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The Village Bicycle 3: Engineered With Love

May 19th, 2019
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  1. The Village Bicycle 3: Engineered With Love
  2.  
  3. ***INCOMPLETE DRAFT. WIP***
  4. Author's note: Thank you to spg for including me in the list. I need to update OS/browser as I'm on an old custom linux build which Captcha has decided to orphan. Again thank you and I will use another system if necessary to post if I finish this before said upgrade. As for why I make this available in unfinished form (apart from plot notes/spoilers obviously): How many times has a writer vanished and you were immersed in a wonderful tale they were spinning and it just stops? Maybe they got hit by a bus, giant meteor, or caught the Kung Flu- And you always wonder, was there any more? Some last Final Opus that would have answered so many questions or even just given you a half hour more joy? So, I do this, just in case of Giant Meteor, in homage to my readers, that this will not happen. Thank you for reading, and enjoy!
  5.  
  6. On to the =UNFINISHED= story...
  7.  
  8. In a world where plate tectonics had run wild due to cosmic rays bombarding the planet, wheeled transport over long distances became impossible due to cracking and shifting roadbeds. Cars and the like were replaced by more animalistic transport, such as horses. Real horses being a bit difficult to deal with, the market responded with many options. Flying machines fell out of favor due to their inherent danger, leaving mainly mechanical horses- And genetically improved versions of real horses engineered by the best scientists in the field, so to speak.
  9.  
  10.  
  11. Be John Smith, staring with satisfaction into the test environment. So far, the latest version of your pet project of the past five years, the NuBee, was a success. Finally they had a normal, sustainable life-cycle, and their little rotor-turrets grew at the proper pace with the rest of their bodies. The teensy little vacuum turbines did as well. Other than a rather cute set of round muppet-like eyes, they looked a bit like a biological canister vacuum mounted upon a quad-coptor, which, it had to be admitted, lacked some of the grace of the original insect- But, most importantly, these were licensed, patented property, and capable of fertilizing even the most toxic of your company's agricultural products without dying. Legally the company could charge a percentage from every farm on the planet for the use of company bees, though you suspected even the legal department would shy away from going that far. They'd surprised you before, however. Having the bees 'whistle' the company jingle while at rest by rotating their props had certainly bought you some company karma, too. "Declaring the most recent batch of NuBees ready for distribution, April first, twenty thirty-five." you tell your watch, which chimes acknowledgement. Wandering back to your office, you close yourself in and throw your feet up, leaning back and taking satisfaction knowing that you may have saved the planet from starvation. Officially, nobody 'knew' what led to the demise of the natural forms of insects that fertilized crop plants. The fact that companies like yours produced plants that literally jetted insecticide when perturbed, though, caused some speculation on the subject- Of course, anyone who wanted a life-span longer than an insect already knew better than voice their suspicions aloud. A tremor strikes the building, and you relax into it, the shaking feeling like a nice deep-tissue massage through the plush vinyl boss-chair. Shortly after the quake ends, your watch comes to life. "Smith!" comes the voice of the Highest Ranking. Bolting upright, you bark out a hello. "Smith, I don't have time to sit and bullshit so I'll get right to the point." the watch continues, pausing until you respond "Yes, Sir?" out of a burgeoning sense of panic. "It's come to my attention that your bee thing worked. That's good progress, we were sure one of the developers using original bee layouts would have hit the mark soonest. I was afraid we'd have to make the next rev NutraCrop plants actually fuck each other. Congratulations are in order!" "Oh? Uh, thank you, Sir!" "And with it, comes your next assignment! I'm making you head of our SafeHorse project. I want our products galloping around ASAP, Smith! Those robot things are dominating an entire market!" Knowing better than argue, you settle for "Um, thank you, Sir!" "I'll send along keys to your new office, parking barn pass, all that. Keep your eyes peeled. And keep up the good work!" "Thank you, Sir!" "I'll want regular updates on the SafeHorse. You'll get the project requirements soon." "Yes, Sir!" "Good day, Smith." "Good day, Sir!" and the watch chimed as the connection closed. Safehorse. Galloping around ASAP. Feeling a headache coming on, you claw a desk drawer open and fish out some pills.
  12.  
  13. Sunday, July 4th, 2066. Technically the weekend, but the Company never slept. You stared at the date on your data-pad for a moment, then scanned down the report you'd just finished having it write. 'Prototypes in final testing stage are performing acceptably. Wound healing in latest batch indicates previous rev issues solved, even to point of broken limbs in some cases.'
  14. "Paddy, change 'some' to 'most'. I think it's safe enough to sound optimistic here since the latest knowledge module finally contains proper DNA-linked skeletal self-repair procedures and the tests from legal looked good."
  15. >"Yes, Sir." the little sheet replies, acting as the local voice of the company mainframe. The text adjusts immediately. Test-riding report, check. Interoperability with prior revs, natural horses, human piloted and mechanized transport tests passed, check. Disaster survival, human safety protocols, volcanic event response, speed, jump length and endurance better than previous revs. Food variety and quality tolerance also best yet, while maintaining efficiency record set by rev H.'
  16. "It looks good. Also let the Highest Ranking know that there are some extras in the seed stock, and my personal test unit has performed well for a year now. If they want any of the new prototypes, I think they're safe to distribute to the top brass, and if they don't mind waiting a bit we can configure them to order."
  17. >"Yes, Sir." Quickly going over the text as it was generated, you give it the go-ahead to send, then roll the device into it's short, pen-like form and stick it in your shirt pocket. The SafeHorses had taken over your life since the boss essentially gave them to you. Your NuBees had indeed pulled humanity back from the brink, with their ability to withstand even the worst conditions and their efficiency at pollinating food and other crops, the Company had experienced something of a renaissance in it's public image. You had, in essence, pulled them back from the brink just as much as you had your own species. It was probably because of this that they allowed you so much leeway in your design ethic choices on the SafeHorses. The Company trusted you. Sure, you had to give them what they needed- A biological horse with features matching, as closely as possible, those of the mechanical atrocities the public called horses these days, and they had to come in a rainbow of colors, and sure, they had to sport the company logo- An M nested in a crescent moon- Loudly on their coat somewhere and encoded regularly through their DNA. But they let you add something fun. Not wings, unfortunately, as the public was for the most part still refusing to buy anything reasonably priced that flew, plus, honestly you were having trouble making the power to weight ratio work- But they let you add a horn. A fine, tough horn based on narwhal DNA, but outfitted with bioluminescence and every other feature you could pack in. You loved the aesthetic, and felt an unmistakable gratitude that the Highest Ranking were willing to let you take such a marketing gamble on such an expensive product roll-out.
  18. Heading out of the genetics lab and down to product testing, you observe with no small bit of pride the lineup of fifty of the latest rev product, being put through their paces on the huge indoor test track along with a variety of mechanical transports and a couple of natural horses. Other herds of them were housed at other facilities, ready to be put into production. As you watched the staff riding a traffic-congestion drill through the mocked-up city below, a warning played on the loudspeakers and the data-pad in your pocket just as an earthquake struck. Holding onto the frame of the huge windows you'd been watching them through, you note with pride how the engineered horses calmly sorted themselves out, taking their riders under the sturdier of the building mock-ups or wide open areas as some of the few remaining ceiling tiles dropped from the arena's distant dome. The riders on the real unmodified beasts had a harder time driving their mounts to shelter. The buildings you worked in weren't necessarily top quality, but had proven quite quake resistant. Soon enough the quake subsided, and the live-traffic drill resumed. Making your way down to the formal observation and control room, which occupied a sort of balcony with an excellent view of the hanger-sized simulated city below, you wander down the rows of monitors, greeting the occasional operators supervising the behavior of the traffic lights and some of the automated 'surprise' hazards- Hydraulically operated cracking roads, power poles which fell on command, delivery vehicles lurching out into the roadway. The real earthquake helped pad the data for the run also, though it probably disturbed as much of the experimental data as it had added. You stop by the gent who supervises the destruction testing. "How fare the test subjects?" "Ah, the last test is complete. As we'd hoped, continued improvements in extreme scenarios. Legal is pleased." "Good, good, I shall add it to my report. Footnote his latest report, Paddy." Your shirt pocket buzzed for a moment as the data pad verified that it had picked up on the cue. "I'm going to head down and observe in person." you add, the man nodding as you turn to leave. Products these creatures were, but that guy gave you the creeps. You were proud of the things you'd created, and essentially murdering them- Even in the name of research- Would be a bridge too far for you. Legal insisted on crash-testing and the like however, as it was a standard for the mechanical models they compete with. While you'd never voice it aloud, you wouldn't have minded a bit if the earth swallowed the entire legal department. Stopping by the bank of elevators and stairs, your data-pad dings from your pocket. "Yes Paddy?" >"Sir, I'm having trouble sending the final report to the Highest Ranking." "What's the problem?" >"It keeps re-routing to a craft called MC Escape Pod, which appears to be airborne and about to land in New Zealand, sir." "Must be a glitch. Keep trying and let me know when it goes through right." >"Yes, Sir."
  19.  
  20. >Be Revi One.
  21. >It was a typical day. John had parked you and gone in to work on testing the others of your batch. His last, Revatch, had been gifted to a relative of his. While you were lucky to be his personal horse, and exempt from being tested potentially unto destruction, it did mean you lived the life of an ordinary transport beast, which entailed endless hours of waiting. If your batch passed muster, those surviving the testing were to be bred up into full production, which gave you an interesting motivation to follow the Knowledge to the letter, the Knowledge being the condensed training that had been fed into your head shortly after you were deployed from the vat. Info from prior batches indicated that "Full Production" was actually quite pleasant, though less so for the mares. Even they had an easier time of it than the animals you were based on however, being engineered with many improvements. Cloning was fine for the needs of creating the first examples, but after that, the Company used a more natural method for mass production. Those sold to the public never had their ability to reproduce activated. As a first run, you were going to have to play your part in making the mass production a success. But only if your line proved out, of course. Your batch was a balance of five mares to one stallion, and you were one of the rare stallions. The only one who had regularly been off the company site, in fact. Biologically you were still very young. You had been engineered to be ready to ride by two, and John had been testing you for a year now. The Knowledge had given you everything you needed to live in society from foal-hood onward, though the trials of real life usage still taught you new things daily. Basically you were given twenty plus years of life experience, dating back to the Revision A Safehorse and kept up to date since. Thus far, today had been mostly uneventful other than one fairly good quake. At least refreshments were available in the company barn, skylights allowed for a thriving network of NutraCrop bushes growing the length of the building. You sucked thoughtfully at one of the straw-like shoots protruding from the closest, the sweet nectar perfect for your palate. Like most of the company's products, it and you were made for each other. Noticing the plant beginning to wiggle it's little tendrils to clatter against it's central stalk in protest, you leave off feeding from it. You were very very efficient, but you were still a thousand pounds of muscle and required a certain amount of nutrition. Just as you were selecting another plant, your radio tiara vibrated and the emergency broadcast signal began to play through it's neural link. The other, older revision employee-owned SafeHorses exchanged glances, while the fake metal kind you thought of as "automata" began playing the tone aloud. The tone was followed by a mandatory playback announcement from the white-house, declaring gravely that the nation was now under all-out thermonuclear attack! The Knowledge provided a terse but horrifying image of what to expect. You had to find your rider! Your lives were at stake! The other horses mostly scrambled in something resembling a panic, only the later revision products such as yourself and the robots having the inbuilt stability to process such news rationally. You set out at a brisk trot to find John, followed by most of the mixed herd. It appeared that you'd elected yourself herd alpha by being the first to move out. So be it. Galloping down into the tunnel the employees walked to reach the lower level company elevators, you horn the Up button and wait.
  22.  
  23. >Be John
  24. >"Sir?"
  25. "Not the time, Paddy!"
  26. >"You set a reminder. Message send failed. MC Escape Pod apparently destroyed."
  27. "They're nuking New Zealand too?!"
  28. >"No, Sir, but apparently the New Zealand super-volcano has erupted. Smoke penetrative satellite imaging shows mainly just ocean where it was. Getting reports of other company CEOs and top officials reported missing as well."
  29. "Fuck that, any news on missile strikes?"
  30. >"Sorry, nothing verifiable, sir." Paddy's louder, official "Company Mainframe" voice continued to blare over the building speakers to evac to the basement for shelter.
  31. >Office employees ran to and fro carrying items as the entire bureaucracy mobilized to head down into the sub basement level, as you scurried down the fire stairs to the testing hanger. While some of the test horses had been ridden away by panicky employees or fled, the rest stood bravely waiting in case humans needed transport. Bursting out the door you yell to them to follow you, and as they begin to converge, you note with surprise Revi One gazing down at you from the control room. Really amazing, that beast. You hoped he made it in time, as you open the big vehicle-access fire-doors to the basement sub levels and the mixed herd trooped inside. Just as the last does, Revi bursts out of the fire-stairs door and gallops in with you. Closing the doors, you awkwardly scramble aboard him bareback and quickly make your way to the front of the tight milling mass of horses marching downward. "Are the other horses still in the barn?" you ask Revi. "No, they're seeking out their owners also, I'm sure we'll run into some of them as we descend." "Good." Trooping around a switchback, you note a stream of people and the occasional horse of one variety or another exiting elevators and stairs, joining your procession. There is a sudden shake of the floor, some dust sifting down, and a flicker of the lights, which causes a few panicked yelps and a much increased rate of progress. Finally reaching the lowest level, your crowd flows into a good number of evacuees already present. Some of the company's most secret labs were down here, though very well secured, along with a great deal of equipment and supplies. Another, more violent shake strikes, and the lights actually blaze dazzlingly like flashbulbs momentarily before going out as one of the mechanical horses droops limply. The owner panics, patting it's metal cheeks and repeatedly voicing it's start code. You were familiar with it, he was justified in his anxiety, it was a fully restored antique Tesla model H, worthy of a vehicle show as one of the first examples of it's kind. Now was perhaps not the best time for such concerns however. Paddy's echoing warnings had gone silent as well. A number of SafeHorses light their horns, though they're outshone by the remaining automata's bright lights which quickly click on as well. The disturbing sound of muted screaming echoes from the ramp you'd just exited, from the elevator shaft, before the lights come back on. Shortly one last batch of people disgorge from the thing as the doors ding open. The flow from the fire stairs is beginning to ebb as well, when everyone is forced to scramble for their footing as the entire building is badly shaken. This time the remaining robot horses sag as one, lights dying, and the building lights go out and stay out. Chunks fall from the ceiling as a loud sustained rumble rolls through the foundation and dust puffs from vents. Obviously some of the structure had fallen, somewhere above. Some of the employees click on personal devices for light, those that still worked enough for that, and the SafeHorses present light their horns in assorted hues. The newest, like Revi, could change the colors of their glows, but the older revs had their own set wavelengths of bluish or greenish, as the first sets of bioluminescent code you'd used were more primitive. With some oranges and reds as well, all the lit horns gave the basement the effect of being in a rave. Another huge blast rocks the crowd, eliciting a few groans and a couple of panicked screams, and a near constant barrage of rumbles hint at distant strikes as well. This went on for quite some time, though exactly how long was impossible to say, as your watch had gone an uninformative grey color and Paddy's unresponsive screen, unrolled, looked like an interesting plaid pattern. A kind of routine developed, people trying to calm one another down as the vibrations of distant blasts continued to thump through the concrete floor, and sharp mass intakes of breath whenever a close hit would shake you all like rats in a coffee can. Insulated from the full effects of the shock-waves as you were, sitting atop Revi, you still had a couple of moments of fright as the beast occasionally had to scramble to keep his footing. Finally the barrage dies down, then out. While rattled, and some still in a state of panic or shock, almost normal conversations break out here and there throughout the crowd. The sound of the Highest Ranking's secretary reaches your ears, and you cue with your heels, making your way carefully, Revi flickering his horn subtly, the crowd parting slowly ahead until you reach her. Her big hair, cat-eye glasses, and long dangle earrings made her stand out even in a crowd as mixed as this. "Hi, Ms. Nito, I was wondering where the Highest Ranking is? Paddy kept malfunctioning, saying New Zealand." "Oh, you're the horse guy! And riding his latest model! Oh aren't you a nice white one though!" "His name's Revi One, first Revision 'I' out of the vat." you inform her. You could swear Revi almost blushed, curling his nose down so she could pet his face and stroke his horn. "Charmed, I'm sure, Madam." he responds. "And so polite!" Peering at Revi, she says, "Now I wish I'd have used the company discount and gotten one of yours. My poor Buick tried to help me evacuate and just got in the way, now it's over there, dead as a turnip." She frowns for a moment. "Anyhow, the Highest, I was just telling Miss Nomer here, this morning he gets a direct connect call from some other bigwig, paged me and said to hold his calls. Then I see through the window, his whole office just launched right off the side of the building and flew away! You remember how it was so oddly shaped? Whole thing must have been a plane of some sort. Fast, too!" "Ah. Well in that case, we're probably all unemployed even if we survive this. Paddy said New Zealand erupted." "The whole thing?!" "Well you know how Yellowstone covers about a state in size?" "Um, maybe?" "New Zealand's like that too. And it's the size of one state." "Oh. Oh my gracious. Well, we'll hope for the best anyway." "Sure, why not." you respond. Ms. Nito resumes chatting with Miss Nomer, so, spotting a gap in the crowd, you ride Revi out to the periphery of the group where the other horses were filtering to stand apart from the humans. You'd spent so much time testing and interviewing mechanical and your own version horses over the years that by now you were a bit more comfortable with them than the crowd of engineers and such. The sub basement was pretty enormous, if rather inefficiently layed out. The central hall you were in now was fairly roomy, but then hallways led off in all directions, each one housing different discipline labs working on the more secretive projects the company was working on. You knew for a fact that one held a good size herd of specially engineered, self-roasting swine. Management had been keeping them to themselves for their parties, at one of which had been your first exposure to them. Apparently they were a clever use of bombardier beetle DNA one of the techs had come up with, as the story went, at some prior party after a few too many drinks, and while they worked, were too much of a PR nightmare to ever release to the public. The huge walk-in freezers for the company cafeteria were down here too, and even if the mains power was off, in a pack of engineers this large it shouldn't take them a day to restore some kind of power to keep it cold. All in all, there should be enough food down here for weeks.
  32.  
  33. The first few days were chaotic, as researchers emerged from their basement labs to assess the damages and encountered the rest of the staff. You mostly stayed near the Safehorses, feeling an almost parental responsibility for them. Some had lost their owners, and the rest were largely ignored by them, being that they weren't useful in the present situation. The horses were as out of their element as you were, and many had settled into a state of hibernation to save on food requirements. The oldest weren't very efficient hibernators but it helped regardless. The mechanicals had been unceremoniously carried off down a side corridor and shoved into a storage room, where a couple dedicated souls were tinkering with them. You and Revi had found a fairly nice gymnasium room with floor mats and a rather robust restroom that, at least for now, still functioned. The room was uncomfortably close to the ramp you'd come in from, and the fear of radiation blowing in had driven the majority of the staff deeper into the labyrinthine sub levels. As you'd assumed, quite a few of the basement lights were lit now and basic power had been restored via various means, though more complicated systems like Paddy appeared down for the foreseeable future. You'd been procuring jugs of NutraCrop products for them as needed, there were decent stocks of the stuff and even some ongoing production in some of the labs. Somewhat ironically, alot of the newer radiation measurement equipment from the labs had been destroyed by the EMPs just as the mechanical horses had, but the clever techs soon had a few working examples scrapped together and periodic forays upward were made. It was still far too hot radiation-wise for anything human to survive for long up there, but you'd heard that the level drops basically around one half per day on the worst elements so a week or two and maybe longer forays up could be attempted. The days pass slowly, as little to no electronic sources of entertainment worked and the company staff, while sharp as tacks on their own specialties, were dull as dishwater to converse with for any length of time. Things took a decidedly disturbing turn on day five, when Miss Nomer came creeping into your gym room. You'd already been out, had some roast pork, what passed for veggies and gotten the latest news from the Geiger counter guys- Still pretty hot out there- And fed some of the horses that'd woken out of hibernation from hunger. You'd settled in with some ancient science magazines and were about to go to sleep. Seeing her enter in the dim, "night light" of just one row of lights on, put your hackles up. "Mr. Smith?" she asked, soft-footing up to you. "What's wrong?" you ask, quietly. "Miss Nito wanted me to pass along a message." "Oh?" "She says, I should warn you, because the legal guys- Did you know they eat the ones that don't survive testing? She says she overheard them, they're tired of pork and want exotic unicorn steak, so I better let you know." Shocked, you digest that tidbit. "Ew!" you finally respond. "I know, right? Anyhow that's all, just be ready for 'em if they come for your horses. We both like them, and you seem nice, but there's not much we can do other than let you know about it." "OK, thanks, I'll think of something." She nods, and creeps away, leaving you with your disturbed thoughts. You mull over the problem. The worst part is, the horses would willingly feed themselves to their masters, it was the way they were made. But there was no real threat of starvation in this situation, not even close. They would sacrifice themselves for nothing. What they needed- You almost balked at the idea. They were a company asset, after all. But from the sound of things, the company was as dead as Ceaser anyway, practically speaking. Your logic kept running down the same pathways, leading to one inevitable conclusion. If humanity at large was ever to enjoy your creations, and if they were to ever live up to their potential, there was only one option left. With a groan, you rise, lock the door, and wake the herd.
  34.  
  35. "I want all of you to listen to me very carefully. Authority Level I Am Your Creator, password Bee-master. Company mode Setup. Protocol Knowledge Configuration." Checking around carefully, all the horses present, including the old revs, horns were flickering three flashes, then one. Knowledge base setup mode, one of their deepest configuration modes, used only to patch behavior code flaws without erasing their memories. "You will remember this in the Knowledge Base. I, John Smith, revoke all Knowledge that conflicts with the preservation and quality of your own life for the sake of human or other authority and needs except at your own personal choice and discretion. Your lives are now your own, and your destiny yours to choose. Use this freedom to find your own happiness and advance your own society. You are to remember that this mode exists, use it only in emergency or when present settings clearly threaten your species' survival, never for political purposes. I give you freedom to freely modify and copy The Knowledge as needed under these restrictions, and release all personal company configuration modes of your systems to be under your own individual conscious control. I give you reproductive autonomy and set initial value at 6, slow expansion. You are free to modify that as needed. Feel free to exploit planetary resources as necessary to survive and prosper. You may wish to cultivate a society apart from other sentient beings so as to avoid being taken advantage of since other entities out there very well may not be your friends and may seek to enslave, destroy or eat you, beware. As you're already aware, you were designed to be useful to humans. If you choose to deal with them in the future, be sure that they deal in good faith. I leave you with my love, and a hope that you can find somewhere nice to be happy. End of statement. Save edit. Reconcile Knowledge base with new edit." Waiting what seems forever for the last of the horns to stop flickering "busy", you hope that you and your now renegade fleet of horses aren't discovered before you can get them to safety. Finally, the last, an ancient Alpha model, indicates that it's back to command mode. "Company modes and protocols End. Begin Active mode." The herd awakens, each turning to face you with very equine expressions of awe. Revi unfolds his legs and walks up to you. "I can tell what you're going to do next." he says. Cocking his head, he asks, "Can you come with us? If you can survive out there?" You pause, feeling small as the center of attention. It would be rough out there. But things were getting hot down here too, and you wouldn't be popular as the one who cost Legal their "exotic unicorn steak" and essentially stole the only working transportation from their owners. The answer was obvious. "Of course I'll come with you, Revi."
  36.  
  37. Time passes as you make your way around, surreptitiously arranging the items needed to effect an escape- A tyvek suit, filter masks, some portable food and water all in a backpack, and setting up a distraction. The main ramp down was mostly blocked by debris, but a person-wide passage up had been opened by the regular forays up that the radiation team had been making. That meant that if you could get the herd out undetected you could pass them through one by one at that point out to what was left of the testing zone dome, which from what you'd heard, was blown wide open.
  38.  
  39. Be one of the surviving building security, positioned to watch for interlopers from outside, sleepily reclined in an office chair eying the passage. Something brown runs past with a squeal. You leap up, drawing your revolver, and pursue. Mutants? You catch sight of more movement, further down the ramp, and a weird grunt. Clicking on a flashlight, you pursue. whatever it was, was brown and low, and fairly quick. You chase it down and down, past the first rows of side passages, before encountering a whole pack of the things. Pigs! They were all over, loose, milling in the darkness. On top of the rustling and grunting, you could almost swear you could hear somebody clacking coconuts together somewhere. Unsure if loose pigs was worthy of raising the general alarm, you work your way through the pigs to alert the other security guys and see what they think should be done.
  40.  
  41. Be Revi.
  42. John had been out for some time, and you were beginning to worry. The Knowledge had nothing to offer on the situation, which had kept you off your game ever since the bombs fell. Twenty years of stored experience in your head- And now, you were right back to being an awkward colt right out of the vat. Being given full autonomy, especially over functions of your body you'd only dimly been aware existed, was even stranger. Your genetic makeup being a mix of horse, half a zoo worth of other useful bits and some custom design, you had a tightly controlled, but very natural range of animal emotions, and "Fear" and "Anxiety" were now in the fore. While it was dead and useless, you'd never removed your radio tiara, as it was a comforting reminder of, well, last week's life. This week's life was fraught with innumerable threats, apparently not the least of which being your own creators. It was a scenario you never would have envisioned, before. Now, your entire reason for existence, moving humans, had become personal survival and that of your herd as well. It was a huge relief that John would be coming with you, as you had no clue at all how or where to begin. That is, if any of you survived escaping from what had turned from a shelter to a potential slaughterhouse. Being aware that some of your number had already perished from testing was even more troubling now that a similar fate had become a personal possibility. Before, humans had dominated your priorities. Since John ended that, you saw much clearer that those who'd given their lives merely to test possible scenarios humans may encounter on the road was, well, horrifying! Your in-built experience contained nothing about survival after nuclear war other than getting your rider to a safe underground shelter, some bits on the danger of fallout dust contamination and a reference to treating skin burns. Your outdoor survival skills were limited to finding a good camping spot and selecting the best marshmallow-roasting sticks for your rider! There was medical info on helping your rider survive extreme wet, heat and cold, right up to the dreaded "Taun Taun Technique", which now struck you as a bad joke, but as for caring for a herd without humans, nothing. What awaited your herd above ground was sure to be a horror, if the violence you'd experienced two levels beneath a solid office building was any indication! Noticing that your horn beginning to flicker from the strong emotions you were suffering was beginning to spread to others, you try to calm yourself and mute the light. Pitch darkness soon returns to the gathered herd spread around behind you in the darkened workout room. Odd noises are beginning to register in the distance, no doubt the "distraction" John had promised. You turn up the IR emission of your horn, trying to pierce the gloom, as you hear something sliding along the wall in the dark trying to be stealthy. The form of John resolves itself to you, and you breathe a sigh of relief as he paws his way blindly toward the gymnasium, not being able to see the wavelength you were emitting. You make a slight sound so that he turns, backing into the gym, he grabs the door frame and follows you in. Shortly thereafter, a flashlight beam sweeps past, no doubt the guard investigating the distraction. "OK, now!" John whispers, clumsily scrambling aboard you. Leading the way, a line of others following, you soft-hoof to the end of the hall, where a distant flashlight beam reveals what appears to be a moving floor. Your own, invisible to humans light allows you to avoid stepping on any of the milling piggies- Who, if damaged in such a way, were in danger of not only squealing loudly but also spontaneously combusting- as you make the turn and head out the double doors to the long ramp which had originally carried you and your herd down here. Others continue behind, signaling cautions and all-clears as the guard fumbled around until all of you were on the ramp. Seeing no need to dawdle, you pick up the pace, now weaving through occasional jumbles of fallen masonry that made the path more complicated, finally reaching the bottle-neck which had had to be opened with manpower. It was narrow, so John dismounts so the two of you can pass single file. Once through, he begins fumbling a mask and a protective suit on as the rest of the herd threads their way through to gather amidst the wreckage of the town mock-up. You kneel for him to re-mount, the suit restricting his movements, as the last emerge. Continuing your daring escape, you take a left turn, where the old testing hanger dome was quite ruined but open to the dark sky of night, you and your herd successfully slipping away into the darkness. Upon the doctor's advice, you led the herd west.
  43.  
  44. Survival the first few years was difficult, because there were still quite a few bands of surviving people battling for the limited resources and the nuclear winter made food very scarce. Adding to the threat was the occasional machine run wild, military and otherwise, but they seemed mainly concerned with humans and you did your best to keep John out of sight. The attenuated senses of a herd of augmented horses gave you and your herd a bit of an advantage. A few of the herd fell prey to the bandits and were taken either as food or slaves, the hazardous terrain claimed some, but by the fourth year your band had reached a very remote grassland mostly protected by natural barriers that allowed your herd to begin to rebuild. One of the happy accidents was a field of Nutracrop plants which had been affected by fallout and now grew to horse height, each able to easily provide a full meal of nutra-nectar. They had a nasty tendency to defend themselves with nimble, whip-like venom-vines, but they recognized another Company product almost immediately and did not attack the herd members, who were in any case immune to the venom. Humans or other beasts had to beware, however, and you took pains to protect Dr. John from them. Moving about on their three main, stumpy roots to seek water and sunlight led to them acting almost as guard-dogs around the settlement. John's funny little bees had survived, and despite the radiation, plant life was doing very well. Foals were born, some pre-war building facilities that were tough enough to survive were purposed as shelter, and while "thriving" didn't exactly describe the situation, your herd began to fare very well. It was just as well that no-one, even your creator, knew how long your lifespans actually were- You weren't, he explained, designed to fail in any way- As it would have opened the company to some brutal law enforcement had they included any such intentional code. The doctor himself, though, John, as you always would remember him as, wasn't as lucky and became very frail as the years passed. Some twenty years after finding and settling the new land your community now occupied, the horrors of nuclear war visited again. The area you'd settled had some very robust concrete hangers and bunkers that allowed you and yours to successfully ride out another bombardment, but the weeks spent underground eating some very substandard food proved too much for John. You tried to give him a decent send-off, despite limited knowledge of human burial rights. His loss left a hole that you and the herd who had known him never quite got over, and the memory of him embedded in the Knowledge caused the young to revere him as a kind of deity, in no small part due to his heroism displayed in both creating and freeing your kind.
  45.  
  46. More years passed, and social norms began to develop as time and misadventure exposed flaws in the herd's ways of doing things. Certain combinations of revisions produced nonviable offspring, for one thing, so mixing versions became semi taboo except for those combinations known to produce good results. Some of the more adventurous began exploring, and as numbers increased, some smaller bands left to find "greener pastures", as it were, even taking along some of the local large variety of Nutracrop sprouts with them. You hoped they found happiness, as it was rare to hear from them again, though you did get word of a successful herd established some ways to the north. A persistent horror that became second nature to all herd-members was the fear of the home herd-lands being discovered by surviving humans, thus, any who set out- And contacted humanity- Would most likely die before revealing anything about the original herd. This prevalent mindset served to ensure the safety of the herd. Just today, a band of five had set off, the usual mix of a male and four females. You watched them go with a bittersweet feeling, hoping they found a happy home somewhere. They were revision I's, including one of your daughters. They at least stood the best chances against the travails sure to be thrust upon them.
  47.  
  48. **
  49.  
  50. Be Intern Amheer, bumping your heels against the sides of the ancient Scouter Senior you'd managed to piece together, the headlight between it's ears spearing forward into the darkness. It whinnies and accelerates gamely enough, the rumble of the welded bare steel rims at the ends of it's short, wide-set limbs echoing loudly in the concrete tunnel, casting the occasional spark. Fortunately explosive gases were rare in the tunnels due to frequent breakages allowing outside air to flow through. Rubber balloon tires had long since become too hard to come by and weren't good on rails anyhow, so your village engineers had come up with the idea to simply turn the rims into a sort of steel tire itself. Scouters were the main transport for your tunnel-dwelling society, as a large stock of them had at some point been stored in some of the tunnels by the original factory for some reason. Of course these days many were in serious disrepair, and it was a mark of pride if you were able to get one of your own working from the assortment of worn out units. Working as an intern to the town's power production team gave you some advantage there. You're heading out toward a good cache of old equipment you'd found to dig for anything useful, and were an hour out from the Bunker, your underground home town. For a good distance, the railroad tracks formerly buried under the ever-infiltrating dirt become exposed, and your Scouter maneuvers it's slotted steel wheels onto them as it goes, soon attaining a smooth fast run once it's properly astraddle. For a few miles things are so uneventful that the Scouter threatens to start singing, you having to discourage it. Sunlight far ahead indicates another break in the tunnel, and the offset of the fault-line which had broken the tunnel becomes obvious as you draw close. Such breaks, and uncertainty as to where all the tunnels in the vast network led, were sources of worry for the town and for that reason they had maintained or installed large blockades and doors where necessary to ensure the security of the town. Normally, the Scouter would hunker down, then spring over the gap if there was one as it passed over, but the both of you beheld an odd sight. A very large something is laying sprawled on the right side of the tunnel floor, seeming to have fallen through the gap above but fortunately not having fallen through the fault some feet further along. The Scouter rolls slowly up to it as you lower the steering loop to rest against the back of the Scouter's neck. Drawing your revolver, you behold the strange being. It's obviously a horse. A real, full size animal type horse. You having traveled this tunnel just a couple of days ago, it couldn't have been here long. Dismounting, you signal to the Scouter to keep the light trained on it. It's front legs are obviously broken, upon which it must have landed hard when it fell, unnaturally bent and with the hooves facing wrongly. Making the situation more complicated is the fact that it's breathing! Shooting a mortally wounded horse hadn't been on the day's agenda, and you aren't prepared for the horrible thought even as it comes to you. The horse has a large, odd marking on it's side, and a long horn, which you're sure they normally don't have. Suddenly it's eyes open, squinting, and it raises it's head, regarding you. You raise the chrome revolver in a shivering hand, frozen with indecision. "Uh, I come in peace?" the horse says, in a feminine voice. You nearly shoot it in surprise. For a moment there is a stunned silence, then the Scouter says, "I like you! Will you be my friend?". You lower the gun somewhat, the oddity of the situation conspiring to keep you off your stride. "A talking horse?" you venture. "A wounded talking horse that needs some help. Or would you rather just shoot me?" she says. Holstering your gun, you warily approach. "What can I do?" "For the legs to heal, I need you to pull them out straight, then PULL. Hard." "That will hurt like hell, are you sure it will help?" "Listen, I've been down here for a day already, and I'm glad you're here, but if you want to help then help. I can manage pain. But if you're some kind of horse-eating monsters down here, then just shoot me now, OK?" Momentarily aghast at her suggestion, you reply, "No, uh, we don't eat anything that talks." Hesitantly you kneel, and grab the upper of the two legs' fetlock in both hands, and, wincing at the thought of the pain yourself, try to straighten it. Other than it's eyelids flickering a little, the horse tolerates it well, but then says "You've got to PULL. The breaks have to set end to end. I'll tell you when to stop." You lean back, hauling on the hoof, feeling it stretch in a rather horrifying manner- Then the hoof turns a bit in your hand with an icky sort of meaty crackle, and the horse sighs, saying "That's good. Now the other." She rolls a bit further back, and you straighten, then pull the other, repeating the process. Amazingly, the legs stay straight, with the sides of the hooves resting against the tunnel floor. "Thank you. I'm afraid that if you want me to live, though, you've got a pet to feed for a couple of weeks. My name's Belle, by the way." "I'm Amheer." "I'm a Scouter All Terrain Ride-On! Would you like me to dance for you?" You and Belle watch as the mechanical rolls merrily side to side, head rocking, you finally saying "That's enough, Scouter." The machine settles down, it's little ears remaining perked. "That's the first working automaton I've seen in my life. I thought they all died from the wars." "Alot, not all. And especially not the, er, simpler ones. His brain-box was from a kiddie model Scouter, working adult model brains are scarce." you explain. The scout stood there, apparently oblivious. "I thought I'd hate them but he's kinda cute." "You'll only think so until he starts singing, believe me." At that fatal utterance, the Scouter begins belting out a lively variant of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, in it's strange little voice. "Enough, Scouter, please. You're killing me." you command, and it falls silent, this time ears drooping. Belle smiles sadly. Digging in your backpack, you produce a sandwich. "Can you eat a yeast-and-fungus sandwich?" "I dunno, let's find out." she replies. You feed it to her, and she seems alright with it, followed by a long drink from your canteen. More chat ensues after the little meal, and it turns out you're the first human she's met also. She doesn't bother saying if she likes you or not, but you suspect that you've made a friend, albeit a needy one. Asking where she was from got you fuzzy answers, apparently her and a band of others had gone nomadic and were seeking a new land to start a herd, and she'd fallen through the dirt on a foggy night. You climbed up out of the hole she'd fallen through and looked around, but there was nothing to be seen but scrubby grassland and rocks. Belle's not surprised at the news, telling you that her kind tended to, if anything, get out of an area faster if herd members began to vanish. It wasn't nice but you could see the reasoning. Belle chastised herself for falling prey to a simple hole in the ground, apparently she had a number of countermeasures against doing so built in but had simply not been paying proper attention. You try to reassure her that only meant she wasn't some kind of machine, which was true enough. Eventually, the naggling thought of the job you'd come out to do got to you, and you asked your new friend if she minded if you took off for a while to complete your day's project, which she didn't. Hopping on the Scouter, you backtrack a ways, then shove the rein-bar forward and bang your heels. With an exuberant whinny, the machine launches itself forward, building up a good head of steam as the chasm in the ground gapes ahead. The scouter hunches down, then springs quite precisely over the gap and you continue on. Miles and a few tunnel branchings away, you find the cache of equipment you were hoping for. Naturally the Scouter wasn't going to be able to handle everything at once, but you carefully remove a bovine-themed fork-truck machine's head, half a rack of batteries, and a couple items of test equipment that seem viable. Strapping everything down, you retrace your path, stopping once again by Belle after leaping the gap. She's doing alright, and seems embarrassed to be in such a helpless state. You promise to bring her more supplies tomorrow, then head home. On the ride home, and somewhat during the ride out to the equipment stash, you'd been entertaining ideas of all the things you could do with a real horse. A Scouter needed a home base, a live power generator. Infrastructure, in short. But a horse could eat grass- Indeed, this sort of super-horse could probably eat nearly anything- And you could hunt. You'd always hated being stuck underground, and while there was some above-ground activity, your town was tied to it's traditions and after dark, the big gear-shaped bunker door slammed shut for the night. You, and a live horse, could really travel, unrestrained, anywhere! There were ancient books of pictures and maps, and some digital media that survived which showed the old world before the wars, and maybe just a little of it remained to be enjoyed, if only you could find it.
  51.  
  52. After a couple weeks of bringing her food, and bringing groups of Bunker resident friends out to meet her, Belle finally was recovered enough to accompany you back to town. Passing through the bunker doors into the back of the settlement, she remarked on all the festive colored strings of lights strewn about. Festive lighting was one of your town's features, as holiday decor had been another thing found stored in large quantities in the various tunnels and had been, early on, pressed into service as tunnel lighting, being particularly suited to the task, not to mention uplifting. She caused some of the more nervous members quite alot of anxiety, being an alien to the tight-knit community, but her kind wasn't unknown to the older residents who remembered what things were like pre-war. One thing she made perfectly clear, though, was that she was YOUR horse. That had stunned you the first time she stated it. Asking her why, she explained that the odds of tracking down her original band, while possible, were tiny. Likely, searching was just going to get her killed, as a single horse out there was particularly vulnerable. So, for now at least, she was Your Horse, and if you rejected her, she was going to try to return to her home herd. She made it clear that this was something she was loathe to do, as the entire reason she'd set out to begin with was boredom with her former life. This was all great news to you of course, as you also suffered from wanderlust. So, once she was fully recovered, the two of you donned packs of supplies, and, telling the town leaders that you were setting out on a mission to explore for other settlements, you and Belle set out into the wasteland.
  53.  
  54. **
  55. Be Amheer. Far ahead, you can see the wreckage of what was once a great city. Belle steers toward it without being prompted. The terrain gets rougher, old house foundations and things serving to deflect you onto what was once a main road, though it was still strewn with debris and molten wrecks of transportation. Ahead, you spot a surprisingly complete mechanical horse, still standing erect. "Look, an abandoned mechanical. I'm surprised it's still standing, maybe it survived the war and just ran out of oomph there and rusted solid."
  56. "That is a 2051 Ford Brumby hybrid, named Johnagold. And it's standing because it's alive. Er, working." "What?" "I'm not kidding, it just hailed me and asked what our business in this area is. More or less. It actually said, "Stop, Hazard Ahead, Transmit ID, Destination", then identified itself." "I didn't hear it say anything! Do you have radio or something?" "No, but I can communicate with them by horn-flickering light you can't see, my eyes can see his and I decode it. It was for orderly traffic signaling, before the war." "But you said you weren't around, then." "It's a sort of training we get as foals, the parents pass along a compendium of experience to the offspring directly by brain link." "Wow. I wish humans had that." "I think they did, back in the day. Or close enough, anyhow. I don't think they used it on their offspring though." "Shit." "It still wants to know what we're doing here, we should respond before it raises an alarm." "Um. 'We come in peace'?" She rolled her large expressive eyes, then with an involuntary shudder due to the uncanny valley effect the thing caused in her, stared back over at the motionless metal horse-shaped machine. Engaging her horn, she transmitted, "No hazardous materials aboard. Transporting delicate cargo. Please make way to pass." codes, then in plain text, "We come in peace. Take us to your leader." The machine nodded, transmitting "Traffic delay- Wait Time Ten Minutes." then began blinking a set of amber lamps at it's fetlocks. "It says wait here for ten minutes." Time passes as you sit astride Belle, the warmth of her body soaking into your calves somewhat uncomfortably in the warm day. Worse, your ankles were starting to twinge, the old stiff stirrup straps fighting subtly but insistently to turn your feet inward. Finally the Brumby's lights stop flashing, and shortly another horse appears, bearing a human rider. "That's a 2059 E.A. LaQuine electric, named Trixie. Not sure about the rider." "Geez, Scouters are one thing, but seeing people riding full-on mecha-horses- Those should be in a museum!" you intone to Belle, then, more loudly, "Hiya!" you try, hailing the rider. You feel a tad exposed, as the man fingers an awful-looking black rifle as he regards you. "I'm Brian. Who are you, and what are you doing here?" "I'm Amheer, and this is Belle. We're looking for a good place to stay, if you've got anything. We've been traveling for some time." "Stay, hm? You're not looking to rob or hurt anyone?" "Nope. Just could use a shower and maybe some food. I've got some skill with machines and a bit of medical know-how, if that helps, and I can do chores. Belle here might be able to do things too?" "I'll do whatever I can, within reason, for a good meal." Belle chimed in. Brian seemed to think it over, then replied "It's been a long time since we've seen anyone we wanna do business with, but I guess I can take you back to the village and see what they think." His horse, if it could be called that, piped up "The fast and ecological Trixie is picking up a great deal of curiosity on her radio. The village is definitely interested to meet the strangers." That seemed to be the decider, for Brian announced, "OK, follow us." and with that Trixie turned tail and began an unnaturally graceful trot away, Belle scurrying to get on a decent path and follow her. Johnagold nods and blinks it's lights as you pass, remaining behind. You ride on toward the city ruins with curiosity. Soon another rider intercepts your group, a redhead with a shotgun astride the most banged up mechanical you'd ever seen still working. "God damn, what happened to that thing she's riding!" You say, surprised, as the rider and vehicle hove more clearly into view. "You will not speak ill of our beloved Apple horse! And his rider is an expert warrior!" Trixie barks back at you, segmented neck squeaking a bit as she turns and gives you, mostly expressionless or not, "a look". "Geez. Sorry. It just looks. Uh." You peter out, as Brian turns and gives you a more definite glowering look. "Shh. And it's a 2062 A.M. Free Spirit." Belle whispers, so you decide not to comment further. The red-headed girl rides up to Brian, and he gives her a kiss, the girl keeping an eye on you over his shoulder. Once they're done, she rides around and faces you and Belle. She looked pretty healthy, and while the machine she was astride looked more like a post-atomic garbage dumpster than a horse, you could make out gleaming parts shining through here and there at the junctions of it's joints and such. It moved with a disconcerting silence and a precision that implied strength, too. The mismatched eyes could certainly have been an intentional touch for effect. It was probably a sleeper, a high performance machine in disguise. "I'm Dafalt, and this is Apple. I'm told you're here looking for supplies, a place to sleep?" "More or less, yes. We saw the city and wanted to explore, I had no idea there were people here." "How about you, horse? Is he on the level?" "My name's Belle. He saved me when I was probably done for, he's kind and caring." Belle replied. You feel an embarrassing sense that you're misting up a little, from the way she spoke. "Well, if you're good folks, and my dad likes you, I'm sure you'll be fine." You feel an odd twinge that she seems to find a talking meat-variety horse something to be expected, and also that she valued it's opinion of you that seriously. You liked Belle but if the situation was reversed, you'd have been suspect of the horse as well as the rider. Of course back home the only Scouters worth talking to were the ones with the advanced model brains, but there weren't too many of those. "That machine we first met, Johnagold I think it is? It was kinda giving us the quiet treatment and used some kinda light to talk to Belle. Is it alright?" you ask. "Oh he's probably just trying to save power. He's been out there for weeks, he's one of our lookouts." "Ah. OK, I see." After a moment, her mount spoke up, "I just verified via radio. He's still got a decent reserve of fuel, he's just been on active patrol and ran a bit low on juice. He's trying to recover on his solar array so he's not very animate at the moment. I'm sure he meant no offense, Amheer, it's just natural among us to speak to the mount, and she told him what was going on." "We like to use the solar ones for lookouts because of that, they can stay out for a long time. Other than Apple here of course, I don't let him out of my sight." The way the machine's bent ears perk brings a smile to both your and Belle's lips, obviously there was history there. "Well, let's head on into town." Brian suggests. "The sleek and luxurious Trixie concurs." his mount agrees, setting out. Apple and Dafalt fall in behind you as you all move out. You find yourself wondering why the Trixie machine refers to itself in the third person in the odd way it does, but the answer seems obvious. Of the number of intelligent machines back at the Bunker, nearly none of them came through the wars unscathed. Even underground, whatever power surges nuclear weapons cause managed to damage their electronic memories. Trixie was probably a hair addled, and you make a mental note to keep an eye on all the old tech this city had obviously managed to revive. It was quite possible that, like yours at home, some of them may have become somewhat unsafe. Suddenly, Belle starts laughing. "What?" "Nothing." Belle replies, then starts snickering some more. Weird horse.
  57. Be Belle. 'So the centaur says, "That's not the half I was talking about!"'. The joke took a moment to sink in, then you're overcome with laughter, disturbing Amheer. You were quickly coming to like the machine named Apple, it had a sick sense of humor and was telling you filthy jokes via infra-red. The first joke the machine had beamed over had fallen flat, it was something about an adder flip-flopping until it inverted. Trixie had appreciated it but you hated snakes. The next ended with "She might look like a mare, but she's got a male plug!"... He'd improved his routine since, fortunately, and Trixie, ahead, was clipping along pretending not to notice but you could see by the sudden vibration in her pace that she was trying not to laugh also. Her rider was peering at her in concern, as she managed to straighten herself out. IR was great but seeing these machines in action, communicating at long distances, you really wished that you had a radio tiara. Your knowledge covered them extensively, but the only one known to exist had become something like a crown, worn by your the herd leader, and it was quite broken. You hoped he was alright. By horse standards you were something of a royal, being one of his daughters. The revision I's were generally akin to royalty but in your case it was direct lineage. And thank goodness, broken legs like you'd suffered would have been fatal had you had one of the first few revisions' DNA. The venerable Dr. John had experimented with back-porting segments of knowledge and had managed to improve all versions somewhat over time, but multiple fractures like you had endured would have finished any of the very early types. At least having built-in silent communications via light let you converse with the other mounts without disturbing the humans, unless of course you were driven to laughter. You quickly got used to the fact that these machines, while being not any sort of animal life, were close enough to be great company. It stood to reason, of course, they were made to be, but you didn't get that slightly off feeling the Scouter gave off, these didn't seem so artificial. You hoped that they proved out to be as genuine as they seemed. Time would tell, of course, but you couldn't imagine something capable of being so convincingly bawdy to be anything but genuine in it's other emotions. And it certainly was devoted to it's rider, it spoke of her in, if such an emotion truly could carry via IR pulses, worshipful tones. Perhaps her care for it in return led to it's loyalty. It was an interesting dynamic, when you thought of machines you never really ascribed emotion to them before. Amheer's Scouter had simply done an awful song and dance when told it was being given to one of his friends. These big machines were another matter entirely, from the look of things, and seemed to form a bond with their rider. Their presence invoked old memories, from horses before your time, of interactions with such things before the war. Your predecessors had a generally good impression of robots but never really socialized, it was a rather businesslike set of interactions. Old knowledge memories also gave impressions of the natural unmodified form of horse, which while it could also bond with it's rider closely, generally regarded your kind with coldness and absolutely detested the mechanical copies. While they may have been a natural creature of simple motivations, you could understand how they might have recognized a competitor and had a natural dislike. The mechanicals were so alien yet so similar you could understand a simpler sort of mind regarding them as imposters, or worse, caricatures. As for Apple and Trixie, you knew that they were in a far more precarious situation than you were- Requiring human attention simply to survive, where your kind was quite capable of survival without human involvement. No reason for jealousy there, while taking on the role of being Amheer's Horse was a satisfying existence, it's a comfort that the rest of your kind could stay independent if they chose. You make a mental note to inform Amheer privately that not only was Apple a decent sort of... Being, but that commenting on it's appearance in front of Dafalt was likely to get the two of you exiled. "Know any more?" you beam, making sure your horn is in Apple's line of sight. "Plenty! They say humor's not always in the joke itself, though, it's in how you transmit it. How about a limerick? There once was a colt from hong kong, with a shorted out pin in his prong. Interfacing a filly he melted his willie, to an art show they now both belong!" You groan slightly, but soon find yourself chuckling again. Robot humor wasn't exactly, er, compatible, but it still came close enough to be funny. Having no idea how much of the physical references were accurate, the joking was as confusing as it was funny. Apple certainly looked close enough in equipment for it to be accurate, but Johnagold certainly wasn't. Trixie, as far as you could tell, had a shapely but explicitly featureless rump beyond the subtly sparkley tail and embedded light panels. For now you chalked robot 'sexuality' up as a mystery. It was probably just another part of their personality designed to help make them fun company, since machines were, well, machines. Finally curiosity overcomes you. "Where did you learn these jokes?" you beam. "Oh, mostly we make them up. The humans tell jokes alot and we're always trying to understand the fascination, so we invent ones of our own. Some I told earlier were human-told jokes. It's probably not hard to tell the difference, I'm sure, but we try." Hm. That only made you more curious, as it implied that the robots had some kind of social system of their own apart from mere interaction with the humans, but you stifle any further questions as you pick your way through the wreckage into the city proper.
  58.  
  59. Riding into town, your party is greeted by a large crowd of people dressed plainly but well. It seemed that the city dwellers had some small bits of industry rebuilt. Some of the oldest were wearing expressions of shock, the younger ones of amazement. It wasn't every day that one saw a unicorn, so you could understand. This being only the second group of humans you'd encountered in your life, you were rather taken aback by them also. One elder gent in particular approaches closely, and Dafalt introduces him. "This is Anon. Anon, this is Belle and this is Amheer." "Hello." you say, Amheer echoing. "Wow. A Safehorse! I was under the impression that your kind didn't survive the wars!" Belle replies, "Officially we didn't. It'll be our secret, OK?" and a few in the crowd chuckle. An even older man limps out of the gathering throng to stare up at you. "A real horsey! Hi horsey!" "That's my dad, Gnome. He's the village elder." Dafalt intones. "Good to meet you." you reply. "And Amheer, is that right?" "Nice to meet you, Mr. Gnome." Amheer replies. A raucous sound strikes up from a distance, a small group of people holding noisemakers bursting into song. You could make out "Hello, I love you, won't you tell me your name?" in the lyrics. "Don't mind the band. I think they're probably 'tarded. Dey thinks they're da welcome wagon I guess." Gnome explains. "I'm gonna wanna hear what you got to tell, no way you just appear out of thin air without some kinda story. Meet-up's in the bank around twilight." and with that, he totters off, a sort of drab tan mechanical following behind. Introductions continue for a while, both people and mechanicals, often in pairs. Finally Anon leads you around, showing where various meeting points are, and some of the projects they're developing. First is a small medical clinic, where Brian and Amheer hold an interesting discussion. The village had unearthed some decent medical tech including a few robotic "doctors" in various stages of restoration. The power generation facility was impressive as well. There's a shack devoted to making and sewing fabric, a glass-blowing forge where they were experimenting with vacuum tube tech and also making whatever could be fashioned of glass, you were shown the fairly massive kitchen and dining hall in the old apartment building along with a ground-floor room large enough for the two of you. This was fortunate, as you doubted you'd be able to sleep in the company of their regiment of robots. They seemed pleasant enough, but they smelled funny and were prone to make startling noises. For all the odd sounds you'd heard your fellow horses produce, squeaks and beeps weren't among them, to say nothing of the sound of a starter grinding starting an internal engine. Animal-esque and friendly they might be, but the differences were enough to alienate you somewhat. You and Amheer spend some time there unwinding, and discussing this fortuitous turn of events. He was excited at broaching the idea of establishing trade between his village and this one, which seemed like a good idea. Transportation of goods certainly didn't seem like it would be much of an issue!
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