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The Unity Room door slid open and in walked a woman even older than the Hadune Mother, with a benevolent, child-like grin and steps that seemed far too light and energetic for her age. She paused to acknowledge the others present with a small nod, then glided to the empty seat with an expression as fresh as though she had just stepped from the garden.
Something about the way that she moved suggested something unusual to Jossu, but he could not determine what it was.
"This is Ombura," the Hadune Mother explained. "She is our foremost Beast expert, having watched them since she was a child."
Jossu hardly knew what to think. The foremost Beast expert had arrived with bare feet.
The meeting began with reports of the latest Beast activity by Third, the number of humans who had been converted to Beasts, the patterns that the containment units noticed in Beast behavior. Jossu was certain that the Loystrek were withholding information; the numbers they cited of Beast conversions seemed impossibly low, and the Loystrek Beastmaster made a great show of praising the Loystrek technology for their success.
A marketing ploy, Jossu realized. The Loystrek were famous for turning every calamity to a selling advantage. By the stars, how he despised them.
Jossu noticed that the Kayso Beastmaster deliberately withheld certain information. Apparently, he did not trust the Loystrek.
The Hadune, by contrast, nodded and smiled at everything the Loystrek and Kayso said. When it came time for the Hadune to speak, the Hadune Mother deferred to Ombura.
"Our Beastmother will tell what she knows."
Beastmother? Jossu knew that the Hadune were strongly matriarchal, but the "mother this" and "mother that" was a little disconcerting. Or, in this case, just plain weird.
Ombura rose from her seat and smiled benevolently upon her colleagues.
"Three things we know of the Beasts," she said. "If they touch you or you kill them, you become one of them. The only way not to convert through killing them is to commit them to the airless cold of space."
"Yes, we know this," grumbled one of the Loystrek.
"Have you ever stopped to think about why? Hmm?"
The Loystrek shrugged. "Perhaps upon death, they spread some kind of contagion..."
"That penetrates suits that the Beast could not penetrate when alive?" Ombura raised her eyebrows. She had a point there. Maybe Jossu liked her a little bit.
"What are you saying?" the Loystrek asked.
"I am saying you should think like a Loystrek," Ombura replied. "Because we need that brain of yours to find out why."
"We've tried," the Loystrek said stiffly. "We can find no biological reason for the Beast phenomenon. You well know that when we've studied Beast material, it looks and acts identical to human material. The only difference is in the structure of their eyes. We do not know the exact nature of their vision, but they definitely see different spectrums or energies than we can see."
"And perhaps their eyes are a key," Ombura said. "But whatever the reason, I think it is a very important clue that they can cause conversion upon their deaths. We even know of cases, in the early days previous to the ejection system, where a Beast was wounded mortally and died days later. Its killer, even when not present, always converted upon the Beast's death. There must be reasons for that."
"Some biological link established upon the wounding?" a younger Loystrek suggested. The older Loystrek glared at him. Loystrek did not think aloud; they waited until they had something intelligent to say.
"There is more," Ombura continued. "While you think through the possible implications, we will continue to catalogue Beast behavior. There are reasons creatures do what they do. Just because we do not understand the reasons does not mean that such reasons do not exist. So we have many questions.
"The Beasts always attempt to convert humans. They do not simply stay in the Beast zones. They do whatever they can to lure humans out, to touch them, to leave their material where it might convert some unsuspecting human. Why is conversion so important to them?
"Secondly, the Beasts always leave the escape pod bays accessible. It is almost as if they want us to leave the Triangle. Why?"
"I can answer that last one," the Loystrek Beastmaster grunted. "They want control of the ship."
"Then why the emphasis on conversion?"
"More crew to work the ship."
"Even the children? It is well documented that Beasts return for their families and attempt to convert them, down to the youngest infant."
"Maybe they can't, you know, breed," a Kayso suggested, and all the other Kayso laughed. The Loystrek sniffed and Ombura smiled at the Kayso.
"Oh," she said. "But they can."
This was the first Jossu had heard of such a thing. The Beasts could have families?
"Just great," Jossu leaned forward and rubbed his face with his hands. "Little Beastlings."
"They convert us," Ombura summarized. "And they give us every chance to reach the escape pods."
"It is common with religious-type scenarios," the Loystrek Beastmaster said. "Convert or leave."
"But not 'convert or kill.' The Beasts never attempt to kill, only to change."
Jossu wished Ombura had not brought that up. It made the policy of ejection seem somehow vicious. But what else were they to do when the Beasts relentlessly sought conversion?
"Lastly," Ombura said. "The Beast-voice always has the same message. 'Don't believe your eyes. Remember there is a cure.'"
"Why would you quote that?" The Loystrek Beastmaster hissed, half-springing up. "Do you want us all to go mad?"
"Are you in danger of insanity, sir?" Ombura smiled a little.
"It's well known that those who hear the Beast message become obsessed with it," the Loystrek snapped. "How dare you speak those words here?"
"I've listened to the Beast-voice my whole life," Ombura replied serenely. "I interrogate every Beast before it is ejected. Until we know how they think, we know almost nothing about them."
"You what?" The Kayso Beastmaster gasped. "No disrespect, ma'am, but how are you not a Beast yet? No Kayso who has ever listened to the Beasts has escaped with his sanity. I'd be willing to bet it's the same for the Loystrek."
"We do not listen to the Beasts," sniffed a Loystrek.
"Which proves my point," the Kayso Beastmaster shot back.
"The Hadune have respect for all living creatures," Ombura said. "And I am the only one of my kind who can listen with impunity. But perhaps there is a reason for it."
She turned her head as though to take in the assembled men and women before her. "I am completely blind."
Do not trust your eyes, Colgren's voice rasped through Jossu's thoughts. What if a blind woman had some kind of advantage?
No, that was ridiculous. How could blindness possibly be advantageous? Beast-voice was discerned through the ears, not the eyes.
But what if...?
This would make him crazy if the Beast-voice didn't.
The meeting continued in a grim direction. The Beast-zone had expanded on the map noticeably since Jossu's last look at such a map. The Beasts were multiplying and the survivors were becoming fewer. More disturbing, the survivors were slowly being cut off from one another and from the systems and resources that kept them alive. The Beasts possessed half of the Hadune gardens already and several key Kayso equipment manufacturing sites. No one knew what the Loystrek had lost--their answers and maps were vague, and hinted that they were doing far better than either the Hadune or the Kayso.
Jossu remained silent as the Loystrek Beastmaster waxed verbose about the superiority of their Beast Containment Unit and adjured other such units to emulate their strategies of success. Jossu permitted himself a slight smile when the Kayso Beastmaster said suavely, "Indeed, I am most impressed by your excellent use of micro-drones, targeted pulsers, and other technologies not available to either the Kayso or Hadune."
A Hadune man responded optimistically, "That is why such meetings are so invaluable to all Containment Units: a sharing of technologies, strategies, and advantages, for the mutual benefit of all."
Classic Hadune wishful thinking. Jossu sighed internally.
If Jossu had thought the Loystrek were actually faring better than either of the other races, he would have had no qualms with beating their secrets from them. But he was certain that they were only hiding the extent of their injury, and were just as desperate to solve the Beast problem as the others.
The final stage of the meeting involved negotiations. The Loystrek promised medicine and technological aids—some of those drones and pulsers, for instance--in exchange for the loan of a few Kayso techs to repair the ship's larger equipment on the Loystrek Third and an extra shipment of Hadune raw foods and goods.
"Jossu," the Beastmaster nudged Jossu. "I want you to be one of the Kayso techs."
"We'll talk later."
And Jossu knew at once that the Beastmaster wanted Jossu to do more than repair a few pumps and life support stations. The Loystrek were holding back information, and the Kayso needed to know what the Loystrek knew.
The Kayso Beastmaster wanted Jossu to spy on the Loystrek.
Jossu had barely assimilated this information before the Hadune Mother caught his arm in a grip surprisingly strong for her age.
"Jossu, while the others negotiate, Ombura would like to speak with you."
"Me? For what?"
"I do not know."
This must be the moment when he discovered why he was asked to attend.
"Jossu," Ombura took his hand in hers. The gaze of her black eyes was directed so pointedly at him that he almost believed her to be able to see. "I have reports that you are one of the fastest runners in the KBCU."
"Yes, ma'am." He saw no point in dissembling modestly.
"Then I have a request for you." She still held his hand which discomfited Jossu a little, but he did not want to risk being rude to a Hadune. They might be strange, but they did grow most of the food for the survivors.
Ombura ran her fingers along his hand, as though judging what kind of a man he was through his skin.
"Between you and me, Jossu, the Hadune are overrun. All the Beasts need to do is make a sharp push to cut off our access to the water condensers and we lose everything. Do you understand?"
"My sister was also blind--a congenital defect, we're told. She lived as the guardian of the temple of our religion, deep in the territory that is now controlled by the Beasts. She did not leave when they came and I must conclude that she is now either dead or a Beast. But before the Beasts took the temple, my sister sent me a voice message. She said that she discovered the nature of the Beasts, why they either convert us or allow us to leave in the pods. She said that everything we think we know is a lie."
"A lie? In what way?"
Ombura shrugged. "That is all she said."
"And what is your request?"
"You are a fast runner, yes? I want you to run through the Beast territory and reach the temple, to find the records she said that she hid there."
Jossu stared at her. "To run... through Beast territory..."
There was a reason for the Kayso expression "mad as a Hadune." But Ombura only smiled at him.
"I am crazy, you think. But crazy may be the only way to save the survivors."
"Ma'am, how much do you trust your sister's information?"
"You realize that I can't wear a suit if I need speed."
"We've tried cunning and the Beasts anticipate it. We must try speed now.”
"Even if I could reach the temple, by the time I try to return, the Beasts will know I'm there."
"I know that."
Jossu read her meaning. "You don't expect me to make it back, then?"
"Not unless my sister's information provides us with an immediately actionable weapon. And Jossu? You would be on your own. No Kayso would authorize this. No Hadune either. Trust me, I know."
Great. So his choice was between following an impossible mission from a blind Hadune Beastmother (he still choked over the term) or spending a few weeks in the Loystrek Third as a spy.
If he survived either mission, he would be much surprised.
Which mission should Jossu choose? Vote in the comments below! Bonus: Tell me one thing that you envision for Ombura's appearance. I'll make it part of the story.