THE COLONEL WAS PARTICULAR ABOUT TRADITIONS.
GIVING A TOAST BEFORE HAVING A DRINK WAS AMONG THEM.
“TO OLD FRIENDS. NEAR AND FAR. COME AND GONE.”
Tense hours passed.
Brixie lost count how many times Sully’s respiration and heartbeat fell so low they did not register properly on the medical bed’s displays and the warning alarms went off. The bed was hardly versed in Trunsk biology to begin with; the diagnostics were corporate units accustomed to taking care of humans, not other species. In the Imperial world and the corporates, humans meant everything. The corporates gifted themselves with the best medical care and let other sapients struggle to find help in back alleys and stitch-shops of careless doctors and substandard droids.
Twice she almost pulled out a laser scalpel to insert an artificial lung to breathe for Tigereye. His lungs were so badly damaged by Hugo’s acidic aerosol it was a miracle his respiratory system was able to function at all. Her hand shook when she took up the scalpel and positioned it at his exposed throat. There was no one else qualified to do the surgery but her; taking Sully to a corporate facility was out of the question. A medical droid could perform the procedure, but she refused. She knew Sully Tigereye was too proud to have his life extended by drastic procedures. He was a warrior at heart. Putting away the scalpel, she kept her eyes on the patient and waited.
And waited. And waited.
“Part of the equation to providing care is the decision to do nothing,” her favorite instructor once told her. “The body is remarkable resilient. Let it fend for itself.”
The need to perform the emergency lung implant passed. Sully’s rate of breathing climbed higher on the diagnostic displays to the point she decided to remove the breather hood from his mouth. He could breathe on his own. His body found the way back.
Tough old Trunsk.
Exhausted, Brixie set the attending medical droid to beep her comlink if either of her patients’ status changed for the worse. She peeled the disinfectant coating off her hands, throwing the translucent gloves down the recycling unit to be deconstructed and walked out of the infirmary.
Wandering the corridors of the residence, Brixie soon got lost. Every door she entered led to another richly-appointed room or salon. She did come across a half-dozen housekeeping droids constantly tidying and vacuuming and polishing. What a strange and lonely place this was, she thought. Why did Ivey choose to live like this? To make up for her earlier life on the cusp of poverty?
A butler droid noticed her confusion. His sudden appearance started Brixie. Covered in a golden finish, he practically blended into the background of the room’s elaborate décor.
“May I be of assistance, Lady Ergo?”
Brixie was surprised the machine knew her identity. Then again, Ivey was always a stickler for security. Nothing and no one moved around her place unless she knew about it.
“Where is everybody?”
“By everybody,” the droid sniffed. “I assume you are referring to my mistress, Lady Deacon, and her other guest?”
“Guest?” Brixie asked. Not guests. “Right. That would be everybody.”
“Lady Deacon is currently in her private research lab. She has requested that she not be disturbed. You are invited to join Colonel Stormcaller on the veranda.” Gesturing with a golden arm, the butler droid pointed in the general direction she needed to go.
“I can’t believe in a thousand years that a droid just told me to go…” Brixie sarcastically mimicked the droid’s snooty mode of speech. “…meet Colonel Stormcaller on the veranda.”
The biggest surprise about walking out on the veranda was how pleasant an experience it was. To Brixie, the lower levels of the Hive felt like a cross between a termite mound and a grilling pit; a claustrophobic place filled with awful stenches tossed about on hot winds. Walking out on the elaborate balcony, Brixie noted a host of environmental controls which made the outside pleasantly tolerable—and proof of the power of wealth. Mist sprayers at the balcony railing created a barrier wall of moisture mixed with pleasantly-scented fragrances. Hidden fans spread the humidity around and a mesh overhang covered the entire area in shade. The stone railing and other features were cool to the touch. They were not made from natural rock but layers of ceramic with conductive cooling pipes underneath.
Despite seating capacity for dozens, Brixie found the veranda empty save for Stormcaller. The colonel was seated on a stool at a wide bar while a gleaming mixologist droid—gliding on a rail behind the counter—kept refreshing the contents of his glass.
“May I buy the doctor a drink?” Stormcaller waved to the droid. “Set her up, Bee-Bee-Zero.”
Eager to please, the droid turned to her.
“I am Bee-Bee-Zero-Oh. My lady, what will you be having?”
Imbibing stimulants and harder spirits would have to wait. Brixie asked for a fifty-fifty mixture of water and fruit juice.
“I’m still on duty.”
Five years had passed since she had last seen him and Andrephan Stormcaller was still an enigma. His facial expression appeared cut from a grade of material far more charismatic than the bar counter stone imported from some distant world. He possessed wide shoulders. The military jackets and fatigues he favored never fit him correctly—the material always seemed to stretch at the “V” between his shoulders. He never traveled without a web belt fitted with a holster for a blaster pistol and pouches for a comlink, a military-hardened datapad, a multi-tool, and spare blaster packs. The man favored non-descript military-grade boots with reinforced toe boxes. He would blend right in at any backrow spaceport cantina, damp crime-ridden alley or foxhole.
At the few diplomatic functions Brixie remembered attending with him, Stormcaller could spruce himself up when needed. He had a dress uniform dating back from the Entralla Confederated Planetary Marines, their elite corps sent out when the Old Republic requested aid from Entralla. He also had an Imperial officer’s uniform dating back from a brief stint when he was a part of the handover from the Republic Grand Army to the Imperial Galactic Empire. He was a colonel then, too. The Rebel Alliance offered to promote him to general when he joined with Airen Cracken and they formed the Infiltrator squads, but Stormcaller declined.
“I’m a dirt devil. A ground pounder. An infantryman. Give me a blaster rifle, a couple of hardened soldiers and I’ll solve your Imperial problems for you.”
Infiltrator Red Alpha was one of the best squads in the Rebel Alliance. They were at the Battle of Endor, joining up with the local native population (called Ewoks) to sow confusion and destruction among the legion of the Emperor’s finest stormtroopers on the forest moon. Contrary to legend, the Ewoks didn’t build the elaborate traps that knocked out the Empire’s AT-ST walkers, it was demolition specialist Hugo Cutter, engagement expert Sully Tigerye and an ex-Imperial scout named Lex Kempo who all took orders from Colonel Andrephan Stormcaller. Hugo explained the battle to Brixie:
“We designed the traps. The Ewoks cut down the trees and tied them together,” he smiled. “When the Imperial troops came for us, we had to tell those little bears to keep their heads down. They threw bolas and spears at them. It was a little ridiculous. My best trap was the one with the rolling logs. Twenty logs set up on the side of a hill. They came rolling down and the walkers couldn’t keep themselves standing upright. You should have seen them dance!”
The mixologist droid filled a tumbler with her requested beverage and placed it in front of her on the bar. Stormcaller raised his own glass. The colonel was particular about traditions. Giving a toast before having a drink was among them.
“To old friends. Near and far. Come and gone.”
Brixie raised her glass and they drank. It wasn’t as satisfying as a goblet of wine or some harder spirit, but the chilled liquid felt cool sliding down her throat. The air in the infirmary was dry and sterile.
She was surprised he hadn’t asked her about Sully or Hugo’s prognosis and even more surprised there was no one else here.
“I sent Dink and the others home,” Stormcaller explained as though capable of reading her mind. “This is a matter for us.”
“He seems young.” Brixie remembered the young boy and the blaster rifle as long as he was tall. “Dink.”
“So were you back then.”
“How did you recruit him?”
“I didn’t. He tried to rob me in an alley. Honest to goodness, he jumped me from behind and clobbered me.” Stormcaller rubbed the back of his closely-shaved head. “I found him and the rest of the scrubs hiding inside a building’s maintenance tunnels. They had no parents. No one to take care of them. I needed an army to fight the corporates and free the Entymals. They volunteered.”
“That’s the way it always starts.” Brixie looked down at her drink. “Someone gets trampled and you hoist up the flag. No one can resist a good cause.”
“True. I waved a pretty big flag to get you to join our little band of miscreants.”
“My parents,” she nodded.
“I convinced you the cause was just. The fight was worth the sacrifice and the danger. But like all things, freedom does not come easy or cheap. Some of us paid a dear price…” Stormcaller motioned to the droid to refill his glass. “Keep it coming, Bee-Bee.”
“Yes, Colonel Stormcaller.”
While the droid filled the man’s glass, Brixie noted the unusual staff laying against the counter. Both ends proved quite lethal.
“That’s a pretty big stick. How did you get your hands on a lightsaber?”
“It belonged to a long dead cousin of the Stormcaller family, a Jedi archivist. The saber was returned to me by Valance Tarn. He was one of Lexianna’s old gang of misfits. He found it on Criton’s Point in some musty old library and used it for a while. What he couldn’t find was someone to properly train him in the Jedi arts. So he passed the saber on to me and quit the hero business.”
Stormcaller drained his glass and motioned to the droid to repeat. After the droid restored the contents, his hand circled the glass but he didn’t lift it to his lips. He was eyeing the liquid as it left little ringlets in the disturbed surface, waiting for it to calm. The expression on his face and the tone of his voice turned serious.
“How are they, Doctor? Cutter and Tigereye?”
“Sully’s in bad shape. He inhaled an ignited mixture of industrial cleaning compounds. It’s like opening your mouth, breathing in the gas from a flame thrower and lighting it. His eyes, nasal passages, throat, lungs, everything is affected. But he’s strong and responding to treatment. The infirmary in this place is well stocked…”
“Of course your expertise might have had a little to do with his progress?” Stormcaller suggested, making certain to give her credit. “And Hugo?”
“Hugo is Hugo. Unchanged. It’s easy to keep him into a coma state. The rest of him is another story,” Brixie shook her head. “His mind is behind a locked door. The only way to free him could be in the holo program they used to trick his mind. That’s my best guess, sir.”
“Any chance Zult might know how to free him?”
Brixie shrugged. “He didn’t seem eager to tell us that. I only know that my mother helped Zult design the program. Besides being a surgeon, her medical specialty was in cognitive retraining from serious brain injuries and disorders.”
“Ephron Zult. A bureaucrat in the Pentastar Alignment interested in only one thing—clawing his way to the top of the food chain. He made so many enemies as an agent, it’s a wonder the Alignment didn’t send one of their own to get rid of him.” Stormcaller pursed his lips, understanding how difficult talking about her family was for her. “Zult took your parents. I never knew the reasons why. He was running some backdoor project even the Alignment didn’t know about. After we finally tracked him down five years back, well, you know what happened.”
Brixie and the core of the Red Moons were on two airspeeder transports, headed towards Zult’s hideaway on Entralla, an immense hydropower plant. To balance the attack group, Ivey volunteered to go aboard the other transport. That one ran into a defensive spread of missiles and went down in flames. Ivey and everyone aboard were gone.
The Red Moons pushed on. Brixie never saw Zult, she was too focused on finding her abducted parents. She discovered them in the hydroplant’s control room, surrounded by destroyed computers, shot-up analysis droids and a bank of data storage drives going up in flames. Brixie could care less about the destroyed equipment. The world she had known had come crashing to an end.
Her parents were each holding a blaster and had fallen a few feet away from the other. Based on their positions, they had killed one another. Brixie remembered the scene as clear as the awful day when it happened. Was there some dispute or fight between them? Was one trying to stop the other? Now that Brixie understood the terrible program controlling Hugo’s mind, she wondered if her parents had been duped into attacking each other.
Brixie never cared about Zult or that he stepped across one of Hugo’s more elaborate traps. Nothing mattered to her anymore. In the space of a single day, she lost a close friend and both her parents.
Stormcaller continued. “Zult burned the hard drives and took the rest with him. Your mother’s work was probably part of that project.”
“Did he get away?” Brixie recalled the stormtrooper covering Zult’s escape from the park.
“He and his pet stormtrooper escaped in Ackbar’s B-wing.” Stormcaller tossed back the contents of his glass and pointed to it for the droid to refill.
“Sir, I really think…” Bee-Bee’s safety protocols started to interject. He was programmed to make sure his customers didn’t hurt themselves by overdrinking.
“Don’t think, Rusty.” Stormcaller warned the droid. “My level of inebriation isn’t your concern. I’ve got over six decades under my belt and I’ve had enough things try to kill me than to worry about my blood-alcohol rate. Only the Force knows how my story ends.” He smiled at Brixie. “Besides, I’m in the care of my doctor.”
Brixie’s face turned red. The man was acting like some proud parent. She stumbled over her next words.
“And Ivey?” she gestured towards the elaborate residence. “No contact. Not a single word. Sully was the same, too. He never spoke to me once until he showed up on Ord Mantel.”
Stormcaller’s head bobbed, knowing she deserved an explanation.
“Those were my orders. The last ones I gave to the Red Moons before we went our separate ways.” He studied the glass sitting empty in front of him, tapped the bar top with his finger and the droid filled it again. “I asked too much from you, young lady. You trained and fought with us, you watched our people and theirs die, you gave all to get your parents back. Their deaths were on me. I didn’t hold up my end of the deal.”
“You couldn’t know…”
He turned slightly on the bar stool so she could see the sincerity in his face.
“You went back to Entralla to become a doctor. Helping others, that was always your strongest suit. I decided we had taken enough of your life. I told everyone to forget you. Never contact you. Stay the hell away from you. I wanted you to live the rest of your days in peace and put us behind.”
“But what about Ivey?” Brixie gasped.
“She survived the crash and was taken prisoner by the Alignment. Spent some years in an Imperial prison. If she wants to, she’ll tell you her story. But when she made it back, I told her the same thing I told the others. We’re the past. I didn’t want us ruining your future.”
“Don’t you think I could have made that choice for myself?” The droid hovered over her empty glass, wondering if she wanted a refill. She shook her head. Her insides were in too much turmoil. “You and the others are my friends. My other family. I don’t want to pretend the past didn’t happen.”
“Looks like the past caught up to us anyway,” the former colonel humbly noted, placing a hand on the staff beside him. “The problem back then, as it is now, is Zult. I sent a warning to Cracken and Lando Calrissian, but a First Order battle group just appeared off Entralla. It looks like it’s going to be up to us to stop him.”
“What can we do? He escaped with the B-wing.”
“Fortunately for us, Zult left behind a First Order shuttle and one talkative pilot. Zult has some kind of arrangement with the First Order. He may have conned them into thinking his mind-controlled Rising Moon operatives can do serious damage to the Republic and the Resistance. What he didn’t expect was that everything he found out about Setting Sun and Rising Moon is worth a cartload of bantha poodoo on Hoth without the code key to the vault.”
“So the Republic is safe,” Brixie sighed in relief.
“No.” Stormcaller shook his head. “Zult is a machine hiding in a wreck of a body. The vault on the B-wing destroyed itself, but he’s probably seen enough of the data for his electronic mind to piece some of it back together. He’ll contact the First Order to make a deal and give them whatever information he can. It’s not over.”
“So the Republic isn’t safe.” She put her hand over Stormcaller’s glass to keep Bee-Bee from refilling it again. “You shouldn’t drink so much, sir. This isn’t helping anyone.”
The man motioned to the droid.
“You heard the doctor, Bee-Bee. Bar’s closed.”
“Yes, sir. My lady. Good evening to you.”
The droid retrieved their glasses and retired behind a portal in the back wall.
Stormcaller climbed off the stool and lofted the staff. He spun it around to prove he wasn’t that inebriated, and used one end to motion towards another set of doors.
“Ivey’s working on that datapad you gave her. She told me to give you the guest treatment. Ask any droid to find you a bedroom and it’s yours. Pesky things will bring you most anything you want or need. I’ll reach out to some contacts. We’ll meet up here in a few hours.”
“Good night, sir.”
Stormcaller waved to her. “You can stop calling me ‘sir’. I’m not in the military anymore. Tossed away the cozy office and the general’s staff bars the Entrallan government wanted to give me. I’m just another soldier looking for a lousy cause.”
“You’re a dirt devil,” Brixie smiled.
“That’s absolutely right.”