• 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.

  • ...

Old Wounds (2)

Luna, quite understandably, asks for a few moments alone with her sister. No sooner have they stepped out into the main basement than a purple blur gloms on to my foreleg.

My heart twists up. Poor little guy — he shouldn't have had to see that. I sniffle and wrap a comforting leg around his shoulders, nuzzling the top of his head, fumbling for words.

He squeezes my leg a little tighter, and throws his other claw around my withers, resting his head on my shoulder. "I-it's gonna be alright, Twilight. We'll fix things. We'll find a way."

I can't help but laugh, which comes out as a hiccup. He's trying to comfort me? "Thanks, Spike. I appreciate the sentiment."

"I mean it. We'll make her see. Maybe you're not the Twilight Sparkle I know, but … but you're still Twilight, and you wouldn't destroy the world. You never, ever would. She's wrong."

"Yeah," I lie, trying not to think about The One Loop, and oh stars I can't do this. I told one tiny little lie at the beginning of my mutual looping with Celestia, and it snowballed into everything falling apart — the Elements of Harmony themselves kicking Honesty to the curb, and Celestia trapping and brain-ripping me — and now I'm stuck in a basement with two goddesses on the verge of war while Chrysalis destroys Equestria outside. My teachable moment about lying while looping? It didn't go far enough.

"Well. I mean …" On the other hoof, I have to lie about The One Loop now, don't I? If I'm honest it justifies Celestia's suspicion, and the instant I become more dangerous than useful she resets and destroys me before I can even respond.

But even without knowing about it, she thinks I'm a bigger threat than Chrysalis. There's no win condition for me, is there? Save Equestria and get backstabbed by my mentor, tell the truth and get murdered, or walk away and let Chrysalis destroy my friends and my home for good.

The full weight of it hits me, and I cling helplessly to my faithful assistant, feeling tears leak through the dam of my eyelids as my emotions spiral out of control. "I can't do this, Spike. I, I can't. Sweet stars, oh stars, I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"We'll fix it," he repeats, hugging me fiercely, and I collapse bawling onto his shoulders, feeling him stagger and brace under my weight, not even caring, just needing some friendly touch. "I'll fix it," Spike whispers. "I promise."

"You can't." It's hopeless. It's entropy, the cold and cruel and uncaring truth of the universe; everything falls apart. You can't win, you can't break even, and you can't even change the game.

"Because of all the timey wimey stuff, you mean? When you reset it gets un-fixed again?" Spike pulls his head back to look into my eyes. "Then I'll have to re-fix it harder. I don't know anything about time magic, Twilight, but I'm going to live for a long time and I can study. Once I figure it out, I … I can go back to before it all began and stop things from going wrong in the first place."

My blood freezes.

"Wait. You can what?" I grab him by the shoulders. "No. Don't. Promise me you won't."

"Huh? But —"

"PROMISE me. Pinkie Pie swear," I say, desperately hoping she still does that in this timeline. "That you'll never, ever mess with history. That's what caused this in the first place, and I will NOT let you be the one who ruined everything."

"But you need —" Spike says, but stops dead at my expression. He swallows. "Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye. But I've got to do something, Twilight. I can't let this happen to everypony."

I let out a breath. Crisis averted. That mystery looper has a lot to answer for, and the last thing I want is for this to be one of those situations where the well-intentioned time traveller accidentally creates the disasters of her own present. If it is, then at least this way it's not on Spike's head.

But that thought gets my mind going. None of this would have happened if that mystery looper hadn't changed history. And a loop that's changed once can be changed again, right?

"Uh, Twilight?" Spike says. "You're getting your idea face."

"It's not hopeless," I say slowly.

"Well, of course not. I thought that was the whole point of time magic? You get to go back and try it again?"

"Yeah. But right now, resetting from loop to loop isn't going to help me, not while I'm stuck at the mercy of somepony who can't trust me." I wipe my cheeks with a pastern, sit down, and frown in thought. "I can't win, I can't break even … but I can change the game. I know I already have, once."

Spike looks at me blankly. "What do you mean?"

"I left Canterlot with the Elements, and …" I trail off as I look at the shelf with the darkened jewelry. "Oh." Well, that's a non-starter. "But there is somepony — or someone — out there who can upend everything. Give me a fresh start, or maybe even change it back to when I was the only one looping. I just need to find them, and get them to help." I glance at the door to the main basement. "Which means surviving long enough to do some travelling. Which means getting Celestia to trust me … at least for now."

Spike nods. "We'll talk to her. I'll talk to her."

"That won't help. We'll need to talk in a loop she remembers." I tap my hoof to my chin. "But, actually, I think I've got that covered." Based on Celestia's reaction during the first of the two loops I died from an aneurysm — which was T-27, I think? It's only been a few resets, and I'm missing our loop numbering already — the "Whitetail" codeword that Harmony gave me should do the trick.

Of course, that would mean once again moving forward based on a lie. I stifle my queasiness. I tell myself I can use that as a fallback plan if things go pear-shaped; for now, since Luna warned us that Celestia might cause a paradox by resetting, I can talk to her in safety, and that will give me a shot at convincing her legitimately.

Plus, answers. Answers are good.

The door creaks open, and the princesses walk in. Luna looks … the only word I can use is "disappointed." Her back is straight, her neck upright, and she's walking with measured steps, but she's staring at the floor with a distant expression on her muzzle. Celestia, behind her, is trying as hard as possible not to exist — walking with shuffling, silent hoof-falls, eyes fixed on Luna's tail, head and ears lowered. She looks as bad as I feel, and despite all she's done to me, I can't help but feel a twinge of sympathy.

"Is everything alright?" I ask, pulling back from my hug with Spike, standing straight and gently coaxing him to move behind me.

"We had a brief conversation regarding the behavior she feels is appropriate for resolving difficulties while looping," Luna says. "Brief, because neither of us shall remember it; but if she is to be saved from the mistakes which ruined me, it must begin with now."

That seems like a good opening. I swallow and brace myself. Get some answers. Get her to trust me. Change the game. I need to be the bigger pony here, for both of our sakes.

"Listen … Princess," I say, voice faltering. I take a deep breath and continue. "I can't believe that you're so fundamentally different from the Princess Celestia I know that there's no way to fix what's wrong here. I screwed up history something awful, and what you told Luna to do to me was —" I stop myself from saying 'unforgivable' — "indefensible, but the Equestria you rule still looks an awful lot like mine. It's a peaceful place full of happy ponies. Twilight Sparkle's still your student and the Element of Magic. You love your sister — look at what you went through to redeem her. You are good, I know it, and you're trying to make the world a good place. That's why it hurts so much that you …" I force myself to say it. "That you tortured me. And that you almost fought your sister in order to … to lie to me, and use me like some tool. I would have been willing to forgive you for a mistake, but this goes way beyond that." That slips out before I can stop it, and I mentally kick myself.

Celestia looks away. "I'll understand if you don't believe me, Twilight, but the apology I wanted to give you truly was sincere. I was fully aware I did something wrong as my only possible means toward a greater good. It was a choice between you and the entire world. I wish I had had any other option."

"But you did," I say, feeling tears brimming in my eyes. "You always did. Why didn't you talk to me? I could have explained. I'm not evil, Princess, I …" Oh, stars, if I start crying I won't be able to do this. I squeeze my eyes shut and force myself to breathe. "Why didn't you talk to me?"

"Because to give you a single chance at diplomacy would also have been to give you as many chances at sabotage as you needed," Celestia says. "If you had been hostile — and I should point out that you can be a threat even with the best of intentions; but plausible evidence suggested you might actively be working against me — then you could have repeatedly reset until you found the perfect lie to allay my fears. To tip my hoof before taking action would have left me with no chance of action at all. When looping is involved, the tiniest hesitation in a plan might as well be a crack in a dam."

Once upon a time, Celestia's voice echoes, I convinced myself that something very, very wrong was necessary …

I hear the click of sollerets approaching me, and open my eyes as Luna brings a hoof to my shoulder. "She has much to reconcile with you, Twilight, but please do not fault her for entrapping you," she says quietly. "Had she not been able to catch me wholly by surprise with the Elements of Harmony a thousand years ago, the land would yet be in eternal night. It is true — with loopers, the middle ground of diplomacy is fragile, and fraught with consequences worse than those of overreaction."

"And yet it's all we have left now," Celestia says. "So, Twilight, here we stand."

"Here we stand." I take a few moments to steady myself. I can't do this right now. I need answers and trust, and calling her on the false necessity argument will leave me a wreck while getting me neither. "Let's go back to the basics. Why can't you trust me? I need that story."

"Tell her," Luna says immediately, turning back to her sister. "Withhold nothing. It is our only chance of learning the truth conscionably."

Celestia nods. "Alright. You're already aware of Starswirl the Bearded's prodigious comprehension of time and mind magic, far beyond our own. But neither you, nor anypony else, know the details of his downfall. We've kept them silent, both for safety's sake, and to give him the legacy he deserved." She paces over to the lifeless Elements of Harmony. "Shortly before he … turned … he devised a spell to examine our future. What he saw — and shared with us, in increasingly cryptic and deranged terms — was the complete destruction of our world. His last sane act was to eradicate all possible trace of the knowledge which it appears you possess — both the records of an entire empire and the memories of its people. His first insane act was to attack us with what he still remembered of it." She looks up at me grimly. "Your mere existence is an existential threat, and though I don't know the exact mechanism of our doom, the signs are clear enough. That you have either been hiding your knowledge from us, or are unaware of its significance yourself, implies a trap we cannot afford to spring, and there is only one certain method of defusal."

I shift uncomfortably. "Luna said something about that, too. The Crystal Empire was the grave of a world-ending secret. Is that what happened to Cadance in this version of history? She discovered it and went mad?"

"Most likely, but it's difficult to say," Celestia says. "She was mad when we found her — but she did clearly rule over the Crystal Empire, once, and knew its secrets."

"Found" her? But Cadance was born just a decade before me, right in Canterlot! I need to know that story — that's a major discontinuity — but first, speaking of discontinuities … "Be that as it may, there is an exceptionally simple fact here I literally cannot believe you overlooked. I'm from a version of Equestria where none of this happened. In my history, Starswirl disappeared without a trace near the end of his life and, as far as I can tell, didn't have a thing to do with the Crystal Empire. You're judging me based on your history, when the very first thing we determined is that I changed something huge to get here."

Celestia glances at Luna, who narrows her eyes. Celestia sighs. "I had been afraid that calling out the inadequacies of your story would let you refine it and further obfuscate the truth … but at this point, if that's your goal, it's already too late to stop you. So: The logic you mention, coupled with the second spirit Luna detected within you, was the key flaw in your tale."

"It's not a 'flaw' because I'm still not lying," I say defensively, then force myself to take a slow breath. Keeping myself from turning this into an argument is taking everything I've got; how stupidly ironic that, after all the looping I've done, I can't afford to replay through this to say what needs to be said. "And it looks like, for us to get anywhere, I need to convince you of that. That means figuring out the source of the contradictions here."

Celestia nods, not looking at Luna this time. Progress? "Twilight, think about the history you remember growing up in. For instance, you told me after returning from Skyrend Mountain that you remembered Mi Amore Cadenza foalsitting you."

"Just to be clear — here she didn't?" I interject.

"Heavens, no. Now … I know the exact spell you cast to begin looping. That spell merely preserves the contents of the loops in which you died, and restores them to you when you reset. It leaves completely untouched your memories from before you cast the spell."

We've been over this. "And I wasn't looping as a foal. So … if I had triggered a change in the past during one of my loops, like we first thought, then both before and after I cast the looping spell four days ago, I would remember this past, without Cadance as a foalsitter." I think this is starting to come together.

"Correct. In fact, if you were any possible version of Twilight Sparkle, you would remember our past — unless the second consciousness in your body unstuck you in time as the Nightmare did Cadenza."

Right there, where I said this was starting to come together? I lied.

But I have to stay focused. Stick to the trust issue. "Let me stop you there, because — as Luna pointed out repeatedly — the Elements protected me. You know that I'm Twilight, and that there's no Nightmare here."

"All I know is that the Elements were explosively disabled while a foreign consciousness was operating within the Bearer of Magic's mind."

"Celestia," Luna says, voice dark with warning.

"Hers," Celestia adds hurriedly, gesturing to me as she looks at her sister. "And if she could call upon the power to do that, she could just as easily have arranged your deception." She glances between us. "It's the only explanation I've found. So please offer a non-contradictory alternative — accounting for a second, foreign consciousness being drawn into Twilight Sparkle's body when a mere time loop spell is cast, and Twilight herself having her memories overwritten in ways the spell itself is incapable of."

"I do not have one," Luna says immediately. "But a failure to understand should not preclude acceptance."

"Even when our continued existence is at stake?"

"Especially then. When the stakes are so high, we must confront that which confounds us with open eyes, and be prepared to follow the truth where it leads."

Celestia shakes her head and sighs. "Luna, for your sake I've probably already doomed us by being honest about my suspicions. I draw the line at discarding them until there is some glimmer of hope beyond the contradictions."

I clear my throat. "Then let's find one."

"I've tried. Believe me, I've tried. But I'm listening." Celestia shifts her body to face me full-on, sitting on the ground and staring at me intently.

My mind starts racing in five different directions at once. No pressure. "Uh, for starters, saying 'any' possible version of Twilight is ruling out a lot. Couldn't some previous version of me back before the changes have seriously glitched up their time spell and, I don't know, screwed it up badly enough that me-Twilight accidentally swapped loops with here-Twilight? That would also explain the explosive feedback when I cast the spell."

Celestia's response is immediate. "That doesn't match the story you told, doesn't explain the second presence, and time loops don't work that way."

"I. Uhhh."

She ticks a forehoof at ninety-degree intervals around the circle of her other upturned hoof, visually counting off the possibilities as she rattles through them. "You can't be from our past brought forward, or I would remember the interactions with me that you claim. You can't be from our future brought backward, or future-you would have remembered all of current-you's time loops the first time that future-you ever cast a loop spell. You can't be the Twilight of a different loop, or you'd simply have differing memories within the loops, and we run into the remembering-the-past dilemma. You can't be from different loops' past or futures, same reason. That leaves unstuck in time: yanked from a failed branch of our history which no longer exists to anchor your spirit, and reinserted here by some saboteur to unknowingly overwrite your more innocent self. Who's the second presence, then, the quiescent one along for the ride? The one who selected you, brought you here, and is controlling you. Unless that presence is the Elements — which makes no sense, since they already have Bearers here and could have exerted far more direct influence with far less hassle — the only entities with the power to manipulate time and mind to that extent are the Nightmare; Discord, who's neutralized; or some heretofore unknown remnant of Starswirl, who's dead. Even if it's somehow one of the latter, they're insane tyrants bent on our destruction."

It's cold comfort that Celestia has thought this through in a lot more depth than I did, because now I'm starting to worry about myself too. Is there some weird Nightmare sleeper agent thing going on? Is that why the Elements acted so strange, giving me a loop to follow that not only made no sense but broke my brain?

I try to shake off that unease. There's got to be something we're missing. "Okay. Um. The Elements," I think out loud. As good a place to start as any. "When Harmony gave me The One Loop …" and made me lie to Celestia … "I wondered if it was a test of some kind. So … maybe all this is a test? My presence here is clearly impossible. Maybe none of this is real and I'm stuck in a simulation."

Celestia raises an eyebrow. "No offense, Twilight, but I think your version of me let you read one too many philosophy books without proper supervision."

I feel my cheeks heat. She's right, that was just silly. And if I'd thought for a few seconds before shooting my mouth off, I would have remembered the big clue right away.

"Sorry," I say. "But that does remind me of something I saw when talking to Harmony — another me. Princess … your sister told me that, back when you thought I was the Nightmare, you thought the second presence was Twilight. But she said that since I'm Twilight, that's impossible. Why?"

Celestia puts her hoof to the bridge of her muzzle. "Because our timeline can only have one of you. Really, Twilight, do we have to have The Talk about lexually transmitted malaise?"

"There is more than one of me, though. I saw it!"

"I am reluctant to question the evidence of your senses," Luna says, "but my sister is correct. Becoming unstuck in time, and then reinserted at a moment when another Twilight Sparkle existed, would cause the timeline to overwrite one of you to avoid paradox. You would be lost entirely, or replace her consciousness entirely." She shrugs. "You say you saw this when you spoke with the power behind the Elements of Harmony? Perhaps it was not entirely a literal experience."

I'm not going to let it go that easily. "I met myself before, though, when I time-traveled a week back to the past —"

"And there was only one of you then — just with your timeline kinked to briefly intersect itself," Celestia says. "Yourself from the future would still be you inside your brain, not a separate consciousness. At any rate, the evidence has already ruled out time travel."

"Okay then." I tap a hoof to my chin. I know what I saw, and I know I'm onto something here — but we're still in "that's impossible" territory, so I need to think further outside the box.

"I believe Twilight Sparkle has raised an excellent point," Luna says while I ponder. "We would be far closer to the truth of this matter were we simply to reset, separate her from her companion spirit, and discover its identity."

"Uh …" Resetting? Bad idea.

"We would," Celestia says, staring at me, "but Twilight doesn't seem to be a fan of that idea."

I feel my face heat. "I am, but not yet." I consider for a moment, and honesty seems harmless: "I'm just as curious as you are, but this is the last time I have a guarantee that we'll talk about the answers we find." If something's wrong here and that spirit isn't another Twilight, anyhow. A second Twilight would exonerate me, but my doubts are a little too scary right now for me to leap blindly at that chance. The voice of reason nags at me: How could a second Twilight Sparkle exist, if any possible version of me is treated by the timeline as identical?

… By this timeline as identical.

"Hmm," I say, rolling the thought around in my head. It's crazy, but … "I can't help but notice when you were ruling out alternate-loop Twilights, you didn't even mention parallel dimensions."

"Because that's impossible," Celestia says without hesitation.

"One, would everypony stop saying that word, and two, since everything about this is impossible, would you stop treating that as self-evident and explain what in Tartarus you mean?"

She sighs, exasperation creeping in. "Even if parallel dimensions exist, there's no way to get another Twilight into our timeline. Like Luna just said, we can only have one of you."

"But that thing about overwriting almost seems to fit what we know, and parallel dimensions would fill in the gaps." An idea takes coherent form. "If I'm from, not just another timeline branch, but a place where something fundamental is different, I might have been drawn to this dimension's Twilight by her jerry-rigged looping spell, which was crude enough to identify us as identical — but the timelines didn't match closely enough for my consciousness to overwrite the original's, and so your Twilight is also left behind. I know the idea's kinda out there, but you're being suspiciously knee-jerk about denying it."

"It's not denial, Twilight, it's Starswirl's Seventh Law. One of the most basic foundations of applied tempomancy. If you know enough to cast a time loop spell, I refuse to believe you don't know it inside and out."

I frown. "I'm pretty certain the Seventh bans nothing of the sort."

She's briefly silent. "Right. You remember a different history; your numbering might have changed. Which one is the equation that defines the difference in thaumic potential between two anchor points in temporal branchspace?"

I turn to Luna. "Princess, should a memory charm be safe for me?" She nods, and to triple-check, I sift through everything I remember of a few loops' worth of intensive research way back at the beginning of all this. "That would be the Ninth, and I still don't follow your logic."

"Really, Twilight? You of all ponies need this explained?" Celestia raises an eyebrow. "It's obvious from the equation. D(t) equals the inner branch product of A1 and A2, divided by the product of H1 minus P1,2 and H2 minus P2,1."

In the corner of my vision, I see Spike's eyes glaze over at the math. I'm equally thrown, for a different reason. "Uh … you lost me just past A2."

"The divisor is the product of both timelines' branch height minus their temporal prominence."

"Prominence measures the relative divergence of two anchor points from the latest common branch point they share," Luna adds. "If the branches are, so to speak, on two different trees, then the prominence would be equivalent to the entire height. Thus, you would twice divide by zero."

"Resulting in infinite thaumic feedback the moment any connection to a parallel timeline is established," Celestia says, "and a runaway feedback loop resulting in the immediate and complete destruction of both universes. In laypony's terms, our existence rules out any sort of connection which would lead to us speaking to a parallel you."

I shut my hanging jaw and finally manage to clarify. "It's not the math that lost me. Just to be clear, this was sane Starswirl's work, right?"

Celestia and Luna exchange a glance. "Of course," Luna says. "Though near the end. And it has been borne out ever since by test upon test."

"Because in my history, all evidence suggests that he disappeared while testing the Ninth, but the world survived long enough to create me. And, more importantly, the version I learned has no divisor at all."

The room goes silent except for the ticking of the clock.

"I know we're talking right now about a number of things that aren't as impossible as they seem, but that's extra impossible," Celestia says slowly.

"The laws of magic are fundamental descriptions of the underlying principles of reality," Luna says. "They do not change from place to place — even dimension to dimension, if the dimensions are cross-accessible. Your suggestion that Starswirl's Seventh Law is different in your history makes no more sense than saying that … let us suppose … if one were to fly to Qilin, light were to take up space, and a well-lit room were to be half the size of a darkened one."

I hold up a quill and a scroll, and grin widely.

"Yes," I say, "it's impossible. But, at long last, we have a testable impossible."

Author's Note:

Here's where I literally start earning that Alternate Universe tag, I suppose.

But don't worry, dear reader: this will remain a story about Twilight struggling with multiple intersecting time loops and fighting off a changeling invasion. I guarantee you that it will not wander into the weeds of universe jumping, not while there are so many perfectly good dangling plot threads right here to weave together. (There's an in-story reason to go along with my reassurance, and you'll learn it within a chapter or two.)

Next chapter goes live in two weeks: Wednesday, May 7. Next week (Weds 4/30), no HR2, but keep an eye on your feed and/or my userpage for a new (unrelated) story collection.

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