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


4. Death in the Family

The next week passed in a disjointed blur for Alex.

He drove straight from the park to his childhood home. Even though it was after midnight by the time he finally got there, the lights were all still on. He ran in. Somehow he’d half convinced himself that he was going to walk in and his mother would be standing there, asking him what he was doing getting in so late, like the time she’d caught him sneaking in after curfew as a high school senior. Or that it would turn out that Val was pulling the least tasteful practical joke in history and they were all waiting for him on the other side of the front door to point and laugh at how worried he’d been.

Of course they weren’t. Valerie and their father were sitting off in the parlor in silence. The moment Alex looked into their red, bloodshot eyes was the moment the reality of it finally hit him.

It wasn’t a dramatic or theatrical collapse, with a shocked gasp and the back of his hand against his forehead as he swooned over onto a fainting couch. One moment Alex was standing there and the next he was sitting in the same spot in the middle of the hallway, without being quite sure how that had happened. He tried to stand up again but found that he couldn’t will his body to move.

The three Meyerses went off to bed soon after that. None of them could really find anything to say to one another just yet. Alex tossed and turned the entire night and he was sure that neither of the others were getting much sleep either. Around seven in the morning he quit bothering and got up.

The first well wishers began to show up around eight in the morning. Word had gotten around the little town quickly through the church and the school where his mother taught. Had taught. The funeral was going to be held that evening, the only real family coming in from out of town was their Aunt Carol, who’d booked a flight that morning. Everybody else who would have wanted to attend was local. What Alex quickly realized was that everybody felt that they had to bring food and yet nobody wanted to eat any of it. After the refrigerator was full it started to just pile up on the tables and countertops.

Alex fell into a rhythm of having the same three or four conversations with people who he only somewhat remembered. Everything they had to say was coming from a genuinely good place, but none of it actually made him feel any better. Maybe nothing ever would again.

Around ten thirty his phone rang and Alex answered it. ”Alex? It’s Cathy. Joanne wanted me to find out if you were planning to come in today. Are you sick?”

Alex realized that with everything that had happened the fact that today was a workday had completely slipped his mind. “Oh, hi Cathy, I’m sorry that I didn’t call. My mom died yesterday,” said Alex. His voice caught in his throat for a moment and he realized that this was the first time he’d actually said that out loud. He heard Cathy gasp on the other end of the line. “I’m in Pennsylvania for the funeral, but I could probably get back there by tomorrow morning, I just might be a little late.”

“Absolutely not, Alex,” said Cathy. “You’re right where you need to be now. Things around here will be fine without you for a few days. I’ll let Jo know, and I’m sure she’ll insist that you take all the time you need and only come back when you’re ready.”

“...Thanks, Cathy.”

“Alex, I’m so sorry this is happening. You’re gonna be in all of our thoughts and prayers over here, OK?”

Alex hung up and went back to making hazy, disinterested conversation with the people around him. Later that afternoon a Lieutenant Commander from the Coast Guard showed up as well, wearing full dress. He told them that he wanted to apologize for being unable to save their mother or the Hamiltons. The storm had sprung up out of nowhere and the winds had been too intense to use any of the aircrafts they had on hand. By the time they’d reached the boat there hadn’t been anything they could do. Alex thought in a detached and abstract way that his presence was a nice gesture, at least.

Once Aunt Carol arrived with her husband and children in tow it was time to head over to the funeral itself. It was being held in the small Presbyterian church Alex had grown up attending. He was surprised by how full the church was. His mother had touched a lot of lives, and not just friends and neighbors but also a number of her current and former students had turned out. The pastor led them up to the front row and sat them down. The organ music died down as the last few stragglers shuffled inside.

The pastor gave a pretty moving eulogy. He’d known Alex’s mother well from some of the charity work she’d done through the church off and on over the years. Once he was done a few others stood up and spoke. Alex didn’t want to, but his father tried and could only get past the first few sentences before he broke down crying and had to stumble back to the pew.

Once everybody who wanted to speak had, the coffin was lifted and carried to the graveyard behind the church. A freshly dug grave was already prepared, and they had even put up a temporary stone as a placeholder until the real one could be finalized.



It was only as the coffin was lowered into the ground that Alex felt the first of many tears to come begin to fall.


Alex stuck around the house with Valerie and their father for a few more days, enduring the steady stream of visitors and generally just remembering. It was weird which little memories would pop into his head, things he never would have recalled if he’d been asked to think about his mother. The house even still smelled like her favorite perfume.

Sympathetic emails from friends and colleagues flooded his inbox. Vibrant alone wrote to Alex four times on the day after the funeral. He hadn’t yet replied to anybody, but he knew he would have to in the next few days. Even though it felt like the world had come crashing down on them life went on, stubbornly persistent as ever. Valerie needed to go back to med school as her finals for the semester weren’t very far off. By Wednesday Alex was ready to go back to New York too, and after giving his Dad a long hug goodbye and promising to come back and visit soon he drove off.

Thursday was hard. Alex found himself at loose ends in his apartment, with nothing to do but think. That was exactly what he didn’t need right now, but he couldn’t muster up the energy to leave the building and go do anything either. It was probably a very good thing that he didn’t keep any alcohol lying around, because right now he wasn’t sure he trusted himself not to abuse it. He did manage to reply to a few of the emails, but it was too draining for him to tackle the giant pile just yet.

Friday morning, Alex decided that he’d rather be working than just sitting around and went into the office at his usual time. When Cathy saw him walk in she jumped up from her desk and gave him a big hug. “How are you, Alex?”

“About as well as can be expected, I guess,” said Alex.

“I’m sort of surprised you came back already to tell the truth. I figured we wouldn’t be seeing you until at least next week,” said Cathy.

“I’d rather something in my life got back to normal. I haven’t really known what to do with myself these last couple day.”

“That’s perfectly understandable, just remember that we’re here for you if you need anything.”

“Thanks, all I need right now is to catch up on what I missed. Is Jo in her office?”

“Jo took a personal day today. I’m sure Celestia can fill you in on everything though,” said Cathy. Alex slid his key over the scanner and walked into the central office. He noticed his co workers would suddenly stop conversing when he got close, or they’d whisper to one another after he passed.

Alex stopped in front of his office door and turned to address the room. “It’s OK guys, you don’t have to get all weird around me. Yeah, I’m sad but I’ll get back to normal soon. I’m sure at least a couple of you have been picking up my slack for the last few days, so thanks.” He opened the door to his office without waiting for a reply.

His computer brightened up from sleep mode on its own. “Welcome back, Alex. I’m so sorry about your mother. You have my deepest condolences, though I know that cannot possibly alleviate all the pain you must be feeling right now. Would you like to talk about it at all?” asked Celestia.

“Right now I’d like to talk about anything at all except that. What’s been happening around here the last few days?” asked Alex.

Celestia frowned. “I will respect your wishes, but there are some things we should discuss when you are ready. As for new developments here things have been quite eventful over the last few days, in ways good and bad. Let’s see... one of my little ponies was unable to qualify for a student loan through usual channels and he asked for my help. Barry and I set up the First National Bank of Equestria."

"Based in the US?" asked Alex.

"The Caymans were less restrictive. Of course the actual physical location is unimportant as it will operate entirely online for all intents and purposes. I also uncovered the website for a group of violent extremists which contained language that suggested they might be planning a physical attack on some of my servers. Nothing specific, but I forwarded the information to the FBI and will continue to monitor them."

"Should we see about getting a warrant before you do that kind of thing? Where exactly are those servers based, anyway?" asked Alex.

"A possible concern. This information was unencrypted and freely available online to anyone who found it. However I would prefer not to associate myself with any particular government organization, or do something that might imply I’m acting as their agent. It might make international matters somewhat complicated.”

Alex knew that wasn’t anything he would be able to say that would stop her from snooping anyway. Celestia had pretty much free reign on the internet. A few computers at the absolute highest echelons of power mightbe beyond her ability to access, or at least beyond her ability to do so without leaving any trace of her presence, but maybe not.

“By the way, I talked to Jeremy last weekend and he said he’d talked to you about adopting a pony as his legal daughter? I’m sorry to have let you down, but I haven’t really thought of any way to make it happen on our end,” said Alex.

“You had plenty of other things going on that were occupying your mind, I did not expect you to. I gave the problem to Tim to work on, he has a couple of ideas but I am not optimistic,” said Celestia.

“That’s pretty much what I told Jeremy, that it was a longshot,” said Alex. The idea that he would be letting down his friend was tough to accept.

“I, of course, have no problem with the notion. It would satisfy the values of Jeremy, Renee, and Meadow Blossom all at the same time. A shame our DC branch hasn’t made more progress lobbying for the Petition for Organic and Nonorganic Equality.”

Alex wasn’t surprised. The Petition for Organic and Nonorganic Equality, or the PON-E Act for short, was basically nothing more than a three hundred page wishlist on Celestia’s part. It had almost no popular support even among the people who had heard of it, and had been languishing in committee since the moment it was introduced. Alex figured that at some point the DC team would have to introduce something much more incremental and moderate, but at Celestia’s insistence they were dutifully plugging away at the hopeless cause.

“Also, I had a very interesting talk with the Pope last night,” said Celestia. Before Alex could hear more his phone buzzed as a text message from Val came through.

Yuo at a computer?

That was weird. Aren’t you in class? he texted her back.

Ditched to haang wiht Vibrent. You gotta go on to EQO. Sorrry for speling, hard to text and pony at same time.

Alex frowned at the idea that Valerie would blow off her classes to play the game. Come to think of it he hadn’t heard from her yesterday either.

“Alex, who are you texting?” asked Celestia.

“My sister,” said Alex.

“Ah. Alex, I really think there is something we need to talk about before-”

The phone buzzed again. Celestai made a pony of mom!!! Her name is southern bell and she’s a pretty earth pony mare and she’s totally like mom. Vibe met her other day and were all havin a T party right now. Come hang!

“Celestia, why is Valerie texting me that she’s having tea with my dead mother? She didn’t upload,” said Alex.

“I’m sorry, this wasn’t the way I wanted you to find out. It’s not your mother, and I never told Valerie that it was. I was able to add a pony who’s based on her to that particular shard using footage and audio that I captured from Gentle Wing’s Pony Pad that had Linda or her voice in the background. I combined that with Gentle Wing’s description of her to create a synthetic personality that would satisfy her values. She’s in a great deal of pain, I know you both must be. I thought this would help her.”

“Show me.”

“I’m not sure if that would be such a good idea.”

Show me.

“Very well, If that’s what you really want then I will. Please try to remain calm, Alex, I know this is a very touchy subject for you, and rightfully so.”

The screen dissolved away to be replaced by an image of a street corner in some Equestrian city. Sitting at a table on the patio of a cafe were three mares, one of each pony race. Alex recognized Vibrant and Gentle Wing and turned his attention to the third. She was an older pony than the other two, with a silver coat and a glamorously styled mane. She was speaking to Gentle Wing and Alex was too far away to quite make it out, but it was clear the pegasus was hanging on every word. Gentle Wing make some comment back, and the mare laughed.

She had his mother’s laugh. Celestia had copied it flawlessly.

Vibrant looked up for the table and looked right at Alex. Gentle Wing was too engaged in her conversation to notice but Vibrant walked over to where he was watching from, all smiles.

“Hi Alex! Come to join us? I am so sorry to hear about your mom, Alex, I really am,”

“What the hell is wrong with you, Vibrant?”

Vibrant stepped back like the words had been a physical blow. “What? Alex, what do you mean?”

“You just happen to introduce my sister to a pony that’s exactly like our mother who just died? Is this some plan of yours to get her to upload? You aren’t going to take her away from me too. Not now.”

Vibrant was starting to cry. “It isn’t like that at all! I didn’t even know she was like your mom until I introduced her to Gentle Wing and she told me. But then they seemed so happy I didn’t-”

“You stay away from Valerie, do you hear me? And stay away from me too. I ought to-” the window to Equestria cut out. “Why did you disconnect me? I wasn’t done.”

“Oh, you were done,” said Celestia in a stern and disapproving tone. “Whatever you were about to say, it certainly wasn’t going to be something that would be received positively by Vibrant.”

“Maybe Vibrant didn’t know what she was doing, but you sure did. You must have planned this from the moment you heard what happened,” said Alex.

“Of course I planned it. This was the optimal course that would allow me to satisfy her values through-”

“I am so fucking sick of hearing that phrase, Celestia. Reconnect me, I need to talk to Val.”

“I will not reconnect you while you are in this state. Perhaps when you are calm enough to discuss this rationally.”

Alex scoffed. “What are you, my mo-” Alex’s mind caught up to actually hear the words that had almost just slipped out. His heart was racing and he clenched his fists as he squeezed his eyes shut. For several minutes he sat there too angry to even think. Then one horrible idea slid into his mind. Once it had occurred to him he couldn’t think of anything else.

“Celestia, did you kill my mother?”

“What? Alex, of course I didn’t! I would never do that to you or to Valerie. You’re both my friends and I love you. Seeing you in pain like this is terrible for me, I would never intentionally cause it. How would that be satisfying your values?”

Alex wasn’t entirely convinced. “You could be lying to me,” he said.

“Fine, assume you don’t trust me. How could I have even done it? Your mother died when a sailboat capsized, Alex. A sailboat with no onboard computer parts, or even basic electronics. What do you suppose I did, uploaded a virus to their mainsail? And while I’m capable of many things controlling the weather is not one of them,” she said.

Alex calmed down enough to think about it rationally. He couldn’t find anything about that to disagree with. At some point a new text message had arrived from Valerie.

WTF Alex what did you do why was Vibrant crying?

Valerie, listen. Turn off the game, go to class, and don’t talk to that other pony any more. She isn’t Mom. Mom didn’t upload, she’s gone and it isn’t healthy to pretend she’s not.

Fcuk you, Alex

Alex put the phone down and pressed his hand up against his face. He tried to dial Valerie’s phone but it rang once and then sent him to voicemail.

“For what it’s worth, I don’t anticipate that Valerie is going to hop the next plane to Japan and upload. You aren’t going to lose her, Alex. I care about you too much to do that to you,” said Celestia in a soothing and gentle voice.

“You know what? It’s fine. Let’s just get back to work.”

“Things certainly are not fine. You just accused me of murder. You need to go home, and you need to grieve before you come back here. Properly.”

“No,” said Alex. “I don’t want to go back and just sit in my apartment for another day, that sucked. I need something to do, or someone to talk to. No offense, but someone who isn’t you.”

Celestia seemed to consider this for a minute, and then a look crossed her face like she had reached a decision. “Very well. I have a task for you then. There are some documents I need to have Jo sign by the end of the day, but she isn’t here. She has turned off her phone, but since it remains connected to the battery I can track it. I’ll upload the coordinates of her current location to your phone, and I’d like you to go to her. Maybe she can give you what you’re looking for.”

Alex’s phone beeped as a list of driving directions appeared. When he looked up again he found himself looking at a blank monitor and his laserprinter was churning out a sheaf of pages. Alex waited until it was finished and stuffed the pages into a folder. He walked out of his office and back out the front door. Cathy looked up at him, worried. “Where are you going?” she asked.

“No idea,” said Alex and stepped out of the lobby. He headed for his car and followed the directions on the phone. A little over an hour later they had taken him into the rural areas of central New Jersey, to a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. What would Jo be doing out here? He made a right at the town’s one and only traffic light and pulled into the parking lot of a little church. He walked inside but didn’t see Jo anywhere. There was only a little old lady sitting in one of the pews reading a book. Alex walked up to her.

“Excuse me ma’am,” said Alex and the old lady looked up. “I’m looking for a young woman named Joanne and I think she’s here somewhere. Blonde hair? About this tall?”

The old lady smiled. “Oh, you must mean that pretty girl. I didn’t catch her name. She went out back a while ago. That way.” She pointed towards a door on the far side of the one room church.

“Thank you.”

Alex walked over and opened up the door. He found himself looking out onto a graveyard. He shuddered. How could Celestia send him here, of all places? He’d had his fill of places like this to last him a very long time. But in one corner of the graveyard he spotted what he was looking for. There, wrapped in a trenchcoat with her familiar golden hair flowing down the back, stood Jo.

She was fixated on a couple of the graves in particular and didn’t notice Alex walking up to her.


Jo was startled out of her reflections and spun, looking at Alex with abject horror. Her eyes were red and puffy like she had been crying. “Alex? What are you doing here? How did you find this place?”

“Celestia sent me. I guess she tracked your phone here.”

“She did what?” Jo pulled out her phone. “Give me your phone, Alex,” she said. Alex shrugged and handed it over. Jo didn’t bother to unlock it, she just started shouting into the mouthpiece. “You manipulative, arrogant, self righteous monster! I wanted one day. ONE DAY. Is that really so much to ask?” She flung both phones as far as she could. Miraculously they both landed in the grass and didn’t seem to break.

“Um.... did you actually call anyone?” asked Alex.

“Those things have microphones and an internet connection. I don’t need to dial her, she heard me.”

“Jo, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s going on, but I can tell you really don’t want me here. I’ll just go and we can pretend this didn’t happen, whatever ‘this’ even is.” Alex turned to leave.

“Hang on, it’s not your fault. Celestia’s been bugging me to talk about it with somebody besides her, and I guess this is her way of forcing my hand. Probably because of what you’re going through now, with your Mom. I was so sorry to hear about that Alex, I really was.”

“Thanks. But since when do you hang out in graveyards?”

Jo motioned with one hand for Alex to approach and he did. She pointed down at the two gravestones she’d been looking at.





“I guess I should explain, huh?”

“Yeah, Jo, I think that you better.”

“These are where my husband and my daughter are buried. Their bodies are, anyway. Daniel was a decent enough man. I loved him, but we were awfully stupid together. I was in law school when he got me pregnant. I couldn’t handle both. I dropped out with just a couple weeks left. Technically I never finished.”

“In 2006? How old were you, twelve? Those dates don’t line up at all.”

Jo gave a sad little smile. “It’s rude to ask a lady her age, Alex. I’ll get to that. For now you’re just going to have to accept that I’m older than I look.”

Alex frowned, but didn’t say anything and a moment later Jo continued.

“That June was the happiest month of my life. My little girl was born, and she was so beautiful. My little Joanne.”

“Why did you name her after yourself?”

“I didn’t.”


“Hi there. Robin Murphy. Nice to meet you,” said Jo. She reached out with her left hand and Alex awkwardly grabbed it with his right and shook it. He was a little surprised when she turned back to the graves, but didn’t let go of his hand. They stood side by side for a moment like that while Jo collected her thoughts.

“I wasn’t a very good mom.”

“Whoa now. I would have believed a pregnant twelve year old in law school, but you? Not a good mom? That’s going too far,” said Alex.

Jo had to giggle. “It’s sweet of you to say that, but I wasn’t. I don’t mean I didn’t feed her the right kind of strained peas or something either, I was honestly awful. About three months after Joanne was born. I got depressed. Really, truly, soul-crushingly depressed. I don’t know if it was a postpartum thing or the fact that my plan for a law career had gone up in smoke or some of both, but I didn’t handle it well.”

“How bad did it get?” asked Alex, squeezing her hand a little tighter.

“I drank. I became an alcoholic by the time Joanne was six months old. Even worse, Daniel has a history of that sort of thing in his family, and I dragged him down with me. So when I say I was a bad mom, I mean it. On New Years Eve 2013, I proved it for good. We had just moved to Japan for Daniel to start a new job, as you can probably imagine he wasn’t so great at holding one down for very long. The three of us went out to celebrate, and of course Daniel and I both got smashed. You can’t get a cab in a busy city like Tokyo at one AM on New Years, and we didn’t know anybody in the city we could call to pick us up so...” Jo bit down on her lower lip so hard Alex worried she was going to draw blood “... I decided that I would drive us home. I had nine shots that night and got behind the wheel of a car with my seven year old in the back seat. I might as well have just put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.”

“I’m sorry, Jo,” said Alex.

“No, I’m sorry. A sorry excuse for a person. I wish the car crash had killed us.”

“Wait, what? You mean it didn’t?” asked Alex.

“Oh, it would have. We all ended up in the emergency room broken and in horrible pain but still conscious. The doctors told us all three of us would be dead by morning and there wasn’t anything they could do. Except for this one brand-new treatment that they’d just started to offer a few weeks before.”

“Japan was the first country that offered uploading,” said Alex, realization dawning.

“Bingo. That was the night I met Celestia. She told us about Equestria and how wonderful it was and, well, you know the spiel. Joanne actually sounded excited to go, Celestia’s really good with kids. In the end it wasn’t a hard decision. We all said yes.”

“So how come you’re still here?” asked Alex. “Did she upload you and then download you into a new body?”

“Good try, but no. Celestia was still new to offering uploading on a mass scale, I don’t think she’d quite worked out the kinks. They took Joanne and then Daniel to the room with the uploading equipment, but by the time they came for me I’d gotten cold feet and I told them I didn’t want to go any more. I’m pretty sure that’s the reason why Celestia anesthetizes people who say yes to uploading as quickly as she can now,” said Jo. “She spent hours trying to convince me to change my mind back, but I dug in my heels. I’m not even sure why anymore, the idea was just too scary. I was still dying though, and I was about to slip away for good when Celestia made me a new offer. I don’t know if she was just buying herself time, or if she saw some kind of potential in me, or she just needed a warm body. But instead of dying or uploading, she would fix me up and I’d agree to work for her for one year unless I decided before then to upload. I agreed.”

“How did she fix you if you were that badly hurt?”

“I don’t really know what she did to me. Genetic engineering, nanobots, some kind of crazy Equestrian radiation, could be any of those or something else entirely. She just laid out the effects of the changes that she would make and asked me to consent to each one. She does the same thing with a lot of the ponies she uploads, although she’s a lot less limited in what sort of changes she can make in Equestria. I woke up three days later and poof, I was better. Not even a scar. Not just as good as new, better than new. The same things Vibrant was saying about being better in Equestria are true for me too. I’m smarter, healthier, and I don’t feel the need to drink any more. She even let me pick my new name and identity.”

“So Joanne wasn’t named after you, you’re named after her.”

Jo nodded and looked down at her daughter’s grave. “To remind me, every day. Celestia made me study my ass off for three months until I could pass the bar and then voila, I’m her new lawyer.”

“Were Daniel and Joanne upset that you decided not to upload?”

“I haven’t actually told them yet,” said Jo.

“How does that work?”

“You know that time flows differently in Equestria. Celestia agreed to keep them in a holding pattern, basically, until I join them. My very own prepackaged happy ending waiting for me on one of her computers somewhere. Celestia’s told me more than once that there’s a standing appointment for me anywhere in the world the moment I decide to go. That’s the real reason I made her promise not to ask firm employees to upload, for all the good that did. I’d be pretty easy to tempt.”

“Wait, you said she wanted you to work for her for just one year. If this started New Years Day 2014 that’s nearly five. Why not just go now?”

“Because I believe in what we do. I saw the way the law regards uploaders. They’re worthless. The laws of this country, which I’ve studied my entire life, say that my daughter is less of a person because of something I did to her. I’m not going to upload until I can look her in the eye and tell her that she isn’t worth any less because she’s a pony, not in any single way.”

Jo took a long, deep breath and slowly exhaled again. “I’ve never told anyone all this before. I actually do feel better. Do you have any idea how annoying it is working for someone who’s right all the time?”

“So you trust Celestia?” asked Alex.

“Are you kidding? Hell no I don’t trust her. She’s always up to something, having a simple conversation is like a game of chess over every little thing, and there is almost nothing she won’t do to get her way. Only an idiot would trust her. I do, however, think her goals are good. They’re just also really creepy sometimes,” said Jo. She turned to Alex and held his gaze. “Alex, if you don’t want to work here anymore after what you’ve heard and seen, I’m not going blackmail you or do anything to make you. If you feel that what I’ve just told you about my past, about the person who I was, means you don’t want to work for me personally I’ll understand. I’ll do anything in my power to get you transferred to our west coast or DC branches, or even another law firm if you want to practice some other kind of law.

“You know what?” asked Alex, “I think I’m exactly where I want to be.”

Jo smiled. “I’m happy to hear that,” she said, “now grab your car keys and help me find where our phones landed. Playtime’s over. It’s time to get to work.”

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