The skies were glowing with its majestic light—a warmth pouring over every cloud, the tops of the mountains, and the green earth below. Rolling hills that flourished with vegetation neighbored by mountains with ripples of crevices and rivers that lead to lakes. Grassy fields wavered like an ocean, inviting any creature to rest in their soft foliage.
Morning dew curled up into the air in Jovin’s wake, his wings barely touching the grass and leaves. He could feel the warmth of the light in the sky on his back and wings and the tickle of dew on his wings and hooves as he skimmed by. He took in a deep breath, and the scent of the earth with it, before pulling higher into the sky. His vision filled with the blue sky and clouds of light awash with the early morning colors of dawn highlighting them in oranges and yellows. Higher and higher he went, the hills flattening, the forests a dabbling of green paint, and the mountains hiding a world of more peaks and lands beneath their shadows. He broke through the clouds and the world around him was a new landscape of white as far as the eye could see, tumbling mists aglow with firelight, providing a welcome cool to his fur and feathers.
He looked toward the light, at the rays that traced the land, burning with a brightness he never knew possible. Finally, his climb peaked and he let himself roll with the wind, the grin on his face wide as he opened his legs to feel the air rush by over his fur and fetlocks. There was nothing to bite at him, no obstacles, only open air, and it was everything. The land, the light, warmth that seeped into his very core, and beauty in every direction. He admired the possibilities, the places and things he could do here. It was as refreshing as the very air he breathed. And the sun, the angel in the sky, washed his very soul. It was all so alive.
An electronic chime resonated in his head sounding like it was coming from everywhere and nowhere, filling his ears and mind. His smile fell as he clenched his teeth, feeling like all the radiating warmth left him, the bristling of wind becoming chilly to him. The graceful glide became a plumet and his legs felt cold and numb while his eyes felt static. Limp in the air, falling to the earth, the sky grew dark, as did everything else until all he could feel was the wind rushing over him, swallowing him in darkness.
Jovin woke feeling stiff and cold despite the warm, stuffy air. The lights of the pod flickered on with a click and a dull hum, barely illuminating the discolored felt interior that had been rubbed raw by years of wear and use. A display beside him lit up, the words burned into the screen before they even appeared.
Insert credits to continue session.
He reached over and pushed the lid of the pod up, eyes lingering on the scruffed metal edges and plastic contours that made up his body. It held unnaturally still while his gaze traced it, comparing it, feeling it with his mind, before he let it fall. Hoisting himself up and pulling his head out of the sensory cradle, he swung the weight of his legs out the side and threw himself out onto all fours.
“Careful. You may need a few moments to readjust to your woken state from the dream state,” A unicorn with far too much mane draped over one side of his face said, not even looking up from the holoscreen that floated before his eyes as it projected from his exoticly blocky wired foreleg. His words sounded routine, far too practiced with very little enthusiasm.
“I’ve done it a million times. I like the wake up it gives me.” Jovin lifted one leg at a time, giving each a little shake, servos and joints faintly whining with the motion.
The unicorn looked up from his holoscreen, hollow eyes registering him quickly before looking back down at the glowing forms before him. “You’d be more comfortable if you let your dream sync more with the body you’re used to.”
Jovin glanced at him as he walked past the rows upon rows of pony-sized coffins, most with a green light above the ‘occupied’ status indicator. It was deathly quiet, save the faint hum of fans and hard drive disks littering the end of each row, the mainframes held together with barely more than a few screws and tape. It would’ve been akin to an abandoned cybernetic morgue if it were any colder, and that was just one open window away. He couldn’t help but reminisce on just what the world came to that lead to these dream boxes that so many clung to.
Since the sun and moon had fallen, the art of dreamwalking had been almost entirely lost. A few tried to rediscover it, and had, to some degree, succeeded, but it wasn’t something that the average pony could experience. Technology, over time, took its natural course with the assistance of unicorns and their magic, and it soon became possible to have a machine create a dream for you. It had its limitations and its consequences, but it quickly became a market of its own—a market that was expensive and risky, its customers becoming emotionally reliant on it for an escape from the world, experiencing what they never had a chance to. Once someone became a lifetime subscriber, it was simply a matter of literally working, eating, and sleeping the rest of your life away. It made Jovin shudder at the idea, yet he craved every sensation it offered.
“Nothing is comfortable enough…” Jovin grumbled to himself as he passed through the doorway, heading out into the neon-lit hall of clutter and trash that would return him to the city streets. There was nothing that could replace what he was missing, but at least he could get close here.
He didn’t get very far before the notifications hit him. Jovin pulled his scarf a bit looser around his neck as he looked down at the rather large list of missed calls that filled his vision, all coming from one pony in particular. Although he was glad that he’d gone dark before having a dream to himself, he dreaded just what would drive Pastel to call him so incessantly, and so soon.
“Great. Let’s see what has your bridle in a bind.” He gestured at the air before him to make the call. It had been several weeks since his first job with Pastel, and several jobs too. Things had been going without a hitch, save the occasional ‘reminder’ from Emi that he still owed her big. It was enough to keep her from going too far but truth be told he knew she got a sick satisfaction out of ‘visiting’ him anyway.
The line clicked, a familiar voice picking up, her tone sounding a little strained. “I’ll call you back on a secure line.”
Before Jovin could utter a single word the line clicked again, going dead. Groaning to himself, he simply continued on down the street, slipping by a few ponies and creatures, their hooves and claws padding and clicking against the pavement, their colors lost in the blinding wash of neon glow of signage.
Since when did she have a secure line? Getting around Leycast Telecommunications was never cheap.
He didn’t have to wait long for the return call. It wasn’t a connection he recognised. Anonymous, yet not denied by his spam filter. Tentatively, he answered and listened to a familiar voice.
“Who the fuck is Raven Quill?”
To say Jovin was dumbfounded would be an understatement.
“Uh… he is a friend of miiiine?” He slowed his pace, looking around at the passersby for any ears listening in on him, feeling uneasy.
“Bullshit,” She said with a surprising amount of venom. “Come clean with me or your ass is on the blacklist.”
“I’m serious!” He glanced around himself again, distancing himself from the crowd. Jovin found a foggy looking alley way that he was sure would give him some privacy. “I knew him a long time ago. Best friend. We lost touch and I’d given up on finding him. Nothing ever came up on search. You know? That's why I was asking you if you could find him.”
There was a sigh on the other end. Jovin wasn’t sure if it was of relief or frustration. All things considered he had no idea what he was getting himself into when he asked for her to find Raven. It was such a passing thought, an old guilt that would come up every now and then but never last very long. Whenever it did come up he would feel a knot in his stomach. He was one of his only friends back then, someone he could lean on and be leaned on in return. The terms they parted on were anything but pleasant. Whatever Pastel was on about made him worried that it was coming back to bite him.
“I’ll take your word for it, but if I suspect a thing, a single fucking thing, I’m cutting you loose. Your friend came up completely blank on my channels. Instead, he—”
“You found him!? Where is he?”
“Don’t interrupt me, you little gremlin!” she snapped. Pastel was clearly agitated, if not more stressed than he had ever heard her be. “I didn’t find your friend. He found me.”
Jovin froze in place momentarily before resuming his stride. He got a few looks from onlookers on the sidewalk that he nearly blocked behind him. The shock on his face probably didn’t help either from keeping any attention off him.
“So… tell me this is the part where he delivered pizza to you right?” He forced a smile, though his eyes were scanning the pedestrians and looking for a way off the street that didn’t involve flying. The airspace above him was thick with neon lights and clusters of tangled wire clinging onto itself for dear life.
“No, pidgeon-fuck, he knocked on my door. I wasn’t home but he was on my door cam. Your friend is quite the piece of work. I spoke with him over the intercom and you’re lucky he wasn’t some hitman or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“Wait,” Jovin slid himself through the doorway of a beat up Retrolife, glancing past the shelves at an assembly of bars and gears with a vape-emitting smoke stack on it. It trundled by with fragile arms as it swept the floor of more dust that it could ever handle. “So you spoke with him? He just wanted to talk?”
“He didn’t want to kill me. I don’t know how long you’ve been in business like this but generally when someone you’re looking for can’t be found at all just suddenly shows up at your door, it's bad news. Lucky for you he’s your friend, because that's what he wanted to know: who was asking about him. Hope he doesn’t want to kill you, because he really took an interest in your name.”
Jovin anxiously waved off the junky roomba with a wing, past old tube television screens lined up on a wall that nearly hurt his artificial eyes. “You told him about me? How much?”
“Not a lot. But he wants to see you. He named a café with a time. It's a pretty public place so I wouldn’t worry about him trying to kill you. I wouldn’t go if I were you, but then again I don’t want him knocking on my door again, so figure your shit out.”
“Right.” He sighed, apprehensive as ever now about meeting someone he honestly thought would be no more than a simple cam call. Something was going on. “Send me the details. Buck and Poppy can fight over what stuff of mine they get if I die.”
“Oh?” Her voice was softer now, her edge from earlier nearly gone. “And what do I get?”
Jovin felt a bump against his hoof. He looked down at the mess of a machine that desperately was trying to clean the floor, spewing out artificial mist from its several chimneys. “How about a roomba?”
The café was deceptive, the storefront looking as run down as any other in the second-rate strip mall that had lived long past its prime before the city had outgrown it. Now giant towers dwarfed the single-story building, casting it in a shadow that could only be remedied by the suffocating lights of advertisements and LED billboards dotting the walkways. Its only saving grace was the view down the main street, leading off toward the dried-up salt flats that once made up the coastline. Even with the sliver of a horizon to the dark winter void, the street side was comfortably cool, most of the snow melting before it even reached the ground.
It had once been a big town, just skirting the coast, not quite far enough away from Canterlot to really be deserving of a seperate name, but with enough of its own identity to make the place unique. That identity was gradually lost over the years, as the town it had once been was transformed into yet another concrete grid supported by steel and smothered by green smog that the new production centers around it generated.
Jovin was apprehensive, pacing about on the sidewalk, watching the crowd occasionally before he would glance back at the coffee shop aptly named ‘Coffee Library.’ From the few distant glances he stole he was barely able to spot any details of the occupants, the window glare being a bit too much, even for his eyes.
He wasn’t sure what to expect at this point. It had been years since he’d spoken with Quill, back when they were both feeling fresh in their teens, when not a single drop of heliodryl was needed, their bodies whole. It was all before either of them knew better.
Jovin shifted on his artificial hooves, having stood in one place for a bit too long. He looked down his cybernetic shoulder, faintly glowing a golden yellow in its recesses. He frowned, nervous about what he would be walking into. The thought of seeing what had happened to Quill since they last met scared him. Jovin hadn’t known much about piloting syndrome then, and he was Quill’s only friend that he could talk to about it at the time. He was the only reason Quill went through with the procedure in the first place. Knowing what he knew now, he was afraid of just how much pain he’d caused, and whatever he was about to walk in on, he probably deserved.
Jovin finally took a breath and went in.
The café was far cleaner and more modern on the inside than its outside impression had left on him. The floors were spotless, walls unblemished, and there were even real wooden countertops, stained and varnished. He could see the appeal of such a place. It was a stunning reminder of the world before, and it was very well-loved. Whoever took care of the establishment clearly had the money to spare in keeping it in tip-top shape. Even its clientele seemed to match the era it was trying to portray.
When he saw the prices on the wall menu, he understood why it was such a nice place, the expenses were easily twice what he’d pay back where he lived. This café was a callback to an era lost to time—a novelty from a time that most ponies would only know from movies and pictures. There were only a few patrons Jovin could see that were old enough to possibly have been around when the sun was still in the sky, but the rest seemed to just be there for the novelty. After scanning the crowd and noticing a few onlookers staring at him, he found his attention was drawn to one individual in particular.
He froze momentarily at the sight of him. It was hard to miss the red hair, the forward-swept mane with a pinned-up braid in the back. Jovin used to tease him endlessly over that, especially since his mane wasn’t too different. He could only see the back side of his head from here, but it gave Jovin the time he needed to relax and feel courageous enough to march over.
With each step closer he noticed the changes—things he’d expected, and things he hadn’t.
The stallion wore a white and grey trench coat, black trimming and subtle blue lights accenting the finely stitched nanoweave. They covered most of his limbs, but it did not hide the dull, matte black finish of the metal and hydraulics that were his legs. Jovin found himself slowing his pace as his eyes searched him more, seeing a lot more new than old. The cybernetics didn’t stop at the legs, the smooth yet edged contours disappearing under the coat. Were it not for the dark vest he wore, Jovin would have guessed his entire underside was no longer organic. Most of his ears were artificial and black, replaced with blue light accented cybernetics, moving to the sounds around him, such as Jovin’s hoof steps.
Jovin stopped beside the table, looking at him face to face. Scaring lines of surgical precision outlined the back of his jaw, with dimples for what could have been access points as if it was all removed and reattached. What stood out the most though, was his lack of eyes. All there was there was a black visor, completely covering his eye sockets and temples, sweeping up past where his eyebrows and forehead would be. Blue squares of light illuminated parts of the visor screen, the shape resembling the whites of an eye, minus the pupil, with more lights where his eyebrows would rest. His face was a blank expression, relaxed, contemplative, and somber with his gaze resting on the yellowed pages of a book that had survived decades of turning.
The silence between them lasted a few moments. Jovin let his jaw drop as he again looked over the unicorn, unsure how much of him was even natural anymore, aside from his neck and half of his face. Quill was as still as a rock, reading his book in silence before finally closing his book without prompt, setting it down in front of him. He slowly looked up to Jovin, the simplistic expressions managing to make even the slightest changes noticeable with each changing pixel on him as he raised his brows, lips pursing barely.
“You too,” Jovin replied, words just as flat and unsure as the other.
The ambient sound of hooves on the floor and quibble in the café filled the void of silence between Jovin’s frown and Quill’s unreadable stare.
“You don’t look too happy, Sweetie.” Quill gently tapped the table closer to Jovin with his hoof, the metal on the imitation wood surface a resounding thunk. “Have a seat if you like.”
“I don’t go by that anymore.” He frowned, turning to look out the window as he slid into the booth, observing the nothingness that broke the oppressive city skyline. Despite the comfort of the soft gel cushions, he didn’t feel all that much at ease. “It’s Jovin.”
Quill nodded and hummed quietly. It was hard to not feel the glow of those eyes, demanding his attention, contrasted against the black void that was half his face. “I see. You changed a lot more than I expected. You spoke of transition, but I didn’t know if you were serious about the cybernetics. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Jovin watched the horizon for a few moments more, but found his gaze gradually focusing on Quill’s reflection. The silence began to mount, and Jovin’s crooked smile now seemed more anxious than authentic. He tried to think of what to even say next, but guilt froze him in place.
Quill noticed and broke the uneasy peace, ‘blinking’ as he gestured to Jovin’s legs.“It wasn’t good for you either, was it?”
Jovin leaned in his seat, teetering as if he was going to bow right out of the question. Were it anyone else it would have been easy for him, but this was a friend he knew from childhood. He couldn’t just tell him his usual shtick, could he? He felt a knot form in his stomach. “You kidding? It's the coolest. Have you seen these grabbys in action?”
He brought up one of his hooves, the claws extending and whirling about like a carousel, and he quickly glanced from them to Quill as they flexed and tapped together like in-built castanets.
Quill humoured him for a moment, but when he looked Jovin in the eye, even the dark depths of his visor couldn’t hide his impatience, or whatever he felt. It was difficult to tell. But he wanted an answer—a real answer. That much was clear.
Jovin deflated, shoulders slumping as he let his forelegs fall to his sides. “It… could be better… A lot better. Okay?”
“I must apologize. I didn’t intend for this to be about uncomfortable subjects.” He looked down at the mug before him, the black liquid untouched, not even steaming. “I was a little... starstruck.”
“Starstruck?” Jovin forced away his frown from earlier, shoving aside unpleasant memories. “That made you want to ask me about these things I have for legs?”
Despite Jovin’s confusion, Quil pleasantly surprised him when he smiled. It was only a gentle tug in the corner of his mouth, and a subtle change in the pixels that made up his eyes, but it was there, and it seemed… genuine. “Well, I’ve missed you. It's been a while since I’ve talked to someone before both our changes.”
It was refreshing to see anything other than a dead stare; it was a familiar smile—one he’d seen a lot of in the past. He couldn’t help but return one of his own.
“How about we start over? I go by Jovin now. I got some new legs and eyes, and I’ll smack ya if you use the old pronouns on me.” He leaned back, throwing his forelegs up on top of the bench seat with a large grin.
“And I’m still Raven Quill. At least in name. I’ve… had many things change.” He winced a little, but the smile never faltered. Jovin had to admit there was far more expression in those patterns of light that made up half his face than he could have guessed. “I’m not privy to tell the details but it comes with my line of work.”
Jovin’s eyes trailed over Quill, again noting the extensive cybernetics that made up his near entirety. He knew he shouldn’t ask the hard questions, but curiosity got the best of him. “What kind of job entails you to cyber up that hard?”
With the same simple grin, Quill shrugged with indifference. “Internal affairs.”
“Seriously? All that Dark Diamond and custom corporate branding cybernetics you have and you are a desk jockey?” Jovin chuckled at the idea. There had to be more.
His laugh was cut short, however, as Quill simply stared at him, that empty expression seeming to bore into him to the point he felt unerved.
“...Enforcement.” Quill said all too flatly.
Jovin felt a chill go down his spine. It all began to make disturbing sense to him now. The full-body cybernetics, the enhancements to sensory functions, and the greeting that Pastel got when she looked for him. He wasn’t some office jockey.
“Wait wait, hold on a sec.” Jovin forced a laugh. “What are you implying? You aren’t one of those ninja’s the suits send after their own guys. Right? Because that would be pretty, heh, uh, crazy.”
Again, that stare, the imitation of eyes giving him little to no hint of what emotion there was, if any at all. Quill just nodded in confirmation.
It hit Jovin all at once. Quill was a corporate hitman.
In a world where corporations ran everything, where governments were a mere formality, the rules were set by the side with the most money and influence. It was commonplace that as individuals moved up the ladder they would have their own agendas aside from those of their own company. Those with ambition would undermine others and climb the ladder, and those up top would seek to stay on top. There was plenty of maneuverings one could do to move up or stay up top, be it publicly disgracing or any means to attack their wealth, but some means were more deadly.
No one knows when it started, but inevitably it became a known fact that internal competition in a corporation could become fatal as tensions built. Internal affairs naturally became a more dangerous position as it was both preventative and enforcement. Everyone knew what it entailed, but officially, no one acknowledged that it was happening. The media and government was controlled by the very corporations that carried out the acts.
Quill was one of these ponies. His expressions were desensitized, and the many high end cybernetics that were hidden under his shell was a sign of how much his employer invested in him. He was good at what he did.
Jovin snapped back to attention, his mind racing alongside his heart. Everything felt far more intimidating now with Quill. The anxious hesitation he had with him before now was full blown paranoia. He never imagined his friend could be capable of such a thing last he saw him. Now here he was, a paid killer. Did their last time seeing each other push him toward this?
Jovin swallowed, his fake smile getting tired. “Oh, I’m kinda in between jobs right now. Heh.”
“Dark Diamond Reco Scout Mark II eyes.” Quill remarked, cocking his head so very slightly. “You found yourself some noteworthy work, I see.”
Jovin’s brows wrinkled somewhat, confused. But then he realised something: it wasn’t everyday that he met someone with such extensive modifications. Perhaps Quill knew all the options by heart. Or maybe, impossibly, he could read the fine product text printed into the edge of his iris. Or did he even have to read it? Anyone with enough credentials could probably look up his history. The thought of someone in Quill’s line of work looking up his history didn’t help his unease.
He tugged his scarf up his neck a bit more, a bit paranoid at what other things Quill might examine on him up close that he rather kept to himself.. “I worked for Turnstone. Scouting and network infrastructure.”
“Turnstone? My condolences. Their fall was not graceful. I hope you didn’t get hit too hard with the backlash.”
Jovin laughed awkwardly. “Well, lets just say I’m more than happy to find jobs and leave it at that.”
Quill nodded, looking at his cold mug, seeming to contemplate if he should even drink it.
“Should I even ask who you work for?”
“Would it even be a surprise, or even matter?” Quill returned the smile. “Dawnray owns most everything as it stands.”
Jovin rolled his eyes, shrugging his shoulders as he tried to shake off the tension in him. “Dawnray eh? That would pretty much put you, well, anywhere, when it comes to what you can cover. Dang, you got it good.”
He tried to think of something else. Something he knew about Quill back in the past. Jovin motioned a wing at the book he had set aside earlier. “Still a bookworm, eh?”
“Of course.” Quill pat the book, a tug of a smile at the corner of his lips. “I never gave it up.”
That was the Quill he knew. That smile, no matter how small, was evidence enough that he was still under there.. He could work with this.
“I’d figure you’d be reading E-books by now, yet you’re probably busting a fortune getting those old slow relics. What gives? You fancy yourself a hipster or something?”
Quill hummed and shook his head. “With so much of our lives becoming reliant on a digital existence, there is something lost. Having a book, feeling the pages, the smell of the paper, flipping from one leaf to the next, is a breath of life we lose to time. Creativity in one of its purest tangible forms… An anchor, grounding you in the moment.”
Jovin arched an eyebrow, raising a hoof to say something, then paused, then set it down. “So… it’s less distracting?”
Quill let out a laugh and shrugged. “That would be part of it, you could say.”
“You aren’t going to lecture me on creative writing and stuff like you always do, you nerd. Right?” Jovin smiled, sincerely this time. He always did before when he got that nerdy side of him to come out. “Always being so fancy with your words.”
“I’ll spare you the pain, though I unfortunately haven’t the time to write...The job can be quite demanding, if not a bit of an inspiration killer.” Quill’s smile fell, his eyes going blank once more as he stared off into the table.
Jovin froze. Again, reminded of what his friend had become, he felt that anxiety start to well up in him again. It was hard to imagine his friend doing such things, but despite what he was looking at in front of him he had a hard time simply just accepting that. There had to be more.
“Eh, well, give it time maybe?” It was harder to smile this time, especially when Quill offered no reply immediately. Instead he just sat there and stared into the table for a few moments.
“How is Poppy?” His blank expression was barely interrupted with a smile that was mild enough to almost go unnoticed. “Is he still crushing on you?”
“Oh, Poppy? Heh, well…” Jovin forced a smile and scratched at the back of his head. “He is… We’re kinda being adults about it, but, well… I just worry I’m kinda in a different… lifestyle?”
“Mhmm. And he is still interested after everything with…” He gestured to Jovin.
“Pfft, heck, I think he became more interested. And it’s not like I’m not interested in him… I just… I guess I’m a bit afraid to tell him. Maybe I can hold out and give it a real try. I don’t know. I wish this stuff wasn’t so damn complicated.”
“It never is simple.” Quill’s eyes closed, the LED lights thinning out into a narrow line before disappearing, and then reopening. “How about we actually get ourselves some sustenance?”
“You just have to say it like you’re such a dork, don’t you? Yes, food please. Then you can tell me how fun it was scaring the crap out of my boss.”
“I will if you tell me how you manage all that hair on your head that you still refuse to cut.”
“Fuck, you’re one to talk.”
“Fine. Though I hope you have the time for a walk after. You might just be the kind of pony I’ve been needing.”