Nora heard mistress come through the door, there was something wrong with how she moved. She put down the brush and listened, there was something wrong. Darla was in the living room and greeted mistresses “you’re back! I thought that meeting and your session with Cleo were going to keep you away forever.” Nora heard the sound of them embracing, but even in that, there was something off.
Mistress spoke “yeah…is Nora in her room? Okay….I need to talk to her, but you can’t be there. I will tell you what has happened later, but for now, this is how it has to be. alright?” Mistress's voice was filled with too many emotions for Nora to begin identifying them, she never spoke like this.
Darla sounded unsure “okay….is this about Cleo?” Nora felt the brush fall from her hand.
Mistress’s biorhythm seemed to collapse for a second “yes, but don’t worry she will be fine. Just play some games and I will talk to you later.” Had there been another incident? Had something happened to Cleo?
Mistress was walking towards the door to her room, Nora tried to keep her breath under control. The door opened “Nora? We need to talk…” Serla tried to sound calm, but Nora could hear her biorhythm.
Nora still did not turn to look at her, she was afraid of what the sight might reveal. She took a few deep breaths “what happened to her?” the guilt that she had tried to forgive herself for began to lurch up her throat again.
She heard mistress’s vines move across the floor until she was picked up in the affini’s embrace. Mistress turned her around, the sorrow in her eyes was overwhelming “I’m sorry…but Cleo is being domesticated…” Nora felt her veins fill with ice. No, that wasn’t right! Cleo had been so happy…
Nora felt the tears come “why? She doesn’t want that, why are you doing that to her?” Serla gripped her a bit tighter.
The affini’s voice was shaking “that surprise meeting I told you of….apparently it was about Cleo. They have decoded a lot of the documents that she had encoded. Documents that made the committee conclude that she needed to be domesticated immediately.” Mistress was trying to explain, but that was just not right.
Nora almost felt angry “So the fact that she saved hundreds of million of people is the reason they are going to do this?” it was so unfair, so…cruel
Mistress was trying to remain calm “they don’t see it that way. There was a lot of evidence that she had hurt people…killed people.” Nora scrambled out of Serla’s vines and landed on the floor.
She was angry now “Cleo has never killed anyone! I have, I have killed people. Why did I have a choice?”
Serla sat down on the bed “Perhaps not directly but she was responsible for tens of millions of deaths. She confessed to everything during the meeting. your situation is not the same….” Nora felt sick, why was Serla defending this?
Nora tried not to shout “That ledger is bullshit! Please don’t tell me you made her confess to that….please don’t..” Her voice faltered, the affini were not supposed to be like this.
Mistress looked confused for a moment “ledger? If you are talking about the death toll…the number she confessed to was higher than what the committee had assumed.” Of course, it was, of course, it fucking was.
Nora felt the anger and guilt, she should have burned that book “in her office, Cleo kept a small green ledger. In that, she wrote every death that she was ‘responsible’ for. Every time there was a crisis, a clash in the streets, famines, or uprisings. All of them, all the things she had no way of preventing, she wrote them all down. Did she lead to some deaths? Of course, some things didn't go to plan, and some people had to be removed, but she never wanted that. She wrote down every time her hand was forced and every time she was not perfect. It was the same in every document as well, always noting how she failed, and how she was responsible. Like she could stop every bad thing in the universe from happening if she just tried hard enough.” It was at these times she would focus on mistress biorhythm to calm down, but it was just in as much discord as her.
Nora looked up “why didn’t you stop it? you knew about the documents, why didn’t you explain to them….” A wave of guilt emanated from Serla.
The affini looked down “I wanted to, we wanted to, but Cleo stopped us. She didn’t want to risk anyone finding out we knew. She asked us to go ahead with it and not argue or vote against domestication. It’s the best way to make sure she ends up with Mertha in the end….”
That did not make it better “Even without guilt, Cleo still thinks that she deserves this. She has done that for years now. That does not make this right, no matter what she asked for.” Serla’s mask of calm broke down.
Serla looked frustrated “I know that, none of this is right! Everything is a mess from start to end. They made the decision in one meeting, one! I or any of the others did not even know it was a meeting about Cleo before we came. I bet only a few of them have even read the evaluations I have written. The process is supposed to be much more thorough, we are supposed to do better than this!” The affini’s frustration had almost developed into anger.
Nora felt bad, there was no way mistress would have wanted this to happen. Mistress stood up, a few of the vines coiling and uncoiling “and then I had to stand there afterward and lie, pretending that any of what they had said was true. I can make that girl spill her secrets in minutes, how would she ever be able to ‘manipulate’ me for that long?” Nora felt all the anger leave her, mistress noticed and sat down again.
Nora climbed up beside her “what will happen to her now?” She was not sure she even wanted to know the answer.
Mistress sounded determined “we are not giving up yet, Mertha is going to try to make the captain overturn the decision. If that and nothing else works….Cleo will receive an implant tomorrow.” So, Cleo would receive an implant before her? It felt like a cruel joke.
A few vines coiled around her “don’t worry, we will figure something out…..” The biorhythm told Nora that the affini was far from confident.
Nora hugged mistress “is there anything I can do? I want to help….” It felt wrong to just sit here when Cleo was in danger
Mistress hugged her “Cleo told me to put you first so that is what I will do. I don’t think there is anything you can do, and if all fails I am sure she will need your help then.” Cleo had once said that planning for failure was a failure in itself. Though what could she do…..
Cleo looked around her cell, the sophont waiting room at the clinic. At least it would be the final cell that she would ever have to reside in. The silence was gnawing at her, letting the fear fester. Was this really the end? Was she not going to try anything else? Part of her still wanted to run, the door was probably unlocked. What did she have to lose? She would be domesticated either way. Sure, it might be hopeless but when had that stopped her before
But….she just couldn’t get up and try….she was empty…..finally spent. She was so tired of struggling. Would this not be a better end than she could ever have hoped for? better than what she deserved? Whatever else Serrulata was right, she had done so many terrible things, made so many afraid and suffer. It was not the mistakes that worried her, the guilt of them could no longer be felt. Her actions, on the other hand, all those plans that had worked as they should. Those were a far greater concern, those she could justify. The affini were right to see her as a threat because that is what she was.
She could argue for the things she had done, the necessity of her actions, and the statistical proof that showed her actions as positive. But how could that compare to how people felt when they looked at the propaganda posters, saw the broadcasts, and heard her voice echo through the streets. What good were her actions when the simple fact was that people feared her more than death itself? She had always expected that fear to be broken when she was publicly executed. Now it would have to drain away as people slowly realized that there were no more people in the shadows, no bitter cold eyes on the screen, no covert threats in the broadcasts.
Cleo had never wanted to die but now so close to something that felt so similar…she felt a bit of peace. There would be no more work for her to do, the affini could figure that out. There would be no more plans, no schemes, no manipulation. No more things would be done for the greater good that she imposed on the world. She had lost The Game and would soon be out of it. it almost didn’t feel possible, but here she was. Soon she would be free, soon she could rest, part of her was almost happy. if she had gotten independent, would she have let herself rest? Maybe this truly was the best result possible….if only the fear was not so stron.
There was a soft knock on the door before it opened and Vonzin walked in “hi Cleo…how are you feeling?”
Cleo chuckled a bit “I’m honestly terrified….but I think that I may be coming to terms with it.”
Vonzin smiled sadly and sat down “we, or I should say Mertha, is trying everything that she can. She will try to convince the captain to overturn the committee’s decision before the operation.” Cleo made sure to not fall into that trap.
Cleo did not want to listen “it won’t work, we both know that. The committee made the right decision. So don’t try to give me hope, I just want to see this through.” Hope had turned to fire in her hands too many times already.
Vonzin sighed “I understand, I’m supposed to explain what is about to happen to you now. But we both know you heard it all. Do you have any questions?”
Cleo smiled slighly, the look of surprise on the affini faces, when she told them off in their own language, gave her back some pride. She thought about the question “how will the implant work? I know the basics but not the details”
Vonzin nodded “first we will make a small incision here” a vine traced over the upper part of her back, she shivered from the touch. The vine retracted “then we will insert some biotech, it will over the course of a week grow and connect directly to your nervous system. During this time, you will be heavily sedated. Once you get your owner we will operate a sample of their core into the implant, and they will then have control over it. until that time the implant can be controlled with a data pad.” That only sounded mildly terrifying.
The conversation was a nice distraction despite everything “and the implant will control?” how much agency would even be hers?
Vonzin smiled softly “the implant will control your xenodrug regimen, monitor your health, your emotions, and to a certain extent your thoughts. It will make sure that you are healthy and happy.” That did not sound too bad, it was not like she could be trusted with those 4 things on her own.
Cleo cleared her throat “right…do you know where I will be staying afterwards…will Mertha be able to visit?” her throat was still choked with something.
Vonzin smiled more genuinely “I think it will be a café not too far away from the park. The three operators are very nice, I’m sure they will take great care of you. We talked with Mertha about it and agreed that we could all visit about 2 times a week, in separate groups to avoid suspicion.” That was good, they were taking this seriously….and she could see Mertha.
Vonzin took out a piece of paper “the adaptation café requires me to fill out a form about you. About who you are, what you need, and some qualities that your future owner should have. In cases such as yours, I would often just do it by myself, but I think that we can do it together instead. Does that sound good?” Cleo nodded, a bit more control of her future was nice.
Vonzin wrote a few things down “name, age, medical information, we have all that. Now then, would you describe your behavior as well trained, lightly trained, problematic, or unbroken?” It was a remarkably understandable and also completely insane question.
Well, she had improved quite a bit “perhaps lightly trained, I don’t think I will require too much to get me to behave like a floret.” It still felt weird to describe herself like that.
Vonzin ticked off a box “I agree, you are mostly a very good girl. Now then have yo…Cleo?” Cleo smiled widely at the confused affini, she was a good girl!
The effect ended “sorry, umm trigger that Mertha implanted…we can continue.” While it did not feel appropriate, the happiness was nice. Maybe that was how domestication would feel, the trigger on loop forever, that was not too bad.
Vonzin smiled “ok, have you ever committed violence against another sophont?” Cleo assumed the question meant directly so she shook her head.
Vonzin continued and Cleo answered, most of it was things she had either done or not, the questions were not difficult. Finally, they arrived at ‘what she would need’, Vonzin took a brief pause “…so is there anything that the café needs to know about you? whatever you need to make sure you have the best stay there possible.” Cleo thought for a long moment.
She held up three fingers “first of all I will need class-C-t. Secondly, conditioning to make sure I don’t work, whatever I will define work as by that point. And lastly, plenty of access to meet the guests at the café.” Vonzin wrote it down in careful detail on the paper.
The affini straightened up “a good list, now finally: what do you want as a pet? What qualities do you want in your owner?”
Cleo chuckled, “can I say that I would like an owner with white and yellow flowers and beautiful blue eyes?”
Vonzin chuckled as well “sadly no, I want you to consider this thoroughly. If you are to be a floret, how do you want your life to be?” Cleo leaned back against the soft wall, what did she want her life to be? creating a comprehensive list would be futile, she was too conflicted.
Vonzin let her think for a long time, the silence began to creep back into the room. Talking would keep it at bay “ don’t want to be afraid anymore…and I don’t want to be suspicious either.” Vonzin’s pen scribbled across the paper.
Cleo held back the tears in her eyes “I want to be able to make social connections, friends. I want to be able to relax. No more work or responsibility ever again.” A few tears had begun to roll down her cheeks. “I don’t want to remember all the things I have done, I don’t want any of the guilt.”
All the things that she had held on to, all the things that had made her suffer, she wanted none of it. Now she had an excuse to throw it all away “I don’t want to be ambitious anymore.” It felt so wrong to say, but it was the truth. The ambition was the real culprit, what had driven her forward, forged the excuses to make her continue.
Cleo managed to choke the last words out “I…..I don’t want this struggle anymore….I just want it to end.” She began to sob, a few vines lifted her up and sat her down in Vonzin’s lap.
The huge affini hugged her from behind, covering her completely “it’s going to be okay, you won’t have to struggle anymore.” Cleo leaned into the hug and let the fear and sorrow wash through her. She just couldn’t do it anymore, didn’t want to do it anymore. Part of her was glad she was finally forced into letting go.
At some point, she must have fallen asleep and was gently woken by the smell of food. Vonzin held a plate with some bread and a bowl of soup. It smelled delicious “here, you need to eat. Mertha made it for you.” For a second her heart dropped, had Mertha tried to visit?
Vonzin saw her expression “Mertha is very busy preparing your case for tomorrow. Ida brought it here, you should eat it while it is still warm.” Cleo did and it tasted wonderful as always. She was very hungry and wolfed down the bread and soup at a rapid pace.
Vonzin smiled “Mertha is right, you are adorable when you eat. When you are done I can give you some class-Z. I can make it last until right before the operation, I understand the wait is frightening.” Cleo slurped up the last of the soup.
Cleo was not quite ready yet “could I talk to Ida?” Vonzin looked uncomfortable
The affini shook her head gently “you are still classified as a very dangerous sophont, so no. I’m sorry.” That made sense….
Cleo stood up “I just need to go to the bathroom first.” Her legs did not feel stable, but she managed to walk to the bathroom attached to the waiting room.
She got in and closed the door, turned on the faucet, and splashed her face with water a few times. Cleo looked up into the mirror above the wash….it was her. She had seen glimpses of herself in the mirror before but now it was….just her. Not some reflection that did not fit in her mind, it was actually her.
She looked afraid, her eyes slightly bloodshot from the crying….but her eyes were different. The cold steel was mostly gone now, only a few traces remained. Her eyes looked warm, normal….there was a person behind them. Not the ghost of a person, or someone who wanted to be a person, just her.
Cleo tried to smile, and it looked almost normal on her face. She remembered back to the past week, the time on class-J, the time before that. Slowly but surely she had built herself back up and maybe….no, there was definitely enough of her for the affini to keep. The realization was a blessed relief, even if they changed her, there was enough that would remain unchanged for her to stay alive.
Her hands trembled a bit, she had made it. Maybe she would not be independent, but she would survive. Take that universe! One more threat to her life had come and failed to wipe her out. This was her last test, her last defiant victory. Cleo grinned, whatever force had tried to kill her for so long was probably beyond frustrated. She was ready!
Cleo walked out of the bathroom and sat down next to Vonzin “before you give me the class-Z I need you to pass some messages from me.” Vonzin nodded and coiled a vine around her. Cleo felt calm “firstly tell Ida that I wished I could have gotten to know her better and that I hope I will still have that chance.”
She took a deep breath “Tell Nora that I will be fine and that I look forward to our vacation soon.”
She chuckled “Tell Serla that she is a wonderful therapist and a complete pain. Also, tell Darla that I will crush her in the next game we play.”
And finally, “Tell Mertha that I love her and that she is not allowed to blame herself for this. I hope that I end up as her floret, and if not that I can visit her often. Just don’t allow her to lose that self-esteem….”
She looked up at Vonzin “thank you for saving my life twice, I should have said that way earlier. I’m ready.”
Vonzin smiled and extended a flower “It has been my pleasure, I’ll make sure everyone gets their message. Now breathe in.” Cleo did and the world fell away as she entered sleep.
-------------------The Agraria, Captains office, 10:50 , 10 minutes before the Centhian catastrophe-------------
Mertha entered the office, her core brimming with fierce determination, her vines holding stacks of paper that she would use as evidence. The office was more orderly than last time, Trexal however looked far worse. The elected affini looked exhausted and their form was unkempt, still, they looked optimistic “come in, come in. sit down so we can talk.” This time Mertha took the captain's offer and sat down.
Trexal looked apologetic “I heard what happened, I’m sorry for what you must be going through.” Mertha managed to stop herself from entering a rage. Pretending that Cleo had manipulated her had been infuriating and so…wrong! Cleo had made her happier than anything in the universe. To watch them mistreat her during the meeting, treating her like she was a dangerous feral….Only a few intertwined vines from Serla under the table had stopped her from doing something, anything to get Cleo out of that situation.
Trexal spoke again “I understand this is hard….there was something you wanted to talk about.” dirt, she had lost concentration for a second. She had to do this, she would make the captain understand that Cleo did not deserve this.
She straightened up “I have a list of complaints about the last meeting of my wards committee. Complaints I believe are serious enough that the result can not be accepted and should be overturned.” The captain first looked perplexed and then leaned back, a nod gave her permission to put forth her case.
She laid forth a few papers “1. The meeting was not properly planned, and the agenda was not published. Most of the members of the committee including myself had no idea what was going on before the meeting started. No one had time to prepare or read through the files properly and come to a mature conclusion.”
She put forth another couple of papers “2. Despite the information revealed being of very intricate and sensitive nature the decision to forcefully domesticate Cleo was made immediately. It is the standard operating procedure to have at least one more meeting, so all members of the committee have time to evaluate the situation.” the captain merely nodded for her to continue.
So, she did, a few more papers were stacked on the desk “3. During the questioning, the behavior of Serrulata was intimidating and unacceptable. Cleo was treated like she was physically dangerous and given no chance to explain herself. The questioning can therefore not be trusted as reliable proof.” The captain raised a vine for her to stop.
Trexal sighed “I agree with all of your points, the meeting was not properly conducted. I also know why.”
Mertha felt relief begin to grow, had she done it? not yet, she would not let her guard down until Cleo was free. She would save Cleo “why?”
Trexal deflated a bit “Serrulata is the main reason, I will explain. On one of the last transports that we received from Centhia was a girl that had just recently been imprisoned before being sent to us. She displayed extreme levels of psychological trauma and paranoia. Constantly having panic attacks and afraid of “them” coming for her or upsetting “him”. Four weeks ago, it was determined she had to be domesticated and Serrulata, who was her caretaker, took her as a floret.” The captain stopped for a moment.
They then straightened their form in the chair “based on the documents, we have determined that the girl was a member of the ‘agrarian revolt’ on the farming planet Cebrex V. The ‘them’ that she spoke of is probably the military force known as the shadow division that used terror tactics to put down the revolt, the ‘he’ is doubtlessly Cleo. Serrulata was most certainly very emotionally compromised, something that explains the rest of her actions and your complaints.” The room went silent.
Mertha remembered how Serrulata had looked and talked to Cleo. It was not only that she thought Cleo was a threat, but she also believed that Cleo was a threat to her floret. For a moment Mertha imagined how she would treat one of the people who had tried to kill Cleo, who had made her so afraid, a shiver went through her form. She composed herself “that does not excuse anything.”
Trexal smiled gently “no it does not, there is a reason why we avoid any such conflict of interests. It was an outrageous oversight that I wished we had not made. Sadly, we have not had the time to look for oversights and this slipped through the cracks.” At least the captain agreed with her.
At least this miserable affair would soon be over “so you agree that the decision should be overturned.”
Trexal frowned “no. despite the mistakes made there is still plenty of evidence that Cleo needs to be domesticated. I will not overturn the decision.” What?
This could not be happening “Cleo is not a threat! If you had read through the documents you would see that she has tried her utmost to help the people of Centhia. She is a good person that does not deserve or warrant domestication!” at some point she had stood up from the chair.
Trexal remained calm “I agree again with your assessment. Reading through the files we have now and those of previous administrations show that Cleo clearly values life. The living standard in the sector has also increased dramatically over her 5-year rule. This does not mean that she is not a threat. She has made extreme and harmful actions that can’t be ignored, even with the benefit of her intent.” The captain looked her directly in the eyes “you knew about the documents before the meeting and before they were decoded, didn’t you?” rot…
Mertha moved a few paces back, how did they know? The captain still looked calm “It was the only thing that made sense. She decoded one of the ones I gave you, right? Then you used them to decode the rest with your hab-computer. It had nothing to do with the 3% at all, you had the key.” Mertha was confused, what were they talking about?
Trexal waved a hand calmingly “please sit down again. I won’t blame you for keeping the documents hidden. I still want to talk this through.” Mertha sat down hesitantly.
They continued “from reading the documents and the evaluations of Cleo I can only come to one conclusion. She needs to be domesticated, it is best for her now and in the long run.” It sounded like it came from a genuine place of compassion.
Mertha could still not accept it “you have spent a lot of your time studying Cleo, why? And also, if she wants domestication it should be on her own terms. That would be what is best for her.”
Trexal sighed “I have studied her because she held this sector together for 5 years while I am struggling with my fifth week. And from what I have learned she is not only a threat to others but also a threat to herself. There is no basis for me to overturn the decision of the committee, but when she comes up for adoption I can make sure you get her…that is as much as I can do.“ Mertha felt her determination falter, what else could she say?
If she could not convince the captain then there was no chance, Cleo’s operation was in less than an hour at this point. If Cleo could be her floret then at least she could make sure that she was safe, happy, and taken care of to the best of her abilities. It felt wrong to give up but what more could she do? Cleo had not even wanted her to do this, all she had asked for was that she be there for her later. That was a task she would not fail.
She deflated in the chair “I understand, thank you for hear-
The conversation was interrupted by a large blaring noise and red lights coming from a screen on the desk ‘emergency transmission’ was written in large red letters. The captain sprung up from their chair “this will have to wait!” They hit the screen with a vine.
The screen changed and an affini standing in front of what looked like a human office appeared. The captain looked nervous “you are on, what is happening?”
There was a great deal of background noise from the other end. Shouts, a great deal of movement, and then the sound of gunshots. The affini looked afraid, “Captain, we have a huge issue!”