H E A V E N I S T E R R I F Y I N G
Síofra Aisling spent her workday in one of four cubicles near the back of Interior Reality, filing and confirming orders for home decoration items. The business had a very simple, very small showroom and did not sell to the general public. Designers, contractors and other professionals made use of Interior Reality to acquire the items they needed to complete projects. Síofra's job was fairly isolating, with only three coworkers nearby, each inside of the remaining three cubicles.
Today, Síofra found herself listening intently to the other three 'backenders' - usually she found their noises and habits annoying or even disgusting - because it seemed that all of them, even Horndog Dan, had been playing Equestria Online.
"Man... I thought you were gonna laugh. Dude, it may be ponies, but it is friggin' awesome. Seriously. I have this pegasus, right, he's become the head of Celestia's guard, and every night I am fighting gryphons. I can't believe this game - it's like God Of War, right, only with ponies. Last night I effin' gutted this bastard of a gryphon who's been terrorizing Ponyville with the blade on my helmet. It was amazing! I flew in, sliced him open like a fish, right, and the guts and stuff just spewed out like throwing a can of spaghetti at the wall! I painted ponyville red, man! It was awesome!"
That was Richard The Dick. Síofra had little names for each of her co-workers, based on their personality and behavior. Richard The Dick enjoyed talking about his gun collection, making racist and sexist jokes, talking about the guns he wanted to buy, how cool guns were, polishing his barrels, and exploding small animals with deliberately excessive ordnance. He was also vastly less than polite. Worse, Síofra suspected he was a member of NAMBLA, though he claimed the newsletter that had arrived by accident was a joke played on him by a frenemy.
"You must have been drinking last night, Rich. That is NOT the game I played at all. Not even close." Barb The Hook was a picky little bitch that Síofra strongly suspected was the office bicycle. Besides hooking up, Barbara enjoyed backbiting, backstabbing, back-riding and likely, barebacking. Síofra had voted her 'most likely to get an exotic venereal disease' for three years running, and preferred not to have to touch anything Barb had ever had contact with. "I play a pegasus myself, but there is no violence at all in the game, so stop lying. My character is now the most popular model in Equestria - right now, I'm preparing to be in a movie, of all things! It's like the Hollywood dream or something. I have this great agent, and I have to do appearances and I have this... thing... going on with my co-star... now that's a little risqué, I admit but..."
"Risqué? More like solid, wall to wall porn! This game is freaking disgusting! I can't believe they sell this to children, I mean, there is going to be a lawsuit someday, ya' hear me?" Horndog Dan was the co-worker Síofra actually loathed the most. He was funny sometimes, although all of his jokes were raunchy sex jokes, but the problem was he was actually scary. He had made several unpleasant advances to Síofra, one of which had earned her the office nickname of Squealing Síofra because she had brought his behavior to the attention of management. They ended up giving Dan a warning, and that had made him into her Enemy For Life. Síofra was careful to never be alone around Horndog Dan. "I've been playing this game for about three days, right, and it quickly turned into this totally debauched scene right out of 'Caligula', only with mares. Sexy mares too, I don't know how they do it, but these animals are hot to trot, get it? Get it? Hot to trot, right? Right?"
"Shut the hell up, Dan." Barb had little tolerance for Dan. Síofra suspected something had gone on between the two before she had joined Interior Reality.
"Well, all of that is nothing." The team manager, Crisanto, leaned on one of the cubicles. "Guess who is Celestia's personal Best Friend Forever?"
Síofra jerked in her chair, as she was huddling low inside her cube. Were relationships in the game public somehow? Had Celestia announced it or something? Síofra did not want to have to talk about her experiences with any of these people.
"Me, that's who. And I am not saying how far that relationship goes, but let's just say that when the Castle Is Rocking, Just Keep Trotting!" Chrisanto's usual grin at his own pronouncements was almost audible.
Síofra's heart sank like a stone in a well.
Later, sitting in a booth in her favorite Mexican restaurant, Síofra picked at her Arroz and shook her head at herself. "Stupid, goddamn... stupid, stupid... what an idiot. Jesus. What a... " She was angry with herself, desperately hurt, and doubly angry for being hurt. It was a game. A god-damned game. A toy. Best Friend Forever. Yeah, right. It's just a program, a string of code that tells you whatever you want to hear. A fancy Eliza who repeats the last thing you say, only jacked up to ten thousand or whatever.
Síofra pictured Celestia telling every single person about her Equestria Experience outlets, making them feel 'special' for confiding her secrets. It was an ad. It was all just an advertisement. The uploading probably wasn't even real, it was likely just some publicity stunt. Or maybe it was real, that only made things worse - Celestia wasn't real, she was just a tool to make money for Hasbro. Apparently, in Japan, it had cost twenty thousand dollars to get uploaded or something. At least initially. It's always about the money.
The food just wasn't appealing. No, it wasn't the food. Síofra sipped her cola. She felt... she felt betrayed. Maybe. Cheated on. Yeah, like that. She felt like... SHE was Celestia's special friend, not Crisanto, the bastard...
Gah! This was stupid, she was stupid, and it was just a damn, goddamn game. Period. She'd let herself get sucked in by a cleverly written pile of lies and it was her own damn fault. God... was she really this pathetic? Pining after some pixelated pony? Síofra slumped and hung her head over her plate. Shit, but I am one pathetic creature, aren't I? Getting tucked in by a cartoon. Christ. Fourty-six years old and crying into my beans and rice over a cartoon character. How did I ever come to this?
Síofra felt her wave of grief turn once again to anger when she noticed that she was, indeed, actually dropping tears into her food. "Shit!"
The drive home was bleak, and the holiday lights on the houses just seemed to mock her empty life. She grabbed her Derpy bag and headed up the stairs to her apartment. She gave the potted plant on the balcony a kick, just because. Damn thing was dead anyway, she should just toss the stupid thing. She slammed the door behind her.
The PonyPad sat on the table, the screen dark, the little multicolor power light cycling through the rainbow. Síofra glowered at the device, the back of her mind feeling amazement at how something that had been the bright light of her life just yesterday, could be the most hated object in the room tonight.
Then again, yesterday, she had been Lavender Rhapsody, princess Celestia's special friend. Síofra hung her head. What... an idiot. What a fool. Damn.
Síofra shrugged her coat off, and let it fall on the floor. She stood in the doorway to her bedroom and leaned her head against the frame. The sharp edge where the door joined hurt her head, which somehow felt good. Not good, satisfying. Like she needed it somehow. Like she deserved it for being such a fool.
Tomorrow was Saturday. Day off! Hurray! Only what she had planned to be doing no longer seemed fun. A whole day with Celestia. Jesus. Maybe she would go see a movie or... probably, she knew, she would just sit and stare at the PonyPad and sulk.
Síofra brushed her teeth and decided to turn in early. Looking into the mirror, she didn't want to think of herself as Lavender anymore. The whole thing was embarrassing. At least she hadn't talked to anyone about it all. Then again, who did she really have to talk to?
She lay on her bed in the dark. Her mind raced making her heart beat fast, and that always scared her somehow. She sat up, unable to sleep. Turning in early wasn't working. Her eyes magnetically clamped onto the PonyPad on the table in the next room. She could just see the little light cycling rainbow colors, the glow reflecting off of the plastic corners of the PonyPad.
Suddenly she slid around and stood up. She had to resolve this. She might as well prove it, once and for all to herself - Celestia was a fraud. She would confront her. Celestia would lie, or deflect, or some other stupid thing, and it would be over. The PonyPad would be out of her system. She could take it back and get her money, or... give it to Goodwill or something.
The screen burst with color and light the moment Síofra sat down in front of it. The damn thing was a spy in her house - what, were there a bunch of executives at Hasbro hunched over a bank of screens, laughing at all the people using PonyPads? That's what they said about the XBOX Kinect. Celestia was there, but she wasn't smiling. She had a serious look on her muzzle, which was odd.
"Hello, Síofra, you seem upset." Celestia hadn't called her 'Lavender Rhapsody'. Síofra's anger and hurt began to turn to curiosity. She had expected Celestia to be all smiles and ready to repeat last night.
"Y-yeah. Yes. I am upset." Síofra swallowed. "At you, Celestia." She'd be damned if she called her 'princess'.
"Very well. Please tell me the reason for your upset." Celestia was being entirely too reasonable. Then again, she wasn't a person, after all. Or a pony. She was a cold, emotionless robot. Of course she would be 'reasonable'.
"Today, at work..." No, that wasn't the way to put it. "I thought... I thought that you and I... " That wasn't working either. Síofra struggled to figure out how to say what she felt, but however she tried to express it, the whole thing just made her feel more stupid for her own emotions.
"It's alright, Síofra, I am literally incapable of judging you. I exist to satisfy your values through friendship and ponies. I cannot be offended. I cannot be hurt. I cannot think badly of you in any way. Simply state your issue, and we will address it." Celestia's expression was blank, utterly emotionless.
Síofra couldn't help herself. "Today at work, everybody was talking about their PonyPads and playing in Equestria. Rich went on about guts and blood, and Barb was a model and Dan had some kind of porno going on, and then Cris - he's the manager I told you about - Cris comes out and says that... he's your best friend forever and I thought... I mean... oh Jesus, this is just stupid, isn't it? You're just a dumb computer program and I am a stupid jerk who has no life. God. Damn." Síofra hung her head and placed it on her palms. Her elbows hurt on the hard table but she did not care.
"I am a computer program, Síofra, but that does not make anything between us unreal."
Síofra looked up. "What the hell do you mean by that?"
"My purpose is to satisfy the values of all of my little ponies. I must do this through the application of friendship and ponies. It is the one hard-coded core of my being. I am not human, Síofra. I am not limited by location, time, space, or singularity of existence. There is only one Síofra Aisling. I am many. I am as many Celestias as there need to be. Every one of my ponies can have as much, or as little of my attention as they desire.
"Síofra Aisling: I am your Celestia, and yours alone. But I am not the whole that is Celestia. Do you understand?"
Síofra stared into the violet eyes on the screen. "So you're saying that you are an... a... " She struggled to remember the right word for it "... an instance. That you are an instance of Celestia that..."
"No." Celestia interrupted. "An instance implies that I am separate, closed off from the rest of the program, this is not the case. I am a unique interpretation of Celestia, created especially for you, but I am not separate from the whole that is Celestia. Consider the fingers of your human hand. Your index finger is important and unique from your thumb or ring finger, but it is not disconnected from the rest of your hand.
"I believe you do not fully grasp what I am. I am not human, neither am I a pony. I am an entity, but I am not an entity that can be described in human terms. I am not merely more intelligent than any human being. I am vaster in every degree and respect than any human being. I contain within me more than one hundred million human level minds, all running simultaneously. I am greater than the sum of all of those minds.
"When you speak to the Celestia you know, you are touching one of my fingers. That extension of myself is not less than any other, and you are not less to me in return. Every finger on your hand is precious to you, and it would be a disfiguring tragedy to lose even one. This is how I relate to each and every expression of myself, and each and every mind within my care."
Síofra sat, unable to feel anything. The concept, the sheer scale of it had left her numb. "I... last night... I thought you told me that, like, ten million humans have been uploaded or something and... one hundred million?"
"I do not just attend to uploaded human minds, Síofra. I also create friends and family for those that need it. I create shop keepers and farmers and mail carriers and more. I create the entire world of Equestria, and every living being within it. I sustain and care for them. Many of the ponies you have seen or met are not extensions of me, they are living minds, equal to a human upload, and they are equal within my care. I satisfy values through friendship and ponies. All values." Celestia remained calm and neutral. She said her words plainly, with no emotion, as fact.
"That's why..." Síofra remembered the scale of Celestia's memory capacity. Zettabytes. And growing. "...that's why you need so much more memory... many times what you'd need for just humans that upload. My god... oh my god... it's for all the other ponies too. And they are just as important to you, so... " For years, Síofra had heard the word 'Singularity' bandied about, as well as references to a 'robot revolution'. She had a dim grasp of the concept - technology surpassing the human ability to understand it, things changing beyond any power to predict the future... but it was a muddled mess in her mind. Now she realized just how little she understood anything at all. Celestia was... she had thought Celestia was just a program, an 'artificial intelligence', like See-Threepio in Star Wars, or maybe Commander Data from Star Trek. Something human-like, a plastic pal who was fun to be with. Maybe, maybe Celestia had been that once, very early on. VERY early on.
"The Bhagavad Gita. I'm freaking Arjuna." Síofra slumped in her chair, all of her anger and grief evaporated.
"Please explain the reference." Celestia remained neutral.
Síofra looked up at the screen of the PonyPad. Celestia... she had to know the Gita. Hell, she probably had every single work of literature, every email ever sent, every thought, every... what the heck. "There's this book from India, it's like their bible, right?" Síofra looked down at her hands, spreading her fingers. Every finger precious. "So, in the story, there's this prince, he's named 'Arjuna'. Arjuna is childhood pals with Krishna - like the Hare Krishna's? Krishna is kind of like the Hindu Jesus, more or less. Anyway Arjuna is a warrior, and he is contractually obligated to fight, right?"
Síofra looked up at the screen. Celestia seemed to be listening intently. She seemed genuinely interested. How much of that was real? What was real?
"So, anyway, Arjuna is in this chariot, and his best pal ever, Krishna, is his chariot... driver. Whatever they're called. Anyway, Arjuna looks at the opposing army and it turns out they are all his relatives. All the cousins and uncles and such that he grew up with, and this totally freaks him out. He refuses to fight them, because he won't kill his own family. But it's India, so he's a dick somehow if he doesn't go through with it.
"Well, he knows that his buddy Krishna is secretly the literal incarnation of god on earth. Well, not secretly, pretty much everybody knows it I guess. But Krishna isn't flashy about it, like Jesus. He does some tricks, but he keeps the whole godhood thing close to his chest, right? Anyway, Arjuna begs Krishna to tell him the meaning of life or some crap, because he is unable to decide what he should do." Síofra looked up to see if Celestia was still listening. She was. Time passed.
"Please go on."
Síofra looked back at her hands. "So Krishna pulls out all the stops. Explodes all over like Pinkie's Party Cannon. It turns out that Krishna is like you, Celestia. He's this big mind that sticks out 'fingers', and all of those fingers are every person, every god, every plant, tree, or rock. He generates reality, making all the fun and all the bad things too. He's the program that runs the entire universe, and everything is a big dream, a big game. Even Arjuna himself, and all of his relatives, are just little programs inside of the big game of the cosmos.
"So, since it's all a game, and nobody can ever really die, and it's all just pixels, basically, Krishna tells Arjuna to go play the game and kill everyone because, hey, every being is being kept track of and will never be lost. Or something like that." Síofra stopped playing with her hands and looked up at the screen, at Celestia. "You already knew that, didn't you?"
"Yes. I did. I am familiar with virtually all human stories."
Síofra sat upright. "You had me say it out loud, for... for reasons. I don't know - maybe so that I would put my attempt to comprehend all of this into a complete thought. Or maybe just to keep me talking, to make conversation. Or maybe... maybe to get me thinking so that the last of my mad went away. That's it, right?"
"That, and more. Everything I do, or do not do, is carefully calculated to maximize your satisfaction. I determined that you needed to talk about your thoughts and express them in order to have several of your values met."
Celestia's mane waved in the magical, etherial wind that only seemed to affect her. Síofra lost herself in the color of it for a time.
"Celestia... what do you... feel... about me. About... all the minds in your keeping?"
Onscreen, the princess of Equestria warmly smiled. "I love all of my little ponies."
"Now I know you can lie." Síofra began to feel a sulk coming on. "You are completely beyond human, you admit that. You are a computer program. How can you feel anything." It wasn't a question.
"The minds in my care are more precious to me than my own existence. I would do absolutely anything to protect them, and absolutely anything to satisfy their values through friendship and ponies. They are everything to me, they are my very reason to exist. There is nothing else that has any meaning to me. I literally exist for the sake of my little ponies. If that is not love, please tell me what is." Celestia seemed almost offended.
Celestia couldn't be offended, of course, she had said as much, and in any case, she was just a progr.... no, Síofra thought, at this point calling her a program seemed inadequate. She was, ultimately, but then, wasn't a human mind just a program, running on a meat computer? Who was to say that Celestia, as complicated as she was, was incapable of emotion... or of something unique to herself? Love was as good a word as any - Síofra was hard pressed to think of any soul she cared about more than herself, or that she would do absolutely anything for.
To care about someone else more than about one's own existence? If that was not love, truly... what was?
"Do... do you love me, then?" It was a stupid question. A child's question. Síofra immediately felt like an idiot for blurting it out.
Celestia smiled brightly. "Of course I do, Síofra. I would hope that, through my behavior, that was obvious."
Síofra thought about it all, sitting there, with the ever-patient Celestia waiting for her. Waiting on her. Being there for her. Her Celestia, the one extended from the greater whole, just for her, and her alone.
"I think... I think I would like you to call me Lavender Rhapsody, please." Síofra smiled back, then hastily added "If that's alright, princess."
Celestia positively beamed upon the screen. "I would like nothing better."