A Republic cruiser snapped out of hyperspace as it conveyed a Jedi taskforce to the remote planet of Despayre. The taskforce consisted of about a hundred Jedi Knights assembled in haste by Master Dessk, following his unproductive meeting with Chancellor Rhoufheigh.
Dessk leant forward and spoke with the Captain, who had become, along with his crew, a familiar face since their mission to Sorensia to free Senator Thraurrallgisc.
“I sense that Thraurrallgisc’s crew and Bil-Kit’s Padawan are in mortal danger, Captain,” hissed Dessk quietly. “We have no time to lose.”
“I have a lock on the MHG base, sir,” said the Captain. “We’ll be there in minutes.”
Vima-Da-Boda turned to face the Jedi Master. She and Thraurrallgisc had insisted on joining Dessk, Chasta and Elaison Fitje on this mission, telling them that she could sense a disturbance in the Force. Secretly, she knew that her daughter was on the planet, and certainly in as much danger as Sarolyn.
“I’m sure Sarolyn will succeed, Master,” said Vima, sensing apprehension in the Trandoshan. “The Force is strong with her, you know. Master Bil-Kit had taught her well.”
“Yes, Vima,” said Dessk with a flick of his tongue, “but there’s something else, something that’s being hidden. We should never have sent her on her own.”
Vima turned away. Sarolyn was not alone. Neema was with her.
Sarolyn struggled along the narrow corridor that ran along the edge of the hothouse. Everything seemed blurred and confused as she fought to keep going. She had no option but to reach that control tower.
Eventually she came to a staircase set in a transparent shaft overlooking the plantation. As she reached the foot of the stairs, Sarolyn lapsed into a fit of coughing that culminated in her vomiting. She was feeling weaker by the minute.
Sarolyn forced herself to continue. She could not give up now. Somebody, or something, had saved her life back in the plantation. she squinted dizzily up the stairs. She was now so close. She had to fulfil her destiny, not for herself but for the trillions of beings who could suffer under the hands of Koraetor Mandalore.
Grabbing the handrail, Sarolyn hauled herself up the stairs, hugging the banister as if for comfort. Time seemed to crawl as she climbed, and her goal appeared to recede beyond her reach. Everything began to fade away...
* * *
The Director sat hunched over the computer, watching the chronometer as it counted down the remaining time to launch. Eight shocktroopers stood around him, framed by the view across the glasshouses outside. An alarm sounded.
“Attack warning! attack warning!” said an urgent voice through the intercom.
“What?” cursed the Director as he thumped the control desk. He turned to the shocktroopers. “Well, don’t just stand there!”
“We’re under orders to guard the tower, sir,” said the sergeant as the alarm continued to bleep.
“Orders?” shouted the Director, furious at this apparent insubordination.
“Orders?” He jumped from his seat and stormed up to the sergeant.
The sergeant sneered at the Director from behind his mask. “The orders came from Lady Fett herself, sir,” he said with a hint of contempt.
The Director seemed to shrink before the shocktroopers as he returned, humiliated, to his seat. “If you need anything done,” he muttered to himself, “do it yourself!” He silenced the alarm and grasped the comlink.
“Attention,” he said into the mic, “this is the Director. An unauthorised ship is approaching the system. I want all crews to their fighters, repeat, all crews to their fighters.”
The Director sat back and swigged his coffee. Seven minutes to go.
* * *
The planet filled the sky as the cruiser continued its descent. Despayre’s copious cloud cover had resolved into individual tufts and surface features were clearly visible through the gaps.
Vima-Da-Boda peered out through a porthole. She could feel her daughter’s presence on the planet and she hoped that she was safe.
There was another ripple in the Force. Vima could feel a wing of starfighters soaring up from surface, beyond the range of the ship’s sensors. She turned to Dessk who was seated beside her.
“Yes, I know,” hissed Dessk in anticipation of Vima’s observation. He turned to Chastacyrrhi. “Come, on Chasta, we’d better man the guns. I’ll cover the front batteries and you cover the rear.”
Chastacyrrhi grunted in reply as Dessk turned to Vima.
“I suggest you make your way to the bridge and monitor the systems,” said Dessk as he made his way to the gunner’s station. “The crew will need all the help they can get.”
A siren wailed in the cockpit as two-dozen F-wing fighters charged over the horizon as if to skewer the cruiser.
“Shields up,” said the Captain as Vima sat down beside him. The co-pilot flipped a series of switches and a display screen lit up, showing the deflector shield status.
“Shields at maximum, sir,” said the co-pilot as the fighters rushed forward.
“Hold tight, everyone,” said the Captain. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
The F-wings swept over the cruiser like a tidal wave, firing blinding lances of energy. The cruiser lurched and the lights flickered each time the shields absorbed a hit.
“I’ll hail the base,” said Vima, “and try to get the Director to call off the attack. This aggression’s unnecessary.”
“Very good, ma’am,” said the Captain as Vima punched a sequence of buttons in the control panel. The scowling face of the Director appeared overhead.
“We come in peace, Director,” said Vima as the fighters continued to strafe the ship. “If you allow us to land, there will be no trouble.”
“You have no business here,” said the Director. “You will be destroyed forthwith.”
Vima stared at the Director and waved her hand. “You will call off those fighters.”
“Mind tricks will not work, Jedi. I have my instructions. Intruders are to be destroyed.” The Director’s image faded.
An explosion rocked the ship, snuffing out the lights. An alarm wailed as the shield display glowed red.
“Master? Chasta?” said an urgent Vima into the comlink. “The Director isn’t buying it. We’d better try an alternative form of reasoning.”
Dessk sat at the forward gun battery, a transparent blister protruding from the hull giving a wide view of the starfield outside. Grasping the joystick between his claws, the Trandoshan flicked his tongue as he adjusted his helmet microphone.
“I read you, Vima. I was hoping not to have to do this.”
Dessk fired a stream of laser bolts as three fighters peppered the cruiser. The fighters were instantly vaporised.
“I hope that will change the Director’s mind, Vima,” said Dessk as Chasta picked off another five F-wings in a chain reaction of explosions.
Another blast rocked the ship.
“We’ve lost our starboard deflector,” said the Captain. He turned to the co-pilot. “Try and keep the starboard side away from the fighters or we’re dead meat.”
* * *
Ayo Yarua, Neema and the Zez prisoners ran for their lives along the main lobby of the institute. Thriatizedd followed close behind.
“How did you do it, Neema?” gasped Ayo in disbelief as they ran. Neema had managed to dispose of the entire squad that had blocked their way at the top of the stairwell.
“Used the Force,” said Neema casually as she cast him a smile.
“You a Jedi too?”
Laser fire streaked across the lobby, hitting a tall, potted fern. The plant burst into flames.
“Ayo!’ yelled Neema. “Behind you!”
Shocktroopers poured into the lobby, their blasters spraying the air. Yarua barked as they returned fire.
“Yeah, right, Yarua,” said Ayo. He turned to Neema. “We’d better get out of here. Any ideas?”
The Director’s voice floated across the lobby. “Launch in six minutes. All personnel clear the silo.” The Chief Zez hissed and barked at Neema.
Neema closed her eyes, and concentrated. “Control tower,” she said urgently.
“We’ve got to stop the Director.’ She pointed to a side corridor. “This way.”
“But Sarolyn told us to get to the ship,” argued Ayo as they ran.
“Sarolyn doesn’t know what she’s talking about, Ayo!” snapped Neema as they threw themselves to the ground to avoid a barrage of laser fire. She Force-pushed the troops to the ground. “Just do as I tell you for once!”
The Chief Zez continued to hiss and bark at Neema as Ayo blasted the troops. “Good thinking,” she said to the diminutive warrior. “Lead them off.”
The Chief hissed at her army of females before escorting them away. Ayo, Neema, Yarua and Thriatizedd rushed along the corridor with the shocktroopers in pursuit. A blast door blocked their path.
Yarua howled and pounded the door. The troops opened fire, their laser bolts melting small craters in the surface.
Neema tutted at Yarua. “You want to get us all killed?” she demanded. Ayo located the control panel and pressed a large, green button. The door flew open, revealing an airlock before a second blast door that gave way to a long, wide walkway spanning an immense hothouse. Halfway along its length, the walkway appeared to have sustained damage, for a floor panel was missing and part of the handrail drooped into the fungus-filled chasm below.
“Go on! Get in!” yelled Neema to her companions. She turned to Thriatizedd who glided silently behind them, his laser cannons pointing aft as they cut down the shocktroopers. ‘You too, Thriatizedd. Get your ugly, metal carcass through that door!’
‘Complying,’ buzzed the huge robot as he drifted through the opening. The door slammed shut behind them and Neema fired at the control panel, reducing the row of buttons to scrap metal.
“That should keep them off our backs,” said Neema as she shielded her nose and mouth with her sleeve. “Keep your faces covered, you two. This is where they grow the stuff.”
Ayo and Yarua exchanged looks of concern as they buried their faces, sincerely hoping that they had not inhaled any spores.
“Come on, for Force’s sake!” shouted Neema as the Director announced that there were four minutes until launch. “Get a move on!”
* * *
Chastacyrrhi was thrown from his seat as one of the few remaining MHG fighters scored a direct hit. Landing in a heap on the floor, he barked into his helmet mic, only to be greeted with static. His comlink was dead.
The crew snapped into frenzied activity, yelling orders and programming the ship’s systems to compensate for the damage.
“We’ve lost the number three engine and we’ve been hulled on the starboard side,” said the Captain calmly. He and his crew had been thoroughly trained in emergency procedures, and were well aware that panic had the opposite effect to what was intended. The fact that the ship had been hulled was confirmed by a loud hissing from behind.
Vima’s comlink crackled into life. “Vima, this is Dessk. I can’t get hold of Chasta. I sense he may be injured.”
Vima closed her eyes. “He’s all right, Master,” she said calmly. “The pulse from the hit has shorted his comlink and the damage has stranded him. He’ll be safe if he sits tight.”
“We’d better isolate the cockpit and passenger cabins from the rest of the ship,” said the Captain. He spoke into his comlink. “Master sir, I’m going to have to isolate your gunner’s station. You’ll have enough air until landing.”
“Very, well, Captain,” gargled Dessk. “I’ll sit tight and pick off some more fighters if the gun’s still working.”
A blast door clanged shut behind Vima and the crew, sealing them within the cramped cockpit.
“It’s not the air supply I’m worried about, ma’am” said the Captain ominously. “The hit’s blocked the fuel lines. If we don’t land within ten minutes, we go up with the ship.”
“Shut everything down,” said Vima as Despayre turned from a planet in space to a landscape below. “We’re nearly there. We will all guide the ship to safety.”
The last F-wing exploded, dispersing myriads of fragments into the upper atmosphere.
“You’re all clear,” hissed Dessk over the comlink. “We can land in peace.”
* * *
“Looks like someone’s been here before us,” said Ayo to Yarua as they ran past the damaged section of handrail. The young Wookiee grunted in reply. Ayo peered over the side and caught sight of the body of a blonde-haired girl lying in the middle of a burnt-out clearing. He called over to Neema.
“What now?” tutted Neema in annoyance. They had less then two minutes in which to reach the tower and Ayo was wasting time by admiring the view.
Ayo’s face lit up like a beacon. “She made it!” he said as he ran towards the far door with renewed vigour. “That was Fett down there! Sarolyn did it!”
The end door hissed open at Neema’s command. “Come on!” she urged before shutting the blast door behind them. “Tower’s just up here.” Blurred by condensation, the dome of the control tower could be seen through the transparent walls. Contrary to Ayo’s beliefs, Neema knew that Sarolyn had not managed to reach the Director. Time was of the essence.
“Two minutes to launch. All hands stand by,” announced the Director into his microphone. Just as he sat back to relax, the comlink buzzed for attention.
“The enemy ship has been crippled sir,” said a voice. “It’s estimated that it will explode in fifty seconds.”
“Good work,” said the Director without a smile. “Where are the other intruders? Has Lady Fett dealt with them?”
“We haven’t heard from Her Ladyship, sir.”
“What?” demanded the Director, shaking his head in disbelief. “She hasn’t left the base!” He turned to the shocktroopers behind him. “What’s going on?”
The troops looked blankly at the Director from behind their masks. They knew as much as he did.
The Director cast the shocktroopers an evil look as he returned to the radio. He would get the missile spaceborne and contact Lord Mandalore himself.
“Ninety seconds to launch.
Ayo’s face fell in dismay at the sight of Sarolyn’s lifeless body sprawled on the stairs. He rushed over to her.
“Sarolyn!” he cried as he crouched beside her. “Wake up! Please!” He reached out to hold her hand, only to be pushed away by Neema.
“Don’t touch her, Ayo,” said Neema gently. “She’s been infected.”
“Is...is she dead?” asked Ayo in a small, tearful voice. An equally distressed Yarua comforted him.
Neema knelt down and stroked Sarolyn’s bruised face. She could feel a faint trace of breath on her fingers.
“No,” she confirmed as Ayo breathed a sigh of relief, “but she’s taken a hell of a beating and she’s very weak. I can feel her fighting the Rot in her body.”
The voice of the Director drifted from above. “Thirty seconds.”
“Thriatizedd,” said Neema hurriedly as the Director began to recite the final countdown. “Go up there and stop the Director! Immediately!”
“Complying,” honked the imposing, black droid as he shot upwards through the middle of the stairwell. Neema watched as the robot soared away. The live of millions depended upon him.
“Fifteen seconds…fourteen…” The Director turned and smiled as Thriatizedd glided into the control room. At last, Lady Fett had sent some support.
“Thirteen…twelve…” Thriatizedd bore down upon the Director and extended his rotary vibroblades. The shocktroopers, seeing the droid attack, opened fire, their laser bolts bouncing harmlessly off the robot’s armoured casing.
The Director tried his best to ignore the commotion. “Launch minus ten seconds…” Suddenly Thriatizedd’s true motives became apparent. Screaming, the Director threw up his hands in a fruitless attempt to protect himself from the maverick droid. Thriatizedd’s blades whirred evilly as they sliced through the Director’s shirt and into his chest, spraying the control desk with blood. The shocktroopers, conceding defeat, ran for their lives, tearing down the stairs in a mad scramble.
Shoving the Director’s body aside as if he were so much rubbish, Thriatizedd logged himself into the computer and ordered it to stop the launch. With barely one second to go, the numbers on the screen froze and a mechanical voice announced that the launch sequence had encountered an error and will immediately shut down. Neimoidia was safe.
“Hang on in there, Saz,” said Neema as she knelt down beside her friend. “Don’t give up.”
Ayo stood nearby, gazing at Sarolyn. He sniffed sadly and Yarua let out a small whimper as he gently punched Ayo on the shoulder, as if to say her knew how his companion felt.
The stairs shook as the shocktroopers pounded down from the control room.
“Guards!” said Neema, looking up in alarm. She drew her blaster as Ayo and Yarua did likewise. The eight troops stopped in their tracks as Neema raised her hand and pointed at their heads. Clutching their helmets, the shocktroopers fell in agony to their knees.
Ayo levelled his weapon at the troops. “Don’t even think about it,” he growled as one of them reached for his rifle. “Now do exactly as we say and you won’t get hurt.” Neema released her Force-hold on the soldiers, who stood up, casting wary glances at their captors through their eyecams. She kept her blaster trained.
“Antidote! Now!” she demanded, beckoning to the troops as if she were a schoolmistress confiscating a forbidden toy from a child.
Ayo waggled his blaster. “She’s dying!” he yelled, pointing at Sarolyn. “Now,” he said quietly, “I know you’re all issued with syringes of antibiotics, so do as she says and hand it over.”
“There’s no use resisting,” said Neema. “It’s over. There’s no more Black Rot, no more Lady Fett, and soon, no more Mandalore.”
The shocktroopers bowed their heads in defeat. They were beaten and they knew it. Dejectedly, they unzipped their penlike injector syringes from their uniforms and threw them onto the stairs along with their guns.
“Thank you,” said Neema as she picked up the discarded equipment. “Tell the rest of your men. A Republic ship will take you back to Coruscant. They will not be charged.”
As the disarmed shocktroopers slinked away, Ayo turned to Neema. He was worried.
“Shouldn’t we have kept them hostage, Neema? They’ll certainly come back with reinforcements.”
“They won’t,” said Neema as they crouched around Sarolyn. “The Jedi are on their way. Mum’s with them.”
Ayo gazed lovingly at Sarolyn as he lifted up her pale, slender arm and pumped the antibiotic solution into her bloodstream.
“She’ll need more than that,” said Neema as he discarded the empty syringe. “Yarua, pass us the rest of them.”
Yarua picked up the remainder of the syringes and handed them to Neema, who immediately began to inject their contents, one after the other, into Sarolyn’s arm. Neema handed Ayo and Yarua each an unused syringe.
“You two had better inject yourselves,” she said as she let go of Sarolyn’s arm. Yarua grunted with concern as he and Ayo needled themselves with the antidote.
“Will she be all right, Neema?” asked Ayo as he stroked Sarolyn’s hair. The young Jedi meant more to him than anything else in the galaxy, and he wanted to be with her. Ever since they had first met, when she had rescued him and Yarua from Mandalore’s palace on Naboo, he knew that they were meant to be together.
Sarolyn stirred and her eyes flickered open. Ayo took her hand and held it in both of his as Yarua gently hooted in her ear.
“Ayo? Yarua?” said Sarolyn in a weak voice as she struggled to sit up. Her chest still hurt. Closing her eyes, she concentrated, willing her fractured ribcage to mend with the healing powers of the Force.
“I thought we’d lost you,” said Ayo as Yarua cradled her in his arms.
“I’ll be fine, Ayo” said Sarolyn as she leant her head on his chest. Ayo was overcome with emotion as Sarolyn slowly regained her strength. He kissed the top of her head and stroked her bruised face, wiping the blood from her nose with his sleeve. Ayo wanted to tell Sarolyn how he felt about her, how much she meant to him, but part of him knew that he could not face rejection. He simply held her.Forward to Chapter 45 Back to Chapter 43 Home