Yarua continued to film the carnage with his tiny vidcam. Shocktroopers were loading the sail barge with the bodies of these unfortunate creatures. The explosions had finished, and there was little left of the Nest but a pile of boulders beneath a plume of dust. Screams could be heard above the laser fire and radio static, and Ayo was beginning to feel physically sick by what he could see.
Master Dessk’s prediction was correct, reflected Ayo. The MHG Special Police were being used to hunt an intelligent species, and the Senate were too short sighted to see what was happening. These thugs seemed to be enjoying their act. It was as if their job was some kind of blood sport.
Ever more of these defenceless creatures were being hurled into the open rear of the sail barge like so many rubbish bags being thrown into a dustcart by bored and tired dustmen. Ayo crouched in his hiding place and wondered what fate lay in store for these poor beings. Once he and Yarua were back aboard the Red Planet, they could get straight back to the Guvnor with the evidence. He and the Jedi would then have the proof needed to convince the Senate to act.
Ayo turned to Yarua. "What do you think? Looks like the troops are packing up."
Yarua grunted quietly and nodded. "We could get over there for a closer look."
* * *
Two hundred miles inland, Japhta Fett and the Director were joined by the ghostly image of Koraetor Mandalore. Real-time tridimensional video was still a very new invention, and few people could afford the complex system of receivers and RGB microlasers required for its use.
Seated around the Director’s desk, they discussed the subject of the intruders who had landed on the planet.
"Let them go," ordered Mandalore. As he spoke, his image flickered and his voice varied in pitch and timbre.
"But my Lord," said the Director. "What if they get to Coruscant and expose us? They must be spies!"
"They won’t make it to Coruscant," said Mandalore quietly. "I’ve got something special planned for them."
Japhta crossed her legs seductively and gazed at Mandalore. "What do you want me to do, My Lord?"
"Send a small patrol to their ship. There will be a battle, but I want the troops to let them go. The spies will think they’ve escaped and their hopes will be high, but they won’t have got away."
Japhta bowed. "Yes, My Lord." She turned to the Director as Mandalore faded away. "Send a call to the unit down by the coast. Tell them to wait where they are."
"Yes, My Lady," purred the Director as he got up and straightened his suit. He coughed loudly as he strode out of the office.
* * *
In his Coruscant penthouse, Darth Rakshas switched off his holoprojector and gazed out over the never-ending city. He knew precisely who had sent his personal crew to spy on MHG; the one senator who refused to co-operate with the plans of the Sith, the miserable old wretch of a Wookiee who had a problem with successful people. They would all be dealt with, either legally or illegally.
* * *
Yarua moaned plaintively as he surveyed the carnage around him. Mandalore’s thugs had devastated the Zephoid Zez colony, and mutilated bodies littered the area. The mossy ground was stained crimson with patches of Zez blood.
Ayo stood in silence, his head bowed with respect. He turned to Yarua. "We’d better go," he mumbled sadly. "We’ve done all we can here."
As soon as Ayo had finished his sentence, they heard a weak, hoarse cry. Yarua rushed over to one of the apparently dead bodies and barked, beckoning for Ayo to join him.
A Zez male lay crumpled on a patch of moss, clutching three dead pups. Blood poured from his nose and mouth, and his face was swollen and bruised. Yarua crouched down and examined the creature as Ayo gently took the pups and solemnly buried them in the rubble of the Nest. He picked a few wild flowers that grew in the moss and placed them upon the makeshift grave.
"How is he?" asked Ayo when he rejoined Yarua.
The Wookiee moaned sadly, for the creature was dying.
"We’d better get him back to the ship," said Ayo. "He’ll be safe there."
Yarua argued at the feasibility of this plan.
"I know, I know," protested Ayo, frustrated at having his ideas shouted out of court, "but if we got him back alive, then the Jedi could read his mind." Ayo smiled at the thought of exposing Mandalore. "Then we’ve got him."
Yarua growled and nodded in agreement. He picked up the wounded creature and together they rushed towards the ship.
"Hang on in there, little’un," panted Ayo as they ran across the slippery rocks.
The red wedge of the Red Planet was now visible, tucked neatly within its concealing grove. As they approached, laser fire erupted from the trees.
"Yarua, get down!" yelled Ayo as he threw himself to the ground.
The young Wookiee quickly did as he was told as a lethal packet of energy whistled through the fur on his shoulder, singeing it with a puff of smoke. He lay in a heap, protecting the Zez beneath him as he reached for his bowcaster and aimed it shakily into the trees. Yarua returned fire, the bowcaster’s energy quarrels slicing through the air and exploding against the trees.
Ayo crouched in the moss, wriggling on his belly, which was becoming wet from the saturated ground. He fired his blaster at the hidden aggressors, each laser bolt charging from his weapon with a percussive, whistling scream. As he flattened himself into the ground, Ayo could see the armoured forms of MHG shocktroopers, the same troops they had witnessed plundering the Zez colony.
"Get to the ship!" shouted Ayo over the blaster fire. "I’ll cover you!"
Yarua ran with all his might to the ship, cradling the Zez and firing at the troops. As he crouched behind the landing gear, blaster bolts ricocheted off the hull with a ping. Ayo ran over to Yarua. He had managed to find the keypad in his jacket pocket and he tapped in the code to open the hatch as he hid beneath the ship.
Ayo fired at the troops from behind the landing gear as Yarua, with the Zez under his arm, swung up onto the ramp and bundled aboard, closely followed by Ayo. The hatch snapped shut behind them with a sharp hiss, sealing them in safety. Yarua rushed the Zez to the ship’s small sickbay, and laid him onto the bunk. He growled gently, saying that he would return, before joining Ayo in the cockpit.
"Better get out of here," muttered Ayo as the engines powered up to full thrust with a rising crescendo. Yarua barked in agreement as he and Ayo flipped switches and punched buttons. Outside, the shocktroopers flattened themselves to the ground as the Red Planet rose sedately into the air, the thrust of its engines bending the trees.
In his office, the Director spoke into a microphone as Japhta Fett stood by the desk, watching him.
"Scramble all fighters! Intercept the intruders. Fire at their ship but do not destroy! His Lordship wants them alive."
* * *
Aboard the Planet, Peetoo bonged and the warning siren began to wail. Yarua roared and pointed to a viewscreen.
”Look’s like we’ve got company,” muttered Ayo. "Shields up."
Yarua grunted and activated the deflector shields. A plan of the ship set into the overhead control panel glowed with a blue aura, indicating that the shield was working. The Red Planet was now contained within a shimmering cocoon as it soared up from the marbled, green planet of Despayre.
Two dozen state-of-the-art MHG F-wing starfighters converged upon the Planet, their laser cannons blazing. The Verpine-built fighters were of a radical, new design: Without a fuselage, its single wing was bisected with two fold-down fins that supported its weaponry, giving the F-wing the appearance of a crucifix. The swivelling cockpit gave the pilot a visibility unrivalled by other vessels, for he flew the F-wing from a standing position at the very nose, encompassed by a transparisteel bubble that was flush with the fighter’s curves.
"Are those co-ordinates ready yet, Peetoo?" yelled Ayo as the Planet buffeted under the onslaught. Yarua took over the controls and steered the ship through the stream of lasers as Ayo desperately worked out their position. He needed the calculations for the jump, and Peetoo was being slow. Every so often, the lights would flicker as the shields drained power from the other systems.
”Come on, Peetoo, for Force's sake!” cursed Ayo as an explosion rocked the ship, almost throwing him from his seat. Yarua roared as the warning lights flashed.
“I know!” shouted Ayo above the din of the sirens.
"The shields have gone! If that bloody useless old boiler doesn’t come up with those co-ordinates, we’ll be dead meat!"
The F-Wings continued their attack, pounding the Planet with fire. A well-aimed bolt slammed into the rear.
The ship shook as if struck by an immense hammer. Yarua turned around to see Peetoo engulfed in flames. In a near panic, he rushed to the droid’s station with a fire extinguisher and began to tackle the blaze, covering his face with his arm lest he inhale the toxic smoke.
Ayo swore. The hit was too close for comfort. Barely an inch aft and the engines would have blown. He typed a sequence of machine code into a keyboard as a second, even more urgent alarm honked above the existing siren, the two forming a bizarre counterpoint between them.
"I’m overriding the hyperdrive, Yarua. The navicom’s blown and we’ve lost Peetoo, so we’ll just have to take potluck." Ayo reached forward and grasped the hyperdrive lever. As he pulled it towards him, the starfield ahead stretched and contorted as the crippled Red Planet vaulted into the unknown.
Forward to Chapter 12
Back to Chapter 10