• 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 (3)

"Now remember," Bon Bon says, "the area's swarming with rebels, but they're desperate and demoralized, looking for heroes like us. Act confident and friendly. When we get close to the castle, Underqueen Longscratch will lead an attack on us to sell our cover. Fight back, and fight … huh?" She looks down at the baseball that just rolled into her hoof. "Noy jitat, Wing Wing! Stop fooling around!"

The cross-eyed mailmare shrinks back. "It wasn't me!"

"Whose is this?" Bon Bon demands. She's met with silence.

"Um, there's writing on the back," Fluttershy says, pointing.

Bon Bon rolls it over. "'Property of … Snugglepuss'?"

The things-that-are-not-my-friends start glancing nervously around the forest. All is silent.

"Group into squadrons," Bon Bon orders. "Search the area. Stay with your teammates at all times, and within sight of the next nearest squad." She leans down to sniff the baseball suspiciously. "Is it just me, or does this smell … tasty?"

I drop my sound-dampening charm, gaining back enough focus for a spell to snap Snugglepuss out of his dart-induced sedation. He wakes up with a snort. His nostrils flare. His pupils immediately turn into little hearts. His head swivels, fixating on the baseball.

Moments later, amid screams and scrambling and flailing, a six-cubit-long shadowcat bursts into the clearing. The changelings scatter. Somepony kicks the baseball as they're stampeding away. Snugglepuss skids, corners, and pounces. Applejack shrieks and bucks him in the head, and gets grabbed by the leg and flung across the clearing for her trouble. I grab the ball in horn and shoot it back toward Bon Bon's hooves, and Snugglepuss is off again, bowling over Dash and Pinkie and leaping for their leader.

Amid the chaos, Rarity scrambles behind the tree I'm using for cover. Really, how much easier can it get? I poke her in the neck with one of the unused darts, and her eyes roll up as she drops to the ground. I hoist her over my back, throw the second invisibility cloak atop her, and walk off, terminating the Want-It-Need-It enchantment as I go. The last I hear of Snugglepuss is a long receding yowl as he exits stage left, pursued by half a dozen changelings.

I rejoin Spike in an isolated glade a 20-minute walk away. "Welcome back, Twilight," he says. "I cross-referenced the berries I picked against the pocket botany guide."

"Excellent! I pulled off a clean snatch-and-dash. No killing."

He nods in approval, but his eyes widen for a moment as I pull the cloak off Rarity and lower her to the ground. "That's … the changeling you told me about, right?"

"Yeah. Please let me do the talking for a while. I need to convince her to cooperate with us again."

Spike acquiesces, so I cast an awakening charm and lean back against an oak tree by her side. "Wakey, wakey."

She stirs, rolling upright. Her wandering eyes finally lock on mine. She freezes.

"Relax," I say. "I'm here to help."

The changeling leans over and discreetly sniffs at me. For a moment, she looks confused, then covers it up by lunging further in for an embrace. "Twilight!" she coos in Rarity's melodic soprano, though she can't quite keep an edge of panic out of her voice. "It truly IS you! I was so worried, darling —"

I put a hoof to her chest and push her away. "You can drop the act. We've met, but you don't remember it. I'm time looping — the same way that Chrysalis is."

She hesitates at that, and I do a little fishing. "You told me about her putting down your hive's rebellion, and about what happened to your friend … what was her name? Bright Wing?"

"… I told you about Brightest Eyes?"

I nod. Good. Redundant verification never hurts.

"Then you already know why it would be insane of me to trust you," she says, backing away.

Less good. "Hey. Whatever happened to 'you're my only chance to save the hive'?"

"Look, I don't know whether you're crazy, lying, or just stupid, but you clearly don't understand. She's unstoppable, and I'm not going to betray her for some pony who she's going to fry with a thought before tearing me limb from limb."

I sigh behind a smile. Why isn't she cooperating? I wonder for a moment if she sold me a fake sob story as she died, but it defies logic that the changeling who begged for her life back at the train would be brave enough to sacrifice herself for a lie. No, she must have been telling the truth, which mean's there's something else going on here.

… Another complication. A small voice in the back of my head starts screaming bloody murder, but I ignore it. This loop matters. The changeling matters. If I'm going to set things right, I'm going to fix her problem too, and we're going to tackle it together. New, non-monstrous me will figure out what's going on, and I'm going to prove once again that the power of friendship will always prevail.

I lean forward. "Okay. Forget for a moment about Chrysalis, and trust, and saving the hive. Let's just talk."

* * *

∆-2 T-15 C-3:

"Wakey, wakey."

She stirs, rolling upright. Her wandering eyes finally lock on mine. She freezes.

"Relax, Crooked Fang," I say, putting a hoof on her withers and smiling. "I'm a friendly time looper — Equestria's answer to Chrysalis. We've already cooperated in previous loops; I'm just getting a new start on our joint mission to save your hive."

"What —"

"You were sixth egg to hatch from your clutch. Your favorite food is unrequited. Before your promotion last week, you were infiltrating Ponyville as a flower seller named Azalea. You vomited when you burned the train. You're trying to keep an eye on Wing Wing, because you think her enthusiasm will get her into trouble. You have misgivings about your current mission, because the hive has more than enough food now and the rebels don't have the numbers to pose any problems."

Crooked Fang's eyes widen a little further at each revelation. She backs away, shrugging off my hoof. "No. No … I'm loyal. I wouldn't cross her. Where's the Underqueen? Let me go."

I sigh. "Come on. How would I know all those things if I wasn't telling the truth?"

She looks around nervously. "How else? She's behind this somehow."

* * *

∆-2 T-21 C-4:

I'm silent as she stirs, rolling upright. Her wandering eyes finally lock on mine. She blinks, disoriented.

"You're not giving me much to work with yet," I say.


"Nothing. Do I look like a foalnapper?"

Crooked Fang freezes. "What are you going to do with me?" she squeaks.

"Oh, I am," I say. "You just don't realize it yet."

There's a few moments of silence at that. "You're not making any sense."

"No, you're not."

She backs away slowly. "I … uh, I'm going to leave now."

"Because you just realized I've been responding to your statements before you made them."

Crooked Fang opens her mouth, then closes it again. She blinks several times. Then her jaw falls open. "Noy jitat."

Now that I have her full attention, I run back through my summary and personal information. "Finally, think about that demonstration for a bit," I conclude. "Facts about you are one thing, but predicting your words in real time should be sufficient evidence that I've got the same powers Chrysalis does. Also, you're disguised as Rarity, so you know who I am — and it should be obvious Chrysalis is the last being in the universe I'd ever work for. This is on the level, Crooked Fang."

I'm quiet for a while to let her digest that. She finally nods. "I believe you."

I give her a weary but genuine smile. "Great. Then let's get going. C'mon, Spike." I levitate my saddlebags onto my back and start walking. She doesn't move.

I look back at her. "What's the hold-up?"

"I … I believe that you're time-looping. But I can't help you."

I facehoof. "Stars and fishes. Why?"

"It doesn't matter how sneaky you are or how much help you have. She's unstoppable. Conquering Canterlot —"

"— is like climbing a mountain with your fangs, yes, yes. The thing is, we've got the power to undo everything she's done, as if it never was. I'm just trying to help you out, too, along the way."

"No, you don't," Crooked Fang says.

"I don't what?"

"You don't have the power to fight her. If you did, Canterlot wouldn't have fallen."

"I know that's how it looks, but Celestia and I are simply letting a bad future play out in order to run a special mission before resetting and fixing things."

"I can't take your word for that."

I stare at Crooked Fang in disbelief. "What is with you? You were begging for my help half a dozen loops ago."

She looks at me dubiously. "That makes no sense."

"Tell me about it," I mutter.

"Hmm. What did you say to convince me, half a dozen loops ago?"

I think for a moment. My face goes pale.

* * *

"Well, that sure didn't work."

I sit up. "Delta-2, T-22, C-4."

Celestia takes a deep breath before answering. "Delta-2, T-22, C-5. You asked a difficult question. My answer led to … more awkwardness than there needed to be. I'm deeply sorry, Twilight, but I had to reset. Please, let's try that again."

"Awkward how?" I ask, but the pained look on her muzzle is enough to dampen my curiosity. "Um. Never mind."

She nods. Silence falls. Luna and Spike glance between us.

"You had a question," Celestia prompts.

"You already know it. I thought you were going to answer."

"I'm not the only one here with relevant experience."

"Fair enough." I clear my throat. "Princess … er, princesses. I need some advice from one time looper to another. Are there some good outcomes which are only achievable through evil acts?"

Celestia inclines her muzzle to me, but she's looking over at Luna while she speaks. "I have three answers to that question, and it's extremely important that you consider them as a group rather than passing judgment on them one by one."

"Alright," I say.

"The first is the truth: Yes."

"Celestia!" Luna's voice is sharp. "How dare —"

"Please let me finish. The second answer is that this is a truth to whisper only in private, a truth we dare not allow the world to learn — for the light of harmony would be snuffed out if every pony committed evil acts, no matter how selfless the ultimate ends."

"Sister. Stop. I will not allow —"

"The third," Celestia says, bodily turning and staring straight into Luna's eyes, "and the most painful, is that this is a truth you must never allow yourself to believe. Even at the best of times, the line between a necessary evil and an unnecessary one is deceptive. Once upon a time, I convinced myself that something very, very wrong was necessary." Her voice softens. "I was mistaken, and it remains the greatest regret of my life."

Luna is silent at that. Her lower lip trembles.

"You should reset," Celestia says, still holding Luna's gaze.

"You must listen to me first, Twilight. She is wrong," Luna says quietly. "Lost in her time loop, or driven mad by this invasion. I assure you I know more of regrets than she ever will, and I promise you that evil acts will always extract their price from you. They are never justified."

"That's not what she asked," Celestia says. "She asked if there were good ends only achievable that way. Twilight, without Luna's banishment and my subsequent looping, today's Equestria would have been impossible. It wasn't worth it, but it's here, and millions of ponies over hundreds of years lived … live … in an unprecedented utopia. That's no small thing."

I open my mouth to mention that Equestria also prospered before I changed history to make her loop — then I remember someone was looping the whole time, and start to wonder whether she's got a point despite being technically wrong.

Luna's voice interrupts that thought before it can go anywhere. "Twilight Sparkle, know this," she says. "Once upon a time, I convinced myself that something very, very wrong was necessary. I was correct … and it remains the greatest regret of my life. If I find you also travelling down that path, I promise you, I will end you."

"Luna," Celestia says quietly, "you will not threaten my student."

"That was a boon, not a threat. What I offer would be the greatest mercy." Luna stares at me, and her eyes are the implacable chill of the endless void.

I shiver. I'm glad I'm not getting the "awkward" version of this.

* * *

∆-2 T-23 C-6:

"Hmm. What did you say to convince me, half a dozen loops ago?"

I take a deep breath. "Truthfully? I killed all your friends and threatened your life. You helped me because I made you think I was scarier than Chrysalis."

Crooked Fang looks at me wide-eyed. "I. Uh."

"That was wrong of me. I'm sorry. I won't do it again."

"… Okay, wait. Are you serious?"

"As a burning train."

She winces. I remain silent while she paces around the clearing. "I guess I deserved that," she finally says. "Look … I want to give you a chance. After what I did, I owe you that much. And I do appreciate you being, well, kinder than I deserve. I just … I can't, not without some reason to believe this is any more than an elaborate suicide plan."

"Fair enough. Is there anything I can do to convince you that doesn't involve me acting like a monster?"

She thinks. "Actually … yes. Save the pony resistance. There's eight wings of changelings here, so they're outnumbered about four to one. Between that and our elite infiltrators within their ranks, they're doomed. Saving them is nothing compared to going up against Chrysalis, but it'll at least prove you've got some slim, crazy hope."

"Alright. In that case …"

* * *

∆-2 T-24 C-8:

The stars are beautiful tonight. There are an awful lot of them, too, from our vantage point at the top of the Rambling Rock ridgeline. I can feel Spike clinging to my back, but with our invisibility cloaks on, we're merely ghosts flitting under the unbroken bowl of the sky. Aside from the thin crunch of my hooves on gravel — which is quickly lost in the stiff night breeze — the two of us might as well not even exist.

I spare one last glance back across the sprawl of the Everfree — the dots of campfires flaring out in the augmented light of my night-vision charm, and the distant silhouette of the castle where the resistance is about to be wiped out — before turning my back and walking south.

You have to know when to cut your losses.

I'm in a timeline that shouldn't be, in a future that really shouldn't be. As much as each individual loop matters, the good future matters, too — the future where Crooked Fang never killed anypony, and the resistance she wants me to save doesn't exist. I'm only here to put Chrysalis on the defensive; I can't afford to get dragged into another fight where she can pick and choose how to sabotage what I'm protecting.

I'll redeem Crooked Fang and save her hive. For what she taught me, I can't do any less.

I'll just have to do it without her help.

Author's Note:

And that wraps the arc of Twilight's wilderness wandering. The start of the next arc, "Memory Leaks," will post Tuesday, March 11 — two weeks from now. (To partially make up for the delay, it will be about twice the size of this chapter.) Please see comments below.

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