Anais shifted under the eyes of the governors' renewed attention to him, but his questions were too pressing not to ask. "Do they know what they might do with something like this? With an Yfeni engine?"
"I suspect if they don't know yet, they're getting there," Por said. "You've followed the logic. It is not...logic that we handle well. Not even I, when I'm focused human, can truly think like a human. I'm still Aezthena in nature."
The din of voices rose, fear mixing with angry speculation.
Ijuka's voice cut through the rest. "Por, I'm glad you're understanding all of this, but please explain for the rest of us how this affects our world. Yes, you've said you've protected us. Yes, you've said the Aezthena have an interest in and have taken some of our tech. We know the Kaireyeh Accords ban the development and use of Kaireyeh tech, but we don't use Kaireyeh. We use Yfeni. We've kept our trade and social profiles low among other worlds—we prefer our own religions. You know this. So how does this affect us now? What has changed?"
Por straightened, waving at both sides of the table. Governors on both opposing sides wore equal expressions of dismay and distrust. "This conflict between Farian and Edin is manufactured. There is an Aezthena—not me, and possibly more than one—at the heart of it. It's a smokescreen, and a prod to get you to go to war. If you go to war, you focus on developing more weaponized versions of your Yfeni technology. Smaller and more portable versions."
Edin huffed, crossing their arms. "That is against our religion. I would never develop weapons of war. You should know that. If you are Por."
Por shrugged. "A lot of things happen in war that are against our religions. War breeds a certain kind of necessity that disregards morality."
Edin opened a hand to acknowledge the point, though they looked far from happy. Maybe, in their buildup of troops, they'd already begun to use Yfeni technology to power already developed weapons. And that was just a hair away from using Yfeni as a weapon itself.
Anais thought of the troops he had seen from above as they'd crossed the militarized border. How much Yfeni tech was there, waiting to be unleashed on the world? Was any of it from the new high-efficiency designs? And even if it was only used to power otherwise non-Kaireyeh or non-Yfeni weapons, how much damage could that still do? If the math that wrote the universe—or the multiverse—was truly sentient, as both the Aezthena and the Dayarans believed, what would it think of being used in such a way?
He shivered. The walls of the room suddenly felt paper thin. If Kaireyeh or Yfeni, or whatever version was right, made up everything—absolutely everything—how could anyone escape the consequences of using it wrongly?
There were whole sections of space devastated from previous human-Aezthena wars that remained impassable, because space and time within them had been so horribly twisted and fractured by the use of Kaireyeh weapons. Anais thought he better understood now what that meant, and it chilled him to his core.
Even the guards, who'd remained stoicly alert, shifted uneasily at this turn in the conversation.
"So we have at least two Aezthena meddling in the affairs of our world," Ijuka said, staring flatly at Por.
Por nodded, ignoring their jab. "And it will continue, until they get what they want."
Ijuka pinched the bridge of their nose. "Then why don't we just trade with them? Why all the subterfuge? The Aezthena have never posed a threat to our world before. Why don't they come to us openly and ask for our tech?" They considered Por a moment before adding, "Why didn't you?"
Por let some of her focus go Aezthena again, her black hair taking on a silver sheen, her skin paling but not assuming the full Aezthena palour.
"I'm not infallible," she said. "And Aezthena like patterns. It has been our pattern, with your world, to wage our own cold war around it. And I did not feel I had enough information to act openly." She tilted her head. "On consideration, and from what I learned from you today, that was a mistake. If I had asked you from the start the difference between Kaireyeh and Yfeni, we would be having a much different conversation now."
Ijuka opened their mouth.
Por held up a hand and went on quickly, "But I'm asking your help now. I'm revealing myself now because I need your help. Humanity and Aezthena both—to keep the peace, to survive—need your help. I fear the Aezthena can use this tech to try and split off a universe for themselves. No humans, no extra-terrestrials. Only them. Or however they envision it. But if they use this tech wrongly, if they don't fully understand the meaning of Yfeni versus Kaireyeh—which is very possible—they could shatter the universe. They could shatter all universes."
"Shatter...how?" Edin asked, leaning forward. Their eyes had gone wide, mouth pinched tight. Anais might have felt some satisfaction at their consternation, this upending of what they'd thought were noble goals, if he wasn't feeling that same fear himself.
"I've seen fractures in the universe before," Por said. "I'm sure you've heard of them. They happen when Kaireyeh is used as a weapon, or with ill-intent. When the source code of the universe is turned against itself. The pockets of impassable spacetime we call eddies are from such large-scale events that took place centuries or millennia ago. I've watched them happen. But what I'm talking about here is on the infinite scale—if the Aezthena try to split off a universe and do it wrong, everything could become like the eddies. Fractured, shattered, worlds destroyed or split into multiple shards of spacetime. And the universe might never heal."
A new chill swept over Anais. He wasn't touching Por, and he wasn't sure if it was his own churning gut or the mood in the room, but he thought he felt a deeper, more ancient fear in her words. A plea for understanding.
He was close enough that he subtly stretched his hand toward her shoulder, hoping to brush it and get a better sense of what she was feeling. Without looking, she sat forward, out of his reach.
"So, what do you want us to do?" Farian asked. Their voice was surprisingly clear, most of the posturing gone. How much of their pomposity was an affectation? Did it matter, now? "We can't defend against the Aezthena. You said you've protected us, but another Aezthena got past you, didn't they? And that's why there's sabotage in my factories and workers on strike?"
"Yes," Por said. "And no, I can no longer protect you as I have before. I am one person. I am strong and highly experienced as an Aezthena, but I am only one person. More will come, and keep coming. Many indirectly, but some might come directly as they get more desperate for the secrets of your tech. They might demand it from you. They might destroy cities before you hand it over. They might take it and destroy your world so no one else can have the secret of it." She paused, letting that sink in. "That is the danger of having something the Aezthena desperately want."
Por had told him, when she'd asked him to take on a simulation of an Aezthena mind, that this was save-the-universe kind of stuff. She hadn't been kidding. And this world, by nature of its religion, had found itself in the crosshairs of a millennia-long struggle between humans and demigods.
He hoped Por had a plan. He desperately hoped Por had a plan, because he was blanking on all fronts.
"What I ask you now," Por said, "is to destroy every piece of Yfeni tech on your world. I'll help you rebuild your infrastructure with non-Yfeni tech. Destroy the knowledge of how to build such tech. I know—I know—this is a part of your sacred heritage. I know it's an essential component of your religions. But this tech could destroy the universe. It literally could destroy the universe, and that is a near-inevitable outcome if we don't do something now. It will, at the very least, destroy your world as the Aezthena fight to acquire it. That has already begun."
No one said a word. No whispers, no angry voices. The air felt weighted with fear and anger. Searing defiance, and a growing sense of loss.
Anais realized he was feeling all of this through Por. Though she still wasn't touching him, and wasn't fully Aezthena, her emotions bled over to him, whether that was intentional or not.
Intentional, he decided, as he felt some of her own grief coming through. She'd needed to keep herself separate from him, maybe because of this grief. If they were touching, she had less control over what he picked up from her. But she also needed someone to share it, or at least to feel what she was feeling.
He turned to study Por. She'd lived on this world for nine years, and she was a lot like him in the way she played her roles—she immersed herself fully. More than he ever had. She'd let herself become Dayaran. She wore no face paint now, but she carried herself like them, and it wasn't an affectation. Not anymore. She spoke with their language, their accent. She was desperately trying to save her world, and the only way to do that was also to destroy it.
"You are asking us," Ijuka said slowly, echoing Anais' thoughts, "to destroy our culture, or let them destroy our world. Do you understand what you are asking, Por?" Their eyes shone. "I thought I knew you. I thought I understood who you were. I thought you were my friend. How can you ask this of me?"
"Because I must," Por said, voice hoarse.
Por's emotions spiked with regret, but settled into a monolithic resolve. She was Aezthena. She was Barenin Lyr. And she would do what she had to do, by any means necessary. But she was giving them the choice, first.
Por cleared her throat, straightened. The sense of her emotions faded from Anais as her posture became more formal. "I have presented my investigation into your internal conflict, my assessment of its threats and effects, and given you a resolution. I now resign my contract as your king and call it fulfilled." She paused. "I will not accept any further payment on this contract. I consider all debts fulfilled as well. I only ask that you allow me and my consort to stay on your world—I will stay as Por—until you reach your decision, and if you require my help thereafter."
Slowly, looking both pissed and exhausted, Ijuka nodded. "I can't very well let you go after dropping that bomb." Then they winced at their choice of words, shaking their head. "Yes, Por. Stay. For now." There was a threat in that, but what that threat was exactly and how Ijuka thought they might enforce it with an Aezthena was beyond Anais.
Por bowed, glanced at Anais, then headed for the doors.
Anais shot one last look at the Council of Governors, who were in various states of shock. He felt not a small bit of shock himself.
He hurried after Por.
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