by Korenav

First published

The sun is gone. The world has frozen over. Towering cities glow with power and warmth provided by the finite resource, Sunstone. Jovin, one of the many living a life run by cybernetics finds himself in debt as his body needs Sunstone to survive.

Only the oldest of ponies remember life when the sun still gleamed in the sky. Now the only lights that shine are the smoggy light pollution of a city only managing to stay warm on the frozen planet because of Sunstone. Mega corporations run everything, tell you what to buy, and set the prices on what you need to live. Technology has grown faster than any could imagine and cybernetics are commonplace.

Jovin Sharpsight, a rather odd pegasus in a tight spot, finds himself in a bit of trouble as the drug he needs to keep himself and his cybernetic limbs functioning is rather costly. With his debts catching up to him he needs to get creative and risky to get himself out of spending the rest of his life mining Sunstone, or worse. Just how much is he willing to lose to get out?


This Universe is based on Ask The Sunjackers, an art story comic by Captain Hoers, all done with their permission, and cover art done by them. Please check out and support the source material for even more information on this world!

Thank you-
Editors: Sorren, Freglz
Prereaders: Marcibel, CyfroStan, Captain Hoers, Midnight Starfall, SkJolty, Wildcard Mask

A Day Better Than Most

View Online

“Are you serious? Why wouldn’t you want a cybernetically-enhanced ex-military pegasus like me? What’s not to like?” Jovin stood on the very tips of his mechanical hooves and still had to stretch to reach the counter top, claws digging into the wood. His height was already an issue, but his mane made seeing all the more difficult, and he blew one of his bangs out of the with a confident smirk. “You’re not gonna get someone like me again!”

A tired griffon behind the desk stared back at him, completely unamused. “Need I remind you that we are a data recovery business? Most of your enhancements are irrelevant to us and the ones that aren’t are hardly uncommon. You couldn’t pull your own weight. Literally. You’re too sma—"

“Hey, hey!” he snapped, glaring, eyes zooming in with the faint sound of a camera shutter. “I’m plenty able to pull my weight! In raw data decryption, recovery, and—"

“Jovin, you’re lazy, hot-headed, you break company rules, and think you’re better than everyone else. I’ve got plenty of guys that can do this work—"

He slammed his hoof on the desk, wings flaring as the sheer weight of the action rang out through the room. “I could do laps around those guys if this work was actually ‘real work’ and not some mind-numbing bullshit!”

The griffon sighed. “…Well, Miss Sharpsight—"

“Mister! That's Mister to you!”

He groaned and looked at his papers again, idly crossing out something on them as he grumbled under his breath. “Well, Mister Sharpsight… care to explain why I find you data snooping in on our clients files half the time?”

“Uhh, well…” His expression dropped a little, “I’m verifying data integrity.”

“On encrypted data. You don’t need to decrypt it.”

“Oh, come on. You never know! That takes real work!”

“Yeah, maybe, or because you are too bored to do anything else. I can always tell you’re bored when you got your hoof half disassembled or a dozen taco wrappers at your desk. And you should really lay off on those, by the way. You’ll get fat and someone will think you—"

“Okay, okay, I’ve heard that joke enough already,” Jovin groaned. “But come on, you know I just need some real work.”

“Then you can find yourself some ‘real work’ somewhere else,” the griffon grunted, pointing a claw at the exit. “You’re fired. Get out.”

Jovin narrowed his eyes, peering into him, but eventually pulled away, raking his claws along the desktop as he fluttered for the door. “Fffffffffffine… Your loss. But I’m taking all my goofy shit with me!”

“That’s coming out of your severance pay.”

Jovin groaned as he pushed his way through the door of his place of former employment, carrying a small crate with his personal effects on his back. He took a deep breath in and sighed once outside, the gruff, smoggy air of the city sprawl filling his nose. Looking back to the building he just left his face fell, ears drooping, before turning away. “Dammit…”

Lights were everywhere; streetlamps, LED billboards, headlights, windows, even the faint glow of cybernetic eyes and limbs from passersby. Not even the night sky was dark; the city below illuminating it like an irradiated gas. Everything glowed like it was alive. All thanks to Suntech.

And yet, everything was dark. Grime caked the cobblestone streets and mixed with the blackened snow, the walls and alleys crumbled with decades of posters stripped away. Overturned trash and unwanted personal belongings littered the streets, eventually becoming another pony’s treasure. If you could call anything here a treasure.

Even on the edge of the sprawl, it was impossible to not notice the radiant heart of the city, the brightest light on the horizon going on for miles. It was a city of light.

A city that would never see the light of day ever again.

Jovin pulled up the collar of his jacket, the colder air in this more rundown part of the world chilling his fur before he turned away, setting his sights on the darker, snowier outskirts.

“And now I gotta carry this stuff all the way back home.” He looked over his shoulder at the crate, then to his prosthetic legs. “I hate walking,” he grumbled, the combined weight a bit too much for him to fly, even with the mechanical limbs assisting his wings. “Can it get any wor—"


“SWEET FUCKING SISTERS!” Jovin cried as he stumbled back, spilling everything in the crate all around him.

The peach-coloured blur from behind a nearby dumpster he was passing came to a halt in front of him. To his relief, the stallion was familiar. “I got you!” he shouted with a sharp smile, but his grin soon faltered when he saw the mess he’d created. “... Oh. Ooops. Didn’t know you had any cargo. Sorry.”

“I just… had to ask,” Jovin groaned, putting his crate down and returning everything to its rightful place, inspecting the damage.

“Hey, I’m not ‘worse’,” the new pegasus protested, assisting with what he could. “You know I’d be here for you through thick and thin.”

“Yeah, well, Poppy, you just kinda… popped the fuck out of nowhere. I was ready to have a griffon mug me for my legs honestly… Not that they could…”

Poppy giggled. It was a somewhat effeminate laugh, admittedly, and it matched his lanky form. “Well, luckily you have me. So, you’re having an even better day now, right?”

“Well, I…” Jovin grumbled, pulling his lips tight in a pout. “You’re not wrong…”

“Besides, if it was going to actually get worse, it would start raining.”

“Poppy… please don’t.”

Whaaat? I got an extra poncho.”

He eyed the green cloth around Poppy’s neck. “It’s not the stupid roll-up one that doubles as a scarf is it?”

“Pfft. No. But it was a cool idea.”

“It wasn’t waterproof. It was pretty stupid.”

“I, uh… Y-yeah… Okay, it kinda was.”

The crate was loaded, but before Jovin could hoist it onto his back again, Poppy took the liberty of putting it on his own back instead.

“Poppy, I can—"

“Nuuupe.” Poppy smiled down at him, half a head taller. “You’re having a bad day. My turn.”

Jovin pouted once more, grumbling to himself, then let out a sigh. “Fine, fine, but only because I know you’ll try to run with it if I tried to take it from you.”

“Hehe. And that wouldn’t be a fair race.”

“Hey!” he huffed, wings fluttering. “What’s that supposed to mean!? You calling me short?!”

“Noooooo? Just a handicap with this on my back.”


Poppy bit his lip, mulling over his thoughts in the momentary silence between them. “Soooo…” he began, running a hoof through his blue mane as his wings shuffled at his sides, “you wanna go see a movie tonight? I got a bonus this week and I know you want to see John Whicker 3~.”

“John Whicker 3? Heh. Heck yeah. I loved the first two!”

“Great! I’ll find us a time for later tonight! Maybe we can get a bite to eat too?”

“Yeah, I could really go for a burrito.”

The walk back home was hardly eventful. The further they travelled from the city sprawl, the more grime and junk littered the roads. The air chilled even more, and snow banks were scattered about all over. The horizon had far fewer building’s towering over them, and more chimneys lined the roofs, billowing smoke.

Neon lights and billboards lessened, but not by much; everything became gradually darker, the ambient glow in the sky slowly replaced by empty black. Green plumes of magic and fire were the only interruptions, bursting from the smokestacks of factories and power plants. The occasional drone or flying pony also drew the eye.

The apartment complex Jovin lived in wasn’t much to look at, but it could’ve been far worse. Millions called this city home, but of all the places available to him within his price range, this was one of the few he might have been willing to call ‘nice’.

Well, really, he mostly had his roommate to thank for it.

“Catch ya later at the theater, Poppy.”

“I-I could pick you up, maybe?” he offered, likewise offering Jovin the crate. “Meet you here?”

“Nah, it’s fine.” Jovin slipped the crate onto his back. “I can fly myself there. Ponies would think you were gay or something.”

Poppy let out an uncertain laugh. “Y-yeah. Wouldn’t that be something.”

Jovin chuckled, giving him a pat on the shoulder. “See you later tonight Poppy. Or today… Whatever time it is.”

“Bubye...” Poppy’s said softly, biting his lip.

Jovin was already on his way up the stairs, waving his keys at the entrance frantically until it registered his ID. The panel rattled with a verification hum, but the door required some ‘encouragement’ to open before he could enter.

The hallway lights illuminated a floor in dire need of mopping. He ascended a few more flights of stairs, passing the ‘out of service’ elevator. A couple levels higher, and on a somewhat cleaner floor, Jovin fumbled with his keys in his extended claws, mindful on any noise he made.

As silently as he could, he unlatched the door to his apartment and slipped inside. The lights were on, though everything was awash with the green glow of the city through the windows. It was tidier than the hallway, but the stains and weathering of time still dotted the walls and corners. Well-kept, as far as most apartments in the complex went, and that was thanks to its current occupants.

One of them, at least.

Jovin softly closed the door behind him and quietly made his way past the kitchen. The refrigerator was covered in notes and colorful magnets, most of them being messages to one another. A calendar showcased the chores done each day, quite a few dates of which had Jovin’s name on them, but most had ‘Buck’ instead. Most of those were where Jovin’s had been crossed out.

Focusing his eyes in, he sighed; he’d been listed for most of the chores again. He rolled his eyes and strolled closer, extending his claws for the marker, but winced as he felt a grinding in his hoof and stopped. They’d frozen up. He shook the limb a few times, but nothing happened.

“Fuckin’ cheap shit,” he grumbled, returning his hoof to the floor and trying with the other. Success. He drew a line through his name and scribbled ‘Buck’ in its place, then smirked to himself and resumed creeping toward the hall, turning the corner.

Right in front of his roommate.

The silhouette of an earth pony stood there, leaning against the wall with a foreleg crossed. Jade eyes stared down at Jovin, apathetic, if not entirely unamused.

“Ooooh, hey Buckface. Suuuuuup?” Jovin forced a smile and waved a wing, quickly toppling the crate on his back and spilled everything onto the floor in a loud crash and series of swears.

Buck raised an eyebrow at his hurried attempt to clean up the mess, his jade eyes looking him over. “Any particular reason you’re trying to be a ninja?” he asked, his voice as husky as ever, leering a little further.

“Uuuhhh. Didn’t want to wake you?” Another forced smile.

“You sound like a loose stapler with those legs of yours. Get them tuned up already.” He turned his attention to crate and all Jovin’s belongings. “Should I ask what…? Eh, no. I don’t want to know.” He sighed and shifted on his hooves, still blocking Jovin’s way. “Just so long as it's nothing illegal, and you keep trouble away from here. Did you do your—"

“Chores?” He cut in, that forced smile getting even bigger. You’d think he’d have gotten better at this by now. “Oh, I remember it was your tur—"

“You crossed out my name again. Yeah yeah, I get ya. You really suck at this.” Buck shook his head and turned around, his black tail swatting Jovin square in the face. “You do the grocery list on the fridge, I’ll do the rest. Like always.”

Sighing, Jovin tried and failed to hold in the sneeze that came soon after that tailwhip. The smell of oil and machinery wafted by with it. He always wondered if his grey furred roommate was some kind of robot sent solely for the purpose of trying to get him to do house chores. Not having a cutie mark didn’t make things any better, and avoiding any question about it only made Jovin all the more curious. All he knew was that he worked at a hardware store and liked it when everything was all orderly.

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get it. I’ll do it in a few. Don’t get your oversized fetlocks in a tangle.” He dragged his crate the rest of the way down, past the common area where his roommate sat in front of the TV now playing some game he couldn’t be bothered to look at, and went into his room.

Finally, a moment of peace — the place he truly called home. The window was its only major light source, but his computer and server racks blink orange and blue, holding aloft the plank that was his desk.

He kicked his crate over to it, the shelves nearby filled with various circuits and parts, some of them being partially assembled drones and unfinished projects. His wall had a few posters of music bands and such that he wasn’t even sure if he listened to anymore. A crossbow lay mounted to the wall above his bed, looking like it had seen better, but well used days.

Throwing himself onto his bed, back first, Jovin hung his head off the edge, staring out at the radioactive glow that was the city. Drones frequented the skies, carrying cargo, performing maintenance, or just running whatever task was assigned to them. Sometimes even the occasional sky car would pass by, bringing whatever VIP or pony who couldn’t be bothered by the lower street levels to some other place just as clogged and smoggy as before. Nothing ever stopped moving here.

It felt like ages since he laid there, staring off into the horizon, the glowing shutters of his eyes relaxing, taking in the sight of the sky, the stars that were barely visible. An open sky waited for him, and the urge to join it tickled in the back of his mind. His thoughts trailed off into past memories, back when he still had his legs.

It was time he got those groceries.

Rolling off the bed, he stretched and flexed his wings and legs. Metal and plastic clicked as servos whirled with the sounds of hardware in need of care. Despite one of his hooves claws getting jammed, he gave attention to his wings first.

Unlike his legs, which were completely cybernetic from the shoulder and knee joints down, his wings were still quite intact. The exos he had simply latched on to the leading edge of his wings on metal anchors, rooted to his bones. No permanent alterations there; with the right surgery and enough time to heal, his wings would be as good as new.

No chance of that happening when his legs weighed so much, though.

Jovin let out another, longer sigh as he looked down at them, staring at the metallic joints, the cheap plastic panels, and the talon-like claws that would neatly retract inside. At least when they were working.

“Let me guess, short on H.” He reached behind his head with his working claws, finding the plug and pulling a retractable wire out. He attached it to a port on the troublesome leg and blinked a few times as his eyes displayed what information he needed to know.

“Always the whiner, you are. Don’t worry, though, you’ll get your fill tomorrow. I can’t afford to go broke on you just yet.” He yanked his head, pulling the cable free as it zipped up right into his head with a wince. “…I gotta stop doing that.”

The next few minutes, Jovin spent dissecting his leg— removing a few panels, manually retracting the digits before reassembling it. “Fucking cheap ASL prototype.” A few scuffs joined the collections of numerous others on the plastic surface, eliciting a jaw-clenched sigh from him.

Tossing the screwdriver over his shoulder, he marched out of his room and past Buck playing the latest battle arena game on the couch, heading for the balcony.

“Have fun playing PUBA.”

“Have fun getting your ass checked out at the grocery store.”

Having already perched up on the railing, Jovin shot a flustered glare back at him, only breaking eye contact when he teetered off the edge and into the air.

“Suck my diiiick!”

“As if that’ll happen.”

The night air was frigid, only offering the occasional thermal updrafts to feel even slightly less chilled. Flying on the city outskirts was less restrictive, without a jungle of skyscrapers in every which direction, and as much as he wished it were more hospitable, he relished the freedom.

He rolled and turned and banked, throwing his weight into them as he danced through the sky, losing himself in the motions. Though his prosthetics made him more cumbersome, he could maneuver well enough. High above the ground, he could break away from everything. Other ponies, the grime, his job — or rather lack thereof — the debt, all of it. Nothing compared.

Flying on his back, Jovin stared up at the sky, starting to make out some of the specks of light as he pulled his scarf a bit tighter. The wind chill was harsh, but the frozen wastes beyond the city were far worse. Sweeping his wings through the air, he looked off to the distant horizon — that dimly lit, hopelessly desolate expanse of tundra, fading into nothingness. Out there, even with his enhancements, he’d be flying on borrowed time. His wings would be warm enough, but his body was another story. A lesson he already learned once before.

A rumble in his stomach reminded him why he’d come out here. A quick scan of the landscape surmised he had passed the grocery store by a fair bit.

“Oh well, more flying.” He smirked to himself, lazily banking to his destination with the occasional unnecessary twirl thrown in.

His stop was largely uneventful, grabbing some basic necessities and a couple choco tacos. One register checkout and uncomfortable eyeballing from the cashier later, he was on his way home. The flight was a fair bit more awkward, having forgotten to bring a saddlebag. Carrying everything in his claws worked fine, but he was forced to land at street level outside his apartment.

“Fuckin’ bags. I need to fix that damn drone,” he grumbled while fumbling for his keys.


Jovin nearly jumped, the booming voice sounding a bit too close and loud. He glanced at the source, expecting to find some door salespony.

He was… off. By a fair bit.

“Ya need a hoof?” A wicked smile greeted him from a rather large thestral, her coat grey, her mane short and many shades of electric blue, her eyes a piercing magenta. Based on her beat-up leather coat and questionable horseshoes, Jovin got the feeling she wasn’t the average door preacher.

But hey, he’d been wrong before. Sometimes you meet the nicest ponies that just like to look scary. Right?

“Umm… No?” Even from a few pony lengths away, he was already feeling dwarfed. “I kinda got four of em. You know, like everyone else? Not that you aren’t,uh… great for things.”

Her smile grew sharper “Oh these hooves are great for all sortsa thing. I could show ye.”

Despite her intimidating appearance, something about her accent just made her sound a bit… off. It was something he’d never heard before, yet was somehow… familiar…

“Uh, boss?” Another, smaller pony peeked his head from behind the large mare. “Aren’t we looking for a stallion?”

“Hey!” Jovin dropped his groceries and squared up to face them. “I am a stallion, ass clown!”

The large mare raised a brow, her threatening smile faltering. “…Eh?”

“Yeah boss. It says right here. Stallion, on the—"

“I know what it says ye gob fuck.”

“W-well… she is—"

“STALLION!” Jovin stomped somewhat awkwardly, realising too late he’d used his malfunctioning hoof. “I swear I’m going to make you eat that data pad if you say that one more time!”

The large mare chuckled and began to smirk again, taking a step closer. “Ah. Jovin Sharpsight was it?”

“Yeah, what of it?”

Her grin grew more mischievous, sharpened by her fangs on full display.

“I’m your new debt collector.”

Sometimes the Little Guy Wins

View Online


A hoof to the side of his face shut him up before he could finish, so sudden that he barely noticed the wind-up, his vision flickering and cracking from the impact. Jovin landed on his back some distance away, skidding across the snowy pavement and leaving a clean streak in his wake, coming to an eventual rest by a small mound of frost.

“Oi! You nearly flipped with that one! I’ll have to hold back on the next several.” The mare roared a nasally laugh, trotting up to the fallen groceries with a casual air about her, as if she hadn’t just knocked his lights out. “Name’s Nightcaster, but you can call me Emi.”

Curled up and clutching his head, he rolled over and tried to make sense of the world around him. And through the slowly lessening glitches in his eyes, he saw her grey form sifting through his shopping. “Uuugghh… H-hey.” He reached for them. “Those are—"

“Mine?” She picked up one of the boxes. “Hmm…Choco Tacos? Is that even supposed to rhyme?” Emi shrugged and opened it, spilling out the contents and taking one for herself, unwrapping it and taking a bite, sampling it as if she were a connoisseur of fine wine. “Hey these aren’t bad.”

Jovin staggered back up to his hooves, unsteady and still a little dizzy from the blow. “Those are my choco tacos, you bi—"

A quick buck to the shoulder sent him flying another several feet, the sound of hoof gauntlets on metal, short, sharp, and unpleasant, and it knocked the wind out of him. “You’d think they’d come up with a better name than choco taco. It reads way differently than it sounds.”

“Yeah. Like, maybe ‘cream burrito’, or ‘cream taco’, or something,” said her associate.

Emi gave him an unimpressed stare. “Yer not allowed to have ideas anymore. Banned.”

“Are… you serious?” Jovin sat up, clutching his now unresponsive leg as he glared at her, one of his eyes still fuzzy with static, and feeling quite grating within its socket. “You’re going to… talk shit about how you pronounce choco taco with that absurd accent?”

Emi stopped in place. She slowly turned her head towards him, revealing a toothy smirk — a smirk that said she’d enjoy doing horrible, horrible things to him, starting with ripping off his prosthetics and rearranging his face with them. “Oh, yer one of those fellers, aren’t ya? Yer gonna be fun.”

“Umm… No, really.” He propped himself on his working foreleg, then dragged his hindlegs closer and painfully edged himself up, head still aching and growing worse from the change in height.. “You sound like a… a twelve year old trying to imitate a Sirish accent.”

“Yeah, you do kinda force it a lot,” commented her associate, “and it's really inconsistent—"

Emi threw her half-eaten taco at him to shut him up, and it caught him right in the eye. “You don’t know shite! Shut up before I break yer gob mouth! And you…” She stabbed a hoof at Jovin, that wicked smile gleaming in its full glory, the world seeming to darken around her. “I’m going to enjoy making you into a punching bag.”

Don’t say it Jovin. Just take it and move on. Just let her

“Still less painful than hearing another word of that drunken bar brawler accent,” Jovin blurted out with a stupid grin on his face.

…This is going to hurt.

“Oh, I’ll give you a funny accent fer life!” Emi charged toward him, an excited fury in her eyes.

Curse his stupid mouth, it didn’t need to come to this. But damn, if it didn’t feel good telling some dimwit brute to stick her attitude up her own ass — could’ve used that line, actually. But now wasn’t the time to revel in his own smartassery or despair at lost opportunities, now was the time for action.

Already on his hooves, he quickly lowered himself into a combat stance and bounded to the side, clapping his wings for added speed, just as he’d been taught in the military.

Emi barely missed him by a hair, flapping her wings to slow down and come about. She was big, she was strong, yes — by far one of, if not the biggest, strongest mare he’d ever seen — but size and weight are as much a disadvantage as they are the opposite; this was his moment.

He turned and flung himself at her, latching onto her legs and pulling them out from under her.

But they didn’t budge. His legs weren’t strong enough. He needed more H in him.

Emi watched for a moment, huffing a contemptuous snort. “Yer really something, aren’t y—"

Jovin threw a punch right at her face, hitting her square in the side of the head. “I’m no pushover. Not with legs like these!” He hopped off and swung another hoof at her.

She caught it her own hoof, the previous blow barely phasing her, then tugged him close so she sneered almost directly down at him. “Crutches, ye dumb git. Ain’t nothing special about ‘em. Yer just as bad as every other softee.”

Jovin glared at her and opened his mouth to retort.

Emi cracked her forehead over his.

He didn’t have time or the mind to yelp, merely stumbling back in a dazed, off-balance, aching stupor.

“You think some robot bits make all the difference, don’t ya?” she demanded, threw another punch.

Jovin barely managed to deflect it, and return the favor, but Emi didn’t even blink, taking it square in the jaw.

She snatched the offending hoof and yanked him close again. “Ye got some fight to ya, but you’da been better off au natural.” Her leg went over his shoulder headlocking him under her.

“L-like you’re any b-better!” Jovin gasped, beginning to choke, flailing a hoof at her while the other tried to pull away the foreleg keeping him in a vice-like grip. His claws extended, scratching at her viciously like a rabid cat.

“Is that right?" She fell upon him, slamming him into the ground with her whole weight before backing out of reach of his claws, then chuckled to herself as she inspected her work. “Did that feel real enough for you, Taco Girl?”

Jovin coughed before fumbling for a foothold and staggering back up to his hooves, head spinning, face bloodied from the pavement. Faint lines of red streaked in the fur along her foreleg and neck where he’d scratched deep enough. In his brief little moment to catch his breath, he looked down at his legs, wincing at seeing them, especially like this, and let out a sigh. “W-what do you want?”

Emi’s smirk lessened. “Pay up,” she demanded humorlessly, “or I break something”

“I can have it soon, okay?” Jovin swallowed. This wasn’t like last month with the neatly dressed pony asking for his due. He could at least barter with him without being harassed.

The shaking of her head sent a chill down his spine, that smile of hers gone completely. “No.” She extended a hoof, the shoe clicking as prongs extended from it. Electrical arcs zapped between them. “Now, hold still.”

Jovin tried to turn and take flight, but she was on him in no time. The electric surge of the taser going through him turned his legs into solid rocks momentarily, losing all feeling in them, and for that moment, he felt the painful reminder of what he was without his cybernetics.

On the ground, Emi hammered away with her hooves on Jovin’s leg, metal and plastic giving way. She was furious, not at all smirking like she was before, if not even a bit strained. It was one of the last things he saw before he felt his consciousness slip.

“You’re sure he doesn’t have coverage for this?”

“I know from all the patients I’ve worked with at Medicart. These injuries are not that severe, other than the concussion.”

“Poppy, his leg is off.”

“I know, I know, but that’s cybernetic. Nothing that can’t be replaced or threatening to his health. He should be fine, and the rest is repairable.”

“You’re sure there’s nothing to call in here? I mean, he looks pretty beat to shit.”

“Well, I mean, I would just to be safe but he kinda has garbage insurance. He’d be even deeper in the hole…”

“Well… Hey, I think he is waking up.”

Jovins slow motions on the couch generated some questionable mechanical clicks as he returned to the waking world. The pain ached and burned like any other, but his legs were different; inconsistent, cold, duller. Some parts didn’t even have any feeling to them, or worse, an alien feeling of being more wrong than they should on him.

He instinctively reached for one of his legs, wanting to feel it, confirm it was there and feel its surface… but there was nothing. Jovin reached with his other foreleg to find the unresponsive one. It all felt fake; his skin cold metal and motions robotic. It was like every morning of his life, only even more was missing.

Vision fuzzy, he made out the silhouettes of two ponies looking down over him. Peach and grey. Poppy and Buck. The first seemed openly concerned, the other more resigned. At least he was among friends.

“Please tell me I won.”

“Well…” Poppy scratched the back of his head.

“You got fucked.” Buck said bluntly. “You okay? You hurting?”

Jovin sighed, fearing the worst. “Is my leg…?”

“It can be fixed.” Poppy said with a smile. “You might need a few parts, but we got it right here!” He promptly grabbed something out of sight and wagged it like a dog’s tail it before him. “You can wave hi to yourself now!”

Jovin watched the display, eyes following the limb side to side . “Poppy… could you please not? This isn’t making me feel any better about myself.”

“Oh, sorry. Hehe.”

Reaching out with his clawed hoof, he took the leg. It felt heavier than he remembered, or perhaps he was just weaker than he was earlier. It was mostly intact, but the plastic coverings had some significant dents and scuffs, making it look rather bent out of shape. Impressively, or maybe not so impressively, considering its overall quality, was the bend in the elbow joint. It would’ve taken quite a bit of force to cause that. It was probably the reason why his leg came off, shearing off at the weakest point.

Seeing it detached from him, holding it like it were a mere prop with his other quite attached leg filled him with a subdued sense of despair. Feedback sensores allowed him to feel things through his cybernetics, but it was never really the same as flesh; losing a limb was usually permanent, but with prosthetics, it was merely a temporary inconvenience, like how socks have holes worn into them eventually, and have to be replaced. If the sensors bugged out and switched themselves off, they’d feel like he was using overpriced stilts.

It was a tradeoff he hadn’t considered until he’d already had them installed.

“Sooo… did you pick a fight with a griffon, or something? Or did they just really want your ice cream taco things?” Buck queried, leaning over him.

“Choco tacos,” Poppy cut in.

“Whatever. Are you going to be alright? You’re not in deep with anyone are you?”

Jovin sighed, looking over his leg before sitting up, his bruises making themselves very apparent as the pain became much more noticeable. “No. Stop being my mom.”

“Jobird, Poppy found you in pieces on the doorstep of the building.” He leaned further in, brow raised. “I’ve got plenty of reasons to play mom right now. What’s going on?”

He’d barely taken his eyes off his leg, looking it over, before sighing and letting it drop onto the carpet like another broken tool of his. “Huge monster mare debt collector. That’s what happened.”

Buck quirked a brow of his own. “Monster mare?”

“Yeah! She was this huge bat pony with the absolute worst accent! It's like she was trying to pass it off, but didn’t know how to ‘mouth’. Or was just as dumb as a box of rocks.”

“Like, some fancy ‘High Canterlot’ talk? Or…”

“No, like that accent you’d expect from a bar brawling drunk, only she sounded like someone broke her jaw too many times. Yet she said ‘au natural’ like she was fluent in whatever it comes from.”


“Never heard it, and honestly, it was painful to hear her speak in any way, shape or form.”

“You owe money?” Poppy chimed in, sitting just besides Jovin, peering down at him with concern.

“Everyone owes money,” Jovin said defensively, crossing his forelegs, but realising he could only half-complete the motion and deflated with a heavy sigh.

“Not everyone owes enough to get busted up like you.” Buck crossed his own forelegs — oh, how Jovin already missed being able to do that. “Didn’t know you were in that much trouble. Is it the H?”

“No…Maybe…And a few other things. Listen, I got this okay? Just a payment or so behind.”

“But…” Poppy gave him an unhealthily big and extraordinarily convincing dose of puppy dog eyes. He swore someone would start crying if he didn’t do something about it, and he wasn’t sure who.

“Poppy…That’s not fair to give me that look.” Jovin had the hardest time turning away.

“Buck?” Poppy looked up to him, his voice sweet and soft. “Do you mind if I speak with Jovin alone?”

Buck couldn’t help pausing for a moment, then rolled his eyes. “Oh great, now you made Poppy sad. Listen, just stay out of trouble and pay your bills. I don’t want to come home and find you all over the place. Literally.” He went for his bedroom door. “Poppy, I leave the charming to you.”

Jovin raised his brows, looking up to Poppy with some confusion. “Everything okay, Popster?”

Even before he finished, he saw something in Poppy had changed’ his ears were drooping, his brows upturned, the corners of his mouth curled downwards, so he was clearly concerned, but there was something more — a glint in his eyes. He wasn’t begging him, but it was without a doubt a heartfelt plea for the honest truth between friends. “Jovin…”

He knew what was coming — it was a fuzzy, fluttering feeling, rather than past experience, but hunches had served him well enough in the past, and everything he knew about Poppy pointed in this direction. But Jovin wasn’t about to let sentiment choke him up, even as he wanted to do nothing more right then and there than give him a reassuring hug. “Yeah?”

“…Didn’t you just lose your job?”

“…Yeah…” He looked off at the window, the light of the city seeping through like a suffocating sludge. There was so much opportunity here, he knew, but nothing ever seemed to go his way, and right now, nothing symbolised the world’s indifference to his problems than the ever-present, everlasting green glow.

But again, he wouldn’t let it get him down — he’d come this far without crying, suffered through worse beatings, dealt some of his own. This was just another hiccup. And to assure himself that it was, he reached his hoof up to grab and rub his shoulder… only to find it missing. He sighed once more and returned to Poppy with a brave face.. “I’ll be fine.”

Poppy sighed as well. Even his wings were drooping now. “Jo, I need a little more than that to work off of. You know with your record that finding another job won’t be easy.”

“I know, I know! Let’s not talk about that.” Jovin flapped his wings once with a firm slap of the air. “I just need to look in the right places, okay? I’m going to be fine.”

Poppy took a deep breath, looking into him.

If he didn’t know any better, Jovin might have thought there was something wrong with his eyes — maybe the glitches in his vision from before were more than signs of temporary damage.

“Can you give me your special promise?”

He grumbled. Poppy had to ask for that, didn’t he?

“I promise, Poppy.”

“No, I want to hear the special promise.”

After a few more grumbles, he rolled his eyes as far and as hard as he could. “….I Sweetie-promise.”

With that, Poppy smiled again, and the pleading look in his eyes faded. Leaning in, he put his hooves around the Jovin and wrapped him up in a warm, tight and completely unexpected hug, practically lifting him off the couch.

Jovin squirmed and wriggled his legs and wings, but couldn’t do much, partly out of fear of hurting him, partly because he wasn’t physically able to resist. And maybe because of something else. “Poppy!”

“No. I’m not letting you go. Not ‘til you feel better too.”

The two of them teetered over sideways on the couch, Jovin trapped in a hug, his face a rosy red. After a brief bit of struggling, he sighed, giving up. “Alright… Fine. I guess I could use some Poppy treatment.”

“The best kind of treatment.”

“I guess this is to make up for missing the movie, huh?”

“It's a lot easier hugging you when you got one less leg to stop me with.”

“I might lose another to the diabetes you are giving me at this rate.”

“Well, you technically lost four at one point so…”

“You’re the second pony to make that joke…”

“And the first?”

“Just a hacker friend. You wouldn’t know her.”

“Lucky me, having hacked your soft spot.”

“…Now you’re trying to give me diabetes.”

Poppy giggled to himself, resting his head next to Jovin’s. “Jovin… you know you’ve got me here to help you. You don’t have to be the lone tough guy all the time.”

“I know, Poppy.” Jovin took a deep breath, the air leaving his lungs less confidently than before as he felt himself curl up. “But I’m anything other than that right now. Don’t worry about me so much. I can handle this.”

Poppy was silent for a moment, thinking to himself as they lay there with each other. “…You know, I’d do anything I could to help you, Jovin. I don’t care what it is. You’re more than worth it.”

“Thanks, Poppy.” Jovin couldn’t stop the smile pulling at his cheeks. “I’m hardly worthy of you, and yet here you are, snuggling me again.”

“Maybe someday I’ll get you to go on that, uh…” He bashfully laughed to himself. “That date.”

Jovin smiled even more. “Maybe. Once I get this situation all squared away.”

With a nod, Poppy gave him another squeeze of a hug, relieved. “I can’t wait.”

It was some time later when Poppy left for home and Jovin got a chance to begin work on his leg. He wasn’t the best mechanic when it came to repairing things, but he knew enough about computers and circuitry that he could give it the ‘good enough’ fix. Normally, he’d be swearing up and down at this point, but after that lovely session with Poppy he found it rather hard to ruin the mood. Right now, he was focused on his work, eyes zooming in on the mess of metal and screws on the table while some trance music thrummed in the background, a subtle smile on his face. It would take something startling to—


“Uuaaah! Fuck! What?!” Jovin nearly jumped out of his seat at his desk, his damaged leg in several pieces on his desk.

Buck had peeked his head through the partially open door, starting to lean into it. “You got a second?”

Jovin huffed and put down his tools and turned off his headlamp. “Could you knock?”

“The door was open.”

“You don’t screw a mare because she dresses a certain way.”

“That… that doesn't even… What?”

“Just… nevermind. What’s up?”

Before he’d even finished his question, a simple look at Bucks expression was enough to tell him this wasn’t just the routine complaint about house chores. He looked concerned, his brow furrowed and eye glancing about occasionally.

“Jo, you going to be okay?”

“Well, I mean,” He scratched the back of his head, pulling on a few clumps of mane. “Poppy just wanted to do his snuggle thing and—"

“What? No no no. Not that. The debt. You got a collector on your ass.”

Jovin huffed, turning away, glancing out at the open sky through his window. “I got it. It’s fine.”

Buck sighed, leaving the doorframe and stepping inside. “Jo, I don’t know what you got into, but… as your roommate I kinda need to know how you’re doing.” He shrugged, forcing a smile.

“So I can keep paying my share?” Jovin responded flatly.

“Well, that’s not why I’m concerned, but that’s one of the reasons to ask. Listen, I spoke to Poppy some and… You need a new job.”

“I’ll find one just fine.” He quickly turned in his seat, looking right at Buck. “I guess Poppy told you then, huh?” His eyes already averting to his desk, claws idly flexing themselves on his hoof.

“Yeah… Jo, I’m not going to give you shit about getting fired but, you can’t exactly just get a job anywhere with your record.”

His gaze remained trained on his desk, looking at nothing in particular while his claws continued to flex and relax, the good mood from before fading. Poppy cared for him and so did Buck, he knew, but they expressed it in different ways, and both never seemed to mesh well when one got the chance to do so before the other.

“You’ve got to at least be able to afford your H, otherwise you won’t be able to even move, maybe not even see, and heliodyril toxicity is not something you want to experience.”

“I know, I know, okay?! I’m not a total idiot!” he fumed i. “I just need to fix this leg and… look around for said job.”

Buck cocked an eyebrow. “Jovin. I…” He sighed, gritting his teeth. “You’re flagged. No job that can pay you what you need will take you! I’m going to need to hear something a bit better than you’ll just ‘look around’, okay?”

Jovin scowled back at him. “I’m plenty capable. I’ve got features and parts no one else—"

Plenty of others have that, Jovin,” Buck interrupted, then paused, then sighed, shaking his head as he glanced away. “But you know your way around computers and stuff, right? And can fly. At least you don’t shut up about it when—"

“I’m a pretty sharp flier, thank you very much! And you won’t find many like me!”

“Sweet Celestia, just shut up and listen!”

On instinct, his wings flared, but he forced the urge to raise his voice down and kept himself in his seat. Turning this into a shouting contest wouldn’t get him anywhere, especially when he lived with the opponent and couldn’t afford to find somewhere else, even for a short break. Not in his current condition.

“Jovin… It’d take you weeks, maybe months to find a job that’s actually going to give you what you need. That’s a longshot already. You can barely pay for a regular dose of H as it as, and now you’ve got some loan shark on your tail for any money you make, and this girl means business. And on top of that, you still owe me. Seriously, you need help.”

Jovin sat back in his chair, attempting to cross his forelegs only to again remember he was missing half of them. “Yeah, well, no shit. What’s spelling it out for me going to do? You want me to ask for help? Is that it?”

Buck huffed a snort as his frown deepened. “I’m trying to help you, okay? I might have something for you.” His previous frustration faded, being replaced with… anxiety? “A connection to someone who can offer you more options, though…”

“…Thooough?” Jovin cocked an eyebrow at him, having never seen his roommate like this before. “Are you leading me onto your ‘tragic backstory’ or something?”

Shut up. Listen. It may not precisely be… how to put this… in the good graces of ‘the law’…”

Jovin’s quizzical gaze gradually became a wicked smile in a matter of moments. “Buck… you’re a goddamn criminal?”

Buck glared at Jovin with a confused and nervous expression. “No! Not now. Should I be concerned with the fact you are smiling? You know what I’m saying, right?”

“This is like the movies, where you hook me up as that 1337 hacker for a team, isn’t it?”

Buck just stared at him, deadpan. “This has been a terrible idea.”

“Oh, come on. I was born and partially made for this!”

“I haven’t even told you what its about yet…”

“Where do I sign up?”

“…I’ll introduce you when my contact is around. Then you’re out of my hooves. Alright?”

“Sweet.” He returned his focus to the leg parts before him. “I’ll be sure I’m in top shape.”

“Yeah… Listen, just… be more careful and tone down the excitement.”

“Hey, you know me.”

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

She Seems Nice Enough

View Online

“So do we go to a dark alley somewhere and whisper some secret code word into a door?”

“No. That's cliché and you know it.” Buck adjusted his thick, ragged coat before moving on down the grime-filled sidewalk of the city.

“Then where are we going?” Jovin asked, looking across at him as he followed alongside. “You said we were meeting your guy, right?”

“I said we’re going to the diner. Are you really going to assume that every time I suggest we go someplace, it’s going to be some kind of secret meetup?”

“I mean, I’ll get it right eventually.”

It felt like ages since Buck laid out his offer. All the time spent without a job left Jovin with a lot of dead time. Time he spent refreshing on his coding skills, hacking, and whatever else kept him in shape in regards to what he did best.

At least, that’s what he did for the first day. Soon enough, he grew bored and was playing games, often with Buck when he wasn’t being yelled at to do chores or restock all the groceries that he kept eating. When he couldn’t get away with that, he tuned and flew his drones through the alleys, dodging whatever power lines he could. It was never as fun as the real thing, but it was better than personally running into that mare again…

“It hasn’t even been a week, Jovin. You’ll be fine.” He sighed and plodded on ahead. “You need to get out anyway. Besides, if you knew what was coming, you’d probably end up making a fool out of yourself. Not that you have much trouble with that to begin with.”

“Soooo… We are going to meet your frie—"

“Please, shut up.”

Jovin let out a chuckle, knowing all too well what he was doing. The two took a metro further uptown before finding themselves in a place a good bit more populated than before, and more difficult to see the tops of the skyscrapers. If it didn’t mean leaving Buck behind, grounded, Jovin would’ve flown. It was too constricting down here.

But this diner was where Buck wanted to go, neither out of the way from today’s chores, nor anything all that special. Jovin had been on edge since he woke, naturally quite eager to find himself employed again, and the fact that whatever he’d be involved in was at the very least questionable in the eyes of the law carried an endearing sense of danger. Unless this particular establishment had something extremely worthwhile, he couldn’t imagine any other reason to go here besides an undisclosed appointment. It had to be. He wasn’t an idiot.

“Here we are,” Buck muttered as they crossed the street toward what looked like an old oversized Winnebago. The city around it dwarfed the diner, making it feel smaller than it actually was, but up close, it seemed barely large enough to fit a kitchen, let alone a bar and seating booths.

It was a relic from an older age, when the city wasn’t nearly as developed, and when the sky wasn’t so clogged with smog. And somehow, despite all these years, it hadn’t been swept away with the times, replaced by something newer, more flashy. It refused to change, and it showed.

“This place? This place is a dump. It’s like the ones in movies only worse. How come they haven’t bulldozed it yet?”

“Because it’s even more stubborn than you.” Buck glanced over his shoulder with a smirk. “Come on. Let’s eat already.”

“I’m not stubborn…” Jovin grumbled before following him in.

The interior was a mixed bag; it was what you’d expect from a diner: run down, but trying to keep it clean where the signs of age and deterioration wasn’t beyond saving. That being said, the war was already lost — even the waitress looked like she’d been waiting for retirement to kick in for the past decade.

“Shit,” Buck uttered to himself, stopping in place.

Jovin followed his gaze . He didn’t need to look far to notice what drew his attention.

She was practically a beacon through the fog of dilapidation and wayward souls, her warm, soft, light pink fur and bleached hair almost impossibly clean if they weren’t so clearly real. Her mane curled around her face and shoulders, pastel blue and magenta streaks rolling with it. And her eyes were piercing — a sharp, icy blue that suggested a different story than her well-groomed appearance told.

There was a calm, cool, calculating air about her, and all Jovin had seen her do so far was sit in a cushioned booth and sip from a mug of coffee.

She noticed him and Buck almost the exact second the cup returned to the table, her gaze half-lidded, but focused. Judgemental. And then the hint of a smirk curled at the edge of her lips.

“Friend of yours?” Jovin queried, leaning over to Buck without taking his eyes off her.

“She’s early.” Buck took a deep breath, tense for the moment before finally forcing himself to take a few steps. “She just had to get here first…”

“She wouldn’t happen to be—"

“Please, don’t.” He begrudgingly continued to her booth with a rather excited Jovin in tow.

The mystery mare — a unicorn, he soon realized — kept her eyes on Buck, that subtle smirk never leaving her face even as he took pause at his seat

Without a word, he slid in and sidled across, and Jovin joined soon after, his own smirk looking a bit apprehensive. “Well… you look like you’re doing better for yourself lately, Pastel.” Buck leaned back in his seat, sitting taller than any of them.

“And you look even more tired and boring than before.” She smiled as she toyed with her cup on the table, its creamy white contents swirling about, further distorting whatever pattern the barista had made in it. And then she leaned in on her elbows. . “I was wondering if I’d see you again, you fuzzy bull. When did you get out?”

“Pastel, I should—"

“Buck, come on now. I haven’t seen you in years.” The smile turned sweet, but with an edge — barely noticeable, but there. Batting eyelashes revealed she’d had shadow applied, and it was only now that Jovin realized she had freckles, the white spots on either cheek almost invisible against her coat and in this light. “You can tell me, can’t you?”

Buck turned away from her, though whether he was embarrassed or ashamed, Jovin couldn’t tell. “Two years ago. I’ve been out since. Out-out. I’m not here to start up any of that again.”

“I know,” she said with an even bigger grin; even her teeth looked immaculate, “but I miss hearing you fretting over me. Such a sweetheart.”

Buck opened his mouth as if to retort, but paused, thinking it over. And then he let his breath go in a quiet sigh, pursing his lips and knitting his brows together in an expression of bittersweet remembrance. “You look great. Better than ever, really. You must be doing well for yourself.”

Pastel giggled before sipping her coffee again. “I told you I would make it.”

“But you’re still in…”

Her smile thinned. “There is still some more to do…”

“Pastel…” he gently shook his head, “that’s not making it.”

“And there’s the Buck I missed, always worried.”

There was a pause as the two stared at each other, Buck concerned and clearly at odds with her on something, Pastel knowing and somewhat smug about it. An unspoken tension filled the air.

“Soooooo…” Jovin leaned in from the other side of the table on an elbow. “I hope I’m not breaking up the couple therapy session, but—"

“We’re not a couple,” Buck decisively replied.

“I think your friend here is wanting to order some food.” She smirked at Jovin, cocking an eyebrow. “You haven’t even introduced us yet.”

“This here,” Buck said with a mild grumble, “is Jovin Sharpsight. He’s the nerd I mentioned to you before.”

“Hey, I’m a lot more than just a ner—"

“Jovin, this is Pastel Pastiche. An ‘associate’ of mine from some time ago.”

“Coworker, actually. Don’t downplay our work history now.” She flashed a sharp smile at Buck before turning a softer, more analytical one on Jovin. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Sharpsight.”

“Lady, I don’t make enough bank to be called by my last name, so ‘Jovin’ will be just fine.”

Pastel chuckled to herself, examining him more closely. “I like your getup. And your mane.”

“Uh… Thanks. I just… had it done at the bed head salon.” Jovin couldn’t help feeling a little off-guard. He never thought the minute of attention he gave his mane every morning really warranted a comment, even if it was probably more polite than genuine. To him, it was just spikey whatever. “You look like you’re clean enough to live in one of those penthouses in downtown.”

Pastel chuckled once more. “Hardly. It would be nice to live there though.”

“Pastel here is cut from the same cloth as we are,” Buck managed to say before being interrupted by the rather firm sound of the very same mare clearing her throat.

There was another pause at the table, Pastel’s expression not outwardly critical, but her eyes spoke volumes. And then she resumed her calm smile. “And yet, I’m doing quite fine for myself as you can see.”

Buck let out a sigh, looking away. The silence between them began to grow and Jovin could only glance between them both.

“...I think it’s best I leave you two alone to talk business. Be careful who you trust, Jovin.”

“Oh, okay.” Jovin slid out of his seat to let Buck get out of the booth, a bit bewildered by how the two were not getting along so well. “I’ll catch up with you later?”

“You got my handle. You tell me if you need anything,” he said, not looking back as he left a rather confused Jovin behind. He knew he’d be on his own after their introductions, but he didn’t think it would be so literal.

“Don’t mind him, he has his reasons,” Pastel soothed with a small, dismissive wave, sounding a bit more somber as she looked into her coffee. “Things were more difficult back then, making ends meet. I didn’t know he’d changed so much.”

Jovin returned to Pastel. “Were you two…?”

“A couple? No. We weren’t like that. Close friends, once upon a time.” She lingered on the steam rising from her cup, eyes unfocused for several moments before she switched her attention back to Jovin. “And you?”

“Huh? Oh, just roommates.”

“Really?” She seemed a little surprised. “Both of you together just seem…”

“Lady, I am pretty sure Buck doesn’t swing that way.”

Pastel gave him a rather mischievous smile. “But you do?”

“What? No I... I mean, I’ll swing whichever way I damn well want.”

She only giggled to herself even more, settling into a smirk as she sat back, turning her nose up at him somewhat. She was slightly taller, or so it seemed — it was hard to tell when they were both in different postures. “I see. You can never be sure with a pony such as yourself.”

“Oh, and just what's that supposed to mean?”

She raised a brow, looking him up and down.

Jovin scowled, his cheeks burning as he reached for a menu and opened it before him, scanning its contents with righteous indignation.

“Oh, sorry.” Her tone lightened, but not by much. “Is that a sore subject?”

“No,” he grumbled. “But you’re not doing yourself any fucking favors either.”

“My apologies. I like to poke and figure ponies out.” She picked up a menu herself, glancing over it. “Especially since you’re interested in some work.”

Jovin felt himself freeze a bit. Did that make this an interview? He straightened up his posture in the booth.

“Oh, well.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sure you heard plenty about me from Buck. Ex-military, data specialist. I like to get hooves on with my work.”

Pastel put a hoof up. “Let’s talk business at the end. Right now, I could really go for some waffles.”

Jovin only felt more anxious at that and began to scan the menu even more. “Uh… Umm… I’ll have the same.” He tossed the menu down before looking around expectantly. “They don’t have automatic servers here do they?”

It took a few moments of looking before they realized there was a rather poorly lit display at the far end of the table to input orders. Once that was taken care of, Pastel was the first to resume the conversation.

“I love the eyeliner by the way. Really sharpens the eyes.”

“Thank you!” Jovin threw his hooves out. “Everyone thinks its weird but nothing says cool like glowing eyes with a dark outline.” He put his chin up with pride, unfurling his wings a little.

“Oh, I know. It took me ages to figure mine out. And some just like to get a bit too wild with it.”

“You’re kidding. You’re so bright you could make any cosmetic look good in moderation.”

“Oh. Complimenting me now are we?” She smiled at him coyly.

Jovin shrugged. “You started it.”

Pastel giggled again, then took a moment to think. “Did Buck say anything about me to you, by chance?”

Jovin felt the slightest shift in tone from her. Buck hadn’t said a thing and yet he felt inclined to dodge the question. “Uh, did he tell you anything about me?”

She shook her head. “He’s a good fellow.”

A grumpy-looking bat pony approached their table, apron covered with stains. She casually slid two plates of waffles in front of them, hardly taking the time to acknowledge them before placing their utensils, syrup, and then left.

“Enjoy,” came a dead-sounding tone.

The two looked at their waffles, mostly at the giant glob of ‘butter’ that was on top.

“Well, I bet that makes up for the fact it's fake butter,” Jovin groused, deploying his claws before taking a knife and smearing the lump all over.

“Oh.” Pastel looked in curiosity. “You have… fingers?”

“Yeah.” He smirked, raising up the other to flex and show them off. “Claws, talons, hands, grabbies. Whatever you want to call ‘em. Pretty useful when you need to actually grab something, or climb. Helps me a lot in my line of work.”

Pastel neatly cut her waffle, her magic making fine, precise work of it. She took a bite and looked over Jovin’s limbs more carefully.

“Is that why you got them?”

There was a bit of silence as Jovin took a bite, barely masking his hesitation to answer.

“…No. It was a… mishap. Nothing you’d find interesting.”

She leaned a little closer. “And if I do find it interesting?”

Jovin had to admit that Pastel was quite the curious type, but something about her seemed a bit off. Her refined behavior and appearance seemed better suited to the skyscrapers, yet her being here in this part of the city with the kind of work that Buck was implying she did made her stick out. The worst part was, he was starting to like it.

“...I’ll tell you more if you tell me about yourself.” He leaned closer as well, smirking right back at her.

Pastel only grinned even more, amused. “Alright. I’ll answer any one question you have. But first, tell me about your legs.”

“Alright. So, my last military job. Still had my organic legs and all. Eyes and implants were required, as was the wing assists — reason being was that the military company I was in did salvage operations. A lot of stuff outside the city limits where it’s all frozen wastes, and let me tell you, it gets cold. You’re flying on borrowed time in that kind of environment: your wings freeze solid without something to keep them warm, and keep the snow from refreezing on your feathers.”

He unfurled one, displaying it like a trophy. The cybernetics attached to the leading edge were light and simple, with aerodynamics in mind. The joints hid some automation that helped give them their power and flexibility.

“You can fly for quite a while with these babies. Anyhow, I spent a fair bit of my initial years in data work before I moved into on-location scouting; the company would send out scouts to areas they suspected there would be anything of value to find from before the sun poofed. Resources, tech, data, anything that was scrambled together before they realized they were outside the bubble of survival.”

“Hmm. Where does the military part of this come in, though?”

“Well, you see, not everything we found was unclaimed. And most of those were ponies who didn’t want a single thing to do with anything here. They usually fired first.”

Pastel quirked an eyebrow. “Usually?”

“Yeah. They liked to salvage too. Sometimes raid the fringes of smaller settlements. Anyhow, they didn’t like us taking stuff we found so naturally things got violent. My company didn’t even start off in salvage initially. It was ‘projected preventative anti-crime’ or whatever the higher-ups would call it. The salvage became a way to make extra money since, well, it wasn’t really making enough profit or something.”

“Sounds like any corporate-minded business.”

“Yeah. So, I was out scouting, doing some data decrypting on some drives I found at this site, and on the fly back… well… I got shot down.” He shrugged, eyes trailing off. “By the time my buddies found me, frostbite had taken a toll on my legs from trying to wade through the snow… You don’t know what cold really is until… Well, yeah.”

Jovin pulled in his legs, looking at them blankly.

“That must have been quite traumatic, losing a part of yourself…”

“Yeah…” He stared at his plate, thinking, before clearing his throat and forcing a smile. “But hey, I got these awesome legs now! I can do all sorts of things with ‘em.”

She was nearly startled by his change in behavior before that coy smile of hers returned.

“Oh?” She said deviously.

And just like that Jovin was back to blushing. “Oh… Uh…” He quickly busied himself by shoving a fork full of waffle in his mouth all the while Pastel giggled to herself.

“Sorry. You just make it so easy.”

“I see why Buck warned me about you. You’re a flipping tease.”

“You handle it almost as badly as he does. He’s always so reserved.”

“Yeah. He does play it safe a lot and is always checking up on things. He’s like a second mom or something.”

“That’s exactly what I used to tell him.” Pastel laughed, pointing a hoof.

“Yeah. I guess you guys got some interesting history, eh?”

“Depends. Is that your question?”

“Uh, what?”

“Your question. You know. I ask you something about you and then you ask me?”

He raised a brow, her specificity making him think twice, but before he could reply, there was a distinct buzzing in the air. Pastel held up a hoof to him while fetching what appeared to be a mobile pad. With a simple glance at the screen and a touch to her ear, an unseen blink of light came from within and she spoke to herself with far more business like tone and expression.

“Yes? Alright… Fifteen? No, twenty… Soon. I’m prospecting now.”

Jovin raised a brow, watching her talk like she just closed a deal on some business transaction.

“Send me the details and the advance.” She wriggled her ear and jostled her head, likely prompting for the call to end. “Sorry about that. Important.”

“I didn’t figure you to be the retro type.”

“Oh, this?” She held up her mobile. “I suppose you could call me that. I prefer the term minimalist.

Swiping the mobile over the menu screen the machine chirped awake, initiating the payment transaction. “However, I’m afraid your question for me will have to wait. It’s time to get to work.”

Jovin felt his mood drop, jaw opening to try and find something to say. He wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or angry, but before he could even get a word in edgewise, Pastel gently pushed his chin up.

“That includes you. You make this job happen and you’re hired.”

He blinked, eyes just staring at her like they were looking at headlights. “...What even is—"

“Data jacking. Yes, it’s illegal. Yes, it’s dangerous. Don’t pretend you’re saying no otherwise you wouldn’t have even showed up. Let’s get going. Our ride is waiting.”

Taking a deep breath and swallowing, Jovin managed to find a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. “...Okay!”

A Hack Job

View Online

Pastel’s ride was not what Jovin had expected.

“I thought you’d have a limo,” he said, climbing into the automated rental car after her — the daily sort that clogged up half the traffic at any one time. They, like this one, were about as clean as anyone could expect after having ten thousand different ponies use it after a few years, for whatever purpose they desired. Some too distasteful to spare a thought for. “Maybe a driver to chauffeur you around to boot.” He glanced through the rear window to the beat-up diner they were leaving before shutting the door, and then everything was quieter — the growl of the city muffled.

Strange how easily it could be forgotten, drowned out like white noise. Without the constant drone, the silence felt almost ominous. Almost.

“Nah.” Pastel waved a hoof in good-natured dismissal. “I like to keep a low profile. The fewer ponies who know my business, the better.”

Jovin returned to her. “That secretive, huh?”

“Cautious, rather.” She smirked. “Besides, between you and me, I prefer drivers without cybernetics. Meaning no offence, of course.”

“None taken,” he coolly replied, though he couldn’t help snatching a quick glance at his foreleg still on the backrest, the faint reflection of green light on the metal surfaces catching his eye. He brought it down and sat facing forward, but kept his head turned just enough that he could watch Pastel. “Not really one for driving, personally, or being driven, so I can’t comment.”

“Well, ever since that idiot a few years ago just… stood in the middle of the road, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anypony licenced who doesn’t have their head in the literal cloud.”

He huffed a laugh. “They stood there, huh? Like, what, they were having a really bad day?”

“Something like that, I imagine.” She shrugged. “Ruined life for the rest of us, that’s for sure.” And then she turned for what would’ve been the driver’s section, if it weren’t completely empty save for some stickers, graffiti and torn lining — a few hotshots taking their anger at society out on a defenceless machine. “Navigation; Horizon Corp, parking garage.”

Silence settled between them as the car hummed to life, moving on its own. Pastel pulled out her mobile and idly began tapping away on it.

Jovin drummed his claws on his lap, scanning the vehicle a little more and finding an ever-growing list of damages it didn’t deserve, and the owning company had yet to clean up or fix. The city passed by quickly, the unfamiliar suburbs and districts giving way to familiar ones, and then unfamiliar ones all over again, each turn perfect, every speed limit maintained. No swerving, and no hesitation.

He occasionally glanced Pastel’s way when he thought she wasn’t looking — not that she seemed all that eager to get off her phone — taking in what few details about her there was left to mention. Her fetlocks were longer than normal, for instance, and almost completely white compared to the rest of her coat. Doing his best to not seem too obvious about it, he tried spying for some kind of neural implant somewhere along her nape, but her mane was too long and flowing; she appeared to be completely unaltered.

But then again, a pony of her projected calibre might have been hiding it. That, or she really was all natural. Rare in this day and age.

“Like what you see?”

Jovin jumped. He hadn’t noticed her watching him from the corner of her eye. He choked on words he hadn’t yet gathered, those soft, perceptive eyes of hers reading into him. She just had to be a tease, didn't she?

“W-well, I mean, uh… I was just wondering what this thing that you’re having me do is, which may or may not but probably will involve breaking the law, and that you haven’t said anything about it yet.” He barely managed to formulate that sensibly. Come to think of it, he really should be more worried about that than stare at her.

Pastel’s smirk lingered a moment before she motioned to her phone. “Just making sure I have all the details right before I fill you in. If it’s my mane you’re interested in, though, you should wear yours down too. You’ve got a lot of it tied up back there and I bet it looks lovely when combed.”

Jovin felt a blush on his cheeks. He always did tie up his mane in a ponytail. At least the mane behind his ears, the rest spiked up around his head or hung loose around the sides of his face. He liked to imagine it was a simple stylish look, but he honestly just didn’t want to bother cutting it short.

“I like how it is,” he said, scrunching up his nose at her then glanced away and shook his head. “So, anyway, what am I getting into? What's the job?”

Pastel continued smiling for a few seconds more before returning to her phone. “We’re heading to the Horizon tower, if you haven’t guessed already. I need some inside information on some internal affairs, you see.”

Jovin’s brows rose. “Really? Corporate espionage? This is the line of work you’re a part of, not some… drug dealing ring, or whatever?“

She snorted. “Not intimidated, are you?”

“Intimidated? No. Intrigued? Heck yes. Like, is this some kind of revenge plot, sticking it to the big guy situation, or are you a freelancer — a mercenary hiring mercenaries — or do you work for a rival company, or—”

Pastel gave him a pointed look, tipped with a painful, but not deadly poison. She didn’t seem angry, or sad. Merely… cautionary. And the passing lights of the city through the window behind her certainly didn’t make her seem all that friendly.

It took a moment to understand what the problem was, but when he did, or thought he did, his eyes went wide and he slowly nodded, pursing his lips. “Oh, yeah, don’t ask, don’t tell; keep as many ponies out of the loop as possible.”

She stared a little while longer, no doubt making sure the point stuck, then went back to the mobile. Considering how lighthearted all their prior conversation went, it was a bit of a surprise to see her showing some edge. And to look damn serious while doing it.

He was beginning to see why Buck liked her so much. Or didn’t like her. Whatever their relationship really was.

“We’re looking for dirt on a branch director.” She pointed out the window to a building towering above most others in their immediate vicinity. “Standard blackmail affair, really: apparently she’s having inappropriate personal relations with a colleague, the details of which are probably best left to the imagination. Do with that what you will. But they’re a smaller company, so we didn’t expect our last hacker to get roasted by a counter-hack.”

Jovin quirked an eyebrow. “Roasted how?”

“Dead.” She returned to him. “Brain fried like he stuck a knife in a toaster. Wasn’t pretty.”

“Oh.” He paused, and then he shrugged. “Well, that sucks.”

“It doesn’t bother you, knowing this?”

“A little, maybe, but… I’ve played with fire before.”

“You’ve done a job like this?”

“On occasion.” Jovin smirked. He could play secret too.

Pastel gave him an unamused look before returning to her mobile. “Anyhow, our guy tried getting into the director’s personal files and emails before the zap. I don’t know the computer jargon, so I’ll just forward you the technical details.”

As she gestured with her phone, the file image floating off the side of her screen toward Jovin to prompt the download, the car slowed, easing into a parking spot inside a large garage. A small speck in his eyes lit up, and his vision filled with floating images of the documents given.

“…Huh. They got another firewall for the upper management. Seems they care about internal security some.”

“Not unique in their line of work, but troublesome all the same.” She opened the door and stepped out of the car, turning around to peer inside at him. “Anyway, let me show you where you’ll be working from.”

Jovin followed, exiting from his own side. Not too many paces away sat a mildly beat-up service van. He’d seen enough movies to know where this was going; even if everything in them was fake, there still had to be some element of truth behind it.all.

“Paperweight, open up,” Pastel called with a gentle knock on the sliding door.

There was a light scuffle heard inside before an anxious female voice responded. “P-password?”

“Pineapples.” Pastel sighed. “Come on, Paperweight, dear, you knew I was coming.”

The door slid open, revealing much of what Jovin had expected; the interior was aglow with the light of several computer screens, electronic equipment, and sitting on the rolling chair at the door was… a nervous wreck of a pony.

Even with her large glasses on, it wasn’t hard to see the mare hadn’t slept for days. That, or she’d been rather stressed out recently. Probably both, one feeding into the other in an endless cycle.

“I was just making sure!” she squeaked, forcing a smile before nervously chewing on a hoof.

Jovin took one look at her, the messy bun that tied up her mane and the bags under her eyes. Yep. She was a total wreck.

“Paperweight, this is Jovin. He’s our new computer nerd.”

“I resent that statement.”

Paperweight looked from Pastel to Jovin, twitching a bit to herself before looking back to her boss and whispered, leaning in, “He looks like a homeless assassin.”

“Uh, I can hear you.”

Pastel had to bite her lip and take a breath to keep herself from smirking. “Paperweight, he’s fine. He’s one of my friends’ friends. You can trust him. Anyhow,” she turned around to face Jovin, “this here van has a lot of the equipment you need to work. We have a hard line plugged in here so you can—"

“Really?” He pointed at the van. “From here?”

“Well, as hard a line as you can get for being on a public, legal connection.”

Jovin sighed and facepalmed, claws and all. “Yeah, no. You got a laptop or micro tower I can take?”

Pastel raised a carefully groomed eyebrow. “Pardon?”

“I’m not working in there.” He leaned his head in through the door, Paperweight inching away from him. “Give me a computer and I’ll get myself an access point inside their network.”

Pastel furrowed her brows. “You’re just going to walk in and hook up?”

Jovin reached past a rather uncomfortable-looking Paperweight, grabbing a laptop that looked less important than the others and pulling it free of a few cables, much to the mare’s distress. “Nah. But buildings like that are just saturated with all sorts of basic network topology. Horizon Corp only occupies a few floors, and there are dozens of other businesses in there. You need a network for the building to connect the networks of the other businesses, and not to mention you need to connect the building to the rest of the city, soooo… I’m going to hook up to that and work my way down. Locally.”

“And you can’t do that from the van because…?”

“Because internal network security tends to suck. Can’t be meaningfully traced if I’m literally in the building network. And I doubt the counter-hack would wanna kill someone who might be in their own company.” He turned, heading away from the van to look for open sky from the parking garage.

“Jovin.” Pastel waited for him to turn around, a mild smirk on her. “This sounds like a terrible idea. You don’t have to impress me on your first job. Don’t do anything stupid, or I’m leaving you to die. And get on coms with Paperweight. She can help be your eye in the sky. Isn’t that right, Paperweight?”

“He’s gonna die,” she whimpered to herself, returning to her computers.

“I heard that. And thanks for caring so much, but I always aim high,” Jovin said with a grin, then vaulted over the railing and took flight, heading for the tower.

Pastel stared at the empty sky where Jovin was moments ago. “…Buck is going to hate me.”

Jovin powered his way through the sky, gaining what altitude he could while he scanned the building in question for its junction boxes and communications equipment. He reminded himself to shut off his passive lights on his cybernetics, the yellow glow that accented him going dark. Even his eyes lost their shine as his form became harder to spot against the darker backdrops; there were plenty of other light sources to focus on. The city itself made hiding in plain sight far easier, unless security here was more state-of-the-art than he’d been led to believe.

Unlikely, though. No need to worry.

Circling the skyscraper as he ascended, it took him a few minutes before he neared the top. Massive towers surrounded him, pylons of metal and glass and the ever-present green ambience of the city below, but despite them all, and his size in comparison, the world outside felt so small. The lights in the city were oppressive, and beyond it, nothing but darkness. The world became a near black abyss, and the city an island floating perilously atop it. Even though Jovin knew there was a whole world of landscape out there it all felt as empty as it looked.

A flicker appeared in Jovin’s vision and a gentle hum of vibration came from the piercings in his ears, breaking his trance; the call handle was one he didn’t recognise, and for a brief moment he froze, wondering if it could be that brutish mare from a few weeks ago. Taking in a deep breath, he answered.


“Oh, hey.”


“Oh, its, uh… its Paperweight.”

“Oh, I don’t remember giving you—"

“Boss says she had to call her friend and ask for your number, and she’s still giving me looks ‘cause he won’t stop asking about you and—"

“Oh, yeah,” he rolled his eyes, “Buck tends to worry a lot… Well, a little, relatively.”

“…Anyway, where are you? I can pull up building blueprints or something for you.”

“Uh… yeah, I guess have those ready.” He shrugged, blowing a sigh soft enough that it shouldn’t have been picked up by the call.

How in the world did she land a job like this?

“Okay, just… be careful, because there might be drones.”

“I figured.”

“They… might also have a pacification droneship on standby.”

“Oh,” he said, then let out a groan.

Typical quad-copter drones were one thing, but droneships were another issue entirely. With automation technology nowadays, it was inevitable that someone would get the idea to scale up a flying robot to several times larger than a pony. Modular designs meant they could fulfill most roles pegasi used to have a monopoly over — he’d lost a job or two because of them, and saw some in the military before his discharge. A droneship with pacification gear were bad news: they didn’t hesitate or make mistakes.

“Should’ve brought my own drone,” he grumbled to himself, figuring a second pair of eyes would be best in this situation, but sighed again and he scanned the airspace. Nothing else in the sky that he could see — a few couriers zipping by in the distance, but none of them had seen him, and likely wouldn’t have cared. Returning to the skyscraper, he caught sight of what he was looking for and drove toward it.

The junction box for the building’s network was small; attached to one of the dish towers on the roof, but easily out of reach for someone who lacked a ladder. Jovin deployed his claws and comfortably latched onto it, the I-beams giving him plenty of grip. “Lets see what you got inside you,” he mumbled, then pried the lid open with enough effort, breaking the lock in the process. If this was a simple job, he’d be out of there in no time, and what security there was would put the damage down to a wannabe hacker trying their luck.

Inside, he was met with a lot of wires, routers, and switches.

“Well, this is a mess,” he murmured, then perused the faded labels for something resembling a network cable. Considering this was a shared building with lots of different branches living under the same roof, it was a safe bet to say the tower and its infrastructure wasn’t built by any of those companies; the construction business didn’t want to spend the money to train their staff, so they hired the cheapest third party they could find.

This, of course, would lead to some logistical frustration down the line, and quite possibly a few office fires, but who cared? The short-term profit was all that mattered. “Bastards,” Jovin muttered, then spied a label that might have been the right one and saw that the port matched. So, bringing up the laptop and flipping open the screen, he plugged the loose end of the network cable into the box and waited. Sure enough, a few seconds later, the screen glitched out and went dark, and the motor inside the machine whined uncomfortably loud, and he smelled burning ozone.

“Yeah, no thanks.” He tossed the laptop over his shoulder. “Looks like someone’s losing their internet.”

Taking a cable, he yanked it free and reached behind to plug it into the back of his neck. Flooded with a hail of pings, he ignored them all and waited until he got what he was probing for on his hud.

“Just need that MAC address. Bingo.” He pulled his retractable cable from his head and plugged it into the switch. It only took moments before the system fell for the spoof and saw him as the connection that was previously in place. Heck, he could’ve had a sip from something and still have enough time before it became the wiser. From there on, it was easy enough to identify and record the network map. Finding the Horizon lan was easy. Now it was just a matter of how subtle he could be.

“Hey, Buttweight. Is this supposed to be a totally covert kinda op or can I break some things and leave a mess so long as they don’t find us?”

He would hear a groan and whine in response before he finally got a legible response. “It’s Paperweight! And be sneaky as much as possible or you’ll die!”

“So… total sneaky?”

“…Boss says you can make a mess if you need to. Just don’t get caught or lead them back to us or she will, uh… kill you herself.”

“Tell her I love her too.” Jovin rolled his eyes before refocusing on his hud.

“This shouldn’t be too hard.” He delved into the company network. Servers were clearly out of the question with what equipment he had, but end user computers? He already had their IP, all he needed was to guess their credentials. The director’s machine was easy enough to find with the name of it being visible on the network. But logging in…

Of course, there was a camera system in place in the office network. He took a few prods at it, guessing a couple of password login combinations before a quick reference to the brand default login got him access. Smirking, he paged through the available views, looking for the director's office, which he eventually found, and pulled up a video feed. Sure enough, along with a rather bored-looking mare slumped over at her desk, he spied a sticky note on her computer.

“Jackpot.” In moments, he connected to the device and immediately started pulling all the email files he could. There was a lot, but fortunately, it was a fast connection and his prior job convinced him to get a temporary storage drive in his head to handle something like this.

Seeing the director watch everything happen on the monitor with absolute bewilderment and confusion put quite a smile on his face, and Jovin couldn’t help getting some ideas.

“I wonder…”

He checked the recordings, but soon realized there was no way he could store any significant amount of data in his head like this. However, he was connected to the leynet, and everything he needed to store it elsewhere.

It may have landed him in trouble when he worked in data recovery, but at heart, Jovin loved to snoop. It was what got him into this kind of work in the first place. So, naturally, he had his own offsite storage ready to go, with proxies in place to throw off anything tracking it. All he needed to do was to pipe the data out of the building and to his storage, with a copy of the emails he ripped while he was at it.

Gripping with is hind leg claw firmly, he leaned back and hung upside down, crossing his wings over his chest and his forelegs behind his head. All he had to do now was wait for the data to finish pulling. He shut down his hud stared out at the dark horizon and relaxed, knowing it wouldn’t take long.

“When this is over, I’m going to buy me some much needed TLC and save up for that—"

“Debt?” said a familiar, chilling voice.

Jovin froze, turning his head to look into the eyes a mare he really didn’t need to be seeing right now, a toothy, sinister smile plastered on her face like she’d won the lottery, and knew exactly whose life she was going to ruin with it.

“Miss me?”

Early Bats Get the Whale

View Online

Jovin felt like his heart had stopped, his body stiff in the joints and frozen in place as he stared up at her with wide, startled eyes.

Emi hung from the I-beams not far above, hanging upside down like he was, wearing her staple leather jacket and watching him with a wicked smile as she juggled an apple in her hoof with practiced ease. Baring her fangs, she looked as if she were a ravenous predator ready to strike, and her large, imposing frame certainly didn’t help. But the smug twinkle in her eyes betrayed something else: she wasn’t here for a fight.

Or at least, not just a fight.

“You wanna be a bat, do yeh?” Her tone was perfectly balanced between a playful jab and a genuine accusation — a rare bit of poise, coming from the likes of her. The cocky smirk dared him to try something, though, before she caught the apple a final time and took a loud, crunchy bite from it. “You’ll have to do better than this.”

Jovin stared, trying and failing to appear unflappable, especially when a few droplets of juice almost landed on his face and he found himself flinching and ducking out of their way. “How did you…” he began, then shut his mouth and cleared his throat when he realised his voice had cracked and he sounded too much like a scared little filly. “How did you find me?”

She shrugged, chewing with an open mouth as she continued to grin haughtily. “Would you believe I was just taking a stroll?”


She huffed a laugh, then swallowed. “Clever girl.”

Jovin ground his teeth together as his claws tightened their grip. He wanted to bite back, but that was probably what she wanted — what she might very well have come here for. And if she hadn’t come here to start something, then he wasn’t going to let her have the satisfaction.

He heaved himself upright, preferring not to expose his rear end to her, and especially not if she was going to be playing that particular card for however long she planned on staying here.
“How I found yeh’s none of yer stinking business. What is yer business is yer debts.”

Jovin groaned.

“Hey,” she growled, the smugness suddenly replaced by venom as she stabbed a hoof at him. “Yer lucky I’m the generous type, and that I’m not charging extra for trying to smack me last time. You’re welcome to try again, though, if yeh feel like giving me any sass, Pegleg.”

He wasn’t about to, but with an attitude like that, he was sorely tempted.

“So,” she continued, the bitter tone in her voice lessening to a more agreeable one, “are yeh any better off, or do yeh still need some persuasion?”

He really hated that smile on her face, and after taking a couple of deep breaths to calm himself down, he narrowed his eyes at her, then frowned pointedly at the switch he was connected to; he had other, more important things that required his attention.

“I got the message loud and clear, but I don’t have anything yet,” he grumbled. “I will soon, though, because I’m on a job right now, and when I’m done, I get paid. The sooner I get paid, the sooner I pay you, so you can buzz off, thank you very much.”

Emi stopped mid-bite, staring at him with an expression that was just a bit too cheerful — smug satisfaction, he suspected. Without warning, she dropped, falling and rolling in the air before catching the I-beam right beside him.

The metal beneath his claws thrummed with the strain.She looked at him with that cocky smile she always had before, even more intensely than usual, before she raised up her apple and took another crunchy bite from it. The giant mare took far longer than she should have chewing it.

“Buzz off, eh? I want to be here. Especially because you are here.” Emi dwarfed Jovin, and it felt even more present in his mind when she was in striking distance. He had to either try and talk her down or do something fast. He couldn’t afford having his upload interrupted. Jovin knew she was trying to grind his patience down. The worst part was, it was working.

Better to defuse the tension.

“Listen, let’s start over, okay?” he said as he blew a frustrated sigh, briefly glancing away. “I’m…Ugh.” He groaned aloud, rolling his eyes at how pitiful he was being. “I’m sorry I tried standing up to you. That was stupid of me. You’re bigger, stronger… Maybe a little cute—””

She merely burst out in laughter, and some small leftover chunks splashed him in the face. “Cute?!” she howled. “Oh, that’s rich, Pegleg. That’s really, really rich. Which is pretty ironic, actually, seeing as yer dirt-poor and barely making ends meet as it is.”

Maybe it was a pathetic attempt, but it was worth a shot. And if she wasn’t openly hostile about it, Jovin supposed there wasn’t any harm in pushing the envelope just a little further. “Well, uh… you know how makeup can do wonders!”

The laughter died down to a low chuckle. “Jovin,” Emi purred with a condescending shake of her head, “Jovin, Jovin, Jovin. Yeh think yer my type or something? Pfft! A gender-confused wee shit like you? Robot legs and all? You’re more like a living joke than anything else, except that you don’t even have a good punchline.”

Jovin blinked. Part of him wanted to smack her, but the other didn’t know what to think. He kept his mouth shut, just to stay on the safe side, as he brought a claw up and wiped a piece of apple from his cheek.

Emi wiped the back of her hoof across her muzzle before leaning in with a patronising sneer. “No one wants to date an ugly mug like me. Did yeh seriously think flattery would work?”

He waited, and then he shrugged. “It was worth a shot.”

She paused, and then let out another, softer chuckle, her sneer curled into another smirk. “You’ve got guts, kid. I’ll give yeh that.” And then her gaze grew deathly cold. “But guts didn’t save yeh last time, and they won’t save yeh now either.”

“I don’t want to fight you, okay?”

“Of course yeh don’t. Yer working a job, aren’t ye?”

“I am.” Jovin folded his forelegs and looked to the sky. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

“Just one problem with that, isn’t there?” Emi leaned further in, practically in his ear. “Yeh got yerself fired, didn’t yeh?”

He snapped back to her and pulled away with widening eyes and rising brows, a new and dreadful chill pouring into his chest.

“Oh yeah,” she nodded in a slow, menacing way, “I checked in with yer old employer. Not a big fan of yers, as it turns out. See, I have brains as well as brawn, and I only need half of each to make yeh wish I was someone else’s problem. Now, why don’t yeh tell me what you’re doing up here, when what you should be doing is putting your fat arse to work.”

“This… is my work,” he replied after a beat — the memories from their last encounter were still quite fresh, and very distracting. “I told you before.”

“Oh, so you yeh found something else, did yeh?”

“I…” He gulped. “Yes.”

“How convenient.” She cocked her head, snarling. “Too convenient.”

“No, I swear, I’m not lying.” He put a clawed hoof over his heart as he shook his head, the metal nails digging into his fur and skin with how badly he wanted her to believe him. “She’s a friend of a friend, and she’s down in that carpark just across the street. You can check if you want. I mean, I wouldn’t recommend it, but…”

Emi didn’t appear convinced.

Jovin sighed, tilting his head back and looking at the sky again. “Look, this isn’t too different to what I was doing before. Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll show you — this is a legitimate job.”

“This is private property,” she countered. “It’s a criminal job.”

“These days, what isn’t?”

She cocked her head once more, that infuriating smirk of hers resurfacing. “Make no mistake, Pegleg, I genuinely don’t care how yeh get the money, only that it winds up in my hooves on time. And right now, my patience is running a little thin.”

“Oh, for crying out loud, could you please just stop with the tough guy act?! It’s boring.”

And just as quickly as it reappeared, it vanished, replaced by a harsh, grim, grave glower. “Care to make it interesting, then?”

Jovin shut his mouth, staring ahead — up — at the green and grey smog that hid the night from the rest of the world. He really needed to learn how to keep it shut. Caused him more than his fair share of grief back in the military, and it hadn’t been doing him any favours out of it either.

“Didn’t think so.” She took another bite from her apple and pulled back a little way, but still glared at him. “Get this shite over with, and then we’re meeting with this… friend of a friend.”

Jovin really had to wonder just what was this mare’s problem. Never mind the fact that she seemed intent on giving him a hard time, she had perhaps one of the most grating and annoying accents he’d ever heard; it slurred without a pattern, as if she were drunk, but her coordination was fine enough, and so was her general reasoning. She sounded like an intoxicated pirate at the best of times, but at others… nearly unintelligible.

And then, every so often, it would slip, and something else would take its place.

Her native tongue, he supposed, if she had one. Were he up to questioning her, he’d probably be able to guess, but as it stood, curiosity was far outweighed by irritation, and her continued remarks weren’t doing anything to—

“What are you staring at?”

Jovin blinked. He hadn’t realised he was — too focused on checking the upload feed and wondering how long he’d have to be here. He opened his mouth to explain.

And then he nearly jumped, ears vibrating and the flicker of a call showing up in his peripheral vision. Paperweight again.

With a sigh, he answered. “Paper, I’m kinda busy.”

“JOVIN! You’re still alive!”

“…Should I not be?”

“They’ve sent them your way! You gotta run!”

“Paperweight, calm down. Who’s sent what?”

“The drones! They’ve sent the drones!”

Jovin felt his heart drop. He was still tethered to the switch, and if he pulled the plug now, he’d be losing what he was here for. Maybe he shouldn’t have just grabbed everything all at once — less of a threshold for the system to think something was wrong.

“Shit,” he murmured. “How long ago did they leave?”

“I don’t know! A minute ago?!”

This panicky mare was really not helping his stress levels.

“Update me when you have something useful.” He tossed the call aside, then quickly scanned the horizon, listening for any noise.

“Girl problems?”

Jovin swung back to Emi, who was now hanging upside down. Back to her playful self. “Worse,” he dryly answered.

Boy problems, then!” She laughed. “My oh my, you are full of surprises, Pegleg.”

“No, I don’t have time for this! We’ve got drones on the way!”

Emi simply hung there, relaxed with her forelegs folded as she stared out at the skyline. She reached into her jacket, fumbling around before pulling out yet another apple. “Sounds like ye got some fun to deal with.”

“For crying out loud, you dumb bitch,” Jovin exclaimed with a frustrated sigh, “if we get spotted, we’re pretty much done for — you included! I can’t unplug until this is done either!”

She scowled at him, sneering. “Care to repeat that first part, bitch? Because I could very easily hold yeh down and say I’m a concerned citizen doing my civic duty.”

His claws tightened their grip on the I-beams and his wings flapped in exasperation. “You wouldn’t get paid, then, would you?”

She paused, and then she cocked her head, raising a furrowed brow — or lowering it, depending on one’s perspective. “Are yeh seriously asking me for help after you literally just finished spitting in my face?”

“They’re as much your problem as they are mine.”

Another pause, and then she shook her head, smirking. “I don’t think so.”

“They don’t care about what you think, Emi! They’re machines — they just do. And if they see anyone up here, they’re going to assume—”

“Hah! No.” She leaned in. “My problems aren’t yours, and yours aren’t mine. Could I help you? Sure, absolutely. But will I?” She clicked her tongue and hissed through a toothy smile. “See, that’s where things get dicey, because the thought of sitting back and watching you flail about as you try to swat these suckers is much too good to pass up.”

Jovin’s ears perked up, noticing the sound of rotors buzzing. A quick scan of the buildings horizon revealed not just one, two, or even three, but upwards of a dozen drones cresting over the edge. Time was running out.

“Without some incentive, of course.”

He snapped back to Emi with wide eyes. “I’m trying to get you your money, lady!”

“Oh, it’s not money I’m after.” She took a bite of her apple, some of its juice trailing upwards onto her smout. “It’s satisfaction.”

Jovin blinked, pulling his head back, his surprised expression bordering disgust in case he’d heard her right. “What?!”

“Beg,” she instructed, so calm and collected it almost seemed like she didn’t realise what kind of danger they were both in. The widening grin certainly didn’t help. “You’re in a pickle, Jovin, and I’m not really in the mood to assist. Maybe some good old-fashioned grovelling would do the trick. ”He stared at her. He thought about staring some more in disbelief, or maybe reaching out and giving her a solid slap across the snout, hoping she’d snap out whatever mindset she’d twisted herself into, but both options would only have caused more trouble than they were worth.

He grit his teeth and quickly glanced about in frustration, but soon found himself looking at her again with wide, practically bulging eyes. Screw pride — safety was more important. “Please, please, please help me. I’m… helpless and defenseless… and only you can save me.”

Emi continued watching him.

The drones continued approaching.

Soon, please?”

“Hmmm…” She rolled her wings, twisting her muzzle and wiping it clean, looking up to the ground in thought, mulling over his request with infuriating delight. “…I’m not buying it; you don’t sound terrified enough.”

“Oh, come on! They’re right there!”

“That’s more outrage than terror,” she said, taking another bite of her apple and savouring it, “but I suppose it’ll do.”

Jovin blinked. “Does this mean—”

“It means nothing. Yer just lucky I’m in a giving mood.” She tossed him the apple, and the smile she wore faded almost instantly. “Don’t you forget it, princess.”

Jovin barely managed to catch it in time, the tips of his claws impaling the apple before he returned to her with a conflicted frown. His mouth curled to form some sort of question, but the hulking mare let go of the tower before he knew what to ask, unfurling her wings to slow her fall and land on the flat of the rooftop.

The drones didn’t seem to be the gunship sort, much to Jovin’s relief, but there were still twelve of them, or more, all armed and armored for crowd control; four rotors each, encased in a polymer edgeguard for protection, and equipped with tasers and pepper spray.

Jovin swallowed, somehow finding himself dreading the fact he’d effectively sent a rabid dog to fight off an armoured car. But then again, all he needed was a bit more time. It wasn’t his job to get her out of this.

“Over here, ye buzzing quadflopters.” Emi trotted to the nearest AC unit and leaned against it like she were teasing a new challenger entering the fighting ring.

Even before she got their attention, they were already on their way to her — powered by a slower, simpler AI, he recognised, where they honed in on the closest threat, rather than the biggest. Technically speaking, she’d qualify for that too, but if they were sent to take out a hacker, that would be their main objective.

A pair flew her way, the others doing sweeps of the roof. Jovin figured he must have been high enough to avoid their initial scans, otherwise they’d have spotted him by now.

“Citizen, this is a restricted area,” the pair said in unison. “Loitering is an arrestable offense. Please leave the area or the situation will be escalated to Skyguard jurisdiction.”

“Loiter me this!” Emi shouted, grabbing one of the AC’s panels and beginning to peel it away.

It wasn’t coming off as easily as she’d hoped.

“Destruction of property is a class D offence. Pacification authorized.”

One of the two drones hovered closer and sprayed a stream of pepper at her.

Emi squeezed her eyes shut and tried to protect herself with her spare foreleg.

“You wee little… saloperie !

With a frighteningly sudden bolt of energy, she ripped the panel off and hurled it at the drone.

Right on target, and sparks flew as the machine buckled under the weight of her makeshift discus, flopping lifelessly to the concrete with a metallic crash.

The second shot its taser prongs at her, and they struck her square on the shoulder.

Emi barely flinched from the impact itself, but the moment the current started flowing, she seized up and staggered back, teeth grit and eyes wide as muscles spasmed all over her body.
Sale petite merde !” She grabbed the wires on the prongs with her hoof and pulled, quickly taking up the slack and yanking the drone from the air.

It fought to stay aloft.

Control restored, Emi swung it around like it were a flail before smashing it into the ground. More sparks and debris.

“Yer next!” she roared, taking the wires and swinging what was left of the drone, laughing as she hurled it toward a third.

Jovin couldn’t tell if it was shocking her anymore, but he had a feeling she didn’t care — she was making it look so easy; if he got zapped, he couldn’t guarantee his cybernetics wouldn’t act up. Better to stay as far away from the battle as possible, hiding behind the I-beams.

And then he heard it: more buzzing.

He snapped to his left, just in time to see a fourth drone come around the other side of the tower. It had already seen him, and was training its tasers like a spider eyed a fly caught in a web.

He felt like one too, if the terrible, almost sickening chill in his stomach was anything to go by.

“Whoa, whoa, hold on a second!” he shrieked, sticking a hoof out. “I-I-I’m with the city! Maintenance! I have a barcode ID!”

“Present ID.”

…Great, now what was he supposed to say? He forgot it at home? Never mind his limbs, if he got zapped while he was still plugged into the network, he’d be losing everything he—


Upload complete.

His heart skipped a beat and the concerned look on his face began to twist into a smile.

Now things were starting to turn his way, and he had just the idea to start.

“Actually, it’s right here on my neck.” He reached up to pull at his scarf, exposing his nape to the bitter cold air up the upper skies. “You see?”

The drone didn’t respond for a little while — thinking, perhaps — but then buzzed a little closer, the wind from its rotors tickling the fur all along his back, changing the focus of its camera.

It might be just close enough to…

“Here!” He threw his scarf at it and launched himself from the I-beams, aiming for the drone.

It dodged the scarf and fired its prongs, but not fast enough.

Jovin reached for its two closest propellers, claws deployed, then swung underneath for the rear rotors with his hindlegs. With a little effort, it broke apart, the blades and their protective shields losing control as the body plummeted, and he fell back and twisted midair, spreading his wings and beginning to truly fly.

Looking behind him to inspect the damage, he instead found his attention caught by his scarf, snaking further and further down toward the ground below. He doubled back and snatched it before he lost it forever. No way he’d let that happen.

Taking a moment to reorient himself, he surveyed the rooftop, and sighted Emi amid the wreckage of a few more drones, fighting off the rest. It sounded like she was having the time of her life, but she was clearly suffering for it — the pepper spray stained her clothes and coat orange, and she didn’t seem to have complete control over one of her hindlegs.

Jovin watched on. Leaving would’ve been quite easy. In fact, he had what he came for, and if the drones took her down and arrested her, so much the better — one less loan shark he’d have to worry about for the time being. The Skyguard would put her away, and if he was lucky, even if she did try to incriminate him, they wouldn’t look that much further into it — another big, dumb brute angry at the world, taking it out on the closest institution she could find.

More taser shots, and this time, it sounded like they hurt.

Jovin looked up at the open sky. Freedom was so very close.

He shouldn’t have been hesitating — his window of opportunity was right there. Just a few flaps, and then it wouldn’t be his problem anymore. It wasn’t his problem right now either, but…

Well, if she did survive this — which she wouldn’t, without falling unconscious from an overload of electricity and weaponised capsaicin — she’d be pissed, and there’d be no telling what kind of recompense she’d demand.

Pain, probably. And lots of it.

…But then there was something else keeping him here, wasn’t there?

Jovin shut his eyes and scrunched up his face, groaning and grumbling to himself, before snapping back to the action with a disgruntled scowl and racing toward it. He’d regret this, he just knew it, but he’d be damned straight to Tartarus before he let someone else take all the punishment for him.

Emi swiped her hooves at a fifth drone, missing as it swiftly whirled about and soaked her with yet another dose of pepper spray.

“Ye think that little—” she coughed, “—that seasoning is going to put me down, eh? Well then, lemme show you what seasoning I got for ye!”

She fumbled for the wrecked husk of one of the machines and hurled it at the nearest functional drone.

It missed by miles. The spray had blinded her.

It wasn’t an issue for Jovin. Yet.

He swooped in and snatched one in his forehooves, tackling it into the concrete, claws buckling the outer casing like tin foil. The others had already turned their attention on him by the time he looked up, and he hurriedly flung the disabled robot like a frisbee before making a hasty escape.

They pursued.

Emi seized the advantage, finding the strength to flap her wings and take to the air, chasing after the ever-thinning swarm. “Oh no you don’t! Don’t you dare ignore me!”

As more drones came crashing down to Emi’s wrath, Jovin made off into the sky toward the other tower peaks, bandits in tow. He wasn’t sure if they still had their taser prongs but he wasn’t going to wait and find out.

He banked and rolled, weaving past the skyscrapers, signal towers and various other rooftop structures, nearly scraping the jagged corners of satellite dishes and communication arrays.

The drones, while dexterous, were not creative. They made grand, sweeping movements to avoid all obstacles, but they were playing it safe, costing time — their programming wasn’t complex enough to follow him exactly. It didn’t take long before they lost him.

“Nothing beats the real deal,” he said to himself, careening around the corner of another building to come up on the lost drones for an ambush. They didn’t have time to evade as he swooped down on them from above. His claws latched onto each one, crushing and smashing them together as their motors screeched.

“Too easy.” He chuckled and he let them fall into the abyss of city lights. He idled in the air, relishing the moment before considering his next course of action, then glided his way back toward the rooftop where he left Emi before second guessing himself. She seemed to have it all in hoof, right?

Then he heard something new.

At first, it was faint. Distant. A low, rumbling buzz of blades chopping through the air. Big ones. He couldn’t pick out which direction it was coming from, the sound bouncing off the skyscrapers all around him.

“Damn it, don’t tell me…” He quickly scanned across the rooftops, soon spotting the original tower he’d left Emi at. But she wasn’t there. Either she got away or…

The sound was suddenly near deafening, and close.

He swung about in time to spot it.

A large, heavy frame several times his size; a bulkier, beefier, far more intimidating big brother of the drones that had been tailing him, built for combat. Amber, forward-facing panels on the body acted as spotlights, fixed either side of a camera on a swivel, set within the outer armor for protection. A turret, also on a swivel, and armed with an assortment of barrels and launchers, hung below the effective ‘head’, beneath its single eye. Emblazoned on the white exterior in bold, slanted, orange lettering was the company logo: Horizon Corp.

This was serious equipment for a minor branch. Indeed, they seemed to spare no expense.

“Shit.” He felt his heart stop for a moment before he continued on his path. “Act natural. Just flying up here for fun, is all…”

The behemoth turned, its turret wheeling around to aim at him.


He dove and banked away from it, flapping his wings as fast and hard as he could.

The giant responded in kind, the heavy thrum of its rotors growing louder and even more dreadful as it banked. And then it opened fire, with actual ammunition.

“SHIT!” Jovin jumped, then immediately made a hard right. “Not even a warning?!”

The drone continued hunting him, and continued firing.

He ducked and spun, rolled and climbed, dived and tried every trick he could imagine, but he could never shake the thing for the life of him. “You’re using live ammo in a densely populated area?!” he bellowed to no one in particular. “Are you absolutely flipping men-yah!”

Something struck him hard on the flank.

He yelped, pain screaming up his spine and even into his wings, and hastily dove between the two nearest buildings close to the speed of thunder, breaking line of sight. The moment he was in the clear, he glanced over his shoulder to check the damage, sure that he shouldn’t have survived with bullets of that calibre.

But no. There was only a crimson mark on his rump, steadily growing into a welt.

“Rubber bullets,” he shakily mused, teeth chattering. “Of course.”

The sound of the droneship echoed around him, growing louder as it threw its weight around the next corner. He banked again around the building just as it leveled out, working the bends and weaves as he did before with the smaller copters. It flew a bit more logically than the regular ones, but its size necessitated caution in tighter spaces. Still, it was terrifyingly nimble, and it kept pace with him despite all its setbacks, managing to fire several more shots at him.

Jovin hadn’t ever been chased by such a flying monster before. He knew some models were able to really shift and twist through the city with agility that seemed to betray their size and mass, but having one on his tail right now really put into perspective just how significant a difference that was.

Pushing himself to his limits, Jovin kept diving and looping through the city, looking for small gaps and crevices to cut around every edge. Each time he dropped he would gain speed to outrun it, but he was losing precious altitude.

A few more rubber bullets hit him, one on his legs which did very little, but the other felt like it was nearly paralysing, striking him in the spine right near one of his wing joints. He screamed, the muscles locking up in pain as each bit of strain on his wing made every ounce of effort hurt even worse. It felt like his wing barely wanted to move, even with the assisted enhancements.

Jovin was losing speed fast, and the metal monstrosity closed in. He couldn’t escape it.

“Shit…” Jovin said through gritted teeth as it took aim. He banked to try and evade but—

Then, from seemingly out of nowhere, accompanied by the sound of an unnatural, sharp penetrating metal, a… harpoon lance? The tip embedded itself into the body through the rotor, its shaft in the way of the spinning blades, pulverising the propeller in a show of sparks and fragments.

The drone lost altitude, leaning to the left, crashing into the side of a skyscraper before losing control completely and plummeting for the street below, glass shards and other debris falling with it.

Jovin watched, absolutely dumbfounded, and when he turned his gaze upward to find the source of the harpoon, he saw the one pony he wasn’t sure he wanted to see again.

Emi descended in a controlled fall until she was level with Jovin, and the closer she came, the more her battle scars made themselves evident; blood here, taser prongs there, some with wires still attached, and her eyes were red and watery — so bad that she had to keep them narrowed. It was a miracle that she could see him. It was even more of a miracle that she’d hit her target at all.

“I got me that dick whale,” she said as she tried to wipe her vision clear, chuckling and smirking despite her injuries and evident exhaustion.

Jovin squinted. “…I seriously doubt you read that book.”

“Pfft. Well, I didn’t see you throwing things at it, ye little gobshit.”

Jovin groaned as his wing reminded him it was time to land. Still, he had to get back to Pastel.

But there was something else on his mind. “Where the fuck did you get a harpoon?”

“The goofy fake seafood place up above.” She made a vague gesture to the apartment complex behind her — one of the sorts that was like a mini-city of its own, complete with retail stores on every other floor. “All the other things I threw at it were too tiny.”

“You threw other things?”

“Maybe if you two would fly a bit slower I could catch up and aim better!” She growled at him.

Jovin wasn’t really sure he wanted to get into this right now. His body hurt all over and despite her condition, Emi seemed just as scary as ever.

He shook his head and started flying off. “Let’s just get this over with.”

They walked back to the parking complex, the pain in Jovin’s wing becoming unbearable even with his enhancements. Their journey put them through a beat-up market ally, neon lights and streetside holograms dominated their vision when it wasn’t filled with crowds of the city’s tired-looking populace. They avoided the wreckage of the drone, knowing it was already crawling with scavengers..

It wasn’t too far for them, fortunately, crossing roads being their only real delay. Emi didn’t talk much, and neither did Jovin. Passers-by kept to themselves and gave the pair a wide berth, and he wasn’t sure what did the trick more: her size, or the fact she was still stained orange and standing; not many people got into a fight with automated security and stayed out of custody, much less pass it on as something that could be just walked off.

Reaching the garage, he started ascending the stairs. He’d hoped for a less humbling return, especially with Emi’s eyes burning a hole in the back of his head, but it appeared that wouldn’t be the case. Worse yet, he’d have some explaining to do to an employer who didn’t completely trust him yet.

He opened the door to the floor the van had parked at.

Pastel was leaning against its exterior, and the second she heard him and his companion step through, she snapped her head to them in outrage.

Jovin hesitated.

“Where the hell have you been?!” she demanded with a surprising amount of venom, marching closer. “Last I heard from you, you had drones after you, and never heard from you again! We were ready to call it a bust and go but Paperweight insisted on staying. And who is that?!”

“Nice to see you again too,” Jovin grumbled, then nodded for his accomplice. “This is Emi. Got all the data and a bunch of extra. Stored off site. Mission accomplished. I wanna go home.”

Pastel raised a brow, looking just about ready to protest some more before Emi stepped forward.

“He owes somepony some money. I’m here to make sure he ain’t pulling a leg. Cause he lost enough of those already. Eh?” She elbowed him, and it shot a bolt of pain up into his bruised withers.

Pastel looked at Emi, her jaw hanging a bit. “What is that horrible acc—“

Jovin made a quick throat-cutting motion.

Pastel stopped, glancing at him, then noticed the welts across his body. “…Right, nevermind. Can I… help you?”

“I just need ta know if he’s making the bits roll or if he’s lying out his ass, is all. Yeh paying him?”

She looked visibly strained by the noise assaulting her ears.“Yes.”

Emi expression brightened a little, and then she chuckled. “Well, lucky you Jovin,” she said, slapping him on the back with a wing, much to his wincing, aching displeasure. “Yer not a lying sack of shit after all. At least I got to catch me a whale.”

“Whale?” Pastel queried. “What whale?”

“I’ll tell you later,” he said through grit teeth. “Now… I would really like to talk about my compensation.”


View Online

Pastel shut the car door behind her, glancing out the window at the mammoth mare before her smile dropped.

“Just who in Tartarus is that?” She motioned to the tall mare outside the car with a gesture of her head.

The mare outside had turned her attention toward Paperweight, who promptly reacted with a cringe at the sight of the red-eyed, beat up mare, before scooting off into her van.

“Oh, that’s Emi.”

“...And that tells me what?”

“Okay okay, she’s a debt collector. Hired muscle I assume. I owe some money, like the lady said.” He shrugged before wincing, the welt on his back searing at the motion.

“So, she roughed you up a bit?” She raised her chin and leaned in to look at his injuries.

“No, that was the drones. She helped with those if anything.” He leaned in her direction, keeping his weight off the other bruise on his flank. “...But not before she reminded me I owe her.”

“So...she’s...a friend?”

The window squeaked as Emi pressed her nose up against it, her hooves trying to shield the reflection as her bloodshot eyes peered in.

“Not exactly…” He rolled his eyes at the face in the window before turning his back away from her. “So, the payment?”

Pastel forced her eyes away from Emi and focused on Jovin. “You send me the data. I’ll send the money.”

“Its a bit large. I kinda took all of it while I was in there. Some camera footage too.”

Oh.” Pastel gave him a pleased smile. “That should be quite the find.”

“So...maybe a bonus?” Jovin beamed.

Maybe.” Pastel returned a mischievous smile.

“So yeh the nerd of the group? I coulda sworn it was the little flapper girl.”

Paperweight leaned her head out of the van cautiously, looking at Emi, who was leaning over the trunk of a nearby car, peering back at her.

“Uh...Umm...Y-you mean Jovin? He has a lot more—”

“Oi, come on. Ye know what I mean. You can’t seriously not notice—”

The car door opened up, Jovin leaning out of the vehicle as he waved Pastel’s phone out at Emi, despite her protests from inside the car.

“Hey! Big scary lady! Look! I got paid! I’ll send you a check in a couple minutes but you can stop being a bitch now!”

Emi slid herself off the car trunk grinning at the smaller pegasus deviously. “Jovin, I’ll always be a bitch until it's all paid off.”

Jovin was tempted to say something back, something that would probably land him in even more trouble, but a cough from behind him got his attention. The momentary stare-off coming to an end.

“You’ll have it soon enough.” Jovin said with a grumble.

“I’ll be right here until I see it hit my employer.” She looked down at him with a smirk.

Jovin frowned, then stared off into the distance, a twinkle in his eyes as his vision focused on a display in his digital eyes, hoof gesturing in the air a few times as it interacted with a glowing interface invisible to all others. “There. I sent a payment. More to come in the future.”

Wordlessly, Emi reached into her jacket with a wing, refusing to break eye contact with him for a moment, until she had her mobile in front of her. After paging through it for a few seconds, she smiled, and an audible ding emitting from the device.

“Good. That will save you a few broken bones, or whatever you have. I’ll be seeing yeh next time.” She backed away slowly, the wicked smile on her face staying with Jovin, ensuring he wouldn’t ever forget it, until finally she turned around and marched off with as much pep in her as she did when she arrived.

“Yeah... thanks.” He sighed, before throwing himself back into a seat in the car, shutting the door behind him.

“Ahem.” Pastel held her hoof out to Jovin, looking rather annoyed. He passed the phone back to her before leaning against the door.

“Please don’t take that from me ever again.” Her words were icey. “Unlike some others, I don’t have mine built into my arm or skull.”

“Surprised you don’t. But I guess you and Buck are that way for a reason, other than the jobs.”

“Well, that,” she pointed off in the direction of his recently departed debt collector, “is one of the reasons. Just what do you owe it for?”

“That’s my business.” He turned his eyes out the window, painfully readjusting himself in his seat.

Silence fell over the two of them, one watching the other’s avoidant gaze. Pastel was the first to break it, tearing her eyes away from Jovin before tapping away on her mobile. “Chauffeur, return.”

The car silently pulled from its parking spot, the automated driving guiding it through the parking garage and onto the streets like it were gliding. The towering structures around them passed by, neon lights littering the walkways as much as the pedestrians did. Despite how illuminating and colorful it all was, Jovin always felt like it was ‘cleaner’ from a distance. Everything always did from the sky, further away, alone in his own reality. He sure wished he could go for a flight on his own right now.

“I could use someone of your talents. I have more jobs coming up. I want you on them.” Pastel inspected her fetlocks, a comb refining the edges and curls.

Jovin didn’t move from watching the walls of lights and skyscrapers pass by, wings hanging limply behind him. “Count me in, and don’t stop sending them.”

She furrowed her brow, looking over him, eyeing the metals of his legs, the accenting yellow lights on them that matched his eyes. Pastel considered him for a moment before leaning in toward him with a soft smile. “Something on your mind?”

“Eh…” Jovin turned away from the jungle of lights. “You know anything about finding ponies?”

“I might,” she said, gazing into his eyes, interest perked. “Depends. Is it someone who doesn’t want to be found? Or—”

“Just someone I lost touch with.” He looked back out the window again.

She firmed her brow, seeing his own eyes getting lost in the city lights and night sky. “Give me a name.”

Jovin glanced back into the car, turning over thoughts in his mind before relaxing and looking up at the stained ceiling. “Raven Quill.”

Pastel raised a brow at him, before taping out a note on her phone. “I’ll see what I can do, but you owe me a few jobs in the meantime. Or a favor or two.”

“Like I said, keep the work coming. I don’t have much else going on.”

“You haven’t even heard the risks or rewards. You sure you want to be my lackey?” She leaned in towards him, a smile pulling at one corner of her mouth.

“You are paying afterall. You give me money, I do job. Simple as that.” He turned to face her, though when he saw her, he couldn’t help but raise a brow and perk up his ears. ”Right?”.

“It's not always so simple.” She raised her chin, looking down over her nose to him with a wisened grin. “Not everything is going to be to our best interests. Sometimes it's a hunt, or setting a trap. Sometimes, we are the hunt, or the ones the trap is for.”

Jovin regarded her, the soft lovely mare before him in all her careful grooming and attractive shape speaking to him like she were fortelling a riddle to his doom. “What are you saying? You’ll sell me out?”

She brushed a few curls of her mane aside, her ear flicking and keeping it aside as her hoof played with the strands. “No. Like you, Jovin, I’m also looking for jobs and opportunities. I make the connections, transactions, and the deals that keep it all rolling. Not everything is going to be a simple job. There are going to be those that want to stop us, catch us, or set us up. It's a dog eat dog world, and if you’re going to stick around, well, I’d like to know you’ve got your head in the right place.”

His eyes watched her play with the curls of her mane, then drifted to the soft fur-like fetlocks that adorned the edges of her hoof with fluff he could only imagine upper class ponies could afford. “So, be careful and don’t trust anyone?”

She caught his eyes, following them back to her fetlocked hoof. Her smile softening, Pastel outstretched her hoof towards him, the white fur that adorned the end of her leg looking as inviting as a pillow. “And you build trust, just like you did when you took this job. I admire your determination.”

Jovin looked to her hoof, the thick white plushie-like surface, before training his gaze back to her. With a nod from Pastel, he reached out, his hoof hovering an inch from hers, before finally making contact and feeling that gentle press of fur against his hoof.

Pastel couldn’t help but smile, cheeks becoming a deeper pink. “You can feel with those legs of yours, right?”

He looked over the soft golden glow of his artificial limbs, his expression falling as he nodded. “Yeah, a little. Not like the actual thing though. Its like wearing socks... only metal.”

Her smile fell, also eyeing his cold metal extremities before looking back to him, her smile now larger than before. “Well, I don’t put all this effort into these just for them to feel like that.’

To his sudden surprise, Jovin almost immediately had his vision flooded with her fur, both of her forelegs on his shoulders now. Her fetlocks were pressed to his cheeks and neck, his spine shivering at the warm touch of soft pillows. She was one step away from embracing him, though with how much she enveloped his cheeks and neck he honestly felt he was well into a comfortable intimate touch.

“I-I….” He struggled to find words, his own cheeks turning a purple against his blue fur. “You’re…. impossibly soft.”

Pastel squirmed with a giggle, pulling him in a bit closer with a smile that he couldn’t bring himself to look away from.. “I’ve got a lot of softness to me.”

“Oh my. I wouldn’t mind getting to know that softness.” His grin grew as much as his blush did.

Pastel gazed into his eyes, her own only half open as she slowly began to move her hooves around behind him. “Maybe…It's about trust after all. You know, there are a few more things I admire about you.”

“Oh?” Jovin lifted his own forelegs, daring to place them on her shoulders delicately, his manufactured metal ones contrasting to her enough he was afraid to break her.

She leaned in closer, her warm breath on his face. “You’re not like other stallions. You’re different.”

He froze, taking a breath of her sweet scent before swallowing. “Y-yeah...I’m not exactly ‘traditional’ really.”

She grinned wide, leaning in toward him even more. “... I wouldn’t mind getting to know that ‘softness.’”

Heart racing and breath flowing, Jovin smiled back to her in kind.

“Chauffeur... Take the long route.”

He awoke with a start. His legs chinked against the walls of the tub, sloshing the now luke warm water along the edges. Jovin stared into the ceiling that had been etched and marred by one too many cleaning solvents, his thoughts coming back together from his dreamscape. His body floated in the water and suds, while his limbs sank like anchors.

With a splash, he sat upright, scanning his surroundings with a mild confusion. He held a limb before him, looking over the hard edge, barely feeling the water beads roll off it. Exhaling, he lowered his foreleg, resignation on his face. The pain from earlier in the night immediately caught up with him, reminding him of the heavy bruises that marked his back and flank, though they hurt far less than they had before he drugged himself up and got into the tub at home.

His mane hung halfway down his back, resting flat around his head and shoulders. Daring to stretch his wings, he leaned forward, the water weight throwing him off balance. With a little shake he already felt pounds lighter, water freeing itself from his feathers. He reached for a brush that could scrub even the toughest hides raw, the bristles stiff and prickly. Jovin scrubbed his augmentations, the grind of abrasion filling his ears as he stared on, apathy on his face.

After draining the tub and drying himself a bit more with a towel, he left the bathroom, towel over his back, his mane a looking like a tumbleweed.

Buck was waiting for him.

He was sitting at the dining table, a bottle on the counter with two glasses. His roomate gestured for him to sit, leaning over his drink as one would over morning coffee.

“So... what happened?”

Jovin sighed, his ears drooping and wings lazily hanging. “I’m fine. Just a few bruises is all.”

“They look like gunshots.”

“You don’t have to be my mom.”

“Jovin.” He sighed and leaned his face into his hooves before looking back into his eyes. “I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

The pegasus grunted, looking at the other glass on the table, then to Buck with his tired shoulders, his roommate more tense than ever. Conflicted, he heaved his chest and hobbled his damp self over to take a seat. Buck wasted no time pouring him a glass, relaxing.

“Alright then.” Jovin grinned, leaning into the table on one elbow. “Lemme tell ya how I bagged and tagged this job.”

“You really are lucky, you know that? Luck you she was feeling charitable.” Buck glanced at the bottle, considering refilling his glass again. Jovin’s story had only encouraged him to drink more. “Maybe she’ll go easy on you now that you gave her a payment and didn’t leave her to take the fall. Still, she sounds a bit loose in the head. Not my kind of company.”

“Pfft. No kidding. She’d skin me for fun if she could catch me.” Jovin loudly put down his now-empty glass. “She won’t be touching me anytime soon. The wacko.”

They both laughed until they were both left staring into the air, silent. Buck regarded Jovin, hesitant. “You’re going to take more jobs from her you think?”

“Yeah.” Jovin said without skipping a beat. “I think she digs me, too.”

Buck momentarily paused, locking eyes with Jobin for a moment, before glancing off out the window. Exhaling slowly, he reached for the bottle to pour himself another. “Is that so?”

“Yeah. She was getting friendly... I mean, you two weren’t an item right?”

He took a sip of his freshly-poured drink, eyes regarding him carefully, expression nigh unreadable.. “No.”

“Oh, well, yeah, she’s a pretty cool gal and all.” Jovin averted his eyes and itched at the back of his neck, feeling the plug through his damp mane.

“Yeah, she is... Just don’t get too attached. She takes business pretty seriously.” He rose up out of his seat, finishing his drink in one go.

“Uh, what, uh, were you guys?” Jovin was tentative, eyeing Buck’s now-empty glass.

“Friends,” he said simply.

“She isn’t going to go psycho on me or anything is she?”

Buck let out a laugh, quickly lifting a hoof to dismiss the notion. “No no no. Sorry, I don’t mean to sound ominous. We just have a long history.”

Jovin tapped his glass, giving him a smile to with open gleaming eyes that could tickle some heart strings. “Share?”

He was met with a less than amused expression, Buck’s eyes narrowing at him. “...You don’t get to use that face on me.”

Jovin persisted, pouting his lips.

Buck groaned, turning away from him. “We did a lot of work together. She was like you, owing money, needing help, and even lower on the totem pole than you. I helped her out. Now she doesn’t need my help. That’s the short of it.”

Jovin watched him start to walk away, getting up from his own seat to follow after him. “You don’t care about her anymore?”

He went to the door of his room, taking pause before talking over his shoulder solumbly. “I do care. Just be careful... and take out the trash.”

Jovin sighed, rolling his eyes and muttered to himself. “After a shower? No thanks.”

Buck let out a pained groan, rolling his eyes into the back of his head before disappearing around the corner.

Eyes of Light

View Online

The skies were glowing with its majestic light—a warmth pouring over every cloud, the tops of the mountains, and the green earth below. Rolling hills that flourished with vegetation neighbored by mountains with ripples of crevices and rivers that lead to lakes. Grassy fields wavered like an ocean, inviting any creature to rest in their soft foliage.

Morning dew curled up into the air in Jovin’s wake, his wings barely touching the grass and leaves. He could feel the warmth of the light in the sky on his back and wings and the tickle of dew on his wings and hooves as he skimmed by. He took in a deep breath, and the scent of the earth with it, before pulling higher into the sky. His vision filled with the blue sky and clouds of light awash with the early morning colors of dawn highlighting them in oranges and yellows. Higher and higher he went, the hills flattening, the forests a dabbling of green paint, and the mountains hiding a world of more peaks and lands beneath their shadows. He broke through the clouds and the world around him was a new landscape of white as far as the eye could see, tumbling mists aglow with firelight, providing a welcome cool to his fur and feathers.

He looked toward the light, at the rays that traced the land, burning with a brightness he never knew possible. Finally, his climb peaked and he let himself roll with the wind, the grin on his face wide as he opened his legs to feel the air rush by over his fur and fetlocks. There was nothing to bite at him, no obstacles, only open air, and it was everything. The land, the light, warmth that seeped into his very core, and beauty in every direction. He admired the possibilities, the places and things he could do here. It was as refreshing as the very air he breathed. And the sun, the angel in the sky, washed his very soul. It was all so alive.

An electronic chime resonated in his head sounding like it was coming from everywhere and nowhere, filling his ears and mind. His smile fell as he clenched his teeth, feeling like all the radiating warmth left him, the bristling of wind becoming chilly to him. The graceful glide became a plumet and his legs felt cold and numb while his eyes felt static. Limp in the air, falling to the earth, the sky grew dark, as did everything else until all he could feel was the wind rushing over him, swallowing him in darkness.

Jovin woke feeling stiff and cold despite the warm, stuffy air. The lights of the pod flickered on with a click and a dull hum, barely illuminating the discolored felt interior that had been rubbed raw by years of wear and use. A display beside him lit up, the words burned into the screen before they even appeared.

Insert credits to continue session.

He reached over and pushed the lid of the pod up, eyes lingering on the scruffed metal edges and plastic contours that made up his body. It held unnaturally still while his gaze traced it, comparing it, feeling it with his mind, before he let it fall. Hoisting himself up and pulling his head out of the sensory cradle, he swung the weight of his legs out the side and threw himself out onto all fours.

“Careful. You may need a few moments to readjust to your woken state from the dream state,” A unicorn with far too much mane draped over one side of his face said, not even looking up from the holoscreen that floated before his eyes as it projected from his exoticly blocky wired foreleg. His words sounded routine, far too practiced with very little enthusiasm.

“I’ve done it a million times. I like the wake up it gives me.” Jovin lifted one leg at a time, giving each a little shake, servos and joints faintly whining with the motion.

The unicorn looked up from his holoscreen, hollow eyes registering him quickly before looking back down at the glowing forms before him. “You’d be more comfortable if you let your dream sync more with the body you’re used to.”

Jovin glanced at him as he walked past the rows upon rows of pony-sized coffins, most with a green light above the ‘occupied’ status indicator. It was deathly quiet, save the faint hum of fans and hard drive disks littering the end of each row, the mainframes held together with barely more than a few screws and tape. It would’ve been akin to an abandoned cybernetic morgue if it were any colder, and that was just one open window away. He couldn’t help but reminisce on just what the world came to that lead to these dream boxes that so many clung to.

Since the sun and moon had fallen, the art of dreamwalking had been almost entirely lost. A few tried to rediscover it, and had, to some degree, succeeded, but it wasn’t something that the average pony could experience. Technology, over time, took its natural course with the assistance of unicorns and their magic, and it soon became possible to have a machine create a dream for you. It had its limitations and its consequences, but it quickly became a market of its own—a market that was expensive and risky, its customers becoming emotionally reliant on it for an escape from the world, experiencing what they never had a chance to. Once someone became a lifetime subscriber, it was simply a matter of literally working, eating, and sleeping the rest of your life away. It made Jovin shudder at the idea, yet he craved every sensation it offered.

“Nothing is comfortable enough…” Jovin grumbled to himself as he passed through the doorway, heading out into the neon-lit hall of clutter and trash that would return him to the city streets. There was nothing that could replace what he was missing, but at least he could get close here.

He didn’t get very far before the notifications hit him. Jovin pulled his scarf a bit looser around his neck as he looked down at the rather large list of missed calls that filled his vision, all coming from one pony in particular. Although he was glad that he’d gone dark before having a dream to himself, he dreaded just what would drive Pastel to call him so incessantly, and so soon.

“Great. Let’s see what has your bridle in a bind.” He gestured at the air before him to make the call. It had been several weeks since his first job with Pastel, and several jobs too. Things had been going without a hitch, save the occasional ‘reminder’ from Emi that he still owed her big. It was enough to keep her from going too far but truth be told he knew she got a sick satisfaction out of ‘visiting’ him anyway.

The line clicked, a familiar voice picking up, her tone sounding a little strained. “I’ll call you back on a secure line.”

Before Jovin could utter a single word the line clicked again, going dead. Groaning to himself, he simply continued on down the street, slipping by a few ponies and creatures, their hooves and claws padding and clicking against the pavement, their colors lost in the blinding wash of neon glow of signage.

Since when did she have a secure line? Getting around Leycast Telecommunications was never cheap.

He didn’t have to wait long for the return call. It wasn’t a connection he recognised. Anonymous, yet not denied by his spam filter. Tentatively, he answered and listened to a familiar voice.

“Who the fuck is Raven Quill?”

To say Jovin was dumbfounded would be an understatement.

“Uh… he is a friend of miiiine?” He slowed his pace, looking around at the passersby for any ears listening in on him, feeling uneasy.

“Bullshit,” She said with a surprising amount of venom. “Come clean with me or your ass is on the blacklist.”

“I’m serious!” He glanced around himself again, distancing himself from the crowd. Jovin found a foggy looking alley way that he was sure would give him some privacy. “I knew him a long time ago. Best friend. We lost touch and I’d given up on finding him. Nothing ever came up on search. You know? That's why I was asking you if you could find him.”

There was a sigh on the other end. Jovin wasn’t sure if it was of relief or frustration. All things considered he had no idea what he was getting himself into when he asked for her to find Raven. It was such a passing thought, an old guilt that would come up every now and then but never last very long. Whenever it did come up he would feel a knot in his stomach. He was one of his only friends back then, someone he could lean on and be leaned on in return. The terms they parted on were anything but pleasant. Whatever Pastel was on about made him worried that it was coming back to bite him.

“I’ll take your word for it, but if I suspect a thing, a single fucking thing, I’m cutting you loose. Your friend came up completely blank on my channels. Instead, he—”

“You found him!? Where is he?”

“Don’t interrupt me, you little gremlin!” she snapped. Pastel was clearly agitated, if not more stressed than he had ever heard her be. “I didn’t find your friend. He found me.”

Jovin froze in place momentarily before resuming his stride. He got a few looks from onlookers on the sidewalk that he nearly blocked behind him. The shock on his face probably didn’t help either from keeping any attention off him.

“So… tell me this is the part where he delivered pizza to you right?” He forced a smile, though his eyes were scanning the pedestrians and looking for a way off the street that didn’t involve flying. The airspace above him was thick with neon lights and clusters of tangled wire clinging onto itself for dear life.

“No, pidgeon-fuck, he knocked on my door. I wasn’t home but he was on my door cam. Your friend is quite the piece of work. I spoke with him over the intercom and you’re lucky he wasn’t some hitman or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Wait,” Jovin slid himself through the doorway of a beat up Retrolife, glancing past the shelves at an assembly of bars and gears with a vape-emitting smoke stack on it. It trundled by with fragile arms as it swept the floor of more dust that it could ever handle. “So you spoke with him? He just wanted to talk?”

“He didn’t want to kill me. I don’t know how long you’ve been in business like this but generally when someone you’re looking for can’t be found at all just suddenly shows up at your door, it's bad news. Lucky for you he’s your friend, because that's what he wanted to know: who was asking about him. Hope he doesn’t want to kill you, because he really took an interest in your name.”

Jovin anxiously waved off the junky roomba with a wing, past old tube television screens lined up on a wall that nearly hurt his artificial eyes. “You told him about me? How much?”

“Not a lot. But he wants to see you. He named a café with a time. It's a pretty public place so I wouldn’t worry about him trying to kill you. I wouldn’t go if I were you, but then again I don’t want him knocking on my door again, so figure your shit out.”

“Right.” He sighed, apprehensive as ever now about meeting someone he honestly thought would be no more than a simple cam call. Something was going on. “Send me the details. Buck and Poppy can fight over what stuff of mine they get if I die.”

“Oh?” Her voice was softer now, her edge from earlier nearly gone. “And what do I get?”

Jovin felt a bump against his hoof. He looked down at the mess of a machine that desperately was trying to clean the floor, spewing out artificial mist from its several chimneys. “How about a roomba?”

The café was deceptive, the storefront looking as run down as any other in the second-rate strip mall that had lived long past its prime before the city had outgrown it. Now giant towers dwarfed the single-story building, casting it in a shadow that could only be remedied by the suffocating lights of advertisements and LED billboards dotting the walkways. Its only saving grace was the view down the main street, leading off toward the dried-up salt flats that once made up the coastline. Even with the sliver of a horizon to the dark winter void, the street side was comfortably cool, most of the snow melting before it even reached the ground.

It had once been a big town, just skirting the coast, not quite far enough away from Canterlot to really be deserving of a seperate name, but with enough of its own identity to make the place unique. That identity was gradually lost over the years, as the town it had once been was transformed into yet another concrete grid supported by steel and smothered by green smog that the new production centers around it generated.

Jovin was apprehensive, pacing about on the sidewalk, watching the crowd occasionally before he would glance back at the coffee shop aptly named ‘Coffee Library.’ From the few distant glances he stole he was barely able to spot any details of the occupants, the window glare being a bit too much, even for his eyes.

He wasn’t sure what to expect at this point. It had been years since he’d spoken with Quill, back when they were both feeling fresh in their teens, when not a single drop of heliodryl was needed, their bodies whole. It was all before either of them knew better.

Jovin shifted on his artificial hooves, having stood in one place for a bit too long. He looked down his cybernetic shoulder, faintly glowing a golden yellow in its recesses. He frowned, nervous about what he would be walking into. The thought of seeing what had happened to Quill since they last met scared him. Jovin hadn’t known much about piloting syndrome then, and he was Quill’s only friend that he could talk to about it at the time. He was the only reason Quill went through with the procedure in the first place. Knowing what he knew now, he was afraid of just how much pain he’d caused, and whatever he was about to walk in on, he probably deserved.

Jovin finally took a breath and went in.

The café was far cleaner and more modern on the inside than its outside impression had left on him. The floors were spotless, walls unblemished, and there were even real wooden countertops, stained and varnished. He could see the appeal of such a place. It was a stunning reminder of the world before, and it was very well-loved. Whoever took care of the establishment clearly had the money to spare in keeping it in tip-top shape. Even its clientele seemed to match the era it was trying to portray.

When he saw the prices on the wall menu, he understood why it was such a nice place, the expenses were easily twice what he’d pay back where he lived. This café was a callback to an era lost to time—a novelty from a time that most ponies would only know from movies and pictures. There were only a few patrons Jovin could see that were old enough to possibly have been around when the sun was still in the sky, but the rest seemed to just be there for the novelty. After scanning the crowd and noticing a few onlookers staring at him, he found his attention was drawn to one individual in particular.

He froze momentarily at the sight of him. It was hard to miss the red hair, the forward-swept mane with a pinned-up braid in the back. Jovin used to tease him endlessly over that, especially since his mane wasn’t too different. He could only see the back side of his head from here, but it gave Jovin the time he needed to relax and feel courageous enough to march over.

With each step closer he noticed the changes—things he’d expected, and things he hadn’t.

The stallion wore a white and grey trench coat, black trimming and subtle blue lights accenting the finely stitched nanoweave. They covered most of his limbs, but it did not hide the dull, matte black finish of the metal and hydraulics that were his legs. Jovin found himself slowing his pace as his eyes searched him more, seeing a lot more new than old. The cybernetics didn’t stop at the legs, the smooth yet edged contours disappearing under the coat. Were it not for the dark vest he wore, Jovin would have guessed his entire underside was no longer organic. Most of his ears were artificial and black, replaced with blue light accented cybernetics, moving to the sounds around him, such as Jovin’s hoof steps.

Jovin stopped beside the table, looking at him face to face. Scaring lines of surgical precision outlined the back of his jaw, with dimples for what could have been access points as if it was all removed and reattached. What stood out the most though, was his lack of eyes. All there was there was a black visor, completely covering his eye sockets and temples, sweeping up past where his eyebrows and forehead would be. Blue squares of light illuminated parts of the visor screen, the shape resembling the whites of an eye, minus the pupil, with more lights where his eyebrows would rest. His face was a blank expression, relaxed, contemplative, and somber with his gaze resting on the yellowed pages of a book that had survived decades of turning.

The silence between them lasted a few moments. Jovin let his jaw drop as he again looked over the unicorn, unsure how much of him was even natural anymore, aside from his neck and half of his face. Quill was as still as a rock, reading his book in silence before finally closing his book without prompt, setting it down in front of him. He slowly looked up to Jovin, the simplistic expressions managing to make even the slightest changes noticeable with each changing pixel on him as he raised his brows, lips pursing barely.

“You’ve changed.”

“You too,” Jovin replied, words just as flat and unsure as the other.

The ambient sound of hooves on the floor and quibble in the café filled the void of silence between Jovin’s frown and Quill’s unreadable stare.

“You don’t look too happy, Sweetie.” Quill gently tapped the table closer to Jovin with his hoof, the metal on the imitation wood surface a resounding thunk. “Have a seat if you like.”

“I don’t go by that anymore.” He frowned, turning to look out the window as he slid into the booth, observing the nothingness that broke the oppressive city skyline. Despite the comfort of the soft gel cushions, he didn’t feel all that much at ease. “It’s Jovin.”

Quill nodded and hummed quietly. It was hard to not feel the glow of those eyes, demanding his attention, contrasted against the black void that was half his face. “I see. You changed a lot more than I expected. You spoke of transition, but I didn’t know if you were serious about the cybernetics. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Jovin watched the horizon for a few moments more, but found his gaze gradually focusing on Quill’s reflection. The silence began to mount, and Jovin’s crooked smile now seemed more anxious than authentic. He tried to think of what to even say next, but guilt froze him in place.

Quill noticed and broke the uneasy peace, ‘blinking’ as he gestured to Jovin’s legs.“It wasn’t good for you either, was it?”

Jovin leaned in his seat, teetering as if he was going to bow right out of the question. Were it anyone else it would have been easy for him, but this was a friend he knew from childhood. He couldn’t just tell him his usual shtick, could he? He felt a knot form in his stomach. “You kidding? It's the coolest. Have you seen these grabbys in action?”

He brought up one of his hooves, the claws extending and whirling about like a carousel, and he quickly glanced from them to Quill as they flexed and tapped together like in-built castanets.

Quill humoured him for a moment, but when he looked Jovin in the eye, even the dark depths of his visor couldn’t hide his impatience, or whatever he felt. It was difficult to tell. But he wanted an answer—a real answer. That much was clear.

Jovin deflated, shoulders slumping as he let his forelegs fall to his sides. “It… could be better… A lot better. Okay?”

“I must apologize. I didn’t intend for this to be about uncomfortable subjects.” He looked down at the mug before him, the black liquid untouched, not even steaming. “I was a little... starstruck.”

“Starstruck?” Jovin forced away his frown from earlier, shoving aside unpleasant memories. “That made you want to ask me about these things I have for legs?”

Despite Jovin’s confusion, Quil pleasantly surprised him when he smiled. It was only a gentle tug in the corner of his mouth, and a subtle change in the pixels that made up his eyes, but it was there, and it seemed… genuine. “Well, I’ve missed you. It's been a while since I’ve talked to someone before both our changes.”

It was refreshing to see anything other than a dead stare; it was a familiar smile—one he’d seen a lot of in the past. He couldn’t help but return one of his own.

“How about we start over? I go by Jovin now. I got some new legs and eyes, and I’ll smack ya if you use the old pronouns on me.” He leaned back, throwing his forelegs up on top of the bench seat with a large grin.

“And I’m still Raven Quill. At least in name. I’ve… had many things change.” He winced a little, but the smile never faltered. Jovin had to admit there was far more expression in those patterns of light that made up half his face than he could have guessed. “I’m not privy to tell the details but it comes with my line of work.”

Jovin’s eyes trailed over Quill, again noting the extensive cybernetics that made up his near entirety. He knew he shouldn’t ask the hard questions, but curiosity got the best of him. “What kind of job entails you to cyber up that hard?”

With the same simple grin, Quill shrugged with indifference. “Internal affairs.”

“Seriously? All that Dark Diamond and custom corporate branding cybernetics you have and you are a desk jockey?” Jovin chuckled at the idea. There had to be more.

His laugh was cut short, however, as Quill simply stared at him, that empty expression seeming to bore into him to the point he felt unerved.

“...Enforcement.” Quill said all too flatly.

Jovin felt a chill go down his spine. It all began to make disturbing sense to him now. The full-body cybernetics, the enhancements to sensory functions, and the greeting that Pastel got when she looked for him. He wasn’t some office jockey.

“Wait wait, hold on a sec.” Jovin forced a laugh. “What are you implying? You aren’t one of those ninja’s the suits send after their own guys. Right? Because that would be pretty, heh, uh, crazy.”

Again, that stare, the imitation of eyes giving him little to no hint of what emotion there was, if any at all. Quill just nodded in confirmation.

It hit Jovin all at once. Quill was a corporate hitman.

In a world where corporations ran everything, where governments were a mere formality, the rules were set by the side with the most money and influence. It was commonplace that as individuals moved up the ladder they would have their own agendas aside from those of their own company. Those with ambition would undermine others and climb the ladder, and those up top would seek to stay on top. There was plenty of maneuverings one could do to move up or stay up top, be it publicly disgracing or any means to attack their wealth, but some means were more deadly.

No one knows when it started, but inevitably it became a known fact that internal competition in a corporation could become fatal as tensions built. Internal affairs naturally became a more dangerous position as it was both preventative and enforcement. Everyone knew what it entailed, but officially, no one acknowledged that it was happening. The media and government was controlled by the very corporations that carried out the acts.

Quill was one of these ponies. His expressions were desensitized, and the many high end cybernetics that were hidden under his shell was a sign of how much his employer invested in him. He was good at what he did.

“And you?”

Jovin snapped back to attention, his mind racing alongside his heart. Everything felt far more intimidating now with Quill. The anxious hesitation he had with him before now was full blown paranoia. He never imagined his friend could be capable of such a thing last he saw him. Now here he was, a paid killer. Did their last time seeing each other push him toward this?

Jovin swallowed, his fake smile getting tired. “Oh, I’m kinda in between jobs right now. Heh.”

“Dark Diamond Reco Scout Mark II eyes.” Quill remarked, cocking his head so very slightly. “You found yourself some noteworthy work, I see.”

Jovin’s brows wrinkled somewhat, confused. But then he realised something: it wasn’t everyday that he met someone with such extensive modifications. Perhaps Quill knew all the options by heart. Or maybe, impossibly, he could read the fine product text printed into the edge of his iris. Or did he even have to read it? Anyone with enough credentials could probably look up his history. The thought of someone in Quill’s line of work looking up his history didn’t help his unease.

He tugged his scarf up his neck a bit more, a bit paranoid at what other things Quill might examine on him up close that he rather kept to himself.. “I worked for Turnstone. Scouting and network infrastructure.”

“Turnstone? My condolences. Their fall was not graceful. I hope you didn’t get hit too hard with the backlash.”

Jovin laughed awkwardly. “Well, lets just say I’m more than happy to find jobs and leave it at that.”

Quill nodded, looking at his cold mug, seeming to contemplate if he should even drink it.

“Should I even ask who you work for?”

“Would it even be a surprise, or even matter?” Quill returned the smile. “Dawnray owns most everything as it stands.”

Jovin rolled his eyes, shrugging his shoulders as he tried to shake off the tension in him. “Dawnray eh? That would pretty much put you, well, anywhere, when it comes to what you can cover. Dang, you got it good.”

He tried to think of something else. Something he knew about Quill back in the past. Jovin motioned a wing at the book he had set aside earlier. “Still a bookworm, eh?”

“Of course.” Quill pat the book, a tug of a smile at the corner of his lips. “I never gave it up.”

That was the Quill he knew. That smile, no matter how small, was evidence enough that he was still under there.. He could work with this.

“I’d figure you’d be reading E-books by now, yet you’re probably busting a fortune getting those old slow relics. What gives? You fancy yourself a hipster or something?”

Quill hummed and shook his head. “With so much of our lives becoming reliant on a digital existence, there is something lost. Having a book, feeling the pages, the smell of the paper, flipping from one leaf to the next, is a breath of life we lose to time. Creativity in one of its purest tangible forms… An anchor, grounding you in the moment.”

Jovin arched an eyebrow, raising a hoof to say something, then paused, then set it down. “So… it’s less distracting?”

Quill let out a laugh and shrugged. “That would be part of it, you could say.”

“You aren’t going to lecture me on creative writing and stuff like you always do, you nerd. Right?” Jovin smiled, sincerely this time. He always did before when he got that nerdy side of him to come out. “Always being so fancy with your words.”

“I’ll spare you the pain, though I unfortunately haven’t the time to write...The job can be quite demanding, if not a bit of an inspiration killer.” Quill’s smile fell, his eyes going blank once more as he stared off into the table.

Jovin froze. Again, reminded of what his friend had become, he felt that anxiety start to well up in him again. It was hard to imagine his friend doing such things, but despite what he was looking at in front of him he had a hard time simply just accepting that. There had to be more.

“Eh, well, give it time maybe?” It was harder to smile this time, especially when Quill offered no reply immediately. Instead he just sat there and stared into the table for a few moments.

“How is Poppy?” His blank expression was barely interrupted with a smile that was mild enough to almost go unnoticed. “Is he still crushing on you?”

“Oh, Poppy? Heh, well…” Jovin forced a smile and scratched at the back of his head. “He is… We’re kinda being adults about it, but, well… I just worry I’m kinda in a different… lifestyle?”

“Mhmm. And he is still interested after everything with…” He gestured to Jovin.

“Pfft, heck, I think he became more interested. And it’s not like I’m not interested in him… I just… I guess I’m a bit afraid to tell him. Maybe I can hold out and give it a real try. I don’t know. I wish this stuff wasn’t so damn complicated.”

“It never is simple.” Quill’s eyes closed, the LED lights thinning out into a narrow line before disappearing, and then reopening. “How about we actually get ourselves some sustenance?”

“You just have to say it like you’re such a dork, don’t you? Yes, food please. Then you can tell me how fun it was scaring the crap out of my boss.”

“I will if you tell me how you manage all that hair on your head that you still refuse to cut.”

“Fuck, you’re one to talk.”

“Fine. Though I hope you have the time for a walk after. You might just be the kind of pony I’ve been needing.”

Red Flag

View Online

The salt flats that had once been the coastline to the city were ahead of them. Beaches lined with resorts and vacation getaways were now boarded up, repurposed, or left as failed husks trying to adapt to the new world. The chill of the wind from the endless darkness that disappeared into the horizon drained away warmth from Jovin, his wings occasionally having to act as a shield from the frigid wind. The heating elements in his wing exos came to life not much further into the cold, the blood warming there and spreading through him. That was an upgrade he was thankful for, powered by refined sunstone, but it could only do so much against the elements. He didn’t want to be out here anymore than he had to.

“So, you wanted to show me something out here?” Jovin picked up the pace, trying to keep close to Quill and use him as a windbreaker.

“It’s not too far.” Quill’s eyes were a beacon in the darkness, undeterred by the wind or the void of the horizon. Jovin couldn’t help but feel that even for having mere lines of light for eyes, they commanded that much more attention to them, even with the most mild of expressions.

“Why the visor? You could’ve had eyes, like… artificial ones. I mean, it's stylish, but I never thought that’d be your... style?” Jovin ran his eyes over Quill’s form, surmising that he probably had very little idea of just how much his friend’s preferences had changed over the years. He had seen some of the most organic-loving ponies become quite the machinery-loving cybernetic junkies, giving up their flesh to further detach from their equinity, becoming a manufactured machine imitating or enhancing what they had become. He was more than aware of the parallels with his own legs; the thought chilled him.

“I still have my eyes,” Quill said, unyielding as he marched through the coastal darkness. “I had a bit of an...incident. My company demanded ocular upgrades. I... prefered to have something left of me, so I opted for enhancements. It's all still very digital though.”

Jovin thought he heard the barest bit of hesitation in his story, but the wind masked his words just enough that he wasn’t sure. He knew Quill’s eyes were something special to him. The phrase ‘have something left of me’ had him thinking quite a bit about just what the rest of those cybernetics could mean to him.

“The windows to the soul,” Jovin said to himself. Quill offered no reply. He wasn’t even sure if he heard him. It reminded him though to finally ask something he had been gradually preparing to ask.

“How about the piloting syndrome? Do you get that?” He moved in closer to Quill, not wanting to mishear anything.

Quill slowed his pace, eventually coming to a stop. He lifted one of his hooves, those glowing lights of his reflecting off the cold scuffed metal frame and plating that made up most of his body. Hinges and servos with fiber optics that moved on his command, all translated to zeros and ones, and the feedback they provided being just as binary.

Jovin could already imagine what was going through Quil’s mind. The line where your movements and sensations stopped being a part of your body and started being a machine you spoke to in another language was so thin. It was commonplace with getting so many cybernetics that you became more and more aware of the machine that you were operating, the parts of you that were improvised and imitated what you lost, badly, yet better. The motion of a leg became a series of start and stop commands, pivots and angles, breaking down into the binary code that your brain could begin to understand with time. It was never a pleasant feeling, to know what a machine could feel like, or was it simply that you forgot the feeling of what it was like to have a living body?

Jovin winced as he watched Quill stare at his hoof and its curious movements. It had been too soon to ask.

“Sorry.” Jovin scrambled to redirect the conversation. “Heh. You do look pretty awesome though. Like, really, you got that cool badass look to you now like you came out of an anime or—”

“I can hear the binary in my head.” The glow of his eyes dimmed out into simple lines. It took Jovin a moment to realize that Quill had closed his eyes, or at least, had shut off the sensors that provided him his vision, and the screens on his face were displaying that he had done so in the name of maintaining social cues. “The servos spin, the sensors feedback their movement, the color value and tone of every pixel in my vision. Everything is a digital box of zeros and ones that I live in. Each new input is an electrode stabbing me, interpreting it into something I gradually forget I used to be able to feel naturally. The feedback dampeners help but they tend to slow me down if I leave them on...I guess you could say the piloting syndrome is... not quite what you told me it would be. But you didn’t know back then either.”

Quill’s visor lights illuminated once more, the shapes of eyes glowing in the cold air around them. He pulled his gaze away from his hoof, resuming his walk, leaving Jovin in place, stunned.

That was quite the mood killer.

“...Well, at least you can still do a lot of awesome stuff, have perfect eyesight, and you haven’t lost your knack for being wordy and dramatic.” Jovin smiled uneasily. This was not a comfortable route of conversation. He glanced to his shoulder, goggling the metal and lights it consisted of.

Quill again paused, and Jovin feared he might have triggered yet another depressing shpeel of monologue from him.

“...I can say, my perfect vision has given me the perception to say that, after all these years, your posterior is equivalently, if not more so subject to quips and witticism.” Quill looked over his shoulder to Jovin, his dead serious stare making his companion take pause before a smile finally revealed itself.

Jovin, deadpan blinking at Quill before his friend turned to continue, blushed. “Hey! That stuff was only funny in school! Don’t you dare start making fun of my ass again you nerd.”

Quill simply grinned to himself as he trudged on ahead through the snow and sand, speaking to himself under his breath. “But it’s so rewarding.”

“At least I don’t have a metal butt.” Jovin huffed and pranced a few steps to catch up with Quill.

“I can hear you.”

The pair traveled out onto what looked to be a pier of sorts, its form mostly lost to the sand and snow drifts, smoothing it out into a peninsula with a sheer drop at the end. Even as they approached the collapsed and frozen lighthouse on its end, Jovin could tell why Quill was bringing him here.

Even in the great beyond of darkness that defined the city limits, in the great salt ocean pits, there was light. It was faint along its edges, but its core could be made out once Jovin’s digital eyes compensated, no longer overwhelmed with the city glare.

“Manehattan,” Quill said, coming to a stop with his focus on the distant lights. Jovin eyed the distant sparkle before looking back down the coast to the south. Miles of blinding building lights ran down it like a wall on the edge of black oblivion.

“You took me out here for something a lot more serious than sightseeing, didn’t you?” Jovin turned his gaze back to Quill.

“What gave me away?” Quill watched the distant city lights a bit longer before turning to face him, eyes devoid of expression.

Jovin would be sweating were it not so cold, apprehension building. “...You know I’m all about tech. Pulling me out here into a deadzone is a big red flag for me.”

Quill kept his eyes on Jovin, unreadable and content. “You’re someone I know. Someone I can have trust in.”

“Oh no, no you don’t!” Jovin shook his head, pointing a hoof accusingly, claws extending to add effect. “Did you grab this out of a movie or something? Take me out someplace secret to tell me secret things I shouldn’t know?”

Quill continued to stare at him with the same expression he had before.

Jovin had thought this could be another joke, but Quill’s silence was rather telling. “....Oh, you’re serious.”

“I am. I realize the implications of a pony in my position wishing to talk to you based on trust.”

“Is this something I should actually hear? I mean, you’re basically a hitman and you want to talk out here? With me?”

Quill continued staring at him, again his silence an answer.

Jovin sighed. “...Alright. Yeah, who am I kidding. Of course I want to hear this. I’m a junkie for this kind of crap.”

“...I need information from high above.”

“Don’t we all?”

“Information from the people who sign the paychecks of those who sign my paychecks.”

Jovin narrowed his eyes. That already sounded like it was reaching megacorp level. “That sounds pretty far up the chain. Like Dawnray or something.”

The fact that Quill nodded gave Jovin a chill. “I can’t tell you more than that until I know you’re willing to either commit to this, or forget it ever happened.”

“Count this cat in.” He sighed, digging his claws into the ground. “Curiosity and all that. I can use a challenge.”

Quill kept his eyes on him, unmoving, analyzing him before continuing. “I’ll be giving your handler the basic details, but the thing that only you need to know is this. Project Sköll. Financial assessment and numbers, and all information pertaining to its continuation.”

“Huh...All that just to watch your paycheck?” He smirked. “You know a job like that isn’t going to be cheap. Heck, you’re asking for information other corporations would try and fail to steal. I’d need a lot of gear and money to even think I could do that. I mean, I’m flattered you’d ask me, but...”

“I’ll get you a prototype GUMBaLL, full package, made ready for you.”

“...That’s a bit of money worth of stuff to throw.” Jovin had to admit that it was quite a generous offer, more than he could afford working with Pastel for a whole year. Not to mention it would help get him past ASGARD. “But still, a job that dangerous?”

“I’d throw in a full exosuit but I feel that may not be your style. Something more low profile that you can actually use and fly with...”

“...Okay, now you’re just trying to appeal to me. This? As payment?”

“Down payment.” Quill said with the indifference expected of someone being asked their preference in soft drink. “Part of it. Consider it an investment in your success.”

Jovin opened his mouth to say more but held his tongue. There was something about this that didn’t sit right with him. It was well into the red flag territory now, but it came from a friend. A friend who wasn’t quite the same as he used to be. Just what was driving him?

“You’re going to need to lay it to me straight here. You’re asking me to do something that takes a lot more than money to sell me on. Money isn’t worth anything to me if I’m dead or working the sunstone mines the rest of my life. What’s actually at stake here huh? What has someone like you getting all crazy over something like this?”

Quill stared into Jovin, those eyes of light searching through him, until breaking away to look to the barren snowscape. “...I’m trying to save the world.”