• 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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Unremembered Lies

"Chrysalis!" Celestia spins and fires a blast from her horn. It goes far astray, and at first I take it for a miss until one of the support arches over the changeling queen's head creaks and gives.

With a roar, the ceiling collapses, but Chrysalis is already in motion. Celestia's horn spits a barrage of blue-white death, which the black figure vaults through, twisting in midair and deflecting one shot with a burst of green magic and flared wing-edge. The shot arcs back straight at Celestia, who leaps up, the shot grazing her ankle and making her yelp in pain. She flaps her shredded wings in a failed bid for midair purchase, and falls back to the floor, off-balance.

Chrysalis' horn flares, and a green bolt shoots out. Celestia flings herself sideways, tucking and rolling through a dive — I hear the crunch of breaking glass as she rolls over her back — and comes up with her horn already glowing. Chrysalis simply stands there and smirks. I hear the spang and clatter of a double beam reflection from the back of the library, and the bolt plows straight into the back of Celestia's neck.

The shot Celestia was charging fires prematurely, exploding a large bust of Clover the Clever that somehow had managed to remain upright through the earlier devastation. Celestia spasms, goes limp, and falls, one hoof jerking, her chest heaving as she gasps for breath.

Chrysalis lets out a satisfied laugh and turns to me. "Well, well. Look at who else thinks they have a plan to stop me." She steps forward slowly, horn charged, eyes locked with mine, muzzle curled into a rictus of a smile, tongue running over the glistening daggers of her fangs.

That snaps me out of my fugue and back into loop mode. Well, here we go again, I think, a quiet resignation settling in. I'm going to die, and then I'll salvage something from this mess. I won't have much to work with if I'm waking up to certain doom, but at least I can tip the odds in the fight I just watched and … and … I'll figure something out from there. I'll have to.

I'm already thinking about next loop, considering how I should interfere in the fight, when the logic centers of my brain catch up with me. Chrysalis didn't kill Celestia.

Of course not. We reset the loop by dying. And if Chrysalis merely disables me …

Oh stars. I need a voice-triggered Euthanatos.

I backpedal out of the evocation circle, trying to buy time. How can I make sure I die? If I start casting the Euthanatos, Chrysalis has got me straight in her sights, and if I try to run, I need dodging room she's not giving me.

"No last words, Twilight?" she sneers. My hinds bump into a bookshelf, and I stumble and flatten myself against it. She takes another step closer. "Come on. Make this worth it. I've spent fifty loops just for the look on your face as I kill you."

The fear drains away. Oh, that's fine then.

She pauses at that, staring at me suspiciously. "Wait."

The fear returns. I glance desperately around for some miracle. Oh stars. Please.

Chrysalis turns her head to look back at the circle. "Noy jitat. Are you looping now? Was that her grand plan?"

The stars answer my prayers. My eye is caught by a familiar length of wood, sitting on the adjacent bookshelf as if it had always belonged there.

"In that case —" Chrysalis begins as she turns back toward me.

More accurately, she turns back toward a face full of pain.

I swing deliberately short, the tip of the bat smashing into her nose. There's a loud crack as her muzzle folds in on itself under the magically augmented momentum of 33 inches of solid ash. Chrysalis staggers back, and one hind hoof slips on broken glass. She goes down, spreadeagled, and doesn't get up.

I brandish Home Run at Chrysalis like a talisman, breathing heavily. Green blood pools at her muzzle. She's not moving — but she can't be dead, or the loop would have reset. I bend down and cautiously check her pulse. Thin but present. Looks like she'll be out a while.

Celestia struggles to an upright sprawl. I rush over. "Well done … Twilight," she says, forcing a smile though her face is ashen and sweating.

"Princess!" I fling my hooves around her neck in a hug, and immediately regret it as she hisses in pain. "Aah! Sorry! Sorry. I … I'm just glad you're safe. I'm sorry. We've got to fix … I … what happened … we'll reset and, and stop her —"

"Twilight."

"Sorry! What?"

"Quick … question. How many loops … did that take you?"

I hesitate, a sense of wrongness tickling at the corners of my mind. With everything going so wrong around us, what kind of question is that? "… Just one?"

She freezes. Her expression grows stern. "That's … not funny. We talked … about lying."

"I'm serious! Got lucky, I guess."

Celestia facehoofs. "Son of a timberwolf."

The wrongness leaps up and grabs me by the throat. "… What?"

She takes a deep breath to steady herself, speaking just above a whisper and still stumbling a bit over her words. "Will you please Euthanatos yourself and say 'Darjeeling' immediately, so that we can talk in a loop where I don't have multiple broken ribs and glass in my spine?"

In any situation a rational mind could conceive, that request would be a no-brainer; it's a mark of just how screwed up this whole thing has gotten that my first thought is to hesitate. "I … think first you ought to tell me why."

Celestia takes another few breaths through gritted teeth. "Your idea was that after you drove her off, I'd be able to reset to a non-doomed loop with you still remembering something of this. Now that won't work. No offense, but I am in an immense amount of pain right now, and I'm not going to endure this again for the sake of a clean teachable moment."

"Teachable …" I sputter incoherently. In the seconds it takes me to find my words, that sense of wrongness has ignited into full-on betrayal. "You SET THIS UP?"

"At your request," she says, exasperation shading the pain on her muzzle. "Loop C-340. Reset, please."

"BULLSHIT." Rage floods me with adrenaline, which catches fire in my blood. My vision fuzzes at the edges. "Don't even start. I am DONE with your manipulation, you hear me? Take your time loops and shove them where your sun don't shine, and if YOU survive YOUR city's invasion send me a postcard so me and my friends can burn it and dance on the ashes."

"Twilight," she repeats, squeezing her eyes closed, a drop of blood spilling from the corner of her muzzle. "Reset. Talk."

"No," I say, the word filling me with giddy liberation. I savor the feel of it against my tongue. "No. You reset, and find some other pawn. Goodbye, Celestia. Never talk to me again." I wheel around, walking out toward the burning city on shaking legs, feeling bizarrely light.

Behind me, I hear the uneven staccato of her hooves as she struggles upright. "Wait," she calls out, and coughs. "One … sentence. Give me that."

I nearly keep walking; I owe her nothing after what she just put me through. But something makes me hesitate. The princess behind me did take a bookish, maladjusted filly, teach her magic, and coax her out into the world to find her best friends. She spent many long nights listening to that filly's woes, telling her wondrous stories, and sneaking with her into the castle kitchens to raid the freezers. Even if it was all part of some sick scheme to destroy my life and drag me through pointless torture, she did give me some wonderful moments before it all fell apart.

I turn back around and stare dispassionately at Celestia. "Alright. I suppose you've earned one sentence."

She nods, wipes blood from her muzzle with a pastern, and takes a deep breath. "You just asked the mare who you think is manipulating you to make you forget your strongest evidence against her."

Oh.

The distant sounds of fighting filter in through the hole in the library wall to fill the silence. I clear my throat. "Oh," I say.

"Take your hurt and rage. They're wrong, but take them. Reset. 'Darjeeling.' Let me explain. Please."

I shake my head numbly. She did just set me up — and then stopped me from giving her a perfect chance to get away with it. I'm utterly lost. "This had better be good," I mutter, focusing on a Euthanatos and then flaring my horn —

* * *

"Well, that sure didn't work."

"It's alright, Spike," Celestia says. "I'll help her out from here. Run on down to the palace kitchens and we'll come down once we've cleaned up." She turns to me as he scampers off. "By the way, C-378 and I'm assuming the Darjeeling loop was T-35, but if it's all the same to you I'd prefer we reset the numbering back to zero."

I sit up, vertigo clearing and feedback receding. The library is intact. Celestia is looking at me expectantly. The smile has fallen from her face. "Let's try this again," I say. "How dare you. How DARE you?"

Celestia immediately sighs. "I knew the teachable moment you asked for was a bad idea."

I frown. "You keep trying to blame that on me. You've earned a chance to explain, but I'm sorry, that's ridiculous."

"Look at me, Twilight," she says in that heartbreaking voice of gentle maternal disappointment. "After all we've done together, what makes you think I'd start lying to you about such important things?"

I don't want to think that. I just want to snuggle under my mentor's wing and have her tell me everything is alright. But … "I don't recognize you anymore," I say, ears flattening. "Who are you, really? You've been pushing me around like a chess piece! You maneuvered me — no, tricked me — into casting a spell I was totally unprepared for, and then played dumb while I died a few hundred times before giving me any sort of help, much less acknowledgement of my suffering."

She sighs again. "And this is why it was a bad idea. None of that is true. We talked about this, but I had to be the one to reset for your teachable moment to work, so you don't remember it."

"Of course I don't. How convenient." I narrow my eyes. "You know why you're not giving me an explanation? You're lying to me, and that last loop was an attempt to scare me into working for you by sending Chrysalis to kill me."

"Twilight." Celestia kneels, facing me, staring earnestly. "If I leap straight to the explanation you'll reject it, but I promise it all fits together if you're willing to work through to it logically. So, first: What purpose would it serve for me to behave the way you propose? You're saying that I deliberately sent you through weeks of torture instead of simply asking for the help of the pony who would trust me the most. I'm neither sadistic nor idiotic enough to do that to anypony — especially you, my faithful student."

Tears gather at the corner of my eyes. "I wish I could believe that. But let's not forget, you killed me."

"And I'm very sorry for that, but look at it from my perspective, Twilight. I'm having a perfectly normal day when the most powerful mortal mage alive barges into my room and speaks five words I don't remember sharing with anypony — words which trigger a powerful spell in my brain whose knowledge I've hidden from even myself. An unexpected time loop and unexpected dark mind magic are both plausible, and the cost of telling them apart is a single death of someone who should already be used to dying. In my position, that's a precaution I can't afford not to take."

"Hang on. What do you mean, perfectly normal day? There's a changeling invasion on!"

"Yes, there is, but I didn't discover that until after we first spoke. Literally the first loop I remember today is you marching in, saying that if I killed you again we were going to have some very serious words, and telling me the safeword and the trigger."

"But …" I put my hoof to the bridge of my muzzle and try to think through it. The loop she gave me the trigger, Chrysalis killed me. The loop I spoke the trigger without the safeword, Celestia killed me. She wouldn't remember either of those. However … "I've been looping for WEEKS. I've WATCHED you die a few times, so I KNOW you knew about the invasion."

"Ah," Celestia says, nodding sagely, "but that's the paradox. Think for a moment, Twilight. How could you have watched me die?"

I blink. "Wait."

"Exactly. If I were to die, the loop would immediately reset, and you wouldn't remember what you saw."

I open and close my mouth uselessly a few times. That's … a good point.

"Which brings us to the explanation you wanted. I'll summarize what we concluded in C-340. Simply put: Immediately before Spike's wording changed, you must have prompted a dramatic change in a loop you yourself don't remember. That implies the reset of a third party — yet from what you say, neither I nor Chrysalis were looping at the time."

"But," I finally manage. "You've been looping since Luna's banishment. You said so yourself! How could that have changed?"

Celestia shrugs. "Obviously, the anchor point of their spell would have to be even earlier."

"Then it could be anyone old enough to have cast the loop spell back then, right? Even you."

She holds up a hoof. "Only if that looper never updated their anchor. We only get one anchor point. No looper would choose to relive a thousand years with each death, and Luna's not stupid enough to cast a loop spell again. So it seems impossible, Twilight — yet it had to happen, or else you're lying to me. I think we're both better served by accepting each other's impossible facts and moving forward in trust."

I nod slowly. That does make sense, but … "Be that as it may," I say levelly, "now-you is manipulating me, and that's not okay."

Celestia looks down. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Twilight," she says quietly. "You deserve better, and I'm trying to set this right. I know your teachable moment is generating a great deal of distrust, but if you think everything through logically, you'll —"

I got very good, over my hundreds of loops of solitary struggle, at listening to that little inner voice which comes up with ideas that are so dumb they're brilliant. That voice is screaming at me right now. I smirk and interrupt her, blurting out: "Preengaged blackout —"

As fast as I speak, Celestia is quicker. The first word hasn't yet left my mouth when she flings herself forward, and she clamps her hooves around my muzzle before I can finish.

"Please don't say that," Celestia murmurs, releasing my muzzle. "I never deactivated the trigger in this loop."

I take a step backward and level a hoof. "HA! See? That's EXACTLY what I'm talking about! How'd you know in advance what I was going to say if you weren't manipulating me?"

She sighs. "Because we had that exact conversation in C-377, and I couldn't stop you from speaking the trigger. We can't talk when you're paralyzed, and it was clearly painful for you, so I reset the loop."

"And then we replayed it, with you knowing exactly what I was going to say! This entire time you've been playing me like a fiddle!"

Celestia presses a hoof to the bridge of her muzzle. "Twilight, I know you're upset, but you're smarter than this. If I changed what I said in order to change your reaction, then I wouldn't know any more how the rest of the conversation would go."

"Then you could just reset again and again until you got exactly what you wanted from me."

She settles to the floor, bringing her head level to mine, and looks earnestly into my eyes. "I could have, Twilight, but I didn't. I will never, ever lie to you about loop numbering or about what happened in prior loops, because I care too much about you to do that — and because the only hope we'll ever have of cooperating in a multi-loop situation is to be absolutely honest with each other's memories."

"But you just admitted you lied about the loops!"

"No. I arranged a situation, based on your request, to make the point that lies in a time loop can have dire consequences — which I believe our frustration and mistrust right now are confirming. I assume from 'Darjeeling' that we didn't even finish C-376 T-34 before I'd told you the truth about the setup, and even if I hadn't, the whole point of your demonstration was to tell you the truth the instant the point was made. Where, exactly, is the lie?"

I grind my teeth inside my closed muzzle. I can't stand this — running into her wall of dispassionate logic every time I bring up an objection, being confident in my position but not in my facts. There's got to be a problem here! How could the Celestia I know treat me like this? I turn away mutely, staring at a bookshelf and fuming.

My brain churns through everything she's told me since Spike's first "sure". Where is the lie? I feel like there's got to be something I can point to, but all my problems come from the gaps. I have a perfect lack of evidence for actual lying.

I look back at her, and at her tired expression I can feel doubts about my doubts start to creep in. But the paranoid part of my brain isn't ready to give up yet. I grab for the obvious answer. "That you've died 378 times since we started looping together," I say.

Celestia nods. "We went over this in C-340, too. Would you like to hear how I died in each loop?"

"Try me."

She does.

Torn apart by changelings. Euthanatos after watching Luna die. Torn apart by changelings. Torn apart by changelings. Euthanatos after watching half the royal family die. Crushed by falling building. Euthanatos after the barracks exploded. Torn apart by changelings. Explosion … She looks straight into my eyes the whole time, listing each one off with clinical detachment. I stop her a few times to challenge her for details, which she provides without hesitation.

At first, I try to pick apart each detail, verifying what I can, analyzing the likelihood of her making it all up. She continues on ceaselessly, her horn occasionally flaring up in brief access of a memory-aid charm. As it blurs together, the list gets morbidly interesting, all too similar to my own solitary struggles. That similarity slides into a subtle discomfort, which wraps back around to curiosity — just how long will she continue if I let her? — then back to discomfort again, which deepens almost to the point of illness. I push through that and force myself to keep listening.

By the time she reaches the hundreds, the numbers and methods and details have lost all meaning. She might as well be reading out the menu at a restaurant. I stare into her eyes, beginning to understand why she's so dispassionate about death. She's been looping for how long now?

It becomes too much somewhere in the 170s. "Stop." I lower my head. "I'm sorry."

She halts mid-sentence, then simply says "I am too."

I sigh. "Just … how come haven't you just been straight with me from the beginning? Why have the teachable moment at all?"

"To answer that, may I tell you a little story about when trust breaks down in a time loop?" She looks at me expectantly. I nod. "The last thing I remembered before loop C-0 T-34 was having you tell me you needed some time alone. A few hours later the Elements exploded. I remembered the loop, so I prepared myself to replay the discussion —"

"See? You keep doing that! How can I trust you to have honest discussions with me when you keep going into our conversations with advance warning?"

I see exasperation cross her muzzle. "Twilight … every conversation we have is guaranteed to be half forgotten. If I replay it the same way and we each die, at least we'll remember the same discussion. Anything I meddle with when we re-run it would lead to a mismatch in memories, and that's the fastest way to destroy any hope of trust. Even if you doubt my motives, please have faith I'm not stupid."

I let my brain gnaw at that for a few moments, then chalk up another point against my doubts. "I'm sorry, Princess. Go on."

"Anyway, when you woke up in T-34, you broke down and begged me to stop you from looping — you said you couldn't bear the way that our attempts to work together were sparking shouting matches and recriminations and driving a rift between us."

Guilt stirs in my breast. Yeah, that had been the vague plan I'd had in my head before casting the Euthanatos — although if I actually said what she claimed, I was laying it on too thick.

"I took you at your word, Twilight," she says softly. "Why wouldn't I? It seemed like a lot of loops to go through without me resetting even once, but you're my faithful student and the Element of Magic, and I can't count the number of times I've trusted you with Equestria itself."

Guilt develops a stinger, and jabs at my heart.

"So I immediately apologized, reset the loop, and the first thing I did was send you down into the Arcane Storage Vaults to do some research in safe isolation while I fought off the invasion myself. I told myself I wouldn't even consider asking you to loop again unless I'd spent ten times your number of deaths without making any headway against Chrysalis." She turns her head and won't meet my gaze. "You heard what happened. After three hundred and forty loops of watching her burn down my capital … murder ponies I love … I …"

I step forward and rest a hoof on her shoulder. A small voice screams that it's all part of the act, that she's still manipulating me — but this finally feels like Celestia in front of me, and the rest of me doesn't care.

She swallows, dabs a pastern at her eye, and continues. "I was prepared to beg, Twilight. In C-340, I set you up to cast the time anchor again, and as soon as you sat up I started crying before you could. You went awfully silent when I mentioned my own 340 loops, then apologized and said you'd help again. We talked for an hour — I meant to reset so we could do it in smaller chunks, but after so long trying to handle the loop on my own, when I got the chance to finally talk with somepony who understood, I let time get away from me — and finally, you admitted your lie and told me how guilty you felt. You begged me to use the fact that you wouldn't remember anything since T-0 to arrange a dramatic demonstration about honesty. I had misgivings, but I wanted to do right by you, so I agreed. You know the rest."

As she lays it all out in her gentle, kindly voice, I struggle to stay focused on dissecting it, but the weight of discomfort increasingly settles in. It makes too much sense. I sigh and make my decision, and the paranoid part of my brain screeches incoherently in betrayal.

I walk back over to her. "Alright," I say quietly. "I think it's time to save Equestria."

She gives me a weary but genuine smile. "Thank you, Twilight."

"I'm sorry for lying to you about those 34 deaths. I don't remember that, but I know I was planning to, and I … I should trust you that I hurt you as bad as you said." Guilt compels me to throw in a little honesty of my own. "I'm still not 100% sure of that trust, but the fact is, I don't want to be the sort of pony who causes that kind of hurt."

She curls her neck to mine. "I'm sorry, too, for everything you've gone through. I wish I understood how you got so hurt that you're acting this way. I'd fix it all for you in a moment if I could."

I smile back, letting all the suspicion and doubt just melt away into the moment. "Then let's stop Chrysalis, and talk this all out where we can both remember everything."

I can feel her grin through the neckhug. "I think that can be arranged …"

* * *

"Well, that sure didn't work."

The noise snaps me into focus from the gentle agony of my Euthanatos. "It's alright, Spike," Celestia says. "I'll help her out from here. Run on down to the palace kitchens and we'll come down once we've cleaned up." She turns to me as he scampers off. "By the way, C-378 and I'm assuming the Darjeeling loop was T-35, but if it's all the same to you I'd prefer we reset the numbering back to zero."

I sit up. This is cheating. After the reconciliation of the last loop, I feel like a rotting road apple doing it. But it's the same principle Celestia used with her anti-mind-magic trap: I have to make sure that she's not benefiting from asymmetric information exchange and lying through her teeth to me.

"Let's try this again," I say, mustering all the outrage I can, staring straight into her eyes, scrutinizing her expression. "How dare you. How DARE you?"

We agreed I'd be the one to reset last loop. If she remembers that, then the only thing she wouldn't expect would be for me to repeat it. However, exactly like last time, she sighs without hesitation. "I knew the teachable moment was a bad idea."

I frown. "You keep trying to blame that on me. You've earned a chance to explain, but I'm sorry, that's ridiculous."

"Look at me, Twilight," she says, disappointed. "After all we've done together, what makes you think I'd start lying to you about such important things?"

Identical down to the word. No sign of additional confusion or hesitation. That's all I needed. Now for a few moments of misdirection. I flare my horn; a magenta aura engulfs a random book in the stacks. "As it turns out," I lie, "the information I left myself in this book here …"

I turn my head and extend a hoof, looking at the book as I levitate it over. Except I wasn't levitating anything; it was a foal-level glow-charm on the book, followed by the Euthanatos —

* * *

"Well, that sure didn't work."

It did. I smile in relief. Oh, it did, thank the stars.

"It's alright, Spike," Celestia says. "I'll —"

"I agree," I interrupt, sitting up. "Let's go back to zero. I'm sorry for all the trouble, Princess. I'm going to reset my loop, and then repeat this exact same sentence followed by asking you to reset yours, and once you do, that's zero, okay?"

She processes that for a moment. "Okay."

My horn flares —

* * *

"C zero T zero," she says as I stir back to consciousness.

"T zero C zero," I say, sitting up.

Spike stares in disbelief. "Well, that didn't … okay, was it supposed to explode?"

I put my forehooves together and crack my pastern joints, grinning. Operation: Roach Motel is a go.

"Oh," I say, "you haven't seen explosive yet."

Author's Note:

I did a speed rewrite of this chapter to better address the issues raised in Chap. 1-2's comments — no plot elements were changed, but this has been expanded by about 1200 words and should offer more explicit answers to much of the earlier confusion. Ah, the benefits of serial publishing.

With the first three chapters out, I'm going to start settling back into my regular publication schedule, with chapters more broadly spaced out so that I can keep up with the buffer drain. Expect a new chapter every 5-7 days.

The next chapter, "Off the Rails," cranks the action quotient way up as Twilight directly tackles the changeling invasion.

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