• 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 2

Friendship is Optimal

Firewall

Part 2

An MLP:FiM fanfiction by Midnight Shadow

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

* * *

My breathing was fast and my head was spinning. I'd read all about the artificial intelligence in Equestria Online, I'd read how it was Turing-breaking. I'd read how some folks were calling it hard-AI, or even hard, general AI. I hadn't believed it. Sure, I was happy enough to sit in the autodrive cars, and somewhat relieved that the argument about who should be in charge in an aeroplane had finally been resolved – the computers were faster, more logical and a lot more capable. Human pilots were now only there in case the worst happened and the computer failed – but strong, general AI? I hadn't believed it. Until, possibly, now.

Was Celery a player? I... wasn't sure. I was sure of one thing though: coffee. I definitely needed coffee.

I dropped the tiara into my lap – I had held it with these stupid hooves on this whole time? Amazing – and then struggled with the pastel-pink foam-plastic hooves until they came off. I deposited them on my desk and then stood up.

The carpeting in an office building has a special kind of smell. A smell made up of boots, dust bunnies and unidentifiable beverage spills and foodstains. It tasted worse than it smelled, and it smelled pretty bad.

Something, somewhere, had gone terribly wrong.

I lay where I had fallen in a heap for a few seconds, just thinking about my life and where it had gone wrong, until my brain had rebooted enough that it had once again figured out I was a biped, not a quadruped. And also that I didn't have wings – my shoulder blades itched.

"No wonder they never sold that stupid headset," I grumbled, as I balled and then un-balled my fists and pushed myself up off the floor. I took a deep breath and spat the dust-bunny invasion from my lips, wiping off the last of the crusty crusaders with a forehoof – hand, god dammit, I corrected myself – and drying said hand on my trousers. Ugh, I could still taste it. Maybe coffee would help.

The coffee didn't help.

It was brown, it was warm and it was bitter. Charitably, if one squinted and the light was right, it could be called almost coffee. Kind of. I took another slurp and made a face. Yeah, that light would have to be real charitable. And the fluorescents of this floor of the Hofvarpnir building were not that charitable.

"Buddy, Broseph. Broheem!"

I took a deep sighing breath again and turned to Markus as he strode into the break area and poured himself a cup of probably caffeinated almost coffee-like substitute. "Really?" I asked. "I mean, really, really?"

He laughed and punched me on the shoulder. "Come on," he replied, "aren't we supposed to talk like that?"

I rolled my eyes. "Surfer dude? I think the nineties wants their lingo back."

Markus took a sip of his cup and made a face. "You know what they say about a good cup of coffee?" he asked rhetorically, swirling the contents.

"That there's nothing like it?" I offered.

"Exactly," he said, grinning.

"And this is nothing like a good cup of coffee," we said, in perfect unison.

I couldn't help it. I laughed. "Yeah, yeah, it never gets old."

"Like the coffee."

"Jeez, Markus, give it up." I snorted, but couldn't wipe the stupid grin off my face. He took another sip, shuddered, and went for a refill.

"Ah, but it is by caffeine alone that I set my mind in motion," Markus intoned.

"Oh don't, just—"

"It is by the beans of java that thoughts acquire speed, that the hands acquire shakes, that the shakes become a warning. It is," He grinned, wickedly, as I shook my head in amazement, "by caffeine alone that I set my mind in motion."

"The coffee mantra? Really?"

He took a sip, and grinned at me. "What can I say, Celestia knows how to pair working buddies. So, how's it been going?" he asked.

Celestia? I wondered. I shook myself and answered his question instead. "With work, or...?"

He waggled his eyebrows comically. "Equestria. S'cool, right?"

I opened my mouth, and then shut it again. I took a sip of coffee. Whatever it was, it was decidedly more-ish. "Not what I expected."

"So, go on. Dish." he leaned on the fridge and lifted one leg at the knee, fluttering his eyelashes. I raised one of my eyebrows. "You've met Celestia, right?" he asked, suddenly serious.

I shook my head. "Dumb program dumped me a few thousand feet up. Landed on a cloud. Crash landed, that is. I couldn't fly."

"Wait, you were a pegasus, right? Just... wiggle your wings. It's hard to get the thumb action at first, but—"

I gestured with my cup to my temple. "Headset, remember?"

"Oh. Ooh, yeah, the power-hooves and the shiny crowny thing." He winced. "Still, I bet it looked amazing. How'd you get down? Or did you spend the entire time cloudwalking?"

"Eh, I got a lift from a passing farmer, Celery Stalk. She and her pet squirrel Nibblet just happened to be floating past."

"You do know they don't farm up in the clouds, right?"

I snorted derisively. "Tell that to her. She was the one with the hot air balloon."

He took another slurp of coffee before asking, nonchalantly, "So, gonna see her again?"

I nodded. "I guess. She's some sort of welcome NPC, right?"

Markus shrugged. "Don't ask me. I thought the first few ponies I met were players, but as far as I can tell, they're not. And Celestia really isn't."

I whistled appreciatively. "You mean EQO really is capable of generating characters that look that real?" I puffed out my cheeks. "And she wasn't just some sort of greeter NPC?" I absent-mindedly ran my hand through the hair on the back of my head. I was probably blushing some as I said, "I thought she'd be some sort of quest hub."

"It's your game, everyone's is a bit different. She could be a romantic interest for your pony. Or for you."

"An online girlfriend?" I snorted. "Come off it! Then again, I just... don't really know how to tell."

"EQO's main task is to make you more friends," said Markus. He must have caught my incredulous expression as he held one palm up in surrender. "Hey, not my words. It's a social multiplayer game. Whether you go on raids or just hang out, you're supposed to do it with friends. If you like Celery, then why not stay with her?"

I opened and closed my mouth at that, speechless. Eventually I shrugged. I'd heard about the lifelike chatbot capabilities of Equestria Online, but this... the idea that Celery could be so well constructed was unbelievable. But there she had been, all the same.

"Earth to Vinnie?" A coffee-cup wielding hand passed through my field of vision, and I fastened my gaze on Markus. "Come on, I need your help" he said, gesturing with his head, so I followed as he started walking out of the break room to the elevators.

"Are we, like, on the public Equestria servers? Because she was one dedicated RP player, or one incredible NPC. I really don't know how to tell." I reiterated, jogging to catch up.

"Well... did she say she was Equestrian?" Markus pushed the elevator call button, and we stepped in.

I nodded as I turned around in the relatively cramped quarters. "She did, yeah. But I don't know if I buy it. She was..." I gestured with my coffee mug before taking another sip.

"Real? Dude, you have no idea. Just wait until you meet Celestia. Which you should have done by now, I hasten to add. I'd let you get back to it, but I have a job for you. Walk this way, mon ami."

It was a relief when the elevator doors opened and we could exit. They were glass-backed and as hot as a sauna thanks to the direct sunlight shining in through the massive glass walls of the building itself. Walking through floor two, we passed into an area marked 'IT Personnel Only'. Markus had been idly jamming his contactless key against every lock we passed. Each one had an LED which shone green, and gave out a little beep.

"Makes sense to test them now," he said, as I stared at this, "while we've still got security guys who can fix it when it doesn't work. You're IT, so you've got the run of the building. Go have a walkabout... once you've fixed this, of course."

Ushering me in through a frosted-glass door, he pointed to a laptop on a desk in front of us. It was matte black, somewhat grubby and had a big, yellow post-it note on it that read "FIX THIS NOW". Somehow the note managed to look angry, put out and indignant all at once.

I sighed. "What's wrong with it?"

Markus opened the lid and brushed the back of his hand against the keyboard. Then he took a horrified look at his hand and rubbed that against his trousers. "You want what they said is wrong? Or do you want to know what is actually wrong?"

I face-palmed. "Both?"

"Good lad. Well the ticket says, and I quote, 'it's broken'." I rolled my eyes. Markus caught the gesture and nodded, sadly. "Swear on my life. Near as I can tell, it doesn't boot properly and... well, you get to fix it."

"Ground rules?" I asked, turning the computer towards me.

"Don't fuck it up? Look, this laptop has a lot of data on it which, whilst not irreplaceable, would be very inconvenient to rebuild. You know management and backups."

"They want to have them, but they don't want to have to make them?"

"Bingo. Look, you're not in the system yet and this is about as make-worky as I can get ya so you can still look busy until you are."

"Make-worky?" I replied, incredulously.

"Yeah," replied Markus, his bottom jaw set in a serious expression. "You're not in the system, so you don't have anything to do until you are, but you'll get dirty looks if you do nothing. So here's something you can do for extra credit and plausible deniability. That, and nobody else wants this sort of shit."

"Two birds with one stone," I said. "Nice. What do I do if the owner comes looking for it?"

"It's a VP's baby, so it's the sort of machine that can't just be nuked. Unless the disk is broken, you should be able to fix and roll back. If you've got to do a full rebuild, then for Celestia's sake, clone the disk first. Holler if you need an external drive or anything. Actually, anything you can find back there," and he pointed to shelves full of parts, leads and other gadgets, "is yours."

"Gee, thanks," I said. In truth, that last bit didn't sound so bad. "Wait," I called after him, "what do I do if he turns up asking about progress?"

"Eh, give him a loaner," called Markus back. He paused in his escape, and gestured at a pile of older laptops. "Encryption and any bios passwords are on the keyboards on post-its. Boot up a good one – it'll never be good enough – and make sure it's up to date with the anti-virus and all that jazz. You're in charge, that's what they pay you for!" With that, he was gone, smirk and all.

"They haven't paid me, yet," I grumbled. Sighing, I found a suitable power block and plugged it in. Then I hit the button. It probably shouldn't have surprised me that it didn't boot up in normal mode. I sighed and gave it the three finger salute as it locked up. When that didn't work, I gave it the one long finger and it shut down. I then spent a good thirty minutes hunting for USB sticks in the office complex, and toolkits online. As the image creator on a handy IT workstation finally finished and I took one, last, grimace-inducing slurp of coffee which had long since gone cold, I prepared to fire up the beast once more and do battle.

It was then that Mister Burnham stormed into the area which, I had been reliably informed by both the sign on said door as well as my buddy Markus, was for IT personnel only.

"Computer," he said, his little piggy eyes narrowing.

"Uh... yes?"

"Do you have my computer?"

"I, uh... is it this one?" I pointed at the computer on the desk in front of us.

"Yes," he said, testily. "Is it ready yet?"

"No, I've not really—"

"Playing EQO, huh? When you should've been—"

"Look," I said, scowling as I interrupted him. "First of all, I don't know who you are and you haven't proven to me that this is your computer. Secondly, you're not IT so you shouldn't even be back here. I'm not even in the system properly yet, and I am not going to be held responsible for any hardware that goes missing."

He glared at me. I glared at him.

"Burnham," he said, finally, flashing his ID badge at me, which had a picture which was only slightly less flattering than his actual face was in person. "B, U, R..." he rattled off the letters of his name. "It's my logon which, if you'll give me that machine for just a moment, I can prove with the company phone book."

"I'd love to, Mister Burnham, but this machine is DOA. It doesn't work."

"I know that, you simpleton, I made the ticket!"

"Well..." I sighed in exasperation as I looked at my empty coffee cup, "can you let me get back to it? It doesn't boot, it barely turns on. It's not ready yet, and there's nothing I can do to fix that with you standing there. I can... I can give you a loaner?" I mentally winced; despite Markus' advice, I hadn't booted and updated any of the loaners. "I can go through it with you? Make sure everything's there for you to at least access your shared files and email?"

"That will have to do, Mister?"

"Clayton," I replied, "Vinnie. I... just started. Today. Haven't even got my own laptop, let alone cellphone. I don't even have a retail ponypad yet and I'm pretty sure half the office have got better chairs than me, to boot. I'm sorry, things are a bit hectic and I'm pretty much just finding my feet."

"Well, then." He appeared slightly mollified. "If you can... if you can just do your best, and have it back to me...?"

"As soon as, Mister Burnham." My stomach growled. "Haven't even had lunch. I went straight to work on this," I added, thinking fast. "I know how important it is to you. Now, about that loaner..."

* * *

I lugged the laptop back to my desk, plugged it in and collapsed into my chair. I sipped my terrible cup of coffee and waited whilst the USB toolkit did its job. For future consideration, I mentally noted, always make sure the loaners are up to date when dealing with a douchebag's laptop. I'd just endured over an hour of tedium dealing with a braindead operator as I installed ridiculous software package after ridiculous software package, each of them available at little more than a few clicks. And, on top of that, I'd wasted more time than necessary watching the progress bar grow as patches and updates were applied.

Still, it was worth it to wow the natives with my magic. He'd been dutifully impressed at my incredible skills of knowing how to right click and use the context menu. He hadn't been happy, but maybe happy enough. The second-hand loaner laptop was nowhere near as flashy and fancy as his own one. Seeing as he was an executive sitting on the board of directors, it just would not do for him to be seen using such an antique as the one he'd been saddled with, but neither of us had any choice. That the one he'd got was barely six months old went straight over his head. The fact he was using it for web-browsing and basic office work did not go over mine.

It was better than my home machine. Sigh.

I turned my attention to the cause of the trouble. The recovery tool had booted flawlessly, and was checking various filesystems. Whatever he'd done to it had done a real number on the data within, but I was rebuilding indexes and salvaging files for all I was worth. According to the progress meter, I had a couple of hours left before I could attempt a local boot.

I sighed again. Making sure the door was closed, I fished out the goggles and tiara headset. The cafeteria had closed, and I was far too worked up to eat now anyhow. Might as well hop into Equestria, I figured. One pitstop later, and I was blindly flailing about for the boots. Easing them onto my arms, the tone sounded and Equestria took shape around me.

* * *

My first impressions were a mixed sea of green and blue. These resolved into stalks of emerald grass and the deep, sapphire sky. I lifted my head upright and rolled onto my chest, flailing with my wings as, once again, I suffered the peculiar body dimorphism of finding myself in a pony body.

At the soft sound of laughter, I blinked and looked around some more. Two ponies were watching me. Correction: two ponies and a squirrel. One pony was the bright green coat and olive green mane and tail combo of Celery Stalk, with Nibblet watching me cautiously from between her ears, and the other...

"P-p-p—" I began, then faltered. The other pony needed no introduction, even to a noob like me.

"Are you sure he's okay?" asked Celery. "I mean, he was asleep a long time. I'm kinda worried he hit his head, or got bitten by something..."

"N-no, I was, uh—" I tried to say "doing my job, making sure Equestria Online stays functioning," but it came out as "doing my job beyond the frontiers of Equestria, keeping everypony safe."

My eyes must have bugged out as my jaw muscles, throat and tongue worked almost of their own accord, because Princess Celestia bowed her head calmly, in genuflection, before speaking.

"Vineyard is one of my special ponies, dear Celery. His job is... strenuous. And travel beyond the boundaries of Equestria is tiring upon him. Do not be alarmed, for though his sleep is deep and he will not wake before his task is done, be assured that he will awaken."

"Vineyard?" I mumbled, completely ignored.

"Ah, magical sleep. I guess I should've guessed." Celery turned to look at me, flicking her tail where she lay on her belly in the soft grass. "When you didn't appear for three days, I went looking. I found you out here, asleep under a banyan. Snoring, I hasten to add. I got worried when I couldn't wake you up, but word was passed to Celestia, and... well, here she is!"

I goggled, open-muzzled, at Celestia. She was far more intimidating in person than the box artwork implied. She was huge, several times bigger than my apparently diminutive frame, but that was just the physical aspect. Far more impressive was the sheer presence that she exuded. I was speechless. Celery wasn't.

"So," she piped up, getting to her hooves and stretching, "what do you do? Are you some sort of... guard? Or fighter?"

"I... guess you could say that," I said. "I keep Equestria safe in... another place. I protect it from anyone who would want to hurt you. Any of you, Celestia included."

"Ooh, sounds dangerous."

"Eh," I waved a hoof. "It's just worms and bugs."

"Dragons and changelings?" replied Celery with a gasp. She stomped around in a circle at my words, every bounce emphasizing her next statement. "You crush dragons and smash changelings with your mighty hooves! I bet you have magical armour and amazing weapons too, right?" She paused in her crushing of imaginary enemies, and looked at me quizzically, almost muzzle to muzzle. Her breath smelled of cut grass and warm hay, I noted. Then wondered why I'd noticed that.

"Uh, firewalls? and... patches, and drivers, and... toolkits," I replied, lamely.

"Wow, I knew you had magical armour and tools and burning weapons and... I'm not sure about the wall bit, but it's cool if it's, like, on fire and then you... uh... what's a firewall do? It sounds awesome but kind of impracti—"

Before I could correct her, Celestia sealed my fate. Without a hint of hubris, the gigantic white alicorn stood up and spoke. "Indeed, Vineyard here is one of a few, special ponies. I love you all, completely and utterly, but I cannot deny the debt I, and Equestria, owe to such a valiant warrior."

Then she smiled. She smiled the smile of one who knows her opponent is well and truly nettled. In claiming that these feats she spoke of were just a job, I would be seen to be humble. Should I try to explain the world I came from, I would bedazzle. Instead, I pouted. This, too, the manifestation of Equestria itself had been prepared for.

"I apologize, dear Vineyard. You come here to rest from such frightful endeavours. I should not burden you with their retelling."

I was well aware that some sort of verbal fencing had occurred, and I'd lost, but nobody seemed to mind. Celestia, I knew, was an AI. To be this... capable, though. It was frightening. No, I decided, not frightening, just bloody incredible. "My job really isn't that amazing," I said.

"Oh, but it is!" said Celery. She blushed when my gaze caught the unabashed enthusiasm in her eyes, and she looked down. "I'm just a farmer. An earth pony farmer, a bit a dozen."

"Did you not build your balloon?" asked Celestia. "And did you not, through the sweat of your poll, fashion an irrigation system for your farm?"

"Wait," I said, "you built that balloon?"

Celery shuffled her hooves. "I had help with the tricky bits. Aurora Flash helped with the sewing, and Moody the Mendicant contributed the ropes and stuff... actually he got me a lot of the raw materials..."

"But she built it, all by herself. Except where her friends helped, of course."

I opened my muzzle to say that didn't really make sense, but at the look of quiet pride on Celery's face, I decided not to spoil things. I still didn't know if she was 'real' or not, but once again, I didn't want to be a jerk.

There was a sudden explosion of digital confetti, and another shield rose into the sky. This one read 'a friend is a friend is a friend'.

"Well done, my little pony," said Celestia. She smiled.

"What? What's that for?" asked Celery.

Celestia leaned close and whispered conspiratorially, although more than loud enough for me to hear as she grinned in my direction, "It means he likes you."

* * *

Author's Note:

I'm publishing a little earlier than I intended, perhaps, because this is a natural break scene break. Less ponying ponies than you may want, but... hopefully fun.