Good King Lyr: How to Destroy a World
How to Destroy a World
Sela's appearance shifted again—still the same human illusion, but the lines around her eyes deepened, and her eyes grew more lively, full of fire. She wore what looked like a blue and red military uniform, though Anais couldn't read the tabs and insignia. It had to be ancient.
"I don't agree with everything Barenin believes," she said. "I don't think our future can be changed. The universe will fracture. And the Aezthena do need a place we can call our own. You may think we are all-powerful, but the humans have placed so many laws and regulations on what we can and can't do in their space that we might as well be powerless. Despite my efforts, the humans are once again gaining technology that will see through our illusions and identify us as Aezthena wherever we go. We are a powerful, hunted people, and that is a very dangerous position to be in, for us and the humans.
"So no, I will not take what I've learned back to my faction. Not until I better understand it. Knowing what I learned from you, I agree with Barenin on that point—the potential for this Yfeni technology is both vast and disastrous. And there are factions among the Aezthena who are reckless in their desire to be free of humans. Sealing this world off from the Aezthena is the current best course of action."
The clarity of her intentions poured through her touch, searing him. She sensed his discomfort, though, and dammed the flow of her emotions.
Anais took a shaky breath, still watching the slowed numbers on the displays. Slowed, not stopped. They were down to twenty-six seconds. "So you will help us."
"Yes. In this, right now, I am with you."
Anais met her dark gaze, still fiery with her simulation of emotion. Or maybe showing a translation of her Aezthena emotions. She hadn't promised not to take the Yfeni tech to the Aezthena eventually. But at least the other Aezthena factions, the ones who had hired Anais, wouldn't get it yet. Barenin knew Sela. They would have known how Sela would react now, wouldn't they? And that they had to compromise losing the small battle of Sela finding out about the Yfeni for the larger war.
And compromise Anais' trust.
His arm twitched under Sela's grip and she let go. The numbers continued their slow countdown, though. They were still in her bubble of caught time.
Anais cleared his throat. Cleared it again before locking eyes with Sela. "When I first came on this ship, there was no air."
"Yes. Barenin's trying to push you away."
Anais opened his palms. "But they have to know I might see that. That we'll—you and I—be having this conversation."
"Yes." Sela's eyes crinkled in the ghost of a smile.
He worked his jaw. Did she think this was funny? "Why would they want to distract me now? Or not show me how to use their ship? Is this a test?"
Sela's smile faded. She looked back at the holo display. "No. And yes. Barenin's wounds run deep. Some of them were caused by me. Some by others. They're afraid, Anais. Afraid of what you'll do when you find out who they really are."
"But—but—this isn't who they are. Is it? I mean yes, the manipulations. I get that. But—"
Barenin had as much as told him, "I'm not a good person." Were they so determined to prove that?
"They're afraid you'll see what they fear in themself, and you'll leave," Sela said, her human voice Aezthena-flat.
"That's—" Anais checked the holo display. Twenty-four seconds. "That's—" He stopped. Steeled himself and laid a hesitant hand on Sela's arm, waiting for her to turn in rage and strike him for daring that touch.
Instead, the stream of emotions opened between them again. It wasn't at all like sharing with Barenin, where their emotions were more like an overflow that couldn't be helped. With Sela, it was a calculated intensity.
"Is Barenin worth it?" he asked. His voice, though quiet, was thunderous in the complete silence of the ship's bridge.
Sela pursed her lips, her expression betraying nothing. But her emotions—her Aezthena emotions were clear as mountain ice. A sadness so deep it could swallow him. A resolve like a raging storm.
"For most other people, I would say no. I would repeat my advice and tell you to run. These last few centuries have not been Barenin's best. And they will continue to maneuver themself and everyone around them into what they feel is the best possible position to save the universe." She tilted her head. "But I believe you would do the same in their place, wouldn't you, Anais Cavere?"
Sela turned abruptly back to the holo interface, breaking contact with him. Her human illusion was gone. And Anais, seconds too late, realized the bubble of caught time was gone, too. The countdown on the holo display was at three seconds.
"Oh stars above," he muttered.
The ship gave the slightest tremble. The weapons firing? He reached for the weapons display—yes, they had already fired. Sela had given the signal.
Kaireyeh missiles. Oh gods and stars above, they'd just fired Aezthena-made Kaireyeh missiles as a human world.
A new, large holo display popped up showing a view of Denz Dayar, marbled blue and green. Anais watched with arrested horror as it disappeared in a massive, rippling fold of black.
Every holo display turned red with alerts: massive Kaireyeh buildup, critical concentration of improbability particles, the sudden absence of a gravity well. The sudden loss of anything for the ship to orbit. One holo display flashed that emergency thrusters had just kicked in, moving the ship away from the hazards.
But the bridge remained eerily silent. There were no audible alarms like there would be on a human ship. Not even the ship-Barenin, who stood passive and almost-forgotten to one side, said anything.
"Did it work?" Anais asked. Oh gods. Please, let that planet still be in tact. "Are they—"
"As far as I can tell," Sela said, "the planet is now shifted out of phase. It will be a few hours before it can return, while the space it would normally occupy settles." She didn't quite frown at the displays, but there was something in her voice and posture that Anais read as displeasure. Or maybe discomfort. Barenin had said that the rifts they'd create in Kaireyeh by detonating Kaireyeh weapons would be extremely uncomfortable for Aezthena.
"It hurts," the ship-Barenin said in a near whisper.
Anais glanced at the holo and shivered. In that moment, it felt all too much like Barenin speaking.
And where was Barenin now, phased out with that planet? What were they feeling in the maelstrom of all that disturbed Kaireyeh, if they could feel it from the other side?
Were they even alive?
Anais took a shaky breath, and another. And another, staring at the black mass on the holo where the planet had been.
Sela stepped away from the holo displays. Had she even needed them? If she'd boarded Barenin's ship, surely she could interface with it directly.
"This ship will continue to adjust its course to stay in a safe enough position," Sela said. "There is enough flux in the Kaireyeh space around the planet that when it does comes back into normal space, Barenin can return to their ship. That is the only guarantee I can give—that there is a chance. After that, space will solidify into rifts that will remain impassable for several centuries." She stared beyond the holo displays—to what, Anais couldn't fathom. Could she see what was happening out there at a level of ship's sensors? Or even beyond that?
"I'll leave you now," Sela said. And was gone.
Anais jumped. "Wait—"
He stopped. He didn't want to be alone. Not in this ship, not with that blankness on the holo display, not when Barenin was inside it. But despite her answering his questions, despite her apparent—humanity—of the last minutes, he didn't want Sela to come back.
He shivered just thinking that he'd touched her. Laid his hand on her arm and shared emotions in a way that had felt intimate with Barenin, but foreign and wrong with her.
Anais wobbled to the low couch and sank into it, still staring at the holos, though he couldn't read them from across the room.
What had they just done? He had boarded an Aezthena ship and fired Kaireyeh weapons at a human world. And Barenin had used Aezthena tech—and un-tested Yfeni tech—to shift an entire planet out of temporary existence.
Had they saved that world from future Aezthena interference and attacks? They'd certainly condemned it to centuries of solitude. And what would the other human worlds make of this, a world apparently destroyed by a Kaireyeh explosion? Barenin planned to make a short, authenticated statement that the explosion had been an accident. No treaty violations had been made by anyone but the Dayarans. Would the human worlds believe that? That the Dayarans had been experimenting with highly illegal Kaireyeh tech that was a part of their religion? Or would they point at the Aezthena and start another war?
And was that world still behind that roiling black mass at all, would it survive when it transitioned back into a volatile pocket of spacetime?
What would the Dayarans do about their sun?
Barenin had calculated all of this. They were Barenin. Just as they'd calculated what would happen when Anais boarded their ship. When Sela invaded his mind, for the second time. When Sela told him why Barenin would let such a thing happen.
He dropped his head in his hands, utterly exhausted.
"Ship?" he asked, through muffled fingers. "Do I need to do anything? Any systems I need to monitor?"
"No," the ship-Barenin said. "I have everything under control. Your vitals show you're in distress. I will synthesize water and a meal for you."
Anais barked a humorless laugh that might have also been a sob.
But a section of couch beside him became a platform, and a glass of water and plate of food grew out of it. It looked like a light meal, more greens than protein. Anais' stomach turned at the thought of eating, then rumbled its emptiness. He hadn't eaten since...that morning? Had he even eaten that morning?
His throat reminded him with overwhelming urgency that he definitely hadn't taken a drink in a while. And his clothes were damp with sweat.
He picked up the glass and gingerly took a sip. It was, blissfully, just water.
"Ship," Anais said, "can you show me a bigger view of the planet? Where the planet was, I mean. Large, like the whole room."
"Yes," the ship-Barenin said. The holo displays at the front minimized to one side and a whole section of the wall either became transparent or, more likely, projected a holographic viewscreen. Dark folds of space rippled, queasy to watch. The planet would not be back for several hours. Barenin had said to expect four, though time could shift in minor ways when Kaireyeh in an area was in flux as it was now.
Anais watched the blackness. Watched avidly for any signs of...anything. He didn't know how he could wait a few hours, but he would.
The room spun, and he tried several bites of a biscuit he couldn't taste before his stomach turned.
Anais closed his eyes and rested his head back on the couch. He couldn't do this any more. Couldn't stay alert. Didn't know what help he'd be even if he could.
Anais jerked back upright, his heart in his throat. No, he had to stay alert. He stood, swaying, but managed to keep his balance.
If this didn't work, if that planet didn't come back, it was his fault. It had been his plan to hide the world and make it appear to be destroyed. His fault that Denz Dayar and everyone on it were gone.
His fault the one person he thought he might truly care about since his parents' death was gone. The one person he'd ever felt more connection to than momentary pleasure. And they hadn't even gotten to the pleasure part yet.
Barenin, he sent toward the blackness. Barenin, you are a bastard. And you know it. But...stay safe. Please. Please come back.
Yes, Barenin had manipulated the hell out of him. Yes, Barenin was trying to show him how awful they were, and yes, he was hurt. But the loneliness hurt more, didn't it? Not having someone who understood him. Barenin was trying to push him away, like he'd pushed so, so many others away, too. With small acts of petty cruelty. With moves perfectly calculated to wound. With acts like Barenin had done to him now.
Gods, was he that awful? Was this what it felt like, on the other end of his own insecurities? And he had them. He had a lot of them. Barenin did, too.
Anais swiped an arm across his face. More tears. More bloody tears in this last day than he'd had in most of his life. He was so sick of tears.
"Ser Cavere," the ship-Barenin said, suddenly by his side. "You are in physical distress. Please, lie down. I will give you something to sleep."
Anais shook his head, still staring at that gaping maw in space. "If Barenin doesn't come back, who will stop the Aezthena, then? Who will save the universe? Sela won't. She's stopped trying. Well, maybe trying a little now. But she won't, in the end, will she? She's more interested in saving the Aezthena. It's always been Barenin. It's Barenin or no one. Isn't it?"
He was babbling. But the thoughts came too fast, sparking in his brain. He started pacing a jerky circuit around the room.
"And what if this turns into another human-Aezthena war, huh? Who will hold the peace? Someone has to hold the peace between the humans and the Aezthena. It's always been Barenin. They broker all the treaties. Even the first one—Daemonus Kyn, ha. No other Aezthena has even tried, not that I know of."
The ship-Barenin appeared in front of him. Looking...distressed? Could a ship look distressed?
"Ship," Anais said, and then paused to lick very dry lips. He looked again at the holo of the wounded spacetime outside. The missing world. He stood closer to it now, and it seemed more real, more tangible in this greater detail.
He half-expected the ship to tell him to lie down again, but the ship-Barenin waited, expression impassive again. Maybe Anais hadn't seen the worry before. Maybe that was a function of his over-tired brain.
"Ship," he said again, and forced more resolve into his voice. "If Barenin doesn't come back...do you—can you turn me into an Aezthena?" He almost choked on those last words. And part of him couldn't believe he was asking this.
But if Barenin didn't come back...someone had to hold the peace. And he knew of no one else even interested in trying.
Anais stared at the hologram while they stared back at him for a long, long moment. He was getting the sense that "low-level intelligence" meant something very different to the Aezthena than it did to a human.
Finally, the ship-Barenin said, "Yes, Anais. If Barenin doesn't come back and that is what you truly wish, I have the ability to make you Aezthena."
Anais shuddered. It wasn't a good thought. Not at all comforting, and he clenched his hands against the edges of his clothes trying not to think too hard about it.
But if it came to it. If he had to. He would do it.
Maybe Barenin's test when he'd boarded, setting him off-balance, had been more than trying to push him away. A test of his resolve to stay with them. Maybe Barenin had also been testing how much Anais was willing to take in pursuit of something he believed in. And Anais believed, he realized, in doing good. In saving things, like this world. And humanity. And maybe even the Aezthena. And the universe at large.
He wasn't a good person. Neither was Barenin. But...maybe he wasn't all bad, either.
"I'll do it," he whispered to the black. "If you can't, I will. I promise."
And then whatever energy he had left gave out.
"All right," he gasped, shuffling back to the couch. "All right, ship, I'll sleep." He hit the couch, and marveled at how soft it had become. So soft, and exactly what he needed. "Wake me up in three hours—"
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