Anais had long ago trained himself into not having nightmares. He'd had to—he couldn't be on a job and wake up screaming, or babbling in an accent or language he shouldn't know, about things he also shouldn't know. Even though his mind slept, his memory implant didn't, and when he was fourteen, he'd managed to program it to monitor for certain responses in his mind and body while he was sleeping and wake him immediately, before a nightmare could truly form. Over the years he'd refined the program so that he woke with only the vaguest sense of unease.
That morning, waking in the quiet dark in the massive bed, the sheets twisted around him and damp with sweat, he had much more than that vague sense of unease. His pulse pounded in his ears. He lay, staring up in the dim city light at the twisting geometric patterns of the bed curtains overhead, and tried to get a hold of his thoughts.
Barenin Lyr. If she was Barenin Lyr, if he hadn't been faked out by a con as expert or more expert than himself—could she listen in on his nightmares?
He queried his implant to see the nightmare that had been forming. Sometimes they got farther than others before the implant woke him. The skewed dream images the implant showed were of a nightmare he hadn't had for years. That he'd thought he'd finally rid himself of. Because he wasn't that scared kid anymore. He'd learned to move beyond those first few months of primal fear. He'd thought he'd buried that scared kid for good.
The nightmare hadn't gotten far, but his own memories welled up, filling in with every detail he didn't want to notice from the eidetic assault of his implant's storage.
He'd been twelve. His parent had recently been murdered, because on a station where the population was illegally augmented, no one could make any kind of living without being involved in some sort of crime. His parent had run afoul of one of the meaner syndicate bosses, and poof—his parent had been there in their cramped station apartment one day, and then the next day, they were gone, and Anais was on the run because syndicate bosses either killed or subjugated extended families. Anais had never found out why his parent had been killed, or what trouble they'd gotten into, but had it mattered? Trouble was trouble.
Anais had fled to one of the smuggler freighters docked at the station's outer rings. Their station was in a system without habitable planets, without commercially desirable resources, outside of all regular shipping lanes. Pirate and smuggling territory. There were always a few ships docked, ships trusted to keep the station out of any human authorities' questions because the profit in black market tech and augments from the colony's augmented population was much greater than any reward they might have got from handing the colony in. Anais had hacked his way into a freighter's bay, stowed himself, a portable air recycler, and a week's worth of rations in a shipping crate, and prayed for the ship to leave quickly.
It was six days later when they found him, shivering and delirious because he'd run through most of the water he'd brought, and stinking because he hadn't thought to bring anything to get rid of the waste. The face of the man who'd found him had been annoyed, but not cruel. They'd got him to the infirmary, and deep-scanned him for any augments, because working, integrated augments were worth more than the cost of their ship. And most smugglers weren't beyond removing them from the living, whether it killed the person or not.
Even in his muddled state, Anais' survival instincts had kicked in. He, like all children in his colony, had been given the first stage of his memory implant when he was three, the second stage when he was five, and the third and final stage when he was eight. He was a normal, healthy kid—albeit with an eidetic memory, and an augmented intellect that far surpassed most baseline humans'. But he'd known kids on the station whose parents had tried to tweak the usual memory implants, to make their kids even smarter, or enhance their awareness. To make them better. Every now and then, such modifications worked. Then, the community would test them, and if successful, incorporate them in the next generations. But too often, these attempts would leave the kids drooling. Vacant-eyed, or too locked into a shorted-out sensory overload to function. Anais had seen some of these kids trailing behind their parents, because it was one of the few laws on their station that if you made a mess, you had to live with it, and study and publish what had gone wrong.
The smugglers would also have seen these kids, if they'd been on the station. And if not, they would have heard rumors. So, even while he was lying on the cold plastic of a medical table with his head and body getting deep-scanned, Anais had let his mind wander. He'd unfocused his eyes. He'd slackened control of his mouth so the drool would slowly run down his cheek.
They watched him for weeks for any sign he was faking. Their scans said he was healthy, his brain activity normal, but they didn't know exactly how faulty augments worked, so that didn't mean much.
They watched him. Every minute. He stayed with the man who'd first found him, on an extra cot in an already tight cabin. He worked beside the man—an engineer—doing small, menial tasks that the crew had determined he was intelligent enough to do. Flubbing some of them. Enduring the cussing when he got them wrong.
"Boy," the engineer would say, "you just don't have anything up there, do you?"
Anais hadn't been raised as a boy. He hadn't been raised with any gender and only a vague concept of what it was. But the smugglers were from worlds where gender concepts were more rigid, and they'd called him a boy after their scans, so he'd accepted that, and the pronouns they gave him, and the way they expected him to act. He anchored to that part of his new identity, because it was something that was at least rational and stabilizing while he threw all of his efforts into cutting his intelligence in half.
He'd hoped to escape the freighter on the first new station they docked at. But he'd underestimated their desire to keep close free and semi-useful labor. He actually thought the engineer was growing fond of him, ruffling his hair, trying to teach him to say a few words which, over time, he relentingly began to slur out at random intervals.
Anais was keeping only barely sane because he'd hacked into the ship's net access a few weeks into his stay and set up a piggy-back account that granted him access whenever the ship's automated systems queried the net at large. He'd downloaded books and holovids, which he'd managed to configure a way to read or watch from his implant, or have his implant read them to him. He was careful, so careful, not to let any of these things run when anyone else was around. Or when cameras might be watching. The crew had grown used to being around him, but the captain still scanned him at regular intervals, and he suspected part of why she was keeping him around was because she hadn't decided yet if it might be profitable to sell a non-functional augment implant, too. If he showed any signs of intelligence, he was as good as dead, or his intelligence would be damaged for real.
It was seven months before he made his escape, accompanying the engineer who was by now relaxed enough that he took him on station with him, loading him down with packages to carry. Anais had known he'd only get one chance at escape, so he'd waited for just the moment when his chances would be best—when he managed to slip a toxin he'd swiped into the engineer's lunch, and when the engineer had him wait with packages in hand while he expunged his bowels in a washroom stall. Anais hadn't been there when the engineer came out.
He hadn't grown up loving the arts of acting and disguise. He hadn't grown up knowing how to steal. He learned them from necessity. He'd learned them from reading thousands of books and papers and memoirs and reports while in his self-made prison on the smuggler ship. He was scared, but not nervous, when he casually walked from the washroom with a purposeful gait, straight back, and sharp eyes, his rumpled hair slicked back from chemical-smelling sink water, his ship's jacket gone—tossed into a locked stall—and in a plain black shirt and gray pants that could have belonged to any crew or station business' uniform.
He'd learned more than one language on his way there, and he'd learned many accents, which he'd rehearsed in his head, and now forced his lips and tongue to form until he spoke with a cultured, trade world carelessness. He'd taken to stringing old and broken trade chips on a necklace and displaying it proudly to everyone in the crew months ago. That he'd since replaced one of the broken trade chips with a working one had never occurred to the crew. He had in that chip identity credentials he'd forged in his mind and bought verification for on the black market through a few siphoned credits from the ship's petty cash fund. He used his chip, his accent, his appearance, and his swagger to buy a passenger berth on a cheap liner heading as far from that station as he could afford to go.
Anais exhaled slowly, coming back to himself. He was still staring up at the patterns over his bed. The room lighted with a dim, gray pre-dawn.
He'd successfully forced those memories down for years. Why had they come up now? Why had he needed to play them out? Was it because of Barenin Lyr? If Barenin was who she said she was, and she knew enough about him to lure him here, then she knew more about him than any other living being. Did she know about this memory? Was she reading it from him now?
Anais knew how to make his thoughts less palatable to read, but he didn't know how to cloak them. No human really could, not from an Aezthena's prying mind.
She'd said she wasn't interested in turning him in for his augments. She knew that was a trigger for him. He didn't dare take her at her word for that.
But the same driving need to not just survive but thrive, which had carried him through years of pulling cons out of necessity, and then pulling cons because he genuinely enjoyed it, kept him from finding the fastest way off this world. Barenin had said to carry on. And after what he'd found in the generators below the palace...he was curious. And he was more than a little curious about Barenin herself. If it was truly Barenin. If he could dare to believe that.
Anais lingered on that thought, turning it over. If Por was Barenin Lyr, then Barenin Lyr had been flirting with him when she'd helped him remove the layers of robes. He'd been trying not to think about it at the time, and he'd been mortified to think about it the night before, but now his mind ran through that dizzy encounter again. He told himself it was to try and find her angle, to catch her in insincerity, but he was arrested again by the quirk of her smile. Blue eyes in the maze of indigo swirls. The lightest brush when her hand accidentally—or maybe not—touched his in her dance of unrobing.
He swallowed hard at a sudden rush of heat throughout his body, concentrating in his groin. No—no, he definitely couldn't think that. Not when—gods, he was still wearing Barenin's body. The Aezthena version, at least.
There was a bustle of servants in the outer rooms. Anais tore out of bed, breathing hard through his teeth, and forced himself breath by labored breath into his character.
Por was not Barenin Lyr. He was. He put Por and whatever she was trying to accomplish firmly from his mind.
Slowly, everything cooled. His body, his mind, his emotions. He had to be cold. Aezthena cold.
He was centered and in character by the time a soft knock came on the door, and then a servant entered with a platter of steaming breakfast. The Council meeting would be soon, and it was time to get some more answers.
Support my work!
By supporting my work, you're helping me create and illustrate new works for everyone to freely read, share, adapt, and remix.