Luke and Ben were securing Artoo Detoo in the back of the speeder while Threepio kept a lookout for any additional troops.

"If Solo's ship is as fast as his boasting, we should be all right," the old man observed with satisfaction.

"But two thousand¡ªand fifteen more when we reach Alderaan!"

"It's not the fifteen that worries me; it's the first two," Kenobi explained. "I'm afraid you'll have to sell your speeder."

Luke let his gaze rove over the landspeeder, but the thrill it had once given him was gone¡ªgone along with other things best not dwelt on.

"It's all right," he assured Kenobi listlessly. "I don't think I'll need it again."

From their vantage point in another booth, Solo and Chewbacca watched as the Imperials strode through the bar. Two of them gave the Corellian a lingering glance. Chewbacca growled once and the two soldiers hurried their pace somewhat.

Solo grinned sardonically, turning to his partner. "Chewie, this charter could save our necks. Seventeen thousand!" he shook his head in amazement. "Those two must really be desperate. I wonder what they're wanted for. But I agreed, no questions. They're paying enough for it. Let's get going¡ªthe Falcon won't check itself out."

"Going somewhere, Solo?"

the Corellian couldn't identify the voice, coming as it did through an electronic translator. But there was no problem recognizing the speaker or the gun it held stuck in Solo's side.

The creature was roughly man-sized and bipedal, but its head was something out of delirium by way of an upset stomach. It had huge, dull-faceted eyes, bulbous on a pea-green face. A ridge of short spines crested the high skull, while nostrils and mouth were contained in a tapir-like snout.

"As a matter of fact," Solo replied slowly, "I was just on my way to see your boss. You can tell Jabba I've got the money I owe him."

"That's what you said yesterday¡ªand last week¡ªand the week prior to that. It's too late, Solo. I'm not going back to Jabba with another one of your stories."

"But I've really got the money this time!" Solo protested.

"Fine. I'll take it now, please."

Solo sat down slowly. Jabba's minions were apt to be cursed with nervous trigger fingers. The alien took the seat across from him, the muzzle of the ugly little pistol never straying from Solo's chest.

"I haven't got it here with me. Tell Jabba¡ª"

"It's too late, I think. Jabba would rather have your ship." "Over my dead body," Solo said unamiably.

The alien was not impressed. "If you insist. Will you come outside with me, or must I finish it here?"

"I don't think they'd like another killing in here," Solo pointed out.

Something which might have been a laugh came from the creature's translator. "They'd hardly notice. Get up, Solo. I've been looking forward to this for a long time. You've embarrassed me in front of Jabba with your pious excuses for the last time."

"I think you're right."

Light and noise filled the little corner of the cantina, and when it had faded, all that remained of the unctuous alien was a smoking, slimy spot on the stone floor.

Solo brought his hand and the smoking weapon it held out from beneath the table, drawing bemused stares from several of the cantina's patrons and clucking sounds from its more knowledgeable ones. They had known the creature had committed its fatal mistake in allowing Solo the chance to get his hands under cover.

"It'll take a lot more than the likes of you to finish me off. Jabba the Hut always did skimp when it came to hiring his hands.

Leaving the booth, Solo flipped the bartender a handful of coins as he and Chewbacca moved off. "Sorry for the mess. I always was a rotten host."

Heavily armed troopers hurried down the narrow alleyway, glowering from time to time at the darkly clad beings who hawked exotic goods from dingy little stalls. Here in Mos Eisley's inner regions the walls were high and narrow, turning the passageway into tunnel.

No one stared angrily back at them; no one shouted imprecations or mouthed obscenities. These armored figures moved with the authority of the Empire, their sidearms boldly displayed and activated. All around, men, not-men, and mechanicals were crouched in waste-littered doorways. Among accumulations of garbage and filth they exchanged information and concluded transactions of dubious legality.

A hot wind moaned down the alleyway and the troopers closed their formation. Their precision and order masked a fear of such claustrophobic quarters.

One paused to check a door, only to discover it tightly locked and bolted. A sand-encrusted human shambling nearby visited a half-mad harangue on the trooper. Shrugging inwardly, the soldier gave the crazy human a sour eye before moving on down the alley to join up again with his fellow.

As soon as they were well past, the door slid open a crack and a metallic face peered out. Below Threepio's leg, a squat barrel shape struggled for a view.

"I would rather have gone with Master Luke than stay here with you. Still, orders are orders. I don't quite know what all the trouble is about, but I'm sure it must be your fault."

Artoo responded with a near impossibility: a sniggering beep.

"You watch your language," the taller machine warned.

The number of old landspeeders and other powered transports in the dusty lot which were still capable of motion could be counted on the fingers of one hand. But that was not the concern of Luke and Ben as they stood bargaining with the tall, slightly insectoid owner. They were here not to buy, but to sell.

None of the passersby favored the hagglers with so much as a curious glance. Similar transactions which were no more pleas or threats to be exchanged. As though doling out vials of his own blood, the owner finalized the sale by passing a number of small metal shapes to Luke. Luke and the insectoid traded formal good- byes and then they parted, each convinced he had gotten the better of the deal.

"He says it's the best he can do. Since the XP-38 came out, they just aren't in demand anymore," Luke sighed.

"Don't look so discouraged," Kenobi chided him. "What you've obtained will be sufficient. I've enough to cover the rest."

Leaving the main street, they turned down an alleyway and walked past a small robot herding along a clutch of creatures resembling attenuated anteaters. As they rounded the corner Luke strained for a forlorn glimpse of the old landspeeder¡ªhis last link with his former life. Then there was no more time for looking back.

Something short and dark that might have been human underneath all its wrappings stepped out of the shadows as they moved away from the corner. It continued staring after them as they disappeared down a bend in the walkway.

The docking-bay entrance to the small saucer-shaped spacecraft was completely ringed by half a dozen men and aliens, of which the former were by half the most grotesque. A great mobile tub of muscle and suet topped by a shaggy scarred skull surveyed the semicircle of armed assassins with satisfaction. Moving forward from the center of the crescent, he shouted toward the ship.

"Come on out, Solo! We've got you surrounded."

"If so, you're facing the wrong way," came a calm voice.

Jabba the Hut jumped¡ªin itself a remarkable sight. His lackeys likewise whirled¡ªto see Han Solo and Chewbacca standing behind them.

"You see, I've been waiting for you, Jabba."

"I expected you would be," the Hut admitted, at once pleased and alarmed by the fact that neither Solo nor the big Wookie appeared to be armed.

"I'm not the type to run," Solo said.

"Run? Run from what?" Jabba countered. The absence of visible weapons bothered Jabba more than he cared to admit to himself. There was something peculiar here, and it would be better to make no hasty moves until he discovered what was amiss.

"Han, my boy, there are times when you disappoint me. I merely wish to know why you haven't paid me¡­ as you should have long ago. And why did you have to fry poor Greedo like that? After all you and I have been through together."

Solo grinned tightly. "Shove it, Jabba. There isn't enough sentiment in your body to warm an orphaned bacterium. As for Greedo, you sent him to kill me."

"Why, Han," Jabba protested in surprise, "why would I do that? You're the best smuggler in the business. You're too valuable to fry. Greedo was only relaying my natural concern at your delays. He wasn't going to kill you."

"I think he thought he was. Next time don't send one of those hired twerps. If you've got something to say, come see me yourself."

Jabba shook his head and his jowls shook¡ªlazy, fleshy echoes of his mock sorrow. "Han, Han¡ªif only you understand¡­I just can't make an exception. Where would I be if every pilot who smuggled for me dumped his shipment at the first sign of an Imperial warship? And then simply showed empty pockets when I demanded recompense? It's not good business. I can be generous and forgiving¡ª but not to the point of bankruptcy."

"You know, even I get boarded sometimes, Jabba. Did you think I dumped that spice because I got tired of its smell? I wanted to deliver it as much as you wanted to receive it. I had no choice." Again the sardonic smile. "As you say, I'm too valuable to fry. But I've got a charter now and I can pay you back, plus a little extra. I just need some more time. I can give you a thousand on account, the rest in three weeks."

The gross form seemed to consider, then directed his next words not to Solo but to his hirelings. "Put your blasters away." His gaze and a predatory smile turned to the wary Corellian.

"Han, my boy, I'm only doing this because you're the best and I'll need you again sometime. So, out of the greatness of my soul and a forgiving heart¡ªand for an extra, say, twenty percent¡ªI'll give you a little more time." The voice nearly cracked with restraint. "But this is the last time. If you disappoint me again, if you trample my generosity in your mocking laughter, I'll put a price on your head so large you won't be able to go near a civilized system for the rest of your life, because on every one your name and face will be known to men who'll gladly cut your guts out for one-tenth of what I'll promise them."

"I'm glad we both have my best interests at heart," replied Solo pleasantly as he and Chewbacca started past the staring eyes of the Hut's hired guns. "Don't worry, Jabba, I'll pay you. But not because you threaten me. I'll pay you because¡­it's my pleasure."

"They're starting to search the spaceport central," the Commander declared, having to alternately run a couple of steps and then walk to keep pace with the long strides of Darth Vader. The Dark Lord was deep in thought as he strode down one of the battle station's main corridors, trailed by several aides.

"The reports are just starting to come in," the Commander went on. "It's only a matter of time before we have those 'droids."

"Send in more men if you have to. Never mind the protests of the planetary Governor¡ªI must have those 'droids. It's her hope of that data being used against us that is the pillar of her resistance to the mind probes."

"I understand, Lord Vader. Until then we must waste our time with Governor Tarkin's foolish plan to break her."

"There's docking bay ninety-four," Luke told Kenobi and the robots who had rejoined them, "and there's Chewbacca. He seems excited about something."

Indeed, the big Wookie was waving over the heads of the crowd and jabbering loudly in their direction. Speeding their pace, none of the foursome noticed the small, dark-clad thing that had followed them from the transporter lot.

The creature moved into the doorway and pulled a tiny transmitter from a pouch concealed by its multifold robes. The transmitter looked far too new and modern to be in the grasp of so decrepit a specimen, yet its manipulator was speaking into it with steady assurance.

Docking bay ninety-four, Luke noted, was no different in appearance from a host of other grandiosely named docking bays scattered throughout Mos Eisley. It consisted mostly of an entrance rampway and an enormous pit gouged from the rocky soil. This served as clearance radii for the effects of the simple antigrav drive, which boosted all spacecraft, clear of the gravitational field of the planet.

The mathematics of spacedrive were simple enough even to Luke. Antigrav could operate only when there was a sufficient gravity well to push against¡ªlike that of a planet¡ªwhereas supralight travel could only take place when a ship was clear of that same gravity. Hence the necessity for the dual-drive system on any extrasystem craft.

The pit, which formed docking bay ninety-four, was as shabbily cut and run- down as the majority of Mos Eisley. Its sloping sides were crumbling in places instead of being smoothly fashioned as they were on more populous worlds. Luke felt it formed the perfect setting for the spacecraft Chewbacca was leading them toward.

That battered ellipsoid which could only loosely be labeled a ship appeared to have been pieced together out of old hull fragments and components discarded as unusable by other craft. The wonder of it, Luke mused, was that the thing actually held its shape. Trying to picture this vehicle as spaceworthy would have caused him to collapse in hysteria¡ªwere the situation not so serious. But to think of traveling to Alderaan in this pathetic¡­

"What a piece of junk," he finally murmured, unable to hide his feelings any longer. They were walking up the rampway toward the open port. "This thing couldn't possibly make it into hyperspace."

Kenobi didn't comment, but merely gestured toward the port, where a figure was coming to meet them.

Either Solo had supernaturally acute hearing, or else he was used to the reaction the sight of the Millennium Falcon produced in prospective passengers. "She may not look like much," he confessed as he approached them, "but she's all go. I've added a few unique modifications to her myself. In addition to piloting, I like to tinker. She'll make point five factors beyond lightspeed."

Luke scratched his head as he tried to reassess the craft in view of its owner's claims. Either the Corellian was the biggest liar this side of the galactic center, or there was more to this vessel than met the eye. Luke thought back once more to old Ben's admonition never to trust surface impressions, and decided to reserve judgment on the ship and its pilot until after he had watched them in operation.

Chewbacca had lingered behind at the docking-bay entrance. Now he rushed up the ramp, a hairy whirlwind, and blabbered excitedly at Solo. The pilot regarded him coolly, nodding from time to time, then barked a brief reply. The Wookie charged into the ship, pausing only to urge everyone to follow.

"We seem to be a bit rushed," Solo explained cryptically, "so if you'll hurry aboard, we'll be off."

Luke was about to venture some questions, but Kenobi was already prodding him up the ramp. The 'droids followed.

Inside, Luke was slightly startled to see the bulky Chewbacca squirm and fight his way into a pilot's chair which, despite modifications, was still over-whelmed by his massive form. The Wookie flipped several tiny switches with digits seemingly too big for the task. Those great paws drifted with surprising grace over the controls.

A deep throbbing started somewhere within the ship as the engines were activated. Luke and Ben began strapping themselves into the vacant seats in the main passageway.

Outside the docking-bay entrance a long, leathery snout protruded from dark folds of cloth, and somewhere in the depths to either side of that imposing proboscis, eyes stared intently. They turned, along with the rest of the head, as a squad of eight Imperial troops rushed up. Perhaps not surprisingly, they headed straight for the enigmatic figure who whispered something to the lead trooper and gestured to the docking bay.

The information must have been provocative. Activating their weapons and raising them to firing position, the troops charged en masse down the docking-bay entrance.

A glint of light on moving metal caught Solo's eyes as the unwelcome outlines of the first troops showed themselves. Solo thought it unlikely they would pause to engage in casual conversation. His suspicion was confirmed before he could open his mouth to protest their intrusion, as several dropped to their knees and opened fire on him. Solo ducked back inside, turning to yell forward.

"Chewie¡ªdeflector shields, quick! Get us out of here!"

A throaty roar of acknowledgment came back to him.

Drawing his own pistol, Solo managed to snap off a couple of bursts from the comparative safety of the hatchway. Seeing that their quarry was neither helpless nor comatose, the exposed troops dove for cover.

The low throbbing rose to a whine, then to a deafening howl as Solo's hand came down on the quick-release button. Immediately the overhead hatch-cover slammed shut.

As the retreating troops raced out of the docking-bay entrance, the ground was trembling steadily. They ran smack into a second squad, which had just arrived in response to the rapidly spreading emergency call. One of the soldiers, gesticulating wildly, tried to explain to the newly arrived ranking officer what had happened back in the bay.

As soon as the panting trooper had finished, the officer whipped out a compact communicator and shouted into it, "Flight deck¡­they're trying to escape! Send everything you've got after this ship."

All across Mos Eisley, alarms began to sound, spreading out from docking bay ninety-four in concentric circles of concern.

Several soldiers scouring one alleyway reacted to the citywide alarm at the same time as they saw the small freighter lift gracefully into the clear blue sky above Mos Eisley. It shrank to a pinpoint before any of them thought to bring a weapon to bear.

Luke and Ben were already undoing their acceleration straps as Solo walked past them, moving toward the cockpit with the easy, loose-limbed stride of the experienced spacer. Once forward, he fell rather than sat in the pilot's seat and immediately began checking readouts and gauges. In the seat next to him Chewbacca was growling and grunting like a poorly tuned speeder engine. He turned from studying his own instruments long enough to jab a massive finger at the tracking screen.

Solo gave it a quick glance, then turned irritably to his own panel. "I know, I know¡­looks like two, maybe three destroyers. Somebody certainly dislikes our passengers. Sure picked ourselves a hot one this time. Try to hold them off somehow until I can finish the programming for the supralight jump. Angle the deflectors for maximum shielding."

With those instructions he ceased conversing with the huge Wookie as his hands flew over the computer-input terminals. Solo did not even turned around when a small cylindrical shape appeared in the doorway behind him. Artoo Detoo beeped a few remarks, then scurried away.

Rear scanners showed the baleful lemon eye of Tatooine shrinking rapidly behind them. It wasn't rapid enough to eliminate the three points of light that indicated the presence of the pursuing Imperial warships.

Although Solo had ignored Artoo, he turned to acknowledge the entrance of his human passengers. "We've got two more coming in from different angles," he told them, scrutinizing the remorseless instrumentation. "They're going to try box up before we can jump. Five ships¡­What did you two do to attract that kind of company?"

"Can't you outrun them?" Luke asked sarcastically, ignoring the pilot's question the pilot's question. "I thought you said this thing was fast."

"Watch your mouth, kid, or you'll find yourself floating home. There's too many of 'em, for one thing. But, we'll be safe enough once we've made the jump into hyperspace." He grinned knowingly. "Can't nobody track another ship accurately at supralight speeds. Plus, I know a few tricks that ought to lose any persistent stick-tights. I wish I'd known you boys were so popular."

"Why?" Luke said challengingly. "Would you have refused to take us?"

"Not necessarily," the Corellian replied, refusing to be baited. "But I sure's hell would've boosted your fare."

Luke had a retort poised on his lips. It was wiped out as he threw up his arms to ward off a brilliant red flash which gave black space outside the viewport the temporary aspect of the surface of a sun. Kenobi, Solo and even Chewbacca did likewise, since the proximity of the explosion nearly overrode the phototropic shielding.

"Here's where the situation gets interesting," Solo muttered.

"How long before you can make the jump?" Kenobi inquired easily, apparently unconcerned that at any second they all might cease to exist.

"We're still within the gravitational influence of Tatooine," came the cool response. "It will be a few minutes yet before the navigation computer can compensate and effect an accurate jump. I could override its decision, but the hyperdrive would likely shred itself. That would give me a nice hold full of scrap metal in addition to you four."

"A few minutes," Luke blurted, staring at the screens. "At the rate they're gaining¡­"

"Traveling through hyperspace isn't like dusting crops, boy. Ever tried calculating a hyperspace jump?" Luke had to shake his head. "It's no mean trick. Be nice if we rushed it and passed right through a star or some other friendly spatial phenom like a black hole. That would end our trip real quick."

Fresh explosions continued to flare close by despite Chewbacca's best efforts at evasion. On Solo's console a red warning light began to flash for attention.

"What's that?" Luke wondered nervously.

"We're losing a deflector shield," Solo informed him with the air of a man about to have a tooth pulled. "Better strap yourselves back in. We're almost ready to make the jump. It could get bad if we take a near-burst at the wrong moment."

Back in the main hold area Threepio was already locked tightly into his seat by metal arms stronger than any acceleration straps. Artoo swayed back and forth under the concussion produced by increasingly powerful energy bursts against the ship's deflectors.

"Was this trip really necessary?" the tall robot muttered in desperation. "I'd forgotten how much I hate space travel." He broke off as Luke and Ben appeared and began strapping themselves back into their chairs.

Oddly, Luke was thinking of a dog he had once owned when an immensely powerful something wrenched at the ship's hull with the strength of a fallen angel.

Admiral Motti entered the quiet conference room, his face streaked by the linear lights lining the walls. His gaze went to the spot where Governor Tarkin stood before the curved viewscreen, and he bowed slightly. Despite the evidence of the small green gem of a world entered in the screen, he formally announced, "We have entered the Alderaan system. We await your order."

The door signaled and Tarkin made a falsely gentle gesture to the admiral. "Wait a moment yet, Motti."

The door slid aside and Leia Organa entered, flanked by two armed guards, followed by Darth Vader.

"I am¡ª," Tarkin began.

"I know who you are," she spat, "Governor Tarkin. I should have expected to find you holding Vader's leash. I thought I recognized your unique stench when I was first brought on board."

"Charming to the last," Tarkin declared in a fashion which suggested he was anything but charmed. "You don't know how hard I found it to sign the order for your termination." His expression changed to one of mock sorrow. "Of course, had you cooperated in our investigation, things might be otherwise. Lord Vader has informed me that your resistance to our traditional methods of inquiry¡ª"

"Torture, you mean," she countered a trifle shakily.

"Let us not bandy semantics," Tarkin smiled.

"I'm surprised you had the courage to take the responsibility for issuing the order on yourself."

Tarkin sighed reluctantly. "I am a dedicated man, and the pleasures I reserved for myself are few. One of them is that before your execution I should like you to be my guest at a small ceremony. It will certify this battle station's operational status while at the same time ushering in a new era of Imperial technical supremacy. This station is the final link in the new-forged Imperial chain which will bind the million systems of the galactic Empire together once and for all. Your petty Alliance will no longer be of any concern to us. After today's demonstration no one will dare to opposite Imperial decree, not even the Senate."

Organa looked at him with contempt. "Force will not keep the Empire together. Force has never kept anything together for very long. The more you tighten your grip, the more systems will slip through your fingers. You're a foolish man, Governor. Foolish men often choke to death on their own delusions."

Tarkin smiled a death's-head smile, his face a parchment skull's. "It will be interesting to see what manner of passing Lord Vader has in mind for you. I am certain it will be worthy of your¡ªand of him.

"But before you leave us, we must demonstrate the power of this station once and for all, in a conclusive fashion. In a way, you have determined the choice of subject for this demonstration. Since you have proven reluctant to supply us with the location of the rebel stronghold, I have deemed it appropriate to select as an alternate subject your home planet of Alderaan."

"No! You can't! Alderaan is a peaceful world, with no standing armies. You can't¡­"

Tarkin's eyes gleamed. "You would prefer another target? A military target, perhaps? We're agreeable grow tired of such games. For the last time, where is the main rebel base?"

A voice announced over a hidden speaker that they had approached within antigrav range of Alderaan¡ªapproximately six planetary diameters. That was enough to accomplish what all of Vader's infernal devices had failed to.

"Dantooine," she whispered, staring at the deck, all pretense at defiance gone now. "They're on Dantooine."

Tarkin let out a slow sigh of satisfaction, then turned to the black figure nearby. "There, you see, Lord Vader? She can be reasonable. One needs only frame the question properly to elicit the desired response." He directed his attention to the other officers. "After concluding our little test here we shall make haste to move on to Dantooine. You may proceed with the operation, gentlemen."

It took several seconds for Tarkin's words, so casually uttered, to penetrate. "What!" Organa finally gasped.

"Dantooine," Tarkin explained, examining his fingers, "is too far from the centers of Imperial population to serve as the subject of an effective demonstration. You will understand that for reports of our power to spread rapidly through the Empire we require an obstreperous world more centrally located. Have no fear, though. We will deal with your rebel friends on Dantooine as soon as possible."

"But you said¡­" Organa started to protest.

"The only words which have meaning are the last ones spoken," Tarkin declared cuttingly. "We will proceed with destruction of Alderaan as planned. Then you will enjoy watching with us as we obliterate the Dantooine center of this stupid and futile rebellion."

He gestured to the two soldiers flanking her. "escort her to the principal observation level and," he smiled, "make certain she is provided with an unobstructed view."