What It’s Worth
Por was quiet for a long moment.
Anais still gripped Por's handkerchief, a snotty ball in his hand. He squeezed it, hoping she wouldn't ask for it.
"There is a movement within some factions of Aezthena to separate themselves completely from humanity," Por said. "It's not a new idea. I've fought it on and off over the years, and it was behind a number of the human-Aezthena wars and tensions. But these factions aren't following the same patterns they have before. They're consolidating power and guarding their secrets. They're acquiring new tech, both human and alien, at high expense and at a reckless rate."
Anais struggled to keep his thoughts on the facts. Follow Por's information. He knew it was important. Whether he wanted to hear it right now or not, it was important. "And Sela is a part of these factions?"
Por pursed her lips. "No, I don't think so. She seldom throws her loyalty into one faction, and she's opposed their ideas before. But she does often ally herself with—or more likely co-op—lesser factions for her own purposes."
Anais blew into the handkerchief again then tossed it at the wall. A much-needed release of kinetic energy. His trying to concentrate on the facts wasn't working when his whole self still felt so fragile.
"Por. Why did you send me there, knowing it was likely Sela, knowing what she'd do to me, knowing I wouldn't find anything that you couldn't? You think a thousand steps ahead—you knew you'd have to step in for me, didn't you?"
Por smoothed down the wall of covers. "My sending you, in your augmented state, would signal to any Aezthena you met that I knew they were here and wanted to talk. Sela's maneuvering to meet with you was her signal that she was ready to talk, too."
Anais gripped his knees, his fingers digging deep. "So I was a damned messenger?"
Por met his gaze, her eyes glowing the faintest gold. "When Aezthena meet, it is always with extreme care. A violent feud between us could destroy a continent, you understand. With that Kaireyeh generator nearby, it might destroy the world. Yes, you were a messenger. And an observer. I wanted your opinions. I wanted you to understand how Aezthena think. I wanted you to understand the severity of this situation—and you do, don't you? You're not playing with crime lords and petty thieves. You are playing on the scale of—"
"Gods?" Anais spat.
"No," Por said, her own voice heating up. Finally showing more emotion than that flat Aezthena calm. "Never gods. No matter how much any of us think we are, never that. We don't have the right to decide fates."
"You decided mine. You gave me the implant. You pointed the Aezthena toward me to hire me—"
"I set up for you to learn about the implant and saw what might happen from there. But the rest was all you. Your decisions. Your choices."
His choices? Anais shook as furious colors burst over his vision. "I didn't choose for Sela to invade my mind—Por, maybe you don't get it, maybe you can't understand, but that's me. My mind. That's what I have. That's all I am."
Por held out her hand. Anais stared at it. He'd already thrown the handkerchief at the wall.
When he didn't move, she nudged the blanket near his hand, then reached and gently pressed her palm to his.
Por's emotions flowed to him through her touch. She wasn't holding her walls against him now, and he felt strangely relieved. Then he felt her regret, and a sorrow so deep it made his eyes well up again. And it wasn't fair. He didn't want to feel her empathy for him, her anger at herself. He didn't want to feel like she was anything but Aezthena. Calculating and unfeeling. Because knowing what she was feeling would make everything worse.
"I live here as a human," Por said. "I look human. I can feel human emotions—but I'm not human. And I forget, sometimes, what it means to be a human. I forget how sacred the barrier of a human mind is. My augmenting you to function as an Aezthena would was an invitation for any Aezthena to treat you as they would another Aezthena, and I didn't think to prepare you for that. We aren't so sacred with our thoughts. Not the upper levels, at least. Anais, I didn't consider that would affect you like it did. I feel your pain. I feel it intensely, and I'm sorry."
Anais shook. He couldn't let go of what he'd experienced and say it was all right, because it wasn't. It had been an invasion, a purely spiteful show of power, and maybe the worst part was now that he thought about it, it probably hadn't even been a blow directed at him. Sela's intrusion had been calculated to get a rise out of Por.
His whole body tightened at the thought of it. Of being caught between these two feuding Aezthena.
The furious part of himself, the part that was raw with betrayal, wanted vindication that Por had planned this to harm him. Because then he could leave and not look back. Then he could run, and not have to sort through the flood in his mind.
But he could feel the strength of Por's emotions. She hadn't meant to harm him. She'd known there would be discomfort, and maybe she thought she'd warned him enough. She wasn't human—he'd known that, or he thought he'd known that. Por looked human, but he had seen her in the palace meeting room as Barenin Lyr, too. He'd known she was Aezthena. But he hadn't fully considered until now what that meant. What that meant for him.
His exhausted mind creaked as he strained once again to incorporate a new paradigm. He'd had to get used to the idea of Barenin Lyr as the very human-seeming, human-reacting Por; now he had to rearrange his view of her to combine both aspects, the human and Aezthena both. She was both. And as much as he thought he'd learned before about how Aezthena thought and acted and viewed the world, he hadn't learned the half of it. He knew better now. He could still sense the shape of what his mind had been like in those relentless tides of Aezthena logic. If he'd had years of that logic, millennia, how would he view the humans around him? Would he find any points of reference at all? Any reason to care?
Barenin was the most dangerous person he'd ever met, not because she was willing to rip through minds like Sela, but because she was both human and Aezthena. She tried to do good, and could still unknowingly do so much harm.
Por squeezed his hand, a gentle pressure. An attempt at reassurance, maybe. If he was feeling her emotions, she'd be feeling his, too.
Anais tensed, his thoughts flashing again to Sela invading his mind.
No. Por reading his emotions was nothing like what Sela had done. Maybe Por lacked human perspective. But she was trying.
Anais kept hold of Por's hand. He wanted to feel what she felt when he asked his next questions. Maybe this sharing of emotions was the only true way for them to communicate and understand each other.
"Did we do any good? Did your meeting with Sela do any good?"
"Yes," Por said softly. Her eyes no longer glowed. Her skin was warmer now, and she sounded tired. More human. "I learned that Sela is here. And that she's willing to talk, which means she's seen the danger lurking, too. She came here to cultivate new Kaireyeh tech, but the game has changed. We suspect your client, who hired you to steal the new generator tech, is an Aezthena from one of the isolationist factions. If they are willing to involve a human in their affairs, they are growing either bolder or desperate."
She paused, wetting her lips. "There was a chance, a small chance, that the other Aezthena I'd been watching for was a member of an isolationist faction, too. If that had been the case, they likely would have run. Whether they thought you were me or not, they'd have known it was unwise to attack you so near a Kaireyeh generator that functions on principles we don't fully understand."
She rubbed her thumb across the back of Anais' hand. The gesture was unexpected. It sent a shiver through him, even while he wasn't sure what to think about its intimacy. Not now, when everything was still so raw.
He swallowed, and knew she felt his need for separation through their shared touch. She kept hold of his hand, but the grip changed, something less personal. Less demanding.
So, they had done good. At least by Por's account. Could he trust that account? But he felt nothing but sincerity in her emotions. An earnestness. A bitterness, and deep, deep fatigue.
"This war never ends," she said softly. "I fight one head of the hydra, and it grows two more. The Aezthena never stop wanting to either separate from or eliminate humanity. Or enslave them. Or subjugate them—whatever the plot of the century is. I'm not sure our two races will ever get along. Our minds are too different, our goals too opposed."
What did that mean for her, if she lived between both worlds? How did she keep her sanity, trying to be both? Was that where the interface broke down? And if she finally did go insane, what would that mean for all the human worlds?
"So, are you saying we're headed for another human-Aezthena war?" Anais tensed at the thought. Even those who hadn't studied history as thoroughly as he had knew the utter destruction those wars brought. Worlds destroyed. Humanity set back centuries or beaten into chaos or another dark age. Sometimes there were centuries or millennia between the wars. Sometimes decades or only years. Sometimes there were near-wars or small scuffles in between.
The last true human-Aezthena war had ended over two hundred years before, and the human worlds were still rebuilding. Barenin had brokered the peace between the Aezthena and humanity, as she almost always did—one of the last times Barenin had been seen before now.
When he was nine, the Aezthena had fought a scuffle on the other side of the galaxy from the station where he'd grown up. He'd sat up in his tiny apartment, waiting for his parent to come home, passing the time by watching the holovid news stations, saving clips in his implant for study later. Barenin hadn't brokered the peace that ended that scuffle—not that he knew of—but the holovid had played parts of her speech at the end of the last human-Aezthena war two hundred years before. She'd presented masculine, as she always did in those public appearances, her silver hair in tiny, tight braids, loose around her shoulders. White Aezthena robes flowing, timeless. Golden eyes sharp and bright. Anais had watched the news cycle dozens of times just so he could see that speech again. A recording in his implant wasn't enough. He'd needed to watch someone who could be what they had to be to end a war.
His obsession with her had started then, but it had shifted over time. Grown into an ideal he held above all else. A conscience when he'd left his own behind.
Anais shifted his grip in Por's.
She was here. This was Barenin Lyr, sitting in front of him. Twin streams of shame and still-burning anger washed over him. She wasn't at all who he thought she'd be. She wasn't the heroic image he'd had of her.
Yet here she was, talking about events that might lead to catastrophic war. And bringing him into plots so deep they spanned centuries.
"Yes, it could mean war," Por said. "It could mean something worse. What these factions are doing doesn't fit the patterns. There are ripples of...unease...in Kaireyeh around their activities. The universe itself is paying close attention to what they're planning, but I don't have enough information yet to form a counter-plan." She rubbed the back of Anais' hand, another achingly gentle touch. But sensing her emotions, all Anais really felt was her exhaustion. Her own underlying fear. "But I know more now than I did before. Thank you, so much, for that."
Anais let out a long breath. The shakes had stopped, and now he just felt drained. He was tired of thinking of all of this. Of trying to decide what to think of Por.
He stifled a yawn into his shoulder. The twilight outside the windows had not changed. Por still had them in a bubble of sped-up time.
"I'll let you rest," Por said, and let go of him. The sudden absence of touch, the absence of her emotions, made him reel. He was too empty. He'd lived the last two days with everything in his head and now he just felt cold and small. Too small for all of this.
"Please." He reached for her again. "Please, stay?" Maybe she wasn't who he would have chosen for comfort. Or maybe she was. But he didn't want to be alone in this place, with Sela on this world, with talk of other Aezthena and their plans for him, and another possible war.
Por stood like a statue beside the bed, her face in shadow. Then she drew back the covers and climbed in beside him. She situated herself, lying on her back. "I'll be here. Go to sleep."
Anais settled back into the soft pillows. He tensed, embarrassed and annoyed with himself that he'd asked her to stay. But she reached for his hand again and held it gently. Her emotions washed over him, steady, reassuring. And in that warmth, he drifted into darkness.
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