Serla pressed the ‘doorbell’ and as the humans called it and waited. A few seconds later the door to Mertha’s hab opened. Serla braced herself and entered, she was not looking forward to what she would see.
At first, she could only see Mertha looking down in one of the chairs “are you sure you are ready?.....alright, if there is anything don’t hesitate to call on me, ok? Anything at all.” Mertha turned around, still hiding the contents of the chair “hi Serla….thank you for coming…I will go to my study now….and let you two talk.” There was a clear protective hesitation in her voice.
Serla tried to smile reassuringly “I will tell you if anything happens, don’t worry.” Mertha nodded and hesitantly moved away from the chair and towards her study, giving Serla one last core discord-inducing look before the door closed.
Serla looked towards the chair, Cleo was sitting there. She was holding a cup of hot chocolate that she was looking down into. The usual stubborn, arrogant, and powerful energy Cleo usually emitted was gone. The chair might be too big for her but that was not why she looked so small and weak. Cleo spoke, her voice was flat and without emotion “both of you are worrying too much, I have already told you that I am fine.” It was by far the laziest and poorest lie that Serla had ever heard Cleo utter.
Serla took a seat close to Cleo “you don’t have to be fine, you have gone through a lot.” Cleo was still looking down into the cup, only a slight twitch showed that she had even heard her.
Cleo drank a bit from the cup “the conditioning is back, I am on full doses of C-t, Mertha is taking care of me, and most importantly, you are never gonna let me hurt anyone else, ever again. I think things are better than ever.” Serla could hear the numerous conflicting emotions bubbling just beneath the flat delivery of the words.
Serla tried to smile, not that Cleo was looking up. “I can tell that something is wrong, but you need to talk to me or Mertha. We can’t help you if you don’t.” Cleo still did not look up, a part of Serla was almost thankful for that.
Cleo’s voice was a bit more uneven “Nothing will change if I talk about it, and I don’t want it to change either. I’m thankful that you care about me, but there is nothing you can or should do here.” At least there was an opening.
Serla remained calm “change what? What is there that you don’t want to change?” there was a slightly irritated twitch from the chair.
Cleo chuckled coldly “you are a persistent bastard, you know that?” at least there was a bit of fight left, Serla felt a bit of relief.
She chuckled back “I have heard it before, now tell me what you are thinking about, this thing you don’t want to change.” Cleo sighed and finally looked up.
Her eyes were almost lifeless, the energy that had resided there before was replaced by hopelessness, fear, and a bitter sadness “I realized something…something I should have understood long ago. All the things I sacrificed, all the suffering I endured, and all of the work I did, has been for nothing. No, strike that, less than nothing. I thought I wanted to help people, save lives….but I have only made things worse, so much worse.” There was such a brutal pain in Cleo’s voice that Serla wanted to wrap her up in her vines and make sure she never suffered again…but she sat, resisting her instincts.
Cleo continued, her voice beginning to shake “I thought I could solve everything, that if I just worked hard enough, sacrificed enough, that I could make things good. Not just better, but good….stop people from suffering as I have.” Cleo began to cry “I have been such a fool…..I could never make It better…All I did was gain more and more control, more and more power, thinking that I could stop people from hurting….from dying.” Serla wanted to say something, but she did not know what.
Cleo’s eyes became more bitter “I thought you affini were arrogant but compared to me you are nothing. I never once accepted what would happen if I failed, if I died or lost, I never allowed myself to think that far. I just carried on, always moving, always justifying taking more power and responsibility. Say what you want about Shivar, at least he understood that he would not live forever, I suppose that’s one of the lessons I never learned.” Cleo’s voice broke “If…if you had not come….If I had won? I…I would have killed them all…and I didn’t even see it, not until it was far too late.” Cleo’s eyes seemed to become even more hollow and fearful.
Serla finally managed to talk “nothing of what you saw in that dream was real.” A few of her flowers twitched and wilted when remembering what Mertha had told her. What had happened was beyond cruel, just the description of what Cleo had seen made her core tremble.
Cleo looked down into the cup again “but it was true! that is what would have happened, I know how it is. If I had won, pressed on until I could no longer….It would have been the greatest single death event in human history….and it would have been all because of me….I should have died in that alley….or from that first assassin, or any of the fifty times the universe offered me an out.” Serla could not listen to it any further.
Her voice turned stern “Cleo! You are not allowed to talk like that! We won’t allow such a thing to happen, I promise.” Serla offered Cleo a vine to hold, but she didn’t take it.
Cleo looked up at the ceiling “I know you won’t…but there is nothing left for me anymore. Work, my work….it is all I have ever had, the one thing I did well….and it was built on a lie….I’m useless, a broken function….there is no purpose for me to exist anymore….” Tears continued to streak down her face.
Serla sighed “Cleo, I need you to listen to me. For once in your life, you need to focus on yourself, not everybody else. You can still be happy, I know you can…you are so much more than your work.” Why would she not understand that?
Cleo looked back at her “you don’t understand, happiness will never be enough for me. I have tried to imagine a future like that….and I can’t. The ambition in me burns too hot for me to control, and because of it…everything I touch turns to ash…I’m dangerous, we both know there is only one real choice here.” Cleo’s eyes became filled with desperation.
Serla knew the answer, but the question had to be asked “what do you mean by that?”
Cleo smiled sadly “what you have told me from the very beginning, I need to be domesticated. Then you can remove that ambition and I can stop being a danger to everyone around me.” Serla realized why Mertha had denied Cleo this before.
And why she had to deny her now “no, we won’t do that. Not when you are like this.” The desperation in Cleo’s eyes became even more intense.
Her voice was a mere whisper “why?” The answer was simple.
Serla sighed, the guilt in her core welling up “because you are doing this out of fear, not because you think it will make you happy….i'm sorry we did this, it was a terrible idea. We shouldn’t have used you, lied to you, manipulated you, or let any of this have happened….I’m sorry. We should have been better, but we weren’t.” Cleo’s expression shifted slightly and hardened a bit.
Her voice was calm “no, you are wrong. It was the best way to use my capabilities without letting me hurt more people. If anything, I am sorry that I broke out of it, then I still could help now. And that is the problem, I still want to help, I still want to make the world better. Even when all the evidence shows that I only make it worse. You told me that I could not handle the responsibility you affini have, and you were right…But I can’t handle the responsibility to be happy either, not as long as I still have this fire in me. Can’t you just let me rest?” Serla couldn’t do it anymore, she needed a break.
She had done this for hundreds of years, had heard horrifying stories of every kind, and seen the most downtrodden and the most miserable sophonts one could imagine. During all of that time she had never needed to stop, the impulse to help the poor sophonts was always stronger. But seeing Cleo this desperate, so fearful of herself, so broken beyond words….it was too much. And how was she supposed to answer that question?
Serla stood up “I need to talk to Mertha…will you be fine on your own?” Cleo looked down into the cup and nodded. Serla moved towards the study, she had wanted Cleo to give up all the responsibility but not at the cost of her confidence, her passion, her very self. They had to reignite that fire in her eyes, it was the only way.
Cleo finally felt the tears stop streaming, she dried her face with her arm. Why were the affini such hypocrites? Every day they seemed to tempt her, try to drag her towards it, show the relief it would give her. But when she was finally weak enough to accept it they denied her that escape, it was a cruel joke. And when they had finally forced her into it, as justice for all her terrible crimes, it was annulled, and she was let go. The worst part was that they were so compassionate the whole way through, even when they forced her to live like this.
Why could they not understand how dangerous she was? How much damage she had done because of her delusions? Even the affini could only mitigate the disaster she had created, over two million people had died so far because of her, and more were sure to follow. All of this because she had kept carrying on, consolidating power, and forced the enemy to do the same.
The committee’s decision was still annulled, and they did not have time to reconvene yet. So, for now, she was still technically independent, but that was just a formality. At least Mertha had reapplied the metal collar, they had some control over her. Cleo got down from the chair and put the cup on the table.
The last 5..6…, no 5 days were still blurry in her mind, but she remembered what she had done. It had been so easy to grab hold of power again, so easy to want that control, no wonder she had almost doomed the sector to death. for a moment she saw Centhia aflame in her mind, all the dead, all the destruction. She shuddered, how could they not understand she had to be controlled?….permanently.
Cleo walked into her room, part of her wanted to sleep just so she would not have to deal with this. She had slept so much the past days that it was genuinely impossible, her body was not ready for that slice of escape quite yet. Instead, she walked past and sat down at the small table near her window. She looked out and saw the gray planet, a billion lights shining it up like a constellation. How close had she not been to wiping all those lights out?
Looking at the planet filled her with dread, she knew what was about to happen. A lot of people were about to die. Cleo wanted to help, to prevent that from happening, but how could she?….when she knew what her ‘help’ could result in.
Cleo hated herself for it, how could she stand by and do nothing? Inaction was wrong, it did not free her from responsibility for what would happen. That was the thought that had driven her this far. Action, her actions, would not help things, no matter what her calculations or strategy might say. She had been proven wrong too many times to believe in that anymore. So, all she could do was sit and wait for the reports to come in and the new guilt she would feel.
She looked down at the chessboard, it was in the same formation as when she had won against the others. She had a plan, an idea of how to win….Win? like that had ever been possible. If she had just told Trexal no at the clinic…then she would not have to deal with all this…conflicting guilt. Guilty if she did, guilty if she didn’t, at least it would all be over soon. It was just 4 days until the reinforcements arrived, after that the committee would reconvene and she would be sent off to the clinic, no matter what Mertha or Serla might say.
There was a knock on the door and Serla came in “I am leaving now. You and Mertha need to talk.” Of course, that was always the answer: talking.
Cleo looked at Serla in the door opening “okay, tell Nora that I am okay. She does not deserve to worry about me.” Nora never deserved any of this nonsense and worrying about her was a torturing task to be sure.
Serla sounded irritated. “I will tell her, that you told me, that you are okay, that is the best I can do. Goodbye Cleo, hopefully I will see you soon.” The door closed and Cleo was left alone once more.
Staring out into the depths of space was a tempting choice, but if Mertha wanted to talk then she would have to do that. Mertha had treated her like glass ever since she woke up, an understandable precaution. Because she was fragile now, there was nothing else holding her up other than Mertha’s care and affection. There was also very little else left of her, or at least parts that she wanted to be a part of her. Cleo looked out of the window one more time before standing up and walking out the room.
Mertha was sitting at the kitchen table, so that was where the talk was going to happen. Cleo tried to get up on her chair by herself but was helped by a vine, she accepted the help. When she got up she looked up at Mertha, her affini’s eyes were determined….determined for what?
Mertha began the conversation “Serla told me what you talked about….” That was to be expected.
The big question was “do you agree with her?” Perhaps Mertha would allow her to rest, to stop this meaningless struggle.
Mertha sighed “yes, I do. I don’t think you are in the right mental space to make that decision.” Of course, it was not going to be that easy, it never was.
Cleo stifled a curse “why? No, I mean seriously, why?! You domesticate the rank and file of the Accord navy, most of whom have never had any choice in their life. You domesticate people that the Accord has broken so completely that they can’t be happy. And here I sit, the single greatest threat to human life the compact has ever captured, and so broken that even with the most loving and caring person in my life, I am still not content. How can you give rest to all of them, but not to me?” her voice faltered, why could they not let her rest?
Mertha tilted her head “Cleo, you are not a threat, and I know you can be happy. We only domesticate out of need or want, so unless you want it for your own sake…I can’t accept it.” Cleo knew that hearing this would have made her angry before….but she had no energy left for that.
So instead, she began to cry “I am not a threat?.....a few days ago I threatened a man with death…I ordered what I thought was a shadow unit to terrorize people’s homes…how am I not a threat?” Mertha was just trying to be nice.
Mertha looked guilty “that was not your fault, we put you in that situation. We knew for the most part how you would react, and we did it anyway. For what it is worth I have heard that you saved a lot of lives.” Oh yeah, because that made it all better.
Cleo felt bitter “and what about all those that I couldn’t save? All of the people who are dead because of me? I’m glad you used me, I just wish I could have done more…also, I am a threat…at least the committee agrees with me.” The determination did not leave Mertha’s eyes.
The affini shook her head “Cleo, speak the truth. Have you acted with the intention of hurting someone?” The trigger was on, but what would she have to lose by telling the truth?
Cleo did not bother ordering her thoughts “no, but I know I have….I’m afraid that is all I ever have. My intentions don’t matter if what they lead to is so…..horrible. I can’t handle the responsibility…but I’m scared that I will find a justification for taking it anyway and then….more people will suffer.” The fear was more visceral than anything else.
Mertha smiled sadly “you have had far too much responsibility, that I agree with. I can make sure that you will never have to take a spec of responsibility ever again. If you truly want to be my floret then I will treat you like that. When the moratorium ends, and you become mine legally you won’t even notice a distinction. But is that what you want?” Cleo felt something in her throat, once again she was being given the opportunity…
She wanted to say yes, she had to say yes, but what she wanted….she could not allow herself that, it would only lead to disaster, she had to say yes, she had to….Cleo’s throat tightened “I…want…I want to…help….” Why? Why did she still want this? After all of what had happened, why did she still want to help?
Mertha smiled, stood up, walked over, and picked her up into her vines “then I think you should do that.” What?.....no, that made no sense….she couldn’t.
Cleo felt so small in Mertha’s arms “what do you mean?.... I can’t do that, I’m too scared…I can’t take on that responsibility.” How could Mertha even suggest it?
Mertha smiled warmly “who said anything about you having responsibility? Perhaps if you behave well I will let you eat food yourself, but that is as far as I will go.” What? But Mertha just said she should help, helping meant work, work meant power and power was responsibility.
Cleo almost instinctively buried herself a bit deep into Mertha’s embrace “I…I don’t understand..” Mertha began petting her lightly
The affini sounded remarkably confident “You always try to take responsibility for everyone else, this time I am taking responsibility for you. A little while ago you claim that you have responsibility because you were on the top, but you’re not that anymore, now are you?” Mertha’s words were making a bit more sense now, but Cleo was still confused.
She stammered a bit “but...you don’t have any power over me…it is not the same.” The grip around her suddenly got far tighter.
Mertha’s eyes glinted with an amused predatory light “what a silly misconception. you have argued for becoming my property, you are safely entwined in my vines and we both know..” Mertha’s eyes flashed for a brief moment “..that I can make you do anything I want.” Cleo swallowed as the eyes took up her entire vision. Mertha was right, she was completely powerless against her.
Mertha stroked over her cheek with a vine “I knew you would understand. This time you will help, not because you have to or need to, but because I am asking you to do so. If you want I can even order you.” Cleo had no way of moving or avoiding Mertha’s gaze, she was trapped.
Cleo still didn’t understand “why? Why do you want me to do this?” Mertha’s smile saddened somewhat.
Her affini’s eyes were filled with memories of the past “Before I met you, I was directionless. I would go from project to project with no real purpose or knowledge of what I wanted. I embarked on the Agraria thinking that I would find something, most likely a floret, to give me some greater purpose than momentary satisfaction. 2 years later and I still had not found it, none of the sophonts seemed right for me, and none of my projects gave me that drive I really wanted.” That matched with what Serla had told her….
Mertha’s smiled more genuinely “then we received your invitation for negotiations and on another whim, I decided to explore that direction as well. When I arrived, I did not expect much, but then I met you. I have never seen anyone with more determination, more dedication, or stronger will than you. not amongst humans nor affini, you looked like you were ready to take on the entire world alone if you had to. I will admit I was inspired, you made me want to try harder, stay more dedicated, and not let myself be driven away by the first sign of pressure or difficulty.” There was warmth in the rhythm coming from Mertha.
Mertha’s vines tightened protectively again “and even when you were here you have always kept that passion, even while on class-J. So, if you have given me that drive and purpose, then how can I allow you to lose yours? I know that right now that passion seems scary, but it is such a large and wonderful part of you. It will take time to regain confidence, to trust that ambition inside you again, but if you give up now…I don’t know if it will ever return…and I can’t allow that to happen.” Cleo grabbed onto a vine and held it tightly, more tears flowed down her cheeks.
She had to make sure “if I do something bad, or try to hold on after, or –“ Mertha stopped her with a vine over her lips.
Cleo looked into her caring eyes “I won’t allow anything bad to happen. You just focus on your work, and I will be with you every step of the way. Do you trust me to do that?” Cleo nodded as she buried her head into her affini’s vines.
She knew her voice was muffled but that Mertha would hear her nonetheless “okay, I will help…we don’t have a lot of time but…is it okay if I just stay here for a moment.” Mertha closed the vines around her and engulfed her in a cozy cocoon.
The voice and the biorhythm were so calming “of course my little kitten, stay as long as you like.”
Trexal looked over the documents and finally felt the anxiety that had rooted itself in their core begin to loosen its hold. The situation after the attack was stabilizing, Cleo’s plans had again worked wonders and those horrible casualty number reports became fewer and fewer.
The resistant humans were still there, but they would not have the capability for another such attack. The protests were still many and large, but the garrison could contain the worst of it. The Terran feral fleet was still raiding and bombarding certain parts of the sector, but the scout ships were stopping the worst of it. In just a few days the Innax would arrive, and the nightmare would be over.
Perhaps they could go home for the night. It was getting late, and their poor floret had been left alone for far too long these last days. The daycare was something, but they knew that it was no replacement for an owner. Then there was a knock on the door, had they forgotten an appointment or a meeting?
They could not really remember but it would hopefully not take too long <come in.> The door opened and Mertha walked in….dirt. Mertha had every right to be angry at them, there was no good excuse for what they had done to that poor human.
Mertha sat down without a word and unfurled a few of her vines, revealing Cleo. The sophonts' eyes were missing that determined spark they had always had, she looked tiny and frail. Guilt expanded and grew within their core, how could they have let this happen? “Hi, Cleo….I’m sorry for -“
Cleo dismissed the apology with a wave of her hand “I don’t agree or need your apology. I would have done the same, or much worse in your situation. That is not why I am here.” Trexal was confused, they looked up at Mertha.
There was a brief awkward silence “why are you here? Whatever you need I will help with, I promise that.” Perhaps Cleo and Mertha wanted leeway from the floret moratorium.
Cleo looked up at Mertha for a second before returning their gaze to them “I want to help.” Her words were a bit hesitant.
Trexal did not know what to say for a moment, they collected themselves “that won’t be necessary, we have the situation under control. The enemy doesn't have the resources to attack again and the Innax will arrive in four days. Your help has been extremely beneficial, but you don’t have to do this.” The human frowned, she did not look convinced.
Cleo’s eyes hardened a bit “what do you think will happen when the people fighting you on Centhia realizehat the Innax is about to arrive?” The question sounded more rhetorical than anything.
Trexal suddenly felt a bit unsure about the answer “we assume they will surrender in short order, that is at least the pattern we have seen so far. Humans may be stubborn but when faced with imminent and certain defeat, most of you become quite complaisant.” There was a twitch in Cleo’s mouth.
The human frowned “this is not Terra, surrender is not going to be the norm. Centhia is not conditioned by millennia of culture and norms, the people here are as human as you will ever find. When they know that they can’t win, they will grow desperate. The desperation will lead them to attack, not with strategy or goals, but because that is the only option they have left. Like cornered animals, they will fight, struggle and then they will lose…but millions more will die before the guns go silent.” The anxiety returned to their core with renewed strength.
Cleo spoke with such conviction “are you sure?” Trexal did not want it to be true, could it not just be over already?
Cleo seemed to look far away for a moment, then their eyes snapped back “yes, I am sure. I have seen it before and I myself should be enough proof. We need to destroy them before they learn that the Innax arrives, I give us two days.” Only two days?
Trexal remembered the reports from the last attack, they could not allow that to happen again but “the enemy is hiding, or heavily entrenched…I don’t see how we can dismantle them in that amount of time.” For a second Trexal saw a spark bloom in Cleo’s eyes.
The human’s words were calculating “you are right, a full-on attack won't work. That is why we need to draw them out. They are already beginning to grow desperate, they can feel the noose tightening around them. This is the moment we provide them with the most dangerous of emotions: hope.” Mertha took out a folder of documents and put them on the desk.
Trexal reached out but hesitated, then retracted their arm “you have done more than enough already, you don’t have to do this.” They did not understand why Mertha had allowed it, but they would not use Cleo again.
To their surprise, it was Mertha who answered “no, she does not need to do this, she is doing so because I asked her to.” Trexal was dumbfounded….what was that supposed to mean? They looked over at Cleo, she nodded approvingly.
Trexal picked up the folder and began to read through it….oh…..oh! This plan was risky, dangerous, and bold. They looked up at Cleo “This plan is a serious gamble, and you are asking for a lot. Direct communication with the bureaucracy, the garrison, the defensive fleet, and even the shadow division. How can I justify giving you that?” The emergency council would never accept it.
Again, it was Mertha who answered “it is the only way for her plan to work, going through us will be too slow. I will be with her at all times, make sure she behaves and that she is in good health. I take full responsibility for this.” Trexal hesitated, then looked over the plan once more. The emergency council might never agree to this, but luckily they were still the captain.
There was only one real question left “are you sure this will work?” Cleo shifted a bit in Mertha’s vines.
The human looked uncomfortable. “I would not make a plan that I don’t think would work, but I have made too many errors in the past for my judgment to be deemed reliable. The choice is up to you, not me.” Trexal looked down at the plan again….it would work, it had to.
Trexal looked up at the human “it will work, you will have what you need in your office within the hour. Tell me if there is anything more you need.” They would not accept another catastrophe, not while they were still captain.
Cleo’s eyes sparked once more and this time it remained. It was not the fire that the eyes had once possessed, but the embers were there “Good, hopefully, we won't regret this later. Now I should get to work, I have one last match to win.” Mertha then carried Cleo out of the room and the door closed behind them.
Trexal looked at the plans…they had a lot to do, there would not be time for going home before this was over.