• Published 6th Mar 2018
  • 3,477 Views, 207 Comments

I Don't Need Magic - Undome Tinwe

Fifteen years into the future, Twilight Sparkle and Sunset Shimmer reunite to stop a thief from bringing magic back into the world.

  • ...

Chapter 6: A Day at the Fair

"Look at the way the bottom set of bottles are wobbling less than the ones on top - the bottom ones are obviously weighted." Twilight delivered her analysis on the booth in front of her with smug satisfaction.

Sunset smiled as she came to the same conclusion. "Yeah, it makes it harder, but you should be able to make up for some of the disadvantage by throwing the ball at a lower point to account for the new center of gravity."

"Yes, and it should be possible to determine the extra weight by looking at the difference in how much the bottles displace, which would allow for a decent estimate of the new center of gravity."

"Too bad we can't actually test it, though," Sunset mused, "unless you've developed some amazing upper body strength that I haven't noticed."

"Turns out the life of an academic isn't exactly conducive to developing exemplary physical fitness," Twilight replied dryly. "Who knew? I keep in shape, sort of, but that's about it. No way do I have the strength or dexterity knock those over. Should we move on?"

"Sure. Oh look, a Test Your Strength machine!" Sunset and Twilight approached the next booth overflowing with stuffed animals and false promises, where the operator was goading a young man with his date hanging from his arm into proving his physical prowess.

The man puffed out his chest and grabbed the mallet, slamming it down onto the rubber pad that connected the machine to the bell at the top. The puck encased in the glass tube barely made it halfway to the top before plummeting back to the ground, leaving the would-be strongman looking disappointed.

"Hmm... I wonder, is the pad rigged, or is it just designed to have a really high success threshold?" Sunset mused.

"Could be either," Twilight replied, staring at the tower. "You'd have to sit here and observe multiple trials and then normalize them based on estimated measures of upper body strength."

"That sounds like a lot of work. Maybe we should skip this one?"

"Sure." As they set off once again on their quest to reveal the truths behind the carnival, Twilight turned to speak to Sunset. "This has been a surprisingly enjoyable experience. I didn't think I'd be able to enjoy a carnival at my age."

"I had a hunch you might like it," Sunset replied, hiding a grin. "That's why I suggested this place."

"Well, you were right, even if you were wrong about why. I've never had much of an interest in playing these rigged games, but trying to figure out how they're rigged has been a lot of fun." Twilight's eyes narrowed as Sunset fought to keep the smirk off her face. "Wait a minute, that's why you brought me here, isn't it? You knew I'd focus on deconstructing the games instead of trying to figure out why my code isn't working."

Sunset finally let the sides of her lips curve upwards a little. "Maybe I just wanted to go on the roller coasters. It's the closest thing you can get to riding in the Royal Chariot while the pegasi guards pulling it do tricks in the air, after all."

"Really," Twilight deadpanned.

"And Pinkie usually brings us all here every year, but she's busy with the Exhibition so I thought it'd be fun if we came here ourselves and played some games."

"Uh huh. And you deliberately picked the Ring Toss – the most well-known rigged carnival game – first?"

"Maybe I thought the frustration of losing would keep your mind off things?"

Twilight rolled her eyes.

Sunset finally decided to stop the charade. "Well it worked, didn't it? You've been enjoying the fresh air and not thinking about your code, right?"

Twilight sighed. "I guess I can't fault you for your success. So, where do you want to go next?"

Sunset pulled out her phone and glanced at the time. "Actually, it's getting late. We should probably start heading back." Looking up, she could already see the first signs of stars in the sky.

"Alright. The exit should be that way."

As they walked towards the parking lot, Sunset stopped in front of one of the booths. "What are you doing?" Twilight asked as Sunset walked up to the counter where they were simply selling large plushies instead of using them as bait to attract people to their games.

"You can't go to a carnival without getting a giant stuffed animal," Sunset replied matter-of-factly. "It's tradition."

"It's stupid. Stuffed animals are for children or adults who want a symbol of their physical or mental abilities or that of their date to make themselves feel better about being ripped off. We fall into neither of those two groups."

"But they're so cute!" Sunset randomly grabbed a stuffed kitten and hugged it, holding it up to Twilight's face. "Come on, Twilight, there has to be at least one stuffed toy you like."

"Fine," Twilight huffed. "Let's see what they have." She glanced around at the shelves filled with colorful fabrics molded into a plethora of cute shapes before a playful smirk graced her lips. "Let's get that one."

Sunset looked at where Twilight was pointing. "Really," she asked, deadpan.

Twilight walked over to the shelf and grabbed the large stuffed pink alicorn. "What's wrong, Sunset?" she asked in a syrupy-sweet voice. "A giant pony plushie is practically the quintessence of carnival fair prizes, right?"

Sunset glared at the inanimate pony in front of her. With her pink coloration and the wings and horn, it looked far too much like a pretty preppy pink pony princess she had once found insufferable. "True, but most prizes don't look like my former mortal enemy."

Twilight raised an eyebrow. "Your mortal enemy was a bright pink pony?"

"Well, sort of. I'm not actually sure if she knew I hated her." Sunset wondered how Princess Cadenza was doing. She hadn't thought of the Princess of Love in years, but the sight of the eerily similar toy stirred up some old recollections in her brain.

Shaking her head, Sunset tamped down the spectre of the past haunting her mind. "It doesn't matter. Let's get the princess plushie."

"You know, this was pretty fun," Twilight said as they headed towards the fair's exit a short while later, the pony plush clutched tightly in her arms. "Even if I didn't figure out what's wrong with the algorithm, it's nice to know I can still enjoy myself like this."

"See, that's the spirit!" Sunset laughed at the adorable sight of Twilight hugging a pony. "Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow and figure out how to look on the bright side of things."

"Yeah, yeah, silver linings and all..." Twilight's eyes widened as she suddenly stared off into the distance. "That's it! Ugh, I can't believe I missed that!"

"What is it, Twilight?" Sunset asked, surprised at Twilight's sudden change in demeanor.

"I think I know why my algorithm is failing." Twilight smacked her own forehead with her palm. "It's so obvious in hindsight. Quick, we need to get back to the lab."

Twilight quickly rushed out to the parking lot, leaving Sunset to follow behind. As soon as they got into the car, Twilight pulled out her notebook and pen and began scribbling furiously.

"So..." Sunset ventured a question a few minutes into their journey back to the lab, after Twilight's writing seemed to have slowed down. "What did you figure out?"

"It's all about the filtering step," Twilight replied distractedly. "In the absence of the aether, all spells create some sort of additional secondary illumination as the magical energy disperses. I've been filtering out those EM waves in my analysis in order to extract the underlying emissions. Except, the illumination is a part of the spell, which means that I can't simply model it as an independent noise source. I need to figure out the correlation between its spectrum and that of the underlying magical signal."

"That makes sense," Sunset replied. "If you apply Mac Swell's Equations to both at the same time instead of separately, you should end up with a cross-term."

"Exactly, and I think I know what that cross-term should look like." Twilight turned away from Sunset to focus on her notebook. "Now then, if you'll excuse me, I need to focus on correcting this expression before I lose my train of thought."

The rest of the trip passed by in silence, Twilight never taking her eyes off her notebook even as they left the car to head back to the lab. Sunset grabbed the stuffed alicorn on her way out, carrying it under her arm and enjoying the discreet stares from the security guards.

If only they knew how close this was to her true form.

Twilight had no patience for stopping by Sunset's apartment to drop off the pony, so it ended up sitting on top of the safe, surveying the lab with its wide, permanently opened eyes.

A couple hours of frantic math and coding later, Twilight called out excitedly to Sunset. "I think I've got it!"

"You have the system working?" Sunset asked, turning to face Twilight from where she was still trying to decipher the thief's spell.

"I think so. Come take a look."

Sunset stared at the image of a spell signature slowly forming on the screen of Twilight's computer. "It's crude, but I can definitely make out the signature of the spell, and my own magical signature too. I think the signature of the magical source is right, but I haven't studied it enough to be able to be sure. We could definitely use it to compare different spells, though. Congratulations, Twilight." Sunset smiled. "You did it. The first ever identification of magical signatures without using a divination spell."

"Yes!" Twilight stood up, and Sunset suddenly found herself enveloped in a hug. "And I couldn't have done it without you! Thank you thank you thank you!"

Surprised at the sudden affection, Sunset reciprocated the hug, trying not to get too caught up in how good Twilight's body felt pressed up against hers, her soft curves molding against Sunset's chest. A few seconds later, Sunset gently patted Twilight on the back. "Uhh... Twilight?"

Twilight started and quickly pulled away from Sunset, leaving her feeling oddly empty. "Sorry," she said, a blush forming on her cheeks despite the otherwise stoic expression on her face. "That was unprofessional of me."

"It's fine, Twilight," Sunset replied. "Besides, this isn't a normal work environment anyways."

"Right," Twilight absently smoothed her skirt, her eyes darting away from Sunset's. "So, now that we have a working model, I can try to decipher the thief's signature. Do you have a decent approximation of the spellform yet?"

"I do." Sunset grabbed one of her derivations and handed it over to Twilight. "Will this work?"

"Hmm, these look kinda… odd." Twilight said as she studied the symbols.

Sunset shrugged. "I had to use a bunch of archaic constructs because it turns out a spell like this is really crude. Like, I had to use some of Star Swirl's original works to reconstruct the effects."

Twilight jotted down some calculations in her notebook. "Well, you'll have to help me decipher some of this stuff then, but this should be fine. Let's try plugging it into the simulations."

It took about half an hour for them to convert the spellform into something the computer could read, but when they finally finished, they had an algorithm that could analyze the patterns from the camera output to determine an approximation of the caster's magical signature.

"Alright, let's see what kind of magic our thief uses." Twilight started the simulation and the two researchers watched as an image slowly formed on the screen. It was much less detailed than the other simulations, and there were a few things that looked off, but it was clearly a valid magical signature.

"Hmm... I don't recognize the caster's signature, but the source signature is definitely familiar," Sunset said as she studied the image intently. "Can you bring up the results from the last simulations?"

"Sure," Twilight entered in a few commands into the system, and a moment later another signature appeared on the screen.

"There," Sunset said, pointing to the source signature. "You can see similar essence runes in the source structure, which means that there's definitely a connection between the source of the spell used on the camera and the magic in the pendants."

"Could it just be an underlying signature of Equestrian magic?" Twilight asked.

"I don't think so, but we can easily verify that. What does the signature for the Alicorn Amulet look like?"

Twilight flipped to another window. "You're right, the similarities aren't present here. It seems likely that the connection is specifically with the pendant. Should we test the others to see?"

"It's tough using the other pendants since they weren't meant for me, but I can pull off a few simple spells. Let's give it a shot and see." Sunset walked over to the plushie-guarded safe, unlocking it and grabbing a random pendant. It turned out to be Rarity's, a diamond symbol inscribed in its center.

She put on the pendant and suppressed a wince as a sense of wrongness passed through her body. The pendants had chosen each bearer specifically and didn't take lightly to another trying to wield their power. Gloriosa Daisy had learned that the hard way.

Still, Sunset had more experience with magic than the camp counselor and was able to focus her will on the well of magic within the pendant, taking a small portion of its power for herself. The magic fought against her, wanting to express itself in its natural state, but she kept a tight grip on it.

Next to the nearby table, Twilight had already set up the measurement apparatus and motioned for her to place her hand in the sensor box again. Sunset did so, and on Twilight's cue, allowed the magic to escape as a simple light spell. It wanted to manifest itself differently, but Sunset focused on keeping the spell as an illumination spell.

"Okay, that should be enough. You can stop now." At Twilight's signal, Sunset doused the light, withdrawing her hand and gratefully pulling off the necklace.

"Sorry," she whispered to it as she returned it to the safe. Sunset felt guilty for taking the magic for her own, even for a simple experiment. Residual feelings from the last time she tried to seize a magical artifact that wasn't her own, she supposed.

"Alright, I've got the signature here," Twilight announced as Sunset resealed the safe.

Sunset walked over to Twilight's computer and glanced at the newly-generated symbols. "Yup, there's the same runes. There's definitely a connection between the pendants and the magic used on the camera."

"Well, that raises the obvious question: has anyone else had access to the pendants lately?"

"No," Sunset replied with certainty. "I left them in the safe the whole time except for when I was using mine."

"And does anyone else have access to the lab?" Twilight asked.

"Only Starlight – she's the president of Equinox – does, but the logs didn't show her accessing the lab recently without me." Sunset made a note to double-check those logs, but she trusted Starlight not to have betrayed her. "I think we're going about this the wrong way; the source signatures between the pendants and the spell aren't anywhere near identical, they just have a lot of similarities."

"Good point," Twilight conceded. "We should be thinking about what common source the pendants could share with our mystery thief's."

"Well, besides being formed from Equestrian magic, the pendants do have a common point of origin," Sunset pointed out.

Twilight's eyes widened. "Is there still any magic left in Camp Everfree?"

"I didn't see any signs of it last time I visited," Sunset said as she continued studying the signatures, "and Gloriosa didn't say anything about magic either, but that was a few months ago. I guess there could've been a resurgence of dormant magic or something in the meantime, but Gloriosa would have told me about it."

"Unless she's the one behind this," Twilight said. "How well do you still know her?"

"We keep in touch, and I usually go camping at Camp Everfree at least once a year, but we're not exactly best friends or anything," Sunset replied. Gloriosa didn't seem like the type to steal a magical journal for nefarious reasons, but then again, she hadn't seemed like the type to try to imprison all the camp-goers with magic either. "It might be a good idea to make a quick trip down there. There's probably still some residual magic floating around in that cave that you could use to determine the exact relationships between the signatures."

"We'll need some field equipment then," Twilight said. "Something to detect magical emissions nearby as well as something to analyze any sources we might find. I'm guessing you don't want the spectrum analyzer to leave this lab."

Sunset shuddered at the mental image of her precious XK Ninety-Four sitting outside on the ground, exposed to the elements. "No, definitely not. I have some older models I don't mind bringing, and as for tracking magic, we do have something designed to detect abnormal EM radiation." Sunset returned to the safe and opened it, pulling out a larger necklace with a circular centerpiece.

Twilight paled at the sight of it. "That does track the EM waves created by magic..." she said weakly.

Sunset frowned. "What's wrong, Twilight?" she asked, concerned. Twilight had backed away instinctively when Sunset had turned to face her and looked like she was about to throw up.

"It's nothing," Twilight said, shaking her head, "just memories of the last time you used that thing."

"Oh, right." Sunset felt a rush of guilt as she looked down at the magic collector. "Sorry. I've managed to replicate the tracking functionality of your detector into a more general thing. I can grab one of the prototypes of those instead."

"Sure," Twilight replied, still not looking at Sunset. "That's fine."

Silence filled the room as Sunset put the detector back in the safe, neither party knowing how to restore the easy rhythms of their past they'd fallen into now that it had been crushed by this reminder of their present situation.

"It's getting late," Twilight finally said, "I have a video conference with Dinky tonight that I don't want to miss. Hopefully, she hasn't burned down my lab in my absence." She gave Sunset an awkward smile with the quip, and Sunset did her best to return it.

"I'll see you out then. Should we plan on going to Camp Everfree tomorrow? I can test out the equipment tonight and make sure everything's working fine."

"Tomorrow's good." Twilight walked over to the lab's exit. "What time do you want to head out?"

"I've got a meeting with Starlight at seven, so maybe around eight?" Sunset followed behind Twilight, entering the code to open the lab doors.

"Eight works for me."

After escorting Twilight out, Sunset returned to the lab and dug through her boxes of old equipment, pulling out her old spectrum analyzer. She placed it on the table next to the new one and prepared for a long night of verification testing.

Staying up late for work wouldn't normally wouldn't have bothered her, but the lab felt strangely empty without Twilight, as if she'd always been meant to occupy this space.

Shaking her head to clear it of such silly thoughts, she turned on the analyzer and started her lonely night of work.

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