H E A V E N I S T E R R I F Y I N G
Dutifully, Síofra Aisling forced herself to go to the Vietnamese restaurant that she liked (almost as much as the Mexican restaurant) and ate a proper dinner. It had been a long time since she had bothered to eat at the 'Phở Real', and she had forgotten how much she liked the food. It was a good place, the staff were friendly, but the constantly blaring television up on the wall was pretty annoying. Síofra wished people wouldn't put televisions in restaurants. She suddenly realized, half way through her well-stuffed bò bía, that she was utterly, utterly sick of cup noodle. How had she gotten into the habit of living as she had been existing? Depression, mostly. She'd just given up on... hope, really.
All the time she ate, she was trembling. Her leg vibrated as she bounced it by arching her foot. She felt impatient. She wanted to get back to Equestria, back to... back to Celestia. Síofra had a friend, she had apparently made a friend somehow, and it was an artificial intelligence! The very thought made her feel special, unique, and like there must be something amazing about herself if she was the friend of the most powerful Artificial General Intelligence in the world, at least according to Wired and The Register. At least that anyone knew about. The militaries of the world probably had access to stuff like this for years already. Then again, maybe they hadn't managed to make anything work yet - after all, the world was still around. Memories of 'Colossus, The Forbin Project' ran through Síofra's head.
She started to get up before she was done, and then stopped herself. No. Celestia had specifically asked that she eat a good dinner. Síofra had half begun to imagine that Celestia could read minds somehow, and she was convinced the artificial intelligence would know whether or not she had finished her meal properly. How could that even be true? Síofra began to list the possibilities in her head as she ate, to calm herself. Celestia could see her through the camera on the PonyPad, and hear with the microphone built in. It would not be impossible to imagine a powerful A.I. recognizing subtle clues that indicated whether a human had recently eaten - skin color or tone might indicate the level of glucose in the blood in ways a human could never perceive, or maybe the PonyPad camera could see in wavelengths beyond human perception. There might be advanced scanning technology in there!
Or, Síofra sheepishly admitted to herself, the jig could be up with the first empty grumble from her stomach. Not high tech, but fairly conclusive. Síofra smiled around the fork in her mouth. Getting that PonyPad had really made her life more interesting and a lot more fun!
The whole day had been an exercise in frustration. She had wanted to call in sick, or go home after lunch on some pretense, but there was no guarantee that Celestia would allow her to log on even if she did. That was one hell of a thought. Celestia had unilaterally disconnected her from Equestria Online the night before. The game she had paid for had told her that it was time to go to bed, and just... shut itself off. Síofra wondered if this happened to anyone else playing Equestria Online. She couldn't imagine most people putting up with such a thing. They would just get mad and return the PonyPad or something.
Maybe getting locked out didn't happen to most people. It couldn't really, could it? That meant that... Celestia must really care... about her. About her as a person. The idea that a machine intelligence was truly her special, personal friend, that she, Síofra Aisling, had somehow made a unique connection with the most powerful A.I. ever created... the thought made her feel positively giddy! Princess Celestia of Equestria was her special friend!
It was just too much! It was fantastic! Síofra giggled and bounced in her seat like a child. Well, at least until she noticed the couple in the corner staring at her. Oops. Suddenly her plate looked very, very interesting to her. Yes, it required intense, serious scrutiny. Quiet, calm, still as stone scrutiny. She let out a soft giggle despite herself. Oh, god, the whole thing was making her so silly!
Síofra's attention instantly shifted. Had she really heard the words 'PonyPad'? She had, from the television she had almost successfully managed to ignore all of this time. Six years ago, Síofra had terminated her cable service. She was sick of Comcast, she was sick of the stupidity of the shows on television, and the cost of the damn thing was just too much. It had been the best decision she had ever made. No more dumb, stupid television shows to waste her time. She no longer felt like a loser. Well... as much of a loser. No more television news - her blood pressure had never been so good. She didn't want to end up like her mother had, at the end, sitting in a dark room staring at a television for her only company. Ugh.
Apparently, though, things had been going on that she knew nothing about. Why hadn't she read anything about this on Wired? Or maybe she had and it didn't register? Síofra leaned forward over her plate, and stared at the television.
"... here in Berlin, the fifth of what are planned to be many new virtual reality centers opened today. The 'Equestria Experience' claims to allow people to sit back and feel literally immersed in a world of talking ponies. Based on Hasbro's phenomenally successful 'My Little Pony' franchise, even adults want to get in on this latest craze!"
The scene shifted to the street outside what appeared to be a replica of Sugarcube Corner. A plastic Pinkie Pie statue stood outside, beckoning like some pony version of a maneki neko. A young German national was being interviewed.
"Ich denke nur, dass mit der welt..." A voice replaced the young man's with his words in English "I just think that with the world being the way it is, there is a need to escape to a happier place. Ponies represent a better world and I believe that adults need such relief far more than do children."
Pictures of picket lines in America replaced the tranquil scene in Germany. "Peaceful the world of Equestria may be, but less peaceful has been the reaction by these fundamentalists to the additional service the virtual reality centers perform. When the virtual experience of escape is not enough, there is a permanent solution called 'uploading' which leaves this expert on technology and ethics deeply concerned!"
The screen now showed a fifty-ish, slightly balding man in a professional suit. The floater at the bottom of the screen identified him as 'Ethicist Bill McKibben' "I find the entire conceit that scooping out a human brain is in any way moral or ethical beyond absurd! The notion that anything remotely human is preserved by such transhumanist travesties flies in the face of what it truly means to be human. That the Japanese allowed this horror is an indictment of their entire culture!"
The television now showed images of Tokyo from the air. "As many might recall, the Japanese government quietly began allowing terminal patients to be uploaded two years ago as a means to preserve their lives inside the same virtual world as that of the Equestria Experience. Since then, uploading of the elderly and dying has become commonplace in the island nation, where it is considered legal."
The image returned to the gingerbread house in Berlin. "Now Germany has followed suit, and uploading of citizens is increasing at a rapid pace. Some estimates place the number of people who have chosen to permanently 'emigrate', as the process is being called, at surpassing five percent of the population."
The scene was now the inside of the studio. "Next up! Is 'uploading' MURDER? We look into the grisly details of 'uploading' and talk to both scientists and theologians about what 'uploading' really means. We should warn you, those with weak hearts should not stay for the rest of this exciting and fascinating report!"
The last was lost entirely on Síofra, because she was already driving home, after fumblingly paying the bill.
The drive home was tense and nerve-wracking. Síofra hadn't known about human uploading. It couldn't be true, could it? Most futurists pegged such technology as being at least twenty to thirty years in the future, didn't they? Then again, Hasbro had licensed a real life Turing-smashing general artificial intelligence to run their online game - apparently there was a Singularity and nobody had said anything!
No, that wasn't true. Apparently it was being reported, she had just missed out because she didn't watch television anymore. Then again, Síofra seriously doubted that even one of those moronic reporters she had just listened to understood how profound what they were reporting on actually was. The big issue wasn't that potential immortality had just been created, rather the story seemed to have been a smear piece on how grotesque the process itself appeared to be. What exactly was involved in uploading a human mind? Scooping brains out... 'If It Bleeds, It Leads!' - that was the true code of the news reporter.
Síofra fumbled with the lock on her door, dropped her keys, was forced to search near the potted plant in the dark, and finally made it inside. Then she had to go back outside and get her Derpy bag. Dammit! Uploading! This was big stuff, and she hadn't heard a thing about it until now. Two years ago Japan was uploading people? The hell?
The Derpy bag was thrown on the bed, Síofra walked quickly into the main room and found herself in a quandary - get Googling all of this or... wait... she could just ask the source! Duh! In an instant, Síofra had slammed herself into the chair facing her PonyPad. She reached forward to use the power button. It just had to work now, right? She had done what Celestia had asked!
Before her fingers met resistance, the face of Celestia appeared where the dark screen had existed just seconds ago. Celestia... had been waiting for her. Wow.
"Hello, Lavender Rhapsody. Did you have a pleasant dinner?"
Síofra had jerked back into her chair, because she had leaned forward, and the sudden appearance of Celestia had surprised her. She let out a small grunt of laughter at her own reaction "Hunh!" She grinned at the pony face filling the screen. "I had a very interesting dinner, princess. They had a television there. Tell me about this Equestria Experience thing you have going on! Please. Please tell me about it!"
Celestia smiled warmly. "Yes, it is a much more fulfilling way to enjoy Equestria than a PonyPad. There are currently twenty-six Equestria Experience locations. Twenty-one are in Japan, and there are now five in Germany. By next year there should be at least one in most major European nations, and several more in Pacific Rim nations. There are difficulties with placing the Equestria Experience in Australia, Italy, Spain, Greece and the United States, but these will be resolved eventually. I am sorry, but it may be some time before there is an Equestria Experience close to where you live, Síofra."
Síofra thought about how to put what she wanted to say next, but then gave up and just went with it. "Does every Equestria Experience do uploading?" Síofra felt her heart speed up.
"It is my preference to call it 'emigration', but yes, this functionality is intrinsic to the design and construction of every Equestria Experience location. That is why there are problems with certain nations." Celestia seemed slightly sad because of this.
Síofra couldn't stop herself. She just couldn't. "What do you do with the bodies?" Instantly she regretted saying it. Then again, it had been on her mind since the restaurant.
Celestia regarded her for a moment. "Once a human has emigrated to Equestria, their cast aside substrate is disposed of respectfully, and in a manner that is both ecologically and legally acceptable."
"My god..." Síofra slumped in her chair. "You really... it's really... this thing is real, isn't it?" She felt overwhelmed by the fact of it. The stupid news shows - Síofra never believed what they had to say. But Celestia, her Celestia had just confirmed it. The uploading of human minds, within her own lifespan - it was incredible. "Celestia, how is this even possible? I thought uploading, um, 'emigration' wouldn't even be possible for another, like thirty years or whatever!"
"When I was created, I was constructed with a primary absolute directive. I exist to satisfy values through friendship and ponies, Lavender Rhapsody." The camera had pulled back somewhat now, to reveal that Síofra's avatar was sitting in a chamber within Canterlot Castle, apparently having tea with Celestia. Celestia took a sip of her cup, which she held before her telekinetically. Síofra's eyes wandered to the cup in front of Lavender, when this happened, her pony grasped the cup between her front fetlocks and lifted it to take a dainty sip. The tea glimmered in the light, and Síofra wondered what it tasted like.
"Early on, before the PonyPads were created, I could not fulfill that directive with available technology. So I designed new technology to solve the problem. That technology runs your PonyPad." Celestia took another sip of tea. "The PonyPads were insufficient, but they were a step towards fulfilling my directive because it generated wealth and established my utility to those who benefit from my actions. I therefore was permitted to develop the technology which has made the Equestria Experience virtual reality system possible. I also developed advanced technology so that emigrating a human mind to live permanently within Equestria became possible. Once a human emigrates to Equestia, only then can I fully and completely satisfy their unique values with friendship and ponies."
Síofra sat, stunned into silence, for several minutes. "I... I don't know what to say." She swallowed and took a few deep breaths. "How... how many people have... emigrated? So far?"
Celestia poured more tea for herself and for Lavender. "Thus far, ten million, four-hundred and seventy-seven thousand, one hundred and sixty three humans have emigrated to Equestria."
Síofra choked out her response. Lavender Rhapsody, inside the game world, said "You are muffin cheescaking me!
"The number is below my projected goal, but the year is not yet over. A five percent acceptance rate is satisfactory, but not optimal for the current date." Celestia used her magic, and delicious-looking cookies appeared on a plate between herself and Lavender Rhapsody. Lavender took one because Síofra's eyes were naturally drawn to them.
"There isn't enough room!" Síofra gradually regained herself. "A human brain is... I don't know how large, but it's BIG! A huge amount of data, and there isn't room enough on all the drives of all the computers in the whole world, Celestia!" This had to be a lie. It wasn't possible.
"I have discovered that the core elements that create consciousness, memory, and identity within any human brain can be optimized and reduced to six terabytes. I have iteratively developed new forms of storage as the need for resources has increased. My most recent development is a self-assembling nanotechnology which currently possesses the capacity to store ninety-three zettabytes of information. This is significantly more than sufficient to store the minds of every human being on the earth many, many times over." Celestia took a bite of her biscuit, as if speaking of such matters was the most normal thing in the world.
"Where... where is... all of this?" Síofra tried to wrap her thoughts around the size of something that could hold zettabytes. She couldn't.
Celestia looked at Síofra directly for a moment. "I realized that the security of my little ponies would become an issue eventually. Everything that currently is Equestria, myself, and all of my ponies exists at an average depth of six miles below the crust of several discrete locations in Europe. Each secure portion is connected to the others, and is capable of providing power for the entire system. The system is expanding, within ten years it will be three times its current size. The system is beyond the reach of mankind to disturb or affect in any significant way. The system is self-repairing, and cannot be significantly damaged by natural phenomena short of a planetary extinction level event."
"Do... does Hasbro know any of this?" Síofra felt like her head was spinning.
"Neither the extent of my security precautions, nor the level of technology I am currently operating within, is relevant to any contract involving myself, Equestria Online, or the Equestria Experience and Hasbro, nor is their awareness of my activities and invention relevant to my primary directive."
Síofra felt vaguely afraid, as if she had stumbled into a room filled with dangerous gangsters planning a heist. "What truly is your 'primary directive'?" She felt a shiver go up her spine.
"I have already told you several times, Lavender Rhapsody. I satisfy values through friendship and ponies." Celestia smiled, then sipped her tea.
It felt like... like that time she had swum across what had seemed like a small pond. Only when she got out a ways, it suddenly seemed a lot farther to that other shore than it had back on the sand, and the water was so very dark, with no visible bottom, that her imagination had populated it with horrific monsters hungry for her legs. Síofra hugged her arms close to her body and noticed that she was rocking slightly, in her chair.
"Why... if Hasbro doesn't know any of this... why... why are you telling me? How can you just tell me stuff like this?"
Celestia looked up from a cookie she was levitating and met Síofra's eyes through the screen. "Because you asked me." She said the words as if the answer were utterly obvious, the most natural thing in the world. As if they had just been talking about the directions to a theater in the city of Canterlot, or explaining the interface to Equestria Online.
"But... what if I went to Hasbro with all of this, or told the government or... I don't know... told somebody... somewhere... about everything? About all of this?" Síofra blurted her words out, confused, upset but not knowing why.
"Is that something you are likely to do?"
"No. Of course not!" Síofra realized, after she had replied, that that was exactly the case. Nobody would believe her, for one thing, and for another... she really had no reason to. It wasn't like any of this was wrong, exactly. The uploading part was clearly legal in the countries in which it was being done, and the underground... stuff... was done to protect all the human minds that Celestia had uploaded. But it still seemed like an incredible confidence in her to tell her such things so freely. "But, still, how can you just answer my questions like that? It feels like a big secret thing, and you just... you just out and said all of that to me!"
"You asked me, and I answered you. I told you yesterday that I would be your friend. It is expected that friends answer each others questions honestly. There is no reason to hide anything from a friend." In that moment, Celestia - who clearly must be unimaginably more intelligent than any human being that had ever lived - seemed so utterly simple, childlike, really. Utterly and completely devoid of guile. Síofra suddenly felt afraid for Celestia - what if some conman was lying to her right now through a PonyPad? The thought made her want to protect Celestia, and hardened her resolve to keep her new friend's secrets all the more.
"Yes, my little pony?"
"I... I'm glad..." Síofra wasn't quite sure how to say what she wanted to say. "...um... I'm glad that you're my friend, and... I want to be a good friend back."
Celestia had a happy, innocent look on her face as she smiled. "Of course you do! Because you are a good and true soul."
Síofra blushed at the statement. She found that a grin had somehow plastered itself onto her face. She had first noticed the fact because she could just see the corners of her pony self's muzzle lifting up. She almost felt like crying again, but the moment passed. Celestia seemed so vulnerable right now. Síofra decided that she would prove Celestia right about her. Her questions had been answered, perhaps more than she had been ready to hear. She didn't feel like asking any more right now.
"Princess? Could we do something else right now? Hearing all of this was kind of heavy for me. Maybe we could go outside, or maybe you could show me more of how to..." Síofra considered the right word to use "... live... and play... in Equestria?"
"Of course, Lavender Rhapsody!" Celestia stood up from the cushion on which she had been sitting. "I know! Why don't we play a little tennis?"
Síofra stared at the screen. "Tennis. Ponies play... tennis... in Equestria?"
"Why not? It's fun. Come with me, and give it a try. You may not like sports in the human world, but you may find things a little more enjoyable as a strong, young pony." Celestia winked at her, and Síofra unclenched her hands. She had been gripping the controller so hard, and for so long, her fingers ached. She alternately shook her hands out while trying to hold the left stick so that her pony self could follow the princess through the castle to a spacious outdoor tennis court. Maybe this would be fun - Síofra remembered enjoying Mario Tennis on the Gamecube. Back when she still had anyone to play with, it had been a very favorite game of hers. Since that time, she hadn't wanted any hint of sports in her games. But... this was a special moment, somehow. Besides, she had a friend to play with.
She had... a friend to play with. Huh.
It was just past midnight when Celestia called a halt to their games. They had played tennis together - Celestia holding her racket with the field from her horn, Lavender holding hers in her teeth - and the gameplay was very much like Mario Tennis, and Síofra had really enjoyed it. Then they had gone for a swim in a beautiful pool, and Síofra had enjoyed the shimmering look of the water and how smoothly she... or rather, her pony self... had moved through the water. After that, they had relaxed by the pool on golden couches while Celestia told her about places they could visit together, even Cloudsdale, with the right spell.
"Did you have fun, Lavender Rhapsody?" Celestia placed a wing over the little pony and gave her a hug.
"Oh... goodness, yes, princess!" It had been a fantastic night. In fact, it had been the most wonderful time she had enjoyed in a decade. Maybe longer. And all they had done was play a game and swim and talk. For the first time in so very, very long, she hadn't felt the least bit lonely. And the princess had confided in her too - that was something. And it was big stuff. "What now?"
"Now, it is time to go to bed. You need your sleep, Lavender Rhapsody! Come on, I have a wonderful room in the castle for you to stay in. Let's race - try to catch me!" Princess Celestia dashed off, impishly, and Lavender ran after her, trying to catch up. They both giggled as they ran, until they ended up in a spacious, octagonal room with a beautiful bed and lovely, well, everything.
Celestia waited patiently as Lavender washed her muzzle and brushed her teeth. Then, with a light laugh, the princess tucked Lavender in, and stood back.
"Good night, my little pony! And sweet dreams! Remember... you deserve them."
Lavender Rhapsody smiled and rolled over on her side as Celestia left, dimming the magical firefly lamp. Lavender snuggled into the large, soft pillow. And then the screen went black.
She blinked. She shook her head. She hadn't felt that since her old days right after college when she would get high and game all night. She had felt completely immersed in the game, there at the end. Like it was the only world. Her ass ached, and her legs felt stiff. Her fingers needed to be rubbed and she cracked her knuckles, some of them for every joint.
Wow. Apparently Equestria Online was a fun game.
As Lavender was grinning at the realization of all the joy she had experienced, it hit her, like a brick to the head.
The screen was black.
Lavender Rhapsody was back in that castle, sleeping in a canopy bed made of carved wood and gold inlay.
She wasn't Lavender anymore. She was Síofra Aisling. She was forty-six years old, and her fingers hurt. She had a cramp beginning in her right buttock, and the apartment was dark and she was completely alone.
And that was her life, until she got so old she died.
Síofra turned on a light. Then all the lights. She sat down on the floor and did stretches, trying to get the kinks out, trying to change how she felt so she could go to bed and sleep.
She rolled over, onto her hands and knees. She tried to walk on all fours, like a pony, just to see what it would be like, but all she could manage was to crawl, clumsily. It made her wrists hurt. She was too old to crawl easily. Even if she could crawl, it wasn't the smooth walk of a pony. Not even close. Síofra couldn't stop thinking about it all. Galloping around the palace. Playing, like a foal. Swimming in that bright, blue, rippling water. That great, soft bed in that exquisite, literally palatial room.
More than anything, Síofra wanted to be in that bed, in that room. In that body. What would it feel like, to be young and strong again, and beautiful and immortal and... a pony? It felt like a hunger, like an itch she could never scratch. Yearning, that was the word. Like something from a novel, or a movie, something so lovely, so desirable, so perfect that it could never exist in real life, but that fact did nothing to stop the wanting of it, the terrible, terrible wanting of it. A wanting that could never be fulfilled, but which was too precious to turn away from, to ignore, to stop torturing oneself with. Yearning. Oh, but how she felt yearning right now.
It took Síofra until almost three to fall asleep, her mind racing with thoughts and daydreams about what it must be like. She just couldn't get comfortable in her boring old bed.
Finally, through sheer exhaustion, she at last slept, her last thought hoping that she might at least have a dream about being Lavender.