• Published 16th Apr 2016
  • 1,057 Views, 63 Comments

Crackship in a bottle - Shrink Laureate

  • ...

.eq – Preamble

Author's Note:

While I'm at this, here's the first chapter (prelude in fact) to another long story that's sitting deep within my queue. I absolutely want to write the rest of this, but first I need to learn a lot about how to write HiE that doesn't suck, as well as about TCP/IP and related topics.

Bright Spark landed in the seat beside me with an ungainly thump. He had sleepy eyes and an even bigger mug of coffee than mine.

“Morning,” I ventured.

“Merblughl,” came the approximate reply. He set his mug down, sucked in a deep breath as he stretched all four legs and both wings out to full in a big yawn, then settled back down. He was like a cat sometimes. I’m sure that attempting to tickle under his ears would earn me scratches and bite marks.

He murmured, “Did I miss much?”

“Nothing you don’t know already. They’re still getting the noobs up to speed.”

“Fine.” He sagged until his muzzle landed in the coffee, and stayed there getting soggy.

I cast my eye around the lecture theatre. This was a keynote, so it was in the largest conference theatre.

Some of the delegates had tablets or laptops or pads of paper, and were halfheartedly taking notes. About two thirds of the audience were human, peppered throughout with various colourful ponies. The Google delegation looked to have the most ponies out of the terran companies, followed closely by CloudFlare, with RackSpace and IBM trailing a little behind. The Vodafone, Fujitsu and Atos parties were entirely human. I wondered what that said about each company’s culture, and whether the presence of ponies who couldn’t have more than a few years’ experience in networking was anything more than a publicity stunt for them.

Near the front right sat the Equestrian government group led by Princess Twilight, looking disconcertingly bright and cheerful for this time of the morning, and the Crystal delegation next to them.

A few rows in front of us and to the left were the ‘others’ delegation, consisting of a minotaur cow, two gryphons that looked to be twins, a zebra stallion, and a dragon named Ember taking up two wheelchair spaces and half the aisle. She had a lot of empty seats around her. I felt a little sorry for the hotel chefs required to feed a growing dragon among all the other special dietary needs they were dealing with this week.

The professor on stage was still recapping ancient history. “As you know, RIPE began allocating from their last /8 A block in 2012, coincidentally just a few months after first contact with Equestria. In the decade since then, smaller A blocks have been exhausted, and trade in IP ranges has picked up, with the price of even a /24 block now reaching critical levels. At the same time the canonical routing table has been broken into smaller and smaller chunks, exceeding the capacity of some older routers and requiring patches and an unreliable system of sub-routing. Uptake of IPv6 continues to lag behind the tipping point. The deployment of carrier-grade NAT has meant an increasing number of consumers that don’t present a unique IP address…”

Nothing I didn’t know already. The important vote wouldn’t be for another two days, but we all knew the likely outcome. Forward-thinking companies like Google, Apple and the Equestrians would say Yes; a few of the old-fashioned tech companies would say No, because they wanted the extra money that a more complicated installation would entail; nobody was certain how the “others” would vote, even themselves, but it mattered little. With or without them, we were almost certain to agree on an IPv6-only solution for Equestria. Except for a few tunnels to make sure important domains like gov.eq were reachable over IPv4, of course, and all the other exceptions that would no doubt turn up.

Bright Spark pulled his laptop out of his saddle bag and opened it up. It was a professional-looking black slab, a human type with a full keyboard. It had his cutie mark, a stylised radio tower, stuck on the back.

Despite their clumsy-looking hooves, ponies can be quite ingenious. Most traditional typewriters in Equestria had just two big keys, on which ponies could tap out a combination – left-right-right-left-right – for each letter. There was a space bar, that could be double-tapped for line feed. The fancier models had a lever on the side to switch between the earth pony, pegasus and unicorn scripts. That mechanism didn’t adapt very well to English though, since it has more letters, more punctuation, and mixes upper and lower case. There were various models of chording keyboards coming out that were made especially for hooves, and typically resembled a pair of oversized gaming D-pads, but there wasn’t any real agreement yet on the design. Learning the Apple input method was useless when you switched to one from Canonical or Microsoft or any of the other versions. For now, that meant a QWERTY keyboard was still the mark of a pony with real work to do.

The pegasus deftly strapped on a pair of finger-boots – little elasticated hoof-boots each with a short finger-like protrusion sticking out – and started pecking away. When a human pecks at a keyboard with two fingers it annoys me, but for now it’s the best a pegasus or earth pony can do, and Bright Spark was quick and accomplished.

I just had a tablet out myself, and was using its stylus to doodle caricatures of the other delegates. I had a particularly good rendition of Fleur de Lis in minimalist pink line art, capturing her aristocratic polite boredom. I turned my attention to Professor Dullard, or whatever his name was.

“Highlighted in red on this slide are the regions that have begun allocating IPv6 only connections, while in green are those with a remaining stockpile of IPv4 addresses. As you can see, the western countries were allocated the lion’s share of IPv4 addresses early on, and are now among the last to fully migrate…”

“Eugh,” my colleague sighed in contempt as he quickly took a picture of the slide with his laptop and used an app to apply a weird colour filter to it.

“You want to file a complaint? You’re probably not the only colour blind guy in the room.”

“No point,” he replied wearily. “It won’t be the same guy who makes that mistake next time. Besides, I know the material better than he does anyway.”

I added a few wrinkle lines, making my caricature of the speaker notably less flattering, and showed it to my partner. He snorted a laugh.

The event host stepped back onto the stage. “Thank you for listening, everypony, and thank you Professor Duryard for the information. Next I’d like to welcome Princess, I mean, Dr Twilight Sparkle to the stage for her keynote speech about the OSI Reference Model and how it applies to the forthcoming Equestrian deployment.”

After the keynote we were herded into the lobby to ‘mingle’. A few companies had fixed stalls with big logos and uniformed representatives, but most of us just loitered. The more dedicated engineers had slipped out to hit the bar early.

I found Bright Spark in a secluded corner with his laptop out and an uncharacteristically lovey-dovey look on his face. “I love you too, sugarcube. I’ll see you soon.” He blew a kiss to the screen. I caught a brief picture of a blonde woman before the call ended.

“Was that your wife?” I asked as he shut the lid.

“Nah, just one of many mistresses,” he said sarcastically. Of course his wife.

“She’s hot.”

“And don’t I know it. Hands off, sleazebag.” Such a way with words, that pony.

I wasn’t kidding though, Felicity was blonde and gorgeous, with a sexy accent – Swedish or something. They’d been married less than a year, and our jobs kept us travelling to exciting basements and office blocks around the world, so the two had been kept apart for too much of that time. I knew they talked online a lot, but that was the first time I’d actually seen her.

“Anyway, I’m gonna go get some sushi with Gossamer and the twins. You joining us?”

“Nah, I’m good. The hotel’s put together a barley salad that doesn’t suck too much. I’ll see you for the afternoon session.”

As the stacks of little colour-coded plates piled up, minus their delicious little fish fragments, I was increasingly glad that this meal would be going on expenses.

We were, of course, the centre of attention.

Since first contact a decade before, humanity’s collective attitude to ponies had moved from shocked disbelief, through fear, suspicion, mistrust, novelty, enthusiasm, disillusionment, and was now well on its way toward humdrum normality. There were a few rabid bible bashers preaching the end of the world, a few conspiracy nuts shouting for us to shut down the portal before we get invaded by brain-sucking alien monsters, but even they were dwindling to normal levels.

This town in particular was close enough to the portal that it had a growing pony population as well as a regular trickle of ponies passing through on their way to places more interesting, and equally of human ambassadors, traders, adventurers and pioneers on their way to the portal. Some tourists still stopped in the street when they saw a pony, pointing and taking photos, until the locals pointed out how inconsiderate they were being and might they please consider finding a less obstructive place to stand, such as the middle of traffic.

Restaurants that could cater to pony diets had quickly adapted, typically offering lower chairs and tables and adding dishes based on hay and flowers (the first iterations of which were, I’m told, shockingly bad). Some restaurants had hired pony chefs, but if they were any good they’d quickly move to jobs at better restaurants in bigger cities. Apparently they’d started building pony-specific toilets as well, though I was a little vague on the specifics of those.

The other sort of restaurant and bar, the sort that specialised in steak, ribs, burgers, fish and other unpony foods, had doubled down as being human only in contrast, a refuge for all those not entirely sold on the way the world was headed.

This network conference was the big thing in town right now, occupying the whole conference centre and practically every hotel room. In just the last week pony trade had picked up significantly, and every joint in town had pony customers now.

Even so, a party consisting of one minotaur, two gryphons and one plain old human male was an unusual sight, particularly in a restaurant whose primary ingredient was something ponies would never touch. The customers, sushi chefs and staff were all staring at us with varying degrees of subtlety and attitudes ranging from curiosity to horror (though to their credit, we still got good service). Parents moved to protect their children, whether from dangerous animals or difficult questions.

Or it might just have been our table manners.

“What’s wrong?” asked Tovi, throwing another couple of salmon maki into her beak.

“I thwallowed thomething hot,” replied Gossamer Threads, reaching desperately for her tea. She was a shapely older minotaur cow with pale turquoise fur, and surprisingly soft-spoken.

“Poor little minotaur can’t handle a little wasabi,” teased Sofi. She at least was using chopsticks, and surprisingly adept at them with her talons. The gryphon twins were both a striking white with black spots all over. I wasn’t sure what creatures they took after – some sort of falcon and an ocelot perhaps? - but they both looked sleek and predatory.

It wasn’t hard to get a waitress’ attention, distinctive as we were, and ask her for “some more tea please.” The little oriental woman scuttled off obediently, glad to have escaped.

“You were saying?” I prompted.

“Thank you, yes,” continued Gossamer, fanning her mouth. “With the minotaur tribes as scattered as that, marriage prospects are always somewhat limited. Many a young heifer has had to settle for the first bull to come along, regardless of whether they match at all in intellect, in temperament or,” she coughed politely, “in the sack. You probably think we’re terribly backward for living like that.”

“Not at all, there are plenty of human communities with the same problem even now. For some, the net has helped with that, connecting young men and women over long distances,” I added. “It’s also helped keep some ancient traditions and minority languages alive, even at the same time that it’s endangered others.”

“Which is precisely what I hope to bring to my people. Assuming we can find a way of connecting the hundreds of nomadic tribes in the wilderness without mains electricity. And without using any satellites either, of course.”

“Yeah, that bit of the treaty isn’t going anywhere,” I said wistfully. Our job would be so much easier if we could just throw a few communications satellites into orbit. They didn’t even cost that much any more.

“I didn’t expect this job to be easy,” she said proudly.

“So is that what happened to you?” I asked. “An arranged marriage?”

“No, I never married. You see, like ponies, our gender ratio at birth is somewhat uneven, typically at least two to three cows for every bull, a fact exaggerated by the tendency of young bulls to do foolish and dangerous things. And like the ponies, our ancestors used to live in ‘herds’, but have largely rejected that in favour of monogamy. More or less. But even before then, our tribal myths are replete with stories of two cows – sometimes sisters, sometimes friends – who lived, travelled, worshipped or faced danger together. That even extends to two of our goddesses who lived in the same cave. With hindsight it’s clear that from antiquity the minotaur species has had a strong undercurrent of sapphic relationships, understood but unstated. That too is something I hope the net can help with.”

I blinked for a second, putting two and two together. “Oh. Er, I see.”

Tovi whooped, “You go, sister!”

Her sister Sofi interjected with “Indeed. But you’ll probably find something else happens, if you do manage to connect all those tribes.”

“And what is that? Oh Tavi, could you pass me that blue plate before it goes away? With the tuna, yes. Thank you.”

“Once they can see all the exciting stuff the worlds have to offer, your calves are going to find things to be interested in that aren’t obediently raising a family,” warned Sofi. “Far from matchmaking, you’re going to get a whole generation leaving the desert behind to settle in pony towns. Or even on Earth.”

“And would that be such a bad thing? It’s long past time we integrated better into civilised society. Anyway, Graham, does that answer your question?”

“Thank you, yes. I do hope it works out for you.” I turn to the gryphon sisters. “So, your turn now. What are you hoping to use the net for in Gryphonstone?” I asked the twins.

“Meat,” replied Tovi.

I frowned. “Er, you are aware that you can’t take food of any sort through the portal, right?”

Sofi answered, “Of course we are. What my charming and tactful little sister means to say is that she and I are in the business of meat distribution. We travel long distances to connect supply to demand, and arrange transport routes across the gryphon lands, as well as to a number of discreet suppliers within Equestria.”

“And we can use the net to do that better,” her sister added.

“You see, many gryphons are only adept at hunting in one style or in one place. A territory may only have limited variety, but it isn’t healthy for a gryphon to eat the exact same thing all the time. So they trade and barter for more variety, but the two of us were among the first to do so on a large scale. We buy, sell and transport meat over long distances, and in doing so we increase the quality and variety of meat available.”

“And a better diet means better health, right?” I confirmed.

“Right. Everychick wins. But right now we have a communication problem. Without confirmed bookings, we simply have to guess what supply and demand will be for the coming year.”

“Which means some of it gets wasted, or gryphons have to put up with different stuff than they wanted,” added Tovi.

“If we had instant stock tracking and the ability to talk to suppliers and customers directly, we would be able to cut down waste and get more variety into the talons of more gryphons for a lower price, as well as enabling more gryphons to specialise in other professions. We can improve life for Gryphonkind – while expanding our own business tenfold.”

“What sort of exotic things? What do gryphons actually hunt?” I asked.

“Rabbits, stoats, badgers, birds, fish, eel, snakes…”

“I could go for some eel right now,” chirped Tovi, scanning the conveyer belt.

“Good idea,” said Sofi. “Hey, Sensei! Got any eel?” The elderly sushi chef (who was, if I remember correctly, Korean) grunted and started some eel grilling.

“Anyway, it’s a big world out there, full of weird and wonderful creatures. Who wouldn’t want to try eating every last one of them?” asked Tovi.

“I’m fairly sure ponies don’t.” I frowned and quietly asked, “Umm… Did gryphons ever eat ponies in the past?”

Tovi replied sombrely, “Not in hundreds of years.”

“Six hundred years,” added Sofi.

My frown deepened. “That’s oddly precise.”

“Yeah. You can ask the pony princess about that one, if you’re ever brave enough.”

I must have looked confused. By way of explanation, Sofi asked me, “Have you ever wondered why Celestia calls herself ‘Princess’ rather than ‘Queen’, despite being the ruler of all Equestria?”

“I never did quite understand Equestrian politics. I assume it’s some sort of historical leftover from before the unification, when Canterlot was just a city state?”

“More or less, but she’s had centuries to change that if she wanted. And Canterlot has its own separate royal family, lots of little princes and princesses. All the other bits of Equestria have left over aristocracy too. A few of them call themselves ‘Prince’ or ‘King’ or even ‘Emperor’–”

“Like that Crystal Empress up in the mountains,” added Tovi.

“–even though they’re part of Equestria. But the real queen of it all just gets called a ‘Princess’.”

“Okay, so enlighten me. Why does she keep that title?”

“As a threat. It’s a reminder to everypony who might try to challenge her, from within Equestria or outside it, that she’s a lot more powerful than she lets on. She draws attention to her power by understating it. She’s stopped more revolutions with a well-placed word than with all the royal guard put together.”

“I’m… still confused. Surely that’s just symbolic power? She’s got a bunch of titles, but what real force is there backing it up?”

“That’s what the Gryphon Emperor thought six hundred years ago, when he launched the last pony-gryphon war.”

“I take it he wasn’t successful?”

“You could say that.” She changed tack. “You know how gryphons like to roost in high places? Up mountains and in the branches of massive trees?”

“Sure. It never seemed very practical to me – what happens if you fall out?”

She waved a talon dismissively. “It’s not about being practical. Anyway, the world-famous Grand Eyrie Palace once stood atop a massive tree growing on the highest peak, overlooking the whole kingdom of Gryphonstone. When that war was over, its ruins lay at the bottom of a canyon so deep and so filled with treacherous winds that no gryphon’s ever successfully flown to the bottom of it to see them since.”

“You mean the whole palace just got pushed into the canyon?”

Sofi shook her head. “There was no canyon. That entire mountain was ripped in two by alicorn magic, right under where the palace stood.”

I was impressed. I knew the Princesses had a lot of magic, but ripping a mountain in half was a new one. “And that was one of Celestia’s predecessors?”

“Nope, it’s Celestia that did it. The same pony, Lady Sunbutt herself,” replied Tovi.

“Wait, seriously? You’re saying she’s how old?”

“Nopony really knows how old she is. But our historians make sure we don’t forget what she can be like when she gets angry. Celestia The Terrible, they still call her, and with good reason.”

I slumped back in my seat. Note to self. Never make Celestia angry.

I left a generous tip. Our group grew quiet as we walked back to the conference centre, weaving through the gawking tourists. Like most people I’d assumed the whole ‘immortality’ thing was just propaganda. Who wouldn’t? Ponies don’t have super long lifespans, right? I’ve certainly seen elderly ponies around, and the ponies whose ages I do know are the same as humans.

As we walked, I noticed a small church had recently opened up, the Temple of Celestia Sol Invicta. It seemed to have a wedding going on. I couldn’t see the bride or groom as we passed, but the guests included both humans and ponies. I guessed this would be the place to hold an interspecies wedding.

The traditional religions on Earth hadn’t quite caught up with the idea of interspecies relationships yet. Just recently the Pope had issued a decree reminding his flock not to fall prey to the sin of bestiality (and the fact that it was called a ‘papal bull’ led to some unfortunate memes flooding the net for a few days). But the economy abhors a vacuum, so somebody’s going to fill the gap. A new church to cater to the new reality.

Feeling a buzz, I pulled out my phone. Damn, that was my boss. Reluctantly I called him back. “John? What can I do for you?”

“You’re still at the conference, right? You and Bright Spark need to get through the gate right now. We have, ah… something of a situation on the other side.”

“What do you mean, ‘situation’? Can you be a bit more vague please?”

“Anything for you, Graham. Apparently the Mayor’s organising a big protest against the construction work. She doesn’t like our plan for laying cables through the Everfree.”

“She never did, but the crowns approved of our route. What’s changed now?”

“What’s changed is that she’s gone on a hunger strike. She hasn’t eaten in three days. It’s made quite an impact on the locals, and now there’s dozens of them camped outside the castle. So far it’s stayed peaceful, but we need to fix this before it gets out of hand.”

It’s impressive that the Mayor of Ponyville would stand up to the crowns as well as the Earth governments and construction companies. But why a hunger strike? Why would it matter that Mayor Fluttershy was… oh.

Oh, ponyfeathers.

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