In his Coruscant penthouse, Lord Koraetor Mandalore dined with Japhta Fett, who had newly returned from Despayre. They sat at a highly polished black table, with the finest food set before them on exquisite Royal Alderaan Porcelain, with vintage Naboo wine from his own cellar on that world, decanted into delicate crystal glasses. Soft, discreet music filled the room, and footmen lined the walls in respectful silence, moving occasionally to clear the plates and refill glasses.
"The Black Rot will be ready as planned, my Lord," said Japhta as she toyed with her food.
"Good-good" said Mandalore with quiet approval. "The Black Rot will ensure complete obedience from the Trade Federation, and it will be the key tool in gaining control of the Republic."
A look of concern crossed Japhta’s delicate features. "How will we administer the Rot without anyone noticing?"
"The finished product will be so virulent that it will take only a cupful to wipe out the population of a city. A small warhead detonated high in the atmosphere guarantees complete devastation within days."
Japhta took a sip of her wine. "The spies were intercepted and their ship was damaged," she purred. "We let them escape as you instructed."
Mandalore leant over to Japhta and kissed her. "You’ve done well," he whispered. ‘According to their last know co-ordinates, Senator Thraurrallgisc’s little pets are now worming their way to Naboo, where they’ll be dealt with." He motioned to his butler. "Get me a comm unit at once, will you?"
The butler bowed to his master. "Yes, My Lord," he said politely, peering down his nose and smiling with respect.
Japhta turned to Mandalore. ‘What are you going to do with the Senator?’ she asked as she cleared her plate. A pair of liveried arms appeared from behind and removed it.
"Once he’s been arrested by that grubby little detective from Sorensia, he will be extradited there to face criminal charges." Japhta held Mandalore’s hand beneath the table and caressed it.
"What sort of charges?"
Mandalore looked solemnly at Japhta Fett. "I’ll think of something."
* * *
"How do you feel about the Trial, Sarolyn?" asked Vima-Da-Boda as the young Padawan gathered a few essential belongings and stuffed them into a holdall. Sarolyn looked at the kindly old lady and smiled.
"I don’t really know. I suppose I’ll just have to take things as they come."
"The Force can cause events to move in mysterious ways, my child," said Vima. "The future’s always in motion, and there are many things that can never be foreseen."
"Master Bil-Kit used to say that as well," said Sarolyn as she reached over to the table and picked up her scrying-glass. Sarolyn stared into the glass and concentrated, willing the Force to allow her to log on to the Subspace comm lines of MHG Head Office. As she focused her mind, she tied her Padawan’s braid behind her ear in order to conceal it.
The mirrorlike surface of the glass began to fog, and the legend "SUBSPACE 385635463732/57467 CONTACTED: PLEASE WAIT" appeared. Sarolyn had made the connection.
After a few moments, the head of a stiffly made-up girl appeared in the glass, her horns coated with a bright pink varnish. She smiled falsely.
"Thank you for calling the Mandalore Holdings Group, building a new Republic. How can I help you?"
Sarolyn studied the doll-like image; a girl whose face was so thickly coated with make-up that her skin resembled a freshly plastered wall. An Iridonian Zabrak, the girl reminded her of Master Lyssa On’Yanth on the Council. Destroying the old Republic, more like, thought Sarolyn as the girl spoke to her in an irritating corporate style of false politeness.
Vima-Da-Boda sat cross-legged upon the pile of cushions, watching as the young Padawan spoke to the image in the glass.
"My name is Sara," lied Sarolyn meekly, using a shortened form of her name lest she betrayed her Jedi identity. "I’ve just graduated from the University of Alderaan and was wondering-"
"Sorry," interrupted the girl. "There are no vacancies at the moment. Thank you for taking an interest in the Mandalore Holdings Group."
Sarolyn looked at Vima with resignation.
"There are jobs," said Vima gently as the Zabrak girl prepared to sign off. "Let the Force ask her."
Sarolyn nodded and returned to the scrying-glass. She waved her hand discreetly at the image and stared into its eyes. "I’m sure there are vacancies somewhere."
"I’m sure there are vacancies somewhere..." repeated the girl, unaware that her mind was being manipulated. "Ah, yes," she continued, peering down at an unseen display screen, "the Butler and Housekeeper at Lord Mandalore’s Country Residence are recruiting domestic staff. Interviews begin in two days, and appointment is subject to satisfactory references and criminal record checks."
Sarolyn considered the possible chain of events as she absently fumbled with the glass. Security vetting...If they found out who I am, and that I’m really an undercover Jedi, then things could get very difficult; especially if Japhta Fett has anything to do with things.
Sarolyn turned to the image of the girl. "Thank you for your help," she said before stashing the scrying-glass in her holdall. She looked worriedly at Vima as she recalled her last encounter with Fett on Sorensia. "Do you think she remembers me?" she asked with a note of concern.
"The Force can hide as well as reveal," said Vima as she stood up and gazed out of the window, her petite form outlined against the busy skyline.
Sarolyn looked sadly at the older woman. She could remember how Bil-Kit had forced her to board the cruiser before he faced Japhta. She had been determined to fight with her Master, but she could now see why he had been compelled to take such drastic action against her.
"Master Bil-Kit knew that I would have to spy on Japhta," said Sarolyn. "That’s why he wouldn’t let me face her. He knew that the time wasn’t yet right."
"Your insight serves you well," said Vima, encouraging her young friend. "Be confident of your abilities and you’ll succeed."
Sarolyn frowned. "Mandalore’s Country Residence is on Naboo, isn’t it?" she asked as she quickly changed from her Jedi robes and into an old dress in order to appear as a lowly servant girl. She packed her robes, utility pouch, scrying-glass and lightsabre into the holdall, which she casually slung onto the table.
Vima’s face lit up at the mention of Naboo, the planet where her daughter was living. Vima often visited Neema, but she rarely spoke of her. It seemed to Sarolyn that Vima was hiding something from her Jedi colleagues.
"Yes, it is," said Vima, somewhat guiltily. "and it’s called Fort Myreion."
Sarolyn’s eyes widened as she gazed into the distance, as if something unseen had caught her attention. "It’s time to go," she said softly. "The next cruiser for Naboo leaves in less than two hours."
Vima followed Sarolyn out into the corridor. "Bil-Kit has taught you well," she said sincerely, "and I can feel that he won’t let anything harm you." Vima stared into Sarolyn’s big, soft eyes. "You will pass the Trials, my dear child. The Force will be with you..." Vima smiled warmly, her careworn face lighting up with love, "...always."
Sarolyn bowed her head. "Thank you, Vima." She paused in her tracks. She wanted to say something to the old lady, a gesture of parting, but she was stuck for words. She smiled at Vima. "May the Force be with you," she finally said before turning and running away along the corridor.
As Sarolyn’s footsteps faded, Vima closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She was worried for Sarolyn. And fearful that she might meet her match with Japhta Fett. A soothing voice floated out as if from nowhere, and Vima smiled at the familiar tones that formed within her mind.
"I will watch over her, my dear," said the aethereal voice of Bil-Kit Jinn, "but this is her Trial. I cannot interfere."
The voice of her Master faded as Vima made her way back to her own quarters. Sarolyn will not be alone she vowed to herself as she scuttled along the corridor. Vima knew that tampering with a Padawan’s Trial was strictly forbidden, but she could not care less. If her insights were correct, then Sarolyn would need all the help she could get.
Out on one of the Temple’s many landing platforms, Sarolyn gazed at the sky and thought fondly of Bil-Kit. She could sense that her old mentor was watching her.
At the far end of the platform waited an air taxi, a small, green pod that seated six human-sized passengers in modest comfort. The seating was open to the air, and the driver, a short, rough-looking male, beckoned to Sarolyn.
"Oi, darlin’. Where’yer goin’?"
Sarolyn smiled. Despite his gruff manner, she could sense goodness in him. "I need to get to Spaceport Three," she said as she climbed into the taxi as sat down behind the driver.
"Yer all settled, luv?"’ asked the driver as he pulled the taxi away from the platform.
"Yes, thank you," said Sarolyn as she relaxed in her seat. Turning around, she caught sight of the five spires of the Jedi Temple lancing the sky. I will not fail you, Masters, she thought, sensing twelve sets of eyes watching her depart.
The driver engaged Sarolyn in conversation. He had rough, pasty skin, and his hands rested upon the controls like joints of meat. His knuckles were scarred from fighting.
"So, darlin’. Yer off on ‘oliday, then?"
"No," said Sarolyn. "I’m a servant girl about to start a new job in another house."
"Servant, eh?" probed the cabbie as he studied his beautiful passenger. "Tell yer what, I could half do wiv a little ‘elp round my gaff!"
Sarolyn took no notice of the driver’s coarse, leering manner as the taxi weaved its way through the maze of columns and canyons that made up the cityscape of Coruscant. She could sense that behind his aggressive nature, he was a man who held honour and respect in high esteem. "How long have you been a taxi driver?" she asked.
"Oh, about five-an’-twen’y year now," he replied with a bad-toothed smile, "but, the bleedin’ Senate keeps puttin’ the bleedin’ taxes up, know what I mean? They put ‘em up so much that us independents are bein’ forced out."
"That’s terrible," said Sarolyn.
The cabbie’s expression darkened. "All ‘em bleedin’ senators an’ Jedi should be strung up. The ‘ole bleedin’ lot of ‘em!"
The air taxi arrived at Spaceport Three, the main docking port for the Senate and Financial Districts of Galactic City. Spaceport Three was one of thousands of such ports on Coruscant, and was one of the largest; an immense complex of docking bays, landing platforms and passenger terminals that could easily engulf a city the size of Sheofe.
The taxi entered a vast tunnel, busy with traffic, which filed in both directions along the route, giving the impression of blood cells in a vein. The tunnel gave way to a multi-storey bus and taxi rank, where thousands of vehicles clung to the vertical face of the docking area like barnacles.
Drawn by a tractor beam, the taxi slowed as it approached a vacant space.
"There you are, darlin’," said the driver to Sarolyn as they drew to a halt alongside the platform. "That’ll be sixfin."
Sarolyn reached into her pouch and gave the man a silver skillin piece. "Keep the change," she smiled as she climbed out from the vehicle.
The cabbie thanked her as he pocketed the coin and reset the meter. Sarolyn rushed away, melting into the crowd.
The currency of the Republic was the Datary, of Credit Standard, which was split into twenty skillin, or two hundred and forty fin. Although it was possible, and encouraged, to trade electronically, most citizens still preferred to deal with "proper" money; banknotes and coins. The Intergalactic Bank Clan repeatedly pushed for the decimalisation of the currency, maintaining that it would simplify electronic commerce, but the plan was always rejected by the Senate on the basis that not all races had ten digits on each limb. Furthermore, the existing coinage had been in use since the beginning of the Republic, and, according to the Senate, if it was not broken, then it should not be fixed. As a compromise, the Republic Mint introduced the Decicred, or two-skillin piece, as a way of decimalising the Datary without abandoning the old and much-loved system.
The spaceport was clean, brightly lit, and busy. Beings from all parts of the Republic went about their business, queuing for tickets, rushing for their flights, awaiting a connection and doing last-minute shopping before boarding. Others poured through the gates leading from Arrivals as yet another liner docked at the port.
"Docking port Seven-Three-Eight" said the clerk behind the Naboo check-in desk as she handed Sarolyn her travel documents. Sarolyn thanked her and made her way to a courtesy monorail. Spaceport Three was a city in itself, and due to its sheer size, it needed an efficient internal transport system. The small train whistled into view and glided to a halt. Dozens of passengers poured from the clear, tubular carriages, clearing room for Sarolyn and the other travellers to board. The transparent hatch snapped shut and the train glided away.
The departure lounge was teeming with passengers, droids and luggage, and it simmered with the babble of conversation. Sarolyn left the monorail and scanned the busy area for somewhere to sit where it was not too crowded. After a few moments, she spotted an unoccupied row of seats close to one of the many food kiosks. She bought herself a cup of Malastarian coffee.
It was not long before Sarolyn’s tranquillity was shattered. As she sat alone, sipping her coffee, she could hear an incomprehensible arguing that drew steadily nearer, until she was joined by a large family of green, snouted Rodians who were engaged in a heated debate as they carried their multitude of suitcases and bags.
Ignoring the argument, the Rodian children ran about the seats pretending to be bounty hunters, much to the annoyance of the parents, who repeatedly shouted at them to behave. One of the children tripped over Sarolyn, causing her to spill her coffee. The liquid narrowly missed her dress.
"Na oska, Pqweeduk!" yelled the mother, clipping the child hard around the head. She turned to Sarolyn. "Oh, I so sorry," she said in a stilted Basic.
"That’s okay," smiled Sarolyn as she put the empty plastic cup into the bin next to her seat. "They need to run around somewhere." The children resumed their game.
"My partner’s a-verya beeg idiot," moaned the Rodian woman as she tried to clear up the mess from Sarolyn’s spilled drink. "'E buys all a-zese fings an’ we can’ta get ‘em on the sheep." She waved her arms and tutted. "Look at all a-ziss!" she said, pointing at the mountain of luggage with a green, suckered finger. " ‘Ow we get eeta home?"
A melody of chimes floated out from the public-address system, followed by a voice. "This is a passenger announcement: Royal Starlines flight 260137 to Naboo Theed is now boarding. Would all passengers requiring this flight please proceed to Departure Gate Sector Fifty-two West Seven-Three-Eight with their tickets ready for inspection. Thank you."
"I hope you get home safely," said Sarolyn as she left for the Naboo flight. The Rodians waved goodbye.
As Sarolyn stepped through the threshold of the Royal Starlines cruiser, a stewardess ushered her to her seat near the rear of the cabin. Sarolyn stowed her holdall in the overhead rack and sat down.
The skyscrapers of Coruscant were visible through the porthole, surrounded by the ceaseless bustle of traffic. The small starship gradually filled with passengers, and a well-dressed Sullustan male settled with a groan into the seat alongside Sarolyn. Without saying a word, the Sullustan unfurled a data-pad and began scribbling away on its electronic "paper" surface.
A shiny, insect-headed protocol droid strutted on board. It stood at the front of the cabin and addressed the passengers: ‘"I am 4-LOM at your service," said the droid in a precise, clipped voice, "and welcome to Royal Starlines flight 260137 to Naboo Theed." It continued its welcome patter in a number of languages as the latecomers settled down in their seats. 4-LOM announced that the ETA to Theed Civic Spaceport would be twenty hours, and that meals would be served in the Restaurant. The droid added that the cruiser had a licensed bar plus casino and cinema.
The engines started up and Sarolyn could feel the ship rise from the platform, the sensation causing her stomach to fall. The connecting tube withdrew into the side of the spaceport building as if were a worm retreating into its hole.
The cityscape of Coruscant dropped away as the brightly painted cruiser accelerated into the atmosphere, the inertia pushing Sarolyn into her seat. After a few minutes, the ship turned, bringing the glittering globe of Coruscant into view. Traffic swarmed around the planet like moths around a streetlight.
"Might I have your attention, please?" said 4-LOM. "We will shortly be entering hyperspace. Once in hyperspace, passengers may unfasten their seatbelts and smoke if they wish.’
As Sarolyn peered through the porthole, Coruscant was suddenly pulled from view, as if the entire world had been snatched away by an angry hand. The stars stretched like spaghetti, merging into a shimmering blur as the ship jumped into another dimension.
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