"You can do this." Those words weren't for me. I definitely couldn't do this. They were for my sisters.
We made the decision and then sat on it for a rather long period of time. Like how do normal people just get up and walk outside? What bit of madness in their neurotypical brains gave them such a superpower? We did not know.
We were bringing our tablets with us because we opted to not tell the big awesome beautiful amazing plant lady who wanted to tinker with our minds. Plus, if we had our tablets we could try communicating if we went nonverbal. We were less worried about drifting off into thought when constantly in a state of anxiety. There was the part where we could message Calytrix if we realized we did a big stupid and needed saving. Also, the thing had a GPS so that way we couldn't get lost on the ginormous ship.
We waited until Calytrix left to do her private thing in between lunch and dinner where we had us-time to sneak out. I did think, and secretly sort of hope, that she lied and we were trapped here. Hope in the way that it'd take the choice out of my hands. I'd still be deeply bothered if she lied and we were just prisoners all over again.
The fear was unfounded as we stepped out of the habitation unit hand in hand, in our identical floret looking dresses with our stylish chokers and tablets clutched close. Us Independent sophonts.
While the habitation unit had windows, they were a bit high up. Calytrix would have been more than happy to pick us up so we could see out of it, but we were still stuck on trying to be independent. Plus, how could we ask that of her? We couldn't. She was too nice.
The ship was longer than the horizon on Peragus. And for the width it sort of wrapped around itself so there was lots of space against the outer rotating hull to experience gravity. While the other side should have been visible some sort of inner structure simulated a sky and thus blocked sight of the opposite side.
There were buildings. Skyscrapers. A ship big enough to fit a chunk of city in between the more suburban style abodes like the one we stepped out of. There was also a lot of greenery. Grass and trees usually reserved for high end parks interspersed everything. The city planning itself was beautiful. Each Habitation unit, even those in the distant spires were unique works of art mostly designed to be familiar to home designs of terran worlds but with noticeable deviations, especially in size.
Some hab units had improvised shops set up in front of them. In the distance were more permanent intended venues of service and handmade goods.
We had seen the pictures our affini had sent and still this place struck awe into us. The same kind of awe we had looking out the window on that first interstellar ride to the navy lab.
"Uh, we did it?"
"We did it."
"I'm very proud of you two."
"Not as proud as I am of you two."
"Well, I think you both are amazing and way braver than me."
"What are you talking about? You took the first step. You are clearly braver."
"No, she took the first step."
"What are you talking about? My step lagged behind yours. You two clearly took the lead."
"Melanie, you are mistaken."
"I think we're being dumb again."
We shut up. The talking did help a tiny bit with the nerves. Unfortunately, we could see affini and terrans going about their days. Mostly together. I was having trouble spotting any terrans that weren't florets. They all had that look that only someone on xenodrugs had. The really happy glassy look. Also, the slightly off movements.
"So, what now? Should we go back inside?"
"I want to but doesn't that defeat the purpose of coming outside?"
"It kinda does, but I still don't know what to do now. I'm terrible at making choices."
"Let's look up places on our tablets that look cool and then go to one place."
We started tapping away ignoring the chat app that had been silenced and thus not notifying us of anything. Instead, we looked up places. A number of cafés and restaurants seemed to be popular. Also hand-crafted goods. There were parks too.p
"How about this park? It's close and we'd have space from people."
"Yea then we don't have to talk to strangers."
"And we can leave whenever."
We set the destination and walked off in a small huddle. Each of us tried to slow down to sort of walk behind the others, but whenever one of us tried the others did it too because nobody wanted to walk in front. We never mentioned said slowdowns. We all knew what was happening, and were unwilling to call each other out on it.
It was a very good thing the park was close because we were definitely out of shape. Not in a husky way if anything we had leaned on too thin before meeting Calytrix. We were just weak ass bitches who couldn't handle short walks without getting winded. It was good to know prison didn't change that about us. Or maybe it did? I never paid much attention before.
As far as incidents we had on the way to the park, a strange affini spotted us and decided to walk over. We got spooked and tried to hurry along but they caught up. The affini fawned over how cute the three of us were and tried to pet us which we tried to stop and then asked for them to stop.
"W-We aren’t florets. Stop." Melanie whimpered.
I was in the same boat. "We aren't. I don't want to be touched."
"Get your hands off of me and my sisters."
The affini stopped after a moment. "Oh flowers, did your owner not break you yet?"
"W-We don't have an owner."
"We're independent sophonts."
"Leave us alone."
We were on the verge of tears. This affini was big and giant and not respecting our personal space. They made me feel small in a scary way unlike Calytrix. Did other affini not understand how to respect people? Was Calytrix the only one? Were they going to take us away thinking we were pets?
"Oh, you poor girls. I'm sorry for causing you all distress. Would you like something to help you all calm down?" The affini held up a needle
Fear struck us silent. In a frantic panic we pulled each other away and sprinted back home. Terrified that some strange plant person was going to drug us, and turn us into pets. We were very, very out of breath when we arrived and scrambled in the hab unit, which was actually not that far away, before falling into a pile of crying hugs.
Calytrix found us and was quick to come over, but for a moment I saw the other strange affini and recoiled in fear.
"Girls, it's me. You're safe here." She was down on one knee to be less big and imposing. "I apologize for not coming out and going with you all."
It took a second to let that sink in. The sound of her voice reminding me where we were. That we were safe here in this home. She wasn't like the other affini. Even as the rational bits made sense of everything. I was still shaking and holding my sisters.
Processing the words of her self-blame only making me feel worse. We went out without telling her. It was our fault not hers. I wanted to tell her that but words weren't coming out.
In that patient kind cadence of hers she spoke as if she knew our exact thoughts. "You three did nothing wrong. It's my job to keep track of you three and keep you all safe. I take that job very seriously and in this I failed to protect you all emotionally. Can I give you three a hug? You all look like you need it."
I was on the fence about it but my sister made up her mind and nodded. Vines wrapped around us, and my desire for unity with my sisters overrode my hesitance of not having asked myself.
She thrummed with a pleasant motion. Her grasp provided desirable warmth that we leached off like temperature vampires. Her body was so soft and strong and comforting. Calytrix even made sure to keep the three of us in physical contact. She somehow knew all the little important things we needed.
I eventually felt the tension from earlier melt as I relaxed into the hold. She was safe. Calytrix was safe. The rainbow affini respects us and helps us and she did so much and I wasn't worthy to be in her presence.
It didn't matter, I was in her presence and she held me like she'd never let go. I wanted that. I wanted her to hold us and never let go. I couldn't let myself have that, but I wanted it all the same. Maybe my sister's needed it and I should help them? I just didn't know and I was so bad at figuring things out.
Her hug was so much that I hadn't even noticed she had picked us up and sat on the couch with us. The warmth and togetherness were just there. My sisters and I were letting it in and relaxed until I drifted off staring at one of the rainbow affini's flowers.
Watching them fade into that adorable zoned out state they had was making it very difficult to remain composed. I knew when I explored their minds that they'd need a slow steady buildup of trust. Melanie needed to be led to the answer while being unable to see the question.
I wanted to force them to look into my eyes, my flowers and take their sorrows and fears. I wanted to inject them with so many xenodrugs they wouldn't know the meaning of the word sad. I wanted to take them out of that zoned out dull state forever and replace it with a blissful mindless high that'd leave a happy smile on their faces.
This was exactly the same sort of desperation that got me in trouble before. They aren't mine. Not yet. Last time it was an obsession with another's floret. I crossed lines and it was a grave learning experience. Melanie was testing what I had learned. The independent little sophonts tempting me to just take them rather than respect them.
But I held back. Even when they started getting lost in my eyes, in my rhythm. I held back enough that their decisions were their own.
They were all just so misguided. They wanted to give in, to give themselves to me and yet they still clung to their independence. Independence they had on paper, but in practice had already mostly been given up. They were unable to care for themselves and yet did their best to care for each other.
I knew her. I knew they were each silently beating themselves up and they'd have done worse if they knew who the original and who the clones were. It's why I destroyed that information. Obfuscated it until none, not even the most skilled affini veterinarians and bioengineers could figure it out. I intentionally mixed them up so that not even I knew. Irrecoverable information lost to the entropy of time.
I ran my vines over the mentally absent girl's faces. I could start conditioning them properly now. But that would be a violation. That would cross the line. She had to come to me willingly without the drugs, without the hypnosis, without conditioning. Of course, there was an unavoidable rhythm that my presence exuded. How it turned even my most deliberately innocuous actions into conditioning. I had limited my exposure to them and I still slipped up.
I was slipping up now as they felt my rhythm in this embrace. I should wake them up immediately like I had before, but I knew if I did too soon each one would go back to that self-destructive thought cycle.
These beautiful, adorable, beloved little cuties had to be mine on their own. It'd make every interaction with them so much sweeter in the end.
It was long enough in my hold, any longer would be too much. If they came into my grasp willingly, I'd make an exception, but for now.
I sang my precisely pitched harmony, danced my colorful flowers in exactly the right way. Their eyes fluttered and I watched them once more come back to me from that bland mindlessness I'd one day free them from to give them something so much better.
"Welcome back petals."
"Welcome back petals." The affini said in a very familiar and delightful way. Looking up I found that beautiful smile I loved on her face as she looked lovingly down on me, on my sisters, on Melanie.
"S-Sorry." We muttered. Maybe my sisters knew what we were sorry for. I didn't. I said it because my mind screamed there must be something I should be sorry for. Something I did wrong. I didn't know so I apologized anyway.
"Would you like me to continue hugging you all or should I put you three down?" Calytrix asked. She was so respectful. We were at her mercy and everything she did was trying to respect us even if we were probably making bad decisions. Who was I kidding? They were Melanie decisions. They had to be bad in some way.
I knew I wanted to stay like this forever, but I didn't think I should even if she was offering. Still, I left the decision to my better selves. The ones who were so much better than me at everything despite being so relatable. Oh, of course that had the flaw of my sisters being the same and wanting my input. We were a mess in human forms known as Melanie.
One of us, I didn't even know who, said. "Y-You don't have to stop."
I once again looked up and found her mesmerizing eyes. I would have gotten lost in them if one of her vines didn't block the sight immediately. "Little ones, my eyes trigger something akin to your soft-locking so you should avoid doing so until that problem is solved."
"My sweet little Melanie. You three have nothing to be sorry for." Her colorful embrace tightened a smidge for a moment in a reassuring way. Bundles of vines came up and started petting us. Similar to the affini that caused us to panic, but it felt different. Her pets felt familiar and safe like her. The pace at which she did them was really nice too. "Would you like me to continue petting you all?"
"I-If you want…"
A tactile feeling of joy made its way through her and into me like a subtle shift in her body. "I very much do. Thank you for letting me pet you girls. Now that you all seem nice and calm, walk me through what happened."
"Uh…" Our thinking noise began.
"So, we decided to go outside-"
"-cause we were scared-"
"-and needed to prove that we could-"
"-because we'll need to be able to take care of ourselves-"
"-and an affini approached us-"
"-they assumed we were florets and tried to pet us-"
"-we told them to stop and then-"
"-we were scared."
We spoke, each managing to get a few words out. Her hug and pets kept the fear at bay as we recounted the terrifying experience that made me never want to step outside of the habitation unit again.
She bundled us up tight as we finished. "My beloved darling petals, I'm so sorry that scared you all. Most affini here do have a habit of reaching down to pet florets that catch their eye. Next time I'll come with you and make sure your personal space is respected. You three will always be safe with me."
"-we wanted to do it on our own-"
"-if we go with you then-"
Her vines snaked over us and tightened to the exact point before it would be uncomfortable. We were forced to look up at her though she kept her eyes obscured. "Melanie Maelstrom, you three are not failures." Her voice spoke as a grand authority that refused to be gainsaid. "You are each beautiful, loving, kind, adorable terrans that simply are in need of more care than some terrans, and less than others. That is okay. That is normal. The ideal of independent survival is a rather insidious terran ideology that harms many-many cute terrans like yourselves who do not fit that mold. It is okay to ask for help. It is okay to need help. That is why we conquered your Accord. We did it to help those like you that would struggle without us. You three are beyond deserving of every bit of aid that every affini in this galaxy can muster. Let us help you. Let me help you. You are worth it."
Her vines shifted to have us looking at each other. "Look at your sisters, how they've struggled. Can you honestly tell me that they do not deserve every bit of help I want to give each of you? That I yearn to give each of you. The moment you three say yes to accepting my full help will be the happiest day of my life."
Calytrix relaxed her vines into a soft gentle hug that we could easily slip out of while continuing to pet us. "Melanie, you three may speak when you all feel comfortable to do so."
Every word she said slammed into my doubts, my fears. Everything I believed was challenged by someone with absolute certainty in every word she said. It was hard to admit that it was okay to ask for help. She said it was. It was like she was drilling that into my head. My thick skull continued to resist.
But Calytrix wanted to help so badly. The need in her voice to make me better, to make us better, sent chills down my spine. I was making her unhappy by saying no. We all were. She didn't deserve that, and we couldn't run away physically. We just proved that we can't handle going out.
It was really my sisters’ needs that were making me consider her words. Even if I can't say yes, they should, but there was still that fear. The fear of us being different. The fear that we might not all be Melanie, or even the fear that doing so would make none of us Melanie. Not the name, the identity. The shared experience that was us. Fear was a big part of it. A huge part of it. A part I hated, and yet it was so fundamental to the way I experienced everything that to take it away would leave me someone different. Someone so different I didn't know if they'd be Melanie anymore.
How could I relate to someone who didn't feel the anxiety, the doubts, the fear, the helplessness, the displeasure with life, and the suffering? I couldn't. If you took all of that away there wouldn't be anything left.
Something about the way she held us and spoke to us seemed to align our thoughts. We spoke with one clear thought. "I-I'm scared. I'm scared if I let you, I… we won't be Melanie anymore. You want to fix everything broken with us, but we are the broken bits."
"There is so much more to you three, to Melanie, than the broken bits. I have seen it; I have studied your minds inside and out and I know you are more than you believe yourselves to be. I want to show you her. The best Melanie you three can be. I know her and I want to see her three selves lying in my arms happy as can be. I can make that happen. I can make you your best self without taking away any of what makes you three yourselves."
"But-but how do you know?"
Her face broke out into that glorious perfect smile that made each of our hearts swell. "I did not tell you much of how I found you three. I did this because I thought it best to let you all experience life without fretting over the details of your shared origin. When I found you, the Melanie you all remember from that cell. The clones were incomplete. Your terran scientists were woefully inept. But Melanie you all asked me to save them, and so I did. I finished the work myself making each of you perfectly identical. Doing so required me to get to know the mind of Melanie Maelstrom so intimately that I know where every thought in your little heads comes from. I know which are you and which are bits of trauma that hitched a ride tricking you three into believing that they are anything more than problems to be corrected. I know you better than you will ever know yourselves. I just need you to trust me. Trust that I know how to help each of you properly like I did when I saved you three."
"Y-you finished the clones? Y-You know which of us are clones?"
"You are all Melanie and you three know that. The concept of the original and the copies is irrelevant. You are all the original Melanie, the order in which your bodies came into being does not matter. There is not a single shred of information left in the universe that can tell which body came first." Her words were true, we did know that. The part about us all being Melanie.
Turning our heads, Melanie looked at each of ourselves. I saw my sisters, who I love regardless of who came first. And they saw me the same. We struggled to see ourselves that way. Our only means of self-love was in how we saw each other.
I spoke first. "I-I can't trust myself."
"Can you two-"
"-tell me what I should do?"
We let a moment pass. Not because we didn't know the answer but because we needed to be able to compose ourselves to say this right.
Melanie and I looked at our sister. "Let Calytrix help you."
Melanie and I turned to our other sister and repeated the words. "Let Calytrix help you."
They both turned and saw me with that look of kindness and love I had known from them since we first laid eyes on each other. The two who understood me exactly as well as I understood myself, but could see me from the outside. Melanie in their most sincere words told me. "Let Calytrix help you."
The beautiful rainbow being of care and kindness that had us bundled in her vines tightened her loving hold and gave us each a small kiss on the top of the head. The words she said after lodged themselves in our minds forever. "You won't regret this. I won't let you."