To Play a Guard
His bed could have served as a landing pad for a small freighter. With the lights out, Anais lay still, focusing on the sounds around him. Nothing but the softest hush of air moving through the climate-control systems. All was quiet. No one had disturbed him all evening.
Blinking away fatigue from the day, he sat up. He reached for the back of his neck where the identity implant sat like a tiny mole-dot and tapped it in rapid sequence. His body hummed, and in the dim city light that shone through the bedroom windows, he watched the room blur and darken.
Slowly, the carved canopy posts and silky red and purple bed curtains formed around him again. He was in his own body. His own lanky, unattractive body—stringy hair, and sweat stink from neglecting to wash because if he didn't have to look at himself, he wouldn't. And with the implant, he only had to be in his body for seconds at a time.
He was still disoriented from the shift, but he reached to tap the implant again, a pattern for a different identity this time. He waited through the shift, forcing slow, deeps breaths until the feeling of disassociation with reality passed.
The space around his body changed to accommodate its new dimensions. The soft mattress sank further, and his clothes shifted to a different, coarser fabric. He had dressed in these carefully-procured garments the last time he'd loaded this physical profile—the uniform of a Dayaran palace guard. It had taken time to get this particular profile to match the guard in question, but unlike with Barenin, he'd had genetic data to work from. Anais had memorized this guard's mannerisms and speech patterns, and by now, he also had a good command of Densata. If he got stuck with the language, he could call up conversations he'd stripped from security vids throughout the palace corridors. He knew what to say. He was an excellent mimic.
Time to get on with the job.
Anais threw back the covers and scooted across the expanse of the bed. He paused as his feet hit the floor—the balls and heels of his feet touched the carpet in a different way than they had when he was Barenin. He ran his hands over thick muscle beneath the guards' uniform and grunted. This implant was worth everything he'd paid to get it and more. Everything he was paying now. He wasn't just playing the role of this palace guard, in cosmetics or detectable genetic encryption, he was this guard. No one but the guard themself could say otherwise.
Anais stretched up his arms, then stretched further. A good deal of the muscle pain he'd felt wearing Barenin's profile was gone. Actually, all of it. He was tired, but not worn. He'd feel the stress again when he resumed Barenin's profile, but at that moment, he had a completely new body and it felt good.
A thread of uneasiness wormed into his gut. He'd learned to be wary of when he felt good. This implant had come at a high price. And maybe it was the only prototype, as the seller had professed, or maybe there were others. It was the kind of tech that was beyond forbidden, the kind of tech that wouldn't get past the censors in most holodramas, because it didn't follow the natural laws of physics. Because even the idea of it was forbidden. Normal tech didn't take a body and displace it outside of normal spacetime. Normal tech didn't give you back another body that could absolutely not be detected as anything but the body you were born with.
It might be new tech, but Anais didn't think so. If this tech was circulating enough to hit a back corner of the black market, and not the deep pit Anais had found it in, the Aezthena would have found out about it and put an end to it. Humans and Aezthena were forever locked in a technological arms race—the humans to make tech that could thwart Aezthena skills and presence, and the Aezthena to blow them back to hunters and gatherers.
The tech in this implant—it was something old. Something ancient and forgotten. Something which used the primordial energy source from which Aezthena got their powers. Something made with Kaireyeh.
It wasn't magic. But it wasn't any science that humans were allowed to participate in.
He suppressed a shudder and moved into a set of the martial-arts warm-ups that the Dayaran guards trained in. He'd learned just the opening set, but it put him into the right mind. It cleared his thoughts of things he didn't need to be thinking about. Not here, in this palace, in the dark.
He bowed to the black air and headed for the entry door.
As he stepped into the corridor outside his suite, the tall, trim guard on duty raised thick brows at him. "The king said they weren't to be disturbed, yet here you are."
Anais scowled. "The king called me in on the last shift. They wanted someone to explain palace procedures to them, and I swear, they were reading my mind through everything I said." He shivered and darted a glance back at the door. "I think they just fell asleep."
"You mean they didn't release you? Should you still be in there? That's rough."
Anais jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "I'm not staying in there. They sleep with their eyes open. At least, I think they're asleep. I risked a look."
The guard's lips drew tight, puckering the single indigo stripe of paint across their mouth. They looked like they wanted to say more but a glance at the door quelled them. Anais looked again, too. He knew there was no one behind it, but even still he almost felt the ghost, the Aezthena waiting in the dark, sifting through his thoughts.
If his identity implant was Kaireyeh tech, whether human or Aezthena built, would an Aezthena be able to sense that?
Hair stood up all over his body.
"I'm way past shift," Anais said. "Later."
The guard gave a lazy salute, and Anais hurried off.
It had taken him three days of watching hacked palace footage to find the right persona to wear for this part of the job. He'd finally chosen this guard because they were usually in other parts of the palace but were also senior enough and respected enough to have wider access.
And now, out in the halls, he forced himself into the unhurried but purposeful stride of a guard on patrol. Down the corridor and into the service lift. He rode the lift down to the second sub-level, then stepped into a corridor where another lift would take him to the lower sub-levels. To the generators beneath the palace and the city. Hallowed ground, for the Dayarans.
The doors to the second lift were guarded, of course. The guards watched him approach with unreadable expressions.
Anais felt his fingers twitching for a weapon. He wore no pistol, which was the only thing missing from his guard persona's kit. He'd stored clothing in the identity implant's profile, but he hadn't successfully carried a weapon or tech over except for what was implanted in his own body.
He did have a third implant, one that among the three was entirely legal. It was also ancient tech, and the only acceptable use of Kaireyeh-powered tech that a human could have. It was common and so much a part of human tradition that neither the humans nor the Aezthena tried to interdict it. He had in his left bicep a tiny bead called a halo. When he clasped his right hand to the trigger, the bead would expand into a staff—or knife, or sword stick, or whatever sharp weapon he needed it to be. The halo weapons were implanted at birth, seeded from a parent's weapon and passed down parent to child. Most children who had them had some base training in their use, but never used them except in extreme emergencies. They were more ornamental than an actual weapon, usually forgotten.
Anais stilled his hand's upward reach for his halo. He'd used his implanted weapon more than most. But its biggest downfall—despite the fact that it couldn't shoot anything—was the mark of loyalty and identity it displayed when triggered or held. He didn't need his actual name and the insignia of the station where he'd grown up shining on the back of his hand for all to see. Not here. That he was even considering drawing it was a mark of how spooked this place made him feel.
He wasn't playing Barenin Lyr just now. He didn't have to pretend to be anything more than a guard, and he'd done that so many times before on so many stations and worlds that he'd lost count. With his research and his command of his persona, he would have no trouble passing these palace guards.
Anais forced himself to relax. He exchanged terse pleasantries with the other guards—they were all on duty, anyway—and they let him into the lift.
The doors shut and he punched in the pass code in the wide, curving Densata script. The lift plunged down.
The sounds of machinery grew louder, and the lift car shuddered twice, as if buffeted by strong winds. Anais gripped the rail on the lift wall. He hadn't expected turbulence. Though he knew most of the palace's above-ground floor plans, even with his royal access, he hadn't found many details on the sub-levels.
He thought of the sketches his client had shown him of the tech he was supposed to steal. The design was spiraling, snail-like, with overlapping plates. It was a generator, or at least part of a generator, but nothing about it said ordinary generator. Well. And if it had been standard, his client wouldn't have promised a fee that could buy a planetary station.
The first logical place to look for this tech was under the palace, where generators powered the grid for the city above and half the province. He didn't think he'd find it there—that would be too easy—but he might find clues in the design of the palace generators for where to look next. The Dayarans didn't patent prototypes or publish research. Their tech was sacred, their power generators having significance in their religion. They handled the development of their tech so close to their planetary industries that he'd be happy if he found manufacturing labels just to point him in the right direction.
Anais didn't like going on this little data with the stakes this high. But he'd gone on shakier plans before. He'd survived the Dayarans' scrutiny of Barenin Lyr earlier. He'd survived the walk through the corridors as a Dayaran guard. He had his memory implant, the identity implant, and years of honed experience. He would leave Denz Dayar with the goods.
The lift stopped, and the doors slid open. Anais found himself at one end of a long, empty utility corridor, the walls off-gray, overhead lights sparse and with a blueish cast. The floor vibrated with the hum of machinery. The air had a metallic, chemical tang. Doors lined the walls farther on, and wide double doors at the end had to lead further into the facility. That was where the sounds of machinery came from. That was where he needed to go.
Anais kept his purposeful guards' gait. His persona had access to these levels, but he wasn't sure what the guards did there. He wasn't sure how deep the access went, or what he'd be expected to answer if challenged. He flexed his fingers and wondered if he'd have to reach for his halo after all. At least, if he had to act, he wouldn't blow his identity as Barenin Lyr. He could change the identity implant, become someone else, slip away.
Gods, he loved this implant.
He was halfway down the corridor before the hairs on his neck and arms rose. He turned, and Governor Por detached themself from where they'd been leaning against the wall—except the corridor had been empty, and there were no doors between the lift and where he stood now. He would have heard the clack of the lift doors if they'd opened.
What had just happened? Where had Por come from? Had they had a holo cloak of some sort? A chameleon field? Had they been waiting for him?
Por stared at him, a look that seemed to see right through him. There was no flirtation in their demeanor now, just brutal coldness.
Anais clenched his teeth to stop a chatter. Everything in him screamed to run away, that this was deep shit danger, but he held his ground. That reaction wasn't logical. He wasn't playing Barenin Lyr. He wasn't in danger of being found out for that. He was a palace guard. Whatever Por wanted with him, it was as a palace guard. Whatever Por was down here for, it couldn't be for him. Still, his heart hammered.
Anais bowed, deep and reverent.
"Forgive me, Governor Por. You startled me. I did not think anyone else was down here. May I help you?"
Por smiled, the indigo swirls around their eyes creasing, and stalked toward him.
Anais' skin crawled. There was something very wrong here.
"Oh, you are good," Por said. "It takes great skill to imitate an Aezthena, and though I have seen a few attempts, I have to say, yours is the most impressive. And Barenin Lyr, of all people. You could have picked a less ambitious role to play. But then, that wouldn't have guaranteed a contract with the Dayarans, would it?"
Anais straightened, trusting in his immersion of his role to get past the panic. How did Por know? Gods, how could they know? Did Por know about the implant? How? He'd bought the implant through a broker, everything anonymous, the currency untraceable.
"Ser?" he asked, unable to hide the waver in his voice. "My commander told me to take this shift tonight—"
Por held up a hand. Their glare was so frigid that Anais stammered to a stop.
"Look at me," Por said.
Anais did. Their face paint was cracked, no longer the solid indigo from mouth to neck, the swirls around their eyes interrupted at random intervals. Black curls were tied up in an elegant but less elaborate knot than earlier. Their red governor's robes were clean, if lank from the day. Had Por waited up for this meeting? Had they known Anais would come here?
"No," Por said, "look at me. You've done your research. Look."
A hot lump crawled up his throat as he studied Por. Tried to see beyond the face paint, if that's what Por meant. The features were sharp, distinctive. Obscured by the paint—masterfully obscured at just the right angles. Anais knew another master of disguise when he saw one. And Por's distinctive cerulean blue eyes. Anais hadn't seen anyone else yet on this world with kynblue eyes.
He swallowed, his mind racing. "You're here on a job, too."
Por spread their arms wide. "Wrong. I am here on my own business. You're smart, Anais, smarter than you have a right to be. Put it together."
Shit. Shit, Por knew his name. His real name. He hadn't given that name to anyone in years. And that "smarter than you have a right to be" comment—Por knew. Por knew about his memory implant, his death-sentence augmentations. He didn't know how, but they knew.
Anais shot a glance up and down the corridor and only by intense effort resisted the urge to run—Por had known this would be the perfect place to confront him. The only certain way out was past them, so that left the doors leading to the generators. By the confidence of Por's stance, running into the warren of machinery wasn't the answer.
He forced himself to breathe. To push beyond the panic, because he had to. Because he'd always had to, it was survival. He'd kept his augments hidden for years, and he hadn't done it by giving in to panic.
Por's dropping that bit of information—had it been a threat? Possibly. But Por was as he'd pegged them, a viper. They'd lain in wait. They'd set their trap and thought through the angles. So, he had to think through them now, too.
They hadn't just come here to threaten him. The threat, he sensed, was ancillary. Por wanted him to look at them and see something. See what?
Por's blue eyes flickered, and for a moment, sheened gold.
Anais didn't breathe. He took in Por's face again. A familiar face, and how had he not seen it before? He'd spent hours studying that face in the highest detail—or the Aezthena version, at least. There were almost no images of Barenin Lyr in human form.
Oh, stars and gods above.
Before Anais could blink, Por somehow skipped the three meters of distance between them and stood right in front of him.
Anais jumped back but managed to stifle his yelp.
That was an Aezthena self-teleportation. Por was the real deal. Unless this was some Aezthena plot within a plot, in which case he was screwed anyway, Por was Barenin Lyr. The real Barenin Lyr.
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