Pain threaded through Colgren's voice, some deep agony of soul that chilled Jossu's palms inside his gloves, tightened his throat. Did the Beasts remember their humanity and grieve for what they had been? Or were those last glimmers of speech like the final twitches of a being already dead to consciousness?
He should not listen, but the voice drew him, magnetic in its despair. "Jossu!"
Jossu glanced at his companion. Vance and Breet were already bent over the console, initiating the warm-up sequence and ensuring that all was in working order for the ejection command. Jossu edged toward the cage, a transparent cube in which the Beast seemed merely a crimson-eyed shadow.
"Jossu, listen to me," the voice bent toward him in the urgency of fleeing time. "The Beasts are not what you think. Don't trust your eyes. It's all a lie!"
The Beast thrust against the wall, arms uplifted and, in the dimness, Jossu could almost envision Colgren standing pressed against the cage wall, gazing at Jossu in desperate hope of understanding.
"There is a cure, Jossu. There is a cure for all of us."
No, no, no, no! Jossu jerked back. This was how people went mad, this was how they threw themselves at the Beasts who had been their parents, their children, their spouses, their siblings. The Loystrek had sought a cure for generations, but had found nothing to give hope of reversing the epidemic. It was the promise of madness, to believe a cure possible, to spend time and resources desperately asking the same endless questions others had asked before.
And what would Jossu do if he believed the beast that once was Colgren? Keep the Beast in its cage and feed it indefinitely while he sought a cure? Cast it into the vacuum of space and always wonder if he had condemned an innocent man to die, when he might have been saved?
Jossu could listen no more.
"Are we ready?" he shouted at Vance and Breet, nerves buzzing with sudden impatience.
Breet initiated the airlock and the Beast cried out. The illusion of Colgren's voice was gone now, and all that remained was the gravelly snarl of a wild creature. The cage receded into the wall, pulling the Beast into the ejection chamber. The clamor of the Beast suddenly ceased and an eerie silence settled like darkness upon the watching men.
The vacuums hummed, sucking every precious bit of oxygen from the chamber. Breet hesitated, his finger hovering over the final button. Jossu glanced at him, evaluating.
Then Breet shook his head and turned away. Jossu and Vance watched his sag-shouldered retreat from the control panel.
Then Jossu leaned over and slapped his palm across the button.
When the empty cage returned from the ejection chamber, the three men sanitized the cage and the entire facility from top to bottom with the specialized spray they called Beast-Away. The spray was meant to dissolve any material of organic origin found in the facility, from sweat to hair. Contact with such things could not be risked.
When they ascended grimly from the facility, Vance checked the time on his wrist-com and groaned. "By the time we de-con and de-suit, there'll be no time to eat."
Breet sighed. "We'd better file the report and head to the X, Hall 7."
"X" was the term for the point between the safe zone and the Beast zone. Hall 7's point of X had moved seven times since Jossu could remember, three times in an expansion of the safe zone and four times in a retreat from a Beast influx. The bunkmates checked each other's suits again, ran another seal test, and stopped by the armory to sign out their prods, pulsers, and blasters.
The X was cloaked in darkness, requiring the use of the dark-vision setting on their visors, since there was no point in lighting the Beast-held portions of the Third. The others waited for them, tense and half-crouched, visible only in hues of flat green and identifiable only by the numbers on their black suits.
Jossu inventoried the company swiftly: the Beastmaster; their fourth bunkmate, Trust; and two other four-person teams.
"I know you think this is a lot of people," the Beastmaster said as they crouched by him. "But most of your aren't even getting into the Unity Room."
Jossu nodded. A diversion.
"The ones coming with me to the Unity Room are Trust, Vinea, Robe, and Jossu."
"Yes, you, Jossu."
"But I'm not a bunkmaster."
"But your speed has apparently impressed the Hadune Mother. She wants you present."
Well, how about that. Jossu assimilated this unexpected information while the Beastmast continued: "Now, ladies and gentlemen, listen closely. Our main concern is not getting out; our main concern is getting back."
The teams listened as the Beastmaster outlined the plan: the drone cameras that the diversionary teams would employ while the others slipped into the Unity Room, the points that must be held in order to provide cover during the return, the tactics to divert the Beasts from the real purpose. Then the Beastmaster gave the order and they moved out, fanning into the Beast territory.
Growing up, Jossu had played Beast Attack, a game similar to the old laser tag games of his great-great-grandparents' day. But the real thing, the mad scramble through dark hallways with weapons designed to stun and stop but never to kill, the hyper-alertness, the fear of every new wrinkle in his suit (Was it a tear in the material? Could he be contaminated?)--that was very different than those childish games.
Today's designated Drone Doctors guided the company, relying on the electronic eyes of the fist-sized drones to spy around corners and survey long hallways with little coverage. Unlike those childhood games, the goal was not to find a Beast and incapacitate it, but to avoid the Beasts as much as possible. Therefore, the route to their destination looped, doubled-back on itself, skirted open areas, clambered up stairs and downstairs, and at last emptied them at the only place on the Triangle where the Thirds met: the Unity Room.
"Good luck," the diversion teams whispered as the Beastmaster keyed in his access code and beckoned the guest team inside.
"You too!" Jossu saluted the others, his brother among them. "Be careful out there."
The diversion teams would remain outside the safety of the Unity Room, monitoring the corridors and employing whatever tactics necessary to ensure that the guest team could retreat back to the Kayso Third safe-point at a moment's notice.
Once inside the antechamber of the Unity Room, the Kayso guest team decontaminated their suits, hung them up in the sterile chamber, and proceeded to the Unity Room itself.
The Unity Room was a circular chamber glittering with the lights of many consoles and screens. At one time, it had been the sole command station of the Triangle, rising from the center of the arrow-head shaped craft as a large domed structure that commanded a full 360 degree view. Now, it was the back-up command center, the main one having been moved to the Loystrek Third, and the meeting-place for the rare meetings amongst the three races because of its central location. It was a testimony of great bravery and strength that each of the three races had defended the Unity Room from the Beasts despite heavy losses. If they lost the Unity Room, they lost control over the ship and communication with each other.
Jossu scanned the attendees. The Loystrek dressed in attire that demonstrated straight lines and precise angles, as though to give the impression that the bodies beneath had none of the imperfections and irregularities of other humans. Most of the men were clean-shaven, but those that retained facial hair combed and trimmed it with almost obsessive care. In comparison, the Kayso seemed rough-hewn, ragged, and disheveled. Not that Jossu cared.
The Hadune were the exact opposite of the Loystrek. Their many-hued robes draped like falling water from their willowy frames, and even the men wore their hair long, either loose or braided. They smelled like earth and growing things, and Jossu realized, not for the first time, that part of him wished he had been born Hadune, to carry real earth under his fingernails and smell the scent of many plants all at once.
Jossu took his seat with the other Kayso as the Hadune Mother, the aged matriarch of her people, spread her hands in a gesture of welcome, for it was tradition for the peaceable Hadune to moderate.
"Greetings, Kayso and Loystrek. The Hadune are honored by your presence. Let us begin with roll call, for the sake of the ship's records."
Jossu noted the Hadune officer who remained by the holo-recorder console, to monitor the recording of the proceedings. His every blink, muscle twitch, and expression would be recorded in the ship's secure data-banks.
Roll call proceeded. There were five Kayso visitors and another five Loystrek—Jossu tried to ignore them as much as possible—but, of the Hadune, there were only four. Jossu noted this imbalance without comment, but the Loystrek did not.
“Did you lose the fifth member of your team?” asked the Loystrek Beastmaster.
The Hadune Mother’s wide, wrinkled face exhibited only calm. “Why, no. She is just late, that’s all.”
Another example of poor planning. The Hadune concept of time was very fluid; if they showed up at all, they considered themselves on time. How many good men and women were babysitting the tardy Hadune so that she could reach the Unity Room safely?
At that moment, a light on a console indicated that someone had just entered the antechamber. The Hadune Mother smiled. “Ah! And here she is.”
Then the Unity Room door slid open and in walked…