• 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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Rude Awakening

Spike yelps and spins. "Princess Celestia! What are you doing here?"

"Hzbuh," I say, using my words seven times more efficiently.

"Spike," she says, drawing him into a winghug, "the spell Twilight Sparkle just cast has some unusual consequences that I need to discuss with her. Why don't you run to the palace kitchens to get her something to eat?"

"I. Er. But …"

"I hear Garde Manger is looking for taste-testers for a new line of powdered gemstone condiments." She gives him a wink, and shoos him away with a hoof. "Twilight deserves only the very best of those, wouldn't you agree? We'll join you when we're done here."

I watch Spike go, then turn to Celestia unsteadily. "Uh … I've got a billion questions, but first I probably ought to say, 'coruscating preengaged blackout —'"

I'm stopped by a hoof to my mouth. "Let's not go through that again. We've got a lot to talk about and I don't want you paralyzed."

"Okay," I say, "what."

Celestia smiles. "I know you can figure it out, Twilight. You did last time."

"Last time I didn't say your 'coruscating' safeword and you killed me."

Her smile falls away. "Two things about that. One, if you'd been lying about looping, your only way of knowing the trigger words would have been the darkest of forbidden magics, and if you were studying those behind my back, you would have been an existential threat to Equestria. I had to be certain, and I knew that if you were telling the truth all I would do was reset you."

The logic is flawless, cold and impersonal. She's right, of course, and that means that rationally I should drop it and move on, but there's an unfamiliar internal voice screaming that logic isn't sufficient here. I have no idea what to make of it. "Okay," I say uncomfortably.

"Two, that was your last time. I've been busy."

It takes a second for that to click. My jaw drops. "You're in a time loop too?!"

"Yes."

"Did I —"

"No, this is my own loop, independent from yours."

"When —"

"My reset point was first thing this morning, though I cast the original spell right after I was forced to banish Luna. I promised myself I wouldn't ever let those I loved go through such pain again."

She looks at me expectantly. The obvious next question assembles itself in my mind. She braces herself.

"Then why," I whisper, eyes blurring with hot tears.

"Let it all out, Twilight." She lowers her head. Her shoulders droop.

"Why. Didn't. You," I say, voice rising to a yell, "STOP. ME?"

She won't meet my gaze.

"You were standing RIGHT THERE!" My vision swims. I want to strangle her, and I'm not sure whether that's more insane, or the fact that she just stood there and watched me cast the spell that locked me into subjective weeks of ceaseless torture. "ONE WORD and I could have never cast this in the first place! I've discovered ways to die I didn't even know were POSSIBLE!"

"If it helps, Twilight," she says, still staring at the floor, "I have, too."

"LOOK AT ME!" I scream. She flinches, but complies.

Despite all the time we've spent together, it's easy for me to forget how old Celestia is. She was old when my granddam's granddam's granddam was just a twinkle in the eye of two ancestors yet to meet. She's never acted old. But right now, as I stare into those magenta eyes, it is as if the centuries worth of weariness have collapsed in on her all at once.

"Why didn't you stop me," I say, tears streaming down my cheeks, "you heartless bitch."

She stares mutely at me, one corner of her muzzle quivering, eyes glistening. A dam breaks inside me. A shudder wracks my body, then a sob, and then I'm on the floor bawling, curled up into a little ball, and a hoof touches my shoulder and I lunge for the comfort of the universe's most callous chessmistress, who holds me and doesn't flinch when I flail my hooves weakly at her side and wipes my cheek with a wingtip when I soak her shoulder with tears.

"Because I need you, Twilight," she whispers when my breathing finally slows, and I believe her, even without the evidence of the damp patch on the top of my mane.

"But not like this," I beg. "I can't keep failing over and over. Failing my friends and failing Equestria, and … and failing you."

"I'm sorry, Twilight, if there were any other way …"

"Why isn't there?"

"Because we're not the only ones looping."

"Chrysalis?" I ask, and Celestia nods. "Right. Setting the building on fire to take advantage of my joke."

"Yes. Even the tiniest imperfection in a plan, even a one-in-a-million chance, is exploitable with infinite attempts and sufficient patience."

"… But you don't need me. You can do the same thing."

"I can." Celestia sighs. "That puts us at a stalemate. When I change the past to stop her before you cast this spell, then she changes her tactics to launch pinpoint strikes at our most valuable and least guarded assets, and I haven't been able to halt her invasion without … unacceptable losses. I had to let her set the stakes, and then delay until she was irrevocably committed to this invasion. Now I need to break our parity, and you're a resource she can't counter."

"But why me?"

"There are four living ponies capable of casting the loop ritual. A side effect of Luna's banishment is that she can no longer anchor time loops at any point except for the moment of her departure, and I would watch Equestria burn before putting her through that millennium alone again. Your brother dealing directly with Chrysalis would be … let's just say problematic. That leaves you, Twilight."

No. No! It doesn't. It can't. Haven't I been through enough? "I need some time to think about this," I stall.

Celestia smiles wanly. "We've got nothing but time. Two things first, though." She floats a spellbook over to me, making a show of lifting it from the nearby shelf so I can see where it came from. "One: You will want to learn the Euthanatos spell on page 146. It painlessly vaporizes a small area of your own brain, which causes instant death. Trust me, this is far preferable to jumping off a cliff, or drinking poison, or stepping into one of the deadfall traps in Canterlot Caverns, or whatever you've been doing to reset."

I've already snatched the book, and I'm skipping past the giant screaming warnings — "KNOWLEDGE OF THIS SPELL WITHOUT ROYAL AUTHORIZATION IS PROHIBITED", "THIS SPELL IS INSTANTLY FATAL TO CASTER", "MISUSE OF THIS SPELL IS PUNISHABLE BY EXILE OF ALL FRIENDS AND FAMILY MEMBERS" — to read the surprisingly simple instructions. I can already see how invaluable this spell is. Once upon a time, I reflect, I would have found that notion incomprehensible.

"Even with that odd explosive feedback surge — I'll help you change your grounding runes to mitigate that — the Euthanatos should make looping a great deal more pleasant for you," she continues as I read. "I only wish we had had a few weeks for proper preparation. I could have helped you enchant yourself to activate this on a verbal trigger — that way you could end any loop instantly even if you didn't have the time or focus to cast a spell. That comes up more often than you'd think."

I try not to think about the fact that I'm about to willingly learn a suicide spell from my mentor. "What's the second thing?"

"We're going to need to start coordinating. So let's call this loop T-zero C-zero. Every time you die from here on out, raise your half of the loop number by one. At the beginning of each loop, tell me your current number, and the last number you remember hearing me say for myself. That way we'll both know which loops we don't remember."

And now we're discussing number of resets as if we were keeping score? My stomach flips. Accepting death was one thing when I was desperately fighting for my life, alone against the changelings — when I had no choice and no hope except for pressing forward and getting it right — but I'm talking about the process with the one pony who should understand the pain involved. I can't wrap my head around it. How can she be so casual about death?

She misinterprets my stunned silence. "Memory is critical, since it's the only permanent asset we have. Here's the one-paragraph version of several lifetimes' worth of time-loop theory: When multiple loops like this interact, then the first caster to die resets the timeline state for everyone — including other loopers — back to the time of the dead caster's anchor. It's that process of triggering the reset which causes your start state to update with the new memories, so only one looper will ever remember a given loop. If something happens you want to remember, you should reset immediately, before Chrysalis or I die and change what you observed."

I'm barely registering this. "Princess," I say, "I'm sorry. I need time. Alone."

She opens her mouth to respond, reconsiders, and looks away with a sigh. "I'll see you in three hours after the Elements explode, or sooner if you cast the spell. Please don't leave Canterlot this loop, or the explosion will kill me first and we'll have to have this whole conversation a third time." She trots away, pausing at the library door. "I'm sorry, Twilight."

As soon as I'm sure she's gone, I scream incoherently and start destroying the library — bucking over bookshelves, ripping up scrolls, tearing pages by the hornful out from thousand-year-old books and then using mouth and hooves to dismember the bindings. Every time my rage starts flagging, I picture Celestia standing at the edge of my evocation circle, smiling — smiling! — as she waits for me to complete the spell. When even that image can't push my body to further violence, I sink to the floor, curl up, and sob until my body's drained of all emotion.

This is all her fault, says a voice I can't shake.

The faithful student wants to help her. Intellectually, I can accept that she needs me. But she stood there and watched me — no, she maneuvered me into it; any outcome of a time loop can only be deliberate — as if I was just a cannon to be fired. A cannon powered by hundreds upon hundreds of agonizing deaths. Gee, thanks for giving me that Euthanatos spell right away, Princess.

I can't do this.

She's waiting for me to reset and talk to her, right? And she said only the one who dies remembers anything. So if I make up a large number of deaths — say, Twilight thirty-four, Celestia zero — and tell her we keep arguing and I just can't handle helping any more …

A time loop means infinite chances to get it right, doesn't it? She doesn't really need me. After she stops me from ever having been in this loop, she just needs to try something different. Try enough different things and one of them will work. She doesn't even have to hurt to get another chance.

I consult the spellbook and light up my horn —

* * *

A wave of vertigo smashes into my head. Magical feedback crackles along my coat and sears through my nerves, but it's already fading before I can process it. Huh. Amazing how much difference dying easily makes. That wasn't so bad.

… It's quiet. Too quiet.

I open my eyes. The library is a darkened mess, lit only by a giant hole in the outside wall. Every magelight in the room has shattered, and sharp fragments of glass are everywhere. Books carpet the floor, as if I'd just missed an earthquake. Spike lies motionless at the edge of the circle, eyes open and unfocused, greasy blue smoke curling up from his body.

"C-376, T-34," Celestia says from behind me, voice flat. "You lied to me, Twilight."

I turn and look. She's bleeding from her mouth. Both wings are shredded. Her back looks like a cactus spined with glass shards. She's directly between me and an empty magelight pedestal.

A black figure alights at the hole in the wall. "There you are," Chrysalis says.

Well, that didn't work.

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