They volunteered to be the first colonists on a new planet. As generations grew up on the Triangle during the long journey to their destination, something grew with them: a curse that turned the humans into Beasts.
For Jossu, the plague is all he has ever known. As a member of the Kayso Beast Containment Corps, it is Jossu's job to capture the Beasts before they destroy the ship. It is a task requiring great care and planning, because he must never kill a Beast.
If he kills a Beast, he becomes one.
EPISODE 1 - THE LOYSTREK THIRD
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.
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episode 2 - The Voice of the Beast
Jossu observed Special Advisor Rast from beneath eyelids heavy with fatigue and shadowed with doubt. Rast waited with a feline patience, sliding his eyes sideways at intervals, just often enough to release Jossu from the impression of staring. Rast refused to challenge and pressure him, then.
Interesting. A Loystrek with actual people skills, without the almost robotic calculation common to their people.
It could be a trick, but, with sudden decision, Jossu claimed the risk. His people did not deserve to die because of his weakness or incompetence; he could not do this alone. And if the Loystrek double-crossed him, well, Jossu could die knowing that he had done all possible and could breath a dying curse upon the treacherous Loystrek. A clear conscience, the assurance that he had given of his best loyalty--that might be all that was left to him. But it was something. It was something.
His mission was a fool's hope anyway.
Drawing a deep breath, Jossu marshalled his memories and began to speak of the events that had brought him to the Loystrek Third.
* * * * *
"Rise and shine, buddy!"
The voice was entirely too cheerful for this time of the cycle. "Go away, Vance. I'm sleeping."
"Wow! You're surprisingly lucid when you sleep-talk. Come on, buddy." Vance poked Jossu's shoulder with a stubby finger.
Jossu grasped his pillow by a corner and whipped it into Vance's jaw. Vance staggered backward, arms spread-eagled reflexively, and he fell backward into the opposite bunk, the back of his head cracking on the upper bunk before he folded into the bottom bed onto the startled occupant.
"What in deep space...?" the other man snapped.
"Hey, hey, hey!" the Beastmaster shouted and the lights flared to full brightness. "What's going on here?"
The men in the bunkroom scrambled to attention, Jossu rolling expertly out of the cocoon-like covering of his bunk; blankets and sheets were an inconvenience of the far distant past.
"Vance, Jossu, Breet, someone want to explain what the commotion is about? And where is Trust?"
"He's covering an extra shift, sir," Vance answered.
"So it's your day off and you're in here monkeying around while your bunkmaster is gone?" The Beastmaster massaged his eyes with his thumbs, and his sigh was a growl. "Shoot, boys, do you want me to assign you to cage-cleaning duty?"
"No, sir," Vance replied automatically.
"Well, too bad," the Beastmaster said. "I'm in a nasty mood this morning. Cage duty."
He turned even before the young men had acknowledged his command with a simultaneous half-hearted, "Yes, sir."
"Who is it?"
The Beastmaster held Jossu's dark eyes, fatigue etching downward strokes in his jaw, half-melting his eyes at the corners. "Colgren."
The name punched them in the gut.
The Beastmaster swept his gaze over the assembled young men and murmured, "Cage duty. Then... try to rest. It's brutal out there. You'll need every drop of strength you've got."
When the Beastmaster had ducked through the small entry into the dimly-lit corridor beyond, a steel silence fell between the bunkmates.
Breet snapped the waistband of his pants and the fibers shrank to hug his waist snugly but comfortably. Then he swore with vehemence. "Colgren! He was a good guy." He sat down heavily on his bunk and rubbed his face with both hands. "This job sucks, man. It sucks."
"Someone has to do it," Jossu replied, woodenly jerking his shirt over his torso.
"Yeah, you can afford optimism," Breet grumbled. "You can run faster than anyone else in the unit. The rest of us..."
"Hey," Vance gripped Breet's shoulder. "We're a team. Jossu ain't leaving anyone behind."
"You say that because he's your brother."
"Don't touch me, man." Breet jerked away from Vance and, shrugging his jacket on, disappeared through the hatch. Vance sighed and turned to Jossu, who straightened from clasping his boots and appraised his younger brother. Vance was the taller of the two, with a broader build, lighter hair and a readier smile, but the same cliff-like brows over deeply-set eyes.
"What was so all-jetted important to wake me up early for on my day off?" Jossu asked, swinging himself through the narrow opening and landing with a clang on the metal-grid flooring of the KBCU quarters.
"Comet on starboard side. Prettiest thing I've ever seen."
A comet. Wow. That was worth getting up early for. Maybe he could forgive Vance for being such a pesky younger brother. But he had a reputation to maintain; he shouldn't sound too eager.
"A comet, huh? How long will it be visible?"
"Maybe fifty Ksecs."
"We'll catch it after cage-duty then."
Jossu had spent his lifetime wrapped in the void of pin-pricked blackness, with the Triangle as his only home, an arrowhead spearing through the void on its way to New Terra. Evidence of the outside world, of a universe beyond the strip-lit corridors, the close quarters, the careful conservation and repurposing of all resources--it was hope of the time when the travelers could at last step upon the firm ground of the promised paradise. Jossu's grandparents had been amongst the Kayso volunteers, committing the following generations to the journey. There were rumors that the journey was consuming much more lifetime than expected, but that was a matter for the Loystrek and their endless calculations.
"I wouldn't count on seeing that comet," Breet suddenly appeared from a side corridor and joined them. "Beastmaster just took me aside. Seems we have new orders. We're part of a cross-Third BCU meeting today at 15 Ksecs in the Unity Room."
"Son of a Beast!" Jossu growled. Colgren gone, a comet missed, and a pathetic attempt at cross-race relations under the auspices of fighting the Beast epidemic. Great. "Why us?"
Vance shrugged. "Because we're the only ones crazy enough to try to reach the Unity Room?"
"It's a Loystrek test," Jossu snapped, his gait accelerating. "They want to see if we're worthy to work with."
"Or maybe they are desperate for our help," Vance suggested with his signature optimism.
Breet snorted. "If they are, they'll make it sound like they're doing us a favor."
Jossu couldn't help it. His assenting grunt became a chortle and at last he gave himself up to mirth. Vance joined him and Breet went so far as to lift a corner of his mouth. It was a matter of Kayso pride to top one another in race-themed jibes; Breet currently held the primiere position in the unit for his cynical evaluations of Loystrek arrogance.
The three races lived peaceably because survival required it. The originators of the Triangle had optimistically considered that the three races could live together, lending their unique strengths and skills to one another in harmonious symbiosis, but that was a short-lived experiment. The cold and perceptive Loystrek, the passionate and quick-witted Kayso, and the mystic and empathetic Hadune were not suited to life with one another. Before long, their difference became a matter of dangerous strain, and the leaders had made a compromise.
The Loystrek took control of the technical Third, guiding the craft, monitoring the delicate balance of the life support systems and the repurposing of resources, repairing errors in the computers and the precision equipment.
The Kayso took control of the equipment Third, providing necessary repairs to the craft, performing the heavy manual labor necessary to survival, creating and building the heavy equipment and tools that kept the Triangle maintained.
The Hadune took control of the oxygen Third, caring for the extensive arboretum that provided oxygen, organic material, and food for the rest of the Triangle.
By the time the first generation had expired and been committed to space, the Thirds and their purposes had become synonymous with the controlling races: the Loystrek Third, the Kayso Third, the Hadune Third.
Then the Beasts had begun, and everything had changed.
Jossu, Vance, and Breet suited up in the antechamber until not so much as an eyelash remained uncovered, ran tests on one another's black suits to affirm a complete seal, and descended into the murky light beneath the living quarters of the surviving humans.
"By the way," Breet said in a guttural tone. "Sorry I snapped at you, Vance. I guess hearing about Colgren rattled me."
"Do they know how it happened?" Jossu asked. "Colgren was careful."
Breet shrugged. "All it takes is one square inch of skin and they've got you. Or you poke a Beast a little too hard with the prod and hit an artery. Can't touch 'em. Can't kill 'em. It's only a matter of time before you make a mistake."
Vance sighed. "Ah, Breet! The sunshine and joy of our team. I can always count on you to lighten the mood."
"Chill, Vance," Jossu cautioned. Breet could only be pushed so far before his rather renowned temper flared.
A brown grunt echoed in the close space and something shuffled to the left, jerking against magnetic chains. A raw voice shrieked suddenly at them, half-snarl like a rabid dog, half-scream like a screech owl. Two eyes glittered in the dimness--a luminescent crimson without white, but a pupil like a blot of ink dripped into the center of an orb of fire, with radial spires of black. The carrion stench of the creature pervaded the facility, even through the filtration system of Jossu’s helmet.
Jossu paused, swallowed hard, and continued on his way, averting his eyes. He was glad that CORE standards (Conservation Of Resources and Energy) recommended minimal lighting in the facility, no energy wasted on the Beasts. It would be too much to see what Colgren had become.
Especially when he was about to eject him--it--into space.
The Beast in the shadows shrieked, growled, slavered.
That is when Jossu heard it, a voice distorted, rasping, and distinctly Colgren's. A chill clambered up Jossu's back.
The KBCU old-timers said one sometimes heard it, a seeming last shred of remaining humanity from a human just turned Beast. But, in reality, it was the first poison of the Beasts. The survivors had learned early on that those who listened to the voice of a new Beast eventually went mad, even seeking out the Beasts and delivering themselves to them, like offerings.
But the voice of the Beast, the power of his own name on the lips of a doomed colleague, tugged Jossu.
He wanted to listen. He did not dare risk his life to do so.
What would a Beast have to say?
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Episode 3 - The Unity Room
Pain threaded through Colgren's voice, some deep agony of soul that chilled Jossu's palms inside his gloves, tightened his throat. Did the Beasts remember their humanity and grieve for what they had been? Or were those last glimmers of speech like the final twitches of a being already dead to consciousness?
He should not listen, but the voice drew him, magnetic in its despair. "Jossu!"
Jossu glanced at his companion. Vance and Breet were already bent over the console, initiating the warm-up sequence and ensuring that all was in working order for the ejection command. Jossu edged toward the cage, a transparent cube in which the Beast seemed merely a crimson-eyed shadow.
"Jossu, listen to me," the voice bent toward him in the urgency of fleeing time. "The Beasts are not what you think. Don't trust your eyes. It's all a lie!"
The Beast thrust against the wall, arms uplifted and, in the dimness, Jossu could almost envision Colgren standing pressed against the cage wall, gazing at Jossu in desperate hope of understanding.
"There is a cure, Jossu. There is a cure for all of us."
No, no, no, no! Jossu jerked back. This was how people went mad, this was how they threw themselves at the Beasts who had been their parents, their children, their spouses, their siblings. The Loystrek had sought a cure for generations, but had found nothing to give hope of reversing the epidemic. It was the promise of madness, to believe a cure possible, to spend time and resources desperately asking the same endless questions others had asked before.
And what would Jossu do if he believed the beast that once was Colgren? Keep the Beast in its cage and feed it indefinitely while he sought a cure? Cast it into the vacuum of space and always wonder if he had condemned an innocent man to die, when he might have been saved?
Jossu could listen no more.
"Are we ready?" he shouted at Vance and Breet, nerves buzzing with sudden impatience.
Breet initiated the airlock and the Beast cried out. The illusion of Colgren's voice was gone now, and all that remained was the gravelly snarl of a wild creature. The cage receded into the wall, pulling the Beast into the ejection chamber. The clamor of the Beast suddenly ceased and an eerie silence settled like darkness upon the watching men.
The vacuums hummed, sucking every precious bit of oxygen from the chamber. Breet hesitated, his finger hovering over the final button. Jossu glanced at him, evaluating.
Then Breet shook his head and turned away. Jossu and Vance watched his sag-shouldered retreat from the control panel.
Then Jossu leaned over and slapped his palm across the button.
When the empty cage returned from the ejection chamber, the three men sanitized the cage and the entire facility from top to bottom with the specialized spray they called Beast-Away. The spray was meant to dissolve any material of organic origin found in the facility, from sweat to hair. Contact with such things could not be risked.
When they ascended grimly from the facility, Vance checked the time on his wrist-com and groaned. "By the time we de-con and de-suit, there'll be no time to eat."
Breet sighed. "We'd better file the report and head to the X, Hall 7."
"X" was the term for the point between the safe zone and the Beast zone. Hall 7's point of X had moved seven times since Jossu could remember, three times in an expansion of the safe zone and four times in a retreat from a Beast influx. The bunkmates checked each other's suits again, ran another seal test, and stopped by the armory to sign out their prods, pulsers, and blasters.
The X was cloaked in darkness, requiring the use of the dark-vision setting on their visors, since there was no point in lighting the Beast-held portions of the Third. The others waited for them, tense and half-crouched, visible only in hues of flat green and identifiable only by the numbers on their black suits.
Jossu inventoried the company swiftly: the Beastmaster; their fourth bunkmate, Trust; and two other four-person teams.
"I know you think this is a lot of people," the Beastmaster said as they crouched by him. "But most of your aren't even getting into the Unity Room."
Jossu nodded. A diversion.
"The ones coming with me to the Unity Room are Trust, Vinea, Robe, and Jossu."
"Yes, you, Jossu."
"But I'm not a bunkmaster."
"But your speed has apparently impressed the Hadune Mother. She wants you present."
Well, how about that. Jossu assimilated this unexpected information while the Beastmast continued: "Now, ladies and gentlemen, listen closely. Our main concern is not getting out; our main concern is getting back."
The teams listened as the Beastmaster outlined the plan: the drone cameras that the diversionary teams would employ while the others slipped into the Unity Room, the points that must be held in order to provide cover during the return, the tactics to divert the Beasts from the real purpose. Then the Beastmaster gave the order and they moved out, fanning into the Beast territory.
Growing up, Jossu had played Beast Attack, a game similar to the old laser tag games of his great-great-grandparents' day. But the real thing, the mad scramble through dark hallways with weapons designed to stun and stop but never to kill, the hyper-alertness, the fear of every new wrinkle in his suit (Was it a tear in the material? Could he be contaminated?)--that was very different than those childish games.
Today's designated Drone Doctors guided the company, relying on the electronic eyes of the fist-sized drones to spy around corners and survey long hallways with little coverage. Unlike those childhood games, the goal was not to find a Beast and incapacitate it, but to avoid the Beasts as much as possible. Therefore, the route to their destination looped, doubled-back on itself, skirted open areas, clambered up stairs and downstairs, and at last emptied them at the only place on the Triangle where the Thirds met: the Unity Room.
"Good luck," the diversion teams whispered as the Beastmaster keyed in his access code and beckoned the guest team inside.
"You too!" Jossu saluted the others, his brother among them. "Be careful out there."
The diversion teams would remain outside the safety of the Unity Room, monitoring the corridors and employing whatever tactics necessary to ensure that the guest team could retreat back to the Kayso Third safe-point at a moment's notice.
Once inside the antechamber of the Unity Room, the Kayso guest team decontaminated their suits, hung them up in the sterile chamber, and proceeded to the Unity Room itself.
The Unity Room was a circular chamber glittering with the lights of many consoles and screens. At one time, it had been the sole command station of the Triangle, rising from the center of the arrow-head shaped craft as a large domed structure that commanded a full 360 degree view. Now, it was the back-up command center, the main one having been moved to the Loystrek Third, and the meeting-place for the rare meetings amongst the three races because of its central location. It was a testimony of great bravery and strength that each of the three races had defended the Unity Room from the Beasts despite heavy losses. If they lost the Unity Room, they lost control over the ship and communication with each other.
Jossu scanned the attendees. The Loystrek dressed in attire that demonstrated straight lines and precise angles, as though to give the impression that the bodies beneath had none of the imperfections and irregularities of other humans. Most of the men were clean-shaven, but those that retained facial hair combed and trimmed it with almost obsessive care. In comparison, the Kayso seemed rough-hewn, ragged, and disheveled. Not that Jossu cared.
The Hadune were the exact opposite of the Loystrek. Their many-hued robes draped like falling water from their willowy frames, and even the men wore their hair long, either loose or braided. They smelled like earth and growing things, and Jossu realized, not for the first time, that part of him wished he had been born Hadune, to carry real earth under his fingernails and smell the scent of many plants all at once.
Jossu took his seat with the other Kayso as the Hadune Mother, the aged matriarch of her people, spread her hands in a gesture of welcome, for it was tradition for the peaceable Hadune to moderate.
"Greetings, Kayso and Loystrek. The Hadune are honored by your presence. Let us begin with roll call, for the sake of the ship's records."
Jossu noted the Hadune officer who remained by the holo-recorder console, to monitor the recording of the proceedings. His every blink, muscle twitch, and expression would be recorded in the ship's secure data-banks.
Roll call proceeded. There were five Kayso visitors and another five Loystrek—Jossu tried to ignore them as much as possible—but, of the Hadune, there were only four. Jossu noted this imbalance without comment, but the Loystrek did not.
“Did you lose the fifth member of your team?” asked the Loystrek Beastmaster.
The Hadune Mother’s wide, wrinkled face exhibited only calm. “Why, no. She is just late, that’s all.”
Another example of poor planning. The Hadune concept of time was very fluid; if they showed up at all, they considered themselves on time. How many good men and women were babysitting the tardy Hadune so that she could reach the Unity Room safely?
At that moment, a light on a console indicated that someone had just entered the antechamber. The Hadune Mother smiled. “Ah! And here she is.”
Then the Unity Room door slid open and in walked…
episode 4 - Mad as a Hadune
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 studied 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.
EPISODE 5 - BEAST RADIO
Jossu was silent as he considered the words of the Hadune Beastmother. Could Ombura possibly be right? The Hadune were a mystical people, always talking about serenity, peace, and spirituality. He did not want to be drawn into their "woo-woo" thinking (as Breet would call it).
But if anyone were to figure out the Beast-mind, it would be the Hadune.
Was it true?
Jossu glanced at the Loystrek who spoke together in tight, whispered conversations, the Kayso who stood with their arms folded across their chests, the Hadune who floated between the two groups in their ridiculous oversized earrings, multi-colored robes, and long hair.
Suddenly, he was angry. Not angry. Furious.
What were they all doing? The Loystrek kept secrets. His Beastmaster wanted him to spy out the secrets. The Hadune talked about doing something but mostly they just kept the Loystrek and the Kayso from killing each other.
And nobody came up any solution for the Beast plague.
And she was crazy.
But maybe not as crazy as all the people who were spending their resources and energy fighting each other instead of getting to the root of the issue.
What if the Colgren-Beast was right? What if there was some kind of lie? What if...?
Careful, Jossu. You're losing it already.
But his anger still stood. He was with the one person who actually proposed some kind of solution, as impossible as it sounded.
He was going to run straight through the Beast-maze, sans suit, to the temple of the crazies and see if the Beastmother's sister was a genius or a nut.
Jossu laughed and somehow felt better.
The Beastmaster gathered his fellow Kaysos and bid the Loystrek and Hadune farewell with stony courtesy. As the Kayso suited up in the antechamber, one of the Kayso swore.
"Those Loystrek... I'm not sure I could have survived another minute in the same room. If I didn't know better, I'd say the Loystrek created the Beasts to sell us technology to fight them."
"What about those Hadune?” Trust, Jossu's bunkmaster added. "Did you see the grandma's bare feet? What does she do? Just float above the Beast-material?"
"I don't trust the Hadune," a Kayso woman said. "Nobody is that airy in real life. They're hiding something."
Yeah, Jossu wanted to say, like a secret that no one would believe. That I shouldn't believe.
The Kayso team met them just outside the antechamber.
"No activity," Vance reported. "I don't like it. I would have expected something."
"Keep your eyes open," the Beastmaster warned.
They slipped into the corridors, which were painted sci-fi green through their night-vision visors.
The drones whirred ahead of them, almost inaudible against the distant rumble of the ship's engines and life support systems.
Suddenly, the drones slewed lazily to the side, their patterned approach falling into disarray.
"Disruptors?" Trust asked of the Beastmaster.
The Beastmaster's only answer was an expletive Jossu had never heard him use before. "They've got to be close. Vance, Gale, Purri, Shell, switch to thermal."
The four who switched their visors to the thermal setting could not see in the dark, but could identify heat patterns in their surroundings. If a Beast had been in the vicinity within the last few minutes, they would see the footprints or the warmth of the places that the Beasts had touched.
The company reached an intersection and the four thermal-seers gasped.
"Woah, chief," Vance gasped. "They were all over this intersection just a moment ago..."
At that moment, Trust shouted an alarm and the Kayso flung themselves into a defensive formation, lifting their prods and stunners. It took Jossu only a moment's scan to realize that the Beasts had completely surrounded them. His heart lurched to the back of his throat and choked him.
He had heard of situations like this, from the old-timer Beast-hunters. They meant only one thing.
Somebody was going to become a Beast today.
And likely more than one.
The Beasts arrived thickly. Through Jossu's night-visor, the Beasts' luminous eyes created a spray of light that obscured their faces, but not the slender, nimble hands which they reached out, as though pleading. Their voices, like metal rasping over metal, jarred Jossu's senses.
One Beast advanced too closely and Jossu thrust his dull-tipped, electrified prod into its ribs. The Beast grunted and slumped to the ground, half-conscious. Another Beast used Jossu's moment of recovery to slide beneath Jossu's prod and knock it upward, swinging its clawed feet toward his boots to imbalance him. Jossu shifted his weight and stomped reflexively on the Beasts's ankle, thrusting the butt of his prod into its midriff at the same time.
Do not kill it.
The eternal war of self-defense shrieked through Jossu's blood, pounding with his desperate pulse as he scrambled to fight the Beasts back.
Suddenly, the Beastmaster grabbed Jossu's shoulder. "We've broken through! Run, boy, run!"
Jossu needed no urging. Even in a black-suit, with the awkward half-waddling gait, his speed was renowned. Jossu was several meters down the corridor before a thought slapped him across the cheek.
Where was his brother?
"Don't stop!" A familiar voice shouted as feet pounded down the corridor. "I'm right behind you!"
Jossu swiveled, launched himself into the darkness, and ran with every ounce of speed he could summon from his adrenaline-fired limbs.
Jossu reached the X-point and shouted as he approached it. "Lower the shield! Lower the shield!"
He half-expected to run blindly into the invisible force-shield that protected the survivors from the Beast-zone, but the technician must have been alert. Jossu passed the point at such intense speed that he ran slap against the second shield.
He would have to wait between the shields until the team had arrived, then decontaminate before he could enter the living space.
Jossu slumped to the ground and fist-bumped his brother, who collapsed beside him. Neither could speak.
The Kayso arrived in two and threes, the Beast-master bringing up the rear.
Everyone had counted; they knew before he spoke.
"They got Trust and Purri."
Jossu released a pent-up breath. Trust had worked harder than anyone he knew, but the guy overextended himself. Two back-to-back shifts and then a trip to the Unity Room? Why had the Beastmaster even allowed it?
Jossu kept his eyes on the ground, for fear he would do something to the Beastmaster that he would regret.
As for Purri, she had been one of the thermal-seers. If she hadn't had time to switch her visor settings, she was blind once the battle started and the heat of so many bodies became one red-and-yellow blur. Nobody’s fault; just bad luck.
They decontaminated their suits with the usual spray, checked each other for tears and leaks, and at last declared themselves ready for de-suiting.
Breet threw his helmet to the floor, where it bounced and spun with his force.
"I want to know how many the Loystrek lost on this beasting mission of theirs! They were so all-jetted eager to have a discussion in which their only contribution was to try to sell us their technology. And as for those floaty Hadunes, they do nothing. If I ever see either of them again, I'm going to feed them piece by piece to the Beasts!"
He stormed out of the decon area, his face flushed with rage and his hands claw-shaped with wrath.
Vance and Jossu followed at a safe distance.
"Better check in on Mom," Vance suggested. "She'll be worried."
Jossu shrugged. "She doesn't even know we were out."
"She doesn't need to know to worry. We're in the KBCU, for stars' sake."
"All right. We head to Mom's." Much as he loved her, Jossu grew weary of her fussing and constant concern, but she always had extra rations on hand, often tastier varieties than he would find amongst the standard offerings in the KBCU cafeteria. Jossu didn't even remember when he had last eaten.
"Boys!" His mother trapped her sons in a crushing embrace. "Your sister is out, but she said if you stopped by, to give you this."
Jossu smelled it before his mother even unwrapped it: fresh strawberries. As much as he wished for something more substantial--a protein bar, perhaps, or a carb-loaf--the sweet-tart scent awoke a part of his mind that longed for something beyond the stars: a home, filled with growing things and air that moved (they called it wind) and silence that held no undertone of motors and clanking. And a sky... What would a blue, starless sky look like?
Suddenly the weight of his day--Colgren, the missions, the battle, the loss of Trust and Purri--dropped upon him. He stood, holding the small, scarlet berry in the palm of his hand and it sang silently of a life he could not imagine.
His vision blurred as his throat constricted.
"Jossu?" his mother laid a hand upon his shoulder. "Are you all right?"
"Rough day, Mom," Vance said, clearing his throat with an effort. "He's okay. He's just exhausted."
Jossu sat down on his mother's bunk--it served as a couch during the day--hid his eyes behind one hand, cupped the strawberry with the other hand, and remained very still for a time. Vance and his mother carefully apportioned the strawberries—one each—and ate them silently.
Jossu’s strawberry was mushy with his heat by the time he ate it, but every bite was a taste of a home he never knew.
As the brothers walked back to the KBCU quarters and their bunkroom, they remained silent for a while. Then Vance spoke unexpectedly.
Jossu glanced at him sharply, but Vance continued. "Three in the last few Ksecs? How many previously? If we don't find out how to destroy the Beasts once and for all, we're dead men."
He paused suddenly, listening. "Huh, that's a weird sound."
"What is it?" Jossu twitched. His nerves were still frayed.
"I don't know.” Vance tilted his head. “Some kind of signal, I think. It’s in code--or a language I don't know. Stars, you don't think the Beasts have a radio, do you? It almost sounds like Beasts, but I feel like I could make it out if I listened hard enough..."
At that moment, Vance's eyes flickered scarlet for a moment. Jossu's skin chilled. Vance continued talking, unaware.
"Wonder what they'd have on a radio? See, there it is again. I could swear it said 'planet-side.'"
As Vance spoke, his eyes lit red again, flickered like a candle, then returned to their normal hue.
Jossu took a step back.
"Jossu?" Vance frowned. "What is it? Bro, you look weird. Are you sick? There's something wrong with your eyes..."
Suddenly, Vance's eyes flared with crimson and he gasped.
"Jossu, Jossu, what's happening to you?”
To me? Jossu’s thoughts screamed. What is happening to you?
Jossu stared at his brother, open-mouthed, horror shivering up his spine. Vance stared at his hands and the creep of blistery skin up his arms, then raised a wounded expression to his brother, his red eyes half-blinding Jossu.
"I must have hit that Beast too hard," he choked. "Jossu, Jossu, what do I do?"
A Beast in the living zone.
Jossu stepped back again and panicked. Wild thoughts careened through his mind.
Beast. He had to call the unit, contain the Beast. But Vance, in the transparent coffin, sucked out into space, breath literally frozen in his lungs...
Brother. He had to get Vance to the X-point, release him to the Beasts. Maybe then he would have a chance...
Yes, a chance to try to come back and turn some other poor soul into a Beast. Maybe Jossu, or their mother, or their sister.
Jossu's chest heaved with a silent scream.
When the Beast was your brother, what did you choose?
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EPISODE 6 - COMMUNICATION LOST
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?
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Episode 7 - In Motion
Jossu froze in indecision. All of his instincts screamed for him to suit up, to seal himself away from any Beast material, but no one else had such protection.
"Attention!" The Beastmaster's voice blasted through the PA system. "Please proceed calmly and quickly to your cabins. I repeat: Go to your cabins and stay there until you receive word that it is safe. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill."
If there had been any doubt in their minds, the truth was confirmed now: The Beasts were attacking.
Panic erupted. It didn't matter that the citizens of the Triangle had participated in Beast attack drills all their lives. All it took was a small percentage of freak-out cases and even the responsible people who tried to follow their training lost their heads in the scramble for safety. Fear was a deadly contagion.
Jossu would be expected at the KBCU headquarters to suit up and try to provide a barrier against the coming Beasts. But no one knew where the Beasts came from. How would they get past the shields?
A thought froze Jossu's breath in his chest.
Or had they already gotten past the shields?
Were the Kayso only the first to fall? Or did the radio silence with the Loystrek and Hadune indicate that they had fallen before the Kayso? If the Beasts had some way to disable the Loystrek drones and high-tech weapons, the Loystrek would be helpless. They relied too deeply on their technology and not enough on raw human wit. And the Hadune... The fact that they even had a Beast Containment Unit was surprising. What, exactly, did they do? Sing the Beasts to sleep? Pipe some drug-smoke into the corridors to calm the Beasts?
Ombura's bare feet.
Why bare feet? How was that even possible?
What was Jossu missing?
A panicked passerby jostled Jossu roughly and only the uprightness of the wall kept him on his feet.
Clearly he was missing a sense of immediacy. Every second tilted the scales toward life or death.
Jossu tapped on his com-watch as he sprinted toward the KBCU. "Mom? Are you and Alayla safe?"
"Alayla is on her way." His mother's voice shook. "I am in the cabin. Jossu, what is..."
Silence sliced her voice. Jossu skidded to a halt, stared at his communicator, tapped it, tried to resume the call.
A single message blinked from his com-watch. CONNECTION LOST.
Someone swore loudly near Jossu and a press of sweating, fear-scented bodies thrust him against the wall again, so violently that for a moment his breath vacuumed from his lungs.
Then he could breathe again, pain stabbing his ribs. He launched himself down the corridor, against the flow of the human stampede.
One gray-bearded man gripped him. "Are you out of your mind? They're--"
He cut off as several voices screamed at once from down the corridor. Wild-eyed, he released Jossu and scrambled away.
Cold lightning crackled over Jossu's limbs, freezing him momentarily in place.
Burning scarlet eyes flared in the corridor. Two women and a child already lay upon the floor amongst the shadowy Beast feet, sobbing in terror.
They might as well already be dead.
Jossu turned on his toes and thrust himself like a spear through the retreating wall of human bodies. He stumbled over something soft and springy; if the man wasn't already dead from the trampling feet, he would become Beast fodder. But Jossu had no time to check if he was alive. The instinct to survive was his only master.
Jossu's consciousness became a montage of terror and split-second decisions.
Breath burning in his throat.
Beasts down the empty corridor. Turn back!
A woman's wild eyes, mouth open in a soundless scream.
A child screamed somewhere in the crush of bodies, receding even as Jossu tried to reach her.
Body charged with frantic power Jossu had never known existed in him.
Gut-stabbing fear as an old man collapsed just in front of a Beast, who reached down, touched him...
Cold, instant calculation as Jossu slid on his shins, body tilted backward, to avoid a Beast's reaching arm.
Then Jossu suddenly shot into a clear corridor, running like he had never run before, shredding the distance with every footstep.
Panic. Blood pounding. Instinct screaming at an unbearable high pitch.
Then Jossu's body slapped against the Loystrek door. His voice spoke even before he knew he was using it.
"Please! Please! Let me in. Oh God, don't leave me out here for the Beasts. I'll do whatever you want. I'll be your slave for the rest of my life. Please."
Then, just when Jossu thought he was utterly lost and the cold acceptance of death began to filter through his mind--miracle of miracles!--the door opened.
* * * * *
Special Advisor Rast shifted in his seat, quietly combing his goatee with his fingers. He observed Jossu's sagging shoulders and drooping eyelids. "It sounds as though you have not slept for--what? Two hundred Ksecs?"
Jossu inhaled deeply through his nose, drew himself upright, and tilted his face, eyes closed, toward the ceiling. "I don't know. It's all a blur at this point."
Jossu's dark eyes gleamed, dull with fatigue, as he opened them. "Will you answer a question if I ask it?"
"Depends," Rast replied.
"Have the Beasts cut off Loystrek and Hadune communications too?"
"We have not been able to contact the Hadune. As for our communications, I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
Jossu nodded, as though he expected both answers. "If they haven't already infiltrated your Third, you can be certain that you are next. They've coordinated something bigger than our parents and our grandparents ever saw before. It's only a matter of time before there are no survivors."
Rast regarded Jossu quietly with those inscrutable gray eyes. "And your answer is this suicidal mission to the Hadune temple?"
"Just point me in the right direction."
"I think I will point you toward your bed." Rast gestured toward the stark but comfortable bed that occupied the corner of Jossu's holding chamber.
Jossu glanced toward the bed, back toward Rast, and something like defiance ignited behind his exhaustion. "Don't hold me back, Rast. What's one Kayso to you? Let me risk if I want to."
Rast's voice conveyed quiet command. "Rest."
Jossu's jaw tightened. "Will we speak again?"
Well, it was the closest to a concession Jossu could hope for at this stage. He was glad that he did not have Breet's gift for insults. His only hope lay in as much cooperation as possible and, at the moment, only his exhaustion assuaged his utter contempt of the Loystrek.
But this Rast seemed different. Reserved. Tight-lipped. But, somehow, not snobby and not cold. Jossu could respect that.
"Well," Jossu rose from his seat. "I guess we're done now."
Rast's lips twitched upward at one side of his mouth in a gesture that approximated a mirthless smile. "Good night, Jossu."
As Jossu dropped onto his bed, he wondered what would possess a Special Advisor from the Loystrek to call him by his first name. And "good night"? That was an antiquated planet-side term.
So Rast was a reader of the old literature, like Vance had been.
More importantly, Rast had a soul.
* * * * *
Rast filed his report. An hour later, the Commander called him into his office. Rast stepped into shades of blue, partially due to the navy carpeting, partially due to the azure light cast through the light-panels on the wall. The effect was to cast the Commander's face in an alien hue, making him appear more remote and foreboding.
Rast, unlike other visitors, felt no intimidation, but instead felt interest in an unexpected observation. He had just spent several hours looking at the Loystrek through Jossu's experience and, for the first time, he saw the Commander as a Kayso might see him. Pretentious. Aloof. Uncaring.
"Rast," the Commander intoned the name soberly. "I have had your report. It appears very thorough."
Appears. Rast prepared himself for an interrogation. "Thank you, sir."
"This Jossu does not seem to be a lover of the Loystrek."
"That is hardly surprising, sir."
"Can you confirm his story that he was present at the Unity Room meeting?"
"Yes, I can. I noticed him amongst the attendees. He did not speak."
"And, according to his own story, he was not a bunkmaster?"
"No, he was not."
"Why, then, was he permitted to attend?"
"He did not know. Perhaps another bunkmaster was not available. The numbers of attendees amongst the Thirds had to be even."
"It still did not explain why him. You asked him?"
"He gave no explanation?"
"He is just as confused as we are. He surmised that, due to the last-minute scheduling of the meeting, an appropriate match for the last slot was not available." Rast hesitated, as though recalling something, and added, "He did not say this, but I understand that he is known as the fastest officer on the KBCU. That may have earned him some credit. Even in a full black-suit, speed is valuable."
"Ah." The explanation seemed to satisfy the Commander. "Did you sense that he was holding back on you?"
"Oh, definitely, sir. I expected it. But I did not feel it was wise to press him just yet. A little latitude creates a proper sense of false security."
"You know your business best, Special Advisor."
Rast permitted himself a short bow from the waist to acknowledge the compliment.
"You will keep him under surveillance," the Commander said. "And report to me what you learn immediately."
"Of course." Rast paused, then asked, "When his quarantine period is complete, I would prefer to relocate him to Sector Five."
"It is not an entirely secure sector. More Beast activity--and more chance for the prisoner to move at will."
"Exactly, sir." A sardonic smile lifted Rast's mouth slightly. "And he will know it."
The Commander leaned back in his responsive chair, and it leaned with him supportively. He reflected on the interminable star-scape outside the long window along one wall. Rast spoke after a short period.
"The Kayso thrive on opposition. If I keep him in what he interprets as a fully secure prison, he will either lie or refuse communication. In a less secure environment, he will feel both uneasy and hopeful of more freedom. Both make him vulnerable to suggestion and to mistakes."
The Commander shrugged. "You know the psychology of the Kayso mind better than I do. Do as you will, only be certain I receive the reports."
"My gratitude, Commander."
Rast left the interview with a glitter in his smoke-colored eyes and a stride that quivered with suppressed emotion.
He had set things in motion. He could not draw back now. Only one question remained: When Jossu was free, should Rast accompany him? He might slow Jossu down and cost him the entire mission. On the other hand, he might be ally enough to get the kid through alive.
Gadezya, my heart, I am keeping my promise to you.
Click to read the votes.
Episode 8 - Welcome to Sector Five
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?
Click here to read the votes.
Episode 9 - Worth the Risk
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?