Chapter 44, Part 1

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When a customer was particularly poor his father would blame it on external circumstances: "It's just that damn northeast wind--usually the fish bite like crazy. These fish can detect the slightest changes in barometric pressure and it freaks them out." His father had explained that if you rattle off a few quasi-scientific statements, the average man will nod his head for fear of looking stupid. He might even believe you know what you're talking about.

Fett hated being that guy buoyed up with the cushy words, as Kenobi's words made him feel. He shook his head and studied the map on his HUD. They were still about a klick from the second drill point, and not moving at a good pace.

How could they move faster? He really was pushing it as it was. Moving through the water had made his team loud and slow. The wounded Aro hampered them. Wounded always did.

"Did you hear something?" asked Aro on the channel. Fett stopped and heard only the buzz of droid repulsorlifts, and the subsiding noise of moving water.

"Well technically," said Ayalla, "anyone who's not deaf is hearing something."

"You know what I meant. Listen."

Great. Was Aro paranoid now, too? What disturbed Fett was not any particular noise, but the absence thereof. Moving around in water with armor should have attracted more da phelu, justifying Teel's earlier squirmishness. Unless... he raised his scanner and analyzed the air. Well, I'll be a wookie's uncle.

"Alright team, make sure your filters are powered on, and let's get hustling." He trod forward with quicker and longer strides, no longer worrying about the sound he made.

"Hustle, sir?" asked Aro. "What of our training in the sims? I thought we were supposed to be weary of da phelu?"

"Less talking, more moving, Specialist. I'll explain as we move." The team began to match his pace. "Gravedamp. Huge concentrations of it everywhere."

"Gravedamp?"

"Poisonous gas. The oxygen in the air's depleted. Believe me, you couldn't get a fire to start in here if you tried. A huge mining hazard people forget about. It's not noticed at first, people blaming the dizziness they feel on fatigue, and before they know it... they're unconscious. Permanently."

"So that's why you're not worried about noise," Teel said.

"Bingo; everything around us is dead, or soon to be. Including us, if we don't move quicker." Their suits provided only minimal oxygen supplies.

The water got shallower and shallower as they pressed forward, and no da phelu responded to their noise. Once on ground, bones and a few fresher looking corpses littered the corridor.

Specialist Teel motioned to Rodian skulls they passed by. "Seen a lot of those down here in the mines. Haven't seen human bones yet."

"That bother you, Specialist Teel?" Fett inquired. "You hoping that even more bones would decorate these corridors?"

"No, just thinking, sir. A lot of Rodians died trying to reclaim these mines on human directions."

Teel was a sharp one, he should get this, so Fett provided a little direction. "What of it? For what reason should humans have stuck their necks out for greenies? Just follow the logic. The mines were so greenies could work, right? If they didn't want the work, they didn't need to enter these mines. They knew the risks and took them. They died. No one thinks working in mines is good for one's health, is nature's fountain of youth or something."

"Right, right. Never mind."

"Maybe if humans had been a bit more involved with the miners," Aro mumbled, "or provided them with more efficient tools to secure and maintain the mines, things wouldn't have digressed this far."

"So it's all their fault now? Are you saying human SKYE management deserved this?"

"No sir, but they might have expected something like this might happen."

Fett ignored her. He knew it was Aro's lower, working class ignorance and upbringing that muddied her judgment. She probably bought into all of that socialist political humbug he heard over the holonet. Government should focus more on running and encouraging business enterprises, and less about trying to be some secular church that babysat the galaxy's delinquents and tried to save them from their own stupid choices through some unjust redistribution of wealth.

"Beta team," came Commander Kenobi's voice, disrupting the conversation. "Nice job with the pace, but I need you to reroute to these coordinates." What was this about? They were nearing the drill point; there was no need to reroute. "Switch over to feed 4 and report what you see."

Fett did as his superior officer ordered and toggled to the other team's feed. His HUD showed da phelu everywhere. Great, a mutie birthday party, with everyone and their third cousin invited. There were at least a couple hundred of them, and as he studied the feed more carefully, were those sacks? And shorter younglings?

"Is this some sort of nursery, Commander?" asked Teel.

"It would appear so, Specialist Teel. That's what lies before us if you continue on our current path."

"Can't you just, well, you know..." Teel's sudden timidity made Fett chuckle.

"What, Specialist Teel? Find my way over and use the force to make these da phelu think ghests are coming to take them out? Influencing that many minds is beyond my abilities." Fett smirked. It figured. Jedi were becoming increasingly disappointing these days. "Besides, even if I could I doubt it would persuade them to flee."

"Why's that, sir?" asked Fett.

"Tell me, Sergeant Fett, would you abandon your young, your elderly to escape a ghest?"

"If I didn't think we could fend it off, I'd be stupid not to." No one responded immediately, so he elaborated, "Why should everyone die together? You can always have more kids later."

"I doubt you'll be surprised to find most disagree. Da phelu included." No surprise at all. Most people were weak emotional windbags. But Fett doubted the Commander's sentimental conclusion about the da phelu. These muties didn't seem that attached to one another. Or did they forget that group feasting on one of their comrades earlier? They were survivors; he respected that. But he wasn't going to debate the matter.

"So what did you have in mind, Commander? Throw in a couple of thermal detonators, pick off the survivors, and call it good?"

"And risk a cave-in, perhaps killing ourselves, and at the very least block our path for advance?"

Fett blushed. "I was exaggerating. I mean do you plan to take them head on?"

"Not at all. We can't afford to risk any more of us getting wounded. I plan to avoid them entirely. I need you to bring the laser borer to these coordinates." They flashed on Fett's HUD. "We're going to drill around them."

"Are you sure we've got time for that, sir?"

"And taking all those da phelu out would be quicker? Unlikely. We've got a time sink either way. Drilling around will cut things close, but unless you've got a better option, then we move ahead with it quickly."

"A good plan, Commander," came Til'trius' voice on the channel, "But if I might interject, I think there's a way to make the most of this situation."

"Do elaborate, Lieutenant."

"Sergeant, I assume you have charges left?"

"Yes," said Fett, "for the assault."

"If you could spare a couple, there's an adit not too far from the nesting grounds, which happens to be near autori forces. The da phelu could prove a valuable distraction."


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