“HE’S NOT WHO WE KNOW ANYMORE. HE’S A MISSILE AND HIS MIND HAS BEEN TURNED INTO A TARGETING COMPUTER.”
Somewhere in hyperspace, in route to the Jaemus system…
Sully Tigereye was about to lift Hugo bodily out of the shuttle’s pilot seat and take control of the shuttle when Hugo did something Brixie had never seen him do in all the time she knew him.
He threatened to kill them.
“I have a locked counterprogram in the navicomputer,” he warned. “You take us out of hyperspace or change course before we reach Jaemus, the motivator coolant tubes will open. The compartments will be flooded with radiation. We’ll be cooked alive.”
Tigereye’s amber eyes turned into raging stars. All this effort to pull Hugo out of captivity, to save him from the confinement of a bizarre medical program, and he threatened to kill them while setting a course to a war zone.
“You’d kill us, you ungrateful twerp?” he rumbled. “What is wrong with you?”
“I’m going to Jaemus,” Hugo coldly repeated, looking only forward through the cockpit canopy.
Brixie stepped in between the two and pushed Sully back, which had about the same effect as her trying to move an X-wing fighter by herself.
“Something’s wrong with Hugo,” she told the Trunsk.
“Is that so? Did your medical degree come up with that brilliant explanation?” Tigereye squared his shoulders. “Explain to the genius that he needs to unlock the navicomputer and change course right now, or else I will rearrange his body to have fewer arms and legs than he was born with!”
Hugo refused to budge, much less convey he heard the threat.
“Go down to the loading deck,” Brixie insisted.
“I am not leaving here…”
“Go. Down. To. The. Loading. Deck.”
Brixie had worked hospital wards enough to know how to deal with stubborn patients and their families. Sometimes what it took was the medical equivalent of sending a naughty child to his room.
“I’m going to talk with Hugo. Why don’t you find a datapad and load the cylinder we took?”
Tigereye glowered like an enraged bantha bull. He pushed past her and headed down the stairs.
“Enjoy your talk.”
Left alone with him, she sensed a chill in the cockpit. This was a much different person than who she had helped awaken on Ord Mantell. The medical program, whatever it entailed, was controlling him. Having no idea what the program had done to Hugo’s already-paranoid psyche, Brixie chose a non-threatening course of action: putting some distance between herself and him by taking the co-pilot’s seat.
“There’s nothing you can do from there,” Hugo warned, his voice a flat monotone. “I’ve locked the controls out. If you come at me with a hypo or a dart, the navicomputer program stays locked in.”
“I’m not coming at you,” Brixie kept her own voice calm. “I want to talk about the gardener. Where did you meet him?”
“I told you. In the bio-dome. I would go for walks there. It’s this beautiful place, full of trees and birds.”
“I remember now. What can you tell me about the gardener?” Brixie asked.
“He asked me to help him cut down a sick tree.”
“Because it’s sick. The disease will spread to the rest of the bio dome. The tree must be cut down.”
“And we’re flying to the shipyards of Jaemus because…?” Brixie let her voice trail off, hoping Hugo would fill in the blanks.
Jaemus was part of the same cluster of the galaxy where Brixie’s home of Entralla and other familiar worlds were found. This cluster was also once part of the Pentastar Alignment, an Imperial faction that formed after the collapse of the Empire. The Alignment found the shipyards beyond valuable; they stripped a number of Imperial Immobilizer-class Interdictor cruisers and built their infamous Picket Cruisers off the hull. Smaller than Star Destroyers, picket cruisers were a frightening sight to any traveler who came upon them.
The Jaemus shipyards were constantly in contention. Once Entralla was freed, the New Republic seized Jameus and the region. Then the Imperial remnant came back and the fighting there went on and on…
“The gardener told me.”
No surprise there, Brixie admitted.
The tree, the gardener, the bio dome. They were familiar somehow. Without interpreting the stolen data, Brixie could only theorize, but the medical program—along with all the equipment and the holo theater she saw in the lab suite—must have been used to weave a story into Hugo’s subconscious mind. The story was full of symbols; goals that the program’s designers, her mother, wanted Hugo to perform.
Her mother. Brixie still couldn’t wrap her mind around that fact. Her own mother had done this to her friend and others. Although Brixie desperately wanted to study the contents of that data cylinder they took from the hospital, the only way she could only understand what was happening to him was by talking to him.
“What else did the gardener tell you to do, besides go to Jaemus?”
Hugo turned his head, almost mechanically, towards her.
“The gardener said people would try to talk to me. The gardener and I, we made this little secret pact.” He put his finger to his lips. “No spilling secrets.”
Brixie nodded, not wanting to push. The imprinted medical program must have a security lock, she reasoned. Only the gardener and Hugo knew the story and its outcome. If Hugo was caught or interrogated, he would reveal nothing. As for the threats to kill them if they tried to take control of the shuttle, Brixie assumed the gardener also had a defense routine to ensure Hugo did what was required to finish the story. A story about a sick tree that had to be cut down.
“Hugo,” she tried another tact. “Do you know who I am?”
He faced forward again. “I don’t care who you are.”
“Yes, you do!” she leaned across the seat’s arm rest. “Who got you your hat?”
He looked down at his lap, surprised to see the knit cap there.
“I…I don’t know how I got this.”
“I found it for you. In the apartment. Do you remember the apartment? Watching the vidscreen so fast? Eating everything you could lay your hands on…?”
A weakened voice interrupted her, almost child-like.
“You promised we would eat when we got on the ship, Brixie.”
A thrill of relief filled Brixie’s heart when he spoke her name. That was Hugo! His presence was still there. The medical program must have demoted his personality, reducing his real self to the capacity of a child. Children were supposed to do what they were told.
“Do you want me to get you something to eat, Hugo?”
“Please, Brixie. I’m starving.” He tried to get out of the pilot’s seat, but stopped himself. The voice switched back to the monotone. “Try to poison or sedate me, and the navicomputer remains locked out. Only I know the passkey.”
The programmed personality had returned. It was stronger and clearly in charge.
“I won’t harm you, Hugo.” She paused before climbing out of the co-pilot’s seat. Thinking about the stronger personality programmed into him, she tried asking another question. “You weren’t expecting to cut this tree down with me or Sully, were you? You’re supposed to do this by yourself?”
He made the shushing gesture again, his finger on his lips.
“The gardener doesn’t want me talking about the tree with anyone. It’s a secret. Nobody is supposed to know.”
“Who am I, Hugo?” she quickly changed the subject, trying to upend the master’s control by asking it unexpected questions. “Do you know me?”
Child-like Hugo didn’t return, but the master program didn’t disregard her either.
“I used to know someone named Brixie. You talk like her. Maybe you are her. It makes no difference to the gardener.”
At least that was better than, I don’t care who you are.
“I’ll get you something to eat now.”
“Don’t think I can’t hear you.” Hugo switched on the audio monitors. “I control this shuttle. I control everything. If you try to interfere or overpower me, I’ll open the ramp door and you’ll fly out into space.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she mutely replied as she descended the stairs.
Returning to the loading deck, she caught Sully Tigereye seated by the unconscious shuttle pilot, reading from a datapad with the cylinder they had taken from the hospital. He didn’t look up while she went hunting for a mealpak.
“So he threatened to space us,” the Trunsk muttered as he read the datapad. “Unless we do as he says?”
“That’s what he said,” Brixie dropped the mealpak into a rehydrator unit. The unit would break the seal, mix the pak’s contents with oxygenated water and heat the packaging until a mini bowl with the reconstituted stew heated inside. The pak even contained its own edible eating utensil. “There’s a gardener. He only listens to him.”
“Maybe we should have left him in that hospital,” the Trunsk mused aloud. “Stupid us.”
“Sully…” Brixie admonished. “He’s our friend. He doesn’t deserve to be treated this way. No one does.”
Tigereye waved the datapad towards her, lowering his voice.
“You won’t think that after you look through this.”
“I will look through it. After I give him some food.”
“An excellent idea. Feed the disturbed wacko.”
Brixie stopped while carrying the warm bowl of stew.
“He’s been hijacked, Sully.” she declared. “I’m going to help him.”
“I doubt you can. He’s not who we know anymore. He’s a missile and his mind has been turned into a targeting computer.” Sully thumped the datapad with the back of his large hand. “I’ve looked through the data. Except for the holo-theater files, the rest is encrypted. I can’t break it.”
“Ivey could have,” she angrily snapped back.
Brixie regretted what she said. The words just spilled from her mouth, mostly because she was confused and angry and frustrated. What happened to Hugo…or Ivey for that matter…wasn’t Sully’s fault. She was lashing out and Trunsk was the handiest target.
Tigereye gave a barely perceptible nod.
“Yes, she might. But she’s not here. Is she?”
Brixie voice turned into a choked whisper.
“No. She’s not.”
The wind inside the descending shuttle swirled Brixie’s hair all around and into her eyes. Ivey caught the runaway strands and hooked them behind Brixie’s ear to keep them from taking flight. Her hand found Brixie’s and squeezed tight.
“Be right back, Princess.”
It was a little joke between them. Ivey would call her “Princess” and Brixie would yell back, “I’m not a Princess!”
There was no chance to answer like she usually did. Ivey jumped aboard the other shuttle.
A puff of smoke, a fireball and a heartbeat later, she and the shuttle were gone…
“Sully. I’m sorry.” Brixie brushed the stream of tears running down her cheeks with the back of her hand. What a terrible time to remember such things.
“Never fear, my Lady Ergo. Trunsks are sturdy beings. It takes more than words to hurt us.” He pointed to the staircase up to the cockpit. “Bring him some food. Then we’ll have some ourselves and try to make sense of this gibberish. It’ll take hours for this crate to reach Jaemus. How Hugo figures on getting us through a war zone in a stolen shuttle, that will truly be something.”
The bio dome was beautiful. A massive environment, a circular geodesic structure, rising hundreds of meters up. Sunlight careened through the glass panels, bathing the interior with a golden gleam. Every inch teemed with life, green and lush, great trees and wooden lattices from a thousand different worlds. There were dozens of forms of life thriving here: creatures that flew from branch to branch, skittered about on legs or other appendages, munched on leafy sprouts or paddled in the lagoons. They all cohabitated together, the smallest to the largest, feeding and propagating.
“Now remember. Stick to the path, Hugo.” A shy-sounding voice could be heard from behind. Turning around, a young female human wearing tight-fitting medical attire, her top unzipped well past her collarbone, waved. Not far behind her stood a man also wearing a medical cloak, silver streaks at his temples, nodding sternly. The young woman reached forward and smoothed out the wrinkles of the hospital gown worn by the viewer. “Now you relax and take a stroll. Doctor’s orders.”
The journey along the path led deeper inside the bio dome where the tree canopy was so expansive it almost blotted out the sun overhead. Birds squeaked and chattered to one another. Small bushy marsupials, possibly Entrallan squints, briefly ran across the path to safety. A nearby stream, accompanied by a waterfall, burbled and churned up the water into a froth and sent its waters spilling down a stone-lined stream.
Everything was peaceful. Calming.
“Hello there, young man.”
A man wearing a green jumpsuit was working diligently on his knees at the base of tree by the stream. The tree, its base thick and gnarled with a bold spread of branches, was leafless and the color of gray ash. The gardener removed his cap and wiped the sweat from his brow with a kerchief.
“Such a shame,” the man tsked as he looked up from his work. He pointed from the stream to the tree’s thick roots. “Something’s got ahold of this ancient one. Maybe from the water or the soil. Hard to tell. This is one of only six such trees in the entire environment. We call ‘em councilors, cause they’re so old. I fear if this one’s sick, the others might be affected, too. What’s that you say?”
The man seemed to take in a question, then solemnly nodded. He got to his feet, wiping his hands of the black soil.
“I’m afraid it’s too late to save. Have to cut it down. If we don’t, the rot will spread and infect everything.” The gardener looked about as though someone else might be listening in, then leaned closer. “I know the folks who run this place don’t take kindly to such talk. They think everything can be saved. It’s just words. All they do is argue in circles. Sometimes, you got to take matters in your own hands. Some people might call that reckless, but where I come from, that’s called being a hero.”
The gardener took the kerchief and wiped his brow again.
“I’m getting too old to fight this sort of nonsense. People don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore. I know this place. I want it to live and thrive. That’s the right thing to do.” He thumped his chest and pocketed the kerchief. “It gets to me, sometimes. I wonder if there’s someone here who thinks the same as I do?”
The viewer pointed to himself. The gardener started to smile.
“You want to help me? I would be grateful if you did. So would a lot of folks.” The man glanced around again. “We can treat it like a secret, you know? Just between you and me.”
The viewer bobbed his head up and down in agreement.
“Fine. Now. We need to find ourselves an axe.” The gardener again glanced around. “They lock all those things up. I don’t even get to work with a pair of clippers. Stupid rules. But I know where you can find one. It’s a long trip, but you find that axe and bring it back here.” The man beamed. “Together, we can save this place for future generations. What do you say?”
A rustling in the woods alerted the gardener.
“You better take off. Don’t take gumption from nobody, you hear? I’ll send you instructions with this,” he passed the viewer a comlink from his pocket. “Now you better get before someone figures out what we’re doing. Hurry!”
The viewer turned and almost stumbled upon a figure in the woods. The figure is turned away and doesn’t see the viewer, too busy gazing upon a passing stream. The viewer quickly backpedaled and plunged into the brush, finding the path he took earlier….
“I’m thinking it’s a children’s story,” Sully growled as Brixie disconnected a set of earphones from the datapad. “You know, one of those, ‘pick your own adventure’ sort of things? Except for the part with the nurse and the doc.”
“You’re right,” Brixie nodded. “It’s a holo program from an Entrallan youth guidance course I once took. If you go along with the gardener’s request, you risk breaking the rules trying to find an axe to bring down a diseased tree. Those who run the bio dome warn you not to interfere with Nature, even if it means the bio dome dies. The gardener wants you to break the rules and save the bio dome. There are no right or wrong choices. Just the ones that you decide.”
“You’re kidding me?” the Trunsk asked. “They plugged that into Hugo’s head?”
“The designers took the frame of the story.” Brixie rewound the holo on the datapad so it reached the conversation with the gardener. “They built on it. Added the nurse and the doctor to make Hugo feel this was normal. He’s been in and out of the care of doctors almost his entire life.”
Without the holographic lenses or the hood for the audio, the story played out on the flat screen without its immersive effects. Holo shows felt real, almost too real. Brixie could imagine this tech could be used to create a program designed to trick Hugo’s mind—to reprogram it. The other parts contained on the data cylinder were exactly as Sully described, scrolling lines of coded gibberish. Without the underlying unlocked data, the story played out on the screen as a simple branching-type adventure. Again, a security measure to protect the medical program’s creators from discovery or interference.
“I know,” Tigereye agreed. “Ephron Zult must have kidnapped him. Took advantage of him.”
“Who is this Zult?” Brixie recalled the name, but not a face.
“You never ran in to him directly, but I have. He was a Pentastar agent, part of their Justice unit. He ran psychological ops, setting off disasters and spinning the blame on the New Republic. There was a raid on a settlement world. Zult made a deal with a slaving operation to sell off the captives and murder the rest to make the Republic look powerless. You know how much I enjoy the company of slavers.”
“Don’t remind me,” Brixie shook her head. Her very first mission as a field medic was with Sully, Hugo and a scout named Lex Kempo targeting a slaving operation on a jungle moon called Gabredor III. Brixie saw death take away, regardless of which side she was on. The slavers lost and so did the Moons. Trying to create a diversion riding a grav sled laden with explosives, Lex Kempo kept the sled on course until he and its payload slammed into the slavers’ defensive weapon mount.
“A mercenary doesn’t retire gracefully,” he once boasted to Brixie. “There’s no such thing as an Old Mercs Home either. What a real mercenary wants is to go out…in a blaze of glory.”
He sure did.
“The Red Moons tangled with the slavers. Zult got caught with an incendiary grenade set up as one of Hugo’s distractions. I assumed he was turned into a crispy nothing, until I lost track of Hugo. Zult’s name popped up again and again.” He pointed at the datapad. “And here we are, trapped on a shuttle headed for Jaemus, watching kiddie shows, our friend turned against us.”
Brixie looked down. She had inadvertently replayed the last part of the holo on the datapad. The viewer had taken the gardener’s quest and was trying to slip away when he stumbled upon the figure looking over the burbling stream. Brixie pressed ‘pause’ and rewound back. She played the scene again. The mysterious figure was a woman, but her back faced the viewer at all times. Since this was a three-dimensional image, Brixie could rotate the camera’s point-of-view however she liked.
Hoping to find a clue, she orbited the camera around the figure at the stream so she could see the woman’s face. It wasn’t the nurse, but someone else. Calm, yet sad-looking, the woman wordlessly watched the water playfully slip down the rocks. Brixie froze the playback in horror.
The figure standing at the stream’s edge was her mother.