“Be not afraid,” Anotira said, motioning Haradeth towards a chair that awaited the building she had brought them to. “I do not intend you harm this day, Haradeth, son of Lathariel.”
Haradeth swallowed what felt like a lump of cotton. “You know my name?”
“Of course. I heard the argument with Shaaythi, after all. I hear all that happens within this dome.”
Lorathor stood silently against the wall, letting Haradeth take the lead. Haradeth did so by sinking into the chair he was offered.
“What are you?” he finally asked.
“I’m a goddess. Like your mother,” Anotira said.
Haradeth shook his head firmly. “You’re not alive.”
Lorathor gasped, but Anotira laughed. This time, the sound came from her mouth, not the air around Haradeth, and it felt more natural – although the lack of life coming from Anotira was still unsettling. “What makes you say that?”
“It’s the truth,” Haradeth said simply. “I can sense life. I know life. You are not a living thing.”
“Interesting. I wonder what that says about me. Are you certain I’m not just too alien for your experiences to process?”
Haradeth shook his head. “The Alohym are alive. I can feel it off them. If I can sense it from them, I surely can from you.”
“Haradeth,” Lorathor said firmly. “She is our goddess. You should not speak to her so.”
Haradeth did not take his eyes from Anotira. “She may be that, my friend, but she is certainly not alive.”
Lorathor opened his mouth to object again, but before he could, Anotira sighed, and again she flickered into motes of light. “I suppose there’s not point arguing it.” She turned to face Lorathor for a moment. “Lorathor. Spawn of Galithin, Chessae, and Corvi. I bind you to speak no word of what you learn here to the others. No clever tricks, no loopholes. If you share what I say here, you will be cast out. If you find some way to subvert the spirit of this order, you will be cast out. Am I clear?”
Lorathor nodded mutely, and Anotira turned back to Haradeth.
“You are correct. I am not alive. Not in the strict, organic sense of the word. Although I’d argue that I can exhibit many of the traits of life. I can replicate, I consume, I grow. I just do so through a different mechanism.”
“I don’t understand,” Lorathor burst in, and Haradeth nodded in agreement.
“How does a Skitter know where to put its claws at it moves?” Anotira asked.
Haradeth frowned. “There’s a lattice inside the Skitter. It controls the legs. It’s sort of like…well, I guess it’s like an insect’s mind.”
Anotira nodded. “It’s exactly like that, in fact. And if a lattice could be built to emulate the mind of an insect, could it be scaled up? To the mind of a wolf? Or a human? Or…something more?”
Haradeth gaped at her. “You…you’re a lattice? So there’s some Sylvani controlling you?”
Anotira shook her head. “No Sylvani controls me. I was built to be self controlling, self aware.”
If Haradeth hadn’t already been sitting down, he would have fallen to the floor. “That’s impossible.”
“If the Alohym had not come, you would have said a web that functions like an insect brain was impossible.” Anotira said gently.
Haradeth could only stare at her mutely.
“I am the guiding intelligence of this city,” Anotira explained. “I am the beginning of the Sylvani’s story on this world, and I am its end.”
After a minute, Haradeth found his voice. “You…what do you mean you’re the beginning of the Sylvani’s story? Did something else make you?”
Anotira shook her head. “I said I was the beginning of the Sylvani’s story on this world.”
Lorathor had turned a pale blue. “What…what are you saying?”
“You are not of a people native to his world, Lorathor,” Anotira said. “Your ancestors came here thousands of years ago. Each of the spires that make up this city was once a ship that traversed the same voice the beings you now know as Alohym traveled.”
“Now know as Alohym?” Haradeth said, his voice firm and demanding. “What were they called before?”
“I do not know.”
Haradeth’s eyes narrowed. “You claim to be as old as the Sylvani on this world, yet you don’t know the name of the beings you fled to come here?”
Anitoria flickered again. “No. I do not. My lattice…when we first arrived here, there were twelve of us.”
“The Twelve Luminous Gods,” Lorathor said, still looking so pale Haradeth feared he might faint. “The others died to preserve your life, facing off against the Dark One Eylohir, so that you could guide us for the rest of time.”
“Is that what they say?” Anitoria smiled. “It’s…close to the truth. Eylohir is a word that your language has lost, Lorathor. In the ancient tongue of the Sylvani, it meant…” Anitoria frowned. “I cannot find a good synonym. A loose translation would be ‘catastrophic system failure.’ She sighed again, and Haradeth noted for the first time the sigh was identical to the others. The way her head tilted, the way her arms moved, wasn’t just similar to previous sighs. She was going through the exact same motion each time.
“Our power cores were damaged when we arrived here. To maintain all twelve would have resulted in our shutdown within one hundred years local time. It was decided that the other eleven would go into hibernation. I would be able to access their memories, but since I was the simplest of the Lattice Minds on this ship, I could run with the lowest power drain. Even then, to extend my lifespan, I was to run only when absolutely needed, and pass the important parts of the Sylvani culture and history down through organic, memetic methods, and prepare for the Alohym’s arrival on this world.”
Lorathor and Haradeth shared a look of confusion. “Organic, memetic methods?” Haradeth asked.
“Stories. Legends. Religion. Myths. Things the Sylvani would pass to each other. I made sure to run long enough enough to correct any absolutely flawed assumptions, but-”
“-you let us think we were from this world!” Lorathor burst in, unable to contain himself anymore. “You kept that secret from us! How is that not an ‘absolutely flawed assumption?’”
“It would have availed you nothing,” Anitoria said firmly. “I was to care for the Sylvani. Would you have me force you to feel like outsiders, constantly aware of the fact that you did not belong on this world? Would you have me force upon your an apocalyptic prophecy that the Alohym would arrive, when a hundred times a hundred generations have passed since we arrived on this world? A hundred times a hundred generators burdened by the knowledge of a fate that could arrive at any time? What would that have done to you? You accused Shaaythi earlier of forgetting that humans were worth saving, and that’s without feeling apart and separate from them.”
“What of our tools?” Lorathor demanded. “Of our weapons? We could have shared them with humanity!”
“We did,” Anitoria said firmly. “We gave humanity the tools we had, we gave them our science, we showed them how to channel the light within their world – the same light the Alohym stole from us.”
Lorathor looked a mixture of confused and hurt right now, so Haradeth picked back up the conversation. “If you did, what happened?”
“I can no longer access those records,” Anitoria said, her simulated voice full of bitterness. “I know there was a war. I do not know who fired the first shot. I do not know whom is to blame. I only know that since that war, I cannot access the memories of my siblings. I know my data has become corrupted in places. The older the memory, the harder it is to obtain, and the more likely it is to be riddled with errors. I was supposed to prepare us to face this enemy, and because of a war that was fought with the weapons we granted humanity, I cannot.”
“Surely you have some ideas-” Haradeth began, but Anitoria cut him off.
“I was created to record entertainment, not to formulate plans. When I could access the memory banks of the others, I could use them to simulate intelligence in areas I did not have. Invention. Strategy. Synthesis. Hypothesis.” She gave that sigh again, the same as every other sigh. “Now I am limited. Severely limited. I cannot even access the information I need to restore my connection with the others!”
“So you cannot help us?” Haradeth asked, softly.
“I cannot,” Anitoria confirmed, her voice sad. “I am sorry to have wasted your time. But what power I have left must be dedicated to maintaining the Sylvani’s safety.”
“But-” Haradeth begin.
Anitoria sighed that identical sigh one last time. “No, Haradeth, son of Lathariel. There is no but. I have one purpose I can still fulfill. These people are that purpose.”
Haradeth could see the resolve in her eyes, and realized that no words he could say would persuade this goddess.
Lorathor finally broke the silence, an ugly note to his voice. “Come on, Haradeth. I think we should be going.”
With that, they turned to leave Anitoria’s chamber, and Anitoria once again dispersed into cloud of lights.