“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.
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 Contras Gola.”
Contras 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 Contras 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 Contras 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.”