Chapter 2

She began to realize this object wasn’t just a tracer. It was a potent, tiny explosive designed for one purpose.

To snap her neck and kill her.

 

“All that…just to drag me here?”

Brixie fumed, pacing the incredibly small amount of floor space available in the rental cube Tigereye had taken her to. There were thousands of such nooks in Ord Mantell City, temporary spaces for freighter crews to rest until their next trip. The amenities were as tiny as the amount of available space. Aside from a bed covered in hard equipment cases, there was an unused food galley and a holo-screen bolted to the wall and tuned to the city’s non-stop news feed. A folding door led to a washroom.

Sully Tigereye was huddled over a roll-out work top with the contents of a small repair kit splayed out. He was working on something delicate and electronic in nature.

“You don’t sound very happy about it,” he muttered, probing the interior of what resembled uniform badges. “Or grateful.”

“What part of me not being involved in the Red Moons anymore don’t you understand? You were there when I left. You knew how I felt. I went back to medicine to get away from this! But you blew up an armory and carried me off like a bag of dirty laundry.” She peered inside one of the cases, expecting to find heavy blasters and the usual heavy gear mercenaries would tote around. All she saw was clothing. “I can’t do this, Sully. You know what happened before…”

Many of the Red Moons were former infiltrators and soldiers of the Rebel Alliance, that much was true. The death of the Emperor and the birth of the New Republic brought no peace. New factions, like the Pentastar Alignment, sprung up to fill the void left behind by retreating and confused Imperial units that refused to surrender.

The Alignment had taken the Entralla system as its home base, and by taking it, subjected millions of beings to its interpretations of Imperial law. Free speech was squelched; protests were put down; local officials jailed. People started to disappear, including Brixie’s parents. Those disappearances finally caught the attention of someone who cared. Colonel Andrephan Stormcaller was an Entralla native and begged the New Republic to dislodge the Alignment from his home. But the New Republic was juggling other matters, military and political, and gave the Pentastar Alignment time and space to do its dirty work.

Stormcaller called upon the fighters and experts from his old infiltrator unit to join him in his private war against an entire regime. They turned mercenary, ignoring the New Republic (although they did receive some logistical aid from sympathetic souls like General Airen Cracken of New Republic Intelligence) and taking the fight to the Alignment on their own terms. Stormcaller recruited others to his cause, including Brixie.

It was a messy and deadly brawl. The random nature of Tigereye’s attack in the Great Free Market was straight out of the Red Moon bag of tricks—hit the enemy by surprise and hit them hard. Aside from the constant running, hiding, and the dangerous missions was a grueling ordeal that never ended. What Brixie saw during her brief time with the Red Moons was death, more death than she could forget when she lay her head down to sleep.

The Red Moons won their war with the Alignment but Brixie still lost. She found her parents, but by then it was too late. They were victims of the same cruelty that seemed to overtake everything in her life. She was a healer, not a soldier. She could no longer be part of that life.

Storming around the interior of some stained rental space, Brixie couldn’t understand how she had managed to get dragged back into this mess. From healer to fugitive in less than a few minutes. Didn’t she have a say in these things?

Tigereye sensed her anger and offered up a simple explanation.

“I had to create a diversion to get you away. You were being watched.”

“Of course I was being watched,” she pointed towards the reasonable direction of the sky, despite the ceiling tiles. “There are two Star Destroyers in orbit and I’m with a Republic medical relief team. The first thing the First Order would do is figure out what Republic personnel were on the planet….”

“Not them,” Sully growled, glancing up from his work. He had one of the badges opened, exposing its electronic guts. “Your own people.”

Brixie didn’t understand.

“What?”

“Your team leader was watching you,” Sully held up a small, but familiar piece of clothing. “And tracking you.”

Bixie felt the back of her tunic’s collar. While carrying her on his shoulder, Sully must have ripped the top layer of her insulated jacket right off. Underneath the synthetic fibers in his palm was a slender metal stick. It was a radio receiver…and something else.

She peered closely at the device. An expert in destruction and mayhem like Hugo Cutter would know exactly what this thing was and explain to her its purpose. She began to realize this object wasn’t just a tracer. It was a potent, tiny explosive designed for one purpose.

To snap her neck and kill her.

Brixie’s face turned pale.

“I don’t understand.”

“Theft protection,” Sully smirked as he resumed his work. “One push of a button and your head would pop off like the cork from a six hundred-year-old bottle of Mugulan snaznie.”

“But why?” her voice cracked, stunned not only by the deception but the betrayal from the very people she was working with. “Why would they do that?”

“You’re a top medical expert from the Republic who decided to put your skills to work in hostile space instead of some cushy clinic. Someone like you would be invaluable to the New Order, the Resistance, or any Hutt crimelord still wriggling in his burrow.”

“Like my parents…” Brixie’s voice trailed off.

“Your Republic friends wanted to make sure you didn’t fall into the wrong hands. Well your head, at the very least.”

“And here I am!” Her hands turned into fists. “You abducted me anyway!”

“It wasn’t an abduction,” he snorted. “I came to Ord Mantell to find you. There wasn’t time to explain about the tracer. I doubt your pals would have allowed you to go with me. The moment you left their sight, they would have flipped the switch.”

“So you decided to do this to me instead?” she cried out in anger. “We haven’t spoken in years. No holos. No transmissions. Not one simple hello or a visit. Instead, you walked right up and took me. What kind of friend treats a friend like that?”

The Trunsk went quiet, fiddling with the inside of the badges.

After a long moment of silence between them, he spoke.

“The young Lady Ergo I once knew was understanding and compassionate. She stopped to listen and found the good in everyone. It was our fault, of course, bringing you into our world. You joined the Red Moons to save your parents, but in the end we failed you. You deserve a better life than the one we gave you. I would have stayed away, but the stars have a way of aligning themselves sometimes. I am in need of your help. It’s as simple as that.”

“Sully…” Brixie tried to rein in her tone. After all, he did find the bomb in her jacket, thus saving her life.

“I need a medical expert and a friend I can trust. Will you do this for me?”

“Yes,” she nodded, realizing she had been doing nothing but complaining. “For an old friend.”

“Good. Now take off your clothes.”

She blanched. Back when she was with the Red Moons and a little younger, she would have been outraged.

“Wait, what?”

“Apologies. I have a poor understanding of human mannerisms,” the Trunsk chuckled as he pointed towards one of the heavy equipment cases on the bed. “What I meant to say is, you’ll find a uniform in there. Please put it on. You can change in the washroom.”

She walked over to one of the cases and unsnapped its latches, throwing it open. Inside were changes of the same uniform, a jumpsuit with a separate patterned coverall with several pockets. It was a medical uniform, although she was unfamiliar with the style.

“What is this from?”

“Maybe you’ve forgotten since I was carrying you around on my shoulder like a sack of tubers, but I did mention an asylum for the mentally impaired.”

“I remember.” She chose one outfit that matched her size and headed for the lavatory. “I thought you were joking.”

“Trunsks don’t joke.”

 

An asylum for mental impairment could mean many different things. Brixie’s own studies of the medical arts found treatments for the mind were as varied as the colors of stars. The more empathetic the species, the better the care for those suffering from mental disorders. But the Empire, like so many others, treated mental impairment as a failing. They cruelly isolated and purged sufferers.

Even modern worlds like Ord Mantell had relics of some horrific past. The imposing-looking building Brixie and Sully Tigereye approached was a monument to that past, perhaps designed expressly for incarceration as opposed to care. It was more fortress than oasis, but the design’s intent was reversed—to protect those outside the walls from the terrors they perceived inside. The entire structure resembled a keep with high walls and narrow slits for windows. It was conceived entirely of cold obsidian stone and steel, not an ounce of color or anything welcoming in sight.

The mind was an organ, like any other in the body. It could be injured. It could suffer from attack, physical and viral. It could also be helped. If Brixie had her way, she would tear this awful-looking structure down stone by stone. To call this place a hospital was an insult to everything she knew about medicine. She coldly glanced at the personnel gliding past the gate on their way out, wearing medical uniforms and coverlets exactly as the one she had. They looked professional, chatting politely and smiling in a friendly fashion at Brixie as they walked past, seemingly unconcerned with the First Order’s occupation of Ord Mantell. Or perhaps it was all an act.

Sully Tigereye had exchanged his utilitarian vest for a security tunic, trousers and boots. Both of them had comlink badges pinned to their clothes, each badge’s small blue dot blinking as it constantly communicated with the security pylons that stood guard at the main gate and at nearly every juncture Brixie could see ahead of them. The badges acted as passive security. If you were caught without one or strolling through the wrong area, you could be in serious trouble.

Then there was the active security. Brixie certainly didn’t expect to find KX security droids; black-painted, tall, long-legged droids standing motionless at sentry posts. These weren’t run-of-the-mill junk piles. KXs were used at important locations throughout the Empire and then during the era of the Pentastar Alignment. They had been more than a handful to the Red Moons. Comlink badges were fairly ubiquitous in medical facilities, keeping people out of certain areas. But what kind of asylum for the mentally impaired needed enforcer droids typically used by the Empire? An often-used phrase appeared in the back of Brixie’s throat, along with the sense of dread building in the pit of her stomach.

I have a bad feeling about this.

“Maybe I should have asked this before we put on these ridiculous clothes,” she murmured to Tigereye as they walked through the heavy permacrete-poured gates and under the unblinking stares of a pair of tactical droids. “But why are we here?”

“What do you think?” Tigereye commented.

There was only one good reason for them to walk willingly into a highly-secure institution designed to incarcerate mental patients.

“The Force save us. Is Hugo in here?”

A slight nod was the Trunsk’s only response.

Brixie executed a perfect right turn, angling away from the entrance and headed directly towards a fountain and sitting area used by personnel on their work breaks. She stopped at the fountain, a circular pool laid with white brick with stylized figures in clear crystal tossing wavelets of water to one another, catching them with the palms of their hands. It was an interesting and playful piece of sculpture, but Brixie cared more about not getting caught, or shot, or any of a dozen other things that could happen strolling inside this heavily-guarded fortress without knowing everything.

If there was one thing Brixie remembered from her time with the Red Moons, the fountain’s gurgling made enough background noise to break up any attempt by someone trying to listen in on their conversation; which was about to become quite heated.

“He’s here? Why is he here?” she angrily whispered at the Trunsk. “When exactly did you plan on telling me this?”

Since the time Brixie had known him, Hugo Cutter walked a fine line between genius and paranoid. His mind was a storehouse of knowledge: metallurgy, chemistry, bio-organic compounds, particle physics, higher planes of quantum energy…yet he was at his happiest when he was knocking down the walls of an Imperial garrison. Hugo longed for chaos. He could build a beautiful thing out of junk—or destroy it in a ball of fire—on a whim.

Deep down, he was hurting. Hugo hardly slept, haunted by nightmares. His father wanted him to act more like the son of a corporate titan, not an individualist. When young Hugo acted out at the prestigious Imperial Engineers Academy, his father handed him over to the Empire to “fix him”. They put him through the stormtrooper indoctrination program but at an intensity that brought him to psychosis.

Hugo returned to the Imperial Engineers Academy a new man, calmly obedient and dedicated to the Imperial Order. It was all a clever act. Hugo brought down the Academy building’s famous bell tower on Corsucant without injuring a single soul, a dazzling feat of deconstruction. He had vast, untapped talents for destroying things and the Rebel Alliance quickly scooped him up. They put him to work in the infiltrator squads, psychotic episodes and all.

He could never truly escape what had been done to his mind. Everyone in the Alliance and the Red Moons referred to Hugo as a “colorful character”. On missions, his outbursts reached a point that Brixie sometimes was forced to administer a sedative to calm him down. It was a matter of safety; she couldn’t let a man carrying around a bag of thermal detonators have an anxiety attack.

With her limited medical knowledge, she begged him to seek real treatment. Hugo blankly told her he had been cured a long time ago. This, he motioned to himself, was the real Hugo.

“You know, the universe is slowly falling apart,” he giggled as though he was letting her in on some private joke. “I’m only helping it along.”

Brixie took one look at the obsidian fortress they were supposed to enter and crossed her arms, defiant. She would not move a step until she heard what the Trunsk had to say.

“We’re here to get our friend out.” Tigereye replied as quietly as he could muster and still be understandable, trying not to physically convey their discussion as an argument.

“That’s not everything, is it?” She fingered her comlink badge and the outfit. “You said you needed me and a medical expert. How convenient.”

“I do need you and your expertise. Your comlink badge is keyed to Doctor Mari Ergo.”

All thoughts of Hugo and his confinement evaporated from Brixie.

“My mother?” she shook her head. “My mother and my father had nothing to do with mental care. They were both surgeons taken by the Alignment. They were forced to work for them. You know they were enslaved!”

“In my search for Hugo, I came across your mother’s name with a medical study run by an Alignment sec-ops officer named Ephron Zult. After the Alignment collapsed, the study and Hugo was moved here to Ord Mantell, to this facility. I found your mother’s old records and transferred them to your badge so we could gain entry.” Tigereye pointed to the metal fob attached to his own tunic. “My badge is keyed to an Alignment bodyguard and minder who was assigned to her. This should be enough to trick the security nets and the droids.”

Brixie shook her head. Impossible. Her mother was not a willing part of the Alignment. Never. She didn’t have a bodyguard. Why would she need a bodyguard? She certainly wouldn’t supervise a medical study for Alignment security operations. What was the purpose of such a study? What was she doing?

“We go in,” Tigereye assured her his plan was sound. “You announce yourself, you demand custody of Hugo, and we walk out.”

“My mother,” Brixie breathed, her mind stuck on an image of her. Her wonderful, caring, intelligent and devoted mother. Questions formed webs of doubt. What sort of monster had she been turned into?

“My Lady Ergo,” Tigereye kept his expression tightly controlled, less someone might be recording them with cameras or sensors. “If you don’t want to do this, I won’t argue. You probably think I’m lying. What I know for sure is that your mother was part of a plot that led me here to Hugo. A plot that continues to operate after your parents’ deaths. Help me set him free.”

Brixie’s palms slowly clenched into fists, her fingernails digging into flesh. She brought her hands together, holding them tight, hiding her pain and bafflement.

Sully Tigereye had saved her life many times and the lives of others. He had fought against slavers and Imperials with the ferocity of an entire platoon. So had Hugo, Ivey, Lex Kempo and the other Red Moons. What she discovered was that they were, in some remarkable way, a family. All they had was each other. That was the one thing they could count on, as sure as the stars remained lit across the black velvet curtain of space.

Brixie’s new life, the one she thought was meant for her, was slipping away. First the Republic had deceived her, letting her join a medical relief expedition only to be ready to kill her if she didn’t stay in line. Now one of her closest of friends was in danger.

She had to become a soldier again.

Brixie let her hands drop calmly down to her side. She yanked away her questions and put on a mask of frigid calm and efficiency. It was a mask she had worn before, the face of a medical professional who was accustomed to dealing with life and death every day.

“I am Doctor Mari Ergo,” she bluntly told Tigereye as though she was speaking to the guards at the facility’s gate to let them pass inside. She gestured to the Trunsk. “And this is my bodyguard….”

“Krevott,” Tigereye responded with a threatening rumble. “That is my name.”

“Right then,” Brixie nodded. “Krevott, let’s get our friend out of this awful place.”