Jossu pulled his sleeve over his hand and grasped his brother by the arm, tugging him forward.
“Jossu…” Vance panted, trying to keep up with his brother’s killing pace. “I’m turning, aren’t I? But it’s not like I thought. Jossu…”
“Vance, you know I can’t listen to you.”
“Jossu! I’m hearing things and seeing things. I’m…” He jerked to a halt suddenly and stared out the long, panoramic window. His jaw dropped and tears started to his eyes. He lifted a hand and pressed it against the glass.
“Oh,” he breathed in wonder. “It’s beautiful.”
Jossu glanced out the window, but all he saw was the pinpricked darkness that he had seen all his life. Vance must be turning quickly.
Half-panicked, Jossu tugged his brother’s arm. Vance did not move, transfixed by whatever vision he saw.
“Vance!” Jossu threw his voice like a punch. “I am trying to save your life—whatever you have left of it. MOVE!”
Vance came woodenly, his attention sucked into a whirlpool of thoughts. They reached the X-point and Jossu lowered the shields, thrusting his brother over the line.
Into the Beast zone. Vance stared for a moment down the dim corridors, then turned and locked eyes on his brother.
For a moment, they looked at one another from opposite sides of an invisible, unbridgeable barrier.
“Jossu,” Vance said at last. “It’s not what you think. It’s like… like our true faces are hidden from you. Like your own faces are hidden from yourselves. Jossu, everything you know is a lie.”
The “our” versus “your” pulled rage from the pit of Jossu’s stomach. Vance’s identity was as his brother, not as a Beast.
“Why weren’t you more careful?” Jossu shouted. Then, blind with emotions he could not identify, he twisted on his toes, turned his back to his brother, and sprinted down the hall.
A few minutes later, the silence and stillness struck Jossu like a physical force.
It was done.
He was sure it was the wrong thing. Yet he knew he would have felt the same if he had chosen differently.
Those red eyes... red like the strawberries they had shared earlier.
Jossu pressed his back against the wall, slid down until he sat with his knees folded upward upon his chest, and gave himself to despair.
He had cried over a stupid strawberry only an hour earlier.
Were there no tears for his brother?
Jossu could only stare at the opposite wall and feel nothing. It was as though his mind had destroyed all nerves of feeling, made him an emotional leper.
Thoughts trickled through his detached mind.
Trapped on a space ship, lightyears away from a planet. Why had the trip taken so much longer than anticipated? What had caused people to begin turning to Beasts?
"Jossu, there you are!" The Beastmaster arrived; Jossu acknowledged his presence with expressionless eye contact. "We need to talk in my office."
"I need to talk with the Hadune first," Jossu said. His words surprised even him. Interesting.
"The Hadune?" The Beastmaster's eyebrows lifted. Then, when Jossu offered no more information, he continued. "Jossu, whatever it is can wait. We're getting together a party of Kayso technicians to trade to the Loystrek. I need to brief you all on my expectations."
He emphasized the word expectations.
Jossu came. The Beastmaster's office, little more than a closet with benches that folded out from the wall, was cramped with a half-dozen choice men and women from the KBCU. There would be other non-KBCU candidates for the exchange, more experienced technicians and specialists, but the KBCU was the real reason the Kayso had agreed to the Loystrek trade. The Kayso needed to know the Loystrek advantages--if they had any--in the war against the Beasts.
The Beastmaster began to speak and Jossu observed that, though he understood the Beastmaster's every word and was capable of providing appropriate responses, it seemed that he spoke as a man in a dream. Jossu's true consciousness flickered like a growing flame in the back of his mind.
This was idiocy. While the Kayso and the Loystrek plotted against each other and the Hadune desperately tried to keep the peace, people were turning into Beasts. Why couldn't they see the real problem? What made people so petty even when they teetered on the brink of extinction?
"Jossu!" the Beastmaster called him out. "You look like you have something stuck in your craw."
Jossu didn't know what that meant--the Beastmaster's ancestors had been from Texas, wherever that was--but he guessed the meaning.
Jossu shrugged. "Just looking forward to giving back to the Loystrek what they so generously and freely give us, sir."
The others snickered, grinning. Jossu wanted to slap them all. Didn't they understand what was happening?
It's all a lie.
Perhaps he was going crazy. He might even deliver himself to the Beasts when it was all said and done. But what if there was some truth to the Beast words? For the first time, Jossu saw clearly just how far afield the human perspective had become. In fighting for survival, the Thirds had turned against one another. And in multiple generations, no one had any clue as to what motivated the Beasts. They might as well be traveling circles in space, chasing their own fumes.
There was only one end to such a war. The only survivors would be Beasts.
Surely Jossu was not the only person who had seen the insanity of their position. What had happened to the others who saw the truth? Dead? Turned to Beasts? What made Jossu think he was any different than they were?
The Beastmaster's volume elevated as his impassioned speech ignited the delight and enthusiasm of the KBCU spies-in-training: "Failure is not an option. Lives depend on you. You may be only one person, but you're one person standing between innocent people and Beasts. Right now that means a heck of a lot."
The back of Jossu's neck prickled--the first feeling he had felt since losing Vance.
His legs itched to run.
He might be one person--but perhaps one was all that was needed.
"Jossu," the Beastmaster said as the KBCU officers squeezed themselves out of the tiny office. "Stay a bit, will you?"
Jossu reseated himself.
The Beastmaster was silent after the door hissed shut, leaving himself and Jossu alone with one another. Then the Beastmaster said quietly, "I'm sorry that you lost Trust today. He was an excellent man and a loyal Kayso."
Trust? Jossu had forgotten all about him.
"I'll be assigning a new man to your team, but I wanted you to be the first to know--I want you to be bunkmaster."
"Thank you, sir." Jossu couldn't care less. Vance was gone and the Beastmaster did not even know it. And Jossu had no interest in telling him.
"I'll get you a bunkmaster packet first thing at reset."
Reset. The word used to be tomorrow. This was how divorced humans had become from their origins. What else had changed while they forgot what it was like to live on a planet?
"That's all, Jossu. Excellent job. Make sure to tell your brother he did well also."
"Thank you, sir."
Jossu rose to his feet and slipped through the narrow door.
He vowed that he would not return to that office until he had answers.
* * * * *
"Charlie!" Jossu swept into the communications room. "I need to talk to one of the Hadune."
Charlie twirled on the revolving seat as Jossu entered, the monitors and dials rising in a wall of technological gadgetry that Jossu found disorienting. "Jossu, you can't just waltz in here and make a demand like that. You're not authorized."
"I'm a bunkmaster now."
"Congratulations. But no."
"Come on, Charlie, just a little call. One minute. Heck, ten seconds!"
Charlie glowered at Jossu from beneath his thick black eyebrows and heavy forehead. Jossu decided to try another tack.
"How is your girlfriend?" He had saved Charlie's girlfriend a hundred Ksecs ago from a sudden Beast attack along one of the X-points.
"I know what you're doing and it won't work," Charlie grunted. "We broke up."
So much for leverage.
"Charlie, just look away for two seconds. I'm begging you."
"Look, man, even if I wanted to help you, I couldn't." Charlie flailed a pale hand toward the monitors.
"It's my job, man! What do you expect from me?"
Jossu narrowed his eyes. Why were all the monitors black? Charlie's eyes flickered nervously and he half-rose from his seat. "Jossu, wait!"
Jossu leapt forward, past Charlie's entangling arms, and punched the monitor display control. The screens winked to life.
Jossu's jaw dropped.
Every monitor bore the following words: CONNECTION LOST.
Charlie rubbed his stubbled cheeks as Jossu turned a stony expression toward him. "Hey, man, I promised the up-tops that I wouldn't say anything. They don't want panic."
"You can't contact either the Hadune or the Loystrek?"
Charlie shook his head. "We lost it right after the Unity Room meeting."
Jossu stared at the screens as realization swept down him like a cold curtain. "The Beasts took out the communications network."
Charlie swallowed. "Yeah. They did."
"For just the Kayso? Or for all the Thirds?"
Charlie shrugged. "Can't tell."
Now it all made sense. The sudden loss of drone control, the lack of Beast activity in general. The Beast attack on the return trip had just been a distraction.
With communications cut off amongst the Thirds, the Beasts would make an aggressive move soon.
Jossu leaned against the control board, his head in both hands.
It was finally happening. He was already too late.
"Don't tell anyone, okay?" Charlie hovered at Jossu's elbow. "If people panic..."
Jossu's head lifted from his hands, his eyes sparking with a sudden thought. Perhaps this was his chance. Perhaps the Beasts would focus so intently on attacking the survivors that they would fail to notice his race toward the Hadune temple.
As Jossu strode out of the communications room, he calculated rapidly. His mother and sister--should he move them deeper into the safe zone? If he moved them, their neighbors would become suspicious and spark fear. And how could he really know what was safe and what was not? The communications network chamber was one of the most secure areas on the Triangle. If the Beasts had been able to claim it, they surely had a plan in place for advancement.
It would not be long before people noticed that only local communications and systems remained. Perhaps if...
Suddenly, darkness dropped upon Jossu. The Triangle's back-up systems whined and emergency lights flared, oddly warping the shadows in the corridor. The Beast-alarm wailed from the PA system.
It was happening now.
Jossu's first thought was for his black-suit back at the KBCU headquarters.
Yes, Jossu, but what about all the people who do not have suits?
Swiftly, Jossu calculated. The Loystrek Third was closer than the Hadune Third. If Jossu ran now, he might be able to get ahead of the inevitable pandemonium, gain the Loystrek Third, and find a way to the Hadune. He knew how human panic worked. If he waited, he might lose all chance of completing his mission.
But as a KBCU officer, Jossu had a responsibility to protect the people--people like his mother and sister--with his life. What good was completing his mission if he returned to find everyone dead or turned?