The Dogged, a Venator-class Star Destroyer of the Republic, slinked furtively into the shadow of Kiffex’s solitary moon, effectively shutting off the reflective glare from its fresh paint job and plexi-steel manifolds. The sleek ship held a perpendicular orbit around the crimson planet, twin brother of Kiffu, and pointed toward the swirling orb like a Trandoshan fentoss blade ready to plunge deep, while a cluster of V-Wings in perfect Bamore formation swept its length and peeled off to skirt around the pock-marked satellite.
Delnan Jja watched the blue ribbons of the V-wings’ thrusters vaporize in the pitch vacuum, then brushed his fingertips across his desk controls to lower the porthole shades. His yellow eyes narrowed as the shades lowered, and he rubbed the top of his bulbous, clean-shaven head with one gnarled and sinewy blue-green hand.
He was a Duros; lean, taut, and ready to unwind.
Jja had been a mercenary for as long as he could recall, one of the few, immoral killers handpicked by Jango Fett to train ‘tubers’. The gig had been particularly cushy; toughening up the newly birthed whelps and handing them over to the other, more disciplined mercs for final combat training.
The job had also been simple, lucrative, and deathly dull.
What had taken him by surprise though, was the Republic’s reluctance to let him slip away after the final clone in his batch had been sent off to die. Fett had made it quite clear that his hired ‘help’ was to disappear into the darkest recesses once the job was done, but Fett’s death seemed to void the contract in the eyes of the top brass secreted in the higher offices of Coruscant, and Jja had been offered a raise, plus command of The Dogged. For the life of him, Jja could not fathom why anyone would put him in charge of a skeleton crew of two thousand, and the same number again of troopers, but he wasn’t stupid enough to turn the commission down. Deciding to play their games for a while, he would see where the solar winds blew him.
The door to his office chimed a warning, and slid open as Commander Camm strode in and stood to attention before Jja. Delnan Jja sized up the clone before him, admiring the fire in his eyes. Camm had been one of his boys.
“General Jja, we have the report from Kiffu.”
Jja pressed a button on the underside of his desk, and a transparent box elevated out from the center of the desk’s polished stone surface. Inside the box was a carpet of dried grass, a hollow log and a small water dish. Beside the dish, huddled together, was a group of tiny mammals, their huge black eyes peering out from behind mahogany fur, their whiskers vibrating through either curiosity or fear, their six spindly legs flailing in the air as they tried to cling to each other as if to make one, large fur ball.
Jja looked up at his commander and saw that Camm was staring at the tiny creatures.
“ They’re called Meekrits, Camm, and call me Delnan, I’m even less your superior here than I was on Kamino.”
“I’ll try, sir… Delnan.”
Jja pointed to a covered container on the shelf beside the clone commander.
“Bring that here would you?”
“But, the report, sir?”
“It can wait.”
The clone reached over and grabbed the container from the shelf, placing it next to the box of Meekrits. Jja lifted the silken shroud and revealed a scaly monstrosity.
The creature that lay coiled within its prison looked initially like a common serpent, but as it undulated and writhed in its confines, a pair of multi-jointed arms flicked out from beneath its viridian belly and clawed at the top hatch. The creature’s face was blunt and malevolent, and when it hissed its displeasure, Camm could see thousands of tiny needles in its jutting maw.
“Fierfek indeed, Camm. This is a Hoon Snake, the last thing you ever want to find in your sleeping sac.”
Jja flipped open the box and Camm spontaneously took a step back as his old teacher reached in and grabbed the serpent firmly by the area that approximated a neck. The Hoon Snake coiled and scratched at Jja with both limbs, but the man gripped it tightly and held it over the case of Meekrits, nodding at the box as he spoke quickly to the clone.
“Open that box for me would you?”
Camm hesitated for less than a second, then leaned over and flipped off the clasp, lifting the top of the furry mammals’ box. In a flash, Jja dropped in the Hoon Snake and slammed the lid shut, reattaching the clasp and sitting back with a smile.
Commander Camm watched in fascination as the Hoon Snake spiraled its body, forming a pyramid with a limb on either side, with its fearsome head angled directly at the cowering Meekrits. The tiny mammals seemed to freeze with shock, their fur laying flat and their eyes narrowing to slits. A brief cacophony of squeaks issued from behind their whiskers, then suddenly one of the little creatures broke away from the huddled group and skirted around the perimeter of the box to within reach of the serpent. The Hoon needed no other invitation, and sprang at the lone Meekrit, clasping it firmly between its limbs and ramming it headfirst into its mouth. The four exposed feet of the snake’s meal pedaled helplessly in the air as the struggling mammal was slowly pushed down into the Hoon’s gullet, massaged along by powerful throat muscles, and held in place by rows of teeth. As it transpired, this was to be the Hoon’s last, attempted meal. Had the serpent not been born into captivity, it might have received life lessons from its clutch mother, one of the most important being never turn your scaly back on a group of Meekrits.
With a piercing screech, the remaining Meekrits leapt at the Hoon, their fuzzy faces peeling back to reveal wide slits filled to the brim with razor sharp incisors. They swarmed over the struggling snake, biting and ripping at it with wild abandon, reducing the Hoon’s midsection to bone and cartilage within seconds, stripping the overwhelmed Hoon down its skeleton in under a minute, devouring every piece of it, including its victim. When the horrific spectacle had concluded, some of the Meekrits returned to the water bowl, while others paused to lick the transparent box walls clean.
Jja snorted and pressed the button, sending the box back down to the depths from whence it came. Commander Camm simply stared as he watched it descend, trying to digest what he had just witnessed.
“Extraordinary creatures, wouldn’t you say, Camm?”
Yes, yes, sir,” Camm stammered.
Jja pushed himself back in his overstuffed chair and looked into Camm’s face. “Remind you of anyone?”
“The Meekrits, identical, every one of them. How do they choose which of their clan makes the sacrifice?”
“Come now, Camm. Don’t tell me you didn’t recognize such a classic maneuver. One of the group gives his life so that the others might emerge alive and victorious. How do you suppose that decision is made?”
Camm wasn’t convinced he enjoyed the analogy being offered, but he bit his tongue.
“I’ll tell you,” continued Jja, “that little fellow gave himself for the welfare of the others. He wasn’t the only one in the litter to think of sacrificing himself, he was just the first to act upon it.”
Camm nodded curtly. “I understand the motives, sir.”
Jja smiled, his sickly executioner’s smile. “You boys are strong, we trained you to be warriors, but your brotherhood also makes you vulnerable, and this is what we shall exploit to bring our renegade tubers to justice.”
“I understand, sir. Now, about the report…”
“It says that Calz and the others got away, that they are now, even as I waste time with my pets, blasting out of Kiffu’s orbit, and that we need to salvage Nineteen’s team and continue pursuit.”
“I don’t need some suit scratching items on a flimsi-sheet to know what is going on, Commander. Rest assured, I have everything in hand. I want our stranded police team picked up, debriefed, and punished for their failure, then I want this vessel pointed in the direction of Maltor’s Drop, I expect to be there first thing in the morning.”
“Yes, sir!” Commander Camm saluted General Jja, and wheeled around to stride briskly out of the office. He had no desire to stay in his old teacher’s presence for one more second.
A swirling vortex of light and color washed over the forward loading arms and cockpit of The Sulking Rancor as the bulky and decidedly ugly freighter plummeted at light speed towards its first port of call. Standing next to Carud in the pilot’s chair, Pel watched, mesmerized by the beauty of it all, then tore his eyes reluctantly away from the viewing window and joined the discussion at the rear of the bridge. Sergeant Calz held center stage; to one side of him stood Digger, Peko and Rece; on the other side stood Scarp, Soolad and Janst’orr. Unwilling to choose a team, Pel stood next to Peko and listened in as Calz spoke low and firm.
“I’ve got no explanation for it, Digger. You’re right of course, there should have been a welcoming committee when we broke atmos.”
Scarp looked at Rece as he spoke, but the trooper refused to meet his gaze. “So it’s possible that the RMP’s didn’t get a message out in time.”
“I’d like to think so,” replied Calz, “but that’s highly unlikely. Peko, what do we know about oh-oh-nineteen?”
Peko tapped his data pad and the screen bathed his face in blue light, which was absorbed quickly by his gray, armored shoulders. “From what I can tell, Sarge, he’s captain of a standard squad of ten blues. Their LAAT needs a base ship, so we can assume there was a Venator in the vicinity, and the only destroyer carrying a compliment of RMPs in the Azurbani System is The Dogged.”
“Delnan Jja.” Calz almost spat the name.
“You know him?” Pel asked.
“Yes,” Calz turned to the jedi with a grimace, “miserable piece of filth. More cunning than an Acklay.” He strode over to the navigation panel and made a cursory check of their coordinates.
“This is why the Republic is putting our old trainers in charge, they know how we think. They taught us how to think.”
Scarp leaned back upon a small mushroom shaped table that buckled slightly under his girth. “So, you will have to stop thinking like a clone.”
“You think I don’t know that? However, if we are to reach a fair distance into the unknown regions, we have to refuel at Maltor’s Drop. He knows what we’re after.”
“And what are we after?” The tiny voice came from far below the men, and they all peered down to look into the huge eyes of Soolad, who was being poked in the ribs by Janst’orr’s elbow.
“Did nobody brief these children?” Calz asked, looking at the Hed’n brothers.
Pel cocked an eyebrow. “They must learn patience… however, now is as good a time as any to let them know of our intentions.” He dropped to the metal deck of the bridge, resting his back against a large bronze colored pipe and bringing himself down to the younglings’ level. Scarp straightened and started for the exit. “I’ll go and find Lig.”
“Look in the med bay,” said Pel, who then turned his attention back to the Bith and Nautolan before him. “Younglings, Sergeant Calz and his men here believe that our best chance for survival is to enter unknown space.”
“But we don’t know what’s out there!” protested Soolad.
“That’s why it’s called unknown space, you nerf,” whispered Janst’orr.
Pel threw her a briefly disapproving glance, then continued. “Sergeant Calz has shown me holo-records of an exploration colony, they call themselves The Far Flung Citadel. They blasted out of Naboo two standard years ago, fearing for the state of the Galaxy during this current turmoil, and dreaming of a new life of harmony on an untouched world.”
“Did you ever hear of Outbound Flight?” interjected Calz.
“Learned about them from Master Nu,” replied Janst’orr.
“Same deal,” said Calz, “bunch of idealists looking for their own slice of paradise.”
“Three ships took off from Theed,” continued Pel, “The Reborn, The Observer and the Good Intention. These ships were packed full of citizens from all races, not just the Naboo, ready to start afresh. Specialists from all walks of life made up the numbers, civil servants, military personnel, families, scientists…”
“And one scientist in particular,” interrupted Digger, “a cloner.”
“A human cloner,” added Peko, “not a stinkin’ Kaminoan.”
Pel drew closer to the children. “Sergeant Calz believes that this man may hold the secret to longevity, he may be able to give them back the rest of their lives.”
Soolad and Janst’orr gazed up at the clones standing around them, knowing that they were looking into the grizzled, battle scarred visages of men who had barely entered their teens, yet looked ready for retirement.
Soolad looked hard at Calz. “And this man, he can fix you?”
Calz knelt down and placed a hand on the little Bith’s shoulder. “That’s what we think. So that’s who we are going to find, a human cloner by the name of Doctor Rayl Solamonn.”
At once, the hatchway frame was filled by the outline of Virus. He looked breathless, as if he had run from one end of the ship to the other.
“Sarge,” he managed between breaths.
Calz stood and instinctively reached for his side arm. “What is it?”
Virus swallowed and looked at the entire group as he spoke. “It’s Lig. She found somebody. Down in the supply room, two females... I think.”