Cleo tried to swat the vines away with an absent-minded hand “please, I have work to do...” Her efforts were proven futile as the vines, undeterred, began ruffling her hair and scratching her under the chin. She tried to focus on the document but the combination of hair being ruffled in front of her vision and the far too blissful sensations made it nigh impossible.
She glared up at the two affini that were pestering her “at the very least wait until lunch, or I will put you on the blacklist.” She threateningly tapped the paper with four affini names written on it.
The two affini, who she embarrassingly could not recall the name of right now, backed off slightly and their vines retracted “awwww, are you sure?” Did these plants have no sense of perspective?
Cleo made her voice a bit firmer “I have work to do, and I know for certain that both of you do too. We have a backlog longer than the range of a horse’s railguns.” She sighed and looked at the clock on the wall. “Lunch is in 1 hour, you can wait that long.” There was a vine moving to pet her from behind, without looking she intercepted it with her left hand “that goes for you as well, Chaeno.” The large vine that she had uselessly swatted against retracted.
The huge affini that she had made help her the first day had somehow also been the one to sit right behind her in the office, they sounded slightly disappointed “oh, I was just wondering if you needed some help with that form, you are taking longer than usual” And help for her, meant Chaeno could pet her in the meantime, she knew what the affini was after.
Cleo let a bit of frustration into her voice “the form is not the problem. I would be done already if I was not interrupted every 5 minutes.” Chaeno chuckled a bit, and Cleo returned her gaze to the documents she was working on.
It was another ‘establishing of pet café’ application, a 55-paper behemoth of a form. It was the second one she had done today and, from the document code, the 73rd the bureaucracy had received this week. The number of reports, provisions, regulations and general information that the form required was very extensive. If the affini were serious about one thing above all else, it was the wellbeing of their sophonts.
Each form also contained a list of the sophonts to be transferred to the facility, their health and mental state described in agonizingly cutesy language. Making sure that everything was right and up to code was still a pleasing task, though signing off on each of the to-be domesticated human transfers gave her slight flashbacks to the liquidation lists she had signed before.
The form also reminded her of the precarious situation she was in. When the Innax had reinforced the beleaguered force of 1.2 million with its 543 million affini, the affini shortage had effectively disappeared. Some odd 100 million had already moved over to the Agraria and gotten the ship back to some semblance of normalcy. This might be good for the sector but had an unpredicted effect on her.
The Innax had come straight from core affini space and by her estimates only 0.3% of the crew had florets. This was helpful in a strategic sense as there were soon many florets that would need owners, but as the floret moratorium was still in effect….The affini shortage had developed into a floret shortage. The ship was in essence filled with touch starved affini in desperate need of a sophont to cuddle, and the bureaucracy was the location with both the highest density of affini and the lowest density of florets
The compact may have destroyed capitalism, but supply and demand were a constant beyond that wretched system. So here she was, facing overwhelming demand as the only supply available. Cleo raised her sight to the numerous small gifts that affini had put on her desk, it was her 3rd day working here and already it was crowding her workspace. A year ago, she had struggled to survive assassins, now she was struggling to survive affini affection, the universe had a strange sense of humor.
Cleo returned her focus to the form and for once she was not interrupted before the documents could be fully processed. One thing bothered her, what happened if a human did not get adopted? Based on the archives, the glorious affini archives, this was a very real possibility. Long periods of class-J might not be damaging but could have a serious impact on mental patterns, the best case was adoption in the first 3 months. Perhaps she could develop a reform that would rotate unadopted sophonts to new cafés so that the likelihood of adoption increased….it might help but she was not here to do that, just for the simple pleasure of bureaucracy…no responsibility…
Cleo pushed the finished documents over to the left side of the desk and looked over the work yet to be processed, there was not nearly enough to last the rest of the day. She was only allowed five hours of work, with the lunch break taking up 30 minutes of that time. Despite this, she had to pace herself to have enough documents to fill by the end, Hepatica was giving her too little work. It was not that she did any less work than the affini around her, especially considering they worked for two to four hours longer each day, but she could do more.
Each document was necessary in fulfilling the needs and requirements of the people in the sector. If she managed to get elected to a supervisory position, then she could control how much work she could do and have time to write reforms. Sure, it would require a bit more time, and her independence, but if she could help more people was that not a small sacrifice in comparison? As the plans to accomplish this feat began to develop she felt the embers of ambition in her heart begin to ignite.
No, no! That was not why she was here! Cleo swatted the thoughts and plans away, she was done with that kind of thinking….but…no. She was here because it was fulfilling to process these documents, not any other reason. Sure, she could help more people if she did….no, the affini got that handled, it was not her responsibility…not her responsibility. The fire died down a bit, returning to the state of simmering embers….The threat of the fire blazing out of her control still lingered in her mind. Why could she just not be content?
It was the fifth day of her ‘trial’ of being Mertha’s floret, and the results were so far quite conclusive: she liked it, a lot. It was not a massive change from how mistress had treated her before, but not having to make any decisions at all was better than she had anticipated. If she was to make an honest consideration, then the answer was yes, she wanted to be Mertha’s floret. She had been ready to talk to Mertha about domestication at least half a dozen times these last days…but each time something stopped her.
Each time she felt ready to make that final choice the fire began to whisper its justifications: Was it not selfish to give up the struggle? Was she ready to give up the opportunities that independence gave her? There were always more people to save, more ways to help…Was she ready to abandon that responsibility to others?
She had ended The Game barely over a week ago, and already her hands tingle at the possibility of what she could do if she just had a bit more power, did a bit more work. The flame in her heart wanted more, it craved to burn brightly once again. Cleo could not allow that, too many had died and suffered because of that, herself included. She forced those thoughts down, tried to curtail those impulses….but they would not go away.
Mertha might have a collar around her neck, but ambition had steered her mind for so long. Worse, the two powers that wanted to dominate her life pulled in completely opposite directions, she would have to discard one. It was an obvious choice, the facts and data were clear as polished neo-steel, domestication was the best alternative. So why, by the stars, did she not manage to ask Mertha? In three days the committee would make their decision, perhaps she would not have to.
Cleo shook her head and went back to work, letting the documents distract her until it was time for lunch. Chaeno moved with her to the cafeteria “would you like for me to follow you home today? I heard what happened last time.” Cleo felt a blush spread in her cheeks.
Two days ago, she had managed to fall asleep on the tram heading home. She woke on the other side of the ship a few hours later and had to wait with one of the operators until Mertha came and brought her home…Mistress had made her spend most of yesterday in a submissive stupor, drilling the concept that she was a ‘sleepy kitten’ into her mind.
Cleo composed herself “no, I will be fine.” If she was shown to be incapable of taking care of herself then would anyone ever trust her with something important again…and she wanted to be in charge of something important in the future, at least that is what the flame told her.
They arrived at the cafeteria, her first time here she had just sat down alone at one of the single tables, she had not been alone for long. Today however she sat down at one of the large circular tables that no one else was sitting at, yet. Cleo opened her purse and took out the lunch Mertha had made for her. She would have been satisfied with something compiled, but mistress did not accept that sentiment.
By the time she had unpacked her lunch and was ready to eat the table was suspiciously full, nine affini in total were stealing glances at her. Chaeno had of course sat down beside her, Cleo gave a small affirmative nod and braced herself just in time for the affini to begin giving her pets. An untold number of vines joined in the petting while countless compliments, cooking, and aww’ing drowned out most other sounds.
Eating while being so mercilessly petted was hard, but manageable. The main struggle was to not make any cute noises, that would only galvanize the affini further. None of the affection was as good as what mistress provided…but it was not half bad, especially considering she had grown much more accustomed and perhaps a bit dependent on both physical and verbal affection. She let her mind drift a bit and one vine managed to find that one spot on the back of her neck, she did not manage to stop herself and made a soft mewling sound.
Chaeno cooed “awwww, do you like that…oh yes you do! Yes you do!” the scratches on the spot were intensifying, she could feel her mind wanting to surrender to the vines. She had to keep focused, the break was soon over and then she had work to do…why did it feel so good?….perhaps just a bit longer. She began to lean against the giant bark-covered affini, then suddenly a *pling* came from her purse. The sudden interruption brought her mind into focus again.
She waved the vines away like they were flies “just a minute, I have to read this.” She took up the data pad and read the message, it was from Hepatica.
[Purplebloom]: hi Cleo, I would like for you to come to my office as soon as you have the time. Hope you are having a great day!
Strange, well there was no time like the present “sorry, I have to leave.” As she packed away her data pad she tried to ignore the disappointed biorhythms washing over her. Her hair was ruffled one last time before she slipped away and towards the office.
What did Hepatica want to talk about? hopefully, it was nothing too serious. Still, a bit lost in thought, she rounded a corner and hit the soft wall of an affini moving in the other direction. She fell and felt a slight dull pain as she hit the ground, the affini reacted immediately “oh I am so sorry, I did not see….” There was something unpleasantly familiar about the voice, Cleo brushed a few pink petals out of her face and looked up.
Serrulata, the affini who had led the committee hearing was standing over her “oh, it’s you.” Cleo stood up and prepared to move on, just looking at the affini brought up negative emotions.
Serrulata made a minor move to block her from passing, the pink petaled affini looked wracked with guilt “please…could we talk for a bit.” Serrulata had given her an opening to press past her….
Cleo stopped and sighed “what is it?” She did not try to hide her unsatisfied tone.
Serrulata smiled slightly, but the guilt undercut it “thank you, I understand that you don’t want to talk to me…I am profusely sorry for how I treated you during the committee evaluation. It was far from proper procedure and more unpleasant than it had any right to be. All of that was a result of my actions, I am sorry you had to experience that.” Another affini apology, great….
Cleo frowned a bit “it might not have been the most pleasant experience in my life, but I don’t disagree with the decision you came to, I am a threat.” It was the truth, the fire only needed to blaze hot, and she would be able to justify anything.
Serrulata's expression changed to deeply concerned “I do not think you are a threat, not anymore. I am deeply sorry if my actions have led you to that conclusion…..I hope the new committee will agree that you can live independently” there was an awkward pause as the affini saw her collar “…if that is what you wish.” Cleo remembered how Serrulata had looked at her during the meeting…
She looked up at the affini “your floret, the one I hurt. Are they okay?” Serrulata vines moved a bit in surprise.
The corridor felt very quiet “who told you?” The pink affini was somewhere between shocked and baffled.
She had assumed right, a bit of guilt weighed on her heart “no one, it was the only logical explanation. Are they fine?” Cleo repeated the question, she needed to know.
Serrulata smiled a bit reassuringly “yes she is….That does not excuse what I did, not in any way. I should have removed myself from the committee as soon as I read the documents.” Affini condescension was irritating, affini apologies were the worst. Their usual arrogance allowed for such vast displays of regret for even minor mistakes, it only served to make her feel worse.
At least one of the people she had hurt were in safe vines now “good, take care of her. As for your apology…” There was only one choice: “I forgive you.” Serrulata looked even more surprised, but before the affini could deny it Cleo explained “if I can’t forgive you for this one mistake, then how will I justify forgiving myself for all the ones I have made? Just swallow your damn affini pride and accept it.” She made sure to take a few calming and deep breaths.
Serrulata nodded, there was relief and a bit of worry in her voice “I understand, thank you. I am certain that my darling petal would forgive you as well.” Cleo felt a few tears well up in her eyes, part of her wanted to believe Serrulata was lying, but that was just the part trying to hold onto the guilt for some self-destructive purpose.
She dried away the tears “thanks…that means a lot. I need to go to a meeting, perhaps we will talk again soon.” The affini moved to the side and gave her the space to pass. Cleo dried a few more tears as she walked towards the office, forgiveness was harder to accept than anticipated.
After collecting herself, Cleo knocked on the door to Hepatica’s office. The affini on the other side of the door sounded happy “come in!” If Hepatica just brought her here to ask for cuddles they were going on the blacklist. She entered….Trexal was standing in the office “what are you doing here?” The defensive snarl left her lips, she was supposed to be done.
Hepatica looked very confused “you two know each other?” Cleo and Trexal locked eyes for a moment, the captain was looking nervous. The fire began to grasp at this possible opportunity, but she stomped it down, she was done.
Trexal looked at Hepatica and smiled “I have pet sit her a few times, Mertha asked me to take her home.” The lie caught her a bit off guard, what was Trexal up to? What did they want?
Cleo nodded “yeah, sure, I remember. Shall we go?” they bid a slightly befuddled Hepatica goodbye and walked out of the office.
Trexal was moving fast, and Cleo held pace “good job on the lying part, perhaps affini truly can learn some new tricks.” They were moving towards the rail station.
Trexal chuckled a bit, almost sounding proud “thank you, this environment and the files you have left me has certainly had its influence. I don’t think I will ever be as good as you, nice collar by the way.” Cleo felt a great sense of reluctant pride, it was a very nice collar.
They embarked onto one of the rail lines that she had never ridden on before “thanks…” She looked around, they were alone in the tram “what do you want? I told you that I retired, you are not allowed to let me help.” Even letting the captain ask her would be a step too far, the flame needed to stay down.
Trexal also lost their fake smile “it is not that, someone wants to talk with you.” someone? Cleo raised an eyebrow. Trexal sighed “the captain of the Innax, Hyacynthia Whitebloom.” That was not good, not at all.
Cleo looked irritated up at Trexal “why? Why do they want to speak with the lowly secretary to a man soon to be pronounced dead?” Unless of course, the forgery had not held up to scrutiny…. “I did not give you this sector in exchange for one faulty forgery.” It could not collapse here, not now…
The blue flowers on the affini wilted a bit “I don’t know why, most likely she just wants to inspect you and make sure that you are not a threat. The forgery is still perfectly valid, you are safe….as long as this goes well.” The tram stopped, and they disembarked.
As they stepped out the gravity from the rings was replaced with microgravity, and several huge and smaller affini ships were stationed in the massive docking bay. Cleo felt a bit nervous, this would be the first time she left the Agraria since she was taken here, and it would be the furthest away from Mertha she had been in a very long time.
She steeled herself “how long will this take? If I am not home in about two and a half hours, Mertha will get anxious. I promise you that neither of us wants that.” The tram accident had already solidified that experience.
Trexal nodded, a bit of fear in their vines “I very much agree, though I can not say for certain. I have a shuttle waiting.” The affini led her to one of the small affini shuttles that looked ready to leave. After embarking, the vessel shook lightly as it moved up and then out of the Agraria.
Cleo had flown a few times before, but she mostly preferred life on solid ground, something the Agraria fell under in her consideration. At least the affini vessel was far gentler and more comfortable than the horrid Terran boxes of wielded metal. She sat down and looked out one of the windows, the Innax loomed like a leviathan before them, great vines entangling the huge command ship.
She looked back to Trexal “who is she? This Hyacynthia.” Best to know what she was up against.
Trexal looked out of the window for a moment as well “A famous Admiral and captain, she is ancient, even by our standards. I met her a few times, three blooms ago, she struck me then as rather enigmatic.” So, an old affini, with possibly several thousand years of domestication experience, and she wanted to talk with her…wonderful.
The rest of the trip passed by in silence, the list of plans piled up but few of them were useful. Hopefully, the ancient one would not deem her worthy of being a threat and let her go home to mistress. Mistress was also the best fallback card, domestication was not a real threat to her at this point. As long as this affini played by the rules like the others, something about Trexal’s nervous movements made her doubt that.
They finally entered one of the massive docking bays of the Innax, on the way in she saw the spectacularly huge vines that coated the ship, where was that coming from? The shuttle landed and they disembarked, Trexal at least seemed to know where to go. There was an almost inaudible song in the air, was someone playing music? Her attention was ripped towards the sprawling habitation rings in front of her.
The Innax was far larger than the Agraria, something that felt impossible to put into proper words. She had sometimes wondered how the affini could transport so many personnel at once, but this certainly answered that question, humanity had not stood a chance.
The huge vines she had seen on the inside also spread on the inside, with a thousand smaller vines and branches splitting off. In some ways, it looked like the veins of a huge creature or perhaps a corruption spreading over the ship. All of the huge and smaller vines seemed to originate from one single point, a huge overgrown structure in the back portion of the ship.
They got on another tram, it moved towards the heart of the plant growth. There was something unsettling “what is with the huge vines?” The question made Trexal shiver a bit.
The captain of the Agraria sounded determined but slightly afraid “it is her.” it took a moment for Cleo to understand what they were implying….an affini of that size, how was it even possible? It felt far less like she was about to talk to a person and more like she was about to be sacrificed to some eldritch creature.
The tram stopped at the last station, at this point all the other affini had already gotten off. As they disembarked the tram Cleo felt something in the air, a sort of rhythm or song. She recognized that she had heard it at the docking bay, but then only as a faint suggestion. Here, outside the overgrown structure, the song was almost audible. In some ways, it reminded her of Mertha’s biorhythm, but only in how she observed it, in content, they were completely different.
Mertha’s song was beautiful and loving, soft and caring, with the most comfortable rhythm that had ever existed. If she concentrated she could still hear her music like it had ingrained itself in her being.
This song was far different, it was primal, powerful, and almost overwhelming. The rhythm underneath it was ancient, Cleo knew somehow that it was older than she would ever fully understand. That was not all, it was like the song could see and analyze her, its rhythm hit against her senses like some sort of echolocation. For some reason, the song filled her with a sense of familiarity.
One of the closest doors to the structure opened, inside was a long corridor, overgrown with plants. The song wanted her to enter. It was intrigued by her, and she was intrigued by it in return. Trexal stopped “I think I better stay out here, good luck.” Cleo did not fully care what the frightened captain thought or did, she needed to speak with this song.
As soon as she stepped beyond the threshold of the door it closed behind her, despite being trapped she did not feel any scared. The plant growth in the corridor was thick and at first, she questioned how she was even supposed to traverse it, then the most solid of the plant growth moved slightly aside allowing her passage. A long line of white flowers began to bloom along the wall, forming a lead for her to follow. She could feel the music even stronger here, it wanted her to go deeper.
Cleo did not hesitate before walking forward, for a moment she regretted not having a song of her own. If she did, they might be able to communicate without the need for clumsy words. A voice rang out from all around her “what an interesting Terran that has entered my garden.” The voice was smooth, speaking with a confidence born of millennia. It was also remarkably beautiful in a way an eldritch creature of this magnitude was not supposed to be.
Cleo felt her mind clear “I am not a Terran, I am human.” The music gained another hint of intrigue, real surprise must be beyond it.
The voice flowed through the corridor again “your species is from Terra, is it not? Why are you not a Terran?” Cleo thought about her response while walking through the empty corridors, following the white flowers.
She stopped for a moment “Terra might be where our species was first born but I am not from there, I am from Centhia.” She waited for Hyacynthia’s response.
The voice sounded a bit amused “so would you not be a ‘Centhian’ then? Is the planet you were born on the creator of the distinction?” A Chentian…what a silly idea made by silly nationalists.
Cleo moved her hand across one of the vines coiling through the corridor “Terra has clouded human behavior with so much history, rules, order, and an unaching structure. Centhia is the fresh face of humanity, the purest and most revealing showcase of our nature. Centhia is the most human place in the galaxy.” Hyacynthia took a bit of time to consider her answer.
There was something about the music that she recognized, though she could not fully place it, at least not yet. Suddenly a few vines barred her path “what is this human nature that you speak of?” a few large vines blocked the path back, the ancient one demanded an answer.
Something Cleo was more than happy to give “some say that it is greed, some say that it is labor, some claim love or a search for happiness. All those explanations are just circling the truth. Humans and I mean all humans, burn for control.” There was a slight discord in the music
Cleo smiled a bit “yes, fire. Nothing symbolizes humans better than fire. It was the first element we learned how to control and from the very first spark we have loved fire. With fire we could have warmth, comfort, community, safety….we could have control.” The fire in her own heart began to grow, she did not stop or hamper it this time.
Cleo looked around at the corridor like she expected to meet the gaze of the voice “With the fire in our hands and in our hearts we conquered the planet and dominated it. With fire in our factories and in our minds we grew many and changed the very world we lived on to suit our wishes. With fire in our engines and in our eyes, we reached for the stars and grasped them. Before we had put one stone on top of another we had the fire to guide us, and we have followed it to this day.” A few vines began to move towards her.
There was a threatening tone to the voice “Fire burns and destroys, even those who carry it. If you are right, then perhaps we should put out this flame in humanity for all our benefit.” The vision from her dream returned, she flinched only for a moment.
Cleo stood her ground “you are right, fire does destroy, and humanity has never managed to resist letting it burn brighter. We used every part of our home world to fuel the fire, we let the fire char whole continents in warfare, and even in peacetime we let the fire consume each other and ourselves. But without it, we would still be stuck in caves, cold and hungry.” The vines were getting dangerously close to her at this point.
The flowers in the corridor were all in bloom, she had the ancient one’s full attention “so after all the damage that your hunger for control has caused, you still justify it?” Whether the Hyacynthia was referring to humanity as a whole or her as an individual was hard to know, perhaps it was both.
Cleo gazed into one of the white flowers nearby, it was beautiful “I don’t know, I do not think it is for me to decide. All I know is that the fire, even at its most subdued, is a part of me and my species.” A question she had long pondered but never given any credence to came into the forefront of her mind “But you affini do not have the fire, so why are you here? What has driven your people to conquer 16 galaxies?” A normal affini might have given her some flimsy answer about compassion, Hyacynthia would not.
The vines retracted and the path opened once again, she wanted her to move further in. Cleo accepted the offer and continued to follow the trail of flowers, a bit later Hyacynthia spoke with a bit of satisfaction in her voice “do you know what the Everbloom is?” Even the ancient affini spoke of the Everbloom with reverence.
Cleo stopped “I have heard it mentioned, is it some sort of deity? You affini never struck me as the spiritual type.” The music was loud now, like a dangerous and overwhelming melody that seeped into her bones.
Hyacynthia spoke, but now in affini <The Everbloom is not a deity, but it is the birthplace of our race. In my early blooms, all affini came from the Everbloom, but even the many affini who are created outside it share its melody. That song is our nature; to love, to protect, to spread our affection as far as it can.> The affini word for love was far deeper in its purpose than the human equivalent. it was not just a sign of affection, it was the promise of safety, happiness, fulfillment, and being valued.
The further inn Cleo walked the louder the song became, she focused on it and closed her eyes. There was something familiar with it, something she had heard from every affini. A common thread, filled with the aspects of the Everbloom. It might manifest differently in each affini, the thread woven into their rhythm and melody in different ways. But it was the same, a common strain from something predating any human civilization by at least a hundred thousand years, something even more ancient than Hyacynthia.
Cleo opened her eyes and pushed the music out of her mind “We humans will fight, often to the death, to defend our flame against others that might threaten it. And when we bring our flames together to create an even greater fire that fighting turns to war. I have always wondered, have you affini ever fought?” Had there ever been a great affini civil war? Was it just luck that the ideology that had won was benevolent instead of malicious?
The words of the ancient one were filled with pity <unlike you humans who are so often alone, we affini always have the Everbloom. Its song is unifying and universal, how could we ever justify attacking each other when there are so many creatures that need help?> Cleo did not fully believe that no affini was alone, but perhaps they did have a greater unity than humanity could hope to achieve.
The flowers lead to an elevator that opened up before her “Is that why you created the implants? To make sure that no sophont was alone? To make yourselves an extension of the <Everbloom>? At least fulfilling the same purpose.” She slipped into affini almost without noticing, the affini name for the Everbloom was far more fitting. The implant made perfect sense for a people who resisted the cold and lonely nature of the universe in all they did.
As the elevator moved down the entire structure began to shake, it sounded like…laughter <you truly are an interesting, brave little human. Even before we had the technology for the Haustoric Implants was developed we connected with the beeple of our home world, to as you say, make sure they were never alone.> The elevator stopped and Cleo walked out, she was in a huge circular chamber.
In the middle, taking up almost all space was a huge round cocoon of vines and white flowers. The song was so strong here, that it was almost overwhelming. Cleo allowed it to pass through her, the flame in her heart burned just as strong. There was a light glowing from within the massive cocoon, and it was where the song came from as well.
The walls of the room were massive windows into space, she could see Centhia floating in the void. Cleo chuckled a bit as she walked towards the window “in the end it is all about power, is it not?” she looked up at the cocoon, waiting for the ancient one to answer.
There was for the first time some slight confusion in the voice that engulfed her <Power? What do you mean? Explain.> for a second Cleo wondered if the affini would understand, but perhaps this was the only person who could.
Cleo looked out of the window “some people say that power corrupts, a foolish sentiment from people who have never wielded power. Power is just an extension of our wishes, our way of enforcing our will upon the world. That is all domestication is, the affini will enforced upon the universe.” The confusion in the song disappeared and was replaced by something different: Understanding.
Hyacynthia understood her <I believe you are right. With the power we possess, we have a responsibility to save you sophonts from yourselves, no matter how loud your protests. It is the right thing to do.> Cleo felt the sense of familiarity grow, how was this possible?
She smiled “I will not deny you your justification for enforcing your power, I have made my own and I do not wish to be a hypocrite. But beneath the justifications, beyond that ‘greater good’ or ‘lesser evil’, is it not gratifying?” Cleo felt her mind tingle with anticipation, surely this affini must have felt the same.
The song from the cocoon began to shift slightly, Hyacynthia was feeling the same as her <it can be gratifying…to change a place of chaos, pain and hurt into one of stability, joy, and love. Nothing could be more satisfying than that.> Mertha, Serla, Nora, all of them might claim they understood, but they could not. It was not their fault, some things one needed to experience to even begin to understand…for so long Cleo had been sure there were no one like her, she had been wrong.
Cleo pointed to the gray planet that shone in the void “have you ever domesticated an entire planet, an entire sector, alone?” She looked up to her left almost like she assumed Hyacynthia would be standing there.
Hyacynthia was all around her <no, we affini don’t do such things alone. I have had a lot of power over domestication campaigns, but I never worked alone….you have, how did it feel?> There was a legitimate curiosity in her voice, not of one inspecting something interesting as before, but rather one seeking knowledge from an equal.
How had it felt? Cleo breathed in deeply, the flame inside her blazed “wonderful…The entire planet, this entire sector has been shaped to my will. I domesticated this place before the Agraria even jumped into the system. The people, the culture, the society, and the very planet itself was formed by my fire. I brought order to where there had only been chaos, I brought prosperity to where there had only been poverty, I tried to save as many as I can because this planet was mine to control.” In some ways, it felt good to admit, being in power had been nice, almost intoxicating.
She looked straight ahead “You should try it sometime, to shape a whole planet to your will. If you do, a bit of advice, choose somewhere empty. Or else your vision might be compromised.” She could hear in the song that she had offered a tempting scenario.
Hyacynthia’s focus seemed to be dragged towards the urban planet below. Cleo had no idea how she knew this <most of your species do not have such an unrelenting ambition, they are far more docile. Why is your flame so strong?> Cleo swallowed, memories flashed by before she managed to focus on any single one.
She looked out into the void, away from the torch where she was born. “I don’t know when it started…perhaps when I lost control for the first time, perhaps it was the second or the third. Perhaps each moment where I saw suffering or suffered with no way to stop it, the flame burned a bit brighter. Then one day, I decided to feed it…fuel the flame, just for a bit.” How simple those days had been when some plagiarizing was the biggest of her concern.
If only it had stopped there “Then I did it again, and again, and each step that brought me more control, fanned the flame in my heart. It burned brighter and brighter until no other flame could challenge it. I always needed more, the fire was never content, it wanted to grow and expand, ever upwards and outwards. An office, a department, an institution, a planet, a sector! it would never have stopped….I gave so much to the flame that I almost burned up….” The luster of the moment had dissipated.
For a moment she saw her eyes reflected in the glass, her eyes held a blazing fire within them. The same fire that had done so much damage, the fire she could not be trusted with.
A vine was placed on her shoulder like a reassuring hand <I understand…the Everbloom’s love can also be overwhelming and consuming….> They shared the mutual understanding in silence for a while.
Cleo looked away from the window and towards the corridors leading away from the chamber “are you happy?” The entire structure almost seemed abandoned….empty and quiet, just like her office.
The affini sounded a bit surprised <My work is fulfilling and important, that is enough for me.> It almost sounded like a recording of herself.
She turned and looked straight at Hyacynthia “have you ever had any florets?” Cleo could already expect the answer.
Hyacynthia almost sounded a bit offended <I have lived for 76th blooms, I have never needed a floret. There is work to do a-> Cleo interrupted with her own thoughts.
“And who can be trusted to do that except for me? why should someone else have that burden?” The silence that followed proved her expectation to be right…
Cleo looked around the overgrown room, if she listened to her ambition and stayed independent….was this going to be her fate? Fighting some endless cause, continuing the struggle for a better universe forever. 76 blooms, it was longer than she could comprehend, how long would she fight? She looked at her reflection in the window, 16 galaxies would never be enough for her fire.
Hyacynthia sounded a bit…unsure <is that reasoning wrong? I have more experience than anyone else, the situation here alone is proof that I am needed. How can I step back if it will lead to more death and suffering? I have a moral responsibility.> Hyacynthia had probably not experienced her fear and guilt, but they both suffered from the same problem.
Cloe sat down onto the grass on the floor “I don’t know the answer….I thought that if I could remove myself from power, the responsibility and my ambition would disappear…I was wrong. But I can’t follow that ambition….or I will find some goal that will burn me to cinders once more. I owe the people who care about me…..and perhaps even myself, more than…’that’.” Maybe the solution was that simple, that the fire had to be extinguished.
A few vines from the ground began to dry tears she had not even noticed <you don’t need to hold onto that reasonability, you have done more than enough. You deserve to be happy and fulfilled for the rest of your life, I am sure your owner can find some-> Cleo swatted the comforting vines away.
It was like listening to herself “no, you do not get to give me an out, not unless you also take it. We are more alike than any human or affini outside this building. I might not be an affini, but how can I justify letting go if you, someone who has done this for millennia, cannot?” There was a long silence…..it was insane, how could someone who had worked for longer than she could comprehend still cling to the same reasoning she gave herself every moment of doubt.
Hyacynthia hummed a bit <we are quite alike…You said earlier that you did not want to be a hypocrite, I can share this sentiment…but> Cleo understood where she was going.
She laughed a bit “but we are the greatest hypocrites around, are we not? Deciding by some self-imposed standard created by our own arrogance that we, and no one else, should do what needs to be done.” They shared the humor of the twisted joke for a bit.
The ancient one made white flowers bloom around her <just like you, I can’t justify letting go if you, a fragile soon-to-be floret, cannot.> so they were at an impasse, unless…
Cleo stood up “so, either we both let go, or neither of us does.” Hyacynthia had lived for far longer than human civilization, she had probably been an admiral before humans began with agriculture. She herself was 27…or perhaps 28, it was hard to keep track of time. Bottom line, Hyacynthia gave up far more than she could even begin to comprehend….
There was a brief tension in the air <I will have to finish what I started here, but after that, I might try out your idea. You on the other vine should talk to that affini who clearly loves you so much.> Cleo breathed in and out a single round.
She reached out an open hand “I think I can accept those terms.” A vine broke free from the cocoon and for a split second she could see the massive core, then the vine coiled around her hand, and they shook on it. Removing her ambition would be a sacrifice, but a small price for being allowed to be content.
The white flowers bloomed again and led her back to the elevator, the walk back was quiet except for the music from Hyacynthia still reverberating through the corridors. She had gotten used to it over the course of their talk and so feeling it lessen was almost disappointing.
She came to the place where Hyacynthia had stopped her, she paused. Was putting out the flame really the answer? She wanted to keep that ambition, despite all the evidence towards its removal being necessary. Mertha would not like it either, but she would understand that it was for the best.
Before she could move again, Hyacynthia's voice stopped her <I have thought about what you have told me…I think putting out the fire in humanity would be a mistake, taming it will be far better. As long as it is controlled fire can be very beautiful and the universe always needs more beauty.> A vine from the roof placed a white flower in her hair.
Cleo felt more tears run down her cheeks, and then she began to walk again. Soon she reached the door she had entered through, she turned around “thank you….I…” The words did not come to her as they usually did.
The song strengthened for just a moment, it was happy <thank you, brave little human. goodbye.> Cleo nodded and walked through the now open door.
The air outside seemed fresher than when she had entered. Trexal stood up from one of the seats at the tram station and came up to her, there was a nervous energy in their vines “how did it go?” Cleo decided she would not tell anyone about her conversation with Hyacynthia, they would not understand either way.
She smiled “Oh, it went well. Though I can see why you are afraid of her.” they began to move towards the tram.
Trexal seemed a bit bashful “I am not afraid, she is just a bit….alien.” The fake sun of the ship shone brightly, the rays felt warm on her skin.
Cleo laughed a bit “alien? I found her very relatable myself. Now we should get back before the affini you actually should fear, finds out you dragged me off the ship.” Trexal reacted with a shiver, Cleo hoped mistress would not be too inquisitive about what her day had contained.
A new plan formed in her mind as they rode on the tram “Trexal, I think I might need a few favors. There is something I need to arrange.”