“WE BOTH LOST TOO MUCH,” IVEY TOYED WITH THE SPEEDER’S CONTROLS. “TIME. FRIENDS. PEOPLE WE USED TO BE CLOSE TO…”
Leave it to Ivey and her data slicing skills to find out, although the word did sound strange coming from her throat. A word Brixie hadn’t thought about, much less brought up, in years.
“Colonel Stormcaller wanted me to be a field medic for the Red Moons. That’s what he got. He never asked if I had a husband.”
“You lied,” Ivey looked at her in amazement. “To everyone.”
Brixie kept her voice level and neutral, as though she was discussing a diagnosis with a patient.
“I didn’t talk about my marriage because I didn’t want to involve him.” Brixie couldn’t even bring herself to say his name. She remembered a handsome young man, quick to laugh and thrilling to be near. “He came from a very prominent family on Entralla. We met during indoctrination week during first term at the medical university. When you’re the only child of busy parents, you don’t meet too many people beyond your medical books and study groups. He was outgoing and charming and sweet. I was drawn to Rafe. We were crazy about each other. It was like something out of a storybook.”
She could tell Ivey didn’t look the least sympathetic, especially when she said his name was Rafe, but Brixie went through with the rest of her story anyway.
“A few weeks later, we got married by a civil officiate. In secret. That’s the data record you found. Yes, it was reckless and silly and selfish and anything else you can think of. None of our families knew because we didn’t want anyone spoiling our happiness.”
Ivey looked unconvinced. “What a terrible life you must have had.”
Brixie’s gaze turned diamond hard with anger.
“My parents’ abduction changed everything. The government on Entralla did nothing. They answered to the Proclamate, a corrupt goon installed by the Imperials to rule over the planet. My parents were taken to serve the Imperial regime. I was told to do nothing. I couldn’t sit around and do nothing. Rafe told me not to, but I started making inquiries. I hung around the worst parts of the capital city trying to hire someone to find my parents. Anyone. A bounty hunter. A skip tracer. No one would help me. Some local swoopers thought I was some lost rich kid and cornered me in an alley. That’s when Colonel Stormcaller came out of nowhere, dressed up like some drifter. He turned those two thugs into street paste.”
Brixie nodded her head as she recalled the memory of that first meeting with him.
“We talked about my parents. He promised to help find them, but he needed a medic. We made an agreement. There was no time to talk things over with Rafe or anyone else. I had to leave for the training moon that night.”
Ivey tilted her head, surprised by Brixie’s determination.
“Did you tell him?”
“I sent a transmission before I got on the shuttle. I told him not to look for me. It would be safer for him and his family not to know someone fighting against the Empire. I told him I was sorry.” Keeping her voice steady was pointless. Her voice cracked with emotion. “Then I left.”
Ivey shook her head in disbelief.
“That’s it? You left him a goodbye message?”
“It was the safest thing to do. I told you, his family was well known on Entralla. They were wealthy and had political connections. If anyone found out Rafe was married to an insurgent, the Imperials would have arrested him and his family. They would be imprisoned!”
“What about us? The Red Moons were like family. We relied on each other. Trusted one another. If you had told us you were married to such a big political target, the colonel would have never asked you to join us. You endangered us.”
“No one found out.”
“That’s not the point!”
“What is the point?” Brixie threw her head back against the seat cushion in exasperation. “Five years ago, it didn’t matter. You never spoke about where you came from or how you came here until today.”
“How is that the same as you not telling me you were married?”
Angry when all she wanted was to rekindle a lost friendship, Brixie turned away.
“If I didn’t show up in your listening post inside that building, I would have never known you were alive!”
“I decided not to contact you because Stormcaller was right. It was better for everyone if we stayed away. You moved on. You had a new life.”
“What new life? Nothing was the same. My parents were dead. The rest of my family didn’t want to speak to me. They imagined I had something to do with their deaths. When I returned to Entralla, Rafe dissolved the marriage contract. He said I was different than the girl he knew before, and he was right. I am different. I am not sorry for the things I did! I threw myself into my work at the hospital all these years. All those years went by and no one from the Red Moons contacted me. I lost everything!”
“We both lost too much,” Ivey toyed with the speeder’s controls. “Time. Friends. People we used to be close to…”
“Why does the past matter so much to you?”
Refusing to answer, Ivey started switching on the speeder’s main engines. She was going to leave it at that and not talk any more.
Brixie reached over and snapped the engine switches back off. Before Ivey could protest, she grabbed hold of the young data slicer’s hands and forced her to look into her eyes. They couldn’t ignore the past anymore. Something had to be said.
“What hurt the most wasn’t losing my parents or my marriage to some aristocrat’s son. It was losing you.”
Honest surprise dawned over Ivey.
“I thought about you a million times more than anyone.”
A gleam of humor appeared in Ivey’s hazel eyes. Her icy façade finally cracked. She squeezed Brixie’s hands back, not wanting to let go.
“That many times? You counted?”
“After we finally find each other,” Brixie shook her head in frustration. “You’re still acting like a pain in the ass!”
Ivey burst out laughing, then wiped her damp eyes with a sleeve.
“What is it with you and cursing? It’s too funny.”
They embraced and held on tight, fearing they were dreaming.
“I missed you, Princess. A million, million times over.”
The familiar nickname soothed Brixie’s anxious heart. At long last, their friendship could begin anew.
Pulling back, Ivey pulled a stray curl of Brixie’s hair out of her eyes and behind her ear just as she used to do.
“Speaking of reunions, I found your mother.”
“We don’t have time for this.”
Sully Tigereye was sitting in a chair, which would have been a marvel to anyone except to himself. Wearing a wrap of bacta-infused bandages around his upper body and several patches on his injured face, he sat painfully in a hover lounger, leaning hard on one of the arm supports. A medical droid hovered behind him on its repulsors, carefully keeping watch on the pharma infuser with its intravenous tube implanted in his arm and quite ready to prevent him from ripping the device out.
Good old Sully, Brixie mused. He was right back to his usual, jovial self.
With the exception of Hugo, the rest of the Red Moons were gathered in one of the larger and comfortable lounging rooms in Ivey’s residence. This room was set with wall-sized vidscreens and another bar operated by Bee-Bee, the mixologist droid. Traveling on a rail hidden behind the walls, Bee-Bee could slip from one room to the next at Ivey’s whim.
Bee-Bee was busy crafting a fruity concoction—no alcohol—for Dink, the young street kid. Seated on a spinning bar stool, the boy enjoyed wearing his sniper’s helmet everywhere. Brixie imagined it was because he liked fooling around with the low-light macrobinoculars built into the helmet’s rim.
Seated next to him was Ivey. She told him earlier he couldn’t have alcohol, then scolded the boy for fiddling around with the high-powered specs and sneakily aiming them at her and Brixie. She smacked the side of the helmet with the back of her hand to get him to pay attention.
“You do know you can’t see through walls with that thing…or clothing, right?”
“I know, sheesh!” he complained.
“The adults are talking,” she firmly reminded him before turning back to Tigereye and Stormcaller. The colonel had taken a seat in one of the sectional loungers across from Brixie.
“If Zult’s got the data from Setting Sun, even if it’s in pieces, he can do serious damage to the Republic,” Tigereye spoke again, his voice like gravel bouncing around the innards of an Astromech droid. “They should be warned.”
“They have been,” Stormcaller interjected. “The question is, what should they protect? There are too many tempting targets and much of the Republic fleet’s fighting off incursions by the First Order. They’re taking advantage of the destruction of the Republic’s home system. This is up to us. We have to bang our heads together, find the top mark on Zult’s list and stop him.”
“We? You mean us?” Brixie asked, looking around the room with a degree of uncertainty. “Just the four of us?”
“Five.” Dink raised his hand as if he was on a school yard and offering to join their side for a game of tag. “There are five of us.”
“Doesn’t anyone think this is a job for the Resistance? They have ships, firepower and…” Brixie regarded the boy with a frown. “Soldiers old enough to shave.”
“I shave!” Dink retorted, rubbing his embarrassingly young-looking chin. “I shaved this morning.”
Brixie made a face at him. Ivey waved her off.
“Don’t encourage him.”
“Brixie’s right.” Tigereye growled at the kid to silence him. “If Zult has some deal with the First Order, we don’t stand much of a chance of stopping him. He can bring a Star Destroyer down on our heads.”
“We have something Zult might not expect,” Ivey spoke up. “Hugo.”
“How can he be of any help to us? I thought you put him in a coma?” Tigereye regarded Brixie. “You know, so he wouldn’t try to kill the rest of us?”
“Ivey, I don’t know if this will work.” Brixie shook her head. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m not qualified.”
“You’re Hugo’s friend. He knows you. He’ll trust you.”
“He could regress or worse. He could lash out.”
“But I’ll be there with you.”
“Do what, exactly?” Stormcaller interrupted.
Ivey hopped off the stool near Dink, picking up a pad controller for the room’s vidscreens.
“We know Zult used deep mental reprogramming to control Hugo with cognitive procedures Brixie’s mother developed to help patients with brain injuries. He created a fake world, a bio-sphere, and dropped Hugo inside it. To Hugo, it’s an endless reality. He never reaches the boundaries. But there are layers inside this world.” Ivey adjusted the room’s lighting and brought up the large wall screen. Calling up the programs stored in the datapad, the vidscreen flashed into a green world filled with forests and plants and scampering creatures. “Brixie’s mother created this holo-world. I found her inside. Actually, Brixie found her first.”
“Found her?” the colonel questioned.
“Not her exactly, but an administrative interface to manage the construct. Zult used this layer to control Hugo—to prod him into taking a new direction or action. The program creates challenges for him in the bio-sphere, masking reality, so Hugo would act on Zult’s orders.” Ivey turned to Tigereye. “He thought you were some vicious beast destroying the bio-sphere.”
“Vicious beast?” Tigereye quipped, glaring at the medical droid chattering nervously behind him. “Where do people get these ideas?”
“You can communicate with Hugo with this interface?” Stormcaller interrupted.
“Maybe. This is a copy of the data Brixie and Sully stole from the hospital on Ord Mantell. And this is with the administration layer running.” Ivey adjusted the image. A woman stood in front of a small stream that ran throughout the bio-dome’s setting. “A code is needed to unlock Doctor Ergo’s interface. I can’t retrieve the code, but I think the avatar will respond to Brixie. If she can unlock the interface, I can walk through all of Zult’s prior interactions. He may have used the holo-program to store important files that we can use against him. Just like Setting Sun, but in reverse.”
“Great for us, if it works. But what about Hugo?”
“I have to talk with him,” Brixie declared, pointing to the screen. “In there.”
“You’re going to download yourself into that giant ego of his?” Tigereye found the whole idea dubious.
“No.” Brixie shook her head. “We use a holo-theater to connect the datapad’s record of the program and reproduce this virtual world. It’s the same setup from the hospital. Ivey will handle the technical parts. We wake Hugo up inside the program with me. I’ll try to talk him into leaving the bio-dome.”
“And if he doesn’t believe you?” Stormcaller quietly suggested. “What if he wants to stay in there?”
“Then he’ll be safe and happy there for the rest of his life.” Brixie shrugged. “He just won’t spend it with us.”