The domes and towers of the MHG research institute glinted in the Despayrian sunlight as Japhta Fett’s F-wing settled into a docking bay deep within the sprawling complex. A team of hangar attendants hurriedly steered a stepladder into position alongside the cockpit as the Director, coughing loudly, strode up to the fighter and waited as Japhta emerged.

“It’s so good to see you again, My Lady,” grovelled the Director with a low bow. “I trust you, er,” he gesticulated as he searched for his words, “you had a pleasant journey?”

“Get the warheads loaded,” ordered Japhta, ignoring his pleasantries, “and alert security. We could have unwelcome visitors at any moment.”

“Yes, My Lady,” said the Director as he followed Japhta into a long corridor. Vast hothouses full of Paskoloid fungus-trees were visible through the transparisteel walls of the passageway as they rushed towards the Laboratory Suite.

The Director produced a comm unit from his tunic pocket. “Security,” he said into the device as he followed his Mistress, “I want the tractor beam activated and all sections on alert.”

“Give me that!” snapped Japhta as she stopped in her tracks. She motioned for the comm unit. The Director handed it to her and waited patiently as she spoke.

“Security, this is Lady Fett,” she said, taking charge of the situation. “A band of criminals have stolen the Millennium Falcon from Fort Myreion and are on their way here to sabotage our work.” Japhta scowled at the thought of Sarolyn Lordan aboard her favourite starship. “They are armed and dangerous.” She returned the unit to the Director as he led the way.

The corridor gave way to a wide double door that swished aside to reveal the main research lab. The Director gestured politely for Japhta to enter.

“Before we load the warheads,” said Japhta with curiosity, “I’d like to see what the Black Rot can do, now that it’s ready.”

“Certainly, My Lady,” said the Director as he offered Japhta a seat before a tall, transparent tube set alongside a bank of instruments in one corner of the room. “Would you like a cup of coffee or something?”

Japhta nodded.

The Director snapped his fingers and a technician appeared as if by magic. The tech was tall and wiry with close-cropped red hair. He bowed before his superiors.

“I’d like to show Her Ladyship what we’ve been doing,” said the Director without looking at the technician. “Could you arrange for a Sample and a dryvoice, please?” The Director gave the young man a supercilious smile.

As the tech turned to carry out his instructions, the Director suddenly realised that he had omitted an important request from Lady Fett. He had offered her a drink. The offer had been accepted, and he did not wish to appear unprofessional by forgetting something so simple. The Director prided himself with his professionalism. It was a quality that ensured success.

“Oh,” he called, stopping the technician just as he was about to leave the lab. “Could we have two coffees, please?”

The technician nodded respectfully before leaving the lab. A few moments later, he returned with a flask of Malastarian coffee upon a tray with cups, milk and sugar. Silently, he placed the tray upon a small table set before his superiors.

“Um,” said the tech with trepidation, “Professor Elyot’s on his way with the Sample, sir.”

Squealing could be heard from the corridor outside as Narf Elyot trundled in, carrying a large briefcase in his podgy hand. He bowed to Japhta.

“Ah, Narf,” said the Director with a smile. “Do come in.” Professor Elyot scowled at the technician, who was rummaging through a tall cupboard behind them.

“You know, sir,” said Elyot casually as he produced four white cover-all body suits from his briefcase, “I often wonder why we bother having technicians. They’re a waste of space, really.”

Elyot was deliberately antagonising his red-haired subordinate, whose pink complexion had turned ruddy in response to the Professor’s remarks. He glared at Elyot as the screaming from outside grew louder. A shocktrooper marched into the lab, dragging behind him a struggling Zephoid Zez male. The creature’s squeals filled the room.

“Well done,” said the Director above the noise as Japhta looked on with anticipation. “Put it in.”

The shocktrooper carried the struggling creature to the glass tube and dropped him in. The Zez, who had been bound hand and foot, flung its body against the toughened glass in a desperate attempt to escape. The guard turned and left, the doors shutting behind him with a hiss.

“You, technician,” barked Elyot at his assistant, who was whirling a sling hygrometer over the top of the tube. “Put this on.” The Professor threw one of the body suits at the technician before donning his own. The suits fitted loosely over the clothes and covered the face with a clear visor.

Japhta and the Director, encapsulated like caterpillars in their suits, waited patiently before the screaming prisoner. The Director frowned with irritation as the squealing bored into his ears, but he consoled himself that the ugly, useless animal would soon he dead.

The technician studied the readings from the hygrometer.

“Temperature: twenty degrees,” he mumbled as he squinted at the device and compared the readings with a small slide rule, “relative humidity: fifty-six percent.” The technician put down the device and proceeded to don his body suit.

Professor Elyot clapped his hands and rubbed them together with an enthusiastic rustle. “Good,” he said briskly. “Sounds like the average Neimoidian climate.” Elyot reached into his briefcase and brought out a tiny metal capsule. He held it to the light and showed it to his superiors.

“This,” he explained with pride, “contains one tenth-of-an-ounce-worth of genetically modified Black Rot in vacuum conditions. When the holding tube containing the animal is sealed, a small charge will release the spores. What’ll happen next will explain itself.”

As Japhta, the Director and Elyot watched, the technician dropped the capsule into the tube with a clatter. The Zez, petrified with fear, watched it roll around the floor.

Whistling casually to himself, Elyot walked across to a control panel and pressed a series of buttons. A transparisteel sheath descended over the holding tube, isolating the Zez within an airtight cocoon.

Japhta’s excitement was now beyond restraint. As if she were a child in an interactive museum, she jumped from her seat and crouched close to the enclosure, her visor inches from the eyes of the panting Zez behind. The creature jumped, its tongue lolling from its mouth as the capsule exploded in a puff of smoke.

“Watch carefully, My Lady,” said the Director as the Zez began to cough. Narf Elyot and his team had worked hard in the past few months developing and testing this secret weapon and they were staking their reputations and careers upon the success of this test.

The captive Zephoid Zez continued its coughing fit, doubling up in pain as it foamed at the mouth. Without warning, the Zez vomited, splattering the tube with a foul mixture of blood, stomach contents and slime. Japhta recoiled, thinking for a moment that the creature had exploded.

The Director pulled his supercilious smile at Japhta’s reaction. “Just a tenth of an ounce,” he said with pride as Japhta skirted around the tube in order to gain a clear view of the Zez’s death throes, “of modified Black Rot spores have done this.” He pointed to the creature as it slumped to the floor of the tube, black slime oozing from its orifices. “The modified Rot is totally resistant to all known antibiotics.”

Japhta returned in silent amazement to her seat as Zez’s flesh began to break down. “You’ve done well, Director, and His Lordship will be impressed. How much had you made?”

The Director coughed as the two technicians in bodysuits entered the lab and proceeded to remove the sealed holding tube for solar disposal. “We have produced a total of two hundred warheads so far, My Lady. Each contains enough to depopulate a system within days. The warheads are small, and the spores are hardy enough to withstand atmospheric entry.”

“We must test your claims at once, Director,” said Japhta as they rise from their seats. She turned to Professor Elyot. “Tell your techs to load a warhead onto one of the courier missiles and set its course for Neimoidia.” Japhta paused and took a deep breath. She and Darth Rakshas had waited a long time for this moment, the moment when they could finally demonstrate the awesome magnitude of their power. With the Trade Federation out of their way, the Republic would be theirs for the taking.

Forward to Chapter 41

Back to Chapter 39