by Korenav

Red Flag

The salt flats that had once been the coastline to the city were ahead of them. Beaches lined with resorts and vacation getaways were now boarded up, repurposed, or left as failed husks trying to adapt to the new world. The chill of the wind from the endless darkness that disappeared into the horizon drained away warmth from Jovin, his wings occasionally having to act as a shield from the frigid wind. The heating elements in his wing exos came to life not much further into the cold, the blood warming there and spreading through him. That was an upgrade he was thankful for, powered by refined sunstone, but it could only do so much against the elements. He didn’t want to be out here anymore than he had to.

“So, you wanted to show me something out here?” Jovin picked up the pace, trying to keep close to Quill and use him as a windbreaker.

“It’s not too far.” Quill’s eyes were a beacon in the darkness, undeterred by the wind or the void of the horizon. Jovin couldn’t help but feel that even for having mere lines of light for eyes, they commanded that much more attention to them, even with the most mild of expressions.

“Why the visor? You could’ve had eyes, like… artificial ones. I mean, it's stylish, but I never thought that’d be your... style?” Jovin ran his eyes over Quill’s form, surmising that he probably had very little idea of just how much his friend’s preferences had changed over the years. He had seen some of the most organic-loving ponies become quite the machinery-loving cybernetic junkies, giving up their flesh to further detach from their equinity, becoming a manufactured machine imitating or enhancing what they had become. He was more than aware of the parallels with his own legs; the thought chilled him.

“I still have my eyes,” Quill said, unyielding as he marched through the coastal darkness. “I had a bit of an...incident. My company demanded ocular upgrades. I... prefered to have something left of me, so I opted for enhancements. It's all still very digital though.”

Jovin thought he heard the barest bit of hesitation in his story, but the wind masked his words just enough that he wasn’t sure. He knew Quill’s eyes were something special to him. The phrase ‘have something left of me’ had him thinking quite a bit about just what the rest of those cybernetics could mean to him.

“The windows to the soul,” Jovin said to himself. Quill offered no reply. He wasn’t even sure if he heard him. It reminded him though to finally ask something he had been gradually preparing to ask.

“How about the piloting syndrome? Do you get that?” He moved in closer to Quill, not wanting to mishear anything.

Quill slowed his pace, eventually coming to a stop. He lifted one of his hooves, those glowing lights of his reflecting off the cold scuffed metal frame and plating that made up most of his body. Hinges and servos with fiber optics that moved on his command, all translated to zeros and ones, and the feedback they provided being just as binary.

Jovin could already imagine what was going through Quil’s mind. The line where your movements and sensations stopped being a part of your body and started being a machine you spoke to in another language was so thin. It was commonplace with getting so many cybernetics that you became more and more aware of the machine that you were operating, the parts of you that were improvised and imitated what you lost, badly, yet better. The motion of a leg became a series of start and stop commands, pivots and angles, breaking down into the binary code that your brain could begin to understand with time. It was never a pleasant feeling, to know what a machine could feel like, or was it simply that you forgot the feeling of what it was like to have a living body?

Jovin winced as he watched Quill stare at his hoof and its curious movements. It had been too soon to ask.

“Sorry.” Jovin scrambled to redirect the conversation. “Heh. You do look pretty awesome though. Like, really, you got that cool badass look to you now like you came out of an anime or—”

“I can hear the binary in my head.” The glow of his eyes dimmed out into simple lines. It took Jovin a moment to realize that Quill had closed his eyes, or at least, had shut off the sensors that provided him his vision, and the screens on his face were displaying that he had done so in the name of maintaining social cues. “The servos spin, the sensors feedback their movement, the color value and tone of every pixel in my vision. Everything is a digital box of zeros and ones that I live in. Each new input is an electrode stabbing me, interpreting it into something I gradually forget I used to be able to feel naturally. The feedback dampeners help but they tend to slow me down if I leave them on...I guess you could say the piloting syndrome is... not quite what you told me it would be. But you didn’t know back then either.”

Quill’s visor lights illuminated once more, the shapes of eyes glowing in the cold air around them. He pulled his gaze away from his hoof, resuming his walk, leaving Jovin in place, stunned.

That was quite the mood killer.

“...Well, at least you can still do a lot of awesome stuff, have perfect eyesight, and you haven’t lost your knack for being wordy and dramatic.” Jovin smiled uneasily. This was not a comfortable route of conversation. He glanced to his shoulder, goggling the metal and lights it consisted of.

Quill again paused, and Jovin feared he might have triggered yet another depressing shpeel of monologue from him.

“...I can say, my perfect vision has given me the perception to say that, after all these years, your posterior is equivalently, if not more so subject to quips and witticism.” Quill looked over his shoulder to Jovin, his dead serious stare making his companion take pause before a smile finally revealed itself.

Jovin, deadpan blinking at Quill before his friend turned to continue, blushed. “Hey! That stuff was only funny in school! Don’t you dare start making fun of my ass again you nerd.”

Quill simply grinned to himself as he trudged on ahead through the snow and sand, speaking to himself under his breath. “But it’s so rewarding.”

“At least I don’t have a metal butt.” Jovin huffed and pranced a few steps to catch up with Quill.

“I can hear you.”

The pair traveled out onto what looked to be a pier of sorts, its form mostly lost to the sand and snow drifts, smoothing it out into a peninsula with a sheer drop at the end. Even as they approached the collapsed and frozen lighthouse on its end, Jovin could tell why Quill was bringing him here.

Even in the great beyond of darkness that defined the city limits, in the great salt ocean pits, there was light. It was faint along its edges, but its core could be made out once Jovin’s digital eyes compensated, no longer overwhelmed with the city glare.

“Manehattan,” Quill said, coming to a stop with his focus on the distant lights. Jovin eyed the distant sparkle before looking back down the coast to the south. Miles of blinding building lights ran down it like a wall on the edge of black oblivion.

“You took me out here for something a lot more serious than sightseeing, didn’t you?” Jovin turned his gaze back to Quill.

“What gave me away?” Quill watched the distant city lights a bit longer before turning to face him, eyes devoid of expression.

Jovin would be sweating were it not so cold, apprehension building. “...You know I’m all about tech. Pulling me out here into a deadzone is a big red flag for me.”

Quill kept his eyes on Jovin, unreadable and content. “You’re someone I know. Someone I can have trust in.”

“Oh no, no you don’t!” Jovin shook his head, pointing a hoof accusingly, claws extending to add effect. “Did you grab this out of a movie or something? Take me out someplace secret to tell me secret things I shouldn’t know?”

Quill continued to stare at him with the same expression he had before.

Jovin had thought this could be another joke, but Quill’s silence was rather telling. “....Oh, you’re serious.”

“I am. I realize the implications of a pony in my position wishing to talk to you based on trust.”

“Is this something I should actually hear? I mean, you’re basically a hitman and you want to talk out here? With me?”

Quill continued staring at him, again his silence an answer.

Jovin sighed. “...Alright. Yeah, who am I kidding. Of course I want to hear this. I’m a junkie for this kind of crap.”

“...I need information from high above.”

“Don’t we all?”

“Information from the people who sign the paychecks of those who sign my paychecks.”

Jovin narrowed his eyes. That already sounded like it was reaching megacorp level. “That sounds pretty far up the chain. Like Dawnray or something.”

The fact that Quill nodded gave Jovin a chill. “I can’t tell you more than that until I know you’re willing to either commit to this, or forget it ever happened.”

“Count this cat in.” He sighed, digging his claws into the ground. “Curiosity and all that. I can use a challenge.”

Quill kept his eyes on him, unmoving, analyzing him before continuing. “I’ll be giving your handler the basic details, but the thing that only you need to know is this. Project Sköll. Financial assessment and numbers, and all information pertaining to its continuation.”

“Huh...All that just to watch your paycheck?” He smirked. “You know a job like that isn’t going to be cheap. Heck, you’re asking for information other corporations would try and fail to steal. I’d need a lot of gear and money to even think I could do that. I mean, I’m flattered you’d ask me, but...”

“I’ll get you a prototype GUMBaLL, full package, made ready for you.”

“...That’s a bit of money worth of stuff to throw.” Jovin had to admit that it was quite a generous offer, more than he could afford working with Pastel for a whole year. Not to mention it would help get him past ASGARD. “But still, a job that dangerous?”

“I’d throw in a full exosuit but I feel that may not be your style. Something more low profile that you can actually use and fly with...”

“...Okay, now you’re just trying to appeal to me. This? As payment?”

“Down payment.” Quill said with the indifference expected of someone being asked their preference in soft drink. “Part of it. Consider it an investment in your success.”

Jovin opened his mouth to say more but held his tongue. There was something about this that didn’t sit right with him. It was well into the red flag territory now, but it came from a friend. A friend who wasn’t quite the same as he used to be. Just what was driving him?

“You’re going to need to lay it to me straight here. You’re asking me to do something that takes a lot more than money to sell me on. Money isn’t worth anything to me if I’m dead or working the sunstone mines the rest of my life. What’s actually at stake here huh? What has someone like you getting all crazy over something like this?”

Quill stared into Jovin, those eyes of light searching through him, until breaking away to look to the barren snowscape. “...I’m trying to save the world.”