Darion looked at Tolrek, to see if he’d heard the same stunning words.
“Yes, D,” Tolrek confirmed. “This is apparently nothing like we’d imagined.”
“What makes you think your sources are correct?” Darion questioned Kejaro and Arjan.
“We wouldn’t be telling you about this, if we hadn’t consulted various reliable people,” Kejaro said, his derisive tone traveling to Darion.
Arjan put a restraining hand on his lover’s arm. He knew the multiple reasons why Kejaro was highly agitated, which was out of character for the usually mellow agent.
“We absolutely believe it,” Arjan stated. “The merchant who told us about the experiment sells some of the equipment for the program’s participants. That’s for lack of a better term; from what I understand, they have no choice in being part of this experiment. They were specifically genetically engineered for it. There are about 300 of them, male and female, and they’re property of the four factions. One of the factions is more powerful than the others and has the bulk of the group.”
“Has your team been able to learn anything else?” Tolrek asked.
“Well, first of all, including Arjan and I, there’s now a team of five,” Kejaro responded with anger and bitterness in his voice. “I lost eleven of my people finding out this information for you and Tolrek. The ones who died are rotting somewhere in Ledano and the others are still in fucking Tildari custody!”
“I am sorry,” Darion assured Kejaro, knowing that his words didn’t address the magnitude of the loss.
“We’ll mourn our dead later,” Kejaro responded. “In the meantime, Ashrom should be arriving soon. I need you to have the rest of my crew released. I’m sending them back to Vaironia. And I don’t care what Beilon says, we’re not going on any more missions for a while.”
“I’ll do everything I can,” Darion promised. “We appreciate your sacrifices. If we’d known the scope of things…”
“I don’t want to hear that shit right now, Darion,” Kejaro told him. “I’m not in the mood for it.”
Before Kejaro’s anger about the situation could boil over, Arjan led him away to the opposite side of the room. He began speaking to Kejaro in quiet, nurturing tones, calming his lover.
Darion watched them for a few moments, thinking of how much more complicated the situation had become. He hoped that, when Ashrom arrived, his brother could provide much-needed answers.
When Ashrom entered the conference room, four pairs of eyes fixed on him. All of those eyes had varying levels of agitation in them.
“You know a situation is complicated, when Tolrek is the calmest,” Ashrom lightly quipped, as he closed the door. “Before anyone barrages me, Kejaro and Arjan’s team is being released. They’ll be brought to the embassy and should arrive within the next half hour.”
“You didn’t have to take them into custody,” Kejaro told him.
“We captured everyone we found and decided to sort it out later,” Ashrom responded. “We apologize for any inconvenience.”
“Inconvenience?” Kejaro scornfully echoed. “Is that what you really call it?”
“Do you want to fight me to get your anger out of your system?” Ashrom asked coldly. “Or, can I move on to the main reason we’re all here?”
“You don’t have to sound so flippant,” Kejaro said.
“What do you want from me?” Ashrom demanded. “We weren’t expecting your team to be near the Ledano border. Clearly, we’re not cooperating as well as we should.”
Arjan forced Kejaro to go to the opposite side of the room, wanting to avoid a confrontation with Ashrom.
“It wasn’t that long ago that I was talking to you about staying calm,” Arjan told Kejaro, holding his lover’s face in his hands.
“I know,” Kejaro grunted out. “I’m alright now. He just sounded so fucking dismissive.”
“Can I trust you to maintain composure?” Arjan asked. “After everyone we’ve lost, we need to get answers. We owe that to them.”
“You’re right love. I’m sorry. I’m under control, again.”
When Kejaro was ready to talk, after a few more minutes, everyone sat down at the conference table.
“We’d first heard rumors of Ledano’s experimental program about ten years ago,” Ashrom began to explain. “We weren’t completely convinced about the civil war. Various details made us suspicious. Ledano was still trading with our merchants. They’d barred all other nations but they were afraid to shut down commerce with us and anger us. Ledano is the strongest in its sector but not as strong as Tildar. For years, it delicately managed its relationship with us. After all, not pissing off an empire has its benefits. At any rate, we began to use our merchants as a source of information. We’d been interested in certain resources that Ledano has but we didn’t imagine what else we’d find; certainly not this program. Behadan Kyniska had cautioned that we’d primarily monitor what was taking place, in case we were misunderstanding the situation. We’re now prepared to share that information with you.”
Ashrom stated that Ledano had been genetically engineering children with berserker Ledani DNA. The berserker population constituted roughly 1% of the Ledani. Considered individuals with unwanted genetic anomalies, they’d long been feared and persecuted. Overtime, they’d opted to live in isolation from the rest of the Ledani. Most had accepted their circumstances, with very few, like Tolrek’s father, venturing into areas populated by those who weren’t berserkers.
When the civil war broke out, a few powerful factions were able to turn the tide in their favor and control the nation. These factions had become interested in using the traits of the berserkers to their advantage, creating a program focused on the benefits of the berserker DNA. Even after the war had finished, the genetic engineering had continued, as some of the most influential citizens believed it would be to their benefit.
“Arjan mentioned that this program may have been one of the main reasons my father was killed,” Tolrek said. “Is that the case?”
“Everything we’ve found indicated that’s true,” Ashrom told him. “One of your father’s goals was to have a greater connection with the outside world. The basics of the program were already in place before the civil war. The war, which began soon after Aerik was assassinated, had been between factions in support of and against the program. The factions in support of the program won. They’ve been able to manipulate what information gets out of the country. However, news of the reality has leaked over the past five years.”
“How does Meric tie into all of this?” Darion asked.
“Meric had a few schemes going. He actually supplied Tolrek’s DNA for the program. Someone from the program linked that DNA to Aerik’s. They wanted more samples. Meric was trying to supply more but Tolrek rebelled.”
“I can’t imagine what he was thinking!” Tolrek ground out.
“He was thinking to use you and was prepared to assassinate various people to get what he wanted, including Darion,” Ashrom responded. “He figured if he removed your support system, like Darion and your mother, you’d be vulnerable.”
“And he didn’t mind all of the collateral damage,” Kejaro grumbled.
“No; he certainly didn’t…Speaking of collateral damage, our scouts found a boy in Meric’s possession.” Ashrom pulled up an image of the nine-year-old child on the large viewing screen at the front of the room. “Meric informed us that the boy is named Kyan. The child hasn’t said much to us. We’d like Tolrek to speak with him.”
“And why is that?” Tolrek asked.
“We scanned information from the collar around his neck,” Ashrom told him. “However, the files were corrupted, perhaps intentionally. We suspect that Meric had him for specific reasons. We’ve interrogated Meric on that matter but he became more belligerent than usual.” Ashrom paused, choosing his next words carefully. “Therefore, he is currently unconscious and questioning will resume in the morning. At any rate, based upon what we did find out, the boy may even be related to you somehow. We can talk more tomorrow. I’ll also take you to meet the boy.”
When the rest of Kejaro and Arjan’s team arrived at the embassy, they spoke for a while. Darion made sure that the agents had everything they needed to return to Vaironia the following morning. Then, he and Tolrek bade the others goodnight, before everyone set off for Ashrom’s home.
Later, as Darion and Tolrek lay in bed, they discussed the unexpected events they’d learned about that day.
“Darion, how did Ashrom get all of that information from Meric? Meric isn’t the type to cooperate.”
“The Tildari Empire doesn’t really ‘interrogate’ in the usually understood ways, especially when anyone with Tildari blood has been injured or killed,” Darion explained. “All I know is that one of the worst techniques involves a series of serums, invasive hypnosis and pain. Not even someone as duplicitous as Meric is going to be able to withstand that. In order to work in the high-level security services for the Behadan, agents have to be able to administer and survive that technique.”
“So Ashrom went through something like that?”
“Yes. Obviously, he couldn’t tell me the details but when he spoke of it, his eyes were so haunted. Tildari society knows the basics of the techniques, mainly as a deterrent.”
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to have someone tunnel into your mind, especially against your consent.”
“Keep behaving yourself and you’ll never have to find out,” Darion teased.
Tolrek laughed and playfully nipped Darion’s ear.
“So, what’s the plan for tomorrow morning?” Tolrek asked, becoming serious again.
“You’ll go with Ashrom to see this boy Meric had with him. I’ll brief Beilon and look into a few other matters.”
Darion wrapped his arms around Tolrek and pulled him closer. Then, the two of them drifted off to sleep.
“We’ve made the boy as comfortable as we can,” Ashrom said, as he and Tolrek rode the elevator. They were at a Tildari security facility, traveling down fifteen floors to their destination.
“He has three meals and several snacks a day,” Ashrom continued to inform Tolrek about Kyan. “There are also toys in the suite where we’ve put him. I’ve had various people speak to him but he rarely responds to anyone. I even forced Meric to be around the boy again but Kyan became furious and then went catatonic in Meric’s presence. It took most of the day to get him to react to anything; that was one of his tougher times here.”
They arrived at a room where Ashrom swiped his card to gain access. Two agents stood at attention and saluted him.
“We monitor Kyan from here,” Ashrom said, after introducing Tolrek to the agents in charge of the boy’s well-being. They stayed in the room adjacent to where Kyan was. A one-way mirror allowed others to observe him. Ashrom dismissed the agents and continued to speak with Tolrek.
Ashrom pulled up data about Kyan on a computer screen. A picture of the boy was on the left side of the screen. Black, close-cropped hair surrounded an oval face that had large inquisitive green eyes and a stubborn chin that was slightly tilted up. With a height of just under 5 feet, his frame was slight. The right side of the screen showed the latest information on Kyan. He’d gone through his martial arts exercises for that morning and then had finished breakfast.
“Our scientists have taken Kyan through reasonable exercises to learn about him. Kyan is quite intelligent; he’s fluent in several languages, including Tildari and Vaironian. He usually occupies his time reading, practicing martial arts or solving a series of puzzles we’ve given him. He’s also incredibly observant, has a robust memory and is disturbingly strong in berserker mode. Generally, he’s quite calm. However, we did have an incident where he became violent. He ended up breaking the jaw of one of our agents and the arm of another, before we could sedate him. His extreme anger was triggered the first time he saw Meric, after having been away from him for a while.”
“I like this boy already,” Tolrek joked, making Ashrom chuckle. “He probably is related to me.”
“You can talk to him now,” Ashrom said. He offered a candy bar to Tolrek. “He really likes these.”
“Bribing him, Ashrom?”
Ashrom used the intercom system to let Kyan know he had a visitor. Then, he unlocked the door to the boy’s suite.
“Stay,” Tolrek directed Najrina. She huffed but remained outside the room, as he instructed. Tolrek entered the room where the boy was. Kyan was sitting against the wall that faced the door; his large green eyes peered at his visitor intently, as Tolrek began to speak.
“My name is Tolrek. Like you, I carry the blood of the Ledani berserker clan.
My father was Aerik Adrati.”
Kyan tilted his head to one side, recognition showing in his eyes.
“Have you heard of my father or maybe even me?” Tolrek asked. The boy did not respond.
“No one is going to hurt you. I only wish to ask some questions.”
The boy remained silent.
Najrina, too curious to continue following Tolrek’s order, slowly padded over to Kyan and began to sniff him. Instead of recoiling with fear, as many often did around a hettira, he remained still. When Naj was satisfied with her inspection, she licked the child from his jaw to the top of his head, plastering him with her spit. A small smile appeared on the boy’s face but then he quickly stifled it. Tolrek noted the interaction and planned how to put Kyan more at ease, using the comfort he’d shown with the hettira.
“Naj is my pet and I’ll allow her to stay while we speak, if you wish…but you must first tell me your name.”
“My name is Kyan but Ashrom must have told you that already.”
“He did,” Tolrek said, laughing. “I just wanted to get you to talk somehow.”
“Then don’t play games. Be honest.”
Tolrek slowly moved closer, sitting down across from the boy. He offered a piece of chocolate to him and Kyan gingerly took it.
“I have some questions,” Tolrek said. “Is that alright?”
“That’s fine, if you’ll eat some of this candy first,” Kyan said, giving Tolrek a sly glance.
“Do you think it’s poisoned or something?” Tolrek asked.
“We’ll know if you drop dead,” Kyan responded.
Tolrek laughed loudly and took some of the candy. He slid it into his mouth, chewed a few times and then swallowed it.
“See? I’m still alive.”
“Maybe only because Ashrom is Darion’s brother,” Kyan stated.
“You are too shrewd for your age,” Tolrek commented, his voice full with admiration. “How did you find out Ashrom and Darion are related.”
“I listen to everyone who has been around me and I remember.”
“That’s very good,” Tolrek murmured.
He paused, wondering how to bring up a delicate subject. He wanted to get it out of the way, to set his mind at ease for other questions he had for Kyan. When he realized there weren’t any perfect words for the scenario he was imagining, he finally asked his question.
“Kyan, did Meric…Did he ever hurt you in anyway?”
“He hit me sometimes. I wouldn’t tell him anything and he became very angry.”
“And was there more?” Tolrek asked, regretting that he had to ask the question.
“No, nothing like that,” Kyan whispered. “He said he’d sell me to people who would.”
Tolrek moved slowly and went to sit next to Kyan. They remained in silence for a few more minutes, until Kyan felt compelled to speak.
“Can I feel the sunshine now?” Kyan asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Can I go out in the sun? We lived underground in Ledano; they only let us go above sometimes. Have I been good enough to go outside again?”
Tolrek felt a deep wave of sorrow wash through him, as he thought about the life Kyan must have lived. He wanted to ask more questions but put them aside for the moment.
An adorable laugh escaped Kyan, when Naj nipped the last piece of candy from his hand. Tolrek chuckled but the mirth was brief. He sighed with sadness, wondering just how much Kyan and hundreds of others like him had been affected by everything they’d experienced.