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.
Jossu skidded to a halt at an intersection, turned, turned again. Was he going crazy? The voice seemed to originate from every direction, imprisoning Jossu in a net of possibilities, freezing him to the floor.
He could not stay here. Intersections were fraught with danger. He would have to choose--and he might choose wrongly.
A new voice, masculine and half-breathless, crackled from Jossu's... uniform?
Eject that Rast! Jossu swore. I should have known that it would not be that easy.
"Jossu, it's a trap." Rast spoke with typical Loystrek calm, but even Jossu could sense the urgency behind his tone. "They've used this on the Loystrek once before, to lure the Beast Containment Unit into an impossible situation. Turn around and run back the way you've come. I'll meet you."
When Jossu hesitated, Rast snapped suddenly, in a manner that reminded Jossu of the Kayso Beastmaster, "Get out of that intersection, boy!"
The slap of the man's voice propelled Jossu's body almost before he knew that he had reacted. His toes gripped, thrust, left the ground in distance-swallowing strides, his body tilted forward.
"Take a left at the next intersection," Rast said in his ear. "And slow down a bit. I'm not as spry as you."
Jossu's lips crowded with a dozen questions and a few choice words, but he obeyed. Whatever Rast's angle might be, he evidently wanted Jossu alive. For the moment, that was reason enough to be allies.
Jossu took the corner and found himself at the foot of a long slope. Cursing the Hadune under his breath, he labored up the slope until it leveled out. One edge dropped away at the side sharply, prompting Jossu to press himself closer to the other side. Why would the Hadune make such a dangerous and senseless thing? Glancing over the edge, he recognized more of the tattered fabric creations dotting the precipitous drop as it swept toward what appeared to be more support columns decorated with strange, flaky plaster. From somewhere above, great fans rustled the air, lifting the damp hair from Jossu's forehead and sending quivers of motion through the hairs on Jossu's arms. Somehow it seemed like the breath of giant Beasts and the thought boiled fear in Jossu's chest.
"Wait there, Jossu." Rast's voice was definitely labored now and, turning, Jossu noticed a dark shape crawling up the slope he had just overcome. Jossu waited, snatching his breath back.
Rast arrived, straightened, and squinted at Jossu from behind his rectangular glasses. "Thank you for waiting."
"Now I've heard everything," Jossu said. "A thank you from a Loystrek."
Rast glanced over the edge of the drop-off, gathering air into his lungs.
"How many other people know where I am?" Jossu asked.
Rast answered without returning his gaze to Jossu. "I am the only one."
"Why? What's your angle? I have a mission and if you interfere with that, I'll knock you cold and leave you for the Beasts. I swear I will."
"My angle?" Rast tore his eyes from the view below and the ice-hard set of his gaze commanded Jossu's attention. "I want the same thing you want. I need to know what the Beasts are--and whether the infection is reversible."
Jossu considered, locked in that palpable gaze, and said at last, "You lost someone."
Rast nodded again.
"Did you help me escape?"
Rast smiled a tight, challenging smile.
"You're unbelievable," Jossu said, hissing breath through his nostrils as he broke eye contact. "And by that, I mean, I don't believe you."
Rast shrugged, looked out over the fabric-decorated drop, and seemed to retreat into his own thoughts.
"It's a good attempt, isn't it?" the older man said at last.
"Ferns and brush."
"What and what?"
Rast glanced at Jossu, his pale eyes glinting.
"Don't look so smug, old man," Jossu grunted.
"Then don't be so ignorant, young pup."
Rast adjusted the small pack on his shoulders, marched past Jossu, and continued along the winding path at the top of the hill. Jossu watched him walk, observing the square set of the man's shoulders.
Jossu had lied.
He believed Rast completely.
The Kayso, of all the Thirds, had the keenest instincts. While the Loystrek trusted only logic and the Hadune trusted only intuition, the Kayso trusted both. And both logic and intuition declared Rast to be utterly honest in this matter.
What would make Rast leave an excellent and privileged position in the Loystrek Third—the safest place in the Triangle—to risk his life and sanity in the Beast zone of the Hadune Third?
Who had Rast lost?
Jossu fell into step behind Rast until the path widened and they were able to walk side-by-side. Neither spoke for some time.
After a while, Jossu asked, "So how many microphones and cameras and tracking chips are on my uniform? Is that standard procedure for prisoners--oh, excuse me, guests--of the Loystrek Third?"
Rast and Jossu collided, and Rast glanced up at the taller young man, pointing down a corridor that Jossu had intended to bypass. "We head right at this intersection."
Jossu colored, turned, and marched down the right-hand corridor.
"One of each," Rast said, as they continued on their way. "And no, it is not standard procedure."
"How many people are tracking my chip now?"
"I told you. Only myself."
"You mean you went behind your superiors' backs to tag me, let me go, track me, and follow me?"
The mildness with which Rast spoke ignited both Jossu's irritation and respect. The Loystrek's self-assured attitude no longer seemed as arrogant as Jossu had at first thought. It seemed more a natural outpouring of Rast's firm grasp on his own limitations and capabilities, as well as the confidence of a man who had absolutely nothing to lose.
"How do you know where we're going?" Jossu asked. "Do you have a map?"
"In my head."
"You memorized it?"
"I've talked with the Hadune, learned about their Third, but that only gives a rudimentary sense of the layout of their Third. The rest I know from planet-side information."
"The old records?"
"So you have some too."
"Every Third has books. I take it you've read some."
"Vance is more a reader than I am. He tells me..." Jossu stopped. Vance's name had come so easily to his lips, so unconsciously to his mind, that for a moment he had forgotten that his brother was now one of the hideous creatures who lurked in the dark and threatened the very existence of everyone on the Triangle.
Rast was quiet, as though he guessed Jossu's thoughts.
At last, Jossu shook himself and asked, "How do books help? They are only about planet-side life, not life on the Third."
"But they speak of the topography of a planet and how that influenced travel."
Jossu did not want to ask what topography was.
Rast continued. "Hills—those tall slopes—are useful for seeing a long distance, and gathering information about how the land develops. But valleys—the low places between the slopes—are best for quick travel."
"But this is a space ship," Jossu pointed out. "There are corridors and intersections and levels. It's not a planet."
"No, but the Hadune have made it as planet-like as they can. Hence, the vegetation."
Vegetation—as in vegetables? That stirred some memory in Jossu's mind, of planetside food, but all he had ever known was nutrient loaf, protein drinks and bars, and only very, very occasionally, fresh food like strawberries. Most of the Hadune produce went to the Loystrek for processing into nutrient-dense packaged food.
"Of course," Rast added. "This kind of landscape makes travel difficult for anyone who is not Hadune. Plus, their remembrance of planet-side life is several generations removed from the real thing, so their concept of a river or a tree or a boulder is approximate, at best."
Too many foreign words.
"You really enjoy this, don't you?" Jossu shot a poison glare at Rast.
"I do," Rast replied with absolutely no shame.
Jossu was suddenly and intensely grateful that Rast had come. He might even like Rast eventually.
They reached a juncture where the way continued through a narrow defile between two—what had Rast called them? Hills?
Rast squinted and frowned.
“What? Can’t remember?” Jossu asked.
“There’s another danger to valleys,” Rast said. He pointed at the slopes. “The Beasts could look right down on us, seal both ends of the valley, and we’d have nowhere to go.”
Of course Jossu had seen that. That would be an obvious reality even without the lesson on topo-whatever. Rast reviewed, considered, and said at last, “We’re going around.”
He turned to the right and moved perpendicular to their previous direction. Jossu wanted to protest, just for the sake of pretending he had a say in this adventure, but decided against it. No sense asserting his independence when it could get him killed. Besides, if Rast thought he was easily swayed, it might put him off his guard if Jossu ever did need to disagree.
So said his suspicious inner voice.
Another voice—the voice of calm rationality—pointed out that Jossu trusted Rast more than he wanted to admit, and that Jossu would likely never need to disagree with Rast. Especially since both were on the same mission and both would probably be dead or turned within ten ksecs or so. Not much time to carry on an old rivalry adequately.
As Jossu turned from the valley to follow Rast, he thought he caught a flicker of movement along the spine of the leftmost hill. A Beast? His body immediately flared into hyper-vigilance.
But the movement did not repeat and, after a few breathless moments, he followed Rast, still twitching at every unfamiliar sound or sight.
Rast glanced at Jossu, observing, but said nothing.
They reached another passage and Rast pulled up short again.
“This should be a common room,” Rast said. “They’ve turned it into a jungle.”
Jossu, peering around Rast’s shoulders, stared at the incomprehensible tangle of greens, grays, and browns.
“No way I’m going through that,” Jossu said. “It’s a Beast-haven. All a Beast would need to do is sneeze from behind one of those flags…”
“…and we’d turn within a few minutes. Never mind all the Beast-material that might be on the fake plants already.”
“It’s either that or the valley.” Rast pulled off his glasses, closed his eyes, and pinched the bridge of his nose as he sighed.
Which way should they take? The valley or the jungle? Vote in the comments below!
I write YA/adult fantasy & sci-fi that explores fantastic and interconnected worlds, with stories that burn through the darkest realities with hope and redemption.
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