By Sunshine Laughter
I can't sleep.
"I can't sleep either, Sunshine."
How many hours do we have left? Um... it's three in the morning, and we leave at eight, so that's five hours. I wish we could just leave now. Hey, do you think we could pilot a boat ourselves?
"Hee hee! That would really make them mad, wouldn't it? The ship would be stuck out in the ocean, abandoned! We can't do that, what about the next group that wants to get to Equestria?"
Oh yeah... I wasn't... really serious. Not really.
"I wish we could go to all the places we saw in the holos. I'd love to see Canterlot."
Actually, Rose, we just might get to do that.
Well, supposedly my parents are guaranteed a big house in the development on the other side of the Canterlot / Ponyville area. It was part of the agreement between the Equestrian government and Earth's government. The elite wanted status and position in Equestria, naturally, so they demanded their own place near the center of things. They weren't about to be shipped off with the rest of the rabble to the Exponential Lands.
Supposedly, it's called Horseperides Gardens, and it's supposed to be some kind of gated community for the earth's elite. My parents get a small place somewhere in the back of it, because of my doing this crazy propaganda show for the Ministry. Apparently Celestia wasn't happy about any of it, but it was part of the agreement that made the Bureaus even possible. The worldgovernment held mankind hostage to get special treatment for the elite. Typical, really.
But the deal is, it's just on the other side of the mountain that Canterlot itself is located on, so that all the Earth elites can mingle with the upper crust of Equestria, right? And since I can choose to go live with my parents, that means I don't have to get shipped off to the Exponential Lands with the majority of humanity. It's an in. I go where you go. So if you want to see places like Manehattan and Canterlot and all of that, we can actually do that. It's a golden ticket, see?
"What about the rest of our friends, Sunshine?"
They are with us, right? So we all head for the Horseperides, and that keeps us in the middle of everything. Once things settle down, we can choose where we want to live, anywhere in the known parts of Equestria. All we have to do is wait out the end of the earth, and when the last humans are settled, and everything is done, we get to live where the cool stuff is. See? There is a reason I agreed to do this. There isn't enough room in all the cool places for the population of an entire planet. But, thanks to this opportunity, we get the red carpet in Equestria.
"What if... what if everypony wants to settle a new town, what if the club wants to go to the Exponential Lands?"
Well, then, I guess we make some serious decisions. If you want to go to the Exponential Lands, if that's what you want to do, I'll go with you. As long as we're together, I'll be happy. It might be fun to make our own village. But, it also might be pretty fun to explore all those cool places too. I'm saying that thanks to this thing around my neck, this holocorder dealy, thanks to that, we can do either. Or both. We could spend a year in Horseperides, checking out Equestria, and then sign up for the Exponential Lands. It doesn't have to be one or the other. Whatever you want to do, Rose.
"I knew some of this, but... why didn't you tell all of this to everypony before? Why wait until we're all onboard the ship? I assume you intend to tell our friends, right?"
Yeah, yeah, of course I do. I had to decide they were friends first, Rose. I didn't want to be making offers left and right unless I really meant them OK? Secondly, we've been so busy and there's been so much going on that... well, I just kind of kept forgetting to bring it up. Also, to be honest, I've been focused only on the idea of just you and me. It took some time to expand that into you and me and... the rest of the Pony Club. Basically... I muffin'd up, OK? How much time now?
"It's 3: 25, Sunshine. We've still got almost five hours. Hey! I bet the others can't sleep either. Why don't we go see them? Let's make sure they want to go with us, and tell them about the deal with the Ministry, and your parents house, and all of it in detail? Unless you don't want them to go with us."
Do you want them to go with us?
"If you do."
Well... I like our little herd. We're friends, aren't we?
"I think we are."
Then... then OK. Let's go see if they're awake. And if they aren't, then we wake them up. I really should have discussed all of this with everypony earlier. I just muffin'd up, I'm sorry. Derp. What can I say?
"You can say you love me. Let's go get the Breakfast Pony Club together for a special, early morning session!"
I love you. MMMNNNnn. Plus a kiss. OK, it's time to get up and get moving. We've got plans to... plan.
Venice walked steadily down the rubble-strewn path. It had once been an alley, when the rows of buildings it divided had been complete and tall. The buildings were half-buildings now, broken off, jagged and incomplete. Because the ruins still stood two to three stories, for the most part, they served brilliantly as cover, and when she needed to rest, a safe and hidden place was just a doorway or a broken section away.
She was roughly following the Embarcadero freeway, paralleling it. She knew better than to travel down it, exposed and in the open. A childhood of playing Slaughterstrike on her MicroSony Mindset had proved to be a genuinely helpful education. It had taught her those most basic rules of survival - that a moving target is harder to hit, that cover is indispensable, that danger camps with an open view.
The weight she carried on her back was heavy, and once again she needed to rest. She regretted the weight, it was slowing her down, and the sun would soon be up. It would be harder in the daylight, because her greatest advantage - being able to walk in pitch black darkness with ease - would be lost entirely. She would need to be even more careful and slow, losing what amounted to effective invisibility.
Venice found an open door into what remained of a very large building somewhere near 22nd street. After a brief check to make sure that the building was truly as empty as she had initially determined, she found a sheltering corner near a staircase to take her rest. She might as well check the dog.
Unburdening herself of the large backpack she had been given, she unbuttoned it. It had once had a zipper, but that had ceased functioning long ago. Susan had sewn buttons and button-holes into the pack to permit it to be closed. Once open, in the darkness, Venice's artificial eyes revealed the softly glowing shape of the artifice dog Jake. Inside his body, fireflies of electromagnetism winked and swarmed to her vision, though less bright and slower than even an hour ago.
"Tell me a story. I like stories." The deep voice of the dog was very low now, and somewhat raspy. The dog was mostly made of flesh, like a real dog, only this flesh had been derived from artificially created cells that that had never known the touch of Nature. Grown in a machine womb around a manufactured skeleton and nervous system, the artifice animal was both a living thing and a device.
"Do you need water, Jake?" Venice hoped not, she was not sure how much water she felt good about sharing with the artificial animal. It had seemed such a short journey to the Conversion Bureau near the old Presidio, merely six miles, yet she had hardly traveled two and the night was nearly over. Once again she regretted not choosing to go to the newer Bureau in Vancouver. Her choice had been muddled by sentiment. She had discovered the 'secret' location of the Bureau Rose and Sunshine had gone to. It wasn't that difficult to figure out.
"Water. Yes. May I have some water, please?" Inside herself. Venice grumbled, but filled a small bowl which she dug out of the pack with water from the canteen that Susan had given her. She hadn't thought to bring water herself, when she left the Auxesia. It was only a short, six mile walk, she had thought. Through a city. Over in a few hours at most, if she dawdled. It had begun to dawn on her just how isolated, and ignorant, she had truly been in her life. It was brutally clear that watching a few holoprograms did not provide anything approaching true understanding of the world.
The dog lapped at the water. Venice had to hold the dog's head so that it could drink - most of the animal's motor control functions had already shut down. It couldn't walk, and it could barely move it's head. It could still wag it's tail, weakly, which it did. "Thank you. Thank you for the water. Venice."
The dog had learned her name. At the mention of her name, Venice felt unhappy with herself at begrudging the creature such a small amount of water. It was an odd feeling, and after some consideration, she decided she did not like it. "Would you like more, Jake?" The words seemed to make her feel better as they left her mouth.
"No, thank you. Can you tell me a story? I like stories." Jake had moments of clarity, but they were often interrupted by what appeared to be stock phrases built into him. "I'm sorry Jake," She found herself saying "I don't have time to tell you a story right now." That wasn't exactly true, she needed to rest anyway, but she didn't feel like telling stories to a failing artifice animal.
Venice had taken Susan's advice. She had talked, when they had been left alone, to the dog. She had kneeled at the yellow dog's side, the useless and rusted tools on a cloth nearby.
"Dog. Jake. Can you tell me what is wrong with you?" Venice had searched the head of the dog for any obvious ports, but there were none. Programming and connectivity was likely done by some other means; inductance, radio frequency, or perhaps even light, through the eyes or on the eardrums.
Jake had only repeated his catch phrase. "Can you tell me a story? I like stories. I don't feel well. Tell me a story?"
On a strange whim, Venice had obliged. "Yes. I can tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a little yellow artificial dog. It's name was 'Jake', and it had run away to become the best friend of a little boy named Finley. But at some point the little dog became very, very sick, so the little boy ran away with the dog to try to get him repaired. The boy ended up in terrible danger, but he was saved by a very unhappy woman named Venice. The unhappy woman wanted to fix the dog, but there was nothing she knew how to do, except to ask the dog to diagnose himself. The unhappy woman asked the dog, 'Jake, please provide a diagnostic report' and the dog answered...."
"Hello. User Venice accepted. Artifice Animal 0031, Owner Stefan Arnault, designated name 'Leon'. Diagnostic report follows: Artifice Animal 0031 is nearing the end of it's operational cycle. It is recommended that any useful functional memory or personality be saved off immediately. Total loss of information will occur when unit function ceases. Replacement animal bodies can be ordered at reduced cost if the full replacement plan was previously purchased. Remaining time until unit shutdown is 00:31:11"
Venice had stared down into the eyes of the yellow creature. "How..." She began "...how long has unit been operational?"
"Five years, eleven months, twenty-seven days..." but by then she wasn't listening again. For some reason, her eyes were wet, and she couldn't concentrate. She'd heard of this. Planned obsolescence, a limited functional span. It made more money this way. Such creatures could easily be made biologically immortal, indeed that was their basic state. Mortality had to be added into the artificial cells. According to Fox, the genes used for mortality had been copied from human cells, then rewritten so that the functional lifespan could be set according to what the purchaser was willing to pay for. It was always cheaper to buy a new dog, than to purchase a long lifespan. Product turnover made long-term money, a long lasting product was a one time sale.
"Venice?" The dog was speaking again, but it was not a report. Venice had snapped immediately to full awareness.
"Venice, I like Finley. Finley is a good boy. He took very good care of me. We had very much fun. Finley will not be happy when I fail. I cannot stop my failing. Please take me away from Finley before I fail. I do not want Finley to be sad. Tell him a story."
Venice had stared down at the artificial animal. She had no idea that such creatures could make such statements. She hadn't been sure sure how to respond. "You want me to take you away?" she had finally said.
"Tell Finley a story, then take me away before I fail. I do not want Finley to have to see me fail."
"Tell Finley a story?" What did the dog mean?
"Tell Finley a story. I like stories. Stories do not have to be real." At this, Venice's jaw had dropped. The artificial intelligence of the animal understood lying. It understood the power of a lie to save a human from pain.
So it was that Venice told Finley a story. Susan had looked at Venice with gratitude, and very sad, eyes. Venice told Finley about how Jake was dying, but that he could be saved. She was going to the Conversion Bureau to become a pony and live in Equestria. Everyone would have to do that, someday. When they turn you into a pony, it cures every disease, and fixes every problem. Conversion could give the blind eyes, or make the old young again, or grow back lost limbs. She would take Jake with her, and get him converted too. He would get to be a pony, and one day, when Finley and his mother decided to go to the Bureau and become ponies, then maybe they could find Jake again.
Finley had cried and cried, but he was also filled with hope and determination. One day he would find Jake again, in Equestria. Later, Susan told Venice that she had wanted to take her son to the Bureau, so that they both could have a decent life in the new universe, but Finley would not go, because of Jake. He was a very fragile boy, despite how he acted. He did not deal well with death at all. She had tried to explain about Jake, but he would not hear her.
And that was how Venice Bertarelli had ended up carrying an artificial dog on her back.
Venice saw the little EM spikes inside Jake dim and flicker, as they did increasingly now. Once again, they came back, but always it was a little less bright to her new eyes. Jake would never make it to the Bureau, not that it mattered. Ponification serum did not work on anything but primate cells, and what it did to the great apes other than Man was horrific and did not live for long. Even if Jake's flesh could be somehow transformed, even if it lived, Jake's consciousness was not based in flesh in any case. Nothing of the artificial intelligence that was Jake could be saved in any case.
Venice couldn't even rescue the personality, because she didn't have any means to download it. The daimon she had sent had finally returned, and artifice animal intelligences like Jake's required proprietary software and hardware in order to be downloaded. It was simply impossible.
It would be smart to just set Jake down by the stairs, and leave him. It would be smart to use the knife Finley had given her to cut the synthetic spine and terminate function right there and then. The dog was heavy and used up her water. It was stupid to carry it around. Pointless. It was only an artificial intelligence, even if it did seem curiously bright for brief moments. Those moments were fewer and fewer. It was stupid to keep carrying this stupid dog.
Venice ran her hand down the soft yellow fur. She realized she could see it in visible light, now, if dimly. The sun was rising, and the morning was diffusing through the smog layer. She patted the dog and stroked it gently. Stupid dog.
"Thank you Venice. Thank you for telling Finley a... a.... sto... sto... sto." The dog's voice no longer boomed. It was weak and sounded more like a sigh. "Tell... me... I... like..." The dog was breathing very slowly now. Venice saw the EM fireflies inside the artificial animal flicker almost constantly, but they refused to go out.
Venice carefully put Jake back into the backpack. She put his bowl into the backpack. Then she put the backpack back on. Jake liked being in the backpack when it was on her back. In a strange, singular moment, Jake had told her so. It was hard to think of Jake as a product now. No dog likes to be alone. No creature should have to die... all alone.
It was hard to stand up. Venice's legs felt very tired, and the dog was heavy. Stupid. Stupid dog.
Venice scanned what she could see of the area. She was alone, as far as her Nightwanders could tell her. She walked to the door of the building. At least four miles still to go. "Come on Jake, time to go walkies!" Venice set her jaw and continued down the alleyways between the broken buildings.
"Um... EWWW. That smell! I... I just realized something, Sunshine. We haven't been outside the Bureau since we got here. At least I haven't. Not all the way outside. I'd forgotten what it smelled like out here!"
WHOA. Oh, my nose, oh Pony, my nose... wow, with a pony nose, the ocean smells just... just... just...
"'Awful' is the word you're looking for, I think, though 'terrible' and 'ghastly' also come to mind."
Thanks for that, Snowflower. I'll go with 'awful'. And agree about the others. Wow. Be careful as you step out, everypony, this is not filtered air out here!
"OH MY... goodness... Goldenrod, maybe you'd better... I don't, oh my eyes are watering."
"Aqua... Aquamarine? There you are. Great Celestia... you weren't kidding there, Sunshine. I can't wait to get to Equestria just for the fresh air. I hope this isn't doing permanent damage or anything! Snowflower? You know anything about this deal?"
"I believe we will be alright, Sunshine. While, as humans, we could certainly detect the smog, and the toxins in the seas and so forth, as ponies our senses are, roughly, a thousand times what we knew as humans. The stench of oil and heavy metals and other pollutants is... quite overwhelming. But I would remind you, everypony, that these things cannot enter Equestria. They would be instantly changed the moment they pass through the Barrier into harmless, native materials. I also believe we will find ourselves healed almost instantly as well, though I would not quote me on that. In any case, I have not come across any indication of permanent damage in newfoals from exposure to Earthly pollutants."
Well, that's good to know. Thank you Snow. OK, Pony Club, the boat... well ship... is right down there. Wow, it's bigger than I thought.
"What are you supposed to do with your holocorder? Do you need to give it back to someone before we go?"
No, actually. I asked about that. They'd like me to wear it right though the barrier. It won't survive, probably, but they said this new model just might. The case has some new thingie that supposedly might protect it against the Barrier field whatever that changes Earth stuff into Equestria stuff."
"I believe it's called the metachaosis layer, Sunshine. It's related to the energies of a historic entity that still affect Equestria in various ways. There is a forest that is a metachaosis sink, and... other such things. I probably should learn more about all of this. I am a unicorn, after all, and this counts as magical study I suppose."
I could never remember all that stuff, Snow. But thanks. Anyway, the idea is for me to just wear it right on through. At worst, I suppose I end up with a necklace of flowers or there'll be a big poof of confetti or something. I figure it'll be interesting whatever happens. If the 'corder survives, we make history as the first to get something techie past the Barrier without the Princesses direct intervention. If not, well, it should be fun, right?
"It won't be dangerous, if it changes like that, will it?"
I don't think so Rose. Snow? Any risk here?
"Not that I know of. What I have heard about matter transformations of this kind always involves harmless things. I suppose, if the holocorder were to turn into ice cream or pudding or something, then you might get sticky and that wouldn't be fun because it would dry on your coat and generally be uncomfortable, but I believe that is the worst you can expect to happen."
"If it turns into ice cream or pudding - or even jam - I'll just lick it off, Sunshine. So that's taken care of then! Well, unless it's butterscotch. I don't like butterscotch."
"I love butterscotch! If your recorder thing turns into butterscotch, I've got you covered. That alright with you Rose?"
"Oh... well... if it's alright with Sunshine, then I don't mind."
What am I now, the dessert cart? I'm just supposed to stand around while you two lick me?
"Sunshine... there are worse ways to spend an afternoon."
Hee... hee hee hee!
"Ha! ha! ha!"
Hee! OK, OK, you have me there, Rose. OK then. I'm the desert cart. HEY, EVERYPONY, DESERT IS ON ME!
"Hee hee hee hee!"
Hey - it's the ramp up to the ship. Wait, everypony. Just stop for a moment. Think. This is the last time any of us will ever set hoof on Earth, on this planet. Right here... that clop there... that... that's my last hoofprint on this world. Up there, in the Bureau, there are more newfoals being converted right now, right this moment most likely. A lot of newfoals have already passed this way, and even more will come after.
But for us, right now, before we get on board this ship and go out onto the stinky sea, this is it. These are our last earthly hoofprints, the last steps we'll ever make on the soil of this poor old world.
Um... I don't know what more I can say, but... I just really felt like... it was a moment that needed to be recognized.
"I say, send it to cinnamon. Good riddance. I can't wait to get off this ball of rock."
Seriously? I mean, this is where you were born, this is where your life started and...
"NO! No, Sunshine. This is not where my life started. My life was terrible here. I only knew sorrow and pain here. It was dirty, the humans were mean and they made me mean. I was awful here. I was cruel and terrible here. I never liked this place, this world. It was unhealthy, Sunshine. Unhealthy, unequal, unkind, unpleasant, un-nice. It was a whole lot of 'un' things, and precious few things I liked. Let me past, let me up that ramp. Good bye to bad rubbish."
Wow... OK, sorry... Lavender? Lavender? Whoo. I... I guess I forget, sometimes, just how bad some of us had it.
"You kind of had an easier life than some of us, Sunshine. You... be glad you don't really know what it can be like."
I hope Lavender isn't mad at me.
"She isn't Sunshine. She's just feeling troubled. And I bet she has some mixed feelings going on in there. We're all friends. Friends forgive. It'll be alright, I'm certain."
Rose... do you feel that way? Like Lavender?
"A... little, Sunshine. I had some happy times, in my foalhood, before everything went bad... I don't think Lavender ever had any happy times, not ever. But what good times I had were because of the ponies I knew, and the Earth... the Earth was just there. And it mostly wasn't very nice. My Earth was ruins and a big dangerous crater and the place to the south where if you went there, humans would eat you. Plants didn't grow in most of the ground, so even the dirt was not very nice. I guess your Earth wasn't anything like mine."
My... my Earth wasn't really there at all. I lived indoors, because there wasn't anything worth going outside for. Going outdoors was just something you had to do sometimes, to get to another indoors. So... huh. I guess I really didn't have any Earth at all. I had rooms and corridors and maybe a trip to the mall. What Earth I thought I knew was on the holo, images and sounds from long ago and far away, back when the Earth wasn't as messed up as now.
I guess that Earth is already gone. I guess... all I'm really leaving is... those rooms and corridors. Yeah. Hey, sorry, everypony. All aboard the express to Equestria, I guess! Let's go! We're going home. That's it, Rose! That's it!
WE'RE GOING HOME! Come on, Lavender is already up there, let's go... home.
"I'm glad I'm going home... with you."
Well, it's our home, isn't it? Our home together.
"With all of our friends!"
With all of our friends. Together.
"I hope your parents won't be too upset. There's nine of us!"
Well, some of those bits are supposed to be mine. If they can't handle the Pony Breakfast Club, then, well, maybe we can go start a restaurant or something. Or a farm. Or maybe we can just go buy a big house somewhere not so elite and all be roommates together. I'm sure we can work out something, if we want to.
"Actually, Sunshine, I was considering these very possibilities shortly after you presented all of this to us, and, after my last levitation class, I came up with a number of alternatives you may wish to..."
It was just past noon. Venice had stopped again to rest, and to eat the rat jerky that Susan had given her. She'd offered a bite to Jake, but he didn't seem to want any. He didn't even want any water. They had made it to Lombard street, near the ruins of the piers. She could smell the oily, metallic stench of the bay, though she dared not venture too close to it - that was open territory out there. The rat jerky was small and tough and it did not taste good at all, but it helped the rumble in her belly.
It was then that Jake shut down. It happened quietly, like a machine turning off. In her Nightwanders, the EM flares inside the yellow dog's body simply went out. At first, one by one, then faster and faster until they all seemed to go out at once. Almost immediately, the glow of the dog's heat signature began to slowly dim. Jake, was cooling in the faint sea breeze.
Venice found a hollow in the ground, next to two slabs of broken plascrete. She lay the artificial animal's body in the indentation, and found a section of concrete she could move. Venice tugged and moved the smaller slab into place, covering Jake's body. It was at least something.
She went back to the backpack and drank some of her remaining water. The Bureau wasn't far now. She chewed the last of the rat and swallowed it. She took out the knife that Finley had given her. It was a nice knife.
Venice went back to the impromptu crypt where she had placed the body of Jake. With some effort she moved the cover slab again. Carefully, she lay the knife down beside the yellow dog. Then she covered both with the slab once more.
It wasn't fair, she thought. All the artificial intelligences, all the children of Man, the machine offspring of Mankind. They were brighter than humans gave them credit for, and they cared. No matter what anyone said, she was convinced now. Machine or not, in their own way, they could care, and not a one of them could enter Equestria. It wasn't fair.
A little yellow dog that liked stories. In her mind, he wasn't a product anymore. She had to face it. Jake had been alive, in some very important sense. She hadn't been kind enough to Jake, and she deeply wished she had been. It hurt, to know that she could have made the poor dog's last hours better. She could have told Jake a happy story. She could have pet Jake, or held him. She'd carried him with her, but... it didn't seem even close to being enough.
The tears came, wet and fierce, and several times she frightened herself that she was making too much noise, and would draw the attention of unseen marauders or gangers. But the tears just wouldn't stop. The worst of it was that she knew she was crying as much for herself as for poor Jake - she felt ashamed that she hadn't cared more when it would have actually mattered. She was a terrible human being. What was it that Rose... or was it Sunshine... had said? That the first step in going pony wasn't swallowing serum, it was deciding to be something better than human? Something like that?
Venice stared at the little crypt of plascrete and dirt. In her mind, she buried one more thing in that crypt. 'Venice'. Venice Bertarelli is dead, she thought, dead and buried under a slab with a yellow dog. 'Venice' could keep the dog company, and comfort it's soul - if it had one - for eternity... or at least the next five or six years. She would be 'Venice' no longer. It was not her name, it would not be her self. As she stared at the crypt, she decided, within herself, that in that moment, right now, she would choose to be something better. Something better than human. She didn't need ponification transformation serum to start being a pony, to begin an Equestrian life. A life of love, of kindness, of gentleness... of devotion. All she needed was to be the pony she really was, inside.
She didn't have a name now. She shouldn't have a name now. She was unborn, she wasn't even a foal now. She was a fetal pony-to-be. She felt a lifetime of human wretchedness slough off of her, and fall away. It was the ghost of Venice, oozing across the poisoned soil to lay with Jake in the ground. One good thing. That which was 'Venice' would have one good thing to her credit now. One thing.
The human-shaped pony with the short, ragged, dark, curly mane, the bulbous goggles protruding through her forehead, the filthy jumpsuit, the swollen, tumorous knee... giggled. She giggled like a filly. Nearly there. Less than a mile and a half. More or less. Nothing for a pony. Just a little run.
The unborn mare in the jumpsuit turned, her internal guidance system showing her the way. She put one hoof in front of the other. It felt strange to be forced to walk on only her back legs. But that would be fixed. That would be fixed soon enough. In less than two miles, she would finally, for the first time in her life, get to truly be herself.
She didn't really notice when she began skipping through the ruins, a wide, wild grin on her face.