Read an Excerpt
NOW . . . During the events of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
The live ones are worth more than the dead ones.
That was the general rule of digital appendage for bounty hunters. Dengar hardly had to remind himself of it as he scanned the bleak and eye-stinging bright wastes of the Dune Sea. Right now he'd spotted a lot more dead things than living, which all added up to a big zero for his own credit accounts. I'd have done better, he told himself, getting off this miserable planet. Tatooine had never been any luckier for him than it'd been for any other sentient creature. Some worlds were like that.
His luck wasn't as bad as some others' had beenDengar had to admit that. Especially when, as his plastoid-sheathed boots had trudged up another sloping flank of sand, a gloved fist had seized on his ankle, toppling him heavily onto his shoulder.
"What the" His surprised outcry vanished echoless across the dunes as he rolled onto his back, scrabbling his blaster from its holster. He held his fire, seeing now just what it was that had grabbed on to him. His fall had pulled a hand and arm free from the drifting sands that formed the shallow grave for one of Jabba the Hutt's personal corps of bodyguards. Some reflex wired into the dead warrior's battle-glove had snapped the dead hand tight as a womp-rat trap.
Dengar reholstered his blaster, then sat up and began peeling the fingers away from his boot. "You should've stayed out of it," he said aloud. The Dune Sea's scouring wind revealed the corpse's empty eye sockets. "Like I did." Getting into other creatures' fights was always a bad idea. A whole batch of the galaxy's toughest mercenaries, bounty hunters included, had gone down with the wreckage of Jabba the Hutt's sail barge. If they'd been as smart as they'd been tough, Dengar himself wouldn't have been out here right now, searching for their weapons and military gear and any other salvageable debris.
He got his boot free and stood up. "Better luck next time," he told the dead man.
His advice was too late to do that one any good. In his own memory bank, Dengar filed away the image of the corpse, with its clawing fingers and mouth full of sand, as further proof of what he'd already known: The guy who comes along after the battle's over is the one who cleans up.
In more ways than one. He stood at the top of the dune, shielding his eyes from the glare of Tatooine's double suns, and scanned across the wide declivity in front of him. The forms of other warriors and bodyguards, sprawled across the rocky wastes or half-buried like the one left a few meters behind, showed that he'd found the still and silent epicenter of all that fatal action he had so wisely avoided.
More evidence: Bits and pieces of debris, the wreckage of the repulsorlift sail barge that had served as Jabba's floating throne room, lay scattered across the farther dunes. Scraps of the canopy that had shaded Jabba's massive bulk from the midday suns now fluttered in the scalding breezes, blaster fire and the impact of the crash having torn the expensive Sorderian weftfabric to rags. Dengar could see a few more of Jabba's bodyguards, facedown on the hot sand, their weapons stolen by scavenging Jawas. They wouldn't be fighting anymore to protect their boss's wobbling bulk. Even in this desiccating heat, Dengar could smell the sickly aftermath of death. It wasn't unfamiliar to himhe'd been working as a bounty hunter and general-purpose mercenary long enough to get used to itbut the other scent he'd hoped to catch, that of profit, was still missing. He started down the slope of the dune toward the distant wreckage.
There was no sign of Jabba's corpse, once Dengar reached the spot. That didn't surprise him as he used a broken-shanked scythe-staff to poke around the rubble. Soon after the battle, he'd seen a Huttese transport lifting into the sky; that'd been what had guided him to this remote spot. The ship undoubtedly had had Jabba's body aboard. Hutts might be greedy, credit-hungry slugsa trait Dengar actually admired in thembut they did have a certain feeling toward the members of their own species. Kill one, he knew, and you were in deep nerf waste. It wasn't sentimentality on the part of the other Hutts, so much as a wound to their notorious megalomania, mixed with a practical self-interest.
So much for Luke Skywalker and the rest of them, thought Dengar as the point of the staff revealed sticky and distasteful evidence of Jabba's death. As if that little band of Rebels didn't have enough trouble, with the whole Empire gunning for them; now they'd have the late Jabba's extended clan after them as well. Dengar shook his headhe would've thought that Skywalker and his pal Han Solo would have, at the least, an appreciation of the Hutt capacity for bearing grudges.
Even without Jabba's obese form rotting under the thermal weight of the suns, the debris zone stank. Dengar lifted a length of chain, the broken metal at its end twisted by blaster fire. The last time he'd seen this hand-forged tether, back at Jabba's palace, it'd been fastened to an iron collar around Princess Leia Organa's neck. Now the links were crusted with the dried exudations from Jabba's slobbering mouth. The Hutt must've died hard, thought Dengar, dropping the chain. A lot to kill there. He'd gotten an account of the fight from a couple of surviving bodyguards that had managed to drag themselves back to the palace. When Dengar had left, to come out here to the Dune Sea wastes, most of the remaining thugs and louts were busily smashing open the casks of off-planet claret in the cool, dank cellars beneath the palace, and getting obliterated in a orgy of relief and self-pity at no longer being in Jabba the Hutt's employ.
"Yeah, you're free, too." Dengar picked up an unsmashed foodpot that the toe of his boot had uncovered. The still-living delicacy inside, one of Jabba's favorite trufflites, scrabbled against the ceramic lid embossed with the distinctive oval seal of Fhnark & Co., Exotic Foodstuffs-WE CATER TO THE GALAXY'S DEGENERATE APPETITES. "For what it's worth." His own tastes didn't run to the likes of the pot's spidery, gel-mired contents; he hooked a gloved finger in the lid's airhole and pried it open. The nutrient gases hissed out; they had sustained the delicacy's freshness, all the way from whatever distant planet had spawned it. "See how long you last out there." The trufflite dropped to the sand, scrabbled over Dengar's boot, and vanished over the nearest dune. He imagined some Tusken Raider finding the little appetizer out there and being completely perplexed by it.
One substantial piece of wreckage remained, too big for the Jawas to have carted away. The hardened durasteel keelbeam of the sail barge, blackened by explosions that had destroyed the rest of the craft, rose at an angle from where the stern end was buried beneath a fall of rocks. Dengar scrabbled aboard the curved metal, nearly a meter in width, and climbed the rest of the way up to where the barge's bow had been, and now only the exposed beam was left, tilted into the cloudless sky. He wrapped one arm around the end, then with his other hand unslung the electrobinoculars from his belt and brought them up to his eyes. The rangefinder numbers skittered at the bottom of his field of vision as he scanned across the horizon.
This was a pointless trip, Dengar thought disgustedly. He leaned out farther from the keelbeam, still examining the wasteland through the 'binocs. His bounty-hunting career had never been such a raging success that he'd been able to refrain from any other kind of scrabbling hustle that chanced to come his way. It was a hard trade for a human to get ahead in, considering the number of other species in the galaxy that worked in it, all of them uglier and tougher; droids, too. So a little bit of scavenger work was nothing he was unused to. The best would've been if he had found any survivors out here that could either pay him for their rescue or that he could ransom off to whatever connections they might have. The late Jabba's court had been opulentand lucrativeenough to attract more than the usual lowlifes that one encountered on Tatooine.
But the bunch of rubble Dengar had found out herethe few scattered and pawed-over bits of the sail barge and the smaller skiffs that'd hovered alongside as outriders, the dead bodyguards and warriorswasn't worth two lead ingots to him. Anything of value was already trundling away in the Jawas' slow, tank-treaded sandcrawlers, leaving nothing but bones and worthless scrap behind.
Might as well just stay here, he thought. And wait. He'd sent his bride-to-be, Manaroo, aloft in his ship, the Punishing One, to do a high-altitude reconnaissance of the area. Soon enough she'd be finished with the task, and would come back to fetch him.
The knot of frustration in Dengar's gut was instantly replaced with surprise as the keelbeam suddenly tilted almost vertical. The strap of the electrobinoculars cut across his throat as they flew away from his eyes. He held on with both hands as the beam pitched skyward, as though it were on a storm-tossed ocean of water rather than sand.