HUGO CUTTER RAISED HIS HANDS OVER HIS HEAD, BUT HE WASN’T SURRENDERING.
HE WAS CONDUCTING AN IMAGINARY ORCHESTRA, THE INSTRUMENTS SWEETLY PLAYING INSIDE HIS HEAD.
“Dink? Dink!” Ivey shouted into her comlink’s microphone pickup. “Are you there?”
“What is it?” Brixie looked back from her position as lookout in the deserted living spaces level of the base, one level above the bunker. The entire level—darkened from lack of power—was nothing but doors leading to bunkrooms, mess halls, recreation lounges and washrooms. Compared to Ivey’s residence, this level was neither plush, nor comfortable, only bare and functional. “What happened?”
Ivey adjusted her ear comlink and tried again.
“He was shouting, then the link cut out.” Seated on the floor, she ran her fingers across the portable data terminal in her lap, trying to connect to the base’s limited sensors. Without warning, a familiar voice, not Dink’s, hissed inside her ear.
“If you want the boy alive, give me the codes to unlock the bunker’s blast door. Fail me and I will tear his limbs off and leave you with the largest piece. As you did to me.”
A crunching sound followed, so loud Ivey winced. The comlink had been destroyed.
“He has Dink?” Brixie cried out. “I told you this was a bad idea…!”
“It’s too late for lectures,” Ivey cut her off. Pressing a second switch on her ear comlink to send a coded message to the colonel and the others, she closed the portable data terminal and slid it inside a black sleeve looped to her uniform’s web belt. “Zult wants the codes to open the bunker’s blast doors or he’ll kill Dink. We have to do something!”
“We can give him the codes.”
“No!” Ivey shouted. “The entire Republic Council is behind that door.”
“Are you saying one boy’s life is worth less than theirs?” Brixie snapped back.
“We’re both smarter than that walking dung heap of cybernetic junk.” Ivey rose nimbly to her feet. “We have go down there.”
Brixie could tell there was no changing Ivey’s mind on this. This was a side of her she had never seen before. The former, self-centered former data thief who used to run the streets of Contras Gola cared for others. Maybe there was something about Dink that reminded Ivey of herself when she first stumbled into Colonel Stormcaller. He had saved her from her hopeless fate and given her a purpose. Now it was her turn to save the boy.
However, confronting Zult was nothing short of suicide.
“How are we going to get down there without being seen? We can’t take the stairs or the electrical shaft.” Brixie pointed at the destroyed door leading to the evacuation stairs. The maintenance shaft and the staircase had been destroyed by the concussion blasts they had set off. The only way down to the bunker level was the turbovator. “We should wait for the Colonel, Sully and Hugo.”
Ivey hurried over to a technical maintenance closest. Rummaging around inside, tossing buckets and plastic cleaning equipment, she withdrew two large suction grapplers and a metal lever.
“I sent them the emergency code. We can’t wait for them.” Ivey handed her one of the suction grapplers. “Care to help me conduct a little surgery on the floor, Doctor Ergo?”
Brixie looked down. This was a base, after all. Every inch of space was utilized, even the space underneath the floor. Instead of using the turbovator or the evac stairs, Ivey was suggesting a different route.
Right through the floor.
“Oh no! You’re not thinking…?”
Estimating the distance to the turbovater’s doors, Ivey walked down the main corridor’s length. She chose a portion of the hexagonal tile flooring and slammed down the rubberized cups of the suction grappler.
“You got a better idea?”
A crashing noise startled Brixie before she could answer. A blaster pistol materialized in Ivey’s hand, aimed at the disturbance. A figure emerged from the corridor’s shadows.
“Goodness me! I surrender!” A pair of silvery arms lifted. “Please don’t shoot!”
It was a droid, a housekeeping model to the best of Brixie’s recollection, quite similar to the stodgy butler unit Ivey had in her residence on Cantras Gola. The panicked machine quivered as it approached them.
“I am EeeZeeEl-Eight, house staff and cleaning droid…”
“What are you doing, wandering around here?” Ivey demanded, not lowering her weapon. “Where’s everyone else?”
“The living quarters staff were told to head to the bunker level,” the droid whined. “I was abandoned here! How horrible.”
“You’re lucky I didn’t turn you into a scrap pile,” she holstered the weapon and set back to work on removing the floor tile with a suction grappler. “The way you popped out of there, I thought you were an actual person.”
Looking up, she noticed Brixie was staring intently at the droid and fingering her uniform’s tunic.
“Hello?” Ivey waved her hand to bring Brixie back to the here and now. “Brixie?”
“You asked me if I had a better idea.” She dropped the medical case to the floor and tugged off the jacket. “Now I do.”
Watching the specialist contact the Republic fleet from the base’s communications center, Stormcaller received a message in his electronic ear implants from Ivey.
Emergency. Zult has the boy. He will kill him unless we give him the bunker door codes.
“I have to go.” The colonel picked up his staff and stepped over the bodies of the fallen stormtroopers and technicians on the floor. “My people need me.”
The female communications specialist was surprised. He was leaving her here. Alive.
“What about me?”
“What about you?” he asked back.
“General Stormcaller…” she motioned to the still forms scattered around the floor. Stormtroopers. Technicians. He had taken on all comers and beat them into submission. Many of them were dead, the rest unconscious. But her, he didn’t touch. “You’re not going to kill me?”
“There’s a difference between an enemy and a threat. The First Order made you my enemy, but I think you’re more confused than a threat.” He paused in the doorway. “What’s your name?”
Surprised by his question, she sputtered back.
“Evangela. Cadet Evangela Orai.”
“Well, my Lady Orai.” Stormcaller extinguished the smoldering end of the cigar by dropping it to the floor and grinding it dead with his boot. “After you’ve been reprimanded by your superiors, I suggest you throw away that stupid cadet pin the First Order gave you. Head for the moon on Perodon IV. It’s a deserted rock, but you’ll find me there. Training starts whenever you decide to show up.”
“Training?” she blinked.
“Training for real life. The First Order filled your head with politics. Distrust. Suspicion. Hatred. What they want you to believe. Real life is about making up your own mind, fighting for your own beliefs. Fighting for those who can’t. If you’re ready to find out, go to Perodon IV. But I warn you. The life I’m offering is tough. Physically and emotionally. You’ll question everything about yourself, then I’ll grind what’s left of you down to the raw nerve. You’ll have to make some hard choices. Some recruits can take it. Others can’t. But you’ll never know who you really are—and what you’re meant to be—unless you try.”
He offered her a polite wave goodbye and left.
Stunned by his offer, she jumped to her feet. Looking down, there were any number of blaster rifles and pistols for her to choose from. Knowing the ion grenade’s effects would have worn off by now, she selected a blaster rifle.
Evangela aimed the weapon at the communications consoles and sprayed them with blaster fire, turning them into slag. The Republic fleet was headed here. The First Order had lost.
Snatching up a white utility equipment belt from one fallen stormtrooper, she clipped it around her waist, checked the charge on the blaster rifle she had chosen and started to follow him.
She remembered one last thing. She unhooked the cadet pin from her tunic and threw it away. The First Order could keep it.
She rushed out the door, shouting.
“General Stormcaller, wait!”
Sully tapped the comlink positioned inside the folds of his ear, acknowledging receipt of the emergency code transmitted from Ivey. The boy was in trouble—Zult was threatening to kill him for the bunker’s blast door codes—hundreds of levels below the landing deck. He finished tying up and gagging the shuttle pilot they had grabbed, dropping him like a sack of sweaty laundry into one of the shuttle’s jump seats.
The pilot complained with a loud “Oompf!”
“Don’t make such a fuss.” Tigereye clamped the man’s wrists to a nearby metal grab handle with a set of restraints. Glancing out one of the armored viewports, he noted the four stormtroopers had nearly reached the ramp of the command shuttle Byzanta. He shouted to his accomplice up front in the shuttle’s pilot station. “Hurry, Hugo! We have to get down to the bunker level! Lady Brix and Ivey need our help.”
Not getting an answer, Sully left the pilot and climbed up to the pilot’s station. Hugo was nowhere to be found. Angry, Tigereye tapped his comlink.
“Hugo! Where are you?”
His friend’s voice answered back over the link.
“I’m over here, Sully.”
Tigereye looked out the shuttle’s cockpit windows, first surprised and then bristling with anger.
“What in the hell are you doing there?”
Hugo was standing on Byzanta’s ramp. He was waiting for the stormtroopers to come to him.
“I promised the Colonel a masterpiece.”
“What the blazes is that maniac up to now?” Tigereye fumed, backing out of the shuttle pilot station.
Ever since they left Cantras Gola, Hugo had been acting odder than his usual odd self. He had been quiet for the entire trip. Too quiet. Even the usual back-and-forth bantering between them felt off.
The Trunsk pointed a clawed finger at the shuttle pilot as he rushed down the boarding ramp.
“Don’t you move!”
Incapable of doing anything else, the pilot rolled his eyes in exasperation and made a face.
“I’ve been thinking, Sully.” Hugo’s voice calmly spoke in his ear.
“That’s dangerous…” Tigereye pulled out his heavy blaster pistol, extending the folding stock so he could aim it like a rifle. “You’re starting to annoy me. Now get out of there before they see you!”
“…Thinking a lot. About life. Friends. The past…”
“This is hardly the time or place to get sentimental,” Tigereye growled into his comlink’s pickup.
“I don’t belong here anymore. I don’t belong anywhere.”
A surge of panic filled Tigereye’s heart. This was not his friend’s usual fearful complaining or his bizarre, almost comical ramblings about the cosmos. This was different.
Sully rushed around the shuttle and headed towards the lip of the landing pad. The other landing pads were spread out before him, arranged inside the vast, near-perfect circular crater created by the first Death Star’s laser blast. He ran as quickly as he could to a series of abandoned storage crates and bins, hiding there so he could take up a covering position.
“Stop fooling around. That kid needs our help…!”
“You’re strong, Sully. Stronger than anyone else I know. After what the Empire and those slavers did to you, you know exactly who you are. I know you’re going to help him.”
“We’re not talking about me.” He sighted the backs of the four stormtroopers through his pistol’s scope, trying to calm his raging anger with his friend. “Get out of there. That’s an order!”
“It’s all in my head, Sully.” The voice inside Sully’s ear cracked with emotion. “That’s what they say. I can make it stop if I want to. But I can’t make it stop. I tried and tried…”
“What are you talking about?”
“The indoctrination program my father put me through. The hate and images they poured inside my head. It never went away. The years I spent in that imaginary forest wandering, hoping to be cured, and for nothing. There’s no place for me, anywhere. I only stepped out of the holo program because I didn’t want to disappoint you or the others….”
The stormtroopers saw Hugo. They were rushing towards the ramp, their weapons drawn and aimed at him.
“Hugo, you are not a disappointment! I want you to come over here to me and we’ll talk. As much as you want. Just come back to me.” Sully punched the nearest crate out of anger. His friend’s words sounded much too final. He wasn’t fooling around. He had planned for this all along. “I can’t stop the timers. For the Force’s sake, don’t do this!”
“Please tell Brixie she was right. The decision was mine to make…”
Over his comlink, Tigereye overheard the stormtroopers challenging him. They were ordering Hugo to raise his hands and surrender. Sully targeted the one in the middle with his blaster’s scope. Bringing that soldier down would hopefully distract the others, giving Hugo a chance to run…
…before the timers on the thermal detonators hidden aboard the Byzanta stopped at zero.
Hugo Cutter raised his hands over his head, but he wasn’t surrendering. He was conducting an imaginary orchestra, the instruments sweetly playing inside his head.
The stormtroopers paused, wondering what he was trying to do.
“Please hold your applause until the end of the performance,” Hugo announced.
He, the stormtroopers and the command shuttle disappeared in a roaring ball of bright light. Streaks of fire pin-wheeled away in great arcs resembling comets. The structural braces underneath the landing deck evaporated in the fission blast, cracking the supports holding it to the crater wall and the surrounding platforms.
All Sully could do was lower his blaster pistol and watch.
Timed to perfection, the small surveying charges they had set underneath the landing pads went off in sequence, each weakening the next in the chain. One by one, the landing pads fell away, yanked downward by the pull of Jedha’s relentless gravity. First Order shuttles, TIE fighters and their crews tumbled into the black crater’s abyss, smashing and destroying the levels below. The domino effect continued, levels made of prefab corridors and held by support braces crushing, giving way, and collapsing. Fires spread, angry red splashes of color in the darkness. The only platform that was spared was the one Sully was standing on; that section and the shuttle remained for their escape.
Hugo truly was an artist.
The startled crews aboard the First Order Star Destroyers hovering over the ruins of Jedha saw it: the inside of the giant crater was suddenly ablaze. General Hux deeply frowned when he was informed all communications with the surface had been cut off. The assault force on Jedha was almost entirely destroyed. Field Commander Zult was beyond reach.
Angering the general further was the realization what he was staring at on the bridge’s displays was more than a fiery glow, but an angry crescent.
A red moon.