Good King Lyr: What They Do
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.
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