Those in power invariably wish to stay in power and will seize every opportunity to ensure it. Neredos knew this for the uncomfortable truth that it was, and he desperately wished he could escape it now. He had become part of that power structure, had fed it, had made it consume more than he would've ever thought possible.
And he hated himself for it.
Alazyn did the best she could to console him, but as the months wore on into years, little by little Neredos was losing his sanity. Whenever he was home, he almost never slept, and he was rarely home. The project consumed him, like he was an aware alcoholic being offered free drinks at the bar. He knew it would be the death of him, but he could not stop himself. He suffered the need to see it through, no matter the dangers.
And there were dangers aplenty. Everywhere he looked it seemed there was a new pair of eyes watching him. While at first it had been mainly Admiral Jasho and his staff, now it seemed as if every other person was in the conspiracy. They would turn Neredos' dream into a weapon, and in some ways they already had.
He was certain Odiran thulu'Khant had something to do with that. The stern-faced human asked far too many questions. Whenever Neredos tried to dodge the questions, he ended up with another watchdog on his tail. Neredos could not avoid it, and eventually he always ended up giving Odiran what he wanted.
And now the Oligan government had taken the principles behind Neredos' technology and begun blasting holes in the Dobraeg. How long would it be before they turned that weapon on Ultaka? How long before they used it to settle the disputes in Lodan? How long before they use it against their own people, even now rising in revolt in the mining communities?
Not long at all, by Neredos' best estimate. Those few who were still loyal to him saw things the same way. He could see their uncertain stares, the wary eyes that jumped at every shadow. They spoke of the engineers who had already disappeared, or how the Gor never seemed to come around anymore. Not even Alazyn was allowed into some sections of the facility now.
And Neredos knew it would only get worse from here. He'd already witnessed secret meetings amongst his colleagues. They no longer included him in all their plans, and as the project neared completion, Neredos was certain it was only a matter of time before they removed him too. Death was coming on a massive scale, and it would be his fault.
He stood at the top of the survey tower, overlooking the entire complex. He was sewing, a practice he had taken up to pass the time during his sleepless nights. It did little to calm his nerves, though it did keep his hands occupied. He was working on a cloak, something he would use during the upcoming winter. The cloak itself was nearly finished, and he was now working on the embroidery. Only someone who inspected the cloak very closely would notice what he was doing. Small runes in little threads adorned nearly every inch of the cloak, all in colors that matched the cloak itself. They would be masked by the lining once he put it in. With any luck, no one would be the wiser, until it was too late.
From the view of the tower, Neredos could see the entirety of the Everbright City. He'd taken to calling it that after his wife, the woman who always brought light into his life. The platform was gigantic, stretching far into the distance. They had tested the suspension engines before assembly, but the first test of the city as a whole would begin in less than an hour. They had offered to let him watch from the control deck, but he had chosen this spot instead. He didn't want to be anywhere near the others. He couldn't bear to see the sadistic satisfaction on their faces.
"They say they're nearly ready," said Alazyn from behind him. He wasn't certain she would come to this, despite the momentous import of the occasion. She had made it clear, in the rare moments they were certain no one could hear, that she no longer supported the project. The only reason why she remained at all was to try to keep Neredos alive.
Neredos did not turn to look at his wife, keeping his eyes on the city instead. "They've been saying that for several hours, and it has either always been true or never was, though who can tell for certain with these people?"
"They're going to destroy the world," Alazyn said. It was a rather bold statement, considering they were no doubt under surveillance at that very moment, but it was also a statement so obvious that there was little risk anymore in stating it aloud. "They're going to destroy the world and laugh while they do it."
"They haven't attached any weapons to the city yet, so perhaps they will not use the Everbright City itself for that purpose. Perhaps it is enough that they have managed to create other weapons from our work here," Neredos said flatly.
Alazyn scoffed. "As if the Oligan government would let their newest warship go to waste. The Ultakan weapons would do nothing against this thing. Their most powerful explosives would barely make a dent before the city wiped them out. Even if they never install weapons, they could use it as a launching platform for their short-range pilots. They could transport thousands upon thousands of troops across the ocean without any worry at all."
"Those are excellent ideas, though you are not the first to think of them," said an emotionless voice from behind them. Neredos didn't have to turn to identify the speaker this time, either. Odiran thulu'Khant, a thorn in Neredos' side for over a year. Now a mage at least the equivalent of Alazyn in skill, though he had yet to catch up to Neredos. He was a dangerous man, perhaps the most dangerous of them all.
"I would've thought you'd be watching with the others," Neredos said. "What made you choose the survey tower?"
"I figured if anyone knew the best spot, it would be you," Odiran replied smoothly. He stepped around Alazyn to join Neredos near the edge of the tower. Neredos glanced at him briefly, but Odiran did not look at him once. Instead, his eyes moved over the Everbright City, as devoid of emotion as ever. "I know you see me as an enemy, Neredos. Or perhaps a rival at the very least. My only intention is the good of our people. I hope one day you will be able to see that."
Neredos wanted to challenge that claim, to drive home the point that he had never wanted to serve only the Oligani. He despised Odiran's jingoism and would love the opportunity to show the man a different viewpoint on the world. But Odiran was certain that Oligan was paradise. He was certain the world would be better off under Oligan's rule.
"I don't believe you and I will ever see eye to eye, Odiran," Neredos replied, then quickly stitched another rune into the cloak. He would need it sooner rather than later. He had to finish today.
"That is truly unfortunate, as I have come to appreciate our partnership. I've learned a lot from you," Odiran said. "It will be a shame that we will no longer be able to work together once this project is over. We clearly have different destinations. Tell me, will you be attending the ceremony tomorrow?"
Neredos risked the urge to share a glance with Alazyn. He could sense her tensing behind him with the desire to strangle Odiran regardless of the consequences. "Of course. President Caliphar invited me personally. Alazyn, however, will be staying behind to work on the final preparations before we launch the Everbright City on its first voyage."
"Good. Perhaps we will have the opportunity to meet the President together. I understand he intends to present a medal to you for your services," Odiran replied. He glanced at Neredos briefly and smiled slightly. There was nothing but contempt in his eyes.
Neredos' blood boiled. A medal! For what? For helping create the most devastating technology the world had ever seen? He hoped Odiran was wrong, that there would be no such ceremony. Neredos didn't want anything to commemorate his hand in the destruction that would follow. He wanted to leave a legacy of peace, but history would not record him as such.
Before he could respond, however, Odiran pointed forward toward a distant tower in the East. A series of red lights lining a tall metal pole were being lit in sequence from bottom to top. "Look, the signal tower is lit. They must be starting early," Odiran observed flatly.
Neredos held his tongue, wanting his focus on the moment before him. Before him stretched his crowning invention, his magnum opus. The gigantic platform began to glow blue with rivulets of energy along the edges. Beneath the city, those lights would be far more apparent, and would easily mark the city's location to anyone below it. But that would not happen until it was aloft.
Even as he thought about what it would look like, the city rumbled to life. While the city remained in the air mostly through magical means, getting it into the air and moving it once it was there required massive engines built throughout the entire complex. Exhaust rippled out from beneath the city as it expended the fuel it would need to escape the world's gravity.
Neredos held his breath as the Everbright City shook, but it was soon lifting, coming free from the ground as the restraints and locks let it go. He continued to hold his breath until the city moved past them in the air, rising so it was above the tower. He could see the lights then, just as he'd imagined them. Veins of blue moving through the trails of exhaust and burning fuel like lightning rippling through storm clouds.
The engines died down, and the crucial moment was upon them. Would the magic hold? The city remained motionless, hovering in the air as if suspended by some invisible force. Neredos had conquered gravity, a miraculous feat in the eyes of most. His heart sank even as the city floated. "The world will never know the beauty you could've been," he whispered, his eyes misting over. "If only we were meant for simpler times."
"It would not have been built in simpler times. Be glad for the need of it, Neredos," Odiran said. He looked at Neredos, his face as blank as ever despite what he had just witnessed. "I will see you at the ceremony."
Without another word, he turned on his heel and walked back past Alazyn, descending the tower. Neredos didn't bother to watch him go, his eyes focused on the Everbright City. He didn't want to look away, knowing that this would likely be the only time he would ever see it before it was used to dominate the world.
"I will kill him someday, given the chance," Alazyn muttered as she came to stand beside Neredos.
"You're being too bold, my wife," Neredos said gently. While he shared her sentiment, he could not endorse it. "Let's talk of other matters. Are you prepared for tomorrow?" He kept his tone as neutral as possible, trusting her to catch on to the hidden meaning.
"Yes. The crew is ready," Alazyn replied.
"Good. We'll want to finish as quickly as possible, and then hopefully we'll get out of this alive," Neredos said. None of it was true. He had no hope left, no desire to finish the project, and he definitely didn't think it was good. But he needed it all to be true all the same.
"What are you going to do tomorrow?" Alazyn asked. They had not discussed his part in the plan, though it was not because he wanted to keep her from her.
"I'll figure that out when I get there, I suppose," Neredos replied. No, he didn't want to keep anything from her at all. He simply didn't know. Tomorrow could make or break the world, and Neredos doubted he'd be alive to see it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Neredos wore his brand-new cloak on the ride to the capital city. It was only an hour away from the facility on the outskirts of Yathin, but the drive felt like it was taking an eternity. The extra layer made him sweat inside the heated vehicle, but the cloak also gave him some measure of comfort. It was nice to have contact with something he was glad he had created.
He'd shared the vehicle with both Odiran thulu'Khant and Dr. Nevor. The chatty Dr. Nevor had done everything she could to engage Odiran in conversation during the ride. Neredos had practically ignored her, and had paid little attention to her success with Odiran as well. He knew that they had spoken, and that was enough to lose his interest.
But as the vehicle pulled into the private parking area beneath the Capital Building Reception Hall, Dr. Nevor finally turned her attention to Neredos and asked with a confident smile, "Are you ready for this? I know you've met the President before, but this is different."
Neredos shrugged and couldn't bring himself to smile in return. "Yes, he came to view the project twice this year, and I met him both times. He's just a man, though. I don't understand the devotion people give him."
Dr. Nevor balked at Neredos' words. "Because he's our leader. He's the one who—"
"You're wasting your breath," Odiran interjected. "Neredos doesn't consider President Caliphar his leader."
"I've always taken you for a patriot, Neredos," Dr. Nevor said with surprise. "Why would you—"
Neredos turned away from her without another word. Despite his initial introduction to Dr. Nevor years before, he had done very little direct work with her on the project. She had spent most of her time refining the ignition systems and managing resources used in construction and maintenance of the Everbright City. She had been responsible for fuel of both the workers and the construction.
Neredos was glad he wouldn't have to work at all with her anymore. She was a patriot, to use her own word, and he had little love left for anyone who bore that distinction willingly.
He was certain Odiran made another snide comment behind his back, but Neredos didn't care. Within minutes he could be walking to his own execution, if they even gave him a chance to fight for his life. He paid little attention to the presidential guards who had formed the perimeter around their vehicle as it parked, until two stepped away from the side to stop him.
"Dr. Neredos, please, your escort is waiting over there," the guard said politely, gesturing off to the side. A contingent of twelve guards dressed in their ceremonial uniforms stood behind a woman in a suit. Neredos recognize the woman as a politician from the newscasts, though he didn't know her name. He knew very few politician's names, as he avoided them on principle.
But this was not the time for Neredos to make his stand, nor to give any indication that he wanted to make problems for his presidential host. Bowing in deference to the guard, he adjusted his trajectory toward the politician and arrived at the same time as Odiran and Dr. Nevor.
"Did you get a little lost there, Neredos?" Odiran chided quietly.
"It's my first time in the capital," Neredos said flatly. He managed to smile as he turned towards the politician, though it was hard not to grit his teeth. "I'm afraid I wasn't paying attention when I left the vehicle."
The politician smiled sweetly at him, in a mechanical way that never reached her eyes. "I'm afraid we haven't had the opportunity to meet yet, Dr. Neredos. I am Chief Counsel Redrel, and it is a pleasure to welcome you to your first visit to the capital."
"The pleasure is all mine," Neredos said with a flourish of a bow, hoping it would mask the insincerity in his eyes. "If I may ask, what is on the agenda today?"
Redrel shared a brief, inscrutable look with Odiran before returning her attention to Neredos. "Did you not get the itinerary I sent over to you?"
"I'm afraid that with the finishing touches we were making in order to complete the project before our deadline, I never got a chance to review it," Neredos said. In truth, he had tossed the paper into the fire before even opening it. The itinerary didn't matter other than to know when he would be meeting the President.
"I see," Redrel said, though her eyes betrayed her confusion. "I will take you to the sitting room for refreshments before the ceremony, then the award ceremony will begin precisely after the sounding of the second afternoon bell."
"Very good," Neredos said. "I could use something to whet my appetite before the ceremony."
"So that's why he's been acting so weird," Dr. Nevor said quietly to Odiran, though still loud enough for both Neredos and Redrel to hear. "He's just a bundle of nerves. No wonder."
"If you'll follow me," Redrel said, sharing another strained look with Odiran. It was obvious she was unused to dealing with non-politicians, but she had far too much tact to comment on it. The result, however, was a complete lack of conversation as the escort formed around them. Neredos didn't mind this consequence one bit. He put Redrel and the others out of his mind as they ventured into the reception hall.
He continued to avoid conversation even when they reached the sitting room. It was filled with politicians of all sorts, all come to bear witness to the wonders of Oligani ingenuity. While many in the government had become aware of the nature of the Everbright City project, this event would be on the national newscasts. It was the official unveiling, especially since the test launch from the day before would've been seen for miles around. It was no longer possible to keep the project a secret, not that they'd been particularly successful anyway. Of course, none of these people recognize the true import of the project, and Neredos found the thought of explaining it to them nauseating.
Still, Odiran seemed to derive a perverse pleasure in pointing Neredos out to those politicians. They came over alone or sometimes in pairs in attempts to bring him into conversation. Every time, Neredos politely excused himself, saying he needed another drink or something of that nature.
He avoided the alcoholic beverages, wanting to keep his senses. This was the day he needed to be uninhibited, if he wanted any chance of surviving it. Only one other person seemed to do the same thing— Odiran thulu'Khant, who continued to watch him as much as the uniformed guards did. Neredos was certain that Odiran had been specifically tasked to make sure nothing nefarious happened.
It wouldn't matter. Nothing would change Neredos' plan. Having a shadow only meant having a witness to the actions he performed in the light.
And then it was time. The politicians began to gather, Redrel sending them out in groups to be seated in the large hall. Neredos, Odiran, and Dr. Nevor remained behind. They would enter just before President Caliphar, as their places would be on the stand with him. Of course, it would be expected for them to stand behind the President, their only duty to receive the awards the President would bestow upon them.
The whole thing made Neredos' stomach churn. Dr. Nevor took lead of the trio, Odiran walking second, and Neredos brought up the rear. He stared daggers into the back of Odiran's head, wishing Alazyn's words from the day before could come true. It would be better if Odiran was dead; then maybe Neredos wouldn't feel quite as nauseated being here.
They entered the reception hall to a thunderous applause. Someone had announced them, though Neredos hadn't paid attention to the words being said. He simply stood numbly on the stage, staring at a crowd of people who would never understand the fate they were about to unleash on the world. Didn't understand or didn't care.
Light streamed through large windows near the ceiling, bathing everything in a soft glow. Neredos was puzzled by the presence of a large bird in one of these windows. Its coloration allowed it to blend in with the surrounding stone, though it still surprised Neredos that the bird had somehow gone unnoticed. To see such a natural creature in such an unnatural setting connected Neredos to a feeling he had never experienced before.
This world was one of change, one of movement, and chaos. Each decision, no matter how planned or methodical, led to a cascade of consequences branching out like feathering lightning. Movement. That was at the heart of everything. The decision to act when no one else would, or to act faster, better, stronger than other forces. Alazyn had driven this philosophy into him again and again, citing it as one of the basic tenants of Gor culture. She spoke of omens of change as if they were commonplace, though then made it clear that they were rarely seen or understood.
But he understood it now. It was time to make a stand, to invite the chaos into the moment and shatter Oligan's illusion of control. If Alazyn could do her part, he could do his. The bird was an omen—Neredos could not sacrifice his natural will, no matter what unnatural setting he found himself in.
President Caliphar entered from the opposite side of stage and took his place at the podium. He was a tall man, imposing in his way, though with a face of rugged beauty that many admired and others desired. But Neredos did not see any of that, instead seeing only the shadows hiding from the light. Caliphar deserved no more devotion than anyone else, and he had no right to dole out rewards for creating machines of death.
Neredos didn't listen to Caliphar's words. It was some grand, eloquent speech about the might of Oligan, and its divine right to be the greatest nation in the world. It was all pointless, propaganda to keep the people from revolting, to help them live in the shadows, hiding behind the façade of their modern deadly illusion.
President Caliphar picked up a medal from the podium and turned toward Neredos. He walked forward, smiling widely though his eyes held nothing but contempt. He lifted the cord so he could put it over Neredos' head, and Neredos spat in his face as hard as he could.
Caliphar staggered backward in shock, the large wad of spittle sliding down his face and onto his finely tailored suit. A stunned silence filled the room almost immediately. The silence lasted only a fraction of a second, but to Neredos it was the sound of victory.
He was on the floor a second later as the room exploded in movement. It didn't take him long to realize it was Odiran that was pinning him down, restraining him in several different ways and keeping him from moving. But no, Neredos was moving still, his action sparking a chain of reaction throughout the crowd. Some screamed in alarm, some shouted at Neredos for his act of defiance. A few brave souls even cheered on Neredos' behalf, though these were mostly lost in the cadence of fear.
Neredos could barely see President Caliphar, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping the spittle from his face. He discarded the handkerchief as his guards surrounded him, clearly fearing that Neredos' insult had simply been a precipitous attack on the President's person.
The last thing Neredos saw in the room before the guards pulled him away was the bird swooping down and retrieving the handkerchief. Few people seem to notice, but to Neredos it was the purest sign of all that he had been right. Change required action. The omens were clear.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The room was cold, and made Neredos glad he had brought his cloak after all. Of course, that was hardly the only reason. He glanced out the window, checking the position of the sun as well as he could from this angle. By his best guess, it was nearly sunset.
There were several guards standing outside the room, he knew. On occasion, one would come in to interrogate him, though Neredos never bothered to say anything at all to his captors. He had already determined it would be better if he kept his motivations to himself. Every one of these soldiers would be a loyalist, and they wouldn't care about the depravity Neredos perceived in their society.
He was surprised that Odiran had not come to see him yet. He would've thought his watchdog would've been one of the first to interrogate him, but there had been no sign or mention of the emotionless man. Though it seemed that each time someone new came to do the deed, they ranked higher than the one before. At the rate things were going, President Caliphar himself would be coming to interview him soon.
But Neredos doubted it would come to that. He was already working on the next stage of the plan he devised as soon as he decided to make his statement. He would escape or die trying. First, he had to get out of the restraints keeping him anchored to the table in front of him.
The restraints consisted of two metal rings bolted into the wood. Neredos had already begun scratching several runes into the wood with his fingernails. It had left his fingertips bloodied and splintered, but that only increased the ability to impose his will on the objects. Now his blood was in the table, and the table was in him. They were connected, and they were the same.
The door opened and a severe looking man, with a clean-shaven face and graying hair, entered the room. The man took a seat across from Neredos and simply stared at him for several moments before saying, "I hear you don't want to talk. I suppose it's time you listen then. I'm here to tell you of the consequences you're facing for assaulting the President's person."
For the first time since entering the room, Neredos felt like speaking. "Assault? For spitting?"
"You were clearly threatening the President, and initiated violence against him," the man said. "If you think you can get away with that without facing any consequences, then you better—"
Neredos didn't let the man finish. He focused all his will into the wood between them and commanded it to shatter. It was not so simple as that, but the effect was much the same. Using his will on the water contained within his blood, he channeled his focus through the rune to seep that water into every single crack in the table. Then he drew heat from the blood, freezing it throughout the table. He held onto that heat, storing it for just a moment, as the snap freeze happened in an instant, shattering the wood into a million tiny splinters. Then he returned the heat in an explosive blast, driving all of those splinters forward into the man across the table.
Neredos had never wanted to kill the man, and in fact found such displays of violence incredibly distasteful. Despite this, he did not spare a second to check on the man's status to see if he was alive. The guards had already opened the door, having heard the explosion, and Neredos had to be on the move.
With a flick of his wrist, Neredos brought the corner of his cloak to bear, activating one of the sewn-in runes to make it as strong as steel, and as resilient as bulletproof glass. Two shots were fired, and two shots never found their mark in Neredos' flesh. The guards were so surprised that Neredos continued to advance, that he completely caught them off guard when he whipped that steel-like garment across their throats, activating another rune to give it a razor edge and slitting both at once.
He dashed into the hallway, knowing he only had seconds before others would come to investigate the sounds of combat. He spotted a sign that indicated a staircase and rushed toward it. As he pushed through the door, another shot ricocheted off his shoulder. While the missile didn't pierce through the fabric, the impact jarred him and he stumbled into the landing.
He heard footsteps from below him, other soldiers coming as their fellows called for backup. The sign next to him indicated he was on the fifth floor, but he had no intention of going down. Instead, he hastened to climb the two flights to the roof and pushed out into the sunlight.
Wasting no time, he made for the edge of the roof, orienting himself with the sun to make sure he was facing toward Yathin. He heard footsteps behind him and knew it had to be the person who had shot at him before. They were the only one who could've been close enough to catch him.
Neredos didn't question his luck that his pursuer did not try to shoot him again. Instead, he simply leapt from the edge of the roof, activating yet another rune embroidered into his cloak. Gravity held no bounds over him, and rather than fall, Neredos flew.
Even as he distanced himself from the building, he felt the faintest grasp of fingertips clutching at his boots. Only then did Neredos spare a glance downward, to see the face of Odiran thulu'Khant as he fell toward his death. For once, there was emotion on that stony face. Rage. Rage, and fear.
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