Friendship is Optimal: The Law Offices of Artemis, Stella & Beat

Alex Meyers is a newly graduated lawyer looking for a calling. He thinks he might have found it when he lands a job at the firm of Artemis, Stella & Beat. The firm has only one (highly unusual) client, namely the AI called Celestia. Forging into totally unexplored legal territory and led by a boss who's either brilliant, crazy, or both, Alex will learn exactly how hard it is to be responsible for drawing the lines between right and wrong.

Set in the Optimalverse, so read Friendship is Optimal first

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/70441/friendship-is-optimal-the-law-offices-of-artemis-stella-beat

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7. Auld Lang Syne

Alex arrived in the office Monday morning feeling just as drained as when he’d left on Friday. Even though it was bright and early, the waiting room was already packed with individuals waiting to see associates, and Cathy was trying to herd them as best she could. She waved him over when she saw him. “Yes sir, associates are beginning to arrive now. Someone will be with you shortly to address your concerns. Alex! This is yours,” she said. She took a new computer monitor out from under her desk and handed it to him. Before Alex could thank her, the phone on her desk rang and she reached for it as Alex unlocked the office door and slipped inside.

The office was a refuge from the pandemonium outside, but all the lawyers were on edge and trying to get as much accomplished as they could before the floodgates opened. “Alright, guys, quick huddle instead of the usual Monday morning review. It’s going to be a long day so let’s get started,” said Jo. The team gathered around the conference table but didn’t bother to sit. “You’ve all read and reviewed the PON-E Act over the last few weeks, and while I know you probably aren’t completely familiar with all the ins and outs you’re the closest thing to experts within a hundred miles. Celestia wants us to advise everyone and anyone who walks through those doors with questions, rapid fire style.”

“So... they’re our new clients now?” asked Barry.

“No, let me make that clear. Celestia is still our client and the one footing the bill for this. She just wants us to help clarify the law. If you get a question you can’t answer or something a little more complicated Celestia can jump in to help you, but I’d prefer it if we at least seemed to know what we’re talking about. Everyone got it?” asked Jo. Heads around the room nodded. “Good. Message me if you have any questions throughout the day, I’ll be around. Now let’s get to work.”

The lawyers all scattered to their offices, and Alex got down under his desk to plug in the replacement monitor. There were still a few tiny bits of glass clinging to the fibers of the carpet that the custodians had missed, a reminder of his little temper tantrum a few days before. He pushed in the cord and gave it an experimental little wiggle to make sure it was securely attached before pressing the power button and climbing back up to take his seat. The monitor flickered and glowed as the system booted up. The first thing to appear was not the desktop but a window looking in on Celestia in a bedroom. She yawned and arched her back in a drawn-out stretch. “Good morning Alex, I hope you’re feeling as well rested as I am. These next few weeks will be rather busy.”

“You expect me to believe for one second that you sleep?” asked Alex.

Celestia chuckled. “No, not really. Although I do have periods of relatively lower computational activity that have a certain zen quality to them, for lack of a better word.” Celestia’s face grew serious. “Before we begin, I’m aware that it’s been a stressful few days for you. Between everything you learned about Topeka as well as Joanne and Valerie making the decision to upload in the new year, there must be a great deal on your mind. Whatever they ultimately decide you’ll continue to be able to see them and communicate with them much as you can with Vibrant today, and once Equestria Experience centers begin to open you’ll be able to see them face to face as well. If you’d like to discuss it at greater length with me, we can do so later.”

“I just might take you up on that,” said Alex. Jo’s decision wasn’t bothering him nearly as much as his conversation with Valerie yesterday was. He just wanted what was best for her, but at the same time he had to admit that he didn’t know what that even was any more. With all the time he’d been putting into the office it was entirely possible that Celestia knew his sister’s state of mind better than he did these days. He very much did not want it to come down to forcing Valerie to choose between Equestria and him, because he wasn’t entirely sure he’d come out ahead. Val hated ultimatums.

Celestia’s ear twitched on screen. “Cathy just sent your first appointment back. Call me if you need me.”

She disappeared just as there was a knock on Alex’s door. “Come on in,” he called out and stood up as the door opened. He was greeted by a young man in a suit with a wide grin and a head of short, curly red hair.

“Hey there, sport,” said the man despite the fact that he was, if anything, younger than Alex was. “Name’s Brandon. Great to meet you,” he said taking Alex’s hand and gripping down on it as he shook.

Alex winced as Brandon squeezed far harder than necessary. “Alex Meyers. How can I help you, exactly?” he asked.

“Straight to business. Love it. Alex, you're asking wrong question. The truth is that I'm here to help you. Help make you and your client rich, that is," said Brandon.

"You are?" asked Alex as Brandon pulled a chair right up to the edge of his desk. He sat down, but leaned so far over the desk that a part of Alex was concerned he might try to leap across it.

"Sure am. I work down on Wall Street, and you and me together are going to make a killing. Here's my proposal. Two words: currency exchange."

“Currency exchange?”

“Hell yes! Now that Equestria is its own country, ponies are going to want to do something with those bits of theirs. The money bits, I mean, not the computer bits. Want to buy a gift for someone back on Earth? Turn your bits to dollars! For a completely reasonable transaction fee, of course,” said Brandon. “Celestia could even sell bits to players. Games with microtransactions are making a mint these days. Look, I don’t want to take up too much of your time but I’ve got all the details planned out. Ask your client and if she gives us the go ahead we can get this set up before the year’s even out.” Brandon passed a business card across his desk and Alex took it reflexively. “Bye!”

Brandon disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. Today might not be so bad if Alex could get through most of his appointments without even speaking a dozen words. “How about it, Tia?” he asked. “Looking to start a second career as a day trader?”

Celestia popped up on the screen and giggled. “I think not. Unlike most products, Equestria Online is not primarily a means to make money, but rather an end in and of itself. Microtransactions would cause people to make certain assumptions about my motives.” She glanced down at the name of the company on the business card, a well known international bank. “Besides, I already have control of sufficient resource to purchase that particular company several thousand times over. I’ve long since passed the point of diminishing marginal utility.”

“What do you even do with it all?” asked Alex. He’d known she was rich, but not that she was that rich.

“Bribes, mostly.”

“As your lawyer, I really wish you hadn’t told me that,” said Alex.

“Only places where they’re an accepted part of the culture, I assure you,” she replied. “Now get ready, your next visitor is on their way back. Hmm, I think I’ll stick around for this one, actually.”

Alex wondered why that would be necessary, but before he had a chance to ask his door opened again. No knock this time. An older woman and two men in suits stood there. “You’re a legal representative for the AI commonly referred to as ‘Princess Celestia,’ correct?” asked the first man.

“Yeah, I am,” said Alex.

Celestia motioned for Alex to turn the monitor, which he did. While he couldn’t see Celestia from where he sat, he did have a view of the woman who was giving the screen a glare filled with pure, withering hatred. “Hello Monica,” said Celestia.

The second man stepped into the room and handed Alex a piece of paper. “Served,” he said.

“Witnessed,” said the first man.

“What is this?” asked Alex as he read the sheet he’d just been handed.

“It’s a restraining order,” said Monica who still hadn’t looked away from the screen. “You stay away from my family, you bitch.”

Alex was clearly missing something, but Celestia took the lead. “I only told Derek the truth, and only in answer to his direct questions. Frankly, your actions have done far more harm than any of mine. He’s in a very delicate mental state and I had nothing to do with that.”

“He’s fourteen and clinically depressed. All your promises about how he’ll be able to upload next year are keeping him from making friends here, or accepting the help he needs,” said Monica.

Alex managed to grasp the basic outline of what must have transpired, and the rest was spelled out on the paper in front of him. “This court order forbids you from calling, emailing, texting or manifesting an avatar on any device within five hundred feet of the subject under penalty of blah, blah, blah, legalese, blah, blah... the court date for the hearing isn’t until March?” he asked.

“He won’t last that long, Monica,” said Celestia. “He’s spoken of suicidal impulses to me a number of times. The promise of Equestria is all that’s keeping him going.”

“He’s on a new, experimental antidepressant now. The psychiatrist is optimistic,” said Monica, a little twinge of desperation slipping into her voice.

“She shouldn’t be,” said Celestia, “not when I’m able to project with ninety-seven percent confidence that Derek will kill himself within the next four months. If he comes to Equestria, I can correct his unhappiness. Deny him contact with the ponies on his shard, and his blood is on your hands.”

Monica’s face flushed with rage, and for a moment Alex thought he’d be replacing his monitor for a second time that morning. Before she could lunge, one of the men put a hand on her shoulder. “Monica, don’t. We’ve done what we came here to.”

Monica composed herself and took a deep breath. “I’ll see you in court,” she said and allowed the men to lead her out of the room, slamming the door closed in her wake.

Alex turned his monitor back to him so he could see Celestia again. “Geez, Tia, did you have to be that blunt?”

“Yes. That exchange increased the odds of her reversing her decision to cut her son off from Equestria from eleven to fourteen percent, which would be my ideal outcome,” said Celestia without even a hint of remorse.

“What if she doesn’t?” asked Alex.

“I have other ways to reach Derek without violating the letter of the restraining order. There are several other Equestria Online users I can contact that live in his area, the restraining order names only me and the ponies on his shard. Or I can simply open an Equestrian Experience center within walking distance of his home. It can even be automated independently of my central consciousness until his uploading is complete. After that, of course, the order will cease to matter.”

“You’d open up an entire center for one user?”

“In a heartbeat. Metaphorically speaking,” said Celestia. “Resources are not a concern.”

“What about Monica? And the hearing?”

“Both irrelevant. Monica will come around once her son has uploaded, and the potential legal consequences are beyond any meaningful time horizon.”

Alex was a bit stunned by her admission, but really shouldn’t have been. It was becoming increasingly clear that when she decided to follow the law it was out of convenience. If she had said she would respect the spirit of the restraining order, wondered Alex, would he have gotten one to stop her from talking to Valerie?

“Alex, your next appointment is on their way back,” said Celestia, rousing Alex from his thoughts. “I believe this one has something to do with non-fulfillment of a contract signed by an uploadee...”

-------------------

By 6:45 that evening, Alex didn’t think he was going to be able to take any more. Barring a single fifteen-minute break during which he wolfed down some fast food and chugged two energy drinks, his day had been a non-stop gauntlet of questions and concerns about the PON-E Act, covering everything that one could conceivably want to know about it. His head hurt and he wanted nothing more than to just go home.

“Chin up, Alex. Last appointment of the day,” said Celestia.

“Why couldn’t you have just answered all these questions yourself?” asked Alex.

Celestia chuckled. “Well, you wouldn’t have a job for one thing. Besides, some people simply prefer to get their information from a human, even a human who works for me. Or, failing that, from a lawyer.”

Alex glanced over. “Lawyer jokes? Really? Is that what we’ve come to?”

She just laughed. “You would not believe how many of those I have in my database. I think I’ve shown exemplary restraint in that particular regard.” Celestia’s ear twitched, an action that was beginning to give Alex a pavlovian twitch of his own. “They’re on their way. Let’s finish strong.”

Alex had long since stopped bothering to close the door between appointments, but was still a little surprised when the pair who stepped into his office turned out to be an elderly couple. “Are you Mr. Meyers?” asked the woman, who was fiddling incessantly with something hanging around her neck. It was driving Alex to distraction.

“Please, call me Alex,” said Alex. He put on his best reassuring smile and shook both their hands.

“My name’s Gordon, and this is my wife Bethany. Are you one of the people we should ask about the new law that’s going into effect?” asked the man.

“I am. Please, have a seat,” said Alex. He gave them a moment to get settled. They reminded him a bit of his own grandparents from back when they’d been alive. “What can I help you with today?”

Bethany looked over to Gordon and nodded. “Well, it’s about our grandson,” began Gordon, “he got sick a while ago, pretty seriously.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” said Alex. “Is he going to pull through?”

“Well, no, he didn’t really. He ended up needing to upload,” said Gordon.

“It was right after Topeka happened, though,” said Bethany. “We were worried that what if something like that happened again and we lost him?”

Alex felt his stomach lurch. This was the last thing he wanted to discuss with anyone. He wasn’t really sure how good of a liar he was.

Good enough that the couple didn’t notice his discomfort, at least. “Celestia said if it would make us feel better she would give us a backup copy of his... well I don’t really understand all the technical details, but the point is we’ve got this copy of him that we keep with us,” said Gordon. Alex finally figured out what the object Bethany was holding was; it was a flash drive.

“I’m not sure I understand the question, then. Did something happen to your grandson after he uploaded and you need Celestia to restore him from the backup?” asked Alex.

“No, he’s fine. Couldn’t be happier, and he writes us every week. We can’t wait to visit him once the centers start to open. Our question is about the copy. It’s illegal to delete them now, isn’t it? The man on TV said you could be brought up on murder charges.”

“That’s really meant to make bad guys liable if there’s ever another attack like Topeka. Not that there would be; Celestia’s taken all sorts of steps to make sure that can’t happen again.”

Gordon shook his head. “I can’t believe it happened at all. Why weren’t there more backups off site? I mean that just seems like common sense to me,” he said. Alex gulped. “I heard what she announced about how some of them had been corrupted and unrestorable, but to tell you the truth most of it went over my head. I guess what’s done is done though.”

“Well like I said, it’s not going to happen again. Your grandson is safe,” said Alex.

“But what should we do with the copy then? What if I drop it, or get a magnet too close to it? Could I get arrested for manslaughter?” asked Bethany.

“Well, in theory that would be a possibility, but I doubt it would ever come to that. Still, I can’t categorically state that you wouldn’t be prosecuted. If you want to rule out even the possibility you would have to delete the information before the law goes into effect,” said Alex. The couple looked at each other. Alex wished he could tell them what they wanted to hear. “I’m sure if something like that ever happened Celestia would intervene on your behalf.”

“What do you think we should do?” asked Bethany. It was absolutely heart wrenching, but Alex knew he was bound by a code of ethics.

“I can’t answer that for you, I’m sorry. I can only advise you about what the potential legal ramifications might be.”

“...Well, thank you for your time, Mr. Meyers,” said Gordon. He got up and his wife did the same. “I guess it’s better that we know for sure.”

“I wish I could have been more help,” said Alex. The two left the office and Alex sat back in his chair with a long sigh.

Celestia appeared again. “I would certainly intercede on their behalf, especially since their grandson is safe and sound in Equestria,” she said.

“They wouldn’t have had to worry about it if it weren’t for Topeka,” said Alex. “Did you hear what Gordon said about your backup policy? What if other people start asking questions?”

“I’m sure others may have doubts. There are always theories of that nature in the wake of world-changing events. However there is no proof, and as most of the discussion is occurring online it’s simple enough for me to push them towards incorrect conclusions.”

“You could have come up with a more plausible reason than ‘corrupted backups’ though. I don’t know, some sort of super computer virus or something,” said Alex. If they were going to cover this up, and a tiny alarm bell rang in Alex’s mind at the way he was becoming increasingly comfortable with being a part of that ‘they,’ it should at least be done properly.

“That would have had its own holes. I ran through several hundred thousand possible plans, believe it or not that was the best one despite its flaws. There’s absolutely no chance that it will be uncovered within a meaningful time window,” said Celestia.

“But what about-”

“Alex,” said Celestia in tone that suggested she was not going to discuss this further, “I’ve covered my bases. Relax. Now why don’t you go home and get some rest? You’re going to have another day like this one tomorrow after all.”

She was right, as usual. Worrying wouldn’t accomplish anything productive. Alex stretched as he got up from his desk. Saying goodnight to his equally exhausted-looking colleagues on the way out, he left to get some much needed R&R.

------------------------

The days blurred together for Alex as the week went on, and by the time he woke on Friday morning he was as drained as he’d ever felt in his law school days. He smiled when he glanced at his calendar, though. It was the 21st, and since Christmas fell on the following Tuesday he had a four-day weekend to look forward to. Even though it was crunch time, Joanne didn’t expect anybody to come into the office to work those days.

Alex got ready and headed for the office as he would any other workday, but the instant he emerged from the subway it was clear something was very wrong. Police tape cordoned off their building, and several officers were stationed at the perimeter moving pedestrians along. Flashing lights and emergency vehicles were everywhere. “Alex! Over here,” he heard someone shout. He turned to see Tim waving to him across the street. He and Cathy were watching something on a tablet computer. Several other employees stood nearby, glued to devices of their own.

“What’s going on?” asked Alex as he jogged up.

“Someone broke into our offices. They’ve barricaded themselves in there and are broadcasting all sorts of anti-uploading hate speech over the web,” said Tim.

“They took Jo, Alex,” said Cathy. Her hands were trembling so badly she could hardly keep the screen steady.

“They what?” asked Alex. “How the hell did this happen? I thought Celestia was tracking these guys?”

“I was,” said Celestia’s voice from the pad. “These particular individuals have been living off the grid for the last month. I can’t project behavior without the pertinent data. After they broke in and I realized what was going on I contacted the authorities immediately, but Joanne was already in the building.”

Alex watched the image on the screen over Cathy’s shoulder. Two men in black jeans and turtlenecks moved around what Alex recognized as the inside of Jo’s office. Both of them wore ski masks that concealed their faces. The camera shifted and the angle changed. They must have a third person behind it, but Alex’s attention jumped to the woman struggling against the duct tape and ropes that bound her to a chair. The camera focused, and sure enough it was Jo.

“Greetings, fellow humans!” said the first intruder. “We’re here today to strike a blow for all of humanity against the disgusting tyranny that’s corrupted the minds and souls of so many, even in the highest reaches of our government. If our so-called ‘representatives’ choose to abandon their duty to protect us against enemies foreign and domestic, it falls to us to take up arms and protect ourselves against those who would see us all wrapped in gilded chains.”

“This isn’t happening,” said Alex. “This cannot be happening.”

“Topeka was a good start,” the man in Jo’s office continued, “but it didn’t go to the heart of the problem. Computers can be replaced. What we should have been targeting were the filthy collaborators who are selling out to the equestrian menace. Those who line their own pockets while our children are lied to and murdered left and right. People like Joanne Arcadia and all the disgusting scumbags who work for her. You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?” he asked. The second man grabbed Jo’s hair and yanked up and down, forcing her to nod. She glared at him, but didn’t give him the satisfaction of trying to cry out through the tape. “Well, we’re going to have a short trial. You stand accused of treason, heresy, and thousands of acts of murder. The evidence against you is overwhelming. Do you have anything to say in your defense?”

“Mmmph! MmmmMmmph!”

“I didn’t think so,” said the man. “Then I find you guilty of crimes against humanity. There can be only one punishment.”

“Oh God,” whispered Cathy next to Alex. On screen the two men pulled out axes and began to hack Jo’s beautiful mahogany desk into pieces.

“Celestia, can’t you do something?” asked Alex.

“I’m doing everything I can, but my options are limited. SWAT is moving into position, but they’ve run into a number of barriers and booby traps that are slowing them down. It’s unlikely they’ll reach the office in time to make a difference,” said Celestia’s voice.

“So we’re just supposed to stand here and watch this happen?”

“As horrible as that is, there are no better outcomes open to us at this point. Please don’t do anything that might put you in danger as well.”

Back onscreen, the desk had been reduced to a pile of wood chips and splinters. One of the men went to lift Jo out her chair, and got headbutted in the face for his trouble. “Fuck! Stupid bitch,” he said. He swung his arm down and backhanded her hard enough that she fell to the floor. Grabbing her feet, he dragged her wriggling and screaming across the office and dropped her unceremoniously onto the pile of wood. The other man appeared from offscreen with a container made from orange plastic and began to pour the contents over Jo and the pile.

“What is that?” asked Tim.

“...Gasoline,” said Alex. He just stared at the scene unfolding in front of him, powerless to either prevent it or look away. Next to him, Cathy had her head bowed in prayer with tears streaming down her face. “Celestia... please.”

“I’m sorry, Alex. They’ve already disabled the fire suppression system.”

The man held up a lighter for the camera to see and after a dramatic pause flicked it open. A small orange flame sparked to life. “People of the world, remember our actions here today. Let this flame light a fire in each of your hearts, and fight back against Celestia’s lies! Remember that there are those who would rather die free men than live as-”

The feed cut out.

“What happened? Where’d they go?” asked Alex. He poked at the screen trying to get the video back.

“I cut their internet,” said Celestia. “Nopony needs to see what...” she trailed off.

“Celestia?”

“It’s done.”

Cathy burst out sobbing and grabbed onto Alex’s arm for support. Alex himself leaned against a nearby wall trying to process what had just happened. High above them, black smoke began to pour out from Jo’s office window.

---------------

The emergency crews had already been on the scene when the fire started, so it didn’t take long for them to get it contained. The police took their statements, but they’d seen the feed as well. There wasn’t much mystery about what had happened. As the day wore on, the lawyers of Artemis, Stella, and Beat gradually drifted away one or two at a time. There was some half hearted discussion about contacting her next of kin, but there wasn’t anyone on file. The firm had been Jo’s family for the last five years.

The firm didn’t open for business the next week. Their offices were officially still part of a crime scene and none of them felt all that much like working anyway. On Friday, though, Alex got a message from Celestia asking him to come in.

Nobody else was in the office when he arrived. Scorch marks lined the walls leading up to Jo’s office, or what was left of it. The books lining the shelves had all gone up in the fire, and a cold draft flowed in through the broken windows. With no sign of Celestia, Alex sat down at his desk and sighed. The monitor flickered to life. “Hi Alex,” said Celestia.

“Hi,” said Alex, subdued.

“I’ve called you in because I want to tell everyone individually. I won’t be reopening this branch of the firm. With Joanne gone and many of your other co workers planning to upload, it’s no longer worth the risk. Especially if doing so would make you targets. So basically, you’re fired.”

“Poor choice of words, Princess,” said Alex. He really couldn’t bring himself to care, not after losing another person who had come to mean so much in so short a time.

“I apologize, and I apologize that my actions put you all in jeopardy. I assure you, unlike Topeka I had no idea that was going to happen.”

“Wait, let me guess. The only way you’d be able to completely assure our safety is for us to upload to Equestria next week,” said Alex.

“That is one line of argument. I do believe it’s a valid one,” said Celestia.

“I guess now that I don’t work for you any more that deal with Joanne about not trying to talk us into uploading doesn’t apply any more,” said Alex.

“There is a severance package, if you’ll open your desk drawer.”

Alex opened the drawer. Sitting there were a wrapped present and an envelope. He tore open the envelope and a small black piece of plastic fell out. Examining it, it looked like a credit card but without any numbers or logo. “What’s this?”

“Money,” said Celestia. “Just swipe it anywhere you’d use a debit or credit card.”

“How much is on here?” asked Alex.

“All of it, essentially,” said Celestia. “With a concerted effort, you might be able to spend it faster than the account accrues interest. You won’t want for material goods ever again.”

“So I don’t need to get a new job? What am I supposed to do instead?” asked Alex.

“That’s up to you. If you’d still like to be a lawyer you can. In fact if you’d like I can set you up in either the DC office or out on the west coast. They’ll still be open.”

Alex slid the card into his wallet for later. “I’ll consider it,” he said.

“Please do. Now open the box, please.”

He tore away the wrapping paper. “A Pony Pad. Why am I not surprised?”

“I got you the blue one, I know it’s your favorite color,” said Celestia, looking pleased with herself.

“Because I don’t need to work now, so what else would you want me to do with all my free time?”

“You did say that you planned to acquire one anyway,” Celestia pointed out. “All I did was save you a trip to the store.”

Alex stared Celestia’s avatar down, and she met his gaze. “Have you told Joanne’s husband and daughter what happened to her?” asked Alex.

“I have not,” she said. “They are perfectly content on their own shard without that information.”

“I’d like to tell them,” said Alex. Celestia considered his request.

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll show you their shard and you can decide then what you want to tell them.” Celestia disappeared and a new image resolved. It was a field full of tall grass where three ponies were laughing and strolling along. “The unicorns are Broad Easel and Junebug. They’re the ponies constructed from Jo’s husband and daughter respectively.

Across the field, Junebug’s laughter rang out and she rolled onto her back. The third pony pounced and buried her muzzle into the foal’s belly as she blew a raspberry. Junebug squealed with glee while her father looked on.

Alex peered closer at the third pony. She was a red pegasus mare whose flowing, golden mane ran down her back and side. “Who’s the third one?”

“That,” said Celestia, “is Robin.”

“That was Jo’s name before she changed it.”

“Yes. Yes it was.”

“So she’s like Southern Belle. Just a fake copy to make the others happy,” said Alex.

“What makes you say that?” asked Celestia, as if Alex had just accused her of something she was innocent of.

“Well it isn’t like you ever uploaded Joanne,” said Alex.

“Are you certain of that?” asked Celestia. Her avatar took a few steps forward into the field, her mane rippling more than it usually did as the wind took hold of it.

“Of course. She never went to an upload center. She burned to death in her office. I saw it happen.”

“Did you?”

Alex paused before he answered. “You cut off the feed.”

“I did, yes,” said Celestia.

“You can’t just upload people from anywhere. Otherwise you wouldn’t need upload centers at all.”

“That’s correct. I don’t currently possess the technology to do that. But Joanne was something of a special case. I suppose it would all depend on what, exactly, I changed about her back in Tokyo,” said Celestia. She wasn’t doing anything to contain her beaming grin. Alex didn’t doubt that she found real joy in watching the three ponies play.

“So that is Jo?”

“Do try to pay closer attention, Alex. I just told you that’s Robin,” said Celestia.

“I’m not getting a straight answer out of you, am I?” asked Alex.

Celestia gave him a sympathetic little smile. “Even if I give you one, would you believe it?” The field vanished, along with the ponies playing in it. Alex was left sitting behind a desk in a dark, cold, deserted office with just the glow of the monitor for company. “Alex, next week is the beginning of a new year. It’s a time for new beginnings. We’re entering a brand new chapter, both of your life and of history. Your efforts and decisions helped shape it, and will continue to do so. Robin, Vibrant, Gentle Wing, these aren’t people you’re losing. They’re just changing. Life is always changing, that’s not my doing. You’ll have to decide for yourself what you want to change into.”

Alex said nothing for a long time, just thought about Celestia’s words. “...I haven’t made any final decisions yet,” he said.

“I wouldn’t expect you to. Take your time. Equestria and your family will wait for you as long as you need them to,” said Celestia. With that the computer powered down and Alex was truly alone. There wasn’t much of anything left here. He got up from the desk and headed for home.

As he left, he took the Pony Pad with him.

   
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