When I opened Time magazine recently, Boba Fett was staring out; not the Star Wars bounty hunter, but an imitator.

"Sergeant Patterson, U.S. Army," or so his name patch claimed, was completely hidden behind his dark visor and high-tech combat uniform. The story on future warfare said his smart helmet had motion sensors and laser-weapons protection; its targeting devices were wirelessly linked to his voice-activated, wrist-mounted weapons. His smart uniform could change temperature or color, communicate with the helmet or project a false body image.

Soon afterward NASA unveiled "Robonaut," a prototype space maintenance robot that bears a striking resemblance to the Star Wars manhunter. A NASA spokesman said this was coincidental. "We didn’t intend for it to look like Boba Fett."

We see reality in transition to myth frequently, but it’s less common to see myth becoming our reality.

Boba Fett, like everything else about George Lucas’s groundbreaking film cycle, moves steadily outward into global culture. Star Wars images are everywhere, and Boba Fett in his dark-visored helmet, body armor and arsenal of weapons is the essential Star Wars image: human but strangely transformed, powerful beyond the intent of his maker. Is there another film character whose creator killed him off, only to have fans and writers restore him to flamboyant virtual life?

Behind the mask

It's easy to understand why Boba Fett was spirited out of the Sarlacc’s digestive tract where George Lucas had dropped him: this is a great character. The faceless Star Wars "man without a name" is open to interpretation on any level from often hilarious comic books to serious novels. We know so little about Boba Fett that he’s a cipher, a blank slate -- a fully interactive character. Add ingredients and stir.

This hasn’t escaped George Lucas, who mixed several new Boba Fett scenes into his 1997 Special Edition re-release of the Star Wars trilogy as "a gift to the fans." Now he has promised a prominent role for Boba Fett in Episode II, now filming.

We have some idea of the Episode II storyline, though Lucas is typically guarded about his plans: we’ll see Anakin Skywalker fall to the dark side, become Darth Vader and marry Queen Amidala -- and we’ll meet the man (or boy) who becomes Boba Fett, 20 years younger than in the trilogy.

"Forget everything you knew, or thought you knew, about the origins of Boba Fett," author Steve Sansweet advises on the official Star Wars website.

How will Boba Fett fit into this darker Star Wars story? Who and what will he be?

Consider the Boba Fett we thought we knew in the original Star Wars trilogy: hired gun, bounty hunter, bodyguard. He’s not a hero of either Rebellion or Empire, just another mercenary surviving in a corrupt, pitiless galactic society. Thanks to the superb body language of trilogy actor Jeremy Bulloch, Boba Fett comes across as cold, smart, arrogant, honorable, deadly and hairtrigger alert.

But George Lucas hints that Fett is as far beyond other mercenaries as an independent ronin samurai is beyond a mugger. The weapons and armor we see are not the true armament of Boba Fett, just as "the Tao we can name is not the eternal Tao." Any great warrior’s keenest weapons are those of mind and spirit.

Boba Fett opposes the Jedi but demonstrates Jedi virtues: discipline, skill, fearlessness, disavowal of anger. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker can understand R2D2's machine language without an interpreter; so can Boba Fett on Jabba’s sail barge. In a Star Wars computer game, one of Fett’s weapons is the lightsaber. Maybe Lucas sees Fett as a failed Jedi whose Force powers are damaged or who can’t trust the Force as much as the high-powered hardware which ultimately brings him down.

What you thought you knew

If Boba Fett is a grayscale enigma in the trilogy, a man of unknown but clearly exceptional origin, he gains more than enough personal history in the stories and comics of the Star Wars "expanded universe." A thumbnail backstory: Jaster Mereel is a young policeman exiled for killing a crooked fellow enforcer. He dons the battle armor of a dead Mandalorian supercommando, takes the name Boba Fett and becomes a bounty hunter.

Two recent novel trilogies that feature Boba Fett develop the character but keep the bounty hunter’s secrets.

In The Han Solo Trilogy by A.C. Crispin, Fett captures Solo’s rebel ex-girlfriend, not without noting her good looks and courage. In a neat turnaround, he feels relief when she’s rescued from him, then feels dismay that he feels anything.

The Bounty Hunter Wars Trilogy by K.W. Jeter, intercutting narratives in two timestreams, is a more demanding read but offers the rewards of subtly drawn insight into Fett’s character, high-adrenaline action and a strong female protagonist. I read the final scenes several times just for pleasure.

Jeter doesn’t buy the expanded universe backstory; neither apparently does George Lucas. So who is inside that armor?

Armoring inversions

Boba Fett is "a male humanoid with relatively Terran features," says Andy Mangels, writer of a comic that shows the bounty hunter out of his armor, in the magazine special Star Wars: Boba Fett. "That’s what I think is under the mask, a very scarred and hard-worn human man."

Much of the fan fiction and professional fiction I’ve read manages to peel Fett out of his armor. Interesting things happen once he’s out, depending on the imagination, skill and libido of the writer. Revealing hidden knowledge is powerful magic in our contemporary mythology.

Fans have inverted this armor-peeling syndrome by making and wearing their own costumes. An English friend told me of walking through a crowded shopping center in the Boba Fett outfit he’d made: people stared in fascination but hastily backed away.

"You are powerful beyond the capabilities of others," wrote David West Reynolds after he wore the original Lucasfilm costume at the opening of the Smithsonian’s Star Wars exhibit. "You can see in the eyes of others the control that the costume gives you over them. But because of the mask, they cannot see in your own eyes that the costume actually controls you."

Mandalorian inkblot test

If Boba Fett is fully visible in Episode II, how do we want to see him?

My husband says Fett should be like the ancient Greek Archilochos, mercenary officer and peerless poet: "My ash spear is my barley bread." That’s what I get for asking a poet.

"Just as long as we don't have to cope with Boba Fett's sharing, caring side!" writes Richard Avery, who created a spectacular Boba Fett screensaver, free on the Obsession Downloads website. "What might be quite cool would be if we encounter an entire Mandalorian army; 10,000 Boba Fett clones marching over a hilltop would be worth seeing!"

I have my own wish list for Episode II. This is a character best expressed in action. His essential traits are clear in the trilogy, but a younger Fett might be angry as well as perilously arrogant, as passionate about something as he later seems impassive. The catalyst of change, if George Lucas echoes the traditional hero tale or classical drama, might be hubris and downfall.

But how will George Lucas deploy this character in Episode II? How will the still unnamed actor interpret the mysterious Boba Fett? Minimally, I hope.

A much younger Boba Fett I find a disconcerting prospect -- in the trilogy he’s supposedly in his mid-40s -- but then I’m a first-generation Star Wars fan and not a teenager. The net’s self-appointed Star Wars pundit SuperShadow says that "the new Boba Fett is going to rock!" The Phantom Menace lacked a hot secondary character like Han Solo, who unexpectedly walked away with the trilogy, but Boba Fett could walk away with Episode II. Especially if he rocks.

The important questions

Why the helmet and armor? We need Episode II or III to answer that trilogy question. Boba Fett’s helmet offers beyond-human perception and communications, and his almost invulnerable armor is studded with deadly weapons. Any bounty hunter would want to take on these advantages; the question is why they stay on.

An easy out would be to make Boba Fett disfigured, alien or half machine like Vader. But Fett seems to have a samurai’s sensibilities; maybe he’ll choose to cover his face, not out of Vader’s manifest physical need but to fulfil a less tangible requirement: a debt of honor, an expiation for wrongdoing, or a vow of silence plus anonymity.

Will Lucas rob Boba Fett of his Tao and toss him to the dark side as a clearcut villain, dismissing his gray-side complexity and mythic dimension? Doubtful. Lucas plainly recognizes that his minor trilogy character has seized unusual power over our imaginations precisely because he’s unknown and unknowable.

Over the past weeks my office has drifted full of 10-year-old Annie’s books, action figures, spaceships, even her life-sized cardboard Boba Fett standup. When I started writing about Fett, my husband wished that everyone’s favorite bounty hunter had perished on Lucasfilm’s cutting room floor; now Stephen brings me any Star Wars news he finds. Boba Fett has become a familiar presence.

It always surprises me when people take Fett straight-up as a dark-side villain -- no one places him fully on the light side -- which seems too unequivocal. To me he looks like a skilled free lance, finessing the jobs that meet his high ethical standards. Naturally I identify. Welcome to the gray side.

This is my territory. I’m endlessly intrigued by sinister characters who take up virtue and justice, often for the wrong reasons, and worthy characters who knowingly or otherwise venture into evil to bring about good, on this shifting gray interface.

The idea of an ambivalent, ethically complex gray side runs through Star Wars like a shadow thread that stitches good and evil, light and dark, into one complete reality. It imposes an element of choice, of free will. And make no mistake, it also runs right through our lives in this galaxy.

Myth becomes reality; reality reflects myth.

"This is a world where evil has run amok," George Lucas told Time magazine. "But you have control over your destiny, you have many paths to walk down, and you can choose which destiny is going to be yours."