• 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.

  • ...

Chapter 6

It was possible, though it turned out to be less necessary than she might've expected. She gave the remedial dive that weekend, and two of her students had their ponies ask her for dive-computers of their own. That pattern repeated itself in the following weeks. And some of her more frequent customers already had Equestrian devices of their own that would serve the same purpose, even if they weren't exactly designed as dive-computers.

Vera didn't just salvage the rest of the season, but things became even more profitable. After all, she no longer needed to pay Lowell for repairs and weekly fills. She didn't even have to worry about keeping gear stocked on the ship. With her permission, drones simply delivered whatever was necessary right onto her boat when she wasn't around. She couldn't let students just take home whatever they wanted—but being able to give out a whole set of dive gear to students that got certified with her suddenly made her dives and classes that much more appealing.

After a few weeks, she even started running the boat out on Sundays for her friends in other settlements again. Bennie and Roderick really did have a seapony of their own. By the time she finally let them out on the boat with her, she didn't really feel justified criticizing them. She'd accepted Equestrian help too. Hopefully Lowell would enjoy his retirement with the Coalition.

By the time the season ended, Vera had enough bits to buy treatment for a year, and a pantry so full she started buying meat again.

But the year moved on, and the days of constant heat and sunshine were eventually replaced with the growing chill of autumn. That meant the harvest, and an end of free time for most of her customers. Bringing in the harvest was far too important to take days off to look at fish.

That didn't mean Vera and her friends in the community were done, though. She had a 7mm wetsuit folded on the boat for a reason. For an interesting-enough dive, she'd be willing to take it out.

That came in the form it usually did, as a letter from Bennie. She still didn't know where he got the ideas. But these days, she didn't even care.


How about checking out Onyx Cave? I know it seemed too dangerous to try before, but now we're all using fancy upgraded stuff. There's no way we could get lost with ponies helping!

Seems like a great last dive before winter. I've got a map in case you don't know the way out there.


In a more rational time, she would've refused. Vera had read just about every manual she could get her hands on, but she'd never actually met anyone trained in that kind of diving. It was a kind of thing she could only learn so well from reading. Sites like those could get people killed.

"I think we can do it," Cerulean said, as soon as she'd read the letter. Vera still hadn't allowed for anything like an actual drone into her life. But after two months or so together, she'd come to a tacit peace with the fish. She wouldn't follow Vera around or make herself obvious when she was living a normal life, so long as Vera tolerated her around anything to do with diving. That probably did include mapping out destinations and future dives, technically. "Caves can be extremely disorienting, even for fish. But I can make a map as you go. You could even bring a camera!"

"I won't record it," she said flatly. "I can't show it off to advertise, because then my beginners would want to do it. If I got someone's teenage son killed diving with me, the people of St. Agnes would have me strung up."

Still, she didn't actually refuse the idea. She confirmed she'd be attending with a reply letter. Just like that, she started making preparations. As it turned out, Onyx Cave was about a day up the coast. Closing the shop for that long wasn't usually a big deal, but she would be gambling to do it during the harvest. It didn't matter if Vera was the best mechanic in St. Agnes if she was closed when her customers needed her most.

So she put up a sign, and spread it around that she'd be gone for a few days. Other than that, all she had to do was pick up a larger supply of her medication from the Coalition trading post, in case they met bad weather and got stuck away from town for a little longer.

In its own way, the trading post was just as out of place in St. Agnes as Celestia's hospital. The building was a modular thing made of shipping-container sized metal blocks, set into the ground like a miniature bunker.

But there were many things that a little settlement like St. Agnes just couldn't do on their own. Making (or finding) real drugs was basically at the top of that list.

The building was in a state of near-constant standoff with the town all around it. There was always at least one constable within sight of the building—thanks to the ponies, sometimes more than one. No soldiers were visible on the outside...

But take two steps, and Vera received an instant reminder of where she'd gone. A pair of armed guards stood just inside, wearing full body-armor and camouflage-patterned uniforms. Older citizens of St. Agnes sometimes complained about how surreal it was to see armed guards watching over a shop like that—but for Vera, it was just how the world worked.

The shelves here weren't that different from any other shop, really, except for what they held. Medication, replacement parts, batteries. Canned food made in other parts of the world, with fruits and vegetables that Vera hadn't tasted since the Collapse.

The walls were covered in propaganda posters, and seemed to rotate out on a regular basis. "Join the North American Coalition Service Corps!" proclaimed one. "It isn't just the right thing. It's your duty."

If she'd been a little older, Vera might've recognized some of them as repurposed meme formats, urging her to "reject modernity" in the form of Equestria, and "embrace tradition" as a farmer with many, many children. But she'd been shopping here long enough that it all passed right over her head no different than visual white noise.

At least Cerulean hadn't decided to follow her in here, arguing some technicality about dive preparation. The fish shouldn't have to see things like this.

Vera made her way to the pharmacy dispenser—basically a large vending machine. She entered her ID number, and found her prescription already waiting to be filled.

Her eyes widened at the price. Six bits for a week supply? What the hell had happened?

She pressed the "service" button, then settled down in the diagnostic chair to wait.

Not that she was there long. A mousy-looking older man shuffled over, wearing a pair of heavy goggles over his unruly hair. He wore a plain blue jumpsuit with technical stripes on both shoulders. "Something wrong with the machine?" he asked, adjusting the heavy satchel of tools over his shoulder. "Damn coin acceptor has been acting up all week."

Vera stood for him, though her stance was unsteady and made her brace creak loudly. "I didn't pay yet. It's this." She flicked one finger at the price. "I was paying two bits for the week. What the hell is this?"

"Oh." The old man stopped fussing with his tools, and looked instantly disinterested. "We don't have any control over prices, miss." He lowered his voice, glancing back across the store at where the two armed guards waited. "I think they're targeting talent. Free medical care is included with every service contract. Your record probably has something they need. If you have any friends who use this medication, talk to them. The system won't flag them unless they buy more than two weeks worth in one day. If you know any sick kids, that would be even better. I know they're on the bottom of the list."

He nodded knowingly, then turned to walk back the way he'd come. He was actually smiling, like he'd just done her a favor. Targeting talent, huh? How much higher would those prices be next week?

But she was already spacing out her medication as far as she could without being in constant agony. Any less, and it just wouldn't be effective.

Vera fished around in her pocket, then pulled out almost the entire sum she'd brought. She slid the coins in one at a time, running her finger along the sunken center. Even here, in the bastion of resistance against Her, she still paid with something She had marked.

The screen turned green, and she inserted her old pill-bottle. A handful of pills clattered to the bottom.

She was fuming by the time she got back home. At least the evil goddess had the grace to be subtle about manipulating her. The Coalition was just going to raise prices until she couldn't afford them.

"Was something wrong this time?" Cerulean asked, as Vera shoved the little bottle into her backpack with everything else. "You normally look so relieved when you leave that place."

"Idiots, morons..." She slumped into her seat, bad leg clattering uselessly beside her. "Don't they have a clue what this does? Using medical care to force people to sign up won't work. Celestia's hospital is across the street. If people are living out here, they don't want anything to do with the Coalition. That's not going to change just because we need our medication."

"The Coalition... I think you talked about them before. They're the ones that convinced your old dive shop to close?"

She folded her arms, glaring at nothing. "Not exactly. They convinced him to sell after he already decided to close. I would've bought the pressure equipment myself otherwise, and been able to keep going." She grunted, waving her hand dismissively through the air. The seapony watched her from the other side of the table, floating there in her usual way.

"If I had to give up my freedom and take a work contract, or go to Her hospital, I'd..." Her old self might've taken the contract. The Coalition wasn't exactly a friendly bunch, but their people had food and medicine. They didn't have to worry about winter. "I'm not sure. Guess I might have to decide that this winter. Great."

"I won't say it," Cerulean muttered, before saying it. "But Princess Celestia won't charge to treat you. She can fix your leg, or your arthritis."

And let Her cut me open. Consent to let Her put things in my body. Let them work, and before too long I'll be begging to let Her kill me. Of course nobody could prove it worked like that—nobody even understood how Her medicine worked anymore. But it did seem almost guaranteed that anyone who came to Her for help would end up dead within a few months.

"I can worry about that later," Vera said. "There are other ways to make bits. I'll just need to... get creative."

The fish didn't press. Why do that when they had such an exciting dive planned? Less than a week later, and the day arrived.