• 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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Among Monsters (2)

The changeling lies there, balled up, her breathing rapid and ragged. I sit back down at the fire and return to staring into the flames. Discomfort gnaws at my stomach. I'm not Chrysalis. I'm not, but … she's got a point about me acting that way. It's not like this bug doesn't deserve a bat to the face, but I was about to kill her simply because I lost my temper. All of my violence so far has served the greater purpose of saving Equestria and ending this time-loop torment; unnecessary infliction of pain is what separates us from the monsters.

I hate her for bringing me to this point.

This was a bad idea. I should reset and mercy-kill her right after she lets Spike go … but no, I can't do that without Spike freaking out on me, which means I can't use him as a distraction and lay the ambush, which means returning to the loops of dying to Bon Bon's krav naga or the combined strength of her dozens of drones.

I sigh. I might as well tough this out. Either the bug will betray me and I'll have enough proof next time to override Spike's objections, or else I'll get something useful out of her after all.

A minute or two later, out of the corner of my eye, I see her stand again and slink forward to join me. I look up and glare at her over the fire. She freezes. I look back down in silence. After a few moments of hesitation, the bug takes the last few steps and sits across from me.

"I really am sorry for killing your friends," she says quietly. "It haunts me. I wish I could at least get you to believe that."

I'm really not in the mood, but I'm still feeling guilty over the Home Run thing, so I force myself to respond. "Yeah, well," I say noncommittally, "if you're telling the truth, I'll know soon enough. If there's one thing I've learned about time loops, it's how impossible it is to hide a lie for long."

"It's not a lie. It was the most horrible thing I've ever done. I couldn't even look as the train was burning — I ran off into the bushes and vomited."

I frown. "Then why'd you do it?"

She looks away. "You don't understand what it's like living under Chrysalis."

"She's an insane tyrant, yes, yes. You still had a choice."

"You really don't understand." She scoots in a little closer to the fire, warming her hoof-things. "If she were just a tyrant, she'd be dead by now. After the first failed invasion, most of the underqueens started piecing together plans to overthrow her — the only thing that stopped an immediate revolt was the maneuvering over who would replace her. She played up those divisions to delay it as long as possible, but a revolution was inevitable … right up until a week ago."

"What happened?"

"She recalled all her infiltrators for a big hivewide announcement. In front of everydrone, she called forward her five most powerful underqueens — and then declared herself a goddess, murdered one of them on the spot, and told the other four they had 24 hours to prove her wrong before she killed them. She stopped eight assassination attempts and two military coups that day, and hung the bodies of the underqueens off her balcony the next morning."

I make a mental note to mention that to Celestia — it sure sounds like a just-started-to-loop sort of day.

"Even so, when Chrysalis announced we were going to return to Canterlot, the sheer insanity of it set off a fresh wave of rebellion. Brightest Eyes told me that she and some of our friends were going to flee the hive and beg Celestia for asylum. She asked me to join them, but I was too scared. The next morning, Chrysalis met them at the hive entrance as they were about to leave and killed them all without a word. Thirty seconds before I heard the news, Chrysalis stepped into my chambers long enough to thank me for my loyalty, pat me on the head, and promote me to Elite Infiltrator First Class. She stopped as she was walking out, and added that if I had come to her to turn them in, I'd be an Underqueen now."

Rewarded for abandoning her friends? "Hunh," I say, feeling unexpected pity stir in my breast. "I'm sorry to hear that."

The changeling sniffles and inches around the fire toward me. "That's better than I deserve. But thank you."

Tiny doubts gnaw at me as she scoots over to my side. Yes, she murdered all my friends — but I'll fix that soon enough, and once I do, she'll just be a smart young drone in over her head. Just like I was when I got sent to Ponyville … except that everything I gained in that trip, she had ripped away from her. Why wouldn't she do such monstrous things? And how would I have turned out, if I'd had Chrysalis watching over my foalhood?

She stares forlornly into the fire. The poor thing. I can't help it — I reach out my hoof for a hug. Then she shifts her jaw, and the plates of her neck flex in a motion I recognize immediately.

She's swallowing drool.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics screams in protest as my heart ices over and my blood boils. I'm trying to offer a moment of sympathy and she's sitting there drooling over me!

How dare she? my fury screams, and the cold, rational center has an immediate answer: Because she's a changeling. The worst part is that I can't even blame her for her nature, no more than I could blame the wind for blowing.

I stand abruptly and stalk away from the fire. "Yes, well, your story's so very touching," I say, keeping my voice tightly controlled.

She stares blankly at me. "Twilight? Did I say something —"

I fling a stale cookie from my saddlebags at her, hard enough to make her wince as it bounces off her muzzle and rolls across the clearing. "Eat."

"Ow! Oh. Um." She recovers and glances between me and the now-dirty treat. "I … actually, uh, I get no nutrition from pony food. Would you maybe —"

"No. Which reminds me." I lean forward and narrow my eyes. "Don't you dare pretend I didn't see you sucking Spike's love dry back in the clearing, you filthy parasite."

Her wings quiver. "What? N-no! He was my chance to start redeeming myself. I didn't. I wouldn't."

"And you won't. If I catch you saying one word to Spike, or coming within feeding range of him, or if you even think about changing back into Rarity again … then the only thing you will ever see of me again will be a baseball bat to the face. You have caused quite enough damage already, and every minute I have to watch him get hurt is another hour I can't spend fixing everything." I punctuate it with an almost feral growl, right in her face. "Am. I. Clear."

She shrinks back. "Yes?"

"Good." I point out beyond the firelight. "Then get out of my sight."

She opens her mouth. I give her a glare that would make Fluttershy herself hesitate, and she thinks better of it — backpedaling and then almost galloping for the safety of the forest.

I watch her leave, wait for a few moments, then walk over to the nearest tree. I rear up and slam a forehoof into it, choking back a scream into a sort of incoherent gurgle.

How dare she! How dare she tangle up this mess even further? Already this has ballooned out from stopping an invasion, to outwitting another looper, to saving my dead friends. I have a plan, and the last thing I need is a whole race of parasites to save from tyranny on top of that.

… She's lying. She has to be. I saw how she kept scooting closer to me, and how she drooled. She made it all up to make me feel for her, and then I called her on it and she took off into the night like the lie-filled lying liar she is. In the morning, she'll be halfway to the hive. I'll have no choice but to reset and kill her, like I should have in the first place.

I sag against the tree, trembling. Okay. Breathe. Breathe. I can do this.

"Twilight?" Spike's voice comes from behind me.

I whirl around on reflex. He's standing at the far edge of the clearing, staring at me across the fire, holding a pile of small red spheres in cupped claws. It takes me three tries and two deep breaths to find my voice. "Yes?"

"Are you okay … um. Where'd Rar… the changeling go?" Spike clears his throat. "I, I brought you some … are you okay?"

"Yes," I lie, then retreat to a smaller untruth: "I'll be fine." I force a smile. "What are those?"

He traces a tiny circle in the dirt with the heel of one hindclaw. "I, uh … you saved my life today and I didn't even thank you, I just got upset over you killing the changelings, and I wanted to say sorry, and … and you're my very best friend, Twilight, but I didn't know how to make it up to you, then I thought we're running out of fruit and you might want something nicer than oatmeal for dinner, so I went out and picked some berries."

The receding wave of frustration is overtaken by a tsunami of gratitude, and tears spill from my eyes. "Oh, Spike," I whisper, my throat seizing up. "Thank you." I step over to him, curl my neck around his in a hug, and then grab a giant mouthful of smooth, waxy berries in my horngrip.

They're oddly bitter.

* * *

∆-2 T-9 C-2:

"Well, that sure didn't work."

I stare vacantly at the ever-more-familiar ceiling of the arcane storage vaults' experiment room. Celestia and Luna look at my expression, then exchange a silent glance.

I have to replay that whole farce, don't I? I mean, I don't have to, but every time I try upending major decisions and changing my approach, my life gets even worse. Starting from scratch again won't fix anything — it'll just leave questions I won't be able to answer once my mission's done. I let out a deep sigh.

"A difficult loop, Twilight?" Celestia asks gently.

"Long," I say, getting up. "But not as long as the next one. Be right back. Got a little question for a friend in 581 point 9."

* * *

∆-2 T-10 C-2:

"Oh, Spike," I whisper. "Thank you."

Then I put a hoof on his wrist and push the berries gently away. "But those are Ilex everfricillata, the fruits — technically, drupes — of the wildlands holly. Found in white-flowered shrubs 2 to 10 cubits tall. Highly poisonous to equines."

He makes a little strangled noise and drops them as if they were burning his hands.

I float him our last apple with a smile. "It was a lovely gesture. Let's eat."

"I'm sorry!"

"I know." I root through my saddlebags and pull out a biscuit for myself.

His face drains of color, and I immediately realize that was the wrong thing to say. "You know? Did I —"

"Really," I say, my smile growing forced, "it's alright. No harm done, see?"

"You know things I don't remember. You time-looped. I … I killed you."

"Who hasn't killed me by now?" I float the apple insistently at his face. "You are one hundred percent forgiven. Let's —"

He brushes it away and stares in horror at me. "I killed you. What if you weren't in a loop, Twilight? What if I'd given those to somepony who couldn't fix it?"

"The bug doesn't eat pony food. Please, Spike, let's have dinner."

He's silent for a moment. I can see resolve lighting up in his eyes. Oh no. No no.

"Twilight," he says, "make me a time looper."

Nightmare visions swirl through my mind. More lost memories. More complicated coordination. An endless future of me consoling him through the harsh realities of war.

"Sweet stars, no," I say. "Not even if it worked like that."

"But I'd stop making mistakes, and you'd be less alone."

"NO!" I repeat. "This conversation is over."

We eat. Next to each other. Alone.

I spend the night tossing and turning, and as the first light of dawn reaches the treetops, I open my eyes to the one thing that could make this farce worse: a changeling sitting quietly across the firepit.

I sit up. "What are you still doing here?" I whisper.

"Keeping my end of the deal," she whispers back.

"Oh, come on! You had the perfect opportunity to run. I chased you away."

"I almost did," the bug murmurs, and swallows. "I-I'm pretty sure you plan to kill me. But I have to try. This might be my only chance to save the hive."

"This is some trick," I say, my heart pounding in my chest. "I don't believe you." I can't.

"Why not?"

Does she really need it spelled out? "Even setting aside the whole bit about you killing my friends, you … uh … you're just lying to feed from me."

"Okay, then I promise not to eat until we get there."

She agreed to that far too quickly. "Ha!" I shout. "Look how accommodating you're being. You're leading me into a trap."

At my raised voice, Spike stirs. "Hzbuh?"

"You're time looping, right?" the changeling presses on. "That would only work once, and then you'd know not to trust me. I don't get second chances like you and Chrysalis do. I can't afford to lie."

I'm flailing around for further objections when Spike sits up. "Oh! You're back!" he says far too brightly. "Good morning."

"Good —" she says, before cutting herself off and glancing at me in wide-eyed fear.

Spike looks between the two of us, confused. I press a hoof to the bridge of my muzzle, feeling a migraine coming on. "Fine," I say. "I'll give you your chance. Spike, pack up, and don't talk to the bug. We'll eat on the trail."

As Rambling Rock Ridge rises in elevation, the forest starts thinning. Even with the cloaks, I hadn't been looking forward to crossing the bare ridgetop under heavy aerial surveillance — and with a third traveler tagging along I'm unable to conceal, it would be downright stupid. So we lose the better part of two days in a wet eastward slog up a wooded river canyon in order to get out from under the main changeling flight paths.

The changeling is visibly slowing down by the time we finally crest the ridge. We pause to catch our breath and she points to a dark, solitary peak on the southern horizon, deep in the stark red mesas of the Badlands. "There."

"How far?" I ask.

"About … eight leagues, I think?"

My mood finally brightens. "Eight leagues! That's four hours' brisk trot. We're as good as there."

Two days later, we're sweating under a fierce and cloudless sky, scratched up by manzanita and a few stray cactus thorns, smelling of sage from the chest-high brush we just plowed through, staring at the walls of a box canyon that I could have sworn wasn't on my topographic map.

"Cheer up," I say, prodding at the crumbling sandstone cliff in front of us. "Once we climb out of here, only one more fork of the Coltarado River to go."

"Hnh," Spike grunts, glancing wearily up at the top of the mesa.

The changeling plods forward at a slow, even pace, head drooped. When she reaches the canyon wall, she stops for a moment, panting. She lifts one leg, then another, her trembling limbs finding tenuous holds on tiny edges of rock. She hoists her body up, leans into the steep slope while she catches her breath, and repeats. I sit, pull our last biscuit out of my saddlebag, and share it with Spike while I wait for her to make some progress.

A mere six cubits up, a rock under her hindlimb gives way, clattering down the canyon wall. She faceplants, then slides down the rock, bouncing off a small outcropping at shoulder level and pitching backward, wings weakly buzzing. Her body hits the sandy canyon floor with a muffled thump, and she lies flat on her back, limbs spreadeagled, thorax heaving.

Spike leaps to his feet. "Are you okay?"

"Don't talk to the bug," I sharply remind him, and glance over. "A slip like that would knock the wind out of anypony. Give her a minute."

I finish my half of the biscuit. She still hasn't moved. I walk over. "Come on. Get up."

Her jaw works soundlessly for a few moments as her chest rises and falls. Her chitin looks abnormally pale, closer to Thunderlane's grey than to a changeling's black. "Can't," she whispers, in a voice that sounds more like the rustle of the passing wind than the product of a throat. "Sorry. Wasn't strong enough. Please … Twilight … save the hive."

"What's going on?" Spike asks.

I pull out Home Run dispassionately. If she thinks she can worm out of her promise by faking need, she's got a nasty surprise coming.

Spike lets out a strangled cry, lunges for the bat, and yanks it out of my horngrip. "Twilight!"

I grab him, pin him down with a hoof, and snatch Home Run back. "Stop that."

Spike shoves up at my leg. I stagger off balance for a moment, and he rolls away, scrambling over to the changeling and throwing himself atop her body. Her eyes widen. "No! Don't do this!" Spike begs.

"Spike," I say, shifting the bat around in an unsuccessful attempt to find a line of attack that doesn't go through him, "step away from the parasite who is as we speak drooling over her next meal."

The bug swallows. Saliva nevertheless streams from a corner of her mouth. "Spike," she whispers. "Stop." Her gaze shifts to me, eyes wide in panic. "Stop him. Get him away."

I set Home Run aside and grab Spike in my horngrip. "No! Twilight, you're better than this!" he shouts as I lift, clinging for all he's worth. The changeling's body effortlessly rises along with him, and I almost drop them both in surprise: She weighs no more than he does.

She walked herself into starvation for me.

Spike notices, too. "She's starving, Twilight! You never shared any of our food with her, and now you want to kill her for being hungry? How could you do this to her?"

My reply dies on my lips as I hear that question in another voice: my own. I'm sorry, Twilight, Celestia's voice echoes. You must think I'm a monster.

I do drop them at that.

"No," I stammer. "I'm not a monster. I can't be! This doesn't count. Everything's going to turn out okay, so this loop won't matter."

Spike picks himself up and stands between me and the helpless and drooling changeling, arms outstretched in shelter. "It matters to her. It matters to me."

I have to laugh incredulously at that. "No it doesn't, Spike! How can you matter when you won't remember?"

He stares at me, stunned. I see his eyes start to fill with tears.

Oh, road apples. Well, that was a Pferdian slip. "I mean, of course you matter," I backpedal. "But real you matters, not now you, because nothing is real until I get the loop right." I try changing the subject. "I'm doing this for you, don't you see? Undoing all the bad things so the real you can have all his friends back. And me, too. The real me, not the monster I have to be now to save us. I love you, Spike."

"But …"

I step forward and put a hoof on his shoulder, staring earnestly into his eyes, feeling tears of my own build. "Please, Spike. I'm just asking you to trust me for a little while longer. I love you, don't I? Trust that I'll make it right."

"But you'll remember," he says.

My blood freezes. "What?"

"I killed you! You remember that. M-maybe I'm just fake Spike to you, but I'm the same dragon as real Spike, aren't I? And I k-killed you, and now you'll never forget, and you'll love real Spike less and less." Tears spill down his cheeks. "Is that why you're treating me like this?"

I'm barely even listening. Two words echo accusingly in my head: You'll remember.

Spike will forget me walking away as he sobbed himself to sleep. Spike will forget me using him as bait in my trap, and killing dozens of changelings around him. Spike will forget me making him cry by telling him he didn't matter. But Twilight will remember, won't she? And when real Twilight looks at real Spike, after all the fighting is over, she's going to see every single time she ever hurt him.

I don't want to lose you too, Spike had said.

I sink to the ground, light-headed. I finally understand.

* * *

∆-2 T-11 C-2:

"Well, that sure didn't work."

I leap to my hooves, lunge at Spike, and clamp him in a hug with my forelegs, tears streaming down my face.

"Ack!" he says, arms flailing. "Twilight?"

"I'm sorry," I sob. "I'm so sorry. I promised you I'd make it right, b-but I … this can't wait until the looping's done."

"Huh? Twilight, what happened?"

I laugh through my tears. It comes out as a hiccup. He doesn't remember; he won't remember. But every moment I'm a monster kills real Twilight a little more, and if real Twilight lets herself die, there won't be anypony left for him to love when we win.

"Spike," I say, wiping my cheeks off and smiling at him, "take a letter."

"You know, I am standing right next to you," Celestia says from the other side of the evocation circle.

"Yes, but this is an official friendship report, and there's protocol," I say, letting Spike go and floating him a parchment and quill from my saddlebags. "Dear Princess Celestia. Today … no, scratch that. Seven days from now, I … will have learned … an important lesson from my very best friend. 'This loop matters.' In the future, if I ever act like I'm starting to forget that lesson, I humbly beg you with all my heart that you do anything it takes to remind me. Your faithful student, Twilight Sparkle."

Spike finishes writing, rolls up the parchment, and looks between it and Celestia. He thinks for a moment, shrugs, and breathes a long blast of green flame. The scroll promptly vaporizes — then recoalesces inside his fire, the travel magic discharged. It bursts into flames as it falls to the ground.

Four sets of eyes stare at the burning parchment. Luna glances sideways at her sister and giggles, and soon we're all helplessly laughing.

"Hunh," I say once I recover. "Well, that's two things I learned today."

* * *

∆-2 T-12 C-3:

The stars are beautiful tonight. There's not a cloud in the sky, and without the lights of civilization around me, the glow of the cosmos is on breathtaking display from zenith to horizon. But I'm too antsy to enjoy the sights. The instant a meteor flashes across the sky, I whirl around and quickly tiphoof back to camp. Spike's curled in a tight ball next to the firepit, staring vacantly down at the shimmering heat of the embers.

"I'm back," I repeat. "Thinking about our friends?"

"I'm sorry." His reply is reflexive and subdued. "I … I just can't believe they're gone."

"Oh, Spike," I whisper, lying down behind him. I snuggle up against his back and drape a leg over his chest, staring into the firepit with him. "I miss them too."

He sniffles, then sobs into my arm. "I-I'm trying to be strong for you … I know how important this mission is. B-but …"

"Shhh. It's alright. There will be time for you to be strong later." I nuzzle his head. "It took me time, too. You should have seen me dozens of loops ago, when I first found out."

He huddles against me, taking a few deep breaths to steady himself. "But what if you're in danger and I'm too busy crying to notice? I can't lose you too, Twilight. I just can't."

Up above us, there's a muffled click, and then a barrage of phut-phut sounds as tranquilizer darts launch from the half-dozen traps I rigged. There's a loud yowl and the cracks of broken branches, and then the body of a comatose shadowcat plunges down through the brush to crash-land in a snoring heap just outside our firelight.

"You won't," I say. "Not if I have anything to say about it."

Author's Note:

Among Monsters, Part 3 will publish Tuesday, Feb. 25.

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