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.
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.
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!”
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.