Anais slipped through the double doors at the end of the corridor, nodding to the guards inside, who gave him odd looks but didn't question his presence there. Inside the doors, the sounds of machinery that had been background in the corridor became a steady roar.
Metal catwalks surrounded rows of huge, rounded generators—rows and columns, stretching out beyond, above, and below them. How big was this place? The generators' silvery casings and sinewy, spiraling design logic weren't like the sketches his client had given him, but they also weren't standard for generators, either. Neither was a darker, spherical component that nestled near their centers and pulsed with a rhythm that, as Anais drew closer on his pretend-patrol, resonated like a tangible presence at his core.
That definitely wasn't standard. Anais hid his shiver, pressing further into the cavernous space.
More guards patrolled the catwalks on this level and the levels above and below. Gray-coated people who Anais pegged as somewhere between tech, scientist, and acolyte moved with quiet efficiency, checking gauges and holo-displays. The whole thing had the feel of a chaotic, monastic library. And the rhythm from the generators was everywhere. A pulsing rhythm that got into his bones, shifting until it was a chant, and he could almost hear words.
Gods. What did the Dayarans use to power their city? He was starting to suspect it wasn't remotely legal on any human world, and that price tag on this job was making more sense, as was Barenin Lyr's involvement here.
He gritted his teeth and kept walking the long catwalk, the sounds of his footsteps lost in the din of everything else. Barenin had said to continue his job, and he was here. He would find out what he could.
Anais didn't dare check for manufacturing labels on the generators. He didn't dare get too close. The guards all stayed as far from the generators as they could, and only the tech-acolytes approached the machinery.
The rhythm began to lull Anais into a mellow trance. He noticed it as he was halfway around a catwalk circuit and couldn't remember coming that far. He looked back toward the entrance to this chamber and couldn't see it among the generators.
He licked his lips, feeling his skin prickle with a cold sweat. He wasn't lost. He could see others making similar circuits. Were their eyes as glazed as his had likely been a moment before?
Anais queried his memory implant. He at least had solid visual memories of the path he'd taken, but his thoughts in those times were more like sleep than anything else. What was this place that could make him lose track of time so easily? He never lost focus like that on a job. Especially not this job.
He completed one full circuit of the catwalk, judging that to be the minimum necessary patrol to avoid suspicion, then made for the double doors as quickly as he dared. Like before, the guards gave him odd looks as he approached but didn't question him.
He broke into the entry corridor, gasping. It was blessedly empty. But even when the doors closed behind him, the rhythm from the generators, the pulsing from those small, dark spheres, followed him.
It was in his head. It had tried to take over his thoughts. It felt like a drug.
He focused on the lift doors at the other end of the corridor and took one step at a time, gaining momentum. He willed that throbbing rhythm to ebb. And after a few steps, it began to.
He was almost sure now what those generators were, and he hoped he was wrong. Gods and stars above, he hoped he was wrong.
There were a lot of different ways to power things in the universe. But one way was outlawed by all human worlds—at least, he'd thought it was. Kaireyeh, that force that Aezthena called the sentient math of the universe, was a powerful and infinite energy source. But it was horrifically unstable to anyone but the Aezthena. Humans had used it in generators thousands of years ago and had corrupted pockets of space and time because of it. They'd used it in their engines for travel before they'd invented translight engines, and it had taken them to places they hadn't asked to go, or taken them years longer than a journey should have, or made them disappear altogether. Sometimes crews turned up twisted, or as different people, or completely out of their minds. It was a favorite plot point in period holo dramas. People still called anyone not right in the head K-touched.
Kaireyeh weapons were universally banned for disrupting spacetime wherever they were used, sometimes leaving areas of space fractured and uninhabitable for centuries or millennia. Because of this, because of all of this, Kaireyeh tech was banned for humans. Everyone agreed on that.
There were a few exceptions. The Aezthena used Kaireyeh in their tech, and humans didn't protest much because it was assumed the Aezthena had a handle on how to use it. Every now and then, the Aezthena would lease the use of some of their tech to a human government, but it was always and only operated by the Aezthena who accompanied it, never any humans. Never any chance that humans would get a close enough look to figure out how it worked or how to duplicate it.
The Aezthena themselves, as bio-synthetic lifeforms, functioned largely on Kaireyeh tech. It was the power they drew from. The humans had accepted the Aezthena's roles as shepherds of all things Kaireyeh with great reserve. But someone needed to keep track of the use of Kaireyeh, and better it be someone who understood it, enemies though they often were. And the humans didn't want to do anything to touch off another human-Aezthena war. Kaireyeh tech made the deadliest sort of weapons. Aezthena weren't as keen on following the no-Kaireyeh-weapons rule when it came to annihilating humans and their space.
Another exception was the halo staff weapons that many humans had implanted in their arms. Those were Kaireyeh-powered but on the smallest scale, and no one knew exactly how they worked or where they'd originally come from—human-built, Aezthena, or alien. But they were self-seeding, and they hadn't caused any problems in millennia of use, so no one questioned them. They were useful and they were tradition.
For everything else, use of Kaireyeh by humans to power or manipulate tech was taboo.
As he reached the lift doors, Anais could almost feel the tiny outline of his identity implant at the base of his neck. Kaireyeh tech, Barenin had said. And he the human operator of it. Even Barenin had warned him it was dangerous.
But he'd known that. He wasn't stupid—tech like that didn't just appear. It didn't work by the normal laws of physics, it wouldn't have been built by any legal lab. He'd very carefully not thought too far into it.
Even knowing what it was, even knowing it was dangerous and with a warning now from an Aezthena to be wary of it, he couldn't turn it off. He wouldn't take it out. And he would have still bought it, regardless. If Barenin wanted to take it from him, he'd go down fighting, for all that fight was worth against an Aezthena.
Anais stepped into the lift chamber and the doors closed behind him in the large, empty car. The rhythm of the generators whispered in his thoughts, slowly retreating. His heart, though, pounded a new and more insistent rhythm.
What had he gotten himself into?
If his suspicions were right, Denz Dayar powered their entire planetary grid off Kaireyeh generators. Large Kaireyeh generators. He'd studied the Dayarans' main religion as part of his research for this job, and now several components of it clicked into place. They worshiped a deity whose form was spread throughout the universe in what they called Yfeni. And the manufacture of their tech was a component of their religion.
He hadn't seen it before in all the liturgical layers, but Yfeni had to be an analog for Kaireyeh and a justification for building and using Kaireyeh tech. Did the Dayarans even know the fire they were playing with?
He'd been happy enough to ignore his clients' motives before—he had to do that with any job—but they'd just become more ominous. He hadn't found the tech he was supposed to steal in that generator chamber, but those generators had been similar. Someone had hired him to steal sophisticated Kaireyeh tech. And Barenin Lyr not only knew about it but wanted Anais to continue his job and find whatever this tech was.
What were Barenin's motives in this? Why was Barenin even allowing the Dayarans to use Kaireyeh tech? Those had been humans operating the tech beneath the palace, not Aezthena. That was already violating ten kinds of intergalactic laws. That could touch off another human-Aezthena war. Maybe even drag in a number of alien races as well.
Barenin was generally on the moral side of events throughout history...but that was a loose generally. Barenin made peace when there was war, and often prevented wars from starting. But Anais had seen evidence in history that Barenin wasn't above moving events as she saw fit, by any means she saw fit, to further her goals. That those goals usually involved peace didn't mean the way she reached them wasn't sometimes brutal.
Those generators hadn't been built overnight, and Barenin had been on Denz Dayar for years. Por, as this human version of Barenin, visibly Barenin Lyr once he'd seen it, had been here for years. She was Barenin, or a more human version of her—the facial structure, the voice, the mannerisms were there. This wasn't someone Barenin had swept in at a moment's notice and replaced, unless the game was even deeper than he'd thought. His mind could twist into knots chasing that trail. What was her endgame, here? And why bring him into it?
Anais shivered. He was way out of his depth. These were the affairs of Aezthena, not humans. Had he been so naïve to think he could impersonate an Aezthena and not get embroiled in Aezthena affairs? That he could buy that implant and actually live a free life, stay ahead of all that would chase him?
Could he run? If Barenin knew who he was, and that he had the identity implant, could he ever truly run?
The air in the lift felt too tight, too stale. Anais' mouth was dry, his throat constricted. He hadn't had anything to drink in over an hour, and he had the sudden intense need for water. For air. He had to get off this world. He couldn't handle five more days. He wasn't sure he could handle even one more. He'd been an idiot, taking this job instead of shoving the identity implant into his neck and running for all he was worth. He'd wanted to prove that with his skills he could impersonate an Aezthena. He'd wanted that small chance at some twisted sort of redemption. And he'd wanted the money, too, of course. All his reasons for taking this job, logical or not, felt as substantial now as smoke.
The lift doors opened. And under the watch of the guards outside, he kept his calm.
He hastened back to his rooms without incident, on the watch for Barenin, but blessedly not finding her. He told the guard at the door, the same one as before, that the king had called him back. He complained about having to go more rounds of explaining the local customs and shot enough nervous glances at the door and the supposed Aezthena behind it that he almost scared himself. Barenin Lyr might not be in that room, but she was in the palace. There was an Aezthena behind a closed door who might even now be listening in on his thoughts, whether she said she wouldn't or not.
The guard let him pass. He turned on the lights long enough to reach the bed, then in the dark tapped off the guard persona.
He sat there in his own skin, panting. His arms prickled with the bumps of his fear.
He should run anyway. He should steal a ship and flee the system. Take his chances—just run. That had to be better than whatever he was messed up in on Denz Dayar.
Gods. And could he even be sure that was Barenin Lyr? Now that he was out of the sub-levels, now that he was in the dark, the relative safety of these rooms, the thought that he'd actually met Barenin Lyr seemed less and less plausible. He had learned how to mimic Barenin Lyr as Aezthena. Someone else could have learned to mimic Barenin in his human form. Barenin had parted the air to step out right in front of him—but that could be smoke and mirrors. Holos and effects. If Anais was there with the promise of the amount of money his clients had offered, who was to say they hadn't hired someone else for redundancy? Had another person bought access to an implant like his, killed or otherwise shut away the real Governor Por, who might have a passing resemblance to Barenin, and then replaced them? Had Por been down there with the generators to do exactly what Anais had gone to do—look for clues on how to steal the tech? What better way to throw Anais off his game but get into his head?
All of that would explain Por's behavior, both earlier that day and that night. If that was the case, being hired to steal a Kaireyeh generator was still a problem, but the payout was high. And he wouldn't be in the middle of an Aezthena plot, just a plot by unsavory people. He didn't like it, but he'd made the choice to come Denz Dayar, knowing there had to be a catch somewhere. There was always a catch in jobs like this.
Anais' gut said that was one coincidence too many. Too neat a chain of events.
But was it any less plausible than Barenin Lyr arranging to have Anais come himself? Herself?
He was messing up the pronouns, another sign of his fatigue. He was always able to flow with gender in whatever form it took. But Barenin Lyr—Barenin had been a constant in his mind. A fixed element. Now, he had to rearrange his thoughts to include femme in Barenin's range of gender fluidity. And he should have seen the cues, shouldn't he? In thousands of years of history, Barenin had always publicly presented masc to neutral. But thinking back now to every appearance he'd ever watched, Anais saw the careful control. The marks of a person who was playing a role. There was sincerity, yes, but it was channeled through controlled filters. The best performances always were.
Like his own performances.
Anais rubbed at his eyes. No. He couldn't go there with himself. He needed sleep. He'd already had too much to process that day, and this was more than his mind could handle. But, he knew sleep wouldn't come. Not with that much adrenaline coursing through his veins. He wondered if Por also lay awake in her own quarters in the palace. And if she could reach and read his thoughts if she wanted to. If she was who she'd claimed to be.
Anais grunted and reached up to tap the implant back on, the sequence that would turn him into the Aezthena visage of Barenin Lyr. His fingers hesitated over the implant trigger.
Kaireyeh tech. Aezthena tech. Barenin—if that had been Barenin—had told him it might change him in the long run. That he might become more like whatever guise he wore.
He sat for a long, long moment in the dark, in the quiet, trying to decide if that was a bad thing.
In the end, he had no choice, at least not here. He tapped the implant and waited through the shift, suppressed a shiver at what definitely now felt like borrowed flesh. Then he closed his eyes, accessing his memory implant, and got to work familiarizing himself with as much of the local politics as he could in the time before dawn. Fatigued or not, he had to arm himself with everything he could, and the best weapon was always information.
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