Hendrik was feeling reinvigorated, he would soon be able to look over his old documents. The pragmatic part of him was telling him that it was mostly pointless. It was not like these documents would hold some secret or information that could get him off the ship.
The documents were his pride and joy, the records of victories he had won and the things he had achieved. Bureaucratic reforms, industrial expansion, infrastructure development, technological modernization. There were also plans of attack, schemes, and contingency plans littered among them, those were less important.
Most of the ones he had kept in his office were the things he could feel proud of. Perhaps if he looked over them he could rediscover what kind of person he was before The Game had swallowed all his attention. Despite his eagerness to get to work, he had made a deal, one that he would keep his end off.
He ate the last of the onion soup, it tasted a bit different than the non-complied meals, but it was still delicious. When he was done, he put the spoon down “you wanted to talk about my gender identity?”
Mertha nodded and stood up, walking towards the living room “yes, but we should get a bit more comfortable first.” She sat down in the hard chair leaving only the soft ones and the couch for him to take. He decided on the couch, it was the easiest to get into. He felt anticipation and apprehension.
Mertha created a semi ladder of vines so he could get up and sit on the couch, one of them gave him a small pat on the head before retracting. Mertha lifted the chair she was sitting on to be a bit closer “last time we talked about it I was perhaps….a bit ruthless. How do you feel about it?” That was a simple question with a very complex answer.
He had thought about it, a lot. He had considered and pondered what he was in some capacity at almost any opportunity unless he managed to distract himself. If not for the class-z he took every night he would never have gotten any sleep, no fear of assassins needed.
Before he had simply put the question out of his mind, deciding that confrontation was not worth the pain and discomfort. The removal of his facial hair had changed all that, the relief of it being gone was proof that improvement was possible. He craved more relief. Now he could not ignore it, now it was something he had to confront.
A vine slid up next to his left hand, Hendrik grabbed it “it has been difficult. Not because what you said, what you did was amazing. But now I can’t get it out of my mind. it feels like I have to make a decision, I want to make a decision…..” The words came tumbling out, he squeezed the vine.
Mertha spoke with that familiar warmth in her voice “why don’t you tell me what you feel conflicted about?” Hendrik breathed out and tried to remember all the ideas that had plagued him the last few days.
He just had to start, then it would become easier to continue “it’s quite clear that I have dysphoria, and that I have had it for a long time. For so long I just tried to ignore it…..it felt easier than doing something about it. I can’t suppress it anymore and……I don’t want to either, I just don’t know how to deal with it.” he felt his hand squeezed hard around the vine, his breathing was shallow.
There was a calming rhythm in Mertha’s words “just focus on breathing slowly for me, that’s very good……..I’m very proud of you for choosing to stop suppressing this part of yourself. Could you tell me what you mean by ‘dealing with it’?” his breathing became slower and more balanced, following the rhythm in her voice.
He tried to think “I guess I mean that it's quite difficult. Even if I decide I want to do it, there are a lot of problems that I don’t know if I can deal with.” Those problems had been what he used to suppress the ideas long ago.
Mertha did not seem faced in the lightest “Could you give me an example of such a problem? I’m sure it’s less difficult than you think.” her stability was calming.
He shuffled a bit “I know this might sound stupid, but I don’t think I can. A person in my position…I would be ridiculed, I don’t think people would take me seriously anymore.” And if he was not taken seriously anymore…..
Mertha looked at him sternly “you are not in that position anymore and furthermore if anyone dares to ridicule you for who you are….then they will have to deal with me.” He believed her, her protective voice gave him no choice.
With one of the walls of doubt knocked over by Mertha’s words, he fell back to the second one. “Even if I can, the medical part is also difficult. It is so much work and effort, and what if it doesn’t work as I want it to?” all those years ago he had looked up treatment, just out of curiosity of course. It was expensive, took a long time, and could, or rather would, have side effects. He wasn’t sure he could handle all of that, especially right now.
“Even with your primitive medical technology, the effects of treatment are almost always very beneficial to the patient.” Her smile took on a gloating quality “we affini have far more advanced medicine. It is far more efficient, we can customize the results and we even have vitamins to help your hair grow faster.” Of course, they did. Why did he think the affini would ever use some type of primitive hormone manipulation?
Another wall had fallen, so he retreated to his last stronghold “what if I regret it?” It was an unfair question, one that could never be definitively answered. He felt a few tears roll down his cheek, there was no way she could answer it. Mertha mulled it over for a few seconds.
She stood up from the chair and sat down next to him, a couple of vines and her arm rested on his shoulder. She allowed him to lean into her side “before I answer the question I just want you to answer a few of mine, I’m sure you can do it but just shake your head and we will stop. How do you feel about your name?”
He wasn’t quite sure “I don’t know, I guess it is what people call me. I don’t really have any more connection to it than that.” That’s how everybody felt about their name, right?
Mertha nodded knowingly “mhm, what about your pronouns, do you feel anything around them?”
He leaned in a bit closer to Mertha “I am used to it, at least it’s better than when people use Sir or Mr. It always sounds wrong.” It felt like there was some type of soft drum beating from inside Mertha, he felt calm, safe.
“I understand, what about clothes? You have been wearing a dress for the last 5 days, is that better than the suit you wore before?” he tried to hide his slight blush, he thought it was a hospital gown.
Mertha simply waited for him to answer until he felt ready “it’s not like I have something against suits….but when it’s on me it makes me feel…. Blocky, weird.” He flinched a bit as he imagined how he looked when he wore it.
Mertha used a vine to lift his chin up and leaned in close “don’t worry. You won’t have to wear them in the future. Now then I have one last question. How does it feel when I do this?” Mertha leaned in even closer until her face was right next to his ear “good girl” Aaaaa, what did she say?
He blushed, how was he supposed to react? It felt like his mind was short-circuiting.
He buried his face in her side to hide from the embarrassment, he felt Mertha bristle. A few moments later Mertha gave her verdict “I might not be your vet, but I think I have enough information to diagnose you as a beautiful and incredibly cute woman.”
Hendrik felt like he was going to die of embarrassment. Mertha speaking so confidently made his own feelings extremely hard to deny. After reveling in his embarrassment for a bit Mertha continued “to answer your question, if you do regret it then we can simply change you back or into something else. I will not be satisfied until you are completely happy.” She began to gently pet his head.
There was a last bit of resistance left in him “is it okay that this is so easy? it feels wrong somehow.” Using her vines, she lifted him up into her arms.
She continued to pet his head “your life has been filled with so much hardship, it’s okay for things to be easy. You deserve it.” He tried to find another argument, another reason to deny himself this. He found nothing. He finally surrendered and felt the weight on his mind begin to fade. It felt strange to accept it, he had tried so long to deny it.
He looked up at her “so what now?” She smiled and lifted him up further. Her eyes were filled with pride and happiness. He was a bit befuddled. “I don’t really have a new name I can think of.” He didn’t honestly think that he would get this far.
Mertha scratched him behind the ear “that’s okay, you will find one when you are ready. In the meantime, do you want me to use she/her pronouns?” Hendrik nodded as much as he could without disrupting the pets.
There was a warm feeling spreading through her body. “I know it might take some time to get the medicine, but I think I also want to start with that.” Mertha extended one of her vines, it was covered in pink flowers.
Mertha giggled “if you want I can administer the first dose now, I had it grafted onto me yesterday while I was out.” Wait, what?
Hendrik felt the blush return “I…I don’t see a reason to wait. Was it that obvious?” Mertha began bristling again, Henrik felt a short sting on her left thigh.
Mertha ruffled her hair “perhaps a bit obvious. Now then, you have been a very good girl, I’m very proud of you. You can go and decode those documents of yours now.”
Trying her best to stay calm under the compliment Hendrik grabbed a vine “perhaps we could just….cuddle for a bit. If that is ok for you, that is.” When had she lost so much authority in her voice?
A flurry of vines began to smother her with affection “I would like nothing better.” She allowed herself to just relax and enjoy the sensation, for now, everything was perfect.
Hendrik looked over the aged paper. Decoding it would take some time, she was rusty, so it did not flow as it used to. She was impressed that the encoding had stumped the affini, but it was created to be indecipherable. Unlike most codes it was not meant for communication rather it was to be readable to only the one individual who knew the code. For a time after she learned it, there had been two, now she was the only one.
It worked off a several-layer deep encoding that needed ciphers only she knew. It was not based on logic or patterns, that could be cracked far too easily. The documents were written in random letters and symbols that meant different things based on the document’s date, document id value, the crop yield of Cebrex V that year, and other random values. Even if a computer could randomly figure out one cipher the text would be illegible unless you had all of them.
It was a beautiful layer of defenses that when deciphered made an orderly and flawless document. In retrospect, it was a bit paranoid, but it had worked so far, so who was she to criticize?
She had awoken in Mertha’s vines and had relaxed there for about an hour before they lazily got some food from the compiler. Mertha was currently studying Centhian culture and would regularly ask about the certain cultural significance or ingrained values. Hendrik felt at peace, still, she had a document to decode.
It took some time, after about 20 minutes the text of the first document was decoded and the others soon were sure to follow. Mertha had given her a recording device so she could record the documents without writing.
She turned on the device “first document, this one is a classic. The reformation of the central bureaucracy discipline and promotions motions.” As she made her way through the document. she explained how making independent and randomly selected committees do blind assessments of staff was central to removing the factionalism in the bureaucracy.
There were several other motions and plans that she went through meticulously, making sure to give a detailed explanation of the effects and purpose behind each of them. In the end, the reforms allowed her to solidify power and keep the bureaucracy under her control. At the same time the statistics that showed the drastically lowered assassination, schism, and turnover rates also proved it to be an effective reform. It might not be a ladder to power anymore, but the workers who could go home without the fear of imminent death or injury were probably content.
Her concertation was broken as Mertha let out a sigh “while hearing you this invested is adorable, is there a possibility you could move on to the next document? If I have to hear about another stipulation I’m going to fall asleep.” Hendrik shook her head, how could Mertha not appreciate such an excellent reform? She could finish it later, Hendrik took up the next document.
She smiled with satisfaction “perhaps you will like this one better, it’s about the comprehensive rail system I had constructed under new Hamburg.” She began the decoding and recording as she listed the committee considerations and evaluations. The corps that was contracted and what oversight they were under. The specifications of gaps between the trains and walls, so forth, and so forth. In the end, the car manufacturing corporation that had tried to build ties to Terran loyalists had gone bankrupt and the transportation system had become far more efficient as a bonus. This was also complimented by-
“Hey Cutie, you have a visitor!” the voice of the hab Ai interrupted her recording
“Oh, thank the Everbloom, come in!” Mertha sprung to her….feet? vines?
The door opened and Serla walked in, she looked at Mertha with a mischievous grin. “What is the matter Mertha? Having problems with your ward?”
Mertha overdramatically sighed “Of all the sophonts I could get wardship over, why did it have to be the one enthusiastic bureaucrat??”
Serla looked over at Hendrik with an over-performative concern “are you torturing poor Mertha with boring documents?”
Henrik crossed her arms and pouted “it’s not my fault she can’t apricate the finer things in life, if you would just listen to the formulation of this reform I’m sure you would agree.”
Serla pretended to cover where her ears would have been “no! how could you give it documents? Mertha you fool!” at that point none of them could continue the performance, Mertha was first but soon they were all laughing. It continued for about 3 minutes before they managed to calm down.
Serla was the first to speak “I’m glad to see that you are in such high spirits and ready for another session.” Mertha looked proud and that trickled over to Hendrik.
Mertha gathered up her things and stood up “I will give you two the space you require, see you soon?” She began to walk towards the door.
Before she could leave “Wait!.....could you…stay? I think it might be easier if you were here….” Hendrik felt a bit bashful, she was becoming far too dependent on Mertha.
Mertha stopped and looked back “of course, I’ll stay, if you want me to stay.” Hendrik noticed that Serla gave Mertha a taunting sideways glance that Mertha returned with an annoyed one.
Serla quickly occupied the hard chair, damn it. sitting with Mertha next to her on the couch was a good second. Serla took out her data pad “so Hendrik, do you want to continue from where we left off last, or do you want to talk about something else?”
He tried to find a bit more uncomfortable position on the couch and failed “we can continue from last time.” Serla signaled that she could begin. She tried to remember last time; The academy, no friends….her parent’s death…and graduation.
Mertha laid a vine on her shoulder, it was nice that she was close “after graduation I had no money, the only thing I inherited from my parents was debt, I also had no job so for a time, in conclusion: I was homeless. The corp-guards didn’t allow loitering, I had to survive in the underbelly of western new Hamburg.” Another set of memories she had not allowed himself to process.
She noticed that Mertha stiffened a bit, but Serla was the one that spoke “what did you do to survive? were you scared?” Hendrik remembered the fear, that she would never forget.
She had to push herself to continue “I found an unused air vent in a random back alley. I hid there for most of the time. I only went out when I had to scavenge for food.” she remembered the vent, how small and dusty it was. Each time she went out she was sure someone would find her and…….
Serla broke through the fog of memories “it’s very understandable that you were scared. Were you ever attacked?”
She remembered to breathe “once or twice, only a few bruises. I usually managed to either avoid people or run away.” She had seen people who were not so cautious and lucky.
Mertha coiled around her arm “you are safe now. Nothing can harm you.” Hendrik leaned a bit closer to her affini.
She decided to move on “it was only lasted for two months, I had applied for the central colonial bureaucracy right after my graduation. While hiding in that vent I got the message that I had been accepted. I was 16 years old at that point.” The relief from that moment was still palpable in her mind.
The vines around her arm tightened a bit at the last sentence. She tried to sound reassuring “with the hiring loan I could get a tiny apartment. I was determined to never return to those streets. I don’t think I could have survived it again.” Her shaking voice was not very reassuring, she was pushed a bit closer to Mertha once more.
Serla seemed to recognize that she wanted to move on. Serla straightened up and smiled “with your proficiency and love for the field your job must have been quite an improvement over your previous situations.” It was obvious she was trying to cheer her up.
Hendrik refocused her mind “yeah it was pretty great the first few months. I was employed under a certain….Mr. Herington.” She spat the name out. Remembering that toad soured her memories of those first months in the office. She had been relieved to get out of the street and working with real documents was much more fulfilling than school.
“Not a person you hold in high regard?” Serla noted.
“He was an incompetent and exploitative old man. Once he recognized my talents, he gave me much more work. I often had to do it at home, and it was exhausting. Even worse, he posed my work as his! When I spoke up, he threatened to fire me….I couldn’t go back..” she tried to remain calm.
A grin claimed her mouth “at one point I couldn’t take it anymore. I faked some numbers and the presentation he made me do. in front of the other supervisors, I showcased not only that he had stolen my work but also that he was an incompetent fool. He retired a few days later.” She gave a short laugh “you should have seen his face when he realized what was going on. He was not popular with the other supervisors either so there was no leverage for him to stay. A month later I was promoted to his position.”
Mertha’s vines loosened a bit “so you were rewarded for your good work?” The hope in her voice was almost painful to correct.
Hendrik looked down “Nah, it was just that I was less of a threat to their position because of my age. Still, it was far better than before. The wages were better as well so I began to drag myself up from debt.” Hendrik wondered what would have happened if she had stayed in that position, maybe she would have been less of a mess right now.
Serla typed something on the data pad “what happened then? I doubt we would have negotiated with you if you were just an office supervisor.” Serla’s attempt to bring some humor to the atmosphere was welcome.
She obliged Serla’s curiosity “A few months later when I had adjusted to my new position the sub-department secretary, my supervisor, was killed in a drive-by. I tried to stay out of the way during the ‘competition’ for the position. Most of the other supervisors were part of some faction or clique, I wanted nothing to do with that. The person to pick the replacement turned out to be from neither of the competing factions. She chose me so that her faction could assimilate me and keep the other factions out.” Something she had learned later was not too uncommon of a tactic.
Mertha inquired “so you were promoted against your will?”
Hendrik sighed “no, I was very surprised, but I accepted it gladly. The wage was better and Samantha, the person that chose me was very friendly. like me, she was not from the higher class like most of the other bureaucrats. We struck it off and became friends. I came to look at her as kind of like an older sister.” Those memories were filled with poison.
Serla had noticed the tone of her voice “what happened?”
Hendrik felt her voice harden “a year later I discovered that Samantha and the others of her clique were involved in smuggling resources to one of the criminal families for a tidy sum. I warned her that I had discovered them but told no one, I just wanted her to be more careful. The day later I was arrested, she had pinned it on me. Before I knew what was going on I was in a cell awaiting execution.” How had she been so naïve to warn Samantha, luck was the only reason she was alive.
Serla’s voice was calm “how did the betrayal make you feel?” What a pointless question.
She had to make them understand “what I felt is not important, I was stupid and navive. I almost died for my mistake.” Serla just looked at her with those large swirly eyes.
Serla scribbled on her data pad “I do think it’s important to know how you felt, you also shouldn’t be too hard on yourself.” Ridiculous, how else was she supposed to learn?
Mertha’s warmth felt far away “it was a mistake! I need to be hard on myself. Luck was the only thing that kept me alive. I have seen what happened to those that make one too many mistakes, they die!”
Her voice was a mere whisper, she was trying to hold the tears back “you want to know how I felt? I was…terrified, I thought I was going to die….alone.” The room was quiet, she felt all the anger and tension melt into sorrow.
Serla let the poor human collect herself. It was touching to see how close Mertha and Hendrik had gotten, despite their collective obliviousness. While Serla watched Mertha comfort the humans she went over what she had heard.
It was obvious that the betrayal had stung a lot. This Samantha was probably the first thing that Hendrik had gotten to a friend. Humans were very prone to connect to others and someone as deprived of it as Hendrik was susceptible to the hurt that such a connection might bring if it went poorly.
The fear that motivated Hendrik was equally obvious. She just hoped that they could somehow dismantle the armor that Hendrik had built. Mertha was certainly trying, but right now only a slight push was required to set the girl back into her old defensive state.
Her evaluation was interrupted by Henrik “I think I’m ready to continue.” Serla would usually tell her patients to not push themselves. In spite of this, she needed to understand the motivation behind the armor before she could even hope to begin dismantling it.
Showing that she trusted Hendrik’s judgment would also help “Go on, I assume you were saved somehow?”
Hendrik looked away for a bit “the deal with the families was actually a ruse, the grand permanent secretary had used it to smoke out Samantha’s clique. He would not let my naivety ruin his plan, so he released the evidence. They were arrested and I was freed.” Hendrik looked back, the pain in her eyes was clear.
Her eyes were focused on memories of a decade ago “He actually came and unlocked my cell himself. Told me I had potential, that he could teach me, but I had to prove I was worth his time. I was tired of being scared, always being one unlucky day away from death. I followed him out of the cell and began to play The Game.” Her eyes had gotten that hard quality, the ones of the president
It was unsettling, they were getting somewhere “so he began to teach you and support you?”
Hendriks’s voice was cold now “teach? Yes, support? No. I would have to prove that I could survive on my own. For the first time, I began to learn to play The Game around me. The one that everyone had been playing while I tried to hide away. The only way to be safe was to get more power, so that is what I did. Scheming, blackmail, forgery, and bribery, I used it all to climb up the ranks.”
Serla needed some concrete answers “so you began because you were afraid?”
The human’s answer was quick and hard “no. I was tired of being afraid. I did it because that is how you survive The Game. You climb and try not to fall. If you decide to stop climbing you will only be stepped on by someone else.” At this point, this was a truth to Hendrik’s mind, that much Serla could determine. Claiming she was safe and loved was not going to be sufficient.
Hendrik seemed determined to continue the story “the more I climbed, the more I learned. I saw where others made mistakes and made sure I would never make them. The higher up I got the more power I possessed and the more enemies I made. At some point I didn’t even do bureaucratic work, I only played The Game. In the end, I proved myself to my mentor, I had become the permanent secretary of the infrastructure department and later the department of safety.” Mertha was concerned, a look from Serla was enough for her to understand, Hendrik needed to continue.
There was pride in Hendrik's words “He invited me to dinner. He told me that he had long looked for an heir and that after many attempts he had found one: me. I was now Shivar’s right-hand man. We cooperated on plans, outplayed our enemies, and like a force of nature we secured ever more power. When he finally became governor I was promoted to Grand Permanent secretary of the entire central bureaucracy.” This Shivar seemed important to Hendrik, more like a father than a co-worker or ally.
Hendrik's words once again went hard and cold “That was when Shivar taught me the most important lesson of all. He acted like he had won, and told me he was finally content. He began to work less, ate fine meals with friends and acquaintances, he even wanted to write a book. He got comfortable……” The last words sent shivers down Serla’s core, they were said with such finality.
Hendrik shifted uncomfortably on the sofa “he did not notice when the other players began to circle. Soon I was left with only two choices: die by his side or continue the climb. I had learned enough to choose right. With his death I became governor.” There was hard suppressed guilt in her words.
At last, the nutrient bars made sense. Same with the chair and the corner Mertha had told her about. Hendrik thought that if she got comfortable, she would die.
Hendrik began to look exhausted “I could not rest as long as there were threats to be lingering around. I cleaned up the streets, the homeless got homes and jobs. I stripped the bureaucracy of its factionalism and cliques and made it an efficient tool for my power. With work and dedication, I weakened Terra’s grip on the sector bit by bit. Everything was going fine and then you showed up.” In venomous words, the president looked back at her with cold eyes.
She would have to try to break through “what would you have done If you won? if the negotiations with us went as you had planned?” the president went quiet for a moment
“I would have secured myself against all potential threats, then I would have reigned in peace.” The words were empty, almost prerecorded in nature.
Serla decided to push it “You have no idea do you?” The president glared at her with malice.
Her voice was slightly turbulent “It does not matter, what is the alternative? Die?” Serla could come up with a better alternative, but it would not convince the repressed human in front of her.
Hopefully, she would understand one day soon “Leave The Game. I am willing to bet that you have felt more happiness the last 5 days with Mertha than you have your last 5 years in power.” For a moment Henrik’s eyes softened, so close.
Then they hardened again “you can’t leave The Game, you either continue to play or you fall and die.”
Serla was so close she could feel it “The Game is over Hendrik, you can allow yourself to be happy.”
The president wiggled away from Mertha and jumped down to the floor. The human looked away, “The Game is never over.” She walked over to the bathroom, probably towards the corner Mertha had told her about.
Mertha stood up to follow but Serla stopped her “give her some space, I think she needs it. Hendrik has a lot to think about.” Pushing this far had already been risky enough.
Mertha was moving uncomfortably seeing her ward unattended and sad “are you sure? she looks more closed off than ever. I can’t bear to watch her like this.”
Serla tried to comfort her friend with a few vines “that girl has lived in a state of fear, suppression, and suspicion for so long. It is all that she knows. It will take time, but I am confident that we can convince her that she is safe. you have been doing an excellent job so far, just continue and we will get that girl to be the happy little flower that she was always supposed to be.”
Mertha relaxed slightly “she is still only allowed to sit in that corner for 30 minutes, after that she can think on the bed or sofa.” A protective and slightly predatory tone had entered her friend's voice, She doubted that Mertha even noticed it.
Serla smiled, her friend had this under control. As long as Hendrik was kept out of anything related to what she called ‘The Game’, the human could recover.
Serla decided it was time for her to leave “goodbye Mertha, send me a message when Hendrik is ready for a new session.” All in all, this session had gone better than expected, even if it displayed how much work there was left to do.
As she walked home Serla considered making Nora submit to her this evening. No. She would save that satisfaction for someday soon. Seeing the sophont squirm was delightful, dragging it out would cost her nothing.