• Published 6th May 2012
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Space Captain Pinkie Pie - terrycloth



Rainbow Dash reveals the little-known fact that pegasi can survive in outer space.

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17: Traps and Wards

Rainbow Dash and Derpy – released from the Here to Help with the understanding that she would under no circumstances be allowed near a mining ray – were not a replacement for Twilight’s magic, although once they took a side trip to the crash site to get the moon ponies’ wrecked cart they weren’t insanely slow. They were slow enough that there was no point having more than one moon pony on the mining ray, though, so Tess was standing guard, looking out for any sign of the creature that had attacked Twilight through her magic, just in case it was a surface-dwelling, visible creature with a physical body that she could shoot, which frankly she thought was a bit unlikely.

-I don’t get it,- sent Tess. -They struggle to lift the individual rocks to fill the cart, then once it’s full of dozens of them they grab the chains and fly the whole thing out without any apparent effort.-

-Well, duh. It’s always easier to haul weight than to lift it,- Pinkie Pie replied. -I mean, that’s why we have carts.-

-Don’t think about it too hard, Tess,- Chance said. -You’ll break something.-

-No. That’s not an option. If we ever want to get out of here, we need to know how this place works,- Tess said. -And if we never get out of here, we really need to know how it works. How can you just sit there and not care?-

-If we get safely down to Equestria, I can show you some wonderful books on pegasus flight physics,- Twilight said. -The more rigorous ones require a background in magical theory, of course, but there are plenty written for laymares.- She paused. -When we get down. When. Not if. Because nothing will go wrong!-

-Bit late for that,- Chance said, lining up his mining ray as the pegasi vacated the tunnel with the last load of rocks.

-Nothing important will go wrong,- Twilight corrected herself.

-It’s kind of important for you to be able to use your magic,- Pinkie Pie pointed out, -since you still haven’t cast your bounce-off-the-thunderstorm spell on the ship.-

-Nothing fatal will -- -

-Stop!- said both moon ponies, interrupting Twilight before she could finish.

-Nothing apocalyptic will go wrong!- Pinkie Pie proclaimed. -We won’t fulfill any ancient prophecies of doom! Princess Luna won’t appear in a puff of smoke and demand to see our moon-mining permits!-

Right about then, Chance fired the final ‘exploding’ blast from his mining ray, and the moon rock around his latest bore hole shattered and slumped, just as expected. What was less expected was the puff of smoke from the rubble. Every pony stared nervously, but Princess Luna failed to materialize.

-Just a gas pocket,- Chance said. -Nothing to worry about.-

Rainbow Dash and Derpy went to work clearing the frost-covered rocks, until the two suddenly stopped working and stared into the back of the tunnel. Rainbow Dash grabbed her stylus in her mouth and wrote, -are gas pockets usually square?-

===

Every pony from the mining team gathered in the square chamber unveiled by their excavations. It was obviously artificial – the right angles were a dead giveaway, and there was strange writing all over the walls that no pony could read. There was also what looked like a waypoint teleport pad from any of a number of fantasy-themed games sitting in the middle of the room, which Rainbow Dash confirmed led to a matching pad hidden under the dust at the top of the ridge they’d been tunneling through.

-I can’t believe you just did that!- Tess said, when the rainbow-maned pegasus reappeared in the circle a few seconds after vanishing. Rainbow just grinned and did a little flip in the lack-of-air. Tess was about to yell at her more before remembering that Rainbow hadn’t even read her first outburst yet, and wasn’t deliberately mocking her.

-What did she do?- asked Twilight over the transmitter. -Is she alright? This is so frustrating! There you are investigating an honest-to-Celestia ancient ruin, and I have to sit here and… eat cake, apparently. Thanks, Pinkie.-

Chance stood near the center of the chamber, just next to the teleport pad. He carefully turned around to get a good look at the entire room – carefully because the room was aligned with the surface of the moon, which made it dangerously tilted for ponies that couldn’t fly. -There,- he said, making his way to a section of the left wall. -The pattern changes here. I bet it’s a door.-

Rainbow Dash flew over and kicked the prospective door, to no effect. -How do we open it?- she scribbled.

-Everypony stand back,- Chance said, as he unslung his mining ray. -Or use the teleporter.-

After the dust had settled, and Chance defrosted himself from the new blast of air released by melting the wall, the four explorers looked down the forty foot corridor his excavation revealed. At the far end was another square chamber, with another teleport pad. –We’re in luck,- Chance sent, after describing the setup in detail for Twilight and the others. –This is probably some sort of security checkpoint.-

-Lucky us,- Tess sent, -we get to play with the security system.-

-The what?- Rainbow Dash wrote, giving Tess a look.

-Traps,- Chance translated for her.

-Traps?- Rainbow Dash wrote. –Awesome!-

-Be careful, - Twilight said. –This isn’t a Daring Do novel!-

-Are you sure?- Pinkie Pie asked. –It sure seems like one to me. I bet that tunnel is just full of traps!-

-I’ll check,- Rainbow Dash said, before swooping down the corridor fast enough to leave a rainbow trail. Behind her, force fields sprung to life, walls slammed together like crushing hooves, darts shot from tiny holes, and a set of massive scythe blades slashed through the middle of the corridor, right where a pony’s head would be if they were travelling at a more reasonable speed.

-Yep! Just like Daring Do,- Rainbow Dash wrote from the far end, as the traps reset themselves, vanishing or retracting into the walls, which once again looked like bare, seamless stone. -Who’s next?-

-How do you think they’re triggered?- Chance sent. –She didn’t touch any of the walls or the floor, and there’s no air for sound or pressure triggers. Coherent light in the tenth of an inch – right. You don’t even have a word for that.-

-They probably just used magic,- Twilight said, from the Here to Help.

-Can you be more specific?- Chance asked.

-They’re probably magical traps,- Twilight said, pedantically, -using the ‘magical trap’ spell. -

Chance put a hand to his forehead, and asked, -How do we keep them from triggering?-

–The spell’s senses aren’t very good, so it’s too easy to fool if you try to have it recognize specific ponies,- Twilight said. -So it’s usually set up with a ritual of some sort to tell the trap not to trigger.-

-Like a password,- Chance sent. –Hopefully not a password, since we let out all the air.-

Tess, meanwhile, was crouched near the entrance of the tunnel, staring carefully at the tilted floor. –There’s a pressure plate,- she said. –Why would there be a pressure plate if it’s triggered by magic?- She reached into the tunnel, and poked at the faintly-outlined square. It sank slightly into the floor, then popped back up as she released the pressure. –I get it,- she said, standing up, and stepping onto the plate. No trap triggered.

-Really?- Chance said, as Tess hopped and danced her way down the tunnel. –That’s it? Step on the pressure plates to disable the traps?-

-There’s some fake ones,- Tess said, as she hesitated, looking left and right, about halfway down the tunnel, before making her choice and continuing. –But yeah, pretty simple, compared to what we usually run into. We should loot magic temples more often.-

Chance followed Tess without incident, and then it was Derpy’s turn. She stood near the tunnel, and uncertainly reached out towards the first pressure plate with a shakey hoof.

Rainbow Dash flew back up the tunnel, setting off all the traps, and tackled Derpy away from the opening. -WAIT HERE,- she wrote in large letters on her paper, -WATCH FOR ENEMIES.- She showed it to Derpy, waiting until she nodded that she’d understood, then taped it to the other pegasus’ hoof, and with a toss of her head flipped the lanyard with the stylus off her neck and gave that to Derpy too.

Derpy saluted, and sat down to stand guard.

===

Shining Armor, Captain of the Royal Guard, shuffled his hoof uncomfortably as his strongest guards bashed their shoulders against Luna’s door again, to no effect.

“I think we almost got it that time! I felt it give!” said Sharp Wing, as he stood back up and resisted the urge to poke at his bruised shoulder.

“It’s designed to give,” Shining Armor said, horn glowing as he analyzed the ward for any sign of weakness. “Semi-flexible barriers are harder to shatter. I designed the alteration myself after the changeling incident.”

“You’re the one who cast the ward,“ Blazing Arrow noted. “You cast all the wards. Can’t you just turn it off?”

“A year ago, I could have,” Shining Armor replied. “After the incident, I personally went through everything to make sure there were no back-doors to circumvent security, even for myself.” Shining Armor had been mind-controlled by the changeling queen during the incident, and as a result, the changeling invaders had had access to all the guards’ secrets and codes. The battle had gone poorly.

Designing security procedures that still worked even with half the guard subverted and the enemy in possession of all secret information had been difficult, but Luna had been surprisingly knowledgeable about such things, and had helped him design a completely air-tight system. Once he somehow managed to teach his guards to quickly multiply twelve-figure prime numbers, they might even be able to put it into practice.

But Celestia forbid that the Princess of the Night actually follow the procedures she herself had helped develop. Instead, as soon as something went the slightest bit wrong, her suspiciously un-pony-like guards were flitting through the hallways like shadows, disappearing key members of the palace staff.

“Can we teleport past with an invisibility charm, and open it from inside?” suggested Shifting Sands.

Shining Armor shook his head. “Only if you want your teleport redirected to the castle dungeon.”

Blazing Arrow looked to the side. “Blast through the walls from an adjoining room?”

“They’re covered. Floor and ceiling too.”

Sharp Wing eyed the two unicorn guards. “Have the 'corns hold the barrier rigid while we try to break through?”

“We tried that first,” Blazing Arrow said. “It only made the barrier stronger.”

Shifting Sands eyed the door impassively. “Have we tried knocking?”

Shining Armor walked up to the door, and knocked three times. The wards were soundproof, with the door closed, but he imagined the night guards snickering at him from behind the barrier.

The door opened, after a few seconds, although the purple force-field covering the opening meant that they’d left it locked. One of the night guard stared at him silently from behind it with her creepy yellow eyes.

“Do you think you could keep it down?” she asked. “The Princess has a headache.”

“The princesses don’t get headaches,” Shining Armor replied. “The guard should be involved.”

The night guard scowled. “Involving the guard means dealing with your ridiculous security procedures that you can’t even manage the math for. We’ll handle this ourselves.”

Shining Armor leaned towards her, his horn almost touching the barrier. “Kidnapping the medical staff means involving the guard, whether you want it to or not. At the very least, you need to inform Celestia.”

“Okay!” she said, with sudden fake cheerfulness. “I’ll go inform Celestia.” The barrier sparkled as it altered itself to let her through. “In the meantime, keep the noise down, ‘k?”

“We’re going with you,” Shining Armor said. “Guard, fall in. Escort procedure delta.”

“Yes sir!” came the chorus as the guards saluted.

===

The three explorers teleported into a huge vaulted chamber, lit by glowing runes spiraling their way up six supporting pillars, each in a different color of the rainbow. The teleport pad was in the middle of a roughly fifty-foot diameter platform suspended over a foggy abyss, surrounded by couches and tables, with the occasional fountain or statue in no obvious pattern. Six narrow bridges arched from the center platform, between each pair of pillars, ending in large, ornate doors.

“Sweet,” said Rainbow Dash, taking it all in. The moon ponies looked at her, alarmed, as they realized that the room was full of breathable air.

“This is… elaborate,” Chance said, frowning a bit. He sniffed at the air. “It’s not even musty. Whatever they use for life support must still be running.”

-I can’t believe you’re actually breathing the air,- Tess sent, keeping her mouth and other orifices sealed shut, running on her internal oxygen recycler. She nodded towards Rainbow Dash, who was flitting around poking the cushions and tasting the fountains, without a care in the world. -We already have one test subject; we don’t need two of you keeling over from some invisible toxin.-

-You found a section with air?- Twilight Sparkle asked, from the ship.

-Yep. It looks like the whole complex is pressurized,- Chance replied. –It’s a shame we don’t know where we are after that last teleport, or you and Pinkie Pie could join us here.-

-And then we’d have four test subjects,- Tess said sarcastically. -Almost a clinical trial.-

-You have the coordinates for the teleport pad, right?- Twilight Sparkle asked. –The one past all the traps? A few seconds in vacuum isn’t going to kill us. We could probably get Derpy, too.-

-What happened to ‘not using magic’?- Tess asked.

-One little bitty teleport shouldn’t hurt,- Pinkie Pie said. –Well, it shouldn’t hurt more than any other time I have to kick Twilight in the face. You’d be surprised how often that comes up!-

-Well… it’s a risk,- Chance said, -but it would take a lot of pressure off the Here to Help’s energy stores. We could shut down everything.-

-Then it’s settled!- Twilight said eagerly. –Send me the coordinates, and we’ll all explore these ancient ruins together!-

-Not so fast,- Chance said. –If you’re going to be teleporting to us anyway, we should really have you bring some supplies. We’re kitted out for mining, not salvage. We don’t even have any rope, and you can hardly explore a strange alien temple without rope.-

It took twenty minutes to find everything on the moon ponies’ list of ‘essentials’, and another ten to bundle it all on Twilight and Pinkie Pie’s backs. Five minutes after that, they were still trying to satisfy Tess that they actually had everything.

-The scanner. You’re absolutely sure you have the scanner, right?- Tess asked.

-Is that the little hard glass square thing that glows when you turn it on but I won’t turn it on again because you said not to do that?- Pinkie Pie asked.

-Yes. That.-

-Nope! Don’t have it,- Pinkie Pie said.

Twilight sighed, -I have it. Pinkie, this is going slowly enough without fooling around.-

-But it’d seem three times as slow if I wasn’t fooling around,- Pinkie protested.

-What we really need is a checklist,- Twilight said. –Chance, you still have your notebook, right? I can start reading off items -- -

- -0.256 9716 -2066,- Chance said, almost as bored as the near-comatose Rainbow Dash, who couldn’t even hear the conversation.

- Eee! We’re on our way!- Twilight said.

Chance and Tess watched the teleport pad, but Twilight and Pinkie failed to appear. After about 30 seconds, they started to get worried. Suddenly, both of them looked down at the floor as a signal came in from completely the wrong direction.

-Okay, the good news is that I didn’t get possessed trying to teleport,- Twilight said. –The other good news is that wherever we are has air. I think we ran into some sort of anti-teleport barrier that redirected us, because this is nothing at all like the chamber you described.-

-We’re in jail!- Pinkie Pie added, happily. –And it’s a super-duper awesome high tech science fiction jail with a force field instead of bars!-

-I’m glad some pony’s happy about this,- Twilight grumped.

-Am I!- Pinkie Pie said. –Do you know how long it’s been since I got to sing my jail songs?-

-We’ve got a vector on your current location,- Chance sent back. –We’ll be there as soon as we can.-

-Hurry!- Twilight Sparkle said, as Pinkie Pie started to hum the opening melody.

===

“Halt!” said the guards standing watch outside Celestia’s door, crossing their halberds to symbolically block passage.

“Captain Shining Armor and patrol, with a pony of interest, to see Celestia.”

The guards didn’t budge. “This is an unscheduled visit. We’ll need to verify.”

Shining Armor nodded. “Of course.” Then waited as the guard fetched the secure abacus from the rack near the door, and stuck his muzzle inside its opaque casing as he fiddled with the beads. After a few minutes, he hoofed it over, and Shining Armor read the public key off the guard’s breastplate and used it to decode the encrypted sign, then re-encoded it, along with his daily authorization certificate from Celestia herself. They passed the abacus back and forth a few more times to complete the hoofshaking process.

The night guard snorted, her face screwed up as she held back a laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Shining Armor asked as he floated the abacus back to its wall sconce.

She lost it, bursting into giggles. “I can’t believe you actually went through the whole process. With an abacus!”

The guard captain frowned. “You should show more respect. Princess Luna herself helped us develop these procedures. We’re working on a way to make them less… cumbersome.”

“I know, I know,” the night guard said. “Well? Did he do it right? Can we go in now?”

“He checks out,” the door guard replied. “We’ll contact Celestia.”

===

Pinkie Pie’s prison songs were surprisingly melodic, even with only her own tapping hooves as accompaniment.

“I was once a happy camper, eating cupcakes in the park,
“then a navigation error left me trapped here in the dark.
“I was thrown into a dungeon, in a city on the moon,
“and I really hope they come to feed me soon!”

Twilight joined in for the chorus, hooking her forelegs against Pinkie Pie and spinning her around with a somewhat risqué dance move, the two of them balanced against each other as they pranced about on their hind legs.

“I’ve been banished! Banished!
“All my hope has! Vanished!
“And my greatest fear… does any pony even know I’m heeeeeeeere?”

Twilight half-tossed, half-levitated Pinkie Pie onto the prison cell’s single tiny bed, and the pink pony made a face of surpassing sorrow as she folded herself up atop the threadbare sheet and sang the next verse.

“I’ve cried ‘till I was dry, I’ve screamed ‘till I was hoarse,
My mind spins round and round as I reiterate… the –“

The song cut off as the light outside the cell flickered, and the two imprisoned ponies watched in awe as a swirling cloud of blue mist spun itself out of nothingness, and resolved into a semitransparent image of Nightmare Moon.

“Princess Luna?” Twilight Sparkle said, uncertainly, bowing to her through the cell’s force-field wall just in case, but keeping an eye on her.

“Foals!”screamed the Nightmare. “I see my defenses are still as impenetrable as ever. Tell me why I shouldn’t leave you here to rot? By what right do you invade my ancient home?”

“Are you –“ Pinkie Pie asked, eyes going wide. “Are you asking to see our moon mining permit?”

“MINING!?” shouted the image, leaning forwards, enraged.

“No! No mining!” Twilight Sparkle said hastily. “Just… tunneling. We didn’t think there was anything here –“

“Speak for yourself, sister,” Pinkie Pie said. “I came here to party with the moon ponies.”

“Moon… ponies?” the princess asked, looking at Pinkie strangely. “It matters not. Since you are my sister’s favorite, Twilight Sparkle, I shall release you from your well-deserved imprisonment for her sake. And I suppose I must release the pink one as well. But you must leave the moon at once, and do no more tunneling!”

“But that’s just it, princess,” Twilight said. “We’ve been trying to leave the moon, but since we can’t breathe outside – we found a crashed vessel at the very top of the moon, and –“

“We’re going to make a giant ramp!” Pinkie Pie said, bouncing. “So we need to do a little more tunneling, but then we’ll be out of your mane. Or at least out of your moon. Heehee! We’re going to fly out of Luna’s –” She dissolved into giggles, falling onto the floor and wiggling her hooves in the air.

“Oh, is that all,” said the image, shrinking to look more like Princess Luna’s day-to-day form. “Return to the central chamber, and pass between the orange and red pillars. In the back of that wing –“

The image of the princess suddenly vanished as the wall opposite their cell exploded, showering the force field with head-sized chunks of rock. “One rescue, coming right up,” Chance said, aiming the mining ray at the cell’s doorway. He paused, as he looked over the two ponies inside. “Put on your goggles, girls. This is going to get flashy.”

===

“Ah, my two captains of the guard,” the Princess said, as Shining Armor and the night guard approached. The other royal guards waited outside – Celestia had asked to keep this meeting informal. And it was informal indeed – the princess was out of her regalia, and several of her hoofmaids were seeing to her bed. The sun had set almost an hour ago, after all. “To what do I owe the rather unusual pleasure of seeing the two of you together, and at this hour? Does some great disaster threaten the kingdom?”

“I’m not your guard,” the night guard said. “I’m here to ask you a few questions on Luna’s behalf. She has some concerns about what your agents have been up to.”

“She’s also here to explain why Luna has been sending her guard around the palace, snatching ponies for some secret purpose which she refuses to divulge,” Shining Armor added.

The bat-winged pony frowned. “If I have to.”

Celestia was grim. “Perhaps you don’t. Her reaction at the Twilight Council suggested that she was under some sort of attack, presumably she commandeered the ponies she felt would be useful in repelling it. Do you think my ‘agents’ are somehow responsible?”

Shining Armor was smart enough not to make a fool of himself by saying anything, at this point. He set his face in the stoic, disciplined expression that Celestia preferred all her guards to wear when on duty, and listened.

“Why is Pinkie Pie on the moon?” the night guard asked, flatly, staring back into Celestia’s face with no sign of respect or fear.

“Ah,” Celestia said. “It’s good to hear that they made it safely – I presume she’s safe?” The night guard shrugged her black, webbed wings. Celestia sighed. “I assure you that I had nothing to do with this crazy idea of hers, but it’s never been my policy to interfere with my little ponies’ desire for adventure and exploration. I tried to dissuade them –“

“Who is ‘them’?”

“Pinkie Pie, Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, and several pegasi from the Ponyville weather team that you’ve probably never heard of,” Shining Armor answered, unable to stay silent any longer. “She sent me a letter saying that they were going on a trip, although she didn’t mention the destination.” He stared at the night guard, incredulously. “That’s what this is about? You think that Twiley and her friends are attacking Princess Luna from the moon? Even if they could, why would they? Twiley’s always tried her hardest to be Luna’s friend!”

Celestia looked rather grim. “I wish I could discount the possibility so easily,” she said. “Sometimes, new information comes to light that a friend might consider a betrayal of trust. Information was left on the moon – a full accounting of Nightmare Moon’s crimes and atrocities – in an attempt to divert an ancient prophecy that managed to come true regardless, since it turns out that the ‘stars’ don’t read Old Equestrian.

“As for the mechanism by which a pony on the moon might cause Princess Luna distress – I refuse to speculate, in the presence of anyone but my sister. I love her too dearly to even inadvertently put her at risk,” Celestia said, looking somewhat abashed.

“So what are we going to do about ‘Twiley’ and ‘the pink one’?” the night guard asked.

“I can dispatch the Royal Guard to the moon to retrieve them,” Celestia offered. “Shining Armor already knows the restricted barrier spells necessary for safe travel in the outer void.”

That was news to him. He kept his expression neutral – presumably the princess would go into more detail in a private briefing, if it came to that.

The night guard didn’t seem very keen on the idea, though. “Yeah, that’s just what we need. More ponies up there, poking around,” she said. “I’ll relay the offer to Luna, but I don’t think she’ll go for it. If we decide to handle this ourselves, do we have your blessing?”

“I specifically withdrew my protection, as part of the warning I sent to my student when she made me aware of her goal,” the Princess replied. “There will be no official penalty for any actions that Luna takes to defend herself against attackers outside the boundaries of Equestria.”

The night guard held her gaze on the princess. “That’s not an answer.”

“Please don’t hurt them,” Celestia said, closing her eyes.

===

"These inscriptions are driving me crazy," Chance said, as the party of five took a short rest from the exhausting climb back up the ragged, near-vertical tunnel he’d blasted through the moon complex, as he’d tracked Twilight and Pinkie Pie through the transmitter’s signal. The climb was steep, and there were too many places where Chance had blasted through the ceiling and floor of the same room, making climbing per se impossible. If they hadn’t had Rainbow Dash to fly up and tie off rope ladders, they might have been tempted to brave the no doubt trap-infested corridors. "These letters almost look like Latin."

Twilight Sparkle smiled, as she looked around at the inscriptions in question, which lined the walls of the room they’d chosen as a safe place to catch their breath. "Well, of course they do. Latin script was based on Old Equestrian phonetic runes."

Chance laughed. "I'm sorry, but I'm pretty sure Latin predates Old Equestrian by several thousand years."

"Are we talking about the same Latin? The artificial language created as an experiment, to try to switch over to a fully phonetic alphabet with regularized grammar? It never really caught on, so it's fairly obscure outside of scientific classification," Twilight said. "Pinkius Piecus, and the like."

"If it wasn't the same Latin, I wouldn't have recognized it, and it wouldn't have been translated as 'Latin'," Chance said, a bit peeved at the insinuation that something was wrong with his translation patch. "That's an interesting backstory to excuse the use of Latin roots in a supposedly alien language. I assume there's something just as clever to explain other nonsensical cultural match-ups? Like, say, why you use teacups with hooves?"

Twilight Sparkle gave him a look. "Well, it's clear that you aren't really aliens. Your technology and culture is far too familiar, not to mention that you're basically mammals. I guess it isn't really fair to expect the author to come up with an alien race that's truly alien – whichever book Nightmare Moon summoned you from is already amazingly imaginative just by virtue of your strange technology.”

Chance laughed. "I think you have it backwards."

"You were summoned into a book?" Pinkie Pie asked. She was being unusually quiet, during this rest stop – the others might write it off as fatigue, but Twilight saw her moving her mouth occasionally, talking under her breath, and figured that she was working on another song. This was actually a good sign – the songs that Pinkie Pie planned out ahead of time were often quite catchy, especially compared to her attempts at improvisation.

"We fell into a pocket universe," Tess said, her voice coming from the transmitter since she still refused to breathe the air. "Some pony, in the middle of a technological singularity, decided to create a magical world full of ponies, and two hundred years later we were stupid enough to get sucked inside. We should be thankful that our technology works at all -- they must have been expecting visitors or something."

"That, or we're in a simulated world inside a Jupiter Brain," Chance said. "If I had to make a bet, that's what I'd guess. The rules aren't consistent enough for this to be anything but a simulation."

"This isn't a simulation," Tess replied. "Where's the instant communication and transportation? The personalized realities? Changeable avatars? The immortality? No pony copies themselves into a fake computer world so that they can grow old and die there."

"So you think our world is fake," Twilight said, looking back and forth between them.

"No," said Tess, "just artificial. This doesn't act anything like a simulation."

"It does if you consider just who the users are," Chance replied. "There are at least two immortals here -- every pony else might just be window dressing. No offense," he said to Twilight.

"I'm not sure how I'm supposed to avoid being offended by that," Twilight said. "You're saying that we're just toys to amuse the princesses, and not really ponies at all."

"Actually, he's not," Tess said. "Artificial intelligences are functionally indistinguishable from copied personalities. The only difference would be in the level of access you have to the instructions that control the world -- oh, and little things like the rules saying that you get old and die for no apparent reason. If Chance's interpretation was correct, the princesses would be able to make any pony into an immortal alicorn at will, and instead decided to surround themselves with mortals."

"Well," Twilight said, "then he's wrong. I've seen the Princess after the funerals of ponies she knew -- she tries to hide it, but she's always quiet and sad for the next few days. For all that to be fake, to cover up the fact that she could stop death with a flick of her horn --" Twilight glowered at Chance. "She's not the monster you imagine."

"Maybe she's not faking it," Pinkie Pie said. "Maybe she just likes being sad, the way Luna likes being angry and scary."

"Or maybe she's not in control," Chance said. "After all, even your own myths make it clear that the princesses didn't create the world. There's an obvious candidate for a super-user sitting in the Canterlot Statue Gardens. I believe you and your friends put him there?"

"Maybe we can stop arguing about boring stuff and get back to looking for treasure?" Rainbow Dash suggested, poking her head down from the hole in the ceiling, and dropping a rope ladder that clattered to the floor. "You guys are slow. I think I’m starting to see why Daring Do does this alone.”

===

One of the Royal Guard's unicorns fell into place next to the night guard as she left Celestia’s chambers, and headed back towards Luna’s palace suite. “Wait up! I’ll walk you back.”

“Isn’t that an unscheduled change of orders?” she said, giving him a wary glance. “You’d better get your abacus. How else will I know you’re not a changeling?”

“Technically, I went off-duty an hour ago,” he said. “I’m day shift. We were staying late because of the situation, but if you’re being released on your own recognizance, presumably the situation was resolved. That, or you just assassinated the captain and Celestia.”

“Not tonight,” she replied, showing her pointy teeth as she smiled. “Although I have to admit it was tempting.”

“So when do you get off duty?” he asked.

The night guard laughed. “Are you asking me on a date?”

The unicorn stared her right in the eyes, and said, “Yes.”

Her wings flapped a few times, before being tightly folded against her sides. “Sorry,” she said. “Not interested.”

“Well…” he said, “crap. Can I at least get your name?”

She lifted an eyebrow. “You’re asking me out, and don’t even know my name?”

“No pony does,” he said. “We’ve been calling you ‘hey you’, or ‘the night guard’. All Luna ever calls you is ‘guards’. I don’t think we’ve ever seen her address you individually, let alone by name.” He hurried a little to get in front of her, and offered his hoof. “I’m Shifting Sands, by the way. My friends call me Shifty, you can call me any time you want.”

Somewhat to his surprise, she paused and bumped his hoof with her own. He noted idly that it was cloven. “Warpath,” she said.

“That’s a rather… aggressive name,” he said, falling in next to her again as she continued on.

“I come from an aggressive tribe,” she replied. “But that’s the name my mother gave me, and I still miss her, even if she was a bit of a nag.”

“Mind if I call you ‘Path?” Shifty asked.

“I prefer ‘Warp’, actually,” she said, as she stopped near a familiar door. “Thanks for the chat, but we’re here, and I’m not letting you inside. We’ve still got a ‘situation’ to deal with.”

Shifting Sands’ eyes went wide. “I’d better get back to my patrol, then.”

Warp smirked at him, then turned and knocked on the door, as he teleported away.