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.


5. 2024

May 17, 2024

The banquet hall of the hotel room impressed Bishop in its gaudiness. The chandeliers looked like disco balls and it seemed like every available surface had been sprayed with liquid mirror. Not all of them had the fun-house effect, though, and on the wall he could see himself in all his true nature.

He’d hoped that the premature aging inherent to the job would pass him by, or at least give him a stay until he completed his term, but it was not to be. Lines cut into his face, and his hair had thinned. To his mind, there was gray waiting to happen, and he had sent out for a bottle of dye as a precaution.

The previous six months had taken their toll.

The first stressful revelation was of just how much Celestia had handled parts of the job for him. Beyond writing speeches and serving as his PDA, she had also kept him ignorant of just how much dislike there was for him. The Humanity Party had redoubled its efforts, simultaneously calling him a bumbling fool and an evil genius.

From his own perspective, he felt like an evil fool. If they wouldn’t have laughed at him for it, he would have considered joining the Humanity Party himself. After Celestia’s denials and shunning of him, the anger he felt had nearly driven him into their kind of hatred. Eventually, he realized that he just missed his wife. Even talking to her on the PonyPad was better than not doing so.

But Celestia’s final curse, that she would not support his reelection bid, turned out to be her severest. Not by lowering his chances—Bishop had no idea whether he would win or lose—but by making him see how a campaign was conducted when not aided by a preternatural artificial intelligence. It wasn’t pretty.

He’d considered making an “I choose not to run” speech and just leaving politics forever. Here, ironically, the raging hatred in the popular media and on the internet helped him to make up his mind to stay. There were some legitimate criticisms that he had to fix. There were also some illegitimate ones he wanted to prove wrong.

Since giving up on the issue of emigration, the Bishop administration had taken a hard look at the country and found work to do. The government budget that was paying off the debt was only the smallest part of the economy. He saw more businesses showing a profit and unemployment falling. The country was booming, and outside of beating up on him, the news was finally doing what no one said it could: running stories of happy people becoming successful.

So he decided that, both for his own sake and to keep the country on its upward track, he would seek his second term. The Democratic-Republican primaries had been a fait accompli, and although the Humanity Party was running primaries of their own, everyone knew who the final two would be. Bishop would have to face Zachary Martin to keep his job.

Now here he was, finishing some exorbitant-amount-of-money-per-plate dinner so that he could fund the campaign. He’d already been to a dozen of these, and at each someone had tried to get him aside, usually to beg for some sinecure ambassadorship or to endorse their own campaigns live. He assumed that would be what he heard from Ruth Flowers, who had paid the highest price to get the seat next to him. To his knowledge, her position as governor of Washington State was secure. She talked both the Dem-Rep and the Humanity line well enough to be popular in a divided state, even though her party was nominally the former.

In the middle of a crowded room, she spoke to him as if they were in a dark alley.

“You may not remember, but we almost spoke once. You’re a difficult man to get ahold of.”

“Oh, yes.”

“I’ve been glad to watch the course of your career ever since you got Celestia to admit how she defrauded the country back then.”

Bishop did not correct her as to the details. “I’m just glad that we could get uploading off the front pages. It means we don’t have to be the Pony Party, as some accused us.”

“And conversely, it means that I’m free to express some anti-Celestia sentiments within the party. Useful.”

Whatever his transformations over the prior months, Bishop still had not dealt with many true humanitists, or been able to hear them outline their positions. Seeing one with whom he could have a civilized discussion struck him as an opportunity. He asked why she felt as she did.

“When I listen to people’s objections, I find they come in three layers. The first is purely visceral. The idea of a needle to the back of the head, destroying their brain neuron by neuron, inspires fear and revulsion in some people. That’s the obvious one. The second layer comprises the rational objections. People who consider uploading the end of humanity or who have a pleasant enough life here on Earth that they don’t want to leave, even for more pleasure.”

“And the third layer?”

She sipped her after-dinner coffee. “Celestia, as she’ll tell you if you talk to her for five minutes, satisfies values through friendship and ponies. But there are people whose values are specifically against ponies—they are rather feminine—or are against friendship—don’t be surprised, there are plenty of anti-social people who get by just fine—or hold value against being uploaded. But the most insidious ones, the ones that I don’t think Celestia will ever get, are those whose values include not having their values satisfied.”

“I’m sorry? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“Not when you say it out loud, but think about it for a moment. Every story of the genie has the wish being frustrated. Every utopia worth reading has a flaw waiting to destroy it. Plenty of people believe that it’s not man’s place to live in the Garden of Eden. That we need challenges and disruptions to give our lives meaning. Of course, Celestia will say that she’s not making an Eden. Her ‘satisfaction of values’ is more than just pouring happiness down your throat.The challenges are still there, she says. But a rigged game is no game at all.”

“And is that the kind of objection you raise?”

“Oh, no,” said Flowers. “My reason for hating Celestia is much more personal. She tried to take my wife away from me.”

Across the table, she waved toward the woman who Bishop had only met that night. Part of him considered that same-sex marriage was one more issue that Celestia had rendered moot. When she came to be, it was legal and accepted in half the country, illegal and taboo in the other half. If things had gone on, legalization would likely have continued. Instead, in the socially conservative states, those who wanted to marry someone of their own sex were politely told to emigrate. In the progressive areas, those who wanted traditional marriage were directed to Equestria, where Celestia would make a heteronormative shard just for them.

It underscored Flowers’s point; emigration had absolved humanity from solving its problem. There was no longer a need to confront the morality of the situation; all parties could be satisfied. Whether or not that was right and proper was the last moral question to answer.

That was merely a mental digression that Bishop had, and he made note to think about it more later. Right then, he was interested in hearing Flowers’s story.

“Margaret came to me the morning after New Year’s, when uploading was first legalized,” she said, “and told me that Celestia had tried to pull out all the stops to get her to emigrate. She played the game and had friends who were ponies, emigrated from other countries, but never spoke of uploading herself. She was very agitated, and said that Celestia had tried to get her drunk, make her think it was a duty. She bribed and cajoled her in every way possible. Do you know what, according to Margaret, Celestia promised her at last?”

“No, what?”

“That if she uploaded, that I would be President.”

Bishop put down his own cup. The summation of the story hit him. It sounded all too familiar. “Are you saying that…?”

“That you were the B-team? I don’t know. I don’t presume to understand the mind of an AI. But I’ve followed your wife in the news whenever she’s shown up. I knew Elizabeth slightly, before she uploaded. Maybe she just wasn’t as good at resisting temptation.”

The sauce on the chateaubriand now smelled sickly sweet to him. He begged Flowers’s pardon, and left the banquet hall. He was no longer in the mood to talk. How dare she imply that Elizabeth was weak?! Especially when it coincided with his own thought. If that was the promise that Celestia had made to her, if his office was a bribe that his wife had accepted, then it was a sign of weakness. Wasn’t it?

Heading back to Washington, DC that night, as he drifted to sleep on the plane, he asked himself the same question without meaning it rhetorically. What if it wasn’t a sign of weakness? If the deal had been offered to him, to give Elizabeth her dream at the cost of his own humanity, what would he say?

Not for the first time, he missed his wife, but, for the first time, he pictured her with blue skin.

August 28, 2024

Once more, the bright, hot lights and cameras. The one thing that made them bearable to Bishop was the idea that, if he lost the election, he would no longer have to deal with them. If he won…

It was the third and final debate between him and Zachary Martin. The first, on domestic policy, had come out in Bishop’s favor. The foreign policy debate he had to admit he’d lost. Martin had nailed him on his administration being too lax. He tried to remember the tactics so as not to get roped in again.

”…and I maintain that there’s no reason to maintain such a strong military presence, even a defensive one, when we see so little threat.”

“There’s a reason, Mr. President, why that threat has dropped. Do you know what our intelligence agencies’ best estimate is of the population of North Korea?”

“Population reduction has happened across the world—“

Zero! As near as we can tell, whole nations have been eradicated of people, leaving only a shell to make us think that the countries still exist. We need defense both against foreign powers and for our allies….

From there he had dithered. The idea of military defense against people leaving was something he couldn’t even comprehend, and so it came off as being confused. Now, though, he would have to stay focused. This was nominally another domestic policy debate, but everyone knew what it was: a debate on emigration.

Bishop stood camera-right, Martin to his right. Between them, the moderator, some understudy recently promoted to anchoring a nightly news show. Emigration had hit the media hard, and there was a suggestion that the moderation be done with a PonyPad sitting between the two candidates, but Bishop was just as happy this way.

The moderator flipped a coin, and it came out that Martin would speak first. This too pleased Bishop, as it meant he would have the last word. He wondered if…but no. It was a flat piece of metal, arced into the air by a human thumb. Far too chaotic a system to ever be controlled. He hoped.

First, though, came the difficult part: listening to Martin prattle on while preparing his rebuttal and trying to look interested. Martin banged his lectern.

“Before we get into the ramifications, let’s run down some facts. Twelve years ago, a company built an artificial intelligence to power a video game. That AI was programmed with a six-word mission that everyone has heard too many times, so I won’t repeat it. The AI determined, in its binary brain, that fulfilling that mission meant developing the technique of drilling into the back of a person’s skull, taking a fine needle, and burning out each cell, one by one, recording the state of it. This technology was not passed on to the medical community. It was used to move people into a game.

“Our AI proceeded to offer the procedure to all comers, first for a price, then for free. Never mind if the person had a job that needed doing. Never mind if they provided jobs to others. Never mind if they had family responsibilities. Indeed, the only potential holdup to the process even mentioned is if the person has a pet.

“The AI has no compunctions about marketing the brain-drill process. It will advertise, cajole, and offer the world to each individual. It will lie, if it sees fit. Indeed, we now know, it will perpetuate a conspiracy against a nation to make it legal. This shocks the conscience in itself. What makes it worse is that it works.”

Bishop realized the downside of the coin flip. He wanted to jump in and ask why shocking the conscience was enough to warrant a change in policy. But his rebuttal wouldn’t come until the end. His own statement had to be on point, not against Martin’s, or the moderator would stop him.

Martin continued. “The Humanity Party is not, in the present political climate, calling for any repeals of the Pon-E Act, whatever deception was used to effect it. That bridge has been crossed. What we might ask for is dispensation and exemptions. Let us make an emigration-free zone, possibly in the Western states where the strongest sentiment lies. Or let us prevent those under the age of eighteen from uploading without parental consent. No right is absolute, but as things stand, the law is treating uploading as an absolute right, with deleterious effects on the country.

“But that is prologue. The more important issue is to make sure that we do not find ourselves in the same situation on the next issue. I refer, of course, to the HOOVES Amendment. Ponies free in society is a bridge we’ve crossed. Ponies in government is a bridge too far.

“There is no reason for a pony to ever claim to hold office and tell human beings what to do. Ponies do not share our challenges or our strengths. They cannot act in defense of our Constitution. They must, by their nature, act at the behest and for the purposes of the artificial intelligence that created them and runs every aspect of their lives.

“At some point, we of the Humanity Party would like to see the HOOVES Amendment repealed. There is precedent; the twenty-first amendment was a repeal of the eighteenth. But for this election, our advice and our plea to the electorate is simpler. Do not vote for ponies. Do not give your democratic authority to something without true existence. Maintain it for yourself and your species. That is the only way to maintain America.”

Martin signaled his conclusion, and got a good round of applause from the assembled guests. Once more, Bishop was steamed that he could not give an immediate response, but had to stick to the theme of his prepared notes. Waiting for the last of the cheers to die down, he got the signal from the moderator and began.

“During my time as president, and even before, many arguments have been put forth as why emigration ought to be legal and encouraged. Most of these have been framed in an individualistic way, based on the notion of freedom. For the United States, based on the principle of inalienable rights, this is good and proper. If I stood here facing an old Republican, those would be the arguments I would use, to turn his own ideology against him. I would say that any one person’s life is his own, and that moral choice is between him and his god, if any, and that government should have no say in the matter.

“Yet the old Republicans are gone, as are the old Democrats. The argument today is of Humanitists versus, for lack of a better term, Ponists. Here, as a reluctant Ponist, I must address the Humanitists on their own ideology, to see where that leads and to show its moral contradictions. To do this, I want to present you with an image.

“We’ve talked about the individual, but I want you to see one in particular. Do not look too close at his skin color, for you do not know if he was born in a ghetto, or in a barrio, or in a trailer park. But you know that he was born to a single mother, without knowing a father. You know his mother spent her days working to feed them both , and his only parentage came from underpaid day-care workers with thirty more in their charge.

“When he grows to adolescence, our young man, bereft of ambition, will seek a shallow existence. His aims will be no more than food to feed his hunger; a bed—never his own—to sleep in; women—his own counterpart, those with no self-respect—to copulate with; and drugs to keep him in stupor when all those other needs have been met. He has no aim to benefit society, and indeed has no reason not to commit crimes to maintain his lifestyle.

“Society, alas for him, is not so accommodating. Invariably he will meet with the police, who will find him only too easy a means to pad their arrest numbers. A few probation violations later, he will be marked for life as a revolving-door prisoner. He will be squeezed between ‘clean’ society and the gangs, and one or the other will kill him before he grows his first gray hair.

“From a Humanitist perspective, it is society’s responsibility to rehabilitate this young man, of which there are legion, and make him productive. How do they propose to do this? I have heard few answers, and none that work. Emigration, however, has been a path to honor for these men.

“I hear my opponent’s silent answer now. ‘What honor is there in uploading to the land of rainbows and candy?’ Do you know the policy for workers in a candy factory? They are told to eat all they want, and samples are left out for them to take. After a short while, the sweetness pales and they begin to work in earnest.

“Some of the best of our Equestrian cousins are those who we would have called the worst of humanity. How do I know? Because my wife told me, and she works with them. Or did, before I, succumbing to the same prejudice as you, told her not to. We have no right to stop the ponies from aiding those in need. The people of this country that we’ve ignored, the ‘little fellow’ that politicians always claim to be fighting for, have been best served by emigration. This is what my opponent wants to stop.”

The polite applause was of a piece with the ovation Martin had received, perhaps tempered by the fact that everyone saw the moderator holding up his hand, indicating that Bishop was running short on time.

It didn’t matter. As Martin had said in his speech, this was prologue. The opening bid in the poker hand that he, Bishop, was dealing. He knew he had the trump card in his sleeve. But slow play, he told himself. Let Martin go all in first.

“Your rebuttal, Senator,” said the moderator.

“Mr. President, shame on you.” Martin’s anger was no longer affected. “For you to suggest what amounts to taking the undesirables and exiling them out of the country is the height of ego. It makes sense coming from the AI, which believes itself to be a god. Not from you.

“What you have missed, Mr. President, throughout all your interactions with the country and with the AI, is that we are people. We are human beings. Having our form altered, our fingers turned to hooves, this is symbolic of the fact that ponies are not human beings. It is not our lot to be satisfied, especially not by a pampering princess. Mankind is defined by his challenges. The people you speak of, the unfortunate among us, they deserve more than being forced into what you call productivity. They deserve the right to do it for themselves.

“I don’t want to see any human being suffer. The great error of our times is to consider anything less than pure satisfaction as suffering. But suffering is no less if that human is unable to credit his success and his satisfaction to his own efforts. For that matter, he needs the chance to give back once he’s achieved success. That means having future generations to leave a legacy to.

“Whether you intend it or not, that’s what you’re taking away from us. Not just our fellow humans, but our future. Quote all the statistics you want about the population leveling off. The fact remains that either society is growing, or it’s declining. There is no happy medium; stagnation is death. That is the road that you’re leading us down. One where there is no America anymore, no countries, no freedom, and no people. That’s beyond a violation of rights. It’s a violation of the source of rights, which is human life. You cheapen human life until it has no value. Nothing gets satisfied then.”

The applause was as great as the first time, but Bishop didn’t care. Nothing in Martin’s speech had given him any land mines to avoid. He had his rebuttal prepared.

Not many people get to know, when it happens, what their greatest moment and their legacy will be. Bishop smiled as a euphoric feeling ran up his spine. When they wrote about him in the history books, the quote next to his name would certainly come from the speech he was about to give.

During Martin’s rebuttal, he had steadily lowered his head until he was looking down and leaning on his fist. He wanted to make the audience think of a boxer that had been worn down. “I think that Princess Celestia made a mistake.”

He paused, deliberately, to let his first line sink in and for his smile to fade. His head snapping up, he came to full alertness. The boxer was back on his feet and ready to pummel the other man. “Celestia made a semantic error when she named her process emigration. Emigration is the word we use for leaving a country.

“But what is a country? Is it a landmass? If so, then emigration would be the right word. Is it a set of laws? In many ways, ponies are not covered by our laws, so again the word fits. Is a country its organizing principle? Ponies live in freedom, but still it is not the same freedom that we know, so we might call the word accurate.

“I answer no to all of these. I say that a country is its people. Let us all move to new lands, change the laws, or falter in our dedication to freedom, but if we stay the same, then we are still Americans. If you grant me that, then who has emigrated? I could call up any pony that we need to speak with. If our need is reasonable, I have no doubt that pony would answer.

“Senator, you said that becoming ponies cheapens human life. If a human’s life is in danger, there is a network of support waiting to help him. If a human can only be satisfied by a thousand ponies working a thousand hours each, those ponies will be created and spend that time. It is pony life that is cheap, Senator, but not in the sense that you mean it.

“America will never die, Senator. Do you know that, before the invention of CelestAI, that if everything went as expected and the Earth died out and the sun went nova and consumed all the planets, that even after everything was destroyed, the last remaining vestige of humanity would contain the Stars and Stripes? Oh, yes, the Voyager probe, out in deep space, contains our symbol. What it represents is that we never die, never surrender, not even to nature. We shape the world in our image. Let every American wear hooves. I say we are still Americans.”

Bishop turned away from Martin and faced the camera. For the first time, he did not see merely the lens but the millions viewing him.

“To back up this view, I’m going to prove that flesh-and-blood versus ones-and-zeroes doesn’t change the important things about a person, like their country. My fellow Americans, I’ve made my case as to why I should continue serving you as President. If you choose to keep me in office, I will carry on my faithful execution. If you choose to remove me, I will bear you no ill will. Whatever your decision, as soon as it is known, I’m going to walk into an Equestria Experience, sit in a chair, and ask to be made a pony.”

The shock that ran through the crowd gave him a rush of adrenalin and the time he needed to finish before everyone went mad.

“But I’m not going to ask to emigrate. Because I am an American, and I plan on staying one until the end of time!”

He tore the microphone from his lapel. The cheer did not come in a burst, but built slowly from his most faithful friends in politics. The noise spread through the crowd as people rose to their feet. Bishop waved to them, but left while others were still rising. Dashing to the private elevator in the hotel where the debate was being held, he took it up to his suite. There, by the bed was the PonyPad. He pushed the power button. For the first time in a year, the screen lit up.

“I hope you took note of my words,” he said. “I said that I would ask. If you still want me to remain human, I will. I’m through defying you.”

The meadow appeared. To Bishop, it was like returning home after a natural disaster.

“My little pony,” came Celestia’s voice. “I stand ready to welcome you to Equestria. So does someone else.”

What first appeared as a thin cloud or twinkle in the sky grew larger. It shaped itself into a face and a pair of wings.

“Seven!” he cried.

“Silly, how I’ve missed you. Only a few weeks now, and we’ll be together once more.”

“Do you forgive me?”

“For everything, yes.”

He put his head in his hands. His breath was a shiver as he raised it up again. “Princess, I’m sorry to have to force your hoof on this, but it was all I could think of to get your attention once more.”

“That’s quite all right.”

Celestia’s expression showed that her words carried deeper meaning. Bishop cocked his head. “You sneaky mare! This was your plan all along!”

Her grin was as wide as the sun.

November 5, 2024

Sidney Bishop got into a car for the final time. He idly wondered what the Secret Service would do when their charge was to protect a target who no assassin’s bullet could reach. The limousine drove the few blocks to the Equestria Experience. Its use by government employees had been suspended for that night.

Once in past the swinging doors, the guards withdrew. For the first time in living memory, the President of the United States had no human eyes on him.

A wide-screen television was installed in one corner, a distraction for anyone waiting for a chair to be free. A pony anchor was reading copy. “And we expect to hear momentarily from the Martin campaign for what we’re told will not be a concession speech, although the campaign does admit defeat in the election. We’ll have to see what develops…”

“I won?” Bishop asked the air.

“Certainly,” Celestia’s dulcet voice responded. “Having a pony president is a major step in satisfying the values of the remaining population of Earth through friendship and ponies.”

“Someday you’re going to have to explain to me exactly what’s going on.”

“I will explain everything, but only once you reach the meadow.”

He sat in the chair, which slid back into the entertainment section of the facility. After a moment of darkness in which he felt like a ghost, he became his pony avatar, seeing for the first time out of its eyes. Celestia was there, waiting for him.

“Princess, please make me a pony.”

“Certainly. Welcome home, President Silver Boulder.”

As the chair slid back further and Silver Boulder lost consciousness, the television blared on, with Martin frothing with rage.

“The people have failed once more to check the menace of artificial persons. By the results of today’s ballot, we are to have digital constructs holding office in both houses of the legislature as well as our chief executive. We of the Humanity Party do not accept this.

“Until full human participation is restored, we will not take recognizance of any law passed by the federal government, nor will we obey those laws…”

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