his air passages. She yanked viciously and heard an awful snap as bones splintered and connections to the creature's cerebellum were severed. Wasting no time, she reached for his weapon and immediately shot off the link of chain from her choker.

"TANNER!" Jabba growled. "I will kill you for this!"

Vin was hardly listening to Jabba's tirade because for all his bluster, the Hutt was physically incapable of being a threat. The Hutts were dangerous because they were sly and conniving and usually had money for hired guns who would do their killing for them. They neither had the physical disposition or capability to do it themselves. No, all Jabba would do here was posture. The threat was not him but rather the men he surrounded himself with. Vin had never thought he would be comfortable using the lightsabre to fight the way Chris had and this was the first time he had employed it in combat. It did not take the Force for him to know that he was lucky to begin his initiation with such easy targets. Still, vigilance was required and he somersaulted into the air as he saw the blast from another Gamorrean weapon coming at him. Vin landed a foot away from the shooter and swung wide, the lightsabre ending the threat with a squeal of agony as the blade tore through organs.

"ALEX THE DOOR!" Mary shouted. She was still unarmed and unable to reach a weapon because all the stray bolts of energy whizzing around the gallery was making it difficult to emerge from her hiding place.

Alex glanced at the huge doors and understood immediately. No doubt their shooting would bring all sorts of attention. It would not be long before Imperial stormtroopers would be called to deal with the violence. Below them, the spectators had forgotten all about the race and were staring at the commotion taking place in the Hutt's viewing gallery. The operative ran forward, blasting away anyone that might be a threat as she reached the door and fired at the controls that could open it from the outside. The metal shattered with pieces flying in all directions and Alex turned her face away, feeling hot embers on her skin from the eruption. However once she was done, the panel was very much fused, ensuring that anyone attempting to get into the room would first have to cut their way through.

Alex saw a Gamorrean taking aim at her when a powerful side kick from Mary landed in the guard's side, throwing off his aim as he stumbled clumsily from the blow. Mary lacked the physical strength to do any significant damage but she had kept the bulky alien from putting a considerable hole in her best friend's torso. Alex gave Mary a look of thanks and took aim. She hit the guard square in the chest and toppled him with a loud indignant scream. Once he was down, Mary relinquished him of his weapon and the two women joined up to finish what was left of the guards in the gallery that Vin had not dealt with.

"Watch out!" Mary pulled Alex down as they emerged into the open gallery and barely missed being hit by a blast of energy coming from one of the private boxes that located on a slightly lower level than the gallery itself. Both women shrunk back to safety and saw other guards from the surrounding boxes attempting to shoot Vin. The former bounty hunter was doing quite well defending himself although the margin of time where they could remain here without risking their escape was starting to dwindle. They would have to leave and soon if they were going to rendezvous with JD and get off the planet before the authorities were able to identify them and notify the Empire of their presence.

"VIN!" Mary called out to the apprentice but he was not hearing her. Vin was on the wide railing at the edge of the gallery, leaping from one end to another with the skill of an acrobat before he landed deftly on one knee and flung his lightsabre at the guard that was taking shots at him. The weapon moved through air like a Catherine wheel before savagely cutting down its target. Vin heard Mary call and was about to answer when suddenly he saw a circle of red heat permeating through the doors that led into the gallery. The metal had become crimson, a clear indication that someone was attempting to get through.

"You are finished Tanner!" Jabba shouted again, his eyes wide and full of fury. The blubber of his worm like form shuddering with rage as he bellowed at the Jedi. "I will hunt you down until I have your head!"

You and everybody else, Vin thought ruefully. At the moment however, he was more interested in where Chris Larabee was at this time.

Chris was making his was towards the gallery following the outbreak of violence.

He was a little side tracked by the sheer amount of Jabba's guards that were attempting to stop a Jedi from reaching their master, unaware that there another was already there. As anticipated, Chris had kept close eye on Dengar, guessing that the cyborg bounty hunter disliked Vin enough to be suspicious of him and waiting patiently for the opportunity to discredit him. The minute Jabba had discovered that JD had double crossed him and was making a run for the Mos Eisley space port, that opportunity came like a gift from heaven. Dengar saw Vin going for his light saber before any of the guards that were in Jabba's immediate presence. He had attempted to shout a warning when Chris send him sprawling with little a slight exertion of the Force.

The bounty hunter sailed through the air; scattering the unarmed members of Jabba's court and bringing the attention of those who were his guards. Dengar slammed into the hard sandstone floor, the mechanical attachments of his body making a terrible crunch when it impacted. Sparks and blue ribbons of errant energy from the power source of his cybernetic self spasmed through his body as he jerked ungainly about on the floor. Chris' light saber flew out off his belt and landed neatly on his hand without the Jedi even reaching for him. That alone was enough to scare some of Jabba's guards into turning tail and running. The Jedi was not that much of a myth yet that they did not know what one could do in battle.

The blade came alive with a low hum in its usual understated way but it still had the power to capture the imagination of anyone who was present. Some of the Gammoreans started to fire in his direction but Chris deflected them out of his way with ease to the experience he had which his padwan learner did not. Dengar in the meantime took advantage of Chris' preoccupation with Jabba's inept guards to make some sort of recovery following the Jedi's surprise attack. The cybernetics in his body had conditioned him to ignore pain but his sensory receptors acknowledged its existence nonetheless. His creators had ensured that when he was angry that rage would transcend its normal limitations and turn him into an unstoppable monster.

After his humiliating defeat at the hands of this Jedi, Dengar was very angry indeed.

He went for his weapon while Chris was distracted, very nearly taking the Jedi's arm off when he fired. Only Chris' superior reflexes averted that debilitating injury and Chris leapt into the air, somersaulting twice before landing behind the remaining Gammoreans that were attempting to kill him. Chris knew he had to dispense with this group quickly because now that the alarm was sounded, they had to get out of here and fast. It was not so much Jabba's people that concerned Chris so much but rather the Imperial troops that were stationed on Tatooine. Chris did not want Vader to take an interest in the planet if it were reported that a Jedi might be in the vicinity. Chris concentrated hard and sent two of the Gammoreans squealing past the railing. He did not see them land but felt a pang of sympathy for whomever might be beneath the bulky porcine sentries when they landed. The other two immediately started to back away at the sight of the lightsabre but fear of Jabba's wrath for letting t he Jedi get away overcame that reservation and they moved in to attack.

It was a fatal mistake. Chris cut them down as easily as he had done the others. Dengar once again found himself faced to face with the Jedi and this time the box was empty except for the two of them. He moved with lighting fast reflexes but the Jedi was faster, leaping out of reach of the blue streak of energy he had fired.

"Don't make me kill you," Chris said suddenly, breaking the pattern of combat.

"What makes you think you can?" Dengar sneered, his gun raised and poised to fire.

"Believe me," Chris gave the bounty hunter his most intense gaze. "I can."

Dengar found his throat going dry because the Jedi's voice made him believe it. "I can't let you walk away. Jabba will have my hide!"

"Jabba will try to kill you someday," Chris declared firmly. It was true. Chris had seen it in the man's future. Dengar would escape but barely and he had much to live for in his future.

"So what?" Dengar returned. "He won't be the first."

"There is still good in you," Chris replied. "I can feel it. You need to stay alive. You need to stay alive for Manaroo."

"Who?" Dengar was starting to falter. The Jedi was getting to him. This was a trick. It had to be!

"Your wife."

"My wife?" Dengar stared at him in disbelief. "This is a trick!"

"Try to kill me and you will never find out," Chris said firmly. "I don't want to kill you but I will. You leave now and that will be the end of it. You kept my young friend alive and I'm grateful to you for that but you attack me and it will be the last thing you do in this life."

Dengar's weapon was poised to fire but somehow he knew the Jedi was right and a smart man knew when to walk away when the odds were against him. Not knowing what was in his head but unable to shake the imperative that that survival was far more important that ego, Dengar considered his position. Jabba had contracted him to deliver JD Dunne to Tatooine. He had done that. It was not his problem if Jabba could not hang on to the boy nor was he contracted to fight any Jedi. He was perfectly within his rights to walk away.

And he would.

"Alright," Dengar nodded and lowered his weapon. "Until next time."

Chris lowered his light saber and responded with equal respect. "Until next time."

Comments to: gsuter@ans.com.au