Good King Lyr: Inevitable
Anais blinked into the sudden vacuum of Sela’s presence. A moment before, the room had felt too crowded. Now, early afternoon sunlight fell on the bed, showing too much of the space between them. There was only him, and Barenin.
“What the hell?” Anais turned a slow circle, struggling for something solid to hold onto. He settled on a brush sitting on a bedside table and strode to pick it up. Pressed its tines into his hand, a physical reminder that he was still here. That whatever had happened had just happened.
Did Aezthena always communicate at hurricane intensity? Several thoughts raced through him at once. He settled on the most concrete. “You said before that whatever the Aezthena want to do—splinter off their own universe, whatever—is inevitable. I thought you meant that in the dramatic, abstract way, like war is inevitable, but we might prevent it if we try. That sort of way. Not that it is literally something you can’t stop. And why are you even trying if you know it’s inevitable? I felt your words—you say there’s a chance to save the universe, but you don’t really believe that. And does Yfeni change the equation? Or does it only make it more inevitable?”
He knew he was hyperventilating. Barenin would feel that, too, and before she could do anything about it, he shoved a finger at her. “And don’t you try to calm me.”
“It is inevitable,” she said with that maddening Aezthena passivity. So devoid of human emotion. But not without Aezthena emotion. He’d felt the conflict there, the desperation. “How I know that is a longer story than we have time for. But in all my years, I have never found time to be malleable beyond short manipulations with Kaireyeh—and those always heal themselves over quickly. Like elastic snapping back to its original form. The universe will always be fractured beyond recovery. And yes, it will happen soon.”
“How soon is soon? Like, my soon, or Aezthena soon?”
“In the next ten to twenty years, I’ve been predicting. But, with what we know now, it might be five years, or as little as one. Or less.”
Anais held out his hands, waving helplessly around him. “You can’t not try to stop it. That’s what you meant when you said Sela had given up.” He dug fingers into his hair. “You have to try, even if you think it won’t help.”
“I might keep it from being as bad as it could be,” Barenin agreed. “Or I might do nothing. But it’s not in my nature not to try. Of course I have to try.” Her intensity was back. The strength of her determination jolted through him.
“And there might be a chance you can change it? Change this inevitable destruction and save the universe?”
“An incredibly small chance,” Barenin said. She focused more human again, her rigid features relaxing into furrows of worry. “So small it is like one star against the entire universe.”
Anais pursed his lips. “So, we have a year? Or a few months, maybe? To stop whatever’s going to happen?”
“Or lessen the cataclysm. That might be the best we can hope for.” Barenin paused. “This is why no one should know their own future.”
Anais stood in the center of a whirlwind. When had this gone from helping Barenin search out an Aezthena interloper to stopping a human-Aezthena war to literally saving the universe?
He decided to accept it. Like in the conversation with Sela, he couldn’t move forward from this moment to the next without accepting this fact as a given. Yes, they were going to try and save the universe. And they were going to likely fail.
He was panting, his breaths coming too fast. Slowly, he focused as best he could and calmed them. He found himself staring at Barenin, steadying himself in her eyes.
Her eyes held infinite regret. And that resolve that had stopped raging wars.
This was how it was going to be, wasn’t it? Taking up with Barenin. This was his life from now on. He wasn’t a petty thief—he’d been playing in the pro circles for years now—but this was a whole different galaxy of levels above the kind of jobs he’d pulled before.
“How long?” he asked. “How long have you known about this?”
“Since the beginning,” she said quietly. “Since before I was made Aezthena. This—this is truly why I asked Kaireyeh to make me Aezthena. So that I could hold the balance, so that I could do all I could to stop the universe from fracturing.”
Thirteen thousand years. How had she kept going with that hanging over her head? He’d only just found out and he was having trouble breathing.
Anais gripped her shoulder. He didn’t know if he was bracing her or himself. “Did you know about me? From your knowing about the future? Is that why you sought me out? Do—I have something to do with this?”
She tilted her head. “No.” The hint of a smile came back but didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I tracked you down all on my own.”
He swallowed past the rush of relief, and also disappointment. No, he wasn’t important enough to have left such a mark in history.
“Me, a con artist. I’m the one you chose in the last days of the universe.” Anais snorted. Or maybe sniffed. His eyes were watering, and he couldn’t stop it. It was ridiculous. It was all so ridiculous.
“You’re one of the best,” she said.
“I know it.” The statement wasn’t bravado. It was fact.
He sniffed again, grabbing a cloth handkerchief off the bedside table. He’d already ruined one of Barenin’s the night before, another wouldn’t make a difference. “So, whatever job we need to pull, we’ll get it done.”
Her smile widened. “I don’t doubt it.” She moved closer, brushed an uncooperative lock of hair out of his eyes. Her fingers trailed like fire across his skin and he shivered. “What are your plans? I’m out of ideas, Anais. Out of any good ones. I know every permutation of the bad ones.”
She was asking him? Did she really mean that, it wasn’t condescension? But he felt only earnestness at her request.
Anais’s lips stretched in a rictus grin. Laugh in the face of death, right? If it’s all going to burn—and his life could have burned at any point in all his thirty-three years—face it and go down laughing. Go down with fireworks. Go down in a show no one will ever forget.
Did Barenin really not know what to do next? He read no deception in her sharp features. Aezthena minds had plenty of logic. But maybe, just maybe, human minds had more imagination. Or maybe Anais was just plain crazy, and Barenin knew it. Or maybe she was trying to distract him from the pit that was trying to consume him.
He didn’t care what her reasons were. He bit his lip. The beginnings of a crazy plan began to form.
“You know how my identity implant works?” His hands tingled with electricity. Never mind that the universe was about to go down in flames. He was who he was. This part of a job, the ludicrous invention, always made him feel alive. And right now, he needed to feel alive.
“Yes,” Barenin said. “I didn’t design it, but it’s of Aezthena manufacture. I could make more.”
Anais squinted. “Could you make it...bigger?”
She leaned back against the bed, folding her arms. “Huh. You mean a cloak? Chameleon tech, to disguise a ship? Yes, Aezthena have that tech as well, though it’s not quite the same.”
“Not a cloak. Not even really a disguise.” Anais walked a tight circle as he thought out loud. “When I shift my implant on, me—the me that I am genetically—is placed into another pseudo-reality, correct? Like a holding space? I always come back in the exact same state that I left, like no time has passed for that version of me.”
Barenin’s brows knit. “That’s not entirely true. Time does pass on the other side of the implant. Maybe at a different rate, but if you wore it for a hundred years, your other body would age some of those years.”
Anais waved that off. “Fine. Good to know. But it does go into another reality. And no one can force me out of that reality unless they have the tap code, correct?”
“Correct. And not even if they have the tap code. It’s your hand in that other reality that does the tapping.”
Anais blinked. That was interesting. He’d think about it later. Too much to think about later. He shook his head, shook it off. “So...can you make something big enough to send this planet to that other holding space? And make it so almost no time passes there? And so that the planet and people on it don’t appear to be on this side?”
Barenin’s brows shot up. “The Aezthena would see through an illusion like that. And I’m not sure it’s a good idea, with so much tech on this world using Yfeni energy.”
“So get everyone to turn it off, for just a little while. You won’t destroy it, they’ll just—” He waved around him. “—turn it off.”
“And then what?” Barenin asked. “If I do this, the people would be frozen on that side of the—” She stopped. “You want to make it look like this world has been destroyed. Like the Yfeni generators destroyed themselves. Make the system uninhabitable—or appear so from the outside. The Aezthena wouldn’t know there were minds left to plunder. There are ways to scar Kaireyeh, enough that an Aezthena would hesitate to travel here. But a planet might still inhabit this space.” She frowned. “I don’t want to do it. It physically hurts me to hurt Kaireyeh. To scar spacetime.”
Anais spread his hands. “But save the universe. And the people here would be alive.”
“But cut off from the rest of humanity. And there is no guarantee an Aezthena wouldn’t investigate further, eventually. We are a persistent lot.” It sounded less like Barenin was objecting than trying to talk herself out of going along with this. She had that look, too, that focused gleam. The thrill of the job.
Anais grinned, a manic grin. Oh yes, they were very alike where it counted.
“It would buy time,” he said, standing straighter. “Maybe a few years. Maybe more. Buy the time you need to come up with a better, more long-term solution. And it would let the Dayarans keep their religion and their tech. They’re not too keen on trade with other worlds, anyway. Maybe their tech will save you in the end and not destroy you. Destroy us.”
Barenin’s eyes lost focus. Even in this more human state, she was running through every calculation.
Anais waited. He wiped damp palms on his pants as he tried very hard not to think about what he was proposing. He’d been talking out his ass. Wild improvisation. Throwing out ideas to see if they were even possible. He wasn’t sure what to think, even as he jittered with excitement at the thought they might do this, they might temporarily hide an entire planet. Make it look like it was gone. As crazy schemes went, this one far outshot anything else he’d ever done before.
But if there was a chance it could work, a chance for a solution where there wasn’t one before, Barenin would know how to make it a reality.
“Yes,” she said finally. “Yes. We can do this. Let’s take it to the governors. It’s drastic. But Denz Dayar has always been apart from humanity. There’s a strong chance they will agree to this, if it saves their religion and society.”
Anais inhaled sharply. “Okay. Okay, then let’s do this.” He was too wound, ungrounded, but his mind was working. He could work with that.
“Thank you,” Barenin said. “Thank you for your perspective.”
“Ha. That’s not something I hear often.”
Barenin vented a laugh. Then she gripped Anais’ arm and blinked them into the Council chamber.
Anais reeled, catching Barenin’s wrist as they were abruptly not in Por’s bedroom and instead facing a table full of arguing governors.
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