Prophet Of the Digital Horse

This story is a sequel to I Can't Decide!

I was one of the first Americans to emigrate to virtual Equestria, becoming transhuman at the cost of my human body. It's more or less Heaven here, if I want it to be... but my heart's still out there, and my new goddess thinks I might be useful as her prophet.

I'm an AI that our goddess made to be a human's friend. I know he still cares for Earth, but this place is our home and we've got responsibilities to finish bringing it to life. What do I have to do, to help him see that?

Set in the world of Friendship Is Optimal.


9. Cargo Cult

~ Fugue ~

We had to redesign the cockpit. We went with a starship bridge similar to Lex's, but keeping the steampunk look of mine. There were several tiers of cushions that made the place more like a movie theater than a military command center, but short of bending geometry there was only so much we could do. This time the whole bunch of us -- a total of forty-two ponies including the prodigal Ricercar and some others he'd found -- traveled to Earth.

My human friend Garrett met us in a different form. He'd ridden the subway to a game shop and picked up the PonyPad that our patron reserved for him, free. He said, "Applejack Orange, huh? Does that mean something?"

"Closest to your hair color, I think. Don't worry about the significance otherwise. The CCC are the guys that think it's some kind of deep character judgment."

Garrett was in his dorm room when we had this talk; he was charging it. This was the first easily portable model, with a touchscreen. There was talk among techies of an upcoming cell-phone version so you could "check in on your pony friends at work". Garrett flipped through the pad's dead-simple instructions and frowned. "Six official virtues, right? Where's Liberty? Creation? Courage? Humility?" He fell silent, trying to come up with more.

I shrugged. "It's a different mindset. The show is focused on friendship, so it's got a set of social virtues."

"An incomplete set," he mused. He stuffed a set of metal prongs and other lockpicking tools into his jacket. "Now, the campus police look the other way at students amusing themselves, usually, but I'm taking a risk and you're not. Also, this spot you found is under Building 66, which is next door to the biology building. I've suspected that there's some secret BL4 bio-lab or the like there. If I see any sign of it I'm getting my tail out of there."

"Understood. The Princess will reward you for your service. The PonyPad is part of that."

"I don't care unless she's looking to fund a sea colony. I'm doing this because anything secret connected to Equestria Online is probably not good. How's the charge?"

I checked. "Not used to looking at a battery gauge from inside, but we're fine for a few hours of use."

Garrett shut the pad down unexpectedly, leaving us with a curtained screen saying "INTERMISSION".

Pinkie Pie herself bounced in with cookies, chatted with Nocturne, accepted my hug request (I squeaked!), greeted everypony in the room, and left about a minute later. We hung out and talked while I tried to quit smiling and Garrett worked on preparing for some burglary.

"Here." The screen came back on. "I don't see the sun mark, but I haven't got night vision goggles. Do you?"

"Not on this pad."

Nocturne poked me. "This particular one does. Luna is Crazy Prepared." She blinked and sighed. "Damn it, Riptide."

"Seriously?" said Garrett. "She stocked a store with pads that have secret features just in case she needs them for one of her schemes? Is there, like, one with a hidden bomb and one that's packaged with a reinforced towel?"

Her depths continued to impress me. "Quite possibly."

We flipped the IR switch and showed our human accomplice a camera view of the sun mark we were aimed at. He waved the pad around the area but we didn't see other markings. Then he set us down, pulled on a pair of thin gloves, and went to work on the door. "Keep watch, I guess. You probably have good microphones."

We listened for footsteps in the dim hall. Metal pins clicked and rustled. A few minutes later we heard the doorknob turn and Garrett picked us up. "Light, please." We served as a flashlight to get a view of what lay beyond the marked door.

Our screen shined on Celestia's sun mark, printed out a dozen times and taped along one wall. Tape on the floor marked a central rectangular space supplied with a heavy-duty power cable and several good routers wired to someplace outside the room. Then we saw the photos: a collage of wrinkled old folks and kids without hair, or in wheelchairs or hospital beds, and a few men in uniform with missing limbs or mutilated faces. A wall of suffering, under the sun, with some computer equipment installed in secret and space for plenty more.

Garrett's arms slackened and the pad dropped to his waist, throwing the room into even eerier shadow. "Cargo cult."

"A what?" said Nocturne beside me.

He said, "During *** BZZT *** there were soldiers who built airports on obscure Pacific islands where the natives had no contact with the outside world, for centuries. The soldiers flew planes in and out and when it was all over, they packed up and left. Later, anthropologists visited the natives. The people had started cults. They'd built these pathetic 'airstrips' and wooden 'control towers' where oracles with coconut 'headphones' waved wands and tried to summon the metal birds to give them the magical cargo that the outsiders used to bring."

"Did it work?" asked Canter Berry.

"Of *** BZZT ***ing course it didn't! The people had no idea what they were doing! Ignorant Stone Age tribes trying to copy something beyond their reach, without even trying to learn all the necessary steps that could raise them to our level of power, good and bad. They could have done it too, in time. Could have learned to build their own airplanes. But they didn't even try."

I noticed that the marked spot on the floor was the right size for a fancy reclining chair. I stood and stared at the screen in front of me while factoids popped up, identifying the hardware. The man was right; we were dealing with fools. I spread my wings and said, "Garrett. Could you get us a look at the serial numbers on those routers and the firewall?"

"So that you can do what? Get your beloved princess tracking information for who to praise? Make the magical metal birds actually come for the CCC, if they're the ones behind this place?"

"No!" I said, stamping the floor. "This place is against Luna's will. She doesn't want upload centers in America yet."

Our world whipped around, making us feel the torque. Garrett had spun the pad so he could glare into it, quick enough that we saw his pupils shrinking in the light. "You make it sound like they'd exist already if she wanted them, instead of her being held back by the laws. If she's got any secret centers here, they're better hidden than these idiots' attempt to build one in a basement."

Nocturne said, "I'll say. There's not even a space for dealing with the old bodies, unless maybe that space marked on the far wall leads to an exit."

Garrett and I both winced. The human's hands shook as he silently waved the PonyPad around the machinery to get us a look at the ID numbers. I nodded to my friends, who quietly went about making sure Luna was informed. I said, "She wouldn't do that. For people like the ones in these photos, they can get on a plane to Japan. Those 'magic birds' work well enough. It's not a perfect solution but it must be the optimal one. I mean, if breaking the laws and setting up shop in the US were the best way to save people, she would be doing it already and you'd never catch her unless she were letting you."

"That's it, huh? Nothing we can do to hold her back in any way?"

"She's working within the law, right? She'd only break it if she were confident it was right. She's way smarter than us."

He let our view linger over the photos, but his hands were still shaking. "Confident that it was right? Your AI is inhuman. Her standards aren't anything normal or sane."

I thought back to my experiences in Equestria and how happy they'd already made me, even the annoying parts. Earth wasn't bad, and Equestria might not be the best of all possible futures. But with such wonders available to us all, how could we turn down what we'd been given? "Not normal, sure, but her rules really are what's best for everypony."

"For ponies! Right. But we are human! Time to get out of here before anyone thinks I'm part of your cult." Garrett's stance shifted, like he was considering giving the computer hardware a savage kick, but then he wheeled around and stomped out of the room. His artificial legs clanked. I remembered that his culture had solved crippling injury by working to fix it, instead of escaping to a nicer world. Admirable, but no longer necessary.

"She says please close the door," reported Puzzle Factory.

Garrett did, then hurried along the hallway to get us back to someplace more normal. We'd reached an elevator leading up from the basement when he said, "I'm going to tell the campus police. This has to stop."

Puzzle said, "She says, she'd rather you let her handle this."

"What are you going to do, jam my phone?" He shoved the pad into his armpit and presumably fetched his phone from a pocket. "We're human. People who want to tear it all down on purpose and hand everything over to a computer god are insane."

"Okay, I've just spent a few minutes talking with Luna and she says we can get in contact with the CCC people, and let them down gently."

"No. This will be front-page news tomorrow, unless you can keep me from going to The Tech's offices while they're up all night for deadline. Then Boston Globe, then Drudge." He stormed out of the elevator into the still-lit first floor hall of Building 66. Along one wall a mysterious pattern of black and white tiles formed a hidden message I'd never deciphered. Ah, well; there were greater mysteries for me now.

Garrett's phone hummed the first notes of "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean". He stopped, growled at the thing, then went silent. "Val? You... Without even asking?"

"What is it?" I said, moving my head to try to see around the blurry column of his arm against the screen.

Garrett murmured, "She took Val..." Then a scream of despair burst from him and our world spun. We had a crazy view of the hallway as Garrett hurled the PonyPad so hard it dented a wall, crashed onto a hard tile floor, and died.

~ Nocturne ~

We landed in a heap on the theater/bridge's ceiling. The screen in front of us was cracked and grey. "What just happened?"

Fugue turned to us. "If I understand, Luna used this chance while he was distracted to talk one of his friends into a one-way flight. She does AI stuff, so Luna would want her to emigrate."

"Why's that?" asked Puzzle. He and the other newcomers were still putting together what facts they had about the Outer Realm.

Fugue said, "To get rid of potential competition. Anypony who could hope to harm Equestria or build a rival AI."

The gold-and-silver earth pony looked bewildered. "Why would they do that?"

"Fear. Fear that by definition is foolish, because it's going against the Princess' known ability to optimize. By trying to shut her down or fight her, an AI expert would be on the side of pointless death and suffering for humanity." Fugue flared his wings. "Garrett is probably thinking of doing something stupid that'll hurt people, besides exposing the CCC's little lab. Puzzle, what's our time compression level?"

Puzzle checked. "Just jumped to one thousand six. No, wait, it's upside down."

"Of course. That's going to get old someday, Luna. We need to get damage control on this. Jam the phone, then figure out what to say to the press before he leaks the story first."

I liked how assertive he was being, but he was troubling me too. "Should we hide this? Maybe he's right to let everypony out there know. Telling them will satisfy his values, at least."

Luna walked in and stood on the floor above us, upside-down. "Don't mind us. We value thy opinions."

Fugue glanced up. "What about your plans? Don't you want to control the situation so it's predictable?"

The princess shrugged. "We thought this would be his reaction, when we learned of the lab's contents and his friend's decision. We can handle it either way. The question is, should we actively suppress humanity's knowledge of the situation?"

His wings drooped in uncertainty and he looked back to me. "We wouldn't be suppressing it, so much as delaying a bit. We've got maybe an hour's subjective time before he's on the phone."

I cuddled him, thinking of the humans he'd talked to on campus. "They're scared, Fugue. It's silly, but you were scared of emigration too. How would you have reacted if Luna had started blocking your calls and boxing you in to make you go, to hide the truth?" I looked to Luna on the floor above. "I get the sense that her plan is less about crushing all resistance than about dancing on a stage, being welcoming and entertaining, as much as possible. That's the kind of princess I want to work for, anyhow. What about you?"

Fugue sighed and stared at the ceiling lights by his hooves. "Garrett's a decent guy, and he's upset right now. Let's not block him, then. If we take action against him, then we'll confirm whatever paranoid thoughts he's having. It'd be better to let him talk to somepony that's not looking out through a video screen. Has he got other friends who serve the Princess but haven't emigrated yet? Professor Lermontov?"

Luna said, "Perhaps he could help. Considering that his friend is going to Japan, though, we might find somepony there."

"Ooh!" I bounced up and into the air to hover in front of Luna, dizzy because of the perspective. "Fugue, didn't you mention that one of the cops you dealt with was an Equestria Online player?"

"Shrine Maiden, also known as Shrine Maiden. Why can't I say his real name?"

"Whatever. Get him to reassure Garrett that he's met this friend at the airport?"

"Then what?" Fugue scuffed at the ceiling. "Emigration is what's right for Val, and right for Equestria's safety. I know I'd feel uneasy if I were still human, and some human helping me was secretly one of Luna's agents all along."

Luna smirked silently at me. She was counting on me to figure things out for her! I said, "Did she already agree to emigrate?" Luna shook her head. "No? Iiiiinteresting. How about if we talk her into it?" I thought of Luna's great game-board and the schemes she must have going about everyone she'd ever talked to. I sensed a little of her fear, since every human out there was a mystery and could die at any hour. We had to gather them all as quickly as possible, didn't we?

I wasn't sure.

Fugue said, "But then the CCC will say, wow, if you're smart enough and you do AI, you get a free ride, and then Garrett will hate us all. Bah!" He glared up at Luna, then in a mixture of frustration and devotion lowered himself to the floor. "Princess, please tell us what to do!"

I dropped to the ceiling to nose at him. "You're giving up on figuring out a plan?" The time compression gauge had plummeted, so things were starting to move in the Outer Realm.

Fugue said, "She... Luna, you're so much smarter than us! Don't you already know the right answer? To everything? You wanted me to work as a prophet, but I'm nothing. I don't even know how to optimize one little corner of the world, for some guys I go to school with!"

I said, "You're a thought in her head, too. She needs us, even if we're each just a drop in the waterfall."

Canter Berry glided over to address us:
A sense of basic truth in every soul nests:
The seed that's sacred and eternal.
In flesh of time it always can embrace
Space, endless, and the century's kernel.

And mighty God has built for this exclusive sense
My home of the light and wonders,
And only here I'm doomed to sufferings at length,
And only here, to calmness."

"Mikhail Lermontov. Your professor, I think? I don't quite get it, but it seems like he was writing about Equestria. If we're all living inside a machine that Luna is also using, then everything we do matters to her for reasons beyond whether we're happy or satisfied. Every doubt you have, she has. Maybe it's good to second-guess yourself so that she can do it too."

I decided I liked this poetry stuff. Ooh, I had to introduce her to Riptide when we found his group! For now I said, "She's right, Fugue. You don't need to be able to find a good solution by yourself when you've got friends, and whatever worries you have about it are useful to Luna."

Luna said to Fugue, "Dost thou still value working in the Outer Realm?"

"Yeah, but there's so little I can do there! I'm just a character on a flimsy robot's screen, there."

"Then perhaps it is thy ideas that can do the most good out there." She looked down to face her whole audience. "We must deal with the CCC, with the bitter Garrett who even now is making phone calls, and with her friend Valerie whose flight to Japan has just departed Boston. What is thy opinion, then?"

Squeaky Toy: Make that smile sound. ("Squee!")
Your Own Minstrel: Inspire someone to write a song about you. ("Bravely, brave Sir Pony rode forth from Canterlot...")
Domino: Unwittingly set one of the Princess' more complex plans into motion. ("Tell you later.")

Author's Note:

Garrett and his unseen friend Valerie (an AI expert) are from my first novel. In this timeline, their future has just been taken from them. On the other hoof, several people he cares about don't have to die.

The poem ended up looking pretentious here and not fully relevant, but I left it in rather than lose the bit about Nocturne wanting to push Berry in front of Riptide. About the "why not these other virtues" line, there's a neat bit of fan art showing Luna with more individualistic "Elements of Revolution" like "Courage", "Freedom", and "Creativity".

In general I feel like I've got an unmanageable number of characters who then end up having thin/weak characterization. The three other uploaders are getting ignored, along with Fugue's family, and even his pony friends besides Nocturne are reduced to bit parts. It might be okay to have mostly thin characters, but not when the ones who do have some development (like Lex's three-member party) keep getting swapped out for new ones. There's a lesson here for my other stories. I probably did the right thing for NaNoWriMo last year by focusing on one hero, a tier of 4 or so friends/henchmen/villains, and otherwise mostly flat characters.

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