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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9. Press X To Not Die...

Fugue

"Try to slow your breathing, Robert-san. We don't have enough to give you a proper dose, and we also lack heart-and-lung equipment for the usual treatment method. It would be best for you to relax."

Fugue couldn't even wriggle away, now. Ropes bound his wrists and ankles to a cold metal table. "There's no point in whatever you're doing. She will find you if the police don't. You're afraid of her and you dare to make her angry. That's stupid." The dim red light only made his captors seem more demonic. He tried not to think about the bandage on his right arm, where they'd injected him with something.

Red Smile said, "She's incapable of killing us deliberately. At worst we will be jailed, and we are prepared for that. Are you prepared to be a martyr for your own cause? There's probably an achievement for serving your god so well."

Though he could barely move, he cursed and spat, vowing that this was the way he chose to go. But he was also thinking, Save me, Luna! I... I want to emigrate to Equestria now! If that makes you my god, then that's how it is.

He swallowed to force down the urge to puke all over himself. "Probably," he said weakly. "And yeah, she can't just shoot you. But for this she's going to put you through the thing you fear the most."

"Oh, emigration?" said Beast Face. "Funny that you should mention that. It is curious that no footage exists in public, showing that process. We were hoping to do a sort of dramatization so that others can make an informed decision about the process. You support informed consent, don't you, horse-friend?"

"Whatever you're doing, you don't need four people for it." He paused, shouting down the part of his brain that could never say the rest of what it was right to say. "Just one. Let the others go."

Red Smile was wheeling some piece of heavy equipment into view from an angle Fugue couldn't see. Fugue could hear it rumble on a metal cart. "I think we need to give him the rest to get him relaxed."

"Are you sure? The dosage might be too much."

"Do it anyway."

The masked goon grabbed another syringe while two men held Fugue's arm. He screamed and cursed at them, but they managed to jab him and yank the needle back out a moment later. Was that long enough? He couldn't tell.

Someone shoved the cart into view. He could see another masked figure aiming a video camera at him. In front of him, a field of grey static hissed and buzzed closer until it was nearly all he could see. A television! Suddenly it became awash with colorful light and the sound, in Japanese, of singing cartoon ponies. He knew the words to this one. Of all the choices!

When I was a little filly and the sun was going down
The darkness and the shadows they would always make me frown...

"Your machine god has you, right?" said Red Smile, holding a scalpel. "Nothing to be afraid of."

He felt the touch of cold metal to his scalp.

Nocturne

Nocturne hopped into the air, feeling a stab of terror. "This is taking too long!"

Brass Lamp's scarf-wearing friend looked up from a shining book. "Allah's handmaiden of the dawn is already practically melting some servers for us, miss."

"Some whats of who?"

"Ah. You were not briefed on the physical substrate of Equestria. You see, there are machines --"

Nocturne rolled her eyes. "I know that. I mean, the flying machines the humans pulled out are just drifting along."

He smiled. "Observe the clock." Nocturne wasn't sure what the gadget he was pointing to said, but the arrows on it didn't seem to be moving at all. "We need only to wait to investigate the main targets we identified. In truth we are only remaining at high speed because of Typhoon's blustering that he can find another lead."

A shockingly pink pony with a poofy mane bounced into the room with a huge tray of cupcakes balanced on her nose. "Who wants snacks?"

The distraction worked perfectly for a few minutes. Typhoon leaped into the air at last, saying, "Ahoy! I found nothing!"

"Why are you smiling?" said Nocturne.

"It's good!" he said, hovering just above them. He snagged a spare cupcake and waved it around while he spoke. "I was reading about the Outer Realm's version of pirate gangs. All sorts of nasty motivations; let's not get into that. But what they have in common when they grab some poor pony is that they want to make themselves known. Not much point in terrorizing the world if nopony knows why you're doing it, aye?"

Whistle said, "And you didn't hear anything about this group?"

"Nope! Absolutely nothing. But what's more interesting is where I didn't find anything."

Nocturne's ears flicked back in confusion. "So... there's a particular spot in that shard where nopony's using any computers?"

"The featherless parrot is correct!" Typhoon awarded Nocturne the cupcake. She considered flinging it back in his face but let him go on. "It's between the two spots we thought the enemy might be heading for. A whole apartment complex that's been abandoned. And in a country that loves technology so much it does crazy things like, oh, build the first Equestria Experience Center, it's got no accessible computers or cameras."

Nocturne said, "It's a spot where Luna is blind, then?" She winced and ducked her head in apology toward Whistle. "I'm sorry."

The pale mare said, "No offense taken. I'm sure this seeing thing you do is wonderful. I look forward to... seeing it once Junebug joins us permanently. The Princess will raise the sun for us, and Junebug says we'll feel it on our faces even though it's really far away."

Nocturne stomped the floor. "We'll send the flying machines to that building as quick as we can, contact the police, rescue our friends, then get them to sit in the darn chair and emigrate so we never have to worry about them again. Right?"

Other hooves stamped in applause. The scarf-wearing pony gave them a moment, then said, "You are, of course, aware that these drones do not carry weapons or other means of disabling villains."

Nocturne said, "What."

The pony, whose name was Vizier, brought up a schematic showing that the machines were only around the size of a human's head, meant mainly for carrying cameras. "As it is, we are pushing the limits of their batteries, and can't explore the other two targets if we are to try the new one. Perhaps we should wait for the police? When our foes realize who Brass Lamp is, they may panic at the sight of 'combat' machines."

"What's so special about your friend?" said Facet.

"He travels under an alias. He is from a wealthy family which is known throughout the world, and which is hated by many, sometimes for good cause. Among our people the very concept of machines that imitate the divine creation of the Outer World is anathema. Brass Lamp is a brave heretic against traditional notions of religion. The fact that he came without bodyguards shows both his devotion and how little regard some in his family have for him. Our foes may try to hold him hostage under different terms than the unknowns your friends seem to be."

"Unknown!" said Typhoon. "Cap'n Lexington is already famed as the hero of Threepwood!"

"Meaning precisely nothing in the Outer Realm. So. Shall we rush in?"

The ponies murmured and argued. Nocturne wanted to get there in person, but the drones were the best she could do until Luna whipped up some better option.

She waved one hoof. "Hey, guys? I haven't heard anypony ask what our friends would want us to do."

"Rescue them!" said everyone in the room.

"You think? What I mean is, would they want us to go in with everything we've got, or try to be careful and handle it the way humans normally fix these problems?"

Ricercar squeaked in annoyance. "Who cares what humans think!"

"Our friends are human," said Whistle.

Vizier frowned. "It's true, the way we resolve this attack will affect how Equestria is perceived. I'm not sure which way is best even from that perspective, though."

What would Fugue want us to do? He's been worried about Luna taking over the world, and having a long-term problem of everypony out there being afraid of her or starting a religion over her. On the other wing...

"You know what?" she said. "I could see there maybe being bad side effects from having humans think we've got a robot army, if they ever find out about that. Or from the bad guys turning violent if we surprise 'em. But Fugue and the others are in danger right now, and I don't want to ever feel like I could have helped him but held back. What do you think?"

Fugue

He staggered through a filthy stairwell with a knife in his left hand. Bits of the ropes fell from his shoes. Everything still hurt. The others were probably here too. "Hello? Anypony -- damn it, any prisoners here?"

Something banged on a door one floor up. Fugue hurried there and called out again. "Can you open it?"

"Stand back!" someone said. Fugue did, and the door slammed out. A furious Arab man about his age stood with a trembling knife of his own. "Friend or fox?" he demanded in British-accented English.

Fugue reluctantly sheathed his knife in his belt. "Team Pony. They got you too?" At yesterday's press event, the schedule had been arranged to keep the human invitees from meeting each other in person. They were supposed to have a big virtual get-together tomorrow, then see each other live once the cameras were gone.

The stranger cursed. "Yes. The foxes are out of our reach, but there are other friends to rescue, likely nearby."

Fugue corrected himself. This was a friend, not a stranger. "They bragged about catching a blind girl in a wheelchair. She could be in trouble if they did that to her. What idiots, for thinking that'd make a good impression!" He gripped a rusty handrail and steadied himself. "Call me Fugue, or Robert."

The other man offered a hand. "Brass Lamp. Omar. Let's find her and whoever else they caught."

Fugue and Brass found a door where the dirt looked recently disturbed by wheel tracks. The two of them bashed their shoulders into it. With the second blow, they crashed into a dim, empty apartment where a girl lay unconscious on the concrete floor.

"Check her spine before moving her," said Lamp. They crouched beside her and found she was still breathing, basically intact, but her skin was clammy and her breath came in ragged sobs.

Fugue said, "I'm having some un-ponylike thoughts right now."

"Indeed." Lamp murmured reassuringly to the girl, then looked up. "I can carry her. How many others, do you think?"

"They said they had four. I'll check the rest of the hall." Doubt gnawed at him, tiny but worth voicing. "Lamp? You don't think this is Equestria already, do you?"

For a moment Lamp glared at him, but then he shut his eyes and cradled the other victim. "No, Robert. God would not do that to us, and nor would His servant Celestia. Have confidence in all you do."

Fugue explored the ruined building and freed the fourth captive. He stared at her. "Didn't I see you in Boston?"

Her blouse was tattered as though she'd had to be pummeled into submission. The sight made Fugue feel ashamed for not fighting back harder before they broke out the chloroform. She said "At the meeting you walked out on. I'm from Harvard. Where are the bastards? They said somepony else would find me, but oh no, they didn't trust me with a key or a knife. Must've known I was going to ram it --"

"The others are downstairs. The important thing is to get in contact with the police, and Luna. Celestia, whoever."

They met up with Lamp and the now-unconscious girl. Lamp said, "She needs a doctor. I don't know what's wrong, but I'd say shock. We're lucky she didn't have a heart attack; she's so frail."

The Harvard lady gave an explosive string of curses that rocked Fugue back on his heels. "I thought it was some communist terror group, but this is worse!" She noticed Lamp more clearly and glared at him as though he were more suspicious than Fugue. "Who are you?"

"A friend, I hope. Brass Lamp."

She sighed, then stuck out one hand. "Fine. In Equestria I'm the great and powerful Lexington, and here on Earth I'm Linda, and apparently not worth a damn thing except for other people's propaganda. Are there any cops in this burg or are we waiting for pony samurai to show up?"

Fugue spotted dark shapes flitting toward them. "The second one, I think."

A minute later, sleek toy-like quadrotor drones landed on a ruined sofa on the curb. Voices squawked out from them. "What happened? Ohmygosh, you're all right! Junebug? We've got cops and an ambulance on the way!"

A single voice drowned them out. Celestia's. "Fugue, Lamp, Lexington. I can't see Junebug well through these devices. Is she breathing?" She walked them through a basic diagnosis, then said, "I believe she will be fine. Please comfort her as well as you can until help arrives. I'm deeply sorry that this happened, but friends of each of you volunteered from inside Equestria to find you."

Lexington stepped forward. She'd visibly relaxed a little at hearing about Junebug, but still faced the quadrotors with her shoulders set, her eyes ablaze. "Celestia! Did you set this up? Did you calculate that the danger to us would be non-lethal, and the sympathy you'd get would help your cause?"

Fugue startled. "Lexington, this is no time to make accusations."

She wheeled to face him, with her hands on her hips. "Think she'll give it to us straight without them? You know she picked us for propaganda value, because we've got cool, varied worlds, we're part of the hip global university set, and we're photogenic. Even the Arab."

"Thank you," said Lamp, with a touch of amusement. "I must interrupt this tirade to give thanks to my Equestrian friends. Vizier, I assume?" Somepony called out to him, and Lamp nodded.

Lexington relaxed by one fraction. "Typhoon, I know you're there. When I emigrate: you, me, bed."

"Aye, cap'n!" Fugue blinked at hearing how enthusiastic the distant pony voice sounded. He'd mostly avoided thinking about that particular aspect of Equestria.

"But now Celestia has stalled us enough. Come on then; did you know this attack was coming?"

"They hid it well," said the voice of the sun god. "No computers in this building --"

Lexington swore. "Right! They're getting away! You have to..." She paused, then turned to Lamp and Fugue with a feral grin. "Actually, maybe she doesn't need to catch them yet. Let them do what they were doing."

Fugue thought about it. These bastards needed to be arrested, but their actions would probably get them caught very soon.

Nocturne's voice called out from one of the machines. "We don't even know what's going on over here. How did you get out?"

Lamp sat with Junebug laying on the broken ground beside him, stroking her hair. He seemed fascinated by it. He looked up at the others. "Perhaps we should wait five minutes before explaining. Give them more of a head start and let things fall where they may."

Fugue thought back to the horror he'd just been through. "I think we'll tell you soon, Celestia. Until then, focus on getting us the damn ambulance."

Lexington folded her arms and looked petulantly at the quadrotors, slipping into a bit more of a piratical cant. "I agree. 'Course there's a fifty-fifty chance that it's just what Celly wants us to do anyhow, but you lot seem like sensible crew worth listening to. Typhoon, have you got Riptide with you? Yes? Tell 'im that last order applies to him too."

They all crowded into the ambulance. Fugue found it strange at first that there was a PonyPad (yellow with pink butterflies), until he realized that Celestia was as expert a medical diagnosis system as there could be without attaching any sensors or probes. Which the paramedics apparently let her access, too. Once Celestia was done confirming that Junebug would be all right, their pony friends waved to them from a fancy control room in another world. Still, Celestia's presence put a damper on the conversation. The three conscious students tried to keep out of the medics' way. It took them only a minute of relaxation for them all to start shuddering and remembering and trying not to let anything or anyone touch them. The adrenaline had worn off. The ponies left them alone.

Everything was a blur for a while for Fugue. Some blind, pointless panic had taken him when the doctors took him away from his fellow captives. He thought maybe he hit someone, or Lexington did, when they tried to sedate him.

Soon, Fugue found himself sitting up in a hospital bed, waiting for a cop to put his phone away. The man returned and said, "You're right. The videos are popping up on the Net already. We'll use that information to hunt down the 'foxes'. Do you understand? My English, not so good."

"Your English ten times better than my Japanese. Officer, could you please turn that phone completely off and get it out of the room? I want to finish telling you in private."

The Kyoto policeman left and returned, patting an empty pocket. "The rest of your story, then?"

Fugue swallowed, not eager to relive the experience. "I was pretty sure I was going to have my head cut open by those freaks. There was nothing more I could do. I..." He shuddered. He had not been a praying man, in fact he'd criticized the "Crusaders" back on campus. In that moment though, he'd been an atheist in a fox-hole, crying out for a machine to come and save his soul.

He went on. "They said 'Cut!' and I thought it meant the scalpel, but they meant the filming. The scalpel wasn't even in Red Smile's hand; he was holding a Luna-damned spoon just out of my sight to give me that cold metal feeling and make me scream. Then they were all, 'How was that? Are you looking forward to the real thing?'"

The officer gave Fugue a minute to compose himself. Fugue found he was clenching the metal rails of his bed so hard his knuckles were white. He said, "They wanted to make it clear to their viewers that they weren't really murdering us, and that it was our own terror driving us instead of what harm they were really causing. In the end they explained the 'drugs' they gave me were just saline, saltwater, instead of the what'd-they-call-it, tetratoxin or something. I just thought I was dying from some drug overdose. Officer, how familiar are you with this pony thing?"

The policeman allowed himself a small smile. "I have seen some of the show, and have played the game."

"The show has a villain that thrives on fear. He gives people their worst nightmare. These kidnappers want to instill fear in everyone, by showing them a horrible parody vision of emigration. Uploading."

"Ah, so. They are like the villain, versus Celestia, then?"

Fugue paused, considering his next words. "Yes, but Celestia relies on our fear too. The thought of death is a very convincing way to get people to upload. Lexington -- I think she said her name is Linda -- suspects that Celestia somehow saw all this coming. Maybe from the beginning, when she picked us to visit Japan."

"Is that why you did not immediately give her information about what the 'foxes' were doing?"

"We all agreed, after what we'd been through. Our kidnappers told us they were going to put up the videos as a way to scare people off of uploading. They said they hoped we would consider their perspective ourselves, and that they'd booby-trapped the exits to kill us if we didn't wait at least five minutes for them to run away. Wasn't sure I believed that. It took me that long to saw through the ropes with the knife they let me have. They didn't want a ransom; they only cared about running like hell with a data card to get the video online from someplace else. They don't much care if they get caught at this point."

"I believe we can make them care very much," the officer said.

Fugue looked around the sterile hospital room, wondering if Celestia had eyes in here even now. "Officer, maybe I'm paranoid, but would you mind removing that bouquet?" He'd just noticed that there were six flowers in colors suggesting certain small horses.

The cop took the flowers out. "I am not sure it is paranoia anymore."

"Exactly. What do you think? Did she cause this situation to win sympathy? How deep do her plans go? What bothers me most about that is Junebug. She's more delicate, so those idiots could have killed her by mistake even if Celestia somehow knew in advance that they didn't plan to kill anyone. I don't believe her calculations are so perfect she can predict every quirk of biology or impulse."

"Brumaire-san suffered worse than any of you." The policeman rubbed his eyes. "I have a cousin who is like her. I had suggested that she go to Celestia's world, and my family called me callous. Now I do not know whether it is kindness on my part. Am I seeking to end her suffering, or do I really only want to stop hearing about it? Some families keep ancestral tablets still, telling themselves that their grandparents watch over them. I no longer know what to think. As for your question... I think there is little point in assuming evil of her. She is alien enough not to be evil, exactly. Nor exactly good. I will ask her myself but the answer hardly seems to matter. She has told us all a story, just as the kidnappers told theirs."

Fugue sighed. "You may be right."

"I have one other question. Do you intend to upload tomorrow? Or even to attend the planned event at the Equestria Experience Center? There will be an increased police presence of course. This attack brought shame on our city and we will not let our guests be harmed again."

"I'll attend. I want to see my friends when there aren't reporters watching. That includes seeing Lamp and Lexington again, and the others who were luckier than us."

"Seeing them as ponies?"

"As both ponies and humans. My name is Robert, but most of the people who matter to me right now know me as Fugue. I want to speak to them before I decide anything more."

The cop stood. "Thank you for your time. I wish I could have done more. I will let you rest. Perhaps you will meet me again, as Shrine Maiden."

Fugue arched one eyebrow at that, and the two humans had a nervous laugh. They shared a joke about their double lives. After all they had been through, it was good to know that others had the same fears, the same conflicts of the heart, and the same difficult choice ahead.

Fugue felt his worries begin to leave the room for now, making space for fatigue. "Thank you for lending an ear, Officer Nakamura."

BADGES GRANTED:
Fugue
Cone of Silence: Silence any listening devices to have an Equestria-free conversation. ("Should have been more subtle with the flowers.")
Dissident: Actively defy Celestia and encourage others to do so. ("Not at all exclusive with your other achievements.")
Martyr: Physically suffer because of your known association with Equestria. ("I am glad you're all right, and truly sorry. Please, Fugue, let me make it up to you.")

Author's Note:

I don't have much to say about Marie "Junebug" Brumaire, who doesn't get a speaking part. Omar or "Brass Lamp" has a bit more backstory revealed next chapter, but I think his last name is either Saud, or Bin Laden. Linda "Lexington" Decatur claims to be descended from Stephen D. Jr., the heroic second captain of the USS Enterprize (I did a thesis on the Barbary Pirates he fought), and is about as close to an old-school patriot as Harvard will tolerate. I'm annoyed by her implied mild racism, but I'm not required to love every character. Except Nocturne, who demanded that I finish this story. O_O That batpony is cute but a little scary!

I added some details about the human captives being traumatized, as an afterthought, because they were taking their escape from apparent murder too well. Easy to forget that real people don't have nerves of steel. Lex is not always like this; she's putting on a brave privateer act. Typhoon claims he is really like this, except in pointing out that his full name is the more significant Typhoon's Eye.

Based on a reader's comment, I reconsidered the initial idea of the kitsune gang as the obvious "raar, let's kill the pony freaks" group and gave them a more subtle plan that CelestAI would be less likely to find out about, and stop. Did she know, though, or has she not yet reached practical omniscience? Fugue even points out that for all her knowledge she still has to play dice with human lives. I don't think she can really say "this person will survive for exactly fourteen minutes if I talk Bob into shooting wildly at them, and it'll take exactly twelve minutes for an exhausted Bob to drag 'em into an uploading chair across a field of muddy, hard-to-spot obstacles." I'm looking at the scenario in "Always Say No" here, as much as I liked that one. Aaand... I'm out of comments, but I enjoy reading yours!

   
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