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.
Should Rast go with Jossu or stay behind to cover for him?
Also, give me a little bit about Special Advisor Rast's backstory and I can work it into the story. What do you think motivates him?
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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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