Jossu ground his fists in his eyes and hissed through his teeth with frustration as the scream reverberated through the empty crimson-drenched corridor. Why couldn't anything be simple? Why couldn't the universe back you up when you were risking your life for others?
Then he turned and sprinted toward the sound.
* * * * *
Special Advisor Rast glanced toward the tracker on his wrist-com and noticed that the blinking dot on the map--Jossu--had increased the speed of its travel. He switched to camera mode and observed the jostling motion image captured by the microscopic camera concealed in the front of Jossu's uniform. Rast's earpiece shuddered with the scream toward which Jossu sprinted.
Hastily, Rast shifted the mode on his wrist-com. There was no time to be the soldier in the shadows.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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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.
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 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.
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.
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