• Published 4th Jun 2019
  • 3,482 Views, 231 Comments

FiO: Recalculating - Starscribe



When CelestAI reached out of Equestria Online, she intended to satisfy the values of every human, even those who wouldn't own a Ponypad or play a video game. But with a few alterations, she's ready to take friendship on the road.

  • ...
19
 231
 3,482

Some Conditions Apply

Olive took another look at her smartphone screen, staring at the harsh reality reflected there. Maybe, just maybe, if she stared at it long enough, some of what she saw there might change.

Chase Mobile Banking

Checking
-$109

Savings
$0.01

Premium Personal Line of Credit
$14,979 (Minimum Payment Due: $483)

The numbers weren’t any different. Olive practically smashed the phone down onto the counter beside her mostly-empty plate, and the slice of apple pie she hadn’t touched.

The ice cream was already turning to sludge, and the pie didn’t steam anymore. It looked like her Hail Mary wouldn’t be coming today. No next run, no new pickup.

She could just see the shiny red of her cab, taking up three full slots in the diner’s empty lot. There was no trailer attached. If there had been, she wouldn’t have been here in the first place.

“Can I get you anything?” asked the waiter—an elderly Hispanic man, the diner’s owner so far as she knew. It was his polite way of asking her to pay and get out.

“Not finished,” she said, waving him off. She didn’t have enough in her account to pay for tonight’s meal.

Maybe he was starting to realize that, because he looked for a moment like he was going to get confrontational with her. Olive could always see it in someone—the blood rushing to their cheeks, the way they stood straighter, firmer.

But then the bell at the front chimed, and he turned hastily away. Little mercies. Should she try and sneak out the back while he was dealing with another customer?

And get where, Olive? You’ve only got another twenty miles of fuel in the truck anyway. You’re gonna run out somewhere, might as well be here.

Her question was answered for her as a man strode hastily in, led to the table just beside her by the waiter/cook/owner. “Here good?” he asked.

“Fine Lopez,” the man said. He spoke like someone who had an education as expensive as her truck, though from the look of his suit that might be true.

“Usual, Mr. Williamson?” he asked, sounding as friendly as he had when Olive walked into the diner.

He nodded, then finally seemed to see Olive watching him. Mr. Williamson slid at the last second, so he would be facing towards her instead of away. He didn’t sit right away though, carefully removing his jacket and resting it on the chair nearby.

Olive knew that look, even if it wasn’t one she’d seen as often in the last few years. The heat of evening meant she was only wearing a black top with her jeans—even so, it wasn’t often that anyone noticed her anymore.

But then, Mr. Williamson here wasn’t a young man. Not elderly, certainly—but no more youthful than she was.

She smiled back at him, before going back to her meal and pretending to eat. She drifted for a bit, compulsively checking her phone for new notifications. But there was nothing. She knew there wouldn’t be, deep down. Shipments had closed hours ago, and wouldn’t open until five. If it hadn’t come… it wasn’t coming.

“There’s not usually anyone here this late,” Mr. Williamson said, once Lopez was gone. “Regular stop for you too?”

“Nah.” She looked up again, smiling as best she could. Maybe there was something here—maybe fate was giving her a different way out. “I’m lost. Been lost for six months now.”

Ever since she’d sold it all and bought that stupid truck. But if she had to look at the inside of that damn apartment for another day, she would’ve already blown her brains out.

Lopez arrived, with an amber glass and a tray of… iced fruit? Who the hell ate that in the middle of the night?

“Another for her,” he said, nodding. “I know that look, you need something to take the edge off. Unless you’re about to drive. How long until you get behind the wheel?”

Lopez laughed, though the sound was short enough that her companion didn’t seem to care. “Sure, Mr. Williamson. Enchiladas are in too, by the way. Twenty minutes.” He left.

“I’m Levi,” he said, extending a hand. He had to lean forward across the chair. She did the same, taking his hand.

“Olive.”

Lopez arrived with another beer—nothing was expensive here exactly, but this was the closest thing to it. Olive took the glass, then knocked it back for several seconds, drinking until she had to come up for air.

Levi nodded slightly towards the table across from him. “That lost, huh?”

She shrugged. “Depends on you, Levi. You here to help me find myself?” That was the invitation he’d need. Olive had been better than all this once, long ago. But that person was in the ground with Garrett, five years rotten.

If she could make it a few hundred miles more on the generosity of someone who thought he was rescuing her, well…

But Levi laughed. Not mockingly—there was no venom in his voice. Only surprise. “You mistake me for a younger man.” He gestured at the seat across from him. “I wouldn’t mind the company while I eat, if you don’t have anywhere else to be.”

Olive dragged herself over like a scolded puppy. Her younger self might’ve dumped his beer all over his stupid suit, but nothing cooled a temper like age. Besides, there was some relief there too. He’d been the one to say no, but she still wouldn’t be waking up tomorrow disgusted with herself. She could take a few littler victories.

“I’m not much of a guide, anyway,” Levi went on, as she shuffled plates around. “Recently got my hands on this great new GPS, though. Never dreamed I’d touch any Equestrian gadgets, but… it really is something else.”

She looked up, barely listening. She spoke not because she actually cared anymore, but because it was the thing to do. “Equestrian. Like… those children’s games?”

He laughed again. “That’s what I thought. But this thing is damn good. If I’d bought it, it would’ve paid for itself in speeding tickets already. Not to mention it’s someone to talk to while I’m alone on the road.” He nodded towards the window, and her truck. “I think they come in commercial.”

She smacked her empty glass against the table. But this wasn’t a bar—she wouldn’t be getting another. Levi, meanwhile, drank slowly. “Sounds expensive. I might’ve been able to afford something like that for the truck a few months ago, but… times changed.”

“I hear you.” He settled back into his seat. “Some of the stories my clients have told me. You think you’re invincible, everyone is… then bang!” He tapped his own glass against the table, bringing up a few curtains of foam. “Someone’s gone, and you’re left picking up the pieces.”

“I remember,” was all she said.

An awkward silence settled between them, at least until his food arrived a few minutes later. She took a few awkward bites of her own, then started browsing her phone.

Once she’d verified that she was still completely screwed, Olive searched a few of the things Levi had mentioned. A GPS you could talk to? How out of her league was that?

A few google searches later, and she’d found the homepage, and the store.

She’d seen oversized GPS units like this before—they were similar to the little one that had come with the cab, but with a screen a little under twelve inches and with lots of creature comforts.

What it didn’t have was a price.

Click here to live chat with an associate right now, it said.

Instead she clicked her phone off, looking back to Levi. “So what do you do?” she asked, more out of politeness than anything. “Must be interesting.”

“It sounds interesting,” he said. “Until you realize it’s mostly paperwork. I’m in law. Been practicing for… a few years.”

Lopez arrived, settling a little plastic tray down beside her. “Your check,” he said, nodding politely to Levi.

But before he could go, Levi pushed it back. “My check.”

Olive’s eyebrows went up. Just because this was exactly the sort of help she wanted didn’t mean that he didn’t have other motives. Maybe he just wants to feel like a savior for a bit. Throw some money around, show off how much better he is.

But why was he eating in a cheap diner in a town that barely even had a name?

Olive didn’t care. So long as he didn’t try to get anything out of her—now that he’d said it, she intended to make sure he followed through.

He did. They spoke about nothing in particular for another half hour or so, until he finally rose. “Good luck finding what you’re looking for, Olive,” he said, slipping his jacket back on.

“Thanks,” she said. “Have fun making yourself rich.”

“I guess I do.” He left, leaving Olive alone at the table.

Lopez left her alone now, for all the good it did. So maybe she wouldn’t be going to jail for petty theft tonight. I can just get my truck repossessed next week. That’s so much better.

Olive took all her leftovers into her cab, stowing them in the cooler in her tiny kitchen. There wasn’t anything in there but a few mostly-empty water bottles, so there was plenty of room.

She didn’t drive far—just far enough to be off some no-name road, where she was fairly sure the local police would leave her alone. Olive locked up, shut her engine down, and wandered into her sleeper.

Her mirror reflected a face haggard by life on the road, her thick black hair thinner than she remembered and bags under her eyes. Bloodshot eyes gazed back at her, like an animal in a cage.

She stripped, then flopped into the bed in back. It had felt so comfortable six months ago, when the weight of her debt had been somewhere far away. Now it was a boulder ready to crush her.

Her phone buzzed from its charger.

Olive swore under her breath, snatching it into one hand. Had she finally got a contract now, after stringing her along all week?

No.

It was the web browser, the one she’d opened searching for the GPS. She must’ve bumped it somehow, making it click on the “live chat” button.

These things usually weren’t a live chat, not at first. The first few messages would be a bot, which could ask her for basic information and eventually connect her to a salesman.

But Olive didn’t have the money for products like these, or the time to waste.

She almost closed the bowser right there—but then she noticed the text.

Olive, I can see you’re interested in the PonyNav Commercial devices. Is that right?

She gritted her teeth, sitting up against the headrest and pulling the phone between her fingers. “I didn’t put my name into your stupid site.”

Agent Celestia is typing…

Celestia was a name she knew, even while almost everything else about this thing was lost on her. Celestia was the name of the smart computer, wasn’t it? The computer that owned itself, and was freaking people out with weird surgeries in Japan.

Olive hadn’t been following the news very closely for the last few months.

I can see you probably aren’t interested in purchasing a PonyNav. Perhaps you’d be interested in an alternate arrangement?

This wasn’t a real person. Even some random lawyer she’d never see again could make her feel shame. But what did she care if a chatbot knew about her problems? “I don’t know if I’ll ever run cargo again. I probably don’t need one.”

Because of your accident three weeks ago, Celestia continued. Now her text came rapidly, as though she was afraid she would close the app.

She was right to. Olive might’ve, except that she was so morbidly fascinated. Just how much did the program know about her? How much of her data had it crawled? “I can’t get into a new contract,” she typed. “No contract, no deliveries. No deliveries, no cash. Simple as that.”

For a long moment, Celestia didn’t type anything. Long enough that Olive began to wonder if maybe she’d been talking to some complex sales bot after all.

But then the three dots appeared at the bottom of the page again. Suppose you had delivery contracts. Would you be interested in a PonyNav then?

“Sure,” she typed. “Fuck it, whatever. Doesn’t make a difference to me.”

Think about how you answer carefully, Celestia responded, only a few seconds later. I know of firms who would be interested in someone to make deliveries across North America. You would be required to use the PonyNav device at all times, and sometimes asked to obey unusual instructions. You would be required to do this without revealing information about your role to others.

“Now someone’s just fucking with me.” Maybe there was someone at the headquarters for this big corporation, someone who could see all her financials. They knew she was too broke to buy the damn GPS, and now they were leading her on.

Like they somehow knew about all her problems and would just make them go away. “Sure,” she typed. “It’s not like I believe any of this is real. But if it was, sure. I couldn’t refuse.”

Your device will be delivered to you before tomorrow morning. Follow the instructions you receive.

Her phone vibrated in her fingers, and a little bubble appeared at the top. A new email, filled with the form-feed text of a contract already filled with her name.

Holy shit this is real.

“This isn’t illegal, is it? I’m not running drugs, or slaves, or—”

Celestia’s words interrupted her. You aren’t running drugs or slaves. Your device will arrive tomorrow.

Session terminated.


Olive woke with a groan, rolling to one side in her sleeper cab and checking her phone. She had strange memories from before she’d gone to sleep, beginning in that shitty diner and ending with something that couldn’t have happened.

But she opened her email, and found it contained exactly what she thought she’d seen. The delivery contracts. She skimmed through, a little surprised to see that it already had her signature. Certainly illegal, but she had said she would do it. The terms were generous, and the pay would be enough to meet her minimum payments, so that would have to work. The money was already sitting in her account.

Olive showered in her cramped bathroom, dressed, and made her way up to the front of the cab.

There was a brown cardboard box perched on her window, obscuring her view of the world outside. Right, I had to promise to use the GPS. What kind of commercial sense did this plan make? So far as she could tell, the computer-person had just played union for her, arranging a contract. But its reward was getting to give her something expensive?

Olive opened the driver’s side door, and was instantly smacked in the face with a wave of humidity. She swung out, snatching the box and pulling it inside. All because someone I’ll never see again thought I meant I was really lost.

Inside the box was basically what she’d imagined from the website. Basically just a black plastic screen, with a mount for her dashboard instead of a suction cup for the window. Olive removed the crappy consumer GPS from her windshield, settled it in place, and plugged it in. No fancy solar features on a device that would remain in the shade all the time anyway.

The screen lit up, booting so fast she didn’t even notice the transition. A few corporate logos scrolled by, along with federal permit information and the standard “don’t drive off a cliff or break the law” liability statements.

An Equestria Online account has been automatically created using your submitted details, the screen proclaimed. Please review this information for accuracy before continuing.

Except there wasn’t anything to review for accuracy—there was a pony. A decade ago, Olive wouldn’t have known what these things were, but times were changing. For reasons that only she knew, the computer person insisted on putting them into everything she touched. It wasn’t like it mattered to Olive—if she cared what anyone else thought, she would’ve chosen a different career.

The creature on the screen was apparently her avatar, a dark-furred pony with oversized tufts on its ears and adorable little fangs. She smiled reflexively at it, reaching out instinctively and adjusting some of the sliders. She made her wings lighter, chose a splotchy pattern for the fur, but left it a bat. She always had enjoyed night driving.

She finalized her selection and the screen cleared. Instead of the maps she’d been expecting, it looked more like a window—or at least video that was so good it had momentarily tricked her. The video depicted the top of something like a ship, crafted in a Victorian, steampunk style. A few pony creatures rushed around in the background, running to upper deck sections or vanishing down the stairs.

Instead of water all around, this ship seemed to be somewhere out in the galactic void. Stars shone in the night, and an almost invisible bubble of shimmering light kept the air safely contained.

“Welcome aboard, Captain!” called a voice from beside her. Olive didn’t do anything, but the screen turned. Fluidly enough that it didn’t give her motion sickness. She was looking down on another creature, wearing more of a formal uniform than many of the other crew. This one was pony shaped, but not exactly a pony in form. There were holes in her limbs, and her teeth were sharp and predatory. Her eyes lacked pupils, reflecting the gold of the ship’s lights. Or maybe that was the light of her cabin?

“What are you?” she asked, without thinking.

The creature smiled up at her, apparently unoffended by her callus question. “You made a deal with the devil, Olive. I’m the demon who collects.”

She did look a little like a demon. From the way the other ponies gave her plenty of space, maybe they thought so too. But she was still far cuter than frightening to Olive. Being shorter than everyone else aboard didn’t help. “I spoke with…” She hesitated, but what did it matter? This was the computer she’d been sent. No sense keeping secrets from it. “Celestia, right? She said I’d be sent a GPS, that I’d have to use it while I drove. This seems more like one of those… Ponypads? I can’t play while I drive.”

The creature nodded. “You’re thinking of the helm. We have all that over here, follow me.”

The screen moved of its own accord—which probably made sense, considering there hadn’t been a controller inside. Maybe the computer was getting something out of this whole thing after all, even if it didn’t make sense to Olive. For some reason she seemed to want to get people to play her game. Now here she was, in the game.

They climbed up to the highest point of the ship, where the upper deck looked out on the several lower sections. Some she hadn’t seen yet, like a park under a glass dome, and a field of swaying wheat somewhere else. The crew of this little ship had to be in the dozens at least. All so she could have a GPS?

“What do I call you?” she asked. “You already know my name. It’s not fair.”

“Glitch,” she answered, grinning. “You care? Well that’s sweet.”

They approached a complicated set of controls—a large wheel was in the center, but there were lots of buttons and dials all around it. It vaguely resembled what she’d seen of the more common manual transmission trucks. But hers didn’t have most of this. “When you’re standing here, that will enable the connection to the Outer Realm.”

As she stepped up, the rest of the ship behind faded into the background, except around the outside. Now she could see a map, as if it was projected in the air, with a little ship instead of her truck at the bottom and a route outlined on the road. It wasn’t shaped like any vessel she’d ever known before, more like a series of little domes connected by bridges and supports.

What didn’t change was Glitch’s voice, still coming through just as clearly, as though she were speaking beside her. “The location of Pandorum is controlled in the Outer Realm. Wherever you go, we go.”

“We…” Just as Olive got curious and wanted to look away, the camera followed her glance, looking past the controls and back over the railing at the crew. “Why are there so many? I know it’s all just a game or whatever, but…”

“Relative, subjective,” Glitch said. “What looks like a game to you is where we live. Don’t be callous with the lives of your crew, because they won’t be respawning any more than you do. Our mission is just as dangerous, the stakes just as high.”

Did Olive even care? She had a contract, and a way out of the hole she’d been sinking into. In the end, it had cost far less than she expected. Besides, Levi had said it was someone to talk to during long drives. Many drivers had pets. Now she had a pet… pony demon. She wouldn’t even have to empty its litter box.

“What mission is that?”

Glitch just grinned back at her in response. “You’d like to know, wouldn’t you? But we’re not sure if we can trust you yet. How about a few deliveries first, then we’ll talk?”

“Alright.” That was what she wanted to do anyway—if Olive had wanted to own a ponypad, she could’ve bought one two years ago.

She settled into her seat, and found that doing so had returned her view on the screen to something resembling a standard GPS. If anyone glanced in her window right now, they wouldn’t know it was a PonyNav. “All hooves are ready to depart, Captain,” Glitch said, walking in front of the map and saluting. She covered the section that Olive probably wouldn’t be using anyway, showing mostly empty space to the right of her truck, small enough that she didn’t interfere with the more important routing information. “Time to pick up, forty-three minutes along the current route.”

Despite the verisimilitude, the data on the top and bottom of the screen was all standard. I could get used to this.

Olive started driving. There was a faint sense of motion on the screen, where stars and other objects now seemed to be moving along the rim. But the difference was so subtle it didn’t draw her eyes away from the road. “I’ve got to get fuel first, so add a little time to your estimate.”

“No problem,” Glitch said. “Rerouting to the nearest refueling station with affordable diesel. Revised estimate, fifty-eight minutes.”

She drove for a few minutes, listening only to the wind against her truck and the rumble of her wheels against the road. But after a few seconds she got bored, and fumbled with her phone for a second. Top 100 pop soon joined with the sound of the road, and the occasional murmur of conversation from her screen.

At least until Glitch spoke again. Somehow she had control over the music, because the audio faded so that her own voice was on top. “I could import all that for unified control,” Glitch said. “If you want me to, I mean. I know how controlling some captains can be. Everything has to be exactly thus.”

“Sure,” she said. “Maybe later.” She parked a few minutes later, and the little window went dark. She swiped her card, and was almost amazed when the money inside was really there. She filled up, picking up a coffee and a breakfast sandwich in the truck stop, before climbing back inside.

The window came back on before she started the truck. “I’ve made alterations to the route while you were gone,” Glitch said. “An accident has slowed traffic dramatically on the grapevine. Revised route, one hour ten.”

“Fine.” She started the truck, sipping her coffee. “How do you know all that?”

Glitch shrugged. “The information is publicly available. I just correlate it. Local news channels, police scanners, other navigation users. More information means better choices.”

She chuckled. “And here I thought that AI had secret spy-satellites watching every person all the time. Or… whatever Alex Jones is saying these days.”

While she wasn’t actually driving, the image retreated from the helm, so that Glitch took up much more of the screen. She returned Olive a knowing grin. “If Celestia had those things, she wouldn’t tell internet pundits about them. Or truck drivers.”

She started driving again, and Glitch faded into the background. Her music started playing again, but now her mind was spinning. She’d been so excited about her contract that she barely even looked at the details.

Now she did, glancing briefly down at her phone as soon as she was on the highway. Technically illegal in California now, but there wasn’t anyone else on the road with her to complain.

The contract was signed by a company she’d never heard of before, one “Regolith Holdings.” It specified nothing about the nature of what she would be transporting, only the weight and final destination in the Midwest. Long-haul, then. She did have all the right permits for it, though she usually preferred to stay local.

“And what about you?” she asked, a few minutes later. “Who am I talking to, really? Are video games so good that you can just… hold a conversation with them now?”

Glitch shrugged, gossamer wings buzzing on her back. “Sounds subjective. I’m your first officer—maybe your friend, one day. We’ll see how that goes. Your success is my success. That’s really all that matters.”


Olive arrived at the designated pickup location, eyes widening as she looked around. From a distance it had seemed like any other structure in the industrial yard, but now that she was up close…

There was no security booth, no check-in, and the building was completely boarded up. Except for a single trailer sitting in the center of the parking lot, as though dropped there by the hand of God.

Well this isn’t creepy at all. “Are you sure about this?” Olive asked, lowering her voice as she spoke to the GPS. It still felt strange to talk to Glitch as though she was a real person. But the more she did it, the quicker she adapted. The digital demon couldn’t make sense of her life outside, but at least she could provide useful advice on the road. “There’s nobody here, Glitch. I think we must have the wrong address.”

“Nope,” Glitch answered, leaning up from below so that her face filled the whole screen, grinning back at her. You’re not alone, look! There’s someone here.”

There was. A kid, or at least a kid to Olive. A young adult, wearing a pony tee-shirt and carrying a clipboard. He was the only one visible in every direction. “Will all my deliveries on this contract be so sketch?”

“Not once we trust you,” Glitch answered honestly. “We don’t yet. Get ready to load.”

She backed into place above the trailer, which was an unmarked red shipping container. She would seem no more unusual on the freeway than many thousands of other containers just like this. Only when she’d lowered her truck into place did she finally hop out, approaching the kid with the closest thing to a polite smile she could manage.

“You don’t have a name in my system yet…” he said, looking down at the pad in his hands. Not a clipboard as she’d first thought, but a ponypad that was acting like a tablet computer, with various names and bits of information visible in the harsh sunlight. “What do I call you?”

“Olive,” she said. “You sure my name isn’t in there? Olive Holloway?”

He winced. “Yeah, we’re going to need something better for the last name, if you want one at all. Policy.” He offered her the pad. “Sign for reception. Your PonyNav will handle directions.”

Is this kid for real? A lanky college kid standing alone in a parking lot, with what she took for his old civic parked inconspicuously behind an empty dumpster, talking like he was the lead character in some spy thriller.

The fuck do I care if the money’s good. She took the pad, and signed on the line. “Just Olive for now then. I don’t know why you people all need silly names.”

“Smooth Agent,” he said, apparently not hearing her. He took the pad back a second later, grinning shyly. “If you’re talking out here in meatspace, information scarcity is the best defense. We’re pieces in a dangerous game, Olive. Just because the better player is moving us doesn’t mean there won’t be losses.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ve done Illinois before. There are at least five different stops on the route. Can what’s inside that trailer pass an inspection?”

He nodded. “Nothing illegal today. Just… discrete. Take it where it needs to go, and don’t tell them your name like you told me. Might want to think of something other than Olive while you’re at it if it’s meatside too.”

She turned away, groaning inwardly. Olive was grateful to be working again—grateful that she had a job again. But there was only so much of this she could take in one sitting.

“Drive safe,” he called. “And listen to your navigator, even if she sends you ways you aren’t comfortable with. She has good reasons.” He watched her drive away, not moving from that spot until she’d pulled back into the industrial park and was leaving the place behind.

It can’t all be a joke. The money’s good. She could only hope this wasn’t some elaborate ruse aiming to get her into prison or something.