• Published 23rd Jul 2013
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Friendship is Optimal - Firewall - Midnightshadow



Sometimes the land of Equestria, under Celest-AI, needs to be protected. Pity they got me. Now, if only I can figure out these pony boots and this headset...

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Chapter 1

Friendship is Optimal

Firewall

Part 1

An MLP:FiM fanfiction by Midnight Shadow

Based on the MLP:FiM fanfiction Friendship is Optimal by Iceman

***

I hit the power button on the device and it flickered into hesitant life. It was little more than a mishmash of parts, but it exuded an almost organic aura of functionality. The oversize screen flashed a few more times as whatever BIOS-substitute it had initialized before loading the operating system. A few seconds after that and the LED on the camera mounted on top lit up to indicate its drivers had loaded. A few seconds more and there was a low, musical tone from the speakers.

"That's it, Vinnie, it's up," said Markus, rubbing his palms together as if dusting them off. He'd been crawling around on his hands and knees a few moments ago plugging things in and hooking them up. He ran his fingers through curly blond hair and grinned, his grey-with-gold-flecked eyes wide with mirth. He liked gadgets as much as I did. A new toy – whether second hand or not – was always a joy to play with. I guessed that was why he'd been chosen as a work-buddy.

"And you say this thing is a ponypad?" I looked at the blinking, whirring monstrosity skeptically as the 'Equestria Online' loading screen appeared. I shook my head, retail models almost never had loading screens.

"Engineering version, yeah. You get a larger screen, extra peripherals and the biggest difference – at least between this and the original versions – wifi."

"How come the original versions didn't have wifi?" I asked, looking up from where I was adjusting the screen for the best view.

"I really don't know, Vinnie," Markus put his hand behind his neck and massaged it. Crawling under the desks to set everything up had been painful. "Patents or something. Licensing the other connectors is still cheaper, that's what my buddies say. Wifi would have pushed up the price too high. Or maybe it was ease of use."

"Man I don't know, sixty dollars is pretty damn cheap," I replied, wiggling the mouse as the system initialization and updates took place, "even if that does translate to sixty euro."

"Heh, tell me about it." Markus straightened up. "Well, she's all yours. Settling in okay?"

It was my first day at this branch of Hofvarpnir Studios. So far I'd been shown to a cubicle, offered some terrible office coffee, had an ID badge made, and now was being kitted out with an older yet apparently fully-functional engineering model ponypad.

Truth be told the whole situation from application to job offer had been a bit of a blur. I wasn't really sure what my exact duties at the studios were supposed to be, apparently they needed people to look after the in-house non-ponypad servers and laptops. Only I hadn't seen a single one, so far.

Markus recognized the look of shock passing across my face, and patted me on the shoulder. "don't worry, you'll settle in. Tell you what, first day and all, fire up the ponypad when it's ready and get yourself a pony."

"What? I can do that?" I looked skeptically again at the device. It was still updating, with a bar that was splashed with all the colours of the rainbow as it progressed. Happy ponies were trotting to and fro above and below it, and something non-offensively non-committal was playing from the speakers.

"What, play on company time?" asked Markus with a laugh. "Sure can, just as long as you deal with any tickets... and you don't have any tickets yet since you're not in the system. If there are, Celestia will tell you. She's good about that."

I blinked, "Celestia will tell me? You mean there'll be an in-game message?"

"No, I mean... you've really not played the game?" Markus looked surprised, his eyebrows were raised so high they were practically interfering with the ceiling fan.

"Not much... I mean... er... no. I've seen it, I guess, but..." I was dissembling. I'd avoided the game so far because I hadn't believed it could anywhere near as good as the hype, even after all the independent reviews.

Markus chuckled. "I guess that's why they hired you. Keeps you honest. Look, fire up the goggles and the gloves – let it recognize them first, this model's a bit slow – set your seat to recline, lean back and hop into Equestria for a while. Celestia loves talking to her staff. If you're needed out here in the real world, she'll let you know, personally. I'll let you be now, I've got places to go, ponies to meet, that sort of thing. Seeya, bud."

"Seeya la—" I said, turning from contemplating the gloves and goggles, but Markus had already gone. "—ter."

I shrugged and looked at the goggles, my interest piqued. I had thought the stories about them were just rumours, but here they were. Picking up the heavy plastic and metal-clad apparatus, it felt a little like I was holding the philosopher's stone or the holy grail. These things weren't even supposed to exist outside of some top secret lab somewhere. And here they were, given to me because they were the cheap alternative to actually purchasing a sixty euro ponypad for a new employee. Madness. They were part of a headset, with what was apparently a third generation contactless neural interface: they could read my thoughts, and could even to some degree influence how my brain perceived things. Not quite like being there, but almost.

What made it silly, though, were the pony-style ears. They apparently reflected the wearer's emotions whilst the headset was in place, spinning around or laying flat, or sticking out... yet they only did this whilst the wearer was engrossed in whatever was showing through the goggles. Even the future wasn't immune from the department of redundancy department. Or maybe they had started out as a simple way to know the brainwave-reading circuits were functioning. Hmm. Plausible deniability, do thy worst.

The gloves, I noted, were equally ridiculous. They were some sort of abandoned faux full-feedback interface, meant to go with the goggles. Neither had ever been commercially released, and by the sound of it never would be. They fit over my hands, which curled on the inside as if I was clutching a palm-size ball. The result was that my arms ended in cutesy pastel-coloured hooves. I rolled my eyes. Somebody had thought this was a good enough idea to roll out prototypes. I wondered what had happened to them. Visions of being forced to actually wear these dreadful things danced in my mind's eye, and I shuddered. This one time, I would test them out. And then that was it, no more hooves for me. Kind of. Sort of. Other than the whole 'creating a pony avatar in Equestria', of course, and being allowed to play on company time.

Placing both hands into the boots revealed the obviously fatal flaw in their design: once the hoof-gloves were on, how on Earth was I supposed to get the goggles on? And with the goggles on, I couldn't really see to get the gloves on.

Glaring in frustration at the franken-machine, I noted with some mollification that it had finished updating. It now showed a logon screen – no password request, just a box marked 'pony name', with a button marked 'randomize' underneath it. I fiddled with the mouse, and discovered that these had tooltips.

The 'name' box's tip was:

If you already have a pony-name, type it here! Don't worry if you're not sure, you can always leave it blank or change it later!

The 'randomize' button read:

click here for your very own super-special pony-name! We'll do our best to pick something you'll like, but you can always change it later!

I snorted and plugged the hoof-gloves' wireless receiver in, noting with some amusement that a 'magical pony hooves accessory' icon appeared in the logon box, and a ring of LED's lit up around the base of my brand new hooves, as if I were wearing a sparkly bracelet. I plugged the USB lead of the goggles in, and laughed at the 'magical princess headset' icon that appeared. Markus' advice to wait a few moments paid off, as whirly spinning arrows appeared around both, with little hearts popping up and bursting above each one. Finally, the words 'firmware updated' flashed underneath both, and the 'pony name' box completely disappeared. The hooves and tiara-headset icons enlarged and pulsed, signifying the new way to log on.

"Not magical, huh? I guess firmware isn't all that exciting," I said wryly. Shaking my head, I turned to the headset. I eased it on through my short brown hair and twiddled it until it fit snugly but didn't hurt the backs of my ears. There were no earphones, but a boom did go behind each lobe. I'd be surprised if it was effective.

Now I was blind. Great.

Flailing about with my hands, I located the stupid hooves and slid them on. This wasn't easy at the best of times. I settled with placing the base of the hooves on my knees and pushing with both hands. It worked, and the second my fingers bottomed out, I heard a musical chime in my ears and then blackness in the goggles lit up in a rainbow of eye-straining colours. Seconds later, huge floating letters whizzed past to form a word: RELAX.

It was soon replaced by 'get comfortable!', which floated across the space in front of me, and then the words 'once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria...' appeared, and faded away, as scenery began to appear before me. I leaned back in my chair, finding that it stretched out slowly and smoothly. With the visuals being pumped into my eyes as the scene changed from black to a deep azure blue with white clouds floating all around, it felt like I was flying. In fact, I was. I was soaring through the air in a remarkably accurate rendition of the show's intro sequence, marred only by what I assumed were some sort of self-tests.

There was an odd series of tones in each ear which sounded like the wind in a seashell, and it made me twitch. Every few seconds the view in front of me would dissolve into flashing coloured lights, it was starting to get distracting. I decided to pull the headset off, and lifted a tan-coloured hoof to my face.

"Ow!" I blinked and shook my head, seeing stars as I almost gave myself a black eye. Flapping my wings to hover in surprise, I looked at my hoof for a few seconds. Feeling all over my muzzle led me to the next odd experience: I had hooves. I didn't appear to have a headset on. I almost fell out of the sky then and there when I realized I had wings. As panic struck, and what had previously been semi-instinctual flight turned into a ragtag pathetic excuse for pointless fluttering, altitude was decidedly lost. Thankfully I didn't have time to scream before I landed on something soft and fluffy. Getting hesitantly to my hooves, I realized it was a cloud. I experimentally – and very, very carefully – bounced up and down. It was solid. I trotted very carefully to the edge, and looked down. And down. And – and this was the important part – down.

I couldn't help it. I screamed, loudly, like a girl.

"Hey, newguy, you okay in there?" came a voice. It sounded far off, echoing with an odd quality. For a brief moment, the world around me seemed to lose definition.

"Y-yeah, I'm okay, the g-game just dumped me ten million miles in the air," I said, loudly.

"Engineering model? Yeah, it does that. Don't worry you'll—" the voice drifted away as I paid it less attention. I trotted around in a very small circle as the world once more seemed to solidify. I breathed slowly, deeply. This was all a trick, video screens in the goggles mixed with some sort of neuro-electronic wizardry made what was otherwise just a picture from two monitors appear to be real. I tried to pinch myself, then laughed. No thumbs. I tried to crane my body upwards in what I knew was my chair, but it felt odd and ungainly. Tapping myself on my knees, I realized my forehooves were feeling their way down my hind legs. Weird, and the weirdness only went away when I ceased trying to move my real body, and instead concentrated on my pony body. The system was apparently built so that your real body remained in some sort of relaxed immobile state, and your intended motions were instead translated and shuttled off to the avatar you were playing. I could feel my real body, and concentrating on it brought it back, but – like the digital daydream this was – ignoring it meant it went away. Fascinating. To all intents and purposes, including my own mental checklist, I was a tan-coloured pegasus pony with black hooves and dark-brown – one could say chestnut – mane and tail.

I rolled over onto my hooves again and stood up, standing straight. I didn't feel like my head was craned all the way back – because it obviously wasn't – but the view matched perfectly with my digital body's proper stance. Looking 'forwards' meant my pony head was parallel to the barrel of my chest, rather than perpendicular. That was some trick. Slowly, my breathing steadied. I had this. The only problem was how to get down.

It almost became a moot point as a loud fanfare and explosion of confetti nearly sent me leaping directly over the edge in surprise. A rotating icon, seemingly made of polished wood and bronze, appeared. It read 'First Steps – Welcome to Equestria!'. Numbers drifted up and away, tied to balloons, emerging from the clouds: '250 xp', '2000 bits'.

I snorted. An achievement for learning how to walk.

Concentrating, I flapped my wings. It was very unsteady, but there was a bit of a draft. I didn't, however, take off. Great. I was stuck up in the sky, unable to get down to the ground, in the middle of nowhere. Now what? I guessed I could jump, but the veracity of the world kind of... didn't make it an attractive choice.

"H-hello?" I called. "Is there anypony there?" I tried again. My voice echoed oddly – from the clouds, I guessed – but was soon lost to the winds. It was only on the third or fourth try that I realized the answering 'hello' was, indeed, an answer. My short wait was over before I knew it as a large, purple-and-pink hot air balloon, festooned with streamers, burst through the cloud layer and floated smartly up to my cloud.

"You okay there, buddy?" asked the pony pilot. She was a green earth pony, with what looked like a red squirrel for a pet. The squirrel sat on her shoulders like a pirate's parrot. Both of them wore flight goggles, old-timey ones like I imagined first world war flying aces had used.

"Yeah, I just..." I pointed helplessly towards the ground. "I can't..."

"What, you got wing-lock? Cramp?"

"Y-eah, I guess."

"You don't know?" The pony whistled through her teeth. "Could be serious. Want I take you to a nurse?"

"N-no, just... just down, please." I waited, expectantly.

"Well okay. Hop in." She, too, waited. I coughed. She grinned. Finally, she broke the silence. "You wanna hop in the basket here, Champ?"

"Not sure I can," I said. I could feel my ears splay out sideways in embarrassment. "I think my knees are locked solid."

She rolled her eyes. "Celestia knows I pick the weird ones. It's almost like ya can't..." The pony stopped, halfway through pulling open a little door, before covering her muzzle with a hoof. "You can't, can you?"

"Can't what?" I asked.

"Ya can't fly. Oh my gosh you really can't. How in Equestria did you get all the way up here... if you can't fly? I mean what, you just... poof and were up here? Wings and all?"

I nodded, dumbly.

"Well don't that beat all," she said, pushing her goggles up off of her deep green eyes. "Come on then. It's easy, Champ, you just put one hoof in front of the other. Look, I'll even... I'll lower a nice, big gangplank, and you can trot up it, okay? It's got a cloud-walking spell on it, but I don't, or I'd come out and help you."

My legs were locked. Apparently ponies could do that. Or I could. or I really was just that scared. Forcing myself to relax, I could swear I felt some sort of musculature shift and my legs become mobile again. This, to be honest, was a bad thing, since now there was nothing stopping me from shaking. Game be damned, this place looked real. The new retina-level displays, the infinite contrast screens... everything had come together perfectly, so whilst I knew, utterly and completely, that this was a game, I still didn't want to step over the edge and find out for sure.

The pony must have gotten fed up with waiting, because she called out to me. "Hey, wingless. Yeah, you. Look at me, and walk towards me. Name's Celery, Celery Stalk. I'm a farmer by trade, but I fly balloons for fun. This here bundle of trouble," she said, motioning to the squirrel, "is Nibblet. S'actually Monterey Nibblington-Fauntleroy the Third, but that's a real mouthful for a small squirly, so we call him Nibblet. Yeah, that's right, walk this way, one hoof after the other. He's a flying squirrel, but he can't fly. Not really. He glides. He's real good at it too, can stay in the air longer'n anybody else I know who don't have wings, and a fair deal longer than those who do. And... well, you know what? That'll about do."

"Huh?" I asked, confused, shaking my head as reality caught up with me.

She smirked and moved around behind me to pull in the gangplank and shut the little door. "That'll do," she said again, once she'd finished mouthing the lock closed. "You're in. Right proud of yourself, you should be. Glad I could help, I tell you what. You know what they say, a friend in need—"

"Is a friend indeed," I finished for her, weakly.

Above my head, passing harmlessly through the balloon, appeared another brass and wood shield-shaped apparition, along with another explosion of lights and burning letters.

"'Make a friend', huh?" said Celery. "What's 'expee'?"

I did a double-take. "Wait, what!? You can see those?"

"Sure can. Explains a lot. You must be one o'them hyoomans that Celestia told a few of us about." Celery looked about conspiratorially as she yanked on an ornate little wooden ring attached to a rope, with one forehoof. "She said, all quiet-like so only us could hear, that we aren't to speak about you to everypony. She actually said we won't be able to no matter how hard we try, but I guess that's moot right now, since we're the only two up here." Celery smiled at me. I couldn't help it, I smiled back. She looked so real, that...

"So, uh, where are you from?" I asked, as the balloon descended. It all looked so real, and so very, very beautiful. The sky was that perfect shade of azure, the clouds ranged from pristine silver to glorious white. The balloon was made of fantastically colourful pink and purple silk, with ropes strung in a gaily coloured net over the top that was at once bot functional and pretty. The basket was wicker, but very, very tough, with a wooden door operated by means of a large oval handle, built for hooves. Even the sandbags were ornately decorated. Three draw-hoops hung from somewhere up above, though I had no idea what they went to. Doubtless one went to some sort of hatch to control descent – the one she'd pulled.

"Hmm?" asked Celery. It looked like she'd been examining my muzzle – my face, I corrected myself – in great detail.

"Where are you from?" I asked again.

"Oh, Pollbury Hill. It's down a ways, uh... that-a-way." She pointed. I looked, instinctively, but couldn't see anything.

"No, I mean, where from really?"

"Well, ya got me, I was born in—"

"You're going to say something... Equestrian, aren't you?" I interrupted, trying to put my hooves on my hips. Somehow, the move translated to my wings.

"Well yeah, duh. I wasn't born on the Ice Veldt."

I scowled. I was either dealing with a very hardcore RP'er, or I'd been taken in by a construct. A very lifelike construct. I shook myself.

"Hey, look, not everypony can be from the big city, or whatever it is you expect. You know what, I thought I was doing you a favour, I thought you'd be grateful, but if you're just gonna be a jerk you can—"

I ruffled my feathers. "Sorry, sorry, I..." I didn't know what to say. I felt ashamed of myself. If this was a construct of some sort, an NPC, it was a pretty good one. If it wasn't, I was ruining somebody's fun. Either way, if I was going to play the game, I might as well play the game. "Sorry," I added lamely.

"Heeyyy," Celery smiled, flicking her olive-green tail. "It's okay. I guess you were just stuck up there a while, huh? You know what, how about you tell me about yourself?"

"Well, I'm... Vinnie."

"Strange name for a pony," said Celery. Nibblet chittered in agreement.

"Well that's cos I'm not."

"Sure could've fooled me. Celestia said you types'd be a bit loony. So what are you then?"

"Dooo... do you know what a monkey is?"

"Umm, yeah. Kinda."

"Well, a bit like that. Only... bigger. Kind of. And... long back legs, and no hair."

Celery wrinkled her nose up. "Eew. That sounds kind of ugly. And ridiculous. How do you walk with long back legs?"

"We stand upright," I explained, rearing back, trying to show her. There wasn't much room, and it was strangely uncomfortable.

"Oh, on your hind legs." She didn't look convinced, noncommittally pulling on hoops suspended from ropes.

"Yeah, but our... forehooves end in hands. And fingers." I waggled a forehoof at her. "This is kind of like a single, big finger. We have five of them, but they're smaller."

"That..." Celery's eyes bulged, and she suddenly burst out laughing, shaking so hard that Nibblet chittered at her angrily. The squirrel leaped off of the pony's withers and scampered along the rim of the basket as the shaking only intensified. "S-sorry, Nibs, sorry, it's just..." Celery took another look at me, and burst into fresh tears of laughter, almost falling out to her inevitable death. The laughter and helpless shaking continued, until finally she stopped. She wiped her nose with a hoof, flicking the excess over the side. Still smirking and snorting with mirth, she shook her head. "Five hooves per leg. That's just genius."

"It's not like that!" I protested. "Well, it kind of is... but it isn't!"

"You guys are weird. Thank goodness you're finally here, so you can try out a properly-shaped body for once." At that moment, the basket touched gently down to earth – or to Equestria – and Celery threw out something that looked almost exactly like an anchor, taking hold of it in her muzzle like it weighed nothing before heaving it over the side. "You're... gonna stay, right?"

I looked around as I took a few, tentative steps onto terra firma – or Equestria Firmer, as my punny inner voice had decided to call it. "Well, I..." The pony looked so downcast, that I immediately found myself turning around and almost throwing myself at her in a pony-hug. "Of course I'll stay. Kind of. I mean... I have to... do things, out there."

"Out?"

"I... it's difficult to explain, but..."

"It's magic, right?" she offered.

I nodded. "I suppose so. It's magic," I agreed.

"And now is when you're going to tell me you gotta go, right?" I must have looked very forlorn at that, because she hoofed me in the chest. "Yeah, yeah. I can see you're a keeper. Look, Pollbury Hill is just down this road. See the mountains over yonder? Head that way, you're going wrong."

I looked. Great, big, purple mountains rose skywards in the distance. They had to be kilometers in height. Either that, or something really weird was happening with my field of vision.

"Head this way instead—" and Celery started trotting down the dirt-track road, swishing her tail in a way which was making me blush and swallow a lot, and my heart beat double time "—and you'll reach Pollbury in no time."

"Wait," I called after her, "aren't you going to take your balloon?"

"Hmm, naa," she called over her shoulder. "There's no rain scheduled, and the anchor is spelled to keep it secure outside of a big storm. And none of those are scheduled either."

"No, I mean... well, I guess I don't know what I mean," I called, to her retreating hindquarters. Breathing heavily, as she disappeared over the hill, I fumbled with my headset and pulled it off. Equestria dissolved around me, to be replaced with my spartan office cubicle and the unenticing aroma of burned coffee.

I was beginning to see what everypony saw in this game.