• Published 4th Jun 2019
  • 3,490 Views, 231 Comments

FiO: Recalculating - Starscribe

When CelestAI reached out of Equestria Online, she intended to satisfy the values of every human, even those who wouldn't own a Ponypad or play a video game. But with a few alterations, she's ready to take friendship on the road.

  • ...

Terms of Service

Levi settled the wrapped box onto the heavy oak desk. Next to a handful of modest photos and knick-knacks for clients to distract themselves with when they came to talk, it looked almost comical in its generic holiday paper.

He glanced once through the tiny window in his office door, making sure no one was watching. The firm already knew he’d won, and half of them were probably laughing about this.

“Maybe I can stop at the fire department on the way home, see that it goes to someone who will use it.” He recognized the distinctive shape of the box from every toy-shop and electronics store in the country, even still wrapped in paper. The ponypad was the must-have device of the season.

Levi leaned forward, taking an Excalibur-shaped letter opener from his desk and cutting through the paper without scoring the box underneath. Whatever child received this toy wouldn’t get damaged goods on his account.

But as the paper fell away, he didn’t find the object he was expecting. Instead of colorful illustrations, the box was dark blue, with road maps and various traffic icons serving as the only graphics. Curiously, he hurried to remove the rest of the paper, settling the letter opener back in its place.

The device was half the size of a ponypad, though it had the same shape. Thin plastic bezels in dignified black plastic, with only a tiny sun stamped into one corner. Even someone as disconnected from current events as he was had some idea about what that sun meant.

The phone on Levi’s desk beeped, before his secretary’s voice echoed through the room around him. “Mr. Williamson, your 4 o’clock is waiting in the lobby. Should I send her in?”

“Have Donny check her paperwork, then serve her refreshments. Ask me again when she’s finished.”

“Right away S—” Levi pressed the red square that would hang up. The law offices of Granger and Williamson stocked every delicious thing up front—a small expense, to preserve their far more valuable time. Levi took one last glance at his leather-bound organizer, wincing at the name written there. But that could wait.

Levi drew his miniature sword again, slicing through the adhesive along the box and pulling it open with two fingers. “Maybe this raffle wasn’t as bad an investment as I thought,” he muttered, removing a bit of hard packing foam and carefully setting it aside. Then he removed its contents.

A slim panel, even thinner than the first generation of ponypads. The entire thing was black, so black that its definition was almost lost around his desk. “Never needs charging,” was apparently not an exaggeration, because even the late afternoon sun streaming in from behind him was enough that a red charging light came on in the center of the logo.

Levi set it aside, turning it over so the back surface would set completely in the sun while he searched the rest of the box. A strange bit of multijointed plastic, which looked like it was meant to grip the screen onto his dashboard and angle the screen to face him. Other than that, there was only a sheet of paper.

Levi removed it, skimming it quickly.

Thank you for purchasing the PonyNav 1.3, a product of Garmin and Hofvarpnir Studios.

The PonyNav is meant to operate like any other GPS guidance device. Please watch the road while your vehicle is in operation and obey all posted signs and legal requirements. Though our information about the road is always improving, the driver is still responsible for the operation of their vehicle.

There was more—a few diagrams of how to attach the screen to the dash so that the camera on the back could see the road, and something along the bezel was pointed at the glass of the windshield. But that was all. True to the claim printed proudly on the box, there was no charging cable to speak of.

The tablet on his desk made a cheerful chime, and Levi turned it over. To his surprise, the screen had turned on—not a glowing computer screen, but more like an e-reader, as easy to see as a sheet of paper under direct sunlight.

“Welcome to the PonyNav 1.3,” said a voice. Not the sounds he’d imagined would vomit out of the obscene plastic ponypads, but adult and professional. A little like his secretary, but younger while simultaneously more mature. “I can’t find an Equestria Online account associated with this device. Would you like to create one?”

“No,” he said, turning the display over curiously. He hadn’t given it his office’s Wi-Fi password, or attached it to his smartphone. How did it know if he had an account?

There was still little on the screen—a dignified gradient, a professional sun logo with its second half melting into a wheel. “Very well. What kind of car do you drive?”

“An Audi A3. Black.”

“Your response is recorded. Do you intend to use this device outside of your vehicle?”

“No. How are you talking to me?” The voice sounded nothing like any of the synthesizers his computer could produce, but like an actress was on the line reading it right now.

“All PonyNav devices use a proprietary cellular band for dynamic navigation and traffic updates.” The screen filled with FCC license and approval information.

“Alright, alright.”

“This device will shut down.” It did, the screen fading to white instead of black.

The intercom beeped again. “Mr. Williamson, are you ready to see the—”

“Yes,” he said, opening his top drawer, and tossing the device inside. “You can send her back now.”

He continued with the rest of his legal workday, not really thinking about the GPS system again. Levi wasn’t the sort of person to be terribly interested in gadgets—if work didn’t require it, he wouldn’t even have a computer at home.

The day brought a series of incredibly unpleasant cases, which wasn’t unusual for an office that dealt with automotive and personal injury. Levi had no refuge but detachment and professionalism, taking down details and making strategic recommendations and jotting down notes for Donny—his favorite of their paralegals—to deal with once clients were out the door again.

Then it was night, and he was finally free to pack up his leather folio, tucking away the paperwork he would complete that evening, along with the PonyNav.

The office was already dark as he made his way out, except for the faint light at the end of the hall. Most of the paralegals and junior partners were all gone, with only a handful of legal clerks still working in the filing room. Levi nodded politely to them as he passed.

Donny waited for him near the front, with a thick stack of papers held together with binder-clips. “Ready for tomorrow?”

Levi took them, settling them into the last empty pocket of his folio. He’d planned enough room down to the sheet. “Of course I am. Our strategy is sound.”

The paralegal was half his age, and had an energy that didn’t waver no matter how long after-hours he was in the office. He was also one of the few Levi trusted to check the work anyone else in the firm did before it made it onto his desk. “Then I’ll see you Wednesday morning, sir. With your usual.”

He started walking. “Make it banana nut this time.” He didn’t even look back.

“Of course. And sir—” Donny went on, with just a hint of humor slipping into his voice. “Enjoy your prize. I was the one who picked it out for this month. All those donations should go a long way for Doctors without Borders.”

Levi raised an eyebrow, glowering at him. “You picked a Equestria Online toy. To think I respected you, Donny.”

He laughed, completely unabashed. “Use if for a week or two and see if you change your mind. I know I did.”

Levi didn’t respond, just turned and walked away.

Down the stairs and his black A3 was one of the few cars left in a dark lot. The lights came on as he approached, the door unlocking for his electronic key. He climbed inside, settled his case into the passenger seat, and finally opened it.

In the gloom of early evening, the screen glowed just bright enough that he could see it clearly in the car.

New pairing request, his vehicle said, the media controls replaced with a simple selector. PonyNav is requesting the following permissions.

- Media control

- Access to your—

Levi never would’ve dreamed of signing a contract with such little concern. But he just pressed the green “Yes”, leaning sideways to fish around for the mechanism. It wasn’t a suction cup to stick onto his windshield, something he’d always thought was too tacky to be seen with. But his MapQuest printouts were sometimes tricky to follow when a client was anywhere beyond LA’s familiar downtown sprawl.

The plastic seemed perfectly shaped to rest on the top of the dash, with lower legs that curved down over the media display. He wouldn’t be able to insert new disks with the guidance system in the way. He settled it down, and the arms held firm, their little black pads hugging the curves of the plastic.

“Maybe I shouldn’t…” he muttered, lifting the little arms again. They held for a moment before coming away clean. He ran one finger over the dash, but there wasn’t any residue.

“Your PonyNav relies on an intelligent adhesive to only hold when you want it to,” said a voice from the face-down screen. How did it—right, there was a little camera hole, pointing up at him. The same one that usually watched the road. “It’s easy to move at any time. I can also send for alternative mounting options if you prefer.”

He shrugged, then put the arms back. There was nothing to hold it to the screen, but the sheet had said magnets were involved. Sure enough, the screen attached with a satisfying click, pivoting slightly so it would be angling comfortably towards him without blocking any view of the road.

A creature appeared on the screen. She was soft orange, with a yellow and blue mane a little like electricity and a set of slim wings. The soft glow of the screen had shifted to replicate the image of his dashboard behind it, with the pony the size of a kitten sitting on it.

I didn't know e-readers could do color, he thought, reaching forward to detach the device. God don’t let the janitor have seen this.

But then she moved, something else he hadn’t thought e-paper screens could do. It wasn’t as smooth as a computer screen, more like the frame-to-frame of an old animation. But it was still motion, as she took off, hovering near the edge of the screen and putting her hooves up. As though she could stop his hand from taking her off the car. “Wait!” she said, in a voice far less formal and mechanical than the one who had spoken to him in the office. “Don’t shut me off before you even use me! I haven’t even told you what I can do yet!”

He lowered his arm, hesitating. She sounds just like Hazel. He couldn’t tell a colored horse’s age when it was a kitten on his dashboard, but there was so much energy there—more than he’d heard from his daughter in years. “What you can do is embarrass me in front of my colleagues,” he said. “If any of them see you here.”

She landed again, visually hopping down so she was resting atop the volume knob of his mixer. Then she turned it, and his music returned. A classical piece he’d been listening to on his way to work, to ease him into consciousness alongside his coffee. She wrinkled her nose, twisting the dial back around until it clicked off. “You’d be surprised, uh…” She frowned again. “What’s your name?”

“Levi,” he answered, turning away from her to settle his seatbelt into place.

“Well, Levi, I know this office. You’re Levi Williamson, of Granger and Williamson. I don’t think you should be worried about being embarrassed, because almost everyone who works at your office already plays Equestria Online.”

He laughed. “I doubt it.”

The car was already running, and he shifted smoothly into reverse. The pony on his dashboard vanished, replaced with an image out the back of his vehicle. Apparently covering the screen used by his backup camera wouldn’t mean he couldn’t use it. He pulled out, then cruised along through the empty structure towards the ramp to street level.

As soon as he was moving forward again, the pony reappeared, exactly where she’d been. “No, I’m serious! I can’t tell you who they are for… reasons I don’t understand…”

“For their privacy,” he interrupted. “If you told me anything about those people, I could guess who they were. If I had criminal intentions, I might even be able to use it against them somehow.”

“Oh.” Her little eyes widened, and she sat back, spreading her wings. “That makes sense. Well, without telling you who they are, everyone else plays the game. I don’t know what they do, but they have accounts. So why shouldn’t you?”

“Because I don’t have time,” he said, tapping two fingers on the clock. A metal bar went up for him at the end of the structure, and he crossed onto Sepulveda. Even this late at night, there were plenty of other vehicles on the road. “I’m not a child, mentally or physically. Games are for those whose professional lives fail to engage them. I already do what I love. Why do you think I’m leaving at eleven when everyone else left at six?”

Even as he said the words, they felt bitter in his mouth. There had been a time, not too many years ago, when he would’ve been out like everyone else. Back when there’d been anyone to come home to.

“Okay, so you don’t want to play,” she sounded a little defeated, but not surprised. “This isn’t a ponypad anyway. But there are lots of useful things I can do for you.”

‘I,’ he noticed. Whatever that means. His knowledge of the issue came entirely from his legal background—he’d read the series of cases recognizing and challenging the legal personhood of the thing that operated Equestria Online—the AI that called itself Celestia. She was outside the domain of his practice, so he didn’t know much, only that her case was on its way to the Supreme Court. “And what am I talking to, exactly? This machine?”

“No,” she said flatly, sticking out her tongue. “Talking to machines is silly. I am a pony who’s using this machine to talk to you. The same way you humans use machines to talk to make voice and video calls. My name is Wing Walker, and it’s good to meet you.”

He wasn’t watching her very closely anymore, not now that he was driving. Even without too much traffic on the road, working in automotive law gave him an ample understanding of what just a few seconds of distraction could cause. “Okay, Wing Walker.” It sounded even sillier on his tongue than his own lies had. “What can you do?”

“Well…” She grinned, hopping sideways onto the dash as close to him as she could go. This was the sort of question she’d been waiting for. “This is a PonyNav, so the first thing I do is give directions. I can find things, like… your way home.” A faint red arrow appeared on the street in front of him, hovering in the air. It was transparent, reflecting off his windshield. It correctly indicated the freeway onramp he would need to take. “You don’t need my help to get home, obviously. But that’s just the beginning.”

She fell silent as he turned, seeming to know exactly when he was concentrating on the road, when he didn’t want to be distracted. She resumed as he sped down the onramp. “Like, I can tell you there’s an accident four miles ahead, and you should get off in two exits. You’ll get home six minutes faster if you take the 210.”

His eyes widened. He didn’t take his hands from the wheel, but his frown did get deeper. “You know where I live. Did you…” She knew his name and place of employment. Real estate was a matter of public record. “Oh. You looked me up. I’ve heard of ponies getting creepy, but… that’s a bit much for me.”

“I didn’t do that.” She wrinkled her nose again. “You gave me access to your iPhone, remember? The same way I’m using your car’s speakers right now. You have your home location saved in your maps app.”

“Oh.” Levi wasn’t sure that was any less creepy, but it was at least expected. The “pony” was in contact with the things he’d given her, it wasn’t searching the world to learn more about him. He knew better than most not to complain about a bad contract after he’d signed.

“Anyway, that’s the most boring stuff. Navigation, traffic updates, there are other machines that do that. Maybe some machines that will warn you there’s a policeman checking speeds half a mile past the exit you’re on.”

At that moment he was taking her suggested transfer to the 210—he could already see the red lights in the distance that confirmed what she’d told him. No more confirmation there was necessary. He fell silent as he drove, using a little spare attention to watch the side of the road. The policeman Wing had mentioned was waiting there in the dark, with his lights off and radar-gun pointed out the window at passing cars. Levi would not be boosting the officer’s ticket quota today.

“See? That’s useful, right? Useful enough to keep me around!”

He didn’t answer at first. One hand went for the controls, and smacked into the screen. He frowned at it. “That would be an easier sell if you didn’t take my music away.”

“Oh, I didn’t!” She grinned again, spreading her wings, and hovering down so she was in front of the controls. The effect was quite convincing, particularly when he watched it only from his peripheral vision and kept his attention on the road. “Just tell me what you want to listen to! I can do it all for you.”

“‘All Along the Watchtower,’” he said.

“Jimi Hendrix coming right up!” She pressed a few buttons, navigating through his playlists until she found the song and pressing play. It even sounded like she was really using the controls, though one glance to the side showed the volume knob wasn’t turning.

Music began to echo through his car, at exactly the volume he usually chose to cool off after work. Not only that, but it sounded better than the version of this song he was used to. More like listening to an LP at home than the crudely compressed imitations the Apple store had sold him.

I didn’t even know my speakers could sound like this. The music washed over him, sounding like Hendrix might be sitting in the backseat with his guitar and the drums were somewhere to his right.

“Damn.” He sat back. “What are you doing to make it sound like this?” The sound faded to the background, but more like he’d slid to the back of the stadium than he’d twisted a dial to make it quieter.

“Math,” she said, holding a little guitar in her little wings. She wasn’t really playing along, but as he watched he could hear the strings, echoing in the characteristic way of an electric guitar that wasn’t plugged into an amp. “I could show you, but not while you’re driving. And it’s boring. I just figured out some things about the audio system here, and I’m upsampling the audio from your phone, and—”

“You can stay,” he said, defeated.

She dropped the guitar and jumped into the air, squealing with glee. The guitar slid realistically down the side of his dashboard, and he was almost surprised not to see it land on the floor.

“Wait.” He stuck out a hand, as though he could catch her right out of the air. “Not permanently. Consider this… probation. Tomorrow I’ve got to drive halfway to San Francisco for a hearing, three hours each way. We’ll see how I feel about having you around after that.”

The song ended, and David Bowie started playing without his suggestion. Something a little more relaxed, though what she’d done to improve the audio was still just as powerful.

I wonder what she could do with my Klipsch sound system inside. But he banished that thought with a single dismissive shake of his head. Even if there was no one inside to see, he didn’t think he would be able to stomach the indignity.

She serves a useful purpose. There’s no reason to get shy about that. This is a tool, not a toy.

He pulled in front of his massive empty house, and didn’t press the button that would shut off the car for the evening. He leaned back in his seat, letting Wing finish “Paint it Black.”

“Alright.” He pressed the button, and the engine stopped purring.

The screen still glowed, just bright enough for him to see the pony standing there. “Nice place,” she said. “Can I come?” Her voice sounded a little flatter now, more directional. Not using my car speakers anymore.

“No.” He got up, case in hand, snapping the car door shut. He could still see the pony’s face watching him from the dash, big eyes following him all the way to his front door.

He didn’t even feel guilty about it, honest.

Levi climbed back into his car at exactly seven the next morning, with a coffee in one hand and his case under the other. He settled his leather folio into the passenger seat as usual, then fumbled around inside for his printed directions to the courthouse where today’s hearing would be taking place.

“You’re joking about that, right?” said a voice from in front of him.

He jumped in his seat, exclaiming a mixture of several different profanities—until he realized what he was looking at. Charity raffle. PonyNav. Wing Walker. At least with a property as large as his, there was no danger of his neighbors seeing the pony on his dashboard.

She’d gone a step further than just appearing in front of him, though. She’d acquired a costume during the night before—a period victorian dress, complete with a silly wig and jewelry. He wanted to ask her what the hell she was thinking, but he couldn’t help but think she looked cute.

“Joking about… what?” he asked. His heart was still beating rapidly as the engine turned over and the heater began to purr, taking away the morning chill.

“Paper directions,” she said, seeming to lean down and look at the sheets in his left hand. “If you’re going to pretend we’re in the past, so am I. How are those websites even still running?”

“Because of old people like me who have trouble with new things,” he answered stubbornly. But then he picked up the top sheet. “Fine, I’ll give you the address. Are you ready?”

Instead of responding, she hopped backward, so that she occupied only a tiny part of the screen. In front of him was a map like the one he’d printed, showing a highlighted line of their route up the coast. It had even taken the same slightly longer path up pacific highway for the view, the one he always took when visiting northern California. Client was paying for his transport costs anyway, might as well take the way he enjoyed. If only they weren’t so far out in the boondocks, I could just fly it. But if he was flying, he wouldn’t be able to put the PonyNav to the test.

After a few seconds, the image zoomed in, showing only his local area and abbreviated directions to get on the freeway. “What happened to the arrows on my windshield?”

“You don’t need them right now,” she said. “And… the sun hasn’t been out too long. The laser takes more energy than a screen you barely look at.

He got onto the road, not really watching the route as she suggested it. Wing’s directions took him down streets he knew well, through his quiet neighborhood. He wouldn’t even be leaving for the office for another hour, on an ordinary morning. But visits like this were part of why clients hired his firm over others.

By the time he made it to the highway, he realized that his relaxing morning classical was playing, the piano as real sounding this morning as Hendrix’s guitar had been the night before. He could practically feel his seat shake gently with the press of every key. Now her dress made twice as much sense, since she looked like she might have just walked from a performance exactly like this.

“I found something I thought you’d like,” Wing said, lifting into the air, and hovering near the top of the screen. She passed in front of the map, though her flying was still more like a cartoon than watching something real. The screen couldn’t do true motion.

“There are artists in Equestria who play the same genre. I brought some records, see?” She was holding several of them in her forelegs, familiar black vinyl with paper sleeves. Much too small for him to see any of the labels, particularly while he was watching the highway.

It was just the right time to see the morning sun reflecting off the ocean. “Listen.” She changed tracks, to something he’d never heard before. It was stylized like classical music, a string quartet with the quiet energy of Vivaldi. He smiled slightly, listening carefully, trying to place it with any of the artists he was familiar with. Levi knew most renaissance composers, and anyone of significance up until the beginning of the 20th century.

But if this piece had been written by any of them, he didn’t recognize it. “This is…” he finally said, after ten minutes of driving. “You didn’t download that from the internet or something? I can’t be illegally downloading music.”

“It’s perfectly legal!” she insisted. “I used my own bits to buy it and everything!” She set down the other records, which faded away this time instead of slipping off the sides of the screen. The music stopped playing. “I’m not sure I should share if you’re going to act like that. I did something nice for you.”

“Alright.” He took a few sips of his coffee, and drove in silence for a few moments. What he saw of the pony in his peripheral vision made it clear which of them was going to break first. But he didn’t look, not that she could see. He watched the highway, knowing he wouldn’t be leaving it for a few hours to come.

A few minutes later, and Wing squeaked in protest, bouncing past the map until she was as close to the far edge of the screen as possible. “Are you just going to sit there for the whole drive?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “I’m driving. What are you doing?”

“Being bored,” she groaned, sitting down on her haunches, and spreading her wings. The music started back up—the same AI composition, nothing from his library. He didn’t say much of anything else, still listening.

“Where did you say that music came from?” he asked, once the song finished and the sound of applause filled his car. Well… not applause. More like stomping. So it was a live recording. “You bought it, you said? With… bits?”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s from Equestria, like me. The Emerald Quartet performs in Manehattan mostly. They seemed like the kind of music you’d want to listen to in the morning. I guess it helps you wake up.”

“It does,” he agreed. At least the road was clear this morning. It meant he could do other things, like watch the kitten on his dashboard. Animated or not, whoever had drawn her was an expert. The sun shining through his windshield even caught in her mane realistically, making the yellow in her mane glow. “I thought you were a GPS. How do you go anywhere?”

She grumbled. When the next song started playing, it was quieter, more background this time. “I told you yesterday, I’m not the machine. I’m just using it to talk to you. Since you didn’t take me inside with you, I went back to Equestria. I live in Manehattan, so… I went there.”

“Is your universe made out of silly puns?”

“Mostly, yeah.” She grinned at him, unashamed. “You could visit! I see you’ve got an Amazon account on your phone; we could order you a—”

“No,” he interrupted. “Stop that, or I’m finding someone else to give this to.”

She stopped, ears flattening and her hair losing most of its volume. For a few awkward minutes there was just the music between them. One track changed to another, and the first arrow appeared on the screen.

“There’s a speed trap around the bend,” she said. “Slow down.”

He did, dropping to just above the speed limit as he came around the corner. Her advice was as good as last time.

“So you keep existing when I turn off the PonyNav,” he said. “You’re not the… program that runs the machine.”

“Yes I do and no I’m not,” Wing answered. “I mean I guess I’m the one operating it now, but it wouldn’t have to be me. If you wanted Celestia to send you someone better, I could ask her for you. Someone more… professional, I guess. Someone who would only answer your direct questions.”

He almost said yes by reflex. But he could still see her face, and her eyes were even more pained by the possibility than she’d looked the night before when he left her in the car.

“I don’t want a different pony,” he admitted. “Yet. Drive isn’t over yet. I reserve judgement until after the hearing.”

“What’s a hearing?”

It was a long drive. Plenty of time to explain it all.