Hendrik felt spent and empty, the hard-tiled corner provided focus. Serla’s words still echoed in her mind: “The Game is over Hendrik, you can allow yourself to be happy.” She had gone into this with the explicit wish to hear those words. It had worked with her transition, Mertha’s words of affirmation had allowed her to accept who she was.
But in this conflict, her mind refused to surrender to the affini words. Could The Game really end? And if it did…..what did she have left? Was she even capable of being happy at this point? or had she stripped out so many parts of herself that could not be repaired? Hendrik hated The Game, it was the reason behind all her misfortune. She also loved The Game, it was what she was, the one thing she had done well in her life. Abandoning it now would be like throwing the last 10 years of her life down the drain.
There was also the most horrifying thought, what if The Game wasn’t over? It lingered in the back of her mind like a predatory animal. She wanted to say that it was over. She had stayed in this hab for soon 3 weeks, without any consequences, no trace of The Game.
Her mind refused to acknowledge it, she had to continue to play. Something in her mind was convinced that soon the game would reel her back in, if she were not ready then, she would die.
This was getting her nowhere, she also didn’t want Mertha to come in and force her out of the corner when the time was up. The documents! She had something to do, something to distract her. She stood up and walked out.
Mertha was not in the living room or kitchen, which meant she was probably in her study. Hendrik had yet to enter the place but knew that this would give her time to do some work without interruption.
The documents and the recorder were on the kitchen table, it was to most practical workstation she had so far. Hendrik decided that she would first finish the two first documents before moving on.
While decoding them she realized something. While these projects were part of The Game, they did not have to be. there was certainly much more enjoyable to work with this than constant scheming. If The Game truly was over, maybe she could dedicate herself to this. Find solutions, improve infrastructure….improve people’s lives.
The affini would probably not need much help, their resources and technology meant that most problems would be minimal. They were not gods, however, and her perspective might help create something better.
For a moment she allowed herself to daydream. Maybe in the future, she could terraform one of the Cebrex planets, and create a resort world. Many of the planets in the Cebrex system were in the right zone but not large or valuable enough for human terraforming. The affini would make it a walk in the park.
She could plan, build, and manage it. More like a hotel owner than a governor. A place of genuine joy for humans and affini. Perhaps if she talked to enough of them, and saw how they were happy…she could learn to be as well.
Hendrik noticed that she was finished with both documents and that the recorder was still on. She took up the next paper, she would have to thank Mertha for providing these. Her eyes began to decode the document, and her daydream shattered.
“Liquidation report of the Helix Trading Consortium.” A long list of names coded in red, behind them an explanation of how they had been captured. “Vice Admiral hector: arrested in his home on charges of collusion and corruption, family detained and moved to secure shelter to be used in the asset’s interrogation. Interrogation results: successful, asset made several confessions under oath. Target successfully liquidated from power, sent to Cap-13 mining station for manual labor.”
The first name in a long list of red, a different story for each. All ended with the same result, “liquidation successful.” So many lives destroyed…..all in the name of what? The Game.
A resort world? Was she really that naïve? There was no way she could go to that after all she had done. She had destroyed these people, just because they could be a potential threat. There could be no justification for the things she had done. Had it not been necessary? Like anyone would care about that if they had the true list of her crimes. Her heart stopped, and she looked to the recorder.
If the affini got their hands on it, they could decode the others. It would take time, but they would learn the ciphers. And then…then they would know what a monster she was. Forced domestication would be the best-case scenario!
She had to destroy it! the compiler? No that would probably store the whole thing, they might recreate it just as easily. There was only one choice, Hendrik jumped off the chair. Using her left hand, she smashed the recorder into the table’s edge. Her hand hurt, but the recorder had become dented. She struck again and again. The recorder finally fell out of her hand a broken mess, unrecognizable from its previous form.
Hendrik collapsed to the ground, her hand was hurting, but she was safe. A door opened and she heard Mertha’s movement “dear? Are you okay? You have a high heart rate.” Upon seeing Hendrik on the floor, she dashed to her and lifted her up.
Serla glanced at the table and the broken recorder on the ground “what happened?” She couldn’t say anything, if Mertha knew then…then. Mertha used a vine to pet her head “don’t want to talk about it? that’s fine, at least let me take a look at your hand.”
After being lifted to the couch, Mertha inspected Henrik’s hand thoroughly. Mertha let out a relieved sigh “it looks a bit sore, it is otherwise fine.” Mertha looked at Henrik with clear green eyes “was it one of the documents that got you upset.” Henrik nodded, she could at least tell Mertha that much.
Hendrik was lifted up further and pressed against Mertha “you poor thing, you looked so happy when you worked on them earlier today. Did one of them bring up some bad memories?”
It did not feel right to hide this from Mertha, but if she knew then….then... She snapped out of It “yeah I guess you can say that…..I don’t think I want to work with the documents anymore.”
Mertha looked shamefully at the documents “I’m so sorry this happened, I’ll put them away until and only if you wish to work with them again.” That didn’t feel right.
It was unfair “you should not be sorry, it’s my fault, not yours.” Mertha roughly lifted Hendrik even further up.
Their faces were only a few centimeters apart “it’s my responsibility that you are happy, I gave you something that made you unhappy. I failed and I am sorry, I will not hear any discussion on this. Now then is there something else you would like to work with?”
It felt unfair that Mertha was taking responsibility, it was Hendrik that had done those horrible things. If Mertha knew what she really was, what she had done….. Mertha was still waiting for an answer “I guess….perhaps I could learn some affini?”
Mertha smiled “why do you want to learn affini?” Hendrik guessed she had some idea.
Answering was a good distraction “First of all, I don’t like when people speak over me. Also, all the public documents I can find are either in affini or for florets. The first I can’t read, and the latter is rather…bare bones.” Mertha responded by bristling, at least Hendrik could make her happy sometimes.
Mertha carried her over to the bedroom “I will make sure you have all you need for it tomorrow, right now you need to sleep.” Hendrik did not see a reason to argue, she was exhausted. After being tucked in she received her class-Z dose and drifted off to sleep. The turbulent emotions from the last few hours remained with her as she did.
Henrik opened her eyes and saw nothing, then a second later a light above flickered on above. She was in a circular room, the cold metal and rough aesthetics were clearly of human design. The walls contained a single large window that curved around the entire room.
In a bit of a daze, Hendrik went up to the window, outside there was only the void. Where was she? The sound of a generator turned on and then the outside began to light up. Dim red light illuminated countless prison cells.
The cells stretched from above and all the way into the abyss. thousands of cells, all empty. The room she was in was like a lighthouse in the middle, from here she could see all of the cells.
She knew where she was, this was one of the prisons she had opened during her time as governor. It was not the same: there was no control panel in the tower, no bridge, and no guards. What was going on?
A hard cold voice rang out “you're pathetic!” She spun around towards the voice, it couldn’t be..
An old and tempered man stood in one of the cells. His suit was light brown, his hair white and combed. Dried blood covered the man’s right temple, and small dots of red covered the suit. His eyes were green and angry.
He spoke again “Are you not even going to answer?! Or is your new strategy to hide on that ship!?” The anger in the words was painful like a long-forgotten scar being opened
Her throat was dry and sore “Shivar? I don’t….how are you….?” the words wouldn’t come out right.
Her dead mentor shouted her down “silence boy! Do you think that you can become something different?” she cowered, she hated when he was angry. “I molded you, I saved you from your own stupidity. You think you can run away from what you are?”
Hendrik felt cold “I don’t want to be that person anymore…I don’t want to continue The Game.” She was stammering.
The old man gave a hollow laugh “you have always been a good liar, but I would never have imagined you could manage to trick yourself. You don’t want to stop! you crave to continue. The power, the feeling of control, the satisfaction of defeating your opponents! It's pure ecstasy, and you love it.” the words bit into her like poison.
She began to cry “that…that’s not true…I was scared….I had no choice…I…I.” Shivar began to laugh.
His voice was taunting “afraid? Boy, you were not afraid. Fear is an emotion, you were a function. I helped you become that function, whiteout it, you are nothing!” No that wasn’t true, that wasn’t true!
She tried to turn away, her hands were chained to the table that had just appeared “you knew what you did, you chose it! I could just guide you, you allowed it to happen, you wanted to become the thing that would surpass me. I knew you had potential and I was right!” Shivar’s words were deafening and everywhere.
She shouted back “I can’t do that anymore!…. I just want to be happy, can’t I want that?” There was a brief silence.
Shivar’s words had lost their humor “happy? You think that you can be happy?! You’re just repeating what those affini are saying to you. And you can’t even convince yourself that they are right. We both know that when The Game calls you will run straight back because that. Is. What. You. are!” the last words were spat out.
That wasn’t right, she could change, Mertha could hel- “you think that plant can save you? You’re even more pathetic than I thought. Think boy! What will happen when she figures out what you have done? Think she will still care for you? You’re just using her!” no, no that wasn’t right….or…
“Just like you used me!” the cell next to Shivar lit up, Nora stood there. She looked just like when she had found her in the cell, her glove was still dripping with blood.
No, no, no, no, no! “you used me for so long, made me believe you were a friend! You just wanted a person to take the bullets for you, you never cared for me!” No that wasn’t true, she cared for Nora…
Nora’s words were filled with unfamiliar malice “at least I saw you for the monster you were, I should have killed you in that cell.”
Why was this happening? “I didn’t mean to….i never wanted to….” Everything felt so broken.
Shivar corrected her “of course, you meant to. There is enough evidence to prove it, just look.” Hendrik looked down, the table was filled with endless stacks of papers.
Red names filled them from top to bottom. The other cells began to light up, one by one. Revealing endless amounts of faceless bodies. Hendrik’s eyes moved involuntary, there were so many. An alarm had started somewhere in the prison
Shivar shouted again “this is who you are! You use them, trick them, and then… you betray them, hurt them, or worse ” the blood on Shivar’s temple was wet again, there was a gun in his hand. “Do you think she will be any different?! The Game is all that you are. All that you deserve.” Hendrik pulled away, the chains were gone, and she fell backward onto the cold metal floor.
Hendrik looked up, a few paces away was Mertha. Mertha looked down at her, her beautiful eyes were filled with hurt, just like that night in the office. Mertha sounded shaken “how could you?”
Hendrik’s words could barely come out from under the tears “I didn’t want to…I never meant to.”
Mertha smiled forgivingly and extended her hand, thank the stars! She would just have to make sure she never-
Just as she touched Mertha’s hand it lit up in flames! The fire spread so fast, she tried to grab the hand but all she caught was ash. Mertha was gone in an instant and she was alone.
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
The alarm from the prison was overwhelming, the sound pressing down on her as she cried.
Mertha was standing by the temperature maintainer, or fridge as humans called it, and was looking at her ingredients. Hendrik had gone through a lot and when she awoke, she would need some comfort food. Mertha considered her options, her ward had shown great love for pasta and especially the cheese called parmesan. She looked it up at found a Terran meal that incorporated the cheese into its sauce.
At the same time, it was her duty to show Hendrik the variety in food available, perhaps something different. Another option was pizza, quite popular amongst humans, some type of one-sided sandwich with tomato sauce. A final option was using raw fish with another Terran corn type called rice.
In the end, Mertha decided to make all of them, but the pizza would be first. Seeing Hendrik eat was perhaps the most delightful thing in the universe. She started to create the dough, it was always the hardest part of these meals. It constantly slipped between or was cleaved by her vines, with some determination she finally got it done.
The sauce was a bit less complicated, but she decided to be a bit daring. She replaced the original cheese of the recipe with the parmesan that Hendrik liked so much. For a second she decided to also add the raw fish but figured it was enough experimentation for this meal. She was about to put it in the ‘oven’ when she felt the data pad begin to go haywire in her chest.
Oh dirt! She took it out and looked, Hendriks’s heartrate was very, very high. She let the pizza remain unheated and moved as fast as possible. Mertha was inside the bedroom in less than a second. Hendrik was turning and twisting in her sleep. The fact that Hendriks’s heartrate was this high while asleep was very concerning, Mertha quickly injected the counteragent to the class-Z and lifted her ward up into her vines.
Frost. She should have made sure that Hendrik was sleeping well before leaving. No doubt the little human experienced some terrifying dream. As Hendrik’s eyes began to flutter awake Mertha did her best to calm the human down “shhhhhh, it's okay. It was just a bad dream, you’re safe here.” Her human grabbed one of her vines and gripped it tight. Mertha used her vines to cover Hendrik and push her as close.
The girl was crying silently, Mertha’s primal side urged her to drug the human until they could feel nothing but bliss. She pushed the idea away, she and Hendrik would deal with this together. She spent some time calming the human, letting her biorhythm relax their breathing and heartbeat.
Mertha had always been a bit concerned about her biorhythm, it was certainly useful but the effect it had on sophonts over longer periods of time was a bit……morally questionable. Her morals would have to take a backseat for the moment, she would not let Hendrik suffer needlessly.
Hendrik let go of the vine “do you...think you can let me down?” it required some effort, but she forced herself to put the human down on the bed. Mertha let her vines spread out and lowered herself into what she hoped looked like a sitting position.
Hendrik was looking away from her “I think.. I think I should leave….” Her core lost its melody.
Mertha did everything she could to stay calm “what do you mean, leave?”
Henrik refused to look at her “you must have someplace to put harmful humans, some type of kennel or something.” Mertha placed a vine next to Hendriks’s hand, an offer of assurance, Hendrik moved her hand like it was stung.
She tried to not let the sadness pour into her voice “no we don’t. Please tell me what this is about, I can help you.”
Hendrik finally looked at her, streaks of tears were rolling down her chin “perhaps…perhaps you should domesticate me. Do that! Just don’t let me…” the girl broke down crying once more.
Her core was turbulent. She had said it! she wanted it! no one could deny Mertha now if she wanted. The predator in Mertha wanted to pounce forth, claim the sophont and make sure she never regretted it. keeping her control almost made Mertha lose her form, she could not do this, not now. Hendrik was just saying things, she did not mean it.
She had to figure out why “why would I ever do that?” The predator told her that she was losing the moment, if she did not claim Hendrik now then maybe she never would….And that would be fine, it was Hendriks’s choice, not hers.
Hendrik was trying to calm down but broke down again and again. She managed to stay composed for a bit “you told me that humans who were considered a threat to others were domesticated, well I am. I’m a threat, neutralize me before…” the moment was over, and she broke down once again.
What had happened in that dream? Perhaps it was connected to the document. She considered for a moment to drug Hendrik to sleep. The recorder she had tried to destroy had been easily fixed, with the translated documents it would be easy to decrypt the one that had put Hendrik into such turmoil. She would try the direct method first.
Hendrik was upset but not defensive, Mertha needed to be firm “You are not a threat little one. In fact, I would say that you are completely harmless.” Hendrik dried away some tears and looked down.
There was a bit of calmness to Hendriks’s voice “that’s not true….I have hurt so many people. I hurt you, I hurt Nora, I….killed Shivar and Samantha. There are more people in this sector that I have hurt, than the people I have not. How can I not be a threat?” Hendrik was building her position, argument by argument.
Mertha would have to tear it down before Hendrik became too entrenched “On Centhia you were afraid, manipulated, pushed into what you did. Did you make mistakes? Yes, but you were never in full control. While you have been here, free of all that pressure, you have not hurt anyone at all. You are not a threat.” Hendrik looked unsure now, a good first sign.
The human curled her knees up to her face “it’s just a matter of time, I always find a way to hurt people. If I hadn’t needed that education my parents would not have worked so late, they might still be alive. If I had helped that stranger in the ally, perhaps I could have saved him. if I had told Samantha in a better way or helped her, she could still be alive. If I had stood with Shivar instead of betraying him perhaps….perhaps I could have read his book.” Hendrik had looked up, her clear eyes focused.
“If I had surrendered when you came, then perhaps…perhaps I would not have hurt you and so many others. I…I can allow myself to hurt you like that, never again. You deserve someone better, someone, who won’t betray you at a moment’s notice.” Hendrik was done, she just looked forward with an empty gaze.
Mertha did not know how to respond to that, there was so much guilt. The last words however she could not accept. She would make Hendrik understand, one way or another.
Mertha went forward and grabbed Hendriks’s face, the human tried to recoil but Mertha’s grip was solid like iron. She looked the human into her beautiful tear-filled eyes “how can someone so smart say something so stupid? Who do you think you are to decide what I deserve or not? Do I not deserve to see your face when you eat something tasty? Feel your soft breaths as you sleep in my vines? Listen to your wonderful laughter? Are you telling me I don’t deserve all the joy you have brought to my life?” Henrik did not have an answer for that.
Hendrik began to cry again, weak, and softly “but what if I hurt you?…I don’t want to hurt you….you don’t know what I have done….if you knew then…then you would hate me….” Hendriks’s voice was so weak it was almost a whisper.
Mertha let her vines coil around the human until she was completely secured “nothing you have done or will do will ever make me care for you less. You will either understand that or I will force you, this is non-negotiable.” She let her grip on Henrik's face soften a bit “I want you to say it.”
Henrik hesitated for a moment, but Mertha’s words left no room for disobedience “you…you care about me…no mat…no matter what I have done….or will do.” Hendrik’s energy was spent, and the human went limp in her vines
Mertha let go of the grip on her face and entwined the human further in her vines. “That’s my good girl. Such a silly idea you had. I better not catch you thinking like that again, or I will make sure you never forget how much I care about you ever again. Now you are going to eat the pizza I made you, and your ice cream! After that you are going to cuddle in my vines until you get a peaceful night’s sleep.” Hendrik was about to say something when she placed a vine on her lips “you don’t need to talk until tomorrow.” It was not a suggestion, but a command, Hendrik nodded and let Mertha carry her to the kitchen.
Mertha quickly finished the pizza and cut it into many small pieces. She did not let the human’s arms go and instead began to feed her. Making sure to savor every look of enjoyment on Henrik’s face. The human was hungry, so the meal went down quickly. After that, she repeated the same with the ice cream.
If Hendrik had imagined herself safe from Mertha’s doting while she ate she was sorely mistaken. While Hendrik ate she used her vines to massage the tense muscles that still remained, she also gave Hendrik a cavalcade of head pats. The human obeyed in silence as ordered except for a few quiet sighs.
When the adorable human was fully fed, Mertha carried her back to the bedroom. She loosened her vines and formed a soft cocoon around Hendrik. The rest of her form flowed outwards in the shape of a closed flower. After only a few moments of doting and petting, Hendrik fell asleep, purring softly into her vines.
The predator inside Mertha was content. Tomorrow things might go back to normal, but for now, this was her human, and she would not let anything harm it.