The Red Planet raced along the silver tunnel of hyperspace, en route to the remote planet of Despayre. The two crew members had spent the last few hours before arrival preparing for their mission and gathering as much information as they could about the planet and Mandalore.
"Well, Yarua," said Ayo as he tore a wide ribbon of paper from Peetoo and scrutinised the print, "Despayre’s a wild planet, and there are some things down there that are pretty nasty."
Yarua barked with interest as he pored over the star charts.
"There are three continents separated by open sea," said Ayo. "Zephoid, Malkoid and Paskoloid. The largest is Paskoloid, and that is totally covered with jungle as it lies across the tropics. Zephoid’s slightly smaller and has got more open terrain than Paskoloid. Malkoid’s just a dry desert. You want to know what’s down there?"
Yarua growled impatiently.
"There’s a race of primitives living in Zephoid called the Zephoid Zez, but the scary stuff lives in the huge fungus-jungle that covers Paskoloid. It’s full of lethal plants and animals, but the worst of the lot’s a fungo-bacterium known as Black Rot."
Ayo peered at the strip of paper he was holding. "According to Peetoo’s printout, a group of scientists went there about eight years ago. This is confidential info that the Guvnor managed to pinch from Whyteleafe.
"They transmitted all this stuff about the life forms they’d met when they explored Paskoloid. They never noticed that one of them had got infected with the Black Rot."
Yarua leant forward and rested his elbow on the small table before them. He grunted with concern.
"It eats anything: flesh, bone, wood, even rock, which it breaks down in search of every last nutrient. It thrives in the deep jungle where it’s hot and wet with little wind. The jungles are covered with the stuff and the poor scientist’s flesh rotted while she was still alive." Ayo looked Yarua in the eye. "It was the most horrible death they had ever seen."
Yarua growled gently at Ayo as he peered at the printout, asking him what Mandalore was allegedly doing on Despayre.
"A Jedi Master named Dessk, could sense that Mandalore was trying to cultivate the Black Rot. He was certain that MHG was genetically modifying it so that it could survive anywhere.
"Mandalore’s been paid by the Republic to find a cure for the flu epidemic, and it's suspected that he’s set up a base in Zephoid. Dessk could foresee that the native Zez were to be deliberately infected by the Rot. Mandalore’s up to something, and I’ve got a feeling that he has no intention of finding a cure for the flu."
A bleeping sound came from the cockpit and Peetoo bonged. "Looks like we’re nearly there," said Ayo as he stood up and scratched his back. "We’d better get ready."
Yarua stomped over to a tall locker and produced a tangle of blasters plus his bowcaster.
"Oi!" yelled Ayo from the cockpit. "Do that when we land. I need you up front."
Yarua bounded up to the cockpit, swearing under his breath in Shyriiwook, before flopping heavily into the co-pilot’s seat. The seat creaked angrily under his weight.
Lights flashed in sequence around the control panels as the two crew programmed the ship's systems in readiness for their exit from hyperspace. It was vital that the co-ordinates were properly set, otherwise the ship could miss the planet, or worse, materialise deep under ground.
"Realspace here we come," said Ayo songfully as he turned to Yarua. "Cut ‘em in."
Yarua punched a row of knobbly buttons before him and pushed a large lever that protruded from a mound in the floor. The vortex before them streaked into stars that surrounded a bright, green crescent. Yarua grunted.
"Here we are, then," announced Ayo, relieved that the long, tedious journey from Coruscant was at last nearing its end. "Despayre."
* * *
Zibeon Munt dragged the half-eaten mutmut carcase across the moss. Barely two feet tall, and small for a Zephoid Zez, Zibeon’s eyes were large and yellow, and fangs thrust upwards from his jaw. A long neck, which sprouted from his low, bulbous body, supported his oversized head and he waddled along with his prize on two short, stumpy legs. He had large flippers by way of feet. A rough-hewn loincloth covered his waist, and his white, almost translucent skin was smeared with dirt.
The Nest was nearby; a tall, craggy mountain of boulders and mud cemented together with a mixture of soil and mucus that had set like rock. Zibeon was struggling. The carcase was many times his size, and it was obvious that Zibeon had not killed the mutmut himself. There were far larger and more fearsome predators out in the bogs and marshes of Zephoid. The Zez were scavengers, picking the bones that others had left behind.
The Nest lay near the coast, and the sea, green with algae, formed a backdrop. Exhausted, Zibeon dropped the carcass and its head fell limply to the ground. He stopped for a rest, his long tongue flapping from his mouth after his exertion. The effort had made him hot. Panting like the amphibious dogs from which the Zephoid Zez evolved, Zibeon gazed out to sea and spotted a distant, dark band on the horizon. The Other Land was visible and the weather was going to be bad.
Zibeon had dragged the mutmut a long way over the rocks, and he could no longer carry it unaided. Throwing back his head, he called with a high-pitched, hoarse yelp.
Four other Zephoid Zez males ran out from a hole in the Nest. Lifting the carcass from the ground, the five of them hauled it up to the concealed entrance. Just as they were manhandling the mutmut inside, the roar of a low-flying spacecraft pounded the air. Startled, the Zez scurried for cover. As he crawled to safety, Zibeon Munt caught sight of a large, red triangle swooping down from the sky.
The burrow was small and warm. Large oil-filled shells provided heat and light and a thick layer of dried moss provided comfort. A female, larger and stronger in build than the male Zez, sat in one corner suckling her six pups. She looked up from her young as Zibeon entered with the hindquarters of the mutmut carcase dragging behind him.
The pups, small, blind and helpless, mewed with delight at the sound of Zibeon as his mate handed them to him. Zibeon stroked and caressed each one, licking their faces with his long, pink tongue. The pups had grown, thought Zibeon, even since he had left the Nest that morning to forage for the remains of thaytase kills. The thaytases were nocturnal, and although their favourite food was the docile mutmut, they were partial to any Zephoid Zez that was foolish enough to be outside after dark.
Zibeon handed the wriggling babies back to his mate, who set them to sleep beside her. The pups huddled together, their combined body heat keeping them warm as the two adults shared the remains of the mutmut, nibbling the strands of meat that clung to the bones.
The two Zez felt safe and secure in the warmth of their burrow as the oil-lamps flickered their shadows onto the mud walls. Their pups were strong and healthy, there was no disease, and the Nest was strong enough to withstand the attentions of even the most determined thaytase.
Two hundred miles inland, Japhta Fett stared with interest at a transparisteel showcase that contained a leathery pod floating in a layer of black slime. The Director stood behind her, his hands clasped confidently behind his back as his Mistress checked the progress of the Black Rot project. As Japhta peered for a closer look, the pod behind the glass suddenly squirted a fine, black mist at her face. She recoiled, startled, almost falling into the arms of the Director behind her.
"Sorry, My Lady," said the Director with a nod. "I should have told you that it’s still alive."
"Yes, you should," said Japhta coldly. "Lord Mandalore is pleased with your progress so far," she added without a smile, causing the Director to relax. "However, the target for the development of the Rot as a useful weapon is still in danger of not being met."
"My Lady," said the Director nervously, "the fungobacterium is proving very difficult to engineer." He led Japhta to a large window that filled one wall of the lab. "We’ve infected the local life forms," he said, gesturing to the holding chamber behind the window, "as instructed by His Lordship." The wall and floor of the chamber were black with slime, from which protruded the skeletons of unfortunate Zephoid Zez. The Director pointed to the corpses, whose fanged skulls stared out at him with empty eye sockets. "The dryvoices you can see here died slowly and painfully as their bodies rotted from within." The Director remembered the primitives’ screams filling the lab as they succumbed to the infection. Despite his earlier misgivings before Mandalore, the Director felt a power that he had never felt before. He had the power of life and death over others.
Japhta looked at the skeletons and smiled. Even in climatically controlled conditions, the Rot was living up to hers and her Master’s expectations. She turned to the Director. "When will the improved Rot be ready?"
The Director couched and scratched the end of his nose. "We will be running more test on the next strain as soon as we get some more dryvoices. I’ve sent a cracktrooper patrol to clear the big colony down by the coast."
"His Lordship wants the Black Rot ready as soon as possible, Director,’ said Japhta, piercing him with her round, hazel eyes and discomforting him.
"Y-yes, My Lady."
At that moment, an alarm sounded and a voice floated across the lab from a hidden loudspeaker.
"Attention all personnel. An unauthorised craft has landed at position five, two, niner, seven."
"Alert the patrol," said Japhta. "The intruders must
not leave the planet."
* * *
Having landed in a copse about a mile from the Nest, Ayo and Yarua had filled a backpack with supplies and charts of the area supplied by Peetoo. As they cleared the copse and entered a stretch of open ground, Yarua pulled out a large, cumbersome pair of electrobinoculars from the rucksack and lifted then to his eyes. He quickly scanned the skyline.
"What’s out there, Yarua?" asked Ayo with interest.
Yarua barked and pointed ahead before handing him the binocs. Ayo took them with a groan.
"These things are bloody heavy!" he said as he heaved them to his face. "Well, there’s a Zez colony three quarters of a mile over there." He pointed to a tall, craggy mound in the distance, "and there’s some kind of base two hundred miles inland."
An explosion in the direction of the mound interrupted Ayo. Yarua barked in alarm and Ayo squinted through the binocs. "The colony’s under attack," said Ayo urgently. "There’s shocktroopers and some kind of sail barge."
Yarua roared at the thought of MHG troops hunting and attacking innocent beings. He asked Ayo if he thought that the patrol had spotted them.
"Dunno," said Ayo, "but the garrison would certainly have tracked the ship." He paused and handed the binocs back to Yarua, who stashed them away in his backpack. "We’d better investigate," said Ayo. "If we make our way along the beach, then they won’t see us." Ayo pointed to the sea nearby.
Yarua growled and nodded in agreement. He liked the idea.
Ayo breathed deeply and turned to his companion. "Right," he said with a matter-of-fact sigh. "The sooner we nail the bastard, the sooner we can go home."
The pair of them ran quietly down to the beach. It was only a short distance to the Zephoid Zez mound, and they felt confident that they would return to Coruscant with some good pictures for the Guvnor.
Zibeon Munt and his mate had settled down for a nap. The two of them were just dropping off when they were awoken by an explosion and the sound of falling rocks. It was pitch darkness inside the burrow and the dust kicked up by the blast caused Zibeon and his mate to sneeze as they huddled together. The pups mewed with fear, unable to locate their parents, their squeals accompanied by the screams of wounded Zez elsewhere in the Nest.
The sounds of destruction moved inexorably closer to the burrow. Zibeon and his mate grabbed hold of their pups and fled, desperately trying to make their way to the surface.
A new sound permeated the tunnels, the hissing of gas being pumped through the network of tunnels. Zibeon could see the faint outlines of other Pack members wandering the passageways, dazed from the fumes, vomiting and convulsing from its invisible presence in the confined spaces of the Nest.
Ayo and Yarua saw everything as they hid behind an outcrop of lichenous rock. Cracktroopers, armed with heavy blaster rifles, were guiding a long hose into an opening that had been blown into the mound. The hose led to a floating skiff that contained a large, pressurised drum. The skiff accompanied a modified sail barge, its open rear end facing the mound like vast mouth. The barge had been designed not as a passenger vessel but as a municipal refuse carrier.
"You got the vid, Yarua?" whispered Ayo. Yarua nodded in reply and pointed the compact camcorder over the rocks and at the activity before them.
"Looks like they’re being gassed." Ayo felt sick and angry by what he could see. "We’ve got to do something!"
Yarua put a paw on Ayo’s shoulder and growled gently in an attempt to calm him down. The young Wookiee knew that they were hopelessly outnumbered, two of them against goodness knows how many shocktroopers. Fortunately, Ayo had a blaster and he had his bowcaster, and the ship was close enough for them to run for it should they be spotted.
The tunnels within the Nest were becoming choked with dead bodies, and Zibeon clung to his mate as they fought their way through the passages. On several occasions, they had to tear at the corpses in order to get past. The pups were limp and silent, but the two small aliens were unaware that their offspring had died.
Another explosion rocked the Nest. Boulders and mud rained down on Zibeon and his mate as daylight filtered into the ruins. As his mate climbed towards the hole, a large, thick-gloved hand grabbed her and pulled her out as she dropped the pups to the rock-strewn floor.
Zibeon squealed in terror as he picked up the pups and held them tightly. His hoarse cries only succeeded in drawing attention to himself, for another hand caught him by his fangs. Hissing with anger, Zibeon bit down hard, his cheek sacs puffed out in reaction to fear. Zibeon’s bite had no effect on the glove of the shocktrooper that was dragging him, dazed, into the sunlight.
To his horror, Zibeon caught sight of a fearsome, armour plated man picking up his screaming mate by her flippers and clubbing her hard on the back of the head with his rifle butt before slinging her body into to sail barge. He screamed and hissed as the cracktrooper carried him away from the Nest. Suddenly, another troop called over to Zibeon’s captor with a crackle of garbled speech and Zibeon was dropped, discarded, to the ground. The last thing he saw as he clung tightly to his remaining pups was a heavy, MHG-issue boot rushing headlong towards his face before everything went black.
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