Brixie Ergo regarded the passing of the First Order stormtrooper patrol like the one she noted an hour or so before, and the one that passed the time before that. If there was anything nice to be said about these white armor-encased eggheads, she imagined, they loved staying on schedule.
Watching them shove several locals out of their path and demanding identity credentials from others, Brixie knew stormtroopers and their intentions all too well. When she was a student of the old Academy of Medical Arts on Entralla, her instructors explained the kind of training the elite legions went through, every sleeping hour spent under the instruction of a holo-neuron disseminator to bend their will to the Emperor.
Some stormtroopers didn't need re-education holotapes. Their pathological cruelty was already deep inside the marrow of their bones.
Brixie blew a straight wisp of hair out of her eyes as she sat behind the counter of a medical aid shop deep in the Great Free Market of Ord Mantell City. There many stalls like hers selling everything from crockery to smoked bantha hides. Ord Mantell was one of a string of watery green worlds that formed the Bright Jewel system in the Mid Rim. The "Ord" prefix was an ancient moniker for fortress; worlds named Ord were once anchors for the Old Republic against pirates, insurrectionists and eventually the separatists.
Old Republic. New Republic. Galactic Empire. First Order. The names changed almost as often as uniform crests, but the factions of the bitter long Galactic Civil War remained the same. The Empire, by any name, was ruthlessly efficient. They trapped entire worlds, forced their populations to obey their laws, pay their taxes, preached humans were superior to other sapient beings, and enslaved the rest. The Republic, in one form or another, claimed benevolence, freedom and equality and yet was continually mired in the muck of corruption and bureaucracy.
The Galactic Civil War gave birth to legends who grew to prominence and then faded into blurry memory. As a much younger girl, Brixie remembered hearing tales of righteous heroes, dark villains and the gray in-between, all locked in struggle. The Civil War was supposed to have ended with the death of the Emperor. There were celebrations on almost every world across the galaxy.
But the war didn't end.
For years afterward, the New Republic fought the ghosts of the Empire. Brixie was on Entralla and attending medical university when she was told her parents—both accomplished surgeons—had been taken by a splinter of the Empire that called itself the Pentastar Alignment. The Alignment was led by former Imperials plutocrats who believed they could carry on in the Emperor's place. It came as no surprise to Brixie that these factions looked and acted just like the military force that seized Ord Mantell from the Republic. This variation called themselves the First Order. More brutes and bullies in armor.
One of the stormtroopers stopped and fixed his gaze on her. She knew their helmets were connected to data nets, using facial recognition and predictive matching to find beings of interest. Was she on some security watch list? Brixie didn't think so. It had been years since she last tangled with eggheads. One of the last things slicer Ivey Deacon had promised was she had used a deep worm to remove Brixie from the Pentastar Alignment's holo-vaults, wiping her existence back to the days when she was a medical student. It was as if Brixie had never crossed the line from citizen to soldier. She was a citizen once again. She could start all over.
Whether she had data records or not, it was hard for her to forget the past. Unlike the others hurrying along the market street, Brixie held the stormtrooper's stare. She had seen this kind of oppression one too many times, refusing to cower before this variant of the Empire, even if she was running a little medical shop. The trooper finally looked away, his interest turning on a passerby who paid the price for crossing his path. He none-too-gently nudged the Mantellian with a shove.
"Move along," his voice crackled over his helmet's grille. "Don't you a better place to be, citizen?"
The pedestrian lowered his head and hurried out of his way. Better to get a rap on the shoulder than to be interrogated on the spot. Some eggheads didn't bother with interrogation. They fired first…and made someone clean up the mess later. Someone like Brixie.
Eggs moved in baskets. This bunch came with an armored tread crawler, clearing a path through the wide avenue of the Great Free Market as a show of force courtesy of the First Order. Almost out of habit, Brixie counted the number of sentries walking the perimeter of the tank and the stormtrooper operating the heavy repeating blaster in the open turret.
What did Sully Tigereye used to call patrols who showed up in these things? She could almost imagine the Trunsk's growly voice speaking to her.
"Toss a thermal detonator down the open hatch of an ARC-36 and what do you get?"
"What?" she would ask back in her meek little voice, the voice of a medical student who was in way over her head and thousands of light years from home.
"Baked stormtrooper surprise."
"We're not doing that today," Brixie muttered, calming the hammer strike of her heart. She used to get so wrapped up in soldiers, trying to mimic their bravado. A part of her dearly remembered the misadventures she had with gruff Sully Tigereye and the rest of Red Moons, a collection of misfits who had once been Infiltrator Team Red Alpha of the Rebel Alliance. Brixie recalled Hugo Cutter and his wild hair, the demolitions expert, a walking bag of fragmentation grenades looking for someone to play catch with. There was the smirking ex-Imperial scout, Lex Kempo, always thinking of fortune and glory. "Mister Smooth Bore," that's what he used to call himself. As though that phrase could somehow melt Brixie's heart. Thank goodness Ivey was there too, calm and reassuring, a voice of reason who kept Hugo from pushing all the buttons on the thermal detonators he carried because of the nightmares he fought in his sleep. The Empire once tried to rewire Hugo with their holotapes and they went too far.
Lastly there was the master of disaster himself, the eye of the raging storm, the man who recruited Brixie to join the Red Moons to get back her parents from the Pentastar Alignment. Colonel Andrephan Stormcaller.
Her other half, the logical half, told Brixie to stop acting like a droid rerunning old memory tapes. Haven't you forgotten the reasons why you left? Too much death. Too many caring faces snatched away. In an instant, a tiny flicker of love and kindness had been stolen from her. No medical drug nor Jedi sorcery could heal that tear.
That was the last straw. She quit the Red Moons, turned in her sidearm and told herself to start living. She was supposed to practice medicine, not random acts of destruction. Thinking about the past wasn't helpful. Or healthy.
However, that desire to return to medicine created as much trouble for her as it did when she fought alongside the Red Moons. Brixie had joined a medical relief expedition from the New Republic to aid the refugee crisis on Ord Mantell—right as the First Order parked a pair of Star Destroyers in orbit and chased the Republic fleet away. Every refugee Brixie treated in Ord Mantell City spun the same wild stories. The First Order had something called a Starkiller, a machine that could destroy multiple planets, a device more powerful than several Death Stars and had struck a deadly blow against the seat of the Republic. Whether the story was true or not didn't matter. Beings were fleeing the Core systems by the millions. The First Order was no longer a cadre of obnoxious jackboots in a long line of pretenders to the throne of Emperor Palpatine, but a real threat who brought fear and tyranny wherever they went.
Brand new name. Same old Empire.
After the Star Destroyers appeared, word quickly headed down the comlinks to Brixie and the rest of the medical relief team. Help was not coming to Ord Mantell, at least not anytime soon. The Republic had its hands full. They couldn't leave.
"Lay low," the relief coordinator told Brixie and the others. "And stay out of the First Order's way."
Brixie took his suggestion and promptly tossed it. She wanted to help, not hide. She opened a medical clinic in Ord Mantell City, little more than a stall dispensing free medicine and care. The people trapped here because of the First Order's blockade needed her help.
Some took advantage of her charity, though.
Pushing through a crowd of onlookers, a figure wearing robes and a breath mask roughly approached the counter and plopped down a bag of local scrip. A nasal-sounding voice, aided by a vaporator that fit the wearer's long nose, crackled at her in pidgin localspeak.
"More anflatactite I assume, Gromm?" Brixie interpreted the local's garbled demand.
"Yes, yes!" the figure bobbed his head, eager.
"I can't give you any more. Only a doctor can prescribe Anfla Beta 12. It's a restricted pain medication."
"I'm paying!" Gromm abandoned the local dialect and settled on Basic. "This is twice what it costs, humee girl."
"The first time you showed up, you said your wife had a head wound. How is she?"
"She still hurts. Badly."
"That's too bad, considering you have no wife!" She pushed the bag of coin back towards him. "You're selling it on the streets. Get out of here."
The alien pointed to the roving patrol of stormtroopers and their tracked tank, parked only a few dozen feet away from them.
"Then I tell First Order you sell drugs without proper scrip."
"I didn't sell anything to you! I gave you a single pack after you lied to me."
Brixie's indignation quickly changed to alarm. Grom's threat was baseless, of course, but the First Order would discover she was from the New Republic's Medical Relief Service. They would hold her for questioning. Indefinitely.
"Give me what I want humee girl," the alien demanded, leaning over the counter towards her. "Or you go to prison!"
"Walk away, toadie." Another voice insisted. "Or you won't have any hands to hold what's left of your ugly face."
Gromm was about to make a spiteful rebuke until a thick hand clamped, like a vise, around the hose of his breathing vaporator and spun him about. A gurgling squeal of alarm came from the alien's sealed windpipe. He was standing face to face with a very angry Trunsk.
The broadly-built alien had baleful yellow eyes, curled tusks protruding from snarling lips, and clawed hands the size of freighter landing discs. Brixie's eyes widened in recognition of the menacing figure who stepped out of the ether.
"You're going to need more than medical relief after I'm through with you." Sully Tigereye yanked the annoying alien around by his breathing apparatus. "Possibly a good funeral planner. Do we understand each other?"
A squeaking rattle came from the alien's nodding head.
"Good. Light your afterburners and scram."
The clawed hand of the Trunsk released. Gromm nearly fell over his own legs as he made a hasty retreat down the plaza.
The Trunsk turned his eyes, twin yellow suns, on Brixie.
"You're not thinking of hitting me with that sonic stave you're holding under the counter, Miss Brix?"
It had been some time, years even, since she last heard the affectation "Miss Brix", a joke started by Lex Kempo that continued with many of the Red Moons. Brixie lifted the baton, a non-lethal sonic stunner, up from where she hid it.
"Hit you with this, Sully? Never." She quickly put the defensive weapon back. "It's just for dissatisfied customers. Or I simply deploy my favorite Trunsk, who just so happens to materialize out of the stardust of nowhere!"
Smiling, she squeezed his hand in appreciation and affection. Well, she tried to squeeze his hand. Trunsks weren't all that squeezable. They were renown as carnival fighters and gladiators, stolen from their homeworld and enslaved for their skills in the ring. Brixie had never met any other like Sully Tigereye and long assumed he might be the very last of his kind. How much time had passed since she had last seen her old friend? More years than the fingers on her hand, she imagined.
"What are you doing here?" she kept her voice low, pretending to be engaged in showing Sully a digital catalogue of medical equipment. "Please tell me it's not on business. You know? Moon business."
"Business?" the Trunsk shook his head. "I'm a citizen of the galaxy, just like yourself. Doing good works."
"Running a med shop in Ord Mantell City isn't exactly what I had in mind," she shook her head at the thought of her doing good works. She glanced at the ever-persistent presence of the stormtroopers with a nod of her head. "The whole city's flooded with refugees fleeing the First Order."
"And you're a long way from the Core," he noted.
"I came here to help. The situation changed. I'm stuck here for a while."
"No relief from the New Republic, I gather?"
"How did you know…?" she held off finishing her sentence. The surprise of his sudden appearance began to wear off. Having Sully Tigereye appearing out of nowhere and striking up a conversation was no coincidence.
Sully turned his head slightly, letting his ears keep tabs on the drifting electronic chatter coming from the soldiers.
"I can help you, if you'd allow me."
"No!" Brixie realized she almost shouted the word and fought to clamp down her ion cannon-sized mouth. She quickly apologized. "I mean. No thanks, Sully. I came here to help. I'm neutral. I'm not on any side. Not anymore."
"It takes bravery to stand in the middle of chaos. Your parents would be proud of you. You honor their memory."
Her parents had been taken by the Pentastar Alignment, dangled like bait for Brixie and the Red Moons to save, and then slaughtered. Brixie, taken aback by the alien's solemnity, lowered her eyes.
"Thank you." She shook herself from thinking about the past. "You didn't answer my question."
"What question?" the Trunsk asked, almost innocently. Trunsks weren't very squeezable…or innocent either.
"What are you doing here on Ord Mantell?"
Like that, they were interrupted again. The open market had this effect. People would come up and go, barter for goods and services and then leave. Seldom did people honor the sanctity of private conversations. Least of all stormtroopers.
A figure in white armor, blaster rifle ready in his hands, pushed his way up and stood behind Sully.
"What's going on here?" the stormtrooper demanded, his white armored head turning from Sully to Brixie. The First Order had modified the armor's appearance. The helmets had darker recesses under the eye visors. Extra sensors, perhaps.
"I'm a customer," Sully insisted, his proud voice scaled down to a whimper. "Seeking relief for my suffering from this fine, upstanding healer."
The trooper pointed a gloved and armored finger at Brixie.
"You have a license to peddle medical supplies?"
"Absolutely, sir." Brixie affirmed, ducking down to produce the licenses. "I can get it for you."
"Hands on the counter. Stand there."
Brixie didn't argue and laid her hands on the counter.
"You there. Warthog." The trooper bumped Sully from behind, deliberately testing his patience and insulting his species. Trunsks were not related to that species of animal in the slightest. "Identify yourself."
"I'm a visitor to this fine world."
"Show me your identity card." He leveled the blaster rifle at him, no nonsense.
"Of course." Sully started coughing as he fished around his tunic's pocket. "I came here seeking medical aid. I've contracted Cracken's Mold. A rash of some kind." He held a plastic chit out to the trooper, daring him to take it. "Ask the lady. I believe it's highly contagious."
Alarmed, the trooper took a giant step backwards. He swung his head to Brixie.
"It's contagious all right." Brixie bobbed her head in agreement. Of course there's no such thing, she almost giggled. Taking a cue from Sully, she continued with some official-sounding medical jargon. "It's an airborne mold. Spreads by physical contact. It starts with a terrible rash, followed by itching that can last for days or weeks. Sometimes even months."
The trooper kept backing up. Others almost tripped into him.
"Never mind. Keep your identity card. Stay away from people."
"I will!" Sully waved, friendly as a tourist on vacation. "Thank you, sir."
"If you should start scratching, take a Voorhoo kelp bath." Brixie called out after the befuddled stormtrooper. First Order or not, they were still a bunch of eggheads. She almost punched Tigereye for his nonsense. "Cracken's Mold?"
"First thing I could think of."
"The General would not approve of his name being used like that," Brixie smiled at the thought of General Airen Cracken, the no-nonsense commander of the Rebel Alliance's infiltrators and head of security for the New Republic, lending his name to a highly contagious, albeit nonexistent, mold.
"I would pay good credits to see that stormtrooper take a bath in Voorhoov kelp." The Trunsk enlarged an expansive pair of nostrils and snorted. "He and his barracks are going to smell for days."
"Sounds like fun," Brixie kept her eyes on the rest of the stormtroopers, hoping their first run-in didn't turn into another. She slid the medical catalogue back in its holder, wondering what the Trunsk was really doing here. "Just like the old days. Speaking of which. Sully…what do you want? You know I'm out."
Tigereye dipped inside his vest and pulled a tiny rectangular datapad in his large hands, his curled digits surprisingly deft with the touchscreen.
"Are you?" His gaze was intent on the datapad's screen.
"I'm doing what my parents wanted me to do. I'm trying to help others."
"As I recall, you helped a lot of folks in need. Back in the day."
"That was different." She waved her palm across the counter in a slicing gesture, a signal to bring the topic to a close before it even started. "I was an impressionable, desperate, young kid. Sticking a blaster in my hands didn't make me better than anyone else. All that fighting, and for what? I took more lives than I saved. So don't con me about helping the weak and the downtrodden. I made my choice. I'm done."
"I wouldn't dream of conning you into anything, kid." Tiger thumbed an entry on the datapad and turned his baleful, amber-colored eyes upon her. "I'm just here to do good works."
She curiously eyed the readouts on the datapad. He wasn't watching a news holo, that was certain. The controls displayed on the pad's screen looked like a remote security network tie-in and a vehicle control interface. They were the sort of controls she would expect Ivey to deploy when she was slicing.
"What in the Five Fire Rings of Fornax are you doing?"
"I don't know. You tell me."
Brixie looked past him, her silvery green eyes growing as wide and full as Ord Mantell's moon in the cobalt sky over their heads.
The tank. It was moving without warning, shuffling back and forth violently, misbehaving. The trooper in the turret was yelling down to the driver as the repeating blaster in the cupola started to spin around on its own accord. The stormtrooper was hanging on for dear life and calling out for help. The other troopers could do nothing but leap out of the way as the huge vehicle drove straight through a shop full of tapestries and came out looking like the décor of someone's living room. Bystanders and shopkeepers ran to get out of the behemoth's way.
The tank was going completely bonkers. It did no harm to any persons, just spinning about and crashing into stalls like a mad rancor. Angry shop owners yelled and cursed at the First Order troops for their vehicle's clumsiness.
"Cut the power!" the lead trooper, wearing a red shoulder epaulet, shouted to his men.
"We're trying, sir!"
The stormtrooper in the cupola tried to escape the spinning top by climbing out and paid dearly for it—the heavy repeater's barrel smacked him across his ceramic armor butt and sent him flying. He crashed, ingloriously, into a stall selling pots and pans.
"Ouch," Tigereye chuckled. "I hope no one from the command section caught sight of that on their vids. That's embarrassing."
The Trunsk caught Brixie's infuriated expression. This wasn't funny to her. He bobbed his head and sighed.
"Fine. I'll stop it."
He swiped his digits across the datapad and killed the override that sent the crazy signals to the tank's remote interface. The tread-driven tank spun one last time, like a graceful performer on Corsucant's grand opera stage, and shut down.
Citizens and indignant locals clamored around the vehicle and the confused troops, demanding answers and reimbursement for shops and wares which had been crushed. The scene quickly turned into a mob of protest.
"Clever, Sully." Brixie muttered. "Real clever. Congratulations. You made a mess!"
An explosion ripped apart a wall from one of the citadels that surrounded the plaza of the Great Free Market. Stone, dust and rubble cascaded down into the streets as a large plume of black smoke vaulted into the sky.
Thinking they were under attack, onlookers screamed. Most ran for their lives. The entire market turned into a rip-snorting sea of bodies bolting in panic, leaving the troopers without a tank and engulfed in a tidal wave of rushing bodies.
"Now that's a mess," Sully noted.
"The Force help us!" Brixie pointed to the explosion. "What did you do?"
"I'm pretty sure that's the First Order's armory going up in smoke."
Tigereye quickly pocketed the datapad. In a single motion, he jumped the counter, gracefully yanked down the shop's protective security screen with one clawed hand and threw a startled Brixie over his shoulder with the other. Along with not being very squeezable and quick to tear off the limbs of those who annoyed them, Trunsks were pretty agile.
"Sully!" she shouted, uselessly kicking her legs. "I'm not a part of this!"
"Of course you're not." He easily carried her wriggling self on his shoulder like a sack of spare parts. He slipped through the shop's back exit and headed down an alley, away from the churning smoke and the swirling fear of the mob. "I'm evacuating you to a safe location."
"Where?" Brixie begged as he slipped down one dark corridor to the next, deeper and deeper into the bowels of the old city, and further and further away from her current life.
"Just an asylum for the mentally impaired, that's all."