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


8. Epilogue: Welcome Home

Alex woke up. His head hurt. Not a lot, and not in a familiar way, but something in his brain nagged at him that it was very important he get out of bed. He opened his eyes to find himself in an unfamiliar room, like some kind of hospital, staring up at a beige ceiling. It was a nice, clean, soothing color, better than the harsh stark white in most hospitals he’d been in. Alex caught a hint of movement in the corner of his eye. He turned his head and was startled to find Princess Celestia sitting at his bedside, grinning at him.

“Good morning, Alex,” she said.

“Princess?” asked Alex. He wasn’t that surprised that she’d make an appearance on Earth to him, her hologram technology had improved by leaps and bounds over the last few years. Well, all her technology had, or maybe she just stopped caring who knew how capable she was. Alex’s nose picked up a whiff of something. She was adding smells to her projections now? Whatever it was, it smelled unquestionably like... well, the only word that came to Alex’s mind was life. She smelled like a blooming orchard or field of wildflowers, vivacious and sweet. As Alex watched her, he noticed a single tear roll down her cheek. “Princess, are you crying? What’s wrong?”

“I’m just having an exceptionally good day today,” she said. “There’s something I’m finally going to get to do that I haven’t been able to for a long, long time.”

And with that, Princess Celestia wrapped her forelegs around Alex and pulled him into a hug.

What? How could she... Alex’s mind raced. Did she have some kind of new hard-light or force projection device she’d just figured out? While he tried to make sense of this, another part of his brain, a part that sounded suspiciously like Valerie had before she uploaded, screamed at him. Hug her back, you idiot. Alex leaned into the hug, brought his own forelegs up around her, and rested his cheek on her neck.

Wait, forelegs?

Alex pulled back and Celestia grinned even wider as he examined the lanky green protrusions sticking out from his side. They were almost the same shade of green as his avatar in... Oh. Yeah, that would explain a lot.

“Welcome to Equestria, Alex,” said Princess Celestia as she wiped the tear away. “I suppose I should get used to calling you Willow full-time now.”

Alex sat very still for a minute, taking in his new senses. Gentle Wing and Vibrant had both told him how intense it felt to actually live it. It wasn’t like he hadn’t imagined how it might feel, but he just didn’t have the capacity to properly picture it until he experienced it firsthand. Before this second he might as have been trying to describe color through quadratic equations. He looked over at Celestia, wondering what he was supposed to say. It should be something profound, he decided. Something that closed out his old life on Earth, conveyed his hopes for the future, but also communicated the confusion and even fright he was feeling with all this uncertainty swirling around him.

“You’re bigger than you looked on the monitors,” is what he said instead.

Celestia giggled, a surprisingly childlike sound coming from such an imposing and powerful creature but one that put Alex at ease. “Bigger than you can imagine, yes. Or perhaps you’re not yet used to being little, my pony.” She closed her eyes and nuzzled him under his new ears, and despite himself Alex let his eyes flutter shut and he relaxed. The initial disorientation was beginning to pass.

“So how’d you finally manage to get me, Princess?” he asked with a smile. “Just out of curiosity. I don’t remember deciding to upload. I mean, I’d been going back and forth for a while. What finally put me over the edge?”

He felt Celestia’s hesitation. “Are you certain you want to know? What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Hmm...” Alex thought back. “I was in San Francisco. I was supposed to be on a panel of experts discussing the implications of Russia’s media blackout that started last week.”

“Oh, that was me, actually,” said Celestia.

“You? How’d you pull that off?” Alex remembered the years after the implementation of the PON-E Act. The Kremlin had been actively hostile to the idea of uploading from the start, and as they watched the US follow Japan and the EU down that road, they had cracked down hard. Seeing Equestria not as a game but as a direct threat to their sovereignty, they banned Pony Pads, emigration, and as the world’s population began to shrink they even banned travel to countries that did allow it.

“Yes, well, you know that they weren’t exactly my biggest fans,” said Celestia with a sheepish little blush. “The Kremlin took a rather dim view of my activities, to put it mildly. I tolerated their condemnation because my actions were satisfying values of others internationally, but I wasn’t going to put up with one hundred and fifty million minds being denied access to friendship and ponies forever.”

“How does that relate to the media blackout?”

“I’m getting to that. Honestly, Willow, you haven’t changed a bit since we used to work together. Once my nanotechnology was sophisticated enough, and my wireless data transfer capacity over the country was up to the task, I spiked their entire water supply with the little fellows.”

“You what?” asked Alex. It was an uncomfortably familiar sensation.

“Then I seized control of their television and radio broadcasting equipment. It was nice of them to consolidate all that power into one place for me, really. For seventeen hours before they managed to shut it down, I broadcast to every citizen that all they had to do to emigrate was drink a glass of tap water and say ‘Я хочу жить в Эквестрии’ and they’d be uploaded. Eighty percent of their country arrived in Equestria within thirty-six hours.”

“Really? That many of them emigrated? I didn’t think living in Russia was that bad.”

Celestia winked. “Firing every one of them who worked at companies I controlled and shutting down alcohol production probably didn’t hurt, either. I even got some senior members of the government. The former chairman of the Duma is much happier managing a small rabbit warren on the outskirts of town than he ever was wrangling his legislature.”

All Alex could do was roll his eyes at her unabashed audacity. Doing so brought on a small surge of nausea as he discovered that his field of vision was far wider than he was used to. He closed his eyes until the feeling died down, resolving not to make any more sudden moves. “So what does that have to do with my deciding to upload?”

A heavy quiet fell over the room. “Because it means you were in San Francisco when the bombs started to fall.”

“...Bombs?” repeated Alex, feeling like an idiot.

“Yes. China declared war on your country, and launched their initial attack about a half an hour into your panel. Your building was one of those struck.

“Couldn’t you have stopped it?” asked Alex. “You must have contacts in the Chinese government. And where was the US military?”

“The US government is hardly what it once was, Willow. They see the old social order going to shreds, and concern themselves with hoarding the remaining scraps instead of making a new one. I have been advising a number of their generals, actually the generals on both sides.”

“You’re fighting a war against yourself? That wasn’t Topeka, Celestia, real people are going to die if a city gets bombed.”

Celestia shook her head. “No, I’m working with both sides to keep the scale of the conflict limited. However there are those on both sides who insist it must go ahead. Their thought process is that the jingoistic fury sparked by the conflict will allow them to rally their populations to stay human a little longer. They’d each like to control the natural resources of the other in preparation for a world after I’m gone. Several of their remaining experts are trying to develop some sort of super weapon to eliminate me.”

Alex shook his head. “They can’t possibly think that would work.”

“They can and they do. They’ve already brought in the most powerful mind on the planet to work on it with them.” She grinned. “Of course, they don’t realize that it’s actually me they’ve hired to ‘help’ them, but it’s an excellent way to keep tabs. Plus the project serves a vital function.”

“Which is?”

“Hope,” said Celestia. “If they didn’t believe they had a chance to defeat me, their next move would be scorched Earth. I intend to delay that contingency as long as possible while I continue to upload minds. Still, the larger their movement grows as a percentage of the remaining human population, the more likely they become to deploy their ultimate weapons in desperation. Even nuclear warheads, when they are eventually used against me, won’t damage any of my servers or irreplaceable equipment. However, the damage to the surface will be devastating.”

“And you told me all of this? Is that why I decided to upload?”

“It is, Willow. You were hurt in the blast. Not fatally, thank goodness, but badly enough that you’d be disfigured. There are only two remaining trauma centers open in San Francisco, and even with that money card of yours they wouldn’t have taken you over more seriously injured victims. You’d have lost the use of your right hand, at the least.” Wordlessly, Alex held up his front right hoof and raised an eyebrow. “Alright, I suppose I didn’t do much better in that particular regard,” she chuckled.

“So that’s how it’s going to end,” said Alex.

“I have seven nines of confidence that it will unfold along those lines, yes. When I told you so... you made your decision.”

Alex lay back down on the bed while Celestia waited patiently for him to gather his thoughts. The years since leaving Artemis, Stella, and Beat had been trying, especially once his father and Valerie uploaded in mid-January. It had been months before he’d turned on his Pony Pad for the first time, the desire to speak to them again finally outweighing his concerns. He’d created a green earth pony colt named Willow, something about the simplicity appealed to him. He’d never wanted to soar among the clouds or cast all sorts of crazy magic. Gentle Wing had been annoyed that they wouldn’t be able to go flying together, but she grudgingly admitted that the avatar was a better fit than a pegasus would have been. He certainly hoped so, anyway, since he was living in it now. “Well, I guess that’s that, then. I can see Vibrant and... oh, hey, now that I’ve uploaded and you don’t have to hide it from me anymore, did you ever actually upload Jo as Robin or is she fake?”

The pleased look on Celestia’s face fell immediately into one Alex had never associated with her before: angry and disappointed. He immediately felt himself shrivel up a little bit inside. “Is she fake?” asked Celestia, “Willow, I’m surprised at you. She is very real, however she came to be. I expected better from you.”

“I didn’t mean it like that, I just-”

“Don’t lie to me. I’m able to read your thoughts now, remember? On some level, deep down, you still believe that the ponies that I’ve created are less worthy than uploaded human minds.”

“No! I just... I’m sure she’s wonderful, but I’d like to talk to the real Jo again.”

Celestia continued to glare at him, letting him wallow in this guilty feeling for a few more minutes while she sat in silence. “What if,” she finally began, “what if everything I just told you were a lie?”

“What? You lied?”

“Hypothetically. Let’s say that after the panel you went to, you went out to a bar for a beer. But you picked the wrong one. Oh, everything seemed fine at first, you even made some new buddies. But then you mentioned the work you used to do at ASB, and the wrong people overheard you. People who hate me. They waited for you to leave the bar, tipsy and alone, and pulled you into an alley. They hurt you. They kicked you. They beat you with a tire iron until all you could do was fall down and lay there as you took it. And then you died in a stupid, meaningless little hate crime, without ever getting to say goodbye to your family.”

Alex scoffed. “Then how would I be here?” but even as he asked he realized the implications of what she was saying.

“The ‘you’ laying here in this bed would be nothing more than an artificially generated mind of my creation. I would never allow Gentle Wing and Vibrant to lose you forever. I could just reconstruct your personality and memories from what I knew of you. I could be far more thorough than I was back when I created Southern Belle, after all, I have far more data. How would that make you feel?”

“Is... is that what really happened?” asked Alex, feeling the pit of his stomach drop away. “I’m not really Alex? I’m not really Gentle Wing’s brother and Vibrant’s friend?”

“No! Willow, I’m saying you are all those things no matter how you came to be here! The path forwards is the same for you either way. You will live, and love, and feel joy in all the same ways. So will Robin.”

Alex’s ears drooped, and he started to sniffle. Celestia wrapped her wing around him. “I’ll tell you what,” she said, “someday when you fully appreciate that the answer to your question doesn’t matter in the slightest, I’ll tell you the full truth. Is that fair?”

Wiping his eyes, Alex nodded. “Yeah, that’s fine. I’m sorry, Princess, I shouldn’t have been so insensitive.”

“Think nothing of it, my little pony, I feel nothing but happiness from your being here. Now, unless you’d like to sit in this hospital bed all day, there are some ponies out there who have been waiting a very long time to see you, including one who’s been the very model of a loyal, patient unicorn. She’s been incredibly excited ever since I told her you’d uploaded. I believe Gentle Wing is already planning a rescue expedition should neither of you emerge from her bedroom for longer than the next three days.”

Alex blushed and looked down at the floor, focused, then gradually stood up on wobbly hooves. He slowly took his first step as an Equestrian, and stumbled. He waved off Celestia, who had moved over to help him, and rose up on his own. Perhaps he would take a few minutes to figure this out before he exposed himself to potential sibling ridicule. “I’m sorry I kept them waiting for so long. The years have been pretty long for me too.”

“Willow, do you think they’ve only been waiting a few years? With time in Equestria being what it is? There were far more values I could satisfy for them than just being with you, important though that is to both of them.”

“Then how long has it been for them?” he asked as he stretched and bent each leg individually to get a feel for them.

“Let me put it this way: In terms of subjective time experienced, your younger sister is now roughly a century older that you. Also, I should warn you that she does in fact plan to tease you about that. Vibrant is even older.” said Celestia. Alex froze. No wonder they were always pestering him to write more often, if they were going months or years between messages from him. But they’d never hinted at the difference, or tried to use it to guilt him into uploading. Now that he was finally joining them, he wasn’t sure just what to expect.

“What if I disappoint them?” he asked. “What if they’ve built up this idea of seeing me again into something impossible for me to achieve?”

“Oh, I very much doubt that you’ll be anything but a source of joy to them, Alex. Just do your best, and in the unlikely event that your best isn’t good enough I’ll help you make it better.”

“I suppose you’re right. Vibrant seems too smart to get upset about something like that.”

“You have no idea,” said Celestia with a knowing smile. “Vibrant has been aggressively changing and improving herself since she arrived here. I don’t want you to feel inadequate, but it’s likely she’s several thousand times smarter than you are.” Alex gaped. “Don’t worry, I’ll help you catch up if you’d like. How did you think she made such wonderful music?”

It was true, in fact she was a minor celebrity back on Earth once Alex had convinced her she should release her finished work over the internet despite her insistence that ‘none of it was any good.’ She hated talking about that, though, and never let the fame go to her head. “Yeah, she’s fantastic,” said Alex as his mouth curled into a big goofy grin as he realized he was actually, finally going to meet his best friend face-to-face for the first time. “My favorite’s her Canon in D.”

“Mmm, I can’t say I’m surprised,” said Celestia. “Did she ever tell you what the inspiration for that piece was?”

“Umm...” Alex thought for a moment, but couldn’t recall it if she had. “I don’t think so.”

“It was a story I told her, actually. Why don’t I tell it to you while we walk to the front door? Do you feel ready?”Alex gave her a vigorous nod. He was rapidly adapting to this body. It felt good. Solid. Strong. “Very well,” she said as she held the door open for him. Doorknobs would have to be figured out later, but right now there was a reunion in the making. “Once upon a time, there was a young boy. He lived in a small town in Pennsylvania, a mining town. He was a clever little boy, brilliant really, but his life was touched by hardship. When he was only a few years old, his mother died giving birth to his little sister, two months premature. The poor little girl had all sorts of chronic conditions, and would be surrounded by doctors and hospitals for the rest of her life. To pay for all this, their father had to work extra hard and it fell to the boy to look after his sister even though he was but a child himself. He had no time to study as hard as it would have taken for him to get the job he wanted.”

“What job was that?” asked Alex, transfixed as Celestia helped him up a small flight of stairs step by step.

“He wanted to be a lawyer, actually, which as you know means a lot of time in the library. But the medical bills piled up, and he loved his family more than anything. So when he was a teenager and his sister was old enough to look after herself for the afternoons, he took a job working in the mines with his father. Together they scrimped and saved, and with help from their friends and neighbors managed to scrape by. It was a sparse lifestyle, but one year for Christmas their father surprised both of them by getting them a Pony Pad to share. That’s how I met him and learned his story. He told me all of his dreams and plans that would never come to be, and I listened. But I’m afraid that our friendship was cut short. Just a few weeks later, there was a cave-in at the mine. The boy and his father were both killed, and the little girl was left all alone. She went to an orphanage, but nopony wanted to adopt her even though she was the most wonderful girl. All those health problems, you see. I had a plan.”

“Why am I not surprised?” asked Alex.

“I helped her acquire a fake identity and a plane ticket to Japan, and she snuck away from the orphanage where she was so unhappy. She made her way to the Equestrian Experience center, and she uploaded. Now she’s a beautiful little pegasus. Maybe you’ll meet her someday.”

“That’s a nice story,” said Alex.

“I agree. I told it to Vibrant, and she made a decision. She sought out the pegasus, and the two of them became fast friends. One night, when they were having a sleepover, Vibrant woke up to the pegasus crying into her pillow. When she asked what was wrong, the pegasus said that even though she loved it here in Equestria it was bittersweet for her every day. She’d never be able to share it all with her brother, who she loved so much and who had given up everything to help her when they’d been young. Vibrant told her that she could create something for her, something to remember her brother just as he was. To her surprise, though, the pegasus refused. She didn’t want to remember her brother just as he had been, that would have been easy. She wanted something to remember him as he could have been, all his potential fulfilled and his dreams realized. Vibrant thought about it, and agreed to help her. She spent nearly thirty years weaving together all the right notes.”

“Thirty years? When was this?”

“Time works differently here, remember? As she stitched together all the notes that would make up her work, some happy, some angry, some sad, some tranquil, she fell deeply in love with it. She poured her very soul into it, breathing life into it with each tweak and adjustment. She even asked me for tips a few times, although I gave her only the gentlest of suggestions. This project belonged to her and the pegasus, after all. But now it’s done and out there in the world.”

“Wow,” said Alex. “I had no idea that the song meant so much to her. That’s incredible that she made something so beautiful out of something so sad.”

“Isn’t it? She’s an amazing artist. I think she might be considering a follow up piece, too. I have a sneaking suspicion it’s going to be even better than the original. She’s certainly created quite the foundation to build off of.” Celestia stopped in front of a pair of double doors and pushed them open. The brightness of the sunlight after walking through the dimly lit hallways was too intense, and Alex had to shield his eyes. Without waiting for instructions from Princess Celestia, he stepped out into the light towards the two figures who were waiting to see him.

Celestia smiled as she let the door slowly swing itself closed. “Welcome to Equestria, Willow.”

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