Cleo woke and felt the vines underneath her move slightly, not long after she was put in a comfortable chair. She looked up they were home, Mertha sat down on the couch…it was time to talk. Mertha looked concerned “are you feeling okay? I let you sleep for a few hours so I hope that was enough, if not I can give you another dose and we can do this tomorrow.” Cleo analyzed herself, she felt rested and moderately okay.
She took a few slow breaths to make sure “I’m fine, let's do this now…even if I don’t have any solutions. Perhaps you do?” The guilt still remained in her as a slow-acting poison. What Leto had said left her confused but not less guilty. It was clear that the guilt was her most pressing obstacle in the way of her getting better. But how was she to overcome it? it felt impossible.
Mertha handed her a cup of hot chocolate “I understand that this is a difficult subject for you. if you don’t feel ready then we can wait.” Mertha was being too nice, too considerate.
Cleo knew she needed to push forward “I’m not going to be more ready later, I just delayed dealing with it…because I don’t know how to even begin dealing with it. We need to do this now, or at least begin doing something.” Where to even begin?
Mertha put her vine into a cup of tea “if you are sure. I know it might feel uncomfortable, but I still think that the best solution would be for me to remove it. It is harming you in so many ways, you don’t need to hold on to it.” It was the easy solution, the quick and most efficient one as well.
But it was wrong “I….i can’t do that, it feels too wrong to allow myself that sort of escape. If I just ran from it…I don’t know if I can live with myself.” After all the things she had done, how could she just forget it? it felt like a crime against nature itself, something that broke with all laws of consequence.
Mertha smiled sadly “What are the alternatives? The suppression of the guilt that you have done your entire life is very harmful. I will gladly help you in any way you can but not like this, ignoring it was a mistake.” Stress, fear, and emotional suppressant had held the guilt in the background. Now that she was freer of those barriers, the guilt crept into every waking moment. Suppression only delayed the effect and made it so much worse when it happened.
Cleo couldn’t answer Mertha’s question, there was silence for a while. Mertha looked down into the teacup “You and Serla could try to work through it, issue by issue.” If only it was that simple.
Cleo took a sip of the oh chocolate, it was delicious “I don’t think that will work, there is too much guilt. I have made too many mistakes, failed, and hurt too many people. If we try to work through each one, then I don’t know if I will make it. The risk of a fallback, like when I woke up from class-J is too great.” She did not want to admit it, but she was too weak to deal with it all at once.
Mertha snapped her vine-made fingers, it did not make a sound “we could try to do the same as we did with your aversion to comfort. We could also add some triggers and over time it would improve.” It was a possible idea….
But it had one massive flaw “again I think the problem would be the amount of guilt I’m dealing with. I would need a thousand triggers for that to work. Comfort required 2 triggers alone, there is just too much…” It did not feel good to knock Mertha’s ideas down, but they needed something that worked.
The room went silent as they both tried to come up with something. She did not want to forget, it could not be cured through hypnotics, therapy would be too slow. That just left her suppressing it as well as she could, but that didn’t work either. There had to be a way out of this maze…she just had to find it…something new that they had not thought about. She could not suppress it so….that was it!
Cleo tried to temper her expectations “Mertha, I have an idea. I might not be able to suppress it, but you can. If you can remove my memories, is it not also possible for you to lock the feelings away?” Mertha looked a bit skeptical.
Her affini put down the teacup “memory erasure uses hypnotics and class-B. If you want to keep the memories then we can not do that. What do you mean ‘lock the feelings away’?” Cleo felt the plan form in her mind, this was going to work.
She just had to explain it “based on what you did to make me not give up when I first woke up here. You simply block my mind from associating any of the memories with guilt, we could apply this to work and productivity as well. Once I am in a better state of mind we can ‘unlock’ each part and use the other methods to fix it. In this way, I can be happy and work through it without it being too much at once.” Cleo looked at Mertha, please say that this would work, if not…she had no other plans.
Mertha looked thoughtful “that might work but it will be a complicated procedure. I will need to do some research, talk to Serla, and prepare. This will not be a trigger or a small edit in how you think, this will be a large change. Are you okay with that?” Was she okay with that?
It was in some ways running away from the problem, if she could not access it then was it not just as good as gone? But it was not gone, she would work through each one in turn. She was not giving anything up or shirking the responsibility, she was only giving herself some time, some breathing room. Living with the guilt was like having poison in her mind, she could not deal with it anymore. It was also a huge threat to her goal.
There could be only one answer “I’m fine, this is the only way.” Mertha stood up, they were both determined.
Her warden prepared a dose of class-Z “this will take some time, until I am ready you should rest. I need you to have as much energy for this as possible.” Cleo nodded, a flower on the tip of a vine extended in front of her face. She leaned forward and smelt it, sleep found her once more.
There was a small sting, and she was taken back to awareness. Mertha was holding her, Cleo looked up at her affini, was it time?
Mertha smiled “I think this is going to work, but it will require energy and effort from you as well.” Cleo was placed in the kitchen chair, in front of her a hearty meal of pasta.
As she began to dig in, Mertha explained more “this is quite an unusual occurrence, but I have found examples that worked well. I need to warn you that it will take time and be a taxing experience. This will not be like the other times. The change we will attempt will be massive and delicate, you will need to guide my conditioning once it starts. Only you know your mind well enough.” That sounded ominous…how was she supposed to guide Mertha while in trance?
Mertha must have read the expression on her face “don’t worry, it will be intuitive once we start. This will also require a very large dose of class-H, just so you know that.” Cleo devoured the rest of the meal, she was more than ready to see this through.
Cleo took a few deep breaths, time to take this next step “let’s do this, I’m ready.” Mertha picked her up and sat down with her still entangled in her vines. When she was comfortable a vine injected her with class-H in the neck.
Fuck that was a lot, there was no chance of resistance this time. Her senses went blurry instantly, her sight so unfocused that it was like looking through fog. Her body felt so far away, so distant from what was happening. At some points, her sight or hearing would pick up on something with incredible clarity before it slipped away, and everything was a buzzing static one more.
A few moments later, though time was impossible to tell, the vines around her began to shift. The vines coiled around her, first her arms, then her legs, then her torso. She was completely bound, then Mertha’s face came into view. Cleo did not even have a moment to prepare her fuzzy mind before the eyes overwhelmed her.
The blue light did not ask her to surrender, it simply tore over her mind like a tidal wave. The eyes looked into her, and she could not even begin to form thoughts of resistance. They shined like dense neutron stars, their gravity inescapable. The gentle spin of the eyes was entrancing, it sent shivers through her mind.
Then the words began, they were gentle but powerful. They did not seek to enter her mind but rather wrapped around it like a blanket. All senses became muffled, and she could no longer feel her body in any capacity. It was just her, her mind, and the eyes and the voice that held her in complete control. She felt safe, but this was not familiar.
Then the music started, not as part of the words but as a mind-shattering force in itself. The force, the resonance was so powerful that it could not be compared to anything she had experienced before. The music hit her mind like a hundred waves of power, shaking and engulfing it over and over. Every part of her being, her thoughts, her breathing, the beating of her heart, to the division of her cells. All of it resonated in perfect harmony with the music, it was everything.
The forces that held her mind could easily have done whatever they liked. Tore her mind apart and made something completely new with the pieces. Rewrite her as a person from the tiniest detail to the most important value. There would be nothing she could or would want to do to stop it. The eyes, the words, and especially the music, it was all that she was at this moment.
Still, they had yet to do anything but swamp her mind and senses. Then the eyes changed, they almost looked reflective. They pierced into her and then tore her forward, into them. There was something behind the eyes, like a misty mirror. The gravity of the eyes became stronger, she began to be pulled in.
The music changed direction, it was no longer everywhere, it was from behind the eyes. Her mind desperately reached forth, trying to embrace it completely once more. She was still held back for a moment, fearing what would happen if she fell into the light of the eyes. Then a single word was spoken, and that lifeline was cut. She embraced the eyes and the music and was completely submerged.
Cleo looked around, she was alone, in a…garden? It looked like the park outside the presidential residences. There were paths, stone benches, and flowers and trees, but this was not a well-kept garden. While she was standing on green and beautiful grass, the rest of the garden was scarred and in disarray.
Horrible weeds crowded almost every inch of ground, coiled around the other plants, and choked them. They were thorny, large, and dangerous, instinctively she knew them to be poisonous. The weeds were different, some were like small poisonous flowers that choked the ground where the grass was supposed to grow. Some were larger, like bushes full of thorns that spread across the paths, making them untraversable. And some were huge, like trees, massive coiling snakes that drained all life around them and smothered all other growth with their massive size.
The only place that was safe from the weeds was a small area in the center of the garden. Here the weeds were fewer and could be more easily avoided. Green grass formed an island of beauty within a sea of hurt. There were a few other, larger plants here as well. While they had grown and survived, there were weeds coiling around them. Scaring the trees and plants, holding them down, or tearing them up. It was painful to watch.
In the center of the island, there was a huge and beautiful tree. It dwarfed all the other plants in the garden, except perhaps for some of the largest weeds. The green crown of the tree was filled with yellow and white flowers, the bark a soft and familiar brown. The roots of the tree coiled through the ground, connecting, and helping the other plants on the island. Without the tree the weeds would swallow it all, Cleo felt sure about that.
Finally, she once again heard the music, it was coming from the tree. Walking forward, she made sure to avoid the weeds that hid in the grass. With each step the music got stronger, she quickened her pace, desperate for its harmony.
When Cleo came to the tree, she saw that not even it had been spared from the corruption. A few weeds still grew up its bark and there were signs that there had once been far more weeds here. She could see it from the small scars in the bark and the discarded and dead weeds that were being absorbed by the grass. Most of the tree was safe and unharmed, it was beautiful, and the music thrummed from it in powerful waves.
She leaned into the tree and felt the music vibrate through her, just being close to the tree was enough to fill her with happiness. The more she listened to the music the more she began to understand it. It was not talking to her with words, but the rhythm and notes held meaning. The garden could not be left like this, her garden needed to be cleansed. She had to remove the weeds and make them submerge in the ground so new, good things could grow. But how was she supposed to do that?
The music could, it could drive away from the weeds and keep them locked underground. But the tree was blind, and the music did not reach out into the garden. She would have to absorb it, let it into herself, and then carry it. She would have to drive away from the weeds, for a moment she was scared, But the music soothed her. Cleo sat down next to the tree, and leaned against it. The music began to thrum stronger, vibrating through her and filling her mind with its beauty.
Cleo stood up, she could feel the rhythm within herself, vibrating from her hands. Now she just had to carry that music into the weeds, but first, this part of the garden needed to be cleansed.
Cleo walked around the tree and let the music radiate from her hands, the few remaining weeds around the tree shook and then moved into the ground. They were still there but could no longer harm. When the tree was secure she moved towards the next largest growth. A large patch of roses, one of the oldest growths in the garden that had not been suffocated by the weeds. There were weeds entangled within, holding the flowers down. The music drove the weeds away and some of the roses began to bloom.
One by one, the weeds throughout the island were removed. Getting so close to them felt dangerous, the poison would bring a familiar pain. She went to each piece of good growth and removed the weed that held it down, choking its potential. Most of the growth was new and tender, the weeds could kill the growth if left alone. All of the weeds in the grass, the bushes, and the saplings were removed. Until there was only one tree on the island left not free from the weeds.
It was a large and powerful tree, full of fruit. It was at the very edge of the island, where grass and weeds met like a battle line. Large spiky weeds were gripping around it, the fruit was unreachable, and the tree was suffocating. There were massive scars along the tree, the tree struggled against the weeds and was hurt as it did so. Cleo extended her hand and slowly but surely the weeds began to retract. She walked forward to get better access and a weed that was hidden in the grass pricked her with its thorns.
Why had she not done more? if she had just worked harder…
Cleo recoiled from the pain, the poison stung but soon receded. She pressed on, making sure to watch her step. It took time but slowly and surely the weeds were locked beneath the soil. The tree was still damaged, but now at least it could begin to heal. She looked over the good part of the garden, it was healthy and could grow.
Then she looked to the ocean of weeds that dominated the rest. It would not leave the island alone, it would seep in and corrupt it once again it was clear what she had to do, it was what the music told her to do. But she was scared, there was so much, and she was bound to be stung again. Before the fear could fully take hold Cleo pressed on. Walking into the sea of thorns, poison, and hurt.
She was slow and careful, making sure to let the music do its work before proceeding. Where the weed retreated and buried into the ground there was left only baren and sacred soil. One of the large and thorny trees stung her as she was securing the ground around it:
An image of burning office buildings flashed into her mind, her heart ached.
The music in her became louder and the tree slowly began to shrink, its form collapsing in on itself until it retreated into the ground. Cleo took a few deep breaths and looked around. Much had been done but only a fraction of the garden was clean. She had to do this, pushing forward was the only choice. Letting the music flow through her and drive the weeds both big and small away.
She came upon one of the large ones, it was almost as big as the main tree itself. The music could not remove it as fast as the others. The large snake-like weed resisted its power but could not do so forever. Almost like it had a mind of its own the weed moved, and a large thorn stabbed into her arm:
“Let this be your last lesson boy. This is how one leaves The Game with dignity” a large bang rang from behind the office doors.
Cleo fell back, the weed stopped retreating. It hurt, it hurt so much. She did not want to continue, but the music soothed her once again. It took some time, but she managed to regain her focus. With her willpower shaken but not crushed she continued. The large weed began to split into a hundred different ones that all began to dig into the ground. A large patch of barren earth was left, it was filled with hurt and scars, there would need to be more work done here later.
For now, Cleo moved on to continue with her task. While the sea of weed began to retreat from her path, she could never avoid being stung for long. There were too many of them and focusing on one part would inevitably lead to beings stung by another.
Her old name was signed in black, above a long list of names in red.
Her leg brushed part a poison flower:
Her own voice over the phone “the farmers want to rebel now? Unit C-47, begin operation 3-67 alpha. Remove the leaders of this uprising from their homes during the night. Sew chaos within their ranks and make Cebrex know fear. They shall fall back in line before they have the opportunity to rise!”
A flower so covered in weeds that it was unrecognizable as anything else:
Another order she had given rang through her mind “Guards, take him away!”
Cleo had to stop, it was too hard, and the pain was not receding as fast as it had before. She was not even half done, the weeds still dominated the garden. Was she strong enough to see this through? The music told her to carry on, to push forwards. So, she did, another few steps, another sting from a thorn.
A voice, apologetic and scared “I’m sorry governor, the rebelling garrison forces had managed to get their hands on a missile. It was detonated in the eastern part of new Krakow. Casualties as far as they can be determined…are in the millions.” So many dead, how could she have failed so many?
Her breath was becoming shallow, even the music was beginning to be strained. She had done so much. But there was still so much left…one more step, just one more step. She came upon one of the largest weeds, a tree of horrible properties, its branches long and barren. The tree was so large that even without any leaves it blocked light for a huge part of the garden, it was like a towering colossus. with immense concentration the tree began to recoil, the branches winding around the trunk. She lost concentration for a second and one of the branches broke free, it struck her across the face:
A voice, cold and cruel “I will not be stopped! Not by bureaucrats, not assassins, not capitalists, not criminals, not admirals, not even affini! I WILL RULE THIS SECTOR! and I will gladly watch parts of it burn to see that through.” Had she meant that? Was that who she was?
Tears welled up in her eyes, she concentrated again, and the tree began to shrivel and collapse into the dirt. When it was gone Cleo fell to the ground, it was too much. Remembering all of her mistakes, and all of her actions, it made the torture of the rebels seem like nothing.
The music embraced her, and held her close as she cried. It made the pain easier to live with, but even the music was unsure if they could remove it all. It was tired as well and it could not last much longer.
There were not that many weeds left now. Even if she gave up now, the garden would be much safer. But remembering how the guilt felt to live with, how it tarnished every happy moment….She had to remove it all, make sure it could not hurt her any further.
Cleo stood up, she and the music forged ahead with reinvigorated determination. On trembling legs and with uneven notes they pushed forward and drove away more of the infection. She was stung again and again. Memories of people she had betrayed, failed, and hurt welled up with each sting. But she pushed forward.
Then the final patch of poison flowers retreated beneath the ground. Cleo looked around, all of the weeds were gone. She was beyond exhausted and so was the music. With the last of her strength, she walked back to the tree and sat down. her back leaned against its bark as she looked over the garden once again.
The weeds were still there, just beneath the ground. But the music would keep them there until they could be dealt with, one by one. Where the weeds had once been was now barren and brown soil. It might not be much. But already some grass was beginning to grow, and some of the flowers and trees that the corruption had covered began to heal. With its final strength the music lulled her to sleep, her task was over.
Cleo felt her mind return to awareness like someone had thrown cold water over it. Her senses were confused, and thoughts had problems forming. Another metaphorical bucket of water was injected into her veins. Her senses began to make sense, but her thoughts were still fuzzy. She was lying in vines, but they were not Mertha’s. how she knew that she did not know, but she was sure of it.
She tried to push herself awake but the wool stuck in her mind frustrated her efforts. A familiar voice spoke “don’t push yourself, you are safe here. Just let your mind wake slowly on its own.” Her mind almost instinctively obeyed the voice and she fell back into drifting consciousness.
After a while, she noticed that there was something in her arm that continuously sent dose after dose of ‘cold water’. As more and more control was regained over her thoughts, she noticed something was different. It was hard to place it at the moment, but her thoughts had changed.
For a moment she was scared that she was not the same person anymore. But as she searched her mind the same memories and the same thoughts as before could be found…but something was missing. Whatever it was, the loss of it did not feel wrong, just relief.
Finally, Cleo managed to open her eyes “Serla? Wh…what you…” her words were slurred and did not come out properly. A vine stroke over her cheek.
Serla’s voice was calm “yes, it’s me. How are you feeling?” Cleo tried to speak but found it too difficult to form the words and then say them, so gave a weak nod instead. She rested in Serla’s vines for some time, the affini grooming her hair with some vines in a relaxing manner.
At some point Serla looked down at her, she seemed serious “do you feel any headache or pain in other parts of your body?” Cleo shook her head, everything was fine, though her mind was still a bit dizzy and confused.
Serla smiled “good, Mertha had to give you a massive amount of class-H over the course of the process. I’m providing a counteragent now so you should be fully awake in a few minutes.” That must be what the affini was injecting into her arm.
Cleo managed to get the words out “where is Mertha?” She needed to know.
Serla traced another vine across her cheeks “she is still resting, that session took a lot out of you both. 9 hours of constant hypnosis will wear down affini and human alike, you have been very strong. You should feel proud.” 9 hours? Trace images of the garden appeared in her mind, had it taken that long?
She had probably slept a long time after that. A few more minutes later, Serla removed the vine that had provided the counteragent. Cleo raised herself into a sitting position in Serla’s vines. Her mind was finally working properly, her senses no longer blurred or confused.
Serla sat her down on the chair opposing the affini “do you feel awake enough to talk?” Cleo gave a nod in approval.
The affini took up her data pad “good, I was here the last few hours of the procedure. But due to its unique qualities, I have no idea if it worked properly. I need to ask you some questions so we can find out if this worked as intended. I’m also going to use the truth trigger so that I can be sure that there is nothing left out, intentional or otherwise.” Cleo swallowed, she did not look forward to the question.
Serla waited a few seconds “Cleo, speak the truth. How do you feel when thinking of Shivar, your old mentor?” It was probably best not to think too long before answering.
Cleo thought about it for a moment “he saved me, but also used me. I fear him, and what he did to me. I don’t like to think about it….but he was abusive. I looked up to him then and even now still care about him in some twisted way. No matter what he did I still feel sad when I think of how I had to betray him.” That was what she felt….there was supposed to be something more…..
Serla’s eyes were inquisitive “but you don’t feel guilty for what happened?” Of course, she did…wait…no…she didn’t. Had she wished that things had gone differently? most certainly, but there was no guilt to be found.
She looked up at Serla “no…there is nothing…I…I don’t feel any guilt…” It felt unreal, did she not feel any guilt? It had been so omnipresent in her mind that with its absence, everything felt different.
Serla smiled cautiously “okay, what about this?” She handed Cleo a document. On it was a long list of names in red. Cle knew that this had been necessary, but still regretted it….there was again, no guilt. She wished she had not been in this position, not had to make these choices. The fact was, however, that the choices were made, it was in the past….it could not hurt her any longer.
Tears of relief began to well up “it’s gone…the guilt…it's all gone.” The relief was more intense than she could ever have anticipated. Like a massive weight had been removed from her mind. Every thought, idea, and emotion felt lighter. There was no fear of the guilt returning, she knew it was gone until it was brought back with her consent. Cleo realized that her mind was finally safe, not healthy just yet, but it was safe.
The realization knocked her over the edge, tears began to roll down her cheeks. She was safe….finally safe. Cleo began to sob, the specter that had haunted her for as long as she could remember was gone. Three was no way to fully process the emotions or describe the relief she felt.
Serla gently picked her up “is everything alright?” Cleo hugged the irritating affini, alright did not even begin to cover it.
She looked up at Serla with teary and grateful eyes “thank you.” Yesterday she might have felt guilty about how much the affini had done for her, she no longer needed such corrupting thoughts.
Serla patted her on the head “the pleasure is all mine little petal, but it is not me you should thank. Let’s go, you and Mertha deserve to relax together. You have both done excellent work.” Serla carried her to the door to Mertha’s room.
Using a vine, Serla gently knocked on the door “Mertha! You have a wonderful little sophont here that needs you. If you don’t come and take her then I will take her to my home instead, I might not even give this cutie back either.” There was the sound of shuffling behind the door.
The door opened and Mertha came out, she looked as beautiful as ever. Though her warden was clearly a bit tired, her slightly ragged form proved that. Serla gently exchanged her with Mertha, and she was finally back in her affini’s arms. Serla looked at us and smiled “I will go home now, my darlings have spent enough time alone. I am prescribing you both a lot of rest and celebration.” With her work done, the colorful affini left the hab.
Cleo hugged Mertha as tight as she could “It’s all gone…there is no more guilt. Thank you….thank you so much!” Mertha’s vines embraced her tightly.
Her voice was full of relief “oh Cleo…you don’t have to thank me for anything. I love you so much and would gladly do anything to see you happy. I’m so grateful that I have you in my life.” Cleo wanted to stay in this moment forever, but her body betrayed her, and she yawned.
Mertha smiled “I’m tired as well little kitten, let's get some rest.” Mertha carried her back into her room and folded around her. Cleo was inside the cocoon of moss and vines once more, Mertha’s presence and biorhythm were all around. She crawled into a comfortable position and purred a bit, letting the music of the biorhythm wash over her once more. For the first time since before she could remember, she was comfortable, happy, and safe.