“MY DEAR, I’M GOING TO HAVE TO ASK YOU TO LEAVE.” THE GARDENER INTERRUPTED. “THIS IS A PRIVATE FACILITY. THIS YOUNG MAN IS UNDER OUR GUIDANCE AND CARE.”
After finding some emotional solitude fussing with the clothesmaker unit in Ivey’s master bedroom suite, Brixie put aside her grief and returned to the holo theater. She found the medical droid had finished maneuvering Hugo and his hospital bed inside. Ivey was configuring the bed’s segments so Hugo would awaken from his medically-induced coma in a sitting position. Content with his positioning, Ivey reprogrammed the bed’s visual mask so it would resemble a “tree” in the biosphere program.
The biosphere program around them was “frozen”, locked in place so none of the holographic objects interacted with them or Hugo yet. The real trick for Ivey was to get Hugo’s living mind—his interpretation of the world around him—to synchronize with the holo program’s data. The doctors from the hospital on Ord Mantell were more familiar with this than she was. All she could do, with Brixie’s help, was guess.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” Brixie assured Ivey. “This should be the last time we’ll ever see this awful place.”
Ivey turned around to say something and stopped. Her mouth formed an “oh” in surprise.
The clothesmaker unit in the residence’s bedroom suite could engineer almost any style of clothing according to one’s tastes. Her flaxen hair done up in a complex braid, Brixie had swapped out her clothes for an exaggerated version of a medical assistant’s uniform. The material was tightly contoured to her figure and the top was unzipped to accentuate more than simply her neckline.
Brixie looked down at herself, smoothing the wrinkles in the flexible fabric. Yes, she admitted, the outfit was rather…revealing.
“You don’t like it?”
“I didn’t say that.” Ivey tried hard not to stare. “How come you never dressed this way when you with the Red Moons?”
“Are you joking?” Brixie turned around, checking how the uniform accentuated her backside. “I wouldn’t wear this on a mission. I wouldn’t wear this ever. The nurse character was designed to distract Hugo and stop him from asking too many questions. Using my mother’s administrative protocols, I’m replacing that character in the program.”
“You certainly are,” Ivey noted with a wry smile. “You know, you and Hugo always did have an odd relationship.”
“It’s not odd. Hugo and I always had something like a doctor-patient relationship. Whenever he panicked or felt he was losing control on a mission, he trusted me enough to help calm him down.” Brixie tugged at the outfit, unaccustomed to its tight fit. “By showing up as the nurse, I hope to leverage that into convincing Hugo it’s a delusion.”
“He always did trust you the most.” Walking up to her, Ivey tugged on the opened zipper of her outfit, playfully pulling it down a few clicks. “Tell me, is wearing this your idea of a doctor-patient relationship?”
“I…I didn’t say that!” Her cheeks and ears turning bright red from all this attention, Brixie yanked the zipper back up. She pointed at the theater’s access door. “Enough about me. You better get back to the control console. I’m going to wake Hugo up.”
“Yes, Doctor Ergo.” Ivey grinned as she headed for the door. “Luck to you. Bring him back to us.”
Brixie went to Hugo’s medical bed, now resembling a tree until she stepped through the plane of holographic projection that surrounded it. She started the wake-up procedures, keying in the delivery of a different set of drugs through the hypocuff that would terminate his comatose state. Brixie slipped the earcom back in so she could hear Ivey from the control console.
“Ready to restart the holo program when you are,” Ivey spoke up.
“Start it up. It will take a while before he wakes.”
The holo program, still and quiet as a three-dimensional image, resumed functioning. A breeze passing through the trees, the chittering sounds of forest dwellers, and the smells of a recent rainfall filled the theater’s space.
Hugo moaned. Brixie removed the hypocuff from his arm and backed away.
“Any sign of the gardener?” Brixie asked Ivey, glancing around.
“Not yet. The program is definitely noticing Hugo, though. I removed the nurse from the codec and applied your mother’s protocols to you. Wait a second.” The voice inside her ear disappeared for a long second, then returned. “There’s a spike of activity on my screens. You should be expecting the gardener any second now.”
Brixie had nothing to fear from the gardener or the rest of this holo-program. They were only code built into the routines. Holos couldn’t touch or hurt real things. What concerned her was how much Hugo relied upon the program.
“Hugo?” Brixie called out. “Can you hear me?”
He opened his eyes and glanced around, groggy and uncertain as if he had been asleep for years instead of hours. Rubbing at his face and squinting, he looked up and saw her.
“How long have I…?” His eyes widened in surprise. It took him more than a few seconds to make the connection that she was dressed almost exactly as the nurse. “Brixie? Is that you?”
“Funny. That was my reaction too,” Ivey commented inside her ear.
“Stop that,” Brixie whispered to the side to Ivey before turning back to face him. “How are you feeling, Hugo?”
“Um. Tired.” He looked around, sensing he was sitting on the floor of the forest and leaning against a tree. “Confused. What are you doing here?”
Brixie long decided not to treat this conversation as a gentle question-and-answer session like she had with Hugo before on Ord Mantel. She was going to be forceful and direct.
“I wanted to talk. It’s been hard reaching you. So I came here.”
Hugo struggled to stand up on his feet.
“But you’re not supposed to be here.”
“For starters, I didn’t think the doctor would let you in. He said this place is for me. And…” he gestured towards her. “Where did you get those clothes?”
“You know. The doctor,” Hugo stammered. “The man who’s been helping me since I checked into the hospital. Come to think of it, you’re not supposed to be in here….”
Brixie pressed. “What’s his name?”
“The doctor, Hugo. The man who put you in here. You do remember his name, don’t you?”
Hugo blanked. It was as though the man’s name was on the tip of his tongue and then evaporated. Which was to be expected, Brixie thought, since the doctor in the program had no name. Neither did any of the other characters. They were more symbolic than actual persons.
“I know what his name is,” he stammered. “I can’t remember it right now.”
“Okay. Then where are we exactly?” Brixie motioned to their surroundings.
“This is part of the hospital.”
Again, Hugo was about to speak but stopped himself. Being unable to name the place, much less the person helping him, frustrated him.
“I just woke up, okay? Someone must have given me something to sleep. Believe me, I know how that feels. And why are you asking me all these questions? Don’t you know where we are?”
Hugo stepped back from her and invariably tripped over the lip of the hospital bed, which appeared in the holo theater like a tree root.
“I don’t know why you’re pestering me. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“The gardener’s active, Brixie.” Ivey’s voice reminded her. “He’s headed your way.”
“You’ve been pretty busy these past couple of days, Hugo. We found you on Ord Mantel. Then took over the shuttle and brought us to the Jaemus shipyards. Do you remember that?”
Hugo stumbled around the “tree”, trying to find his footing.
“I think so.” He glanced around and up at the dome of the biosphere.
“Do you remember leaving me and Sully behind?”
“I didn’t leave anyone behind…” His eyes darted from side to side, suddenly suspicious of everything around him. He had lost track of time and events. “Wait. You and Sully? We were together?”
“Hugo. Where are we right now?”
“I told you! This is the biosphere. It’s owned by the hospital.” He rubbed at his temple, still groggy from the drugs.
“How did you get here?”
“I went to see a doctor about those things we used to talk about. But after you left the Red Moons, I didn’t have anyone to talk to anymore and…” he snarled at her. “Why do you keep asking me questions?”
“I left the Red Moons five years ago, Hugo.” Brixie announced. “Where have you been all this time?”
He blanched, not liking to admit such things.
“I was in the hospital. The doctor said I needed help.”
“Right. The same doctor you can’t name, who works at a hospital you don’t know, and right now we’re standing on…what planet? What system?”
“Stop!” he screamed at her, threatening to run away into the forest. “Just stop…stop…let me think for a second. You’re not acting like her.”
“The nurse!” Hugo implored. He started storming around in circles, smacking his fist into his hand. “The nurse who said everything was going to be all right. The one who liked being with me. She never made fun of me! She never asked me all these damn questions. Her name is…”
He paused in mid-sentence, unable to answer Brixie. The lack of knowing was unbearable to him. He stood there, shaking and helpless, unable to speak.
“Why are you being so mean to me?” he stormed up to her, rage creasing his face. “You were never this mean to me! You cared about me!”
“I’ve always cared about you, Hugo. The reason I’m doing this, the reason why I’m here, is because I care about you. Come over here with me.”
She motioned for him to follow her, speaking low enough only for Ivey to hear.
“Bring up the stream construct.”
“You’re not in the right place,” Ivey replied.
“Just move it closer to me. Is the gardener here yet?”
Brixie walked past a group of trees and pointed to the small gurgling stream that ran through the biosphere. Ivey had manipulated the program’s spatial dimensions to move the water closer.
“Hugo, look down there in the water.”
“For me. All you have to do is look in the water.”
Grumbling and agitated, he walked up to the stream and looked down.
“What am I supposed to be looking at? All I can see is my reflection.”
“What do you see?”
He shrugged, not understanding.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I see me!”
“Are you sure that’s you?”
“Yes!” he snorted, pointing at the stream. “That’s me. Same head. Same eyes. Same nose. Same hair. Same me. Anything else you need me to try?”
Brixie pointed at his head.
“Touch your hair.”
Frowning as though she was ridiculous, Hugo did as she requested. Reaching up, his fingers found only the bald head of his skull. Startled, he looked back in the water. In his reflection, he had his full crazy head of hair. It was another of Zult’s tricks with the holo program so Hugo would believe no time had passed inside the program.
“What’s going on?” he repeatedly touched his head and gazed upon himself in the water. He glanced at her. “Did you say five years ago? You left the Red Moons five years ago? It’s been that long?”
Taking his hand, Brixie pulled Hugo closer to her. Footsteps were approaching from the underbrush.
“Listen to me, Hugo. You and I are the only real things here. Everything and everyone else is fake. Remember this.”
“What?” Hugo asked, all the more confused.
Brixie turned to the figure appearing from the trees.
“Just remember, Hugo.”
The gardener appeared, dressed in his green and gray jumpsuit, dirty work boots, and a tool belt dangling from his hip. He was an older-looking gentleman, his face set but congenial. He resembled a kindly uncle or a knowledgeable relative; exactly the kind of person Hugo would trust.
“Say there, what’s all this ruckus?” he smiled at Hugo, then he saw Brixie. “Hello there, pretty young thing. Are you disturbing my friend here?”
Brixie ignored the gardener.
“He’s not real, Hugo. He’s a reprogrammed leftover from an old holo adventure game.”
Hugo didn’t know what to think.
“My dear, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” The gardener interrupted. “This is a private facility. This young man is under our guidance and care.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Brixie snapped back.
“We can’t have you wandering around here.” The gardener motioned to Hugo. “Son, you need to tell her to leave. She won’t unless you do.”
“That’s right, Hugo.” Brixie agreed. “You’re the one in control here. Not him.”
“I don’t want to cause any problems.” Hugo backed away.
“Well you did, son, by letting her in here. She’s an outsider. You know what happens to this fragile environment if there’s uncontrolled interference from outsiders, right? Everything gets sick and dies.”
Brixie cut him off. “Did he tell you to kill the borganth, Hugo?”
He blinked in surprise. “How did you know…?”
“That wasn’t a borganth, Hugo. That was Sully. The gardener told you to hurt Sully. Then the doctor showed up, right? He told you the borganth was the symbol of your father and you should kill it. But that wasn’t real. None of it was.”
“Girl, all you’re doing is agitating…” the gardener started to speak.
“You’ve done quite enough.” Brixie flicked her gloved hand at him.
The gardener froze in mid-word.
“What did you do?!” Hugo bellowed in alarm.
Brixie flicked her hand again and the gardener’s image was replaced with the doctor. He stood there in exactly the same pose, just with a different body and features.
She flicked her hand again and the image became Zult.
“Who…who is that?” Hugo pointed.
“He’s been here, tricking you, all this time.” Brixie explained. “Ephron Zult. You remember him, yes?”
Hugo shook his head.
Brixie waved her hand again and Zult transmogrified into a rakishly-handsome looking man, a variant of the doctor, but wearing an Imperial officer’s uniform with a Pentastar Alignment symbol badge on his officer’s cap. Ivey found the image inside Zult’s personal files that had been hidden by Brixie’s father inside the kite-fox constructs.
“This is what Zult looked like before your grenade trap at the hydropower plant ripped his face and body to shreds.” Brixie waved her hand and erased the trees, the stream, and most of the creatures except for Zult, the kite-foxes and the hospital grav-bed. “He built this for you, Hugo. His revenge. He tracked you down, discovered you were seeking medical help, and took you. Zult took others as well, agents of the New Republic, subjecting you and them to this psychological reconditioning program. A closed bubble. You’ve been trapped here for over five years.”
Hugo shook his head in bewilderment as portions of the holo program fell away. The images he knew so well dissolved into shimmers and then nothingness—just as Brixie saw her parents slip from her grasp.
“Zult knew your past. He took advantage of the hurt and pain caused by your father. In here, he wasn’t trying to help you. He was turning you into a weapon.”
Brixie could see the momentary return of her old friend. His eyes opened and he glanced around as though he was seeing things clearly for the first time. But his gaze turned dark as he refocused. He was putting it back, all of it, inside his mind. He was running back to the safety of the biosphere and the familiar.
“I don’t believe you.”
“This is something you have to decide for yourself.” Brixie waved her hand and put the bio-sphere and its contents back in place. “You can go on living in this world, interacting with storybook characters you don’t really know. It’s a safe place. Or you can accept the world that’s right in front of you with all the messy risks and emotions that comes with it. That is where we’re waiting. Us. Your friends. We know you, Hugo. You know us.”
She waved her hand again and dissolved the imagery.
The holo-theater’s access door’s opened. Ivey emerged, followed closely by Sully Tigereye and Colonel Andrephan Stormcaller.
Seeing Tigereye’s bandages, Hugo remembered what he had done to the borganth. He had injured his long-time friend instead. He hung his head in shame, but the Trunsk wasn’t going to let him take any blame.
“Are you coming with us to kick Zult’s tin can head in?” Tigereye grunted. “Or staying here to play with your forest buddies?”
“Maybe it’s for the best. I don’t know if you could ever trust me again…”
“One thing’s for sure in the universe,” Stormcaller spoke up. “Without Hugo Cutter, the Red Moons are a very dull bunch.”
Hugo touched his head again, reminding himself of the difference between the false and the real. He announced with a determined smile.
“At least I know your names.”