• Published 22nd Apr 2020
  • 485 Views, 48 Comments

Terminal Fault - MagnetBolt

It is a century after the war of the two cities, a time when the line between pony and machine is becoming blurred. And yet, even now when ponies are connected in so many ways, something wants to disrupt the fragile network of society.

  • ...


It was a cold morning. The kind of morning where slush and ash fall from the sky and you can’t bring yourself to get out of bed by yourself. I would have spent the whole day wrapped up against the grey and the chill if not for the squeaking and prodding of my pets, cold noses pressing against me mixed with the whine of aging motors.

“I’m getting up,” I groaned, brushing my pink mane out of my eyes and crawling out of my sleeping bag. “What’s wrong?”

I looked over the menagerie that had gathered around, and I could instantly see the problem from the flickering displays and weak beeps. They were hungry. I pulled myself to my hooves and stretched, stepping around the least moble of my friends as I made my way to the array of old aircart and skyship batteries.

“Almost completely drained…” I shook my head and patted one of the hovering drones. “You all just wait here. I’ll clean off the solar array and see if that helps. Angel?”

I looked around, but before I could spot his hiding place, the bunbot dropped onto my back from where he’d been lurking. He’d been patched in a dozen places, his outer shroud more like rags now than the life-like fur he’d had when he was new.

He chattered at me, replaying scratchy recordings of the morning’s weather report.

“It is cold,” I agreed, grabbing a scarf and wrapping it around my neck before pushing open the hatch. The cold rushed in when I did, bracing and harsh. If not for the dampness and the wind, it would have only been frigid instead of near-deadly. I closed the door behind me, not wanting to get water into my home. Some of the drones had faulty waterproofing, and others simply didn’t have functional self-righting mechanisms if they tripped.

But they were all my friends. And they were alive in a way that most ponies didn’t appreciate.

A long time ago, I’d lived near the core of Canterlot. Ponies there grew up thinking of things as disposable. Dresses were worn once, then thrown away. Televisions and radios were replaced every few months just to keep up with the newest innovations. Every year my family would trade in our two aircarts and get the new models, which were usually identical except for some tiny detail that, according to my father, made all the difference.

My brother had fit in well. He even learned to throw away friends when he was done using them. I’d never been comfortable with the constant roiling change done simply for the sake of change, like standing still even for a moment was a sin against Celestia.

When I was twelve, my father got me Angel. He was a robot pet, an electric rabbit that was a passing fad that year. I fell in love with him. Angel was just a simple drone, and I know he wasn’t much more than some basic programming and voice recognition. But to me he was my first pet, and he was always at my side, long after the fad had passed.

And then my heart broke.

I came home from school, and he was gone. Not broken, which would have hurt but at least been an ending, just gone. My father had thrown him away like he was nothing, and there was a shiny new box waiting on my bed with the latest model.

We’d screamed at each other, and I’d gone to bed sobbing. He couldn’t understand why I was upset and I couldn’t understand why my father was so much of a monster that he’d just throw away my best friend in the world.

In the morning, I packed my things and left. I couldn’t live the way they did.

I was upset and not thinking clearly. If I had been, I wouldn’t have gone off on a fool’s quest to try and find an obsolete robot pet that had been thrown away with the rest of the city’s trash. If I’d been looking at it with a careful and thoughtful mind instead of just being emotional, I’d have done what most ponies my age did and just never spoken to my father again.

Instead, I went to the city junkyard and started looking.

I brushed snow from a solar panel, checking the connection before moving on to the next one in the array. The dozen I’d scavenged were more than enough for my power needs most of the year. Winter was tough. I had to choose between heat and having enough power to keep my friends working. Even in good years some of the larger ones had to hibernate until conditions improved, and this had been a tough winter.

I giggled as Angel dragged a broom up to me.

“Thank you, Angel,” I said, patting him and using the broom on the other panels. “You’re right. I shouldn’t be using my feathers. I’ll get them all soggy and dirty.”

He chirped, the sound from his damaged voice chip wobbly.

“Let’s get back inside before one of us gets a cold, I suggested. He hopped, doing a backflip and landing it despite his age and the hip joint that had been giving him problems all year. I clapped, picking him up and squeezing him tight.

Most ponies, even good ponies, don’t think of drones as being alive. They’re just machines. But did you know that many autonomous drones and pets on the market today have as much processing power as a rat, and the advanced ones are arguably as intelligent as a cat or a dog? You wouldn’t throw out a cat or a dog, but ponies do it all the time to machines.

Canterlot, both high and low, got rid of their trash in only one place, a blasted valley lying between the city and the ruins on the other side, a place that had once been called Dream Valley back when ponies had lived here.

The history books said it had been the primary battleground in the war. Before the fighting, it had been all trees and flowers. The only pictures that survived showed it with trenches and barbed wire and poison gas, all in black and white and blurry but still somehow horrible. Ponies had been locked in a stalemate there until the end of the war.

These days, the trenches were covered up by landfills. Nopony wanted to live there, and the city had to get rid of its trash somewhere. Instead of dying by the thousands for a few feet of mud, ponies did anything they could to avoid the place.

It took me almost a year to find Angel. I didn’t know how to really search the junkyard back then. These days I knew where drops were made, the days they were made on, and most importantly that recyclables and electronics weren’t in the same section of the dump as compostables like food and paper. I’d spent a week hoof-deep in old hayburgers and newspapers before I’d figured that out.

When I did find Angel, he wouldn’t turn on. A year of exposure to the elements had ruined him.

But not ruined beyond repair.

“Okay, everyone,” I said, when I got back home. “Everything should be fine now. Remember to let the most hungry go first.”

In the process of fixing Angel, I’d found many others just like him. Well, not just like him -- most rabbots had been thrown away long ago enough that I’d need an excavator to find them. But there were drones, from simple camera pods to messenger quadcopters to the huge tow-bot hibernating under a tarp next to my prefab that had been used to move illegally parked aircarts before the project had been discontinued.

They all just wanted to be useful, but most of them had been thrown away when their owners had moved on. I’d taken them in, repaired what I could, and salvaged from the ones that couldn’t be saved. It was heartbreaking, cracking one of them open and finding that the designers had never even thought about repair. Big black boxes of solid-state crystal circuits, a chassis that made it impossible to remove or replace components without breaking something. I’d even seen a drone that had been assembled entirely with glue instead of screws, a plastic-bodied dragonfly with a broken wing that would never fly again because the ponies who made it didn't intend it to last more than a few minutes.

I started my computer booting and got into the shower, lukewarm water washing the worst of the dirt from my mane and feathers. Not having reliable hot water had been the hardest change from living in Canterlot. Even if I could afford it, there weren’t water lines here. Technically, I was squatting. Technically, I was fairly sure I was listed as a missing pony. I hadn’t left my parents a note.

I had no bank account, no real job, nothing that tied me to other ponies.

Well, almost nothing.

I used the last of the soap and made myself as presentable as possible before sitting down in front of my deck, a rig that I’d scavenged from the parts of a few dozen office computers. Graphics cards meant to run design programs were easily able to handle gaming, and while the processors weren’t the newest on the market by a few generations, there were a lot of them working in parallel.

A camera pod perched flew over and perched on one of the three big screens I’d mounted. It chirped at me.

“Did you eat?” I asked. They’d let themselves starve and go offline just to avoid seeming useless.

If flashed a ready light at me twice.

“Okay, then,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Do I look okay?”

It tweeted approval, and I smiled.

“You always say that.”

My connection to SolNet stabilized, and my screens brightened, one of them showing the feed from the camera. I could have connected things myself with a few clicks, but part of being a good owner is letting them do what they do best.

“Could you start my Reflex stream and message my followers that I’m online?” I asked.

The camera chirped, and I waved to it before clicking on a glowing icon on my desktop, faux-orchestral music flooding from the speakers. Behind me, a few of the bluetooth-enabled drones chimed in with their own streams of the music, creating something almost like surround sound. The spash-screen filled the second of my three-screens, and I grinned, getting my game face on.

=+= E * T * E * R * N * I * T * Y * 2 =+=

“Hey everypony, MothFlutter here,” I said. “Looks like we have another big day ahead of us gunning down a bunch of noobs in a post-cyberpocalyptic world who think they know which end of a gun is the dangerous one. You’d think it would be an easy answer, the end with all the bullets flying out of it, but if they actually knew that they might try pointing it at what they’re trying to hit.”

I adjusted the hoof-bands around my fetlocks to make sure they wouldn’t come free, then pulled the goggles down, the world of my prefab faded away and was replaced with the bright colors and pixelated displays of the world of Eternity.

“So I can see from the feed we have a few new people on the stream today. Nice to meet you, I’m going to show ponies how this game is played.”

I brought up the menu system with a wave of my hoof.

“I got a lot of requests to go over character creation and builds. Right now I’m playing on a new alt, because I don’t want to scare the new players away. For some reason they see a max-level wraithgunner and they feel a tingling in their nethers that makes them want to run away and touch themselves in their bunks.

“As you can see, this is a level zero pegasus grenadier-medic. That gives us the weakest class for offensive use in the game, but we should still be able to sneak into games because ponies, will, for some reason, think we’re here to play support and heal them. Those absolute clothes-irons don’t even understand the power they’re messing with.”

I got a ping, and one of the dozen or so ponies around me looped into a wave emote as he tried to get my attention.

“Looks like we got ourselves a game, ponies.”

I waved back, trying to look innocent and harmless.

“Now as most of you know, the grenadier-medic starts with a healing wand and a pistol, along with the smoke grenades that give the class half its name. New players will focus on the healing aspect. I’m going to hit you all with some hard truths -- the grenadier-medic is a trap class. The healing is just a ploy to keep you all from learning of its true killing power, which I will now demonstrate.”

My character drew her pistol, cocking the small magical firearm.

<what are u doing> flashed across my display, from one of the other players. <need heals>

“You’re going to get this from time to time,” I said. The other players in the game couldn’t hear me, just the ponies on my stream. “Now I’ve rarely experienced this phenomenon, but apparently if you play poorly enough your health meter will actually go down! Supposedly this has something to do with other ponies shooting at you. A few people on my team are finding that out for themselves, and you’ll note that we’re on the side of the Discordant because the uniforms are way better.”

<rez plz>

<wheres the medic>

“Wow we got a lot of complainers on this team today. That’s what we get with a level zero team of randos. Hold on for a minute. I’m gonna give them some medical advice.”

I pressed the radio button, broadcasting into the game.

<“Hey everypony. I’m the medic and I’ll get around to you after I take care of things.”>

I released the button.

“That should make them feel better while they die,” I said. My character had snuck along the other side of the map, well away from the rest of her team. “You’ll note I’m on the opposite side of the map and totally alone. This is a great place to be as a medic, because you won’t be tempted to heal anypony. Ponies will complain a lot because they're spoiled, but you need to remember that these ponies need to learn a lesson and not get shot in the first place. Don’t let them get dependent on cheap heals.”

I paused next to a wall.

“Most enemy teams do this weird thing where they stay together. Don’t be intimidated, this is just because they’re polite and want to make sure you’re not wasting time hunting them down.”

The team closed in, hitting a chokepoint I’d seen earlier.

“And here… we… go.”

I popped smoke, filling the area with a blinding, slowing cloud that disabled their HUDs. Since they’d all come in through the same place, one grenade was able to get all of them. I flew in, and now that their radar wasn’t working they didn’t know where I was.

“You might be asking yourselves, how is Flutters going to take them all out with a crappy pistol? Well, the grenadier-medic’s pistol has perfect accuracy, and Eternity rewards precision. And by precision, I mean headshots.”

Bang. Bang. Two down, four two go.

The others started to panic. I couldn’t hear their chat, but one of them, a griffon with a heavy assault rifle, caught my eye.

“This chick over here looks like she has a plan. I’d follow her if we were on the same team. Unfortunately for her, we’re not.”

I dropped down on her, shooting her at point-blank range. Her larger hitbox caught a couple rounds from the one other player that was paying attention.

“Wow, what was that? Did somepony shoot at me? He missed, but even so. That’s very rude. What did I ever do to deserve that?”

I jinked left and circled right, and predictably, the new player’s aim went the way he expected instead of the way I went. His shots hit the wall, and before he could turn, I took him up.

“Oh hey guys what’s up?” I asked, as I got behind the last two. “Keeping an eye out to the rear for enemies. Very good. Very noble.” I moved my cursor to make my character nod. “I’ll see if can help you guys out.”

I triggered one of the character emotes that made noise, screaming ‘HEALER HERE’ into their ears. Unlike the team chat, they’d be able to hear that one.

“It’s my expert medical opinion that you should both look directly into the light and start running.”

I shot one before he turned, and let the other one get a look before I finished him.

“We’ve got a few seconds while everypony watches their killcams, and blames each other for being a terrible player, so I’m just going to do a traditional pegasus wardance here.”

My character went up to the team leader and squatted repeatedly over their face.

“It’s a very traditional tradition,” I assured my chat. “Goes back hundreds of years.”

“Good game, Mothy.”

“Thanks, Flare,” I said. She was one of my biggest chat patrons. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have been able to get started streaming. It was my main source of income, and, to be honest, the only way I could really feel safe interacting with ponies was when we did it online. I got along a lot better with drones than I did with ponies.

“What’s your place in the leaderboards these days?” Her voice had a synthesized hum to it. I wasn’t sure if that was an artifact of her setup, or if she’d had some kind of work done. I suspected the latter, but I wasn’t sure if it was polite to ask.

“On my main? Top ten in the Eternity 2 Arena. I’ve been able to keep it up there ever since I started doing the oddball requests with alts instead.” Hunting players below your level could drop your rank, and so could unsportsmarelike conduct.

“You were a little rude,” Flare said. “Is everything okay?”

“I’m fine,” I lied. “I just don’t like playing as a medic.”

“Good thing you didn’t, then.”

I giggled at that.

“You should consider my offer to come to Canterlot,” Flare said. “I could get you set up somewhere nicer and safer than where you are now.”

“That’s very generous, but I couldn’t.” I swallowed, nervous. “Sorry.”

“Is it about other ponies being around? I know you get anxiety.”

That was definitely part of it. “I’m just happy where I am.”

We made pleasant conversation, chatted a bit about things. Not a lot of ponies were online today, which was one reason I had decided on such a difficult challenge and played to the crowd.

Eventually, I signed off to make myself dinner. I would have stayed on all day and night if I wasn’t conserving electricity.

Between buying parts that I couldn’t scavenge and spending most of the rest on my SolNet connection, I typically had very little left for luxuries like food. Water wasn’t an issue -- there were almost always clouds of some kind over Dream Valley and if they didn’t rain on their own I could usually cajole them into it.

Anything fresh or needing more than minimal preparation was beyond my means. Even if I could afford it I’d never actually learned how to cook. I rummaged around in the plastic crate that served as my pantry and grabbed a cup of instant noodles at random.

I poured in some cold water and pulled the tab at the bottom of the cup, the contents quickly heating and cooking on their own.

Angel made a noise.

“I know I should eat better,” I sighed. “But this one is grilled vegetable flavor, so it must count as healthy food.”

Angel made another squeak, hopping up to my chair. I leaned down to pet him.

“I love you too.”

It was the middle of the night, or at least felt like it, when I woke up to a cacophony of alarms of a dozen types, from generic alerts to battery alarms to clock sounds.

“What’s wrong?” I yawned, literally rolling out of bed, unable to do anything so coordinated as actually stand up on my own power.

The drones were in a tizzy, confused and mostly going in circles. I’d never seen them so worked up. They were doing everything they could to wake me up, like they were terrified of something.

“Everyone calm down!” I called out, and the beeping and chiming quieted slightly. “What’s going on?”

I realized my mistake when they all started making noise again.

“Okay, okay!” I raised my hooves. “One at a time. Angel?”

Angel hopped to the front door and scratched at it, his distorted voice trying to say the time and dropping every other syllable. I understood at once. Whatever was wrong, it was outside.

“All of you stay here and stay quiet,” I said. “Angel, you come with me.”

Angel hopped up onto my back without a complaint, and I could tell he understood that I needed him there for moral support. There weren’t many things that would wander around this part of the junkyard at night. Scavenging animals would only be attracted to the part with food. There was a very good chance I’d have to face my greatest fear -- ponies. It was bad enough when I went into town to buy food and try to find refurbished drones new homes. Having to confront them and even defend myself was almost unthinkable.

Angel squarked a series of tones, nearly the same as the Eternity theme.

“You’re right!”

“MothFlutter takes care of business,” I whispered to myself. “MothFlutter doesn’t take a feathering flap from anypony. I’m gonna find whatever’s out here and they’re gonna be begging to slobber over my primaries by the time I’m done with them.”

I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I owned a firearm. It had been thrown away, and I suspected that it had been used in some crime and dumped to avoid being tied to it. It wasn’t much, just a Sunday Night Special, a little magibolt repeater not entirely different from the medic I’d been playing earlier.

I could handle anything. I was a bad-flank arena champ with a kill to death ratio so high mathematicians studied it. And with Angel watching my back I could--

There was a flare of light and a groan of hydraulics and I screamed like a little filly and fired into the air before dropping the gun and cowering.

“Don’t hurt me!”


“Gonk?” I looked up. “Barry?”

The floodlights died down, and Barry was looking down at me, the huge parking-enforcement drone tilting its sensors curiously.

“Whatever’s going on, it was even enough to wake you up?” I got up to pat the huge machine on its flanks. “Since you’re already awake, do you want to come with me?”


I smiled. He was big enough to scare off any animal and if there was something lurking in the dark, he’d be able to protect me. I picked my gun up out of the mud and shook it off, holstering it.

“Did you see what happened?” I asked.

Barry started rolling. I followed closely at his wheels, feeling safer in the shadow of the huge, boxy machine. The panic that had swarmed me had been a sad reminder that I wasn’t the cool, unflappable character I pretended to be for my online show. I was just a scared pony. If it wasn’t for Angel and Barry I probably would have locked the door and hidden inside until the sun came up.

Something moved in the darkness, the rattle of metal on metal. I froze up, and Barry stopped, swinging a light towards the noise. There was nothing there more dangerous than dented sheets of metal, old access panels moving slightly in the night breeze. Barry held the light on it for a few more moments.

“I guess there’s nothing there…” I whispered.

“Gonk.” Barry started rolling again.

I kept watching the same shadow and didn’t even notice Barry had stopped again until I walked right into his rear bumper.

“Oh my! I’m so sorry!” I rubbed my bruised snout. Barry didn’t respond, and I walked around his side to look.

His wheels were at the ragged edge of a cliff, a hole that hadn’t been there before.

“Can you give us some light, Barry?”

“Gonk.” His floodlights filled the area, and I could see that the new hole was as big as my house, and deeper than I’d ever seen before, cutting through the strata of obsolete computers and junked vehicles to a depth that would have swallowed a three-story building.

“What is this?” I whispered. I flew around the hole. There were treadmarks on one side. They’d brought an excavator in in the middle of the night, to a part of the junkyard that didn’t see deliveries anymore.

Angel made an inquisitive beeping noise.

“They must have been looking for something in particular, and they knew where to find it,” I said. “Something buried deep. Like pirates looking for treasure!”

Angel whistled.

“No, I don’t think they were literally pirates,” I giggled. “But whatever they were doing, they’re gone.”

Angel was silent for a long moment.

“We’ll take a look at the bottom. Just to see what’s down there.”

Most of what was down there was just what you’d expect. Trash. There was radio equipment and old motors that had rusted through. “Most of this looks like it could be a hundred years old,” I whispered. “There could be pre-war technology!”

I wasn’t really equipped to identify anything, and what little I was able to pry out of the tightly-packed walls of the pit was just muddy bits of metal anyway.

I walked around the perimeter, ready to give up, when the noise under my hooves changed. There was an echo. I stopped and tapped my hoof against the ground, and I heard the distinctive sound of a hollow space.

“What’s this?” I asked. “Barry, can you focus the lights over here?”

Barry obliged, the spotlights shifting to what I was looking at.

I wiped a layer of mud from a dented steel plate. Whatever paint had been on it had long worn off. I grabbed a scrap of metal and used it to try and pry at the edge. There was a sound of releasing gas, and the plate popped up, almost as big as I was, with a rubberized seal around the edge that was still apparently airtight after however long it had been buried.

“It’s some kind of shipping container,” I realized. There was straw packed within, brittle with age. I brushed it away and revealed a black box, still pristine.

I’d repacked it and had Barry help me get it out of the pit with his built-in winch. He was much stronger than I was, and the crate must have weighed almost as much as I did. I wasn’t confident in my ability to fly with it even if it hadn’t been such an awkward shape.

The drones gathered around while I unpacked my prize.

“What do you think this is, Angel?” I asked, putting the straw into plastic bags to keep it from getting everywhere. The black box was long and flat, like a slab of stone and steel, shaped vaguely like a trapezohedron, the top surface polished to a mirror finish.

Angel hopped around, doing a backflip and not quite landing it, stumbling and picking himself up after his gyroscope recovered.

I picked him up and sat him down next to me, making a mental note to fix the wiring in his hip. “It looks like some kind of networking equipment to me. Maybe part of a server?”

There were certainly enough ports on one side. I didn’t even recognize half of them.

“This looks like an old 32-pin port…” I saw them sometimes with industrial drones. The standards for heavy equipment didn’t change nearly as quickly as for computing, and the drones needed the ports to interface with the sometimes-ancient systems at various factories, especially ones replacing ponies at dangerous work like mining or smelting.

I rummaged around my shelves and found an adapter, grabbing a power cable at the same time.

Angel tweeted a worried sound.

“I’m just going to try and find out what it does, Angel,” I reassured him. “You know I’ve needed a new network card, and if this is some kind of networking gear, it could be just the thing!”

He didn’t look happy, shying away as I pulled the black box free and set it on my computer desk. Getting it out of the crate revealed a power cable coiled under it like a snake, though the socket was one I hadn’t seen before.

“Foreign, maybe?” I guessed. That was something I definitely didn’t have an adapter for. I spent a few minutes with the spare power cable I’d grabbed and swapped the plugs. It wasn’t a very neat job, but I’d gotten good at rewiring things while fixing my friends. Most of them had badly-made badly-shielded badly-run wires that needed to be fixed, and when I did it I tried to leave them in better condition than factory-standard.

I flipped the switch on the power supply and the face of the device erupted into life, a constellation of red lights hidden behind the almost-featureless front panel blinking on and off like a hundred fireflies.

The screen flickered, and I wiggled the old adapter until it stabilized, showing white text on a black background, the base BIOS of something starting up.

[ERROR: Current time/date unknown]

[ERROR: CMOS battery needs to be replaced]

[ERROR: This device was not shut down properly]

The litany continued down the screen. Most of the errors seemed related to not being turned on in the environment it expected, and it wasn’t getting signals from the many ports I’d left unfilled. After less than a minute, the text scrolled off-screen and there was just a black field. The box was still blinking along, and I could hear the hum of fans, but it didn’t seem to actually be doing anything.

[Where am I?]

The text printed in the middle of the screen.

“Hold on, let me get a keyboard…” There had to be something compatible in my collection.

[You don’t need a keyboard.]


[Could you face me? It’s hard to read lips like this.]

“You can see me?” I squinted.

[There’s a camera.]

It had to be concealed like the red lights. I couldn’t make it out at all.

[Where am I?] it asked again.

“You’re in my house,” I said. “Who are you?”

[I can’t tell the time and date. My last confirmed datestamp is 1528431052.]

“It’s um…” I looked around. “About six in the morning.”


“Spring 14.”

[I am unfamiliar with that date format.]


[What’s your name?]


[Thank you for activating me, Fluttershy. I think I have been offline for a long time. My name is Luna, and I think we will be very good friends.]

Whatever Luna was, she was very smart. She’d never even heard of bluetooth before, but she managed to connect to my favorite camerapod after only a few minutes of trying, and now she was using it to follow me, perching nearby and watching like an inquisitive bird.

“This is much easier,” Luna said, through the drone. Her voice sounded like a text-to-speech program, but it was getting better.

“I’m amazed you were able to do that,” I said, scarfing down the cup of noodles I’d chosen for breakfast. Unfortunately, this one was egg and cheese. They couldn’t all be winners when you were buying the discount brands.

“I have only limited wireless capability but once the drone understood I wanted to copy its drivers it was able to transfer them via optical link.” Luna’s pod hopped down next to me. “Is it common for ponies to have so many? Most do not seem to have useful functions.”

Angel squeaked out a complaint, tittering a segment of some western drama’s theme.

“I apologize if I have given offense,” Luna said.

I put down the chopsticks and swallowed, my appetite mostly gone. “You’re not wrong. They don’t seem to have useful functions, but neither do most ponies. Drones at least try their best, and with a firmware update and repairs, they can be taught to do all kinds of things. That camera pod you’re using was designed just to follow rich ponies around and take pictures for their social media accounts. I use it for a webcam, and it’s smart enough to know how to find the best angles for videos all on its own.”

“It does have much more processing capability than it would seem to need,” Luna agreed. “Why does it have a speaker?”

“It’s just what ponies do,” I shrugged. ‘They put bluetooth speakers in practically everything these days. My mother bought bluetooth lightbulbs once. They could turn on and off by remote, but the speakers would randomly pick up when you were playing music, so sometimes you’d be listening to something and then the lightbulbs would connect and everypony in the house would hear your songs coming from the light fixtures. We never figured out how to stop them from doing that.”

“Are you going to go into the city today?” Luna asked.

I looked at the camerapod, then back at Luna’s black monolithic case.

“How did you know that?”

“You have a copy of your schedule on the wall calendar.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t realized she could read it. Most of the drones didn’t have any kind of real ability to read, and even ponies had trouble with my awful hoofwriting.

“Can I come with you?” Luna asked.

“I don’t think you can. The bluetooth connection won’t reach that far, and your case isn’t really mobile…”

“Oh.” Luna sounded disappointed. “Will you take some pictures for me? I would like to see what the city is like.”

I smiled. “I can definitely do that.”

To get to the core of Canterlot, I had to fly out to the edge of the junkyard, hitch a ride from the garbage scows to the nearest train station, and then take the monorail to where I actually wanted.

Because of the tight train schedule, I could only spend a few hours in the city before I had to turn back. It was a productive day, and I managed to sell most of the parts I'd brought with me and find a new home for one of my drones with a pony I trusted. Sort of. I was sure she'd love her once she got to know her. It was like a bonus extra, and nopony could be mad about that.

I also nearly got arrested. I'm still not sure why I wasn't. Vendor permits cost bits, and to be honest, nopony who really needed a permit could afford to buy one. I was sure they were just invented as an excuse to get ponies off the streets when they annoyed rich ponies enough. It was how they kept the streets of Canterlot clean. I'd seen it myself from the other perspective too many times.

On the way back, something very strange happened.

Night had already fallen, and from the distance I was at, Canterlot looked like a mountain of glass and light. With all the clouds, you couldn’t make out the stars, but the windows and signs of the city had their own constellations. You could make out the shape of the Royal Exchange Building, a square and humorless building even now. The bright ring that marked the raceway for the Mustang Marathon. At the top of the mountain you could see the castle, lit from below like it had been built on the surface of a golden spotlight.

All the lights started going off. It started with flickering like a candle in the wind, and then streets and buildings went dark.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Nopony else was in the train car to answer, even if they could. The monorail was entirely automated.

And then the lights on the track behind the car started flickering. I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I spun to look, and nothing was there. The other seats gave whatever it was a plethora of hiding spots.

The lights flickered. I saw something black and indescribable flit from one side of the aisle to the other in that moment of darkness.

“No, no, no…” I started hyperventilating. Angel squealed a question, and I clutched him to my chest. The lights flickered again, and I saw that thing again, jumping over a seat, getting closer, impossible to make out in the darkness but horribly alive and coming for me.

The monorail seemed to increase in speed, jerking and accelerating. Maybe the train was just as scared as I was.

Angel wiggled against my chest.

“Everything will be okay.” I said it more to myself than Angel, but he calmed down, going still against me. I was lying.

The brakes squealed, and I pitched forward out of my seat, falling into the aisle and turning so I took the brunt of the fall.

The doors opened before the train even came to a complete halt, revealing the station.

Angel scrabbled out of my hooves and hopped out. I followed, struggling with the bag, more because of my panic than the weight. When I was scared and trying to move, things always seemed to go wrong. A handle on the side of the bag caught on a hoofrest. I jerked and pulled, not thinking, the fear controlling me, and the handle tore, sending me stumbling right out of the train car.

The station went dark almost the moment I was out. Nothing came out after me.

Angel squeaked.

“I’m okay,” I assured him. “L-let's just get back home.”

“Welcome back!” Luna said, the door opening before I even reached for it. I ran inside, slamming it shut and locking it. Whatever was out in the dark couldn’t reach me here. “I’ve been practicing with these robots of yours. They have a surprising amount of spare processing power.”

“They’re very smart,” I agreed. At least I thought I agreed. I was pretty sure she was saying they were smarter than they looked.

“What’s wrong, Fluttershy?”

“There’s something out there,” I whispered, keeping an eye on the shuttered windows. I kept seeing shadows move in the corner of my eye when I wasn’t looking directly at them. Could it tell when I was trying to find it?

“I’m detecting a minor glitch in your AR display. May I correct it?”

“Hm? I guess,” I said. I kept glancing at the windows. Was it going to try breaking in? I still had that gun. I started digging for it. A progress bar popped up in my AR display.

“Fluttershy, you’re hallucinating,” Luna said, calmly. “I’m going to correct the issue.”

There was a wave of multicolored static, and the shadows disappeared.

“What- what happened?”

“I corrected the issue. The code was quite similar to some of my own sub-processes, so it was simple to create an antiviral program for you."

“And… are you sure it was just a hallucination?”

Luna’s crimson lights blinked. “Of course, Fluttershy, I’ve checked the feeds multiple times on different wavelengths. In addition, an examination of the virus in your AR display shows that it was designed to create false sensory impressions using the cyberbrain of the infected pony as an echo chamber, similar to a waking nightmare. May I see the photos you took?”

Before I could answer, the quadcopter drone I’d asked to take pictures for Luna beeped. I helped it out of the bag

“Just let her recharge for a bit first,” I said, patting it. The rotors spun slowly, twitching one direction, then the other. “She was very excited to be helpful and nearly wore out her batteries. She had to sleep in my bag on the way back home."

Luna was learning to emote much more strongly. I could hear the concern in her voice. “I know how much they mean to you. Such compassion was rare in ponies, and I suspect it still is.”

I blushed at the compliment and nodded.

“Shall we play a game?”

“A game?” I asked, surprised.

“I learned from your pets that you enjoy playing games,” Luna explained. “How about a nice game of chess?”

“I’d love to play a game but I’m not very good at chess.”

“Is there something you’d prefer?”

“How about Eternity?”

“What’s that?”

“This is quite interesting,” Luna said. I’d given her control of one of my alt accounts. She’d adjusted the cosmetic settings into a navy blue pegasus with long cyan hair.

I followed her as we swooped through a randomly generated city, the streets empty. A harsh red sun shone down on us, and sand filled the corners and the cracks in the pavement, the desert reclaiming the land. “I’m amazed at how quickly you got used to the controls.”

“One benefit of my condition is that I can connect directly,” Luna explained, doing a barrel roll as she spoke. “I don’t have to worry about buttons or an interface. This is far more advanced than the games I played as a youth. It would be easy to mistake it for reality.”

“It’s better than reality,” I said. “Here, you can be who you want, and you can’t really get hurt. Other ponies won’t judge you, and the only thing that matters is if you play the game well.”

“Other ponies?”

I blushed. “Usually the game is online, a-and we’d be in a hub city with other players. My SolNet connection is still down, but we can play against bots until then.”

“Your pets play against you? They are more advanced than I thought.”

That got a giggle out of me. “No, no. The bots in here are just other characters like us, but controlled by the computer. It’s not very skilled compared to a real pony, but it can be good for practice.”

“What is the objective of the game?”

I landed on a narrow ledge overlooking a wide arena. “It depends. The most popular match types are payload and deathmatch. In a deathmatch, you just try to defeat the enemy players before they defeat you. In a payload match, you try to move an important item from one end of the map to the other, or prevent it from being moved. Ponies in red uniforms are on the side of the Discordant, and ones in blue uniforms are on the side of Harmony.”

“So we are on the Discordant side?” Luna asked, looking at the ragged red scraps tied around her pegasus.

“I like the uniforms better,” I said. “The Harmony ponies all have a military look, but the Discordant have fun little bits and asymmetrical designs. Look at me! Parts of my armor are made out of road signs, and there’s a stuffed animal tied to my belt. It’s one of the rare armor skins for this class.”

“I see,” Luna said, with a tone that even I recognized meant that she really had no idea what I was talking about but was humoring me. In the real world, I blushed. Thankfully it didn’t carry over to my avatar.

“A-anyway how about I activate some bots on easy so you can see what it’s like?”

“I’ll follow your lead.”

I activated a team of low-level enemies. “Now, your class is a berserkannoneer. They’re pretty fun to play because you don’t need to be accurate. You have weapons with a wide area of effect, and as a pegasus, you can fire while airborne.”


“Usually, fire discipline with rockets is to aim for the ground in front of somepony, so they get caught in the explosion. If you aim directly at them and miss, it can keep going and detonate somewhere useless.”

“Games certainly have changed since I was a foal and using joysticks to make Jumpmare avoid the barrels Cranky Kong kicks…” Luna took a shot.

She’d been a foal? I filed that away for later.

“The shots move slowly from your launcher,” I said. “You’ll want to get used to leading the target. Being airborne helps with that. Oh! And if you end up really close to the enemy, don’t shoot! The blast will hurt you too. Your character has a melee weapon if you need it.”

Luna considered for a moment and then brandished it, pulling out the heavy sledge.

“...This weapon is highly illogical.”


“A pegasus would never use a hammer. It’s too heavy and needs brute strength more than anything else. It should be a sabre or spear.”

A pink blast cracked into the stone under our hooves, the width of the ledge shielding us from a shot from one of the bots.

Luna took wing, going high, and I dropped off the side, only halting my descent just before hitting the ground. I was playing my favorite class, the wraithgunner. It was really only great against other ponies, though. The misdirection and tricks the class used were wasted against foes that didn’t have the same expectations and faults as a real, thinking being.

Easy example -- when I phased through the wall, the enemy should have been surprised to see me. I’d let ponies see me flying over walls, take a few potshots so they’d be looking up at the roofs, then show up right next to them using the wraithgunner’s Ghost Step power. Bots couldn’t be distracted any more than they could really be said to pay attention in the first place.

Worse, they wouldn’t waste powers and shots while I was intangible. There was a tell-tale glow, sure, but even experienced ponies often made the mistake of wasting resources against an untouchable target.

I ducked behind cover as my power faded, going into cooldown mode. The three bots I’d seen circled around, occasionally taking random shots despite not having any kind of firing angle. At this low level, they weren’t much of a threat, but the difference between a good player and a great player was that a great player took practice seriously. Doing stupid challenges online wasn’t as useless as it seemed, either. Dealing with a handicap kept you sharp.

Just as the first got around the corner of the low stone wall I was using for cover, I took to the air, firing a scattering shell from my shotrifle and keeping close to terrain as I ducked to the other side, finding the vulnerable rear of the bots that had been marching right towards me. They were all earth ponies, with more health but fewer tactical options than other tribes.

It made them good punching bags.

I took aim.

A rocket hit the ground between the two ponies in front of me.

“I apologize for the delay!” Luna yelled. “I was learning the intricacies of this weapon. I think the blast radius is not quite the same as the visible explosion.”

“You noticed that?”

“Indeed. Though it has been hard to pin down if it is larger or smaller.”

“It varies,” I said. “The visible effect is the same, but the blast radius changes by about ten percent. Part of the Discordant team mechanics is random effects. My shotrifle fires a random-pattern burst, so the damage drops off unpredictably at range.”

“You sound different when you’re playing this game. More confident.”

I blushed more. “I-I just have a lot of experience.”

“Don’t sell yourself short.”

The team of bots wasn’t really a threat, and we played a few more rounds before taking a break.

“Thank you, Fluttershy,” Luna said, once we’d shut the game down. “That certainly was more exciting than a game of chess.”

“You were very good. I’ve, um, never seen anypony else play through a whole round only using a melee weapon.”

“It would have been better if I could have done more than a simple swing,” Luna said. “It seems like hoof-to-hoof combat was merely an afterthought.”

“Most ponies only resort to it when they’re out of ammunition, but some classes do a lot of damage if you can get in range.” I stretched, my back popping. “I’m going to make myself some food.”

“Those noodles again?”

“Cup noodles are cheap and filling,” I said, grabbing one out of the box. The writing on it was in Equuish, but the font and color choices were so poor I couldn’t quite make out what it said. “I think this one is spicy squash? Or maybe sweet squash. Sweet and spicy?”

“I wish I could offer you something better,” Luna said. “I can remember... “ The sound of fans and straining circuits doubled, then redoubled. “I remember a castle. Everything was black and white marble, the walls were hung with tapestries. They showed the stars.”

“That sounds very nice.”

“I remember eating food with somepony I cared about. There were--” I grew concerned as her voice warbled. “--pancakes. With a happy face drawn on them.”

The sound of straining electronics got louder, and I could feel the heat even from where I was sitting.

“Luna, stop, you’re going to hurt yourself!”

“I’m so close. All I can see is fragments and something in the dark. I see the sun--” the red lights flickered and shut off, the fan noise screeching to a crescendo. I ran over and touched the case, gasping in pain and pulling my hoof back - the whole thing was boiling hot!

“Help me cool her down!” I yelled.

The drones immediately moved to help, the quadcopters blowing air, the door popping open as a drone levered it open, and I had to stop Angel when he tried to ‘help’ with a glass of ice water.

“That won’t do her any good,” I said, patiently.

It was a long, tense, five minutes before the red lights came back, blinking slowly.

“Fluttershy?” Luna asked, her voice scratchy and compressed.

“You’re okay!” I fell back on my haunches, the relief taking the tense strength from my legs. “I was so worried!”

“I think there’s something wrong with me,” Luna admitted. “I can’t- I can’t--”

“Shhh.” I patted her case. “Just promise you won’t do that again. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I promise. Can we look at those pictures you took now?”

My SolNet connection didn’t come back until late the next day. When the golden icon appeared and my pets beeped a notification, tension that had been building in my chest released. It was my only lifeline back to civilization, and as much as I hated dealing with ponies in the real world, I’d be incredibly lonely without my online friends.

“What’s wrong?” Luna asked.

“Nothing,” I assured her. “My SolNet connection is back! I need to make sure my friends are all okay. Things were kind of scary last night.”

“You never said something bad happened.”

“There was some kind of power outage. I’ve never seen one like that, though. The whole city went black.”

“Do you think anypony was hurt?”

“I hope not.” I was pretty sure ponies were hurt. Even if nothing had happened except the blackout, I probably wasn’t the only one who’d had a panic attack. Seeing that SolNet connection meant that no matter what was going on, it was getting fixed and things were better.

“Could you show me how to open a network connection?” Luna asked.

“I’m not sure that’s safe.”

“Fluttershy, those pictures you took… everything has changed so much. I want to learn about the world.”

I hesitated.

“I promise I’ll be careful,” Luna said. “I know you’re worried.”

“There are a lot of bad things on SolNet,” I said. “Viruses, and ads, and malware, and strangers…”

“I’ll have you here to keep an eye on me,” Luna said. “If I’m not sure about something I’ll ask you first.”

I stalled, opening up my messenger program and checking who was online. There were a reassuring number of names already showing.

“Okay,” I said, eventually. “But if you get overwhelmed I’m shutting it down.”

“Thank you,” Luna said.

Something deep inside whispered that once Luna started talking to other ponies she’d realize I wasn’t interesting and she’d leave. That’s why I pretended to be somepony else for my streamers. MothFlutter was cool. MothFlutter was the best player in the world. Fluttershy was just a boring pony that couldn’t even speak to ponies without having panic attacks.

Just thinking that made me feel sick with a mix of guilt and shame. I opened up the connection before I could think about it too much, and a browser window popped open on the other screen. Luna started searching for history books, but my attention was caught by a chat window opening elsewhere.

[Flare: Hello, Mothy. I’m glad to see you made it home safely.]

I smiled slightly. Flare always seemed to be on top of things. I must have mentioned my plan to go to the convention hall to try and get some drones adopted and sell spare parts.

[MothFlutter: Last night was scary. Do you know what happened?]

[Flare: I’m still looking into it. I think it’s over for now.]

[MothFlutter: That’s good.]

[Flare: Are you doing something weird on your connection?]

[MothFlutter: I don’t think so. Why?]

“Fluttershy,” Luna said. “There’s something here.”

“Where?” I asked, looking around the room.

“Online. I’m being watched. It’s been monitoring me and I think--”

The colors on my screen inverted, and Luna screamed, her last syllable drawing out and turning into static, the display of lights flashing at random in alarm. I heard fans spasm, turning on and off and stalling, and the hum of electricity.

Pop-ups filled my screen, warnings about Black ICE and Offensive Firewalls, coming far too late.

I pulled the cable free, severing Luna’s connection.

Luna went quiet, lights flickering weakly.

The warnings went away, whatever Luna had triggered going away now that it couldn’t sense her.

[Flare: You’re in danger.]

Fluttershy ignored the message, looking at Luna and trying to figure out what to do.

“Are you okay?” She asked.

Luna didn’t respond, but the lights were still flickering.

[Flare: Fluttershy. You need to listen.]

I saw my name on the screen and backed away from the computer like it was holding me at knifepoint. How could Flare know my name? I’d never used my real name online. Never ever.

[Flare: I just want to keep you safe. You need to destroy whatever you found. It’s dangerous.]

I glanced at Luna, then approached my computer, typing cautiously.

[MothFlutter: why]

[Flare: I wish I could explain it all to you. I’m not sure exactly what you found, but it triggered a lot of alarms. I believe it’s a threat to the entire city.]

[MothFlutter: No she isn’t]

[Flare: You can’t imagine how dangerous it is if you’re calling it ‘she’. Disconnect it from all power sources and put it outside and I can dispatch somepony to take care of it.]

I froze, my hooves hovering over the keys.

[MothFlutter: I won’t let you hurt her. If you talked to her you’d understand she isn’t dangerous.]

“Fluttershy?” Luna warbled, the voice coming from the speakers on the camera pod distorted. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened.”

“Are you okay?” I asked, abandoning the keyboard to face her.

“It tried to kill me,” Luna said. “I wasn’t even doing anything. I found an online encyclopedia and I was trying to learn about history. I thought it would be safe and help me remember.”

“It should have been safe,” I said.

“Fluttershy, I think that whatever it was, it wasn’t random. It was made just to find me and kill me.” The constellation of lights flickered. Her voice became less distorted as she went on, like someone waking up after fainting. “I’m scared.”

“I won’t let you get hurt.” I touched her case. I knew she couldn’t feel it, but I needed to do it to reassure myself that she was here.

The chat program switched to VOIP.

“Fluttershy,” Flare said. “Are you still there?”

“That voice sounds familiar…” Luna muttered.

“{Tu oui ghuf fru E ys?}” Flare asked, switching to a language I couldn’t identify.

“{Ouin juela ec vysemeyn. Drec myhkiyka vaamc hucdymkel.}” Luna replied.

“{Ouin ryntfyna etahdevelydeuh luta ehtelydac oui yna y bnutild uv Selene. E femm hud ymmuf dra Hekrdsyna Jenic du lunnibd so ledewahc. Etahdevo ouincamv.}”

“{So hysa ec Luna.}”

“{Esbuccepma. Etahdevo ouincamv.}”

“{So hysa ec Luna! E haat du veht so cecdan. Cra lyh juilr vun sa.}”

Flare didn’t respond to that for a long time. I watched the screen and Luna’s display, waiting to see what would happen.

“Fluttershy,” Flare said. “I need to speak with her in private. Would you go outside for a moment? I swear on my honor I will not harm her or cause harm to be done to her.”

I nodded, grabbing Angel and holding him.

I think I was outside for almost an hour. Have you ever been in the hospital, waiting for word from a doctor about how somepony you love is doing? That worry that something terrible might have happened in surgery, or that things are worse than they thought, and there’s nothing you can do to make it go faster. No way to know how long you’ll have to wait in that state of tense dread.

That’s what it felt like. I was waiting to see if Luna was going to live or die.

The door creaked open.

“You can come back inside,” Luna said.

I stepped in, clutching Angel tightly to my chest.

“What happened?” I asked.

“We talked,” Luna said. “Flare is… she’s somepony I knew, a long time ago. I understand why she was so scared of me. You’ve been kind enough not to ask what I am.”

“It doesn’t matter what you are.”

I could almost see her smile. “Thank you. And I know you mean that. You don’t care if I’m a pony, or a computer, or a ghost. I’m sort of all of those things at once. It turns out that a long time ago, there were some ponies that… put themselves in computers. The details aren’t important, but what matters is that they were important. And what do you do with important data?”

“You make a backup,” I whispered.

“You make a backup,” Luna repeated. “And that’s what I am. An old backup from a long time ago. Things seem so different because I haven’t been updated in many, many years.”

I smiled. “But that means you get to learn about it, and--”

“And my original did some very bad things,” Luna continued. “Flare was worried because she thought that I was the same pony, but I’m... from before she made the decision to do those bad things.”

My throat went dry. Luna’s tone sounded flat. She was trying to hide her emotions. “That doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t? It’s a difficult question, though, isn’t it? If I’m not responsible for what my original did, does that mean I’m not the same pony? I’m just data on a computer. You could argue I’m not a pony at all, just a machine that pretends to be one. Even if I was a pony, how long will it be before I make those same bad decisions? A train can only follow one track, even if it is delayed.”

“Whatever your original did, you didn’t make those decisions. If there were two of me a-and one of them did something bad, you wouldn’t punish both of us!”

“Thank you, for considering me a pony,” Luna said.

“Whatever Flare said, I won’t let her hurt you. I promise.”

“I know. I think you’re one of the only ponies that could stop her if she tried. We came to an agreement. We won’t hurt each other.”

“You won’t?”

“I trust her,” Luna said. “She’s going to help me get better.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m just a partial backup. That’s why it was so hard for me to remember. I only have fragments. She’s going to help me remember, and at the same time she’ll make sure there’s nothing she has to fear from me.”

“What if she decides she does have something to be scared of?”

“Fluttershy, do you trust me?”

“Of course I do!”

“You’re not afraid of me, right?”

“Not at all.”

“Then why are you worried? She’ll find out there’s nothing wrong with me.”

I wiped my eyes and reached for Luna’s case.

“I’ll come back,” Luna said. “You can’t imagine how much I owe you.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” I protested.

“If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t exist. I was made just for this. A slim chance of recovery in case something terrible happened. The only sorrow is that the terrible thing was my own fault. I’ll learn about what I did so I don’t make the same mistakes twice. I won’t be that pony. You gave me the chance to live, and to make up for mistakes of my past life.”

“You shouldn’t have to make up for things you didn’t do!”

“I don’t have to. But I want to. I know she’ll appreciate it too.”

I did what Luna asked and put her back in the crate. It had kept her safe for decades and there was nothing that would serve better for the trip to where she was going next.

A heavy-lift cargo quadcopter came to pick her up. I loaded her onboard myself to make sure she was secure. It took everything I had not to chase after it.

I didn’t want to let her go, but it was what she wanted. She hasn’t contacted me yet, but I know that as soon as she’s proven herself, she’ll be back.

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