STORMCALLER WATCHED ZULT STRUGGLE WITH HIS PIRATED APPENDAGE.
“YOU SAID YOU WANTED SOMETHING MORE INSIDIOUS. INSPIRED. CREATIVE.”
Pleased with the results of his trap, Zult’s voice took on a condescending tone.
“I’ve worked a long time for this. Discovering Ackbar’s B-wing with the data vault inside it. Designing the program that turned Cutter and those other Rising Moon agents into my puppets. Watching one friend turn on another. But I’m tired of soliloquies.” Zult raised his palm to signal the stormtroopers to target the inert forms of Hugo Cutter and Sully Tigereye. “On my command, fire.”
The ex-colonel reached inside his tunic and produced a yellow square. He flicked it at Zult so it landed at his polished boot-clad feet.
The Pentastar agent was wary of a trap.
“You’re carrying it on your person? On a scrap of plastic?”
“Nobody except you knows what it is. Anyone who pilfered it from me would find a useless code wafer.”
Motioning to his stormtroopers to keep their weapons trained on Stormcaller, Zult carefully picked the rectangle up. Imprinted on plastic with microfine circuits, it was a throwaway device, the kind of useless chit used for temporary data transactions.
“This had better work, Stormcaller. Lives hang in the balance. Yours and theirs.”
Motioning for the stormtroopers to disarm and keep watch over the former colonel, Zult inserted the wafer inside the receptacle in his artificial arm. His countermeasure programs were expecting a virus or something protective, but they encountered nothing but simplistic passwords. The data the wafer contained was real. Using his own internal comlink, Zult was able to transmit the codes directly to the B-wing in its landing bay.
Inside his cybernetic eye’s internal viewer, the data vault’s files appeared. Setting Sun was revealed to him. He scrolled through the data, joyous in anticipation. The location of the New Republic Council-in-exile. The New Republic’s fleet disposition and control codecs. The security details of every single New Republic senator. Intelligence plans. Defense tactics. Special frequencies to contact the Resistance fighting against the New Order. Most importantly, he had the last known locations of the core members of the Rebellion and the New Republic. General Leia Organa-Solo. The Wookiee Chewbacca and his family. Mon Mothma in retirement. Admiral Ackbar. Even Lando Calrissian and General Airen Cracken and agents of Rising Moon.
He also found curious updates to the files. Reports on General Han Solo’s death on Starkiller Base and Jedi Master Luke Skywalker’s location finally revealed…
The vault was the key to the entire New Republic. And its doom.
Zult decided he no longer needed General Hux. With this information, he could ask for whatever he wanted directly from Supreme Leader Snoke. He would be more than rewarded. He would be elevated to the upper echelons of the First Order. The Pentastar Alignment would live on.
“Stormcaller, you’re a tired old fool,” Zult declared to the veteran warrior of the Rebel Alliance and the soon-doomed Republic. “Carrying around such an important piece of information on you as though it was a library archive card? I expected something more…insidious. Inspired. Creative.”
“Now you’re getting personal.” Stormcaller winked at him. “As usual, you’re forgetting something.”
Having no intention of sparing any of them, Zult raised his blaster at him.
“Choose your last words very carefully, so I may have it decorated on your memorial plaque back on Entralla.”
“Red Moons is plural.”
Frowning with what remained of his face, the Pentastar agent didn’t understand.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“The Red Moons never disbanded. There’s always one or two of us around to cause mischief. Like the data slicer who designed that little code bomb you’ve got in your arm.”
In the blink of Zult’s eye, the data vault on the B-wing evaporated. It wasn’t a virus designed to locked him out, it was a parasite program eating the contents of the vault as soon as Zult accessed the files.
“What is this?” he hissed.
Zult tried to dig the wafer out of his arm to save the vault, but it refused to budge. His own countermeasures were nothing compared to the monstrosity digging deep inside the neural pathways of his internal circuitry. He started losing control of his own arm! The parasite was attacking him.
Stormcaller watched Zult struggle with his pirated appendage.
“You said you wanted something more insidious. Inspired. Creative.”
“Kill him!” Zult screamed to the stormtroopers, backing away on uncertain legs as the program attacked his internals and locked him out of the simplest routines. “Kill them all!”
A powerful bolt of energy cut down one trooper and another standing right next to him. The unit commander whirled about, searching for the origin of the energy blast.
“Sniper!” he shouted.
A pair of elongated jade green arms emerged—camouflaged by the tree branches over the soldiers’ heads—and snatched a third stormtrooper up into the canopy.
“Covering fire!” the commander yelled, helping Zult retreat towards the arch and the park’s entrance.
Another trooper tried to follow them, but stopped to look down. Something had fallen from the trees and was now draped around his helmet and shoulders. The unit commander took one look at the necklace of weapons around his fellow soldier’s neck and pushed Zult further away.
The different grenades went off in sequence: blinding sparks, sonic screamers and thick, putrid smoke. Lit up like a parade float from the Festival of the Red Moon celebration on Entralla, the stormtrooper struggled to yank the string of exploding puff bombs off before he was cut down by the sniper.
Oblivious to the light and sound show around him, Stormcaller turned to the stormtrooper who had taken his staff. He stretched out his hand to him.
“Son, I’m only going to ask once. Hand that over.”
The stormtrooper aimed his blaster at him instead.
“Are you kidding me, old man?”
A searing jolt of blue electricity crackled along the staff’s length, lancing across the trooper’s body. He shook a few moments, smoke escaping from the joints in his armor until he fell face-first into the dirt.
Stormcaller caught the falling staff. He spun the end around and depressed a button on the mid-grip. A humming shaft of blue light, almost a meter and a half in length, erupted from the end. Another stormtrooper, distracted by the fireworks and his rapidly-disappearing comrades, turned abruptly around.
The lightsaber-tipped staff flashed high over Stormcaller’s head like some ancient polearm, striking downward. The shimmering blade cut through armor, cloth, flesh, bone—everything it touched. The soldier, divided into unequal halves, collapsed in the forest sod. The other trooper he just electrocuted struggled to get back up on his feet and aim his blaster rifle. Spinning the staff around, Stormcaller fired a projectile gun from the opposite end, knocking the trooper backwards a good four meters. The soldier lay sprawled on his back and didn’t get up again.
“Don’t call me old.”
With no other enemy combatants in sight and smoke billowing in all directions from the grenades, Stormcaller tapped a dot microphone connected to a comlink as he hurried where Tigereye and Hugo had fallen.
“Lost the targets,” Dink’s young voice called over the former colonel’s inner-ear link. At least there was one advantage to having artificial hearing implants.
“Forget about the targets, kid. I need a medic…” he looked down.
Brixie was already there, tending to Sully with her medical bag, while Ivey guarded over her and an unconscious Hugo.
Ivey glanced at the colonel, noting his surprised reaction. He wasn’t expecting to see Brixie either.
Stormcaller tapped his throat mike again.
“Never mind. Bring immediate evac to this position.”
Several Entymals appeared from hiding places in the forest park. Brixie had no idea how many Stormcaller had recruited or for what exact purpose, but at least they were on their side. Able to lift many times their own weight, the insectoid workers carried a still-unconscious Hugo and Sully Tigereye, an emergency respirator shroud covering his face, to safety.
Stormcaller and Ivey led the way with Brixie and Dink, carrying the enormous sniper blaster rifle over his soldier, taking up the rear of the procession. They did not return to the listening post where Brixie first encountered Ivey, instead riding a private elevator to one of the high residences inside the elite corporate towers that dotted the cityscape. As Brixie discovered, altitude meant everything on Contras Gola. The higher one lived above the tightly-packed Hive, the higher the level of comfort and status.
Ivey’s private residence took up an entire floor of the tower; a startling change from the bunkers and dirty hiding holes the Red Moons typically occupied. Guarded by security droids and tiny flying drones the size of large insects, it would take more than a battalion of stormtroopers to breach the labyrinth of countermeasures and blast doors.
“Don’t worry. The towers are corporate turf, just like the Maze belongs to the crimelords and the gangs,” Ivey reassured Brixie, worried they would be pursued and cornered up here. “Zult won’t show his ugly face here.”
Brixie was led inside a palace. The floors were laid with imported stone tile, the walls covered with murals that changed with the flick of a switch, and the ceiling’s frescos once belonged to some ancient church. Rare jewels encrusted the door arches and crystalline chandeliers screamed decadence. Specialized transparent steel windows were covered with polarizing screens that controlled the amount of daylight from the hot ball of Contras Gola’s sun passing across the sky—they were well above the air pollution demarcation line.
Servitor droids appeared from niches offering food, drink and anything Brixie desired short of procuring a Star Destroyer. Doorways led to extravagant dining salons, libraries, sitting rooms, and elaborate recreation rooms filled with every imaginable piece of leisure equipment. Everywhere were layers of filigreed gold, sumptuous fabrics, crystals, sculptures, and colorful creatures kept in transparent cases and displayed like artwork.
“You live here…?” Brixie wondered, almost asking by yourself? but holding her tongue. She had no right to pry into Ivey’s personal life.
“All by myself,” she answered Brixie’s unspoken question. “I’m head of information security for Galentro Heavy Works. The irony is almost laughable. A former street rat, now head of the kitchen she used to steal from. Galentro doesn’t know about the other work I do.” Ivey waved off the droids. “This place is nothing. Corporate officers and their families live like royalty.”
She led Brixie and the Entymals carrying Hugo and Sully to an infirmary which rivaled the best emergency centers on Entralla, if not the orbiting hospital station at Bescane. There were diagnostic beds, medical droids, monitoring equipment, cabinets stocked with supplies and an automated pharmacy.
“Private residences are fortresses here,” Ivey explained. “Food, water, power, transportation: all self-contained.”
Brixie ignored the glitzy accommodations and kept her focus on Sully and Hugo. The Trunsk was put on one of the medical beds. She let its diagnostic tools image his head, lungs and throat.
While the bed performed its detailed analysis, Brixie was forced to make a decision about Hugo. She gave instructions to the medical bed’s intravenous dispenser.
“What are you doing?” Ivey asked, watching Brixie slide a hypocuff around Hugo’s wrist. The remote-guided needle inserted an intravenous line connected to the bed’s auto-dispenser. “He was only knocked out with a sonic grenade. He should be fine.”
“He’s not fine. I tried to tell you. His mind’s been deeply reprogrammed by Zult. In Hugo’s version of reality, he’s in some bio-preserve, solving problems for a gardener.”
Ivey blinked, not understanding what Brixie meant by a bio-preserve, much less a gardener.
“It’s an old holo program used on Entralla to teach children, but Zult changed the program and used mental conditioning to trap Hugo inside. He’s still under its control. He doesn’t know where he is or who we are. That’s why he tried to kill Sully.”
Brixe dug through her medical bag and found the datapad. She shoved it into Ivey’s hands.
“We took the program and the data from the hospital on Ord Mantell where they were keeping him, but its encrypted. Until we can break its influence, Hugo’s a danger to himself and others. I have to put him in an induced coma.”
Silence filled the infirmary. Brixie didn’t even see Stormcaller, Dink or the Entymals standing there, nor did she ask anyone for their permission making this decision. There was only Hugo and Sully.
They were her patients. Her responsibility.
The intravenous auto-injector sent the serum she requested into Hugo’s vein. Checking the displays on Hugo’s medical bed as his vital signs stabilized and remained at unconscious levels, Brixie turned to Ivey.
“I examined the holo program myself. My mother is in there.” Brixie didn’t want to start a discussion on that particular subject, either. “I don’t know why, but she helped Zult build it. Ivey, you have to decrypt that program. It’s the only way to bring Hugo back.”
“Okay, Brix.” Frowning, Ivey studied the plastic rectangle and its screen. “I’ll do what I can.”
Watching Sully breathe with help from the emergency shroud, his vital signs on the bed’s displays hovering near death, Brixie knew how concerned the others were. Hugo was lost. Sully was worse. She had to wear the mantle of a doctor again, not the soldier. She wasn’t very good with weapons or tactics, anyway. That was Stormcaller and Ivey’s world. This was where she belonged. She addressed the others in the room.
“Until I get the analysis from the diagnostic computer, I can’t tell you anything about Sully’s condition.” Coating her hands with a disinfecting gel and preparing for possible surgery, Brixie gestured towards the infirmary’s door. “He’s in my care now. Everyone needs to wait outside.”