Terminal Fault

by MagnetBolt


I think, therefore I am.

Everypony knows the phrase. I don’t think most ponies know where it comes from. There’s an old philosophical argument that says we can’t trust our senses. A mirage can make us think we see water in the desert. A dream can be almost indistinguishable from reality. Drugs can make you hallucinate. You can’t know for sure that what you’re seeing and feeling right now is real. This could be a dream, or even some sort of magical illusion from a powerful sorceress.

All you can be sure about is that your mind exists. Everything outside of your thoughts is suspect. Since your mind exists, the most important part of you exists.

When you’re disconnected from your body, in total sensory deprivation, your mind constructs a world around you, halfway between a dream and a hallucination. Starved for sensory information, it creates ghosts and echoes from your memories.

I’m haunted by a lot of ghosts. I had a mother, a father, and a big brother.

Or so I’m told.

I don’t really remember my family. I’ve seen pictures and I’ve heard a few stories, seen the places they used to live, watched videos. Sometimes I think I remember some small detail or little quirk, but the mind is good at telling stories.

Did you ever dream about the ocean or the sea, and then find out after you woke up that something had been dripping on you? Have you heard an alarm in your dream going on for hours and only realized after waking up that the sound had been your alarm clock all along?

Memory works both ways. Things happening now can affect your memories of the past. It’s one reason eyewitness testimony is unreliable, and why I don’t trust what scraps I think I know about my family. I’m not sure if I’m really remembering or just making it up without knowing.

The first thing that I can remember, really remember, is somepony reading out loud. I couldn’t see them or move to talk to them, and I was in a haze that I now associate with painkillers and sedation, but I remember very clearly that they were reading, the words of the story, the crisp sound of the page turning.

It felt like they were my only companion for an eternity. I’d drift in and out of drugged sleep and only really be able to focus my attention on that voice. The slight accent, not quite native to Canterlot. They didn’t know it, but they were my first friend.

I was never able to find out who they were. I wasn’t even able to ask the question until long after we’d parted ways, and the records of minors were essentially impossible to legally access.

I’m glad I don’t remember. There are records of how bad it was. Burns over my whole body, my neck snapped, my horn broken. My mind probably blacked out all that trauma just to keep me from going crazy. If avoiding that kind of pain meant I had to lose my memories of my family, it’s a price I’m willing to pay. Since they’re gone too, it means I was spared another kind of pain. If I knew who they were, I'd probably miss them terribly. Instead, there's just a hollow feeling, like I forgot a dream but remember the flavor of it.

In the past, ponies as badly hurt as I was would have been confined to the hospital for the rest of their very short lives. Even with normal augmentations, I would at best have been able to live vicariously through AR games and whatever limited ability to access SolNet my condition would have allowed.

Every pony has a different tolerance for augmentation. For reasons that have been studied intently and still remain relatively unexplained, a pony’s thaumatic field gets distorted as augmentations are installed. In addition to a general weakening of their magic (earth ponies getting physically weaker, pegasi finding it harder to fly, unicorns having more spells backfiring) there’s a very visible sign when a pony has exceeded their ability to handle augmentation.

Cutie marks are tied directly to what makes a pony a pony. If you remove a pony’s leg and replace it with steel, their cutie mark will quickly appear on the surface. How long it takes to appear depends on the strength of the pony’s self-image, and if they’re past their limit, it becomes faded and distorted. In some extreme cases, it can become entirely invisible.

About one-tenth of one percent of all ponies aren’t compatible with augmentation at all. Their bodies reject it outright. On the other end of the spectrum are ponies like me. The point-one percent of the population that can withstand extreme augmentation with no loss of identity or magic and no thaumatic field distortion.

Princess Celestia took a personal interest in my case. I still don’t know why. Maybe she just felt that it was her responsibility to try and help an orphaned foal. Perhaps something about the nature of the accident caught her eye. I could have just been a good test case.

The Princess replaced my ruined body with something better in every way. I never had to suffer the aches and pains of growing up in the traditional sense. Instead, my body was occasionally upgraded, and once a month any problems would be corrected. From what I’ve read, infinitely preferable to the more traditional method.

The Princess always had time for me. She could split her attention in innumerable directions, but one of her avatars was always available to talk to me. It was like having a parent that could always spend time with you, was always interested, and always had something new to teach.

I didn’t know the significance of it at the time, but it was the day before the Blackout. My to-do list was about the Canterlot Expo, not the disaster that would come after it. At Princess Celestia’s suggestion I underwent my required monthly maintenance overnight. It wasn’t something I could do myself, but the castle engineers were extremely good at their jobs.

The main reason I couldn’t do it myself was that the first step was disconnecting my brain from my body. That left me in the most profound state of sensory deprivation that you could imagine. Nothing at all existed except me and my thoughts. When I’ve described it to ponies before they’ve said it sounds terrifying. I find it restful.

I don’t sleep much. I don’t have the same glands as a normal pony, and my artificial limbic system regulates my needs far better than messy biology. I don’t need to rely on tea or coffee for stimulants, and when I’m down, antidepressants are automatically dispensed. I’m always alert, even-tempered, and at my best. Why would I ever want to sleep when I could read?

I could dream, though, disconnected from everything. Today I was dreaming of an old lesson.

“Princess?” I trotted down the basement corridor. It was pitch black, though between ultrasound imaging and infrared rangefinding it hardly mattered. The Princess had sent me a message asking me to meet her down in the castle maintenance level, though she didn’t tell me exactly well, leaving me to search the whole area.

“In here, Twilight.”

I followed her voice into an old boiler room. She stood in front of two huge steel tanks, the yellow lights on the wall flickering and humming, ancient sodium lamps reflecting the beauty of the Princess in the fetlock-deep water pooling on the floor.

“Do you know where we are?” she asked.

“The basement?” I guessed. “I can’t get a SolNet connection in here.”

“Indeed. It’s an excellent objective lesson because of that.” Princess Celestia looked back at me and smiled warmly. “Don’t be afraid. The water isn’t dangerous.”

I tried not to slip as I made my way up to her. The water wasn’t dangerous but that didn’t mean it was pleasant. If the floor wasn’t slick I’d have turned off the feeling in my hooves to ignore the chill.

“This is an old part of the castle, and as you noted, there’s no connectivity here. The pipes and thick walls block everything.”

“Why are we here, Princess Celestia?”

“The castle has its own independent mains for water and sewage. I noted a drop in water pressure over the last few days, and it has only gotten worse instead of better despite orders to staff to increase power to the pumps. All the systems were showing green, yet the problem persisted. Would you care to hypothesize, Twilight?”

I looked at the water pooled around us.

“I’ve got a pretty good guess, Princess,” I said. “I think there’s a leak.”

She laughed. “Quite an expert opinion!”

“There’s no connectivity in this room, so any systems that would alert in case of a leak or emergency wouldn’t be able to send a signal out,” I continued. “A relay would fix the issue.”

“There was a relay,” Princess Celestia said, in the tone that meant she was only telling me part of what I needed to know.

I had a feeling where this was going. “Was it waterproof?” I asked.

“Evidently not,” she said. “It failed when it got wet.”

“And then the leak got worse over time until the effect was notable,” I said. “I’m just curious about how you found it, Princess. I wouldn’t have even known where to start.”

“Like most things in life it came down to hard work and effort. I simply followed the pipes manually until I found this. It took this instance of me a full day, made significantly more difficult since I had to keep finding somewhere to get a connection to synchronize. I hate running independently for more than a few hours.”

“Really, Princess?”

“Mm. I’m a bit of a busybody, and even though I know the rest of me can handle things, it makes me uneasy not to get status updates. I want you to remember this, though. Everything is connected. The pipes, SolNet, ponies. We have to make sure we keep those connections strong, because sometimes even breaking one seemingly insignificant link can have unforeseen consequences.”

That’s what lessons with the Princess were often like. She liked having an object lesson rather than just hypothetical. Sometimes she arranged things to go wrong so I could get the experience needed to learn how to fix them in the real world. There’s a world of difference between studying a manual for an aircart engine and being stuck in the worst part of town with a broken aircart in the middle of the night.

I learned not just how to apply abstracts, but how to think through problems.

I also learned a little plumbing, since the problem still needed to be fixed and she'd had the foresight to bring pipes and sealant.

My eyes opened on their own when my brain reconnected, the scene in my mind’s eye dissolving with the real sensations pouring in. It was a torrent of data, every system trying to report status at the same time. I let the successful checks flow past me, not really reading them. Aloe and Lotus, my personal technicians, worked to complete their own parts of the ritual.

Wires surrounded me like a spider’s web, reaching in and around the panels splayed open and showing the crystal and chrome of my inner working, artificial sapphire and ruby glittering and flashing with internal light.

“Good morning, Twilight,” Celestia said. She stood across the room, far away enough not to interfere with the buzz of activity but close enough to be among the first things I saw when I woke up.

She had several different types of avatars she used, from the largely immobile but extremely detailed one that occupied the throne to the more obviously artificial ones that were sent to functions to the one she had here. It was only a little larger than a normal pony, with a simple pink mane instead of the pastel rainbow of her other bodies. Celestia didn’t bother with a crown in this form.

It was the one she used with friends, and when she wanted to be comfortable.

“Good morning, Princess,” I replied.

“You’ll be going to the Expo today.” It wasn’t a question. “Could you keep your eyes out for any interesting developments?”

I smiled. “I’d be happy to help, Princess, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to find something you don’t already know about. You always seem informed about everything.”

“That’s because I have ponies like you that keep me in the loop. There are always secret projects and new innovations that pop up with the Expo as their unveiling. I would appreciate it if you could investigate the smaller booths to see if independent inventors have come up with anything they haven’t published yet.”

“Of course, Princess. I’ll write up a full report.”

The techs disconnected most of the wires from my spine and neck. I started closing the panels they didn’t need opened and glanced back at my flank.

My cutie mark was still there, edges sharp. It was something I always checked. My thoughts were proof I existed, but my cutie mark was proof I was a pony. Even if more than ninety percent of my body was prosthetic, I was still real as long as it was on my flank.

“I have full trust in you, my ward.”

The best thing about the Expo was seeing all the new products and prototypes and test models in person. The worst thing was not being allowed to use even a tiny fraction of the civic budget to buy things that caught my eye. I could dip into my grants, but if I wanted to buy anything really exciting, like the thermoptic camouflage cloak I was drooling over, I was going to have to get permission.

“And the visual index really stays that low even during periods of rapid motion?” I asked.

“Yes, but only for the implanted model,” the salespony said. “We’ve been working to optimize the software, but obviously it works best when the field geometry is kept stable. The cloth form has to accommodate for the shape of the material deforming, so cloaks and uniforms produce visible distortions.”

“Could you send me a sample?” I asked. “I’d love to run some tests. This looks much more efficient than an old-style cloaking ward.”

“I’d be happy to,” the salespony said. Though, calling it a pony was maybe too generous. It was just a doll, a virtual assistant in a fully artificial body. Most of the maids in the palace were the same way. Celestia liked taking direct control of them and playing pranks on visitors.

We traded contact information, and I added notes to my list of requested upgrades for my next body swap. Meanwhile, I was scanning the hall and matching booths to the floorplan I’d been given, deciding where to go next.

And that’s when I saw her. She was the most beautiful mare I’d ever seen. The notes that I’d been writing turned into a sonnet about the perfect play of her hips.

I pulled her name and information up while I made my way across the hall, ignoring the vendors and ponies around me. I had to think of something to say to her, but despite all my training under the Princess I had never actually had a lesson on what to say to a mare you were attracted to.

I cleared my throat and said the first thing I could think of. “Excuse me, I don’t mean to pry, but can I examine your legs?”

The beautiful mare jumped slightly. She’d been sketching something that I couldn’t see from this angle. According to the registration I’d retrieved, her name was Rarity. It was a good name for somepony like her.

“Of course. Is there anything from my catalog I can get for you, or…?”

Her voice was familiar, but I couldn’t place exactly where I’d heard it before. There was a warm comfort to it, almost like when I was with the Princess. It took me a long moment to realize I wasn’t actually speaking to her and I’d been staring at her hips and trying to come up with a good rhyme for ‘diamond’.

“Your cutie mark is still perfectly sharp,” I said, trying not to let on to what I’d actually been fascinated by. “But you have all four legs augmented. That’s surprising. Usually, beyond two limbs, ponies begin to show signs of thaumatic field distortion.”
I could quote statistics about that all day. I didn’t want to pry too heavily into her past, so I resisted the urge to dive into her civic records. Still, I suspected she’d been augmented at a very early age. The younger the pony, the more adaptable their thaumatic pathways were.

“Thank you,” she said.

I breathed a sigh of relief. She’d believed my excuse. Not that I had lied!

“You’ve had some work done yourself, haven’t you?” she asked. She leaned closer, looking at my eyes, then my horn. “I don’t recognize the designer, I’m afraid…”

That wasn’t surprising. My augmentations were heavily modified military-grade assets, effectively custom work. At a glance, they seemed consumer grade but the materials and tolerances were cutting edge.

At least, I’d thought they’d been cutting edge. Her designs weren’t state of the art, they were just art.

“Have you had any tests done on nerve hardening?” I asked.

“My work is clean,” she snapped.

I winced. The last thing I wanted was to offend such a beautiful mare.

Her expression softened from steel to something slightly warmer. “I’m sorry, darling. It’s just a touchy subject for any designer.”

“R-right,” I said, quietly.

“Rarity,” she said, offering her hoof. I grabbed it like a lifeline. Maybe I hadn’t entirely messed this up.

Holding her hoof, I could see some of the more interesting details. If she was really the designer then she wasn’t holding anything back. “Very nice,” I said to myself, looking at the joints. “Wires are all high-grade silver, and the gem reserves are corundum…”

“I grow rubies,” she said, and I looked up at her in surprise.

“Lab-grown, rather than natural?” That explained her cutie mark. Usually it took a complicated setup, but if she had a mark for it, maybe she had a few personal spells to make it easier. “That makes sense. Much higher quality, no flaws…” just like her, I thought, but didn’t add.

“I didn’t catch your name,” she said.

I froze. Hadn’t she tried looking me up through the civic cutie mark recognition system? That was the only way I recognized ponies most of the time. Faces were just too difficult, and colors changed depending on the lighting. Cutie marks were largely unique, as long as you could spot small differences.

“Twilight Sparkle,” I said. I reluctantly let go of her hoof. It was hard, like crawling out from under a warm blanket on a cold day. “Sorry.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” she said, and her smile made me feel warm inside again. “I’m glad to meet somepony who can recognize quality.”

I tried to match her smile. I could make this work. I just had to run a few quick simulations. If I split my focus and ran some simple conversation trees I could probably build up a branching tree and derive a perfect path through the web to--

She was looking at me and I realized I’d spent more time trying to optimize the problem than it would have taken to face it straight on.

“Y-you have…” I struggled to jump into anything less awkward than silence. “...a very nice… table.”

I’d messed up. I was so stupid. How could I mess up a conversation? I spent all day talking to Princess Celestia and I never had this kind of problem! This was just a normal pony! I shouldn’t have had this kind of trouble!

“Thank you,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was humoring me or actually amused. She definitely wasn’t impressed. I had to take control like I would if this was a meeting with some normal businesspony.

“Here,” I said, popping a card discreetly out of where I kept them stored. I passed it over to her. “It’s got my contact information.”

She took the crystal sheet and looked at the shifting display with apparent amazement.

“It shows my availability and can do a few other things.” I connected to it remotely and cycled it through the display modes, freezing it for a moment on what I thought was a pretty attractive picture of myself. “I designed them myself,” I continued. “It’s based on the enchantment used in tablets but with some of the compactification used in military communication augments. Of course, you know the issues that presents with interference.”

She nodded. I wasn’t surprised she knew all about it. She looked like a smart mare.

“I’ve been trying to keep them small enough to fit within the typical bionic design but that limits the kind of functionality you can get out of them, and they’re somewhat fragile, which is a big worry since most limbs are load-bearing and the constant movement means--”

I got cut off by one of the guards stepping up to me. He leaned down to whisper in my ear.

“The Princess needs us back at the palace at once. She’s declared a Code Black alert.”

“Code Black?” I whispered back. The meaning wrote itself across my heads-up display like it had been waiting for me to ask. Maybe it had been. She’d sent a message to the guards, and it would have been even easier to send one along to me. But why not message me directly, then? I’d have to ask her when I returned.

According to my documentation, a code black meant I had to pretend nothing was wrong until I was briefed in order to prevent civilian panic and misunderstanding. The scenario apparently had an ideal outcome of total public ignorance until after the entire event had ended, followed by a controlled release of information to the media.

“I have to go,” I apologized. “I’m sorry for cutting this short.”

“It’s quite alright,” she said. “I hope you can--”

My audio sensors spiked at a painful maximum as something that took me a long while to recognize as music started up. It was more like a wall of sound than any kind of tune. I winced and folded my ears back, shutting them down to try and limit the damage. The mare and I tried to communicate, but all we could manage were a few simple gestures.

Right when I was coming up with a great idea on how to leave her a message -- if I updated my contact information card, I could leave a comment with a message for her -- a message flashed across my display about OS updates. I accepted them, and I was so flustered about Rarity I didn't even bother reading the terms and conditions.

I bowed and left before I found some new way to make a fool of myself, following the guard out of the hall. I tried to ping the castle and the guard network on a few channels, but I was getting odd interference. The guard held open a door to the back hallways, restricted areas civilians wouldn’t be allowed to enter. I hadn’t qualified as a civilian in as long as I could remember.

“The last order I received was to maintain radio silence unless there was an emergency,” he said, once we’d gotten away from the noise.

“So we don’t even have details about whatever’s going on?” I sighed. “If I had something to work with I could at least start making plans on the way back!”

“Code Black assumes communications channels might be compromised. We should assume if there’s a threat, they can listen to our transmissions,” he said. He stopped at an intersection and motioned for me to stay back while he cleared it, then ushered me forward.

“We’re moving towards an employee exit?” I asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. We’ve got transport waiting. They’re circling the building so they won’t expose our exit point.”

I nodded and started digging through the information I had available, letting my body follow him automatically while I devoted all my attention to the data. Obviously whatever was going on hadn’t hit the news yet -- if Princess Celestia was deliberately keeping things from the media it meant doing so was still worthwhile.

There hadn’t been any obvious danger in the hall, but being escorted out like this meant Princess Celestia foresaw a serious risk to my personal safety. If she wasn’t ordering a general evacuation it could mean an attack targeted at me personally. I wasn’t a public figure, so I had few enemies who begrudged me for more than my place on the Eternity 2 competitive leaderboard. However, as Princess Celestia’s ward, a hypothetical enemy might well attack me simply to hurt or distract her.

I decided to take a look around while we walked. Local security was a joke, and I was in the security network in seconds. I started cycling through feeds until I saw something that distracted me. A white mare in her own booth, the crowd ignoring her when they weren’t recoiling from the prices of her display pieces. I sighed. Ponies really didn’t respect quality when they saw it.

“Ma’am?” the guard coughed. “We’re here.”

“Hm?” I glanced at him, and realized we’d been standing next to the door for a few seconds. “Sorry, I was just checking a few things. The security camera network was wide open, so I wanted to look around--”

The guard looked worried.

“Wide open?” He asked.

“Practically an open network,” I confirmed.

“We need to move quickly,” he said. “Can you disable the cameras?”

“What? Why?!”

“Ma’am, this building should have a hardened security firewall. I know the company they employ. If there’s no security on the cameras it means somepony already cracked them and disabled the physical hardware."

I sent a command to the cameras, and they went black instantly. If the network was hacked, at least it was incredibly responsive.

“They’re powered down,” I said. “They can’t be turned back on remotely.”

The guard nodded and cracked the door open, looking outside and waiting. “The moment the aircart touches down, we leave.”

“If you’re worried about being watched, shouldn’t we use a different door?” I looked down the hallway. “There should be exits through the kitchen area.”

“With the order for radio silence I can’t tell the driver to use a different extraction point,” the guard said. “We could use a different door, but then we’d have to signal the aircart. If there are eyes on us, they’d see it too.”

“Understood,” I said, hiding my nervousness. By my calculations, it would be less than thirty seconds anyway, and then we’d be away. The face of the mare I’d spoken to flashed in my memory like a bug in my RAM. “We should have the local security prepare for an evacuation of the building once we’re clear.”

“If you’re a target, we’ll be making these ponies safer by leaving,” the guard assured me.

I wanted to think he was right, but that was when things started going wrong.

“The security cameras are back online,” I said, confused. “That’s impossible! I sent the shutdown command.” I tried to sign into the security system and I bounced off of a new wall of encryption that hadn’t been there before. Feedback shorted out one of my antennas, and a crackle of sparks and smoke exploded from my neck.

“Ma’am!” The guard caught me when I stumbled.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Somepony installed Black ICE on the network!”

“Black ICE?”

“Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics. Like the firewall that’s supposed to be there, but Black ICE is designed to be able to kill ponies if they don’t have the right access codes. It’s illegal without Royal permission.”

I looked up at the nearest security camera. The lens zoomed in on me.

“Somepony must have sent a reboot command to the cameras before I sent the shutdown code. That kicked me out of the network and let them install the ICE, and since it was a reboot they came back online on their own.”

“We’re leaving,” the guard said, grabbing my hoof and pulling me outside. The aircart settled down in front of us, all smooth white panels. He pushed me into the plush interior before boarding himself, and it was off the ground before he even slid the door shut, the city zipping by on the one-way windows.

“It doesn’t make sense,” I said. “Black ICE on that kind of system is total overkill. And even if somepony had it, it should have taken much longer to install and set up!” Another possibility came to mind, and it was chilling. “Unless it was set as a trap to catch me.”

“You’re safe now, Ma’am,” he assured me. “We’ll be at the palace in just a few minutes and then--”

The entire aircar rocked like we’d hit something in mid-air.

I hit a touch panel, and the roof turned transparent. I almost wish I hadn’t.

“What is that?” I whispered.

A massive, batlike shape was perched on the roof. It was like somepony had built a pegasus out of black steel and carbon fiber. Long claws scraped against the cart, and the roof screen flickered, colors warping.

“Shake it off!” The guard yelled. “Hold on, Ma’am!”

He held me against the seat, and the world spun as we took a turn at speed. The monster on the roof refused to let go, the claws digging in deeper and deeper until the screen cracked and the tip of a blade-like digit pressed through into the cabin.

The driver glanced back and inverted the cart. The creature flared its wings in surprise, and just before the roof screen cut out entirely and turned to static fuzz, I saw it peel away.

“That’s got it,” the guard said, when we flipped back over.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” I said. “What was it? A military drone? A full-body prosthesis? The way it moved…”

“Honestly, Ma’am, I’m just as happy if we never have a chance to find out,” the guard trotted to the front of the aircraft. “Ignore the traffic regulations. Just get us to the palace at best speed.”

I connected myself to the aircart’s camera array. Where had that thing gone? If I could trace its path, I might be able to backtrack where it came from. It should have stuck out against the background like a blotch of ink on a fresh page, but I couldn’t see it at all. I pulled the buffer and went backwards.

It slipped off the aircart and out of view of one camera, and just never entered view of the sensor on the other side. It was like it had vanished.

I looked straight down between my hooves. There wasn’t a screen on the floor because it would be impossible to keep clean and ponies generally liked having the appearance of a solid floor under them. With no screen, they didn’t need cameras for a view of the outside.

“It’s below us!” I shouted. “It’s in the blindspot right under the cabin!”

I think it heard me, because it picked that moment to attack. A purple beam of force punched through the floor, nearly hitting me and spearing into the roof. Hydraulic fluid splattered across the deck, and the cart pitched to the side.

“It cut the lines to the control surfaces!” the pilot shouted. “I can’t control the descent!”

“Brace for impact!” the guard yelled. “Keep us clear of the crowds! There’s some kind of riot going on down there!”

I had precisely four point three two seven seconds to watch in terror as we fell towards the concrete and asphalt jungle. I could have composed a letter. Braced myself. Done anything. I just stared in mute horror, processor cycles calculating the moment to impact helplessly.

A too-familiar shock filled my world, and I was swimming in blackness.


I didn’t wake up, I was just abruptly aware of having been awake. My vision was full of error messages. Most were warnings about minor damage, and a few more of those popped up when I started moving. They didn’t worry me -- I could tell my body was still physically functional, if roughed up.

The ones that scared me were the ones that didn’t make sense. No connectivity. No clock reference. Messages in blurry words and runes that moved when I tried to look at them, distracting me and refusing to go away. Subsystems reporting wildly different readings from sensors.

“Is everypony okay?” I asked, trying to see through the gloom. My enhanced imaging systems weren’t working at all, but from what little I could see the pilot had done a remarkable job of getting us down in one piece.

The guard didn’t answer. I got up and struggled to roll him over, checking him for injuries as best I could. I couldn’t connect to anything, but I didn’t see any blood or broken bones. Without access to the remote databases I felt… incomplete. Like I was a tenth of the pony I should be. Answers that usually came so easily were out of reach.

I saw shadows moving outside, something skittering with too many legs and too many joints and not enough fur.

“Wake up!” I ordered, shaking the guard, trying to get him up. “Come on, I need you!”

It figured that the one time I actually needed a pony with more muscles than brains, he couldn’t use either. I dropped him and definitely didn’t panic when another shadow moved in the corner of my vision.

I was going to have to face whatever was out there by myself. I picked up the guard’s service weapon. It was a standard bolt thrower, and if I could have accessed SolNet I could have learned everything about how to use it in an instant. Without that connection, it was dead metal in my magical grasp. Even so, it didn’t take a genius to know which end was dangerous and where the trigger was located.

I braced myself against a broken seat and shoved the door open. Metal squealed on metal, and I strained my body just pushing the bent door out of the twisted frame. Something black and elongated skittered out of view before I could get a good look at it. I held the weapon up like a shield in front of me.

A glance in every direction -- including up, in case whatever had attacked us in the air was hovering overhead -- quieted my fears. I was alone. Relatively alone, I mean. There were the injured guards still in the overturned aircart, but they didn’t count unless they could provide conversation.

I relaxed and lowered the weapon.

The shadows jumped out at me. I screamed and pulled the trigger without even aiming, throwing magical bolts into concrete and bricks and right through the creature to absolutely no effect at all.

I closed my eyes, holding my hooves over my face, waiting for the impact.

After a few seconds, I peeked between them to see why I wasn’t broken yet.

The shadowy thing, whatever it really was, circled around me like it was trying to keep out of my direct line of sight, but at the same time staying just in my field of vision. It was like it could read my mind and tell when I was looking.

“That’s impossible,” I whispered. “And nothing impossible can be real.”

The shadows flickered, and this time I was paying enough attention to catch it. I sent an emergency command to my AR display, freezing the image. This time, when I moved my head the shadow stayed still, just like the error messages filling half my vision.

“It’s just an image being injected into my system!” I gasped.

That was the only clue I needed. I put the gun down and started rebooting systems, restoring from backup and freezing out updates and changes that other sectors tried to make. The glitches and shadows in my vision vanished between frames.

“Oh wow, you figured it out yourself!” somepony said. A pink pony leaned into view from an impossible space and waved.
I scrambled for the weapon I’d dropped.

“Wait, I’m friend, not foe!” she said, quickly. “I’m Pinkie Pie, and I really super need your help, like right now.” She sat down and gave me a scared smile. I hesitated.

“Where did you come from?” I asked.

“I’m not actually here right now, which is kind of the problem,” Pinkie said. “You saved yourself, but there are a lot of scared ponies that might hurt themselves. All I can do is talk to them, but it’s not enough.”

“I’m not sure--”

“A pony’s life is in danger,” Pinkie said. “You’re the only pony that can save them, but you have to go now.”

“I-- where?” I asked.

“Follow me!” Pinkie said, and she turned into an arrow. That was subtly terrifying. I’d just fixed one AR hack, restored the drivers from backup, and I had no idea how she was doing this. If lives were in danger, I didn’t have time to ponder it. I just had to hope she wasn’t the one who’d created the shadows.

The pink arrow hung in midair, and I followed it inside a building up several flights of stairs until Pinkie reappeared, pointing to a door.

“In there!” she yelled.

I tried to open it, but the lock-- clicked open the moment Pinkie waved her hoof.

“Sorry, almost forgot,” she said.

I ducked inside, and saw a pony standing right across from me on the balcony. They already had their hooves up on the railing.

“Stay away!” the yellow filly yelled. She threw a half-rotten apple at me. I ducked it on instinct, and it splattered on the wall behind me. “I ain’t gonna let you take me!”

“Calm down,” I said. “I’m just here to help. Please step away from the balcony--”

“She can’t hear you,” Pinkie said. “I don’t know why, but the bad stuff is really digging in tight on her. I can’t break through.”

“What am I supposed to--” I started, and before I even finished, she jumped. There was no time to react. Not for a normal pony. But I wasn’t a normal pony. My clockspeed jumped, and everything slowed down.

“Grab her!” Pinkie gasped. Okay, almost everything slowed down. She was keeping up with me, somehow.

I ran, forcing my damaged servos into service. My magic surged, wrapping around her. I could feel her struggling. I had to fight just to hold the panicking filly in place long enough to run onto the balcony myself, with no time to slow down. I slammed into the railing and it creaked ominously.

This close, I was able to fling her despite her protests, throwing her back into the room and into a ratty, stained couch. Heat alarms blared, and things started to go dark as circuits overloaded.

I stepped down the overclock, feeling dazed. It was hard to think. Half my systems were still trying to run too fast, and the other half were too slow, and I had to just stop and let it sort itself out, focusing on the steam rising from my coat.

“She’s okay,” Pinkie said, after a moment. “She passed out. Thank you so, so much.”

The pink mare appeared in front of me and mimed hugging me, and just for an instant I’d swear I actually felt it.

“Other ponies aren’t okay, though,” I said. “What is all this?”

“I don’t know,” Pinkie said. “Sorry, I can’t-- I need to move resources around. I can’t stay. Thank you again, and I’ll buy you a coffee next time I see you!”

She vanished, and I was all but alone in the slum apartment.

“Great,” I said. “Now what?”

I made a mental note to track Pinkie down once whatever was happening was over. For now, I had a bigger worry -- I had to figure out what was happening at all. The widespread nature of the attack meant it had to be distributed over SolNet. I checked on the filly to make sure she really was okay, then sat down and started searching for access points.

The building had dozens of networks, which was extremely inefficient. The tenants really should have invested in a solution that would have scaled up to let all of them onto a shared VPN to prevent signal frequency overlap and enabled lower costs by-- well, it wasn’t important. I’m sure they had their reasons. I grabbed the strongest signal and just brute-forced my way past the password page to connect.

The very first thing to pop up was a request to update my firmware. I almost accepted it on instinct. After a moment, I shunted it to a walled garden and let it install. Immediately, it started attacking, and from outside I could see it happening.

It was like a bundle of snakes reaching inside and biting at everything, trying to find purchase and hurt whatever they could. Worse, I could see how it was adapting. While I fed it sensory data it tried to adapt to my reactions. Any time I made it think I was afraid it doubled down on that permutation of distorted data and fed it back to me, like it was trying to build up something to cause me perfect terror.

“No wonder she was so scared,” I muttered. That filly must have seen something terrible when she looked at me. Like all her worst fears rolled into one, and without any way to cope.

Something caught my attention, an encrypted line stretching from my virtual machine to the outside. The virus, whatever it was, was communicating with somepony. I followed the packets, surfing along with them as we bounced from one server to another, grabbing logs as we passed through. There were hundreds, thousands of packets. I had a sinking feeling the infection was in every corner of Canterlot.

And then I saw it. The center of the web.

Everypony has their own way to visualize SolNet. The mind is able to take in data faster and more reliably if there’s more than just text and numbers on a screen. I felt my hooves click on a surface somewhere between glass and plastic as I looked up at the horror.

My systems tried to make sense of the program, and what they came up with was a massive hydra woven out of threaded processes and armored in scales of Black ICE. A dozen heads snapped in every direction, taking in huge chunks of data and breathing out toxic phobias and illusions to fill the ponies of the city.

“Where’s Princess Celestia?” I whispered, trying to send another message to her. Every mail I’d thrown had come back undeliverable, even when I used the back doors and secret channels that should have let me ignore the confusion and congestion of the civilian communication lines.

I was going to have to face the hydra myself.

My sword was a process killing function and firewalls with rapidly-cycling passwords were my shield. I started at the edge and swung my blade, severing heads and processes. It was only moments before they sprouted again, but that attack made it aware of me.

A maw opened and it roared with the voice of a million server requests made at once, almost knocking me right off SolNet with a denial of service attack. I had to change my footwork, routing my signal to this place through different servers, protecting them where I could while I dodged a trace route request that would have given it a direct line past my defenses.

I duplicated my IP to an old terminal running in the next room and let it attack the decoy while I cut off a few more processes at the neck, watching as the other heads on the hydra just restarted them as quickly as I could kill, faster even. It was impossible to win that way.

I backed off while it chewed on the poor computer I’d let it attack, thinking. A direct attack was useless. One head snapped at an incoming packet of data, and I got an idea.

Instead of attacking the hydra directly, I was going to poison it. I wove the incoming connections together, getting between them and the main body of the program and forcing them to route through my own virtual environment before moving on. The hydra was complicated but it wasn’t smart. Every packet that went through me came out with something extra attached.

Even with the process automated it was a strain as I forced myself deeper into the web of connections. The more room the virtual machine needed, the less there was for me.

It made my reaction time slow.

I don’t know what my mistake was. A server time mismatch, maybe, or just not being careful enough when snapping up a connection, but the hydra noticed I was doing something, and Black ICE pierced through me like a spear.

I doubt you’ve ever actually been on the wrong end of Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics. Even if you have, you’ve probably only run into White ICE. That’s like a friendly security guard escorting you off the property and putting your name down on a list of people to refuse all service to in the future. At worst it would force you off the network, but it stopped there.

Black ICE was designed to follow you all the way up through your terminal and make sure you never bothered anypony ever again.

Images were forced into my mind’s eye, twisting spirals and angles that were the deadly cousins of optical illusions, only instead of making you see a duck one moment and a rabbit the next, it caused seizures as the brain’s wiring misfired trying to interpret it. Censors tried to block it out, the images blurring before they could cause permanent damage.

I sent one last command, and all the packages I’d sent into the hydra went off at once. Whole process trees collapsed from the inside, while still reporting to the main body of the program that they were running. It was like poison, keeping it from regenerating as each head fizzed out one at a time.

It took over a minute, an eternity in the world we were fighting in, and it finally collapsed into a heap, too many core systems damaged to keep functioning.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

I was wounded and exhausted. Fighting in SolNet like that was a drain. I might have been mostly metal and plastic, but I was still a pony where it counted, and dueling the hydra had been as mentally taxing as a hundred pop quizzes that all came equipped with teeth and were trying to worm their way into your brain so they could burn you out of your head.

At least it was over. I just needed to trace where the physical installation of the program actually was, and I’d be able to send ponies there in the real world to deal with whatever had caused the disaster.

I approached what was left of the program and started scanning, and then I saw it. It stretched at right angles to reality, a thick pipeline of data coming from the hydra to somewhere else. As terrible as it had been, the hydra was only a node. A single hoof pressing against the fabric of the world.

I shouldn’t have done it. I wasn’t in shape to do more than write a report on what I’d found and hope somepony else could follow up on it, but how could I call a report complete if I didn’t follow it to the obvious conclusion? I had to know where it all led, just to see it. I wanted to know the shape of the threat.

I touched the open connection and was sucked into another space.

It was impossible to describe. I don’t mean that lightly. The brain is a computer designed to visualize three dimensions of space and one of time, and in the space I was in, there was more. It was a kaleidoscope of terror and beauty, and all I can offer is metaphors to try and tell you what I found there.

When I’d fought the hydra, it had been one pony against a monster. That was still all purely metaphor -- I’d been terminating connections, establishing firewalls, shutting down processes on remote servers, not swinging a sword -- but it had been comprehensible. I could, with time, actually explain what I’d been doing. It might require an education in how modern data security works along with a masterclass in writing exploits, but even an average pony would be able to get a sense of what I was doing.

Even so, the image of a warrior dueling a creature was appropriate.

Here, though, in this larger space, it was nothing like that. It was like tectonic plates clashing against each other, hurricanes of data throwing razor-edged Black ICE hail at each other, tidal waves splashing against each other. Forces of nature too large to really understand. I couldn’t even keep my footing at the very edge of it, just seeing it and trying to understand was a danger in and of itself.

Above it all, I could see them. They hung in the sky like the sun and moon, too bright to look at directly. And I realized the torrent around me wasn’t an attack. It wasn’t warring armies. It was just the ripples around their hooves as they dueled. The hydra I’d fought had been a single spark raised from clashing blades.

In the sky, a million-pronged spear clashed against a fractal shield, and wide white wings shielded me as a supernova of flame consumed the land.

“You can’t be here,” Princess Celestia said.

“What is all this?” I asked. She lifted me with her magic and shoved me back towards the portal I’d found.

“I’m sorry. You’re a distraction, and I can’t afford it,” she explained. “I will contact you when I can.”

She threw me just as the air filled with glyphs that burn every time I try to picture them in my mind, and--


I was back in a dingy apartment with an alert across my vision. I could smell burning plastic from the other room. I scribbled a note on a scrap of paper to let the filly know I’d pay for any damages and apologizing for the trouble, then ran out the door. I had to get to the palace.

Things were almost back to normal when I got back to the palace. Almost.

“We don’t know where she is,” Raven said, as we walked through the backrooms. There was a crowd filling the main hallway, demanding answers. “The equidrone on the throne is operating in independent mode. It’s just smart enough to give some basic platitudes and keep them from panicking, but it isn’t her.”

Raven Inkwell had been one of Celestia’s handmaidens for longer than I’d been alive, and the third pony with us, Kibitz, was so old he practically belonged in a museum. He had some implants that were antiques, and I had no idea why he didn’t get them replaced with something newer. It might at least help his attitude.

“She hasn’t answered any of my messages either,” I said. It wasn’t the first time I’d realized I had no idea where Princess Celestia actually physically was within the Palace, but it was a bad time for her to be missing. I didn’t want to suggest the reasons why she might not be communicating with us. That she might be…

I forced the thought to stop. That wasn’t going to do any good.

The lights flickered. I immediately brought up as many reports as I could access, that close call from only a few hours ago still burning in my mind. Something immediately popped out as needing immediate attention.

“Why are we on emergency power?” I asked. “What happened to the solar array?”

Raven sighed.

“It’s Philomena,” Kibitz explained. “It’s out of alignment.”

Philomena was the source of the city’s power, a satellite that captured solar power in huge arrays of paper-thin panels and beamed it down to collection stations as a concentrated microwave beam. It produced so much power it could run Canterlot twice over.

“That’s not possible,” I said, automatically. “Celestia is the only one who can access it, and physical intrusion is impossible.”

“I admit having it in orbit is an effective airgap, but it’s pointless to discuss how possible it is, since it happened. It went out of alignment at the same time as everything else went wrong,” he said. “We don’t have the resources for a space mission, not that it was ever our purview. That was…” he trailed off and shook his head.

“That was what?” I asked.

“Before your time, and before the war,” he said. “The infrastructure doesn’t exist anymore.”

“We have to do something,” I said. “The emergency power is only going to last a few days.”

“If we’re lucky,” Raven said. “It took hours just to get it online with all the confusion. The whole city was running around in the dark.”

“There’s a contingency plan, such as it is,” Kibitz said. “We’re going to reduce power usage across the city with scheduled blackouts. That should buy an extra day or two. We’ve sent word to the Crystal Empire for help, and Princess Cadance will be sending crystal batteries to shore up the power grid.”

“That’s not a long-term solution,” I said.

“No, it isn’t,” Kibitz admitted. “I just hope it gives us enough time to find some way to reestablish contact with Philomena.

“Miss Sparkle!” a guard yelled, pounding down the corridor. “You need to come with me.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked. I didn’t see any alerts in the systems I was monitoring. Well, no new alerts. There were plenty that were hours old.

“She’s asking for you,” he said, breathlessly.

“Who is?”

He looked up at me. I saw the answer in his eyes. I ran for the throne room.

“Twilight Sparkle, my most faithful student,” Princess Celestia said, the equidrone looking down on me with a small smile.

The same smile the empty machine always wore.

It wasn’t her. I could tell. It was just a reflection of the real thing, no more real than a photograph. It didn’t have the subtle movements, the life that shone through the machine when she was really inside it.

“The guard said you were calling for me,” I said, confused.

“Yes,” Princess Celestia said. “It’s good to see you again. Please, everypony, leave us. I need to speak with her alone.”

She waited patiently for everypony in the throne room to shuffle outside with that placid, empty smile.

“It would be even better if you were here,” I replied.

“I wish I could be there,” she said. “What happened has left me indisposed.”

“Why did you call for me?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, but this is only a recording,” Celestia apologized. “I have very limited responses. I wish I could be there, what happened has left me indisposed.”

“Yes, you did mention that already,” I mumbled. “What happened?”

She shifted on her throne. “I can’t tell you that. The information is too dangerous to risk any kind of leak.”

“If you can’t tell me what I need to know, what’s the point?!” I snapped.

“I’m sorry, but this is only a recording. I have very limited--”

“Why is the information dangerous?” I interrupted. I wouldn’t have done it to the real Princess, but it wasn’t her at all, even if some of the frustration was strikingly familiar.

“Ponies could be compromised without them knowing it. Before I had to leave, I found evidence to suspect one or more ponies in my inner circle have been subverted. The wrong keyword or datapoint could activate them.”

I frowned at that. “And you think I’m a suspect?”

“I’m sorry, but this is only--”

“You wanted to tell me something!” I asked. “What am I supposed to do?”

“I have identified five ponies of interest,” Celestia said. “Hardcopy printouts of their dossiers have been delivered to your quarters. I have calculated that they will be able to assist you.”

“Assist me with what? Who are these ponies?”

“I don’t have that information,” Celestia said. “To ensure information security, this recording was not provided with that data. When you leave the throne room, this recording will self-terminate.”

“So all I really have is… a few sheets of paper. And I’m supposed to use that to save Canterlot. And you.” I fell into a slump.

“I’m sorry, but this is only a recording--”

“I heard you the first time. I hope whatever is on the printout will be worth it.” I turned to leave. When my hoof touched the throne room door, the equidrone stood up.

“Twilight,” it said.

I turned back to look at it.

“I believe in you,” it said. Its expression shifted, and just for a moment I thought I saw a glimmer of the real Celestia shining through it. “You’re more than just my student. I’m proud of you. I always have been.”

“Thank you,” I whispered. It sat down again, and its expression blanked. Whatever I’d seen, it was over.

I needed to find those hardcopies.

I haven’t read a book on paper in… I don’t even know how long it’s been. I was expecting the documents to be some kind of compressed file that I’d decrypt, but they were in plain text and, frustratingly, they had copy-protection sigils all over them so I couldn’t even scan them into memory.

“Why would you make me do this the hard way?” I muttered.

“Please stay still, Miss Sparkle,” the technician said. “Some of these repairs are very delicate.”

I looked back at the mare holding a multimeter and checking the connections along my lower spine and sighed. “Sorry, Aloe,” I apologized, and she got back to work, her twin repairing broken links while she found them.

“We just rebuilt this and there’s already so much damage!” Lotus chided. “You need to take care of yourself.”

“I’ll be more careful next time I’m in an aircart crash,” I promised, my eyes drifting back to the papers.

The first five sheets were the dossiers Celestia had promised. They were extremely light on details. I’d been expecting soldiers, secret agents, trusted advisors. I’d half-expected Raven Inkwell to be on the list, but instead the first pony she’d suggested was a homeless pony squatting in a junkyard. The boxer and athlete at least had some sort of potential as bodyguards or muscle, but I didn’t see why she’d trust them over the Guard.

The fourth name caught me by surprise. Pinkie Pie. There was something strange about that mare. I had to admit she’d helped me save a filly’s life, and she had at least some skill with hacking. I’d want to investigate her anyway, and this was a good excuse. The dossier said very little about her, like she had no past at all. Maybe Celestia really was sending a few secret agents along with me.

But that last pony. That one made me freeze.


I still remembered her hips, mathematically perfect and sculpted by her own hooves and magic. I wanted to spend time with her but… she was just a designer. Why was she here? How did Celestia know her? Had she picked her just because I wanted to see her again?

I groaned and flipped to the last page in the bundle.

I almost lost my grip on the papers.

“Finish what you can in the next five minutes,” I told Aloe and Lotus. “I have to convince five ponies to go on a suicide mission.”