"N-no," Samantha stuttered, whirling around to face the man, "I'm very much enjoying it, in fact. I was just--"
"Then why don't you stay in retirement, let me run things 'round here, y'know?"
The man drew his hands from his pockets, turning his attention to Lisa.
"And you," he smiled, "Lisa, wasn't it? Glad to have you back with us. You'll take your friend's office, starting tomorrow."
"I expect much from you, Liz!" The man laughed, patting Lisa on the shoulder, "After all, you were the one who made the one thing this entire company thrives on!"
"Roger," Samantha deadpanned, "Don't forget about who employed you in the first place. You wouldn't be the acting CEO if we didn't hire you."
The man - Roger - took his hand off of Lisa's shoulder, shoving them back in his pockets as he strode towards Samantha.
"Don't worry, I haven't," he sneered, "Especially after I restructured things around here to make up for the productivity lost under you."
"I let our employees inspire themselves!" Samantha argued, pointing an accusing finger at Roger, "Look at them now, do they look like they're inspired?"
"Letting the company's employees go off on their own projects negatively impacted our productivity within the core teams," Roger stated, fixing his suit, "But now? Without having to worry about the risk of a failed product launch, we've been making record profits!"
"Profits. Aren't. Everything." Samantha growled through her teeth, "The company needs to diversify at some point. Heck, it's in the name. TechSIG, Technological Special-Interest-Group. We aren't going to last very long if we put everything behind a single product."
"Sam?" Lisa cut in, "Um... what are you talking abo--"
"This doesn't concern you, Lisa," Samantha grumbled, "You and Tim just go in my office while I work things out with Mister-I-Control-The-Company-Now here."
Lisa and Timothy hurried into the office as Samantha turned back to Roger.
"Now then," she continued, "About your... takeover of the company. You knew that when I retired, I'd let you take my position. Immediately after you took up my role, you started making a whole ruckus about reorganizing the entire R&D division."
Roger shrugged. "Well, my time as CTO didn't last very long once Professor Argall retired as well."
He leaned on the wall, his hands still in his pockets. "So," he continued, "the company's shareholders voted me in as the interim CEO until a so-called viable replacement could be found."
Samantha raised a brow. "And what did the company say about it?"
"Pfft, them?" Roger scoffed, "They were pretty wary of the changes I brought along at first, but now? They love me!"
Samantha tensed at the man's remark, her hands balling into fists. She took a deep breath before continuing, relaxing her hands.
"Changes?" she began, "What kind of changes did you make?"
Roger's glare softened. "Here, come with me," he urged, gesturing to Samantha. "There's too many to list off the top of my head, but trust me when I say this, you will like what they've done to this company."
Reluctantly, Samantha glanced back at Lisa, who gave a small wave from the office room window in response. Looking back at Roger, she nodded and set off behind him as he led her away.
Lisa watched as her friend disappeared into the sea of desks. Letting out a light sigh, she turned away from the door.
"So... what are you gonna do now?"
She glanced at Timothy, who was at the moment spinning in an office chair.
The boy stomped his foot on the carpet, grinding the chair to a halt. "Well?" he pressed, "I mean, this place definitely looks like something Tw... I mean, you would enjoy being in."
Lisa smiled at her brother, pulling a seat away from the wall and sitting down beside him at the desk.
"I think starting fresh would be a good idea right about now," she grinned, "What about you?"
"I don't really know what you're talking about, but sure, I guess?"
"Great!" Lisa clapped her hands together, leaning back in her chair. "It's been so long since I've done anything actually exciting!"
"...Exciting?" Timothy raised a brow, "We went from an entire simulated existence to... well, this! It literally sounds like something straight out of a comic book!"
Lisa nodded, falling silent as she became absorbed with the task of finding the power button on the much newer computer's front panel. Her grin faded away to a frown as she continued to search, her fingers tracing along the smooth, cold surface of the computer until she felt a slight indentation.
"Ah," she remarked, leaning in closer to inspect the shallow groove just below her fingers, "Looks like I found the power button. All the silkscreen on the thing got rubbed off, from the looks of it."
She tapped her finger on the capacitive button, and immediately the display sitting atop the system came to life.
"Login... login... where's the account switcher?" Lisa mumbled, fumbling with the mouse. She clicked a dim arrow near the bottom of the screen, pulling up a horizontal account scroller.
Timothy snorted in amusement as he watched his sister struggle with modern technology.
"O-kay, now let's see if my account still works..." Lisa continued drawling, shifting her hands to the keyboard.
A username and password later, and the login screen faded into the girl's familiar desktop background. Her eyes scanned over the list of files dotting her desktop, before settling on the simulation viewer program she'd used to access Equestria.
Timothy traced her sister's gaze to the program, his eyes widening as he recognized the icon - Canterlot Castle.
Lisa shook her head, pulling the cursor away from the program's icon and instead opened a folder. A blazing white spread before her eyes, the system locking up for a brief moment as it pulled the files from whatever obscure server was still running her account after all these years.
Timothy sighed, resting his chin on the desk while he watched Lisa scroll through the seemingly endless files on-screen.
A slight smile formed on her face, growing wider with every file that flew past her eyes as she continued scrolling. With an excited mumble, she pulled the window to the side, proceeding to fill up the vacant screen space with more windows.
"What are you even doing?" Timothy groaned, rubbing an eye as he stifled a yawn, "What are you so excited about?"
"This," Lisa beamed, gesturing to the packed screen, "This is what started it all. The simulations, the lives we lived for who-knows-how-long, heck, even this company wouldn't exist if it weren't for these."
Timothy frowned, sitting back up and pulling his chair closer to the screen. He narrowed his eyes, scrutinizing the multitude of on-screen files and programs his sister had pulled up. Shaking his head, he folded his arms over his chest.
"I really have no idea what you're talking about here," he grumbled, yawning again as Lisa returned to her excited buzz, "Wake me up if you need something."
Lisa waved a hand. "Nothing," she dismissed, "just found something I haven't touched in a very long time."
She sat back in her chair, tapping her fingers idly on the desk as she turned her head towards the shelves lining the wall opposite to the desk. Most of the various books and trinkets appeared to have come from a time long after she'd first entered the simulations, but one object stood out in particular: a headset.
"Hey Tim," she began, pointing at the shelf. "Could you grab that bulky thingy with the straps?"
"You mean the headset?" Timothy deadpanned, rubbing an eye, "I got disconnected with one of those stuck on my face too, y'know."
Lisa paused for a moment. "Uh... yeah," she agreed, "Yeah, I think I remember that happening to me too. Could you just hand the thing over to me please?"
Timothy nodded, stretching in his seat as he rose to fetch the headset for his sister.
"There ya go," he hummed, plucking the headset from its dusty perch. He turned, handing the device to Lisa.
"Thanks!" Lisa smiled, setting the headset on the desk in front of her.
"Ehh... no problem..." Timothy yawned again, slouching back into his seat. "Do you think Samantha's gonna let me nap in here?"
"Probably," Lisa shrugged, "just as long as you don't mess anything up, I guess."
Lisa watched as her brother attempted to curl up in his office chair for a nap. A few more seconds passed as she watched him fidget in his attempts to find a comfortable position. Once Timothy finally settled down, Lisa turned back to the monitor.
A wide grin spread across her face as she reached for the keyboard.
"--And so with the complete reorganization of our Public Relations branch, we've been able to enter everything from the medical rehabilitation market to education!"
"Mm-hmm," Samantha nodded idly, following behind Roger as he continued spouting about his achievements, "So, I've been hanging onto a question since you first brought me around for the tour."
Roger paused, glancing at his former employer.
"What's with your sudden... how would you put it... attitude shift?" Samantha began, "I mean, you've been doing a full one-eighty on everything I expected you to do. First off, you welcomed Lisa, even after you spent so long before criticizing her for her supposed 'misuse of technology'. And second, we went from arguing over the company's future to..." she trailed on, making a fumbling gesture to their surroundings. "...to this!"
"Hey, the past is the past, Sam," the CEO chuckled, "I decided the moment I saw Lisa step in here that it'd be best to let go of it. No use in holding a grudge over petty things, amirite?"
Samantha shot a suspicious glare at Roger, but nevertheless nodded in agreement.
"Anyways," Roger coughed, "Would you like to see some of the products we've been working on? Or maybe meet my daughter?"
"Oh, uh," Samantha cut in, "We already ran into her earlier, at the café downtown. She likes hot cocoa, doesn't she?"
"Yeah. Been that way since she was a toddler, too," Roger added, "Gives her nasty nosebleeds, though. Now, any questions concerning the tour or the company operations?"
Samantha shrugged. "Honestly," she began, "aside from a few personal preferences, it's actually quite a bit better than what I expected it to be under your leadership."
"Obviously," Roger rolled his eyes, "just because I've taken the company in a low-risk direction doesn't mean that I want to stifle innovation. I never said that I completely killed off the idea of new products, did I?"
Samantha shook her head.
"Exactly. All I did was make some changes to how things worked. The company's employees can still pitch ideas and work on personal projects, but we keep them within reason, and only provide funding after a vote."
Roger paused, staring into Samantha's eyes for a moment.
"You still don't trust what I'm saying, do you?" he sighed, breaking eye contact as he turned, "I'm guessing you didn't like how I shut down the student campuses?"
"Er... yeah," Samantha stuttered, "it just kinda goes against what I believed was the future of the company, that's all."
She forced a smile, dismissing the question. "I mean... like I said, it's more of a personal preference. It's just--"
"I know, I know," Roger cut in, "you want a community, not a company. I remember that mantra from when you were still leading R&D."
Samantha's expression softened, giving way to a true smile.
"Yeah, I remember saying that quite a bit."
Roger straightened his suit before continuing. "The thing is, hiring employees solely from those after-school camps put an enormous strain on the company's finances. After I moved up to CEO, I was forced by the company's shareholders to close the camps due to how much money they were bleeding."
"Wait," Samantha paused, pointing a finger in confusion, "I thought you made a personal decision to shut down the camps. Does that mea--"
Roger hung his head, slipping his hands back in his pocket as he confessed. "I made up a cover to protect the company's reputation. I took the blame for it, and responded by giving raises all across the board, satisfying anyone who doubted the story of me saying that we couldn't pay our existing talent enough."
Samantha frowned. "But why?" she pressed, "What's the point of putting yourself in such a bad light?"
"I..." Roger hesitated, "I kinda pitied Lisa's situation, with her parents dying and all. I wanted to make sure the company was in good shape and reputation since it was built on top of her idea. Just... so that she'd maybe have something to come back to if she ever returned. Though, I still don't quite approve of her decision to use her work to just run away from it all."
A sheepish grin spread across his face as he cleared his throat.
"So," he coughed, "That's that. Past is the past, look towards the future, you know what I mean. I guess this wraps up the tour. then. Feel free to stop by my office at any time if you have questions. Elevators are behind you to the right if you forgot where they are."
He turned away from Samantha, leaving her standing alone by the break rooms.
The soft snores of Timothy permeated the air, punctuated by the sound of Lisa's fingers flying across the keyboard.
"...link the whole thing to a self-contained simulation..." she mumbled, not noticing the door open behind her.
Samantha stepped into the room, closing the door behind her.
"I just had the weirdest conversation with Roger."
Lisa blinked, her typing abruptly halted as she glanced over her shoulder at her friend, a brow raised.
"Roger," Samantha repeated, "y'know? The company's current CEO? The one Argall wanted you to replace?"
"Ah," Lisa responded, turning her attention back to the screen. "Well? What about it? The conversation, I mean."
"He said that he pitied you," Samantha began, "like, sure, there's actual, genuine pity, but then there's his version of pitying. So y'know how the old headquarters doubled as a camp for training students?"
Lisa nodded, still turned away.
"Apparently, the company's shareholders forced him to close them down, but instead of--"
"They what?!" Lisa exclaimed, pausing again in her work. Timothy stirred in the corner, lazily spinning the office chair away from the noise.
"Shut down the camps," Samantha quickly replied, "And instead of making the company look bad by shutting down one of our most well-received programs, he took the blame personally."
Lisa snorted, the sound of her fingers dancing across the keyboard once again filling the room as she resumed her work.
"I'm just confused at this point," Samantha sighed, kneeling down beside Lisa. "All this time, I only saw him as some coldhearted businessman who cared about profit. But now? It's like I met an entirely different side to him!"
Samantha gave her friend a playful jab in the side, earning a surprised shriek in return.
"Are you even listening?" she chuckled, pushing herself back to her feet.
Lisa gave a glare in response, rubbing her side. "Yeah, I was!" she retorted.
"Can you guys talk a bit more quietly?" Timothy groaned, lifting his face off the armrest. "Lemme nap. It's been a long day today."
"No kidding," Samantha agreed, "Lis, it's only barely past noon, and we've done more than I thought we'd be doing for the entire week."
Lisa smirked, pushing herself back from the desk as she turned to face her friend.
"And that is what happens when we're together, isn't it?" she chuckled, "I mean, heck, I got my transmitter cut out of me first thing in the morning, then we went to the old building and screwed around with the code until we were able to re-upload the AIs back into the simulation, and now, I'm already well on my way towards making a new thingy!"
Samantha frowned. "A new... what?"
Lisa shrugged in response, pointing a thumb over her shoulder. "Don't quite know what to call it yet, but it's based on the code we wrote years ago for the original simulation framework."
"Lisa, you know you probably shouldn't try to use it to r--"
"Nope!" Lisa shook her head, "Not running anymore. Geez, is everyone gonna ask if I'm planning on rejoining the simulation?"
"Urk," Lisa grunted. "Well, I'm not. I think I've spent long enough in my own little world to heal."
She glanced back to the screen, then to her friend.
"Do you want to see what I have so far?"
"Sure," Samantha shrugged, "I've got time to kill, anyway."
Her eyes landed on the headset sitting beside Lisa's hands.
Tracing her friend's stare, Lisa picked up the headset. "Yeah, I'm using one of our old prototypes," she grinned, "what about it?"
"Nothing," Samantha shook her head. "It's just been a while since I've even seen that thing. Do you have a controller paired with the headset?"
Lisa's eyes widened. "Controller?" She sputtered, "O-oh yeah, I forgot that we used game controllers while prototyping!"
Her gaze shot back to the shelf, scanning over the dusty trinkets for a controller.
"This what you're looking for?" Samantha smirked, pulling a drawer open. She rummaged through the top layer of loose paper and junk for a few seconds before pulling out a well-worn game controller.
"Yup," Lisa chirped, taking the device from her friend, "Thanks!"
She paused for a moment, eyes fixated on the controller in her hands. Shuddering for a moment, she instinctively reached a finger to the back and flicked the power switch.
A dim blue light flickered on the controller in response.
"Well then," Samantha commented in amusement, "Seems like the battery in that thing has lasted for quite some time without being charged."
Lisa nodded, reaching for the headset to do the same. Gingerly, she unfolded the headset's straps and main display before flipping the device on its side, flipping the switch as she'd done on the controller.
Samantha snorted, holding back a chuckle as her friend groaned in frustration.
"Well, I guess the batteries in this thing haven't lasted quite as long," Lisa sighed, "Sam, is there a cable for the headset anywhere in that drawer?"
"Already ahead of you." Samantha smiled, handing a narrow black wire to Lisa.
"Thanks," Lisa nodded again as she plugged the headset into the computer, "Just watch the screen. It should mirror what I see."
The room went silent as the girl slipped the headset over her eyes.
Lisa's vision was bathed in white as the simulation booted up around her.
"Looks pretty empty right now," Samantha's voice commented.
Lisa shook her head, nudging the thumbstick on the controller forward. She - that is, her camera - took a step forward, her vision bobbing for a moment as it followed the motion. She turned her head, taking in the vast canvas around her as a smile crept onto her face.
Her right thumb shifted to the buttons. A light click rang out from the old controller as she tapped a button.
All at once, the white was enveloped in an even brighter glow before vanishing behind a painted landscape of color. Though pixelated at first glance, only a few seconds passed before the rendering had become lifelike.
"It's just a stock mockup scene I downloaded off the old servers," Lisa began to explain, "I tried to access the new servers earlier, but it seems that the company upped the security on all their newer things."
Samantha snorted, smirking.
Lisa nodded, returning to navigating herself around the simulated scenery using the gamepad.
"Yeah, we got that up and running when we first moved to the new building. I don't think your account or anything else from the old servers was affected by the security update though. We just left them as-is under regular passwords since they didn't really contain anything too important by the time things got big."
"Understandable," Lisa agreed, returning her fingers to the buttons.
Samantha turned her attention back to the headset's output on the monitor. The rolling fields and towering mountains of the new simulation were gradually being populated by copy-pasted buildings; small houses and cottages reminiscent of Lisa's earlier work in the original Pony-Me simulations began to pop into existence by the press of a button, slowly linking themselves together in a network of dirt paths generating alongside the growing towns.
Lisa resumed walking her character as the roads continued snaking over the terraformed land. She set foot on the end of a freshly-generated path, looking down in her headset at the granules of dirt shifting under her persona.
She chuckled for a moment, tapping the controller's analog stick again to make her character take another step. And then another, and another still. Soon enough, Lisa's placeholder character was sprinting over the twisting roads towards the nearest town.
"So," Samantha mused quietly with a smile, watching her friend finally enjoy herself, "You've finally let go, haven't you?"