Jossu wanted to sleep, but the buzz of adrenaline in his nerves kept him awake for ksec upon ksec. He knew the feeling. His first Beast encounter on the KBCU had resulted in the same strange paradox: an exhaustion so deep he wanted to fall into oblivion, but a clash of nerves that kept his pulse elevated and his muscles taut long after the danger was over.
Two more meals passed as Jossu paced his cell (however comfortable they made him, he was well aware of his status as a prisoner). Memories and flashbacks snapped at him like strokes of an electric prod. Vance. Ombura. The Beastmaster. Colgren.
He lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling, mind clouded with memories he wished to forget, but one thought screaming over the memories with a volume that matched the pound of his own blood in his ears.
Find the answers.
"The Beasts are not what you think."
"Don't trust your eyes. It's all a lie!"
"There is a cure, Jossu. There is a cure for all of us."
"It's like our true faces are hidden from you. Like your own faces are hidden from yourselves."
That last part bothered Jossu the most. What had Vance seen--or thought he had seen?
Jossu woke before he even knew he had slept. He scrambled to his feet in blind panic, remembered his safety, and returned to his bed. He slept again.
He woke once more, when a hatch opened in the chamber to reveal a protein block, a vitamin pill, and a bottle of water. Jossu was tempted to consider the spartan fare an insult, but for all he knew, the analytical and sterile-minded Loystrek ate like this every day. Perhaps later generations of Loystrek would lack tastebuds due to generational disinterest in flavor. The thought made Jossu snicker.
He slept a third time and woke when a clipped accent invaded his consciousness. "Time to wake, Mr. Bay."
Jossu lifted his head and recognized Special Advisor Rast through the intervening glass wall. So he was Mr. Bay again. Was that because of the four uniformed men who stood near the Advisor?
"We are satisfied that you are not contaminated and that you will not turn," the Advisor said. "We are here to accompany you from quarantine to Sector Five."
"Sector Five?" Jossu reviewed his mental maps of the Loystrek Third. Given Loystrek secrecy, his knowledge was incomplete, at best, but as far as he remembered, Sector Five was a combination of residential and official units. Although it bordered known Beast territory, it received little Beast activity because it had little strategic value--unless the Beasts were eager to fight through it to reach Sector Four. So far, the Beasts had shown little interest.
Of course, that might have all changed now, if the Beasts were indeed coordinating an attack. No area could be deemed safe.
Still, Loystrek Sector Five neighbored the Hadune Third. One step closer to the mysterious temple--and possible answers.
Jossu sat up, combed his hair with his fingers, rubbed his sandpaper jaw, and remained sitting, blinking blearily, while the door slid open soundlessly. When the guards did not move, Jossu realized they expected him to come to them. Sighing, he lifted himself and winced. Apparently his mad dash to safety had used muscles he forgot he possessed.
The security officers clustered around him, not quite touching him but cocooning him in their intimidating presence. Despite his sore muscles, he moved amongst them with easy, loose-jointed movements that would enable him to respond quickly, should some threat to him arise.
Special Advisor Rast, following at the rear, smiled a little to himself. The Kayso swagger. Even when outnumbered and confined, the Kayso exaggerated their independent spirits just to prove a point.
The Loystrek acknowledged Jossu's presence with cold, emotionless stares as the security party made its way toward Sector Five. Jossu ignored them.
Special Advisor Rast palmed the hand scanner when they reached the door to Sector Five and they strode over the X-shaped Bridge Four. The bridge stretched the diameter of an open cylinder. Around the inside curve of the cylinder, levels of residential units stacked in rings, level upon level, spanned only by straight and broad bridges to allow for pedestrian and equipment traffic.
"Welcome to Sector Five," Rast said peremptorily. "This will be your home from now on. It is here that we house many of the refugees from the other Thirds."
"As if you have many refugees," Jossu grumbled.
Rast gestured silently toward a block of nearby units, numbered as levels 4-350 through 4-400. Alarm twitched across Jossu's expression. Ragged brightly colored turbans and robes had been repurposed into banners and wall-hangings and the doors remained uncharacteristically open, as though inviting passersby inside.
Hadune. What were Hadune doing here?
Jossu marked their location as the officers escorted him past the Hadune to the units along another curving section of the level.
"Unit 4-444," one officer said.
"Wow," Jossu smirked. "Was that number assigned so you'd remember my unit more easily--because I'm just that special--or because someone in the Residential Unit Department was feeling particularly OCD that day?"
"Neither," said Special Advisor Rast coolly. "It was so assigned because four, in Loystrek culture, is synonymous with childhood. At age five, a boy or girl begins formal training and education, and is no longer known as a child, but an apprentice."
Jossu glanced sharply at the Advisor but detected no hint of laughter in the man's hard gray eyes. Still, he felt a grudging respect for Rast emerge from his wounded pride. A Loystrek with a sense of humor? Possibly.
The officers waited outside as Jossu inspected his new unit. This was not because of particular respect for Jossu's privacy, but because these single-person units were little more than a bunk projecting from the wall, with light fixtures upon its underside to illuminate a desk and cabinet underneath. The cabinet was empty save for a folded navy blue uniform, a pair of socks, and a red hat.
When Jossu squeezed past the bunk and desk, silently congratulating himself for his fit figure, he discovered a bathroom with a shower capsule just barely wide enough to permit his shoulders and a toilet with a bowl-sized sink directly over it.
"What about a food bay?" he asked, gesturing toward the blank wall opposite the bunk and desk where such things were usually installed.
"Common room," Rast replied, pointing upward. "Mealtimes at 20, 50, and 80 ksecs. Try to be punctual."
Jossu grunted in answer.
Rast tapped the interior side of the unit's door, which included a telescreen. "You will receive your schedule at 18 ksecs here every cycle. Prompt arrivals to all appointments are mandatory."
"I'm not Loystrek," Jossu said in hard tones.
Rast held Jossu's gaze for a moment, then said, "Everyone contributes here, citizens or guests. There is safety in order."
Jossu had expected this and even saw the wisdom in it, but long habit and animosity between Loystrek and Kayso required at least a token show of defiance.
"There is some measure of freedom, of course," Rast continued. "Every day includes a block of leisure time, to use for whatever permitted activity best suits you."
"Under the watchful eyes of my companions here?" Jossu gestured to the four security officers.
"Do not flatter yourself, Mr. Bay. We reserve physical surveillance for those who warrant it."
This tweaked Jossu a little. "I'm a KBCU bunkmaster. You're not afraid that I am going to escape your utopia?"
Rast's eyes glinted and he shrugged in an almost Kayso manner. "Where would you run?"
Then he turned and left.
Jossu slipped into his unit and sat at the desk for a long time without seeing its false wood surface and repetitious grain.
Was Rast giving him permission? If so, was it a trap or was it Rast's way of saying that no one cared what happened to Jossu, that he could complete his mission if he wanted to be fool enough to try?
After a time, Jossu grunted with frustration, rose from his seat, and went to seek out the Hadune.
They glanced up at him as he approached, their wide faces filled with expectation but not surprise. A woman with hair dyed bright magenta nodded to him, scooping up a half-naked child in her arms.
"A Kayso. We have not seen many of your Third here."
"Few of them escaped then?" Jossu asked. He had expected this, but it did not make the bitter clench in his stomach any less painful.
"It seems so," the woman said, patting the child's back when he hiccupped. "You have just come out of quarantine, by the looks of you."
"Why are many Hadune here?" Jossu gestured toward the many levels of units.
The woman shifted the child to her other hip. "The Beasts cut our communications. We did not wait for them to attack. We came at once."
"And abandoned the arboretum?" The clench in his stomach expanded like spreading acid.
"We had no choice," the woman replied evenly, as though they only spoke of domestic life.
They were all going to starve slowly. Jossu swallowed hard. That last strawberry seemed like part of another life.
"They attacked as we were on our way," the woman continued. "But many were able to escape to the Loystrek Third even so. It has been very"--She hesitated, considered her words, and at last said--"organized here. We appreciate their hospitality."
Organized. That was an understatement.
"Did Ombura make it? The Beastmother?" The title still made him want to laugh.
"We do not think so. She is not here."
Jossu turned abruptly and walked away, remembering from his basic education that the free-flowing Hadune had no concepts of greeting and farewell, except when dealing with the other Thirds. They simply stopped talking or removed themselves when they wished to conclude a conversation or visit.
The custom suited him right now. He need to think.
After a few minutes alone, he returned to the woman. "Where is your temple located?"
"Located? Right in the center of the arboretum, of course."
"And how would you reach the arboretum?"
"All passages lead to the arboretum."
If she thought the question strange, she did not show it. Perhaps Hadune always asked each other random questions.
Jossu cursed under his breath as he retreated a second time. The Beasts would be idiots to leave the arboretum--the only source of food--unguarded. His only hope was that, while the Beasts attempted to subdue or turn the remaining Kayso survivors, their resources would remain focused toward that one task and not toward his suicidal attempt to penetrate Beast territory at the behest of a barefooted madwoman.
The more time he wasted in the Loystrek Third, the more time the Beasts had to consolidate their hold in the Hadune and Kayso Thirds.
He dared not miss this chance.
Five ksecs later, he returned from a scouting trip to Unit 4-444 with a problem.
To escape the Loystrek Third, he had two options. X-Point 4 was well guarded, but brought him much closer to the Hadune Third's main corridor toward the arboretum. X-Point 6 had only the barest security, because the Beast territory there was not as greatly trafficked and the distance to the arboretum was greater. Take the risk of being caught by the Loystrek and save time? Avoid the risk of the Loystrek and add time?
He had taken a risk on a Loystrek once in the last few cycles. Was it worth another one?
Should Jossu avoid the risk of getting caught by the Loystrek and add time to his mission? Or should Jossu accept the risk and possibly shave time off his mission?
Also, in case you missed it this week, you could win a free copy of my fantasy novella WINGS BENEATH WATER. Click here for details.