“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…”