“You’re wrong!” I yelled. “I’m telling you that’s a cow!”
“It’s a horse!”
“Ratio! Stars, why am I getting so heated over this? Look, you’re wrong, I’ve seen a horse before and it did not look like that.”
“The data disagrees,” Ratio started, her face flushed red and the corners of her mouth curled into an angry pout. “There are over 10 million articles that identify this creature…” She pressed her tablet and the screen swapped to another old black and white sketch of an animal, that I at least, believed was a cow; “is a horse. Look! It has a mane; a tail; 4 legs; you can ride it and it’s big enough for labour. It ticks all the boxes; ergo, it’s a horse.”
“We are not going back and forth with this. That creature is a cow, it was raised on farms aeons ago in a time before processed meat. Yes, it might tick the boxes, but that creature was also raised as livestock. Horses are not raised as livestock, they’re very rare and prized creatures.”
“That’s not what it says here.”
“Yeah! It says right here that when food shortages hit their peak old Terrans started turning to anything to sustain themselves; including horses.”
I grimaced. “I can think of more than a few people that would retch at that information.”
“Why?” Ratio asked.
“From what I’ve been told each horse costs more than an entire year’s tuition at the Royal Academy of Terra. Do you have any idea how much that is?”
“If I had to make an educated guess,” She paused and looked at me mischievously. “I’d guess free. On account of money not being a thing anymore.” She stuck her tongue out causing me to roll my eyes.
“That’s me!” She beamed.
“I still think you’re wrong regarding the cow,” I insisted.
“Mr horse you mean.”
Just as we were about to reignite the argument our attention was pulled by the presence of two vines brushing past our necks before coming to rest over our respective shoulders possessively. The both of us looked at Sya as she entered the living room, food in vine. Ratio gave a look of pure adoration. I, on the other hand, swore privately to myself as I attempted to remove the vines and wasn’t all that surprised to see two more take their place. I’m a sucker for patterns and decided to push the two vines off to see what would happen. Sure enough, they were replaced by three. I sighed to myself and made a mental note that prisoners on death row got more personal space than I did. Alas, starting tomorrow I would be on the road to freedom. For now, I had to put up with this and play my part as the good, dutiful floret.
Sya finished setting up the table and while I wouldn’t admit it, from here that food was looking really good. My stomach rumbled in anticipation and I felt my mouth water slightly. Usually, this wouldn’t be that uncommon, but there was an issue. Zeitha, aren’t you a robot now? How am I even hungry? Can robots get hungry? Well, they obviously can because you’re hungry and your stomach is rumbling. Why is your stomach rumbling? You don’t have any organic parts. Right? Stars! Do I still have organic parts? Maybe I’m not actually a robot? Gah! Affini science makes no sense! This body makes no sense!
I probably would have gone on but my thoughts were disturbed by a movement in my left peripheral as Ratio was scooped up into a series of cuddles and pats. Sya played with Ratio’s hair and then satisfied, looked down at me. I met her gaze defiantly which she seemed to take great amusement in.
“Go on then. Get it over with,” I demanded.
“Oh? Whatever could you be alluding to Darling?”
“I think that should be obvious,” I said, gesturing towards Ratio.
“Darling, if you’d like me to cuddle you all you need do is ask. I’d be more than delight-“
Sya’s face changed from her smug expression to one of surface-level annoyance. I panicked internally, not keen to repeat the events of earlier today.
“So-sorry,” I said, casting my eyes downwards as I began fidgeting with four of my tails nervously.
Uncomfortable seconds passed and I could feel her eyes boring into me, causing me to shrink further into myself. The silence was broken as I was scooped up into Sya’s hold as she started stroking the back of my head. “Apology accepted little one.”
“Error, I hate this so much,” I said as I buried my face into Sya.
“Yet just a moment ago you were casting your eyes down at the slightest sign of my displeasure,” Sya taunted. “And look at you now! So sweet and adorable ~!”
“That’s because you made-“
A small vine pressed itself against my lips, cutting me off. “Darling, none of that. I have accepted that it will take time to stop you from lying to yourself. However, I will not have you lie to me. Is that understood?” I took the vine still pressed against my lips as an indication not to speak, instead opting to nod my head. I was rewarded with another good girl and a head pat.
Error! Something needs to change here or I’m going to go insane. Yes, but what? What can we actually do? Thank you for that brain. I need answers, not more questions right now. Ugh… Food? Food sounds good.
Dinner was magnificent. The main course consisted of thin pancakes you filled from various filings. There were vegetables, meat and an assortment of garnishes. Once you finished filling the pancake you rolled it into a sort of wrap, dipping it into a sauce of your choice before partaking in your culinary masterpiece. I particularly had a fondness for the sweet caramel sauce. I had just finished my third piece before I decided to address my newest fixation.
“Sya?” I asked.
“Is that the appropriate manner to address me, darling?”
“No,” I sighed.
“Correct. Try again.”
“Miss,” I started, as I rolled my eyes. “I’ve been wondering, this body I’m trapped in is robotic, right? It looks robotic, but it doesn’t feel like it. Follow-up point; I can get hungry and eat, why is that?”
“It’s robotic, but I suspect your current understanding of what a robot is may be a bit primitive. Your body is capable of mimicking many of the functions of your old one, with the intent to reduce the disparity between the two as you slowly accustom yourself to the changes. Regretfully, I am not in a position to educate you on how this was achieved, as quite frankly, it’s outside of my skill set. As luck would have it, however, a friend of mine will be joining us shortly. They’ll be able to answer your queries far better than I can.”
“This friend, are they a subject expert on the matter?”
“I should think so!” Sya exclaimed between two quick laughs. “They’re the only sophont that knows your mind better than me. Your recovery and body are both results of their work.”
“What about Ratio? She’s been in my head, had access to my memories. I’m sure neither of you can compare to that.”
“Darling, Ratio isn’t the only sophont who has been inside your mind,” Sya expressed regretfully.
“That’s… a terrifying thought.”
“I’m not happy about it either, but we had no choice. Yours was an exceptional case.”
“Because you had to put me back together,” I said out loud. “Noted. How much did you see?”
“Almost everything. Some parts were permanently lost and a portion of your mind is currently dormant and didn’t take too kindly to being probed, but for the most part, I know you better than you know yourself.”
I looked down at my hands and found them clutched and shivering. It was bad enough to be physically inferior, but to have my mind exposed so openly… my weaknesses, my fears, all of it available to be targeted on a whim. Do I have anything left that could even be considered mine anymore?
Vines held my hands as another lifted my head. Sya’s mouth opened, but I was quicker. It wasn’t interrupting if she hadn’t started speaking. “If you know my mind better than me, does that mean you know what I’ll do before I do it?
I saw a fleeting spark of disapproval before she spoke. “No. I have an idea as to what you might do, but your mind is your own.”
“Except that it isn’t.”
“In what way Darling?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You tell me you error plant. Oh, would you look at that! I seem to be unable to say the word error. While we’re on the topic, what else have you done to me? How can I be sure you haven’t tampered with anything else!”
I blinked, once, twice, three times; each longer than the last. I noticed my peripherals move out of focus as my mind started to feel fuzzy. Not numb as was common when I disassociated, but light; as if things suddenly had less weight and I was happy to be in the moment. I felt myself starting to sway before I was pulled up and away from the table and into Sya’s embrace.
“I didn’t agree…” I slurred before a vine ran down my arm causing me to gasp and then giggle; driving my thoughts away.
Through my hazy vision, I could make out Ratio’s silhouette standing beside me. “Is she going to be, okay?”
“Of course, flower. It’s not unusual for new sophonts to panic at the sudden cultural shift; doubly so if they go straight to domestication. Her unique circumstances can’t be helping either, but I know in time she’ll find happiness. Will you continue to take care of her with me?”
“Of course! There’s nothing I want more.”
“The two of you are so precious. Come here~!” Ratio let out a surprised yelp before she drowned out my consciousness with the sound of whimpering and giggling, louder than my own.
My surroundings moved back into focus. It started with sound; two individuals discussing something in a language that I recognised as the Affini’s natural tongue. Then, feelings in my body began to die down. To begin with, I felt really good; vines wrapping around me forcing soft moans from my lips whenever they moved, as electricity ran throughout my body. Then, it died down into a null, almost sad experience, leaving me close to frustrated. The final sensation to return was my sight and I wasn’t surprised to find myself lying in Sya’s lap. I was a little surprised to find my hands entwined in Ratio’s who lay asleep beside me, but that one I didn’t mind as much.
“Look who’s finally awake.” Sya beamed.
I brought a hand to the brow of my nose and pinched it, helping to drive the last of my grogginess from my mind. “I did not consent to that,” I said.
“Article 3, section C; Xenodrugs will not be administered unless the Owner determines that in not doing so the floret poses a risk to herself or other sophonts and/or; the floret requests the use of Xenodrugs during the duration of this contract.” She stated.
“But I wasn’t posing a risk-“ I stopped, trying to recollect my thoughts.
“You were on the edge of another self-destructive fit. I categorise that as a risk to your mental health.” She indicated, pausing slightly. When I didn’t respond she continued. “Would you like to sit up?” I nodded and was slowly guided into a sitting position. As I took in my surroundings, I noticed another, smaller Affini; but still larger than myself, sitting opposite us on a separate couch. I couldn’t tell you why, but looking at them felt strange. I squinted at them and the best way I can describe how I was feeling is that I felt I was looking into their soul. Like the body was a front and I was looking at some invisible piece. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar to how I felt when I looked at Ratio.
“Cereus?” I asked in blind confusion.
The vines around me tightened slightly. “Zeitha, it’s rude-“
“It’s ok Everly, I don’t mind at all,” the newcomer interrupted.
My unease dropped instantly at Sya going uncharacteristically silent. I looked at Cereus, then to Sya; back to Cereus and finally Sya. “Everly?” I asked. Sya began to blush, causing Cereus to let out a warm laugh, seeming to take great delight in my comment and her reaction.
“That’s a sight you don’t see every day! The great Sya Everfell, flustered. What will the others think I wonder?” Cereus asked jokingly.
At this point, Sya’s bark surrounding her face had gone several shades darker and she was making a point of looking up and away from the both of us. I took this opportunity to probe for further information. “Is Everly’s reaction something of a rare occurrence?”
“It’s. She fronts frequently and has a reputation for being stern. Underneath the surface, however, she’s as soft as the rest of us. It reminds me of another sophont I was introduced to recently.” From the look on Cereus’ face, I didn’t need to ask who they were referring to.
Sya regained her composure and addressed the two of us. “You would do well to nip this discussion in the bud.”
My mouth started moving before I could stop it as I threw my hands wide in exaggeration. “Oh yes, Everly! Whatever you say, Yip!”
My hands stopped mid-motion, my eyes going wide. I brought my hands to my mouth and tried to speak. “Yip?” She had messed with my mind more! “Yip!”
“Speaking privileges revoked pet,” she said menacingly, her predatory smile back in full force. “As for you Cereus; you should know better.”
“Come now! A golden opportunity such as that. How could I pass it up?”
I continued yipping, trying to get Sya’s attention.
“You have something you want to say pet?”
“What was that? All I hear are adorable fox noises from my adorable fox floret.”
“Not with that tone. If you promise to behave, I’ll give you them back; but no more of your earlier attitude. Do I make myself clear?”
“Good girl. You should be able to speak again.”
“A, a. Testing, testing,” I said.
The two Affini looked at me and then at each other before they burst out laughing. I wasn’t particularly happy being made fun off and I could see from one of the nearby mirrors my hair was turning fiery red with little flames dancing at the ends. A single vine started rubbing my head while another pulled me closer to Sya’s core.
“I’m sorry darling. I’m not laughing at you to hurt your feelings; I’m laughing because that was one of the cutest things I have ever seen.”
“Agreed,” said Cereus.
I looked between the two of them trying to detect any hint that they were lying and came up short. My heart told me they were telling the truth and realising this the anger nesting in the pit of my stomach exploded into butterflies as I shrank into myself, my cheeks flushed. I looked at my hair and found it dancing in a symphony of pink and red, as the two rippled chaotically. I flushed deeper.
The two Affini sat there quietly as I regained my composure and I could see in Cereus’ eyes that they wanted to ask me something. I sat up straight and faced them.
“Zeitha. Earlier you called me Cereus, but I don’t believe I’ve ever introduced myself to you. Why did that name come to mind when you looked at me?”
I thought about it, but I couldn’t pin down why I felt the way I did.
“I’m not sure. I feel we’ve met and talked before, but I don’t know where and I don’t know when.”
“Interesting. These feelings, do they feel like your own, or do you think they might be someone else’s?”
A small pain made itself known to me as I felt like my mind was being squeezed. I focused, pushed it away and then returned my attention to Cereus. “I’m sorry, I simply don’t know.”
“That’s okay! It’s good that we talked about it. I’ll be checking in on you regularly and over time we may be able to figure out why you feel the way you do. How much has your Mistress told you about your recovery period?”
“She’s not my…” I sighed. “Not much.” I looked up expecting Sya to scold me or start talking or, something. Instead, she wore a passive smile and gently indicated for me to continue. “Sy- Miss, says that it was a very long process and that I had effectively shattered my mind between the organic and mechanic variances. An attempt was made to restore my original body, but the damage proved too much and, in the end, preservation became the main focus as you copied my mind from the body into a new medium. If that’s true it would imply that I’m a clone based on the original Zeitha’s memories, with the original dying once her body gave out. Is that right?”
"Not quite. While it's true the biological half of your mind passed away, the mechanical half was recovered safely; luckily containing much of your original mind."
“Mhm. You achieved that how exactly?”
"When you attempted to remove Ratio from your network the program couldn't discern between the original and the copy; in this case, you and Ratio. Therefore, the command acted on the system as a whole and started attacking and destroying elements in your shared mind. I happened to be monitoring your network at the time and noticing this, pulled Ratio out, leaving her mostly intact; I failed to realize it was affecting you at the same time. By the time we halted the command, it'd already taken its toll. It fed back into your biological mind destroying it enough to render it brain dead. But as luck would have it, a nearly exact copy of your mind and memories existed. After finishing Ratio's digitalization, she volunteered to link minds with you so we could transfer over the missing fragments of consciousness. Unfortunately, she was not a perfect copy and not everything could be restored but we did our best and here you are! One fully sapient sophont! Of course, during this process, we removed you, the digital hardware from your previous body, and placed you inside a new one. Currently, your old Terran hardware is integrating with the new platform under the supervision of my biological counterpart.”
"If I'm understanding this correctly, the part of me that exists is my network of brain implants, plugged into a device containing Ratio's data and memories; who in turn was a copy of the original me. Where both are slowly combining, similar to a brain in a jar?"
“You catch on quick!”
“A copy of a copy,” I said to myself quietly. “But! I! Am I even human anymore? Error! I’m not even me anymore! Or her? Or-!”
“Darling,” Sya said as she pulled me further into her and hugged me. “You’re still you. Some of your parts might be different now, but you’re still my adorable floret and the girl I met on that ship.”
I began to cry. It started slowly; light tears fell down my cheeks as I attempted to wipe them away. Then, as the dam began to break, they were released in a torrent as my breath began to quicken into sharp intakes. “This is too much!” I bawled. “All of this is too much! The war; death; this ridiculous notion that I somehow belong to you!” I paused. “I want my independence back.” Another pause. “My life would have been better without any of you in it!”
Neither Affini moved to talk or punish me for my outburst. Instead, Cereus sat passively outside of my eyes view, as Sya bundled me up and positioned my face so neither could see my continuous tears. I stayed like that as I slowly calmed down, being guided into that state by an unknown force and the presence of a plant-like hand gently rubbing the back of my head.
At some point in my fit, I must have let go of Ratio’s hand because two arms wrapped around my neck and very delicately pulled me into her lap. She smiled down at me and began to rub my forehead as she held a finger up to her lips. I don’t know how the original would have felt, but I was spent. I suppose I should have said something rude, tried to recover some of my pride and engaged in a useless struggle, but I simply didn’t care. It hadn’t been a day and already the first of my defences were beginning to fall and this felt… good? I relaxed further into Ratio’s lap and let myself feel small as the conversation changed, which I presume was to help me not feel awkward.
The conversation remained light and I discovered that Ratio and Cereus were officially dating and had been for some time. For my part I mostly remained silent and observed the three of them, occasionally answering the odd question here and there. Cereus bid us farewell and promised they’d be back soon and let slip that our next encounter would be much more enjoyable for the both of us.
After Cereus showed themselves out Sya looked down at the two of us. Ratio was still kneeling in her lap as I lay with my head rested on her thighs and my body resting against Sya’s.
“Girls. I think it’s time for bed.”
Ratio, despite having been asleep not 30 minutes ago gave a quick, simple “Yes, Miss” before smiling back down at me as she continued to trace circles on my forehead with one finger.
I looked up and into her eyes. “Yes, Miss.” There was no resistance in my voice. We finished our night-time activities and were carried to bed, where Ratio and I lay facing each other, hands entwined and held in Sya’s embrace. Sya pulled my 9 tails up and over mine and Ratio’s bodies, before taking a blanket and tucking the 3 of us in tightly. The lights turned off, replaced by the same three colours reflected in Sya’s eyes, as they danced dimly in the background. I watched them closely as I slowly drifted to sleep.