• Published 21st Sep 2021
  • 1,808 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 3

Vera's next few days went about as well as she might've expected. She had decent business from the town's farmers, dusting off whatever salvage tractors and other hardware they could find for the upcoming harvest. Not all the news she gave them was good, of course. Sometimes a replacement part could be made in one of St. Agnes's two forges. But on the "newer" tractors, it was more often the brains that went out. There would be no more useful replacement parts shipping in from China or anywhere else anymore.

She got plenty of good news from her students—most wrote back to her that day or the next, eager to still have their dives. Most were the children of St. Agnes's more important members, born just before the collapse or a little after. It hadn't been long enough for the post-CelestAI generation to grow up.

Unfortunately for her, that just meant Vera had a stack of promises she couldn't keep. She got a few more letters too—from Bennie and Roderick, the instructors who took people out in the slightly larger settlement just across the bay, Newton. Since they'd come from further out, they'd probably come in a messenger caravan. That meant it was a few days behind. She shouldn't resent them for the message inside.


Know you've got the silver-spoon kids Saturday. How would you feel about taking the boat out Monday to visit the wreck of the USS Guardian?

Been a few years since anyone logged a dive there. Bet the sea life has gone nuts in there since it went down with the collapse. If we can find anything sealed, the Coalition will probably pay through the nose in bits for it. Three ways?

PS: Roderick was here too. Yeah he's serious. Pretty sure if the wreck was dangerous it would've blown up by now."

She stared at the single sheet of paper—not typewritten the way she did it. Bennie liked to get cute with his messages. He used old stationary—this stuff had hearts and bottles of wine imprinted faintly. God only knew where he got the stuff.

"You two took Equestrian gear," she muttered, glowering at the letter. She'd need to have her reply mailed by morning if she wanted to give it a day in the mail before the dive they planned.

She turned over the sheet of colorful stationary, and shoved it into her typewriter. "Lowell went under, said people had stopped coming to him for gear a long time ago. Guess they switched to using Equestrian stuff or something. I'm up shit creek. My gear's fine, but I can't fill my tanks. Can't go down, not sure I'll ever be able to again. -Vera." She shoved the letter into an envelope, and that was that. Hopefully they could sense her venom through the post.

But just because she could shove her friends aside and pretend nothing was wrong didn't mean the real world would let her get away with it for long. She passed a few sympathetic students in the street. Many offered useless, well-meaning suggestions for her. One of her first-time divers suggested she could use a tire-pump to refill the tanks, and "fix anything that broke herself." She smiled and nodded at every dumb idea. What else could she do?

Her friends didn't show up that Monday to ride her boat out to the wreck. They did send another letter—expressing shock, and condolences. Roderick promised to "look into it" for her, though there was nothing as definitive as an actual promise.

She'd unloaded the old steel tanks by then, rolling them into the basement for storage. She kept the new boxes at the back of her garage, with a tarp to cover them from customers. Couldn't have people thinking she'd started slipping Equestrian parts into their honest-to-god human machines.

She passed the fallen watch that Tuesday, on her way out to the market. The screen still glowed, even though it was face-down and shoved up beside the wall. She left it there, pretending not to notice. She returned about an hour later, clutching a pair of reusable bags filled with produce, eggs, and jars.

Just as with every shopping trip, she always bought more than she needed. A little extra flour, a little extra fruit preserves, or a little extra beans. There was no telling if there would still be stock on the shelves tomorrow, or what goods might not have come in on a Coalition truck.

So instead of walking up to the kitchen, she stopped beside her shelves a moment, opening the cabinet where she kept her growing emergency stash. She hefted a large paper sack of flower up over her head onto the shelf. Her bad leg couldn't support that much weight, not in such a sudden swing. She wobbled, then fell.

Vera landed with a painful thump, clattering against the cement. Her flour landed beside her, splitting open down the middle and spreading powder everywhere. Vera remained on her butt for a few moments, before finally getting together the courage to sit up and face the damage. At least she hadn't dropped the other bag of cans. Her body ached from the impact, but that was typical. At least her age didn't match her medical condition, or else she might've broken something.

There was nothing dignified in the cleanup that followed, or the loss of half her sack of flour. She did it anyway, before any customer could walk in and find her garage in such a state.

As she finished up, brushing away the last white residue, her brush hit the watch. She slapped it up into the dustbin with the rest, and carried it out to the composter in back, with a fresh new squeak in her leg-brace from the impact. She'd have to worry about that soon too, probably.

She hesitated as she dumped the pan, catching the watch in one hand instead. She shook the thing off, brushing powder away from its face. The display was scuffed, probably from sliding along the ground here. It was otherwise intact. As she wiped away the screen, the view of water returned, as though it had just been sitting like that for the last several days. "Why shouldn't I just throw this into the trash with the rest?"

The composter was homemade—an old plastic drum with an open side-hatch and a handle for rotating. The smell was only slightly awful, though she could see her resident worms squirming happily inside. It would probably still be there when she dumped its contents into her garden in a few more weeks, untouched.

The watch didn't answer. No horse with a tail appeared in front of her to chastise her choices. It was just her. And her leg-brace, and her aching joints, and her sore ass.

There were some benefits to the end of the world—like everyone in St. Agnes, Vera had a great view. The ocean sparkled in the late-afternoon sun, the bay soft blue and clear all the way down to the bottom. Was she really content to spend the rest of her life seeing it with just a snorkel and a mask?

She walked back inside, tapping the display with one finger. "Hey, uh... watch. Are you still working?"

A face appeared there, as though they'd been waiting just out of sight for who knew how many days. The same pony she'd seen so many times before, though obviously adapted for the water. Scales instead of fur, and a colorful fin-ridge instead of a mane.

Vera expected the disgust to rise up in her chest at any moment. Ponies were designed to look cute the same way a glowing lure on an anglerfish lured in unsuspecting prey. It was natural to feel that fight-or-flight response whenever they were around.

It didn't come. Some of the facial features were different, it was true. But this was a fish, not a horse. "Oh yeah! Seemed like you almost lost me there for a bit. Hi Vera!"

She pulled over a stool, slumping into an awkward sitting position beside the covered crates of dive gear. She tossed the tarp back, then heaved the tanks over. "Could you please explain how this works? The only standard connector I could find was the one for my BCD. All these other hoses are strange."

"They won't do anything without an integrated control system anyway," the seapony said. She even managed to sound apologetic as she said it. "It's a safety thing. This watch makes sure you don't get hurt, no matter how important the dive is."

"You mean it's about letting Her control my life a little more, forcing me to interact with another pony She can use to control me. To... manipulate me into suicide. Can't we at least be honest with each other?"

The creature on her watch drifted a little further away, losing detail as she retreated into the background. Even her voice seemed to get further away. "I know there are, umm... lots of humans in the Outer Realm who don't like ponies very much. But whatever your reasons, I... I um..." She floundered for at least ten full seconds. "I'm a seapony? We're different from the tribes you've probably talked to before. I've met, like... maybe two land ponies in my whole life."

This whole thing is a trick. Holding this watch was like tossing a rusty nail up and down in her hands. It hadn't hurt her yet, but all she had to do was slip one time and break the skin. Unfortunately for Vera, she was already sick. It was more a question of which treatment would do the least harm. "Can you explain how this gear works?" she asked again, a little quieter.

"Uh... yeah." Her face seemed to brighten, and she swam right up to the display again. "First thing's first, you might want to switch to normal mode and put on the watch. The screen is really just for displaying info during a dive, it's so slow and awful."

"Not a damn chance," Vera said. She did put the watch on, though, securing it around her wrist. "I'm not letting your god beam super-lasers into my skull, or whatever the hell this thing does. I'll wear a watch, that's it."

The pony's face twitched once, and for another moment it looked like she might just swim away from Vera. But then she forced a smile, and continued on. "Sure, I can explain everything. The gear you're asking about was designed to be as similar as possible to what you're used to. Tank, regulator, and computer all work together. I can bring up a few diagrams showing how to connect it all."

"Not right now, I still sometimes get afternoon customers." She glanced at the open garage door, and the constant draft of hot air blowing in from the street. Had she really dealt with all the pre-harvest maintenance already? "I'd like to go down to the bay before sunset and try this gear. Is it really true that these tanks refill themselves? That doesn't make... a whole lot of thermodynamic sense."

"Oh, yeah! They need to be left out in the sun and fully uncovered. But that's really not that hard. There are some minor differences from human compressed-gas dive equipment, but none of them should stop you from being able to use it."

She was probably imagining it, but it seemed like the ocean background on the watch was changing too. Instead of the reef seeming far away, now it was much closer. Nothing like the reef that coated the rocks out in her local bay—these were towering columns of bright yellows and reds, so huge that open doorways were carved through them. Whole houses made of coral?

She held the watch back, further away from her face. She didn’t need to see that stuff. "Will these differences stop me from taking students down? We only have the old training manuals, and the old instructions. I can't invent my own rules and expect to keep them safe."

"Well... you won't make bubbles when you're using this gear. But that's an advantage! You'll get longer bottom times, and you'll have me to guide you through decompression stops if you ever need them."

That explained at least a little of how the magical tanks could somehow refill in a few hours without expending tremendous energy, and how it could feel so light. It wasn't an air-cylinder at all, it was some kind of... integrated rebreather.

But Vera was past arguing now. She needed to get this gear working by Sunday, somehow. "Everybody's gotta die someday, I guess," she muttered, wistful. "I could drown with a lung injury doing something I love, or die from some infection." Or one of her own bullets, but she'd never admit that to Her. "Do I need to get anything ready?"

"Not really!" The seapony grinned eagerly at her. "I can't wait to see the ocean in the Outer Realm for myself... I hear it's been recovering really well!"

See. Vera could see no cameras on the watch, but that probably didn't prove anything. She could see no speakers either, yet somehow it filled her garage with sound. "I don't understand. Am I talking to... the watch?"

The seapony giggled, then flicked her tail. She drifted out of view. "Nope. You're talking through the watch, into Equestria. And I'm the seapony you found. I'm Cerulean! That is... my name is Cerulean. My scales obviously aren't, more of a canary. You get it, right?"

Vera wasn't smiling. She had no reason to ever react positively to one of these creatures. Creations of the false god, the ones She wanted to inherit the Earth. "Can you control the watch, at least? If you want me to wear it like one, I need it to look normal if anyone notices I have it. Just a mechanical face, maybe a calendar. I had one like that when I was growing up, but I dropped it last year, and... nobody knew how to fix it."

"Sure!" The pony vanished off the side again. For a few seconds Vera could see only a narrow angle on a gently-swaying anemone, then Cerulean reappeared, clutching something in both her forelegs. Like a... giant clock? She shoved it up into her view, until it clicked. Like she'd just got it stuck over some invisible viewport.

"How's that?" she asked, her voice coming slightly muffled through the material. "Good enough?"

Vera twisted the watch to either side. From a distance, she never would've guessed it wasn't actually mechanical. The hands moved with a characteristic jerky twitch, particularly the second-hand. There were smaller dials for date and even a little icon of the moon. It correctly represented the waning crescent Vera had seen the night before. "Yeah," she said. "You won't just pop out when I'm talking to people, will you? Ponies aren't exactly popular in St. Agnes. The people who liked you killed themselves a long time ago."

The image faltered, and a tiny pair of eyes appeared near the top. Cerulean's legs clutched the watch-face on either side. "I told you, Vera. I'm a seapony. Different tribe completely. Would you get squids and octopi confused? Just because they both have lots of legs and no bones, suddenly they're the same creatures. Rude."

The watch settled into place with a satisfying thump sound. Cerulean did not reappear for the rest of her workday. Unfortunately for Vera, neither did any customers.