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.
32: Aezthena Ship
He was on Barenin’s ship. Gods, an Aezthena ship.
Aezthena didn’t need much air. Or heat. But humans did—had Barenin thought of that? In all the details they’d planned, had Barenin missed the very important fact that he needed air and heat to stay alive?
Anais gasped, room spinning, ears ringing as he looked for something to hold onto.
Dammit, Barenin. Part of his mind railed at them—they couldn’t have missed a detail this huge—while the other part searched his narrowing vision for some controls, something to activate the environmental systems.
But he stood in the center of the oval-shaped room, which was empty expect for a single, waist-high pillar at one end and a low gray couch at the other. There were no standard ship consoles. There weren’t even any doors.
He grabbed at his throat, angling toward the pillar as his best bet.
Then the lights came up, air rushed in, and heat radiated around him, the atmosphere adjusting to a human presence.
Anais stumbled back to the couch and sat shaking, head in hands, drawing deep breaths.
“Damn it, Barenin!” he shouted, his throat raw. He flinched as the shout seemed swallowed by the room, leaving no acoustics, no echo.
He was on an Aezthena ship. This was, gods and stars above, an Aezthena ship.
Everything was soft-white. The ceiling sloped down to meet the walls and the floor sloped upward. There were no seams, no hard edges. No windows he could see. And yes, no doors. He was used to ships’ ambient system hums, but this ship was silent, a high-tech tomb.
Hairs raised all over his body. Barenin hadn’t warned him about the atmosphere on the ship, or lack of it. Had they just spent the last few hours planning with him, then sent him here to keep him out of the way? During the Council meeting, Barenin had given him detailed instructions on what to do once he’d reached their ship, but they hadn’t included any descriptions or mental images of the ship itself. Anais hadn’t realized it at the time, focused as he’d been on the bigger picture. On the intensity of their planning. He’d assumed that Aezthena ships had at least basic controls in common with human designs. But nothing here looked like a ship’s control room or bridge.
Had Barenin’s coin taken him to a holding cell? Was this their idea of keeping him safe? Or worse, a place where he couldn’t interfere?
Bile rushed up his throat. His part of the plan was go to the ship, input the correct navigational coordinates, and prime the weapons. His part in this plan was vital. He had felt that from Barenin. He’d felt their confidence in him.
He also knew Barenin would do anything to see this job done well.
Anais rubbed his face in his hands. His heart rate was too high, his body too jinky from adrenaline. He didn’t know the situation here—whatever Barenin had sent him into, he had to get his bearings.
Anais yelped and whirled.
Barenin stood behind him, dressed in white Aezthena robes, hands clasped before them.
“Barenin, gods, you should have told me there was no air—”
“You are seeing this recording because you activated my coin. Congratulations. I’ve only ever given that to a few people.” Their lips quirked in that small, almost-smile. And Anais had the jarring impression of them as distinctly masculine. Like Barenin’s bearing in their public appearances, or when they’d taken over his contract as king.
Anais ran a shaky hand through his hair. So this was a hologram? Did that mean this door-less room wasn’t a holding cell?
What are you playing at, Barenin?
“I will act as your interface with the ship,” the recording of Barenin continued. “The ship is a low-level intelligence and will do their best to accommodate your needs.” The ship-Barenin paused. “Please don’t destroy them. Now. How can I help you?”
Anais gripped the edge of the couch. Barenin included in their welcome message a plea not to destroy the ship? What the hell kind of company did they usually keep?
Wrong question. They were Barenin.
Had that first moment been a test? But then, why not warn him?
Anais shoved himself off the couch, steadied on wobbling legs. Whatever reasons Barenin—the real Barenin—had for wanting him off-balance, he still had a mission to carry out. At least he hoped he did.
But he couldn’t understand why they’d want him off-balance now, when everything was riding on what he did in the next few minutes. He checked his memory implant’s internal clock. Thirty-one minutes until the ship had to fire its weapons, while Barenin simultaneously triggered the modified implant at Edin’s generators to hide the planet. And the ship would be firing Kaireyeh weapons, the only way to make this look real. Like Denz Dayar had actually been destroyed.
Kaireyeh weapons banned on every human world. It was against the treaty with the humans for Barenin to even have them on board. Weapons that could cut through spacetime and be at their intended target before it should be possible, this close to a planet’s gravity well. Weapons that would tear the fabric of spacetime when detonated.
But then, that was the point. That was how they’d make a planet disappear, by hiding it in this tear of destruction.
And if they weren’t so, so careful, these weapons might shatter the illusion they were trying to create and actually destroy a world.
Anais’ shoulders tensed, his stomach tightening. “Ship?”
“Yes, go ahead,” the ship-Barenin said.
“Uh, I need you to go to specific coordinates—is there a place I can enter coordinates?” He turned around. “Is this the bridge? Can you take me to the bridge?”
“This is the bridge,” the ship-Barenin said calmly.
The white pillar lit with a pale blue light. Holo displays fanned out from it, colorful interfaces in human Aijani standard language.
Anais’ anger flared. Later, he told himself. He’d yell at Barenin for not telling him all this later.
“Yeah, that will work.” He strode toward the holos. They looked too colorful, out of place in this pristine Aezthena world. Did Barenin even need these displays to control their ship?
A navigation display flashed he approached, anticipating his needs.
Was the ship reading his mind?
No, he’d just told the hologram he needed a nav interface. Anais tried to let his shoulders relax. Tried to focus on the job at hand. He input the coordinates Barenin had given him, heading the ship toward a high orbit around the planet. “Cloak the ship to all frequencies.”
“Ship is already cloaked,” the ship-Barenin said.
“All right,” Anais said under his breath, and paused to look over the other readouts. It was a dizzying array of information, everything from orbital trajectories to nearby Kaireyeh super-threads to planetary local weather reports.
Anais checked his internal clock again. Barenin should have finished with their spouse and would be at Edin’s generators, building the planet-hiding tech now. Anais’ own timing was on-track, despite the few minutes wasted in the shock of coming on board.
Okay. Okay, he was okay.
He continued down the list of commands Barenin had given him.
“Turn active threat watch to passive,” Anais said. That, Barenin had explained, would help conceal the ship’s movements from any Aezthena who might be in the system. Another of those important jobs it would have been nice to have more concentration for.
“Threat watch is now passive,” the ship-Barenin said.
“Prepare a level-five weapons discharge to these coordinates, in this sequence.” He pulled up the exact memory of Barenin’s words in his memory implant, preparing to read them off.
“You do not have the authorization to use this ship’s weapons systems—”
“The hell I don’t.” Anais gritted his teeth and pulled up another memory Barenin had given him directly. He rattled off the long, half-nonsensical override—complete with mental images and thought impressions.
There was a slight pause, while Anais’ heart pounded too loudly in the ship’s silence and he wondered if he’d gotten the mental nuances right. And wondered just how deeply the ship was scanning his thoughts, if it could pick up the surface thoughts that were part of the override.
Gods, there had not been enough time to fully think this through. To consider what it meant that another person—or thing? What exactly did low-level intelligence mean to an Aezthena?—would be in his head. Was already in his head.
“Ha.” The holo display shifted to make room for the weapons screen, and Anais began to fill in the fields as Barenin had specified.
Later—he’d think about the ramifications later. So much he had to think about later.
He’d known Aezthena mentally interfaced with their ships, and he had the feeling Barenin could have done all this themself from the ground, if they hadn’t needed all their concentration to work with the Yfeni generators. They’d also wanted to minimize the chance of their discovery by the Aezthena. And they’d been concerned the Yfeni energy might interfere with their ability to interface with the ship.
Anais hoped not. Gods and stars above, he hoped not. He was here to get the ship into position, make sure it wasn’t found before it could carry out its mission, and prime the Kaireyeh missiles for firing. But Barenin, on the ground, had to give the mental command to fire. Anais might have the countdown, but only Barenin would know the timing to the nanosecond. And they needed that precision to make this work. Too late, and an Aezthena observer would see the planet disappear before the explosion. Too early, and…well. No more Denz Dayar, in phase or not.
“Ship,” he said, his voice smaller than he’d have liked. “Ship, call Barenin Lyr. Tell me when they respond.”
Another infinite pause. “Barenin Lyr is not responding.”
“Shit.” Anais pounded his fist against his leg. “Shit!”
He had his instructions on what to do if Barenin couldn’t reach the ship. That, more than anything else, was why he was here. Program the sequence into the ship’s computer. Set the computer to auto-calculate timing as best it could. And pray. To all that was holy in the universe, pray.
“Set the firing sequence,” he said, staring at the weapons display.
“Firing sequence set,” the ship-Barenin said. “Would you like me to auto-calculate—”
“Very well. Auto-calculation engaged.” The ship-Barenin added, mildly, “There is an intruder on board this ship.”
Anais stiffened and turned. “Do you mean me—”
His words died when he saw Sela standing behind him, calm and enigmatic.
33: What They Do
He hadn't seen her. Hadn't felt her. Hadn't heard a sound, a breath, anything. Was Sela a hologram, like the ship's version of Barenin?
She spoke words like ice into his mind. What did Barenin send you to do?
Then he felt her probing deeper, rifling through his thoughts.
No. No, no, not this. Not again. She couldn't tear through him again.
"No!" Anais screamed. "Get out!" He scrambled to draw the station corridor in his mind, scrambled to throw Sela and everything else that might be in his head out. But his thoughts sifted through his hands like sand.
He clamped his hands to his head, as if that could hold his thoughts inside. "You can't do this! You can't invade my mind! Why don't you just ask me what you want?"
Abruptly, Sela's presence was gone from his thoughts.
Anais drew a sharp breath, expecting her to disappear, but she didn't. She didn't leave the room.
Anais yelled, "Ship! Get her out of here!"
How had she gotten past the ship's security? Had Barenin given her access to the ship before and not later revoked it? Was she that powerful she could just go anywhere?
Barenin had said they would deal with Sela. They would have made plans and provisions for every scenario they could think of—including this one.
Anais stood, panting as heat coursed through him.
Fuck. He was so fucked.
Barenin had manipulated him, again. They'd used him, they'd known this would happen, again. Whatever their reasons, they'd planned for this. Maybe they'd hoped for it.
Anais was here, vulnerable where he hadn't thought he'd be vulnerable. He'd been vulnerable and off-balance from the moment he got on the ship. Whatever Sela wanted—whatever she hadn't been able to learn from stripping thoughts out of the governors' minds—she could just take it from him. Maybe she already had.
Was it that final connection to understand the difference between Yfeni and Kaireyeh? Anais' part in what Barenin was currently doing? Something else—in their mental conversations during the Council meeting, Barenin could have slipped anything into his mind. A message. A subconscious trigger. Anything. They were Aezthena. They were ruthless in their need to carry out their mission at all costs. This was the person who'd once sacrificed three star systems to save twenty. So was he the sacrifice here? Was he the dumb beast laid out for the slaughter?
He viciously swiped at his eyes, only partly clearing them of unwanted tears. And though he felt more naked under Sela's unrelenting gaze than he ever had in his life, knowing with paranoid certainty she knew exactly what he was thinking, he stared her right back.
It was what he had. He had nothing else. No implant, no masks, no Aezthena-like powers. No Barenin to protect him. Really, no Barenin at all. He had himself. He'd only, ever, had himself. It was all he ever would have.
Sela's bobbed hair darkened to black, her skin to rich tan, eyes to brown. It wasn't like watching Barenin move between Aezthena and human states. The transition here was more like a holodrama effect, a softening of the illusion so the transition wouldn't seem abrupt. Anais had no allusions that Sela was at all human, or felt anything a human felt. This was an Aezthena illusion and nothing else. Did she think this would throw him off, seeing her as she might look as a human? But her eyes were still hard, and so, so cold.
"It's what they do, child," Sela said softly, stepping closer. "Barenin sacrifices what they love for what they think is the good of all. They think they're only sacrificing their own needs. They think they're doing this for your own good. They care for you, and they know this will poison that. They sent you here anyway. Barenin thinks losing their happiness is a small price to pay, that you will be better off without them."
Anais swallowed. "Are they right? You told me to run. You told me to get away from Barenin. Is that what you did?"
She smiled, a sad smile.
A simulation of a sad smile, Anais had to remind himself. Sela wasn't human. But that didn't mean she didn't feel grief.
"I never ran," she said. "I could never make myself give them up, not fully. Though I'm as bad for them as they are for me. And as good, maybe."
Anais' guts churned with revulsion.
Abrupty, Sela was Aezthena again.
"In this instance, they've used me, too." Sela stepped past Anais to the holo displays, studying them. He did his best not to shy away from her nearness. "They knew what I'd see in your thoughts. The plan you've laid out, and its reasons. And your reasons, and the Dayarans' reasons. I see the structure of the conflict between the ideas of Kaireyeh and Yfeni in your mind, Anais Cavere. And Barenin wanted me to. Because they needed my help with this as well."
Anais flinched. So she hadn't pulled from his thoughts out of some altruistic ideal dormant in her stone-cold heart. Some shred of empathy for his plea. She'd already got what she'd come for. And Barenin had let her do this? Had planned for this?
He bit his lip, hard, because the tears were coming back, and he didn't want that. Couldn't have that. His body was pumping with adrenaline, but he was so, so tired. His mind still hadn't recovered from the strain of having an Aezthena mind the last few days. He couldn't think straight about any of this.
Sela held up her hands. "May I? I can ease some of the fatigue. Your mind has neural damage from your time with elevated thoughts that it's now straining to heal. I can redirect some of the pathways—"
Anais stepped back, almost tripping in his haste to put distance between himself and Sela.
Neural damage? What Barenin had done to him to make his mind simulate an Aezthena's had given him brain damage?
"No," he choked. "No, I don't want you to change me." Gods. Oh he really hadn't thought that one through, had he? He'd acted in the heat of the moment, on Barenin's momentum. And now he had brain damage.
He queried his implant to run a mental diagnostic—but, no, that would have to be later, too. His implant needed significant brain function to run that kind of diagnostic, and he'd get the best results while he was asleep.
But if changing a person's brain was as easy as Barenin made it look, as Sela was implying, Barenin could do it again. Maybe had already done it. Was he even himself anymore?
Sela lowered her hands. "Truly, I was trying to help. I sensed no manipulation to your mind other than the previous elevation, but that has been reversed. For whatever it's worth, you are yourself, if still healing from a mental trauma. And that trauma will fully heal on its own. Barenin would never have done it otherwise."
That wasn't true. Barenin would do whatever it took.
Anais looked anywhere but at Sela. Focused on the holos, and the timing on them that had already synchronized with his memory implant clock's timeline. More evidence that the ship was in his head.
"Ship! Get out of my head!" he yelled.
The ship-Barenin, standing off to one side, said, "A low-level interface is required for accuracy of—"
"I don't care," Anais said. "Out!"
He felt no difference and decided he'd wasted enough time with this whole conversation. Time was closing in, and he moved closer to the holos, razoring his focus, checking their progress. The ship was just now settling into orbit. It wouldn't be long now until they reached the most crucial part of the plan.
"I am sorry," Sela said. She flickered back to her human illusion. Brown eyes haunted with sincerity. "I'm am truly sorry for intruding on your thoughts—"
"Are you?" Anais tapped a control and raised the temperature in the room by one degree, just to have something to do. And because it might annoy her.
Sela was still for a long moment. And he noticed, with a creeping sense, that she hadn't made her human illusion breathe. "Barenin wanted me to touch your mind again. To see how what I'd done before affected you. I have, perhaps, grown too apart from the humans I hope to protect."
"Doesn't sound to me like you're much interested in humanity at all. You want the Aezthena to make their own pocket universe—"
"Not at the expense of the existing one."
Anais finally turned back to her. Go-time was in less than five minutes, and he had something he had to ask, in case this all blew up in their faces—literally.
"Barenin didn't just maneuver you here for that blazing morality lesson. Barenin thinks on way more levels than that. So why are you here, Sela? Why have you stayed, if you got what you wanted from my mind? Why try to make any kind of peace with me—not that I forgive you, mind you, if you were looking for that. No absolution from me."
Sela arched a brow at that statement, but waved at the holo displays. Still holding her human illusion, and, thankfully, breathing this time. "Look at the numbers. I've seen your mind; you are excellent with numbers. Has the ship been able to reach Barenin?"
Cold sweat trickled down Anais' neck. He'd planned to query the ship again after his question—gods, and he really wasn't thinking straight, he should have done that first—and find some way to connect with Barenin. But from Sela's words...that wasn't going to happen, was it? He'd have to trigger the Kaireyeh weapons himself. He'd have to make calls in timing that were a gamble at best.
He watched the nav screen as the ship glided around its set orbit. He checked the cloaking status, and the passive scan status: all good. And the programmed weapons display, counting down the time until Barenin would simultaneously trigger the cloaking device and the weapons sequence on the ship: four minutes and twenty-eight seconds. How had he thought that was enough time?
Anais' throat tightened. He knew what he had to do. Saw the flashing "go" signal on the weapons display holo, just waiting for his palm to fire. Do this wrong, and yes, he could destroy this world.
Ijuka, and maybe-not-so-pompous Farian. Edin, and Por's Dayaran spouse. And...Barenin.
"Look." Sela pointed at a readout he hadn't paid much attention to. "This tracks the ship's owner at all times. Look at the time stamps here. Look at the discrepancy."
Anais leaned forward. "Wait. I thought the ship couldn't reach Barenin—but this shows their vitals." He looked closer. There was a few nano-seconds' lag between Barenin's perceived time and the ship's actual time.
"Time is slowed that small amount around the Yfeni generators, fluctuating unpredictably," Sela said. "Signals with comm bandwidth and mental signals will be skewed or can't get through. Barenin knows this. They can't send the firing command from the ground. And you won't be fast or accurate enough. No human could be."
Anais gripped the edge of the pillar, the holos near the bottom painting themselves across his sleeves. "Then why am I here? If I can't do it, why am I here?"
Sela faced him. "To show me, with your thoughts, that this world is worth saving. To show me how deeply Barenin cares for it. And how much you yourself are putting on the line, how much the Dayarans are putting on the line, by doing this." She touched his hand, and his wrist twitched, but he resisted the overwhelming urge to pull away from her touch. A warm hand, not cold. Another part of the illusion.
And yet, through that touch, he felt her sincerity. Different than Barenin's, more alien and coldly logical. But nonetheless real. As real as he could let himself believe.
Thirty seconds left.
"Barenin knew if I saw your thoughts, the human perspective—and someone who also partially understands the Aezthena perspective—I would not be able to blink down and pull Barenin out alone. I wouldn't try to stop you from what you're doing now. And I would have to help, to fire the weapons myself, or none of this would work."
"But you have what you need to make the generators, don't you?" Anais asked.
"So you'll just take that back to the Aezthena. And we'll have done this to the Dayaran world for nothing. The Yfeni tech will still be out there, in Aezthena hands."
Anais checked his internal clock. Twelve seconds left. Would she give the command to fire, as she'd said? Could he even remotely trust her, with her sincerity still pouring through their forced link?
He glanced at the clock on the holo displays and jumped. The countdown sat at twenty-nine seconds, not twelve. And the navigation numbers had slowed as well.
Anais swallowed. He was caught with Sela in a sped-up bubble of time. She hadn't touched his wrist to show her sincerity—that had been the distraction. She'd wanted to trap him.
34: How to Destroy a World
Sela's appearance shifted again—still the same human illusion, but the lines around her eyes deepened, and her eyes grew more lively, full of fire. She wore what looked like a blue and red military uniform, though Anais couldn't read the tabs and insignia. It had to be ancient.
"I don't agree with everything Barenin believes," she said. "I don't think our future can be changed. The universe will fracture. And the Aezthena do need a place we can call our own. You may think we are all-powerful, but the humans have placed so many laws and regulations on what we can and can't do in their space that we might as well be powerless. Despite my efforts, the humans are once again gaining technology that will see through our illusions and identify us as Aezthena wherever we go. We are a powerful, hunted people, and that is a very dangerous position to be in, for us and the humans.
"So no, I will not take what I've learned back to my faction. Not until I better understand it. Knowing what I learned from you, I agree with Barenin on that point—the potential for this Yfeni technology is both vast and disastrous. And there are factions among the Aezthena who are reckless in their desire to be free of humans. Sealing this world off from the Aezthena is the current best course of action."
The clarity of her intentions poured through her touch, searing him. She sensed his discomfort, though, and dammed the flow of her emotions.
Anais took a shaky breath, still watching the slowed numbers on the displays. Slowed, not stopped. They were down to twenty-six seconds. "So you will help us."
"Yes. In this, right now, I am with you."
Anais met her dark gaze, still fiery with her simulation of emotion. Or maybe showing a translation of her Aezthena emotions. She hadn't promised not to take the Yfeni tech to the Aezthena eventually. But at least the other Aezthena factions, the ones who had hired Anais, wouldn't get it yet. Barenin knew Sela. They would have known how Sela would react now, wouldn't they? And that they had to compromise losing the small battle of Sela finding out about the Yfeni for the larger war.
And compromise Anais' trust.
His arm twitched under Sela's grip and she let go. The numbers continued their slow countdown, though. They were still in her bubble of caught time.
Anais cleared his throat. Cleared it again before locking eyes with Sela. "When I first came on this ship, there was no air."
"Yes. Barenin's trying to push you away."
Anais opened his palms. "But they have to know I might see that. That we'll—you and I—be having this conversation."
"Yes." Sela's eyes crinkled in the ghost of a smile.
He worked his jaw. Did she think this was funny? "Why would they want to distract me now? Or not show me how to use their ship? Is this a test?"
Sela's smile faded. She looked back at the holo display. "No. And yes. Barenin's wounds run deep. Some of them were caused by me. Some by others. They're afraid, Anais. Afraid of what you'll do when you find out who they really are."
"But—but—this isn't who they are. Is it? I mean yes, the manipulations. I get that. But—"
Barenin had as much as told him, "I'm not a good person." Were they so determined to prove that?
"They're afraid you'll see what they fear in themself, and you'll leave," Sela said, her human voice Aezthena-flat.
"That's—" Anais checked the holo display. Twenty-four seconds. "That's—" He stopped. Steeled himself and laid a hesitant hand on Sela's arm, waiting for her to turn in rage and strike him for daring that touch.
Instead, the stream of emotions opened between them again. It wasn't at all like sharing with Barenin, where their emotions were more like an overflow that couldn't be helped. With Sela, it was a calculated intensity.
"Is Barenin worth it?" he asked. His voice, though quiet, was thunderous in the complete silence of the ship's bridge.
Sela pursed her lips, her expression betraying nothing. But her emotions—her Aezthena emotions were clear as mountain ice. A sadness so deep it could swallow him. A resolve like a raging storm.
"For most other people, I would say no. I would repeat my advice and tell you to run. These last few centuries have not been Barenin's best. And they will continue to maneuver themself and everyone around them into what they feel is the best possible position to save the universe." She tilted her head. "But I believe you would do the same in their place, wouldn't you, Anais Cavere?"
Sela turned abruptly back to the holo interface, breaking contact with him. Her human illusion was gone. And Anais, seconds too late, realized the bubble of caught time was gone, too. The countdown on the holo display was at three seconds.
"Oh stars above," he muttered.
The ship gave the slightest tremble. The weapons firing? He reached for the weapons display—yes, they had already fired. Sela had given the signal.
Kaireyeh missiles. Oh gods and stars above, they'd just fired Aezthena-made Kaireyeh missiles as a human world.
A new, large holo display popped up showing a view of Denz Dayar, marbled blue and green. Anais watched with arrested horror as it disappeared in a massive, rippling fold of black.
Every holo display turned red with alerts: massive Kaireyeh buildup, critical concentration of improbability particles, the sudden absence of a gravity well. The sudden loss of anything for the ship to orbit. One holo display flashed that emergency thrusters had just kicked in, moving the ship away from the hazards.
But the bridge remained eerily silent. There were no audible alarms like there would be on a human ship. Not even the ship-Barenin, who stood passive and almost-forgotten to one side, said anything.
"Did it work?" Anais asked. Oh gods. Please, let that planet still be in tact. "Are they—"
"As far as I can tell," Sela said, "the planet is now shifted out of phase. It will be a few hours before it can return, while the space it would normally occupy settles." She didn't quite frown at the displays, but there was something in her voice and posture that Anais read as displeasure. Or maybe discomfort. Barenin had said that the rifts they'd create in Kaireyeh by detonating Kaireyeh weapons would be extremely uncomfortable for Aezthena.
"It hurts," the ship-Barenin said in a near whisper.
Anais glanced at the holo and shivered. In that moment, it felt all too much like Barenin speaking.
And where was Barenin now, phased out with that planet? What were they feeling in the maelstrom of all that disturbed Kaireyeh, if they could feel it from the other side?
Were they even alive?
Anais took a shaky breath, and another. And another, staring at the black mass on the holo where the planet had been.
Sela stepped away from the holo displays. Had she even needed them? If she'd boarded Barenin's ship, surely she could interface with it directly.
"This ship will continue to adjust its course to stay in a safe enough position," Sela said. "There is enough flux in the Kaireyeh space around the planet that when it does comes back into normal space, Barenin can return to their ship. That is the only guarantee I can give—that there is a chance. After that, space will solidify into rifts that will remain impassable for several centuries." She stared beyond the holo displays—to what, Anais couldn't fathom. Could she see what was happening out there at a level of ship's sensors? Or even beyond that?
"I'll leave you now," Sela said. And was gone.
Anais jumped. "Wait—"
He stopped. He didn't want to be alone. Not in this ship, not with that blankness on the holo display, not when Barenin was inside it. But despite her answering his questions, despite her apparent—humanity—of the last minutes, he didn't want Sela to come back.
He shivered just thinking that he'd touched her. Laid his hand on her arm and shared emotions in a way that had felt intimate with Barenin, but foreign and wrong with her.
Anais wobbled to the low couch and sank into it, still staring at the holos, though he couldn't read them from across the room.
What had they just done? He had boarded an Aezthena ship and fired Kaireyeh weapons at a human world. And Barenin had used Aezthena tech—and un-tested Yfeni tech—to shift an entire planet out of temporary existence.
Had they saved that world from future Aezthena interference and attacks? They'd certainly condemned it to centuries of solitude. And what would the other human worlds make of this, a world apparently destroyed by a Kaireyeh explosion? Barenin planned to make a short, authenticated statement that the explosion had been an accident. No treaty violations had been made by anyone but the Dayarans. Would the human worlds believe that? That the Dayarans had been experimenting with highly illegal Kaireyeh tech that was a part of their religion? Or would they point at the Aezthena and start another war?
And was that world still behind that roiling black mass at all, would it survive when it transitioned back into a volatile pocket of spacetime?
What would the Dayarans do about their sun?
Barenin had calculated all of this. They were Barenin. Just as they'd calculated what would happen when Anais boarded their ship. When Sela invaded his mind, for the second time. When Sela told him why Barenin would let such a thing happen.
He dropped his head in his hands, utterly exhausted.
"Ship?" he asked, through muffled fingers. "Do I need to do anything? Any systems I need to monitor?"
"No," the ship-Barenin said. "I have everything under control. Your vitals show you're in distress. I will synthesize water and a meal for you."
Anais barked a humorless laugh that might have also been a sob.
But a section of couch beside him became a platform, and a glass of water and plate of food grew out of it. It looked like a light meal, more greens than protein. Anais' stomach turned at the thought of eating, then rumbled its emptiness. He hadn't eaten since...that morning? Had he even eaten that morning?
His throat reminded him with overwhelming urgency that he definitely hadn't taken a drink in a while. And his clothes were damp with sweat.
He picked up the glass and gingerly took a sip. It was, blissfully, just water.
"Ship," Anais said, "can you show me a bigger view of the planet? Where the planet was, I mean. Large, like the whole room."
"Yes," the ship-Barenin said. The holo displays at the front minimized to one side and a whole section of the wall either became transparent or, more likely, projected a holographic viewscreen. Dark folds of space rippled, queasy to watch. The planet would not be back for several hours. Barenin had said to expect four, though time could shift in minor ways when Kaireyeh in an area was in flux as it was now.
Anais watched the blackness. Watched avidly for any signs of...anything. He didn't know how he could wait a few hours, but he would.
The room spun, and he tried several bites of a biscuit he couldn't taste before his stomach turned.
Anais closed his eyes and rested his head back on the couch. He couldn't do this any more. Couldn't stay alert. Didn't know what help he'd be even if he could.
Anais jerked back upright, his heart in his throat. No, he had to stay alert. He stood, swaying, but managed to keep his balance.
If this didn't work, if that planet didn't come back, it was his fault. It had been his plan to hide the world and make it appear to be destroyed. His fault that Denz Dayar and everyone on it were gone.
His fault the one person he thought he might truly care about since his parents' death was gone. The one person he'd ever felt more connection to than momentary pleasure. And they hadn't even gotten to the pleasure part yet.
Barenin, he sent toward the blackness. Barenin, you are a bastard. And you know it. But...stay safe. Please. Please come back.
Yes, Barenin had manipulated the hell out of him. Yes, Barenin was trying to show him how awful they were, and yes, he was hurt. But the loneliness hurt more, didn't it? Not having someone who understood him. Barenin was trying to push him away, like he'd pushed so, so many others away, too. With small acts of petty cruelty. With moves perfectly calculated to wound. With acts like Barenin had done to him now.
Gods, was he that awful? Was this what it felt like, on the other end of his own insecurities? And he had them. He had a lot of them. Barenin did, too.
Anais swiped an arm across his face. More tears. More bloody tears in this last day than he'd had in most of his life. He was so sick of tears.
"Ser Cavere," the ship-Barenin said, suddenly by his side. "You are in physical distress. Please, lie down. I will give you something to sleep."
Anais shook his head, still staring at that gaping maw in space. "If Barenin doesn't come back, who will stop the Aezthena, then? Who will save the universe? Sela won't. She's stopped trying. Well, maybe trying a little now. But she won't, in the end, will she? She's more interested in saving the Aezthena. It's always been Barenin. It's Barenin or no one. Isn't it?"
He was babbling. But the thoughts came too fast, sparking in his brain. He started pacing a jerky circuit around the room.
"And what if this turns into another human-Aezthena war, huh? Who will hold the peace? Someone has to hold the peace between the humans and the Aezthena. It's always been Barenin. They broker all the treaties. Even the first one—Daemonus Kyn, ha. No other Aezthena has even tried, not that I know of."
The ship-Barenin appeared in front of him. Looking...distressed? Could a ship look distressed?
"Ship," Anais said, and then paused to lick very dry lips. He looked again at the holo of the wounded spacetime outside. The missing world. He stood closer to it now, and it seemed more real, more tangible in this greater detail.
He half-expected the ship to tell him to lie down again, but the ship-Barenin waited, expression impassive again. Maybe Anais hadn't seen the worry before. Maybe that was a function of his over-tired brain.
"Ship," he said again, and forced more resolve into his voice. "If Barenin doesn't come back...do you—can you turn me into an Aezthena?" He almost choked on those last words. And part of him couldn't believe he was asking this.
But if Barenin didn't come back...someone had to hold the peace. And he knew of no one else even interested in trying.
Anais stared at the hologram while they stared back at him for a long, long moment. He was getting the sense that "low-level intelligence" meant something very different to the Aezthena than it did to a human.
Finally, the ship-Barenin said, "Yes, Anais. If Barenin doesn't come back and that is what you truly wish, I have the ability to make you Aezthena."
Anais shuddered. It wasn't a good thought. Not at all comforting, and he clenched his hands against the edges of his clothes trying not to think too hard about it.
But if it came to it. If he had to. He would do it.
Maybe Barenin's test when he'd boarded, setting him off-balance, had been more than trying to push him away. A test of his resolve to stay with them. Maybe Barenin had also been testing how much Anais was willing to take in pursuit of something he believed in. And Anais believed, he realized, in doing good. In saving things, like this world. And humanity. And maybe even the Aezthena. And the universe at large.
He wasn't a good person. Neither was Barenin. But...maybe he wasn't all bad, either.
"I'll do it," he whispered to the black. "If you can't, I will. I promise."
And then whatever energy he had left gave out.
"All right," he gasped, shuffling back to the couch. "All right, ship, I'll sleep." He hit the couch, and marveled at how soft it had become. So soft, and exactly what he needed. "Wake me up in three hours—"