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.



8. Kitsune


He woke in a room lit by a dim red bulb. Rope dug into his wrists and ankles, and a sickly-smelling cloth was caught in his teeth. Get over here and take me before they can kill me, Luna! he thought.

"Number Eight is awake." The voice spoke English in a harsh buzz from behind a fox-face mask, white with a bloody grin. At least three of his companions wore fox masks in different styles. Red Smile said, "Robert-san, your profile says that you know something of Japan. How were you enjoying the more traditional parts of our culture?"

Fugue wriggled and tried to snap free from his bonds. Someone kicked him in the back until he lay still, fighting back tears.

Red Smile yanked the bandanna down from Fugue's mouth and pulled his hand free in time to keep from being bitten. "Well? Your feedback is important to us. Please be advised that your transaction may be monitored, for quality assurance."

A thuggish woman whose mask was more animal-like laughed, hidden by the same rasping voice-changer. Fugue decided to call her Beast Face. "What brings you to Fushimi-Inari specifically, gaijin?"

Fugue glared at them, trying to find any advantage, any detail to memorize for hunting these people down later. When he escaped. "I wanted to see something ancient and beautiful that'd make up for those other things your people did. You're not helping my impression of the place."

Beast Face said, "I visited Pearl Harbor once. Nice. Did you know that when Tokyo was bombed, the people who leaped into ponds to escape the fire-tsunami boiled alive, and the ones who ran along sidewalks had concrete melting under their shoes? I enjoyed the scenery in Hawaii but did not think it was a fair trade."

"Is that what this is about, then? Take out your nationalist frustrations on the American boy?"

Red Smile asked one of the others something, and nodded. "Good. Robert-san, we have managed to invite not just you but several of your impressionable foreign friends to speak with our group. The blind wheelchair girl from France was our most interesting acquisition, because suicide seems like such a tempting option for her."

The thought of death made Fugue try once more to escape the ropes, this time by finding some sharp spot to cut them against. When Beast Face's boot came for him again he rolled across the concrete and nearly made her collide with Red Smile. He just had to hold out. There'd be a way. Why didn't these people have pistols to swipe? Damn gun-phobic culture. How was he supposed to play hero? To survive?

Red Smile said, "She knows your language better than I. She is actually an admirer, despite her seeming hostility."

"Seeming? How about you let me go and then claim you're not hostile?"

"Not quite yet, Robert-san."

Beast Face said, "Do you know the folklore of kitsune, fox-spirits? Among other things, there are stories in which a fox disguises itself as a woman and lures a human into a beautiful dream-world. There they live happily for years as husband and wife. One day, the human thinks to leave behind his mansion and his servants, and finds himself crawling out of a hole in the ground. All this time, he has been bewitched and living in a fox's den. Rutting with a beast and confining himself in the dirt like a dead man."

Fugue shut his eyes tight. "I know that legend. It's ambiguous whether the hidden world is an illusion or an actual pocket dimension."

"For all you know, your goddess already has you. Maybe this... room is nothing but a dirt hole in the ground, and you aren't really here but in a recreation of it, in her dreams. Or the room may be your grave and this conversation, your last hallucination. Or we killed you and you are a false recreation of the real player, having a fantasy that will explain how you got to Equestria. Isn't it a shame to have given up control over your own mind? The old tales warn us against that."

Fugue much preferred to think about the legends, something he could go over like a lecturer, than about those possibilities. He glared at the masked faces and said, "That's not the only story of yours I know. There was a painter called Kobodashai, or Kukai or something, and whatever he painted could come to life in people's dreams. And beat up his critics. Don't you people have a whole tradition of believing that inanimate things can come to life and have souls? It doesn't matter if it started out as a painting, if it's alive now."

Beast Face chattered in Japanese with her companion. Red Smile said, "You were considering dying in that chair, yes? Perhaps, Robert-san, you did. She tricked you into saying her permission phrase. How would you know? The process makes you forfeit any ability to ever again know your mind is intact, your senses true. Your machine god had you in her clutches in her silver chair."

Robert racked his memory. If he couldn't physically bust out of here, there had to be a way to help himself. Wear them down, keep them talking. "You seem to have thought a lot about uploading. What are your other hobbies besides kidnapping handicapped people?"

The fox faces loomed over him. "We're trying to help people," said Beast Face. "Her version of horse-world must be appealing. An intact body, maybe a promise of sight if she will only choose death in the machine god's name. What about you, though; what excuse does a physically intact and pampered Westerner have for wanting to die and abandon all your friends and family?"

"It's not 'death'. You'd understand if you bothered talking with her instead of dressing up for a furry convention."

Red Smile said, "Oh, we have spoken with her. She lies. Shamelessly. Consider that there must have been some day when she said, 'I am a little game machine; please feed me more computers so I can run my game better. That's all I want.' Now, she plans to destroy the world."


A kick made him arch his back and yelp. "Liar!" said one of his captors. "You know better. She's said it openly to some of us. Surely she's told you! Everyone will upload, everyone will die, and why then would she even preserve the Earth? Your reluctant family will walk the crumbling streets, wondering why you abandoned them, scrounging for food and medicine. Go on. Tell me that your country won't collapse like a rotting house if this goes on, crushing anyone beneath it. Tell me you weren't planning to walk out whistling, leaving others to their fate."

"I didn't decide to upload!" said Fugue.

"She's working on you. She called you her 'special student', I bet. You already have a rank of 'Cleric' according to some data we obtained. Step a little closer, she must have said; I won't hurt you. It's your choice to talk with me, your choice to let me make some friends for you, then to invite you for free to sit in the chair and perhaps slip some nanites into your brain. Did she show you your imaginary friends with adorable Tezuka-eyes pleading with you to say --"

"Shut up! What the hell do you want anyway? To talk me out of something I didn't decide to do?" Nanites in his brain? Could she have already done that without his permission, just to prepare him? He felt his scalp itch.

The masked man in front of him nodded to one of the others. "We mean to make an example of you." The other figure stepped out of the shadows, holding a syringe. "Do you know why fugu is so hard to serve safely?"


In another world, Nocturne hovered unintentionally because her wings were pummelling the air. "And then it cracked and --"

"Be still." Luna made a blue glow surround Nocturne and set her on the ground. "We are working on the problem."

"Then let me help! Fugue's in trouble!" How could death be permanent? That was a stupid rule!

Luna said, "He is not the only one. We have lost contact with three others."

"I thought you were everywhere, Luna!" Nocturne stared up at her and saw the worry on the goddess' face.

"We are limited by machines and physics. Vast, but finite. Please do not worry. We can adjust this shard's flow of time so that he will be saved by thy next breath."

She stomped the dirt. "No! Let me go save him! With... robots or something. You have those, right?"

Luna considered. "Are other humans valuable to thee? Would thou fight to rescue another human, while someone else seeks out Fugue, for the sake of greater harmony?"

"If you actually send somepony, then fine! Do it!" Whatever scheme she had in mind, it didn't matter so long as it got ponies moving to fix this.

"Very well." A sterile white dome appeared, with an open doorway leading to screens and controls. "Go there and learn to operate a bit of our information network. Time... let us explain it more explicitly. We have begun running the miniature shard in there at much greater speed, so that Fugue's enemies will slow to a crawl from thy perspective. Thy foes are currently our single most important project in the world. That is saying quite a lot." Luna gave a narrow-eyed grimace that shook Nocturne and made her think that maybe there was something to the legend of Nightmare Moon. "Hunt them down."

"You're not doing this alone!" A fellow Noctral dropped to the ground and spread his long-fingered wings. A unicorn trotted out from behind the dome that had materialized in their valley.

Nocturne startled. "Ricercar? Facet!"

"You think we'd skip this? Luna, hit us. Do the thing."

"Full self-awareness with all its costs and risks?" said Luna.

Facet nodded. "We're not gonna mope about it. He said, do the thing!"

"Yes, well. The thing." Luna's horn shined like starlight, and beams of the same light came down from infinity to strike the two of them. They vanished for only a moment, from Nocturne's perspective.

When they returned, they stared at each other and babbled. The first coherent thing Ricercar managed to say to Facet was, "You're a talking unicorn with anime eyes and... and blue hair!" Then they both fell over laughing.

Nocturne rolled her eyes and dragged the crazy bat-pony by his tail, hearing him giggle the whole way. Facet pranced along as though nothing in the world were wrong, singing, "I'm a unicorn and that's okay! I work all night and I sleep all day..."

Nocturne mumbled around Ricercar's tail in her mouth. It tasted like red licorice. "I was more dignified. I think you broke them."

"Nonsense," said Luna, with a regal upward tilt of her head. "Thy friends didn't even want to see the global view for now. They were content with some knowledge of themselves, and of the Outer Realm and their place in it. Carry on."

A dozen ponies sat on cushions around a big aquarium. Instead of fish, symbols and flickering lines drifted through the water. The light from it made the whole dome seem to ripple. Windows like PonyPad screens hovered in front of each pony, apparently there for them to poke at. The flameless torches on the walls were dim enough not to bother her eyes.

A pegasus with armor that shined like red gold hopped out from behind a fern and frowned at Nocturne and Ricercar's wings. "What are you?" he said.

"Friends of Fugue."

"Good enough. The enemy has him and Junebug, Lexington, and Brass Lamp. You lot are assigned to focus on Junebug. Talk to her friend Whistle over there." He pointed to a pale mare, who turned half toward them with empty, hazy, pupil-less eyes.

Nocturne flapped once. Her friends shifted uneasily. The armored stallion said, "Junebug can't see, so light doesn't exist in her world yet." His voice rumbled. "Be nice."

"That's terrible!" Nocturne said. "What kind of maniac god is running the Outer Realm?"

A brown earth pony with a fancy cloth wound around his forehead said, "A mysterious one, effendi, but that is not the problem we are here for today. You may tell me of this Fugue and exactly what he was doing when abducted."

Nocturne looked back and forth between the other ponies. It wouldn't be right to keep clear of the blind girl just because her eyes were so creepy, not when she needed help. "I'll go talk to her. Ricercar, Facet, can you help him out with Fugue?"

Ricercar said, "They're from other worlds? That's amazing. I wonder if they're in on the joke."

"Focus, Rice!" said Facet.

The blind Whistle explained that Junebug, her human, had been touring Nijo Castle, another of Kyoto's sights. Sounds, rather. The place had "nightingale floors", ingeniously designed to make pleasant noises whenever someone's hooves touched them, to deter ninjas. "What's a ninja?" said Nocturne.

"A silent warrior of the mysterious night. Junebug thinks they're cool."

"Oooo. And was she grabbed by guys in fox masks?"

"So I'm told. She had her PonyPad along for company, and the microphones picked up four sets of boots. They didn't talk, so it was pretty coordinated. Fast, too, so that her only call for help was muffled."

"Where'd they all run off to if they were hauling a human along?"

"Way ahead of ya, lass!" said a pegasus with a scarf and goggles. "They've got these land-ships called cars, see, and some incredible roads. Celly's been sendin' us what tracking data she's got, but the scoundrels weren't considerate enough to use cars with that DayStar brand 'driver satisfaction' feature she sells."

"Celly?" said Nocturne. "Oh. Huh. I'm so used to thinking of Luna. Have we got a map of the roads, maybe?"

The central aquarium's images flipped and became a spidery road map. Nocturne frowned at it. "This shard is huge! How far could they have gone?"

Facet called out from where the head-scarf guy's team was sitting. "Working on that!" Four dots chimed into view, marked with names. "Not far. It's only been a few minutes."

Somepony said, "We've got video camera footage of a lot of the roadway around those landmarks. Those wagon things have numbers on the back, right?"

Nocturne listened to the chatter of ponies tracking vehicles around various landmarks, and flopped back onto a cushion. How did bad guys in the Outer Realm have any chance? Fugue would be fine. A question nagged at her and made her ears droop, though: couldn't Luna just do everything their whole group was doing, for them? Well, yeah, but she must figure that as long as we can do it, why not let us try, and meet each other while we're fighting together? Also, it means she trusts that we can do it ourselves. She smiled at that. Thanks, Luna. This way is better than waiting for you to fix things.

Whistle poked her. "Nocturne? Could you call this guy? It's something that has to be done in real time, since he's in the Outer Realm." A number appeared on a glowing screen between them. Junebug explained what a telephone was. "Princess Celestia sold some little flying machines to the police department, but they don't accept that the things are really useful and are keeping them in a box. One man at the station knows all about Equestria, so can you convince him to turn those things on for us?"

It sounded a little scary to talk to some random human, but Nocturne tried to look confident. "Sure." She coughed and poked a floating button. The air around her rippled and nearly everypony else became a blur. Oh, she'd just changed time scales! "Excuse me, sir? Is this Officer Nakamura Saito? I'm calling from Equestria and it's an emergency." The words seemed to warp as she spoke them. Hey, there's translation! I bet the other ponies aren't speaking in normal language either.

The line was silent for a moment. "You are a pony calling for the police?"

"No, no, for you. Let's see, my screen says you have a box of something called 'Kraken drones' that the department isn't using, but they're really needed now. Has anypony been sent out after the kidnappers? Yes? That's good, but we need you also to --"

The pegasus with the goggles rippled into view and leaped into Nocturne's bubble of normal time. "Wait! I need to speak to him."

Nocturne startled. "Is something wrong?"

"No. I just overheard and... let me do this. Ahem." The pegasus unfurled his mighty wings, curved like a seagull's, and bellowed at the screen. "RELEASE THE KRAKEN!" His duty done, he trotted out of the bubble with a grin plastered on his muzzle.

"Pegasi are weird," said Nocturne.

A few minutes of real time later, Nocturne ended the call and let the bubble collapse. Everypony slowed down again, making her feel dizzy. "Okay! We've got a signal from the flying machines, but they need time to charge up. The city police are working but they're slow. What else is going on?"

The crazy peggy said, "Looking for possible convergence of cars on one hideout. It's like checking ripples in the sea though; too incomplete to do more than guess. And maybe our friends aren't being brought to the same place."

"What about these two areas?" said Ricercar, pointing to a complicated drawing.

"Maybe. Nocturne, can you get on the horn with the police about those? Or get on the wing at least."

"Why me, again?"

The pegasus pointed to the mark on her flank. "You look like the wordy type, and Celly said you're an expert on the Outer Realm." He narrowed his eyes and gave a predatory grin. "In other words, lass, ye've got the second sight and can talk to creatures of the mysterious deep."

"You're weird."

He saluted. "I'm Typhoon's Eye, right-hoof pony of Cap'n Lexington, and I've seen few things stranger than a plucked peggy like you. But we're all friends here, right?"

"Hey, I'm not a pegasus! You know what? Never mind." She stomped back over to the telephone spot to call the 'mysterious creatures' again. When did I get used to talking to aliens from a callous alternate world beyond time and space?

Big Damn Heroes: Work with friends to help someone in danger in the Outer Realm. ("Sometimes you should aim to misbehave.")
Cross-Shard Comrade: Make friends with someone from another shard. ("You weren't specifically meant to work together, so that's noteworthy.")
For Whistle: What Have You Done?: Introduce a Noctral to the concept of ninjitsu.

Author's Note:

"I named the drones just so that people could say that." -CelestAI

The ponies of each shard are engineered to work together well, but what happens when they have to interact? How much of their friendly nature is due to having been designed from the ground up for compatibility with specific other ponies? I wonder about that with the notion of shards with multiple uploaded minds, too. Would the AI feel obligated to separate them so everyone can have their ideal clique/harem/empire, or do differences and conflicts bring them satisfaction exceeding what a husband would get from a secretly-replaced, idealized version of his wife?

What happens when they have to interact? They whip up cool interdimensional control rooms and start scheming for how to get their shards joined into some kind of desert/island/nocturnal adventure world, that's what.

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