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?
Bonus question: What is one dream that Jossu treasures? Tell me what you suggest! (Limit one idea per voter)