Her cool fingers pressed gently into his hair. He dug fingernails into his palms at the thought of her having to touch his greasy hair, but he said nothing. And neither did Por.
He waited, counting beneath his breath, for something to happen. But they just stood there, Por unmoving, possibly not even breathing.
Anais opened his eyes and found Por staring somewhere above him, her eyes unfocused. He started to ask if she was doing anything—
His mind exploded into sound and color and smell and touch and too much light, too much of everything. He felt the texture of his jumpsuit, gritty and abrasive. He heard Por's heart, an inhumanly slow drum. He heard his own, racing too fast. He smelled his own sweat and sour fear, and the titanium-musky smell of Por beneath her perfume. The lights of the room blinded him, and he squeezed his eyes shut, but the colors and lights continued like fireworks in his head.
He heard voices. So many voices, all jumbled like walking through a crowded station thoroughfare, except every one of them was as loud as his own, all of them urgent. He felt emotions—annoyance, rage, happiness, contentment, resentment, loathing. Were they his own? There were too many emotions, changing too quickly. He heard signals, transmissions—not the words but the digital waves themselves. Screeching noises, all in his head. His hands curled and his back arched and he tried to scream.
One voice came to him, slightly louder than the rest. He clung to its familiarity.
Anais, listen to my voice. Come toward my voice. Let the others fade.
He found himself in a dream-like trance, walking through the station corridors of his mind. The walls were gray-green and filthy, covered in fresh and half-scrubbed graffiti in ten or more languages. He could smell food vendors ahead, a chaotic mix of human and alien spices. Anais waded through the thick crowds—mostly human, but with a gilled Gan-jethe over there, an orange-ruffed Bagatar to the left, and, gods, even the telepathic, intuitive pair of a winged Eshi and his human-but-not-quite-human partner. Then he saw Por ahead of him, fully Aezthena and dressed in white Aezthena-cut clothes, a knee-length tunic split into panels at the waist and flowing trousers. Por, in her enigmatic Aezthena grace, stood out among the sea of others, human and alien alike. She was a singular entity in the universe.
I'm shielding your mind from anything outside the palace, Por said, but I'll help you build your walls so you can pull them tighter. Here, take my hand. It will strengthen our connection.
Anais reached Por and took her hand. It was frigid. But then so was his own. He looked down at himself and saw Aezthena-white hands. And he didn't panic. He couldn't. His thoughts just would not go in that direction. He looked back up at Por.
Focus on me, Por said. On my voice. Let everyone else fade. Observe them becoming colorless and insubstantial.
His surroundings dimmed. He gripped Por's hand as tightly as he'd held his parent's as a child.
They were alone in the station corridor. The people were gone—no, some were still there, but now as ghost-like outlines. Faces with Dayaran paint in various ranks and intensities. His gaze lingered on one, and a person's voice came into focus, a running litany of anxiety about what food they should prepare for an Aezthena king, would anything possibly be good enough, and what if they didn't like it?
Anais shuddered and focused back on Por. Those people, those are minds? he asked. That sounded like a servant.
Por nodded. You can listen to them if you wish to. But I recommend not doing so. Not only does it violate privacy, it takes months to master Aezthena mental abilities, and you only have a subset.
And the aliens? Anais asked. Are they also on Denz Dayar? I thought it was almost only humans here. They don't like human outsiders, let alone aliens.
Por didn't quite frown. No. They're not on Denz Dayar. Not everyone in your mind is a person in the now—some are memories. Some are aspects of you. You'll learn to tell which is which. Now. Focus on me again. Focus on me, and imagine I'm a mirror. I am not me, I am you. Shift this image of me until it is you standing here, and only you.
Anais tried to do as she said and focused on Por, but though the edges of the image wavered, Por remained.
He felt a ripple of something from Por, cold and alien. Was it an emotion? It felt like frustration, and yet at the same time it was not. It was a logical disturbance, an unappreciation of errors. He was feeling Por's thoughts. Aezthena thoughts.
I need to play the role, Anais said. I can't be me. And I can't be like—he gestured at Por—but I can be...he hesitated.
You can be Barenin Lyr. Your version, in any case. Por nodded. All right. Then use that as your mirror.
It was as Anais had practiced, schooling himself into the role of Barenin Lyr in his ship cabin on the way here. He saw the image in front of him as a holo mirror and made the small tweaks his mind found to make the image match his image of himself as Barenin Lyr.
He turned, and the image turned. He spoke, and the image spoke.
Por? he asked. Is that still you?
No answer. He looked around for Por but didn't see her. And the image was definitely not Por—that mask held his soul, not hers.
Anais opened his eyes. In the blue-walled meeting room in the palace, Por stood in front of him, not as Aezthena as in the dream-like vision, but not human, either.
Por? he asked. His voice sounded flat. Too flat. But he hadn't even opened his mouth.
Again, he tried to panic and found he couldn't. His mind spooled up like it sometimes did with his memory implant, searching for data, collating raw information, but this time the information wasn't just static memory files. This time the information wound in logic trees, and loops, and hypotheses, and facts, and probabilities. On and on and on.
Por gripped his arm. Her touch was light, but he could feel and calculate the exact pressure of her fingers. The temperature of her skin. He felt the emotions of her uncertainty through the touch.
He looked down at his hand and saw it was his human brown hand, and he reeled at that improbability when he'd just seen himself as Aezthena bone-pale.
"Turn on the implant," Por said, and Anais flinched. Her voice was too loud. She shifted to mental speech. Tap the implant to Barenin Lyr.
Anais reached up and tapped the implant sequence. The world unfocused and refocused. He looked down at his Aezthena-pale, silver-veined hands and let out a slow breath.
The light was still too bright. He felt the heavy robes he now wore again, felt every millimeter of texture and weight. But he could look around. He could see without wanting to scream at the brightness of all the color and sensastion and light.
He found himself gripping Por's arm. "I...that was..."
Por vented a laugh. Had she been as nervous as he'd been? His mind calculated the probabilities of that and came up with a range of sixty-three to seventy-nine percent positive. He watched as her skin darkened back to its human color, her eyes returning to their vivid kynblue.
He found himself analyzing his attration to her with one part of his mind that he couldn't shut off while another part of him probed at the edges of the station corridor in his mind—his mental walls—and yet another part of him cataloged every crevice, every pore, every curve on Por's face. She wore no face paint. That had been absorbed when she'd focused more Aezthena. He saw her face clearly now, the strong lines and soft edges. So much more clearly than he could have seen it moments before.
"Did you give me Aezthena senses?" he asked.
"No, but you now have heightened awareness of your human senses."
His whole body was buzzing. His mind processing so much input. Cataloging everything. It was amazing, he found himself thinking, fear slipping away. Was this what Aezthena felt like all the time? And how much more could he do and experience and be—how much more money could he make—if this was his life all the time?
"You are not Aezthena," Por said sharply.
Anais' attention snapped back to her.
"You might feel a simulation of Aezthena emotions, and your thoughts might be moving too fast to process human emotions, but those emotions are still there. You are still human. There will be a toll, both mental and physical, when I return your mind to its original state—recoverable, but not pleasant. This is a simulation of an Aezthena mind, like Aezthena simulate humanity. You do not want to be one of us. Trust me. You'll understand that once this is over."
Anais' head throbbed with sudden pain, and he pressed his fingers to his temples. "Should I have a headache?" His words slurred together.
"Your mind is still processing, integrating with your previous patterns and your biological systems. I suggest you rest. Order that you not be disturbed. Tomorrow, I will train you as best as I can, but now, you must rest."
Right. Right, he was the contract king. Here on Denz Dayar, he was Barenin Lyr. For a moment, even wearing the identity implant's profile of Barenin, he'd forgotten he had a role to play.
Anais pressed both hands to his head. "My mind's all—I can't rest. My mind won't stop. There's too much." He shook his head as if hoping that would fix it.
"Here," Por said, and Anais felt a soft intrusion on his thoughts, a gentle knock.
He answered it.
The thought Por sent him was like a software package. He opened it, and it unfolded into a pre-set knowledge of three different calming exercises to do in succession. It was somewhere between math and meditation.
"It might take an hour or two before you calm enough to try these," Por said. "But then sit or lie down and run through them until you sleep. You aren't Aezthena—you need to eat and drink and sleep. Remember that."
Anais nodded. His attention strayed back to the calculations running through his mind. Memories of a kiss from two years ago—a shuttle pilot who'd smelled like grease and tasted like the orange candy they'd always chewed. Memories of the cramped station quarters he'd shared with his parent as a small child. The hours he'd spent alone, waiting for his parent to come home. Afraid that his parent wouldn't come home.
Por touched his cheek, pulling him back. "If you need me, summon me. Summon Por. If you find yourself lost or feel your walls slipping, go back to the mental corridor. Empty it of people. Build yourself in the mirror until it's only you in the corridor."
Anais nodded. He understood. It was logical that Por couldn't help him anymore, not until he'd finished integrating with this new mental interface to reality.
Por straightened the collar of one of Anais' under-robes, tugged at the lace on his sleeves, and brushed his swaying, tiny silver braids back behind his ears. She reached for the crown discarded on the chair and gently placed it on his head. "Now. Go out, speak only if you must, get to your rooms. Play the part. It should be easier for you to play now than it has been."
Anais gave a soft snort that felt odd with his mind running in ten directions. Human. Yes, beyond all this, he was still human.
He turned to Por and touched her cheek as she had his, his emotions crystalizing. They weren't quite human feelings. But they weren't not human, either. "Thank you. For the chance to understand this."
Por sucked in a breath. Her own emotions spiked at the touch. Something he couldn't read. But he felt the pounding of her heart.
"Just...go rest," she said, voice thicker than it should have been. "We'll speak more tomorrow."
Anais nodded, pulling the edges of his role around himself. Por was right, he hardly had to go through the steps to dim his emotions. Now Barenin Lyr again, more Barenin than he'd ever been before, he stepped out into the palace corridor.
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