ZULT POINTED AT THE INERT FORM OF TIGEREYE, SECRETLY GRINNING.
“NOW. KILL THIS BEAST AND LIVE THE REST OF YOUR LIFE IN PEACE.”
HUGO AIMED THE BLASTER AT THE MONSTER.
“Figures on a crowded planet like this, I’d end up in somebody’s terrarium.”
Tigereye moved backwards, keeping his pistol trained on the permacrete archway as he moved from the cover of one thick tree to the next. The stormtroopers didn’t move past the arch, taking up positions to either side and firing wildly into the woods. He knew they weren’t trying to hit him. That was never their plan. Stormtroopers were notoriously poor shots, but they weren’t that bad.
“They’re herding me in here like a stupid Klalei mountain beast,” he muttered. For what exact purpose, he wasn’t sure. This environment provided plenty of cover. He could sit here in the periphery and wait forever for any of them to try to sneak in. The stormtroopers’ optic-camo armor required a lot of power; they couldn’t rely on it forever.
Pausing behind a tree, Tigereye tapped the comlink attached to his gear belt’s harness. No response from Brixie. The signals were either being jammed or she was deep inside the tenement building where he last saw her. Getting out of this place might prove tricky.
His ears pricked. A foot stepped on a fallen tree branch.
Someone else was here in the park.
Tigereye slung his heavy blaster pistol. Designed to delivery assault rifle power in a small package, he didn’t want to announce his location by firing it. The stormtroopers weren’t coming into the forest. They were going to let whoever was in here deal with him.
So let them come.
A figure dressed in black appeared in his peripheral. Tigereye whipped a throwing blade at it and sliced only air.
“Zult.” Tigereye announced, hoping to draw him out in conversation—and misdirect him. “What brings you out to the park today? A little fishing? Reading some poetry under a tree?”
Zult’s voice called back. “I thought I’d give you a fighting chance.”
The shadow appeared again. Tigereye had another throwing blade out and ready. The blade sank into the bough of a tree.
“You appear to have a problem hitting the target.”
“If there really is a target,” Tigereye glowered. There was nothing wrong with his vision or his aim. “I know you, Zult. It’s always someone else taking the hit for you. What’s that line you like to say? Better them than me?”
“I’m honored you remember me so well.”
The figure in black reappeared. Another knife uselessly thrown into the bushes.
“So that was you in the docking bay back at Jaemus?”
“You don’t look the same as I remember.” Tigereye wondered aloud. “Didn’t you used to have two eyes, a nose and a mouth?”
“And two arms and two legs,” the agent’s voice glowered. “That grenade left me in a very poor state. I have a much better body now. You and your Red Moons did this to me. You will pay. Every single last one of you.”
“Then why don’t you step out?” Tigereye called, slipping behind another tree to avoid being boxed in. “I’ll gladly fix the rest of you for free.”
The shadow appeared again in a new direction. Tigereye flinched with his arm, only pretending he had thrown a knife. The shadow disappeared. It was as Tigereye thought—an illusion.
A pattern was emerging. The shadow was moving four paces to the right and two paces closer. Zult was using deception, circling closer to him.
“If your stormtroopers have optic-camo, what’s to say you don’t have a holo projector?” Ducking behind another tree, Tigereye switched from throwing knives to his vibroaxe. The charged blade would seriously damage whatever reinforced new body Zult had been given. When it appeared again, he knew the shadow would be Zult coming in for the kill.
“No more holograms, my friend. The next time will be as real as you can imagine.”
Tigereye lifted the axe and stepped out from the tree, ready to swing. In his haste to deliver a killing blow, he forced every muscle fiber in his body to stop himself. The figure standing before him was not Ephron Zult.
A dust cloud left the stolen ceramic bowl in Hugo’s hand, set off by a flickering spark. The expanding cloud caught Sully full in the face. Choking on the acidic-filled ether, his golden eyes turned a sickening blood red. Blinded, he whirled about, expecting to be attacked from behind. The fiery dust—a potent mixture of chemicals turned into an aerosol—was already weakening him. Flailing about at phantoms, Tigereye’s throat closed. His lungs, coated with a virulent acid, failed. Unable to breathe, he staggered around for a few more seconds and weakly collapsed to the ground. Every gasp from his unconscious form was a painful agony. A slow death.
“Don’t fret, Tigereye. You won’t die from what ails you. Not yet.” Agent Zult stepped out from behind a grove of trees, shutting down the holographic projector he was using. He regarded Hugo, who stood there over his former friend. “I was hoping bringing Subject J829P to this desolate planet would be necessary to draw him out of hiding. But you’ll do nicely.”
Zult turned to Cutter, pressing a subdural circuit positioned near his rebuilt larynx with the tip of his index finger against his throat.
“Well done my boy. Well done. You stopped that borganth from destroying the forest…”
The gardener motioned to the foul creature, an immense bear-like carnivore, the one Hugo had stunned and lay sprawled across the forest floor.
Hugo didn’t remember sneaking up behind it. He didn’t even know where he got the chemicals that made the acidic mist or the bowl that he dropped to his feet. There was only the pain. He touched the side of his own head. A little boy was yelling at him, telling him he had made a mistake.
“We need to make sure this terrible beast never hurts the bio-dome again.” The gardener reached inside his coveralls and handed him something. “Use this.”
Hugo stared down at his hand. It was a blaster.
“Why are you giving me this? You’re a gardener.”
“Every now and then, someone breaks into the bio-dome and tries to steal a valuable animal or a plant. We have many important species here. Some are the last of their kind. The owner gave me that pistol to protect his property. You know how to use a blaster, don’t you Hugo?”
Hugo looked down at the pistol in his hand and at the subdued borganth. Another terrible pain drove deep inside his head.
“I don’t want to use this on anything.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. Hurts so bad. The boy was screaming at him. Wrong! Wrong! “Where are Brixie and Sully?”
“My friends. They were with me. I swore they were with me.”
“My boy, you’ve been here in the bio-dome all this time.” The gardener pointed at the subdued borganth. “Now that you’ve stopped this menace, the axe will appear. You’ve finally reached the end of the story.”
“Story?” Hugo looked at Zult, seeing only the gardener.
“Don’t you remember the doctor and the nurse, sending you off? This place is a phantasm. A story meant just for you. My boy, you’ve had an adventure.”
Hugo whirled around, trying to find the doctor or the beautiful nurse. There was only the wounded borganth trying to breathe. How long had he been in here?
“Where’s the doctor? I want to talk to him!”
“I’m right here.” Zult suggested, fiddling with the synaptic programming of Hugo’s mind by pressing against the piezo-touch adapters on the side of his cybernetic-enhanced head. The gardener was replaced with the earnest doctor whom he met the first day he walked into the hospital.
“Everything here has a meaning to you. See how peaceful this place is. How calm. How serene. Everything fits perfectly within. But what threatens it? A rampaging monster.” He gestured to the borganth. “What creature rampaged through your childhood, hmm? What horrible beast locked you away in psyops conditioning to correct your behavior when you were young? Who took you away from your mother? Who stole away your life?”
Hugo stared down at the still monster in horror. His head nodded in understanding.
“Exactly, my boy. The bio-dome is your inner peace. The sick tree represents your troubles. The borganth is your horrible father. And finding the axe….”
“Will make me better?” Hugo whispered.
“Well done.” Zult pointed at the inert form of Tigereye, secretly grinning. “Now. Kill this beast and live the rest of your life in peace.”
Hugo aimed the blaster at the monster.
Kill the beast. Be cured.
A metal cylinder rolled into the clearing as though it was an egg which had fallen from a nest.
Hugo grabbed his head, unable to focus or concentrate. The little boy was screaming at him, angry at what he had done to the borganth.
He’s not a monster, he’s your friend!
The shrieking pitch climbed higher and higher up the wavelengths. Dizzy and sick, Hugo screamed in agony as he fell to his knees. He dropped the pistol and twisted into a huddled ball before falling unconscious.
The other half of Zult’s nervous system was cybernetic. The programming inside understood it was a sound disruptor attack and was able to filter out most of the terrifying shriek. The other half of his head, the human part, could barely cope with it. He picked up the blaster Hugo dropped and shot the sonic grenade to pieces. Peace finally returned to the park.
Zult called out to the grove of trees. “Show yourself.”
A grizzled figure wearing military fatigues emerged from behind the trees. A man of some years, his closely-cropped head of hair was pure white. His deeply-lined face bore a prominent scar from one cheek down past his neck, the result of a near-miss from a slashing weapon. He carried a long pike in one hand, one end aimed squarely at Zult’s head.
“Stormcaller. At long last.” Zult curiously asked. “How did you get past my troops?”
“This place is just like you, Zult. Not everything is real.”
Andrephan Stormcaller, former colonel and leader of the mercenary Red Moons, rapped his knuckles against one of the “trees” beside him. A distinctive, unwood-like, metal sound rang back.
“Cantras Gola is too polluted, too poisonous for most species of plant life. Some of these trees are display only. They lead to maintenance tunnels underground. Some also make excellent broadcast antennas. Your troopers are knocked out like poor Hugo here.”
“And you? You’re immune?”
Stormcaller pointed to his ear. “Old age. My eardrums are artificial implants, just like the one in that cracked skull case you call a head. I can turn your babbling off whenever I want.”
“An amusing, but pointless anecdote.” He swept his hand to the fallen Hugo and Tigereye. “I knew you would show up, if only to save them. Now give me the codes to unlock Setting Sun.”
Stormcaller stood over Tigereye and listened to his labored breathing, his eyes dark with anger.
“I don’t have any patience left for crazy ex-Imperial goons. Before I pop your head clean off that fake body like a cork from a wine bottle, maybe you should admit you haven’t thought this all the way through?”
“On the contrary. I’ve thought of everything.” Zult motioned with the palm of his hand. “And took the precaution of warning my men to activate the filters on their helmets. They’re not napping, if that’s what you were thinking.”
A ring of stormtroopers emerged from the trees surrounding them, their optical camo armor disguising them until switched off. Over half a dozen blaster rifles were aimed at Stormcaller.
“If you have one weakness, Stormcaller, it’s your friends.” Zult pointed his blaster at the prone forms of Sully Tigereye and Hugo Cutter. “Unless you hand over the codes to unlock Setting Sun, I’m going to end their lives right here in front of you.”