Japhta Fett stared at the green world that filled the sky ahead. The planet's glow lit the cockpit of her personal transport, highlighting her delicate, blonde features as she gazed at the bright orb that marked the end of her long journey from Naboo.


     Japhta closed her eyes and relaxed, leaving her large, black securitech droid to manage the controls.  Barely twenty years of age, Japhta was one of the most respected and feared women in the Republic. As the deputy to Lord Mandalore, she wielded considerable power within MHG, and if any problems occurred, she could be relied upon to solve them in her own inimitable way. Her personal fleet of three ultramodern, gold-hulled Sorensian YT1300 starships was a testament to her authority, second only to Mandalore himself. To the outside galaxy, she was the girlfriend and personal assistant to Lord Mandalore; but she knew, as did he, that her role was more than that of a mere assistant.


Japhta Fett was the Hand of the Sith.


     The Hand of the Sith. The eyes and ears of Lord Darth Rakshas and an extension of the dark will of an order so secret that it had become an ancient myth. She was her Master's public face while he waited in the wings like an undetected cancer, waiting for the perfect moment to implement his final plan.


     It was this plan that had brought her to the remote planet that was rushing ever closer to her ships. Despayre was virtually unknown, a virgin world that had lain undiscovered until only eight years ago. Of course, comprehensive star charts of the galaxy's Outer Rim had existed for centuries, but nobody had actually visited he multitude of star systems listed upon them. There had been no hard evidence of intelligent life in the immediate area, and thus it had remained unexplored.


     The planet was packed with natural resources. Upon discovery, astronomers had noted a heavy organic presence in its spectrum and the Chandrilan government, wishing to investigate, had sent a team of scientists to explore the system and classify the lifeforms that inhabited the planet. Mandalore was pleasantly surprised by what they had found.


     Japhta turned to her droid. "Thriatizedd," she said in a soft voice, "Establish communication with the institute."


     The Republic Mechanicals 380Z turned its squat head towards its mistress and stared at her with its single red slit of an eye before plugging itself into the controls. The droid remained silent.


     An overhead videoscreen flickered into life, revealing the serious face of a middle-aged man with receding dark-brown hair, a hooked nose and cold, steely-blue eyes. This was the Director of the medical research institute that Mandalore had established on Despayre,


     "Good Afternoon, My Lady," he said in a low, discreet purr.  "How might I help you?"


     "Tell the hangar techs to prepare for our arrival."


     "Yes, My Lady," purred the Director. He bowed his head before fading out.


     Japhta glanced at the staircase that led to the passenger cabin belowdecks. The institute was to receive an important visitor today: a visitor without whom the project would never have left the ground.


     The three golden saucers of Japhta's entourage flew noisily over the jungles of Despayre. The dense forests below were not of plant matter, but of vast treelike mushrooms and fungal mycelia. The planet had, quite literally, gone mouldy; such was the close and oppressive tropical humidity.


     The convoy continued northwards and the jungles gave way to a wide, shallow sea beyond which lay a rocky upland region. Japhta gazed wistfully through the viewport at the marshes and strange, craggy mounds below. Small, humanoid creatures, visible as tiny specks against the ground, scurried for cover as the ships thundered overhead.


     Dryvoices, she mused as her ship continued its descent, revealing the surface of the planet in increasingly greater detail. She had known of Despayre's native intelligent species, the Zephoid Zez, ever since she had read the report from the explorers who had mapped the world all those years ago.


     The institute could now be seen in the distance: a sprawling complex of glasshouses and towers glinting in the sunlight. Japhta Fett activated the videoscreen.


     "Landing minus five minutes," she said as the crews of the other two ships appeared before her. "All Falcons report in."


     "Liberty Falcon standing by."


     "Trinity Falcon standing by."


     "Millennium Falcon standing by," concluded Japhta. "Follow our present course."


      The three elegant ships sparkled as they circled the base, stalking the domes and towers like vultures before settling upon the main landing platform.


     The Director and his senior staff waited respectfully as platoons of MHG shocktroopers marched down the access ramps of the Falcons. These highly trained supercommandos of Mandalore's Special Police carried their blaster rifles at a constant state of alert and their faces were concealed behind expressionless, "T" shaped helmet visors that formed part of their drab, olive-green body armour.


     The shocktroopers formed a line beside the Director and snapped to attention as Japhta Fett slinked down the ramp of her ship, closely followed by a tall, flamboyantly-dressed man whose mouth and cheeks were shrouded by a thick, black beard. The Director bowed to his visitors.


     "It's so good to see you again, My Lady," he said as Japhta swept past him and the row of guards. "Er, we don't have the pleasure of, er, His Lordship's company?"


     Japhta turned to the Director and smiled.  "I'm afraid Lord Mandalore's unable to be here, Director," she explained as she ran her fingers through her short, blonde hair. "He's had to stay on Coruscant for some important meetings."  She indicated the tall, bearded man who had accompanied her. "This is Minister Cip Whyteleafe, Senator for Chandrila and Chancellor for Health."


     Minister Whyteleafe smiled at the Director and the white-coated staff who surrounded him. "Hello, Director," he said, in a surprisingly girlish voice.  "How's our little project going?"


     Whyteleafe had invested a considerable amount of money in the institute. He had joined forces with Mandalore after his scientists had made several important discoveries that interested the tycoon following the outbreak of a mysterious and so-far untreatable flu epidemic that was sweeping Coruscant.  He was hoping to make a fat profit from his investment.  The rest of the Senate had not the faintest idea of what was going on.  Whyteleafe was anxious to keep it that way.


     Japhta Fett turned to the guards. They were invading her personal space. "Leave us."


     The Commanding Officer motioned to his sergeants and the troops turned with a sharp crack of stamping feet as they efficiently and mechanically about-turned and marched away.


     The Director smiled at Whyteleafe.  "It's going very well, thank you," he said as they went indoors.  "We've traced the organism that your scientists discovered here, and we are cultivating it in our plantations."  He pointed to one of the laboratory staff, a short, tubby man with grey hair and a ruddy complexion. "This is Narf Elyot; professor of microbiology at Galactic College. He's leading the research."


     The two men led Japhta and Whyteleafe through a long corridor whose transparent walls provided a clear view of the hothouses outside.  Beyond the corridor lay an expansive laboratory suite. Benches packed with scientific instruments lined the wall adjacent to a wide, transparisteel window. Whyteleafe rushed over to the window and gazed enthusiastically into the holding chamber behind, his nose pressed against the hard surface, his breath condensing on the window like a cloud.


     The holding room was filled from floor to ceiling with a malignant-looking fungus.  Black slime oozed from the fruiting bodies and hung down in viscous strings where it collected on the floor.  Whyteleafe turned, beaming, to Japhta and the Director, as if he were a small child who had just received a new toy.


     "Excellent, My Lady," he exclaimed with pride. His scientists' accidental discovery had been successfully cultivated.  Visions of financial reward danced in his mind's eye.


     "The exploration of this planet by our Chandrilan friends," said Japhta as she pointed to the ecstatic Whyteleafe, "has revealed natural resources beyond imagination."  She turned to the Director and Elyot.  "His Lordship will be impressed."


     "When the Chandrilans arrived here eight years ago on behalf of the Minister, My Lady," purred the Director, "they stumbled across a virulent fungo-bacterium which they called 'Black Rot'."  He pointed to the window.  "This is what we're testing behind the glass."  The Director knew that the window was actually a sheet of transparent alloy of great strength, but in his ignorance, persisted on calling it "glass".


     Professor Elyot stepped forward.  "The Chandrilan explorers," he said as he rubbed his hands, "became infected with the Rot, having inhaled its spores.  They all died within hours, but not before transmitting a report to the Minister here."  Elyot turned to the silent technicians and cast them a sour gaze.  "We sent our techs out into the jungles to collect the fruiting bodies in order to cultivate them here.  Unfortunately, it only survives in the stagnant, humid conditions found in the deep jungles of the equator."


     Japhta Fett turned to the Professor and smiled aloofly. "You have done well. We must tell His Lordship immediately."


     "Come to my office, My Lady," said the Director as he gestured to a glass door bordering the lab.  "We will use the HoloNet."


     The office was plush but spartan.  The Director had no interest in frivolous decorations.  He was a dry, serious man who took pride in his work, a man of dedicated professionalism.  In his opinion, clutter gave a bad example to his inferiors.


     As the Director rearranged the few chairs, Japhta reached over to his large, leather-topped desk and pressed a button on a small comm unit that lay next to a pile of paperwork.  The ghostly form of Koraetor Mandalore materialised, seated behind the desk, dressed immaculately in a black leather suit with his black hair smoothed down with grease. Almost human in appearance, Mandalore’s skin was sallow, and his eyes were as black as the night. His image flickered and wavered.


     "What is it?" he asked in a cold, measured voice.


     Japhta smiled. "The Director's got some good news for you, My Lord."  Mandalore preferred Japhta to address him formally when on business.  It helped to mask their true relationship. The image of Mandalore looked at the Director, who shifted uncomfortably under his gaze.


     "" coughed the Director, unsure of how to speak to his powerful employer.


     Mandalore glared. "We haven't got all day, Director," he said quietly. The tycoon's low-set mouth was unsmiling, his sallow features not inviting affection.


     The Director coughed and adjusted his tie, fidgeting in order to muster the courage to express himself.  He decided to go for it.


     "We've located the fungobacterium discovered here by the Chandrilan explorers eight years ago, My Lord."  The Director nervously anticipated what Mandalore would say next, hoping that the feedback would be favourable.


     Mandalore's answer was blunt. "Good-good," he said, inviting further elaboration.


     "Unfortunately, My Lord, the organism can only survive in muggy, humid conditions."


     "I trust you will rectify that problem, Director."


     Professor Elyot stepped into the breech. "We're attempting to genetically engineer the Rot in order to make it more hardy."


     "Good," said Mandalore with a nod.  "If we are to make a useful weapon out of this, it'll need to be reliable."  Mandalore frowned. "How are you testing it?"


     "We have the plantations up and running, My Lord," said the Director with pride.


     Mandalore scowled at the Director, causing him to glance around for moral support.  Japhta ignored him.


     "Director, I did not purchase this world from the Registry for the benefit of my health.  Despayre is full of natural resources. I want you to test the Rot on the native species."


     The Director's blue eyes widened with horror.  "Yes, but the Zephoid Zez are intelligent! We can't—"


     Mandalore cut off the Director with an expression that did not invite argument. "You've been working for me long enough to know that I do not tolerate 'buts' from my staff. You will test the Black Rot on the Zephoid Zez."


     The Director bowed his head.  "Yes, My Lord.  I shall do as you bid."


     "Good-good," said Mandalore. He indicated towards the door.  "Now leave the room.  I need to speak with Lady Fett in private."


     Japhta glared at the Director and his companions.  "You heard His Lordship," she snapped. The Director ushered the Professor and Whyteleafe out of the office, shutting the door behind them.


    Now that he was alone with his Hand, the image of Darth Rakshas relaxed.  He smiled at Japhta. "Your work here is finished, my love," he said, allowing a hint of warmth to creep into his voice.  "I am proud of you. My little flu bug is working wonders here. People are dropping like flies, and they will think that MHG Pharmaceuticals are trying to find a 'cure' for an illness that doesn't really exist."


     A surge of intense pleasure flooded through Japhta's body, a sensation that made her muscles tingle.  Her Master was powerful, and she was well aware of what the Sith Lord could do to her.  When she pleased him, he rewarded her with a sensual pleasure almost beyond imagination; but when she failed... Japhta Fett had only once failed her Master and she still had the scars to prove it.  The power of Darth Rakshas motivated her.


     "Thank you, My Lord," whispered Japhta as she gazed into Rakshas's deep, black eyes.


     "I need you on Sorensia. Rebels are threatening a general strike and our police need your support.  The uprising must be crushed forthwith."


     "Yes, My Lord," said Japhta.  She suddenly thought of something else that could affect her mission. "The Republic might send Jedi Knights to investigate."


     Rakshas smiled.  "I can assure you, Japhta, that the Jedi would dare not interfere without proof.  They know the law just as well as I do."  He paused, the smile growing on his small, low mouth.  "In fact, I know the law much better than the Jedi.  Would they risk being sued to bankruptcy?"


     Japhta blew a kiss to her lover as his image faded away.  There was a knock on the door.  "Yes?" she snapped.


     The Director crept into the office and bowed to his Mistress.  He coughed loudly.  "My Lady, the Minister must leave for Coruscant immediately.  He is due to address the Senate."


     Japhta nodded.  "Of course," she agreed.  "Issue him with a diplomatic cruiser."


     "Yes, My Lady."


     The Director bowed and turned to leave the office only to be called back. "Yes, my Lady?" he asked, wondering what may have been omitted.


     "The Minister's involvement must be kept strictly confidential," warned Japhta.  "Any leak in our plans could jeopardise the entire corporation."  Her eyes narrowed with menace.  "Remember, Director. What's good for MHG is good for the Republic, and what's good for the Republic is good for you."


   The Director marched out into the laboratory with a look of worry on his sour face.  He knew exactly what Lady Fett meant.




Forward to Chapter 2