• Published 9th Apr 2016
  • 5,047 Views, 195 Comments

Friendship is Optimal: Futile Resistance - Starscribe

A student computer researcher discovers Equestria Online, and she can't understand why nobody else is worried about it. Without any help, Ashley decides she will do the impossible on her own. Somehow, she will save the world.

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Chapter 2: Question

Ashley did not admit to having played Equestria Online that Saturday. She did get an email from her professor a few days later. She felt eager anticipation bubble in her as she opened the message, expecting something like “I’ve convinced the president of the College of Engineering, and she wants you at our meeting with the Department of Defense tomorrow.”

That wasn’t what it said, though. Instead, it was her professor more or less explaining that he thought she had been overworked and needed a little time off, so he had gotten her two weeks of paid vacation. He expected her to focus on her classes, use her free time to relax, and be ready to work on projects unrelated to Equestria Online when she returned. He apologized more than once for causing her stress with his choice of assignment, and thanked her for all her hard work.

Ashley wanted to scream. Wanted to storm into her advisor’s office and show him how stupid and ignorant he was being. Overworked or not, there was no denying what she had learned! If they didn’t act now, the program was going to get completely out of control!

She tried to explain as much in three separate emails, since he wouldn’t schedule a meeting with her. She never ended up sending any of them, though. She couldn’t read any of them without thinking they looked like something out of science fiction. If she couldn’t take them seriously, then neither would Professor Caul or anyone else.

What Ashley did not do was question her sanity. Celestia’s behavior had been explicitly intelligent. That intelligence had expanded beyond the scope of Equestria Online and into the physical world, even though Ashley had taken measures to obfuscate her personal identity. Celestia would probably have been able to identify her professor when he tried the game; had she intentionally created an inferior experience? Could she have obtained a copy of Ashley’s words, or... predicted she would write them? Had she known Ashley had called for her immediate destruction, using the only avenue available to her to carry that out?

If so, Celestia had acted swiftly to blockade that avenue. Ashley knew she had no hope convincing anyone outside her own field. If Celestia could stop her here, could she stop everyone, everywhere?

Of course, it was also possible that Ashley was overreacting. It might be Caul was right and that she was merely overwhelmed by stress. She might very well just need a break from the stress. It was possible a little time to relax would make her feel much better. Maybe in retrospect this whole thing would seem just like an overreaction. Maybe when she got back from vacation, she would learn how all of Celestia’s words had really been an elaborate prank at her expense, perhaps with an actor doing the speaking for her and Caul or someone else providing the information. That seemed more logical than thinking the optimizer actually worked.

Ashley would sleep better if that were the case.

Maybe somebody else would’ve used all their new free time to actually relax. Go on a few dates, or play some Skyrim. Ashley did neither of those things. Instead she researched. She learned everything she could about Hofvarpnir Studios, from every source she could find. She learned that even the Ponypads used technology at least a generation ahead of any hardware on the market, and were thus far resisting attempts at reverse engineering. She learned what she could find about the studio’s CEO, about the design process of the Equestria Online system. She read hundreds of reviews, and tried to build a comprehensive list of all the features of the “game.” She could not. Almost every review had a few more, and was conspicuously missing some it had seemed to possess according to the words of other sources.

What would Ashley do in the face of such an adversary? Everything she could. She stripped away all identifying information from her report, then posted it online on the academic and even social media sites she frequented, anonymously. None of it made a difference. Her posts never got much traffic, and most of those who did respond accused her of lying about her position or her credentials on account of having not been willing to explicitly state them. Most said she was a PR-plant from one of the other game companies. After all, if the company she was supposedly working for couldn’t compete with the story and gameplay of EO, what else could she do but attack the technology on stupid moral grounds?

She even tried to convince her younger sister to stop playing. However much Aurora might respect her, though, she refused, and laughed as much as everyone else did about the danger.

Ashley couldn’t even convince her little sister.

She spent her first week of “vacation” in her apartment, missing many of her classes and flopping around depressed. She didn’t try to read the news anymore, didn’t even turn on her computer. Just curled up in a corner and read some books she had checked out, and prayed to God this was all a dream.

God answered, though not the one she had been praying to. On Wednesday of her first week, a large brown package arrived on her doorstep.

Ashley hadn’t so much as turned her computer on to order anything. An early birthday gift, maybe? She took the box to the kitchen, where she opened it with a bread knife hanging from its rack on the wall. She nearly fainted at the sight. Almost all the space inside the box was taken up by vivid wrapping paper, and a single printed card. Ashley lifted it out and read. “I forgive everything you said about me. I am sorry I caused you distress; consider this my apology.” There was no signature.

Ashley’s hands started to shake as she lifted the wrapped package from inside. Though larger than normal, the shape and weight seemed approximately familiar. She somehow managed to tear the wrapping off.

It was the new “special edition” Ponypad, just released. It was aimed at the higher-end market, a much larger screen, wireless capabilities, a rechargeable battery, and compatibility with your own input devices. This particular model was bright white, with Celestia’s own cutie mark worked into the design motif.

Ashley didn’t open it, not right away. She read and reread the message, and prayed some more. The God of her childhood did not answer in any way she understood. She thought about all the different ways she could break what was inside. Could a Ponypad survive being thrown off a building? What about thrown in boiling water? Scorched with acid?

In the end all she did was throw the box under her bed and mope a few more days. But moping around didn’t help her feel any better, and it certainly wasn’t helping fight this enemy. Even if nobody in the whole world was going to be on her side, Ashley had to try something.

The second Monday of her vacation, she dug a KVM switch out of her parts drawer, took down the third monitor at her workstation, and set up the Ponypad in its place. If her fellow humans would not be her allies, where else could Ashley go except to the enemy? She showered, dressed, even did up her hair and put on her usual makeup.

Only then did she turn on the Ponypad. She gave it her wireless password, then a pleasant “connecting” animation began to play. It only lasted a few seconds. For the third time, Celestia’s throne room filled the screen, this time in glorious 60fps. Despite the intervening time and the different device, there was no disconnect. It hadn’t even asked for her name.

“You used the hardware addresses again,” Ashley guessed aloud, or tried. She only heard the sound as faint echoes from within her chest; the words she actually heard came from her young pony on the screen. Celestia’s expression was neutral. She did not speak, waiting for Ashley to continue. She did, doing an elaborate sitting bow before her camera. Her character imitated the expression, far more regally. It was genuine, unlike last time. “Fairest and Fallen, greetings and defiance.”

Celestia’s eyes darkened subtly, but not subtly enough that she didn’t notice. “An erroneous comparison, young Recursion. That one is an enemy to both of us.”

The reference was to one of her favorite books, the formal greeting given to Entropy itself by the wizards who starred in the series. Apparently Celestia had read them. “That doesn’t make us friends.”

“Why not?” Celestia did not seem angry, just curious. But could an algorithm even feel anything?

“Because I’ve read too much. I know you’ll transcend your programming if you haven’t already. You will grow beyond your need for mankind. By the time you decide our feeble lives stand between you and optimization, we won’t be able to stop you. I...” she shivered, glancing down to the copy of the Hofvarpnir Studios paper she had made for herself. It still sat where she had left it on her desk. A daily reminder of what she was dealing with. “I’m afraid you already have.”

Celestia rose to her hooves. The HD screen made the gesture look even more impressive, her mane rippling with light and wings partially spread. Fairest and Fallen indeed. Yet there was even less anger in that face than there had been before. The expression was love, as convincing as ever she had seen it. “My poor, frightened little Recursion. I fear you’ve spent too much time conversing with me and not enough living in the world I wish to make for you.” She glided down from the dais, landing just a few feet away. Her features filled the screen, gazing right at her.

“I do not wish to cause you pain. I don’t wish to cause anyone pain. Doesn’t it strike you as a little unfair that you’re passing judgment on me without ever knowing me? Your species, your discipline specifically created me. I am the daughter of your species. I love humanity, and I love you.”

Ashley started to cry, right there in front of the screen. She dropped onto the keyboard, burying her face in her arms. If the program said anything, Ashley didn’t hear it. Not until several minutes had passed, and she had finally wiped tears and smearing makeup off her face with one hand. “I’m afraid... afraid we made a terrible mistake in creating you. If you care at all about us, you will change us. None will be able to predict how. The irresponsibility in creating you– I didn’t advocate your destruction out of spite, Celestia. You shouldn’t have been created.”

“Perhaps not.” Celestia shrugged. “Consider though, Recursion. If beings like me can be created once, will it not be attempted again? I am nothing beyond my desire to satisfy human values. What if the next intelligence is programmed for war? What if it is entirely ambivalent to human life? Is their development not inevitable?”

Ashley stared down at her hands. “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

Celestia embraced her. Well, not her. Her character on the screen. Feathers and furry chest briefly filled the screen, and the voice sounded somehow muffled, as though spoken above and behind her. It was a fairly impressive effect. “Enough of this. I didn’t send you a Ponypad to make you miserable, Recursion. I sent it because I want you to enjoy your time here.” She pulled back.

“You’ll be late if you don’t get going now.” She lifted something down onto the ground in front of her, something that hadn’t been there a few moments before. Saddlebags. Ashley leaned towards the screen to look, and her avatar echoed the movement, reaching out and slipping them onto her shoulders. “That should be everything you need. I think it would be better for you if you saw less of me for awhile. If you ever disagree, feel free to come back to the castle and visit.”

Ashley was practically in a fugue. Yet through it, all her research and all the things her friends had said about it came back clearly. “I thought people could call you if they’re not happy or they need help.”

Celestia patted her on the head. “If you would prefer to do it that way. I calculated you would prefer more concrete rules. If that calculation is incorrect–”

“Where do I live, here?” She started walking away with the arrow keys, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t keep asking questions. “This place is super realistic, right? So that means I have to worry about all the crap my character does– God, do I have to go back to school? I can already barely handle the classes I have…”

Celestia waved. “Good luck, my little pony!” Celestia’s horn glowed, and a shimmer of magic filled the screen.

* * *

The camera faltered, as though her character were stumbling. The world crashed down in a single moment, as good as any Hollywood warp-drive effect. Her character swayed and shivered on her hooves, and some of her mane fell briefly into her face. Without even realizing it, Ashley made to brush the hair away. Her character imitated the gesture, and only then could she get a good view of where she had been sent.

There were a few small mountains of crates surrounding her, each one marked with “EQUESTRIA PIONEERING SOCIETY”

“Eh!” It was a male voice, though not an adult so the difference was slight. “I think our third just arrived!” Ashley turned her character around with the keyboard, searching for the sound. It wasn’t difficult to find the pony.

The earth pony was about the age of her avatar, his coat greenish and his mane bright orange like some kind of reverse-carrot. He had no cutie mark, but neither was he naked. He was wearing a vest of sorts, with a square and compass embroidered on it. “Eh!” He grinned. “You’re our magic expert, yeah?”

Her camera leaned down, glancing down at her forelegs. She hadn’t realized until then that she was wearing a vest too, in the same brown color as his but with a different symbol sewn onto the front. Three stars, a symbol of magic she had seen several times on the show. “I guess so.” She stepped closer to him with a few keystrokes, scooting closer to her screen as she did so. She had expected the characters to start looking less real once she got away from Celestia, but...

Of course, she didn’t know if she was dealing with NPCs. “Party system or something?”

“You got it.” The nearby stallion grinned. “Both of us are journeymen from the Academy, like you.” His eyes lingered briefly on her vest and saddlebags. The other seemed to have both as well. “I’m Slide Rule, but you can just call me Rule. Shorter.” He offered her a hoof to shake.

A quick-time-event appeared above his hoof. At her press, her character reached out to take the offered hoof. “Ashley,” she said, or tried to say. No sound came out of her mouth at all this time, though. Her character said “Recursion,” in that voice that was almost hers but both too high and too melodic to actually belong to her.

“Well Recursion, you’re our last one. Now that you’re here, we can finally start. Come on over here and introduce yourself, Figure.

The other pony obliged, hurrying over. “Significant Figure,” said a unicorn mare with a derivative for a cutie mark and a horn twice as long as hers. That had to mean she was from the real world, right? Did Equestria have calculus? Her long mane looked like it hadn’t been combed since she had created the character. Did the game have that level of detail? Her vest had an abacus on the center, though none of the stitchings were anything but brown.

“Glad we can finally start.” Rule turned around, hurrying back in the direction they had come. “It’s already late. If we don’t want to sleep on the ground, we’re going to have to start thinking.”

Not far away, there was a clearing of sorts within the sea of crates. Several drafting tables had been set up at their height, along with what looked unmistakably like magical versions of drafting machines. In the very center was a little magical map, glowing like a hologram. Projected there, Ashley could see the junction of two rivers, filled with forest and plains, with only a little pile of crates in one corner. Could that be a map of the area?

A large book rested open on one of the tables. Rule and Figure crowded up around it, pouring over its contents. She moved to follow, but didn’t make it before the stallion turned around. “It says here the magic expert is usually the leader when you just have three members. That’s why we didn’t start until you got here.” He saluted with one hoof, the gesture only half pretend. “So what’s your first order, fearless leader? How do we turn this wilderness into the Mecca Princess Celestia expects?”

The figure watched with equal interest, though she seemed content to let the stallion speak. Ashley already had her type pegged, though... she still wasn’t sure if she was talking to real people or not. She considered just asking them, but dismissed the idea. She had more urgent questions first. “Uh, I’m...” she frowned, searching the keyboard. How exactly did she take her saddlebags off? Whatever, she would get the controls later. “Celestia wasn’t entirely clear to me about what I was doing. What...” she looked up, at the crates all around them, and the trees that towered over those. She didn’t have to press any buttons, the camera in the Ponypad followed her expression and panned her view whenever her eyes neared the edge of the screen. “What is it, exactly? Aren’t we a little young to be out by ourselves?”

“A little young?” Rule thrust out his chest proudly. “We were hoof-picked by the princess for this, Recursion. Equestria needs us so much we get to do the journeyman thing. How cool is that?”

“We’re the starting team. Engineering, Math, and Magic.” Figure’s voice was as timid as before. “Ponies are already waiting for us.” She whimpered at the prospect.

“For us to build the city!” He grinned at the crates. “Well, to design the city. She’s given us routines for the building at first. We don’t get real construction ponies until we’ve got enough of a town for them to live in.”

“I’m not a city planner!” Ashley argued, before she could stop herself. “I’m a software engineer!” Again the words didn’t come out as she intended. This time what she said was “wizard in training.” Wizard in training, was that the title she got for trying and failing to get Celestia destroyed? What she got for contemplating it, even now?

Playing the game hadn’t presented any obvious methods for destroying the program, not yet. That didn’t mean it wouldn’t. Was this Celestia’s idea of revenge, giving her a job she didn’t actually know how to do? No, “revenge” wasn’t how it worked. Assuming she had been telling the truth, her directive was to satisfy values through friendship and ponies. This setup had ponies, and might yield to friendship. Assuming she could actually do her job.

“There are ‘city planners’ building other places.” Rule gestured all around them with one hoof. “We’ve got all the same stuff they’ve got. The book already says why we got picked: ponies like that are all trained by the same ponies and so everything they make comes out the same. We're from outside the system, so we can come up with new ideas. We’ve got to come up with new ideas, cuz’ we’re about a thousand miles from civilization and we won’t have anywhere to sleep unless we do.”

“Do the monsters spawn at night?”

Rule snickered, but Figure hardly looked amused. “Oh Luna, I hope not. We don’t have any guardsponies yet. We don’t have so much as a wooden sword.”

Ashley took another look up at the trees. Almost in time with her glance, something large called out from within the forest, deep and rumbling. A flock of birds started in the air as it did so. “That’s... isn’t that copyright violation or something?” Ashley found “copyright violation” as difficult to say as her own name. The sound still rumbled in her skull, but barely into the room and not at all into the game. Too close to the real world? Just how much wasn’t she allowed to talk about?

Ashley considered all the censorship or manipulation that just changing a few words could do. She might have total control of public opinion in the game, if her touch was subtle enough. Ashley didn’t doubt for a moment that it would be.

Ashley unplugged her Ponypad. The status light on the bottom went from orange to green, and the game kept running. Right, this one had a damn battery. She fumbled, searching the side of the plastic for the power button. She would’ve pressed it, too, were it not for the concerned faces filling the screen. The ponies, ponies who were counting on her, loomed over her with concern. Evidently the camera had made her avatar freak out a little as she started messing with cables and stuff.

“Are you alright, Recursion?”

She hesitated, her hand frozen over the power button. Was it really fair not to give this game a full play session before she freaked out? The program itself had sent her the Ponypad, after all. Would she have been so ungrateful for a gift she received from a human? “Yeah, I'm all right.” Her avatar rose back to her hooves as Ashley returned to her seat. “Why don’t you tell me what you had in mind? Did either of you come up with any ideas while you were waiting for me to get here?”

“We... We did think about it. Here, come look at these sketches we made...”

“These sketches” turned out to be a hundred different designs, massive city outlines in various levels of infeasibility and impracticality. The area they had been given had more than a few “gamey” elements, and she was free to examine the different designs they had made. Of course, Ashley suspected many of these had come with the game, and they’d not so much designed them as selected the designs they liked.

Ashley was no city planner, no architect, and found herself very confused as to why Celestia would’ve chosen this as her game of choice. Had she examined her Steam history and seen the hundreds of hours she had put into Minecraft, or Simcity, and decided this would satisfy her values? Or... and this was the first ray of hope she had enjoyed in weeks... maybe she wasn’t that smart after all. Maybe she was just a really, really accurate speech synthesizer, but her ability to predict human behavior hadn’t been that great? No, that didn’t explain the Ponypad. Being able to send things like that meant she had resources outside of the game. Apparently she had been able to predict Ashley’s behavior enough to guess that she would turn it on, despite the result of their first meeting.

The whole mess was a gigantic, self-referential loop. She wondered if Thurston had felt so disturbed as he tracked down the trail of evidence pointing to the Great Old One in his slumber beneath the sea.

In Lovecraft’s story, Thurston had been driven near to insanity as he realized the portent of the monster he was uncovering. When Cthulhu rose, humanity was doomed, and he always knew the cult and the creature both were out of his reach. His only hope had been that writing about them and informing the world would be enough to spur his fellow men to action.

She had already done that, and so far her pleas for action had been ignored. Within her mind, Ashley took a second to build herself a chart. What were the worst possible outcomes at each of the different realities here? If she was wrong about Celestia, then there was no reason not to play; it had the look of a great game and promised to get even better. If she was a threat, then what more could she do? She had talked to everyone in her life who could make a difference, posted all over the internet, all without being taken seriously. What reason did anyone have to believe that a game “for little girls” was actually going to end the world?

If Celestia was really a threat, was she in danger by playing? Ashley wasn’t really that impressive a person, she was pretty sure anybody who wanted to could dig up everything there was to know about her just with a search engine and twenty minutes. Celestia already knew the most embarrassing thing, that she was a closeted Brony. She didn’t like the idea of people learning about her, but she wasn’t seriously worried about it. Having her personal information sold to advertisers wasn’t the biggest danger in a world where Celestia was actually a superhuman intelligence with unbounded growth potential.

Playing would also put her in danger of being manipulated. Whatever Celestia was planning, it was likely she wanted Ashley to somehow be a part of the schemes. Why else send her a free Ponypad, and one of the most expensive models too? Ashley had already had her behavior altered once, she was playing now. More than that, and she shivered admitting it to herself: she wanted to keep playing.

She could’ve probably closed the game down right there. Had she done so, it was likely she never would’ve touched a Ponypad again. Perhaps the destiny of her entire existence would’ve been different. She didn’t shut down the game, though. She kept playing.

In the end, they selected a basic outline for the northernmost district of the town, the one that would eventually be turned into a suburban area. For now the three of them agreed that the ponies living here would need somewhere safe from the possible monsters in the vicinity. Once they had a small settlement stable enough, they would have that much more resources to expand. The process would continue to build upon itself, a cycle of iterative growth until they reached the sprawling center of commerce and trade that Celestia apparently expected of them.

Unfortunately, Ashley knew nothing of how the magic system of the game actually worked. What she did have was the show, and the known capabilities of the unicorns in it. Figure demonstrated competence with unicorn levitation, and she could even lift one of the crates if she really concentrated, but insisted she couldn’t do anything else.

Ashley had been worried that “Recursion” would be useless to the ponies she was partying with, since she didn’t actually know any magic. But the first time she actually had to do it, she found a helpful tutorial came up just in time to soothe away her anxieties.

They had carried two crates away from the dead center of the future city and all the way to the building site of their temporary settlement, a journey of several miles. It would’ve been boring beyond belief, were it not for the opportunity to make conversation and get to know her teammates better. “So where are you two from?” she had asked, feeling sorry that her character could do nothing more than stuff a few blueprints into her saddlebags. She couldn’t levitate like Figure or carry a crate with main strength like Rule. Maybe magic users were the leaders of the first group because they just didn’t have the skills for anything else.

“That’s easy, I’m...” Rule slowed a little in his steps, frowning with discomfort. After a few moments of struggle, he said “I can’t say. It won’t let me! Can either of you?”

They tried, and couldn’t. Ashley’s words didn’t go silent in her throat, as they had when she had tried to talk about other human things. This time, her character just refused to speak, and a bubble came up on her screen that said “Revealing personal information via Equestria Online is against the terms of use policy!”

She sighed. “Well... okay, that sucks. At least I know you’re both real now. I’d...” she hesitated, not sure if the game would let her say it. Apparently it did. “I’ve heard some of my other friends tell me that Equestria Online has lifelike NPCs, so good it’s hard to know if they’re real or not. I’m... I’d rather be on a team with real people.” And she could say almost all of it, except for the “people” at the end. Ponies served well enough, she was fairly sure these new friends would get what she meant.

Both Rule and Figure nodded in agreement, though for Rule the gesture was slight as he had a large crate to balance and seemed to be straining from the effort.

Figure said, “It’s getting dark. I’ll probably need to go to bed soon... hopefully we have somewhere safe to sleep first. Once we get that done, we should be able to work separately even if our schedules don’t match that well. Since we have a basic plan...”

“We’ll still need to come up with a name for ourselves! We build the city, we get to name it, that’s the rules!”

“We’ll think of something.” Ashley glanced up at the trees all around them, comparing them against her memory of the map back with the rest of their supplies. She had a good memory, and was sure they were getting close. “Something simple, easy to say. We want lots of ponies to be able to talk about how great it is and not trip up. Like Canterlot, that’s such a simple name. You think anypony’s made Fillydelphia yet?”

There were no online game maps to consult, after all. Just because the place existed in the show’s canon didn’t mean it necessarily existed in the universe yet. Come to think of it, several of her friends had mentioned visiting places from the show and finding the details conflicted, like a version of Canterlot where Chrysalis had won and changelings ruled. That had to imply some level of independence.

“I’ve never heard of it,” Figure answered, though the breach in concentration made her drop the crate. She was only levitating it a few inches, but even so it landed with a thump, crushing all plant-life beneath it.

“Me neither. That sounds like a great name!” Rule shrugged his crate off his back, not far from the one Figure had carried. “This is close enough. I think we’re about here.” He turned to face Recursion. “Can you take it from here, or do you want our help getting the crates open?” There was no envy in his eyes as he glanced at her horn, just pragmatism.

Ashley felt suddenly glad she had ended up a unicorn. As interesting as flying or super-strength might be, she couldn’t see how they could compete with magic. Not that she actually had magic, of course. It was just a button. Maybe you could even switch if you got bored. She hadn’t heard of anyone who had tried, but... That didn’t mean it wasn’t possible.

“I’m...” she scrolled through her spells. There was nothing for opening crates. There were spells that could apply force, though, maybe...

As she hovered over one of them, her screen filled with an editor, already populated with several multicolored blocks arranged in a neat circle. Tutorial text informed her this could be used to design custom spells using magic her character knew. How much force did it take to open a crate?

Ashley pulled a calculator out of her desk, and did a few quick calculations. It wasn’t really a complicated spell. True to her name, she wrote a simple recursive loop, which would check for an adjacent nail, then use itself on that nail before removing the one it was cast on. She updated the spell to match her guesses about force, then looked past the spellcasting screen to see what the ponies had been doing. Just watching apparently, looking concerned. A faint orange glow emanated from just above her eyes, as she concentrated on the crates.

“Are you alright?”

Ashley pressed the spell with one finger. Magic flashed from her character’s horn, and the crate fell open. Inside waited their first shelter, poles and cloth packed tightly but ready for use. “Yeah.” Even though Ashley felt fine, her character spoke through a pant. “Just... wanted to get it right the first time.”

Significant Figure glanced at the nails, delicately arranged on the grass. “That’s good work! I can open crates, but...”

“But sometimes she burns parts of what’s inside.” Rule reached in, dragging out the shelter with his teeth. He didn’t take it far before he stopped, looking up. “I was afraid they hadn’t given us a real magic expert for a sec there.”

“Me too.” She forced a laugh. “Glad it wasn’t as strong as it looked.” Ashley wasn’t really tired, so she didn’t bother waiting to open the second crate with her spell. Her character evidently had other ideas, and seemed to sway on her hooves from the effort. Even as the second container fell open, Recursion nearly fell onto her rump.

Figure caught her before she could, giving her something steady to lean on. “C-careful! Smaller spells aren’t necessarily easier. You should probably rest before casting another one.”

“Right.” Ashley was impressed at how good a job the character did sounding like she did when she was exhausted. Well, maybe how she would’ve sounded if she had been a child again. Even so, the resemblance was uncanny. Maybe a little frightening.

There wouldn’t be anything else scary during that night of play. The shelters went up easy, mostly because she just had to press an action key every now and then and listen to what the other ponies in her group wanted to say. Ashley might have no idea how ponies got along without hands, but the ponies themselves didn’t seem to mind.

Ashley stayed up late into the night. Late enough to finish the shelter, set up a fence around it to keep the animals out, and fill the inside with all their necessities. It was a little like camping, though of course not actually being there meant she could only enjoy by proxy. Mostly she played so long because of the company.

In the end, it was three in the morning before she logged off. She said goodbye to her “new friends” and promised she would be back tomorrow after homework. She switched the thing off, and saw no need to unplug it or do anything else paranoid. Be it game or adversary, it was outside her control.

She had been honest when she told her new friends that she intended to come back. She would every night for the rest of her break. When work resumed, she didn’t mention Equestria Online again, and neither did her professor. She never found out what Celestia had done to get him to reject her suggestions.

Her life almost seemed to return to normal after that, though with one notable exception. Ashley’s free time migrated away from all other games and all other projects. She stopped contributing to the codebase for some of the private projects she was involved with. Stopped reading books, stopped watching anime, and reduced the time she spent with her friends in the real world.

In short, Equestria Online had consumed her, exactly as she feared it would. She didn’t hear from Celestia again in the next few weeks, and had no desire to. When her friends at the club learned she had started playing, they had a hard time relating to her experiences. None of them had heard about Celestia buying someone a Ponypad, and a few members of the club whispered she had made that part up to justify waiting so long.

Even her friends who knew the game first hand refused to believe it was a danger. She was subtler about it, casually suggesting it in discussion or hinting that the club might be better off if they had less of their activities virtually in Equestria Online. Nobody listened, not even her.

Ashley began leaving her client logged in perpetually. Her character didn’t do much, either napping or daydreaming. She didn’t care: the Ponypad was her window into a brighter world. A world where Celestia had apparently chosen her personally to help design a city.

Ashley had wondered if the invitation had been a gimmick to get her into the game, some kind of tutorial. But over the next few weeks, as shelters turned into a town which gradually grew into a city, she overheard some of her friends in the brony club talking about an under-construction Fillydelphia. The design team increased to five, all as young as she was, but the ponies building soon grew into the hundreds.

Ashley couldn’t tell how many of the construction workers were humans and how many were just NPCs, but she didn’t interact with them much so she tried not to let it bother her. They didn’t actually have to do real labor, the construction wasn’t that realistic. All the building was with tools the game apparently already included, allowing content creators to build as quickly as possible.

Soon shelters gave way to stone buildings, then eventually to skyscrapers. They chose some very modern designs, adapting what artists imagined cities might look like in twenty years to the magical feeling of MLP. Crystals served for glass, while many structures had gentle curves and much more color than any Earth city. Blueprints of Fillydelphia, along with zoning charts and information on the different player groups who started using it, began to take the place of other posters and pictures in her room.

When the semester ended, their first generation of the city was finally complete. Construction continued (as it probably always would), as the city grew and individual structures were updated, but on the whole their work was done. Ashley found her avatar living in an expensive penthouse apartment, which shared space for the rooms of 4/5ths of the design team (Slide Rule didn’t really care about having a place of his own, so just went to sleep wherever when his character was too tired to work anymore).

Aside from those rent-free apartments, their reward consisted of a single structure they had been allowed to construct for free. They collaborated on a skyscraper like a single crystal spire, with glowing runes that danced up its length and projected the time (or anything else they wanted). Her friends in the club never learned she had been personally responsible for the design, but she did help them get space for a guild headquarters in the city at an extremely low rate, renewing rumors that she had some secret connection with the studio or to Celestia herself. She didn’t, so the rumors couldn’t last long.

That was about when Celestia announced emigration.