“NOW this is what I call cold!” Luke Skywalker’s voice broke the silence he had observed since leaving the newly established Rebel base hours earlier. He was astride a Tauntaun, the only other living being as far as the eye could see. He felt tired and alone, and the sound of his own voice startled him.
Luke as well as his fellow members of the Rebel Alliance took turns exploring the white wastelands of Hoth, gathering information about their new home. They all returned to base with mixed feelings of comfort and loneliness. There was nothing to contradict their earliest findings that no intelligent lifeforms existed on this cold planet. All that Luke had seen on his solitary expeditions were barren white plains and ranges of blue-tinged mountains that seemed to vanish in the mists of the distant horizons.
Luke smiled behind the masklike gray bandana that protected him against Hoth’s frigid winds. Peering out at the icy wastes through his goggles, he pulled his fur-lined cap down more snugly about his head.
One corner of his mouth curled upward as he tried to visualize the official researchers in the service of the Imperial government. “The galaxy is peppered with settlements of colonizers who care little about the affairs of the Empire or its opposition, the Rebel Alliance,” he thought. “But a settler would have to be crazy to stake his claims on Hoth. This planet doesn’t have a thing to offer anyone—except us.”
The Rebel Alliance had established an outpost on the ice world little more than a month before. Luke was well-known on the base and, although barely twenty-three years old, he was addressed as Commander Skywalker by other Rebel warriors. The title made him feel a bit uncomfortable. Nonetheless, he was already in the position of giving orders to a band of seasoned soldiers. So much had happened to Luke and he had changed a great deal. Luke, himself, found it hard to believe that only three years ago he was a wide-eyed farm boy on his home world of Tatooine.
The youthful commander spurred his Tauntaun. “Come on, girl,” he urged.
The snow-lizard’s gray body was insulated from the cold by a covering of thick fur. It galloped on muscular hind legs, its tridactyl feet terminating in large hooked claws that dug up great plumes of snow. The Tauntaun’s llamalike head thrust forward and its serpentine tail coiled out behind as the beast ran up the ice slope. The animal’s horned head turned from side to side buffeting the winds that assaulted its shaggy muzzle.
Luke wished his mission were finished. His body felt nearly frozen in spite of his heavily padded Rebel-issue clothing. But he knew that it was his choice to be there; he had volunteered to ride across the ice fields looking for other lifeforms. He shivered as he looked at the long shadow he and the beast cast on the snow. “The winds are picking up,” he thought. “And these chilling winds bring unendurable temperatures to the plains after nightfall.” He was tempted to return to the base a little early, but he knew the importance of establishing the certainty that the Rebels were alone on Hoth.
The Tauntaun quickly turned to the right, almost throwing Luke off-balance. He was still getting used to riding the unpredictable creatures. “No offense,” he said to his mount, “but I’d feel a lot more at ease in the cockpit of my old reliable landspeeder.” But for this mission, a Tauntaun—despite its disadvantages—was the most efficient and practical form of transportation available on Hoth.
When the beast reached the top of another ice slope, Luke brought the animal to a halt. He pulled off his dark-lensed goggles and squinted for a few moments, just long enough for his eyes to adjust to the blinding glare of the snow.
Suddenly his attention was diverted by the appearance of an object streaking across the sky, leaving behind a lingering trail of smoke as it dipped toward the misty horizon. Luke flashed his gloved hand to his utility belt and clutched his pair of electrobinoculars. Apprehensive, he felt a chill that competed with the coldness of the Hoth atmosphere. What he had seen could have been man-made, perhaps even something launched by the Empire. The young commander, still focused on the object, followed its fiery course and watched intently as it crashed on the white ground and was consumed in its own explosive brilliance.
At the sound of the explosion, Luke’s Tauntaun shuddered. A fearful growl escaped its muzzle and it began to claw nervously at the snow. Luke patted the animal’s head, trying to reassure the beast. He found it difficult to hear himself over the blustering wind. “Easy, girl, it’s just another meteorite!” he shouted. The animal calmed and Luke brought the communicator to his mouth. “Echo Three to Echo Seven. Han ol’ buddy, do you read me?”
Static crackled from the receiver. Then a familiar voice cut through the interference. “Is that you, kid? What’s up?”
The voice sounded a little older and somewhat sharper than Luke’s. For a moment Luke fondly recalled first meeting the Corellian space smuggler in that dark, alien-packed cantina at a spaceport on Tatooine. And now he was one of Luke’s only friends who was not an official member of the Rebel Alliance.
“I’ve finished my circle and I haven’t picked up any life readings,” Luke spoke into his comlink, pressing his mouth close to the transmitter.
“There isn’t enough life on this ice cube to fill a space cruiser,” Han answered, fighting to make his voice heard above the whistling winds. “My sentry markers are placed. I’m heading back to base.”
“See you shortly,” Luke replied. He still had his eye on the twisting column of dark smoke rising from a black spot in the distance. “A meteorite just hit the ground near here and I want to check it out. I won’t be long.”
Clicking off his comlink, Luke turned his attention to his Tauntaun. The reptilian creature was pacing, shifting its weight from one foot to the other. It gave out a deep-throated roar that seemed to signal fear.
“Whoa, girl!” he said, patting the Tauntaun’s head. “What’s the matter … you smell something? There’s nothing out there.”
But Luke, too, was beginning to feel uneasy, for the first time since he had set out from the hidden Rebel base. If he knew anything about these snow-lizards, it was that their senses were keen. Without question the animal was trying to tell Luke that something, some danger, was near.
Not wasting a moment, Luke removed a small object from his utility belt and adjusted its miniature controls. The device was sensitive enough to zero in on even the most minute life readings by detecting body temperature and internal life systems. But as Luke began to scan the readings, he realized there was no need—or time—to continue.
A shadow crossed over him, towering above by a good meter and a half. Luke spun around and suddenly it seemed as if the terrain itself had come to life. A great white-furred bulk, perfectly camouflaged against the sprawling mounds of snow, rushed savagely at him.
“Son of a jumpin’ …”
Luke’s hand blaster never cleared its holster. The huge claw of the Wampa Ice Creature struck him hard and flat against his face, knocking him off the Tauntaun and into the freezing snow.
Unconsciousness came swiftly to Luke, so swiftly that he never even heard the pitiful screams of the Tauntaun nor the abrupt silence following the sound of a snapping neck. And he never felt his own ankle savagely gripped by his giant, hairy attacker, or felt his body dragged like a lifeless doll across the snow-covered plain.
Black smoke was still rising from the depression in the hillside where the air-borne thing had fallen. The smoky clouds had thinned considerably since the object had crashed to the ground and formed a smoldering crater, the dark fumes being dispersed over the plains by the icy Hoth winds.
Something stirred within the crater.
First there was only a sound, a droning mechanical sound swelling in intensity as if to compete with the howling wind. Then the thing moved—something that glinted in the bright afternoon light as it slowly began to rise from the crater.
The object appeared to be some form of alien organic life, its head a multiorbed, skull-like horror, its dark-lensed blister eyes training their cold gaze across the even colder reaches of wilderness. But as the thing rose higher from the crater, its form showed it clearly to be a machine of some sort, possessing a large cylindrical “body” connected to a circular head, and equipped with cameras, sensors, and metal appendages, some of which terminated in crablike grasping pincers.
The machine hovered over the smoking crater and extended its appendages in various directions. Then a signal was set off within its internal mechanical systems, and the machine began to float across the icy plain.
The dark probe droid soon vanished over the distant horizon.
Copyright © 2011 by Donald F. Glut. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.