Thursday, May 11, 2023

A Whole Case of Trouble: 40 Years of Return of the Jedi

At first, Lando convinced himself Fett didn’t recognize him.

Then he realized the game.

The bounty hunter knew Lando was deep undercover in Jabba the Hutt’s lair. He knew Lando knew he knew.

Yet Fett did nothing about it. He didn’t tell Jabba, didn’t flag down one of his Gamorrean guards or alert the Hutt’s fawning majordomo. He simply went about his business like he always did, hauling in the undesirables with prices on their heads and collecting his bounties. It went on like that for weeks, with Fett occasionally nodding to Lando across Jabba’s smoke-filled den as a way of saying, “I see you.”

Early on, Lando couldn’t figure it out. Why wouldn’t Fett turn him in? While he wasn’t quite as respectable as he wanted to be, Lando had gotten plenty of notoriety. That change of heart at Bespin put him on the Empire’s kill list, and that meant a considerable bounty on his head. Hell, if Lando could hit the tables with that amount of money, he’d earn back enough to own the universe. He could buy out the whole accursed Empire, every Star Destroyer, TIE Fighter, and probe droid, with enough scratch left over to give every stormtrooper and Imperial gunner a decent severance package.

But for some reason, the bounty hunter refused to cash in.

His initial befuddlement gave way to the reality of Fett’s gambit. Fett knew Lando had infiltrated Jabba’s palace to rescue his old buddy. That meant some more high-priced targets would make their way to Tatooine soon enough. And while Lando would fetch a large price for Fett, it wouldn’t compare to the package deal he would get for Leia and the Skywalker kid.

Lando loathed the bounty hunter, but he knew Fett loathed Jedi even more. He’d relish the challenge of taking down the last one, even if the Skywalker kid—he probably shouldn’t think of Luke as a kid, given what he’d seen him do—was basically a rookie Jedi.

A rookie Jedi? Was there such a thing?

Lando supposed they had to start somewhere.

“Hey, Skreej, we need you in the main chamber,” Oz grumbled.

Lando, lost deep in thought in his dusty and decidedly unsophisticated guard armor, sat on a bench in front of his locker. Jabba’s palace lacked much finery, and everything simply smelled. No matter how long he spent in a ‘fresher, he doubted he’d ever knock out the immortal stench of the place.

Lando rose and grabbed his vibro-ax. “What have we got today?”

The Quarren’s face tentacles spasmed in apprehension. “Someone upset the boss. The best situation, you know. Entertainment for all.” Usually earnest in nature, the Quarren delivered the last sentence with atypical sarcasm.

Like Oz, Lando didn’t see the appeal of the “entertainment,” which usually meant someone who’d angered the Hutt got dragged in front of his dais and sent to the rancor pit, where the poor creature made quick work of them. Jabba’s gallery of miscreants and malcontents would hoot and holler and wager on how long the poor sap would survive. Credits exchanged hands. Lando didn’t enjoy betting on the bleak contest, but failing to make a wager could raise suspicions.

He always took the under because the rancor was deadly efficient.

Hunger would do that to a creature.

“It’s some poor spacer who dumped a shipment of spice during a delivery,” Oz said.

Lando accompanied him down one of the palace’s many dark passages, his boots crunching against gravel or bones.

He hoped for gravel.

He also knew better.

Lando and Oz met a couple of Gamorreans at the entrance to Jabba’s palace. He expected some hardened spice-runner with lines in his face. Maybe an eyepatch. Definitely a beard and a potbelly. But the spacer wore a fine jacket from Coruscant. Lando didn’t need to look at the label to know it came from Bazra Klin Outfitters, a flattering cut with a jeweled crest and the shop’s signature epaulettes on either side. Whoever this doomed spice-runner was, she had good taste.

Lando grabbed her by the elbow, pushing his way through the crowd as he escorted her to the grate that would undoubtedly lead to her demise. He noticed she was taller than him, even in his helmet. The Hutt’s protocol droid, some doomed automaton destined for the scrap heap on his next bit of bad news, stirred his master from slumber. Jabba’s eyes flicked open, and he licked his lips with his thick tongue. The scents of spice and filth radiated from his corpulent body. Lando also caught a whiff of one of the fruity drinks the Hutt favored.

Jabba bellowed in Huttese, which his protocol droid dutifully translated, minus the drug-induced slurring. Lando didn’t have high fluency in the Hutt’s language and even he could hear the crime boss trip over his own words.

“The mighty Jabba bids you welcome to his humble palace,” the protocol droid said. Dim lighting and age had taken whatever luster his metal body once had. “He has offered to spare your pitiful life—I apologize, those are his words and not mine, as I’m merely an interpreter—if you pay him back the cost of the shipment plus twenty-five percent.”

“Thanks, your grace,” the spacer said with an exaggerated bow. “A galaxy of blessings upon you. May you live forever in wealth and health and your great clan prosper until the end of time. May the great Hutts outlast the Republic and the Galactic Empire. May their—”

Lando grabbed the spacer by the elbow and led her away from the main chamber. “Time to go.”

“Did I lay it on too thick?” the woman asked.

“With the charm? For the Hutt, it works every time,” Lando said as he escorted her toward the exit.

The spacer should count herself fortunate; the Hutt rarely granted second chances. In his months on the job, Lando had witnessed the Hutt give a reprieve to exactly one of his lowlifes, and that was only because the guy offered enough credits to buy a star system. He transferred the credits, but some of Jabba’s demented henchmen assassinated him as he left, mostly because they liked his boots.

If the spacer managed to save her own skin, they would definitely kill her for the jacket.

He hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in the months since the Empire arrived in Cloud City. As baron administrator, Lando thought it prudent to make a deal. Millions of people depended on him. They kept the operation small and off the Empire’s radar for a long time, and they were turning a handsome profit. Tibanna proved lucrative despite the jaw-dropping startup costs, and he’d managed things well.

Did he like the idea of selling out a friend?

Absolutely not.

He did what he always did: try to make the best out of a bad situation. If he could save Chewie and the princess and their annoying protocol droid, he could find a way to get Han back. He’d even tried to convince Vader that putting someone into carbon freeze would kill them in hopes of sparing his friend the pain of carbonite hibernation. But he couldn’t deter Vader, who probably knew all too well when a gambler was bluffing.

When the dark lord altered the deal—sometimes Lando still felt his throat constricting in the middle of the night for no reason—he had to act. That meant open rebellion against the Empire, something the board really frowned upon. He got Leia, Chewie, and Threepio out and somehow picked up a rookie Jedi and an astromech droid along the way. Since Vader’s Executor arrived, Lando hadn’t logged much rest, his thoughts on Han and the monster in a metal mask.

“You just going to sit there and stare?”

Lando realized he’d been focusing on the floor. He didn’t recognize the voice and looked up to see the spacer and her marvelous jacket.

An oasis in the cursed deserts of Tatooine.

“This is a restricted area,” Lando said. “The Hutt’ll feed you to the rancor if he finds you back here.”

The woman waved her hand nonchalantly. She had a bag draped over her right shoulder.  “He’s so spiced up, he thinks the Galactic Senate’s still in session.”

Lando glanced around the empty room. “You’re gonna take that sense of humor all the way to the rancor pit.”

“I already talked my way out of the pit. And believe me, that would be the preferable punishment, if it comes to that. The last thing I want is to get chained to his throne like some poor Twi’lek.”

On first impression, his guest didn’t strike him as much of a dancer. She had a good bit of theatricality when she talked, though, and cut a lithe figure in the jacket. “All right, all right. Better to be a snack than a showgirl. I got it. You still shouldn’t be back here. My advice would be to make a jump to the Outer Rim and deactivate your beacon.”

“The price on my head is big enough to get Jabba’s hit squad on my trail. They’ll have no problem finding me, beacon or no beacon. You saw what he did to Solo. Sure, he avoided capture for a couple years, but now he’s a coffee table. So, running is not an option. I’ve gotta pay the boss back the cost of the shipment plus twenty-five percent. And that’s where you come in.”

Lando kept his face impassive, a feat made easier by the heavy guard mask. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, I know what you’re gonna say. You’re just a poor, overworked man making an honest guard’s salary. Never mind the Hutt pays well for muscle because silence and competency go a long way. But I know you, Skreej. I do.” The woman reached for her bag, withdrew a bottle of Twinburst Ale, and handed it to him.

The bottle had the signature heft of a top-shelf product with a holo-label that flashed the images of twin starbursts. The liquor burned going in, going down, and going out, but the flavor and high were worth it to people with discerning tastes. Lando loved the stuff. He’d once bartered a whole case for a ship. He later bought an ownership stake in the company, one of the many things he’d lost of late. The Empire shut the place down under one of its anti-sedition laws. They’d destroyed every bottle.

Or so they claimed. It was a big universe out there.

“A fancy drink like that does not belong on Tatooine,” Lando said. “And I don’t care how much you think the Hutt pays, Jabba’s the only one who could afford a bottle. Well, maybe Fett.”

“I’ve got a case back on my ship. Conveniently, selling it would raise enough money to get the bounty off my back and avoid the rancor pit.”

“Sounds like you’d better find a buyer. Quickly.” Lando handed over the bottle.

The woman tucked it away. “The stuff is hard to move, Skreej, even on the black and gray markets, and especially for the amount of credits I need. Could I get rid of a bottle? Sure. But someone carrying around a case may as well be a Rebel sympathizer in the eyes of the Empire. A wrong move, a bad deal, and I’ll have worse things to worry about than the Hutt.”

Lando let out an incredulous chuckle. “I don’t see how some random guard stationed on this giant sandbox can help you.”

The spacer shot him a sideways smile. “You’re not some random guard, Skreej. I know it. You know it.” She gave him her comm number, patted his shoulder, and left.

Lando cursed under his breath. He thought he’d flown under the radar, but the spacer, like Fett, knew he was undercover at Jabba’s palace.

She didn’t tell him.

She didn’t have to.

The woman’s bottle of Twinburst Ale featured the exclusive label from the Cloud City Collection. He’d endorsed it in a series of advertisements, suggesting discerning drinkers who enjoyed Twinburst Ale “truly belong here with us among the clouds.” It was, he’d informed viewers, a sophisticated drink “with a flavorful burn that works every time.”

Oligarchs, war profiteers, stockbrokers, business moguls, and high-ranking Imperials loved the stuff.

Until the Empire banned it.

“That spacer’s got some nerve,” Oz said. The Quarren made an admirable run at Lando’s high score in the guard lounge’s podracing holo-game. The pristine game machine was the only thing in the awful place that wasn’t covered in dust and decay; the guards kept it in tiptop condition, treating the machine as if it were the only thing of value in the whole godforsaken palace. “The boss must like her, though, to let her buy her way out. I wish I could buy my way out.”

Oz guided his pod through a flashing green ring and came perilously close to clipping a side wall. He managed to right the vehicle as he sped toward the next ring. The game awarded points based on speed, time, and overall damage avoidance. The less damage a pod took during a run, the higher the multiplier. Lando had always been good with a fast ship, and he’d excelled at making clean runs in the game. Others matched him in speed, time, or damage avoidance, but no one could best him in all three.

But Oz was making a good run at it.

The key would be the final leg on the Geonosis course, a hairpin turn that went straight into the planet’s catacombs. Lando had crashed multiple times on that last stretch, which included the high-speed turn and the most inconveniently placed stone column of all time.

Oz, still amid a clean run, was beating Lando’s time and coming through the hairpin turn now at a death-defying speed. But the back end of the pod clipped the aforementioned column, slowing him just enough and knocking down his score multiplier. He finished just a few points off Lando’s record-setting pace.

“Poodoo.” Oz slammed his flipper-like hand against the wall. “The course designer should be thrown into the Sarlacc for putting that thing right there. I don’t know how you keep avoiding it, Skreej. I know it’s there, and I still clipped it.”

“The first time I ran the course, I hit the damn thing head on,” Lando said. “It just takes practice, my friend.”

Disgusted, Oz switched off the game, eliciting grunts from the other guards. “Sorry, fellas. We’ll pick things back up later.”

Lando handed the Quarren a Salty, the preferred mass-market beer of his people. He opened the can, probed the scent with his facial tentacles, and took a sip. Oz didn’t quite fit in with the rest of Jabba’s guards, which meant he and Lando got along fine. Neither had a taste for nihilism and mayhem, although they both pretended they did because their surroundings demanded it.

“You think the spacer will pull it off?” Oz asked.

“I wouldn’t underestimate her.”

“Is she attractive by human standards?”

Lando nodded. “I would say she is attractive by any standards.”

“Then perhaps Jabba is hoping she’ll default and become one of his dancers. He likes to do that, you know.”

“I’m aware.”

Oz took a long drink. To Lando, the beer smelled like a sea breeze carried on winds near a noxious factory. “Gronko ran the customs scam on her ship. She wasn’t there at the time, but her co-pilot caught on pretty quick. Still, he came across a case of Twinburst Ale in one of the cargo holds. By the sea, you could probably buy a whole star system with the stuff now.”

Lando arched an eyebrow. “Is Gronko sure it’s authentic? I’ve been reading about counterfeits.” In truth, he’d read no such thing, but it didn’t hurt to plant the seed. Maybe Gronko would think twice about carrying out the inevitable plot to steal the ale and resell it.

“He’d have to open a bottle to find out for sure. That burn-high is hard to fake.”

Though Lando had only been with Jabba for a few months, Gronko had already run his customs scam numerous times. He dressed in a uniform, presented some forged authorization documents, and claimed he was with Customs and Enforcement. Unwitting spacers let him on their ships to inspect their goods; the wily Clawdite used it as an opportunity to case the ship and steal anything with resell value. His shapeshifting ability allowed him to pull the scam off multiple times without being recognized.

Just great.

If history was any indication, Gronko had set his sights on the woman and the valuable case of liquor she used as leverage. The idiot could jeopardize everything.

Lando, Luke, and Leia had a plan to save Han. Just a few more weeks, maybe even sooner, and they would set in motion a series of events that would, they hoped, end with Han out of Jabba’s clutches. Luke would first try to pay off the gangster. When that didn’t work—Lando knew the Hutt liked having Han hanging on his wall too much—they’d take Han by force. There were a lot of variables involved.

But if Gronko stole the ale, the spacer would have to play her only remaining card.

She’d beg for her life and tell Jabba Lando Calrissian was working for him. The price on his head would be too tempting for Jabba to pass up. The Hutt, who’d made a habit lately of spending his days in a drug-induced haze, would probably sober up and bolster security. It would ruin any chance Lando and company had of rescuing Han from Jabba’s Decorator’s Showcase.

Lando knew he’d have to play this one carefully.

He arranged a meeting with the spacer.

Lando found her outside her ship, a resplendent Nubian freighter as exquisite as her fashionable jacket. “You have yourself a deal. It’s enough to cover the botched spice shipment plus fifty percent.” He held up a credit chip.

“Skreej?” The spacer hesitated for a split second before eyeing the money. “What’s the catch?”

“Leave now and get as far away from this sand trap as possible. Don’t come back.”

The spacer reached for the chip. Before she could grab it, a blaster bolt sailed through the air perilously close to her hand; the chip rattled to the ground. “Stang!” She drew her blaster, went down on one knee, and aimed in the direction of the shot.

“Customs and Enforcement! Drop it!”

“Customs, my ass,” the spacer said.

Lando held up his hands in surrender.

The woman gave him an incredulous look. “What are you doing?”

“The authorities are here,” Lando said. “Best do what they say.”

The woman dropped her blaster and stood. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“He does.” A figure emerged from the shadows—a mirror image of the spacer. “Gotta say, it’s a bold move. Attempting to double-dip by stealing the ale and Skreej’s money.”

“I don’t know what you’re—”

A crimson bolt downed the spacer, whose face changed into Gronko’s.

“Scheming Clawdite. A jacket thief, to boot,” the spacer spat. “Thanks for the heads up, Skreej.” She jerked her head toward Gronko’s smoking forehead. “That's a bad day.”

“I assume your co-pilot’s dead?”

She shook her head. “Got her on the comm. He stuffed her in the smuggling hold. Drugged, but alive. So, the Clawdite’s not a killer, at least.”

Lando’s gaze flicked from the spacer to Gronko and back again. “But you are.”

“I’m a problem solver, Skreej, just like you. You want to keep a lid on the whole thing. A talkative Clawdite could upend whatever scheme you’re running. I’m assuming plenty of Jabba’s guards ‘disappear’ without a trace.”

Lando fixed his eyes on the barrel of her weapon. “It is, I’m afraid, an alarming trend.”

She tucked away her blaster, retrieved the credit chip, and dusted it off. “This will wipe the slate clean. I’ll pay off my debt and get the hell out of here. Never working for the Hutt again, I promise you that.”

“And the ale? I thought you couldn’t move it, black or gray market.”

“I may have misled you. My fence seems confident.”

Lando smiled. “Then I guess our business here is concluded.”

She shot back a lopsided grin of her own. “I guess so.”

“Saw this in the mailroom for you.” Oz handed Lando a package. “Thought I’d grab it before one of the clerks decided to ‘inspect’ it.”

The tall box had a surprising amount of heft. When Lando was assured he and Oz were alone, he opened it to find a bottle of Twinburst Ale wrapped in a note. He read it out loud, “It works every time. Yours, Tendra.” Lando chuckled.

“Twinburst Ale is good stuff. Pricey these days, too,” Oz said.

Lando examined the bottle. Even though it remained sealed, he couldn’t shake his memories of the liquor’s potent burn and unbeatable high. But opening it now, even in celebration, wouldn’t help anyone. Keeping it sealed, however, would. He shoved the bottle into Oz’s chest. “You should have this.”

Oz pushed it away. “Skreej, no, I couldn’t. You could buy your own ship with this.”

“So could you. In fact, that’s exactly what you should do. Go to the Mos Eisley dock master and tell them Tamtel Skreej sends his regards. He’ll pay you good money for this. You can go home.”

Oz’s face tentacles twitched in gratitude. “I don’t know what to say.”

“How about, ‘Yes?’”

The Quarren shuffled off and then turned toward Lando, “You know, it’s been a few days since anyone’s seen Gronko. You think he bolted?”

“I bet someone caught onto his customs scam,” Lando said. “He won’t show his face around here again.”

Oz practically hugged the bottle as he headed toward the exit and, Lando hoped, away from Jabba’s palace.

The Quarren got out just in time.

He’d just heard from Luke. In two weeks, Artoo and Threepio would arrive at Jabba’s palace.

Lando Calrissian could finally say goodbye to Tamtel Skreej once and for all.

Once back in Jabba’s den, he looked across the floor at Fett and raised a glass in the bounty hunter’s direction. The spacer may have taken the rest of the Twinburst Ale, but Lando and his friends were about to crack open a whole case of trouble.