Three pairs of headlights screamed across the dark plain, illuminating the grassy dunes as the skiffs sped towards the edge of the swamp and the boundary with the Gungan territories.
General Crouze stood at the rear of the trailing skiff, the optimum position from where he could view the entire unit of guardtroopers. He and his captain had been issued with specific orders from Lady Fett: they were to locate the stolen senatorial ship and destroy it.
Crouze growled an order into his helmet radio and the three skiffs slowed to a halt near the edge of the swamp. The headlights were extinguished, restoring darkness to the countryside.
The guardtrooper unit had no need for lights. The eyecams within their helmets allowed clear infra-red vision that offered perfect stealth. Crouze scanned his surroundings with the 360-degree periscope that jutted up from his helmet like an antenna. The plain took on a ghostly form and a scampering shullamo glowed brightly with its own bodyheat, shining like a hot coal.
A few hundred yards away the general noticed the remains of a camp. The grass had been displaced and a pile of ash stood as a monument to the departed travellers.
The guardtrooper unit climbed silently down from the skiffs, their armoured form outlined by the faint moonlight. As they disembarked, they hoisted their heavy blaster rifles over their shoulders, ribbons of energy cartridges draped across their chests.
Crouze was cautious, and he felt that the use of such heavy weaponry was justified. There were dangerous creatures lurking within these swamps, and Lady Fett’s protectors must always be prepared.
The darkness was total in the depths of the swamp, but Captain Anatida of the Gungans knew every square foot of his muddy territory. Boss Gnule had ordered him and his patrol to guard the outlanders’ sky-bongo, which was perched upon its patch of high ground like a large, dark creature poised to fly off into the night.
The patrol consisted of twelve Militiagungs, all hand-picked by Anatida to carry out the Big Boss’s instructions. Gnule had held the human and the tall, hairy creature in high esteem and he wished his outlander friends every success in ridding his world of the evil ‘Mandalorey’. When they returned to Otolla City, they would be welcomed as heroes.
Something rustled in the undergrowth, causing some of the patrol’s kaadu mounts to jump with fright.
"Steady...steady..." said the captain. "Wesa goin’ roun’ da skeebeetle, okeday?"
The patrol murmured happily amongst themselves, relieved at their captain’s decision to skirt around the intimidating starship. As Anatida led his troops back into the dark swamp, he heard something slithering ahead. He reined his kaadu to a halt.
"Sh!" he ordered to his patrol. The patrol stood motionless astride their kaadus.
Anatida gasped as he suddenly came face-to-face with a fearsome armour-plated man. The masked stranger said nothing, and in the darkness, he appeared to be carrying some kind of weapon. The Gungan captain raised his spear and challenged this intruder.
"Yousa!" he barked from the safety of his mount. "Stoppa dare!"
General Crouze said nothing. Unseen by the primitive who had just challenged him, he sent a pulse-code message to Fort Myreion via a tongue-operated transponder within his helmet. The face of Japhta Fett appeared in his viewscreen.
"Fry them," ordered Japhta. "They’re vermin."
Crouze acknowledged his Mistress before sending a mobilising code to the ranks. The rest of the unit slowly emerged from the ferns, their heavy weapons at the ready.
"Mesa Cappatain Anatida," said the lead Gungan as he fixed Crouze with a steady gaze, "and yousa in da Gungan land. Yousa no welly-com ere!"
The other Gungans brandished their spears, ready to protect their captain should his life be threatened.
Moving as one, the guardtroopers raised their rifles and wordlessly opened fire upon the Gungans, filling the swamp with a blanket of energy bolts that sliced through the trees.
Smoke filled the air as the relentless barrage cut down the Gungan patrol, the guardtroopers firing their rifles as if they were firemen tackling a blaze. The screams of dying Gungans echoed all around.
After a few minutes, General Crouze ordered a ceasefire, and his troops immediately lowered their weapons. The swamp was quiet. Not a single Gungan remained standing.
Crouze pursed his lips from behind his mask. He had nothing against these natives, but if her Ladyship considered them to be pests, then who was he to argue?
He was paid to carry out her instructions and was just as replaceable as any other MHG employee.
Crouze ordered the bodies cleared away. If another Gungan patrol came across the corpses, then the reputation of MHG could be at stake, and Lord Mandalore would be most displeased if it were found that his troops had openly committed butchery. Crouze knew that Mandalore was brutal, but the general public were to think otherwise.
As three guardtroopers set to work gathering the slain Gungans and their kaadus, Crouze led the rest of the unit to the dark form of the Red Planet.
The guardtroopers inspected the silent ship. Usually, a grounded starship emitted a faint electric hum as the various systems drew power from the reactor. This intrigued Crouze as he downloaded data about the recent events on Despayre via his helmet computer. The computer told Crouze that the ship had sustained serious reactor damage after suffering a direct hit. It had probably flown to Naboo under battery power.
Crouze smiled and allowed himself a discreet chuckle. He would not have to waste firepower; with a bit of ingenuity, the ship could destroy itself.
Crouze ordered his men to blow open the sealed hatch of the ship. With quick efficiency, two of them reached up and encircled the hatch with small, self-adhesive charges. Shielding their bodies from the blast, the troops ducked as the hatch blew open, showering the ground with shrapnel.
Standing directly below the opening General Crouze ignited the jet pack strapped to his back, and he rocketed into the ship’s belly. Once inside, he scanned the darkened interior, noting the position of the Reactor Status Panel that governed the nuclear furnace behind its protective shield.
The display began to flash as Crouze programmed the reactivation sequence into the panel, and the cabin lights flickered on as the reactor powered up. A siren wailed, indicating that the unstable power core was becoming dangerously hot.
* * *
Yarua barked urgently at Ayo as he waved the computer terminal before him.
"What’s going on?" asked Ayo, catching sight of the red warning sign flashing at the bottom of the screen. His eyes widened in alarm. "The reactor’s come on again!"
Ayo snatched the computer from Yarua and frantically began to type. "I’m trying to get Peetoo to sort it out before it blows," he said as Yarua and Zibeon crouched beside him, eager to know the full details. Ayo cursed under his breath as yet another error message appeared before him. If Peetoo was unable to clear things up, they could be stranded.
* * *
Amid the frantic wailing of the Red Planet’s sirens, General Crouze jumped down from the hatch and ordered an immediate evacuation. The swamp was suddenly ablaze with light and sound as the guardtroopers ignited their rocket packs and blasted away to safety seconds before the Red Planet exploded.
* * *
Yarua roared and shook the computer, confused and worried over the sudden loss of the signal from Peetoo. Ayo and Zibeon leant over and peered at the blank screen. A frightening conclusion formed in Ayo’s mind, but he tried to keep it at bay. He tapped the keyboard and toggled the operating switch a few times, checking to see whether the power supply was still functioning. Yarua had fitted a new battery just before they left the ship, one that should last at least five years.
The aerial was properly connected, the battery was new, and there was no malfunction whatsoever. As the wind rustled the trees, Ayo gave Yarua an ominous look. His stomach began to churn and his heart seemed to sink into his boots.
"There’s no signal, Yarua," sighed Ayo sadly. "I’ve checked everything." Ayo swallowed. His throat had become dry and his voice was refusing to work. He coughed and rubbed his face. He suspected the worst.
Zibeon could sense Ayo’s distress and he waddled across to him. The small alien gently touched Ayo’s nose with a webbed claw and whimpered. Ayo looked at Zibeon and hugged him, seeking comfort from his new friend. Yarua let out a concerned growl, wanting to know what happened.
"There’s no turning back," said Ayo in a small, quiet voice. "Peetoo didn’t make it. The ship’s been destroyed."Forward to Chapter 25 Back to Chapter 23 Home