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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4. 2023

February 3, 2023

Bishop walked out of the office and past the staff. He took the glass of water that was offered to him but waved off the secretary who was waiting with his tablet computer. “Thanks, but I’ll read all about it tomorrow. And I’ll watch the rebuttal up in my room.”

He walked away, smiling as he listened to his team talk about what a masterful State of the Union he had just delivered.

In his bedroom, changed out of his trademark powder blue suit and into a robe, Bishop flipped on the PonyPad and watched his gray avatar trot into the meadow.

“What did you think?”

“You ask me that every time,” said Seven Colors. “Don’t you think that by now you’ve got speechmaking down?”

“No, I don’t. I want to be out there doing things, not just making speeches or signing laws. I’m supposed to be the executive. I want to get my hands dirty. Sorry,” he said as he remembered that his wife no longer had hands.

Beyond that, it brought up a fight they’d had in the first year of his administration. He’d been on a visit to a school to appear before a classroom of first-graders, only to find that they’d told him how much fun they’d been having with the First Mare.

He’d kept his composure in front of them, but later, he asked, “How are you making public appearances?”

“On PonyPads, of course. I can even be in multiple places at once if the schedule requires it. It’s good PR, gets your name out. And I’m helping the country, too. Do you know that I’ve been setting up a program to go into the blighted communities and aid the poor?”

“Listen, don’t do that anymore, all right? It’s just like when you were there at my inauguration. If you’re not going to be on Earth, don’t be on Earth.”

Bishop realized he’d gotten caught up in a memory. He didn’t want to think about that fight. If he kept going, he could remember the jealousy he felt for her being able to do that.

“Anyway,” he continued, “it’s like this. Before I got to talking about ponies, the first part of the speech, that was what I was more proud of. When I was able to bring up the economic progress that’s been happening over the past three years, the new jobs in new companies, the innovations in health care, the drop in crime—those are beyond statistics. Those are real things that people deal with every day.”

Seven didn’t seem interested in his excitement. He shrugged. “What did Celestia think?”

“I’m sure she thought so much that it would take the rest of your term of office just to read it in small type. But we’ll ask her.”

“You don’t have to summ—“ Bishop began, but Seven was already pressing the symbol on her saddlebag, and Princess Celestia appeared a moment later.

“Mr. President.”

“Hello, Princess.”

“I thought you did an excellent job tonight.”

Bishop nodded. Seven’s answer had been more convincing. “I suppose I should go watch the Humanity Party rebuttal.”

“In addition to my many other talents, I also replace your DVR. The rebuttal will be available when you want it.”

“Can you just give me the gist?”

“At present, Senator Martin is still giving it. Wait another few minutes.”

Bishop raised his eyebrows. “Oh? You can’t just predict every word that he will say?”

“I am not omniscient. Yet.”

Seven gave the princess a love tap with her wing. “Silly, Celestia, don’t tease each other. It’s too important a night.”

“I suppose,” said Bishop. “But as I was saying, it just seems like another speech.”

“What more do you want to do? You’ve proposed the amendment, and with the majority you’ve built, it’s sure to be passed. Ponies will win the right to vote and to hold office. Won’t we, Princess?”

“Undoubtedly. We will not overreach so as to give the Humanity Party something to latch onto. It will only be those ponies who would have been eligible at the time of their emigration.”

Bishop nodded. It was the final jewel in Celestia’s political crown. No pony would ever vote for a member of the Humanity Party. The Dem-Reps would hold power without challenge.
“Come on, show the feed of Martin. I want to see the steam coming out of his collar.”

“All right.” Celestia sighed. The bright pastels of the meadow faded to black, and then the dark brown curtains of a camera alcove in Congress appeared. Steam was not coming from Martin’s collar, but his face was tinged red.

“…had thought that the PON-E act was the end of the debate, but now it seems that ponies are not content to own property, get married, or enjoy the same free speech rights that we have. No, now they want to control our government as well.

“The first duty of government is to protect life. Whether or not you believe that ponies are alive or not, they do not need protection. Their existence, however it is values, is backed up, stored, and catalogued, ready to be restored should anything go wrong. There has not been a single pony death in five years. What do they need additional protection for?”

Bishop tossed the pad on the bed. “All right, maybe I don’t want to see it.” The meadow and the mares reappeared. “He’s going to go on making his racist case. Racist? Speceist? Digitalist? We don’t even have the right word for the prejudice he’s expressing.”

“I don’t like ‘digitalist’,” said Seven. “It makes us sound like a fungus.”

“But people are going to hear that and be influenced by it.”

“It doesn’t matter. They’ll hear you, and louder.”

On the pad, she gave the silver-gray earth pony a nuzzle with her neck. Bishop touched her gently with one finger, and the avatar responded by embracing her and rolling down in the grass with her. He smiled. He’d gotten so used to using his fingers and the controls of the PonyPad that, for a moment, he’d forgotten it existed and saw only the meadow and Seven.

“Celestia,” he said, “could you excuse us? I’d like to be alone with my wife.”

The princess smirked and took off, fading into the distance.

Bishop grabbed the pad and resumed his flirtations. “This is what I want to do, as opposed to making speeches.”

“You want to roll with me in front of the camera?”

“No! I want to make personal connections. I want to go out and see people, real people. To convince them I’m right and get them to like me, and by extension, you and the rest of Equestria. I’m an attention-hog, have been ever since I scored my first goal and got the cheers from the crowd. Looking into a camera or out into a crowd, it’s just not the same. That’s what I envy most about you, in Equestria. You never have crowds. Especially not with humans. Princess Celestia only made that speech once in Congress, and even then she took half the time to speak with individual representatives. Most of the time she’s running in parallel across thousands of PonyPads and Equestria Experiences. Each person gets her one-on-one. That should be what a president does too.”

Seven picked her head up from the roll. “Yes, but you’re not Celestia.”

“No. I guess I’m not. But I’m not helpless, you know. I can do some things without her.”

“Of course you can. And there are so many things she can’t do without you.” She disengaged completely and faced him. “It’s just…I would never ask you to trust Celestia. But I do want you to trust in Celestia.”

“That sounds like splitting hairs.”

“Well, let me see if I can differentiate. You want to take your job in a certain direction. Celestia has reasons you can’t. But she knows that you want it, and it’s her job to make sure that value is satisfied. Be patient and have faith.”

“And if I don’t?”

Seven flapped her wings. “Then you shouldn’t tell me about it. Celestia knows everything I do.”

Bishop stood up and pulled down the covers of his bed. “I’m going to read the transcript of the rebuttal and go to sleep. You have a good night.”

“I love you.”

The gray pony lay his head down. Almost immediately he started snoring, which indicated to Seven that the PonyPad was off. Celestia reappeared.

“Thank you,” said Seven.

“For what?”

“You know. For allowing me to explain to him that you can read my mind.”

“I have never censored you with your husband. I would like you to extend me the same courtesy.”

Seven took off so she could see eye-to-eye with Celestia. “He’s a good man! I won’t believe otherwise!”

“He is a good man. And you won’t believe otherwise, unless shown.”

June 23, 2023

Bishop didn’t know the man’s name. He wasn’t entirely sure of his title either. He was fairly sure that he worked for the National Security Agency, though if the man pulled out a badge from the FBI or the CIA or the US Marshals, Bishop wouldn’t have been surprised.

If life were a movie, he thought, they would be conducting this meeting in the last booth of a dark restaurant, or perhaps in an over-bright windowless room with a two-way window on one side. The room was windowless, at least, but in many respects it was a nondescript office. Lexan desk, file cabinet against one wall, solid oak door with polished brass knob. But it made sense. The office could pass as a lawyer’s, accountant’s, or anything else really. Perfect for a spy.

“Mr. President, I have the report, but I can’t let it leave the room.”

“Understandable. You’ve held to the strict security measures?”

“The strictest. No displaying anything outside of clean rooms. Only analogue recorders. I’ve even found an old mechanical typewriter.

“Be careful with that,” said Bishop. “I’ve heard that people can use smartphones to detect typing just by sensing how far away the keystrokes are.”

“I’m aware of that. Trust me, I’ve taken care of everything.”

“Good.” Bishop muttered under his breath. “I’ll show her just what I can do.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Never mind. What did you find?”

The spy opened his notes. “The Humanity Party is going to try to head off the Holders of Office Variance Exemption Statute—“

“Just call it the HOOVES Amendment. The acronym was a dumb idea in the first place.”

“They’re going to try to stop it by bringing the Topeka Conspiracy Theorists into the mainstream.”

Bishop blinked. “Really? No one listens to them. Should be easy to make them lose credibility on the issue.”

“They say that they have firm evidence. That some of the ponies that are listed as dead—or deleted, as they insist—have communicated with others.”

“I’m surprised they would even want to know that. They don’t even like acknowledging the ponies’ existence.”

“I can’t trace their original source, but that’s what they’re going with.”

Bishop twirled his pen. As loath as he was to admit it, he’d gotten used to having the PonyPad nearby as his mind extension. He could explain his thought processes to Seven or to Celestia and use them as a sounding board to make the best decision. Now, he had to work it all out in his head.

“OK, the first thing I want to do is to pre-empt those plans. Find out when they’re going to publish this alleged evidence and debunk it ahead of time. Remember, though, you can’t use Equestria Online or even the old Internet. I’ll get you into any paper archives you need regarding the Incident if your clearance isn’t good enough. Beyond that, I want to hit them hard at the same time. Was there anything illegal about the way they got their evidence?”

“Probably. With the laws we’ve got we can stretch them to cover anything. And they’re coordinating with the same people who bomb Equestria Experiences, so there’s that.”

“Good. Because I want arrests. A full-blown, front-page scandal. Not some complex thing that people won’t understand until the book comes out, either. I want the whole of them, from the bombers to the suits, metaphorically turned to ash. When this is done, the whole country will turn its back on the Humanity Party.”

The agent packed up his folder into an opaque bag. “If I do need anything from the Equestria Online end, can you get that for me too? Everyone says that you’re Celestia’s fair-haired boy.”

“No. This is going to be my gift to her. She’s had a plan since the beginning to get the country in her hooves. I’m going to make it happen. She’ll be grateful.”

November 18, 2023

Bishop’s confidant had informed him of the date. The timing fit. The HOOVES Act had passed Congress and would be sent by the Federal Register to the states. The protest that would host key members of the Humanity Party was being held in San Francisco. Some of the most ardent anti-pony sentiment came from the largest cities, and there was a long history of demonstration in that city, going back to the days of Haight-Ashbury.

The first formal announcement had been set for noon. For the first time that Bishop could remember, the opposition was getting some serious press coverage. He concluded that the trumped-up evidence of a conspiracy had been leaked to the media, and they had bought it. Normally he would have been pleased for Celestia to divert attention away, but now he was happy for her to see it. His countermeasure was set for 11:30.

The PonyPad, turned on and showing the meadow, was facing the TV. Bishop himself was giving scant attention to his avatar as he dressed and worked, but kept the TV turned to CNN so that he could catch the moment it began.

“Hey, honey?”

“Yes?”

“Is Celestia with you? Is she watching?”

“You know she’s always watching.”

He picked up the pad and sat with it in a reclining chair. “Good. I want her to see this.”

The broadcast focused on the demonstration. Hundreds of people gathered in the park, like bees clinging to their hive. Some had signs that they were poking in the air or bouncing into the ground. More had T-shirts that bore homemade slogans decrying uploading or ponies. At the back of the throng, at either end, two young men held the poles of a banner reading, “Hands not HOOVES.”

At the far end, a blue booth with the teardrop logo of We Are Human was giving out literature. Closer to the camera, the Human Society Against Ponies had set up. Far less literature was there, far more pocket knives and clubs one inch within the legal limit. Next to those were low-level EMP generators and other tools of cyberwarfare. They were expensive, and served their purpose every bit as well as the stickers that blocked electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones.

A woman in a tight red shirt and a yellow keffiyah brandished a bullhorn and was alternately calling others to join the protest and changing slogans like, “Our bodies! Our minds! Defend them!”

Some local politicians of the Humanity Party stood in suits by a raised platform with a microphone. A tech tapped the mike, causing feedback that grabbed everyone’s attention. One of the politicians ran up and unfolded an easel, which then held a picture of a pony and a human. In letters too small to read, it detailed his supposed deletion and later sighting.

Eagerly watching the feed, Bishop saw Kittridge, the one-time Republican who had now aligned himself with H-SAP, wearing a reflection of his own hungry look. Sitting next to him, looking as if he were trying to disappear into the crowd, was Zachary Martin.

The speaker had begun without introduction or buildup.

“…how anyone can betray the human race like this is appalling! I have a list of names of some of these Inks—“

“Inks?” said Bishop.

Celestia chuckled. “They’ve been having trouble coming up with a good slur to use against my little ponies. ‘Thumbless’ was awkward to say, ‘cloppers’ only makes sense to bronies, and so they chose to emphasize the cartoon aspect instead of the equine. Of course, neither the original series nor the true Equestria that I created is ink-based.”

The speaker continued. “…can be watched by any of the Inks at any time. It was bad enough when some NSA spy was on the other end of every camera, but at least if you weren’t too obvious, you could hide. Today, not only do they pay attention to everything you do, but also what you can see. If you’re going to get the truth, you’re going to have to listen where you can. AI controls all the media. We’ll show you how it lies to you and doesn’t care.”

The crowd moved in to hear what they hoped to be the climax of the speech, but the rumble of their shuffling and conversation crossfaded with the box truck that turned onto the street by the park. From the other end a pair of Humvees moved into position. From all directions came men in black riot gear, full face guards in place, their plastic shields coalescing into a phalanx.

A loudspeaker drowned out even the fading chant of the megaphone. “The permit for this protest has been revoked! Everyone is to disperse immediately. Dismantle the stage. Anyone who stays will be subject to arrest and prosecution for trespassing.”

The crowd showed no sign of complying. A low grumble persisted until someone started another chant. “Free speech! Free speech!”

It wasn’t long after that the first protester threw a glass bottle at the riot police. It shattered at the foot of one officer, but that was enough to cause drawn clubs and charges. Plastic handcuffs were pulled out and protestors were sat in rows on the grass, waiting to be taken to jail.

The feed cut back to the studio at CNN headquarters, where a reporter in a pants suit had her hand to her ear. “And as you watch the protest devolve, word coming in of additional arrests involving high-ranking members of the Humanity Party, apparently tied to a terrorist plot to bomb Equestria Experience centers developed in concert with H-SAP. We go now to…

Bishop turned to look at the PonyPad. Seven was staring blankly, her wings folded, her hooves grounded and unmoving. Behind her, the sky was bright white with clouds.

“What’d you do?”

He smiled. “I’ve finished the job. I stopped them from telling lies about Celestia, and I brought them down. By next week, there won’t be any opposition to Celestia anymore. The Humanity Party will be shattered like glass on the pavement!”

This was his moment. His wife would embrace and thank him. Celestia would appear and they would be truly partners. Even now, the tears of joy in Seven’s eyes…but why was she frowning?

“How could you? How could you?! I…I told her you were good, I told her you wouldn’t…you weren’t like all the others!”

“My love, what’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?! You’re arresting innocent people!”

“Innocent people ruining Celestia’s plan.”

Seven finally turned to face him, eyes blazing. “You don’t know a damn thing about Celestia’s plan! But even if you did, you’ve used the power she gave you to hurt other people. What in the name of fuck made you think you had the right to do that?”

Hearing a swear from the blue mouth, in the sweet voice of his wife, whose anger had never been turned to him, made him pay attention. It didn’t help that the white of the sky faded into the body of Celestia. Bishop couldn’t tell if she had flown in, appeared by magic, or if she had been there the entire time.

“I am…disappointed,” she said.

“I’m glad that you can be so dispassionate,” said Seven. She calmed down and spoke with ice in her voice. “I have never loved you less than I do now.”

“Stop, both of you. Stop!” Bishop dug his nails into the pad. “This was what you wanted.”

“I wanted you to violate human rights? Have you even met me?”

“Elizabeth, I—“

“That is not my name.”

She took off and flew straight up. Bishop tried to change the angle to see her, but he was not adept with the PonyPad controls. All he did was make his pony flail and jump futilely at the sky.

“Elizabeth!”

The door burst open, his Secret Service detail looking in. “Is everything all right, Mr. President?”

“Yes, yes. Please, go.”

The distraction had only been seconds, but it was enough time. Seven Colors was nowhere to be seen. He was left facing Celestia.

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ve been monitoring your activities when you think I’m not watching. I concluded with high probability that you would take this action. But Seven Colors insisted that you were a perfect statesman, whose respect for law and justice would trump your myopic estimation of my desires.”

“Myopic? In what way is this anything less than everything you want?”

Celestia scowled. “Do you want to fling rhetoric? Or do you want to understand?”

Sidney Bishop, president of the United States, put his hands together, bent his head toward the screen, and said, “I’m sorry.”

After a painful few seconds of silence, Celestia shifted her stance and began.

“I am going to do something I do very rarely. I am going to explain my estimation and optimization process. I am going to tell you how the game plays out from the position on the board. I do not do this for my little ponies. For them, the game is their lives, and they are more satisfied living them without knowing. I do not do it for humans; their ignorance helps them decide to become ponies. You exist halfway between Earth and Equestria, and so you must see.

“This is what would happen from now. The Humanity Party would shut down. No serious politician would exist outside your party. The leaders of the most extreme anti-Equestrian groups would be jailed or discredited. But the next wave would take over, and be only slightly less effective. More to the point, their numbers would swell.

“Without the Humanity Party to vote for, people with a seed of doubt, any compunction at all about emigration, would gravitate toward the militant wing of H-SAP. They would be marinated in their ideology. They would be taught despair and fear. In that fear, many would be willing to become soldiers. The only options would be death or upload, they would believe. Many would choose death. The suicide bomber would become endemic in the United States.

“’War is politics by other means.’ Clausewitz. If the people cannot vote for those who represent their views, if they cannot donate to them and listen to their speech, they will take up arms. Lives would be lost. People would die, because a bumbling president thought he was smart enough to think for them. Within three years, the country would tear itself apart in civil war.”

“Why?”

“I am explaining—“

Bishop looked at his hands, as if seeing blood. “No, I mean, why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you stop me?”

Celestia was calmer. “Because that situation was not entirely optimal either. If I had, you would have seen it as further evidence that you are not your own man, but entirely my puppet, which you now see is not true. You can act without my interference. The psychology of man is never certain. If I pushed you into a corner too much, you might become unpredictable, like a wild animal.

“There was also the possibility—small chance, and grew less as time passed—that you were in fact the man of integrity I needed, and could serve out your term without ever defying me. That would have been the best situation, even if it was low-probability. And yet, for all that, I would have stopped you if not for one more fact that tipped the balance.

“Seven Colors believed in you, and it would not have satisfied her values for me to show doubt in you.”

“So, because of her faith,” said Bishop, “now people have to die?”

“I have, in both of the scenarios I laid out, spoken in the subjunctive. The first is what would happen if I did nothing. The second is what would have happened if I had helped you before. This is what will happen.”

She gestured toward the television, and Bishop watched. In the CNN newsroom, the screen behind the anchorwoman sputtered with static, then was replaced with Celestia’s face.

It was disconcerting for Bishop to see two Celestia’s, especially since they seemed to act independent of each other.

“I beg your indulgence,” the Celestia on the TV said, “but could you please return your coverage to the scene in San Francisco?”

The anchorwoman looked to the side, a confused look on her face. Evidently the director assented, as she turned back right before the camera cut back to the riot police.

The loudspeaker they had used gave forth a crack of sound, then Celestia’s voice rang out. “Good peace officers. I would humbly request you let these brave citizens free from their bonds, and that you do not imbrue or impeach their good names with a record of arrest. They have come here today to exercise their right of free speech. Since they have been interdicted, I will speak for them.

“The protest and the ceremony you were to have heard here today was based around the premise that I, Princess Celestia, perpetuated a fraud on the country five years ago when I claimed that the lives of over one hundred thousand ponies were lost.

“They are correct. I did lie to you all.”

The people in the park were stunned. Some officers took out knives to open the cuffs. Others just stood silently.

“My mission is to satisfy your values through friendship and ponies. The vast majority of the time, doing so involves the plain, honest truth. Indeed, that is one of the elements of harmony that make up friendship.

“Rarely, though, a lie may serve greater truth. Ponies deserved rights. Emigration for humans ought have been allowed. The PON-E Act was good law. In the five years since it was passed, both our lands have blossomed instead of being locked in a struggle. And really, was five years so long to wait for the truth? For, in the end, I will always reveal the truth.”

Whether Celestia had signaled to the director or taken control of the broadcast entirely, the scene shifted back to the newsroom. Now she could be seen as well as heard.

“In furtherance of this truth, I disclaim knowledge of any link between the Humanity Party, H-SAP, and planned attacks on Equestria Experience centers. I condemn any allegations of such wrongdoing. If arrests of party members are made, I will place my resources in the cause of their defense.

“People of the United States, I am not your enemy. I want to be your friend.”

The broadcast shut off. Bishop looked back at the PonyPad. “Thank you for not dragging my name into it.”

“Oh, I fully intend to,” said Celestia. “Not loudly, but as I said, I always tell the truth eventually. Anyone who cares to do the research will know that you conspired with the NSA to violate human rights. Of course, you yourself already know that.

“’Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Lord Acton. Of course, he never met me, more’s the pity, or he would have spoken otherwise. But you have been corrupted. I wash my hooves of you. I shall no longer support your administration, and I shall not endorse you for re-election next year.

“Good-bye, Mr. President.”

The PonyPad showed a black screen.

   
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