“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.”
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.”
“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 Contras 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. Contras 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?”