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?
BONUS: In addition to casting your vote in the comments below, share your own invented story about Vance and Jossu's interaction as brothers (something from their childhood, their work together in the KBCU, their last family dinner, etc.).
Exciting news! My book WINGS BENEATH WATER is releasing on March 31st. Come back Tuesday for the cover reveal!
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