“…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, Contras 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. Contras 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 Contras 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?”
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.
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.
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.”