Supreme Chancellor Rhoufheigh and her aide, a tall elegant-looking woman named Suma Calpyne, sat at one end of the large, elliptical table that dominated the Cabinet Meeting Chamber, the very centre of the Republic bureaucracy. This quiet, studious room formed the source of every decision taken by Central Government and was a place of discussion between the Chancellor and her Cabinet of departmental Ministers chosen from her party to oversee the immense Republic machine.

Rhoufheigh and Calpyne were joined by five guests: Jedi Master Dessk was seated opposite, flanked by Chastacyrrhi, Thraurrallgisc, Ralrracheen and Elaison Fitje. Alongside her somewhat imposing visitors, Rhoufheigh appeared small and doll-like.

Fitje surveyed the room. Helmetted, blue-robed guards stood motionless around the walls. They remained silent, a discreet but unmistakable reminder of the stringent security around the Chancellor. There were too many factions in the galaxy that bore a grudge against Levette Rhoufheigh.

“It’s all very well making allegations, Senator,” said Rhoufheigh in her high, childish voice, “but you can’t just expect the Republic to act without proof of these, er, ‘atrocities’ you say that MHG are committing.” Rhoufheigh clasped her hands and smiled at Thraurrallgisc, a small, toothless smile that decorated her peachy face like a stab wound. The old senator studied the Supreme Chancellor as she spoke, examining the woman’s face to see if she actually owned a set of teeth. As Rhoufheigh’s lips fluttered back and forth to form her words, Thraurrallgisc could find no evidence whatsoever of dentition in her shrunken mouth.

Dessk flicked his tongue. He was well aware that he and Yoda had acted against the wishes of the Senate when they sent Bil-Kit’s apprentice under cover as part of her Trial. Thraurrallgisc’s people, on the other hand, had endured much abuse from MHG’s private police licensed to impose the corporate will of Mandalore upon the worlds they patrol.

“With all due respect, Supreme Chancellor,” hissed Dessk politely, “one of our most respected Jedi Masters witnessed at first hand the brutality of MHG’s cracktroopers whilst on Sorensia. They were forbidden to intervene by the Senate, and that misguided decision cost this Master his life.”

“I was sorry to hear about Master Bil-Kit,” admitted Rhoufheigh, “but you can’t just act as judge and jury on the basis of some kind of ‘force’ that you imagine exists. The situation here has deteriorated. The flu epidemic is out of control, and the Health Service can barely cope. Lord Mandalore and his team are working extremely hard to bring this matter under control. Despite what you say, Master Dessk, I have every faith in him.”

Chastacyrrhi bristled at Rhoufheigh’s belittlement of his and Dessk’s skills. It seemed that she cared more for Mandalore than she did for the Republic, but he held his tongue. The gravity of the situation here on Coruscant had deepened during their time on Sorensia. Millions, the young, old and weak, had died and there seemed to be nothing that medicine could do to relieve the suffering. If the disease found it way offworld, the consequences could be catastrophic. Rhoufheigh looked haggard and ill.

“Don’t underestimate the Force, Chancellor,” said Dessk, looking her in the eye. “It can be used for good, but,” Dessk voice took on a darker tone, “it can also be used for evil.” Dessk pointed at Fitje. “This is Elaison Fitje, a CID officer for MHG Police. He has kindly agreed to help us investigate Lord Mandalore on your behalf. Might I respectfully suggest that you listen to what he has to say?”

Fitje coughed and shuffled in his seat, discreetly wiping the sweat from his hands. He had never before been in the company of the Supreme Chancellor, and the experience daunted him. As a member of MHG staff, he had been forced to support the Commonwealth of Free Worlds, and Rhoufheigh had been given almost divine status within the Corporation.

“S...supreme Chancellor,” began Fitje, trying hard to choose the correct words, “MHG staff had staged a General Strike against Lord Mandalore’s proposed restructure of the planet’s industry, and the planet had been brought to a standstill. There were riots in the centre of Sheofe and we were told to restore order by whatever means necessary.”

“Civil disobedience and affray are unlawful,” agreed Suma Calpyne as she glanced at Rhoufheigh for approval, “and rules are made to be kept. Lord Mandalore was well within his rights to apply for an Emergency Powers warrant.”

“Two Jedi Knights had been sent to Sorensia to monitor events as they unfolded,” said Fitje. Rhoufheigh nodded in reply. “The local police had been instructed to restore production, and the Special Police had been drafted in to give assistance. Lady Fett came to personally oversee the operation.”

Dessk turned to the Chancellor. “Yoda and I had sent Master Bil-Kit Jinn and his Padawan learner, Sarolyn Lordan, to Sorensia as observers. We’d decided to tread carefully. The rest of the Council felt, as I did, that out legal footing could have become compromised if we openly defied the Senate and intervened without permission.”

“And quite right you were, Master Dessk,” admonished the Supreme Chancellor, “not to defy the Senate. MHG would certainly have had a strong legal case against you. Indeed, I have reason to believe that proceedings have already begun in connection with the late Bil-Kit Jinn.”

“Master Bil-Kit was under attack. He and Lordan acted in self defence.”

“Yes, but Lord Mandalore is able to hire the best lawyers,” said Rhoufheigh. “If he files a case against you, he will win.”

“Which brings us to the reason we’re here,” said Fitje, advancing the topic of discussion. “Lord Mandalore has bought the freeholds to entire worlds, and their governments are little more than tenants. MHG charges extortionate ground rents. Mandalore controls their industries and economies, plundering the wealth for his own ends and leaving the dregs. Sorensia’s in decline, Chancellor. It used to be a prosperous world, but now it’s dying.”

“Sound’s like Thraurrallgisc’s socialist nonsense has rubbed off on you, Elaison,” twittered Rhoufheigh as Thraurrallgisc growled and worfled at length, a polite resentment in the tone of his voice.

[Senatorr Thraurrallgisc feels insulted by yourr comments, Suprreme Chancellorr,] purred Ralrracheen. [My employerr has almost unlimited compassion for those weakerr and less fortunate than ourselves. Do you, Suprreme Chancellorr, share that compassion?]

“Lord Mandalore’s wealth and power is a direct result of your government’s policies of unregulated free enterprise.” The Trandoshan turned to Fitje. “Did you have any employment rights at MHG?”

“No,” said Fitje. “It was forbidden to join a trade union and any questioning of a Line Manager’s instructions resulted in immediate dismissal without references. Wilful unemployment disqualifies you from Income Support.”

“So you have it,” said Dessk. “Mandalore rules his empire by fear, a culture that could engulf the entire Republic if we do not act now.”

“I think you’re being alarmist,” twittered Rhoufheigh with a patronising giggle.

“We are not being alarmist,” argued Fitje. “Although MHG might be doing great things in trying to bring the flu under control, we have reason to believe that they have enslaved the Zephoid Zez, a primitive but intelligent species native to Despayre.

“Just before you came to power, Your Excellency, Despayre was explored and mapped by a group of Chandrilan scientists funded by Minister Whyteleafe. It is packed with natural resources, and we have found out that MHG Pharmaceuticals had set up a biotechnical research base there. I sense that they are using the Zephoid Zez to test something.”

“I have read the report, Master Jedi,” said Rhoufheigh, slightly irritated by Dessk’s attitude to MHG. “The base was set up to cultivate a strain of fungobacterium that had been discovered not only to cure the flu but evolve alongside similar strains so that all similar viruses would be destroyed. The result will be complete immunity. Cip Whyteleafe has personally assured me that no indigenous life form has been harmed during the development.”

“We, too, have read the report,” said Fitje. “The Black Rot killed the entire team of explorers. What could be developed as a vaccine could also be made into a weapon.”

Rhoufheigh laughed. “Mandalore signed the Anti Bioweapon Proliferation Treaty himself. We have nothing to fear, Elaison.”

“I know, Supreme Chancellor,” said Dessk, “but a treaty is little more than a document based on trust. In this day and age, promises mean little. And on that topic, why were Chasta and I refused passage to Despayre by the Department of Transport? They told us that cruiser could not be booked to travel off the lanes.”

Rhoufheigh scratched her head, lightly ruffling her dark red hair. “Yes, but the Republic Fleet’s in great demand. Funds for new ships are stretched at the moment.” She smiled.

Senator Thraurrallgisc barked at Rhoufheigh.

[The Senatorr,] translated Ralrra, [says that the prrivatisation of the Merrchant Fleet has led to shortage of long-distance vessels.]

“Supreme Chancellor,” said Fitje, “because he was barred from seeing things for himself, Master Dessk had to seek the help of Senator Thraurrallgisc here. Thraurrallgisc secretly sent his starship crew to Despayre to gather intelligence on the Jedi’s behalf.”

“As an extra precaution,” added Dessk, “we sent a Padawan under cover to Naboo to spy on Mandalore. We have not heard from her since her arrival there.”

Fitje indicated to the Wookiee senator. “Mandalore ordered Thraurrallgisc’s arrest, concerned that something might be uncovered on Despayre. I was put in charge of the investigation and we held him on Sorensia for questioning.” Fitje smiled smugly at Rhoufheigh, his grey moustache pulling tight beneath his nose. “Since our return,” he beamed, “I’ve had a little nose around Minister Whyteleafe’s accounts, and it seems that he has paid several large sums of money to a private account on Scziorn. Tell me, Your Honour. When did you last see Cip Whyteleafe?’

“He’s been offworld, on business,” said Rhoufheigh flatly.

“Do you also not think that the reports on the Black Rot and this flu epidemic seem to be a little more then just a coincidence? After all, there’s this planet with this pretty nasty black slime that can miraculously cure a planetwide epidemic. Money’s changing hands, and guess who’s lining their pockets from the suffering of millions? We know about MHG’s ongoing feud with the Trade Federation, and he’s got the perfect opportunity to get rid of them, using the flu as cover. Whyteleafe supplies the readies and he gets a very good return on his capital investment.”

A look of concern crossed Rhoufheigh’s features as she glanced up at Suma Calpine standing beside her. These allegations had come as a shock to her, and as she dwelled on Fitje’s words, the logic of his argument became clear. Cip? One of her most trusted Ministers and closest friends embezzling public funds? It was beyond comprehension. She looked Fitje in the eye.

“You’re making a very serious allegation against one of my Cabinet Ministers,” said Rhoufheigh quietly. “I hope you’ve got all your facts right.”

Dessk scanned the room, casting his gaze at everyone seated around the table. He flicked his tongue and blinked. Dessk had had enough of debate. The Jedi Master could sense a great danger to the whole of the Republic out on Despayre, and he feared for the safety of Sarolyn. Parlio Venstromence was right, Dessk thought. He should have gone under cover with her.

Dessk stared into Rhoufheigh’s eyebrowless eyes. “Now,” he gargled, discouraging argument, “we are going to Despayre. We have a cruiser at our disposal and we are going to bring back every last scrap of information about Mandalore and his connections with Whyteleafe. They have no intention whatsoever of bring the flu to an end. Something’s going on out there, something that they wish to hide, and we are going to stop it.” He flicked his tongue as Chastacyrrhi gave both women a hard gaze.

“We will succeed, Supreme Chancellor,” said Dessk as he and his companions rose from their seats. “I promise you.”

As her visitors filed out from the chamber, Supreme Chancellor Rhoufheigh leant forward and clasped the bridge of her nose between her fingers in a gesture of defeat. It the revelations about Cip Whyteleafe turned out to be true, then her reputation and that of her government would be in tatters. She doubted whether her Chancellorship could survive yet another scandal.

Forward to Chapter 39

Back to Chapter 37