Day Nine: The Sad Little Girl At The End Of The World

Venice Elspeth Bertarelli did not live in the gigantic, walled, Blackmesh-patrolled mansion complex in South Marin. It would be more correct to say that she partially inhabited it. Most of her waking life was spent divided between two worlds, one of them the physical world in which her material body strolled and pranced and preened and posed, and the other a virtual world of information displayed in augmented hallucinations.

But when she wanted to engage in secretive commerce or deep manipulations of her two worlds, she had the means to slip almost entirely away from her physical body, and immerse within the virtual in its entirety. Thanks to expensive and custom implants and augmentations within her visual cortex, broca's region, and other parts of her brain and spine, Venice was able to join the rarest of the elite among the cutting edge of an age where the difference between meat and machine was beginning to vanish.

This was her special heaven, her hope and dream for the future. It was where she wished she could live, forever, if only it were possible. It was a place just outside the world hypernet, gated and protected, the domain of the quantum computer wizards and their wild and strange ways. Venice knew little of how it all worked, but she knew a very great deal about how to get the wizards to serve her, and to grant her passage and some small royalty, within their phantasmal courts.

It had been a month since she had missed the end of that episode of 'Going Pony'. Missing the last ten minutes had been intolerable to her, especially since Sunshine and Rose had seemed to part on unresolved terms, according to the posted summary. Unable to acquire the rest of the episode within the next few hours of her day, she had done what she usually did with such circumstances - she threw the entirety of it away as being beneath her time and interest.

It was, after all, a stupid real-life drama of idiotic, naive lowest class people - and barely even people at that, considering they had decided to become barnyard animals. Frankly, she felt foolish to have even found it passingly interesting at all, and Venice loathed feeling foolish. Naturally she panned the show to her 'special 234', giving it the lowest possible score and multiple thumbs down, not to mention lambasting anyone who was in any way connected to it. The whole thing was just a disgrace, and she felt embarrassed to have let herself be caught up in it in the first place. Besides, by now, all the stupid ponies would have long been consigned to Equestria. It was all reruns now, in any case.

The body of Venice lay on a lounge on the lower level, domed, cut-crystal garden room of the Bertarelli Mansion, the warm, humid air utterly ruining her gold-threaded antique silk qipao. This did not bother her, of course. She could always get another. Antiques were made in the past, after all, to be discarded in the future. Her body had recently been significantly altered - after a particularly well planned night with Daddy, she had been flown to Stockholm and finally gotten her long-desired Nightwander VC-2X forehead-mounted MultiSpectral Optic Augmentation Permatech installed. Her delicate forehead now sported two rather insectoid, goggle-like domes rising through her flesh, the edges biocompatably melding skin to nano-regenerative metal frames. Inside, soft-tech had already completed sprouting tendrils into her visual cortex and interpretive centers.

Venice had dived into the study and use of her new augmentation with less passion than she had imagined she would feel. Her world was larger, but in some strange way it had become no more interesting. She saw now a radio sky, blotchy and interpreted as patches of colors her brain could comprehend, through the walls of her own mansion she could spot the bright flares of individual devices, holosets, cameras and intelligent terminals. The awareness nodes of the mansion AI appeared like tiny stars buried in the walls, and beyond the mansion a forest of fireflies swarmed - other houses of the elite spread across the protected sanctuary of Marin.

Her father had become a complex and layered pattern of infrared and the leaves of the living plants of the garden around her shone an interpreted blue and purple in the ultraviolet. Across them designs unseen to human eyes were revealed to her, as were countless other marks and smears on every surface, the colors beyond visible light, seen by her new eyes and interpreted in ways her human brain could comprehend.

But all of this had not moved her, and this troubled her more than she could bear. Satisfaction must be hers, and if this larger world had betrayed her by lacking sufficient interest, then bragging about it must do. This was why Venice now lay in the garden room, her mind everywhere and nowhere in the special, secret network behind the hypernet, in the realm known only to the technologically astute, or to the very rich that could act as their patrons.

Fox Godot Maniac was his handle. He was the wizard that Venice had chosen to throw credits at in order to buy her way into the hidden places and secret markets hidden from the Worldgovernment. He imagined that she had a fancy for him, that she admired his work, that she supported the Great Singularity Revolution. For a few weeks she had dabbled in being mildly excited by the notion of a marvelous technological Singularity, but after spending time with those who had the potential to make it happen, she had lost any real belief in it.

They were Idealists and dreamers all, and those sorts never got anything done. People like her Daddy got things done, and their power was their total lack of Ideals, and their utter ruthlessness. There would be no Singularity, and machine people would not take the planet and make it a realm of immortal equals. There would be instead the endless squabbles and egotistical battles of a thousand would-be kings, each trying to see who had the longer technological dick. Venice had quickly sussed the future, and it was corpulent programmers imagining themselves to be gods while playing flaccid tricks on a world government at best barely annoyed at them.

But Fox was good for the occasional laugh, and he could and did get her the various illegal things she desired - it was through Fox that Venice had obtained the little underwear spies she had implanted into her father's undergarments. Fox had a friend that had set up her personal lock-out system that gave her true privacy. The pittance she gave these self proclaimed wizards provided many useful returns.

Venice stood now, in her mind, in the secret hypernet, in the ruins of a great castle of fantasy. It was perched on a floating island, hovering over a sea of burning blood, a gargantuan skull floated in the black sky shining ray-traced moonlight down upon the virtual world. She sauntered in to a great throne-room decorated with skulls, her orange fur gleaming, her long vulpine tail swishing back and forth. Ponderous breasts wobbled upon her chest, defying both gravity and sense.

Fox Godot Maniac was into anthropomorphic fantasy, and Venice played to his fetishes effectively. She did not share them, she did not grasp why the young programmer enjoyed any of it, but she understood its tropes, and she knew how to use them, and through that knowledge, to get whatever she wanted.

The cybersex was over in minutes, Fox had a very short fuse, which was another thing Venice liked about him - he was not much of a bother. The process was very annoying to her, what passed for sensation in this virtual environment barely registered to her jaded senses, though to be fair, that was a positive aspect for her. If it was the least bit realistic, she would probably not be able to bear pretending her way through it.

"Oh, my sleek little pet, how wonderfully you slake your mate's animal lusts!" Fox was given to the most ridiculous and grandiose pronouncements, which rolled in a booming voice from his overmuscled, dramatically scarred anthropomorphic avatar. Unbeknownst to him, Venice had managed to discover what Fox Godot Maniac really looked like, he was a short, overweight, walrus of a man-boy who spent far too much time with one hand in his boxer shorts and the other on a keyboard. Inside herself, she found endless laughter at the very thought of such a pathetic creature.

"My dearest lord and master, your pet seeks only to please you." Venice murred softly into the muscular fox-man's neck, wriggling her bottom and sending a signal for her tail to wrap around his digitigrade legs. While this was going on, Venice was checking her mail while scanning a catalog of designer implants, trying to make sure that her Nightwanders were truly the newest and most advanced in existence. They were. Her emptiness could not be attributed to the implants directly.

Indeed, the Nightwanders were military spec, not available to the general public, the best permatech augments of their type ever created. It was a good thing, she noted, that she had gotten them customized - the outward appearance belied their actual nature, appearing only as perfectly legal NewEyes, vastly inferior implants. Suddenly she became aware that her little programmer was making statements that required a response. She scanned the summary. Apparently he had been fussing about how the Great Revolution had been going nowhere (no surprises there) and how surely the world needed it now more than ever, considering recent events, such as the emergence of an alien universe. Her BoreGuard had been vastly improved by the new patch.

"Oh, of course you are right, my lord, why everypony should be able to see it clearly!" Venice turned back to her mail. One of her special fans was complaining about her last post. She wondered idly how to ruin the fool before they could cause further trouble. Maybe she could get Fox to root out the fans identity, and then she could have their job or housing situation ruined. That would shut them up for a while! Suddenly, Venice was ripped from her interests, back to dealing with Fox.

"Everypony? EVERYPONY? You can't be serious, Sexy!" 'Sexpocolypsia' was her avatar name, 'Sexy' for short. Fox had chosen it, of course. "Have you been yiffing around with those alien monsters behind my back? Don't tell me that you've been around one of them. That's it, isn't it? You've been in proximity to one of those invading monsters and it shorted out an implant or something, right? Right? Oh, yeah, that's what this is all about. You've ruined your new Nightwanders, haven't you? I warned you. I told you that they ruin quantum tech. It's the thaumatic fields. They burn out decent technology. I just..."  

"SHUT UP!" Venice rose to her... paws. Fox may be a useful asset, but this tone of voice was going too far. She was the one that paid for his Bluebox Sets, his quantum-encrypted hypernet terminals, his special programs and apps and tools. She owned him, despite the little sex game she indulged him with to keep him responsive and under her thumb. "My augments are all completely functional. I came here to give you a peek - I saved off half an hour of perception for you to see, but if you are going to act like that, well, maybe I need to reconsider our... arrangement."

Instantly she shut down the connection. That would make the little shit stew. He'd be pliable as butter the next time they spoke. He may play the role of big dominant leader in his little fantasy world, but he knew where his credits came from. The nerve of the wretched little piece of filth, even daring to think of reprimanding her for anything!

Venice was sitting upright now, her qipao stuck to her body, drenched in sweat and moisture from the air. She was upset, she felt upset, but it wasn't just that twisted little resource Fox, that was the problem. It wasn't that she hadn't gotten to brag about her nightwanders the way she had wanted to.

It was something else. What? What kept eating at her?

Things had been not right almost from the moment she awoke after the procedure to install the new augments. She'd expected a revelation, a feeling of wonder, and fulfilling entrance into a larger, more magnificent world, and what she'd gotten was blotches of colors and glowing stars marking where electronic gadgets sat. It was not a more magnificent world at all. It was just the ordinary world, painted in more colors. Nothing had changed, really. She was still empty and cold inside. There was no warmth in those little electronic lights.

'Everypony'. Had she really said that? That was from a month ago, from that stupid show. Everypony. What a sickening slip.

Suddenly it all came back, in her emotion. There was no denying it any longer. Stupid or not, she had to see the rest. 'Going Pony'. She just had to see it. Sunshine had run from Rose when Rose told her about her past. Her violent, horrible past. She never should have done that. That was beyond stupid, never, never tell the truth, that was the first rule of any relationship! Truth destroyed everything. No relationship could be founded on honesty, it always led to misery, and ultimately betrayal. Worse, truth was a weapon in the hands of an ex.

Rose should have known better. It was just insane. If she really was the badass she was supposed to have been, she'd know that. She'd know to never, ever, ever open up to Sunshine. It was incomprehensible that she would even imagine trying to do such a thing.

Venice suddenly realized that she had broken a fingernail, gripping the lounge arm. She lifted her arm and stared at her hand. The nail had shorted out, tiny images of clouds and stars no longer drifted past on the broken surface. It was just an ImageNail, easily replaced, but for some reason tears came to her eyes. Tears never came to her eyes. Ever. A nail? Seriously?

Venice was afraid. The Nightwanders! Maybe they were defective after all! Her brain could be damaged and that was why she was experiencing tears and what if Sunshine never went back to Rose? If they got shipped out, they'd never find each other again, because of the exponential lands and...

This was too much. Alright. Fine. Get a grip. The Nightwanders were not faulty, she'd had everything checked, recently. Again. No, it wasn't the Nightwanders. And it wasn't the nail. And it wasn't that idiot, Fox. No. It was that damn show. No, it wasn't exactly the show, though 'Going Pony' was a big deal to her, that was clear. It was... it was Equestria. That was the focus of this.

She decided to find out just what the deal was with this invading universe. She knew it had popped up out in the ocean a year or two ago. They'd tried to bomb it away, but that hadn't done anything at all to it. Then there was some first contact nonsense, like out of some sci-fi series. There was some fuss with the ruler of the other universe, some pony with a crown or something. That must be Celestia, like Rose and Sunshine talked about. Celestia and Luna, those were the rulers.

The place put out radiation that killed people who were too stupid to avoid it. For some reason, the worldgovernment had built a bunch of clinics where humans could become ponies and emigrate to Equestria - that was one way to reduce the surplus population. Fox and his techno-wizards had decided that the alien universe was a threat to them, somehow, probably because it shorted out their vibrators or something.

She really wanted to know more. And she had to find the rest of that show. She never should have given up on it just because it was annoying. How was she supposed to know that it might matter to her as much as it clearly did? Fine. This was a little madness, like the time she tried to be 'friends' with the girl in the mansion across the wall when she was eight. This wouldn't end in embarrassment and shame, this madness could be kept private. If she indulged it, it would go away.

That was the answer. See the rest of 'Going Pony', learn about this Equestria thing, and she'd get bored, and that would get it the hell out of her system. Close the gestalt. Fin. End of madness, and she could get back to her big swell life. Her big, fat, swell, rich, magnificent... life.

The empty was so large inside her right now. The humidity was making it hard to breath. She felt like she was suffocating. Unsteadily, Venice rose to her feet, and made for the immense glass and crystal door. She had to get a breath of climate controlled air. She pushed her way out into the hall, flattening herself against the wall, her face pressed into it.

She panted, gasping, forcibly willing the empty, the void, the big gaping hole to shrink inside. She was in control. In control. As she raised her head, she saw one of the staff. Old guy, second tier butler or something. She had no idea what his name was. "Excuse me, please, but are you alright? Do you require assistance?"

Normally, she'd have his job for even speaking to her. He was second tier, a nothing. But... that isn't how she felt. He was genuinely concerned. He was... genuine. She could tell. The requester popped up immediately, just like when she had been watching Sunshine on the live feed. Genuine.

"Um... I... just got overheated. I don't go to the garden often. I'll be fine. Thank you, that will be all."

"Very good, madam." The servant turned to leave.

"Wait." She had no idea what she was doing now. "What... what is your name? It was... kind... of you to ask about me." She smiled at him. It felt strange, because she couldn't figure out why she was doing it.

"Phillipe, madam. House staff, lower levels." He waited to see if she required anything more.

"Thank... you. Phillipe." She smiled again. He smiled back, waited a moment, noticed her nod, then hesitantly turned and left.

It began to dawn on her. She had smiled to... reassure him. She hadn't wanted anything, and there was nothing to gain from it. She'd just... done it. She had wanted to do it. She had wanted... to feel... that he wouldn't worry. This complete stranger from the lower floors.

She was still smiling, and she had no idea why. It was the most curious thing. And the whole time she had been thinking about Rose and Sunshine. Asking the servant's name, trying to reassure him, that was the sort of thing they would do. That was something an Equestrian would value, wasn't it? Venice touched her face. It was still smiling. The hole inside, the empty had retreated so far, so very far.

This was definitely worth pursuing.

*  *  *  *  *

The Zakharov boy, Danilo, sponsored a snotty little hacker who fancied himself as 'Quantum Angel'. Danilo had introduced Venice to two things, once. She was ten and attending school in Oslo for a few weeks before Daddy had to go to Jakarta. The first thing was being taken from behind, a position she found she quite fancied, and the other was the value of having a minion that knew his way around a quantum set and the hypernet.

'Angel' was both a personal diversion for the bisexual Danilo and an effective weapon in the boy's arsenal, Venice discovered with joy and wonder that a few strokes of a keyboard could destroy the entire life of any annoying lesser, and the three of them had spent an entertaining fortnight sending imagined rivals and their families straight to the pits of the favela. Her last memory, before she had to leave with Daddy, was them laughing together as the Blackmesh threw out a snotty upperclassman into the street along with all of his relatives. Such power from so little! Venice was instantly determined to have a code monkey of her very own.

Fox had been rude to her, and he needed to be made totally pliant again. She'd clearly indulged his little domination fantasy too far - a silly mistake born of not paying enough attention to her games - and it was important that the fear of Venice be put back into him. Fortunately, her sources had indicated that Danilo had recently experienced a falling out with his old lover/minion Quantum Angel, and this was perfect, because Angel and Fox were close and tended to interact regularly. There was even evidence they had met in meatspace and probably considered each other 'friends'... if true, this only made her actions even more effective.

A few minutes on secret channels and a promise of a simple favor - the Zakharov boy was a sentimental idiot - brought down the house of Quantum Angel entirely. Danilo had tired of his boy toy and had been contemplating destroying him anyway, Venice's offer only precipitated the inevitable. In short order Angel had been dumped to the streets, his equipment confiscated by Blackmesh, and a warrant for him on every kiosk. Danilo figured he'd either have to eat a gun or go pony, either way his account had been closed permanently. It was a good chuckle in any case.

Fox would be aware of the situation virtually in real time, and no doubt Angel would be begging for assistance and help, and no doubt Fox would fear for his own position and refuse, betraying his friend. But, and this was the whole point, he would have been completely reminded of his own delicate place in the food chain, and he would once more have respect for the apex predator he served. Venice ignored his plaintive, desperate attempts to contact her. Of course he would be beyond insecure, probably he was wetting his boxers and crying over his keyboard that the same thing would happen to him.

Especially since Danilo had been generous enough to twist the knife by talking offhandedly about how 'upset Venice was' when he released the dogs on Angel. Sweet. Venice decided to make her little favor memorable for that.

Venice was in the family Lifting Body, on route to the Mall Of Antarctica when she finally decided to send a short message to her little tech-minion. A simple, straightforward demand. Best way to break the ice ever invented.


Oh, that was delicious. 'Sorry about your friend'. Venice sank back into the vast, soft cushions and giggled audibly over that one. He would know he was on notice now, and she would probably end up with more material than she could ever hope to even bother with. Probably deep government stuff, knowing Fox. He was quite the little rebel, not that his revolutionary notions would ever accomplish anything. Still, it was always best to have the most accurate information.

The Lifting Body passed over the rough, bare mountains of Antarctica, a gigantic white beetle shape plowing through the sky. It used heated hydrogen to provide astonishing lift under its rigid shell, and the greening of Antarctica had made it the place to live for much of the elite. Daddy wasn't in the very top tier, of course, but he was not impossibly far from it, and it was nice to have access to the Forbidden Continent. It definitely had the best restaurants. Unbeknownst to the overwhelming masses, the last living farms on the planet grew in the cool, relatively pristine soil at the bottom of the world, though everything had to be shielded from ultraviolet, of course.

The crew and staff bid her the usual well wishing as she departed the vehicle after touchdown in Vostok, Venice strolled blithely out into the cool springlike air. She wore her antique panda coat - she so seldom got to wear the thing with its dramatic black and white starkness - and immediately began to regret it, it was definitely not cold enough anymore to make such clothing useful. Pity, really, the last place on earth one could wear winter garb and it was never cold enough to make it worthwhile.

She made her way along the tunnel of UV screens to the entrance, and found herself in a vast, 100 meter tall cathedral of consumption built of shining plasteel and glassite, the usual impersonal corporate decorations suggesting falling snow and ice-sickles. As she strutted through the entrance lounge, something caught her eye.

A child, doubtless the spawn of some high elite, sat in a long, overstuffed couch, watching a holopad. The scene was unmistakable; it was Sunshine Laughter first meeting Rose Vale, when she was still called Millicent. It was the bathroom scene, and it was 'Going Pony' and it was right there, in a child's hands, at the bottom of the world.

Venice slid in smoothly, adjusting her mannerisms to 'motherly'. She seldom got to perform 'motherly', it was a completely unnatural behavior set for her, and she loathed children with a deep chasm of hatred, but she did her best.

"Hello, sweety. Ooh, look at that! 'Going Pony!' I adore that program!"

"You do?" The little waif was so blond she was almost white as snow, and her delicate features showed a sadness of neglect that Venice instantly recognized as thoroughly exploitable. This was a very easy game.

"Oh, I like it very much! What a clever girl you must be to like it as well, I am rather impressed. Very pleased to meet you, I'm Venice, how do you do?" Venice did her very best 'Kind and Nice' face, and regulated her emotions to try to simulate genuineness.

"I'm Petra. You really, truly like 'Going Pony?'" Petra seemed amazed. Venice felt sure she had nobody in her life who liked anything she liked at all.

"Indeed I do. I really like Rose Vale. And Sunshine Laughter. And I like all the nice food they get to eat. And they get to be ponies too!" Even with most earthly equines extinct, what little girl didn't like ponies? Venice put on her 'I'm happy and warmly excited' performance. It was a little rusty, but it seemed, oddly, to flow naturally today.

"Oh, wow! You really DO like it!" The little girl, Petra, was around nine, according to the pop-up in Venice's visual field; she sent a query to discover the girls background, parents, station and wealth level. Petra was beaming - Venice had definitely judged correctly, this was a very lonely little girl.

"I never got to see the last of it though. I really wanted to, but my daddy wouldn't let me." It was something a nine year old could absolutely relate to, and it was not entirely a lie. Venice followed up with her cutest pout.

"I'm... I'm not supposed to be watching it. But I do anyway. You won't tell, will you?" Petra seemed worried.

"No way! I'd never rat on a sister Going Pony watcher! I promise!" That made little Petra smile broadly. Part of Venice didn't want to smack and hit the little runt, and this surprised her. She really did hate children, yet she felt none of her usual violent drives. What was it about this show?

"Do... do you want to watch with me?" Ah, the golden question, the goal was in sight.

"Um... do you have the entire series, Petra?" The query daimon had returned, the girl was Petra Alice Bettencourt, daughter of Stefan Albrecht Bettencourt, one of the 300, the very top corporate elite that essentially ruled the planet earth. In terms of worldgoverment hierarchy, Petra was as far above Venice as she was above... her minion Fox. This was unprecedented.

Suddenly, Venice felt very, very cold. Every word, every movement she made was undoubtedly being watched. She was probably being scanned by devices she didn't even know existed. There were almost certainly at least three deadly weapons trained on her at this very moment. She forced herself to not look around. Petra was undoubtedly under observation and guard, every single second of her life. No wonder she seemed so lonely.

"You have funny bumps on your head!" Petra giggled and pointed at Venice's Nightwanders. Oh, that wasn't good. The truly elite would have technology capable of seeing right through every implant in her body. Military grade augments would instantly make her a suspicious entity, especially talking to a child about a silly holoprogram in the middle of an apparently empty lounge area. The hairs on the back of Venice's short, shaggy cut were standing upright. A requester popped up in her field of vision indicating a heart rate warning. Whoever was watching would be able to measure the same thing externally. It would appear suspicious too.

Venice forced herself to giggle. "Yes, I had some implants done, they are kind of silly looking, aren't they?" She wondered if she would feel it if she was shot where she sat. It took every bit of her resolve to keep her heart from starting to pound in her chest. "Well, Petra, I have some shopping to do. I don't have time to watch the show with you, but I thank you for asking. Hey, Pony pals, right?" Venice forced as warm a smile as she could.

Petra seemed sad, but it was obvious she was used to people leaving. "You finally saw they were there, didn't you?" The little girl looked down, staring at her own hands holding the holopad.

Venice knew the next thing she said might just be the difference between life and death. She could say nothing and just leave... no, that would look suspicious. She could deny things, and reiterate that she needed to shop, perhaps that would show the correct level of deference but... what if the child got upset at the lie? Petra knew what was going on. She could act out and get instant gratification and revenge if she felt the least slighted. Venice knew they could drop her without cause and nothing would be said. The corporate elite were the gods of earth.

Sweat beaded on her forehead, making her implants itch. She'd never felt this kind of fear in her entire life. She, Venice Bertarelli, could be swatted like a fly. It would mean nothing. In this context, she was... nothing. What would the child's specialist protectors want to hear? They must know everything about her now. Everything. They would have every record, every detail...

Honesty. It would be the one thing they would not expect. It would be the one thing that might make her not suspicious. It would be the one thing they never heard.

"Yeah, sweetheart. I automatically did a background on you, in my head. And that made me really scared, because your daddy is one of the three-hundred. I didn't know that when I sat down. And I'm afraid now, because of that. I'm really sorry, Petra. I really did like meeting you." The damned thing of it was that... she actually had enjoyed meeting Petra. And now, she felt sorry for the little girl.

"I understand." Petra looked blank. Whatever tears she once had about such matters had been cried out long ago. "Thank you for liking the pony show."

"Goodby, Petra."

"Goodby, Venice. I think you are a nice lady." As Venice rose, slowly, and backed away, she noticed that Petra had given her a soft, sad smile. Venice made her way into the heart of the mall.

The interrogation took two hours, most of which was spent sitting, waiting, while things were verified. Venice had been asked to follow three men in dark suits, their heads covered in permatech. As expected, they knew everything. They knew the deepest secrets of her life, virtually every game she had ever played, every contact she had, even the secret ones. Fortunately, they didn't care one bit. Their job was just to make sure she hadn't been up to anything with the Bettencourt girl.

When she was finally released, Venice was shaken, exhausted, and for the first time in her life she felt utterly vulnerable and weak. She was nothing to these people. Nothing.

Exploring the mall no longer interested her. Even so, on the way out, she passed a romball shop, and much to her surprise, there was quite a section devoted to the emergence of Equestria. There were collected infofeeds, documentaries, and... 'Going Pony' among other items. The Ministry had clearly considered the show an important part of some kind of propaganda push. Venice bought them out, directing the media to be sent to her transport.

Leaving the mall, she returned immediately to the airship. Three weeks in Antarctica seemed no longer the least bit fun. Once aboard, she directed the crew to return her to Marin. Venice returned to her quarters. The entire time she had forced herself into sensory isolation. Of course they would be watching her. She had escaped the random hand of arbitrary suspicion, and won her life. And she had gotten what she had sought from Petra - the complete series of 'Going Pony'.

This madness... she needed to be done with it. It was making her do stupid things. She would normally never talk to a lone child, the very idea was madness. She would normally never admit to liking something as common as a mere holoprogram. Indulge it and be done with it. She needed to get busy overindulging so she could become bored with it as soon as possible.

Venice lifted the small, cubical holomedia from its case. Inside the plastic case could be seen a crystalline sphere, suspended within. That was the romball. Inside, in molecular patterns, was information which could be read by a discrete system of lasers. Tiny air channels within the case spun the ball, allowing the holographic data to be read from every angle simultaneously. She slipped the romball into the reader in the wall of her cabin, and sat back.

Flipping through the sections, she began to learn about Equestria, and found herself astonished. It had appeared in the North Pacific, a shining sphere that expanded rapidly. The thaumatic radiation it generated destroyed primate cells, but not the cells of any other life. The radiation spread and pooled in some strange, fractal pattern that was expanding across the globe. The spherical barrier of Equestria was continuing to grow, though now at a much slower rate.

The natives of Equestria were equinoid in appearance but were not truly ponies despite the name. They were intelligent, technological, and capable of surprising flexibility and agility. They appeared to be an engineered, or at least created race, divided into three breeds, ruled over by two supposedly immortal, all powerful rulers that were, for all intents, gods.

There was much about what had been termed 'magic', certainly the powers and abilities of the Equestrians were beyond human understanding. Their universe was markedly different than the universe which the earth existed in, with strange and alien physical laws. It was essentially mutable, Equestria, and could be altered by the will of the princesses, or by a historic entity called Discord.

The world government had worked with the Equestrians to create the Bureaus. It did not seem like a means to get rid of excess population. It wasn't some means towards cultural exchange. The flow of traffic was one way, humans could not enter Equestria unless they became Equestrian themselves. Venice put things together even before she came to the report of the corporate scientists.

All evidence pointed to Equestria expanding indefinitely. It would never stop, as far as they could tell, and it was death to human beings. The Conversion Bureaus were lifeboats for the sinking ship that was the planet. The conclusion was absolute. The earth would be consumed in five to six years unless something changed. It literally was the end of the world.

Venice found herself shaking. She walked nervously around her cabin. How could she not have heard of all of this until now? It seemed like the entire planet knew this stuff. She hadn't a clue until this very moment. The end of the fucking world. Not everyone bought into it, that was clear. Some of the elite must think they could weather it out in Antarctica. Maybe they had some unknown plan or project. The end. Of the world.

She sat down, clutching at her knees. She was 23, almost 24 years old, and it was the end of the world, and she... she was completely empty inside. The hollow horror roared inside her, chewing, biting at her emotions. So empty. So...

Rose. Rose and Sunshine. They filled the empty, somehow. If the world was ending, if this was all there was, then... she'd fill it with Rose and Sunshine. And Newmoon and Lavender and Goldenrod and Aquamarine and Snowflower the unicorn and...

Venice fumbled with the small container that held 'Going Pony'. The romball went in the slot in the wall. She fastforwarded the show until she got to Day Ten, then crept up on the part she had missed. The part that Daddy had interrupted. She had three days to reach Marin in the Lifting Body. She had time to see the rest on the way. Maybe... somehow, she could figure out what it was about this show that managed to touch her. Somehow it mattered to find that out.

Just as she reached the right spot, she got a message from Fox. He had all the materials she had asked for, everything about Equestria and the entirety of 'Going Pony'. Something about that made her laugh. She did not bother responding. Instead, she sat back to finally watch the strange show that had captivated her so. She found herself weirdly thrilled, even excited by the prospect. She still felt sorry for the little girl she had met, despite all the trouble. She was deeply worried about the relationship between Sunshine and Rose in the show. These things affected her now more than the end of the very world. Nothing made sense any more. Taking a deep breath, Venice told the holoscreen to 'play'.

"Sunshine... um..."

Wow, Rose, have you tried the Hay Almondine? This stuff is... mmmn... it's incredible!

"Um, yes, it is good. I... would you... be willing to hear my conversion dream?"

Oh, gosh, mnnn... oh that's good... of course, Rose! I'd love to hear your dream. I've been hoping you might tell me!

"Well... it's kind of difficult. To make sense, I kind of have to tell you about... me. About who I was, before... before I went to the bureau. And... like I said, I wasn't very nice."

Rose? Are you alright? Please, it's alright. I love you. I adore you. Whatever went on for you back then, it's back then. It's OK to tell me anything. I promise. Please, go on. I want to hear your story.

"Al...alright. But... please, Sunshine, please try to understand that I'm not that person anymore. Not ever, not at all."

Rose, I love you. Nothing can change that.

"Alright, alright then. Before I was me, I lived with my mom in the Noe Valley favela, not that far from the Mission Delores Crater. The ruins outside of the Noe could be pretty radioactive, so there were only a few safe paths in or out. That was kind of good and bad - it made the favela defensible, but it also meant that we had to ship stuff in and out through only a few routes..... "

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