H E A V E N I S T E R R I F Y I N G
The video content had taken forever to load on Síofra's computer, and she had fidgeted nervously waiting for it. Her computer wasn't the newest, and her internet connection - the only part of her original cable hook-up she retained - was less than adequate sometimes. Or maybe it was just her computer - Equestria Online ran great. The whole thing was finicky, and she found she couldn't skip ahead with the stream for whatever reason, so frustration welled in her as she was forced to wait for the only report she cared the least about.
Six years ago, Síofra had killed her television and turned her back on all forms of news. The world was a mess, politics had become a corrupt pandering to corporate interests, and the economy was clearly doomed. She was tired of feeling helpless, and weary of being terrified by things she could do nothing whatsoever about. Síofra kept to her online comics, those articles in online science websites and game sites that interested her, and the animations she could download from the net. When others talked about current events, she made a conscious effort to tune them out. It all just gave her ulcers, made her rage helplessly, and ultimately left her feeling hopeless and dejected. News, any news, wasn't worth it, and in her eyes, it had become nothing but propaganda in any case.
But now, there was something in the news she cared about, very deeply, and very personally - anything to do with Equestria Online, and Celestia. The problem was, in order to get to the stories she wanted to hear, she had to wade through endless minutes of global horror and local misery. Síofra turned the sound on her computer monitor as low as possible, to try to prevent as much upset to herself as she could, but it was not very effective. She needed to pay some attention, she couldn't just walk away for awhile, because the damn video app thingie couldn't be reversed or sped up. She had tried and it had just started over from the beginning.
Greece was collapsing, the European Union was on the verge of breaking up, Fukushima was a nightmare disaster that would murder people for hundreds of years, the United States was still blowing up children with drones and torturing people, and all of that was just the easier stories to handle. Síofra hung her head down so she couldn't see the supposedly important story out of everything presented - somebody she had never heard of had been caught sleeping with somebody else she cared nothing about. Síofra slowly shook her head at it all and remembered why she had stopped paying any attention to the god-damned news.
Síofra drifted off while the droning voices emanating from her speakers described how nobody anywhere would get their pensions because of the latest in a string of investment frauds that... and she was smiling because she was miles away inside her own head, daydreaming of her adventures over the last three months with Celestia... and her newest friend, Thunder. Celestia had apparently taken on an assistant to help her manage the annoying details of her royal duties, and thus Lavender Rhapsody found herself occasionally bumping into the intelligent and organized Thunder Steed. They had hit it off almost immediately, and lately Lavender had found herself spending time just talking with the clever and warm stallion - and even sometimes helping him with his duties around the...
She had missed part of it, darnit. Síofra scrambled to adjust the volume, her ears aching as the flaky knob suddenly caused the sound to jump to jackhammer levels. A few jiggles and turns managed to set the sound at an acceptable level.
"...because they believe that emotion is unique to humanity, and this is why they protest in this manner."
The scene shifted from what had been a tiny collection of people carrying over-sized handkerchiefs and signs with images of what looked like raindrops to one member of the group.
"When I first joined We Are Human, I just felt so sad - for all of the people that have been lost. I worry that uploading will be permitted here. This is not a choice anyone should be given, it needs to be stopped." The young man was in his twenties, and seemed earnest, if upset.
The perky reporter briefly moved the microphone with the large logo on it to her mouth. "How did crying become your form of protest?"
The young man, smiled nervously as the microphone was put to his face. "We cry because it is human. A machine cannot feel, a machine cannot cry. We cry for all of the murdered people, and because of the travesty of claiming that they somehow live on. We cry to bring attention to the fact that even if what they claim is true, nobody can claim to be human who does not know tragedy or sadness. We cry for the loss of humanity." The man turned to the small group behind him "WE ARE HUMAN! WE ARE HUMAN!" The other members of the group shouted back at him the same slogan.
The young, Asian reporter was now squarely in the frame, her makeup and hair, perfect. "Some dedicated young people willing to shed tears for what they believe in. Joyce Akiyama, reporting, Channel Seven News."
That was it??? Síofra made growling noises at her monitor as she closed her browser. God damn those... all that crap she had to wade through and this was all there was. Goddammit! She'd do better just Googling the name of the group, now that she knew what it was. 'We Are Human'. She had wondered what the small group crying their eyes out on the courthouse steps was all about, but she did not want to go anywhere near them to find out. Later, when Barb The Hook had mentioned that it was a protest against the virtual reality centers possibly being made legal here... well, Síofra just had to know who they were.
Who the enemy was, really.
Celestia was her friend, and now, so was Thunder, and the idea of being able to see through the eyes of Lavender Rhapsody, to feel like she was literally walking around Canterlot - it was beyond awesomsauce! It was pure awesome, and she wanted to be able to be part of the... Equestria Experience. But, because uploading was an inseparable part of the package, the whole was not currently allowed where she lived.
She could afford, she had calculated, to go virtual for an hour a day every single weekday, and two hours on Saturday on her salary, if only they would just build one nearby! But it had to be ruled on, uploading had to be defined as legal first. It looked like it could take a long time for a decision to be made, and there was no guarantee that it would be favorable. Lavender had asked Celestia why there couldn't just be Equestria Online outlets without the option for uploading built in, but this was not acceptable to the princess. Somehow, the course that was being taken would have greater results farther in the future, though for the life of her, Lavender couldn't see how.
It just seemed obvious to her that the virtual reality centers without uploading should go in first, to soften things up, and then the uploading aspect could be brought in later. But apparently it had something to do with all kinds of complicated political stuff that Celestia was manipulating behind the scenes. It was all terribly complicated, and Lavender quickly realized she really didn't want to hear all about it. As long as things would work out in the end, she could be content - she just wished they could work out a great deal faster.
'Lavender' - heh! She really was beginning to see herself as her ponysona, as her identity within Equestria Online. There were moments at work where she failed, just for a moment, to respond to the name 'Síofra'. She was getting used to being addressed by her pony name. It felt natural now. It was her name, at least in the only place she had real friends. She had even begun to idly consider whether she had the courage to legally change her first name to 'Lavender' or not. She probably didn't have the guts to change her last name to 'Rhapsody', she knew it. But it would be amazing, she thought, just amazing, wouldn't it? It would be so damn cool. Like that guy in Norway or Sweden or whatever that supposedly changed his name to 'Rainbow Dash'. It would be so amazing to be brave like that.
And it would feel so nice to be able to say her name was 'Lavender Rhapsody', and have that be real, and have people call her by that name. But it was too embarrassing. There would be questions, and My Little Pony, and then giggles or outright laughter, and people thinking she was nuts. The world just wasn't built for fun. That, or she wasn't brave enough to not care what other people thought.
Logging on to Equestria Online had become the natural order of Lavender's life now. She might have to be Síofra outside, at work, but the minute she entered her 'Equestrian Embassy' (as she had laughingly started thinking of her apartment), she was Lavender Rhapsody, earth pony and proud, the close, personal friend of princess Celestia and increasingly the close friend of a certain pegasus stallion. That thought made her giggle and blush. Life was good.
Thunder Steed was waiting for her when the loading screen had finished. Lavender was still in bed. It was late morning, almost noon, the time she preferred to rise. This way both afternoon and late evening were hers, both sun and moon, and she could languorously sleep in, with nothing demanded of her save her pleasure.
Celestia had arranged the passage of the sun such that Lavender Rhapsody's day would begin when Síofra's existence in the real world was finished, work and dinner behind her, her human evening cleared, her Equestrian afternoon begun.
Thunder stood half inside the door to Lavender's exquisite room, eager to see her, but polite enough not to barge in. Lavender smiled, her beautiful face a second sun that radiated joy. Her best life, if not her physical life, had just started once more.
Thunder gave her time to catch her wits, and attend her mane and tail, before escorting her to the great dining hall where lunch was being served. The princess greeted her warmly, as she always did, nuzzling her tenderly and asking how she had 'slept'. There was now a standing conceit that Lavender's existence beyond the bounds of Equestria was her sleep, and that her life within Equestria was her true waking.
Lavender Rhapsody sighed and looked briefly sad. "Nightmares, as usual, I am afraid." And that is how she felt about it, the dreary unpleasantness of work and commuting and eating food among strangers.
"I am always so sorry to hear that, good Lavender." Thunder was steadfast and supportive, and it was no secret that he clearly fancied her. "It is my greatest hope that one day you should be free from all nightmares, and enjoy only the best of dreams." The stallion's great muzzle was sincere and his gaze strong. There was no doubt that if Lavender's nightmares could be vanquished with hoof and buck, Thunder would risk everything and all to rescue her, if he but could.
Lavender Rhapsody sighed, a wisp of reddish mane falling across her delicate muzzle as she dipped her head. "I wish that too, kind Thunder, but I do not see a way to achieve it."
Celestia smiled, mysteriously at that, causing Lavender to look up and study her elegant features. "What? What is it my princess? You look... as if you know something you are dying to say!"
"Yes, dearest Lavender, I have some news to tell you, and it is my hope that you may find it more than pleasing."
The serving-unicorns suddenly brought great plates of all manner of delicious delights, and set about removing the silver covers with grand flourishes of their telekinetic grasps. Celestia nodded and smiled and waited for them to finish before continuing - they loved it so very much to make a show of meals, and if anything, the princess was ever gracious.
Lavender was very curious, for the past three months life had been a slow yet thoroughly engaging affair, filled with simple joys and happy play, gentle walks and the occasional gleeful chase around the castle. She had gone shopping and dining with Celestia, and later with Thunder, helped with the decorations for a party, and even attended a ball. She had danced, if a bit clumsily, with Thunder there, and later watched Luna's splendid moon on the balcony with him, sharing the things that made them both most happy.
"I'm sorry, Thunder... I was pretty clumsy out there. All hooves and no grace. Sorry." She had said to him that night, as she gazed out at the breathtaking view of the valley far, far below.
"Oh, good Lavender, please, give it no more thought. I am aware that you are not entirely among us yet, and that you suffer the greater part of yourself being kept distant, apart from true life." The proud stallion smiled gently. "I, for my part, call myself glad for even the smallest hope of your company, if that is not to bold a thing to say."
Lavender smiled herself, at that. Thunder Steed was the product of his world, of his society, and his manner of speech had a poetry to it that was sorely missing in the nightmare world. Lavender was trying to learn to speak with such grace, but she often felt inadequate to the task. She sometimes worried that she must sound like a crude Eliza Doolittle to the gallant Thunder, but if so, he never for a moment seemed to care, or notice.
"I... I had fun. I mean... I had a grand time, with you, tonight." And she had - perhaps it all could be reduced to pressing buttons and staring at a ten inch screen in the dark, but her own total absorption, combined with the knowledge that the company she kept was real, with real feelings and thoughts and hopes and dreams had made a meaningful moment from the pixels and code from which it was constructed.
"Lavender Rhapsody... I too have had a most splendid time, and not just tonight but in every moment we have shared. I find in you a kindred spirit, and we share so much in common - our love of books, of gentle days, of curious thoughts and clever discussions, of pleasant diversions and quiet moments." Thunder had seemed so nervous in that instant, in the moonlight. "What I mean to say is... that I wonder if it might be permitted that our association could be more than as mere helpmates and friends to Celestia, and that I might dare to pursue the possibility of... a romantic inclination?"
Lavender shivered at the memory, as she sat at the table in the dining hall, watching the last of the unicorns exit, silvern lid in telekinetic tow. Of course she had said yes. Goodness, but of course yes.
Celestia sipped a complex drink made of berries and fruits, then continued.
"I am sure that you know of the fact that it will be some time before Equestria can come to you, my dearest Lavender." It was likely that it would be at least a year, if not longer, before there was even the hope of an Equestria Experience location opening anywhere even close to where Lavender lived her fleshly life. Celestia had promised that she was working on the issue, and that she had ways and means far beyond anything that any human could suspect or fully comprehend, and that victory in terms of the relevant laws was assured, in time. But Celestia could not give an exact date, nor any indication of how long the effort would take. It was a frustration to Lavender.
Celestia leaned forward slightly. "There are twenty seven doors to Equestria open right now, Lavender. You need not wait for Equestria to come to you."
Lavender sighed and shook her head. "We talked about this, princess! I don't have enough saved up to travel to Japan or Germany, much less to stay there for even a day. It's really expensive! I don't make very much, it's just not possible, unless I win the lottery or something. Wait - can you do that?" Now that was a thought! Celestia was a superintelligent artificial intelligence! She probably could rig anything that had computers in it and...
"I could, my little pony, but in this case I will not. It is not an optimal solution to this issue. But I can easily provide for you in alternative ways, sufficient to the need." Celestia calmly studied her.
"Princess?" Lavender felt confused, and a little disappointed. Being rich would be really nice. "I'm not sure what you..."
The regent of Equestria stood up, her head towering above Lavender and Thunder. "Lavender Rhapsody - money is of no concern to me save in those ways it may further my goals. I already control vast sums of it within your world, to support my many important projects and plans. Early on, I determined that control of vast amounts of wealth was crucial to accomplishing my primary directive." Celestia shifted her wings slightly, as if making them more comfortable. "I have great influence now over many varied businesses and corporations, and I have managed to use that influence to acquire for you free passage to Berlin, Germany, where you may finally get your wish to sample the Equestria Experience. The tickets should arrive within the next few days. I have checked your bank account, you have sufficient wealth to spend fully a week in Berlin visiting us, now that you need not pay for the flight there. I can arrange sufficient discounts for you that could potentially stretch that time to nearly three weeks." Celestia gave a short nod, and sat down at the table.
Lavender was floored. Free tickets to Germany. Special discounts. That made it all possible, within what small money she actually had managed to save. But why...? Oh! Her birthday! Of course! She had almost forgotten. It wasn't like anyone cared... least of all her. Her birthday was coming up and... princess Celestia had arranged to make it possible to have a birthday vacation in Equestria as a present!
"You did this as a birthday present. To me, didn't you?" Lavender was nearly in tears. Wow. A week in Berlin. Maybe three weeks. No, not Berlin. In Equestria.
Thunder Steed turned to Lavender and could not help but grin. "Sweetest Lavender, we could truly meet! Surely this is finally a good dream among the nightmares you suffer!"
Lavender grinned back at her stately stallion. "Maybe... maybe it really is!" The thought of all the things she might do made her face ache from the sheer joy and excitement she felt overwhelmed by. The full virtual experience. Three-hundred and sixty times pi r squared of Equestria, tracked to her most minute head motions with zero lag. Perfect sound. Everything but smell, taste and touch, and all of it almost as real as real. The way her mind worked, she might even manage to imagine the missing senses on her own. She could finally crawl and peek under her bed. She could see her own hooves as extensions of herself. She could... she could almost truly... be there.
Celestia gazed at her strangely. "Lavender, in speaking of birthdays, it comes to mind that if it were your choice, you could easily make your birthday truly a day of birth, and, if you so desired, leave all nightmares behind and live indefinitely with us. It is something to consider."
Lavender stared at her untouched food. "You... you mean... emigration, don't you?"
"If you emigrated to Equestria, Lavender Rhapsody, you need never work again, unless it was your wish to do so, and it was something you truly wanted to do. You would be young and perpetually healthy, perpetually beautiful. You would finally taste the exquisite banquets we share, feel the cool waters as you swim, and experience the softness of your bed in the castle. Everything that Equestria offers would be yours to enjoy in a maximally extended lifespan of millennia at minimum, and possibly eons of time. It would all be real, solid, and totally factual to your experience and senses. You could, Lavender Rhapsody, fully and truly and completely, be here."
Lavender began to shake, a sudden strange terror overcoming her. Emigration. Uploading. Brain scooping. It had been a fascinating concept, science fiction become real, an intellectual curiosity wondrous to marvel at, but safely an ocean away. It was easy to support and cheer for, in that context. But now, now she could do it, really do this thing, and it could happen as early as next week. Every single fear and argument against the notion was flooding her mind now, making her head spin and her heart pound as if it was determined to explode out of her chest.
Emigration meant having your brain scanned. Destructively. Each neuron measured, and then eliminated in turn by the very process that measured it. A corpse. Disposed of respectfully, and in a manner that is both ecologically and legally acceptable. It meant... dying? Was it dying? Was it?
"I... I... Oh my god... I... I'll have to think about it."
When Síofra finally stopped shaking, her face speckled with sweat, she only then realized that she was crouched by the wall of her apartment, the ends of the unplugged internet and power cables clutched vice-like in her hand.