2072 TX: A young human with a degenerative bone condition must prepare for a life-saving technological transformation into Rainbow Dash. His robotic partner Pinkie Pie, several other robot ponies and exosuited-humans guide him toward his new life...
Armin suffers from a rare degenerative bone condition which will result in the end of his life if he doesn't take drastic measures soon. Thankfully, advancements in robotics and medical technology have provided him with a new option: The Meta-Frame. This technologically advanced exosuit will repair his body and stabilize his condition, but he will never be allowed to take it off ever again.
With the help of his robotic friend Pinkie Pie, Armin decides on the new exosuit identity he will wear for the rest of his life, wondering if perhaps he should join his pony pal with a body similar to hers...
Along the way, they'll meet other robotic partners based on famous retro television shows like Doctor Who, explore what it means to be human, and learn how to survive an identity crisis which will either be a rebirth of self or a repression of who Armin really is. Then again, perhaps things are not as clear-cut as they would seem...
Edit (Jun 23, 2016): Thanks to some plot developments starting in Chapter 5, including slightly more mature discussion, this story rating has been raised from "E" to "T" and the new tag "Romance" has been added, because it's gonna happennnn. Nurse Redheart has also been added as a major character tag. :P
You might like this story if you also like: Transhumanism Transformation Stories Deus Ex video game series Cameos from other shows like Doctor Who Stories which take place in Texas Augmenting the Human Body with Science Robotic Partners and Artificial Intelligence Austin, TX and Corpus Christi, TX
There were many things a person could expect to do by the age of eighteen, but searching a catalog for a new body is usually not one of them. The 2072 Technomancer Digital Catalog was Armin’s last choice for the next stage of his life, but thanks to his degenerative bone condition, he was left with little else. At the very least, he would be able to pick from one of over one hundred custom-made Meta-Frames to be installed over his existing hardware.
“Mom, I don’t…I don’t want to do this,” he said. “There have to be other options.”
“Sweetheart,” his mother said, “I understand your conflicted feelings. I really do.” The tea kettle whistled and she grasped the steaming hot side with a metal hand, placing it delicately on the heat-absorbing plate in front of Armin. “But we’ve been over this. We don’t have enough money for the full-body surgery. And even if we did, the success rate has yet to break 25 percent. I’m not going to invest in risky technology, especially when my son's life is at stake.”
Armin sighed and picked up the tablet again. He chose a drop-down menu from Technomancer’s website and saw the various subcategories including Superhero, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Pop Culture, and more. He eyed some under the living animations category, but quickly changed to a different set when his mother walked by.
“Armin,” she said and hugged him in his chair. “I think I know what you want. It’s okay to admit it. I mean, come on. Your partner is upstairs and you’d match her if you just chose what I knew you wanted already.”
“Mom, Pinkie and I are just friends,” Armin said. His face started to turn red. “She helps me get around. She’s not a girlfriend. She’s just a synthetic!”
“Armin!” His mom’s voice was reprimanding, “Don’t say that! You’ll hurt her feelings. And anyways, if she was just a friend, then why did you buy her all those upgrades during Valentine’s Day…?”
“Hearts and Hooves Day…”
“Hearts and Hooves Day, then…SEE? You even have a special horse name for it!”
“That’s what they call it on the show!” Armin said. “I’m going to college in like 3 months. I can’t…I can’t have a Meta-Frame that matches my part…friend. Or people will talk.”
“Why don’t you talk with her about it? You’re going to do that anyway, like you always do. Here,” she picked up the tablet and motioned for Armin to stand up. He leaned back and stared at his mom. “Let’s go talk to her together.”
“I can talk to Pinkie myself.” Armin picked up his crutches and moved over to the lift chair leading up to the second floor.
When he got to his room, a large pink pony was resting its humanoid body in a separate egg pod against the wall. Several posters of the Pinkie Pie character were placed on the wall behind the pod. Any observer could see that the humanoid body had taken some liberties with the design, stretching it out and making it significantly taller. She still had hooves instead of feet, but hands were a new addition. Her head structure was nearly identical to the cartoon character on the wall. And her tail fluff took off nearly half of the lower part of the pod, hiding most of her body. Her eyes were closed and she smiled serenely even in her sleep.
Armin looked at her with a sadness in his eyes. He didn’t want to wake her. He knew what she would say if he asked her about the Meta-Frame choices. Deep down, it’s what he wanted her to say. And she’d say it because she cared. Because she was built that way. He placed a hand on the pod absentmindedly, then pulled back too late when he remembered that any contact with the pod would wake her up. He always forgot when he was lost in thought.
Pinkie opened her big blue eyes and turned to face Armin. “Hi! Good morning!” The cover slid open and she smoothly moved into a sitting position. She yawned then held out her arms. Armin embraced her and felt the naturally warming synthetic skin bring a comfort to his heart like no other. “How are you today?”
“Come on…what’s bothering you?” She asked playfully. She held his hand in her own and clasped it gently.
Armin wanted to withhold the information from Pinkie, but it was nearly impossible. She always pressed for information in the gentlest ways. And Armin always relented. He pulled out the tablet he had been looking at and loaded up the Technomancer web page. “This.”
Pinkie took the tablet and stared at it. A variety of emotion played on her face. It didn’t have to. She could’ve done all of the calculations internally without any outward sign of understanding. But her creators knew what they were doing and made sure that her expressions were easy to read and very empathetic. She looked interested, then knowing, then serene again. She peered back at Armin with understanding eyes that melted him every time. “You know which one of these you want?” she asked.
Armin nodded slowly. “It has to be something I’m willing to live with for the rest of my life. Once that hardware is installed, it takes an incredible amount of money to change it. Insurance won’t pay for this a second time without a very good reason.”
“And you’ve been thinking about this for a while,” Pinkie said.
“Yes.” Armin kept his eyes averted. He didn’t want to see her right now. It was hard to think when she stared at him that way. She waited. “I know what I want," he said, "but I don’t want to be made fun of.”
“Which Meta-Frame are you gonna choose? Why would you be made fun of?”
“I think you know which one,” Armin said. He pressed the touchscreen and scrolled to the living animations tab. “It’s…It’s cel-shaded. Like one of your settings.”
Pinkie gasped, then held in her expression. Her eyes were bigger than the normal humans, and every emotion on her face was amplified because of it. Armin couldn’t help but smile at her. She turned to him “You want the Rainbow Dash Meta-Frame?”
“Well…I’d rather pick Twilight Sparkle but…they don’t have that style for this price range, so…Rainbow Dash was my second choice anyway…”
“You mean we’re gonna be DashiePie together?”
Armin turned pinker than Pinkie Pie. “Um…yeah.”
Pinkie embraced her human again, but her hold was gentle. She nuzzled him and he couldn’t help but nuzzle back. She pulled back and giggled. Armin looked nervous. “Hey…you don’t…you don’t think it’s weird that I mean…I’m a guy right, but I’m picking a girl Meta-Frame? This only comes in female. My voice will change too…I mean, If I want it to…”
“Do you want it too?”
“Yes. I gotta be Rainbow Dash all the way or not at all.”
“Then do it! Why worry? I just want you to be happy.”
“But…what if they make fun of me at college for being different?”
“Armin, let me tell you something: I’m going to be right there with you. The University of Texas at Austin is going to be a-mazing. They accept Pod Pals like most of the other colleges. I won’t leave your side. Ever. I’ll even help you take notes. You and I are gonna be an UNSTOPPABLE team!”
Armin looked down at the screen wistfully. The Rainbow Dash suit looked incredibly sleek. If he were to wear it and stand side-by-side with Pinkie, no one would be able to tell which of them was a Pod Pal and which was a human being. The Meta-Frame would guard him against any damage he might sustain from a fall or environmental hazards and the design would be the added bit of fun. Like roleplaying, but…permanently.
“You wouldn’t let me forget who I am, right? Even if I let you call me Rainbow Dash, you’d still remember to call me Armin when I needed to hear it, right?”
“Of course!” She hugged him again. “I’m not going to let you get lost in the suit. Maybe that’s something for someone else to worry about, but not you. I’ll be right here, by your side. You want me to call you Armin at least once a day? Fine. Got it. Easy!”
“I wish…I wish I didn’t have to do this. I wish my body wasn’t deteriorating like this. The bones will be pretty much useless in 2-3 years…”
“Hey, come here.” She held him in her arms as she spoke. “This suit is gonna help you. It’s going to save your life. Every day, those little nanobots are gonna go in and they’re gonna repair whatever bones they can. And they’ll add synthesized calcium wherever it’s needed, so over time, your bones won’t deteriorate at all!”
“But I won’t ever be able to take the suit off again…”
Even though she was an AI, Pinkie let the comment hang in the air for a moment. There was no doubt she had already come up with her answer the moment Armin stopped speaking. But sometimes she communicated in silence too. Finally, she spoke, and when she did, her words were calm, subdued and unmistakably compassionate. “I know it’s scary. I know it’s unfair. You were born with a condition that has changed your entire life. But now you’re taking that life back into your own hands. You’re not going to let this condition win.” She let her soft smile speak in the moments between sentences as Armin looked at her big blue eyes. “Think of it like being born again. For 18 years, you lived a life as Armin the Human. You went to school. You learned. You grew up. And now you’re at the entrance to a whole new way of living. In less than one month, you’re going to be Armin the Rainbow Dash. And you’ll see that this new life is going to be even more amazing than the old one!”
Armin smiled and Pinkie carried him to the bed where they both rested together. Armin fell asleep in her arms, as he always did. She stayed there in calm silence, saying nothing and thinking about everything.
The Technomancer offices were held in a vast complex in downtown Corpus Christi overlooking the sea wall. A center atrium building connected two twin spires of varying heights cutting into the skyline of the Texan city. People ascended the steps into a large gold and black interior etched in mirrors at all angles. Gleaming elevators welcomed visitors who were just beginning their journey into the Technomancer corporation's home offices.
Pinkie and Armin walked into the entrance and stared at their reflections. Armin thought about how this would be one of the last times he saw his human face.
“Which floor is it?” Armin asked. The touchscreen directory was unnecessarily complicated.
“37th,” Pinkie said. “Hey, you think we’ll see other Pod Pals here?”
“Yeah, but I doubt they’ll be ponies. The odds of that are incredibly unlikely.”
“I’m hoping to see a…DOCTOR!”
“Who?” Armin asked.
Around the corner walked two humans, or at least, they certainly looked that way. An older woman held the hand of a distinguished looking gentlemen in a black coat with a red silk-lined interior. His hair was gray and his face, though worn by years of experience, was kind with an edge of snarkiness to it. He walked with purpose and stopped when he say the pony. “Pinkie!” he yelled with his arms held out wide. She moved to hug him and he held out a hand quickly. “Ah, wait. I’m not a hugger. I don’t do the hug thing.”
“Oh of course you do silly! You’re just programmed to say that!” She embraced the man Pod Pal and his suppressed smile was obvious. “I never thought I’d see you here!”
“Well, one never thinks they’ll see a Time Lord walk into their life, and yet here I am.”
Armin looked over at the older woman. “I’m sorry ma’am. I’m Armin.”
“And I’m Clara,” she said with a smile. “Nice to meet you.”
“That’s her nickname anyway,” The Doctor said. “She’s my companion. Or I’m her companion. Or we’re both each other’s companions when the need arises. I mean…” he rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean.” Clara giggled. The Doctor looked obviously flustered. “What I mean is to say that I mean when it comes to need, I’m talking about that need that friends have for each other and…”
“Sweetheart, it’s fine,” Clara said.
“Sweetheart?” The Doctor looked back at her incredulously. “Clara, don’t toy with me today.” She smiled.
“I love this mad man,” she said. The Doctor rolled his eyes again and shook his head.
“Are there other Pod Pals here?” Pinkie asked. “I mean…are you guys gonna stay here today?”
“We’ll be back later,” the Doctor said. “But yes, upstairs there are plenty of pals for you to meet. I distinctly remember three North American cartoon characters, one Japanese anime character, two American cinema characters and two whom I could not identify. Hey, go get yourself some upgrades while you’re at it.” He touched hands with Pinkie Pie and their eyes grew a little brighter for a few seconds before they released their grip and stepped back. “That’s my contact info if you need me.”
“Ohhhhh are you both really from Britain?” Pinkie asked.
“Yes,” Clara said, smiling. She seemed content not to say much and just watch the Doctor speak instead.
“I’m from a little further north, but yes, that’s close enough,” the Doctor said. “See you later Pinkie. Armin.”
“Bye bye!” Pinkie said. Armin and Clara waved to each other.
Armin pressed the elevator door and waited. “Hey Pinkie,” he said. She turned to him. “Did you notice something back there?”
“I noticed a lot of things! Which one specifically, though?”
“Well…you and the Doctor really hit it off, but Clara was content not to say much. I mean, I honestly didn’t know what to say either. But..you ever think that maybe us Pod Pal companions have it a little too easy?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean…well I WANTED to talk to Clara. To be polite, ya know. Get to know her. But it was much more entertaining to watch you and the Doctor speak to each other. I just…didn’t have the drive to really speak to Clara because of it. Maybe you make things too easy, is what I’m saying.”
“Oh…well next time, I’ll encourage you to speak too!”
“It’s not that so much…it’s just that when I’m with you, I love doing whatever I can to spend time with you, but I don’t really…pull away as much. I don't take the initiative like I think I should. You know what I’m saying?”
“Oh yeah, definitely. You and I have a system already done. I’m the talker. You’re the listener. So you listen to everyone else rather than talking. This will help you in college, since it’s mostly listening.”
“Ah, well…that’s not exactly what I meant but…all right.”
The elevator opened and they stepped inside.
Welcome to the Technomancer Industries Tour, brought to you to Coca Cola! Today, you will be led on a tour of the facility through the various divisions where our Meta-Frames and Pod Pals are constructed. You will see how the use of technology has contributed to advancements in various fields including robotics, artificial intelligence, exosuit construction and medical prostheses. To get started, step onto the moving platform and we’ll begin.
Technomancer Industries was founded in 2032 by real estate mogul Melody Noble. At the age of 46, Miss Noble financed her corporation through the major acquisition and sales of various stocks and properties throughout North America and Great Britain. As a result, there are five major bases of operation. These include Technomancer offices in Corpus Christi, Austin, Albuquerque, New York City and London.
Technomancer started as a small robotics company that specialized in making robotic assistants for various research laboratories and private citizens. After acquiring a contract for the U.S. Government under President Hensley in 2048, they moved on to robotic prosthetics for soldiers coming home from the Chinese/Russian border wars. In 2050, due to unprecedented growth in the company, Technomancer took in new talent who started to work in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and Exosuit Design. Within 2 years, they had the first working prototype for what would become a household name today.
The first 2052 Pod Pal was a simple Artificial Intelligence by today’s standards. Only holding 2 Petabytes of data, they pale in comparison to the new 2072 models which hold half a Yottabyte of data (or roughly 550 billion terabytes). The first model was Melody Noble’s favorite cartoon character. Fans of the retro franchise known as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic know this character as Vinyl Scratch. The first Pod Pal still lives with Melody Noble today and has been upgraded over 250 times in 20 years. Any Pod Pals interested in contacting Vinyl Scratch may ask customer service for her pod calling number.
Today, there are over 250 licensed designs for Pod Pals including several characters form the following retro intellectual properties
- My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic - Transformers - Doctor Who - Guardians of Harmony - Cowboy Bebop - Pokemon (Video Game Series) - Lord of the Rings - Zootopia
Stop by our gift shop to try out new upgrades for your Pod Pals and Meta-Frames!
Technomancer Industries: Our Future is your Present!
The elevator inside the Corpus Christi Technomancer building stopped at the 35th floor. Armin and Pinkie Pie looked around at the reflective interior and then at each other. Armin spoke first.
“I thought we were going to the 37th floor. Why did it stop?”
Pinkie Pie was about to press the call buttons again when the doors slid open. There was a slight sound of air whooshing past and then silence again. “Huh…” Pinkie said, “There’s a pressure differential. Well, we are very high up…Let’s go!”
The hallway had subdued but classy ebony floors buffed to a reflective sheen. When Armin looked down at himself, he saw Pinkie Pie and he walking upside down etched in the outlines of the lights hanging off the sides of the walls at frequent intervals. Gold trim ran along the bottom and top edges of the floor and ceiling, trailing around corners and providing a subtle but useful guide through the corridors. Potted plants in opaque glass pots rested in alcoves next to two chairs at several points down the hall. Armin also noticed that each room had double-door openings, which seemed excessive for such a small space. He and Pinkie walked side-by-side and it was then Armin realized that the hallways were wider here than on the bottom floor.
“This place was made for couples,” Armin said. “Everything caters to two people.”
“Melody Noble didn’t ever want a Pod Pal or Companion to do anything other than stay next to each other’s side.” Pinkie said with an air of subdued respect.
“Are you going to talk to Miss Noble’s Pod Pal? They gave the number in that tour we heard in the elevator.”
“I have already. Once,” Pinkie said. “When I was born. Vinyl Scratch’s face was the first person I saw when I became conscious. She told me everything I needed to know about being your friend.” Pinkie hugged Armin and he blushed. Even now, he still found himself shy around her sometimes. She continued. “Vinyl talks to every single Pod Pal who is born. Can you imagine one person greeting the births of over 25,000 people in two decades? I still remember how gentle her voice was…Hey…” Armin looked at Pinkie Pie before she continued. “You ever think that Vinyl Scratch might be lonely? Miss Noble is super busy all the time.”
“I don’t know. Why do you ask?”
“I’ve just been thinking about you. When you get super busy…do you…do you think there’s ever going to be a point where I can’t help you? I mean, I want to help you, so there’s no reason why I couldn’t. But…I just want you to know that no matter what it is, I can always find some way to assist you. So don’t ever think that I can’t, okay?”
Armin looked into Pinkie’s eyes. She wasn’t trying to hide the emotion at all. She couldn’t. “Are you worried I won’t need you one day?”
“Yes…” Her ears drooped a little.
Armin embraced his Pinkie Pie and she held him back. He felt her hesitate in letting go and she nuzzled him gently. His heart had never felt more needed. “I’ll always need you, Pinkie Pie.”
A metallic masculine voice spoke up from behind them. “Touching.”
They turned to face a tall, helmeted individual in a mirrored faceplate. His suit was padded, almost like someone constructed light, aerodynamic armor out of car racer’s attire, then gave that armor to a ninja. Red icons lit up across his helmet as he spoke. “You must be new here. Welcome to the next big step. Your new life awaits.”
Armin felt the heaviness of the situation suddenly bare down upon him. His heartrate increased and Pinkie immediately grasped his hand. She had a live feed of his vitals programmed into her wireless network. He almost never felt anxious since he had met her. But even today, he was having trouble focusing.
“My name is Zer0. I will guide you through the labs. Ask me any questions,” he said. His faceplate displayed various comforting pixelated images in red, including smiley faces and birds in flight.
Armin knew his retro pop culture and he was absolutely excited to see this character. He couldn’t tell if they were a Pod Pal or a person in an Exosuit, but he felt it rude to ask. Still, he had one question. “I love your design! Are you from Daft Punk?”
The guide did not move for a few seconds. A large red number zero flashed on his faceplate and he looked down. He sighed. “Follow me.” He started to walk down the hall and shook his head.
“He’s not from Daft Punk,” Pinkie whispered.
As Armin followed Zer0 through the various research offices, he couldn’t help but notice how each room was decorated. There was a clear intent to create a subsection of human life by showing various places a person’s daily habit might take them. Here, Armin saw bedrooms, kitchens, apartments, and workplaces all separated by quiet hallways and occasional meeting rooms. It was as though someone had taken every major location in a person’s life, extracted the most important rooms and spread them out across the 35th floor of Technomancer Industries.
Zer0 explained. “Exosuits are tough. Not just in form but purpose. You have to learn patience.” He moved around the apartment and rested a gloved hand on the counter. He brought out some Coca-Cola for Pinkie and Armin. She took hers and pocketed it in a saddlepack she wore on her hip. Armin drank his and looked around as Zer0 continued the tour. “This is all training. Practice for those with new suits. This makes it easy.” He stood in the center of the room. “Some things are harder. Humans take much for granted. Sight is different.” He held out his arms. “You can’t see as much. But what you see, you see clear. Pinkie Pie knows, right?” he said, nodding to her.
Pinkie held Armin close to her. “I don’t have the wide angle vision that you do, Armin. My sight is limited but I can see much richer detail than the average human. Think of it like wearing a magnifier you can turn-on in your eyes at any time. You’ll never need glasses again. Isn’t that awesome?”
“Hehe yeah,” Armin said. “Hey Zer0…I can’t help but notice…have you been speaking in haiku this entire time?”
“Does it bother you? Language limits us sometimes. I don’t like limits.”
Pinkie Pie spoke. “Oh that reminds me. Armin, when you get your suit, you’ll be able to communicate with me, other exosuit wearers and other Pod Pals through a visual and mental interface. Kinda like the concept of telepathy, but with a lot more restrictions. Your mind will start to develop in new ways because of it. Language really does set the parameters for how you can form thoughts and concepts if you do so based on a limited set of linguistic principles.” She motioned to Zer0. “Our host is demonstrating how language can simultaneously limit and free a person based on the capability of the rules of language. Zer0 speaks in 5-7-5 syllables most of the time, which means he has to think in terms which will allow his language to fit those restrictions, but it also forces him to be more creative because of it.”
“Well spoken, Pinkie. Armin will learn new methods. To help him evolve.”
Armin smiled. “That’s a bit of a cheat. There were two sentence fragments at the end there, Zer0.” A winking smiley face appeared on Zer0’s faceplate. “This is really wonderful. I’m thankful I got to see this, but I’m still worried. I mean…” he looked at Pinkie. Her arm gently squeezed his side to encourage him to speak. “I don’t know why Technomancer Industries limits the style availability of some exosuits to certain genders. I don’t have anything against being a female, but the suit I want only comes in a female style. It has, um…subtle indicators of a feminine body type. And the character is clearly a female. But why can’t Technomancer just make a male version?”
“I’ll say this to you: you keep calling me male, but I’m a woman,” Zer0 said. Before Pinkie could muster an apology, Zer0 interrupted her. “Hey, I’m not bothered. My voice is masculine, though. Now that you know that…” Zer0 paused, “…did your view on me…change in any major way? I am still the same.”
“No,” Armin said. “It didn’t. I’m sorry if we made you nervous.”
Pinkie Pie looked at her partner. “I know the suit might seem to define who you can be, but with all the potential upgrades and custom paint jobs you can get over time, you’ll resemble your own new pony after a while. You can add all the masculine touches you want.” Pinkie thought for a nanosecond. “Hey Zer0, is the Nurse still here?” He nodded. “I think Armin would really benefit from speaking to her. Let’s go see the Nurse!”
Armin and Pinkie re-entered the elevator and said goodbye to Zer0 as Pinkie hit the call button for the 4th floor.
Armin groaned. “Are we going back down? After all this?”
Pinkie nodded. “The elevator didn’t let us go directly to the 37th floor. It sent us to Zer0’s section for a reason.”
Armin raised an eyebrow. “Pinkie, you can’t assign intent to an elevator.”
“I can if it’s controlled by the building’s artificial intelligence.”
Armin’s mouth dropped. “Are you saying we’re being actively prevented from entering the one place I want to go to?”
Pinkie shook her head. “More like temporarily postponed.”
“Hold on,” Armin pressed the call cancel button. The elevator stopped at the 33rd floor but did not open. He pressed the 37th floor button. There was a negative buzz as a response. He pressed it again several times and was treated to the same buzz. “I can’t believe this. How can an artificial intelligence determine when I am or am not ready to undergo a procedure?”
Pinkie looked lost in thought. “This is starting to make sense now actually. Do you remember that questionnaire you filled out at home before you were allowed to set your appointment today?” Armin nodded. “Do you remember that a few of the questions asked about your psychological information, including whether you felt ready to start the process today?” Armin sighed. Then nodded. “One of your responses was ‘I don’t know.’ In fact, you had several unsure responses to many of the psychological portions of the questionnaire. SYS-TER isn’t going to prevent you from visiting or discourage you from undergoing the process, but she is going to try to give you a chance to experience closure over your reservations before you commit to it.”
Armin’s face froze for a second with a look of confused surprise. “Who’s ‘SYS-TER?’”
“The Celestia-themed AI that runs the building.”
Armin’s eyes widened. “Oh hell no,” He pressed the lobby button frantically. “We’re leaving right now.” The elevator started to move downwards.
“Hold on. HOLD ON!” Pinkie held his hands. He pulled away and she explained as quickly and clearly as she could. “I know what you’re thinking. It’s not THAT AI. Not the one from that classical science fiction story you read. Some guy named Iceman wrote that! It isn’t real! No one has made a pony-themed MMORPG that downloads people into the system as part of an AI’s plan to take over the world, so it can’t be the AI you’re thinking of! I’m right, right? Tell me I’m wrong!”
“So why did they name this building after the artificial intelligence in a famous story that gave me nightmares for like two weeks?!”
“I don’t know! Maybe Miss Noble has a sense of humor? Maybe she loved that story so much she wanted to make a nod to it! You know she actually lived through the time period where My Little Pony was super popular. Why wouldn’t she hide references to the fan-created works that were a big deal during that time? She is a pretty huge nerd.”
Armin huddled in the corner of the elevator and stared up at the floor numbers as they counted down. They had just passed floor 25. “I don’t think it’s very funny, and I’m gonna have some words with Melody if I ever met her in-person.”
Pinkie held Armin close and put his head on her chest. He listened to her internal workings hum quietly underneath the surface of her synthetic skin. She waited a few seconds before speaking again. “I never thought you to be one who was afraid of technology.”
“I’m afraid of crazy artificial intelligence.”
“When have you ever met one of those? In your entire life, when has an artificial intelligence ever sought to harm you?"
Armin’s thinking was focused, Pinkie Pie could fell his heart-rate increase. “I’ve never seen it happen.”
“I don’t like to say many things are impossible,” Pinkie said, “but this is one thing that’s highly improbable. In almost seven decades of Artificial Intelligence research, there has never been a single recorded instance of AI’s trying to harm humans when a human didn’t already program them to do that in the first place, like during war. And even then, there are safe-guards against those. ‘Kill-switches,’ I think they’re called. Their intent is very clear from the first minute of your meeting with them, because they’re meant to intimidate before they are forced into a position to harm anyone.”
“And Technomancer Industries doesn’t make that kind of AI?”
“No, that’s never been something this company makes. They make robot pals and robot suits. You can’t make money off of robot pals if they were as hostile towards their owners as you fear them to be.”
They both looked up at the floor number and saw they had hit floor 15. Armin sighed. “This is taking forever.”
“Purposely gives people time to think about their choices here,” Pinkie said. “No one ascends from the ground floors without the purpose of changing their life in some drastic way.”
“If someone tried to hurt me, would you fight back to protect me?”
She was quiet for a few seconds. Then she smiled warmly. “That’s really clever, Armin. You’re trying to indirectly ask me if I’m capable of hurting someone.”
Armin stared up at her, undeterred. “Well?”
“I would subdue them, but never permanently harm someone. Incapacitate. But only if I couldn’t talk them out of it. And only if there were no foreseeable alternatives left. Like what you would do, right? I mean, you can do the same. But you have psychological processes which discourage from doing any of that on a daily basis.”
Armin thought about that. “And what if those processes were to fail in you?”
“What if they were to fail in you too?” Pinkie asked. “I would think the idea of guilt and consequence would hold you back. They do the same for me. I always think about consequence. All day. Every day. It’s how I make my decisions. And I have never once decided that harming someone was the right course of action. You do understand that an emotional response like that is a very human thing, right? Something humans have because of millions of years of human evolution? But I don’t need it. I’ve no desire to hurt anyone for any reason. Helping others make me happy. Especially you.” She hugged him tighter.
The elevator dinged and opened to the lobby floor.
“Huh,” Armin said as he released his hold from Pinkie Pie. “I feel like those last floors went by a little quicker.”
“Do you want to leave, Armin?” Pinkie asked. “See? We can go. We don’t have to stay.”
Armin looked at the call button to the 4th floor and then the exit to the lobby. He walked out the door and stood beyond them. They did not close.
“See?” Pinkie said. “You’re afraid of a story, not reality.”
Armin nodded. After a bit of thought, he turned his crutches around and headed back into the elevator. He hit the 4th floor button and waited for the doors to close.
The Medical Technology wing was completely opposite in color style than the rest of the building they’d seen so far. Pristine white tiles covered the floor and blended into the white of the walls and ceiling. Silver metallic accents lined every console and piece of furniture, giving them a distinct outline against the otherwise featureless details of the massive entry space. Chairs and tables lined the far corners and a secretary desk stood at the front. A human woman with a robotic left arm worked on a digital input pad in front of her. Several human doctors and nurses crossed back and forth between the space as they walked into rooms whose entrances were nearly masked by a bit of clever visual trickery and lighting.
“Ah…it is so bright in here,” Armin said as he squinted a bit.
“That’s because you live in a man cave,” Pinkie said. Armin pinched her and she squeaked.
The secretary at the desk looked up from her work and addressed the two visitors. “Oh hello! What brings you in today?”
Pinkie stepped forward. “We’re here to see the Nurse.”
“Ah, good. Which one?”
“The one with the red cross tattoo on her butt!” Pinkie said.
The secretary thought for a moment. It lasted long enough that Armin wondered how many butt-tattooed nurses were working on this level and how exactly this secretary knew about more than one.
“Oh right! The fluffy one!” she said and typed something into the computer. “There you go. She’ll be right with you. You can wait over at the sea window room.”
It was difficult for Armin to walk around in the completely-white area. He felt like he was losing his sense of balance several times and Pinkie made sure to guide him with every step until they had crossed over into a nearby room with light coming in from the window. They stared out onto the ocean and sat together on a couch as the sun passed overheard. The gentle movement of the waves soothed Armin’s restless heart and Pinkie smiled as she felt him ease into a more a calm state of mind. They sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the quiet of the moment in each other’s company.
Armin used this time to hold Pinkie’s hand in his own. He stared at her fingers entwined within his and looked at the seamless connection between the joints. Her synthetic skin was absolutely perfect and showed no sign that she was robotic in any way. Had someone from the past walked into the room, they’d think that humanity had found the door to Equestria and brought humans and ponies together at least. In some ways, maybe they did, Armin thought.
Armin wondered what these moments would be like after he was put into an exosuit for the first and last time of his life. He wondered if he’d be able to feel the warmth of Pinkie’s body as he held her close. He thought about living with a perfect separation between him and the rest of the world. It made him so nervous, but he also realized that if he didn’t do so soon, his body could suffer serious complications. He might not survive another emergency surgery.
He tried to put a fantastic spin on the situation. Tried to imagine himself preparing to go to Equestria. Only ponies allowed in, he thought to himself. He was so close to stepping across that threshold. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that anywhere he went, there would be two ponies there now. He would become a fantasy-made-reality. There would be many people in his life who would have their world forever changed by his presence. My parents already have, he thought. He fought against the flood of negative emotions and remembered the smile on his mother’s face. How gentle and loving she was to him at every point in his life. There is no reason for me to think I’m anything other than loved, he told himself.
His mother had once told him the words he always returned to: “Never think of yourself as anything less than amazing. You are my son. I am proud of you. Any mother would be lucky to have a son like you, but I am the luckiest, because you are mine. Every day you’ve been a part of my life has been a day better than the one before it, and I always want you to remember that. I love you, Armin.” I am so lucky, Armin smiled.
Armin thought that one day, he wanted to show his future kids the love he had been shown. It was even more amazing that he could plan for such a future thanks to the technology available to him. He looked up at Pinkie Pie and saw her sweet smile and serene eyes staring back at him. Pinkie is so wonderful. I know she’d make a great mother…WHOA, wait a minute. Armin caught his own thoughts. That’s…that’s not happening…but…couldn’t it? He imagined what it would be like to see Pinkie Pie running around with a child they could adopt, teaching them how to be happy. She had taught him so much. And one day, he wouldn’t be around anymore. But Pinkie would. He remembered how sad she was when she told him she was worried she wouldn’t be needed anymore. If I had a family, whether biologically or adopted, she would always be needed, Armin thought. She would always be happy, even after I was gone.
Armin wanted to tell Pinkie his plans to make her happy. He wanted to let her know she would never have to worry about being alone ever again. But he didn’t want her to worry right now, because she’d want to know why he was thinking of all this. So he held the thought in-mind and decided to tell her later.
Armin saw someone standing off to the side of the couch. Both he and Pinkie turned as one.
“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything,” the white pony in the nurse’s hat said. “You both looked so peaceful. I’m a bit jealous.”
“Hey Redheart!” Pinkie said. Armin sat up as Pinkie stood and hugged the pony-suited person. Or was it a Pod Pal? He still couldn’t tell.
“Oh there’s that wonderful hug I haven’t felt in a long time,” Nurse Redheart said. “You two should visit more.”
“Hi Redheart,” Armin said as she embraced him. There was a different feel to the hug, and he couldn’t sense the same type of physical warmth from the skin. With his experience with Pinkie Pie, he knew this meant she was a person in an Exosuit and not a Pod Pal. “I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure of meeting,” he told her.
“Nope. First time. Good to see you here,” she stood up. “I’m guessing since you didn’t mention anything wrong with you or Pinkie that you must be here for the procedure.”
“The first part of it, yes,” Armin said. “I’m really nervous.”
“I was too,” she said. “I can talk to you about it, back in my office. There’s a lot I have to show you. I think you’ll feel a lot better once we go over it all.”
Pinkie helped Armin up to his feet and the three left the calm comfort of the seaside viewing room and moved back into the sterile white walls of the facility.
Nurse Redheart guided Armin and Pinkie Pie through the disorienting white rooms of the 4th floor. Armin noticed the Nurse’s hoofsteps were very light considering that her suit had to weight a considerable amount. Come to think of it, he had never asked how heavy the suits were. He would be carrying it around all day, and his bones could only handle so much, so he needed to ask.
“What’s the weight of the Exosuit, Nurse?” Armin asked.
“They vary, and they can be changed, added to, and subtracted from even while being worn. At least an outer shell can. There are certain parts that do not come off, because they are necessary for the function of the suit. But I understand you have a certain condition which forbids you to take off any major part of the suit. So at most, you might be able to remove some outer plating. My suit weighs about 15 pounds. It’s not very good on the protective side, but perfect for my job.”
“And mine? It will need protection. I can’t afford to fall and break something,” Armin said.
“The heaviest suits we have are 50 pounds. It’s unlikely yours will weight that much. More like 20 perhaps.”
Pinkie furrowed her brow. “Who would need a suit that’s almost as heavy as firefighter gear?”
“Any exosuit wearer who lives around hazardous conditions. Melody Noble’s exosuit is actually the lightest, weighing about 12 pounds.”
Armin stepped up. “Oh what does she have?”
“Octavia Melody, whom you might be familiar with, considering your Pinkie Pie there.”
Pinkie and Armin looked at each other. Pinkie spoke first. “And her Pod Pal is Vinyl Scratch…”
“She’s living the relationship of her dreams,” Armin said. He smiled.
“We will be too! Very soon,” Pinkie said and nuzzled Armin. We already are, he thought.
There was a circular curtain around one of the areas in the next room. It was only slightly transparent, and Armin could make out blue non-human feet, almost like paws, below the bottom of the curtain. Whatever this individual was, they had a long finned tail and were very tall. “Who’s that?” Armin asked.
Nurse Redheart looked over. “Wait right here,” she said. She walked beyond the curtain and started asking questions in a whisper. Armin couldn’t make out what she was saying. He turned to Pinkie and saw her ears turn into position as she started mouthing something and nodding. She motioned for Armin to come closer.
“Saying ‘How are you doing? Is the tranquilizer working for you? Don’t go out swimming after taking it. You may look like a sea creature but you still need to breathe air.’” Pinkie suddenly stopped. Armin looked over but couldn’t tell what Pinkie saw. Her expression meant something serious. She motioned for Armin to pull out his tablet. A message popped up from Pinkie Pie wirelessly.
She heard me talking. I saw her ears go up. I don’t think she’s going to be happy with me.
Armin smiled. He almost said something and then typed back a response. He held the tablet towards Pinkie to show her.
You’re such a rebel.
Pinkie Pie stuck out her tongue and smiled. Then her face dropped as she continued her message, only wirelessly this time.
He says he isn’t sure he made the right choice. He
The message suddenly cut. Both Pinkie and Armin looked at the screen to see a message from Nurse Redheart.
This is such a thing as patient/doctor confidentiality. Please go to my office and wait there.
Pinkie tried to avoid staring looking at Nurse Redheart sitting at her desk, arms crossed, eyes narrow and brow furrowed. Armin, however, kept his eyes trained sorely on the Nurse. And she looked upset.
“Pinkie,” Nurse Redheart started, “There is no reason for you to be eavesdropping on my conversations with patients.”
“Sorry,” she said without turning to look at Redheart.
“This isn’t a game, Pinkie. You can’t be doing stuff like that. If I felt you had malicious intent, I could throw you off the grounds right now.”
Armin leaned forward. “Why won’t you let us hear what he has to say?”
Nurse Redheart peered at Armin with a bit of shock. “What do you mean?”
“He had some reservations. I’m assuming about the exosuit. Possibly problems with it? Why didn’t you let us hear about them?”
Nurse Redheart bit her lip, quickly looked around the office and then back at Armin. “I’m not hid…” she caught her breath and started again, only more controlled. “The only thing I’m hiding is what I legally need to. Which is anything involving other patients that are not you. If YOU want to ask him personally about his reservations or issues, you can do so and I won’t stop you. But you will NOT eavesdrop and play little games while you are in here. Understand?”
“That’s fair,” Armin said. His anger overrode Redheart’s chastisement and he felt only the barest amount of remorse at accusing her of withholding information. Even though she wasn’t a Pod Pal with room for more complex circuitry underneath the suit, Armin realized her pony eyes held a lot of expressive ability. Including unmistakable anger. “I’m sorry,” Armin said, wishing to soften the room.
“That’s fine, but don’t let it happen again. I’m serious about that threat.” She sat back in her chair and stared out the window. All three of them could see what appeared to be small ponies moving back and forth in the distance of a cel-shaded wonderland. Armin looked closer and recognized it as Equestria. But it didn’t make sense. The position of the room in the building indicated that the window he was looking through was positioned only a few feet from the outside of the building. And they were 4 stories up. Yet everything beyond the window looked 3-dimensional. Armin was seconds away from asking about it when Nurse Redheart spoke up. “Why don’t you trust me, Armin?” She blinked her eyes over and over and he saw her gulp down very prominently. Is she holding back tears, Armin thought?
“I just saw something suspicious and I wanted to know what I was about," he responded.
“Suspicious…” Nurse Redheart repeated. “I’m talking to an upset patient and you think that’s suspicious…” She gripped the armrests on her chest with white gloved hands. They made a tense, tightening sound. There was silence for a bit and Nurse Redheart kept her eyes trained outside the window at the playing ponies in the distance. She breathed in and exhaled very loudly. “I don’t know why I have to keep doing this…”
“Do what?” Armin asked.
She spun around quickly. “Defending myself!” Her eyes were halfway between anger and sadness. “I work here every single day trying to make lives better for people like you. People who come in with no hope left anywhere else. I work really hard to make sure that every detail is taken care of. When I heard you were in the lobby, did you know why I took so long?” She typed quickly on the computer and flipped the monitor around on its swivel neck. “Look. Look at what I’ve done for you.”
Armin and Pinkie read the details on the screen. Armin spoke them aloud in summary. “You…you talked with Zer0 while we were coming down here and he…she told you about my reservations about the gender of the costume. You found…you found a way to use it as a medical excuse so I could have a discounted rate on the masculinization of the features…so I wouldn’t be gender dysphoric…” Armin sat back. Now he felt bad.
Nurse Redheart started talking again, but her voice was more strained. Both pink pony and the young man could tell she was trying to keep her professionalism intact. “I do little things like this for every client who comes in here. But I don’t always tell each of them. I figure it’s fine to do things in the background. Not worry about getting any credit. I like making people happy.” Pinkie Pie lowered her head at the last comment. “But I guess I’m going to have to prove myself more often now, since everyone keeps questioning my motives. And yes Pinkie, I just got your wireless message in my Heads-Up-Display. And no, you don’t have to worry about my ‘outburst’ being caught on a secret camera SYS-TER hid somewhere in my office, because there isn’t one.” Nurse Redheart sat back down.
Armin turned to Pinkie “Did you really say those exact words?” Pinkie nodded. “I was honestly worried about the same thing. I don’t want you to lose your job because of me.”
“Armin,” Nurse Redheart said, shaking her head, “What…what world do you live in where there’s this constant hidden threat? SYS-TER did tell me about how terrified you were of her in the elevator. Yes, she told me that because the elevators DO have cameras. Because they’re a public space in the building that needs monitoring. And she wanted me to help you feel at home. But I can’t now. I can’t do that.” She turned back around and looked out the window. “Not if you’re going to be this paranoid. I just…don’t understand technophobes.”
“I’m sorry, Nurse,” Armin said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I want to help you, Armin,” she said, still facing away. “But I get hurt too. Don’t let my appearance fool you. If you want a lesson in exosuits from someone who has one, then here’s a lesson you should remember: the expression on the suit does not tell you about the person underneath. You can’t see all my scars. I wear this face because I want to be like this…but it doesn’t mean that I am underneath.” She waited for a few seconds. “Do you know why I wear this suit, Armin?”
He sat back in his seat. He had been waiting for this.
Nurse Redheart continued. “I used to work here without one. I was a nurse just like any of the other ones you see out there. Regular human. No augmentations. Well…I had a few small ones, but nothing major. Who doesn’t right? I worked here for three years and everything I’ve told you about the way I work? I did all that even then. Helping people and their Pod Pals come in here and leave happier and more secure than when they arrived.” She turned to look at the window and hesitated. Her eyes were definitely crying now. Armin didn’t know the suits could do that. Nurse Redheart raised her hand and tapped the window. The visualization changed and the view was now the actual exterior of the Technomancer building. Redheart exhaled loudly. “Thanks Pinkie, but you don’t have to send me encouraging messages covertly. You can speak.” Pinkie shook her head and kept her very attentive gaze on Redheart. She nodded. “All right then. Three years after I started working here, there was…was a very stupid bill that passed up in Austin. Some of the anti-technology legislators and their Luddite lobbyists had paid them to pass legislation limiting what companies could do technology-wise within the city limits. Anything involving augmentation was deemed a ‘potential health hazard.’ Allies of the pro-tech industries fought back and it took a year to get the bill overturned, which is amazing considering how long it takes to do anything here in Texas. But for that year, people protested against us in the streets. Down there,” she said pointing to the spot across from the Technomancer property. “I was…”
She suddenly spun around and put her hands over her face. She breathed very deeply and Pinkie reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder. Armin wanted to, but he hesitated. He didn’t know why. Pinkie looked over at him, motioning for him to help too. Armin reached over and held Nurse Redheart’s hands. She squeezed them tightly in response. She sniffled a bit and then backed up in her seat, nodding to both of them. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“No, I’m sorry. I was the jerk. Forgive me,” Armin said.
Nurse Redheart opened her eyes and looked at the computer screen. She flipped it around and rapidly typed until she hit the enter key and flipped it back. “There,”
Pinkie and Armin read the news headline on-screen
PROTESTOR KILLS NURSE, CRITICALLY INJURES ANOTHER
“It should say ‘Terrorist,’ but the local media favored the causes of the anti-tech lobby,” Redheart said.
Armin and Pinkie continued to read.
A 19 year-old protestor affiliated with the organization Human Family First brutally attacked and murdered a nurse and critically injured another. Head Nurse of Technomancer Industries, Judith Curie, was killed when the protestor set her on-fire with a Molotov cocktail in protest of the attempted repeal of the 2065 Human Purity Act. Assistant to the Head Nurse, Alexandra Malek, was also set on-fire by the vicious attack. Alexandra is in critical condition at Spohn Hospital. The protestor ran from police and shot himself when cornered at a nearby restaurant.
Armin looked up. “You’re…”
“I was Alexandra Malek,” Nurse Redheart said. “When I was recovering, one of my Technomancer co-workers, in a bit of a misguided encouragement, started calling me Phoenix.” She looked at them both. “Because phoenixes are reborn after they burn themselves to death.”
Pinkie noticeably exhaled, even though she didn’t need to breathe.
“The intention was good on his part,” Redheart said. “But he was right. I was reborn. Because Technomancer offered me a full expenses-paid exosuit transition process. And I got to pick the suit.”
Armin leaned forward. “But the Human Purity Act. I thought such augmentation wasn’t allowed.”
For once during their talk, Nurse Redheart smiled. “Melody Noble flew in from Great Britain with Vinyl Scratch. In three days, they set up an augmentation-based religion with all the necessary paperwork, bought a building, had me ordained as the lead minister, and made one of the key religious beliefs the right to augment whenever they wished. And under the Religious Freedom Act that was currently in-place in Texas, I could not be denied the right to augment my body or it would be considered a denial of my religious rights.” Nurse Redheart’s smile had never been bigger. “And as the final middle-finger Melody threw to the establishment, she made sure the religion was based off one of her favorite video games, knowing that even then they couldn’t touch it.” Nurse Redheart opened a drawer and pulled out a brochure. Armin couldn’t help but laugh when he read it.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s clearly a joke!” He couldn’t stop laughing.
“Doesn’t matter. Unless they wanted to face a multi-million dollar lawsuit over denying a dying girl the right to be saved, it had to be recognized under the Religious Freedom Act,” Nurse Redheart said.
“Pinkie, look at this. ‘Augmentationism is a belief system held by over 500,000 members worldwide (“Melody got that many people to sign in solidarity with me over 72 hours. Lots of people wanted it,” Redheart said) and seeks to spread the gospel of technological truth and prosperity. Members of Augmentationism believe that a just God would want their children to thrive in all technological environments. Community efforts include increasing internet-access to all needy families, offering scholarships to students excelling in technological research, bringing cheap and affordable tech courses to underprivileged kids, and offering financial assistance to those in need of purchasing augmentations as part of their belief system.’ This is beautiful. Can I keep this?”
“Of course. I’ve got like fifty of them,” Nurse Redheart said. She then began to move her arms and hands in a very showy manner as she explained even more. “By the way, our patron saint is Saint Jensen, who was once a cop in Detroit but, after a near-death experience, was brought back to life through the miracle of augmentation technology. He lived a digital life of course, but that is valid under our belief system. To pray to him, simply raise your augmented, or unaugmented hands to the sky and say ‘Oh Saint Jensen, I know you didn’t ask for this, but like Icarus flying too close to the sun, we flew too high too fast, and now we look for your guidance, given to us by almighty Eidos.’”
Armin was laughing so hard that even Pinkie Pie had to join in. Nurse Redheart was giggling so much that she nearly fell out of her seat. The three shared their joy and Armin stood up and hugged Nurse Redheart, who continued laughing even as the tears fell from her eyes. “You okay?” Armin asked her.
“I’m great,” she said. “I needed to let all that out. Thank you,” she and Armin took their seats again. Nurse Redheart sighed. “Feels good to laugh.”
“I…I don’t know what else to say. I mean…I have many questions, but my mind is a bit jumbled right now. Too many thoughts.”
Nurse Redheart motioned to Pinkie with her hand. Both of them touched hands and their eyes lit-up. “Pinkie has my call number now. Just have her contact me with any questions and I’ll answer them as soon as possible. I leave for home at 7PM though, so I won’t answer anything as quickly over there, just so you know.”
“I’ll have to ask you what It’s like to adjust to home life in an exosuit later,” Armin said.
“Mostly, you break a lot of things your first few weeks. But you get used to your newfound strength,” she said. “Don’t ever knock on doors that are made with cheap wood. You’ll leave little dents in them.” Nurse Redheart averted her eyes for a second while thinking about something.
Both Pinkie and Armin stood up. “Where should we go next?” Armin asked.
Nurse Redheart leaned forward. “I know SYS-TER has been guiding you to talk to certain people first-off, but from here on out, you get to choose. However…you still need clearance from a few people before you’re allowed to do your operation. So stay away from floor 37 till you’ve got it. You’ve already got my clearance whenever you’re ready to go. Now you need three more.”
“A quest!” Pinkie said. “Three of them!”
“You need to talk to the Technomancer Psychologist and get their blessing. You also need to pass the exams at the testing facility to prove you are fully informed of every bit of basic information needed to perform this procedure. After you get those two in whichever order you choose, then the last one you have to see is SYS-TER.”
“Come again?” Armin said. “You mean…the AI?”
“Yes,” Nurse Redheart said. “She will not go easy on you, trust me. Even when I was ready, she was only a slightly bit lenient with me, because of my situation. But just be honest with her and you should be okay.”
Pinkie and Armin hugged Nurse Redheart and she held them so tight, Armin wondered if she ever got physical affection at all in her daily life. She let go and waved goodbye. “Remember, Armin! Honesty!”
They stepped out of the office and noticed the blue finned exosuit wearer was gone.
“We’ll probably see him later,” Pinkie said.
They entered the elevator, pressed the button and headed up. “Finally. Ascending again. Saint Jensen help us,” Armin joked.
The elevator began its ascension as Armin and Pinkie Pie looked at each other.
“Back on track again,” Pinkie said. “Ready for the psychologist?”
“Eh,” Armin said. “I’m sure he, or she, will say what my other psychologist already did. Story never changes with those guys.”
“Incoming phone call,” Pinkie Pie said.
Armin picked up his phone, which had been set on silent. “Huh. Nice catch.” He pressed the button. A wireless receiver implanted by his ear fed the sound into his ear drum.
“Hey sweetie!” Armin’s mother said over the line. “Did they okay the procedure? How are things going?”
“I gotta finish some meetings with some of the personnel before I actually do the procedure. I got three more to do before the day’s out.”
“Wow. That’s more meetings than I usually have in a week,” she said. “Whenever the time frame for the surgery is scheduled, I want you to let me know, okay? That way I can be there for you when it happens.”
Armin thought about the possibility of his mother standing in the waiting room while his surgery proceeded. The idea that she and Pinkie would be there, together, waiting for the news of the outcome filled him with mixed emotions. On one hand, he felt the procedure was extremely personal. He needed some time to let his mind adjust to the idea of being a completely new individual on the outside. But…she was his mother. And she cared for him so much. To tell her she couldn’t come would be extremely callus of him. He nodded. “Okay, mom. I’ll let you know when I get first word.”
“Are they going to need to keep you overnight? Just to make sure everything is okay?”
“Uh…” Armin hadn’t thought to ask.
Pinkie piped up. “It’s standard Technomancer protocol to have Exosuit patients spend at least one night at the facility immediately following a major procedure, just to make sure there’s no augmentation rejection. It’s highly unlikely, but it happens. So Armin will, as policy states, stay here one night.”
“Thanks Pinkie,” Armin’s mom said. “Armin, I must say…you haven’t found this stuff out yourself?”
“It’s been a busy day,” he said, trying to cover. “Hard to get all the facts quickly. There’s a lot to this process.”
“Did you want to postpone it?” Armin’s mother asked. “We could schedule for another time.”
Armin looked up and appeared lost in thought. At that moment, the elevator stopped humming. It was so gradual, had it not been for Armin’s auditory augments, he might not have noticed it. He looked around the interior and then at Pinkie. She spoke.
“It’s SYS-TER,” Pinkie said. “She stopped the elevator.”
“Why?” Armin felt nervous.
“To give you another chance to make an informed decision.”
“How do you know it’s her and not an elevator malfunction?” Armin asked.
“Because she just sent me a wireless message that reads the following:”
When Pinkie spoke next, it was not her voice, but a deeper, more melodic feminine regal tone. It was firm, yet gentle in its speech pattern, like that of a watchful mother caring for her children. Even as the voice exited from Pinkie Pie, she did not seem alarmed. Her eyes changed from blue to a shimmering lavender hue. “Armin, I know your case is a very special one. Your surgery will be a life-saving procedure, for you cannot live very much longer without it. Yet, according to your submitted medical records from Doctor Patel, you have a significant margin of safety for postponement, giving you some more time to think about this. However, I would caution taking too much time as we do not know if an accident or injury outside these premises might make your surgery harder and more complicated, and at most, you have a few more months before permanent degradation of the bone tissue makes surgery exponentially harder as the days pass by. It is, however, not in my power to force you into any position where you would be required to take this procedure. You are now, as you have always been, in control of this choice. Know that if you choose to take the surgery today, you can easily finish all of your remaining meetings within the next 3-5 hours. Our surgery team is on-call and has already been informed from the moment you walked in here that they are to expect a surgery later tonight. The choice is yours.” Her eyes changed back to blue and Pinkie looked a bit disoriented.
Armin’s shocked expression held for a moment. “Well…that was new,” he finally said.
Armin’s mother spoke from the phone. “Who was that? Who’s SYS-TER?”
“The building A.I.,” Armin said.
There was a sound of surprise from the phone. “A building took control of Pinkie Pie?”
Pinkie spoke up. “She’s a mother A.I., meant to protect and guide the Pod Pals and the Exosuit clients. I let her take control. I could’ve said no.”
“Wow. That’s…something…,” Armin’s mother said. “Well…after that, I don’t know what to think now. Armin, what do you want? Are you going to a meeting to talk about this decision?”
He looked at the call button to the 22nd floor, marked Technomancer Psychologist Janus Giomatti. His hand hovered over the floor number. He looked over at Pinkie.
She held up her hands. “This is not my say. You were right about earlier. I need to let you make more of your own decisions. And this is a major one. But I’ll support whatever decision you make,” she said. She put her hands down and smiled.
Armin’s mother spoke from the phone. “Thank you for being there for him during this tough time, Pinkie. I’m sorry work at the office is keeping me away, sweetheart. I promise I’ll be there in a few hours. I just need to close one more deal. I get this one, and we won’t have to worry about money for the rest of the year!”
“Take your time, Mom,” Armin said. He hit the button. “I’ll be here all day.”
The psychology offices of Janus Giomatti were odd, to say the least. Everything was mirrored on both sides of the room. As they stepped in, Pinkie and Armin saw four chairs, two couches, two offices, two paintings of the exact same mythological art, two elevated meeting rooms, and two of literally everything else they could place their eyes on. It was a mixture of rich wooden tables and office spaces melded with the bare utility of plain colorless furniture, which did not seem to match the aesthetic of the room. The most striking feature of the large open space was its glass walls. Even the closets had transparent doors, and upon closer inspection, all the items in there were mirrored too.
Pinkie looked down at the ground leading off towards the left. “There’s a lot of wear on the floor in that office. I wonder if we’re supposed to go in there?”
Armin looked down at the ground leading off towards the right. “The same amount of wear is on the floor over here too. This place is so…strange.”
“Why hello there!” a voice said from the left side of the room. “Why hello there!” a voice said from the right side of the room.
Both Pinkie and Armin looked at the opposite sides of the room, then the previous side. On each was a large, black slender figure with a lean furred body. They each wore custom-tailored business suits with a featureless black tie tucked into the jacket. And the heads were the most striking of all. Two slender dog heads, reminiscent of the Egyptian god Anubis, rested on the top of each suit. They both held out their hand paws as they trailed down the steps of their respective staircases from the visible upper floor.
“Welcome to your first steps into a new life!” Left Anubis said. “I am Janus Giomatti.” “Welcome to your first steps into a new life!” Right Anubis said. “I am Janus Giomatti.”
“They’re both Janus?” Pinkie asked.
They stood, leaning against a marble pedestal with the portrait of a two-headed god, facing in opposite directions.
“Oh look at that,” Pinkie said. “Convenient symbolism.” She smirked.
“We know the mythologies don’t match, but there’s much to be learned from all myths.” Left Anubis said. “We know the mythologies don’t match, but there’s much to be learned from all myths.” Right Anubis said.
They gestured to the meeting rooms upstairs on opposite sides of the room. Each was covered in glass walls and easy to see from the other.
“Ah,” Armin said. “Now it makes sense.” He looked at the stairs, then down at his crutches. “Kind of an oversight though.” Pinkie stood behind Armin and hugged him. He blushed. “Hey, now’s not the time for play.”
“I can carry you up the steps, silly,” Pinkie said. “Ready?” Armin nodded and Pinkie easily scooped him up in her arms. He rested his head against her neck and held on to her as she giggled. He never felt safer than when he was in her loving arms. This was simply another unexpected joy of the visit to the Technomancer building. Pinkie stepped onto the next level as she walked into the glass meeting room and set Armin down on the chair.
“I’m guessing we need to stand in each room,” Armin said. He motioned to the Anubises downstairs.
Pinkie stepped out of the room and looked down. “Are we splitting up?”
“For now, yes,” Left Anubis. “But after the evaluation, you two can travel together again.” “For now, yes,” Right Anubis. “But after the evaluation, you two can travel together again.”
Pinkie moved over to Armin, nuzzled him quickly (which he returned) and walked down the steps to the other side of the room. Both dogs walked to their respective sides, hopped the steps with haste and entered their glass rooms before closing their doors.
Armin looked across the way and saw Pinkie staring back at him. She winked and then turned back to her Anubis as Armin saw his.
“I have a quick question,” Armin asked.
“Sure!” Anubis said. It was strange not to hear the double voice anymore.
“Pinkie and I are in separate rooms, but you’ve shown that you keep saying the same things for both of you. How are you going to talk to us individually?”
“It’s a lot easier than you think,” Anubis said. He sat down at the end of the desk. “When it comes to couples, they tend to mimic each other a lot more than they expect.”
Armin felt his face turn hot. “We…We’re not a couple.”
Anubis nodded and smiled for a moment, then said calmly “Okay.”
“This is the part where I open up, isn’t up?” Armin asked. Anubis smirked and nodded. Armin shook his head. “I guess it’s obvious I care about her…” Anubis sat back in his chair as Armin began to lose himself in thought. “I’ve just…had so much of my life alone. And then your company comes along and gives me a friend like I’ve never had before. She’s been a part of my life ever since my birthday last year.” Armin clicked a button on the edge of his earpiece. “She can’t hear if I disable this. Just for a minute. I don’t want her to hear what I have to say next.” Anubis nodded. “Ever since last year when I was told by my doctor that I didn’t have many more years left in life, I’ve been pulling away from people. Trying to isolate myself. Then Pinkie came into my life. She helped me stay above water for an entire year, keeping me happy, But…I stopped visiting my other friends…At least in real life. Online, I still talk to them.” Armin watched eagerly for a response from the face of the psychologist, but the Anubis mask was not quite as expressive as he hoped. Or maybe he just wasn’t responding.
Anubis spoke up. “How do you act when she’s not around?”
Armin thought hard. There had been very few times in the past year when he and Pinkie were not together. Save for sleep, some mornings and a few simple daily activities, she was almost always around. “It’s been a long time. Hard to say. I guess right now I’m being more open.”
Anubis leaned forward. “What about before? Did you have a need for companionship then?”
Armin laughed. “I don’t…I wouldn’t say I need companionship…” He hesitated. “But it sure makes life better.”
Anubis pulled out a tablet from the inside of his jacket and pressed a few buttons. “We received confirmation on the suit you selected for today’s operation.” He handed the portable screen to Armin, who saw the familiar anthropomorphic Rainbow Dash Meta-Frame on-screen. “I want to talk to you about that.”
Armin looked at the image for so long without speaking that the room fell into a deep quiet. The sight of the blue bodysuit with its sleek curves and smooth synthetic skin filled Armin’s heart with a mixture of conflicting emotions. He zoomed in to the face and eyed the expressions it made on the short video. It was so lively and energetic. The larger-than-human eyes allowed for a level of expressiveness he had always wanted. He knew that, psychologically, it would be easier to connect with people if he wore his emotions on his sleeve like that. As long as they could accept the whole “giant living cartoon” standing in front of them.
“What do you want to know?” Armin finally asked.
“Just by the look on your face, I think I’ve learned a lot.” The psychologist said. “Why do you want this particular model?”
“Pinkie Pie,” was all Armin had to say.
“Ah,” Anubis said. “I would’ve guessed that. But if she wasn’t around, would you still choose that model?”
He looked over to the other glass room. The second Anubis was sitting in the same spot as the first in the mirrored room. Yet, it was the only one in the room.
“Where’s Pinkie?” Armin asked. He clicked on his earpiece. “Pinkie?”
“I’m right here,” she said. “I was told to leave to get an upgrade for free. They said you had to do this alone. I…normally wouldn’t have left, but I can still feel your vitals through the wireless connection. And Technomancer employees have always been trustworthy in my experience. Are you okay?”
Armin looked up at Anubis. “You didn’t say we’d have to split up. I don’t like that.”
Anubis held out his palms. “I didn’t think you two were supposed to stay together at all times. That’s why I asked about your need for companionship. I’m wondering how well you’d do without her.”
There was a fear growing in Armin’s heart. His pace accelerated.
Pinkie spoke from the earpiece. “Calm down. I can feel you getting upset. I know what he’s getting at. Trust me. If I even suspected for a minute they were trying to hurt you, there’d be nothing stopping me from raiding that room myself.”
Anubis spoke up. “Even if the elevator door didn’t open?”
Armin looked up, alarmed. Pinkie responded quickly. “I’d find my way through the vents, just like Saint Jensen.”
Anubis made a strangely enthusiastic swipe of his arm, as though he were excited at the idea. “That’s wonderful, Pinkie! You’re a die-hard Pal, that’s for sure. But you won’t have to worry. I simply wanted to see how you and Armin would react to such a scenario. He’s going to be fine and done in less than hour.”
“I’ll hold you to that. If he’s still there sixty minutes later, you’re going to see me one minute after that.”
“Understood,” Anubis said.
“Armin,” Pinkie said. Her voice filled Armin’s mind with calm. “You going to be all right?”
He looked at Anubis. He was nervous, but he didn’t feel in-danger. He nodded slowly, then realized Pinkie couldn’t see it. Anubis smiled. So his mask was expressive after all. It was a tad…unsettling to see so many sharp teeth, though.
“Um…just stay by the line,” Armin said. He clicked the button and sat back.
Anubis motioned to the communicator. “Still listening?”
“Yep,” Armin said, arms crossed. “I’m not turning it off again.”
“As long as you’re comfortable sharing your secrets…” he said.
Armin looked over at other Anubis sitting in the room by itself. It turned and waved at him. Armin looked at the Anubis in his room and saw he was waving towards the empty chair on the opposite side. Then he turned back.
“Why are there two of you?” he asked. “I thought this was going to be a tandem conversation with Pinkie.”
“It was, for a while…” Anubis said.
A firm voice spoke up behind Armin. “…but we quickly decided you needed twice as much attention instead.”
Armin turned and saw the other dog-headed half of Janus Giomatti standing at the opposite end of the table. It was then he realized the voice was different.
“She…she spoke without you!” He said.
“Her name is Anput,” Anubis said. “She’s my better half. And when I say that, I really mean it.” He stood up and crossed over to hold his partner. “We’re a dual-processing team. My mind would never work without her.”
“Why? Did something happen?”
Anubis and Anput turned. He spoke. “Four years ago I was in an accident. I lost the use of half of my brain due to trauma. I had a Pod Pal though, here,” he held her close. “When I first received Anput as my companion, I gave her legal right to make decisions for me should I become incapacitated. Now that you’re 18, you have the right to do that with your companion as well. As a result of my decision, when I was in the hospital, doctors found they could do nothing to return me to my previous state of mental functionality. But Technomancer Industries could, thanks to Anput.”
She spoke. “I made the decision to wirelessly link our minds together. I would provide the processing power and simulated left-half of his brain. That way, he could have a full mind again. The problem is…I don’t get to operate independently whenever his mind is fatigued. Which is more often than not. In fact…” she looked down and her eyes grew suddenly tired. She looked up at Anubis. “It’s starting to happen more often now.”
Anubis nodded in solemn agreement. “Exosuits were meant to protect the body and help repair some of the tissue matter of relatively simple complexity. The brain, however, is not so simple. We do not yet have the technology to repair damaged brain tissue back to its fully functioning capacity. So Anput is trying to help by accenting my mind with her own. Still, she can’t seem to keep up with the demand.”
She shook her head. “I keep trying every upgrade I can get my hands on. They stall the process, but don’t stop it completely. The only reason I can afford so many of them is because we both earn a salary here and get discounts. He’s brilliant…but his mind is fading. And my mind is slowly having to let him take over for longer periods of time so he’ll be able to do his job.” Her eyes watered.
They were silent long enough for Armin to ask a question. “Why…why can’t you just get a totally separate digital brain? Something to implant in your own head so you wouldn’t have to use Anput?”
Anubis responded. “That may have been an option very early on in the process, but my mind has grown accustomed to the vast amount of upgrades and calibrations Anput has put herself through. To attempt to use a completely separate digital brain at this point might cause so much shock on my system that I could lose a large portion of my intellect. Who knows if it’d be permanent.” He sighed. “Every day, this company treads unproven ground with its new technologies. Anput and I are just two more explorers on the road to understanding.”
Anubis looked at Anput. Their expressions mirrored one another.
“She…” Anput said. She looked sad. “Too much brain fatigue. We’re sync’d up again.” “She…” Anubis said. He looked sad. “Too much brain fatigue. We’re sync’d up again.”
Anput stood up and walked back to the other side of the room, up the stairs and into the opposite meeting hall. Anubis did not move the whole time. “She’s programmed to go back to initial starting point when that happens,” he said.
“I…” Armin wanted to say something, but he chose his words carefully to show respect. “I appreciate what you are sharing with me, Mr. Giomatti. And I feel horrible about your situation. I am however, running low on time for the procedure and wanted to know what this had to do with me.”
“Remember when I asked ‘would you pick this model if you didn’t have Pinkie Pie?’” Armin nodded. Anubis continued. “I want you to understand that when you enter the world of augmentations, you face a whole new host of potential difficulties. Learning to operate in the absence of your partner is one of them. That challenge could happen at any time, and it could be very permanent.” He looked over at Anput who stared back at him.
“I…I think I could do it,” Armin said. He wanted it to be true, but he didn’t know if it was.
“You’ll be facing an exam next on the 25th floor. You’ll have to perform most of the tests alone. And you’ll be given synthetic hand gloves from an exosuit to practice with for a bit before you take part of the physical portion of the test.”Armin looked down at his augmented leg braces. Anubis continued. “No, not like that. Not athletic challenges. Simple dexterity tests. More specifically how you react to being shut into the suit of a semi-permanent basis. You won’t have a full suit on, but you’ll be wearing a body encasement outfit that will deprive you of most of your basic sensory input and instead simulate it second-hand through the suit.”
Armin smiled. “That honestly sounds like fun. I'd be like a superhero. I have…one more concern though. And I’m torn on it."
“The suit I want only comes in a female style. It’s very feminine and the voice cannot be changed on the core model. I’m going to sound and look like a female…well, as much as a pony looks female. Nurse Redheart was able to get some discounts on masculinization features as part of a medical excuse for gender dysphoria, and I’m excited at the idea that I would be able to use those but…what do you think?”
“I want to point out: masculinization does not mean that you suddenly have a male suit. You’re going to be outwardly female. But if you take those features, it may help you feel a lot better overall. Though, as a psychologist who has dealt with this before, I must ask. And please: be honest. Do you actually have gender dysphoria?”
Armin said nothing. He didn’t know how to respond.
Anubis motioned for the tablet and it was handed to him. He pressed a few things. “Because here in the notes from your psychologist, you mention being worried about the gender of the suit, yet there is no mention of gender dysphoria anywhere. At no point was it discussed with the level of seriousness you are implying. You would have to be officially diagnosed as “gender dysphoric” in order for me to be able to clear that and get you that discount.”
Armin looked down. He disappointment was palpable.
“Nurse Redheart definitely has a kind heart, and I know she was trying to help you, but I can’t risk a reprimand by fabricating a diagnosis which does not have a recommendation from your personal psychologist. Being given the label of “gender dysphoric” could cause a host of complications for you if that is not an accurate description of a condition you are undergoing, which it seems like you aren’t at this point. So now I ask...why are you really worried about this suit?”
Armin couldn’t hide it anymore. “Because I love Pinkie Pie and I’m afraid if I put on that suit, my fantasies will come true and I’ll lose myself in the character so much that I won’t be Armin anymore.” He sighed and held his head in his hands. “The gender doesn’t matter to me. I would have picked any pony if it meant I could be that much closer to Pinkie Pie. It’s a dream come true for me. And it’s what I want. And I’m scared of what others will think when they see me change my body to a point where I’m now in a very serious relationship with a robotic companion.” Armin stood up and started walking around, even though it caused him difficulty. “I’m already a social outcast. I’ve already started pulling away from my friends because I have so much more fun with my Pinkie Pie. And you know what? I’m not sorry. I don’t care about the rest of the world. I only care about her. Because before she came around, I was suffering all sorts of issues like depression, anxiety, heck, I used to stutter. Did you pick up on that? I have not stuttered once while talking to you…I think…” He stopped and shook his head. “But I want that suit because it’s perfect. Because in my head, there is this fantasy of the kind of life I could live with her. And if I HAVE to pick a suit, if I HAVE to put something on that will seal me in for the rest of my life, then why get something that will push me further away from her if it’s some random style that doesn’t interest me at all? Why not pick the Rainbow pony that inspires my sweetheart to get closer to me and me to her, and helps others see us and say ‘that is an adorable couple and they are so cute together?’ I love her, but in some roundabout way, I also want social acceptance, even though I know how weird that sounds when I’m talking about wearing a pastel pony suit in public while walking with my robotic pony girlfriend.”
Anubis snapped his padded fingers. “NOW we’re talking!” he smiled a mouth full of sharp teeth. “That’s what I want to hear: honesty. Now tell me: when you get this suit, what are some of the first things you’re going to do?”
“I’m going to going on a date with Pinkie Pie, out in the open, and I’m going to end the night with a kiss,” Armin said. “I’m going to tell her how I feel about her. I’m going to be very open about it and I’m going to let her know that there is no one else I’d rather spend the rest of my life with.”
Anubis chimed. “People might laugh.”
“Good. Let them. My sweetheart loves it when they laugh.”
Anubis countered. “You might get people hating you for the relationship between you two.”
“Too bad. It’s not their relationship. I don’t care about the ones who don’t like me. I simply want to increase the relationships with those who do!”
“Even though you just said you want social acceptance?”
“Look, I’ll focus on those who work with me, not against me. I can’t please everyone, but I can show I’m willing to work with others if they work with me.”
“All right,” Anubis said as he started speaking faster than normal. “Listen up, because this is a big one. I know you’re in that puppy love stage with your companion, but everyone who’s had a crush on a Pod Pal has at one time or another thought about this, and you’re going to be in that suit for the rest of your life. Sooooooo…I have to ask and I hope you’ve already got an answer to this…”
“Shoot. Just tell me already.”
Anubis practically whispered. “How far are you willing to take your love for Pinkie Pie when it comes to intimacy?”
Armin’s mouth opened. He was quiet. He turned and looked at Anput across the way. She was back in control, no longer in-sync with Anubis. She had her hand paws up on the glass and her tail (she had a tail and he never noticed) wagged from side-to-side eagerly. Apparently, the excitement of the talk overcame Anubis’ fatigue. He turned back to Anubis. But before he could speak, there was a loud voice in his ear.
“WHAT WAS THAT? WHAT DID HE JUST SAY?” Pinkie yelled over the headset.
“SWEET BABY LUNA,” Armin yelled. “Have you been listening this entire time?!”
Pinkie Pie leaned against the side of the elevator. She sighed, which actually didn’t expel any air, but released physical stress from her automated joints in her head and body. She thought about why the Anubis had told her to leave in a wireless message. She pulled it up again:
Armin has shown a lot of dependence on you. We need to see if he can operate without a partner for the duration of the session. If he cannot, we may have to address that first before we consider any surgery. His life is going to be a lot different starting tonight, so we need to make sure we have covered as many bases as possible when it comes to potential complications involving the Meta-Frame and yourself.
But for your trouble, we’re giving you a code to claim a free upgrade up to Tier 3 from the gift shop downstairs. Anything except those labeled “Deluxe Package Kits.” You can choose to have it installed today if you like (which we recommend, since the session will last a little while).
If we were to recommend any upgrade, we’d suggest one of the various wireless communication packages so you and Armin can have a large variety of communication beyond the most basic included with the new Meta-Frame he’ll be wearing.
We’ll see you again within the hour. And thank you.
-Anubis and Anput
So many rules, Pinkie Pie thought as she closed the message in her Heads-Up Display.
A new message popped up on her viewscreen as the elevator continued towards the Upgrade Bay.
<Are you okay?> SYS-TER asked.
<I’m fine.> Pinkie messaged back. She looked up at the small camera in the corner of the elevator and smiled.
<Don’t worry. I’ve got eyes on Armin and he’s doing great. He and Janus are connecting incredibly well.>
<He turned off his earpiece a few minutes ago. I wonder what’s so secret that he can’t let me hear it,> Pinkie thought.
<He’ll be fine. I’m sure he’ll talk to you about whatever he’s discussing right now soon anyways,> SYS-TER said. There was a warmth to her message translated into the tactile sensation of a hug.
Pinkie blushed. <Thank you.>
<Any idea what upgrade you’ll be getting?> SYS-TER asked. <We changed the look of the Upgrade Bay since you were last here.>
<Oh? That sounds fun,> Pinkie responded. <I don’t know honestly. I want to get something that will help Armin and I connect better with each other.>
<Consider his upcoming suit and see what could work for both of you. Perhaps if you haggle right, you could get two basic software upgrades for that single Tier 3 coupon.> A small image of SYS-TER in the form of a white winged and horned alicorn pony winked on the side of Pinkie’s HUD.
<Hey SYS-TER. I have a question…Am I destined to like Armin?> Pinkie asked. A small digital question mark appeared, indicating from SYS-TER’s end that she needed more explanation. <Is my programming made in such a way that I can’t help but like him? I want to know if this is something I can’t help or if I’m genuinely in-love with him.>
<Pinkie Pie, you’re very affectionate and loving. I will say that those two traits are definitely something you were created with. They are not set, though. At some point, or even gradually over time, you could find it more beneficial not to act in such a way. Even traumatic events can rewrite your software temporarily, and sometimes permanently. You can also decide that you want to change yourself little-by-little and thus change how you approach the world. This would be the same for most humans. But if you’re asking whether Technomancer Industries programmed you to love this specific person? Then no, that is not the case. You do have the capacity to fall in-love, however.>
Pinkie smiled, but still seemed nervous. <But based on how the program was set up, was it likely that I would fall in-love with Armin simply by spending time with him?>
There was a small icon of Celestia in the corner of the HUD. It’s gentle smile made Pinkie feel better instantly. <No, you were not programmed to likely fall in-love with him simply because he was your designated companion. There are many Pod Pals who lead their lives with no romantic involvement from their human partners. And these include cases in which the human wanted to be romantically involved. Had Armin chosen to be cruel, or distant, or treat you like an object in anyway inferior, I guarantee the love would not have blossomed. Did you know some Pod Pals actually request to be removed from the presence of their companions, even if it means uploading them back into the cloud server?>
<Wow. No I didn’t,> Pinkie said. She was genuinely shocked.
<It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s very sad. However, because Armin was kind, and loving, and affectionate towards you, and because he fulfilled your own personal desires, it was highly likely that after a time, you and he would start to feel a deeper emotional connection.>
<But…is the love he feels and the love I feel the same?> Pinkie asked. <Can I ever love him in the way that humans love each other? Or am I always going to be his only choice until…until someone else comes along? Someone human?> Her eyes started to water and she turned away from the camera and SYS-TER’s gaze.
There was the sensation of a calming warmth in her system as well as an image of Celestia hugging Pinkie in her viewscreen. <Pinkie, I don’t care what humans say about our emotions, and you shouldn’t either. Your feelings are very real and very much a rich part of Armin’s life, just as he is to you. I’ve seen dozens of scenarios where humans don’t truly love their Technomancer companions. Armin is not one of them. From the moment you and he met, I could tell he really cared about you. And that love has grown over the past year from a connection between best friends to what it is today. He’s here partly because of your encouragement. You are saving his life. Not just because you brought him here, but because you’re one of the reasons he values his life more than ever before. Because you’re a part of it.>
Pinkie’s tears fell to the ground. It was only now she noticed the elevator had been moving slower than usual during the talk. She was thankful for it. <Thank you, SYS-TER.> She sent an image of a small pony hugging Celestia as SYS-TER sent warmth back towards Pinkie.
<You’re going to be fine, sweetheart. I’ll be here if you need me.> And with that, the connection faded.
After the elevator sped up again, it took less than a minute for it to reach its destination. The door opened to the 3rd Floor. Pinkie’s eyes widened as she gasped in amazement.
From floor-to-ceiling the room spanned about forty feet high, a few hundred feet wide, and stretched so far back that, thanks to a bit of visual trickery and the subtle curvature of the booths in the room, made it seem like it looped around into a massive, bustling marketplace. It was set up like a traditional outdoor market, except that the trees were synthetic and the overhead sky and sun were simulated through holograms. Small birds flitted back and forth across the tops of booths. Pinkie zoomed in to examine them with her telescopic vision and noticed they were actually robotic, with small joints visible upon close inspection. Humans, Pod Pals, Meta-Frames and non-Technomancer robots walked through the various shops, chatting with each other at small coffee tables, beyond beaded entryways into bars and standing in the rows leading far down the aisles. Pinkie Pie could barely contain herself. Until she couldn’t.
“WHAT IS THIS PLACE, FILLED WITH SO MANY WONDERS?!” Pinkie Pie yelled. Most of the nearby vendors and customers turned to see the excited Pink pony skip her way into the shopping area. She laughed at every little thing, stopping to see whatever was shiny, noisy, jangly, or colorful. It took her five minutes to get past the first booth after examining nearly everything it had to offer. The vendor could not stop giggling at Pinkie Pie. “What’s this?” she pointed to a toy. Before the shop owner could answer, she moved along to another. “What’s THIS?” but half a second later, she spotted rainbow rock candy in every hue. “THERE’S COLOR EVERYWHERE!”
She hopped down the aisle, expertly dodging customers as each skip of her step issued a recorded BOING BOING sound. “PINKIE PIE!” Several children said as they saw her. They ran up to her and hugged her. They took a picture with her before leaving. Ohhh I love kids! Pinkie said.
She received an earpiece call from Armin. “Pinkie?” he asked, worried. She expected a call from him after detecting an elevated heartrate from his monitor only seconds before. She knew what the call was about before he even said it.
“I’m right here,” she said. “I was told to leave to get an upgrade for free. They said you had to do this alone. I…normally wouldn’t have left, but I can still feel your vitals through the wireless connection. And Technomancer employees have always been trustworthy in my experience. Are you okay?”
She looked around the shops as she heard Armin speak to Anubis in the background. “You didn’t say we’d have to split up. I don’t like that.”
Pinkie heard the psychologist respond. “I didn’t think you two were supposed to stay together at all times. That’s why I asked about your need for companionship. I’m wondering how well you’d do without her.” Pinkie felt nervous at the sound of his words. She fought back the feelings inside and listened. She felt Armin’s heartrate quicken again and spoke.
“Calm down. I can feel you getting upset. I know what he’s getting at. Trust me. If I even suspected for a minute they were trying to hurt you, there’d be nothing stopping me from raiding that room myself.”
She heard the voice of the psychologist again. “Even if the elevator door didn’t open?”
A bit of anger started to rise in her mind at the comment. What a mean thing to say, she thought. She narrowed her eyes and then reset her gaze to neutral when she saw one of the customers in a nearby booth stare at her, look around, and then turn back pointing to themselves. “Me?” they mouthed. Pinkie shook her head and smiled, pointing to her ear. “Oh,” the person said as they went back to their shopping.
Pinkie responded, “I’d find my way through the vents, just like Saint Jensen.”
“Praise Jensen!” Someone yelled nearby at the sound of his name. Pinkie smirked.
“That’s wonderful, Pinkie!” The psychologist said. “You’re a die-hard Pal, that’s for sure. But you won’t have to worry. I simply wanted to see how you and Armin would react to such a scenario. He’s going to be fine and done in less than hour.”
“I’ll hold you to that. If he’s still there sixty minutes later, you’re going to see me one minute after that.” A few more words were exchanged and Armin clicked the receiver on his end. It didn’t end the call, but it gave Pinkie the signal that he was done talking with her. The conversation fell back into a secondary role in her system, allowing her to focus on her shopping again. She would be informed if any keywords mentioned her or Armin.
“Whew,” she said aloud. “That guy’s tricky.” She looked around for an upgrade specialist. There was a small building with a Technomancer logo on the side. It looked like a minor attempt at camouflage had been made with synthetic vines and shrubbery encircling the perimeter around the building. An open stall at the side resembled something like a horse barn door, yet made out of metal. A Pod Pal (or Meta-Frame? Still hard to tell) was standing at the far end, her back turned, as she worked on something along a table. Her clothing was oiled and rough, like that of an engineer. With the brown overalls and large gloves combined with the handkerchief covering her pink hair. Her yellow fur was a bit dirty and she stood on two large yellow hooves. Small robotics animals moved around the shop, working on tiny projects of their own or gathering materials to hand to the engineer. Upon closer inspection, plain gray metallic wings hung from her back, covered in various scraps of material and accents. There was a simple beauty to them, showing a lot of love and care. Perhaps she knew customers would be seeing her back a lot more often when first approaching. The combination of sparkling and rugged accents made quite an impression.
“Hey,” Pinkie said. The girl shrieked and nearly threw her hammer up into the air. “Whoa…I’m sorry,” Pinkie said. The engineer turned around. Pinkie gasped in delight. “A PONY!”
The Fluttershy suit had the kindest, largest, cutest eyes Pinkie had ever seen on a design. Fluttershy walked over to the front of the stall, all the while keeping her gloves holding a wrench and her eyes looking up at Pinkie from her lowered head. The two ponies hugged.
“Oh hello!” Fluttershy said. Her voice was soft, small and very hard to hear with the hustle and bustle behind Pinkie.
Fluttershy motioned to walk inside. Pinkie opened the half-door to the horse barn and stepped in. Fluttershy closed the full door as the sound dissipated outside. She turned back. “I said ‘Hello!’” Her voice was still soft and tiny, but at least Pinkie could hear it. “Sorry. I’ve gotten too used to speaking softly to my animals.”
“Oh that’s okay! I can hear you now,” Pinkie said. She stared around at all the marvels inside the shop. “Whoaaa…This place is wonderful! Look at all these hardware upgrades!”
“I’m a hardware specialist,” Fluttershy said. “Anything you need to protect you or your systems, I can do. I’ve been working here for several years now.”
Pinkie gestured outside. “Did they just add the marketplace theme? I remember it being a lot more sterile and clean looking, like the medical center.”
“It’s been this way for a few months. Corporate wanted to encourage more walk-ins from the street, so they added more commercial restaurant and bar options near the entrance. That’s when they added the Starbucks. It’s been good. Drives more business in here and gets the word-of-mouth going.”
“Wow. I have been out of the loop,” Pinkie said. “So what hardware ya got?”
A small rabbit with large eyes hopped onto the display table. Fluttershy cleared the wayward tools as a hologram shone forth from the rabbits eyes down onto the empty space in front of it. A list of upgrades appeared as white text on a blue field, reminiscent of a building schematic. Whenever Pinkie scrolled through a choice, a white-outline visual representation shone on the right side with a description underneath. She eyed the choices.
“Ohhhhh SO MANY GOODIES!” Pinkie said with glee. Fluttershy giggled.
A ping went up in her neural net. The secondary conversation was moved to a primary focus as Pinkie’s name was brought up. The last ten seconds were played back before and after the name drop. She heard the voice of the Technomancer psychologist.
“Would you pick this model if you didn’t have Pinkie Pie?’ There was a slight pause, then the psychologist continued. “I want you to understand that when you enter the world of augmentations, you face a whole new host of potential difficulties. Learning to operate in the absence of your partner is one of them. That challenge could happen at any time, and it could be very permanent.”
What? Pinkie Pie asked. What is he talking about? She quickly scrolled through the rest of the conversation, understood its background better, and then caught up about five seconds after hearing the first message.
Fluttershy looked at Pinkie. “Are you okay? You look distracted.”
The conversation she was hearing turned to a focus on the upcoming exam. Pinkie was nervous, but put it back to secondary focus as she turned back to Fluttershy. “I’m just…thinking about someone.”
“Ohhh do you…um…perhaps have a special somepony?” Fluttershy asked. She seemed intrigued with both of her hands clasped together in front of her. It was hard to say no to her kind eyes. Meanwhile, the small rabbit sitting on the table looked impatient while holding the hologram steady with its eyes. It tapped its tiny foot.
“He’ll be a special somepony very soon, at least physically,” Pinkie said. “My companion is here for a procedure to get his Meta-Frame installed. It’ll be a Rainbow Dash one.”
“Oh I love Rainbow Dash!” Fluttershy said. She blushed. “I mean, I like the idea of a suit. Is your friend excited?”
“Oh yes! Tons! He’s just…nervous,” Pinkie said. She looked away as her expression betrayed her concern.
“You seem nervous too,” Fluttershy said. “Were you interested in getting some upgrades for him?”
Pinkie smiled and tapped her finger to the hologram. A small digital coupon appeared for one free upgrade up to Tier 3. It was digitally signed and verified by SYS-TER and Janus Giomatti.
“Whoa!” Fluttershy said. “That’s cool! She doesn’t usually allow those that often!”
“Armin lives with a degenerative bone disease. His bone tissue is deteriorating at an accelerated rate. The Rainbow Dash suit is going to help repair that tissue, so he can’t take it off after it’s installed. I want something that will help him with this.”
“Oh dear,” Fluttershy said. All of her little animals were focused on the conversation now. “That’s a serious medical condition. I’ll have to make sure any upgrades I make won’t be too heavy or stressful for him. Wait…you want me to upgrade him or you?”
Pinkie Pie thought about SYS-TER’s advice, that perhaps she could haggle to get something for both herself and Armin. But the more she thought about Armin, the more her robotic heart worried. She didn’t want to ruin a potential deal with her insistence. She thought about Armin’s smile and gulped, before deciding.
“I…I want whatever’s the best thing you think would help Armin. I want him to be happy. If he’s happy, then I’m happy. Don’t worry about me. I already have everything I need.” Tears formed within Pinkie’s eyes as she nodded.
A wireless message appeared in Pinkie’s HUD. There was a small winking picture of Princess Celestia plus the warmth of a hug transmitted directly into Pinkie’s sensory input. An overlay of an arrow appeared in her vision, pointing down towards the coupon visible on the schematics shone on the work table. She walked over to it as Fluttershy turned to look.
“Oh well then! I can think of several things…” she looked down at the coupon. “And we can get a lot for Tier 4!”
Pinkie’s eyes widened. “What?” She eyed the coupon closely.
A small message had been added from SYS-TER. It read:
My apologies. I accidentally approved a Tier 3 coupon when I meant it to be a Tier 4. Please accept this instead.
<T-T-Thank you!> Pinkie immediately sent a message back to SYS-TER. A response was returned instantaneously.
<You should pick something befitting of a pegasus pony,> She said.
Pinkie looked down at the options. “Oh my gosh…I can actually help Armin get a flight module! He won’t just look like Rainbow Dash, he’ll be able to fly too!” She put her hands up to her mouth and tried not to cry. “But…no, I can’t do that. His bone condition. Every time he impacted the ground, it could hurt him.”
<Are you sure?> SYS-TER said. A beeping issued from the schematic.
Fluttershy and Pinkie looked again. Another message displayed from SYS-TER.
I’ve examined the possible options available for Tier 4 and found it would be unfair of me to make them available without considering the additional requirements for someone like Armin who needs extra accommodation. If Pinkie chooses the Winged Attachment Glide Kit (Tier 4) option, I will compensate Engineer Fluttershy for the difference caused by the addition of the Long-Fall Impact Dampeners (Tier 3). Someone with Armin’s bone condition would experience no problem if he practiced safe and responsible flight, for which he would receive full training during the week after the installation of the flight module. The repair and enhancement of his bone tissue caused by the suit after a period of only two months would put him in the same league of fitness as a professional wing-suiter. Therefore, he would be able to redeem these upgrades 60 days after his procedure. After all, what kind of company would we be if we didn’t allow a pegasus Meta-Frame wearer to experience flight? ;)
Pinkie Pie sat on the ground and started to cry. “What…what did I do to deserve such kindness?”
Fluttershy knelt down and hugged her. Pinkie could tell right away, this was a person in a Meta-Frame. Their hold made her so happy so couldn’t help but embrace back. “Deserve? Just enjoy the gift! It’s yours!”
“Thank you,” Pinkie said. “That’s what I want. I want that for Armin. He’s going to be so happy…” They hugged and finalized the sale. Fluttershy gave Pinkie a digital receipt as the two said goodbye. When Pinkie closed the full door to the horse barn, she started to walk away when she heard a shout of joy from inside.
“I’m gonna get so much money! YAY!” Fluttershy yelled in glee. Pinkie Pie laughed on her way to the elevator.
She stepped inside, closed the door and pressed the button for the 22nd floor. Her system gave her another notification that her name had been mentioned and brought the psychologist conversation to the forefront.
“So now I ask...” the psychologist spoke, “why are you really worried about this suit?”
Armin spoke, and his words froze Pinkie in her tracks. “Because I love Pinkie Pie…”
She stood in silence as he extolled all the wonderful things about her, about what he wanted to do with the Rainbow Dash suit, and why she mattered so much to him. She slid down on the floor with her back against the wall and listened with a smile so peaceful, SYS-TER couldn’t help but notice her expression and wirelessly transmit sensations of comfort as Pinkie listened.
“What are some of the first things you’re going to do?” the psychologist asked.
“I’m going to going on a date with Pinkie Pie out in the open,” Armin said. Pinkie giggled and her eyes shone bright as she could not contain a smile. She put her hands over her heart. “And I’m going to end the night with a kiss,” Pinkie squeaked at the words. “I’m going to tell her how I feel about her. I’m going to be very open about it and I’m going to let her know that there is no one else I’d rather spend the rest of my life with.”
<This is the best day of my life!> Pinkie Pie said to SYS-TER. A smiling Celestia picture was messaged back to her.
<I assume you’re hearing the conversation between Armin and Janus. I can’t hear it because that’s not a public space and I wasn’t given permission by Armin like you were, but if you’re happy, I’m happy for you,> SYS-TER said.
<Will Armin really be okay with the repair to his bones and the flight module?> Pinkie asked.
<I would not have okayed it if I didn’t think so. The repairs the suit will make will help him in more ways than you can imagine. After 60 days, he will effectively be Rainbow Dash.> The Celestia smile appeared again.
There was another notification about Pinkie’s name being said, but when she brought up the conversation after having focused on SYS-TER, she could barely hear a virtually-unintelligible whisper from Janus. In a moment of impulse, she clicked the earpiece.
“WHAT WAS THAT? WHAT DID HE JUST SAY?” Pinkie yelled over the headset.
“SWEET BABY LUNA,” Armin yelled back. “Have you been listening this entire time?!”
Pinkie froze. She realized that perhaps Armin had forgotten to turn off his earpiece and maybe didn’t want her to hear everything he had just said. The thought made her extremely nervous. “…Y…Yes?”
Armin said nothing, but his heartrate had increased by almost double. Pinkie wanted to say something, but didn’t know what. All of the foreseeable outcomes from anything she could consider didn’t seem like something she wanted, and she didn’t want Armin to get angrier. “I’ll…I’ll wait in the elevator. When you’re ready.” She said. She curled up into herself and became very worried.
The door opened to the 22nd Floor and Anput motioned for Pinkie to join her up on the other meeting room. She shook her head but Anput held out her paw and smiled. The sharp teeth did not frighten as they did Armin, and instead made her feel welcome. She grasped Anput’s hand and was led into the other meeting room.
“Did I do something wrong?” Pinkie asked.
“No, not at all!” Anput responded. “Armin chose to keep his earpiece on and you heard what he had to say. That’s all.” She leaned in. her body half on the glass tail with her knees supported by the chair. “Hey, from one Pal to another, how do you feel about what he said?” Her smile was massive. Her tail wagged behind the suit.
Pinkie Pie smiled and looked over at Armin, but he hadn’t turned to see her. She focused back on Anput. “I’ve never been so happy! I just don’t want to ruin the moment…just because he accidentally told me what he didn’t want to. I wanted him to tell me on his own time.”
“Hey, some relationships are strengthened by accidents.” Anput’s smile became gentle and her eyes started to tear up. She sat back in the seat. “Maybe it’ll be awkward for a bit, but in the end, I think this was for the best.”
Pinkie nodded, thought for a few milliseconds and then responded. “Me too.”
Minutes later, after saying goodbye to Anubis and Anput. Pinkie and Armin stood in the elevator together. They stood at opposite corners, facing forward, as the doors closed.
“Did…did it turn out okay? Did he okay the procedure?” Pinkie asked.
“Yes,” Armin said. He didn’t turn to look at Pinkie.
“Cool,” she said. Armin pushed the button for a lower floor. The elevator hummed. Pinkie spoke up again. “I visited the Upgrade Bay!”
“How was it?” Armin asked, his voice quiet.
Pinkie was afraid. “Really good. Do you wanna see it?”
“Some other time.”
“Where are we going?” Pinkie looked. “Are the exams downstairs?”
“No, that’s upstairs.”
“I’m sorry,” Pinkie said. Her eyes glistened and she turned away. “I didn’t know you didn’t want me to hear you. I thought you wanted me to listen cause you were scared and didn’t trust the psychologist. I’m sorry I heard what you said when you didn’t want me to hear it. I’m a horrible person. I know. You can hate me. That’s fine…” Her voice trailed-off and she faced the wall, only to see her reflection stare back at her from the gleaming black surface.
She felt an embrace from behind. “I don’t hate you,” Armin said as he held her tight. “I could never hate you, Pinkie.” She turned and held him close, crying softly on his shoulder. “But I am upset.”
She held on to him as she looked him the face. “Tell me what I can do to make it up to you.”
“Just…please, please tell me when you’re listening. I…That was my fault. I shouldn’t be mad at you. You were doing what you know I wanted you to do because I was scared. I…I have no right to be mad at you,” He placed his hands on his forehead. “I’m just…super paranoid right now. All of this is so much to me and it’s hard for me to do anything without you.”
Pinkie smiled as her eyes softened. “I’m happy you need me, but I’m also proud of you for doing that by yourself.”
Armin seemed lost in thought. Then he spoke. “I want to show you I can be independent if I have to be, BUT…just know I’d rather be with you.” She held him close.
The tenth floor of Technomancer Industries was marked by silence down the half-lit hallways of endless pods. Numbers spanned across the top of each upright pod in ascending order and curved around corners at various intervals on the right and the left. The ceilings were high and arched in a way which reminded Armin of a cathedral. His and Pinkie’s steps echoed through the lone hallways as security cameras lined the ceilings.
"It's been a really long day. I figured this would be a good place to think," Armin said. His voice was naturally quiet in the presence of stillness.
Pinkie looked up at the forms of Pod Pals resting. “Are these all waiting to be commissioned?”
“No, they’re just the outer shells,” Armin said. “This is the showroom floor. Every single model the company has is represented here.” Armin walked up to the nearest one and stared at the closed-eye form inside. “This is where I chose the shell of a body that you wear today.”
Pinkie stood still and looked down the corridor. “I’ve never been here.”
“I stood here for hours each day for three days straight trying to decide if you were the right one for me. I probably spent more time in here than the average employee. Five workers might have come in here during the time I was examining these sleeping beauties.” He put his hand on the pod of a lilac pony with wings and a horn. The eyes opened as if they were shaking off sleep. They stared at Armin with compassion.
“Whoa!” Pinkie said as she stepped back. “I thought this was a show room. I didn’t know they were actual Pod Pals.”
“They’re not,” Armin said as he removed his hand. Seconds later, the eyes closed slowly and the face resumed its usual sleeping position. “They’re only the frames with a small motor that controls the eyes and motion-tracks whoever looks at them through a central computer.” He stared at the sleeping image of the pony. “Strange how that’s all it takes to connect with one of them.”
Pinkie put her hands on two pony pods at once and closed her eyes. Both a mint green pony and a yellow pony with candy-striped hair stared forward. They looked around when they recognize Pinkie with her eyes closed and then stopped their stares on each other. Pinkie opened her eyes slightly and saw both of them looking at each other. She released her hands and stared for a moment at both faces that turned to track her now-open eyes as they shut back into sleep. “Did you really stand here for hours just staring at these?”
“There’s something psychologically gratifying about being the one who awakens them.” He laughed. “Miss Noble definitely has a flair for the dramatic. How well do you know your customer base when this is the type of showroom you have for your consumers?”
“Bring your fantasies to life,” Pinkie Pie. “I think that’s the subconscious feeling here.”
The two walked down the hallway in silence, looking at characters of all shapes and sizes seemingly asleep in their stasis. Every now and then, Pinkie would drag a finger over a case to watch the eyes slit-open before her hand away as the eyes closed again.
The two stopped in front of a large white pony with a body slightly bigger than all the others. Gold regalia lined its neck and hooves. The wings curled over the front and protectively hovered over the body. A crown topped the head above the elongated horn.
“Celestia,” Pinkie said. “This is the basic style of the Pod Pal frame SYS-TER has.”
“Basic?” Armin asked. “Well, I guess that makes sense. Who knows how many upgrades a building overseer has.”
Pinkie placed her palm on the pod. The eyes of Princess Celestia opened slowly and gazed back at her with a loving expression. “I can’t get used to this,” Pinkie said. “My system keeps telling me these are Pod Pals stuck in there, even though I know they’re not.”
“Then you’re more human than you know,” Armin said. “I feel exactly the same way when I look at them.” The Celestia face turned to look at him. “She a Mother Pod you know,” Armin said, turning back to Pinkie. “Over the past five years, the company has donated almost a hundred Celestia Pod Pals to orphanages across the country. Each Celestia functions as a mother figure for all the children. They watch over them during play. They help mediate disputes between students. They read to them at night. And they never get tired. With the exception of a weekly recharge period, they never sleep. Every single orphanage has reported a massive increase in morale since the inclusion of a Mother Pod into their staff.”
Pinkie watched the eyes of the Celestia Pod Pal track her gaze. Armin spoke again. “Do you know how advanced a Mother Pod’s logic systems have to be in order to keep track of hundreds of ever-changing individual children psychologically and emotionally? She has to update that information on-the-fly. There are child psychologists whose level of effectiveness can’t match the Celestia Pod.”
Pinkie nodded. “Some humans might find that scary.”
“Humans always find intelligence scary, if they’re ignorant,” Armin said as he shook his head. “But if you’re a learned person, finding someone else who displays exceptional intelligence is liberating.” Armin sighed. “That’s one of the reasons I cherish you so much, Pinkie. You match me at every level and exceed it in some cases. I’ve never found anyone else who can even come close.”
Pinkie released her hand from the Celestia pod. “Why did you pick me, Armin?” She turned and scanned the corridor full of pods. “There are almost two hundred and fifty choices here. Why was I the one?”
Armin crossed his arms as he fell into deep thought. He stared at the eyes of the Celestia Pod as she turned her gaze to him. There was almost a sense of knowing in those eyes. “I've thought about that. This entire past year, ever since I first saw you, I've wondered why you're so different than all the others. I want to tell you some profound thing that will help you understand it all. But the truth is, after all this time, I still don't know." He eyed a Pinkie Pie Pod Pal directly across from Celestia's Pod. "I remember standing in a mall and seeing an advertisement about Pod Pals with my mother. It was just six characters from the show. And your form was one of them. I just saw it and thought ‘That’s who I want to be my friend.’ But I can’t explain why.”
“You could’ve picked Twilight and had a bookworm friend to help you study,” Pinkie said. “You could’ve had the hardworking Applejack, or the sweet and kind Fluttershy. Rarity could’ve boosted your self-confidence to unimaginable heights. Who knows how inspirational Rainbow Dash could’ve been!”
“Yeah…but I picked you,” he said.
Pinkie looked up at the form of her doppleganger resting close-eyed in the pod before her. She moved to touch the edge and then held her hand away. "I've always wondered if I was unique." She turned to Armin. "That if I wasn't the Pinkie whom you had chosen, like say you picked another of the same model, then would you have cared about them about much as you care about me?"
"I don't know. But answer me this: Are all Pinkie Pie models derived as copies from the same Pinkie personality file?"
"No," Pinkie shook her head. "There are a set of traits randomly generated within each Pinkie Pie within a certain range of possibilities for each variable. It's so no two will ever be the same. That's good for individuality, but it makes my question even harder. It means that maybe, just maybe, I got lucky when they rolled the dice for me. That maybe one of the reasons you like me is because all the right numbers lined up during that moment of creation."
"That's possible but..." Armin thought. "Doesn't seem right. Like the explanation is still missing something."
“But why am I so special?” Pinkie asked. Her voice had a hint of frustration. “I have to know what you like about me. If I knew that, I could make it even better.”
“Pinkie,” Armin said as he walked over to her and held her close. “There are so many things I like about you, but you can’t quantify them down into personality traits that you can check off a list.”
“Yes you can!” Pinkie said. “You can quantify everything with numbers and lists!”
Armin smiled and laughed a little. “Are you sure you don’t have a little bit of Twilight Sparkle in you?”
She made a sly smile and laughed a bit at herself. “Heh, I guess I am changing from the basic Pinkie core programming.” Her eyes widened as she stared behind Armin. “That can’t be right.”
“What?” He said.
“My facial recognition software is detecting hundreds of eyes looking at us.”
Armin looked past Pinkie Pie at the several dozen heads they passed, now turned towards them with eyes open. He flipped his gaze to the ones behind him and saw the entire corridor with open-eyed faces staring in his direction.
“Um…” Pinkie said. “Should we leave?”
“Wait,” Armin said. He turned back to the Celestia Pod. “I knew there was a reason the eyes didn’t close when you removed your hand.” He looked up and saw a security camera. “Of course.”
A voice laughed over an intercom above them. “HAH!” it said in a short burst of joy. “You should have seen the look on your faces when you saw the look on all of mine!”
Pinkie yelled. “SYS-TER! That was not funny!” Her eyes narrowed.
“SYS-TER?” The voice said again. “That’s who you think this is? Oh, has she been messing with you? I’ll have a talk with her later.”
The two partners looked around at the vast corridors of eyes. Armin held Pinkie’s hand. “Pinkie, I need you to use your facial recognition software to scan for a face outside of the pattern on the walls. Find anything out of the ordinary.”
“Got it!” She said slowly turning and examining every corner. She stopped and pointed. “Who’s that?”
Armin spun around. In the distant darkness just beyond a spotlight atop a Jensen Pod, Armin saw a head sneak back behind a corridor. A very large head with very bright, peering eyes.
“What…the hell was that?” he asked. “W-We should definitely leave.”
The voice spoke up again. “Oh no no no!” the now-decidedly masculine voice said. “I so rarely have visitors. Please stay.” The voice feigned an apologetic tone. “I promise I’ll be nice.”
Pinkie stood back-to-back with Armin as she spoke. “Something tells me that isn’t a promise we can expect them to keep.”
“I don’t get it,” Armin said as he reached down and pressed a button next to his knees, arming emergency healing fluid in his leg crutches in case he needed to make a quick exit. “I don’t understand how something like this could’ve gotten past security!”
“That is the conundrum, isn’t it?” the voice said. “How did I possibly get past all the big bad Techno-whatever guys downstairs?”
Pinkie whispered to Armin. “Start moving towards the elevator.”
“I can hear you!” the voice yelled from down a different corridor on the side, now closer to the pair.
“What do you want?” Armin asked. He started pushing Pinkie towards the exit and then saw the cameras tracking his move. A wireless message came up on his tablet.
<Don’t move,> it said. The message was sent from SYS-TER.
Pinkie returned. <WHO IS THIS DOWN HERE WITH US?>
<Someone who’s going to receive a very stern response very soon. I will take care of them. Just don’t move and stay next to the Celestia Pod. Help is on the way.>
“I just want to talk, honestly,” the voice said. “You know how lonely it is down here?” Armin and Pinkie turned to see a massive form slink around the edge of the light. The body was not bipedal like all the others. It walked on four limbs, almost like a panther. Its form suggested something much more dangerous. The eyes were bright yellow with red laser-like pupils.
<Keep talking. And please do not run, Armin. Trust me. You won’t need to. I don’t want you to hurt yourself,> SYS-TER sent as a response.
Pinkie chimed up first. “So…if you’re lonely then…let’s talk,” Pinkie said. “How can you control all the heads in here?”
“Simple,” the voice said. “I’m connected to every one of the eye inputs in the room. Any one of their motion tracking software goes off and I know instantly where you are.”
Armin typed a message into the tablet and showed it to Pinkie without sending it. <Can you motion track in pure darkness?>
She responded. <No I can’t OHHHHH I get you! That might work! Stay here. This will be easy.> She hugged Armin, crawled up between the glass of two pods and unscrewed the light bulb above them. The light went out and Armin fell into complete darkness.
The voice responded. “Oh that’s sneaky. Maybe I can’t see you now, but the moment you move out of that darkness, I’ll spot you. And it’s not like you can go anywhere. You’re surrounded by light!”
Pinkie crawled atop a pod and unscrewed another bulb. Then moved quickly and got another.
“Oh come on now,” the voice said with disbelief. “I’ll search every dark corner till I see that shining face of yours, Pinkie Pie!”
Armin saw the Celestia Pod open with barely a hint of air escaping. A message appeared on his tablet.
<Get in, Armin,> SYS-TER said. The body opened up to reveal a hollow interior, save for the head area which held the two eyes behind lids since they couldn’t see in the low-light. A mechanical skull shape filled the area behind it.
If it weren’t for the dragon panther, that’d be the most terrifying thing I’d seen all day, Armin thought.
He stared in disbelief. He typed quickly. <But the eye components are filling up the head space! I can’t fit my head there!>
<Push up the components and place your head underneath. The rest is hollow. You’ll be fine.>
Armin trusted SYS-TER and pulled himself inside the space. He pushed the head components up into the topmost space above the Celestia frame, leaving a half-formed metal skull sticking up. Oh this will never work! Armin thought. He forced himself to push back the doubts as he messaged Celestia back. <Ready!> He slipped the tablet into his jacket pocket and held his arms in the proper positions for the suit to close around him. The armor locked into place around his body and the pod sealed shut.
It took a moment for his mind to register where he was. Wow...I’m actually inside a Meta-Frame! He tried to move but his body was frozen in place. Claustrophobia started to set in as his breathing began to increase rapidly. He tried to calm himself down as he stared out the eyeholes of the Celestia suit. SYS-TER…hurry…
The intimidating voice spoke again, this time just around the corner. “Pinkie, there’s no use in continuing to take out those light bulbs. Maybe I can’t see in the dark, but I can follow the path you’re making. Really. You should think about these things.”
Armin focused on his breathing and closed his eyes. He didn’t need to see what was coming. And if it couldn’t see his eyes in the suit, then maybe it couldn’t recognize that he was in there. He heard the stomping of loud steps nearby as they turned the corner.
“PEEKA-awww,” the voice said. “I could’ve sworn you were still here. Well hide-and-seek it is then!” The thing moved in front of the Celestia Pod and slowly stepped its way across. Armin wanted to open his eyes, but to do so could invite its gaze upon him. He did see that the creature’s glowing gaze invited the looks of every face in the corridor. Including the one now situated above the Celestia head. The beast stared up at the eyes far above him. “Huh…that’s out of place.” He stared into the suit and peered inside. Armin shivered as he heard the creature speaking right at the pod. “Oh wait a minute…OH THAT IS SO CLEVER!” He jumped around in the darkness as the eyes attempted to track him. “You are the best hide-and-seek players I’ve ever had! Most just try duck around corners, but I always catch them. Open your eyes! I know you’re in that Celestia suit.” He slid open the door with his strength alone and placed his face against the Celestia frame. Armin felt a glow cast itself over his closed eyelids. He couldn’t help it. He opened his eyes.
Giant yellow orbs of light peered at him through the holes with red pupils.
“THERE YOU ARE!” the creature yelled in triumph.
There was a blast of blue light. A small metal object landed on the creature’s face and clamped itself to his head. “HUGS.” It shouted in a cute digital voice as a smiling face appeared on an LED screen over its back. Blue electricity shot forth from starfish-like legs. The creature screamed in pain.
“OWWWW What is this?!” He fell back from the face of Celestia. Armin could see his large dragon-esque form with parts of animals composited over various parts of the body. The legs were brown and green and the arms were eagle claw and lion paw. Two mismatching horns curved at the top and a pair of asymmetrical wings stood across its back. The head was a mix of goat and pony.
Two more blasts of blue light. “HUGS! HUGS!” Three electric starfish shocked the creature as he spasmed on the floor. “OW! These little things are HORRIFYING,” he yelled.
“DISCORD,” came a voice from off to the right. Armin shifted in the suit to spy two human security guards in full armor flanking a large blue mare with shimmering mane and tail. Her wings spanned out impressively.
“Princess Luna!” Armin yelled in the suit, muffled.
“Did SYS-TER put you in there?” Luna asked as she stepped forward.
“What?” Discord yelled. “She helped you? But that’s cheating!”
“HUGS!” There was an electric burst followed by Discord screaming. Then it stopped. “We have hugged you and we are now friends forever,” the shock starfish spoke.
Luna spoke. “I would have stopped him sooner except that he has a habit of turning off his wireless communication for a whole day when he doesn’t like what I have to say. Which he already did once today.” Luna scowled. She put her hand up to her ear to signify she was receiving a message. “Got it. Armin, stay in there for just one minute.” Luna looked around the room. “PINKIE PIE!”
A response came from far down the corridor. “Princess Luna?” A BOING BOING sound came from all the way down the hall as Pinkie hopped to a standstill in front of Luna. “Your majesty!” She bowed and her hair fluff fell over her lowered face until she picked her head back up again.
“Did Discord hurt either of you?” Luna asked.
Discord spoke up. “I did no such thing!” (“HUGS!”) “OWWW I’m serious!”
Luna’s voice was enraged. “You are in deep trouble, Discord! You could’ve hurt this young boy!”
“And me, buster!” Pinkie said.
“Also Pinkie,” Luna mentioned. “You’re going up to see SYS-TER herself this time!”
It was the most vicious Armin had heard any Pod Pal ever speak…actually was she a Pod Pal? He didn’t know for sure.
“Wait!” Discord said. “You don’t understand what it’s like down here! I wasn’t trying to hurt them. I would never hurt someone! You know that I can’t!”
Princess Luna turned to Armin. “Did he try to hurt you?”
Discord looked up pleadingly. Each little hug-buddy had a question mark on its face. Pinkie was hugging one. It turned into a happy face with exceedingly cute cartoon eyes displaying LED tears of joy.
“No,” Armin said. “We were playing a game.” He then quickly added. “But if he had just said that in the first place, we could have avoided a lot of trouble.”
Luna turned to Discord. “So this is your fault?”
“Yes,” he said sadly. The two remaining starfish displayed sad expressions as well.
She stepped over to him and looked down at his massive head. Luna was at least half his size and yet she was far more intimidating. “Are you going to apologize?”
“I’m sorry Armin,” Discord said. “I got lonely. I just wanted someone to play with.”
Luna put her hand up to her ear again and looked back at Discord. “SYS-TER wants you to show your sincerity. In any way you can.”
Discord blinked his sad yellow eyes and stood up. Pinkie was still on his back, hugging the happy starfish as Discord started walking down the corridor. “Follow me,” he said solemnly.
The Celestia suit opened up and Luna helped Armin down out of the pod. She walked with him to the back of the corridor. They stopped at a large display case full of small component parts.
Discord sighed. “If I give him one of these, can we call it even?” Discord asked.
Luna narrowed her eyes. “You’re still going to see SYS-TER. But if you show some kindness, she might go easy on you. Again,” Luna scowled even harder.
Discord handed a tablet to Armin. He wasn’t afraid of the large beast anymore. Not with such sadness in his eyes. He looked at the list in front of him. “Those are my personal programs. You can have one…” Discord said as he looked up at Luna. “Okay…two. But only because that was really clever of you to hide in the suit…even if wasn’t entirely you who thought of it.”
Armin looked at the list of several modifications for a Meta-Frame:
Empathy Amplifier: Detect signs of distress in humans by analyzing their visual cues, speech patterns and behavior. Using psychological subroutines, determine what possible issues a human may be experiencing, allowing user to act upon visual and auditory cues more effectively.
Lie Detector: Using voice pattern recognition technology, a visual display analyzes speech and determines what may be a lie. Over time, speaking with the same individual creates a profile which can determine lies with up to 99% efficiency.
Threat Identifier: Scan a crowd and be able to spot potential threats before they occur. Threats are highlighted in the visual HUD and automatically tracked within the system until they move out of line-of-sight.
Advanced Ocular Recording and Projection: Set perimeters for recordings to automatically occur when you see certain things happen in front of you. Using beams mounted in the eyes, project the recordings onto any surface with near-perfect visual clarity.
“Discord,” Armin asked as he looked up.
“Yes? What have you chosen?” he seemed very down.
“These are all really nice, but…can I go with you?”
He and Pinkie looked up as one. “What?” Discord asked. “Go where?”
“To see SYS-TER. I have to do so anyway. Maybe I can talk to her with her. Help her understand you were just kidding around. No harm done.”
“You…you aren’t mad at me?” Discord asked.
“Honestly…I’m a little mad. But…that was exciting,” Armin said with a smile.
Discord’s sad face slowly turned to a grin. “It was, wasn’t it?” he said proudly. “Well I aim to please. Of course we can go together!”
Luna’s stare was ice. “Armin, you realize your presence could complicate things upstairs when SYS-TER tries to discipline him?”
“I know,” Armin said. Discord looked down and realized Armin was holding his hand. His draconic expression softened. Armin stepped forward. “And I’ll talk with her as well. It’s true that what he did was wrong, but I forgive him.” Discord smiled a sweet smile before hiding it when Armin turned to him.
Luna stared up at the ceiling and exhaled loudly. “Fine. Friendship. Magic. Whatever. But we are escorting ALL of you up there!” She snapped her fingers at the two security guards behind her. They both clicked buttons on their guns and the three small starfish detached from Discord.
“Awwww,” the starfish said with sad faces. Pinkie held on to one of them in her arms.
“Can I keep it?” Pinkie asked. Its LED face had tears of pity and quivering pouty lips.
“No Pinkie,” Luna said. “You cannot keep the advanced shock mine.”
“Awwww,” both Pinkie and the shock mine said. The guards collected their sentient weaponry.
The group moved to a freight elevator in the back, walked inside and stood very close to one another considering how many there were and how large Discord was. Discord held four small thin cases in his clawed hand and placed them in Armin’s hands. Armin looked up. “Thank you. They’re yours.” He said quietly. Armin looked down at all four software packages and hugged the large creature, whose body fur was as soft as Pinkie Pie.
“NO WAIT,” Discord yelled. “Oh it’s just Pinkie. That’s fine…”
With exposed piping and masses of insulated wiring running across the darkened back halls, the freight area of the 30th Floor was not at all what Armin expected. Princess Luna guided Discord with the help of her two human security guards as Pinkie and Armin fell in step behind. Dim florescent lighting filled the back hall as they passed by crumbling wallpaper and computer terminals which looked like they dated from the previous decade.
“Is this where SYS-TER lives?” Armin asked.
Princess Luna said nothing as she and her guards walked up to a series of doors. It was quickly apparent that Discord would only be able to fit through the double-door entrance in front of him. Luna stepped over to a smaller door with the sign Do Not Enter During Tour. Above the door were a lit green light and a red one which stayed off. Luna put her hand on the door.
“Armin, you and Pinkie will be going through here while I will take Discord through the other entrance.”
Pinkie and Armin looked at each other. “Why are we splitting up?” Armin asked.
“Because I’m tired of you questioning me and I don’t want you to cause any problems when Discord is interrogated,” she said bluntly and without feeling.
“Luna!” Pinkie said. “You said we’d see SYS-TER together!”
“And you will. When she’s done speaking to him privately. Don’t make this difficult.” She kept her large, equine eyes narrowed at Armin.
“Seem to be bending the promise there quite a bit, Luna,” Armin said.
She stepped forward and put her face an inch away from his. He’d never seen another pony face this close before and her furious expression put him off. He noticed his heart begin to accelerate unusually fast. Pinkie picked up on the abrupt change and quietly sniffed the air. She turned around and quickly projected two words on the wall from her eyes: Intimidation Pheromones, before flicking them off and turning back around. The guards turned in time to see Pinkie smiling nervously at them. Luna’s eyes, however, had flicked over to a reflection of the projected words visible on a uninsulated pipe behind Armin, and then back at the young human.
“You two are quite the little team, aren’t you?” Luna asked, breath coming out of the pony mouth. It had to be a Meta-Frame…right? “Always trying to be sneaky. Always backing each other up. SYS-TER may be impressed, but to me, you’re just another juvenile pair. You’ve had it far too easy up to now.” She leaned in, causing Armin to back-up in response. “I wonder what will happen on the day you push and someone pushes back. Are you going to be able to stand up to them? Think it’ll turn out okay? Think they won’t turn out to be stronger, or smarter, or more experienced?” Armin leaned uncomfortably close to the piping behind him. Luna sneered. “Here’s a lesson you won’t get in our pre-planned company tour, courtesy of the one hundred grand you invested in your procedure: you go out there, into the real world, with that attitude of yours and someone’s going to knock you down a peg or two. If you’re lucky, your pride is all they’ll knock out. You’re going to be walking around as a living cartoon character. Intimidation will not be your skill. You better learn to charm people. Better learn to help them like you, or you’re going to experience some very painful falls.”
Armin didn’t know how, but he managed to speak despite the intimidation tactics. “You don’t think I know that?” he started. “You don’t think I’ve considered all of that already? I know my life is going to change. But at least I’m going to have one. So why should I continue being scared of it? Why should I bother considering what other people think of me? I’ll have a life, so I’m going to live it the way I want.”
Luna nodded very slowly. “So that’s it, isn’t it? You think because you’re close to death that you can be as reckless as you want.” It wasn’t a question. “You still haven’t realized the potential of this suit, Armin. Not only are you not going to die anytime soon, but you’re probably going to outlive your mother, your friends, your relatives, and anyone you end up loving.” Pinkie’s ears dropped and her expression turned sad. “You haven’t noticed it, but you’re moving from the boy holding death’s hand to the boy death couldn’t see. At your age, with the kind of resources you have available, it’d be entirely possible for you to live close to one hundred fifty years, maybe even two hundred. Are you ready for that kind of responsibility?”
“Do I have a choice?” Armin asked.
“I’m not talking about whether you should get the surgery. I’m talking about whether you should change your attitude about life so drastically that you think your actions don’t have consequences. Trust me: they do,” She said before turning to look at Discord. He had said nothing during the whole talk. Luna’s eyes narrowed. “What? No witty come-back from the draconequus? No coming to the rescue of the one who tried to save you?”
Discord’s eyes were calm, but wearisome. He sighed. “I respect you, Luna,” he said. His eyes looked away.
Luna turned to Pinkie, whose sad face garnered no pity from her. “And you? He’s your companion.”
“I don’t know what to say to someone like you,” Pinkie said. “You…you scare me.”
“Fear and respect,” Luna said. “I’m fine with either.” She turned back to Armin, whose face had hardened the moment he saw Pinkie upset. “But I can’t read what you’re giving me. It’s neither.”
Armin said nothing, but his gaze didn’t divert this time and he wasn’t backing off from Luna.
She looked surprised. “You aren’t even the slightest bit afraid of a goddess?”
“You’re not a goddess,” he said. “You’re either a robot or a person in a suit.”
Luna seemed to consider his words. “Or both. Or neither, perhaps?” she asked, purposely ambiguous. “As far as you’re concerned, I’m the only thing keeping you from going through that door.”
Armin was angry. His emotions made it very hard to think. Pinkie looked down at the ground and her eyes watered.
“There it is,” Luna said. “Anger. That’s what you have for me. It won’t do you any good, though. You’ve turned me into your villain,” Luna said, “simply because I’m telling you to do something you don’t want to do. You can’t even put this whole situation into perspective. You have to pick someone to defy, if only to feel like you’re rebelling against the system. You still don’t realize that I saved you,” she turned and pointed at Discord before looking back at Armin, “from this one who was content to toy with you until someone put him on a leash.”
“I never sought to hurt him,” Discord said.
Luna’s glared at him. “I didn’t ask for your input.” She turned back to Armin. “I seriously hope you aren’t considering doing the same in the outside world, where you make someone your villain just so you can have a purpose.” She lowered her arm and her gaze suddenly looked tired. It was almost ancient, tinged with sadness. “I wish I could warn you. I wish I could just…tell you all the problems you’ll be facing because that anger of yours keeps determining what you want to do with yourself.” She looked down, seemingly lost in thought. “But it won’t make a difference.” Her expression was stern when she looked back at him. “People like you need to learn things the hard way. It’s the only way you’ll learn. Then, when no one’s around to argue with,” she opened the smaller door, “only then will you finally see what it’s like to argue with yourself. Maybe then you’ll listen.”
Armin looked through the door into a room with nothing but white walls, a single door at the back and a glass viewing panel where several chairs rested on the opposite side. He looked at Luna. “I have been listening.”
“Prove it,” she said as she motioned to the door. Her words weren’t harsh anymore. They seemed heavy, with one nearly imperceptible emotion…regret.
Armin looked at Pinkie. She nodded and shook her head out of her down expression as she walked through the door. Armin sighed and stepped through. Luna stood in the doorway. “Pinkie needs to enter through that service door and activate the button to start the tour.”
“Tour?” Armin asked. “I thought we were going to see SYS-TER?”
“Please just do what I say, for once,” Luna said. “Normally we call up a Technomancer employee to operate the console and guide the tour, but Pinkie can do it if she follows the prompts on the console. With you two, I feel this experience needs to be more personal. You’ll see.”
Pinkie nodded and walked over to the service door, exited it and stood behind the glass where empty seating peered up at the scene where Armin stood. She saw a pedestal with some buttons and waited.
Luna spoke. “This isn’t going to be what you expected, but it’ll be exactly what you need.” She stepped back and closed the door. It locked into place, leaving Armin alone in the central room with Pinkie staring at him from the glass. She said something, but the sound was perfectly muffled. Armin made a motion with his hands near his ears that indicated he couldn’t hear. Pinkie activated her earpiece and Armin heard her voice on his end.
“Are you ready?” Pinkie asked. Armin looked around the room and saw nothing but the rear exit door and the front service door. Everything else was covered in small one-foot by one-foot tiles from top to bottom.
“I don’t see what I’m supposed to do in here.” Armin looked past the glass viewing panel where Pinkie was standing. “I see chairs behind you. I think Luna’s messing with me.”
“Perhaps,” Pinkie said. “But my sensors are picking up small creases around the room, like tiles are supposed to move. Maybe it’s a puzzle?”
Armin moved over to the service door where Pinkie was, opened it, and stepped through. An audible sound played from overhead speakers as a nameless female voice spoke. “To begin the tour, please step back into the white room while Pinkie presses the button on the console to begin further instructions.”
Armin and Pinkie looked at each other. “She knows your name,” Armin said.
“We’re in a company headquarters that makes robots and artificial intelligence, Armin,” Pinkie said.
Armin smirked and shook his head. Pinkie kissed him on the cheek and then stood back as though she were waiting for a response. He couldn’t help but blush a little as he stepped back into the room and closed the door. “Hit it,” he said.
Pinkie tapped the button excitedly as they both waited. The lights in the room changed as the middle nine blue floor tiles light up blue. STAND HERE was written across them all. Armin did so and the lights changed again as the bordering tiles around the center ones started to slowly lift up off the ground. SIT HERE was written on them. Armin saw down and felt the cold tile under him. The wall lit up in red across from him with one tile illuminated in blue. LOOK HERE it read. Armin stared and tried not to comment on the constant instructions. DON’T BLINK FOR FIVE SECONDS, it now read.
Lights streamed out of the tile as Armin struggled to keep his eyes open. They scanned his retinas as eight cameras appeared from each corner of the room at both the bottom and the top tiles. They hung there silently.
“What do you see?” Pinkie asked.
“Nothing special,” Armin said as the lights stopped. He looked back at her. “Didn’t know I was getting an eye exam.”
“Wow, those blue lights look pretty!” Pinkie said.
Armin looked around the room. “I don’t see any blue lights.”
Pinkie pointed to the tile where the lights had come from moments before. “The ones streaming from that tile. And pretty much every camera in the room when you turn your head. It’s like they’re tracking your eyes.”
Armin shook his head. “I’m telling you, everything in here looks exactly the same.” He gestured to the tile with his hand. “That one looks…” He stopped and stared at his hand. His blue hand.
For years Armin had wondered what it would be like to be inside a Meta-Frame, permanently sealed off so all he could ever see from then on was a body that looked so different, so alien to him, that his mind would consider it nothing more than a dream. He had seen videos online of other Meta-Frame wearers showing their first-person experiences with the suits and how they freaked out the first time their minds fully comprehended what they had become. There was no video, no written experience that could fully portray the startling emotional impact of finding that you had moved from one body to the next. And today, Armin stared at his hand, now blue and cel-shaded, with the appearance of a soft fine coat of hair. He looked down.
His whole body had changed. The clothes and the crutches were gone, replaced with a sleek sky-blue body of hooved feet and subtle, graceful curves like that of an upright equine. The symbol of a cloud with a rainbow lightning bolt rested on both of his hips. The sight of them made his eyes tear up. Streaks of a rainbow tail flicked out from behind him as he turned his hips to see it move. He smiled as he fought back tears. “Oh my gosh…”
“Armin,” Pinkie asked. “Why is your butt making you emotional?” She looked closely. “What are you seeing that I can’t?”
“It happened!” He said. “I mean…I can see my body as Rainbow Dash!”
“WHAT?!” Pinkie said. “I wanna see!” A camera dropped down in front of her and projected over the glass panel for Pinkie to view. “OH MY GOSH YOU LOOK AWESOME I WANNA HUG YOU SO MUCH!”
A mirror materialized within Armin’s view in front of him. He caught himself staring at the light fuchsia eyes matching his gaze. He approached the mirror and saw tears streaming down from the smiling pegasus in front of him. Her eyes were so beautiful. Her smile lit up the room. “Is this what I’m going to look like soon…?” The mouth moved perfectly in-sync with his. Wings flexed up behind him and he giggled in glee. Pinkie laughed along with him. “Pinkie, you have no idea how happy I am right now,” he said as his voice cracked.
Pinkie smiled. “Yes I do,” she said as she felt the wireless readout from Armin’s emotions in her chest. She put her hands up to her mouth. “I want you to feel this happy all the time,” she said.
“My ears are twitching!” Armin said as he saw the ears in the Rainbow Dash reflection twitch towards Pinkie’s voice whenever she spoke.
“WHOA,” Pinkie said as she pressed her face against the glass. “Armin, turn around! The room has opened up. IT’S HUGE and it’s not a simulation, either!”
Armin looked behind him. The white walls were completely gone. He was standing at the bottom of a four-story high city with colossal pillars stretching from floor to the ceiling as though they were in a forest of metal trees. Each pillar spanned outward with spiraling steps leading up to several levels where open-air balconies had people and ponies, fantastic once-fictional characters and customized beings chatting with one another. Each floor of elevated glass-walled rooms was rife with activity from people having their own meetings to Meta-Frames and Pod Pals playing games with one another. Small lifts moved between the levels, allowing Armin a sigh of relief as he eyed small groups of ponies getting ready to hang out with a large group of brightly colored creatures that had to be Pokemon. Armin laughed at the combination of exosuits and robots as they chatted amongst each other, some even cuddling with one another as they talked on couches or at bar tables. The massive room was its own bustling mini metropolis contained inside four floors in a building in downtown Corpus Christi, Texas. Did anyone outside the building even know that such a place existed?
Armin wanted to step forward off the white tiled floor and onto the fake grass which had been planted beyond it, but he turned around and saw Pinkie staring at him. He motioned for her and she ran through the service door to give him a hug. “I can’t believe this place!” She said. She looked at Armin and then at a small floating drone hovering above them. Blue light issues from its optical sensor. “Ohhh, that’s how it’s maintaining the overlay of Rainbow Dash in your vision.” Pinkie hugged Armin. “This place is so beautiful. I want to live here.”
A shimmering form appeared in Armin’s vision. He opened his mouth in awe at the sight.
Armin’s mind interpreted the vision as a sun being born only yards away above him. The swirl of elements coalesced into a mixture of hues he had never seen before in his entire life, save for something out of a dream barely held on the edge of waking. The colors shifted into a mass of floating nebulae as the spark in the middle of the celestial mass blew outward. A shimmer of stardust solidified into four legs, a body, and the head of grand mare staring up regally as her wings moved in slow motion. Her mane and tail reached out beyond her almost a dozen yards above and behind her, filling the sight with swirls of perpetual pastel colors swimming across Armin’s view. They flowed gracefully in the solar winds of the vision, casting a calming glow upon all they touched.
Armin had never experienced a miraculous vision in his life. Until now. His heart felt inspiration and awe in a way it had never before. He would have dropped to his knees had Pinkie not caught him before his legs hit the ground. She gently lowered him onto the fake grass and held him as she saw an image of the vision wirelessly projected into her ocular input by the building’s artificial intelligence.
Armin’s eyes locked on the celestial being whose eyes were kind and brought up every positive memory in his life all at once, filling his heart with soft wonder and calm radiance. He sat there in the moment, doing everything he could to remember the feeling of majesty and wishing it would never end.
The scene around him changed while the graceful goddess floated above him, her serene smile soothing every hidden pain in his heart. He saw a pinpoint of light, distant and beckoning, on his very left. He turned to look at it. As his eyes adjusted to the light and settled upon it, a sliver of a scene stretched out in front of him, filling his eyes as though he had stepped through time. He saw himself in the Meta-Frame, stepping into college while holding Pinkie’s hand. They met friends, laughed, got close and Armin moved his head to the right out of reflex to try to hide his tears. The moment he moved his head in the slightest, the scene changed to something potentially further in the future during his college career. Each single degree of movement opened up another sliver of the possible future, unfolding in front of him like his eyes had discovered another dimension beyond his own. Every millimeter of movement of his head to the right opened up another simulated reality, one where he was happy, one where he was successful, one where Pinkie and he were holding each other as the sun set behind them, one where his mother welcomed him into the company, one where he wore an even more fantastic Meta-Frame…the visions spread out before him like a timeline to the future, speaking in possibilities and whispering inspiration into him through every sight, sound and smile. He raised up his hands and found he could wave them in front of him to slowly glide between the slivers of possibility, re-watching each one and jumping between them with the flick of his fingers. He spread his fingers out and saw, like the folds of a curtain, multiple points in time bending around his sight as though he stood in the center of a black hole curving the points at the accretion disc where no light would return from. The visions stood static in their frozen motion as moments of time caught in stasis. Every smiling face of his potential self-existed across this spectrum as they bespoke of a silent story which could be. Pinpoints of light existed at each one of the faces, like billions of stars floating across his sight all at once. It was an impossible view, one that no human could see in any way other than what Armin had just been given. The tesseract closed around him as the multiple views combined into one in an accordion-like shrinking of time down to the single most important point in Armin’s life and the one that would always be the most important.
“Now,” Armin said. His breathing was labored but excited. He was on the ground. “I’m back to now…Pinkie?” He looked around and saw he had become human again in his sight. Pinkie Pie held him close and smiled.
“I saw it too,” she said. “That was your life, or at least, what it could be, shown in four dimensions through a simulation created by SYS-TER.”
Armin looked around but didn’t see the majestic celestial being anywhere. The small drone beaming the Dash overlay into his eyes had also disappeared.
“Was that…SYS-TER?” Armin asked.
Pinkie smiled. “What do you think, sweetheart?”
Armin sat up. “That was amazing. I can’t even begin to describe it. All of that in less than sixty seconds…”
“What?” Pinkie asked. “Armin, you were lying on the ground for almost thirty minutes.”
Armin stared at her. “That can’t be. I distinctly remember it lasting less than a minute, Pinkie!”
Pinkie looked at the ground as her eyes lit up and projected an image of Armin on the very same fake grass. The time shone in the corner like a digital clock. She fast-forwarded it to show several people coming to check on Armin as Pinkie waved them away, motioning that he was fine. She did this several times during the full duration of Armin’s vision until he finally sat up twenty-seven minutes later.
“WHAT?” Armin said. “But how?”
Pinkie hugged him. “There are some things the human mind has trouble comprehending. You were viewing a potential future while inside of a digital tesseract SYS-TER had created. Every time you moved your head, the next 3-dimensional vision unfolded within the 4-dimensional space. You viewed most of your possible entire life in less than half an hour, and your mind has no idea how to comprehend that. It’s no wonder if freaked out and failed to track the time. Kinda like being stuck in a dream that feels like it’s lasted a few minutes only to wake up hours later.”
“No, that’s your human mind failing to comprehend anything beyond 3-dimesionaly Euclidean space,” Pinkie said.
Armin laughed. “I can’t even begin to imagine it.”
“You don’t have to imagine it. You just saw it,” she said and giggled.
“I could have that life, Pinkie,” he said. “If I work hard at it, I can be all of those things I saw and more.”
“SYS-TER wants you to make sure you understand how promising your future really is. But you have to choose to do it. No more fear from here on out,” Pinkie said.
“No more fear,” Armin said. He stared up and saw the mini metropolis still in existence. “Ah, so this place IS real.”
“Somewhere in here is the Pod Pal that represents SYS-TER, but it’s different every time. It’s done on-purpose so that anyone who planned to hurt her would have a nearly impossible time figuring out which one was her. Though you could make the argument that her digital presence is actually deeper in the building…”
“Pinkie,” Armin said. “How are you figuring all of this out?”
“SYS-TER is literally texting me it right before I speak it,” she said.
Armin smiled. "Of course," he said. He looked around. “Where’s Discord? And Luna?”
A buzzing sound came from Armin’s tablet. He pulled it out and looked at it.
Armin, I am sorry you did not get to speak with Discord while he and I were talking about his actions down on the Showcase floor. Know that I took into account your compassion for him and his willingness to ensure your safety as well as his incredible generosity inspired by your own kindness. Still, my position requires me to ensure he is held accountable for the potential danger he put you in, since causing you to panic could have resulted in permanent physical injury to your body thanks to your condition. As such, with all things considered, I have given him a reprimand. He will not be allowed to visit you again until tomorrow after your procedure. He is currently in stasis and will be so for approximately twelve hours as he will not be allowed to interfere with anything involving your surgery. I hope you understand my caution in this.
Still, today is a great day for you. You are standing in my home where all should feel safe and welcome. You are only one two steps away from achieving your dream. You must complete a series of examinations on a separate floor before Floor 37 will open up to you. You must successfully complete these examinations, otherwise you will have to retake them no earlier than 24 hours later. Fail them again and you’ll have to wait a week while you prepare for them. I only do this to ensure you are absolutely prepared in every way possible for this life-altering procedure.
I was so overjoyed to see you happy when you saw yourself as Rainbow Dash. I hope to see that smile again very soon.
For now, explore this area and find yourself something to eat and drink. Perhaps you can even make some friends. I know of a shy unicorn who would like to speak with you. Meet her at the Replicant Lounge on Pillar 7D.