Por rose. "Just so you know, this will not be comfortable. Not painful, but not comfortable. And as I said before, when I reverse the process, it will also be unpleasant. It might take a day or so for you to fully reorient to yourself again."
Anais had the feeling that "unpleasant" was an understatement. He gripped the arms of his chair. "As long as you won't abandon me mid-job."
She smiled tightly. "I won't. Now. I need you to drop the identity implant."
Anais froze. No. No, that he couldn't do. Not with her looking.
"I promise it won't be for long," she said, voice gentling.
He didn't move. His pulse was pounding in his ears. He reached for the glass of water, his mouth suddenly too dry.
He looked up at her, meeting those deep, kynblue eyes. He expected pity, and he was ready to flinch and draw back if he saw it. Instead, her gaze was sharp, calculating.
"I understand," she said. "I do understand."
For a moment, his world tottered on its axis. No one understood him. No one ever had. No one could. Not his parent, not every revolving face that had come through his life since his parent's death. No one knew him, and that was the point.
He didn't think she was reading his thoughts. It wasn't that kind of look. And whatever she knew of his past, it wasn't that kind of look, either. In her eyes was a searing knowledge of her own self. Of how she viewed herself.
It was a look familiar to him. He'd seen it in his own eyes, on the very few occasions he'd looked closer in the mirror rather than surveying his face for a new round of cosmetics and appliances to cover it all up. It was the look of someone haunted by things most people took for granted. Someone who could never fully escape themself.
Por had said, "Why you? Because I think you're a lot like me."
She'd said that, and he'd heard it, but he saw it now. That shared knowing, shared experience. Shared haunting.
He drew a shaky breath, then stood, gripping the chair back.
Por waited until she saw something in his face, some signal maybe, or permission, then approached.
"This will feel disorienting at first," she said, voice calm and soothing. "I will speak to you with my mind and guide you to set your boundaries and walls, then we can proceed from there."
Anais felt his stomach floating. And it didn't help that he caught Por's scent as she neared him. A light and shimmering perfume that reminded him of honey and summer wine.
Por's skin paled. Not completely Aezthena bone-white, but it took on a metallic sheen. Her kynblue eyes flecked heavily with gold and for a moment sheened golden light. Her black curls silvered.
It should have been like looking in a mirror, as Anais had worn those features for the last two weeks. As Por shifted to a more Aezthena appearance, the indigo paint on her face faded, absorbed into her skin—the work of her Aezthena nanites, he guessed—showing her sharply handsome features beneath. High cheekbones, angular lips, and strong, narrow nose. Planes to make an artist swoon. And he'd gotten them right with his own imitation. But it wasn't the same. Technically, yes, but not the personality. Not the same person. He wore the mask, but this was the soul.
He felt suddenly and completely chagrined.
Swallowing hard, and not taking his gaze from hers, Anais reached up to tap off the identity implant. He felt the shift and then held very still. If she hadn't before, Por now saw him at his genetic default.
Ordinary. Lank, unkempt brown hair. Medium-brown skin, a shade or two lighter than Por's had been a few moments ago. Narrow eyes, and the scruff of an unshaven face. He wore an on-ship dark blue jumpsuit that smelled like it hadn't been washed for a few days, because it hadn't. Even his scuffed leather boots were untied. This was the state that the implant kept in stasis for him while he was someone else. Anyone else.
"Thank you," Por said, her voice Aezthena-flat. But not, he sensed, mocking. And not unkind.
She reached for Anais' head.
He instinctively jerked back, and Por hesitated.
Anais stood, heart pounding. Why was he hesitating? Because she'd have to touch him? Because he didn't want to do whatever she was about to do?
His brow furrowed. "I don't know who you think I am, but...I'm not good." He wasn't sure that was what he'd meant to say. Fear rose with bile in his throat. He wasn't sure of anything. He was still calling her Por, and he'd been lulled by that spark of recognition between them, but this was Barenin Lyr. Nearly immortal. Aezthena. A god on some worlds. And she'd singled him out for whatever they were about to do next. She'd sought him out and chosen him. That was...terrifying.
Por turned her palm up. "I'm focused 63.89% Aezthena at this moment. You need to know that, because you need to know I'm not deliberately reading your thoughts. But my senses are heightened and I'm acutely aware of the nuances playing out on your face, in your body language. And though I try to avoid it, sometimes with certain people I can't quite shield from the flow of their emotions and surface thoughts. I'm sorry for that."
She lowered her hand. "You think I'm a good person? And who are you that I singled you out? I'm not good, Anais. You've studied me. You should know that. I'm on my own quest for a redemption I'm almost certain I'll never find. You don't have to be good to change things, hopefully for the better. You only have to be willing."
Anais' eyes stung with sudden hot tears. And rage surged up again. No. She was manipulating him again, playing on his vulnerabilities. On his emotions. He was bare to her, he'd dropped his implant. And still she was manipulating him. She had to be.
He swiped at his eyes. "No, you're not a good person. You show everyone this saintly face but you lie and manipulate your way through everything, don't you? You take whatever side suits you, and use whoever suits your purpose, and then you just leave destruction in your wake, except no one knows it was you. Reputation in tact. Like the Dayarans. You haven't stopped whatever's going on here. You're using them, like you're using me."
Por didn't blink. Didn't argue. Didn't react at all.
Anais gasped for breath, fingers fluttering. He knew he was panicking and he hated it—he rarely panicked. He'd trained himself out of it years ago, but he'd done far too much of it since coming here. He tilted his head back, gripping the chair back with both hands now, room wavering. The air just wouldn't come.
Por took two steps and pressed a hand to his cheek. The touch was cool, the texture of her skin unnaturally smooth. He hooded his eyes and leaned into the touch. Por's calm flooded into him, washing back the panic.
His eyes opened wide. She was calming his thoughts. Anais knocked Por's hand away and was aware that he could only do it because she let him. He'd just touched an Aezthena. Been aggressive toward an Aezthena. Shouldn't he be more scared? "Don't do that to me. Don't manipulate me."
Por didn't step back. She stared steadily into his eyes, her Aezthena eyes faintly glowing. "I chose you on your skills, on your personality, on your merit. You are uniquely qualified to do what I ask, and I don't take lightly what I'm asking you to do or your risk in it. There is, I suspect, an Aezthena faction that wants to use the Kaireyeh generator technology developed by this province to do something that might have devastating consequences for the universe as a whole. Yes, I'll use everything at my command to see that doesn't happen. Including you. Including myself."
In this more Aezthena state, Por's jauntier personality had bled off into this driving barrage of cold statements. It was a familiar rhythm, one he'd studied and used himself in playing Barenin Lyr. But in this moment, the change didn't feel reassuring. Not when he saw the contrast between this and her human self. Not when she was about to do something similar to him.
He tried not to blink with Por so close. "Can't the Aezthena just get this tech for themselves?"
"No. This world uses Kaireyeh in its worship. There is Kaireyeh tech in so many things here, and there is a certain...protection...around this world. I set up a protective barrier around Denz Dayar centuries ago that would make it hard for any Aezthena to bring Kaireyeh technology back through it. I wanted this world's use of Kaireyeh to develop naturally, in a healthy way so we can observe and learn from it, and it has—until now. I came back to live here nine years ago when I got an alert that someone breached my system. That an Aezthena had made it onto the world but had not gone out again. My system is still in place, and other Aezthena might be trying to breach it now, but my barrier system constricts my ability to sense Aezthena minds beyond it. I can only assume that, with the job you were hired to do, this Aezthena faction decided on a low-tech way to circumvent my barrier. A human can pass through it unharmed, with both technology and knowledge of that technology in tact."
Anais struggled to keep up with the onslaught of information. He waved a hand. "But you set me up. You helped me find the implant, or manipulated the events to get me here—"
Por's gaze intensified. "Yes. Because you're not a good person, and neither am I. But I care about what happens to the universe, and I think you do, too. You've never killed anyone, though most in your profession have. You've quietly donated large portions of your earnings to medical aid funds and education on poor stations, and even larger portions to stop human trafficking. You've stayed behind on jobs to finish out situations that might otherwise have collapsed the life of the person you were impersonating, or risked yourself to save people you didn't know. You might not be a good person, but you know who you are where it counts, on the inside." Por tapped at her chest. "And so do I. I need your help, Anais. I don't think any other human can do what I'm asking, not at the moment I need you. If this technology gets off Denz Dayar, and if it gets into the wrong Aezthena hands, or even human hands for that matter...this is one of those times I do desperate things to prevent the loss of trillions of lives."
Anais tried not to wilt under the intensity of her stare. He knew he was stalling. He'd already said yes to what she'd asked him to do. And despite it all, despite her machinations, he still wanted to do this. Still wanted to help. Even with these stakes, especially with these stakes. Even if he was terrified that he wouldn't be up to playing on her level, with the fates of—gods help him, it was only growing more daunting—trillions on the line. He didn't think that number was an exaggeration, not with her in this state. So what other choice did he have?
He didn't fully trust her. He couldn't. But he did trust her sincerity, and maybe that had to be enough.
She reached for his head again.
And panic rose again.
He made a desperate stab for levity, something to break up the tension coiling inside him. He pasted on a parody of a smile. "Should I be worried that you've been stalking me all this time?"
Por arched manicured brows. That had come out more accusatory than he'd liked. With more of his own fear than he'd liked.
Por's lips parted into that almost-smile, that same smile he'd perfected in his own portrayal of Barenin Lyr. "Should I be worried you've been stalking me?"
Anais breathed something that might have been a laugh. Might have.
Por reached, and he closed his eyes and let her.
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