The first rule of the Kayso Beast Containment Unit was simple: Never touch or kill a Beast.
If you touched or killed a Beast, you became one.
You couldn't always see them in the shadowy corridors. The dim scarlet glow of the ship's emergency lights seemed to cast a blood-light over the blank walls and worn yellow carpet. The Beasts left no blood, but their presence always seemed to suggest it.
Oh God, oh God, don't let them get me.
Jossu flinched--Eyes! No, it was only the reflection of light from the buttons of a security panel near the door of the evacuation pods. The Beasts always left the pods unguarded, as though it did not matter to them if someone ejected into deep space. But it mattered to Jossu. The Triangle was the only livable space for light-years. There was nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide from the Beasts.
Except the Loystrek Third, the only part of the Triangle not overrun by Beasts.
If the Loystrek would even let him in.
Jossu strained to hear. The pressure in his head, the roaring of his heart, the burning breaths ripped from his lungs drowned out all other sounds. What if the Beasts were just around the next bend? What if they gathered between him and the door to the Loystrek side? They were intelligent, not like mere slavering monsters of his childish imagination who merely wanted to rip human flesh. They planned, coordinated, and pursued with the intelligence of experienced human hunters.
Jossu slammed his palms into a wall and thrust against it, using the momentum to catapult him down a new hallway. Someone had fallen across the path, a crumpled dishrag of humanity, discarded in the scramble for survival. Jossu leapt, cleared the obstruction, and his feet found a staccato rhythm that seemed past all human endurance.
There it was! The door! He checked his speed, ready to veer away at the slightest indication of Beast presence, but saw nothing.
Then his body slapped against the door and lights pinged in his vision. Panic summoned his strength again and he launched himself against the barrier to freedom.
"Please! Please! Let me in. Don't leave me out here for the Beasts. I'll do whatever you want. Please!"
He was aware that he was babbling, that he had completely lost control. But dignity knew no survivors. If the Loystrek showed no mercy, he was lost.
"If we let him in, who knows what we let in with him."
"He is not a Beast, Commander. The change would have happened already if he had been touched."
"We still do not know how it spread in the first place. And our own Containment Unit is overburdened."
"We can keep him quarantined."
"What good would that do, Rast?"
"He's a member of the KBCU. He would have a better perspective than most. And we still don't know what happened in the Kayso Third. We have received no response from their communications station."
"Lift the blockade for one young man?"
"Let me take responsibility for him, sir. He may even be the last Kayso. We need to know what he knows."
"It could be a trick. The Kayso are wily. They've been trying for years to get into our facility, spy out our resources."
"Like I said, he would be my responsibility. We still have the advantage over one panicked young man, I think."
"You are an optimist, Rast."
After a long pause, the Commander sighed. "Give the order to bring him in. Containment and full sanitation for three days. Plus a thorough debriefing. If he steps out of line, it's you who will pay for it."
"I understand, Commander."
Jossu had fallen silent, rationality leaking through his panic. No need to broadcast his location to the Beasts. He crouched at the foot of the great smooth metal door, torn between the instincts to stay and to run, unsure whether to trust in hope or to expect the Loystrek to show the same stiff neutrality that was their trademark response to everything.
Jossu glanced down at his jacket, recognized the insignia of a three-colored triangle and the acronym KBCU. What a joke. He had made his living hunting the Beasts, trapping them in cages and now--now they were hunting him and he was trapped against an almost impossible hope.
Where were the Beasts?
Jossu lost his temper and sprang to his feet, his muscles suddenly taut and his eyes wild.
"Come on!" He shouted down the three corridors that branched in an intersection at the door. "Where are you, you freaks? Why do you keep playing games with me? Well, here I am, right where you want me! Come and get me!"
And that is when the door behind him opened. Jossu turned, stared at the impossible mercy it represented, and, numb with astonishment, simply stepped across the seam where the carpet transitioned from yellow to blue. The door slid shut behind him as soundlessly as it had opened.
He now stood in the Holding Bay of the Loystrek Third, in a dim rectangular unit surrounded by walls that pulsed with dim pale blue light.
"Greetings, Kayso," said a male voice, laced with the guttural Loystrek accent. "I am Special Advisor Rast. What is your name?"
"Jossu Bay," Jossu replied. "I'm from the Kayso Beast Containment Unit."
"We noticed. Have you anything to declare?"
"Uh..." Jossu struggled to inventory everything he had on him, then growled in exasperation, "Look, I'll strip naked if you want me to, but right now..." He slumped to the floor, every muscle quivering and burning with sudden relief. "I just need water."
And rest. And food. Neither of which he had had in the last 250 Ksecs.*
But of course they wouldn't give him water. That would be his reward for cooperating. Man, how it burned to look to the Loystrek for help.
To his surprise, the voice said quietly, "Please remain seated and do not be alarmed. We are moving your unit to a quarantined facility."
The floor and walls hummed around Jossu and he braced himself against the movement. He blessed Special Advisor Rast for expediting the usually lengthy customs process. Maybe there were some decent Loystrek.
Special Advisor Rast was a slightly-built man, with an impressive black goatee and mustache and a thick crown of curly hair. He wore the signature dark blue uniform of the Loystrek, another evidence of their rigid sense of propriety and order. His keen gray eyes absorbed Jossu's appearance through the interposing glass wall.
"I see that you have refreshed yourself, Mr. Bay."
"I feel better, thanks." Jossu still wanted to sleep, but apparently that was a step too far removed from the proper protocol. Questions first, sleep later.
"Do you find your room comfortable, Mr. Bay?"
"Honestly," Jossu seated himself backward on the only chair. "Most of my life, I've been stuffed in a bunkroom half this size with three other guys and a bathroom I can barely turn around in. So I think this place will do."
"I am glad it is to your satisfaction. May I ask you some questions?"
"Not like I can refuse."
"This is not an interrogation, Mr. Bay."
"Jossu will do."
"Jossu then. You are not a prisoner. You are a guest."
"No offense, but I've had a lot of dealings with the Loystrek. We're not exactly friends."
"And I have had a number of dealings with Kayso, enough to know that we can work comfortably together without either one of us losing our dignity."
Jossu cast Special Advisor Rast a sharp glance. "What are you, the last Loystrek diplomat?"
"Will you work with me, Mr. Bay?"
Jossu considered, then shrugged. "Sure."
It was unnerving how likably Mr. Rast presented himself. Was it a trick or was he really one of the few decent Loystrek?
"Mr. Bay," said Mr. Rast. "I would like to know: What happened?"
Jossu hesitated. How much should he trust Mr. Rast? He could tell him what happened, sure. Most had died horrible deaths or turned into Beasts. There might be up to a hundred survivors, but they were hidden in the Kayso Third and likely wouldn't last more than a few weeks, at most. Some of Jossu's family might be among them, but, if so, time was running out for them.
But the rest of the information? If Mr. Rast was a trustworthy man, he could help Jossu reach the Hadune Third, help him on what was arguably a wild goose chase pursued out of pure desperation. Without help, Jossu doubted he could complete his mission in time to save lives.
Yet if Mr. Rast wasn't a trustworthy man, he might infringe on Jossu's ability to contact the Hadune, might keep him under suspicion. A slim chance on his own was better than no chance with the Loystrek.
*250 Ksecs is almost 3 days. Click here for more info about metric time.
Bonus: In addition to voting on whether Jossu should or should not enlist Rast's aid in his mission, supply me with ideas for Jossu's appearance, personality, or past experiences. (Limit: One idea per commenter, so it's all equal.)