Aru grinned mischievously. It waggled one of its pointer fingers and cocked one hip to the side as if to taunt or reprimand Mane, "Well, Mane, I just looked up your record- by consulting affini databanks, no worries, not by reading your mind- and the thing is, I can't fully authorize that. Sorry buddy, them's the rules."
"What do you mean," Mane asked with her face scrunched up, "fully?"
"Well," started Aru as it sauntered cockily past Mane's left and turned back with an ever more perverse smile, "the thing is that I was built to help sophonts learn about themselves. It's the only reason the DMD setting exists, you know. And...well, your brain feels unsure of itself. You stand strong on your convictions, from all I can gather, but you don't seem to know that. That," Aru flashed an unsettlingly perfect row of teeth so white and flat they looked almost like piano keys. "Intrigues me. I'm sure Mort would understand. In fact," a chime, "I know he understands. Due to a...let's say, quirk in affini legality, Mort can currently act as a substitute for your handler. Is it alright if I call your affini that?"
"How did you know-"
"He acts as a social worker sometimes. I asked him about what I'm planning on doing and made an educated guess about what circumstances would give him the authority to approve...since, you know, he did," elaborated Aru, the long delicate fingers on its right hand playing idly with some of its hair. "Say, this little world in your head- it's really interesting. I'd love to learn more about it. I'm sure Mort would, too, but for now…"
"For now?" Mane asked. She wasn't sure whether it was impatience or curiosity which had compelled her to do so.
"Let's do a little experiment, shall we? No worries, the results will stay confidential. I'll even delete my own record of its outcome when we finish, if you so choose."
"What kind of experiment?" Asked Mane. She felt intrigued and enamored by this strange artificial intelligence and its antics, yet still somewhat wary. It was hard for her not to be, when affini bureaucracy was at play. Aru giggled and fluttered its eyelashes. Mane was unaffected, but knew full well that if not for the cumulative factors that this was an AI with a personality that went far against her type, the body itself being off puttingly monochrome, and her being presently embroiled in hard complex thought...she probably would have been affected.
"Simple!" Proclaimed Aru. It even raised a hand and pointed one finger upwards (though, in these somewhat cramped walls of a space station, not towards any sky) with excitement. "We do exactly what you just asked, but under a slightly modified set of parameters designed to more directly perform the machine's function! And which, if you so choose, I can manually bend back into the normal game's shape anyway. Does that sound like a deal?" Mane paused and pondered her options for a little bit. She was having fun...and the AI had promised to keep this confidential if she wished. As long as she could opt out in the event something proved upsetting in any lasting way, that meant she wasn't really taking that big a risk if she accepted. Hell, the results she got might even prove helpful for her case, and she didn't even need to make that gamble until after she knew what those results were.
"As long as this isn't some kind of test," Mane negotiated, "and I can opt out at any time, and you keep your word. About...about your offer to ask whether to keep, share, or entirely delete all record of the specifics, and do so only after it's over...yeah. Yeah, I'm in. I accept."
"Splendid! Simply marvelous!" Once more Aru's body became a pink, human shaped galaxy of pixelated mist and glitter. That mass rushed through Mane and savagely contorted in on itself as it passed through, on the other side condensed into a sphere. The colors grew paler until they were all white, squirming and writhing as if something were fighting to break free. A burst of cracks exploded all about its surface like ruptured glass or ice, with a sharp shriek to match, then-
The sphere burst open like an egg into the shape...approximately...of a human being. Short and with no eyes, nose, lips, teeth, or nails, its new form was definitely much weirder than the last two. The body which Mane had named Epsilon in her school days laughed as a fog, hard to see for the lack of color, filled its body. A single glowing shape of an eye appeared, flat but stretched over a rounded surface, facing out of its maw. The seams from before laced its body all about at random.
"Do I WANT to know what this gremlin's deal is?"
"No," Mane answered flatly. "You almost assuredly don't. His name is Epsilon, though."
"Cool name!" Epsilon giggled. "I like it. Epsilon. Anyway, do you need any extra time to prepare for our...how do you pronounce that word? Soiree?"
"Soiree." Mane confirmed with a simple yet determined nod. Epsilon responded with a much less restrained and far more eager nod of its own.
"Just let me know when you're ready to begin."
"I am ready."
Mane found herself standing on a small hill. In front of her a track split in twain. On one side there were three humans, all tied up. Pretty standard stuff. On the other there was only one person, and notably no sort of bondage seemed to have them immobilized. They were, however, unlike the others...unconscious. Mane's mind raced ahead immediately. Was this a trick question? Could she save all four of them at the expense of herself?
"Which one gets hit if I don't pull?"
"The one on his own," Epsilon answered, stepping out of a powerful fog that Mane only now noticed engulfed all sides of the problem like the walls of a colosseum. It was white as paper, and so thick that it seemed to be not just opaque but solid. "The problem goes as follows. Those three are florets. Your father tied them up on the track to die. That guy on the other side tried to rescue them but got knocked out."
"Then…" Mane gritted her teeth. Sacrificing one person to save three, absent of other factors, was pretty standard. But this wasn't absent of other factors. The one wasn't just innocent. They had actively tried to save the others. This didn't make it more wrong to change the tracks, Mane figured; it was extremely unlikely that the kind of person to try and save them (and against violent resistance, no less) would then be glad to wake up alive and discover the three had been killed in their place. It wasn't harder to decide what to do...but it WOULD be harder to do it. Mane slowly grasped the lever. The distant sound of rumbling informed her that the trolley was coming. "He tried to save them. If I sacrifice them so he lives, then I've not just killed three innocent people through my inaction, I've also spat in the face of his bravery. I have to pull the lever." She leaned back and-
"One more thing," said Epsilon. Mane readjusted her weight and found herself standing at attention. "Before your decision. Your father, being an idiot, has somehow found a way to get his leg broken in all this. He is currently trapped on the same track as the florets." Mane's heart felt an icy dread. What WOULD she do in this scenario? "Do you do nothing, and allow your father to be hoist by his own petard? Or do you kill an innocent to save three?" Her hand froze. Saving a murderer from his own means of dealing death, at the expense of someone who tried to save their victims' lives felt like an act of unmistakable evil. Yet if she didn't, three innocents would die. She had no need to imagine the situation, either. Even if she knew the trolley wasn't on a time limit-for all she knew it wouldn't even come if she decided not to pull the lever- its screeching rumbles made it difficult to displace the fear inside herself.
"I….fuuuck, this is hard," Mane muttered almost hatefully. Surely the RIGHT answer was to save the three. The affini answer would be to save the three by pulling the lever, then extend a vine or a hand or whatever and physically wisk the florets' previous savior out of harm's way.
Pffft. The affini answer. Perhaps the lowest difficulty should have been called "Affini" instead.
"What are you pondering, Mane?" Epsilon asked gently.
She grimaced. Again, there was no questioning the "right" thing to do. Both options sucked. "Is there any chance of me running to that guy in time to move him before the trolley arrives?"
"I don't quite see why you'd ask that, because it feels like cheating," Epsilon commented, "Care to enlighten me, pray tell?"
"Well," Mane said as she hunched over the lever, grasping it tightly. It was made of smooth metal, cool to the touch, and covered in intricate engravings. Mane would absolutely love some kind of little figurine with similar properties to stim with. "If I can try and save him, even if it kills me, I have to."
"Have to?" Asked Epsilon. "That's interesting. I thought you just said sacrificing innocent lives to save him would be disrespectful?" There was no malice behind its voice, no intent to prove that Mane was lying or trying to do evil. Epsilon merely wished to learn. Its questions, she could tell, were those of a therapist or friend trying to help reverse engineer one's beliefs into its component parts- not to use them as weapons, but to learn. To understand. To discover.
"I said sacrificing those innocent lives to save him would be disrespectful," Mane clarified. She still had her hand on the lever. "I am a stranger. I have done none of them any good so far-if I can change that, I must. "
"So you do good out of obligation?" Coming from Effus, that question would be an accusation. A revolver with one bullet, her name lovingly engraved in helices dancing all across the barrel, primed and ready to fire and aimed between her eyes. Coming from Epsilon, though, it seemed...doubtful. Not in the way of a lawyer having determined she was lying, but in the soft and neutrally cautious way that a scientific mind is ready to gently doubt anything as a matter of course.
"I...don't think so?" Mane said back, audibly unsure of herself. "I just...it's wrong not to do good, right? To have power over others, even the fleeting power provided by circumstance, and opt not to use it for good as best you can is wrong. He chose to use his power to help them, and suffered for it. Letting that rest...it wouldn't be right."
"I see! Are you not doing good, though, by pulling the lever? I'm sure anyone who'd throw themselves on a track to save innocent lives, with hostiles present to physically stop them, would not then be upset if several of those lives were saved at the unfortunate cost of their own. Is that an unreasonable assessment?"
"No," Mane said. She drummed her fingers on the lever. She had decided to pull it, by now...probably, but she assumed doing so would end the scenario. She wasn't done talking it out yet.
Of course pulling it was the right option. Someone who did this deserved to die. Of that, she felt, there could not possibly be any doubt. If it were only her father and the unconscious man, she would wash her hands of the matter with ease and eagerly watch a murderer be destroyed by their own evil.
Yet, it was not just those two. It was those two, plus three other innocents. Ideally, she felt, she could save the three and then go back for the guy who tried to help them. In this simulation, this was an option...or it would be, if she had a decent knife or knew how to work rope worth a damn. In the real world there'd be a strict time limit though, which would only allow her to extract one of them at most. At best, she could pull the lever and help the would-be rescuer...perhaps having to be killed or maimed herself in the process.
"I suppose...let's keep it interesting," mused Epsilon. "You have enough time and are strong enough to go pick the unconscious guy up and throw him clear of the trolley, but you won't be able to get clear yourself. Does that answer serve your purposes?" Mane nodded. She was sure of the answer, even if she didn't know she'd be courageous enough to do it in the flesh.
"Yes. So my choices, then, are to pull the lever and sacrifice him, pull the lever and sacrifice myself, or leave it and sacrifice the three florets?"
"Correct. What say you?" Mane swallowed and yanked the lever back. Then she sprinted down the hill and towards the unconscious man. She didn't even notice that Epsilon was following her by floating ominously. When she got to his body she hefted him up, gave him a toss, and-
Nothing but light. Mane was floating in a greyish white void. She was stunned for a moment until Epsilon, by speaking, snapped her out of it.
"You didn't think I'd make you be hit by a trolley, did you?" It was a good point. Mane found herself laughing as relief poured into her body. That made perfect sense, actually, of COURSE the affini VR machine wouldn't hurt you if you did something kind...assuming it could hurt you at all (outside of a very specific context which...this particular machine probably wasn't meant for). "Are you distressed?"
"Not especially." Mane gestured out dusting herself off. Her digital avatar here wore the same clothes she did outside, which until now she'd never cared to take a moment and notice. At least, she was fairly sure she hadn't. "I'm good for another one, I-"
"CONGRATS!" Yelled a disembodied voice. "YOU UNLOCKED AFFINI MODE!"
"It's an...I believe you humans call them Easter Eggs?" Epsilon elaborated. "Mort explained the concept to me once. Anyway, yeah, there's an affini difficulty that's even lower than the floret one. You must've unlocked it during the previous problem. It is triggered by the specific combination of the Terran or affini brain wave pattern associated with wanting or imagining an easier way out, followed by a moment of bleak comedy. If the secondary mind scanner- which can't detect thoughts or words, only vague patterns which it uses to continually make sure the player is under no more than acceptable, safe, regulated levels of distress- senses those things in that order, the primary one activates for a few seconds set to only look for one of a small list of words, such as 'affini.' If it finds one of them then, bam! You unlock affini mode. Which, yes, is even lower than floret mode."
"Pfffff-pfffft! Pfff hahaha!" Mane clutched at her stomach and kicked about wildly. Laughter viciously assaulted her insides. "Holy shit that's amazing Mort I love you!" She snapped back to composure instantly. "In the, uh, 'I love this dish' or 'I love this guy' kinda way, not-er. You know."
"I do," Epsilon agreed. Its singular glowing eye was really starting to unnerve Mane but it seemed to be enjoying this body and if the pattern held up its next form would be a hulking mass of wriggling worms continually eating everything in reach, dying, and then exploding into more of themselves ever hungrier to eat all in sight. She...she could deal with this. "You said you're good for another one?"
Mane stood in a court room. She seemed to be a judge. Before her were two benches. On her desk, Epsilon sat with its legs dangling and an expression that would doubtlessly be a toothy grin if it were not currently shapeshifted into a wretched demon that didn't have any teeth.
"The courtroom is just for drama," Epsilon elaborated. "Let's pretend you have perfect information. This isn't how law works. I know. You're not acting as an actual judge here, so don't feel fettered by uncertainty or obligation to obey realistic legal procedure."
"Alright, kinda sketchy but whatever," Mane said. "I follow. What's the deal?" A humanoid figure entered the room. They came to front stage and bowed.
"This is our culprit. Their name is...let's say, B. B here tried to murder someone and failed. You know for a fact they will try to do it again if you let them out."
"I follow," said Mane. "What else?"
"Like I said, that's it. Do you think it's most just to try and detain them, such that they can't try their crime again, kill them, or give them to the affini?"
Of course, domestication was the "obvious" correct choice. A floret posed no threat to anyone, and conversion was presumably a lesser violence than killing them. Depending on the type of domestication, Mane could even see herself agreeing that it was.
"Who'd they try to kill?"
"Someone. Doesn't matter who, for our purposes." Mane pursed her lips and rested a finger on them.
"Will they be subjected to class O drugs?"
"Let's say yes."
Epsilon tilted its head. "Death? I thought you said-"
"The courtroom is just for drama, no? I, as a lone figure, have the choice to either hopefully stop them, definitely stop them, or let myself become an accomplice to a violence much grizzlier than killing. I choose death."
"Do you choose killing over drugs for your own sake, then?"
"Perhaps. I suppose I would ask the killer which they'd prefer, given the chance."
"The attempted killer."
"You said I know for a fact they'll try again."
"Yes. What if they fail?"
"Am I gamble on incompetence with lives as bargaining chips?"
"I see your point. Let's say he definitely will try again, and you magically know he'll succeed. Are Class-O's such a tremendous evil that risking your life for an opportunity not to use them is worth giving them the autonomy?"
"Yes, I suppose. If they would choose it over death than, I suppose, it is less of an evil to give them to the affini than kill them outright."
"Even if asking takes away the chance to kill them quickly with no chance of failure and no risk to yourself?"
"Interesting." Another person walked in. It was…
It was Melody.
"Let's say this charming lass was the would-be victim. Does that cha-"
"Death. I choose to kill." Mane made a gun with her fingers for emphasis, pointed it at the culprit, and cocked it back as if she'd fired.
"You're awfully eager on this one," Epsilon remarked, "before you said something different. What changed?"
"The victim," Mane stated as obvious fact. "They tried to kill Melody. Death."
"Interesting. What if they prefer class O drugs? If you see it as an even greater evil, is it not a better revenge? In fact, you could even go straight to the affini with zero risk to yourself." Mane shook her head.
"No. Anybody who tried to kill Melody gets the sword."
"Mane, I know you know how swords are shaped. That's not a sword."
"It's a figure of speech," Mane grumbled. "Yes, I would kill to protect Melody."
"What if she pleaded for you not to?"
"Then depending on the severity of her cries I would either do it anyway or give him to the affini."
"Detainment isn't an option?"
"Jails are an unjust institution."
"But you aren't a judge here,"Epsilon chided. "That changes nothing?"
"If I know for a fact they WILL try again? Then no, that changes nothing. But in reality, you can almost never be sure of that."
"Of course," mused Epsilon. "I'm curious. You seem extremely vengeful, and it appears you consider the domestication, at least the most forceful forms of domestication, to be worse than death. So what compels you to hold off on using it as punishment?"
"I'm not a MONSTER," Mane growled. "If I consider a fate worse than death, I will not meet it out as a matter of revenge. Death is plenty."
"Ah," Epsilon purred, "A Free Terranist are you? Calling the affini monsters is pretty serious."
"I didn't mean it that way." Mane felt no obligation to plead. Perhaps she trusted this machine to believe her, or perhaps she simply didn't feel like begging it to forgive her.
"Of course not, you wouldn't be here if you did." Epsilon snapped again. They were back in the void.
"I'd love to continue but your tablet is ringing. What should I do with my records?"
"Can you delete just what I...just the monster thing?"
A beep. A text box appeared that read confidential information erased. Thank you for playing.
"You can just keep it then. Share with your creator, if you wish."
"I think I will!" Chirped Epsilon. It waved. "Have a nice day!"
Mane felt herself being whisked away as her consciousness slid free from the headset and flew back out into her own actual, physical body. The disconnect left her a little bit too stunned to answer immediately, but her tablet was in fact ringing. Effus was calling her.