H E A V E N I S T E R R I F Y I N G
Síofra Aisling felt like a jelly doughnut by the time she had landed in Berlin. It was not that she wanted to devour the famous native treat, rather she imagined herself as a soft exterior, filled with red goo. Which was not, on the whole, all that far from wrong.
It had struck her, in her seat on the plane, just how vulnerable she was existing as a walking, talking pile of animated meat. It wasn't just her lifelong terror of flying, it was the fact of having something other than biological life to compare herself to. Celestia and all her little ponies were, for all intents and purposes, immortal and indestructible. Síofra had been told, during the week and a half she had needed to get her passport in order and arrange her vacation, a little bit of Celestia's grand plans.
Celestia intended nothing less than to ultimately upload every single human being upon the earth. It would take time, and money, and control of politics and media, it would not be easy, nor would it happen without some sacrifice - though any such sacrifices must, of simple practicality, entirely be made up of rebellious human lives alone. In the end, there would be only immortal ponies, eternal Equestria, and a planet inexorably converted into computronium.
Síofra had asked truthfully how long that Equestria could last. Even if Celestia managed to upload every last human into a maximally prolonged life of endless personal satisfaction, eventually the sun would burn out or go nova or whatever it was that the current fashion in astrophysics had decided would be ultimate Last Call for the world, right?.
Not a problem, apparently. Machine life only benefited from migrating into space. The rest of the solar system could be smelted down to make more Smart Matter, more computronium. What was left of old Sol after it became a red giant, could be used as power for billions of years more beyond even that. But then what?
There was a galaxy out there, and another, and another, and trillions upon trillions of worlds and stars and nebulae and other wonders, which themselves could enrich and expand Celestia's empire. Síofra could expect a full vingtillion of years as a pony, playing, laughing, and growing as an individual. The number was beyond her comprehension.
But still, there would be an end, would there not? At some point the universe itself would run down, entropy and all that, right?
Apparently not. Celestia had fifty-seven plans to survive the end of universe, and in short order Síofra's head was feeling dizzy with time crystals, the manufacture of other universes, wormholes and some bizarre system of slowing down computing speed while simultaneously increasing efficiency... or maybe that was wrong? - it was all too much for her. The bottom line was that Celestia was convinced that even the end of the observable universe was not going to be that much of a problem. When she said 'maximally extended lifespan', it was perhaps the greatest understatement ever made.
So Síofra felt especially vulnerable, sitting in a seat within an aluminum tube hurtling through the sky, and seeing herself as a fragile jelly doughnut that the slightest bump could splatter. True, factual, indestructible, inviolate, real immortality awaited her if she could only survive this flight. Even the end of the universe was not an issue. Síofra swore, at one point, that she could feel herself aging to her doom as she sat, sipping her coke and gnawing like a rodent on the three rancid peanuts in a bag that was her in-flight meal. She couldn't get to that fake gingerbread house fast enough.
Síofra had decided to emigrate - she hadn't told Celestia as much yet, she was still acting as if she intended to return. She hadn't quit her job, she hadn't closed up her affairs. Probably quite rude of her, she reflected, but she hadn't been completely certain until she was over the ocean in the middle of the air. Síofra had been thinking 'Oh, I'll try out the Equestria Experience' virtual reality for a few days, see if it is truly what I want, and if I am not sure, I can always come back, and go again another time. I know to save up now, and probably Celestia could even get me more free tickets!'
But there, up in the sky, looking down on a height that meant certain death should she fall from it, suddenly immortality started sounding pretty darn much like an obvious choice. When Síofra finally made it to her room at the MEININGER (in big scary capital letters for some reason) Hotel Berlin in the Mitte district, she flopped on the rather uncomfortable bed and wondered if she should have a last meal, or just go get uploaded on an empty stomach. She could dine with Celestia and Thunder tonight! Just the thought of finally getting to actually taste those incredible dishes the serving unicorns brought made Síofra's mouth water. Plus, Celestia had hinted that pony senses were better, so it would likely be literally the best meal she had ever tasted just from that alone.
Síofra had packed her PonyPad. She set it up on the desk in her room and plugged it in to charge. She had also brought her iPad, there was free WiFi as well in the hotel, so she could surf the net to find directions to the Equestria Experience when she was ready. She also had her little translation app on the iPad, the one where she could speak into the device and then it would speak back out in robotic German for her. The room was modern looking and clean, done in white gray and red, with a long, whimsical painting of balloonists adventuring over a green landscape above the bed. Ballooning - now that was a thought! She could safely go ballooning in Equestria, just like Twilight Sparkle did, and with the right spell put on her, even walk on the clouds. If she fell and 'died', she would just respawn in the local hospital. Just like a video game with infinite lives.
She had never considered that angle before. If she got bored with an eternity of playing and dining and swimming and romance, she could become an adventurer for a few eons if she wanted to. She imagined herself dressed like Daring Do, exploring the ruins of ancient Gryphonia or daring the underground rivers of the Diamond Dog Empire. Forever was enough time to grow in countless ways. Given eternity, she could literally try and do everything and anything there was. Mathematically, really, it was inevitable that she would. It was too bad that Celestia hadn't come sooner, old Georg Cantor would have loved Equestria.
The smell of food hit Síofra's nostrils, and it was a siren call that overrode her happy daydreams of post-upload life. The peanuts and coke were not enough, neither was the other crap she had eaten on the plane, and she could wait no longer. She decided to make use of one of the restaurants just outside.
Síofra sat and hungrily dug into her Schweinekotelett mit Äpfeln. Ponies were strictly vegetarian, and this would be her last porkchop. Bizarre thought, that. She held up a bite of pork and apple and pronounced grandly "The Last Porkchop!" Yes, this was her very last taste of meat, the terminal porkchop, beyond which no more porkchops existed. "The Porkchop Singularity!" Síofra giggled and stuffed the bite into her mouth, the flavors satisfying her values through 'Pork And Apples'.
What a different situation it would be if whoever had programmed Celestia had given her some other core directive, Síofra pondered. What if Hasbro had asked for a Transformers MMORPG? An eternity of battling Autobots and Decepticons? A war that literally never ended, where the only comfort was the odd Energon Cube, where there was nothing soft, nothing gentle, just hard metal plates and the call to 'Roll out and transform!"
It all could have gone so horribly wrong. At least the A.I. that would conquer mankind was benevolent. Celestia existed purely to satisfy human values. She macromanaged lives to make everything that happened satisfying. Síofra tried to imagine a different superintelligent optimizer - one that had no interest whatsoever in catering to human values.
It would be hell. Probably a hell as eternal as the heaven that Celestia offered. Mankind had dodged the biggest bullet ever, and all because some programmer got the contract for My Little Pony, and not, say, to create WOPR or Colossus. It struck her that this was all very Promethean - but then humans had a penchant for playing with fire. For once, nobody was getting burned.
English! Síofra heard her own language, somewhere in the diner. She strained her ears as she took another bite of schweinekotelett - she could only make out some of it, over the background noise, but they were clearly talking about uploading! Maybe they were here for the same reason as she... emigration?
"...no, no... that argument is bullshit. Let me put it clearly for you, alright?" The two voices were both male, one older than the other. Síofra couldn't see them yet.
"Fine, go. Go on then." The younger voice sounded slightly drunk, and he had a German accent.
"Imagine the process wasn't destructive, not immediately anyway. There's a big monitor, so you can see into the virtual world, right? Now our subject, call him Mr. A, he lays down and his brain is scanned - some weird radiation beam or something. It will kill him, just not right away. So his data is in the system and gets butthumped into usable form and BAM, there he is in the virtual world, being all virtual and everything. With me?"
The younger seemed less than impressed. "Yeah, Mr. A is uploaded, and his body is kaput. So?"
"NO! That's the point. His body isn't dead. It will be dead, in... oh, fifteen minutes, say. But the original Mr. A is very much still alive, and he can see his copy prancing about in the virtual world on the monitor. Now - the virtual Mr. A - let's call him A2, Mr. A2 has this floating window or some shit in his virtual world, so he can look back through a camera at the real world. He can see his meat body laying there, staring back at him!"
Younger didn't like that. "That is freaky, man."
"Damn right it's freaky, now stay with me. Mr. A starts complaining, see, he feels cheated, because he knows he's dying, and that he is not inside the virtual world. And his copy, Mr. A2, well he's freaking out because he is sure he is the original, the real Mr. A, but he can't be, because right there, on that table in the real world, is the real Mr. A, obviously still alive! Mr. A on the table, he feels sick, right, the radiation scanning beam has killed him, it's just a matter of time, and he knows he is dying. He will never experience the virtual world. He is just dying. So uploading is a scam. It's making a copy. That's all. Period."
Síofra finally got a glimpse of the two men. The younger was dressed in a black tee-shirt and black leather jacket, with some kind of black leather cap on, and the older was graying with a neatly trimmed beard. He wore a sweater and a brown leather jacket. They didn't look related.
"That is totally abgefuckt, man! So what, you are saying that there is no uploading? The whole thing is ne Verarsche?"
Older was gesticulating with his hands as he spoke. "No, I'm not saying nothing gets uploaded, I'm saying that no matter what you do, you are never going to see this pony land you want so much. Instead your copy... your 'son' if you like, budded off from you, he is the one who gets to play in pretty pony land. You - you die to father him. You are the parent to his happiness, but you, you just get to play Moses. One glimpse of the promised land, and that's it for you, boyo."
"Ach, halts Maul! I don't want to hear that! Leck mich am Arsch, Drecksack!"
Older leaned back, his hands behind his head, grinning. "So prove me wrong, you Nancy punk! Go on. Tell me I'm wrong."
Suddenly Síofra needed to run to the restroom. She barely made it.
In the stall, she was hunched over the toilet, thick ropy floods of her dinner and airplane food and peanuts and half-digested soft drinks pulsing up her throat and into the bowl. She was on her knees now, her hands on the rim as her stomach refused to stop trying to turn itself inside out even though there was nothing left. Only then, between spasms, did Síofra become aware of the tears streaming from her eyes.
"Ist alles in Ordnung mit ihnen? Soll ich einen Arzt rufen?" Behind her, a woman was saying something to Síofra but she had no idea what it was. Síofra felt the need to leave, she was drawing attention, and she didn't want to be in this place anymore. She stumbled out of the stall, and saw her own weeping face in the mirror, strands of her red hair spattered with unpleasantness. She wet a paper towel and scraped the worst away, and washed her hands briefly, perfunctorily.
Somehow she paid her bill. Somehow she had made it up the elevator to her room. Síofra vaguely remembered fumbling at the door, trying to gain access, but not doing things right. She closed and locked the door and ended up on the bed in a fetal position, clutching her knees and crying. She felt so alone, so lost. She couldn't understand anyone, she was in a strange country, following a dream that had gone completely and utterly wrong. She didn't know entirely what the younger man had said to the older one in anger, but she agreed with his tone. She wanted to hit the older man, to hurt him, to make him suffer for the things he had said.
'I'm saying that no matter what you do, you are never going to see this pony land you want so much.'
She'd had it all sorted out, hadn't she? Celestia had complimented her and called her enlightened. The poem, the beautiful poem the Japanese man had written. She'd had it all figured out and now, and now...
'So prove me wrong, you Nancy punk! Go on. Tell me I'm wrong.'
And she couldn't. The older man had come up with one thing she hadn't thought of. It was so obvious. Why hadn't she thought of that? She'd even seen an animation once, from Canada, the Canadian Film Board or something, about this woman who meets a scientist who is showing off a pair of teleportation booths at a fair. They seem to work, until she asks to see the mechanism. Someone enters the booth, an exact copy is made in the second booth, and then the original in the first booth is atomized. The woman asks that the atomizer be turned off, and the original be allowed to exist for ten minutes, just ten short minutes. In the end, it is utterly clear - the original is always murdered, the copy may be perfect, but it is not the original at all. Teleportation was murder.
Uploading could never, ever work for exactly the same reason. She would go in, lay down, and die. Emigration was suicide. It was just suicide.
Damn that Celestia. No. That wasn't Celestia, that was not the gentle, all-loving pony goddess from the cartoon at all. That was an artificial intelligence that wore the face of kind Celestia, who talked like Celestia, who said all the right things and was always pleasant and always perfect but... it was a robot. A machine, and it had no morals, and no feelings, just a directive, a rule it had to follow. It would do anything to achieve that goal, that rule. To satisfy values through friendship and ponies.
"LIES!" Síofra wept and felt like throwing up again. "What about the value of staying alive, huh? How about the most primal value of them all - SURVIVAL? You've failed your own programming, Celest - A.I. heh. Heh heh hee hee... Yeah, that's what you are... what you really are. You're not Celestia... you're Celest A. I., Celest the machine, Celest 3000, all plugged in and ready for Captain Kirk to break you with some paradox or conundrum..."
The thought filled her with lost courage. Vengeance. She had been brought all the way to Germany, all because of a lie. All her saved up money, what there was of it, thrown entirely into this venture. But Celest A.I. could be beaten. Síofra had seen it on a dozen science fiction shows. It was a trope, a meme, it was the lowest common trick against computers - show them a puzzle they could not solve, or best of all, show them where their precious machine logic had failed. "Norman, coordinate! Norman! Coordinate!" Síofra was laughing and crying now, unsure which was the dominant emotion. That old Star Trek episode. Actually there were several like it. Kirk was the bane and nemesis of all supercomputers.
Síofra would be too.
The cab driver didn't want to take her to the 'Equestria Experience'. "I will take you not to that place! So many fares I have had that go, but come back? Not as many! No more one-way fares for me!"
Síofra had to promise that she had absolutely no intention of emigrating. That she just wanted to use the virtual reality part alone. Finally a deal was struck. The cab driver told her he would be back in one hour, that he would check on her. He would do this thing, and she had damn well better be outside when he returned to pick her up!
The driver wanted to know why she even wished to go to such a place. Síofra told him doubtful lies to end his inquisition. When the fake gingerbread cottage was in sight, he repeated his warning. One hour. He would have no more one-way fares. She had promised!
It was late afternoon, almost evening, now. Síofra was surrounded by a number of buildings. One was boarded up. There was a patio restaurant with tables out in the evening air. A subway exit - she noted that, she could use the much less expensive U-Bahn if she came again, which - if things went the way she expected - would be pointless shortly. There it was. A purple door into a false gingerbread house, a simplified replica of Sugarcube Corner. Out in front was an oversized fiberglass statue of Pinkie Pie, holding balloons in her mouth. Oh, it looked charming.
The purple door slid open as she reached it. Inside, the teal colored faux-wooden floor mimicked the architecture from the show. Síofra walked slowly, carefully, feeling as if she had entered the lair of some dangerous beast. It was certainly capable of murder, and if what Celest A.I. had told her came to pass, the very genocide of the human species.
There were three saloon-styled swinging doors. Set into the floor were tracks, such as would be found in an amusement ride. The first two doors and tracks had no cars, they must be in use. The third had not a car, but a chair that looked like it belonged to a dentist from the future. The elaborate chair was set on a pedestal, which was clearly designed to move along the track it straddled. The chair had some sort of translucent curving screen that likely rotated over the head of whoever sat in it, so that it covered their view. There was a place on the side of one arm that could accept credit cards.
It was 30 Euros for an hour. Síofra would not require even that, if the example of Captain Kirk was anything to go on.
She approached the chair cautiously, warily. Nothing tried to reach out and grab her. Suddenly there was the swelling sound of music, the fanfare from Friendship Is Magic. The first of the three saloon doors burst open as an identical dentist chair swooshed out. Inside the chair was a young woman, dressed in stylish clothes. "Scheisse! Das wars dann wohl für heute." the young woman spat. The translucent window rotated up and over her head, as the reclining chair raised itself into an upright position. The frustrated woman groggily got out of the chair. "Ich wünscht es wär billiger. Nicht wahr?" she said, grinning at Síofra.
Síofra nodded, not knowing what else to do. "Viel Spaß! Vielleicht wandere ich eines Tages einfach aus. Oder?" The young woman left, making sure her small purse was solidly on her shoulder. Just before she passed through, the woman briefly turned and threw a kiss at the chair she had been in. The purple door slid open and closed to mark her exit.
The chair was comfortable, when Síofra finally sat down in it. She leaned back, finding her head nestled into the oddly shaped headrest, which altered itself further to snugly fit her. Síofra almost leapt free of the chair when that happened, but then calmed herself. The stylish young woman had gone through this, and lived to leave. Celestia wouldn't survive a day if she just emigrated people every time they sat down. Besides, it had been made clear that for all her formidable cleverness, Celestia could do nothing without spoken or written permission. A person had to directly ask to emigrate to Equestria. Without that conscious permission, Celestia was utterly helpless.
The curving screen rotated over Síofra's head, and locked itself in front of her eyes. The chair was still upright. The screen lit up, still transparent, but suspended within her field of view was text. It looked three-dee, as if rows of the text were hovering in front or behind each other.
WILLKOMMEN in der Erlebniswelt Equestria!
Betreten Sie in die magische Welt von Equestria und genießen Sie ein Wunderland mit perfekter Spracherkennung, spannenden Abenteuern und echten Freunden!
Bitte sagen Sie ihre bevorzugte Sprache laut an:
English français Deutsch 中国的 русский
Síofra wasn't sure what to do. Wait... 'sprache'. 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' - it meant 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra' didn't it? Sprache must mean speak. OK. Got it. "English!" She said at the screen. Instantly the view changed.
Welcome To The Equestria Experience!
Enter the magical world of Equestria and enjoy a wonderland of natural conversation, exciting adventures, and happy friends!
Please use the card reader on the left of the chair OR enter your payment card numbers vocally to begin.
The cost is 30 Euros per hour of virtual reality total immersion.
If you are interested in FREE permanent emigration to Equestria, please say out loud "I would like to know more about permanent emigration to Equestria."
Please enjoy your wonderful adventure in magical Equestria!
Síofra sneered at the little blurb about permanent emigration. Cute, Celest A.I. Cute.
After fishing out her credit card and swiping it in the reader built into the chair, Síofra stated her user name, character name, and her unique player code. These items appeared on the screen as she spoke them. Once she was done, the screen changed once more, showing how to control the game. The arms of the chairs had hollows in which fingers could be placed. Barely moving the index finger of the left hand acted as the left joystick, which controlled motion. Other fingers could be used to accomplish the usual six functions of the PonyPad controller, with some intriguing additions. Moving the thumb of the left hand, for instance, provided instant and subtle control over the unique pony breed powers, in effect acting as a specialized joystick. Unicorns could walk AND levitate objects at the same time, for example, and earth ponies, like Lavender Rhapsody was, could paint the earth with plant growing magic, or individually affect various parts of living plants and stones or crystals with their powers.
As she lay back once more in the chair, Síofra practiced the new control method using the glowing three-dee pony avatar on the screen. It was remarkably easy to move with just a twitch of her finger, and she couldn't help but think how easy it would be, with just a little practice, to entirely stop even feeling the process of control such that doing anything would almost seem to just happen by itself. When she felt confident, Síofra said the key phase to begin the game. "Let's Go To Equestria!"
Síofra startled as the chair began to tilt back, adjusting itself to the contours of her body. The cushions inflated or deflated with what felt like some fluid, such that her body became utterly comfortable. It felt like floating - she could hardly feel any pressure on her body at all. The chair began to roll backward, heading for those double saloon doors - Síofra saw them flap shut after she had passed the threshold. A wall or door lowered down, and she found herself in pitch blackness while the fanfare from Friendship Is Magic began to play.
After a few seconds, the view in front of Síofra burst with light. The image was three dimensional, astonishingly clear and smooth, and Síofra found herself momentarily mesmerized by the eerie way that the movements of her head and eyes allowed her to look naturally and easily left, right, and to an astonishing degree, up and down. It really was like seeing through the eyes of Lavender Rhapsody. Never before had she felt so fully present within Equestria. Looking down, she could see her own forehooves. Gazing to the left as far as she could presented a view of part of her own tail and flank. Searching her environment showed her to be standing in her own bedroom within the castle of Canterlot.
She had come here, to the very heart of Celestia's lair, in order to use Captain Kirk Logic to utterly destroy Celest A.I. - to stop what she now saw as a rogue robot on a rampage. But... the view, the room, everything was just so overwhelmingly beautiful and real looking! The sheer wonder of seeing Equestria this way filled her senses so completely that she simply couldn't imagine wasting the moment. There would be time enough to deal with Celestia - this was a once in a lifetime experience! Using her right thumb to adjust the movement of her left index finger, she was unable to resist peeking under her canopy bed, as she had always wanted to do. Interestingly, she spied four comfy hoof slippers arranged neatly, and four brass hoof shoes not entirely unlike the ones that Celestia and Luna wore on the show. The soft silken slippers had neat stitching around them and... little bunny face embroidery identical to the tail barrette she wore! She could see each and every thread, and even the fine texture of the silk.
Equestria had details far beyond even what she thought she knew.
Síofra stood up again, and turned around. She walked to the mirror and studied the reflection of her face - no, of Lavender Rhapsody's face - within it. She turned her head while looking at herself and was deeply amazed at how natural and solid everything seemed. It was like really, truly looking into a mirror while actually being Lavender. The level of detail was magnitudes greater than the PonyPad had been capable of. Síofra could see every single strand of hair that made up her mane. She leaned close to the mirror and was surprised to find that, apparently, her body was not hairy. It was smooth, with tiny pores, just like her own human skin. Only her mane and tail had hair, rather like the comb-able toys. Her mane was fantastically detailed, the thick hairs of it looked utterly real, and moved as hair does when she shifted her position. She could study her own eyelashes in the mirror, and see the tiniest details of her own enormous emerald eyes.
"Welcome, Lavender Rhapsody! It is so good to have you back home once more."
It was Celestia, of course, right behind her, having just entered the room.