“IVEY SAYS SHE USED TO RUN WITH THE RED MOONS. THEY WERE THE TOUGHEST, MEANEST, ROUGHEST MERCS IN THE GALAXY. WERE YOU IN THE MOONS? IS THAT HOW YOU KNOW HER?”
The gardener told Hugo that something large and dangerous was attacking the bio-dome.
It was a borganth, an ugly thing with dark fur and a ravenous appetite for destruction. Over two meters in length and as thick as a hover-tank in girth, the creature had terrible claws for digging deep in the soil to find rodents and slicing the succulent bark from trees. The gardener said the borganth was the reason why the great old tree was dying from rot.
Hugo had to find it. Trap it. Kill it.
“You have to hurry.”
That’s what the gardener said. But Hugo was having difficulty distinguishing real from dream. His moments were caught in a loop. Mostly his senses told him he was in the bio-dome, roaming between its trees, searching for the axe and now this thing rampaging through the precious ecology. But if he closed his eyes very tightly and concentrated, entirely different worlds surrounded him. He experienced a trip across the stars. A tremendous battle in a shipyard. Familiar faces, Brixie and Sully, begging him for help. He wandered the alleys of some claustrophobic city of brown and tan, sucking in the thick air filled with dust, crossing from sun to shadow.
The moments would flash on and off, like a vidscreen leaping from one frequency to the next. Too much information was fighting for a place inside his head. Brixie was speaking with him, her mouth moving but no voice.
Hunt the borganth. Find the axe. Save the bio-dome.
And then something bumped into Hugo and the channel switched. His hand pressed against the corner of a claystone building. It felt real enough. Where was he now? Bodies pressed in. Pans rattled and cooking food sizzled from a stall. He overheard a joke spoken in an alien dialect. Tall green insectoids loomed over him, their multi-faceted eyes studying him and moving on.
The channel switched again and he was in the bio-dome. The forest. Cool and quiet. Birds eyed him with caution, defending their nests. Small creatures darted out, fearing he was the thing hunting them and then disappearing back into the green undergrowth. The sounds of a nearby stream bubbled in his ears.
A four-legged spry, a deer-like creature almost as tall as his chest, looked up from the succulent bushes it was nibbling on. The spry’s head turned towards a cathedral of tall trees down the forest path.
“I must be getting better,” Hugo joked. “The animals are talking to me now.”
Walking further down the path, Hugo noted a massive overhang of tangled vines between two trees forming an arch. It was hard to determine if the trees had formed this passageway or it had been nurtured by a horticulturist. Nonetheless, the task before him was to stop this borganth.
“How do I stop this thing?” he asked himself. He had no weapons. No means to stand toe-to-toe with a frightening monstrosity with fanged teeth, curled tusks protruding from its mouth and wicked claws.
“Use the forest,” the spry told him, hopping alongside him on delicate hooves.
Kite foxes and squints. There was a story Brixie used to tell him about her home of Entralla; the poor squints of the forest were picked off by the gliding kite foxes who inhabited the high trees overhead. The squints learned how to avoid the kite foxes. The borganth was a similar predator—huge and overpowering. Hugo had knowledge the creature didn’t have.
He took a sample of phosphorous moss from a damp rock. Examining the leaves of another tree, a sample from a distant world, he collected its tubular stem for its acidic sap. He found a particularly virulent-smelling flower known for its ability to ensnare and suffocate insects with its sticky pollen. A decayed gourd made an excellent mixing pestle.
A badger or similar forest dweller harangued him in its chattering babble. Did it yell “Thief!” at him? Hugo ignored it, ducking down another dark corner of the wood.
“I need to create a spark of some kind,” he told the spry, as if the woodland deer could provide him with an answer. Not surprisingly, it did.
“Check your pockets.”
Odd. He never thought of doing that. Inside his trouser pockets he found bits of wire, a battery cap, tufts of lint. He had all the makings of a match. He once set fire to the male gender lavatory in the Imperial Engineers Academy with nothing less than a lozenge wrapper, some cleaning solution stolen from a custodial droid and a datapad battery.
Something terrifying bellowed. The borganth was inside the cathedral of trees, moving through the archway.
Hunt the borganth. Find the axe. Save the bio-dome.
Hugo knew what he needed to do.
Ivey Deacon holstered the blaster pistol she had been pointing at Brixie and came towards her. Instead of an explanation or an embrace between two long-lost friends, the young woman smacked the blaster rifle in Brixe’s hand aside and roughly searched her. Not finding what she was looking for, she spun Brixie around.
“Where is it?” Ivey tugged at Brixie’s jumpsuit and jacket. “For the Force’s sake, Brix. Don’t you remember anything you were taught?”
“What are you doing?” Brixie didn’t understand, until Ivey found and forcibly yanked a tiny metal square hooked behind her jumpsuit’s web belt.
“This was planted on you.” She waved the box before Brixie’s eyes before dropping it on one of the workbenches. She selected the least-delicate tool she could find, a hammer, and slammed it down on the metal square. The squashed box, rendered useless, resembled a steel bug caught under someone’s boot. “You’re broadcasting a locater signal used by the Espos over a kilometer wide. That’s why I thought you were one of them. I could have shot you.”
“How could you not know it was me?”
“Because you’re not supposed to be here,” Ivey flatly replied, studying the metal box’s innards as though she was reading a fortune.
Dismayed by Ivey’s chilly attitude, Brixie went over to the boy and snatched back the medical kit from his hands.
“In case you haven’t figured it out, this is mine.”
“You tossed that egghead but good over the balcony,” the boy eagerly grinned up at her, not worried the slightest about his thieving. “I’m Dink. Are you with the Resistance?”
“No,” Brixie huffed. Who names a kid ‘Dink’?
“Are you a Jedi?”
“Are you kidding me?” she laughed at the thought.
“Ivey says she used to run with the Red Moons. They were the toughest, meanest, roughest mercs in the galaxy. Were you in the Moons? Is that how you know her?”
Brixie turned back to the young woman, not quite sure “knowing” was the right word. Did she know Ivey? Maybe she knew an Ivey from the past. An Ivey she once imagined. She looked rougher and a lot less friendly, but it was her.
The boy assessed Brixie from head to foot.
“I don’t know. You look kind of soft.”
“Thanks.” Brixie was tempted to reach into her med kit and tranquilize Dink the thieving Bantha pooper. Instead, she tried talking to the only other adult in the room. “Are you going to stand there studying that flattened brick of metal or are you going to talk to me?”
Ivey gestured to the displays on the computer banks zeroed in on specific locations.
“Why is there a pack of stormtroopers shooting up our patch of the Maze?”
“I didn’t know this was your patch. I didn’t know you were here. I didn’t even know you were alive,” Brixie stammered, remembering only the searing heat wave marking the fiery explosion of the transport Ivey had been on before she disappeared from her sight. “I came here with Sully. We’re trying to find Hugo.”
“Hugo and Sully are here too?” Ivey shook her head. “You’re not supposed to be within a lightyear of here. You should be on Entralla.”
“Well, surprise. Sully and I are here. Hugo’s a walking time bomb. We’re being chased by stormtroopers and a Pentastar agent…” Putting down the blaster rifle, Brixie jury-rigged the medical kit by knotting the cut straps around her waist. “…and now I find out you’re alive. It’s been a big day.”
She had a million more questions for Ivey, but the young woman’s attention was caught up in a burst of garbled static coming from a relay transmitter on one of the shelves. She grabbed a headset and replied using coded phrases and taps on a keypad. Brixie didn’t have the patience for this. Sully was in trouble, Hugo was little more than a droid and Ivey was acting as though nothing had happened since they were separated.
While Ivey jabbered in code over the headset, Brixie eyed the displays on the terminals. The remote sensors were following a combat in the narrow streets of the Maze between the stormtroopers and a dark figure. That was Sully. The troopers were forcing him past a large permacrete arch. Beyond the arch was an unbelievable grove of trees underneath a huge dome of transparent steel trusses. Brixie didn’t believe it. A forest actually grew on Contras Gola.
A forest that closely resembled the bio-dome from the story in the holo-program.
“Where is this?” Brixie interrupted Ivey’s codespeak, pointing at the screens.
“Place is called the Arboretum. It used to be a public park. It’s closed off. Too much violent crime happening there, if you believe the corporates care about that sort of thing. They didn’t want the Entymals gathering in large numbers and protesting their living conditions.” Ditching the headset, Ivey picked up a bandolier of grenades from the shelf racks and a huge sniper rifle. “The boss just called. Dink, take this. You’re on.”
The little thief who stole her medical bag slipped around Brixie and took up the impossibly-huge sniper blaster. He snatched up a helmet with a macro-binocular attachment and scampered out the droid maintenance flap.
Brixie eyed the plastic divider flap where the boy disappeared and started to follow.
“Sully needs my help. Tell me how to get there.”
“Not that way.” Ivey firmly steered her away from the droid access door. “This way.”
Brixie eyed her with suspicion.
“Now you’re helping me?”
Ivey’s distant expression revealed nothing. She wasn’t the same person Brixie remembered. Or maybe this was who she really was all along.
“We don’t have time for sharing campfire stories, Brix. The corporates sealed all of the park’s exits with blast doors except for the main entrance. There’s only one way in and out. Sully will be trapped.”
She brushed past Brixie and pulled down a mechanical switch on one of the racks, revealing another doorway leading down yet another dark passage. Ivey disappeared down the tunnel.
Swiping a fresh blaster pistol from the shelf of armaments, Brixie followed.