The young woman skirted the crumbling ruin. It was an hour before midnight, and the darkness was absolute. No stars shown through the permanent layer of thick smog that covered the world, no moon illuminated the land. Within the dangerous, crumbling buildings no light shone, for all the world she could have been traversing a cave, deep within the mysterious hollow places of the earth.
In her stained blue jumpsuit, she leapt with sure feet from one tilted plascreet block to another, crossing chasms of rusted rebar and sharp stakes of broken conduit. It would have been an impossible path for any ordinary human, but she was far from ordinary, she had a second pair of eyes with which to see.
To Venice, the scene was bright as noon daylight, with every possible jump and direction mapped out in glowing lines of red and green. The red lines, broken, with tiny iconic skulls, represented leaps she could not be expected to make 90% of the time, the green paths were within her personal abilities. There were a few yellow lines too, these were circumstances the processing power that lived off the sugars in her blood could not interpret accurately. 'Maybe' lines, she called them.
She had waited an hour and a half for the rowdy rape gang to pass by, they were slow and drunken and very loud. Fortunately, they were not well organized, and had no interest in exploring the broken ground, preferring to stick to the relatively open remains of the roads that passed between the shattered buildings. When the bomb had fallen at Mission Delores, the shockwave had ruined most of the city, San Francisco was a curious mix now of fragmented ruins and crumbling, but mostly intact skyscrapers. Somehow, in the middle of it all more than a million people lived.
Venice had decided to hug the shoreline of the bay. Rose Vale's description of her life had provided Venice with the knowledge to avoid any attempt at a straight path. The last thing Venice wanted to deal with was cannibals and radioactive craters. She just wanted to make it to the San Francisco Conversion Bureau, the first Bureau the worldgovernment had established. The reasons for placing the first Bureau there were simple; it was the closest land to the edge of the Barrier - excluding Hawaii, which had to be abandoned because of strong thaumatic radiation - and it was a place where, if anything went wrong, nobody important would be harmed. They could use a baby nuke, if they had to, if the nanotech went wild. The mansions of Marin were far enough distant that the most that would happen was complaints.
The old city had survived earthquakes and riots and the early part of the Great Collapse. But it had never recovered from the Austerity War, nor from the mortal blow of a rickety nuclear missile failing to make its true target. Yet still, after a fashion, San Francisco carried on - a million poor lived in scattered favelas, still faithful to the city by the bay.
The path Venice was taking was a very winding one. She could not venture too close to the water, lest she be exposed out in the open, and she could not go too far inland for there the monsters lived, hungry for human flesh, among other things. This was why she dared the dangerous ground, leaping from one broken facade to another, risking impalement on steel spikes and jagged pits of broken glass.
No one would even dare to travel such a path, not at night and likely not even in full daylight. But not everyone had risk-calculation built in, tied directly into their cerebellum. The motor-control enhancement app she had downloaded while waiting for the rape gang to pass had been a great benefit too. It would have been a foolish reveal of her location to anyone searching for her - not that anyone would be, it was too soon for that - except for the little tricks she had learned from Fox to hide everything she did.
According to the map hovering just above her field of vision, she was gradually approaching some kind of inlet or canal that went far into the land. Three roads crossed it, Ilinois, 3rd Street and the Embarcadero Highway. The Highway, close to the end of the water and deeper inland, was entirely ruined and likely impassable, Ilinois was almost certainly heavily damaged, and Third did not look good at all. There was no way she could cross the water itself. This presented a problem.
She could make for one of the two closest bridges across and hope one of them still spanned the water unbroken, or she could just work her way further inland and be very, very careful to avoid any entanglements. Across the water, she noted Cesar Chavez Street, the very street that was the western entrance to Rose's Noe Valley favela. The familiarity made Venice feel strangely at home, even though she had never set foot in the ruins of San Francisco before.
She decided to at least look at the two spans, Ilinois and 3rd, they were close anyway, and if she could use them, it would be the most direct and probably least risky path. Of course, the idea of being on a long, narrow structure with nothing to the side but poisoned water was not pleasant either, but with any luck, neither would it be well traveled in the middle of the pitch-black night.
The wide open route that was 3rd beckoned to Venice like a siren. She was weary already from her clambering route over ruined and fallen buildings, and the relief of walking down a nice, relatively flat road tugged at her. But her Nightwanders occasionally caught what appeared to be brief flares in the buildings that lined the road, and while it could be errors caused by any number of causes - radiation both terrestrial and Equestrian, her own tired state, bugs in the software - she was not foolish enough to imagine she was the only person in all the city with the ability to see in the dark, nor who possessed technology. Even the poorest had tigers among them.
'Tiger, tiger, burning bright, among the ruins of the night' Venice smiled, slightly, at the thought. The span of 3rd Street was just ahead... across a wide and open area of rubble. The entire edge of the inlet was that way. Whatever path she took, she would be exposed.
Venice considered tapping into one of the geostationary Blackmesh satellites, to see if she could get a handy overhead scan in infrared but discounted the notion. She really wasn't sure she knew how to get in without being traced. That would have been a task for Fox, not her. She really had relied on others to do everything for her far too much, and now she wished she had spent more time learning than simply using. Venice scanned the open area as best she could. It appeared completely deserted... no, wait. There was a small heat signature from somewhere out on the mostly intact bridge. The guardhouse-like structure at the far end gave her pause, though.
She decided to risk sensory enhancement. Laying down in order to be as quiet as possible, she pointed her right ear in the direction of the heat signature and mentally adjusted the gain upwards. Near maximum, where the slight breeze became a howling nightmare storm, she heard it. A little boy, weeping.
The tiny heat signature was a child, halfway across the 3rd Street bridge. He was clearly young, and very frightened and unhappy. He was sobbing in that special, quiet way that meant either lost and hopeless, or trapped and afraid. What was a child doing in the middle of a crumbling bridge in pitch black night? Whatever it was, it was best not to get involved.
Venice turned and began to work towards the Embarcadero. The open ground, the bridge, it smelled trap. The boy had probably gotten himself stuck into something way beyond him, and dared not go forward nor return back. It was probably something to do with that guardhouse tower thing at the far end. Perfect place for a sniper. Even a fool could see that much.
...Um... Dar...in... Daring. Daring Do, duh. That's embarrassing. Gah. Why is this so hard? It's alphabetical, it's the most common of the three scripts, and it even bears a... vague... similarity to earth letters. It's made of straight lines, anyway. Why can't I get this?
"Sunshine... you skipped the language classes, remember? I'm doing the best I can, but I don't know how to teach anypony anything. You said you didn't want to start with the books for foals, so this was the next simplest thing up that they had. I could go back and..."
No, no... I have some pride. I just can't face the 'A' is for 'Apple' stuff. I can do this. Alright, um... Daring Do nuuu.... knew... Hrrnf is 'knew' in English, right? OK. Daring Do knew tha... that the -something- tree, yeah, that's tree, that the something tree was the... what's this?
"Only. Only way."
Ah! Only way to... um...
"Traverse or cross. To get somewhere. Mnnhrffrn is like 'passage', only with implied effort."
Pony language. I'll get this. I'll get this. Um... The only way to cross the, I'm guessing pit. Or crevice or... something deep, anyway. Chasm. That's it, Chasm.
"Very good, Sunshine! You are really picking this up quickly!"
It doesn't feel like it to me. OK, then. Daring do is trying to cross a big chasm, and the only path is this fallen tree. What next...
"Just so all of you out there know, learning Equestrian isn't that hard."
Speak for yourself!
"Sunshine! Seriously, it isn't. Our brains get wired to make it easier to pick up. We get a window of opportunity where learning is easy, just like the language window in human children. So for a little while, us Newfoals really are kind of like foals, we learn things really easily, we are really open to stuff, and everything sticks in memory really well.
Sunshine is just trying to catch up, since we only have the rest of today before we ship out in the morning for Equestria!"
I can't do this, Rose! I'm too excited! I just keep thinking... tomorrow, tomorrow, Equestria tomorrow... how can I study with that? My heart is just pounding at the thought!
"Come on, Sunshine, you at least want to be able to find the bathrooms, right? Read a little more, just for me. Besides, what else are we going to do? We might as well use the time productively."
I can think of a few fun uses for the time but... OK, OK... Muffin. I'll read. Special learning window, and all of that. Yeah, yeah. OK. So... Daring Do - see, I know that one now by sight - Daring Do was... crossing, yeah, crossing the something bridge when she... heard... the p... that's plaintive, right? Or sad or something? Yeah. Plaintive cries of... the little kitten, 'Ball', who was... hanging... no, dangling, from a twig? Branch. Branch. From a branch, in the middle. Oh, poor Ball. That's like a thousand foot drop or whatever down there, and Ball has been such a useful companion in this story... they wouldn't kill off Ball would they?
"You won't know unless you read the rest, Sunshine."
Read it to me? Come on, read it to me. I just want to find out if Daring saves Ball the kitten. I'll learn Equestrian another day.
"No... if you want to find out what happens to little Ball, you're going to have to read it yourself. Unless you just want to leave her hanging there."
You. Are. So. Mean. Meany McMeany Pants.
"I don't wear pants. And neither do you. So get reading."
OK, Fine. Daring Do... fallen tree... Ball dangling... Daring Do knew she... couldn't leave the little...the little kitten so she...
The open area near the 3rd Street bridge had been easy to traverse. No sniper action so far, though if there was one in that tower-like structure, they could just be waiting to see what was up. Venice did her best to use what scant cover there was, part of what had been a fence, the corner of an otherwise collapsed building, a burned out vehicle. The experience reminded her of several games she had played on the Hypernet, the major difference being she was not armed to the toes, much less the teeth, and she could only hope for a respawn if someone brought her to the Conversion Bureau in time.
Mentally she lambasted herself for this, it was stupid and unnecessary. She hated children, and this was a child. She knew it had to be some kind of trap, and she had no business being here at all. It was that damn whimpering. It wouldn't stop and she couldn't shut it out. Even turning the gain back down, she knew it was there. She couldn't dismiss that knowledge. She wished she'd never tried to listen or scan. She should have just avoided the 3rd Street Bridge and gone right for the damn Embarcadero in the first place.
The bridge, what was left of it, stretched out across the dark, greasy, viscous water. The metallic smell of chemicals was strong this close to the sea. It was still pitch black, in terms of visible light, but in infrared much was revealed. She could see the location of the boy, about half-way, likely cowering in a pit or broken area. That suggested something he was cowering from, and the only thing that made any sense was that damn tower.
She wasn't sure what the tower was for. Maybe the bridge had once raised, and the tower was the control room for that. Or maybe there had been a gated community on the other side, and it was a true guard tower, at one time bursting with machine guns and Blackmesh. Whatever the case, it was a plascrete or even old concrete edifice, and it loomed like the tower of Sauron at the far end of the bridge.
Venice scanned the tower carefully. Nothing. Not a damn thing. No heat, no radiation, no EM flares, nothing. Of course, being thick concrete, there could be a holoset in there and she might not be able to pick it up. If there was a sniper, she should be able to see him by his body heat. Unless he was wearing Blackmesh, of course... but there would be no reason whatsoever for a Blackmesh soldier to be stationed on a lone bridge in the middle of the emptiest part of San Francisco.
Unless someone had taken the suit off of a dead Blackmesh to use for themselves.
That was a chilling thought. Blackmesh technology in the hands of a ganger. That would be just about the worst possible thing. Venice shook her short curls to get the thought out of her head. No. Let's not go there.
She found herself creeping, low to the ground, at the edge of the bridge. She was flat, crawling, making her way to the glowing spot that represented where the young boy - or some thing that her sensors had decided was a young boy - wept. She could hear him clearly in the stillness now, with no need to turn up the gain. As she crawled in the dust and filth, she kept watch on the concrete tower. As she studied it, it dawned on her that even if she saw someone up there, there was little she could do about it. Where, exactly, was there to go? Down into the inky water? Not a pleasant prospect, and it would hurt like hell, maybe even be fatal, depending on what else was down there, such as sharp and pointy wreckage.
Why was she doing this again? Oh, yeah, it was the 'pony' thing to do. The first step was not drinking potion, it was deciding to be a better.... yeah, yeah. That sounded so great back at the Auxesia. In practice, not so great. Venice Bertarelli, trying to save crying children. There had been a Singularity, she was on the other side of it, and indeed nothing about her current situation would have made the least sense to the Venice of just two months ago.
She was nearly there. Her right knee was hurting, that damn tumor had gotten inflamed, probably because it had been ripped open on some sharp thing a while ago. She had never been this dirty in her life. Ahead was a broken spot in the bridge, cracked and filled with twisted rebar. The signature of dried blood was on one of the bent bars of metal, so it was possible whoever was down there was injured too. Great. Venice crawled right up to the edge and peered carefully over.
Her military-spec sensors were worth the money. The boy was about six, maybe seven, and he was dressed like a ninja, all in black cloth. He had a bleeding gash on his leg, which explained the dried blood on the rebar. He was crouched on a large section of the bridge superstructure, a metal beam that had once supported the concrete above. A black sack was strapped to his back, Venice couldn't make out anything intelligible about the contents, other than they were warm, with a strong heat signature and also... an EM flare. The boy couldn't see her, that was clear - he turned his head to look up and had blindly stared right through her.
She was moved by the face of the boy. This was not a happy little child. The face was old for such an age, with a scar across the forehead and another on the chin. He had few teeth intact. The black cloth around his head stuck up on the left and right like ears, giving the little ninja the appearance of a black cat.
Venice pulled back from the hole and decided to whisper. "Hey, listen. My name is Venice. I'm here to help you. I am very nearby. Can you tell me what's going on?"
There was no response, but she could hear the boy had instantly stopped sobbing, and must now be frozen and alert with fear.
"I can see in the dark. I have built-in nightvision. I saw your heat signature from the ruins. I have other enhancements too, I could hear you crying. I need to know if we are in any danger here." Venice studied the hole and the tower alternately. She didn't want to be surprised by anything.
"I... I wasn't crying. I don't cry." The boy sounded defiant, angry.
"Alright, fine. I still need to know, is there any danger here? I'm out here to help you. You need help. I can see that you're injured." Still nothing from the tower. The empty room at the top remained dark.
"Where are you? Where the fuck are you? I can't see you." Some mouth on this kid.
"I'm above you, on the bridge. Right near the hole you're in. I didn't want to scare you." Venice kept checking the top of the tower. Why would ninja boy be down there if there wasn't some kind of danger? The tower was obvious.
"I don't get scared. And I don't cry. And you shouldn't be up there 'cause the sniper will get you!"
Great there really was a sniper. Just swell. Venice had been dearly hoping that it was just too many online games making her think that. She stared at the tower. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
"Listen, kid... I've got all kinds of sensor implants and I've checked that tower from the moment I left the ruins and there is nothing there. The sniper must have left. He's long gone, come on, we can..." It was then that she felt the angry sting of tiny bits of gravel pepper her leg. The bullet must have struck the road only a foot or so from her. The tower was completely dark!
"He's not inna' tower you idiot!" The boy sounded like a pro schooling a noob in SlaughterStrike. Venice scanned ahead, low to the ground. There was a barely visible, tell-tale patch of warmth on the side of building at the base of the tower. It was fading, but it made Venice feel quite the fool. The tower was such an obvious location. That was why Mister Snipey hadn't used it.
"Make room, I'm coming down there!" Venice began scrambling over the edge of the hole in the bridge, trying not to hurt herself on the exposed rebar. The boy protested that there wasn't enough room and he would cut her if she tried, but it was too late, she was down, and she could see him and he couldn't see anything, and he knew it. Besides, even if he wouldn't admit it, it was clear that he was glad to have an ally.
"How long have you been here, kid?" Venice clung to the rebar above, her legs straddling the huge beam.
"I ain't a kid. I'm nearly eight. I don't know how long. I've got to get over there." The boy pointed vaguely towards the bay, but Venice understood he meant north instead. He seemed like he was on the verge of crying while he pointed. It's one thing to act brave when alone, it's entirely another thing when unexpected help shows up. His tough facade was on the edge of breaking.
Venice knew her games well. "Yeah, sorry my man. Name's Venice, like I said. I'm equipped with government grade augments. I can see in the dark like it's daylight, I've got total situational awareness, and I can link to satellites if we need aerial support. So what's yur handle, warrior?" The child seemed to brighten at being addressed this way. He was clearly the kind that got their strength from their illusions.
"I'm Sharkfin Th' Knife. You better not mess with me, I'll cut you. Hey, if you're so big, how come you didn't know where the sniper was, huh?" The little boy was puffing out his chest, trying to act big. But he couldn't see anything, so he was puffing himself up to impress the superstructure. Venice repressed a laugh. Maintaining the kid's sense of power was vital, if she was going to get him out of here.
"Faulty intel, Sharkfin. Can happen to any soldier. Thanks for the save, there. So, what's the mission here? I'm figuring transport, you got something hot in the bag." Venice was doing her best soldier voice, a spunky woman major from some pre-Collapse show she'd seen years ago. This was the one thing she was ever truly good at. Being whoever was needed in order to get what she wanted.
"It's my dog. There's somt'n wrong with him. There's a tinker across the bridge. Jonas said so. The tinker'll fix 'im." The boy set his jaw hard, but there was no doubt he was still close to the edge, emotionally.
Venice scanned the bag again. There had been no noise from it at all the entire time. There was a vague heat signature, but it was lower than it should be for a living animal. And there was a definite EM flare. In fact, now that she was close, she could see dozens of little glowing points strewn throughout the inside of the bag. It looked familiar. Like the AI nodes inside her safe room in the mansion.
The dog was artificial. That was it. That had to be it. It was an artificed animal. Artificial, but biological cells with a machine skeleton and quantum circuitry. The thing was worth a small fortune. How could a favela kid end up with such a treasure? It defied understanding.
"What's your dog's name, Sharkfin?" Keep the boy talking for now. Talk was a very useful tool for keeping people emotionally together. Usually. Venice made some adjustments to her sensors and perception filters to make sure that if the sniper, or any friends, decided to creep up on their position, she would know first.
The boy relaxed by twenty percent, according to a requester in Venice's peripheral vision. "Jake. My dog is Jake. He was a runaway and I got to keep him. He's my best friend. But now he's sick." That explained how 'Sharkfin' got an artificial animal. It must be smart, and it must have been abused. It ran and found a better home. She'd heard stories of artifice animals doing that, and always wondered how they got around their governor programs.
Venice began to study the structure of the underside of the bridge, looking for an alternate path. She opened a link to the outside - protected, of course - and sent a query daimon to find out whatever was available about the 3rd Street Bridge. An architectural plan would be useful.
"Shark, can your dog talk? Does he do what you tell him to do?" Some artifice animals had enough processing power to not only understand commands but to speak simple sentences. She'd heard of one that had been built with the power of a full-on quantum deskset. It rated a 108 on the Sapience Scale and had a built-in emulator for games from multiple competing systems. Fox had told her about it. It was in the shape of a dark blue cat. It was apparently the high point of certain upscale LAN parties.
"Yeah, Jake is real smart. He likes stories and he tells good ones too. But I told him to be super quiet, because we had to be sneaky. He's a good dog. He's a real good dog. He's my best friend." OK, the dog was capable of remaining quiet and would apparently obey. That was very good to know. The daimon returned with several plans for the bridge, all of them out of date, and two of them with changes that contradicted each other. But there was good news - the bridge had a catwalk down the middle underneath, so that repairs could be made. At one point the bridge had been capable of lifting, back when there were ships that needed to pass. That explained the tower.
Venice tried to shift on the wide beam enough to see if the catwalk still existed. Most of it did, there were some gaps and broken sections. Those were all on the far side, toward the sniper. Good, they couldn't come from that direction. But... maybe she and the boy could get back to land, back to the side they had both come from. There was clearly no getting across this bridge. Even if they found a way, hostiles were there waiting. She had to get the boy back where he came from.
"Listen, Sharkfin. The mission is a go, but this path is a scrub. We need to abort, and return to safety." Venice hoped the boy wouldn't argue.
"No. I have to save Jake!" Of course, the boy wouldn't listen to reason. He might be tough, but he was eight.
"I don't want to listen, I've got to get across to the tinker!"
"I'm just like your dog, Sharkfin. I can prove it. Touch my forehead. Right here, come on." Venice took one of his hands and put it on her Nightwanders. He resisted at first, but in their precarious position, clinging to rebar while crouching on a beam, his resistance quickly broke. "See, I'm part artificial too. That's how I can see in the dark, that's how I knew your dog could talk, because he's artificial. Like me."
The reality slowly dawned on the boy. He tried to pull the dome of her left implant out of her skull, as if he thought it was fake. When he yanked, it hurt her neck. Her vision was filled with the overly bright heat signature of his little hand. "Ouch! Hey, those are my eyes, kid!"
"Sorry!" He really was. 93 percent sorry, according to her system. "I'm really sorry. You really are like Jake, aren't you? Wow." That was the ticket. Venice smiled in the dark. He loved his dog, so he would naturally feel inclined to be more trusting of any artificed creature. By playing up that angle, his trust in her would increase.
"Yup, I'm kinda like your Jake." She decided to drop the soldier routine, now she needed to be more warm and nice. That would play into the good feelings the child had for his pet. "We artificial creatures kind of understand each other. I want to help Jake too. I think we can find a better way to get him help than trying to cross this bridge. If we go this way, Jake could end up captured or destroyed." Not to mention both of them dead, and if Rose Vale was right, possibly even eaten. "How about we go back and try my way. Let's save Jake together, alright?" This should work.
The boy was silent for a while. "Okay." He might be eight, but he wasn't stupid. He knew this wasn't going to work, deep down, he was just committed to his original plan and unable to change it. Venice had seen this same behavior in men decades the boy's senior, all heads of great corporations.
"Alright, Sharkfin, here's the plan. My machine parts tell me there is a catwalk under the bridge. If we can get to it, we can use it to get back to the safe side. Once we are there, we can see about getting Jake fixed properly. I might have some contacts that will help. How's that?" She doubted that Fox would want to help her, but it was worth a shot. If not... she had a few ideas. In any case, getting the kid home alive was the real plan no matter what.
"...you know, MFFNnnUmMM, I think a simple meal can be a really nice thing. ChhhOMPhh MFF MFF UMM umm."
I think Rose has a point, I mean, it's only alfalfa and Timothy grass, but it really is satisfying. I love the fruity undertones.
"Don't you think that's more the dandelions? Don't underestimate the occasional dandelion, they're the raisins in the oatmeal, so to speak."
"Oatmeal? Are you crazy? Oatmeal tastes nothing at all like hay. It's richer, deeper... and I don't like it with raisins in any case, Newmoon."
"No, I quite see the point that Newmoon is making, Lavender. Raisins in oatmeal are little bursts of sweetness. The dandelions in our hay are the same, they act as tasty surprises that keep the meal interesting. Whenever I get a bite of dandelion, my mouth sort of goes 'woo', and it makes everything better. It varies the tastes."
"Snowflower, you're missing the point. I don't LIKE raisins."
"It is only a metaphor, Lavender. It isn't about raisins, as such. It is about small bursts of unexpected flavor, whatever they might be."
"Yeah, Lavender, that's what I meant. For me, raisins in oatmeal are little surprises. The dandelions in the hay are like that, and they make the simply hay mixture perk up."
"I don't like surprises. I like my food to be what it is. That's why I pick out all the dandelions, and why I don't like raisins in my oatmeal. I just want the oatmeal to be oatmeal, and the hay to be hay."
Seriously, Lavender? You prefer everything to just be... plain? No sprinkles on your ice cream, no chocolate chips in your cookie?
"Hey, let's not go nuts here, Sunshine. I like chocolate chip cookies. They're one thing. Chocolate chip cookies. That's what they are. But, no, I don't like sprinkles. Just give me the ice cream, one flavor at a time, none of this one scoop on a different scoop. And I like my food one thing all the way through. It's... comforting, I suppose. I don't know why. It's just what I like."
"She was always that way, Sunshine, even as a human. Give her a plate of different kinds of food and she'd carefully eat all of one thing until it was gone, and then move on to the next. It used to drive the Ngô's positively mad, because they were trying to make Guaranteed Rations and whatever we could grow as exciting as possible. They used to tell her, 'eat a little of this, then that, it's better that way', but she needed to do what she was doing."
"Hey, it's what I like, alright."
I don't think anypony is getting down on you, Lavender, it's just that it's unusual and we're trying to understand. Unusual things are... interesting. That's all.
"Sunshine? Are you done with that?"
Yeah, I'm full, Rose. It may have been a simple dinner, but it was filling. I'm stuffed.
"Can I have the rest? I'm still a little hungry."
Sure, here... you know, it's weird. Here we are, eating what amounts to salad morning, noon, and night, and I never get tired of it. What's up with that?
"We eat lots of things, Sunshine. We had waffles for breakfast..."
"With blueberries on them! Don't forget the blueberries, Lavender!"
"I haven't. I picked them off, remember, and ate them separately. It seems like you went on about that then, too, Rose."
"Um... if I did, I'm sorry."
"We had daisy sandwiches with pesto and truffle for lunch! Now that was a royal treat!"
"Ooh! I forgot that one! Oh, I liked the sandwiches. And there was pie, too!"
How can you forget daisy and pesto-truffle, Rose? That was like the best lunch we've had at the Bureau yet. Even better than that barley and mushroom soup!"
"Oh... that was good. That one was my favorite, Sunshine. I liked that better than the sandwiches yesterday. But I did really like the sandwiches. And the pie."
Hmm... yeah, I guess we do eat a lot more than hay, don't we. Actually, other than the hay in haycakes, we don't actually eat a lot of hay, just by itself, do we? So this dinner is actually kind of special, in a way.
"I talked with the Bureau nutritionist, Sunshine. Apparently we, as Equestrians, can live indefinitely on just grasses, much like earthly equines used to. It's rather like the Equestrian equivalent of the Guaranteed Minimum Ration the worldgovernment of earth provides. If you're poor, or down on your luck or just plain cheap, you can go out and graze pretty much anywhere in Equestria. Nopony starves in Equestria. Food is absolutely everywhere. Maybe in the desert, you could starve. If you really tried. But you'd have to want to, I think.
So the only real point of all the pies and soups and cakes and cookies and such is pleasure. Joy. Ponies just like tasty, unusual foods because they are fun. As a species, Equestrians are born hedonists. It drives everything, I think."
So... Equestrians have technology because they had a sweet tooth, is that what you're saying, Snowflower?
"Not quite in those words, but... yes. Essentially. But not just foods... they can control the weather, they could just live outdoors all the time, and cooperate to make sure nopony got rained or snowed on. They could have a perpetual valley of summer to use as a collective bedroom, a perpetual valley of winter to use as a larder, and never even need to make a single building. But they don't. They like architecture. They like art. They like doing things and making things and pleasing their senses. That's why I say all Equestrians are born hedonists."
So, breakfast... um... DINNER Pony Club? What do you think of that? Is Snow right? Are we all hedonists now?
"I am, Sunshine! I really do live to taste and smell and lick and see fun, tasty, happy things. That's all I want. Happy, yummy things! Like you!"
"Uhh! You two. I'ma gonna get the 'betes from you two."
"Actually, Equestrians are immune to such conditions as diabetes, Meadowdawn. Our bodies are just better made than earthly life."
"Thank you, Snow. Gah. OK, am I a hedonist? I don't think so, no more than I was before I was converted. I like stuff, sure, who doesn't, but it doesn't rule my life."
"Oh, I'm definitely more of a hedonist than I was before. Don't you think so, Goldenrod?"
"Hmm... well, Aqua, before we converted... you were kind of a career pony. You were kind of 'go-go-go' trying to climb up the corporate ladder and all that and... now, you are really laid back, really affectionate, and you definitely seem to take more joy in life. In some ways you are pretty different now. Yes, I'd say you've become quite the little hedonist."
What about you, Snowflower? To me, you seem pretty much the intellectual type but... do you fit your own theory?
"I believe I do, Sunshine. I admit, I like utilizing my mind. I like knowing things, and I like feeling intelligent. I spend a great deal of my time thinking. But... I also have noticed that when we have food, I just lose myself in it. It is as if all my thoughts are consumed, even as I consume my meal. I become a raving hedonist at mealtimes."
"Oh, goodness yes. I couldn't get enough of the pie yesterday. Give me a pie and I'm a happy pony!"
Ok, then, Lavender. It's clear you don't like mixing tastes. But when you eat things - or see things or listen to music or whatever - do you feel that you are getting more out of it all... no that's not right. Are you more entranced by stuff? Is pleasing your senses a bigger deal, now that you're a pony?
"Um, yeah. Yeah I'd have to say that's true. Like this alfalfa here. It just bursts on my tongue, all rich and savory and stuff, and if I'm not being distracted by weird questions, it's like the world just goes away and everything is alfalfa."
That's kind of poetic. Cool. Newmoon?
"Eh, I kind of feel like Meadowdawn. I like all the great food here, don't get me wrong, but... it's just food. I'm not having all of these... transcendent, I suppose... experiences all of you seem to be going on about. It's there, I like it, and there's no denying that pony senses are cranked up to eleven... Luna, FOURTEEN, with the knob ripped off, but... it's almost too intense, sometimes."
"Yes! That's exactly it, Newmoon! It's all almost too much, and that makes everything kind of over the top, kind of... too much. I don't know how to put it. I liked subtle flavors and smells and now it's like the whole world is turned up really high or something. For me, it's not as nice. Maybe I'll get used to it in time, but it's the one thing I kind of have trouble with in my new life."
Huh. Wow, Meadowdawn, that's the first truly negative thing I've heard any newfoal say about becoming a pony. That sounds kind of bad.
"I don't mean to sound overly negative, Sunshine. I'm not in misery or anything, it's not like that. It's just... I am not having all these orgasmic experiences that all of you seem to be having, and I kind of feel left out."
Maybe... Maybe it's all in our heads? Or maybe it will happen for you in time. I don't know. I guess... I don't know what to say to that.
"It's not that big of a deal. Really. It's just... what it is."
Well, then, I guess Snowflower's theory works for most of us at the table, but... not all. I wonder what Equestrian scholars would think about the idea that their civilization is based on wanting better treats!"
Sharkfin's mother was named Susan, and she was very grateful to get her son back. They lived in an intact office building which had been modified into what amounted to a fortress. Several dozen families shared the building, all working together as a tight-knit community. They shared resources and took care of each other.
The watch on guard had let Venice and Sharkfin in once the situation had been explained, Venice was welcomed as a hero for rescuing the boy. The trip back, under the bridge was uneventful and easy, once the matter of getting to the catwalk was solved - this was accomplished by using the lower half of Venice's right jumpsuit leg. She had used Sharkfin The Knife's namesake to cut loose the fabric and then tied the tough cloth to create a loop that could be used to partly swing across to the catwalk. She'd needed to lift the boy up, so that he could take the handle, and she'd needed to guide his motions in the dark, but they'd managed to reach the catwalk without tragedy.
On the other side, they kept to cover, and since Venice knew the rough position of 'Mister Snipey' now, they were able to retreat to the ruins while keeping part of a broken building at all times between themselves and danger.
The reward was food - much to her surprise, Venice was rather hungry, and while rat soup was not even close to what she was used to, she forced herself to down it with a carefully practiced smile. It was strange and gamey and unpleasant, but it filled her up, and she knew it was not a trivial reward for these struggling favela dwellers.
After the meal, when Sharkfin had finally calmed down from the spanking that had been his particular reward, Venice decided to try to see what she could do to help the boy's artificial pet. She had to admit to herself that she had not a little curiosity about the creature, she could only think that Fox would have been beside himself for such an opportunity.
But this is not what truly motivated her. The little boy had braved the anger of his mother, his community, and death itself to save what he considered to be his best friend. In her entire life, Venice had never seen any person so devoted to another being. She found she could not bear to see such devotion unrewarded. It would be... wrong. Wrong. She tried to wrap her head around this new use of an old word. It was some form of unfair, only... not in a petulant way. It intrigued her.
The artifice animal was a yellow dog, the exact color of the replicated lemon slices from the bar on the Auxesia. Venice knew nothing about dogs, so the breed the manufactured creature was trying to represent meant nothing to her. It had a flat face, and wide, floppy jowls which gave it a comical look.
The artificial dog lay on it's side on a tattered blanket on the floor of the main room of the section that Sharkfin and his mother Susan shared. The building was large, and each of the families had a surprising amount of room to themselves within it. Susan had brought a rusted set of tools, trying to be helpful. Since the bulk of the creature was flesh, the gesture was more supportive than actually useful.
Venice had sent images of the creature with the Daimon she set loose on the hypernet. The program still had not returned, leaving her to examine 'Jake' without anything to go on.
"Tell me a story. I don't feel well. I like stories." The yellow dog's voice was deep and mildly comedic. It was not one of the stock AI voices, which suggested that either the dog had been customized, or the manufacturer had an agreement with Intelligent Designs of some kind. The latter suggested a very expensive dog.
"Can you save Jake? You promised you could help him! You promised!" The little boy, like many a child, had taken her alternative as an unbreakable guarantee. "He just keeps saying that!" Once again the dog repeated the phrase Venice had just heard.
"Sharkfin, I said I thought I could get him help, and I am already doing that." Venice tried to be patient with the boy. "I sent a daimon... a kind of helper... out on the hypernet to find out everything it could about your dog. Until it comes back, I'm going to look him over, is that alright?"
"Um... my son's name is Finley. Are you telling people you're that character you made up again?" Susan seemed only slightly cross with her child, she was still upset that he had run off in the night and nearly caught a bullet. "You are NOT some bandit, you are just a little boy. You're my little boy Finley."
"Sharkfin's NOT a bandit. He's a NINJA, and he fights bad guys and saves people with his magic knife!" Finley was very sure of his imagination, or so it seemed. "Besides, Jake was there to protect me!" His grasp on logic, though, left something to be desired.
"Finley, Jake is broken. He was on your back in a bag. What am I going to do with you?" Susan was tired, and just getting past being very worried. Finley began protesting and the two started to become increasingly noisy.
"Excuse me, excuse me! HEY!" Susan and Finley turned to stare at Venice. "Maybe... maybe it would be better if I took a look at Jake here alone for a while. I don't know what it will take, and I need to concentrate. Most of my tools are in here." Venice tapped the augments on her skull, which Susan had been staring at with some fascination since they had arrived.
Finley naturally put up a fuss, and claimed he would be quiet, and how he needed to be there for Jake and a dozen things besides, but Susan finally got him out of the room. "If you can fix my son's dog, it would mean the world to him Venice. But I don't hold much hope. Just ask him. He'll tell you." With that curious statement, Susan shut the door, leaving Venice alone with the artificial dog.
The query daimon still hadn't returned. The tools beside her were useless for anything, unless the goal was to serve Jake on rice. He wasn't a robot, not entirely. He was mostly made of meat, with the machine part inside, and even that was to a great extent pseudo-organic. This wasn't something that could be fixed with rusty pliers and a Phillips.
There was only one thing currently to do.
So Venice asked the dog.