Ring ring. The bell of Carousel Boutique rang loud as Twilight nudged the door open with some difficulty. She was holding a paper bag by its rope handle between her teeth, and trying to keep it from being squished between the door and the wall proved to be a challenge, which she negotiated with a muffled grunt, eventually emerging victorious in the boutique’s interior. She grinned, and spat the bag unceremoniously onto the floor in direct contradiction to her care to ensure its structural integrity.
She was the only pony inside, as far as she could tell.
Her words didn’t echo, but they faded into the decorated walls and bundles of fabric as though the air had sucked them away. She was sure Rarity would be expecting her – they had made plans, after all.
“Rarity?” she called out again, leaving the bag on the floor of the boutique and stepping cautiously across the room. She knew that Rarity’s business did double duty as her place of residence as well, which mean that unless Rarity had run out for some reason, she was likely to be found somewhere inside.
Twilight heard the first hint of noise since she had entered as she neared the sewing corner. A sound trickled towards her, and a turn of her head found the direction of the commotion – a series of buzzes and beeps, along with somepony’s voice she couldn’t quite make out, dancing down a hallway just to her left. Twilight peeked her head around the corner of the hall cautiously, and caught a bit more of the mishmash of sounds. She couldn’t place any of it, but it sounded rushed, and frantic. Eventually, words emerged from the haze of unfamiliar mechanical hubbub.
“No, don’t, not over there… come on, be careful…”
Pinkie Pie? The volume and chipper tone were far too animated to be Rarity – but what was Pinkie Pie doing over at Rarity’s boutique, especially without Rarity around? Even more than that, she sounded upset, like she was trying to convince someone away from a very bad course of action.
Twilight started down the hallway, keeping her ears perked for any further signs of what she might be walking into. The bloops and beeps continued, along with a ticking that sounded like a peculiar clock of some kind… or a timer.
“No no no, I need you to help. Look, this is important, if we don’t-“
Pinkie’s voice was cut off by a horrendous screech, like a cross between a steam-engine and a cat, hissing at a volume that made Twilight cover her ears in distress.
“AAAAH! Oh no! Ohmygoodness ohmygoodness ohmygoodness… this is bad, really bad! Okay, I think we can still fix it, it’s not too late…”
The beeping had grown louder and more insistent now, ticking faster and faster as Twilight walked towards the source of the sound. It was coming from behind a closed door at the hallway’s end, the volume of the terrible mechanical noises making their way through the wood without effort. Twilight could hear Pinkie’s panic as she neared the door. Was everything okay? Pinkie sounded like she needed help. But, if there was something dangerous behind that door, maybe rushing in to things wasn’t the best idea…
“-if we don’t hurry this whole place is going to explode! We have to be quick!”
Did she just say explode?
Twilight’s eyes widened. She was only a few feet away from the door. If something was going to explode... what should she do? She could burst through the door and try to help, but that might only make things worse; or, she could run, and try get somepony to help-
“Five seconds!” Pinkie’s voice screamed through the wall. Twilight swallowed, feeling a sudden dryness of her throat. She didn’t know what to do. Anxious, she let her hoof rest on the door, ready to push it inward. She could hear Pinkie’s counting through the haze of her worry, knowing that she only had a few seconds. If this was her choice, it was now or never. Twilight threw the door open-
“Nooooo, we’re too late! It’s gonna blow!”
“Aaaah!” Twilight threw herself to the ground and braced her legs over her head, helping to shelter herself from whatever blast she was about to immerse herself in. Twilight saw her life flash before her eyes. Growing up in Canterlot. The first day she had arrived in Ponyville. A hundred other memories playing back as she prepared for an explosion she hadn’t even anticipated a moment ago, and was now going to send her to the pony afterlife. Her last thought was that she wished she had moved faster.
The sound came, rattling her ear drums. It was awful, a hundred bleeps and bloops and a final tick smooshed together. Twilight gasped, and sent her last thoughts off into nothingness.
A few seconds passed. The sound of the explosion faded into quiet. Twilight blinked.
“Awww, we almost had it!”
That was Sweetie Belle’s voice. Twilight opened her eyes.
“Twilight, what are you doing down there?”
Pinkie Pie was there, looking down at Twilight with a confused expression. Twilight looked around, unsure.
“Pinkie Pie? Are you okay? I thought I heard… you said there was going to be an explosion-“
“There sure was! We were on the last level, too.” Pinkie Pie looked over Twilight, who was still huddled on the floor in preparation for a detonation. “Did I have the volume up too high?”
Twilight blinked again, and peered out from between her foreleg shelter. Sweetie Belle was sitting in front what to be a large box with a sheet of glass making a window on the front. What she saw inside, she couldn’t say – it was strange, a black background with tiny numbers and letters all over. And two large words in the center, in bright red. -GAME OVER-
“I think you maybe had your volume up too high, Pinkie.” Sweetie Belle giggled, and set something down on the floor, a square length that was connected to the box with a window by a black cord. Pinkie laughed along with her, and smiled apologetically.
“Heh… Oops. Sorry, I just get really excited when things are getting so intense. This game is a blast!”
“Game?” Twilight’s voice was dripping with confusion. A minute ago, and she had been ready to kiss her flank goodbye in a burst of fire and nitrous, and now she was staring into a blinking box with words dancing in front of her, which was apparently some sort of game.
“Yeah, game! It’s this great thing Rarity found at the flea market-“
“Ohmigosh, Twilight, it’s amazing!” Pinkie Pie’s bursting with enthusiasm cut Sweetie off mid-explanation. Pinkie grabbed Twilight by one of her forelegs and pulled her up right, dragging her over towards the window-box. The window had changed now, and was showing two ponies jumping in circles over a screen with the word “COLTRA” superimposed on the top.
“This is really the best thing ever! It’s some kind of weird gypsy magic.”
“Pinkie, there’s no such thing as gypsy magic… and even if there were, that’s not at all a ponelitically correct term for referring to it.”
“But it is! Rarity said she bought it from a pony with fancy hooded clothes and she talked like dis-“ Pinkie slipped into her best approximation of a Stalliongrad accent. “and said Ah, miss pretty pony, I zink I haf a treasure you will vind very appealing-“
Pinkie Pie gestured broadly towards a strange box sitting at the foot of the window container, which Twilight could see the two cords seemed to be attached to.
“-and she wasn’t sure but eventually the other pony convinced her and she bought and brought it home and it’s some kind of magic that makes pictures and things appear on this screen and you can move them around with these doohickeys-“
“Pinkie, calm down.” Twilight was still trying to recover from the burst of adrenaline that had rushed through her body when she was sure she was about to be blown to smithereens, and Pinkie’s rapid-fire explanation wasn’t helping the situation.
Pinkie stopped the bouncing she had started mid-way through her sentence, and rocked back and forth on her hind legs, looking at Twilight expectantly.
“So… it’s some kind of machine? Or a game?”
“It’s both! The machine makes the game!”
Twilight tilted her head to the side, raising one eyebrow in confusion.
“Here, let me show you,” said Pinkie, grabbing Twilight between her forelegs and dragging her over to where Sweetie Belle was still sitting on the floor, watching with an amused look on her face. Pinkie Pie grabbed one of the objects tethered to the strange box and placed it in Twilight’s hooves. The thing had a peculiar texture, like a cross between metal and wood. It had a black finish, and there were protrusions on one side, buttons that jutted out from the surface about half an inch.
“Okay. So this is the thing you use to make stuff happen over there.” Pinkie Pie pointed towards
"Eto magiya, Comrade Spakle!"
Twilight blinked at the fur cap that had appeared suddenly atop Pinkie's head. Conversations with Pinkie always had a habit of rousing more questions than they answered.
"Okay... besides 'magic', can you show me how it works?"
"Konechno, of course!" Pinkie grabbed one of the square objects connected via cord and held it between her hooves.
"Okay, so look up on the screen there. See the blue pony doing cool spins?"
Twilight looked up and saw exactly that - or rather, a crude approximation of what might be a pony. It was made up of tiny coloured blocks, and was transitioning roughly between different poses, sliding inelegantly from frame to frame to form a spinning jump. If Twilight squinted, she could believe it was a pony.
"Yes, I see him."
"-Hi Twilight! Will you help me defeat the changelings and save Equestria?" Pinkie's voice squeaked even higher than her normal register as she spoke for the blob of pixels on the screen in front of her. Twilight rolled her eyes.
"Oooh ooh ooh! Look, I can do a super big jump!" The blockish pony blob rocketed into the air, landing with a 'bloop' on the flat line of black meant to represent the ground.
"Ooh, sorry." Pinkie blushed, and continued her explanation. "So you use these things to control the stuff on the screen. You can jump and shoot fireballs-" Pinkie demonstrated by sending a red blob across the screen) "-and it's your job to save the world from the bad guys!"
"This seems kind of juvenile, Pinkie... no offense." Twilight gave a sideways look to Sweetie Belle, who's mouth formed the inklings of an affronted frown. "I mean, isn't this kind of like playing make believe on the playground, but with blobby ponies on a window?"
"No, there's bleeps and bloops and big explosions too!"
"...right. But what makes it fun?"
"I dunno! It just is. It's cool to press a button and have something happen right in front of you. Look, you try it. Press the button on this side."
Twilight eyed the controlling device suspiciously, short-handing it to 'controller' in her head. The right side had two large bumps, what she supposed were trigger buttons. Twilight poked the one on the far right. The screen-box emitted a low 'boop' and the pony blob on screen jumped into the air. Twilight paused for a moment, and then pushed the button again. Boop. Jump.
Hm. Boop. Jump.
"Try using your other hoof to move around." Pinkie handed the controller to Twilight, who placed it on the floor. The left side had a sort of cross, with one extension pointing in each cardinal direction. Twilight pressed down on the right arrow experimentally, and the pony on screen ran to the right. She pressed the other side, and he ran to the left. Still curious, Twilight tapped the second button. A red blob shot across the screen.
Well... it was novel, at least.
"Alright, I understand how you play... but how does it work?"
"I already told you, silly! It's magic!"
"Pinkie, magic is a concept so vast, you might as well say 'it works with science'. What particular magic is going on here? Is there a spell on the box? Is there a miniature gremlin inside that screen jumping when I press this button?"
Pinkie looked ponderous for a moment, and placed her hoof to her chin as her eyes drifted in thought.
"Hmm... I don't think there's a gremlin."
"Well then?" Twilight was beginning to sound impatient.
"Rarity said there's a gem!"
Sweetie Belle's voice joined the conversation for the first time, and Twilight turned towards the filly, raising one eyebrow in curiosity.
Sweetie nodded enthusiastically.
"Uh-huh. That's how she found it. She was in the market when her horn started to go haywire, like when she got her cutie mark! And she followed it, and found the box, and the pony who was selling it told her there was a gem inside that made it work. It's a magic gem!"
Twilight hadn't heard of any such thing in her many studies of enchantment. Some gems were inherently magical, but weaving spells around them was an area of little application. What could be done with a gem, aside perhaps making it brighter?
Hm. There was the possibility that a well carved gem could be used as a vessel for internal refraction. With the right magical application, it could become a sort of battery, powering a device with a reserve of energy. Or, if somepony got creative, maybe even more than that.
"I think I get it now... sort of."
"Great!" Pinkie beamed. "I'm glad you do, because I have no idea!"
"But, it's lots of fun! You should try playing with us."
Twilight eyed the screen with a raised eyebrow, watching the bright orange pony Sweetie was controlling bounce around the screen, unable to progress as the pony Twilight held the controller for was stuck at the opposite end, unmoving.
"I don't think shooting fireballs at changelings is really my idea of a good time, Pinkie." Twilight shoved the controller forward on the floor towards Sweetie Belle. "Thanks anyway though."
"Ooh ooh ooh! That's okay, 'cause there's lots more games than just this one."
Twilight's eyebrow was in a perpetual state of curiosity. she looked like she had a fish-hook pulling it in one direction.
"Yeah yeah yeah! This one is really fun, but there's lots more... hold on, lemme put one in."
Pinkie Pie bounced over to the box at the bottom of the large screen. She leaned down to it and bonked the top with her hoof, which made a soft 'clunk'. The sound also followed a strange card popping out of the side of the box, which Pinkie grasped between her hooves and pulled towards herself. She set it into gently on the ground, and pulled a similar looking card from a wooden container that Twilight hadn't caught immediate sight of. She gave it a quick blow, like someone would putting out a birthday candle, and then slid it inside the box, closing it with another pop of her hoof. The blobby ponies and black background on the screen vanished for a moment, before flaring into life with a flash of light. The words "eQuestria Quest II" fell from the top of the glass in blocky letters, overtop a background of trees and mountains.
"The second one! Number one wasn't bad either though."
"How many of these games have you played already, Pinkie?"
"I still haven't tried them all... but I think I know which ones are the best!"
Twilight eyed the title screen suspiciously.
"So what's so great about this one? Do you do something other than shoot changelings?"
Pinkie grinned and grabbed up her controller.
"Yep! You shoot trolls and dragons!"
Twilight rolled her eyes.
"It's great! You're the hero, on a quest to save your prince from the evil king of chaos!" Pinkie pressed on the directional pad and a pony with grey blocks around his body appeared on screen and started running to the right.
"...You're rescuing a prince? Isn't it usually the other way around?"
Pinkie narrowed her eyes knowingly.
"Come on, Twilight. You've met enough boys in your life... do any of them seem like they're cut out for saving a princess?"
She had a point.
"This is all about girl power! You get to use a sword and collect treasure and fight the dragon king at the end!"
"The dragon king is really hard!" Sweetie piped up, and Pinkie nodded in agreement.
Twilight wasn't sure what to make of all this. On one hoof, it was clearly an elaborate miracle of magical technology. Part of Twilight wanted desperately to disassemble each of its components and set to work understanding how the whole thing functioned. On the other hoof... Twilight didn't see even the slightest appeal in pretending to be a block-shaped pony running around on a glass screen, hitting monsters and saving the world. It was the farthest thing from practical she could imagine.
She understood why Pinkie liked it so much, though.
The ring of a bell amidst the bleeps on screen of Pinkie whacking a tree monster with her sword drew Twilight's attention, and she turned her head over her shoulder towards the room door. She heard somepony's hoofsteps on the boutique floor. After a moment, the door opened, and Rarity stepped inside, two saddlebags thrown around her neck. She was breathing heavily, looking flustered as though she'd just run a mile or two.
"Goodness... I managed to get everything in one go. The way these stores are organized, it's almost as though one needs to plan a month in advance to get things done on time!" Rarity lowered her head and let the bags off her shoulders, adjusting her hair with one hoof as she began removing the items.
"Has Twilight arrived yet, dear?" Rarity asked absentmindedly in Sweetie's direction, turning her head as she picked up the third object from one of her shopping bags. She paused as she caught sight of Twilight near the giant glass screen.
"Heavens! Twilight, I'm so sorry I'm late. With the commotion of the find in the market I completely forgot to grab a good number of things before coming back home. I hope you haven't been waiting too long?"
Twilight smiled reassuringly at Rarity's panicked expression.
"It's fine, Rarity. Pinkie's been showing me your new toy.
"Oh, yes, isn't it lovely? I can't believe such a fantastic trinket was sitting around waiting to be snatched up just in town. Of course, the screen and such forth required some heavy lifting, but there were a couple of lovely gentleman in town willing to offer their assistance."
Of course there were, Twilight thought to herself, smirking.
"I didn't have you pegged as the type to enjoy make believe dragon slaying, Rarity."
"I'm not, really... but it was just such a wonderful find, I just couldn't pass up the opportunity. Besides which, the stallion selling it was just charming, it would have been very hard to say no. And, there are one or two little games that are right up my alley... fashion and decoration and things like that, oh so much fun."
Hm. Maybe there was more to the contraption than Twilight had first given credence. Still, she couldn't find herself more interested than it than she was at the moment.
"Do you need any help with that, Rarity?"
"No no, I'm fine Twilight, really. Have you had a chance to play something? I'm sure Pinkie would be delighted to help you pick out a game, she came running as though the place had caught fire."
"I can smell fun from a mile away!" Pinkie shouted, hammering on one of her controller's buttons as her on screen avatar swung its sword wildly.
"I'm good, actually. Though, I might send Spike over later to take a look, if that's alright with you. I think it'd be more up his alley."
"Of course dear, go right ahead. I'm always happy to have a visit from my favorite little dragon. If he's over in a few hours, he can play with the girls as well; Sweetie Belle's invited her friends over, and I'm sure they'll love our new exquisite appliance."
"I don't doubt it," said Twilight, a picture of the Cutie Mark Crusaders yelling at each other and wrestling for the two controllers amidst the three bodies flashing through her mind.
"Applebloom was the one who suggested it, her brother was the one who helped me get this big screen most of the way - that pony should be a salesman some day, I think. She managed to convince me to share a brand new purchase only a few days after! Of course, I never would have bought it if her brother hadn't been there to help carry it home."
"This is all thrilling, Rarity, but we did have a meeting planned, didn't we?"
"Oh! Of course, I apologize, Twilight. Let's leave the girls to their games, and take to the other room, shall we?"
"I don't remember agreein' to no such thing!"
Applejack's voice was high-pitched and furious sounding, loud enough to shake one of the already crooked picture frames hanging on the nearby wall. Her eyebrows were narrowed in frustration, and she was glaring down at Applebloom, who was huddled in a ball in front of her.
"But sis! I practically found it, and I helped Rarity get it home and she said since I helped I could use it for a couple days-"
"No, you didn't help her get it home, Big Macintosh did... when he was supposed to be on his way back home to help close up the cellar for the day, I might add."
Big Macintosh said nothing, simply chewing a mouthful of hay at the nearby kitchen table. If he was embarrassed or apologetic, it was simply to be intuited.
"We came home right after! 'sides which, you managed fine on your own-"
"That ain't the point!" stamped one of her hind hooves into the floor, fuming. The vases on the coffee table in the living room jumped up and settled back down with a noise like a plate spinning on a linoleum floor. Despite her youthful bravado, Applebloom cowered slightly at her older sister's fury.
"We're comin' up on harvest season and I need everyone on the farm helpin' out. Ain't no room for magical playtime with some cockamamie contraption, no matter how sly you might' a' been getting Rarity to lend it to you."
"Don't you 'but sis' me! I want that thing out o' the house this instant! Macintosh!"
Big Mac looked up from his hay for the first time in the conversation. His face was a typical mask of unenthusiastic participation, but he cleared his throat to speak as Applejack glared at him.
"Don't you think you're being a bit harsh, AJ?"
Applejack's expression fell at her brother's admonishment.
"Am I the only pony in this house who cares about gettin' ready for winter? I ain't tryin' to be a bully - if somepony doesn't get all those apples in, there ain't gonna be enough food to go around Ponyville while we wait for the next season!"
Big Mac stood up from the table and walked over to his sister. His expression was calm, and ponderous.
"I reckon' we won't have a problem gettin' enough apples in, just like we've done every year before now. Let AppleBloom have her fun."
Applejack snorted loudly, glaring at her brother. Big Macintosh simply rolled his eyes. Applebloom rose from her meager crouch, her face beaming.
"Thanks Big Macintosh!" she squeaked, as though her brother had the final say in the matter. She jumped up to his shoulders in a quick hug, which he met with a pat on her head, bouncing her bright red bow before she dropped back down and dashed off to her room, presumably to play with her new toy. Applejack glowered silently as her sister ran off, and didn't move a muscle as Big Mac approached, placing a hoof gently on her shoulder.
"A little fun for a week ain't the end o' the world sis." Mac gave his sister a pat on the back before he made his way to the stairs. He paused as his hoof lifted to the first step, keeping his head forward as he spoke.
"Besides... I ain't carryin' that thing all the way across town twice in one week anyway."
Big Mac darted up the stairs fast enough to narrowly avoid the couch cushion AJ hurled behind him.
"Dangit! I almost had him!"
Applebloom's voice was loud and shrill as it rang through the Apple household. Not loud enough to shake the walls as her sister's shouting good due in the worst of situations, but more than loud enough to prompt an annoyed sigh from her sister who was making her way through the upstairs hallway, busying herself with harvest cleaning. Applebloom's shout was accompanied by a loud ringing explosion in bleeps and bloops.
"You kept letting him hit you when you jumped," chimed in a second voice. It was a contrast from Applebloom's youthful southern drawl, almost the complete opposite in a combination of tomboyish gravel and scratchy-voiced excitement.
"You didn't do any better when it was your turn," said a third, high-pitched and girlish. Sweetie Belle nudged the bright orange pegasus in front of her in the back. Scootaloo turned her head and stuck out her tongue, blowing a loud raspberry in Sweetie's face.
Scootaloo giggled as Sweetie Belle feigned wiping saliva from her face, and Applebloom joined her, setting the controller in her hooves down for a moment to laugh.
"Oooh, it's my turn now," said Sweetie Belle, recovering rapidly and reaching out for the controller. Anathema to the usual bickering amidst the trio, neither of the other two fillies made a move to stop her. Even watching another pony's turn was enough fun to keep controller envy out of the picture, and by this point lives were over so fast there wouldn't have been cause for antagonism anyway.
"I bet you can't make it past the two headed hydra," teased Scootaloo as Sweetie Belle's character substantiated on the screen, looking stalwart, but somehow confused.
“Bet you I can!”
The girls’ giggling and banter carried loudly down the upstairs hallway, rolling down the stairs and flooding through the house along with the cascade of bleeps and bloops that followed their every on screen action. Each time something exciting happened, peals of laughter and exclamation bounced from the wooden frame of the housing like a ball in tight quarters, rebounding from every surface.
Applejack could hear the noise from outside as she passed by, glaring up to Applejack’s bedroom window as she wiped a hoof across her forehead to clear the sweat that had gathered there. The sun was beaming downward mercilessly, turning a hard day’s work into an even harder slog through waves of heat and the nagging worry of dehydration. She paused and took a long swig from the flask of water fastened to her side. The water was already lukewarm from minutes in the sun. The unpleasant taste did little to bolster her sour mood, and a particularly loud squeal of laughter through the window pane above didn’t help.
Why was she down here doing all the work when keeping the farm in order had always been a family effort? Something about that box infuriated her for reasons she couldn’t describe. It was like a black hole, sucking away ponies’ attention and free time. Wasting time was all well and good, but when there was work to be done, there were lines to be drawn.
Applejack grit her teeth and lowered the handles of the cart she had been dragging. The giggling upstairs followed her as she walked inside the house.
Applebloom had the controller in her hooves and was focused intently on the machinations of the armored pony-approximation on screen when her sister’s voice made her jump.
“Applebloom, did you sort the apples in the cellar like I asked you to?”
Applebloom was torn between two platforms of attention.
“Um, no, not yet,” she mumbled with her tongue between her teeth as she kept her eyes locked on the screen in front of her. The armor knight under her control was navigating a series of deadly lava pits – every time Applejack pushed a button, he jumped, and her hooves moved along with him, dragging the control up as though it might heighten his ascent.
“I asked you to do it four hours ago! Those apples are in the cellar for a reason – they need to get sorted so we can start pressing and packaging ‘em.”
“I’ll do it in a minute...” Applejack said out of the corner of her mouth. She was dodging fireballs and the occasional swooping bat on screen.
“In a minute nothin’! Put down that silly contraption and come do your chores like the rest of the ponies in this family!”
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle had piqued with an air of visible discomfort the second Applejack’s admonishment had started, and now their eyes were darting from sister to sister, unsure what to make of the severity of the situation.
Applebloom had separated her eyes from the screen for a moment to acknowledge her sister’s direction, but her hooves were still moving on her controller, prompting the armored pony forward on screen.
“But Applejack! I’m in the third castle, and we’ve never made it that far before-“
“I am sick an’ tired of this stupid game making you more useless than a third wing on a pegasus! You’ve been up here all day with that thing, wastin’ your time when there’s work to be done. Put that thing down right now and get to your chores!”
Applebloom’s face twisted into a grim glare, but she knew enough not to push her sister beyond this point, no matter how critical the stage of the game she had managed to get to. She set her controller down reluctantly, jamming a smaller button In the center and bringing a flashing ‘PAUSE’ onto the screen.
“That’s better. You best show your friends out as well, unless they want to help you work.”
“Uh… that’s okay. Thanks for letting us come over and play, Applebloom.” Scootaloo cut off the idea of cooperative chores before it could even bolster as a suggestion, and Sweetie Belle nodded along side her.
“Yeah, thanks! Next time let’s see if we can get all the way to the dragon king!”
Applebloom managed a smile as Sweetie and Scootaloo dashed out her door, giving apologetic nods to Applejack as she glared on at her sister. Applejack’s gaze turned to full force as the two fillies exited, leaving only the Apple family in the room.
“You best get downstairs and start that sortin’ right now, missy, or you and I are gonna have more than words.”
Applebloom grumbled resentfully as she walked to the box at the bottom of the screen. With a push of a button, the images on the inlaid glass vanished, and Applebloom followed her sister’s hoof pointing out the door, marching to her chores and leaving the game until she could escape from the tyranny of obligation.
Applejack cast a sideways glance at the box and cords, narrowing her eyes as though giving a stare to an acquaintance she didn’t particularly care for. The box remained silent, hushed from its bleeps and bloops by Appleblooms handling of the ‘off’ switch. With a huff, Applejack turned and followed her sister downstairs. There was more work to be done, and she didn’t have time to spend resenting the box that was sucking up what little was there in the first place of her sister’s work ethic.
The family gathered at the end of the day around the dinner table, the meal consisting primarily of Granny Smith’s prepared root stew and wheatloaf. What little apples there were had been saved in some semblance of respect for the rapidly depleting remainders of the previous reserve, and the new collection that would have to last through the winter. Not that the meal was flavourless, but it did give a certain ‘drowning amidst a sea of apples’ feeling.
Applebloom sat at the far end of the table next to Granny Smith, and poked idly at her plate of food as the rest of the family ate. Applejack’s voice was the only one to bound over the meal amidst the relative silence of chewing.
“We’re making good time on the first field this year... despite slacking off more than we should.” Applebloom simply rolled her eyes to her sister’s glare. Big Mac, as usual, held his words, and Granny Smith couldn’t hear the attempt at conversation over the sound of her own chewing.
Where normally a conversation might have been struck up for pony’s plans for the weekends or what they had done during the day, here both were devoid of purpose. Applejack and Big Macintosh had spent the day working, and Applebloom’s only activity was the hammering of a controller upstairs with her friends. The adventures in her head were bigger than their actuality, however, and in what might have been a sudden impulse of youthful enthusiasm, she turned to Granny Smith with a sparkle in her eyes.
“Granny, do you wanna’ know what me and my friends did today?”
“And what was that, dear?”Granny’s voice was perpetually creaky, but despite her age, she still paid rapt attention when her granddaughter had something to say. Applejack lowered an eyebrow over her wheatloaf, anticipating the story that was coming.
“We explored a cave, and found a magic sword, and used it to slay a troll-“
Granny’s eyes widened in confusion. She had nodded along for the first half of the sentence, taking notice when the mention of monster slaying arose.
“You fought a troll? Heavens! That’s not something we did when I was your age.”
“She’s talkin’ about that dumb box she’s got upstairs, Granny.”
Granny’s confusion only doubled as she tried to separate the events she had only a hazy understating of in the first place.
“What box is that, again?”
“That giant two cart size hunk o’ wood and glass she made us haul up the steps so she could spend all day ignoring her chores-“
“Applejack, come on! I sorted the apples eventually...”
“And the sooner you do them next time, the sooner we can get the rest of the harvest work done!” Applejack pushed her plate forward with a clink. Big Macintosh was still chewing his meal silently, but he raised his head to the tone of the conversation, unsure about the level of concern that was appropriate.
“Why do I gotta work all day? You’re the one saying I’m just a little pony, which means I should have time to enjoy myself-“
“I ain’t got no objection to that, the exception being that every member of the family helps out during harvest time. And you’re old enough to know that there’s plenty of work that needs to be done this time of year.”
“I ain’t a slave pony! I should still be allowed to play with my friends in between work-“
“You weren’t playing with your friends though! You were glued to that big dumb box with its squeaking blobs that sound like a cat on a chalkboard.”
“Yeah, with my friends! We were playing together. What have you got against that game machine, anyway?”
Applejack stood up from the dinner table, and Applebloom did the same at her end, leaving Granny Smith looking confused in her chair, and Big Macintosh silently mulling over a mouthful of stew. The tension in the debate had escalated quickly, and now the two sisters were glaring at each other, neither of them content to let the other ones point of view pass mental clearance.
“I got plenty against it! Playin’s fine in healthy doses, when it’s you and your friends running around outside, or heaven forbid crusadin’ for yer cutie marks. But staying in one place for so many hours barely movin’ a muscle ain’t a good use of anyone’s time, least of all when there’s work to be done!”
“But that is work! I mean, it’s not just hitting a button and watchin’ stuff happen: you’ve gotta think about puzzles, and dodge monsters, and beat up giant ogres-“
“And you’re not doin’ any of it! It’s time wastin’, pure and simple, and I’m about fed up with the whole thing!”
The air settled again into uncomfortable silence, Applebloom glowering at Applejack, who was on the verge of catching heavy breaths after her loud-voiced ranting. Several seconds passed. A clink rose from the table as Big Macintosh pushed his plate forward.
“Fine!” Applebloom’s shout cut off her brother’s attempt at reason before it could begin. “I’m gonna go upstairs and go to sleep so I can wake up early and do nothing but work all day, because apparently fun isn’t allowed when Applejack’s around!”
“You listen here missy-“
But Applebloom had dashed off up the stairs before Applejack could begin her riposte. The sound of her teeth grinding together was loud enough to hear over the hushed silence left standing in the dining room.
“I hope the wheatloaf wasn’t too dry...” Granny Smith mumbled absentmindedly.
Applejack woke early the next morning – but as her eyes parted to let the sun in through the window, she felt the unusual whole body sensation experienced only when waking early. The feeling when the sun isn’t quite as bright as it should be, and the moment of panic that can signal oversleeping before the hands on the alarm clock precede obligation. Applejack sighed, and settled down into her bed, hoping she could fall back to sleep. Hours of rest were valuable when the rest of the day was manual labour.
A noise made her jump underneath her quilt. Instead of the rattle of her alarm clock, or the roosters crowing outside the window, she heard something that until several days ago had been completely unfamiliar, but was now quickly becoming akin to a generated curse word.
“Applebloom...” she muttered to herself, throwing her sheets and blanket off in one swift motion and jumping out of bed, and tossing on her hat from its bedside post. The noise was loud enough to hear through her bedroom wall as she opened the door and started the walk down the hallway. The beeps and boops grew louder as she approached Applebloom’s bedroom, eventually reaching an almost ear-piercing height as she stood outside the closed door. She paused for a second, took a deep breath, and pounded the door open.
Applebloom’s face froze as she turned to meet the noise, having subconscious presence of mind enough to press the pause button on her controller. The armor suited pony on screen froze in place, inches away from a fireball above his head.
“Consarnit Applebloom, I have had it with this stupid thing!”
Applejack marched over to the wood-inlaid screen, her hoof hovering over the power button to the box on the ground in front of it.
Applejack’s hoof paused for a moment, on the off chance that her sister might proffer an explanation to withhold her malice.
“I’m just about at the third castle...”
The images on the screen fizzled for a moment and blinked out of existence as Applejack pressed down on the power button much harder than was necessary.
“That’s it! No more of this dumb game!” Applejack’s voice was, in irony, louder than the beeping she had stormed into the room to silence. Applebloom was torn between quivering and raising her own voice in defiance, and settled somewhere in the middle.
“You’re just mad because I still remember how to have fun instead of working all the time!”
“That ain’t got nothin’ to do with it!” Applejack stormed over to the other side of the room, mentally stalling her hooves from bringing her into a brisk set of pacing.
“It does too! You’ve been cranky from workin’ too hard, your brains turned to mush after so many years of being nothing but boring!”
Applejack didn’t often hear her sister talk back like that, and given the combination of circumstance, it was enough to tip her from boiling to smoldering. She turned her exit into a circuit of the room, making her way back to the now black screen and the grey box beside it.
“Boring? Let me show you what I think’d be fun!” Applejack’s eyes cocked into a cocky ‘just dare me’ look as she poised her hind hooves close to her body in bucking position, right next to the fragile glass and unidentifiable material of the console that didn’t look as though it could survive even a fierce shove. Applebloom saw the intent immediately, and leapt to action, springing up from her seat on the floor. In an uncharacteristic display of brashness, whether due to a well-labeled affection towards her new toy, or due to the increasingly heated level of conflict that had arisen over the object’s presence, Applebloom aimed her momentum straight for Applejack’s forehead, and clamped down on the brim of Applejack’s hat. She pulled it down with the weight of her body, covering AJ’s eyes completely and dragging her front end down as well.
Applejack’s legs, not being an ill-proportioned firearm, didn’t go off of their own accord, but the shock of the sudden blindness as well as her sister’s sudden aggression prompted a response in kind, bucking her front end up in an attempt to dislodge the abruptly vicious yellow parasite clinging to her headwear. Her shake sent Applebloom flying to the side of the room, where she landed against the book-case with a thud. Immediately, several books fell from their place on the shelf, and the ancient construction of the boards creaked as they jostled against Applebloom’s body-weight. Applebloom jumped to her feet quick, turning a second after to notice the book-case behind her. It was falling forward to meet her. Being sandwiched under a hundred pounds of ancient wood boards not being her idea of fun, Applebloom managed to draw on her hidden reserves of adrenaline, already kicked into gear by her bout with her sister, and sprung out of the way, ducking sideways under the rapidly descending wood.
Applejack’s reaction gave a second longer for the shock of the approaching furniture, but she was quick on the draw as well, diving to the side as the book-case fell. Its descent was as quick as a laborious assemblage of old planks could manage, and within seconds of the two Apple sisters dodging its movement, the book-case had crashed against the ground, slamming itself against the floorboards with a crash – as well as the grey box in front of the wooden screen, missing the glass by inches.
The sound the box made as the book-case collided with its frame was something like glass breaking in a vortex. Pieces of it flew in every direction, and as Applebloom and Applejack watched, the air in front of them blinked for a moment, a bright flash of magenta, followed by a sound like a sigh escaping from an elephant made of pixels. Applebloom’s eyes widened in shock as the shards of grey material scattered to either side.
It was the only thing she could manage. Not only was the box in pieces in front of her, but it was a broken item not even belonging to her. Despite her conjecture to smash the thing, Applejack’s expression was the strained awkwardness of someone who couldn’t weigh their contribution to the destruction of something that wasn’t theirs.
A soft hiss like settling smoke was the only sound in the room for a moment.
“Applebloom... I, uh...”
“How could you, Applejack!” Applebloom turned with tears in her eyes, shifting the blame of her own part in the accident in the way that only heartbroken children are able to do.
“Hey now, I didn’t do nothin’! You’re the one that came at me like a timber wolf at an applecart.”
Applejack seemed oblivious to the fact that empirical evidence in this kind of situation was not at the forefront of Applebloom’s mind. Due to the accuracy of the response, Applebloom couldn’t dismiss it immediately, and so instead settled for sniffling and looking at the pieces of grey scattered on the ground in front of her. Applejack stood in the settling quiet alongside her, unsure whether or not to apologize.
Applebloom turned again to break the quiet, her cheeks stained with the overflow of her tears.
Applejack blinked. When her sister had opened her mouth, instead of words, a sound like a rusted lawnmower through a water tunnel had emerged. Applejack rubbed her ear with a hoof in an attempted to clear it out. Maybe the lack of sleep and long work days were getting to her.
“Beg ‘pardon, Applebloom?”
Applejack’s little sister opened her mouth again, her face still a mix of hurt and self-resentment.
Applejack felt very tired all of a sudden. The air in front of her was blurring and flickering in her periphery, as though a soft fog was descending on her irises. She raised her hoof again to clear her eyes, but they shot wide open when she saw her foreleg.
“What in tarnation?”
The orange fur of her own body looked suddenly unfamiliar. Instead of smooth creases on her foreleg in the natural way it had always been, her limb looked blocky, and angular – like it was assembled out of a hundred tiny blocks, pressed together in a semblance of what an actual pony leg looked like.
Applejack’s mouth moved, but no sounds emerged. She tore her attention from the alien looking part of her own body. Applebloom stared up at her; her face was a collage of yellow blocks, and a bright red set of triangles on her head in a crude approximation of her bow.
Before she could speak again, Applejack felt the floor underneath her shift. A look down to the floorboards gave a sigh similar to Applebloom’s face, thousands of brown geometric blobs connected – but now falling apart below her feet. Applejack’s reaction time didn’t feel dulled in the slightest, but as she lifted her legs in an attempt to spring away, time slowed to a crawl, and the floor disappeared rapidly. Gravity took hold in an instant, plunging her down through the crack in the pixilated floor. She tried to shout, but managed only a bleep before the ground swallowed her whole, bypassing the downstairs of her house entirely and plunging her into darkness.
It was very dark. Applejack collected her sense of balance with her eyes closed, afraid to open them and find herself looking like a horrifying orange bundle of blobs. After a quick feel along her left foreleg, which she was content felt like proper fur and bone, Applejack opened her eyes. She could see fine. A glance down was followed by a sigh of relief. Normal pony body. Normal Applejack.
The ‘where am I’ popped into her head immediately, but she held her tongue for the sake of the cliché, and also on the grounds that she couldn’t see anyone nearby to answer. Despite her eyes being wide open, it was dark.
“Hello?” she said into the darkness. It seemed a more appropriate generalization.
There was no response.
Amidst the silence of her fading question, Applejack thought she heard a ticking, like the hands on clock through a veil of water.
“Hello?” she tried again. No answer.
Applejack shielded her eyes, covering them with her foreleg as the darkness suddenly burst into almost blinding brightness. She turned her head away as the light intensified, peaked, and then diminished, fading to a level that Applejack surmised she could look into without burning out her retinas. The light said nothing, and Applejack abandoned her hopes for questioning.
A giant standing sculpture of letters stood in front of her where there had been nothing. They looked carved from giant trunks of wood, but they flashed from red to black in colours far too unnatural for any wood. Applejack squinted to keep her eyesight as she read the giant array of letters in front of her.
The last syllable had just escaped from Applejack’s lips when the ground vanished again. Gravity returned its familiar hello, speaking in the only language it was capable and dragging Applejack down into nothingness. This time, her eyes were wide in the darkness. Again, she attempted to scream.
It came, but there was no one there to hear.
When Applejack landed this time, she could feel the ground. It welcomed her with an ‘oof’ and a sudden screaming for air in her lungs, which she gasped for.
A sound like a carousel spinning round greeted her. For a change of pace, everything seemed to be pink.
She wasn’t sure if she wanted to ask any more questions. Saying things had been unwelcome thus far.
“Applejack? What are you doing here?!”
The voice was unmistakable. Applejack collected a semblance of breath and tilted her head upward. The ceiling waved hello, in a jumble of brown and orange blocks meant to construct its colouration. A smiling pink face eclipsed the scenery, beaming down at Applejack as her eyes did their best to keep from spinning around in her head.
“That’s me!” Pinkie Pie nodded and grinned wide, nodding in time to the all too cheery music in the background.
At least she could ask now.
“Where am I? What’s going on?”
“Hmmm… You’re in Party Palooza Five! Unless it’s Party Palooza four… so many flavours of cupcakes makes me think five though.”
Applejack didn’t understand, and wasn’t sure she wanted to.
Applejack felt one of her forelegs grasped between two hooves, and was pulled upwards for the first time since landing, the world orienting itself rapidly around her still badly jarred body. There was a simple brown table to her right, laden with all manner of deserts and garishly decorated cupcakes. After a moment of her eyes adjustment, Applejack lost what little appetite she had developed at first sight – the cupcakes were the same as the scenery, pieced together with tiny blocks in a crude semblance of what an actual cupcake might look like.
Applejack turned her gaze around the room. Balloons and streamers made of squares jumped at her from every angle – the only remotely normal looking thing was Pinkie Pie, and saying anything about Pinkie was normal was a stretch of the imagination at best.
“Party Palooza Five! It’s fantastic… there’s cupcakes and party planning and streamers and music that goes bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce-“
“Please explain in English, Pinkie… the last thing I remember was a bunch o’ dark, and some words, and then I fell here… and before that, falling somewhere else.”
“Ooh, sounds like fun! How many points did you get?”
Applejack did not have the patience for even the slightest bother at this point – she imagined for a moment that she had gone to pony hell, and Pinkie was her tormentor until of time. The thought left when she assured herself that no Equestrian deity of karmic justice could be that cruel.
“Look, Pinkie… I have no idea what’s going on. Where am I really, and how do I wake up or get back home or do whatever it is to not be here?”
“[pplaugh.midi]!” Pinkie tilted her head back with her eyes closed, and a noise like a marble filled with water falling down a set of xylophone stairs played in Applejack’s ears.
“Oh, sorry, it does that every time I giggle. I already told you where you are, silly… Party Pal-“
“Pinkie! That don’t make any sense to me. It’s not any place I’ve ever heard of.”
“Yes you have! It’s in the box with Coltra, and eQuestria Quest II…”
No, maybe there was a deity that cruel after all.
“Pinkie, that ain’t funny. How could I be in one of those stupid box thingies-“
“They’re called video games! Is strange vord from foreign land, comrade Applejack.” A fur hat appeared mysteriously from thin air as Pinkie’s accent shifted. The fur hat was the same as everything else, a mishmash of blocks in the shape of what AJ imagined a Stalliongrad cap might look like.
“Pinkie, please. Can you just tell me what is going on?”
“I’d love to!” Pinkie said, whipping her pixilated fur hat away and plopping herself down in a nearby chair. Applejack breathed a sigh of relief, and pulled up her own chair. She adjusted her hat, and her eyes bulged with panic for a moment before she pulled it off her head and stared directly at it. A sigh of relief joined the carousel background as the still normal shaped brim of her hat greeted her eyes.
“Whenever you’re ready then,” she said, settling into her chair. Pinkie smiled brightly at her from across the table.
“Like I said, I’d love to… But, I don’t really know what’s going on either.”
Applejack let her face fall forward into the table. The impact made a boop that filled Applejack’s ears rather than emerging from the point of contact. She sighed loudly.
“I mean, yeah, I know we’re in a game, and it’s my favorite one… but I don’t know how we got here! I just woke up and I was surrounded by cupcakes and streamers and goodies, and I’ve been having fun ever since!”
“Unfortunately, this ain’t my idea of ‘fun’, Pinkie.”
“Rweary?” Pinkie took a huge bite out of one of the pixilated cupcakes, and when she spoke, tiny pink squares flew into the air around her. Applejack shielded herself absentmindedly from the torrent of eight bit icing.
“Uh-huh. If you have any inkling on how to not be here right now, or if you want to pinch me real hard so I wake up, I’d apprecia-ow!”
Applejack drew her leg back as Pinkie smiled and dug into another cupcake, withdrawing her hooves from their sudden fierce pinch. Applejack rubbed the appearing red mark as Pinkie gobbled down her desert.
“Well, you’re not dreaming,” Pinkie declared. She was denied that easy escape, at least.
“So how does this stop?” A sudden thought flashed across Applejack’s mind. When she had fallen at first… pieces of grey and a hiss like an escaping breath through the mouth of an ancient cave. “Um.”
Pinkie tilted her head quizzically, munching on a mouthful of pink blocky icing.
“I, uh… well, I think I might know all of sudden what’s got me here in the first place.”
Pinkie narrowed her eyebrows and replaced the furry cap on her head.
The music that had been ambling in the background shifted suddenly, twisting into what Applejack imagined might be a Stalliongrad campfire song, twisting and weaving over strange chords in place of the slightly unnerving but still relatively simple carnival music.
“I… we… it might have happened that, the uh… that Rarity’s magic box she leant us… it might have broken. On accident. Accidentally.”
“Bozhe moĭ! How did that happen?”
“It was an accident, I said! But, uh… do you think it could have anything to do with… this?”
“Vozmozhno, most definitely.”
“Could you cut it out with that accent?!”
“[ppsnort.midi]… Heh, sorry. But, you do know how that video game box worked, don’t you?”
Applejack looked as though Pinkie had asked her to explain the concept of magic at large. Pinkie’s eyes softened, and she leaned across the table.
“Well, it’s magic, first off. But it’s a very special kind of magic, in a tiny crystal inside the little grey box! If you broke it… well, here we are, I guess.”
“Land’s sake! This is not what I needed right now.”
Pinkie leaned back in her chair again and tossed a cupcake into the air, catching it in her mouth with a giant chomp.
“What do you mean? Everypony could use a vacation sometimes… and it’s not every day you get to spend it in a video game.”
“There are places I’d rather be, and work that needs to be done besides. Please tell me you have some idea on how to get out of this awful place.”
Pinkie Pie looked as though she resented the use of the world ‘awful’, but she mustered a response behind her sudden onset glare.
“Well, most video games end when you reach the end. Party Palooza doesn’t really have an end… you just play until you can’t serve any more guests or eat any more cupcakes.”
Applejack looked down at the table – new cupcakes had appeared for every one Pinkie Pie had eaten. Applejack hammered her head onto the table again. Boop.
“Don’t be sad, Applejack! Just try to enjoy yourself.”
“No thank you!” Applejack stood up with a huff, adjusting her hat with fire in her eyes. “I aim to get things back to normal as soon as possible, so I can forget about all these dumb games and get back to the work that needs to be done.”
“You’re a real party pooper sometimes, Applejack.”
“Don’t you start too. I just want to get out of here. Ain’t my idea of fun time, being somewhere everything’s made of squares and beeping.”
“Did you say something, Pinkie?”
Pinkie’s open mouth froze in place. As Applejack watched, the party pony in front of her faded away like falling cliffs in the wind, her body disassembling into pink squares and dissolving into nothing. Applejack felt a familiar tug, and the ground vanished, along with the scenery and vaguely ethnic music. As she fell, Applejack closed her eyes, and kept her mouth shut.
>Applejack awakes, standing in a small section of town square. The weather is cloudy overhead, and the town of Ponyville is vacant around her as far as the eye can see. The town fountain is in the center of her immediate vicinity. Obvious exists are – NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST
>”What the heck? I can’t see anything! Where the heck am I?”
>I’m sorry, I don’t understand your command.
>”Who said that? Pinkie, is that you?”
>I’m sorry, I don’t know how to “WHO SAID THAT”
>”For Celestia’s sake… I’ve had enough of this stupid place already! I want out of here!”
>Obvious exits are NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST
>”Would be nice if I could see any of those! Can’t go anywhere when I’m blind, can I? Tell me to go north or south if I can’t tell which is which…”
>You are standing in a section of Ponyville town square. The fountain is several feet behind you. To your right, there is a scenic PARK BENCH. The rest of the market district stretches EAST, and residential buildings are NORTH. Obvious exits are NORTH, EAST, SOUTH.
>”Can’t I just tell you where I want to go? If this is Ponyville, I want to go home. Take me to Sweet Apple Acres!”
>I’m sorry, I don’t understand your command.
>”GO! Go to Sweet Apple Acres!”
>I’m sorry, I don’t know how to GO TO SWEET APPLE ACRES.
>”… What do you want? Do you want me to just lie down and wait to wake up? Because I don’t believe any of this is real. If I have to pass out in the dark and wait for things to go back to normal I will… “
>I’m sorry, I don’t understand your command.
>”… Isn’t this enough? I get it, ‘video games’ are awful, but I won’t badmouth ‘em anymore. I swear, just let me go back home and never have to spend another second in this stupid place…”
>I’m sorry, I don’t understand your command.
>”…What can I see again?”
>I’m sorry, I don’t know how to WHAT CAN I SEE
“This is horsefeathers! See, what can I see! Look! Um… gander! Tell me what’s around me!”
>You are standing in a section of Ponyville town square. The fountain is several feet behind you. To your right, there is a scenic PARK BENCH. The rest of the market district stretches EAST, and residential buildings are NORTH. Obvious exits are NORTH, EAST, SOUTH.
>”That’s it? Some exits and a park bench?”
>SIT PARK BENCH
>YOU NEED THE LYRIST CLASS TO DO THAT
>You begin your walk into the housing district of Ponyville. Houses stretch out in front of you for blocks. A small MARKET STALL is to your left, but it is unoccupied. A PURPLE UNICORN is standing to your right. Obvious exits are NORTH, SOUTH.
>”Purple Unicorn? Is that Twilight? Twilight, please tell me you can hear me!”
>What do you want to do with the PURPLE UNICORN?
>”Uh…. Go? Go… to Twilight… purple unicorn?”
>GO PURPLE UNICORN
>You can’t go there.
>”Consarnit! Uh… see. I see Twilight. Can I do anything else?”
>I’m sorry, I don’t understand your command.
>”Look? Can I look at Twilight – er, purple unicorn?”
>LOOK PURPLE UNICORN
>You see a PURPLE UNICORN. Her mane is lilac and magenta. She is very pretty.
>”Ugh. Can I talk to her… talk to the purple unicorn?”
>TALK PURPLE UNICORN
>You say hello to the PURPLE UNICORN in a jovial manner. She turns her head from her reading and greets you with a smile.
>”Applejack, oh my goodness! What are you doing here?”
>”Twilight? Thank Celestia! I was starting to go crazy from this thing.”
>The PURPLE UNICORN blinks at you expectantly.
>”Shut up you stupid thing, I’m talking to Twilight! Twilight, please tell me you know what’s going on, I can’t stand much more of this place…”
>The PURPLE UNICORN looks suddenly surprised, and pulls a note from her book bag. She scribbles on it with a pen and places it on the ground.
>”Twilight, why ain’t you talkin? Do I gotta say something to this stupid thing to get it to let me talk to you…”
>The PURPLE UNICORN nudges the note insistently.
>”Oh, for… alright, I look at the note.”
>You see a note on the ground with delicate cursive scribbled across it.
>”Great, and what does it say?”
>I’m sorry, I don’t understand your command.
>”GAAH! Please, just tell me what’s on the note! I just want to read the note!”
>The note says: ‘Applejack, you have to tell it exactly what you want to do before you do it! If you want to talk to me, you have to say ‘Talk’ and then me! Then you can tell me what you want to say. It works with everything else too… if you want to take my note, you can say ‘Take Note’ and it’ll let you pick it up!”
>”Leave it to Twilight to figure out somethin’ this ridiculous… alright then. TALK – TWILIGHT.”
>I’m sorry, I don’t see a TWILIGHT.
>”TALK, PURPLE UNICORN.”
>TALK PURPLE UNICORN
>”Yay, you did it! It took me some work to figure out too… I’ve been trying to get the full set of commands for the last little while; I think I have it almost all worked out.”
>”At least one of us understands what’s goin’ on… Twilight, please tell me you’ve worked out how to make this whole crazy thing stop. Pinkie says she thinks it happened when I…er, when the magic box thing got broke, by accident.”
>”Talk, purple unicorn.”
>TALK PURPLE UNICORN
>”Hmm… that definitely would explain the huge influx of transformative magic that’s caused this sort of dimensional adjustment. I’ve been too busy studying the command inputs to figure out what might be causing this… frankly, I think it’s fascinating. Imagine if the real world was dictated so rigidly by sets of rules like this! Wouldn’t it be amazing?”
>”I’d just like everything to go back to normal, iffn’ ya please… er, talk, purple unicorn.”
>TALK PURPLE UNICORN
>”Oh… well, I can sort of understand. I don’t imagine this would be much fun for some pony not as inclined for elaborate thinking as I am.”
>”Glare purple unicorn.”
>I’m sorry, I don’t know how to GLARE.
>”Ugh… Twilight, can you just tell me how to get everything back to normal? Talk purple unicorn.”
>TALK PURPLE UNICORN
>”Sure! It’s pretty straightforward, I think. I mean, systems designed for player engagement have a set of rules that govern their play, and upon completion, the conditions of the system are met and the outcome resolves! Speaking simply… if you beat the game, it should reorient the rules systems, if not returning everything to normal.”
>”So I have to beat this stupid ‘walk here do this look that’ thing to fix everything? I don’t suppose you have any clue on how I’d do that, talk purple unicorn?”
>TALK PURPLE UNICORN
>”I think I might have a pretty good idea. When I was studying the commands I found out I can use my magic to analyze the environment pretty well… the end objective seems to be a talisman in Sugar Cube corner. Head there and pick it up, and that should satisfy the completion conditions.”
>”If you know where it is, why haven’t you picked it up and ended the game yet? Talk purple unicorn.”
>TALK PURPLE UNICORN
>”Oh, I was having too much fun studying everything. But you can go ahead if you want.”
>”Of course you were… well, thank you, Twilight. I reckon’ I’ll head over there and get out of this crazy choose your own adventure book. Talk purple unicorn.”
>TALK PURPLE UNICORN
>”Good luck Applejack! Let me know if you need any more help.”
>”Can do Twilight, talk purple unicorn.”
>TALK PURPLE UNICORN
>The PURPLE UNICORN smiles at you and returns to her reading.
> Houses stretch out in front of you for blocks. A small MARKET STALL is to your left, but it is unoccupied. A PURPLE UNICORN is standing to your right, she is very pretty. Obvious exits are NORTH, SOUTH.
>”I’m getting better at this. Go south.”
> You are standing in a section of Ponyville town square. The fountain is several feet behind you. To your right, there is a scenic PARK BENCH. The rest of the market district stretches-
>”Yeah yeah, go south.”
> The weather is cloudy overhead, and the town of Ponyville is-
>”Go south, go south, go east, go south, go east, go north.”
>You are standing in front of the local bakery, SUGAR CUBE CORNER. The sign on the door proclaims the name for all of Ponyville to see. There is a garish bell aside the door, and a welcome mat with a smiling pony’s face on it. Obvious exits are SOUTH.
>”Uh… shoot. Go inside Sugar Cube Corner?”
>I’m sorry, I don’t know how to GO INSIDE.
>”Uh… open Sugar Cube Corner?”
>I’m sorry, I can’t OPEN that.
>You open the door and enter SUGAR CUBE CORNER. The smell of sweets wafts across your olfactory perception, making your mouth water with its deliciousness. There is a small wooden table in the center of the room, and the bakery counter stretches out to your left laden with all manner of delectable deserts. Atop the table, there is a delicately crafted TALISMAN.
>”That was easier than it had any right to be. Take talisman.”
####################ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR RELOADING GROUND ERRRRRRRRRRRRR##################################################MODULE##########################################################1-1-1-8-1-8-########ERRR#################
The sensation of waking into nothingness was rapidly becoming familiar to Applejack. She parted her eyes cautiously, and breathed a grateful sigh of relief when colour and substance greeted her instead of nothingness.
“Look – er. Drat.”
Applejack looked around, more appreciative than she could express to have functioning use of her senses and to not have to dictate exactly what she wanted to do to some omnipotent narrator who could understand commands more complex than one syllable. The sight that greeted her was an optimistic one – instead of the bleary skies the narrator had described a moment ago, only tiny whispy clouds were drifting across a bright blue overhead, setting a picturesque background to the green foliage and rolling hills that stretched out in seemingly every direction. Applejack did a double take as she let her eyes rest on nearby flower – she had almost hoped for a moment she was somewhere in Equestria proper. The jagged edges of the flower petals told her otherwise; still, anything was better than ‘YOU SEE A FLOWER.’
Cautiously, Applejack reached her hoof out to the yellow petals. It passed right through into air.
“Well, this beats the alternative.”
Applejack looked around again. There wasn’t much to see in the immediate vicinity, but the horizon seemed to stretch out forever. More so, there were hills and obstacles stretching forward as well. Applejack guessed she might have ended up on some kind of race track, given the checkered pattern on the various sticks that impeded the path forward. Even stranger, some of the checkered patterned blocks were floating, bobbing up and down in the air like balloons on an oddly rigid schedule of oscillation.
Applejack looked up, and a sun with a bright single line smile and sunglasses stared back at her.
“Yeesh. Not sure what to make of this one.”
To weigh the pros and cons, there was no Pinkie Pie spraying her with icing and bizarre accents, and no need to dictate the simple act of looking up into the sky… the con being, she was still anywhere but Sweet Apple Acres.
“Well, I beat the last one… this is all sunshine and tropical gardens. Should be a piece of cake.”
Applejack prodded the ground experimentally with one hoof. It didn’t yield in the slightest, making the grass feel like a pounded flat racetrack. Applejack was good at racing. She raised her head, and stared into the distance. On the horizon, past what looked like a hundred hills and strange floating platforms, she thought she caught a glimmer of something glowing.
“Piece of cake,” she repeated.
Applejack had no sooner pressed her hooves to the ground to spring into a leap than she suddenly felt the sense of upright orientation leave her body. The ground spiralled over her head, and the sky spun around her. Her immediate reaction was to throw up violently, but restraint overcame instinct, and so she settled for an unpleasant sounding gurgle as the world righted itself again. Her feet hit the ground hard, and despite its hardness, she didn’t feel as though she had kicked a wall of cement. The nausea began to pass quickly too, leaving her more or less where she had left off to start, only several feet forward.
Cautiously, Applejack attempted a tiny hop into the air. The world spun around her again as her body flipped of its own accord, landing her solidly on her hooves after several rotations.
“Urgh… that’s gonna take some getting used to.”
Still… the Apple family were no quitters.
Taking the next jump at a run and aiming herself over a hill directly in her path, Applejack jumped straight up, trying to will herself into the spin that came anyway. Pushing forward into the flux made the sensation of disorientation disappear, and Applejack landed on the crest of the hill feeling exhilarated. The path stretched out in front of her, laden with trees, plants, and circle hoops designed for spinning jumps.
She braced her legs against the ground, and grinned.
“Let’s do this.”
Applejack settled into the dust on the ground from another jump. Her breathing was heavy. Despite her positive attitude, the reality of several hundred obstacles to clear had taken its toll, and she was feeling significantly winded after what felt like a day straight of sprints and jumps. In addition to leaping overtop obstacles and off suspicious floating platforms (which had turned out to be more stable than they looked), Applejack had caught herself needing to dodge several evil looking crustaceans that had leered at her out of the corner of their beady eyes as she passed by. The things were huge, practically the size of a small pony, and instead of claws, their arms curved into menacing drill points, twinkling with their sharpness underneath the sun. Applejack had stayed as far away from them as possible, but once or twice over a long chasm jump one of them had reached its pointed drill claw up at her, which she had only narrowly avoided each time. She considered stopping once or twice to try squishing them, but kept the goal in sight as best she could.
Now, panting and out of breath, the sparkling in the distance still seemed far away… and peering over the next cliff brought a chill to Applejack’s spine. Dozens of the crabs were there, leering up at her and clicking their jagged looking mandibles.
Applejack sighed and fell to the ground, trying to make herself momentarily comfortable in the insubstantial pixilated grass.
A sudden pinching sensation not unlike Pinkie’s earlier nip made her eyes snap open. She drew her foreleg to her body by instinct. A red mark glowed underneath the sun – and next to where her hoof had layed, a miniature version of the drill-clawed crabs leered at her.
Smashing one almost her size was one thing, but this would be like squashing a particularly annoying fly. Applejack lifted her hoof and tensed her muscle before the down-swing.
The volume of the shout was enough to shake the leaves of the palm trees waving perpetually in the background. Applejack’s eyes flew wide in surprise, and her hoof-swing faded into nothing, leaving the tiny crab freedom to scuttle in the other direction.
Where had that other voice come from, and why did she recognize it?
“Ohh, Applejack, please don’t squish the poor little guy… he didn’t mean it… did you, lil’ fella?”
Only one pony could talk that way about a drill-handed crab.
Applejack tilted her head up to see a familiar pink and yellow pegasus touching down on the ground to her side.
“Fluttershy? Fancy meeting you here.”
“Hello Applejack! I’m sorry again about the pinching… really, the crabs aren’t so bad once you get to know them.” Fluttershy let her hoof rest on the ground where the crab found it, and scurried up her leg, resting on her shoulder and blinking his beady eyes. Applejack cast a sideways glare in his direction before returning her attention to Fluttershy.
“I don’t suppose you’ve done anything since you got here aside from try to keep those little monsters out of harm’s way.”
“I’ve been here for a little while, I think… but no, I’ve just been looking after these little crabbies. After Rainbow Dash tried to squish one first, I didn’t have much of a choice!”
More familiar faces then.
“Rainbow Dash? What’s she doing here?”
“That’s like asking what any of us are doing here! I woke up and I was outside instead of in my bead, and there were palm trees everywhere and I don’t know if you know, but I hate the ocean so when I smelled the breeze I panicked and thought I was having that awful dream again-“
“Woah, girl. Calm down. I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s goin’ on here, and I aim to get it back to normal. Just wondering what RD’s gotten herself into in the meantime.”
Fluttershly blinked in relative confusion. The drill-crab on her shoulder poked at her hair idly, running its drill claw through the strands of pink like a filly poking at cotton candy.
“Um… I’m not sure. I just saw her zoom in the other direction a little while ago. Do you know what’s at the other side of this big path? I’ve been too busy stopping to check up on these little guys…”
“I reckon that’s what we’d call the ‘end’ of this particular section… It’s where I’m headed, anyway.”
Fluttershy gave the tiny crab a gentle pat on the head before turning back to Applejack.
“I’d love to give you a lift, but I’m sure you understand I have to stay here and watch out for all the crabbies.”
“Uh, Fluttershy, I don’t meant to burst your bubble… but strictly speaking, these crabs ain’t even real. I fell on one by mistake, and a bunch o’ numbers popped out and nearly cut my head off. They’re part of a… what was it, a video game? A bunch of squares and bleeps in a box on a screen, or at least, that’s where they came from originally.”
“A… video game? I don’t understand.”
Applejack sighed, sat up, and adjusted the brim of her hat.
“Long story short, it means they’re kinda like, uh… scarecrows that walk. They ain’t real animals. And, uh, video game… it’s a long story. Just take it easy and know that I’m sortin’ it all out.”
“Oh, thank you Applejack. I do have to confess the salt air has gotten me a little jittery.”
“Mhm.” Applejack’s gaze caught the edge of the horizon, following the gentle breeze and the waving of the palm trees along to the point far off in the distance – her target.
“Say Fluttershy… I don’t suppose you’d mind giving me a lift in the direction o’ that sparkly stuff? I think it’s where I need to be right about now, but the walk there is killing me.”
“Of course! I’m happy to help however I can, Applejack. Just let me take your hoof there-“
Applejack felt Fluttershy’s legs around her own, and seconds after felt the touch of the ground disappear as she lifted into the air. She couldn’t help but smile – with Fluttershy’s help, this would be another game out of the way, which meant the library had to be running low at this point. Things would, under an optimistic interpretation, be back to normal in no time.
After a minute of flight, Applejack caught herself looking up at Fluttershy – the breeze she’d felt on her back was a little unfamiliar, at least for the times she’d been flown places before.
“Uh… Fluttershy? Don’t you normally use your wings for flyin’?”
Instead of her usual method of airborne propulsion, Fluttershy’s tail was twirling around behind her like a propeller, making a humming whirling noise as it rotated over and over. Fluttershy glanced back at it for a second before looking to Applejack apologetically.
“I know, of course I do… but ever since I woke up, this seems to be the only way I can fly. I’m not quite sure how I’m doing it – my tail just sort of started moving on its own when I went to take off.”
Applejack kept quiet, having nothing further to say on the subject. Flying in style wasn’t the objective – getting from point A to point B was the highest priority, and Applejack desperately hoped that point B would be the final journey in her exodus of terrible graphics and bizarre beeping ambience.
Fluttershy and Applejack touched down on a hill only feet away from the sparkling glow – Applejack could see its intensity almost up close now, and her legs felt renewed with fresh energy as she readied herself for the final stretch of run.
“Probably best that you let me go check that thing out so you don’t get dragged wherever else I’m headed with me.”
“If you say so, Applejack. Just promise me you’ll be careful?”
“’course I will. Been easy-goin’ the whole way so far, but that’s no reason I’m gonna let my guard down. ‘sides, what’s the least a big shiny thing can do – gem me to death?”
Fluttershy managed a weak laugh, but her eyebrows furrowed in concern despite Applejack’s cocky smile.
“Ahaha… Right. Just make sure you stay safe for whatever happens next, okay?”
Applejack nodded, and steeled a look of determination, readying herself for the next leg of the journey. The sparkling glow, while immaterial, beckoned to her, inviting her spinning leap across the final chasm to completion. Her legs tensed in preparation for the jump, and she was an inch away from springing forward when a noise like a jet-engine sucked the air away from her ears and send her sprawling backwards onto the ground with her legs up in the air. Fluttershy caught a healthy dose of the gust as well, and it threw her to the ground, followed by an anxious ‘squeak’ as the fake grass collided with her spinning tails.
“What in the heck is that?” AJ asked allowed as the rush of wind subsided for a moment before returning in the other direction, like a multiflowing tornado doing its best to throw both ponies off balance.
“I think I might know…” Fluttershy mumbled under the wind volume.
A sound like a basketball on wet concrete shrieked through the air, followed by the abrupt halt of the wind in either direction. A foot from Applejack’s face which she had sheltered with her hat against the wind, a single blue feather fell.
“AJ, sup! What brings you here?”
Applejack looked incredulously at the pegasus standing in front of her.
“I could ask you the same thing! What’s the big idea, zooming back and forth and throwing me off balance? I was just about to take the jump to get over to whatever that thing is and get out of this stupid place.”
“Why would you want to go? This place is awesome! Everything I do feels faster… A tried a Sonic Rainboom after I woke up and it was so easy it felt like getting out of bed!”
“Ain’t that more of a chore for you?”
“Nevermind. Is there a reason you’re zooming around like that? On account of, I aim to get over to that glowball and finish my time here.”
Rainbow Dash shrugged, tilting her head to the side and gazing off into the tropical ocean skyline.
“You know me, AJ. I gotta go fast.”
“Well, you stick around and go fast as long as you want. I’m getting out of here.”
Applejack paused for the second time mid-jump preparation, and cast a glare over her shoulder.
“Don’t you want to explore… you know, see what else is up with this place? It’d be easy, considering how fast everything goes…”
“Ain’t you even just a little confused about how you wound up on a vertical island with bumps and drill crabs everywhere?”
“Well… a little.”
“Did you take a look at one of those flowers and see how it’s made up of a bunch of lumpy little coloured blocks?”
“No, can’t say that I have.”
Dash cocked her head as though hit with a sudden understanding.
“Hey, wait a minute… is this all a dream I’m having? Am I gonna wake up soon?”
“If this was a dream I would have been out of bed a long time ago.”
“Don’t get all confusing on me! Can dreams tell they’re dreaming?”
Applejack shook her head, and readied herself for the jump again.
“If I think I’m dreaming, does that mean I’m awake? Am I gonna be back to normal speed when I wake up?”
“You keep thinkin’ on that, RD. Spend as much time goin’ fast as you can, before I get to the end of this stupid set of time wasters…”
The last remnants of Dash’s confused wondering vanished into the hum of the white light as Applejack threw herself inside, the world around her fading into white nothingness as the glow consumed her vision.
Applejack felt the throb of waiting thunder overhead before she even opened her eyes.
The ground felt solid, but not in an unforgiving way. She swore the grass beneath her hooves was real for a moment until she opened her eyes, and saw nothing but green blocks compressed together. There was no room left for a sigh, because something in her head told her this was it. The final challenge before return. Or, the final time she’d get her hopes up before resigning herself to an eternity of futile attempts at completion of every objective this unreality could throw at her.
For once, Applejack wished desperately she was a proper optimist.
There was a lot different about this place.
To start with, even Applejack’s body felt unusual. An experimental movement of her foreleg revealed the source of strange sensation – instead of orange fur leaping into vision, Applejack’s entire body was covered in what looked like red rusted blocks. They moved with each of her movements, and surprisingly managed to leave her motion relatively unrestricted. She tapped against one set of the red blocks with a hoof, and it plinked in response.
Applejack was beginning to connect the dots already. She felt on her back with a hoof, preparing herself for what she could expect to find strapped there. A clink of her ‘armor’ let her know her suspicions were correct. As she pulled her hoof away, something clung to it of its own accord. Without any effort on her part, the object strapped to the back of her armor had followed her hoof, and was now hovering alongside it, practically attached through some sort of magic. A sword, long and sharp, or as sharp as it could look with a center composed of two condensed black squares to form an edge.
Of course it would have to be this one last.
Applejack could see the first screen stretching out in front of her already. Unlike the rolling green hills and bouncing platforms of the game previous, the new sights emerging were blockier, and more menacing, shaded in greys and browns and packed with what she could already see at a distance where evil looking bats and other unpleasant creatures. Applejack hefted her magical sword experimentally, swinging her hoof from side to side and marvelling as the sword followed perfectly.
At least she was far from ill-equipped.
“How many castles did Applebloom say again…” Applejack could remember at least three. And what else? A Hydra, a giant troll… and if she got to the end, an evil dragon.
Mercifully, Applejack’s exhaustion from her track run through obstacle laden fields and over obnoxious crabs seemed to have vanished, leaving her feeling refreshed and capable of taking on anything. Unfortunately, Applejack’s optimism had always been historically clouded by a more sensible pragmatism… the thought was there, in the back of her head. Can I do this? And if I do, what guarantee is there that it will make anything better?
The world gave no answer. But, as the stretch of first dark greys and wobbling bats leered at her from their positions in the world they seemed to say at least one thing.
Applejack stood, and hefted her shoulders from side to side, trying to get a feel for the armor on her body. It didn’t impede her movement in the slightest, and the sword seemed weightless as well, flowing perfectly with her foreleg swings and drifting out of the way when she willed it to her side.
Did she think she could make it? It was hard to be sure.
But there was one thing the Apple family members were not, and that was quitters.
Between the machinations of adjusting to the swinging of a sword and the bounding over shallow rivers and dark pits, Applejack had time to think. The actions became second nature, barely contained at all in conscious action. See a bat, swing sword. See a pit, flex legs, jump, land, continue forward. Applejack wondered if she had gone delirious from the combination of all the different systems and worlds she’d been immersed in – by this point, sanity was immaterial. She was progressing, and progressing fast, and that’s what mattered.
But it left the rest of her mind free, and against Applejack’s usual designs, her thoughts began to wander.
What had she said, before the box had shattered and the floor had opened her up, plunging her into a rotating slot of world cartridges, each one different from the last, all with their own challenges and obstacles?
She’d said a lot of things. Somehow, given the context of freedom for however long her mind was convinced it had been, Applejack felt the first pangs of clarity creeping through the back of her mind. The harvest was… it had been fine. Was doing better than years previous, with extra gusto from Big Mac and herself. But she had hounded Applebloom… not just in regards to her chores, which it was true, her help was useful on… but more specifically, for what she had done instead of spending all day working, like Applejack had wanted her to.
What constituted work now… that was something Applejack was beginning to debate. Had she been working so hard now to reach the end of this gauntlet of challenges and return herself to the home that she loved? She had run and jumped and performed athletics last… and before that, she had flexed every muscle in her brain to try and determine how to tell a confused foreigner what to let her do. Now she was slaying monsters and traversing terrain as fast as her thoughts could let her – and despite the ability for her mind to wander, the focus was there, burning in the back of her thoughts ever present as she moved forward. Bats turned into strange squid, pits of darkness turned into holes filled with menacing magma, but she persisted onward. Each stumble was countered with “just a little further.” Until soon, she could sense it.
Troll, she had met. Hydra, she had dispatched with three swings from her magic sword, confident in her stride enough to not look back once as she had hewn its heads off. Applejack couldn’t claim herself an Equestrian Monstorology degree at this point in time, but she was well on her way to preparing for a career in monstrous taxidermy.
And still, despite every fearsome thing that leapt at her from the darkness, struggling with every ounce of its being to bring her hero’s journey to an end, Applejack’s mind burned brightly with a single question.
Was she wrong?
The final castle loomed against the background of darkened cliffs and lightning spirals. Applejack swallowed dryly, clearing her throat and shaking her body in the husk of now brightly shining armor around her frame.
The seventh castle. She knew what that meant.
She couldn’t tell how much time had passed, or if she had failed and was now only carrying on in a space purely in the realm of her own mind.
But the end, fictional or real (if this whole thing could be called real) was in sight.
Applejack held her glowing sword above her head as the lightning crackled against the clouds.
There was only forward.
The dragon king was not what she had expected.
“Applejack, please put the sword down!”
Spike was cowering behind his blackened throne. Skulls shone with blue flame candles on either corner.
Applejack lowered the magic blade to her side, tucking it against her armor with a thought.
“Spike? Well don’t that make things a mite easier.”
Despite the trials of what seemed like days, and could have been as short as hours, Applejack’s demeanour was completely composed. Spike, on the other hand, was huddled behind his royal seat and clutching his black cape like he expected the farm-pony in front of him to charge and strike him down at any moment.
“Relax, Spike… I ain’t about to do anything unnecessary. ‘sides… in so far as I understand it, the ‘dragon king’ is just in the way of the rescue that makes up the end of the game. Am I right?”
“Uh… maybe? I’m still not sure how I got here. One minute I was sleeping, and the next minute I’m wake in this place with you waving a sword at me!”
“Calm down! I put the sword away. It’s away, see? Tucked over there nice and neat.”
Applejack couldn’t have been happier at the sudden turn of events. She’d been expecting a colossal behemoth an ancient dragon to slay in the fiercest of cold blood… instead, she’d gotten a baby dragon she could have defeated with a well placed noogie.
“Don’t suppose you know the way to the princess – er, I guess it’d be prince – to the prince’s keep?”
Spike managed a shrug as he slowly edged his way out from behind the throne.
“Beats me. Did you hear the part where I said I just woke up?”
Spike looked around as though doing so for the first time, catching a glimpse of the tattered black curtains on the ancient ornate windows, and the flashes of lightning from the sky outside.
“Where are we, anyway?”
“Somewhere that ain’t gonna matter in a couple minutes.” Applejack’s green eyes glimmered as she caught sight of the stairs leading up in a spiral, laid in to the stone at the far end of the cavernous room. Her armor clinked as she walked, the half-metallic half mechanical sound now sounding like the most natural thing in the world. Applejack whispered a few beeps to herself as she reached the foot of the stairs and began her journey upward.
After the journey till now, the final ascent felt like the longest part, but eventually the stairs did end. The room at the height of the staircase was small, what looked like an ornate waiting room carved in stone, with a single wooden chair in the corner, and an ornate door at the room’s far end wall.
Applejack’s mouth fell open in her helmet when her eyes landed on the chair.
“Sis?” Applebloom’s familiar voice squeaked through the room and bounced against the stone. It was the sweetest thing Applejack could remember hearing, drowning out enough frustration to make up a thousand years of early alarms by video game beeps. Applejack ran to the chair, and scooped her sister up into the biggest hug she could muster, pressing her against the armor like it wasn’t there at all.
Applebloom shut her eyes with her sister as she returned the hug.
For a moment, it didn’t’ matter. Sweet Apple Acres, real or a game, speech or bleeps or HUG YELLOW PONY, Applejack didn’t care. Her sister was the best thing she’d seen in what could have been a thousand years. Time had stopped meaning anything by Castle number four.
“I’m so glad to see you, Applebloom… I didn’t realize how much I missed you. It feels like it’s been a long while.”
Applebloom sniffled into her sister’s chin, the only part exposed by her armor.
“I missed you too, AJ… I dunno why, but it feels like I’ve been asleep for a long time.”
Applejack managed to pull herself from the hug after another minute, setting her sister down on the castle floor gently.
“Where are we, Applejack?”
“Ain’t gonna matter in a minute… you ever make it to the last castle?”
Applebloom’s eyes widened in surprise and confusion.
“No… never past castle five.”
“Well, I’m guessing my prince is behind that door… so, shall we?”
Applebloom took her sister’s hoof nervously, and the two of them walked across the room together. The door at the far end shimmered, beckoning them forward, and it was warm as Applejack pushed it open. There was no creek, only the hum of the presence inside. The last thing Applejack knew she would need to see before everything was right.
And there he was, facing the window, dressed in dashing robes and glowing with the magic of the game’s conclusion. Applejack felt a lump in her throat, which she swallowed. She let her sister’s hoof fall away as she approached the pony staring into the distance.
“I… I made it. I’m here, after all that. And now… it’s over?”
The pony at the window turned, as though they were startled. Applejack was only a few feet away, and caught her first sight of the prince’s face with a swelling intake of breath. Whether because of expectation, or realization of what this moment meant, she felt nervous in an entirely unfamiliar way. This was her prince; the finality of absolution and a return to everything being right again. She wanted to look into his face.
Applejack’s eyes widened so far she felt they might escape from her body. The pony in front of her mimicked the expression.
Applejack blinked. She felt solid wood underneath her back. Though it was something she’d felt through emulation more times than she could count, it was different this time. Real. It was the most reassuring thing in the world.
Applejack turned onto her side. The vibrancy of the wood, the real substantial wood, greeted her eyes, and she struggled to hold back the sudden tears that attempted to swell in response. She raised her hoof, and slammed it down onto the wood without abandon.
“Ouch!” The exclamation was the most vibrant and positive Applejack had ever cursed a burst of pain. She smiled, and looked up, beaming even brighter when the ceiling reassured her with its plain brown wood planks.
A mumble of a stirring to her side drew her attention. The bright red bow brought the tears back, and this time she didn’t fight them. Applebloom gasped as her body was pulled upright and then into the tightest hug she’d ever felt, squeezing her as though she was the anchor to a world that might disappear at any moment.
The pieces of grey on the floor were nestled snugly in place, all of them part of a larger whole that stood solid, in front of the large wooden box and its glass screen.
Applejack knew what she needed to write.
There had been no time, and she had apologized. But this wasn’t the kind of thing to leave in mind or memory. There was someone important she had to tell, and she had written the letter all the while the castles had impeded her path.
Dear Princess Celestia, she had started in her head each time.
There is such a thing as working too hard.
It’s very important to tell the difference between what needs to be done, and what can be left till later. Nopony should spend all their time working with no time to relax, no matter how important the work is.
I also learned something very important about work and fun, and that’s that neither of them needs to be strictly one or the other. Someponies love working, making progress and getting things done, which can be their idea of fun. And, on the other hoof, some types of fun can be a lot of work – they can require thinking, or pushing yourself to the limits of exhaustion – sometimes both! And just because something might seem like simple fun at first glance, doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot more too it below the surface.
Finally, I learned that no matter how hard it might be to understand what someone finds fun, there’s always something to learn about something another pony enjoys. Being open minded just might let you learn about something amazing that you never would have thought to find for yourself.
That was about as much as needed to be said. The words had been in her head for so long; now all that was left to do was to put them on paper.