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by D. G. D. Davidson
I. Time Turner
The skills he had honed, the supplies he had gathered, and the time—precious time!—he had spent in preparation had all come to naught.
He was captured.
Two worker changelings wrapped their forelimbs around Time Turner and hauled him roughly into the hive’s central chamber. For a moment, he considered calling on his training, swallowing his tongue, and asphyxiating to death, yet some impulse stopped him: even in the face of the changelings’ hideous ministrations, he clung to life like a drowning pony snatching at a buoy, and he cursed himself for a weakling.
He was deep underground now. In the dim, green light, he could see giant stalagmites jutting up from the floor, and through the pale miasma hovering overhead like a sickly smoke, he could make out the outlines of dangling stalactites. Everything was coated in viscous, faintly luminescent green slime, in which the changelings, their blank eyes aglow, writhed and crawled like so many maggots in the flesh of a rotting corpse.
In the center of this chamber, suspended by a partially solidified strand of green goo, hung Queen Chrysalis. In her four limbs, like a spider dandling its prey, she held some black shape from which she noisily sucked. Every few seconds, her posterior pulsed and disgorged an egg. Buzzing about beneath her, workers took the eggs to the walls or to bare spots on the floor and excreted mucus to cushion and incubate them.
Chrysalis stopped her sucking and raised her head. Foamy saliva tinged with yellowish blood dribbled down her chin. Her slit pupils narrowed as she licked her fangs. “Another chronomaster? Can Celestia do no better?”
One of the changelings tossed to the ground a long, dark blue coat double-breasted at the heartgirth. “He wore only this, Your Majesty,” the changeling hissed. He then dropped a heavy pocket watch and a utility belt full of vials of dark brown liquid. “And he carried only these.”
Chrysalis smiled thinly. “Hmm, he’s a bit gaunt, but he still might’ve made a fine morsel. Too bad I’ve already mated today.”
She tossed aside the black shape she had been holding. Time Turner could now see it was a dead changeling, a wingless drone. He felt his gorge rise.
“Bring him here to me,” Chrysalis said.
Slamming a hoof into his withers, one of the changelings forced him forward and held his face within an inch of the queen’s. He wrinkled his muzzle, momentarily overpowered by her sickly sweet stench: she smelled like a combination of fresh clover and old urine.
“What is your name?” she demanded.
He answered, “I am a servant of Chronos, and I will tell you nothing, Your Majesty.”
A cold grin creased her mouth and she laid a hoof under his throatlatch, forcing him to look in her eyes. Her hoof felt strangely spongy, porous, and foul, as if her flesh were slowly moldering and sloughing off. “You don’t need to tell me, little pony. I can find out everything I want to know.”
Her horn crackled, and then a burst of green light struck his face. He gasped.
Chrysalis turned her eyes upward, her lips pursed and quivering as if she were drinking something out of the air. “Time Turner,” she said. “The chronomaster of Ponyville. Well, well. I expected somepony of higher rank.” She reached out one of her rotting hooves again and stroked his spiky, chestnut mane, leaving behind a thin trail of slime. “Not an affectionate sort, are you? There’s so little in there on which to feed. Still, we won’t let you go to waste.”
“Tell me where he is,” Time Turner snarled. “What have you done with Clockwork?”
Chrysalis paused, licked her fangs, and laughed. “Oh, dear me. You silly pony. Do you think I’m hiding him from you? No, no. He’s right there. Look.” She raised her hoof and pointed overhead.
Time Turner looked up and gasped.
The haze overhead had grown thinner, and he could now see that most of what he thought were stalactites were in fact cocoons. They swung slowly back and forth, moved not by wind but by the dark shapes struggling inside them. Each cocoon pulsed slowly like a disembodied heart.
“You ponies have never realized what I offer you,” Chrysalis whispered, caressing Time Turner’s face. “Preserved, kept alive for thousands of years, feeding me and my children. I have come, my little pony, to grant you what Celestia never could, what she never would, even if it were in her power. I have come to give you immortality: you will spend eternity dreaming of love.”
Her grin grew uglier and she licked her fangs again. “Cocoon him,” she said. She wriggled, and the strand of slime holding her broke free from her back and retracted to the ceiling. The changelings forced Time Turner onto his back. He kicked and gnashed his teeth, but it did no good.
From their hindparts, the changelings spun ropy green strands. Twisting him back and forth in their hooves, they wrapped Time Turner until his body was immobilized and only his head remained exposed. The stink overwhelmed him and he retched.
Chrysalis stood over him. With a faint moan, she rolled her eyes, convulsed her abdomen, and disgorged another egg, this one smaller and more luminescent than the others. Taking it in her hooves, she tore part of its elastic shell with her teeth, and a yellowish green foam bubbled out like pus leaking from an infected wound. “This is one of my unfertilized eggs,” she said. “You may not like the look, but I think you will find the effect rather pleasant.” She brought it near his face.
He twisted his head, but one of the changelings grabbed his cheeks and wrenched, forcing him to face the queen again.
The egg touched his lips, and the taste was shockingly sweet. He tried to spit, but the muscles of his mouth wouldn’t respond as he wished: of its own accord, his throat pulsed, swallowing the liquid. With a giggle, Chrysalis tipped up the egg and squeezed. It squeaked like rubber as it contracted, pouring its contents into Time Turner’s mouth.
Chrysalis bent her face close to his and blew gently against the hairs in his ear. He trembled.
“Now dream,” she whispered.
He tried to call on his training. He was a chronomaster. Alertness, present-mindedness, full awareness of the passage of time: these were the traits of Equestria’s sacred timekeepers, the traits they rigorously cultivated from the moment the hourglass cutie mark first appeared on their hips. Every hour of every day, even without a clock present, a timekeeper could mark the passage of seconds with perfect accuracy. Most ponies flowed through life, wasted time, killed time, and allowed time to pass them by, but to the timekeepers, every microsecond was a still-frame of life never to come again. Life itself was a highly ordered succession of duties.
But now, under the effects of Chrysalis’s drug, Time Turner, for the first time in his life, lost time. He could no longer count seconds. Moments no longer had any length. His mind fogged, his will weakened, and time ceased to have meaning. There was no time.
As time disappeared, a warm sense of peace rose up from his breast and filled him. He was barely aware as the changelings spun more strands and encased his face, completing their cocoon. But then there was no cocoon. He stood on the earthen road outside Ponyville, once again a young stallion of sixteen. The gravel crunched beneath his hooves, and the sun hung high overhead in the clear sky. Far in the distance, the banners of Canterlot waved gaily in the warm summer wind.
He heard the lilting song of a young mare. He turned to see Daisy Chain, her light lavender coat glistening and her golden mane waving about her face, as she skipped down the road with woven saddle baskets full of flowers mounted on her back and jasmine peeking from behind one ear.
When she saw him, she stopped, and the wordless tune died on her lips. “Time Turner,” she said.
“Daisy.” Her name fell from his mouth, and then he could say no more. Tears welled in his eyes.
She ran to him and laid her head against his neck. He lowered his chin to her mane and nickered softly.
“You said we couldn’t be together,” she whispered. “Your studies, your duties, your training, your order. Why—?”
His eyes still full of tears, he struggled to speak. “I . . . I don’t know what’s happened, Daisy. I don’t know how I got here. All I know is . . .”
He blinked. Something was wrong. Something didn’t feel right. A faint memory of seeping, luminescent green slime.
He looked down at Daisy again and put the disturbing thought aside. “I don’t know what’s happened, Daisy. I only know that you’re more important to me than some dry old clocks. I’m sorry I ever thought of leaving you, and I’ll never leave you again.” He bent his head and kissed her.
Before his eyes flashed a future he thought for a moment was real. He saw himself immersed in the study of time, saw himself surrounded by tools, saw himself carefully filing the edges of a brass gear for a new type of clock. He saw himself growing older and sterner, distancing himself from everypony, learning to count seconds, minutes and hours. He saw himself studying tides, memorizing charts, and adjusting calendars. He saw Daisy, unwilling to wait for him and disliking what he had become, in the forelimbs of another stallion. He saw a bitter life alone.
But that couldn’t be real. That was not his future. This, here and now, was real.
He nuzzled Daisy’s cheek and whispered, “We’re going to be together, my dear. Forever.”
Half-buried in the viscous ooze on the cavern roof, Chrysalis clung to Time Turner’s cocoon and drank. Visible through the translucent membrane, the chronomaster floated upside down in his nutrient fluid, tossing and murmuring as he dreamt.
“Such a pleasant little fantasy of love,” Chrysalis whispered, sipping and sucking at the miasma rising from the cocoon. “It seems there’s more to you than I had thought.” She rubbed a hoof against the membrane, wiping away the condensation that had covered it and revealing Time Turner’s sleeping face within. “Dream on, little pony, dream on. Live the love you never had, give yourself over to happy fictions, and feed my children.”
She could remember the bitter day she got her cutie mark as if it were yesterday. Several of the other students in her class already had theirs, and she was becoming anxious. When she complained to her dam about her blank flank, her dam merely smiled, told her to be patient, and added, “When you get your mark, we’ll give you the most pretty and delightful little cute-ceañera.”
Despondent, she sat in her room and played. Few other foals enjoyed the games she liked, so she often played alone. While other children played sports or played with dolls or made up stories, Minuette liked to build machines. She took popsickle sticks, tied them together with twine, and made them into primitive frameworks. She elevated balls above ramps ending in switches, which when hit would knock over rows of toys and send miniature motors spinning, turning interlocking gears. She liked to take her father’s old, heavy pocket watch and see how long it took for her gadgets to run. If anything got stuck or didn’t work, she examined it until she figured out the problem.
Today, she had built a particularly elaborate device that filled most of her bedroom. She looked down at the watch in her hoof, up at the machine, and then down at the watch again.
Something flared in her breast. With a shock of excitement, she turned the watch over, found a catch, and flipped open the back. Inside, she saw a tiny set of copper gears. She watched in fascination as they turned.
She dropped the watch, tipped her head back, and sucked in her breath as something sizzled on her hips, burning her as if she’d been touched with a hot iron. With tears springing from her eyes, she stuck out her left hind leg, turned her head, and looked.
The hairs of her coat on her left hip had changed color. Brown, gray, and white had sprung up in the midst of the dark blue, forming the shape of an hourglass.
She screamed, “Mommy!”
Her dam came running through the door. “Sweetheart, what is it—?” She stopped, stared at Minuette, and burst into tears.
Minuette never had a cute-ceañera. The night after she got her cutie mark, she lay wide awake in bed and listened as her parents argued in the hall.
“It’s because you let her play with those darn machines,” her sire snarled. “Now she’s going to be one of those freaks!”
“Keep your voice down!” her dam hissed. “She can hear you!”
“She should have been a dentist like her granddam."
“Nopony can change her cutie mark,” said her dam with a sigh. “It’s her destiny. If this is what’s meant to be, then Celestia’s will be done.”
“Are we going to let them take her to that school? Teach her those things? Give her those . . . those drugs?”
“Do we have a choice? We can’t tell her not to use her special talent!”
“We could take her away, send her away, keep her in long skirts—”
“Honey, be reasonable.”
“Nothing about this is reasonable!”
Minuette squeezed her eyes shut and tried to sleep. Her hips still throbbed. She squirmed in the bed and tried to get comfortable, wondering when her cutie marks would heal. Everypony always talked about how thrilling it was to finally get a cutie mark. Nopony ever mentioned the pain.
When she walked into the schoolyard the next day, the other foals went quiet, all of them staring at the hourglasses on her haunches. Berry Punch, who had been playing jacks with Carrot Top, started to cry.
“That means you’re going away, doesn’t it?” Berry said.
Minuette shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Berry stumbled as she rose to her hooves. She toddled to Minuette, threw her forelegs around her neck, and sobbed. “I don’ wancha t’ go!”
“I don’t want to go, either, Berry,” Minuette said, and she broke down and cried.
When she got home that afternoon, she found her sire and dam sitting at the kitchen table and looking at a piece of parchment.
“This came in the mail, honey,” her dam said and used her horn to levitate the letter so Minuette could read it.
Minuette ran her eyes over the words. “The Royal Order of Timekeepers has received word that your daughter’s cutie mark makes her a member of our society. Enclosed is one ticket for the Friendship Express, which will take her this coming Tuesday to Canterlot, where we will begin her training. We assure you that she will study under the best chronomasters, and all expenses will be paid from the royal treasury. As you are undoubtedly aware of the importance of accurate timekeeping in Equestria, you must be very proud.”
The next week, scared to death and with a ticket in hoof and saddlebags on her back, Minuette boarded the train alone and waved a tearful goodbye to her parents. Other passengers, when they saw the marks on her hips, sucked in their breath and went quiet. The trip was long, so she sat quietly and tried to read a book, though she found it difficult to concentrate.
The train wound through mountain passes and wove in and out of tunnels, and with each minute the pit in Minuette’s stomach yawned larger and her heart fluttered faster. By the time the Friendship Express pulled into Canterlot, the brakes hissed, and the conductor yelled, “Canterlot; last stop, everypony off!”—she was ready to faint.
Trembling, she stepped out onto the platform. Ponies pressed past her and ignored her or, worse, whispered and pointed.
A severe-looking pegasus mare stood at the end of the platform with a monocle over one eye and a sign in her mouth that said simply, “Minuette.”
Her hooves echoing against the boards, Minuette walked toward her, dipped her head, and said, “That’s me.”
The mare spat out the sign. “I can see that, child. Be aware that you are now entering a sacred order and taking on a terrible responsibility. From this day on, you shall no longer swear by Celestia, for you will learn a power even she does not have. Henceforth, your master, your only master, is Chronos, who devours his children.”
The mare turned and walked away. Trembling, Minuette followed her through the winding streets of Canterlot until they reached the great marble hall of the Academy.
It would be ten long years before she saw her parents again.
Once she graduated from journeypony, Minuette moved back to Ponyville, where she was assigned to work with the town’s only chronomaster. Once again, she rode the Friendship Express alone, this time dressed in the dark green, double-breasted coat of a timekeeper’s apprentice. A belt around her barrel held a heavy silver watch and vials of thick, brown liquid.
She stepped off the train at Ponyville Station and swept her eyes around until she found the bay earth pony stallion with the hourglass mark.
“Doctor Time Turner, I presume?” she said.
He looked her up and down, turned, and walked away. She scowled and trotted after him.
“Excuse me, are you Doctor Time Turner or not?”
“Do you see another chronomaster here?” he asked, still walking.
“Well, no, but—”
“Introductions, when they are unnecessary, waste time. Being a timekeeper is not simply about making clocks and keeping them running, Miss Minuette. Your entire life is about time—and about saving time. Did they teach you none of this?”
“Avoid unnecessary words,” he snapped. “Ours is a sacred duty, so treat it as such.” He stopped, turned to her, gave her another quick appraisal, and gestured toward the distant cliff where Canterlot perched. “There, Chief Chronomaster Clockwork carefully determines the lengths of the days and the times of the seasons, and he sends his instructions to the rest of us. He is the only pony in all of Equestria who can give orders to the princesses: even day and night do not happen until he says it is time for them, ensuring that days are longer in summer, nights are longer in winter, and the two together are precisely twenty-four hours. Here, as the local chronomaster, it is my duty to ensure that the mayor knows when to change the seasons in Ponyville. We the timekeepers are the guardians of nature’s regularity. Without us, the entire nation falls into chaos.”
“I know all this, but—”
“And we are the guardians of efficiency. The more time we learn to save, the more time the ponies have. The more time the ponies have, the happier they are. What is the timekeeper’s first rule?”
Minuette took a deep breath and strained to control herself. She glared into his eyes and said, “Everything in good order.”
“Precisely. Under my tutelage, you will become as consistent and well-oiled as the clocks we make. A true timekeeper, the best timekeeper, is not a pony at all, but a machine. Only when you have learned this will you become a chronomistress.” He turned again, but then paused and added, as if as an afterthought, “I see you have several vials. Do you chronosplice often?”
“Only once in a while.”
“Good. It will enhance your skills, of course, but too much of it will fry your brain.” He began walking again. “Incidentally, they didn’t mention that you were a unicorn. Do you know many spells?”
“I suppose you use telekinesis when machining.”
“I prefer to use my mouth.”
“Excellent. Many unicorns rely too heavily on magic. Makes them lazy. Still, always learn which technique is most efficient and use that one.”
Time Turner’s house and workshop looked like a giant clock covered in other, smaller clocks. He had constructed his own clock tower on the front of the house, and every hour on the hour, the clock face opened and two mechanical ponies wearing wedding clothes popped out of it and kissed while a third mechanical pony rang a bell. The yard was full of birdhouses designed to look like cuckoo clocks, each of which had a working clock built into it and a living space for real birds. Running through the yard was a stream with an artificial waterfall that turned a wheel powering a giant water clock. Every clock in the yard or on the house showed precisely the same time, and each one ticked or tocked at exactly the same moment, so the house pulsed constantly with a rhythmic, mechanical beat.
When they arrived, Time Turner directed Minuette to leave her bags in the guest house, which held a kitchenette and a bedroom, each with several clocks of various makes hanging on the walls. She placed her saddlebags on the bed and looked around, wondering how she would sleep with the constant ticking noise.
Standing in the doorway, Time Turner said, “It may feel to you like an invasion of your privacy, but over the next several days, I shall closely monitor your actions. The goal is to eliminate wasted movements and maximize speed and efficiency. Would you like to see the workshop?”
She turned to him and said, “First, I want to ask you one question.”
“We are servants of Chronos, correct?”
“But Chronos is a Titan, and the Titans are chained in Tartarus, but legend has it that, at the end of days, they will break free to destroy Equestria. When that happens, will we serve Chronos or Celestia?”
Time Turner looked in her eyes and said, “It is unlikely to happen in our lifetimes, Minuette. I suggest you don’t worry about it.”
For two years straight, Time Turner wore Minuette to a frazzle, watching her and teaching her, but mostly criticizing her. There was no gesture or habit so small that he could not find cause either to tell her to eliminate it or do it more quickly.
He even stood in the washroom and watched as she brushed her teeth.
“This should take you no more than thirty seconds,” he said.
She spit out the toothpaste and scowled at him in the mirror. “Everypony should brush her teeth for at least four minutes! My granddam was a dentist—”
“But I am a time-study pony. She was concerned with teeth; I, with speed.”
“Maybe the tooth expert should decide how long I brush my teeth.”
Time Turner snorted, shook his head, and turned away. “You’ll never be a chronomistress at this rate, Minuette.”
Time Turner was himself a creature of exacting habits. As far as Minuette could tell, he had no hobbies or idle pursuits. His entire waking life consisted of nothing aside from the study of time, the building of clocks, and whatever duties the mayor called on him for. He practiced what he preached and did everything as quickly and adroitly as possible, with no wasted movements. He had only one quirk: inside his workshop stood a cabinet of carved oak, its surface covered in expertly rendered relief sculptures of ponies cavorting in a garden. It had one drawer with no handle, but above the drawer was a complicated array of gears, buttons, and levers. Once a week, on Monday at precisely one P.M., Time Turner approached this cabinet and did something to it, but he would never allow Minuette to see what, nor would he explain to her what the cabinet was for.
Though Minuette learned to loathe her mentor, being back in Ponyville came with one benefit: she reconnected with old friends she hadn’t seen since childhood. On the rare occasions she could get out from under Time Turner’s hoof for a short period of free time, she met them at a table outside a café where they drank sarsaparilla and reminisced about old times.
She met them for lunch on the Monday afternoon that marked the two-year anniversary of her return to Ponyville. The sun was warm, though the pegasi had allowed a few fluffy clouds to drift through the sky. Minuette had decided to dress up a little, throwing on a broad-brimmed hat and a chiffon dress of pale lavender. Her friends were already at the table when she drew near, and they waved.
She sat down next to Carrot Top, who sipped primly from a hay and carrot smoothie. Beside her, Berry Punch was already on her fifth glass of sarsaparilla, and it showed. Lyra Heartstrings and Bon-Bon both swirled stemmed glasses of rich-smelling sassafras liqueur.
Berry Punch hiccoughed. “Hiya there, Colgate. Gonna join me for a drinkie?”
Minuette gave her a mock glare. “I’m a timekeeper, Berry. You know we don’t touch sassafras except . . . well, let’s not talk about that. And stop calling me Colgate.”
“You earned the nickname, dearie,” said Carrot Top.
Lyra giggled. “Yeah! Remember last Nightmare Night when you gave all the foals toothpaste instead of candy?”
“They had enough candy,” Minuette muttered.
Bon-Bon, her face deadpan, looked up, cleared her throat, and said in a perfect imitation of Minuette’s voice, “You foals remember to brush your teeth! Don’t eat too many sweets! My granddam was a dentist!”
Lyra squealed. Minuette felt her face grow hot and she quickly moved to change the subject.
“Carrot Top, how’s your roommate doing?”
Carrot Top looked down at the table as a warm smile laced with melancholy spread over her face. “Much better. She’s holding down a job, so she’s paying her share of rent and groceries. And little Dinky had her final round of tests last week: the doctors say she’s perfectly normal.”
“Thank Celestia,” said Lyra.
“Chronos be praised,” Minuette added.
Bon-Bon’s lip curled in a slight sneer, but she quickly raised her glass to her mouth and hid it.
Lyra put her knees on the tabletop and leaned her face on her hooves. “It was so nice of you to take them in, Carrot Top.”
Carrot Top sniffed and took another swallow from her smoothie. “Well, I couldn’t do nothing. That poor mare might have wound up on the streets with that little filly. And it was just shameful the way ponies treated her.”
Bon-Bon lowered her glass and said with a cold glare, “And of course nopony treated him so badly.”
“They couldn’t,” said Carrot Top. “He skipped town.”
Bon-Bon snorted, took another drink, and muttered, “Good thing, too, cuz I would’ve gelded the creep.”
Lyra burst into giggles, but clapped her hooves over her mouth.
Carrot Top twisted her straw around in her cup. “Derpy’s not a bad mare. She just made a few mistakes.” Her melancholy smile reappeared. “She sure is sweet on your Doctor Time Turner, though, Colgate.”
“Proof that she’s retarded,” Minuette muttered.
“Colgate!” Carrot Top cried.
Minuette put a hoof to her mouth and felt her face grow warm again. “I’m so sorry, Carrot Top. It just slipped out.”
Carrot Top huffed, but then visibly relaxed. “Well, how are you and the doctor getting along these days, dear?”
Minuette sighed. “He is possibly the most frustrating stallion I have ever met.”
Bon-Bon raised an eyebrow and sipped from her glass. “We already knew that.” In a flawless imitation of Time Turner, she added, “Minuette! You took six minutes and twenty-four seconds to use the toilet, and it should never take more than two minutes and thirteen seconds, tops!”
Lyra, who had been drinking when Bon-Bon said this, spewed liqueur all over the table and collapsed backwards in a fit of laughter.
Minuette managed a small smile. “Oh, Bon-Bon, I’d be able to laugh at that if it weren’t so true to life.” She shook her head. “Sometimes I really wish I’d become a dentist. Do you think it’s possible for a pony to change her cutie mark?”
Carrot Top stiffened. “Change your cutie mark? Why, that’s not even decent. Time’s your special talent, dear. Why would you want to change it?”
“I could be a good dentist,” said Minuette, “and it’s not as if anypony really has only one talent. Bon-Bon here makes great candy, but she can also change her voice—”
“Doing impressions isn’t her special talent,” said Carrot Top. “Really, let’s change the subject. I won’t hear of this.”
“I’m glad you like dentisty stuff,” Lyra chirped. “You’re the only pony in town who knows how to float teeth.” She stuck her front hooves in her lips, pulled her mouth wide open, and shoved her face toward Bon-Bon. “Shee? She floagh-ed mine lasht weegh.”
Bon-Bon pushed her away. “That’s nice—”
Carrot Top cleared her throat. “At any rate, Colgate, I’m sure you’ll enjoy being a timekeeper once you’re a chronomistress and don’t have to work with the doctor anymore.”
Lyra pulled her hooves out of her mouth with a pop, and tears started in her eyes. “But doesn’t that mean you’ll leave Ponyville again?”
Minuette shook her head with an exasperated sigh. “Ugh, I don’t know what I’ll be doing! With Time Turner over me, I can hardly think! Even he might be wearing down, though. Why, yesterday morning, he told me to meet him in the workshop at exactly six a.m.—”
“Six a.m.?” Lyra cried.
Berry Punch tried to take another drink, but missed her mouth. “Urgh, I never get up ‘fore noon.”
Minuette laughed. “It’s not really so bad, girls. All timekeepers start the day early. But what was strange was that yesterday, he wasn’t in the shop when I arrived. He was five minutes late.”
The other ponies merely looked at each other and shrugged.
“Don’t you see?” Minuette said. “Time Turner is never late. And the clock he finished yesterday was positively sloppy; as soon as he started it running, I could tell it was slow. If I built something like that, he’d make me smash it.”
“Does it matter if a clock’s just a tad slow?” Carrot Top asked. “Why, you can always adjust the time.”
“It matters to him. No timekeeper who built clocks with anything less than perfect accuracy could earn the title of chronomaster. But it was as if he didn’t realize there was a problem. I even had to chronosplice to fix it for him.”
The others, except for Berry Punch, winced. Berry, her head now resting on the tabletop, hiccoughed. “Sometime, I wanna try that stuff!”
Minuette rolled her eyes. “It won’t work on you if you don’t know our meditation techniques, Berry.”
“Oh, it’d work the way I want,” Berry answered with a wet chuckle.
Although Minuette was well-trained in the timekeepers’ techniques, whenever she was with her friends, she lost track of time. After they had chatted and laughed and enjoyed food and several drinks, Minuette opened her heavy pocket watch and sucked in her breath.
“Oh no! It’s 1:47! I was supposed to be back in the shop at 1:30! Time Turner is going to kill me!”
She jumped up and quickly kissed all the girls goodbye aside from Berry Punch, who had passed out and now snoozed on her back under the table. Then Minuette galloped at full speed until she reached the workshop. She sped through the door, slid to a halt, and gasped, “I know I’m late, Doctor, but it won’t happen again. I’m ready to—”
She paused and looked around. Nopony was in the shop. She frowned. Had Time Turner gone looking for her?
No, that was unlikely. He had scheduled work for this time; he wouldn’t disrupt his own schedule just because Minuette was tardy.
She walked around the broad workbench and noticed a faint buzzing. The mysterious cabinet in the corner had a bright red light blinking amongst the gears and switches on its panel. Minuette had never seen that light before. Frowning, she walked toward it and slowly reached out a hoof. As her foot approached the light, two gears fell together and rattled, startling her.
She sucked in her breath and leapt back. Several levers dropped, a knob twisted, and the panel slid open. From behind it sprang a carved wooden replica of a pony’s right front hoof, jutting out toward Minuette as if in a gesture of greeting. Above it, two brass triangles clicked together, forming the shape of a stylized hourglass.
Hesitantly, she walked forward again. Time Turner had strictly forbidden her to touch this cabinet or ask questions about it. Still—
She reached out and touched the wooden hoof. It jiggled slightly, as if it had a spring behind it. She pressed it up. She could hear something inside the cabinet click, but nothing else happened. She pressed the hoof down. Another click.
She rubbed her chin and thought.
Finally, she slapped the hoof rapidly back and forth and up and down in the pattern of the timekeepers’ secret hoofshake.
The cabinet rattled, buzzed, and shook. Minuette leapt back again just as the drawer under the panel slid open with the faint sound of copper tangs snapping into place. Inside the drawer was a single scroll.
Minuette magicked the scroll into the air, unrolled it, and sucked in her breath as she read.
Then she heard the faint scuff of hooves on the floor behind her.
Ditzy Doo, whom everypony called Derpy, was clumsy, slow, walleyed, and gregarious. She liked most everything and everypony, but she especially loved three things—muffins, her daughter Dinky, and Time Turner.
Though she and Dinky had a secure roof over their heads thanks to Carrot Top, Derpy had been struggling for months to hold down a steady job. She had worked as a mover for a while, but her poor coordination and poor vision got the better of her, and she lost the job after dropping several pieces of furniture on Twilight Sparkle. Shortly thereafter, Carrot Top had convinced Rainbow Dash to let Derpy join the weather patrol, but Rainbow had promptly fired her after she single-hoofedly destroyed Town Hall with an ill-timed lightning buck during a scheduled thunderstorm.
Aware that Derpy was rearing a daughter on her own, Mayor Mare had offered her a job as postmare. So far, she had been successful in that position, or at least no less successful than Ponyville’s other mailponies. Carrot Top had coached her until she memorized her delivery route, and she proudly carried the mail the same way she did everything else—with great enthusiasm, great energy, and great incompetence.
Monday had started like any other day. Derpy was snoring loudly in her room, unperturbed by the buzzing of the alarm clock, when Carrot Top ran in and yanked her out from under the covers by her tail.
“Derpy! Get up! You’re going to be late for work!”
Derpy sat up and rubbed her face. Her left eye swiveled up to Carrot Top’s face while her right eye drifted off to starboard. “Whah? Who? Muffins?”
“Work, Derpy! Mail! You have to deliver the mail!”
Derpy leapt to her hooves, opened her wings, and flew upward. “The mail! Neither rain nor sleet nor somethin’—ow!” She slammed her head against the ceiling, cracked the plaster, and fell to the floor.
Carrot Top squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “Dinky is waiting for you to send her to school, and I have to go out myself. Hurry along now.”
Carrot Top turned around and left. Derpy tried to follow, but hit her face on the doorframe.
When she finally stumbled downstairs, Derpy found little Dinky standing by the front door with her saddlebag on. Derpy grabbed Dinky in a hug and tousled her mane. “You be good at school, sugar muffin!” She kissed Dinky’s cheek.
Dinky giggled. “You be good at work, Mama!”
“Oh, I will be. Neither snow nor freezing drizzles nor graupel . . . I always forget how that goes—”
Dinky laughed again, kissed Derpy back, and trotted out the door.
No matter how late she was, Derpy could not begin her day without breakfast, which she always took at Sugarcube Corner. In former days, she had always had to make the hard choice between a banana muffin and a bran muffin for her morning meal. When she had learned that the Cakes could put bran and bananas in the same muffin, she had nearly wept for joy.
This morning, as usual, she sat at a table in front of the shop, drank her coffee, and carefully pulled her muffin into two pieces. “How?” she whispered as she gazed at the muffin’s fluffy interior. “How do they fit both the bran and the bananas in there? Is it magic?”
After she finished breakfast, she knocked the table over by accident and flew to the small brick building that served as Ponyville’s post office. Once inside, she trotted up to the postmaster’s desk and slapped a hoof against her forehead in a clumsy salute.
“Ditzamena Doo reporting for duty, General Postmaster, sir!”
Postmaster Stamplick peered over his half-moon spectacles and said, “Derpy, you are late.”
“Sir, yes sir, General Postmaster, sir!”
“The title is ‘postmaster general,’ a position well above mine, and you don’t have to call me sir.”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”
Stamplick squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his poll. “Would you mind telling me why you are late?”
“Ma’am, I just don’t know what went wrong, ma’am!”
“That’s the story of your life, isn’t it, Derpy? And that’s why you never learn from your mistakes. Please, just get your mailbag and do your job, would you?”
Derpy tried to spin around smartly, but tripped over her own hooves and collapsed to the floor. After a few more attempts, she made it to the sorting room where other ponies had already filled her saddlebags with the mail for her route. She struggled into the bags, spilled half their contents, and flapped back out into the sunlight, obliviously leaving behind a trail of letters.
For reasons known only to the mayor, every pony tasked with delivering Ponyville’s mail had eye problems. Therefore, at exactly 3:00 every afternoon, the ponies practiced a ritual known as the Changing of the Mail, during which they took all the letters and packages they had received and redistributed them to the correct addresses. This gave the Ponyvillains opportunity to chat, catch up on local gossip, and complain about the lousy mail service. Derpy was blissfully unaware of the vital role she played in keeping the townsponies well-connected, but she undoubtedly would have been pleased if she knew.
By 2:00, Derpy was almost at the end of her daily mail route. Her last stop was Time Turner’s house, and as she drew near, she felt her heart begin to hammer in time with the ticking of the clocks in the front yard.
The last time she had met Time Turner face-to-face, the meeting had not gone well. Struggling to keep her eyes pointing in the same direction, she had been gazing up at the beautiful house covered with all its fascinating clocks when she ran smack into the mailbox and knocked it over. Like everything else associated with the house, the mailbox had a clock built into it, and that clock had promptly stopped ticking when it hit the ground. Derpy had sat down beside it and burst into tears.
Time Turner, dressed in a grease-streaked smock, had run out of his workshop and berated her. “You silly filly!” he had shouted. “You clumsy buffoon! You ridiculous mailmare! You are easily the worst mailmare this town has ever had, and that is saying something! What does your cutie mark represent? Air-headedness? Stupidity? Have you any talent at all, or are you really good for nothing except cranking out illegitimate children?”
That had only made her cry more loudly.
Time Turner had left off his rant when Minuette had come out, picked Derpy up from the ground, wiped her eyes, and walked away with her.
“You still have work to do!” Time Turner had shouted, but Minuette had ignored him and taken Derpy home.
At the door of the flat she shared with Carrot Top, Derpy had mumbled, “Thanks, Colgate.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Minuette had answered. “The doctor yells at everypony.”
Derpy worried about it. Time Turner built such amazing machines, and his house was so fascinating with its hundreds of clocks all ticking together and the cute little mechanical couple who would bumble out on the hour and ring their bell. It was like a playhouse or amusement park he had built all by himself. Even though he wasn’t very nice to her, Derpy liked Time Turner. He reminded her a little bit of Dinky’s father, and he was so smart.
But Derpy knew she wasn’t smart. Few ponies said so to her directly, but she could tell that everypony knew she wasn’t smart. She could tell because everypony spoke loudly and slowly when talking to her, though there was nothing wrong with her hearing. Even Carrot Top did that sometimes.
Thinking about these things as she reached the house, Derpy got distracted and knocked over Time Turner’s mailbox again. She dropped to her hooves, folded her wings, and looked down at it forlornly. Tears welled in her eyes. Sniffling, she picked up the mailbox and tried to set it upright, but it only fell over and rattled.
“Oh, my. Tsk, tsk. You poor filly.”
Derpy turned around. Her eyes drifted off in different directions, but she could still make out Time Turner standing on the walk.
“Oh! Doctor! I’m so sorry I broke your mail clock box thingy again! I just don’t know what—”
“Yes, yes, girl. It’s all right. I understand.”
Derpy blinked. “You do?”
“Of course. It’s just a mailbox, after all. I can easily repair it. I hope running into it didn’t cause you any injury.”
Derpy grinned. “Nuh uh. I run into stuff all the time.”
“Ah, yes. I’m sure. Perhaps you’d like to come in for a spot of tea, then?”
Derpy’s mouth fell open. “You mean . . . inside your house?”
“Well, I don’t mean the garage.”
He turned and cantered to the stoop. She flapped her wings and floated after, but drifted into the yard and accidentally crashed into a birdhouse, breaking another clock and disturbing a very grumpy swallow.
“Perhaps you should walk,” Time Turner suggested.
Derpy folded her wings and knocked her tail into yet another birdhouse, sending it crashing to the ground.
She cringed. “Oops, my bad.” She stepped slowly backwards toward the walkway, straining to keep her eyes straight and watch the birdhouses to make sure she didn’t hit any more. She backed right over the walk to the other side of the yard and upset a mechanical birdbath, the basin of which slid to the ground with a splash and a dull thud.
“That one was my fault.” She turned around and scowled at the birdbath as she began walking backwards again.
Time Turner cleared his throat. “Miss Derpy, when I said you should walk, I meant you should walk straight up here toward the door.”
“Yeah, that might be a good idea.” Derpy turned toward the door, took a step, tripped, and fell over.
Time Turner squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his muzzle.
Several attempts later, Derpy made it inside. After she bumbled against a wall and broke four hanging clocks, Time Turner got her safely ensconced on an elegant Louis XV sofa in the sitting room.
“This is a really nice house,” said Derpy. “We can’t keep our apartment nearly this clean. And, um, we don’t have so many clocks, either. Do you have so many clocks cuz you have trouble keeping track of time? I have trouble keeping track of time. That’s why I’m late to work, and General Postmaster’s always gettin’ mad, but I tell him—”
“I have no trouble keeping track of time,” Time Turner said as he gave her a cup of tea. “I’m a chronomaster, after all.”
“Oh yeah. So these clocks are all made outta chrome, then? Cuz that one over there looks like wood.” With a lopsided grin, she pointed off in the direction her left eye had wandered.
Time Turner snorted. “Let’s get this over with.” He stood over her, and his dark eyes flashed green. A slit appeared in his forehead, and a black point rose out of it.
Derpy’s eyes both swiveled toward it. “Uh . . . are you turnin’ into a unicorn? I didn’t think anypony could—”
“Guess again, girl.”
“You got a bad case of forehead cancer?”
“One more try.”
Derpy swallowed, and her eyes widened. “Are you a monster—?”
Time Turner grinned, showing large fangs. “Now you’ve got it!”
The door to the kitchen splintered and crashed to the floor. Minuette, a green coat on her back, burst in with a shovel in her teeth. Time Turner, his body half-changed into a black, insect-life form, spun around and hissed.
Minuette’s horn glowed. The shovel flew from her mouth, swung through the air, and struck Time Turner in the neck. It took his head off with a grotesque crunch and a burst of acrid-smelling green slime.
Covered in goo and hiding her face with her front hooves, Derpy hit the floor and continued screaming.
“Derpy!” Minuette shouted. “Derpy! Calm down! Look at me!”
“You killed him!” Derpy shrieked. “You killed him!”
“I didn’t kill anypony! Look at me!”
Derpy stopped screaming, but still breathed hard. She uncovered one eye, which turned up toward Minuette’s face.
“Colgate?” Derpy murmured.
“It’s a changeling, Derpy. They took Time Turner.” Minuette wrapped a fetlock behind Derpy’s right knee and pulled her to her hooves. “Time Turner left me a message and made sure I’d be able to retrieve it. Look.” Minuette magicked a piece of parchment from her belt and unrolled it.
With an effort, Derpy focused her eyes and stumbled over the words: “Minuette, if you find this, I’ve been abducted by changelings. Our order has been compromised at the highest level. Exterminate my imposter. Trust nopony. Time Turner.”
Derpy felt prickles run from her poll all the way to her dock.
The body had crumbled into black fragments, and a green puddle was spreading across the rug. Minuette kicked at it. “Changeling workers are a hive mind, communicating through low-level telepathy. An isolated changeling is little more than an animal operating on instinct. The more of them there are in an area, the more intelligent they become. They feed on love and steal it by imitating our loved ones.” Minuette glanced at Derpy, twisted her mouth, and added, “This one was probably isolated. He must have sensed your crush on Time Turner and found it too much to resist.”
Derpy blushed. “I don’t have a—”
“Don’t bother, Derpy. Everypony in town knows.” Minuette turned back toward the door. “Go home, and don’t talk about this.”
“Where you goin’, Colgate?”
“I have my watch and twelve vials of chronoserum, and Time Turner left a map. I’m going to rescue him.”
Derpy flapped and rose into the air. “Then I’m comin’, too!” She flew into the chandelier, rattling it.
Minuette sighed. “No, Derpy. I think you should stay here.”
Derpy dropped to the carpet, accidentally stepping in the green slime. She frowned. “But Colgate, you’re gonna need help!”
“I don’t think—”
Derpy jumped up and down. “I wanna help the doctor! Please, please, please?”
Minuette frowned for a moment. “Well . . . okay.”
Derpy was frightened. She was also surprised that Minuette had let her come along without an argument, but she didn’t think about it much. She was, in spite of her fear, excited to be doing something to help Time Turner. She liked him, and she thought that maybe, if she could rescue him, he might possibly like her back.
Minuette galloped through the Everfree Forest, and Derpy flew after, frequently running into trees or getting tangled in vines. Several times, Minuette had to pause while Derpy extracted herself.
“We don’t have much time, Derpy!” Minuette shouted. “We don’t want to be in here after dark!”
“Are you sure we’re goin’ the right way, Colgate?” Derpy asked as she dragged herself out of a cluster of brambles.
“Yes! Time Turner apparently located the changeling hive a month ago. They must have taken him because they knew he could reveal where they were. Come on!”
“Do you think we need more help?” Derpy asked as she flew into a tree.
“The note said ‘trust nopony.’”
“But I’m somepony!”
“Don’t argue, Derpy! We don’t have time!”
The forest grew thicker, darker, and more menacing the further they traveled into its depths. The trees were twisted and covered in gnarls resembling hideous and deformed faces. Strange shapes whipped by, and curious lights like floating candles winked in and out in the distance. Every once in a while, an ice-cold wind rose up from nowhere and blew for a few seconds, making Derpy’s mane stand on end. Minuette turned up the high collar on her double-breasted coat.
At last, they drew near the crumbling ruins of what must have once been a great castle. A few towers were partially intact, covered in vines but jutting above the trees. The sky overhead was dusky, as the sun was beginning to set. Derpy’s knees shook.
“Is it haunted?” she asked in a loud whisper.
“Not by ghosts,” Minuette murmured. “According to the map, there should be a cave entrance somewhere under the north tower’s barbicans.”
“Ooh, barbecue,” Derpy whispered. “Sometimes, Carrot Top grills okra outside, and it’s really good.”
Thick brush clustered at the base of the castle wall. They crept through it slowly, making their way toward the castle’s north side. Minuette was stealthy. Derpy cracked twigs with every step she took. At last, they arrived at the north tower and discovered a gaping hole in the ground behind some bushes.
“Now what?” Derpy whispered loudly.
“Let’s go in,” Minuette answered.
“Should we be really quiet?” Derpy whispered even more loudly.
Derpy’s heart was so loud that she could barely hear her own hoofsteps as they descended a long, granite-lined tunnel. Several times, the tunnel forked, but Minuette always seemed to know exactly which way to go. At first, Minuette made a dim light with her horn so they could see where they were headed, but as they drew deeper underground and the air grew stuffier and harder to breathe, the walls began to glow a faint green, and when Derpy peered close, she saw trickles of luminescent slime running through cracks in the stone.
“It smells bad,” she said in another loud whisper.
Minuette merely licked her lips, but didn’t answer.
The slime on the walls grew thicker as they descended, and soon it began to appear in viscous pools on the floor. The air reeked with a heady smell like that of decaying flesh. More than once, the stench overwhelmed Derpy and she found herself close to vomiting. Minuette appeared unperturbed.
“It smells really, really bad,” Derpy said with a hoof over her nose.
“We’re almost done, Derpy,” Minuette answered in a quiet voice.
They emerged into a wide chamber, the roof of which was obscured by thick mist. Derpy gazed around. High above, heavy shapes swung back and forth as if dangling in a breeze. Thick, black lumps stuck out of the slime on the walls. Derpy’s heart pounded so hard, it sounded as if it might burst.
“Where’s Time Turner?” she asked.
Minuette placed a hoof over Derpy’s withers and led her forward. “You’ll see him soon. It’s almost over.” She led Derpy toward the chamber’s center.
“I’m really, really scared, Colgate.”
“That will end soon, too.”
From around a thick stalagmite, Derpy heard a voice say, “Derpy?”
“Did you hear that?” Derpy asked.
“Oh, yes,” Minuette replied. “I heard.”
“That sounded like you,” said Derpy, a whimper creeping into her voice.
“Exactly like,” Minuette answered. “Come on, Derpy. Just a few more steps.”
“Derpy! Is that you?” the voice cried. “Get out! Get out of here! Run! Right now! Run!”
The forelimb over Derpy’s withers pressed down hard. “Too late,” Minuette whispered, and then her eyes flashed green and a black horn emerged from her forehead.
Derpy turned, but Minuette grabbed her by the barrel and held fast. “No, no, Derpy! Our queen is hungry!”
“Let go!” Derpy shouted. “Let me go!”
The black lumps on the walls uncurled and began to move, crawling down to the floor. From every side, greedy, blank eyes of bright green peered out of the dimness. Derpy flailed, but the changelings swarmed her, grabbed her limbs, fluttered their fly-like wings, and carried her to the center of the room, where a great black monster with a tall, crooked horn bathed its rotting limbs in a pool of putrescent goo.
The changeling that had imitated Minuette returned to its regular form and pulled off its cloak, belt, and watch, throwing them before the queen.
Chrysalis rose from the pool, licked her fangs, and grinned. A flash of green light ran the length of her horn, and when it reached the tip, it lanced out and struck Derpy in the face. Derpy gasped.
Chrysalis released a booming laugh. “Ah, such a choice morsel! Yes, this one loves strongly, doesn’t she? Oh, you have done well, my servant! We will all feast on her tonight!”
“But . . . but you killed that other one!” Derpy cried.
The changeling that had been Minuette grinned, showing its sharp teeth. “Individuals are inconsequential. Only the hive matters. That one wanted you all to herself, but I have brought you here for the good of the hive!”
Near the edge of the pool lay the real Minuette, most of her body wrapped in a cocoon and her horn encased in solidified slime. Tears ran down her face. “Derpy!” she cried. “Oh, Derpy!”
The changelings lowered Derpy down beside her and began to secrete long, sticky strands, wrapping Derpy’s limbs. “Is that really you, Colgate?” Derpy asked.
“Yes, it’s me. I found a message from Time Turner, but then his changeling got me.”
“And yours got me.”
“I’m so sorry, Derpy.”
Chrysalis laughed. “Do not pity your friend, timekeeper.” She raised a hoof and gestured to the roof where the cocoons clustered. “Half of Ponyville is already here, and soon we’ll have the rest. Pony by pony, town by town, all of Equestria will become mine, and we shall have food to last ten thousand years. I will steal Celestia’s subjects right from under her, and she won’t even know.” With a low moan, she disgorged two eggs and took them in her hooves.
“Oh, wow,” said Derpy, scowling. “That’s really gross.”
Chrysalis crouched beside her and stroked Derpy’s blonde mane. “Believe me, little pony, I feel the same way about you. Placental mammals are disgusting.” She chuckled. “Still, we can benefit each other, don’t you think? You have something I want, and I promise you that I have something you want.” She tore the top from one of the eggs and held it over Derpy’s face. “You want Time Turner, don’t you?”
Chrysalis licked her fangs. “He doesn’t love you. I know. I’ve seen his heart. There isn’t room for much affection in there at all, but he does carry a torch for an old flame. Does that make you jealous?”
She tipped the egg, letting a few foaming drops fall on Derpy’s face. Derpy turned her head so they only struck her cheek.
“You know all about old flames, don’t you?” Chrysalis asked. “A young daughter from a former lover? That’s much jucier than what I usually get from ponies, and it’s certainly not what I expected from a cross-eyed halfwit.”
“Leave her alone!” Minuette shouted. “Do you like toying with your prey?”
“Yes I do, timekeeper. But I offer you thousands of years of pleasure, so why would you deny me a little pleasure of my own?”
Minuette squirmed. “Pleasure? You’re a changeling! You give nothing but lies!”
Chrysalis licked her fangs. “But my lies are so pleasant. Oh, dear timekeeper, your order has taught you such foolishness—precision, logic, truth. What is truth? You have no access to what you call reality except through the little signals your senses send your brain. If I change those signals, who are you to say that what I give you is not real? Why should your senses send you signals of pain and wretchedness when, if you give yourself to me, I can give you nothing but happiness? Why is your ‘reality’ better than mine? How can it be better when there is so much misery in it?”
Derpy blinked, unable to follow what Chrysalis said. The changelings continued to turn her over like a vegetable roasting on a spit as they wrapped her with ropes of green.
“Truth is better than falsehood even when hard to bear,” Minuette said. “That is an irreducible first principle. It is its own justification. I cannot defend it, but I accept it.”
Chrysalis let out another laugh, this one full of derision. “You stupid mare! I have seen inside your mind! You don’t even like timekeeping. You’d run away from it if you could, and under my ministrations, you will. You’ll change your cutie mark and be a dentist, as you’ve dreamed of being, and everypony will love you instead of looking on you as a freak. Don’t lie to me, my little pony who claims to love truth: you are eager for the fantasy I’m about to give you!”
Derpy listened in silence, and the changelings stopped turning her; they had wrapped everything but her face.
“Then do it,” Minuette whispered, her voice cracking. “Get it over with.”
Chrysalis licked her fangs again. “Oh, I will. In time. But first, I want you to watch.”
With a snarl, she shoved the egg into Derpy’s mouth and squeezed.
Derpy’s ears rang like bells, and she thought she was drowning. The sharp taste, like a strong dose of cough syrup, shot into her sinuses. Her stomach churned and she thought for sure she’d throw up, but found herself swallowing instead. When Chrysalis finally pulled her hoof away, the egg’s juices foamed around Derpy’s mouth as she gasped for breath.
Chrysalis whispered in her ear, “Now dream, Derpy. Dream of Time Turner.”
“Fight it!” Minuette shouted.
Derpy’s pounding heart slowed and the cavern with its harsh air faded away. Derpy floated in a warm ocean, and she relaxed.
She heard Minuette yell again, “Fight it!” The voice was faint.
Two limbs wrapped her barrel and pulled her up from the sea and onto a dry beach of white sand. Hot sunlight struck her face. She turned around to find Time Turner was holding her close. A tender smile sat on his face.
“Doctor!” she gasped.
“Derpy,” he whispered, and he bent close and kissed her.
The words were tinny, indistinct, and easy to ignore.
Derpy pulled back from Time Turner’s embrace and stepped away from him. “Oh, but Doctor, I’m just not—”
His grin grew wider. “Am I not what you want? Here.”
She watched in confusion as his face shifted and his mane changed style. His coat grew a shade darker. His eyes grew harder, his grin more mischievous.
Her mouth fell open. Trembling, she reached out a hoof. “Stud Muffin?”
He nodded. “It’s me, Ditzy. I came back, just like I promised. And I’m going to marry you, just like I promised. We’ll raise Dinky together. We’ll be a family.”
“Stud Muffin!” She ran to him and grabbed him fiercely. Tears poured down her face. “I’ve missed you!”
“I’ve missed you too, Ditzy.”
The words were still there, like an annoying fly buzzing in her ear.
“We’ll be together forever,” Stud Muffin whispered. “Forever and always.” He stroked a hoof through her mane, and her heart began to pound again. She felt giddy and lightheaded, as she always had whenever he held her close.
Derpy, think of Dinky.
“Dinky?” she whispered.
“That’s right,” Stud Muffin said as he nuzzled her ear. “Just you and me and Dinky.”
Dinky needs you, Derpy! The real Dinky! Dinky needs you!
Derpy’s heart continued to pound, but now a spike of panic shot through her. She pulled away from Stud Muffin. “Dinky? Where’s Dinky?”
“We’ll be with Dinky,” said Stud Muffin.
“No! Where is she? Where’s Dinky?”
“I’ll show you Dinky—”
Derpy looked around. Everything blurred. She was too worried to keep her eyes straight, and she could barely see. Feeling helpless, she began to flail. “Where’s my Dinky? Where is she?”
Stud Muffin’s face twisted. He whipped in the wind as if he were made of paper. That made Derpy angry, and she swung a hoof at him. “Give me Dinky! Give her to me!”
Everything distorted. The beach and the ocean took on a greenish tint and began to slide downward like dripping slime.
Derpy tried to open her wings, but found her body restricted. Something had grabbed her, something was holding her down. She tossed her head back and forth, bent and unbent her back, and pressed hard against whatever was clutching her. Squeezing her eyes shut, she screamed, “Where is Dinky? Give me Dinky!”
When she opened her eyes again, she was in a cave full of ooze and she had a splitting headache. Chrysalis stared down at her with confusion and a hint of fear in her face. Derpy raised her head, gnashed her teeth, and screeched as loud as she could, “I. Want. Dinky!”
She tried again to move her legs. This time, she felt something stretch and then give. Her legs broke free, she spread her wings, and she leapt from the cocoon.
Chrysalis stumbled backwards and shouted, “Seize her!”
Changelings held another cocoon containing Minuette; they had covered all of her but her face. “My belt!” Minuette cried. “Derpy, give me a vial from my belt!”
Derpy’s panic was gone, replaced with rage. Her eyes snapped forward and remained in place. Looking around, she quickly found the belt and cloak lying before the pool. She dove. A changeling tried to grab her, but she swung a hoof and struck it in the face.
She landed hard atop the timekeeper’s gear. Fumbling, she pulled a vial from the belt with her teeth. Changelings swarmed her. She struggled, trying to fight them off, but for every one she kicked aside, two more grabbed her. She twisted her head and threw open her mouth, sending the vial spinning through the air.
Minuette watched as the tiny, corked tube full of chronoserum flipped through the air, green light glinting from its surface. She felt her heart sink: Derpy was too clumsy, so there was no way she could have thrown the vial with any accuracy—
To her amazement, the tube landed directly before Minuette’s face. Before a changeling could stop her, she rolled to it and seized it in her teeth. She hesitated only a moment before biting through the glass.
The shards lacerated her lips, but the thick, brown liquid poured into her throat. She coughed, spitting out blood and glass as a hammer slammed against her skull. It felt as if a fog around her brain were being burned away by acid; her mind sharpened to a point, and everything in the room slowed down. Derpy and the changelings moved as if captured on film by a camerapony who had cranked too quickly. Minuette’s emotions disappeared, leaving only cool rationality. Sounds grew tinny. The loudest thing was her own heart, which beat exactly once per second. She was aware of everything in the cave, but most of all, she was aware of time.
She had chronospliced.
The chronoserum was nothing but highly concentrated sassafras syrup. On most ponies, sassafras had a euphoric effect, but at the Academy, the timekeepers learned through careful meditation to alter its effects on their brains. By means of it, they suppressed their emotions, sped up their thought processes, enhanced their decision-making abilities, and, most importantly, greatly improved the accuracy of their carefully trained interior clocks. By means of chronoserum, their minds touched Chronos himself. They directly perceived time.
Moment faded seamlessly into moment, but Minuette could perceive and analyze each moment individually like a snapshot. Through slight movements of her muscles, she became aware of the exact tensile strength of the cocoon encasing her. Though she knew how much damage it would cause her body, she ordered her limbs to apply enough pressure to rip free. As she burst from her confinement, a tendon tore in her left rear cannon. She noted it and then chose to ignore it, bracketing off the pain and observing it as merely another phenomenon. It did not affect the clarity of her thought.
Changelings leapt for her. Without wasted movement, she struck them with the toes of her hooves, hitting with enough force to punch through their exoskeletons. Their liquid innards burst out like pressurized water from a hose.
She raised her head and then swung it down, cracking it hard against the ground and fracturing the casing on her horn. Once her horn was free, she cast a telekinetic spell on a cocoon overhead that had accumulated fewer drips of slime than the others around it, suggesting it was newer. Her spell was not powerful enough to pull it from the roof, but it did pull away some of the condensation on its underside, and she could make out the brown spikes of Time Turner’s mane within.
More changelings attacked. She leapt backwards onto her front hooves and spun her rear legs, again ignoring the pain. She windmilled, catching one changeling in the neck and sending it flying into two others.
The changelings had swarmed Derpy, pinning her to the ground. Minuette grabbed one of them and twisted its head, cracking the plates in its neck and sending a yellowish-green stream squirting from its throat. The changeling thrashed and then went limp, so Minuette picked it up and used it as a bludgeon.
Once she had freed Derpy, she said, “Fly me up to that cocoon.”
Derpy opened her mouth and looked shocked, but didn’t argue. She grabbed Minuette under her forelimbs and rose into the air.
“I don’t think so!” Chrysalis shouted. She fired a green beam from her horn.
Minuette reached back and slapped one of Derpy’s wings, causing her to drop several feet. The beam passed by overhead and struck a dangling cocoon, which burst. The figure inside dropped limply into the pool.
“No!” Chrysalis shouted.
Derpy, with Minuette held close, rose again. Hissing changelings flew at them, but Minuette swung her legs, kicking them out of the air whenever they tried to grab her.
A changeling jumped onto Derpy’s back. Derpy yelped as it dug its sharp teeth into her shoulder.
“Throw me,” Minuette said.
Minuette tucked in her legs and spun through the air. She estimated that, if she were to fall, she had a good chance of breaking her neck. It was an interesting fact of no immediate concern.
With a hard, wet smack, she struck the cocoon containing Time Turner and wrapped her legs around it. It was slippery and she couldn’t hold on, so she slammed her horn against it, digging the point deep into the cocoon’s skin. Nutrient fluid burst out and poured down her back.
She slid down the cocoon, but she tore a long gash as she went. Thrusting a hoof inside, she curled a fetlock behind Time Turner’s withers. Like an infant being foaled, he slid out of the casing, and Minuette wrapped him in her limbs to cushion him. She assumed she would break several bones when she struck the cavern floor, but he would likely survive unharmed.
She registered no surprise, but admitted to herself that it was an unanticipated curiosity, when a telekinetic spell enveloped her and Time Turner in a silvery aura and lowered them gently to the ground.
Once she had gained her hooves, Minuette looked around. Standing by the edge of the pool with a confident smile on his muzzle was a tall, well-muscled unicorn stallion with a graying red coat and a silvery mane. He was coated in changeling ooze, but an hourglass mark glistened on his hip. Minuette guessed that this was the pony Chrysalis’s misdirected spell had freed.
“Chief Chronomaster Clockwork,” Minuette said.
“Indeed,” he answered. “Can you spare an old stallion some of your chronoserum?”
Minuette found her belt lying at her hooves. She snatched up a vial and tossed it to him.
In a fury, covered in green flames, Chrysalis rose into the air behind him. “Not so fast, timekeepers! I will—ack!”
With another burst of silvery light, Clockwork cast a force field spell, encasing himself, Time Turner, and Minuette.
“This won’t keep her out for more than a few seconds,” Clockwork said. “But that might be enough. Put another dose in your friend there.” He drank down the chronoserum Minuette had tossed him while she bent over Time Turner and put a vial to his lips.
Time Turner’s eyes opened. He looked up at Minuette weakly. “Daisy Chain?” he whispered.
She shook her head. “Apprentice Minuette, Chronomaster. You have been hallucinating. Take this.” She poured the chronoserum into his mouth.
“Can you cast shields, Minuette?” Clockwork called.
“Only small ones, Chief Chronomaster.”
“That might be enough. Chrysalis is about to break through mine, so be ready.”
“If we are to declare optimal success,” said Minuette, “we should rescue my associate Ditzamena.”
“We will do so. Ready your spell.”
Minuette stood straight and pointed her horn at Chrysalis, who beat against the force field with her hooves, causing it to ripple like water.
“Estimate five point oh six seconds to breach,” said Clockwork.
The force field shattered like glass, and its fragments evaporated into the ether. As it disappeared, Minuette cast her spell, putting up a small, hazy blue wall between Chrysalis and Clockwork. Caught off guard, Chrysalis struck it.
Clockwork fired a red beam from his horn and struck Chrysalis in the torso. She screeched and fell backwards.
“Now run,” Clockwork said. “We can’t fight her, but we can fight her minions.” He turned and fired more beams. The changelings he struck screamed like dying ponies as they fell to the ground. Steam whistled from their limbs as they seized up, their liquid insides cooked solid. A stink like charred meat rose over the other bad smells in the cave.
Minuette cast more shields to fend off the swarming changelings while Clockwork cast more heat beams. They found Derpy screaming and flailing, covered in blood, as changelings bit her and tried vainly to secure her limbs with more of their slime. With precision, Clockwork burned each of the changelings off of her, and Time Turner pulled her to her hooves.
They ran for the cave entrance, dragging Derpy along. Chrysalis rose up again and flew after them, her body surrounded by a tornado of green fire. “Timekeepers!” she shouted.
They made the entrance and ran up the steeply curving tunnel.
“Wait,” said Clockwork. They paused.
“What’re we doin’?” Derpy cried. “Why don’t we—?”
“Be quiet,” said Minuette.
A lick of green fire appeared around the bend of the tunnel below. “Minuette,” Chrysalis’s voice hissed, “will you really give up pretty dreams for this cold reality? Come back down here and I will give you everything you want.”
Minuette’s heart, beating once per second like a finely tuned clock, sounded in her ears. She glanced down the dark tunnel and allowed herself, in spite of the chronoserum enhancing her mind, to feel a trace of contempt. “I am a timekeeper,” she said. “That is my true self, Your Majesty, and even if it is a burden, even if I must groan under it and suffer, I will not trade it for fantasies.”
The flames in the tunnel below grew brighter, and Minuette could hear Chrysalis scream in inarticulate rage.
Clockwork fired more beams at the tunnel roof. With a roar like thunder, the stones burst and collapsed, quenching the flames and sealing the tunnel.
“That won’t have killed her,” Clockwork said, “but it should buy us enough time.”
They turned and continued their run. Derpy stumbled, so Time Turner carried her on his back.
“All those ponies!” Derpy cried. “They’re still down there—”
“And they’re alive,” said Clockwork. “Chrysalis can’t feed on dead ponies. We’ll rescue them when we can, but right now we’re outmatched.”
“Be quiet,” said Minuette.
Though the tunnel forked, the timekeepers had memorized its path when they were captured. After several minutes, they rose aboveground. Without slowing their pace, they galloped deeper into the forest and left the castle behind.
The effects of the chronoserum ebbed. Minuette’s head throbbed and her rear left leg shot sharp stabs of pain up her back. She fell to the ground, panting. The others, equally spent, collapsed beside her.
Derpy, dried blood and sweat covering her coat, clung to Time Turner’s neck and wept softly.
“I’ve injured myself,” said Minuette. “Torn tendon. It’s bad.”
Clockwork pointed his horn at her leg and fired a faint silver beam. Struggling to catch his breath, he gasped, “That should help it heal, but you’ll need medical attention. If we keep going this way, we’ll reach Hoofington.”
“Hoofington could be another changeling stronghold,” said Time Turner.
“You may be right,” Clockwork answered. “Right now, we four are the only ponies we know we can trust.”
“Do we know that?” Time Turner asked. “Do we know that one of us isn’t still down in that pit, replaced by a changeling? Do we even know that we’re not hanging in cocoons and dreaming all this?”
They fell silent for a minute.
“Stop it,” Minuette said. “We have to trust one another. If we don’t, we’ll fall apart.”
“She’s right,” said Clockwork. “We must take precautions, but we must also build on trust. We will assume that everypony here is indeed a pony, and we will assume also that our experiences are real. The brute fact of reality is axiomatic to rational thought, and we must not let Chrysalis’s deceits rob us of that.”
“And yet they did rob us,” said Time Turner with bitterness in his voice. “How long was I down there? In my mind, I spent five years married to—”
He glanced sidelong at Derpy and fell silent.
A faint smile touched Clockwork’s mouth. “Chrysalis unstallioned both of us, Time Turner. I would be ashamed to admit the daydreams in which I dallied under her hospitality. But we must not let past weakness rob us of future strength. Perhaps we were not stallions then, but we must be stallions now.”
“You were down there less than a week, Doctor,” Minuette said. “I’m certain of that.”
“She used those eggs,” said Time Turner. “Perhaps we couldn’t help but succumb.”
“Derpy could help it,” said Minuette, looking into Time Turner’s eyes. “If it wasn’t for her, we’d all still be down there. She’s the one who fought Chrysalis off.”
Time Turner sat up and gently extracted himself from Derpy’s grasp. He gazed down at her silently while she lay on the ground with tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I just wanted to see Dinky again,” Derpy mumbled. “I knew she’d be sad without her mama. I couldn’t be happy if I knew Dinky was sad.”
Clockwork leaned back against a tree and put a hoof to his chin. “Love,” he said. “It is both Chrysalis’s food and also her weakness. But it is most certainly not the timekeepers’ strength. We tend to be cold, but if we are to win this, perhaps we must learn to love like this mare.”
Time Turner grumbled. “This mare, Chief Chronomaster, has not exactly been a pattern of virtue—”
“Neither have I,” said Clockwork. “But I believe I already said we cannot afford to dwell on the past.” He smiled at Derpy. “Tell me your full name.”
“Ditzamena Doo,” Derpy whispered.
“Miss Ditzamena Doo, you are now an honorary member of the sacred Order of Timekeepers.” He turned to Minuette and added, “As for you, I apologize that I can’t give you the full ceremony and place on you the blue cloak, but I nonetheless pronounce you a full-fledged chronomistress. Congratulations, Minuette.”
Minuette dipped her head and nickered. “Thank you, Chief Chronomaster.”
“We have a great task ahead of us,” said Clockwork. “There is a changeling in Canterlot ordering the princesses when to move the sun and moon. All of nature may be thrown out of balance. We will go to Hoofington first to resupply and get Minuette medical aid, but then we must go to Canterlot, kill the imposter, and inform Celestia. Wherever we go, anypony we meet is potentially one of the enemy. Ditzamena must come with us; not only is she safer that way, all things considered, but we must count on her for one thing we timekeepers by our nature do not have—spontaneity. By following her lead, we may be able to keep the changelings guessing.”
Derpy raised her head. Her eyes swiveled. “But Mister Clock-guy, my daughter—”
“Derpy, I know it’s hard to accept,” Minuette said, “but Chrysalis said half of Ponyville is now made up of changelings. We can’t go back there. It’s possible Dinky is already down in that cave—”
“No!” Derpy rose to her hooves and stomped the ground. “No! We have to save Dinky! She’s in Ponyville, and I know it! I kissed her goodbye this morning!”
“That could have been a changeling,” said Minuette.
Afraid Derpy might throw a tantrum, Minuette looked pleadingly back and forth from Time Turner to Clockwork.
Clockwork tapped his chin as if considering. “Ponyville? Hm, Chrysalis certainly wouldn’t expect it.”
“Chief Chronomaster,” Minuette said, “you can’t be serious.”
“I said we need Ditzamena to teach us how to make unexpected moves, and I meant it.”
“This isn’t spontaneity. This is madness.”
Clockwork smiled. “Miss Doo, Minuette needs aid. Hoofington is closest, and probably safer than Ponyville. Would it be all right with you if we took her there first and then went to Ponyville to rescue your daughter?”
“That bad lady knows about Dinky!” Derpy cried. “We have to go now!”
The others sat in silence for a few moments.
“At first light,” said Clockwork, “I’ll give Minuette another healing spell. I’ll carry her on my back, and we’ll head for Ponyville.” He glanced around. “That is final. I’ll take first watch. The rest of you should try to sleep.”
Time Turner was grateful when his watch came. He was too restless to sleep anyway. He watched the eastern sky through the trees as it lightened slightly, indicating dawn was less than an hour away. His stomach twisted.
He paced, trying to keep his hoofsteps as quiet as possible to avoid waking the others. The air was chilly.
He whipped around, his heart pounding, but it was only Derpy. She sat on the ground nearby, a melancholy look on her face.
He sighed. “Miss Derpy, you startled me.”
“I can’t sleep. I feel all bad inside.”
“You’ve been through a lot. We all have.”
“I want it to stop and go away.”
“I know, but I’m afraid it’s not that easy.”
He walked over and sat beside her. He cleared his throat a few times and rubbed his hooves together. “I, ah, don’t know how to say this, Miss, but . . .”
He glanced at her. One of her eyes pointed off into the forest, but the other watched him intently.
He took a deep breath and said, “I’m no good at this, but what I want to say is, well, I am grateful.” He rolled his eyes, coughed, and added, “You saved me.” He bit his lip, fidgeted some more, and said, “And I am fully aware that my conduct toward you in the past has not been, shall we say, entirely chivalrous, so I wish to extend an apology.”
He paused and glanced at her again. One eye was still watching him.
“Are you going to say anything?” he asked.
“Uh, Doctor, could you repeat that last part in plain Ponese?”
He squeezed his eyes shut, tapped a hoof against his muzzle, and chuckled softly. “Oh, Derpy. Yes, yes I can. What I mean is, I’m sorry for acting like a mule.”
He was astonished when she threw her forelimbs around his neck, but he was even more astonished when he found himself hugging her back. His inner sense of time ticked the seconds away, and he pondered the proper length for a hug expressing friendship, gratitude, and remorse. Twenty seconds, perhaps? Maybe thirty?
More than a minute lapsed and Derpy gave no indication that she wished to pull away, so Time Turner decided, just this once, to forget about time.