An alarm bleeped in the control tower as Japhta Fett and the Director made final checks before launching the missile. The Director, irritated by the disturbance, stalked across to the comlink.
“Yes?” he snapped into the microphone. Japhta broke off from her programming and listened intently.
“There’s a disturbance in the animal kennels,” crackled a voice.
“The kennels?” said the Director with concern. Wasn’t that where he had ordered the girl and the Wookiee to be taken?
“What’s going on?” demanded Japhta as she stormed up to him. “Why hasn’t the countdown been started?”
The Director coughed and bowed his head. “Er, My Lady, there’s been a breakout in the dryvoice holding kennels. All units are on alert.”
With a sudden blaze of rage, Japhta kicked the Director hard between the legs. He collapsed, doubled up in agony, on the floor. Standing over him, Japhta kicked again, sending him skidding into the wall.
“No!” gasped the Director. “My Lady! Please!”
“Thank your lucky stars I don’t kill you here and now, you pathetic excuse for a human being,” hissed Japhta icily. “Give me one good reason for me not to test the Rot on you!”
The Director looked up in terror. “N...no, My Lady…”
“You’ve screwed up,” said Japhta as the Director picked himself up and flopped into a chair. “Sarolyn Lordan’s here, in this institute, and the Force is with her.” Japhta poked the Director’s chest. “You let her escape by your own incompetence.”
The Director blinked and shook his head in confusion as Japhta paced around him. He clearly remembered the shocktroopers bringing in a girl and a Wookiee. They had stolen Japhta’s ship and were being taken to the cells before being questioned.
“My Lady,” flustered the Director as he adjusted his tie, “there must have been some kind of mistake.”
“I never make mistakes, Director,” said Japhta with a glare as she continued to circle him. “You’re the one who’s made the mistake.”
“I...I don’t know what you mean, My Lady.”
Standing behind him, Japhta grabbed the Director’s nose, her long fingernails spearing his nostrils as if he were a fish on a hook. The Director screamed as she yanked back his head. His nose felt as if it were about to be pulled from his face.
“You fell for the oldest trick in the book,” said Japhta as the Director’s nose began to bleed. “Lordan and her friend sneaked in disguised as troops!”
Japhta released the Director, who slumped forward with blood streaming from his nose. He hurriedly reached for a handkerchief in order to stem the flow. The Director was ashamed of himself. His reputation for unfettered professionalism was beyond repair. He sighed. Everything seemed to be spinning as he tried to come to terms with his failure. How could he have fallen for such a simple trick?
“I’ll stop them, My Lady,” said the Director in an attempt to make amends. “I’ll capture this ‘Sarolyn’ person for you. She won’t escape this time.”
“No,” said Japhta with a scowl. “You’ve made enough of a mess already.” She indicated to the computer bank set into the wall. “Get that countdown running. The launch window for Neimoidia opens in thirty standard minutes, and woe betide you if you screw up again.”
The Director swallowed as he wiped the sweat from his bald patch. “Yes, My Lady,” he muttered as he turned to the instruments.
Japhta Fett folded her arms and watched as the Director set to work.
“Leave Sarolyn Lordan to me,” she said with a trace of threat. “She’s too clever for the likes of you.” Japhta turned and headed for the door. “I’ll deal with her myself.”
The Director slumped over the control desk with resignation as Japhta disappeared down the stairs. He coughed as he grasped a microphone set before him.
“Attention all personnel,” he croaked through a dry throat. “The launch window for Neimoidia opens in thirty standard minutes, repeat, launch in thirty minutes. All hands stand by.”
The Director coughed and smiled. He now had a chance to redeem himself. In half an hour the courier missile loaded with Black Rot would be on its way and the Republic would see what he and Professor Elyot have achieved for MHG. The missile would leave hyperspace just outside the Neimoidian atmosphere and explode at an altitude of fifty miles. Winds would carry the spores to all parts of the surface and within days, the entire world would be uninhabitable. With the Trade Federation destroyed, Mandalore would reign supreme and the Director would be rewarded.
Sarolyn hid behind a pillar as a heavily armed shocktrooper unit marched past. She was shocked and concerned by the recent announcement over the public address, for she had barely half an hour in which to stop the launch. If it were true, and Mandalore had ordered the infection of Neimoidia, then the entire republic depended upon her success.
Once the troops had receded, Sarolyn rushed across the lobby, almost colliding with a cleaning droid as it buffed the floor with a whiny hum. She had to reach the control tower. It was the only way she could stop the countdown.
As Sarolyn raced along the corridor, she thought about Ayo. She could see right through him, and was well aware that he was crazy about her. Sarolyn cared deeply for Ayo, but she felt confused by her own feelings, for she had never before experienced this kind of attention. Liaisons of this sort were frowned upon within the Jedi Order.
Sarolyn pushed her thoughts for Ayo to the back of her mind as she entered an airlock at the end of the passage. The airlock opened out into a long walkway that spanned a vast glasshouse packed with Despayre’s tropical mushroom-trees. The ground could not be seen beneath the furry canopies and veils of mist. It was hot; it was humid, and the air was heavy with decay.
The climate felt like a weight on Sarolyn’s shoulders as it squeezed the energy from her muscles. Something large and fierce snarled deep below, hungry for the flesh and blood it could smell above as the young Jedi trudged along the high bridge.
Sarolyn sighed as she mopped her brow with her sleeve. The sticky closeness of the plantation crushed the breath from her lungs. Her body nagged her to rest, its strength drained by the humidity, but she forced herself to carry on. Sarolyn threw down her robe with grim determination. The Trade Federation depended upon her.
A low, husky voice pierced the air: “Well, well, well. Look what the dryvoices dragged in!”
Sarolyn looked up to see Japhta Fett framed in the far doorway, staring at her with wild eyes. Japhta raised her hand and a blast door fell over the airlock with a clang. Sarolyn was trapped.
Japhta advanced as if she were a nexu stalking its prey. Sarolyn remained calm. She had nothing to fear, for she could recall the advice given to her by Vima before she had left Coruscant: There is no death, there’s the Force.
“There’s nowhere left to run, Sarolyn Lordan,” said Japhta with contempt as she ignited her lightsabre. “You’ve made a fool of me once too often.”
Sarolyn smiled, a look of serenity in her eyes. “You’ve only made a fool of yourself, Japhta,” she said gently. “Why is there so much hate in you? Tell me what’s the matter. I might be able to help.”
Japhta lunged with a scream of rage. Sarolyn, with a dancer’s motion, darted aside and ignited her own weapon, barely managing to counter the blows as Japhta flew at her. As Sarolyn twisted and weaved to block the assault, Japhta punched her in the face and sent her reeling.
A quiet voice formed within Japhta’s mind as she pounced: Good-good. The destruction of the Jedi has begun. She’s the first of many.
Sarolyn kicked out as Japhta Fett pushed her to the floor of the walkway. Japhta fell back and resumed her attack as Sarolyn back-flipped to her feet and swiped Fett’s weapon aside. The two girls’ lightsabres hissed and crackled in deadlock.
Sarolyn gazed into Japhta’s eyes, eyes that blazed with a primaeval aggression that she had never before seen in a human being. The Dark Side flowed through Fett like a malevolent blood.
“I fear nothing, you stuck-up little bitch!” hissed Japhta through bared teeth. She raised her hand and sent Sarolyn crashing into the railings that flanked the walkway. Sarolyn toppled over the side, barely managing to grab a lighting column as her lightsabre clattered to the floor. The creature below bayed hungrily.
Before Japhta could send her tumbling to certain death, Sarolyn vaulted over the railing with a somersault and caught her lightsabre as it rolled over the edge. It swished into life as it leapt into her hand.
Fett lunged again, the two girls moving like gymnasts as they fought. Japhta pointed at the floor behind Sarolyn and a panel flew, barely missing her head. Sarolyn leapt over Japhta and Force-pushed to the floor.
Having anticipated the young Jedi’s move, Fett cartwheeled to her and charged, thrusting her lightsabre at Sarolyn’s chest. Sarolyn countered the charge and knocked Japhta’s weapon to and fro in an attempt to wrench it from her grasp.
Japhta studied Sarolyn as they fought. Every one of the taller girl’s weaknesses stood out in sharp relief, and Fett began to play with them, toying with Sarolyn’s growing complacency as her confidence increased, a confidence that was making her vulnerable.
Bored with games, Japhta kicked Sarolyn in the stomach, causing her to double up in pain. Taking advantage of the distraction, Fett kicked again, catching her nemesis in the face and sending her skidding across the floor. Sarolyn rolled to her feet with her lightsabre flashing as she squared up for the next attack. The two girls stared at each other.
“There’s no need for this, Japhta,” said Sarolyn as she extinguished her lightsabre, “all this hatred, all this fighting.” She wiped the blood from her nose. “I know you don’t want this.”
“You’re wrong, Lordan,” snarled Japhta. “I want this more than ever. I want to see your skinny, stringy body being eaten by the Rot.”
“Search your feelings, Japhta,” pleaded Sarolyn with her palm outstretched. “I feel the torment within you: the pain, the bitterness.” Sarolyn edged closer, only to be warned off by Fett’s weapon.
“Keep back, Lordan,” said Japhta as she held her blade inches from Sarolyn’s heart.
“Mandalore’s using you,” said Sarolyn as she inched forward. “You’re strong. You can resist him. I know what he’s doing. He’ll destroy you.”
“What are you talking about, Lordan?”
“Please join me,” said Sarolyn as she began to retreat from the point of Fett’s weapon. “It’s the only way you can save yourself. You’ll be safe, I promise you.”
Japhta switched off the lightsabre. With a smile, she slowly held out her hand. “You promise, Sarolyn?”
“Yes, Japhta,” said Sarolyn, almost begging Fett to see her point of view. She was almost there. Peace, after a lifetime of conflict was at last within their grasp. She reached out to grasp Japhta’s hand. Fett would be redeemed.
As soon as their fingers met, Japhta ignited her lightsabre behind her back and sliced at Sarolyn’s head. She barely managed to block the attack.
“Oh by the way,” said Japhta with a sneer, “you’re still the mug you’ve always been.”
Sarolyn’s heart plummetted as the two girls traded blows. She had failed.
Sirens wailed as Ayo, Neema and Yarua continued to release the surviving Zephoid Zez. The kennel corridors were crawling with the tiny creatures as they ran amok, their fangs bared with the sheer pleasure of their new-found freedom.
“What are we going to do with them?” shouted Ayo over the noise.
“Try and find their leader,” said Neema as Yarua emerged from a cell with a burly, tusked female on his shoulders. He grunted at his companions.
“Nice one,” said Ayo as he gave Yarua a friendly nudge on the arm. The female on the Wookiee’s shoulders spoke down at Ayo in a mixture of hoarse roars, howls and hisses.
“What did it say?” asked Neema, looking up at the female Zez.
Ayo sorted out the blasters they had confiscated from the fallen shocktroopers. ‘That’s the Chief,’ he said, pointing at the female that Yarua was setting down to the ground. A distant explosion and a volley of blaster fire suddenly curtailed the chat. Squeals could be heard.
Neema swore. “Better look sharp, you two,” she warned. “Sounds like we’ve got company.”
The Chief Zez hissed loudly and pointed at the tangle of stolen weapons.
“She wants the blasters,” said Ayo, who was fluent in the Zephoid Zez tongue following his time with Zibeon.
‘She what?” yelled Neema in disbelief as laser fire streaked along the corridor. “She doesn’t know how to use them!”
Ayo and Yarua returned fire as Thriatizedd turned to shoot at the advancing shocktroopers. They had no time for argument.
“Tough,” snapped Ayo at Neema as he handed the haul to the Chief. “We ain’t got no choice!”
The troops advanced, mowing down the defenceless Zephoid Zez in the process. As they surged into the corridor, it became obvious to Neema that Japhta Fett had ordered almost the entire guard to pursue them.
“There’s too many of them!” she yelled in near-panic as Yarua handed the blasters to the Zez around him. She could see absolutely no sense in arming these primitives, for it was clear they were instinctively timid. “They can’t tell one end of a blaster from the other! How do you know they won’t shoot at us?”
Ayo ignored Neema’s protests. He and Yarua knew the Zephoid Zez much better than she, and this was not the time for a court case with a jumped-up lawyer.
“We’ll stand a better chance if the Zez are armed,” said Ayo, trying to explain his actions in as few words as possible. “Strength in numbers, eh?”
Neema ignored him.
The immense hothouse echoed with the clashing of lightsabres as Sarolyn Lordan and Japhta Fett duelled high above. Fett lunged and slashed with a frenzy never before seen. Sarolyn was beginning to tire.
“Your powers are weak, Lordan,” taunted Fett as she swiped at Sarolyn. “Your precious Master’s dead and soon your friends will join him.”
Japhta lunged again, dodging as Sarolyn countered. Sarolyn studied Fett. She could sense that Ayo, Neema and Yarua were in danger and it worried her.
Fett charged and pinned Sarolyn against the railing, grabbing her wrists to keep her lightsabre at bay.
“You really think I didn’t know what you were up to, Lordan?” hissed Japhta as she leant into Sarolyn with her own blade across the taller girl’s throat. The creature below howled as Sarolyn was forced backward over the side.
“It was me who let you into the Mansion. His Lordship and I are perfectly safe from the likes of you. We knew you’d find this place, so we sent an entire battalion of shocktroopers to meet you.”
Japhta gazed into Sarolyn’s eyes. “I can feel your fear,” she said with a sensual pleasure as she tightened her grip. “Your fear for your friends and your fear for your Trial. I can read you like a book, Sarolyn Lordan.”
“Give in to your hatred for me, Sarolyn Lordan,” she whispered, emphasising Sarolyn‘s name with disgust. ‘It’s the only way you can save your beloved Ayo.’
Sarolyn gasped for air as Japhta continued to crush her. She closed her eyes and concentrated, summoning strength from the Force.
“Never!” gasped Sarolyn as she kicked out at Japhta and sent her crashing into the far railings. “I’ll never turn to the Dark Side!”
Fett somersaulted back with a scream of rage and slashed repeatedly at Sarolyn with a mounting fury. Sarolyn was forced to her knees.
Fett brought down her lightsabre, slicing viciously in an attempt to cleave Sarolyn in two. Sarolyn leapt aside, causing Japhta’s blade to hack through the railings behind. The long rails wafted back and forth as Fett kicked Sarolyn in the groin, causing her to lose her balance. A blast of power sent her tumbling over the edge.
Sarolyn managed to grab one of the severed railing as she fell, and she came to rest suspended above the fungus trees like a caterpillar. Her lightsabre plunged into the depths where it landed, unseen, with a splash.
Japhta Fett prowled above as Sarolyn climbed the metal strip. The creature below continued to snarl and the fungus rustled as it circled below her. She considered her options: Her lightsabre was lost, and she could either be killed by whatever it was prowling below, or by Fett. The choice was hers.
“Launch minus fifteen minutes,” announced a voice as laser fire crisscrossed the kennel wing. The chief had distributed the stolen blasters among the Zez females, who had quickly learnt how to use them. Ayo and Yarua were amazed at the fighting force mustered by the Chief. Neema, possibly humiliated by her lack of judgement, said nothing.
Coming to terms with her earlier lack of foresight, Neema reached out with the Force and sent the advancing shocktroopers careering down the passage. The Zez finished them off.
“That should hold them for a bit,” she said as they headed towards a bend. Yarua barked and pointed to the Zez as the Chief issued orders to her makeshift army.
“They used to be weak,” said Ayo as more troops flooded the corridor, “but now they’ve learnt to fight back.”
Blaster bolts bounced about the walls as the troops overcame the small army of Zephoid Zez. The Chief barked at the tiny creatures as they charged into the thick of the action.
“They don’t stand a chance, Ayo!” said Neema as she turned the corner. She was beginning to warm to these strange creatures and could not bear to watch as the armoured shocktroopers slaughtered them. “I’ve got to help them. Cover me.”
Ayo nodded in agreement as Neema raised her blaster and set it to automatic. A volley of energy screamed viciously over the heads of the Zez and straight into the troops, who fell as if mown with a scythe.
“Go!” yelled Neema as she pointed to the double doors at the end of the corridor. “Move it!”
The Zez females scurried through the doors and into a stairwell, closely followed by Ayo, Neema and Yarua. The Zez males wandered about behind, totally confused as to what was happening.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” said Neema as they began to climb the spiral staircase. “Saz told us to get back to the ship.”
Ayo thought about Sarolyn. He could not get her out of his mind. Every time he closed his eyes, he could see her kind face, and the more he thought about her, the more he loved her. Ayo recalled the last time they were together, when she left to face Japhta Fett. He replayed her last words through his mind: If I’m killed, don’t grieve. There are many more stars in the sky.
Ayo feared for Sarolyn. She had seemed apprehensive when she had left, as if she knew that Fett would be more than a match for her. Ayo closed his eyes and shook his head as he followed Yarua up the stairs. He could not contemplate her loss.Forward to Chapter 43 Back to Chapter 41 Home