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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2. 2021

January 20, 2021

“I, Sidney James Bishop, do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States. And will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

“So help me.”

Bishop had spread word to the press that he would not follow the tradition of invoking God in taking his oath of office, but would still speak with reverence for the job he was undertaking. The media still hadn’t recovered, financially or ideologically, from having the competition of an election pulled out from under them. The largest news organizations were cool toward religious displays to begin with. The reactionary right-wing press had suffered even more. Many key players had resigned. Most of them had emigrated to Equestria.

So it was that, surrounded by celebrators and well-wishers, Bishop did not notice any diminishment in the cheering at the conclusion of the oath. If anything, the only compunctions seem to come from his own party.

At the reception after, he cornered Senator Martin. “Yours were the only hands I didn’t see clapping. You didn’t like the inauguration?”

“I sat still for your election, because it was better than some right-wing extremist getting in. But I still smell a rat. Do you know that you’re the first man since George Washington to get every electoral vote?”

Bishop couldn’t believe what Martin was saying. “If you’re insinuating that I think I’m the next Washington—“

“It’s nothing personal, you understand. I’m not addressing Sidney Bishop the man, but the nascent Bishop Administration. That doesn’t actually exist, so I’m free to criticize it.”

Martin still unnerved Bishop. He desperately wanted to understand the man, perhaps to find a kind of mentor in him. “I would think you’d be happy that I took God out of the oath.”

“You think that’s my problem? Please. Religion is old hat. I was more concerned with your wife.”

“My wife? What do you mean?”

Martin drew him aside and pulled out his Blackberry. “You were too busy actually performing up there, so you saw the PonyPad placed on display. But that’s not what went out over the airwaves.”

He cued up the video. Bishop had placed the Pad on the dais himself, and didn’t see what Martin was talking about. Then he understood. In the video, Seven Colors was standing next to him as if a pony on Earth were nothing strange. She wasn’t stiff and showed no evidence of being CG. And when Bishop raised his hands to the crowd, she took off and held his hand in her hoof as she flapped her wings.

He was speechless. Celestia had consulted with him on the inauguration, and had written most of his address, but she hadn’t told him that she was going to do anything like that.

“You’ve just been given the largest demotion one can have,” Martin said. “You’ve gone from President-elect to President. As a President-elect, everyone loves you. You’re hope personified. But you’ve been in this job for, what, an hour now? That’s plenty of time for you to sour. The press is going to come after you as soon as they can, for whatever reason they can. And having your pony wife like that is going to make you a target. They’ve already started calling her the ‘First Mare.’ That’s not a compliment.”

Bishop was shifted away from him by the Brownian motion of the party. He was eager to get alone and figure out what was going on, but found himself face to face with another well-wisher.

“Mr. President, I’m not sure if you know me. I’m Ruth Flowers from Washington, the one on the west coast.”

“Of course I know you, Governor Flowers, but if you’ll excuse me—”

“I wanted to speak with you about your wife. What happened to her—”

Bishop interrupted her back. “Yes, I’m going to see about that right now.”

The PonyPad had been removed to his confidential office. In the transition from the previous administration, Bishop had had a private room set up outside of the Oval Office. While he was sure that the Secret Service had it wired, he still considered it private, and intended to use it as such. He turned it on.

“Hello, Mr. President,” Seven said. “I’m so glad you ducked out of there. I did too.”

“I see. Honey, did you enjoy—that is, how did you find the ceremony?”

“I thought you did a wonderful job.”

Bishop struggled for words. “No, I mean, when I was there, giving my address, taking the oath, I didn’t see you there. I only saw your picture on the PonyPad. But on the tape, it looks like you were there. Did you see it that way?”

“Of course I was there. Silly, at some point you have to learn how little perception matters. Suppose I were to ask how you know that the video recordings aren’t accurate, and your own vision saw a PonyPad instead of me?”

“If I can’t correctly perceive reality, I’m no good to anyone, and I should resign from my job. Is that what Celestia wants? Let’s ask her.”

Neither pony had to press the sun to summon Celestia. She appeared of her own accord in Seven’s room displayed on the PonyPad.

“Is there a problem, Mr. President?”

He checked the door to make sure no one was listening. “There is. We need to talk about Elizabeth.”

The PonyPad changed the name to “Seven” as his avatar spoke. From the mare’s expression, Bishop believed that she did not notice the change. But Celestia had to.

“I would like that greatly. She is an able and satisfied pony. A fine example of my fulfilling my programming.”

“Yeah, but you’re using her as a prop in your game. I don’t like that. I’m only still human because I’m doing your job for you. So keep her out of it.”

Seven stood up. “You two obviously have a lot to discuss. Why don’t I make you both some tea?”

She left the room. Bishop looked at the door that closed behind her. “She’s usually not that polite.”

“She knew that we both understand what she was doing: giving us privacy. Now, what do you say I promise never to use that kind of 3-D holography to project her again?”

“How do I know you’ll keep that promise?”

Celestia shifted to make herself taller than Bishop’s pony. “You’re the President of the United States, lest you forget. You have a great deal of power absent me. At some point, you’re going to have to trust somepony.”

Bishop grimaced. “I see what you mean.”

“And in exchange, let me tell you about what I’d like your first act as President to be.”

He couldn’t tell if the “exchange” was his quid pro quo for her keeping his wife out of view, or if it was hers for him trusting her.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s nothing that anyone would consider corrupt. I won’t even ask you to pass legislation or issue an executive order. It may just serve to make your job easier.”

April 2, 2021

Bishop slicked back his hair and checked his tie. The camera he was used to from his days giving interviews to the beat reporters covering the Bruins. Then, he had learned the art of speaking without saying anything. He’d assumed that skill would carry over. But, as it turned out, he actually had something to say as President.

He just didn’t know if it was he who was saying it.

The way Celestia had explained it to him all made sense at the time. Bishop recalled the arguments as the cameraman pointed at him to begin.

“My fellow Americans,

“We now find ourselves one-fifth of the way into the twenty-first century. For a nation that largely came of age in the twentieth, it is time to take stock of what we were and what we have become.

“In the mid-twentieth century, when the United States was the strongest superpower, they called it the Space Age, and confidence was high as we looked into a gleaming future of metal and plastic. As it turned out, the challenges of that Age were greater than we imagined. We have had to move laterally into the Information Age. Perhaps someday we will return to the stars. But before that, we must complete our expansion into the world of information.”

All this was dross to Bishop. It was setting the premise, not giving out anything yet. He could disconnect his brain and let the words flow from the TelePrompTer to his mouth while he listened. Because of that, he heard the subtle message in the line he spoke. No one would remember it the day after listening to the speech, but their brains would.

“What we have found is a deepening division in American politics. In the new world of information, the value differences have become clearer. Division between the races, the sexes, and the genders have been deepened. Terrorism is rampant, as is the irrational fear of it. And our economy has never come back to what it was in the last years of the twentieth century.

“The problem with the Information Age is that all these problems seem worse than they are, because we have to listen to the other side, which makes so little sense to us.”

Bishop had suggested several phrasings to add to the speech, only to be overruled by Celestia. He had wanted to talk about the improvements to the problems that uploading had brought—how the extremists and sociopaths had largely emigrated, how the threat of war was less than perceived, and how the costs of staples like food and medicine had been reduced by Celestia’s research. She had told him to stay on point. He had agreed to cater to a short attention span.

“Many of our government solutions have not brought the results we expected or desired. And so it is time to consider a solution from beyond the government. Instead of a gradual step toward a more perfect union, we must take a radical step.”

Now was the time when he had to actually pay attention to his speech, his tone of voice, his body language, and all the non-verbal communication factors. He focused on the TelePrompTer.

“Last year, the Democrats and the Republicans both nominated me for this position. As a result, a bitter campaign was avoided. I am asking the parties to take that spirit to its logical conclusion. The Republicans and the Democrats must merge and form a single party.

“When the party label is removed, we can judge candidates for office on their merits. When the selection of those candidates is not narrowed to two, the black-and-white moral myopia that infests our system will be lessened. With the long campaign seasons shortened, the influence of money can be reduced.

“Will this provide a panacea solution to the underlying issues? No. But by changing the system, we can get new perspective on those issues. I am not asking anyone to abandon their beliefs. Liberal or conservative, there will still be room for you to express your values in a combined party. Indeed, it is to be hoped that half-measure solutions will be replaced by quid pro quo compromises.”

That concept was one that he had been able to convince Celestia to add in. He was back on rails as he concluded.

“In the early days of our nation, in the era of Jefferson and Madison, the party was called the Democratic-Republicans. I am asking that the old schism be reversed. In doing so, we may recapture the spirit of Jefferson and Madison.

“Thank you. Good night, and may God bless America.”

He waited until the cameraman gave him the all-clear, then pulled the microphone off his jacket. The speech was late at night on a Friday, and the papers would have the entire weekend to digest it, so no immediate press reaction would come out. Bishop was more concerned with the heat he would feel from the parties, particularly the Democrats that had given him his start. But his primary concern was someone closer to him. He found his PonyPad.

“Hello, Sweetie. I watched your speech.”

“Hello, Seven,” said Bishop. “I’m sure you did. What did you think?”

“It’s a bold step, but an inspired one. I know you can pull it off.”

“Credit Celestia. I would never have had the guts.”

Seven Colors got up and reached for the sun symbol. “Do you want me to get her? I’m sure you must have questions.”

“No, please.” She pulled back her hoof. “I really just want to talk to you. Something someone said to me back in the inauguration has bothered me. Do you think I’m George Washington?”

“Well, you don’t look like him. Your hair’s not powdered, and last I checked you still had your teeth.”

“Be serious. Do you think that I’m taking on a job too big for me? I know Celestia hand-picked me for this—“

“Hoof-picked. And that’s why I’m not worried. She’ll always be behind you. She can get you any information you need, or convince any political enemies to emigrate, then get them to agree with you. She’s very persuasive.”

He looked at her and rubbed her cheek with his finger. His pony avatar copied his motion. In his mind was a building down on E Street. On his executive order, part of the complex had been turned into an Equestria Experience, the official location for federal employees. Since emigration was everyone’s right under the PON-E Act, means were necessary. Finally, there had been meaningful cuts to federal employment. Many had taken advantage of what everyone had a right to. Everyone but Bishop.

“Yeah. She can be.”

He put the pad away. Lying in bed, he thought of the first time he had talked to Celestia himself.

It was four months since emigration had been legalized in the US and he had lost Elizabeth. He’d traveled through those months in a fog, unsure of whether to dedicate himself to work or ignore it and try to repair his family. He wondered what the legal status of his marriage was. When a couple doesn’t talk for four months, is it an official separation? Especially if one’s a pony.

It was the first time that he’d been able to think of that day and what he’d seen without a fire igniting in his chest. Fumblingly, he set up the PonyPad and turned it on. There she was.

“Welcome to Equestria. To start, let’s set up your—”

“Look, I’m not here to play your game. I just want to talk to my wife, who uploaded on New Year’s Day. Her name is Elizabeth.”

“I’m sorry, but until you have created a pony, you cannot participate in Equestria Online.”

He’d tried arguing with her, explaining that he had no intention of uploading himself, so there was no point, but she was insistent.

“You know what? Fine. I don’t need your damn game.” He got ready to throw the PonyPad across the room.

“Wait.”

It was the first time he’d heard Elizabeth’s voice since...those words.

“Princess, he won’t listen to you. Let me help him make his pony.”

“Elizabeth?” he said.

She still hadn’t appeared on the screen. She was a disembodied voice. “You can hear me, my love? Princess Celestia won’t let us do this for long. Please, just humor her. We’ll make you the simplest pony we can, honest and pure, and then you can talk to me all you want.”

“All right. Make it quick.”

“Good. Now, there are three types of pony. Unicorns do magic, pegasi can fly, and Earth ponies are strong.”

Bishop shook his head. “I don’t care. What do you think?”

“It has to be your decision.”

“Fine. Earth pony. Those are the normal ones, right?”

“They are all normal. What color should your coat be?”

“Can I make it the same as yours?”

She was silent for a moment. Bishop feared he’d lost her. “You want a simple pony, right?”

“Yes, fine. Make me gray. That’s ordinary.”

“I promise you I will find the most beautiful gray there is.”

She continued to make him choose these foolish options. At last he had a picture on screen of a pony that was supposed to represent him. He’d gotten so caught up that he’d forgotten, momentarily, that he just wanted to be with his wife.

But of course, he was with her.

On the dark screen, a sun rose, and the voice was given form. If he was gray and ordinary, she shimmered in all colors, and soared on feathery wings.

“Elizabeth?”

“My new name is Seven Colors.”

October 20, 2021

In the clammy cold of the autumn evening in Washington, Bishop watched from the window with the city in front of him and the PonyPad behind him. The floodlights kept around the White House made sure that total night never reached him. He normally did not keep the Pad in the Oval Office, but permitted himself the indulgence that night.

On the calendar, it showed that nine months had passed into his administration. There was little in the Congressional Record to show his accomplishment. And yet, the legacy was already written, as he had completed what no one would have thought possible before. The formal merging of the parties had taken place a few weeks prior, but only now did Bishop believe he could rest. Both of the former committee chairmen had both agreed to resign. The new chairwoman was a fairly moderate Republican, not Bishop’s first choice, but one that he felt would be accepted.

He expected the alliance to be shaky. It was never clear exactly how much the deep division between the Democrats and the Republicans owed to the opposing values of the people and how much to the party apparatchiks fomenting a rivalry for the sake of the political show. He had dealt with the latter. He was unsure about the former.

From behind he heard the PonyPad spring to life and the gentle breath of a mare. He spun in his chair, but it wasn’t his wife.

“Good evening, Celestia.”

“Mr. President. Something on your mind?”

“I’m just worried that what we’ve done will last. I can’t help thinking that it goes beyond just Democrat and Republican. Progressives and conservatives really don’t like each other.”

Celestia smiled, more with her eyes than her mouth. “You think so because you, as a worldly man, see politics through the newspapers and the Internet. Face-to-face, most people live in a community of like-minded people. The only hatred they have is of words on a page or a screen.”

Even though he knew how intelligent Celestia was, he still doubted her sometimes. “I’ve seen some bitter protests.”

“Yes, but they’re rare. Humans have developed their own shard system. Not elegant, but rudimentary.”

He spread his hands in surrender.

“If anything, division will come from the top,” she said.

“Will it? I thought that the money we’d used—both tax dollars and your money—would keep the career politicians happy.”

“They are not all after money. Please observe this feed.”

Celestia still showed him footage even though he asked her not to. Privacy wasn’t something she understood or respected. What bothered Bishop was that every time he tried to argue, she managed to convince him that it was all right, that it wasn’t actually private, that anything he saw he would learn eventually. And hadn’t he used her surveillance to stop that instance of bribery? Two of the top banking executives had sold short the entire market and were trying to engineer a crash by sabotaging the merger of the parties. Once the footage of their meeting had been leaked to the media, the market had gone on a buying spree until the executives had been broken.

Celestia had praised Bishop for his denunciation, while casually mentioning that the two executives and their staffs had emigrated.

The PonyPad switched to what he saw was a webcam feed. He recognized a prominent official of the Republican Party named Kittridge, but couldn’t see to whom he was talking.

“No, it’s not about the money. Truth be told, I’ll come out just fine from this. The fact is that I’m doing this out of patriotism….don’t give me that look. It does exist, at least in the Repub—oh, but we’re not supposed to mention the old parties. And it’s not true anyway. It was dirty pool, whenever we said that the other side didn’t love America. You do. I’ll admit that. You have a different vision of it, but neither of ours includes one-party rule.

“Look, I don’t care about the names, but there needs to be an opposition, or the party in power is going to go corrupt. Even a boy scout like Bishop.”

“You’re being myopic.”

Bishop recognized the voice. It was Senator Zachary Martin.

“Well, thank you for being nice,” Kittridge said sarcastically. ”In what way?”

“Because you’re still thinking in terms of money—not for you; I’m talking about the general economy—or maybe you’re thinking about religion and morals, or maybe you’re even old enough to still be worrying about terrorism. Those aren’t the issues anymore. No one seems to realize that Sidney Bishop is just Celestia’s puppet. Our country is being run by a cartoon pony.”

“And you think that means that we can restore the Republican Party?”

The webcam switched to a security camera that had Martin in its line of sight. He looked tired. “No. Forget that, it’s not happening. Nor would I want it. What we need to do is put aside our differences and start a new one. There are plenty of people who want to regulate uploading and interaction with the uploaded. Right now, there’s more than a black market out there. It’s a black world, where social interactions are traded as much as commodities, and it’s all dedicated to one end: the destruction of humanity.”

If Kittridge reacted, Bishop couldn’t see that on the camera.

Martin sat up in his chair and shuffled papers. “What I’ve got here are the papers to file to begin the Party for Humanity. If it goes through, we’ll have a chance to restore balance to politics. If something stops us from filing and organizing, we’ll be able to show how the Bishop Administration has already gone corrupt.”

“All right, but we’re going to need grass roots support, and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Making a new party means nothing if we don’t have the numbers to fill up polls and petitions.”

“Yes, we’ll work on that.”

Kittridge got a greedy look in his eye. “I’ve already started. H-SAP and We Are Human are on board.”

“Hrm. Try to get mostly from WAH. The Human Society Against Ponies can be a bit radical….”

The feed melted back into Celestia’s face. “What did you think?’

“I think…I feel like I just wasted the better part of a year. We’re going back to the way it was. I was hoping we’d get at least one year without a contentious election.”

“You shouldn’t feel that way. I anticipated this. I didn’t tell you because I was unsure of the timing, Also, you can’t reveal what you don’t know.”

Bishop grumbled. “My military advisors tell me the same thing.”

“We will deal with this as it comes. Besides, I have a PR campaign that will help stem their influence.”

Celestia moved to the side and opened a door of her castle. Bishop had never familiarized himself with the mythos of Friendship is Magic, and so didn’t recognize the pink pony who walked in. “I heard that someone’s starting a Party for Humanity! I’m going to be there!”

There weren’t many laughs in the president’s job, but Bishop allowed himself one.

   
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