“Saz...Saz!” said Neema urgently as she shook Sarolyn, who lay sprawled on her couch in the sleeping quarters. Sarolyn stirred and mumbled incoherently. Her face and hands were dripping with sweat and her robes were crumpled. “Sarolyn, wake up! We’re nearly there!”
With a start, Sarolyn awoke and glanced around the cabin in a confused daze. She had been exhausted following their escape from Naboo, having slept very little during her stay at Fort Myreion.
“Are you okay, Sarolyn?” asked Neema, worried at seeing her friend in such a state.
Sarolyn caught sight of Neema standing over her and suddenly remembered her whereabouts.
“I had that dream again, Neema,” said Sarolyn. “The strange, ringed planet...the evil spirits...Master Bil-Kit...but it was different this time: more vivid. I kept hearing these voices.”
“What did they say?”
“It was difficult to determine, but I could sense this unimaginable evil. They were saying something about the ‘Curse of Thon‘. The Force is becoming unbalanced, Neema.”
“Mum told me of many evil spirits that have been vanquished over the millennia,” said Neema. “Their essences still exist in the Force and you’re bound to hear them from time to time. She’s heard them too.”
Sarolyn sat up and dried her face. “You said that Vima kept mentioning ‘Thon’ . The voices kept saying that the Demon Thon will be exorcised and that ‘we will soon be free’ . Who will be free? Something’s happening, Neema, and it’s worrying me.”
Neema turned towards the door. “Come on, Saz,” she said as Sarolyn donned her cloak. “We’re getting close to Despayre.’
“If Vima’s been having these same visions that I have, then perhaps she might know what we’re being warned about. Do you have any idea?”
Neema shrugged her shoulders. “Mum never told me anything, Saz. I know as much as you do.”
The cockpit was busy as Ayo and Yarua prepared to bring the Millennium Falcon out of hyperspace. The two of them chattered between themselves as they monitored the instruments before them. Thriatizedd, plugged into a computer bank, hovered behind, turning his head to stare at the two girls as they entered.
Sarolyn watched Ayo and smiled. His wound was healing nicely, but she could sense that he still missed Zibeon. She could feel that loss in both of them.
“You ready, Yarua?” asked Ayo as he double-checked the jump co-ordinates. Yarua barked and nodded as Thriatizedd detached from the computer bank and hovered behind him. “Cut ‘em in.”
“All systems operational,” confirmed Thriatizedd in a rasping, metallic monotone. “Transition to realspace in five seconds.” The droid turned his eye-slit to the two girls. “Do you like my new voice?” he buzzed.
“Yes, Thriatizedd,” said Sarolyn. “Very fetching. It suits you.”
“Difficult to get a word in edgeways,” murmured Ayo as the ship burst out from hyperspace. A mouldy, green-veined planet appeared ahead.
“This is it, girls,” said Ayo, indicating to the planet before them. “Despayre.”
Sarolyn stood beside Ayo as he stared at the rapidly growing world, her hand resting on his shoulder. Ayo reached up and held it, stroking her fingers as they dangled across his tunic. He tried to block his feelings for Sarolyn. She was a Jedi Knight, a guardian of peace and justice for the Galactic Republic. Why should she fancy him? Ayo tried to concentrate on the controls before him, but it was difficult. He wanted Sarolyn. He had wanted her ever since she had rescued him and Yarua on Naboo.
“You and Yarua saw some pretty awful things down there, didn’t you?” said Sarolyn as Ayo executed a course correction with his free hand.
Sarolyn made no attempt to pull away her hand, and Ayo kept very still as he gazed calmly out at Despayre. He was reluctant to move in case Sarolyn withdrew. Her gentle touch made him feel at peace.
Ayo smiled and sighed. The plight of the Zephoid Zez was still strong in his mind.
“Yeah,” he answered. “Zibeon.”
“It’s not just the Zephoid Zez, Ayo,” said Sarolyn, her voice taking on a serious tone. “When I was undercover, I found out exactly why Mandalore has taken over Despayre.”
“What’s he been doing?”
“He’s developing a biological weapon capable of wiping out a planet’s entire biosphere,” said Sarolyn. “He’s genetically modifying a fungobacterium native to the planet called ‘Black Rot’”
Ayo’s face fell. He had known about the Rot when they first came here. The though of Zibeon’s people being used as a test bed for a weapon made him feel sick.
“Black Rot?” gasped a horrified Ayo as he squeezed Sarolyn’s hand. He swore out loud at the thought of the deadly slime. The Guvnor had nicked a confidential report from Minister Whyteleafe about an expedition to Despayre by a group of Chandrilan scientists when the system was discovered. The Republic had sent them to classify the life forms.
“The Rot was found when one of them got infected with the stuff. The poor sod died horribly, body rotting from within. They all got it. None of them survived.”
“Yes, I know,” said Sarolyn quietly. “I read all of this in Mandalore’s files. He’s got this feud going on with the Trade Federation, and he wants to wipe them all out. Whyteleafe’s funnelled billions of credits into its development.”
Ayo could not believe his ears. “Whyteleafe’s involved?” he asked with astonishment. “He’s the Guvnor’s biggest enemy in the Senate! Just wait till he hears about this!”
“The whole Senate’s going to hear about it,” said Sarolyn with a smile. “I’ve copied the files for the Jedi Council and the Chancellor.”
* * *
The launch tower of the institute was a hive of activity as the technicians, cocooned within their protective suits, carefully loaded a Black Rot warhead into the nosecone of a robot courier missile. The technicians stood in a neat line in the sterile environment, passing the warhead along the ranks as if it were a deadly game of pass-the-parcel. This was no game. The contents of the spherical payload could kill everything on the planet should they be released, and the Director was personally overseeing the operation for Her Ladyship. He was taking no chances.
His wrist comm vibrated. “Director,” he barked, raising his arm to speak into the unit.
“The Millennium Falcon has just come out of hyperspace, sir,” said a tinny voice from the unit’s speaker, “and is at an altitude of one planetary diameter and closing.”
“Right,” said the Director. “Alert security and bring them in. Is the tractor beam ready?”
“Yes, sir,” crackled the voice.
“Good. They must not be allowed to escape. Lady Fett’s orders.”
The Millennium Falcon lurched, throwing Sarolyn and Neema to the deck. The lights flickered and a siren wailed as the engines began to protest. Ayo swore and Yarua barked up at Thriatizedd.
“Unable to maintain course,” said the large, black droid. “The vehicle has been captured.”
“We’re caught in a tractor beam,” said Sarolyn as she peered at a display screen set into the console. “We’d better power down and sit tight.”
Yarua gesticulated and worfled at length. He did not fancy being beaten up by MHG shocktroopers again.
“Yarua’s got a point,” said Ayo, turning from the controls. “The base’s going to be crawling with troops, and they’ll board us as soon as we land.” He huffed with resignation. “Sarolyn, I don’t think we stand a chance down there.”
“We stand every chance,” retorted Neema, who was becoming annoyed by this pessimistic talk. “When I was a kid on Nar Shaddaa, Mum showed me an old smuggler’s trick for getting out of this very mess. Have we got any escape pods?”
“Affirmative,” rasped Thriatizedd, his single eye-slit pulsating. “The vehicle is fitted with six.”
“Get rid of them,” ordered Neema.
“Complying,” buzzed the droid as he glided across the cockpit and plugged himself into the computer socket.
‘What are you doing, Neema?” demanded Ayo. “We might need those pods. How are we going to get out of here if they cripple the ship?”
“Relax, Ayo,” tutted Neema. “They want us down here in one piece. If we ditch the pods and hide, then they’ll think we’ve jumped ship. The smugglers who run spice for the Hutts always do that if they think they’re going to be raided by the Republic.”
“Where can we hide?” asked Ayo, seeing no viable place where they could conceal themselves.
“Behind the ventilation grille,” said Neema, pointing to the wide air-conditioning outlet that lined the bulkhead. Neema turned to Thriatizedd who hovered behind her. “Unscrew the grille and pull it out so we can hide. They shouldn’t find us behind there.”
“Complying,” buzzed Thriatizedd as he set to work, the requisite tools protruding from his arms. The ship shook as the escape pods rocketed away, the six large drums spinning gently towards Despayre.
“Come on!” said Neema impatiently as she ushered her companions towards the hole in the wall where the grille had been fixed. The droid had detached the grating to reveal a sizeable cavity with the bulkhead. Yarua protested at the apparent tight squeeze in store.
“I know, I know,” argued Ayo. “It’s going to be squashed in there, but so what? It’s going to save our lives.”
“Secure the grille once we’re in, Thriatizedd,” said Neema as she hurriedly shoved her companions into the tight gap. As Ayo felt Yarua’s fur being pushed into his face, he sincerely hoped that Neema’s plan would work.
* * *
The Millennium Falcon drifted over the rocky uplands of Zephoid, drawn ever closer to the MHG institute by the powerful hold of the tractor beam. Japhta Fett watched the ship’s approach on a videoscreen in her office as she changed into a clean dress. Japhta wanted to face Sarolyn in style. As she clipped her lightsabre to her belt, she caressed its jewelled handle and smiled to herself. Lordan’s on my ship, and this time I’ll be ready for her.
Japhta picked up the intercom. “Security,” she said into the mic, “this is Lady Fett. The Mill’s about to land. I want a squad at the east platform immediately. Board the ship, arrest the crew and bring the two girls to me.”
A voice formed within her twisted mind: You’ve redeemed yourself, Japhta Fett. I’m pleased. Together we will destroy the Jedi. Together we will rule.
“Yes, my Master,” whispered Japhta. She would become a Sith.
The Millennium Falcon had come to rest upon the east landing platform, a wide expanse of ferrocrete that formed an artificial clearing amid the sprawl of the base. A platoon of shocktroopers stood to attention around the ship as the Director inspected their ranks. His wrist comm bleeped.
“Yes?” he snarled.
“There’s no-one on board, sir,” crackled a voice. “The security droid says that the villains have jumped ship. All the pods have been jettisoned.”
Before the voice had finished its sentence, Japhta Fett glided out onto the platform, her silvery dress flowing in the wind behind her. At last, she thought to herself as she gazed at her favourite starship glinting in the sun. Sarolyn.
Japhta slinked up beside the Director. “What’s happening?” she asked as a pair of shocktroopers marched out from the ship.
The Director turned to his Mistress with a look of disappointment. “I’m afraid they’ve escaped, My Lady. According to Thriatizedd, they left via the escape pods.”
Japhta shook her head. Why would Sarolyn want to run? When they were children in the Jedi Temple, Lordan never ran from a fight. It did not seem right.
“I don’t buy that,” she snapped. Japhta could feel the presence of Sarolyn in the Force. “Search the ship again. Get that stupid droid to scan every nook and cranny. Tear the ship apart if you have to. I want that Jedi!” Japhta narrowed her eyes. “As for the Wookiee and the others: put them in the cells with the dryvoices. They’re all as worthless as each other.”
“Yes, my Lady,” said the Director.
“I’ll be in the lab,” said Japhta as she turned towards the door. “Tell me when you’ve got her.”
“Yes, of course,” grovelled the Director. He turned to the troops who stood motionless beside him. “You heard Her Ladyship. Move!”
“They’re boarding,” whispered Ayo as the four of them stood compressed behind the grille. Heavy footsteps could be heard belowdecks, clumping around Japhta’s cabin and adjoining rooms. Loose items of equipment were disturbed as the troops clumsily searched the ship.
“Sh!” hissed Neema, silencing Ayo. The young pilot was feeling increasingly uncomfortable. It was dark behind the screen and a support strut was digging into his back. Sandwiched between Neema and Yarua, the only thing he could smell was stale Wookiee fur. His nose twitched, irritated by a stray hair from his companion. Ayo drew breath to sneeze.
“No!” whispered Neema sharply as she prodded Ayo’s side. “You want to get us all killed?”
Ayo held his breath, puffing out his cheeks as he carefully released his pent-up sneeze. As Yarua fidgeted in the tight space, Ayo thought it was high time that his Wookiee co-pilot had a bath.
The footsteps drew closer as the shocktroopers inspected the cockpit. Ayo held his breath, daring not to make a sound. His heart was thumping in his chest as a troop tested the fixing of the grille. Sarolyn could sense Ayo’s anxiety and she smiled at him.
The footsteps receded, giving way to the sound of Thriatizedd’s motor as he followed the troops down the ladder.
“Here we go,” whispered Sarolyn. “Let’s hope that Thriatizedd delivers the goods.”
Laser fire echoed around the ship followed by screams. There was silence.
“Sounds like the goods, Saz,” said Neema as she detached the grille. “Let’s get out of here.”
The Director frowned and craned his neck in an attempt to see into the ship. The remaining shocktroopers waited in silence.
“They must have found them,” said the Director to the sergeant standing alongside.
Thriatizedd led two troops down the access ramp as they escorted Neema and Yarua out from the ship. The two of them had been handcuffed and were being steered by the point of a blaster.
“Good work,” said the Director without a smile as the shocktroopers shoved Neema and Yarua towards the door. “Take them away.”
Once they were clear of the Director and his troops, Ayo breathed a sigh of relief. He had exchanged one form of discomfort for another. The shocktrooper armour did not fit and the helmet reeked of bad breath. The stench made Ayo feel sick.
“I can’t see a bloody thing,” said Ayo through his helmet mic as the similarly-disguised Sarolyn led them towards a pair of turbolifts at a junction. The corridor was surprisingly empty of personnel as they rushed out of sight.
Silently, for fear of giving away their game, the four intruders waited. Within seconds, the doors of the right-hand lift parted to reveal the dimly lit cage behind. Two technicians scuttled out, casting the intruders a fearful glance as passed.
“You sure this is going to work?” asked Ayo as he removed his helmet. “We’ve been bloody lucky so far.”
“Course it’ll work!” retorted Neema, her feeling clearly hurt at Ayo’s questioning of her plan.
“You must trust Neema’s judgement, Ayo,” said Sarolyn gently, her voice modulated by her shocktrooper’s mask. “She’s more streetwise than you give her credit for.”
Ayo smiled sheepishly. He stared up at the light in the ceiling as Thriatizedd plugged himself into the control panel and programmed the lift to descend.
“We are going to the holding cells,” buzzed the large droid as he floated before his companions, “in compliance with Mistress Neemadaboda’s orders.”
“See what I mean, Ayo?” said a triumphant Neema as she stood in her bonds. “Even the droid approves of my idea.”
Ayo donned his helmet as the lift slowed to a halt. He had been postponing this moment for as long as possible, but he resigned himself to the fact that the foul-smelling garment was a vital part of his disguise.
The lift opened onto a dim corridor lined with barred gates along one side, a layout that reminded Sarolyn of the dungeons back at Fort Myreion. Neema grimaced at the stench that wafted from the cells within. She peered into the faintly lit chambers and could see groups of Zephoid Zez huddled together for warmth. The creatures looked thin and weak, and the smell of ammonia from the urine and excrement that covered the floor was overpowering.
Neema was speechless with shock at the sight of these prisoners. Several of the Zez had died in this dungeon and their bodies lay where they had fallen. There was evidence of cannibalism.
“Yes, I know, Neema,” said Sarolyn through her mask. “They were left here to starve, surrounded by their own filth.” Sarolyn’s gaze met that of the Zez as the pitiful creatures watched her with trepidation. They were clearly frightened by her shocktrooper’s uniform.
Three troops appeared around a bend in the corridor and ordered Sarolyn and her group to halt. Thriatizedd glided up to the sentries and floated before them as if challenging them to a fight.
“We have captured the criminals who escaped from custody on Naboo,” buzzed the droid. The shocktroopers glanced at each other and reached for their blasters, but before they could fire, Thriatizedd activated his twin cannons and cut down two of the troops as Neema raised her cuffed hands and Force-pushed the third into the wall. A light fitting fell upon his head with a clatter.
Sarolyn removed her helmet and shook free her hair as Ayo removed his own headgear with a thankful gasp.
“Am I glad to be out of that!” he said with relief as he freed Yarua and Neema from their bonds. Yarua barked in agreement as his two friends removed the rest of their disguises.
“Look out!” yelled Neema as reinforcements poured along the corridor from behind. Laser fire crisscrossed the prison as the shocktroopers blasted the intruders. Sarolyn ignited her lightsabre and deflected the enemy bolts as her friends returned fire with their stolen blasters.
The shocktroopers began to fall as the battle progressed, their armoured bodies blocking the corridor as they slumped to the floor. The captive Zez watched in a mixture of awe and fear at the sight of these two factions fighting for their lives.
Neema sent the remaining guards tumbling to the ground before taking their weapons. “Here,” she said as she threw the blasters to her friends. “Take these!”
As the stunned and disarmed shocktroopers picked themselves up, Thriatizedd bore down on them, his red slit of an eye glowing with menace as twin rotary vibroblades protruded from his arms and began to spin with an efficient whirr. The shocktroopers knew of the securitech’s abilities and they froze as Neema unlocked an empty cell.
“In!” barked Neema with a wave of her blaster as Thriatizedd bulldozed the captured troops into the cell and secured the door. The guards were now the guarded.
Now that the prison corridor was quiet, Sarolyn switched off her lightsabre and took a deep breath. As she studied the cells, her attention was drawn to a single, small Zephoid Zez, his webbed claws gripping the bars, the only survivor among his cellmates. Naked, with his ribs protruding from his emaciated body, the creature stared at Sarolyn. He whimpered.
Sarolyn returned the Zez’s gaze. She could feel the creature’s thoughts and the depth of his suffering made her shudder.
“You’ll soon be free, little one,” said Sarolyn softly as she knelt before the starving Zez and stroked him through the bars of his cell. She reached into her utility pouch and offered the Zez a concentrated food capsule. He gently took the pill and sniffed it carefully before popping it into his fanged mouth. The Zez smiled. His hopes of freedom had been lifted.
“Neema,” said Sarolyn as she stood up and straightened her robe, “you, Ayo and Yarua had better free these poor creatures.” Sarolyn turned towards the lift. “We’ll meet at the ship in one standard hour.”
Neema frowned angrily. They were supposed to be in this together. “Where are you going, Sarolyn?” she demanded, annoyed that her friend was rushing off and leaving them wide open to attack.
“If I’m not at the ship in one hour, Neema, get off this planet and tell the Republic about Mandalore and Fett.” Sarolyn reached into her utility pouch and found the data core containing the stolen files from the Holocron. She handed it to Neema. “Take this with you. It’s the information we collected at the Mansion. I’ve got to stop them using the Black Rot and I fear that we very little time.”
Neema nodded. She was now beginning to understand.
Ayo followed Sarolyn to the lift. He was frightened for her and he did not want her to leave.
“You’ve got to face Fett again, haven’t you?” he said as he stood in the doorway. Sarolyn looked into his eyes and nodded. Ayo bowed his head. He was afraid that he would never see her again. His heart felt heavy.
“It’s my destiny, Ayo,” said Sarolyn as she took his hand. “I cannot escape it. I know that you have feelings for me, but I don’t want them to jeopardise our mission here. I may not come back...I’m the first to admit it. Japhta’s strong with the Force and she will certainly fight to the death.”
Sarolyn sighed as she let go of Ayo’s hand. His feelings were in danger of hurting him and his friends, and it was beginning to upset her. “Ayo,” she begged. “Please promise me that you won’t let your emotions get the better of you.” The lift doors began to close. “If I’m killed, don’t grieve. There are many more stars in the sky.”
The doors snapped shut, leaving Ayo alone with his thoughts.
“I love you, Sarolyn,” he said in a small, sad voice as Yarua dragged him away with a terse grunt. They had work to do.Forward to Chapter 42 Back to Chapter 40 Home