“That should protect us from any unwanted listeners.”
Celestia’s aura faded from her horn as the silencing spell took over the conference room. Like everything else in the ESS, it was designed purely around function. A large table, several chairs, a couple standing blackboards, and another enormous map of the world. A single closed and shuttered window on the far side of the room. Celestia checked it to make sure it was fully blocked by the shutters, and conjured a blackout curtain over it just in case.
“Princess, do you really think this is necessary?” Raven asked. “We’re in the middle of the Equestrian Secret Service.”
“No, I don’t,” Celestia admitted. “But for something like this, we cannot be too careful.”
“Princess, you’ve been cryptic all evening.” A trace of annoyance threaded through Raven’s voice. “Please, you brought me here for a reason. Tell me what it is.”
Celestia nodded. Enough delays.
In a flash of magic, the files spread out on the conference room table. There were about two dozen in all.
“What are we looking for?”
“Anything strange,” Celestia stared at the table covered in files, but couldn’t bring herself to actually look at them. “Raven, if you would?”
Raven nodded, her own horn glowing in red magic as she flipped through the paperwork.
Harmony, let me be wrong. Please let me be—
“I think I found it, Your Majesty.”
Raven floated up a slightly beaten folder. The header read ‘Classified Incident, Summer 989.’ The footer had the standard ‘Authorized Ponies Only. Equestrian Secret Service.’ In the center, set in front of another version of the Solar Sigil, were the words The Cloudsdale Report in large black letters. In fact, all of the files had those words on them. The only difference was an image magically printed onto the page instead of the usual title brief. That alone made it stand out like a sore hoof.
The image was small, blurry and difficult to make out. It was definitely a pony and most likely a mare. She appeared to be standing on a cloud. Oddly enough, she also appeared to have a baby dragon on her back. By Celestia’s estimation, the dragon could be anywhere from fifteen to nineteen years old. The wings were a bit harder to see, since the grainy photo made them merge in with the color of the pony’s coat.
Celestia pressed a hoof to the center of the document, and the hidden seals within it sprang open. Celestia quickly shoved the other files aside. She sat down at the conference table, spreading the file open. The various papers scattered across the table as Raven sat next to her.
“Princess…” Raven asked slowly. “Why do you have intelligence assets assigned to Cloudsdale’s summer flight camp?”
Celestia waved her hoof dismissively. “Nothing so sinister, Raven. There are a number of camp counselors that act as talent scouts. They look for exceptional fliers, either for the Royal Guard, or the Wonderbolts. However, in this case, it was simply a mother visiting her colt at camp.”
Celestia began to read, refusing to look at the large photo that had stopped a foot away from the rest.
Report Originates: Sunglint - Pegasus - Age 37 - Residence at time of report: Manehattan - Family: Husband, two fillies, one colt - Occupation: wedding photographer - Background Check: No known ties to hostile forces
“The mare caught sight of something very strange. She happened to have had her camera with her and she took several pictures.”
Interviewing Officer: Sergeant Light Hail - Unicorn - Age 42 - Residence at time of report: Cloudsdale - Family: Wife, four fillies - 8 years as an officer for the ESS
Report Begins: Sunglint, while visiting colt at Flight Camp (Authorized visit, see attached file CL-989-I34-C), saw an impromptu race being put on by two colts and a filly (Colts: Hoops and Iron “Dumb-bell” Hoof; Filly: Rainbow Dash). While she was watching the race from a safe distance, she saw a figure standing on a cloud a short distance away from the other ponies.
“All during some sort of race,” Celestia continued. “However, I don’t think the race itself matters. It’s what she saw.”
Sunglint: “I’d been watching the fillies and colts. A cute little yellow pegasus mare was holding the starting flag. They all looked awful excited. Never found out if it was just a race for fun or what. I did think it was strange that the camp counselors were nowhere to be seen, but I found out later there had been an accident at the weather factory nearby, leaving only a hoofful of mares and stallions to watch over the place.” (Note: Verified accident, see attached file CL-989-I34-J)
Light Hail Notes: (Subject shrugs casually, as if no harm was done.)
“I don’t understand, Princess. What did she see?”
Sunglint: “Anyway, there was this grown-up purple pegasus off to the side. She didn’t look like a counselor. And she had a baby dragon on her back. I mean, what’s with that? It’s not like you see a lot of baby dragons around Equestria! I got out my camera to get a picture of her, just to ask Wind Walker about it later. I zoomed in as best I could—I hadn’t brought my quality telephoto lens, you see—and that’s… that’s when I realized it!”
Celestia lifted the now-empty folder to Raven, who took it in her magic.
“Look closely at the picture,” Celestia commanded. Her voice sounded strained even to her own ears even as she continued reading the report.
Sergeant Light Hail: “Please continue, Miss Sunglint.”
Sunglint: “I only realized it once my camera was out! I didn’t believe it. It wasn’t a pegasus at all! It was an alicorn!”
Sergeant Light Hail: “I’m sorry, Miss. You’re claiming there was an alicorn there at the race?”
Sergeant Light Hail: “I assume this alicorn was pink?”
Sunglint: (Shakes head vigorously) “Oh no! I’ve seen pictures of Princess Cadance! I know what she looks like. This one was purple. Maybe lavender? No, definitely lavender. No-nonsense mane of purple with a stripe of dark purple and pink in it. Straight cut on both tail and mane.”
“Princess...” Raven said slowly. “This picture...”
Sergeant Light Hail: “Did you happen to see her cutie mark?”
Sunglint: “I know it didn’t turn out very good in the pictures, but yes! I did! It was a bright pink star with five white stars around it.”
Sergeant Light Hail: “Are you sure about this, miss? After all, occasionally seeing an unknown alicorn has been known to happen from time to time. A trick of the light, somepony playing around, a costume—”
Sunglint: “You have the pictures right there in front of you! I’m sure of what I saw then… but it was what I saw after the end of the race that actually scared me.”
“Yes,” Celestia said quietly. “It is.”
Sergeant Light Hail: “Tell me about the end of the race.”
Sunglint: (Looks visibly disturbed) “Well, first there was the flying unicorn.”
Sergeant Light Hail: “Flying unicorn?”
Sunglint: (Nods emphatically) “She was using her magic to fly! I know she didn’t have wings. When I saw that, I started taking as many pictures as I could. She was a pink unicorn with a dark purple mane with a teal stripe in it. Have to say, wasn’t the most fashionable of manestyles. But still! A unicorn flying! I’d never seen anything like it! But then… that thing appeared and just sucked in the lavender alicorn!”
Sergeant Light Hail: “Can you describe this ‘thing?’”
“I don’t understand how this is possible, Princess.” Raven said. “It can’t be her. Yes, the coloring is the same. It could be her twin sister, but she has a different cutie mark… not to mention the whole alicorn thing.”
Celestia sighed. “I know it can’t be her, but the more I think about this, the more I’m convinced it is her.”
Sunglint: “This giant ball of light appeared in the sky above the two ponies. It was huge! All these weird clockwork symbols around it. I’m no unicorn, but it looked like some crazy advanced magic. There was a giant hole in the bottom and while the alicorn was yelling at the unicorn… suddenly the alicorn and her dragon were pulled right up into it! Then the thing just vanished with a flash. The unicorn teleported away a few moments later. I have no idea where she went.”
Sergeant Light Hail: “To be honest, Miss Sunglint, if you didn’t have this visual proof, I’d have some serious trouble believing your claims.”
“Princess… what are you implying?” There was a faint tremble in Raven’s voice. Celestia suppressed a shiver of her own. She couldn’t remember the last time Raven had seemed this perturbed. Concern about Sunset was one thing, but this was something else entirely. “That there are two of them?”
Sunglint: (Laughs) “How do you think I feel? I just wish I knew what I had seen!”
Sergeant Light Hail: “I understand, Miss Sunglint. However, the potential presence of another alicorn in Equestria could cause a panic. I don’t think I need to remind you what happened when Princess Celestia revealed Princess Cadance to the nation?”
Sunglint: (Nods) “Oh yes. It was quite the scandal. Still, from what I’ve heard, she’s a sweet thing.”
Sergeant Light Hail: “Indeed. Now, I am going to need to ask you to sign an affidavit that you will not recount these events. I’m afraid we will have to confiscate the images, both the printed versions and the originals.”
Sunglint: (Does not seem troubled by this; appears relieved) “Of course, of course. To be honest, I’d rather just forget the whole incident! But… didn’t anypony else see it?”
“That’s why I asked Captain Insight to check on any recent security breaches in the Starswirl the Bearded Wing.”
Sergeant Light Hail: “It appears most of the attention was focused on either the race or the emergency at the weather factory. With respect, Miss Sunglint, you seem to be the only witness to the event. We need you to keep it that way. It’s vital to the security of the nation. At present, I don’t believe any sort of magical geas will be required.”
Sunglint: (Confused) “I’m sorry, but I’m just a wedding photographer. I don’t know what that is.”
Sergeant Light Hail: “It’s a magically induced ‘gag order,’ if you will. It simply means you would never be able to bring up the subject to anypony. You’d be physically incapable of communicating the story.”
Sunglint: (Appears disturbed) “I… I don’t think that will be necessary.”
Sergeant Light Hail: (Note: I attempted to calm Miss Sunglint at this time. My goal in speaking about the geas was to make Miss Sunglint understand the depth of this promise, not to frighten her) “Geasa are rarely imposed on anything other than severe criminal cases, or similar extreme circumstances. The chances of one being used in this situation are minuscule, since they can only be ordered by the Princess herself.”
Sunglint: (Laughs, but still seems nervous) “Well, the last thing I want to do is to upset that applecart!”
Sergeant Light Hail: “Excellent. Well, our office may have some follow-up questions at a later date. I think we can send you on your way after we finish the paperwork. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.”
Sunglint: “Happy to be of service.”
Initial Interview Ends.
Celestia pushed back the document and closed her eyes. Even then, she could feel Sunglint’s picture staring at her accusingly on the other side of the table.
Of all the things to happen… why did it have to be now? Why did this have to happen now?
Celestia almost lost control. Her mask almost slipped. She wanted to shatter the table into nothing but splinters, and burn the document into ashes. For a brief second, she felt her magic manifest, but the ruler of Equestria would not let herself be dictated by something as petty as her emotions.
At least, that’s what she told herself. It still took almost a full minute until she trusted herself to speak. Her magic receded slowly, like a thundercloud drifting beyond the horizon.
There was one more document she needed to read: the analysis.
“Please, Raven.” Celestia felt the exhaustion in her own voice. “Would you… would you please read me the analysis of the spell Sunglint witnessed?”
Raven nodded and lifted up a small sheaf of papers. “Would you like a summary, or the details?”
“Just the summary.” Celestia rubbed her eyes. It was far too late. She should be asleep. “I will read over the full analysis tomorrow.”
“Of course, Princess.” Raven cleared her throat, and began to read. “It appears they consulted Professor Logic Gate for the final analysis.”
“Good. I’m glad the ESS isn’t nearly as obsessed with keeping things as internalized as it once was.”
“Professor Logic Gate theorized that the ‘thing’ Sunglint reported was actually a ‘magically-constructed temporal wormhole.’ The runes, sigils and patterns glowing from the circumference of the structure match some of Starswirl’s work into temporal mechanics. He recommends further research, since he’s the leading expert on Starswirl’s related theories, and even he’s lost.”
“Logic always wants more research done,” Celestia commented dryly.
“It does seem his standard procedure for anything new,” Raven agreed. “Hmm… the summary goes on to state that some of the sigils were not temporal, but spatial. While Starswirl’s work did have some minor spatial components, it wasn’t anything as intricate as this. In fact…”
Raven stopped and Celestia turned to stare at her aide. “Raven?”
“‘Some of the sigils appear to be those of ancient Harmony-based magic.’” Now Raven quoted the document directly from the tone in her voice. “‘I have seen these markings in several spellbooks scribed during the period between the defeat of Discord and the banishment of…’”
There was a knock at the door. Celestia felt through it with her magic and verified that Captain Insight stood beside the guard. Captain Insight may have had no sense of humor, but she was efficient. Celestia dropped the bubble of silence, and pulled open the door. The captain saluted, another folder held in her magic. The folder looked nearly empty.
“Yes ma’am! According to our records, there has been only one incident where somepony infiltrated the Starswirl the Bearded Wing in the last fifty years.”
Celestia stood to her hooves. “When?”
“Almost two years ago.”
For the first time, Captain Insight hesitated. Her eyes darted around the room for a few seconds.
“Captain, I asked you a question.”
“Sunset Shimmer, ma’am.”
Celestia stood there, stunned and unable to speak.
“Was this during the winter, Captain?” Raven asked.
Insight checked her folder. “Yes, ma’am.”
Raven let out a noise that sounded suspiciously like a cross between a laugh and a cough. “Um, Princess, I believe she’s speaking of Moon Dancer’s dare with Sunset.”
Instantly, Celestia relaxed. With everything else going on, she had forgotten that little prank. Nothing had come of it. Raven herself had caught both of them. Apparently, Moon Dancer had made up some story about Starswirl having found the spell for an eternal cake. Supposedly, Sunset had intended to present the spell as a gift to Celestia for Hearth’s Warming Eve.
Celestia had laughed so hard after the incident, she couldn’t find it within herself to punish either of them.
“No other incidents?” Celestia demanded. “Nothing else out of the ordinary?”
“No, ma’am,” Captain Insight said. “If you would like, I could go back further—”
Celestia shook her head. “Not at this time, Captain. Thank you. You’re dismissed.”
Another salute. Once the door was closed, the bubble of silence was extended once more.
“Did Logic say anything about what direction the temporal wormhole went?”
Raven scanned through the notes. “No, ma’am.”
Celestia sat down heavily, putting her head in her hooves. “And there it is.”
“Princess?” Raven asked. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
With a heavy heart, Celestia lifted over the last picture. There were others, but this was the one that mattered. It showed the end of what Logic Gate called a ‘temporal wormhole,’ as well as the unknown flying unicorn and the lavender alicorn with her dragon passenger. Though it was hard to tell, the expression on the alicorn was one of surprise and anger. The expression on the unicorn’s face was one of smug satisfaction.
“Don’t you see, Raven?” Celestia asked quietly. “You saw Twilight earlier. You can’t tell me that’s not her.”
“But the cutie mark—”
“Even I don’t fully understand the way cutie marks work, Raven.” Celestia interrupted. “Ponies have innumerable talents, and their special talent may not be something they often do. That’s not even mentioning the cutie marks of most magically-inclined unicorns. They’re often so abstract that their meaning is endlessly debated.”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty.” Raven’s eyes were wide and she looked paler than usual. Not a state Celestia enjoyed seeing her in. “Princess, are you telling me… ponies aren’t destined for their marks?”
“If one’s special talent is never recognized, never fostered or developed…” Celestia sighed. “I believe it is possible for that pony to end up focusing on another aspect of their lives, which means a different special talent than one they might otherwise have earned. I’ve seen enough examples throughout Equestria to know that even middle-aged ponies can misunderstand their own cutie marks.”
“But that means… that means…” Raven couldn’t seem to get out the words. Celestia couldn’t blame her, though seeing her normally composed aide practically sputtering twisted something inside her.
“Twilight Sparkle told me her cutie mark story today. It was a rather touching tale. Did you know she was the little filly who convinced Jade Singer to emerge from hiding? During her time with Jade, Twilight spent an entire night in a maelstrom of books… and her mark appeared. However, when I met her today, I also sensed a deep reservoir of raw magical talent.”
Celestia tapped her hoof on the picture, namely where the alicorn Twilight’s mark was. “Something happened in this mare’s life. Something that made her realize that magic, not books, was her true talent.”
“But that’s means it’s a different Twilight Sparkle.”
“Yes,” Celestia murmured. “A Twilight Sparkle who led a different life.”
“How is that possible? Is she from another world? You’ve spoken occasionally of the mirrors—”
“No,” Celestia replied. “Logic Gate was clear. This is not a wormhole in reality, or dimensions or worlds. He believes it is a wormhole in time. And I think he was right.”
“Princess, I do hope you are not saying what I think you’re saying.” A note of panic was in Raven’s voice now.
The aide stared at Celestia, as if begging her not finish her thought.
“It means...” Celestia took a deep breath. “It means, somepony—most likely from the future—found a way to bypass the limitations of Starswirl’s time travel spell. They found a way to empower it… apparently with magic from Harmony itself. And they used it to alter the past.”
Celestia stared down at the picture, her heart sinking to depths she hadn’t felt since that night almost a thousand years ago.
“It means… we now exist in an alternate timeline. The life we’re living… was never meant to be.”