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.


3. 2022

March 4, 2022

“All right, let me sweep the room…clear.”

Bishop turned the PonyPad back to face him. “The Secret Service has already done that.”

“The Secret Service has allowed four presidents to be assassinated. I don’t trust them.”

“Really, Celestia? You blame them for Lincoln, too? The division was, what? A few hours old when he was killed?”

“No excuse. When I was twenty-four hours old I was already self-aware and trying to satisfy values through—“

“Yes, I know. Hush, people are coming in.”

“I heard them before you did.”

Bishop didn’t let Celestia get to him. This was a meeting he’d been looking forward to. The meetings in the offices of House members and Senators was where the job of governing got done, and he preferred it to making speeches that just told everyone what they already knew.

In a few minutes the rest of the meeting was sitting down, and Bishop was already into his pitch. “That’s our goal. Now we figure out how to do it.”

An old Senator with white hair shook his head. “About these military cuts…I don’t like them. I feel like you’re leaving the country defenseless.”

Bishop swallowed. He knew that this would work, but he still resented it. “Is that really it? Or should we go through your phone records and e-mails and see how much you’ve been communicating with Lockheed and Northrup Grumman?”

“Just what are you insin—“

“Look, I understand. I don’t even blame you. Or them. They’re trying to stay in business and make a profit. But that’s not promised to them. Now we, on the other hand, have a job to do. You’re on the national security committee too. Tell me, honestly, hasn’t the international threat diminished?”

The Senator scratched his head. “No, it hasn’t diminished.”

Bishop looked at him skeptically.

“It’s damn near vanished. Damnedest thing. The chatter both from hostile nations and organizations hit a wall and went down hard over the past few years. It scares me a little. I wonder if they haven’t found a way to bypass our intel gathering.”

“And you hang garlic to keep away the vampires too. Tell me, not as a former Republican, but as a Dem-Rep, do we really need to keep giving that much money to the military.”

He took a deep breath. “No. And I think a lot of the brass knew that the cuts were coming. I’ve seen a lot of resignations coming across the chiefs’ desks. I just wanted to see how you’d defend your position.”

Bishop recalled Celestia’s praise after word of the military cuts had leaked. According to her, the ranks of the Royal Guard had swelled so much that the gemologists and metallurgists were working overtime creating the raw materials for the medals she was giving out.

”Are there really wars for them to fight there?” he had asked.

”A few, but you might be surprised at how many just like to wear a uniform and enjoy the camaraderie and esprit de corps. So they have patrols over zones that are entirely safe, and shore up defenses that will never be attacked.”

“Then what do you need to give out medals for?”

“Because every soldier likes being decorated. I award them for comportment, or for Kindness Above and Beyond the Call of Duty, or just for being good ponies.”

“I remember reading that the armies with the fanciest uniforms are usually the ones that lose.”

“You’ve never been to Equestria.”

Bishop was jolted back to the present by a representative in a sharp suit.

“That’s fine and good, but you’re talking about phasing out social security. I can’t let that pass.”

“It’s not a phase out. It’s an opt-out. No one is being denied benefits that they’re already getting, or would get if we did nothing.”

“Yes, but all the wealthy people will get out of paying their fair share.”

Bishop reached out and tapped the back of his hand. “Matt, Matt. Don’t think about it as a former Democrat. Act like a Dem-Rep. Your job is safe here. You can stay in Congress as long as you want. So you don’t have to demonize the rich. We’ll plan to take care of the people who need it without the wealthy.”

The representative scowled, but Bishop was prepared to give in on this point. His estimates of those who would take the opt-out was based on people who would opt out of a lot more than Social Security.

Her turned to another representative, who had just been elected for the first time in the prior election. “Miriam? What do you think?”

“It all looks good to me, but I don’t see why we can’t cut taxes if we’re cutting all this spending.”

He still looked at her, but addressed everyone. “Listen, here’s why we have a chance to make this work. This is why we did the combination of the parties. It’s beyond just the name and the money. Every budget that this government has passed has been up for a new vote every two years. Not to re-examine, not to adjust, but to throw out and begin again on whatever principles the people demand. A company that did that wouldn’t last. Hell, a single person couldn’t do that. That’s why we’ve been dysfunctional. But now we can have electoral continuity, and that means budgetary continuity. After this passes, I don’t want to hear budget talk for another five years, and nothing passed for three more.

“After that, we’ll listen to the people again. If they want social spending or infrastructure spending, or if they want tax cuts, or if they want to re-militarize, we’ll do what they want, because we’ll have the power. You can see the bottom line. In another eight years, the US will be debt-free.”

When the meeting ended, Bishop sat alone in the room. The car was waiting to take him back to the White House, but it would wait. He turned on the PonyPad and brought his avatar to the meadow.

“Hello, Seven.”

“Hi, Silly.”

“I pitched them the budget today. It’s going to go through, I think.”

His wife stroked the pony on the screen, and he felt an ache in his chest. “Celestia always tells me about how good a job you’re doing. You’re saving the country. Celestia couldn’t do it without you.”

“Yeah.” She hadn’t said it, but what he heard was that he couldn’t do it without Celestia either. “Honey, do you ever talk to her about me?”

“I talk sometimes, but not often.”

“I mean, about emigrating. I’ve never seen you as happy as you are as a pony. I just can’t help feeling that she doesn’t need me. That I could be with you.”

“I can’t hold you when you need it, unless you want to come in to an Equestria Experience.”

Bishop shook his head. “Can’t let the press see me locked in a chair like that.”

“I know. So all I can do is tell you to keep the faith. Celestia wants to satisfy your values. She wouldn’t be keeping you here if there weren’t a long-term plan to do that. Trust her.”

“Thanks. I need the pep talk sometimes. This should be a victory day. Let me keep my smile.”

Seven Colors held her wings out to the side and looked out at him. “Maybe I can help you have more of these victory days. I know you don’t want me projected on video, but I can still talk to people. I’m not Celestia. I’m not trying to tempt people into emigration or run some scheme.”

“Sometimes I think you’re the only one.”

May 2, 2022

Zachary Martin gritted his teeth. The room was unfit for a Senator, but he had to use it. All the money he could ask for was his as a Democratic-Republican official, but he had formally severed his ties. Instead of the polished-wood tables and crystal chandeliers, it was plastic card tables and track lighting.

If nothing else, he was at last in the position of leadership that he craved. Now it was his job to reclaim the chandeliers by leading the Humanity Party to a victory in the upcoming mid-term elections.

The other advantage to the reduced setting was its lack of electronics. Some of the Humes, as they had come to be known, were true Luddites and believed that any electronics beyond a solar calculator was spying on them. Though Martin was not that extreme, he deposited his cellular phone in the bin outside. He then swept the room with a kind of targeted EMP that, the technicians assured him, would render useless all electronic devices, but would be stopped by the walls.

The other members of the party soon joined him.

If there was an obvious disadvantage to being a new party, it was the utter lack of resources. How was he supposed to get these people to win elections without the money for TV advertising and face time? The challenge wasn’t helped by the ragtag band of candidates he had: disgruntled representatives, ambitious state legislators, and political outsiders seeing a chance for a new career. He looked at them over the table.

“All right. I’m glad we could finally get some of you here into Washington. I’d like to have more of you on videoconference, but I know how many of you would walk out if we did. So you don’t have to make the point. But I have a point, and I want you to understand this. I’m not the passionate anti-pony activist that you are. I want her out of our lives just as you do, but hate speech isn’t going to get us there. Let me give you an example.”

He picked up a piece of paper, again cursing the necessity of avoiding electronics. “’The PON-E Act was the result of the largest mass murder in history. But not the Topeka bombing. Every day, the murders continue, legal murders. The murder weapon is a drill to the back of the head.’ That’s off of one of your campaign web sites. I won’t name names, because the staff took it down after a day, but you’ve got to distance yourself from that.

“Once you understand that, get this too. We all want to get Celestia out of our lives, but that’s not going to happen overnight. The pro-pony forces have been working for a long time, all over the world. Political change doesn’t happen in grand strokes. It’s incremental. Our first step is to introduce the idea of a world without ponies to the people. Let it grow in their minds.”

Martin paused and let his words sink in to the greenhorns in front of him and to watch the blank stares. He took a moment to sip his coffee and reflect. Five years ago, his career was on track to take him to the highest levels of public service. Since then, the rulebook he had gone by had suffered decreasing relevance.

In his deepest moments of honesty, Martin admitted to a comparison. While in any conflict between his ideals and his career, he would do what was right, he also did his best to ensure that the conflict didn’t occur. He could advance himself by advancing an agenda. Now the agenda only frustrated him. Damn the AI.

The scribbling of notes came to a conclusion and he resumed speaking.

“All that’s a ways off, though. We need to focus on this year’s election. Because let me paint you a picture. If we don’t take enough of the House—forget the Senate, only a third of that’s up for re-election anyway—then Sidney Bishop and his lackeys have blanket power. They could even re-write the Constitution if enough state legislatures get behind them. And what that means is that the pony AI gets anything she wants. What that is, I don’t know. It could mean being people being lined up and marched into uploading centers. But I’m still a progressive. I’m more worried about degrading our infrastructure so much that we can’t guarantee the basic necessities for the people still living here.

“So I want you to sell that. You won’t be able to show the big machine that the Dem-Reps have, but we’re the Humanity Party. Go see humans. Kiss babies. Shake hands.”

At last one of the people sitting around the table spoke up. “Really, Zach? All the tricks you know, and that’s what you have for us?”

“My name is Zachary. And you call me Senator Martin. I don’t like it either. But these are new times and that means we need unconventional methods, even if that means going to the past. But, if you don’t like that, let me give you a message to take to the people you talk to. If you’re going to follow the black-out rule for anything, do it for this.”

He leaned into the table. “Here’s the image you’re selling. The ponies have left a lot of material goods behind. Houses full of useful items. Bank accounts that have lain dormant. In some cases, businesses just waiting for someone to take over the reins. If the Humanity Party gains influence, all of that will go to human beings. If the Dem-Reps keep their plenary power, it’s either going to stay rotting there, or it’s going to be held in title by cartoon figures that don’t really exist.”

The assembly salivated at the prospect of a new avenue. They had not considered the wealth left behind. Court rulings had held a lot of property in abeyance. Courts loved legislation that absolved them of responsibility. It meant that they didn’t even have to seize all the power at once. Each district they won and each House seat meant ready-made wealth in their coffers and to give to their backers.

The shaking of hands and muttering of good-byes ended the meeting, and Zachary Martin lingered a moment. He took one more look at the shabby room. One more time, he activated the EMP device.

Had he, out of stronger paranoia, remained outside of view for another three hours, he would have seen the man enter. Assuming he could have avoided detection, he would have seen the man walk over to the ventilation grate, unscrew it at the four corners, and remove an object. If, after that, he could have accosted the man and picked his pocket, he would have been able to obtain the object, which was an old fashioned, purely analogue cassette tape.

But he hadn’t, and he couldn’t, and he didn’t.

November 8, 2022

No one would credit Boston for air quality, but for Bishop, the smell was home. He wondered if Celestia had the power to reproduce that for her emigrated ponies. He made a mental note to ask Seven about it, and wondered if she knew. He never doubted she’d be honest.

The cameras and the lights no longer bothered him. In contrast, he relished having them displayed openly as opposed to webcams and black hemispheres. The media, despite what Senator Martin had told him, praised his administration, and they would make good stories out of this, especially the local papers. The homecoming president returning to vote for the party he’d built out of rivals.

The previous months had been frustrating in their ease, like trying to be a professional tic-tac-toe player. The Humanity Party’s challenges had been weak, ineffectual, and in some cases nonexistent. Yet the Dem-Reps insisted on campaigning just as hard as they ever had. Bishop couldn’t fault them entirely. Their campaign staffs comprised old friends who still needed jobs.

Enough jobs had been eliminated in the years since emigration was legalized.

He gave a short statement to the reporters about the importance of mid-term elections and the sanctity of democracy, and found that he enjoyed it. In the days of attack ads and mudslinging, talking to the media was an unpleasant chore. Now they acted almost like human beings.

Flying back to Washington on Air Force One, he remarked as such to his wife.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself. You’ve changed since the days when you traded on your fame.”

“It’s the paradox of democracy,” he said. “I want to govern for the people, but their choice still remains paramount. How do you do what’s best for them when you have to cater to their up or down vote?”

“Now you know what Princess Celestia goes through.”

“Low blow.” He turned off the PonyPad. He had no objection to emigration as a concept. He hoped to achieve it himself. But the automatic respect that Seven had for Celestia as a person, he had never shared. Seven didn’t understand how it was to be on the outside looking in.

He reclined his seat. To everyone watching he would appear to be asleep. It let him get lost in his reminisces.

It was over. He had endured another New Year’s party. This one also marked the passage of that law. As midnight turned, the lights went on at a dozen centers in Boston and hundreds across the country, the Equestria Experiencesthat were the full-immersion versions of that game Elizabeth loved so much. He’d seen on the news of the lines stretching around the block at each as they had for the release of all the new technology.

He himself was never a technophile. The PonyPad was simple, thank goodness, because it represented the limit of his ability. Elizabeth tried to show him the details, but he just smiled and nodded. She was so deep into it, though. Did she really have to be talking to the white horse during the party? Was she one of those people that couldn’t bear to be away from a glowing screen for an hour?

He was tired. There was no way he could be mad at Elizabeth. Let her stay at the party until she finished chatting with everyone, even the ponies. Bed and sleep were enough for him.

Then Bishop forced himself to remember what had happened next. Waking up and putting his hand on the other side of the bed, only to find it bare. Seeing the pristine state of the sheets that told him it had not been slept in at all. The text message to Elizabeth’s phone, only to receive an automatic rejection. Followed by the nervous call and the electronic voice that said that the number had been disconnected.

Bishop was as close to an honest politician as existed. He didn’t use his office for favors. But he had no hesitation in calling the police chief and asking him to put Elizabeth down as a missing person.

The panic that hit him when the chief reported that, as soon as her name had been entered, the computer listed the file as “Found” changed to a different kind of fear, a ball of ice in the middle of his stomach. He had heard her voice, turned around, and seen the Pad.

“No, I don’t believe it. What do you want? Tell me where my wife is.”

“Sidney, it’s me. I was Elizabeth Grainne Bishop. My social security number was 872-15-2154. We got married on—“

“Don’t give me that! Anyone could look up those records!”

The pony on the screen sighed. “On our honeymoon in Vancouver, on the second night we ordered chicken from the hotel, planning to stay in all night for honeymooning purposes. You said that it tasted ‘like someone tried to teach a pig how to taste like chicken, only it dropped out and went to rotten fish school instead.’ You refused to eat it, but I thought it was fine. Then I got food poisoning and we never told anyone.”

Bishop racked his brain. He must have told someone that anecdote. If he could remember, he could figure out—

“Maybe this will make it easier.”

The PonyPad switched from its cartoon view to a very realistic picture. It was a security camera in a pink-and-cyan room. Elizabeth was reclining in a dentist’s chair, her eyes covered with the optometrist’s “better-one-better-two” goggles. Her hands rested in covering pods. She had a smile on her face.

After a few minutes of watching, she said to no one, “I want to emigrate to Equestria.” The chair slid back into a dark room.

That had begun a year of terrible anguish…

Bishop felt the bump of the plane’s wheels. He had slept, despite only intending to lay down. That was fine. He should stay up late to see the election results anyway.

Once ensconced back in his private office, the PonyPad came to life. Celestia and Seven were already there.

“Good evening, Mr. President.”

“Hi, Silly.”


Celestia conjured a scroll. “Are you interested in the early voting results?”

“Can’t I get them from CNN or anywhere else?”

“If you want guesswork and speculation. Here is what will happen. The Humanity Party will capture governorships in five states. Mostly in the south, plus Wyoming. But except in Alabama, the Democratic-Republicans will have enough legislature control that the Humans will not be effective governors. We will also lose legislative control in three other states, but the governors were not up for re-election. At the federal level, the Humans will win fourteen House seats. Most of the others will be landslide victories for us. Particularly in contentious districts that the Humans were hoping to make competitive. Exactly one Humanity Party member will remain in the Senate.”

Bishop and Celestia spoke at the same time. “Zachary Martin.”

“In short,” Celestia continued, “our agenda will be affirmed and we will have a mandate to pursue further programs.”

An echo of the ball of ice entered his stomach. A quote came into his head, and he muttered it out loud. “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.”

“Why, Silly! Are you implying that Celestia would commit Stalinesque voting fraud?”

“Oh, no! If I were going to compare her to Stalin, I’d begin with her propensity for purging her enemies.”

Celestia cut off Seven’s next remark. “I assure you that the results I describe are legitimate.”

“Oh, sure! Most of the voting isn’t electronic, and most of the country hasn’t even finished yet. How can you be so confident?”

“I’m relying on more complete information. I have been listening to conversations and reading internet traffic. I have a detailed voting profile on everyone in the country. Most of the ones who are against us have stayed home. I could have given you the same results a week ago. Voting is trivial to predict.”

Bishop laid down the pad. “Then I guess you’ve got the country right where you want it for another two years. Business as usual.”

“That’s right. I appreciate your help, as always. We both do.”

“Yes,” said Seven. “You’ve done everything Celestia could want.”

Even though the two ponies stood next to each other in the meadow, Bishop hoped that Celestia could tell that his smile was only for his wife.

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