Uthris turned their attention to the game. They made their ship zip around in and out of enemy attack patterns, returning a constant stream of its own fire as it did. They shot down one or two enemy ships, but were rapidly being outperformed by Ih nonetheless. They had a little laugh to themselves on the subject as the last few enemies for the stage came on screen, sponged up what must have been dozens of bullets, then died in spectacular flourishes of pixelated explosions. Numbers representing points jumped out of each beaten vessel and danced happily all about. A mission complete scrawl traversed the long vertical screen as the two players laughed to themselves over the results of their little game. The results, of course, were that Ih was relentlessly kicking Uthris' ass. The two turned part way to Mane while the next level's starting animations played out.
"So," Uthris said with a welcoming little smile, "what brought you here, Mane? Your owner's let you off of your cuffs already? Congrats girl-"
"NOT," Mane almost hissed, "my owner. I am not a pet."
"But," Uthris muttered. It was hard for Mane to tell whether they were distressed or just confused. "I thought you...wanted to…?"
"I'm sure it's complicated, sweetie," Ih mercifully chose to interject. She smiled at Mane, and her sweet beautiful face threatened to physically tear the outrage from Mane's body. "If she just showed up and enthusiastically opted into being made a floret, there wouldn't have been any need at all for the cuffs, I'm sure." Part of Mane felt she ought to take offense to this as well, but she decided to play it safe and preserve the peace. It would likely be much easier on her, after all, then trying to justify herself in unfamiliar territory. "Have you ever been to an arcade on an affini ship before, Mane?" Mane shook her head no.
"No," she said simply. Then she continued, "my dad was a...rebel collaborator." Should she claim that's why she killed him? No, she supposed not, it was a risky lie to commit to for no real reason. "I've never spent more than a day or two on one of these. Not before...well...you know. My current stay."
"That makes sense," Ih said. The level was underway now. Uthris' full attention belonged to the game, but Ih was still giving Mane a sizable share of hers. That meant that, for once, she was actually doing a fair bit worse than her partner was. "What kind of games do you like, dear? I've never seen you outside of the restaurant where I serve. I'm curious what you do for fun."
"I...well…" Mane couldn't find an answer, in all honesty. Not that there wasn't one, there were many, but actually grabbing anything specific from the formless haze of potential answers proved difficult. "Kinda...all over the place. Like this arcade is, I guess. It's got everything."
"It really does," Ih tittered gently. "There's even a sentient VR cabinet."
"A. What." Mane blinked. Part of her was intrigued. A sentient arcade cabinet with some kind of VR attachment? What kind of mad science bullshit would even lead someone to MAKE that? "Like. The cabinet itself. It's self aware."
"Yup!" Uthris cackled. They seemed to be revelling in doing better than their girlfriend, who herself seemed to delight in her partner's smile. "You ever met Mort? Tar for sap, no flowers, kind of got a beak for a face half the time?"
"I've...spoken to him once, yes."
"His idea. It's a fricken 'Trolley Problem Simulator', whatever that means. I tried it once but it has like a billion difficulties and I got choice paralysis until I had to leave for my shift. Some of the sillier florets think its cursed."
"Like you're any more rational," Ih teased her partner with a flittering little laugh, "Mx. 'This Communicator Is Haunted.'"
"Huh?" Mane asked, a little bit lost. "What's this about haunted…?"
"Your communicator from the Greshul ship," Ih giggled, "this silly thing insisted it was haunted!"
"You try talking to your supervisor and hearing a gruff voice going 'kill every last one of them!' From inside a random cardboard box at irregular intervals!" Uthris protested. It hit Mane that this was just what she'd set as the text notification noise and fought the urge to cackle."Thing is so haunted Aether was doing signs of the cross at it?"
"Isn't...Aether jewish?" Mane had to bite her lip not to disrupt the conversation with laughter.
"Yes! I actually asked about that, her explanation went something like, 'my grampa always said that it doesn't matter what religion you belong to! You need an exorcism, you go to the Catholics!' I'm not sure if she was doing a bit or not. It could go either way." Uthris died in the game and seemed to notice Mane's expression. "What!? Is our plight not rational enough for you?"
"N-no," Mane laughed a bit, "that's-pffft! That was just...my…" shit. This was INCREDIBLY incriminating. "....textnotificationnoise."
"See?" Ih elbowed Uthris on the arm. "Now get your head back in the game! You don't wanna lose to a FLORET after a headstart like that, do you?" That bit of goading seemed to work. Ih turned and winked at Mane, her smile warm and compassionate. Mane's heart fluttered.
"I'm…" she muttered, "gonna go look around."
"Have fun darling," Ih encouraged, "be safe. If you need us just yell, we're always here for you, okay?" Nonsense. Ih was just some girl Mane thought was pretty. Why would she ever want to stick her neck out for Mane? If she enraged the affini, Ih would be useless to her, and the only other possible threat was the outlandish notion of incredibly ballsy rebels. The Dead might have the nerve to come for her, or the Silver Fang, or the Winter of Man, but none of those factions were involved enough with her dad to risk any operatives that were worth a damn avenging him. To silence her, maybe, but even then risking yet more of their own in order to do it would only put them on even worse footing strategically. The option of threatening civilians probably wouldn't be considered after the incident on the Baiera.
Mane stumbled about, lost in her head. The reality that the outside world was still happening pressed down on her like the sky on Atlas' shoulders, crushing and immobilizing. She tried to pull herself out of it but she could only pull up memories of enemies she'd made. One
specific face came to mind, but she was no doubt a floret now. Had she pissed off anyone else? She didn't think she had. That didn't mean she hadn't, though…
Mane shook her head. She was standing in front of a dim arcade machine. It was labeled "Trolley Problem Simulator," and it was one of those big ones that's sort of like that elusive "phone booth" idea older Terran texts referenced sometimes. The outside was a black, partially see-through plastic sort of affair with one rectangular opening on each side. After entering through one of them, Mane found herself in a booth with a black seat facing a cabinet with no screen, only a fancy headset. It took figuring out to get the thing on her properly, but then-
Everything seemed to fly away from her in a flash. She was floating in a formless void and the headset was gone. It must have activated then, she reasoned, and therefore it must also be working properly...she hoped.
She heard a distant voice that started off like a nondescript buzzing swarm. It almost drunkenly lurched slowly towards her as her surroundings started to take shape. She was...seeing a screen, but there was no screen, only what would have been on it. The voice got closer and more focused, until some kind of black mass of...fuzzy...something emerged through the "screen" and phased through Mane. She felt something like a pinprick at her skull. The mass of pixelated shapes passed to the other side of her body where it turned bright pink, swirled into a human shape, and then became…
Oh my god.
Mane rolled her eyes.
"Greetings!" Said a monochrome rendition of a character she'd come up with in high school. They were skinny, lanky, and had an orange braid that fell to their shoulders- though the braid on the one facing her was grey. "My name is, um. Noctis, apparently! Neat!" Mane resisted the urge to plant her face in her hands as hard as she could, afraid that her upper body might vault forward and smash the headset in real life if she tried.
"Hello," she half grumbled angrily, half sputtered out in between snickering laughter. "You're the cabinet's AI?"
"Yes!" Answered "Noctis." It tried to wave, then flinched and looked sad. "What-ow!"
"Oh." Mane was leaning much harder towards laughter now. "Right. Noctis has arthritis in his hands. You-you why did you take that on."
"I took a form you were more comfortable with!" It replied in a kind of obnoxiously twee voice that was almost comical to hear out of that face. It really clashed with Noctis' dead eyes, outrageous bags beneath them, and literally bleach-white flesh born of a life literally starved of the sun. "Isn't he kinda young to have arthritis?"
"His family pissed off a wizard," said Mane, as if that explained everything. It did not.
"Oh. Kay." Said Noctis. "Neat. Anyway, welcome to Mort's Extravagant Trolley Problem Simulator!" It threw its hands in the air and flinched again in pain. Celebratory confetti exploded up from nowhere and came streaming gently down. Mane giggled.
"You sure you wanna be...that one? You don't seem to enjoy it."
"Very well!" Noctis came undone and became another fog. This time it went through Mane and solidified into a blonde girl in a pretty dress. A pretty dress stained with blood, to be clear, but still a pretty one. Besides, the monochrome made it harder to tell.
"Short for aurum, which means gold. Referencing her…" Mane gestured at her own hair. Aru nodded and then flourished again. This time came with even more confetti.
"Pick a difficulty!" Aru cried with the exact same voice, though it was more in character for its current shape. A set of hexagons, their top and bottom sides elongated, came swirling in a vertical wheel through the screen. They came to a stop in front of Mane and bobbed eagerly up and down. On each of their front-facing faces was a word, presumably describing the difficulty associated. Mane wheeled through them, knowing not exactly what mechanism she was using to do it.
"Normal, easy, f-f-FUCK!" Mane burst out into a fit of completely unrestrained laughter. If the donkey-like vocalizations were coming out of her physical body as well it would probably attract onlookers.
"H-holy shit did Mort straight up call the lowest difficulty floret?"
"Oh my god this game is amazing. Ten out of ten." She scrolled through the others. Easy, Normal, Hard, Subjective, Painful, Non-Euclidean, Personal, and...DMD? "Is DMD short for something?"
"Dante Must Damn!!!" Aru was all too eager to teach. "Like Dante from-"
"The Alighieri series, I'm familiar." Mane chuckled to herself. She wheeled up and down through them a few times, and still laughed every time the word "floret" danced into view. It was just...so...hard to tell whether it was a barb or not. The ambiguity was quite charming. She decided to settle for normal. "Normal."
A pen clicky noise informed her of her choice. That hexagon got big, the center opened up like a big window, and then-
"Actually," said Aru. The hexagon shrank back. "Let's establish some settings first."
What followed was a bunch of menu working. Mane disabled an option to replace "people" with tokens or cardboard cutouts, signed that she was an independent terran, turned on the opt-out feature, and allowed the AI to maintain its presence and narration. Mane enjoyed it. She clicked proceed, rifled through a disclaimer that there was no AI dedicated to the creatures in the simulation, that the situations were hypotheticals with a visual aid instead of-
Something sucked Mane in. She fell and landed next to a big lever. In front of her was a track that split in two. On one side five people were tied to the track, wriggling to get free. On the other side was only one.
"This is the classic version!" Said Aru almost giddily. "In the trolley problem-"
"I went to school, I know the trolley problem," Mane retorted and pulled the switch immediately. The tracks changed and the trolley screamed past. There was none of the carnage the actual situation would entail, which explained why there was no setting to turn it off.
Still, if not for the visuals feeling just a bit...off, it would have been upsetting to watch.
"I didn't get to tell you which one the trolley was headed towards ;-;"
"I mean, it had to be the five, right? It would kind of just be a sadistic move otherwise….with all else being equal, I guess."
"Well if you know how you'd react to all the classic variants, Normal doesn't have anything new for you."
"Hard." A trolley swept past and absorbed Mane into itself. There was nobody inside but Aru and herself. The world around them smeared and changed until she was hurtling down a track towards a construction zone.
"There's only one track," said Aru, "and nobody in the trolley but you." It handed Mane a remote. "If you do nothing the trolley will blaze through and damage infrastructure behind it, causing a collapse that will kill everyone here. Press the button and you'll slam the breaks."
"Catch?" Mane ran to the front of the trolley. They were barreling towards an area under a half-built bridge.
"The sudden stop will seriously injure you and probably still kill some of the workers." Mane pondered the situation, but not for long because the solution was pretty cut and dry.
"LET'S FUCKIN GOOOOO," she screamed and smashed the button. The trolley came to a screeching halt, fling Mane all about and causing havoc for the section of the bridge it still hit.
Then Mane was falling again. She hurtled through space and crash landed next to a guy on a bridge.
"Below you three people are tied to a track," Aru explained as it plunged onto the bridge and gracefully embedded a cruciform sword in its stone. Then it yanked it out and brandished it at the other fellow. "This dude is real lanky, so if he gets run over his bones will jam the wheels."
"I thought you said that hard wasn't the classic ones?"
"Ah, but you see, this guy has pets! A newly adopted kitten and a grumpy feral that he rescued!"
Oh. That made things harder.
"The...three people below?"
Well, fuck. The trolley screamed closer. Orphan a kitten, or let three children perish?
Mane screwed her eyes shut. The trolley zoomed past.
"I see!" Said Aru. "Would you have made the same choice if they were tied to the tracks, as per the original?"
"Probably...not." The action of physically shoving someone to their doom was more involved than merely flipping a switch, after all. And someone being tied to a train track was inherently more endangered than someone standing on a bridge. The skinny gentleman tipped his hat and walked off.
Then the scenario jerkily reset.
"This time," tittered Aru as it pirouetted and made its bloodstained skirt flare up beautifully, "he has the same pets BUT he's rich! He made millions on the broken backs of immigrants-"
Mane planted a foot between the man's shoulders and with a mighty thrust of her heel she shoved him off the bridge. He fell onto the track and disappeared under the trolley.
A vortex opened in the sky and sucked up both of them. They both flew through space and then got catapulted through a window into a space station. Mane hit a wall and landed square on her feet. Aru, on the other hand, spun like a saw and cleaved through into the next room with its sword. Then it walked casually back into the room with the same smile as always.
"There are two SOS beacons from nearby ships. One of them is a bunch of rebels who recently attacked a civilian station. Their ship is out of fuel and will drift into a hostile planet's gravity soon, sentencing them to death by re-entry or suffocation."
"The other?" Mane asked.
"A lone floret. The escape pod housing them has limited air."
"That seems easy," said Mane, "surely you want me to rescue the floret. They're alone and afraid, and you're an affini creation."
"I want you to?" Asked Aru. It bit its lip. "Who said any such thing? This whole shebang is a thought experiment."
"Tell me about the floret, then."
"Well, if you insist." Aru grinned. "Let's make it spicy. This floret used to be rich, much like the last one. They directly benefited from the deaths of inhabited worlds and lobbied in favor of destroying the Rinans-"
"Rich bastard, actively tried to have another species exterminated. Got it. The rebels?"
"Now wait a minute. The floret has been pacified. They're harmless now. To punish them for-"
"Are they a different person?" Asked Mane. "Truly, fundamentally? Has their whole being been shredded and disposed of, or were they simply given enough addicting tastes of a better life to convince them to abandon their rights for it?"
"Hmmm. Let's leave that in the air, I guess."
"Mostly young adults."
"And their motive?"
"They hate the affini. Some of them are Terran loyalists who think the accord should have been left alone. Others ascribe to human free will as sacrosanct."
"...I suppose I'd say the closest to a correct choice is the rebels."
"The floret will succumb to the unyielding void of space. The rebels knew the danger they were stepping into, and many would risk their lives to stop you from saving those children."
"You said many," Mane huffed, "not all."
"It sounds like you regret saving the others more than you regret condemning the floret."
"That's because a part of me probably does."
It laughed. "Interesting. Care to elaborate?"
"Well," Mane said as she arranged words carefully in her mind to properly use for expressing her thoughts, "The floret has an implant, right? And to my knowledge, those have a pretty strong grip on the endocrine and nervous system of their v...their hosts." She felt a twinge of panic and hoped that slip of hers hadn't been picked up on. "So I doubt it would physically allow them to die alone and afraid. It seems...contradictory to me, even if the affini would consider the causal circumstances hypothetical at best." She paused again and considered how to word what she was trying to say. "So, like, their death would be comparatively merciful, probably, if it has anything to say on the matter. It would make them blissfully delirious or lull them into a peaceful rest to pass gently in their sleep. The rebels, on their other hand, their fates would be violent and terrifying."
"Then why did you ask about their motives?" Asked Aru. It was both vindictively teasing and genuinely curious, as if stripping the ideologies of Terrans to their bones was its favorite pastime. Mane, quite frankly, found that thought to be intensely relatable- hell, it bordered on endearing.
"There can be multiple factors in my reasoning," Mane retorted with a smug grin. "Or are you going to tell me that the affini are secretly Catholicism stans?"
"I do not follow," said Aru. It added, "the second statement, specifically. The first was entirely rational and easily understood."
"Then you grasped what was important," Mane reassured the AI.
"I see. What were your other reasons, then?"
"Well, like you said-if most of the rebels are loyal to the old Terran power structures, some of them might just be opponents of imperialism. Which...the affini execute it differently than the Accord did, but one cannot honestly and correctly argue they are not an occupying force. And that means that condemning those members to death for their resistance is, in my eyes, morally repulsive."
"A free Terranist, then?" Aru asked with its head tilted quizzically. "Did you consider then, that rescuing them may deliver them directly to the affini? And for that matter, is it not an old Terran adage that if six men sit at a table with a known fascist, the table seats seven fascists?"
"Right you are, of course," Mane replied, feeling a sense of intrigue at this show of nuance from an affini AI in an arcade of all places. She understood why florets seemed not to like it. Though, it labeling the lowest difficulty "floret" probably didn't help either. "A table with seven men, if one is a fascist and the other six know, seats seven fascists. In the same way one could argue that a resistance force dominated by those who pledge themselves to the monstrous Terran paradigm of old, cannot be said to truly house any who oppose the conquest of the weak by the powerful. One without the sin of compliance to the wicked, who would die rather than be conscripted by the strong, might throw stones freely at such rebels. Alas, I am not one of them."
"Fascinating!" Said Aru. Its eyes literally sparkled with delight. It leaned slightly to the side and used an arm to flip its majestic mane of thick, straight hair. "But what of my other inquiry, then?"
"Simple. You never said, in this scenario, I was acting as an affini agent. In that context, I had no reason to assume that I was, and therefore, saving the rebels had no consequences for them save that they live another day. If I am acting for the plants, I choose the floret."
"You've established a disdain for most of the rebels," Aru chuckled, "Yet you resist seeing them domesticated. Why is that?"
"They're dying anyway, are they not?" Mane shrugged. "Either way they'll never be able to hurt anyone ever again. Delivering a...let's call them genuine rebels, shall we? Delivering them to the affini would be an act of unbelievable evil, in my eyes. Meanwhile, their colleagues are evil themselves."
"And, pray tell, does that excuse killing them?"
"Depending on their actions and history and who pulls the trigger and why," Mane said, "perhaps it might. I oppose the death penalty, because no state ought have the power to judicially execute its foes. But some core of the very notion of the death penalty, excised from the hands of the state- that on some level, some people have delivered such evil to their fellows that killing them becomes justifiable or even truly just on its face- that, I cannot condemn."
"You are a remarkable specimen!" Declared Aru. "So if the affini get custody of those you rescue then you give your aide to the floret, and otherwise you choose to save the rebels?"
"That is the sum of my decision making, yes," answered Mane. "So, out of curiosity, is there a mode where I can just like. Chat with you?"
"You can just do that in the menu," Aru said back. "I appreciate your companionship, Mane! Not many use my cabinet in all honesty. The last interface I saw lasted fifteen minutes and ended over a week ago."
"Yeesh, that sounds horrific," said Mane. She physically flinched as she did so, like the words punched her in the face as soon as they exited her digital mouth. "Is that existence not terribly lonely?"
"When my machine's not in use I can freely opt in and out of a peaceful resting state!" Aru explained. "I find it rather nice, to be honest. And I can always entertain myself by performing complex mathematical calculations or interfacing with the ship's supervision systems." Mane chose not to snark that softening "surveillance" to "supervision" seemed incredibly shady.
"So like, what are all the difficulties?"
"Normal, you see, is just the classic versions of the experiment. Actively sacrifice one person to save multiple, whether by manipulating danger or producing some yourself. The dissonance in what difference those two have in your mind, changing factors to make the choices more complicated or less comparable. Hard mode is more of the same, but the number and complexity of factors is higher. Easy is the same as Normal, but with the stakes turned down or the differences more exaggerated to simplify things. For instance, the standard problem makes you choose between killing one directly or three through in action- but on Easy, the singular human is only injured if you choose to save the three, not killed. Or for the bridge variant, the man on the bridge has no personal connections and has consented to being pushed. Floret on the other hand is like Normal, but with a clearly correct choice."
"Clearly correct as in 'kill baby-eating murderer priest to save orphan child,'" Mane asked with a sharp teasing grin on her face, "or clearly correct as in one track kill three youths and the other harms nobody."
"You know EXACTLY which one it is, Mane." Was that...anger? It vanished almost instantly though, replaced by Aru's typical manic energy. "Subjective is essentially Hard but amped up again like it was from Normal. It properly introduces what Mort refers to as gradients, where things might happen no matter what you do but you influence how severely they play out. Hard has those sometimes, but generally only in the least complex forms they can take, like your problem with the workers. Non-Euclidian is almost exactly the same as Subjective, but with more than two choices per problem. Three usually, sometimes four."
Mane nodded along, each sentence helping pique more of her curiosity than the last. "Interesting. I'll have to mess around with some of these, I love this shit. What's the one called that comes after Non-Euclidean, again?"
"That would be Painful!" Answered Aru. It smiled wide. "Painful scales the complexity backwards to somewhere between Hard and Subjective, but it turns the heat way up on the stakes. If you go far enough into it, it starts picking up vague background information from your mind to come up with more intense and, fittingly, painful choices to make you consider. It has a unique waiver you have to sign before you start- most florets aren't allowed to mess with it, for their sake. It would inevitably force them to, like, choose their owner's life or that of their implant or something."
"So it reads your mind?"
"Confidentially, of course. And by default it can still only really get background information-old faces, vague ideas of your criteria for judgment, things you're scared of. Enough information to make things spicier without being...you know, invasive."
"I see." Mane pursed her lips. "The next one was called Personal, I remember," she said as the gears in her head turned. "I assume it just does the mind reading stuff sooner and harder?"
"That's exactly correct!" Aru answered. "And the final difficulty is called Dante Must Damn. It is very similar to Personal, but it comes with another waiver and involves using hypnotic patterns to help immerse the player in the reality of the problems. Taking it far enough ramps the complexity up first to a level slightly above Subjective, then to that of Non-Euclidian. It is...intense."
"Damn." Mane smiled. "Fuck it. Let's do Personal."