• Published 21st Sep 2021
  • 1,818 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 2

Vera pulled into her old house on the edge of downtown St. Agnes about an hour later. She rumbled to a stop in the old garage, smelling of biodiesel and rust. She kicked the service bay door open with a boot, and it wasn't long before one of St. Agnes's citizens came rumbling in on a tractor, engine choking and sputtering to a halt.

She worked for the next few hours, fighting away her pain with a hard diet of sweaty labor. Keeping her hands busy helped banish the pain of betrayal, at least until the sun finally set and she hobbled up the steps to her little home.

The old places were the ones that lasted the longest with the world gone. The single apartment upstairs had probably been built before her parents were born, and most of the appliances weren't much newer. It meant that some of them actually still worked.

Still, she had to pick her battles. She flicked on a light, but the old fridge was warm inside when she opened it. At least the water waiting inside for her was clean, without even a faint twinge of copper. St. Agnes had come a long way in the last few years since the world ended.

Her home bore very little in common with the one she had grown up in, or many other survivors of the apocalypse. There was a typewriter on her desk instead of a laptop. Her wall had a TV, but she rarely felt like paying for the electricity to watch anything on it. Instead of an air-conditioner, a few fans turned steadily, and the windows on both sides were open. With the sun finally set, she would probably stop sweating in another hour or so.

But there was food in her pantry, and for the moment, medicine in her cabinet. For a little while longer, anyway. There were no phones in the house, no miraculous communications devices in her pocket. Maybe the Coalition could keep tech like that working this long after the collapse, but St. Agnes was a much simpler place. If you wanted to be in touch with friends or family, you either walked over and said hello, you sent a letter, or... you made a deal with the devil.

Vera had a few letters to write, and not long to write them if she wanted to get them out by morning. Without something as simple as a photocopier, she'd have to type out the same basic message a dozen times.


You may've heard by now that Lowell's Golden Age Sports and Dive has closed. Our tours depended on his equipment to refill air and maintain our gear. I am investigating alternatives and hope for tours and classes to resume soon.

Thank you all for allowing me to continue to share the wonders of our world. Please be patient while I find a way to continue that will not compromise your safety.

-Divemaster Vera"

It wasn't much, but she had to type the same damn words over and over. It needed to be simple.

She stuck each one in an envelope, scribbled a new name over the old ones, and carried them down to the box. She hesitated on her way back up, eyes lingering on the back of her truck. Despite being loaded almost completely full, it was actually weighed down less than her trip out. Only the old steel tanks were doing anything.

She hobbled over to the back, leg-brace squeaking with every faltering step.

If she meant to make good on her promise—if she meant to have enough extra bits to keep getting her prescriptions—she needed to find out if any of this gear actually worked. "Makes a girl wonder if you were in league with Her all along, Lowell." She rested one hand on the holstered revolver at her hip. But it wasn't as though it could help her here. Unless she was looking for a quicker death than the one She offered.

She didn't draw it, though. Instead she hefted the smallest box into her arms, and carried it to one of many greasy metal workbenches. Inside was dense packing foam, cut perfectly with the shape of integrated dive-computer watches. She'd seen their like in old print advertisements, when she'd been healthy enough to go on salvage runs. Pre-collapse people had dive computers like these, practically indistinguishable from a good wristwatch. These had fairly large screens, almost two inches across.

But if she was looking for some overt sign of Equestrian corruption, she saw none. The straps looked like simple plastic, the kind that wouldn't tempt a bandit to try and steal it. The box had only simple instructions on its side. "This equipment is electronically-integrated. This device will permit the use of tanks, regulators, and other equipment."

"Think you can get me like this, bastard?" She removed one slim box from the crate, turning it over in her hands. The watch had some heft to it—not more of that weightless-feeling crap that lots of Equestrian gear felt like these days. "It has to start somewhere."

She recited the old mantra as though it could protect her, right before ignoring it. For the small population of St. Agnes, survival meant keeping Her completely out of your life. They'd probably have laws about it, if they could.

But even here in their world, they could exercise only so much control. She had agreed to respect St. Agnes and its rules, but only if they agreed to Her demands. One was the little hospital at the center of town, its lights always on even when the generator failed. The other, that anyone could use any Equestrian hardware they liked, including taking a pony companion into their life.

If Vera opened this box, if she switched it on, the constables wouldn't do a thing. If she had to use these tanks to keep diving, would they even know?

"Excuse me, Miss Vera?" asked a voice, from her front door. "Is everything all right?"

She turned, then had to bite back an insult. She'd left the damn door open when she stuck the mail in, like an idiot. She nodded awkwardly, hobbling away from the truck towards the visitor. It took every drop of her self-control not to say the crudest string of profanities she could come up with. "Everything's just fine, Saddle Star," she lied. "As swell as your god will let it be."

The pony might only be half her height, but he dressed the part of a constable as surely as any of the humans who held the role. He wore leather chaps and a wide-brimmed cap, with a polished gold star in the center stamped with St. Agnes's seal. He wore an actual revolver on his belt too, though God only knew how he'd draw the thing.

"Ain't got any god different 'an yours, Miss Vera," he said, tipping his hat towards her. "Just worried there might've been something amiss is all. Lady living alone like yourself, and your condition being what it is..." His eyes flicked to the brace on her leg. Then he saw what she was holding, and his eyes widened. "Well ain't that somethin'. Thought you were a purist, Vera."

She grunted, tossing the watch to the workbench beside the crate. The box landed with a solid thud, though unfortunately no sound of something shattering. "No fault of mine. Lowell's closed up, constable. I could either take this, or let my bits run out. There just aren't as many tractors and cars and such that need fixin' anymore. Go ahead and tell Her that She got me on my knees. Isn't that what She wants?"

The pony took a few steps closer. She tensed, one hand darting towards her holster. The pony didn't even seem to notice. He removed his hat, somehow holding it with that stupid flat hoof. It was probably made of plastic too, just like the rest of him. "Or you could go to the hospital and get treatment, Vera. Stars, miss, we've had a cure for Rheumatoid Arthritis since before the collapse. One shot, and you're done. Could get the leg fixed up too, while you're in there."

She swore under her breath. "Constable, I'm tryin' to be polite. Please get out of my house."

The pony replaced his hat. Shoot her if there wasn't genuine sympathy on his face. "Of course, Miss Vera. Just thought you might want to know about what you had, on account of not having owned a Ponypad. You ain't got nopony else to ask."

She folded her arms. If she repeated the demand, he'd be sure to leave. St. Agnes's pony constables were held to a far higher standard than any of the humans. So far as she knew, they kept the law better than anyone. But she hesitated. Naive as Saddle Star was, she'd never known him to lie. "I know what it is. It's a dive computer, goes with the other gear. Your god makes big promises about the stuff, and probably keeps most of them."

He flicked his tail in agitation, moving over to the desk. "Those are the newer gear. Works with your skin... I don't know how. But knowin' you, you'll want to make sure the switch is off. Or better, paint silicone or some such on the metal backing, so it can't make electrical contact."

His words were so unexpected that she nearly fell over. Some of that probably came from standing up too long—her brace only helped so much. She pulled over a workbench, then collapsed awkwardly into it. Let the pony see her struggle, brace flailing and all. If he wanted to see how awful it was to live like she did, he would see. She tore the seal away, then slid the inner plastic out. She turned the watch over by the strap, squinting down at it. The underside looked like a metallic honeycomb, thousands of flat contacts. As she moved them, little flickers of infrared light pulsed up at her.

"Why?" she asked, and this time all the venom was gone. "What's it do?"

He braced his forelegs on the bench beside her, high enough to look over at the strange sensors. "Don't know how it works. But if you've ever seen those glasses, that can show you Equestria when you're still here? Like a Ponypad you've got with you all the time? This can do that, if it touches your skin."

"Impossible," she whispered. The word felt more like an incantation than anything. And like so many other prayers she'd tried, it didn't do anything. Nobody knew what She could do anymore.

"There's a switch on the side there, puts the whole thing in Luddite mode. You can flip it, but I wouldn't trust Her to make it do anything, and neither should you. You've got silicone you can paint on in here, right? Use it."

The pony settled back onto his hooves, then turned for the door.

It took until he made it there for Vera to pick her jaw up off the floor. "Why'd you tell me that?" she asked, stunned. "Don't you want Her to manipulate me?"

He adjusted his cap with a hoof. "I'll shut the door on my way out, Miss Vera. Remember to lock it before you turn in, now." He stepped out into the night, clicking the door shut behind him, leaving her alone. Vera stared down at the watch, and nearly tossed the whole thing into the garbage. She bent down carefully, flicking the switch with her fingernail. The lights stopped flashing, right down to the faintest red pulses.

Even the pony didn't want to trust Her. If only she could throw the thing away. But if she did, she wouldn't be able to take people out diving anymore... wouldn't be able to go out herself, wouldn't be able to afford her medication. When that ran out, she'd be aching so much she couldn't even move.

She glanced between the watch and her gun, then back again. "One of you is gonna get me through this," she whispered. "Let's make it the right one."

Vera rose, then hobbled over to her shelf of supplies. She found the grimy old bottle of silicone sealant, and scooped it up. She had a little more work to do before she could test this stupid thing.

Of course it didn't take long—the worst part was just waiting for the sealant to dry, or else smear it all over her skin and add a nice little chemical burn to her evening's adventures. Finally she prodded at the thing and it didn't budge, and she dared to roll it over.

Interacting with the watch had made it switch on. Like all Equestrian devices, they always seemed to be working, always had power. She wasn't particularly surprised by this one. The entire surface had changed, displaying a cartoonish little image of the ocean.

At least her damn eyes still worked, so she could see a little creature pass across the screen. Not a pony, at least not like any she'd known. It had two hooves instead of four, and a tail trailing behind it. It circled in front of her, then waved one of its hooves, giving her a cheerful grin. "Thank you for purchasing a Seapony-Integrated diving system!" she said. Despite the watch's diminutive size, it projected as though a full-sized pony stood beside her in her workshop. "What's your name, so I can get to know you?"

"Vera," she answered, annoyed. She picked up the watch by the strap, holding it closer to her face. As she did, she could make out more detail on the screen. There wasn't just a stylized blue background, it looked like a video to an actual ocean. Tiny fish swam behind this pony, and the seafloor was covered with living reef. It was even more vibrant than the tours she took out into the bay. "Please shut the hell off. I don't need a pony, I just need a watch to monitor my bottom time and report pressure on my tank. I guess... control the tank too. Lowell said something about that."

These stupid ponies could do such good impressions of pain when she said things like that. This one swam once past the little watch screen, her yellow scales sparkling in sunlight through clear water. Finally she seemed to swim closer, moving like she was going to pass right through the watch face and up into the air in front of her. That might not be entirely her imagination, either—Her displays could do that too. "It doesn't work like that, Vera. I'm sorry, this is a Seapony-Integrated system."

Vera ground her teeth together. "Well thanks for jack shit, then." She heaved, tossing the watch across her garage with all her might. She didn't look back, hobbling painfully back up the stairs to her apartment.