“Are you going to say hi, or would you like to keep gawking?” Ratio teased in a playful tone. Only after she spoke, did I realise I had been staring with my mouth slightly ajar.
Suffice it to say this came as a bit of a shock. I sat back down, grabbed a biscuit and nibbled at it while I went deep into thought. I was sure I had deleted Ratio. I used the kill code, right? What was it? 319. No, 293? Fuck this was infuriating! No matter. The point remains the same, Ratio shouldn’t be alive right now, let alone pacing about in that cute dress. Had the Affini created a backup while she was integrated into their network? It was possible but unlikely. Why would the Affini take their time to backup a hostile AI anyway? She didn’t even work unless she was directly connected…
I looked up and saw Ratio in a new light. She didn’t have a tablet to hand, so I tried speaking. My first two attempts were strained but my voice started to return to some semblance of normal by the third.
“Ratio. Who are you? I thought perhaps you were the AI I created, but you’re not, are you?”
The smile on Ratio’s face dropped only slightly. She looked around the room, located the fox plushie and went over to retrieve it. Afterwards, she went to a nearby cupboard and brought out another plushie, whose appearance was grey and took on the form of a cat. As she sat down, she handed the fox to me and proceeded to cuddle her stuffed animal timidly.
“I’m not allowed to talk about it. You’re not ready.”
My fist tightened but I could see that raising my voice would prove detrimental; presuming I could raise it in the first place. I pushed down my frustration and thought about how I could rephrase the question.
“Ratio is a beautiful name, it suits you.”
“It does, doesn’t it!” Her smile was back with full force and she was holding her plushie a little looser. “Zeitha is a beautiful name as well! Are you happy with it?”
“As happy as can be. I picked it myself you know?”
“And how exactly do you know that?” Ratio froze, her eyes darting downwards as she shuffled uncomfortably. “Ah well. I suppose it’s not all that important. Still, you know that I picked mine, it only seems fair that you told me how you came across yours,” I said dismissively.
“I. I was born with it.”
My eyebrow raised. “Born with it? But you’re a robot, right? Don’t you mean you were assigned it?”
“Nope, born. And I’m not a robot, not really. Sure, my body is robotic, but I’m actually a fully conscious mind as complex as your own, I’m just using this body to talk to you.”
“You’re remotely controlling it then?”
“It’s more complex than that, but yes. It’s super fun!”
Well, that was an interesting thought. There was more going on here than meets the eye, that much was obvious.
“They must trust you quite a bit if they’ve left you in here with me,” I said.
“Mhm! Mistress is away at the minute but she said I could come to see you when you woke up.”
“I’m glad you visited. It’s nice to see someone who isn’t an Affini. Hey, I seem to be out of water, can I get you any?”
Ratio practically bolted upright. “I’ll handle that!” Before I could protest, she took the receptacle and moved towards the kitchen, humming as she went. Having nothing else to do I took that minute to examine the door leading into my room, and to my surprise, it opened. I stepped back confused. Ratio looked over in my direction.
“I wouldn’t head out alone if I was you. You’ll get awfully lost.”
I move towards the door again and poked my head outside. From the looks of it, my room was positioned at the end of a large hallway, one that was at least four times as wide and tall, compared to the hallways on the Spirit of Atlantis. I was so stupefied by my situation that I failed to catch Ratio sneak up on me.
“What are you gawking at? Have you never seen a hallway before?”
“There are no guards. Why are the no guards?”
“Why would there be guards?”
I turned to face her. I was starting to think that maybe I was the one being silly. “Because that’s what prisons have?” My voice did not come out confidently.
“I thought Mr Farkalyn told you this wasn’t a prison? Are you ok? You look a little off.”
I couldn’t help myself; I laughed unreserved for what must have spanned minutes, all the while Ratio looked at me as if she was missing the joke.
“Next you’re going to tell me that I can just leave, and head down that hallway,” I said between staggered breaths as I attempted to get myself back under control.
“Would you like to?”
“Of course, I’d like to, but I’m not an idiot. I know a trap when I see one.”
“The Affini have no use for traps. They’re bigger than us, smarter, faster and stronger. No this isn’t a trap. It is a test though.”
“A test for what exactly?” I said suspiciously.
“There’s only one way to find out!” Ratio teased. With that, she left down the hallway; motioning for me to follow.
The journey was tough. Despite our physical activity being limited to a stroll, I found myself quite out of breath. So much so that I had to take a moment to rest against the wall, causing Ratio to worry and fawn over me. The break was short-lived and with Ratio’s help and the loss of some pride, we arrived at a checkout desk. I was halfway through analysing a way to get past it before Ratio took my hand and pulled me out into the open.
“Ah, hello little ones, what brings you here?” a male Affini asked politely.
“Good afternoon, Sir. I have a letter here allowing me and my Connivent temporary leave to explore the nearby aquarium. I believe you should have received electronic notice as well?” Ratio passed the letter to the Affini who checked its contents and then, what I presumed was a nearby computer.
“Very well. Would you like someone to accompany the both of you? Do you know the way?”
“No Sir, thank you for your concern but I have been to visit it plenty of times.” Ratio bowed her head and indicated for me to do the same.
“Thank you, sir,” I had said in my best mock voice. The exchange had left a poor taste in my mouth; I hated every microsecond of it.
We exited the block and found ourselves in the middle of a large garden. A single road broke the grass leading off towards more buildings in the distance. I was surprised to see a red sun in the sky and the feeling of the wind against my cheek.
“Ratio. What planet are we on?”
“We’re not. This is a ship silly.”
“This?! This is a ship?!” I nearly fainted.
“Hey! I can’t keep carrying you everywhere. If you’re going to get light-headed over something as little as this, I think we should probably head back and put you to bed.”
“Oh no, you aren’t miss. If there’s something more surprising than this, I’m seeing it.”
Ratio continued to hold me as she looked me up and down. Eventually, she smiled and urged me to follow. I could feel from the corners of my face that I was smiling too.
We exited the aquarium giddy, lightly bumping into each other as we went. My last bump was a little too forceful and Ratio tumbled to the ground laughing. Not having anything better to do, I got down to lay in the grass beside her. We lay there for a long while, looking at the clouds above us. I decided I’d be the one to break the silence.
“This has been a lot of fun. Honestly, I didn’t know what would happen after I was captured. I certainly didn’t expect this.”
“Do you regret it? Being captured I mean.”
“I suppose that depends on what living with a guardian will entail. I have to admit, I’m not looking forward to it. Though if I recall I wasn’t in the best-“ “Agh!” I screamed in pain cradling my head. My vision went blurry and my stomach knotted as if I was about to be sick.
[“No! Don’t you dare shut her down, she’s doing so well!”]
[“Awareness levels increasing”]
[“Increasing dosage of Class E and S”]
“Zeitha, are you ok?”
I shook my head, wondering how I had gotten into this position. Ratio’s hand was slowly petting the top of my head as it lay firmly against her lap.
“I’m doing ok. Kinda confused as to why I’m on your lap though, did I fall asleep?”
“Mhm. I decided to sneak some bonding time in while you were asleep. Was that ok?”
I thought about it. For some reason, the idea of being on Ratio’s lap didn’t set any red flags off. “Eh, yeah. Surprisingly I’m ok with that. But I would like to get up.” I slowly stood up and examined myself. “You know, I don’t often fall asleep in front of other people. You must be pretty special for me to feel that relaxed around you after only half a day.” Ratio twitched. Or at least I think she did? Maybe I was seeing things.
“I think it’s probably best we both head back now, don’t you?” Ratio said somberly.
“Now that I’m outside you’re going to have a hard time getting me back in that room,” I replied in kind, a smile spreading across my face.”
“You haven’t forgotten this is a test, right? If you go off with ideas of escape, I doubt they’d look favourably on it.”
“Hey! You don’t know me at all! I would never do something to get in someone’s bad book.” I put on my best puppy eyes and then grinned devilishly. “Besides, it’s their own fault. If you don’t have any security, you’re just asking for people to make a run for it.”
“And that’s what we’re going to do? Run?”
“Ok, more like a leisurely stroll. But yes, and I say we should go in that…” I span uncontrollably before coming to a stop. “In that direction. Come along!” 10 minutes later and we were in a residential district.
The residential district was nothing like the streets of my home. For starters, everything was clean and organised. There were several doors inbuilt into walls which I presumed were shops or homes. Outside each was a small garden that positioned itself beside the road, giving the district a natural look; there was more greenery in this one street than you could find in most districts on Terra. To follow this up the place was huge! There was no overlapping of shops eating into each other. No paths that took crazy turns. No, everything was purpose-built and spacious. I’ll give the Affini this, they knew how to build.
The negative side is that the district was full of people, which you know, the clue is in the title. Still, it set me on edge. As we explored and Ratio showed me about, many Affini approached us, asking why we were alone. Each was deflected by a convenient excuse Ratio had made up and each would leave us alone after bestowing “good girls” or head pats, sometimes both at the same time. I hate to admit it, but the more they did it, the less revolting it started to feel.
After another brief encounter with an Affini couple, the two of us were called at by a nearby salesman. Not having anything better to do, we both headed over.
“Good day Missus’, lovely weather wouldn’t you say?” We attempted to respond but were cut off. “I have a lovely assortment today, fine jewels that would accompany a woman such as yourselves, marvellously.”
“They are very nice,” I admitted. “Regretfully, I have no money on me, I’m afraid we can’t do much else other than look.”
The salesman raised an eyebrow? “Money? Oh! You must be new here! Everything you see here is free to be taken. The only condition; I ask that you take only what you desire and leave some for everyone else.”
Ratio, seeing my confusion came up beside me and whispered in my ear. “The compact doesn’t have any money. It’s post-scarcity, everything is free.” Without missing a beat, she examined the collection, picked out a small necklace and gave it to me. It was a red sapphire that took on the shape of a proud phoenix. I looked at Ratio, and then at the gentleman expecting both of them to laugh at my ignorance, but neither made a move to do so.
“It’s really ok for me to take this?”
“It’s madam. A fine piece like that deserves to be worn proudly around that neck of yours.”
I’d worn jewellery exactly four times prior to this, each was when I was experimenting in private with Lucia. I had my reservations, but I can’t lie, I was excited to wear something pretty. I tied it around my neck and played with it between my fingers.
“It’s beautiful,” I exclaimed.
“That’s it’s Madam. Though I do believe compliments must be given to you first and foremost. The lady makes the jewel and not the other way round; least that’s what my Pa always said. But enough of that, I suspect you’ll be wanting to pick something out for your partner here?”
Ratio blushed and I craned my head to one side curiously. Oh! “Oh, we’re not partners, just friends. She’s showing me around the place. You were right, this is my first time and she didn’t want me to get lost.”
“Ah, I understand. Apologies for the presumption. May I suggest this for the lovely lady? The green should contrast nicely with that rich olive skin, and the symbol is an old Celtic one which translates to root.”
I picked the amulet up and examined it closely. It was beautiful and I had to agree, it would suit Ratio quite well. “Ratio, close your eyes and lift up your hair.” She did as she was instructed as I tied the amulet around her neck.
The two of us went on to visit many more attractions together, even stopping to eat beef teriyaki, something that I made note off; Ratio can digest human food… Eventually, the sun started to set and Ratio’s insistence on returning was starting to put a damper on my adventure.
“Fineeeeeee,” I said reluctantly. “We can start heading back”. We did so but something caught my attention. There was a shuttle bay off in the distance. If there was any chance for escape, now would be the time. I weighed my options. On the one side Ratio had been extremely nice to me and the Compact seemed like a nice place to live; on the other, a life of servitude was hard to butter up and I found my willingness to submit less than desirable. I stopped walking and gently took hold of Ratio’s arm.
“Ratio. I can’t go back with you. I know this is stupid, but I’m going to try and escape.”
She looked at me, rolled her eyes and sighed. “This. Is. A. Test.” “You would have to be extremely foolish to think they’d let you do something like escape.”
“I know, but I doubt I’m going to get another opportunity like this. If I can’t do it, I’ll come straight back and accept my slap on the wrist, but if I don’t take the opportunity, I’m going to forever regret it. You understand right?”
“You are absolutely hopeless. Right, fine! I’ll keep quiet on one condition. You have to start calling me sister going forward.”
“Deal! Thank you, Rati-“
“It’s sis or sister!” she pouted.
“Right, thank you, sister. Hopefully, I won’t be seeing you around anytime soon.”
“I’ll be here when you get caught,” she teased.
We embraced each other in a hug. Our time together was short, but not unpleasant. I would miss her. She sat down on a nearby bench and watched me stride away as my great escape was put into motion.
I quickly learned hiding in plain sight would be my only option. For all their shortcomings; heavy pollution, thick black air, architecture that was chaotic and leapt in every direction, desperate to claim land for its own; the streets of Terra were easy to lose people in. Little corners here or there, shortcuts that could half your travel time, or result in getting endlessly lost depending on your knowledge, and a sea of people, far more than you could think to count. Here, there was none of that. Everywhere I went I would be in eyes view of at least a handful of Affini and their… Sophonts? Florets? Slaves. Let’s call them what they’re. My point is that I had to pretend that I belonged here.
Occasionally, an Affini would approach me asking if I was ok, where my guardian was, and the other usual questions. Despite my awful acting skills, I had managed to convince them I was waiting for my guardian, like the good obedient girl that I was; it sickened me. What was worse is that every time that they left a little piece of me broke and my willpower softened ever so slightly.
I had learnt two things;
- We were orbiting Terra
- There was 0 chance of me getting on one of those shuttles without an Affini caretaker.
Depending on the size of the transportation craft you could fit anywhere between 5 and 25 Affini and their counterparts. The problem wasn’t the number of Affini, more I hadn’t seen a single slave, Terran or otherwise, get on a shuttle without cuddling close to their owner. If I was going to sneak aboard, I would have to try for one of the larger craft. But how to approach it? I couldn’t just walk up to the shuttle, declare my intent and walk-in head held high, nor could I disguise myself. Honestly, the lack of options was depressing at best.
My mind was focused inwards, formulating hundreds of simultaneous plans and just as quickly writing them off; I didn’t notice the Affini and his slave walk up to me before a vine gently tapped me on my shoulder.
“Heya Cutie, what are you doing alone in a place like this?” the male Affini asked with clear worry.
“Oh, sorry, I was lost in thought,” I replied. “I’m waiting for my Mistress to come to pick me up, she shouldn’t be long,” I lied with a wide smile.
“Master, she looks awfully sad, is it because she’s missing her arm?” a young lady, but still older than myself, asked from behind the Affini.
“Young lady!” he bellowed. “You should know better than to poke into people’s business, especially regarding sensitive topics such as the one you just brought up.” I laughed internally at the hypocrisy of that comment. Having properly disciplined his slave the Affini turned his attention back to me. “I apologise for my pet’s behaviour. Though she does bring up a good point, you do look sad. What’s on your mind?” His tone was soft and welcoming, but his eyes betrayed his suspicion.
Not knowing what else to do I doubled down. “I miss my mistress very much.” I expressed with sad eyes and a closed-off body position.
It was a terrible play. I had backed myself into a corner and I knew it. If you’re thinking, is this the best a Terran genius could come up with? I agree with you, but, for some reason whenever I stood before an Affini rational thought would elude me; replaced with hazy thoughts and an urge to give in. This was no different.
“That simply will not do!” he exclaimed. “I and little Aerin here are due to leave soon; we will keep you company until your Mistress arrives or we have to leave.” The tone in his voice indicated this wasn’t up for debate. I thanked him and joined them at a nearby waiting area that was far too full for my comfort.
“What’s your name little one?”
“And how is it you came to be separated from your Mistress?”
“She lets me have some time to myself. I often come here to watch the shuttles as it helps calm me down.” He seemed satisfied at that. Another Affini came over and the two of them started to converse in their own language, but not before he moved Aerin close to me.
“Play nice Aerin, don’t worry, she doesn’t bite.”
The two of us made small talk which mostly revolved around how happy she was since meeting her owner and how much better the Affini are compared to the Terran Accord. For my part, I mostly hummed in agreement or nodded feigning deep thought. In reality, there was very little intelligent thought taking place. My head swam in a deep haze. Somewhere in the back of my head a chorus of melodies intertwined pushing my thoughts further and further away. I felt warm, safe… like this was where I belonged, only… some part of me was screaming, telling me to get away; another much louder part was telling me that the song in my mind was entirely the wrong sort, it wasn’t long until this conflict starting to cause my head to swell with pain.
I struggled to stand and managed to stammer to a nearby wall, my hand resting against it for support. I had barely made it another 3 steps before I crashed to the ground on my knees, drawing the attention of those around me.
Their eyes bore deep into my skin. My anxiety started to build; I felt trapped, my back was against the wall and a cold sweat started to build across my skin. The Affini from earlier leant down and asked if I was ok, he made a motion to pet my head and I slapped it away.
“No!” I screeched.
The situation grew worst. Terrans in hushed voices were asking their owners about the commotion.
My knees came up, held firmly by my arm. I started to rock backwards and forwards as streams of tears ran down my face. The Affini said something else that I didn’t catch; moving his vine close to my face and pulling it back after witnessing the horror that it brought. I sat like that, bawled up and crying while the Affini drugs in my system failed to calm me down.
The last thing I remember was a soft needle piercing my skin, bringing with it no pain, and the comforting feeling of veins wrapping around my body and cradling me as I sobbed myself to sleep.
I awoke in a strange room.
From the outset, it was clear that great efforts had been taken toward my welfare and comfort. For starters, the room was only housing myself, a welcome change from the overcrowded wards back on Terra. To follow this up, the room was immaculate. Seriously, there wasn’t a single speck of dust in sight. Had you told me the room had been recently built and deep cleaned, I’d have believed you…