Buck knew it the minute they entered the Maw.

Actually, in all truth they all came to the realization at more or less the same instant. The ship shuddered violently whilst traveling in hyperspace and Buck who had been keeping a vigil inside his cockpit immediately began shouting at his passengers to fasten themselves into their seats. Nardo, determine to posture to the very last struggled into the compartment that was the brain center of the Rogue and took the co-pilot’s seat, an act with incensed Buck to no end. Unfortunately, kicking the Rodian out of the seat customarily reserved for JD would have to wait. Right now, they had bigger problems to contend with.

"What’s happening?" Nardo demanded.

"We’re being pulled out of hyperspace," Buck retorted, his hand flying furiously over the controls of his craft as he responded.

The evidence of his claim was apparent because through the cockpit window, the sparkle of the iridescent interdimensional nexus was starting to dissipate like a gale breaking up a particularly persistence gathering of cumulous clouds. Hyperspace was dissolving around them and the instruments revealed that varying degrees of intense radiation was bombarding the ship. Buck had been prepared for this ever since they had begun the journey to the Maw. While he loathed being in this situation again, he was not about to let the Maw claim him like it had tried all those years ago, even if it meant taking Nardo and Selkik with him.

Emergency klaxons began screaming throughout the length and breadth of the ship mostly and every piece of equipment whose purpose was to inform the pilot of a problem was sounding their alert as well. The sound of structural bombardment could be heard by the heaving of metal as it was plied with forces it could not possibly withstand for too long a time. The ship rocked dangerously as its ability to maintain course became seriously impaired by the tremendous pull of the multiple black holes beyond its hull. The computer repeated its warnings in a calm and serene monotone, a stark contrast to the pandemonium that was taking place inside the ship.

Suddenly, the Rogue lunged forward in a power burst of speed before slowing again. Around the freighter, the last vestiges of hyperspace dissipated into nothingness and the travelers found themselves in normal space. Stars revealed their sparkling gaze in the indigo sky but for once their brilliance was overshadowed by the awe-inspiring magnificence of the Maw. It was like watching a dozen whirlpools painted onto the canvas of space, currents of event horizons swirled around in continuous circular patterns while at the heart of each one was a single black eye staring back at them indifferently. One could almost be forgiven for being lost in the beauty of what was before them if not for the knowledge that each of those dark eyes staring at them was death in the most lingering manner possible.

Buck had already seen the sights in the Maw. When he had first made the Maw Run, he had observed in silent awe as Nardo was doing and undoubtedly Selkik too, from wherever in the Rogue he was presently seated. However, the beauty of the place was fleeting because it was soon replace by the danger as gravitational forces began to exert themselves and the cluster began stripping the hull from the superstructure of the ship like an onion being peeled back, layer at a time. Buck had already preprogrammed the navigational computer to take control of the guidance system because only automation could safely navigated the tremendous forced tugging at the ship without pulling her apart completely. Buck’s main purpose was to maintain his ship on that course because the external forces beyond the ship could easily drag it from its path if there was not a human agent at the controls. Either way, they still had a fifty-fifty chance of getting out of the Maw alive.

"Is this what it was like Weelmington?" Nardo asked, trying not to appear afraid even though it was apparent to Buck that he was quite apprehensive indeed. The tapir like snout of his face twitched intermittently, a clear sign of agitation for a Rodian.

"No," Buck shook his head; his hands fixed firmly on the controls. "It was worse. Smaller ship gets tossed around easily. The best way to maneuver in this place is to get yourself a ship that isn’t too big to move around or too small that it's going to get caught easily in the gravity wells."

"How long will it take us to get across?" Nardo stared at him.

"In normal space? Ten hours," Buck answered automatically, having done all the calculations prior to coming here.

"Ten hours?" Nardo exclaimed, his dark eyes sweeping across the cockpit, as if he could see the perilous tides tearing at the ship mercilessly. "We will be destroyed in ten hours."

Buck turned to him sharply and said with a smile. "Well you wanted to cross the Maw," the pilot hissed. "I warned all of you what it was going to be like but you just had to take JD and force me to it didn’t you? I guess you got more than you bargained for on this trip."

"You’ll get more than you bargained for if you do not shut up!" Nardo shouted, the fear making short work of his temper. He drew his gun and pointed it at Buck.

Buck stared at the barrel of the gun for a millisecond of time before he started chuckling, not at all intimidated by the Rodian’s threat. "Sure," he said cockily as he faced front again. "Shoot me Nardo. Kill me right here and now and then bend over and kiss your ass goodbye because you’re not getting out of here alive if I ain’t flying this ship."

"Do not be so confident Weelmington," Nardo hissed but clearly, he was in a corner and he knew it. "I could fly this ship of yours."

"You sure about that?" Buck asked, not looking at Nardo because he already had his answer. "You sure you can fly this crate through all that hell outside? If you think you can, then go ahead, pull the trigger."

Nardo stood there for a moment, trying to decide as if there were really any choice in the matter. Buck knew that he would lower the gun soon enough but the Rodian’s arrogant manner would pretend as if he were actually considering the idea. Nardo glanced briefly through the cockpit window again at the chaos beyond before he turned back to Buck again. "I will let you live for now Weelmington," Nardo responded, trying not to sound as impotent as he appeared. "But there will be a time when it will be my pleasure to kill you and your little pup."

Buck bristled at the reference to JD but reminded himself that he had taken action on JD’s behalf. Hopefully, the Imperial network would pick up his departure from Gammorr and Ezra would be notified of the situation. Once that happened, Buck could be assured that Ezra would get in contact with the Alliance who would in turn go to Gammorr and investigate for themselves. With any luck, it might even be Chris who came after him. This would not be so unpalatable if Buck could simply understand what the purpose of all this was. Why go through the Maw to ferry a crate full of furry creatures that had no value except as pets? It made no sense.

Why would an Imperial Grand Admiral expend his time in such an endeavor in the first place, to risk going to a gangster like Jabba the Hutt for help? The more he tried to figure it out, the more confusing it got until Buck started to think that perhaps there was no discernible pattern at all and the Admiral was almost as bad an instrument of chaos as the Maw he had sent Buck too.

Or perhaps, this was never about the Maw at all but something else entirely.

The security devices that Vin referred to were hardly noticeable until one arrived at huge metal door at the base of Jabba’s palace. Upon first sight, Jabba’s palace did not appear so much as palatial as it did a temple of worship, although what the Bomarr Monks practiced could hardly be called a religion. However, the edifice they had erected to be the center of their religion was quite impressive indeed. The structure had obviously been built to accommodate the barbarity of the worst sandstorms that made up Tatooine’s harsh climate. There was an earthy feel to the place and the circular shaped walls of sand stone allowed the fortress to blend into the backdrop of the vast desert landscape.

Unlike its palatial surroundings, the main entrance was hardly ostentatious. It was little more than a heavy slab of iron but was nevertheless most formidable when employed in the process of keeping people out. It would take a whole day to cut through it and blasting it would require more explosives than worth the trouble. Not that any one would want to invade a Hutt’s palace anyway. Even if Jabba were killed, the Hutt clan who spawned him would no doubt send killers from Nal Hutta to exact revenge for his death.

The landspeeder was allowed to approach the huge doors and Vin told Mary and Alex, shortly after they had deposited Chris at the perimeter of the sensor grid, that it was most likely that Jabba’s security people had identified him. When they neared the foot of the doors, a slot in the corner of the door suddenly slid open and allowed the circular head of a inquiry drone to emerge. Little more than a sphere of colored lights attached to a thin metal case containing its circuitry, the drone spoke in spurts of static and words.

"Tell Jabba it's Vin Tanner," Vin said coolly, with every expectation to be let in.

The drone seemed to think otherwise and babbled electronically again in its peculiar language.

"These girls are gifts for Jabba," Vin responded to the drone’s query about his female companions. "I just picked them up cheap from Bespin. I thought his Excellency would enjoy them." He stretched out an arm and slid it over Alex’s bare shoulders before speaking again. "This one," he threw Alex a wolfish grin, "is quite a spitfire."

Mary rolled her eyes and Alex groaned in disgust, engendering a chuckle from Vin as he turned back to the probe once again, awaiting its decision to allow him entrance. The probe deliberated for a moment before abruptly disappearing into its slot once again. The minute it disappeared, Alex turned over to Vin and swatted him on the side of the head gently.

"Dream on," she said sarcastically. "That’s the closest you’ll ever get to that ever happening."

"Okay," Mary interjected quickly before the duo began arguing again. This outfit was way too uncomfortable, the heat too unbearable for her to have to tolerate their bickering as well. "Let’s just get inside. You two can continue the foreplay later."

"Hey!" Alex cried out. "Take that back." She glared at Mary playfully.

"Or what?" Mary asked with a raised brow.

"Or I’ll tell him what you did with that bottle of Rylothian syrup, that warrant officer and the bathtub," Alex threatened her with a wink.

"Oh I have to hear this," Vin joked looking over his shoulder unable to believe that prim and proper Commander Travis could be engaged in something so salacious but then he has also heard about Chris and the four girls on Coruscant so nothing surprised him these days.

"Not if you want to live," the rebel leader said dryly. "And you," she turned to her oldest friend. "Did you have to tell him that story?"

"As your best friend, of course," Alex replied with a perfectly unrepentant expression on her face that did not surprise Mary in the least. It was nice though, to have someone around who did not see her merely as Commander Travis but rather as Mary. It made her somewhat sad to know that Alex would soon be returning to her covert activities.

Mary’s attempt to respond to Alex’s mischief came to an abrupt halt when the activation of large machinery shattered the silence of the desert afternoon. Heavy grinding sounds were heard emanating through the walls of the structure when the doors before them began raising itself from the ground. Only until it lifted itself above their eye line did the new arrivals capture a glimpse of how dense the door actually had been and how formidable it would be if they had been required to breach it by force. Beyond the door there was only darkness with the light from the outside world creating dark silhouettes as Vin directed the speeder into the breach that had opened for them.

"I guess we’re in," Mary mused quietly as the speeder glided into the darkness.

"I’m still trying to decide if this is a good thing or not," Alex muttered, less than optimistically.

Vin could not blame them. He had no idea what rumors might have reached Jabba in regards to his affiliations these days. He seriously doubted he would be welcomed if Jabba knew he was a Jedi Knight and was glad he kept his sabre hidden underneath his clothes. As they entered the stygian confines of the fortress, Vin brought the speeder to a halt in the underground compound. The dark silhouettes that they had seen earlier were mostly remnants of old druids, vehicle parts scavenged and other assortments of machinery. At the corner of the large room, a door slid open and a troop of Gammorrean guards marched towards the speeder.

"They’re here to take us to Jabba," Vin explained as the guards made brisk pace towards them. "When you see him, don’t say much. Jabba likes his women but he also has a quick temper and doesn’t mind killing people just for the amusement and always address him as Your Excellency."

"You’re joking," Alex whispered in disbelief at the arrogance.

"Believe it," Vin retorted. "He’s killed people for less."

Mary did not doubt it. If half the stories about Jabba the Hutt were true, they had to tread very quickly if they wanted to make it out of here alive. She was not at all happy about placing herself in the power of the gangster. A lot depended on Jabba assuming that she was just a slave girl from Bespin. If he were for a moment to discover who she was, the trouble that JD and Buck were in would be minute in comparison. It made her extremely glad to know that they had a back up plan in case their attempts to locate JD went askew. As she saw the Gammorreans reached the speeder, Mary looked over her shoulder and gazed longingly at the outside world disappearing beneath the lowering door and hoped that somewhere out there, Chris was watching.

A strange thing happened to Chris Larabee on his way to Jabba’s palace.

He had been continuing the trek across the desert, following his penetration of Jabba’s defensive perimeter making good time towards the Hutt’s palace when suddenly out in the middle of this barren wilderness, he felt himself nearing what appeared to be a life form. It was a single consciousness, alone in the desert, which quickly omitted the possibility that it could be one of the indigenous Sand People that Vin told about. The Sand People traveled in packs and to find one alone was rare unless it was in trouble. The mind was hungry and it was alone and its state was so primitive that Chris assumed that it must be in dire straits indeed. He could not tell if it was sentient or not because the famine it felt was great that it made intelligible thought impossible to make out. However, it was obvious the creature was in some need.

Chris let the Force guide him forward, even though he was required elsewhere and could ill afford to be distracted. However, the life form’s proximity indicated he would still be journey towards Jabba’s palace when he encountered it. He could feel the strength of its life as he neared the creature, crossing rocks and sand in order to reach it. In the distance, he could see the barest hint of shape that was Jabba’s palace. The creature was close. He could feel it. Chris was about to peak over the crest of a sand dune when suddenly something slid out of nowhere and wrapped itself around his foot. It happened so fast that Chris barely had time to register its presence until he felt his legs pulled out from under him. He cried out indignantly as he hit the sand and became conscious that he was being dragged forward.

Chris had presence of mind to reach for his light saber and immediately felt the life force’s thoughts becoming urgent. He tried sitting up but the slithery tentacle wrapped firmly around his foot would not give him leverage enough to do so. He had almost resolved himself to wait until he was in a better position to attack when suddenly he was sliding down an incline and with a realization of horror, decided that he was out of time. He had no idea was it was but there was no doubt in his mind as he slid towards what appeared to be a mouth full of lengthy teeth gasping for air through the sand and a meal, that was the life form he had sensed.

The life form that was hungry.

The blade came to life in his hands and the incline gave him enough leverage to swing the beam of energy towards the tentacle that had him in its clutches. Chris could see the edge of its mouth coming terribly close to him and Chris had firmly decided he was not cutting its way out of the creature’s innards. The lightsaber sliced through the tentacle easily. The mouth did not squeal or make any sound of pain but the spasmodic shudder that ran through it and the attached part of the severed tentacle flayed wildly in an expression of agony. Chris kicked the remains around his ankle away and scrambled up the side of the pit that the creature had taken up residence. The pain the creature had suffered was screaming through his mind and though Chris hated to deal so harshly with any creature who was merely following its natural impulses to feed, he was glad its pain was preventing it from trying to recapture him.

Chris reached the top of the pit and saw the creatures other tentacles inching out of the gaping mouth, attempting to recapture the meal that was lost now that the pain had subsided. Instead of giving it a target to seek, the Jedi hurried away, continuing the journey towards Jabba’s palace where his companions were awaiting him.

"Next time Larabee," Chris told himself as he put more distance between himself and the mysterious beast, "a little less curiosity."

Aside from being known as a ruthless intergalactic gang lord who killed without discrimination or conscience Jabba the Hutt was also known as a being who loved a good party. Those who were fortunate to be in favor and in residence of Jabba's palace could personally attest to the fact by the permanent tenure of jizz bands, dancing slave girls and an assortment of entertainers whose talents raged from promising to downright macabre. Jabba liked to show his people a good time and by that extension enjoy himself as well but his temper was a knife's edge and one who found himself in favor today could find themselves languishing in the Pit of Karkoon the next.

Vin Tanner was all too aware of this when he entered the throne room and found himself facing the Hutt for the first time in almost a year. Fortunately, they had not parted on any ill feeling because Vin had always made it clear that whilst he on occasion took on jobs for Jabba, he was not an employee. He liked to think that Jabba respected him for that eccentricity but that was taking too much for granted. It was never wise to assume anything when it came to a Hutt. The throne room was filled with customary music with Goran Fars Galactic Crooners taking the stage and the attendants at court were chatting amongst themselves while Jabba lay strewn across his dais, dipping into his collection of nala tree frogs at regular intervals.

The music stopped playing when Vin, Mary and Alex were brought before the Hutt. An abrupt silence followed the cessation of music and the cheerful chatter died down just as surely. Mary and Alex stayed closed to Vin. Although both were capable women in their own right, they felt equally vulnerable and exposed in the scanty revealing clothes. Mary shuddered as she saw a pretty Trianii seated on the pedestal with Jabba, tethered to him by a thin chain and a choker around her neck. The Trianii were a feline race and this one with her silvery pelt, still mottled, told Mary she was barely passed her second molting, a teenager by human standards. Unfortunately, for the moment, there was little the rebel leader could do to secure her freedom since she herself was here to play the part of pet slave.

"Vin, my boy, it has been a long time," Jabba's deep voice rumbled and though the language was unintelligible to Mary and Alex, Vin understood perfectly well what the Hutt was saying. One did not spend the first seventeen years as the property of a Hutt without learning the language.

"It's good to see you again Jabba," Vin answered. He was one of the few people who were actually allowed to call Jabba by his name. "Things don't look like they've changed much around here."

"But you have changed," Jabba remarked, his huge yellow eyes narrowing as he spoke. "I hear strange stories about you."

Vin tensed. "What sort of stories?"

"They say that you've gone spiritual" Jabba pointed out. "They say you travel now with a Jedi."

"I was hunting one," Vin lied. "I didn't get him. The Empire put out a death mark on me for that."

"That's is unfortunate," Jabba rumbled with what sounded like genuine sympathy. "You were the best bounty hunter in the galaxy. I have sorely missed having you talents at my disposal."

"Well I had to go to ground," Vin replied. "The Empire's crazy about the Jedi right now. I really pissed them off by not getting the one they wanted."

"I find it hard to believe that there was a bounty you could not claim," Jabba retorted. "But now you are back?"

"Yeah," Vin answered with a grin. "The heats off me now and I figured I can still do the work, provided I keep my eyes open just a little more than usual." He glanced at Mary and Alex and then added. "I brought you a little gift to show my good faith."

Jabba cast his gaze on Alex and then Mary. He started to laugh a deep throaty laugh that resonated throughout the chamber. His court seemed to laugh with him and for a moment, both women were perplexed by what they found so funny.

"Forgive me my boy," Jabba responded after a moment. "I never thought you were capable of selecting such handsome women. After all, how long has it been since Atura?"

Although neither Alex nor Mary could tell what Jabba was saying, the reaction in Vin was apparent. The Jedi apprentice stiffened and his face deepened into a frown.

"Atura was a long time ago," Vin responded. "I have moved on since then."

"I am glad," Jabba wagged at finger at Vin almost as if he were a father trying to teach his wayward offspring some sensible lesson. "You are too young to be brooding for one woman, especially one that is married and wife to an Imperial governor."

"I didn't come here for a history lesson," Vin said sourly. "I brought you two gifts as a gesture of friendship and a continuance of our working relationship."

"Of course, of course," Jabba returned enthusiastically and turned a leery eye at Mary. "Bring the golden one."

Mary swallowed hard, reminding herself that this was just a temporary situation until they found JD. Vin's hand enclosed her upper arm, ushered her forward with just enough force to indicate to Jabba that she was a prize bought. Vin led her right onto the dais until she could feel the bloated belly of Jabba's bulk against her bare skin. Mary fought her revulsion because she had seen worse as a soldier but still could not deny being this Hutt's slave even briefly was revolting.

"You must have paid quite a bit for this one," Jabba asked. "But I have all the pretty ones I need for a time. Perhaps I will feed her to the sarlaac." He dismissed Mary with a wave of his pudgy fingers.

"Pretty one?" Vin thought quickly, completely aware that the ganglord was not above doing that. "I didn't buy her for her beauty Jabba, I mean I knew you have a dozen women who are prettier, I bought her because she can sing!" Without missing a beat, he turned to Mary and spoke in standard galactic. "Sing something, quickly."

"What?" Mary stammered.

"Sing!" He hissed. "Sing or he's going to feed you to the sarlaac!"

"What's a sarlaac?" Mary demanded.

"Trust me, you don't want to know. Sing!" Vin ordered.

Mary gulped visibly and started singing an old folk song that she remembered as a child. She had no idea whether or not she could carry a tune but the song was sweet and sentimental and the melody of it was enough to reach the soul even in the hands of an amateur who could not carry a tune. Mary seemed to think that suited her. The audience chamber was silent as she continued through the entire song and all its verses. Jabba's lids were half closed as she sang and to her surprise, noticed Vin staring at her with something that was akin to astonishment. Alex was merely smiling, possibly because she was recalling how they used to sing to their favorite songs when they were teenagers.

After what seemed like a torturous eternity, the song ended and Mary stared anxiously at Jabba, wondering if he was going to feed her to the Sarlaac just for mutilating that song, she certainly deserved. Instead, the Hutt blinked with a sudden start as if the song's end had snapped him out of the peaceful lull he was presently occupying. Composing himself a second later, the Hutt seemed to laugh, only this time it was not a laugh of derision but rather one of approval.

"You are no fool Tanner," Jabba replied. "She can sing."

"Thank you Jabba, I thought you would like your gift." Vin let out a sigh of relief and exchanged a brief glance with Mary who was similarly relieved by the Hutt's approval.

"You may keep the other one for yourself," Jabba answered after a moment, regarding Alex. "I will put a chain on her if you wish."

Vin looked over his shoulder and saw Alex telling him with her eyes that he would die if he dared. With a smirk, he turned to Jabba and grinned. "Your Excellency is too kind."

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