Cleo looked over the documents one final time, there was something off about them. Reports of major infrastructure problems, lack of safe housing, overloaded health clinics, and weakened garrisons in specific areas. How did this happen? Cleo looked over the casualty reports again, still low…Perhaps the affini were just sharing this new information with her now, to stop her from taking on the responsibility too early?
That did not track with how easy it had been to gain so much control and so little oversight. At this point, she had a vast amount of power over Centhia once again, not as much as before but it was not far off. The affini might have super-advanced technology and potential power beyond what she could fully grasp. But this was her game, she knew the people, the structure of the cities, every hall of power, and its actors. She had pulled the strings for almost a decade and that was something the affini simply could not replicate.
Right, back to the documents….she had a few solutions, and it was soon time for her meeting either way. She collected the relevant papers in her briefcase and made her way to the captain’s office. As soon as she came in she noticed something was different, Trexal looked different. They looked upset, a sadness in their eyes that Cleo could not fully comprehend “Trexal….are you okay?” Had something happened?
Trexal seemed to shake a little and then suddenly they seemed normal again “yes, I’m fine. Come in, we have a lot to talk about.” Cleo blinked a bit, had she imagined that?….either way she had work to do.
Trexal still seemed anxious “before we go over anything else, the meeting yesterday made me think of something. If an attack of that scale does happen, we need plans for what to do in the aftermath.” That was true, even the best-case scenario would cause serious damage.
Cleo suddenly understood “so that was what these files were about…another scenario.” It was the only logical conclusion, no way there could be such damage and still so low casualty numbers.
Trexal nodded, their voice was still a bit…off “yes, that is correct. Tell me, what do you think?” Cleo drew up some of the documents, at least she was prepared.
She put forth the first proposal “If we fend off such an attack the enemy will fall back to lick their wounds. This will give us time to recover the wounded and repair infrastructure, but this will make us vulnerable. If we send in a few affini hit squads we can keep the enemy on the back foot, giving us time to focus on aid and reconstruction.” Trexal snapped up the proposal and read through it.
The affini nodded, “Sounds like a good idea, what more do you have?” While they talked Trexal typed something on their datapad. Cleo was a bit taken aback, the affini were usually not this demanding.
Still, who was she to deny them “I would also advise using the newly formed ‘presidents’ citizen association’ to help rescue wounded and missing people. The garrison is not well suited to handle such tasks. I would also advise that we set up triage centers close to where the fighting took place.” Trexal looked over the document, there was something a bit hectic about their movement….she was probably just imagining it, perhaps she was a bit tired.
Cleo gave a few more plans and suggestions, then Trexal stood up “thank you, I think that is enough for this meeting. I have another I need to get to.” Hold on, they were supposed to still have more than an hour left.
It was probably because of bad scheduling, the affini had a lot to do after all. “Okay, I guess I will send you the rest from my office.” Cleo was a bit befuddled but left and moved towards her office.
Her mind was still stuck on how Trexal had acted, was there something wrong? Had they figured out the intel had come from the shadow division? Did they know she had betrayed them? Something was wrong.
Cleo thought about it for a moment and stopped in the hallway….She was feeling suspicious….and that felt a bit…unfamiliar. She was not on class-C-t so it was natural for her to be suspicious, but despite this…she was far less suspicious than she should have been. Not just in this case, but in general….over these last days she had been far less suspicious than what she had expected to be….it was probably because she was tired…that made no sense, she was usually more paranoid when she was tired….Cleo began to move towards the office again.
Cleo sat down behind her desk and began to look over the documents, they would tell her what was right. She just needed to ground herself in statistical truth and hard mathematical logic. Her mind and memory might be blurry because of exhaustion but that did not mean she could shirk her duty, and the documents never lied.
Cleo strained to remain calm, the documents were wrong. The estimations for the documents today were skewed, and unbalanced, they made no sense. She took out a document and before she looked at it, made a quick calculation in her head about the result she could expect based on the last few days. She flipped the document and looked, it was wrong! Her estimations would not be this far off, it was like the document was one day late. In fact, she made a few more calculations with isolated data and found the same thing. Was the date on the documents wrong?
Cleo looked up and then at Nora “it is the 26th today, right?” It took a little moment for Nora to answer.
She nodded “Yeah, how so?” Cleo looked down at the documents, it was the 27th…………
Cleo smiled “oh it's nothing, just some wrongly dated documents.” Suspicion was beginning to take hold again….if the documents could not be trusted….were the affini messing with the data she was receiving? How was she supposed to help then? She needed true statistics, Cleo had a realization, she could get confirmation from the cabinet!
She sent a request and waited a bit, not long after Percy sent her a copy of the files. She sifted through them at a rapid pace, they were almost identical to the affini ones. Her heart began to race…how were the statistics a whole day off?….had she imagined that more time had passed than it actually had….it was usually the other way around.
The door to her office opened and Mertha came in “I heard that your meeting with Trexal was shorter and that I would find you here. I made you some pasta and a few brownies for dessert.” Cleo calmed down, perhaps she just needed to eat. Mertha’s closeness also made things a bit easier, eating the pasta also calmed her down. Mertha smiled, but there was a hint of worry “are you okay Cleo? Maybe you should stop for today?” maybe, she was more and more confused….but she still had work to do, orders to give.
Cleo shook her head “no, I’m fine. I think I was just a bit hungry.” Mertha smiled and gave her a few protracted pats. Eventually Mertha left, and the calm remained for a few more moments. Cleo appreciated that Mertha had interrupted her, it had clearly been a downwards spiral way of thinking. Working herself up just because a few of her assumptions were wrong.
After taking a bit of time to relax she got back to work. She worked for an hour and then it was time for the broadcast from the shadow division, hopefully they would have intel on the collaborators this time. Cleo put on the headphones and listened to the music, writing down the messages hidden beneath.
Once she was done she looked at it, still no information on collaborators. Cleo frowned a bit, had there been a difficulty she did not expect? The documents being in conflict with her estimations had shaken her a bit, how could she do her work when her view of the web was clouded? At least there was plenty of intel……wait, this made no sense.
The reports indicated that the enemy was retreating, hiding in safe areas where they held control, falling back, and trying to resupply and reorganize….like they had been routed. She made an effort to stay calm…but her suspicion was growing louder and louder in her mind.
She got an idea, she ripped off a small piece of paper and wrote the time, 12:38, and put it in her pocket. It felt wrong to rip up a document like that, but she needed it for later. Cleo wrote down a bit more work and then pressed the pen hard against the paper until it broke. She sighed “how clumsy of me, I’ll be right back.” She did not wait for Nora to respond before she walked out of the office with her briefcase.
She walked down the corridor and stopped in front of one of the meeting rooms, then she rapidly turned around and opened the door to the room opposite. It was empty, Cleo shrugged her shoulders and moved on. she stopped in front of another door, then walked rapidly a bit further before opening another…it was also empty. Perhaps it was lunch time for the affini, that would explain all the empty meeting rooms.
But that was not until 14:00, she took up the piece of paper….on it was written 14:12…..she had to make sure. Cleo made her way to the cafeteria and sure enough, it was full of affini. She made sure to stay calm and walked up to one of the affini that was drinking some mineralized water.
The affini saw her and smiled “hello cutie, do you need something?” Cleo smiled back, making sure to look as cute and friendly as possible.
She laced her words with a bit of hesitation “I'm a bit stressed and I was wondering….if I could get some pets? Also, I broke my pen, do you have a spare?” The affini looked a surprised for a few moments before it smiled.
It began petting her and a vine handed her a new pen “of course, such a good…sophont you are.” Cleo focused on the pen, it was remarkably familiar. Not just to the first pen, that could be explained by replicators, but familiar in general. It had the same weight and feel that the pen she had in the presidential office….that was not normal.
Cleo smiled and accepted a few more pats before walking back….the pen being familiar was so convenient….convenient, the word stuck in her mind. So many things had been convenient these last few days.
It was convenient that Trexal had entered just before she got the implant. It was convenient that the others and Mertha had been so easy to persuade to let her do this. It was convenient how much power she had gotten in such a short amount of time. It was convenient that a unit from the shadow division had made it onto the ship and off without being detected.
Most of all, it was convenient that each time guilt of fear began to overwhelm her that she would be interrupted. It was like the universe was making things easy for her, it never did that. Something was wrong, terribly, terribly wrong. Was this a dream? a nightmare? Was she in a coma? Perhaps she had gotten the implant, and this was her mind’s way of dealing with it?
Cleo got an idea, she walked up to the wall and then punched it with all her force. It hurt, a bit, like she had bumped her hand on a table. The pain soon faded, Cleo looked at her knuckles and touched them. No injury and no pain, this did not feel like a dream…dreams never spanned days, even if she felt less and less sure about how much time had really passed.
But what about the documents, they made sense and were too complex for her to come up with on her own. They felt real, at least they had done until today when time began to make less and less sense. Had she talked to Serla even once? Or had a checkup with Vonzin yesterday? All she could remember was getting home and then sleeping, so much sleeping…….
There was a noise behind her “Cleo, are you fine? You look very distressed.” It was Azalea, the affini looked very concerned, there was something familiar about her voice. Cleo wanted to calm down, talk to Azalea, and perhaps go home for today….No, there was something wrong! She had to figure it out!
A horrible realization struck her, the most convenient thing about all of this. She opened her briefcase and the documents spilled out onto the floor, she dropped down and began to rummage around until she found it: the casualty reports.
She looked over them, low, surprisingly low, reassuringly low, low, low, low. When had she ever accepted casualties that were low?! Even one death was a tragedy, how could she find the numbers low? She looked at the numbers, trying to see what they meant but all she saw was that they were low. It was impossible, she heard Azalea come closer but ignored it, she continued to stare at the document.
And then, as if she had broken through a fog she finally saw the number: 2 456 650……..no,no,no,NO,NO! Something inside her broke, how, how could this have happened? These numbers were not low, not at all.
How could she have let this happen? If she had just worked harder…if she had just done more…If she had just won the first time around. If she had crushed the Terran rebels before they attacked then nothing like this would have happened! If she had just had control! if she had just done better!
She heard the voice again “Cleo, you need to calm down.” There was again a familiar rhythm to the words…perhaps Azalea was right, maybe she had seen wrong, perhaps she should calm down and look at the numbers one more time…..NO!
These were not her thoughts, she knew that now. It was another convenience, there was always a reason for why things did not make sense, always a reason for her to rest or calm down. She could hear it now, soft whispers that told her that she was tired, needed to relax, and go home.
Cleo got to her feet “I am not tired!” all of this was wrong, the universe hated her! it did not coddle her feelings like this. Her heart was beating so fast, that she felt her pulse like a hammer in her mind.
Azalea moved a bit forward “Cleo, it's alright. Everything will be fine.” For a split second Azalea’s leaves shifted color, they were white and yellow….there was a flower in her hair. Cleo stumbled backward, her mind was fracturing into a thousand pieces, nothing made sense except for the fact that she had failed, failed everyone.
With titanic effort, Cleo lifted her hands to her head, almost like if she pressed hard enough she could push her mind back together…..
Her hands met something smooth and slightly warm before they could reach her head. There was something around her head, almost like a helmet. Some of her fingers felt what must be glass covering the top of her face. The glass was full of color and filled her entire vision, something around her ears was whispering for her to be calm.
There was a voice <dirt, stop her!> And then, with all of her strength she pulled, and the helmet was ripped off her head. Her vision went blurry, and her mind spun, and then she collapsed into darkness.
Hendrik looked over his desk with satisfaction, a few stacks of documents filled with red names. The names of the Terran rebels, that was, they had never stood a chance. After he had crushed the corps and dealt a deadly strike against the families, the foolish fanatics had been too disorganized to stop him.
The shadow division had moved in and decapitated their leadership, the garrison had captured their ships, and the defense fleet had made sure none of them left. In only a few hours it had been over. The 140 ships and the few of their crew that had been deemed loyal, mostly conscripts, had been added to his now impressive fleet.
In the end, he had decided to not hang the Terran rebel admirals, instead he would send them to the affini as an apology for the confrontation they had a few days earlier. The relationship with the delegation was still a bit chilly, but the fact he would soon hand them all these ‘ferals’ would surely change that. And the rebels would surlily choose death over capture and becoming affini pets, this was in their eyes the worse fate.
Finally, he had control, all his enemies were crushed into dust and his power was supreme. There was still a bit of work to do, the affini had to be kept at bay and the remains of the families had to be hunted down. But for now, this was victory, final and total.
No one had ever won The Game before, until now that was. Soon his power and control would be absolute, and he could build a utopia in this sector, one to rival the affini. All his paradise would require was his steady dedication.
Now if that was ever to become a reality he just needed to work a bit more. He took up a document and began to write. He was safe, his power was safe, the people were safe, just a few more pen strokes and….the pen did not move….
Hendrik tried to move it again, his arm and hand did not obey….he tried to stand up, but he couldn’t…he tried to reach for an energizer, but no part of him would move….He tried to breathe but nothing happened….His heart beat heavily in his chest, then the chair tipped over and he collapsed on the floor.
He heard shouting, but all was so blurry….he was lifted up by someone, probably Nora, and carried off. With his foggy vision he saw that one of the guards in the hallway spotted him, the guard ran off…no! He had to speak, tell them that he was fine and could continue to work, but his mouth would not function properly.
He was in a hospital bed now, there were several people around him <what is happening to her?> The doctors were talking and moving around her frantically. <Her mind is spiraling, we need heavy doses of counteragent for the class-H immediately!> what were they talking about?
She could not be here! If people knew that she was sick, or even thought that she was dead….it could not be allowed to happen “please, I can….I can still work…I’m fine…I’m fine.” She had to keep doing her responsibility, if not…..
A hand grabbed hers “Cleo, it is going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine.” That was not true! if she did not work then…then…
The entire web was built around her, if the center of the web disappeared…If she no longer held power….the web would collapse on itself with the force of a dying star. She had spent the last 8 years forcing everyone on Centhia to accept her rule and if she was gone then there would be a power vacuum like that of a black hole. The garrison would shatter into warlords, the fleet would split into fighting groups, and the bureaucracy would break into hundreds of hostile factions.
They would fight each other for the power she left behind, and Centhia would break beneath the fighting. The dead would be in the tens, hundreds of millions…perhaps even billions, she had to stop it.
<her heart is beating far too fast!> The doctors around her ran around and shouted, <can’t you just give her class-Z?> She had to get up, she had to keep carrying the burden…
<the counteragent will react with the class-Z, we have to wait for the counteragent to work.> Vonzin? The doctors around her were suddenly much taller.
Cleo looked to where the hand was holding hers “Mertha?” The hand turned into a vine.
The voice was worried but calming “it's going to be fine, just hold on” No! it was not going to be fine, people would die!
Cleo knew that she could not move, but she did so either way. Through pure force of will, she stumbled up from the bed and shambled towards the door. None of the doctors tried to stop her, she had to prevent it…
Cleo walked out the door and onto the street…she was too late.
The street beneath her feet was filled with craters and the large buildings were mere piles of rubble with steel beams sticking out of them like bone. Charred corpses were scattered around, the sky was a hellish red. No……
Cleo stumbled forward, how could this have happened? She saw that the street to the left sloped upwards to a hill and she began to shamble towards it. This could not be happening…She had won!
She made it up the hill and walked through the remains of what had once been a garrison station. The corpses were holding weapons, they had died from fighting long before whatever had destroyed the district occurred. She climbed up the rubble and finally made it to a good vantage point.
The city sprawled out in front of her, it was a smoldering ruin. Fire ran wild and blazed red up into the sky as it consumed the already destroyed city, the source of the sky’s color revealed. The destruction was endless and total, there was nothing left but fire, rubble, and ashes.
She looked up into the sky, a few ships were still bombarding the city below while others shot against each other for control of the air. One of the ships was hit and a blossoming flame erupted in the sky as its fuel tank caught alight.
Further up she saw the Agraria, it was fighting against the human ships and winning, but it was far too late. The affini could only hope to save what was left of the planet and its people.
Even further away she saw the colonies, there was panic, rioting, war, and famine. She had built Centhia to be the center of the sector, one all the other colonies relied on and depended on, and why? To give her more control.
Cleo fell to her knees, why had this happened? She had done all that she could, she had won!…so how could this still have happened? If she had worked less she would have lost The Game but working more…..had led to this.
What more could she have done? How had all her work led to this?
There was often fire in the web, fire that she had worked to extinguish and prevent. But that fire had always been in small patches. Now the whole web was burning, and the flames just kept spreading.
Why? Why? Why?!
She had tried to force the world to her will, carrying the world on her shoulders. But the world was too heavy, and it had crushed her beneath it and then shattered from the fall.
The universe was so large, and she felt so very small. She had never stood a chance against it and now everything was worse because of what she had done.
Cleo began to cry “I’m sorry, I’m sorry….I'm so sorry…please…stop.” The pain was too much.
Why did they continue to hurt themselves? Why could she do nothing to stop it? Why had she ever thought that she could stop such a hateful universe?
She felt a sting in her neck and soon the hellscape of the world where she had won began to fade away.