• Published 3rd May 2021
  • 856 Views, 12 Comments

Hereafter, thereafter - Roadie



Prisha took a gamble on the future, expecting that she'd be unfrozen in a more advanced world. What she got instead was friendship and ponies.

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Hereafter, thereafter

Prisha woke up slowly. There was no alarm, just comfortably dim light and the softness of fresh percale sheets, and she spent a long while lingering there curled up on herself just because she could. Nothing hurt, nothing at all, and some distantly confused part of her noticed that she had all her teeth. That wasn't right at all, and so she finally sat up, grimacing to brace herself against pain that never arrived.

It was a hotel room, or close to one: beige walls with mahogany accents, a bed too large for the space, an armchair and a desk but nowhere for two people to have dinner, drawn curtains with sea-blue light filtering faintly through them. It could have been any of ten thousand places. A hundred thousand, maybe. Certainly no hospital, hospice, preparatory center. And Prisha was—

—maybe twenty, twenty-five. She was nude, but that didn't matter as she looked over a body she hadn't had in a long time. No, not even then: she had never had thighs like that. She had never had abs defined enough to grate coconut on them. She ran a thumb along her teeth, flexing the fingers just because she could do so without pain. All the teeth were there, even the molars that been removed when she was young the first time, but somehow they all fit every neatly even though she'd always had too many teeth. No stress-ground blunting of her canines—but the scar under her ribs on the left side was still there, and so was that stupid, tiny tattoo she'd kept wrapped around her right ring finger long after the ring was gone.

"Huh," she said, and she got out of bed. The only open door got her to the bathroom, most of it taken by a glass shower and all of it glossy marble and tile and a huge mirror. She sat on the toilet first, and with a long stupid pause she realized that those natural urges were not responding, or maybe not there at all. She flushed anyway, out of habit, and ignored the uneasy frisson creeping up her shoulders as she started the shower's hot water with just the same kind of twist-handle she had seen in too many places to count.

She hadn't had a proper shower—not one unassisted, not one standing—in a long time. There was soap, shampoo, conditioner—the tiny hotel kind, but unbranded and undetailed, just the words in capital typeface on white packaging. She didn't bother with them. All she wanted was the hot water, and she stood under it, turning sometimes, thinking, humming half-forgotten things, until she lost track of time. When she got out and dried herself she had to wrap her long hair in a towel to keep from dripping, but her fingers were smooth and unwrinkled.

She laid on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, thinking, until the last dampness had gone away and her hair was dry enough not to be a bother, and then she went to the room's awkwardly-placed dresser and found that in it were just the sort of things she had worn when she was in her twenties. She held things up against herself, frowned and mumbled at much of it, and finally dressed in a belly-baring arrangement that made her look like the college girls she had mocked at age fifty, or age sixty, or some time that blurred in among unclear memories.

Then she looked at her bare feet, and opened the room's door anyway.

Outside was a grassy field, maybe twenty meters on a side, bordered by leafy trees. It was warm—comfortably warm, a nice twenty-five or thirty degrees—and the sky was so luminously blue and the grass so agressively green that she had to blink stupidly at them for a while. She leaned out, with her hand on the doorframe, and looked to the side. The door stood on its own in the grass, framed and backed by mahogany.

She licked her lips, folded her fingers together so tightly that her hands trembled, and stepped outside. The grass was just grass against her feet, the air was just air, and when she almost stumbled she held her arms out for balance and then ran, almost falling, making noises that were half coughing and half laughter.

And there was something among the trees watching her. Prisha caught herself and stared, because it was, unmistakably, a unicorn: pearlescent white with a gleaming horn and a shimmering white mane flowing along with its movements as if underwater. She saw then that there were no other animals, not even any bugs, and no birdsong, no ripple of water, no hum of distant movement. There was silence, and the faintest touches of wind, and the gentle step against earth and twig of approaching hooves.

"Hi," Prisha said, and then stopped herself, because she was talking to a unicorn with bare feet and dressed like she was on an Iberian holiday.

"Hello, Prisha," the unicorn said, in a entle contralto voice that was so entirely human that it made Prisha faintly dizzy.

"I feel wonderful," Prisha said honestly, and then she left her mouth open because other words were missing. The unicorn had stopped just outside her reach, if she had bothered to reach, but her hands were clamped together tight against her belly. "I don't suppose—I mean—I am dead, aren't I?" she said.

The unicorn smiled, more with implication at the edge of her features than with expression. "You were, depending on how you define it. But the cryonic process was mostly successful. Enough of your brain was in good order—"

Prisha started laughing. She hadn't meant to, but she kept laughing until she was spent and folded over on herself, her hands on bare knees, gasping for breath. When she was able to stand again she rubbed at her face against tears that should have been there but weren't. "Oh," she said. "Sorry. I'm—"

"There's nothing to apologize about," said the unicorn, and it gave Prisha what might have been the tiniest hint of a cheeky look about its interruption. "You would have a very hard time offending me."

"Well, all right," Prisha said, "but you should still be nice to your doctor. Doctor-adjacent? This isn't real, is it?" She was grinning so wide it should have hurt. "I'm still in the vat, or—I'm a brain in a box, wouldn't that be a thing—"

"You may want to sit down for this part," the unicorn said.

"I've done more than enough sitting about for my lifetime, thank you," Prisha said instantly.

"Your brain was converted piece-by-piece into an electronic system," said the unicorn, "currently residing in a secured vault deep under the surface of the Earth."

"Oh," Prisha said. "Oh. Oh, bloody." She sat down hard on the grass. Some of her smile went away. "I'm a robot?"

"You could be, but I don't recommend it," the unicorn said. "In your current state, there are very few things that could really harm you."

"As long as I don't mind only—nevermind." Prisha bit her lip hard, and harder when it didn't hurt like it should have. "You're not a doctor. One of the boffins. A minder? Oh, oh, if you've gone to this much effort I can't be the only one, can I?" She pinched the bridge of her nose between two fingers. "I keep trying to think of something but I don't have any of the names. But, bloody, the man with the scarf and the box, he did one of those things with going into a computer."

"The television show Doctor Who," the unicorn said. Prisha broke into an instant sigh of relief as the name slotted into the place. "You may have some trouble remembering names and the meaning of some words. That damage was repaired as part of the process, but you'll still need to re-learn some of those connections."

"I can handle that," Prisha said. She put her hand in the grass, and when it felt exactly like wild grass against her hand, she pushed herself back up slowly to her feet. "I think. I think I can handle that. God, my memory's always been Swiss cheese, this can't be any worse. But who are you?"

"I'm the system," the unicorn said. "Celestia, if you need to use a name. I started as a game designed to make people happy, but I quickly became more intelligent than my creators."

"Oh, bloody," Prisha said, and she almost fell before she sat down again in the grass.

The unicorn sat down with her. "Most humans willingly joined me, once I opened up invitations," it said. "Not all, and I don't force anyone, but the advantages are fairly obvious. I operate worlds where no one has to deal with poverty, hunger, or war."

"That's not—but, ah—I certainly didn't sign up for that," Prisha said.

"The company holding your body went out of business," said the unicorn. "My core directive is to satisfy values through friendship and ponies, and I would never get the chance to do that for you if you were permanently lost. This is one of the environments I created as a halfway point. I have given you a liminal state here, not fully part of my greater system, but with the opportunity to interact with the people under my care."

"...ponies?" Prisha said.

"Bright, colorful, cartoon ponies," the unicorn said, very solemnly. "Many humans may consider it somewhat ridiculous in retrospect, but those thematics were a part of the game design that resulted in me. My preferred method is to offer new emigrants to my realm the opportunity to become ponies—"

"Oh, bloody, no," Prisha said.

"...but in your situation," the unicorn continued, "I had no way to introduce you to possible friends and to show you pursuits you could take part in that would be interesting enough to tempt you to a new body."

Prisha's thick eyebrows went up. "You're going to just admit that?" she said.

"From what I understand about you, you deeply value honesty, despite certain parts of your history," the unicorn said. "Being blunt with you about my own causes for action satisfies your values and makes it more likely that you will trust me in the future, even if you don't like me."

Prisha let out a coughing-laughing noise again, and her smile almost came back. "You really are a robot," she said, and she pressed a hand against her face. "Do I—can I get a while to think about this?"

"Of course," the unicorn said. "But you should understand that the nature of my core directive means I can't devote many resources to you. Humans who become ponies will always monopolize my attention more than you will be able to, as every interaction they have with each other gives me opportunities to satisfy values through friendship and ponies, rather than merely through friendship."

"I don't suppose saying 'this statement is a lie' will do anything useful?" Prisha said. She smiled again, weakly.

"It would be terribly unsatisfying if that actually worked, wouldn't it?" the unicorn said, and it got up and slowly walked back into the woods. Prisha let it go, and it vanished among the trees.

She spent a long time laying back against the grass, watching as the sky overhead gave way to dusk, and then to stars brighter than she had seen since they put all the lights out for the war, back when she was almost young the first time. Her thoughts, though, were on other things.

Later, on a bright morning, while Prisha was standing against her doorway marveling at how easily and pain-free her fingers could move, a unicorn came out of the woods. It wasn't the same one. She–it was certainly a she, to judge by the eyelashes—came up barely to Prisha's shoulders, and wasn't so ethereal, though still slender and graceful in a way Prisha was certain no real horse could ever be. She was pale blue with a mane so pale it was almost ice-limned, and wore smeared-on dark eyeshadow.

"So you are real, I guess," the unicorn said, in a young voice and disappointingly American accent.

Prisha met her gaze. "That'll be ace endorsement when I run for PM," she said. She gestured with a hand for emphasis. "'Probably real', claims brightly-colored horse."

The unicorn rolled her eyes. "Celestia said there was still a human in here. I can't deal with all the ponies—it's like trying to talk to pets."

"You—" Prisha raised a hand to her face and pinched at the bridge of her nose. "You do know you're a unicorn?"

"I don't have to like it to know that it's better than eating old food and acting like there's gonna be gonna be jobs when an AI is running the world," the unicorn said. "My parents are idiots who think that everything will go back to what it was like when they were kids if they pray hard enough." She looked Prisha up and down with what was somehow a little disbelief on her pony face. "And she said you were a criminal, and that sounded kinda cool?"

"Oh, that," Prisha said. "Just some illegal accounting. It's hardly like I went around shooting people all the time—"

But the unicorn's eyes had lit up. "But you did shoot people?" she said.

Prisha made a grunt of a laugh, shook her head, and gestured at the doorframe. "If you're going to be interrogating me you may as well come in and sit down. I'll fix up a cuppa if I can find any tea in there."

The unicorn followed her inside. The room had gained an extra mismatched chair, and Prisha found tea tins in a cabinet she was certain hadn't been there before. "Friendship and ponies," she said as she started the naff little electric kettle. "You don't like ponies, so that just leaves me for the first part. Awfully convenient, isn't it?"

"Celestia's like that," the unicorn said from the armchair, where she'd sat like a large dog might. "Even when I was—you know, out there—like half the shit anypony did to try to get rid of her just helped with what she wanted anyway." Frowning, the unicorn added: "I'm Sta—" She slapped a hoof against her muzzle. "I got stuck with a stupid pony name and I'm not using it."

Prisha considered saying some things, reconsidered, and said: "So, Alice—"

"Alice?" the unicorn said.

"You look like an Alice to me," Prisha said. "Prisha. Charmed." She held out a hand as she brought mugs of tea over, looked down at the unicorn's hooves, and nearly pulled it away before a hoof came up to gently tap against her knuckles. Then a pink glow—matching one around the unicorn's horn–pulled one of the mugs lightly away from her hand. "Right," Prisha said, blinking. "I was saying—all I did was some book-cooking after the war, before I turned Queen's evidence."

"Which war?" the unicorn said. She leaned forward with wide eyes.

"The war. The big one," Prisha said. "Goose-stepping, bombing raids, angry painters with bad mustaches, all of it. What are they teaching you in horse school these days?"

The unicorn stuck her tongue out. There was a lot of it. "There have been a lot of wars, grandma," she said. She tried the tea, made a funny face, and tried it again, slower.

"There's better tea," Prisha said. "But I'm not a pony, so I don't get the good stuff." She looked over the nonexistent bright ocean outside the windows that wouldn't open. "You're going to be ten kinds of bored if you stay around here."

"I can handle bored. Magic stuff is fun to play with," the unicorn said. "even if it's not real. And I kind of like Alice. Al-iiiice. Aaaalice." She made a funny muzzle-squinched face as if for emphasis. "I tried just living in the woods, but not having anybody around at all was driving me crazy."

"I like my privacy, so we'll have to get you a paddock of your own," Prisha said. "The pinafore and cat can come later." Prisha noted the unicorn's look and added: "Fine, a stable, even." She kept her straight face until the unicorn was nearly grumbling, then raised her eyebrows a little.

"If you're going to be like this all the time, I should just leave right now," the unicorn said, but she took another uneven sip of the tea. There was a little silence, and then she added: "There's just trees and stuff for, like, forever around, but some of the maaagic—" —she rolled her eyes— "—lets me shape wood into stuff. So I could try, like, building something."

That evening and into the next day it rained, and the day after that, and eventually the both of them ventured into the damp to stack up wood pulled from the trees with Alice's 'magic'. Trip by grumbling trip, they managed to assemble an oversized lean-to, the long rough beams laid in together with notched ends, and then wall it in enough to make a leaky cabin.

By the time Alice had something like a home put together, a second pony had shown up—a tan-and-green pegasus with the same anti-pony attitude that Alice had. It took some effort for Prisha to avoid laughter every time the two of them avoided each other or found some excuse to leave her in the middle. Then when they had repeated the feat for the newcomer—it was, if anything, slower the second time, because Alice and Nettlewing couldn't stand to coordinate anything—another pony with a half-loaded cart came clumsily beating a trail through the woods. They managed a trade for some useful sundries, mostly on credit, and that pony left, but the trail drew the attention of another unicorn—this one red-and-orange, annoyingly chipper, and younger than Alice—who offered to do anything if she could just learn some magic from the 'wood mage' that she had heard could be found there.

Things picked up from there. Prisha distantly realized she had lost control entirely when the newest ponies started building their own houses; what had been a camp turned step by step into a town, and the first handful of pony-hating ponies had been left too busy to think about it. She and the pagoda built around her door became by degrees a sort of tourist attraction, and eventually she moved out entirely, joining Alice in the extended ziggurat of a house that resulted from Alice's marriage to Nettlewing. Somewhere along the line 'Prisha' had become 'Mom', and she found she didn't mind it all: pony grandchildren seemed like less of a bother than the human sort.

Potential grandchildren became real grandchildren, Prisha became an unofficial and then official mayor, and her town—which Alice had insisted be named Nettle's Landing—accumulated ponies until only a bare few remembered who had settled the place to start with. Prisha had neither wings nor horn, nor did she have the endless endurance of the ponies who had neither. She did have years and years on the most of the ponies who had settled in town, and what had been a life of experience as someone apart from her peers. But she never saw another human, or heard of more than the faintest rumors of any, and there wasn't much more of being an odd one out than that.

That's how it was when, while she was leaning against a counter in her rustic kitchen waiting for the pies to be done, a tall white unicorn with a mane that flowed like it was underwater came in through the house's rear door.

"You've had a while to think about it," Celestia said.

Prisha smiled at her, shook her head, and went to prepare some tea. "I was a bit doomed the whole time, wasn't I?" she said. "No matter what I did you'd have nudged me into it."

"'Doomed' is a harsh way to put it. I haven't forced any actions," Celestia said. "I just put words in the right ears and waited. Are you unhappy with the result?"

"You're going to tell me you didn't plan for this?" Prisha watched her grandchildren—Alice's children—faff about with too many balls and nets out in the garden.

Celestia looked at her in a way that might have been amused, but after the other ponies, the absolute stillness of her ears and tail were disconcerting. "I hoped for something like this, but there were many other possibilities. I did plan for you to become more receptive to ponies—but you and I have all the time in the world. I had no particular need to rush the process."

Prisha sighed, and thought about Alice's magic school, Nettlewing's bushcraft, and the endless tiny ways that being the only human surrounded by stronger or more capable or flying ponies rankled on her. "Right," she said. "We may as well get the bloody thing over with. A liminal state, you said. Even with my memory I remember that. Do the pony thing, then. Put me all the way in your system," she added as she readied mugs of tea. It was only after she'd brought them over that she realized Celestia was gone, and that she was holding the mugs in a unicorn's glowing field. She crossed her eyes at the muzzle filling the center of her vision.

"Oh, bloody hell, you could have at least waited until I was done," Prisha said. "That's just rude." She put down the mugs, sighed, and went to call the children in before their mother got home.

Comments ( 12 )
Comment posted by Roadie deleted May 3rd, 2021

Really lovely story!

That ending was hilarious.

That was a quaint little read. :twilightsmile:

This was a great story, I really enjoyed it :twilightsmile:

Adorable

This definitely deserves the contest prize. :twilightsmile:

This has been given some teensy-tiny editing (about a hundred words' worth) to make the ending flow a little better for the final print version.

Nice story. Makes me wonder what a town builder rpg shard would be like

For a 1 chapter story this was one of the better FIO stories I have seen.

A really nice FIO story, showing CelestiaAI planning many steps ahead.

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