ZULT TAPPED THE METAL PLATE COVERING HIS HEAD WITH HIS METAL FINGER, BUT FELT NOTHING. NOTHING AT ALL. THE HARDENED STEEL WAS THOUSANDS OF TIMES MORE DURABLE THAN FLESH BUT COLDER THAN THE DARK NIGHT OF SPACE.
“I will not be made the villain here!”
Ephron Zult ignored Administrator Trevane’s whiny outburst, intent on studying images captured by the hospital’s security systems. Sensors had recorded the images from several different angles, creating the illusion that the figures walking the hospital corridors and entering the special lab suite were actually standing in front of him. He watched and listened as Trevane’s own datum-powered ghost discussed the details of the medical study’s sole-remaining patient to a young woman and her so-called bodyguard. Trevane sounded very proud of himself.
Out of the corner of Zult’s one remaining good eye, he caught the administrator’s nervous shuffling as the young woman in the image not only refused to identify herself but her alien bodyguard threatened Trevane to hand over the patient and the study data. The administrator performed the data transfer and activated medical droids to move the patient to a turbolift. The young woman left the lab with the droids and the patient, bypassing the KX enforcer droids posted outside. The comedy of errors concluded with the bodyguard binding the administrator to a holo chair with surgical tape and gagging his mouth before setting the device on autoplay, then disappearing into the elevator himself.
The project files. The patient. The intruders. They were gone in a matter of moments.
“We had no reason not to believe they were who they claimed to be,” Trevane insisted. “If there is any blame to be made here, it’s the security procedures. Procedures that were enacted long before I became administrator here. This is a hospital. Not a garrison!”
Zult didn’t bother watching the rest of the replay that recorded the events in the hospital’s garage or the civil law patrol reports of a chase involving a stolen hospital ambulance. He was familiar with Sully Tigereye’s capabilities all too well. It was the young woman who caught his more immediate attention. Zult stopped the holo playback and reversed it until the female’s face was fully detailed in the glowing imagery as she stepped inside the turbovator.
“I know you,” he whispered under his breath.
A wired jack connected Zult’s cybernetic arm to the hospital network interface. Working from a visual checklist displayed within his artificial eye’s field of view, he blinked and expanded the search algorithm programs outward, connecting across Ord Mantell’s planetary news-nets. The algorithm stopped on a report of a violent disturbance in the Great Free Market. The facial recognition scans on the crowded market quickly found the Trunsk speaking to the young woman.
Zult’s hunch was correct. These two knew one another. The young woman’s identity records followed milliseconds later. Her name immediately brought back a flood of memories.
No wonder he didn’t recognize her. It had been years since he last saw her…with his two good eyes.
“Doctors Mari and Praxis Ergo died over five years ago,” Zult noted aloud. “This young woman is their daughter.”
“Daughter?” Trevane sputtered.
“You personally handed over my project’s files and my patient to Doctor Brixie Ergo, currently assigned to a Republic Medical Relief Team stationed on this very planet.” Much to the administrator’s surprise, Zult started outright laughing. This brazen con was almost worth applauding. “You even gave them a tour.”
“But I had no reason to think…”
“You trusted the forged credentials of the daughter of a dead woman who was aided by a wanted criminal.”
Ephron Zult cut the data connection and switched off the holo player, almost breaking the switch with a twist of his cybernetic hand. The images of Doctor Brixie Ergo, Sully Tigereye and Subject J829P vanished from existence, just as they had hours before.
“I swear this was an accident!” Trevane insisted. “Security procedures were not properly followed…”
Zult turned to the man, pointing at the boundary of metal and skin that divided his once-handsome face. The metal tip of his cybernetic finger none-too-gently tapped the gleaming plate of durasteel that dominated the right hemisphere of his head. The other half of Ephron Zult’s face and body resembled a topographical relief map; valleys and craggy scars were all that remained after an incendiary grenade had boiled the layers of skin away. There was little the bacta tanks and medical droids could do other than to keep him alive. What couldn’t be salvaged was replaced with the finest mechanical replacements available. The mechanisms were perfect.
Zult tapped the metal plate covering his head with his metal finger, but felt nothing. Nothing at all. The hardened steel was thousands of times more durable than flesh but colder than the dark night of space.
“No Administrator, this was an accident. I was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sully Tigereye and that other rabble, those Red Moons who liberated Entralla, they did this to me. A grenade intended to bring down a wall took my face and nearly my life. Every day, I wake up and look at myself as a lesson. As for you…” The metal digit extended and thumped Trevane on the chest. “What happened here was no accident. Sully Tigereye came here on purpose. He came for his friend. He came to test me and you. A test that all of us failed.”
Trevane shakily agreed, much more interested in self-preservation at this moment. Perhaps he was grateful Zult was not singling him out but labelling everyone at fault. The Galactic Empire had peculiar ideas about persons taking responsibility for their actions—often at the cost of their lives.
“Yes, yes, we all failed. All of us.”
“I’m glad we agree.”
The security operations agent turned his half-metal head to a gray-armored stormtrooper standing nearby, an officer. The commander wore a curious logo painted on the breast and shoulder plates of his uniform, a ten-pointed black star surrounded by an expanding decagon in orange. It was the symbol of an Imperial faction that was no longer supposed to exist.
The Pentastar Alignment
“Commander, this facility has been compromised.” Zult popped out the disc containing the security footage and pocketed it. “Purge it.”
The stormtrooper turned his blaster rifle on the horrified administrator and his staff.
Energy bolts and screams filled the room.
“It’s true, Trevane. You’re not the villain here.”
Agent Ephron Zult stepped over the smoking remains of the administrator’s body while the commander and his forces dispatched every living soul and droid inside the hospital complex. The special operations agent waved to his personal guards, spectroopers clad entirely in black armor and decorated with the frightening white symbol of the Pentastar Alignment’s Judgement branch, to follow him. There was a missing patient and data that needed to be retrieved.
Hugo was hungry.
He completely devoured everything he could find in Wexell Stimfog’s modest apartment in Ord Mantell’s residential blocks near the spaceport. He opened every cabinet and raided the cryogenic bin for chilled foods, not even bothering to heat them. To Brixie, it was like watching a ravenous baby rancor.
For a few hundred credits more from Sully, the chop-shop owner allowed Tigereye, Hugo and Brixie to remain there for the day, but no longer than that. Before leaving the apartment to obtain transport off Ord Mantell, Tigereye slid the man another double-stack of the local currency—to restock whatever Hugo consumed.
Not wanting to leave him alone to study the data they had taken from the hospital, Brixie tried to talk to Hugo, to get him to explain what happened but her questions were ignored. Hungry as he was, stripping the kitchenette bare, he refused to let Brixie examine him any further. He didn’t even seem to realize he was bald.
“I’m telling you. I feel absolutely fine,” he mumbled as he ate his way through a plastic container of crackers he found.
“You are not fine,” Brixie argued back. “You were asleep and we couldn’t wake you up until we brought you outside. Don’t you remember anything at all?”
“I can remember lots of things,” he shrugged. “I remember getting three hot meals a day, which is better than this place has to offer. Going for pleasant walks in this beautiful bio dome. The gardener there wanted my help chopping down a dead tree. I remember a physician coming in to check me out. Oh and there was this nurse…” He winked at Brixie and elbowed her, suggesting there was something about this nurse she had no clue about. “She was anatomically amazing.”
“Hugo,” she snatched the cracker box from his hand. “That’s not what I’m talking about. Do you remember the holo theater where you stayed?”
“Do you remember checking into the facility? Any facility? Did anyone talk to you about treatment or why you were there? Did anyone give you a physical?”
“No. Wait. Yes.” He began to broadly smile. “The nurse checked me out.”
Brixie pressed him, thinking about the strange lab with its comfortable suite on one side and holo theater on the other.
“Do you remember any droids assisting the doctor or this anatomically pleasing nurse?”
“What do you remember?”
“That I’m starving…” He snatched the cracker box back from her. “Now leave me alone and let a genius of the former Imperial Engineers Academy eat in peace.”
He ducked around her and headed for the couch, interesting himself with the controls for the giant vidscreen that took up most of the living room wall. As far as personal luxuries went, Wexell Stimfog treated himself very well.
“You’re not eating,” Brixie remarked as she sat down on a stool by the kitchenette. “You’re foraging. It’s a common biological response after being held for long periods in stasis…”
“Not listening,” he cut her off without looking at her. “Still eating.”
Hugo switched on the vidscreen and proceeded to inspect every channel piped into the system, pressing the control to roll to the next image.
Brixie watched Hugo with a great deal of interest. Something was different. Not entirely right. He was zooming through the vidscreen’s offerings at blistering speed, almost too fast for her to comprehend what the channel was showing. The transition from one feed to the next was little more than a blip of an image and some white noise. Brixie had seen bored persons clicking through vid-channels before, but nothing like this. It was as though Hugo was scanning through the channels like a computer, picking up barely discernable bits of audio and visual information, and then discarding them for the next. After digesting what had to be over five hundred different channels, he turned off the vidscreen and put the control back down on the table.
“You’re older,” he announced, staring at his reflection in the empty screen. “I’m older. What happened to me? What’s going on?!”
Brixie quickly joined him on the couch. She knew the shock of his awakening would set in eventually, the Astromech medical droid had warned her about this, she just didn’t know how he would respond.
“I know. You’re disoriented.” she tried to assure him. “I’m here.”
“Are you?” He wrapped his lanky legs up and backed himself into the corner of the seating area, snatching up a pillow and holding it in front of him to protect him from imaginary assaults coming from all directions. “I don’t understand. Why are you old? You’re not the Brixie I knew! You’re not her! Everything is false! False!”
“It’s me, Hugo. Really.” Brixie kept her voice low and calm.
“Tell me something only Brixie and I would know,” he demanded, trying to back himself further into the sofa’s corner. The muscles around his neck were twisted into knots, the blood vanishing from his hands. If he could use the pillow as a Plex anti-walker missile, he would have. “Tell me!”
Brixie considered a moment.
“Okay. There was this time you ate some fungi given to you by miners from the Strutoss asteroid belt near Cantras Gola. I warned you not to, but you ate them anyway. You told me you were evolving into some higher state of consciousness, and then you ran out of the base. I found you running across the fields, naked, and calling for the Jedi fairies to come take you away.”
Goggle-eyed, Hugo stared at her.
“And then there was the time I found you trying to mate with a Z-95 Headhunter’s proton torpedo tube. All because you ate the stupid fungus again, after I warned you not too.”
“But they tasted really good,” Hugo reflected on his past misadventure. “So I thought to myself, why not? Let’s take another trip across the hyperdimensions…”
“Do you believe me now? Do I seem real to you?” she pointed to herself. “It’s me. Brixie. And yes, I’m older. So are you.”
His wide-eyed gaze subsided. Her words were having an effect on him.
“How long have I not been around?”
“I don’t know for sure. The last time we spoke was over five years ago. When I quit the Moons. Do you remember?”
“Yes.” he slowly nodded. “I remember that day. I remember being sad. Everyone was so sad. You had found and lost your parents. And then there was Iv…”
Brixie lowered her head and shut her eyes, not wanting to discuss those things.
“I lost a great deal,” she swallowed hard, pushing the bitter memories back down her throat. Things she told herself she would not talk about, but in the past day, so much had resurfaced—especially her parents. “We said goodbye to each other. I went back to the medical university on Entralla. I’m a doctor now.”
“You are?” His face brightened. “That’s good. I could sure use one right about now!”
She laughed at him.
“All right, Hugo. We’ll try to work our way backward then. One step at a time. We’ll help you remember.”
He reached up with his hand. Brixie thought he was reaching for her, but he was actually tracing the outline of his shaved head. He eyed her curiously.
“Tell me, Brixie. Would you happen to have a spare hat?”