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NOW . . .
(during the events of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi)
Fear is a useful thing.
That was one of the best lessons that a bounty hunter could learn. And Bossk was learning it now.
Through the cockpit viewport of the Hound's Tooth, he saw the explosion that ripped the other ship, Boba Fett's Slave I, into flame and shards of blackened durasteel. A burst of wide-band comlink static, like an electromagnetic death cry, had simultaneously deafened Bossk. The searing, multi-octave noise had poured through the speakers in the Hound's cockpit for several minutes, until the last of the circuitry aboard Fett's ship had finally been consumed and silenced in the fiery apocalypse.
When he could finally hear himself think again, Bossk looked out at the empty space where Slave I had been. Now, against the cold backdrop of stars, a few scraps of heated metal slowly dwindled from white-hot to dull red as their molten heat ebbed away in vacuum. He's dead, thought Bossk with immense satisfaction. At last. Whatever atoms had constituted the late Boba Fett, they were also drifting disconnected and harmless in space. Before transferring back here to his own ship, Bossk had wired up enough thermal explosives in Slave I to reduce any living thing aboard it to mere ash and bad memories.
So if he still felt afraid, if his gut still knotted when Boba Fett's dark-visored image rose in his thoughts, Bossk knew that was an irrational response. He's dead, he's gone . . .
The silence of the Hound's cockpit was broken by a barely audible pinging signal from the control panel. Bossk glanced down and saw that the Hound's telesponder had picked up the presence of another ship in the immediate vicinity; according to the coordinates that appeared in the readout screen, it was almost on top of the Hound's Tooth.
Andit was the ship known as Slave I. The ID profile was an exact match.
That's impossible, thought Bossk, bewildered. His heart shuddered to a halt inside his chest, then staggered on. Before the explosion, he had picked up the same ID profile from the other side of his own ship; he had turned the Hound's Tooth around just in time to see the huge, churning ball of flame fill his viewscreen.
But, he realized now, he hadn't seen Slave I itself. Which meant . . .
Bossk heard another sound, even softer, coming from somewhere else in his own ship. There was someone else aboard it; his keen Trandoshan senses registered the molecules of another creature's spoor in the ship's recycled atmosphere. And Bossk knew who it was.
He's here. The cold blood in Bossk's veins chilled to ice. Boba Fett . . .
Somehow, Bossk knew, he had been tricked. The explosion hadn't consumed Slave I and its occupants at all. He didn't know how Boba Fett had managed it, but it had been done nevertheless. And the deafening electronic noise that had filled the cockpit had also been enough to cover Boba Fett's unauthorized entry of the Hound's Tooth; the shrieking din had gone on long enough for Fett to have penetrated an access hatch and resealed it behind himself.
A voice came from the cockpit's overhead speaker, a voice that was neither his own nor Boba Fett's.
"Twenty seconds to detonation." It was the calm, unexcited voice of an autonomic bomb. Only the most powerful ones contained warning circuits like that.
Fear thawed the ice in Bossk's veins. He jumped up from the pilot's chair and dived for the hatchway behind himself.
In the emergency equipment bay of the Hound's Tooth, his clawed hands tore through the contents of one of the storage lockers. The Hound wasn't going to be a ship much longer; in a few secondsand counting downit was going to be glowing bits of shrapnel and rubbish surrounded by a haze of rapidly dissipating atmospheric gases, just like whatever it had been that he had mistakenly identified, as Boba Fett's ship Slave I. That the Hound would no longer be capable of maintaining its life-support systems wasn't Bossk's main concern at this moment, as the reptilian Trandoshan hastily shoved a few more essential items through the self-sealing gasket of a battered, much-used pressure duffel. There wouldn't even be any life for the systems to support: a small portion of the debris floating in the cold vacuum would be blood and bone and scorched scraps of body tissue, the rapidly chilling remains of the ship's captain. I'm outta here, thought Bossk; he slung the duffel's strap across his broad shoulder and dived for the equipment bay's hatch.
"Fifteen seconds to detonation." A calm and friendly voice spoke in the Hound's central corridor as Bossk ran for the escape pod. He knew that Boba Fett had toggled the bomb's autonomic vocal circuits just to rattle him. "Fourteen . . ." There was nothing like a disembodied announcement of impending doom, to get a sentient creature motivated. "Thirteen; have you considered evacuation?"
"Shut up," growled Bossk. There was no point in talking to a pile of thermal explosives and flash circuits, but he couldn't stop himself. Under the death-fear that accelerated his pulse was sheer murderous rage and annoyance, the inevitable-seeming result of every encounter he'd ever had with Boba Fett. That stinking, underhanded scum . . .
The scraps and shards left by the other explosion clattered against the Hound's shielded exterior like a swarm of tiny, molten-edged meteorites. If there was any justice in the universe, Boba Fett should have been dead by now. Not just dead; atomized. The fury and panic in Bossk's pounding heart shifted again to bewilderment as he ran with the pressure duffel jostling against his scale-covered spine. Why did Boba Fett keep coming back? Was there no way to kill him so that he would just stay dead?
"Twelve . . ."
It wasn't fair. He hadn't even had the chance to lean back in the pilot's chair and feel the warm glow spread through his body, the sweet tranquility that came with annihilating one's enemies. And Boba Fett had been his number-one antagonist; Bossk had lost track of the humiliations he had suffered at the other bounty hunter's hands. There had even been times when he had teamed up with Fett, and had still wound up the loser, gazing into the narrow visor of Fett's helmet and sensing a sneer of triumph on the face concealed by the Mandalorian armor. Granted, on one of those occasions when he'd gone in league with Boba Fett, Bossk's own secret agenda had been to kill himbut that he'd failed only went to show what a cruel, uncaring place the universe was. It was just as old Cradossk, his father, had instructed him in those long-ago days before being murdered by Bossk: Nobody ever helps kill himself, even when he should . . .
"Eleven," the bomb's voice said.
No time for self-pity. Bossk wiped all thoughts other than self-preservation from his mind. His pulse raced at the welcome sight of the escape-pod hatch directly in front of him. With one hand, Bossk pulled the pressure duffel higher up on his back as his other hand reached desperately for the entry controls at the side of the hatch, still a couple of meters away. There were no cross-passages in this section of the Hound's Tooth, no angle from which Boba Fett could leap out or take a blaster shot at him. He still had a chance to get away.
"Ten . . ."
The point of Bossk's claw hit the big red button for which he had been aiming. With a sharp hiss, the escape pod's hatch slid open, revealing the cramped, spherical space within; he'd have to be folded up, his knees in his face, the whole time he'd be in there. Which beats dying, Bossk quickly reminded himself. He threw the pressure duffel inside, then scrambled in after it.
"Ni" The hatch zipping back into place cut off the bomb's relentlessly placid voice.
Bossk reached around the duffel and hit the pod's disengage and release buttons. His shoulders pressed hard against the curve of the hermetically sealed shell. The inadequate space was a humiliating reminder of another time when he had fled from Boba Fett in an emergency escape pod; the memory still rankled inside him.
Outside this pod, he could hear muffled clanking and creaking sounds, as the Hound's machinery rotated the pod into eject position. "Come on . . ." Bossk's voice grated in his throat. The devices clicked through their programming with a sickening lack of haste. The noises changed to grinding and scraping, the pod shuddering as though it were about to come to a halt without even leaving the Hound's Tooth behind. He had never used this escape pod before, and had even considered yanking it out of the ship as useless deadweight; his basic Trandoshan nature had always made it an instinctual response, to stand and fight rather than turn and run. Factoring Boba Fett into the equation, though, yielded a different result.
This pod at least had a viewport. Through the tiny aperture, barely the size of his hand, Bossk suddenly saw an expanse of stars; the launchport on the exterior of the Hound's hull must have finally irised open. His guess was confirmed when his spine was suddenly jammed back against the hatch behind him as an intense burst of thruster fire shot the pod out into space and away from the ship.
Hound's Tooth, and how fast this escape pod was hurtling through space, he still might not be in the clear; the bomb's explosion might wash over the pod like a planetary tidal wave, only of fire, not seawater. Bossk's claws curled into fists as he pictured himself being cooked inside the escape pod, like an unhatched egg being poached.
Wait a second. Another thought came to him. Boba Fett wasn't self-destructive; the other bounty hunter had undoubtedly gotten off the Hound's Tooth as soon as he had set the bomb ticking down to detonation. So his ship Slave Ithe real Slave I, not the decoy that had given off the same ID profilemust still be in this immediate sector. And in range of an overlarge explosion. Bossk relaxed, letting his chest ease against the pressure duffel that he had wrapped himself around. That simple calculation dissipated some of the fear that had coiled around his spine. He wouldn't set off something, thought Bossk, that would kill him as well.
Another voice spoke aloud, in the confines of the escape pod. "Five . . ."
Bossk's eyes snapped open. His grip on the duffel tightened as his gaze darted from one side of the escape pod to the other.
"Four," said the calm, familiar voice of the bomb.
Terror made the voice inside Bossk's head nearly as expressionless. It's in here. Boba Fett had planted the bomb inside the escape pod.
"Three . . ."
A surge of adrenaline coursed through the Trandoshan's body. He shoved the pressure duffel away from himself, cramming it against the concave side of the sphere. His claws raked across the pod's interior, scrabbling to find the explosive device. Something smaller than his own fist would be enough to reduce him and the surrounding metal to dissociated atoms. It's got to be here, he thought furiously, somewhere . . .
Hot sparks stung his face as he yanked handfuls of circuitry loose from the escape pod's minimal control banks. An air hose, jerked free from one of its sockets, hissed and wavered in front of Bossk like an expiring snake. The stubby cylinders and curved module panels of the pod's auxiliary equipment battered against his forearms and chest as he swore and pulled at everything he could get his claws upon.
"Two . . ."
The unhurried voice came from a small blue cube that Bossk held between his hands. He knew that it was the bomb; it had been stuck to an atmosphere-scrubber grid with a spot of utility adhesive, not yet dry. Frantically, he looked about for some way to eject the box from the escape pod.
There wasn't any.
Inside the pod, the space was so tight that Bossk couldn't stretch his arms to full length. He shoved himself back against the ripped-apart junk, turned his face awayfor all the good that would doand thrust the bomb against the opposite side of the pod, near the tiny viewport.
He was still alive. Slowly, Bossk brought his gaze back around to the blue cube, held by his hands against the pod's curved wall. The device was silent, as though the last of its words had been drained from it. Clutching it in one hand, he drew it closer to himself and examined it.
One corner of the cube had popped open. Bossk cautiously inserted the point of one claw and pried it open.
Nothing insideat least nothing that looked like an explosive charge. He peered into the empty space. The only contents were a miniaturized speaker and a few preprogrammed vocal circuits.
Bossk tossed the cube away from himself in disgust. It hadn't been a bomb at all. And he hadn't felt the impact of a bomb, in the distance outside the escape pod, so there probably hadn't been one placed aboard the Hound's Tooth either, of any size or destructive capability. If he hadn't given in to panic and hadn't abandoned the Hound if he had stayed there and had gone toe-to-toe with Boba Fett, he might have settled his accounts with his enemy once and for all, and still have been in possession of his own ship. Now where was he? Bossk's elbows rubbed uncomfortably against the cramped confines of the escape pod, made even more so by the bits and pieces jumbled around him now. At least he hadn't damaged anything essential, as far as he could tell; there was still air to breathe, and the pod's navigational circuits appeared to be in operative condition. They had already locked on to Tatooine, the nearest habitable destination; the planet's familiar image now filled the viewport. It wouldn't be too long before the pod would descend through the atmosphere and land somewhere on the surface. Probably, brooded Bossk, in some wasteland. That was how his luck seemed to be going. Then again, there wasn't much besides wasteland on Tatooine, so the chances of anything else weren't good.
As he shifted position inside the pod, the contents of the pressure duffel poked him in the ribs. At least he had managed to get some things off the Hound's Tooth; valuable things. It was comforting to know that fear hadn't wiped out every other instinct inside his head. His natural Trandoshan greed had remained functioning. Whether he would be able to profit from what he'd salvagedthat remained to be seen.
He reached over and picked