It was a popular belief among the settlers of Sorensia that muck and grime led to riches. The durasteel works, gasworks and factories that dominated the capital city of Sheofe were a testament to this doctrine. Chimneys and towers dotted across the skyline, belching plumes of soot at the sky.
Drizzle flecked the four bay windows of the municipal conference room as Bil-Kit Jinn and Sarolyn Lordan gazed across the city. They were within the New Building of the Planetary Guildhall, a hideous, lumpy growth that was totally out of character with the ancient towers and blackened, gargoyled stonework of the Old Building. The two structures looked about over a wide, grassy square.
The square was beginning to fill with people, men, women and children, both human and Wookiee, some bearing banners and placards which denounced MHG and Chancellor Rhoufheigh. Others carried large portraits of their popular hero, Senator Thraurrallgisc.
Sarolyn turned from the window and looked sadly at Bil-Kit Jinn. She was still hurt by the Council’s treatment of her Master, and she could not understand why they refused to take his opinions seriously. Bil-Kit was one of the most respected Jedi Masters in the Republic, one who had repeatedly turned down a seat on the Council in order to serve and protect the most humble citizens of the galaxy.
Bil-Kit could read his Padawan like a book. He smiled at Sarolyn and looked into her eyes. "You’ve been very quiet, my dear," he said kindly. "Why don’t you share your feelings? A problem shared is a problem halved."
Sarolyn glanced at Bil-Kit. ‘I sense much suffering, Master. Something’s being hidden from us, something..." Sarolyn paused as she tried to find the right words, "...I can’t describe." She twirled her Padawan’s braid between her long, thin fingers.
Bil-Kit knew what his apprentice was trying to say. "Yes, my dear Sarolyn. The Force has been distorted here by the tension between MHG and the locals."
The doors behind them swished open and a golden Cybot Galactica protocol droid minced into the room, carrying a tray of drinks.
"I am C-3 at your service," announced the brand-new droid in a fussy voice. "Would either of you care for a cup of ardees?"
Bil-Kit drew himself to his full height and gave C-3 a mock salute. The droid backed away in alarm, causing the ardees to spill into the tray.
"Yes, thank you, C-3," he said as he took the two plastic cups from the tray and handed one of them to Sarolyn. The two Jedi sat down at the conference table that dominated the room as C-3 turned and left, the doors shutting behind it.
Sarolyn frowned at her Master. "What can we do?"
Bil-Kit sighed. "Nothing," he conceded sadly.
"We’re under strict orders that we are only to observe. Under no circumstances may we become involved."
Chanting could be heard outside. The two Jedi returned to the window and wiped the mist from the pane. The square was packed with people, a seething mass of bodies whose fury was bottled up like explosives. Sarolyn could sense that it would take very little to spill their anger over the edge.
* * *
The bleak, duracrete monolith of the Sorensian Police Headquarters poked above the rooftops of Sheofe like an immense gravestone, its featureless surfaces streaked with dirt.
Detective Superintendent Elaison Fitje was an untidy man. His office within the HQ was littered with piles of paperwork, dirty cups and datacards, and his desk was hard to find beneath the junk that had accumulated during the course of his work.
D.S. Fitje sat behind his desk eating his lunch as the rain blattered onto the window behind him. He was an overweight, balding man whose grey moustache writhed about his face like a caterpillar as he chewed at a yackidar that he periodically shoved into his mouth.
A comlink bleeped, startling him. He ransacked his desk in an effort to locate and silence the device that was hidden beneath the clutter. He found it, and pressed a button on it. The bleeping stopped.
"Yes?" demanded Fitje, irritated at having his lunch interrupted yet again.
A woman’s voice crackled through the speaker. "It’s the Chief Super, sir. Shall I send him in?"
Fitje’s face fell. The Chief Superintendent was a stern man with a military background who had repeatedly reprimanded him about the state of his office. The Chief Super was fastidiously tidy and believed that everybody beneath him should follow his example.
Fitje, beginning to panic, tried in vain to clear his desk as he drew breath to speak. He dared not refuse to see his boss. "Yes-yes-yes!" he stormed, flipping off the comlink with a terse sweep of his thumb. Frantically, he bundled up as much debris as he could carry from his desktop, and shoved it underneath in the hope that the Chief Super would not notice.
A tall, shaven-headed man strode into Fitje’s office without bothering to knock on the door. He gazed disapprovingly around the room and tutted.
"Really, Elaison," sighed the man. "I would have thought you’d have sorted out this mess by now."
"Sorry, sir," said Fitje sheepishly. "I haven’t had time."
“Well, make time.”
The Chief Superintendent had a considerable respect for Elaison Fitje. Fitje was "a good copper" in his books: a detective who got results, but he despaired of his junior’s lack of basic housekeeping skills.
"We’ve got a guest," said the Chief as Japhta Fett glided purposefully into the office.
Fitje’s heart seemed to leap into his throat as Japhta stood before him, her hazel eyes seeming to bore into his soul. The Chief Super stood to one side as four shocktroopers took their places behind their mistress.
"You’re going to be a very powerful man, Elaison Fitje," said Japhta sweetly.
Fitje swallowed nervously. He had not the slightest idea that Mandalore’s right-hand girl was going to visit today. Lady Fett never made appointments; she simply appeared.
"What do you want me to do, My Lady?" asked Fitje as Japhta perched on the edge of his desk.
"His Lordship has been granted special authority by the Senate to restore order on this miserable little planet, and the Chief Super and I want you to lead the operation."
"Lord Mandalore is anxious that production here be resumed as quickly as possible," added the Chief. He nodded towards the armoured troops standing to attention in the doorway. "You’ll have a unit of shocktroopers at your command. You’ll find them highly efficient."
Fitje nodded. He had never before been involved with the supercommandos of the Special Police. It would be a new experience.
"His Lordship has already declared martial law under the Emergency Powers Act," said Japhta. ‘We want you to crush the demonstration outside the City Hall and capture the two Jedi who’ve been sent to interfere in our affairs. Secondly, we want you to bring in Senator Thraurrallgisc for questioning. I’m sure you can think of some charge for him." Japhta’s eyes narrowed menacingly at Fitje. "And when you’ve done that, get those wretches back to work!"
Fitje glanced nervously around the office. He knew better than to fail Japhta Fett.
* * *
The heaving mass of protesters outside the Guildhall continued their chanting: almost drowning out the MHG representative who was trying to pacify the mob before her.
"If we do not fulfil our contract," warned the well-built brunette woman on the soapbox, her soft voice amplified by a hovermic, "then we risk a takeover by the Trade Federation!" Shouts and barks of dismissal erupted from the crowd.
"You cannot win a trade war," said the rep, her voice becoming stern. "All centres of industry on Sorensia will be closed down!"
"What chuffin’ industry?" shouted a haggard-looking middle-aged man with a broad Sorensian accent. He shook his fist in anger. "We ain’t got no industry! The droids have taken over! Smash t’droids!"
Others began to join in with the man’s repeated chant of "Thraurrallgisc! Smash the Droids!" each voice adding to the crescendo. The MHG representative struggled to make herself heard.
"At best, a trade war will result in mass redundancies and closures. At worst, bankruptcy for the whole of Sorensia." The rep took a deep breath as the crowd began to surge towards her. "Lord Mandalore is trying to protect you from the Neimoidian menace. What’s good for MHG is good for the planet!"
"Good for t’planet?" yelled a fat, weather-beaten woman who carried a screaming toddler in her arms. "Yer don’t know what yer talking about! Get back to chuffin’ Alderaan wi’ all t’other ponces where you belong!"
The mob began engulf the girl from MHG, who now realised that she had only inflamed the situation. She looked desperately at the line of police behind her.
‘Well, do something, then!’ she said frantically to the sergeant nearby. He turned to his constables who moved to surround the harassed woman, ushering her into the safety of the Guildhall.
"Something’s happening, Master," said Sarolyn as she and Bil-Kit watched events unfold outside. "It looks like they’re demonstrating."
"They’re demonstrating against MHG," said Bil-Kit as he wiped the window. "It’s a peaceful protest against the wave of recent job losses in favour of droid labour." Bil-Kit looked at Sarolyn and coughed loudly. ‘You see, Mandalore owns much of this world, including the privatised police force, and this has caused much resentment. MHG has been accused of some very serious crimes out in the Rim, such as slavery and torture, but nothing has ever been proven."
"Why can’t we stop Mandalore?"
"He manipulates the law and we’re unable to act without the Senate’s permission. The Republic’s Sentient Rights Charter states that all beings are innocent until proven guilty. It is one of the oldest constitutional laws, one that guarantees the freedom of the Republic.
Sarolyn gazed sadly at the police as they moved to contain the crowd. "So our hands are tied, Master?" she ventured, hoping there was some way of helping those who had allegedly suffered under Mandalore’s hand.
"I’m afraid so, young Sarolyn."
Sarolyn suddenly thought of something that had been said to her and her Master shortly before they boarded the cruiser for Sorensia, something that may be relevant to their assignment here. "Chastacyrrhi spoke of atrocities on Despayre."
Bil-Kit remembered the conversation they had had with the young albino Wookiee before they left the Temple. "Yes," he recalled. "Master Dessk had foreseen that MHG’s crack troops would be used to subjugate and exploit the Zephoid Zez, an intelligent race native to that world, but the Senate refused him and Chasta permission to investigate, saying that resources were overstretched and that no cruisers could be booked to travel so far from the Core."
"But Master Dessk’s predictions are deadly accurate. He has never been wrong."
"That wasn’t enough for Rhoufheigh. She dismissed Dessk’s premonition as 'nonsense'. He could sense that something unspeakable would happen to the Zephoid Zez, but the Senate and the rest of the Council held firm to Republic law."
"That’s terrible!" said a shocked Sarolyn. ‘For the Senate to disregard the Jedi is foolhardy and dangerous."
Bil-Kit Jinn stared up at the ceiling of the conference room as something large thundered unseen, overhead. He breathed deeply before staring into Sarolyn’s eyes. "Sixty years," he said ominously.
"That’s how long the Republic has left if things do not change."
A large, coffin-shaped troop carrier hovered high above the Guildhall, the din of its engines drowning the chanting and shouting of the protesters as the police tried to restore order. The hull of the carrier, dark in contrast to the sky, was painted in MHG’s corporate olive drab.
A fizzing, crackling sound filled the sky around the troop carrier, causing Bil-Kit and Sarolyn to crane their necks in order to see what was happening. Rocket trails unfurled from the carrier like ribbons, settling towards the square like tickertape. To Sarolyn’s horror, the trails quickly resolved into hundreds of shocktroopers who fired at the protesters with a percussive volley from their blaster rifles.
Sarolyn rubbed her forehead in frustration at their lack of control in the situation outside. Explosions punctuated the fighting. ‘It’s getting out of hand, Master,’ she said as the troops landed amid the battle. ‘Is there anything we can do?’ "I’m afraid not, my dear," said Bil-Kit, who shared his Padawan’s feelings. "You know our instructions just as well as I do."
"But Master! We can’t just stand around and let the police do this." Sarolyn indicated the fighting outside. The shocktroopers were engaged in a pitched battle against the protesters, some of who were armed. A police skyhopper flew low across the square. "Innocent people are being killed!"
"It’s not your place to argue," said Bil-Kit brusquely, annoyed at Sarolyn’s questioning of his instructions. "Now be quiet."
The Jedi Code stated that no apprentice may question a Master’s orders. Padawans were expected to trust the judgement of their betters.
An amplified voice filled the air. "Go back to your homes! Go back to your homes! This system is now under martial law under the Emergency Powers Act." The skyhopper fired its cannon into the sky. "This is your only warning!"
The doors to the conference room parted and an army of shocktroopers flooded in. One hundred men moving as one, their drab armour offered no hindrance whatsoever as they moved quickly and silently to surround Bil-Kit and Sarolyn at the window.
The Commanding Officer, distinguishable from the others by a pale blue and silver guardtrooper armour, shoved a blaster into Bil-Kit’s back.
"Freeze," barked the officer in a digitally enhanced voice as a second shocktrooper pointed his weapon at Sarolyn. "Turn around slowly with your hands up."
The two Jedi did as they were told. With their hands clasped upon their heads, they turned to face their captors. Sarolyn cast a glance at Bil-Kit who acknowledged her with a barely perceptible nod. This was her cue for action. Before the troops could react, she reached out at them with her hand outstretched, knocking them over like skittles. With a precision that could only have been achieved through thorough training, the shocktroopers rolled back to their feet as Sarolyn and Bil-Kit ignited their lightsabres.
The conference room echoed with the squeals of laser fire as the troops began to blast the two Jedi. Seeing no other means of escape, Bil-Kit pointed sharply at the window, causing it to explode in a shower of fragments. Covered by the smoke from the battle, the two Jedi leapt from the room, somersaulting out through the rain with their cloaks flapping behind them as the ground troops and police launched their attack.
Despite the urgency, Sarolyn was calm and at peace with the Force. The young Padawan could sense the trajectory of each laser bolt as it whistled towards her. She repelled every shot.
The battling protesters scattered as the two Jedi rolled to their feet with their lightsabres flashing and sparking. The shocktroopers continued their attack, their laser bolts exploding against the duracrete of the New Building as the two Jedi scrambled for cover.
Suddenly, Bil-Kit felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He spun around to see a rough looking overweight man and a thin, bony man both wielding blasters. They looked nervous.
"You, Jedi," said the larger man in a thick Sorensian accent. "Come wi" us if you wha’s best for you.’
Trade Unionists, thought Bil-Kit as he studied the two men. Sensing that they had no time to lose, he turned to his apprentice. "Come on, Sarolyn. We must take our leave."
With three shocktroopers in pursuit, the Jedi followed the two men into a cobbled side alley that ran alongside the Guildhall.
"Our speeder’s parked in t’next road," yelled the thin man as they raced along the alley. The larger man blasted the troops, who clattered to the ground.
The alley opened up into a narrow street lined with terraced houses and a few run-down shops. A battered landspeeder was parked at the kerb, its paintwork dented and patched with areas of bare undercoat where it had been treated for rust in the past.
"Get in," snapped Bil-Kit at Sarolyn as the two men motioned for them to climb into the speeder. The vehicle rocked as they clambered aboard.
"We’ll take you to t’spaceport," said the fat man as he started up the engines, which snarled into life. "By t’way, I’m Dixor," he pointed to his thinner companion, "and this is Sjoort."
Sarolyn and Bil-Kit were pressed into their seats as the speeder shot forward, banking sharply as it turned into a side road. Two shocktroopers astride swoop-bikes shot out of the alley and blasted the speeder as they gave chase.
Sjoort turned around in his seat beside Dixor and returned fire as the two Jedi deflected the enemy bolts with their lightsabres. The swoops ducked and swerved as they whistled through the rain.
"They’re awfully persistent, Master," yelled Sarolyn over the din of the speeder’s engines as two more swoops appeared. Bil-Kit ignored his Padawan. He was still angry with Sarolyn for arguing with him back at the City Hall.
One of the swoops bore down on the speeder. The two Jedi repelled the barrage of fire from its twin cannons as it gained on them, the rider gunning the engine to squeeze as much speed as possible. Just as the swoop closed in, Sarolyn lunged at its steering vanes, severing them with one deft swipe of her lightsabre. The swoop careered into a lamp-post and exploded.
"We’ll head for t’factory district," yelled Dixor as Sjoort fired at the remaining swoops. Dixor swung the speeder left as the road reached a "t" junction, flipping it onto its side as he took the severe curve. The vehicle passed within inches of a line of terraced houses, causing a gang of children playing in the street to scatter as the convoy screamed past. The three shocktroopers continued their chase, their small but powerful machines proving to be a fair match for the landspeeder ahead.
Dixor let out the throttle, and the urban sprawl of Sheofe sped past ever more dizzyingly, the wind and rain lashing the faces of Sarolyn and Bil-kit as they sat in the rear. The houses gave way to a bleak industrial area.
"We’ll lose ‘em amongst t’gasworks," said Dixor as he sent the speeder along a narrow passageway between two buildings whose walls were festooned with pipes and tanks. Steam drifted from a hidden source.
The passageway grew ever narrower as the speeder continued to flee. The three MHG swoops resumed their fire, filling the gap with bursts of energy as they concentrated on their target.
"We’re running out o’ road!" yelled Sjoort as Dixor aimed the speeder at the open door of a large warehouse that blocked the way ahead. Sjoort ducked as the vehicle was plunged into darkness. With almost superhuman dexterity, Dixor flipped the craft back upon itself and charged back towards the rectangle of light that marked the entrance. The three shocktroopers swerved frantically to avoid the speeder as it re-emerged with a scream. Confused by Dixor’s apparently suicidal manoeuvre, they lost control and slammed explosively into a tall vat of fuel. The troops were vaporised.
"We’re safe now," said Dixor as he slowed down the speeder. He turned briefly to the two Jedi as they entered a residential area. "You two must tell t’Republic about what’s going on here."
"Dixor," said Bil-Kit above the roar of the speeder, "that was an impressive piece of driving back there." He could sense that the Force was strong with Dixor. "You must have Jedi abilities to control a landspeeder like that."
"Oh, aye," said Dixor casually. "When I were a nipper, I were taken to t’Jedi Temple on Coruscant. I were about ten at t’time." He returned his gaze to the road ahead. "But they thought I were too old for training. I were sent back ‘ere and now I work down t’pit over at Mechsborg. I’m shop steward for t’Ore Mines."
Bil-Kit glanced at Sarolyn and sadly shook his head at the waste of yet another person so talented with the Force. Vima’s daughter was not alone.
* * *
"Well?" demanded Japhta Fett as the rain continued to streak down the window behind Detective Superintendent Fitje.
"We lost them, My Lady," confessed the detective. "They gave us the slip in the Ekol-Sorl district."
Japhta turned to the platoon of shocktroopers who stood to attention behind her. "They’re heading for Doran Totli Spaceport. Get a skyhopper ready. I’ll meet you on the landing platform."
"Yes, My Lady," replied the amplified and modulated voice of the sergeant as Japhta stormed up to Fitje, grabbed him by his cheeks and pulled him forward over his desk, knocking the resident clutter to the floor. Fitje’s face was distorted by Japhta’s grip, a grip that showed the true strength of Mandalore’s second-in-command. Her message to the hapless detective as she squeezed his face was unmistakable.
"Do not fail me again."
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