Cleo put the last of the pancakes into her mouth and made sure to savor them for as long as possible. Just as predicted she had fallen asleep in Mertha’s vines last night and woken in them this morning. She had sadly guessed wrong and believed there would be waffles for breakfast. This meant that she and Mertha were even in that game so far. The meal was still great despite her minor setback, but now it was sadly over.
The affini across the table looked remarkably pleased with herself. Since the first time, they met Mertha had struck her as a person with quite fragile self-esteem. That impression was no longer accurate much to Cleo’s delight. Mertha’s confidence had made her a bit bolder when testing the boundaries between ward and floret. So far however that was a very minor and sometimes quite pleasant problem.
As Mertha removed the dishes from the table she also sent a few vines to give her some pets. Cleo realized that at some point Mertha had stopped asking for consent to do that. And she herself had stopped thinking it was necessary. She had started to become very accustomed to having Mertha in her life, and the constant affection that she received. Cleo made sure to lean a bit into the pets to display her satisfaction.
Mertha was done with the dishes “So Cleo, Serla will be coming in a few hours. Anything you want to do first?” Cleo thought about the question, what did she want to do?
Well, she had taken a day off. “I think I would like to work a bit. Perhaps after the session, we could take a walk in the park? Bring with us some of that delicious bread you made yesterday for lunch.” It was almost a bit silly, a picnic in the park would have been completely out of the question mere weeks ago.
Mertha smiled “that sounds like a great idea. How do you feel about yesterday? I hope being my floret for a few hours was not completely unbearable.” There was a clear tease in her voice, Mertha wanted her to admit to liking it, she wanted to push the boundary a bit further it seemed.
Cleo held her smile “it was nice, the whole floret stuff was both embarrassing and relaxing. I can certainly see a further appeal to the legal status, but I still don’t find it appealing enough.” She would give a bit of satisfaction to her warden but not any ground.
Mertha chuckled “of course, of course. May I ask what makes it unappealing? I hope it is not as scary as it once was.” A rather straightforward question, was Mertha trying to find what might finally convince her?
Cleo made sure to organize her response before answering “I guess there is still a bit of fear for it left. Before my thought was that you affini would change too much about me, that I would not be the same person anymore, essentially death. But life changes us whether we want to or not, the main difference between changing and dying would be choice. If I choose to change as I have done before and so much recently then is just development. So, if I choose to become your floret then even if that would create personal change then it would still be me. The only part I would fear is if you force it upon me.”
Mertha nodded “You could ask to become my floret this second if you wish, so you must have other reasons.” Mertha clearly wanted to know what would convince her.
It would be rude not to answer “the first reason is that I like responsibility, even for myself. While being cared for and pampered…certainly has its appeal. There is something about knowing that I am in charge of my own destiny and that my days are mine to use as I want. Once we have fixed all the remaining problems I am certain that I can be trusted with that responsibility.” Mertha looked thoughtful.
Cleo continued after a slight pause “the second reason is that if I become a floret I will lose a good deal of rights. Not that I value them for their intrinsic merit, I have seen rights been broken too many times to trust that. But if I don’t have political rights I can’t run for any public office and I can’t hold a lot of the responsibility that I want to have. I know there are many ways to make the world a better place, but I want to do as well as I can. No matter what happens my ambition will always be the most central part of my being.” Mertha seemed to understand.
Cleo finished “both of these things are central to the Human Domestication Treaty, they can’t be removed or changed. If I am a floret I will not have responsibility for my own future, and I will not be able to pursue my ambition to the fullest. It is that simple.” Mertha smiled warmly, she did not seem disappointed.
Mertha looked so very proud “I am very happy that you have come this far. If you think that is what will make you the best version of yourself then I will support that decision. Just know that whatever the time, whatever the year, and for whatever reason, my vines will always welcome you.” How could such sappy words make her so happy?
Cleo tried to not look too overjoyed “it's not like the wardship ends today, we still have a lot of days left. You know this talk has gotten me in a bit of a cuddly mood, perhaps just half an hour before I wo-“
The hab-AI interrupted her proposal “hi cutie, you got a visitor!” Already? Cleo looked at Mertha who was just as confused as her.
Mertha walked towards the door “I hope she didn’t get the time wrong, it's not like her to be early.” Well, an earlier session meant more time for the picnic, she could find time to work later.
The hab-AI chimed out again “your visitor seems to be excited to meet you, don’t keep them waiting!” That was a rather strange way to say that the person was impatient.
Mertha opened the door “oh hi Serrulata! What a pleasant surprise.” Mertha did sound surprised though Cleo picked up a bit of worry in her tone.
Cleo got down from the chair and moved so she could see the other affini. It was a rather beautiful one, with a bunch of pink flowers forming the simulacrum of hair and clothes. The new affini was also rather tall, the same height as Mertha, with light brown bark around its arms. It spoke <I’m afraid it is not a pleasant surprise. Where is your ward?> What did this affini have to do with her?
Mertha smiled, there was worry underneath “she is over there.” Mertha stepped aside so the affini, Serrulata, could see her easier.
At first, it did not seem that the pink affini believed Mertha <that is Cleopatra Hansen?> why was that difficult to believe? Something was not right about this.
Mertha remained polite “yes that is her, is there something?” The change between English and affini was a bit hard to follow.
Serrulata locked eyes with her, the disbelief turned into something entirely else. It was the closest Cleo had seen of an affini display disgust or downright repulsion in such a way. The part of her mind that the class-C-t usually kept quiet was loud enough now to be clear. There was something very, very wrong…she was in danger.
Serrulata looked at Mertha again <yes, the committee evaluating the status of your ward will soon have an emergency meeting. You are of course required but your ward must come as well.> The affini’s voice seemed to soften a great deal <I will explain soon, I advise you to prepare for some unpleasant news.>
Mertha’s worry was now far more apparent “in how long?” ‘The committee that would evaluate her status’?…that did not seem like a good thing.
Serrulata’s voice hardened a bit again <in 20 minutes, I will escort you to the meeting now. It is very urgent.> Cleo felt pretty sure that she would not be back in time for the session with Serla.
Mertha tried to smile “well then, I guess we can come now. Cleo, Serrulata here wants us to attend a meeting…right now. Are you ready?” Mertha was trying to sound reassuring, but it was not working very well,
It was not like she had any choice “sure!” She walked over to her affini and grabbed the offered vine. The pink affini seemed to bristle a bit, somehow Cleo knew it was in anger.
The pink affini walked first and soon they were on their way. They were walking towards the rail station, where were they going? Serrulata regularly cast small glances back towards her, almost like she was afraid she was going to run.
Cleo knew what this was, it was not a visit or a meeting, this was an arrest. if there was an emergency meeting…perhaps something had happened on Centhia? Whatever it was, it was not good.
They came to the rail station and took it the other way this time. Cleo noticed that Mertha’s biorhythm was uneven, the affini was nervous. Cleo leaned a bit into her and held the vine tightly, she did not like it, but she did not feel that nervous.
The silent atmosphere in the tram made the ride seem to take forever. Cleo wished that she had learned Mertha one of the few dozen different encoded communications she had developed. The suspicious part of her mind was loud now, the pink affini was a threat and could not be trusted.
The tram pulled into the last station, the station was inside a massive structure. The first thing that struck her was the number of affini, there were not only a few but a whole lot of them. The second was what the affini were doing, they were moving around in a hurried fashion and carrying stacks of paper and data pads. A sense of familiarity filled her, this was a bureaucracy!
They got off and the dangerous affini led them into the white corridors of the structure, past meeting rooms and offices. It was almost like being back on Centhia, except for the fact that the people were all huge plant people. Cleo noticed that the affini looked stressed, some even exhausted, the occupation must be a severe toll on the affini morale.
Finally, the pink affini stopped. “Cleo you can go in, I need to talk to Mertha for a minute.” There was something in her voice, fear, real fear began to creep up her back. She knew what this was, she had been on the receiving end once before and on the dealing end a dozen, a hundred times. This was not a meeting, this was a trial.
Something in her mind told her to run, but that would be pointless. Her chance for that had been slim when they got out of the hab, now it was nil. She let go of Mertha’s vine and walked to the door, trying to betray none of the emotions she felt.
Serrulata talked to Mertha without concern that she would overhear <we have discovered something quite shocking. I am very sorry for what you are about to learn.> She sounded genuine. Cleo walked through the open door, and it closed behind her.
The room was large, but all the affini rooms were large by her standards. There was a long elliptical table, 7 affini were sitting there already. There was something moving very close. “Hi there, I will show you to your seat.” The affini had almost been hidden, the white flowers that covered them working as camouflage.
Cleo was startled and already on edge, still she could at least try to be calm “sure….” There was something about how the affini moved and talked that made her worry. The affini guided her to a tall chair at the end of the table, it had straps around for arms and legs. The fear was stronger now, a familiar ghost reawakened.
She climbed up into the chair, the affini moved to secure the straps. Did she not show she was cooperating? “Is that really necessary?” The affini did not answer and fastened the straps, she was trapped. This felt less like a trial….
Cleo looked around and saw among the stranger affini both Serla and Vonzin. It made sense as they were her phycologist and medical practitioner. Still, both of them looked very worried…
Mertha and Serrulata came into the room. Mertha sat down next to Serla and Serrulata took a standing position on the other side of the table. The affini with the white flowers said something but it was too quiet and far away.
Serrulata took up a data pad <we will now start the 3rd and extraordinary meeting for the sophont evaluation committee regarding the human sophont, Cleopatra Hansen. As this was an extraordinary meeting the agenda has not been distributed. All 10 members of the committee are in attendance as well as the sophont Cleopatra Hansen.> The affini in white was writing down the minutes on a piece of paper. This would almost have been nostalgic had it not been for the fear.
Serrulata waited for a second and then continued <during last night there was a breakthrough and a considerable amount of previously encoded documents were decoded. These documents were used by the sophont in question and detailed a great deal of new and upsetting information.> oh…fuck.
The plant continued <the relevant files have been transferred to you now. The new information now available demands that the committee reevaluates its previous decision. You will have a bit of time to read the documents, then I recommend we question the sophont. Both for accuracy and evaluation purposes.> The affini around the table took out their respective data pads. A few of them looked shocked, some horrified, and the three affini she knew looked at each other in desperation.
Cleo almost felt a sense of peace wash over her, she had always known that this would eventually happen. The things she had done, and the enemies she had made, would all come back to get her in the end. These past days she had been allowed to forget that. She had always hoped she would have died to an assassin before she was cornered and judged, at least that would have been quick. Now that her fate was at least a bit gentler than the gallows or a firing squad she was glad to have survived for so long.
The pink affini broke her out of her thoughts “Cleopatra Hansen, I have some questions that you are required to answer. If we suspect you are lying xenodrugs will be used so that you can’t.” Cleo felt very calm.
She would give them what they wanted, “I understand.”
Serrulata moved until she was behind her, then she began to pace back and forth “is it true that over the last 8 years, you have imprisoned over 48 million people purely for political power?”
Cleo stumbled for a bit “that is not en-“
She was not allowed to finish “we do not want explanations, yes or no.”
Cleo sighed “yes.”
Serrulata continued “is it true that over the last 6 years, you have controlled a special military group called “the shadow division”? And that you ordered them to conduct assassinations, kidnap people from their hope, commit psychological warfare, and spread terror?”
Cleo nodded “yes, and yes.”
There were some whispers among the affini as the interrogation continued “is it true that you have used propaganda and military force to spread fear in the civilian population of the sector.”
Cleo nodded again “yes.”
Mertha looked at her, and Cleo gave a weak smile. It continued “is it true that over the last 5 years where you governed this sector you are responsible for the excess deaths of 21.450 million people?” A hushed silence fell over the room.
Cleo cleared her throat “31.264 million by my estimations.” There was no escaping this, so she took one more step forward.
Serrulata had stopped pacing behind her for a moment. “Do you regret any of these decisions that you have made?” That was the real question now wasn’t it, not that it would really change the verdict if she were to lie.
So, she didn’t “I regret the mistakes I made, the oversights and the miscalculations. But no, I do not regret the majority of the decisions I made. They were necessary.” It was the cold brutal truth, it had been necessary.
Serrulata almost seemed staggered by her confession, but soon regained composure “finally, is it true that you deceived the affini delegation, planned to use affini technology to remain in power, and even wanted to capture an affini ship to keep the compact away?” This was the final nail in her coffin, but at least she could be honest in a good way now.
She frowned “those plans were faulty, and I regret them, but yes. It was never my intention to let the compact occupy Centhia.”
Serrulata looked content and moved back to the other side of the table <I think the evidence and confession speak for themselves. Due to the emotional manipulation, the sophont has conducted on some members of the committee I would argue that we don’t prolong any discussions, for their benefit.> a general murmur of sympathy followed. Right, they believed that she had deceived Mertha, Serla, and Vonzin all this time.
In an instant her calm was broken, they had to keep believing that lie! She looked over at Mertha, Serla, and Vonzin. All three affini looked like they were preparing to speak at the same time. That could not be allowed to happen!
she had to stop it “Excuse me, I would like to request a 5-minute recess before the verdict is handed down.” The room went silent.
Serrulata looked at her with burning suspicion “and why do you want that?”
Cleo smiled apologetically “I wish to talk to my caretaker, vet, and psychologist. Apologize for the lie I have made them believe.” Serrulata did not look even the slightest convinced.
The affini was angry “you have hurt them enough! I will not-“
Serla was the one who interjected “I would like to hear this apology, in private. So would the others.” At least Serla had the sense to play along, now was not the time for affini honesty. Mertha and Vonzin nodded their agreement.
Serrulata frowned “okay, request accepted. There is a meeting room across the hallway. Don’t think you can escape.” Cleo almost laughed, there were enough affini in this room alone to take out a hundred well-armed soldiers.
Vonzin moved over and released the straps, Cleo followed the three affini out the room and into the empty meeting room on the other side. As soon as the door closed Mertha picked her up and hugged her almost too tightly “oh Cleo…I’m so sorry.”
Cleo took a slow breath “this means forceful domestication, doesn’t it?” she needed to hear it, her mind had already created some terrifying alternatives. Mertha let her down onto the ground again.
Serla frowned “most likely. But perhaps we could argue that you and Nora are pinnates, that could give us a bit of time.”
Mertha followed “I can tell them that she has changed, despite the confession she would never do that now.”
Vonzin also joined the madness “even if all that fails I can state that she is still too weak for the implant, maybe we could smuggle her off the ship.”
“Enough…” the affini looked at her confused. She looked up at them “I said that is enough. We are not doing any of that.” None of those plans would work.
Serla got a glint in her eye “you have a plan?” The three affini looked hopeful.
Cleo almost growled “yes, the plan is called damage control. None of you are doing anything, understood!”
The affini were shocked, Mertha looked despondent “but…”
“No buts! I am not letting anyone else get hurt because of my actions, my mistakes! All of those idiotic plans and anything else you try to do to stop this will attract suspicion. If they knew that you knew about this and told no one….I don’t think they would call it punishment, but perhaps ‘reprimands’ or whatever other innocent word you use instead. No matter what you call it I will not allow it to happen!”
Serla was pleading “Cleo we only want-“
“Want to help? I know! But I am not the only person you are responsible for now am I? You have helped me as much as you could and I am grateful beyond words, but this is the end of the line.”
“Vonzin, you have Ida to take care of and also I don’t trust any of the other affini to cut open my back.”
“Serla, you have both Darla and Nora. If the committee figured out that you knew about the documents, they might figure out that Nora covered up what happened in the cell. If you allow her to be harmed in any way I swear you will regret it, put her first!”
“…and Mertha….I assume you will soon have a floret to take care of yourself, she will probably need a lot of help.”
“If I am going to have choice taken away from me then at least allow me to make this last one. Let me take on this last piece of responsibility…..”
“When you come back in you will act shell-shocked and confused. When the committee votes you will vote for domestication. You will not let anyone know that you knew about the documents…is that understood?”
The affini looked deflated and defeated, and Mertha looked heartbroken. “Cleo….I…I….Please, let's try to figure something out….you don’t deserve this.” The words were so painful to hear, that Cleo could not stand it.
She swallowed the lump in her throat “there is nothing we can do, Mertha, nothing that would be worth it. I might not feel guilty, but I do in fact deserve this, I have escaped the consequences of my actions for so long already. And I have not changed enough, I told the truth back there. Put me in that office, give me that power and I would find reasons to do it again.”
“For what it is worth, I do apologize for deceiving you. and also…sorry for not giving you the satisfaction in the end.” She gave Mertha a sad but determined smile and then walked out before the emotions could overwhelm her.
Cleo walked into the meeting room and climbed up on the interrogation chair. The affini who secured the straps looked at her with a mix of horror, sadness, and concern. Like she was a rabid animal about to be sedated. Its voice was trying to sound compassionate. “don’t worry, it will all be over soon.” A death threat from an assassin would have been less terrifying at this moment.
The three affini returned and the affini came to order. Serrulata spoke <I think that there is no real need for a further discussion. I recommend immediate domestication, are there any objections?> Cleo made sure to look each of the three affini in the eyes, there would be no objections.
None of the other affini did either, Serrulata nodded <then we can vote, all in favor raise a vine…> 7 vines raised in the air, followed by Serla, Vonzin, and finally Mertha. Serrulata did not sound surprised <a unanimous decision.> There it was, her sentence, her fate.
The pink affini took up a paper <The human domestication treaty part 143. ‘Forceful domestication during unusual circumstances’, subsection 12. ‘Forceful domestication under Floret moratorium’ states as follows: The human is to be implanted with a neutral Haustoric implant and then kept at an adoption café. When the floret moratorium is lifted all requests for adaptation will be evaluated and the best-suited owner selected.> It hit her like a punch in the gut, they were not letting her stay with Mertha, were they?
Serrulata looked at Vonzin <when is the earliest date you can have the implant installed?>
Vonzin looked at her for a second <tomorrow, during noon. She can stay at the clinic until then.> Good, at least she would not have to wait long.
Serrulata looked at her for the first time since the meeting resumed “Cleopatra Hansen, the committee has unanimously decided that the wardship is to be terminated and that you will be domesticated. Tomorrow you will have a Haustoric implant operated into your nervous system. When you receive an owner they will add part of their core to the implant, connecting you. This meeting is adjourned, and the committee is dissolved.” A hollow feeling settled inside her, so that was it.
Some of the affini stood up, and Mertha and Serla sat still. Vonzin moved over and released the straps “it will be okay….just stay strong for a bit longer.” That was right, just for a bit longer.
Vonzin led her past the other affini, they were talking about her
<What horrible actions…I hope we will be able to rectify it soon.>
<I can’t imagine what the poor sophonts that lived under this must have experienced, I don’t want to think about it.>
<What kind of mindset must a sophont have to do such things?…at least she will never do this again>
Every comment stoked the embers in her mind, their condescension, their arrogance. It fueled her anger and indignation into a vortex of rage. Cleo spun around <you pompous piles of compost!> The fury in her voice made a few affini take a step back.
They looked at her in shock <How dare you judge my actions?! Here in your giant spaceship, with your miracle technology, your endless numbers, and undefeatable power. You sit here and judge me?!>
<Not one of you has ever had to make a single hard decision in your life! Not one of you has had the weight of billions of lives on your minds! Not one of you have struggled or suffered a fraction of what I have!> The entire room was focused on her, not a vine or leaf moved.
<I have worked my entire life, given my entire life, and done all that I can so that more can survive! Do you want to see true hell? Then you should have been here 8 years ago, before me. Millions of slaves that toiled and died in the factories! Slums full of disease and violence that stretched for dozens of miles! The corporations and the criminal families, squeezing billions of people to the limit and to their death! A bureaucracy that cared more for the death of each other and was willing to let millions die!>
<You say you can’t imagine, of course, you can’t! None of you can! But I lived through it, I fought against it, and I won. The people might live in fear, but at least they are alive. I have done horrible things, most of them horrible in their necessity. I know that I am not a saint, but I never lived in your paradise.> The fire was about to burn out.
<I will accept this committee’s decision, but I will never accept your judgment!> She stormed out the door, she was halfway down the corridor before Vonzin snapped out of it and moved after.
Cleo rounded a corner and let herself slide down the wall and onto the ground. She began to cry, she was going to die….
Two large, dark barked arms lifted her up and cradled her, they were surprisingly soft “shhhhhh, it’s alright, just let it all out. It's going to be okay….take some slow breaths for me…good job. Now let’s get out of here.” Vonzin began to move with surprising speed through the corridors of the bureaucracy.
Cleo did not pay attention to where they went, she just cried into the arms of the vet. Things had been going so well, and now the best choice was to lose it all. The thought of being put under and not meeting Mertha when she woke up on the other side was terrifying. Though at that point she would not be able to be terrified. No matter what affini would end up owning her, they would make sure she was a happy and blissful pet. But how much of her would still be her? and not just the pet that affini wanted.
They were on the tram now, it was empty “She said I was to be placed in an adaptation café, what is that?” At least she could know her imminent fate before it came.
Vonzin pat her with a few vines “it is a place where we collect sophonts that either wish or need to be domesticated. You will be on a heavy dose of class-J and given some mental conditioning, so you will act like a needy and affectionate pet. Affini can visit and if any one of them wants they can send a request to the bureaucracy to have you adopted. It will probably take a month or more before the floret moratorium is lifted….i'm sorry that was perhaps not very comforting to hear.” The affini sounded a bit shameful.
Cleo tried to chuckle the pain away. “I was not planning on vacation that soon…does this mean that Mertha won’t be my owner?” it was perhaps the only question left that mattered.
Vonzin dried one of her tears with a vine “don’t worry, we will make sure she gets you….but if we are going to avoid suspicion then there is a small risk. And based on how you act on class-J….I would ask you to not act so cute but I doubt you would remember. That was probably not reassuring to hear either, I’m sorry.” The affini held her tight.
They got off the tram and made their way to the clinic “No matter what happens you will be safe, happy, and cared for, that I can promise. Both Ida and Darla, and countless others have been in your position, we would not do it if it didn’t work.” There was a point to that, perhaps this was not as bad as death.
Finally, she had lost The Game and there would be no more chances. At least, in the end, she had picked the path of least suffering for both her and the others. Now there were only a few more steps to take.