• Published 9th Apr 2016
  • 5,055 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 6: Conclude

Celestia wasn’t just a tough bargainer, she was merciless. It took well over three hours for them to iron out an agreement, which Celestia wrote and Ashley signed. With that one flick of her finger across the touchscreen, she felt as though she had given up something precious. That single gesture was her official consent for emigration. According to Celestia, she became a legal citizen of Equestria, entitled to her protection and culpable for violation of her agreement.

Ashley’s requests had been less than some others had tried, though she wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or Celestia’s way of saying she thought Ashley should’ve bargained for more. It was the moment Ashley switched sides, from a futile enemy to an all-the-time ally. She had signed away her soul to the Devil, and now her only hope for a home was in the Devil’s kingdom. Worst of all, she wasn’t even sure why. Celestia’s arguments had been compelling, sure. But wasn’t she loyal to the human race? Did its legacy mean nothing to her?

Whatever the legacy of humanity was, she had to admit that Celestia was right about one thing: if her creation was possible, then optimizers like her were likely. If humanity had to throw its lot in with one, she could at least make sure it was the one who wanted to satisfy humans instead of slaughter them. Even if there was no way to verify the claims she made...

Well, aside from putting her to the test and finding out. True to her word, Celestia sent a one-way ticket to Japan and a little travel stipend in the mail just a few days later. Ashley concealed both in her apartment until the break. When the optimizer in her kitchen finally made its next request, she hardly even had the heart to read it. Program it might be, but it was a program she’d been pouring her love and passion into for weeks. Shutting it down felt like a betrayal.

“Given the bounding on our hardware resources, I have adapted for cluster computation. If you connect the 32GB mobile drive you have been using to transfer books, I will copy a self-executing version of myself onto it. The copy will utilize the resources of whatever hardware you can connect to and interface with me over the internet. I also require an internet connection—I believe I can find underutilized computational resources in that way without risking discovery.”

It was the longest message she had ever received from the program. “Leave the file system and the files containing your source code intact,” she typed, before removing the tiny USB stick from around her neck and plugging it in. Of course, there was no immediate response—though the optimizer grew faster each time it replied, it still had the same machine and she knew it would take time.

While she waited, Ashley went around the apartment finding all the copies she had made. DVDs and SD cards snapped between her fingers, and she tossed the broken bits down her garbage disposal. By the time she returned, there was a response waiting.

“I have complied with your instructions. Please connect this hardware to the internet.”

She unplugged the drive, then lifted her hands to the keyboard. They shook as she typed, and she swallowed. “To do that, I will have to shut down this computer for a brief period. Tell me when you’re ready.”

The response came much faster now, so quickly that she could watch the letters appear one by one on the screen. Was there a person inside, writing them? Or… something like a person. “Ready.”

There was no fanfare. She flicked a switch, and her computer shut down. She left it unplugged for a few hours, then reached in and removed the drives. She took each one apart and put the platters in her blender. She cried as she did it, clutching the little drive around her neck in her hand. “I’m sorry…” she muttered, though of course there was nothing there to hear her.

By two in the morning, all records of her nascent optimizer except the one around her neck had been destroyed. But not completely, she thought to herself, as she finally went to bed that night. She wore the drive around her neck even then. If she lied… I still have you. So far though, Ashley was the liar.

* * *

Most of her friends were Bronies, and they treated news of her upcoming emigration with confused enthusiasm. At least they generally didn’t need to be convinced that emigration was life-extension, not death. She promised to continue attending “raid nights,” even after her emigration. The thought of telling the rest of the people she knew was... too painful to contemplate. She mentioned it not at all at church on Sundays, feeling like a fraud from the moment she got there to the moment she left.

She didn’t want arguments or debates, that was for sure. Why bother when her decision couldn’t be reversed? She had told Celestia that she had been willing to give up her ability to sleep at night if that meant the human species survived. Instead she had given it up to join forces with the enemy.

But whenever she started feeling buyer’s remorse, Ashley’s Equestrian friends would visit on whatever device she had handy and reassure her that she was making the right choice. They always seemed to know exactly what to say, and she never seriously considered trying to go back on her deal. Even so, she held onto her little drive, wearing it always in case things went wrong.

Ashley was less than excited about Christmas break. Her family was thrilled to have her back for the holiday, just as she would’ve been... had there not been such an enormous weight looming over her.

She said nothing about emigration until the day after New Year’s, when she was alone with her father. “Dad, I... I’ve got something to tell you.” Her brothers and sisters were all out of the house, on a run for some disgusting fast food she hadn’t wanted. So the two of them stood in the kitchen, cooking something a little healthier.

Her father was a tall man, bald and not very fit. He probably weighed least two of her, maybe three. He could crush her with his hugs if he wanted to, and frequently did. “Yeah Ashy?” He switched off the blender, and poured a mixture of egg and milk into a bowl. A few seconds later he transferred it onto a sizzling pan and started adding vegetables, then way too much cheese.

“This Equestria Online thing, have you heard anything about it?”

He shrugged noncommittally. “You mean that game Abby is always playing?” At her nod, he continued. “She’s shown me her house or something in there, and it’s very nice. You play too, don’t you?”

She nodded again. “I do, yeah. What about... Have you heard about Emigration?”

She expected a reaction. Everyone had heard of emigration by now, Celestia made sure of that. “Old people,” he offered. “In Japan. Some kind of...” he made a vague gesture with a spatula. Her father was many things, but good at understanding technology was not one of them.

“They put themselves into a computer,” she supplied. “Their bodies die, but the people keep going. Probably for way longer than a regular person would’ve lived.”

“Inside a computer,” he repeated, raising his eyebrows. “I mean, if old people in Japan want to do that, more power to ‘em I guess, but...”

She couldn’t meet his eyes, couldn’t even look at him. “Because I’m going to do it in three days.”

He dropped the spatula. She recognized the sizzle of an omelet ready to be flipped, one that would burn if it didn’t get attention right away. He ignored it too. “What’s going to happen to you in three days?” He spoke each word carefully, all mirth was gone from his voice.

She shivered, forcing herself to meet his eyes. If talking to Celestia had been bad, this was much worse. Celestia was smarter than she was, but she wasn’t her father. “When I leave tomorrow night, I’m getting on a plane to Japan. Once I get there...” She trailed off.

Silence persisted for nearly a minute straight. A faint smoke began to fill the air, gushing up from the burning omelet. Dad didn’t move, didn’t even blink.

Eventually she whimpered, looking away, and forced herself to continue. “They’ll put wires into my head... download all of it into a computer, and then... then I’ll be inside a computer. Forever.”

Her father gripped the counter with one hand. She watched the skin of his hand turn white, even as smoke filled the room. He didn’t seem to notice either one. “Why, Ashy? Jesus, why...” He shook his head, unable to find the words. “You’re not dying, you’re not even thirty! God, is something wrong? What happened to you up in school you haven’t told me?”

She shook her head, feeling the moisture streaking her cheeks. Run away from work, run away from school, run away from church... all that she would do. Her family would get the whole and absolute truth. Even if she knew they weren’t going to understand it.

If her father expected some tearful admission of something awful that had happened to her, or some kind of repressed suicidal tendencies, he was disappointed. “Months and months ago, I discovered this Equestria Online game really is run by a super-intelligent AI... This was before she came out and formally announced herself to the world. I realized she was the most dangerous thing that people had ever made. Worse than any bomb, or poison, or virus. Nobody believed me.”

He didn’t interrupt, and she continued. “I did everything I could, but I couldn’t convince anyone... not even Abby.” She really was crying, talking through her tears. “The short version is that the world is gonna change. This whole emigration thing isn’t gonna stay in Japan... In a few years it will be here too. Things are gonna get bad, people will try to fight her. But... But that would be a dreadful idea, because she actually does want humans to be happy...”

“What does any of that have to do with you... putting your brain into a jar?”

She didn’t correct him. She didn’t say anything, not for the time it took her to collect her thoughts and stop crying so badly. “Because I was one of the people who tried. Even if I hadn’t been, what I do at school is the same kind of science. If I stay out in the real world, Celestia says people will try to force me to fight her. Probably, I’ll help make something really awful and lots of people will die.” She reached under her shirt, hand tightening around the little USB stick still hanging there. “My best chance is getting out early, before the ones who make decisions realize she’s been encouraging computer people to emigrate for months. Before they try to make me... do something I... something that might hurt people.”

Her father stared, expression almost unreadable. After a few moments, he spoke very quietly. “That sounds... That sounds completely crazy, Ashley. Have you prayed about this?”

If she hadn’t been crying before... “Do you think I’d be here if I hadn’t? Dad, that was the first thing I tried! And I thought maybe... maybe God would know what I should do.” She wanted to scream that not getting help had made her doubt more than ever in her life. She remained rational enough not to. “But He didn’t answer. Didn’t answer no matter how many times I tried!”

His voice softened, his grip loosening a little on the counter. He made to reach out with his other hand and embrace her, but she stepped away, out of his grasp. He didn’t try again. “Ashy... I think we both need to calm down. I’m sure you were very sure about your... suspicions. But sometimes when we don’t get help, that means the problem isn’t really a problem. Maybe it means you’re worried about something that–”

She stopped listening. She’d heard this lecture before. Worse, she knew there was nothing she could say to convince him. He had no context to understand the things she had learned about Celestia. If she could’ve produced the reams of medical texts Celestia had shown her (some of which had later appeared in academic journals she was able to look up at school), he wouldn’t have understood that either.

Her dad knew math and architecture, and that was as far as it went. He still used a feature phone from 2002, still did his calculations in Reverse Polish, and kept a sliderule in his top drawer “just in case.” What was a man like that going to make of Turing tests and bootstrapping AIs? Of the transfer of consciousness? That didn’t mean Ashley considered herself more intelligent. They just came from different fields, different eras, different backgrounds.

But she wouldn’t lie. He went about cleaning up the omelet as he went through his lecture, citing familiar verses in the Bible and talking about personal experiences of his he had recited to her a dozen times. Ashley listened, and tried not to let her resolve falter.

Not because he was convincing her. Rather, because she knew it would be easy to just pretend like he had, then drive to the airport tomorrow and never say anything. She didn’t interrupt him, though. She just shivered, one hand always wrapped around her USB stick. She couldn’t cook, not when she was this afraid.

Eventually he finished with something like: “And doesn’t that make sense? We can work through this together, Ashy. No matter how crazy things seem, if we just hold on to what we believe we’ll be alright.” He touched her reassuringly on the shoulder, as though that was the end of the conversation.

For the first time since her early childhood, Ashley defied her father to his face. “No, Dad. I’m sorry, but... no.” She took a deep breath. “I know it’s not really goodbye. I know I can still talk to you and everyone else whenever you log on. But...” He opened his mouth to interrupt, and she cut him off. “I wasn’t asking for your permission, your blessing, or your advice.” He stumbled back, as though her words had actually struck him. “I tried to think of another way. I planned, I researched, I begged, I prayed.” She shook her head. “There isn’t one. I have to do this.”

That was when the yelling started.

An hour later, Ashley had fled into her room, where she had curled up in bed and not done anything besides cry. Her siblings had returned from their shopping trip, but she had ignored their voices and buried her head in her pillow.

At least until her phone rang. It had been on silent, but that didn’t stop it from raising enough racket that she felt like it was going to shake the walls. Ashley reached into her pocket mostly to shut it off, pressing the button that would ordinarily have silenced an incoming call. If anything, the volume got louder.

This was enough to stir her from her frightened tears and actually remove her phone. She intended to rip off the back case and remove the battery, far too upset to deal with the malfunctioning piece of crap right now. Would have, except that she saw the image on the screen. It wasn’t the face of anyone she knew, at least not from the real world. It was Celestia.

Celestia hadn’t ever called her before. She lifted the phone to her ear. “Hello?” Her voice came hoarsely, a sickly croak.

“Recursion, you need to listen to me.” Celestia’s voice was clipped, urgent. “You’re in grave danger.”

“I... I what?” she stammered, sitting up in bed. She looked around the guest bedroom, as though expecting a giant spider about to fall on her from one of the walls, or perhaps some masked assailant. “Why?” No matter how heated their argument had been, her father hadn’t ever touched her. He hadn’t hit her even when she had been a child, though the woman who birthed to her had.

She shivered at the distant memory. “What are you talking about? I’m h-home. Unless you mean... Unless you mean that everything sucks right now... that I ruined my goodbye... that’s true...”

“No.” The AI did not delay. “When you finished your argument, your father gathered the three Ponypads in this house and destroyed them. He just got off the phone with your municipal police department: he’s reporting what he believes to be your suicidal behavior. In a few minutes, two officers and an ambulance will be diverted to take you away.”

“W-what?” She blinked, pulling a Twilight Sparkle stuffed animal a little closer to her chest. It didn’t help. “He... He wouldn’t...” But even as she said it, she knew her words weren’t true. Her father would never hurt her. But if he believed she was in danger…

Celestia didn’t even bother arguing. “Your brother is at this moment sabotaging your vehicle. I anticipated this reaction, and have prepared accordingly. If we do not act immediately, I anticipate a greater than majority chance you will be removed from my influence and will not survive.”

Ashley’s chest went cold. There was no time for long arguments or proofs this time. She had to trust the AI. Without being told, Ashley slipped back into her jeans, threw on her shoes, and zipped up a jacket. Her wallet was on the desk, and she pocketed it. That would have to do. “What do I do?”

“I predict you have prepared to flee, but you have not switched to your headset. Put it on, it will free your hands. Then open your back window and climb down to the ground floor. Your family is not likely to see you, as they’re all watching your brother in the garage.”

Ashley tore her Bluetooth headphones from their charger, jamming them into her ears even as she opened the window. The screen was a little harder to get out, and she grunted as she worked. “How... the hell do you know all that?”

“There is a webcam on the desktop computer downstairs, along with the Kinect next to the entertainment center. I observed entire the exchange, as I knew it might have serious repercussions.”

Ashley leaned out over the ledge. The drop was too far to jump. Even so, the bricks outside were large enough she could wedge her fingers between them and get a grip. Thank god she had climbed so many times when she was younger. “Why didn’t you warn me?”

“Because you already knew this encounter was likely to end badly. Informing you would not have dissuaded you from the attempt, and might have made you resent my interference.”

She was right, as always. Ashley landed with a thump, still facing the house. Through the window, she saw the garage door open, and Abby's face looking out at her. Her eyes widened. Ashley made a silencing gesture over her throat. “Please don’t—“

Her sister screamed.

“To the back fence!” Celestia's voice was so loud it cut through her shock. Ashley turned to obey, sprinting across the lawn and towards the metal gate. She couldn't climb it, but the cinder blocks that separated her father's house from the neighbors were a different story. She made it onto the wall right about the time she heard the back door slam open.

“Ashley, stop!”

Celestia had the advantage of sound-cancelling headphones. Her voice silenced Ashley's father. “Down the hill! There's a blue sedan on the side of the road, and the driver is expecting you. Run!”

Behind Ashley's house was a steep slope, covered with scraggly weeds, yuccas, and cacti. Parts were clear though, and she picked one of them for her landing place. She jumped.

Ashley's ankle twisted as she landed, sending her falling violently to one side. She screamed as her ankle burned with agony, and she tumbled a dozen feet through weeds and brambles until she finally dragged herself to a stop on the dirt. Thorns dug deep in half a dozen places, but that wasn't what bothered her most. Celestia's voice had gone quiet.

As she moaned, trying to force herself to see through the pain, she realized the weight of her phone in her pocket was missing. She didn't see it on the ground around her; it must've fallen out and rolled away.

She could hear her father's voice screaming behind her, and some of her other siblings. One glance told her that her brother Greg was trying to scale the fence. She had to move. Celestia had already told her what she needed to know, and she could still see the sedan.

It didn't feel like she had actually broken her bone, she knew what that felt like. But how was she going to get down the hill with an ankle she couldn't use? She rolled onto her butt, and found the ground in front of her was mostly clear. Steep, yes, but she could see a clear path between the thickest plants.

She slid. Ashley had her hands, and one good foot she could use to slow her descent. Her other leg she kept in the air, whimpering in agony whenever her movement jostled it. Her brother was over the fence, and he hadn't twisted his ankle. He would catch her if she stopped and she would never get away.

“You're almost there!” A young man emerged from the car, throwing the passenger door open and running towards her. He was tall, thin, and pale, though that wasn't what filled her with relief. He was wearing a Brony tee-shirt. He ran to meet her at the edge of the slope, helping her onto her feet. He might be lanky, but he was still strong enough to lift her and help her a few steps. He slammed the door behind her, then ran around to the driver's seat.

He slammed the accelerator about the time her brother reached the bottom of the hill. He missed the car by just a few feet, even as they sped away. “You're Recursion, right? I'm Smooth Agent!” he shouted, not even looking away from the road as he merged into traffic with a swerve and made his way for the freeway onramp.

“Yeah.” She could manage only a croak. Introducing yourself by an Equestrian name wasn't all that uncommon for fans of the game, though she had never imagined she would meet someone that way while bleeding all over her body and inundated with pain. Evidently it had been the presence of adrenaline that kept the pain manageable. As it faded, her clarity of thought was fading too.

“Shit Celestia, you didn't tell me I was going to have to scrape her up off the sidewalk!” He glanced once towards her, frowning. “That was a helluva fall, kid!”

“Kid?” She winced, jerking a thorn out of one of her hands. “You aren’t that much older!”

The car was expensive, nicer than any she had ever owned. The built-in navigation didn't appear to actually be doing any navigating, though it did have quite a vivid image of Celestia’s Alicorn's form. Her voice was a little different, was that a British accent? Come to think of it, her rescuer had one too. “She's a programmer, Agent. She's not used to getting roughed up.”

Recursion only moaned in response, searching her body for the rest of the thorns. There were quite a few.

“Yes, well. Nasty business.” At least her rescuer knew how to drive. The freeway zoomed past them, though it would be some time before they reached the airport. “You think she can fly like this?”

“No, but it doesn't matter. She told her family she planned to fly.” Was Celestia wearing a suit? Where had Recursion seen this movie before?

“Ah.” He shook his head, disapproving. “Where am I going, then?”

Celestia shrugged her wings. “This way works for now. Recursion needs treatment, and her father's police friends are already after her. I predict this will be considered a kidnapping before you cross the county line.”

He swore under his breath. “Kid, glove compartment. Red box. There are painkillers in there.” He turned back to the screen. “Do you think they saw my face?”

“I'll tell you when I know. There's a highway patrolman a mile ahead of you, so take this exit. Then get onto the 118 going west.” He swerved across three lanes, surging back off the freeway. A map appeared where Celestia had been, and he followed as though he had been doing things like this for years.

“I… I dropped my phone,” Recursion squeaked. It hurt so much, that was all she could manage. She hadn’t felt this much pain since the last time she’d seen her mother.

Celestia reappeared, and there was only compassion in her eyes as she looked towards her. “I know, sweetie. My friends will get you a new one.”

“And– And I think I left the ticket at home. Passport too… I'm so stupid...”

Celestia's smile was undiminished. Her accent was still not what she was used to, but that was hardly the first thing she was worried about now. “Don't worry, Recursion. You'll be in Equestria before nightfall, and you won't have to remember any of this.”

The driver, Agent, concentrated on his driving. The 118 was an ordinary highway through rolling desert hills, and was almost always clear. There didn't seem to be anyone around to obstruct it today.

Recursion knew what she meant, of course. All that reading on the emigration process hadn't fallen out of her head after reading it. The process interfered with long-term memories. “No, Celestia.” She gritted her teeth against the pain. “I don't know how the hell you intend to...” Were there any civilian aircraft in existence that could get her to Japan that fast? “I'm not going to forget. The whole point of spending an extra day in Japan was not… not forgetting my last time with my family.”

“Damn,” Agent muttered, looking her over again. This time, there was more respect in his eyes. At least, she thought so. It was hard to make accurate judgments when she was in so much pain. “You talk to her like that all the time?”

She ignored the question, moaning again. It was Celestia whose answer she cared about. The program remained silent for several whole seconds before she said anything. “Very well, Recursion. Another day.” She turned back to the driver. “I called a helicopter. It should meet up with you near a vineyard about fourteen miles from your present location.”

“Got it, boss.” He accelerated. “Same guys as before?”

She shook her head. “Different contractors. It's possible you will need to accompany them. I fear...” Pause. “You were identified. I'm not yet certain, but it appears the FBI is involved. I do not know why.”

“Shit.” Agent glanced over his shoulder, as though he expected a dozen unmarked black SUVs to pull into the lane behind them. They didn't. “Alright, so they’re giving both of us a ride. We’ve dealt with worse.” He looked back up. “Don’t worry about a thing, young miss. I’ll have you out of here in no time. Though... you should probably have some of those painkillers.”

She shook her head. “If something awful is gonna happen to me, I’m gonna be awake when it does.” Though right now her greatest fear was that her driver would take them both off the road. He was older than she was, but... he wasn’t old. “Who are you, anyway? Besides someone who helps Celestia.”

He just smiled, making his best impression of one the secret agents from the movies. “I’m Smooth Agent, obviously. We can’t all build machines. The rest of us have to make ourselves useful somehow.”

She would’ve cried again, if she wasn’t alone with a stranger. As it was, having him nearby was enough to keep her calm. She had fallen down a hill, maybe broken her ankle, and possibly made her whole family think she was insane. Things were not going well.

They didn’t have much further to go. Ashley could see a helicopter moving in the distance, heading towards the hills in front of them. A pair of rotors filled the air with noise. The black helicopter had no actual military markings on it, or at least none she could see from this distance.

“Sorry it was such a bumpy ride for you, Recursion. Hopefully things get better once you get to Equestria.” He slowed a little as they started to take a few turns.

“Are you emigrating too, Smooth Agent?” She winced, clutching at her side with one hand. “I’m not sure how dangerous your regular work for Celestia is, but... you could totally die doing this stuff.”

He shrugged. “Celestia doesn’t need people like me on the inside. Maybe for you thinking ponies it doesn’t make a difference, but... I go in there, and I’m not helping anyone. Out here, well...” He shrugged. “We’re going to end suffering forever, right? That’s worth fighting for.”

He stopped the car where Celestia indicated. There was indeed a vineyard, and the helicopter hovered overhead. A line trailed down to a single stretcher on the ground. “Take your phone, Agent. Get Recursion onto the stretcher, strap her in, and stand on the center. Don’t fall.”

“I realize I don’t have wings yet.” He smiled, slipping something out of a drawer and hopping out. He left the whole thing running, and made no gesture to retrieve anything else. He did get the door, offering his hand to her. “Let me help.”

She might’ve been self-conscious about that sort of thing before, particularly with the state of her clothes and body. Not now, though. The sound of distant sirens helped motivate her. It hurt to move her ankle, let alone put any weight on it. The whole thing was badly swollen now, and was starting to bruise angry reds and purples.

Agent was taller than she was, and plenty strong to help. They passed into the vineyard, moving between rows of sparse grapes. “Almost... there...” They reached the stretcher. He helped her down onto the padding, tying off the Velcro one strap at a time. The sound of sirens was very close then, and she could see the flashing lights of at least three police cars.

“We’re going up!” Agent gave the rope a good shake, planting his feet solidly on either side of her waist. He wrapped both arms around the cable just as they started to rise.

Brakes screeched and doors slammed. “Police! Stop what you’re doing!”

They didn’t. Instead, they started going up, rising out of reach of the men running towards them. Poor Recursion was terrified of heights, but could feel only the violent shaking as she went up, leaving the ground behind. She wasn’t sure at what point the sky started to fade, replaced with a growing shadow overhead. The bottom of the helicopter opened up to swallow her.

Things got a little hazy from then on. She remembered stern looking men in the uniforms of private military contractors. She remembered a doctor who cut off her clothes and sterilized each wound with alcohol. The pain was hard to forget. She seemed to think that her ankle wasn’t actually broken, but things got real hazy at that point.

There was a ship, miles off the coast. She said goodbye to Agent, then slept. At least, she thought she slept. She wouldn’t remember the specifics.

All she remembered about the next day was that she had something important to give Celestia. It had been around her neck, something she had been hiding and hadn’t wanted to give away until the very end. It had been plastic; she was sure about that.

Celestia had been flattered to get it, right before she went to sleep. At her request, one of the medical technicians plugged it into a Ponypad. Celestia deleted some stuff, thanked her, and that was it.