Por glanced over her shoulder, then settled herself like she had before. More composed. Maybe a little more wary. She surveyed him, face impassive, though not quite Aezthena cold.
His earlier question, why he should trust her, hung like a wall between them, and Anais found himself not wanting to break it just yet. Instead, he shifted tact.
"Can I ask you something?"
He gestured at her. "You are so...human. And yet, not. I've met Aezthena who were projecting an illusion of humanity, and it was too perfect. Like in a good holo drama when the acting is heightened enough that it feels real, but it's a stylized version of the truth. But that's not you. I get the impression that you actually are breathing normally, that your heartbeat is normal. Human, I mean. That you have red blood in your veins, not that silver silicate mix. That you understand and feel as a human would."
Nothing in Por's posture changed, but Anais sensed her heightened tension.
"I do feel as a human, mostly," she said. "When I'm focused human, I am...human. Mostly human, as human as I can be. My Aezthena senses and abilities are dulled. So are my Aezthena emotions."
"I didn't know Aezthena could do that. Could—do you shift your actual biological state? I thought Aezthena were bio-synthetic?"
"We are," Por said. "And I am, when I'm focused Aezthena. But I'm not like normal Aezthena. I'm not, in the most technical sense, truly Aezthena, any more than I'm truly human. I exist in between, able to move between states at will, or as Kaireyeh, the universe, wills it."
She stared at him. "Now that's something I have not told anyone in over two hundred years."
Anais blinked, taking all of that in, fitting it with what he knew of Barenin Lyr.
She went on, "I know you're wondering about my gender, too. In most visible records, I present culturally and physically male. And for some of my life, I identify as some variety of male. Right now, I am more female than not. Other times, I'm neutral, agender, dual- or tri-gendered, or other-gendered, any number of genders both identified and non-identified."
Anais took that in, too.
Por's quirk of a smile returned. "Humanity has collectively decided I'm male, though, and I've never disavowed them of the notion. It affords me certain...freedoms." She waved down at herself, her human self. "Even you, who've studied me with meticulous care, didn't recognize me."
Anais' lips drew tight. "The face paint."
"It obscures, yes. But we both know identity runs much deeper than that." She held his gaze. And he felt again, even with the implant on and fairly certain she wasn't trying to see through it, that she saw too much. Too much that was more than skin deep.
He looked down at his hands, at the pale geometric patterns on the rug.
He was beginning to feel an intimacy, a confidence with Por. He wasn't sure he liked it. Even while a part of him thrilled to it, this strange mixture of hero worship and intensely confusing attraction.
Anais swallowed on a dry throat and poured himself another glass of water. He needed a clear head. Barenin Lyr had brought him here for a reason and it wasn't for companionship. It couldn't be. There were far too many other factors at play. This illusion of intimacy had to be a diversion, or a way to get him to trust her. She'd even said as much.
"Why does it matter what I think?" he asked. "You're ageless. You could demand an audience with the most important people on any world—even among the Aezthena—and have it within minutes. Why are you interested in me? Why did you bring me here?"
Why had Por shown him her genetic crest, opened herself up like that? It was such a private thing, among those who had them. Seeing someone's crest on their hand while they used a halo weapon was one thing, as most people could mentally obscure the crest, just like they could control the shape of the weapon. But showing someone the actual clear crest was an act of trust, of vulnerability.
So much more for the person who sat in front of him. A genetic crest couldn't lie, and it was one thing Aezthena with all their power of illusion had never been able to fake—not with all its swirling subtleties. You could tell, in your gut, if a crest was real. And though her crest didn't say Barenin Lyr, it was damn close. It said more. And so many overlays of loyalties was the most telling thing of all. He'd met only one other person who had more than one loyalty on their crest, and that person had been a spy.
This person, he was certain, was not. No one could be loyal to that many governments, and he'd caught glimpses of more than a few obsolete sigils among those that had drawn themselves before they'd faded into the whole.
Anais shifted in his chair. Genetic crests didn't lie, and maybe it was possible that Por had shown him an Aezthena illusion, another Aezthena pretending to be Barenin Lyr...but he didn't think so. He'd learned over the years to trust his gut, and his gut said right now that the real Barenin Lyr had given him an unprecedented view into who she really was.
"Why you? Because I think you're a lot like me," Por said quietly. The impassive mask she'd put up was cracking. "You go from place to place, becoming other people to do your jobs. You like playing with other identities. You prefer it to your own. And you are good at it. And, you don't have many solid connections because of it."
Anais' skin crawled. "I've had relationships." This was getting far too personal.
Por clasped her hands and leaned toward him. "I need your help. I want you to trust me and help me of your own free will."
Anais barked a laugh. "What could I possibly do that you can't? And how is it free will if you orchestrated my coming here? You studied me, you manipulated me. Dangled the identity implant in front of me, then set up this job so I would come here—"
"No," Por said. "I'm not your client. That's why I need your help. I believe there is another Aezthena on Denz Dayar, and that Aezthena might be behind the research into high-efficiency Kaireyeh generators that's sparked this internal conflict. Do you understand how dangerous such technology can be? With Kaireyeh a part of the Dayarans' religion, in a way unique among the worlds, they use it technologically in ways even I haven't seen before."
Por stopped to let that sink in.
Anais suppressed a shiver. And Barenin would have seen much. Would have seen almost everything after so many years of life.
If Kaireyeh tech that humans didn't know how to handle was bad, Kaireyeh tech that Aezthena didn't know how to handle was very bad. And there was another Aezthena on Denz Dayar? Gods. What had he fallen into?
"So...you get me to come here and impersonate you as the contract king," Anais said. "Why? If it was to fool another Aezthena, no one who was actually Aezthena would believe I was you. I can't do whatever you do in speaking mind to mind." He waved a finger between them.
"You could, with a little more augmentation. Your long acclimation with your memory implant would make that transition fairly easy."
Anais shot up from his chair, senses spiking. He pushed past his initial rush of fear of her mentioning his augments to the more pressing concern. "You're not making me Aezthena. You said you want my help of my own free will—"
Por made a quelling gesture. "Of course I'm not making you Aezthena. But I can temporarily enhance your mind so that while the identity implant gives an outward impression of me, your augmented mind will give a mental impression as well. I can teach you enough to hold your mental walls tight, project just enough of my own mental signature, that most Aezthena would not be able to tell without close examination. Because I'm known to pop up in random places, and because I've taken contracts as contract rulers before, another Aezthena likely wouldn't push the boundaries of politeness and examine too closely."
Anais's legs felt weak. He reached down behind him for the arms of the chair, perching on the edge of the seat. "Most Aezthena, you said. So some would see through me. And why not just be yourself? Why not do—" he waved a hand "whatever you do—to be Aezthena? Take over the contract from me. I can even program the implant to play Por for a while, until whatever you need to do is done."
Por shook her head. "There is something else I need to check here. And I'm not ready yet to resume an Aezthena focus."
Anais kicked at the table leg. Nervous energy. Too much nervous energy, and he'd been too contained these last two days. It all wanted to come out. "So, I'm...what. Bait? The scapegoat? A distraction while you maneuver behind the scenes?" Of course he was. How could he be anything but a pawn in an Aezthena's plans?
Por held up her hands. "I won't deny it. But this is important. I'm deeply troubled by what's happening in the rural provinces, and I don't want to tip my hand yet. This may not be what I suspect, but if it is, I need more than myself on task with this. If you are Aezthena-augmented, you can assume part of the functions of an Aezthena as well, and we can work quickly and efficiently."
Anais rubbed his face. This was crazy. And he didn't believe for a second that Por didn't have all kinds of ulterior motives. He was already this deep in an Aezthena mess, should he go any further?
Why was he even thinking about it?
Because Por knew him. Por had obviously studied him. Por knew which buttons to push—appealing to his insatiable curiosity for new experiences, new ways to play a role. His hubris at knowing he could play such a role and pull it off, and his pathological need to try. Like he'd done in coming here, playing the role of Barenin Lyr, which he was doing well, thank you very much. And then there was the chance to know what it felt like to be an Aezthena without actually becoming one. Who ever had the chance to discover that?
And...to work with Barenin Lyr. The real Barenin Lyr. Actually work with her.
He kicked the table again, shaking the pitcher. This time it was less nervous energy and more childish petulance that he'd been played. Was still being played. And what was it about Por that brought out that side of him, too? That sulky kid he'd thought was gone years ago. That wasn't who he was now.
Por caught the pitcher to still its movement. "This is important," she said, holding his gaze.
What she was really saying was: You know who I am. You know what I've done in my life. You might not trust me, but you know I ultimately work for good. And if I say this is important, you can be damn well sure it's important.
Anais swallowed and broke her gaze. She was appealing as well to the side of him he so often tried to deny. The side that had his stomach in knots over the thought of the Dayarans blowing themselves up with Kaireyeh weapons. And that he might, just possibly, be able to stop it if he tried hard enough. The side that always, inevitably, got involved in local affairs, got emotionally invested, no matter how hard he fought not to. He usually left only ruins behind him—emotional or otherwise. But this time, here, with Barenin, he might have a chance to stop those ruins. To turn the tide of lives for the better.
And why in the worlds would she trust him, a liar and a thief, for anything like that? Was he her last choice? A last-ditch effort? "Gods. What do you even want to do to me? Put another implant in my head? You said it's temporary?"
Por sat back, smoothing down the stray curls that had escaped her knot. Her slim fingers deftly redid the knot. "I'll entangle both your neural functions and those of your memory implant into Kaireyeh in the pattern of an Aezthena mind. It's something I can do mentally, it would require no surgery. And it would be temporary because your mind and body wouldn't be able to sustain it for more than a few days without serious consequences. Be assured, though, that I would not let that happen. I would restore you to your original state, and you'll be free to carry on as you choose."
Anais watched her tuck the final strands back into her knot, then refold her hands in her lap.
"I...but...isn't that how you make Aezthena?" he asked. "That sounds like something you'd do to turn someone into an Aezthena."
"It's part of the process," Por acknowledged. "But again, it would be temporary. No physical changes, which would be permanent. And because your mind and body are not bio-synthetically enhanced, I would not give you the full range of Aezthena mental capabilities. You couldn't handle them. As it is, you will have a hell of a hangover coming out of this when we're done, but the enhancement will be enough for our purposes."
Despite himself, despite the insanity of this, Anais was intrigued—in a horrified way, but intrigued. Barenin knew his buttons.
He shifted in his seat.
"When would you do this?" he asked cautiously.
"Now," Por said. "Sooner is better. You'll leave for the provinces in two days. I would need all the time we had to train you—"
Anais swore, sitting up straight. He wasn't ready for this. This was going too deep, too fast. He was still wrapping his head around being a contract ruler. Around trying to divert a war. He was still wrapping his head around Barenin Lyr.
But, the thrill of the job was crawling up inside him again, pushing everything else to the side. If a plan went crazy, and they usually did, he improvised. He always improvised. It was what made life fun, and bearable. It was these moment-to-moment decisions, the full immersion in a new role, that made him come alive. It all worked out in the end. He made it work out.
He could still fulfill his client's job, too, couldn't he? His best chance of finding the tech from the sketches had to be in Edin's research facilities.
Anais eyed Por. She'd told him the night before to carry on with his job. But he knew a lot more now than he had then. Maybe the question wasn't could he fulfill his client's job, but should he?
"And my client?" he asked. "What about the fee I was promised?"
A hint of Por's smirk returned. "Do you imagine I've lived twelve thousand years on empty accounts?"
Anais felt a surge of excitement so sharp it made his hands and face numb. "You speak my language, Por."
Por snorted, then regained her seriousness. "I fear your clients might also be Aezthena. Who have also not lived as long as they have on empty accounts."
Anais curled his fingers into his palms. The Aezthena seldom hired humans to do anything more than the most basic jobs, the ones they felt were beneath them. But yes, that thought had occurred to him. It always occurred to him when the price was high enough. He'd thought it an acceptable risk in coming to Denz Dayar. But now, knowing about the tech he'd been hired to steal...he didn't like that at all.
"This is saving-the-universe kind of stuff, or it might be," Por said, "as ridiculous as that sounds."
Saving-the-universe kind of stuff.
A different and more desperate kind of thrill hummed through him. Part of the thrill he'd felt in coming to Denz Dayar. In playing the role of Barenin Lyr. In hoping that he might, in some way, learn to be better.
"All right," he said, a little breathless. "I'm curious. And willing to try what you have in mind."
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.