Chapter 6

 

“ARE YOU SURE HE’S AT ONE HUNDRED PERCENT?”
“UNLESS I CAN GET HIM IN A MEDBED AND STUDY THE DATA FILES WE TOOK,” BRIXIE KEPT STEERING HUGO AWAY FROM TRINKET SHOPS AND OTHER HUCKSTERS. “THIS IS WHAT WE’RE WORKING WITH.”

 

On Brixie’s home planet of Entralla, there is a curious creature known as the kite-fox, a predator that keeps to the conifer trees of the planet’s vast forests. The fox can glide from tree limb to ground in a single swoop by extending membranes of extra skin that connect its forelegs to its springing rear legs.

The kite-fox’s meal of choice is the Entrallan forest squint, a large rodent with a knack for burrowing in the soft needles, fallen limbs and seed cones that decorate the forest floor. Squints spend their days collecting seed cones for the winter season and sleep at night hidden in their burrows. Camouflaged and quick, it is very difficult for most creatures to catch a squint, but the kite-fox has the advantage of attacking from above. A single fox will hunt several acres of the forest for hours, waiting for a squint to poke its head out of the underbrush before diving down to snatch it up.

One might pity the squints trying to eke out their meager existence only to be picked off by a hungry kite-fox. The squints, however, have evolved an intriguing countermeasure. They make decoys of themselves. Balling up the pine needles with packs of damp soil, using tree limbs and cones, they push these mud ball fakes up out of the underbrush. Seeing the movement below, the kite-fox dives on its prey, only to find a ball of twigs in its claws instead of food. Since the fox has only one chance to leap down on its intended target, the squints take full advantage. They head off in a completely different direction.

“Isn’t there supposed to be a lesson or moral your people would say at the end of the story?” Tigereye muttered as he led Brixie and Hugo, with a borrowed hat on his head, through the intricate maze beneath Ord Mantell’s bustling spaceport. Brixie insisted there was some relevance to their escape as it pertained to kite-foxes and squints.

“Yes,” Brixie remembered from her days camping as a youth. “The lesson of the story is, ‘Never mistake a ball of twigs for a squint.’”

“What in the blazes of Berregor does that mean?” the Trunsk scowled at her, not really getting her intent.

Brixie knew they couldn’t simply leave the planet with a stolen hospital patient and medical program data. Whoever put Hugo and the other patients in that program would want him back—and their heads on platters.

“You left something behind at the apartment. I assume it’s for whoever might be coming after us.”

“It is.”

“So it’s a ball of twigs?” she suggested. “A diversion?”

“Ah.” the Trunsk nodded, checking the confusing docking bay signs that pointed in all directions. “Fine. Make your silly metaphors. Just keep Hugo close. We’re almost there for our ride off this world.”

Looking around, Brixie noted large numbers of beings waiting in queues for shuttles and undergoing scans from mobile med teams. Ever since they left Wexell’s apartment, there were city-wide notices posted on all the news-nets; a medical emergency had been declared by the First Order for newly-arrived refugees. Brixie believed the First Order was using this as an excuse to kick undesirables off the planet. She hoped this wasn’t what Sully meant by their ride—waiting around in line to be scanned by a med team was the quickest way to being discovered.

“I wanted to talk to you about that,” Brixie quietly noted. Instead of elaborating her point, she turned around and saw Hugo had stopped—intrigued by the aromas of a hot food stand they passed. Fried lizards and other local delicacies were on display with price signs marked in glowing paint. Seeing a force of stormtroopers moving down the thoroughfare, demanding identity cards and roughing up locals, she rushed back, grabbed him by the arm and kept moving.

“I’m still hungry,” he told her.

“We’ll eat on the trip.”

“Will we?” Hugo asked Tigereye, sounding very much like a needy child.

“Maybe. It depends,” Sully gruffly answered.

“That’s not a very definite answer.”

“Allow me to elaborate. It depends on us not getting caught. Does that help?”

“I was just making an observation…” Hugo lowered his head, sulking.

“Sully, please.” Brixie chastised him. She turned to Hugo and tried to soothe him. “We should be able to eat on the flight.”

“Oh, goodie!” Hugo grinned, happy to follow along wherever he was led.

Sully threw Brixie a concerned look.

“Are you sure he’s at one hundred percent?”

“Unless I can get him in a medbed and study the data files we took,” Brixie kept steering Hugo away from trinket shops and other hucksters. “This is what we’re working with.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”

Tigereye abruptly stopped to look up again at the docking bay signs. His pause forced Brixie and Hugo to stop. Concerned, Brixie looked up at the signs too.

“Are we lost?”

“No.”

“Then what’s wrong?” she nervously glanced around. The stormtroopers were not far off down the street. The First Order was everywhere.

“Nothing. I’m just looking at the signs.” Without warning, he started off again. “All right. This way.”

Brixie turned, confused, to Hugo. Was there something Tigereye wasn’t telling her?

Of course there was. He never says anything until it’s about to happen.

“Don’t look at me, I just woke up this afternoon.” Taking the hat off his head, Hugo pressed a hand to his forehead. “I feel a little peaked. Do I look like all right to you? Am I catching something? All of a sudden, I feel cold. It feels drafty around here.”

She snatched the hat from his hand and put it back on his head.

“You’re bald.”

“Oh. That’s right. I am.”

Brixie motioned for Hugo to join her and catch up with Sully. If he was headed in the right direction. Nerves tingled down her arms and her feet. It was only the three of them against the city’s civil law patrol or worse, the forces of the First Order. What could they possibly do against those kind of odds?

Looking all around, she suddenly felt like a poor squint on the forest floor: defenseless and hunted.

***

Agent Zult stood behind a wall of stormtroopers. Small chirps of coded confirmations were exchanged on the com frequencies with another platoon waiting outside the building. Zult shut his one good eye and shielded that side of his face with his cybernetic arm. It was a lesson he had learned the hard way. When dealing with the likes of Sully Tigereye, it was better to be cautious than stupid.

Following the civil law patrol accounts of the chase with the ambulance, Zult understood Tigereye’s propensity for sowing chaos to mask his true intentions. The ambulance speeder Tigereye and Brixie Ergo stole had driven through a holographic sign, passing almost undetected through what should have been a solid wall, and eluding their pursuers.

It took only a moderate amount of arm-twisting to get the chop-shop owner to divulge what happened to the ambulance speeder and its occupants. After all, Wexell Stimfog was more businessman than crime lord. Zult’s promise to turn the shop boss and his cohorts over to the civil law patrol was all the incentive needed for him to relinquish the address to his apartment.

Agent Zult knew the problem wasn’t tracking Sully Tigereye, Brixie Ergo and the wayward patient Hugo Cutter. The problem was time. They had a head start and undoubtedly a plan. The only way he could stop them was to determine their exit strategy and cut them off. He called upon every available resource to search for the mercenaries both inside the spaceport and outside the city. If they tried to leave the planet, they would turn up.

That still wasn’t good enough for Zult. He had to stop them before they escaped or, worse, fell into the hands of the First Order. Those fools wouldn’t even suspect the valuable prize they had.

“Enough of this,” the agent impatiently cut into the stormtroopers’ frequencies using an internal comlink built into his metal skull case. “Get in there!”

“Breach the door,” the commander ordered.

The explosive charge attached to the apartment’s front door was ignited. The door blew inward, setting off a large pop and deafening explosion that would have stunned the senses of anyone inside. Seconds later, sonic grenades were thrown against the apartment’s panoramic windows, shattering the wide views. The interior was soon filled with armored bodies spilling in from the ruined front entrance and outside from grappling lines dropped from an air speeder.

Staying put, Zult waited behind the protective line of stormtroopers in the corridor. Tigereye, Ergo and his missing patient were probably long gone, but he wanted to insure there were no surprises left behind. A soldier like Tigereye could have easily rigged an explosive to go off on a sound sensor calibrated to the frequency of breaking glass or by a photon beam triggered by a boot crossing the apartment’s front threshold.

“Better them than me,” he muttered under his breath as the stormtroopers searched the premises. Checking down the opposite end of the corridor, he caught the occupant of another apartment peeking out his door. The man took one look at Zult, one half of his head as polished as an interrogation droid, the other half as frightening as a Sarlaac pit creature, and quickly shut the door. Smart decision.

The all-clear signal was given. The stormtroopers found no one—and no surprises—inside.

“Withdraw your men, commander.” Zult headed for the apartment. “I don’t want to be disturbed.”

The stormtroopers backed out as quickly as they had forced their way in.

Perhaps the only good thing that came from Ephron Zult’s last encounter with Sully Tigereye and the Red Moons were the cybernetic replacements grafted to his shattered body. His arm and his lower legs were many times stronger than stormtrooper armor. His heart was a marvel of carbon fiber, powered by an ion engine no larger than his new hydraulic-assisted mechanical hand. New digestive tracts could process poisons and render them inert. Biomechanical connectors enabled him to directly patch into computers and communication systems. The optics and aural sensors inside his head were superior to those carried around by scanning crews. With his new interfaces, he could predict the path of a zingerfly buzzing near his head, hear the beating of its wings, and pluck it from the air before crushing it between his metal fingers.

One doctor in particular tried to warn him that with every new attachment, every circuit, every piece of durasteel, something else was taken away. Zult had little patience for the pseudo-religious babblings of a healer who said that those who replaced living tissue with dead atoms lost far more than they gained. These things were connected to the Force, she explained. Zult wasn’t listening. He was much too interested squeezing the life from the bothersome healer’s throat, without any help from the Force whatsoever.

His optical sensors immediately wiped away traces of the recent incursion by the stormtroopers. He was concerned about the previous occupants and what clues they may have left behind. They must have left quickly, the large vidscreen in the living room was still tuned to one of the news-net stations.

Finding no lingering heat registers in the bedrooms, he searched the kitchen and discovered the contents of the storage bins and the chill freshers were almost entirely empty. There were food wrappers and empty bins in the kitchen’s waste disposal basket, as though someone had devoured everything possible. That meant one thing to Zult.

“They must have woken Cutter out of cycle,” he sighed with displeasure. “He’s been activated.”

The impetus to locate the patient and those aiding him was greater than ever. Subject J829P was now a dangerous weapon with the safety turned off.

“Where did they go from here?” he mused, trying to ignore the insistent yammering of a news reporter talking about the First Order’s medical exodus order for refugees coming from the vidscreen. “How are they getting off this planet?”

Using his optical tracker, he followed older heat traces on the flooring to one of the apartment’s larger washrooms. There was little for him to find here, everything had been wiped down with disinfectant—which triggered a question in Zult’s mind.

They took the time to clean the bathroom, but left the apartment with the vidscreen on?

“There’s something here,” he surveyed the tiled washroom, carefully inspecting the sink, the tub shower and the lavatory. “Something they didn’t want anyone to find.”

Zult peered down the waste disposal slot. Paper products, sanitary wrappers, razors and other things were dropped down this chute and incinerated for health reasons. But the switch for the incinerator must have been faulty. The trash was still sitting in the receiver bin under the cabinet, unburned. He carefully dug into the bin.

He found a discarded hypo-injector, needles, opened packages for bandages, cleansing swabs and three empty vials. He carefully lifted a vial and allowed his optical sensor to read its inventory control codes. His built-in communication relays connected to a pharma-laboratory in Ord Mantell City. The packet was a live strain of a virus that belonged to the lab’s research collection.

Zult was confused. He knew Brixie Ergo, a prior acquaintance of Sully Tigereye, was a doctor assigned to a New Republic Medical Relief Team here on Ord Mantell. For some reason, she had deliberately injected all of them with a live strain of a contagious virus.

His replacement ear’s auditory relays pricked as he overheard the reporter repeating the same story on the vidscreen in the living room. A virulent strain of virus had been discovered among recently-arrived refugees. A mandatory evacuation order, issued by the First Order, was underway.

“They gave themselves the virus—and a way off the planet!” Zult exclaimed, tossing the vial back into the trash.

Leaving the damaged apartment for Wexell to deal with, the Alignment agent rejoined his commander waiting in the hallway.

“Sir, facial recognition tracking in the spaceport has a match for the two fugitives and the missing patient,” the commander reported. “They were last spotted in A terminus, between docking bays 239 and 252.”

“Show me.”

The commander transmitted the data directly to Zult’s own internal datalink. Visualized inside his cybernetic eye, a security camera positioned along the spaceport’s passenger terminus had caught the three looking up to read the directory signs. There they were: Sully Tigereye, Doctor Ergo and one very mobile patient: Hugo Cutter. They weren’t even trying to disguise themselves.

You’re slipping, Tigereye. That’s two mistakes you made.

“The fools think they can escape aboard one of the medical evacuation shuttles.” Zult waved his hand for the commander and his force to follow him to his personal transport. “Commander, lock down that terminus and stop those evacuation shuttles from taking off. I want every single passenger on those ships accounted for. Arrest those three and bring them to me.”

“There are dozens of evacuation shuttles, sir.” the commander pointed out. A ship-by-ship search conducted among hundreds of refugees would take time. There was another matter: Agent Zult and his stormtroopers weren’t the only Imperial force on Ord Mantell. The two different factions did not get along very well. “Units of the First Order are down there, too.”

“Then find them before they do!” Zult snapped.