Anais couldn’t quite hide his jump.
“What are you planning?” Sela demanded, focused fully on Barenin. “I know you won’t destroy this culture. You won’t destroy the generators, and you can’t take the generators off-world. You know the other factions will be waiting.” She finally glanced at Anais, the barest acknowledgement of his presence before turning back to Barenin. “Why did you force this decision? This is drastic. I’ve studied these generators, Barenin. They work with Kaireyeh, but it’s not a form I understand. But you do, don’t you? You figured out the secret to the Dayarans’ tech. You’re scared. Tell me what you found.”
Barenin paled to full Aezthena. Though Anais couldn’t feel the conversation this time, he had the sense like before that the spoken part of it was only a small part of the whole communication. Flat and disjointed, referencing thought that flowed faster than spoken words.
“What would you do with this information?” Barenin asked calmly.
“I would leave this world and build my own generator. Understand how this tech works. Integrate that knowledge into the whole. Use it.”
“And the factions who want to use it for isolationist agendas?”
Sela hesitated. At the speed an Aezthena mind worked, that pause was more than significant. She stepped closer to Barenin, and Anais tensed.
Reacting on instinct, he reached for the halo staff implanted in his left arm. The bead pressed into his palm, and he expanded the staff with a thought. It cracked out to its full width and length, gleaming and golden, blades snicking out on either end. Only when the staff weighted in his hand did he quail at the thought that he’d just drawn a weapon against an Aezthena.
But Sela didn’t turn. Was he that insignificant to her? Was a weapon with atom-edged blades even a threat?
Sela and Barenin stared each other down, unmoving. Anais waited for either of them to speak again, sure Sela would berate him for drawing his halo, or Barenin would ask him to put it away, before realizing their conversation had carried over to their minds.
Great. And there he was, left again in the dark. Anais scowled, shifting his grip on the weapon. He felt less than useless, and ridiculous, holding a weapon that both Aezthena ignored. He glanced around the room—should he go? He should definitely sheathe the halo. What had he been thinking—or not thinking?
But his survival instincts wouldn’t let him put it away. Whatever Kaireyeh-tech symbiosis he had with the staff, it sensed his hammering heart and stayed solid in his grip.
Barenin glanced over, a sudden break in the staring contest. She placed a hand on Anais’ shoulder.
The touch was like turning on a fire in his head. He shuddered as thoughts and images assaulted him, too many to make out any single one. Anais gritted his teeth. “Barenin—”
Forgive me. I’ll adjust. The thoughts narrowed into a stream that made more sense, if he didn’t try too hard to understand it.
Anais wanted to protest the intrusion, but he started to understand the nature of Barenin and Sela’s conversation. Barenin translated for him in the only way she could. She was including him in this conversation. That—that might be worth the headache that was now throbbing at his temples from the information overload.
They’d been having an old argument, he sensed. They both knew the universe was going to end in destruction, but neither knew when, what caused it, or how to prevent it.
Could the Aezthena see into the future?
No, Barenin said to him. But I have some knowledge of the future.
So, Anais thought back, you know this is going to happen. That—his mind seized, catching up with what this conversation meant.
Gods. In his hand, the halo contracted back to its bead. Not because he didn’t feel threatened. But because a halo would be nothing against this new danger. He slapped it back into his arm.
Since the meeting with the Council, he’d had the queasy feeling his body had when he was low on adrenaline. From the day before, from the night, from that morning. He hadn’t thought he could react much more to surprises, that he’d just ride the wave, because it was all so intense he was becoming numb to it.
But heat filled him now, his stomach clenching. Barenin and Sela were talking about the future destruction of the universe. And they were talking like it was a known fact.
You’re saying the universe will be destroyed? he asked, in his thoughts because it felt too horrible to speak out loud. Are you saying that’s a certainty?
He started to shake. He had so much he was already trying to parse, to catch up with. When Barenin had said this was save-the-universe-stuff, he’d assumed she meant saving the humans and Aezthena from another war. Even when she’d said the Aezthena wanted to break off from humanity, he hadn’t thought—well, he hadn’t thought it was literally the fate of the universe at stake.
He closed his eyes. He had to re-center. Reorient. He had to accept this and keep going. He had to.
Anais opened his eyes to Barenin’s golden stare. Cold and evaluating. How long have you known about this?
A long time.
Gods, Barenin. Think you should have told me sooner?
She didn’t even blink. Just waited for the conversation to continue. For him to get to his point, because she knew that wasn’t it.
Anais’ nails bit into his palms, and he swallowed a growl of frustration. So stop it from happening. Don’t let it happen, Barenin. Don’t let the universe be destroyed.
I am trying to. That is what I’ve tried my whole life to do. To move events in such a way that this destruction doesn’t happen.
I have as well, Sela said, her sharp mental voice cutting into the conversation. Time is unchangeable, Barenin. The future is fixed.
We can’t know that for sure, Barenin argued back. There is at least an infinitesimal chance we are wrong, and the future can change. With that chance, I need to take it.
Don’t lie to yourself, Love. You’re above that.
Anais licked dry lips, mentally skipping over the “Love” part.
So, the universe is going to be destroyed, he said. Soon, if I’m reading your urgency right. And it has something to do with these Yfeni generators, and neither of you can stop it. So then why are you trying? Why are you both trying to change what you don’t think can be changed? How is that logical? You have to think there’s some chance, don’t you?
Both Aezthena’s streams of thoughts stopped. They turned to stare at him with twin golden glares.
Anais cleared a suddenly dry throat. He knew they could sense his thoughts. His mind was open to them, and there was no stopping that in the stream of mental communication, as much as he hated it. But even knowing his thoughts, they didn’t understand. It was that gap, that disconnect between human minds and Aezthena.
“When I was younger,” he said, “my parent showed me how to check the limit of my intelligence, given my DNA and the enhancement of my augments. The limit was an absolute, and one I would likely never reach. But I tried. I did reach it. And I tried and tried again, and I never went beyond it. My implant tracks my intelligence, and I still, after years of trying and testing, have never gone beyond it.” Except for those few brief days when his mind had been Aezthena. But that was something different. “But…there is a part of me that believes I can surpass it some day. And maybe I will. That part knows that logic can be flawed. That the rules aren’t always what we think they are.”
“No, human,” Sela said. “I do understand. This logic does not apply. We are Aezthena and can see all permutations. There are no rules to change here. The rules of Kaireyeh are immutable.”
“Yfeni,” Anais said. “That’s a different rule. That’s something unexpected. You didn’t see that coming.”
Anais felt mental walls slam around his mind. Barenin’s walls, holding his thoughts in. Oh, no. He’d almost just shared everything they’d learned with Sela. He’d forgotten, in the whirlwind of thoughts, that she didn’t know. Didn’t yet understand the difference between Kaireyeh and Yfeni. The chance of rules in the game. Had he already given her too much to extrapolate with?
“What is it?” Sela asked, and Anais could feel her scratching at the walls Barenin had put into place, like spider’s feet at the edges of his mind.
He clenched his jaw against the sensation. Against the fear rising up again, the memory of her ripping through his thoughts before. She could so easily do it again, if not for Barenin.
Sela bared her teeth, her first open expression of—anything. Anything other than the Aezthena blankness. The blankness had been intimidating…but this was much, much worse. “Tell me what you’ve learned!”
Barenin turned to her. “No. Because you’re not trying to change this future anymore. You stopped trying to change it. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You only want to understand how it happens.”
Barenin’s own expression turned to rage, a storm gathering in an instant. Her voice was sharp as splintered ice. “All these years, and you’re giving up. You’re going to the other side. You’ll help those factions destroy everything—”
“I won’t help them. But maybe, Barenin, maybe they succeed. Maybe they do use this tech to splinter off a pocket universe. Maybe the destruction of our universe is the result, but if we can’t change that, then can we hope that the Aezthena succeed? That our people have a place where they can be at peace, free from the restrictions of the humans?”
Now it was Barenin’s turn for an infinite pause. Anais felt her contempt at the thought. And longing for what Sela said to be true. Though she often lived as a human, she knew she wasn’t really human. There were places she could not go, where humans had ways to detect Aezthena and persecute them. Humans everywhere feared her—respected her, yes, but feared her—and that was exhausting. The thought of a universe where she was free to go where she wished, and be who she wished, was a temptation so strong it ached in her reinforced bones.
Then her thoughts shifted again. She would have no place in an Aezthena universe, either. Because she was caught between. She would never be fully human, but she’d never be fully Aezthena, either. And every Aezthena knew that.
Anais reeled at the rush of her thoughts and emotions.
Sera resumed her passivity.
Barenin changed the subject.
“Sela, you can’t build the generators without knowing what I know, or some other essential information that neither of us have, or you would have left by now. You were here because you wanted to understand why and how the Dayaran tech works. If you could have pulled that from a human mind, you would have—” Barenin stopped as Sela renewed her assault on the walls around Anais.
Though it was only a gesture in the physical realm and nothing that would stop what was happening in his mind, Barenin stepped in front of him.
“Don’t,” she said. “He’s under my protection.”
Anais gripped Barenin’s arm as panic tried to overwhelm him. Sela was truly and fully Aezthena where Barenin was only mostly Aezthena, focused as fully as she could be. Sela had to be stronger—she’d break through. She’d tear through his thoughts again. She’d know everything of who he was, she’d take it all. She didn’t even care—she just wanted information.
She’s not stronger, Barenin said. We’re evenly matched. And she won’t get through.
Please, Anais thought at Barenin. Please, don’t let her—
The pressure in his mind from Sela’s assault abruptly ceased. Anais wobbled, steadied by Barenin.
“You can’t shield him always, Barenin,” Sela said impassively. “It would not hurt you, or him, to give me this information. As you said, it might not be all that I need. Or it might, and if I knew, it might help me know how to stop another human-Aezthena war.”
“It could also shatter everything,” Barenin said. “What if you are the one who fractures the universe? You’ve already pushed the Dayarans to develop this tech. What if your building it yourself is the catalyst?”
“What if your holding back is the catalyst?” Sela said.
They stared each other down, and this time, Anais had no sense of mental conversation. They were holding each other apart, a void rising between them.
And he realized he and Barenin weren’t the only ones with an impassable gulf of not understanding.
Sela stepped forward and cupped Barenin’s face, in the same way Barenin had done to Anais. The gesture was intimately familiar, infinitely gentle. For a moment, too small to fully track, she almost seemed like a person, not this rage-filled god.
Then she disappeared.
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