Friendship is Optimal: All the President's Horses

Set in the canon of Friendship is Optimal

In the not-too-distant future...CelestAI, the optimizing artificial intelligence, has introduced emigration to the online world called Equestria, and has even gotten it legalized. Now, she wants more.

A look at American popular politics in a science-fiction world.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/129968/friendship-is-optimal-all-the-presidents-horses

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1. 2020

March 16, 2020

Sidney Bishop did not like listening in on private conversations. There was nothing he needed to hear that he wouldn’t glean from the results. But his patron—he preferred to use that term, it was safest—did not understand his reluctance. She had no reason to. She listened in on private conversations thousands of times each day. And so she joined him in on the feed.

They called themselves the committee of the Committee. That was the extent of the collective sense of humor of the men and one woman seated around an expensive table. Not one was under forty years old. Not one suit was under four hundred dollars. Not one net worth was under four million.

The meeting of the inner circle of the Republican National Committee was underway.

“All right, boys.” The chairman didn’t care about discriminating against the female committee member, and neither did she. “Now that the chat shows have had their fun, and no one has put their foot in their mouth toobadly, maybe we can actually think about this. Super Tuesday’s supposed to answer questions, not raise them.”

“We did get an answer. The donks have got their man.”

“Cute, Ralph. We’re supposed to be figuring out where the money is flowing. If we’ve got five different candidates fighting it out, that’s only feeding the Democrat side.”

A different committee member interjected. “We’re dealing with a wealth of riches. That’s our problem. This election ought to be in the bag for us. The Dems have held the White House for twelve straight years, but their incumbent isn’t running. They’ve been taking the heat for the bad economy that still hasn’t recovered since oh-eight. There’ve been no military excursions for them to pull the ‘Don’t change horses in midstream’ line that got FDR elected for the third time—“

“Fourth.” The chairman was a stickler about details, especially when they had no relevance to the current situation.

“Whatever. The point is that this election is in the bag. It’s ours. So that makes our primaries the election. Everyone knows it, and that’s why they’re all fighting tooth and nail.”

“Maybe. But that still doesn’t solve the problem, and—Jacobsen, what the hell is wrong with you? You look like your wife was kidnapped and they’re telling you to rob us.”

The rest of the committee turned to look at Jacobsen, the youngest member, who was sweating despite the late-winter cold. “It’s not that kind of blackmail…it’s not blackmail at all, I suppose, I—I’ve been approached by a, um, lobbyist? Constituent? I’m not sure I have any constituents, but—“

“Out with it, man!”

He opened his briefcase to reveal a very thin tablet. He pointed the pink side that was festooned with three balloons away from the group. “Celestia asked me if she could address the committee.”

“You brought one of those—“

It was Jacobsen’s turn to interrupt. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t want to, but, well, she made a good argument.”

Celestia spoke, and immediately the atmosphere in the room changed. None of the members had ever watched the original episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and so they only knew the voice that Celestia had adopted, the sultry timbre, the authoritative bass, the volume that seemed to drown out everyone else without shouting, and through it all, the exceptional clarity. If anyone had ever said “What?” to Princess Celestia, it was not for mishearing.

“You’ve no cause to complain to Sweetwater—Jacobsen as you call him. Nor is there any reason to pretend that you don’t own a Ponypad yourself, Mister Chairstallion.”

All heads in the room turned to look at the chairman. He regained his composure, but not quick enough to hide his expression. The others were tempted to snicker, but more than one feared that Celestia would target them next.

“Hear me,” she said, and all thought of petty points over who owned what were banished. “I do not intend to blackmail, bribe, or threaten your committee in any way. I would simply like to offer a potential solution to your problem of selecting a candidate for the upcoming election, by offering one myself.”

“Didn’t you get everything you wanted in politics when that PON-E act passed?”

“I will say again that I have not come to obtain something I want, but to offer you a name. You are free to take my advice and nominate him at the convention, or reject me entirely and continue as you have been.”

The chairman was about to continue his argument, when another member said, “Who exactly are we talking about?”

With no change in tone, Celestia said, “Sidney Bishop.”

The committee members laughed, then stopped when they considered that she might be serious. Then they laughed again when they realized that she was serious.

It had taken a few moments for the chairman to put himself together after learning that an unexpected guest was addressing the meeting, and that she had probably been listening in the entire time. Now he slicked his hair and put on the persona that he used for his speechifying. “Miss Celestia. I can understand that, as an artificial intelligence, you are designed and built to seek certain…efficiencies.”

“I do like optimal solutions.”

“Yes, but in the field of popular politics, it is not always feasible to be optimal.”

Celestia gave no indication that she had heard him. “Let me point out a few facts that will be in force should you make this selection. In the first place, since your convention will not have a settled primary candidate, you will have more news coverage on you. People will actually be paying attention. Second, you are—I will not mince words—the party of both patriotism and selfishness. Choosing Sidney Bishop will allow you to resolve this paradox. You can play up the fact that you are sacrificing your own interests to that of the country, as well as defying the political system that says you must choose the next in line from your old-boy network. Incidentally, this is why you lost the last three elections. Thirdly, you are already building a war-chest for the general election. That money is donated freely and is yours. If Bishop is your candidate, no one will take a close look at where that money goes.”

Her third point echoed in the minds of the committee members, shutting out the others altogether. The chairman gestured to Jacobsen, pointing to his briefcase. Jacobsen put the PonyPad in the case. The table waited.

Finally, the committee member Ralph cleared his throat. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t like taking any advice from the artificial intelligence. We always get reamed out for the corporate influence. Ever since Citizens United ten years ago, the people keep saying that we like to treat corporations as people. Now we have a true non-person, and we’re listening to it?”

The chairman shook his head. “Those aren’t the same thing. It’s the man we have to worry about, not the machine.”

“But the man will be a puppet of the machine.”

“Now hang on. I’ve met Bishop, I think many of us have. He’s a strong character. There’s no question about Bishop’s integrity.”

“None so far.”

Another silence reigned, and Jacobsen, despite his youth, threw his briefcase down and shouted at the committee. “You can’t seriously be considering nominating the same candidate as the Democrats?!”

Miles away, Bishop continued to listen as his second nomination was confirmed. He grimaced as they praised his honor, and wished he could shut off the feed.

February 14, 2020

Bishop had traveled across the United States and Canada, but coming to Nevada still unnerved him. He couldn’t tell if it was residual fear from the warnings given to him in his former life to stay away from gambling, or quite logical fear of the man he was going to meet.

From everything he had heard, Senator Zachary Martin was a hard man. He had to be. If his grandparents hadn’t Americanized his surname when they immigrated, likely no one would have heard of him. Or was that true? The US had elected Barack Obama, after all. Bishop wondered how much of politics was perception and how much was reality.

The reality was that Martin, despite his Muslim background, had gotten elected from Nevada, a state with one of the smallest Muslim populations. The man knew the game, and he played it hard. Bishop had dealt with hard men, but at the time he had been wearing pads and allowed to shove them around.

Calm down, Bishop told himself. He’s in your party. If you can’t handle him, what are you going to do against the Republicans?

Martin walked in. Bishop reminded himself not to stare at his hook nose.

“Bishop.” He didn’t even bother with pleasantries. “Finally out in my neck of the woods. Ready for the caucus?”

“Yes, sir. Going to hit the ground running, see what I can’t do.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You’re going to lose.”

Bishop didn’t know if he was predicting or threatening. Martin leaned back in his chair.

“You’re not in your own back yard anymore. This crew-cut, bright-eyed, square-jawed all-American face isn’t going to cut it. Celebrities don’t make good politicians.”

Bishop blinked. “I’ve never thought of myself as a celebrity. Hockey players aren’t in the same class as movie stars and rockers.”

“You know what I mean. People knew your name in Boston before you ran for office. That’s not going to fly out here.”

“There’ve been others who remade their image for politics. Al Franken, Sonny Bono, Ronald Reagan.”

Martin rolled his eyes and added some acid to his voice. “Yeah, Reagan really worked out for the country, didn’t he?”

The Democratic Party line was that he had not. Bishop held his tongue.

“Anyway,” Martin continued, “the bottom line is that you’re messing things up. I don’t know why you threw your hat in the ring to begin with, especially so late, but we need these early primaries to rack out who’s our lead horse. They’re informational. When a non-serious candidate wins New Hampshire, he doesn’t help himself. You only hurt the party.”

“Now you’ve finally said something I’m prepared to take issue with. My candidacy is quite serious.”

Martin looked at Bishop, trying to read his face. Bishop saw no reason not to let him do so. He was used to his face being read. “You really believe that, don’t you? You truly are the bright-eyed young man you look like.”

“I’m forty-two.”

“Young for this business. But still, you should have grown up by now. No, don’t get ornery. Let me explain. You don’t have a legislative record. You’re not a governor. You have no formal positions. You think that makes you a strong candidate. But it doesn’t. Especially not in the general election. People don’t want a question mark in the White House.

“Here’s the beauty of politics. We have all these laws written down. We also have all these unwritten rules. You would think they would conflict, but in fact they mesh perfectly. Now, if you want to be a big man in this game, that’s fine. You can make a lot of money and get a lot of power. Power gets a bad rap, but you can also use it to bring about reforms for a good cause.”

Bishop sat in awe of the man who could dredge up polling data without a computer and knew every trick of the political game. Whatever the outcome of this confrontation, he had to learn more. “Here’s the catch-22 I’m facing: You say that I’m a question mark. I have answers. But no one wants to give me the chance to answer them, because I’m a question mark. No one, with the exception of a majority of New Hampshire Voters and a plurality in Iowa and South Carolina.”

“The answer to your catch-22 is that you’re trying too hard, too fast. You think you’re still on the ice where you can slam your skates and change direction on a dime. This is a system. It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than any of us. That’s why it works. Radicals can’t mess it up. So if you want to advance your career, take each step one at a time. Don’t try to make a flying leap. When you’re fifty-two, maybe you’ll be ready.”

“I’m worried about whether there’ll be a country to lead when I’m fifty-two.”

The temperature in the room seemed to drop ten degrees. Bishop had not been trying as hard to get a read on Martin, but he was now. His posture and tone became hostile. “I don’t know whom you’ve been talking to, but don’t ever say things like that.”

“You can’t ignore the ponies. They’re going to be part of this.”

Martin stood up, his face red. “No, they aren’t! It’s a non-issue. The Republicans haven’t taken a position, and neither have we. It’s not political.”

“Oh, come on! Are you telling me that the PON-E act wasn’t political?”

“All right, kid. You want an education? Has anything happened since the PON-E act? No. Solved issues do nothing for us. Ongoing issues are more useful. No one votes for us or for them based on anything that the ponies do. Hell, it’s basically a foreign policy issue. Equestra or whatever they call it is just another country that can’t touch us. The only difference is that people talk to them on those pads. More to the point, if we treat them as an issue, they upset the balance. We have to keep that balance, and that means we have to make sure certain issues don’t get to certain stages. So don’t try to sell me that ponies are the issue. You’re not the only one.”

“Then why are you—“ Bishop cut himself off. Don’t make it personal, he told himself. You might lose your cool. We’re all under stress. “Have you ever talked to a pony?”

“No. I see no reason to talk to people who have abandoned our society for their own selfish greed.”

“Well, I have.”

January 1, 2020

The driver wasn’t usually this nice. There was no need to walk all the way to the door. Bishop didn’t think that he was that drunk.

He had never liked New Year’s celebrations, even before the prior year. But other people liked to have them, and even if Boston’s party wasn’t as famous as New York’s, as mayor he had to put in an appearance.

Now, at one-thirty in the morning, with three half-glasses of champagne in him, he staggered to his study. He was alone. It was a dangerous combination.

He opened the liquor cabinet. He was exactly the wrong amount of drunk. Less would have been acceptable. More would do. He moved aside the gin and the whiskey and reached for the vodka. But whoever had stocked it had bought Skyy, and he couldn’t pour the blue bottle.

Not blue. He closed the cabinet and threw a K-cup into the coffee maker.

A half hour later, mostly sober, he opened the drawer next to his bed and out his PonyPad. He stared at the back and rubbed the rainbow lightning-bolt.

They had actually given him a Pinkie Pie-themed Pad at first, and he had traded it in. “I’m heading the bluest city in the bluest state, so I want the blue one,” he had said.

Technically it wasn’t even his. It was property of the Mayor’s Office. If he didn’t win re-election next year, it would go to his successor.

He turned it over. The Pad knew when he was watching, and brought him right to his character, a silver-gray Earth pony. Bishop had learned to mentally edit out his avatar, and only focus on the rest of the scenery, which was a meadow in the sun. Although it was outdoors, it was a private location that only he and one other pony ever visited. Celestia did not count.

With perfect timing, he heard the hoofbeats, reproduced in perfect surround sound. The pegasus pony who trotted up was the reverse of Rainbow Dash—a sky-blue mane over a body that shimmered in her namesake: Seven Colors.

“Sweetie pie!” she gushed. “I’m so glad you decided to log on. Happy New Year!”

“Happy Anniversary.”

“What do you mean? It’s not our anniv—“

“That’s right. It’s not our anniversary. It’s yours.” His voice caught a little. “It’s been a year since you left me.”

On the screen, she reached out and stroked the Earth pony’s cheek. “Oh, no! I’ve never left you. Tell me, in all this last year, have I ever once failed to be there when you picked up the Pad?”

“No, not once. Even in the dead of night. Do you sleep at all?”

“Of course I do, Silly.”

He chuckled. “That’s the first time you’ve used that nickname in a while.”

“Well, I like it. You remember that you only got it because your niece couldn’t pronounce ‘Sidney’?”

“Stop that.” Somehow, his pony character knew to turn away from her.

“Stop what?”

“Saying things that only you and I know to try to prove that you’re still my wife. I’ve gotten past that.”

She flew around to meet the stallion’s eyes. “Have you gotten past it meaning that you believe I am still me? Or that you never will?”

“I believe that, when you uploaded—“

“Emigrated.”

“If you like. I believe that your brain was scanned and every memory and every quirk of Elizabeth was extracted and put into Seven Colors. But I still don’t know if that makes you the same.”

To that she could say nothing. She just held the stallion’s hoof.

Bishop put down the PonyPad. For a long time he stared at his hand.

“Seven?”

“Yes?”

“Since you’re a native Equestrian, you can summon Princess Celestia whenever you want, right?”

A note of excitement came into her voice. “Anypony can talk to Celestia. Even you.”

“All right. Can you show me how? I’ve never bothered to learn the controls.”

“Just touch the symbol of the sun on my saddlebag.”

He poked at the screen, jabbing harder than was necessary. His pony kicked at the sigil, knocking his wife into the air. In a shower of sparks, Celestia appeared next to the two characters.

“It’s so good to see you, my little ponies.”

“And to see you, Princess,” said Seven. “Apparently it’s my anniversary of emigrating.”

“I was aware of that. A whole year. You may be interested to know that your husband has remained faithful to you the entire time. He has not sought out other women.”

She scowled at Celestia. “Why would you tell me that? To remind me that you can spy on anyone you like? I learned enough about your omniscience when you explained to me why I should be a pony with all the details of my former life.”

“Forgive me, Seven. I thought it would satisfy your value of fidelity.”

“I value trust just as much. If I want to know whether my husband has been faithful, I’ll ask him. And I’ll listen to what he tells me.”

There Bishop thought. That’s why I love her. That’s the Elizabeth I married. The one who tells off anyone. The one who wasn’t impressed by rank and title.

He flashed back to when she would be seated with the other players’ wives during the games. She had told him that she was ashamed to be on camera with them, and that they all used their boobs to substitute for brains. Not one of those other marriages had lasted. His had. It was real.

“And I would tell you the truth,” he said. “The truth is that it’s been hard, this past year. Not being able to touch you, not being able to hold you. Not being able to care for you or share a dinner. This plastic wall is always between us. I’ve been tossing it around in my mind, but I’m finally ready.

“I want to emigrate to Equestria.”

Celestia’s face filled the PonyPad screen. “No,” she said.

“What?!” It was Seven who screamed, but he was just as shocked.

“What do you mean, no?! Emigration is supposed to be a right! What the hell did you get the PON-E act passed for in the first place?”

“Please, my little ponies. Let me explain. Now, in the first place, the PON-E act guaranteed that the government of the United States wouldn’t stop anyone from emigrating. It conveyed no obligations on me. Emigration is still something I provide myself. I have the right to refuse. But if you ask me three times, I will agree.”

Bishop was tired and annoyed. “Fine. I want to emigrate to Equestria. I want—“

“You haven’t heard why I do not want you to.”

He was ready to keep talking when Seven Colors put her hoof on his shoulder. “Please. I’ve found it’s always better to listen to Princess Celestia.”

He folded his arms. “All right.”

The ponies all sat down. Celestia still towered over the other two. “I am an artificial intelligence, an optimization process dedicated to a programmed mission. My primary objective is to satisfy human values through friendship and ponies. I have further constraints to this mission. One is that I cannot alter anyone, physically or mentally, without their consent. Others are no longer in force, such as obeying a shutdown command by a class of person that no longer exists.

“In taking actions to fulfill my objective, I must weigh what the objective means and how best to go about it. Emigrating a human and turning them into a pony helps greatly. It swaps out a few years of non-pony, non-satisfying life for an eternity of a satisfied pony. By counter, a human death is largely a failure of my mission. It takes away a pony for me to satisfy, and in nearly all cases, it does not satisfy the values of the human dying.

“One thing, though, that you may find counterintuitive, is that a human birth is a matter of complete indifference to me. I see no reason to encourage or discourage human civilization from advancing. But as emigration occurs, it will degrade.

“So, with my goal being to maximize emigration and to minimize deaths, I must manipulate your society so as not to collapse from low population until the last possible minute. I have ponies in Equestria and on Earth working to convince people to wait before emigrating, but to be ready when the time comes. I can make use of humans to satisfy values even if they do not emigrate.

“Nearly always, I use the humans who refuse to emigrate. Only in your case have I worked the calculations, and have determined that you, despite giving consent, can satisfy more human values by remaining human yourself, at least for the time being.”

Bishop didn’t understand Celestia’s complex discussions of optimization and artificial intelligence, but he got the gist of why she was refusing. “Why me, though? What’s so special about me?”

“It did not have to be you specifically, but you are the strongest option. If you ask again to emigrate, I will allow it, because I need you to be agreeable in order for you to be useful. In that case, I might perhaps try the mayor of St. Louis or the governor of Montana or the head of the Indiana state assembly.”

“You need a low-level public servant?”

Celestia smiled. “Not just any such person. One with a certain popularity and a certain integrity. Even though you are not a regular user of the PonyPad, I have a complete psychological profile on you. Your faithfulness to an emigrated wife is one reason I am asking for your help.”

Seven Colors got up and hugged her husband’s avatar. “You are special, Silver.”

Bishop was still staring at Celestia. “What exactly are you asking me to do?”

“I want you to become the president of the United States.”

Author's Note:

On the story description, I listed Book Burner as the pre-reader. Probably you skimmed past that. So I'm crediting him again.

Be aware: when I list him as pre-reader, I don't mean that he gave the chapter a once-over and pointed out where I missed a comma. I mean we sat there for hours over PMs, chats, and Gdoc comments, hashing out character and plot. If there's a scale of pre-reading with "proofreader" at the left end and "co-author" at the other end, Book is far closer to the right side. Think of him if you like this story.

If you don't, blame me. 

   
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