It had been a welcome relief to be walking downhill, thought Ayo as he helped Yarua and Zibeon set up the tent. The three of them were exhausted after the long trek across the plain.
They had chosen a secluded meadow on the bank of the River Kathra, a fast-moving stream whose clear water rushed over the polished boulders of its bed. The sun sat low on the horizon, casting shafts of warm light through the trees, and clouds of insects surrounded the three travellers as they completed the construction of the camp.
Once the tent was ready Yarua and Zibeon went out to gather wood for the campfire, returning a few minutes later with a large bundle of sticks and a dead shullamo, a small mammal native to the riverbanks of Naboo.
"I’ve checked with Peetoo," said Ayo as he arranged the collection of twigs and branches into a wigwam and crouched down with his blaster set to its lowest intensity. He had adjusted the weapon to fire a continuous beam, for the morning’s rain had soaked the wood, rendering it difficult to ignite.
"Mandalore’s ships touched down earlier this afternoon," Ayo continued as he blew gently at the smouldering sticks, coaxing them to catch light. "As soon as we get the coolant, we’ll be able to get that bastard once and for all." He pointed to a path that cut through the long, flower-flecked grass. "The farm’s five miles away down that track. We’ll camp here tonight and raid it tomorrow night."
Yarua barked at Ayo, having discovered a flaw in the plan. He was concerned that the palace would be heavily guarded.
"Yeah, I know," said Ayo. "It’ll be a job getting in, but I’m sure someone inside’ll help us... " Ayo gazed absently at the darkening sky. "I can feel it."
Yarua laughed and nudged Ayo. He thought that his companion sounded like some sort of Jedi.
* * *
As she retired to her boudoir, Japhta Fett was greeted by two handmaidens. One of the maids was Stefné, the new recruit, and the other was an older, fair-haired woman named Vanda, who still bore an air of youth despite her years of domestic service to Mandalore.
Vanda took Japhta’s evening gown and carefully placed it on a hangar, draping the garment with tissue as she hung it upon the rail.
"Thank you, Vanda," said Japhta, dismissing her with a sharp wave. "You may go."
The two handmaidens silently left the boudoir, for protocol demanded that servants be invisible to the Master and Mistress of the House.
As Japhta undressed, she planned her moves that would lead to the capture of the Jedi. The two maids attending to her wardrobe were not Jedi, for she had known Vanda for years and Stefné seemed somewhat scatterbrained, but nonetheless the Jedi was at large, somewhere.
An idea sprung to her mind. She had discovered a foolproof way of ensnaring her quarry.
"Yes!" she whispered to herself. "Thraurrallgisc’s little bootlickers!"
As she draped her clothes over the hangar for Vanda and Stefné to put away, Japhta decided that the human and the Wookiee who had escaped from Despayre would make the perfect bait. She rushed to the computer terminal in the Master Bedroom.
The Master Bedroom adjoined the boudoir. Japhta sat before the computer and the screen flickered into life. She had no need to program the machine, for all she had to do was manipulate it with the Force. She requested the position of the Red Planet via the satellite tracking network.
Japhta smiled. The information appeared efficiently before her, and she was pleased with what she could see. The ship had landed in Gungan territories and the two criminals should be somewhere en route. She instructed the MHG Computer to contact the P2 unit aboard their ship.
More text flashed upon the screen, accompanied by a map of the Myreionill peninsula. Japhta rubbed her hands with glee, for she now had their exact position and there was no way that they could escape.
Japhta picked up the vidcom and dialled the subspace access code for the tenants of Kathra Farm, part of the vast swathes of MHG-owned real-estate on Naboo.
A fat, surly-looking man with a porky complexion and carrot-coloured hair appeared on the vidcom’s tiny screen. He scratched his beard as he smiled at the pale, blonde features of Japhta Fett.
"Ah, Lad’ Fett," purred the farmer in his thick rural Naboo accent. "’Ow you ‘day?" The farmer smiled a hairy smile.
Japhta ignored the farmer’s attempt at small talk. Besides, she could barely understand what the man was saying.
"I have some friends coming to visit you," she said.
The farmer looked puzzled. "Friends o’ yours, m’lad’?"
"Yes," said Japhta. "A human and a Wookiee. They will come either tonight or tomorrow night and steal your landspeeder."
The farmer frowned and scratched his beard. "Yer...what...er...m’lad’?" he asked, without the faintest idea as to what was going on. "This a wind-up or somefink?"
Japhta’s expression remained static, causing the farmer to fidget with unease. The girl’s piercing, almost psychotic eyes seemed to bore straight into his mind.
"This is what you are going to do," said Japhta, discreetly moulding the man’s mind with the Force. "You are going to let them take your speeder, but you will make it difficult for them. I want you to put up a fight so that things look convincing."
The farmer laughed. The mind trick had no effect. Japhta was forced to use a more direct approach.
"Obviously, you consider me a fool, playing silly, childish games," she said coldly, "but if you co-operate with me, I will ensure that you are rewarded. However," Japhta’s voice too on a threatening edge, "if you think you are so big and clever that you can ridicule my instructions, I will see to it that we no longer purchase any of your crops. In addition, your rent will be increased to compensate for your flippancy. I’m sure there are many others on this planet that could run Kathra Farm more efficiently than you."
The farmer’s face fell, visions of the Community Initiatives Centre for the Destitute dancing in his mind.
"Yeah, M’Lad’," he stuttered. "I dooze what you say."
"See that you do," warned Japhta before hanging up. The farmer disappeared from the screen. Japhta had one more call to make. The officer in charge of House Security had to be informed. A silver guardtrooper’s helmet appeared on the screen.
"General Crouze," said Japhta, "I want you to send a patrol to position eight, nine, nine, two, one, six, one, two. A band of criminals have landed in the swamp there. I want you to find their ship and destroy it."
"Yes, My Lady," said General Crouze in his electronically modulated tones. "Over and out"
As Japhta Fett switched off the vidcom, she smiled to herself. She had Thraurrallgisc’s spies right where she wanted them, and they would serve their purpose admirably. The days of that snooping Jedi roaming the Mansion were numbered.
* * *
Sarolyn’s feet ached like they had never ached before as she stood at the sink scrubbing the carbonised pots and pans whilst Jacqué and Jen operated the dishwasher. Sarolyn had spent the entire evening rushing to and fro, collecting the dirty cooking vessels from the kitchen, washing and drying them, before returning them to their appropriate shelves.
Japhta Fett’s banquet was over, but the kitchen still needed to be cleared. Sarolyn’s work was far from done, for the sideboard had once again been piled high with items awaiting her attention. She trudged exhaustedly over to the mountain of kitchenware and hefted it to her grease-stained chest.
Adoum, Li and the other chefs were lounging around the central prep table as they ate their supper, the remains of the wol cabasshite that had been so gratefully received by their Mistress. Sarolyn looked up at them as she carted the washing-up back to the sink. Lazy sods, she thought as she studied them. They could at least lend a hand!
Adoum must have caught her sour gaze, for as Sarolyn deposited the pots into the water, his snarling, nasal voice called after her:
"You’ve got the kitchens to clean after that."
Sarolyn ignored Adoum as she tackled the last of the cast-offs from the stove. She felt hot, tired and dirty. The front of her boiler suit was encrusted with filth and she could feel the grease cling to her skin like a film of glue.
Jacqué and Jen joined Sarolyn at the sinks, carrying with them the heavy, cast-iron gratings and burner heads from the gas range. The three of them set to work, scraping away the blackened growths of charred food from the dismantled hob.
"Not much to do now,’ said Jen to her new colleagues. "Once we’ve cleaned the cooker and these last few pots, we’ll just have to mop the floor, and that’s it."
Jacqué breathed a sigh of relief. Her dainty hands had become wrinkled from their constant immersion. She wiped her brow with a soapy arm. She could not wait to climb into bed. The thought that she would have to get up early tomorrow morning...Jacqué stole a quick glance at the wall chrono and noticed that it was well past local midnight. She mentally corrected herself. The thought that she would have to get up early this morning sent shivers down her spine.
Sarolyn dried the pots with a frayed cloth that was becoming saturated with greasy water. She glanced around the scullery, wondering where they belonged.
"Those go on the top shelf, Sara," said Jen, noticing the confused Sarolyn glancing around the room as if blinded. The space on the shelf snapped into view as if Sarolyn had suddenly awoken from a dream. She was tired and her grip on the Force was loosening. Rest was long overdue.
* * *
A vyona shrieked as it flitted across the dark meadow. The stream continued its hypnotic babbling, and the stars shone in patches in the sky, partially blotted out by the clouds that were outlined by the light of the smaller moon. The larger of Naboo’s two satellites had long since set, as if it were a shy child hiding from an unexpected visitor.
The three travellers slept in their tent, replenishing energy drained by their epic journey across the countryside. The vyona continued its screeching, its wings catching the moonlight as it flapped skywards with a baby shullamo hanging from its claws. The occupants of the tent slept on.
A distant rumble disturbed the grazing shullamos, a persistant roar that grew louder all the while. It was too long, too much of a continuous, low whistle to be mistaken for thunder. The sound was artificial, and was approaching the camp.
The noise disturbed Zibeon, and he waddled over to Ayo’s sleeping bag. The small alien prodded the sleeping pilot.
"I-o," said Zibeon quietly as he tapped Ayo’s ear. "I-o."
Ayo awoke with a groan. He rubbed his eyes and squinted blindly into the darkness. "What is it, little’un?" he whispered.
"Thay-taesss," whimpered Zibeon. "Thay...taessss!" Zibeon hissed with fear, the air sacs in his cheeks puffing out in a primaeval fighting display.
"A what?" asked Ayo, slightly irritated that he had been disturbed.
"Thay-taesss!" repeated Zibeon. Ayo could sense that the little creature was shaking with fear.
Ayo stroked Zibeon. The pilot had no idea what a "thaytase" was, but he guessed that it was something fierce that roamed the jungles and fens of Despayre.
"There aren’t any thaytases here, Zibeon," said Ayo gently. "They’re a long way away. We’re— " He suddenly broke off. Zibeon was right. He could hear an approaching jet engine. It might not be anything as exotic as a Zephoid Zez-eating monster, but it was still a cause for concern. Ayo woke Yarua, who growled.
"Sh!" whispered Ayo. "Listen."
The whistling roar was becoming louder. Ayo reached for his rucksack and pulled out the electrobinoculars while Yarua fumbled around for the computer terminal.
As he located the computer, the tent was flooded with light as the roar grew to a deafening fortissimo. Zibeon crawled beneath Ayo’s sleeping bag and cowered there, panting, his cheek sacs puffed out in terror.
Something very loud sped past, causing the canvas to flap excitedly in its wake. Ayo rushed outside, brandishing the binocs. He peered along the valley as caught sight of a shape receding into the night, casting a powerful fan of light before it. The sound of its engines echoed around the hills.
"Some kind of speedskiff," said Ayo as Yarua and Zibeon emerged from the tent to investigate. At that moment, the camp was once again flooded with light. Yarua barked urgently as a pair of searchlights scowled down the rough, dirt track, bearing down like a stampeding bantha. Ayo leapt aside, rolling into the trees beside the stream, as a second speeder-cum-skiff roared past, closely followed by a third. Ayo was fortunate not to have been cleft in two by those powerful machines.
As the three vessels receded into the darkness, Ayo, scratched and stinging from his desperate dive into the undergrowth, picked himself up and hefted the binoculars to his eyes, following the fading comet of light from the trailing skiff.
"Damn!" said Ayo as he lowed the binocs. "They’re heading straight for the Gungan swamp. That can mean only one thing -- Mandalore’s sent some heavies to attack the ship."
Yarua hurriedly unfolded the computer terminal and extended its aerial. He growled and barked at Ayo as he entered a string of machine code. A diagram of the Red Planet appeared on the screen, annotated with text and diagrams of the ship’s systems.
Yarua’s typing had always amazed Ayo. He could never believe how one with such huge fingers could manipulate the tiny keys, buttons that were designed for human digits. Eventually it dawned on him that Yarua used his seldom-used retractable claws to prod the keys.
Yarua grunted and pointed at the display.
Ayo swore. The batteries contained insufficient residual power. They could not seal the hatches and raise the shields.
"We’ll just have to batten down the hatches and hope for the best," said Ayo, using an archaic expression that had survived from the distant days of seafaring exploration. He sincerely hoped that Koraetor Mandalore’s thugs were not too persistent.Forward to Chapter 24 Back to Chapter 22 Home