Danner’s Claim was a war zone. Buildings reduced to cinders, fires engulfing the superstructure of a hangar, smoke choking out the stars of the Dune Sea. This couldn’t have been Teemo’s work, not even Jabba would go to these lengths. A chill crawled down Q’rok’s spine with the lilting wail of a heart-struck mother. Called, as if out of a dream, Q’rok dashed into the ruin without a word of warning.
There she was, sundered in grief, hunched over her child casualty. Surely she was a stranger but there was something familiar about her. With a word, he was spellbound. “Uzobu, why weren’t you there?”
Halted mid-step, the warrior turned a ghastly color as her eyes caught the light of the flame. She was Falleen! In his daze he missed her retreat into the building but the Huttese curses coming from the Dug gangster snapped him back to reality. In a bound he was after her, “there’s a survivor!” The Dug was on his heels but Q’rok held him back. “It could be a trap. We’ll stagger our entrances, wait a few seconds before you follow.” He entered into…
…a dark cavernous space? It was larger than he anticipated, cold and silent. Taking a few steps in, the hunter found himself in a jungle with the crisp scent of a water water. It smelled like his homeworld. A snaking creek drew him to a promontory on which she stood: a silhouette against the galaxy. He inched closer to her, realizing they overlooked a waterfall plummeting into a deep pool below. “Uzobu, why do you have to go? Stay here. Stay with me. You just have to believe and make the leap.” In a turn and graceful pounce, she lifted herself over the edge.
In a gasp, he lunged for her but was far from being on time. Dreading the look below, he leaned over the ledge to find the woman gleefully splashing about below. Nothing about this was right.
“Why won’t you jump?” She called.
He couldn’t shake it and fought his sense as he forced his feet to walk down to the river. The water would help. And it did, he was already in it, as if hypnotized by the familiar eyes that drew him deeper until he sank below the surface…
…and into a caustic, corrosive, dune of sand and bones. Even the air bit back with tar black smoke, curbed with the stench of ozone. The earth trembled and the sky clapped with the furies of war. A spiny claw palmed his spine and pulled him to his feet. “Honor Guard!” Q’rok faced the morbid visage of a Kaleesh War Mask. It spoke to him in harsh, proud tones, “onward to glory!”
A Kaleesh scimitar was placed into his hands and as his fingers curled around the familiar leather grips they squeezed with a rekindled vendetta. Red with a rage that drove all thoughts of peace and bliss from his mind, Q’rok took his comrade by the broach, “where is Sheelal!?”
“He leads the charge! Forward, brother!” A hundred of the sharpest swords on the plateau raced by, carrying him forth in a wave of bloodlust. But with every step his burden became tenfold and his steps only sank him into the sand. In a desperate effort Q’rok reached down to pull his leg out when a tentacle spring up around it and yanked! In an instant he was entangled on the floor, being dragged to his doom.
The panicked shouts of the hunter woke Vosh from his nest in the nose of the skiff. It was in the last depth of night and the moons lit the dunes like silken blankets. Not 10 meters from the skiff, the sand drained, opening a pit lined with the crawling appendages of a “Sarlacc!” Vosh shouted and he jumped down below onto the heap of tarp the tentacle dragged away.
“Get me free! Cut it off!” Q’rok punched wildly into the tarp while Vosh rolled ahead.
The gangster brandished a knife and began hacking at the leg of the monster. By this time the whole camp was stirred. A muffled voice shouted instructions, “get the tarp! Stuff its mouth!”
Someone pulled the tarp free in time for Q’rok to see the mad Duros lift the skiff into the air and bring it down like a hammer over the mouth of the Sarlacc. A reckless maneuvre but it paid off, the impact pinched the tentacle to the earth, weakening its grip enough to escape.
Hawk leapt to action, grabbing the remains of the previous day’s game. “Vosh, grenades!”
Working life back into his leg with every step, the hunter marched right over to Pat where he slept and dumped him from his bed to get the case of moonshine beneath. Grabbing a bottle, he rendezvoused with Hawk and Vosh as they stuffed the lizard with a grenade. Q’rok took one big swig from the bottle and shoved it in after the bomb.
With plenty of trepidation, Hawk scrambled up the tilted skiff and with a “fire in the hole!” he tossed the bait down the maw of the beast. Helping the Duros back the skiff out of the ground, they cleared the blast radius in time to watch the column of fire spit forth from the earth.
That was enough to wake Pat with a “WOO!”
His new comrades all looked on Q’rok with a new wonder as he exhumed the last of his rage, for this was a new shade they had never seen of this Falleen. Pat joined him a moment later and offered the last of the moonshine he kept on him. Q’rok accepted readily, feeling the burning fire revitalize his nerves. He hadn’t been killed yet.
Then Pat started peeing into the monster’s grave.
Danner’s Claim was welcomingly calm and quiet in the morning light. Smaller than expected with just one main thoroughfare, dominated by a hangar on one side and a brothel on the other. Hawk read it’s name aloud, “Sarlacc Sally’s,” then gawked at the slogan, “’She’ll swallow you whole’?”
They came to stop in front of the builidng. Vosh was already tying down his new, freshly marked, Flare-S Swoop in front of the building. Pat disembarked from the skiff, “that’s where I’m headed.” Hoss and Vosh were quick to join him when Hawk halted them to formulate a plan.
They quickly came to the decision to split their rest into shifts. Pat and Hoss would take the Duros to the establishment while the Hawk and Q’rok, with some effort, convinced Vosh to join them in scoping out the hangar for passage to Mos Eisley.
They brought the skiff around to the shelter of the hangar, finding the shade to be a relief, but the Falleen choked on the stagnant air, nearly coughing up the words, “I smell Bothan,” as they dismounted.
Hawk took the lead, approaching a shuttle in an obvious state of repair. “Hey old timer, you taking passengers on that craft?”
A Bothan slid out from under the vessel, armed with a grenade launcher, lazily aimed in their general direction. His coveralls were stained with coolant and he puffed on a cigar held by the Battle Droid arm that replaced his left. “Who’s asking?”
Q’rok cut him off, “Zeb Kleevor, is that you?”
The Bothan scanned them over, paying special attention to the Falleen. “Agent ‘Longshadow’? I didn’t think you survived the war. What brings you to Tatooine?” He rose to his feet, letting the launcher hang at his side.
“The favor of the Hutts, and trying to leave for the lack thereof. Are you still smuggling?”
“Gone legit now, mostly, for trade. That’s what brought me out this far up shit creek. Look, I’d be happy help you fellas out but I can’t keep this thing in the air for more than ten minutes,” Zeb beckoned to the gutted craft behind him.
Vosh spoke up, “What’s the problem?”
“Gaskets cracked and now coolant is leaking into the compressor.” He paused and looked them over, “you boys are looking to get off world? Well, I just happen to be in need of crew. You help me get this puppy flying again, get my cargo back to my freighter in Mos Eisley and I’ll get you out of here. How many did you say you were?”
“Three,” answered Q’rok.
“Five,” corrected the Dug.
“Six. Maybe,” Hawk objected.
“Six will do just fine. Say, where are your other three?”
Vosh was already crawling under the shuttle to take a look, “having more luck than I am!”
Zeb removed the stogie from his bushy face, “Oh no, they best watch themselves if they’re at Sarlacc Sally’s. That place is a nest for the Desert Dogs. Most violent Swoop Bike Gang this side of Mos Eisley.” A loud bang rang out from under the shuttle followed by a slew of curses in Huttese. Vosh slid back out and rolled to his feet.
“Didn’t we just lose that party!?” Hawk’s hand automatically sped to the blaster at his side while Q’rok unslung his rifle and lunged for the window. Hawk filled him in on the details while the other two peered out the window. Sure enough, they spotted a thug scoping out the familiar swoop.
In a bustle, Vosh loaded his sawed off scatter gun and donned a cloak for disguise. Before anyone could stop him he was out the door and making a B-line for his ride. Intentional or not, his gait and profile made the impression of a drunken Jawa.
Q’rok took a turbopad to the roof and trained his blaster lance on the street below: Vosh waited until he was at point blank before throwing the disguise. He heard something about “Bleeding Krayts,” “Desert Dogs,” and “drool,” before the double report of the scatter gun alerted whatever odds were stacked against them inside. The dog slide a good five feet, reeling from the shattered ribs and seared nerve endings, fighting for breath and life.
If it were up to him, Q’rok would have put the bastard out of his misery already, but this was gang warfare. Vosh had a message to send and that gave them a tactical advantage against the unknown. The little monster wrapped the bike’s tie down chain around the dog’s ankle and sped off just in time for the first of reinforcements to see their comrade dragged down the street.
Insult taken and insult received. Q’rok trained his sights on the witness: it was the pilot he dueled on the Desert Dog skiff. The one who now proudly wielded a stolen Gaffi Stick, Q’rok’s boon of the Sand People. Scratch the plan, he was taking that now!
Just inside the swinging saloon doors of Sarlacc Sally’s, three swarthy gangsters desperately loaded their weapons when Harth shouted from outside, “it’s that Bleeding Krayt scum! He’s getting away-” The screech of a blaster cut him short and in a burst his body came tumbling in through the swinging doors. Smoke issued from a sear in his armor and Harth groaned in agony. The rest of the thugs dashed into the street.
He hadn’t a moment to lose, Q’rok already heard the skiff powering up. Unable to confirm the kill, he turned and ran back across the roof just in time to see the skiff exit the hangar. Hawk brought it gently up to just short of the roofline, keenly keeping out of view. The hunter leaped onboard, catching the extended robotic arm of Zeb. “Just like old times!”
The three gangsters burst forth from the brothel with guns blazing. Two mounted their swoops and took off after Vosh at full throttle, the roar of their engines masking Hawk’s covert flanking maneuver around the outskirts of town. Setting it down gently on the roof, Zeb and Q’rok jumped into action, manning the roof access hatch and covering the ledge, respectively.
With a “psst!” Q’rok called Hawk over for a peek. Just below them gathered more of their enemy laying siege to the hangar across the way. Priming a thermal detonator, Hawk carefully dropped it right in their midst. He turned to Zeb and clearly mouthed, “ONE… TWO…” The Bothan savored one long drag on his cigar.
BOOM! As all three dogs were laid waste below, Zeb Kleevor breached the roof into the room below. Immediate scatter gun reports from inside kicked the assault into gear. Hawk drew his blaster and dove in after him.
Q’rok waited for the last of the easy prey to fall into his trap and surely enough the straggler emerged, strike that, the survivor emerged. Harth, reeling from a shot in the back, serpintined across the street, dodging the hailfire from above, and dove into the safety of the hangar! Returning shots from the window forced Q’rok into cover behind Sally’s sign. This had transcended war, now it was a vendetta.
The dead weight served its purpose and got their attention. Vosh cut it loose. Three dogs closed in, all to himself. The plasma in his veins burned with an appetite for retribution. He hugged the seat and opened the throttle, leading them into a canyon. This is where the fun began.
Forced into single file, the Desert Dogs pressed closer, drawing farther into Vosh’s trap. He could hear the first just around the blind curve behind, an alcove ahead presented the opportunity. Slamming the brake and throwing wide, he lost enough velocity to let his prey fall into his grip. Levelling the scatter gun, square to the chest, Vosh blew the creature clear from the seat of his stripped-down, rat-bike.
The next hit it’s boost at the report and was opening fire on his tail before he knew it. Blaster bolts grazing his tunic, Vosh skimmed a row of stalactites for cover, watching for the moment to strike. A gap appeared. He banked and slammed into the other bike! The dog ricocheted off a boulder right into a rocky spire.
The last was smart, riding high and closing at a steady rate. The canyon opened into a gulch. Through the heat of the noonday sun, the desert looked alive, tongues of flame licking into the blue.
Swerving to dodge blaster fire, the dug hopped over a pit that reached back at him with a hungry maw! Just what he was looking for: Sarlacc, a whole colony of them. Slaloming between them, Vosh drew the last of the bikers in, right toward the big momma in the center. At the last moment, he slammed the air brake and skid across the pit like a bowl, sending his tail barreling right into the trap. The beak of the creature struck like a bolt of lightning, nipping the back half of his enemy’s swoop and with a gulp, swallowed it whole.
That was three down, it was time to get back into the fray. Pulling high and stepping on the boost, the swoop ace rocketed back towards Danner’s Claim.
Hawk landed on the thickly carpeted floor in a plume of dust. It was dark, dank, the singe of carbon and ozone masked the pungent musk soaking the walls of the establishment. Men were shouting all down the hall to the downstairs. Somehow he heard Pat’s distinctive cackle among the noise. The fool was laughing. Blaster fire was opening up outside again as well. Then, Zeb’s scatter gun lit up the hallway, a body soared by the doorway and shattered the window on its way out. Hawk stepped into the hall to see the Bothan leaning against the wall and reloading his weapon. He took a big draw off his cigar and said, “in the back door, out the back window, as I always say.”
“Nice, come on!” Hawk kicked in the next door, shoving his blaster in first. It was a working girl, Twi’lek with eyes wide with fear, she hid behind a blaster that jittered in her hands. BLAM! Her shot lit the room blue. Hawk jumped just in time, the shot scarring the door frame! On one knee, he threw his hands into the air, “whoa! Sorry, ma’am.” He closed the door and ducked back into the hall. “Zeb!?”
Smoke issued out from the next room’s door, one final scatter gun report silenced one less dog. Zeb emerged, “where’s Longshadow?” Just then, Q’rok landed on the catwalk balcony outside the front window, engaged in a desperate firefight with his opponent across the street. Then, with a loud crack, the catwalk was blown from it’s structure, dumping the Falleen from view!
“Carabast!” Hawk almost made a move to help him but Zeb was already prowling down the stairs. Q’rok could take care of himself…
Outside, the hunter smacked into the street and rolled under a speeder for cover. His lungs gasping for air from the shock of the fall. The hailfire stopped for a moment and through the waves of heat radiating off the sand in the afternoon suns, he saw the thief enter the street and drop his blaster. “Let us finish this how we started it, in martial combat. With honor! No more shots in the back!”
It was no deception, he meant it. Q’rok could smell it. He rose and entered the street, blaster lance slack at his side. His rival defiantly removed his body armor, still smoldering from the dent in the back plate, and dropped it beside his blaster. With a grimace he gripped the prized Gaffi Stick in both hands. It was to be a duel then.
Q’rok dropped the lance, flipped his Kaleesh war mantle over his shoulder and brandished a standard issue combat knife. “That weapon belongs to me. You want it? Earn it.” He beckoned him with a gesture and the gangster charged, swinging the spiked pommel down at the Falleen!
Inside, Hawk dove for cover behind a flipped table while Zeb lay down the covering fire against Griff O’Malley and Co. who were bunkered in behind tables on the stage. Pat hooted and hollared, tied up against the dance pole, while Hoss and Burt did their best to dodge blaster fire while tied back-to-back in the center of the room.
Outside, the duel raged fast, violent and brutal. Harth wracked against Q’rok’s bones and Q’rok ripped at Harth’s sinews with a warlord’s deliberation. The thug knocked him into the speeder and beat down but Q’rok got his grip on the staff and wrestled it away. With a kick, he was free. Strength awoken by the return of his prize, Q’rok rose in the speeder and leaped toward to his rival. With a crack, the old hunter slugged his opponent over the head, sundering him into the street.
As justice was served, one lonely swoop returned to Danner’s Claim. Vosh was little worse for wear and all aglow. Both their attention was drawn to Sally’s swinging doors and the cavalcade of blaster fire within. Slinging the Gaffi Stick over his shoulder, Q’rok hurriedly reloaded his rifle while the Dug leaped from his swoop in through the window!
Sliding across the bar in a shower of glass, Vosh trained his double-barreled sawed-off scatter gun on the thugs. “Bartender, make it a double,” he let both barrels rip, ending the conflict. Q’rok entered in time to help cut Burt and bounty hunters free.
Just as they thought they were in the clear, Griff O’Malley stood up from behind the bar, tossing a grenade from his one good arm! Q’rok dropped to a knee and trained his rifle on the thug but just as he ducked out the back door, a stun wave dispersed from the grenade, knocking every last one of them to the floor…
Hours later the team had recovered, repaired Kleevor’s shuttlecraft and were off into the Junland Wastes to make their rendezvous. They approached a small trade station nestled into the wall of a canyon. Beside it stood a few vaporators, a warehouse with a swoop sitting snug against, and a water silo.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Hawk said, peering over Zeb’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Jorra has never let me down before.”
Q’rok perked up, “as in ‘Jorra who works for Teemo the Hutt’?” Pat cursed under his breath, Hoss growled and Burt scanned everyone’s pallid expressions.
The Bothan set the shuttle down on the pad below the station and spun around in his seat, “just follow my lead.”
They disembarked to find Jorra waiting in front of two hover-crates, arms crossed. “One more night and you would have found empty crates waiting for you, you filthy old Bothan. You don’t have a clue what hell I’ve been through to get these here.”
“Jorra!” Zeb pressed forward, his arms wide, “well let me pay you for your trouble and get them off your hands.” Zeb promptly dumped a well weighed sack of credits into Jorra’s palm. He tosses it into the air twice, “you’re light. By about a grand.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Teemo didn’t tell you that you’re paying the transportation fees?”
Zeb leaned back to his new crew, “well, what have you got?”
Hoss spoke up, “how about a functioning hyper matter reactor injector?”
“Funny,” Jorra took a stride forward, “Teemo just happens to be just short one and a skiff. I suppose you won’t be offering one of those to make up the difference, too, will you?” He shot a long cold look at Q’rok.
He sneered back, “how about one heavily souped up new type model S-Flare Swoop bike?” Vosh listened over the comlink from back in the shuttle and began throwing a tantrum they could barely hear.
Jorra came face to face with the Falleen, it became obvious to the observers that they were rivals. “Not a chance. You’ll have to pay in cold, hard credits for your glory this time, outcast.”
“Wait, what’s in the crates!?”
Vosh scratched his head with his foot, “crates?”
Jorra rested casually against them, “Krayts.”
Q’rok pulled him off the crates by the lapel of his jacket, “you mean Krayt Dragons!?”
“Plural!?” Hawk shouted.
“Four eggs, one adolescent, per request.”
Zeb sighed, afraid of losing another crew. Inside the shuttle Vosh’s eyes lit up with possibility. Q’rok released Jorra and took Zeb by the collar instead, “do you have any idea what you’ve gotten us into? These creatures are sacred animals.”
Jorra brushed the dirt off his shoulder, “I thought you’d be more ecstatic about finally catching the one that got away, Q’rok!”
“There’s no reward like this.”
Hawk took the stage, “hold on. Teemo knows we have his part, contrary to popular belief, we actually paid for it legal, fair and square. Tell you what, you sell it back to Teemo, deduct the profits from your transportation expenses and we’ll cover the difference in credits. Deal?”
“Deal. Who’s got the credits?”
Q’rok scanned the party, knowing he was the only one who hadn’t already emptied his purse. “Might I remind you all that I was the one who paid for the part in the first place,” he stepped up, counting out the difference from his purse, “not to mention the personal shame I take on with this dishonorable agreement.” He dropped the credits into Jorra’s cupped hands, “I may never be able to hunt these dunes again.”
As he paid up a pungent scent touched his nose upon the wind. “You were followed!” On cue the peace of the canyon was disturbed by the echoing war cry of a Tusken raiding party from up above on the ridge. A hailstorm of blaster rained down the shelf! In an instant, Q’rok was on one knee, returning covering fire, while Burt rolled back down to the shuttle. Zeb was directing Pat and Hawk to the crates full of krayts while Jorra fled indoors, bidding them luck.
In a moment Vosh had the shuttle up to the cliffside and was nudging the ramp up. Pat followed Hawk’s lead and raced toward it with a crate. Just as they made the leap, a section of cliff crumbled from under them!
BAM! The shuttle took a hit and the shuttle wobbled away from the cliffside. Hawk swapped out with Vosh, “see if you can’t lock down that stabilizer!” Back in the pilot’s seat he immediately started gaining altitude while he shouted back to Hoss and Pat, “we won’t be able to get that close again. I’m open to ideas!”
A giant grin grew across Pat’s face as he brandished the desert dog grapple crossbow. Aiming off the ramp, he fired the line into the wall of Jorra’s administrative building and locked the back end in the shuttle. Hawk eased the shuttle back down as gently as the stabilizer would let him, allowing for an angle of attack to zipline off of. Zeb took the initiative and used his metal arm to slide on.
Up on the cliff, the Tusken Chief honed in on the moving target and took his shot. In a near miss, the projectile cut the line directly behind the Bothan! Zeb Kleevor’s stomache fell quicker than his body. It would have been his end had his droid arm not snagged the line and with a yank his weight swayed under the shuttle, dragging off its axis. Suddenly he became the favorite target for the raiders on the cliff.
Hawk dropped the shuttle again, providing cover for the Bothan and inching as close as possible to give Q’rok a chance to make the ramp. He ran for the cliffside but slid to a stop, knowing the effort was a miscalculation. Ordinance erupted in the sand all around him, turning him back for cover. As he withdrew, so did the shuttle. Q’rok locked eyes with Hawk inside, he shook his head, he wasn’t going to make it. Somewhere, as if from deep inside the canyon walls he heard again that distant echoing voice, why won’t you jump?
What could he do? Was this it? He could see Hawk waving from inside the shuttle, he was trying again. Literally taken aback by the suddenness of familiar defeat, Q’rok fell back into the scoop of Jorra’s speeder bike! That was his ticket.
Mounting the bike, he fired it up and teared straight for the edge of the cliff. It took a hit and immediately decreased in power. Wide-eyed, Hawk yanked the shuttle back and nosed up just as the bike roared into the abyss below them! The ramp closed in, nearly scooping him up but the gap was still too far!
The sudden loss in power caused the bike to nose over and drop! Zeb swung back in on his droid arm and in one last desperate attempt, reached out with his other. Q’rok planted his foot on the console and launched himself from the bike. For one brisk moment he was airborne in the gap between the trapeze with all hope placed on dumb luck.
Their arms locked! The two swung like a pendulum under the shuttle while the bike plummeted into the canyon floor. Q’rok began to climb up the cable while the shuttle lifted over their assailants. Hoss laid down the cover fire while Burt hoisted the Falleen to safety. Still dangling like bait on a line, Zeb delivered one final salute to the roaring Sand People before they hoisted him up. Next stop, Mos Eisley.