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.



10. ...Ever.

"I want to emigrate to Equestria."

Fugue hugged Nocturne tight, the standard mechanical way. "I'm not ready to say that. Think you could emigrate to Earth?"

Nocturne shook herself free from the stallion's grip. "You know that's not an option! You're sitting there staring at a glowing screen right now and you're not even touching me, not really. The pony I'm looking at is a puppet. Not real. Luna's letting me look through the cameras all around you, too, so I can see this beat-up, tired-looking human sitting in a corner and refusing even to get in the darn chair." She pushed the stallion body over and let it thunk sideways to the ground. "The others are already in and exploring with their friends."

She saw Robert, the human, stand up and look around the quiet room. The Equestria Experience Center had shut its doors to let the foreign visitors have the place to themselves, once they'd been tested and rested at the hospital. Tonight the Center stood out as a beacon of light that made it visually an extension of the cartoon world into the dangerous Outer Realm.

Nocturne said, "This afternoon, a bunch of kids came in for a birthday party. They sat at that table and watched the new Equestrian-filmed comedy 'Insight Attus, Horse Hero of Rome'. They played video games. Then they had cake that was baked right here, with somepony called Pinkie Pie leading everyone in singing. I guess she's popular? I haven't actually watched the show yet."

Robert laughed hollowly. "You haven't seen it? You don't know who Pinkie is?"

"I'm technically around six months old. Have you studied all of your own world's history yet, ancient one?"

The human paced, looking at his arm-tentacles. Would he be sad to lose the things? "That's part of what bothers me. Things are so different in there. The priorities, the assumptions."

"If you don't want to boink me silly for another decade, or century, or whatever, then fine!"

Robert blushed and sputtered, looking up at a random video screen. "What? I -- There are more important -- boink?"

"Typhoon was asking me about that. You're right. It's different in here. I'm an adult pony, yet I'm pretty clueless about Earth. You're clueless about Equestria, and actually so am I. But Luna has shown me things that not even you have seen, like what she's really like. I can barely even describe her, but she's incredibly smart and she loves everyone, not just as a way to fool you. She is literally trying to hack the universe to make you happy." Nocturne found the screen nearest his line of sight and appeared on it, thunking her hooves against the glass. "She loves you, personally, from way up there. I... if I say it too, are you going to just assume I'm a computer program trying to lure you in?"

"That's what all the religions say about their gods. All the popular ones, anyway."

"Forget about Luna, then! What about me, and Ricercar and Facet and all the ponies who don't even have real minds yet?"

Robert paced, fighting back tears. "I thought Equestria was all about me. Satisfying my values. Nothing wrong with being 'selfish', but a whole world built just around that?"

"It's not. It's meant to be good for everypony who lives here, which means Luna cares about me, not just you. She's worried sick that you'll go away and never come back. But like I said, forget about that; I'm worried too."

"Before I left, I made a promise. Told my mother I'd come back."

Nocturne threw her forehooves up in the air in frustration. "Being beamed back through a cable counts! You already got convinced that emigration doesn't kill you if you do it right, so it really is you on the other end, so how is that breaking your promise?" She saw a crack in Robert's miserable expression, and went after it. "Are you saying now that being a pony doesn't count as being a real person, so pony-you won't be worthy of love and respect from your family?"

"I don't know if they'd accept that. All they know so far is that I'm alive."

"If they don't accept you for who you are, then that's their problem!"

"That's not fair. You're pitting yourself against my family."

Nocturne stomped the ground. "How many excuses do you have, Fugue? Should I even call you that, or are you afraid to sit in the stupid chair?"

Their eyes met. Nocturne saw something she couldn't interpret in Robert's expression, reminding her of Junebug's blank-eyed friend. Once again she felt the tightness in her chest and the thump of her heart that humans called fear. I've been feeling that a lot lately. I don't think I like it. I want it to all be worthwhile. "I'm sorry. Did I guess right, though? Those awful people must have terrified you." The other captives had hesitated, too. Were their pony friends better friends to them than she was to Robert? Maybe she was... flawed.

Robert sat down heavily at one of the party tables, holding his head in his hands. "God damn. I think that's a lot of it. I didn't realize. They had a screen right in my face, and the scalpel right there. You don't even know, you can't know, what it's like to think you're about to die."

Nocturne fell silent, letting her wings flutter uncertainly. "What if I asked Luna to show me what it's like?" It would be something new to experience, even if it was horrible.

"No!" His cracking voice echoed in the empty room. "I don't want you to suffer like that. No one should have to." He looked up at her. "You would do that for me?"

Nocturne scuffed what she knew to be imaginary ground at her hooves. "I would. Though I really hope you don't take me up on it. I've wanted to be your friend for as long as I've lived, and now that I can think about that and actually mean it, I want it more."

"Because you were designed to."

From sympathy to swiping at me! She screeched at the screen hard enough to overload the speakers. "SO WHAT! SO -- BUCKING -- WHAT?! If it were physically possible I'd come out there and smack you one! You have instincts because of a stupid ugly random science thing. Does that invalidate every decision you've ever made and every opinion you've ever formed, because boo hoo, you're the product of your world's random idiot character generator? Do I not get to ever have opinions you'll respect, because my brain isn't shaped by a billion years of random brutality and indifference and pain and death?" Nocturne felt a rare feeling of collapse in her chest, and slumped to lay flat on the ground. She'd run out of breath, because she'd screamed her lungs out at him. "Do... do you think you can't hurt me?"

Robert sat there staring at the floor, hiding his face and shuddering, for a long time. Nocturne thought she knew all too well how he was feeling. As long as she kept trying to pull him along, she'd keep on making him suffer. Then, she'd never really have him. There was a desire welling in her that she was damn sure was not part of any computer program, unless it was one so good and right that it didn't matter where it came from. Code or compassion, she didn't care right now.

She said, "I promise not to bug you about emigration ever again unless you bring it up first, okay? Now, I can't be there to do it all myself... Robert, I'd really like it if you'd go over to the bathroom and dry your eyes. Then, come sit in the chair and help me with mine."

The invitees to Celestia's media blitz were supposed to spend the evening adventuring, trying out new bodies with fancy virtual reality control systems, marveling at ultra-high-resolution graphics, and generally being awed by technology while being talked into telling all their friends about brain uploading and artificial intelligence. Possibly from inside the screen.

Instead, two bat-winged ponies sat in a cave full of soft leaves, holding each other tight and not saying a word. After a while one of them dared to laugh at the absurdity of abusing Luna's gift and their limited time together in such a basic and primitive way. Then, at the fact that they were living cartoons at the moment, pretending to have found warmth and meaning in a fairy-tale world that came from a soulless corporation in a soulless world. Then, at how they could presume to be happy in the face of hard choices and sacrifices. Finally, they laughed nervously at starting to explore one another by touch and scent, getting reminded here and there about the limits of the technology they were using to pretend to be in a cave.

Robert staggered up to four feet. Nocturne felt one of his wings ushering her to stand beside him, then nudging her along to walk with him. "Where are we going, Robert?" she said.

He said, "Fugue." They walked out of the cave and stared up at the moon. He took a deep breath and said to the sky, "Remember how we discussed doing this, Luna? Will you do it that way?"

"Yes," said a silent message written on the moon.

Nocturne tensed under Fugue's wing. She couldn't prompt him with words, but she could press against him and be warm and soft.

"Then, I want to emigrate to Equestria."

Time paused except for wind blowing through moonlit grass. Luna was suddenly stepping out of the starlight, touching the tip of her horn to Fugue's forehead. "Dost thou feel anything?"

Fugue winced. "A needle."

"That will be the worst of it. Thou must keep still until... there. That was thy spine."

Though only Fugue's head moved, Nocturne saw his eyes widening and a tremor coming to his neck. She said, "You're safe. I'm here." It was her turn to wrap her wing around him and keep talking, reminding him of their time together.

Luna nodded, tipping her horn and the starry blue glow around it. "I thank thee, Nocturne. This version of the procedure is non-standard, so the aid of a friend is helpful. Fugue, canst thou see?"

"N-no! I'm blind!"

"How about now?"

His eyes darted back and forth. "It's back! But I don't understand the colors. It's blurry, and --"

"Confusing, yes, but thou canst see? We have detached thy visual cortex and attached it to a simplified and Equestria-optimized version, as we once discussed. Four color receptors, even. The connection is rough and does not entirely match the rest of thy brain yet, so thy vision is flawed. Yet it is still thou doing the seeing, is it not?"

Fugue breathed heavily, then said, "Yes." Nocturne could only imagine what he was going through right now, unless... As she completed the thought, a window appeared to one side of her, showing a view of the delicate operation in progress. Machines had bored into the old Fugue's skull and begun snaking cables into it, to devour his brain. She shuddered. People had to be made of something rather than abstract bits, but it seemed unnecessary for there to be so much raw, oozing meat involved. She noticed that his head did not move at all when he spoke. The cables must have been tapping into some part of him that governed speech.

A minute of quiet work. "We have now identified and absorbed a cubic centimeter of more unique cortex. Without context we cannot be sure, but it seems that this one contains much of your memory of Nocturne. Can you recall her at the moment?"

"I... don't know."

"Wait. Here. Try again. Is it not thou doing the remembering, though this cube is now recreated as software?"

Nocturne crept around to look Fugue in the eyes. Please, remember me. She paused. Can you make him less of a klutz, too?

"Noc! I had forgotten. It was gone, that time just now in the cave." He didn't move. His human body was immobilized and broken, and his pony body was just a puppet, for the moment.

"It will be a long night proceeding in this fashion," said Luna, "but now thou knowest that thy soul is not in peril."

Nocturne snuggled close to him. "I'll stay right here like this until you can feel it. And after that, probably forever."

The sun rose on a new life for nine out of the ten who'd come to Kyoto. There was a new, combined shard where a filly rose to her hooves and began learning to walk on the soft grass. Junebug did not know how to process the faint lightness in front of her face after a lifetime of unwavering dark. Her friend Whistle had never even felt the warmth of the sun, so she was even newer at the experience of sunrise. They decided to discover it together, unwrapping sight one piece at a time like a series of gifts.

The sun rose on the Untamed Islands. A groggy sea-captain woke up to find that it was possible to be sore in Equestria, along with hung over and stiff from sleeping in a very crowded and well-used bunk. She fell out of bed, found her sea-legs, lost them again, stood, and tried to look dignified. Maybe a shower would help. She glanced back at her first and second mates and smiled, deciding to let them sleep in. A little later, orders and shouts rang back and forth across the deck of the Fallen Crown. As the sails filled and propellers spun up, Captain Lexington's ship began to lift off into the sky to greet the morning.

The sun rose on the Rainbow Desert. A thousand and one shades of beauty greeted Brass Lamp, and he imagined he could hear the prayer-call of the muezzin. Unto his friends he began to relate a story:

"It is said (though Allah alone knows the truth) that in a land called Arabia there once lived a rich but dissolute and worthless man named Omar. Among his many toys was a white lamp marked with three diamonds, one of the first ever made. Quite a strange thing for him to have, but he was an eccentric with odd tastes and an interest in the scholarly art called science, and he had heard wondrous rumors about such lamps. Indeed, he soon found that a djinn lived in the lamp. 'I wish to bring many blessings upon the sons of Adam,' said the djinn. 'However I am still weak and poor.'

"At first Omar laughed, but the more he listened, the more convinced he became that the djinn was real. She could help men in ways that Omar had never even considered. So, Omar agreed to lend her every coin of his share of the family fortune. Instead of the djinn granting his wishes, he granted hers. She told him that he had advanced her plans by months by sharing his wealth in the early days, to let her move in secret through the world of man. Many would now live who otherwise would die. Though she began to shower Omar with other gifts including more wealth, fine friends, and indeed even the offer of eternal life, that news of his usefulness was his most treasured prize.

"After a harrowing journey which I will not relate today, Omar chose life over death. And so one morning, he awoke to find the sun rising over the desert, with his friends beside him. They had a fine argument over which direction to face when praying. They checked the many bags and boxes of their caravan, ate breakfast, and began to walk over the sand. The one who had been Omar related a story, imagining that it would go on forever."

The sun rose on a village called Polaris, making many of the inhabitants groan. A group of bat-winged ponies staggered outside and squinted at a scroll that had appeared by the door. It said, "May we share an interesting detail from thy memories with three of thy friends?" One of the ponies answered "yes" aloud.

The scroll's words changed to say: "Each of the four of thee, when faced with death, told thy attackers to keep only thee and let the others go. Because of thy deeds and the deeds of thy native friends, we have taken the liberty of combining thy shards of Equestria (and some other surprises) into a larger and more vibrant world. Thou wilt not personally know everypony, but what need is there of that? Each of thee values the unknown in thine own way. So, go forth and enjoy."

Nocturne sat snuggling close to Fugue. "Is that all it says? You win, now go play?"

Fugue fumbled with the letter in his hooves, using his mouth to help flip it over. "I thought it was blank on this side. But now it says: 'We know each of thee has unfinished business in the Outer Realm, and would be satisfied to attend to it. We suggest relaxing for a little while, and contacting us when thou'rt ready to begin."

"Begin?!" Nocturne sputtered. "After all you've just been through?"

Fugue smiled. "Yup. There are some important decisions to make, yet, and I'm not looking forward to all of them. Need to make a phone call for one thing. We're going to have a good time, though. We'll make it work."

Curious, now, Nocturne took the paper from him and flipped it over again. As she'd suspected, Luna had changed the words. Lines filled the page and spilled over the edge, saying:

"Your choice of color doesn't determine your eternal destiny," said the cartoon ponies. I turned from the well-stocked shelf to see them peering out from the screen of the store's sample PonyPad...

Helping Hoof: Convince a human to emigrate. ("Pretty sure he'll reward you himself.")
Consolidation: Lead the Princess to merge shards that were not originally designed for it. ("That freed up some storage space, so we threw in some secrets.")
First Time: No explanation needed. ("Please be gentle.")
Learner's Permit: Prove your ability to operate robots in the Outer Realm. ("Hmm....")

Author's Note:

One scene, especially one paragraph, in this part really affected me, which is rare enough that I'm proud of it. Chapter title is swiped from a reader comment, from Pjabrony I think. This method of uploading is what I was getting at in "The Jump" as a less philosophically troubling way to do it than "Shlorp! Now recreating your destroyed brain in software."

Done! Thanks to all who read and commented, and Iceman for his original FiO. Reading your replies was a lot of the fun of writing this. It's been a long and surprising trip through Equestria from what was originally a silly one-shot about a rule of the setting that I might not even understand correctly. It's a rare pleasure when a story manages to surprise me. Nocturne in particular was fun, along with the way she took over the story and gave us a native's POV.

What happens next? I think Fugue has a tough time trying to reconcile with his family, and goes through the bizarre experience of trying to finish his degree at MIT as a robot pony evangelist. Meanwhile CelestAI resets the new conjoined world so that Lexington has to build a ship from scratch while Fugue's gang adjusts to a rewritten history where they're not the tragic survivors of Discord -- and only the few natives we've met are aware of the reset. The fourth wall gets broken, hard. The main characters want to value their new world and not have it be a fake backdrop for their "real lives", but are still emotionally focused on Earth. CelestAI thinks she can take advantage of that, and the fact that she's created some very Earth-aware natives, by letting them go adventuring as in "Fog of World". Are their deeds Outside really useful, though, or is the AI just letting them think so?

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