• Published 15th Jan 2014
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Hard Reset 2: Reset Harder - horizon



Twilight Sparkle is stuck in a time loop amid a changeling invasion. This time, she's not the only one whose day is repeating.

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Halting Problem

"Well, this isn't working," everything says.

… That's not accurate. Everything doesn't actually speak. More like, one moment I'm lost in the dark void of nothingness, and the next, my consciousness is smothered in a warm white gestalt of every possible sensation in every possible combination. Logically, you'd think the net effect of that would be a billion billion ideas screaming in opposition and canceling out against their counterpoints, but as I bathe in the glow of the universe, I become aware of an … organization to it. A single unified purpose toward which every component of existence strives and which every level of perception and identity and understanding reflects. And right now, that harmony is a sense of painful wrongness.

Allow me the latitude of a finite interpretation of the ineffable. I can't talk about everything; our words are too small. But if there were a way to conversationalize that dissonance — if I had to constrain it to something comprehensible by a pony, with only one phrase in one language — then at least "Well, this isn't working" would be sufficiently close to give you all the wrong ideas for all the right reasons.

I groan and sit up. (Again: metaphor. I'm not separate from the everything. I don't have a body to groan or sit up with. But this conversation gets fractal if I try to dig into it at a deeper level than that.) My mind is a haze. "What's going on?"

Everything points. I open my eyes to look —

— And it all rushes in. I slam my eyes shut again, but it's too late; I can't unsee it. The suspicion I didn't remember. The trap I cooperated with. Celestia's betrayal. Luna's dark magic. My mind ripped apart in their search for answers —

Realization builds up inside me like a sickness. How could they? How could they! I thrash desperately around, trying to dislodge the cancer of that knowledge and failing, alone and used and broken, and that's when everything reaches out and wraps me in the soothing harmony of a hug.

"It's alright, Twilight," everything says.

No … Harmony says. That's where I've felt this feeling before: the unity of the Elements. Except that was five friends and I, electrons whirling in a single atom's orbit, and now I'm surrounded by every possible friend in every possible combination. All of existence was created for this very moment, to let me know that it's alright, Twilight, that it proceeds according to some greater plan, and that in my trials I'm never alone.

I cry in Harmony's embrace for a heartbeat, a minute, a millennium. I cry until I no longer need to cry, and then lie in everything's warm embrace with my tears spent.

Finally, there's nothing to do but open my eyes again. When comprehension seeps back through me, the wrongness of what they did lingers, but the pain is tiny and abstract. How could it be otherwise? It's a single drop in a boundless ocean of sensation.

I drink it all in.

I can see all of time and space from here. The grand sweep of it is so magnificent that "magnificent" is as inadequate to describe it as a string of numbers is to describe the ratio of a circle to its radius; I could spend an eternity in contemplation of it and never fully hold within myself the totality of its perfection. But amid the vast sweep of actualities occupying the vaster sweep of possibilities, there's one tiny little speck that's glaringly out of place. I focus in.

"Huh," I say. "Luna killed me."

I, Twilight Sparkle, am dead. Not "got reset again" — I have ceased existence. One of Equestria's goddesses unleashed into my tiny little mortal mind enough power to make one of the archons of the universe flinch — but the Nightmare wasn't actually there to soak up the blow. There was such immense damage that it sent feedback exploding out of the loop in which it occurred and into the spell that maintained me from timeline to timeline. The me that was looping — and there is a looping-me, I note, who is distinct from pre-loop Twilight — was obliterated.

As I watch that unintentional act of finality, it begins to fragment and spread. I'm dead, so the spell resets everything to the start of a new loop and re-inserts all of the various players. But when it tries to add me, I'm dead. The spell resets everything to the start of a new loop and re-inserts all of the various players. But when it tries to add me, I'm dead … and so on, ad infinitum. Every single iteration strains and warps and forks our timeline, spawning off a whole new future which instantly locks up, unresolved and unresolvable.

My jaw drops as the realization hits. We have caused literally infinite damage to spacetime.

"That's not all," Harmony says, and gestures.

I pull back my perception slightly and refocus. The unfolding damage I'm seeing is half of a fork that splits off from the moment of the blast. The other half blossoms out into a similar ugly-looking mess — but its timelines are living things, unrolling themselves and thrashing around in possibility-space like an army of seeking tentacles. One by one, inevitably, each one ends with the flash of a sudden discontinuity as the time spell steals away a looper's experiences, terminates all the loopers, and severs and abandons the timeline. Many of those disconnected futures are vaporized in the light of the exploding Elements of Harmony and return to the nothingness whence they came — but others linger on, abandoned and hopeless, spiraling into chaos.

"What changed here?" I ask.

"These are the futures where I intervene to save you and the timeline continues," Harmony says. "As I must, because there is no other hope of ultimate repair."

"I'm not so sure these branches are better," I murmur. "Time looping leaves all those failed futures behind after we reset?"

"No, disabling the Elements of Harmony does that." Harmony frowns. "You and Celestia both were once Bearers. You knew better."

"But they were trying to kill us!" I protest, as if yet another ill-timed reset mattered to the universe. That's a non-starter; I swallow and try again. "We just needed more time to learn a way to save Equestria … hold on. I 'was once' a Bearer?"

Harmony shakes its heads sadly. "After a thousand years without a champion, I had such hopes. But you have given yourself over to a different master."

My blood runs cold. "NO! It was a mistake," I plead, throwing myself at Harmony's hooves. "Everything good in my life has come from you. Looping has brought me nothing but misery. Please give me a second chance."

"Of course," Harmony says, with infinite love and forgiveness. "Stop looping."

"I've already tried! But unless I start my time loop, Equestria is doomed. The instant it's saved —"

Harmony shakes its head. "You misunderstand. Stop looping. Yourself, her, Chrysalis, and the others who would be drawn into this. I cannot unmake your failure of a timeline if its destruction merely spawns another copy with all the same problems."

I'm struck speechless.

"Why do you hesitate?"

I swallow. "Unmake? You … you think the solution is for us to not exist at all?"

"Twilight," Harmony whispers, "listen." My perception shifts, and I behold the thrashings of our timeline as a whole. It screams like a wounded animal as the tentacles of living futures blindly flail outward through possibility — as the loop spell severs its heads and new ones spring up in hydra-like replacement. There's a shuddering, silent sibilance from the other half, where the paradox timelines are swelling out like a cancerous growth. I clap my forehooves to my ears. It's my earlier pain, multiplied by every pony to suffer from our mistakes, multiplied by every failed loop in which they relive it, exponentiated by the anguish of spacetime itself.

The scale of my perception is nudged outward. The rest of existence is singing in unison. Its voices rise and soar, mingling in a grand chord that sounds through my bones, flooding through me and sweeping me away. Its beauty is so exquisite that it is all I can do to fall mute to my knees, humbled at the gift of having shared it for even a moment.

Harmony doesn't hate me — doesn't hate us — couldn't hate us. Harmony wants only the best for everypony. It doesn't understand how I could cling to my miserable existence of enmity and struggle and torment — not when giving up and letting go means that someday, some sublime version of me would get to live in that boundless unity, never once able to even conceive of my tortures.

The arc of the universe evolves toward perfection — but to get there, the failures have to be uprooted, the ground cleared for healthier seed. It's all so clear here. "Show me," I whisper. "Show me what I have to do."

And Harmony does. There's a convoluted potential timeline where I reconcile with Celestia and she helps me halt the invasion at great but acceptable cost. Just the right words with just the right inflection at just the right time spark her doubts about our prospects, and some impossibly brilliant sleight of hoof brings me to Chrysalis' side in a guise she trusts to plant similar uncertainty. With both of their hopes of a clean victory in ruins, I propose a third way. After weeks of intricate negotiation, they tentatively agree to stop looping so they can open diplomatic relations. We all gather, and a joint ritual ends everypony's time spell. The instant we're powerless to reset away from fate, I directly channel the light of Harmony, and everything dissolves away.

It's the best thing ever. I'll get to destroy the world for a good cause.

My head goes light for a moment as Harmony sears every detail of that future into my memories with supernatural clarity. Within the blink of an eye, it's more real than the life I've lived. It is The One Loop, the true loop of which all others are mere shadows. Any deviation from it I'll be able to sense in an instant and steer it back toward its proper end.

All that remains is to live through it. Just once. Then it's all over.

I'm ready.

Harmony hugs me. "You are a good pony, Twilight Sparkle." The approval of the universe fills me with an indescribable joy. "And now we must part ways again … but only for a little while. Be strong."

"I will," I say, and close my eyes, hoping to hear the song of Harmony one last time before it all fades away.

I do, of course. Harmony loves me. Harmony loves.

"Forgive them," the words go. "Bring peace."

` . ’

"Twilight?" Celestia says in the hazy, painful darkness.

"I, uh, don't think that worked," Spike says.

"No," Luna whispers. "No …"

"Wait!" Spike says. "I think she just twitched."

I open my eyes. They're huddled around me. Luna's wearing a familiar black circlet, and she's been crying. "Nnnnh," I grunt as the light of the Arcane Storage Vaults basement stabs my pupils and the force of a thousand headaches explodes inside my brain.

Luna gasps. "Twilight! I …" But her words seize in her throat as her jaw begins trembling. She buries her muzzle in my chest and sobs, the tension draining out of her body.

I try sitting up. Instead, my body twitches spastically. The purple of Spike's scales goes donut-scented, and the world separates into its component squares and circles. Circles are cold and squares are hot. I'm lying on square bricks. I start sweating. I'm burning up.

"Lie still, Twilight," Celestia says. "You're hurt."

"The Elements of Harmony sort of exploded," Spike interjects. The room is dark with smoke, and the shelf where they had been sitting is little more than a charred mess. "You got glowy and screamed and then they went all bzzow and saved you."

"Luna's been repairing your mental damage for the past several hours, and she's convinced she … well." Celestia puts a hoof on my shoulder. "I want to hear your side of the story. How did you die last loop?"

I finally manage to connect the automatic rise and fall of my chest with the part of my brain that's struggling to assemble words out of breath and throat and tongue. "Fargeløse grønne ideer sove rasende," I say urgently.

Celestia nods, staring into my eyes. "Luna," she mutters out of the side of her mouth, "I don't think you're quite finished."

Luna gulps for breath and wipes her tears away with a hoof-edge. "U-understood," she says. She sits up and her horn flares into light.

My vision fuzzes. The circles and the squares clash.

* * *

"Well, that sure didn't work."

My eyes creak open. Two migraines are at war, firing artillery shells at each other over the scorched fields of my brain. I have full motor control back, though! When I try to sit up, all the right muscles respond, and colors no longer have a taste.

That should be enough. Harmony gave me a job to do.

Celestia's staring at me in stony silence. Her face has got an odd aquamarine tint, which means the ward's still around the evocation circle. "Look ever upward," I say, because that's how The One Loop starts. The ward promptly responds by dropping away.

Surprise and suspicion clash on Celestia's muzzle for a moment before her mask of neutrality slams back down. "I see you're feeling better. Delta-2 T-25 C-11. How did you know the trigger?"

I fight to stay focused on The One Loop. The words stumble out. "You told me. Whitetail."

Her demeanor softens in an instant. Was that a code word? "Oh! Twilight … I'm so sorry," she says. "I'm sure I apologized last loop, but it bears repeating. Will you catch me up on what we discussed before you reset, so we can talk about what I can do to make this better?"

I climb to my hooves. She's saying everything she should be saying, but it's more difficult to follow The One Loop than it should be. Every time I play through the script, it bursts open a fresh mini-migraine. My head feels like it's swelling like a balloon. "There's … no time now, there's a … war to … wuh. Wuh. Wiiiih."

"Win?" Spike asks.

"Win! Yes."

"Twilight," Luna says, "are you alright?"

I clench my teeth. "Yes," I lie, because it'll take me off-script the least. "Spike, this is … super argent. Go to Ruby's and get … me matching earrings. Luna, get a Night Guard vomlumteer for a suicide machine, we need the, the … Smooze released in the northquest warter —"

"What?" Celestia and Luna chorus.

"Uh, what's a super argent?" Spike says.

"Needs to be … down quiggley! Chop chop!" I shoo him toward the door.

Celestia and Luna glance at each other, then look back at me. "Trust me," I say earnestly through the pounding in my temples. "Good flan. Smooze."

"Twilight," Celestia says hesitantly, "of course I trust you if I told you that code — but destroying Canterlot won't stop the invasion, and you seem a bit, er, discombobulated."

"No. It meggs perfect sense. We … can't destroy the … cindy, which is why all … the gourds find in arf."

Spike pokes his head back through the doorway. "What are the earrings supposed to match?"

I close my eyes and press a hoof to my temple. "I don't know! Each under!" What's their problem? None of these questions are on script.

"You mean … 'guards'?" Celestia says. She's staring at me with worried eyes. "Guards … fight it … off?"

"YES!" I shout. The throbbing in my head surges, like a dam overtopping, and something wet spills from my nose. "Gourds!"

Celestia's eyes widen. "Twilight!?"

Oh, good. The migraine's finally receding, replaced with a warm, comforting floatiness. I let out a breath and absently wipe my muzzle with the back of my forehoof. Then I freeze as I'm pulling my leg back away.

The last thing I see as the floor rises up to meet me is blood on my pastern.

* * *

"Well, that sure didn't work."

The twin migraines are back. "We … have a priblem," I say, sitting up. Gravity goes weirdly sideways and I faceplant. "Ow."

Celestia glances uncertainly over at her sister, then arches one eyebrow at me, her face still a stony mask. I try again. "Princess. Priblem. Priblem, princess."

"Delta-2, T-25 C-11," Celestia says. "Do you … have any messages for me, Twilight?"

"T numbers." I stagger to my hooves. I can't feel one leg. "Priblem. Runa bloke my blain."

Luna gasps. "What?"

"I know. I meant —"

"She brasted my blain and … the pear-figged loop is there! But I'm blaining to dead! Figs it figs it OW!" I say as I stagger muzzle-first into the ward, which unloads a face full of pain at me and flings me back into the center of the evocation circle.

That's not so bad, though. It makes the migraine go warm and floaty again. The floor by my nose is oddly wet as I let my eyes drift closed.

* * *

Luna looms over my prone form in the featureless expanse of my mind. My heart stops for a moment — not again — until I see her expression. Her eyes are red and raw, her muzzle tight with worry.

I sit up. There's no pain. I feel fully lucid, without the nagging wrongness that gripped me last time we were here. "Um," I say, "hi?"

"Twilight," she whispers, "I am so, so sorry." She reaches out a hoof, but hesitates before touching me. "I have had to take some … rather unorthodox measures to stabilize you. How do you feel?"

"Different." I think. "My head doesn't want to explode any more."

She exhales, and a bit of the tension sags out of her shoulders. "We shall speak of my repairs when you awake. But first, I must fall upon your mercy and beg of you a boon."

"Uh." Forgiveness is one thing, but a favor? Still, she did fix me, and that's worth hearing her out. "Go ahead."

"Some of your damage … was mine own hornwork. In a previous loop I used the Circlet of Mind upon you, and in the process …" Her voice grows faint. "I attacked you, Twilight, and were it not for the intervention of the Elements of Harmony, I would have ended you. It was this sort of disaster which I feared when we banned mind-manipulating magic, and locked the Circlet away, so long ago."

I blink. I remember our fight, but … "You're not looping. If that was a previous loop, how do you know about it?"

"From your memories of the attack. I glanced at them to ascertain the source of the damage. I was losing my temper, and you attempted to flee me, and then I … I sensed the Nightmare …" She swallows. "I could not bear to watch, but the damage to your psyche bore my energy signature, and the rest is clear enough."

It clicks: Luna thinks she relapsed. I fidget uncomfortably. Is that why she fixed my brain? Is false guilt the only thing between me and another deadly interrogation? "Uh … yeah," I stall. "So what's the favor?"

"You are looping. I am not. I will forget my failure soon, and with it, any hope of preventing a recurrence." She looks away, her muzzle sunken in excruciating misery. "I have no right to ask after what I have done, and it is magic no less forbidden than that which caused the damage … but I beg you, Twilight, allow me to borrow a portion of your memory. I must record my knowledge of my guilt, so that in future loops you may share it with me if you fear I am in danger of again losing my way."

And just like that, I'm handed a free ticket to the express train out of Questionsburg. No more worries about The One Loop getting sabotaged by bizarre suspicions or threats of renewed interrogation.

All I have to do is leave at lie o'clock.

I shouldn't feel bad about that. Technically her guilt is accurate, right? Luna did blow my mind up while interrogating me, and based on what Harmony showed me, I was an innocent victim. What's the harm in letting her get the facts correct in the wrong context? Letting her blame herself for a Nightmare rampage isn't really a lie.

Not — a simmering thought boils up to the surface of my mind — like giving Celestia that unearned codeword was.

Now there's an uncomfortable thought. Harmony started my perfect loop by having me lie to Celestia's face about something she never told me in a loop that couldn't have occurred — since I don't remember it, and based on her reaction, neither did she. But surely, if there's any way to tell between a necessary and unnecessary evil, Harmony could do it … right? Lying to Luna here might be avoidable, but Harmony wouldn't have had me lie to Celestia if there were any way around it.

Wait. Doesn't that logically imply The One Loop would be impossible if I told the truth?

That can't be right. I know that the oblivion of The One Loop is the correct path; my visit with Harmony made that all too clear. But I can't wrap my mind around the idea that Harmony's goal requires a lie. Honesty is one of the Elements!

Are they broken? Am I still broken, and misremembering? Is this some sort of test?

Luna interrupts my thoughts. "Twilight?" she says, lower jaw beginning to quiver. "Please. I will not force you, but I am begging."

I gaze into her eyes. Once upon a time, her voice echoes, I convinced myself that something very, very wrong was necessary. I was correct … and it remains the greatest regret of my life.

So many lies … so many regrets. No wonder Harmony gave up on us. The most merciful path is to end this by any means possible … isn't it? On the other hoof, Harmony went against the Elements' own nature, and asked me to do the same. How can that be right?

My mind is chasing itself in loops. I need to make a decision.

Forgive them, Harmony said. Bring peace.

… I'm going to regret this, I just know it.

"Luna …" I rest a hoof on her shoulder, and swallow through a dry throat. "You weren't the Nightmare."

She stares at me blankly. Then her eyes widen.

"Neither was I," I add hurriedly. "That's why the Elements protected me. I … I think … it wasn't your fault. It was a big misunderstanding. There were too many impossible things happening, and I was pretending to be what you told me I had to be, and we were both too afraid to think it through."

"Twilight," she says, visibly struggling for words.

"Please look at the memories you flinched from. You attacked what you saw as the Nightmare because you wanted to save me. You were wrong, but I won't have on my conscience you blaming yourself for turning evil." I grab her other shoulder with my other forehoof and stare intensely into her eyes. "No more lies. A … very big thing … is at stake right now, and I've realized that before I do it I have to know that the truth will lead me there. If you want to fix this, we need to both start with the truth."

Luna nods. She takes a long breath, then I see a reflection of shifting light and dark on her eyeballs as she stares silently into me. Finally, she closes her eyes. "Thank you for your honesty," she says faintly, "but I fear the truth speaks no better of me. I coerced you into believing the foulest of lies about yourself, and then destroyed you for complying."

"Alright. Then … why?"

"It is a long story, which you deserve in full once we awaken. Briefly, the Crystal Empire is the grave of an ancient secret whose unearthing signals the end of our world. When Celestia learned you had knowledge buried with that secret, we could no longer trust your intent. After all, Celestia and I first sent you there — sent Twilight there — to …" She stops and presses her hoof to the bridge of her muzzle. "No. You are Twilight Sparkle, of that I am now convinced. The protection of the Elements is proof enough. Yet, as you do not remember Twilight Sparkle's memories, you clearly cannot be. It is all greatly confusing."

"I think," I say slowly, "where all this is leading is that I am not your Twilight Sparkle."

"Impossible."

I've heard that word way too often lately. "Yet here I am."

"Indeed. All proofs to the contrary, here you are."

I clear my throat. "The scientific method tells us that an observed impossible result is evidence of a faulty model. I've been — we've been — rushing through this in the hope we wouldn't have to think about the impossibilities until after the looping was over. Look where that led us. It's long past time to question our assumptions."

Luna nods. "We must include Celestia in that conversation. One last question before we do." She takes a long breath. "Will you honor my request?"

"You, uh, weren't the Nightmare. We established that."

"It dulls the edge of my failure not a whit. I erred, with dark magic banned for good reason, and it nearly cost you everything. I could not bear the thought of a recurrence."

Now that we're no longer talking about stamping a lie into my brain, it would be insane to say no to improved information exchange. In fact, this could open up a whole new world of possibilities. "Please, do it. And teach me the spell while you're at it."

She shakes her head firmly. "Thank you. However, I cannot send you down the path which drove Starswirl to madness. I would not dare cast it again myself were the circumstances not so urgent."

"I haven't been able to have a conversation both sides remember since I cast the loop spell. I'll take that risk."

"I am painfully aware of the difficulties of looping. I am sorry. There are lines which must not be crossed."

I sigh. "Fine … for now. We've got too many other pressing things to talk about, but this conversation isn't over."

"Look at the damage I have already done by thinking evil justified. My answer will not change."

"We'll see."

"Be that as it may … thank you, again." She reaches forward with bent leg to brush her pastern to mine. "You have taken my failure much better than I had any right to expect."

"It's alright." I shrug. "We screwed up so bad it wrapped around to right again. I ought to thank you, really."

Her ears flatten. "Please do not jest about that."

"I'm serious. The Elements of Harmony are going to want a word with you, but for my own part, I have real hope for this mess for the first time in a long while." I step forward and curl my neck to hers. "No hard feelings."

Luna tenses at my touch. I feel her swallow. Then, tentatively at first, she returns the hug. I curl a hoof around her withers. She chokes back a sob, then lets one out, and soon she is sagging into my embrace, letting her emotions drain away. I close my eyes, silently holding her, feeling the warmth of her body as we share a moment of forgiveness and redemption.

I was wrong. I didn't regret that at all.

Author's Note:

I'll be taking a week off for April 1, since posting a regular chapter would feel weird and teasing a chapter-that's-secretly-a-joke after my back-to-back cliffhangers would result in mobs with pitchforks. (Also, this arc has been hell on my story buffer, and that'll give me a little time to rebuild.) Tune back in Tuesday, April 8 for "Old Wounds". There may be bonus content here next week, but I won't promise anything.

CONTEST RESULTS:
Last chapter's "find the easter egg" contest brought in a flood of entries! Congratulations to all 19 of the readers who saw "There's something subtly wrong … something incomplete. Something screaming for closure," dissected the loop-death equation, and realized that there were 9 opening parentheses and only 8 closing ones. :trollestia:

An honorable-mention hat-tip to penguinlaurent for the first correct response (within half an hour of the chapter posting). Randomly chosen as the winner was Arania.

There was some amazing cleverness and analysis in the imaginary easter eggs. An honorable mention goes to Dashie_Rising for the most upvoted comment, that the equation represents the number of 502 errors spewed out by FIMFiction. I'd also like to give a hat-tip to MrNumbers' clever theory that I was foreshadowing Spike as the mystery looper. But the winner is Prawo Jazdy's elegant explanation that I'm going to reincarnate Twilight as an earth pony.

Due to a 1 AM power outage forcing me into work hours that would make both Luna and Celestia wince, I didn't have the time to read and review Arania and Prawo Jazdy's submitted stories. The signal boosts will post in the April 8 author's note.

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