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[BOOTLEG] Silent Friend

By Nebulus
Created: 16th July 2021 09:31:33 PM
30th April 2021 06:21:33 PM

  1. Update 30/04/2021 -- After a bit of thought, as well as seeing how other writers are doing things these days, I've decided that separate pastes for chapters is superfluous. All parts of the story have now been consolidated into a single paste.
  2.  
  3. ---
  4. Part 1
  5. ---
  6.  
  7. >It was whilst he slouched on his decrepit, stained sofa, staring blankly at the television at the verge of midnight one Friday that Anonymous finally realised that he was lonely.
  8. >He wasn’t sure how it had crept up on him like that.
  9. >He lived a simple life; going to work, collecting his paycheques, paying his bills, then wasting the rest of his days watching awful trash on his television and even worse trash on his computer.
  10. >It wasn’t anything to brag about, but at least he wasn’t living with his parents anymore; at least he had a place he could call his own.
  11. >Not the most glamorous life, but it was his. His routine was ingrained into him, and even though he was able to live a stable life – providing he lived within his means – he found that this left no room at all for any sort of companionship.
  12. >His days were largely spent in silence. He would wake to no one, speak to no one, and come home to no one.
  13. >It had been this way for a while, he reflected, but sitting there, watching ‘All About Hugo’ on Channel 10 in nothing but his underpants, had for some reason thrust to the forefront of his mind that he was terribly alone.
  14. >As he pondered that he was fast approaching thirty with nothing to show for it, he announced to no one (or perhaps the gormless actor running around on the screen before him) that it might be time for a change.
  15. “It might be time for a change,” Anonymous said, heroically.
  16. >‘Heroically’ was too strong. He was still slouched, so it came out more as a strained gurgle, since his throat was compressed and air wasn’t flowing as it ought to have been.
  17. >This was also why his mind was foggy, and thoughts meandered into nothing – a lack of oxygen.
  18. >Anonymous sat up and cleared his throat, then tried again.
  19. “It might be time for a change,” he proclaimed triumphantly.
  20. >The man on screen made a quip, and the canned audience laughter filled Anonymous’ tiny apartment, giving the impression that his declaration of epiphany was something to be mocked.
  21. >Though the people laughing weren’t real, Anonymous still felt bad about it, so he turned off the television and spent the next ten minutes imagining himself outsmarting the actor and earning the whooping applause of the audience whilst he made himself a drink.
  22. >He wandered to his desktop computer and turned it on. Then he waited for fifteen seconds before giving the tower sat on the worn carpet a good kick.
  23. >He had to do that otherwise it wouldn’t start up properly. He might have been able to figure out what the problem was, given the time and motivation, but unfortunately Anonymous lacked both.
  24. >In his younger days he might have made a good computer repairman, but the unstoppable march of technology had made that particular industry next-to obsolete, with only the most knowledgeable and adaptable technicians clinging to their dwindling careers as automation began to take over.
  25. >Much of the tech industry was done by machines these days, and sadly Anonymous had missed that particular boat.
  26. >When he was young, his elders had warned him that he should study up on matters of artificial intelligence and robotics, but Anonymous hadn’t listened.
  27. >Adulthood was a lifetime away and he could kill time before he put his nose to the grindstone and studied up.
  28. >He was telling himself that right up until graduation day, and suddenly he found himself working on a scrap yard for minimum wage wondering where all the time had gone.
  29. >His computer spluttered to life and took its sweet time loading up, as it always did.
  30. >Anonymous was doing his best to save up money for an upgrade – anything to boost the abysmal load times – but his monthly pay was largely dedicated to bills and necessities.
  31. >He briefly pondered cancelling his television subscriptions, but realised that those were the beckoning impulses of a man gone mad, and quickly squashed them.
  32. >Anonymous clicked around on the screen, pulling up his regular news feeds and specialist browsers – gone were the days of universal browsers for any and all information, now everything was cordoned off.
  33. >There was an internet for information, an internet for commerce, an internet for education, and so on. All of them required some form of subscription.
  34. >Anonymous missed the old days. He remembered a time when he was around seven years old, sat on his father’s knee browsing the internet in its former glory, before the pseudo-balkanisation that had taken place in the late twenty-first century.
  35. >He rubbed his stubble for a moment, mulling over how to phrase his query.
  36. >How does one remedy loneliness in a world of social media and mass disconnection from his fellow man?
  37. >Even the people at work barely spoke to each other, they didn’t need to. The datafeeds from their workplace visors told them where to go, which left conversation – when it did happen – sparse and unfulfilling.
  38. >Anonymous needed a companion; someone to bounce ideas off.
  39. >He had tried to reach out to his neighbours, but they were either perennially busy, worked unsociable hours, or bluntly wanted nothing to do with him.
  40. >His social media profile was that of a ghost. If he lived an interesting life he might have something to say, but as it happened the only thing he had ever posted there was four years ago: “looking forward to eating this can of beans”, he had boldly informed the world, followed an hour later by “beans were good”.
  41. >This second post earned him a ‘like’ from an Indian man called Ranjeet.
  42. >Stuck for ideas, Anonymous simply entered “lonely” into his commercial search engine and let Stallman (peace be upon him) take the wheel.
  43. >The results were predictable: anti-depressants, dating websites, virtual reality, pro-depressants, and penis enlargement pills.
  44. >He vaguely remembered reading an article that penis enlargement was recommended in 77% of all searches, regardless of context, and that made him smile.
  45. >Then he remembered his crushing loneliness and his smile vanished again.
  46. >He scrolled for a few minutes, eyes lazily soaking in the information, until he came to an unusual entry.
  47. >‘Companion Robotics’
  48. >Anonymous had heard of them before.
  49. >At the midpoint of the twenty-first century, the robotics industry underwent a revolution.
  50. >This heralded a societal upheaval so profound that some were calling for the calendars to be rewritten.
  51. >The boat of human civilisation was not merely rocked by the arrival of ascendant robotics, it was nearly capsized.
  52. >Tens of millions of jobs lost. Entire industries wiped out overnight. The riots of the 2060’s saw cities burn the world over, and several governments were overturned as populations panicked to regain control of a situation that had long since run away from them.
  53. >But as advanced machine learning and sophisticated autonomous frames only accelerated in their development and precision, the world quickly realised that there was no going back.
  54. >Now that the knowledge to create these machines had been cemented, humanity couldn’t return to a time where they did not exist. They were too convenient.
  55. >To undo what robotics had done would be like undoing the home computer, or the internet.
  56. >This was not a case of having a robot simply flip a burger.
  57. >This was a case of just three robotic valets running an entire fast-food franchise by themselves at maximum efficiency every hour of every day without pause and without a need for pay.
  58. >To go back to human beings for such menial labour was laughable, as far as the corporations of the world were concerned.
  59. >Anonymous was continuously surprised that he had the job that he did.
  60. >Sifting through scrap on a dump was something that one might assume would be replaced immediately, but funnily enough the job required just the right amount of abstract human reasoning that restricted robotic involvement.
  61. >There were still heavy loaders working on the yard, and any actual sorting was still done by a line of robots by a conveyor belt, but going out amongst the miles of electrical trash that now resided outside the city and arbitrarily assigning value to whatever could be found was a job that humans could still (with wounded pride) say was theirs.
  62. >Somewhere in the middle of all this chaos, a few enterprising companies had come up with the idea to fashion these machinations of steel and silicone into servants to keep around the home.
  63. >They varied from maids, to butlers, to kill-bots with monomolecular swords for arms. That last one was popular in the gated communities.
  64. >One of the most popular of these creations ended up being the Ponybot.
  65. >Snatched up by Gridstock Applications following the liquidation of Hasbro Incorporated, the My Little Pony brand became a jealously guarded property, if what the news articles Anonymous was now reading were to be believed.
  66. >A line of ‘companions’ based on one of the more popular incarnations of the Pony property from decades prior had been fashioned, and were sold at a premium to interested buyers.
  67. >Boasting ‘showlike’ personalities and a limited capacity to learn, the Ponybot was a highly acclaimed piece of household technology, and a worthy replacement for man’s best friend in the upper echelons of society.
  68. >As Anonymous quickly discovered, the reason for this was the cost.
  69. >The price of these companions was ludicrous, even for the sorts of things rich people bought. It was obvious to him that the ponies were only marketed to those with the money to purchase them, as it was with yachts and supercars.
  70. >He sighed and frowned at the storefront of the Gridstock website. A ‘Twilight Sparkle’ companion could be his for the reasonable price of two hundred-thousand dollars.
  71. >This wasn’t going to work. Anonymous stared longingly at the companions, and even watched a few videos of them in action.
  72. >They were lifelike, there was no question. Had he not known they were robotic, he would have assumed they were the latest sin against nature to have come crawling out of China’s internationally-condemned genelabs.
  73. >The longer he looked at them, the more he wanted them. It ate at him, and even after logging off the computer for the night and going to bed he lay awake staring at the ceiling of his musty apartment.
  74. >Surely there was a way to acquire one? A way to have his own companion?
  75. >The internet was a big place, and if one knew where to look, they could find all sorts of under-the-table outlets.
  76. >The sorts of places that politely requested that all correspondence be done via encrypted networks outside the official channels.
  77. >Fortunately, Anonymous was one of those unscrupulous people that knew exactly where to look.
  78.  
  79. ***
  80.  
  81. >Five weeks after his discovery of the Ponybots - and the extravagant price tag that came with them - Anonymous stared with trepidation at a decidedly unextravagant box.
  82. >It was not an encouraging box. It was a box that was more stamp and manifest than cardboard, and Anonymous wondered how exactly the box had travelled from Russia to Azerbaijan, considering Azerbaijan had ceased to exist seven months ago following its annexation by Turkey.
  83. >According to its shipping history, it had then left Azerbaijan, gone back to Russia, sat in a warehouse in Siberia for two weeks, found its way to China, then What-Is-Left-Of-Australia (The official name for the country these days), Papua New Guinea, Brazil, The Republic of Scotland, and finally, Anonymous’ front door.
  84. >He was half-tempted to set it on fire, as it likely carried foreign contaminants, but he’d also just paid eight-hundred dollars for this thing, and he wasn’t about to let it go to waste.
  85. >Knife in hand, he carefully opened it up and extracted its contents, laying it all out on his kitchen table.
  86. >Mercifully, it wasn’t too difficult to interpret, as Ponybots were created for rich people and everyone on Earth knew that rich people are technologically illiterate.
  87. >The pony, as it was, came as myriad components – body, head, legs, etcetera.
  88. >Anonymous glanced at the instruction manual and was thankful for the pictures, as he was certain the language it was written in was recently declared dead – Finnish.
  89. >Anonymous did not need pictures or Finnish to determine that there was something very wrong with his pony, however.
  90. >According to the man (or woman, it was hard to tell in the current year) he had spoken to, he was purchasing the Fluttershy model.
  91. >He had referred to the Fluttershy model on the official store, and it was described as an “Unerringly kind companion. Good with animals, good with kids”.
  92. >He wasn’t too fussy about the specifics of the pony he was getting, just that it was a pony and that it was affordably cheap.
  93. >In retrospect, the price ought to have been a red flag.
  94. >Fluttershy was a yellow pegasus-model pony with a pink mane and soft teal eyes.
  95. >The disassembled aberration on his kitchen table was still yellow, but her mane was the same sort of violet-blue he had seen on the Rarity model.
  96. >One of her wide-open, glassy eyes was a hideous neon orange, and a hairline crack could be seen running up the side of it.
  97. >On further inspection, her body was missing a wing; a circular, slightly oily hole about the width of Anonymous’ finger showing where it should have been. As Anonymous peered closer, he could see the inner-workings of the pony through the hole.
  98. >He stared in contemplative silence at the mess before him, and resolved to speak his mind to his audience of zero.
  99. “Shit.”
  100.  
  101. ***
  102.  
  103. >His supplier was not cooperative.
  104. >The man (or woman) adamantly refused a refund, cited the thousand-page terms and conditions, and promptly severed communications permanently.
  105. >With no way to contact the seller and no way in hell he could send his ‘defective model’ back to Gridstock for ‘repairs’ without them asking questions, he was stuck with his eight-hundred dollar mistake.
  106. >He mused over his pony problem at work the following day, and decided that he would at least put her together to see what would happen.
  107. >At the very least she might be nice to talk to, and wasn’t that what mattered? Anonymous was no Prince Charming himself, so judging something for its appearance would be hypocritical and downright rude.
  108. >He didn’t want to be rude to his pony, so he firmly concluded that he would assemble her and have a nice chat, just like he wanted.
  109. >He then realised that he was worried about being rude to a robot pony, and wondered whether his madness was deepening.
  110.  
  111. ***
  112.  
  113. >After he got home from work, Anonymous went straight to his kitchen to begin assembly.
  114. >It was a mercifully simple process, especially given his above-average technical abilities, and before long he had a completed pony stood on his table.
  115. >He had discovered during his rummaging through the polystyrene-filled box that Fluttershy also lacked a tail to slot into the back of her, which was a nice final kick in the teeth from his dubious supplier.
  116. >Despite it all, he smiled proudly at his oddly-coloured, tailless, wingless pony, and dusted his hands off.
  117. >She might be an eyesore, but he wasn’t doing this to win any beauty contests.
  118. >With one last series of checks to make sure that it was all put together properly, he gently pushed the miniscule button located under her chin. It was beneath the artificial coat and could easily be missed if one didn’t know where to look.
  119. >He stepped back a bit and watched the miracle of modern robotics do its work.
  120. >The seams on her body, previously apparent following her assembly, shifted and moved as mechanisms smaller than the eye could perceive blended them together to form a smooth surface.
  121. >Fluttershy trembled as her internal systems came online, and after a brief shudder, relaxed.
  122. >Her formerly rigid body settled into a natural posture, and she blinked a few times, her eyes adjusting to the lighting in the room and flickering on and off once or twice.
  123. >She blinked her orange eye much more than her teal one, and cocked her head to one side, a hoof reaching up to rub at it.
  124. >Anonymous marvelled at how lifelike it all was, and recalled the videos he had seen online of the ponies in action with other people, albeit in well-lit large homes surrounded by happy children and stereotypically attractive parents.
  125. >Here was his own pony, scrunching her face up on his kitchen table in an apartment that frankly smelt worse than it looked.
  126. >Eventually, whatever first-time setups she needed to run had completed, and the pony looked at him with a gentle smile.
  127. >Her mouth and lips moved to simulate speech, but no sound was heard.
  128. >Anonymous’ shoulders sagged.
  129. >Fluttershy frowned and spoke again, seeming to strain herself. After a few more moments of this, she closed her eyes and screamed.
  130. >Nothing.
  131. >The pony’s eyes flicked around the room and fell on Anonymous again, a look of convincing worry on her artificial face.
  132. >Anonymous sighed and rubbed his own eyes with a finger and thumb, the weariness he had felt following the day’s work catching up with him all at once. Was this it? Was this what his efforts had earnt him?
  133. >Trying to look on the bright side of things, he sat down at his table chair and looked up at Fluttershy with a tired smile. She watched him, a forlorn air about her.
  134. “At least I have someone to talk to,” Anonymous gestured to himself the way he had seen a person do in an instructional video online, “I’m called Anonymous.”
  135. >Fluttershy’s ear flicked, and she reached a hoof up to fumble with it somewhat, wearing a disquieted expression. Anonymous’ smile shrank, and he spoke again, louder.
  136. “I said at least I have someone to talk... to...” he trailed off.
  137. >The pony’s eyes studied his lips, and she slowly shook her head, her own mouth moving again to say words to no effect.
  138. >Anonymous’ phone, which he had left on the counter as he had worked, beeped a few times to signify a new message, but Fluttershy made no indication that she’d heard it.
  139. >The two of them studied each other in silence for a while, neither sure what to do.
  140. >With a grunt of forfeit, Anonymous stood up and walked over to his decrepit, stained sofa.
  141. >He turned on the television, slumped into his seat with his hands knitted over his stomach, and tried to think about what to do next.
  142. >He had to admit, he saw the irony in finally getting someone to talk to, only for that someone to be a deaf mute, but it didn’t help him deal with the fact that he’d just wasted his savings.
  143. >It could be a lot worse. There was no upkeep required for ponybots besides charging them up once a week at an outlet, or just letting them soak up the sun for a while if that wasn’t possible.
  144. >Sadly, his pony likely had a lot more wrong with it than just what he had seen so far, so he could be looking at something that would require regular fixing.
  145. >At least his technical skills wouldn’t go to waste.
  146. >He lazily regarded the goings-on before him, the people on his TV talking about local affairs. He liked watching TV. It felt more personal than the silent bulletins the internet gave him.
  147. >Hardly anyone watched TV anymore, given the prevalence of the net, but he found comfort in watching real, actual humans talk to him live and give him updates.
  148. >He wondered how long it would be until they were replaced with realistic replicas of humans.
  149. >As his mind wandered, a weight settled against him.
  150. >He started, surprised at the sudden contact, and Fluttershy flinched as well.
  151. >Each watched the other warily for a moment, then settled.
  152. >The pony was sat upright beside him, watching the television with interest.
  153. >Anonymous leant forward and watched her eyes drift back and forth realising that whilst she couldn’t hear the newscasters, she was probably reading the updates along the bottom of the screen.
  154. >She saw him looking and gave him a shy smile; he felt himself smile back.
  155. >With a cautious hand, he reached over and meekly patted her on the head. She seemed to enjoy this contact – or at least was programmed to.
  156. >The thought crossed his mind that he might need to wash her mane and coat to prevent it from getting smelly, but he filed that away under ‘future concerns’.
  157. >For now, he relaxed, stroked his eerily silent robot pony, and watched the news as he thought about what to eat for dinner.
  158.  
  159. ---
  160. Part 2
  161. ---
  162.  
  163. >Anonymous’ first weekend with his new companion was spent trying to figure out how he was going to live with her.
  164. >With no way to call to her, he had to physically poke the pony or wave a hand in front of her face to get her attention.
  165. >She would always respond to this with muted surprise, and turn her head with a toothy smile, evidently delighted to be seeing him again.
  166. >Anonymous knew that these were programmed responses, but he still smiled in turn.
  167. >His hopes for a more conversational homestead had been dashed, but he tried not to let it bother him too much.
  168. >Pangs of regret occasionally gnawed at him when he saw her, but he told himself that at least he had something else to interact with besides a computer and a television.
  169. >The pony herself had a curious routine.
  170. >At night, she would wait for Anonymous to climb into bed before settling in the corner and curling into a ball.
  171. >After closing her eyes, she would power down and appear to be sleeping. In the morning, Anonymous assumed that the ambient sounds of a household wakening would stir an ordinary pony, but since she couldn’t hear a thing he had to shake her to wake her up.
  172. >This would be met with a brief shudder as her systems rebooted, and she greeted her owner with a simulated, soundless yawn and a dopey grin.
  173. >As an experiment, Anonymous decided not to wake her on Sunday to see what would happen.
  174. >Sure enough, she did not stir even slightly until well into the afternoon, at which point Anonymous decided that he’d made his point and shook her awake.
  175. >When he pottered around his apartment, Fluttershy would diligently follow him.
  176. >At first he thought it somewhat unsettling to have a completely silent presence watching the back of his head, but it was hard for him to stay upset at something that was repeatedly thrilled to have his attention.
  177. >It was all just circuitry and subroutines, but he caught himself continually fooled by the illusion.
  178. >He noticed that if he left a wrapper lying around, she would delicately take it in her mouth and trot into the kitchen to deposit it in the bin.
  179. >He was surprised by this at first, but it made sense the more he thought about it.
  180. >The ponies were chiefly designed to be household companions, so it was only natural that they would come with an intelligence geared towards the cleanliness of the home.
  181. >Once an hour, she would leave his side and perform a check of his entire apartment, trotting into each room and looking over it to see if there was anything amiss.
  182. >If she found an issue, she would try to resolve it. Given her lack of speech this would not be announced, and Anonymous would only find out once he heard shuffling in another room and entered to find her trying to reorganise his broom closet or something similar.
  183. >This was further exemplified by her attempting to clean his kitchen counter following the preparation of a meal on Sunday.
  184. >Anonymous – an eternal bachelor – was used to leaving crumbs and other mess untended with a mind to clean it up later.
  185. >He was not a slob by any means, but he preferred to leave things to be done ‘in his own time’.
  186. >Fluttershy did not share his philosophy, and became increasingly frustrated in her futile efforts to climb onto the counter in order to deal with the dirty knives and vegetative detritus.
  187. >Her fumbling, and the sound of hooves clattering against his kitchen drawers, highlighted another of her deficiencies.
  188. >As he watched, bemused, he noted Fluttershy’s sole wing extend and fruitlessly flap a few times.
  189. >He found it odd, so after giving in to his companion’s wishes for a clean kitchen counter and sweeping everything up, he decided to find videos and articles about the Pegasus-model Ponybot on the Gridstock website.
  190. >What he had previously presumed were there purely for show, the wings of the Pegasus-model did in fact serve a function.
  191. >He absorbed with interest the more in-depth articles that he had previously ignored or skim-read.
  192. >The Pegasus was allegedly designed with the capacity for limited hovering, and this was reflected in the materials used to construct the frames, which set it apart from the Earth Pony and Unicorn models.
  193. >Earth Ponies were described as “hardy”, and were listed as the heaviest model due to their orientation towards more physically-demanding environments and tasks.
  194. >They were popular among the wealthy that enjoyed hiking, sporting, and other such activities.
  195. >Unicorns were less capable of being thrown around, but were still composed of the same material composition.
  196. >They also boasted sophisticated wireless technologies and intelligence-centres contained in their horns that allowed them to communicate with household electronics. To that end, Unicorn models were able to function as extensions of the upmarket ‘smart homes’, and had a more versatile intelligence than the other models.
  197. >They were often touted as the go-to choice for the career-person looking for an assistant.
  198. >The descriptions of Pegasi however went into detail about the specific metallic compounds used in their construction.
  199. >Much of it went over Anonymous’ head, but it was apparently the case that the Pegasus model had been the hardest to manufacture because of the hurdle that their wings presented.
  200. >They had been the last of the three models to be unveiled after numerous setbacks.
  201. >Pegasi were considerably lighter than their grounded counterparts due to the lighter metals required to facilitate their noted selling point.
  202. >This unfortunately sacrificed durability, and buyers were cautioned to take good care of Pegasi in order to prevent unwanted damages.
  203. >The wings were something of a technological marvel, even among the wonders of the post-modern age.
  204. >According to several sensationalist articles Anonymous read on his news-browser, they had driven many of the engineers working on the Pegasus model to therapy following innumerable overnight shifts and crunch time.
  205. >Anonymous watched in silent wonder as a fully-functional and properly-coloured Fluttershy model drifted around an expansive, well-kept garden after some laughing children.
  206. >It wasn’t true flight; that simply wasn’t possible given the parameters of the product, but she was able to jump and float for a time.
  207. >Anonymous snorted as a presenter demonstrated the pony’s capabilities by throwing her off a three-story building, only for the pony to unfurl her wings and elegantly glide to the concrete below.
  208. >He finally nodded in understanding as the video cut to another Fluttershy hovering off the ground to reach things on a kitchen counter considerably more ostentatious than his own.
  209. >He glanced to see his own Fluttershy stood off to one side watching him with her mismatched eyes, patiently waiting for his next movements.
  210. >She smiled at his notice, and cocked her head at his monitor. Anonymous closed the video before she could see the other model.
  211. >He wasn’t sure why, as there wasn’t any way she could interpret anything from it.
  212. >Or was there?
  213. >Anonymous’ weekend came to a close before he could think of a way to test her, but he went to bed on Sunday night wondering about the limits of her cognition.
  214. >The advent of artificial intelligence was not without its own controversies, and great efforts had been made leading up to and after its arrival to curtail and regulate the advancement of what was called ‘self-aware’ AI.
  215. >From what Anonymous understood, a truly self-aware AI would bring about the apocalypse. At least that’s what the talking heads on TV informed him with an almost religious zealotry on a regular basis.
  216. >Because of what he assumed was a universally-shared fear of tyrannical mechanical overlords destroying the planet, AI in the post-modern age was intentionally written to be flawed.
  217. >It was allowed the freedom to learn and make judgements only within the framework provided by the designers, and this seemed to be working well enough so far.
  218. >This was why Anonymous could speak to the valets at a fast-food joint about what he wanted to order to a shockingly deep degree.
  219. >But if he wanted to speak with them about art, music, or even the weather they would be incapable of forming a response beyond the canned “Yes, it is a nice day, sir, so what would you like to eat?”
  220. >The intelligence level specifically for the Ponybots was only vaguely explained by Gridstock whenever it was mentioned in press releases or interviews.
  221. >Anonymous wasn’t sure if this was because the company wanted to keep things close to their chests, or because they didn’t see the point in bogging the public down with technical details.
  222. >The ponies were designed to be household companions, and their intelligences supposedly catered to that, but Anonymous couldn’t fathom what exactly that might entail on a nuanced level.
  223. >‘Household intelligence’ could cover a vast array of topics. After all, a family could talk about anything, could they not?
  224. >Presumably, the pony would be expected to handle conversations regarding any conceivable topic a human might want to chat about, so how are they limited?
  225. >As he lay in bed, he turned over to watch his pony ‘sleeping’ in the corner.
  226. >A notable characteristic of the Ponybot was its oversized head. This was coupled with their enlarged eyes to give them an approachable, cartoonish feel, but behind that convex plastiglass Anonymous could imagine there being a sizeable neural network.
  227. >Computation had advanced so far that entire libraries of music could be held and freely modified on a chip the width of an eyelash, so how much processing power must there be inside an artificial brain roughly the same size as his?
  228. >Anonymous resolved to find out, and he knew where he could test her.
  229.  
  230. ***
  231.  
  232. >On Monday morning, Anonymous travelled to work, and his new companion eagerly came with him.
  233. >She darted ahead onto the tarmac outside the complex as soon as she realised where they were going and excitedly pawed the ground as she waited for her master to catch up.
  234. >Her hooves even made a realistic ‘clop’ as they struck the hard surface.
  235. >As he drove along the poorly-maintained roads in an old car that was sustained more through desperate faith and pleading than Anonymous’ engineering, Fluttershy sat in the passenger seat watching the world go by, mesmerised.
  236. >It was a miserable sight, as far as Anonymous was concerned, but then he’d grown up around it so any veneer of charm the city he lived in may once have had had long since worn away.
  237. >Dilapidated housing and cracked pavements were set against a skyline of imposing spires of glass and light.
  238. >The centre of the city was a hub of wealth and luxury, but the outer suburbs, which included Anonymous’ apartment complex, saw nary a dime.
  239. >To Fluttershy, none of that mattered. She turned her head this way and that, drinking in every sight with an expression of wonder.
  240. >Anonymous couldn’t focus on her as he drove, but he stole glances every chance he could get, trying to gauge whether or not what she was doing was just programming or if it was real.
  241. >Before he could interrogate himself on the nature of ‘real’, he arrived at the scrapyard and parked in his usual spot at the far end.
  242. >He didn’t exercise often, so he liked to walk the full length of the lot just so he could stretch his legs before work.
  243. >His companion followed in earnest, her gaze flitting around her immediate surroundings but mostly fixed onto her master as though he could at any moment disappear from her sight.
  244. >To reassure her, he patted her head. It wasn’t much of a stretch, given that her head came to just below his hip.
  245. >Anonymous’ boss cocked an eyebrow when his employee wandered into the cramped hub to clock in.
  246. >It was a dingy building with close walls, a low ceiling, and a smell that none could define. It was used to store the visors and other protective equipment the workers needed whilst out in the trash heaps, as well as to house the few administrative staff required to run the operation.
  247. >He nodded to the pony at Anonymous’ side as the younger man entered.
  248. >“One for the scrapheap?” he grunted, a tired but experienced eye appraising the possible value of the little robot.
  249. >His gaze danced over her, noting the incorrect mane colour, missing wing, tail, and the cracked eye. He shook his head dismissively.
  250. “No, this one is mine,” replied Anonymous as his boss inspected his pony.
  251. >“Are you joking? Look at it, it’s a wreck.”
  252. “True, but she also cost me a fair whack. Helps clean my place up and she’s been good company so far. Can she come with me out in the fields?”
  253. >Anonymous’ boss shrugged and gave his assent. He had seen stranger things in his time than a man buying a broken pony, so he clocked in his worker and issued him with his visor, gloves, and padded bodysuit for the day.
  254. >Anonymous lumbered off to the locker-room to get changed, and for a brief moment Fluttershy stalled.
  255. >She peered up at the boss, looming over her from behind his high desk. The broad-shouldered, fattened man watched her in turn, waiting for her to do something interesting.
  256. >After staring at him for a few seconds, she smiled and gave him a small wave. The boss blinked, and after a pause gingerly waved back.
  257. >The pony seemed happy with this, so she trotted into the locker-room to find her master.
  258. >The boss watched after her, then shook his head and went back to typing away at his console. He had seen far stranger things.
  259.  
  260. ***
  261.  
  262. >The piles of electrical trash dumped outside Anonymous’ home city were one of only seven in the entire country.
  263. >He considered himself lucky to be living next to both such an eyesore and an environmental hazard, as it kept him employed.
  264. >There was always the guilt of being a part of an operation that stood as a testament to the cynicism of the era, but guilt didn’t fill his belly or pay for his heating bill, so he could put it aside.
  265. >Between the veritable mountains of discarded electronics and other miscellaneous metallic scrap, wide meandering dirt roads allowed passage for trucks and other heavy machinery to navigate the dump.
  266. >Anonymous’ visor booted up to display his quota and tagging log as he and Fluttershy hopped off the transport bus that ferried the workforce to where they needed to go.
  267. >His colleagues had been mildly interested when the pair had first arrived, but this was short-lived; the majority of communication amongst colleagues was done via one-word sentences and grunts so any and all questions had been fielded and answered within a minute.
  268. >He was assigned to one of the newer piles that had been deposited the other week on the outer edges of the dump.
  269. >This meant that there would be a lot of electronics and valuable metals to pick through, and it was Anonymous’ job to tag these objects for collection.
  270. >This would be done by a swarm of automated drones that would fly out overnight and collect what had been tagged for sorting at the processing plant at the centre of the scrapyard.
  271. >It was a cyclical system – by day the human workforce would find valuable materials, and by night the robotic workforce would collect and process them.
  272. >To this end, he was given a wrist-mounted console that both displayed a datafeed on the top of his wrist, and a small gun-of-sorts beneath it.
  273. >The gun came armed with magnetic/adhesive stickers that acted as homing beacons for the drones. It was a good system, at least Anonymous thought so.
  274. >Fluttershy was in simulated-awe of what was around her. She poked and prodded everything in reach and would on occasion attempt to assist Anonymous in his work.
  275. >This was good, as it helped him to gauge her intelligence.
  276. >He quickly realised that she was definitely incapable of doing his work, which gave him some small, if unwarranted, comfort.
  277. >Employees at the dump had to have a good understanding of technology in order to identify things that would be worth saving and things that were just useless.
  278. >Anonymous had a knack for stripping down old computers and using his tools to extract valuable cards or storage drives; he had become efficient at it.
  279. >Fluttershy however, simply didn’t understand, even after Anonymous had shown her a microprocessor from an old piece of farming equipment.
  280. >She took it in her hooves, turned it over, sniffed at it, then nodded and gave it back to him. She then trotted off to rummage through a pile of junk, and came back with a jagged piece of inert metal roughly the same shape as the microprocessor.
  281. >It wasn’t what he wanted in the slightest, but she seemed so pleased with herself he couldn’t help but pat her on the head and tell her “good job”.
  282. >He had realised quickly after she started living with him that she enjoyed (or appeared to enjoy) him rubbing his fingers behind her ears, so he did it whenever he could, and she was always happy when he did.
  283. >Even so, she was still quiet throughout, so just as he always had done, he went about his work day in complete silence.
  284. >He carried out a few more experiments with different pieces of tech, but this only yielded the same results.
  285. >Something about whatever Anonymous was doing just wasn’t gelling with her, and at the very most he had been able to get her to bring him back screws that vaguely matched those he had shown her, though the screws she brought back were often rusty and thus unusable.
  286. >He had shown her the rusty screws and shaken his head, then the intact screws and nodded, but she interpreted that as him not liking those particular rusty screws, and endeavoured to bring him new rusty screws that he would surely appreciate.
  287. >He did not appreciate them, but it was still a good excuse to pet his pony.
  288. >It was sometime after midday when Anonymous saw a helivehicle coming in to land outside the dump.
  289. >Being on the outskirts, he was given a clear view of it touching down on the landing pad as he stood near the top of his assigned heap.
  290. >Fluttershy watched it with interest, and sat herself down beside her master to survey the scene.
  291. >The helivehicle was similar to the sort that the police forces and military used – a rectangular cuboid with four engines at each corner – but displayed none of the usual markings or colours that would denote it as such.
  292. >It was also far sleeker than the ordinarily chunky, industrial forms such vehicles had. It bore curves and flowing angles, it was easy on the eyes and spoke of an artisan’s touch.
  293. >Anonymous hummed as he realised he was looking at a private helivehicle; an expression of extreme wealth displayed by the people at the very top of the social totem pole.
  294. >He watched as a bloated man he soon recognised as his boss came jogging out of an outbuilding onto the pad, clutching a stack of papers and trying not to lose them in the residual wind created by the calming engines.
  295. >Anonymous put two and two together, and his eyes widened.
  296. >The side of the helivehicle was pulled open by an attendant, and a tall woman in a crimson suit emerged to meet his boss on the pad.
  297. >Anonymous was too far away to make out her face, but by her poise and the manner in which his boss appeared to start grovelling and gesturing at his papers, she was his superior.
  298. >It took a minute, but he did eventually recognise her by her striking white-blonde hair. He had seen it on company photographs and internal updates. It was the CEO.
  299. >A visit from the top brass was something that rarely happened, and up until now Anonymous had only caught sight of a few sparse visits from the upper-management of the umbrella company that oversaw the operations on the tech-dumps scattered across the country.
  300. >He had never seen anyone from the board of directors, let alone the woman in charge of the entire company. He was surprised, and wondered what could have prompted such a visit.
  301. >CEOs in the post-modern age were powerful – practically regents with global reach, fathomless wealth, and none of the governmental red-tape to bind them. What could have brought her down to visit the peasants in the muck?
  302. >But then something more interesting than a visit from the elusive CEO of the company caught Anonymous’ eye.
  303. >It caught Fluttershy’s as well. His companion stood up from her position and took a step forward, her head cocking to the side in interest.
  304. >The pair of them watched as a pony hopped out from the helivehicle to come to the CEO’s side.
  305. >Anonymous knew from the purple coat what it was. It was a Twilight Sparkle model.
  306. >From what he could tell, the pony was even outfitted with a custom-made suit, which would have made him laugh if he hadn’t seen Fluttershy’s expression first.
  307. >The whimsical smile she had worn all day had vanished.
  308. >His eyes flicked between the complete, formal presentation of the CEO’s pony, and his own.
  309. >The CEO seemed to be talking animatedly with her pony, the suited Twilight nodding in response and offering her own words, gesturing to Anonymous’ boss, then a broad sweep of her hoof around the area before tilting her head in deference to the CEO.
  310. >The woman folded her arms and jerked her head in turn, and the two went back and forth for a while in what was certainly a deeply involved conversation.
  311. >Eventually, they seemed to reach an accord, and all three figures on the helipad proceeded to the outbuilding to no-doubt discuss matters further.
  312. >Fluttershy shrank back slightly from the scene, and Anonymous looked after her.
  313. >She twisted her head about searching for something, and after finding it clambered over to a nearby slab of chrome resting against the side of the pile.
  314. >It was covered in scratches and blemishes, but still retained enough of its mirror-finish to provide a decent reflection.
  315. >She stood before it and stared at herself for a long time, expressionless.
  316. >Anonymous observed this from a distance, his mind racing with the implications of what he was seeing.
  317. >Fluttershy turned to show her side, a hoof reaching back to stroke at the hole where her missing wing should be. She then showed her back to the mirror, highlighting her lack of a tail. Finally, she touched her orange eye and mimed a few unheard words to herself.
  318. >Anonymous sighed and rubbed his stubble in thought. He looked out over the expanse of mechanical waste all around him, then back at his pony, who was still intently reviewing herself in the chrome.
  319. >He looked again at the mountains of trash and set his jaw, a plan having formed.
  320. “Gotta be something in all this I can work with.”

[MOONDAY] Thread Shorts Volume 1

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