• 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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The End

"Well, that sure didn't work."

I open my eyes and stare silently at the ceiling.

I killed her. I took at least three fatal swings. I must have had dozens of opportunities to reset when my invisibility cloak screwed up her plans. But I didn't. I freaked out when she showed up, and I killed her. I kept freaking out, and I killed her. Because I didn't have the presence of mind to reset and fight smart, all my friends are dead.

"… Twilight?"

It's so simple to fix it in hindsight, because she was fighting dumb too. Fire a hornbolt deliberately wide while she's tearing apart the invisibility cloak, then step into her return fire. Lift the heavy crate of metal scraps up as if I'm lining up a shot with her, then jump underneath it and let go while she's taking cover. Swing Home Run from the right instead of the left, forcing her to leap back toward the center of the car, and then charge her shoulder so she wheel-throws me out the hole she created; Euthanatos as I'm falling from the bridge. Hundreds of ideas. There's a new one each time I mentally replay the fight.

"Twilight, are you okay?" Spike touches my shoulder, then waves his claw in front of my face. I ignore him, keeping my eyes unfocused.

The worst part is that I did die. Her hooves around my neck were a free gift-wrapped second chance — and I wasted it by thinking of how to make her suffer in kind, rather than thinking strategically. Every single thing I did should have been focused, at any cost, on keeping her from dying.

I didn't do that. I blew my chance. I killed her, and they're dead.

"Oh no," Spike says. "Twilight?" When I continue to not move, he dashes off (again) in search of help (again). Once he's gone, I hear the click of hooves on stone (again) and the rustle of wings (again) as Celestia approaches and sits down just past the edge of my vision.

I say nothing, and it's a question; she says nothing, and it's a reply.

I curl up on my side, turning my back on her. For a long time, I hear neither speech nor motion from her. The faint cries, clangs, and screams of warfare drift in from outside. Finally, after what must be fifteen minutes, she breaks the silence. "I still need you, Twilight."

I stare at a mote of dust wandering through an unusually faint sunbeam — weakened by the smoke of a burning city, presumably — and ask the question her silence already answered: "Are my friends still dead?"

"Yes," she repeats.

"Well then," I say caustically, "I'll get right on that 'mildly inconvenience Chrysalis without having any effect on the outcome' thing."

"You have more power than you know, Twilight, but you have to get up to change the world."

"What's the point? The bottom line is, her loop starts before mine, so there's literally nothing I can do which she can't sabotage in advance of me ever starting. Honestly, I'm surprised she's not already here preemptively killing me. And clearly, her loop also starts too early for you to save my friends, or else you wouldn't be sitting here giving me pep talks."

"I'm sorry, Twilight, you're absolutely right," Celestia says with gentle reproach. "I'm here asking for your help because nothing can change the fact that we're doomed."

That line gave me pause when she first used it, but for the past several loops I've had a comeback prepared. "For five values of 'we', that's already true."

This time, she also responds instantly. "Six, if you're going to act like that. The one defeat that time looping can't change is a surrender."

I finally lift my head and look back at her. Her horn is a solid cone of brilliant white light, but that's not what catches my attention. She's sitting in perfect royal repose, one hoof raised, framed by the unearthly pastel radiance of her gently flowing mane — every inch the immaculate and indefatigable goddess whose single word can turn the fate of nations. It is rather inspiring. I wonder how much she practices that pose.

"Things have changed this loop," Celestia says. "Get up. Come see."

I frown. "Hang on. If you're about to tell me that my friends' death was another teachable moment …"

"No, no," she says quickly. "No lesson could ever come close to justifying that level of betrayal."

"… Alright."

"Not to mention the sabotage of our best hope for victory. I don't enjoy this war any more than you do, Twilight."

"Well," I say, suspicion receding, "it still sounds like war out there."

"As well it should. You said it yourself — Equestria's doomed."

I raise an eyebrow at her. "Gee, you really know how to motivate a mare."

She smiles enigmatically. "I can guarantee you've never seen it doomed like this before."

Outside, in the far distance, I hear new screaming, along with clear, high-pitched calls. There's the rumble of a building collapsing, then a loud, low roar to match it. The rumble builds — no, that's a different rumble, a low and ceaseless white noise I feel rather than hear. I notice that the magelight chandeliers are beginning to sway.

Curiosity finally overrides despair. "You win," I sigh, climbing to my hooves.

"I really don't," she says, pulling two invisibility cloaks out of her saddlebags with her teeth and passing one to me with an outstretched wing, "but at least we get to go out with a show."

A fierce glow in the bags catches my eye. "Are those the Elements?"

"Oh, yes. If I weren't devoting the entirety of my magic to suppressing them, they'd have lit up hours ago like fireworks in a volcano."

"So you're artificially delaying the end in order to watch the world burn with me," I say, narrowing my eyes. "Despite how much you say that hurts you to see. How is this not a … teachable …"

My words die away as we reach the front door of the archives. Outside is what I can only describe as an all-you-can-eat apocalypse buffet.

The moon is casting the mountain in shadow from impossibly close overhead, glowing red around the edges and shimmering with superheated air, already taking up a quarter of the sky and getting larger by the second. Underneath it, changelings, gryphons, dragons, and an occasional pegasus are wheeling through the skies and clashing in a loose free-for-all. A deep chasm has opened up along the main street of the city, with ponies and zebras and diamond dogs scrambling away as the edges crumble in and the cracks widen. On the far side of it, an ursa major is wading through the streets, casually smashing buildings underfoot. One of the wings of the castle is coated in purple slime, which is writhing and expanding and climbing the walls as five desperate armies throw fire and claw and spear and spell at it.

"You should probably put your cloak on before the seapony snipers spot you," the empty air next to me says.

I hurriedly don it as I drink in the ludicrous scale of the devastation. "Are you serious? Seaponies?!"

Celestia laughs. "The logistics of getting them to attack Canterlot were a touch too challenging, but you believed me for a second there, didn't you?"

I nod numbly, then remember she can't see me. "Wait. 'Getting them to attack'? What did you do?"

"I woke up this morning, forced Chrysalis to start the invasion early, and sent orders to our foreign ambassadors to publically assassinate seven world leaders. Once Luna fell defending the city, I rose her moon and stopped it mid-sky. Then I wiped out the wards and safeguards on as many of the arcane storage vaults as I could before I had to devote my full attention to the Elements. Now half a dozen races of mortal enemies are trying to find a way into the vaults to kill me so they can divert the moon and maybe stop the world from ending." I hear her hooves clop toward me and feel her sit down, her cloak just brushing against mine. "There's a strange sort of beauty to this, isn't there?"

"No!" I protest a little too quickly, desperately trying to ignore the part of me that's giggling like a schoolfilly. I turn my head toward Celestia, wishing I could see her expression. "That's … that's … how can you watch this? How could you do this to everypony?"

The silence of the invisible figure at my side stretches out into awkwardness, and I realize I just judged her over a loop designed to be reset away — destruction which won't exist in another few minutes. I'm about to retract my lecture when she clears her throat uncomfortably. "I'm so sorry, Twilight," she says, voice subdued. "You must think I'm a monster."

"To be fair," I add hurriedly, "it does make sense. It's just blowing off steam, right?" Stupid. Stupid!

"Thank you, but you're absolutely right. This was a bad idea. If … if you haven't reset yet, I would greatly appreciate it if you'd allow me to wipe this out and try again."

"Please don't," I say. "I didn't mean it."

"Twilight …" she says, pained. "I'm trying not to steal information from you by resetting without consent, but please, please, let me be better than this."

"Princess, please listen. I do understand. I didn't mean to judge — did I tell you about my loops spent shoplifting? I just said something thoughtless. I mean, while we're in a time loop, none of this is real …"

She sighs. "I don't deserve that excuse. Time loops are my life, Twilight. This is as real as anything else I've seen since the Celestial War. The only difference is I'll reset it at the end, instead of advancing my anchor point and letting time march on for another day. Looping does terrible things to you, and sometimes I forget how much I've changed."

"You're not a bad pony," I say firmly. "You could make this actually happen at any time, but you don't."

"I suppose there's that," she says.

We lapse into uncomfortable silence, and I force myself to watch Canterlot as a distraction. A pair of unicorns lose their grip on the edge of the chasm and fall screaming into blackness. A dragon noisily chews on a dying stallion. A four-story building collapses with a roar; a mare jumps from the roof as it goes, hits the ground, and stops moving. Next loop, I think, they'll all get up, eat breakfast, and go to work whistling a happy tune.

Suddenly the enormity of that hits me between the eyes. Celestia's monstrosity is her sacrifice. She sees all of this so that they don't ever have to. In a mere few years as the Element of Magic, I've staved off catastrophe after catastrophe, and she's been looping for a full millennium. Our perfect, beautiful Equestria must be built on the skeletons of thousands of apocalypses that never came to be.

"I really should explain myself," she says faintly, interrupting my thoughts. "I wasn't lying. Watching Chrysalis destroy Equestria over and over again did hurt, more than anything. But this … it feels remarkably different when it's you destroying everything you hold dear, instead of watching yourself flail ineffectually against a fate you can't fix alone. This is monstrous, Twilight. It's horrible of me, and it's wrong … but it's cathartic in all the right ways."

I shake my head and can't help but laugh. "It is, and it is … and to be honest? It is." That gets a chuckle out of her before we lapse into silence again.

A company of diamond dogs lets out a piercing howl, all in unison, then charges straight at the ursa major, stabbing its paws and swarming up its legs as it stomps and swats and bites them in half. It's gloriously pointless, but I guess they've decided that if their world is going to end, they might as well take down the biggest thing they can find on their way out. With three times the dogpower, they might have even made a dent in it.

"Did you really mean what you said?" Celestia asks. "About me not being a bad pony?"

"I did."

"… Thank you."

We watch quietly as the castle is dissolved in dark ooze, the moon grows to half the sky's width, and the five armies abandon the pretense of cooperation and start tearing each other apart in earnest. Right around the time the ursa major flattens Big Pen, I lean into Celestia's side. She shifts her weight to brace me, and I close my eyes, listening to the end of everything and feeling her barrel rise and fall with her slow, even breathing. The Elements in her saddlebags poke uncomfortably into my side, but after all the pain I've been through, such a little thing barely even registers.

"Thank you," I whisper back.

Her shoulder shifts as her head turns toward me. "For what?"

For everything, a voice inside me whispers, but I'm not quite brave enough to give voice to it. "For showing me this," I say instead. "Don't deny it, this was totally a teachable moment. But it worked."

Celestia laughs, and the gentle confidence returns to her voice. "I don't think 'teachable moment' means what you think it means. But for the sake of argument, what did you learn from this loop?"

"One, no matter what Chrysalis does, we are still masters of our own destiny."

"Poetic. But, yes, that's it exactly. All that the loop spell has power to do is add new memories to her brain from potential futures. It makes her neither invincible nor perfect — nor a genius, for that matter. She has weaknesses and blind spots. We'll find them."

The so-dumb-it's-brilliant corner of my brain is beginning to stir. "Two, that all of us have ponies we … care about an awful lot," I say. "But if you wake up one loop and they've vanished and all you have left are memories and monsters, mourning that loss is just going to drive you crazy."

"Mourning is absolutely legitimate … but they're not lost yet, Twilight. Your friends weren't dead at my anchor point — so they're not dead until we let them be dead, and I promise you that neither one of us is going to accept that."

I clear my throat. "What I meant is, sometimes you can get this sacred and untouchable image of how it's all supposed to go. Who ponies close to you are, and what they mean to you. Time loops don't give you that luxury. That image is going to get wrecked over and over again. And what you have to do to stay sane is accept those changes as they come, and make the most of the opportunities that creates."

I can almost hear the smile in her voice. "I'm proud of you, Twilight. You're in very difficult circumstances right now, but with an attitude like that I know you'll make it through with everything I admire about you intact."

She missed it. Missed it, or is ignoring it. The so-dumb-it's-brilliant corner of my brain is screaming like a madpony. The more reasonable parts decide to give up, sit back and watch the show. "Princess? Would you pull back your hood?"

She's silent for a moment. "Why?"

"I want to see the expression on your face for something. Humor me."

There's a rustle of fabric. A white-hot glowing horn and a pastel-framed white head appear out of thin air, as she stares down over her shoulder to where she feels me resting at her side. "Alright."

I grin. "And three," I say, "sometimes when things are at their worst, you have to give yourself permission to go a little crazy."

Telekinesis can't move only part of an object. I can't grab her head in my aura without overpowering her and grabbing her whole body. But I can grab her crown — and when I yank that down toward me, her head comes with it.

With my torso still pressed against hers, I lunge my neck forward, gripping her neck and jaw with my forehooves, tilting my muzzle and clamping my mouth hungrily to hers. Her eyes widen, and there's a snort of breath on my cheek, and the muffled start of what might have been intended as a word, and her lips are soft and warm and

* * *

Author's Note:

Just a reminder: THIS IS NOT THE FINAL CHAPTER.

I'll leave things on this moment of maximum wat until the next chapter, "Second Chances," posts on Tuesday 2/4.

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