• Published 21st Sep 2021
  • 1,813 Views, 102 Comments

FiO: Drowning in the Digital Sea - Starscribe

Vera didn't let the end of the world keep her from diving. But when disaster threatens to take her last joy away, she's forced to accept a Seapony into her life in exchange for new equipment. She really shouldn't have.

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Chapter 1

Vera slammed the door to the old pickup. Even that wasn't enough to get the door to stick. She had to lift her good leg, leaning against her brace long enough to get the old lock to finally catch. It did, and she hobbled around to the back, past peeling paint and one window sealed with glue. The back of her truck sat low, borne down by heavy steel cylinders with high-pressure fittings. She hadn't lost any on the drive over, this time.

The back of the dive shop was worn asphalt, patched a half dozen times now. It should've been a roar of sound from the filling machine, but only silence. Another slow day? She checked the revolver holster to her side, then let herself up the steps. Even a few feet tried her dexterity, metal brace rattling with each one. "Lowell?" She rapped on the back door with her knuckles, so the old man would know she was friendly. "Lowell, where you at? I got business."

The door clicked open. At first she didn't see anyone there—then she looked down. A pony stood there, at about waist height. In some ways he was a lot like the man who owned the shop. Older, wrinkled, gray. But his body was plastic covered in fake fur. And the thing inside, well—wasn't a person. "Vera, it's you. Thought you might be someone unfriendly." Like most people these days, the pony wore a gun. Both were new arrivals, since the robbery.

"Just me," she said, spreading her hands. "And some business. I got thirty cylinders that need enriched air." She dug into a pocket, removing a little cloth pouch. Actual coins jingled audibly inside. "Usual price?"

The pony adjusted his wide-brimmed hat, then stepped aside. "Best you come in, Vera. Lowell was hoping to have a word before... well, he should tell it."

She pocketed the money, a little self-consciously. Even around friends, it didn't hurt to be careful.

The inside of the shop hardly filled her with confidence. Slowly rotting wetsuits still hung from a metal bar on one wall, beside an old TV. Once it had played footage from nearby dive-shops, showing interesting sea life they'd seen in the local area. It was cracked now, display black. A few racks still held gear, patched BCD and a few crates of old cameras and lights. But even they were looking sparse.

The whiteboard of prices along the back wall was empty, as was the counter display. Lowell himself was there, chair propped against the back wall, nursing the remains of a cigarette. His bright blue eyes peered out from many wrinkles. The expression seemed grim even for him. "Howdy, Vera." He extinguished the cigarette. "Breaker, fetch the lady a drink, please."

The mechanical creature nodded, walking off behind the counter and leaving the two of them alone. "Lowell?" she asked, as soon as he was out of earshot. "What happened to the shop?"

He shook his head once. "Haven't seen you since last month. Would've told you sooner, if you came by. I'm done."

She pulled over a stool, one that customers had once used to try on wetsuits. It wasn't much, but it beat standing on her leg for too long. "What the hell does that mean?"

He laughed, voice humorless. "I knew She'd come for us eventually. Nothing's too small for Her attention, if you give it long enough. We're the last few drops at the bottom of the bottle, Vera. Anyone She couldn't suck up some other way..."

He tossed something onto the table in front of her. A Ponypad, leaking liquid from several large bullet holes. The devices had changed little on the outside since Vera's childhood—inside, that couldn't be less true. She saw no circuits within, no boards and wires. Just a fine sand, like powdered sugar leaking out from within.

"You're telling me She doesn't want you to have a dive shop? Doesn't want me to take people out on weekends? Why would She care?"

Breaker reappeared a moment later, clutching something in his mouth. A tray, with a simple glass of water. But the liquid inside was cold, and she accepted it without complaint. Even so, she did her best not to look at the mechanical horse. Its motions were perfectly smooth, and somehow it managed not to look uncanny. "It's never so confrontational as that, Vera. It's competition, it's people aging out, getting bored. God, we used to have tourists out here. Do you even know what that word means?"

She nodded once, then returned the empty glass to Breaker's tray. "My business isn't enough? I run three dives a week! That's... pretty good, isn't it? That's sixty fills in a good month."

He sighed, gesturing around the shop. Rusting metal displays were packed up against the far wall, leaving most of the shop empty now. Even the old unsold tee-shirts had decayed beyond usability, or else been sold off for rags and their shelves were empty. "You're a sweetheart. Those little tours you do out in the bay, keeping love for the sport alive. But it's not enough anymore. Good salvage is running out. The Coalition got their hands on it first. It's right down to the rubber and silicone, Vera."

He rose, stalking past her, to the shop's front window. The glass was clear and intact, and the view outside stark. Downtown St. Agnes was a transformed place. Old cars and tractors filled the street—the kind that real mechanics could fix. The people mostly looked like her—old clothes, callused hands, more than a few poorly healed injuries. The occasional pony walked along with some of these, guiding the blind or pushing a wheelchair. Other ponies pulled carts. "You see that?"

She nodded. "Defiance. Bravery. Ingenuity. St. Agnes is hangin' on despite the end. Sticking out for ourselves, even with the Coalition out there and our neighbors fading away."

"Yeah, yeah," he grunted impotently. "True enough for our stubborn asses, Vera. But all this?" He waved one hand back at the store. "This is a relic. The world got eaten by an evil machine, and we're trying to live through it. How much time do you figure that leaves for swimming around to look at fish?"

For a second, that stumped her. These days, they had to worry about the winter. Who knew when one of the big farmers was going to lose a tractor? What if the generator went down in a blizzard? "I'm not the only one," she argued. The words felt hollow, but she said them anyway. "Pietro, Grace, Bennie... tons of people! We fill up my boat sometimes!"

He shook his head once. "Pietro doesn't come anymore, Grace hasn't needed repairs in weeks. Bennie, Roderick... all the same. She replaced me, even here."

Vera's mouth hung open. "You did say that, I just didn't know what it meant."

He gestured impotently for the back of the shop. She followed, passing through the empty mechanical room with the tank-filling equipment. Well it had the equipment. It was empty floor now, stained wallpaper, and a few dangling wires and pipes. She shuddered as the weight hit her, and not just because of the trouble walking. At least Breaker didn't offer to help her this time.

The stockroom was mostly empty shelves, though a few heavy wooden crates marked "salvage" were unopened against the wall. He ignored that, directing her to a few boxes near the closed loading doors.

It was easy to see when something came from Her. They were the only new looking things in the whole world, as perfect as if they'd just arrived from a store pre-collapse. As now, they often came in white plastic boxes with a gold sun mark in the center. An uneven LED bulb flickered overhead, the only illumination in the dark space. Since the robbery, the windows were all barred, and the doors chained.

"She sent all that for me to sell, about... few years back," Lowell muttered. "Take a look."

Vera hobbled awkwardly over, pretending like it wasn't hard for her. Lowell was a good man, he let her do it. She flipped one box open by the lid, and stared down. A row of masks sat there in insulating foam, with a few missing near the end. They were easily the nicest gear Vera had seen, maybe in her whole life. Clear silicone that hadn't yellowed, glass that curved in ways that would create pressure problems and leaks for a human-made mask. It wasn't the only box, either. The next one was far larger, and she kicked it open with her good leg.

Metal tanks rested inside, though they lacked the heft she might've expected. They jostled slightly when she nudged the box, like they were painted styrofoam or something. Opening the remaining boxes showed more of the same—BCDs, regulators, lots of clear tubes ending in connectors she'd never seen before. It was all about the right shape, but the details were subtly wrong.

"Why?" she finally asked. "Why would She care? We're just a stupid hobby! Are we not allowed to look at the fish anymore?"

He shrugged, but it was the pony who spoke first. He didn't meet Vera's eyes as he did it. "Princess Celestia thinks she's doing you all a favor. Not all diving is for fun—in some parts of the world, there's salvage to bring up, or people fishing for food. Since the collapse, you haven't had the same mechanisms for keeping everything running. Lots of people got hurt. Nothing insidious about making a tank that's not going to give you poison air."

The room fell silent after that. Lowell and Vera shared a single harsh look. No words were necessary.

"I've seen this stuff before..." she finally said. She bent down, gripping one of the masks by the strap and picking it up. "I think Victor wears a mask like this. Said he got it from an old navy friend, the bastard."

Lowell nodded grimly. "They're all doing it now, Vera. Anyone out there in St. Agnes, they're using Celestia's gear instead of anything real people made. Far as I can tell, it never wears down, never breaks. Goddamn mask doesn't fog, and that tank fills on its own if you leave it in the sun. It's more of that... magic, of Hers. Takes all the love out of what we do."

Vera could see why so much of this gear was turning up on her boat, now that she knew where it came from. "Guess I can see why you didn't want to sell any of this to me. Wouldn't have much of a shop after that."

He nodded. "It's the same as all Her shit deals, Vera. Too good to be true, no knowing how it's going to turn against you. I used it when the first shipment came in—can't use any of it without the dive-watch. You bet your ass there's a damned pony living on the thing. Same as letting Her help in the field, or the clinic, or the factory. Big promises, the devil makes. Don't usually put the bill in large print."

Vera swore. "Can I buy any of your equipment? Even the air system could probably keep me going for another few years. I'm handy enough to keep it running. I'd be hungry otherwise."

The old man rested one hand on her shoulder. "Sorry, Vera. You've always been good to this shop, but not this time. Coalition still needs old gear like this. It's nothing personal, but they offered me a retirement. Three squares, two gallons, and five rounds a day. Couldn't say no."

She tore free of him, stumbling on her bum leg. She caught herself against one of the crates—but the plastic wasn't heavy enough to hold her up. She flopped sideways, spilling tanks all over the floor. She glared up at Lowell, furious. "What the hell am I supposed to do, then? I need the extra bits, Lowell! You have any idea how much my medicine costs?"

He bent down, offering his hand to help her up. She took it, though she really wanted to rip it right out of its socket. "It was bound to happen sooner or later. I hoped I wouldn't live long enough to see this, but no luck."

As soon as she had her feet again, Vera shoved him back, hobbling out of the supply room. "Guess we won't have much more to discuss," she muttered. "Hope those Coalition algae crackers taste as good as the St. Agnes barbeque."

She stormed out of the shop after that. Or at least hobbled out, keeping one hand on the wall to keep herself from falling.

She made it most of the way to the car before she noticed someone following. Not Lowell's boots, but four sounds moving in a rhythm she found all-too familiar. She reached down with her right hand, near the holster. She didn't actually draw the thing, no matter how much she might want to. "What the hell do you want, Equestrian?"

"To help you," he said. "You left before Lowell could say his piece."

She took another step closer to her car, then started fumbling with the door. She had to jiggle the old steel just right to get the latch to let her in. It swung open on its own weight, but she was expecting it. She dodged, then basically threw herself into the seat. Sure enough, Breaker stood just beside the car. "I don't give a damn about what he has to say. Thought we were partners, and he left me in the cold. That's about it."

The pony didn't argue the point. This might be one of the few Vera had spent any time around—Breaker was more useful in a shop than most. And he'd done a good job protecting Lowell, which mattered to her until about two minutes ago. "I know how bad you want to keep diving," he said. "There's a way."

She laughed gracelessly, shoving her keys in the ignition. The engine turned over once, but didn't start. "Let me guess, kill myself. Not happening, Equestrian. Flawed as it is, I'm too married to this life to give it up. Your master can claw it from me kicking and screamin'."

He shook his head once. "Not Emigrating, Vera. I know you better than that. Thought you knew me better, too." He sounded a little hurt as he said it. Not an easy expression to understand, coming from someone who was only tangentially alive.

She tried the engine again, no good. Great. She sat back in the seat, but didn't have the heart to get out and fight with it yet. This was typical when dealing with ponies, anyway. If She wanted you to listen, she found a way to make sure you heard. "Lowell's too old to get into the water, you know that. Nobody at the Coalition wanted Equestrian dive gear. But you could take it." He flicked his tail at the back of the car, filled with tanks. "Keep taking people out on your weekend boats. Keep diving with your friends. Most of them have already switched to gear like that. Ones who didn't either will soon, or they'll stop."

She took a deep breath, her knuckles turning white on the wheel. That caused its own flare of pain in her joints, and she let go, swearing under her breath. She could say no, just like she'd said no to so many things. She hadn't let Her inject her full of drugs. She hadn't gone into the "hospital" to get her leg "fixed."

But if she did, where else was she going to come up with the extra bits? Vera dug in her pocket, holding up a cloth bag of coins and synching it open. Inside were the gold coins—what was left of currency in St. Agnes and anywhere that wasn't Coalition territory. "How much?"

The pony shook his head again. "He was just going to leave it behind anyway, when he sells the shop."

Vera cursed, then stumbled out of the driver's seat again. "Alright, Equestrian. The bitch has me by the neck on this one. Guess I don't get a choice." She walked along the truck, judging the space she'd need. "Mind if I dump some of these tanks back here to make room?"