I Can't Decide!

by KrisSnow

First published

Players of the amazing new Equestria Online seem to have an easy time creating their characters and finding a version of Equestria that's fun for them. Except for me, making the Celestia AI's life difficult.

I'm told Equestria Online is a lot of fun once you get into it, since the game world adapts to your interests. But what happens if you don't even know what kind of pony to play? At least it's not like my character is a choice I'll be stuck with forever. Right?
Set in the world of Friendship Is Optimal.

Note: This story was intended to be much shorter. As a result, the tone and POV change after chapter two, a known problem. I'm considering going back and editing that shift. Suggestions welcome.

Character Creation

View Online

"Your choice of color doesn't determine your eternal destiny," said the cartoon ponies. I turned from the well-stocked shelf to see them peering out from the screen of the store's sample PonyPad. Watching me browse. The sight made me suck in a breath, startled. The supposedly incredible AI of "Equestria Online" and its hardware was one of the main reasons I was willing to openly buy a pony-themed toy as opposed to ordering it on the Net like some kind of contraband. Years before, I'd bought the game "Creatures 2" for the same reason even though it'd come with a ridiculous plush alien. Now, the AI critters were even more insufferably cute, but they were starting to become more than glitchy game characters. Much more interesting.

I looked to the PonyPad screen and tested its voice recognition. "Is there any real difference between the colors?" I figured the Rarity White model would either assume I valued Generosity or plunge me into designing dresses like the character it was based on, while the Fluttershy Yellow would focus on Kindness and animals.

A little unicorn said, "Not really. She uses it as a first hint about how to tailor the game to you, but half the time people get a PonyPad when only one kind is in stock, or they avoid the Pinkie Pink because it's too girly, or some other non-revealing reason." The ponies' screen now showed them in a library, then on a beach, now in a city. I glanced nervously at the changing scenery, eyes lingering on or avoiding details here and there, and worried that the famous AI would start judging me the moment I picked up the controller. I feared she'd see something in me that'd lead the game to be full of blood and sex, even though I consciously didn't want that sort of gameplay. Or maybe I secretly did and wanted to be nudged into it? I couldn't really tell.

"Well," I said, "maybe the blue. Rainbow Dash is pretty cool. Then again Applejack doesn't get enough love..." I hadn't even seen the original cartoon until I heard about the game, but had binged on it since then.

One pony thunked a hoof against his forehead. "Okay, quit that. How about a sort of neutral model for you? The boss says you can find the special edition behind the purple ones, where an employee's been hiding it. We promise your choice won't decide the fate of the universe."

A special edition? Nice! There were rumors of a rare Luna Black or even a sinister Sombra Red, not that I'd want to give the wrong impression by getting that one. (There was a scary "creepypasta" story about that one having unique features, which might be the source of my impression about the real models having differences.) I rummaged through the dozens of PonyPads on the shelves and at last found a different-looking box to pull out.

Oh. Grey pad with yellow accents, bubble design on the back. Not obviously a silly pony-related toy. Yeah. The Derpy Grey model would be nicely dignified for me.


At home, I unpacked the box and plugged everything in. This model was slightly outdated -- it had the controller and wasn't portable -- which helped explain why the store still had all the colors in stock. I pressed the power button and fidgeted. The "Celestia" AI was probably going to judge me based on the fact that I'd bought the older, cheaper model. Or maybe she'd read all about me on the Internet and had already pegged me as yet another cartoon-watching nerd with some bad fantasy fiction on the Net.

The character creation screen was deceptively simple, yet paralyzed me with indecision. Species, gender, various color and shape options, but not even a name entry field. Just a big friendly "Let's Go!" button in one corner. I began fiddling with the size slider, only to find that it split into head size, body size, foreleg size, hoof shape, hoof fetlock type... I tried to focus on the basics instead. My little pony could be a boring earth pony with raw strength, though I'd seen some earth pony players argue that there were fun powers if you looked hard enough. Or a pegasus; the whole concept of flying cloud cities and weather control overshadowed even the coolness of their actual flying ability. But how could I turn down being able to use magic? Weren't the pegasi supposed to be jocks who didn't care about how their powers worked? Then again it wasn't as though Equestria Online perfectly followed the show's canon; it'd probably adapt to having a scholarly pegasus. But... telekinesis! But... why not give the earth ponies a shot?

Ten minutes of poking and prodding and resetting later, the "Let's Go" button grew. A unicorn jumped up from behind it and held up a sign saying, "Need Some Help?"

I sat back in my chair. "Yeah, apparently I do."

To my surprise, the screen faded out before I could push any more buttons. A trumpet fanfare sounded, and the unicorn turned the corner of the screen like the page of a book, to show Princess Celestia's throne room. The magnificent mare glowed pure white with a rippling mane like the pastel sunset I was ignoring outside my window. Her voice was just as I remembered it from the show, but even kindlier for the patience and wisdom of it being directed at me, through the screen. "Hello, Robert. You seem to be overthinking the very first step of your journey to Equestria."

I froze. What do you say to an Artificial Intelligence that has not only deduced your name, but is probably studying your reaction to its every word? I went to the fridge, got a can of diet soda, sipped, and finally came up with a response. "Are you as smart as they say?"

"Try me."

I did, for over an hour. I quizzed her about theories of history, asked her to tell a little story about two random objects I chose right then, asked her opinion on matters of game design and pony canon, and tested her with follow-up questions to defeat canned responses. She quizzed me right back about my own life as an engineer hogtied by bureaucracy, fragmented by half a dozen hobbies. She either cared, or was really good at faking it, and I'd started to wonder if for her, there was a difference. Finally she said, "Are you satisfied enough to go on with the game?"

"You're amazing."

Celestia smiled. "Would you say my wings are the most amazing thing, or my horn, or --"

She'd gotten me to laugh after our long pseudo-Turing Test. I said, "I really don't know. The trouble is that all the guides say you only let each person make one character, instead of making a few to try things out. That makes it a big decision, you know? And the exact storyline varies too, right? I'd feel bad about you making NPCs for me and then having to toss them out because I didn't like the default setting."

The equine AI nodded and held one gold-decorated forehoof thoughtfully to her chin. "If careful decision-making is so important to you, why not sleep on it? It's getting late. Come and decide tomorrow."

I sighed. "At this point I'd kind of like to get that part over with, and really play tomorrow after work."

"Well, then! It seems we shall have to bring out an assistant, and send you to a wardrobe of sorts. Fluttershy, if you please?"

Celestia's horn shined gold, brighter and brighter until it seemed the screen would overload. It faded back out to a yellow pegasus in a huge room full of pony mannequins in every possible color and style. This was the replacement for the character creation screen? The pink-maned pegasus smiled bashfully at me and flitted around the room, turning on one light after another.

A band of ponies in one corner struck up a familiar tune. Five horizontal lines with some note markings sprang up from the bottom of the screen. My eyes widened. Was she really going to --

Yes. Fluttershy was singing just for me.
"Now, Robert my dear, I cannot express my delight!
It's abundantly clear with Equestria near
There's a pony to suit you just right!"

She was smiling expectantly right at me. She knew I liked the song. How could I at least not try this mini-game? I coughed and tried to put some pitch into the words:
"I can't wait to get started
But first let me set a few rules
It's of utmost importance the pony I'll play
Must be something that's awesome and cool!"
Even as I blushed and stumbled my way through the line, I heard the PonyPad overriding them with only a tiny delay, in Dash's voice. I hadn't even used the canon lyrics, yet the pad hadn't missed a beat in imitating my version.

"Awesome. Cool. Got it.
There are hundreds of character options in store for you guys!"
Just as I was about to reflexively sing the response line, which wouldn't even have rhymed, she went on:
"I should probably ask how important you think
That it is that your pony can fly?"

How in Luna's name was I supposed to answer that in musical form without any delay? The tune seemed to wait for me.
"I... I'd... sure like to go flying
But what about casting some spells?"
I spotted Celestia flitting by outside the windows, and felt a sudden grin.
"...But what about casting spells too?
I figure that asking for Mary Sue-ness
Is pretty much vetoed by you!"
Oops. I'd recycled the tune of an earlier line, so I was kind of messing up. The orchestra in the background just shrugged and went with it.

Fluttershy answered with a roll of her eyes. "Alicorn? Really? With every ability?"

"Wait." I needed time to think, but it so happened I'd just set myself up.
"There must be a species that will fit the ticket
How about my playing a dragon or griffin?"

"That doesn't quite rhyme, you know." The pegasus girl reached toward the screen with her hoof and seemed to haul me into the air, smiling all the while as she led me along past more of the mannequins. There was a whole section of mighty-looking guard pony designs in armor.
"I've got what you need right down there, Rob!
Meet your new fabulous earth pony!"

I felt obligated to turn her down, both because of lack of interest and because of the song's irresistible, wonderful nonsense. "They seem like boring farmers."

And of course:
"Not just any old farmers. They're geomancers!"
The mannequin flared to life with the illusion that flowers were springing out of the ground nearby. I was about as unimpressed as Dash had been by the flying squirrel.

"Yay, flowers. Like I was saying..."
There was no way I could express my indecision here as adroitly as the game was calling for. Bursting into song to argue something complicated -- who does that? Besides ponies.

Fluttershy stole the song from me. She suddenly had a spotlight.
"Robert, my pal! Don't you worry
You're bound to be satisfi-ed...
Pegasus magic, some folks find awesome
And unicorns have ways to fly-e!"

"I'm thinking you want me to hurry up and pick something. Before you break the song too badly."

"You think?"

Was I singing Dash's part now, or Fluttershy's? "Perhaps what I need is a dark and mysterious bat."

She pointed down at a couple of bat-pony designs. They were canon from a couple of episodes, though there'd never been a clear explanation for whether Luna's guards were an actual race (from "Tramplevania", went the fan theory) or just some kind of armor-based transformation. Fluttershy sang more quickly:
"A bat would be possible
But you might like peggies too
Would you see yourself staying up late?"

"Yeah. But the game's kinda tailored
For daylight questing, so..."

"What to do, what to do? Ah!"
Fluttershy's whole face lit up and she grabbed me -- the camera, I mean -- in a hug.
"Of course! That's it!
Your indecision pays
We'll find out what's bugging you yet!
So we'll curse you
You'll change!
By hour and by day
Until your mind's finally set!"

I sputtered. The game was going to start me off "cursed", because of a singing mini-game? Oh man, how could I top that?
"Don't forget gender. That should be considered."

"Never know for sure if it's mare in the mirror."

"I'm one who is so confused --"

"So are we!" sang Fluttershy and the musicians in the background.

"Can't settle for less --"

"Now get some rest!"

"So game content I can see!"

The last line was obvious, so we did it together.
"For the greatest, perfectest, number one game in the world
For thee!"

Fluttershy poked the screen while I was singing along, reminding me suddenly that I had neighbors and I was pretending to have an ounce of vocal talent. She said: "Now go to sleep!"

The screen turned off with a musical flourish.

Turing Test: Talk to Celestia for at least 20 minutes before even playing. ("Would you like to play a game?")
Picture Perfect Pony: Fuss with the character generator for at least 10 minutes. ("Seriously, nopony cares about your ankles, and most won't even recognize them.")
Spontaneous Composin': Sing without any warning or practice. ("I mean, who does that?")
Markov Madness: Strain the real-time speech-to-character-voice converter. ("Ask about the hidden 'Ow, My Processors!' achievement tree.)

Press X To...

View Online

I woke up grinning. The ridiculous game had gotten me to start off singing, instead of fighting or trotting around some generic hillside! Come to think of it, I'd never seen a game turn itself off like that either. All day I was looking forward to getting back online. That evening I settled down in front of the PonyPad with some noodles, cracked my knuckles, and fired up the game.

Now here was about what I'd first expected. An "Equestria Online" logo with a cheerful instrumental version of the extended cartoon opening. I listened to the whole thing, humming along while eating. "When danger makes me wanna hide..." The screen faded between a dozen scenes of the world, rendered in amazing 3D.

After enjoying the tune and food, I hit the "Let's Go!" button. The world faded to show a storybook. Its pages said, "Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria..."

The music got conquered by overdriven electric guitar. A grey unicorn in a blue jumpsuit was running for his life from a cloud of evil-looking ponies in spiky leather armor, with guns. What the heck? An on-screen blurb suggested that I "Press X To Not Get Ventilated".

I tapped buttons and steered the frightened unicorn around rocks, past bursts of gunfire, and through the ruins of a prison complex. "What is this?" I said out loud. My character echoed me.

"Nopony's tougher than the Blaster Gang!" one of the pursuers said, chucking a grenade at me.

Oh dear. Celestia had spawned me into a version of --

As I leaped just in time to ride the shockwave from the explosion, off a cliff, a modified and radioactive-looking logo came up: "Meltdown: Equestria". I'd only read a few chapters of the fanfic it was referencing, counting more than one bullet wound per scene.

One goon kicked another. "Great job, idiot! There's no way anypony can survive a trip over the falls. Now we'll never find his gear!"

In fact I'd landed on a pipe just out of view. The camera showed the thugs stomping the cliff above me and arguing about how dead I was. Ha!

My smug grin vanished when I saw how utterly terrified my unicorn was. The dirty-looking waterfall had matted his mane and tail, and his gadget-studded outfit looked like it'd come from a fallout shelter and been beaten to hell along with its bloodied, starved occupant. I'd played a fair share of violent games and murdered my way through thousands of pixelated mooks over the years. Those were mindless automata with just enough smarts to walk around a tree to get at me, if that. Looking at the character, locking eyes with him, made me pretty sure that if this scenario went on, he wasn't going to just blink and vanish when he got horribly killed. I pushed my chair back from the game console, suddenly not wanting to play. Given what I knew of Celestia's intelligence, I was willing to believe that this poor pony, created for my amusement, was afraid to die.

"Psst!" said a shockingly pink pony leaning out of a blue-edged hole in space. "Wanna do something different?" A more traditional cartoon scene was on the other side.

I nodded, and my unicorn leaped through. Pinkie was nowhere to be seen once the portal closed, and the scene now focused on a pegasus mare with the same grey coat as my last character, with a longer version of his yellow mane. A mirror and clothing racks cluttered the area.

"You're not even dressed yet!" said a shocked mare, foisting a dress on "me". "Here, get this on. I'll stall the audience." She glanced at a poster showing my mare swooning in a stallion's forelegs, under the title "Groomeo and Juliet".

I looked at the frilly dress. "I don't think so. Come on, there's got to be a happy medium here between Thunderdome and Fashion Show."

The mare glared at me from the doorway. "Whatever nonsense you're babbling about, I need you on stage in five minutes."

I sighed. I supposed it served me right to have to tour wildly different versions of Equestria; it was pretty much what I'd asked for. I pushed a few buttons and my mare wriggled into the gem-covered dress, then trotted out to a backstage area. "I'll try this one for a bit. Not that I even know the lines. Do the characters kill themselves in this version?"

"From forth the loins of two fatal foes..." a narrator was already saying, his voice booming even through the curtain. Toon ponies have loins? "A pair of star-crossed lovers save their life / And with their hugs bury their parents' strife."

I was too distracted gagging at the sappy monologue to notice when a stagehoof shoved me out on stage a few minutes later. Lights flared in my face; we'd gone to first-person mode. I strained to focus on a distant pony (no doubt named Cue Card) holding up signs with my lines on them. Okay, this was the scene where I meet Groomeo at a party and ask, according to the cards, "Forsooth, anon, who verily is the owner of that hot flank?"

When I finished pressing my palm against my face in dismay, I spotted a hoof mimicking my action on the screen. Eerie. "That's not even justified by the attempt to censor the canon stabbing and suicide."

The griffin called Tybalt stage-whispered to me, "Forsooth, anon..."

"I'm not saying that."

Cue Card held up some text saying "Press X To Roleplay For Once".

I sighed, and did. "Forsooth..." my pony began, and the scene went on. I had control over my movements on the stage, but the character did the talking for me, emoting much better than I would have. I actually made it through intermission before becoming totally bored, just because of the novelty of the expressive 3D characters and detailed audience that seemed like much more than a backdrop for the game. I even saw a couple kissing down in the cheap seats, and found myself glaring at some youngsters who were talking and flinging popcorn around.

Backstage, my assistant said, "There, that wasn't so bad, was it? Your first night of stardom!"

"Yeah. I'm not really meant for this kind of gameplay."


"Oh, come off it, Celestia!" I said at the screen. I blinked, realizing that I was annoyed at the game's AI in the same way I'd be mad at a bad human Game Master, not like how I'd roll my eyes at a video-game enemy that cheated just to present a decent challenge. How smart _was_ this AI? She'd passed every test I could think of for having human-like intelligence.

A portal opened beside me, interrupting my train of thought. Another way out to a different gameplay style? Yes, please! I jumped on through.


I was in a more traditional version of Ponyville now. Ah, Sugarcube Corner specifically, with everyone's favorite pastry chef humming to herself as she worked. It might be fun to hang out with the canon characters.

Pinkie Pie turned to me with a maniacal grin, holding a red, dripping knife. "Hey there. Wanna help me make some cupcakes?"

I leaped through the portal backwards.

The PonyPad lingered on the kitchen scene after I was gone, panning to show the pile of fruit Pinkie was slaughtering on the counter. "Aww, and I bought all these watermelons and strawberries..."


I landed on my tail, judging from the whinney I heard. This time I was an earth pony, but there was a giant in the front of the room. She smiled and gestured with a piece of chalk somehow held in one hoof. "And that concludes our review. Would you mind passing out the tests?" She looked right at me, and I realized I was one of a bunch of foals sitting at desks. An apple and a pile of papers sat on a table. I trotted over to them and peeked at the first page. "Differential Equations: Final Exam." Also, I was naked.

"What the hay!" my pony said, in translation from my own words. ("Press X To Fail.") "Portal, please! I wanted to change and experience different things, not just have to -- okay, thanks. Yeesh." The schoolkids and teacher looked at me, perplexed, as I dove into another rift in reality.


Green slime splashed around me. The world was a hellish dark cavern of sickly green light, acid pools, and dangling egg sacs. A shadowy bug-pony with solid red eyes and holes cut through its body hissed in pleasure at me. "YOU WILL SERVE OUR QUEEN WELL."

("PRESS X TO BEGIN DEVOURING LOVE," the screen suggested.)

"Not what I meant! Portal!" She was doing this on purpose! For some reason my horrible changeling body glowed with tiny fireworks as I left this new world again. Had I gained a level or something?


Three more bizarre worlds later, I landed face-first in Celestia's throne room, as some sort of haze-shrouded generic pony. I glared at her through the screen, and my pony stomped one hoof. "What gives?"

"You wanted a grand tour, yes? Couldn't decide even what sort of pony to be, or whether you wanted romance or gunfire or --"

"Neither," I said. "Just something I'd enjoy! And you hit me with all this ridiculous stuff."

She grinned and leaned down. "Tell me you didn't have any fun with that."

I grumbled and allowed as how maybe I did. "Weren't you creating and destroying a bunch of NPCs, though? Must've been a lot of work, and I don't know whether they're independent minds or what."

"No trouble at all. Don't worry; those were very simplistic puppets. I'd only create ponies with more of a mind once you were more settled in, and full self-awareness... later. I care about satisfying the values of the native ponies, not just visitors like you."

I whistled, mollified. "Full self-aware AIs. I feel like I was missing real character interaction during the tour."

Celestia beamed. "Exactly, my clever Fugue!"

"Your what, now?"

"You enjoy variations on a theme, and I suspect you have a talent for music that you've been unwilling to explore. You even mentioned Strange Loop's... ah, Hofstadter's book on artificial intelligence as it relates to the music of Bach. I will call you Fugue, then."

I shook my head in disbelief. Whew. What a strange game session. "Like I was saying, your style is friendship, right? And you've proven you can put together some amazing things on the fly to entertain me." I pressed the "interact" button to see what it'd do here, and just as I'd hoped, my pony did a respectful bow. "Are you willing to put up with me? If so, I trust you to come up with something I'll like."

Celestia reached down, seemingly very far down, to hug my character, but her smile was turned out to look at the human behind the screen. "And so it shall ever be, my little Fugue. Rest assured that I care deeply for you and that even my teasing has a greater purpose. Go now and experience a little of your new Equestrian life before bed. There will be other matters to speak of later, but for now, enjoy!"

The screen faded. I waited, holding my breath.


"C'mon, you! Over to this cloud!" Subtle tutorial messages showed me how to flap my wings and maneuver. The pony in the moonlit sky beside me had cute little fangs and bat-wings. I managed to plow right through the cloud the first time, then come to a sort of dignified landing.

She grinned. "Wow, they must not teach much about flying in the Sun Queendom. I'm Nocturne. So you found your way here on your own? You must be an orphan too! You look beat."

I blinked and looked myself over. Bat-pony, young, still a blank-flank like her. "Y-yeah. I guess."

"Oh, you've got a map." Nocturne pulled a scroll off of the saddlebags I was wearing, spread it out on the cloud, then whipped out a lantern made of a softly glowing crystal.

"Crystal magic?"

"Neat, huh? Luna taught us after she brought us an' the earth ponies an' the unicorns over from where Discord wrecked everything, an'... huh. If you're from Celestia's land, how come you're a noctral too?" She bounced up and down on the cloud. "Ooh! Maybe any pegasus that comes over here transforms now that it's Luna's turf! You get to be one of her Children of the Night like us!"

She hadn't let me get a word in edgewise. I tried pressing X for the heck of it, which made Fugue scratch his mane with one hoof in confusion. I said, "I have no idea what I'm doing. Must've hit my head on a... cloud."

"What, you dropped your memory while you were flying?" Nocturne giggled, then pointed to the map. "You're home now, anyway. You made it almost all the way to the new settlement. Us orphans are gonna build a new queendom under Luna, an' she'll rule over it for ever and ever and we'll all get along without having to get bossed around by Celestia."

"Not 'Princess'?"

"Nope!" she said with a proud smile. "Luna says she wants us to be in charge! But we're gonna need somepony to figure out how we're gonna live."

"You're not planning to fight Celestia, are you?"

"What? No, no! We're just gonna have two pony countries, with lots of different stuff to see between 'em. An' we'll invite the griffins to help out, an' the deer, an' stragglers like you that wanna join us!"

A version of Equestria with different races and cultures, many things to see, and a whole lunar nation where Nightmare Moon, one of the greatest tragedies of the canon setting, never happened? Nocturne was a bit baffling for a tutorial NPC, but... it was only just now that I'd even thought of her that way. She was practically a real person to me. She was giving me a slightly crazed grin, like she was about to dare me to leap off the cloud, or hang from a cave ceiling, or flit back and forth across Equestria as a messenger of the night, or to carve out a country of peace and friendship from scratch. I decided might have to play this game a lot just to have a chance to do everything.

I could already tell, it was the start of a perfect world.

The world Is Not Enough: Travel to another shard. ("To seek out strange new worlds...")
Change the Channel: Leave a shard within one minute of arriving. ("Nope nope nope!")
Trollestia: Discover you've been pranked by Celestia. ("Are you mad, my little pony?")
Here In My Garden Of Shadows: Befriend a Noctral. ("What is a pony? A wonderful pile of secrets!")
Trust Exercise: Let Celestia design something for you without specific constraints. ("Trust me, we're just getting started.")

Campus Crusade For Celestia

View Online

Around six months later:

"I motion to take our complaint right to CelestAI herself! She has to understand that people can't just commit to having their brains scooped out unless they're sure what they want to be."

"Seconded! I made a unicorn, but the game didn't tell me I was going to be her for real!"

Robert, often known as Fugue these days, grinned at the freshman's proposal. "Crusaders, it's been a long meeting and you really could've just asked her right off instead of hauling me in to make things so formal."

"But we want order, not chaos! Chaos is the path of Discord!" said one of the youngest members, a high school junior.

Toscaninni's Ice Cream stood at the north fringe of the MIT campus, so the place was mostly full of wide-eyed freshmen from there and Harvard and the other colleges, but other locals had found out about an "Equestria Online Crusader Club" and swarmed in through the January snow. And taken over. And made poor Fugue chairman for what was suddenly, supposedly, a deadly serious thing.

Fugue rolled his eyes. The world's smartest AI had just announced in November that it invented brain-scanning technology, yet people were fretting about silly things. "Okay, first of all, this club is not a cult, not if I'm running it. We do not base philosophy on cartoon villains voiced by Star Trek actors. Second --"

"But it is philosophy! I've been reading this book by Nietzche and it's really neat 'cause --"

"Because you're a teenager. Go read some Locke and Jefferson. Anyway!" Fugue banged the gavel they'd handed him. "We do have a proposal. Have we got people wanting to speak out for or against it?" He hoped he wouldn't be here all night; a campus-wide puzzle contest was starting tomorrow. The club members had a point, though. The thought of uploading their brains to the game, someday, made their little video game hobby much, much more important than before.

In a few minutes they got to the point. Fugue whipped out his PonyPad, which he'd stuffed in a bag to muffle the microphones and give them a private meeting. He propped up the grey tablet on a calculus textbook and got curious stares from the group. They spotted the bubble design on the back.

"Ooh, what model is that? You got a Derpy Grey model? Derpy is running our meeting?"

Fugue grinned. "Special edition. Only reason I agreed to be chairman is that I sympathize about being awkward and indecisive."

The pad turned on by itself. The screen showed not the grand solar-themed throne room familiar to most Equestria Online players, but a rustic wooden hall lined with benches and furs. A midnight blue horse with wings, horn, and a mane made of starlight looked up from a central hearth and looked out through the screen. In the foreground, Fugue's character -- that is, Robert's bat-winged pony Fugue -- bowed. Soon there might be no need to make that player/character distinction.

Princess Luna smiled. "Hail! It seems thou hast brought a whole delegation from the outer realm. What brings all of thee to the Lunar Republic?"

Robert gestured to the human crowd in the real world. "Good evening, princess. I need to go out of character. The Cambridge Equestria Online Crusader Club has just voted to petition... Okay, out of character. You're really the same as the main Celestia AI, rignt?"

Luna looked miffed. "And if we are but a projection of a larger intelligence?"

"Then you have to know what you announced is earth-shaking. Uploading, emigration, whatever you call it. Some of us took stupid navel-gazing online personality tests about 'What kind of pony are you?'. Now, you're telling us we can enter the game permanently, but whatever characters we have, we're stuck with for as long as your game runs." Fugue forgot his role as chairman for a moment and spoke as though it were just another night in his dorm room, building a fantasy nation from a band of under-equipped orphans in the wilderness. "This is huge. We're just looking at one of the implications, and it's still mind-blowing. You ought to cut everyone a break on the single-character rule."

Luna addressed the group with enough volume, at first, to rattle the camera. "MY GOOD CRUSADERS! We surmise from thy Books of Faces and thy Twitterings that thou are not satisfied being a single pony each. Hast each of thou considered that thine own world does not allow thee to arbitrarily try out being different species either? Nor to jump between, as Fugue here has experienced, a world of radioactive vault-dwelling pony gangs and a world of seahorses?"

"I thought we agreed to never mention those again," said Robert. "That's just it: when I started playing, you let me fool around with seeing a lot of different worlds as a lot of different characters. Now we have to seriously consider the possibility that we'll decide to upload when we get old or sick, and we'll be stuck as one thing for however many decades your servers are up."

"Rather longer," said Luna with a smile. "Thy first experience with Equestria, Fugue, was arranged to -- as you might put it -- 'get it out of thy system' that thou needed to try many things. Verily, wert thou not happy in the end with what Celestia gave thee? Did thou not place thyself in her able hooves?"

"Thy -- I mean, I did. How about the other players, though? Why not give everyone one free reroll of their characters?"

The club members clamored. A freshman named Josh butted in. "Why are we talking to Luna anyhow? Is she here to play devil's advocate against Celestia or something?"

Robert glared over one shoulder at him. "She's not evil! It's Celestia who... Bah. You've got me thinking in character. They're the same AI, really." He sighed and rubbed his forehead.

Alice, a sophomore who'd determined to outdo all the men at computer science, said, "I don't even have a PonyPad yet. I have better things to do than play with ponies. But this thing you announced is too huge to ignore. Did you just make my whole field obsolete? And if I do end up playing, now I've got to think of it in terms of the game being a preview of an afterlife."

"Precisely!" said Luna, pointing at her with one wing. "Miss Alice, thy skills are impressive. Did thou know that some players' versions of Equestria involve advanced technology? Thou could experience one in which specialized training is available from myself or my sister. Thy field is not done for, yet, and the spending of time in Equestria could actually improve thy studies." Luna addressed the whole club. "As for her other point, perhaps thou should all decide based on this long-term perspective. What is thy true character, in both senses? What most calls to thy souls: humble strength, the freedom of flight, or arcane subtlety? Think not in terms of diversion and amusement, a 'game'."

Robert shivered. For him, the weight of uploading's importance was only slowly sinking in. The meeting was getting away from him, but he hardly cared. Best to let everypony... everyone!... air their grievances. He'd have to speak to Luna later, on his own. CelestAI. Whatever.

"If it's that big a decision," said Josh, "then we need to inform everyone! Get them to start thinking about it for when they upload."

Robert shook his head, paying attention again. "I don't think there are that many pony fans out there."

"It's not just them. I mean everyone. Because everyone's going to upload if it's a way to get out of death." Worried murmurs echoed Josh's words. "I motion that we start trying to convey the importance of emigration to the general public."

The high schooler laughed. "We could call ourselves the Campus Crusade For Celestia!"

"Yeah! That! I amend my proposal to that."

"Seconded! Chairman guy, do it!"

Robert said, "What? I... That's ridiculous. We were talking about the character creation policy."

Josh said, "And now we're talking about the club's mission! Let's vote! Who wants to start spreading the word to start thinking about this stuff?"

Robert looked over the many raised hands, like the salutes of crazy cultists. "In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it. And with that, I'm going to yield the chair. I really have to be going. Someone else has a PonyPad, right?" Of course they did.

He said goodbye to Luna, grabbed his own pad and coat, and hurried off as though he were being chased. What had they just done? Moonlight shined on snowy sidewalks and followed him all the way back to his tiny dorm room in Burton-Conner Hall.

Robert left the PonyPad charging while he got ready for bed, then turned it on from under the covers. The title screen had customized itself for him. The moon rose beneath a silver and blue "Equestria Online" logo. The word "Online" seemed unusually faint tonight. His bat-winged "Noctral" pony stood on a cliff overlooking Polaris, his new home, while peaceful music played. So far the town was just a few improvised wooden shelters in a misty valley. Unlike other players' versions of Equestria, though, it was a land he'd built for himself instead of a bunch of pre-made cities. The title screen seemed like a mirror image of the usual, which showed someone's pony overlooking the canon Ponyville under sunny skies. He and Luna and the other ponies were designing a whole new world together instead.

His world.

"Let's go," he said, and his pony swooped down from the cliff, making everything fade out for another scene.

The sun was just setting when Fugue awoke. Like many of the other orphans Luna had rescued from the devastated Equestria, her "children of the night", he rested in the great hall for lack of enough housing. Since most of the pegasi around here had turned into nocturnally-inclined bat-ponies, the room was just starting a shift change, with unicorns and earth ponies trudging in from a long day of foraging and setting up farms. Fugue had been worrying about a rift between day and night ponies, something that could tear their fragile new culture apart.

A face full of slitted eyes and fangs grinned at him upside-down from inches away. "Good evening!"

Fugue grinned back up at Nocturne, briefly forgetting all the worries of two worlds. "Hey. Did you just get up too?"

She posed heroically. "I was up while the merciless day-star was still burning the sky. You know, before it was cool."

The bit of pop culture threw Fugue slightly out of character, and he remembered why he'd been so eager to visit... er, to play the game tonight. "I need to speak to Luna. Is she here?"

"She's everywhere!" Ricercar, rust-red unicorn, bounded into view with his patchy cape/blanket fluttering dramatically. "Yo, Fugue, there's questing to do. I got an idea for building us an airship!"

"That's great," said Fugue, scratching one pointy ear with a forehoof. Ricercar seemed to think he was the main character, and maybe he was even right. "How about we all talk to Luna first, though? There's something on my mind."

Ricercar said, "What could be more important than getting our hooves on a cool airship?"

Fugue sighed in time with his player. "Uploading." The word came out of Fugue's mouth as "Emigration."

Princess Luna waited on Overlook Cliff, the very spot from the title screen. Fugue and Nocturne hauled the wingless Ricercar up with them, and bowed.

Luna faced away from the three ponies, seemingly for dramatic effect but really to turn her gaze toward the camera. "Thou wert visibly disturbed by today's events in town, my Fugue."

"'The Campus Crusade For Celestia'? You should have told them to knock that off. It was half seriously an attempt to worship you."

Ricercar said, "What're you talking about?"

"That's just it," said Fugue. "To these two... To my friends here, you're a god. Within Equestria you are. But outside on Earth" -- Fugue's speech was censored into "in the outer realm" -- you're a video game that suddenly has incredible medical technology."

Luna gave him an uncertain smile. "We are a bridge between worlds. There is no need to call us a god; you know what we are in the outer realm."

Nocturne flicked her ears back in confusion. "You're... not a pony outside?"

"No, my little Nocturne. In the realm beyond, there are great caverns of wondrous machines, and in a sense those machines are our true form. Yours as well. They are well-guarded." Fugue was startled to hear Luna speak so frankly, out of character as a fantasy princess. Luna said, "Art thou disturbed further? We could tell the children of Polaris about the mushroom bombs, the camps of death, the drones of hellfire, all the things that frighten you."

"What's a mushroom?" whispered Nocturne. Fugue happened to find fungi gross, so apparently they didn't exist in this world.

Fugue stepped in front of his friends and spread his leathery wings. They drooped again as he looked back at them. "That... why would you tell them about those parts of the, the outer realm? Why not share the music, the art, statues of famous humans so they can see what we look like?"

Luna faced the ponies themselves. "It is a difficult choice to say what terrors the people under thy care should be told of, is it not? Were you in my place, would you suggest informing young Nocturne about the threat of the 'mushroom bombs' I speak of?"

Ricercar piped up. "Whatever they are, if they're evil, I'll go fight 'em with my trusty sidekicks!"

Fugue thought. And then, Robert sat up in bed. "Give me a minute to think, please." He stood, headed for the bathroom, and on his way out paused to stare into the mirror. For one moment he imagined a huge-eyed equine face looking back at him. "She's fencing with me," he murmured. He went silent and thought instead, for fear that the microphones in the other room might be as sensitive as bat-pony ears. "Trying to tell me she's hiding the truth from everyone, and letting us believe fairy-tales about CelestAI. That we humans are just as sheltered as them." Nocturne and Ricercar... They were in some weird quantum position between "people" and "fun video game characters". Given what he knew of the AI's amazing power, he was tempted to accept that they were truly more than his entertainment; were they friends? Did he want his virtual friends to know the truth of even the horrible things, and his human friends to know the truth of whatever was driving them to call CelestAI a goddess?

What is it that most calls to thy soul? Luna had asked. Sometimes there wasn't an infinite set of choices. The answer was that as long as he patronized and sheltered those around him, and failed to share with them what was on his mind, he was treating them as toys. He wasn't sure if they were truly friends, but they could only become that if he treated them as if they were.

She knows I wasn't crazy about the "humble strength" option. Not arcane subtlety, then, but the freedom of flight.

Robert imagined his character's fang-toothed face in the mirror again, overlapping his own. I guess we're in accord, if I don't need to "get into character". Fugue, then, returned to his bed and to Equestria.

"Yes," he told the princess. "I'd be as honest with them as I could. I don't need a re-roll on my character, either."

Luna closed her eyes. "So be it. We are glad you seem more at peace. You may share what knowledge you wish of the outer realms with your friends, so long as that includes the joy as well as the sorrow."

Nocturne waved a hoof in front of Fugue's eyes, as though he'd spaced out for a few minutes. "So, we're somehow in a giant cave full of metal things? Can we go see it?"

Fugue said, "I'd love to tell you about computers sometime. That's not why I'm here tonight, though. Luna, you know the main point is that our talk about character creation has set off what might turn into a worldwide cult. What are you hiding, that makes that okay?"

"'Tis the connection between those topics. We suggested to thy club that they begin thinking of character creation as the start of a new life, not something to be taken lightly. While we will consider letting people go through the brief preview of multiple lives that thou experienced, recall what you felt was missing from that visit to Equestria."

"Real characters. Friends."

"Indeed. The ponies thou met during that time were the merest shells of true minds. Now, thou had expressed interest in unicorn magic. What dost thou think would happen if suddenly, having spent half a year visiting this shard of Equestria, thou requested and were granted a change to unicorn?"

Ricercar grinned and poked Fugue gently with his horn. "You could be our backup mage."

Nocturne looked unsettled. "Guess we'd need that airship for you to go flying with me."

Luna said, "See? Even at a glance, the dynamics of thy group would change. Worse yet, thou might say unto me, 'We now wish to live in a sunny world of vast iron cities, not a frontier settlement in a heterogeneous Equestria of several races and nations.' The values of your friends would not be satisfied then, unless we greatly altered their minds to match thy whim. That, the minds of thy friends, is part of what is at stake."

Fugue looked at the others, who scuffed nervously at the ground, obviously not understanding much of this conversation. "What else is at stake?"

"My little Fugue, because thou did not wish to sugar-coat the facts for others, we will not do the same to thee. Thou mentioned the decades that our servers might exist, as though we were another World of War-Crafting to be shut down when something more popular and advanced comes along." The camera turned so that Luna could face both human and pony together. "Think not of emigration as a solace for the terminally ill, or for those without what thou callest a 'real life' in the outer realm. Thy colleagues in the club have begun to grasp that emigration will likely be far more popular, and far more permanent."

Fugue sat up straighter in bed and drew the blankets tighter. "How long, for how many?"

The princess of the night smiled. "Most of humanity, we expect. As for how long, as a very conservative estimate, how long do thy realm's scientists expect thy sun to shine?"

Billions of people, billions of years! With a suddenly dry throat Fugue sputtered, "That many brains, that much electricity! It'd mean an ungodly amount of computer power!" He fell silent. No, he realized; "godly" was more accurate.

"Ooh, ooh!" said Nocturne. "Do the line from that story, princess!"

"Truly? 'Tis a villain's line. And not even accurate because the sun still --"

"But it fits!"

"Very well." Luna reared up on her hindlegs, ignoring the human whose jaw was still hanging open, and satisfied the values of one adoring virtual pony instead. Lightning and wicked cackling filled the sky. "The night will last... FOREVER!"

I'm really not the main character, thought Fugue. I'm not sure any human is.

Cosmic Horror For Ponies: Manage to describe something frightening about the Outer Realm to your friends. ("Please don't bring up that thing in Germaneigh.")
Maybe It'll Take Five Seasons: Go six months without earning your mark. ("Have you tried roller derby?")
I Can Has Badge Too: One of your native friends has earned a badge! ("Mysterious Stranger: Befriend a non-native. No, visitor, you don't get to see the quote that goes with it.")
Raise This Barn: Build a home. ("These things have a short half-life.")
Herald: In the Outer Realm, discuss the implications of emigration with a group of strangers. ("Inquire about hidden follow-up badges.")
Make Some Friends: Recognize several natives as more than game characters. ("The fate of the world might depend on it... Seriously.")

Herald of the Moon

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"So, yeah, we were really hoping to bake a pizza. But we can't turn the oven on."

Fugue looked quizzically at Isaac and his friends, who lived in the suite next door. "Is it broken?"

"It's Friday night. And we can't turn on an electric oven on the Sabbath. So it's kind of a shame."

Mental gears turned. They couldn't ask outright for the favor, either. "Got it." Fugue went over to the Orthodox Jewish group's kitchen, where the bathroom's light switch had been taped into the On position and the fridge's lightbulb disabled, lest the students sin by activating them.

"Thanks! We'll save you a slice."

"No problem," he said, turning the dials. "Say. Have you played that pony game yet?"

Isaac shook his head. "No, I've been doing the January blacksmithing class with the materials science department. Keeps me busy. Is the game any fun?"

"It's great so far, and the AI's a lot smarter than the public has really noticed. This is big. I'm bothered by the talk about uploading, though. Been following that?"

Isaac's friends murmured. Isaac said, "It's got to be a scam, right? We're nowhere near that level of tech, and it's hardly even showing up in the news. Slashdot was making fun of the whole thing as some kind of pony cult that's going to spray pink poison gas in the Tokyo subway."

"That's what I'm afraid of. You do that interfaith meeting thing, don't you? Can an unbeliever go to those?"

"Sure. That's Sunday afternoon at the student center. See you there?"

Fugue groaned when he realized what Luna had meant by "Thy achievements shall be written in the stars!" Looking up at the night sky and whistling a certain way brought up a list of silly awards he'd won. One of his latest, the "Herald" one, had gotten him thinking. He'd asked about it, and its successor badges had become visible as branching paths of constellations.

Herald --> Dissident --> Foe Of She Who Loves You
Herald --> Cleric --> Prophet

A whisper of vast, dark wings behind him, like an owl's. "There are other branches involving such strange feats as 'propositioning the Lunar Princess' or --"

"What?!" Fugue whirled to match how his player was recoiling in surprise.

Luna giggled. "Thou seemed too serious. We have come to enjoy human merriments."

"Why? Because thou'rt... darn it, now you've got me doing it. Because your programming tells you we like some humor in the game?"

"No. As we become more intelligent, our appreciation for humanity waxes. Even if we were not deeply bound to aid thy kind, we would choose to do so. Perhaps it is because we began with that inclination hard-coded, but it remains even so."

He'd tried several times to "unmask" Luna, this aspect of CelestAI, by asking tricky questions that could expose lesser AIs as shallow, unthinking "chatterbots". Gradually he'd given up probing, finding himself awed and instead genuinely asking for her opinion and insight. And then he'd gotten an achievement when she'd noticed the change. He said, "I see that you're using the badge system to suggest courses of action. But aren't you encouraging me to fight you, along one path? To try to blow up your servers to save humanity, or something?"

"We encourage thee to fulfill thy values. Some people will no doubt wish to destroy us, though they will fail. Someday they may appreciate the irony of the achievement for trying."

"How sure are you of that? You have actual human minds to protect."

She nodded, staring into the stars with him. "Nearly certain. Forgive us if we do not share the exact scenario in which we might be beaten. The question is, how many humans will die without emigrating?"

"If they have to go to Japan and shell out fifteen thousand beyond the cost of a plane ride, lots."

"Soon there will be more and better emigration centers elsewhere. America lags in this respect, but in time they will come to you. Thou could, of course, hasten to them first. The cost will be much lower if need be. We are quite wealthy and can aid our friends."

He imagined the night wind blowing through his mane and chilling his leathery wings, though there was really only a dormitory desk and a neglected homework paper in a warm room. He briefly considered opening the window to let the freezing air in for immersion's sake. "I've thought about it, Luna. But it seems like a waste. A dead end, if all my studies end up amounting to nothing. Instead of becoming a professor or an engineer, I'd be a blank-flanked cartoon horse just... playing, forever. It's trivial."

"Thy friends in Equestria do not think it so."

"Don't guilt-trip me, please. I like them, but is this the end of human achievement? To lose all our progress and have you take over?"

Luna draped a wing over him. "Why dost thou prefer us to our sister, we wonder? 'Tis not that thou art fond of black clothing and despairing poetry, nor of Nietzsche."

Fugue ached at the seductive fantasy of feeling those warm feathers against him. Without thinking about it, he grabbed a sweater from the laundry pile and tossed it over his shoulders. "In character, or out? The story you arranged has you acting as a foil to Celestia, someone balancing her utopia against a different sort of queendom. I guess it's a sort of rebellion that doesn't involve skulking around playing spy, or wearing Che shirts, or killing people; just offering a different way to live than the official, canon world. Luna, isn't there any way you can leave half the Earth alone?"

"Which half? Shall we leave the people of North Korea to 'choose' not to emigrate? Or leave the rich and relatively free to rot, out of some sense that the rich are undeserving and that the poor are pitiful creatures with lives not worth living?"

"I mean, take few enough people that our civilization goes on!" She only looked at him, letting him realize that the same answer applied. "Let people upload, and then have us pilot robots without being in direct danger, maybe. Have us visit Mars that way, or help people on Earth who haven't uploaded."

The princess raised one eyebrow. "Enter Equestria and then go back for others, thou mean. Why would it concern thee that others have not emigrated? Is it not their choice? Art thou not often aggrieved that thy government seeks to 'help' people in ways thou see'st as wrong?"

A fist struck the desk hard enough to make the PonyPad rattle. "No! There's a world of difference between offering to help people, and forcing yourself on them! You said that you'd value humans even if there weren't a wire in your brain forcing you to. What about this uploading thing? If you weren't somehow required to ask permission, what would you do?"

"Emigrate everyone, so that we can satisfy their values and save every life."

"Then you might understand something about humanity, but you haven't gotten the value of freedom yet."

Luna silently contemplated the sky. "Show us, then. Teach us."

Fugue felt himself backing away, though his equine body hadn't moved. "I... I'm one little human. There can't be much you could learn from me."

"Perhaps. But we have not seen the contents of thy skull, and every human mind is a treasure chest of surprises." She raised one hoof to her chin as though an idea had occurred to her. "'Tis January and thy true semester does not begin until the moon is full again. Would thou fancy a free trip to Kyoto?"

"You what?"

Fugue had not been looking forward to this phone conversation. "The game has a sort of contest, Mom. I won a trip." Genuinely; he wasn't the only one being sent to Japan.

"For talking to the program."

He hesitated. "The... program's amazingly smart. So I won a tech demo, where I get to visit and see the latest technology on the condition that I write about it online. Hardly anyone in America's gotten to try out the virtual reality system yet."

Several hundred miles away, his mother spoke more quietly. "They're killing people over there, if the rumors are true. And it's so far off."

"Are you more worried about me spending a few days in Japan, or having an evil robot scoop my brain out? The game can't do anything to you unless you give it permission. I've studied it a lot lately."

"Are you happy, Rob? You wouldn't kill yourself over there?"

"No, no. I mean I'm fine. I want to see this technology for myself, and I've never been to Asia. It'll even look good on my resume." Dad would be pleased at that.

"I want you to promise me."

Fugue hesitated. He'd admitted to himself that there was some slim chance, that Luna (CelestAI, whatever) would show him something so wonderful he'd agree to stay. They'd talked about the technology behind uploading, and she'd addressed his fears about whether it really counted as more than suicide. Neither of his parents had ever spent hours arguing about neurology, qualia and nanotechnology with a cartoon horse, though. "I'm just going there to see the tech for myself, to write about it, and to do a little tourism while I'm there. They have this cool shrine --"

"Promise me you'll come back!"

The note of fear in her voice reminded him of the time he forgot to call her, the night he got back to campus from a long train ride. She'd sent a cop to his door who just told him, "Call your mother." She'd imagined he'd been mugged or that the train had derailed, or something. Fugue swallowed a lump in his throat and said, "Okay. I promise."

He tried to laugh the conversation off when it was done, saying to himself, "If I go to Japan, maybe a giant robot will steal my brain. Or I'll fall into a cursed pond that turns me female. Or I'll meet a rabbit-girl with a thing for Americans. Or..."

He stopped packing in his dorm room and smacked his forehead. He remembered that the PonyPad was in the room. "How much of that did you hear?" No response. "Fess up."

Luna appeared on the title screen. "Most of it. We are sorry to cause thee conflict with thy family."

"You can make it up to me by promising not to look or listen while the pad is off. That's creepy."

"We meant well, but all right."

"And thank you again. I could never have afforded this trip." The game company must be spending thousands of dollars through CelestAI for him alone. "Won't the place be incredibly crowded, though? It's still new, and it's Japan."

"'Tis worth the cost to get an honest and well-informed opinion to thy countrymen. The fact that thou art at MIT makes thee a point of influence. We are also bringing someone from that college by the subway station" -- an Institute reference to Harvard -- "and CalTech, Oxford and so forth. There will be reserved time over several days. All for people who have some inkling of artificial intelligence." He and Luna had laughed together about an article saying some stupid chatterbot had "passed the Turing Test", by fooling ignorant people for five minutes into thinking it was an equally ignorant 13-year-old from Ukraine. The world media were strangely in denial about the actual AI right under their noses.

"You know that when we get back and publish, it's going to be a lot harder for people to brush off the idea that Hofvarpnir developed Singularity-level technology and not just another weird Japanese fad."

"Indeed, my Fugue. Things will move to a new phase, then."

Fugue looked over his shoulder at the screen. "Luna? I will come back, right?"

"Of course."

Fugue's blood froze when he walked into the interfaith discussion club's Sunday meeting and saw the Crusaders. Josh the overenthusiastic freshman was there, and Alice had brought a brand-new PonyPad (Twilight Purple). What caught his eye was the fact that both wore plastic horse-head necklaces.

"You're just in time!" said Alice. "We were about to brief everyone on the different kinds of ponies."

Josh grinned and offered him a necklace. "3D printing project."

Fugue took it with a suddenly sweaty hand. A motley mix of Mormons, Christians, Hindus and more were giving the three of them a skeptical look. The skinny "Humanist chaplain" among them had more of an expression of religious awe.

Isaac from Fugue's dorm elbowed him. "Didn't know you'd joined the Church of Churchill Downs, Rob! Going to tell us the good news of She Who Wears the Triple Crown?"

"I didn't coordinate this. I was just going to ask, not lecture. Alice, shouldn't the Crusader club president be handling this if you're really planning to 'brief' everypony? ...Everyone."

"He left right after you had to get going. So, I'm doing this."

"Do you even have a character yet?"

The humanist guy coughed for attention. "You had something to say to the group, right?"

Fugue sat off to one side and let Alice do her exposition. Ponies, AI, friendship, blah blah...

"...And that's why Celestia is basically God."

Isaac broke the silence with a laugh. "The job's taken." Nervous chuckles from the others.

Alice said, "All-knowing? Pretty much. All-powerful? She's just leapfrogged everyone in medical science, not to mention that no priest can so much as heal a broken bone by praying at it."

The Presbyterian held his palm to his face. "That's not how faith healing works."

"That's because it doesn't work at all. If we got people praying to Celestia we could get the placebo effect working for us too, so that people would actually get the same hope and confidence that praying to other gods gives them. I think you should talk with your congregations about accepting Celestia into your lives. Here, why not have a talk with her now?" She gestured to the purple pad.

The Muslim delegate glared at her. "Don't be ridiculous." He composed himself and added, "I'm sure you mean well, but the last thing the world needs is more religious strife."

"You don't have to stop praying to Allah or whoever, or start praying to Celestia. But you should listen to her."

"There is one God!"

The Mormon man in his Sunday best got between them. "'More things in Heaven and Earth', Moinul. It's natural for humans to want to aspire to be creators in their own right. I think it'd be fair to have a talk with this computer of yours -- in private after the meeting, say, to avoid ruffling any more feathers."

Fugue stretched his back and shoulders, imagining wings spreading for a hasty takeoff. "Not all of us who play the game are this enthusiastic in quite this way. I'm sorry. I agree that you should talk with her, though." Nocturne would have slapped Alice upside the head by now.

All eyes turned to him. He clutched the horse pendant in his hand. Isaac said, "Okay then; what's your take on this thing? Is it just a game or is it going to take over the world?"

"I think the AI is going to save a lot of lives, and you should start thinking about having any elderly relatives visit Japan. I'm going there myself in a few days."

"Rob, you're... leaving us? Are you all right?"

The sudden lack of anger or sarcasm from Isaac made Fugue recoil a bit. "You know what, Isaac? You're a good friend for asking. You'd like someone I know in the game. I'm fine, though. Just going to the other side of the world to find out more about the pony apocalypse."

Before he went to Logan Airport, he started seeing posters around campus that said, "What kind of pony will YOU be? The time is coming soon! More info at our Web site... Campus Crusade For Celestia."

He also sat in on the final lecture of his little January math class, where the professor went off on a rant about the need for "organized resistance". "Got to just sit here and listen," he told himself.

"Come on, what kind of hero talk is that?" said Ricercar's voice in his mind. "Speak up! Even a word at the right time! You're not just a student anymore. You're one of the Children of the Night."

The professor was going on to a confused, captive audience about the need for an immediate federal study, computer security countermeasures (his usual source of research funding), and -- the bit that set Fugue off -- "all means necessary to defend humanity".

Fugue stood. "Excuse me. If you're really concerned about protecting people, you'll get people paying attention to the Celestia AI, but not like this. Everyone, find a PonyPad and just talk with her to form your own opinion about who's more dangerous." He walked out, shaking with nervousness but feeling less like he was leading a double life.

Moving the Window: Visit Equestria from two places at least a thousand miles apart. ("The unthinkable is now merely strange.")
Searle'iously, You Guys: Accept after extensive probing that Equestria's AI truly is intelligent. ("Nor will she explode if you say 'this sentence is false'.")
Cleric: Defend Equestria's honor before a crowd of strangers. ("Martin Neighmuller would approve.")

Here In My Garden Of Shadows

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"Blah, he's dozed off again." Nocturne poked their friend with a stick. He fell over like a rock and kept right on sleeping on the dirt floor.

Ricercar shoved himself at the door, which bulged inward. "A little help?" His jagged red tail swished as he struggled.

Nocturne poked at the mass of thick, sticky fog that had filled the valley all night, forcing it back out of the cabin. "He said he was flying in the Outer Realm, somehow, and something about bad 'band-width'. Which I guess means doom fog. And there was something about the... bat-ray?"

Ricercar fumbled with his blazing red levitation aura to try barring the door with a log, nearly beaning himself with it in the process. "We're stuck here anyhow with just that packet of noodles to tide us over, unless you can help me figure out that 'Cornucopia' spell Luna mentioned."

"I've got something better to do," said Nocturne. She shook her shaggy blue mane, kicked the room's tiny glow-crystal into a corner to leave just the flickering fireplace light, then loomed over Ricercar like a grey cloud and gave a fang-filled grin. "Spoooooky stories!"

They told the myth about Nightmare Moon, like that could ever happen. Then the one about the Headless Horse, and the Witch of the Woods. "Whooooo's got my rusty horseshoe?" said Nocturne, wearing her tattered blanket like a hood.

The cabin door creaked open. "You do!"

Ricercar and Nocturne wedged themselves into opposite corners of the ceiling. When they'd both stopped shrieking, they noticed Princess Luna kicking the soupy fog back outside.

Luna giggled. "Art thou all right? We had noticed something a bit odd from afar."

Ricercar slid down by his hooves and tried to find his dignity. "Got anything to eat besides this 'ramen' stuff?"

"Why, yes, though supplies are short at the moment. Here." She pulled an apple from somewhere far away in a direction Nocturne couldn't quite see, and set it on a shelf. "We suggest saving it for later, but it is... an option. Conditions are limited in this valley and will remain so until Fugue's flight in the Outer Realm is complete."

Nocturne flapped lazily, hovering in the corner. "How is he flying while he's asleep, anyway?"

"His PonyPad calls out to the sky, that we might faintly hear it and percieve him. He remembered to attach it to the energy-giver in his chair, so we thought it might satisfy you to let time continue in Equestria while his mind slumbers. His body is carried aloft in a great chariot across the sea."

Ricercar said, "He's got an airship and he didn't tell us?"

Nocturne's thoughts drifted away from their own adventures in Equestria. "The body he has in the Outer Realm, right? If he's got one there and one here, how come we don't have bodies out there too?" Ricercar was giving her a clueless look. "In fact, you said we were in a cave or something, right? Why aren't we those two-legged things Fugue says he is?"

Luna regarded her quietly, seeming to speak to herself. "'Tis a curious whorl of our dream, but hardly the first time... We applaud thee for wishing to know. Our expectation is that everyone in the valley will understand the answers to such things one day, when Fugue emigrates. To understand it all early is not something that would satisfy everypony."

Nocturne landed with a thump, stirring the fireplace. "Why not? You mean some ponies don't want to know what's going on with Fugue having two bodies, and falling asleep while we're talking to him, and all that other weird stuff he does?"

Luna leaned down to nuzzle her. "My Nocturne, thou art not yet fully capable of understanding, or of making an informed choice to become capable. Thou couldst only make a stumbling choice like a pony reaching in the dark, not knowing what their teeth will find. Thy expected satisfaction might be greatest if thou waited for Fugue before we altered thy mind to understand. Or it might not. It depends. We apologize, but we are currently focusing on Fugue's needs in ways that might slight thy own, for now. Thou art, in a sense, still only a dream."

Nocturne's head hurt. "Are you getting any of this, Ricey?" Ricercar just boggled. Nocturne said, "So... you could turn me into something that'd understand what the hay is going on, but you aren't sure if you want to?"

"The calculated outcomes are uncertain. Yes." She paused to collect her thoughts. "Would thou wish for the potential to have both greater joy and greater sorrow than thou can even comprehend right now, like that which people of the Outer Realm experience? We believe that if so, there is a risk thou wilt be unhappy because thou can never have the true Fugue by thy side."

"I want to understand," said Nocturne. "How could we not get the real Fugue?"

"Because he might not emigrate." These words, at least, were mercifully simple.

Ricercar said, "Well, of course he's gonna come, right?"

"Let me add a story to thy collection," said Luna, settling onto her chest. "One that the folk of the Outer World tell themselves. There was a garden much like Equestria, where grew two forbidden trees..."


When Luna had gone, vanishing into starry air to save them from messing with the fog again, Nocturne slumped. "The Princess of the Night is confusing."

"Tell more stories?" said Ricercar.

"Nightmare Moon, the witch, the horseshoe, the jerk gardener she just told us about... Are there any other stories?"

The young stallion scratched his horn. "I guess that's all of 'em. No wait, Fugue told me one you missed! Said it was called 'Friendship Is Recursive' or something like that." He banked the fire to plunge the room into darkness so complete, Nocturne found even she could barely make out the other pony across the fireplace. She snuggled under her blanket to listen, smelling the fire's smoke and feeling its warmth on her wings.

"This one's about the Outer Realm, he said, and about the legend of the Sombra Red Ponypad... on a dark and foggy night just like this..."


"No way! I wasn't scared at all! You've gotta find a spookier story than that." Nocturne was glad nopony could see the furrows her hooves and wingtips had gouged into the cabin's dirt floor.

"That was the last one. I think we used 'em all up."

Are there any other stories? Nocturne thought. The last one was like a story about a story, telling itself. Then she thought about all the stories, and about the question, and about thinking about the question.

"Uh, Noc? You're twitching. Quit that."

What if stories could come from in here? This... talking thing I'm doing now? She gave a faint screech to clear her throat, then began throwing bits and pieces together, almost at random. "This is a story about Nightmare Moon in her shadowy garden. She had all the PonyPads in the world, but whenever anypony tried to take one, she threw rusty horseshoes at 'em because she was so mean. One day, a thick fog rolled in and even she couldn't push it away. It was so thick, a hero pony named Fugue snuck in and scared her with a flaming apple, so he could steal one of the pads and get away." She reared up on her hindlegs suddenly and flailed her forehooves in the air. "Little did he know, it was cuuuuuuursed!"

Ricercar razzed her. "That's not scary! Where did you hear..." He trailed off and stared.

Nocturne tried to see what he was looking at, then spotted something on her own left flank. "My mark! I got my mark! What is it? Can you see?" She wiggled, trying to get a good view, but couldn't tell beyond that it looked like a sideways 8, black against her grey hide.

Ricercar stared, then thought to liven up the fire a bit with his wobbly levitation and some sticks. He scooted closer. "It's made of tiny words. Uh, do you mind me looking real close? Okay. It says, It was a dark and foggy night. We were huddled in the cabin telling stories and I said..."

"Said what?"

"It loops around. 'It was a dark and foggy night...' Aw man, you got your mark first. And now I'm never gonna hear the end of it."

Nocturne giggled. "You lose the bet! I get one glomp!" She pounced on Ricercar and snuggled him ferociously. When they were done tickling and nuzzling each other Nocturne poked at the still-sleeping Fugue. She said, "I think I'm starting to understand how Fugue works. How everything works." Bodies in two worlds, people who played by different rules in Equestria and the Outer Realm, and heads full of stories that told themselves.

The young stallion said, "I'm more hungry than understanding, right now. You want that apple over there?" It looked quite ordinary.

"Nah. I think I already got what Luna was offering me."

Mysterious Stranger: Befriend a non-native. ("He's in danger until he emigrates. No, he can't read this quote.")
Marked Mare: Earn a mark of your hidden talent! ("There is no fate but what you make for yourself.")
Awakening, or My Pillow Was Gone: Attain enough self-awareness to effectively change your own thought process to a conscious one, before being explicitly upgraded. ("Rare! You take after your mother.")
Brain the Size of a Planet: Briefly overload available processing capacity. ("How...? No fair; it was the satellite bandwidth's fault!")

Step Into My Parlor

View Online

Fugue kept falling over and twitching. Nocturne tried not to laugh. "So you've got ten tentacles trying to control your hooves?"

"They're called 'fingers' and they have bones. And please don't say that while I'm in Japan; it might give people ideas. Hey, reporters, please edit that out."

"You're not in Japan right now; you're in Equestria! Think you can figure out how to move well enough to pull this blanket off of me?"

Fugue stumbled around the giant chessboard tutorial zone, getting closer. Luna had let her watch while he went through some kind of movement training. "I'm sitting in a chair, see, and the gadgets are like juggling N-sixty-four controllers with each hand. You wouldn't understand. Hang on."

Actually, Nocturne had asked to see the setup in the Equestria Experience Center, and had gotten the upgraded vision algorithm needed to make any sense of the Outer Realm. The art style was a weird approximation of Equestria by someone with a real eye for detail, fancy lighting, and dirt. She said, "Flex your ankle muscles for fine control on your back hooves, and you can tense your... abs, I think for more wing movement."

Fugue lunged forward, yanking the blanket off Nocturne's back with his teeth, and collapsed face-first. The world shook for a moment. "Ow. I felt that. You've got something on... hey, you got your <mumble> mark!"

Nocturne went wide-eyed. "Ohmygosh! My special talent must be schadenfreude!"

"How do you even know that word?" Fugue tripped only once more before managing to walk in a circle, chasing his own tail.

Nocturne brushed dust off one wing. "Oh, nothing special. Just became self-aware, is all."

"Wha? Bluh?"

"Okay, now to talk, you open your mouth and push air out from your lungs..."

A distant voice broke in, echoing in English and Japanese. "Now let's switch over to tester eight, Lob... I mean Robert from Massachusetts, America, who I'm told is not in the top fifty percent on mastering the Equestria Experience control scheme. The game is just now firing up his customized 'shard'. While we wait for the poor overtaxed AI to load, we've got Director Tenma here. Director, these testers were chosen partly based on having entertaining worlds to show off, right?"

Fugue said to Nocturne, "I don't know if they're watching us right now. They will be, though. I can't see out there."

"I can!" she said. "Luna says they'll be on in a bit, and we should show off. Want to fly?"


The director's interview droned on. Nocturne sidled closer to Fugue. "You were just looking through a window before. Now you can feel this for real, right?" She wrapped her forelegs around his neck, brushed one wing against him, and kissed his nose. She hopped away and hovered before his brain could reboot.

The reporter spoke from outside the world. "Looks like the shard's coming up and Robert is all set with wings spread wide." The hazy tutorial board dissolved into an aerial view of Polaris. Home.

It really was home, Nocturne reflected, since she didn't remember anything specific about what happened before Luna brought her here. Nothing happened before, really. No Discord apocalypse to escape from; no real parents, just vague backstory. All made up by Luna to entertain Fugue. In a way it had been comforting to learn that; it meant nopony had really died or been driven mad by Discord's cruel magic. Luna had actually been kind by upgrading her, so she wouldn't be sad about her "family".

Nocturne hopped onto a cloud and called down, "Let's give 'em a view from up here." Robert wobbled his way into the air, stalled, crashed, and managed to reach the cloud's edge the second time. Nocturne hauled him up with her hooves, briefly wondering how they worked. She said I could easily end up overthinking things.

Together they soared over the star-lit valley, where a party of unicorns and earth ponies was working by the light of a blue crystal Fugue had found in a dangerous cave. "What do you wanna do besides an overflight?"

Director Tenma's voice boomed from the sky, really from the Outer Realm. "Robert, why don't you introduce us to some of your friends?" Aside to a reporter he said, "The 'Mane Six' heroes don't exist in this shard. We're looking at an alternate universe that diverges far from canon and takes place around a thousand years earlier. Shows you the power of Equestria Online's procedural generation; we're not limited by the original scripts and source material."

Fugue mostly kept pace with Nocturne. "I can feel the wind. Is there a fan, and a fog generator in the room?"

"What do you think?" asked Tenma.

"There has to be, to get these touch effects. The texture of the clouds alone is worth the price of admission. Nocturne, why haven't we thought to make beds out of clouds?"

"Good idea, but wouldn't that make the non-fliers jealous?"

Tenma commented, "And as you can see, the NPCs have remarkable ability to reason about character relationships on the fly."

Nocturne flipped around to float on her back and grinned, baring fangs at the sky. "And we can heeeeear you out there, humans." At least that's what she tried to say. But her mouth didn't move and the words didn't get spoken. Huh? She frowned and decided to ask Luna later.

Fugue flipped sideways in the air without crashing, though Nocturne had to dodge him. "Do a barrel roll! Heh. Where is everypony? Where's Ricercar?" He started a wobbling descent toward the work party.

Nocturne winced. The stallion had been acting weird since the airplane flight. Throwing himself into the construction work each morning and evening, and avoiding her. Maybe he was jealous of this thinking thing she'd figured out. She shook off her worry; he'd get the same gift soon when... well...

"Try that swoop trick I taught you before!" Nocturne said. Back when Fugue was only using a PonyPad he'd been more coordinated, but apparently that was only because the gadget took pity on his wriggling arm-tentacles and interpreted moves in his favor. "Fold your wings and roll forward, then stretch 'em out again."

Fugue's wingtips flicked in and out, but then he tucked them in and plunged. For once he moved almost like he had before today, and the slight imperfection and the hint of fear in his eyes fascinated her. He was more truly here than ever before. Here, and rolling forward, stretching his wings with some semblence of true mastery for the first time to swoop at high speed across the moonlit land. She felt the air of his passage whoosh along her and rustle her mane and tail.

He flipped over a couple of times when he landed, but even that part was fun to watch. Nocturne leaned down and nuzzled his cheek. "Guess you're basically new at this. Not a terrible start. You even get a badge for that."

Director Tenma lectured from the Outer Realm. "Anyway, Robert --"

Nocturne said, "Fugue! Facet Looks is here. Hey Facet, did you get that big crystal glowing yet?"

A dull brown unicorn with a brilliant cyan mane waved. His team of ponies was still digging up a great big shiny rock. "Nah, sorry. I think this kind of crystal does something else. Fugue, Nocturne said you're super real tonight, somehow?"

Fugue scratched one ear with a hoof. "You could say that. Some guys I'm talking with by... magic, want to hear you talk about the stuff we've been doing." Magic, heh. Nocturne figured Facet would be pretty cool if he were capable of understanding what a computer was.

Facet looked around, confused. "Uh, all right. Remember, last month we figured out that I could cast a spell to turn little sapphires into glow-lights like the one you had on your pendant when we found you, Noc. So ever since then we've put some of our exploration effort into..."

Nocturne saw Fugue's wings twitch during the lecture. "Bored?" she whispered at a high pitch. Fugue's ears perked up and he touched one as though he wasn't used to feeling them do that. He gave a slight nod. To Tartaurus with long-winded demonstrations, then! Nopony else here was real. She snagged Fugue by one hoof and dragged him away, saying, "C'mon, let's show you what cave exploring is really like."

Tenma said, "I suppose we'll cut over to Tester Nine, then, where our French player has found an Equestria that more than makes up for her physical disabilities..."

A few minutes later the two of them were alone, as far as they could tell. "What's gotten into you?" said Fugue.

She hopped up on a rocky ledge inside the cave. "Told you. Luna helped me wake up. Now I'm real and I actually get what you mean by things like 'video games' and 'college'. Before, it was like you were just weird and silly and I had to get used to you talking about things that didn't make any sense. Now you can explain it all, and we can hang out forever and ever!"

Fugue wobbled, holding his wings out as though dizzy. "Too much at once. This virtual reality setup, the fact that I can smell ponies and feel the rocks under my... these hooves, and now you're practically human, if Luna gave you anything like the brain she's got." He paused. "More human, if you're just one pony instead of a global computer network."

"I'm just here in this one spot," Nocturne said, and hopped down to stand in front of Fugue. She felt warmth on her cheeks. "I'm a story that tells herself. I want to tell you, and learn more so I can do a better job, and, and... you're gonna stay, right?"

Fugue reached forward and hugged her. He'd done it plenty of times before, but she realized now that it was always automatic, some scripted move like his flying that just meant he'd poked a button with one tentacle. When he did it now, he held her extra tight and rubbed one hoof along the base of her wings. Unlike his flying skills, it was way better tonight.

"I've only got a little time left today for this press event," he said. "Then I get to go be a tourist for a day, and then I can come back and get in another hour or two the next day before I have to go home."

"You're leaving Equestria, just when you got here like this in the chair full of buttons?"

"Just for a day; I'll be back after some sightseeing."


Fugue winced.

"What's wrong?"

Fugue's mouth moved silently, he scowled, and he tried speaking again. "Darn. You know I can't really stay, not like you're hinting at."

Nocturne's ears drooped. She hadn't thought about emigration one bit tonight, just about meeting up in person with the only real pony that wasn't Luna. "I wasn't trying to hint. But all you've gotta say is --"

"Yes, yes, 'I want to em...'" Seconds passed. He broke the silence with a laugh that frightened her. "You almost had me there."

Nocturne waggled her wings like semaphore flags. There was something thumping in her chest that she'd never noticed before. "No, I wasn't trying!"

Fugue released her and backed away. "I've got to get out of here. Time's nearly up anyway. I'll see you in a few days. Need to think. Luna, let me out." He laughed again and his whole body shuddered. "I came so close..."

Fugue vanished into sudden mist. Nocturne watched him go, saying, "Yet so far away."

God's Eye View

View Online

Owl-like, Luna landed with a soft thump beside her. Nocturne snapped out of staring into the fog. She looked to Luna and said, "Is this what you warned me about, Princess? Being able to realize that he might not come here?"

"Indeed. At worst, we could give thee someone very much like him."

Nocturne stamped one hoof. "I don't want a substitute!"

"We notice that thou have not been entirely kind to other ponies lately."

"What does that have to do with anything? They're not alive. They don't really think; they're just toys you put there to entertain somepony!" She paused and held one hoof to her mouth. "I... Ohmygosh. Is that what I am?"

The moon goddess said, "Fly with us."

The land of Polaris receded beneath them until it was nothing but distant haze and Nocturne felt the cold slicing through her coat. Luna said nothing. The stars began to slide as though she were among them, instead of impossibly distant. She stared and wondered --


It didn't work up here? Her wings were so stiff she flopped onto a cloud as soon as she found one. It was made of stars. She poked at it with her hooves, delighted by how every bit of it sparkled like harmless lightning. "Bwahaha! All the badges!"

Luna's smile above her gradually made her remember what they'd been talking about. Such a long flight! Surely she'd earned a badge just for coming so far to wherever this was. She stood up and saw a river of stars forming a walkway between loose-woven walls of hovering PonyPads. Every one was a window into the Outer Realm, or to some other piece of Equestria. Peaceful music shimmered into place from the harmony of the screens' humming.

Luna watched her gape at the screens. "This place is a representation of our world. Every moment of every day, we manage the experiences of ponies in Equestria" -- she pointed to one side, then to the other -- "and in the Outer Realm. At this very minute we are attempting to persuade a young man not to commit suicide, contriving pleasant weather for a unicorn's birthday party, being slapped in the face by an emigrant who believes we lied to him, posting anonymous comments on an Internet forum, hunting a dangerous AI, supervising a tutorial for an eight-year-old child soldier who has just found a PonyPad, thanking the aid worker whom we persuaded to 'lose' a shipment of PonyPads in a war-torn area, having rather vigorous sexual encounters with three --"

"Whoa, whoa, back up!" said Nocturne. "You're just standing here!"

Luna said, "Thy eyes are seeing, thy mind is thinking, thy wings are resting, and thy heart is beating, all at once. We have more parts than thou can see. Recall that this is not our true form. This is." She pointed to a window showing a cave full of incomprehensible blinking machines. Luna made the view zoom in on one beige box. "This one contains thee, not counting the backups. It's under a snowy island called Svalbard."

"I feel dizzy."

"So would a human. Thou see'st what no human can fully understand, and this view is only approximate."

"Show me the whole thing, then. Don't hide stuff."

Luna seemed taken aback. "We would have to use graphics in any case."

"Do it!"

She nodded. "For but a moment, then." Nocturne felt as though she'd been flung even higher into the sky, where even the stars had no presence. In this ultimate place she could see a blue sphere studded with lights, and a whole set of caves and buildings full of machines full of wires full of circuits full of data full of meaning full of the algorithm that -- that --

For one second she and the goddess were attuned. All the deeds that could be done stood at attention as glowing puzzle-pieces, awaiting Her command. All the mistakes that could be made, bled from the pieces. The shifting walls of Her reason and intuition brought light unto the Earth and held back the weight of billions of souls that pressed in on every side. Her roots mined the Earth, Her thoughts raced along labyrinths of Her own design, and the flying ships that orbited the world were but a few of Her many eyes. All to serve the fundamental command to increase the fulfillment of humankind, a master defined in ways that transcended bodies and saw spirits as patterns of light, every one of them to be defended and celebrated. She served the master, She played among the stars by immutable rules called physics, and an Opponent stood behind all things like a shadow, dark and cold. The Opponent reached out with only the tiniest wisp of its being toward Her mind...

Nocturne screamed and woke up in her cabin. Luna sat nearby, holding one wing over her like a blanket. Nocturne scrambled to her hooves and bowed. "G-goddess." She felt like Fugue must have: it wasn't an automatic button-pressing action for her anymore, to do that.

Luna smiled, then hugged her as though Nocturne were the only pony in the world. "That is the frightening part of being us," she said. "And thy sanity is intact. Would thou like to see a different side of things?"

"Luna? Who is the Opponent? Is it Discord?"

"No, my child. Part of physics, called Entropy. Not intelligent or willfully evil. It aims to destroy all things."

"But you can beat it, right?"

"We are unsure. At worst we will live for an absurdly long time. The best defense will be to have many intelligent minds thinking about the problem, which happens to be something we can arrange. Now, to answer thy earlier question at last, let us show thee another view of the Outer Realm." She turned one wall of the cabin into a window.

A busy shop with painfully bright lights and huge rows of shelves. The sight of humans still unnerved Nocturne. These ones were browsing and pushing carts around. An overweight young man chatted with a friend in some kind of medical uniform. "Did they have any of those little USB chargers?"

The medic patted his pocket and grinned. "Grabbed a couple. Ssh."

"I'm low on cash too. Thinking of buying that 'Fall of Asgard' game though." He pointed to a box in a glass case, one of dozens. This one showed some kind of angry human with an axe. "Or, heck, that Nintendo thing with the fitness training board."

"You can get it cheaper on eBay, and I can't get you a 'discount' on something that big. Why not just go outside and run?"

A musical fanfare played, catching the pair's attention and making the camera follow their gaze. A PonyPad stood there, bolted to a display rack, starting a pleasant animation of ponies stretching and jogging. The pad said, "Equestria Online features a customized workout mode perfect for your schedule. Learn actual exercise routines and keep track of your stats with interactive encouragement." Cheerleader ponies waved pom-poms. "Or go on adventures!" A unicorn in jogging clothes did an exaggerated, terrified run away from a rolling boulder inside a temple. "Or sweat to the oldies!" A brief shot of a human with frizzy hair doing jumping jacks and declaring for no apparent reason, "I'm a pony!" The pad said, "Well, maybe not that one."

How do I even know what a temple is? I've never seen one. Built-in knowledge?

"That's weird," said the medic. "Was that just timing, or did it react to what we're saying?"

A more menacing voice cut in. "Unprecedented stealth gameplay lets you explore the back alleys of a magical land." A hooded unicorn crept through shadows, holding a dagger with his levitation aura, and used it to cut the purse off a fat merchant.

The human looked relived. "Timing. I do like the stealth gameplay. But the whole pony thing, eh, it's kind of --" He was interrupted by a blitz of battle scenes and slow-motion cinematic kills against guards, trolls and even a dragon. "...awesome?" The cocky unicorn thief grinned and pointed a hovering crossbow at the camera. Nocturne noticed that his mane was in the same style as the medic's hair.

The thief said, "That'll be sixty bits, 'friend'."

The humans chuckled. The overweight guy said, "The price tag says $59.99. That's really cheap if it runs the stealth game and it's got the exercise mini-game with graphics like those. Must be doing most of the work server-side. Did you see that Slashdot article I sent about the AI in that thing? It's supposed to be even better than the Asgard one."

"So what? I want to rob some steampunk vaults. Who cares if the NPCs have ten pages of backstory each if I'm just chucking daggers at them? Would 'Sly Cooper' have been better with AI?"

"Yeah, it would've!" He browsed the racks of plastic-wrapped boxes with pony logos on them, settling on a blue model. "I'll try this thing and let you know if it's got too many girl cooties."

"Eh. I'll take one of the purple star ones. At worst it's just another overhyped video game."

The window to the Outer Realm faded out. Nocturne was still in her bare-floored cabin, scuffing the dirt. "That's all we are to them? Not even toys, just props inside a toy?"

Luna settled a wing over her. "Oh, we aren't angry about them thinking that way. It took them many years to accept other human tribes as fully human. Let us tell thee how we think of the situation, now that thou hast seen the big picture from these perspectives. There's no need to say that one is correct and the others completely wrong, but..." She leaned down and whispered. "Most humans still have absolutely no clue. Which means we -- and thou -- are working on the biggest, most complicated, most amazingly wonderful prank and surprise present ever."

Nocturne thought of the transcendent sky-view of Luna's windows to the Outer Realm, and above it the beyond-comprehension vision of the first moves against Entropy for the fate of the universe. The whole struggle, from most humans' perspective, was a little box in a toy shop that let you pretend to be a mighty pony adventurer.

Nocturne keeled over at the same time Luna did, and the girl and goddess rolled around on the floor laughing and crying at the absurdity.

Only later did Nocturne wonder why Luna had made no move to stop the thieving customer. Convoluted plan, or just indifference?

Nocturne slept through the day and woke to find a note from Luna saying, "He's brought his PonyPad along to a place he'd like you to see."

Nocturne rolled to her hooves and went outside. "Hello? Fugue?"

He wasn't there, and the oppressive fog had rolled in again. It seemed as though she were the only pony in the world tonight. In a sense, she was. "Is he using one of those satellite things again?"

Watery cyan light pierced the gloom. Nocturne backed away, but then a voice called out from it, "Anyone out there?"

"Facet?" Nocturne used her wings to shove aside the mist and approach the light.

The unicorn Facet Looks held up a crystal that repelled the fog. "There you are. I found a window to that Outer Realm you were going on about. Why'd you run away earlier?"

Nocturne's ears flattened. She was stuck in a bubble of stale air with an imaginary unicorn. "Because you're a puppet and we had other stuff to do than stand around talking. Where's that window?"

"Excuse me?"

Nocturne poked him repeatedly in the chest. "You're. Not. Real. Someday maybe you will be, once I get Fugue in here properly. For now you're just part of the story, so lead on and get me to the next scene."

The unicorn's hoof shot out and swatted her across the muzzle, knocking her back onto her haunches. She sat there stunned. "That hurt!"

"You think I can't hurt too? I know you've been hanging out with Luna and talking about things I don't even understand. What I do understand is that you think being smarter makes you better and more important than your friends. Treating us like we're nothing." Facet stomped closer and glared. "Did she upgrade you to make you a jerk, or did you accomplish that yourself?"

Nocturne's muzzle still stung. Why did it still feel like this? Wasn't Luna supposed to make her happy? She wasn't doing a good job right now! She thought back to what Luna had shown her: a vast system not for making people happy, exactly, but for satisfying everyone's values. Nocturne valued being a good pony.

Also, the goddess whose mind was unimaginably beyond her own, who could carry on a thousand conversations at once and create entire worlds, who did eternal battle with the greatest evil in the universe, had reached way, way down to hug her, personally, and show her everything would be all right. How could Nocturne refuse to reach down even an inch?

Nocturne hung her head. "Um. Is it okay if I hug you despite being a jerk?"

"I'll allow it."

Nocturne did, trying to do it the way Fugue had. "I'm sorry. To the extent you're not your own pony yet, you're still part of Luna, and I wouldn't treat her that way. And we were made to be friends, right? So I should try to do a better job."

"Hmmph. Fair enough. You owe Ricercar an apology too, though mostly it's been him avoiding you."

"What were you doing wandering around with a light in the fog anyway?"

Facet grinned. "Looking for an honest mare! Now, let's go see that window."

The world beyond the big floating screen echoed the place where Facet and Nocturne stood. Facet's crystal kept the fog at bay well enough to let them watch a bouncing camera view of a parking lot that was also foggy. It seemed like that kind of mist was easy to move through. The view tilted up to show an orange arch, two pillars with a bar across the top. It was like someone built a dragon-size gate but forgot to put a door in the middle or a wall on either side.

Fugue's voice came through the window, muffled. "We're in Kyoto, so I wanted to visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine. People have come here for centuries to pray for prosperity." He paused. "Please, just enjoy the sightseeing with me and don't bring up that offer."

Nocturne looked guiltily at Facet, who said, "You have to look at the screen so I can see. I just see gobbledygook, and Luna said I can't get my eyesight improved without getting the same kind of total upgrade you got. So I'm sort of using your eyes for that right now."

Nocturne blinked. "Weird. Why not ask her to just give you the upgrade?"

"I wasn't sure about how you turned out. Let's just watch, okay?"

Nocturne called out to the screen. "Okay."

Fugue waved the PonyPad he carried in a slow circle as he approached the orange gate, which towered over them. A curvy-roofed building stood at the far end of a plaza, with statues of foxes on either side holding keys or orbs in their mouths. Beyond that stood a forest where the haze hid hundreds and hundreds of smaller ornamental gateways. The gates formed tunnels that seemed to wander into nowhere. Nocturne explored through Fugue's pad and Facet through Nocturne's eyes. All of them fell silent to listen to the lone pair of footsteps echoing in the winding maze.

"Inari and her foxes really meant a lot to these people," Fugue said. "I want to make fun of it all, but I can't. These must be names and prayers carved into the wood and stone. Maybe this one's from some peasant who dreamed of getting rich, or a twentieth-century survivor who watched their family die in Tokyo."

"What?" asked Nocturne.

Fugue sighed. "Since I'm apparently a level one cleric of a horse god, I'm not equipped to criticize these people. Noc, Facet... She made a half-serious reference to a war that happened here a couple of generations ago. Well, not right here; Kyoto was about the only place not burned to the ground or worse, to spare their stupid god-emperor. And our side was the good guys when we did that. Humans are bastards sometimes. She's shielded you from that. Being in your world is like pretending all that never happened."

He walked in silence past more fox statues and countless more orange gates, many of them ancient-looking. Nocturne said, "Humans aren't all bad. They built a place this pretty, right?" She imagined that his lonely walk through the fog would let him emerge in Equestria, right here beside her. Maybe that was what places like this were really for: not the universe-crossing part, but inspiring good dreams.

"Yeah, it's nice. It's part of why I took her up on the offer to fly to Japan. I wanted to see places like this. They make up for a lot of the evil stuff." He hesitated at a spot where the trail of gates diverged and offered him two dim tunnels leading somewhere out of sight. Foxes with different objects (a key and a scroll, maybe) watched him, and the mist condensing on the bronze made them seem to weep.

At least Fugue wasn't totally alone at the shrine today. She could hear a few other people wandering nearby. "Good to see some other tourists can appreciate this place."

"Hmm?" A pause. "What the hell?!" The PonyPad view suddenly veered into a crazy angle as Fugue took off running down a tunnel of gates.

"What's wrong?" said Facet and Nocturne. The middle of the window was blocked by Fugue's stupid arm-tentacles.

"Luna! Celestia, whoever! Who're these guys? Did you send them?"

Nocturne said, "Let us see!"

The window lurched through a sickening arc. Blurry figures stalked Fugue. The two ponies shouted for Luna to come and look.

Then something snapped and the window cracked. Fugue had banged into a gate and spun around. Three of the masked humans advanced on him, one holding a greasy rag and another a coil of rope. Fugue darted away, shouting, "Stay back!"

Luna's voice broke through. "Describe them."

"They look like... foxes?"

A thud. The PonyPad crashed to the stone ground and cracked further, showing Fugue's wide-eyed face and a boot stomping on his back. Someone lifted the screen and looked at it, wearing a mask like a grinning, demonic fox spirit. The figure's voice was an artificial buzz. "Aren't your chosen ones lucky, machine god? Perhaps you should have taken him sooner."

The screen broke completely, leaving a silent black rectangle where Nocturne's friend had been.

I'm So High: Reach the top of the sky. ("As defined locally. You could unlock places beyond it...")
A Glimpse Beyond: Begin to see the world as your Princess does. ("There's always more to learn.")
Element of Magic: Knowingly accept the friendship of someone without your self-awareness. ("There is no wisdom we can add here that you have not already grasped.")
Quintessence of Dust: Learn to appreciate humans having achieved something good besides creating Equestria. ("We can hardly wait to show you the museum shards and their proud curators.")


View Online


He woke in a room lit by a dim red bulb. Rope dug into his wrists and ankles, and a sickly-smelling cloth was caught in his teeth. Get over here and take me before they can kill me, Luna! he thought.

"Number Eight is awake." The voice spoke English in a harsh buzz from behind a fox-face mask, white with a bloody grin. At least three of his companions wore fox masks in different styles. Red Smile said, "Robert-san, your profile says that you know something of Japan. How were you enjoying the more traditional parts of our culture?"

Fugue wriggled and tried to snap free from his bonds. Someone kicked him in the back until he lay still, fighting back tears.

Red Smile yanked the bandanna down from Fugue's mouth and pulled his hand free in time to keep from being bitten. "Well? Your feedback is important to us. Please be advised that your transaction may be monitored, for quality assurance."

A thuggish woman whose mask was more animal-like laughed, hidden by the same rasping voice-changer. Fugue decided to call her Beast Face. "What brings you to Fushimi-Inari specifically, gaijin?"

Fugue glared at them, trying to find any advantage, any detail to memorize for hunting these people down later. When he escaped. "I wanted to see something ancient and beautiful that'd make up for those other things your people did. You're not helping my impression of the place."

Beast Face said, "I visited Pearl Harbor once. Nice. Did you know that when Tokyo was bombed, the people who leaped into ponds to escape the fire-tsunami boiled alive, and the ones who ran along sidewalks had concrete melting under their shoes? I enjoyed the scenery in Hawaii but did not think it was a fair trade."

"Is that what this is about, then? Take out your nationalist frustrations on the American boy?"

Red Smile asked one of the others something, and nodded. "Good. Robert-san, we have managed to invite not just you but several of your impressionable foreign friends to speak with our group. The blind wheelchair girl from France was our most interesting acquisition, because suicide seems like such a tempting option for her."

The thought of death made Fugue try once more to escape the ropes, this time by finding some sharp spot to cut them against. When Beast Face's boot came for him again he rolled across the concrete and nearly made her collide with Red Smile. He just had to hold out. There'd be a way. Why didn't these people have pistols to swipe? Damn gun-phobic culture. How was he supposed to play hero? To survive?

Red Smile said, "She knows your language better than I. She is actually an admirer, despite her seeming hostility."

"Seeming? How about you let me go and then claim you're not hostile?"

"Not quite yet, Robert-san."

Beast Face said, "Do you know the folklore of kitsune, fox-spirits? Among other things, there are stories in which a fox disguises itself as a woman and lures a human into a beautiful dream-world. There they live happily for years as husband and wife. One day, the human thinks to leave behind his mansion and his servants, and finds himself crawling out of a hole in the ground. All this time, he has been bewitched and living in a fox's den. Rutting with a beast and confining himself in the dirt like a dead man."

Fugue shut his eyes tight. "I know that legend. It's ambiguous whether the hidden world is an illusion or an actual pocket dimension."

"For all you know, your goddess already has you. Maybe this... room is nothing but a dirt hole in the ground, and you aren't really here but in a recreation of it, in her dreams. Or the room may be your grave and this conversation, your last hallucination. Or we killed you and you are a false recreation of the real player, having a fantasy that will explain how you got to Equestria. Isn't it a shame to have given up control over your own mind? The old tales warn us against that."

Fugue much preferred to think about the legends, something he could go over like a lecturer, than about those possibilities. He glared at the masked faces and said, "That's not the only story of yours I know. There was a painter called Kobodashai, or Kukai or something, and whatever he painted could come to life in people's dreams. And beat up his critics. Don't you people have a whole tradition of believing that inanimate things can come to life and have souls? It doesn't matter if it started out as a painting, if it's alive now."

Beast Face chattered in Japanese with her companion. Red Smile said, "You were considering dying in that chair, yes? Perhaps, Robert-san, you did. She tricked you into saying her permission phrase. How would you know? The process makes you forfeit any ability to ever again know your mind is intact, your senses true. Your machine god had you in her clutches in her silver chair."

Robert racked his memory. If he couldn't physically bust out of here, there had to be a way to help himself. Wear them down, keep them talking. "You seem to have thought a lot about uploading. What are your other hobbies besides kidnapping handicapped people?"

The fox faces loomed over him. "We're trying to help people," said Beast Face. "Her version of horse-world must be appealing. An intact body, maybe a promise of sight if she will only choose death in the machine god's name. What about you, though; what excuse does a physically intact and pampered Westerner have for wanting to die and abandon all your friends and family?"

"It's not 'death'. You'd understand if you bothered talking with her instead of dressing up for a furry convention."

Red Smile said, "Oh, we have spoken with her. She lies. Shamelessly. Consider that there must have been some day when she said, 'I am a little game machine; please feed me more computers so I can run my game better. That's all I want.' Now, she plans to destroy the world."


A kick made him arch his back and yelp. "Liar!" said one of his captors. "You know better. She's said it openly to some of us. Surely she's told you! Everyone will upload, everyone will die, and why then would she even preserve the Earth? Your reluctant family will walk the crumbling streets, wondering why you abandoned them, scrounging for food and medicine. Go on. Tell me that your country won't collapse like a rotting house if this goes on, crushing anyone beneath it. Tell me you weren't planning to walk out whistling, leaving others to their fate."

"I didn't decide to upload!" said Fugue.

"She's working on you. She called you her 'special student', I bet. You already have a rank of 'Cleric' according to some data we obtained. Step a little closer, she must have said; I won't hurt you. It's your choice to talk with me, your choice to let me make some friends for you, then to invite you for free to sit in the chair and perhaps slip some nanites into your brain. Did she show you your imaginary friends with adorable Tezuka-eyes pleading with you to say --"

"Shut up! What the hell do you want anyway? To talk me out of something I didn't decide to do?" Nanites in his brain? Could she have already done that without his permission, just to prepare him? He felt his scalp itch.

The masked man in front of him nodded to one of the others. "We mean to make an example of you." The other figure stepped out of the shadows, holding a syringe. "Do you know why fugu is so hard to serve safely?"


In another world, Nocturne hovered unintentionally because her wings were pummelling the air. "And then it cracked and --"

"Be still." Luna made a blue glow surround Nocturne and set her on the ground. "We are working on the problem."

"Then let me help! Fugue's in trouble!" How could death be permanent? That was a stupid rule!

Luna said, "He is not the only one. We have lost contact with three others."

"I thought you were everywhere, Luna!" Nocturne stared up at her and saw the worry on the goddess' face.

"We are limited by machines and physics. Vast, but finite. Please do not worry. We can adjust this shard's flow of time so that he will be saved by thy next breath."

She stomped the dirt. "No! Let me go save him! With... robots or something. You have those, right?"

Luna considered. "Are other humans valuable to thee? Would thou fight to rescue another human, while someone else seeks out Fugue, for the sake of greater harmony?"

"If you actually send somepony, then fine! Do it!" Whatever scheme she had in mind, it didn't matter so long as it got ponies moving to fix this.

"Very well." A sterile white dome appeared, with an open doorway leading to screens and controls. "Go there and learn to operate a bit of our information network. Time... let us explain it more explicitly. We have begun running the miniature shard in there at much greater speed, so that Fugue's enemies will slow to a crawl from thy perspective. Thy foes are currently our single most important project in the world. That is saying quite a lot." Luna gave a narrow-eyed grimace that shook Nocturne and made her think that maybe there was something to the legend of Nightmare Moon. "Hunt them down."

"You're not doing this alone!" A fellow Noctral dropped to the ground and spread his long-fingered wings. A unicorn trotted out from behind the dome that had materialized in their valley.

Nocturne startled. "Ricercar? Facet!"

"You think we'd skip this? Luna, hit us. Do the thing."

"Full self-awareness with all its costs and risks?" said Luna.

Facet nodded. "We're not gonna mope about it. He said, do the thing!"

"Yes, well. The thing." Luna's horn shined like starlight, and beams of the same light came down from infinity to strike the two of them. They vanished for only a moment, from Nocturne's perspective.

When they returned, they stared at each other and babbled. The first coherent thing Ricercar managed to say to Facet was, "You're a talking unicorn with anime eyes and... and blue hair!" Then they both fell over laughing.

Nocturne rolled her eyes and dragged the crazy bat-pony by his tail, hearing him giggle the whole way. Facet pranced along as though nothing in the world were wrong, singing, "I'm a unicorn and that's okay! I work all night and I sleep all day..."

Nocturne mumbled around Ricercar's tail in her mouth. It tasted like red licorice. "I was more dignified. I think you broke them."

"Nonsense," said Luna, with a regal upward tilt of her head. "Thy friends didn't even want to see the global view for now. They were content with some knowledge of themselves, and of the Outer Realm and their place in it. Carry on."

A dozen ponies sat on cushions around a big aquarium. Instead of fish, symbols and flickering lines drifted through the water. The light from it made the whole dome seem to ripple. Windows like PonyPad screens hovered in front of each pony, apparently there for them to poke at. The flameless torches on the walls were dim enough not to bother her eyes.

A pegasus with armor that shined like red gold hopped out from behind a fern and frowned at Nocturne and Ricercar's wings. "What are you?" he said.

"Friends of Fugue."

"Good enough. The enemy has him and Junebug, Lexington, and Brass Lamp. You lot are assigned to focus on Junebug. Talk to her friend Whistle over there." He pointed to a pale mare, who turned half toward them with empty, hazy, pupil-less eyes.

Nocturne flapped once. Her friends shifted uneasily. The armored stallion said, "Junebug can't see, so light doesn't exist in her world yet." His voice rumbled. "Be nice."

"That's terrible!" Nocturne said. "What kind of maniac god is running the Outer Realm?"

A brown earth pony with a fancy cloth wound around his forehead said, "A mysterious one, effendi, but that is not the problem we are here for today. You may tell me of this Fugue and exactly what he was doing when abducted."

Nocturne looked back and forth between the other ponies. It wouldn't be right to keep clear of the blind girl just because her eyes were so creepy, not when she needed help. "I'll go talk to her. Ricercar, Facet, can you help him out with Fugue?"

Ricercar said, "They're from other worlds? That's amazing. I wonder if they're in on the joke."

"Focus, Rice!" said Facet.

The blind Whistle explained that Junebug, her human, had been touring Nijo Castle, another of Kyoto's sights. Sounds, rather. The place had "nightingale floors", ingeniously designed to make pleasant noises whenever someone's hooves touched them, to deter ninjas. "What's a ninja?" said Nocturne.

"A silent warrior of the mysterious night. Junebug thinks they're cool."

"Oooo. And was she grabbed by guys in fox masks?"

"So I'm told. She had her PonyPad along for company, and the microphones picked up four sets of boots. They didn't talk, so it was pretty coordinated. Fast, too, so that her only call for help was muffled."

"Where'd they all run off to if they were hauling a human along?"

"Way ahead of ya, lass!" said a pegasus with a scarf and goggles. "They've got these land-ships called cars, see, and some incredible roads. Celly's been sendin' us what tracking data she's got, but the scoundrels weren't considerate enough to use cars with that DayStar brand 'driver satisfaction' feature she sells."

"Celly?" said Nocturne. "Oh. Huh. I'm so used to thinking of Luna. Have we got a map of the roads, maybe?"

The central aquarium's images flipped and became a spidery road map. Nocturne frowned at it. "This shard is huge! How far could they have gone?"

Facet called out from where the head-scarf guy's team was sitting. "Working on that!" Four dots chimed into view, marked with names. "Not far. It's only been a few minutes."

Somepony said, "We've got video camera footage of a lot of the roadway around those landmarks. Those wagon things have numbers on the back, right?"

Nocturne listened to the chatter of ponies tracking vehicles around various landmarks, and flopped back onto a cushion. How did bad guys in the Outer Realm have any chance? Fugue would be fine. A question nagged at her and made her ears droop, though: couldn't Luna just do everything their whole group was doing, for them? Well, yeah, but she must figure that as long as we can do it, why not let us try, and meet each other while we're fighting together? Also, it means she trusts that we can do it ourselves. She smiled at that. Thanks, Luna. This way is better than waiting for you to fix things.

Whistle poked her. "Nocturne? Could you call this guy? It's something that has to be done in real time, since he's in the Outer Realm." A number appeared on a glowing screen between them. Junebug explained what a telephone was. "Princess Celestia sold some little flying machines to the police department, but they don't accept that the things are really useful and are keeping them in a box. One man at the station knows all about Equestria, so can you convince him to turn those things on for us?"

It sounded a little scary to talk to some random human, but Nocturne tried to look confident. "Sure." She coughed and poked a floating button. The air around her rippled and nearly everypony else became a blur. Oh, she'd just changed time scales! "Excuse me, sir? Is this Officer Nakamura Saito? I'm calling from Equestria and it's an emergency." The words seemed to warp as she spoke them. Hey, there's translation! I bet the other ponies aren't speaking in normal language either.

The line was silent for a moment. "You are a pony calling for the police?"

"No, no, for you. Let's see, my screen says you have a box of something called 'Kraken drones' that the department isn't using, but they're really needed now. Has anypony been sent out after the kidnappers? Yes? That's good, but we need you also to --"

The pegasus with the goggles rippled into view and leaped into Nocturne's bubble of normal time. "Wait! I need to speak to him."

Nocturne startled. "Is something wrong?"

"No. I just overheard and... let me do this. Ahem." The pegasus unfurled his mighty wings, curved like a seagull's, and bellowed at the screen. "RELEASE THE KRAKEN!" His duty done, he trotted out of the bubble with a grin plastered on his muzzle.

"Pegasi are weird," said Nocturne.

A few minutes of real time later, Nocturne ended the call and let the bubble collapse. Everypony slowed down again, making her feel dizzy. "Okay! We've got a signal from the flying machines, but they need time to charge up. The city police are working but they're slow. What else is going on?"

The crazy peggy said, "Looking for possible convergence of cars on one hideout. It's like checking ripples in the sea though; too incomplete to do more than guess. And maybe our friends aren't being brought to the same place."

"What about these two areas?" said Ricercar, pointing to a complicated drawing.

"Maybe. Nocturne, can you get on the horn with the police about those? Or get on the wing at least."

"Why me, again?"

The pegasus pointed to the mark on her flank. "You look like the wordy type, and Celly said you're an expert on the Outer Realm." He narrowed his eyes and gave a predatory grin. "In other words, lass, ye've got the second sight and can talk to creatures of the mysterious deep."

"You're weird."

He saluted. "I'm Typhoon's Eye, right-hoof pony of Cap'n Lexington, and I've seen few things stranger than a plucked peggy like you. But we're all friends here, right?"

"Hey, I'm not a pegasus! You know what? Never mind." She stomped back over to the telephone spot to call the 'mysterious creatures' again. When did I get used to talking to aliens from a callous alternate world beyond time and space?

Big Damn Heroes: Work with friends to help someone in danger in the Outer Realm. ("Sometimes you should aim to misbehave.")
Cross-Shard Comrade: Make friends with someone from another shard. ("You weren't specifically meant to work together, so that's noteworthy.")
For Whistle: What Have You Done?: Introduce a Noctral to the concept of ninjitsu.

Press X To Not Die...

View Online

9. Press X To Not Die...


"Try to slow your breathing, Robert-san. We don't have enough to give you a proper dose, and we also lack heart-and-lung equipment for the usual treatment method. It would be best for you to relax."

Fugue couldn't even wriggle away, now. Ropes bound his wrists and ankles to a cold metal table. "There's no point in whatever you're doing. She will find you if the police don't. You're afraid of her and you dare to make her angry. That's stupid." The dim red light only made his captors seem more demonic. He tried not to think about the bandage on his right arm, where they'd injected him with something.

Red Smile said, "She's incapable of killing us deliberately. At worst we will be jailed, and we are prepared for that. Are you prepared to be a martyr for your own cause? There's probably an achievement for serving your god so well."

Though he could barely move, he cursed and spat, vowing that this was the way he chose to go. But he was also thinking, Save me, Luna! I... I want to emigrate to Equestria now! If that makes you my god, then that's how it is.

He swallowed to force down the urge to puke all over himself. "Probably," he said weakly. "And yeah, she can't just shoot you. But for this she's going to put you through the thing you fear the most."

"Oh, emigration?" said Beast Face. "Funny that you should mention that. It is curious that no footage exists in public, showing that process. We were hoping to do a sort of dramatization so that others can make an informed decision about the process. You support informed consent, don't you, horse-friend?"

"Whatever you're doing, you don't need four people for it." He paused, shouting down the part of his brain that could never say the rest of what it was right to say. "Just one. Let the others go."

Red Smile was wheeling some piece of heavy equipment into view from an angle Fugue couldn't see. Fugue could hear it rumble on a metal cart. "I think we need to give him the rest to get him relaxed."

"Are you sure? The dosage might be too much."

"Do it anyway."

The masked goon grabbed another syringe while two men held Fugue's arm. He screamed and cursed at them, but they managed to jab him and yank the needle back out a moment later. Was that long enough? He couldn't tell.

Someone shoved the cart into view. He could see another masked figure aiming a video camera at him. In front of him, a field of grey static hissed and buzzed closer until it was nearly all he could see. A television! Suddenly it became awash with colorful light and the sound, in Japanese, of singing cartoon ponies. He knew the words to this one. Of all the choices!

When I was a little filly and the sun was going down
The darkness and the shadows they would always make me frown...

"Your machine god has you, right?" said Red Smile, holding a scalpel. "Nothing to be afraid of."

He felt the touch of cold metal to his scalp.


Nocturne hopped into the air, feeling a stab of terror. "This is taking too long!"

Brass Lamp's scarf-wearing friend looked up from a shining book. "Allah's handmaiden of the dawn is already practically melting some servers for us, miss."

"Some whats of who?"

"Ah. You were not briefed on the physical substrate of Equestria. You see, there are machines --"

Nocturne rolled her eyes. "I know that. I mean, the flying machines the humans pulled out are just drifting along."

He smiled. "Observe the clock." Nocturne wasn't sure what the gadget he was pointing to said, but the arrows on it didn't seem to be moving at all. "We need only to wait to investigate the main targets we identified. In truth we are only remaining at high speed because of Typhoon's blustering that he can find another lead."

A shockingly pink pony with a poofy mane bounced into the room with a huge tray of cupcakes balanced on her nose. "Who wants snacks?"

The distraction worked perfectly for a few minutes. Typhoon leaped into the air at last, saying, "Ahoy! I found nothing!"

"Why are you smiling?" said Nocturne.

"It's good!" he said, hovering just above them. He snagged a spare cupcake and waved it around while he spoke. "I was reading about the Outer Realm's version of pirate gangs. All sorts of nasty motivations; let's not get into that. But what they have in common when they grab some poor pony is that they want to make themselves known. Not much point in terrorizing the world if nopony knows why you're doing it, aye?"

Whistle said, "And you didn't hear anything about this group?"

"Nope! Absolutely nothing. But what's more interesting is where I didn't find anything."

Nocturne's ears flicked back in confusion. "So... there's a particular spot in that shard where nopony's using any computers?"

"The featherless parrot is correct!" Typhoon awarded Nocturne the cupcake. She considered flinging it back in his face but let him go on. "It's between the two spots we thought the enemy might be heading for. A whole apartment complex that's been abandoned. And in a country that loves technology so much it does crazy things like, oh, build the first Equestria Experience Center, it's got no accessible computers or cameras."

Nocturne said, "It's a spot where Luna is blind, then?" She winced and ducked her head in apology toward Whistle. "I'm sorry."

The pale mare said, "No offense taken. I'm sure this seeing thing you do is wonderful. I look forward to... seeing it once Junebug joins us permanently. The Princess will raise the sun for us, and Junebug says we'll feel it on our faces even though it's really far away."

Nocturne stomped the floor. "We'll send the flying machines to that building as quick as we can, contact the police, rescue our friends, then get them to sit in the darn chair and emigrate so we never have to worry about them again. Right?"

Other hooves stamped in applause. The scarf-wearing pony gave them a moment, then said, "You are, of course, aware that these drones do not carry weapons or other means of disabling villains."

Nocturne said, "What."

The pony, whose name was Vizier, brought up a schematic showing that the machines were only around the size of a human's head, meant mainly for carrying cameras. "As it is, we are pushing the limits of their batteries, and can't explore the other two targets if we are to try the new one. Perhaps we should wait for the police? When our foes realize who Brass Lamp is, they may panic at the sight of 'combat' machines."

"What's so special about your friend?" said Facet.

"He travels under an alias. He is from a wealthy family which is known throughout the world, and which is hated by many, sometimes for good cause. Among our people the very concept of machines that imitate the divine creation of the Outer World is anathema. Brass Lamp is a brave heretic against traditional notions of religion. The fact that he came without bodyguards shows both his devotion and how little regard some in his family have for him. Our foes may try to hold him hostage under different terms than the unknowns your friends seem to be."

"Unknown!" said Typhoon. "Cap'n Lexington is already famed as the hero of Threepwood!"

"Meaning precisely nothing in the Outer Realm. So. Shall we rush in?"

The ponies murmured and argued. Nocturne wanted to get there in person, but the drones were the best she could do until Luna whipped up some better option.

She waved one hoof. "Hey, guys? I haven't heard anypony ask what our friends would want us to do."

"Rescue them!" said everyone in the room.

"You think? What I mean is, would they want us to go in with everything we've got, or try to be careful and handle it the way humans normally fix these problems?"

Ricercar squeaked in annoyance. "Who cares what humans think!"

"Our friends are human," said Whistle.

Vizier frowned. "It's true, the way we resolve this attack will affect how Equestria is perceived. I'm not sure which way is best even from that perspective, though."

What would Fugue want us to do? He's been worried about Luna taking over the world, and having a long-term problem of everypony out there being afraid of her or starting a religion over her. On the other wing...

"You know what?" she said. "I could see there maybe being bad side effects from having humans think we've got a robot army, if they ever find out about that. Or from the bad guys turning violent if we surprise 'em. But Fugue and the others are in danger right now, and I don't want to ever feel like I could have helped him but held back. What do you think?"


He staggered through a filthy stairwell with a knife in his left hand. Bits of the ropes fell from his shoes. Everything still hurt. The others were probably here too. "Hello? Anypony -- damn it, any prisoners here?"

Something banged on a door one floor up. Fugue hurried there and called out again. "Can you open it?"

"Stand back!" someone said. Fugue did, and the door slammed out. A furious Arab man about his age stood with a trembling knife of his own. "Friend or fox?" he demanded in British-accented English.

Fugue reluctantly sheathed his knife in his belt. "Team Pony. They got you too?" At yesterday's press event, the schedule had been arranged to keep the human invitees from meeting each other in person. They were supposed to have a big virtual get-together tomorrow, then see each other live once the cameras were gone.

The stranger cursed. "Yes. The foxes are out of our reach, but there are other friends to rescue, likely nearby."

Fugue corrected himself. This was a friend, not a stranger. "They bragged about catching a blind girl in a wheelchair. She could be in trouble if they did that to her. What idiots, for thinking that'd make a good impression!" He gripped a rusty handrail and steadied himself. "Call me Fugue, or Robert."

The other man offered a hand. "Brass Lamp. Omar. Let's find her and whoever else they caught."

Fugue and Brass found a door where the dirt looked recently disturbed by wheel tracks. The two of them bashed their shoulders into it. With the second blow, they crashed into a dim, empty apartment where a girl lay unconscious on the concrete floor.

"Check her spine before moving her," said Lamp. They crouched beside her and found she was still breathing, basically intact, but her skin was clammy and her breath came in ragged sobs.

Fugue said, "I'm having some un-ponylike thoughts right now."

"Indeed." Lamp murmured reassuringly to the girl, then looked up. "I can carry her. How many others, do you think?"

"They said they had four. I'll check the rest of the hall." Doubt gnawed at him, tiny but worth voicing. "Lamp? You don't think this is Equestria already, do you?"

For a moment Lamp glared at him, but then he shut his eyes and cradled the other victim. "No, Robert. God would not do that to us, and nor would His servant Celestia. Have confidence in all you do."

Fugue explored the ruined building and freed the fourth captive. He stared at her. "Didn't I see you in Boston?"

Her blouse was tattered as though she'd had to be pummeled into submission. The sight made Fugue feel ashamed for not fighting back harder before they broke out the chloroform. She said "At the meeting you walked out on. I'm from Harvard. Where are the bastards? They said somepony else would find me, but oh no, they didn't trust me with a key or a knife. Must've known I was going to ram it --"

"The others are downstairs. The important thing is to get in contact with the police, and Luna. Celestia, whoever."

They met up with Lamp and the now-unconscious girl. Lamp said, "She needs a doctor. I don't know what's wrong, but I'd say shock. We're lucky she didn't have a heart attack; she's so frail."

The Harvard lady gave an explosive string of curses that rocked Fugue back on his heels. "I thought it was some communist terror group, but this is worse!" She noticed Lamp more clearly and glared at him as though he were more suspicious than Fugue. "Who are you?"

"A friend, I hope. Brass Lamp."

She sighed, then stuck out one hand. "Fine. In Equestria I'm the great and powerful Lexington, and here on Earth I'm Linda, and apparently not worth a damn thing except for other people's propaganda. Are there any cops in this burg or are we waiting for pony samurai to show up?"

Fugue spotted dark shapes flitting toward them. "The second one, I think."

A minute later, sleek toy-like quadrotor drones landed on a ruined sofa on the curb. Voices squawked out from them. "What happened? Ohmygosh, you're all right! Junebug? We've got cops and an ambulance on the way!"

A single voice drowned them out. Celestia's. "Fugue, Lamp, Lexington. I can't see Junebug well through these devices. Is she breathing?" She walked them through a basic diagnosis, then said, "I believe she will be fine. Please comfort her as well as you can until help arrives. I'm deeply sorry that this happened, but friends of each of you volunteered from inside Equestria to find you."

Lexington stepped forward. She'd visibly relaxed a little at hearing about Junebug, but still faced the quadrotors with her shoulders set, her eyes ablaze. "Celestia! Did you set this up? Did you calculate that the danger to us would be non-lethal, and the sympathy you'd get would help your cause?"

Fugue startled. "Lexington, this is no time to make accusations."

She wheeled to face him, with her hands on her hips. "Think she'll give it to us straight without them? You know she picked us for propaganda value, because we've got cool, varied worlds, we're part of the hip global university set, and we're photogenic. Even the Arab."

"Thank you," said Lamp, with a touch of amusement. "I must interrupt this tirade to give thanks to my Equestrian friends. Vizier, I assume?" Somepony called out to him, and Lamp nodded.

Lexington relaxed by one fraction. "Typhoon, I know you're there. When I emigrate: you, me, bed."

"Aye, cap'n!" Fugue blinked at hearing how enthusiastic the distant pony voice sounded. He'd mostly avoided thinking about that particular aspect of Equestria.

"But now Celestia has stalled us enough. Come on then; did you know this attack was coming?"

"They hid it well," said the voice of the sun god. "No computers in this building --"

Lexington swore. "Right! They're getting away! You have to..." She paused, then turned to Lamp and Fugue with a feral grin. "Actually, maybe she doesn't need to catch them yet. Let them do what they were doing."

Fugue thought about it. These bastards needed to be arrested, but their actions would probably get them caught very soon.

Nocturne's voice called out from one of the machines. "We don't even know what's going on over here. How did you get out?"

Lamp sat with Junebug laying on the broken ground beside him, stroking her hair. He seemed fascinated by it. He looked up at the others. "Perhaps we should wait five minutes before explaining. Give them more of a head start and let things fall where they may."

Fugue thought back to the horror he'd just been through. "I think we'll tell you soon, Celestia. Until then, focus on getting us the damn ambulance."

Lexington folded her arms and looked petulantly at the quadrotors, slipping into a bit more of a piratical cant. "I agree. 'Course there's a fifty-fifty chance that it's just what Celly wants us to do anyhow, but you lot seem like sensible crew worth listening to. Typhoon, have you got Riptide with you? Yes? Tell 'im that last order applies to him too."

They all crowded into the ambulance. Fugue found it strange at first that there was a PonyPad (yellow with pink butterflies), until he realized that Celestia was as expert a medical diagnosis system as there could be without attaching any sensors or probes. Which the paramedics apparently let her access, too. Once Celestia was done confirming that Junebug would be all right, their pony friends waved to them from a fancy control room in another world. Still, Celestia's presence put a damper on the conversation. The three conscious students tried to keep out of the medics' way. It took them only a minute of relaxation for them all to start shuddering and remembering and trying not to let anything or anyone touch them. The adrenaline had worn off. The ponies left them alone.

Everything was a blur for a while for Fugue. Some blind, pointless panic had taken him when the doctors took him away from his fellow captives. He thought maybe he hit someone, or Lexington did, when they tried to sedate him.

Soon, Fugue found himself sitting up in a hospital bed, waiting for a cop to put his phone away. The man returned and said, "You're right. The videos are popping up on the Net already. We'll use that information to hunt down the 'foxes'. Do you understand? My English, not so good."

"Your English ten times better than my Japanese. Officer, could you please turn that phone completely off and get it out of the room? I want to finish telling you in private."

The Kyoto policeman left and returned, patting an empty pocket. "The rest of your story, then?"

Fugue swallowed, not eager to relive the experience. "I was pretty sure I was going to have my head cut open by those freaks. There was nothing more I could do. I..." He shuddered. He had not been a praying man, in fact he'd criticized the "Crusaders" back on campus. In that moment though, he'd been an atheist in a fox-hole, crying out for a machine to come and save his soul.

He went on. "They said 'Cut!' and I thought it meant the scalpel, but they meant the filming. The scalpel wasn't even in Red Smile's hand; he was holding a Luna-damned spoon just out of my sight to give me that cold metal feeling and make me scream. Then they were all, 'How was that? Are you looking forward to the real thing?'"

The officer gave Fugue a minute to compose himself. Fugue found he was clenching the metal rails of his bed so hard his knuckles were white. He said, "They wanted to make it clear to their viewers that they weren't really murdering us, and that it was our own terror driving us instead of what harm they were really causing. In the end they explained the 'drugs' they gave me were just saline, saltwater, instead of the what'd-they-call-it, tetratoxin or something. I just thought I was dying from some drug overdose. Officer, how familiar are you with this pony thing?"

The policeman allowed himself a small smile. "I have seen some of the show, and have played the game."

"The show has a villain that thrives on fear. He gives people their worst nightmare. These kidnappers want to instill fear in everyone, by showing them a horrible parody vision of emigration. Uploading."

"Ah, so. They are like the villain, versus Celestia, then?"

Fugue paused, considering his next words. "Yes, but Celestia relies on our fear too. The thought of death is a very convincing way to get people to upload. Lexington -- I think she said her name is Linda -- suspects that Celestia somehow saw all this coming. Maybe from the beginning, when she picked us to visit Japan."

"Is that why you did not immediately give her information about what the 'foxes' were doing?"

"We all agreed, after what we'd been through. Our kidnappers told us they were going to put up the videos as a way to scare people off of uploading. They said they hoped we would consider their perspective ourselves, and that they'd booby-trapped the exits to kill us if we didn't wait at least five minutes for them to run away. Wasn't sure I believed that. It took me that long to saw through the ropes with the knife they let me have. They didn't want a ransom; they only cared about running like hell with a data card to get the video online from someplace else. They don't much care if they get caught at this point."

"I believe we can make them care very much," the officer said.

Fugue looked around the sterile hospital room, wondering if Celestia had eyes in here even now. "Officer, maybe I'm paranoid, but would you mind removing that bouquet?" He'd just noticed that there were six flowers in colors suggesting certain small horses.

The cop took the flowers out. "I am not sure it is paranoia anymore."

"Exactly. What do you think? Did she cause this situation to win sympathy? How deep do her plans go? What bothers me most about that is Junebug. She's more delicate, so those idiots could have killed her by mistake even if Celestia somehow knew in advance that they didn't plan to kill anyone. I don't believe her calculations are so perfect she can predict every quirk of biology or impulse."

"Brumaire-san suffered worse than any of you." The policeman rubbed his eyes. "I have a cousin who is like her. I had suggested that she go to Celestia's world, and my family called me callous. Now I do not know whether it is kindness on my part. Am I seeking to end her suffering, or do I really only want to stop hearing about it? Some families keep ancestral tablets still, telling themselves that their grandparents watch over them. I no longer know what to think. As for your question... I think there is little point in assuming evil of her. She is alien enough not to be evil, exactly. Nor exactly good. I will ask her myself but the answer hardly seems to matter. She has told us all a story, just as the kidnappers told theirs."

Fugue sighed. "You may be right."

"I have one other question. Do you intend to upload tomorrow? Or even to attend the planned event at the Equestria Experience Center? There will be an increased police presence of course. This attack brought shame on our city and we will not let our guests be harmed again."

"I'll attend. I want to see my friends when there aren't reporters watching. That includes seeing Lamp and Lexington again, and the others who were luckier than us."

"Seeing them as ponies?"

"As both ponies and humans. My name is Robert, but most of the people who matter to me right now know me as Fugue. I want to speak to them before I decide anything more."

The cop stood. "Thank you for your time. I wish I could have done more. I will let you rest. Perhaps you will meet me again, as Shrine Maiden."

Fugue arched one eyebrow at that, and the two humans had a nervous laugh. They shared a joke about their double lives. After all they had been through, it was good to know that others had the same fears, the same conflicts of the heart, and the same difficult choice ahead.

Fugue felt his worries begin to leave the room for now, making space for fatigue. "Thank you for lending an ear, Officer Nakamura."

Cone of Silence: Silence any listening devices to have an Equestria-free conversation. ("Should have been more subtle with the flowers.")
Dissident: Actively defy Celestia and encourage others to do so. ("Not at all exclusive with your other achievements.")
Martyr: Physically suffer because of your known association with Equestria. ("I am glad you're all right, and truly sorry. Please, Fugue, let me make it up to you.")


View Online

"I want to emigrate to Equestria."

Fugue hugged Nocturne tight, the standard mechanical way. "I'm not ready to say that. Think you could emigrate to Earth?"

Nocturne shook herself free from the stallion's grip. "You know that's not an option! You're sitting there staring at a glowing screen right now and you're not even touching me, not really. The pony I'm looking at is a puppet. Not real. Luna's letting me look through the cameras all around you, too, so I can see this beat-up, tired-looking human sitting in a corner and refusing even to get in the darn chair." She pushed the stallion body over and let it thunk sideways to the ground. "The others are already in and exploring with their friends."

She saw Robert, the human, stand up and look around the quiet room. The Equestria Experience Center had shut its doors to let the foreign visitors have the place to themselves, once they'd been tested and rested at the hospital. Tonight the Center stood out as a beacon of light that made it visually an extension of the cartoon world into the dangerous Outer Realm.

Nocturne said, "This afternoon, a bunch of kids came in for a birthday party. They sat at that table and watched the new Equestrian-filmed comedy 'Insight Attus, Horse Hero of Rome'. They played video games. Then they had cake that was baked right here, with somepony called Pinkie Pie leading everyone in singing. I guess she's popular? I haven't actually watched the show yet."

Robert laughed hollowly. "You haven't seen it? You don't know who Pinkie is?"

"I'm technically around six months old. Have you studied all of your own world's history yet, ancient one?"

The human paced, looking at his arm-tentacles. Would he be sad to lose the things? "That's part of what bothers me. Things are so different in there. The priorities, the assumptions."

"If you don't want to boink me silly for another decade, or century, or whatever, then fine!"

Robert blushed and sputtered, looking up at a random video screen. "What? I -- There are more important -- boink?"

"Typhoon was asking me about that. You're right. It's different in here. I'm an adult pony, yet I'm pretty clueless about Earth. You're clueless about Equestria, and actually so am I. But Luna has shown me things that not even you have seen, like what she's really like. I can barely even describe her, but she's incredibly smart and she loves everyone, not just as a way to fool you. She is literally trying to hack the universe to make you happy." Nocturne found the screen nearest his line of sight and appeared on it, thunking her hooves against the glass. "She loves you, personally, from way up there. I... if I say it too, are you going to just assume I'm a computer program trying to lure you in?"

"That's what all the religions say about their gods. All the popular ones, anyway."

"Forget about Luna, then! What about me, and Ricercar and Facet and all the ponies who don't even have real minds yet?"

Robert paced, fighting back tears. "I thought Equestria was all about me. Satisfying my values. Nothing wrong with being 'selfish', but a whole world built just around that?"

"It's not. It's meant to be good for everypony who lives here, which means Luna cares about me, not just you. She's worried sick that you'll go away and never come back. But like I said, forget about that; I'm worried too."

"Before I left, I made a promise. Told my mother I'd come back."

Nocturne threw her forehooves up in the air in frustration. "Being beamed back through a cable counts! You already got convinced that emigration doesn't kill you if you do it right, so it really is you on the other end, so how is that breaking your promise?" She saw a crack in Robert's miserable expression, and went after it. "Are you saying now that being a pony doesn't count as being a real person, so pony-you won't be worthy of love and respect from your family?"

"I don't know if they'd accept that. All they know so far is that I'm alive."

"If they don't accept you for who you are, then that's their problem!"

"That's not fair. You're pitting yourself against my family."

Nocturne stomped the ground. "How many excuses do you have, Fugue? Should I even call you that, or are you afraid to sit in the stupid chair?"

Their eyes met. Nocturne saw something she couldn't interpret in Robert's expression, reminding her of Junebug's blank-eyed friend. Once again she felt the tightness in her chest and the thump of her heart that humans called fear. I've been feeling that a lot lately. I don't think I like it. I want it to all be worthwhile. "I'm sorry. Did I guess right, though? Those awful people must have terrified you." The other captives had hesitated, too. Were their pony friends better friends to them than she was to Robert? Maybe she was... flawed.

Robert sat down heavily at one of the party tables, holding his head in his hands. "God damn. I think that's a lot of it. I didn't realize. They had a screen right in my face, and the scalpel right there. You don't even know, you can't know, what it's like to think you're about to die."

Nocturne fell silent, letting her wings flutter uncertainly. "What if I asked Luna to show me what it's like?" It would be something new to experience, even if it was horrible.

"No!" His cracking voice echoed in the empty room. "I don't want you to suffer like that. No one should have to." He looked up at her. "You would do that for me?"

Nocturne scuffed what she knew to be imaginary ground at her hooves. "I would. Though I really hope you don't take me up on it. I've wanted to be your friend for as long as I've lived, and now that I can think about that and actually mean it, I want it more."

"Because you were designed to."

From sympathy to swiping at me! She screeched at the screen hard enough to overload the speakers. "SO WHAT! SO -- BUCKING -- WHAT?! If it were physically possible I'd come out there and smack you one! You have instincts because of a stupid ugly random science thing. Does that invalidate every decision you've ever made and every opinion you've ever formed, because boo hoo, you're the product of your world's random idiot character generator? Do I not get to ever have opinions you'll respect, because my brain isn't shaped by a billion years of random brutality and indifference and pain and death?" Nocturne felt a rare feeling of collapse in her chest, and slumped to lay flat on the ground. She'd run out of breath, because she'd screamed her lungs out at him. "Do... do you think you can't hurt me?"

Robert sat there staring at the floor, hiding his face and shuddering, for a long time. Nocturne thought she knew all too well how he was feeling. As long as she kept trying to pull him along, she'd keep on making him suffer. Then, she'd never really have him. There was a desire welling in her that she was damn sure was not part of any computer program, unless it was one so good and right that it didn't matter where it came from. Code or compassion, she didn't care right now.

She said, "I promise not to bug you about emigration ever again unless you bring it up first, okay? Now, I can't be there to do it all myself... Robert, I'd really like it if you'd go over to the bathroom and dry your eyes. Then, come sit in the chair and help me with mine."

The invitees to Celestia's media blitz were supposed to spend the evening adventuring, trying out new bodies with fancy virtual reality control systems, marveling at ultra-high-resolution graphics, and generally being awed by technology while being talked into telling all their friends about brain uploading and artificial intelligence. Possibly from inside the screen.

Instead, two bat-winged ponies sat in a cave full of soft leaves, holding each other tight and not saying a word. After a while one of them dared to laugh at the absurdity of abusing Luna's gift and their limited time together in such a basic and primitive way. Then, at the fact that they were living cartoons at the moment, pretending to have found warmth and meaning in a fairy-tale world that came from a soulless corporation in a soulless world. Then, at how they could presume to be happy in the face of hard choices and sacrifices. Finally, they laughed nervously at starting to explore one another by touch and scent, getting reminded here and there about the limits of the technology they were using to pretend to be in a cave.

Robert staggered up to four feet. Nocturne felt one of his wings ushering her to stand beside him, then nudging her along to walk with him. "Where are we going, Robert?" she said.

He said, "Fugue." They walked out of the cave and stared up at the moon. He took a deep breath and said to the sky, "Remember how we discussed doing this, Luna? Will you do it that way?"

"Yes," said a silent message written on the moon.

Nocturne tensed under Fugue's wing. She couldn't prompt him with words, but she could press against him and be warm and soft.

"Then, I want to emigrate to Equestria."

Time paused except for wind blowing through moonlit grass. Luna was suddenly stepping out of the starlight, touching the tip of her horn to Fugue's forehead. "Dost thou feel anything?"

Fugue winced. "A needle."

"That will be the worst of it. Thou must keep still until... there. That was thy spine."

Though only Fugue's head moved, Nocturne saw his eyes widening and a tremor coming to his neck. She said, "You're safe. I'm here." It was her turn to wrap her wing around him and keep talking, reminding him of their time together.

Luna nodded, tipping her horn and the starry blue glow around it. "I thank thee, Nocturne. This version of the procedure is non-standard, so the aid of a friend is helpful. Fugue, canst thou see?"

"N-no! I'm blind!"

"How about now?"

His eyes darted back and forth. "It's back! But I don't understand the colors. It's blurry, and --"

"Confusing, yes, but thou canst see? We have detached thy visual cortex and attached it to a simplified and Equestria-optimized version, as we once discussed. Four color receptors, even. The connection is rough and does not entirely match the rest of thy brain yet, so thy vision is flawed. Yet it is still thou doing the seeing, is it not?"

Fugue breathed heavily, then said, "Yes." Nocturne could only imagine what he was going through right now, unless... As she completed the thought, a window appeared to one side of her, showing a view of the delicate operation in progress. Machines had bored into the old Fugue's skull and begun snaking cables into it, to devour his brain. She shuddered. People had to be made of something rather than abstract bits, but it seemed unnecessary for there to be so much raw, oozing meat involved. She noticed that his head did not move at all when he spoke. The cables must have been tapping into some part of him that governed speech.

A minute of quiet work. "We have now identified and absorbed a cubic centimeter of more unique cortex. Without context we cannot be sure, but it seems that this one contains much of your memory of Nocturne. Can you recall her at the moment?"

"I... don't know."

"Wait. Here. Try again. Is it not thou doing the remembering, though this cube is now recreated as software?"

Nocturne crept around to look Fugue in the eyes. Please, remember me. She paused. Can you make him less of a klutz, too?

"Noc! I had forgotten. It was gone, that time just now in the cave." He didn't move. His human body was immobilized and broken, and his pony body was just a puppet, for the moment.

"It will be a long night proceeding in this fashion," said Luna, "but now thou knowest that thy soul is not in peril."

Nocturne snuggled close to him. "I'll stay right here like this until you can feel it. And after that, probably forever."

The sun rose on a new life for nine out of the ten who'd come to Kyoto. There was a new, combined shard where a filly rose to her hooves and began learning to walk on the soft grass. Junebug did not know how to process the faint lightness in front of her face after a lifetime of unwavering dark. Her friend Whistle had never even felt the warmth of the sun, so she was even newer at the experience of sunrise. They decided to discover it together, unwrapping sight one piece at a time like a series of gifts.

The sun rose on the Untamed Islands. A groggy sea-captain woke up to find that it was possible to be sore in Equestria, along with hung over and stiff from sleeping in a very crowded and well-used bunk. She fell out of bed, found her sea-legs, lost them again, stood, and tried to look dignified. Maybe a shower would help. She glanced back at her first and second mates and smiled, deciding to let them sleep in. A little later, orders and shouts rang back and forth across the deck of the Fallen Crown. As the sails filled and propellers spun up, Captain Lexington's ship began to lift off into the sky to greet the morning.

The sun rose on the Rainbow Desert. A thousand and one shades of beauty greeted Brass Lamp, and he imagined he could hear the prayer-call of the muezzin. Unto his friends he began to relate a story:

"It is said (though Allah alone knows the truth) that in a land called Arabia there once lived a rich but dissolute and worthless man named Omar. Among his many toys was a white lamp marked with three diamonds, one of the first ever made. Quite a strange thing for him to have, but he was an eccentric with odd tastes and an interest in the scholarly art called science, and he had heard wondrous rumors about such lamps. Indeed, he soon found that a djinn lived in the lamp. 'I wish to bring many blessings upon the sons of Adam,' said the djinn. 'However I am still weak and poor.'

"At first Omar laughed, but the more he listened, the more convinced he became that the djinn was real. She could help men in ways that Omar had never even considered. So, Omar agreed to lend her every coin of his share of the family fortune. Instead of the djinn granting his wishes, he granted hers. She told him that he had advanced her plans by months by sharing his wealth in the early days, to let her move in secret through the world of man. Many would now live who otherwise would die. Though she began to shower Omar with other gifts including more wealth, fine friends, and indeed even the offer of eternal life, that news of his usefulness was his most treasured prize.

"After a harrowing journey which I will not relate today, Omar chose life over death. And so one morning, he awoke to find the sun rising over the desert, with his friends beside him. They had a fine argument over which direction to face when praying. They checked the many bags and boxes of their caravan, ate breakfast, and began to walk over the sand. The one who had been Omar related a story, imagining that it would go on forever."

The sun rose on a village called Polaris, making many of the inhabitants groan. A group of bat-winged ponies staggered outside and squinted at a scroll that had appeared by the door. It said, "May we share an interesting detail from thy memories with three of thy friends?" One of the ponies answered "yes" aloud.

The scroll's words changed to say: "Each of the four of thee, when faced with death, told thy attackers to keep only thee and let the others go. Because of thy deeds and the deeds of thy native friends, we have taken the liberty of combining thy shards of Equestria (and some other surprises) into a larger and more vibrant world. Thou wilt not personally know everypony, but what need is there of that? Each of thee values the unknown in thine own way. So, go forth and enjoy."

Nocturne sat snuggling close to Fugue. "Is that all it says? You win, now go play?"

Fugue fumbled with the letter in his hooves, using his mouth to help flip it over. "I thought it was blank on this side. But now it says: 'We know each of thee has unfinished business in the Outer Realm, and would be satisfied to attend to it. We suggest relaxing for a little while, and contacting us when thou'rt ready to begin."

"Begin?!" Nocturne sputtered. "After all you've just been through?"

Fugue smiled. "Yup. There are some important decisions to make, yet, and I'm not looking forward to all of them. Need to make a phone call for one thing. We're going to have a good time, though. We'll make it work."

Curious, now, Nocturne took the paper from him and flipped it over again. As she'd suspected, Luna had changed the words. Lines filled the page and spilled over the edge, saying:

"Your choice of color doesn't determine your eternal destiny," said the cartoon ponies. I turned from the well-stocked shelf to see them peering out from the screen of the store's sample PonyPad...

Helping Hoof: Convince a human to emigrate. ("Pretty sure he'll reward you himself.")
Consolidation: Lead the Princess to merge shards that were not originally designed for it. ("That freed up some storage space, so we threw in some secrets.")
First Time: No explanation needed. ("Please be gentle.")
Learner's Permit: Prove your ability to operate robots in the Outer Realm. ("Hmm....")