Twilight gasped as she jerked up in her bed, her chest still heaving as she stared at her hooves. A few moments passed as her breathing slowed. With a shaky hoof, the mare propped herself up, squinting at the familiar view of her cluttered bedroom.
"H... hello?" She called, swinging to a sitting position, "Anypony there?"
Twilight slid off her bed, wincing at the crackling static snapping between her mane and the sheets as she did so.
"Hello?" She called again, louder this time.
Her eyes darted back to the bed, then to the window above it.
Something didn't feel right.
"Hello, welcome to Sugarcube Corner bakery. How may I help you?"
The stallion Pinkie addressed raised a brow but nevertheless trotted to the counter.
"Hi," he began, eyeing the normally cheery mare, "I'd like... uh, let's just go with some bagels today."
Pinkie nodded politely.
"Would that be blueberry or strawberry, sir?"
"...On the second thought, maybe I should try the café across town for once..." the stallion muttered, backing away from the counter.
The bell above the door jingled as the stallion left without another word.
Sighing, Pinkie trudged to the backroom, slipping her apron off and hanging it on a peg.
I'm not Pinkie... the mare thought to herself, watching her reflection on the side of a pot, This isn't who I am... but I don't feel any different...
"So you're staying then, right?"
"Again, yes!" Lisa groaned, burying her face in her arms, "Dad, you've asked me four times already!"
"I know, I know," Argall replied with a shrug, "I'm just checking, okay?"
Lisa groaned again threw her sleeves.
"What am I even gonna do now? My only goal was to live the way I wanted to live, and now that I'm out here again, all my time spent in the simulation's pretty much become pointless!"
"Now now, Lisa," Argall countered, cracking an egg into a bowl at the counter, "you've spent plenty long enough in that place. You can't just keep running from your past, much less use it as justification to isolate yourself."
"I know." Lisa sighed, sitting back up, "Samantha was saying pretty much the same thing earlier."
Argall paused for a moment before continuing to scramble the eggs.
"Anyhow," he continued, his voice accented by the light clinks of the whisk, "we can talk about this after you eat, alright? Today's been a long day already, and you haven't even eaten breakfast yet, Lisa."
A smile formed at the edges of Lisa's lips.
"That you're right on," she snorted, "I wake up in the morning, and what happens? Oh, just a little surgery as a wake-up call, y'know?"
"Er... okay. Your brother already ate earlier this morning, so don't worry about him."
The Professor set a steaming plate of scrambled eggs in front of Lisa.
"Check the stove and make sure it's turned off," Argall continued, walking past Lisa, "I'm gonna be out doing some things again with the company. They don't seem to get that I'm retired just yet..."
Samantha sighed as she sat down in her office chair, pulling the ribbon from her hair and tossing it onto her bed. Fans whirred to life as she powered on her computer, the familiar glow of its boot screen flashing across her vision. She let out a satisfied hum as she drummed her fingers on her desk.
The boot screen faded away, replaced by a cheery background photo of cats and yarn. With a stifled yawn, Samantha clicked on her emails application.
More company newsletters... cat facts daily... video notifications... the girl read to herself, scrolling through the day's messages, Oh? What's this?
Samantha snorted, closing out of the message with a scowl.
More spam. she thought with a roll of her eyes, Of course it's spam.
A light ping came through the computer's speakers, alerting the girl to the latest notification as it popped up to the side. Samantha's smile returned as she clicked on the message.
Hey, Lisa. It's definitely been a while since we've talked through this thing, eh?
Yeah. I still can't believe Professor Dad left my room exactly the way it was when I first left all those years ago. Heck, seems like he's even still been regularly updating the computer I'm talking to you on right now!
Wow, that's... weird.
So, is there anything you wanna talk about at the moment?
Well... not really. I just want someone to talk to who isn't my little brother. He's still calling me Twilight, so it's all been "Twilight this" and "Twilight that" and stuff. He's actually starting to drive me a little nuts, y'know?
Yeah, I guess. What's up at the moment?
Eh, not much. Argall had to go again after he made me breakfast. Something about another meeting I think?
Probably. Didn't he ask you to be the new CEO of the company earlier?
Yeah, why're you bringing it up now?
Well, if you don't wanna take lead over the whole company, my old position as CTO is still open as far as I know...
Don't you want to take it back though? I want to make my own choices, not get roped into something I don't even understand!
Hm. Fair enough.
What do you do now that you're out of the company?
Actually, nothing, really. Retirement is pretty boring now that I've got the time to spend.
On the other hand, I'm still not really sure what I'm even supposed to do.
Once again, you could join the company! Heck, I'll even rejoin myself if you want. You don't have to take up some high-level position, just as long as you enjoy it!
Even with all the chaos the Professor told me about since the company doesn't really have any leadership?
Er... yeah, I guess. I'm sure we'll find someone soon enough.
Whoops, gotta go. Tim wants something.
Lisa's name greyed out in the chatbox as she entered do not disturb mode. Samantha leaned back in her chair, sighing as a loud creak groaned out beneath her. Scratching her neck, she left a final message for her friend.
Hey, you wanna check out the new building later?
"Twiiiii-liiiiight, I'm booooored," Timothy groaned, slumped over his sister's bed. "Are there any comics to read or something?"
"Again, I'm not Twilight anymore," Lisa began as she pushed in her chair, "and you're not Spike anymore, either. Or at least, you aren't out here."
"Yeah, yeah, I know that already."
Lisa frowned, watching her little brother roll over on the bed with a huff.
"You're used to being Spike, aren't you?" she continued, "Is that why you still identify as him?"
"It's okay if you think of yourself as him still, Tim. You've grown up with him for most of your life, right?"
"And that's okay. Sure, it might be a bit weird at times, but you could just say that Spike's your nickname or something. You've still got what, two, three more years of school left now that you're out of the simulations?"
Timothy hesitated for a moment before nodding again.
"Anyways," Lisa sighed, glancing at the last message from Samantha hovering near the bottom of the screen, "we can talk about this some more a bit later. You wanna come with me and see the new headquarters building?"
"Ehh... sure, I guess." Timothy shrugged.
"C'mon then," Lisa motioned, walking to the door, "Argall can probably take us."
The two siblings headed down the stairs, making a beeline for the family room.
"Dad?" Lisa called as she reached the bottom steps, "Dad, you home?"
"He's out doing some stuff with the company, remember?" Timothy reminded, "He left after you ate breakfast."
"Oh... oh yeah. I'll just call Samantha instead. She can drive us."
Samantha's phone buzzed on her bed, its screen lighting up as the call came in. She propped her head up, her hair matted to one side from her pillow as she reached for the device.
"Hey, Sam. You said earlier that we could come and see the new building or something?"
"Yeah, sure," Samantha replied, flipping onto her back as she continued the call, "wanna grab something to eat while we're at it?"
"Sure. Should I just wait for you to come and get us or should we meet somewhere?"
Samantha paused for a moment. "I can probably just pick you up. There's this nice café nearby that I know. We can just stop by and grab something quick."
"Alright then. Should I just wait outside on the driveway, or--"
"Yeah, driveway's fine. Is Tim coming as well?"
"'Kay," Samantha replied, grabbing her keys from her desk. "I'll be there in a few minutes."
Lisa stood at the driveway, watching as her younger brother stomped through the yellow-orange leaves littering the grass along the sides. She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath of the crisp autumn air with a smile.
I guess staying out here isn't as bad as I thought it'd be... Lisa thought to herself, opening her eyes again as she stared into the cloudy sky. It's... nice.
The soft hum of Samantha's car caught her attention as the vehicle pulled up along the curb. Samantha rolled down the window, smiling.
"Hey, Lis, you called?"
Lisa gave a slight nod. "Yeah, and Tim's coming, too."
"Yeah, yeah. You told me earlier, remember? Just get in already."
Twilight stared at the hastily-scribbled drawing before her, her chest still heaving from the adrenaline rush. She'd drawn a face, but not an equine one. It was human.
It was Lisa's.
A knock sounded at the door.
"C-come in!" Twilight yelled, her eyes still glued to the paper.
Pinkie pushed open the door, shuffling into Twilight's study.
"Hey, Twilight," She mumbled, walking to her friend's side. "What... what are you doing?"
Twilight shook her head, a shudder running over her body. "I don't know, Pinkie."
"I... I don't know this face, but I know it's mine. I've been having these haunting thoughts all day long, all of them always focusing on something beyond Equestria."
Pinkie peered over her friend's shaky hooves at the drawing.
"Certainly seems familiar to me."
"Pinkie," Twilight pleaded, "there's something wrong with me. I can feel it. Half the time, I'm not even sure if my thoughts are my own!"
"Been there, done that," she dismissed, pulling the drawing closer. "Though, I don't think I've been acting like myself very much today, either."
"There's just this... voice in my head, like another me, that tells me what to do. She never actually says anything, but I can remember--
"--An entirely separate life?" Twilight cut in, "Same here. The memories are muted, but they're there. I can remember being in a place beyond Equestria, somewhere where I was human, just like I was on the other side of the mirror portal."
Pinkie's frown deepened.
Twilight turned to her friend. "I'm guessing it's the same sorta thing for you?"
The car briefly jolted as Samantha shifted into Park.
"We're here!" She cheered, unlocking the doors. "Haven't been to this place in quite a while!"
Drying leaves crunched under their feet as they stepped out of the car. A warm wind blew through the streets, sending more leaves into the air. The chime of bells welcomed the trio as they entered the café.
"Oh, welcome back, Samantha!" greeted a voice behind the counter, "Long time no see!"
Samantha nodded. "Thanks."
"Just pick a place to sit," she began, turning to Lisa and Timothy, "I'll order for us. What do you want?"
"'Dunno," Lisa shrugged, "What is there?"
"Well, there's the usual coffee varieties, shakes... um... yeah, just find a seat for now..." she trailed off, "I think I know what you two'd like."
"Er... okay then," Lisa mumbled, taking Timothy by the arm. An empty booth beside the storefront window caught her eyes. "C'mon, this spot looks nice."
The girl sat with a light whump as she sank into the plush seats. She patted the empty space beside her.
"C'mon, Tim. Don't you wanna sit?"
Timothy shook his head, pointing a finger at the booth behind them.
"There's a little girl staring at us. Should I go talk to her or something?"
"No. Tim, she's not bothering anyone," Lisa rolled her eyes. "so just ignore her. She's probably looking at something else anyway."
The heavy thud of glass cups hitting the table diverted the siblings' attention from the child in the corner.
"Hey," Samantha exclaimed, sliding into the booth, "Lisa, you drink coffee, right?"
She shook her head. "...Nevermind. I bought some shakes for the three of us anyways."
"Ooh!" the girl in the corner blurted, jumping up in her booth, "Yo-you're Samantha Hayes, right? I'm working at your company!"
Samantha snorted, placing the crumpled receipt on the table. "You're just a kid. Are you sure that you're with us?"
The girl nodded, taking a sip of her hot chocolate. "Yeah! I'm at the front desk!"
"Here," Samantha sighed patting the corner of the booth, "come and sit with us. How old are you, anyways?"
"Twelve!" the girl cheered, slinking out of her booth. The oversized labcoat draped around her shoulders slipped off one side, dragging on the floor behind her. "My dad works there, too!"
"So..." Samantha groaned, rubbing her forehead, "TechSIG has a middle schooler as an intern, who runs the front desk of the company's lobby."
The girl nodded. "Yeah, though it's only because my dad works there too."
"Do you at least go to school still?" Samantha asked, "I don't exactly like the idea of using child labor in the company. Heck, you still haven't even told us your name."
The girl stuck out her tongue, making a face. "Duh, I still go to school!" she argued, "I can only work at the company anyway because my dad's practically running it!"
She paused for a moment to finish her hot cocoa.
"And my name's Zoey, by the way."
Lisa nodded slowly, dragging her shake closer to take a sip.
"Well," she sighed, holding out a hand as she spat out the straw, "welcome to the company then, Zoey."
Zoey enthusiastically shook Lisa's hand, tipping her empty cup as she did so.
Timothy rubbed his eyes with a yawn, resting his chin on a hand as he stared at the small splatter of hot cocoa on the table. He leaned over, tapping on his sister's shoulder.
"Tw... Lisa, can we go yet?" he whined, "I'm getting bored."
Lisa nodded. "We'll go right after this," she replied, ruffling her brother's hair. "I'd might as well catch up a bit on what's been going on at the company since I last worked there."
She turned back to Zoey. "Speaking of which, you said that your dad's been leading the company? Professor Argall asked me just this morning if I wanted to be CEO. What's up with that?"
Zoey forced a smile. "Well... my dad and Argall aren't exactly... um... very good friends..."
"Oh? Why's that?" Samantha queried, playing with her straw, "Differences in business practice? Maybe he did something the Professor didn't like?"
The little girl shook her head. "No, no. It's not like that. My dad just doesn't really like Argall for whatever reason, and I'm pretty sure that the feeling's mutual."
"Huh. I guess I'll look into that later then..." Lisa paused for a moment, staring at Zoey. "Actually, I think I might actually know you from somewhere. You said you were how old? Eleven? Twelve?"
"Twelve!" Zoey chirped, "Ooh, did you see me at the supermarket or something?"
Lisa shook her head. "Nevermind," she dismissed, "you're too young to have been in the same summer camp as me and Samantha."
Zoey's eyes widened. "Wait, you work with Samantha?" she gasped, "All this time I thought she did all the simulation stuff by herself!"
Samantha shrugged. "I mean, after Lisa hooked herself up to her own simulation, there's really not much she can do to attract attention. That'd probably explain why you didn't know her."
Lisa nodded in agreement.
"So you two helped start the entire company, then?"
"Well," Lisa mumbled, "yeah, I guess, with quite a bit of help from Professor Argall. Samantha and I never really had much of a part in the business side of things. The company was just a byproduct of the things we made together."
Zoey frowned. "Then, if neither of you has a part in the company, then what do you do now?"
"Eh," Samantha grunted, "not really much. I used to be CTO of the company, but then I retired. I only recently came out of the simulations with Lisa a couple weeks ago, so neither of us really have any sorta role in the business anymore."
"...and," Lisa continued, cutting off Zoey before she could respond, "you heard me say earlier that I turned down the role of CEO, right?"
"Yeah? What about it?"
Lisa fiddled with her straw wrapper. "Well, for starters," she began, "I've never really felt all that confident in a leadership role. Sure, I can lead, but it just doesn't really feel like... me, if you get what I mean."
"Um. Okay then?" Zoey frowned, turning to Timothy. "Hey, what about you?"
Zoey cocked her head, brushing a stray lock of hair out of the way.
"You really haven't said anything much all this time. What's your name?"
Timothy hesitated for a moment, glancing down at his lap.
"I-I'm Timothy..." he mumbled.
"Well, hi there, Timothy!" Zoey chirped, patting his arm, "Do you have anything to do with the company?"
Timothy shook his head.
Zoey frowned for a moment, her eyes still set on the boy before she returned her focus to Lisa.
"So, what do you do nowadays, since you're out of the simulation and all?"
Lisa scratched her head, running her fingers through her hair. "I--" she began, "I still don't know. I guess I could maybe start on a new project of some sort, but... I really don't have the same kind of drive to do something like that anymore."
She flinched for a moment at seemingly nothing and returned her gaze to the window.
"It's just that the very thing that started the company-" Lisa sighed, pausing for a moment to recollect her thoughts. "the simulations, the AI programs, stuff like that, y'know? Samantha and I originally made them so I could get away from reality."
A shadow flitted across the light streaming from the window.
"...Geez," Zoey murmured, "that's... kinda sad. What happened?"
"Nothing," Lisa dismissed, still staring out the window, "it's... better now."
A car raced past on the street, surprising the girl.
"Don't pressure her," Samantha began, "she's been through quite a bit. We can talk about this sometime else, alright?"
Zoey nodded. "'Kay," she began, reaching for her empty cup, "so, I guess I'll see you around?"
"Sure," Samantha shrugged, "though we're planning on visiting the company's HQ a bit later. When are your hours?"
"I don't really have any specific times I work 'till, but I'll probably be around for a while anyways. My dad is the acting CEO, after all."
Samantha's face brightened. "Great!" she cheered, "We'll see you there then!"
"Sure thing!" Zoey beamed, "Though I'll probably get there a little later since I'm just gonna ride my bike over."
Pinkie's eyes shot open, the mare jerking awake in Twilight's study, much to the surprise of the alicorn. A single name escaped her lips.
Twilight rose a brow.
"I was Samantha before. Or at least, I was part of her."
"I was her, and she was me."
Twilight's expression softened as she nodded in understanding. She returned to her reading without another word.
"Twilight, I'm afraid..."
"We both are."
Twilight turned another page in the book, leaning closer to the tome as she squinted.
"...Pinkie?" she called, "Pinkie, come here please."
Pinkie shuffled to her friend's side, peering over Twilight's shoulder.
"What is it, Twilight?"
"I don't think we're real, Pinkie."
Lisa stared in awe at the towering construct of glass and steel before her. It utterly dwarfed the old headquarters in size, easily spanning an entire city block, and then some.
"Yup," Samantha chuckled, shifting the car into park, "that's the new building I've been rambling to you about. We built it a couple years after you entered the simulations. We started construction shortly after we began licensing out the simulation's framework. So... I guess that kinda explains how we had the money to pull this off in the first place."
Samantha snorted. "Huge is an understatement. Half the time I'm convinced that the property tax we pay on this thing alone is able to fund the city several times over."
The car fell quiet for a moment, with the trio sitting idle in their seats. Only the soft snores of Timothy broke the silence.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" Lisa exclaimed, unfastening her seatbelt in a rush, "We're here to look inside, not admire the outside!"
Timothy stirred, blinking in the light of the window as he yawned.
"C'mon, Tim, don't you wanna take a look inside the new building?"
"Yeah," The boy sighed, climbing out of the car, "I guess so."
"Then come on," Lisa nagged as she grabbed her brother by the arm, "I bet there's a nice big break room filled with comics for you to read, just like the old building!"
"Those comics I read in the old building were boring..." Timothy grumbled to himself, following his sister to the building's entrance.
"Hey, wait up!" Samantha shouted as she caught up to Lisa, playfully whacking her friend with her handbag, "Just because I drove you here doesn't mean that you get to go without me!"
The glass doors slid open as the three drew near, revealing an expansive, brightly-lit lobby with so many display cases that it could've been mistaken for a museum.
"Welcome to TechSIG headquarters," a young man behind the front desk greeted, "what brings you here today?"
Samantha waved a hand, stepping out from behind Lisa and Timothy.
The man raised a brow. "Samantha? We haven't been seeing you around here for quite some time."
"Yup, it's definitely been a while," Samantha chirped, stepping up to the front desk. "Mind if I give a tour of the building to the co-founder of this company?"
The man shook his head. "Go right ahead," he replied, eyeing Lisa. "I... take it that you also haven't been with the company recently?"
Lisa gave a single nod, staring at the man as she followed Samantha to the elevators behind the desk.
"So, who was that?" Lisa whispered while they waited for the elevator, "He seemed pretty friendly."
Samantha shrugged. "I think he was in one of the other camps around here way back when. Never caught his name though, but we've run into each other a few times before in the past. He joined the company a couple weeks before I retired."
The elevator doors opened with a tinny bong. The three stepped inside, with Lisa silently noting the frosted glass making up the outward-facing wall in the back. Samantha pressed a button on the control pad as the doors closed. Timothy held onto the railing, swaying from the sudden acceleration for a moment as the elevator began to rise.
"Don't get too close if you're afraid of heights," Samantha teased as Lisa watched the blurry outside world sink below them in a slurry of colors. "you can't see much outta those windows, but the motion of the elevator can and will make you sick if you stare too long."
Lisa turned her head, a confused frown on her face.
"Not personal experience, I promise. It's a joke we tell the new hires... or at least, told them back when I still worked here. Not quite sure about whether or not it's told anymore."
Lisa snorted. "Like the one about the third-story pool in the old building?" she asked, placing a hand on the railing, "Didn't you eventually change that one to rooftop pool by the time the project was almost finished?"
"'Dunno," Samantha shrugged with a grin, "but I know that it did confuse the heck out of the other students back then. I think I even got Argall with it once."
A loud bong chimed through the elevator as the doors opened.
"O-kay..." Samantha murmured to herself, taking in the familiar view of the open workspace, "If I remember correctly, this is the floor I used to work on..."
"Well, it's definitely big, for one," Timothy noted, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Looks about as big as the library, huh, Tw--" he paused for a moment, peering at his sister. "--um... nevermind."
"No, no, it's fine." Lisa smiled, ruffling Timothy's hair. "I remember the library. After all, I modeled it myself."
"Huh. Okay then."
Lisa and Timothy trailed behind Samantha as they wove their way through the brightly-lit sea of colorful desks. Numerous faces lit up as Samantha passed; old co-workers and employees who'd remember the company's co-founder anywhere. Lisa shrunk away in contrast, warily eyeing the passing desks and the unfamiliar people all around. She squeaked in surprise at the sound of a particularly-loud hole-puncher.
"Hey, it's alright to relax, Lisa," Samantha began as they continued walking, "Everyone's friendly. We've got a pretty close-knit environment here, so it shouldn't take too much time to get yourself comfy."
"I... okay," Lisa sighed, her shoulders drooping as she loosened up, "though, it's still gonna take some time for me to adjust, y'know."
Samantha scoffed playfully, pausing to face Lisa. "Duh," she laughed, "do you think that we all decided to suddenly be friends with each other the moment we joined?"
Lisa shook her head.
"Anyways," Samantha continued as she turned back, "my old office is just ahead. Given how my position was never replaced, as far as I know, the room should still look just like how I left it the last time I was here."
They stopped at a door. Samantha fumbled for a brief moment, rummaging in her handbag before pulling out a key card and scanning it. A soft whirr rang out from the door as the lock disengaged.
"Huh, didn't think that'd still work," Samantha remarked, sliding the door open with a hand. She turned to her friend. "Now then, wanna check out my office?"
Lisa smirked. "What do you think?"
A clean-shaven man in a grey suit stepped up from behind, his hands in his pockets.
"So," he began cooly, "was retirement too boring for you, Samantha?"