• Published 21st Sep 2021
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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 5

"Sorry about your scooter," Cerulean said, apparently from just beside her. Vera turned, and the seapony was there on the deck, sprawled out in the sun like she was. She looked a little like a seal when she did it, the lively muscle of her body flattening out under the unexpected load of gravity. She could still see through the fish to her boat on the other side. It was easier to see through the illusion. "If it was connected, I could've warned you not to use it. But it was way too old to be integrated. I didn't know it would fail either."

Vera groaned, reaching back to unhook the scooter from her shoulder. "I've... fixed it before. I've got half a dozen of the stupid things back at home. It's finding a working battery a decade on that's the trouble. I made this cell myself, converted from stuff I bought from the Coalition..." And now she had something else she needed to waste her precious bits on. Fantastic.

"I know you probably won't like me saying so," Cerulean began. She sat up along the dock. Again the posture reminded her a little of a seal, with most of her tail down but her upper body raised. Her fins hung limp, useless out in the air. "But I can get you a new scooter. You should just get that leg fixed. But if you won't do that, at least let me help." She reached out, nudging the scooter with one of her two hooves. Vera felt nothing as it happened, not so much as a twitch. "This is awful."

She sat up, stretching to either side. This dive hadn't been nearly enough to test her abilities, not with as active as she was. But it was enough to remind her of just how useless old tech could sometimes be. She rose to her feet, shuffling down the pier towards her boat. It was about average for the ships docked here, and easily the nicest thing she owned. The boat had once belonged to a fancy dive company, catering to tourists who came to the bay for summer trips. When she'd taken it, there were far more ships floating in marinas than there were people skilled enough to keep them operating.

The boat was large enough for a comfortable enclosed upper cabin for overnight trips. Like the one this had just become. She settled into one of the side chairs, then started stripping off her gear. She tossed the mask off first, though she kept the watch. "I don't have extra bits for a new scooter, Cerulean. You... use that currency, don't you? Little bits of gold with an RFID chip in the center?"

There was no seapony on the dock beside her anymore, but she could still hear the voice. Distinctly muted now that she had heard what it was supposed to sound like. "We use bits, sure. But they're not like the ones in the Outer Realm. I think Princess Celestia makes those to trade with humans."

Vera went through the usual after-dive motions. There was a hose on deck, which sprayed her and her gear with fresh water. Most important was the leg-brace. It usually did fine on her dives, but she'd been close to the bottom this time. There was plenty of crap in the works she needed to clean. "Either way. I need the bits I have to trade with the Coalition. I can't buy a scooter from Celestia."

She didn't really look at the watch, but a single glance told her the seapony was still there. She'd gone back to swimming, rather than sunning herself on the dock like Vera had been doing. That was probably better for her health anyhow. "You wouldn't have to buy it with bits," the seapony said. "I'll pay with some of mine!"

She put the gear away in the dockside lockbox, then clicked the padlock closed again behind it. She had only her wetsuit slung over her shoulder as she clambered through the doorway into her cabin. She locked it behind her, drawing the blinds before she switched on any of the lights. The fishing docks here in St. Agnes were guarded, just like anywhere else. But Vera hadn't lasted this long by being needlessly careless.

The cabin used its space judiciously, with a pair of bunks towards the bow, a simple kitchen, and a head. She tossed her wet swimsuit to the floor, selecting a fresh towel from the rack. Everything was still primed and ready for her wealthy students that past Saturday, right down to the snacks in the cupboards. "That sounds too good to be true," she said. "There's gotta be a catch. How much of my soul do I have to trade?"

The seapony giggled. "I don't know what a soul is, Vera. I don't know what I do with one if you gave it to me. I won't ask for anything in exchange. Just... something for you to think about." She swam closer, and her image pressed up against the little watch display. "Please think about cleaning off your watch. Talking through this tiny window is the worst, you have no idea. I was really hoping to see more of the Outer Realm."

Vera held up her wrist, moving it around the empty cabin. She didn't rotate quite as far, seeing as she'd already removed the swimsuit. But that was probably pretty dumb too. Computer programs didn't care if she was naked. Besides, Cerulean was a girl. "I rinsed it off when I came in. The screen looks clean to me."

"Not that. The slime you stuck to the bottom before you started using it. The stuff that stops me from being there with you. I have to talk through this tiny window. It's awful."

Oh. Saddle's advice was vindicated a second time. Vera didn't say anything until she'd finished drying off, and went for the dresser tucked beside the bunk she usually used. "You said think about it. What does that mean, exactly? What if I think about it and still decide not to?"

The watch didn't answer for a few seconds. Long enough that she'd pulled on some pajamas and was already heating a can of chili on the single burner. "It's not a price," Cerulean finally said. "You don't have to promise to do it. You just have to think about it enough that you give me your reasons for saying no, if you decide not to."

The fish sounded so human, particularly with just how disappointed and hurt she could sound. "I already ordered it for you. It should arrive before morning. Somepony will drop it on the deck of your ship, where it's out of sight from the dock. You'll see it when you wake up. Is that enough for you to know I mean it?"

You could be lying. The thought was stupid, and didn't reach her lips. Ponies were always lying, that was what they were created to do. They were the sock-puppets Celestia used to convince people to kill themselves. Cerulean didn't feel much like a puppet.

"I covered the watch so She couldn't use it on me." The words sounded so incredibly lame when she said them. But she was already too invested. "I just wanted to be able to dive again.”

"It doesn't," Cerulean said. Though even she sounded defeated as she did. "I'm a fish, remember? I don't want to do anything that ponies do, Vera. Wearing it properly lets me be out there. It lets me help, if you want me to. Or just be somepony to talk to." She gestured to either side of her tiny screen with one hoof. "You're gonna spend the night here, floating by yourself? You could have some company. Well, better company. Less miserable company, since I wouldn't be looking through a little window."

I shouldn't even be talking to you, she thought. What she should've done was toss the watch out the window, and give up on diving completely. She had got Vera's only dive shop shut down. What human-made gear wasn't already broken beyond repair probably would be in another few years, anyway. Maybe she could find another way to afford her medication. "What will it do to me if I take it off?" she asked. "I don't want any of Her technology inside me, Cerulean. I wouldn't let Her treat my arthritis, or my leg, or anything else."

"It's a watch," the seapony answered. "It's not going to put anything into you. I... don't really understand how it works, exactly. Let me look it up, stay there."

It wasn't like she had anywhere to go. Vera stirred the chili until it started bubbling, then dumped it into a bowl. Hardly the most exciting meal, but the smell did trigger a pleasant memory. This had been canned at the St. Agnes festival last year, when farmer Ericson decided to donate a whole cow's worth of beef to the party. She could almost smell the gunpowder smell of fireworks in the air with every bite.

The fish reappeared on her wrist. She had something in the water with her this time, an oversized scroll she unrolled with both hooves and somehow stayed there. "Okay, Vera. It says it... does something with your nervous system? I don't know how that works, the scrolls on that looked really complicated. It goes into the... audiovisual, uh... stuff." She poked her head out from the scroll. "I really don't know. But it says here it doesn't make any changes! If you don't like it, you can just take the watch off. It's not an implant, and you won't get any kind of dependency."

She finished every drop in the bowl. It was, after all, her last can of the stuff. "Promise?" she finally asked. "I don't know if those mean anything to you. But I've always heard people say that even She doesn't break her promises. You promise it's not going to do anything to me?"

"Yes." Cerulean shoved the scrolls aside. "It lets me project into the Outer Realm with you, and add other things too. Like you could read this scroll yourself, if you wanted. Or even see into Equestria."

She pulled her hand back from the watch, coming up short. "I don't want to see Equestria. That's the first step to letting Her convince you to kill yourself. Most of the time I won't want to talk to you either."

The fish could still show emotions just as well as ordinary ponies. The pain on her face when Vera said it was like smacking a baby. "I'm busy with the life I have. I fix things, I have friends, we go diving together..."

"You mean Bennie and Roderick, right?" Cerulean asked. She did it causally enough that Vera hardly noticed at first. Then it clicked. "You know they have ponies too. Well, they have one fish who takes care of both of them. But they're a couple, so it makes sense. They never go into the ocean separate. His name is Mercury. You'll meet him next time you go out with your friends."

She probably shouldn't feel betrayed. Bennie and Roderick weren't the only ones she'd met who had Equestrian tech in their lives. A good third of St. Agnes probably had a pony to help around the house. It was hard to argue with someone so willing to work, who didn't need to eat. "I've never seen any—" she trailed off. "Dive computer." They'd always worn watches, though she had noticed when Bennie started wearing it. He was usually above tacky accessories like that. But he always had the watch, even when it clashed with whatever he happened to be wearing.

"Yeah!" Cerulean agreed. "There's physical ponies too, sometimes. I guess you'd call them... drones? We can travel out there if we have to. But that's rare for fish. We need a whole separate harness to be up on land, and... I bet humans who are going to have one of us in their lives probably just get a regular pony. Almost all of you spend your whole lives up on the surface."

She loosened the watch, then pulled it off. Curiously, Cerulean's voice went instantly silent as she did so—not even a tiny squeak from the watch-face itself. How did that thing even work? She gripped it by the band...

And attacked the silicone with a fingernail. It peeled easily, coming off in a single layer of solidified goop. She tossed it into the trash, then held up the watch again. Little pulses of red light shone from below, almost the instant she'd removed it. A little like the infrared that fancy human watches could use to read your pulse. But this thing did a whole lot more than that. I shouldn't be doing this. I don't need more of Equestria Online in my life.

Except she did. Without Equestria Online, she would be out of bits by spring. Then she'd get a few more agonizing months before the pain drove her crazy, or she lost enough mobility that she couldn't work anymore. Having a pony watch was way better than a bullet.

She settled it onto her wrist, and tightened the strap. She felt a slight tingling against the skin there, and a gentle heat.

Then there was a splash of water, and Cerulean appeared in the air across the table. She floated as though she was submerged, with her fins drifting freely in the current. Vera couldn't see any actual water, though. "It's still working!" the fish exclaimed. She swam a loop in the air, exactly as she'd done on the watch. But this time her body didn't vanish as the edges of the screen obscured it. "Thanks, Vera! You won't regret this, promise! Well... maybe in the short term you'll have a little getting used to. But long term you'll be grateful."

Exactly what you want to hear a pony say. Vera's other hand hovered near the band, ready to pull the watch off the instant she felt strange. But the pain never came. She didn't feel her desire to kill herself grow. She wasn't thinking obsessively of Her hospital downtown. "I can't promise I'll wear it everywhere," she said. "I'm not Bennie or Roderick. But since you're here, maybe we could talk about something else?" She rapped her fingers on the glass with one hand. "I don't think most of my students would be very happy putting on computers like this. Could you control, like... a dozen sets of gear at once?"

The seapony seemed to swim down to the chair across from her. Somehow she didn't look transparent anymore. This wasn't just a projection on glass. Though how it did work, Vera couldn't imagine. There was a subtle shift, and the chair slid back on its springs. Or at least, it sounded like it did. Probably another trick. "That sounds... pretty hard. But I could try! How long do I have to figure it out?"

"Until Saturday," she answered. "Is that enough time?"

"If it's possible!" Cerulean chirped. "I'll figure it out tonight, after you go to sleep."