Soon after Jossu's reconnaissance along the X-points, the tone sounded throughout the residential units to announce the mealtime. The Hadune emerged from their units, joining the methodical flow of Loystrek inhabitants. It was Jossu's first close observation of the Loystrek civilians and, somehow, they were not what he expected. Given his encounters with Loystrek officers, he had believed that the Loystrek were quiet, reserved, and emotionless, even in company with one another. Instead, he noted a young man flirting with a young woman, who blushed and laughed at the man’s words. Two Loystrek men strode together, conversing with the relaxed posture that reminded Jossu of his own people.
The children left their play with an eagerness that Jossu did not comprehend until he realized that the very rigid mealtimes and rationed food supply would inevitably train even the youngest consumer to prize food above play. The Kayso, while rationing their food carefully, never had such stringent rules with their children.
It struck Jossu that the Kayso must appear very like the Hadune in that respect.
The Hadune, for their part, mingled freely with the Loystrek, as though assuming their welcome, but Jossu noticed that the Loystrek quietly avoided the Hadune as much as possible.
He smiled a little. Some things would never change.
The Common Room was located at the uppermost level of the cylinder, a great circle resting upon the residential units like the top of a can. The servers, who stood behind a thick wall of glass, dispensed the rations in packages labelled with the receivers’ residential unit numbers.
Jossu took his place toward the back of the line amongst the residents of Level 4 who awaited their meal at Bay 4. He expected a long wait, but the Loystrek workers served with cold efficiency. He worried that perhaps, with his unit having just been assigned to him, there would be no meal marked as his, but his fears were unfounded. The Loystrek were, indeed, a very organized and up-to-date people. The worker handed him his package, marked 4-444.
Was it his imagination, or did the Loystrek server crack the ghost of a smirk as the package exchanged hands?
You will not be laughing at me long, Rast.
Jossu took his meal to his assigned seat and examined the contents of his foil package: a small nutrient and fiber loaf, an eight-ounce protein drink, and a carbohydrate square. This was all?
"But I want more!" A little Hadune boy whimpered. His other shushed him quickly, glancing at the Loystrek who cast her child sour expressions.
"Shh! The Loystrek are being very generous."
"But we had more food last meal."
"Yes, but the Loystrek are giving us the best they have now. Isn't that right?" She appealed to a man who sat nearby. The Loystrek man gazed at the pouting boy and said gravely, "Yes, we are giving the best we have and we all suffer alike."
Jossu realized, with sudden clarity, that there was a softness around the man's dark eyes, as though he saw past the boy's selfishness to the hardships that the child would soon endure.
The boy kicked his dangling feet under the table. "But we had lots more food back home."
No one replied. How could they tell a child, who was used to all the privileges of Hadune life, that the Beasts now overran his Third, eating his food, living in his space?
Jossu ate. Perhaps there was an advantage to the lesser rations; it was difficult to run on a full stomach.
Plus, if the Hadune had spoken the truth and the temple lay at the center of the arboretum, he had a chance to find food on his way.
Jossu returned to his unit, palmed the door, then let it close without going inside. If the Loystrek wished to look for him--as the inevitably would when he did not show up for cleaning duty in three ksecs*, they would see that he had triggered his door and would assume that he was inside his unit.
Jossu lifted his chin and strode with calm authority toward the further X-point. The way might be longer, but the lesser activity amongst the Loystrek and the Beasts was worth it to him. There would be enough risks to the mission without choosing them.
If anyone observed his departure, his purposeful demeanor gave the indication that he was on assignment.
*Three ksecs is about 50 minutes
* * * * *
Special Advisor Rast watched Jossu through the micro-camera imbedded in the electronic fly. Ah, so he would slip through from X-point 4-8. Good. The boy continued to show good judgment. And it just so happened that Rast could be of some use to him.
Watching and waiting for the right moment, Rast spoke aloud. "Computer, call X-point four dash eight."
After a few moments, a voice replied. "X-point four dash eight. Starman Judnir speaking."
"This is Special Advisor Alonyic Rast. I have here a report from the last cycle that I would like some clarification on. It seems possible that the shield may be compromised..."
* * * * *
Unbelievable. God must be looking out for Jossu today, for the two watchers posted in the tower along the X-point seemed so absorbed in the information on their tablet controller that he might as well be invisible to them. The shield was currently inactive, as he expected; no periodic shimmer in the air to indicate its activity. The shields consumed power heavily and defenders only activated them when Beast activity occurred nearby.
Jossu hesitated for a moment, concealing himself just behind a metal support column, just to be certain of his opportunity. Then, uncoiling like a released spring, he launched himself toward the X-point.
In the space of two desperate heartbeats, he leapt over the low physical barrier and his feet landed in Beast territory.
No suit. Unprotected hands and face. Potential Beast particles floating in the air he breathed.
Huh. He was not panicking.
Jossu realized, with detached interest, that his safety was utterly irrelevant to him. The mission was the only thing he cared for.
He must reach the temple. He must know what Colgren knew and Vance knew and the crazy Hadune Beastmother's sister knew. He must know what the Beasts really were.
He halted at a dim intersection, the red glare of the emergency lights bathing him in Beast-light.
The Hadune woman had said that all corridors led to the arboretum. Jossu imagined the Third's layout similar to that of a great wheel, in which all major corridors radiated outward from the center.
It did not matter which way he took, then. Jossu chose the pathway that seemed most right to his instincts and continued at an easy run, a pace that both responded to the urgency of his mission and reserved his energy. The interminable walls slipped past him, the flicker-flicker-flicker of the lights passing in his peripheral vision creating a disorienting strobe effect.
He was blind out here--no drones, no thermal imaging. He could run straight into a Beast and not know it until it was too late.
* * * * *
Rast glanced at his wrist-link, the blinking point on the screen moving through a tangle of corridors.
He smiled a little to himself.
Lost already. Classic Kayso. All heart and no brains.
The Hadune woman had said that all roads led to the arboretum. That was true--if you thought like a Hadune.
When the Thirds had separated the Triangle into equal but distinct parts, each Third had modified their space to best fit their needs and their culture. The Loystrek had designed their Third as mathematically as possible, to allow for maximum use of space and greatest ease of movement amongst sections. That had turned out to be a disadvantage when the Beasts developed, so they had modified the Third a second time, to allow for greater security and more obstacles to any outsiders.
The Kayso had designed their third around their sports and games, to better facilitate their active lifestyle. It was Rast's understanding that the sports areas had since been converted to BCU training chambers and that the KBCU was, essentially, the ruling authority of the Kayso Third.
The Hadune--they were the special ones. When they had lived planet-side, they valued the closeness of nature and lived as close to the earth as they could. Gardening, the arts, a peaceable lifestyle, a tendency toward mysticism and abstraction--that was the Hadune way. Thus, their Third was not simply living and working space. It was an expression of their desire for planet life. They sacrificed living space and the best security in order to replicate planet-side life. The way was plain if one knew how travel on a planetscape worked. But Jossu only knew ship life and, apparently, had never spent much time studying the old maps.
Rast adjusted the slim pack on his shoulders, combed his impeccable goatee with his fingers, and arrived at the X-point just minutes after Jossu had slipped through. The security officers saluted as he arrived. He scanned his wrist-link through the scanner to verify his identity. It was a risk. Now there was proof he was here. If he ever returned, the Loystraka Council would order his execution.
He accepted the risk with calm disinterest.
"You are the same Rast we just spoke to?" The female officer glanced quizzically at him.
An intelligent Starman. Too bad he would be unable to recommend her.
"Yes," Rast replied. "I am the same Rast. I apologize for my distraction at the critical moment. It was imperative for the security of my mission."
He could see the wheels of thought turning rapidly in their expressions. The woman arrived at the answer more quickly than her companion.
"But you will follow the prisoner into Beast territory, sir?"
"It is the only way."
"Persuasion seems a less risky tactic, if you will forgive my boldness."
Rast lifted one side of his mouth in a sardonic side-smile. "Have you ever tried to persuade a Kayso? Their ignorance is only exceeded by their stubbornness."
The officers nodded and stepped aside to allow Special Advisor Rast to pass toward the X-point. Rast was just about to throw a leg over the barrier when the woman called after him. "Sir, just tell me this. Whatever it is that the Kayso seeks: Is it worth the risk?"
Rast turned, met her gaze squarely, and said with absolute sincerity, "Yes. It is worth every risk."
Then he stepped into Beast territory, adjusted his pack, and set his face toward the unknown dangers of the conquered Hadune Third.
I would risk this and so much more for you, Gadezya.
* * * * *
Jossu could not ignore it now. His heroic resolve was melting moment by moment into a pit of acid in his stomach. He finally admitted to himself.
He was lost.
The Hadune Third made absolutely no sense. Forget the wheel with spokes. This place was a maze of structures that did not even make sense. The place was a veritable museum of oddities that made no sense.
Take, for example, this support column. Over its steel core, it was covered in a flaky brownish-gray plaster coating. About eight feet from the floor, twisted steel arms had been welded at odd angles, vaguely lifting toward the ceiling and covered in the same plaster. But what were those paper-thin, spade-shaped constructions stuck upon the arms?
The next wonder was a series of grayish, irregular blobs of varying sizes, made of a material that seemed to have been compacted from sand until it retained its shape. Thick carpets of velvety, springy green synthetic material covered them partially. They served no purpose that Jossu could determine and hampered his progress greatly, forcing him to wind his way between them.
There must be a leak somewhere. Jossu could hear running water and when he looked for the source, he discovered a cascade of water down an angular vertical face of more compact-sand material, half-obscured by synthetic fabrics constructed in strange shapes simultaneously ragged and random, yet with an undefinable structure.
The Hadune were crazier than he thought.
Too late to go back now.
Suddenly the air shuddered with a voice. "Help! Help me! Someone, please!"
A child? A woman? It was hard to tell.
Jossu's body flared with panic. His instincts shredded into two simultaneous impulses. If the screamer was the victim of the Beasts, it might already be too late. But what if it was a survivor who was hurt by some fall, attempting to reach the Loystrek Third?
Was the mission worth risking for one person?
Was his humanity worth risking for the mission?
Should Jossu help the person, at the risk of meeting the Beasts? Should he continue on and hope that his mission will provide an answer to prevent such things in the future?
Also, who do you think Gadezya is? What makes this person special to Rast?