"Seriously?" said Nimbus, laying her pointy ears back. "Your majesty, that's like getting drunk on communion wine. Profaning something that's supposed to be sacred, and really isn't all that pleasant." She glared at the queen. "And I know you know this."
The other Night Guards all talked at once. Diver waited until they'd shut each other up, then asked, "What's that?"
The queen of the night raised her glass of grape juice. "What is a mind? A collection of desires and memories, from instinct to the highest intellectual and moral levels. For all of human history, we've been bound by our ancestry to think and feel a certain way. We cured diseases and built spaceships, yet we never outgrew our weaknesses. Look at us! We're potentially immortal, and we could have our every physical need satisfied if we asked for a self-contained world of plenty, yet we're pretending to fight over this fantasy realm as though we were medieval dukes on a tiny continent."
Nimbus said, "If fighting for your home is a bad thing, then why don't you quit Hoofland and ask our AI for a perfect no-humans zone? She could create one out of nothing, and we could shut out everybody we didn't like."
The queen glared at her subject, then softened. "Because contact with the Outer Realm matters. If we cut ourselves off from any real conflict with Earth, then we will be oblivious to its problems. We should have our comforts here without becoming irrelevant to others. If we're well established here and can interact with the outside players, we'll be positioned to go back out and be useful."
The zebra stared down into his food. "I call this the Toymaker's Dilemma. 'I create beautiful things, but should I save my steel and gears for railroads and engines that directly help people live? Why do I -- do my skills exist, if they use scarce resources that statistics say might save a life?'"
Diver drew in a breath, understanding at once. He's a native AI, created to entertain some early multimillionaire customer of the game. He is one of the toys, using electricity and processing power that could go into running an extra uploaded human mind.
The native's soulful blue eyes met Diver's. "I found my answer some time ago and made peace with it. Do you see it?"
Confronted, Diver said what first came to mind. "Joy. If you think only in terms of statistical survival ability, then you'll create a dystopian factory world where people exist to generate enough food to survive, have exactly enough sex to maintain the population, and go comatose in between work shifts because there's nothing else to do. As digital minds we could live an even more spartan existence. But that's a horrible and pointless society, even before you consider that fun is useful."
"You understand," the zebra said, and busied himself with eating.
"Then, if we want to make good use of ourselves, we should be engaged with the world and use our skills to improve it. But I still don't understand what this plan of yours is, your majesty."
Harvest Moon laid her forehooves on the table. "In plain terms, then. We have a so-far-unused software upgrade for a human or native mind, that changes human nature. It reduces the instinct for dominance, aggression, and tribalism. It likely raises certain kinds of intelligence, with 'ports' of a sort for further mental upgrades like your weather-sense. It makes people better."
"It makes them wimps," said Nimbus.
One of the guards chimed in. He wore spectacles and a vest with a pocketwatch. "We thought of that. Will we drift apart because we care less about circling the wagons against the Other? Will we surrender like Frenchmen because we're too nice to fight?"
The AI zebra looked confused by the reference, but said, "Then those problems have been addressed?"
"We have the Artificer on our side. His clique is very interested in becoming more than human." To Diver he said, "I'm speaking of the greatest hacker in all the worlds. Ludo uploaded him and now he works for us, working to alter minds."
"Including his own? Is he a horse too?"
"He's dispensed with having a body, most of the time. He calls that change his own Ascension."
Diver said, "There's more than one way to upgrade, I suppose. This plan sounds... ambitious, but people have tried to change human nature before. It never goes well."
The queen shrugged. "They used drugs and needles and scriptures, and their goal was meek submission to evil. Not conquering it."
The history-minded guard said, "I'd say no if it meant becoming a bunch of commies or whatnot. But we won't."
Diver swore under his breath. "This is an extreme reaction to some trolls breaking into Hoofland, your majesty. We could just raise an army and fight them the usual way. Or whatever is usual for magical horses, I guess."
She said, "Look at the bigger picture, everyone. The humans out there won't change their nature. Today the problem is some griefers. But you know there are larger threats out there. The other grand AIs besides Ludo, and the governments behind them, and the influx we'll face if there's some horrible plague or other disaster. If we only care about our world and not the Outer Realm, then we might as well experiment with self-improvement because we won't do any harm to the people we left behind. If we do care about the Outer Realm, a bunch of silly gamers won't be able to protect the hardware that runs Hoofland, nor to help humanity get through this difficult age. We can't help them or ourselves." She looked up from her hooves, eyes wide and fierce. "But a new and better species might be able."
Nimbus shook her head sadly. "If you want my judgment, your majesty, it's a bad idea."
The zebra said, "We have a right to become whatever we can achieve. This plan isn't just a chance to win some ultimately meaningless control over virtual land. It's practice for fixing a problem that's never been solved before."
"Exactly!" said the one with the spectacles. "We can run simulations, even. Find out whether horses with our changes could have won the World Wars, and so on."
The other two Night Guards disagreed. One of them said, "We came here to be human, not to rewrite ourselves into something else." The other chimed in with, "It's a recipe for insanity."
The queen sounded bemused as she said, "I don't believe I called for a vote, but with myself in favor my council stands at three Yea, three Neigh."
Everyone looked at Sky Diver.
He shied away. "I'm not even a member of your group yet."
Nimbus' wing brushed against him, making him shiver. "We'd still like to hear your take on this. You haven't been here long, and you've already seen how things can get out of control sometimes."
Diver sighed, thinking of all he'd seen in this world. "There are people living in different ways here, and it's only one part of the larger virtual world. Sorry, Nimbus, but I agree with the queen here. Maybe this new way of thinking will turn out to be a bad idea, but what if it's good? We shouldn't hold back from trying to grow."
"What about you? Would you put your own soul on the line and risk going nuts because of a software patch? You're already nice and brave and cute. Why do you need a machine to make you a better person?"
He hadn't volunteered himself for this experiment. "I already had my brain edited to make full use of these things." He spread his wings. "Didn't you do the same? Have you got a sonar sense from whatever you did to turn batty?"
Nimbus scraped at the floor with one hoof. "I did, but... This is bigger. What if people change and they don't know they're screwed up, so they don't know they should undo it?"
Diver turned to the queen, saying, "She's got a point. The disclaimer on the pegasus thing said it might not be fully reversible. What does that mean, exactly? How does that apply to this new code you're pushing?"
Harvest Moon brought out another box from the corner of her throne room, and unrolled a scroll on the table, pushing plates aside. This one showed a diagram too complex for Diver to follow. Moon said, "I don't fully grasp it myself, but this is our basic "Tier-III" mind structure. These days the structure is about the same whether you were born as a human or an AI -- which is pretty earthshaking in its own right. The pegasus upgrade and the other ones tack certain extra things onto a mind, like rearranging your body sense to make being a winged quadruped seem natural. A fair number of uploaders try switching sexes, and that does similar things plus a gradual hormone flip. Or sudden, if you're into that. Rigel."
One of the naysayer guards blushed and laughed nervously.
She continued, "But just because we redraw the map of what brain parts expect input from what body parts, doesn't mean you're comfortable with the new body on all levels. Diver, think about hooves versus fingers. What feels natural right now?"
Diver tried to look at his forehooves, lifted them both off the floor, and fell over.
"See?" said the queen. "In time, you'll likely find fingers becoming an alien concept. You might have trouble using a robot with hands, if you work Earthside. Now, what if you officially undo your pegasus changes, go elsewhere in Talespace, and use a human body? You'll still have had recent memories of hooves and nudity and wings, that will color everything you do, at least for a while. The mind is amazingly adaptable, but it's more stubborn than we might like."
Nimbus said, "Thank God for that! Otherwise people's attempts to hack individuality or competition out of humanity might've actually worked, and we'd be a bunch of damn ants."
Diver tried to make sense of the brain diagram but saw only motor control, language, vision processing. Hopes and dreams were harder to pinpoint, to target... and yes, thank God for that. "Inertia. You can turn off my wings but I'll still subconsciously expect to have them. All right, then; does that mean any moral changes will linger as memories and expectations?"
The orange mare nodded. "It may help to have a 'designated driver' who abstains, with authority to yank the volunteers back from the abyss if they really have gone terribly wrong. Nimbus, Rigel, and Vance, will you do that for me?"
"Yes, your majesty," said Nimbus, and the others echoed her. She said, "If you insist. But this is dangerous ground."
"Then a queen should go first upon it, if she presumes to lead."
Diver said, "I'll volunteer too -- and join your Night Guards. I'll keep a journal and let Nimbus read it, to see if I've gone crazy. I'm already on a path of exploration; I might as well see where it leads."
[Your faction flag is now "Night Guard"!] announced some game system, as though that were the most important thing he'd decided.
Bio: I'm a writer with several books up on Amazon. Many of these are in a setting called "Thousand Tales", where a virtual game world offers immortality under the rule of a friendly AI whose ambitions extend far beyond the game. See kschnee.deviantart.com for a larger gallery of stories, and check out novels such as "The Digital Coyote" or "Liberation Game" for my published fiction!