Rumors of War
The two hour and twenty-eight-minute trip to the first of Governor Farian's factories was a monotony of controlled conversation. The governors seated around the lander's spacious rows wanted to argue, but no one dared with Barenin Lyr sitting at their center. He felt like the patriarch at an extended family dinner, holding down the tension. No, he was the outsider. He listened and took in all the conversation. He sorted and categorized people's movements, their expressions, their tones of voices. Beyond what Por had charged him with, beyond what his client had hired him for, as contract king he'd be the ultimate judge in this inspection. He was the balance between war and no war for this world.
At least he now had the mental capacity to process all this information. He might actually be able to help them in this state. The Dayarans had wanted an Aezthena contract king, and right now, they almost had one.
The tours of three of Farian's manufacturing facilities were even more tedious than the ride. Farian bragged about the efficiency of their factories while Edin and their supporters looked on tight-lipped, waiting to pounce on anything less than standard. Farian's factories might be efficient, but the walls were faded and grimy, the machinery run-down, the workers haggard. Anais kept only the smallest part of his attention on Farian's words as he studied everything around him, but while Farian's factories made casings and some of the internal parts for Kaireyeh generators like the ones he'd seen beneath the palace, they didn't handle the integration of those parts into full generators. The priesthood in a neighboring city did that, and not even that was open to the eyes of a contract king.
Anais saw nothing that looked like the tech his client had hired him to steal. Nothing beyond what he calculated he should expect in Dayaran manufacturing. Large warehouses and factory complexes in a moderately temperate steppe climate. Older but functional interiors and equiptment, with no indications of doing anything off the books. The worker morale didn't seem great, but under Farian's pompous governance, that wasn't surprising. It also wasn't criminal. And that seemed to be much of the issue at hand—Farian followed protocol. Edin did not.
It was past noon when their lander crossed the border into Edin's province. Out the window, the sky was clear enough to see the buildup of troops far below. Temporary military structures in dark grays dotted the brown landscape that had melded over the kilometers from grassland steppe to desert.
Lines of hover-tank behemoths glistened black, larger specks among the normal-sized vehicles. Did the tanks run on Kaireyeh engines? Did they use Kaireyeh weapons? The Dayarans' religion did not permit the use of Kaireyeh weapons, but that didn't mean the Dayarans didn't have them or wouldn't use them. Anais had studied history all his life, and one constant was that greed and fear made people do stupid things.
Anais glanced at Edin, who sat ahead of him in the loose rows of seats. They also stared out the windows, their expression opaque beneath the geometric lines of their face paint.
Did Anais dare try to touch their thoughts? Por had strongly warned against it, for his own sanity and so he wouldn't give himself away to any Aezthena nearby, but Anais needed relief from the constant spinning around unknown variable points. He had to know why Edin was building these new Kaireyeh generators that were sacrilegious to most Dayarans. Why they would risk it and risk these escalations toward a war that might destroy their planet.
From everything he'd read about and observed from them, Edin was not motivated more than usual by profit. They funneled much of their province's budget into sustainability projects and programs to help their citizens. Of all the governors provinces, Edin's was the one Anais might actually want to live in, if he'd been Dayaran. Their cities had low crime and poverty rates. Their industries weren't the best on Denz Dayar, but they held steady, and by all accounts he'd read, the population was happy with Edin as their governor. Sustainably-grown crops were a big export to other provinces and off-world as well, for the few traders that came through this system. Edin was the ideal governor—or would be, if they weren't tampering with Kaireyeh.
Edin stirred in their seat, then turned and stared straight at him.
Anais stared back. He'd grown fatigued throughout the day, his body trying to keep up with the strain of both holding this character and processing every input his enhanced mind was giving him, including constant alertness for any sign an Aezthena might be near. His senses went on alert now, and he checked to make sure his walls were holding tight. Had Edin randomly looked back at him just as he'd focused his attention on them?
Maybe. The look they gave him was a bald challenge. Daring him to put a stop to what they were doing with their research into Kaireyeh generators. Or maybe daring him to try to break into their thoughts, one Aezthena to another.
Was it possible Edin could be the Aezthena Por was looking for? Could they have kept themself hidden from Por in her human state for all those years?
Possible? Yes. Probable? Anais wasn't sure. He didn't know how Por's strength measured in comparison to other Aezthena, especially when she was focused human. He needed more information. There were just too many variables.
His temples throbbed with the beginnings of a migraine.
The tension in the lander was nearly unbearable by the time they descended toward Edin's first and main manufactory complex. Anais had tracked the shift in mood—the governors had begun to sober from their argumentative states when they'd crossed the border and seen the buildup of troops. Conversation had dwindled and become quieter. The general feel was one of dread, a sharp anticipation of something ominous to come. They'd found nothing untoward at Farian's factories. No one had really expected them to—that inspection tour had been a concession to Edin's pride. And maybe Farian's as well, with how much they'd puffed up their industries and elaborated on the losses that riots and sabotage had given them. But Edin's factory was an unknown.
Anais watched the guards stationed around the lander shifting their stances, checking their rifles.
Anais caught Ijuka's eye across the aisle from him, and they came to sit next to him.
"Are we expecting an attack?" he asked in a low voice.
"That would be political suicide for Edin," Ijuka said. Then after a moment's thought, they added, "Or the trigger to civil war. But no, I don't think so. Edin is protective of their province. They don't know what would come down on them if they attacked an Aezthena. But be on your guard. Edin doesn't like you, and while I don't think they'd make an outward move against you, there will be other games afoot. They might try to hide the full extent of their heresy."
Anais nodded. Ijuka's read was his own—if Edin was human. If they were actually Aezthena, the rules would be different.
Anais discovered that even though he couldn't feel human fear as strongly as before, the Aezthena equivalent was there and very real. His mind kicked into a dizzying increase in calculations, logic trees that could not be taken to their conclusions because of contradicting variables. His mind tripped back over them again and again, layering outcome over outcome until the unfavorable possibilities far outweighed the favorable. That was Aezthena fear. Aezthena fear was terrifying.
The lander set down, and unlike in Farian's province where Anais had been content to let the guards pile out first, he led the party off the ramp onto rough tarmac. Hot desert air hit him like a physical force, the sun oppressive in its brightness. But he didn't squint, didn't waver in his calm demeanor.
No one protested his leading the party out. Even the guards seemed relieved—though he was the king and should technically be protected, he was supposed to be Aezthena. As Aezthena, he could slow time and blink himself through spacetime like Por had done in the corridor beneath the palace. He'd sense any attack before it came and calculate the best course to deal with it. And he would deal with it. Everyone, even those on Denz Dayar who were more sheltered from the mainstream of human society, knew Aezthena could end battles before they started. You didn't mess with an Aezthena who was on the alert for trouble.
It was bluff. It was all bluff. And Anais himself was doing exactly that—moving in on an Aezthena's turf. Trying to provoke a reaction. His human heart was beating too fast for his Aezthena-enhanced mind, but if Edin was Aezthena, if anyone here or at Edin's factory was Aezthena, they needed to see this display of confidence. It was always the small details that made or broke believability in a persona. He had the strongest feeling that he'd just stepped onto the real stage of this particular mission.
His shoes crunched on gravel bits strewn across the tarmac. The light layer of clouds moved across the sun, and made not squinting a little less painful.
This manufactory complex, like most of Farian's, was isolated from any city. Dayarans took environmental concerns seriously. Squat, cleanly modern gray buildings spread across a compound surrounded by a force field just visible to his enhanced senses as a shimmer of blue light. Beyond the buildings, sparse scrub brush extended to a line of red-gray mountains in the distance. While one part of his mind kept an eye on Edin, other parts cataloged the taste of sulfur in the air, the fine grit of sand on the wind. And a faint hum in his body that he'd attributed on the landing to the lander's engines. But he wasn't on the lander now.
He focused on the hum and found a faint rhythm in it. Similar to what he'd felt when he'd approached the generators beneath the palace but not the same. Higher-pitched and droning deeper. It was like the memory of an ancient song played with rock and air.
A very human chill swept through him, despite the heat that was making him sweat in his robes. He didn't see any generators in the open, and the buildings around them didn't seem tall enough to house the kinds of large generators that were underneath the palace. Were there smaller generators here? Cloaked, or underground? Where was the hum coming from?
"You feel the generators, don't you?" Edin asked.
Anais' gaze snapped to them. It was the first time that day they had spoken to him directly. If his mind had still been human—or even just augmented with his memory implant—he might have missed the subtle cues in their look. A light crease of the brow, the faintest narrowing of the eyes: contempt. A downward tightening of the mouth. Troubled fear. Fear of him? Or of something else? The fear was strong enough that he could sense some of it even through his walls, and it was a very human fear.
He had the sudden certainty that if he did reach out and touch Edin's thoughts, he would be met with walls. Not because they were Aezthena, but because Edin knew there was another Aezthena on Denz Dayar, and they were working with them. Edin's contempt of him fit much more neatly into that context; Edin saw Barenin Lyr as a threat to their venture. A threat to the Aezthena they'd aligned themself with.
Of course Edin's people wouldn't have done this research into Kaireyeh tech on their own. It was heresy, after all. It upset the balance of the Dayarans' main religion, and that was not something a governor focused on enhancing the lives of their people would do lightly. The other Aezthena must have promised Edin something they couldn't refuse. The generators Edin was building were high-efficiency. With Edin's focus on sustainability, would the promise of a high-efficiency energy grid be enough to make them get in bed with an Aezthena?
Edin hadn't spoken to him until now. Why? Was Edin distracting him so the Aezthena could get away?
Anais took another look around. Then he paused and felt into the droning rhythm. Could he sense what direction it was coming from? He looked north, to the mountains in the distance. He had the strong sense that whatever he was feeling wasn't close. He couldn't see anything, but he knew there were Kaireyeh generators out there. Near the mountains, or maybe even beyond them. He made rapid calculations of how much more heightened his awareness was now compared to when he'd been under the palace and the distance to the mountains compared to how far he'd stood from the Kaireyeh generators two nights before.
His stomach constricted as his enhanced mind gave him a probability range of how powerful those generators might be.
He was so glad at that moment for what Por had done to his mind. He would have given too many tells of his fear otherwise. Even still, he felt those around him, governors who had paused when Edin spoke, tense in response to his own tension.
He thought fast, much faster than he should have been able to. Por had sent him here to find out about both the generators and the Aezthena who might have had a hand in building them. Por would have run through calculations similar to those he was running now, with fewer variables than he had to work with—even in her human focus, Por was truly Aezthena, not a simulation of one like he was. Por might not know all the particulars of how this day would turn out, but she would have known all the scenarios she could be sending him into. She'd known the Aezthena might be pulling Edin's strings. And she hadn't told him.
If Edin was stalling, then the Aezthena they were working with wasn't ready to come out in the open and do anything drastic that Anais, as an Aezthena, would feel—like blinking themself away.
He wanted, in that moment, to be able to blink himself away. Por hadn't told him the whole truth, had she? But he was here. The governors were looking to him, waiting to see what he would do. And she had said this was important. Anais could feel that. Feel it in his bones with the humming of those super-charged generators.
"Governor Edin," Anais said. "I would like to meet the engineers who designed these new generators."
"Of course," Edin said without blinking.
Anais' thoughts took a sharp right turn. No, Edin wasn't stalling. They'd wanted him to ask this. The Aezthena wanted him to come to them.
And—Anais backtracked. Edin's lips had tightened further. There had been a flaw in his earlier logic. Edin hated him, but it wasn't personal. He didn't think it was just because he was a disruption. That tightening of the lips when he'd mentioned the engineers was pure contempt. Edin hated Aezthena in general.
So why would they have worked with one willingly, regardless of the promised benefits? Or had an Aezthena infiltrated their industrial research facilities as thoroughly as Por had infiltrated the Dayaran government? He was certain Edin knew they were working with an Aezthena, but how long had they known? Regardless, they felt they didn't have a choice in whatever they were planning now.
Edin nodded toward a blocky, squat building. "Liesen Giret is the head of the project. We'll meet them in the research building." They started for the building at a brisk walk.
Anais stood rooted to the tarmac. This Liesen Giret had to be the Aezthena. All his logic, bolstered with Edin's body language, reactions, and emotions, pointed toward that conclusion.
Por had sent him here to find the other Aezthena, and he'd agreed. Why had he agreed? Why by stars and gods above had he agreed to any of this? This was realms out of his league, and Por hadn't given him all the variables he needed. Maybe on purpose so he wouln't project knowledge he shouldn't have, but still, that was in poor taste. He felt caught in a vast game, and even with his augmented mind, he was already ten steps behind. This was messing with Aezthena politics, and any human knew you didn't mess with Aezthena politics if you wanted to keep breathing.
He thought of sending a pinhole message to Por, saying he'd found where the Aezthena was and that Por should come and take his place, take it from here. But would the other Aezthena sense that? Did the other know he wasn't Barenin Lyr? Would he be exposing Por to danger if he did that?
Why did he feel like he should protect Por? Por had lied to him about what she knew about this mission, or at least omitted part of the truth. And he was a human. Por was a millennia-old demigod. Por didn't need protecting. Did she?
Trust yourself, Por had said.
Anais didn't know what that meant anymore. Logic trees branched out in all directions, but they were just noise. Whatever he did next couldn't be a decision born from that logic, that Aezthena logic. Almost every path from here could go horribly wrong. He saw all those outcomes much too vividly, his mind categorizing them complete with mental footnotes in its rapid calculations.
He hooded his eyes, trying to push past the logic toward his gut sense. His gut had got him through more dicey situations than he could count.
"My king?" Ijuka hovered beside him. Their stern face was knitted with concern and not a little fear. "My king, what's wrong?"
Anais found his gut. He found his choice. It surprised him, and it made more sense than it should have. Por had asked him for help because whatever was going on here, she couldn't handle it on her own. And he had to protect Por, no matter what else. Por was important.
He thought of when Por had helped him build his mental walls. He'd felt her patience, her encouragement. A light taste of guilt that she hadn't tried to hide. She'd known the process was uncomfortable.
He thought of how gently she'd placed her fingers against his head—not a caress, but not...not, either. Her shameless flirting while she'd pulled off his layers of robes. Her hand on his face, calm and cooling.
She'd brought him to Denz Dayar. She'd known he would come. She'd counted on it. Por knew who he was and still trusted him with a mission as vital as this—whatever this mission really was. Whatever the variables and danger were that she hadn't told him about, and there were too many holes in his logic trees now for there not to be so much more depth to this than she'd let on. And they would have words about that.
But she'd trusted him to wear her image. To be her to those around him. Whatever her reasons for not giving him all the information he'd needed, she'd still sent him on this mission, and he knew in his gut she would never have done that with someone she didn't trust. He'd seen the differences between her performing a role for the masses of humanity and her speaking to him. He'd seen her sincerity and her need. Por trusted him. While that baffled him, he acknowledged it was true.
He needed to protect Por because Por was important—not just to history or the worlds, but to him. He didn't have the capacity just then to sort out the reasons, or what that might mean moving forward. If that meant there could ever be anything between him...and Barenin Lyr.
But it was suddenly and vitally important that they both live to find out.
"Ijuka," Anais said quietly, and glanced both at them and the cluster of guards near them. The rest of the party had gone after Edin, some trailing behind and looking back but still walking. Farian and their retinue wouldn't want to let Edin out of their sight, in case Edin tried to hide something from the inspection. "Be on your guard. I sense...a malice in the minds of this facility. I don't know what or from whom yet. But be on your guard."
Ijuka inhaled a sharp breath, eyes narrowing as they scanned the complex. "Yes, my king." They gave a hand signal, and the guards shifted to ready positions. Rifles gave a soft whine as their power amped up.
Support my work!
By supporting my work, you're helping me create and illustrate new works for everyone to freely read, share, adapt, and remix.