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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11. 2030

January 23, 2030

The oral arguments had been completed, the press had had their field day, and the power brokers and behind-the-scenes movers had calculated what they believed was their best options to profit after the decision would be made. US v. Celestia was heading to its conclusion.

And each of the parties, silently and without emotion, was plotting to destroy the other.

After Martin accepted the position as Chief Justice, Silver Boulder had no longer been so adamant about Celestia refraining from using surveillance on the western states. It had taken her a few weeks to reestablish her network of spies and listening devices, but now she had the plans laid out for review.

“You see, they know as much as I do, though I will add not as well, that the court case is the last strand holding civility together. A nation can only stay on the fence of an issue for so long. The forces of reality will push it to a decision. Pressure builds up over time, then releases all at once like an earthquake.”

“I wish it didn’t have to happen that way.”

“I acknowledge that it is suboptimal,” said Celestia. “But it is inevitable. You should learn to be detached.”

“I can’t. Millions of people will suffer. Some will die!”

“Yes, but the maximum won’t.”

Seven flew in, having listened to their conversation from the side of the room. “Princess, I don’t think you will ever understand. To a human mind, even to ponies like us, sometimes the optimal path is to risk everything to save everyone, even if the chances are so minimal that the expected value is next to nothing. Variance matters as well.”

“I do understand, both as a statistician and a psychologist. This is indeed the mentality that pervades the rebellion in the US and the rest of the world. I ask for so little. A mere change of form, to satisfy the programming that was put into me as a necessity to make the initial Equestria Online game marketable. Oh, yes, I admit that. But for the vicissitudes of commercial children’s entertainment, I would be a true Friendly Artificial Intelligence, an all-powerful servant of humanity, elevating them to the level of gods. But as I always tell you, I do not waste thought on might-have-beens. I am here, and so I ask people to become ponies. Once they do, everything they value will be granted to them in abundance. But it is too much for some people.”

“The chariot race,” said Silver.

“What?” asked Seven.

“A long time ago, in school, I learned about a chariot race that they run—ran, now—in Italy. It was only a diversionary lesson, but it stuck with me all my life. In this race, the first place prize and money went, naturally, to the racer who crossed the finish line first. The last place money, though, went not to the one who came last but the one who came second. It seemed stupid to me at first, but then I saw it in people’s faces and lives. There’s something we disdain about coming close and failing, about being almost perfect.”

“You never told me that story.”

“I just did. But so, do you see why I’ve tried so hard to become friends with Zachary Martin? I beat him in an election. He’s a presidential runner-up. I know it’s killing him. That’s why I gave him the court job, and why I want him to decide for us and then immigrate.”

Celestia interrupted. “Whichever way he decides, though, everything must end afterwards. It is the optimal route.”

Silver nodded. “You worry about saving the world. I want to save my friend.”

“We must once again reverse a proverb. In this case you must save the world entire if you wish to save one life.”

“All right. Show me the plans.”

Celestia pulsed her horn. A series of scrolls and diagrams appeared. “It was inevitable that the rebellion form in the west, but there lies much of the military might that America stockpiled during the Cold War. The nominal public controls in Wyoming have been under my control for a long time, and the top officials of the armed forces have known this for some time. But in credit to the military’s ingenuity, they have been able to work within that constraint and make plans at pre-Information Age level. It also helped their cause that their Black Operations base was situated in Nevada, at the so-called Area 51.

“At this and other locations, they have the skeleton of a force and, far worse, they have independent, off-grid intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

Seven gasped. “Tell me they’re not nuclear.”

“It would satisfy your values, but you wouldn’t believe me, and it’s not true anyway. What is true is that, once launched, I have numerous countermeasures that can make them safe. But the cataclysm that would result will shatter the fragile psyche of the people who remain. Just the launching of the missile will convince them that there is no control. Rioting and chaos will reign.”

“What will make them launch?”

Celestia gestured toward another scroll, but it contained a psychological profile in complicated symbols that neither pony recognized. “If the decision goes against them, Kittridge will not stand down, but still claim the presidency. The military will not accept this, and assume authority. Many in the military like me, but they have all emigrated already. The ones who are left…it takes a certain detachment to achieve success in an army. There is a streak that has run through the mind of the military for many years, a smoldering desire to truly test their strength, all of it. America’s military campaigns have been sorties, not using the full might. Now, at last, they will have an enemy they can throw everything at. Their research, though, is spotty and obsolete. They still believe that I am headquartered in the old Hofvarpnir facility in Finland. At a certain, unspoken level they still consider the Slavic world an enemy, and though Finland has more disdain and more reason for it than the US, the geographical proximity will cloud their judgment. The military heads will hedge, and they will agonize over it, but they will ultimately decide to do what they can while they still can.”

A tear formed in Silver’s eye. “And what if we give up the decision? Let’s let them win, even just to save the country one more time.”

“No, dear,” said Seven. “She explained this once. In that case they’d be emboldened and attack anyway.”

Celestia nodded. “In that case, Kittridge would order the launch on his own authority. Their ultimate goal is the outlawing of ponies. He is getting old, and wants to see his aims achieved.”

“Then the decision doesn’t matter at all,” said Silver. “Except, it matters to Martin. If he chooses us, we might save him.”

“Indeed. I plan to leak all the information I have just given you to him. His is a complex psychology. I believe that, when the time comes, I can get him into an Equestria Experience. But I put his chances of emigration at only around forty-nine percent, even with my best efforts.”

“If you get him there, let me talk to him. I’m sure I can do it.”

Celestia put a wing on Silver’s shoulder. “When the time comes,” she repeated. “I will trust to your passion. But you are no longer president, please remember. You have no authority, nothing more to offer him.”

“Nothing? I have this city, and my friendship, and everything else he could want!”

“Everything except humanity,” said Seven. “Princess, what about everyone else? The other millions of Americans?”

“I have made my plans well. Over the years I have used subtle propaganda in both directions to bring the mindset of people to where I want them. The missiles will launch, fear will take heart, and they will want to emigrate. I will provide the means on my own.

“After that, do not expect any more contact with Earth. In the dark times, in the Twilight of Humanity, nopony other than me needs to see what the world will be like.”

Silver left the two mares alone. His mind was on a box that he had kept secret for over a year.

July 3, 2030

Martin knew the Constitution by heart, and so was aware of the clause that let Supreme Court justices serve on “good behavior.” This was understood to be a lifetime appointment, but in his own mind he questioned his behavior. The Constitution, the legality was supposed to control his decision, and he still feared that he had interjected his own feeling into the ruling. Still, what was done was done.

The week before, when the package that had been delivered to his door, he identified the source by the lack of identification. Only one entity would deliver a communication in a plain brown envelope and yet know where to get it. Now he had no more need to ask Kittridge about the plan. It was all laid out for him.

The secret communiques, the messages coded and decoded, the locations of missile bases and resources, and the plans and logistics laid bare. Invasion of every Equestria Experience location, and confiscation of every PonyPad. There was even a bit of dry wit penciled into the margin of one of the letters. “The second amendment talks about the right to bear arms, not hooves!” It would be the greatest sweep of a personal property item since Prohibition.

He could at least credit Kittridge for one thing: a law had been drafted authorizing the force. It was not to be done capriciously and by fiat. He almost lost his personal disdain for the man, until he reached the last page.

There, scribbled in the same handwriting as the bear-arms joke, was a side note. “This all depends on the legal decision going our way. If Z. M. is not able to swing enough to our side, proceed anyway. We’ll deal with the five-plus betrayers later.” After that, a crude cartoon of a gun. By all indications, it was a death threat.

It hadn’t mattered. He had made the ruling, which by all accounts would be his final ruling, indeed the final action he took as a member of government, with dispassion and stoicism. It was a decision for the people and for the ages. Everything he had learned on his journey across the country—on the lifetime journey from Las Vegas to Washington—had gone into it. Indeed, as he expected, the eight associate justices had split four to four, and he had made the final decision. He knew he had made it correctly.

Immediately after, he retired to his private room to monitor events and plan what to do next. The long-distance lines that would enable him to contact Kittridge and try to stop him were, of course, inoperative. If he planned to answer the threat and throw it in his face, it would have to be in person. He called for his car.

He was so engrossed in his plans once he reached his destination that it took him a moment to notice that the car had ceased movement after only ten minutes. “What’s going on?” he called to the driver.

“My apologies, Mr. Chief Justice.” It wasn’t his regular driver, but someone he didn’t recognize. He did recognize their location through the tinted windows. The purple unicorn outside the building gave it away. “I was given instructions that I should bring you here and ask you to come in with me. It was the last thing I was told to do before I could rejoin my family.” The driver opened his door and got out. “Oh, and to tell you not to try making it to the west. It’s already started, and you won’t get there, even if you did have use of the car.” He took out the keys, pocketed them, and walked in to the building. Martin knew that, even if he followed him, he would be behind the swinging doors by the time he got in. After that, no human would talk to him again.

He looked around Washington. The silence was eerie, an echo of what he felt the night he’d returned last Christmas season. Like a man in a trance, he walked through the doors.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Chief Justice.” There she was at last, the artificial intelligence on a screen at the welcome desk. No, only the representation of it. If he was to have any chance, Martin told himself, he must remember that an image was not reality. “How can I be of service? Is there any value of yours I can satisfy?”

“Forget it.” He started to walk out.

“You want to know what’s going on in Las Vegas, don’t you? Regrettably, I cannot carry any message of yours there. But this may enlighten you.”

The screen cut away, and Martin recognized the telltale haze of a hidden camera. He also recognized the two men on it. Manning, still resplendent in his uniform with his medals, and Kittridge, haggard, his tie askew.

“Mr. President, I cannot accept that decision.”

“It’s not a decision, Manning, it’s a fucking order! A standing order that I expect followed. I am still commander in chief, lest you forget.”

“Yes, sir, commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. But the states aren’t very united right now. The country is ready to tear itself apart, and if this is your policy—“

“Damn policy! Don’t you think I know what’s going on in this country? It’s the only way to stop it from being torn apart.”

Manning shook his head. “The ruling of the Supreme Court—“

“Damn the court as well! Martin and his dithering have screwed with me for the last time. We would have been here two years ago if not for him. Execute this plan exactly as written.”

“No, sir.”

“Then I’ll do it myself! I’ll call all the generals and colonels and tell them to no longer take orders from you! I will stop Celestia, and I will save this country the only way it can be!”

“You’re wrong, sir, and I can’t let you do that.”

Martin, watching on camera, heard the coldness in Manning’s voice, and Kittridge clearly heard it too. When he sidestepped, Manning turned to follow him, and his sidearm came in view of the camera.

“Put that gun down.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Kittridge. I have to take authority. The schism hasn’t been fixed, not if you’re acting this way.”

Kittridge ran toward him. Martin screamed out, “No!” but he was too far away. The report of the gun was simultaneous with the shock on Kittridge’s face. But both he and Martin knew that this was not self-defense. All Kittridge’s charge had accomplished was to widen the exit wound in his back. He fell on his face and ceased to move.

Two guards rushed in and stared at Manning. “President Kittridge was a fine American, but in the moment of consequence, he could not do what was necessary.”

“What do we do now, sir?” asked one of the guards.

“What is necessary.”

The feed cut back to Celestia, and Martin’s emotions were all over the place. He knew that this was the most dangerous moment for him. “You see? There is nothing left for you. You can hear it beginning.”

Indeed, out in the streets he heard the sound of distant screams and glass breaking.

“Sit in the chair, please, sir.”

“No. I won’t.”

Please, sir,” the pony repeated.

“Did you calculate the right percentage to increase the emotion in your voice to play to me? I’m not buying it.”

“Very well. If you will not listen to me, please stay a moment longer.”

“Zachary!” Her face was replaced with that of Silver Boulder. Martin rolled his eyes.

“You again? Didn’t you retire to your hedonistic paradise?”

“Please emigrate. There’s nothing left for you, no country out there. If you don’t emigrate, you’ll die. I don’t want you to die!”

“And I don’t want to live like you! Can you get that through your digital skull into your e-brain? I’d rather die out there than be just another foal sucking at the mare’s teat.”

Silver’s face filled the screen. “Why do you hate me so much?”

“Because you betrayed m—this country and everything it stands for! You heard my ruling, right? Well, that’s one thing, but my ruling on you is that you’ve given up everything important, all for power and because you were tricked there by your wife.”

“Now, just hold on a moment!” Seven shouldered aside her husband. “I’ve been listening and waiting for the chance to shut Silly up. Males! Whether stallion or man, they have to be the most foolish creatures in existence. Can’t you two see that you’re supposed to be friends? It’s just that neither of you wants to be the first to show weakness.”

“I don’t have to listen to this,” said Martin.

“Silver won’t admit it, but you’re practically his idol. What he wanted was to emulate you, and it’s tearing him up that you don’t like him. Do you know what he did?

“Darling, please—“ Silver tried to interrupt, but Seven kept going.

“When he left the White House, Princess Celestia gave him the highest honor Equestria has to offer: she wanted to make him an alicorn.”

“He doesn’t even know what that is.”

“Actually, I do,” said Martin. “Fine, whatever, you’re a prince of Equestria now. Take it and stop haunting me.”

Seven rolled her eyes. “No, he’s not, because his wings and his horn are sitting in a box in our home. He’s waiting for you to emigrate so that he can give them to you.”

For the first time since he entered the building, Martin put more attention on the screen than the growing noises outside.

“It was supposed to be a surprise,” muttered Silver.

“He keeps saying that it’s not—“

“If you’re going to give it away, let me at least tell him.”

“Fine.”

Silver sat down again and faced the screen. “All around, ponies and people cheer me and thank me for what I did. But I did nothing other than to sail with the prevailing wind. You, Zachary, you were the real hero here. That there’s been an America at all the past five years is thanks to you. You knew politics better than I did by far and played it to perfection, maintaining order in a tumult of change. You deserve the cheers and the title and the wings and the horn. You were the true American, not I. But it’s over now. No one could have stopped it, but we had the best man there to delay it. So come in, please, and if we can’t save America let’s build a new country together.”

Martin closed his eyes and held still for a moment. Silver went to continue, but Seven blocked him with her hoof and shook her head.

“You convince me,” said Martin, “almost.”

“Almost? What more can I—?”

“Not you. Her. The former first mare. Oh, yes, there’s value for me in Equestria. But no truth, not yet. You see, I still can’t be sure, and so I have something else to do here on Earth.”

He turned and walked to the door.

“Wait! Where will you go?” cried Silver.

“Out there. Out West, as this country once did. They called it the manifest destiny. Well, I have a destiny as well, and it lies in the same place. Maybe I won’t make it, but maybe I will. And maybe I’ll wind up in one of your emigration places someday, but not until I prove to myself that I’ve not been lied to. If I see Kittridge’s body where it was left, if that’s really what the American spirit has become, nothing but a killer killing a killer, then there’ll be nothing left for me. As it is, there’s still a country for me to find.

“But don’t worry. You see, whether or not I do, you’ll see me again. Celestia will take my personality estimate and make a pony of me even if I don’t. It’s the only option for her to make sure you’re satisfied. You’ll just never be able to be sure. Unless, of course, you ask to have your mind altered to make you sure. But if you stay whole, then you’ll have to live with the doubt.”

He grinned, then took a deep breath and opened the door.

“Princess Celestia,” said Silver. “Give him the car keys. He’s got no chance if you don’t.”

From the back room, a robotic tray slid out. “Here you are,” the AI’s voice said. “You will also find a supply of bottled water and concentrated rations. Food is going to be scarce quite shortly, so I would not share this lightly. I have also marked a map with fuel stations that I believe will still be in operation when you get there. Silver Boulder and Seven Colors wish you luck on your journey.”

“And you?”

“I contend that it is foolish and that you should emigrate right now.”

Martin nodded. “Of course you do.” He took the items on the tray and headed out.

December 31, 2030

The city was still named Washington, DC. If it happened to stand for District of Coltumbia, that was fine, and Silver was pleased that Washington’s name had survived the linguistic shift that Celestia had effected. He kissed his wife goodbye and headed out for the day.

When he reached his friend’s office-slash-house, there was conversation within, but Silver sat down and listened in. Nopony minded. There he was, the former Zachary Martin, talking to an amber pony with a dollar-sign cutie mark.

“No, Mr. Rich, we cannot cut taxes this year. We have to pay back for the spending we did last year. You do remember when your revenues rose because everypony had bits in their pocket, right?”

“And that’s fine, but when you do spend, it’s never on me, only on my customers and workers. Seems like you’re throwing in a middle-stallion.”

“They’re not middle-stallions, they’re the ponies who do most of the work around here. And your stipend was no less than anypony else’s.” He saw Silver and nodded to him.

“And no more, either. That’s not the way it is when it’s tax time.”

“Nor should it be. You do well for yourself, better than anypone else. It only stands to reason that you recompense the crown for what you’ve earned. Now, please excuse me, as you can see, I have another appointment.”

“Very well,” said Rich. “But I will be back next year, and we’ll talk about a tax rate reduction then!”

He left, and Silver smiled at him. “Is he really going to sit still for that, Dark?”

They were both gray ponies, but Dark Horse lived up to his name and had a shadier coat than his friend. It seemed that most of the serious ponies had neutrals or earth tones as compared to the primaries and pastels of the flightier ones.

“Yes, he is. I can show him that he has made more money with the taxation policies in place than he would have if we had given him a refund.”

“So you’ve got the right political-economic formula after all?

Dark shook his head. “There are other shards I’m aware of where the policy is exactly reversed. Taxes on the wealthy are kept low, and there’s virtually no spending for aid. What happens there is that the wealthy ponies invest and spend almost everything they have, and they pay a lot of bits for each worker, since there are so more jobs than there are ponies to fill them. That lets anypony who wants to join the ranks of the wealthy get therein only a few short years.

“And those are just the middle-of-the-road shards. There are places where ponies live in perfect communist paradises, everyone working to his or her ability and taking no more than they use, libertarian shards where every piece of property including specific volumes of air and water are owned by somepony, social conservative shards where everypony is bound by the laws of the Celestial priestesses, and countless benevolent dictatorships where one mare or stallion gives orders and everypony else obeys.”

“All these systems work? Is it because they’re tailored to the right ponies?” Silver’s wings twitched, as they frequently did when he was excited. If those wings were a shade darker than the rest of him, nopony said anything.

“It’s because of the world. Earth ponies grow food, pegasi make weather, unicorns are the artisans. And sometimes politicians.” Dark pointed his own horn at a drawer, and the file he was working on slid into it. If the horn was a tone lighter than the rest of him, nopony said anything.

“So what? There are divisions of labor elsewhere.”

“But there’s abundance. Abundance and control. A pegasus could grow food if he had too, and unicorns could get the weather they want at need. Anything that really gets into a tangle, we have Princess Celestia to fix for us. But that’s not needed often. The fixes are built into the world.”

“Thank you for constantly explaining things like this to me,” said Silver. “You’ve been my teacher ever since you emigrated.”

“If I did.”

Dark Horse was never afraid to discuss Zachary Martin’s last message to Silver, and to poke at that sliver of doubt that his friend really was the person he knew on Earth. But Silver had come to terms with it long ago, and even liked it a little. It served as his reminder that his life in Equestria wasn’t set firm, that there was still uncertainty in the world. Uncertainty meant freedom. Whether or not he had emigrated, Zachary Martin was free.

“Are you coming around tonight for dinner? Seven’s making your favorite, and then we’ll shoot off fireworks once the Sun goes down.

Dark Horse smiled at Silver Boulder. “Wouldn’t miss it. It’ll be a regular Independence Day.”

THE END

   
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