My eyes opened slowly and controlled; they were wet at the edges and given how last night ended, I don’t think the two were related. I felt like I was forgetting something important, something that was close to my heart, but the more my conscious mind arouse, the further it moved away.
With little else to do, I stared at the ceiling watching Sya’s colours dance joyfully across the room. The longer I watched the more I realised there was a pattern taking place. I couldn’t describe it to you; not well anyway, but I’ll try. On the surface, the pattern was erratic and untamed, but the longer one observed it the calmer it became. This is going to sound strange, but it reminded me a lot of a random number generator. If you observed the lights in a single period, they would appear random, but once you observed the entire sequence you could start to predict the outcome. What’s more, once I had deduced the pattern, I realised there was a similar… we’ll call it a wave or rhythm? Regardless; Sya was giving off something similar. I think I could decipher their secrets and hopefully hers with a few more nights.
Time passed and I found myself stirring awake a second time as one of Sya’s vines moved over my arm, retrieved the loose blanket and pulled it close around my neck. Once satisfied the vine retracted, but not before brushing tenderly across my cheek. I almost felt bad in a way. Despite the questionable changes to my body and the constant breach of privacy, Sya wasn’t all that bad I suppose. She loved me, at least that was the impression I got, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t return her feelings. When the time came for me to leave, I’d burn my bridges as I’d always done. It surprised me then when I felt an element of guilt at this thought, but I put that down to more Affini mind-error. I was destined to be alone. It was better for me and it was better for those around me. This was the way of things and I wasn’t going to change my mind after being a captive for 10 days, let alone 3. I held onto that thought tightly and drifted off to sleep a second time.
I awoke startled, my body burning with an unknown desire. I rolled from side to side uncomfortable; starting slow but quickly growing frantic. Something was very, very wrong. The room grew in size and then shrunk; my mind went alight with a fuzziness before giving way to pain. My leg twitched, and my hands clenched repeatedly; I stopped rolling and began clawing at my back. Out, I needed to get out. Not my body. Trapped. Escape. Need to escape. The clawing grew wilder and more desperate. Full, far too full! Not enough room. Voices. So many voices! Need to get out! GET OUT OF MY HEAD! Vines gripped my wrists as my name was called repeatedly. I tried to call back but I couldn’t will my mouth to move. Everything was growing distant. No. Need to escape. Trapped. Not in control. A vine positioned itself in front of my mouth and I instinctively bit down hard. Fuck! Someone help m—
Voices? Mhm, definitely voices. Sya’s and Cereus’? Hard to make out. Stars I’m sleepy. Wait, something happened. Brain what happened? Tears, lights, blankets, clawing… Clawing? That felt important. Distant but so close. Stars! Function brain… Nope, tired, so tired. Sleep. Me sleep.
“Zeitha, wake up darling.”
I groaned and half opened one eye lazily. Sya was looking down at me, her face showing signs of concern. A part of me processed that might be important but I was in start-up mode; it’d be at least another 10 or so seconds before I was functional. I closed my eyes and waited for my mind to kick into gear.
“Good morning,” I yawned, slowly sitting upright. I blinked twice and stared lazily ahead, taking more than a second to realise the big green blur in front of me was Cereus. Confusion invaded my thoughts and I looked around to find I was sitting on Sya’s lap in the living room of our hab. Okay…
I looked up. “Why are we in the living room?”
The tension in Sya’s face slightly departed at my question. She brought one vine down and brushed my loose strands of hair backwards before giving me a head pat and simultaneously scratching behind my ear. It completely took me off guard, and I yelped in surprise, much to her delight.
I huffed and turned away from her. Stupid Sya messing with me like that! I no longer cared for my earlier question, nor the concern I once harboured; I was far too busy being righteously furious. Cheeks were pinched, vines were swiped and more involuntary sounds were driven forth. By the end, I was a pouting, fumbling mess, curled up and trying to protect my sensitive sides.
Eventually, after Sya was satisfied, I was bundled up and sat in an upright position. The way I saw it, I had two options here. Further entertain Sya’s whims or pretend I hadn’t just been brought to tears by tickling. I gave one stubborn deep cough. “Good morning, Cereus.”
Cereus gave a high-pitched squeal and the light in their eyes danced uncontrollably. Their vines twitched and they looked at me with a similar hunger Sya often wore. Their inner debate must have finished because vines started to creep forward. At first, I was confused, but Sya’s vines departed, exposing my stomach and I started to worry. Not for long mind you as I was quickly being tickled again. I would have thrashed but was bound, I would have laughed but was quickly gagged. All I could do was try to retain my sanity but that hastily departed and at some point, everything became a delirious haze.
The next time I became aware of my surroundings I found my head resting against Ratio’s shoulder, drool leaking from my mouth. I gave a slurred “Heyyy” and then something clicked and I remembered this morning’s events. I removed my head, wiped my mouth and screamed internally. “I was behaving!” I yelled.
“And you’ll continue to behave for me, won’t you?” Sya asked mischievously.
I looked up at her defiantly, opened my mouth and then spotted the vine she had brought forward, poised to attack my side. I crumpled instantly; I couldn’t go through that again! I buried my face so it couldn’t be seen and gave a less than enthusiastic “Yes, miss.”
“Good girl~,” Sya sang, bringing the vine to gently stroke the back of my head.
Ahhhhhhhh! These Error plants!
I was removed from my sanctuary still pouting and made to reface Cereus. “Good morning Zeitha,” they beamed.
“Now you say good morning,” I mumbled quietly.
“Pardon?” Cereus asked. “I didn’t catch that.”
“Nothing!” I added hastily. “What can I do for you today, oh benevolent ruler?”
“Benevolent ruler, is it?” Cereus chuckled. “Since you’re behaving, I suppose I’ll take that at face value. Unless…” Vines started to creep forward. I quickly stammered pleas and confirmations I was being genuine which caused both Affini to laugh. Vines were retracted and then Cereus’ face morphed into one of seriousness. “I’ve been informed you had a panic attack this morning, do you remember it?”
“Vaguely,” I confirmed.
“Can you please describe your experience to me?”
“If you want,” I replied. “As I said, the details are vague. I remember waking up very suddenly, my mind racing with thoughts that were bouncing around and not, eh? Mine? I don’t know how to explain it. Anyways, I felt the thoughts were arguing about something and I remember being in pain and feeling overloaded. I got super uncomfortable and itchy and then I was clawing at my back, trying to tear open a hole in my body so all the… something could escape? Huh… Well, that doesn’t sound healthy,” I laughed.
“Zeitha, this isn’t funny,” Sya stated softly.
“You have to laugh at these things,” I joked. “When you have as many panic attacks as me, you can either shut down or note that it happened and move on.”
Everyone in the room looked at me sombrely. “Are those your honest thoughts?” Sya asked.
“They’re,” I confirmed. “That’s just the way things work.”
Sya looked at me mournfully; like she was experiencing some long-lost pain on my behalf that I had forgotten how to process. With tears in her eyes, she picked me up and held me close. Ratio joined in and surprisingly, so did Cereus; I couldn’t for the life of me understand why they were all upset.
“Miss?” I asked confused.
“No talking darling,” Sya instructed.
My mouth fell silent. You know, I was starting to get used to this. Sure, everyone kept violating my personal space and seemed to put far too large an emphasis on hugging, but I guess that wasn’t entirely awful… There was one problem, however; I was forced to deal with emotions I was trying to keep at bay.
Seeming satisfied, the three of them let go. First Cereus, then Ratio and finally Sya. Not happy that I was once again the centre of attention, I folded my legs up, wrapped them with my tails and flopped onto Ratio’s lap. She ran her fingers down my hair and started to braid my ends.
“No more questions please,” I requested.
“Zeitha,” Sya started. “It’s important we talk about-“
“No more talking,” I interrupted dejectedly. My face was too busy being covered by my tails so I didn’t catch her reaction, but I imagine she wasn’t pleased.
“Miss, don’t make me. please... I’m feeling super vulnerable; if you force me to talk, I’ll hate you forever,” I insisted in a manner that came out half pleading and half whining.
As I stated. You can laugh at these things and move on, or you can shut down. I qualified the time spent hugging as not moving on, which left me with only one other option.
There was a pause before Sya leaned down and kissed me on my exposed cheek. “Take all the time you need,” she whispered in my ear. A vine made its way under my arm and positioned itself inside my cocoon; it was bright and shone Sya’s colours; not overbearing, but gently, like a glowstick. I held onto the vine; it helped, but also didn’t. I wanted her to shout at me; to tell me to man up, grow up or any other form of judgemental remark. The fact that she had been accommodating to my needs made my vulnerability rawer and I found myself softly crying to myself. I laughed in my mind that I was once again crying, told myself I was pathetic and then lost those thoughts to the light in front of me.
Cereus stood beside me, the embodiment of patience. We had been in the digital universe for what felt like an entire day. In that time, I had learnt that the digital universe did not follow the rules of the physical universe. Here everything was data to be manipulated as you saw fit. There were limitations of course. For one, you couldn’t directly affect other sophonts in the digital space without permission. This could take the form of me tapping someone on the shoulder (an intent) and the subject would then choose to deny or accept the sensations that came with my tap (the permission). Each sophont had their boundaries and the best part is that they weren’t rigid; I could have it so someone could tap me from 5km away, and in the next second make it so no one could. There was one problem. Setting permissions was extremely difficult for new digital consciousness.
I had been told that it would come in time, that passive exposure would eventually lead to me making new connections in my mind that I could then push the limits off. If my understanding was correct then it wasn’t too dissimilar to walking or speaking for the first time, but those took years to learn and I was not known for my patience.
After a brief introduction to the above, and more; my lesson was supposed to finish, but I pushed Cereus to challenge me. I was set a task to change my appearance without the use of assisting AI. That was about 4 hours ago and I felt I had made 0 progress.
“Little one, I’m afraid our time here is nearing its end,” Cereus said, interrupting my xillion failed attempts.
“No! I can do this! I just need more time!” I yelled.
Cereus’ vine pressed against my shoulder and I was turned to face them. Unfortunately for me, my permissions had been set to mimic the physical universe and thus I was as helpless to the Affini’s whims in here as much as I was out there.
“I was requested to not let you overstrain yourself. As a result, we will be stopping today,” Cereus dictated.
Frustration built in my stomach but I knew resisting was pointless. I opened the virtual ai interface, filtered to objects and materialised a heavy ball, which I then threw with as much force as I could muster. The first throw left me unsatisfied and I ended up throwing five more before I was sated.
“Feeling better?” Cereus asked.
“A little,” I admitted.
Cereus nodded and formed a couch nearby for us to sit on. I joined them, conscious my outburst had likely been recorded and forwarded to Sya.
“While we still have some time, I thought I would check in and see how you’re feeling about your new body?” Cereus asked.
I had been waiting to have this conversation since I first woke after my capture. I did think it strange Cereus would ask me outside of earshot of Sya, but again, I was running on the presumption all my actions were being recorded for her to review later. Still, I couldn’t resist a chance at sarcasm.
“I do apologise, but I am not permitted to discuss such private matters without the express permission of my guardian,” I said in my most posh and level voice.
Cereus chuckled and smiled to themselves. “Does this mean you’ve accepted Everly as your Mistress then?” they teased.
I opened my mouth to protest and then seeing the gleam in their eyes thought twice about it. “This is bait. You’re baiting me.”
“Am I?” They asked smugly.
“You’re,” I insisted.
Cereus gave a deep laugh. “I’m not hearing a no.”
My mouth took over. “No! Of course, it’s a no!” I covered my mouth as quickly as I could and scowled at Cereus. “Don’t send that to Sya,” I pleaded.
“I might be persuaded if you answer my earlier question,” Cereus teased. “Though, I cannot overlook your misuse of Everly’s name. You’re under explicit instructions to refer to her as Miss or Mistress if I am not mistaken?”
I sighed and began playing with my tails, making a point of avoiding eye contact. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“Is that a promise?” Cereus asked.
I stayed silent, pretending I didn’t hear the question. Cereus watched me patiently and after realising the game I was playing took one vine and forced me to look up at them. “Zeitha, I know you heard me. I’d like you to make your decision please.”
There was a reason I was trying to avoid this question. You see, I hold significant weight to promises. If I give you one, unless things escalate outside of my power, I will turn over mountains to uphold it. For this reason, I don’t give them out lightly. On the other side, I was still feeling vulnerable and couldn’t face being told off again. Whatever decision I made; I’d end up losing. I may as well stick to the one I’m already being forced into I suppose.
“I promise,” I relented.
“I believe that was the right decision,” Cereus said, bringing their vine to pet my head.
The two of us sat in silence for a while. For my part, I stared at the blue sun hanging low and watched birds soar through the clear skies. Cereus on the other hand had their eyes closed and seemed content to let their leaves bristle against the wind.
“I’m not happy with it,” I said quietly, breaking the silence. Cereus stirred but refrained from talking. Their eyes were telling me to continue. “Don’t get me wrong, the body is wonderful and I mostly like the way I look, but I can’t be happy knowing I’m stuck in something someone else created. I look at myself and I’m constantly reminded that everything has been stolen from me. My body, my mind, my memories, heck! Even my right to die.” I paused, collecting my thoughts. “It’s too cruel… The eyes are the worst. Whenever I catch them, I’m reminded I’m not the same person I used to be. They say the eyes are the window to the soul. So, what does that mean when mine are different shapes and colours… I liked my eyes. They were one of the very few things I enjoyed seeing in my reflection.” I deflated and awaited Cereus’ reply.
“I suspected that might be the case,” Cereus said kindly. “Very well, I’ll create you a new body and this time you can help me design it.”
I practically bolted out of my seat. “You mean it?!”
Cereus laughed to themself. “I do.”
Excitement welled up inside me and then plateaued when I realised this was sounding all too good to be true. I eyed Cereus suspiciously. “What’s the catch?”
“Must there always be a catch?”
“Yes,” I said matter of factly. “You’ll force me to give something up, or to change my behaviour into one more fitting of my status no doubt.”
“There is no catch,” Cereus insisted. “Actually…” Cereus hummed to themself. “I suppose there is a catch, but not in the way you’re thinking.” I remained silent. “You want to be happy and for that, you need the right body. When you’re happy, Everly is happy and when Everly is happy, I’m happy. So, you see, the catch is that I want everyone to be happy. Very malicious wouldn’t you agree?”
The word happy was used far too much there was my first thought. My second is why was Cereus emphasizing Ev- Miss’ happiness?
“Cereus, what is your relationship to Miss?” I asked.
Cereus gave an amused smile. “Translated into your language I think Everly would be my wife.” A spark of confusion crept in but they resolved themselves and nodded, seeming to be content with their word choice.
“Right…” I said, unsure how to process that. “And that would make our relationship?”
“Whatever Everly decides she wants our relationship to be,” Cereus finished.
“Hold up. Miss said you were a friend when she first introduced you to me. I’m very confused.”
“I would be awfully concerned if your spouse wasn’t your friend,” Cereus chuckled. Okay, fair, I couldn’t argue with that logic. Cereus held my arm, not quite possessively. “Are you okay?”
“Mhm. Processing, give me a minute,” I responded. A minute passed. “Nope! I’m not dealing with that, let’s go back to the body talk,” I demanded.
Cereus gave a deep laugh, picked me up and placed me in their lap. “You truly are adorable~,” they chimed and bombarded me with head pats.
“Cut it out!” I cried, swatting the vines as best as I could. “Stars, you’re almost as bad as she is!”
“I’ll have you know I’m far tamer,” Cereus chuckled. “Unfortunately, our time appears to be up so we’ll have to continue this when we next meet.”
“What about my new body?” I asked, frustrated that I had wasted time that could have been used to design that.
“Later. I’ll perform the groundwork and when we next meet you can help me with the details. If it gets too much, however, let Sya know and we can push forward our meetings. Despite what you may think, your happiness is something the two of us take very seriously.”
Why did Cereus have to sound so genuine…
“I will,” I agreed before the world faded to black. I opened my eyes to Miss humming and brushing my hair while I lay in her lap. She caught my glance and smiled down at me.