THE FLOOR UNDERNEATH THEIR FEET STARTED TO VIBRATE AND SHAKE. SULLY AND BRIXIE EXCHANGED SURPRISED LOOKS. THE SHUTTLE’S HYPERDRIVE MOTIVATOR WAS…UNEXPECTEDLY…MOTIVATING.
This is a terrible plan.
Her hands locked inside an electromechanical shackle, Brixie was pushed from behind inside the military docking bay by a pair of grim-looking figures wearing rain capes.
“Stop right there.”
A First Order stormtrooper squad leader raised an armored hand towards them. There were over a dozen eggheads guarding the bay, each one carrying the new EG-1 blaster rifle with white coverings and focuser barrel. The weapon was several times more powerful than the older Imperial models. One shot could make a hole in Brixie large enough to drive a cargo speeder through her. There were other heavy weapons present too, a repeating blaster on a tripod and a deflector array protecting the black, bat-winged shuttlecraft poised on the landing pad.
A black-uniformed First Order naval officer, nose held high in the air, eyed Brixie in the shackle and the other two with callous disdain.
“This is a restricted area. Who are you?”
“Sully Tigereye, bounty hunter.” Lifting the cape’s hood off his head, Tigereye held out a credential inside a leather case with one clawed hand while roughly pushing Brixie towards the officer. “I brought you a little present.”
“What is this?” The man took a step backward, fearing she might be carrying explosives or a weapon. The other troopers reacted, leveling their weapons at her. The squad leader seized Brixie by the arm to keep her from getting too close.
“The cause of your medical emergency. She’s a doctor, one of a relief team sent here by the Republic. She’s spreading the virus among the refugees. Making you First Order types look like fools.” Tigereye dipped a clawed hand inside his cape and tossed a small white container to another stormtrooper. “I’d be careful with that. It’s full of nasty bugs.”
The stormtrooper cracked open the white case’s cover and peered inside. He passed it to the First Order officer.
“Medical vials, sir.” The stormtrooper used his own helmet’s scanners to identify the inventory codes on the container. “It’s from a shipment of virus stolen from a local laboratory a few days back.”
Once again, Brixie couldn’t help but marvel how Tigereye was able to use the virus outbreak and her credentials as a doctor working for the Republic and spin that into a completely new fabrication to deceive the First Order. And Sully had managed to use that same information to create a completely different fabrication that sent their pursuers from the hospital off in an entirely different direction. Somewhere in the rest of the Ord Mantell’s spaceport, dozens of medical evacuation shuttles full of refugees were being grounded and searched.
They were like squints evading an entire army of kite-foxes.
The First Order officer nodded his head, grimly pleased. He approached Brixie.
“So. A Republic doctor using a virus to stir up trouble. Who are you?”
Brixie turned to the man and spat in his face with a laugh.
“I’m General Leia Organa-Solo!”
The officer wiped his face with a gloved hand and brought the back of it hard across her cheek. Her head reeled and one side of her face turned red.
The officer pointed towards the waiting shuttle, ordering the stormtroopers.
“Take her at once to General Hux!”
Tigereye stepped forward and yanked Brixie back to his side with a quick tug.
“Not without payment. My partner and I work for a living.”
“You will be paid…” the officer started.
“…when we deliver the goods to your General Hux, in person.” Tigereye warned. “That’s how the bounty hunting business works, pal. You want to explain that to the General?”
The officer seethed, but relented.
“Squad Leader, escort these bounty hunters and their prisoner to the shuttle. Take them to General Hux.” The officer waved his still-damp glove to send them off. “But not until they surrender all their weapons and have them submit to a scan.”
The unit of stormtroopers formed around Sully, Hugo and Brixie, marching them towards the shuttle. The ramp was lowered in anticipation. Brixie was stunned. The plan was working. The First Order was going to get them off the planet.
“Hey.” One of the troopers poked the other ‘bounty hunter’ with the business end of his blaster rifle. “You never said your name. Who are you?”
“I asked you a question.”
Hugo, his head still covered by the rain cape, looked triumphantly at the stormtrooper.
“How could you not know me? Why, I’m the most famous bounty hunter in the galaxy.” Hugo made a flourish with his hands. “I am Jodo Kast!”
Brixie could almost see Sully rolling his eyes. This was not part of the plan.
The troopers exchanged uncertain looks.
“Jodo Kast. The great Mandalorian bounty hunter? You probably know one of my lesser imitators. Boba Fett?”
“Boba Fett, we’ve heard of.” The trooper replied, almost chuckling. “Where’s your Mandalorian armor, most famous bounty hunter in the galaxy?”
Hugo’s eyes widened. He wasn’t really expecting this question. Sully grunted a low warning towards him.
“Stop putting your boot in your mouth!”
“Oh. Well. It’s at the shop. Being repainted. Repaired. Waxed. You know how important it is to keep your armor clean, yes?”
Brixie kept her eyes in front, expecting the worst. No one in their right mind would believe such…
“Yeah. We know all about that,” the trooper agreed.
“Don’t we all?” another stormtrooper chimed in.
“And the smell sometimes. It’s the absolute worst,” a third added.
“Never borrow another guy’s helmet. Never,” so said a fourth.
Brixie shook her head in mute disbelief. Hugo had actually found a way to engage stormtroopers in friendly conversation. He really was a genius.
They were brought aboard, subjected to a weapons scan and told to take seats among the few flip downs available along the bulkhead walls. Most military shuttles were designed so troops stood during flight, making it faster for them to load up and disembark. The stormtrooper squad and their leader locked their blaster rifles—barrel pointed down—to magnetic couplings in the floor and held on to grab handles in the shuttle’s ceiling.
“Take off,” the squad leader radioed the pilot in the cockpit deck above them. “Head directly to the flagship.”
“Stand by,” the pilot spoke over the shipboard intercom. “Lifting off.”
Cleared to take off, the military shuttle rose from the docking bay floor on a column of thrusters. After it cleared the pad and the surrounding cargo gantries, the shuttle unfolded its long sinister wings and raced upward towards the few straggling clouds and the cobalt of Ord Mantell’s sky.
The shuttle quickly cleared the planet’s atmosphere and pulled away. Brixie understood why the worlds of this system were called the Bright Jewels, they glittered in the radiance of a well-sized yellow sun. The dark foreboding of space she saw out the narrow viewport with its scattering of stars brought a chill to her spine. Sully’s plan had worked so far, but the rest depended on Hugo tapping his genius once again. She could only hope that his mental acumen was returning faster than his social coping skills.
The small plastic box Sully handed over to the stormtroopers and shown to the First Order officer was now stowed inside the utility belt of the squad leader. He stood at the rear of the shuttle’s loading deck, by the ramp door, unaware he was about to become the chosen victim of Hugo’s diabolical plot.
Hugo was seated on Brixie’s left and Sully on her right. She saw, out of the corner of her eye, Hugo’s index finger slowly tapping on his lap as if he was nervous. He wasn’t. He was counting.
The vials in the plastic box didn’t contain a contagious virus. They were the components of an extremely volatile combination of chemicals. Before Sully handed over the box to the stormtrooper, he shook the container inside his rain cape before handing it over. Once the box was opened and exposed to sunlight, the chemical reaction was triggered.
Hugo stopped tapping with his index finger and whistled. The other stormtroopers, standing while they waited for the shuttle to reach the First Order flag ship, paid the “famous Jodo Kast” no mind.
Sully nudged her. It was time. She leaned slightly forward. With her hands still locked in the manacles before her, Tigereye slowly reached behind and grabbed half of her seat’s web belt. Hugo did the same on his side. Using their rain cloaks to hide their hands, they tied their belts to hers. The three were locked in their seats.
“Remember your training,” Sully warned her.
Brixie started to tremble. It was either nerves or fear or a combination of a million things. In the end, maybe it was because she didn’t like loud noises.
Or maybe it was because she didn’t want to die.
The chemicals inside the little plastic case changed into their final state. The explosion propelled the squad leader into the ramp door and flattened the troopers standing next to him. A cloud of green vapor erupted around the rear of the loading deck. On a half dozen communication channels inside the troopers’ helmets, confusion broke out.
“Gas!” Hugo shouted, adding to the alarm.
First Order stormtrooper armor didn’t protect the wearer against toxic gases. The presence of a presumably-lethal cloud sent the squad into panic. One stormtrooper, knocked down to his hands and knees by the explosion, shouted to the bounty hunters and their prisoners. He pointed to the panel closest to Hugo’s head.
“Purge the air system!”
There were two buttons on the panel, each plainly marked. The blue button was for clearing the cabin’s air system. The red button was for a vastly different kind of emergency.
Hugo grinned at the stormtrooper.
“Hope you guys can swim!”
He slapped the red button. The emergency release snapped open the ramp door.
Brixie followed her decompression training: she shut her eyes tight and pushed a breath of air down to her ribs. She was grateful she didn’t see the entire squad of stormtroopers leave the shuttle, spinning out into the void.
The roaring in her ears was replaced with a painful bubble of silence. Every part of her turned ice cold as she felt crushed from the inside out. Her squeezed lungs wanted to exhale and take a breath, but she fought the reflex. Would the cold or lack of oxygen finally take her life?
The roaring sound returned. She gratefully exhaled and filled her aching lungs. Air!
She overheard the ramp door slamming shut as the cabin’s air pressure was restored. Blinking furiously, Brixie opened her eyes while an intense pain lanced through her head. Her body was fighting to find some sort of equilibrium. A shadow hovered over her. Tigereye unlocked the shackles from her wrists. She threw the mechanism down to the floor.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Do I look all right to you?” she sputtered at him, shaking from being simultaneously squeezed and then flash-chilled like a slab of bantha meat. She wiped her nose, finding a stream of blood across the back of her frigid hand. More warm liquid leaked down from her ears. The decompression could have ruptured her ear drums, but she realized it was only moisture inside the canals that had been instantly frozen and then melted.
“Could have been worse,” the Trunsk remarked. “You could have gone for a walk out there with the rest of them.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
“Where’s the pilot?” Hugo asked, undoing his seat straps and heading up the stairs to the flight deck. He took two steps and was greeted by the business end of a blaster pistol. “Oh. Here he is.”
Moving almost too fast for Brixie to follow, Tigereye threw himself against the side corner of the bulkhead while Hugo backed up, hands raised. The armed shuttle pilot, dressed in a black jumpsuit with heavy boots, descended the stairs from the cockpit. The pilot’s attention, and the barrel of the pistol in his hand, swung from Hugo to Brixie.
“Hands up!” he ordered her. “Where’s the third one?”
“Third one?” Hugo wildly shrugged, distracting the pilot. “What third one?”
Sully moved. He seized the pilot and lifted him straight up until his skull rang on the overhead panels above. Tigereye kept slamming the man into the ceiling until he dropped the blaster pistol. He flipped the pilot over and slammed him down to the deck floor. Talons extended from the digits of the Trunsk’s monstrous hand, ready to rip open the pilot’s throat….
“Stop!” Brixie screamed. “Stop it!”
Sully held, his hand in mid-air. The First Order pilot, stunned and moaning, lay helplessly sprawled across the deck. Hugo stared at her, suddenly frightened by her screams, his back against the bulkhead wall.
“Let him go!” She pushed Tigereye backwards, forcing him to release his grip on the pilot.
Sully lowered his hand, also surprised by her angry outburst. Hugo kept quiet, content to avoid conflict by trying to merge into the metal bulkhead.
“You don’t have to kill him.” she pointed from the unconscious pilot to the shut ramp door and the stormtroopers blown into the void. “You didn’t have to kill them. Must everyone die…?”
“There’s a reason…” he tried to explain.
“Yes! Of course there’s a reason. There’s always a reason.” she looked at them. “I wanted to help you save Hugo. I would do anything for either of you. You are my friends. But this is the reason why I left. The war. The fighting. The killing. It never ends.”
“My Lady Ergo…”
“I know we’re all hurting inside. Maybe that’s why you kept on fighting all these years or why Hugo tried to find help for his pain. I am not that girl the colonel recruited to join the Red Moons anymore. I want to help people, not hurt them.” She gestured to the pilot laying at their feet. “Not everyone has to die. Please Sully, don’t kill this man.”
His golden eyes dimmed a few shades as the Trunsk reflected on her request. He nodded.
“We’ll tie him up and drop him off somewhere. He won’t be hurt or harmed. Well, not any more than he already is.” He turned to Hugo. “Get up to the flight deck. Change our course before the First Order’s flight controllers on that star destroyer realize we’re not planning on stopping by.”
“You’re trusting me to…fly this thing?” Hugo asked.
“Like I have a choice? We’re a little busy right now.”
Hugo headed up the stairs to the cockpit. Brixie unfurled a stretcher from the bulkhead wall and set up the medbay console. Lifting the pilot on to the stretcher, Tigereye promptly tied him down with acceleration straps so he couldn’t get up.
“He’s all yours, Doctor Ergo.”
Brixie set to work, attaching sensors and affixing a bandage to his bleeding head.
“Thank you,” she gently spoke, checking the man’s vitals on the medbay scanner. The readouts hummed and clattered, leaving them standing there and waiting in an uncomfortable silence.
She knew what Sully did was hard-wired into him. He was born and bred to fight in the gladiatorial circles, to kill or be killed for sport. He had seen his own share of death and injustice. Knowing him for the noble being that he was, Brixie kissed the startled Trunsk on his warty jowl before getting back to work on the unconscious pilot.
“All that planning and hard work to save Hugo. Then you helped all of us to escape. You’re more than a great leader, Sully. You’re a great friend.” She focused on her work, knowing her words probably embarrassed the usually solitary-minded alien. “I didn’t mean to yell at you.”
“Yes you did,” he grunted back. “Nobody argues with a doctor and wins.”
The floor underneath their feet started to vibrate and shake. Sully and Brixie exchanged surprised looks. The shuttle’s hyperdrive motivator was…unexpectedly…motivating. Brixie felt her insides quiver—a common feeling when one’s molecules were being coaxed several points past lightspeed.
“You told him to change course,” Brixie looked towards the stairs. “Not to jump into hyperspace! Where are we going?”
“Beats the living Mynock out of me,” Tigereye growled.
Adjusting the medbay computer to keep the shuttle pilot sedated and comfortable, she joined Tigereye and followed him up the stairs to the shuttle’s cockpit.
The view ahead was dazzling, the coalescing of millions of star trails into a spiraling tube of light. Hugo sat in the pilot’s chair, adjusting several displays but otherwise letting the ship fly itself through hyperspace.
“You hereby flunked flying school,” Tigereye barked at him. “We don’t jump into hyperspace without setting a course. You want to flatten us by flying into an asteroid field or something?”
“I set a course in the navicomputer,” Hugo shrugged, looking less bewildered than he did before. “The ship did the rest.”
“Okay, genius. So where are we going?”
“The shipyards?” Tigereye shook his head, not understanding. “Jaemus is way out in the Outer Rim. Used to belong to the Alignment. Now it’s a war zone. Why in the blazes did you suddenly decide to fly us out there?”
“I didn’t. The gardener told me. He said I will find what I need at Jaemus.”
“The gardener?” Brixie asked, bewildered. The word sounded familiar. She remembered Hugo mentioned a gardener once before in the apartment.
The expression on Hugo’s face was dead serious. All the uncertainty and childishness he displayed before had vanished.
“I’m going to Jaemus,” he firmly announced. “With or without you.”