“…I DUG INTO ENTRALLA’S PUBLIC RECORDS, LOOKING FOR SOME WAY TO CONTACT YOU, AND FOUND SOMETHING NOBODY KNEW. SOMETHING YOU NEVER SPOKE ABOUT TO ANYONE.
BRIXIE ERGO’S LITTLE SECRET.”
There was no rest for Brixie.
She no sooner settled into a deep, dreamless sleep in one of the luxurious bedrooms of Ivey’s residence when the ex-Red Moon and data slicer woke her up. Pushing a tumbler of some green-colored protein drink and some food bars into Brixie’s hands, she told her to fetch her med-kit.
“It’s not often I have a first-class doctor as my guest,” Ivey remarked as she led a weary Brixie to a keyed turbovator. They descended to the skyscraper’s underground garages. Walking its length and past a number of different vehicles, all owned by Ivey, they climbed into a junky-looking landspeeder with an enclosed cabin.
“Where are we going?” Brixie finally asked between bites of the food bars. “I don’t want to leave Hugo and Sully. What about the data program? Did you find anything out?”
“You’ve got the medical droid keyed to their beds,” Ivey held up a secure comlink and tossed it to her. “You’ll find out the moment something changes. I’ll tell you about the data program on the way back.”
Brixie sighed. More waiting.
“Where are we going?”
“A little guided tour of the past,” Ivey settled behind the speeder’s tired-looking controls. “Mine.”
Brixie was thrown violently against the door sill as Ivey gunned the landspeeder’s forward motivators and blasted down some of the wider streetways of the Hive. Looks were deceiving. The speeder’s cruddy appearance helped it blend into the decayed urban surroundings, but the engines and control systems were obviously upgraded.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have given me that food to eat?” Brixie tossed the empty tumbler behind her. Her stomach burped in protest as the forward windscreen filled with a puttering delivery van taking up the entire travel lane. Ivey laid on the warning horn and was forced to go around the van’s Entymal operator. The insectoid shook several pairs of appendages in protest as they whizzed by.
Brixie gritted her teeth and tried to keep her inner equilibrium and her stomach on an even keel.
“Trying out for pod racing?”
“Cute.” Ivey flicked the controls and they sped down a dark alley not intended for any sort of mechanized traffic. Storage containers and other obstacles were knocked aside until they emerged on another residential block of the congested Hive. “This is where I grew up.”
“I thought you were from Saco Ulltan?” Brixie remembered.
“I was born there. My parents were missionaries. They were in the Order of the Whills.”
Ivey stated these things so matter-of-factly that her words stunned Brixie. The Whills followed the teachings of the Force. When the Empire seized control from the Old Republic, decades ago, the Whills and their order were banned outright.
“I didn’t think any were left.”
“After the Jedi purge, they fled. But a few, like my parents, tried to reestablish the order.” Ivey spoke without emotion. “I was a baby when they came to the Hive to open a new temple. Some crimelord didn’t want a pair of Whills zealots telling the locals they didn’t need death-sticks or virtual gambling. His murder squad missed me. A woman brought me…here.”
She hit the aero-brakes. The speeder came to a screeching stop in front of a dilapidated structure, one of dozens that lined this particular streetway. The Aurobesh letters on the sign were bleached into ghostly shapes from the air pollution.
“What is this place?”
“The Deaconage. Home for orphans.” Ivey didn’t look at the sign, focused on the street directly ahead. “A social service run by a wealthy Entrallan patron. It’s been closed for years. But for me, this place was home.”
“Deaconage? Your last name sounds like…”
“All the younglings were given the same surname of Deacon. The headmistress called me Ivey because I could escape by crawling out the windows and up the outside of the building like iveyweed, a tough vine that can survive even in the sewers. I never knew my given name. I don’t remember my parents.” Ivey pursed her lips. “But growing up here? I’ll never forget it.”
Ivey had never spoken of these things before to Brixie. She was stunned her friend had lost any connection to her original family or her true name. Ivey neither acknowledged nor revealed any feelings about the past. As far as she was concerned, this was another abandoned building on some street and nothing more.
“I’m sorry,” Brixie quietly spoke up.
Ivey switched back on the speeder’s forward motivator. They took off again.
“That’s not why I brought you here.”
They threaded around the street traffic, following a set of ramps down into a maze of underground tunnels. Flashing traffic signs warned not to proceed; messages Ivey ignored. Brixie spotted humanoid shapes huddled in corners, nestled under canvas awnings and using trash receptacles to keep fires going. Any densely-populated city had its fallen inhabitants; these beings scratched out an existence on the discarded refuse of the Hive above them.
Brixie began to understand life on this planet was a truly stratified existence. The wealthy lived high in the sky, the swarms of workers filled the towers and the clogged streets, and the fallen hid below in the dark.
Ivey finally stopped at a fenced-in yard reserved for maintenance and construction equipment. Brixie initially thought Ivey brought her down here so they could talk. Instead, Ivey climbed out of the speeder and motioned for Brixie to follow.
“I can’t exactly open a clinic down here,” Brixie mused aloud, noting dozens of distinctive, multi-faceted eyes watching their approach. The construction yard was occupied by dozens, perhaps thousands, of Entymals.
“There’s only one patient. Since you’re the daughter of Doctor Praxis Ergo, this case should be familiar to you.”
Brixie saw the denizens of the yard, Entymals with various shades of green reflecting from bioluminescent spotlamps mounted on buildings. Some were jade green or a deep mountain green color that reminded Brixie of the pine forests on Entralla. Kite foxes and squints again. Were these poor beings the squints?
Brought into a tent guarded by two heavily-armed Entymals carrying blaster rifles, Brixie saw the patient and immediate knew something was wrong. This albino-colored Entymal was a crucial rarity among the species…and she was dying.
The Entymals were a matriarchal society divided into different castes led by female queens. The workers, numbering in the billions on Cantras Gola alone, were null-sex—they had no reproductive organs and were expected to work for their caste and die. Only a few among the billions in a brood were born male. These drones were called princes and their job was to inseminate the queen. After the insemination ritual, most queens had the princes executed to prevent them from mating with majestrixes, rare workers born with female reproductive organs.
Majestrixes were another specialized type of female. They gave birth to a single offspring: a queen-slayer. For much of their early lives, a queen-slayer has no external coloring and therefore made an easy target. Their only defense was their highly-toxic blood; they were the only Entymals who developed a lethal stinger in their abdomens. When their green coloring appeared after the final molt, they were ready to seize the caste from the old queen—by stinging her to death.
Brixie’s father, Dr. Praxis Ergo, made the study of the Entymals his life’s work. The corporates paid him well since he kept the vast worker populations healthy. He also saw many aspects of Entymal society never discussed outside their kind—especially the civil wars within the castes and the rare appearance of the queen-slayer.
Her father correctly theorized that majestrixes and queen-slayers were born when it was sensed, through circadian rhythms felt throughout the caste, the current queen was reaching the end of her cycles as a breeder. It was a billion-to-one chance to produce a queen-slayer, much less for her to stay alive. If a queen-slayer died before she could usurp the current queen, the entire caste could fall into ruin.
Brixie immediately appraised the patient using her father’s notes as a mental guide—she was lethargic, barely responsive to a light shined in her multi-faced ocular receptors, and too weak to lift even her own limbs. The Entymal was badly ill.
“If this queen-slayer dies,” Ivey mentioned. “The construction company is going to send security teams down here with flamethrowers and exterminate the entire caste.”
“Why?” Briley gasped.
“A rival company killed the current queen three days ago. The corporates will stop at nothing to win contracts, including sending in paid mercs to kill the queens. If a caste can’t breed, they’re considered worthless. Their owners will torch them and bring in another caste that can do the work.”
Ivey slowly nodded. “That’s life as a slave.”
“Is that why you and the colonel are here?” Brixie opened up her med-bag and started pulling the basics: scopes, pulse and temperature gauge, blood and skin sampling kit. “Helping these people?”
“Enabling them.” Ivey corrected. “The whole Entymal population is enslaved. They have no choice but to live under the whims of the corporates. The colonel and I want to give the Entymals something they never had. The right to choose for themselves.”
Brixie shook her head while she soothed the nervous female Entymal, assuring her in its native clicking dialect that she was a doctor.
“What’s that for?” Ivey asked.
“I know the ‘Brixie headshake of disapproval’ when I see it.”
“Like I told the colonel,” Brixie attached a thermometer pulse diode to a leg joint. The Entymal’s chitin exoskeleton—as strong as stormtrooper armor—made checking vital signs almost impossible without bulky, heavy scanners. Her father designed several tools to help medical personnel in the field. Taking a small graft of membrane from the leg joint, she checked the sample using a small analyzer. The analyzer’s biological interpreter indicated the presence of a virus. “You hoist the flag promising change and all you do is bring violence.”
“They’re already up to their antennae in violence. Flamethrowers? Remember?”
Brixie pulled the Ergo hypo-injector from the bag and loaded it with a recommended anti-viral solution. The queen-slayer had a debilitating infection destroying her nervous system. It was prevalent throughout the species, but the corporates rarely spent the funds to inoculate them. The cost of vaccinating an entire species was beyond the cruel greed of the corporates. The only cure for the virus was an injection in her circulatory system.
Entymals didn’t have veins or arteries. The sublayer past the chitin contained the blood supply. The heart pumped the fluid freely throughout the body, head and limbs. The plasma sheath-enclosed vibro-needle injector her father designed would be able to pierce the tough chitin and deliver the vaccine.
Brixie assured the Entymal the injection would not be painful and the penetration cut would quickly heal. The queen-slayer weakly clicked, agreeing to the procedure. Brixie pierced the exoskeleton on the Entymal’s upper chest plate and depressed the injector’s release. After removing the glowing needle, she covered the entry wound with a bio-patch. The temporary patch would harden to the same strength as the exoskeleton.
“They don’t have antennae. Those protrusions on their backs are radiators. They use them to regulate body temperature.” Brixie returned her equipment to her bag, muttering aside. “What I was trying to say is that I wish there was another way to help these people other than arming them. Besides that, there’s good news. I gave her an anti-viral. She needs rest and fluids. When she’s strong enough, her final molt will happen in a matter of days.”
“I’ll pass that on to the guards. The caste will live, thanks to you. As for fighting for their freedom, the rest is up to them.”
More exhausted than ever, Brixie picked herself and her medical bag up. They left the tent. A parade of multi-faceted stares, like looking back into thousands of tiny windows, followed them to the landspeeder. Brixie overheard a wave of clicks, growing steadier in volume. The workers of this caste were communicating with one another, passing the word that the queen-slayer would live and she would soon become their new queen.
Back in the speeder, Ivey navigated their way out of the construction yard. Once they were up on the street level, she deftly maneuvered the speeder to return to her residential tower high in the skies. Except for the speeder’s humming motivator, a silence fell between the two of them. Their earlier disagreement about the purpose of violence still hung in the air.
“The colonel said you were captured…” Brixie frowned, trying to find a better way to ask this painful question. When Ivey didn’t immediately answer, she gave up. “Never mind. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Ivey pulled over hard and parked down a seldom-used streetway, switching off almost everything except the motivators and the built-in cameras watching the outside of the vehicle. Taking a moment, she spoke.
“My half of the transport went down in a ravine. I was the only one left alive, pinned under a piece of metal, until a squad of Imperial troops found me. They didn’t kill me. I guess I ought to have been thankful.” she spoke mechanically, as if reciting from memory. “Later on, I wasn’t.”
“What did they do to you?”
“They took me to a dungeon ship. An interrogation officer strapped me in a chair, asked me questions and dialed up the hurt. Noises. Needles. Heat. Cold. He asked me questions and didn’t believe my answers. In my holding cell, they blasted sirens so I couldn’t sleep. They dehydrated me. Microwaved me. Over and over, the eggheads threw me in the chair. The officer always asking the same questions. He told me most of the Red Moons were captured or dead. Showed me vid-images of bodies.” Ivey tilted her head towards Brixie. “One looked like you. Maybe I imagined it. Everything inside me broke apart. I told them anything they wanted to hear so I didn’t go back in that chair. I can’t remember when I started wishing I died in the crash.”
“But you got away,” Brixie tried to convey some resemblance of hope.
“I was sentenced to Sevarcos.”
Brixie gasped with a sudden rush of breath into her lungs, the same as when Hugo blew the troop shuttle hatch and every bit of oxygen and moisture was sucked out of her.
Sevarcos was a death sentence, a spice mining world and prison where the atmosphere poisoned anyone sent there. Most non-natives suffered from spice narcosis, drowning from tiny spice filaments that became lodged inside their lungs. Prisoners sentenced to the spice mines did not live very long. They didn’t want to.
“You were there?” Looking down, Brixie uncomfortably fumbled with the catches on the medical bag. “For how long?”
“Long enough.” Ivey touched the silver streak of hair that started at her left temple and wove back to the rest of her black locks. “In the mines, it was all about survival. I made allies, cut deals, stole what I could, and killed anyone who crossed me. I made myself so valuable, I finally attracted the right kind of attention. A spice lord offered to make me one of his concubines. He even gave me a trunk full of expensive shimmers to wear as his slave girl to sweeten the deal.”
Ugh. Brixie couldn’t begin to think about what life was like being enslaved to a tyrant who dealt in nothing but spice and death.
“You agreed to this?”
“I took his deal because it was the only way off the planet. We floated right past the Fate’s Judges TIE Interceptor squadron that guards the system. Once we were in hyperspace, I knifed him. I gassed the rest of the crew with a resin of dyslium chlorite I wove into the threads of my fancy new slave girl outfit. I rigged the ship’s engines to detonate in hyperspace and escaped aboard one of the lifeboat pods. I was free. Not long after, I met up with the colonel. We decided to set up a little rebellion of our own right here on Contras Gola. End of story.”
“How can that be the end of the story? You escaped Sevarcos. You found the colonel.” Brixie was dumfounded. “If you were free, why didn’t you contact me? I had no idea you were alive!”
“Instead of me answering that, why don’t you answer a question for me?”
Surprised by her friend’s icy demand, Brixie could only say yes.
“The colonel told me about your parents,” Ivey’s hands toyed with the speeder’s controls and switches. “You went back to Entralla. He fed me the whole speech on how we were going to let you have your life back. After what you went through, you more than earned yourself a ‘happy-ever-after’. But me being me, I went behind the colonel’s back. I was desperate to see you. I dug into Entralla’s public records, looking for some way to contact you, and found something nobody knew. Something you never spoke about to anyone. Brixie Ergo’s little secret.”
Turning abruptly in her seat, Ivey glared at Brixie with eyes as cold as a dead asteroid.
“When you joined the Red Moons, why didn’t you tell anyone you were married?”