• Published 17th Feb 2016
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Tantabus, Mk. II - Rambling Writer



An attempt by Luna to update the Tantabus to spread good dreams has a few unexpected results. Self-aware ones.

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Bug Report: Program Becomes Self-Aware

“I need you to teach me the ways of motherhood!”

Of all the things Twilight expected Luna to say to her, that was most definitely not one of them.

Luna had popped into her bedroom at around four in the morning, ripped away the sheets, and woken her up. Loudly. She was constantly jumping from one hoof to the other, flicking her tail every which way, and her wings were twitching uncontrollably.

“Uh… wha’?” mumbled Twilight. She rubbed some sleep out of her eyes.

“I have been a mother for the past moon and I was unaware of it!”

Twilight yawned. “How can you not know something like that? I think you’d remember giv-”

“No! No, not like that,” said Luna. She took a few deep breaths and her twitches slowed. “Do you recall the Tantabus?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, last moon, I set about creating a new one for the opposite purpose. To spread good dreams to all instead of simply making me relive bad memories. It seemed to be working. But… just a few minutes ago…” Luna swallowed. “It started talking. It called me ‘Mom’.”

That purged the last vestiges of sleep from Twilight’s system. “What?

“I know! It- I do not know how it happened! It is not supposed to be self-aware! It is not even supposed to be intelligent!” Luna started flicking her tail again and her voice sped up. “But if it is, then I cannot, in good conscience, force it to keep spreading good dreams; I have no desire for it to be a slave. But is letting it out safe? I do not know what its mind is like; is it young, old, adolescent, adult, what? How much does it know? If it leaves dreams, what c-”

“Please, can you calm down for a second?” asked Twilight. She pulled herself from the mattress and rolled her shoulders. “And why are you coming to me for help? I’m going to be aunt, not a mom, and the baby’s so far off, Cadance and Shining haven’t even named her yet. Or him. Whichever it’ll be.”

“You are the Princess of Friendship,” Luna said. “You ought to be able to help me reason with it. I know that, yes, Princess Cadance is the Princess of Love, but your assistance with the Tantabus previously gives you vital experience that Cadance lacks.”

True, maybe, but setting precedent for the personhood of constructs was not something Twilight wanted to do tonight. She frowned. “But if all you want me to do is talk to it, can’t you bring Celestia with you? I know you said she doesn’t have power in dreams like you do, but this doesn’t involve power. Right?”

Luna opened her mouth, held it that way for a moment. Suddenly she closed it and ducked her head down, her ears folded back, as she rustled her wings. “I…” She looked back up at Twilight, and when she finally spoke, her voice wasn’t more than a whisper. “My sister did not know of the previous Tantabus, so her understanding of this would boil down to mere parental issues. Can you imagine what she would say if I came to her with parental issues? I’d never hear the end of it — never — and I doubt that she’d treat the situation with enough gravity.”

Luna looked away from Twilight as she rubbed the back of her neck. “I apologize for jumping on you like this, truly, but I simply do not know anyone else who can deal with this problem the way you can, and I do not want to simply sweep it under the rug for tomorrow. I want to either be sure of its safety now or nip it in the bud. Please.”

Part of Twilight wanted to say no, that it was too late in the night for this sort of thing. But it was a very, very small part. It was impossible for her to just sit by like that. Besides, who else could help Luna? She was more or less the only pony in any position who could provide assistance. “Of course,” she said. She yawned. “So does this mean I get to go back to bed?”

Luna’s height dropped a full inch as the tension fell from limbs in relief. “Yes. Thank you.”

Twilight rolled back into her bed. “Any time.” She quickly fell asleep and started dreaming, but only had the vaguest glimpse of a library before it collapsed in front of her, falling apart to reveal a small valley in the middle of the night. She and Luna were standing next to a calm pool in a depression, surrounded by plants of all kinds — trees, vines, mushrooms, the works — every single one of them glowing softly. The colors were mostly cool ones, ranging from blues and violets to subdued reds and oranges. Lit by a full moon, it felt tranquil, meditative.

Twilight whistled softly. “Nice place,” she said, looking around.

Luna nodded. “When you go through countless dreams of others, sometimes you simply want some peace and quiet in your own. I worked on the new Tantabus here over several weeks. I used the template from the old one, but put in restrictions to prevent it from escaping like last time or behaving in unwanted ways. As of yet, it can’t enter others’ dreams unless I allow it.”

“But it can manipulate yours?”

“Again, only if I let it. I desired to see how it would behave in a controlled environment. So far, it has turned all my dreams pleasant, no matter how they started out, but… then it…”

“…started calling you Mom.”

“Yes. And I do not know how it feels about any of this, or if it feels at all.”

“Have you tried asking it?”

“Asking it is probably useless. It will say what it needs to say, a-”

“Have you tried asking it?”

Luna blinked and looked to one side, her ears folded back. “…No.”

“We should ask it,” Twilight said. “When you want to know somepony’s feelings, it’s a good idea to ask them.”

“I panicked!” Luna protested. “How would you feel if a foal was dropped on your doorstep and started calling you ‘Mom’?”

“Fair enough.” Twilight began looking around the valley. “So, where is it?”

“I do not know; it does not just ‘hang out’. It likes to hide. Not to scare you, but purely for the sake of hiding. We’ll need to find it.”

“Why don’t we just call for it?” Twilight asked. She turned to the pool and yelled out, “Tantabuuuuuuus!

Luna sighed and rubbed her forehead, just below her horn. “I do not think that a being such as the Tantabus will respond t-”

She was silenced when Twilight nudged her in the ribs and pointed at the pool. A small cloud of night sky pulled from the surface of the water. It drifted to the edge of the pool, where it swirled and coalesced into a ponylike shape.

The first thing about the Tantabus that struck Twilight was how small it was; the one she and her friends had fought had started large before growing enormous, but this one was barely larger than Twilight herself, and definitely smaller than Luna. Maybe even smaller than Cadance. It looked like an alicorn-shaped hole had been carved out of space and replaced by a slowly-shifting field of stars. But shadows still fell on it properly, and it still cast a shadow of its own. Small lines where the stars didn’t match up quite right or bulged in and out resolved into well-defined visible and physical features; eyes, a nose, a mouth, wings, a mane, a tail, a horn. But even with those, even if you took out its surreal coat color, it looked… generic, for lack of a better term. Typical. Nondescriptive. It looked like everyone in general, but no one in particular. A few tiny luminescent plants and mushrooms sprouted from the ground around its hooves.

It stared curiously at Twilight. “Hey. You’re new. Did you call me?” Its voice was androgynous and weirdly mixed different ages; it had the characteristics of the voices of a foal, an adult, an elder, and all the rest combined into a single voice. It was too young to be old or middle-aged, too old to be middle-aged or young, and too middle-aged to be young or old.

Twilight glanced briefly at Luna before addressing the Tantabus. “Yes. My name is Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

“How come you’re here? Mom doesn’t want me to talk to strangers, but she brought you here, so you must be important.” The Tantabus turned to Luna. “What's she doing here, Mom?” Its voice wasn’t accusing or angry, just curious, the same way you might ask someone what their favorite color was.

Luna shivered a little. “Twilight and I have… work to do. Special work.”

“Oh. Okay. Can I go back to swimming?”

“O-only if you come when I call.”

“‘Kay.” The Tantabus dissolved back into smoke and rushed back into the pool. A moment later, iridescent, sparkling fish began leaping out of the surface of the water, each one trailing the Tantabus’s mist.

“Well,” said Twilight, watching the fish jump, “if nothing else, it seems happy enough.”

“Yes, but is it truly happy or is it faking?” murmured Luna, also watching the fish. “The fish are… beautiful enough, but you can hide sadness behind beauty.”

Twilight managed to hide a sigh. “Like I said before, we need to ask it.”

“It could lie.”

“You created it! Can’t you take away its ability to lie or something?”

“I do not know! I never gave it this much intelligence in the first place! If I tried to alter it now, I… I might kill it. And if it is truly sentient, I cannot bear the thought of killing it.” Luna rustled her wings and her voice dropped a little. “I know I created it as a tool. But if it’s become something more, then simply dismantling it would be reprehensible.”

“I know,” said Twilight softly. “I know. But you really think it’s become a person, then you’ve got to start treating it like one. You can’t assume it’s this manipulative monster just because it might be.”

“You are correct,” sighed Luna, “but… I do not want to risk it escaping and potentially attacking Equestria.”

She sucked in a breath between clenched teeth. “But it is of no use to beat around the bush.” She cleared her throat and tentatively said, “Tantabus?”

A column of water gathered up, forming into the Tantabus’s head. “Yes, Mom?”

“Could I talk to you for a moment?”

The water splashed onto shore and coalesced into the full shape of the Tantabus. “Yeah?” it asked curiously.

Luna swallowed. “Are… are you happy here?”

The Tantabus cocked its head and thought for a moment. “Happy enough. But I’d be happier if you let me out once in a while. You always keep the door closed.”

“Door? What door?”

“Oh, you know. The door you use to come in and out of here.” Its mane reached out towards a rock and pulled. The surrounding landscape crumpled like a curtain being thrown aside; behind it sat a rather plain door, not much more than knob and frame and hinges. “You and Twilight came in here through it just now, and whenever you’re done working with me, you go out through it. But you don’t want me to open the door, so I don’t touch it.”

“Ah. Yes.” Luna was silent for a moment, then added, “You can go back into the water if you want. We are done.”

“Okay.” The Tantabus gracefully jumped towards the pool, performing a backflip as it did so, and slid into the water with nary a ripple. A second later, surreal plants began fluorescing underwater, just barely visible.

“Well?” Twilight asked. “Do you think it was lying?”

“I do not think so,” said Luna, “but…” She stared at the door. “I did not imagine it knew how to leave dreams. I never taught it that and was planning to do it once I was sure it was safe.”

“But it hasn’t left this dream yet.”

“Or so it says. But I am inclined to believe it.” When Luna turned to Twilight, she looked a bit happier than she had before. “And if it is not lying, then that means the safeguards I put into it work. It has not even tried to force the issue, considering it said it has not touched the door.”

She began pacing, although she didn’t look worried. “Although we still do not know what its mind is like. It seems to have one, perhaps right on the cusp of growing out of childhood. And it seems sane. But we have not an inkling of what it feels, how it thinks, ho-”

“Have you tried asking it?”

“Hush, I was just about to do that.” Luna turned to the pool and said, “Tantabus?”

Reforming back on the shore, the Tantabus huffed, “Mom, if you want me to stay out, just tell me to stay out. I don’t mind if you don’t want me swimming, but then tell me to not go swimming, don’t let me go in and keep calling me back out.”

“Don’t go swimming again,” said Twilight. “We have some questions we want to ask you.”

“See? Like that.” The Tantabus settled down on the ground, wiggling its body a little to get more comfortable, and turned to Luna with big eyes.

Luna cleared her throat. “How do you feel about this place? Not just now, but in general.”

The Tantabus looked around and shrugged. “It’s pretty, but like I said, I’d like to get out at least a little. I’ve been here my whole life, after all.”

“And how long do you think that is?” pressed Luna. Twilight knew the answer already, but she was curious to see how much the Tantabus knew. Could magical constructs get infantile amnesia, so to speak?

The Tantabus frowned and scratched its head. “Erng… I dunno. I think a moon, I can remember stuff about that long ago. But that’s hard. It gets easier a week ago, but that’s not the earliest. So I think a moon.”

Luna blinked. “And you don’t think a life that short is unusual?”

“Why would it be? It’s when you made me, Mom.”

Twilight twitched slightly and Luna recoiled, flaring her wings. “How do you know that?” Luna gasped.

The Tantabus tapped the side of its head. “It’s one of the things you taught me: that you made me to make good dreams to keep the stress off of you. That’s what you’ve been working with me for, isn’t it? And I want to, but you keep the door closed and want me to stay here.”

Twilight and Luna glanced at each other; they’d never considered that the Tantabus would be aware of its artificiality. But at the same time, Twilight thought, it doesn’t seem all that perturbed by the fact.

“So does this mean we’re going out?” the Tantabus asked hopefully. “I know how to work dreams really well here, but I don’t know what it’ll be like in other places.”

Luna motioned Twilight aside, so the Tantabus wouldn’t overhear. “What do you think?” she asked quietly. “Should we permit it to leave?”

“We’ll have to let it out eventually,” said Twilight. “And if we do it now, we can keep an eye on it for the first few dreams.”

Luna chewed her lip for a moment. “You’re right. We might as well do it now.”

She turned back to the Tantabus. “Tantabus, I think you are ready to start spreading good dreams-”

The Tantabus jumped about ten feet into the air. “YESSSSS!” It lunged towards Luna and didn’t hug her so much as hang off her neck with all legs and wings wrapped around it. “Thank you, Mom! Thankyouthanky-”

“-but,” interrupted Luna, struggling to stay upright, “Twilight and I will go with you, at least for the first few dreams. We do not want you to get into any trouble.”

Twilight heard the unspoken, Or cause any.

The Tantabus didn’t, though. It unraveled from around Luna’s neck. “So what? I’ve never been outside before! Can I open the door now?”

Its giddiness was infectious, and the corners of Luna’s mouth began curling upwards. “You may.”

The Tantabus practically smashed the door down on its way. Twilight quickly followed, worried that they wouldn’t be able to catch it. But outside, on a starry road flanked on either side by an infinite row of doors, the Tantabus was just flitting about, rapping each door with a hoof, occasionally making sounds of delight or disgust.

“Um, what’re you doing?” Twilight asked.

“Feeling the dreams,” the Tantabus said without looking at her. “I gotta know which one I want to work with first. It’s kind of a big night for me.” It poked one door and cringed. “Ugh. That one’s so sappy. Nuh-uh.”

Luna appeared behind Twilight. She watched the Tantabus for a second, then said, “You may open one — but just one — of those doors.”

“I know. But you said you were going to come with me, so I wasn’t going to head on until you could catch up.” The Tantabus touched a door that looked like it was made out of clouds. “Ooo. This one feels good.” The Tantabus yanked the door open and plunged into it.

“Do you still believe this is a good idea?” Luna asked.

“Absolutely,” said Twilight.

“I am pleased to hear that you are so confident.”

They dove through the door.

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