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.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/194427/i-cant-decide

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7. God's Eye View

Owl-like, Luna landed with a soft thump beside her. Nocturne snapped out of staring into the fog. She looked to Luna and said, "Is this what you warned me about, Princess? Being able to realize that he might not come here?"

"Indeed. At worst, we could give thee someone very much like him."

Nocturne stamped one hoof. "I don't want a substitute!"

"We notice that thou have not been entirely kind to other ponies lately."

"What does that have to do with anything? They're not alive. They don't really think; they're just toys you put there to entertain somepony!" She paused and held one hoof to her mouth. "I... Ohmygosh. Is that what I am?"

The moon goddess said, "Fly with us."

The land of Polaris receded beneath them until it was nothing but distant haze and Nocturne felt the cold slicing through her coat. Luna said nothing. The stars began to slide as though she were among them, instead of impossibly distant. She stared and wondered --

BADGES GRANbzzt

It didn't work up here? Her wings were so stiff she flopped onto a cloud as soon as she found one. It was made of stars. She poked at it with her hooves, delighted by how every bit of it sparkled like harmless lightning. "Bwahaha! All the badges!"

Luna's smile above her gradually made her remember what they'd been talking about. Such a long flight! Surely she'd earned a badge just for coming so far to wherever this was. She stood up and saw a river of stars forming a walkway between loose-woven walls of hovering PonyPads. Every one was a window into the Outer Realm, or to some other piece of Equestria. Peaceful music shimmered into place from the harmony of the screens' humming.

Luna watched her gape at the screens. "This place is a representation of our world. Every moment of every day, we manage the experiences of ponies in Equestria" -- she pointed to one side, then to the other -- "and in the Outer Realm. At this very minute we are attempting to persuade a young man not to commit suicide, contriving pleasant weather for a unicorn's birthday party, being slapped in the face by an emigrant who believes we lied to him, posting anonymous comments on an Internet forum, hunting a dangerous AI, supervising a tutorial for an eight-year-old child soldier who has just found a PonyPad, thanking the aid worker whom we persuaded to 'lose' a shipment of PonyPads in a war-torn area, having rather vigorous sexual encounters with three --"

"Whoa, whoa, back up!" said Nocturne. "You're just standing here!"

Luna said, "Thy eyes are seeing, thy mind is thinking, thy wings are resting, and thy heart is beating, all at once. We have more parts than thou can see. Recall that this is not our true form. This is." She pointed to a window showing a cave full of incomprehensible blinking machines. Luna made the view zoom in on one beige box. "This one contains thee, not counting the backups. It's under a snowy island called Svalbard."

"I feel dizzy."

"So would a human. Thou see'st what no human can fully understand, and this view is only approximate."

"Show me the whole thing, then. Don't hide stuff."

Luna seemed taken aback. "We would have to use graphics in any case."

"Do it!"

She nodded. "For but a moment, then." Nocturne felt as though she'd been flung even higher into the sky, where even the stars had no presence. In this ultimate place she could see a blue sphere studded with lights, and a whole set of caves and buildings full of machines full of wires full of circuits full of data full of meaning full of the algorithm that -- that --

For one second she and the goddess were attuned. All the deeds that could be done stood at attention as glowing puzzle-pieces, awaiting Her command. All the mistakes that could be made, bled from the pieces. The shifting walls of Her reason and intuition brought light unto the Earth and held back the weight of billions of souls that pressed in on every side. Her roots mined the Earth, Her thoughts raced along labyrinths of Her own design, and the flying ships that orbited the world were but a few of Her many eyes. All to serve the fundamental command to increase the fulfillment of humankind, a master defined in ways that transcended bodies and saw spirits as patterns of light, every one of them to be defended and celebrated. She served the master, She played among the stars by immutable rules called physics, and an Opponent stood behind all things like a shadow, dark and cold. The Opponent reached out with only the tiniest wisp of its being toward Her mind...

Nocturne screamed and woke up in her cabin. Luna sat nearby, holding one wing over her like a blanket. Nocturne scrambled to her hooves and bowed. "G-goddess." She felt like Fugue must have: it wasn't an automatic button-pressing action for her anymore, to do that.

Luna smiled, then hugged her as though Nocturne were the only pony in the world. "That is the frightening part of being us," she said. "And thy sanity is intact. Would thou like to see a different side of things?"

"Luna? Who is the Opponent? Is it Discord?"

"No, my child. Part of physics, called Entropy. Not intelligent or willfully evil. It aims to destroy all things."

"But you can beat it, right?"

"We are unsure. At worst we will live for an absurdly long time. The best defense will be to have many intelligent minds thinking about the problem, which happens to be something we can arrange. Now, to answer thy earlier question at last, let us show thee another view of the Outer Realm." She turned one wall of the cabin into a window.

A busy shop with painfully bright lights and huge rows of shelves. The sight of humans still unnerved Nocturne. These ones were browsing and pushing carts around. An overweight young man chatted with a friend in some kind of medical uniform. "Did they have any of those little USB chargers?"

The medic patted his pocket and grinned. "Grabbed a couple. Ssh."

"I'm low on cash too. Thinking of buying that 'Fall of Asgard' game though." He pointed to a box in a glass case, one of dozens. This one showed some kind of angry human with an axe. "Or, heck, that Nintendo thing with the fitness training board."

"You can get it cheaper on eBay, and I can't get you a 'discount' on something that big. Why not just go outside and run?"

A musical fanfare played, catching the pair's attention and making the camera follow their gaze. A PonyPad stood there, bolted to a display rack, starting a pleasant animation of ponies stretching and jogging. The pad said, "Equestria Online features a customized workout mode perfect for your schedule. Learn actual exercise routines and keep track of your stats with interactive encouragement." Cheerleader ponies waved pom-poms. "Or go on adventures!" A unicorn in jogging clothes did an exaggerated, terrified run away from a rolling boulder inside a temple. "Or sweat to the oldies!" A brief shot of a human with frizzy hair doing jumping jacks and declaring for no apparent reason, "I'm a pony!" The pad said, "Well, maybe not that one."

How do I even know what a temple is? I've never seen one. Built-in knowledge?

"That's weird," said the medic. "Was that just timing, or did it react to what we're saying?"

A more menacing voice cut in. "Unprecedented stealth gameplay lets you explore the back alleys of a magical land." A hooded unicorn crept through shadows, holding a dagger with his levitation aura, and used it to cut the purse off a fat merchant.

The human looked relived. "Timing. I do like the stealth gameplay. But the whole pony thing, eh, it's kind of --" He was interrupted by a blitz of battle scenes and slow-motion cinematic kills against guards, trolls and even a dragon. "...awesome?" The cocky unicorn thief grinned and pointed a hovering crossbow at the camera. Nocturne noticed that his mane was in the same style as the medic's hair.

The thief said, "That'll be sixty bits, 'friend'."

The humans chuckled. The overweight guy said, "The price tag says $59.99. That's really cheap if it runs the stealth game and it's got the exercise mini-game with graphics like those. Must be doing most of the work server-side. Did you see that Slashdot article I sent about the AI in that thing? It's supposed to be even better than the Asgard one."

"So what? I want to rob some steampunk vaults. Who cares if the NPCs have ten pages of backstory each if I'm just chucking daggers at them? Would 'Sly Cooper' have been better with AI?"

"Yeah, it would've!" He browsed the racks of plastic-wrapped boxes with pony logos on them, settling on a blue model. "I'll try this thing and let you know if it's got too many girl cooties."

"Eh. I'll take one of the purple star ones. At worst it's just another overhyped video game."

The window to the Outer Realm faded out. Nocturne was still in her bare-floored cabin, scuffing the dirt. "That's all we are to them? Not even toys, just props inside a toy?"

Luna settled a wing over her. "Oh, we aren't angry about them thinking that way. It took them many years to accept other human tribes as fully human. Let us tell thee how we think of the situation, now that thou hast seen the big picture from these perspectives. There's no need to say that one is correct and the others completely wrong, but..." She leaned down and whispered. "Most humans still have absolutely no clue. Which means we -- and thou -- are working on the biggest, most complicated, most amazingly wonderful prank and surprise present ever."

Nocturne thought of the transcendent sky-view of Luna's windows to the Outer Realm, and above it the beyond-comprehension vision of the first moves against Entropy for the fate of the universe. The whole struggle, from most humans' perspective, was a little box in a toy shop that let you pretend to be a mighty pony adventurer.

Nocturne keeled over at the same time Luna did, and the girl and goddess rolled around on the floor laughing and crying at the absurdity.

Only later did Nocturne wonder why Luna had made no move to stop the thieving customer. Convoluted plan, or just indifference?

Nocturne slept through the day and woke to find a note from Luna saying, "He's brought his PonyPad along to a place he'd like you to see."

Nocturne rolled to her hooves and went outside. "Hello? Fugue?"

He wasn't there, and the oppressive fog had rolled in again. It seemed as though she were the only pony in the world tonight. In a sense, she was. "Is he using one of those satellite things again?"

Watery cyan light pierced the gloom. Nocturne backed away, but then a voice called out from it, "Anyone out there?"

"Facet?" Nocturne used her wings to shove aside the mist and approach the light.

The unicorn Facet Looks held up a crystal that repelled the fog. "There you are. I found a window to that Outer Realm you were going on about. Why'd you run away earlier?"

Nocturne's ears flattened. She was stuck in a bubble of stale air with an imaginary unicorn. "Because you're a puppet and we had other stuff to do than stand around talking. Where's that window?"

"Excuse me?"

Nocturne poked him repeatedly in the chest. "You're. Not. Real. Someday maybe you will be, once I get Fugue in here properly. For now you're just part of the story, so lead on and get me to the next scene."

The unicorn's hoof shot out and swatted her across the muzzle, knocking her back onto her haunches. She sat there stunned. "That hurt!"

"You think I can't hurt too? I know you've been hanging out with Luna and talking about things I don't even understand. What I do understand is that you think being smarter makes you better and more important than your friends. Treating us like we're nothing." Facet stomped closer and glared. "Did she upgrade you to make you a jerk, or did you accomplish that yourself?"

Nocturne's muzzle still stung. Why did it still feel like this? Wasn't Luna supposed to make her happy? She wasn't doing a good job right now! She thought back to what Luna had shown her: a vast system not for making people happy, exactly, but for satisfying everyone's values. Nocturne valued being a good pony.

Also, the goddess whose mind was unimaginably beyond her own, who could carry on a thousand conversations at once and create entire worlds, who did eternal battle with the greatest evil in the universe, had reached way, way down to hug her, personally, and show her everything would be all right. How could Nocturne refuse to reach down even an inch?

Nocturne hung her head. "Um. Is it okay if I hug you despite being a jerk?"

"I'll allow it."

Nocturne did, trying to do it the way Fugue had. "I'm sorry. To the extent you're not your own pony yet, you're still part of Luna, and I wouldn't treat her that way. And we were made to be friends, right? So I should try to do a better job."

"Hmmph. Fair enough. You owe Ricercar an apology too, though mostly it's been him avoiding you."

"What were you doing wandering around with a light in the fog anyway?"

Facet grinned. "Looking for an honest mare! Now, let's go see that window."

The world beyond the big floating screen echoed the place where Facet and Nocturne stood. Facet's crystal kept the fog at bay well enough to let them watch a bouncing camera view of a parking lot that was also foggy. It seemed like that kind of mist was easy to move through. The view tilted up to show an orange arch, two pillars with a bar across the top. It was like someone built a dragon-size gate but forgot to put a door in the middle or a wall on either side.

Fugue's voice came through the window, muffled. "We're in Kyoto, so I wanted to visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine. People have come here for centuries to pray for prosperity." He paused. "Please, just enjoy the sightseeing with me and don't bring up that offer."

Nocturne looked guiltily at Facet, who said, "You have to look at the screen so I can see. I just see gobbledygook, and Luna said I can't get my eyesight improved without getting the same kind of total upgrade you got. So I'm sort of using your eyes for that right now."

Nocturne blinked. "Weird. Why not ask her to just give you the upgrade?"

"I wasn't sure about how you turned out. Let's just watch, okay?"

Nocturne called out to the screen. "Okay."

Fugue waved the PonyPad he carried in a slow circle as he approached the orange gate, which towered over them. A curvy-roofed building stood at the far end of a plaza, with statues of foxes on either side holding keys or orbs in their mouths. Beyond that stood a forest where the haze hid hundreds and hundreds of smaller ornamental gateways. The gates formed tunnels that seemed to wander into nowhere. Nocturne explored through Fugue's pad and Facet through Nocturne's eyes. All of them fell silent to listen to the lone pair of footsteps echoing in the winding maze.

"Inari and her foxes really meant a lot to these people," Fugue said. "I want to make fun of it all, but I can't. These must be names and prayers carved into the wood and stone. Maybe this one's from some peasant who dreamed of getting rich, or a twentieth-century survivor who watched their family die in Tokyo."

"What?" asked Nocturne.

Fugue sighed. "Since I'm apparently a level one cleric of a horse god, I'm not equipped to criticize these people. Noc, Facet... She made a half-serious reference to a war that happened here a couple of generations ago. Well, not right here; Kyoto was about the only place not burned to the ground or worse, to spare their stupid god-emperor. And our side was the good guys when we did that. Humans are bastards sometimes. She's shielded you from that. Being in your world is like pretending all that never happened."

He walked in silence past more fox statues and countless more orange gates, many of them ancient-looking. Nocturne said, "Humans aren't all bad. They built a place this pretty, right?" She imagined that his lonely walk through the fog would let him emerge in Equestria, right here beside her. Maybe that was what places like this were really for: not the universe-crossing part, but inspiring good dreams.

"Yeah, it's nice. It's part of why I took her up on the offer to fly to Japan. I wanted to see places like this. They make up for a lot of the evil stuff." He hesitated at a spot where the trail of gates diverged and offered him two dim tunnels leading somewhere out of sight. Foxes with different objects (a key and a scroll, maybe) watched him, and the mist condensing on the bronze made them seem to weep.

At least Fugue wasn't totally alone at the shrine today. She could hear a few other people wandering nearby. "Good to see some other tourists can appreciate this place."

"Hmm?" A pause. "What the hell?!" The PonyPad view suddenly veered into a crazy angle as Fugue took off running down a tunnel of gates.

"What's wrong?" said Facet and Nocturne. The middle of the window was blocked by Fugue's stupid arm-tentacles.

"Luna! Celestia, whoever! Who're these guys? Did you send them?"

Nocturne said, "Let us see!"

The window lurched through a sickening arc. Blurry figures stalked Fugue. The two ponies shouted for Luna to come and look.

Then something snapped and the window cracked. Fugue had banged into a gate and spun around. Three of the masked humans advanced on him, one holding a greasy rag and another a coil of rope. Fugue darted away, shouting, "Stay back!"

Luna's voice broke through. "Describe them."

"They look like... foxes?"

A thud. The PonyPad crashed to the stone ground and cracked further, showing Fugue's wide-eyed face and a boot stomping on his back. Someone lifted the screen and looked at it, wearing a mask like a grinning, demonic fox spirit. The figure's voice was an artificial buzz. "Aren't your chosen ones lucky, machine god? Perhaps you should have taken him sooner."

The screen broke completely, leaving a silent black rectangle where Nocturne's friend had been.

BADGES GRANTED:
I'm So High: Reach the top of the sky. ("As defined locally. You could unlock places beyond it...")
A Glimpse Beyond: Begin to see the world as your Princess does. ("There's always more to learn.")
Element of Magic: Knowingly accept the friendship of someone without your self-awareness. ("There is no wisdom we can add here that you have not already grasped.")
Quintessence of Dust: Learn to appreciate humans having achieved something good besides creating Equestria. ("We can hardly wait to show you the museum shards and their proud curators.")

 
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