From the author: A con man. An immortal demigod. A chance at love that could save the universe. Good King Lyr is a slow-burn, genderfluid, ownvoices romance novel, serialized each week.
The palace felt too quiet. Sunlight shone through a window on one wall, sparkling lazy dust motes. Was it still morning? He was exhausted. He could almost sense the turmoil of the governors as they deliberated thirty floors down—not through Barenin's senses, but a tension in the air. Anais knew the taste of a job gone sour.
He sat in the uncomfortable, wingback chair, his leg jittering, straining to hear anything from Barenin. But there wasn't even the shuffle of steps.
After a while, he got up and paced. Locking his hands behind his neck, he prowled the sitting room, touching lamps to turn them on and off, looking at the various knick knacks and holopics in frames. There was a large image on the wall of Por and her Dayaran spouse—Anais had seen the smaller holopic earlier, but this was a more natural picture, large enough to examine closely. Their heads were pressed together, both smiling in elaborate face paint. Por's spouse was plump, ordinary despite the swirls of their face paint, except for eyes that sparked with wicked mischief. Oh, Por. She would pick someone who knew how to enjoy trouble, wouldn't she? Did her spouse know who she was? Had she ever trusted this person with her true identity?
Anais jinked away from the image, his fingers rubbing over the identity implant trigger on the back of his neck. The urge to run, that primal self-preservation drive, hadn't lessened. But all the reasons why he wasn't going to run had grown.
He glanced at the open doorway to the hall. Por was just beyond that wall. In a state of utter discomposure.
Anais drew himself up short, sucking in a breath.
Barenin Lyr was a master manipulator. In the Council chamber, he'd been mesmerized by her skills in action. She moved the flow of room effortlessly. How was he to know all of that hadn't been rehearsed? That she wasn't playing both him and the Dayarans? And what about her breakdown now? Was that real, or was she pulling him ever closer into her influence, playing on his empathy? She'd shown him her emotions, yes. But could he even believe that those were real?
He thought of her breath, frigid on his fingers on her lips. He licked his own suddenly dry lips.
Could there ever be trust between them?
In the holo dramas, relationships between Aezthena and humans never worked out. The Aezthena were all presented as sociopaths—in the holo dramas, it was just their nature. They inevitably ended up leaving their lovers on some point of understanding they couldn't share, or, more dramatically, ended up being the enemy, and the lover had to decide if they could in good conscience stay with the Aezthena. They almost never did. And those where they did stay were considered tragedies.
These were human dramas, of course. Did the Aezthena even have dramas? Did they have fun? Could they love as a human needed love?
Anais resumed his pacing until he stood in front of the room's one window. This view of the city was lower than the king's suites. Aircars flitted about at eye-level. There was a layer of smog here that hadn't reached the penthouse. The walls of the buildings had more wear, more grime. Less glitter and more reality.
It wasn't fair to say all Aezthena were sociopaths—he knew that now. It wasn't that they didn't feel empathy or emotion, they felt it differently. But were those different emotions compatible with human emotions? Barenin said she could feel human emotions, but she wasn't truly human. And she'd already shown her disconnect with humanity, no matter how human she seemed. What did Anais do when she wished to be focused Aezthena? Could he ever truly understand her or her motives? Would she ever stop manipulating?
He didn't think so. That was in an Aezthena's nature. Everything was a problem to be solved, and it was only a matter of moving the variables for the desired outcome.
Maybe the greatest gift Barenin had given him was showing him, briefly, how it felt to be Aezthena. Maybe that gift was so he'd know to stay away.
Run, Sela had said. Sela, an Aezthena, had told him to run. Right before she'd shredded through his thoughts.
Anais growled. He ran when a job got too hot. When the gains of leaving outweighed the gains of staying. But he didn't calculate gains in terms of money earned or stolen. Money had never been what he was after.
He approached Por's door and knocked. There was a shuffle inside, then she opened it.
She wasn't fully Por but in that halfway state, hair somewhere between black and silver, skin between brown and bone-white, eyes shifting between blue and gold. She stood composed, face expressionless. Silently, she stepped aside for Anais to enter.
And now he came in gingerly, like he was intruding on her private space. How much of what he'd just thought had she heard? Had she been listening, even if she'd said she wouldn't? Could she even help it?
"How can I trust you?" he blurted. "You'll always put me where you want me to be. It'll look like my choice, it'll feel like my choice, but it'll be you, pulling the strings. You know I can't live like that."
Por—no, Barenin, her mannerisms were subtly different, not Dayaran—nodded. She sat on the edge of the bed and folded her hands in her lap, staring down at them.
"I've had this conversation, or some variation of it, so many times," she said. "I've told you more than I tell most. Shown you more. I can't change who or what I am. I can't promise not to hurt you—in my experience, that is where things go wrong. I won't set up false expectations."
She looked up, eyes hovering on blue. "Kindred souls are rare, maybe one or two per human lifetime. But echoed souls? It's been a long, long time since I've found someone like you." She shook her head. "No. I have never found anyone like you. You are unique. And while I know myself well enough to know I'm not yet in love with you, I know I will be."
Anais swallowed on a dry throat. The space around him seemed to constrict. His pulse pounded in his ears. Had he heard that right?
He played the words back in his memory implant. Yes. Yes, he had.
But could he trust it? What did it mean to be loved by an Aezthena? To love an Aezthena? This Aezthena?
"Anais," she said softly, "we're very alike. Maybe more than any I've met or loved. Think on that before you decide if this is something you want. I've seen my strengths and my weaknesses in you. And...I think you've seen your own in me."
He swallowed again.
Gods. He couldn't stop the tremor that passed through his bones. He'd been alone for almost as long as he could remember. The thought of not being alone, of having someone else who understood why he needed to so fully immerse himself in his roles, the isolation he lived with even among crowds, the bitterness about his past and his dire need to protect his identity—would he ever find anyone else who understood that?
And yet, he still felt that impassable gulf between them. She was Aezthena. She would always be Aezthena—and she'd known how he'd react to her saying she would fall in love with him. That's why she'd said it. She couldn't stop being who she was.
But manipulation was in his nature too. Everything he did was a manipulation. Every role he played. Every person he influenced so a job would go more smoothly, an outcome altered in his favor. He'd done and said things while in character that he'd sorely regretted later. When he left with the goods, and the people he'd left behind had to deal with the wake of his manipulations and lies. He tried not to think about that part of what he did. If he kept moving from role to role, he didn't have time to think about it.
Was that what she meant when she said they were alike?
He had a flash of Ijuka's tight look when Por revealed herself as Aezthena. The dark betrayal in their eyes. Was that the kind of echo Anais wanted, someone who embodied the worst of what he did?
Barenin faced away from him, giving him space to think, but he knew she'd be picking up on his emotions in her half-Aezthena state. And that bothered him. Gods, it bothered him. Would he ever be able to get beyond that?
He locked his hands behind his neck, turning a tight circle of frustration. Why was he so obsessed with Barenin Lyr? Why had he spent such a significant portion of his life idolizing her, studying everything about her? Yes, she was a near-mythical figure. Yes, she'd brokered most of the treaties between the humans and Aezthena throughout history. She helped keep the peace. She was magnificent at dealing with the big picture.
But he'd seen the imperfections, too. No one could study a life that deeply and not see the cracks in the veneer. Like when she'd consigned three human star systems to the Aezthena in order to save twenty more. But those three systems had been utterly lost. Or when she'd started a war between human nations in order to escalate the threat they posed to the Aezthena, so the Aezthena would back off for another ten years. Billions had died in that human war. But she'd bought trillions ten more years of relative safety. And yet...billions had died.
Not many knew she'd done those things. It was in the subtext, the things she said that made the humans involved make those decisions, and she'd come out the untouchable hero. But he'd seen the patterns of her manipulations. Seeds sometimes planted over months or years. She was a master, and damn him, he admired her for that. These were horrible things, but she'd done them for the greater good.
That's what he told himself. That's probably what she told herself, too. And he didn't think she believed it. He'd felt the intensity of her self-loathing.
Why had he thought that playing Barenin Lyr would make him a better person? Beneath all the glory and the hype, she was just another person doing what she could to make a harsh universe a little more livable. He'd thought she did what she did selflessly, the tireless protector of humanity, but...he'd known even before he'd come to Denz Dayar that couldn't be true. Not fully.
Yes, he'd seen himself in her, too. Too much of himself, in the greater, deeper picture few others had dug deep enough to find. Still, he'd hoped. Hoped she was as good as he wished. That there was hope for someone like him.
But Barenin Lyr was broken. Her own universe was shattered, and she was desperately putting the pieces of herself back together in whatever way she could. If keeping the peace was a means to that end, then that's what she did. She threw herself fully into her own survival.
Like he did, on every job, just trying to hold on to a sense of meaning. Of being a version of himself he could live with.
Their eyes locked. She rose and he stepped closer, and closer again, until their faces almost touched, and he could see the gold fractals shifting in her eyes.
Floors below them, the Council debated whether or not to destroy their own culture, and somewhere out there, the Aezthena were moving everyone toward disaster. And some of that was his fault, and some of it was Barenin's. And maybe a lot of it was just that harsh universe living on. But he and Barenin, they couldn't not try to fix it, could they? No matter how tired they were. No matter how much they thought it couldn't be fixed. It was part of who they were.
He had tried, on so many jobs, to fully detach himself. And many times he had made the lives he'd disrupted a lot more complicated for his having been there—but he tried to balance it out. He couldn't not do good where he saw a chance to do good. The stars had been an uncaring place for him. He wanted it to be a little less so for others. He needed to try.
Anais' fingers curled into his hands. He wanted redemption. And so, he knew, did Barenin. Desperately.
But that wasn't why he wanted her.
Their heads bent at the same time. Their lips came together, warm and cool, rough and soft. The kiss wasn't gentle, the building hunger and need for release rippling between them. It burned out like a flare, peaking in a hot burst and then fading. This wasn't the time. But there would be a time.
They broke the kiss but stayed close. Anais didn't talk. He didn't want words interrupting the flow of emotions that ran between them, passing through shifting fingers clenched tightly together. Foreheads pressed, swaying a tuneless dance. The emotions felt truer than anything either of them could say.
They drifted back together, a long, slow, familiar kiss. The comfort of those who knew each others' souls, but had also just met. There was a newness. And an ancient promise.
Anais pulled away first, finding his breath. No, there wasn't love now. Not yet. But there would be.
27: Hacking Minds
The lingering feel of her kiss was electric ice.
Anais cleared his throat. Then cleared it again, trying to think cooling thoughts. He gestured vaguely around him. But gods, they were in her bedroom. His thigh brushed the side of the made bed. Best not to focus on his surroundings.
He triggered a numeric sequence in his memory implant and focused his attention on that while he pulled the rest of himself back together.
"So—how does this work?" he asked, voice huskier than he expected. He coughed. "Where do we go from here? What boundaries do we set, because I'm telling you right now, I don't like that you can read my thoughts. I don't like that you'll push me in directions I might not want to go."
Barenin gripped his hand tightly, her eyes flashing with sudden heat. "I will never influence your thoughts directly. Never. As far as reading your thoughts—I hold my walls tight, but I will always feel some of your emotions when I'm near you—I've told you that before. But not the thoughts behind them, not unless I have a lapse, or we are touching, or the thought is particularly strong. I can't promise not to hear it." She drew in a breath. "But that goes both ways. You have already felt my emotions. That is not something I've ever been able to hold back from those I love, either. I can reign them in tightly enough that they seem like passing thoughts, but I don't want to. I am Aezthena, and we communicate natively by emotion, impressions, thoughts without words. That part of my communication with you is a part of who I am. And I know you understand that."
Anais sighed down onto the bed, and she sit stiffly beside him. Not close enough to touch, but not too far, either. He studied his fingers, picking at the cuticles.
Barenin continued, "And as far as it's in my conscious power not to, I won't manipulate you into anything. But...I can't deny that is also in my nature. It takes thought and effort not to move all the pieces on the board as I will it. But you have my word that as far as I'm able, I won't do that with you."
"You have to talk to me," Anais said. "We have to discuss things before any big decision. Like your decision to end my stint as the contract king." He met Barenin's gaze, hoping his own conveyed his seriousness.
"You didn't want to continue your contract," Barenin said. "You made it clear you could not continue to play my role."
"That's not the point." He tried to quell his rising anger. Would she ever understand? She had so much power. She was used to power, even living as a human. But power was something he fought for, or borrowed, or stole. "I'm—I need to be me. And I need you to respect me and my decisions. Even if you think you know what I'll decide, ask me. Please."
Barenin vented a soft, bitter laugh. "And I've had this conversation, too. I'm sorry, Anais. I'm truly sorry. I should have let you close that out in your own way."
Anais scrubbed at his chin. He was so tired. And he had to keep reminding himself he still wasn't over the toll having simulated Aezthena thoughts had taken on his body and emotions. Though his memory implant steadied him, he still felt odd twinges in his mind, like his thoughts wanted to run up mental stairways that just weren't there anymore. There was a twitchiness to his fatigue, a sense that his body and mind had not quite re-integrated with his human normalcy. But there wasn't time to rest, was there? Never time to rest.
"We need to be equals or it won't work," he finally said. A galling statement. Maybe they did echo each other in their natures, but he keenly felt the differences between Barenin and him, sitting beside her, watching her almost-silver curls sway with her breaths. Her simulated breaths that she didn't truly need.
"Tell me when I overstep or don't trust you enough," Barenin said. "The only way I've ever found to make this work is with as complete honesty as possible." She drew Anais' hand toward her heart. It beat too slow for a human's, but he suspected too fast for what it should be beating right now. He felt, through her touch, the self-loathing that had been there before. But it was mixed with the optimism they'd gained that morning. Anxiety, anticipation, hope.
Hope, that most treacherous, beautiful emotion.
"It is not often I trust someone with myself." Her words were quiet now, almost too soft to hear. They echoed more in his mind than his ears. "It will take time for both of us to adjust to each other. At times it will be difficult. But be honest with me. I'll be honest with you. And if at any point you are unhappy and think that being with me is not what you want, tell me. I will do everything I can to smooth our transition apart."
Absolute sincerity in those words.
Anais trembled. He didn't know what to feel right now. He didn't know how to sort any of this out. He only knew—he needed to see wherever this went. The thought of leaving now made his whole body ache in protest.
His mind tried to spin up into logic trees again. Logic trees that went nowhere. He had to shift the conversation.
"So. So, what are we going to do when the Council decides not to destroy their own religious heritage in favor of humanity?" He tried to make his tone light. He didn't think he succeeded. And Barenin could feel his true feelings, as he could hers. There was no levity in either of them. Not right now. Not yet.
But Barenin's lips quirked in that almost-smile. "Congratulations. In your short stint as contract king, you have learned to read our esteemed Council of Governors well. We will, I think, wait until nightfall, then I have a job in mind for you and I to do." She paused. "Unless you have a plan?"
Anais laughed, a venting of tension. "In this, right now, I defer to you. I suspect your plan will involve a lot of blinking about the planet and either destroying or neutralizing the Dayaran tech?"
"No," Barenin said, smoothing out the folds of the bed covers around her. "Only one type of tech." Anais watched her long, thin fingers build the folds back up again. Like she'd built a wall around herself in his bed the night before.
"Edin's high-efficiency generators," he said, only half paying attention. His mind, ever helpful, was wandering to what those fingers could do. What they might feel like running over his skin, his chest, his—
Barenin stopped her movements and raised her brows.
Anais bit his lip against the furious heat in his face. But he didn't look away from her.
Again that small smile.
"I can't destroy a culture without their approval, as much as that would be helpful," she said. "And I can't use Kaireyeh to destroy. I'm not sure what would happen, either, if we destroyed those generators by conventional explosives, even if they are powered down. To blow up a Kaireyeh generator would create a localized ripple in spacetime that would take centuries to heal. To do so with these Yfeni generators...I fear the consequences would be dire."
"So..." Anais said, forcefully pulling his thoughts back to sift through possibilities. He rubbed his hands on his knees, the too-complex emotions of the moments before giving way to familiar anticipation—the thrill of the job. He reached for it with all he had. He could handle the thrill. That was familiar. "So, we steal them? Destroy what we can of the schematics and how they are built—but they'll have backups. Dayarans use actual physical plasti prints for hard copy backups. Gods. Unless you have a virus that can destroy plasti prints, we can't erase knowledge of how to build these generators."
"No," Barenin agreed. "And we won't stop the Aezthena from coming here. I can strengthen my planetary barrier as much as possible, but it won't hold against a concentrated assault."
"Wait. Can you even get past the barrier yourself? Can you take these generators out of here?"
"No. You'll have to do that."
Anais eyed her, suspicion twisting his gut. But he was still near enough he could feel her emotions. He sensed nothing from her that gave his suspicion merit.
She brushed his knee. She'd felt the suspicion and accepted it. "We'll take the generators deep into space. I have ways that will help mask their unique signatures."
"If these are as important as you say, the Aezthena will chase us."
"Most certainly," Barenin said. "But you'll still be following the outlines of your job contract. They might give us some lead time before they realize you're running. Or that I'm with you."
"Or they might have a ship waiting to intercept us as soon as we leave the system. Or maybe they already have a ship in-system. Watching." That was a new and unpleasant thought. He shifted. "And anyhow, the barrier doesn't protect against an Aezthena bringing out the schematics, does it? It's not a mental barrier? It doesn't make you sick if you think about the tech, or anything like that?"
"No. Although the Aezthena won't be able to use the schematics without knowing the distinction between Kaireyeh and Yfeni. And even if they already do, they can't build the tech themselves. That's why Sela's still here, though she has the schematics. There's something else she's missing, some essential piece to all this. Maybe it's what we just learned, the distinction between Kaireyeh and Yfeni. But even knowing what I know now, I'm not sure I'd be able to build such a generator. Not without time and careful study. And I might not ever be able to build it without flaws, as Edin's human engineers can. The concept of Yfeni is so foreign to what I know about Kaireyeh. But that won't stop the Aezthena from trying."
Anais rocked back, staring up at the ceiling and its plaster geometries. "So, nothing we do here's going to do more than delay the Aezthena, right? If we hide the generators, they'll find them. And even if not, they'll keep coming back here. They'll demand more generators be built. They'll demand the specs for the tech. Like you said, Sela already knows the schematics, even if she doesn't know whatever else it is she needs to know. But how long will it take for her to figure that out? Or to figure out what we know, if she doesn't know already?"
He vented a humorless laugh. "Hells, Barenin, everyone on the Council now knows there's a distinction between Kaireyeh and Yfeni and that it's important. The Aezthena could just sweep in and rip it from their minds. Sela and Edin pushed all this into the open. If you don't want the Aezthena to get that tech..."
Anais stilled, ice running down his spine. "Shit," he said softly. "Shit. I'm augmented. Having my kind of memory capacity makes me really good at math. At tech. I get this stuff, Barenin. If I saw the schematics, if I saw the generators up close—and I've seen enough now to already have some theories on how they work, just from what's below the palace—I could go a long way to understanding how to build them. And now I know the distinction between Kaireyeh and Yfeni, too. My clients knew me. They researched me as thoroughly as you did. Barenin—they didn't want me to steal the tech, they wanted me to hack the idea of it. So they can take it from my mind. Shit!"
He stood. He couldn't sit anymore with his adrenaline surging again. "There's no way to stop this. If not me, it will be someone else. Whether we steal the generators or destroy them—or the Dayarans, against all odds, destroy all the records of this—it's still in people's minds."
Barenin stood, too, her gaze focused elsewhere, eyes still hovering between gold and blue. "Sela is coming. She's heard of the current deliberation of the Council." Barenin's lips twisted into a humorless smile. "She gave us the courtesy of a warning."
Not much of one. Sela appeared a heartbeat later, barely a meter away from Barenin.
Anais couldn’t quite hide his jump.
“What are you planning?” Sela demanded, focused fully on Barenin. “I know you won’t destroy this culture. You won’t destroy the generators, and you can’t take the generators off-world. You know the other factions will be waiting.” She finally glanced at Anais, the barest acknowledgement of his presence before turning back to Barenin. “Why did you force this decision? This is drastic. I’ve studied these generators, Barenin. They work with Kaireyeh, but it’s not a form I understand. But you do, don’t you? You figured out the secret to the Dayarans’ tech. You’re scared. Tell me what you found.”
Barenin paled to full Aezthena. Though Anais couldn’t feel the conversation this time, he had the sense like before that the spoken part of it was only a small part of the whole communication. Flat and disjointed, referencing thought that flowed faster than spoken words.
“What would you do with this information?” Barenin asked calmly.
“I would leave this world and build my own generator. Understand how this tech works. Integrate that knowledge into the whole. Use it.”
“And the factions who want to use it for isolationist agendas?”
Sela hesitated. At the speed an Aezthena mind worked, that pause was more than significant. She stepped closer to Barenin, and Anais tensed.
Reacting on instinct, he reached for the halo staff implanted in his left arm. The bead pressed into his palm, and he expanded the staff with a thought. It cracked out to its full width and length, gleaming and golden, blades snicking out on either end. Only when the staff weighted in his hand did he quail at the thought that he’d just drawn a weapon against an Aezthena.
But Sela didn’t turn. Was he that insignificant to her? Was a weapon with atom-edged blades even a threat?
Sela and Barenin stared each other down, unmoving. Anais waited for either of them to speak again, sure Sela would berate him for drawing his halo, or Barenin would ask him to put it away, before realizing their conversation had carried over to their minds.
Great. And there he was, left again in the dark. Anais scowled, shifting his grip on the weapon. He felt less than useless, and ridiculous, holding a weapon that both Aezthena ignored. He glanced around the room—should he go? He should definitely sheathe the halo. What had he been thinking—or not thinking?
But his survival instincts wouldn’t let him put it away. Whatever Kaireyeh-tech symbiosis he had with the staff, it sensed his hammering heart and stayed solid in his grip.
Barenin glanced over, a sudden break in the staring contest. She placed a hand on Anais’ shoulder.
The touch was like turning on a fire in his head. He shuddered as thoughts and images assaulted him, too many to make out any single one. Anais gritted his teeth. “Barenin—”
Forgive me. I’ll adjust. The thoughts narrowed into a stream that made more sense, if he didn’t try too hard to understand it.
Anais wanted to protest the intrusion, but he started to understand the nature of Barenin and Sela’s conversation. Barenin translated for him in the only way she could. She was including him in this conversation. That—that might be worth the headache that was now throbbing at his temples from the information overload.
They’d been having an old argument, he sensed. They both knew the universe was going to end in destruction, but neither knew when, what caused it, or how to prevent it.
Could the Aezthena see into the future?
No, Barenin said to him. But I have some knowledge of the future.
So, Anais thought back, you know this is going to happen. That—his mind seized, catching up with what this conversation meant.
Gods. In his hand, the halo contracted back to its bead. Not because he didn’t feel threatened. But because a halo would be nothing against this new danger. He slapped it back into his arm.
Since the meeting with the Council, he’d had the queasy feeling his body had when he was low on adrenaline. From the day before, from the night, from that morning. He hadn’t thought he could react much more to surprises, that he’d just ride the wave, because it was all so intense he was becoming numb to it.
But heat filled him now, his stomach clenching. Barenin and Sela were talking about the future destruction of the universe. And they were talking like it was a known fact.
You’re saying the universe will be destroyed? he asked, in his thoughts because it felt too horrible to speak out loud. Are you saying that’s a certainty?
He started to shake. He had so much he was already trying to parse, to catch up with. When Barenin had said this was save-the-universe-stuff, he’d assumed she meant saving the humans and Aezthena from another war. Even when she’d said the Aezthena wanted to break off from humanity, he hadn’t thought—well, he hadn’t thought it was literally the fate of the universe at stake.
He closed his eyes. He had to re-center. Reorient. He had to accept this and keep going. He had to.
Anais opened his eyes to Barenin’s golden stare. Cold and evaluating. How long have you known about this?
A long time.
Gods, Barenin. Think you should have told me sooner?
She didn’t even blink. Just waited for the conversation to continue. For him to get to his point, because she knew that wasn’t it.
Anais’ nails bit into his palms, and he swallowed a growl of frustration. So stop it from happening. Don’t let it happen, Barenin. Don’t let the universe be destroyed.
I am trying to. That is what I’ve tried my whole life to do. To move events in such a way that this destruction doesn’t happen.
I have as well, Sela said, her sharp mental voice cutting into the conversation. Time is unchangeable, Barenin. The future is fixed.
We can’t know that for sure, Barenin argued back. There is at least an infinitesimal chance we are wrong, and the future can change. With that chance, I need to take it.
Don’t lie to yourself, Love. You’re above that.
Anais licked dry lips, mentally skipping over the “Love” part.
So, the universe is going to be destroyed, he said. Soon, if I’m reading your urgency right. And it has something to do with these Yfeni generators, and neither of you can stop it. So then why are you trying? Why are you both trying to change what you don’t think can be changed? How is that logical? You have to think there’s some chance, don’t you?
Both Aezthena’s streams of thoughts stopped. They turned to stare at him with twin golden glares.
Anais cleared a suddenly dry throat. He knew they could sense his thoughts. His mind was open to them, and there was no stopping that in the stream of mental communication, as much as he hated it. But even knowing his thoughts, they didn’t understand. It was that gap, that disconnect between human minds and Aezthena.
“When I was younger,” he said, “my parent showed me how to check the limit of my intelligence, given my DNA and the enhancement of my augments. The limit was an absolute, and one I would likely never reach. But I tried. I did reach it. And I tried and tried again, and I never went beyond it. My implant tracks my intelligence, and I still, after years of trying and testing, have never gone beyond it.” Except for those few brief days when his mind had been Aezthena. But that was something different. “But…there is a part of me that believes I can surpass it some day. And maybe I will. That part knows that logic can be flawed. That the rules aren’t always what we think they are.”
“No, human,” Sela said. “I do understand. This logic does not apply. We are Aezthena and can see all permutations. There are no rules to change here. The rules of Kaireyeh are immutable.”
“Yfeni,” Anais said. “That’s a different rule. That’s something unexpected. You didn’t see that coming.”
Anais felt mental walls slam around his mind. Barenin’s walls, holding his thoughts in. Oh, no. He’d almost just shared everything they’d learned with Sela. He’d forgotten, in the whirlwind of thoughts, that she didn’t know. Didn’t yet understand the difference between Kaireyeh and Yfeni. The chance of rules in the game. Had he already given her too much to extrapolate with?
“What is it?” Sela asked, and Anais could feel her scratching at the walls Barenin had put into place, like spider’s feet at the edges of his mind.
He clenched his jaw against the sensation. Against the fear rising up again, the memory of her ripping through his thoughts before. She could so easily do it again, if not for Barenin.
Sela bared her teeth, her first open expression of—anything. Anything other than the Aezthena blankness. The blankness had been intimidating…but this was much, much worse. “Tell me what you’ve learned!”
Barenin turned to her. “No. Because you’re not trying to change this future anymore. You stopped trying to change it. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You only want to understand how it happens.”
Barenin’s own expression turned to rage, a storm gathering in an instant. Her voice was sharp as splintered ice. “All these years, and you’re giving up. You’re going to the other side. You’ll help those factions destroy everything—”
“I won’t help them. But maybe, Barenin, maybe they succeed. Maybe they do use this tech to splinter off a pocket universe. Maybe the destruction of our universe is the result, but if we can’t change that, then can we hope that the Aezthena succeed? That our people have a place where they can be at peace, free from the restrictions of the humans?”
Now it was Barenin’s turn for an infinite pause. Anais felt her contempt at the thought. And longing for what Sela said to be true. Though she often lived as a human, she knew she wasn’t really human. There were places she could not go, where humans had ways to detect Aezthena and persecute them. Humans everywhere feared her—respected her, yes, but feared her—and that was exhausting. The thought of a universe where she was free to go where she wished, and be who she wished, was a temptation so strong it ached in her reinforced bones.
Then her thoughts shifted again. She would have no place in an Aezthena universe, either. Because she was caught between. She would never be fully human, but she’d never be fully Aezthena, either. And every Aezthena knew that.
Anais reeled at the rush of her thoughts and emotions.
Sera resumed her passivity.
Barenin changed the subject.
“Sela, you can’t build the generators without knowing what I know, or some other essential information that neither of us have, or you would have left by now. You were here because you wanted to understand why and how the Dayaran tech works. If you could have pulled that from a human mind, you would have—” Barenin stopped as Sela renewed her assault on the walls around Anais.
Though it was only a gesture in the physical realm and nothing that would stop what was happening in his mind, Barenin stepped in front of him.
“Don’t,” she said. “He’s under my protection.”
Anais gripped Barenin’s arm as panic tried to overwhelm him. Sela was truly and fully Aezthena where Barenin was only mostly Aezthena, focused as fully as she could be. Sela had to be stronger—she’d break through. She’d tear through his thoughts again. She’d know everything of who he was, she’d take it all. She didn’t even care—she just wanted information.
She’s not stronger, Barenin said. We’re evenly matched. And she won’t get through.
Please, Anais thought at Barenin. Please, don’t let her—
The pressure in his mind from Sela’s assault abruptly ceased. Anais wobbled, steadied by Barenin.
“You can’t shield him always, Barenin,” Sela said impassively. “It would not hurt you, or him, to give me this information. As you said, it might not be all that I need. Or it might, and if I knew, it might help me know how to stop another human-Aezthena war.”
“It could also shatter everything,” Barenin said. “What if you are the one who fractures the universe? You’ve already pushed the Dayarans to develop this tech. What if your building it yourself is the catalyst?”
“What if your holding back is the catalyst?” Sela said.
They stared each other down, and this time, Anais had no sense of mental conversation. They were holding each other apart, a void rising between them.
And he realized he and Barenin weren’t the only ones with an impassable gulf of not understanding.
Sela stepped forward and cupped Barenin’s face, in the same way Barenin had done to Anais. The gesture was intimately familiar, infinitely gentle. For a moment, too small to fully track, she almost seemed like a person, not this rage-filled god.
Then she disappeared.