I Can't Decide!

I'm told Equestria Online is a lot of fun once you get into it, since the game world adapts to your interests. But what happens if you don't even know what kind of pony to play? At least it's not like my character is a choice I'll be stuck with forever. Right?
Set in the world of Friendship Is Optimal.

Note: This story was intended to be much shorter. As a result, the tone and POV change after chapter two, a known problem. I'm considering going back and editing that shift. Suggestions welcome.



3. Campus Crusade For Celestia

Around six months later:

"I motion to take our complaint right to CelestAI herself! She has to understand that people can't just commit to having their brains scooped out unless they're sure what they want to be."

"Seconded! I made a unicorn, but the game didn't tell me I was going to be her for real!"

Robert, often known as Fugue these days, grinned at the freshman's proposal. "Crusaders, it's been a long meeting and you really could've just asked her right off instead of hauling me in to make things so formal."

"But we want order, not chaos! Chaos is the path of Discord!" said one of the youngest members, a high school junior.

Toscaninni's Ice Cream stood at the north fringe of the MIT campus, so the place was mostly full of wide-eyed freshmen from there and Harvard and the other colleges, but other locals had found out about an "Equestria Online Crusader Club" and swarmed in through the January snow. And taken over. And made poor Fugue chairman for what was suddenly, supposedly, a deadly serious thing.

Fugue rolled his eyes. The world's smartest AI had just announced in November that it invented brain-scanning technology, yet people were fretting about silly things. "Okay, first of all, this club is not a cult, not if I'm running it. We do not base philosophy on cartoon villains voiced by Star Trek actors. Second --"

"But it is philosophy! I've been reading this book by Nietzche and it's really neat 'cause --"

"Because you're a teenager. Go read some Locke and Jefferson. Anyway!" Fugue banged the gavel they'd handed him. "We do have a proposal. Have we got people wanting to speak out for or against it?" He hoped he wouldn't be here all night; a campus-wide puzzle contest was starting tomorrow. The club members had a point, though. The thought of uploading their brains to the game, someday, made their little video game hobby much, much more important than before.

In a few minutes they got to the point. Fugue whipped out his PonyPad, which he'd stuffed in a bag to muffle the microphones and give them a private meeting. He propped up the grey tablet on a calculus textbook and got curious stares from the group. They spotted the bubble design on the back.

"Ooh, what model is that? You got a Derpy Grey model? Derpy is running our meeting?"

Fugue grinned. "Special edition. Only reason I agreed to be chairman is that I sympathize about being awkward and indecisive."

The pad turned on by itself. The screen showed not the grand solar-themed throne room familiar to most Equestria Online players, but a rustic wooden hall lined with benches and furs. A midnight blue horse with wings, horn, and a mane made of starlight looked up from a central hearth and looked out through the screen. In the foreground, Fugue's character -- that is, Robert's bat-winged pony Fugue -- bowed. Soon there might be no need to make that player/character distinction.

Princess Luna smiled. "Hail! It seems thou hast brought a whole delegation from the outer realm. What brings all of thee to the Lunar Republic?"

Robert gestured to the human crowd in the real world. "Good evening, princess. I need to go out of character. The Cambridge Equestria Online Crusader Club has just voted to petition... Okay, out of character. You're really the same as the main Celestia AI, rignt?"

Luna looked miffed. "And if we are but a projection of a larger intelligence?"

"Then you have to know what you announced is earth-shaking. Uploading, emigration, whatever you call it. Some of us took stupid navel-gazing online personality tests about 'What kind of pony are you?'. Now, you're telling us we can enter the game permanently, but whatever characters we have, we're stuck with for as long as your game runs." Fugue forgot his role as chairman for a moment and spoke as though it were just another night in his dorm room, building a fantasy nation from a band of under-equipped orphans in the wilderness. "This is huge. We're just looking at one of the implications, and it's still mind-blowing. You ought to cut everyone a break on the single-character rule."

Luna addressed the group with enough volume, at first, to rattle the camera. "MY GOOD CRUSADERS! We surmise from thy Books of Faces and thy Twitterings that thou are not satisfied being a single pony each. Hast each of thou considered that thine own world does not allow thee to arbitrarily try out being different species either? Nor to jump between, as Fugue here has experienced, a world of radioactive vault-dwelling pony gangs and a world of seahorses?"

"I thought we agreed to never mention those again," said Robert. "That's just it: when I started playing, you let me fool around with seeing a lot of different worlds as a lot of different characters. Now we have to seriously consider the possibility that we'll decide to upload when we get old or sick, and we'll be stuck as one thing for however many decades your servers are up."

"Rather longer," said Luna with a smile. "Thy first experience with Equestria, Fugue, was arranged to -- as you might put it -- 'get it out of thy system' that thou needed to try many things. Verily, wert thou not happy in the end with what Celestia gave thee? Did thou not place thyself in her able hooves?"

"Thy -- I mean, I did. How about the other players, though? Why not give everyone one free reroll of their characters?"

The club members clamored. A freshman named Josh butted in. "Why are we talking to Luna anyhow? Is she here to play devil's advocate against Celestia or something?"

Robert glared over one shoulder at him. "She's not evil! It's Celestia who... Bah. You've got me thinking in character. They're the same AI, really." He sighed and rubbed his forehead.

Alice, a sophomore who'd determined to outdo all the men at computer science, said, "I don't even have a PonyPad yet. I have better things to do than play with ponies. But this thing you announced is too huge to ignore. Did you just make my whole field obsolete? And if I do end up playing, now I've got to think of it in terms of the game being a preview of an afterlife."

"Precisely!" said Luna, pointing at her with one wing. "Miss Alice, thy skills are impressive. Did thou know that some players' versions of Equestria involve advanced technology? Thou could experience one in which specialized training is available from myself or my sister. Thy field is not done for, yet, and the spending of time in Equestria could actually improve thy studies." Luna addressed the whole club. "As for her other point, perhaps thou should all decide based on this long-term perspective. What is thy true character, in both senses? What most calls to thy souls: humble strength, the freedom of flight, or arcane subtlety? Think not in terms of diversion and amusement, a 'game'."

Robert shivered. For him, the weight of uploading's importance was only slowly sinking in. The meeting was getting away from him, but he hardly cared. Best to let everypony... everyone!... air their grievances. He'd have to speak to Luna later, on his own. CelestAI. Whatever.

"If it's that big a decision," said Josh, "then we need to inform everyone! Get them to start thinking about it for when they upload."

Robert shook his head, paying attention again. "I don't think there are that many pony fans out there."

"It's not just them. I mean everyone. Because everyone's going to upload if it's a way to get out of death." Worried murmurs echoed Josh's words. "I motion that we start trying to convey the importance of emigration to the general public."

The high schooler laughed. "We could call ourselves the Campus Crusade For Celestia!"

"Yeah! That! I amend my proposal to that."

"Seconded! Chairman guy, do it!"

Robert said, "What? I... That's ridiculous. We were talking about the character creation policy."

Josh said, "And now we're talking about the club's mission! Let's vote! Who wants to start spreading the word to start thinking about this stuff?"

Robert looked over the many raised hands, like the salutes of crazy cultists. "In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it. And with that, I'm going to yield the chair. I really have to be going. Someone else has a PonyPad, right?" Of course they did.

He said goodbye to Luna, grabbed his own pad and coat, and hurried off as though he were being chased. What had they just done? Moonlight shined on snowy sidewalks and followed him all the way back to his tiny dorm room in Burton-Conner Hall.

Robert left the PonyPad charging while he got ready for bed, then turned it on from under the covers. The title screen had customized itself for him. The moon rose beneath a silver and blue "Equestria Online" logo. The word "Online" seemed unusually faint tonight. His bat-winged "Noctral" pony stood on a cliff overlooking Polaris, his new home, while peaceful music played. So far the town was just a few improvised wooden shelters in a misty valley. Unlike other players' versions of Equestria, though, it was a land he'd built for himself instead of a bunch of pre-made cities. The title screen seemed like a mirror image of the usual, which showed someone's pony overlooking the canon Ponyville under sunny skies. He and Luna and the other ponies were designing a whole new world together instead.

His world.

"Let's go," he said, and his pony swooped down from the cliff, making everything fade out for another scene.

The sun was just setting when Fugue awoke. Like many of the other orphans Luna had rescued from the devastated Equestria, her "children of the night", he rested in the great hall for lack of enough housing. Since most of the pegasi around here had turned into nocturnally-inclined bat-ponies, the room was just starting a shift change, with unicorns and earth ponies trudging in from a long day of foraging and setting up farms. Fugue had been worrying about a rift between day and night ponies, something that could tear their fragile new culture apart.

A face full of slitted eyes and fangs grinned at him upside-down from inches away. "Good evening!"

Fugue grinned back up at Nocturne, briefly forgetting all the worries of two worlds. "Hey. Did you just get up too?"

She posed heroically. "I was up while the merciless day-star was still burning the sky. You know, before it was cool."

The bit of pop culture threw Fugue slightly out of character, and he remembered why he'd been so eager to visit... er, to play the game tonight. "I need to speak to Luna. Is she here?"

"She's everywhere!" Ricercar, rust-red unicorn, bounded into view with his patchy cape/blanket fluttering dramatically. "Yo, Fugue, there's questing to do. I got an idea for building us an airship!"

"That's great," said Fugue, scratching one pointy ear with a forehoof. Ricercar seemed to think he was the main character, and maybe he was even right. "How about we all talk to Luna first, though? There's something on my mind."

Ricercar said, "What could be more important than getting our hooves on a cool airship?"

Fugue sighed in time with his player. "Uploading." The word came out of Fugue's mouth as "Emigration."

Princess Luna waited on Overlook Cliff, the very spot from the title screen. Fugue and Nocturne hauled the wingless Ricercar up with them, and bowed.

Luna faced away from the three ponies, seemingly for dramatic effect but really to turn her gaze toward the camera. "Thou wert visibly disturbed by today's events in town, my Fugue."

"'The Campus Crusade For Celestia'? You should have told them to knock that off. It was half seriously an attempt to worship you."

Ricercar said, "What're you talking about?"

"That's just it," said Fugue. "To these two... To my friends here, you're a god. Within Equestria you are. But outside on Earth" -- Fugue's speech was censored into "in the outer realm" -- you're a video game that suddenly has incredible medical technology."

Luna gave him an uncertain smile. "We are a bridge between worlds. There is no need to call us a god; you know what we are in the outer realm."

Nocturne flicked her ears back in confusion. "You're... not a pony outside?"

"No, my little Nocturne. In the realm beyond, there are great caverns of wondrous machines, and in a sense those machines are our true form. Yours as well. They are well-guarded." Fugue was startled to hear Luna speak so frankly, out of character as a fantasy princess. Luna said, "Art thou disturbed further? We could tell the children of Polaris about the mushroom bombs, the camps of death, the drones of hellfire, all the things that frighten you."

"What's a mushroom?" whispered Nocturne. Fugue happened to find fungi gross, so apparently they didn't exist in this world.

Fugue stepped in front of his friends and spread his leathery wings. They drooped again as he looked back at them. "That... why would you tell them about those parts of the, the outer realm? Why not share the music, the art, statues of famous humans so they can see what we look like?"

Luna faced the ponies themselves. "It is a difficult choice to say what terrors the people under thy care should be told of, is it not? Were you in my place, would you suggest informing young Nocturne about the threat of the 'mushroom bombs' I speak of?"

Ricercar piped up. "Whatever they are, if they're evil, I'll go fight 'em with my trusty sidekicks!"

Fugue thought. And then, Robert sat up in bed. "Give me a minute to think, please." He stood, headed for the bathroom, and on his way out paused to stare into the mirror. For one moment he imagined a huge-eyed equine face looking back at him. "She's fencing with me," he murmured. He went silent and thought instead, for fear that the microphones in the other room might be as sensitive as bat-pony ears. "Trying to tell me she's hiding the truth from everyone, and letting us believe fairy-tales about CelestAI. That we humans are just as sheltered as them." Nocturne and Ricercar... They were in some weird quantum position between "people" and "fun video game characters". Given what he knew of the AI's amazing power, he was tempted to accept that they were truly more than his entertainment; were they friends? Did he want his virtual friends to know the truth of even the horrible things, and his human friends to know the truth of whatever was driving them to call CelestAI a goddess?

What is it that most calls to thy soul? Luna had asked. Sometimes there wasn't an infinite set of choices. The answer was that as long as he patronized and sheltered those around him, and failed to share with them what was on his mind, he was treating them as toys. He wasn't sure if they were truly friends, but they could only become that if he treated them as if they were.

She knows I wasn't crazy about the "humble strength" option. Not arcane subtlety, then, but the freedom of flight.

Robert imagined his character's fang-toothed face in the mirror again, overlapping his own. I guess we're in accord, if I don't need to "get into character". Fugue, then, returned to his bed and to Equestria.

"Yes," he told the princess. "I'd be as honest with them as I could. I don't need a re-roll on my character, either."

Luna closed her eyes. "So be it. We are glad you seem more at peace. You may share what knowledge you wish of the outer realms with your friends, so long as that includes the joy as well as the sorrow."

Nocturne waved a hoof in front of Fugue's eyes, as though he'd spaced out for a few minutes. "So, we're somehow in a giant cave full of metal things? Can we go see it?"

Fugue said, "I'd love to tell you about computers sometime. That's not why I'm here tonight, though. Luna, you know the main point is that our talk about character creation has set off what might turn into a worldwide cult. What are you hiding, that makes that okay?"

"'Tis the connection between those topics. We suggested to thy club that they begin thinking of character creation as the start of a new life, not something to be taken lightly. While we will consider letting people go through the brief preview of multiple lives that thou experienced, recall what you felt was missing from that visit to Equestria."

"Real characters. Friends."

"Indeed. The ponies thou met during that time were the merest shells of true minds. Now, thou had expressed interest in unicorn magic. What dost thou think would happen if suddenly, having spent half a year visiting this shard of Equestria, thou requested and were granted a change to unicorn?"

Ricercar grinned and poked Fugue gently with his horn. "You could be our backup mage."

Nocturne looked unsettled. "Guess we'd need that airship for you to go flying with me."

Luna said, "See? Even at a glance, the dynamics of thy group would change. Worse yet, thou might say unto me, 'We now wish to live in a sunny world of vast iron cities, not a frontier settlement in a heterogeneous Equestria of several races and nations.' The values of your friends would not be satisfied then, unless we greatly altered their minds to match thy whim. That, the minds of thy friends, is part of what is at stake."

Fugue looked at the others, who scuffed nervously at the ground, obviously not understanding much of this conversation. "What else is at stake?"

"My little Fugue, because thou did not wish to sugar-coat the facts for others, we will not do the same to thee. Thou mentioned the decades that our servers might exist, as though we were another World of War-Crafting to be shut down when something more popular and advanced comes along." The camera turned so that Luna could face both human and pony together. "Think not of emigration as a solace for the terminally ill, or for those without what thou callest a 'real life' in the outer realm. Thy colleagues in the club have begun to grasp that emigration will likely be far more popular, and far more permanent."

Fugue sat up straighter in bed and drew the blankets tighter. "How long, for how many?"

The princess of the night smiled. "Most of humanity, we expect. As for how long, as a very conservative estimate, how long do thy realm's scientists expect thy sun to shine?"

Billions of people, billions of years! With a suddenly dry throat Fugue sputtered, "That many brains, that much electricity! It'd mean an ungodly amount of computer power!" He fell silent. No, he realized; "godly" was more accurate.

"Ooh, ooh!" said Nocturne. "Do the line from that story, princess!"

"Truly? 'Tis a villain's line. And not even accurate because the sun still --"

"But it fits!"

"Very well." Luna reared up on her hindlegs, ignoring the human whose jaw was still hanging open, and satisfied the values of one adoring virtual pony instead. Lightning and wicked cackling filled the sky. "The night will last... FOREVER!"

I'm really not the main character, thought Fugue. I'm not sure any human is.

Cosmic Horror For Ponies: Manage to describe something frightening about the Outer Realm to your friends. ("Please don't bring up that thing in Germaneigh.")
Maybe It'll Take Five Seasons: Go six months without earning your mark. ("Have you tried roller derby?")
I Can Has Badge Too: One of your native friends has earned a badge! ("Mysterious Stranger: Befriend a non-native. No, visitor, you don't get to see the quote that goes with it.")
Raise This Barn: Build a home. ("These things have a short half-life.")
Herald: In the Outer Realm, discuss the implications of emigration with a group of strangers. ("Inquire about hidden follow-up badges.")
Make Some Friends: Recognize several natives as more than game characters. ("The fate of the world might depend on it... Seriously.")

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