RED MOON RISING: A STAR WARS STORY

Notices

Copyright © Tony Russo 2017. All Rights Reserved. No part of this work may be copied, embedded, excerpted, distributed, repackaged, or reprinted without the express permission of the author.

Cover design by Tony Russo.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents not copyrighted under Lucasfilm, Ltd. and/or The Walt Disney Company are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, persons, living, dead, Jedi or droid, is coincidental.

This work is based on material previously published in the volumes of The Star Wars Adventure Journal by West End Games.

The STAR WARS logo is the property of Lucasfilm, Ltd.

STAR WARS is a licensed trademark and copyright of Lucasfilm Ltd., an affiliate of The Walt Disney Company.

THE PENTASTAR ALIGNMENT AND THE IMPERIAL REMNANT

Image credit: The Essential Atlas, artist Modi. (http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Modi)

For more information about the history, government and major characters of The Pentastar Alignment, see http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Pentastar_Alignment

THE RED MOONS

During the era of The Force Awakens:

Brixie Ergo: human female, 27 standard years old, home world Entralla, last known status: resumed medical career.

Sully Tigereye: Trunsk male, squad leader, age indeterminate, home world Trunskos, last known status: mercenary, no affiliation.

Hugo Cutter: human male, demolitions expert/ex-Imperial Engineer, 38 standard years old, home world Ago Sempex, last known status: seeking medical treatment.

Andrephan Stormcaller: human male, commanded infiltrator operations for the Rebel Alliance, 62 standard years old, home world Entralla, last known status: missing.

Ivey Deacon: human female, procurement specialist/data slicer, home world Saco Ulltan, missing and presumed dead.

Lex Kempo: human male, ex-Imperial scout, home world Corellia, missing and presumed dead.

Chapter 1

Old Republic. New Republic. Galactic Empire. First Order. The names changed almost as often as uniform crests, but the factions of the bitter long Galactic Civil War remained the same.

Brixie Ergo regarded the passing of the First Order stormtrooper patrol like the one she noted an hour or so before, and the one that passed the time before that. If there was anything nice to be said about these white armor-encased eggheads, she imagined, they loved staying on schedule.

Watching them shove several locals out of their path and demanding identity credentials from others, Brixie knew stormtroopers and their intentions all too well. When she was a student of the Academy of Medical Arts on Entralla, her instructors explained the training the elite legions went through, every sleeping hour spent under the instruction of a holo-neuron disseminator to bend their will to the Emperor.

Some stormtroopers didn’t need re-education holotapes. Their pathological cruelty was already deep inside the marrow of their bones.

Brixie blew a stray wisp of hair out of her eyes as she stood behind the counter of a medical aid shop deep in the Great Free Market of Ord Mantell City. There were many stalls like hers selling everything from crockery to smoked bantha hides. Ord Mantell was one of a string of green worlds that formed the Bright Jewel system in the Mid Rim. The “Ord” prefix was an ancient moniker for fortress; worlds named Ord were once anchors for the Old Republic against pirates, insurrectionists and eventually the separatists.

Old Republic. New Republic. Galactic Empire. First Order. The names changed almost as often as uniform crests, but the factions of the bitter long Galactic Civil War remained the same. The Empire, by any name, was ruthlessly efficient. They trapped entire worlds, forced their populations to obey their laws, pay their taxes, preached humans were superior to other sapient beings, and enslaved the rest. The Republic, in one form or another, claimed benevolence, freedom and equality and yet was continually mired in the muck of corruption and bureaucracy.

The Galactic Civil War gave birth to legends who grew to prominence and then faded into blurry memory. As a much younger girl, Brixie remembered tales of righteous heroes, dark villains and the gray in-between, all locked in struggle. The Civil War was supposed to have ended with the death of the Emperor. There were celebrations on almost every world across the galaxy.

But the war didn’t end.

For years afterward, the New Republic fought the ghosts of the Empire. Brixie was on Entralla and attending medical university when she was told her parents—both accomplished surgeons—had been taken by a splinter of the Empire that called itself the Pentastar Alignment. The Alignment was led by former Imperial plutocrats who believed they could carry on in the Emperor’s place. It came as no surprise to Brixie that these factions looked and acted just like the military force that seized Ord Mantell from the Republic. This variation called themselves the First Order. The names changed, but their actions remained mostly the same. More brutes and bullies in armor.

A stormtrooper stopped and fixed his gaze on her. She knew their helmets were connected to data nets, using facial recognition and predictive matching to locate beings of interest in their dragnets. Was she on some security watch list? Brixie didn’t think so. It had been years since she last tangled with eggheads. One of the last things slicer Ivey Deacon had promised was she had used a deep worm to remove Brixie from the Pentastar Alignment’s data vaults, wiping her existence back to the days when she was a medical student. It was as if Brixie had never crossed the line from citizen to soldier. She was a citizen once again. She could start all over.

Whether she had records or not, it was hard for her to forget the past. Unlike the others hurrying along the market street, Brixie held the stormtrooper’s stare. She had seen this kind of oppression one too many times and refused to cower before this variant of the Empire, even if she was running a little medical shop. The trooper finally looked away, his interest turning on a passerby who paid the price for crossing his path. He none-too-gently nudged the Mantellian with a shove.

“Move along,” his voice crackled over his helmet’s grille. “Don’t you a better place to be, citizen?”

The pedestrian lowered his head and hurried out of his way. Better to get a rap on the shoulder than to be interrogated on the spot. Some eggheads didn’t bother with interrogation. They fired first…and made someone clean up the mess later. Someone like Brixie.

Eggs moved in baskets. This bunch came with an armored tread crawler, clearing a path through the wide avenue of the Great Free Market as a show of force courtesy of the First Order. Almost out of habit, Brixie counted the number of sentries walking the perimeter of the tank and the stormtrooper operating the heavy repeating blaster in the open turret.

What did Sully Tigereye call patrols who showed up in these things? She could almost imagine the Trunsk’s growl talking to her.

Toss a thermal detonator down the hatch of an ARC-36 and what do you get?

“What?” she would ask back in her meek little voice, the voice of a medical student who was in way over her head and thousands of light years from home.

“Baked stormtrooper surprise.”

“We’re not doing that today,” Brixie muttered, calming the hammer strike of her heart. She used to get so wrapped up in soldiers, trying to mimic their bravado. A part of her remembered the misadventures she had with gruff Sully Tigereye and the rest of Red Moons, a collection of misfits who had once been Infiltrator Team Red Alpha of the Rebel Alliance. Brixie recalled Hugo Cutter and his wild hair, the demolitions expert, a walking bag of fragmentation grenades looking for someone to play catch with. There was the smirking ex-Imperial scout, Lex Kempo, always thinking of fortune and glory. “Mister Smooth Bore,” that’s what he used to call himself. As though that phrase could somehow melt Brixie’s heart. Thank goodness Ivey was there too, calm and reassuring, a voice of reason who kept Hugo from pushing all the buttons on the thermal detonators he carried because of the nightmares he fought in his sleep. The Empire once tried to rewire Hugo with their holotapes and they went too far.

Lastly there was the master of disaster himself, the eye of the raging storm, the man who recruited Brixie to join the Red Moons to get back her parents from the Pentastar Alignment. Colonel Andrephan Stormcaller.

Her other half, the logical half, told Brixie to stop acting like a droid rerunning old memory tapes. Haven’t you forgotten the reasons why you left? Too much death. Too many caring faces snatched away. In an instant, a tiny flicker of love and kindness had been stolen from her. No medical drug nor Jedi sorcery could heal that tear.

That was the last straw. The Red Moons had won their fight against the Pentastar Alignment. Entralla was free. There was nothing more to fight for and she had lost too much to care. She quit the Red Moons, turned in her sidearm and told herself to start living. She was supposed to practice medicine, not random acts of destruction. Thinking about the past wasn’t helpful. Or healthy.

However, that desire to return to medicine created as much trouble for her as it did when she fought alongside the Red Moons. Brixie had joined a medical relief expedition from the New Republic to aid the refugee crisis on Ord Mantell—right as the First Order parked a pair of Star Destroyers in orbit and chased the Republic fleet away. Every refugee Brixie treated in Ord Mantell City spun the same wild stories. The First Order had something called a Starkiller, a machine that could destroy multiple planets, a device more powerful than several Death Stars and had struck a deadly blow against the seat of the Republic. Whether the story was true or not didn’t matter. Beings were fleeing the Core systems by the millions. The First Order was no longer a cadre of obnoxious jackboots in a long line of pretenders to the throne of Emperor Palpatine, but a real threat who brought fear and tyranny wherever they went.

Brand new name. Same old Empire.

After the Star Destroyers appeared, word quickly headed down the comlinks to Brixie and the rest of the medical relief team. Help was not coming to Ord Mantell, at least not anytime soon. The Republic had its hands full. They couldn’t leave.

“Lay low,” the relief coordinator told Brixie and the others. “And stay out of the First Order’s way.”

Brixie took his suggestion and promptly tossed it. She wanted to help, not hide. She opened a medical clinic in Ord Mantell City, little more than a stall  dispensing free medicine and care. The people trapped here because of the First Order’s blockade needed her.

Some took advantage of her charity, though.

Pushing through a crowd of onlookers, a figure wearing robes and a breath mask roughly approached the counter and plopped down a bag of local scrip. A nasal-sounding voice, aided by a vaporator that fit the wearer’s long nose, crackled at her in pidgin localspeak.

“More anflatactite I assume, Gromm?” Brixie interpreted the local’s garbled demand.

“Yes, yes!” the figure bobbed his head, eager.

“I can’t give you any more. Only a doctor can prescribe Anfla Beta 12. It’s a restricted pain medication.”

“I’m paying!” Gromm abandoned the local dialect and settled on Basic. “This is twice what it costs, humee girl.”

“The first time you showed up, you said your wife had a head wound. How is she?”

“She still hurts. Badly.”

“That’s too bad, considering everyone around here knows you have no wife!” She pushed the bag of coin back towards him. “You’re selling it on the streets. Get out of here.”

The alien pointed to the roving patrol of stormtroopers and their tracked tank, parked only a few dozen feet away from them.

“Then I tell First Order you sell illegal drugs.”

“I didn’t sell anything to you! I gave you a single pack after you lied to me.”

Brixie’s indignation quickly changed to alarm. Gromm’s threat was baseless, of course, but the First Order would discover she was from the New Republic’s Medical Relief Service. They would hold her for questioning. Indefinitely.

“Give me what I want humee girl,” the alien demanded, leaning over the counter towards her. “Or you go to prison!”

“Walk away, toadie.” another voice insisted. “Or you won’t have any hands to hold what’s left of your ugly face.”

Gromm was about to make a spiteful rebuke until a thick hand clamped, like a vise, around the hose of his breathing vaporator and spun him about. A gurgling squeal of alarm came from the alien’s sealed windpipe. He was standing face to face with a very angry Trunsk.

The broadly-built alien had fierce golden eyes, curled tusks protruding from snarling lips, and clawed hands the size of freighter landing discs. Brixie’s eyes widened in recognition of the menacing figure who stepped out of the ether.

“You’re going to need more than medical relief after I’m through with you.” Sully Tigereye yanked the annoying alien around by his breathing apparatus. “Possibly a good funeral planner. Do we understand each other?”

A squeaking rattle came from the alien’s nodding head.

“Yeesss!”

“Good. Light your afterburners and scram.”

The clawed hand of the Trunsk released. Gromm nearly fell over his own legs as he made a hasty retreat down the plaza.

The Trunsk turned his eyes, twin yellow suns, on Brixie.

“You’re not thinking of hitting me with that sonic stave you’re holding under the counter, Miss Brix?”

It had been years since she last heard the affectation “Miss Brix”, a joke started by Lex Kempo that continued with many of the Red Moons. Brixie lifted the baton, a non-lethal sonic stunner, up from where she hid it.

“Hit you with this, Sully? Never.” She quickly put the defensive weapon back. “It’s just for dissatisfied customers. Or I simply deploy my favorite Trunsk, who just so happens to materialize out of the stardust of nowhere!”

Smiling, she squeezed his hand in appreciation and affection. Well, she tried to squeeze his hand. Trunsks weren’t all that squeezable. They were renown as carnival fighters and gladiators, stolen from their homeworld and enslaved for their skills in the ring. Brixie had never met any other like Sully Tigereye and long assumed he might be the very last of his kind. How much time had passed since she had last seen her old friend? More years than the fingers on her hand, she imagined.

“What are you doing here?” she kept her voice low, pretending to be engaged in showing Sully a digital catalog of medical equipment. “Please tell me it’s not on business. You know? Moon business.”

“Business? You know the Moons disbanded,” the Trunsk shook his head. “I’m a citizen of the galaxy, just like yourself. Doing good works.”

“Running a med shop in Ord Mantell City isn’t exactly what I had in mind,” she shook her head at the thought of her doing good works. She glanced at the ever-persistent presence of the stormtroopers with a nod of her head. “The whole city’s flooded with refugees fleeing the First Order.”

“And you’re a long way from the Core,” he noted.

“I came here to help. The situation changed. I’m stuck here for a while.”

“No relief from the New Republic, I gather?”

“How did you know…?” she held off finishing her sentence. The surprise of his sudden appearance began to wear off. Having Sully Tigereye appearing out of nowhere and striking up a conversation was no coincidence.

Sully turned his head slightly, letting his ears keep tabs on the drifting electronic chatter coming from the soldiers.

“I can help you, if you’d allow me.”

“No!” Brixie realized she almost shouted the word and fought to clamp down her ion cannon-sized mouth. She quickly apologized. “I mean. No thanks, Sully. I came here to help. I’m neutral. I’m not on any side. Not anymore.”

“It takes bravery to stand in the middle of chaos. Your parents would be proud of you. You honor their memory.”

Her parents had been taken by the Pentastar Alignment, dangled like bait for Brixie and the Red Moons to save, and then slaughtered. Brixie, taken aback by the alien’s solemnity, lowered her eyes.

“Thank you,” she shook herself from thinking about the past. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“What question?” the Trunsk asked, almost innocently. Trunsks weren’t very squeezable…or innocent either.

“What are you doing here on Ord Mantell?”

Like that, they were interrupted again. The open market had this effect. People would come up and go, barter for goods and services and then leave. Seldom did people honor the sanctity of private conversations. Least of all stormtroopers.

A figure in white armor, blaster rifle ready in his hands, pushed his way up and stood behind Sully.

“What’s going on here?” the stormtrooper demanded, his white armored head turning from Sully to Brixie. The First Order had modified the armor’s appearance. The helmets had darker recesses under the eye visors. Extra sensors, perhaps.

“I’m a customer,” Sully insisted, his proud voice scaled down to a whimper. “Seeking relief for my suffering from this fine, upstanding healer.”

The trooper pointed a gloved and armored finger at Brixie.

“You have a license to peddle medical supplies?”

“Absolutely, sir.” Brixie affirmed, ducking down to produce the licenses. “I can get it for you.”

“Hands on the counter. Stand there.”

Brixie didn’t argue and put her hands on the counter.

“You there. Warthog.” The trooper bumped Sully from behind, deliberately testing his patience and insulting his species. Trunsks were not related to that species of animal in the slightest. “Identify yourself.”

“I’m a visitor to this fine world.”

“Show me your identity card.” He leveled the blaster rifle at him, no nonsense.

“Of course.” Sully started coughing as he fished around his tunic’s pocket. “I came here seeking medical aid. I’ve contracted Cracken’s Mold. A rash of some kind.” He held a plastic chit out to the trooper, daring him to take it. “Ask the lady. I believe it’s highly contagious.”

Alarmed, the trooper took a giant step backwards. He swung his head to Brixie.

“Is it?”

“It’s contagious all right.” Brixie bobbed her head in agreement. Of course there’s no such thing, she almost giggled. Taking a cue from Sully, she continued with some official-sounding medical jargon. “It’s an airborne mold. Spreads by physical contact. It starts with a terrible rash, followed by itching that can last for days or weeks. Sometimes even months.”

The trooper kept backing up. Others almost tripped into him.

“Never mind. Keep your identity card. Stay away from people.”

“I will!” Sully waved, friendly as a tourist on vacation. “Thank you, sir.”

“If you should start scratching, take a Voorhoo kelp bath.” Brixie called out after the befuddled stormtrooper. First Order or not, they were still a bunch of eggheads. She almost punched Tigereye for his nonsense. “Cracken’s Mold?

“First thing I could think of.”

“The General would not approve of his name being used like that,” Brixie smiled at the thought of General Airen Cracken, the no-nonsense commander of the Rebel Alliance’s infiltrators and head of security for the New Republic, lending his name to a highly contagious, albeit nonexistent, mold.

“I would pay good credits to see that stormtrooper take a bath in Voorhoov kelp.” The Trunsk enlarged an expansive pair of nostrils and snorted. “He and his barracks are going to smell for days.”

“Sounds like fun,” Brixie kept her eyes on the rest of the stormtroopers, hoping their first run-in didn’t turn into another. She slid the medical catalogue back in its holder, wondering what the Trunsk was really doing here. “Just like the old days. Speaking of which. Sully…what do you want? You know I’m out.”

Tigereye dipped inside his vest and pulled a tiny rectangular datapad in his large hands, his curled digits surprisingly deft with the touchscreen.

“Are you?” His gaze was intent on the datapad’s screen.

“I’m doing what my parents wanted me to do. I’m trying to help others.”

“As I recall, you helped a lot of folks in need. Back in the day.”

“That was different.” She waved her palm across the counter in a slicing gesture, a signal to bring the topic to a close before it even started. “I was an impressionable, desperate, young kid. Sticking a blaster in my hands didn’t make me better than anyone else. All that fighting, and for what? I took more lives than I saved. So don’t con me about helping the weak and the downtrodden. I made my choice. I’m done.”

“I wouldn’t dream of conning you into anything.” Tiger thumbed an entry on the datapad and turned his baleful, amber-colored eyes upon her. “I’m just here to do good works.”

She curiously eyed the readouts on the datapad. He wasn’t watching a news holo, that was certain. The controls displayed on the pad’s screen looked like a remote security network tie-in and a vehicle control interface. They were the sort of controls she would expect Ivey to deploy when she was slicing.

“What in the Five Fire Rings of Fornax are you doing?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

Brixie looked past him, her silvery green eyes growing as wide and full as Ord Mantell’s moon in the cobalt sky over their heads.

The tank. It was moving without warning, shuffling back and forth violently, misbehaving. The trooper in the turret was yelling down to the driver as the repeating blaster in the cupola started to spin around on its own accord. The stormtrooper was hanging on for dear life and calling out for help. The other troopers could do nothing but leap out of the way as the huge vehicle drove straight through a shop full of tapestries and came out looking like the décor of someone’s living room. Bystanders and shopkeepers ran to get out of the behemoth’s way.

“Sully!”

“Hmmm?”

“Are you…?”

“Maybe.”

The tank was going completely bonkers. It did no harm to any persons, just spinning about and crashing into stalls like a mad rancor. Angry shop owners yelled and cursed at the First Order troops for their vehicle’s clumsiness.

“Cut the power!” the lead trooper, wearing a red shoulder epaulet, shouted to his men.

“We’re trying, sir!”

The stormtrooper in the cupola tried to escape the spinning top by climbing out and paid dearly for it—the heavy repeater’s barrel smacked him across his ceramic armor butt and sent him flying. He crashed, ingloriously, into a stall selling pots and pans.

“Ouch,” Tigereye chuckled. “I hope no one from the command section caught sight of that on their vids. That’s embarrassing.”

The Trunsk caught Brixie’s infuriated expression. This wasn’t funny to her.

He swiped his digits across the datapad and killed the override that sent the crazy signals to the tank’s remote interface. The tread-driven tank spun one last time, like a graceful performer on Corsucant’s grand opera stage, and shut down.

Citizens and indignant locals clamored around the vehicle and the confused troops, demanding answers and reimbursement for shops and wares which had been crushed. The scene quickly turned into a mob of protest.

“Clever, Sully.” Brixie muttered. “Real clever. Congratulations. You made a mess!”

“Not quite.”

An explosion ripped apart a wall from one of the citadels that surrounded the plaza of the Great Free Market. Stone, dust and rubble cascaded down into the streets as a large plume of black smoke vaulted into the sky.

Thinking they were under attack, onlookers screamed. Most ran for their lives. The entire market turned into a rip-snorting sea of bodies bolting in panic, leaving the troopers without a tank and engulfed in a tidal wave of rushing bodies.

“Now that’s a mess,” Sully noted.

“The Force help us!” Brixie pointed to the explosion. “What did you do?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s the First Order’s armory going up in smoke.”

Tigereye quickly pocketed the datapad. In a single motion, he jumped the counter, gracefully yanked down the shop’s protective security screen with one clawed hand and threw a startled Brixie over his shoulder with the other. Along with not being very squeezable and quick to tear off the limbs of those who annoyed them, Trunsks were pretty agile.

“Sully!” she shouted, uselessly kicking her legs. “I’m not a part of this!”

“Of course you’re not.” He easily carried her wriggling self on his shoulder like a sack of spare parts. He slipped through the shop’s back exit and headed down an alley, away from the churning smoke and the swirling fear of the mob. “I’m evacuating you to a safe location.”

“Where?” Brixie begged as he slipped down one dark corridor to the next, deeper and deeper into the bowels of the old city, and further and further away from her current life.

“Just an asylum for the mentally impaired, that’s all.”

Chapter 2

She began to realize this object wasn’t just a tracer. It was a potent, tiny explosive designed for one purpose. To snap her neck and kill her.

“All that…just to drag me here?”

Brixie fumed, pacing the incredibly small amount of floor space available in the rental cube Tigereye had taken her to. There were thousands of such nooks in Ord Mantell City, temporary spaces for freighter crews to rest until their next trip. The amenities were as tiny as the amount of available space. Aside from a bed covered in hard equipment cases, there was an unused food galley and a holo-screen bolted to the wall and tuned to the city’s non-stop news feed. A folding door led to a washroom.

Sully Tigereye was huddled over a roll-out work top with the contents of a small repair kit splayed out. He was working on something delicate and electronic in nature.

“You don’t sound very happy about it,” he muttered, probing the interior of what resembled uniform badges. “Or grateful.”

“What part of me not being involved in the Red Moons anymore don’t you understand? You were there when I left. You knew how I felt. I went back to medicine to get away from this! But you blew up an armory and carried me off like a bag of dirty laundry.” She peered inside one of the cases, expecting to find heavy blasters and the usual heavy gear mercenaries would tote around. All she saw was clothing. “I can’t do this, Sully. You know what happened before…”

Many of the Red Moons were former infiltrators and soldiers of the Rebel Alliance, that much was true. The death of the Emperor and the birth of the New Republic brought no peace. New factions, like the Pentastar Alignment, sprung up to fill the void left behind by retreating and confused Imperial units that refused to surrender.

The Alignment had taken the Entralla system as its home base, and by taking it, subjected millions of beings to its interpretations of Imperial law. Free speech was squelched; protests were put down; local officials jailed. People started to disappear, including Brixie’s parents. Those disappearances finally caught the attention of someone who cared. Colonel Andrephan Stormcaller was an Entralla native and begged the New Republic to dislodge the Alignment from his home. But the New Republic was juggling other matters, military and political, and gave the Pentastar Alignment time and space to do its dirty work.

Stormcaller called upon the fighters and experts from his old infiltrator unit to join him in his private war against an entire regime. They turned mercenary, ignoring the New Republic (although they did receive some logistical aid from sympathetic souls like General Airen Cracken of New Republic Intelligence) and taking the fight to the Alignment on their own terms. Stormcaller recruited others to his cause, including Brixie.

It was a messy and deadly brawl. The random nature of Tigereye’s attack in the Great Free Market was straight out of the Red Moon bag of tricks—hit the enemy by surprise and hit them hard. Aside from the constant running, hiding, and the dangerous missions was a grueling ordeal that never ended. What Brixie saw during her brief time with the Red Moons was death, more death than she could forget when she lay her head down to sleep.

The Red Moons won their war with the Alignment but Brixie still lost. She found her parents, but by then it was too late. They were victims of the same cruelty that seemed to overtake everything in her life. She was a healer, not a soldier. She could no longer be part of that life.

Storming around the interior of some stained rental space, Brixie couldn’t understand how she had managed to get dragged back into this mess. From healer to fugitive in less than a few minutes. Didn’t she have a say in these things?

Tigereye sensed her anger and offered up a simple explanation.

“I had to create a diversion to get you away. You were being watched.”

“Of course I was being watched,” she pointed towards the reasonable direction of the sky, despite the ceiling tiles. “There are two Star Destroyers in orbit and I’m with a Republic medical relief team. The first thing the First Order would do is figure out what Republic personnel were on the planet….”

“Not them,” Sully growled, glancing up from his work. He had one of the badges opened, exposing its electronic guts. “Your own people.”

Brixie didn’t understand.

“What?”

“Your team leader was watching you,” Sully held up a small, but familiar piece of clothing. “And tracking you.”

Bixie felt the back of her tunic’s collar. While carrying her on his shoulder, Sully must have ripped the top layer of her insulated jacket right off. Underneath the synthetic fibers in his palm was a slender metal stick. It was a radio receiver…and something else.

She peered closely at the device. An expert in destruction and mayhem like Hugo Cutter would know exactly what this thing was and explain to her its purpose. She began to realize this object wasn’t just a tracer. It was a potent, tiny explosive designed for one purpose.

To snap her neck and kill her.

Brixie’s face turned pale.

“I don’t understand.”

“Theft protection,” Sully smirked as he resumed his work. “One push of a button and your head would pop off like the cork from a six hundred-year-old bottle of Mugulan snaznie.”

“But why?” her voice cracked, stunned not only by the deception but the betrayal from the very people she was working with. “Why would they do that?”

“You’re a top medical expert from the Republic who decided to put your skills to work in hostile space instead of some cushy clinic. Someone like you would be invaluable to the New Order, the Resistance, or any Hutt crimelord still wriggling in his burrow.”

“Like my parents…” Brixie’s voice trailed off.

“Your Republic friends wanted to make sure you didn’t fall into the wrong hands. Well your head, at the very least.”

“And here I am!” Her hands turned into fists. “You abducted me anyway!”

“It wasn’t an abduction,” he snorted. “I came to Ord Mantell to find you. There wasn’t time to explain about the tracer. I doubt your pals would have allowed you to go with me. The moment you left their sight, they would have flipped the switch.”

“So you decided to do this to me instead?” she cried out in anger. “We haven’t spoken in years. No holos. No transmissions. Not one simple hello or a visit. Instead, you walked right up and took me. What kind of friend treats a friend like that?”

The Trunsk went quiet, fiddling with the inside of the badges.

After a long moment of silence between them, he spoke.

“The young Lady Ergo I once knew was understanding and compassionate. She stopped to listen and found the good in everyone. It was our fault, of course, bringing you into our world. You joined the Red Moons to save your parents, but in the end we failed you. You deserve a better life than the one we gave you. I would have stayed away, but the stars have a way of aligning themselves sometimes. I am in need of your help. It’s as simple as that.”

“Sully…” Brixie tried to rein in her tone. After all, he did find the bomb in her jacket, thus saving her life.

“I need a medical expert and a friend I can trust. Will you do this for me?”

“Yes,” she nodded, realizing she had been doing nothing but complaining. “For an old friend.”

“Good. Now take off your clothes.”

She blanched. Back when she was with the Red Moons and a little younger, she would have been outraged.

“Wait, what?”

“Apologies. I have a poor understanding of human mannerisms,” the Trunsk chuckled as he pointed towards one of the heavy equipment cases on the bed. “What I meant to say is, you’ll find a uniform in there. Please put it on. You can change in the washroom.”

She walked over to one of the cases and unsnapped its latches, throwing it open. Inside were changes of the same uniform, a jumpsuit with a separate patterned coverall with several pockets. It was a medical uniform, although she was unfamiliar with the style.

“What is this from?”

“Maybe you’ve forgotten since I was carrying you around on my shoulder like a sack of tubers, but I did mention an asylum for the mentally impaired.”

“I remember.” She chose one outfit that matched her size and headed for the lavatory. “I thought you were joking.”

“Trunsks don’t joke.”

An asylum for mental impairment could mean many different things. Brixie’s own studies of the medical arts found treatments for the mind were as varied as the colors of stars. The more empathetic the species, the better the care for those suffering from mental disorders. But the Empire, like so many others, treated mental impairment as a failing. They cruelly isolated and purged sufferers.

Even modern worlds like Ord Mantell had relics of some horrific past. The imposing-looking building Brixie and Sully Tigereye approached was a monument to that past, perhaps designed expressly for incarceration as opposed to care. It was more fortress than oasis, but the design’s intent was reversed—to protect those outside the walls from the terrors they perceived inside. The entire structure resembled a keep with high walls and narrow slits for windows. It was conceived entirely of cold obsidian stone and steel, not an ounce of color or anything welcoming in sight.

The mind was an organ, like any other in the body. It could be injured. It could suffer from attack, physical and viral. It could also be helped. If Brixie had her way, she would tear this awful-looking structure down stone by stone. To call this place a hospital was an insult to everything she knew about medicine. She coldly glanced at the personnel gliding past the gate on their way out, wearing medical uniforms and coverlets exactly as the one she had. They looked professional, chatting politely and smiling in a friendly fashion at Brixie as they walked past, seemingly unconcerned with the First Order’s occupation of Ord Mantell. Or perhaps it was all an act.

Sully Tigereye had exchanged his utilitarian vest for a security tunic, trousers and boots. Both of them had comlink badges pinned to their clothes, each badge’s small blue dot blinking as it constantly communicated with the security pylons that stood guard at the main gate and at nearly every juncture Brixie could see ahead of them. The badges acted as passive security. If you were caught without one or strolling through the wrong area, you could be in serious trouble.

Then there was the active security. Brixie certainly didn’t expect to find KX security droids; black-painted, tall, long-legged droids standing motionless at sentry posts. These weren’t run-of-the-mill junk piles. KXs were used at important locations throughout the Empire and then during the era of the Pentastar Alignment. They had been more than a handful to the Red Moons. Comlink badges were fairly ubiquitous in medical facilities, keeping people out of certain areas. But what kind of asylum for the mentally impaired needed enforcer droids typically used by the Empire? An often-used phrase appeared in the back of Brixie’s throat, along with the sense of dread building in the pit of her stomach.

I have a bad feeling about this.

“Maybe I should have asked this before we put on these ridiculous clothes,” she murmured to Tigereye as they walked through the heavy permacrete-poured gates and under the unblinking stares of a pair of tactical droids. “But why are we here?”

“What do you think?” Tigereye commented.

There was only one good reason for them to walk willingly into a highly-secure institution designed to incarcerate mental patients.

“The Force save us. Is Hugo in here?”

A slight nod was the Trunsk’s only response.

Brixie executed a perfect right turn, angling away from the entrance and headed directly towards a fountain and sitting area used by personnel on their work breaks. She stopped at the fountain, a circular pool laid with white brick with stylized figures in clear crystal tossing wavelets of water to one another, catching them with the palms of their hands. It was an interesting and playful piece of sculpture, but Brixie cared more about not getting caught, or shot, or any of a dozen other things that could happen strolling inside this heavily-guarded fortress without knowing everything.

If there was one thing Brixie remembered from her time with the Red Moons, the fountain’s gurgling made enough background noise to break up any attempt by someone trying to listen in on their conversation; which was about to become quite heated.

“He’s here? Why is he here?” she angrily whispered at the Trunsk. “When exactly did you plan on telling me this?”

Since the time Brixie had known him, Hugo Cutter walked a fine line between genius and paranoid. His mind was a storehouse of knowledge: metallurgy, chemistry, bio-organic compounds, particle physics, higher planes of quantum energy…yet he was at his happiest when he was knocking down the walls of an Imperial garrison. Hugo longed for chaos. He could build a beautiful thing out of junk—or destroy it in a ball of fire—on a whim.

Deep down, he was hurting. Hugo hardly slept, haunted by nightmares. His father wanted him to act more like the son of a corporate titan, not an individualist. When young Hugo acted out at the prestigious Imperial Engineers Academy, his father handed him over to the Empire to “fix him”. They put him through the stormtrooper indoctrination program but at an intensity that brought him to psychosis.

Hugo returned to the Imperial Engineers Academy a new man, calmly obedient and dedicated to the Imperial Order. It was all a clever act. Hugo brought down the Academy building’s famous bell tower on Corsucant without injuring a single soul, a dazzling feat of deconstruction. He had vast, untapped talents for destroying things and the Rebel Alliance quickly scooped him up. They put him to work in the infiltrator squads, psychotic episodes and all.

He could never truly escape what had been done to his mind. Everyone in the Alliance and the Red Moons referred to Hugo as a “colorful character”. On missions, his outbursts reached a point that Brixie sometimes was forced to administer a sedative to calm him down. It was a matter of safety; she couldn’t let a man carrying around a bag of thermal detonators have an anxiety attack.

With her limited medical knowledge, she begged him to seek real treatment. Hugo blankly told her he had been cured a long time ago. This, he motioned to himself, was the real Hugo.

“You know, the universe is slowly falling apart,” he giggled as though he was letting her in on some private joke. “I’m only helping it along.”

Brixie took one look at the obsidian fortress they were supposed to enter and crossed her arms, defiant. She would not move a step until she heard what the Trunsk had to say.

“We’re here to get our friend out.” Tigereye replied as quietly as he could muster and still be understandable, trying not to physically convey their discussion as an argument.

“That’s not everything, is it?” She fingered her comlink badge and the outfit. “You said you needed me and a medical expert. How convenient.”

“I do need you and your expertise. Your comlink badge is keyed to Doctor Mari Ergo.”

All thoughts of Hugo and his confinement evaporated from Brixie.

“My mother?” she shook her head. “My mother and my father had nothing to do with mental care. They were both surgeons taken by the Alignment. They were forced to work for them. You know they were enslaved!”

“In my search for Hugo, I came across your mother’s name with a medical study run by an Alignment sec-ops officer named Ephron Zult. After the Alignment collapsed, the study and Hugo was moved here to Ord Mantell, to this facility. I found your mother’s old records and transferred them to your badge so we could gain entry.” Tigereye pointed to the metal fob attached to his own tunic. “My badge is keyed to an Alignment bodyguard and minder who was assigned to her. This should be enough to trick the security nets and the droids.”

Brixie shook her head. Impossible. Her mother was not a willing part of the Alignment. Never. She didn’t have a bodyguard. Why would she need a bodyguard? She certainly wouldn’t supervise a medical study for Alignment security operations. What was the purpose of such a study? What was she doing?

“We go in,” Tigereye assured her his plan was sound. “You announce yourself, you demand custody of Hugo, and we walk out.”

“My mother,” Brixie breathed, her mind stuck on an image of her. Her wonderful, caring, intelligent and devoted mother. Questions formed webs of doubt. What sort of monster had she been turned into?

“My Lady Ergo,” Tigereye kept his expression tightly controlled, less someone might be recording them with cameras or sensors. “If you don’t want to do this, I won’t argue. You probably think I’m lying. What I know for sure is that your mother was part of a plot that led me here to Hugo. A plot that continues to operate after your parents’ deaths. Help me set him free.”

Brixie’s palms slowly clenched into fists, her fingernails digging into flesh. She brought her hands together, holding them tight, hiding her pain and bafflement.

Sully Tigereye had saved her life many times and the lives of others. He had fought against slavers and Imperials with the ferocity of an entire platoon. So had Hugo, Ivey, Lex Kempo and the other Red Moons. What she discovered was that they were, in some remarkable way, a family. All they had was each other. That was the one thing they could count on, as sure as the stars remained lit across the black velvet curtain of space.

Brixie’s new life, the one she thought was meant for her, was slipping away. First the Republic had deceived her, letting her join a medical relief expedition only to be ready to kill her if she didn’t stay in line. Now one of her closest of friends was in danger.

She had to become a soldier again.

Brixie let her hands drop calmly down to her side. She yanked away her questions and put on a mask of frigid calm and efficiency. It was a mask she had worn before, the face of a medical professional who was accustomed to dealing with life and death every day.

“I am Doctor Mari Ergo,” she bluntly told Tigereye as though she was speaking to the guards at the facility’s gate to let them pass inside. She gestured to the Trunsk. “And this is my bodyguard….”

“Krevott,” Tigereye responded with a threatening rumble. “That is my name.”

“Right then,” Brixie nodded. “Krevott, let’s get our friend out of this awful place.”

Chapter 3

“HERE WE ARE. SUBJECT J829P. CUTTER, HUGO. FORMER REBEL SPY. INDOCTRINATION PROGRAM BETA GAMMA TWELVE.

CARE TO HAVE A LOOK?”

The hospital administrator who insisted on escorting Brixie and Sully around was named Trevane. He was a font of information, insuring he was featured in a positive light. He never referred to the facility as a prison, but Brixie knew better. Trevane used words like “holding center”, which was bureaucratic double-talk for incarceration. If patients were confined to cells and carefully watched by guard droids, that wasn’t treatment. That was jail.

With his crisply pressed administrator’s uniform, stringy brown hair plastered to his head and trim moustache decorating his upper lip, Trevane spoke with a righteous-sounding accent common to the Empire—a snotty bureaucratic tone. Tigereye would have knocked him out in an instant if it wasn’t for the two battle droids that tagged along behind them.

“This is an honor beyond words, Doctor Ergo.” The man again graciously managed to weave yet another compliment to her during the tour. “Once the project was transferred here, we lost contact with the Alignment. They had been absorbed, so I was told, by remnants of the former Imperial Navy led by a Grand Admiral….”

“I don’t need a history lesson, Administrator Trevane.” Brixie curtly cut him off, avoiding discussions of the past. “Communications were lost. Emergency protocols were initiated. That is why I’m here. The project is all that matters.”

“I’m quite sure the arrival of the First Order was a reason for concern for Agent Zult. He never did trust those zealots.” Trevane sniffed, arms clasped behind his back. “We’ve kept the project going all this time, following your exact instructions. Every scrap of data, every result, has been recorded. I hope Agent Zult will be pleased.”

“I’m the one you have to deal with,” she eyed the man with a whiff of contempt. “And I hold people accountable for their actions, Administrator.”

Trevane noticeable paled. He tugged at his tunic’s collar, perhaps imagining she was choking him through some mastery of the Force. Glancing towards Sully a few steps behind her, Brixie spotted a modest crease at the corner of the Trunsk’s mouth. He approved of her acting performance.

They entered an turbovator keyed to Trevan’s own comlink badge. This was how access was granted throughout the facility, a badge would open a door or deny it based on the wearer’s security level. Since each badge was keyed to the wearer’s biometrics, stealing one and trying to use it would amount to thieving a useless souvenir.

As usual, silence pervaded the turbovator. It was a curious social custom throughout the galaxy; no one liked to engage in conversation in a confined space. The three of them and the two droids had nothing of interest to say. Trevane, however, insisted on breaking the social custom.

“I must say,” he mentioned to Brixie in a low voice. “Considering your reputation, you’re much younger than I expected, Doctor Ergo. And far more attractive, if I might add?”

Having known the man for less than fifteen minutes, a sense of ick filled Brixie’s stomach. Was he flirting with her? Realizing her deception was at stake here, she stared him down.

“How do you think I avoid attention from the Republic, Administrator? And how quickly you seemed to have forgotten the medical arts can alter the body and the face. Your compliments are wasted on me. But if you like, you can ask my bodyguard out on a date.”

A chuckle came from somewhere deep inside Sully Tigereye’s throat.

Administrator Trevane quickly faced the front of the elevator again. Brixie exhaled a sigh of relief. Any further questions about her youthful appearance had been neatly diverted.

The doors opened and thankfully, except for the droids, everyone was grateful for more personal space. Walking through the corridors of this facility, Brixie could not help but feel she was inside the confines of an Imperial base. Ord Mantell was a Mid Rim world and had been under Imperial occupation for some time before the Republic liberated the world. This hospital, if one could call it that, was from the Imperial era: dark metal slabs for walls, thick conduits and pipes snaking through the ceiling, heavy doors more suitable for a starship, and a pervasive oppression among the staff and droids they encountered.

Unanswered questions flooded her at every step on the hard tile decking. How could the Republic let this place continue to function? What was this project and its purpose? What did this Agent Zult want to accomplish with Hugo Cutter?

Trevane stopped at a door and placed his right hand on a panel that read his biometrics, including fingerprints, pressure points and capillary mapping. It was a secondary door access mechanism. Brixie exchanged an uneasy glance with Tigereye. There was no fooling that kind of door lock. Trevane would get them inside the labs. But would they need him to get out?

The door slid open with a loud clang.

“This way, Doctor.” Trevane motioned to Brixie, all business now. The KX droids standing behind them made sure there was no easy way for either Brixie or Tigereye to back out. Appearing unruffled, Brixie strode inside with Trevane and Sully following right behind. The droids, their rounded black heads almost too tall for the door’s top arch, remained outside.

Of course, Brixie told herself, to prevent the droids from recording what was inside. The labs—and their contents—were kept isolated from the rest of the facility.

The long corridor they entered was an access-way with large windows fronting each separate laboratory environment room. The interior was all sterile white and stainless steel. Long glass partitions, several inches of a shatter-resistant transparent polymer, separated the corridor from each of the environments.

“I’m rather surprised you want to take possession of this subject, considering his past history of psychosis. We released the other five some time ago, per Agent Zult’s instructions.” Trevane remarked as they strode past the labs. Looking inside, past the glass, Brixie noticed each was empty. They were arranged in very strange configurations, comfortable-like apartments on one side and medical treatment beds, with immersive holo-theater canopies and analysis equipment on the other.

Brixie didn’t know where to begin, the design of the lab environments or the fact that there were six subjects and Hugo was the sole remaining?

“Where are the other five subjects?” Brixie asked, trying to make her words sound like she knew exactly what she was talking about.

“Unknown. But their background data are in the files.” Trevane reached the last of the lab rooms, what lay beyond the glass was in darkness. He put his palm on another access reader and brought up an information display. “Here we are. Subject J829P. Cutter, Hugo. Former Rebel spy. Indoctrination program Beta Gamma Twelve. Care to have a look?”

“Just download the files,” Brixie waved off the readout. “I want to see the subject.”

“Of course, Doctor.” Trevane pressed a few switches controlling the lab environment. The lights flickered on inside. A figure could be seen under the covers in the bed on the apartment side, his head on a pillow. Because of the angle, Brixie couldn’t tell if this really was Hugo or not. Trying not to appear anxious, her gaze flickered to the lab environment displays.

“Vital signs?”

“He’s relatively normal physically, but his brain alpha patterns are highly disturbed. Part of the Beta Gamma program. He’s at the low end of the cycle.” An overhead camera built in the recess of the ceiling showed a man snoring. “We induce sleep in the subjects to keep them on a regular schedule. Exactly to your requirements.”

What was the Beta Gamma program? What had they done to Hugo?

“Excellent, Administrator.” Brixie fought to keep her voice steady.

Trevane inserted a data cylinder he carried in one of the slip loops of his bureaucrat’s tunic and inserted it into the panel. With a few quick key presses, he started downloading files and other important information into the cylinder.

“Can you have him prepared for transport?”

“Absolutely.” Trevane started working the controls. “The medical droids will handle everything.”

Two different droids appeared from a recessed panel. One was tall and long-armed, a medical version of the KX enforcer droid programmed to handle intern duties, such as the heavy lifting of patients. The other was a barrel-shaped Astromech medical assistant droid. Brixie had to pinch herself not to think that this unlikely duo faintly resembled the protocol and Astromech droids that belonged to a certain Jedi master and his equally famous sister, a former senator and Rebel leader of some regard.

“And the medical droids’ memories?” Brixie asked, remembering the enforcer droids ordered to remain outside the labs.

“Wiped at the conclusion of every shift. We leave no trace here,” the administrator confidently replied, sounding like a used speeder salesman. “They will have no recollection of what transpired today.”

He paused, not pulling the data cylinder from the socket, nor did he continue ordering the droids to work on moving the patient’s bed.

Brixie, not knowing what to do, stood there. There was a long, uncomfortable pause as she and the administrator stared at one another.

“Doctor?” Trevane gestured to the hand-identity access panel he had just used. “I need your confirmation to release the patient and the data.”

Brixie bit the interior of her cheek, thinking hard. Sully had reprogrammed her comlink badge to transfer her mother’s identity and clearances to the security systems. But if she put her hand on that scanner, the system would know she did not possess her mother’s biometric profile. The whole facility would come down on their heads.

She glanced at Tigereye. He offered an encouraging, if menacing, nod as if to suggest…

Take charge, girl.

“You do it, Administrator.”

“But…” Trevane’s eyes widened and he coughed. “That’s not proper procedure. Your identity must be confirmed…”

Hospital staff loved procedures. They lived by them. It would take more than talking to get them to ignore it. Fortunately, Brixie had brought along a Trunsk.

“I will not be subjected to ridiculous scans. My security is more important than your procedures. Droid memories can be wiped. So too can people’s. Just ask my bodyguard.”

Trevane’s terrified gaze slid past Brixie. Sully Tigereye had kept silent, until now. He lifted a hand, truly large and hairy, up to the administrator so Trevane could see the long talons extending from his digits.

“The Doctor told you what to do,” he growled. “Or maybe I’ll just tear off that hand of yours and do it for you.”

Needing no further incentive, Trevane put his hand down voluntarily on the scanner. The droids went into action, unlocking the bed with Hugo from its frame. The bed’s own grav-repulsors activated so it could be maneuvered out of the room.

“Follow the patient to the garage level, Doctor.” Tigereye told Brixie. “I’ll keep my eyes on our most helpful friend here.”

Brixie popped the lab door and went after the droids pushing the bed. Sully hovered over Trevane, making sure he was transferring data to the cylinder and not calling security. Following the droids, Brixie stopped to look over her shoulder. Tigereye was escorting the administrator into the lab, directing him to sit in the chair where the holo-theater hood and the analysis equipment were located. Having no clue what the Trunsk was up to, the corridor before Brixie twisted to the left. She was forced to catch up to the droids, leaving her friend and Trevane behind.

The KX medical droid pushed the bed with Hugo into a service elevator, the Astromech and Brixie right behind. As the doors snapped shut, the control panel lit up for the garage level. She could finally examine Hugo. The reason why she almost didn’t recognize him was that his usually wild head of hair had been shaved down to the scalp. His face looked drawn and terribly pale. Taking Hugo’s pulse at his wrist didn’t satisfy her, so she ordered the Artoo unit to plug into the bed’s onboard sensors to check on the patient. The Artoo chirped and beeped in response. Hugo was still fast asleep.

“Hugo?” she shook his shoulder gently, leaning close to his ear. “Hugo? Wake up.”

There was no response. She kept trying to rouse him while the floor indicator on the elevator’s control display ticked down to the surface level and then several levels below.

“Reaching garage levels,” the KX announced. “Shall I put the patient inside an ambulance speeder for you, Doctor Ergo?”

“Yes. Quickly now!”

“I didn’t know we were in such a hurry,” the medical droid sniffed. “Speeding up a task only increases the probability of error.”

“That’s good to know,” Brixie groused, ditching the dignified doctor bit, leading the way out of the elevator’s opening doors while fearing their ruse would be discovered any second now. “Move it, tin pants!”

Tin pants? My legs are made of duraluminum and other composites…”

The KX moved the bed on its grav-lifts, maneuvering a still-snoring Hugo among a row of speeder craft designated as medical transports. Conscious of security cameras, Brixie picked one in the middle of the row parked between two support columns which partially blocked the cameras’ field-of-view. She popped open the speeder’s rear hatch, allowing the KX to slide the bed into the cargo bed and latch it down to the speeder’s floor clamps. She shooed away the Artoo unit, which tried to climb up the ramp to the back of the speeder.

“I don’t need you to come along.”

The droid beeped and hummed at her, insisting.

“I’m a doctor. I don’t need your help.”

The smaller droid was twitching now, mentioning something about the patient suffering from post-sleep shock effects…things Brixie didn’t want to deal with at the moment.

“Yes, yes I heard what you said. You and tin pants are to proceed directly to Maintenance and have your memories wiped.”

“That’s not procedure,” the KX mentioned. “We are to report for memory wipe at the conclusion of the day.”

“I’m giving you a direct order.” Brixie stammered. “Proceed to Maintenance and have your memories wiped.”

“We can’t do that, Doctor Ergo.” The KX and the Artoo chatted with each another in their own sonic vocabulary, making Brixie feel like the odd man out of a three-person comedy performance. The taller droid shrugged its large shoulders. “No. I don’t understand her hostility at all.”

“You will do what I say!” Brixie demanded, looking wildly around. A security patrol van was making its rounds through the garage level. Eventually, it would turn down their row and the occupants inside would start asking questions. Very specific questions. “Go to Maintenance!”

“I’m afraid we can’t, Doctor Ergo.”

“Yes, you will.”

The Artoo droid beeped back a stubborn-sounding, “No, we won’t!

“Why are you two buckets of bolts acting like this?”

“My counterpart here is quite correct,” the KX affirmed, using the same annoying syntax another certain golden protocol droid was fond of using. “Sending us to Maintenance now is not part of our programmed routine. Doctor Ergo, you don’t have the authority to override our…”

A figure came up behind and swung a length of heavy piping. The KX’s head left the socket on top of its chest, bouncing like an exercise ball across the permacrete garage floor. The remainder of the tall droid toppled over like a tree. Before the Artoo unit could cry, “Murder!”, the heavy pipe came slamming down vertically atop its domed head. The pipe drove deep, tearing apart motivators and circuits. Sparks flew and components scattered, like electronic entrails, in all directions.

Sully Tigereye paused to ensure neither droid was functioning, then he tossed the heavy piece of pipe underneath another ambulance speeder.

“They just don’t ever shut up, do they?”

Chapter 4

BRIXIE REALIZED SHE HAD GONE FROM SCOFFLAW TO KIDNAPPER TO PUBLIC ENEMY IN THE SPACE OF ONLY A FEW MINUTES.

“This is not walk in, get Hugo and walk out!” Brixie protested, stunned at the mess of droid parts scattered about. She felt horrible for their violent demise, even if they were only machines.

Tigereye, having little to no empathy for a mechanical construct, drop-kicked the dead medical Artoo unit and sent it careening into a garage wall.

“Your complaint has been noted,” he eyed the security van about to turn down their way. “Get in.”

Brixie threw herself in one side of the ambulance speeder’s front cabin while Tigereye climbed in the other side. He helped himself to the driving controls in the center stack. Since only the droids were authorized to operate the hospital-owned vehicle and not them, the speeder locked out its controls, flashed its external lights and let loose with an alarm guaranteed to bring unwanted attention. Before Brixie could shout over the din, Sully jammed a jacker-spike into the console’s turnkey slot. The spike nullified the security lock and switched the speeder on. Problem solved.

Brixie was almost afraid to ask him her next question.

“What happened to the administrator?”

He tossed her the data cylinder containing the transferred project files.

“He’s watching the latest immersive holo-films Hugo was forced to watch, after I taped him to the chair and gagged his mouth.”

“Sully!” Brixie gasped.

“Save the lecture until after we’re all safely gone from here,” he flicked the ambulance speeder’s controls into reverse.

The speeder backed out of the space, directly perpendicular to the arriving security patrol van. Brixie cursed their luck; they were trapped.

Two human guards were seated behind the security van’s windscreen. They locked eyes with Brixie. Not knowing what else to do in this situation, she cheerfully waved to them.

“Halt!” a voice came over the van’s public-address speaker.

“Now what do we do?” she complained to Tigereye, hoping he had a plan.

He wasn’t in the seat beside her. He wasn’t even in the vehicle!

“Sully?” Brixie looked wildly around. How was it possible to lose a Trunsk? “Sully!”

“You!” the guards ordered over the van’s speaker system. “Show your hands. Remain in the vehicle.”

Brixie reluctantly raised her hands and put them on the cockpit’s forward dash panel. This was the second time in only a few hours that some authority figure wanted to hold her for questioning. She began to wish Tigereye had never darkened her stall at the Great Free Market.

“Thanks a lot, Sully Tigereye.” she gritted her teeth while the guards, still inside the protective enclosure of the van, started running security checks on her.

“We have your badge and your identity code,” the guard’s voice returned over the PA system. “Doctor Ergo, you are not authorized to operate that vehicle.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she muttered back.

A strange white metal reflection filled the security van’s windshield. Both guards looked up, their faces filled with surprise.

A KX medical droid’s body—sans head—slammed against the van’s windscreen and shattered the so-called “shatterproof” transparent safety polymer. The heavy droid pinned both guards to their seats, keeping the two from doing much of anything except groan in surprise and pain.

Tigereye resumed his place in the seat next to Brixie.

“Miss me?”

“You’ve done quite enough.” Unhappy, Brixie snatched the speeder’s controls away from the Trunsk. “I’m driving.”

Tigereye raised his hands in mock surrender.

“Be my guest, Doctor Ergo.”

After some back and forth maneuvering, Brixie was able to get the ambulance speeder out of its awkward position and aimed for the garage exit. Security cameras and a host of sensors were already notifying personnel as to their unauthorized departure. Reinforcements were quickly sent to stop them.

Brixie dodged another security van and she deliberately ran over a KX enforcer droid that stood in their way, waving at them to stop. Guards at the garage’s entrance/exit ramp lowered the gate arms. Brixie decided it was best to bash through those as well. The arms snapped off into so much plastic shards. First the guards, then a droid, and now property damage. Knowing how badly the hospital had mistreated Hugo, Brixie felt a sense of satisfaction wrecking their things.

“People say I have issues with my temper?” Tigereye mentioned, hanging on to the interior’s grab straps as Brixie slid the ambulance around a third security patrol vehicle trying to cut them off. The patrol speeder swerved into a permacrete barrier. Tigereye glanced in the speeder’s rear-view screens as the crushed speeder released a geyser of coolant from its hood, its occupants stumbling out. “Can’t you be a little less obvious?”

“Are you driving?”

“No.”

“Then do something productive besides making silly suggestions!” she snapped.

Tigereye reached over and snatched the badge off her tunic. He plucked his own badge from his jumpsuit and tossed both comlinks from the window. Now the hospital didn’t have a mechanism to track them, unless….

An aerial speeder angled out of the sky and took up a position behind them. Other speeders, ground and air, joined in the chase. The hospital wasn’t taking any chances. They must have discovered Administrator Trevane bound in the lab and directly contacted Ord Mantell’s Civil Law Patrol. Why send security vans when the city’s entire police force could chase them down? After all, Brixie and Sully had only kidnapped a patient and made off with valuable corporate data.

“We’re not scofflaws, Sully.” Brixie tried to be erratic, pointing the ambulance down one narrow streetway after another. Everywhere she turned, there was another civil patrol vehicle waiting for them. Officers in heavy riot control gear and blasters were setting up blockades, trying to box them in. “We’re full-on criminals!”

“Take a right,” Tigereye warned, pointing towards a ramp that led to the city’s spaceport.

“You’re taking us to a starship? We’ll never fly out of here!”

“Take a right,” the Trunsk assured her. There was more to his plan to help free Hugo than he had previously told her.

So she hoped.

She swung right, taking the ramp that descended into the lower levels of the spaceport. These roads were used by cargo haulers pulling sectional pod containers, droid-operated refueling lifts, passenger vans, taxi skiffs, minispeeders and dozens of other vehicles. With little available space overhead, the police air speeders had to abandon the chase. That left the civil law patrol no choice but to give chase with speeder bikes and ground cars.

For some crazy reason, Sully turned on the ambulance’s warning sirens. Actually, that made sense to Brixie, forcing traffic to slide out of their way or yield while she tried to coax as much out of the speeder’s engine as possible. She whipped her head behind, trying to keep an eye on Hugo back in the carrier portion, hoping she had not flung him out of his bed.

“Keep your eyes ahead!” Tigereye warned. “I’ll worry about Hugo and the rest.”

“Fine. What do we do?” she nodded towards him. “Please tell me you have a portable black hole generator or something like that because we’re never going to get away!”

“Almost as good as a black hole,” he pointed. “Turn left.”

But there was no left. There was only a median barrier and traffic headed in the opposite direction.

“There’s nowhere to go!” she exclaimed.

“Turn left now!”

Brixie found a gap in the median and crossed into the opposite lanes of traffic. A cargo hauler, its bug-eyed operator wildly waving all six of his crooked insectoid arms, barreled straight towards them. The ambulance narrowly avoided that and the one travelling in the lane right beside it.

“Go straight,” he commanded, barking orders like a drill sergeant.

“You’ve got to be mad!” she screamed.

“Do it!”

They drove against the flow of traffic. Vehicles slid and swerved to get out of their way. A cargo hauler barely grazed them and fell over on its side, spilling the contents of its container pods—several metric tons of Mon Calamari fish stock. Taxis and flatbeds honked their air horns or ended up colliding with one another and taking civil patrol vehicles that tried to follow with them. The sickening sounds of crunching metal and reinforced plastic followed the ambulance wherever it went. Automated traffic cameras clocked hundreds of violations, ticking one after another on the ambulance speeder’s displays. Brixie realized she had gone from scofflaw to kidnapper to public enemy in the space of only a few minutes.

“Sully, I’m going to kill someone. Probably us!” Brixie begged him to take over the controls. “Maybe you should drive?”

“You’re doing fine.” The Trunsk appeared as calm as a leaf fluttering on a breeze. “What’s the first rule of being a mercenary, Field Medic Ergo?”

“What?”

“The first rule?” he demanded. “What did I tell you on the first day of your training?”

Brixie thought and thought. She was too busy twisting the steering lever and tapping the brake control to avoid turning them into a pressformed slab of ambulance. So many things were happening at once. Why did the Trunsk insist on asking stupid questions in the middle of her getting them killed?

Finally, a lesson from long ago—a moment drilled over and over into her while she marched on a hot, stinking desert world—appeared on the frontal lobe of her brain.

“In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity?”

“Exactly.” He reached over and took hold of the steering lever, helping her guide the ambulance—straight towards a wall.

Brixie only saw a wall decorated in a flickering electrical advertisement for Nookie’s Bantha Oil Salve. The last words she thought she would ever see in her lifetime flashed before her eyes.

A Force for Goodness!

“Our black hole.”

They drove straight at the sign. Instinctively, Brixie threw up her hands to protect herself, as if that would be of any help at all.

Exactly as Sully promised, everything turned black.

Brixie blinked open her eyes.

They had stopped.

The ambulance speeder’s collision detection system had kicked in, applying full braking force and wrapping herself and Tigereye in a spider web of spray glue restraint. They should have been mashed to a pulp crashing against the electronic sign. Instead, the ambulance had come to a complete stop in the middle of a darkened space.

“What happened?” Brixie glanced around.

Before Tigereye could answer, their doors were opened. Hands and appendages equipped with vibroblades carefully cut away the glue straps, helping them out of the ambulance. A flurry of noise, metal banging against metal and voices yelling in a dozen different languages, bounced off the dark’s cavernous interior.

Brixie, barely able to stand on wobbly legs, twirled around. Droids and other beings were disassembling the ambulance, panel by panel, component by component. Looking back the way they had come, she saw two massive energy poles directing a deflector shield across the space—the flickering electronic sign still spinning its message of soothing bantha oil, except in reverse. They had driven through the holographic sign and inside this space. The deflector shield was now back on, putting up a solid wall of energy when there had not been one moments before. To the civil law patrol vehicles and their sensors, the sign wall appeared as solid as a Wookiee.

She watched Tigereye and a grungy, pot-bellied human exchanging a bag of scrip and a handshake.

“Meet Wexell,” Tigereye gestured to Brixie. “Proprietor of this fine establishment.”

“What is this place?”

“You could say we’re a parts distribution center,” Wexell laughed. His was a much fancier way of saying he ran a chop-shop. He and his gang took stolen vehicles, tore them apart and sold the parts—probably right back to vehicle dealers and maintenance yards.

“You requested a black hole,” Tigereye noted. “This is the best I could arrange.”

“Sometimes I wish you would tell me these things before they happened,” she peeled off the remaining spray glue from the silly hospital uniform she wore. She rushed over to the hospital bed, parked on its gravs close by while the ambulance was quickly turned into a carcass of plastic and metal framework. At least the choppers didn’t try to take Hugo apart.

“How is he?” Tigereye stood by her side.

Brixie read the bed’s medical scanners in disbelief. Despite the chase and the surrounding bedlam, he was still asleep. Was this a result of the mysterious Beta Gamma project? Effortless, uninterrupted sleep? She had read about this kind of mental reprogramming before, a process for patients suffering from sleep deprivation.

“We need to get him under wraps.” Tiger moved to the head of the bed to operate the grav controls. “There’s a place we can put him until we can slip off this planet.”

“No.” Brixie shook her head, holding the grav bed in place. “He needs to be outside Sully, not underground.”

“What?”

She gestured to the bed’s readouts. “Hugo’s asleep, but this isn’t a normal sleep pattern. It must be part of this horrible program my mother created.”

“We don’t know how your mother was involved,” Tigereye noted.

“You saw how Trevane cowered around me. My mother and this Agent Zult, they’re the ones who did this to him and the others. Until I can study the data we took, all I can do is assume what they did to put Hugo in this state. The program involves a cycle and I think I know how to break it.” Brixie pointed towards a turbovator off to the side of the chop shop. “He needs to feel the sun and the wind on his face.”

Over an hour passed as they waited in a niche atop a communications tower over Ord Mantell City. Air speeders, freighters and other space transports descended and climbed into the sky. A patrol of First Order TIE fighters, with their distinctive ion engines howling, whizzed past.

It was more than a little strange, parking a hospital bed all the way up here. Brixie kept her gaze on the patient and the bed’s readouts. Nothing about Hugo changed. Tigererye grew pensive and irritable. He didn’t like being out in the open like this.

“Any other bright ideas?” he growled over the wind and the noise.

“It’s not like flipping a switch,” she countered. “Just a little more time.”

“We don’t have a little more time. All it’s going to take is one Civil Law Patrol ship to ruin our day.”

“Did I complain when you said, ‘Wear this hospital outfit, pretend to act like my mother, stroll into a heavily-guarded hospital, steal a patient and an ambulance, get chased by practically everyone, and so on and so on…’?”

The Trunsk tilted his head, trying to understand her sarcasm.

“As a matter of fact,” he started to say. “You did.”

“Never mind.” Brixie turned away. Arguing with Trunsks was almost as pointless as predicting the exact moment of a solar flare.

“You changed your hair.”

That wasn’t Sully’s voice.

Brixie looked down. The patient’s eyes were wide and alert.

Hugo?

She couldn’t stop herself from smiling. Relieved, she ran her hand over her head, trying to rearrange the strands of her flaxen hair flying around in the wind. The last time she and Hugo had seen each other, she used to wear her hair in a different style. The man didn’t miss a single detail.

Tigereye hovered over the bed, nodding at his old friend.

“What about me? Have I changed?”

Hugo couldn’t help but laugh. A giddy, familiar chuckle.

“You’re as ugly as ever.”

Tigereye gently shook his friend’s shoulder, appreciating his return to the world. The three reunited friends, even the grumpy Trunsk, shared a moment of relief with one another.

“Now that sounds like the Hugo Cutter I know.”

Chapter 5

ZULT TAPPED THE METAL PLATE COVERING HIS HEAD WITH HIS METAL FINGER, BUT FELT NOTHING. NOTHING AT ALL. THE HARDENED STEEL WAS THOUSANDS OF TIMES MORE DURABLE THAN FLESH BUT COLDER THAN THE DARK NIGHT OF SPACE.

“I will not be made the villain here!”

Ephron Zult ignored Administrator Trevane’s whiny outburst, intent on studying images captured by the hospital’s security systems. Sensors had recorded the images from several different angles, creating the illusion that the figures walking the hospital corridors and entering the special lab suite were actually standing in front of him. He watched and listened as Trevane’s own datum-powered ghost discussed the details of the medical study’s sole-remaining patient to a young woman and her so-called bodyguard. Trevane sounded very proud of himself.

Out of the corner of Zult’s one remaining good eye, he caught the administrator’s nervous shuffling as the young woman in the image not only refused to identify herself but her alien bodyguard threatened Trevane to hand over the patient and the study data. The administrator performed the data transfer and activated medical droids to move the patient to a turbolift. The young woman left the lab with the droids and the patient, bypassing the KX enforcer droids posted outside. The comedy of errors concluded with the bodyguard binding the administrator to a holo chair with surgical tape and gagging his mouth before setting the device on autoplay, then disappearing into the elevator himself.

The project files. The patient. The intruders. They were gone in a matter of moments.

“We had no reason not to believe they were who they claimed to be,” Trevane insisted. “If there is any blame to be made here, it’s the security procedures. Procedures that were enacted long before I became administrator here. This is a hospital. Not a garrison!”

Zult didn’t bother watching the rest of the replay that recorded the events in the hospital’s garage or the civil law patrol reports of a chase involving a stolen hospital ambulance. He was familiar with Sully Tigereye’s capabilities all too well. It was the young woman who caught his more immediate attention. Zult stopped the holo playback and reversed it until the female’s face was fully detailed in the glowing imagery as she stepped inside the turbovator.

“I know you,” he whispered under his breath.

A wired jack connected Zult’s cybernetic arm to the hospital network interface. Working from a visual checklist displayed within his artificial eye’s field of view, he blinked and expanded the search algorithm programs outward, connecting across Ord Mantell’s planetary news-nets. The algorithm stopped on a report of a violent disturbance in the Great Free Market. The facial recognition scans on the crowded market quickly found the Trunsk speaking to the young woman.

Zult’s hunch was correct. These two knew one another. The young woman’s identity records followed milliseconds later. Her name immediately brought back a flood of memories.

No wonder he didn’t recognize her. It had been years since he last saw her…with his two good eyes.

“Doctors Mari and Praxis Ergo died over five years ago,” Zult noted aloud. “This young woman is their daughter.”

“Daughter?” Trevane sputtered.

“You personally handed over my project’s files and my patient to Doctor Brixie Ergo, currently assigned to a Republic Medical Relief Team stationed on this very planet.” Much to the administrator’s surprise, Zult started outright laughing. This brazen con was almost worth applauding. “You even gave them a tour.”

“But I had no reason to think…”

“You trusted the forged credentials of the daughter of a dead woman who was aided by a wanted criminal.”

Ephron Zult cut the data connection and switched off the holo player, almost breaking the switch with a twist of his cybernetic hand. The images of Doctor Brixie Ergo, Sully Tigereye and Subject J829P vanished from existence, just as they had hours before.

“I swear this was an accident!” Trevane insisted. “Security procedures were not properly followed…”

Zult turned to the man, pointing at the boundary of metal and skin that divided his once-handsome face. The metal tip of his cybernetic finger none-too-gently tapped the gleaming plate of durasteel that dominated the right hemisphere of his head. The other half of Ephron Zult’s face and body resembled a topographical relief map; valleys and craggy scars were all that remained after an incendiary grenade had boiled the layers of skin away. There was little the bacta tanks and medical droids could do other than to keep him alive. What couldn’t be salvaged was replaced with the finest mechanical replacements available. The mechanisms were perfect.

Almost perfect.

Zult tapped the metal plate covering his head with his metal finger, but felt nothing. Nothing at all. The hardened steel was thousands of times more durable than flesh but colder than the dark night of space.

“No Administrator, this was an accident. I was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sully Tigereye and that other rabble, those Red Moons who liberated Entralla, they did this to me. A grenade intended to bring down a wall took my face and nearly my life. Every day, I wake up and look at myself as a lesson. As for you…” The metal digit extended and thumped Trevane on the chest. “What happened here was no accident. Sully Tigereye came here on purpose. He came for his friend. He came to test me and you. A test that all of us failed.”

Trevane shakily agreed, much more interested in self-preservation at this moment. Perhaps he was grateful Zult was not singling him out but labelling everyone at fault. The Galactic Empire had peculiar ideas about persons taking responsibility for their actions—often at the cost of their lives.

“Yes, yes, we all failed. All of us.”

“I’m glad we agree.”

The security operations agent turned his half-metal head to a gray-armored stormtrooper standing nearby, an officer. The commander wore a curious logo painted on the breast and shoulder plates of his uniform, a ten-pointed black star surrounded by an expanding decagon in orange. It was the symbol of an Imperial faction that was no longer supposed to exist.

The Pentastar Alignment

“Commander, this facility has been compromised.” Zult popped out the disc containing the security footage and pocketed it. “Purge it.”

The stormtrooper turned his blaster rifle on the horrified administrator and his staff.

Energy bolts and screams filled the room.

“It’s true, Trevane. You’re not the villain here.”

Agent Ephron Zult stepped over the smoking remains of the administrator’s body while the commander and his forces dispatched every living soul and droid inside the hospital complex. The special operations agent waved to his personal guards, spectroopers clad entirely in black armor and decorated with the frightening white symbol of the Pentastar Alignment’s Judgement branch, to follow him. There was a missing patient and data that needed to be retrieved.

“I am.”

***

Hugo was hungry.

He completely devoured everything he could find in Wexell Stimfog’s modest apartment in Ord Mantell’s residential blocks near the spaceport. He opened every cabinet and raided the cryogenic bin for chilled foods, not even bothering to heat them. To Brixie, it was like watching a ravenous baby rancor.

For a few hundred credits more from Sully, the chop-shop owner allowed Tigereye, Hugo and Brixie to remain there for the day, but no longer than that. Before leaving the apartment to obtain transport off Ord Mantell, Tigereye slid the man another double-stack of the local currency—to restock whatever Hugo consumed.

Not wanting to leave him alone to study the data they had taken from the hospital, Brixie tried to talk to Hugo, to get him to explain what happened but her questions were ignored. Hungry as he was, stripping the kitchenette bare, he refused to let Brixie examine him any further. He didn’t even seem to realize he was bald.

“I’m telling you. I feel absolutely fine,” he mumbled as he ate his way through a plastic container of crackers he found.

“You are not fine,” Brixie argued back. “You were asleep and we couldn’t wake you up until we brought you outside. Don’t you remember anything at all?”

“I can remember lots of things,” he shrugged. “I remember getting three hot meals a day, which is better than this place has to offer. Going for pleasant walks in this beautiful bio dome. The gardener there wanted my help chopping down a dead tree. I remember a physician coming in to check me out. Oh and there was this nurse…” He winked at Brixie and elbowed her, suggesting there was something about this nurse she had no clue about. “She was anatomically amazing.”

“Hugo,” she snatched the cracker box from his hand. “That’s not what I’m talking about. Do you remember the holo theater where you stayed?”

“No.”

“Do you remember checking into the facility? Any facility? Did anyone talk to you about treatment or why you were there? Did anyone give you a physical?”

“No. Wait. Yes.” He began to broadly smile. “The nurse checked me out.”

Brixie pressed him, thinking about the strange lab with its comfortable suite on one side and holo theater on the other.

“Do you remember any droids assisting the doctor or this anatomically pleasing nurse?”

“No.”

“What do you remember?”

“That I’m starving…” He snatched the cracker box back from her. “Now leave me alone and let a genius of the former Imperial Engineers Academy eat in peace.”

He ducked around her and headed for the couch, interesting himself with the controls for the giant vidscreen that took up most of the living room wall. As far as personal luxuries went, Wexell Stimfog treated himself very well.

“You’re not eating,” Brixie remarked as she sat down on a stool by the kitchenette. “You’re foraging. It’s a common biological response after being held for long periods in stasis…”

“Not listening,” he cut her off without looking at her. “Still eating.”

Hugo switched on the vidscreen and proceeded to inspect every channel piped into the system, pressing the control to roll to the next image.

Brixie watched Hugo with a great deal of interest. Something was different. Not entirely right. He was zooming through the vidscreen’s offerings at blistering speed, almost too fast for her to comprehend what the channel was showing. The transition from one feed to the next was little more than a blip of an image and some white noise. Brixie had seen bored persons clicking through vid-channels before, but nothing like this. It was as though Hugo was scanning through the channels like a computer, picking up barely discernable bits of audio and visual information, and then discarding them for the next. After digesting what had to be over five hundred different channels, he turned off the vidscreen and put the control back down on the table.

“You’re older,” he announced, staring at his reflection in the empty screen. “I’m older. What happened to me? What’s going on?!”

Brixie quickly joined him on the couch. She knew the shock of his awakening would set in eventually, the Astromech medical droid had warned her about this, she just didn’t know how he would respond.

“I know. You’re disoriented.” she tried to assure him. “I’m here.”

“Are you?” He wrapped his lanky legs up and backed himself into the corner of the seating area, snatching up a pillow and holding it in front of him to protect him from imaginary assaults coming from all directions. “I don’t understand. Why are you old? You’re not the Brixie I knew! You’re not her! Everything is false! False!”

“It’s me, Hugo. Really.” Brixie kept her voice low and calm.

“Tell me something only Brixie and I would know,” he demanded, trying to back himself further into the sofa’s corner. The muscles around his neck were twisted into knots, the blood vanishing from his hands. If he could use the pillow as a Plex anti-walker missile, he would have. “Tell me!”

Brixie considered a moment.

“Okay. There was this time you ate some fungi given to you by miners from the Strutoss asteroid belt near Cantras Gola. I warned you not to, but you ate them anyway. You told me you were evolving into some higher state of consciousness, and then you ran out of the base. I found you running across the fields, naked, and calling for the Jedi fairies to come take you away.”

Goggle-eyed, Hugo stared at her.

“Oh. Right.”

“And then there was the time I found you trying to mate with a Z-95 Headhunter’s proton torpedo tube. All because you ate the stupid fungus again, after I warned you not too.”

“But they tasted really good,” Hugo reflected on his past misadventure. “So I thought to myself, why not? Let’s take another trip across the hyperdimensions…”

“Do you believe me now? Do I seem real to you?” she pointed to herself. “It’s me. Brixie. And yes, I’m older. So are you.”

His wide-eyed gaze subsided. Her words were having an effect on him.

“How long have I not been around?”

“I don’t know for sure. The last time we spoke was over five years ago. When I quit the Moons. Do you remember?”

“Yes.” he slowly nodded. “I remember that day. I remember being sad. Everyone was so sad. You had found and lost your parents. And then there was Iv…”

Brixie lowered her head and shut her eyes, not wanting to discuss those things.

“I lost a great deal,” she swallowed hard, pushing the bitter memories back down her throat. Things she told herself she would not talk about, but in the past day, so much had resurfaced—especially her parents. “We said goodbye to each other. I went back to the medical university on Entralla. I’m a doctor now.”

“You are?” His face brightened. “That’s good. I could sure use one right about now!”

She laughed at him.

“All right, Hugo. We’ll try to work our way backward then. One step at a time. We’ll help you remember.”

He reached up with his hand. Brixie thought he was reaching for her, but he was actually tracing the outline of his shaved head. He eyed her curiously.

“Tell me, Brixie. Would you happen to have a spare hat?”

Chapter 6

“ARE YOU SURE HE’S AT ONE HUNDRED PERCENT?”

“UNLESS I CAN GET HIM IN A MEDBED AND STUDY THE DATA FILES WE TOOK,” BRIXIE KEPT STEERING HUGO AWAY FROM TRINKET SHOPS AND OTHER HUCKSTERS.

“THIS IS WHAT WE’RE WORKING WITH.”

On Brixie’s home planet of Entralla, there is a curious creature known as the kite-fox, a predator that keeps to the conifer trees of the planet’s vast forests. The fox can glide from tree limb to ground in a single swoop by extending membranes of extra skin that connect its forelegs to its springing rear legs.

The kite-fox’s meal of choice is the Entrallan forest squint, a large rodent with a knack for burrowing in the soft needles, fallen limbs and seed cones that decorate the forest floor. Squints spend their days collecting seed cones for the winter season and sleep at night hidden in their burrows. Camouflaged and quick, it is very difficult for most creatures to catch a squint, but the kite-fox has the advantage of attacking from above. A single fox will hunt several acres of the forest for hours, waiting for a squint to poke its head out of the underbrush before diving down to snatch it up.

One might pity the squints trying to eke out their meager existence only to be picked off by a hungry kite-fox. The squints, however, have evolved an intriguing countermeasure. They make decoys of themselves. Balling up the pine needles with packs of damp soil, using tree limbs and cones, they push these mud ball fakes up out of the underbrush. Seeing the movement below, the kite-fox dives on its prey, only to find a ball of twigs in its claws instead of food. Since the fox has only one chance to leap down on its intended target, the squints take full advantage. They head off in a completely different direction.

“Isn’t there supposed to be a lesson or moral your people would say at the end of the story?” Tigereye muttered as he led Brixie and Hugo, with a borrowed hat on his head, through the intricate maze beneath Ord Mantell’s bustling spaceport. Brixie insisted there was some relevance to their escape as it pertained to kite-foxes and squints.

“Yes,” Brixie remembered from her days camping as a youth. “The lesson of the story is, ‘Never mistake a ball of twigs for a squint.’”

“What in the blazes of Berregor does that mean?” the Trunsk scowled at her, not really getting her intent.

Brixie knew they couldn’t simply leave the planet with a stolen hospital patient and medical program data. Whoever put Hugo and the other patients in that program would want him back—and their heads on platters.

“You left something behind at the apartment. I assume it’s for whoever might be coming after us.”

“It is.”

“So it’s a ball of twigs?” she suggested. “A diversion?”

“Ah.” the Trunsk nodded, checking the confusing docking bay signs that pointed in all directions. “Fine. Make your silly metaphors. Just keep Hugo close. We’re almost there for our ride off this world.”

Looking around, Brixie noted large numbers of beings waiting in queues for shuttles and undergoing scans from mobile med teams. Ever since they left Wexell’s apartment, there were city-wide notices posted on all the news-nets; a medical emergency had been declared by the First Order for newly-arrived refugees. Brixie believed the First Order was using this as an excuse to kick undesirables off the planet. She hoped this wasn’t what Sully meant by their ride—waiting around in line to be scanned by a med team was the quickest way to being discovered.

“I wanted to talk to you about that,” Brixie quietly noted. Instead of elaborating her point, she turned around and saw Hugo had stopped—intrigued by the aromas of a hot food stand they passed. Fried lizards and other local delicacies were on display with price signs marked in glowing paint. Seeing a force of stormtroopers moving down the thoroughfare, demanding identity cards and roughing up locals, she rushed back, grabbed him by the arm and kept moving.

“I’m still hungry,” he told her.

“We’ll eat on the trip.”

“Will we?” Hugo asked Tigereye, sounding very much like a needy child.

“Maybe. It depends,” Sully gruffly answered.

“That’s not a very definite answer.”

“Allow me to elaborate. It depends on us not getting caught. Does that help?”

“I was just making an observation…” Hugo lowered his head, sulking.

“Sully, please.” Brixie chastised him. She turned to Hugo and tried to soothe him. “We should be able to eat on the flight.”

“Oh, goodie!” Hugo grinned, happy to follow along wherever he was led.

Sully threw Brixie a concerned look.

“Are you sure he’s at one hundred percent?”

“Unless I can get him in a medbed and study the data files we took,” Brixie kept steering Hugo away from trinket shops and other hucksters. “This is what we’re working with.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”

Tigereye abruptly stopped to look up again at the docking bay signs. His pause forced Brixie and Hugo to stop. Concerned, Brixie looked up at the signs too.

“Are we lost?”

“No.”

“Then what’s wrong?” she nervously glanced around. The stormtroopers were not far off down the street. The First Order was everywhere.

“Nothing. I’m just looking at the signs.” Without warning, he started off again. “All right. This way.”

Brixie turned, confused, to Hugo. Was there something Tigereye wasn’t telling her?

Of course there was. He never says anything until it’s about to happen.

“Don’t look at me, I just woke up this afternoon.” Taking the hat off his head, Hugo pressed a hand to his forehead. “I feel a little peaked. Do I look like all right to you? Am I catching something? All of a sudden, I feel cold. It feels drafty around here.”

She snatched the hat from his hand and put it back on his head.

“You’re bald.”

“Oh. That’s right. I am.”

Brixie motioned for Hugo to join her and catch up with Sully. If he was headed in the right direction. Nerves tingled down her arms and her feet. It was only the three of them against the city’s civil law patrol or worse, the forces of the First Order. What could they possibly do against those kind of odds?

Looking all around, she suddenly felt like a poor squint on the forest floor: defenseless and hunted.

***

Agent Zult stood behind a wall of stormtroopers. Small chirps of coded confirmations were exchanged on the com frequencies with another platoon waiting outside the building. Zult shut his one good eye and shielded that side of his face with his cybernetic arm. It was a lesson he had learned the hard way. When dealing with the likes of Sully Tigereye, it was better to be cautious than stupid.

Following the civil law patrol accounts of the chase with the ambulance, Zult understood Tigereye’s propensity for sowing chaos to mask his true intentions. The ambulance speeder Tigereye and Brixie Ergo stole had driven through a holographic sign, passing almost undetected through what should have been a solid wall, and eluding their pursuers.

It took only a moderate amount of arm-twisting to get the chop-shop owner to divulge what happened to the ambulance speeder and its occupants. After all, Wexell Stimfog was more businessman than crime lord. Zult’s promise to turn the shop boss and his cohorts over to the civil law patrol was all the incentive needed for him to relinquish the address to his apartment.

Agent Zult knew the problem wasn’t tracking Sully Tigereye, Brixie Ergo and the wayward patient Hugo Cutter. The problem was time. They had a head start and undoubtedly a plan. The only way he could stop them was to determine their exit strategy and cut them off. He called upon every available resource to search for the mercenaries both inside the spaceport and outside the city. If they tried to leave the planet, they would turn up.

That still wasn’t good enough for Zult. He had to stop them before they escaped or, worse, fell into the hands of the First Order. Those fools wouldn’t even suspect the valuable prize they had.

“Enough of this,” the agent impatiently cut into the stormtroopers’ frequencies using an internal comlink built into his metal skull case. “Get in there!”

“Breach the door,” the commander ordered.

The explosive charge attached to the apartment’s front door was ignited. The door blew inward, setting off a large pop and deafening explosion that would have stunned the senses of anyone inside. Seconds later, sonic grenades were thrown against the apartment’s panoramic windows, shattering the wide views. The interior was soon filled with armored bodies spilling in from the ruined front entrance and outside from grappling lines dropped from an air speeder.

Staying put, Zult waited behind the protective line of stormtroopers in the corridor. Tigereye, Ergo and his missing patient were probably long gone, but he wanted to insure there were no surprises left behind. A soldier like Tigereye could have easily rigged an explosive to go off on a sound sensor calibrated to the frequency of breaking glass or by a photon beam triggered by a boot crossing the apartment’s front threshold.

“Better them than me,” he muttered under his breath as the stormtroopers searched the premises. Checking down the opposite end of the corridor, he caught the occupant of another apartment peeking out his door. The man took one look at Zult, one half of his head as polished as an interrogation droid, the other half as frightening as a Sarlaac pit creature, and quickly shut the door. Smart decision.

The all-clear signal was given. The stormtroopers found no one—and no surprises—inside.

“Withdraw your men, commander.” Zult headed for the apartment. “I don’t want to be disturbed.”

The stormtroopers backed out as quickly as they had forced their way in.

Perhaps the only good thing that came from Ephron Zult’s last encounter with Sully Tigereye and the Red Moons were the cybernetic replacements grafted to his shattered body. His arm and his lower legs were many times stronger than stormtrooper armor. His heart was a marvel of carbon fiber, powered by an ion engine no larger than his new hydraulic-assisted mechanical hand. New digestive tracts could process poisons and render them inert. Biomechanical connectors enabled him to directly patch into computers and communication systems. The optics and aural sensors inside his head were superior to those carried around by scanning crews. With his new interfaces, he could predict the path of a zingerfly buzzing near his head, hear the beating of its wings, and pluck it from the air before crushing it between his metal fingers.

One doctor in particular tried to warn him that with every new attachment, every circuit, every piece of durasteel, something else was taken away. Zult had little patience for the pseudo-religious babblings of a healer who said that those who replaced living tissue with dead atoms lost far more than they gained. These things were connected to the Force, she explained. Zult wasn’t listening. He was much too interested squeezing the life from the bothersome healer’s throat, without any help from the Force whatsoever.

His optical sensors immediately wiped away traces of the recent incursion by the stormtroopers. He was concerned about the previous occupants and what clues they may have left behind. They must have left quickly, the large vidscreen in the living room was still tuned to one of the news-net stations.

Finding no lingering heat registers in the bedrooms, he searched the kitchen and discovered the contents of the storage bins and the chill freshers were almost entirely empty. There were food wrappers and empty bins in the kitchen’s waste disposal basket, as though someone had devoured everything possible. That meant one thing to Zult.

“They must have woken Cutter out of cycle,” he sighed with displeasure. “He’s been activated.”

The impetus to locate the patient and those aiding him was greater than ever. Subject J829P was now a dangerous weapon with the safety turned off.

“Where did they go from here?” he mused, trying to ignore the insistent yammering of a news reporter talking about the First Order’s medical exodus order for refugees coming from the vidscreen. “How are they getting off this planet?”

Using his optical tracker, he followed older heat traces on the flooring to one of the apartment’s larger washrooms. There was little for him to find here, everything had been wiped down with disinfectant—which triggered a question in Zult’s mind.

They took the time to clean the bathroom, but left the apartment with the vidscreen on?

“There’s something here,” he surveyed the tiled washroom, carefully inspecting the sink, the tub shower and the lavatory. “Something they didn’t want anyone to find.”

Zult peered down the waste disposal slot. Paper products, sanitary wrappers, razors and other things were dropped down this chute and incinerated for health reasons. But the switch for the incinerator must have been faulty. The trash was still sitting in the receiver bin under the cabinet, unburned. He carefully dug into the bin.

He found a discarded hypo-injector, needles, opened packages for bandages, cleansing swabs and three empty vials. He carefully lifted a vial and allowed his optical sensor to read its inventory control codes. His built-in communication relays connected to a pharma-laboratory in Ord Mantell City. The packet was a live strain of a virus that belonged to the lab’s research collection.

Zult was confused. He knew Brixie Ergo, a prior acquaintance of Sully Tigereye, was a doctor assigned to a New Republic Medical Relief Team here on Ord Mantell. For some reason, she had deliberately injected all of them with a live strain of a contagious virus.

His replacement ear’s auditory relays pricked as he overheard the reporter repeating the same story on the vidscreen in the living room. A virulent strain of virus had been discovered among recently-arrived refugees. A mandatory evacuation order, issued by the First Order, was underway.

“They gave themselves the virus—and a way off the planet!” Zult exclaimed, tossing the vial back into the trash.

Leaving the damaged apartment for Wexell to deal with, the Alignment agent rejoined his commander waiting in the hallway.

“Sir, facial recognition tracking in the spaceport has a match for the two fugitives and the missing patient,” the commander reported. “They were last spotted in A terminus, between docking bays 239 and 252.”

“Show me.”

The commander transmitted the data directly to Zult’s own internal datalink. Visualized inside his cybernetic eye, a security camera positioned along the spaceport’s passenger terminus had caught the three looking up to read the directory signs. There they were: Sully Tigereye, Doctor Ergo and one very mobile patient: Hugo Cutter. They weren’t even trying to disguise themselves.

You’re slipping, Tigereye. That’s two mistakes you made.

“The fools think they can escape aboard one of the medical evacuation shuttles.” Zult waved his hand for the commander and his force to follow him to his personal transport. “Commander, lock down that terminus and stop those evacuation shuttles from taking off. I want every single passenger on those ships accounted for. Arrest those three and bring them to me.”

“There are dozens of evacuation shuttles, sir.” the commander pointed out. A ship-by-ship search conducted among hundreds of refugees would take time. There was another matter: Agent Zult and his stormtroopers weren’t the only Imperial force on Ord Mantell. The two different factions did not get along very well. “Units of the First Order are down there, too.”

“Then find them before they do!” Zult snapped.

Chapter 7

THE FLOOR UNDERNEATH THEIR FEET STARTED TO VIBRATE AND SHAKE. SULLY AND BRIXIE EXCHANGED SURPRISED LOOKS.

THE SHUTTLE’S HYPERDRIVE MOTIVATOR WAS…UNEXPECTEDLY…MOTIVATING.

This is a terrible plan.

Her hands locked inside an electromechanical shackle, Brixie was pushed from behind inside the military docking bay by a pair of grim-looking figures wearing rain capes.

“Stop right there.”

A First Order stormtrooper squad leader raised an armored hand towards them. There were over a dozen eggheads guarding the bay, each one carrying the new EG-1 blaster rifle with white coverings and focuser barrel. The weapon was several times more powerful than the older Imperial models. One shot could make a hole in Brixie large enough to drive a cargo speeder through her. There were other heavy weapons present too, a repeating blaster on a tripod and a deflector array protecting the black, bat-winged shuttlecraft poised on the landing pad.

A black-uniformed First Order naval officer, nose held high in the air, eyed Brixie in the shackle and the other two with callous disdain.

“This is a restricted area. Who are you?”

“Sully Tigereye, bounty hunter.” Lifting the cape’s hood off his head, Tigereye held out a credential inside a leather case with one clawed hand while roughly pushing Brixie towards the officer. “I brought you a little present.”

“What is this?” The man took a step backward, fearing she might be carrying explosives or a weapon. The other troopers reacted, leveling their weapons at her. The squad leader seized Brixie by the arm to keep her from getting too close.

“The cause of your medical emergency. She’s a doctor, one of a relief team sent here by the Republic. She’s spreading the virus among the refugees. Making you First Order types look like fools.” Tigereye dipped a clawed hand inside his cape and tossed a small white container to another stormtrooper. “I’d be careful with that. It’s full of nasty bugs.”

The stormtrooper cracked open the white case’s cover and peered inside. He passed it to the First Order officer.

“Medical vials, sir.” The stormtrooper used his own helmet’s scanners to identify the inventory codes on the container. “It’s from a shipment of virus stolen from a local laboratory a few days back.”

Once again, Brixie couldn’t help but marvel how Tigereye was able to use the virus outbreak and her credentials as a doctor working for the Republic and spin that into a completely new fabrication to deceive the First Order. And Sully had managed to use that same information to create a completely different fabrication that sent their pursuers from the hospital off in an entirely different direction. Somewhere in the rest of the Ord Mantell’s spaceport, dozens of medical evacuation shuttles full of refugees were being grounded and searched.

They were like squints evading an entire army of kite-foxes.

The First Order officer nodded his head, grimly pleased. He approached Brixie.

“So. A Republic doctor using a virus to stir up trouble. Who are you?”

Brixie turned to the man and spat in his face with a laugh.

“I’m General Leia Organa-Solo!”

The officer wiped his face with a gloved hand and brought the back of it hard across her cheek. Her head reeled and one side of her face turned red.

The officer pointed towards the waiting shuttle, ordering the stormtroopers.

“Take her at once to General Hux!”

Tigereye stepped forward and yanked Brixie back to his side with a quick tug.

“Not without payment. My partner and I work for a living.”

“You will be paid…” the officer started.

“…when we deliver the goods to your General Hux, in person.” Tigereye warned. “That’s how the bounty hunting business works, pal. You want to explain that to the General?”

The officer seethed, but relented.

“Squad Leader, escort these bounty hunters and their prisoner to the shuttle. Take them to General Hux.” The officer waved his still-damp glove to send them off. “But not until they surrender all their weapons and have them submit to a scan.”

The unit of stormtroopers formed around Sully, Hugo and Brixie, marching them towards the shuttle. The ramp was lowered in anticipation. Brixie was stunned. The plan was working. The First Order was going to get them off the planet.

“Hey.” One of the troopers poked the other ‘bounty hunter’ with the business end of his blaster rifle. “You never said your name. Who are you?”

“Who? Me?”

“I asked you a question.”

Hugo, his head still covered by the rain cape, looked triumphantly at the stormtrooper.

“How could you not know me? Why, I’m the most famous bounty hunter in the galaxy.” Hugo made a flourish with his hands. “I am Jodo Kast!”

Brixie could almost see Sully rolling his eyes. This was not part of the plan.

The troopers exchanged uncertain looks.

“Who?”

“Jodo Kast. The great Mandalorian bounty hunter? You probably know one of my lesser imitators. Boba Fett?”

“Boba Fett, we’ve heard of.” The trooper replied, almost chuckling. “Where’s your Mandalorian armor, most famous bounty hunter in the galaxy?”

Hugo’s eyes widened. He wasn’t really expecting this question. Sully grunted a low warning towards him.

Stop putting your boot in your mouth!”

“Oh. Well. It’s at the shop. Being repainted. Repaired. Waxed. You know how important it is to keep your armor clean, yes?”

Brixie kept her eyes in front, expecting the worst. No one in their right mind would believe such…

“Yeah. We know all about that,” the trooper agreed.

“Don’t we all?” another stormtrooper chimed in.

“And the smell sometimes. It’s the absolute worst,” a third added.

“Never borrow another guy’s helmet. Never,” so said a fourth.

Brixie shook her head in mute disbelief. Hugo had actually found a way to engage stormtroopers in friendly conversation. He really was a genius.

They were brought aboard, subjected to a weapons scan and told to take seats among the few flip downs available along the bulkhead walls. Most military shuttles were designed so troops stood during flight, making it faster for them to load up and disembark. The stormtrooper squad and their leader locked their blaster rifles—barrel pointed down—to magnetic couplings in the floor and held on to grab handles in the shuttle’s ceiling.

“Take off,” the squad leader radioed the pilot in the cockpit deck above them. “Head directly to the flagship.”

“Stand by,” the pilot spoke over the shipboard intercom. “Lifting off.”

Cleared to take off, the military shuttle rose from the docking bay floor on a column of thrusters. After it cleared the pad and the surrounding cargo gantries, the shuttle unfolded its long sinister wings and raced upward towards the few straggling clouds and the cobalt of Ord Mantell’s sky.

The shuttle quickly cleared the planet’s atmosphere and pulled away. Brixie understood why the worlds of this system were called the Bright Jewels, they glittered in the radiance of a well-sized yellow sun. The dark foreboding of space she saw out the narrow viewport with its scattering of stars brought a chill to her spine. Sully’s plan had worked so far, but the rest depended on Hugo tapping his genius once again. She could only hope that his mental acumen was returning faster than his social coping skills.

The small plastic box Sully handed over to the stormtroopers and shown to the First Order officer was now stowed inside the utility belt of the squad leader. He stood at the rear of the shuttle’s loading deck, by the ramp door, unaware he was about to become the chosen victim of Hugo’s diabolical plot.

Hugo was seated on Brixie’s left and Sully on her right. She saw, out of the corner of her eye, Hugo’s index finger slowly tapping on his lap as if he was nervous. He wasn’t. He was counting.

The vials in the plastic box didn’t contain a contagious virus. They were the components of an extremely volatile combination of chemicals. Before Sully handed over the box to the stormtrooper, he shook the container inside his rain cape before handing it over. Once the box was opened and exposed to sunlight, the chemical reaction was triggered.

Hugo stopped tapping with his index finger and whistled. The other stormtroopers, standing while they waited for the shuttle to reach the First Order flag ship, paid the “famous Jodo Kast” no mind.

Sully nudged her. It was time. She leaned slightly forward. With her hands still locked in the manacles before her, Tigereye slowly reached behind and grabbed half of her seat’s web belt. Hugo did the same on his side. Using their rain cloaks to hide their hands, they tied their belts to hers. The three were locked in their seats.

“Remember your training,” Sully warned her.

Brixie started to tremble. It was either nerves or fear or a combination of a million things. In the end, maybe it was because she didn’t like loud noises.

Or maybe it was because she didn’t want to die.

The chemicals inside the little plastic case changed into their final state. The explosion propelled the squad leader into the ramp door and flattened the troopers standing next to him. A cloud of green vapor erupted around the rear of the loading deck. On a half dozen communication channels inside the troopers’ helmets, confusion broke out.

“Gas!” Hugo shouted, adding to the alarm.

First Order stormtrooper armor didn’t protect the wearer against toxic gases. The presence of a presumably-lethal cloud sent the squad into panic. One stormtrooper, knocked down to his hands and knees by the explosion, shouted to the bounty hunters and their prisoners. He pointed to the panel closest to Hugo’s head.

“Purge the air system!”

“Right!”

There were two buttons on the panel, each plainly marked. The blue button was for clearing the cabin’s air system. The red button was for a vastly different kind of emergency.

Hugo grinned at the stormtrooper.

“Hope you guys can swim!”

He slapped the red button. The emergency release snapped open the ramp door.

Brixie followed her decompression training: she shut her eyes tight and pushed a breath of air down to her ribs. She was grateful she didn’t see the entire squad of stormtroopers leave the shuttle, spinning out into the void.

The roaring in her ears was replaced with a painful bubble of silence. Every part of her turned ice cold as she felt crushed from the inside out. Her squeezed lungs wanted to exhale and take a breath, but she fought the reflex. Would the cold or lack of oxygen finally take her life?

The roaring sound returned. She gratefully exhaled and filled her aching lungs. Air!

She overheard the ramp door slamming shut as the cabin’s air pressure was restored. Blinking furiously, Brixie opened her eyes while an intense pain lanced through her head. Her body was fighting to find some sort of equilibrium. A shadow hovered over her. Tigereye unlocked the shackles from her wrists. She threw the mechanism down to the floor.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Do I look all right to you?” she sputtered at him, shaking from being simultaneously squeezed and then flash-chilled like a slab of bantha meat. She wiped her nose, finding a stream of blood across the back of her frigid hand. More warm liquid leaked down from her ears. The decompression could have ruptured her ear drums, but she realized it was only moisture inside the canals that had been instantly frozen and then melted.

“Could have been worse,” the Trunsk remarked. “You could have gone for a walk out there with the rest of them.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”

“Where’s the pilot?” Hugo asked, undoing his seat straps and heading up the stairs to the flight deck. He took two steps and was greeted by the business end of a blaster pistol. “Oh. Here he is.”

Moving almost too fast for Brixie to follow, Tigereye threw himself against the side corner of the bulkhead while Hugo backed up, hands raised. The armed shuttle pilot, dressed in a black jumpsuit with heavy boots, descended the stairs from the cockpit. The pilot’s attention, and the barrel of the pistol in his hand, swung from Hugo to Brixie.

“Hands up!” he ordered her. “Where’s the third one?”

“Third one?” Hugo wildly shrugged, distracting the pilot. “What third one?”

Sully moved. He seized the pilot and lifted him straight up until his skull rang on the overhead panels above. Tigereye kept slamming the man into the ceiling until he dropped the blaster pistol. He flipped the pilot over and slammed him down to the deck floor. Talons extended from the digits of the Trunsk’s monstrous hand, ready to rip open the pilot’s throat….

“Stop!” Brixie screamed. “Stop it!”

Sully held, his hand in mid-air. The First Order pilot, stunned and moaning, lay helplessly sprawled across the deck. Hugo stared at her, suddenly frightened by her screams, his back against the bulkhead wall.

“Let him go!” She pushed Tigereye backwards, forcing him to release his grip on the pilot.

Sully lowered his hand, also surprised by her angry outburst. Hugo kept quiet, content to avoid conflict by trying to merge into the metal bulkhead.

“You don’t have to kill him.” she pointed from the unconscious pilot to the shut ramp door and the stormtroopers blown into the void. “You didn’t have to kill them. Must everyone die…?”

“There’s a reason…” he tried to explain.

“Yes! Of course there’s a reason. There’s always a reason.” she looked at them. “I wanted to help you save Hugo. I would do anything for either of you. You are my friends. But this is the reason why I left. The war. The fighting. The killing. It never ends.”

“My Lady Ergo…”

“I know we’re all hurting inside. Maybe that’s why you kept on fighting all these years or why Hugo tried to find help for his pain. I am not that girl the colonel recruited to join the Red Moons anymore. I want to help people, not hurt them.” She gestured to the pilot laying at their feet. “Not everyone has to die. Please Sully, don’t kill this man.”

His golden eyes dimmed a few shades as the Trunsk reflected on her request. He nodded.

“We’ll tie him up and drop him off somewhere. He won’t be hurt or harmed. Well, not any more than he already is.” He turned to Hugo. “Get up to the flight deck. Change our course before the First Order’s flight controllers on that star destroyer realize we’re not planning on stopping by.”

“You’re trusting me to…fly this thing?” Hugo asked.

“Like I have a choice? We’re a little busy right now.”

Hugo headed up the stairs to the cockpit. Brixie unfurled a stretcher from the bulkhead wall and set up the medbay console. Lifting the pilot on to the stretcher, Tigereye promptly tied him down with acceleration straps so he couldn’t get up.

“He’s all yours, Doctor Ergo.”

Brixie set to work, attaching sensors and affixing a bandage to his bleeding head.

“Thank you,” she gently spoke, checking the man’s vitals on the medbay scanner. The readouts hummed and clattered, leaving them standing there and waiting in an uncomfortable silence.

She knew what Sully did was hard-wired into him. He was born and bred to fight in the gladiatorial circles, to kill or be killed for sport. He had seen his own share of death and injustice. Knowing him for the noble being that he was, Brixie kissed the startled Trunsk on his warty jowl before getting back to work on the unconscious pilot.

“All that planning and hard work to save Hugo. Then you helped all of us to escape. You’re more than a great leader, Sully. You’re a great friend.” She focused on her work, knowing her words probably embarrassed the usually solitary-minded alien. “I didn’t mean to yell at you.”

“Yes you did,” he grunted back. “Nobody argues with a doctor and wins.”

The floor underneath their feet started to vibrate and shake. Sully and Brixie exchanged surprised looks. The shuttle’s hyperdrive motivator was…unexpectedly…motivating. Brixie felt her insides quiver—a common feeling when one’s molecules were being coaxed several points past lightspeed.

“You told him to change course,” Brixie looked towards the stairs. “Not to jump into hyperspace! Where are we going?”

“Beats the living Mynock out of me,” Tigereye growled.

Adjusting the medbay computer to keep the shuttle pilot sedated and comfortable, she joined Tigereye and followed him up the stairs to the shuttle’s cockpit.

The view ahead was dazzling, the coalescing of millions of star trails into a spiraling tube of light. Hugo sat in the pilot’s chair, adjusting several displays but otherwise letting the ship fly itself through hyperspace.

“You hereby flunked flying school,” Tigereye barked at him. “We don’t jump into hyperspace without setting a course. You want to flatten us by flying into an asteroid field or something?”

“I set a course in the navicomputer,” Hugo shrugged, looking less bewildered than he did before. “The ship did the rest.”

“Okay, genius. So where are we going?”

“To Jaemus.”

“The shipyards?” Tigereye shook his head, not understanding. “Jaemus is way out in the Outer Rim. Used to belong to the Alignment. Now it’s a war zone. Why in the blazes did you suddenly decide to fly us out there?”

“I didn’t. The gardener told me. He said I will find what I need at Jaemus.”

“The gardener?” Brixie asked, bewildered. The word sounded familiar. She remembered Hugo mentioned a gardener once before in the apartment.

The expression on Hugo’s face was dead serious. All the uncertainty and childishness he displayed before had vanished.

“I’m going to Jaemus,” he firmly announced. “With or without you.”

Chapter 8

“THE POINT IS A MATTER OF SCALE, GENERAL HUX,” ZULT CALMLY REPLIED. “THE BIGGER THE SUPERWEAPON, THE MORE RESOURCES IT CONSUMES, THE MORE ATTENTION IT ATTRACTS, THE MORE LIKELY THE CHANCE FOR CATASTROPHIC FAILURE. SIMPLY PUT: LARGE PLANS CREATE LARGE PROBLEMS…”

The Star Destroyer Finalizer swept across the face of Ord Mantell, occasionally eclipsing the light from the star system’s sun and leaving an imposing dagger-shaped shadow across the planet’s surface. To those who looked up at the imposing shape crossing the sky, the Finalizer was a chilling reminder of times when the Imperial Galactic Empire once dominated thousands of systems. The Star Destroyer’s existence, among the first of a new Resurgent-class of warship built in the First Order’s secret orbital yards, was both a carefully-maintained secret and a flagrant violation of New Republic disarmament treaties signed after the Battle of Jakhu.

The Finalizer was the flagship of General Armitage Hux, among the leading military officers of the First Order’s High Command. His presence here at Ord Mantell was unmistakable: using strong-arm tactics to inflict doctrine and label refugees fleeing the Core as an intolerable menace. These were the same refugees displaced by the atrocity of the Starkiller Base superweapon—a monstrous planetoid that destroyed a chain of worlds, including the seat of the New Republic, Hosnian Prime.

Like most secret projects, Starkiller Base became known across the galaxy the moment it was fired. The Resistance sent a force to avenge the senseless slaughter of billions of beings. They destroyed the base, the weapon and the entire planetoid.

“An all too familiar-sounding outcome,” Agent Ephron Zult noted aloud as he waited in Hux’s private command briefing room aboard the Star Destroyer, rapping his metal fingers on the room’s conference tabletop. He refused to discuss important matters in public corridors aboard this gigantic ship, much less in the company of subordinates. He would talk to Hux alone.

The First Order was a disciplinarian’s delight. They evoked the “New Order”, Emperor Palpatine’s edicts over the subjects he once controlled. Built from the hatred of failed Imperial puppets forced to sign treaties of non-aggression with the New Republic, the First Order and its secret leadership quietly plotted, recruited thousands, rebuilt the stormtrooper legions, and launched starships like the Finalizer and superweapons like Starkiller Base to stab at the very heart of the Republic.

Despite their initial glorious success, the First Order’s plot spectacularly failed. Starkiller Base was destroyed along with thousands of trained personnel and costly equipment. The First Order and Hux were forced to beat a hasty retreat back to their secret outposts. They recently returned, striking at valuable targets across the galaxy and devouring their resources. Occupying important worlds like Ord Mantell was part of a newer, larger strategy. The Bright Jewel system was at the crossroads in the Mid Rim. Republic ships had to either cross this nexus or reroute their hyperspace routes along safer lines.

It was also worth noting that Starkiller Base was General Hux’s pride and joy. Its destruction remained, undoubtedly, a thorn in the man’s side.

“Don’t we all succumb to delusions of grandeur?” Zult smiled, noting how he was being made to wait for an audience with the general. This was such a tiresome tactic. His cybernetic implants could easily link into the ship’s bridge network. He bored himself reading unencrypted work orders and shift changes via his internal neural viewer. Such intrusions might be noticed by their security sniffers. Maybe then the general would finally show his face, before an impatient Zult did some real damage to this infernal flying isosceles triangle.

The entry door hushed open and Hux marched inside, followed by a pair of Naval troopers wearing their characteristic black uniforms and oversized black teardrop helmets. Did the general fear for his safety or were they here to show Zult the direct way off the ship…via an airlock?

“Agent Zult,” General Hux crossed the distance from the door to a seat at the center of the conference table, offering neither a hand to shake, a refreshment or an acknowledgement shared among peers. “What brings you aboard the Finalizer?”

“For the same reason you appear to be missing one of your shuttles,” Zult paused to give the Naval guards a look of disdain. “I believe I requested a private audience?”

“And so you have,” Hux ignored the two men standing at the door. “I assure you they are loyal.”

“I’m grateful for that assurance,” Zult mocked a smile. “I hope they don’t start laughing when I point out what a complete and utter clod you are.”

The color of Hux’s face switched from an impersonal pale to red dwarf.

“And I don’t enjoy being insulted by half a man. Allow me to oblige your paranoia.” General Hux slid his gaze to the Naval troopers. “Wait outside.”

The guards activated the door lock and exited. The door hissed closed.

“Any other insults you would like to hurl?” Hux rapped his fingertips on the conference table in much the same way as Zult had been doing earlier. Red-haired and stern, he could hardly tolerate Zult’s damaged physical appearance. Zult’s knowledge of Hux was thorough; the ill-begotten son of a high-ranking Imperial and a housemaid, young Hux admired Palpatine’s New Order and especially its obsession with human superiority. Physical imperfections brought about by disease or damage, like Zult’s injuries, were a sign of weakness. They repulsed the man. “I’m allowing this meeting to take place as a courtesy. As the lackey of a failed regime, you have no place in the First Order.”

“Of course, General. My apologies, from one lackey to another. While we’re busy measuring the luster of our boots, a valuable resource and several traitors were allowed to leave the planet on one of your shuttles. I thought you might like to know this.” Zult smiled again, mimicking the General’s words from before. “As a courtesy.”

Hux stopped rapping his fingers on the table top.

“I assume this is why you and your soldiers kept every single evacuation shuttle grounded for hours while the passengers were searched. It appears you were looking in the wrong place. Yes, a First Order shuttle with two bounty hunters and a Republic doctor left the planet hours ago, headed for this ship. They never arrived. The stormtroopers who accompanied them were found through their locater beacons. They had been ejected into space.”

“A high crime, among others.” Zult nodded, trying not recall the wild bantha chase Sully Tigereye had sent him on. Tigereye had planted the medical vials in the apartment on purpose, making Zult believe he, Doctor Ergo and Subject J829P were trying to board one of the medical shuttles to escape. It was a clever ruse. Tigereye delighted in tormenting him. “These traitors are former members of a mercenary group who called themselves the Red Moons. Traitors who supported the Republic. They stole a valuable resource. My resource.”

“Then it’s too late to do anything about it, isn’t it?” Hux gave the impression he was bored. “You lost a resource. I lost a shuttle and a squad. It’s seems we’re even.”

“Hardly, General Hux. My resource is far more valuable than a shuttle or a collection of trained soldiers.” Using one of the metal fingers of his replacement prosthetic hand, he traced a squeaky path on the table top in front of him—leaving a deep scratch in the finish. “Even more valuable than a certain superweapon slowly expanding into a ball of useless space dust.”

Zult caught the glare in Hux’s eyes. It was clear the general couldn’t stand him or his provocations.

“I would be careful, Zult. The First Order dislikes traitors…and executes them with great expediency. What is it that you want?”

“I wish to propose a new era of cooperation between our two parties.”

“You are being delusional. The Pentastar Alignment no longer exists,” Hux dismissed the suggestion with a wave of his hand. “Decorating soldiers with their symbols will not bring it back. I suggest another form of cooperation. Hand over whatever data you have regarding these traitors and your resource so they may be dealt with.”

“By you and the First Order?”

Indignant, Zult rose to his feet and paced the length of the long table, tired of sitting in the uncomfortable briefing room chair so he could stretch his carbon fiber-reinforced legs.

“Who else?”

“Why would I entrust my hard work with you? The First Order spent countless years and cost building a machine that draws the raw power of a star, blending it with the dark energy of kyber crystals, so it may be unleashed upon your enemies. The design destroyed the seat of the Republic and murdered billions. What reward did you get for this accomplishment? Did this leave your enemies cowering in fear? No. A force of Resistance snubfighters found a weakness in your facility that initiated a chain reaction that…oh…wait just a second!” Zult paused, spinning about in a new direction. “Are we talking about Starkiller Base, or are we discussing the Death Star that Grand Moff Tarkin commissioned, or the even larger Death Star the Emperor himself built…only for him to die when it too was destroyed? I regret my memories are not as sharp as they once were.” He rapped the side of his metal-encased skull. “Which of the three are we talking about?”

Hux stormed to his own feet, leaning on the table with both hands.

“What is the point?”

“The point is a matter of scale, General.” Zult calmly replied. “The bigger the weapon, the more resources it consumes, the more attention it attracts, the more likely the chance for catastrophic failure. Simply put: large plans create large problems. You and your predecessors have been trying to wipe out the Republic, the Rebellion or the Resistance for decades now. Planet-destroyers are impractical, costly endeavors. As we speak, I know your scientists are hard at work on the next one.”

Hux stiffened, not liking what Zult knew about the First Order’s next plans.

“You have an alternative?”

“I have resources. Six of them. They are precise. Small in scale. No planetary stations. No massive construction projects. Nothing that requires the power of a sun.” Zult made a small gesture with the digits of his cybernetic hand. “They are an elegant solution, when you think about it.”

“And you say you lost one of these resources on Ord Mantell? That’s what these Republic traitors took?”

Zult nodded. “Help me and you will gain access to these resources.”

“There’s nothing new about political assassination, Zult. I have commandoes who can reduce the new Chancellor of the Republic to ash.”

Considering the last Chancellor of the Republic was killed after Starkiller Base’s superweapon annihilated Hosnian Prime and the rest of its inhabitants, Zult was surprised by the general’s reluctance.

“Then what are you waiting for?”

“The Republic has sent the new chancellor and the rest of the government into hiding,” Hux sneered. “They’re not fools.”

“Maybe that’s because you used a sledgehammer to kill a Tatooine sand flea?” Zult smiled. “This calls for precision, General. But only if you’re interested in getting results.”

“Which brings me back to my first question,” Hux had reached the limit of his patience, his voice rising both in anger and decibels. “What is it that you want? Or shall I have you escorted to the airlock door and spaced?”

“All I ask…” Zult waved a mechanical finger at the general. “Is your permission and proper clearances to enter the Jaemus system. While I’m asking, a shuttle with TIE fighter escorts will also do nicely.”

“How do you know about…?” Hux’s head tilted in curiosity, but he stopped himself. “Never mind. Your ability to gather information, despite the highest security protocols, is part of your reputation. You want to enter Jaemus? Why?”

“The resource that was stolen has been activated. Once triggered, it won’t stop. It will gather the necessary tools and information to find its target and eliminate it. What it requires to complete its mission can be found at Jaemus. I intend to follow, observe and guarantee success.”

Hux reflected on the theft of his military shuttle. Two bounty hunters and a doctor.

“I was under the impression your resource is a person.”

“It was. Once. Now it’s a weapon of my own design. A weapon that will relentlessly follow its programming. Since its unexpected activation, I am prepared to follow up with the five others. The result will be a strike of unbelievable precision that will bring the Republic to its knees and end the Resistance. All the First Order has to do is step in and take its rightful place as the undisputed authority of the galaxy.”

General Hux pursed his lips in contemplation. Zult could almost see Hux’s brain processing the possibilities. This was everything and more that the First Order desired. Hux’s own master, High Command and Supreme Leader Snoke, would be pleased.

“That is a very sizeable promise, Agent Zult.”

“One that I intend to deliver.”

“You’d better.” Hux leaned forward and pressed a switch on the communications hub built into his freshly-scratched conference table. “Lieutenant Ghart. Assign an armed shuttle and long-range TIE escort to Agent Ephron Zult. Give him the codes to enter the Jaemus combat zone.”

“Sir, I have no Agent Ephron Zult in the security registry.” a voice on the other end of the com-channel questioned. “Who is Agent Zult assigned to?”

Looking across the table at the bemused agent who managed to get exactly what he wanted, Hux’s face noticeably pinched.

“The Pentastar Alignment, you fool.”

Chapter 9

“HE’S NOT WHO WE KNOW ANYMORE. HE’S A MISSILE AND HIS MIND HAS BEEN TURNED INTO A TARGETING COMPUTER.”

Somewhere in hyperspace, in route to the Jaemus system…

Sully Tigereye was about to lift Hugo bodily out of the shuttle’s pilot seat and take control of the shuttle when Hugo did something Brixie had never seen him do in all the time she knew him.

He threatened to kill them.

“I have a locked counterprogram in the navicomputer,” he warned. “You take us out of hyperspace or change course before we reach Jaemus, the motivator coolant tubes will open. The compartments will be flooded with radiation. We’ll be cooked alive.”

Tigereye’s amber eyes turned into raging stars. All this effort to pull Hugo out of captivity, to save him from the confinement of a bizarre medical program, and he threatened to kill them while setting a course to a war zone.

“You’d kill us, you ungrateful twerp?” he rumbled. “What is wrong with you?”

“I’m going to Jaemus,” Hugo coldly repeated, looking only forward through the cockpit canopy.

Brixie stepped in between the two and pushed Sully back, which had about the same effect as her trying to move an X-wing fighter by herself.

“Something’s wrong with Hugo,” she told the Trunsk.

“Is that so? Did your medical degree come up with that brilliant explanation?” Tigereye squared his shoulders. “Explain to the genius that he needs to unlock the navicomputer and change course right now, or else I will rearrange his body to have fewer arms and legs than he was born with!”

Hugo refused to budge, much less convey he heard the threat.

“Go down to the loading deck,” Brixie insisted.

“I am not leaving here…”

“Go. Down. To. The. Loading. Deck.”

Brixie had worked hospital wards enough to know how to deal with stubborn patients and their families. Sometimes what it took was the medical equivalent of sending a naughty child to his room.

“I’m going to talk with Hugo. Why don’t you find a datapad and load the cylinder we took?”

Tigereye glowered like an enraged bantha bull. He pushed past her and headed down the stairs.

“Enjoy your talk.”

Left alone with him, she sensed a chill in the cockpit. This was a much different person than who she had helped awaken on Ord Mantell. The medical program, whatever it entailed, was controlling him. Having no idea what the program had done to Hugo’s already-paranoid psyche, Brixie chose a non-threatening course of action: putting some distance between herself and him by taking the co-pilot’s seat.

“There’s nothing you can do from there,” Hugo warned, his voice a flat monotone. “I’ve locked the controls out. If you come at me with a hypo or a dart, the navicomputer program stays locked in.”

“I’m not coming at you,” Brixie kept her own voice calm. “I want to talk about the gardener. Where did you meet him?”

“I told you. In the bio-dome. I would go for walks there. It’s this beautiful place, full of trees and birds.”

“I remember now. What can you tell me about the gardener?” Brixie asked.

“He asked me to help him cut down a sick tree.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s sick. The disease will spread to the rest of the bio dome. The tree must be cut down.”

“And we’re flying to the shipyards of Jaemus because…?” Brixie let her voice trail off, hoping Hugo would fill in the blanks.

Jaemus was part of the same cluster of the galaxy where Brixie’s home of Entralla and other familiar worlds were found. This cluster was also once part of the Pentastar Alignment, an Imperial faction that formed after the collapse of the Empire. The Alignment found the shipyards beyond valuable; they stripped a number of Imperial Immobilizer-class Interdictor cruisers and built their infamous Picket Cruisers off the hull. Smaller than Star Destroyers, picket cruisers were a frightening sight to any traveler who came upon them.

The Jaemus shipyards were constantly in contention. Once Entralla was freed, the New Republic seized Jameus and the region. Then the Imperial remnant came back and the fighting there went on and on…

“The gardener told me.”

No surprise there, Brixie admitted.

The tree, the gardener, the bio dome. They were familiar somehow. Without interpreting the stolen data, Brixie could only theorize, but the medical program—along with all the equipment and the holo theater she saw in the lab suite—must have been used to weave a story into Hugo’s subconscious mind. The story was full of symbols; goals that the program’s designers, her mother, wanted Hugo to perform.

Her mother. Brixie still couldn’t wrap her mind around that fact. Her own mother had done this to her friend and others. Although Brixie desperately wanted to study the contents of that data cylinder they took from the hospital, the only way she could only understand what was happening to him was by talking to him.

“What else did the gardener tell you to do, besides go to Jaemus?”

Hugo turned his head, almost mechanically, towards her.

“The gardener said people would try to talk to me. The gardener and I, we made this little secret pact.” He put his finger to his lips. “No spilling secrets.”

Brixie nodded, not wanting to push. The imprinted medical program must have a security lock, she reasoned. Only the gardener and Hugo knew the story and its outcome. If Hugo was caught or interrogated, he would reveal nothing. As for the threats to kill them if they tried to take control of the shuttle, Brixie assumed the gardener also had a defense routine to ensure Hugo did what was required to finish the story. A story about a sick tree that had to be cut down.

“Hugo,” she tried another tact. “Do you know who I am?”

He faced forward again. “I don’t care who you are.”

“Yes, you do!” she leaned across the seat’s arm rest. “Who got you your hat?”

He looked down at his lap, surprised to see the knit cap there.

“I…I don’t know how I got this.”

“I found it for you. In the apartment. Do you remember the apartment? Watching the vidscreen so fast? Eating everything you could lay your hands on…?”

A weakened voice interrupted her, almost child-like.

“You promised we would eat when we got on the ship, Brixie.”

A thrill of relief filled Brixie’s heart when he spoke her name. That was Hugo! His presence was still there. The medical program must have demoted his personality, reducing his real self to the capacity of a child. Children were supposed to do what they were told.

“Do you want me to get you something to eat, Hugo?”

“Please, Brixie. I’m starving.” He tried to get out of the pilot’s seat, but stopped himself. The voice switched back to the monotone. “Try to poison or sedate me, and the navicomputer remains locked out. Only I know the passkey.”

The programmed personality had returned. It was stronger and clearly in charge.

“I won’t harm you, Hugo.” She paused before climbing out of the co-pilot’s seat. Thinking about the stronger personality programmed into him, she tried asking another question. “You weren’t expecting to cut this tree down with me or Sully, were you? You’re supposed to do this by yourself?”

He made the shushing gesture again, his finger on his lips.

“The gardener doesn’t want me talking about the tree with anyone. It’s a secret. Nobody is supposed to know.”

“Who am I, Hugo?” she quickly changed the subject, trying to upend the master’s control by asking it unexpected questions. “Do you know me?”

Child-like Hugo didn’t return, but the master program didn’t disregard her either.

“I used to know someone named Brixie. You talk like her. Maybe you are her. It makes no difference to the gardener.”

At least that was better than, I don’t care who you are.

“I’ll get you something to eat now.”

“Don’t think I can’t hear you.” Hugo switched on the audio monitors. “I control this shuttle. I control everything. If you try to interfere or overpower me, I’ll open the ramp door and you’ll fly out into space.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she mutely replied as she descended the stairs.

Returning to the loading deck, she caught Sully Tigereye seated by the unconscious shuttle pilot, reading from a datapad with the cylinder they had taken from the hospital. He didn’t look up while she went hunting for a mealpak.

“So he threatened to space us,” the Trunsk muttered as he read the datapad. “Unless we do as he says?”

“That’s what he said,” Brixie dropped the mealpak into a rehydrator unit. The unit would break the seal, mix the pak’s contents with oxygenated water and heat the packaging until a mini bowl with the reconstituted stew heated inside. The pak even contained its own edible eating utensil. “There’s a gardener. He only listens to him.”

“Maybe we should have left him in that hospital,” the Trunsk mused aloud. “Stupid us.”

“Sully…” Brixie admonished. “He’s our friend. He doesn’t deserve to be treated this way. No one does.”

Tigereye waved the datapad towards her, lowering his voice.

“You won’t think that after you look through this.”

“I will look through it. After I give him some food.”

“An excellent idea. Feed the disturbed wacko.”

Brixie stopped while carrying the warm bowl of stew.

“He’s been hijacked, Sully.” she declared. “I’m going to help him.”

“I doubt you can. He’s not who we know anymore. He’s a missile and his mind has been turned into a targeting computer.” Sully thumped the datapad with the back of his large hand. “I’ve looked through the data. Except for the holo-theater files, the rest is encrypted. I can’t break it.”

“Ivey could have,” she angrily snapped back.

Brixie regretted what she said. The words just spilled from her mouth, mostly because she was confused and angry and frustrated. What happened to Hugo…or Ivey for that matter…wasn’t Sully’s fault. She was lashing out and Trunsk was the handiest target.

Tigereye gave a barely perceptible nod.

“Yes, she might. But she’s not here. Is she?”

Brixie voice turned into a choked whisper.

“No. She’s not.”

The wind inside the descending shuttle swirled Brixie’s hair all around and into her eyes. Ivey caught the runaway strands and hooked them behind Brixie’s ear to keep them from taking flight. Her hand found Brixie’s and squeezed tight.

“Be right back, Princess.”

It was a little joke between them. Ivey would call her “Princess” and Brixie would yell back, “I’m not a Princess!”

There was no chance to answer like she usually did. Ivey jumped aboard the other shuttle.

A puff of smoke, a fireball and a heartbeat later, she and the shuttle were gone…

“Sully. I’m sorry.” Brixie brushed the stream of tears running down her cheeks with the back of her hand. What a terrible time to remember such things.

“Never fear, my Lady Ergo. Trunsks are sturdy beings. It takes more than words to hurt us.” He pointed to the staircase up to the cockpit. “Bring him some food. Then we’ll have some ourselves and try to make sense of this gibberish. It’ll take hours for this crate to reach Jaemus. How Hugo figures on getting us through a war zone in a stolen shuttle, that will truly be something.”

The bio dome was beautiful. A massive environment, a circular geodesic structure, rising hundreds of meters up. Sunlight careened through the glass panels, bathing the interior with a golden gleam. Every inch teemed with life, green and lush, great trees and wooden lattices from a thousand different worlds. There were dozens of forms of life thriving here: creatures that flew from branch to branch, skittered about on legs or other appendages, munched on leafy sprouts or paddled in the lagoons. They all cohabitated together, the smallest to the largest, feeding and propagating.

“Now remember. Stick to the path, Hugo.” A shy-sounding voice could be heard from behind. Turning around, a young female human wearing tight-fitting medical attire, her top unzipped well past her collarbone, waved. Not far behind her stood a man also wearing a medical cloak, silver streaks at his temples, nodding sternly. The young woman reached forward and smoothed out the wrinkles of the hospital gown worn by the viewer. “Now you relax and take a stroll. Doctor’s orders.”

The journey along the path led deeper inside the bio dome where the tree canopy was so expansive it almost blotted out the sun overhead. Birds squeaked and chattered to one another. Small bushy marsupials, possibly Entrallan squints, briefly ran across the path to safety. A nearby stream, accompanied by a waterfall, burbled and churned up the water into a froth and sent its waters spilling down a stone-lined stream.

Everything was peaceful. Calming.

“Hello there, young man.”

A man wearing a green jumpsuit was working diligently on his knees at the base of tree by the stream. The tree, its base thick and gnarled with a bold spread of branches, was leafless and the color of gray ash. The gardener removed his cap and wiped the sweat from his brow with a kerchief.

“Such a shame,” the man tsked as he looked up from his work. He pointed from the stream to the tree’s thick roots. “Something’s got ahold of this ancient one. Maybe from the water or the soil. Hard to tell. This is one of only six such trees in the entire environment. We call ‘em councilors, cause they’re so old. I fear if this one’s sick, the others might be affected, too. What’s that you say?”

The man seemed to take in a question, then solemnly nodded. He got to his feet, wiping his hands of the black soil.

“I’m afraid it’s too late to save. Have to cut it down. If we don’t, the rot will spread and infect everything.” The gardener looked about as though someone else might be listening in, then leaned closer. “I know the folks who run this place don’t take kindly to such talk. They think everything can be saved. It’s just words. All they do is argue in circles. Sometimes, you got to take matters in your own hands. Some people might call that reckless, but where I come from, that’s called being a hero.”

The gardener took the kerchief and wiped his brow again.

“I’m getting too old to fight this sort of nonsense. People don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore. I know this place. I want it to live and thrive. That’s the right thing to do.” He thumped his chest and pocketed the kerchief. “It gets to me, sometimes. I wonder if there’s someone here who thinks the same as I do?”

The viewer pointed to himself. The gardener started to smile.

“You want to help me? I would be grateful if you did. So would a lot of folks.” The man glanced around again. “We can treat it like a secret, you know? Just between you and me.”

The viewer bobbed his head up and down in agreement.

“Fine. Now. We need to find ourselves an axe.” The gardener again glanced around. “They lock all those things up. I don’t even get to work with a pair of clippers. Stupid rules. But I know where you can find one. It’s a long trip, but you find that axe and bring it back here.” The man beamed. “Together, we can save this place for future generations. What do you say?”

A rustling in the woods alerted the gardener.

“You better take off. Don’t take gumption from nobody, you hear? I’ll send you instructions with this,” he passed the viewer a comlink from his pocket. “Now you better get before someone figures out what we’re doing. Hurry!”

The viewer turned and almost stumbled upon a figure in the woods. The figure is turned away and doesn’t see the viewer, too busy gazing upon a passing stream. The viewer quickly backpedaled and plunged into the brush, finding the path he took earlier….

“I’m thinking it’s a children’s story,” Sully growled as Brixie disconnected a set of earphones from the datapad. “You know, one of those, ‘pick your own adventure’ sort of things? Except for the part with the nurse and the doc.”

“You’re right,” Brixie nodded. “It’s a holo program from an Entrallan youth guidance course I once took. If you go along with the gardener’s request, you risk breaking the rules trying to find an axe to bring down a diseased tree. Those who run the bio dome warn you not to interfere with Nature, even if it means the bio dome dies. The gardener wants you to break the rules and save the bio dome. There are no right or wrong choices. Just the ones that you decide.”

“You’re kidding me?” the Trunsk asked. “They plugged that into Hugo’s head?”

“The designers took the frame of the story.” Brixie rewound the holo on the datapad so it reached the conversation with the gardener. “They built on it. Added the nurse and the doctor to make Hugo feel this was normal. He’s been in and out of the care of doctors almost his entire life.”

Without the holographic lenses or the hood for the audio, the story played out on the flat screen without its immersive effects. Holo shows felt real, almost too real. Brixie could imagine this tech could be used to create a program designed to trick Hugo’s mind—to reprogram it. The other parts contained on the data cylinder were exactly as Sully described, scrolling lines of coded gibberish. Without the underlying unlocked data, the story played out on the screen as a simple branching-type adventure. Again, a security measure to protect the medical program’s creators from discovery or interference.

“I know,” Tigereye agreed. “Ephron Zult must have kidnapped him. Took advantage of him.”

“Who is this Zult?” Brixie recalled the name, but not a face.

“You never ran in to him directly, but I have. He was a Pentastar agent, part of their Justice unit. He ran psychological ops, setting off disasters and spinning the blame on the New Republic. There was a raid on a settlement world. Zult made a deal with a slaving operation to sell off the captives and murder the rest to make the Republic look powerless. You know how much I enjoy the company of slavers.”

“Don’t remind me,” Brixie shook her head. Her very first mission as a field medic was with Sully, Hugo and a scout named Lex Kempo targeting a slaving operation on a jungle moon called Gabredor III. Brixie saw death take away, regardless of which side she was on. The slavers lost and so did the Moons. Trying to create a diversion riding a grav sled laden with explosives, Lex Kempo kept the sled on course until he and its payload slammed into the slavers’ defensive weapon mount.

“A mercenary doesn’t retire gracefully,” he once boasted to Brixie. “There’s no such thing as an Old Mercs Home either. What a real mercenary wants is to go out…in a blaze of glory.”

He sure did.

“The Red Moons tangled with the slavers. Zult got caught with an incendiary grenade set up as one of Hugo’s distractions. I assumed he was turned into a crispy nothing, until I lost track of Hugo. Zult’s name popped up again and again.” He pointed at the datapad. “And here we are, trapped on a shuttle headed for Jaemus, watching kiddie shows, our friend turned against us.”

Brixie looked down. She had inadvertently replayed the last part of the holo on the datapad. The viewer had taken the gardener’s quest and was trying to slip away when he stumbled upon the figure looking over the burbling stream. Brixie pressed ‘pause’ and rewound back. She played the scene again. The mysterious figure was a woman, but her back faced the viewer at all times. Since this was a three-dimensional image, Brixie could rotate the camera’s point-of-view however she liked.

Hoping to find a clue, she orbited the camera around the figure at the stream so she could see the woman’s face. It wasn’t the nurse, but someone else. Calm, yet sad-looking, the woman wordlessly watched the water playfully slip down the rocks. Brixie froze the playback in horror.

The figure standing at the stream’s edge was her mother.

Chapter 10

“THIS IS MADNESS,” SULLY BELLOWED, PARAPHRASING A FAVORITE COMMENT OF A CERTAIN ANNOYING GOLD-PLATED PROTOCOL DROID. “HUGO!”

Exactly as Sully Tigereye had warned earlier, they arrived in the middle of a war zone.

The First Order shuttle emerged from hyperspace with a sudden jolt way more violent than Brixie expected. Gravity well projectors, devices similar to those used by old Imperial Interdictor Cruisers, were scattered throughout the Jaemus system like tank traps. The devices were knocking arriving ships out of hyperspace long before they could reach the floating shipyards or the gas giant. That left them easy prey to roving packs of Z-95 Headhunter starfighters and Skipspray blast boats.

The only problem was figuring out who those starfighters and patrol boats belonged to. With a battle raging all around them, neither the shuttle’s transponder identification programs nor Brixie could make any sense out of this tangled mess. The endless gulf of space never looked so crowded. There were First Order Star Destroyers, New Republic corvettes and advanced E-wing fighters, Corporate Sector Authority cruisers, Old Republic-era dreadnaughts wearing the emblem of the Black Sun criminal syndicate, vessels from the Tion Hegemony, the Hutts, the Corellian Star Navy and a host so confusing no one knew exactly who they were or what allegiance they swore to except themselves.

Everyone wanted Jaemus. The shipyards were that valuable.

The shuttle had military-grade shields, but nothing could save it from a direct hit from one of the blast boats or larger corvettes. Making matters worse were a half dozen Z-95 Headhunter fighter from some pirate guild that gave chase.

“See?” Sully warned Hugo. Tigereye was seated in the co-pilot’s seat with Brixie hanging on for dear life in the aux jump seat behind him. “Do you want to fly through this? Get us out of here!”

“No.” Hugo replied. He kept manual control over the shuttle, flipping attitude jets and accelerating. He eluded most of the larger spacecraft, but the Z-95s clung close to their stern, firing with beefed-up laser cannons that violently shook the shuttle—and everyone inside.

“Stupid Headhunters,” Tigereye growled as he watched the rear scanner, more insulted than scared of the spread of starfighters firing behind them. “It’s like being chased by my hundred-year-old ancestors in a wheeled cart.”

“They’re pretty well armed for hundred-year-old ancestors,” Brixie nervously quipped, clinging to the padded back of the co-pilot seat.

Ships in front of them spiraled before the shuttle’s cockpit windows as Hugo flew through a raging duel between a Tion Hegemony cruiser and a Black Sun Dreadnaught. The pirates were too interested in the tempting shuttle to realize they were about to be turned into a smattering of ions. A few of the snubfighters chasing after their shuttle were caught by the exchange of energy fire from the capital ships’ cannon batteries.

“This is madness,” Sully bellowed, paraphrasing a favorite comment of a certain annoying gold-plated protocol droid. “Hugo!

Two of the Headhunters remained firmly in pursuit. The shuttle had a rotating remote-controlled cannon, a single laser against a flurry of energy beams trying to disable or simply destroy them. The gun fired through an automated targeting system that, probably because the shuttle belonged to the First Order, may have been supplied by the lowest contract bidder. Hugo was too busy flying to override the automatic targeter to shoot back at them.

“Give me weapons control,” Tigereye yelled at Hugo. “Or we’re space dust.”

The weapons control at his station flickered to life. Sully took the stick, twisting the lever to move the targeting reticle on the screen in front of him.

“Here’s exactly what I think of those stupid Headhunters…”

Two more flaming balls of debris joined the other drifting piles of space junk. The remnants of this space battle were so thick with floating wreckage that Brixie could imagine a ring of junk orbiting the gas giant of Jaemus for future generations.

The shuttle finally cleared the dueling cruisers and made a beeline for the Republic defensive line. Brixie gasped. In front of them was a wall of ships: hundreds of Mon Calamari cruisers, Nebulon-B frigates and Corellian gunships positioned in front of the shipyard. They were defending it with every laser, missile and rock they could throw.

“Great moons of Moregor…” the Trunsk muttered under his breath.

“You heading towards the Republic ships?” Brixie joined Sully’s astonishment. Hugo was flying towards the wall without slowing. “We’re in a First Order shuttle!”

Hugo worked the communications panel.

“Transmitting code now.”

“What code are you sending?” Sully demanded. “We have no codes. We have no clearances. We’re in a stolen First Order shuttle. What are you saying to them? ‘Hi there! Please don’t kill us!’?”

As they got closer to the battle line, the incoming laser and missile fire from the Republic ships intensified. Perhaps imagining the First Order shuttle was on a suicide mission, they weren’t taking any chances. Everything was targeting them. The shuttle’s bulkheads shook to its connecting welds. Their shields were overwhelmed and collapsing.

Hugo!” Brixie and Sully simultaneously shouted at him.

The incoming blasts, all of them, abruptly stopped.

A voice came over the cockpit’s intercom speakers.

“Shuttle Pyro sending code Zeta Zeta Red Alpha. You have been recognized. Approach through the guard gate. Deviate from course and you will be destroyed. Do you copy?”

“Shuttle Pyro, message acknowledged.” Hugo replied before switching the communication line off. The shuttle aimed for the guard gate: twin orbital defense stations behind the battle line that formed the entrance to the Jaemus shipyards. Each ring-shaped defense station resembled a prickly plant from Entralla’s deserts—they were bristling with defensive laser cannon barbettes and missile launchers.

Sully eyed Hugo. “You used a Red Alpha code? That’s back from our time with the Rebel Alliance. Zeta Zeta is a direct priority call to…”

The Holo Net projector built into the cockpit dash glowed an eerie blue. Someone was calling the shuttle from a great distance. A human figure took form in the holo field. He was a rugged-looking man, his hairline thinning and right side resting on a support grav cane.

“This is Cracken on the Republic Intelligence priority channel.” the figure standing in the field swung his gaze from the pilot to the copilot stations. “Cutter? Tigereye? Why the blazes are you at Jaemus?”

“General Cracken, sir.” Sully bobbed his head, swallowing his embarrassment. Hugo had used an old, but still valid, priority signal to directly contact the head of New Republic Intelligence. That man hovering in the glow of the Holo Net viewer was also their former commander from the Rebel Alliance infiltrators, General Airen Cracken. “It’s good to see you, too.”

“Who’s that standing behind you, Tigereye?” Despite the blinking relay of the holo projection, the brow of the general’s face noticeably furrowed. “Is that Doctor Ergo I see?”

Brixie waved, trying to keep herself from acting too surprised the man recognized her. She had only met the general a few times during her time with the Red Moons.

“Hello there, General. Um. How are you?”

“Perturbed and confused, young lady.” Cracken retorted. “Now that I’ve been forced to order every gun on the defensive line not to turn the three of you into atoms, what are you doing out there?”

“It’s vital that I reach the ship held in space dock Theta Helio Xerxes One One Three Eight.” Hugo spoke up, acting as though he was in charge, which he was. “I request authorization for immediate launch, General.”

Cracken took a moment to check a record display on his end. He was genuinely surprised.

“You want that hunk of junk? Is this one of Andrephan’s ideas?”

Brixie was tempted to blurt out “No!”, to warn General Cracken that Hugo was trying to deceive him for some mad purpose, but Tigereye glanced up at her and shook his head. After reviewing the datapad and unable to unlock the medical program’s secrets, he and Brixie had agreed to let Hugo follow the program’s orders. What Agent Zult and Dr. Mari Ergo didn’t count on was either of them tagging along with Hugo. They hoped to use this to their advantage to predict Zult’s intended target, save a life, and maybe Hugo’s life too.

“Yes, sir.” Hugo flatly answered.

“I thought the Red Moons disbanded. Last I heard, all of you went your separate ways.” The flickering miniature of the general switched his gaze to Sully Tigereye. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“We’re following the Colonel’s orders,” Tigereye lied. Brixie caught him making several gestures with his right hand, just out of view of Hugo’s periphery.

“I understand,” Cracken nodded. “Shuttle Pyro, clearance granted for space dock One One Three Eight. Good luck and try not to scratch the paint job. That old fishhead still loves that thing.”

“Understood, sir. Over and out.”

Hugo snapped off the holo projector before anything further could be said. Taking control over the shuttle once again, they passed through the guard gate and headed down one of the long causeways of interlocking docking systems. The Republic forces swarmed behind the shuttle, reforming the defensive wall, keeping the rest of the space battle at bay.

“You lied to the General,” Hugo noted aloud to Sully.

Brixie was surprised. This was the first time Hugo had spoken without a warning not to interfere or casually threatening them with death.

“So did you,” the Trunsk answered.

“You could have told the General I was compromised.”

“They would have blown us to pieces.” Tigereye flatly stated. “I’m not interested in that outcome.”

“When we reach the dock, you and Doctor Ergo will remain here on the shuttle with the shuttle pilot as your prisoner. I will continue without you.”

“Nope. That’s not happening, either.”

Hugo turned his head to Sully and Brixie.

“I will destroy…”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this before. You try to break the three of us up and I’ll peel your skull open and dig that damn medical program out of your brain with this.” Tigereye showed him his extended claws. “I want my friend back.”

“That’s an unfortunate assumption. He is gone.”

Brixie shook her head. “No! You’re still Hugo. You’re our friend. We’re staying with you.”

The man shrugged, the friend he once was buried deep inside his mind. He resumed piloting the shuttle through the vast gridwork of docks and repair bays.

“The gardener tells me your decision will not end well.”

Tigereye wasn’t the slightest impressed with the warning.

“Everyone’s a pessimist…”

Chapter 11

“…SUBJECT J829P MUST BE ALLOWED TO PROCEED WITHOUT INTERFERENCE. AS FOR THE OTHER TWO, FEEL FREE TO USE AS MUCH DEADLY FORCE AS YOU WISH.”

Seated in the forward station of his newly-acquired Upsilon-class command shuttle, Ephron Zult eyed the immense space battle around Jaemus. The command craft was many times the size of the First Order transports used by stormtrooper squads, its folded durasteel wings providing additional protection to the crew compartment and engines.

“Pirates. How annoying,” Zult sighed as several dilapidated Z-95 snubfighters and corvettes appeared in the forward view screens, hindering their progress to Jaemus. “We don’t have time for this. Deploy Invictor Squadron.”

A swarm of First Order TIE/sf space superiority fighters—heavily-armed, two-man advancements of the TIE fighter—arrived from hyperspace behind the command shuttle. Unlike the Galactic Empire, Zult admitted, at least the First Order understood the need to protect their valuable resources, especially highly-trained pilots. Gone were the days of TIE fighters without shields or adequate firepower. The newer, black TIE/sf had improved shields, a hyperdrive, and carried a dedicated gunner in a rear-facing position behind the pilot. Their cannons and missiles made short work of the pirate Z-95s, blast boats and corvettes trying to seize vessels arriving in the Jaemus system.

Zult flipped the shuttle’s comlink to transmit General Hux’s codes to the First Order battle groups in the region. Once the command codes were recognized, Zult used his shuttle’s holo projector to send his shimmering image to the bridges and consoles of dozens of First Order warships.

“This is Pentastar Agent Ephron Zult. By authority of General Hux, all First Order craft now answer to me. Battle Groups Alpha and Beta, form attack pattern Spear Bravo. Get me through that Republic battle line. Battle Groups Delta and Gamma, cover Alpha and Beta.”

Although he had promised General Hux that he would only “observe and report”, Zult had other priorities. The space battle raging around Jaemus and the Republic screen of warships protecting the shipyard was too large for him to deal with. Better to use the resources available to provide a diversion. Once he entered the shipyard, his primary goal was locating Subject J829P and separating him from his annoying friends—once and for all.

“I don’t want Sully Tigereye or that Ergo girl interfering anymore,” he muttered. Zult didn’t want prior friendships or loyalties confusing the objectives of his valuable resource.

He grimaced. The risk of mission failure had only increased because of the influence of Dr. Brixie Ergo, herself a reputable physician. Of all the worse luck in the universe, the daughter of the woman who designed his mission programs was accompanying Subject J829P!

He tapped his own internal comlink to communicate with his stormtrooper units waiting below the shuttle’s flight operations deck.

“Commander, your troops are to only use melee weapons in that dock. No blasters, no grenades. I don’t want Subject J829P harmed or disintegrated. Is that clear?”

“Understood, sir.” the commander replied. “Are we taking prisoners?”

“No. Subject J829P must be allowed to proceed without interference. As for the other two, feel free to use as much deadly force as you wish.”

Aware of what happened to the stormtroopers ejected into space on account of Tigereye and Ergo, the commander answered with a satisfied-sounding bite to his voice.

Yes, sir.”

Cutting the intercom, Zult motioned to the shuttle’s pilot hooked into the helm and navigation control. Gunners were already at their stations, firing the shuttle’s defensive cannons. Ahead of them, two of the First Order battle groups of delta-shaped Star Destroyers were forming a triangular wedge, one destroyer followed immediately behind by two more. The Alpha wedge was flying in close proximity to the Beta wedge, doubling the amount of available firepower. Attack formation Spear Bravo was designed to break through defensive screens of ships.

“Put us inside the head of the spear, Pilot.”

The pilot maneuvered the shuttle, surrounded by a ring of TIE fighters from Invictor Squadron, inside the heart of the spear formation. The star destroyers at the point would lead the attack, penetrating the defensive wall of Republic ships and spreading outward. Zult’s shuttle and his TIE forces would fly right through the breach, protected on nearly all sides by the bulk of the immense warships.

The energies exchanged between the two opposed forces was enough to lay waste to the surface of a planet. The First Order’s new Star Destroyers were many times larger than the Imperial-class, dwarfing the Republic’s Mon Calamari cruisers, frigates and gunships trying to shore up the wall. Instead of aiming for the defense stations at the guard gate, the First Order spear approached the defensive line at an oblique angle, the immense destroyers’ hulls knocking aside entire capital ships as though they were toys.

The lead star destroyer of Alpha, Primal, and the lead of battle group Beta, Gazer, took the brunt of the attack. Their hulls and superstructures vanished under a withering concentration of Republic fire. Thousands of personnel on both sides died, trapped inside corridors with air running out, their lungs burnt to a crisp from raging plasma fires, or their bodies flung into the cold embrace of space.

Zult noted the immense destruction with an almost-imperceptible shrug, muttering to himself as he always did regarding the sacrifice of so many lives to his own whims.

“Better them than me.”

The second row of star destroyers used the burning hulls of Primal and Gazer to protect them from the Republic ships trying to stop them. Delta and Gamma battle groups shored up the sides and the rear of the attack, keeping the Republic or other vessels from trying to swing around and attack them from those angles. The spearhead started to expand as the First Order drove a hole deep in the defensive wall. Zult’s TIE squadron prevented Republic squadrons of E-wings and T-60 advanced X-wings from getting too close to the command shuttle. Everything was proceeding with ruthless efficiency.

“Now, Pilot.” Zult traced a path through the flaming debris field with the forefinger of his cybernetic hand across a repeater display to mark the way in. “This is your course. Full acceleration.”

The command shuttle pilot engaged the engines and flew the shuttle as Zult directed—through the dying carcass of a Mon Calamari cruiser. The shuttle, even with its wings folded, proved a tight fit as the pilot maneuvered through the ship’s ripped bulkheads and cracked interior spaces. By traveling through the dead behemoth’s interiors, Republic sensors and visual scans would be blocked. While the Republic was distracted fighting off the remainder of the First Order battle groups, Zult’s shuttle and his TIE force slipped through the defensive wall and entered the shipyard.

“Locate dock THX-1138.” Zult checked the shuttle’s sensors, locating the resource by his unique biorhythmic signal. “Be quick about it. The Republic may be slow to respond to our little visit, but they’re not stupid.”

***

Situated among a long row of space docks and specialized cradles designed to build and service anything from a YT-1300 series freighter to a Super Star Destroyer, Brixie noted they had finally reached a stall in the THX corridor marked 1138.

Brixie pressed her face against the cockpit viewport, trying to determine what was so important that had brought Hugo here. The ship locked down inside the stall was larger than a fighter but smaller than a shuttle. In many ways, it resembled a kitchen knife left flat on a table. There were heavy lasers and missile launchers in a pod at on end, a boxy engine pod near the center point and a rounded cockpit at the other end.

“What is this thing?” she asked. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Hugo didn’t reply as he docked the shuttle to the stall’s pressurized maintenance shed.

Tigereye derisively snorted an explanation. “It’s a B-wing.”

Brixie knew of X-wings, Y-wings, E-wings, A-wings and even U-wings. They were all part of a large classification of one and two-person armed spacecraft called snubfighters. She had never heard of a “B-wing.”

“A what?”

Tigereye undid his seat’s web straps and climbed out.

“Before the New Republic, the Rebel Alliance was looking for something that packed a bigger punch than the old Y-wing. The B-wing flies vertically. Cockpit at the top, gun pod below. Small S-foils on the sides of the main wing open, adding to the weapon spread. If the pilot wanted, the whole cockpit could rotate around to maintain sightlines with a target.” Tigereye kept his eyes on Hugo as he started shutting down the shuttle’s systems. “If I guess right, this is the B-wing. The original design prototype. It had one owner. Admiral Gial Ackbar.”

Brixie remembered the Admiral, a Mon Calamari and one of the most important leaders of the Rebel Alliance and the New Republic.

“I didn’t know the Admiral flew fighters.”

“Ackbar and another Mon Cal named Quarrie led the design team on Shantipole. They test flew this one against an Imperial force, wiping it out of existence, before handing it and the plans over to the Rebels. B-wings never really found their place in the Alliance. Too big and clumsy in a fight with a TIE eyeball. My guess is that this one’s been parked here ever since. It’s a museum piece.” Tigereye watched Hugo as he ignored the unconscious shuttle pilot on the med table. He was too busy collecting components and parts from the shuttle’s maintenance locker and tossing them into a carry-all box. “What do you want with a B-wing? Why not take the shuttle?”

Hugo ignored his questions. With his selected tools, he headed to the shuttle’s airlock connector and checked the readouts indicating the air pressure in the maintenance shed matched that inside the shuttle and had an adequate oxygen count.

“I’m starting to enjoy this new silent phase that he’s in,” Sully muttered to Brixie, motioning for her to collect the data pad and the cylinder. At the medtable, Brixie adjusted the pilot’s medical monitor to set off an alarm hoping someone would pick up the signal and come by the dock. The man needed real medical attention.

Tigereye helped himself to one of the stormtrooper blaster rifles still locked to the loading deck floor, then filled a tactical vest with weapon packs and other gear including fragmentation grenades. He tossed Brixie a blaster pistol, a field medkit and a set of comlinks.

“The Republic is going to let us take this B-wing thing?” she asked.

“General Cracken thinks we’re on a mission for Colonel Stormcaller. Which would be impossible, since no one’s seen or heard from the colonel in over three years. He was given a posting in the new Entrallan government, but he turned it down. He left without so much as a note.”

The shuttle’s airlock pressure door snapped open with a hiss and the shed door on the other side opened in response. Lights flickered on inside. The maintenance shed was a mostly empty corridor with stacked fuel cells and other vital components in a vertical rack and locked bins for spares arranged in cabinets along the walls. Brixie spotted Hugo ahead of them, crossing the maintenance shed floor. He was heading towards the airlock at the other end, the connecting tunnel leading to the B-wing’s cockpit.

“Hurry up,” Tigereye warned her. “His royal pain is in some kind of hurry.”

Hugo suddenly twisted around and tossed a metal cylinder in their direction. Not knowing how he managed to get hold of a grenade, Sully grabbed Brixie and threw her to the deck, lunging to take hold of something sturdy. If Hugo set off an explosion inside the shed, there was a chance the walls could buckle and they could all be going for a one-way ride outside.

The cylinder did nothing but blink a bright yellow light and scream with a tone loud enough for Brixie to clamp her hands over her ears.

“It’s a signal beacon,” Tigere roared over the noise. “Not an explosive!”

“I guess we should be grateful it’s not a grenade,” Brixie yelled back. “But I’m not!”

Scrambling to his feet, Tigereye yanked Brixie upright by grabbing the back of her tunic’s jacket. They had lost valuable time ducking the improvised grenade. Hugo was already at the other end of the maintenance shed and was opening the airlock door leading to the B-wing.

“He’s leaving us!” Tigereye kicked the beacon into silence as he ran at much faster clip towards the end of the shed than Brixie ever could.

“Hugo, wait!” Brixie called out. “Don’t leave us here! We want to help you!”

The airlock door snapped open. A wave of stormtroopers wearing Pentastar Alignment symbols on their armor were waiting behind the blast door. Instead of carrying blaster rifles, they wielded disruptor batons and riot control shields.

They were going to seize Hugo!

But for reasons Brixie didn’t understand, the stormtroopers ran past Hugo and charged—straight towards Sully Tigereye and her.

Chapter 12

“GET HIM!” THE SQUAD COMMANDER ORDERED HIS MEN.

“STOP HIM!”

TIGEREYE LAUGHED WITHOUT MIRTH.

“COME CLOSER, TIN SOLDIERS.”

The stormtroopers charged Sully Tigereye, their personal blast shields up and disruptor batons crackling blue fire. Hugo stood there in the open airlock, a quizzical look on his face, caught between confusion and determination.

Pulling the blaster rifle up, the Trunsk waved Brixie to stay back.

“Get to the shuttle!” he yelled.

“No!” Brixie pulled out the blaster pistol and took aim, old reflexes kicking her into a defensive pose.

Never leave a teammate behind. Not Sully, nor Hugo.

Tigereye opened fire on the advancing troops. Their riot control shields were built for this punishment, absorbing the powerful blasts aimed their way. They spread out, trying to surround him. Three of the stormtroopers broke away from the main group, past the Trunsk, and headed for Brixie.

All her training as a physician disappeared. These soldiers weren’t trying to arrest her or hold her for questioning. The weapons they carried were meant to pacify and hurt. But the small blaster pistol, a sidearm meant for officers, had the strength of a flashlight beam aimed at the stormtroopers.

The circle of troopers around Tigereye took turns attacking with their disruptor batons. Sully blocked their attacks with the blaster rifle, but there were more troopers than he could stop. Crackling energies from the painful disruptors scorched his arms and his legs. Enraged, he lashed outward but swung at empty air. Unable to protect himself on all sides, the troopers used their greater numbers against him. One strike knocked the energy rifle his hands. Another hit him across the back with enough energy to knock down a human, but Tigereye only roared in pain.

“Brixie!’ he yelled towards her. “Get to the shuttle!”

A disruptor struck him in the leg, dropping him to one knee. The troopers, sensing he was weakening, closed. Disruptor hits came at him from all sides. There was a sharp tang in the air—the smell of burning skin and hair.

“Sully!” Backing away from the trio of approaching stormtroopers, Brixie refused to leave him. She turned her attention to Hugo, who remained paralyzed at the airlock. “Hugo, help us!”

Clutching the carry-all in his arms like a child, Hugo couldn’t move. His real self was warring with the mission programmed into him. His friends were in mortal danger.

“Brixie?” he called out.

“Hugo! We need you!”

Hugo started towards them, but a figure—his face cloaked by a black hood—appeared from the blast door. He put a hand on Hugo’s shoulder. The figure spoke to him in words Brixie could not overhear. The childlike confusion on Hugo Cutter’s face slowly changed back to an impassive statue. He turned and disappeared into the airlock leading to the B-wing.

“Hugo!” Brixie called out in dismay. “Don’t leave us!”

“He’s mine, Doctor Ergo.” The figure in black called out to her. “You can’t have him.”

Her gaze still stuck on the man in the cloak, a disruptor baton struck Brixie on the arm. Everything from her shoulder down to her hand felt useless. The blaster pistol fell. The blow from the swing, enhanced with the disruptor field, propelled her backwards against a rack of fuel cells. She crashed against the metal shelving, crying out. One of the stormtroopers kicked Brixie’s pistol across the shed floor, keeping it out of reach while the other two soldiers struck at her again.

“No!”

She tried to raise her other arm to block the next blow, but it was pointless. The baton crashed down like a hammer stroke, numbing the other side of her body. The other stormtrooper with the baton clipped her on the jaw and her head snapped hard to the left. She crumpled to the floor, unable to protect herself. The soldiers stood over her, their crackling batons swinging down on her again and again. She was blinded, her senses dulled, every strike sending a ripple of pain across her body.

As though separated from herself, she felt the physical effects of the batons in rote medical terms. The disruptor energies were wreaking havoc on her nervous system, resulting in an interrupted or erratic heartbeat, difficulty breathing, and traumatic injuries to her head and spinal nerves. She would either fall into cardiac arrest or suffer from a severe concussion, followed by a loss of consciousness. If the stormtroopers didn’t stop, she would soon die.

Covering her head uselessly with her arms, Brixie tried to look up. Her eyes could barely focus on the pack of white-armored men clustered around a fallen Tigereye, doing the same to him as the other troopers were doing to her. She weakly called out as the pain overwhelmed her.

“Sully!”

The circle of stormtroopers surrounding the Trunsk exploded. White-armored bodies were thrown off in all directions. Sully Tigereye was once a slave, a gladiator forced to fight for his life or die. Pushed hard enough, he could summon a rage few beings could match.

Beaten back, the stormtroopers hesitated, holding in disbelief. They had hit him with everything and more and yet Tigereye stood there. Blood trickled from his curled lips and patches of long hair on his arms, legs and back were burnt away, but he remained unfazed and utterly defiant.

“Get him!” the squad commander ordered his men. “Stop him!”

Tigereye laughed without mirth.

“Come closer, tin soldiers.”

His claws out, Tigereye’s true ferocity was revealed. Lunging with surprising speed, he seized one of the stormtroopers by a leg, swung him over his head and launched him into several other stormtroopers, knocking them into a disorganized pile of armored legs and arms. Hauling back, he punched another stormtrooper directly in the face plate. Brixie had never seen a stormtrooper’s helmet crushed inward until now. That strength, fueled by rage, only grew. Yanking the helmet off another trooper, Tigereye used it to bash anyone within his long reach. One stormtrooper tried hitting him with his baton again. Sully grabbed the sizzling blue end of the stick, ignoring the pain the weapon caused. The soldier, too stupid to let go of the handle, went wildly flying into the cabinets lining the shed wall.

The other three troopers standing over Brixie, realizing their squadmates were being decimated one at a time, turned their attention away. Her eyesight wildly out of focus, her head spinning and body shaking from intense pain, Brixie spotted a latch for the rack of fuel cells…and a yellow warning label affixed to it.

LATCH FOR LOAD-LIFTER USE ONLY.

DO NOT MANUALLY UNLOCK.

HEAVY CONTENTS CAN SHIFT.

“Thanks for the tip,” Brixie croaked in pain. She reached up and threw the latch, unlocking the shelf exactly as the warning said not to. She rolled towards the base of the shelf while gravity took hold. The shelf door swung open and the heavy stack of cylindrical fuel cells promptly rolled out.

The three troopers had only enough time to say something unintelligible as the fuel cells crashed into them. They were bowled over, their disruptor batons and shields scattering.

The squad leader of the stormtroopers leveled his blaster rifle at Tigereye from behind.

“To hell with this,” he aimed. “Fry him!”

An energy bolt struck the commander in the arm. More blaster fire erupted from the stolen shuttle’s airlock. New Republic quick response troops spilled inside the shed. Blaster fire ricocheted inside the tight space. Tigereye opted to roll out of the way and crawled towards Brixie while both sides exchanged colorful blasts of fire.

Now they decide to show up,” Sully grumbled. Brixie could barely understand what he was saying. She was fluttering in and out of conscious.

“Did you say something?” Brixie mumbled, one eye gazing at him with her other eye was painfully swollen shut. “You look awful.”

“My dear Lady Ergo,” the Trunsk shielded her as energy blasts and ionized smoke trails filled the shed’s interior. “Once again, you notice the obvious.”

“Retreat!” the commander of the stormtroopers ordered. Hiding behind their riot control shields, the outnumbered Pentatar Alignment soldiers headed back to the airlock from where they came. The blast door was quickly sealed and its locking controls fried, keeping the Republic response team from pursuing them. A large black, bat-winged shape moved past the shed’s viewports and peeled away.

“They’re in an Upsilon command shuttle. Get an E-wing squadron after them!” the leader of the Republic troops spoke into a comlink in his uniform’s wrist cuff. He gazed down at Sully and Brixie. “Send a med team to this docking stall. I’ve got two wounded here. They look pretty bad.”

Tigereye’s gruff voice echoed inside her ears as Brixie plummeted into a black hole of unconsciousness.

“Like I said. The obvious…”

***

The bio-dome stretched out before Brixie. She could hear every amphibian croaking and the flapping of a bird’s wings. A canopy of trees, green and lush, while humidity dampened her skin’s pores.

She stopped by a brook. Her mother was standing there…and her father too! They were linked arm-in-arm, their backs to her as they admired the forest, the water and the unspoiled beauty of the bio-dome. Her father turned his head and spoke.

“We see you back there, Little Brix.”

They turned and opened their arms wide, inviting her to them. Brixie fell into their loving embrace, sobbing like a little girl. It had been ages since she had seen their faces, heard their voices.

Brixie pulled back, anxiously staring into her mother’s face, looking for answers. She didn’t return her gaze, appearing only troubled. She wouldn’t speak.

“Mother? Won’t you talk to me?”

No words came from her mother, only a tiny smile on her lips as she stroked Brixie’s hair and marveled at how much her daughter had grown up. Her fingers’ light touch on Brixie’s cheek was reassuring.

So many questions. What had gone wrong? What happened to them?

“It’s going to be all right,” her father told her. “You’re the best of us. I know you’ll find a way to help others. You always do.”

A tickle formed at the back of her throat. Brixie stepped back from her parents and coughed. Looking down inside her hand, she found something red and oozing in her palm. It wasn’t blood.

“Brixie?” her father pulled back, his face full of concern.

First there was the cough, then there was an awful taste in her mouth. The bio-dome felt real enough, she could see the trees and the animals, hear the water lapping in the brook and the chattering of birds. But smell and taste were powerful mental triggers, too. Brixie was not where she thought she was.

The myths surrounding bacta were as legendary as the Knights of the Old Republic. Brixie’s career in medicine was based the study of knowledge, not fiction. Bacta did not cure everything, but it could work wonders. Manufactured on several worlds, bacta resembled a red, sticky ooze. It reversed skin and tissue damage, healed brain injuries, and could undo the effects of certain diseases. Many patients undergoing treatment experienced hallucinatory dreams while the body knitted itself back to health. It was the mind’s defense, surrendering to the bacta’s abilities.

Brixie knew where she really was…and struggled to rip the bacta induction device off her face. Bells and gongs went off near her ears. She must have tripped an alarm.

A woman’s voice tried to keep her calm, taking hold of Brixie’s hand and keeping it away from the plastic thing snaked down her throat.

“Doctor Ergo? Doctor Ergo. I’m your attending physician. You’re on the Republic medical station orbiting Bescane. You’re in treatment.”

Brixie tried to make an impassioned speech but the apparatus jammed down her throat made talking impossible. She couldn’t see anything either. Frantic to know where she was and what happened, she squeezed the woman’s hand tight.

“I understand you’re disoriented. I’m taking off the head pack. You can open your eyes after I remove it.”

Fingers removed the form-fitting mask from her head, the interior layered with bacta packs to repair the swelling around Brixie’s eyes and face from the disruptor baton strikes. The physician gave a verbal command; the illumination in the room immediately reduced. Brixie blinked hard and squinted. The light in the treatment room, even at its lowest settings, stabbed her eyes.

She looked around, confused. She was laying on a grav-support bed in a hospital treatment room. There was a soft plastic mechanism that kept her mouth open. A thick-looking red fluid moved from a pump stationed by her bed, through a translucent tube and down her throat. Claustrophobia overwhelmed her as she struggled, still unable to speak.

Get this thing out of me!

“Do you want me to remove the bacta tube, Doctor?” the female physician, wearing a white utility smock around her white jumpsuit, asked.

Brixe vigorously nodded and made a hand gesture consisting of two fingers pointing away. The signal was meant for patients to communicate they did not want further treatment.

“Very well. Gee-Twenty-Bee. Assist me.”

The medical droid, a multi-armed Treadwell model, rolled up and elevated. A grasper arm reached over and locked down on the external handle of the bacta immersion tube attached to Brixe’s mouth.

“Take a breath through your nose and hold it,” the physician told Brixie, elevating her head using the grav-support bed’s automated lift. She did so.

At the doctor’s command to the droid, the grasper arm pulled. The snaking tube left her mouth and kept sliding up her esophagus for what felt like dozens of feet. It kept on coming: an ugly plastic tapeworm filled with syrupy bacta.

The tube finally cleared her mouth. Brixie tried to take a breath and coughed up a storm of warm red goo. The physician helped her clear her airway with a suction nozzle. The Treadwell offered a cup of water and a portable spittoon so Brixie could rinse out her rough throat and mouth.

“Entralla’s ghosts!” Brixie found her voice ragged and hoarse. “I hate how that stuff tastes!”

“Everybody does,” the physician smiled, handing the tube and its gunk to the Treadwell for decontamination and restocking. “The bio-engineers tried to flavor the bacta once. The patients said it tasted like speeder engine coolant…with extra acid for a heady aroma.”

Brixie gave the doctor high marks for patience and a sense of humor. She tried to look out the room’s full bank of windows. The corridor was filled with staff, droids and patients on mobile grav-support beds who appeared in much worse shape than she was: terrible traumas, injuries and burns. An emergency of epic proportion was taking place outside her private room. Brixie felt sick to her stomach and it was not from the bacta.

“I’m on Bescane? How long have I been here?”

“Two days. You came from a big fight on Jaemus.” the physician nodded. “The First Order slammed a couple of star destroyers into the Republic’s defense wall. Hundreds of ships were involved. There were thousands of casualties. The medical center at Jaemus was overwhelmed. The overflow was diverted here and other facilities. Your treatment was given top priority.”

Brixie lowered her head, wracked with guilt. She was in a special treatment room. There were hundreds in the corridors who needed priority treatment more than she did.

“I didn’t need to be put in here.”

“I’d argue against that. Disruptor batons are not non-lethal. You sustained severe internal injuries. Shock and nerve damage. When they brought you here, you were in pulmonary shutdown.” She gestured to the bacta infusion pump on its rolling stand. “I don’t like using this thing on anyone. But someone who accompanied you in the medical shuttle would have torn this place apart if I hadn’t done everything I could.”

Everything came back to Brixie. Hugo taking them to Jaemus. The B-wing. The maintenance shed. The last thing Brixie remembered, besides the hammering she received by those stormtroopers, was Sully Tigereye shielding her from a firefight.

What happened to Hugo? Who was that man speaking to him in the airlock? Was Sully all right?

“Tigereye? Is he here? He’s a Trunsk…”

“I remember him very well. So does the rest of my staff.” The doctor made a wry expression. “He didn’t want to be put in a bed and he almost destroyed a medical droid that tried to take a blood sample. After the security team calmed him down, he stole a few bacta bandages, walked out and told my staff to ‘jam that bacta tube where the sun never shines.’

Brixie smiled. “Sully doesn’t like being coddled.”

“He was released from the critical care level. When you’ve cleared post-treatment, I’ll notify him and the general that you’re ready for some company.”

“The general?

“Who do you think put you on the priority treatment list?”

The doctor lifted Brixie’s medical datapad from the slot on her grav-support bed and ticked off several boxes on the screen, notifying the facility that Brixie was ready for post-treatment procedures and eventual release.

“General Lando Calrissian.”

Chapter 13

“DOCTOR BRIXIE ERGO. IT’S A PLEASURE TO MEET YOU,”

THE MAN’S VOICE WAS LOW AND DRAMATIC.

“I AM LANDO CALRISSIAN.”

“Agent Zult. Even you can go too far!”

The shrunken image of General Armitage Hux flickered on the tiny Holo Net projector dais in the forward section of the command shuttle. In hyperspace, the images of the Holo Net behaved erratically, bending and fluxing with physical distortion as space itself was warped around the shuttle. Despite the interference, it wasn’t hard for Zult to determine the general was incensed.

“I had to insure the resource got away from Jaemus with the proper equipment and that he is completing his mission without interference,” Zult explained. “You should be happy about that.”

“Two star destroyers turned into scrap piles. Four others seriously damaged. One was boarded and captured intact. The rest were lucky to escape into hyperspace. You depleted my fleet and destroyed the foothold we had at Jaemus!” The tiny holo version of Hux boiled over with rage. “And you find my plans too large and cumbersome to fall apart?”

“I succeeded,” Zult reminded the general.

“Your victory is mute,” the general sneered. “Return to the Finalizer at once.”

“I beg to differ. I am making excellent progress. Your request is denied.”

“This is no request!” Hux pounded the Holo Net transceiver console on his end, flipping his image over and over. “Return at once!”

“Or what?” Zult shrugged. “Are you going to send your pet Sith Lord after me, the infamous Kylo Ren? Moan and complain to Supreme Leader Snoke that I’m damaging your toys? I’m doing my finest work for the First Order and you’re babbling on about fleets and footholds. You have to let it go, General Hux, this obsession that zealots like yourself can bring about the end of the Republic. My plan is working perfectly. Soon, you and the First Order will bask in the glory and the admiration of the entire Republic Senate. They will beg you to lead them.”

“You will….!”

Zult tapped the Holo Net receiver.

“I’m sorry. We seem to be encountering a region of anti-neutrons…” Zult flipped the controls for the Holo Net transceiver a few times to annoy the man further. Hux’s face appeared and disappeared, his mouth opening and closing as he was speaking. “Your transmission is breaking up.”

Zult…!

“The next window for contact will be in four days. Zult out.”

He cut the transmission. The general disappeared in mid shout.

More annoyed than Hux was angry, Zult climbed out of the acceleration chair. He eyed the shuttle’s pilot sitting before his controls. The man slowly grew uneasy the longer the Pentastar agent remained motionless and stared at him. One of Zult’s eyes was cybernetic, flashing crimson red in the low-light environment of the shuttle cockpit. His other eye was organic, but no less chilling.

“Do you have an opinion on this matter, Pilot?” Zult suggested.

“None, sir.” The man kept his gaze facing the cockpit’s forward view. “I’m simply the pilot.”

“Those who do their jobs and leave the thinking to others will be rewarded. Signal Invictor Squadron Leader. Tell him the squadron is to match our course and to ignore any commands ordering him to return to the Finalizer. Say it’s a Republic trick and they somehow infiltrated our frequencies. We’re working on countering it.”

“Yes, sir.” the pilot nodded.

Zult climbed down a ladder to the shuttle’s cargo and loading area which was several times more spacious than the standard troop transport shuttles. These command shuttles were designed to transport important dignitaries. They not only had better communications equipment, armor and firepower, they also had excellent medical facilities.

Medical droids, painted in Imperial black, were working on several prone stormtroopers resting on grav-support beds. Some were in worse shape than others and had been put into coma-stasis. Zult considered them write-offs, there was no time to move them to advanced medical treatment where they were going. Later, he would order the droids to euthanize them; a protocol no Republic medical droid would ever follow. Zult didn’t want stragglers—or witnesses—who could be traced back to him.

The commander of his stormtrooper unit was seated upright on a grav-support bed, his helmet and armor coverings for his right shoulder and arm removed as he received treatment. Shot with a heavy blaster, he refused painkillers or topical hyposprays while the droid stitched the open, blackened wound closed with durathread. He was a grim-looking figure, a veteran soldier with no name. Only an identification number.

“TK-421. What is the status of your unit?” Zult inquired, intrigued with this primitive method of using a needle and thread to close the man’s wound.

“Six wounded. Three are critical. Five had to be left behind.” The commander gave no reaction to the inert men laying on the beds beside him as the droid’s buzz-needle slipped through the flesh of his arm, twisted and knotted with the precision of a factory sewing machine. The droid was stitching his wound like two pieces of a uniform’s sleeve. “The rest of my unit is ready and operational, sir.”

“The rest of your unit is barely at half strength,” Zult frowned. Two platoons of stormtroopers had been reduced to one.

“I’ve fought with less against worse,” the commander remarked. “Just give the order, sir.”

“We are shadowing Subject J829P to Cantras Gola.”

“That’s a pretty rough planet,” the commander gritted his teeth. “Used to be a corporate-run world. Factory cities. Me and some of my squad were assigned there before.”

“Which is precisely why I chose your unit, commander. Cantras Gola has teetered back and forth from the Alignment to the Republic to the Imperial Remnant and back again. Now it’s back in the hands of its corporate masters: the PowerOn Conglomeration, Galentro Heavy Works and Dynamic Automata.”

We care. So you don’t have to.” the commander snickered. “Dynamic Automata plastered that stupid slogan all over the Hive in blimps and large blinking letters.”

“Yes. Hard to forget and twice as annoying,” Zult agreed. “Back to more pressing matters. Subject J829P has a matter to take care of in the central Hive. Make sure he completes his task and gets off the planet without fail.”

“Is he retrieving something?”

“He’s delivering a message to an old friend,” Zult barely smiled, the puckered skin around his mouth resembling the scales of a dewback. “I want him followed, but only at a distance. Anyone who gets in his way or tries to interfere is to be eliminated. Period.”

“Are we using spears and rocks this time, sir?”

The commander eyed Zult with an expression of grim malice. He was referring to Zult’s last order. They could only use riot control gear instead of energy weapons to fight the Trunsk and Doctor Ergo. It was a flawed command.

Even Ephron Zult hadn’t expected Sully Tigereye to defeat two squads of stormtroopers with his bare claws or Doctor Ergo’s knack for reading warning labels on shelving. Once again, Zult chaffed at the idea of Tigereye overcoming him…again.

The commander’s tone caught Zult by surprise. Stormtroopers didn’t usually display such condescension with their superiors. They were loyal to a fault and programmed that way, much the same way Zult had programmed Hugo Cutter. Then again, the commander was a veteran. He had lived long enough to earn that privilege.

“I leave the details up to you, commander.”

“Thank you, sir.” He noticed the droid had finished stitching his arm and was about to spray a disinfectant on the repaired injury. He shoved the droid away. “Get out of here, you walking wastebasket.”

The medical droid burbled something indignant and went to work on the next trooper down the line.

***

Brixie made a point of getting to the meeting on her own power. The bacta had worked its wonders, but her rejuvenated flesh, repaired muscles and restored internal organs felt more than a little odd. It was like wearing a brand-new outfit that needed to stretch a little to feel comfortable. Even sipping down a bland nutrient drink made her insides crawl. The rebuilt tissue, capillaries, nerves and even bones didn’t know one another very well, at least not yet. An offer was made to hold the meeting in her treatment room, but Brixie wanted it released to a new patient as soon as possible. If she could walk and talk, she would get there.

The meeting location was inside a garden-like area patrolled by armed guards. Brixie wasn’t sure who these units were, their uniforms didn’t belong to the New Republic. The sight of plants and trees set in soil with a small, calming pool of water with live fish was also disconcerting; this place reminded her of the bio-dome she had seen in Hugo’s program and in her own bacta-fueled dreams. She couldn’t shake the images of her parents. Her concerned father. Her silent mother.

Two figures were waiting for her arrival in a circular seating area in the meditation garden’s center. A third figure was a shimmering image barely a meter tall hovering over a portable Holo Net transceiver.

Brixie was grateful to see Sully was his usual self. The Trunsk was sporting a few bacta-infused bandages wrapped around his limbs, but he was as defiant and fierce-looking as ever. His amber eyes mellowed as he assessed her appearance as much as she judged his.

“Stow that pitying look,” she embraced him, despite his typical qualms about public displays of affection. “I’m fine.”

“Who? Me? Pitying?” Tigereye snorted. “You’ve got the wrong Trunsk, my lady.”

Another man stepped forward. He was well-dressed with dark skin, dazzling brown eyes and a broad smile. His outfit was a mixture of tunic, trousers, black boots and a cape he wore over his shoulders which suited him very well. He took Brixie by the hand and kissed the back of it with an elegant flourish.

“Doctor Brixie Ergo. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” the man’s voice was low and dramatic. “I am Lando Calrissian.”

Brixie forced a blush down her throat. So this was the nefarious charmer she had been warned about by so many others, like Ivey and nearly everyone from the Red Moons.

Watch out for that Lando Calrissian! He can charm your starship and your pants right out from under you!

The nerve endings on the back of Brixie’s hand, freshly-repaired by bacta, lit up like a starfighter’s targeting display. Calrissian appeared a perfectly sincere gentleman. That’s what made him so dangerous.

“I know who you are,” Brixie found herself grinning like a ridiculous child meeting a storybook character, because he practically was. Lando Calrissian had been there: fighting the Empire, helping rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, and flying the Millenium Falcon down the maw of the second Death Star at the Battle of Endor. “It’s an honor to meet you, General.”

“It’s been ages since anyone called me that, so don’t.” Calrissian swept a hand towards the seating area and the figure bathed in the light of the portable Holo Net transmitter. “You know General Cracken, of course.”

“It’s good to see you again, sir.”

“You were supposed to visit Jaemus. Not break it.” Airen Cracken, seated in a chair, waved the end of the grav-support cane towards her and Tigereye. “It’s a good thing Tigereye signaled me that your arrival at the shipyard wasn’t entirely your idea. I sent the quick response team to that dock as soon as I could reach them. Unfortunately, the First Order decided to slam their ships into the defense line practically at the same time. Doctor Ergo, how are you feeling?”

“Better,” Brixie swallowed, embarrassed by all this attention foisted upon her. “You didn’t have to put me on any high priority treatment list. I didn’t even know the shipyard and the defense line had been attacked by the First Order until after I woke up.”

“That was Zult’s doing.” Cracken pointed out. “You don’t want that man as an enemy or an ally. He would sacrifice everything, even his own forces, for his own plans. That’s what he did at Jaemus. He wanted Hugo Cutter to get away without you and Tigereye.”

Brixie remembered the cloaked figure speaking to Hugo in the airlock. It had to have been Zult. She turned to Sully, concerned.

“Then Hugo’s gone?”

Tigereye nodded. “He left in the B-wing and jumped to lightspeed in the middle of that battle. If Zult wanted to cause chaos and split us apart, he succeeded.”

“Then that’s it.” Her shoulders slumped. “Hugo’s beyond our help. He’s going to kill someone or set off a bomb or do something horrible.”

“It’s not your fault, kid.”

“I woke him!” she shook her head. “I’m supposed to be the trained medical expert here. I should have kept him in that sleep state, at least until I could have monitored his brain activity in a controlled environment.”

“That’s where we found him. In someone else’s controlled environment,” Tigereye pointed out. “He was imprisoned. Turned into a weapon.”

“He’s not lost to us,” Lando Calrissian mentioned. “Not yet.”

“What do you mean?” Brixie turned hopefully to the former general.

“Maybe I should start from the beginning?” Calrissian gestured to the holo image of Cracken. The Republic Intelligence general nodded his head in agreement. Lando reached inside his tunic pocket and retrieved a small rectangular device. Switching it on, he placed it on a small table designed to resemble a garden stone in front of them.

Sully assured Brixie the device wasn’t dangerous. “Localized jammer. Keeps things private between us.”

Lando’s relaxed expression turned serious as he regarded Brixie.

“Did Andrephan Stormcaller make any attempt to contact you any time after you left the Red Moons?”

“No. Not at all.” Brixie shook her head. “Should he have?”

“He was recruiting for me, putting in a good word for the kind of specialists I was looking for. He may have tried to send you some information.”

“After I was through with the Red Moons, the Colonel asked me if I needed anything. I told him I just wanted to get back to being a doctor. I said goodbye to everyone in the unit and left. That was five years back. I didn’t even hear from Sully until he showed up at Ord Mantell.”

Lando Calrissian leaned forward in his seat, curious.

“Do the words ‘Rising Moon’ or ‘Setting Sun’ mean anything to you?”

Chapter 14

“YOU’RE SPYING ON THEM,” BRIXIE SNAPPED, DISPLEASED WITH CALRISSIAN AND GENERAL CRACKEN. “OUR OWN LEADERS? YOU THINK THEY’RE GOING TO TURN ON THE REPUBLIC!”

Setting Sun? Rising Moon?

Brixie shook her head.

“I’m sorry. Those phrases sound important. If someone had told me something like that, I would have remembered it.”

Rising Moon and Setting Sun are two important projects,” Lando Calrissian, former general of the Rebel Alliance and occasional aide to the Republic, explained. “They’re separate, but designed to fit together. In case you haven’t noticed, myself and General Cracken here aren’t quite the young vornskrs we used to be.”

Brixie tried not to smile. “Mad Vornsker” was Lex Kempo’s exuberant pet name for himself. A vornskr was a type of canine species, bred on certain worlds, known for their loyalty and ferocity.

Setting Sun refers to those who fought for the Rebellion and the Republic since the days of the Emperor. They’re more than heroes. They’re the core of what is right and just. Our leaders. Our inspiration. Do you know whom I’m referring to?”

“You’re talking about Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. His sister, General Leia Organa-Solo. Councilor Mon Mothma. General Han Solo. Chewbacca of the Wookiees. Commander Wedge Antilles. Admiral Ackbar. General Cracken. There are others.” She lowered her voice, trying not insult the man she was speaking to. “Of course, you too.”

“Thank you for noticing,” Lando smiled. “Call us heroes or crazy fools if you want, but we’re the Old Guard. We’ve got a lot of lightyears under our belts. Some of us have been fighting the Empire or its pretenders since before you were born,” he pointed to her.

“You make it sound like that’s a bad thing,” Brixie wondered.

“No. But lately, things have changed. Han and Leia Solo ended their marriage. There are stories Solo and Chewbacca went back to smuggling, but something terrible happened at Starkiller Base…” Not wanting to pursue that subject, Lando pursed his lips and continued. “Commander Antilles was accused of treason trying to protect members of his old Rogue Squadron. He resigned his commission and retired. Master Skywalker lost many students at his Jedi Academy and packed off to who-knows-where. Friends have drifted apart. Others won’t listen to reason. Tempers have grown short. What matters, Doctor Ergo, is that the Old Guard is falling apart.”

“Like my body,” General Cracken’s voice came from the holo projector’s speaker. “I have a cellular degenerative disease. Nothing can stop it. Time is no longer my friend.”

Setting Sun keeps an eye on the Old Guard. We track them, find out what they’re up to, if they need our help, and…” Like any diplomat, Calrissian carefully choose his next words. “If they going to do something unexpected.”

“Like the time General Leia Organa-Solo broke with the Republic Council and formed the Resistance,” Tigereye suggested. “The Republic’s probably not too happy about that.”

“Exactly,” Calrissian agreed.

“You’re spying on them,” Brixie snapped, displeased with Calrissian and General Cracken. “Our own leaders? You think they’re going to turn on the Republic!”

“We don’t want anyone doing something rash,” Lando insisted. “Master Skywalker wields tremendous power. He’s been forced into a bad corner before. He’s been cloned, he’s been extorted, threatened, attacked, and his beloved Calista was abducted and killed. That’s a lot for one man, even a Jedi, to bear. What if he decides to come back? What if he asks the Republic for a fleet to go after Supreme Leader Snoke and the First Order?”

“Let him,” Tigereye growled.

“And what if he decides he should lead the Republic?” Cracken suggested.

“Luke Skywalker? A second Emperor?” Tigereye shook his head. “I don’t see that happening.”

“I don’t either,” Lando countered. “All I’m saying is that we were once a tight-knit group of friends, but over the years the ends have become frayed. There’s a feeling of distrust. Some councilors think the Old Guard aren’t doing enough to protect the Republic, that they’ve become blinded to their own interests. Others fear they have too much power. I don’t care what any of these people think. My friends are important to me. I created Setting Sun to watch over them and protect them, no matter what path they decide to take.” He eyed Brixie. “Does that sound familiar to you, Doctor?”

Yes, it did.

Brixie acquiesced and slowly nodded.

“Then what is Rising Moon?”

“The New Guard.” Lando motioned with his hands. “New blood. New ideas. New leadership. When the Old Guard gets too wrapped up in their own problems, the New Guard steps up to defend the Republic. It’s something General Cracken and I have been working on for some time.”

“Colonel Stormcaller was giving you recommendations…” she realized. “For a new leadership.”

“Exactly. Until Pentastar Agent Zult got involved. General Cracken and I think he’s responsible for kidnapping members of Rising Moon. Some have turned up, discarded like trash, found with serious brain trauma. They were experimented on. Five of our best are still missing.”

Brixie glanced at Tigereye. The other five patients at the hospital at Ord Mantell. Administrator Trevane said they had been released earlier.

“We couldn’t figure out who was kidnapping our people and twisting their heads inside-out,” Lando admitted. “It wasn’t until General Cracken contacted me, mentioning Hugo Cutter and the both of you were in the Jaemus system wanting Ackbar’s old B-wing, that we made the connection. Zult must had taken Hugo Cutter, too.”

“He’s a member of Rising Moon?” Brixie asked.

“Him?” Lando forced himself not to laugh. “I’m afraid not. No, your friend Hugo was always something of a thermal detonator with a faulty switch. He could go off any moment. Colonel Stormcaller didn’t recommend any of the Red Moons.” His eyes moved past Brixie to the Trunsk seated beside her. “Except one.”

Brixie looked over at Sully in surprise.

“I turned General Calrissian down,” Tigereye answered her questioning gaze.

“Why?”

Sully actually fidgeted, not liking being put on the spot.

“Because…” his voice trailed away. “I tried to put it all behind me. The whole merc life.”

“But I thought…”

“I was born a slave and bred to fight.” Tigereye looked away. “After you left to return home and become a doctor, that inspired me. I wanted a new life, too. I worked all kinds of jobs, trying to forget the past. Then I got this garbled transmission from Hugo. He was in trouble. Nightmares. Panic attacks. He was slipping back into madness. He said he was going to check into a hospital, but he disappeared. I couldn’t find him. I went back to work. Knocking heads. Twisting info out of people’s throats. I thought I could quit being a soldier, but it’s too easy to get dragged back in.”

“For the best of reasons,” Brixie quietly assured him. “For a friend.”

“But we lost Hugo along the way.” Tigereye glanced over at Calrissian. “How did you connect us taking Ackbar’s B-wing to your missing Rising Moons?”

“You tipping me off after Hugo said you were under Stormcaller’s orders.” General Cracken’s flickering holo-image spoke up, repeating the hand signal Sully had given him the shuttle when they arrived at Jaemus. “Rising Moon has ships and safe houses cached across the sectors with weapons and equipment, including encrypted data-vaults. These vaults are updated by Holo Net. They contain vital information on Setting Sun and Rising Moon’s operations. Admiral Ackbar’s old B-wing was one of those special ships. When Tigereye signaled Hugo was lying, we believed Zult had learned about these caches through our missing people. If Cutter opens that data-vault, he could breach the security of the entire Republic.”

“And do what with it?” Brixie fearfully asked.

“Our ships have tracking beacons hidden on them.” Calrissian explained. “We thought he would head straight to the location where the New Republic Council is being kept hidden after the Starkiller attack. Instead, he’s headed for Cantras Gola.”

Cantras Gola. Ivey’s home world.

She grew up in the hive cities, in the worst of it, scratching and stealing for a living. The Hive was a polluted, claustrophobic, crime-infested blight of towers for industrial workers like Entymals mining gas on Bextar. It was a breeding ground for swoop gangs, bashers, thugs, bounty hunters and crime lords. But the most valuable item found in the Hive was information. Dynamic Automata was one of the massive corporates that ran the slums; its financial holdings built on trade secrets and shady deals with the Empire and then the Pentastar Alignment.

Stealing the right information could free a soul from the Hive or send a person to a final swim in the acid cauldron of the sewers. A young data thief named Ivey Deacon happened upon a nugget like no other. She discovered files that proved the Amber Sun Mining Corporate, which controlled the Entymals and the gas market on Bextar, was a front for the notorious Black Sun crime syndicate. Ivey had to get the valuable data off Cantras Gola and into the hands of the Republic. With every bounty hunter and gank-killer in the system coming for her head, the only person who would help Ivey was a mercenary named Andrephan Stormcaller.

Stormcaller noticed her abilities as a “procurement specialist” and offered Ivey a deal for the information: a chance to leave Cantras Golla’s slums forever…if she joined his Red Moons. When Brixie first met Ivey, she hoped to make a friend and an ally to help her justify her own crazy decision. Who willingly joined a mercenary force?

But there was no offer of kinship. Ivey was a bitter orphan filled with hate and distrust. She disliked everyone. Sent to a Red Moon training camp on a lonely desert moon, Ivey took her misgivings out on Brixie. She intimidated her, stole her personal things, dropped sand-slugs in her food, and tripped her on their training runs.

Ivey made Brixie the scapegoat of their training class. If they were forced to march another hour, it was Brixie’s fault. Getting up before dawn and assembling on the parade ground, only to fail inspection? Her fault. No hot food on the chow line? Her fault. Extra guard duty? Her fault. Brixie was supposed to be a field medic, yet she was expected to handle weapons, tackle physical training courses, operate complex equipment, deliver fire control instructions and march and march and march until she thought her feet would fall off. Ivey was there, every step of the way, humiliating her in front of everyone.

“What are you going to about it, Princess?” Ivey would taunt her. She used the same word, over and over again, instead of Brixie’s real name. It was a word she hated because it completely summed up Brixie: she was a soft, coddled and plain useless nobody in this world of soldiers and mercenaries. She had no shooting skills, no abilities to climb or evade, no way to jumpstart a speeder or even fight another person with her fists.

Princess. Princess. Princess.

Everyone in the training team thought the same. Brixie the medic, too scared of her own shadow. A weakling. A city girl. A student. A simpleton who had no clue about the galaxy and how things worked.

The team was on a climbing exercise when a rock snake sprung out from where Ivey put her hand and bit her. Ivey, completely frightened of a creature she had never seen before in her life, did exactly what she shouldn’t have done. She panicked. She ran down the hill, away from help, to the laughter of the rest of the team who thought the snake had only spooked her.

Brixie saw the snake bite Ivey. The venom had entered the girl’s body. She ran her down, tackled Ivey in the sand, and threatened to use her fist as improvised anesthesia unless the girl lay still and let her help.

“This Princess is saving your ass,” Brixie announced. “So shut it!”

Ivey nearly burst out laughing.

“What now?” Brixie yelled at her.

“You trying to curse,” she snickered. “It’s hilarious. Ow!

Brixie had stabbed the hypojector of anti-venom in Ivey’s rump.

“You did that on purpose!”

“Yes, I did.” Brixie threatened her with the hypoinjector’s plasma-phased vibro-needle. The needle resembled a tiny glowing lightsaber and had been designed by Brixie’s father, Doctor Praxis Ergo. He developed the special needle for delivering lifesaving drugs to Entymals who worked the gas mines of Bextar; they were a sentient insectoid race with a strong chitinous exoskeleton instead of skin. The injector was also extremely useful in combat since injured soldiers could be wearing armor and treatment time was critical. “Any other complaints regarding your medical treatment?”

Ivey started to say what she really thought of Brixie, but she realized she wasn’t panting for breath anymore. She was calming down. The injection was working.

“None.” A small smile wormed its way to Ivey’s lips. “Princess.

“By Entralla’s red moon, you know how I hate that word!”

“Good. Sometimes, it’s the only way I can get a reaction out of you. You’re practically a Gussian wallflower.” Ivey poked her in the arm as if her index finger was a hypoinjector. “You need to loosen up, Ergo. Stop being so stuffy. For the Force’s sake, you burned a hole in my butt!”

“I’m not stuffy and it’s not a hole…” Brixie stopped herself, attending to the snake bite on Ivey’s wrist by spraying it with a cleansing solution and wrapping it with a clean gauze. “I’ll stop being stuffy if you stop treating me like the bottom of your boot.”

“Sounds fair,” she smirked, eyeing the bandage on her wrist. “Did you just save my life?”

“If you kept on running around like a womp-rat, you would have gone into shock, then you would have stopped breathing. You’d be dinner. For a snake.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” She rolled her eyes, crossed her arms against herself and pretended to be dead. “Here lies Ivey Deacon, another casualty of war. Leave my body here for the mottle crabs to pick my bones…”

“No!” Brixie slapped her arms away. “That’s not funny! I don’t want anybody dead.”

“Even someone like me? Someone who’s been nothing but mean to you?”

Brixie gave her a hard look.

“Even someone like you.”

Ivey got back upright on her boots, despite Brixie’s protests for her not to. The girl knocked the sand off her uniform and snatched Brixie’s medical field kit from her, throwing the pack over her shoulder by the strap. She insisted on carrying it for her.

“C’mon now, Ergo. That hill won’t climb itself.”

Brixie blinked as though waking from sleep.

The meditation garden was still there. Lando Calrissian and General Gracken were in some kind of heated discussion with Tigereye. They were telling him that the situation had changed. He and Brixie were no longer involved, nor needed. She could go home. Back to Entralla. Back to her work. This was a Republic matter. Rising Moon would deal with Agent Zult and whatever he planned to do with Hugo and the others.

“We studied the information you retrieved on the datapad,” Cracken was explaining. “Our specialists are trying to decrypt it. Without understanding Zult’s intentions, we have to warn the Republic Council-in-exile and let Rising Moon do its job.”

“So in the meantime,” Tigereye growled. “Zult does whatever he likes.”

“Rising Moon will keep track of him,” Lando assured.

“You guys do that a lot,” the Trunsk didn’t sound appeased nor impressed. “Stand around and watch.”

Brixie looked around. This garden reminded her of the bio-dome, but in many ways it didn’t. She saw lips moving and heard the words coming from the mouths of the three others around her, but nothing made sense.

“It’s going to be all right,” her father said. “You’re the best of us. I know you’ll find a way to help others. You always do.”

“He asked me to help him cut down a sick tree,” Hugo spoke from the shuttle cockpit.

“This is one of only six such trees in the entire environment,” the gardener explained in the holo-program. “We call ‘em councilors, cause they’re so old….”

Snapping back to the moment, Brixie heard enough talk. She turned to Tigereye, her decision made.

“C’mon Sully. That hill’s not going to climb itself.”

The Trunsk eyed her. He didn’t need to be sensitive to the Force to understand her thoughts. His gaze turned golden fierce while a tiny tug of agreement exposed one of the upturned tusks jutting from his lips. With a little help from his outstretched arm, she got on to her feet. Still a little woozy perhaps, Brixie admitted, but things were improving.

“Doctor Ergo?” Calrissian bolted up from his seat. “You’re going back to Entralla, right?”

“We’ll need a ship, preferably a light freighter or some rust bucket that won’t attract too much attention. I want a medical kit, military grade. Pretty sure the hospital can pull one together for me. If you have the credits to dress up those fancy-looking guards standing at the doors, I’m sure you have access to enough spare armaments to make someone like Sully happy.”

Tigereye grunted in affirmation. “I’m sure they do.”

“Excuse me, Doctor Ergo?” Calrissian tugged at the collar of his dress tunic, surprised by the direct tone of her voice. “What do you need those things for?”

“We’re going to Cantras Gola.” She gestured to Tigereye, who immediately agreed with her announcement. “The two of us.”

“You’re what…?” the man was taken by surprise. “General Cracken and I decided we should wait. Cantras Gola is under the thumb of the corporates again. We have no contacts there! No support.”

“In case you’ve forgotten, it’s a dangerous cesspool…” General Cracken’s holo-image warned. “There are bounty hunters. Hired killers. Corporate security. The place is probably thick with enough First Order spies who’d sell you out to Zult for a sandwich.”

Tigereye cracked his shoulder muscles and his neck, stretching the tendons in his arms and extending his claws.

“Sounds like another walk in the park.” he nudged Brixie. “Or some bio-dome. I have an appointment to keep with the gardener.”

“You and me both,” Brixie agreed.

“Listen to me. With your identity records,” Calrissian added with some alarm. “The both of you will be arrested the moment you step off the ship!”

“We’ll figure it out on the way.” Brixie shared a knowing glance with Tigereye.

They would do as they always did in the past. Improvise.

“I’m sorry Generals, but Sully and I aren’t part of your Rising Moons. We’re the Red Moons. We’re stopping Zult…and we’re getting Hugo back.”

Chapter 15

“…WE’RE GOING TO SEE LOTS OF PERSONAL ATTENTION.

WHETHER WE WANT IT OR NOT.”

The moment Brixie’s boot touched the docking bay’s press-packed clay floor, Cantras Gola filled her nostrils. Every world had its own distinctive “taste”, a scent laden with fine particulates blended with atmospheric gases. In this case, the aroma choking her throat also contained the persistent rot of sewage, rust, grime and the blight of urban decay. Cantras Gola’s infamous Hive, not one city but several, resembled a continent-spanning layer cake of brown and gray stone-like towers and structures. Much of the building material came from dense clay that bubbled up from the planet’s volcanic poles and drifted with the magnetic fields. The clay was dug out of pits by massive machines, softened in vast cauldrons, poured into bricks and other forms, and strengthened with permasteel rods. The final product, much like the rest of the vast mega-city, was decidedly unpleasant smelling.

Debarking the light freighter loaned to them by General Airen Cracken and Lando Calrissian, Brixie and Sully Tigereye were met by a customs agent and his droid.

“Ship’s papers, cargo manifest and purpose of visit,” the customs agent managed to say in the midst of a yawn. He was an overworked, underpaid government bureaucrat—one of perhaps thousands. At least his uniform gave the impression he was of some authority, but exactly whose authority was a good question. The Empire and then the Pentastar Alignment once dominated Cantras Gola and this portion of the galaxy. The planet had some exports, mostly the clay-like sludge used by major builders such as Galentro Heavy Works. There were factories producing everything from cheap T-65 X-wing knockoffs to precision diodes used in navigation computers. But it was information, fueled by financial speculation of Bextar’s gas production and the huge labor force of Entymals housed here, that drove Cantras Gola’s economy. Since it was the corporates who controlled the gas and the labor, it was they who truly controlled Cantras Gola.

“The ship is licensed to me. No cargo. Only us,” Brixie took up an authoritative tone, motioning for Tigereye to pass the ship’s papers and their identity documents. They were careful forgeries crafted by New Republic Intelligence, using the initial fakes manufactured by Tigereye to deceive the hospital on Ord Mantel. “I am Doctor Mari…”

“Don’t care.” The customs agent swiped the documents into the datapad reader he carried and kicked at the droid, a pesky little machine with two legs, two arms and a bulbous head. “Get going.”

The droid walked around the entire perimeter of the ship, scanning it from landing pads to navigational deflector dish.

“Don’t you want to know the purpose of my visit?” Brixie asked.

The customs agent looked up from his work.

“Does this look like the face of someone who cares?”

“Um, no?”

“Good answer.”

The droid returned from his inspection of the ship’s exterior.

“There’s a problem,” the little machine rocked back and forth on his heels, acting almost like a child tattling on a misbehaving adult. “The ship’s sensor package, deflector systems and armaments exceed its weight classification.”

The freighter they had been given by New Republic Intelligence was a perfectly ordinary ship, selected so as not to draw attention. Tigereye growled down at the machine.

“Nobody likes a liar.”

The droid emitted an eep of displeasure and skittered behind the customs agent for protection.

“Is that bad?” Brixie asked, trying to keep Sully from dismembering the droid.

“Sure isn’t good,” the agent muttered. “What you got there is a Class Three cutter with the capabilities of a Class Two cargo vessel. But your ship isn’t Class Two. So we have ourselves a problem, if you get my interstellar drift?”

“No. I don’t.” Brixie had no clue about the differences between a Class Three or a Class Two of anything. They had come in a ship. Wasn’t that enough?

“Are you sure, miss? Cause, I don’t have all day here.” The man tapped his finger on the datapad’s screen. “If something doesn’t show up on my datapad here that’s going to change my mind, I could deny your port of entry request. Then you have to walk back up that ramp with your pet furball and leave. Immediately. Get it?”

Brixie leaned forward, trying to understand what the customs agent meant by something showing up on his datapad.

“No. I don’t know.”

Taking the crook of her arm and yanking her gently backwards, Tigereye whispered in Brixie’s ear.

“Pay the man.”

Brixie whipped her head around.

“For what?”

The Trunsk rolled his golden eyes. “We have to pay to stay. Does that explain things, Doctor?

The customs agent absently studied the empty cargo lift mounted to the docking bay over their heads, trying not to participate in the conversation. The droid whistled, humming a tune to give itself the appearance of looking preoccupied when it wasn’t.

Brixie opened up a small cloth purse attached to the inside of her jacket. She removed several discs of Republic scrip and passed them to the man.

“Is this acceptable?”

The scrip disappeared inside the agent’s coat. The chips containing their ship’s documents were handed back.

“Your papers are in order,” the man tipped a flattened cap to her. “My Lady.” He eyed Sully and kicked his droid towards the bay exit. “Sir.”

The official and his droid ambled their way out of the docking bay the way they came in, two dishonest peas in a Yavian bean pod. Brixie couldn’t believe the brazenness of the customs agent’s greed or his ridiculous accomplice.

“He didn’t even say ‘Welcome’! Most times when I visit a planet, they smile and say ‘Welcome!’” Brixie complained. “I paid him a bribe and he acts like I’m the one who inconvenienced him.”

“What do you want, personal attention?” Sully grabbed her by the elbow and started moving them towards the docking bay exit, pausing only to close the ship’s ramp and seal it with a remote. “The Hive is all about information. That customs agent scanned our ship’s records and identity docs. We’re in their data nets. Word will spread throughout the Hive that someone who looks like us has arrived. If Zult and his pet stormtroopers are here, they will find out. Then, my dear Lady Ergo, we’re going to see lots of personal attention. Whether we want it or not.”

The Hive, at street level, was akin to walking through the interactive holo-courses Brixie’s behavioral instructors would set up. Much like the bio-dome holo program and the decision to follow the gardener’s request to find an axe, the courses were designed to force medical students into making difficult decisions. A Human pedestrian on a crowded street clutches his chest, stumbles and falls to the street. No one stops to aid him. Do you help or is it a plot to crown you over the head and steal your money? A Twi’lek girl runs out from an alley and begs for your help. Her mother is terribly sick. It is a genuine emergency or a trick to kidnap you?

Training with the Red Moons was a little different. There were no holos. It was as real and dangerous as possible. On the training moon, Tigereye sent young Brixie, Ivey and the other recruits into a desert town to pick up some power converters. The town was run by a local swoop gang paid to antagonize the recruits. Since Ivey enjoyed picking a fight, soon Brixie was treating her and the rest of the battered recruits holed up in a cantina with the swoop gang circling the building and taunting them. It was a lesson—fighting was only one option. The last option. They were supposed to think or bluff their way out.

The Hive too was real and dangerous. There was little vehicular traffic at ground level. The primary method of locomotion was walking or via aerial trams strung between the boxy, non-descript housing tenements. An acidic stench rose from the sewer grates embedded in the permacrete-flattened streets.

Entymal, Image Credit: Wookiepedia, The Best of the Star Wars Adventure Journal

Entymal, Image Credit: Wookiepedia

Canvas and plastic-draped stalls sold some manner of food, service or entertainment, reminding Brixie of the Great Free Market on Ord Mantell City but this was a far seedier variant. The stalls were frequented by Entymals, tall insectoid beings with green, hardened exoskeletons and tool belts tied around their thoraxial segments. They wandered in social groups of four or more. These were the Hive’s greatest asset, millions of hard-working slaves for the corporates, spending their salaries here.

There were no stormtoopers in sight but the equivalent was just as bad. Security airspeeders appeared and disappeared like buzzing Entrallian hoverbugs. Pairs of Espos from the Corporate Sector Authority cut through the crowds like laser torches. They wore black helmets, heavy riot gear and carried rubber projectile launchers and stun batons.

Great. More stun batons.

Every being imaginable walked past Brixie in a similar manner; head-down, don’t-bother-me-or-else. Every being that is except a Human male, his closely-shaved head bearing some nasty blaster scars and thick body covered in a camo-speckled rain cloak, shoved into her. To Brixie, it was like walking straight into a utility pole.

“Watch it,” he grunted.

“Sorry…” Brixie offered, stepping out of the man’s way.

Tigereye gave the walking roadblock a glance over his shoulder to make sure he kept on going and didn’t start a provocation.

“Keep aware of your surroundings, my Lady.”

Out of habit, Brixie checked her jumpsuit’s pockets and the medkit she carried diagonally by its strap across her. Nothing had been stolen.

“He didn’t rob me, if that’s what you meant.” Brixie and Sully resumed trekking down the market street. A foursome of Entymals were communicating to one another using a series of pips and clicks from breathing spiracles in the root of their hip flexors. “How do we find Hugo in this place?”

“We can’t. Not without help.” Tigereye motioned for her to head towards one of the stalls. “We need a skimmer.”

“You mean a speeder?”

“No. Ever clean an aquarium before?”

“Not really,” she weakly smiled. “I don’t do well with pets. There’s a dead fern plant back home that I’m responsible for.”

“And you call yourself a doctor.”

Tigereye entered a canvas-draped stall full of bizarre equipment both old and new: jury-rigged electronics, droid heads, radios, data terminals, holo projectors, cathode-ray display tubes, resistors, rheostats, antennas, circuit boxes, cables, tubes and bins of marked and labelled electrical components.

The proprietor was a Bothan, a short race of furry humanoids with a pronounced canine-like muzzle and slender, whip-like ears. As a society, they were renown politicians, diplomats, and even-more nefarious as spies. The valiant heroism of Bothan spies were crucial to the discovery of the second Death Star at Endor. They provided the codes necessary to approach the Imperial gauntlet protecting the battle station and the forest moon.

“Salutations, kind travelers,” the Bothan wore an enhancement monocle around his head that he swung out of place. He bowed slightly to them. “How may I help you?”

Tigereye dug inside his tunic and produced a small black case. Brixie imagined it contained a data chip or something else Sully had been hiding from her all this time. To her surprise, there were plastic vials inside. Each one was carefully marked with a letter in Aurebesh, the Galactic Basic alphabet.

Sully picked one vial marked “H” and handed it to the Bothan.

“I need a skim search. Hive-wide. Recent planet-fall. Can you provide?”

The Bothan curiously eyed the vial. He opened it and carefully slid the contents out on a static-negative, black ceramic tray. Inside were curly hairs and a few tiny flakes of skin.

Brixie gaped, trying hard to keep her mouth closed. There was a “B” vial. And an “A” one too.

“H” was for Hugo. “A” was for Andrephan Stormcaller and “B”…was for her!

Sully had hair and skin samples of the Red Moons. Genetic fingerprints. Better than photos or data images. There were a million things Brixie wanted to ask, much less how and when he got the samples and if he had used the samples to track her down, but knew better than to interrupt an important business transaction.

The Bothan’s whiskers tweaked. His eyes drifted to camera readouts installed behind the counter—security monitors looking for a trap of some kind. Wary of Tigereye and Brixie, he judiciously replied.

“What you ask for is extremely illegal, my friend.”

“Which is why I’m sure it’s going to cost me plenty.”

The Bothan issued a nod of agreement. “Two thousand up front. No guarantees.”

Sully already had coins out in his roughed palm. This wasn’t Republic scrip, but Khyber jewel-impregnated corporate currency. The crystals were so valuable that they guaranteed the coins’ worth, no matter how the financial markets fluctuated.

He placed two on the counter. A thousand credits each.

“Then do your best,” Tigereye slid the coins to him, his amber eyes taking on a sharp, metallic hue. “If I find out you’re scamming me, I’m going to come back for my money and I’m going to take some samples out of you.”

The Bothan noticeably winced, but slid the coins and the plastic tray with its contents into his grasp.

“One moment please.”

Several rows down the stalls, the heavily-scarred man who collided with Brixie in the street earlier kept an appreciable distance away. Everyone down here in the Hive was always afraid of getting pickpocketed. They never think that someone would try to add something rather than steal.

He checked a repeater display strapped to his wrist. The signal locater he had attached to the back of Brixie Ergo’s waist belt was coming in strong.

The other thing the masses scratching for a living in the Hive never considered was facing a stormtrooper out of his armor. Glaring at an approaching street huckster to go bother someone else, he tapped the comlink built into the display, muttering low enough to be heard by his superior.

“This is TK-421. The doctor’s been tagged.”

“I have the signal. They appear to be in the market sector. What are they doing?” Agent Zult’s voice spoke via an aurulator surgically inserted to his inner ear by one of the command shuttle’s medical droids. The tiny transceiver was invisible except to sensor scans.

“They’re buying a skim-search.”

“Of course they are. I knew those two wouldn’t be able to stay away, they’re so desperate to rescue their friend. They’ll make the perfect bait. Gather your men, Commander. We have Admiral Ackbar’s B-wing and the data vault. The key to unlocking that vault and Setting Sun is right here in the Hive. All I have to do now is draw him out.”

Chapter 16

TIGEREYE TURNED ABRUPTLY, LOOKING BACK UP THE STREETWAY WHERE THEY HAD COME FROM. HE RAISED HIS FIST, A SIGNAL FOR HER TO PAY ATTENTION.

“SOMETHING DOESN’T SMELL RIGHT.”

An hour or more later, Sully and Brixie were provided with a map—a chemtrail following Hugo Cutter’s arrival in the B-wing and his journey through the Hive. The map was a technological marvel made possible only because of the strange circumstances of the Hive and the greed of the corporates.

The Entymals—incredibly valuable for the sheer volume of workers a single brood could produce from their queens—were highly susceptible to contagions. Brixie’s own father had worked tirelessly for new ways to treat the species. He and many medical experts agreed that if a pandemic started in the confines of the Hive, the Entymals could be wiped out.

To safeguard their investment, the corporates installed a network of medical scanners that constantly watched the Hive. Concentrated around the spaceport facilities, the scans were sent to neural cooperative droid brains which inspected new arrivals and the rest of the population for health warnings. A single individual—a possible patient zero—could be identified, tracked down and quarantined within minutes. The moment Sully and Brixie walked out of the docking bay, they had been scanned and automatically cleared by the system. So too had Hugo Cutter.

The Bothan had surreptitiously tied a search of the health scanner network by plugging in Hugo’s hair and skin samples. Because Hugo had only been here a few days, it was much easier for the scanners to locate his genetic footprint. He had left the vicinity of the spaceport and was last detected, only hours ago, inside a location known locally as the Womp Rat Maze. The Maze was a twisty puzzle of worker housing consisting of narrow alleys and intersections among the Hive’s oldest structures.

Tigereye warned Brixie that the Espos rarely ventured into this area. They let the crime lords and gangs exert their own justice. Sewer diving, for instance.

“Sewer diving?” Brixie asked the Trunsk for clarification.

“A one-way ticket to the sewers.” He bobbed his head towards one of the ever-present sewer drains implanted in the walkways, the streets, almost everywhere. “Everything dissolves down there. Flesh. Bone. Chitin. Even armor.”

“How nice.” Brixie gritted her teeth and changed the subject to something she had been meaning to ask him for the past hour. “Sully, I’m dying of curiosity. Why do you have hair and skin samples of … Hugo, me, us? How did you…?”

The Trunsk plainly answered, ignoring most of her questions.

“The reason why should be obvious. To help me find you…”

“That’s very kind of you,” she started to say, embarrassed to think the Trunsk was concerned enough for his friends to keep genetic samples. Which, still, was plenty odd.

“…and in case I have to track you down and kill you…”

Brixie’s mouth worked, but no sound came out.

“That was a joke, my lady.”

Brixie pointed at him. “Trunsks never tell jokes. Never.”

“Look where we are.”

Tigereye gestured to the tight maze of looming structures and the mass of beings making their way to transports or returning from hundred-hour shifts working scoopships at the gas giant of Bextar. Others clung in the alleyways, arguing over some glittering new electronic toy, wasting away the hours in smoking shops, paying for drink and companionship, or escaping inside the holo-theaters, bored beyond belief. A despair hung over them, magnified by the persistent gray clouds and tall buildings stealing the sunlight. The corporates owned them all. This wasn’t much of a life, Brixie conceded. It was barely an existence.

“We’re hunting for our friend before he does something terrible. Sometimes, the only thing one has left is a sense of humor.” Tigereye noted, checking the datapad containing the map.

They headed deeper into the Maze, each corner leading to another streetway and more ramshackle, yellowing buildings with no visible windows and security doors covering their entrances. The Hive’s main bazaars were nothing like these claustrophobic, narrow slots. Natural sunlight rarely appeared; shadows were much more frequent.

Brixie cautiously noted they were being watched from building overhangs and in front of shops. She and Tigereye stood out from the Entymals clustered and communicating to one another is their little social groups. Others regarded them as intruders in their part of the Hive. She was thankful for the heavy blaster pistol with extendable stock Sully blatantly carried on his back. There were advantages to walking these places with a heavily-armed Trunsk.

“What if we find Hugo and he fights us? What if Zult is helping him?”

“Stun him with your pistol or whatever you’ve got in there.” Tigereye’s golden eyes narrowed as he regarded her med kit. “I’ll handle Zult and his Pentastar eggheads.”

“And then what?”

“We take him to a hospital. Yours, preferably. You need to dig that gardener out of him.”

“If I can…” she offhandedly whispered, not even realizing she had spoken aloud.

Tigereye stopped in his tracks. Sensing he wasn’t walking beside her, Brixie turned around.

“What is it?”

His voice softened. “Can you help him?”

“I don’t have experience with deep-mind programming.” Brixie admitted. “There are several experts on Entralla who might be able to…”

Tigereye was not one to soften a blow or take comfort in unrealistic expectations.

“And if they can’t help him?”

Brixie didn’t like thinking about the rapidly shrinking number of options available. She fought an anger building inside fueled by blame and guilt. Her mother was the one who helped Agent Zult create the program which had stolen their friend. Why? Brixie had seen her own mother’s programmed image inside the bio dome. Why was she there? Without decrypting the program stored in the datapad she carried inside her med kit bag, there could be no undoing what happened to Hugo or the other five.

“They’ll induce a medical coma and keep him there so he doesn’t hurt anyone or himself.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a life.”

“It’s not.” Brixie slowly shook her head. “I’m not ready for that diagnosis yet. I’m going to bring him back…”

Tigereye turned abruptly, focused on the streetway where they had come from. He raised his fist, a signal for her to pay attention.

“Something doesn’t smell right.”

“Everything doesn’t smell right with this place.”

A wild pack of younglings, humans and other beings, suddenly burst from the mouth of an alley they were standing in front of. The mob ran straight into Brixie like a raging river of arms and filthy hair. One hand dipped inside her coat and stole her blaster pistol. Another took her currency case—the pickpocket-proof model—woven into the lining of her jacket. Another hand, armed with a vibroblade, cut the wire-reinforced shoulder strap of the medical field kit and ripped the case from her hands.

The miniature brute squad disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, rushing back down the alley. In mere seconds, Brixie was knocked off her feet and robbed. She didn’t care about the medical equipment inside so much as…

“Sully! They got the datapad with Hugo’s program on it!”

“Little brats!” the Trunsk roared at their shapes as they disappeared down the alley where they had come from. “Come back here!”

An energy bolt sailed over his head, missing only by millimeters. Shapes emerged from the alley shadows and the dirt-colored buildings. Armored shapes. They were stormtroopers in optical-camo armor, a form of visual distortion camouflage that mirrored their surroundings. These eggheads weren’t white and they had the drop on them.

“Follow them,” Sully spun the heavy pistol from around his back, covering Brixie while pushing her in the direction of the young thieves. “They know this area better than we do!”

Brixie didn’t want to abandon Tigereye, but he waved her off.

“Go!”

Brixie plunged into the alleyway’s darkness, following its twists and turns. It was a serviceway leading to an immense atrium inside a housing tenement. The glass pyramid at the top may have once been an architectural marvel, but was now little more than a dust-covered ruin bathing everything inside in a dismal, brownish glow. Two sets of metal staircases ringed the interior, both climbing skyward like a ziggurat. Towards the right, she spotted a swarm of nimble little forms rushing up the staircase on that side of the building.

She followed them, taking the stairs two and three at a time. After about the fourth level, her knees strained and her lungs wheezed in protest. Back on Entralla, it was too easy for her to take the turbovators at the hospital and too easy to ignore the exercise motivator she used as a substitute clothing stand at her apartment. Breathing in great whistles, her heart hammering and sweating profusely, Brixie ascended the stairs.

A red energy bolt sliced up the angular metal staircase, sending an explosion of sparks near her feet, soon followed by another. Looking down, she caught Sully chased by stormtroopers on the other side of the building’s interior while another set of troopers raced up after her.

Brixie’s long legs finally had an advantage over the children who had stolen her medical bag and weapon, she was gaining on them. Reaching their level, they scattered like nasty pests caught in a kitchen light. Some climbed into rat holes and disappeared. Others dove down ventilation shafts entirely too small for her. The only thing waiting for Brixie at the end of the corridor was a wall.

There was the boy who stole her medical bag. He was climbing inside an open window.

“Wait!” she shouted.

She reached the window and a set of security bars slid down, blocking her. The boy made a face at her and scampered away.

There had to be another way. The ventilation shafts were out of the question. They were much too small in diameter for her to crawl inside. She looked around the rat holes created by crumbling permacrete bricks in the wall. Brixie kicked at the bricks surrounding one of the holes with her field boot. Some of the damaged permacrete cracked further around the opening. Dust spilled to the metal decking. She kicked again. Harder and harder. The weakened hole got larger and larger.

An energy bolt flew past her shoulder. Several stormtroopers, their optical camouflage buzzing around the facias of their armor, had reached the level and started firing at her. On the other side of the building, a firefight had broken out between Sully and the remaining troopers. Tenets who lived inside the quad threw down the security shutters to their windows and hid. Without a blaster pistol, there was nothing Brixie could do to help Sully or herself.

“Cover down!” Tigereye shouted, signaling her to protect her eyes. He pumped a shell into the grenade launcher of his heavy blaster pistol and fired at the stormtroopers on her side of the internal shaft. Brixie turned away and shielded her eyes with her arm. The grenade was not a concussive explosive, but a star-shell. The blinding blast radiated outward like a miniature sun gone supernova. Brixie avoided its effects, but the stormtroopers chasing her were caught full on. The blast overrode the protective optics of their helmet visors, temporarily blinding them—and exposing them to Sully’s targeted blasts. An armored figure took an energy bolt to the chest. The soldier spun and fell over the staircase railing to the shaft’s floor far below.

Still faced with a dead end, Brixie didn’t know what to do until a wild shot from a blinded stormtrooper’s blaster rifle took out more of the wall right beside her head. That was exactly what she needed.

She squared her shoulder and threw herself against the weakened wall. Brixie tumbled into a sooty, dusty mess. She was inside. Brushing herself off, she rushed into what had to be someone’s living quarters. There wasn’t any time to offer apologies for her sudden intrusion.

A pneumatically-driven door slammed shut.

“Wait!” she called out.

Keying open the apartment door, she rushed out into a corridor. A virulent mixture of cooking smells and other harsh odors filled her nostrils. Hundreds of beings lived on this level. A battered cleaning droid, polishing the industrial-tile flooring with a rotary attachment, admonished her with an angry beep about making too much noise. Small figures scurried down the length of the dimly lit hallway and scattered. The boy carrying her med kit saw her. He ran away from the pack and through another set of doors.

Brixie raced down the corridor and kicked open the swinging doors. Skidding to a halt, she heaved a long sigh of exasperation.

“More stairs?!”

Footsteps headed up. Glancing up through the gap, she saw a pair of legs passing through the bannister slats a few flights away.

Brixie rushed up the staircase. Didn’t these places believe in elevators? Huffing from exertion, she reached the next level up and overheard a struggle past the swinging doors. A boy was screaming to be let go. An electronically-assisted voice was fighting him.

“Gimme that case, kid!”

“No!”

Brixie overheard a smack against flesh and a youthful cry of pain. A figure roughly fell to the floor.

“Stupid whelp! This’ll teach you to listen!”

Crashing through the swinging doors and bellowing in anger, Brixie surprised the stormtrooper leveling his blaster rifle at the boy knocked to the floor. She broadsided the trooper. An energy blast left the flailing weapon and seared a hole in the corridor’s wall only a few meters away from the boy.

They crashed through another set of swinging doors and ended up back on the atrium’s inner walkway. The two struggled and fought. Brixie tried to snatch away the soldier’s blaster rifle. He smacked her hard with the back of his armored glove and aimed the weapon at her. Reacting out of instinct, Brixie brushed aside the mental cobwebs and remembered her unarmed combat training. She stepped inside his stance, kicked out his leg with a sharp strike of her boot and threw him over her shoulder.

He landed against the balcony wall. The blaster rifle clattered to his feet. He soon had his hands on it again. In less than a heartbeat, he would lift the weapon up and shoot her.

Instead of reaching for the weapon again, she let him keep it. Rushing forward, she grabbed the stormtrooper by his armor-covered leg and lifted him off his feet. He cantilevered backwards, arms flailing wildly as the blaster rifle tumbled from his hands. He flipped backwards over the balcony railing and vanished.

Gasping for breath and nursing a painful welt on her jaw, Brixie peered over the railing. The stormtrooper, like the one Sully had shot before, was sprawled across the atrium’s tile floor.

“My stars,” she clamped her hand over her mouth in anguish. More killing. Even though she had done it to save her own life and the boy’s, the reasons would never change the snap-decision she made to end another life. Sully was right.

I thought I could quit being a soldier, but it’s too easy to get dragged back in.

Tearing herself away, she rushed back through the doors and spotted the boy. He was back up on his feet, the medical kit bag in his arms. Without the slightest nod of appreciation, he tore off with the bag again.

“How about a thank you?” she shouted at him, picking up the stormtrooper’s fallen blaster rifle. “Come back here!”

Going down another corridor, the urchin stopped short and vanished through a wall panel reserved for the building’s maintenance droids. Brixie didn’t expect him to get very far, she imagined it was only a closet. Yanking open the panel, she was confronted by a wall full of charging equipment and metal grilles for power conduits.

The boy was gone.

There had to be more to this. She slammed the buttstock of the blaster rifle against the impenetrable-looking wall of power conduits. The entire back section of the charging station swung inwards like a door, revealing a passage dimly lit with translucent tubes of bioluminescent glow worms feasting on moisture, mold and rust. It was an access corridor for the droids. Brixie ducked down low and followed.

“Come back!” she called out, duck-walking through what had to be internal maintenance routes used by the droids. She switched on the blaster’s focusing lamp so she could see what lay ahead.

The passage was cut off by a flimsy plastic and fabric separator designed to clean the droids’ exteriors as they drove through—except the fabric cleaner was old and disgusting as if it had never had been replaced. Closing her eyes and wrinkling her nose, Brixie raised the blaster rifle and pushed through.

The room where she emerged was high enough for her to stand. It was a workshop where the droids were serviced for problems the recharging stations couldn’t fix. But scattered among workbenches and hanging from shelving was equipment that Brixie imagined had very little to do with droid maintenance and repair. There were powerful computer banks, listening equipment and dozens of displays for active sensors and probes. On a rack were weapons of all sorts—vibro-blades, heavy repeating blasters, grenade launchers and even a portable flamer favored by specialist stormtroopers of the First Order. This place was beyond a simple droid repair shop.

Brixie almost jumped backwards, startled by two figures standing off to the side. The boy with her medical kit bag was protected by a tall woman with dark hair. A prominent streak of silver hair traced a path from her temple. The rest of her hair was braided with colorful thread. She had a blaster pistol aimed at Brixie.

“Drop your weapon,” she warned. “Espo gank.”

“I’m not an Espo!” Brixie pointed the blaster rifle away, but didn’t drop it. “That kid stole my medical kit. You can have the supplies. I just want something that’s inside…”

“I don’t care what you want,” the young woman warned again, thumbing the selector switch on the pistol from stun to something much more painful and deadly. “You’re just some corporate sleaze looking to burn a couple of littles. After I’m done with you, there won’t be enough for the mottle crabs to pick your bones…”

Brixie stared at this stranger in the dark, overcome with surprise and confusion. The young woman’s voice was the same spiteful voice from the training moon eons ago.

Ivey?

Chapter 17

“IVEY SAYS SHE USED TO RUN WITH THE RED MOONS. THEY WERE THE TOUGHEST, MEANEST, ROUGHEST MERCS IN THE GALAXY. WERE YOU IN THE MOONS? IS THAT HOW YOU KNOW HER?”

The gardener told Hugo that something large and dangerous was attacking the bio-dome.

It was a borganth, an ugly thing with dark fur and a ravenous appetite for destruction. Over two meters in length and as thick as a hover-tank in girth, the creature had terrible claws for digging deep in the soil to find rodents and slicing the succulent bark from trees. The gardener said the borganth was the reason why the great old tree was dying from rot.

Hugo had to find it. Trap it. Kill it.

“You have to hurry.”

That’s what the gardener said. But Hugo was having difficulty distinguishing real from dream. His moments were caught in a loop. Mostly his senses told him he was in the bio-dome, roaming between its trees, searching for the axe and now this thing rampaging through the precious ecology. But if he closed his eyes very tightly and concentrated, entirely different worlds surrounded him. He experienced a trip across the stars. A tremendous battle in a shipyard. Familiar faces, Brixie and Sully, begging him for help. He wandered the alleys of some claustrophobic city of brown and tan, sucking in the thick air filled with dust, crossing from sun to shadow.

The moments would flash on and off, like a vidscreen leaping from one frequency to the next. Too much information was fighting for a place inside his head. Brixie was speaking with him, her mouth moving but no voice.

Hunt the borganth. Find the axe. Save the bio-dome.

And then something bumped into Hugo and the channel switched. His hand pressed against the corner of a claystone building. It felt real enough. Where was he now? Bodies pressed in. Pans rattled and cooking food sizzled from a stall. He overheard a joke spoken in an alien dialect. Tall green insectoids loomed over him, their multi-faceted eyes studying him and moving on.

The channel switched again and he was in the bio-dome. The forest. Cool and quiet. Birds eyed him with caution, defending their nests. Small creatures darted out, fearing he was the thing hunting them and then disappearing back into the green undergrowth. The sounds of a nearby stream bubbled in his ears.

A four-legged spry, a deer-like creature almost as tall as his chest, looked up from the succulent bushes it was nibbling on. The spry’s head turned towards a cathedral of tall trees down the forest path.

“This way.”

“I must be getting better,” Hugo joked. “The animals are talking to me now.”

Walking further down the path, Hugo noted a massive overhang of tangled vines between two trees forming an arch. It was hard to determine if the trees had formed this passageway or it had been nurtured by a horticulturist. Nonetheless, the task before him was to stop this borganth.

“How do I stop this thing?” he asked himself. He had no weapons. No means to stand toe-to-toe with a frightening monstrosity with fanged teeth, curled tusks protruding from its mouth and wicked claws.

Use the forest,” the spry told him, hopping alongside him on delicate hooves.

Kite foxes and squints. There was a story Brixie used to tell him about her home of Entralla; the poor squints of the forest were picked off by the gliding kite foxes who inhabited the high trees overhead. The squints learned how to avoid the kite foxes. The borganth was a similar predator—huge and overpowering. Hugo had knowledge the creature didn’t have.

He took a sample of phosphorous moss from a damp rock. Examining the leaves of another tree, a sample from a distant world, he collected its tubular stem for its acidic sap. He found a particularly virulent-smelling flower known for its ability to ensnare and suffocate insects with its sticky pollen. A decayed gourd made an excellent mixing pestle.

A badger or similar forest dweller harangued him in its chattering babble. Did it yell “Thief!” at him? Hugo ignored it, ducking down another dark corner of the wood.

“I need to create a spark of some kind,” he told the spry, as if the woodland deer could provide him with an answer. Not surprisingly, it did.

“Check your pockets.”

Odd. He never thought of doing that. Inside his trouser pockets he found bits of wire, a battery cap, tufts of lint. He had all the makings of a match. He once set fire to the male gender lavatory in the Imperial Engineers Academy with nothing less than a lozenge wrapper, some cleaning solution stolen from a custodial droid and a datapad battery.

Something terrifying bellowed. The borganth was inside the cathedral of trees, moving through the archway.

Hunt the borganth. Find the axe. Save the bio-dome.

Hugo knew what he needed to do.

###

Ivey Deacon holstered the blaster pistol she had been pointing at Brixie and came towards her. Instead of an explanation or an embrace between two long-lost friends, the young woman smacked the blaster rifle in Brixe’s hand aside and roughly searched her. Not finding what she was looking for, she spun Brixie around.

Ivey, Image Credit, West End Games.

Ivey, Image Credit, West End Games.

“Where is it?” Ivey tugged at Brixie’s jumpsuit and jacket. “For the Force’s sake, Brix. Don’t you remember anything you were taught?”

“What are you doing?” Brixie didn’t understand, until Ivey found and forcibly yanked a tiny metal square hooked behind her jumpsuit’s web belt.

“This was planted on you.” She waved the box before Brixie’s eyes before dropping it on one of the workbenches. She selected the least-delicate tool she could find, a hammer, and slammed it down on the metal square. The squashed box, rendered useless, resembled a steel bug caught under someone’s boot. “You’re broadcasting a locater signal used by the Espos over a kilometer wide. That’s why I thought you were one of them. I could have shot you.”

“How could you not know it was me?”

“Because you’re not supposed to be here,” Ivey flatly replied, studying the metal box’s innards as though she was reading a fortune.

Dismayed by Ivey’s chilly attitude, Brixie went over to the boy and snatched back the medical kit from his hands.

“In case you haven’t figured it out, this is mine.”

“You tossed that egghead but good over the balcony,” the boy eagerly grinned up at her, not worried the slightest about his thieving. “I’m Dink. Are you with the Resistance?”

“No,” Brixie huffed. Who names a kid ‘Dink’?

“Are you a Jedi?”

“Are you kidding me?” she laughed at the thought.

“Ivey says she used to run with the Red Moons. They were the toughest, meanest, roughest mercs in the galaxy. Were you in the Moons? Is that how you know her?”

Brixie turned back to the young woman, not quite sure “knowing” was the right word. Did she know Ivey? Maybe she knew an Ivey from the past. An Ivey she once imagined. She looked rougher and a lot less friendly, but it was her.

“Yes.”

The boy assessed Brixie from head to foot.

“I don’t know. You look kind of soft.”

“Thanks.” Brixie was tempted to reach into her med kit and tranquilize Dink the thieving Bantha pooper. Instead, she tried talking to the only other adult in the room. “Are you going to stand there studying that flattened brick of metal or are you going to talk to me?”

Ivey gestured to the displays on the computer banks zeroed in on specific locations.

“Why is there a pack of stormtroopers shooting up our patch of the Maze?”

“I didn’t know this was your patch. I didn’t know you were here. I didn’t even know you were alive,” Brixie stammered, remembering only the searing heat wave marking the fiery explosion of the transport Ivey had been on before she disappeared from her sight. “I came here with Sully. We’re trying to find Hugo.”

“Hugo and Sully are here too?” Ivey shook her head. “You’re not supposed to be within a lightyear of here. You should be on Entralla.”

“Well, surprise. Sully and I are here. Hugo’s a walking time bomb. We’re being chased by stormtroopers and a Pentastar agent…” Putting down the blaster rifle, Brixie jury-rigged the medical kit by knotting the cut straps around her waist. “…and now I find out you’re alive. It’s been a big day.”

She had a million more questions for Ivey, but the young woman’s attention was caught up in a burst of garbled static coming from a relay transmitter on one of the shelves. She grabbed a headset and replied using coded phrases and taps on a keypad. Brixie didn’t have the patience for this. Sully was in trouble, Hugo was little more than a droid and Ivey was acting as though nothing had happened since they were separated.

While Ivey jabbered in code over the headset, Brixie eyed the displays on the terminals. The remote sensors were following a combat in the narrow streets of the Maze between the stormtroopers and a dark figure. That was Sully. The troopers were forcing him past a large permacrete arch. Beyond the arch was an unbelievable grove of trees underneath a huge dome of transparent steel trusses. Brixie didn’t believe it. A forest actually grew on Cantras Gola.

A forest that closely resembled the bio-dome from the story in the holo-program.

“Where is this?” Brixie interrupted Ivey’s codespeak, pointing at the screens.

“Place is called the Arboretum. It used to be a public park. It’s closed off. Too much violent crime happening there, if you believe the corporates care about that sort of thing. They didn’t want the Entymals gathering in large numbers and protesting their living conditions.” Ditching the headset, Ivey picked up a bandolier of grenades from the shelf racks and a huge sniper rifle. “The boss just called. Dink, take this. You’re on.”

The little thief who stole her medical bag slipped around Brixie and took up the impossibly-huge sniper blaster. He snatched up a helmet with a macro-binocular attachment and scampered out the droid maintenance flap.

Brixie eyed the plastic divider flap where the boy disappeared and started to follow.

“Sully needs my help. Tell me how to get there.”

“Not that way.” Ivey firmly steered her away from the droid access door. “This way.”

Brixie eyed her with suspicion.

Now you’re helping me?”

Ivey’s distant expression revealed nothing. She wasn’t the same person Brixie remembered. Or maybe this was who she really was all along.

“We don’t have time for sharing campfire stories, Brix. The corporates sealed all of the park’s exits with blast doors except for the main entrance. There’s only one way in and out. Sully will be trapped.”

She brushed past Brixie and pulled down a mechanical switch on one of the racks, revealing another doorway leading down yet another dark passage. Ivey disappeared down the tunnel.

Swiping a fresh blaster pistol from the shelf of armaments, Brixie followed.

Chapter 18

ZULT POINTED AT THE INERT FORM OF TIGEREYE, SECRETLY GRINNING. “NOW. KILL THIS BEAST AND LIVE THE REST OF YOUR LIFE IN PEACE.” HUGO AIMED THE BLASTER AT THE MONSTER.

“Figures on a crowded planet like this, I’d end up in somebody’s terrarium.”

Tigereye moved backwards, keeping his pistol trained on the permacrete archway as he moved from the cover of one thick tree to the next. The stormtroopers didn’t move past the arch, taking up positions to either side and firing wildly into the woods. He knew they weren’t trying to hit him. That was never their plan. Stormtroopers were notoriously poor shots, but they weren’t that bad.

“They’re herding me in here like a stupid Klalei mountain beast,” he muttered. For what exact purpose, he wasn’t sure. This environment provided plenty of cover. He could sit here in the periphery and wait forever for any of them to try to sneak in. The stormtroopers’ optic-camo armor required a lot of power; they couldn’t rely on it forever.

Pausing behind a tree, Tigereye tapped the comlink attached to his gear belt’s harness. No response from Brixie. The signals were either being jammed or she was deep inside the tenement building where he last saw her. Getting out of this place might prove tricky.

His ears pricked. A foot stepped on a fallen tree branch.

Someone else was here in the park.

Tigereye slung his heavy blaster pistol. Designed to delivery assault rifle power in a small package, he didn’t want to announce his location by firing it. The stormtroopers weren’t coming into the forest. They were going to let whoever was in here deal with him.

So let them come.

A figure dressed in black appeared in his peripheral. Tigereye whipped a throwing blade at it and sliced only air.

“Zult.” Tigereye announced, hoping to draw him out in conversation—and misdirect him. “What brings you out to the park today? A little fishing? Reading some poetry under a tree?”

Zult’s voice called back. “I thought I’d give you a fighting chance.”

The shadow appeared again. Tigereye had another throwing blade out and ready. The blade sank into the bough of a tree.

“You appear to have a problem hitting the target.”

“If there really is a target,” Tigereye glowered. There was nothing wrong with his vision or his aim. “I know you, Zult. It’s always someone else taking the hit for you. What’s that line you like to say? Better them than me?

“I’m honored you remember me so well.”

The figure in black reappeared. Another knife uselessly thrown into the bushes.

“So that was you in the docking bay back at Jaemus?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t look the same as I remember.” Tigereye wondered aloud. “Didn’t you used to have two eyes, a nose and a mouth?”

“And two arms and two legs,” the agent’s voice glowered. “That grenade left me in a very poor state. I have a much better body now. You and your Red Moons did this to me. You will pay. Every single last one of you.”

“Then why don’t you step out?” Tigereye called, slipping behind another tree to avoid being boxed in. “I’ll gladly fix the rest of you for free.”

The shadow appeared again in a new direction. Tigereye flinched with his arm, only pretending he had thrown a knife. The shadow disappeared. It was as Tigereye thought—an illusion.

A pattern was emerging. The shadow was moving four paces to the right and two paces closer. Zult was using deception, circling closer to him.

“If your stormtroopers have optic-camo, what’s to say you don’t have a holo projector?” Ducking behind another tree, Tigereye switched from throwing knives to his vibroaxe. The charged blade would seriously damage whatever reinforced new body Zult had been given. When it appeared again, he knew the shadow would be Zult coming in for the kill.

“No more holograms, my friend. The next time will be as real as you can imagine.”

Tigereye lifted the axe and stepped out from the tree, ready to swing. In his haste to deliver a killing blow, he forced every muscle fiber in his body to stop himself. The figure standing before him was not Ephron Zult.

Hugo?

A dust cloud left the stolen ceramic bowl in Hugo’s hand, set off by a flickering spark. The expanding cloud caught Sully full in the face. Choking on the acidic-filled ether, his golden eyes turned a sickening blood red. Blinded, he whirled about, expecting to be attacked from behind. The fiery dust—a potent mixture of chemicals turned into an aerosol—was already weakening him. Flailing about at phantoms, Tigereye’s throat closed. His lungs, coated with a virulent acid, failed. Unable to breathe, he staggered around for a few more seconds and weakly collapsed to the ground. Every gasp from his unconscious form was a painful agony. A slow death.

“Don’t fret, Tigereye. You won’t die from what ails you. Not yet.” Agent Zult stepped out from behind a grove of trees, shutting down the holographic projector he was using. He regarded Hugo, who stood there over his former friend. “I was hoping bringing Subject J829P to this desolate planet would be necessary to draw him out of hiding. But you’ll do nicely.”

Zult turned to Cutter, pressing a subdural circuit positioned near his rebuilt larynx with the tip of his index finger against his throat.

?????

“Well done my boy. Well done. You stopped that borganth from destroying the forest…”

The gardener motioned to the foul creature, an immense bear-like carnivore, the one Hugo had stunned and lay sprawled across the forest floor.

Hugo didn’t remember sneaking up behind it. He didn’t even know where he got the chemicals that made the acidic mist or the bowl that he dropped to his feet. There was only the pain. He touched the side of his own head. A little boy was yelling at him, telling him he had made a mistake.

“We need to make sure this terrible beast never hurts the bio-dome again.” The gardener reached inside his coveralls and handed him something. “Use this.”

Hugo stared down at his hand. It was a blaster.

“Why are you giving me this? You’re a gardener.”

“Every now and then, someone breaks into the bio-dome and tries to steal a valuable animal or a plant. We have many important species here. Some are the last of their kind. The owner gave me that pistol to protect his property. You know how to use a blaster, don’t you Hugo?”

Hugo looked down at the pistol in his hand and at the subdued borganth. Another terrible pain drove deep inside his head.

“I don’t want to use this on anything.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. Hurts so bad. The boy was screaming at him. Wrong! Wrong! “Where are Brixie and Sully?”

“Who?”

“My friends. They were with me. I swore they were with me.”

“My boy, you’ve been here in the bio-dome all this time.” The gardener pointed at the subdued borganth. “Now that you’ve stopped this menace, the axe will appear. You’ve finally reached the end of the story.”

“Story?” Hugo looked at Zult, seeing only the gardener.

“Don’t you remember the doctor and the nurse, sending you off? This place is a phantasm. A story meant just for you. My boy, you’ve had an adventure.”

Hugo whirled around, trying to find the doctor or the beautiful nurse. There was only the wounded borganth trying to breathe. How long had he been in here?

“Where’s the doctor? I want to talk to him!”

“I’m right here.” Zult suggested, fiddling with the synaptic programming of Hugo’s mind by pressing against the piezo-touch adapters on the side of his cybernetic-enhanced head. The gardener was replaced with the earnest doctor whom he met the first day he walked into the hospital.

“Everything here has a meaning to you. See how peaceful this place is. How calm. How serene. Everything fits perfectly within. But what threatens it? A rampaging monster.” He gestured to the borganth. “What creature rampaged through your childhood, hmm? What horrible beast locked you away in psyops conditioning to correct your behavior when you were young? Who took you away from your mother? Who stole away your life?”

Hugo stared down at the still monster in horror. His head nodded in understanding.

“My father?

“Exactly, my boy. The bio-dome is your inner peace. The sick tree represents your troubles. The borganth is your horrible father. And finding the axe….”

“Will make me better?” Hugo whispered.

“Well done.” Zult pointed at the inert form of Tigereye, secretly grinning. “Now. Kill this beast and live the rest of your life in peace.”

Hugo aimed the blaster at the monster.

Kill the beast. Be cured.

A metal cylinder rolled into the clearing as though it was an egg which had fallen from a nest.

Hugo grabbed his head, unable to focus or concentrate. The little boy was screaming at him, angry at what he had done to the borganth.

He’s not a monster, he’s your friend!

The shrieking pitch climbed higher and higher up the wavelengths. Dizzy and sick, Hugo screamed in agony as he fell to his knees. He dropped the pistol and twisted into a huddled ball before falling unconscious.

The other half of Zult’s nervous system was cybernetic. The programming inside understood it was a sound disruptor attack and was able to filter out most of the terrifying shriek. The other half of his head, the human part, could barely cope with it. He picked up the blaster Hugo dropped and shot the sonic grenade to pieces. Peace finally returned to the park.

Zult called out to the grove of trees. “Show yourself.”

A grizzled figure wearing military fatigues emerged from behind the trees. A man of some years, his closely-cropped head of hair was pure white. His deeply-lined face bore a prominent scar from one cheek down past his neck, the result of a near-miss from a slashing weapon. He carried a long pike in one hand, one end aimed squarely at Zult’s head.

“Stormcaller. At long last.” Zult curiously asked. “How did you get past my troops?”

“This place is just like you, Zult. Not everything is real.”

Andrephan Stormcaller, former colonel and leader of the mercenary Red Moons, rapped his knuckles against one of the “trees” beside him. A distinctive, unwood-like, metal sound rang back.

“Cantras Gola is too polluted, too poisonous for most species of plant life. Some of these trees are display only. They lead to maintenance tunnels underground. Some also make excellent broadcast antennas. Your troopers are knocked out like poor Hugo here.”

“And you? You’re immune?”

Stormcaller pointed to his ear. “Old age. My eardrums are artificial implants, just like the one in that cracked skull case you call a head. I can turn your babbling off whenever I want.”

“An amusing, but pointless anecdote.” He swept his hand to the fallen Hugo and Tigereye. “I knew you would show up, if only to save them. Now give me the codes to unlock Setting Sun.”

Stormcaller stood over Tigereye and listened to his labored breathing, his eyes dark with anger.

“I don’t have any patience left for crazy ex-Imperial goons. Before I pop your head clean off that fake body like a cork from a wine bottle, maybe you should admit you haven’t thought this all the way through?”

“On the contrary. I’ve thought of everything.” Zult motioned with the palm of his hand. “And took the precaution of warning my men to activate the filters on their helmets. They’re not napping, if that’s what you were thinking.”

A ring of stormtroopers emerged from the trees surrounding them, their optical camo armor disguising them until switched off. Over half a dozen blaster rifles were aimed at Stormcaller.

“If you have one weakness, Stormcaller, it’s your friends.” Zult pointed his blaster at the prone forms of Sully Tigereye and Hugo Cutter. “Unless you hand over the codes to unlock Setting Sun, I’m going to end their lives right here in front of you.”

Chapter 19

STORMCALLER WATCHED ZULT STRUGGLE WITH HIS PIRATED APPENDAGE. “YOU SAID YOU WANTED SOMETHING MORE INSIDIOUS. INSPIRED. CREATIVE.”

Pleased with the results of his trap, Zult’s voice took on a condescending tone.

“I’ve worked a long time for this. Discovering Ackbar’s B-wing with the data vault inside it. Designing the program that turned Cutter and those other Rising Moon agents into my puppets. Watching one friend turn on another. But I’m tired of soliloquies.” Zult raised his palm to signal the stormtroopers to target the inert forms of Hugo Cutter and Sully Tigereye. “On my command, fire.”

The ex-colonel reached inside his tunic and produced a yellow square. He flicked it at Zult so it landed at his polished boot-clad feet.

The Pentastar agent was wary of a trap.

“You’re carrying it on your person? On a scrap of plastic?”

“Nobody except you knows what it is. Anyone who pilfered it from me would find a useless code wafer.”

Motioning to his stormtroopers to keep their weapons trained on Stormcaller, Zult carefully picked the rectangle up. Imprinted on plastic with microfine circuits, it was a throwaway device, the kind of useless chit used for temporary data transactions.

“This had better work, Stormcaller. Lives hang in the balance. Yours and theirs.”

Motioning for the stormtroopers to disarm and keep watch over the former colonel, Zult inserted the wafer inside the receptacle in his artificial arm. His countermeasure programs were expecting a virus or something protective, but they encountered nothing but simplistic passwords. The data the wafer contained was real. Using his own internal comlink, Zult was able to transmit the codes directly to the B-wing in its landing bay.

Inside his cybernetic eye’s internal viewer, the data vault’s files appeared. Setting Sun was revealed to him. He scrolled through the data, joyous in anticipation. The location of the New Republic Council-in-exile. The New Republic’s fleet disposition and control codecs. The security details of every single New Republic senator. Intelligence plans. Defense tactics. Special frequencies to contact the Resistance fighting against the New Order. Most importantly, he had the last known locations of the core members of the Rebellion and the New Republic. General Leia Organa-Solo. The Wookiee Chewbacca and his family. Mon Mothma in retirement. Admiral Ackbar. Even Lando Calrissian and General Airen Cracken and agents of Rising Moon.

He also found curious updates to the files. Reports on General Han Solo’s death on Starkiller Base and Jedi Master Luke Skywalker’s location finally revealed…

The vault was the key to the entire New Republic. And its doom.

Zult decided he no longer needed General Hux. With this information, he could ask for whatever he wanted directly from Supreme Leader Snoke. He would be more than rewarded. He would be elevated to the upper echelons of the First Order. The Pentastar Alignment would live on.

“Stormcaller, you’re a tired old fool,” Zult declared to the veteran warrior of the Rebel Alliance and the soon-doomed Republic. “Carrying around such an important piece of information on you as though it was a library archive card? I expected something more…insidious. Inspired. Creative.”

“Now you’re getting personal.” Stormcaller winked at him. “As usual, you’re forgetting something.”

Having no intention of sparing any of them, Zult raised his blaster at him.

“Choose your last words very carefully, so I may have it decorated on your memorial plaque back on Entralla.”

“Red Moons is plural.”

Frowning with what remained of his face, the Pentastar agent didn’t understand.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“The Red Moons never disbanded. There’s always one or two of us around to cause mischief. Like the data slicer who designed that little code bomb you’ve got in your arm.”

In the blink of Zult’s eye, the data vault on the B-wing evaporated. It wasn’t a virus designed to locked him out, it was a parasite program eating the contents of the vault as soon as Zult accessed the files.

“What is this?” he hissed.

Zult tried to dig the wafer out of his arm to save the vault, but it refused to budge. His own countermeasures were nothing compared to the monstrosity digging deep inside the neural pathways of his internal circuitry. He started losing control of his own arm! The parasite was attacking him.

Stormcaller watched Zult struggle with his pirated appendage.

“You said you wanted something more insidious. Inspired. Creative.”

“Kill him!” Zult screamed to the stormtroopers, backing away on uncertain legs as the program attacked his internals and locked him out of the simplest routines. “Kill them all!”

A powerful bolt of energy cut down one trooper and another standing right next to him. The unit commander whirled about, searching for the origin of the energy blast.

“Sniper!” he shouted.

A pair of elongated jade green arms emerged—camouflaged by the tree branches over the soldiers’ heads—and snatched a third stormtrooper up into the canopy.

“Help!”

“Covering fire!” the commander yelled, helping Zult retreat towards the arch and the park’s entrance.

Another trooper tried to follow them, but stopped to look down. Something had fallen from the trees and was now draped around his helmet and shoulders. The unit commander took one look at the necklace of weapons around his fellow soldier’s neck and pushed Zult further away.

“Grenade, grenade!”

The different grenades went off in sequence: blinding sparks, sonic screamers and thick, putrid smoke. Lit up like a parade float from the Festival of the Red Moon celebration on Entralla, the stormtrooper struggled to yank the string of exploding puff bombs off before he was cut down by the sniper.

Oblivious to the light and sound show around him, Stormcaller turned to the stormtrooper who had taken his staff. He stretched out his hand to him.

“Son, I’m only going to ask once. Hand that over.”

The stormtrooper aimed his blaster at him instead.

“Are you kidding me, old man?”

A searing jolt of blue electricity crackled along the staff’s length, lancing across the trooper’s body. He shook a few moments, smoke escaping from the joints in his armor until he fell face-first into the dirt.

Stormcaller caught the falling staff. He spun the end around and depressed a button on the mid-grip. A humming shaft of blue light, almost a meter and a half in length, erupted from the end. Another stormtrooper, distracted by the fireworks and his rapidly-disappearing comrades, turned abruptly around.

“What the…?”

The lightsaber-tipped staff flashed high over Stormcaller’s head like some ancient polearm, striking downward. The shimmering blade cut through armor, cloth, flesh, bone—everything it touched. The soldier, divided into unequal halves, collapsed in the forest sod. The other trooper he just electrocuted struggled to get back up on his feet and aim his blaster rifle. Spinning the staff around, Stormcaller fired a projectile gun from the opposite end, knocking the trooper backwards a good four meters. The soldier lay sprawled on his back and didn’t get up again.

“Don’t call me old.”

With no other enemy combatants in sight and smoke billowing in all directions from the grenades, Stormcaller tapped a dot microphone connected to a comlink as he hurried where Tigereye and Hugo had fallen.

“Lost the targets,” Dink’s young voice called over the former colonel’s inner-ear link. At least there was one advantage to having artificial hearing implants.

“Forget about the targets, kid. I need a medic…” he looked down.

Brixie was already there, tending to Sully with her medical bag, while Ivey guarded over her and an unconscious Hugo.

Ivey glanced at the colonel, noting his surprised reaction. He wasn’t expecting to see Brixie either.

Stormcaller tapped his throat mike again.

“Never mind. Bring immediate evac to this position.”

###

Several Entymals appeared from hiding places in the forest park. Brixie had no idea how many Stormcaller had recruited or for what exact purpose, but at least they were on their side. Able to lift many times their own weight, the insectoid workers carried a still-unconscious Hugo and Sully Tigereye, an emergency respirator shroud covering his face, to safety.

Stormcaller and Ivey led the way with Brixie and Dink, carrying the enormous sniper blaster rifle over his soldier, taking up the rear of the procession. They did not return to the listening post where Brixie first encountered Ivey, instead riding a private elevator to one of the high residences inside the elite corporate towers that dotted the cityscape. As Brixie discovered, altitude meant everything on Cantras Gola. The higher one lived above the tightly-packed Hive, the higher the level of comfort and status.

Ivey’s private residence took up an entire floor of the tower; a startling change from the bunkers and dirty hiding holes the Red Moons typically occupied. Guarded by security droids and tiny flying drones the size of large insects, it would take more than a battalion of stormtroopers to breach the labyrinth of countermeasures and blast doors.

“Don’t worry. The towers are corporate turf, just like the Maze belongs to the crimelords and the gangs,” Ivey reassured Brixie, worried they would be pursued and cornered up here. “Zult won’t show his ugly face here.”

Brixie was led inside a palace. The floors were laid with imported stone tile, the walls covered with murals that changed with the flick of a switch, and the ceiling’s frescos once belonged to some ancient church. Rare jewels encrusted the door arches and crystalline chandeliers screamed decadence. Specialized transparent steel windows were covered with polarizing screens that controlled the amount of daylight from the hot ball of Cantras Gola’s sun passing across the sky—they were well above the air pollution demarcation line.

Servitor droids appeared from niches offering food, drink and anything Brixie desired short of procuring a Star Destroyer. Doorways led to extravagant dining salons, libraries, sitting rooms, and elaborate recreation rooms filled with every imaginable piece of leisure equipment. Everywhere were layers of filigreed gold, sumptuous fabrics, crystals, sculptures, and colorful creatures kept in transparent cases and displayed like artwork.

“You live here…?” Brixie wondered, almost asking by yourself? but holding her tongue. She had no right to pry into Ivey’s personal life.

“All by myself,” she answered Brixie’s unspoken question. “I’m head of information security for Galentro Heavy Works. The irony is almost laughable. A former street rat, now head of the kitchen she used to steal from. Galentro doesn’t know about the other work I do.” Ivey waved off the droids. “This place is nothing. Corporate officers and their families live like royalty.”

She led Brixie and the Entymals carrying Hugo and Sully to an infirmary which rivaled the best emergency centers on Entralla, if not the orbiting hospital station at Bescane. There were diagnostic beds, medical droids, monitoring equipment, cabinets stocked with supplies and an automated pharmacy.

“Private residences are fortresses here,” Ivey explained. “Food, water, power, transportation: all self-contained.”

Brixie ignored the glitzy accommodations and kept her focus on Sully and Hugo. The Trunsk was put on one of the medical beds. She let its diagnostic tools image his head, lungs and throat.

While the bed performed its detailed analysis, Brixie was forced to make a decision about Hugo. She gave instructions to the medical bed’s intravenous dispenser.

“What are you doing?” Ivey asked, watching Brixie slide a hypocuff around Hugo’s wrist. The remote-guided needle inserted an intravenous line connected to the bed’s auto-dispenser. “He was only knocked out with a sonic grenade. He should be fine.”

“He’s not fine. I tried to tell you. His mind’s been deeply reprogrammed by Zult. In Hugo’s version of reality, he’s in some bio-preserve, solving problems for a gardener.”

Ivey blinked, not understanding what Brixie meant by a bio-preserve, much less a gardener.

“He’s where?

“It’s an old holo program used on Entralla to teach children, but Zult changed the program and used mental conditioning to trap Hugo inside. He’s still under its control. He doesn’t know where he is or who we are. That’s why he tried to kill Sully.”

Brixe dug through her medical bag and found the datapad. She shoved it into Ivey’s hands.

“We took the program and the data from the hospital on Ord Mantell where they were keeping him, but its encrypted. Until we can break its influence, Hugo’s a danger to himself and others. I have to put him in an induced coma.”

Silence filled the infirmary. Brixie didn’t even see Stormcaller, Dink or the Entymals standing there, nor did she ask anyone for their permission making this decision. There was only Hugo and Sully.

They were her patients. Her responsibility.

The intravenous auto-injector sent the serum she requested into Hugo’s vein. Checking the displays on Hugo’s medical bed as his vital signs stabilized and remained at unconscious levels, Brixie turned to Ivey.

“I examined the holo program myself. My mother is in there.” Brixie didn’t want to start a discussion on that particular subject, either. “I don’t know why, but she helped Zult build it. Ivey, you have to decrypt that program. It’s the only way to bring Hugo back.”

“Okay, Brix.” Frowning, Ivey studied the plastic rectangle and its screen. “I’ll do what I can.”

Watching Sully breathe with help from the emergency shroud, his vital signs on the bed’s displays hovering near death, Brixie knew how concerned the others were. Hugo was lost. Sully was worse. She had to wear the mantle of a doctor again, not the soldier. She wasn’t very good with weapons or tactics, anyway. That was Stormcaller and Ivey’s world. This was where she belonged. She addressed the others in the room.

“Until I get the analysis from the diagnostic computer, I can’t tell you anything about Sully’s condition.” Coating her hands with a disinfecting gel and preparing for possible surgery, Brixie gestured towards the infirmary’s door. “He’s in my care now. Everyone needs to wait outside.”

Chapter 20

THE COLONEL WAS PARTICULAR ABOUT TRADITIONS.

GIVING A TOAST BEFORE HAVING A DRINK WAS AMONG THEM.

“TO OLD FRIENDS. NEAR AND FAR. COME AND GONE.”

Tense hours passed.

Brixie lost count how many times Sully’s respiration and heartbeat fell so low they did not register properly on the medical bed’s displays and the warning alarms went off. The bed was hardly versed in Trunsk biology to begin with; the diagnostics were corporate units accustomed to taking care of humans, not other species. In the Imperial world and the corporates, humans meant everything. The corporates gifted themselves with the best medical care and let other sapients struggle to find help in back alleys and stitch-shops of careless doctors and substandard droids.

Twice she almost pulled out a laser scalpel to insert an artificial lung to breathe for Tigereye. His lungs were so badly damaged by Hugo’s acidic aerosol it was a miracle his respiratory system was able to function at all. Her hand shook when she took up the scalpel and positioned it at his exposed throat. There was no one else qualified to do the surgery but her; taking Sully to a corporate facility was out of the question. A medical droid could perform the procedure, but she refused. She knew Sully Tigereye was too proud to have his life extended by drastic procedures. He was a warrior at heart. Putting away the scalpel, she kept her eyes on the patient and waited.

And waited. And waited.

“Part of the equation to providing care is the decision to do nothing,” her favorite instructor once told her. “The body is remarkable resilient. Let it fend for itself.”

The need to perform the emergency lung implant passed. Sully’s rate of breathing climbed higher on the diagnostic displays to the point she decided to remove the breather hood from his mouth. He could breathe on his own. His body found the way back.

Tough old Trunsk.

Exhausted, Brixie set the attending medical droid to beep her comlink if either of her patients’ status changed for the worse. She peeled the disinfectant coating off her hands, throwing the translucent gloves down the recycling unit to be deconstructed and walked out of the infirmary.

Wandering the corridors of the residence, Brixie soon got lost. Every door she entered led to another richly-appointed room or salon. She did come across a half-dozen housekeeping droids constantly tidying and vacuuming and polishing. What a strange and lonely place this was, she thought. Why did Ivey choose to live like this? To make up for her earlier life on the cusp of poverty?

A butler droid noticed her confusion. His sudden appearance started Brixie. Covered in a golden finish, he practically blended into the background of the room’s elaborate décor.

“May I be of assistance, Lady Ergo?”

Brixie was surprised the machine knew her identity. Then again, Ivey was always a stickler for security. Nothing and no one moved around her place unless she knew about it.

“Where is everybody?”

“By everybody,” the droid sniffed. “I assume you are referring to my mistress, Lady Deacon, and her other guest?”

“Guest?” Brixie asked. Not guests. “Right. That would be everybody.”

“Lady Deacon is currently in her private research lab. She has requested that she not be disturbed. You are invited to join Colonel Stormcaller on the veranda.” Gesturing with a golden arm, the butler droid pointed in the general direction she needed to go.

“I can’t believe in a thousand years that a droid just told me to go…” Brixie sarcastically mimicked the droid’s snooty mode of speech. “…meet Colonel Stormcaller on the veranda.”

The biggest surprise about walking out on the veranda was how pleasant an experience it was. To Brixie, the lower levels of the Hive felt like a cross between a termite mound and a grilling pit; a claustrophobic place filled with awful stenches tossed about on hot winds. Walking out on the elaborate balcony, Brixie noted a host of environmental controls which made the outside pleasantly tolerable—and proof of the power of wealth. Mist sprayers at the balcony railing created a barrier wall of moisture mixed with pleasantly-scented fragrances. Hidden fans spread the humidity around and a mesh overhang covered the entire area in shade. The stone railing and other features were cool to the touch. They were not made from natural rock but layers of ceramic with conductive cooling pipes underneath.

Despite seating capacity for dozens, Brixie found the veranda empty save for Stormcaller. The colonel was seated on a stool at a wide bar while a gleaming mixologist droid—gliding on a rail behind the counter—kept refreshing the contents of his glass.

Bee-Bee the Mixologist Droid, Image Credit Wookiepedia

Bee-Bee the Mixologist Droid, Image Credit Wookiepedia

“May I buy the doctor a drink?” Stormcaller waved to the droid. “Set her up, Bee-Bee-Zero.”

Eager to please, the droid turned to her.

“I am Bee-Bee-Zero-Oh. My lady, what will you be having?”

Imbibing stimulants and harder spirits would have to wait. Brixie asked for a fifty-fifty mixture of water and fruit juice.

“I’m still on duty.”

“Understood.”

Five years had passed since she had last seen him and Andrephan Stormcaller was still an enigma. His facial expression appeared cut from a grade of material far more charismatic than the bar counter stone imported from some distant world. He possessed wide shoulders. The military jackets and fatigues he favored never fit him correctly—the material always seemed to stretch at the “V” between his shoulders. He never traveled without a web belt fitted with a holster for a blaster pistol and pouches for a comlink, a military-hardened datapad, a multi-tool, and spare blaster packs. The man favored non-descript military-grade boots with reinforced toe boxes. He would blend right in at any backrow spaceport cantina, damp crime-ridden alley or foxhole.

At the few diplomatic functions Brixie remembered attending with him, Stormcaller could spruce himself up when needed. He had a dress uniform dating back from the Entralla Confederated Planetary Marines, their elite corps sent out when the Old Republic requested aid from Entralla. He also had an Imperial officer’s uniform dating back from a brief stint when he was a part of the handover from the Republic Grand Army to the Imperial Galactic Empire. He was a colonel then, too. The Rebel Alliance offered to promote him to general when he joined with Airen Cracken and they formed the Infiltrator squads, but Stormcaller declined.

“I’m a dirt devil. A ground pounder. An infantryman. Give me a blaster rifle, a couple of hardened soldiers and I’ll solve your Imperial problems for you.”

Infiltrator Red Alpha was one of the best squads in the Rebel Alliance. They were at the Battle of Endor, joining up with the local native population (called Ewoks) to sow confusion and destruction among the legion of the Emperor’s finest stormtroopers on the forest moon. Contrary to legend, the Ewoks didn’t build the elaborate traps that knocked out the Empire’s AT-ST walkers, it was demolition specialist Hugo Cutter, engagement expert Sully Tigerye and an ex-Imperial scout named Lex Kempo who all took orders from Colonel Andrephan Stormcaller. Hugo explained the battle to Brixie:

“We designed the traps. The Ewoks cut down the trees and tied them together,” he smiled. “When the Imperial troops came for us, we had to tell those little bears to keep their heads down. They threw bolas and spears at them. It was a little ridiculous. My best trap was the one with the rolling logs. Twenty logs set up on the side of a hill. They came rolling down and the walkers couldn’t keep themselves standing upright. You should have seen them dance!”

The mixologist droid filled a tumbler with her requested beverage and placed it in front of her on the bar. Stormcaller raised his own glass. The colonel was particular about traditions. Giving a toast before having a drink was among them.

“To old friends. Near and far. Come and gone.”

Brixie raised her glass and they drank. It wasn’t as satisfying as a goblet of wine or some harder spirit, but the chilled liquid felt cool sliding down her throat. The air in the infirmary was dry and sterile.

She was surprised he hadn’t asked her about Sully or Hugo’s prognosis and even more surprised there was no one else here.

“I sent Dink and the others home,” Stormcaller explained as though capable of reading her mind. “This is a matter for us.”

“He seems young.” Brixie remembered the young boy and the blaster rifle as long as he was tall. “Dink.”

“So were you back then.”

“How did you recruit him?”

“I didn’t. He tried to rob me in an alley. Honest to goodness, he jumped me from behind and clobbered me.” Stormcaller rubbed the back of his closely-shaved head. “I found him and the rest of the scrubs hiding inside a building’s maintenance tunnels. They had no parents. No one to take care of them. I needed an army to fight the corporates and free the Entymals. They volunteered.”

“That’s the way it always starts.” Brixie looked down at her drink. “Someone gets trampled and you hoist up the flag. No one can resist a good cause.”

“True. I waved a pretty big flag to get you to join our little band of miscreants.”

“My parents,” she nodded.

“I convinced you the cause was just. The fight was worth the sacrifice and the danger. But like all things, freedom does not come easy or cheap. Some of us paid a dear price…” Stormcaller motioned to the droid to refill his glass. “Keep it coming, Bee-Bee.”

“Yes, Colonel Stormcaller.”

While the droid filled the man’s glass, Brixie noted the unusual staff laying against the counter. Both ends proved quite lethal.

“That’s a pretty big stick. How did you get your hands on a lightsaber?”

“It belonged to a long dead cousin of the Stormcaller family, a Jedi archivist. The saber was returned to me by Valance Tarn. He was one of Lexianna’s old gang of misfits. He found it on Criton’s Point in some musty old library and used it for a while. What he couldn’t find was someone to properly train him in the Jedi arts. So he passed the saber on to me and quit the hero business.”

Stormcaller drained his glass and motioned to the droid to repeat. After the droid restored the contents, his hand circled the glass but he didn’t lift it to his lips. He was eyeing the liquid as it left little ringlets in the disturbed surface, waiting for it to calm. The expression on his face and the tone of his voice turned serious.

“How are they, Doctor? Cutter and Tigereye?”

“Sully’s in bad shape. He inhaled an ignited mixture of industrial cleaning compounds. It’s like opening your mouth, breathing in the gas from a flame thrower and lighting it. His eyes, nasal passages, throat, lungs, everything is affected. But he’s strong and responding to treatment. The infirmary in this place is well stocked…”

“Of course your expertise might have had a little to do with his progress?” Stormcaller suggested, making certain to give her credit. “And Hugo?”

“Hugo is Hugo. Unchanged. It’s easy to keep him into a coma state. The rest of him is another story,” Brixie shook her head. “His mind is behind a locked door. The only way to free him could be in the holo program they used to trick his mind. That’s my best guess, sir.”

“Any chance Zult might know how to free him?”

Brixie shrugged. “He didn’t seem eager to tell us that. I only know that my mother helped Zult design the program. Besides being a surgeon, her medical specialty was in cognitive retraining from serious brain injuries and disorders.”

“Ephron Zult. A bureaucrat in the Pentastar Alignment interested in only one thing—clawing his way to the top of the food chain. He made so many enemies as an agent, it’s a wonder the Alignment didn’t send one of their own to get rid of him.” Stormcaller pursed his lips, understanding how difficult talking about her family was for her. “Zult took your parents. I never knew the reasons why. He was running some backdoor project even the Alignment didn’t know about. After we finally tracked him down five years back, well, you know what happened.”

Brixie and the core of the Red Moons were on two airspeeder transports, headed towards Zult’s hideaway on Entralla, an immense hydropower plant. To balance the attack group, Ivey volunteered to go aboard the other transport. That one ran into a defensive spread of missiles and went down in flames. Ivey and everyone aboard were gone.

The Red Moons pushed on. Brixie never saw Zult, she was too focused on finding her abducted parents. She discovered them in the hydroplant’s control room, surrounded by destroyed computers, shot-up analysis droids and a bank of data storage drives going up in flames. Brixie could care less about the destroyed equipment. The world she had known had come crashing to an end.

Her parents were each holding a blaster and had fallen a few feet away from the other. Based on their positions, they had killed one another. Brixie remembered the scene as clear as the awful day when it happened. Was there some dispute or fight between them? Was one trying to stop the other? Now that Brixie understood the terrible program controlling Hugo’s mind, she wondered if her parents had been duped into attacking each other.

Brixie never cared about Zult or that he stepped across one of Hugo’s more elaborate traps. Nothing mattered to her anymore. In the space of a single day, she lost a close friend and both her parents.

Stormcaller continued. “Zult burned the hard drives and took the rest with him. Your mother’s work was probably part of that project.”

“Did he get away?” Brixie recalled the stormtrooper covering Zult’s escape from the park.

“He and his pet stormtrooper escaped in Ackbar’s B-wing.” Stormcaller tossed back the contents of his glass and pointed to it for the droid to refill.

“Sir, I really think…” Bee-Bee’s safety protocols started to interject. He was programmed to make sure his customers didn’t hurt themselves by overdrinking.

“Don’t think, Rusty.” Stormcaller warned the droid. “My level of inebriation isn’t your concern. I’ve got over six decades under my belt and I’ve had enough things try to kill me than to worry about my blood-alcohol rate. Only the Force knows how my story ends.” He smiled at Brixie. “Besides, I’m in the care of my doctor.”

Brixie’s face turned red. The man was acting like some proud parent. She stumbled over her next words.

“And Ivey?” she gestured towards the elaborate residence. “No contact. Not a single word. Sully was the same, too. He never spoke to me once until he showed up on Ord Mantel.”

Stormcaller’s head bobbed, knowing she deserved an explanation.

“Those were my orders. The last ones I gave to the Red Moons before we went our separate ways.” He studied the glass sitting empty in front of him, tapped the bar top with his finger and the droid filled it again. “I asked too much from you, young lady. You trained and fought with us, you watched our people and theirs die, you gave all to get your parents back. Their deaths were on me. I didn’t hold up my end of the deal.”

“You couldn’t know…”

He turned slightly on the bar stool so she could see the sincerity in his face.

“You went back to Entralla to become a doctor. Helping others, that was always your strongest suit. I decided we had taken enough of your life. I told everyone to forget you. Never contact you. Stay the hell away from you. I wanted you to live the rest of your days in peace and put us behind.”

“But what about Ivey?” Brixie gasped.

“She survived the crash and was taken prisoner by the Alignment. Spent some years in an Imperial prison. If she wants to, she’ll tell you her story. But when she made it back, I told her the same thing I told the others. We’re the past. I didn’t want us ruining your future.”

“Don’t you think I could have made that choice for myself?” The droid hovered over her empty glass, wondering if she wanted a refill. She shook her head. Her insides were in too much turmoil. “You and the others are my friends. My other family. I don’t want to pretend the past didn’t happen.”

“Looks like the past caught up to us anyway,” the former colonel humbly noted, placing a hand on the staff beside him. “The problem back then, as it is now, is Zult. I sent a warning to Cracken and Lando Calrissian, but a First Order battle group just appeared off Entralla. It looks like it’s going to be up to us to stop him.”

“What can we do? He escaped with the B-wing.”

“Fortunately for us, Zult left behind a First Order shuttle and one talkative pilot. Zult has some kind of arrangement with the First Order. He may have conned them into thinking his mind-controlled Rising Moon operatives can do serious damage to the Republic and the Resistance. What he didn’t expect was that everything he found out about Setting Sun and Rising Moon is worth a cartload of bantha poodoo on Hoth without the code key to the vault.”

“So the Republic is safe,” Brixie sighed in relief.

“No.” Stormcaller shook his head. “Zult is a machine hiding in a wreck of a body. The vault on the B-wing destroyed itself, but he’s probably seen enough of the data for his electronic mind to piece some of it back together. He’ll contact the First Order to make a deal and give them whatever information he can. It’s not over.”

“So the Republic isn’t safe.” She put her hand over Stormcaller’s glass to keep Bee-Bee from refilling it again. “You shouldn’t drink so much, sir. This isn’t helping anyone.”

The man motioned to the droid.

“You heard the doctor, Bee-Bee. Bar’s closed.”

“Yes, sir. My lady. Good evening to you.”

The droid retrieved their glasses and retired behind a portal in the back wall.

Stormcaller climbed off the stool and lofted the staff. He spun it around to prove he wasn’t that inebriated, and used one end to motion towards another set of doors.

“Ivey’s working on that datapad you gave her. She told me to give you the guest treatment. Ask any droid to find you a bedroom and it’s yours. Pesky things will bring you most anything you want or need. I’ll reach out to some contacts. We’ll meet up here in a few hours.”

“Good night, sir.”

Stormcaller waved to her. “You can stop calling me ‘sir’. I’m not in the military anymore. Tossed away the cozy office and the general’s staff bars the Entrallan government wanted to give me. I’m just another soldier looking for a lousy cause.”

“You’re a dirt devil,” Brixie smiled.

“That’s absolutely right.”

Chapter 21

“SPOKEN LIKE A TRUE SOLDIER. I’M SURPRISED YOU AND STORMCALLER DIDN’T TAKE A MOMENT TO SWAP STORIES AROUND A CAMPFIRE.”

Seated in the sensor operator’s seat inside the B-wing’s rounded cockpit, Ephron Zult scrutinized his damaged cybernetic body via a diagnostic tool’s readout. All this advanced technology—a fortune in credits—rendered useless by a piece of malevolent code.

Stormcaller’s plastic yellow chit was melted inside his arm’s data reader. The code not only destroyed the data vault stored in the B-wing, it attacked the circuitry of his cybernetic enhancements. Twitching like a child’s puppet toy, with only one organic arm to work with, it was a matter of resetting his brain’s firmware while adjusting the innards of his plastic and mechanical half.

He struggled to remove the melted chit from his arm. The slagged square of plastic wasn’t dangerous anymore, only an annoying reminder of how he had been easily duped.

“We are luminous beings. The more of your body you replace with plastic and metal, the less attuned you are with the world around you,” said the healer helping Zult recover from his drastic enhancement surgeries. She had tried to warn him. Back then, Zult didn’t care about balancing his body’s replacement parts with the harmonies of the Force. He only wanted revenge against Stormcaller and his mercenaries.

“Look what revenge got you,” he muttered. A pair of medical forceps in his organic hand’s fingers fumbled until they gripped the melted piece of plastic. Gritting his replacement teeth, he yanked the hunk of burnt plastic out of his arm.

“Sir?” a voice echoed through his ear’s internal auditory receiver. It was his stormtrooper unit commander calling from the pilot’s chair up front, although there was no unit left to command. The Red Moons had wiped the other soldiers out. They made quite an unhappy pair inside the B-wing.

“It’s nothing, TK-421.” Zult answered as he tossed the chit to the floor of the cockpit and ground it with his boot. “What is our estimated time of arrival at Jedha?”

“Almost six hours.” His helmet removed, the veteran stormtrooper glanced at the instruments in front of him. “This piece of crud’s hyperdrive is pretty outdated.”

“It’s an antique,” Zult remarked, removing tools from the access port built into his side. Flying through hyperspace inside Admiral Ackbar’s cramped B-wing fighter, he had all the time in the universe to repair his damaged parts. “Like you and me. We’re the last of the Imperial era, Commander. The end of the Pentastar Alignment.”

“Nothing ends, sir.” The man, indoctrinated in the elite legions since he was barely in his teens, glanced up from the repeater displays and caught Zult’s reflection. “Not the Empire. Never.”

“Spoken like a true soldier. I’m surprised you and Stormcaller didn’t take a moment to swap stories around a campfire.”

“He’s an enemy worthy of respect. Sir.

Zult got the impression the stormtrooper was, once again, chiding him for his clumsy ignorance. He was right. Even when facing uncertain odds, Andrephan Stormcaller would never enter a fight unprepared. He was a dangerous, unpredictable opponent. Fiddling with his cybernetic couplings, Zult’s mechanical hand opened and closed into a fist…reaching for something elusive.

So close. Zult was so close to ripping apart the Red Moons. He had turned Hugo Cutter into a weapon and unleashed that on Sully Tigereye. He wanted to see Stormcaller beg for the life of his friends. He wanted to seize the old man by the throat and squeeze that knowing smirk from his face. He had done exactly the same to the healer after she kept babbling on about the Force.

There was an emptiness surrounding him, she told him. The machinery inside his body had taken away his very being.

…the less attuned you are to the world around you…

“We’ll see about that, stupid woman.”

Zult tapped the switch to his cybernetic processor. The firmware finally rebooted by now. He started accessing his memory circuits. His mind had been so badly-damaged in the grenade explosion, he needed physical circuits to keep track of his memories. Protected from intrusion by a series of fault-code trips, those physical circuits were priceless to him.

The parasite program might have destroyed the files of Setting Sun stored in the data vault aboard this starfighter, but they lived on inside Zult’s head. He didn’t need the vault. He was Setting Sun. Using the information, he found what he desired on an isolated moon called Jedha, once the spiritual center of the galaxy. The Jedi and their knowledge of the Force, and the power of their lightsabers, came from the kyber crystals once found across the entire planet.

The Holy City, the center of the Jedi Temple and its spiritual knowledge defended by the Guardians of the Whills, was said to have been destroyed in a mining accident. Zult, an agent of the Empire, knew the truth.

An immense battle station called the Death Star was responsible. The kyber crystals—everything that could be taken from the Jedi temples and the moon—powered its super weapon. A single laser burst of that weapon was used to destroy the Holy City and its inhabitants, end a powerful symbol of the Jedi and unleash the terror of the Empire.

Jedha was now a dead moon. The massive ejection of planetary material from the Death Star’s destructive power covered the planet like a funerary shroud. Life could no longer exist on the surface. The data stored in Setting Sun said otherwise; the New Republic used the moon and the secretive catacombs below ground to hide its most precious commodity:

The government-in-exile.

“I will end the New Republic,” Zult opened and squeezed his mechanical hand. The cybernetic hardware mated to the remnants of his nerves, veins, bones and flesh was working perfectly again. He had full control over his body and mind. “Those pitiful replacements on the Republic Council will cower before me. They will swear their worlds’ fealty to the New Order, and then, they will die.”

Zult pursed his lips and studied the stars streaking past the B-wing’s cockpit.

“Set up the Holo-Net transceiver,” he ordered the unit commander. “I want to make a coded transmission.”

“Where should I set the transceiver’s destination node?” the commander requested.

“Who else? General Hux and the Finalizer.”

Chapter 22

“…I DUG INTO ENTRALLA’S PUBLIC RECORDS, LOOKING FOR SOME WAY TO CONTACT YOU, AND FOUND SOMETHING NOBODY KNEW. SOMETHING YOU NEVER SPOKE ABOUT TO ANYONE.

BRIXIE ERGO’S LITTLE SECRET.”

There was no rest for Brixie.

She no sooner settled into a deep, dreamless sleep in one of the luxurious bedrooms of Ivey’s residence when the ex-Red Moon and data slicer woke her up. Pushing a tumbler of some green-colored protein drink and some food bars into Brixie’s hands, she told her to fetch her med-kit.

“It’s not often I have a first-class doctor as my guest,” Ivey remarked as she led a weary Brixie to a keyed turbovator. They descended to the skyscraper’s underground garages. Walking its length and past a number of different vehicles, all owned by Ivey, they climbed into a junky-looking landspeeder with an enclosed cabin.

“Where are we going?” Brixie finally asked between bites of the food bars. “I don’t want to leave Hugo and Sully. What about the data program? Did you find anything out?”

“You’ve got the medical droid keyed to their beds,” Ivey held up a secure comlink and tossed it to her. “You’ll find out the moment something changes. I’ll tell you about the data program on the way back.”

Brixie sighed. More waiting.

“Where are we going?”

“A little guided tour of the past,” Ivey settled behind the speeder’s tired-looking controls. “Mine.”

Brixie was thrown violently against the door sill as Ivey gunned the landspeeder’s forward motivators and blasted down some of the wider streetways of the Hive. Looks were deceiving. The speeder’s cruddy appearance helped it blend into the decayed urban surroundings, but the engines and control systems were obviously upgraded.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have given me that food to eat?” Brixie tossed the empty tumbler behind her. Her stomach burped in protest as the forward windscreen filled with a puttering delivery van taking up the entire travel lane. Ivey laid on the warning horn and was forced to go around the van’s Entymal operator. The insectoid shook several pairs of appendages in protest as they whizzed by.

Brixie gritted her teeth and tried to keep her inner equilibrium and her stomach on an even keel.

“Trying out for pod racing?”

“Cute.” Ivey flicked the controls and they sped down a dark alley not intended for any sort of mechanized traffic. Storage containers and other obstacles were knocked aside until they emerged on another residential block of the congested Hive. “This is where I grew up.”

“I thought you were from Saco Ulltan?” Brixie remembered.

“I was born there. My parents were missionaries. They were in the Order of the Whills.”

Ivey stated these things so matter-of-factly that her words stunned Brixie. The Whills followed the teachings of the Force. When the Empire seized control from the Old Republic, decades ago, the Whills and their order were banned outright.

“I didn’t think any were left.”

“After the Jedi purge, they fled. But a few, like my parents, tried to reestablish the order.” Ivey spoke without emotion. “I was a baby when they came to the Hive to open a new temple. Some crimelord didn’t want a pair of Whills zealots telling the locals they didn’t need death-sticks or virtual gambling. His murder squad missed me. A woman brought me…here.”

She hit the aero-brakes. The speeder came to a screeching stop in front of a dilapidated structure, one of dozens that lined this particular streetway. The Aurobesh letters on the sign were bleached into ghostly shapes from the air pollution.

“What is this place?”

“The Deaconage. Home for orphans.” Ivey didn’t look at the sign, focused on the street directly ahead. “A social service run by a wealthy Entrallan patron. It’s been closed for years. But for me, this place was home.”

Deaconage? Your last name sounds like…”

“All the younglings were given the same surname of Deacon. The headmistress called me Ivey because I could escape by crawling out the windows and up the outside of the building like iveyweed, a tough vine that can survive even in the sewers. I never knew my given name. I don’t remember my parents.” Ivey pursed her lips. “But growing up here? I’ll never forget it.”

Ivey had never spoken of these things before to Brixie. She was stunned her friend had lost any connection to her original family or her true name. Ivey neither acknowledged nor revealed any feelings about the past. As far as she was concerned, this was another abandoned building on some street and nothing more.

“I’m sorry,” Brixie quietly spoke up.

Ivey switched back on the speeder’s forward motivator. They took off again.

“That’s not why I brought you here.”

They threaded around the street traffic, following a set of ramps down into a maze of underground tunnels. Flashing traffic signs warned not to proceed; messages Ivey ignored. Brixie spotted humanoid shapes huddled in corners, nestled under canvas awnings and using trash receptacles to keep fires going. Any densely-populated city had its fallen inhabitants; these beings scratched out an existence on the discarded refuse of the Hive above them.

Brixie began to understand life on this planet was a truly stratified existence. The wealthy lived high in the sky, the swarms of workers filled the towers and the clogged streets, and the fallen hid below in the dark.

Ivey finally stopped at a fenced-in yard reserved for maintenance and construction equipment. Brixie initially thought Ivey brought her down here so they could talk. Instead, Ivey climbed out of the speeder and motioned for Brixie to follow.

“I can’t exactly open a clinic down here,” Brixie mused aloud, noting dozens of distinctive, multi-faceted eyes watching their approach. The construction yard was occupied by dozens, perhaps thousands, of Entymals.

“There’s only one patient. Since you’re the daughter of Doctor Praxis Ergo, this case should be familiar to you.”

Brixie saw the denizens of the yard, Entymals with various shades of green reflecting from bioluminescent spotlamps mounted on buildings. Some were jade green or a deep mountain green color that reminded Brixie of the pine forests on Entralla. Kite foxes and squints again. Were these poor beings the squints?

Brought into a tent guarded by two heavily-armed Entymals carrying blaster rifles, Brixie saw the patient and immediate knew something was wrong. This albino-colored Entymal was a crucial rarity among the species…and she was dying.

The Entymals were a matriarchal society divided into different castes led by female queens. The workers, numbering in the billions on Cantras Gola alone, were null-sex—they had no reproductive organs and were expected to work for their caste and die. Only a few among the billions in a brood were born male. These drones were called princes and their job was to inseminate the queen. After the insemination ritual, most queens had the princes executed to prevent them from mating with majestrixes, rare workers born with female reproductive organs.

Majestrixes were another specialized type of female. They gave birth to a single offspring: a queen-slayer. For much of their early lives, a queen-slayer has no external coloring and therefore made an easy target. Their only defense was their highly-toxic blood; they were the only Entymals who developed a lethal stinger in their abdomens. When their green coloring appeared after the final molt, they were ready to seize the caste from the old queen—by stinging her to death.

Brixie’s father, Dr. Praxis Ergo, made the study of the Entymals his life’s work. The corporates paid him well since he kept the vast worker populations healthy. He also saw many aspects of Entymal society never discussed outside their kind—especially the civil wars within the castes and the rare appearance of the queen-slayer.

Her father correctly theorized that majestrixes and queen-slayers were born when it was sensed, through circadian rhythms felt throughout the caste, the current queen was reaching the end of her cycles as a breeder. It was a billion-to-one chance to produce a queen-slayer, much less for her to stay alive. If a queen-slayer died before she could usurp the current queen, the entire caste could fall into ruin.

Brixie immediately appraised the patient using her father’s notes as a mental guide—she was lethargic, barely responsive to a light shined in her multi-faced ocular receptors, and too weak to lift even her own limbs. The Entymal was badly ill.

“If this queen-slayer dies,” Ivey mentioned. “The construction company is going to send security teams down here with flamethrowers and exterminate the entire caste.”

“Why?” Briley gasped.

“A rival company killed the current queen three days ago. The corporates will stop at nothing to win contracts, including sending in paid mercs to kill the queens. If a caste can’t breed, they’re considered worthless. Their owners will torch them and bring in another caste that can do the work.”

Flamethrowers?

“That’s horrible!”

Ivey slowly nodded. “That’s life as a slave.”

“Is that why you and the colonel are here?” Brixie opened up her med-bag and started pulling the basics: scopes, pulse and temperature gauge, blood and skin sampling kit. “Helping these people?”

“Enabling them.” Ivey corrected. “The whole Entymal population is enslaved. They have no choice but to live under the whims of the corporates. The colonel and I want to give the Entymals something they never had. The right to choose for themselves.”

Brixie shook her head while she soothed the nervous female Entymal, assuring her in its native clicking dialect that she was a doctor.

“What’s that for?” Ivey asked.

“What’s what?”

“I know the ‘Brixie headshake of disapproval’ when I see it.”

“Like I told the colonel,” Brixie attached a thermometer pulse diode to a leg joint. The Entymal’s chitin exoskeleton—as strong as stormtrooper armor—made checking vital signs almost impossible without bulky, heavy scanners. Her father designed several tools to help medical personnel in the field. Taking a small graft of membrane from the leg joint, she checked the sample using a small analyzer. The analyzer’s biological interpreter indicated the presence of a virus. “You hoist the flag promising change and all you do is bring violence.”

“They’re already up to their antennae in violence. Flamethrowers? Remember?”

Brixie pulled the Ergo hypo-injector from the bag and loaded it with a recommended anti-viral solution. The queen-slayer had a debilitating infection destroying her nervous system. It was prevalent throughout the species, but the corporates rarely spent the funds to inoculate them. The cost of vaccinating an entire species was beyond the cruel greed of the corporates. The only cure for the virus was an injection in her circulatory system.

Entymals didn’t have veins or arteries. The sublayer past the chitin contained the blood supply. The heart pumped the fluid freely throughout the body, head and limbs. The plasma sheath-enclosed vibro-needle injector her father designed would be able to pierce the tough chitin and deliver the vaccine.

Brixie assured the Entymal the injection would not be painful and the penetration cut would quickly heal. The queen-slayer weakly clicked, agreeing to the procedure. Brixie pierced the exoskeleton on the Entymal’s upper chest plate and depressed the injector’s release. After removing the glowing needle, she covered the entry wound with a bio-patch. The temporary patch would harden to the same strength as the exoskeleton.

“They don’t have antennae. Those protrusions on their backs are radiators. They use them to regulate body temperature.” Brixie returned her equipment to her bag, muttering aside. “What I was trying to say is that I wish there was another way to help these people other than arming them. Besides that, there’s good news. I gave her an anti-viral. She needs rest and fluids. When she’s strong enough, her final molt will happen in a matter of days.”

“I’ll pass that on to the guards. The caste will live, thanks to you. As for fighting for their freedom, the rest is up to them.”

More exhausted than ever, Brixie picked herself and her medical bag up. They left the tent. A parade of multi-faceted stares, like looking back into thousands of tiny windows, followed them to the landspeeder. Brixie overheard a wave of clicks, growing steadier in volume. The workers of this caste were communicating with one another, passing the word that the queen-slayer would live and she would soon become their new queen.

Back in the speeder, Ivey navigated their way out of the construction yard. Once they were up on the street level, she deftly maneuvered the speeder to return to her residential tower high in the skies. Except for the speeder’s humming motivator, a silence fell between the two of them. Their earlier disagreement about the purpose of violence still hung in the air.

“The colonel said you were captured…” Brixie frowned, trying to find a better way to ask this painful question. When Ivey didn’t immediately answer, she gave up. “Never mind. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Ivey pulled over hard and parked down a seldom-used streetway, switching off almost everything except the motivators and the built-in cameras watching the outside of the vehicle. Taking a moment, she spoke.

“My half of the transport went down in a ravine. I was the only one left alive, pinned under a piece of metal, until a squad of Imperial troops found me. They didn’t kill me. I guess I ought to have been thankful.” she spoke mechanically, as if reciting from memory. “Later on, I wasn’t.”

“What did they do to you?”

“They took me to a dungeon ship. An interrogation officer strapped me in a chair, asked me questions and dialed up the hurt. Noises. Needles. Heat. Cold. He asked me questions and didn’t believe my answers. In my holding cell, they blasted sirens so I couldn’t sleep. They dehydrated me. Microwaved me. Over and over, the eggheads threw me in the chair. The officer always asking the same questions. He told me most of the Red Moons were captured or dead. Showed me vid-images of bodies.” Ivey tilted her head towards Brixie. “One looked like you. Maybe I imagined it. Everything inside me broke apart. I told them anything they wanted to hear so I didn’t go back in that chair. I can’t remember when I started wishing I died in the crash.”

“But you got away,” Brixie tried to convey some resemblance of hope.

“I was sentenced to Sevarcos.”

Brixie gasped with a sudden rush of breath into her lungs, the same as when Hugo blew the troop shuttle hatch and every bit of oxygen and moisture was sucked out of her.

Sevarcos was a death sentence, a spice mining world and prison where the atmosphere poisoned anyone sent there. Most non-natives suffered from spice narcosis, drowning from tiny spice filaments that became lodged inside their lungs. Prisoners sentenced to the spice mines did not live very long. They didn’t want to.

“You were there?” Looking down, Brixie uncomfortably fumbled with the catches on the medical bag. “For how long?”

“Long enough.” Ivey touched the silver streak of hair that started at her left temple and wove back to the rest of her black locks. “In the mines, it was all about survival. I made allies, cut deals, stole what I could, and killed anyone who crossed me. I made myself so valuable, I finally attracted the right kind of attention. A spice lord offered to make me one of his concubines. He even gave me a trunk full of expensive shimmers to wear as his slave girl to sweeten the deal.”

Ugh. Brixie couldn’t begin to think about what life was like being enslaved to a tyrant who dealt in nothing but spice and death.

“You agreed to this?”

Ivey smirked.

“I took his deal because it was the only way off the planet. We floated right past the Fate’s Judges TIE Interceptor squadron that guards the system. Once we were in hyperspace, I knifed him. I gassed the rest of the crew with a resin of dyslium chlorite I wove into the threads of my fancy new slave girl outfit. I rigged the ship’s engines to detonate in hyperspace and escaped aboard one of the lifeboat pods. I was free. Not long after, I met up with the colonel. We decided to set up a little rebellion of our own right here on Cantras Gola. End of story.”

“How can that be the end of the story? You escaped Sevarcos. You found the colonel.” Brixie was dumfounded. “If you were free, why didn’t you contact me? I had no idea you were alive!”

“Instead of me answering that, why don’t you answer a question for me?”

Surprised by her friend’s icy demand, Brixie could only say yes.

“The colonel told me about your parents,” Ivey’s hands toyed with the speeder’s controls and switches. “You went back to Entralla. He fed me the whole speech on how we were going to let you have your life back. After what you went through, you more than earned yourself a ‘happy-ever-after’. But me being me, I went behind the colonel’s back. I was desperate to see you. I dug into Entralla’s public records, looking for some way to contact you, and found something nobody knew. Something you never spoke about to anyone. Brixie Ergo’s little secret.”

Turning abruptly in her seat, Ivey glared at Brixie with eyes as cold as a dead asteroid.

“When you joined the Red Moons, why didn’t you tell anyone you were married?

Chapter 23

“WE BOTH LOST TOO MUCH,” IVEY TOYED WITH THE SPEEDER’S CONTROLS. “TIME. FRIENDS. PEOPLE WE USED TO BE CLOSE TO…”

Leave it to Ivey and her data slicing skills to find out, although the word did sound strange coming from her throat. A word Brixie hadn’t thought about, much less brought up, in years.

Married.

“Colonel Stormcaller wanted me to be a field medic for the Red Moons. That’s what he got. He never asked if I had a husband.”

“You lied,” Ivey looked at her in amazement. “To everyone.”

Brixie kept her voice level and neutral, as though she was discussing a diagnosis with a patient.

“I didn’t talk about my marriage because I didn’t want to involve him.” Brixie couldn’t even bring herself to say his name. She remembered a handsome young man, quick to laugh and thrilling to be near. “He came from a very prominent family on Entralla. We met during indoctrination week during first term at the medical university. When you’re the only child of busy parents, you don’t meet too many people beyond your medical books and study groups. He was outgoing and charming and sweet. I was drawn to Rafe. We were crazy about each other. It was like something out of a storybook.”

She could tell Ivey didn’t look the least sympathetic, especially when she said his name was Rafe, but Brixie went through with the rest of her story anyway.

“A few weeks later, we got married by a civil officiate. In secret. That’s the data record you found. Yes, it was reckless and silly and selfish and anything else you can think of. None of our families knew because we didn’t want anyone spoiling our happiness.”

Ivey looked unconvinced. “What a terrible life you must have had.”

Brixie’s gaze turned diamond hard with anger.

“My parents’ abduction changed everything. The government on Entralla did nothing. They answered to the Proclamate, a corrupt goon installed by the Imperials to rule over the planet. My parents were taken to serve the Imperial regime. I was told to do nothing. I couldn’t sit around and do nothing. Rafe told me not to, but I started making inquiries. I hung around the worst parts of the capital city trying to hire someone to find my parents. Anyone. A bounty hunter. A skip tracer. No one would help me. Some local swoopers thought I was some lost rich kid and cornered me in an alley. That’s when Colonel Stormcaller came out of nowhere, dressed up like some drifter. He turned those two thugs into street paste.”

Brixie nodded her head as she recalled the memory of that first meeting with him.

“We talked about my parents. He promised to help find them, but he needed a medic. We made an agreement. There was no time to talk things over with Rafe or anyone else. I had to leave for the training moon that night.”

Ivey tilted her head, surprised by Brixie’s determination.

“Did you tell him?”

“I sent a transmission before I got on the shuttle. I told him not to look for me. It would be safer for him and his family not to know someone fighting against the Empire. I told him I was sorry.” Keeping her voice steady was pointless. Her voice cracked with emotion. “Then I left.”

Ivey shook her head in disbelief.

“That’s it? You left him a goodbye message?”

“It was the safest thing to do. I told you, his family was well known on Entralla. They were wealthy and had political connections. If anyone found out Rafe was married to an insurgent, the Imperials would have arrested him and his family. They would be imprisoned!”

“What about us? The Red Moons were like family. We relied on each other. Trusted one another. If you had told us you were married to such a big political target, the colonel would have never asked you to join us. You endangered us.”

“No one found out.”

“That’s not the point!”

“What is the point?” Brixie threw her head back against the seat cushion in exasperation. “Five years ago, it didn’t matter. You never spoke about where you came from or how you came here until today.”

“How is that the same as you not telling me you were married?”

Angry when all she wanted was to rekindle a lost friendship, Brixie turned away.

“If I didn’t show up in your listening post inside that building, I would have never known you were alive!”

“I decided not to contact you because Stormcaller was right. It was better for everyone if we stayed away. You moved on. You had a new life.”

“What new life? Nothing was the same. My parents were dead. The rest of my family didn’t want to speak to me. They imagined I had something to do with their deaths. When I returned to Entralla, Rafe dissolved the marriage contract. He said I was different than the girl he knew before, and he was right. I am different. I am not sorry for the things I did! I threw myself into my work at the hospital all these years. All those years went by and no one from the Red Moons contacted me. I lost everything!”

“We both lost too much,” Ivey toyed with the speeder’s controls. “Time. Friends. People we used to be close to…”

“Why does the past matter so much to you?”

Refusing to answer, Ivey started switching on the speeder’s main engines. She was going to leave it at that and not talk any more.

Brixie reached over and snapped the engine switches back off. Before Ivey could protest, she grabbed hold of the young data slicer’s hands and forced her to look into her eyes. They couldn’t ignore the past anymore. Something had to be said.

“What hurt the most wasn’t losing my parents or my marriage to some aristocrat’s son. It was losing you.”

Honest surprise dawned over Ivey.

“Really?”

“I thought about you a million times more than anyone.”

A gleam of humor appeared in Ivey’s hazel eyes. Her icy façade finally cracked. She squeezed Brixie’s hands back, not wanting to let go.

“That many times? You counted?”

“After we finally find each other,” Brixie shook her head in frustration. “You’re still acting like a pain in the ass!”

Ivey burst out laughing, then wiped her damp eyes with a sleeve.

“What is it with you and cursing? It’s too funny.”

They embraced and held on tight, fearing they were dreaming.

“I missed you, Princess. A million, million times over.”

The familiar nickname soothed Brixie’s anxious heart. At long last, their friendship could begin anew.

Pulling back, Ivey pulled a stray curl of Brixie’s hair out of her eyes and behind her ear just as she used to do.

“Speaking of reunions, I found your mother.”

###

“We don’t have time for this.”

Sully Tigereye was sitting in a chair, which would have been a marvel to anyone except to himself. Wearing a wrap of bacta-infused bandages around his upper body and several patches on his injured face, he sat painfully in a hover lounger, leaning hard on one of the arm supports. A medical droid hovered behind him on its repulsors, carefully keeping watch on the pharma infuser with its intravenous tube implanted in his arm and quite ready to prevent him from ripping the device out.

Good old Sully, Brixie mused. He was right back to his usual, jovial self.

With the exception of Hugo, the rest of the Red Moons were gathered in one of the larger and comfortable lounging rooms in Ivey’s residence. This room was set with wall-sized vidscreens and another bar operated by Bee-Bee, the mixologist droid. Traveling on a rail hidden behind the walls, Bee-Bee could slip from one room to the next at Ivey’s whim.

Bee-Bee was busy crafting a fruity concoction—no alcohol—for Dink, the young street kid. Seated on a spinning bar stool, the boy enjoyed wearing his sniper’s helmet everywhere. Brixie imagined it was because he liked fooling around with the low-light macrobinoculars built into the helmet’s rim.

Seated next to him was Ivey. She told him earlier he couldn’t have alcohol, then scolded the boy for fiddling around with the high-powered specs and sneakily aiming them at her and Brixie. She smacked the side of the helmet with the back of her hand to get him to pay attention.

“You do know you can’t see through walls with that thing…or clothing, right?”

“I know, sheesh!” he complained.

“The adults are talking,” she firmly reminded him before turning back to Tigereye and Stormcaller. The colonel had taken a seat in one of the sectional loungers across from Brixie.

“If Zult’s got the data from Setting Sun, even if it’s in pieces, he can do serious damage to the Republic,” Tigereye spoke again, his voice like gravel bouncing around the innards of an Astromech droid. “They should be warned.”

“They have been,” Stormcaller interjected. “The question is, what should they protect? There are too many tempting targets and much of the Republic fleet’s fighting off incursions by the First Order. They’re taking advantage of the destruction of the Republic’s home system. This is up to us. We have to bang our heads together, find the top mark on Zult’s list and stop him.”

“We? You mean us?” Brixie asked, looking around the room with a degree of uncertainty. “Just the four of us?”

“Five.” Dink raised his hand as if he was on a school yard and offering to join their side for a game of tag. “There are five of us.”

“Doesn’t anyone think this is a job for the Resistance? They have ships, firepower and…” Brixie regarded the boy with a frown. “Soldiers old enough to shave.”

“I shave!” Dink retorted, rubbing his embarrassingly young-looking chin. “I shaved this morning.”

Brixie made a face at him. Ivey waved her off.

“Don’t encourage him.”

“Brixie’s right.” Tigereye growled at the kid to silence him. “If Zult has some deal with the First Order, we don’t stand much of a chance of stopping him. He can bring a Star Destroyer down on our heads.”

“We have something Zult might not expect,” Ivey spoke up. “Hugo.”

“How can he be of any help to us? I thought you put him in a coma?” Tigereye regarded Brixie. “You know, so he wouldn’t try to kill the rest of us?”

“Ivey, I don’t know if this will work.” Brixie shook her head. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m not qualified.”

“You’re Hugo’s friend. He knows you. He’ll trust you.”

“He could regress or worse. He could lash out.”

“But I’ll be there with you.”

“Do what, exactly?” Stormcaller interrupted.

Ivey hopped off the stool near Dink, picking up a pad controller for the room’s vidscreens.

“We know Zult used deep mental reprogramming to control Hugo with cognitive procedures Brixie’s mother developed to help patients with brain injuries. He created a fake world, a bio-sphere, and dropped Hugo inside it. To Hugo, it’s an endless reality. He never reaches the boundaries. But there are layers inside this world.” Ivey adjusted the room’s lighting and brought up the large wall screen. Calling up the programs stored in the datapad, the vidscreen flashed into a green world filled with forests and plants and scampering creatures. “Brixie’s mother created this holo-world. I found her inside. Actually, Brixie found her first.”

“Found her?” the colonel questioned.

“Not her exactly, but an administrative interface to manage the construct. Zult used this layer to control Hugo—to prod him into taking a new direction or action. The program creates challenges for him in the bio-sphere, masking reality, so Hugo would act on Zult’s orders.” Ivey turned to Tigereye. “He thought you were some vicious beast destroying the bio-sphere.”

“Vicious beast?” Tigereye quipped, glaring at the medical droid chattering nervously behind him. “Where do people get these ideas?”

“You can communicate with Hugo with this interface?” Stormcaller interrupted.

“Maybe. This is a copy of the data Brixie and Sully stole from the hospital on Ord Mantell. And this is with the administration layer running.” Ivey adjusted the image. A woman stood in front of a small stream that ran throughout the bio-dome’s setting. “A code is needed to unlock Doctor Ergo’s interface. I can’t retrieve the code, but I think the avatar will respond to Brixie. If she can unlock the interface, I can walk through all of Zult’s prior interactions. He may have used the holo-program to store important files that we can use against him. Just like Setting Sun, but in reverse.”

“Great for us, if it works. But what about Hugo?”

“I have to talk with him,” Brixie declared, pointing to the screen. “In there.”

“You’re going to download yourself into that giant ego of his?” Tigereye found the whole idea dubious.

“No.” Brixie shook her head. “We use a holo-theater to connect the datapad’s record of the program and reproduce this virtual world. It’s the same setup from the hospital. Ivey will handle the technical parts. We wake Hugo up inside the program with me. I’ll try to talk him into leaving the bio-dome.”

“And if he doesn’t believe you?” Stormcaller quietly suggested. “What if he wants to stay in there?”

“Then he’ll be safe and happy there for the rest of his life.” Brixie shrugged. “He just won’t spend it with us.”

Chapter 24

“OH MY STARS…” BRIXIE REALIZED IN PANIC. HER MOTHER HAD RECORDED THIS MESSAGE AT THE HYDROPOWER STATION

DURING THE RED MOONS’ ATTACK.

Brixie impatiently fidgeted. Ivey’s luxurious residence also included a complete holo-theater entertainment suite. She ordered her small army of housekeeping droids to remove the stadium seating so Brixie wouldn’t bump into anything in the holo-program’s immersive, virtual environment. Waiting for Ivey to download the data files into the suite’s projectors, Brixie positioned herself in the room.

“Try not to run into any walls,” Ivey suggested, her voice coming from an amplifier comlink nestled inside Brixie’s ear. She was seated outside the suite at a small control studio. The holo-theater room could show almost anything: from virtual reenactments and commercially-produced entertainments to participation games.

“I won’t,” Brixie nervously waited. She never felt so alone before—just her and her feelings inside this vacant space covered in reflective prismatic material.

The holo-projectors produced virtual imagery in three dimensions. Brixie wore tactiles; thin control gloves that would provide feedback against physical objects she encountered in the virtual space. If she reached out to touch a tree with her hand, she could “feel” the tree. She could also control the program or the environment using gestures with the gloves.

“You okay?” Ivey asked.

“I’ll let you know after it’s over.”

“Brixie.” The tone of Ivey’s voice changed to concern. Perhaps the young woman seated at the control console understood playing this part of the program would be a traumatic experience for her. “This imagery is a program. It won’t be empathic to your feelings. It just accepts input and relays information.”

“I know,” Brixie curtly answered. “I’m not going to fall down and cry like a helpless little girl, if that’s what you think.”

“What I’m trying to say is…” Ivey paused. “It’s okay if you do. I’m here if you need me. Any time you want, I’ll cut the program.”

Brixie bit the inside of her cheek. Ivey was only offering her help. She turned to the approximate location of the control studio behind a wall. The one-way reflective material made it impossible for her to see Ivey, but she smiled at her anyway.

“Careful, Ivey. Your good side is showing.” Brixie sucked in a breath and shut her eyes. The initial load-up of the program and the assembly of various holo objects could be disorienting. “You can start the program anytime.”

A rush of cool, clean moist air entered her nostrils. The holo theater was a completely immersive experience, that included sounds as well as smells and changes in relative humidity and temperature.

Brixie’s eyes blinked open. She was in the bio-sphere. Trees, some ancient with twisted boughs, rose like the arches of a cathedral. Branches and leaves whispered on a light wind pushed by circulatory fans in the high dome roof. Birds and creatures of a thousand different species chattered in her ears. Off in the distance she could overhear, a trick of the suite’s acoustical speakers, water churning from a stream. Her mother would be in that direction.

A kite-fox swooped past her head and alighted on a tree limb several feet off the ground, its vermillion fur ringed with splotches of light and dark helping it hide in the shadows. How stunning it was for her to see this creature when she was millions of lightyears away on a completely different planet. The kite-fox warily eyed her with iridescent goldenrod eyes that reminded her of Sully. She almost wanted to ask it.

“Having any luck with those squints?”

“Focus, Lady Brix.” Ivey’s voice interrupted her imagined repartee with the creature. “The path to your mother is on your right.”

“Got it.”

Brixie walked a few steps. It was an uncanny effect. Her feet were moving but the dome’s forest rushed past her in great, exaggerated segments. This was called “distance compression”, a safety feature to keep her from colliding with walls. If she got too close, the sensors on the back of her tactile gloves would issue a warning vibration.

“This is some fancy holo suite you’ve got,” Brixie maneuvered through the foliage to reach the stream. The tactile sensors on her gloves responded when she touched a nearby tree limb, feeling as though it was really there. Curiosity got the better of her. “What do you do with a toy like this?”

“Invite coworkers and corporate execs over. We have party games like dance contests and snowball fights.”

“You?” Brixie couldn’t imagine Ivey being playful.

“I’ve got an image to keep up,” she remarked. “Now stop changing the subject.”

“Right,” Brixie sighed, getting back to the problem at hand.

A lone figure stood at the edge of the rushing stream, her back to her. Seeing her again brought a shiver to Brixie’s neck and shoulders. In the enlarged dimensions of the holo theater, there was no longer any doubt this was her mother. She could tell by the color and arrangement of her raven-colored hair and the familiar tilt of her head slightly to the right whenever she deeply pondered a problem. She wore a beige-colored tunic, trousers and slip-on booties familiar to those in the medical craft. The only difference was the dreaded five-pointed star of the Pentastar Alignment patch on her tunic’s shoulder. She was another slave of the Imperials.

Brixie wanted to reach out and touch her, new questions filling her head. How old was her mother when this image was compiled? Was it during the early days of her abduction or the latter? Where was her father?

“Hello? Mother?” Brixie spoke to her. The figure did not turn around or return her words.

“So much for that. I was hoping she would respond to your voice. I’ve tried everything I could think of to unlock her,” Ivey made a list. “Your name. Your father’s name. The names of her peers at the medical university. Her birthdate and citizen ident code on Entralla. It must be a phrase or something only your mother would have known.”

Brixie dug hard into her memories. She tried nursey rhymes. Favorite songs her mother sung to her when she was a child. Poetry. Even jokes. The passcode was either diabolically simple or painfully complex.

“I’m running out of ideas.”

Brixie grew frustrated with staring at the back of her mother’s head. She couldn’t believe she was this close and the image completely ignored her. The strange dream she experienced while under the bacta healing stasis reared itself again.

“Won’t you talk to me, Mother? Please? It’s me! Brixie! We never got the chance to speak before you were taken.” Brixie wrung her hands, agitated. “I was so frantic when you and Father disappeared. All I wanted was to hear the sound of your voice again. It was so bad, I kept the last voice message you sent….” she laughed. “…reminding me to do my dirty laundry!”

That was a point of contention between mother and daughter Brixie would long remember. She dropped her clothing in the bedroom of their old residence and every time her mother would complain about it. She didn’t want Brixie to rely upon their solitary housekeeping droid. Her mother wanted her to learn to take care of things herself.

The words “dirty laundry” must have meant something more to her mother than Brixie expected. The holo-image of Doctor Mari Ergo turned around and faced her.

“Voice phrase key accepted. Access to administration protocols granted.”

“Son of a Jawa!” Ivey laughed in Brixie’s ear. “You did it.”

Brixie took a jubilant step towards her mother, her arms wide, hoping the holo would do the same so they might embrace. The image only stood there, calmly speaking. Unlike in her dream, the avatar was only a recording.

“My name is Doctor Mari Ergo. My husband Praxis and myself were taken prisoner by a Pentastar Alignment agent named Ephron Zult. We have been forced to do his bidding. This holo program is a mental destabilization routine. Victims are susceptible to suggestions and commands issued through the program’s characters. If left continually exposed to the program, victims can remain trapped inside this mental illusion, resulting in disorientation, paranoia and violence. Agent Zult’s purpose is to create dangerous weapons out of ordinary citizens who are capable of attacking without warning. Even close friends or relatives…”

“Like what Hugo did to Sully,” Ivey’s voice added through the comlink in Brixie’s ear.

“I nor my husband wanted to see Zult succeed. I have implemented these administrative protocols which can override the nurse character in the holo story. I have given that character special attributes that can dismantle the illusion and help return patients from their delusional state. My husband Praxis has been secretly siphoning data from Agent Zult’s private data servers. He has hidden the information inside the kite-fox routines found in this bio-sphere. I beg you to send this information to the New Republic. Zult must be stopped. He has already killed too many innocents trying to perfect this experiment.”

“Looks like your parents sabotaged Zult using his own program…” Ivey noted.

“During our abduction, Zult used a sleep gas on us. When we awoke, we discovered tiny explosives had been implanted at the base of our skulls. Zult controls these. He threatened to kill either of us, right before our eyes, if we did not cooperate. He also threatened to harm our daughter Brixie, showing us images of two dangerous killers tracking her throughout the capital on Entralla.”

Brixie gasped. The two thugs stopped by Colonel Stormcaller weren’t there because they thought she was an easy mark to rob. They were threatening her life to extort her parents into helping Zult.

Her mother’s expression changed from anger to fortitude.

“As I record this message, an assault is taking place at the hydropower plant where we are being held prisoner. Zult has activated the self-destruct on his data servers and droids. No doubt, he will soon send the commands to kill us too. My husband and I have resigned ourselves to our fate. We do not expect to be rescued. But we control our own destiny.”

“Oh my stars…” Brixie realized in panic. Her mother had recorded this message at the hydropower station during the Red Moons’ attack. When she was there!

Her mother wasn’t alone. A familiar-looking man stepped into the multi-angle camera’s field of view. Her father was as handsome and rugged as she remembered, more worn down than she expected, but his gaze was still defiant. Despite a terrible wound that cut across his Imperial tunic, he put his arm around his wife and drew her close as he spoke to the recording unit.

“To anyone listening to this message,” Doctor Praxis Ergo declared. “We have a wonderful daughter, Brixie, named for the most beautiful star in Entralla’s night sky. She has always been in our thoughts. We hope she is safe. Her light is an example for others to follow. Please find her and give her this message. Remember us like this, daughter, and not what some madman did to us. Remember us, Little Brix. You’re the best of us.”

It did Brixie little good to control herself. Tears streamed down her cheeks like the endless brook running through this haunted forest.

From behind his back, Praxis Ergo displayed two small blaster pistols.

“The security droids won’t be needing these.” He turned at some distant explosion picked up by the recorder’s microphones. “Zult is leaving. He’s going to send the rest of the destruct codes, my darling. He thinks he’s won, but he hasn’t. We need to act now.”

“Brixie!” Ivey’s voice warned in her ear. “I can cut it…”

Brixie moved towards her parents, waving her arms to get their attention, forgetting these images were from the past.

“Why didn’t you wait? I was there! I was there with the Red Moons! If only you had waited! I could have saved you!”

Mari Ergo took one of the pistols from him. Husband and wife lingered for a moment, looking affectionately at one another before parting hands. She faced the camera one last time as the two of them slowly backed away out of the holo camera’s range.

“Recorder droid, transmit this program to the master storage facility on Ord Mantel and merge with the bio-sphere construct program. End recording.”

“Mother!! Father!!”

She was too late to save them, even now.

Brixie rushed forward. Her mother and father became shadows of light and dark before disappearing from her sight. She fell to her knees, her arms wrapping around only the cool air in the lonely forest.

Somewhere among the high trees, a kite-fox called out for its mate.

The holo program switched off. Despite Ivey rushing inside to comfort her, Brixie still found herself alone inside a black box full of reflective shimmers.

Her parents were only ghosts. But for her to see and hear them again was worth more than all the misgivings and confusion she had before. They had snatched Zult’s petty triumph away from him. He had no power over them. She would always remember her parents for their defiance, their ingenuity and their bravery.

And they never forgot their daughter.

Chapter 25

TK-421, THE STORMTROOPER UNIT COMMANDER, COULD HARDLY REFRAIN FROM SPEAKING HIS OWN ASSESSMENT OF THE SITUATION.

“IF THIS GOES BAD, WE’LL BE NOTHING

BUT GRILLED BANTHA STEAKS.”

The First Order Star Destroyer Finalizer and a sister warship, the Gigant, remained stationary near NaJedha, a large airless world where the desert moon of Jedha orbited. The recently-arrived vessels were using the larger planetoid’s mass to block possible sensor sweeps emanating from smaller Jedha.

Not that General Hux was expecting sensor sweeps or anything else that remotely suggested a Republic base on the moon. His intelligence confirmed Jedha was dead. All of its inhabitants had been killed when the surface was scraped clean after a single laser burst from the Death Star destroyed the Holy City where the Jedi’s followers worshipped the kyber crystal. Hux didn’t need to be convinced otherwise, especially from the likes of Pentastar Agent Zult who stood calmly in his presence.

Zult appeared unfazed about Hux’s opinions, much less the platoon of First Order stormtroopers threatening to take him and his sole remaining Pentastar Alignment stormtrooper commander into custody.

“Where’s my command shuttle?” Hux inquired, hands folded behind his back.

“Does it matter?” Zult shrugged. “It’s merely a piece of equipment.”

“Yes. It’s a piece of equipment, like the Star Destroyers you sacrificed, along with the countless trained personnel at Jaemus. All that matters to you is the means to an end.”

“Precisely. I have provided you with the end of the Republic,” Zult chided the general. “Personally, I was imagining a more grateful response rather than this childish predilection for things.”

“You were expecting gratitude?” Hux pointed at the lifeless world of NaJedha and the even deader moon that lay beyond it. “For bringing me here? That deserted heap of rock is all that remains from the Empire’s first test of the Death Star. There’s nothing there except for sand and dust.”

“The emergency council of the New Republic, those who took the places of the senators you slaughtered on Hosnian Prime, is on Jedha.”

Hux paced, itching to choose between killing Zult with his own sidearm or watching in delight as he was tossed into an airlock and spaced for wasting his time and energy.

“You are gravely mistaken, Zult. My scouts have been there. There is no secret base. The subterranean caverns below the surface collapsed in on themselves. They don’t exist. The Death Star’s laser attack lifted miles of rock into the sky.”

Hux pointed to a tactical display on the bridge’s command cupola aboard the Finalizer, showing a sensor scan of the moon sent back by probe droids hovering near the giant planet’s horizon line. The rubble ejected from the Death Star’s laser blast, some thirty years ago, had been recaptured by Jedha’s gravity and was forming a ring around the moon. The scattered rock and dust made a lasting ornament; the first time an entire planetary object was affected by the power of the Empire.

“There are no caves for anyone to hide in,” Hux snarled. “Jedha remains as dead as your theories.”

“They are there.” Zult gestured toward the display. “I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out by now.”

“What am I supposed to infer from that statement?”

“The Republic took your idea, General. It’s staring at you right in the face.”

Speaking of his face, the color of his cheeks and forehead changed to the approximate color of a red giant.

“What?”

“Starkiller Base was a moon, was it not? Your construction teams dug deep into that planetoid, using its natural caverns and tunnels to form the sun-stealing super laser’s core. The Republic did the same to Jedha, another moon long overlooked by pirates and scroungers. They built a base deep in the moon’s core. I have seen the plans.” He pointed to his head—and the data retrieved from Setting Sun that resided within. “The entrance is a crater right under where the Holy City used to be located. You can almost hear the Republic’s designers laughing at you while they were building this thing. Even its name is intended as a direct insult. Defiance Base.”

The barest of smiles registered on Zult’s face, suggesting he enjoyed calling him out—especially in front of his officers and crew. This time, however, Hux decided not to directly take on the agent’s insults. If Zult enjoyed his conquests so much, Hux was going to give him what he so desperately desired. Recognition.

If the agent failed, so much the better.

Hux studied the sensor display of the moon. The tone of his voice changed from accusation to one of consolation.

“I stand corrected, Agent Zult. Your hard work has provided the First Order with a powerful opportunity. If the Republic’s council-in-exile is down there, they must be rooted out and found. Not destroyed, at least not immediately, but put to good use. Political use. You did suggest that under the right circumstances, the New Republic would fall apart. What better way than by capturing the council’s members and turning their systems to the First Order? Without their support, the Republic will crumble.”

“I am pleased you see things my way,” the agent agreed, somewhat surprised that the General was acknowledging his recommendations for once.

“Then we are in agreement.” Hux declared. “You will lead the assault on this base and capture the council’s members.”

“Me?” Zult pointed to himself, taken aback.

“You have the knowledge, Agent Zult.” Tightly smiling, Hux aimed his index finger at the man’s head, mocking Zult’s own prior gesture. “Why waste time relating details to a tactical droid? I hereby promote you to Field Commander of all First Order forces here at Jedha. You will breach the base, find the council members and bring them before me. Preferably alive.”

“Why would I want to do that?” Zult huffed, clearly not enjoying the idea of him leading a battle.

“Because I will personally inform Supreme Leader Snoke of your gallant actions and urge him to make you a member of High Command. You will sit at his side, a favored and trusted aide in our retaking of the Galaxy.”

It was a tempting prize to dangle in front of the agent, offering him not only recognition, but respect and acceptance. Zult had lost his standing after the absorption of the Pentastar Alignment into the feeble Imperial Remnant. Now he was being offered a place in the First Order. Hux knew Zult couldn’t resist.

“I am overwhelmed by your confidence in my abilities.” Zult motioned to the Alignment command trooper beside him. The stormtrooper’s armor, outdated as it was, appeared damaged and in a pitiful state. “I request my unit commander assist me in planning and executing the assault.”

“As you wish,” Hux agreed. “Tell your commander to report to the ship’s armory. He is to be issued First Order equipment. The Pentastar Alignment and the Imperial Remnant is finished, Agent Zult. The sooner you realize that, the faster you will ascend to the inner circle of the First Order.”

“Of course, General.”

Hux strode out of the bridge’s command cupola, very much pleased with himself.

Zult suspiciously eyed the general and the First Order officers and troops that followed him. None of them wanted anything to do with Zult, much less take orders from him.

TK-421, the stormtrooper unit commander, could hardly refrain from speaking his own assessment of the situation.

“If this goes bad, we’ll be nothing but grilled bantha steaks.”

“Agreed,” Zult kept his voice low. “The general is clearly hoping we fail. Even if we do succeed and capture the council, I’m sure the forces assigned to us will make their loyalty quite clear. Hux will take the credit and leave us on Jedha, not as bantha steaks, but as smoldering piles of ash.”

“What do we do, sir?”

“We do as the general ordered, of course. Help yourself to the ship’s armory. While you are there, be sure to obtain a frequency modulation scanner. I have something in mind to counter the general’s most generous offer.”

The veteran stormtrooper grimly nodded.

“Yes, sir.”

Chapter 26

“MY DEAR, I’M GOING TO HAVE TO ASK YOU TO LEAVE.” THE GARDENER INTERRUPTED. “THIS IS A PRIVATE FACILITY. THIS YOUNG MAN IS UNDER OUR GUIDANCE AND CARE.”

After finding some emotional solitude fussing with the clothesmaker unit in Ivey’s master bedroom suite, Brixie put aside her grief and returned to the holo theater. She found the medical droid had finished maneuvering Hugo and his hospital bed inside. Ivey was configuring the bed’s segments so Hugo would awaken from his medically-induced coma in a sitting position. Content with his positioning, Ivey reprogrammed the bed’s visual mask so it would resemble a “tree” in the biosphere program.

The biosphere program around them was “frozen”, locked in place so none of the holographic objects interacted with them or Hugo yet. The real trick for Ivey was to get Hugo’s living mind—his interpretation of the world around him—to synchronize with the holo program’s data. The doctors from the hospital on Ord Mantell were more familiar with this than she was. All she could do, with Brixie’s help, was guess.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” Brixie assured Ivey. “This should be the last time we’ll ever see this awful place.”

Ivey turned around to say something and stopped. Her mouth formed an “oh” in surprise.

The clothesmaker unit in the residence’s bedroom suite could engineer almost any style of clothing according to one’s tastes. Her flaxen hair done up in a complex braid, Brixie had swapped out her clothes for an exaggerated version of a medical assistant’s uniform. The material was tightly contoured to her figure and the top was unzipped to accentuate more than simply her neckline.

Brixie looked down at herself, smoothing the wrinkles in the flexible fabric. Yes, she admitted, the outfit was rather…revealing.

“You don’t like it?”

“I didn’t say that.” Ivey tried hard not to stare. “How come you never dressed this way when you with the Red Moons?”

“Are you joking?” Brixie turned around, checking how the uniform accentuated her backside. “I wouldn’t wear this on a mission. I wouldn’t wear this ever. The nurse character was designed to distract Hugo and stop him from asking too many questions. Using my mother’s administrative protocols, I’m replacing that character in the program.”

“You certainly are,” Ivey noted with a wry smile. “You know, you and Hugo always did have an odd relationship.”

“It’s not odd. Hugo and I always had something like a doctor-patient relationship. Whenever he panicked or felt he was losing control on a mission, he trusted me enough to help calm him down.” Brixie tugged at the outfit, unaccustomed to its tight fit. “By showing up as the nurse, I hope to leverage that into convincing Hugo it’s a delusion.”

“He always did trust you the most.” Walking up to her, Ivey tugged on the opened zipper of her outfit, playfully pulling it down a few clicks. “Tell me, is wearing this your idea of a doctor-patient relationship?”

“I…I didn’t say that!” Her cheeks and ears turning bright red from all this attention, Brixie yanked the zipper back up. She pointed at the theater’s access door. “Enough about me. You better get back to the control console. I’m going to wake Hugo up.”

“Yes, Doctor Ergo.” Ivey grinned as she headed for the door. “Luck to you. Bring him back to us.”

Brixie went to Hugo’s medical bed, now resembling a tree until she stepped through the plane of holographic projection that surrounded it. She started the wake-up procedures, keying in the delivery of a different set of drugs through the hypocuff that would terminate his comatose state. Brixie slipped the earcom back in so she could hear Ivey from the control console.

“Ready to restart the holo program when you are,” Ivey spoke up.

“Start it up. It will take a while before he wakes.”

The holo program, still and quiet as a three-dimensional image, resumed functioning. A breeze passing through the trees, the chittering sounds of forest dwellers, and the smells of a recent rainfall filled the theater’s space.

Hugo moaned. Brixie removed the hypocuff from his arm and backed away.

“Any sign of the gardener?” Brixie asked Ivey, glancing around.

“Not yet. The program is definitely noticing Hugo, though. I removed the nurse from the codec and applied your mother’s protocols to you. Wait a second.” The voice inside her ear disappeared for a long second, then returned. “There’s a spike of activity on my screens. You should be expecting the gardener any second now.”

Brixie had nothing to fear from the gardener or the rest of this holo-program. They were only code built into the routines. Holos couldn’t touch or hurt real things. What concerned her was how much Hugo relied upon the program.

“Hugo?” Brixie called out. “Can you hear me?”

“Hmmm?”

He opened his eyes and glanced around, groggy and uncertain as if he had been asleep for years instead of hours. Rubbing at his face and squinting, he looked up and saw her.

“How long have I…?” His eyes widened in surprise. It took him more than a few seconds to make the connection that she was dressed almost exactly as the nurse. “Brixie? Is that you?”

“Funny. That was my reaction too,” Ivey commented inside her ear.

“Stop that,” Brixie whispered to the side to Ivey before turning back to face him. “How are you feeling, Hugo?”

“Um. Tired.” He looked around, sensing he was sitting on the floor of the forest and leaning against a tree. “Confused. What are you doing here?”

Brixie long decided not to treat this conversation as a gentle question-and-answer session like she had with Hugo before on Ord Mantel. She was going to be forceful and direct.

“I wanted to talk. It’s been hard reaching you. So I came here.”

Hugo struggled to stand up on his feet.

“But you’re not supposed to be here.”

“Why not?”

“For starters, I didn’t think the doctor would let you in. He said this place is for me. And…” he gestured towards her. “Where did you get those clothes?”

“What doctor?”

“You know. The doctor,” Hugo stammered. “The man who’s been helping me since I checked into the hospital. Come to think of it, you’re not supposed to be in here….”

Brixie pressed. “What’s his name?”

“Who?”

“The doctor, Hugo. The man who put you in here. You do remember his name, don’t you?”

Hugo blanked. It was as though the man’s name was on the tip of his tongue and then evaporated. Which was to be expected, Brixie thought, since the doctor in the program had no name. Neither did any of the other characters. They were more symbolic than actual persons.

“I know what his name is,” he stammered. “I can’t remember it right now.”

“Okay. Then where are we exactly?” Brixie motioned to their surroundings.

“This is part of the hospital.”

“Which hospital?”

Again, Hugo was about to speak but stopped himself. Being unable to name the place, much less the person helping him, frustrated him.

“I just woke up, okay? Someone must have given me something to sleep. Believe me, I know how that feels. And why are you asking me all these questions? Don’t you know where we are?”

Hugo stepped back from her and invariably tripped over the lip of the hospital bed, which appeared in the holo theater like a tree root.

“I don’t know why you’re pestering me. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“The gardener’s active, Brixie.” Ivey’s voice reminded her. “He’s headed your way.”

“You’ve been pretty busy these past couple of days, Hugo. We found you on Ord Mantel. Then took over the shuttle and brought us to the Jaemus shipyards. Do you remember that?”

Hugo stumbled around the “tree”, trying to find his footing.

“I think so.” He glanced around and up at the dome of the biosphere.

“Do you remember leaving me and Sully behind?”

“I didn’t leave anyone behind…” His eyes darted from side to side, suddenly suspicious of everything around him. He had lost track of time and events. “Wait. You and Sully? We were together?”

“Hugo. Where are we right now?”

“I told you! This is the biosphere. It’s owned by the hospital.” He rubbed at his temple, still groggy from the drugs.

“How did you get here?”

“I went to see a doctor about those things we used to talk about. But after you left the Red Moons, I didn’t have anyone to talk to anymore and…” he snarled at her. “Why do you keep asking me questions?”

“I left the Red Moons five years ago, Hugo.” Brixie announced. “Where have you been all this time?”

He blanched, not liking to admit such things.

“I was in the hospital. The doctor said I needed help.”

“Right. The same doctor you can’t name, who works at a hospital you don’t know, and right now we’re standing on…what planet? What system?”

“Stop!” he screamed at her, threatening to run away into the forest. “Just stop…stop…let me think for a second. You’re not acting like her.”

“Who?”

“The nurse.”

“What nurse?”

“The nurse!” Hugo implored. He started storming around in circles, smacking his fist into his hand. “The nurse who said everything was going to be all right. The one who liked being with me. She never made fun of me! She never asked me all these damn questions. Her name is…”

He paused in mid-sentence, unable to answer Brixie. The lack of knowing was unbearable to him. He stood there, shaking and helpless, unable to speak.

“Why are you being so mean to me?” he stormed up to her, rage creasing his face. “You were never this mean to me! You cared about me!”

“I’ve always cared about you, Hugo. The reason I’m doing this, the reason why I’m here, is because I care about you. Come over here with me.”

She motioned for him to follow her, speaking low enough only for Ivey to hear.

“Bring up the stream construct.”

“You’re not in the right place,” Ivey replied.

“Just move it closer to me. Is the gardener here yet?”

“Almost.”

Brixie walked past a group of trees and pointed to the small gurgling stream that ran through the biosphere. Ivey had manipulated the program’s spatial dimensions to move the water closer.

“Hugo, look down there in the water.”

“Why?”

“For me. All you have to do is look in the water.”

Grumbling and agitated, he walked up to the stream and looked down.

“What am I supposed to be looking at? All I can see is my reflection.”

“What do you see?”

He shrugged, not understanding.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I see me!”

“Are you sure that’s you?”

“Yes!” he snorted, pointing at the stream. “That’s me. Same head. Same eyes. Same nose. Same hair. Same me. Anything else you need me to try?”

Brixie pointed at his head.

“Touch your hair.”

Frowning as though she was ridiculous, Hugo did as she requested. Reaching up, his fingers found only the bald head of his skull. Startled, he looked back in the water. In his reflection, he had his full crazy head of hair. It was another of Zult’s tricks with the holo program so Hugo would believe no time had passed inside the program.

“What’s going on?” he repeatedly touched his head and gazed upon himself in the water. He glanced at her. “Did you say five years ago? You left the Red Moons five years ago? It’s been that long?”

Taking his hand, Brixie pulled Hugo closer to her. Footsteps were approaching from the underbrush.

“Listen to me, Hugo. You and I are the only real things here. Everything and everyone else is fake. Remember this.”

“What?” Hugo asked, all the more confused.

Brixie turned to the figure appearing from the trees.

“Just remember, Hugo.”

The gardener appeared, dressed in his green and gray jumpsuit, dirty work boots, and a tool belt dangling from his hip. He was an older-looking gentleman, his face set but congenial. He resembled a kindly uncle or a knowledgeable relative; exactly the kind of person Hugo would trust.

“Say there, what’s all this ruckus?” he smiled at Hugo, then he saw Brixie. “Hello there, pretty young thing. Are you disturbing my friend here?”

Brixie ignored the gardener.

“He’s not real, Hugo. He’s a reprogrammed leftover from an old holo adventure game.”

Hugo didn’t know what to think.

“My dear, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” The gardener interrupted. “This is a private facility. This young man is under our guidance and care.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Brixie snapped back.

“We can’t have you wandering around here.” The gardener motioned to Hugo. “Son, you need to tell her to leave. She won’t unless you do.”

“That’s right, Hugo.” Brixie agreed. “You’re the one in control here. Not him.”

“I don’t want to cause any problems.” Hugo backed away.

“Well you did, son, by letting her in here. She’s an outsider. You know what happens to this fragile environment if there’s uncontrolled interference from outsiders, right? Everything gets sick and dies.”

Brixie cut him off.  “Did he tell you to kill the borganth, Hugo?”

He blinked in surprise. “How did you know…?”

“That wasn’t a borganth, Hugo. That was Sully. The gardener told you to hurt Sully. Then the doctor showed up, right? He told you the borganth was the symbol of your father and you should kill it. But that wasn’t real. None of it was.”

“Girl, all you’re doing is agitating…” the gardener started to speak.

“You’ve done quite enough.” Brixie flicked her gloved hand at him.

The gardener froze in mid-word.

“What did you do?!” Hugo bellowed in alarm.

“Watch, Hugo.”

Brixie flicked her hand again and the gardener’s image was replaced with the doctor. He stood there in exactly the same pose, just with a different body and features.

She flicked her hand again and the image became Zult.

“Who…who is that?” Hugo pointed.

“He’s been here, tricking you, all this time.” Brixie explained. “Ephron Zult. You remember him, yes?”

Hugo shook his head.

Brixie waved her hand again and Zult transmogrified into a rakishly-handsome looking man, a variant of the doctor, but wearing an Imperial officer’s uniform with a Pentastar Alignment symbol badge on his officer’s cap. Ivey found the image inside Zult’s personal files that had been hidden by Brixie’s father inside the kite-fox constructs.

“This is what Zult looked like before your grenade trap at the hydropower plant ripped his face and body to shreds.” Brixie waved her hand and erased the trees, the stream, and most of the creatures except for Zult, the kite-foxes and the hospital grav-bed. “He built this for you, Hugo. His revenge. He tracked you down, discovered you were seeking medical help, and took you. Zult took others as well, agents of the New Republic, subjecting you and them to this psychological reconditioning program. A closed bubble. You’ve been trapped here for over five years.”

Hugo shook his head in bewilderment as portions of the holo program fell away. The images he knew so well dissolved into shimmers and then nothingness—just as Brixie saw her parents slip from her grasp.

“Zult knew your past. He took advantage of the hurt and pain caused by your father. In here, he wasn’t trying to help you. He was turning you into a weapon.”

Brixie could see the momentary return of her old friend. His eyes opened and he glanced around as though he was seeing things clearly for the first time. But his gaze turned dark as he refocused. He was putting it back, all of it, inside his mind. He was running back to the safety of the biosphere and the familiar.

“I don’t believe you.”

“This is something you have to decide for yourself.” Brixie waved her hand and put the bio-sphere and its contents back in place. “You can go on living in this world, interacting with storybook characters you don’t really know. It’s a safe place. Or you can accept the world that’s right in front of you with all the messy risks and emotions that comes with it. That is where we’re waiting. Us. Your friends. We know you, Hugo. You know us.”

She waved her hand again and dissolved the imagery.

The holo-theater’s access door’s opened. Ivey emerged, followed closely by Sully Tigereye and Colonel Andrephan Stormcaller.

Seeing Tigereye’s bandages, Hugo remembered what he had done to the borganth. He had injured his long-time friend instead. He hung his head in shame, but the Trunsk wasn’t going to let him take any blame.

“Are you coming with us to kick Zult’s tin can head in?” Tigereye grunted. “Or staying here to play with your forest buddies?”

“Maybe it’s for the best. I don’t know if you could ever trust me again…”

“One thing’s for sure in the universe,” Stormcaller spoke up. “Without Hugo Cutter, the Red Moons are a very dull bunch.”

Hugo touched his head again, reminding himself of the difference between the false and the real. He announced with a determined smile.

“At least I know your names.”

Chapter 27

A STARTLING MASK, SILVER AND BLACK, FILLED THE TRANSMISSION SCREEN ON THE CONSOLE IN FRONT OF HER. A FAMILIAR VOICE, AN ELECTRONICALLY MODULATED HISS, CRACKLED OVER THE SUBSPACE FREQUENCIES.

“STAND DOWN, FINALIZER. I AM JOINING THE BATTLE.”

Brixie and the other Red Moons helped themselves to the First Order command shuttle left behind by Zult on Cantras Gola, using it to speed to the ravaged moon of Jedha. Ivey quickly reprogrammed the ship’s identity transponder and reset its travel logs so it could not be readily traced back to the Finalizer.

This was the second First Order shuttle Brixie had traveled on in the past few days, confirming how much she disliked Imperial design. The interior was dark with minimal lighting. There were black consoles and rigid corners. Conduits, grids and tubing crawled the overhead panels. The passenger compartment of the command shuttle was cold no matter how she adjusted the ambient temperature. Her acceleration seat was uncomfortable, barely some padding on a rigid frame, intended for shock troops who had no need for plush comforts.

The shuttle’s dark and chilly interior reflected her mood. They left Cantras Gola so quickly, there was little time for Brixie to emotionally process her mother and father’s last moments in the holo program. Stricken with lingering flickers of grief, she found herself wanting to sit near Ivey. Her presence was comforting. But Ivey and Sully Tigereye were busy up front at the shuttle’s controls. Brixie couldn’t bring herself to talk about her feelings with others listening in.

Colonel Stormcaller was seated on the other side of the passenger compartment from her, intent on a datapad’s display. He was using the shuttle’s communications array to send warnings about Zult’s intentions to his contacts throughout the New Republic.

As for Hugo, he stayed in the back of the passenger compartment, alone with his thoughts. Zult had injured him in the worst way, stealing years from his life and turning him into a puppet. Sneaking a glance behind her seat, she caught Hugo touching his bald head from time to time, as if questioning the reality around him. Brixie offered to sit by him, but he shook his head. He didn’t want anyone’s company.

“All right, people.” Stormcaller motioned for the others to gather around a small holo display he raised in the center of the shuttle’s passenger deck. “It’s time to put our sabaac cards on the table.”

Ivey and Sully got up from their positions at the controls from the shuttle’s bridge. Hugo remained in the back until Brixie motioned to Hugo to sit beside her.

Seeing so many familiar faces unsettled Brixie. It was as though the years between them had never passed and the Red Moons were sketching out yet another desperate mission. This time though, the stakes were incredibly high.

Ivey had processed the data stolen from Zult’s personal files in the holo program. Stored there was a detailed “hit list” designed to bring about the fall of the New Republic. Zult planned on using the five Rising Moon agents to infiltrate and sow chaos among the highest levels of the Republic’s military—command, defense arm, fleet operations, intelligence and planetary communications.

At the top of Zult’s list was removing the New Republic Council, leaving the government leaderless. That meant finding and attacking the council-in-exile. The records stored in Setting Sun was all he needed to locate them.

With the New Republic Fleet fighting off a series of surprise incursions by First Order ships and its defenses in disarray, the very existence of the New Republic now depended on the five former mercenaries.

“So what else is new?” Brixie grimly told herself. At least Ivey had the sense to leave Dink behind. He was much too young to drag off the planet and into the middle of a firefight.

“Ivey,” Stormcaller motioned. “Let’s go over the intel.”

She nodded, tapping keys on the holo table.

“We’ve been trying to send a message to Defiance Base on Jedha since before we left Cantras Gola. No response. There are sensor buoys hidden throughout the moon’s new orbital ring, but they can’t be reached. Com traffic is either being jammed or the buoys have been destroyed.”

“That could mean the base is gone too,” Sully interjected.

“Not necessarily,” Stormcaller shook his head. “Standard Imperial attack doctrine calls for a sensor blackout of an entire system while they ready their forces for an assault. What’s important is that we can’t warn Defiance Base and they can’t call for help.”

Ivey continued. “I intercepted several holo-net communications on the old Imperial frequencies sent from Ackbar’s B-wing fighter. Zult contacted a First Order Star Destroyer called Finalizer, which is where this shuttle came from. It’s the flagship of General Hux, some high muckety-muck of the First Order.”

“Didn’t he command Starkiller Base?” Sully tapped his extended claws on the panel console nearest to him.

“Not until the Resistance blew it back to the origins of time and sent the First Order running back to their black hole. I found a Republic Intelligence analysis dossier on the general. Hux is as vain as they come. No doubt, he’s looking for something big and notable to salvage his reputation.” Ivey nodded to the colonel. “Right after Zult sent his holo net greeting to Hux, I picked up Finalizer contacting another Star Destroyer called Gigant. They were matching coordinates to rendezvous at Jedha. Zult must have told the general about Defiance Base.”

“This is waiting for us at Jedha.” Stormcaller flexed his hand over the rounded holo table. A pair of flickering Star Destroyers appeared in the NeJedha system, hovering close to the moon with an iridescent ring of rubble.

“Two Destroyers? That’s a big landing force,” Hugo muttered.

“Not as big as the ones the Empire dropped on Hoth or the garrison on Endor. Those were all-or-nothing campaigns. Hux can’t afford to bleed soldiers and ships. He knows his boss, Supreme Leader Snoke, is watching. I’m imagining he will launch a strong landing force.” Stormcaller waved his hand and the tactical holo-imagery zoomed in, revealing a small force of ships and fighters. “Half a dozen shuttles with stormtroopers and TIE escorts. No walkers or heavy artillery. The tunnels at the moon’s core are a tight fit. It’s my guess he wants to take the New Republic council-in-exile alive.”

“Why?” Brixie asked.

“Because wiping out the council at Hosnian Prime accomplished nothing. It frightened the Republic and stiffened the resolve of General Organa-Solo and the Resistance. Remember Governor Tarkin and the Death Star? Same difference. The more terror you cause, the greater the will to fight back. The First Order gambled on a superweapon to destroy the Republic and lost. The data Zult was keeping suggests an opposite approach. Take the council hostage. It fits perfectly in his plan to force key worlds of the Republic to capitulate to the First Order. There’s a good chance Zult himself will be down there with the assault force so he can gloat.”

Except for the occasional hoot of navigational marker signals from the bridge readouts, silence filled the small starship. Stormcaller noted their silent but grim reactions as they studied the holo image. They were headed for trouble.

“We’re nothing but a couple of sand flies caught between two rancors in a pit. It’s just the five of us. However, we might be able to use that to our advantage.”

Six!” a muffled voice came from one of the shuttle’s storage compartments. “There’s six of us!

Stormcaller exchanged a surprised look with Ivey, tapping his ear with its electronic implant. Tigereye moved to the overhead compartment door and bashed on it with his heavy fist.

Ow!” the voice complained.

The door slid open and a young scrap of a boy tumbled out of the compartment and into the Trunsk’s arms.

Hugo was so startled he almost jumped behind Brixie out of fright.

“It’s a Mynock!”

“This ain’t no Mynock. It’s the kid.” Tigereye snarled. “What were you doing up in there?”

“I was listening,” Dink struggled to get out of his grasp. “You need my help. Let me go!”

“We don’t want your help, you little wiggle-worm. I’m going to stuff you into the food hydrator and leave you there.”

“Sully,” Brixie called out. “Don’t hurt him.”

“It’s okay, Tigereye. Let the boy go,” Stormcaller told him.

Sully dropped the boy to the floor. Dink neatly landed on his feet, rushed up to the colonel and saluted.

“You need an advanced scout, sir. Someone who can slip through those tunnels inside the base unnoticed. If you didn’t know I was here, then those Imps won’t see me coming or going either. I know how to crawl through the Hive. I can be useful!”

“How do you know about the base tunnels?” Ivey asked.

“I got bored hanging up there. I read over your shoulder for most of the flight.” He smirked at Brixie. “Oh by the way, she’s been staring at you this whole time.”

Brixie wanted to the strangle the little imp.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Sneaky little cretin.” Tigereye pointed at the boy. “You’ll be hanging from a hook on the washroom door after I get through with you.”

Ivey pulled up a schematic of Defiance Base on the holo table.

“Wait a second. This could actually be to our advantage. He can crawl through the base’s ventilation systems without them knowing he’s there.”

“Right. He could infiltrate and report back to us,” Stormcaller noted.

“Absolutely!” Dink saluted him again.

“I can’t believe you’re taking him seriously,” Brixie protested. “He shouldn’t be here.”

“It’s too late,” Ivey reminded her. “We don’t have time to break out of hyperspace and head for the nearest friendly orbital station or planet. The kid has a point. He’s crawled the Hive. You saw how he eluded you. We can give him an encrypted comlink. He’ll be our eyes and ears in the base tunnels.” She turned to the boy. “But no firefights.”

“Aww!” the boy complained. “I want a blaster. A great big one!”

“You get what we give you with,” Tigereye growled back, motioning to Brixie. “Or you can stay in the rear with the medic.”

Dink’s look of disgust mirrored Brixie’s. Neither were interested in keeping the other company. Ivey stifled a laugh.

“Six is better than five.” Stormcaller cupped his chin with his hand, contemplating the newest addition to their group. “Our advance scout is giving me an idea. Ivey, you reprogrammed the transponder code and logs for this command shuttle. Can you do it again?”

“I can change them to almost anything you want.” Ivey put her hand on her hip the way she always did when she was curious. “Who from the First Order do you want us to pretend to be? Only admirals and important plutocrats fly around in a big black tub like this.”

“Oh, I know someone.” A somewhat fiendish grin appeared on the colonel’s face. “He’s not an admiral or a plutocrat. But his reputation should clear us a path straight to the front door of the festivities. Once we get inside the base, we commit to a very specific plan of attack.”

“Which is?” Tigereye asked.

“The one we know best,” Stormcaller gestured to Hugo. “His way.”

Hugo’s eyes grew as large as a giant moon in earnest expectation. If there was one thing that always piqued the interest of a former dropout of the Imperial Engineers Academy, it was the challenge of blowing something into a gazillion pieces.

“My way? You mean…?”

The colonel nodded.

“The bigger, the better.”

Stormcaller’s plan required some deft reprogramming of the shuttle’s transponder codes from Ivey, some metalwork and kit-bashing of an Imperial Navy helmet found in the equipment lockers by Sully, tweaking a vocal replicator taken from a communications board by Hugo, and sewing a bit of black material taken from Brixie’s jacket.

The Upsilon-class command shuttle popped out of hyperspace, extended its wide black wings and carved a course past two Star Destroyers hovering over the shattered moon of Jedha. Past the debris-strewn orbital ring, the moon’s surface was a freefire zone. TIE fighters and Republic E-wings were tangled up in deadly combat while First Order shuttles made their approach over a vast crater in the moon’s surface. The attack against Defiance Base was on.

The two Star Destroyers loomed dangerously in the shuttle’s forward viewports, each capable of launching an annihilating attack of energy weapons guaranteed to pulverize them into atoms.

The colonel motioned to Ivey. With Sully positioning his masterpiece in front of the com’s lens, she tapped the switches to transmit the shuttle’s transponder codes and cued the colonel to get ready with the vocalator.

“Here goes something,” she warned them.

Finalizer’s sensor officers reported the arriving shuttle to the bridge’s command deck. Standing at her station, a female lieutenant commander keyed the identification challenge sequence. Puzzled by the transponder codes that were returned, she contacted the shuttle directly.

“Shuttle Byzanta. You are entering a combat zone and not cleared to approach. Identify your purpose or be fired upon.”

A startling mask, silver and black, filled the transmission screen on the console in front of her. A familiar voice, an electronically modulated hiss, crackled over the subspace frequencies.

“Stand down, Finalizer. I am joining the battle.”

“Master Kylo Ren!” The lieutenant commander gasped. Several other bridge deck personnel looked up from their stations, aghast at the news. The Dark Jedi’s reputation was well known to the crew of the Star Destroyer. He had throttled, if not outright killed, many subordinates who had brought him ill news. “We did not know you were coming here. I will contact General Hux…!”

“It’s not my purpose to tell Hux or anyone else where I’m going,” Ren’s electronically- modulated voice growled back. “Order your fighters to cover my shuttle’s approach. I will be landing in the crater and dealing with the Republic Council personally.”

“Yes! At once Master Ren!” The deck officer relayed those commands through her com panels. “Should I inform Field Commander Zult you are joining him in the battle?”

“By all means. Ren out.”

The image on the screen fizzled away. The lieutenant commander, her fingers still quaking from the encounter with the Dark Jedi (his voice was so creepy!), tapped into the communication frequencies to the assault force below on the moon.

“Priority message to Field Commander Zult. Master Kylo Ren is arriving on his personal shuttle!”

Chapter 28

THE ARMED SOLDIERS WALKED OVER, PEERING DOWN THROUGH THE GRID USING THE BLACKENED VISION SLITS

ON THEIR WHITE HELMETS. STILL UPSIDE-DOWN, THE FIELD PACK STARTED TO SLIP OFF HUGO’S SHOULDERS.

Spiraling down to the surface of the gutted moon of Jedha, the command shuttle identified as the Byzanta received an escort of TIE s/n fighters. Since the terrible destruction of the Holy City after the testing of the Death Star’s superweapon, the entire moon continued to undergo severe physical changes. Dust and rock had been launched into the planet’s atmosphere, forming a rocky orbital ring. The dust that didn’t escape was carried around in the atmosphere, forever blotting out the sun that once shone brightly down on Jedi monuments and monasteries. Raging storms, lit by lightning and fueled by the dust and the moon’s changing orbit, crisscrossed the surface.

The point where the superlaser struck the Holy City and blotted out tens of thousands of lives was nothing more than a chasm—a vast crater several kilometers wide and endlessly deep. The shuttle, bucking a turbulent storm, continued its descent down inside the crater, dodging laser fire from defending squadrons of Republic E-wings and advanced X-wing fighters. The TIEs lunged upon them, forcing them back as the shuttle fought its way deeper below the surface, descending nearly a kilometer down the roughly cone-shaped pit.

Rock gave way to metal and duracrete. In the shuttle’s external flood lamps, the Republic’s Defiance Base took shape: rings of scaffolding and corridors. The top featured gantries and landing pads for airspeeders, fighter squadrons and there were defensive turrets with turbolasers. The smoking evidence of the battle was everywhere—destroyed shuttle hulks, wrecked fighters from both sides, and smoldering slagheaps where defensive guns once stood guard.

Following a landing beacon set by the initial wave of the First Order assault force, the Byzanta chose one of the landing platforms, folded up its wings and alighted. Several shuttles were there, some badly damaged, but empty save for their pilots. A rear guard protected the landing area in case of a surprise counterattack.

The command shuttle lowered its landing ramp while jets of compressed coolant jetted from the belly radiator ports. Two First Order stormtroopers from the rear guard, alerted to the arrival of this most-important passenger, strode up at once to give their report of the battle and offer to escort the Dark Jedi Master.

“Be sharp,” one of the stormtroopers warned the other. “I hear this one’s got a temper.”

“It’s an honor to serve Master Kylo Ren.”

“Are you joking?” the soldier shivered inside his armor. “He gives me the chills.”

“I’ve always wanted to meet him.”

Careful what you wish for,” a voice shouted from up the ramp.

A large black object suddenly flew out from the shuttle’s ramp. The fashioned metal helm, made to resemble the headgear worn by a certain master of the Dark Side of the Force, struck the first stormtrooper and knocked him flat on his back.

“What the…?” the second stormtrooper pivoted in surprise.

A blaster bolt lanced out and caught the second trooper full in the chest. He flopped over the inert body of the first stormtrooper.

Sully Tigereye ambled down the ramp and picked up the dented helmet, eyeing his handiwork and the two soldiers laying in a heap at his feet.

“Sorry, boys. No autographs.” He bowled the helmet behind some storage crates, checked around for any other stormtroopers before raising his fist as a signal. “All clear.”

The rest of the Red Moons, carrying field packs on their backs, moved quickly down the ramp. Sully and Hugo dragged the two stormtroopers behind the crates. After snatching their blaster rifles, Hugo took off the helmet of the unconscious trooper and stuck their manufactured Kylo Ren helmet on his head.

“What are you doing?” Tigereye asked.

“He wanted to meet him. It’s kind of a present.”

“It’s nice to have you back, Hugo.”

Tigereye bound and gagged the trooper with a set of metal binders and bonding tape. They rejoined the others while Stormcaller gave last minute details to the group.

“Each of you has a job to do. There’s no time for fancy speeches. We have to protect the New Republic Council and kick the First Order off this rock.”

He pointed to Ivey, Brixie and Dink. Ivey was wearing a weapons harness, two blaster pistols in speed-draw holsters and her favorite pack of “toys”, her slicer toolkit and data-puter. Brixie wore a gray and black camo jacket, her medical bag and a blaster pistol on her hip. Dink was moaning for a weapon. Ivey handed him an encrypted comlink instead.

“You two get Dink into the ventilation system.” Stormcaller addressed the young lad. “Kid, report on troop movements to Ivey and Brixie. Their job is to find Zult and delay him. Do not engage any hostiles. Understand?”

The boy was about to whine, but after a slap to the back of his head from Ivey, he reluctantly nodded.

“Sully, you’re with Hugo.” The colonel noticed the heavy bag carried on Hugo’s shoulders, in addition to the stolen stormtrooper helmet in his hand. “Son, make me proud.”

“It’ll be a work of art, sir. I promise.”

“I expect nothing less.” He pointed to the others with the double-tipped staff in his hand. “Everyone keep in touch. Stay with your partners. If you run into any trouble, tap the emergency code and get to safety. No heroics.”

“Sir?” Brixie noticed Stormcaller didn’t indicate what he would be doing. He also didn’t have a partner, just his unusual staff. “What about you?”

“Me?” He reached inside his tunic pocket and patted a package of his favorite bad habit. Shinto cigars. “Lady Ergo, what did I tell you about me when we first met on Entralla?”

“You blow things up and shoot bad guys,” she smiled back, remembering the first time he said those words to a naïve medical student. “You know, mercenary stuff.”

“That’s right. I intend to do some mercenary stuff.” He smiled, wishing them luck with a bright gleam in his eyes. “Brothers and sisters, let’s close the bar tonight in style. May The Force Be With You.”

Ewww,” Dink had to get in the last word. “Did he have to say that old thing?”

That earned him another slap to the back of his head, this time from Brixie.

“Hell yes, he does.”

Wearing black tactical stormtrooper specialist armor, sans helmet, Zult and his unit commander led a double platoon of First Order troops on a driving push down into the deepest levels of Defiance Base. At every corner and intersection, they were met by stiff resistance from Republic troops. Zult imagined these Republic soldiers weren’t the blind fanatics who served as the backbone of the Rebellion’s meager army during their fights with the Empire. They were career fighters, more interested in their own survival. They fell back to other corridors and chokeholds at the earliest convenience.

“Keep driving them back.” Zult used his internal com to direct his commander. Inside the synaptic relays of his hard-coded memory, the plans for Defiance Base were laid out before him to examine. “The next levels down are the living quarters. Below that is the command bunker vault. The council will be there. Commander, bring up the heavy blasters. Clear what’s left of this mess.”

The unit commander, his fresh armor decked with a red shoulder pad to denote his leadership position, motioned to the teams carrying modified E-web blaster cannons on portable gravlifts.

“Move up. Let’s do some real damage.”

The cannon teams set up to either side of the corridor, sending huge bursts of laser fire at the dwindling Republic defenders. They scattered at the onslaught. The unit commander ordered a quick follow-up, leading a squad to charge the hold-outs and slaughter them where they stood.

They took no prisoners. Zult wanted the council and only the council.

“Field Commander. Message from Finalizer,” a stormtrooper from one of the heavy blaster cannon teams relayed.

Zult walked up to one of the remaining wounded Republic officers. The man was propped up with his back against the corridor wall he was supposed to defend.

“What is it?” The agent drew a vibroblade and killed him outright. “I’m busy.”

“Master Kylo Ren has arrived. He states he will take care of the Republic Council.”

What?” Zult screamed, twisting in place. General Hux had tricked him. There was no reward, no recognition. He struck the dead Republic officer with the blade, again and again, sending blood scattering in all directions. “How dare Hux send his pet down here. This moment belongs to me! I’m to take the council, not him!”

Holding in place, the stormtroopers paused. They didn’t know what to do.

The unit commander scolded them.

“Don’t just stand there, you tin cans. Move to the next level down!” he snarled at them. “We have to reach the vault. The field commander orders it.”

“Sir yes, sir!”

Several troopers started to take the lead, Zult following behind them, when a blast door came hurtling down. The unit commander grabbed Zult by the shoulder and hauled him back as the blast doors slammed closed, crushing the forward troopers. Screams filled everyone’s helmet radios, followed by a ghastly silence.

“Who activated those doors?” Zult demanded, grateful the unit commander had saved his life. “I thought we had control on this level.”

The blast doors opened and slammed shut again, briefly revealing two flattened shapes that once were soldiers. The corridor lights flickered off, replaced with emergency lighting, then returned to normal. Fire extinguishers fired, filling the corridor with obscuring vapor. The stormtroopers had their armor’s respirators to protect them. Zult activated his lung scrubbers to keep the fire retardant from affecting him.

A stormtrooper checked a military dataputer in his hands, shaking it.

“Everything’s gone crazy, sir. We broke the codes to control every level. Now they keep changing.”

Zult seized the dataputer terminal from the soldier and plugged its connector cable to the outlet on his wrist. The command codes that controlled the level’s functions were displayed in his cybernetic eye’s internal viewer. They were green, then abruptly scrambled and changed to red. He tried to change the codes, but he was shut out.

“Someone has taken control of the base’s master routine,” he noted, sensing a familiarity to this trickery. “We have to find another way down to the next level.”

He brought up his map of the base’s plans, locating an emergency evacuation stairwell. Checking the data terminal, the locks to the stairwell and all other functions remained green. The path was clear. He quickly disconnected himself from the portable terminal.

“This way,” he pointed down another corridor.

“They’re moving to the evac stairwell, Ivey.” Dink whispered in his comlink, watching Zult and his men head down another corridor from the vantage point of a ventilation grille in the corridor wall. The young boy smiled as he watched the heavy E-web cannon teams load up their weapons and move them on their grav-lifts. They were in for another rude surprise.

“Okay. We got them playing our little desert mouse hunt. Head back and start down the next vent tube to your right,” Ivey’s voice answered in his ear. “Follow them.”

The boy pocketed the datapad and started scrambling back the way he arrived, locating the juncture Ivey described so he could go after Zult and his troops.

Sully and Hugo were crawling too; they were working their way underneath the landing platforms occupied by the First Order assault force’s shuttles. Pilots and stormtroopers guarding their vessels made their work, navigating heavy trusses and metal supports without being detected, challenging. They were hundreds of feet above the next ring of support structures. One slip and they would find out if there really was a bottom to this giant, endless hole.

“Are you sure about this?” Tigereye glowered at Hugo in a low voice, planting another explosive charge using its metal clamps. “These are seismic survey charges. We need demolition explosives.”

“You clearly have no idea about structural engineering, my fur-covered friend. Like ourselves, the strength of a single support relies upon the strength of others. Weaken many and everything falls apart.” Hugo replied calmly, nimby leaping from one truss to the next. “I went to the Imperial Engineering Acad…”

“You were thrown out of school after you brought down that stupid bell tower.” Tigereye snapped back. “You never graduated.”

“It’s not the degree, dear Sully. It’s the experience.”

Tigereye stared at Hugo with a doubting, amber-colored eye.

“Did Brixie give you something?” he warily asked with a whisper. “Before we left?”

“I don’t know what you mean, friend.”

Tigereye snatched the seismic charge out from Hugo’s hands.

That.

“That, what?”

“The way that you’re talking. It’s weird. Weirder than usual.”

“I’m fine. Calm.” Hugo took the charge back and set it to the next truss down the row. “Do you know what I discovered after all those years hiding in that holo program? The universe is moving. Taking form. Stars. Planets. Galaxies. It’s taking shape right in front of our eyes. There is no order to the First Order, just as there was no imperative to the Imperial Empire. The limits are all in our minds.”

“She gave you something, didn’t she?”

“No.” Hugo shook his head. “I’ve spent too long outside the real nature of the universe. I imprisoned myself in that program. This is me, Sully. The real me…”

He let go of the truss he had been holding on to and hung upside-down only by his legs.  The bag on his shoulders started to slipped out from his dangling arms.

“Cut that out!” Tigereye warned, motioning that his antics could be seen through the metal grid of the landing platform. The approaching sound of footfalls silenced them.

Both held still as a First Order shuttle pilot walked the length of the platform. He called over to two stormtroopers.

“Hey! Did you see something?”

The armed soldiers walked over, peering down through the grid using the blackened vision slits on their white helmets.

Still upside-down, the field pack started to slip off Hugo’s shoulders. Twisting in place, Hugo stopped the bag and himself from moving.

“See what?” the stormtrooper’s voice crackled over his helmet’s speaker.

“I think somebody’s down there.”

“You’re imagining things. The area’s secure. Who would be down there?”

“Maybe Republic troops sneaking around?”

“You’re a shuttle pilot.” The stormtrooper coldly took his suggestion and tossed it. “Do your job. Got it?”

“I was only saying…” the pilot tried to explain, but the stormtroopers turned their backs to him and walked off. He loudly called out after them. “Fine. I guess I’ll do my job.”

The pilot had a few more choice words for the stormtroopers, most of them obscene, but they didn’t hear him. Sulking and swearing he was right, the shuttle pilot stared down through the grid one last time. He gave up and marched back to his ship, muttering under his breath.

“That’s right. Do my job. That’s what I’ll do.”

After a long moment, Hugo finally righted himself. Sully holstered his heavy blaster pistol, shaking his head at him.

“That was close.” Tigereye pointed an extended claw towards his friend. “Do that stunt again and I’ll wrap you up with binding tape and carry you on my back like a giant infant sandworm. Got it?”

Hugo nodded.

“Of course, my friend.” The man started to put the next charge in place when he stopped and turned back. “Have you ever considered mediation for your anger?”

Hugo!

The layout of Defiance Base was unusual. Buried kilometers deep inside an impact crater created by the Death Star’s superweapon, the hole burrowed from the moon’s surface was distinctive in its geometric perfection. Created by an energy beam, as opposed to an impact from an asteroid or meteoroid, the crater was perfectly round. Slight variations in the geological composition caused slight variances, but the effect was a hole that appeared almost the mirror opposite of the murderous battle station’s superlaser dish that created it.

Burying a base deep inside the hole of this crater had several advantages. It was incredibly difficult to detect, the moon’s deep strata shielded its emissions and generators from detection from space. But that also meant communications between the base and the outside were as difficult to accomplish. The only successful method was to use the round geometry of the crater as its own amplification antennae, allowing for tight-beam transmissions to satellite buoys hidden inside the shattered rock and debris of the ejected surface strata.

The jamming from the Star Destroyers that kept Defiance Base from receiving warning of the oncoming attack also prevented the base from calling out for help. The only way to circumvent this was to use the base’s communications center and boost the signal using the natural crater.

The communications center was carefully hidden underneath the lip of the crater near the moon’s surface. It was occupied by an entire platoon of elite First Order stormtroopers and com-specialists. They were using the base’s equipment to bypass the jamming, relaying signals back and forth from Field Commander Zult to Finalizer, as well as direct TIE fighters weeding out the base’s last shreds of starfighter defenses.

With troopers at the entrance and standing watch, the communication center was busy. Technicians were seated at the consoles, carefully controlling the tight-beam that sent signals to and from First Order vehicles and personnel. They had complete control of any communications reaching and leaving the moon.

Field Commander Zult was in the midst of sending a report to General Hux aboard Finalizer, aided by the communication center’s tight-beam relay. His assault group had reached the lowest levels of the base. From there, he and his stormtroopers would soon be at the “vault”, the bunker where the last of the base’s personnel were no doubt protecting the New Republic Council.

“Every inch of the moon’s surface is covered by TIE forces and gunships. The council is cut off and has no means of escape. They will soon be in your hands,” the Field Commander’s confident voice reported to a shaky holo-image of General Hux. “We’ve been diverted due to technical outages, but we will reach the target.”

“And what of Master Kylo Ren?” Hux appeared impatient. “I’ve been informed he arrived on the moon in his personal command shuttle. Where is he?”

“I have not seen him.” Zult pointedly remarked. “Maybe if you had told me…”

“Kylo Ren is the hand of Supreme Leader Snoke. What he chooses to do is his concern. When the dark master arrives, I warn you to give him the proper respect. Or expect his wrath.”

“Of course.” Zult’s transmission faded in and out. The communication technicians adjusted the frequencies to keep the circuit active.

“Perhaps you should wait for him before assaulting the vault?” General Hux suggested. “His powers are unstoppable.”

“As you wish, General.” Zult’s tone suggested he wouldn’t bother. “I will contact you from the vault. Zult out.”

“You will do what I say…!” Hux’s image stammered, the holo image of him shaking as the man planted his foot on the deck of his ship in anger. “Pitiful cretin! How dare you…”

A series of muffled blaster shots erupted outside the communications center’s heavy door. The stormtroopers standing watch went instantly into action, bringing up their blaster rifles.

“G8-212, report!” the watch commander called into his helmet’s comlink. “Any guards. Report!”

No response came from the stormtroopers who were standing guard outside the door. Instead, a sparkling line began to trace the door’s outline.

Someone was cutting through the door’s heavy frame.

“We’re under attack,” the watch commander warned his men. “Stand ready!”

The technicians spilled to the floor, trying to make themselves as small a target as possible.

“Trooper,” General Hux’s holo demanded. “Report! What is going on down there?”

The door blew open with a thunderclap, the breaching charge rendering the door’s heavy frame to the consistency of limp pudding. The door disintegrated into bits of scrap and a thick curtain of choking smoke, the molecules weakened at the atomic level.

The stormtroopers didn’t hesitate. They randomly opened fire into the smoke, trying to catch or pin down any attacker who tried to pass through the doorway. Their blaster bolts vanished and ricocheted off the adjacent corridor walls, but failed to hit anything.

A small metal sphere rolled inside the room.

“Grenade!” a trooper shouted, motioning for everyone to take cover.

The weapon didn’t explode per se, but unleashed a chain of sparkling blue arcs. The ion-charged weapon, similar to the ion cannons and bombs used to disable starships, had an instantaneous effect. Every blaster weapon and piece of electronic circuitry in the room shorted out and died, instantly nullified. Communication stations went dark. Hux’s holo image vanished.

The watch commander kept triggering his weapon, realizing the blaster rifle had been rendered useless. He tried his sidearm blaster, but that failed too. Even the energy grenades they carried wouldn’t activate; their triggers had been neutralized. They were little more than paperweights.

A lone figure, carrying what resembled a large staff, emerged from the smoke and filled the doorway. Stormcaller reached inside his tunic pocket, pulled a single shinto cigar and placed it between his lips. He stood there like a mountain, daring any of them to approach.

“I need this communications outpost. You’re welcome to leave,” he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “Peacefully.”

The stormtroopers exchanged surprised glances with one another. There was no one else with this intruder.

“It’s just him,” one of the stormtroopers pointed. “He’s alone.”

Without the electronic boost of their helmet’s built-in speaker, their muffled voices sounded painfully normal and human. The colonel knew that no matter what skills or training these foot soldiers of evil had, they were still flesh and bone.

“That’s right.” Stormcaller slammed the end of the staff down on the deck. “It’s just me and you. No blasters. No energy weapons.”

“He’s just some crazy old man…” the watch commander called out, hefting his useless blaster rifle in his hands, motioning for his troops to rush him. “Get him!”

Stormcaller tilted his neck and limbered his shoulders, cracking the joints.

“Boys and girls…”

He took a ready stance with the staff and offered them a grim smile of encouragement.

…class starts now.

Chapter 29

“HE’S HERE. STORMCALLER AND HIS RED MOONS.

BUT I’M NOT BEATEN. NOT YET.”

Standing watch while Ivey operated a data terminal nexus one level above the First Order troops, Brixie knew why she had sealed the blast doors around Zult and his force of stormtroopers. Ivey was using the base’s defense systems to keep Zult from reaching the bunker at the lowest level of the base. What Brixie didn’t understand was why Ivey let the Pentastar agent and the troopers take an emergency evacuation stairwell unimpeded.

Watching the visual screens built into the console, she could see the troops descending the stairs. They would soon reach the living quarters level. Below that was the vault, the last remaining stronghold where the Republic Council was hiding.

“You’re letting them reach the vault?” Brixie watched the young woman typing on her portable terminal and listening to Dink’s scouting reports through a comlink set inside the cuff of her ear.

Ivey threw her a hard look. “I don’t tell you how to diagnosis a patient, do I?”

“No, but…”

Ivey pointed to the display screen she brought up on the nexus console. “The quickest way to reduce the effectiveness of an opponent is to put him in a confined space. In a wide corridor, Zult and his force are dangerous. But in a narrow stairwell, they’re forced to descend the stairs single file and they had to disassemble their heavy cannons to move them. That makes them vulnerable.”

“So now what?”

Ivey held up a case of grenades to her. She pulled the cap off one, revealing a soft gel on one side.

“We stick it to them.”

With two new stormtroopers taking point ahead, Zult and his double platoon of troopers threaded their way cautiously down the evacuation stairs. The evacuation staircase consisted of metal scaffolding attached to a hollow shaft of permacrete injected vertically down into Jedha’s deepening strata. Light sources were scarce. Every trooper kept their blaster rifle pointed at the ready.

Zult looked up. Behind the main force were the E-web cannon crews. They had taken apart their weapons. Each soldier carried a specific component: tripod, energy plasma ammunition box, and the cannon itself was in two separate pieces. Going down stairs made carrying their heavy loads even more difficult. The cannon crews were followed by two stormtroopers who formed the unit’s rear guard.

“We should have brought security droids,” he muttered. They could have carried the weapons with ease. Using his cybernetic eye, he switched to infrared. There were no heat sources higher up the metal stairs—no signs they were being followed. He motioned to one of the stormtroopers acting as communications relay.

“Any word from Master Ren yet?”

The stormtrooper tried reaching the landing platform and the Star Destroyer Finalizer. He shook his head.

“No, sir. No contact.”

Zult was pleased with his good luck. This alternate route was better than fighting the Republic defenders in the corridors. The enemy was all but defeated, hiding like mice in the bunker. He checked the map inside his brain’s hard storage with his internal viewer. Better still, Master Kylo Ren was nowhere in sight. He may have run into a pocket of resistance that was slowing him down.

They reached the lower base levels designated as living spaces. He tapped the unit commander’s frequency with his built-in comlink.

“We’re at the next level. There could be more Republic soldiers here.”

“Point. Be on alert,” the unit commander warned the two soldiers ahead of Zult and him. “All squads, cover your angles. Watch for targets.”

The two lead stormtroopers approached the access door with caution, watching for trip beams or obvious signs of sabotage. One tried the door. He turned to the unit commander.

“It’s locked, sir. We’re going to bypass.”

The unit commander clicked his helmet’s comlink twice; warning the entire unit to stay where they were and be ready. The stormtrooper removed a kit from his belt and inserted it in the door’s locking mechanism. Lights on the box showed progress as the bypass tried to wrench past the door lock.

Zult glowered. A droid could have done this in no time, too. With his advanced cybernetics he could do it as well, but he would rather be away from the door, where he was safe.

Better them than me.

Several sections of staircase over his head, a door to an electrical access closet slowly opened. Unknown to Zult, the plans to Defiance Base he had taken from Setting Sun’s data stores were incomplete. A maintenance shaft ran parallel to the staircase to provide a trunk for heavy communication cables and electrical junctures.

Alighting off a ladder, Brixie nervously emerged from the door on her knees, uncapped a concussion grenade and gently stuck its glue end to the bottom of the plasma generator box used by one of the E-web cannons. The glue was a polymer bond cultivated from Mon Calamari cuttlefish, practically unbreakable save a torch or acid, and much quieter than any magnetic attachment.

One staircase level below her, Ivey did the same to the second cannon crew. The soldiers holding the heavy plasma charging box felt only a slight jostling, each thinking the other was shifting his weight to hold the heavy container. Ivey slunk back inside the electrical trunk’s shaft and joined Brixie as they hurriedly climbed down the ladder.

Ivey tapped the comlink positioned inside her ear.

“Dink. Head down two levels and wait in the duct above the security door.”

Roger, roger.” He was mimicking the passphrase of certain battle droids from the Separatist war—ages ago.

“That kid’s been watching too many adventure holos.” Ivey looked up and checked Brixie was following her down the narrow ladder. “We’re heading down to the bunker.”

“Ivey, I can’t see anything!” she whispered. The access trunk had no lighting whatsoever. They only had the small battery lamps pinned to each of their collars. All Brixie could do was step down the rungs and pray she didn’t slip off and take Ivey with her.

They descended the ladder as quickly as they could until Ivey told her to stop.

Brixie called out.

“Now what?”

“We’ve cleared the levels past them.” Ivey pulled out her data slicer kit and touched the buttons, knowing their functions by the slightly-raised impressions on each key.

“Wait! What about Dink?” Brixie called down.

“He’s fine. I moved him out of the area. It’s us we have to worry about. Hold on tight, Brix.” She tapped a key-switch on her terminal. “Here we go!”

“We have a problem.”

A pair of stormtroopers, assigned to patrol the transport landing decks, approached another pair from their same squad. Over their heads, the battle for Jedha had grown quiet. Many Republic fighters had either been destroyed or hyperjumped out of the system to avoid destruction. The moon belonged to the First Order.

“Delta group hasn’t checked in yet,” he continued. “They’re not responding to their coms. Have you seen them?”

“Negative.” One stormtrooper motioned to the large Upsilon-class command shuttle which had recently landed, its huge wings folded upward. “They were assigned to Master Kylo Ren’s shuttle.”

“We haven’t seen or heard from Delta or Master Ren. I can’t raise the main communications complex, either.”

The other stormtrooper assigned to guard the shuttles motioned to a sullen-faced man wearing a First Order flight suit. He was working at a nearby transport’s opened service hatch.

“We’ve been stuck here, babysitting some jumpy shuttle pilots.”

The pilot scowled at the soldiers, but said nothing.

“Something’s not right.” The patrol leader adjusted his helmet’s comlink. “Delta group. Come in. Report your status.”

The only response they received was useless static.

“All right. Let’s check it out.” The four of them started towards the Byzanta shuttle. The patrol lead pointed to the shuttle pilot. “You. Put those tools down. Stand watch.”

“Who, me?” The pilot pointed to himself, then either bravely or stupidly snarked back. “Isn’t that your job?”

“Failure means a report to Captain Phasma.” The trooper warned him. “Believe me. You don’t want to get on her bad side.”

The pilot continued to scowl as the four soldiers took up their weapons and started crossing the connecting bridges to reach the Byzanta on its landing pad.

“I’m shaking in my boots.” The pilot bravely threatened back, if only as a whisper and waiting for the soldiers to be out of earshot. “Stupid eggheads.”

Something heavy, perhaps a storage crate or weapons transport box, fell to the deck close by. Startled, the pilot whipped his head around trying to locate the source of the noise.

“Hello?” he called out, drawing his blaster pistol. He almost shouted to the stormtroopers to come back, but they were too far away. The pilot moved from the shuttle’s ramp, cautiously approaching stacks of discarded crates and bins left behind by the assault troops.

A second heavy thud vibrated the entire landing grid, as though a scout walker had planted its metal foot. The pilot snapped towards the sound, pointing the pistol and fumbling for his comlink in his other hand.

“Who’s there?”

“Nobody here except for us mynocks…” a voice growled back.

“What? Mynocks don’t talk!” the pilot warned. “Show yourself!”

“No. You come over here.”

Alarmed, the pilot babbled into his comlink. “Guards, come in! This is pad fourteen. Someone’s here!”

“You’ve got to be more specific,” a second voice among the crates spoke up. “Tell them we’re talking mynocks.”

Static answered the pilot’s comlink.

“Come in, guard troops.” The shuttle pilot tried again. “This is Shuttle AB-Sixteen. There are enemy forces on the platform!”

“Enemy forces? Who, us?” the second voice asked. “We told you. We’re mynocks. Mynocks are silicon-based bat-like parasites that chew on power cables and energy conductors. They’re capable of surviving in the atmospheres of planets and the vacuum of space, though only a few varieties live on planets.”

“I don’t think he needs to hear that,” the first voice scolded.

“I’m only providing a clarification…” the second voice answered.

“I’ll shoot!” the pilot whipped the pistol at the first voice, entering the stacks of boxes. “Come out of there!”

“I don’t think so,” the first voice answered. “You’re a scary shuttle pilot.”

“Very scary,” the second voice joined in. “Please don’t hurt us! We’re only mynocks…”

The pilot stepped around a crate, knowing the voice was coming from there. His arm shaking, he pointed the blaster pistol, his finger ready to squeeze the trigger.

“Guards!” the pilot shouted again into his comlink. “Come in! Enemy forces are on the landing pad. My location is…”

He jumped around the crate at the would-be Republic soldier and found…another comlink sitting on a crate. A sharp feedback whine came from the device. The comlink had been calibrated to transmit on all available frequencies, locking out any other comlinks also trying to send signals. Like his.

“Say hello to the mynock,” a gravelly voice whispered behind the pilot’s ear. The focusing end of a heavy blaster pistol prodded deeply into the skin on the back of his neck.

The pilot, who wasn’t terribly brave and interested only in his survival, raised his pistol and comlink in surrender. They were snatched from his hands.

“Um. Hello?”

Leaning on his staff for support and breathing heavily, Stormcaller propped himself against one of the consoles of the base communications center. All around the floor at his feet, sprawled in twisted poses, were several dead stormtroopers.

Class was over.

“This sure isn’t getting any easier,” he huffed, wiping the sweat pouring down his forehead. Gulping down deep breaths, he staggered over to one of the consoles and struck the side of the unit with the dented staff. “Get out from under there.”

A female communication technical specialist, a cadet clad in the standard Navy black jumpsuit, belt and boots, crawled out from under the console. Her hands were raised and brown eyes wide in fear.

Stormcaller pushed her into one of the chairs.

“I want you to lock out all of the First Order’s frequencies. Change the tight-beam transmission to the Republic fleet headquarters on Bescane using my ident code. Tell them to send every boat they’ve got here.”

The specialist gave him a hostile look instead.

“No.”

Stormcaller lowered one end of the staff, ignited the lightsaber at that end and used its shimmering blade to light up the Shinto cigar still wedged between his lips.

The young specialist’s eyes boggled wide in surprise.

“You were expecting Master Kylo Ren, weren’t you? He isn’t coming.” He blew a cloud of smoke into the com center’s overhead ventilators. “You don’t look like one of those kids stolen from their families and indoctrinated using mental conditioning like the rest of these egg heads.”

“I joined the First Order of my own free will.” Her gaze narrowed, though she still feared the shimmering blade humming so close to her head. “I hate disorder. I hate the Republic. I hate all of you!”

“Passion is something to be admired.” He deactivated the lightsaber and took a smiling puff from the smelly cigar. “I’m not here to argue politics with some propaganda-warped kid.” He gestured to the pile of dead soldiers behind them. “I’m going to leave you with a choice. Help me or join them.”

The consoles lit up around them, their automatic restarts kicking in after the effects of the ion discharge grenade wore off.

The specialist did as she was told, cutting off the Star Destroyers from any further contact with the base and recalibrating the tight beam to connect with the sensor buoys in the debris ring orbiting Jedha. The communication channel opened to the Republic Fleet’s operations center on Bescane.

“Whom shall I say is calling?” she coldly remarked.

“Tell them it’s Andrephan Stormcaller, formerly of the Red Moons.”

The name jolted her. She eyed him in disbelief.

“The great General Stormcaller? I’m from Entralla. There’s a statue of you on the government plaza of the capital city…!”

“Yeah, I know. That stupid statue doesn’t look anything like me.”

He took another puff from the cigar, eyeing the specialist with renewed interest. In his mind, it was never too late to recruit for a good cause. His cause.

“Tell me, young lady. How’s life living under the boot of the First Order working out for you…?”

The grenades blew, taking with them the plasma charge boxes, the E-web cannons, the soldiers holding them and the stairs they were standing on. A dual fireball engulfed the narrow shaft, roaring upward and downward, consuming everything. Bodies in white armor tumbled in directions: some bounced off the thick permacrete shaft walls, others were propelled by the violent concussive shockwaves. There was no escape.

“Move!”

The unit commander seized Zult and pushed him down the stairs while the remains of the staircase, consisting of deadly metal shards, rained down upon them. Stormtroopers who were too slow to react to the explosion were stabbed or ripped to pieces.

They charged down the stairs, some pushing the other in a desperate attempt to stay alive. The two troopers ahead of them rushed to the last door at the bottom of the shaft and found the situation the same as before.

“It’s locked!”

Zult looked up. The expanding fireball was roaring down upon them, obliterating the stairs and any poor soul too slow to keep ahead of it. It was no wonder why there wasn’t anyone following them or waiting down below in the staircase. It was a deliberate trap. His unit of elite stormtroopers was being decimated before his eyes.

Better them than me.

The unit commander reached for his belt and produced a grenade launcher in his hands. He popped a rounded shell down the tube’s breech and aimed it at the door. The troopers backed away.

He fired the launcher. The armor-piercer hit the door and exploded. It blasted a hole inside the hexagonal doorway. The commander lowered his shoulder and threw his entire armored body and momentum at the weakened doorway. It fell down.

“Keep moving. Cover the field commander!”

The two troopers took up positions and burst inside the corridor first, weapons leveled. Zult followed, then the unit commander and a number of surviving stormtroopers. They rushed forward as the expanding blast took out what remained of the staircase door and licked the ceiling, floor and corridor walls. After a few meters, the fireball finally lost pressure, reversed and withdrew.

While the unit commander dispersed the surviving members of the unit to take up defensive positions, Zult calmly assessed the situation.

Panic was useless. The enemy wanted him to panic.

He had blundered into taking the staircase, stringing out his troops so they could be caught in a trap. He remembered the green lights on the data terminal–practically showing him the way to slaughter. The cannon crews had been specifically targeted, specifically the E-web’s plasma charge boxes. His opponent had used concussion grenades, amplifying the destructive capability of the explosions for maximum effect in the narrow space.

Zult tapped his internal comlink, trying to reach the guard force on the landing platform. There was no response. Nor could he communicate with Finalizer. The base’s com center must have been compromised.

He was trapped on the bunker level, the massive blast door between him and the council. So close to victory, but not close enough. It was coming together in his mind. The cogs of a master plan. This wasn’t the work of ordinary soldiers.

“He’s here. Stormcaller and his Red Moons. But I’m not beaten. Not yet.” He turned to his loyal unit commander. “Did you pick up the frequency modulator from the star destroyer’s armory?”

“Yes, sir. I did.”

“Activate it. Relay the modulator pattern over to me.” Zult waited until a powerful series of sine waves appeared over his cybernetic’s eye overlay. “Let’s find out who else might be listening in, shall we?”

Zult originally intended to use the procured piece of equipment to circumvent the assault force’s combat frequencies and contact a shuttle pilot he had bribed without detection. The shuttle pilot agreed, after a large sum of credits were applied to a gambling tab he had accrued with a local Hutt crimelord, to fly he and the commander off Jedha. The backup plan was necessary in case Hux’s troops tried to execute the both of them the moment the Republic Council fell into the general’s hands.

The modulator could also be used to monitor communications traffic and home in on them. Watching the modulator’s display increase in strength, Zult maneuvered around the space, ignoring the massive bunker’s locked blast doors. The other stormtroopers eyed their field commander with looks of confusion, not truly understanding what he was up to.

He walked past an access grille leading to the ventilation system. It was much too small for a stormtrooper or a Human adult. That had hardly stopped Colonel Stormcaller before.

“This place should have been sprayed for pests.”

Zult pivoted, ripped off the access grille, shoved his cybernetic arm inside and pulled out a screaming, thrashing young boy. The comlink in his hands slipped and fell to the floor.

“Let me go! Let me go!”

He gripped the boy by his throat and squeezed, silencing him.

“It’s full of vermin.”

Chapter 30

HUGO CUTTER RAISED HIS HANDS OVER HIS HEAD,

BUT HE WASN’T SURRENDERING.

HE WAS CONDUCTING AN IMAGINARY ORCHESTRA, THE INSTRUMENTS SWEETLY PLAYING INSIDE HIS HEAD.

“Dink? Dink!” Ivey shouted into her comlink’s microphone pickup. “Are you there?”

“What is it?” Brixie looked back from her position as lookout in the deserted living spaces level of the base, one level above the bunker. The entire level—darkened from lack of power—was nothing but doors leading to bunkrooms, mess halls, recreation lounges and washrooms. Compared to Ivey’s residence, this level was neither plush, nor comfortable, only bare and functional. “What happened?”

Ivey adjusted her ear comlink and tried again.

“He was shouting, then the link cut out.” Seated on the floor, she ran her fingers across the portable data terminal in her lap, trying to connect to the base’s limited sensors. Without warning, a familiar voice, not Dink’s, hissed inside her ear.

“If you want the boy alive, give me the codes to unlock the bunker’s blast door. Fail me and I will tear his limbs off and leave you with the largest piece. As you did to me.”

A crunching sound followed, so loud Ivey winced. The comlink had been destroyed.

“Zult!”

“He has Dink?” Brixie cried out. “I told you this was a bad idea…!”

“It’s too late for lectures,” Ivey cut her off. Pressing a second switch on her ear comlink to send a coded message to the colonel and the others, she closed the portable data terminal and slid it inside a black sleeve looped to her uniform’s web belt. “Zult wants the codes to open the bunker’s blast doors or he’ll kill Dink. We have to do something!”

“We can give him the codes.”

“No!” Ivey shouted. “The entire Republic Council is behind that door.”

“Are you saying one boy’s life is worth less than theirs?” Brixie snapped back.

“We’re both smarter than that walking dung heap of cybernetic junk.” Ivey rose nimbly to her feet. “We have go down there.”

Brixie could tell there was no changing Ivey’s mind on this. This was a side of her she had never seen before. The former, self-centered former data thief who used to run the streets of Cantras Gola cared for others. Maybe there was something about Dink that reminded Ivey of herself when she first stumbled into Colonel Stormcaller. He had saved her from her hopeless fate and given her a purpose. Now it was her turn to save the boy.

However, confronting Zult was nothing short of suicide.

“How are we going to get down there without being seen? We can’t take the stairs or the electrical shaft.” Brixie pointed at the destroyed door leading to the evacuation stairs. The maintenance shaft and the staircase had been destroyed by the concussion blasts they had set off. The only way down to the bunker level was the turbovator. “We should wait for the Colonel, Sully and Hugo.”

Ivey hurried over to a technical maintenance closest. Rummaging around inside, tossing buckets and plastic cleaning equipment, she withdrew two large suction grapplers and a metal lever.

“I sent them the emergency code. We can’t wait for them.” Ivey handed her one of the suction grapplers. “Care to help me conduct a little surgery on the floor, Doctor Ergo?”

Brixie looked down. This was a base, after all. Every inch of space was utilized, even the space underneath the floor. Instead of using the turbovator or the evac stairs, Ivey was suggesting a different route.

Right through the floor.

“Oh no! You’re not thinking…?”

Estimating the distance to the turbovater’s doors, Ivey walked down the main corridor’s length. She chose a portion of the hexagonal tile flooring and slammed down the rubberized cups of the suction grappler.

“You got a better idea?”

A crashing noise startled Brixie before she could answer. A blaster pistol materialized in Ivey’s hand, aimed at the disturbance. A figure emerged from the corridor’s shadows.

“Goodness me! I surrender!” A pair of silvery arms lifted. “Please don’t shoot!”

It was a droid, a housekeeping model to the best of Brixie’s recollection, quite similar to the stodgy butler unit Ivey had in her residence on Cantras Gola. The panicked machine quivered as it approached them.

“I am EeeZeeEl-Eight, house staff and cleaning droid…”

“What are you doing, wandering around here?” Ivey demanded, not lowering her weapon. “Where’s everyone else?”

“The living quarters staff were told to head to the bunker level,” the droid whined. “I was abandoned here! How horrible.”

“You’re lucky I didn’t turn you into a scrap pile,” she holstered the weapon and set back to work on removing the floor tile with a suction grappler. “The way you popped out of there, I thought you were an actual person.”

Looking up, she noticed Brixie was staring intently at the droid and fingering her uniform’s tunic.

“Hello?” Ivey waved her hand to bring Brixie back to the here and now. “Brixie?”

“You asked me if I had a better idea.” She dropped the medical case to the floor and tugged off the jacket. “Now I do.”

Watching the specialist contact the Republic fleet from the base’s communications center, Stormcaller received a message in his electronic ear implants from Ivey.

Emergency. Zult has the boy. He will kill him unless we give him the bunker door codes.

“I have to go.” The colonel picked up his staff and stepped over the bodies of the fallen stormtroopers and technicians on the floor. “My people need me.”

The female communications specialist was surprised. He was leaving her here. Alive.

“What about me?”

“What about you?” he asked back.

“General Stormcaller…” she motioned to the still forms scattered around the floor. Stormtroopers. Technicians. He had taken on all comers and beat them into submission. Many of them were dead, the rest unconscious. But her, he didn’t touch. “You’re not going to kill me?”

“There’s a difference between an enemy and a threat. The First Order made you my enemy, but I think you’re more confused than a threat.” He paused in the doorway. “What’s your name?”

Surprised by his question, she sputtered back.

“Evangela. Cadet Evangela Orai.”

“Well, my Lady Orai.” Stormcaller extinguished the smoldering end of the cigar by dropping it to the floor and grinding it dead with his boot. “After you’ve been reprimanded by your superiors, I suggest you throw away that stupid cadet pin the First Order gave you. Head for the moon on Perodon IV. It’s a deserted rock, but you’ll find me there. Training starts whenever you decide to show up.”

“Training?” she blinked.

“Training for real life. The First Order filled your head with politics. Distrust. Suspicion. Hatred. What they want you to believe. Real life is about making up your own mind, fighting for your own beliefs. Fighting for those who can’t. If you’re ready to find out, go to Perodon IV. But I warn you. The life I’m offering is tough. Physically and emotionally. You’ll question everything about yourself, then I’ll grind what’s left of you down to the raw nerve. You’ll have to make some hard choices. Some recruits can take it. Others can’t. But you’ll never know who you really are—and what you’re meant to be—unless you try.”

He offered her a polite wave goodbye and left.

Stunned by his offer, she jumped to her feet. Looking down, there were any number of blaster rifles and pistols for her to choose from. Knowing the ion grenade’s effects would have worn off by now, she selected a blaster rifle.

Evangela aimed the weapon at the communications consoles and sprayed them with blaster fire, turning them into slag. The Republic fleet was headed here. The First Order had lost.

Snatching up a white utility equipment belt from one fallen stormtrooper, she clipped it around her waist, checked the charge on the blaster rifle she had chosen and started to follow him.

She remembered one last thing. She unhooked the cadet pin from her tunic and threw it away. The First Order could keep it.

She rushed out the door, shouting.

“General Stormcaller, wait!”

Sully tapped the comlink positioned inside the folds of his ear, acknowledging receipt of the emergency code transmitted from Ivey. The boy was in trouble—Zult was threatening to kill him for the bunker’s blast door codes—hundreds of levels below the landing deck. He finished tying up and gagging the shuttle pilot they had grabbed, dropping him like a sack of sweaty laundry into one of the shuttle’s jump seats.

The pilot complained with a loud “Oompf!”

“Don’t make such a fuss.” Tigereye clamped the man’s wrists to a nearby metal grab handle with a set of restraints. Glancing out one of the armored viewports, he noted the four stormtroopers had nearly reached the ramp of the command shuttle Byzanta. He shouted to his accomplice up front in the shuttle’s pilot station. “Hurry, Hugo! We have to get down to the bunker level! Lady Brix and Ivey need our help.”

Not getting an answer, Sully left the pilot and climbed up to the pilot’s station. Hugo was nowhere to be found. Angry, Tigereye tapped his comlink.

“Hugo! Where are you?”

His friend’s voice answered back over the link.

“I’m over here, Sully.”

Tigereye looked out the shuttle’s cockpit windows, first surprised and then bristling with anger.

“What in the hell are you doing there?”

Hugo was standing on Byzanta’s ramp. He was waiting for the stormtroopers to come to him.

“I promised the Colonel a masterpiece.”

What the blazes is that maniac up to now?” Tigereye fumed, backing out of the shuttle pilot station.

Ever since they left Cantras Gola, Hugo had been acting odder than his usual odd self. He had been quiet for the entire trip. Too quiet. Even the usual back-and-forth bantering between them felt off.

The Trunsk pointed a clawed finger at the shuttle pilot as he rushed down the boarding ramp.

“Don’t you move!”

Incapable of doing anything else, the pilot rolled his eyes in exasperation and made a face.

“I’ve been thinking, Sully.” Hugo’s voice calmly spoke in his ear.

“That’s dangerous…” Tigereye pulled out his heavy blaster pistol, extending the folding stock so he could aim it like a rifle. “You’re starting to annoy me. Now get out of there before they see you!”

“…Thinking a lot. About life. Friends. The past…”

“This is hardly the time or place to get sentimental,” Tigereye growled into his comlink’s pickup.

“I don’t belong here anymore. I don’t belong anywhere.”

A surge of panic filled Tigereye’s heart. This was not his friend’s usual fearful complaining or his bizarre, almost comical ramblings about the cosmos. This was different.

Sully rushed around the shuttle and headed towards the lip of the landing pad. The other landing pads were spread out before him, arranged inside the vast, near-perfect circular crater created by the first Death Star’s laser blast. He ran as quickly as he could to a series of abandoned storage crates and bins, hiding there so he could take up a covering position.

“Stop fooling around. That kid needs our help…!”

“You’re strong, Sully. Stronger than anyone else I know. After what the Empire and those slavers did to you, you know exactly who you are. I know you’re going to help him.”

“We’re not talking about me.” He sighted the backs of the four stormtroopers through his pistol’s scope, trying to calm his raging anger with his friend. “Get out of there. That’s an order!”

“It’s all in my head, Sully.” The voice inside Sully’s ear cracked with emotion. “That’s what they say. I can make it stop if I want to. But I can’t make it stop. I tried and tried…”

“What are you talking about?”

“The indoctrination program my father put me through. The hate and images they poured inside my head. It never went away. The years I spent in that imaginary forest wandering, hoping to be cured, and for nothing. There’s no place for me, anywhere. I only stepped out of the holo program because I didn’t want to disappoint you or the others….”

The stormtroopers saw Hugo. They were rushing towards the ramp, their weapons drawn and aimed at him.

“Hugo, you are not a disappointment! I want you to come over here to me and we’ll talk. As much as you want. Just come back to me.” Sully punched the nearest crate out of anger. His friend’s words sounded much too final. He wasn’t fooling around. He had planned for this all along. “I can’t stop the timers. For the Force’s sake, don’t do this!”

“Please tell Brixie she was right. The decision was mine to make…”

Hugo!

Over his comlink, Tigereye overheard the stormtroopers challenging him. They were ordering Hugo to raise his hands and surrender. Sully targeted the one in the middle with his blaster’s scope. Bringing that soldier down would hopefully distract the others, giving Hugo a chance to run…

…before the timers on the thermal detonators hidden aboard the Byzanta stopped at zero.

Hugo Cutter raised his hands over his head, but he wasn’t surrendering. He was conducting an imaginary orchestra, the instruments sweetly playing inside his head.

The stormtroopers paused, wondering what he was trying to do.

“Please hold your applause until the end of the performance,” Hugo announced.

He, the stormtroopers and the command shuttle disappeared in a roaring ball of bright light. Streaks of fire pin-wheeled away in great arcs resembling comets. The structural braces underneath the landing deck evaporated in the fission blast, cracking the supports holding it to the crater wall and the surrounding platforms.

All Sully could do was lower his blaster pistol and watch.

Timed to perfection, the small surveying charges they had set underneath the landing pads went off in sequence, each weakening the next in the chain. One by one, the landing pads fell away, yanked downward by the pull of Jedha’s relentless gravity. First Order shuttles, TIE fighters and their crews tumbled into the black crater’s abyss, smashing and destroying the levels below. The domino effect continued, levels made of prefab corridors and held by support braces crushing, giving way, and collapsing. Fires spread, angry red splashes of color in the darkness. The only platform that was spared was the one Sully was standing on; that section and the shuttle remained for their escape.

Hugo truly was an artist.

The startled crews aboard the First Order Star Destroyers hovering over the ruins of Jedha saw it: the inside of the giant crater was suddenly ablaze. General Hux deeply frowned when he was informed all communications with the surface had been cut off. The assault force on Jedha was almost entirely destroyed. Field Commander Zult was beyond reach.

Angering the general further was the realization what he was staring at on the bridge’s displays was more than a fiery glow, but an angry crescent.

A red moon.

Chapter 31

HE LOOKED UP, HIS HEAD SCARRED AND BURNT.

BRIXIE FINALLY RECOGNIZED HIM FOR WHO HE WAS.

WHO HE USED TO BE.

The vibration was more sensed than felt.

The stormtrooper unit commander, TK-421, knew something must have happened hundreds of levels over his helmeted head. A base this large and deep buried inside Jedha’s strata would not be affected by vibration for no reason. His opponents, after almost killing most of his troops in the evacuation stairwell, had the capabilities to wreak havoc on a tremendous scale. It could be said that Stormcaller and the Red Moons had a flair for the dramatic. The lack of communication with First Order forces topside only confirmed the commander’s suspicions. They were cut off.

The commander watched Zult stalk the corridor of the bunker level. His leader was beyond obsessed as he marked the thirty strides separating the doors of the turbovator to the bunker’s sealed blast doors. Only thirty or so steps between him and certain victory. At Zult’s order, the access door to the evacuation stairs had been blocked off using fallen pieces of the staircase. There were no side passages, no places to hide. The turbovator was the only way to reach this level of the base. Whomever stepped from there would bring Zult the codes to the vault’s blast doors—and the Republic Council hiding within.

Content that he controlled the battlefield, Zult dragged the young boy by his arm to the blast doors and its set of locked-out controls.

“Ow!” Dink complained, yanking his arm free of the agent’s near-robotic grip.

Zult turned to his unit commander. “Position your men in front of the turbovator doors. No one is to open fire unless I order it.”

The unit commander eyed Dink, his expression hidden by the First Order-designed stormtrooper helmet’s faceplate. The boy stuck his tongue at him.

“And if nobody comes?” the commander noted. “We don’t have anything to break down these doors.”

Zult’s cybernetic eye examined the blast doors’ durasteel plates and the specialized grooves where the hexagonal door pieces unfolded. A door such as this could withstand a direct hit from a capital ship’s turbolaser. Those who hid inside the bunker, worrying and fretting for their miserable lives, were no doubt watching the corridor on their sensor feeds. They would not open the doors for anyone. Therefore, they could do nothing.

“No one wants to see a child needlessly die. It’s a weakness for these Republic-loving fools. They will come. After I have the codes,” Zult callously gestured at the boy. “Kill it.”

Another stormtrooper shouted towards them. “Sir. The turbovator is moving!”

“Take your positions.” Zult watched the floor indicators over the turbovator doors wink out. The transport car was coming down. He nodded to Dink. “You stay right there, boy.”

“Sure thing, Fragface.” Dink bluntly regarded Zult’s facial injuries and the heavy plating covering much of his head. “You walk into a grenade or something?”

Zult glared at the boy.

“How observant of you.”

The six remaining stormtroopers formed a semi-circle in front of the turbovator doors, watching the floor indicator lights, blasters raised. Not wanting to get involved in any messy crossfire, the unit commander took a position to one side of the corridor near Dink. Zult waited near Dink and the blast doors’ control panel.

The stormtrooper commander eyed the small boy. In turn, the boy defiantly crossed his eyes at him. He used to act like this, the commander told himself. He hated adults. Found them boring. Only the discipline of the Empire corrected his wild side.

“You chose the wrong side, kid.” the commander muttered at him.

“You don’t know the Colonel,” Dink retorted.

“On the contrary, mutt. I know him better than most,” the commander let his voice slide into an angry whisper.

He sincerely wished Stormcaller would be the one who walked out of that turbovator with the door codes. His vision through the stormtrooper helmet’s vision slits narrowed with anger. He had chosen the wrong side once before. Gotten himself involved in the wrong family. Now he was going to set things right.

The turbovator door slid open. The stormtroopers took ready stances and raised their blasters.

“On my command only,” Zult’s voice demanded.

A cloud of mist escaped from the turbovator’s car. The unit commander kept his gaze locked on the car. Leave it to the Red Moons to use a smoke grenade to provide cover.

“Switch to infrared!” the commander ordered, tapping the switch on his own helmet. The lenses on his helmet amplified heat signatures, making it easier to distinguish targets from the obscuring smoke.

The lights went out in the corridor, leaving only emergency glow-spots in some sections and bio-luminescent paint stripes to mark the corridor. The commander’s grip on his blaster rifle tightened. Standard assault trick.

“You’re playing a poor man’s game!” Zult called out to whomever was hiding inside the car. “Show yourself. Arms raised over your head!”

“Scopes are negative,” one trooper called out.

“I’m not seeing anything,” another added.

“Quiet!” the unit commander hissed. Betting on a hunch, he flipped his helmet’s infrared off. It must be a trick, he reasoned—a chill suit to mask a body’s heat signature or the mist itself could contain heat dissipation particles to scatter warmer air.

A figure emerged from the car, arms raised, the folds of a long camo jacket fluttering as it stepped forward into the corridor.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” the figure called out in a very squeaky voice.  “I’m too young to die!”

Zult studied the figure with his own cybernetic-enhanced eye.

“It’s a droid!”

“Hold your fire!” the commander of the stormtroopers called out.  “It could be rigged to explode!”

The droid kept rushing about in panic among the soldiers, waving its arms.

“Don’t blast me into slag! Please! I’m hardly dangerous! They made me do this!”

“Pull back! Cover me!” Zult demanded, wanting to put his troops between him and the menacing droid bomb.

The unit commander was almost disappointed to see the Red Moons had sent a droid. Stormcaller was the kind of soldier who enjoyed getting into an opponent’s face and rubbing their failure in it. He liked making things personal.

There was a motion above his head. Too late, he realized that the droid was a deceit designed to get their attention.

A shape fell from the ceiling next to Dink and Zult, disarming the Pentastar agent with a electrified stun stave and shoving him away with a kick. The figure tapped on the control panel’s keypad. The blast doors zipped open, startling a small group of armed Republic soldiers—the last defenders of the base—waiting behind the thick shield. Without waiting, the figure pushed Dink into the waiting arms of one of the Republic soldiers.

“Brixie!” Dink shouted, not understanding what she was doing.

She ran her fingers over the keypad. As quickly as they opened, the blast doors slammed shut again.

Dink was safe.

Brixie fired her blaster at the keypad, destroying the controls.

“What are you doing?” Zult screamed at her.

“No one gets inside now.”

Enraged, Zult gestured to the unit commander. “Shoot her! Kill her!”

The young doctor was an easy target. All the unit commander had to do was pull the trigger. Instead, he lowered the blaster, much to Brixie’s surprise and Zult’s bewilderment. The commander couldn’t bring himself to do it.

“It is you,” the commander half-whispered. “I never believed you would come back.”

“Who are you?” she eyed him, not knowing.

Zult waved at the other troops.

“Forget the droid! Kill her! She’s right there! Save me!”

The stormtroopers turned around to confront Brixie. They didn’t expect a second shape to drop from the ceiling behind them. Ivey nimbly alighted to the floor with a blaster pistol in each hand. Six blaster bolts rang out in quick succession. Six white-armored bodies fell to the corridor floor.

“I used to like you,” the stormtrooper commander bluntly told Brixie. He aimed and shot Ivey at point-blank range. “Her, not so much.”

Struck in her side, Ivey cried out. Dropping the blasters, she crumpled.

“Ivey!” Brixie rushed over to her, reaching inside her medical bag.

Zult got there first, kicking Ivey in the midsection hard enough to launch her against the corridor wall. She twisted from the intense pain and curled up into a ball. He lunged and grabbed Brixie by an arm.

“It makes no difference to me which hostage I have,” he yanked her away, stopping Brixie from helping Ivey. The blaster wound was a terrible injury. Unless Ivey received aid soon, she would die. “One of you will open that door for me. The council is mine!”

“You get nothing!”

Brixie stabbed Zult with the Ergo hypo-injector. Ironically, it was her father’s own lifesaving invention that penetrated Zult’s armor and the metal cage that replaced his chest cavity, piercing the wall of his artificial heart to deliver the injector’s contents.

Zult staggered backward, clutching at his chest. He slapped Brixie hard with the back of his artificial hand. The blow sent her careening into the corridor wall and brought her to her knees.

“Brixie!” Ivey called out, stretching out to reach her.

“Stupid girl!” Zult shrieked at her. “You’ve done nothing to me. My body can neutralize any poison.”

“I didn’t poison you,” Brixie held up the Ergo injector with its glowing plasma-shrouded needle. “I gave you adrenaline. Twenty times the normal dose. Sure, your artificial heart and body can take it. But the rest of you is still human.”

A waterfall of flop sweat cascaded down Zult’s horrified face. Brixie had delivered the adrenaline straight to his artificial heart. It was pumping the overdosed hormone to every part of his body. His human eye widened in terror, the pupil dilating to the point he could no longer see from it. His breathing came in ragged, uncontrollable gasps. Nerves fired to muscles erratically, sending twitching spasms across his body. Even standing proved nearly impossible for him. A pin-bright shock of pain spread outward from his human arm, rippling across his body.

“You’ve got the symptoms,” Brixie pronounced with chilly demeanor. “Erratic heartbeat. Rapid breathing. Difficulty seeing. Muscle spasms. And dangerously high blood pressure.”

Zult staggered a few steps, imploring the unit commander to help him.

The unit commander coldly shrugged.

“Better you than me, sir.”

The searing pain reached the side of Zult’s neck. He screamed as it intensified and refused to yield. Something made of cells and tissue, a remaining part of his former self not replaced by plastic or mechanism, was strained to the very last living fiber. The embolism swelling inside his neck’s carotid artery grew like a living thing and without warning—popped. The bloody explosion, reminiscent of Jedha’s own terrifying death, sprayed outward.

Zult’s eyes reeled back inside his head. He was dead before his body hit the floor.

Paying no attention to Zult’s painful end, Brixie dragged herself across the floor to reach Ivey.

“Please tell me you’re not going to do to me what you did to Zult?” Ivey asked with a pained smile.

“I’m not doing anything but keeping you alive….” Brixie sprayed the wound with a biotene spray, stemming the damage and sedating her. Blaster injuries healed faster when the body was in a calm state. She gently kissed Ivey on the cheek as she slumped into unconsciousness. “You’re staying with me.”

“How quaint.” The stormtrooper’s amplified voice mocked Brixie. He aimed his blaster rifle directly at them. “You two lovebirds want to be together? Allow me to oblige.”

A shape emerged from the smoke cloud behind him, not the droid. A staff whistled through the air and connected with the back of the stormtrooper’s helmet, wrenching it off his head and knocking him forward. He staggered to the floor on his hands and knees, dropping the blaster rifle in front of him.

He looked up, his head scarred and burnt.

Brixie finally recognized him for who he was.

Who he used to be.

“I’ll be damned,” Stormcaller held the staff at the commander’s head. “Lex Kempo.”

Brixie stared at him. In her early weeks of training with the Moons, she had gotten to know Lex Kempo as a handsome womanizing scoundrel interested more in the money than in the cause. Kempo took risks, always bragging to Brixie how he always wanted to go out “…in a blaze of glory.”

Kempo no longer resembled his former handsome self. The ex-scout-turned-stormtrooper-commander proudly wore the scars of the incredible explosion that leveled a slaver’s camp. Blaze of glory indeed.

“You died on Gabredor III!” Brixie exclaimed.

“You left me on Gabredor III!” he snarled back at her.

One of Brixie’s first missions with the Red Moons was as part of a team sent to rescue the kidnapped children of a powerful corporate family from Cantras Gola who had been taken by slavers. She was assigned as a field medic under the leadership of Sully Tigereye, the demolitions expertise of Hugo Cutter, and the sardonic guidance of Kempo. In a remarkable act of heroism, Lex piloted a hover sled full of explosives into an artillery piece to save Brixie and Hugo so they could rescue the children and free the rest of the slaves.

He disappeared in the explosion. Everyone thought he was dead.

“The famous Red Moons,” Kempo quipped, chuckling under his breath. “Famous for the broken bodies they leave behind.”

“You knew the risks,” Stormcaller told him. “We would have come for you if we had known you were alive.”

“Thanks for the sentiment, old man, but you’re years too late. My family found me in that burning mess.” He thumped his stormtrooper armor’s chest with a gloved fist. “My real family. They took me back, scars and all.”

“The Empire is a lousy family.”

“Maybe,” he wrapped his hands around the grips of his blaster rifle. “But the pay is always better.”

“You took orders from Zult,” Brixie angrily shook her head. “You and your soldiers beat us to an inch of our lives on Jaemus!”

“Cry me a river, Lady Brix. I was simply returning the favor for Tigereye dumping me on Gabredor III. That stupid, ugly warthog. I never did understand why that talking carnival act was always in charge. Out of all the Moons, I always thought you liked me best, Brix. You were such a sweet young temptation. The daughter from some wealthy family looking for a strong shoulder to lean on. That could have been me.”

“I see you’re giving yourself and the size of your armored pants way too much credit, as usual.” Brixie angrily snapped back.

“Then again,” Lex glared past Brixie, at Ivey lying unconscious behind her. “Your tastes are more for street rats and psychopaths like Hugo Cutter.”

“Don’t you ever talk that way to me or any of us!” She pointed at Zult’s prone body. “Zult murdered my parents. He enslaved Hugo! You threw your lot in with him! ”

“What can I say? I’m a mercenary. And…” He rose slowly to his feet, keeping the blaster rifle aimed at her. “I’m walking out of here.”

“There’s no way off this rock for you, Kempo.” Stormcaller warned. “Your family’s abandoned you. The First Order’s packed up and left.”

“I’ll manage.” He kept the weapon trained on Brixie. “Don’t get cute, old man. I’m still faster than you. Press that trigger and the lady doctor won’t be able to fix the giant hole I’ll burn right through her.”

Stormcaller lowered the staff, presenting himself as an easy target.

“Here I thought it was me that you wanted.”

Kempo turned his attention, and the blaster rifle, towards his former commander.

“I’m going to be remembered as the one who finally killed Andrephan Stormcaller.”

“Son, fame is highly overrated.”

The vibro-axe was many times larger than Brixie’s medical hypo-injector. Kempo’s stormtrooper armor did little to save him. The weapon slammed into the ex-mercenary with enough force to crack the armor’s back plate and exited his chest in a gruesome manner. Kempo’s face turned ashen as he looked down at the humming blade—covered in his own blood.

“Nice to see you again, Lex.”

Sully Tigereye yanked the axe out with a sickening squish of torn muscle, bone, organs and blood. Kempo dropped like a rag doll, the side of his face slamming hard against the corridor floor.

Brixie recoiled in horror as she watched the life bleed out from this man she once knew. His dim gaze studied her, his face broken in a crooked smile of contempt. This was the Lex Kempo she would always remember.

“Aren’t you supposed to be a doctor?”

She slowly shook her head, watching him die on the floor like an impaled bug.

“I am a doctor. I’m just not your doctor.”

The carnage was over. Zult was gone and so too was the First Order. The two Star Destroyers left Jedha the moment General Hux realized the council was beyond his grasp and an entire Republic fleet was on its way.

Sully was in such a rage that he nearly killed the next person he saw rushing out from the turbovators, but he was stopped by Stormcaller. Evangela Orai was a First Order cadet and, not surprisingly, the latest to fall under the man’s spell.

That was the colonel, Brixie admitted. He loved to pick up strays.

“She’s new to this whole merc thing,” he admitted.

“Great,” Brixie remarked, her hand protectively on Ivey’s arm. “Can she contact the people inside the bunker or hotwire the door? Ivey needs help. Now.”

“I’m on it,” the cadet replied, heading over to the burnt control panel. After several uncertain moments, the sole remaining Republic officer inside the bunker was convinced enough to open the blast doors from inside. Dink spilled out, rushing to Ivey’s side. A force of Republic guards emerged to secure the corridor, bringing with them a medical droid and stretcher-lift.

The members of the Republic Council, diplomats chosen as replacements for those murdered on Hosnian Prime, nervously stepped forward. Brixie overheard some of them offer their thanks, but she was too busy stabilizing Ivey’s condition and consoling the frantic boy begging to know if she was going to be all right.

Sully Tigereye wanted nothing to do with the council or anyone else for that matter. He was boiling over with anger, storming up and down the corridor with the stained vibro-axe in his hand.

After securing Ivey on the stretcher for evacuation to the bunker’s medical facility, Brixie unraveled the puzzle behind Tigereye’s fury. She realized one of them was missing.

“Where’s Hugo?” she asked him.

Sully stopped pacing and lowered his eyes, almost beyond solace and barely able to speak.

“He’s…everywhere.”

Chapter 32

IVEY LIT A CANDLE FROM BRIXIE’S, SMILING AT HER.

“I’LL HOLD ONE FOR US. FOR HUGO.”

Brixie could not think of a better place than her family’s cabin in the forests of Entralla to hold the gathering. Although the word “cabin” suggested something rustic and primitive, that was never her parents’ intent. They had commissioned the structure in the woods—using timber milled from fallen trees and found stone—as a retreat from their intensive studies and professional work, a place to calm the mind and reflect. The structure had several levels: a grand open sitting area with a high roof, fireplaces and an overhang facing the ancient woods, a gentle water feature which doubled as a lap pool, furniture and fittings made from local craftsmen. When she was younger her parents brought Brixie here, encouraging her to commune with nature when she was much more interested in burying her head inside an entertainment holo.

It was only recently that she fully came to appreciate her parents’ foresight. There was a connection to the forest that could not be found in the permacrete and durasteel edifices of Entralla’s capital city. The fresh air brought harmony, vitality and solitude. The giant trees had lifetimes that spanned centuries. Their evergreen canopies sheltered the animals and plants who had their own cycles of birth and death. Brixie was not surprised her mother and father had chosen the story of the forest and the helpful gardener as the setting for a holo-program they intended as therapy for those troubled by depression or physical injury—before Zult trapped Hugo and others inside it. To her parents, these woods were a sacred place.

Having returned to Entralla after her sprawling galactic adventure, Brixie decided the cabin was the perfect place to reconcile the disparate parts of her life—the doctor and the soldier—and to celebrate the lives of her parents and Hugo. The invitations she sent suggested a gathering rather than a memorial.

They came by the dozens to honor her lost parents and their friend. The two groups eyed each other with suspicion: academics, medical professionals, family relatives, childhood friends and colleagues on one side of the seating area, grim-looking soldiers, pilots, scouts, scoundrels and free-traders on the other.

This was the first time in years that members of the Red Moons had been reunited. Of course, General Stormcaller—whom finally acknowledged his honorary rank—was the pragmatic center of this unusual collection of beings. Some took turns scaring the academics, although Sully Tigereye discouraged them with a glare from his amber-colored eyes and a disapproving shake of his head. Passing around mugs of distilled liquor, the Moons chuckled and reminisced telling stories about Hugo Cutter and his many misadventures.

Brixie fought a growing blush in her cheeks as the tales grew louder and more colorful. Hugo had a knack for getting attention—whether he was blowing up an Imperial base, fermenting his own brand of Rebellion beer in a Y-wing’s fuel cell, or running naked outside the Moon’s hideout and screaming about the impending collapse of the universe. She eyed her relatives and the curious who kept a respectful distance. They didn’t believe she ever rubbed elbows with such unsavory types.

As time passed, and inhibitions were worn down by alcohol, braver folk started to mingle among both sides. Among the bravest was Ivey, constantly followed around by Dink and his young associates from the Hive on Cantras Gola.

Having fully healed from her blaster injury, Ivey was perfectly at ease chatting with the academic elites of Entralla, but her young charges were bored and obnoxious. They delighted in making faces at the adults behind their backs and some were brazen enough to pickpocket valuables from the less observant. They got their hands slapped by Ivey, sometimes while she was speaking in mid-sentence and without skipping a single word, as though she was swatting a fly.

Brixie steered the mob of younglings to the cabin’s lower level, encouraging them to try the board games and toys she used to play with as a child with her parents. Eventually, they found the holo-receiver and became complacent watching the thousands of available satellite entertainment channels. The generations never really changed, she noted.

Ivey, strikingly dressed in a simple gown with muted colors, spotted Brixie returning to the main level. She tried to apologize for the ill-mannered youth, but Brixie would have none of it.

“Sully volunteered to take them to the capital city later to see an acrobatic show.”

“Sully?” Ivey looked at the Trunsk seated in one of the comfortable armchairs near Stormcaller by a stone fireplace. “Our Sully? Supervising a field trip of younglings?”

“He’s taken on the Empire’s worst. I think he’ll be fine.”

“You don’t know those kids,” Ivey smiled. Her head tilted, as she did when she was either curious or concerned, her eyes measuring Brixie. “How are you holding up? After Hugo and that holo-program, I would have thought you had enough of forests.”

Brixie looked around at the many beings brought together by life and circumstance. Soldiers and citizens, warriors and smugglers, cherished friends and family.

“I grew up with those trees,” Brixie nodded to the resplendent view of brown and green outside the sitting area. “I know my parents would have loved this. Everyone I care about is here. I’m very happy.”

Brixie started with one candle and lit it from the sitting room’s fireplace. From there, the flame was passed to other candles held by those who wanted one. The mercs and soldiers, grim and tough as they were, didn’t appear too comfortable with such things. Brixie explained that there was no ceremony to this, no religious or spiritual significance. She wanted a simple act to honor her parents; the candle represented the light they had given to others. From her flame, another candle could be lit for a loved one and that flame passed on.

“We lose so much sometimes,” she admitted aloud. “I wish I had more hands so I could hold more candles.”

Ivey lit a candle from Brixie’s, smiling at her.

“I’ll hold one for us. For Hugo.”

Others pressed forward, battle-hardened freebooters and bespectacled instructors alike, each taking candles and lighting them.

They lit them for Hugo. For her parents. For lost comrades. For loved ones.

Even Stormcaller lit a candle, nodding his appreciation to Brixie.

“Someone has to light one for Lex,” he explained. “No matter how things might have turned out. He was one of us.”

Dink and the rest of the street kids from the Hive, curious about the lack of noise coming from the upstairs, snuck up and asked if they could join in. With a threatening rumble from their chaperone for the rest of the evening, Sully Tigereye, they each lit candles of their own in surprising reverence. Ivey was very proud of her charges. Brixie wondered if the forest and the tiny flames they held had affected them, too.

Dozens of candles flickered across the room, bathing the room in their warm glow, resembling the many stars seen across the dusky sky.

As evening turned to night, one-by-one and in pairs, the guests bid Brixie their farewells and their thanks. The evening was an enjoyable one. Old friendships had been rekindled, new ones started. The most humorous goodbyes came from Sully and his entourage of younglings. Every one of them planted a kiss of thanks on Brixie’s cheek, except for Dink, who surprised her with a tight hug.

“I thought you didn’t like me?” she asked the boy.

“You’re not as soft as I said you were,” he smirked. “Just smarter than most.”

“How about that? An actual compliment. Now who’s going soft?” Ivey feigned surprise before addressing the other younglings. “As for the rest of you, listen up. Do not get Master Tigereye angry. Understand? I’m not going to be held responsible if he starts eating some of you.”

“Trunsks don’t eat people!” Dink declared.

Tigereye gave Ivey a dubious glance.

“Don’t go around spreading falsehoods, Lady Deacon. I’m a civilized Trunsk. I’ve given up eating younglings.” He patted his stomach in a manner that alarmed some of the kids. “Mostly.”

Brixie tried to show Sully her appreciation with a squeeze on his arm, as much of a squeeze that was possible. She remembered thinking that Trunsks weren’t all that squeezable.

“Thank you for doing this,” she eyed the younglings under his supervision.

“Got to keep trying new things,” he winked, a golden eye squeezing shut. “Don’t want to end up as some unemployed, ex-mercenary. Hugo would have scolded me, anyway. He would say I’m going to end up being predictable and boring.”

“No one will ever say that about you, Sully.”

Right behind them, General Stormcaller and a number of Red Moons, including ex-cadet Evangela Oria, bid Brixie thanks and goodnight. They were on their way to the training moon. After that, the general admitted, who knew what lay next?

“I could always use a good doctor,” he reminded her. “I might drop by in case there’s an emergency.”

“Or you could try dropping by for an evening of dinner and conversation,” Brixie suggested. “Instead of dragging me on another desperate mission to save the galaxy.”

“You’re asking an old man to change his ways. That can be very difficult.”

“I can be very persistent,” she assured him, eyeing Evangela and remembering the first time she and the general met. Back then he had insisted he could turn a young, naïve medical student into a soldier. She admitted to him. “I was never much of a soldier.”

“You never were,” Stormcaller agreed, warmly shaking her hand in farewell. “I always knew you would make a great doctor, though.”

After the guests were gone, Ivey stayed to help Brixie with the cleanup. Although the cabin was designed with many conveniences, along with its own geothermal turbine and solar collectors for heating and power, Ivey noticed one important piece of technology was missing.

“Don’t you own a droid?”

Brixie mused as she stored the cleaned wine goblets away in their racks.

“I was practically raised by a droid. My parents were busy. They bought a nanny unit to take care of and play with me, then they upgraded it to be my tutor and companion. It was one of those protocol models. You know, like that fussy translator droid General Organa-Solo has?”

Ivey found Brixie’s description of C-3P0 as “fussy” pretty humorous.

“You like owning them,” Brixie noted, changing the subject. “Your place has dozens of them.”

“I made a living in the Hive collecting and selling scrap. I’m used to being around them.” She handed Brixie a stray clean wine goblet. “And you’re dodging my question. You don’t want a personal droid?”

“No.” Brixie shook her head. “My working life is full of droids. Med droids. Surgical droids. Cleaning droids. I guess you could say I prefer…organic-based life forms.”

“How medically accurate,” Ivey grinned.

The conversation waned as they finished cleaning. Brixie watched Ivey gather up her things, intending to head back to the capital city. She and her younglings were scheduled to board a GHW shuttle to return them to Cantras Gola.

But that was tomorrow.

Brixie took the travel case and cloak from Ivey’s hands and laid them neatly on one of the entrance tables.

“You don’t want me to leave?”

“Why do you think I asked Sully to take Dink and his roving marauders?” Brixie laughed. “Not for his sanity.”

Taking Ivey by the hand, she led her to the bottom level stairs and the decking that fronted the lap pool and patio.

“I want to show you something.”

Brixie switched off the home’s outdoor floodlamps. After a moment for their eyes to adjust, an ethereal pale glow appeared along the moss that grew between the giant trees. The forest never went completely dark; there was always a subtle illumination either from the moss or the crescent Entrallan moon seen from gaps in the tree tops. The satellite was colored blood red, its lifeless surface composed of iron ores and scarred by violent meteoroid impacts. It was the symbol General Stormcaller had taken for his band of mercenaries. An angry red moon.

“Listen,” she whispered to Ivey.

An animal call, a cross between a baby’s gasp and a cat’s meow, moaned between the high branches. It was answered by a series of clicks and a yelp. There was a flicker of movement in the trees: two kite foxes. They were hunting, alighting from tree to tree, swooping and climbing.

The practical side of Ivey wondered aloud.

“They’re not going to attack us, are they?”

“A pair of kite foxes have lived behind the cabin for as long as I remember. They make a nest, have babies, leave and another pair takes their place the following year. They don’t care about us noisy humans trampling around. To them, we’re just visitors.” Brixie embraced Ivey, surprising her. “Are you trying to protect me from danger?”

“Who, me?” Ivey looked down, nervously pretending to study the bioluminescent moss. She pointed to the side where the blaster had struck her. “You’re the one who saved my life. Again. Remember the snake that bit me when we were on the training moon?”

“That snake bite was nasty, but it wasn’t going to kill you.” Brixie laughed. “I made that part up.”

“Then you just wanted to stab me in the…?”

“Serves you right.” Brixie cut her off with a nod and an impish grin. “Everyone on that moon was horrible to me. You were the only one there who was my age. I wanted a friend. A real friend.”

“Guess I was too busy being the dominant alpha with the other trainees.” Ivey nodded in understanding. “A hypo in my butt did the trick.”

“You were much nicer to me after that,” Brixie added.

She gazed off into the forest, letting the stillness wash over her. So much more than time separated them from that moment on the training moon. The past had separated them; sending Ivey to a prison world and Brixie into a spiral of grief. She always thought Ivey had been lost to her forever.

They stood together on the edge of something new and exciting.

Ivey was watching her, her gaze expectant and emotional. She could have been thinking the same uncertain thoughts as her. They had been through so much. Were these feelings one part of their friendship…or something more?

Hugo had gotten himself lost in a forest that looked almost exactly like this. Then again, that holo-program was intended as a trap. He didn’t have someone as clever as Brixie at his side.

Ivey squeezed Brixie’s hand tight, pulling her back to the present.

“What happens now?”

She motioned to the woods and the crescent red moon rising above, beckoning them.

“Walk with me.”

Taking her by the hand, Brixie led Ivey into the forest.

END

Acknowledgements

To the curators and contributors of Wookieepedia for helping me correctly spell and identify many character names, planets and locations lost to my feeble brain. Having Wookieepedia is the closest thing to having my own personal Jedi Holocron.

To Peter Scheweighofer, editor for West End Games’ Star Wars Adventure Journal, for granting me the wish to play around in George Lucas’ universe.

To the innumerable artists who helped visualize Star Wars and the events in this story. Thank you for letting me borrow your creativity.

To the musical genius that is John Williams for the Star Wars soundtracks and to Michael Giacchino for his compositions on Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Speed Racer, Jupiter Ascending, The Incredibles and, of course, Rogue One. Thanks to you, I have music in my head and words to write.

To all who think Star Wars is cool, this story is dedicated to you.

Tony

RED MOON RISING

Red Moon Rising
Red Moon Rising

Now complete! An entirely new STAR WARS adventure that takes place after the events of the THE FORCE AWAKENS… New heroes! New dangers!

THIRTY YEARS have passed since the Emperor died, thrown to his death by his apprentice, Lord Darth Vader. The Galactic Civil War should have ended there, but it did not. Remnants of the Imperial regime continue to fight. A New Republic emerged from the ashes of the old, still embroiled in controversy and bitter rivalries, struggling to survive. Sometimes the only ones fighting the lingering cancer of the Empire were mercenaries: ex-Rebel soldiers, smugglers, scouts, con artists and empowered citizens.

The RED MOONS were among these misfits. Brixie Ergo used to be one of them, a medical student longing to find her missing parents, only for her search to end in tragedy.

Brixie left the Red Moons and that way of life behind, hoping to bring aid to others on her own terms. Now she must reluctantly rise to action and be a soldier once more, joining her other fellow Red Moons like Sully Tigereye. A terrible plot has surfaced, threatening to destroy the New Republic and the Resistance from within.

Available to read on this site, also available as Epub and Mobi format files for e-readers!