Cleo sighed and let the façade fall “is that enough, Centali?” The blue and white petaled affini gave a thumbs up with her hand, still hiding halfway behind the complex construct that was a professional affini recording device. To Cleo, it looked more like some sort of hyper-advanced railgun aimed straight at her. Cleo got down from the chair and strode over to Centali who was now looking at one of the screens attached to the recording device.
The device was systematically changing almost every part of the video from her body to the very room itself, Cleo decided to look away. Something about seeing her previous form brought forth bad thoughts and dysphoria in ample amounts. Centali seemed to be content with the product “it’s ready, do you want to see it?” Cleo shook her head.
She trusted the affini at least somewhat “just make sure the eyes are as similar to the previous broadcasts as possible. Remember that we are not going for imposing and authoritative, not cute and cuddly ….What time is it?” the last few hours seemed to bleed into each other as they so often did when working.
Centali gave her a pat on the head while doing some last adjustments “if you mean planetary time then it's 18:36….and there we go! It’s ready to be broadcast, let’s hope people listen in.” Cleo had a sneaking suspicion that few were going to be convinced by the broadcast alone.
There was also another minor issue “broadcast it at precisely 20:00, standard planetary time. That is when governor, or I guess now, presidential announcements are made. I’m going home now, tell me how it went tomorrow.” The day was still young, she could get plenty done from home.
Centali smiled and gave her another pat “that is good, get some rest. You have done a lot of work today.” Cleo pushed away the vine trying to pet her, she doubted the affini would go home any time soon. She grabbed the briefcase with the documents she needed to go over and waved goodbye.
Cleo left the impromptu recording studio and walked through the corridors of the affini bureaucracy. She had to admit that she was impressed, the affini were extremely skilled in the art. Technology seldom impressed her, it was a random stumble upon the next discovery that the scientist in question never understood the implication of. Bureaucracy however required constant and mindful maintenance, a battle to increase standardization and efficacy that never ended. The affini seemed to understand that, and Cleo realized with some hesitation that she respected them a great deal for that.
During her walk to the rail station, she received a few curious glances from the affini that she passed, luckily they seemed too busy to do anything else than watch. She reached the rail station and embarked on the first one that led to the hab. Cleo realized that the only option for her was to sit in one of the oversized affini chairs, the ones more suited for humans were far too high up and she was not sitting in the floret section. After a bit of struggle, she did indeed manage to get into one of the large seats, she had plenty of space for the briefcase as well.
Before the tram left the station a few affini got on as well, this was the part with the most population density as far as she had seen, a good prioritization of resources. Most of the embarking affini only gave her more curious looks, one of them however sat down, right next to her. The affini’s form was beautiful, like most affini, with slender bark-covered limbs “hi there cutie, is it okay if I sit here?” Its voice was also quite melodic. There were plenty of free seats, but Cleo did not have the energy to bother and gave a simple nod.
The tram began to move, Cleo focused on looking through the window but did not see much due to the angle. The affini next to her shifted a bit “I’m Azalea Peruce, 3rd bloom, she/her. What is your name cutie?” Again, with the condescension and not leaving her alone.
Cleo decided to answer, “I’m Cleopatra Hansen, she/her.” She decided to look up at the affini, it had a lot of red leaves covering the bark and forming a sort of coat. Its hair was a long flowing river of red leaves, the mouth filled with tiny needles, the eyes a gorgeous green.
The affini looked at her with the usual affini adoration “what a beautiful name, I am curious what brought you to our paper-filled halls, we don’t see many sophonts there. A shame really, I think having a few cuties like you walking around could increase motivation.” Cleo was about to make a comment about the condescension when she remembered what Nora had said….was this affini flirting with her? Very unlikely.
Still, she stifled a frustrated sigh “I was working.” Short replies were usually a good indicator that the conversation to be done, but Azalea did not seem to pick up on this.
Azalea smiled wider “awww, were you carrying paperwork for your owner?” The affini moved its hand to pet her. Cleo moved a bit away and the affini pulled back its hand, it looked disappointed.
Cleo pointed to her neck “no collar, I’m independent. I was not carrying paper, I was helping you sort out the mess in this sector.” Her voice was stern, she looked out the window again.
There were a few silent and tense seconds “are you happy with being independent? I ask because you look a bit sad.” She had worked to be independent since she got on the ship, why would she not be happy to finally attain that goal? Why wasn’t she happy to have attained that goal? Why had she said yes? The feelings that the work had so efficiently pushed aside were beginning to bubble up again.
Azalea’s voice was soft with compassion “it is probably lonely being independent on such a large and empty ship. If you want you can come home to me, I can make you some nice food, talk about your day. Would you want that?” lonely….why did she feel lonely? Only two days ago she had finally felt like she belonged, at least partly. And now she had thrown all of that away, for what?
Cleo pushed down the thoughts “I appreciate the offer but I have an affini waiting for me at home.” The affini’s offer was tempting….why? Cleo did not know.
Azalea looked at her with relief and a bit of disappointment “oh they must be very lucky to have someone like you.” The words were well-intentioned but hurt more than she managed to comprehend.
How could she be so cruel? After all the compassion, love, and care she had gotten, she had thrown it right back in Mertha’s face. All for a chance at The Game, she could not let people die when she had the opportunity to stop it but….hurting Mertha this way was worse than anything else.
Cleo noticed that she had begun to cry “I….I….” the words would not come out. Azalea cautiously reached out with a hand, Cleo did not have the emotional energy to deny her. The hand was joined by another, and Cleo was lifted up and into Azalea’s lap, the affini hugged her from behind. Cleo felt so small and alone, why had she not just said no?
Azalea holding around her was comforting at the very least “are you and your friend having problems?” Why were the affini so compassionate? Why did they care about her so much? She had done nothing to deserve it.
Cleo tried to breathe slowly “yes…..I’m the problem….i ruin everything.” Even after all their effort and work to make her better she had pushed them away. Nora might understand, but the others….how else could they see this but as another betrayal?
Azalea used a gentle finger to dry some of the tears away “I’m sure they don’t see it like that, you seem like such a wonderful and compassionate person. I think you should talk to them about it, things will be easier then.” The affini was right, how many times had Mertha tried to prove that she made her happy? far too many, she could not start down that road again. That insecurity was still tender but not one she could allow herself, for her own and Mertha’s sake.
She had still decided to say yes….Why did she feel this responsibility when it was obvious that it hurt her? Why? Did she need to do this? She remembered the days in the office, had it actually been compassion that drove her forward? Did this good person that hid beneath a sea of ice truly exist? Or had it just been fear and lust for power? That by pure coincidence that she had been the most humane monster in the room?
The tram began to close in on her station “thanks for the hug and advice, I need to get off now.” The affini lifted her down to the ground and gave her the briefcase.
Azalea gave her a pat on the head “no problem cutie, hope to see you again.” Cleo let the affini pet her a bit longer before she stepped out of the tram. Now she only had the short distance back to the hab, then she would have to talk to Mertha….Her heart did not feel ready, it ached.
Walking through the district felt even more lonely, she was completely alone. The street was quiet and empty.
Finally, she made it home, the elevator ride up seemed to take forever. A final ping indicated that she had reached her floor and she walked through the corridor. Standing in front of the hab entrance, she took a deep breath and then opened the door.
As soon as she took her first step in she saw the gathering. Vonzin, Ida, Serla, Nora, Darla, and of course Mertha sat around the coffee table. The silence as she walked in was deafening, “why are you here?” her voice was slightly shaky.
Serla’s voice was stern “we are here to stop you from making a huge mistake, come sit down.” No, she knew she could not do that. If she did they might drag her away from what needed to be done, what she needed to do.
Cleo stood her ground “no, I don’t think I will. I am not making a mistake, I am doing what needs to be done.” How could they not see that?
Vonzin spoke up, she sounded surprisingly guilty “I should never have allowed Trexal past that door. You have suffered too much because of this already. This is not your responsibility, you should not have been asked.” That was not true, it was her responsibility as it always had been.
Cleo felt frustrated “People are dying as we speak, if I can do anything to help then I will. And so would all three of you if you could, don’t try to deny it. I may be human, but I have just as much responsibility as any of you.” At least Trexal did not look at her like she was less able to help.
Ida’s voice was full of concern “Cleo, when you came here you were in terrible pain, you almost died. Don’t do this again, please.” Before she could even answer, Serla interjected.
The affini sounded as frustrated as she felt “your mental health has barely even begun to recover, if you go down this path….you will throw so much of that progress away. You don’t owe anyone anything.” A lie, a simple but cruel lie.
Cleo took a few steps forward “I owe them everything! and after all I have done? I will not lose this chance to make it better. I am just one person, if I can save even just one life, then that is a worthy trade. If I can save a thousand then that is necessary, if I can save tens, hundreds of thousands? I would be a monster to not do everything I can. My health and happiness are not worth more than anyone else’s!” There was a long silence in the room.
Serla tried to speak “I wont-“ Cleo would not hear it.
She stormed past them all “you don’t have any power over me anymore. You can’t and won’t stop me from doing what I have to.” She opened the door to her room, stepped inside, and closedit it behind her. Even if they would not, could not understand that did not make her task less required.
Cleo walked up to her desk and removed the documents from the briefcase. She looked briefly at the pen case, it was locked, so she took up the pen she had brought from her new office. She took out the first document, reports of mass desertion within the garrison. Time to sift through the reports, find the pattern, find a solution, and then move on to the next problem.
She took out one of the papers from the antique shop, at least those were not locked down. The pen struck the paper….and didn’t move. She tried to find the strength to move it, there was nothing to be found. It was all simply too hard, but she had to do this!
If she could not do this then she was just what everyone already thought she was, a threat. Something to be afraid of, neutralized before she could harm more people. If she could do this, then she could prove to herself as much as everyone else that she was more than that. She could prove the words that Mertha had said, that she was a good person. This was her once chance at redemption, but the pen felt too heavy to move over the paper.
Doing the right thing cost too much, she was pushing away all the people she cared about, that cared about her. She was pushing away the happiness she had fought so hard for. A few tears began to drip down on the paper below. They had tried to help her, and she had closed the door in their faces. The pen fell from her hand.
Perhaps she could give up, tell Vonzin to return her to the clinic. Maybe she could overreach, and do something without the captain’s permission, she would not even have to ask then. Or maybe she should just push herself until she drops. There were so many ways to do it, so many ways to fail. A large part of her wanted to fail, to give up….
How could she even consider giving up? She was the reason that the crisis was happening at all. Had she just invited the affini for real, helped them take over in the first place, then nothing like this would have happened. The people on the surface also had people who cared about them, they had suffered just as much as she. There was no way she could prioritize her own happiness over theirs, not when she had a chance to help. How had she managed to keep on going before?
There was a knock on the door “Cleo, can I come in?” It was Nora, Cleo wanted to tell her to go away but the words were stuck in her throat. Why could she not help and have them at the same time? Because that would make her too soft, too reliant on others. People like that did not survive The Game and if she did not win this final round, then so many would die.
The door opened and Nora walked in, she had probably heard her cry from the living room. Cleo just stared down at the paper, a few dozen dark spots from her tears covered it. She heard Nora grab a chair from near the window and bring it over. Nora sat down in it “Cleo, please, talk to me. What is happening? Why are you doing this?” Cleo looked up at Nora, tears fogging her view.
She blinked a few times “I have to do this…it’s the only way. If I don’t’…..then….then I’m just the person they all think I am.” Nora leaned forward and grabbed her into a hug.
Cleo felt more tears begin to well up, Nora’s voice was filled with compassion “you are not, don’t ever believe that. but if you do have to do this, can you at least let us help?” What?.....she should say no, she did not deserve their help.
But she wanted it so much, she leaned into the hug “please…yes. Just don’t…try to talk me out of it.” Nora hugged her tighter, Nora was so strong and protective. The hug lasted until Cleo finally stopped crying, she had become very good at crying this last month.
Nora helped her up “let’s talk to the others about this. We won’t try to make you stop, but we can’t see you destroy yourself again, not for any reason.” Cleo sniffed and dried away her tears, was this the best option? She had never had allies before, they were unreliable and hard to coordinate. It was often much better to use them for her own ends and then discard them. But it was not like that, these people cared about her….Perhaps it would be productive to have some help.
She and Nora walked out, and the conversation around the table died once more. Nora sat back on the chair next to Serla while Cleo sat in the one delegated to her. She steeled her mind, they might want to help her but what that entailed would not always be acceptable. Cleo’s eyes did not yet have the courage to meet Mertha’s, she was too afraid of what she might see.
Serla was the first to speak “you are one stubborn sophont, you know that?” The affini was clearly not happy with the situation. Then a bit of the frustration seemed to drain out of her “Perhaps we can’t stop you from making a mistake, but we can do some damage control at the very least.” A potent word for ‘don’t ruin the last 3 weeks of progress’.
Ida had the first demand “no overwork! Your health is still recovering.” The floret crossed her arms and looked at her with determination.
Vonzin nodded “my little flower is correct, if you push yourself you might end up in my office again. You can only get lucky so many times, and I don’t think you can help anyone if you are in a coma.” This demand had already been accounted for.
Cleo affirmed “Trexal has already given me that demand, so I shall follow standard work days. Nothing extreme.”
For the first time since she had abandoned her at the clinic, she heard Mertha speak. The affini’s voice was almost a bit flat “at least that captain has had one good idea. How long is a standard workday?” Cleo finally managed to look at Mertha, her eyes were filled with an overwhelming concern. It was mixed with anger, frustration, and a great deal of sadness.
Cleo felt a lump in her throat “just nine hou-“
Vonzin’s eyes shone red for a moment “Are you mad?! Absolute madness, I will have to put you on class-j in less than two days. Four hours, that should be enough.” Cleo’s eyes widened, four hours? She would never get anything done!
It could not be allowed “no, at least seven. I can handle that.”
Vonzin shook, the flowers on her form bristled “you have demonstrated plenty of times that you don’t know what you can handle. I can accept five hours if I am being lenient.” They stared at each other, Cleo would not relent, and neither would Vonzin.
Nora broke the tension “so six hours a day, it is. Glad we could come to that agreement.” Only 6? It was two-thirds of her original plan. It would reduce her capacity massively….at the same time she would not be very productive if she overextended like before. It was an….acceptable compromise.
Vonzin was not pleased “if it has to be that way, fine. I want to do bidaily checkups on your health, understood?” Cleo nodded, a small concession.
Serla gently petted Darla, who was sitting on her lap “I also want to do bidaily mental checkups, I am not letting you lose all that progress you have made.”
Mertha spoke again, her words confident “if you ever feel stressed, tired, or bad you are to take a 10-minute break from work. And during the rest of the day? you will let me take care of you, fully and completely.” Mertha’s eyes were now filled with a fiery protective determination.
Cleo sighed “ok, I accept your demands. That is it though, no more shackles on my productively…..Thank you…..now I would like to talk to Mertha, alone.” The others seemed to understand.
Vonzin and Serla stood up, Serla especially did not seem satisfied “for the record, I still think this is a terrible idea.” Before the two affini left with their florets Cleo got a big hug from Nora that Ida and Darla joined in on. Cleo felt a bit less lonely, but it felt like a divide had grown between her and the others. Soon the door closed, and it was only her and Mertha, Cleo felt the aching in her heart worsen a bit.
Without a sound Mertha stood up and approached her, her affini extended a few vines. Cleo nodded tremblingly and Mertha lifted her up into an embrace, her voice filled with relief “Cleo….I’m so happy that you are okay.” Cleo hugged Mertha back, she had begun to cry again. Mertha held her with vines forming around every inch of her body, pressing her tight against the vines “I am so sorry that I did not stop the committee. I should have found some way to explain it, some way to convince Trexal, some way to protect you….” Mertha seemed to have run out of things to say.
Cleo buried her face into the vines “don’t be sorry. It was my mistakes, the consequences of my actions, not yours. You have done nothing wrong……I love you.” Mertha bent her head down and kissed her on the head.
Her voice was so loving “I love you too Cleo.” They held the embrace for several minutes, Cleo had just been apart from Mertha for a bit more than a day and it had felt like an eternity. So much had happened, but finally, she was back in her affini’s vines.
After some time Mertha pulled her only a bit away so they could look at each other “I might not like what you have decided to do, I would never have allowed it if I could stop it. But I need you to know that I don’t blame you in any way, you still make me happy beyond anything else.” Cleo felt a few more tears fall, she knew that Mertha was right, but that only made what she had to ask all the more painful.
Cleo breathed in, she did not want to ask this but there was no other choice “Mertha, I need you to remove the conditioning…all of it.” Mertha’s vines stiffened for a bit, there was a long silence.
Mertha finally spoke “why?” The answer was reprehensible, but logical.
Cleo looked away “I…I need to be the most efficient version of myself that I can be. I might not have known happiness before, but I was efficient, I need to be efficient now as well. Everything in my mind needs to be under my full control.” The Game was dangerous, she needed to be just as dangerous to win it, one final time.
The melody in Mertha’s voice was uneven “even the guilt?” Cleo knew it would hurt, that she would hate herself and what she had done.
Cleo nodded “yes, without it I won’t be able to push on like I need to. I won’t remember my mistakes or actions as clearly. The guilt may be terrible, but it has its purpose and I need that now.” She could feel that Mertha was sad, and regretful.
Mertha looked her in the eyes “is there no other way? Do you have to do this?” Cleo looked into those beautiful blue eyes, the next words would hurt even more.
She breathed in “you told me that you saw a good person inside me, one that wanted to help people. I want to believe that, I truly do..…But if I don’t do what is right now, if I don’t prove that I care about lives even when power is not obtainable long term…then I can’t believe those words, they would just be another lie in a life so empty of truth.” Her breath felt sharp, like breathing in daggers.
Mertha’s eyes shone with a deep sadness “Cleo…….I understand, but….” Her affini looked conflicted, between compassion and understanding.
She looked up at Mertha “it's my mind, is it not? Should I not get to decide what happens in it?” it was the agreement they had built everything on, forcing this choice on Mertha…it hurt more than any guilt.
Mertha smiled sadly “it is your mind. Are you sure about this?” Cleo knew that this was the step that would make sure she walked all the rest. Before the guilt drove her forward, now it would do so again.
Cleo did not want the guilt to return, but she needed it “yes…..but please don’t remove my trust in you…I need that more than anything.” To her surprise, Mertha smiled.
The affini caressed her cheek with a vine “I removed that long ago, you no longer needed it.” A strange sense of relief spread from her heart, she had in fact changed.
Mertha extended a vine “I remember all the parts of your mind that I have changed, all you need to do is to sleep and it will have been removed when you wake up.” Cleo nodded and felt a small sting in her arm and then the world faded away as the eyes, those beautiful eyes, began to undo their work.
Cleo woke in her bed, she felt it immediately…the guilt was back. It was not intense, but she could feel it gnaw at the edge of her mind. For a moment she was afraid that it would all be back, that she was just as she had been when she first woke up. But the comfortably soft bed did not feel threatening and the thought of Mertha’s food only made her mouth water. Her mind was under her full control once again, there were no more compromises within it, time to get to work.
Cleo got out of bed and walked to the closet, she removed the soft clothes she had worn before. She found the suit and tie and put it on. It was not the same as on Centhia, but it was not something completely different either. She took the briefcase and walked out into the living room and kitchen.
Something was being warmed in the oven and Mertha was preparing some food in a casserole. Mertha turned around “good morning, I see you used your 5% today.” The food smelled amazing…
But what was Mertha talking about? “5%? I don’t think I follow.” Mertha smiled, it was mostly warm but also a bit predatory.
Mertha’s continued to stir the pot with a vine “we had a deal that I would get you out of bed 95% of ‘relevant situations’. So, for the next 19 days, you will not get out of that bed on your own, understood?” She had promised that…..she was independent, she could just say no….but that did not seem like a wise decision.
Cleo smiled carefully “I guess….” Mertha patted her on the head with a vine as she loomed over her.
Her affini seemed pleased, her voice was threatening in the way only an affini could be “good girl, did you think I lied, when I said I would take care of you? You will either accept my affection or I will smother you with it until you do.” Cleo waited…but nothing happened, no rush of happiness….
The playful glint in Mertha’s eyes disappeared and she leaned down “I’m sorry, that was a poor choice of words. Are you okay?” The triggers were gone…..
Cleo tried to sound reassuring “I am fine….or you know….I feel worse but not as bad as I thought. I guess the trigger not working made me a bit…..disappointed, that’s all.” That was an embarrassing truth, best not to think about it too much.
Mertha looked concerned “don’t push yourself too hard. If you want to, I can reapply it all at any time. Now you need food and your xenodrugs.” Cleo moved a bit back as Mertha prepared a vine.
She could not use that anymore “only class-G from now on. My suspicion might not be helpful in any other situation, but I will need it.” Mertha looked a bit despondent but nodded.
Mertha helped her up into the chair and sat a bowl of stew in front of her. Cleo began to eat it ravenously, she would need the energy for the day to come. If she was only allowed 6 hours of work she would have to make the most out of every minute.
There was an atmosphere of apprehension coming from Mertha, but except for that, it felt like a normal morning. Well, that and the fact that her mind was going over every detail from the emergency meeting. Her mind had been starved for real, concrete information for so long, now that it finally had something she was hungry for more. The affini way of collecting data was not fully sufficient for her wants, it was too incomplete in some aspects. Unless she could redevelop her web of spies that would remain the same, and she doubted that the captain would accept such methods.
The hab-AI rang out just as she was about to be done with her meal “hi cutie, you got a visitor!” Cleo looked over at Mertha a bit confused, were they expecting someone?
Mertha smiled, “you should go and get that.” The affini leaned back, displaying that she had no intention of doing so.
Cleo ate the last of the stew and jumped down from the chair, she got over to the door. The door opened and revealed Nora, the red-haired girl was smiling. Cleo was a bit confused “what are you doing here?” but she soon got a suspicion.
Nora mocked a salute “The President of the mighty Centhian republic needs a bodyguard.” Cleo was not very convinced.
She tapped her foot “I don’t think I will need much protection, this is an affini ship.” Nora did not seem discouraged at all.
Cleo looked up at Mertha who was drinking some mineralized water with a vine and looked away. Cleo looked back at Nora “you are here to make sure I don’t overextend myself, aren’t you?” with her advanced hearing Cleo doubted she could hide any exhaustion from Nora.
Nora smiled and put her arm around her shoulder “you need someone to protect you from yourself. Also, consider me emotional support.” Well enough, it was not surprising that Mertha and the others did not trust her fully.
Cleo relented “fine, I could need that.” Cleo inspected Nora, she was wearing clothes that might be considered business appropriate. But there was one major problem: “We are going to meet high-ranking bureaucrats and I think they are going to have enough with my new appearance. Your collar might send the wrong signals.” They were a far less intimidating team now than before.
Nora touched her collar and looked a bit sad. “but…I like it…I don’t think mistress would like that I removed it.” Cleo smiled, hearing Nora call Serla mistress would have been a great opportunity to tease her.
But now was not the time “it’s fine, keep it on. We can use the available affini for intimidation if we need to. Now we should leave, the meeting will start in only 1 hour and 14 minutes.” Before she could do anything else a set of vines grabbed her and pulled her into a tight embrace.
Mertha looked at her with a great deal of apprehension “be careful, okay? And whatever happens, it’s not your fault.” Cleo hugged Mertha back, the fact was that it was her fault. The entire situation in the sector could be traced directly to her actions, now was the time to make it right. Mertha seemed reluctant to let her down but eventually did.
Cleo straightened her suit “see you later Mertha, breakfast was excellent as always. Let’s not wait any further. I have a planet to subdue and some people to bring back into line.” With the briefcase in one hand and Nora walking behind her she felt a great deal of familiarity. The players of The Game on Centhia would regret not going quietly, and the bureaucracy would be the first target for subjugation.