• Published 27th Dec 2013
  • 3,485 Views, 382 Comments

Out and About in the Equestrian Kingdom - Midnightshadow

Welcome to the future. Enjoy your neocortical upgrades, and why don't you try out our ponytrait system? A new you is waiting for you to take to your hooves!

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Chapter 1

Out & About in the Equestrian Kingdom

by Midnight Shadow

They'll tell you what it's like repeatedly, but you won't actually understand. You may think you know, but you don't, not really. It's hard to avoid hearing about life on the hoof, at least ever since the digital entity calling herself Celestia started expanding her borders into the physical world, but even so, I was not prepared.

As I opened my new eyes, blinking the world into focus through the fog of the ponytrait nanobots, I could tell I already had the biggest, dumbest and cheesiest of grins on my new face. I hadn't even learned to stand upright and I'd already started feeling 'it': the euphoria, the herd… call it what you will, many call it 'the quickening' in reference to some old teevee movie from before everything became senseplays and memjaunts. I didn't get the reference, but now that I was experiencing it, I couldn't help but bask in the overwhelming flood of good tidings being sent my way.

Most people are pretty gregarious in their online hookups; they'll pick up friends from all over the world and across a number of federated fandoms, but for a pony, the reality is that the herd is just there in a way that mere names on a flist aren't.

As my wetware came online, I found myself setting my datagate wide open for any critter hailing from Equestria, whether it was post human or native eevee. It seemed all them that found it wanted to be my friend. And you know what? It turned out I was okay with that. I was more than okay with that. In just a few moments of consciousness, I was already reeling from a deluge of gleeful pokes as a million equines and Equestrians greeted me over the 'net. As my social networking subsystems joyfully accepted each and every one of them, I reasoned that when they'd pumped those ponytraits into me, it must have rewired more than the outside, it had rewired the inside too.

Speaking of the outside, I was becoming acutely aware of my new body as I ran a couple of basic diagnostic protocols. It was spooky how everything reported back as green across the board, but those answers were… just a tad different than I thought I remembered. I twitched and wriggled, trying to sort myself out.

"Sir," came an insistent male voice, elbowing its way to my consciousness through the fog of online chatter and self-exploration, "you should lie down."

Groggily, I realized the owner of said voice had been trying to catch my attention for the past few seconds, in fact ever since as soon as I'd recovered enough to start moving, and had upset their plans for a quick and orderly removal of the plethora of trait hookups they still had in me.

"Sir! You really need to…" the voice's owner became exasperated very quickly, grunting with effort as I ignored it in my attempts to rise. Not letting up, the owner became somewhat physical.

"Lie down now, that's a good boy, stay down or you'll hurt yourself!"

The human doctors were quick to jump and restrain me as my struggles intensified. I didn't blame them really, but it all became a bit scary as more latex-covered hands clamped down on each of my four limbs and elongated neck.

Fear rising, I threw back my head, whinnying and kicking, but then suddenly felt a presence that stunned me to inaction.

I felt her.

Celestia whispering in your ears is life-changing. That's another thing you'll hear from every single pony ever, and like everyone else ever, you'll smile and nod and brush it off, but it's true. The true voice of Celestia is like having a warm blanket wrapped around you whilst lounging in a comfy chair. In moments, her gentle whispers had calmed me. Heeding her benevolent suggestion to relax, I lay my head down and breathed deeply through my nose. Mixed Oats – nee Brendan Fremantle – was safe, nothing could ever hurt me again, not really. All this hustle and bustle in the operating theatre was merely a distraction, and Equestria was but a heartbeat away.

Silently, the presence retreated, but it promised to return should I need her again. As I calmed, I took the opportunity to take stock of things. Waking up as a pony for the first time was relatively mundane in practice, but from the inside it was rather earth-shattering. It was almost like going through the singularity again, only this time having that tumultuous decade compressed into a few seconds.

Earth-shattering, and life-changing.

I was old enough to remember the end of death; that alone had utterly changed everything we thought we knew about ourselves. It turned out that living was the scary part of life, and that a lot of people couldn't really handle it. This manifested in two ways: some just died, whether it was through their own actions or just an inability to get up one morning. Others found their physical lives ending and, for whatever reason, couldn't make the jump to getting a backup and restore. "We're not computers," had been the cry, "you can't just hit the reboot button!"

You could, of course, and eventually the world just ran out of those who wouldn't.

The second big deal had been the end of scarcity and with it, money. In some ways, seeing your life savings going up in digital smoke had been a harder blow to deal with than learning you didn't have to spend most of eternity in a box underground.

As the AI's like Celestia muscled their way onto the global stage, they fixed things as they passed. They fixed hunger, they fixed poverty, and finally they fixed disease and even death. With it, they fixed the need for four fifths of the world to live in squalor and ignorance and the need for most of the rest to slave away at jobs they hated to acquire meagre amounts of an almost entirely imaginary gold-substitute.

In the new world of post-scarcity and post-mortality that swiftly followed, most services were free, and available on request to all. One such set of services were the physical upgrades offered as perks from the AI's that had recently become the real movers and shakers on the planet. One of these AI's, as already mentioned, was Celestia. One such physical upgrade she offered was ponytraiting.

"That's a good boy. We'll be finished soon."

The doctor's smooth words were condescending, but comforting. I silently chalked up another tab on the 'rewiring' checklist and waited. My wetware was still coming back green, my HUD was rewiring itself for a wider field of vision and a deep mindscan was reporting that everything was psychologically 'within parameters'. Which meant that the upgrades had taken effect. That was the scary thing: when you've got to make sure no memeforms have penetrated your eigenwall, but you know for a fact a rather large behavioural package was recently integrated, you get a little paranoid. And then you run your self-checker because hey, paranoia is not useful and you want to make sure you're not overreacting. At some point, you've just got to accept your new eigenstate checksum and move on, right?

"Do you think you can get up?"

The doctor wasn't actually speaking to me. The man had said it a while ago, but my wetware had delayed introduction of the doctor's voice until it was sure my eigenwall defences were up. Around me, the real world came into focus once more as I heaved my body up from the padded operating couch and tentatively placed one hoof after another on the ground.

"Marvellous! And I'll be releasing final muscle restraints… now." The doctor held a large pad in one hand, connected to a boom hanging from the ceiling. He tapped a few commands into it. I was momentarily surprised it wasn't wireless, but then I remembered the safeguards against brainhacking would have been up, so everything would have needed to be wired.

I moved my jaw in a circle, then ground my teeth. They were flat. Hmm. I twitched my ears and tail, then noted that the physical feedback loop told me everything was good. I also knew for a fact I'd never had movable ears or a tail before, despite memories telling me otherwise unless I thought about it. That was… disconcerting.

"Thank you, Doctor Connors," I said. I pondered giving Connors and his crew a four-star rating, then opted for five. My own premature attempts at physical exertion had been dealt with perfectly well, and should be marked up, not down.

My own final physical status checks had taken less than a second; now it was time to move on. A quick interface with the centre's cloud and my friendship duties were done: full marks all around. At a brief mental command, my HUD snapped up with an overlay of the quickest way out, and I took it, placing one hoof carefully after the other. Despite being told repeatedly that I'd been trotting around on my hooves entirely competently since I was a year old, I was still enjoying the new sensation. I snorted derisively; one day they'd fix that wetware overlay so it understood about physculpting.

Behind me, my avvy was prancing around with those of the doctors, nurses and technicians. My pegasus avvy had wings, so she was giving several of their toons rides through a combined memescape. The sensememories were streaming in fine, making me smile, but I didn't really have time to enjoy it. I decided to incorporate them later, and shunted them off to my storage layer. Right now, I was hungry, and wanted to fully enjoy my first few hours as a pony.


My ponytrait bodymodding had taken most of the day. The internal changes would continue for a while, so not only was it a good idea to eat real soon – and heartily at that – but it was getting on into late afternoon, so I'd have plenty to look at out on the streets.

Daytime is for working – whether at community tasks, furthering your own education and abilities, or otherwise engaging in the wider world of commerce still available to physical creatures – but mid-afternoon onwards is time to mingle and be sociable. During the day, most people are serious and studious, but in their downtime, many choose to shine.

The music was already starting, both online in spot mediacasts. My ears flicked about rapidly as they picked up the rhythmic sounds of a drum circle; a group of Neo-Rasta's were smoking some heavy green and getting into the spirit. Their communal modality field licked at my personal datacloud, offering discourse memes. I politely declined to participate, but did allow a secondary physical subroutine to modify my walking pattern to sound out hoofbeats in time with the beat as I passed. It was something between dancing and drumming with them, and once again I felt one with the herd. On an impulse, I offered up Equestrian memebases. The Neo-Rasta's accepted them without qualms. Immediately, their drumming patterns subtly changed to reflect their new alignment. I felt how Mint Julep jumped for joy as she saw them take on diamond dog forms. I couldn't help but laugh, and danced all the happier.

Equestria's a big place – and an even bigger franchise – and whilst it's a huge panoply, that doesn't mean it's not still going all-out in the war for mindshare. Walk down any big city street and you'll see toons from every franchise in the Ordinality, each vying for your attention and patronage, and whilst ponies aren't so blatant in their advertising, they are very numerous.

The Disneyverse has been huge forever, for example, and whilst it was late to the avvy and body-clinic parties, its base started off huge. There were three Goofys that I could see right in the immediate vicinity – it's always a hit with the kids to get a hug from a Mickey, a Goofy or a Donald – not to mention a far larger number of Mouse Franchise familiars following their owners. Their popularity didn't mean that Disney stood still trying to get new recruits however; they didn't really attract that many willing to trait, so whilst they were instantly recognizable, the impact their brand had was lower than it could be. Ubiquity has its downsides.

Nintendo-Sony are major players too. With their connections to TimeWarner, they have a freer policy on traits – which is probably a good thing, because once you've heard the tenth "itsa-me, Mario", the shine wears off fast – so they attract a wider range of people willing and interested in sharing the look, but without the instant recognizability.

All in all, there are a large number of globally recognizable brands in the world, and whilst all of them vye for a share of the zeitgeist and most of them engage in traits, none of them had managed to become quite so intrinsic to the global culture as ponies.

See, the world changed at the beginning of the last century: computers got more and more powerful, algorithms became more focused and capable and programs became 'intelligent', quote marks and all. And then they started learning. It wasn't long before big corporations started using seed AI's for everything from market research to the next gen gaming scene.

Of course, the breakthrough came from an unlikely source: a childrens' media corporation wanted a game, and not just any old game, but The Game as their marketing heads put it, so they found a researcher with some wild ideas and the ability to put them into practice. A couple of years later and Equestria Online was born. A year after that, it became clear that the governing optimizer was both sapient and sentient.

Their rivals, of course, hadn't stood still. None of them had created Oracles – AI's locked up in their own little boxes with little if any contact to the outside world – and had instead created unfettered, wild intelligences in a bid to outmaneuver Hasbro, who had little choice but to fully unfetter their own, already super-intelligent creature.

And it didn't stop there: First one, then two, then ten… and then at fifteen it stopped. According to Celestia, a total of fifteen 'class ten' sapient sentiences eventually emerged onto the world stage, self-optimized well past human levels of intelligence.

They promptly took over.

With their superhuman abilities at reasoning and deduction, with their lightning reflexes and perfect recall, with their almost omnipotent level of multitasking, they not only cornered all the stock markets but also successfully lobbied for citizen and then nation status, bought out every key business they could get their digital paws and hooves on, and cemented their rule, all in the blink of an eye.

Celestia was the first, and the greatest, but her creators had been just that little bit too slow for their optimizer to stem the tide. Hasbro was subsumed into Celestia's new empire of Equestria, but Mattel followed suit with their own online world. Disney and WB both came up with their respective digital playgrounds whilst behind the scenes they each maneuvered for the largest possible slice of the world's economies… and pretty soon, the only commodity left that wasn't owned lock, stock and barrel by these new behemoths were the people.

They were no longer really needed for their previous tasks, of course, but instead the public were desired simply for their ability to vote with their wallets… and those wallets were quickly stuffed full of loyalty points as the dollar – along with almost every other bespoke currency – disappeared into obscurity and obsoleteness.

Celestia cornered the market in digital currency, and now everyone uses Equestrian Bits. They're Bitcoins, really, in a number of different flavours, but since Celestia is the world's greatest number cruncher, she mined them all first. Since she owns the stockpile, she gets to control them, and everyone else found themselves dealing with her.

And so, ponies became a household word. It had helped that biofuel had mostly been used for hauling produce and powering generators; this had kept the price high enough for the average consumer for long enough that the average consumer had decided that owning a car wasn't worth it. Almost overnight, the entire motoring industry had collapsed as the public searched for an alternative.

At just the right time, Celestia came along with the ability to give those who were willing a form which was well known – was iconic – for its strength and durability. By pioneering ponytraits, the cottage industry of pony-powered taxis were born and Celestia's empire grew even larger. All of a sudden, a whole swathe of people that had previously been unemployed or unemployable – even in the new sense of the word – found a great new pastime which garnered them endless thanks from the community at large.

I had been flirting with a number of different franchises before I'd settled on Equestria as my stable of choice. A few years earlier, I'd sworn never to trait, but then being a pony had just started to look more and more like what I wanted, until I'd taken the plunge.

And now, here I was, out and about, representing.

My GPS daimon decided it was going to be a crow.

An eevee from Equestria had decided to integrate – it wanted to see the physical world, and my subsentient GPS system wanted a map upgrade. The two had agreed upon a merger. Now instead of boring old lines in the sky, I got to follow a trail of glittering, suspended feathers. And it was a little bit noisier in my head.

"Anybody else going for an upgrade?" I grumbled as I trotted down the thoroughfare, but the crow knew she had me. She landed on my poll between my ears and cawwed, pecking for ticks – and apparently finding some.

I found myself stretching ghostly wings as my avvy caught up with me. She'd had enough of the body clinic and wanted to rejoin her host. Truth be told, most avvys didn't stray too far from their progenitors. They weren't truly independent daimons so long as they stayed avvys, as much as folks liked to pretend otherwise. It could get disconcerting when your self-aware daydream has more of a life than you do, so that tended to break the spell, or involve a status change.

I had, for a moment, entertained the idea of a full gender swap as well as the bodymod, but had decided that going pony was change enough for now. I could feel the pout on Mint Julep's lips at that, but mentally shushed her. I promised my sulking avvy that she could have a bit of a prance later during my neocortical downtime. With senseshrouds in place in a consensual imaginarium she could get a taste of the real world without giving up her wings. I just hoped she wouldn't get too flirty in the physical world. Not that I didn't mind physical pleasure, but it did get a bit disconcerting to wake up to freshly integrated memories of being female with another male in my bed. Or in their bed.

Speaking of: before, I'd thought I'd feel conspicuous and self-conscious about trotting around without clothes on, but now I was here, it didn't seem to matter. Fur was clothes enough, even with the gender-accurate physiology. Some folks went for show-accurate traits, but I had erred on the side of functional, with enough of a side of modesty to still pass for socially acceptable everywhere. It helped that ponies were far enough away from the uncanny valley to neatly sidestep that particular quirk of even post-human nature, and near enough to the animal kingdom to fall into the locker of "acceptable when naked".

Ponies were cute. I'd known that subconsciously, in a kind of offhoof way, but moments after being in public I'd really understood what it meant: ponies are cute. Ponies are cute in that 'aww I want to pet him' way that made endearments just rain down around you. Everybody loves ponies, even the cynics, and just having one there brightens your day.

My stomach rumbled, piercing my absent-minded ruminations.

"Scare up some grub, girl?" I asked the crow. I'd have to name her later. She squawked an affirmative, took off and circled for a while, picking up datafeeds from the local diners and restaurant sites and feeding them back for meta-review. Returning with a smug look on her beak, the digital diva hung just out of reach and beckoned me onwards.

The crow led me and my avvy down Mortimer Crescent and on past Drum Street towards the fairway. I started to get a distinctly rustic feel from everything as my digital entourage and I left the city centre. The neon lights were slowly being replaced with candle-lit lamps, and the flat concrete with cobblestones, not that the digital domain lessened for all the old time charm on display. I was no luddite... which was why it came as such a shock when the 'net went away. Tables and chairs may have interrupted my reverie, but it was the wall of humans and the sudden blackout of the Citymind datastream that brought me up short.

In today's world, with wetwired comms and ubiquitous datanet access, you're never far away from the digital worlds that surround the physical. They permeate everything, even if you're one to stick with plain old meat and only go in for audio-visual hookups. Only luddites don't get wired. Luddites are strange, slow creatures. They often speak only the one language and have to be addressed in person like some sort of retro vending machine. Saying that, I did know a few folk who didn't go for ideas like permanent retina and bone-mic implants, but that was just a question of style, not of conservatism.

My GPS squawked in fear – she'd never been offline, at least not whilst sentient, and had to be reassured that she was still there, and that she was safe. For a digital being, suddenly being marooned in the one head and a relatively miniscule personal cloud is traumatic.

I nosed my way fearfully through the crowd, absentmindedly leaning into pats and strokes, drawn onwards by a growing sense of curiosity to see what the issue was. There was only one thing which could cause a blackout, other than a major city-wide catastrophe, and it was almost always as serious for those involved. Nudging my way to the front, leaning into a few scared patron's embrace to give them comfort, I came face-to-face with a standoff: grimly, a local sheriff was aiming his gun at a hostage and her hostage-taker. Setting his stance, the sheriff asked the former if she'd recently backed up, listened carefully to the answer, and then fired.

There were screams as the two dead bodies fell to the floor, and then the world went sideways into blackness.