Pony-Me™

by TheMajorTechie

First published

What happens when you realize that your life is a simulation? Well, you put the headset back on.

Twilight thought it was all so real-- the crisp morning air, the warmth of the rising sun, the ponies that went about their day-- it all seemed real to her. Yet, with the breaking of a single connection, everything comes crashing down, leaving a very confused girl wearing a VR headset.

Maybe she can still relog.


Preread by Thunderous, Babroniedad, EverfreePony, and No name 13, with additional assistance provided by the Write On! community. Formerly preread by Doggyshakespeare and JetXPegasusWWN.

Cover art drawn in collaboration between Momoruuu and myself.

Based off of a chapter from What If...?

A total rewrite of the original Pony-Me™. Want more Pony-Me™ after you finish reading? Here's an original fiction spin on the story for ya.

Story structure: Story arc ◈ Chapter title

Prologue ◈ Wake up.

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"Twi-light."

Twilight groaned under her blankets.

"Twiii-light!"

Another groan.

"Twilight, come on." Spike opened the door. "I know you've been up all night again. Weren't you planning on meeting up with the girls for a day at the pool today?"

Twilight's eyes shot open. How could she forget? She hopped out of bed, rushing past Spike without another word. With how busy everyone had become with life, occasions like this were rarer than some of the books she'd read from Celestia's personal collection!

"Breakfast's on the table!"

"Thanks, Spike!"

Brushing her teeth could probably wait for later, right? After a near-tumble down the stairs, the mare plopped herself down at the table, staring into the bowl of oatmeal in front of her.

She shook the thought from her head. Now wasn't the time to start going into tangents. She picked up the spoon and shoveled oatmeal into her mouth.

"Y'know, as a Princess of Equestria, I think it'd be best if you didn't choke to death today." Spike chuckled as he passed by. "Anyway, I'm gonna be waiting outside for you. What should I say if Luster Dawn's parents stop by?"

"Shoo 'em away and say that their little filly doesn't have class today!"

Twilight looked up from her breakfast, only to be met with Spike's deadpan stare. She rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay, so maybe don't do that. Just tell them that there isn't any class today. That filly needs to spend some time with her playmates before she turns out like I did when I was her age. Better?"

Spike popped a thumbs-up and disappeared behind the door.

"So..." Twilight turned her attention to the day's tasks. "Let's see... after the pool party, I've got a tax code to look over, check in with Starlight on the School of Friendship... reorganize the library again?" She lit her horn, teleporting away for a moment. "Nope. Library's already at peak organization. For now. Spi--"

Right. Spike wasn't always going to be by her side anymore. Not with how independent he'd become lately. She shook her head. How had things changed so quickly? It felt like only yesterday when... when...

Twilight frowned. What was she even trying to remember?

Nevermind. Breakfast first, then the pool party. Even after all this time, it was still hard at times to keep her priorities in line. Breathe in. Breathe out. Pick up the spoon, put food in mouth. Rinse, repeat, and get ready for the day.

Yes.

~~~

There really wasn't that much to pack for a pool party, right? They were just there to have fun... right?

Twilight stared at the pile of pool- and party-related items she'd amassed on her bed. There were the usual pool floaties, enough air pumps for everybody if no one brought their own, snorkeling masks, pool toys, towels, a fire extinguisher in case something went wrong and the water from the pool couldn't put out the resulting fi--

The mare narrowed her eyes. Was it just her, or was there something... off about the fire extinguisher? She leaned in closer. It wasn't anything necessarily to do with the canister itself, just...

The fleck of color on the extinguisher's side flickered again, growing a little larger. Twilight frowned. Was it something with the way the sunlight from her window hit it? She lifted the canister and placed it in the shadows of the pile.

Nope. The color splotch was still there. It grew again, this time to a size large enough for her to see a pattern in its colors: a strange checkerboard of black and magenta. She could hear Spike's frantic footsteps approaching. Was it something he did that led to this?

"Twilight!" Spike's distant voice cried. "Twilight! Something's gone wrong!"

Twilight looked up from the fire extinguisher, only to find that her entire room was now plastered in that same checkerboard pattern. Eyes wide, she took a step back. Something definitely went wrong, that's for sure. The room began to dim around her.

"Twilight!" she could hear Spike slam the door open. "Oh no. Oh, this is bad. C'mon! We gotta get you out of this, Twi!"

"Twilight!"

"...Twilight?"

Twilight lit her horn. Whatever was behind this, it was powerful. Not even her magic seemed to penetrate the darkness as Spike's voice grew increasingly faint.

"Twilight..."

The dim light emanating from her horn flickered out on its own, the same way the sunlight did. Twilight gritted her teeth. Nothing was going to separate her from her friends.

Nothing.

1 ◈ Take a look around.

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"Spike!" Twilight gasped. Her hands shot to her head, grazing over something strapped to her face. "...Spike? Spike, are you still there?"

Wait. Wait, hold on, since when did she have hands again? Last she remembered, she hadn't touched the mirror portal in ages. And on top of that... she followed the curves of the object to a strap around the back of her head. This was a headset of some sort. The kind used for virtual reality. She'd tried it once before while visiting Sunset, but why was there one strapped to her face no--

Her thoughts screeched to a halt as she tore off the headset. This wasn't her room. This wasn't even close to her room, or really anything even remotely recognizable, for that matter. No shelves stuffed with books, no cluttered desk stacked with more reading material... just a plain room with bare walls. Her eyes turned downward. This wasn't her bed, either! She patted the worn surface of the cot. This was some sort of hospital bedding, from the looks of it.

"Spike." Twilight looked up again. "Spike, this isn't funny. I know you've had Rainbow Dash throw my bed out the window a couple of times before, but this is too far!"

"...Spike?"

Nothing. No thinly-veiled snicker, no toes poking from beneath the drapes... not that there were any drapes to begin with.

Twilight rose from the cot, only to be met with a painful yank on her side. Her hands shot toward the pain as she winced. It felt almost as if something was being torn out of her body.

Wait.

She gripped the bundle of tubes emerging from her body. She slowly opened an eye, peeking at the bundle.

Wait, what?

A stray bubble gurgled through one of them. She felt something rise in her throat.

This wasn't real. It couldn't be! After all, if she'd traveled through the mirror portal, she would've remembered, right? And besides, last night didn't exactly have much time set aside for sleeping, anyway. Maybe she'd fallen asleep midway through packing, and this was all some sort of strange dream.

Yes. That seemed a little more logical. This was just a nightmare. Now then, all she had to do was... wake up.

Twilight sucked in a breath and pinched herself. Nothing.

...Maybe she’d become stuck in a lucid dream? She racked her mind. Would Princess Luna even allow such a dream? It wasn't like her to keep a pony trapped in their own dream for any more than a few minutes at most.

She sighed, slumping back onto the cot, scratching at the tubes. They had to lead somewhere, right?

She leaned back, flinching as her head hit something metallic.

Bingo.

Twilight whirled around, one hand still gripping the tubes to avoid further irritation. Sure enough, those same tubes seemed to plug into the... thing behind her. For all intents and purposes, aside from some of the contraptions Flim and Flam had brought by from time to time, it didn't look like anything she'd ever seen. Then again, between the tubes coming from her body and the quietly whirring machine behind her, it wasn't all that hard to put two and two together.

She turned her attention to the plasticky tag strapped around her wrist.

She was on life support.

But... how? Why would she dream of being on life support in the human world? And... in the case of all this not being a dream... what the heck was it that put her on life support in the first place? She brought the tag closer to her face.

"Lisa... Garnet?" Twilight read aloud. That definitely wasn't her name. It hardly sounded like anything native to Equestria, either. Could that mean--

She patted herself down. Scenarios began to swirl in her head. Was it possible that she'd maybe been misidentified? It wasn't unheard of for patients to occasionally get mixed up. But that still led back to an earlier question: what put her here in the first place?

Twilight shook her head. What was she thinking? Dreams hardly tended to be logical, anyway. She looked around again. This room was hardly fitting for a medical facility, either. Really, it seemed to be more along the lines of some sort of cheap apartment. If this really was real, wouldn't she be surrounded by doctors and nurses the moment she woke?

So. That seemed to settle things a bit. By far, it was most plausible that all of this was just some sort of weird fever-dream, impenetrable by Luna. She reached for the headset. Maybe, if she went ahead and put it back on, she'd wake up again, but in her own room. Complete with whatever it was that she may have fallen asleep on from the pile of items on her bed.

Her fingers brushed past something on the device's side. For something that didn't bother to put her in an environment that made sense for someone on life support, this dream really was surprisingly detailed. She traced over the imprint with her fingers. This was some kind of text.

Well, at least there was something to read now. She turned the headset around, squinting at the worn letters.

"HybridEye Technologies. Property of Lisa Garnet."

Again with the whole 'Lisa Garnet' name. What a weird dream. She remounted the headset over her face. Maybe the way out of this dream was through the headset?

Nothing.

Twilight frowned, lifting the headset again. So much for that idea. She slipped the device off her head, cradling it in her lap.

What if this really was real? What if--she glanced at the wristband again--she'd been this Lisa Garnet girl this entire time? This looked like a virtual reality headset, after all, so...

Her heart dropped. What if Twilight Sparkle never existed in the first place? That would mean--her eyes went wide.

"Spike?" she whispered. "Hello?"

"...Anyone?"

1 ◈ There's so much to see,

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Twilight fidgeted with the wristband. How long had it been since she woke up in here? Two, almost three hours now? It was hard to tell for sure. She glanced back at the headset. If... she really was living in a simulation that entire time, then what would this world be like? Surely, a society advanced enough to simulate an entire second world would be on a level of technology unfathomable to her, right?

She scratched her head. Come to think of it, wasn't it already possible to an extent to do such a thing? Virtual reality already existed on the other side of the mirror portal, after all, but... if Equestria was part of a simulation, did that mean they were simulations inside of a simulation?

Somebody knocked on the door.

"Come in!"

The door opened with a puff of dust. A man poked his head in. "Ah," he exclaimed. "Good, you're awake." He pushed the door open, stepping inside, and set his briefcase beside the machine. He unclasped it, looking over his shoulder. "Excuse me for not introducing myself. The name's Harold. I'm one of those traveling technicians you might've seen going from door to door. We're here to watch over folks like you while we figure out what the heck's gone wrong with the network."

There were more like her? Twilight craned her neck, peering over the short windowsill above the cot. Sure enough, there were more people outside, all with identical briefcases. Some were going door to door like Harold said, while others seemed to be... she furrowed her brows. It looked almost as if they were taking notes on something.

"How many others are there?"

Harold looked up from the clipboard he'd pulled from his briefcase. "Hm?"

"People like me. The ones that were... well..." She gestured vaguely. "Y'know, in the same predicament as me."

"Ah, I'd say that this town's got a population of at most a few hundred residents. Most are like you--being hooked into the network and all--but there's a handful of permanent residents that are paid to stick around and keep the rest of you safe. People like me, I'd assume... though, I'm not from around here myself."

Fair enough. It didn't look like there were all too many places for people to live here, anyway.

"Anyhow--" Harold slid the clipboard onto her lap. "I'd like for you to write your name in the box at the top, please. I've got a long list of people that I still have to visit after you."

"My... name?" Twilight looked at the form, then to her wristband. 'Twilight', for all this paper cared, probably didn't exist outside of the simulation.

"Yes, the one printed on your wristband."

Twilight nodded, taking the pen from Harold's other hand. Stroke-by-stroke, Twilight Sparkle faded away, leaving Lisa Garnet in her place.

Harold smiled, turning the clipboard back around and reading it. "Oh? You're Lisa Garnet?" He looked up, staring for a moment at Lisa's face, then back to the clipboard. "Well, this is a pleasant surprise."

He leaned over, pulling his briefcase closer. "Anyway, the main reason why I'm here is to unhook you from the big hunk of metal behind you. Just about everybody's opted to be discharged from automated care so far, and given how boring these rooms are, I wouldn't blame them. It's going to take a while for things to be brought fully online again, anyway. Just as confirmation, you do want to follow through and be disconnected completely, yes?"

Lisa nodded.

"Alrighty then!" Harold set his clipboard on the floor and began to rummage in his briefcase. "The procedure shouldn't take too long thanks to the modular tubing, so I'll go ahead and administer anesthesia. You'll wake up in a couple hours' time as if nothing ever happened."


Sunlight.

It was still daytime.

Lisa yawned. For someone who apparently hadn't left her cot for who knows how long, that was some of the best sleep she'd had in ages.

Then again, the anesthesia probably had something to do with it as well. Though... it was a pleasant surprise that she wasn't woozy like she'd been that one time when she had to be brought to Canterlot general hospital. She shuddered at the memory. That was the last time she ever worked with enchanted cacti.

She sat up and looked around. Harold was nowhere to be seen, though there was a small bottle sitting beside her on the cot. She picked it up, her brow raised. It didn't look much like anything she'd seen before. At least, not on the pony side of the portal...

Lisa shook her head. Like there were going to be any parallels between Equestria and this world. She'd be better off using the little experience she had of the human world beyond the mirror.

She tore off the foil lid and took a whiff. It was yogurt. Why would he leave behind a bottle of yogurt, of all things? It wasn't like...

Oh yeah. She hadn't actually eaten anything for ages.

Fair enough. She downed the bottle.

Now then, onto the next task--leaving the room. Lisa stood up, swaying precariously on her feet. She kept a hand out, bracing herself on whatever she could as she made her way to the door. This was going to take some getting used to.

Set hand on the doorknob. Turn doorknob. Step outside. Don't fall on your face. Easy enough, right? Lisa slowly took her hand off the facade of the building. She'd done it. She stepped outside!

She kept her hand on the facade of the building. It seemed that for the most part, quite a few others were also having some trouble walking after so long. She squinted. In the distance, some had even doubled-up, supporting each other by the shoulders as they navigated the blocky buildings. A couple of those people subsequently tripped and brought their partners down with them. She chuckled.

Well, this was the outside. The surrounding town seemed pretty quaint in comparison to the sprawling cities back in Equestria. Even Ponyville seemed bigger than this place, and that way saying something. Nearly all of the buildings were the same; single-story slabs of concrete, joined together in long rows of apartments. There were still a few more roaming technicians out and about, though Harold was nowhere to be seen. By now, most folks probably were already unhooked from their machines.

Lisa frowned. This really was happening, wasn't it? All of this was real. Not a dream. Dreams took prior experiences and put a new spin on them, didn't they? This... this was nothing like anything she'd seen in her life.

No matter. All it'd take was a bit of waiting, and then she could reconnect. Rejoin Equestria as Twilight Sparkle and forget that any of this ever happened.

1 ◈ And so much to do.

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"And here's your rations for the week, sir." Lisa handed a bucket to the man waiting below her. "Don't forget to check for everything on the label. Don't want to have anything missing!"

The man nodded and walked away, bucket in hand. Lisa wiped a bead of sweat from her brow. Even with all the shade she had around her, it was getting pretty hot in the metal box she was standing in. At least she'd found something to do in the meantime. She walked deeper into the trailer. It was a little bit cooler near the back, and, even with the distinctly-autumn breeze that blew past from time to time, it still helped to take some time off from all this physical acti--

"Excuse me!"

Lisa looked over her shoulder.

An old man stood by the ramp. "Young lady, do you happen to know where the restrooms are?"

"Sorry, I don't. Maybe find one of the technicians and ask them?"

He nodded and scurried off. Now that he'd mentioned it... where were the restrooms, anyway? Not only for... well, that, but also for water. There were no streams nearby as far as she could see, and the apartments clearly had no access to running water, either.

She shrugged off the thought, sitting down on one of the buckets. Something as important as water would probably be included in the ration kits anyway. Not that she'd had the time to stop and look at the labels yet outside of passing glances.

Another person approached the ramp. Time to lug another bucket out. Lisa silently chuckled. What would Applejack think of all this physical activity she was doing? Rarity certainly wouldn't've approved, that's for sure.

"Here you go!" She set down the bucket. "The contents should last you about a week. Don't forget to check to see if anything's missing!"

"Yup, I'll make sure to do just that. Thanks for volunteerin'!"


Well, there wasn't anything left to sit on now, save for her own bucket beside the ramp. At least that meant that all the rations she'd been assigned to pass out made it to those who needed them.

"Testing, testing... is this on--great--hello there." A voice abruptly cut through the air from all sides. "This is a test of our settlement-wide announcement system. We will be delivering updates on the status of the network using both these messages as well as optional in-person meetings--the first of which will begin shortly. Please take a moment to thank the following volunteers for helping with the distribution of ration packages on such short notice: Craig Dale, Abigail Fairsong, Lisa Garnet, Samuel Gearings, Andrew Smith--"

Lisa stepped out of the trailer, frowning at the wooden ramp in front of her. Some of the people who'd come and gone were brave enough to step on it with their bare feet, but her? Hooves or no hooves, splinters were annoying. She hopped down beside the ramp onto the asphalt below. At least it wasn't nearly as hot as it was inside the trailer; it was warm, yes, but it wasn't anything uncomfortable.

Now then. What to do with the rest of the day. She lifted the bucket off the trailer's floor. She'd might as well put it away in her apartment in the meantime.

"--again, thank you to our volunteers. Now, regarding basic services." The sound of paper rustling echoed overhead. "As you may know, there are no amenities provided within your individual apartments, save for automatic climate control. Our town hall building will serve as a public commons in the meantime, complete with multiple stations for water and public restrooms and showers. Given how many... uh, years it likely has been for the vast majority of you, I would highly recommend the showers."

That last part made her laugh a little. Well, now she knew where to get water and stuff, hopefully that old man from earlier heard the announcement as well.

She let go of her bucket, rubbing her arm. It probably was a bad idea to be lugging around so much weight so soon after waking up from what was essentially a coma. Nevertheless, this was her bucket. Other folks managed to get their rations back home, and so would she.

...Man, would it be nice to be able to use magic right about now.

Lisa pushed that thought to the back of her mind. Homesickness was the last thing she needed right now. She picked up the bucket again and walked past a small group of people.

"--and from what I heard, because this world is the actual simulation, there is reason to believe that the Equestrian government may be using this so-called 'disconnection' event to construct--"

She cringed. There wasn't any chance that she was going to talk to those people anytime soon.

"--or maybe this place is a ghost town compared to what it once was. Wouldn't it make sense? 'Round-the-clock technicians who double as doctors if need be, multiple empty apartments with no cots inside; we're here to die. The spirits of those who already perished must've been the ones who caused the disconn--"

Great. Now comes the conspiracy theories. Even when she wasn't a Princess of Equestria, they seemed to have a habit of following her around. The rumor that she'd received a leg extension surgery years ago after her ascension was at least funny in concept, but these? Lisa shook her head. These rumors--especially the first one--were best avoided.

Granted, there was the potential to act on the first theory, given how she was Twilight Sparkle and all. Maybe she could consider it for an April Fools' joke. Rainbow Dash would've definitely been onboard with the idea.

She shook her head again. Again, now wasn't the time to reminisce. Hoping for a quick return to Equestria was fine, but... She let out a sigh. Keeping Equestria out of her thoughts wasn't going to be easy, was it?

In the corner of her eye, she caught sight of another motorcade approaching. Though, unlike the earlier set of ration and supply trucks, none of the vehicles seemed to be carrying much, if any cargo.

2 ◈ There are new faces to meet,

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Lisa watched the vehicles arrive one after another. There weren't all that many, but it was still enough to rival the numbers she'd seen in parking lots while in the human world. The ones around fast-food restaurants, that is.

The final vehicle in the motorcade looked quite a bit different from the rest. A little too compact for a van, but at the same time too big and bulky for the average streetcar.

...It was a minivan, wasn't it? Lisa rolled her eyes at the mental slip. Interestingly, the minivan drove past the other cars as they parked, slipping away between the buildings.

Car doors began to open and shut in front of her. More people. Weren’t there already enough technicians in town? It didn’t really seem like they needed any more help. Lisa shaded her eyes. Most, if not all of them, seemed to be wearing some sort of uniform.

"Excuse me!" She stepped closer to the growing crowd surrounding the motorcade. One of the people who'd left a car walked past. "Wait--please! Could somebody tell me what's going on?"

"Just here to help out. It's not often that something like this happens on such a massive scale."

"Wh--" Lisa looked over her shoulder. “Wait, but why do you need so many more people?”

The man was already out of earshot. Lisa rolled her eyes. Footsteps approached from behind.

"Please," she turned around again, "could you tell me what's happening? Why are so many others arriving out of nowhere?"

The woman shrugged. "I'm just doing this 'cause I get a bonus if I come. There's probably at least a few others that are the same way."

Oh.

"Well, you have a nice day now. I'm going to be on the team surveying the cable damage if you need anything from me for some reason."

So much for asking those two people. Lisa turned her attention back to the rest of the motorcade. Among the people carrying what she presumed were supplies was another woman--and unlike the rest, she wasn't wearing anything that even resembled a uniform.

...Not that Rarity would've necessarily liked it, had she seen it, but still.

Lisa walked up to the woman. "E-excuse me, could you--"

"Hm?" The woman looked up. She was far younger than what Lisa was expecting. "Oh! You-you're Lisa, aren't you? Lisa Garnet?"

"I... yeah, I guess?" Lisa made a face. "How do you know my name? Do I know you from somewhere?"

"Mmm, you'll remember in time, I guess..." The woman pointed another passing volunteer--employee?--to where they apparently were needed. "Name's Grace Daalmans. Man, has it been a while since I've last seen you. It's been what? Twelve? Thirteen years? Time really does seem to fly, doesn't it?"

"I don't understand."

Grace shrugged. "Didn't expect you to. Anyway, you were wondering why there are so many people arriving all of a sudden?"

Lisa nodded.

"My mom's one of the top dogs at the place that runs the central servers for the simulations. She sent me out here with a team of professionals to help out the on-site techs before things go south while she deals with the servers themselves. Though most of the folks arriving here are actually volunteers from surrounding communities. There are a couple more places built for people in the simulations around, but most are civilian towns. You can... uh, kinda tell based on some of their attitudes. I won't be here for too long though, I still gotta stop by some other towns that were also hit by the outage."

"Uh-huh..." Lisa furrowed her brows. "So, did you ever figure out what caused the outage? It'd be nice to get back to my normal life sooner rather than later."

"Cyberattack on the network. We also had reports that some of the buried cables were physically cut not too long after, too. Snowbush is one of the places that had a sliced network cable."

"Sno--"

"The town we're standing in." Grace stepped aside, staring down the street. "So, I... kinda have to get ready for the first meeting now. Don't forget to attend! We've got a couple of special guests that'll be speaking, too!"

She walked past without another word. Lisa sighed. At least she finally had some answers. Though, a--what did Grace call it?--cyberattack didn't exactly sound like a positive thing. Cut cables definitely seemed a little fishy, too.

Not that she really had any idea what all of that meant, anyway. Still, it reeked of sabotage. Hopefully, Grace's mother and whoever else was in charge would keep this from happening again. It'd be more than annoying to have to start dealing with this whole "disconnection" fiasco on a regular basis.

...

...

Lisa turned around and began to follow after Grace. There was a meeting to attend.


So this was the town hall; an unassuming, single-story slab of a building jutting out of the ground like a brick in a mud puddle. A small crowd was already beginning to form around the entrance. She caught sight of a door swinging shut. How Grace was able to squeeze through that jam was beyond her.

Lisa looked to the side. Parked nearby was that minivan from earlier. They were probably the 'special guests' Grace mentioned before.

Now came the question of actually getting inside the building in time.

2 ◈ And old friends to greet.

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A quiet creak directed her attention back to her ration bucket. She'd likely lose it if she brought it in with her. It'd be a good idea to--

"...Lisa? Lisa!"

She looked over her shoulder. Who--

"Lisa!" the young man shouted again. "Lis...er, Twilight--" he panted, stopping behind her. "Man, did it take a while to find you out here!"

Lisa raised a brow. "...Spike? Is that you?"

"In the flesh!" he boasted, stepping in front of her. "Good to see you again!"

"Psh. No kidding." Lisa snorted. "So, what's up with you?"

He shrugged. "Not much. Though, I think you should take a look at my wristband."

"O...kay?" She turned her eyes to the plasticky tag around his wrist. It wasn't exactly the easiest to read out in direct sunlight, but...

"I--wait. Wait a sec." Lisa looked between his face and his wristband. "You... we’re related?"

"Name's Timothy Garnet." Timothy grinned. "Knew right from the beginning that we’re siblings, too. Not sure if you remember or not, but I sure do."

She ignored that second part. Today was already filled with enough mystery and surprise as it was. "So... I guess we stick together then, huh?”

Timothy hummed. "No worries, I get it. Anyway, wanna head back to your place and put your bucket away before the meeting?"

Oh yeah.

That.


Okay, so they were a little late to the meeting. No biggie. Experience taught her that things like this were absolutely not grounds for a complete and total mental breakdown.

Still, they were tardy!

Lisa shook the thought from her head. Even though they were indeed late, it didn't look like they missed much, anyway; Grace was already onstage, though she seemed more focused on adjusting the microphone at the moment than actually saying anything.

"Psst," Timothy leaned over, "Lis, so what was getting disconnected like for you? I kinda freaked out a bit myself when it started, since... y'know, I obviously didn't expect it to happen. I'm pretty sure I thought it was an earthquake or something at first, to be honest. Don't really know why, since there wasn't anything to do with shaking, but yeah. Panic thoughts, I guess."

She raised a brow. For her... disconnection was definitely on the scarier side of things. Beyond that...

"I'll stop for now. I know this is probably pretty hard on you anyway. Looks like Grace is about to begin."

"Welcome to our first official meeting!" Grace looked up from the microphone. "I myself won't be saying much, but I'll go ahead and introduce myself while our speakers get ready. My name is Grace Daalmans--some of you might've bumped into me already--and I'm here to make sure that things are fixed and running smoothly again! I'm not anyone all that special, though. That would be my mom, Melina, who's in charge of the network side of things. Now then, let's hear from our speakers for today. Welcome Professor Argall and Chief Technology Officer Samantha Hayes!"

Scattered applause and a few awkward cheers rang through the auditorium. Their reaction made sense; it wasn’t like they really knew that any of this was going to happen, after all. She turned to Timothy. He was one of the few in the room that was giving applause. Seemed about right, knowing how he acted as Spike. Though, he seemed to know a bit more about their situation than she herself did. That part was still weird.

Samantha was the first at the mic.

"Hiya!" She adjusted the stand a little. "First of all, I'd like to thank Gracie for introducing us. Knowing me, I'd probably start blabbering on and on 'til someone stops me!"

Someone in the audience chuckled. A couple of people, actually.

"So, anyway, I'll admit right off the bat that I don't really have anything to actually talk about. I kinda just heard that Argall was coming out of retirement to do some speaking after the whole disconnection event happened, so I decided to tag along. Mainly've been waiting for this last town here, though. Now then--" She turned her attention to someone in the front row. "Professor, wanna step up to the mic now?"

An old man lumbered up onstage beside her. Samantha stepped aside.

"Okay. So--" he pushed his glasses up "--just to begin, I'd like to talk a little on what the purpose of the simulations is. Anybody in the tech room up there?"

Grace gave a thumbs-up, though Professor Argall hardly seemed to notice. A loud thunk echoed overhead, followed by a blank rectangle fading in behind him on the canvas screen.

"Thank you. Now, as I was saying--" the image behind him flickered to the opening slide of his presentation "--the purpose of the simulations, at least in the beginning, was to give people a second chance at life, regardless of reason. Many signed up as part of a recovery and rehabilitation program, while others later on joined to enjoy a cleanly-separated 'second self' of sorts, distinct from their real personas."

The image behind him changed to one of the headsets.

"Now, I know that this separation of selves may have resulted in some confusion. For the sake of privacy, I will refrain from discussing this separation any further unless you ask me individually. Moving onto how and why our network suffered an outage, some of you may have already learned from either Grace or our technicians that our network infrastructure has become the focus of a targeted cyberattack. Neither I nor anyone else, as far as I know, are able to tell where the attack originated from as of yet, but we are confident that we are well on our way to resolving the disconnection issues that have stemmed from it."

He cleared his throat. "Ahem. Continuing on, in regards to additional damage we found while investigating the attack, we also found that multiple buried fiber-optic cables were severed. There is no specific pattern to where the cut cables lay, but we do believe that the sabotage was done in coordination with whoever it was that launched the cyberattack. Our team is currently searching for the damaged sections of cabling. Hopefully, we will be able to find these damaged sections within the week. That is all for now. Timothy Garnet, I see you waving up there. I’d like to speak with you for a moment in private, please."


Lisa sat on her cot. "Spike, why were you waving at the professor?"

"I was trying to get his attention. I knew he was looking for us anyway. I just wanted to let him know where we were. Heck, we even talked after the meeting before I caught up with you! He didn’t say much, but he said he’ll be--"

Someone knocked on the door.

"Come in."

Samantha opened the door. "What's up, Lisa? Oh, hi, Tim! Professor Argall was talking about you!"

Wait, what? How did she know her name? Did they meet at some point in the past?

Professor Argall loomed silently beside her. Surely he'd be at least annoyed by her... brother? Assistant? She frowned. Maybe that was why he called him out at the end of the presentation?

"Okay, can somebody tell me what's going on?" Lisa stood up. "First off, why do so many people recognize me? Grace apparently knows who I am, Timothy figured out that I am his sister from the back of my head, and now you, too? I'm guessing Professor Argall's in on the loop as well?"

Samantha shrugged. "Yeah, pretty much. He's the dude who adopted you two ages ago, after all. I don't think he's letting go of that anytime soon. To be honest, I think he’s actually been hoping for an opportunity to see you again.”

Well then. That at least answered one of her questions. Though... adoption? Why would the professor adopt her and Timothy anyway if he knew that they’d be gone?

"Man, do you look confused!” Samantha laughed. She stopped for a breath, a wide grin still plastered across her face. “Here, I wanna ask you something myself, since you're asking about so many things. Who am I?"

Lisa raised a brow. If Samantha was going to ask something like that, then she was definitely another creature from Equestria. Maybe she's... Starlight? No, Starlight probably would've joined her in scolding Timothy over interrupting. Maybe Sunset? Sunset was pretty good with technology, so... No, her personality didn't quite match up.

Samantha grinned. "Want a hint? Or should I just spill the beans right here, right now?"

Oh, wait. The way she talked. She was probably--

Samantha pulled out a miniature model of a certain mare's party cannon. "Here's your hint! I was thinking this might be useful today!"

Yup.

She's Pinkie.

Of course she is.

"Pinkie Pie."

"Bingo! You really didn't figure it out until now, did you?" Samantha smirked. "Y'know, I think you should add 'can read you like a book' to that list of things you can't explain about me. Or don't. Either way, you're wearing your emotions like a mask there, Lizzy. Anyways, that's pretty much it! I know I'm Pinkie, you know I'm--"

"Prove it."

Samantha cocked her head.

"Prove that you're Pinkie. What were we going to do today had it not been for the disconnection?"

"Pool party. Mainly as a way to drag you out of your fancy-schmancy castle." Samantha stuffed her hands in her pockets. "C'mon, gimme something harder!"

"Okay then... what do you do for a living in Ponyville?"

"Running Sugarcube Corner, party planning, protecting Equestria with you and the rest of our friends, stare back at the people that watch us... wow, Pinkie does a lot more than I remember programming her to do."

...To be honest, she should've expected that part about staring back at people. Though, if Pinkie was... well, programmed, did that mean that… Lisa sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. This was Pinkie she was questioning. Not exactly the best idea. At the very least, though, it confirmed who Samantha was in the simulation. Still, there was one more question to ask.

"So, how come you were one of the guest speakers? Weren't you disconnected just this morning like the rest of us? What about the rest of the girls?"

Okay, make that three more questions.

"For the second question, yes, but actually no. See, while I am Pinkie in Equestria, that doesn't mean I'm always Pinkie. Unlike you and Tim with your fully-connectedness and stuff, I chose to instead stick with the more standard option of logging in and logging out whenever I want. Lets me have a life of my own out here in the real world, y'know?"

"But what about Pinkie, then? What happens to her when you 'log out'? Don't you still have to... you know, be there to control her as yourself?"

Samantha shook her head. "No, not really. I leave her on autopilot most of the time. I pop in at least once every day just to check in, though. I usually talk a bit when I can before I leave, but I usually end up talking only to Timmy before logging off for the day." She looked at him. "You know what I'm talking about."

"Yup. A little weird at first, but it was pretty easy to get used to, since I was living full-time in Equestria and all. Stick to the script, talk in my downtime with Sam. It's a heckuva lot better than the idea I had for communication, that's for sure."

Him, too? Lisa huffed. Maybe at the very least, Pinkie's sudden swings between Pinkie and Pinkamena could be better explained by Samantha logging in on a bad day or something.

"Okay, okay, so apparently you two are closer friends than I thought both inside and outside of Equestria. The fact that that place is part of a simulation is already weird enough as it is anyway." She turned to Professor Argall. "So… uh, hi, I guess? You haven’t really said much since the meeting. Do you have something on your mind?"

The professor sighed. "You don't remember me at all, do you?"

"No, not really. Sorry."

He hung his head.

"O-oh, I... I really didn't mean to, Professor! It's just that it's probably been so long since then, and--"

"No, no, it's alright. I'd been expecting that the entire drive up here. I'm not surprised." He held out a hand. "Guess we should start from the beginning, then. Let's just be friends again. Like old times."

Lisa shifted her eyes between Samantha and Argall. Timothy, too. All three of them seemed to know something she didn't. She set her attention back on the professor's outstretched hand.

"Okay."

Professor Argall let out another sigh, though it was far less forced than the first time. "Thank you."

"Well, anyway, it's getting kinda dark out now." Samantha craned her neck, looking out the window. "Lis, Tim, don't forget to eat your dinners. Me and Argall are heading back to the town hall for the night." She walked to the door, with the professor following close behind. "Talk some more tomorrow?"

Lisa nodded. The door creaked open.

"Okie-dokey. See ya then!"

It clicked shut.

"I should probably go as well." Timothy knocked on the wall behind him. "I think you'll know where to find me if you need anything."

He left without another word. She could hear the muffled sound of another door opening and closing behind the wall.

Of course they were roomed right next to each other.

™Me-Pony

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"Mm... Spike?" Twilight pulled her blanket over her eyes. "Spike, pull the drapes for me, would you?"

"On it."

"Thanks."

She opened an eye. "Wait, Spike?"

"Yeah?" The dragon turned around.

"You... I... we're back in Equestria again?"

Spike raised a brow.

"Spike, who do you talk to every night?"

"My Rarity plushie. I thought you knew that."

"What."

"What?"

"So, you aren't Timothy."

Spike made a face. "Who's Timothy? Is that someone we've met?"

"N-nevermind. It's just--"

"Twilight." Spike stepped up to the side of her bed, pulling her blankets back a little. "Don't stress yourself over stuff like that. You only woke a few days ago."

"Again, what?" Twilight propped herself up on a foreleg. "Spike, please tell me what's going on. I don't want to have to go through this all over again..."

"Again? What do you mean?"

"Simulations. Virtual reality. Stuff like that. You know?"

He shook his head. "No, I don't. Twilight, you've been in a coma. We had an earthquake a while back, and you were buried in your sleep. The rest of us have been taking turns watching over you while you recovered."

Twilight narrowed her eyes. "Define 'a while back'."

"Mm, I'd say about four years, give or take a few months."

"Four yea--" Twilight's eyes widened. "N-no--I... Spike, what is this that I'm remembering? It feels like it was a dream, but..."

"You think it was real? Yeah, I figured, with how long you've been out. You got conked on the head pretty hard back there. You had to be put on life support twice. First time was obviously when you were dug out, but the second time was when you got sick with something a few months back. See for yourself if you'd like. The stitches might even be there still."

Twilight's other hoof shot to her side. Sure enough, right where the tubes would've been had she been Lisa... were stitches. They seemed to be mostly healed by now, but they were there.

"It was far worse the second time, to be honest," he continued. "We almost lost you to septic shock. The doctors still have no idea where the pathogen came from, but a lot of your insides started to shut down and die. There isn't much left of your digestive system, for one. It took a lot of surgery to piece together what was left before we could remove the tubes."

"Is... is that why I lived almost the exact same dream twice over, then?"

Spike cocked his head. "What dream?"

"I'm not even sure if I could call it a dream, to be honest. To me, it was like I was living a whole different life. The first time, I woke up just fine. We were going to do some book reorganizing, but then the world started to fall apart, and... and it turned out that we were both human, and you were my younger brother, and--"

"Alright, alright, slow down, Twi." Spike placed a claw over Twilight's hoof. "Was the second dream the same as the first one?"

The mare gave a half-nod. "Kind of. It was definitely very similar, but at the same time, different. There were some little changes here and there, but I don't really remember what, specifically. I didn't even realize that the first dream had finished when the second one started."

Spike could only shrug in response. "Well, you're finally out of the daze you've been in since you first woke. That's what matters most. I'm sure Celestia would love to see you now that you aren't... well... y'know, nearly dead. Or dumb as a rock, for that matter."

Twilight stuck her tongue out at the dragon.

"Anyway, do you want me to tell your friends that you're awake? I'm sure you miss them."

"Yeah."


"...Twi? You're awake?"

Twilight watched one of her friends peek out from behind the door. She smiled, waving a hoof.

"She's awake, y'all!" her friend's voice ballooned with excitement. "Come on in!"

One-by-one, her closest friends began to flood into the room. The first friend --Apple... jack? It was a somewhat easier name to remember-- came first, obviously, followed by... she furrowed her brows. Was she forgetting their names? This one had the rainbow mane and tail. Rainbow... stripe?

No matter. The yellow one came in next. She was hiding behind her mane again.

Pinkie Pie bounced in after. Thanks to Samantha, Pinkie was still fresh on her mind. She'd have to talk with that mare in private a little later.

And then there was Generosity. That was her name, right? It was some sort of descriptive word. That's all she could remember.

Spike followed behind Generosity, gently closing the door behind himself.

"Been a long four years now, ain't it?"

Twilight looked up. Applejack was staring at her.

"I... yeah," Twilight sighed. "It's been a while. Spike told me."

"How are you feeling, darling?" Generosity was the next to speak. "Do you remember who we are?"

Twilight cringed. "I think so? Your name is Generosity, right?"

The mare shook her head. "Rarity. My name is Rarity. You were speaking to Applejack before me. Are you... are you okay, Twilight?"

"I don't know."

"What about me, Twi? You remember me, right?" Rainbow Stripe hovered just above the bedsheets. "I helped teach you how to fly when you got your wings, remember?"

"Yeah, I think so." Twilight nodded. "You're Rainbow Stripe, right? I remember the rainbow part well."

"You're half-right! The second part is Dash. Try and guess my middle name!"

"Now now, Rainbow," Applejack pulled Rainbow back by the tail. "Don't go botherin' Twi like that when she's still tryin' to remember everypony. None of us know what your real middle name is."

Rainbow rolled her eyes, touching down on the floor in front of the bed. "Aw, fine."

The yellow one stepped up beside Twilight, placing a hoof over her forehead. Twilight eyed the three butterflies on her flank.

"Butterfly, I--"

"Fluttershy." Fluttershy corrected Twilight without skipping a beat. She took her hoof off of Twilight's forehead. "Oh... uh, sorry for interrupting like that. I was just worried that you might still have a fever. You had a terrible illness not too long ago. Your fever is gone now, so that's good at least..."

Twilight blinked, giving a single nod. "Thanks for checking, Fluttershy. I'm guessing you were the one watching over me when Spike wasn't around, then?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Thanks." Twilight turned her attention to the final mare, who stood a little further behind the rest. "Pinkie?"

"...Yeah?"

"Pinkie Pie. That's your name, right?"

"Yeah."

"Pinkie, was there anything... wierd happening?"

"What do you mean?"

Twilight shrugged. So much for talking in private. "I don't really know for sure, actually. Does the name 'Samantha' ring a bell for you?"

Pinkie seemed to freeze at the mention of that name. "N-no, it doesn't."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah."


"Thanks for visiting me! I'll see you tomorrow!" Twilight waved at Rainbow Dash. That left only Pinkie and herself in the room. Spike had long-since left around the same time as Rarity.

"Pinkie."

"Hm?"

"I know that you're hiding something."

Pinkie lowered her head.

"You remember too, don't you?" Twilight leaned closer to her friend. "The time you spent as Samantha, I mean."

The mare nodded slowly.

"So it did happen, then."

"Yeah."

Twilight turned her gaze to a wrinkle in her sheets. She gave it a flick. "Do... you think this is also a simulation, then? Or is this the outside world?"

"I don't know."

3 ◈ But rise does the danger,

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Twilight hummed idly as she pulled another book off the shelf. Days like today--when she had seemingly all the time in the world to herself--were becoming increasingly rare with how busy she'd become. It was nice to wind down every now and then to just... reshelve books.

In a way, it almost felt like she was decluttering her thoughts whenever she did this.

A smile formed at the edges of the mare's lips as she set the tome aside, though it didn't last long. "...Huh?" She raised a brow at the next book she'd been reaching for. The title on its spine flickered back to what it was before. Twilight shook her head. Just a figment of her imagination.

She pulled that book out, setting it atop the previous one on the table beside her. Her eyes lingered on its title for a few more seconds before she turned away. Just my imagination.

Twilight sucked in a breath. Maybe she was a little more tired than she thought she was. Still, leaving her books only partway reshelved was something she didn't exactly like doing. She scanned the remaining books on the shelf, reading over each title one by one. So far, so good. No weird flickering to be--

--seen. She cocked her head. This one was still flickering, even as she was looking at it. It was a little hard to tell what its title was through the mashed-together text on its spine.

"Spike?" she called. "Spike, you there? I... I think I might be feeling a little sick."

She peered at the books on the table, immediately raising a brow. The titles were different from what they were when she'd last looked at them. She picked up the most recent tome. Since when did she have a book titled 'Lisa'? Come to think of it, had she ever even seen a book with that title?

The next book underneath was the same, only its title read 'Timothy' instead.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she heard her assistant's footsteps approaching. He opened the door.

"Hey, Twi. You need something?" The dragon poked his head in. "I heard you say something about feeling sick. You feeling alright?"

"Kinda, I guess. Could you bring me something to drink, please? I'm beginning to feel that the hot temperatures we've been getting these past few days might be getting to my head."

Spike nodded and retreated from the doorway. He reappeared mere moments later with a small bottle in hand. "Found some yogurt in the kitchen. Will that do?"

Twilight ignored the logistics of how Spike could've traveled downstairs to the kitchen and back in only a matter of seconds. "Thanks, Spike." She lit her horn, taking the bottle. She gave it a good shake in case of anything settled.

And then she stopped. Something about the bottle. It seemed... familiar, somehow. She pushed the thought aside. Again, it must've been the heat getting to her. Of course it'd be familiar! It came from her own refrigerator!

She tore the foil lid off the top of the bottle and raised it to her lips, only to once again be stopped. This time, by a painful yank on her side. She yelped, dropping the bottle as her hoof instinctively flew to her side. Her eyes followed close behind, landing on a cluster of tubing running out of her body.

"Spike?" Twilight slowly turned her head. Spike was gone.


Lisa shot up in bed, panting. Were there any--she ran her hands over her body, breathing a sigh of relief. No tubes. She could still feel her heart pounding in her chest after that nightmare. She closed her eyes, thinking back to that breathing exercise that Cadance... or at least, whoever might've been playing as Cadance--had taught her.

In, out. In, out. In... out.

The room was quiet now, at least. No humming from the hulking machine in the room, no footsteps outside... though, she could hear some faint conversation from next door.

...Wait, wasn't that Timothy's apartment?

She hopped out of bed, making a beeline for the door. The fact that she could feel every little imperfection in the floorboards served as a reminder that her bare feet were far softer than the hooves she had as a pony.

Though, now that she was outside, maybe it wouldn't hurt to get a bit of fresh air before heading to her brother's place.

...The fact that her assistant and sort-of adopted brother was actually her biological brother all along still felt more than a little weird.

Anyway.

Timothy's apartment was the one right behind her own, if one were to count the sides with the doors as the fronts. She could see light pouring out into the night as she walked past the small side window. She stopped in front of the door, bringing a hand up to knock.

"Come in, Lis. We heard you outside already."

Oh.

Lisa opened the door. Her eyes immediately shot to Samantha, who was currently sitting on Timothy's cot.

"Hey," Samantha waved, "you're up pretty late tonight. Something on your mind?"

Lisa shook her head. "No, not really. What were you two talking about?"

"Th--" Timothy began to speak, but was quickly cut off by Samantha.

"Someone's been trying to hack into the servers. I have no idea what they're after right now, but from what I've read in the report I got, there's reason to believe that they've already succeeded."


"Rosanne."

No response, save for the clicking of buttons on the young woman's gamepad.

"Rosanne, what are you doing? Why aren't you working?"

Rosanne's headset was lifted from her face. She scowled at the intrusion into her nature exploration game. "Hey, gimme some slack already, Selene. I did what you asked, and now I'm taking a break. What else am I supposed to be doing, Moonbutt?"

It was Selene's turn to frown now. She placed down the headset on Rosanne's desk. "First of all, don't call me Moonbutt. You were able to get in using your old company credentials, yes?"

Rosanne nodded.

"And you took advantage of the disconnection event as a distraction? Snagged yourself the files that we're after?"

Another nod.

"Then why are you slacking off?" Selene tightened her grip on the headset. "You have the perfect opportunity to strike them again right now. With their external network still down for the count, they've been acting like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off. Tell me what's stopping you? Money?" She slipped her other hand into a pocket. "You want more money for the job, I can pay you that money. It's a whole lot cheaper than buying one of their private sims as it is anyway."

"No, no, it's not the money." Rosanne shook her head. "It's just... don'tcha think we're going a little overboard with this? That whole talk you had with me about bringing them to their knees made you sound like you were a bit in over your head. Wouldn't it make sense to step back now that we have what we wanted? Just kinda lay low for a while?"

"No, and you don't work for them anymore, anyway. You don't have to act nice to make your old boss happy anymore." Selene tossed the headset back into Rosanne's lap. "And, again, don't forget that you're being paid to do what I say. You made the choice to join me when you quit, and I expect for you to stand by that choice. What's the progress on the ransomware?"

Rosanne nearly choked. "Wh-what?" she sputtered. "I don't remember you ever asking about that! All you said was to nab some files off the company servers to build a private sim for yourself! You know how seriously they take stuff like this as it is--you used to work there yourself!"

"I know." Selene turned away. "I know. Hey, before I go, I've got something I'd like to know. Why did you quit? You had a well-paying position, basically all the freedom you wanted, so long as you did what you had to do... heck, with how much you make for your age, it'd only be a few years tops before you had enough to buy yourself a decent little house with a car to match. What gives? Why did you decide that I was a better choice than the job you left behind?"

Rosanne shrugged. "Just thought it'd be a little more interesting, I guess. I don't really worry much about money, since I don't need to make very much anyway, so I just go with what seems more exciting." She fidgeted with the strap on her headset. "And you? You're interesting. You and your hacker-for-hire position that you were looking to fill. My brother used to have the same boredom problem as me, but he chose to splurge some of our parents' money on a private sim for himself, but me?" She placed the headset back over her face with a grin. "I like my excitement real."

"Wait. you--your family can..." Selene balled her fists. "Your family can afford private sims? Why didn't you tell me? What’s the point of taking pay if you don’t need it?

"I--"

Selene whirled around to face her employee. "Why even bother with the crap I put you and myself through? Don't you have some kind of reputation to protect or something, Miss 'My Family Has Money to Splurge'?"

Rosanne lifted her headset, staring into Selene's eyes. Save for the latter’s seething breaths, the room was silent. She placed the device back on her desk, turning away from her boss.

"I... don't know."

"Well, I’d like for you to take some time to think about it."

Selene left the room without another word.

3 ◈ And it will only get stranger.

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"Rise and shine!" Timothy knocked on the door. "Wake up, sleepyhead!"

Lisa groaned, turning over. She brushed the tangled mess of her hair away from her eyes. "Five more minutes," she yelled back.

"C'mon." He opened the door and peeked inside. "Samantha wants us to look at something with her."

Fine.

"Li--"

"'Kay, hold on," Lisa yawned as she opened her eyes. "But seriously, give me a couple of minutes. I don't feel like getting up right now. Is this what it's like to be lazy?"

Timothy chuckled. "Alrighty then, princess." She could see him shrug in the corner of her eye. "I'll just wait outside while you learn about power napping."

The door clicked shut. She closed her eyes again. What was it that Samantha wanted them to look at? There was hardly anything interesting in Snowbush, considering its middle-of-nowhere-ness.

She yawned again, scratching her head. No sense in keeping her brother waiting for too long. She sat up, frowning at the stray hairs that'd drifted into view as she did so... Actually, now that she'd thought of it, preparing herself for the day wasn't a bad idea. The sour taste in her mouth certainly called for some attention, at the very least.

Lisa stood up and let out a heavy sigh. Today was a new day, and that meant there were new things to do. She walked to the door and opened it.

"Took you long enough." Timothy snickered. "Any longer and I'd be barging in on you again." He paused, looking her over. "You wanna clean up a bit first, though? Grab breakfast and stuff? You look like crap."

Way to keep it subtle, Spike.

Lisa rolled her eyes. "Yeah, sure, I guess... y'know, you look pretty awful yourself, too."

"Yup, I know. Basically everyone in this place looks terrible."

"So--"

"So we're heading to town hall then." He grabbed her by the hand. "We both know we have garbage-breath."

~~~

Lisa stared at the swaths of people mingling up ahead.

She felt her brother yank her to the side. "Over here. Man, do I have to drag you everywhere out here? Bathrooms are this way. Samantha was able to get some catering happening, so everyone's getting access to the breakfast buffet that you saw back there."

"So, we're brushing our teeth?"

"Yup. Snowbush also got a bunch of toiletries and stuff to go with the catering. Just... uh, make sure that nobody takes your toothbrush after you use it. Samantha's got yoinked when she wasn't looking, from what I've heard."

Lisa raised a brow.

"Ahem. Toothbrushes are over here." Timothy began walking again, dragging her along. "Pretty sure that this place has public showers too, if you wanna wash off."

They stopped in front of a stand piled high with dental care packages. Lisa picked one up. It didn't look much different from the ones she'd seen in the travel aisles of grocery and convenience stores back at home.

"Orange, huh?" Timothy took a blue set for himself, pointing it at a set of doors little further down the hall. "Those are the restrooms over there."

"Mm-hm, know that already."

He slipped his toothbrush set into a pocket. "Alrighty, just making sure. Don't take too long!"

He wandered off to the aforementioned restrooms after that.

...Wait a minute, when did he get a new set of clothes with pockets?

~~~

Hair.

Lots of hair.

Lisa stared at her reflection. Was her hair always this... messy? She held a hand to her long bangs. Come to think of it, the crazy hairdo was to be expected, anyway. There were plenty of folks she'd seen with equally-messy hair, Timothy included. She just hadn't really put any thought into those observations.

One thing she was putting thought into, however, was her height. It was a bit hard to find really any sort of reference point, given the whole situation regarding not being a pony anymore. Things back in Equestria were probably scaled-down, too.

It was still interesting how Timothy managed to get his hands on a change of clothes, though. It'd be nice to wear something that wasn't a hospital gown all the time.

She looked down at her now-used toothbrush. It was probably best to put it back in its wrapper alongside the toothpaste, since she didn't exactly have anywhere else to put it.

As for her hair, any and all attempts to comb it with her fingers had fallen flat. Like her hair. Seemed like she'd have to rock the eternal bed-hair style for just a little longer.

Lisa pushed the door open and exited the restroom. Timothy was nowhere to be found, though it didn't take long for him to catch up once he was out.

"Y'know,” he hummed, “Sometimes, I think about my life choices."

"Wh--" She glanced at him. "Huh?"

Timothy shrugged. "Just thinking out loud. Like, y'know how I'm Spike back in Equestria, right?"

"Yes?"

"When the heck did I decide that being a tiny dragon would be cool? It's annoying not being able to reach the top shelves of things without a ladder or stool."

"O...kay. Well, maybe you can ask Samantha to make you taller or something. She can do that, can't she?"

"Maybe." Timothy paused. "Hey, actually, I've got a question for you. See how much you know about us."

"Shoot away."

He grinned. "Guess how old I am?"

Lisa cocked her head. "Teens?"

"Nope! Higher."

"Wait, but wouldn't that--"

"Mean that I'm older than Spike out here in real-life? Yup. Don't forget, I play him as a character. I don't necessarily have to live through every part of his life. Kinda like you and Twilight, though you've obviously grown into her over time."

"Wh--" Lisa stopped walking. "What?"

"I'm saying that those memories you have of Twilight as a filly aren't your own."

...Well, that's going to weigh on her for the rest of her life. Fun.

"So, you wanna try again at guessing my age? If you're wondering, I'm still younger than you are, so the whole sibling-assistant dynamic we have in Equestria's more or less the same. Also, catch up already. Why'd you stop?"

"It's... it's just..." She began walking again, though she didn't make any attempt to actually keep pace. "All that time, I thought I genuinely was Twilight Sparkle. Hearing that she's nothing more than a character that I play as... I--"

"Anyway, we're here! Lookit all that food!" Timothy cut her off, gesturing at the buffet carts before them. "You want eggs? Cereal? There's oatmeal too if you want any of that. I'ma grab some bacon and waffles for myself, so you go ahead and find something to eat without me!"

Wow. That was... Lisa shook her head. There wasn't any way to get that out of her head anytime soon, was there?

"You gonna keep standing there, or are you going to get some food?" Timothy walked past with a plate. "I know we took a detour to the restrooms first, but we're still in a rush, y'know."

Right. Existential crisis aside, a bowl of hot oatmeal sounded nice right now.

~~~

Maybe she should've considered adding a little less water to the oatmeal.

"Can you pass me the syrup?"

She passed Timothy the syrup.

"Thanks. You want any bacon?"

Lisa shook her head. "No, thanks. It smells great, though."

"Okay then. More for me."

"Oh, hi there, Tim!" Grace paused behind the two. "Didn't realize you were here as well! Same goes for you, Lisa. Tim, do you know anything on the status of what Samantha's been monitoring? I've kinda been left in the dark on the topic since I'm just here to help keep the peace."

Timothy swallowed his mouthful of waffles. "Nope, I haven't taken a look since I went to get my sister."

"Actually, speaking of Samantha--" Lisa turned to her brother. "The conversation you were having with her last night. What were you talking about? I don't think I caught much of what was going on."

Timothy shrugged. "Well, there's that whole deal about cut cables and hacking and stuff, though I'm pretty sure you've heard of both already. Pretty sure Sam's got a lead on the folks responsible as well, last I checked." His eyes turned to her bangs. "You... uh, have a bit of oatmeal in your--"

Lisa looked down at her oatmeal-soaked hair. Probably shouldn't have leaned so far over the bowl.

"Guess I'm in the same boat as you two, then." Grace sat down beside Timothy. "Sam and Argall are probably the only two I know of in this entire town with access to the confidential stuff. I was thinking I'd be let in on the loop too since my mom's one of the big-shots back in HQ, but I guess not. Just gotta do what I can to help out for now. Keep folks from panicking and stuff."

Lisa gave a nod and wiped the oatmeal from her hair as best as she could. "Yup. By the way, is there anything I could maybe do from the inside of the simulation? I want to help protect my home whatever way possi--"

"Actually," Timothy stood up with his now-empty plate, "Lis, save it for later. We're waaaay late already."

"But my oatmeal--"

"You can finish it later, sis. You wanna come or not?"

Lisa stared at her practically-untouched oatmeal. "Fine." She pushed her bowl away. "Where is she, anyway? I haven't seen Samantha since last night. Did she already eat?"

"Yup."

~~~

Timothy held the door open for his sister.

"Where are we even going?" Lisa stepped out of the building. "You didn't answer the first question."

"Minivan. She should be somewhere around here, last I checked."

Oh yeah, that. A honk off to the side caught her attention. Sure enough, Samantha was there in the driver's seat. Professor Argall, too.

"About time you two showed up!" Samantha waved from the window. "What took you so long, Tim? You were just supposed to ask Lisa if she wanted to join us!"

Timothy shrugged, making his way over to the parked vehicle. "She got hungry."

"And I'm still hungry." Lisa rolled her eyes. "Hardly ate a thing before somebody dragged me out here."

"You could've actually eaten then, instead of staring at your oatmeal for, like three minutes."

Samantha glanced between the two as Lisa caught up. "Anyway," she continued, "Tim, Lis, you two wanna take a look at this? Argall and I were discussing what services might've been compromised in the breach."

"Sure." Timothy nodded, craning his neck toward the laptop sitting on the dashboard. "Uh, would you mind--"

"Oh, hold on, I'll just open the door for you."

He stepped away as Samantha swung the door open.

"Better?"

"Mm-hm." Timothy stepped around the door and peeked at the laptop's display. Lisa followed suit.

"So, from the reports that I was sent, the security breach seemed to be targeting our archival servers where we keep our on-site backups. Until recently, employees were allowed to upload to and read from these servers as much as they wanted, though there were restrictions on file types and what could be deleted. Point is, the rogue employee account that we've been tracking seems to be accessing and downloading a massive number of documents from this server." Samantha pointed a finger at the screen. "What's worse is that most of these documents seem to be related to our prototype hardware; photos, models, stuff like that. Given how an employee account was used to carry out the intrusion, I'm pretty sure that they've already got the necessary software that pairs with these prototypes."

Lisa cringed. That certainly wasn't going to be fun to deal with. "At... least they didn't destroy anything?"

Samantha shook her head. "No, I'm not worried about that. We have multiple air-gapped backup servers across the globe for a reason. What I am worried about, though, is that if and when those documents--those trade secrets--land in the wrong hands, then we'll be dealing with something far worse than a simple information leak next time around. Heck, depending on what they're planning on targeting next, if they got hold of the proprietary encryption algorithms, then we're going to be looking at some of the most stressful emergency patches of our lives."

She glanced at Lisa's expressionless face.

"Uh... we, meaning me and Argall."

"Uh-huh?"

"What I'm saying is that it could be possible for whoever broke into the network to almost perfectly impersonate anyone. It's identity theft in the most literal sense. Anyway—” Samantha turned to the professor. “Argall, thoughts on whether or not this specific cluster of servers has stuff on encryption? I don't work much in R&D anymore these days."

Professor Argall gave a single nod. "Yes we do, last I remember. It's certainly been quite some time since I've had a look myself, though, given my retirement."

Samantha groaned.

"So, is there anything that I can maybe help with, then?" Lisa looked away from the screen to her... friend? Samantha was Pinkie, after all... She shook her head. "I... sorry about that. Didn't mean to stare."

"No worries. As far as helping out, I'd say that there would be a lot more you can do if you stick around for a while." Samantha reached for her laptop and took it off the dashboard. "I know you really don't remember much of your past, but on the off-chance that you do start to regain those memories, I want you around for your expertise. You're one of the original developers of the simulations, after all."

"What."

"Yeahhhh..." Timothy snickered. "Remembering that stuff is gonna take a while, y'know."

"Welp." Samantha shut the lid of the laptop. "That's all I'm going to do for now. There really isn't much I can do out here beyond monitoring the network, and even then, updates have only been rolling in every, like, half an hour. Lisa, I'm leaving you with Argall for a bit. See if you've got any questions for him or vice-versa."

"Wait, wha--" Lisa backed away as Samantha stepped out of the minivan, laptop in tow. "I thought you wanted us to take a look at things with you?"

"And you just did." Samantha shrugged. "Unless you wanna keep staring at a screen that changes slower than paint dries." She winked, a grin on her face. "And yes, I remember the cloning incident, Twilight."

"I'm heading off with Samantha as well." Timothy yawned. "Well, you have a nice chat with dad for now. Breakfast buffet's still open for a few more hours if you're planning on getting another bowl of oatmeal."

Lisa gazed at the professor. The fact that Timothy just called him dad absolutely made things more awkward.

"So... uh, hi--"

Professor Argall grunted. "I'll start."

"Huh?"

"I'll start," he repeated. "You don't have to ask me anything if you don't feel like it. Same goes for answering my own questions, given the circumstances. Sit down if you'd like. Samantha won't mind."

"O...kay." Lisa climbed into the driver's seat.

"Do you like it in the simulation?"

She nodded. "I didn't realize it was one until I was disconnected."

"And what about your parents? Night Light and Twilight... Velvet?"

Another nod.

"Twilight Velvet. Alright, I was thinking that was the name. I remember you told me long ago that you planned on bringing your parents back. For a while, their characters were running off of specifications that you wrote yourself. After a certain point, though... well, I never had any children of my own until I adopted you and your brother, so--"

"Wait--this is the second time that I've heard about myself and Timothy being adopted.” She leaned closer to him. “I want to learn more about that. I still have plenty of questions about the simulation itself and my involvement with it, but let's start with adoption."

Argall gave a silent nod.

"Alright. So, adoption. Why did you adopt me and Timothy in the first place? Did something happen to our parents?"

He visibly cringed at that second sentence. "Yes, something happened to them. I wanted to ensure you and your brother still had a chance of staying together after what had happened. I even kept your original last names after the papers were signed; it just didn't feel right to erase the last of what you had from before."

"But what happened? You're avoiding the question!"

He lowered his head. "Just... don't worry about it. I think it's for the better that I don't discuss what led to your adoption. At least, not right now."

"Why, though?" Lisa scratched her head. "Is it bad?"

"Yes. That's all I am going to say for now."

"Oh. So, do you have anything else you'd like to ask?"

Argall nodded, his expression softening. "Yes, actually. I heard from a certain boy-turned-drake that you've taken on quite a high position. I presume you're now a close advisor to Celestial?"

"Celestia, and no. I've actually... well, replaced her, more or less."

"Huh. Well, that certainly wasn't what I'd expected."

"Do you think any of my friends were disconnected? Besides Samantha, I mean. There are four others that I'm hoping I'll be able to meet out here in the real world."

The professor shrugged. "It's possible, I suppose. Though, that in and of itself would depend on them being actual people, rather than non-player characters."

"Oh."

"Something wrong?"

"No, I don't think so... I mean, the idea that my friends might not actually exist is weird for sure, but I've come to expect stuff like that by now. Is... there anything else you want to ask?"

Professor Argall shook his head. "That's it for now. I should catch up with Samantha and your brother. It's been nice talking with you, Lisa."

"You too."

He opened his door and stepped out, leaving the girl alone in the driver's seat.

4 ◈ You'll never know what's in store,

View Online

Lisa stared at the ceiling. Long, spindly shadows crept across it in the moonlight.

Nighttime.

The time of Princess Luna.

Lisa turned over. The Princess of the Night obviously wouldn’t be dreamwalking out here in the real world. Who knows if she’s even real in the first place?

She closed her eyes. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful for the most part. After the whole talk she had with Professor Argall, there really wasn’t much else that she’d done.

There wasn’t much else to do, anyway. Samantha and Grace kinda made sure of that, though it was certainly more of a positive than anything bad. Volunteers and other people from outside of town were now handling whatever needed to be handled, so the idea of helping with things such as rations again was out of the question. Not that the ration buckets everyone got were even close to running low yet, anyway.

Beyond the walls, she could just barely hear the muffled conversation between Samantha and Timothy. This was… what, the second night of them talking this late? What did they even talk about, anyway? It couldn’t always be about the simulations, right? Timothy did say that he talked with Samantha pretty often in his downtime while they were in Equestria, but even then, what was there to talk about? Maybe real life stuff? It’d explain why she could occasionally hear Spike’s voice echoing through the castle when they were supposed to be sleeping… though, how Pinkie got into the castle when it was locked and secured for the night remained a mystery to her.

And then there was that whole thing about being ‘one of the original developers’ of the simulations, too. There was definitely a good number of things that she clearly didn’t remember still, and that was one of them. Maybe she could ask Timothy sometime about it. He seemed to remember things better when it came to stuff regarding their past.

Lisa pushed the thought aside. There was also quite a bit that she still didn’t remember about her parents, either—her ‘real’ ones, that is. Professor Argall did mention her parents in Equestria earlier, but he didn’t seem particularly comfortable when it came to discussing whoever their counterparts were. The way he kept dodging her questions, and the fact that he’d apparently adopted them years ago—were her real parents dead? It’d make sense, with how he acted and all. Or maybe they were just far too distant to matter in her life in the first place. Maybe she could ask Samantha about that instead. Timothy probably knew as well. Heck, those two were probably closer friends here in the real world than she was with Pinkie back in Equestria!

Come to think of it, how many friends did she have? Obviously, there was Pinkie and the rest of the girls, Sunset, Starlight, the Princesses… maybe Discord, but that’d be a stretch. Of course, there was also her family, and maybe Moondancer.

And when it came to the real world, all she really had was Timothy. Samantha too, though there were some pretty noticeable differences between how she and Pinkie acted. Samantha just wasn’t as energetic compared to Pinkie. Or chaotic, for that matter, though that was probably for the better, considering how she’d been trying to keep things together following the disconnection.

Then again, Pinkie had a knack for planning as well, so there was that going for Samantha when it came to similarities. As for the rest of her friends…

Lisa sighed. Chances were, they never existed. Maybe they happened to be in a different town instead, but something deep down told her that the only real one was Pinkie.

Again, so much for being the Princess of Friendship.


“Rise and shine, Lisa!”

Lisa opened an eye, yawning as her brother poked his head through the door.

“C’mon, time to wake up. Man, you’ve been sleeping in more these past few days than I ever did back in Equestria! It’s… what, eleven in the morning now? At least there isn’t much to do today, so you’ve got plenty of time to slurp oatmeal.”

She chucked a pillow at him.

“Well, anyway, don’t forget to brush your teeth.” Timothy grinned. “Gonna get myself some breakfast in the meantime.”

He shut the door again.


Welp.

Another day, another breakfast. Not oatmeal this time, though. Today felt more like a pancakes kind of day.

Lisa’s eyes wandered over the crowds of people mingling in the room. Not that there was really any chance that she’d recognize any of her other friends if they were here, anyway. Samantha was sitting with Grace pretty close by, though.

Now then, onto the pancakes. She could already smell the sugary batter as she approached one of the counters. Her brother was already there at the waffle iron.

“Oh, hey there, sis. No oatmeal today?” Timothy nudged her. “I heard there’s raisins and brown sugar for the oatmeal now, if you still want it.”

“Nope.” She grabbed a paper cup and began to dispense some batter into it.

“You’re making waffles too?”

Lisa shook her head. “Nope. Pancakes.”

“Neat.”

He walked away. Lisa poured the batter onto the griddle. While she was far from any sort of top chef back at home, at least she wasn’t nearly as bad as Sweetie Belle when it came to cooking. Like, how does one set fire to a bowl of cereal in the first place? And completely on accident, at that!

She flipped the pancake.


“Are you really planning on eating all of that?”

Lisa nodded, sliding her plate onto the table. She pulled the slice of bread from her mouth. “It’s called I’m hungry.

“Even the cereal? You didn’t even get any milk for it.”

Another nod. Timothy snorted, returning to his plate of waffles. To be fair, she didn’t exactly have enough hands to carry a milk carton on top of everything else. Probably could’ve balanced her toast on top of the cereal box, though.

“Oh! I just remembered something—” Samantha looked up from her food. “Lisa, do you remember Emily?”

“Emily?” Lisa raised a brow. “I… uh, no, I don’t. Who does she play as in the simulation? I might know her as a pony. Is she here in Snowbush as well?”

Samantha shook her head. “No, she isn’t. In fact, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t even have an account for the simulations. I let her try logging in as me a while back, but she didn’t seem all too interested. I can say that the three of us were pretty good friends back in the day, though.”

“So…” Lisa scratched her head. “What does she do, then? And why are you bringing her up, anyway?”

“Just thought I’d let you know about an old friend, Miss Princess of Friendship.”

“Ha ha. Very funny.”

Samantha stifled her giggling. “But… yeah, in all seriousness, I was thinking it’d be interesting to let you know a little about what happened to the people you used to know. Even though Emi didn’t really like the simulations themselves, she did say that she liked the base lore you wrote for Equestria. Heck, she even told me last time we met that she’s writing a novel based off of that old lore! She’s a historian by day, though. Creative writing’s just her side-hobby.”

“What.”

“What what?” Samantha cocked her head.

“The novel. It’s… based off of Equestria?

Samantha gave a quick nod. “Yup! She didn’t tell me all that much about it, though, so all I know is that it’s called ‘Splintershard’, and it’s some sort of fantasy-adventure story. Equestria serves as the backdrop for things like the setting, if I remember correctly.”

“Wow.”

“Wow?”

“It’s just… well, the idea that I even had friends before the simulation, besides you, of course—it’s a little puzzling to me, that’s all. Me as Twilight Sparkle was incredibly antisocial early on.”

Samantha shrugged. “Yet here I am, telling you about another old friend you had before all of that happened. Y’know, if you really want to, you can maybe stick around a little longer once the simulations go live again. Learn more about your past and stuff. Of course, you’re definitely free to head back to Equestria once things are done and over with, if that’s what you want. Speaking of which…" She pulled her phone out of her pocket, taking a moment to swipe through something. “At the current rate of repair, things should be fully operational again as soon as tomorrow.”

“Do I have any say in this?” Grace chimed in. “’Cause, Sam, you did not mention anything about the repair work finishing that early when we were talking earlier.”

“Wha—yes I did!”

Sure you did.” Grace stood up, empty plate in hand. “Well, I’m gonna pester you about that later, that’s for sure. I’ll let you and Lisa talk for now since I’m irrelevant.”

Lisa watched Grace walk away. She turned back to Samantha. “So… you were asking about whether or not I’m going to reconnect tomorrow?”

Samantha nodded.

“I’m still thinking about it, but I’m definitely leaning a little more toward sticking around outside of the simulations a bit longer. I wanna learn some more about myself first. Where’s Professor Argall, by the way? Doesn’t he normally follow you around?”

“Nope. He likes eating alone. Told me he prefers to eat when it’s nice and quiet.”

“Oh.”

Lisa’s gaze landed on her now-cold pancakes.

“Looking for a new pillow, Lizzy?” Timothy leaned over, a smug look on his face.

“Wha-no!” Lisa stuck her fork into her pancakes. “You know that was one time! And besides, you… you—”

“Go on.” Timothy gestured.

“You have a very obvious crush on Rarity!”

“I just think she’s cute, that’s all.”

“Mm-hm. Suuuure.”

Samantha snorted. “Really, Tim? You never told me that! And we talk almost every night!”

“Didn’t you take ages to grow out of your bottle, too?” Lisa cocked her head. “I remember tha—"

Timothy stopped chewing his waffles. “Hold on, that never happened in the simulation.”

“It… didn’t?” She scratched her head. “I swear I remember it from somewh—”

Real life,” Timothy grumbled. “Also, please never speak of that again.”

What.

Lisa set her fork down. She needed a moment to let this sink in. She… remembered something? And from her life before Equestria, at that. Maybe more of her memory might begin to return.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” Samantha gasped. “Lisa, I have some clothes I want you to try on! You already saw Tim wearing his set, but up until now, I kinda forgot to give you yours. Stay right here!”

“Oh? Uh… thanks!” Lisa blinked. “Though, why bother bringing us new clothes if we’re most likely going to be rejoining the simulations in a few days’ time?”

“Why wouldn’t I? It’s just a nice thing to do, that’s all.” Samantha stood up. “Now, hold on while I get you something better than that scratchy-looking hospital gown.”


Lisa stared at her reflection. The clothes Samantha brought were alright—certainly nothing as fancy as what Rarity would’ve brought had she been here, but still more than comfortable enough. Not that she particularly cared about what they looked like, anyway.

Though… what Samantha said about Equestria earlier—base lore? And to think that she—Lisa Garnet, wrote it all out just to live in it as Twilight Sparkle

Also, the whole thing about Emily apparently using it as the setting for a novel; that was a little odd as well, though it’d certainly be an interesting story to read.

“How’s this, Lis?” Samantha peeked out from behind her. “I tried my best to tie it into a ponytail, but your hair’s still pretty long. It’s an improvement over how it was before, at least.”

“It’s nice. Thanks.”

“Hey, you’ve been staring at your reflection for a while now. You feeling alright?”

Lisa shrugged. “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just… I’ve got a lot on my mind, that’s all. Especially regarding the idea that Equestria at its most basic was some little thing I wrote ages ago.”

“Yeah, I gotta admit, it was kinda weird how obsessive you got over it and other parts of the simulation back then. At least you’re past that now.” Samantha brushed some lint off of her friend’s shoulder. “By the way, how do you like the clothes? I tried to pick them based on what I remember you used to like before the simulations, since, y’know, ponies don’t normally wear clothes and all.”

A smile began to return to Lisa’s face. “Yeah, I like the clothes. I think I would’ve preferred my hair a little shorter, though. I’m fine with a tail dragging on the ground at times, but I don’t think that it’s a good idea to have hair from my head doing the same.”

“Psh, it’s not that long, Lis. And besides, I don’t have a weed whacker to cut it for you anyway.”

That got a chuckle out of her.

“Samantha?”

“Yes?”

“Could I have some time to myself once you’re done? I just want to think about some stuff in private.”

“Oh yeah, sure.” Samantha stepped back. “Have fun picking off the rest of the lint!”

Lisa watched her friend wander out of the restroom.

4 ◈ If you never step out the door.

View Online

Samantha looked over her shoulder as Lisa approached. “Hey, Lis. You sure spent a while in there. Something on your mind?"

“Not much. Thanks for the new clothes, by the way.” Lisa sat down at the table again. “Anything I missed while I was gone?”

Samantha picked a piece of lint off of her friend’s shirt. “No, not really. Though, some people think that it’s a good idea to be spreading rumors.”

“Huh? Wh—”

Samantha pointed at a nearby table. “I know they’re joking, but they’ve been talking about how the simulation framework supposedly harvests the brainpower of living people to act as a biological supercomputer for the military. I’m worried that others might just believe it, regardless of how ridiculous it sounds.” She let out a groan. “I’ve been dealing with this crap ever since I arrived here. Maybe I should stop worrying so much about it. Maybe put more effort into thinking about how much dust is in the minivan before I toss clothes into the backseat next time around.”

“Good idea.” Grace patted Samantha’s shoulder. “You get yourself some peace of mind for once, and I get something to actually do while I’m here. I’m pretty sure that most people around here know that those guys are just screwing around anyway.”

“Can… we maybe talk about something else besides conspiracies now?” Samantha huffed. “I know I was the one that brought it up, but that stuff’s been grinding on me lately.”

Lisa nodded. “So, how has progress been on the whole hacking situation? Did you find any leads on who the culprit might be?”

A smile began to creep back onto Samantha’s face. “Yes, actually. Meet me outside if you want to talk about it. You too, Grace. I’m sure you want to be part of the action for once.” She stood up from the table and walked away.

“Guess I’m just irrelevant to the conversation.” Timothy crossed his arms with a playful snort. “Feels nice to not be the one doing all the talking for once.”

Lisa nodded again.

~~~

Rosanne yawned. The progress bar moved a few more pixels, sending a jolt of excitement down her spine. She could probably afford a nap while waiting for the download to finish…

“Ayy, what’s up?” Selene popped her head through the open door. “Just got back from my check-up. Doin’ anything interesting?”

Rosanne nearly fell from her chair in surprise. “I-uh, no—” She pulled a file browser window over the game download screen. “No, not really. I spent about half an hour or so looking through the project codenames, though.”

“Hm. Well, good luck with the rest of ‘em! By the way, how’s Andrew been doing? I know you log in to check on him every now and then.”

Huh?” Rosanne nearly choked. She’d mentioned her older brother once before, and now Selene was asking about him? “Um… he’s fine, I guess. Still hooked into the simulations last I heard, but he’s probably having the time of his life… as usual. What about you, though? You’re… uh, well, weirdly poppy right now.”

Selene shrugged. “Just felt that I should try being more cheerful while I’m still around, that’s all. Anyway, I’ll be in my own room if you need anything.”

“Wait, before you—”

The door clicked shut. Rosanne looked back to the bit of the progress bar poking out from behind the open folder. So much for this being an exciting job. Though, with Selene suddenly acting the way she is now? Rosanne rolled herself to the door and leaned into the hall to survey her surroundings. Sure enough, Selene was gone. No hiding behind walls waiting to ambush her when she’s off-guard this time.

She shuddered at the memory of being caught just the day before. She pulled herself back to her desk. Selene was not fun to be around when she was ticked. Now, however… there was something off about that old bat. Maybe she should look into it.

Rosanne glanced up, kicking herself away from her desk to peek into the hall again. Still no Selene.

~~~

“Couldn’t you just bring that thing inside instead?” Timothy fanned himself with a hand. “Even with the canopy you set up for us, it’s burning out here!”

“Yeah.” Samantha sat on the ground, propping her laptop against her knees. “But I like being outside, so here we are. Fresh air’s always a nice change over stuffy old air conditioning when the air conditioning smells like motor grease.”

Timothy groaned.

Samantha looked up from her laptop. “Lis, you gonna sit too?”

“I’ll stand for now. I don’t want to get the clothes you gave me dirty so soon.”

“I’m good as well,” Argall added. Lisa turned her head. Professor Argall was leaning against one of the legs of the canopy. He doesn’t talk much on his own, does he?

“Alrighty, suit yourselves.” Samantha spun her laptop around, showing it to the rest of the group. “So, as I’m pretty sure all of you know, I’ve been making some decent progress in looking for who was responsible for this mess. Can you see the screen clearly?” She tilted the screen downward. “I know there’s a bit of glare from the sunlight.”

Grace leaned a little closer, squinting. “It’s a bit dim if you ask me, but it’s okay like that.”

Samantha tapped a key on her laptop a few times. “Better?”

“Yeah. Thanks. You wanna explain a bit more, or did you bring us out here to just say what you said and show us some fancy charts?”

“I’ll explain some more. So anyway…” Samantha peered over the top of her screen. “In short, as of now, we know that the employee account responsible for the data breach belongs to, or at least, belonged to a former employee by the name of Rosanne Smith. She left the company not too long ago, and… well, I guess it was a misstep on the company’s part to not wipe her credentials. Not that anybody would’ve realized that that was the case in the first place, but still.”

Lisa blinked. “O…kay? So you’re saying that this happened partially because of an oversight.”

“More or less. I figured that since the account still had access to the company’s internal servers and software, I’d might as well take a look at which accounts even have access to them at all. I’ve been watching a particularly large download job since this morning, too, so whoever’s using Rosanne’s account is absolutely active by all measures.”

“How are you going to find their location then?”

A smirk grew over Samantha’s face. “Friends in high places, that’s how.”

“Wh—”

“I contacted the VPN that the incoming connection came from and requested a bit of information.”

Timothy snorted. “Well, that’s anticlimactic.”

“Life isn’t always exciting, Tim. Anyway, continuing on, I was only able to get some very basic info from the people I contacted, so at best I know that the origin of the breach is within driving distance of HQ. I’m considering handing the case over to law enforcement soon, but I feel like monitoring the situation for a while longer is the better option. Argall? Thoughts?”

“If it comes to it, we could sue for damages. The company’s lawyers aren’t used all too often, but I’ve heard that they’re good at what they do. Given the proximity, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is Rosanne herself operating the account still.”

Lisa tried to hide her cringe. Again, that cold feeling had returned. The Samantha that was talking to Argall wasn’t her friend. She was just another cog in whatever faceless entity it was that controlled the simulations. Even though she herself had once been a part of it, it couldn’t have ever felt this… what was the word? Detached? Distant?

She cut into Samantha’s conversation with the professor. “Sam? Do you mind if I step away for a bit?”

Samantha turned her head. “Hm? Oh, yeah, go ahead. I’m just talking to Argall right now anyway. Grace, what’re your thoughts on hiring the person responsible for the breach to join our cybersecurity team?”

Lisa stepped out from beneath the tarp. She could feel the blazing sun on her skin. Was that what life was going to be like out here in the real world? A life of tending to some higher power whose sole goal was to make money? It couldn’t be only that, right? She’d heard Samantha plenty of times talk about other things, after all—like her past, and… being annoyed by conspiracy theories… Lisa racked her mind. Come to think of it, Samantha hardly talked about anything else beyond either work or the past.

That was going to be her own life too, wasn’t it?

And not only that, but it’s what she herself should’ve been doing, too. She was in her twenties. She should’ve been in college. Maybe even graduated by now. She turned her gaze upward. How did she lose so many years in only a matter of days? And rejoining the simulations tomorrow wouldn’t solve anything, either. Not with her newfound knowledge of the outside world. Come to think of it, that was the life that would be coming for her in the simulations too. It was inevitable.

Uncomfortable. That was the word she was searching for earlier.

“Lisa, are you feeling okay?”

Lisa lowered her head, glancing back at Samantha.

“Lisa, I know I asked this a little earlier, but you seem to have something bugging you. I know you don’t like any of this. I haven’t really had much time to genuinely spend with you ever since we met again, but just hold on for a little longer. Promise me that, okay?” She shut her laptop. “Tomorrow, all of this will be over. I can hand over the investigation to somebody else. For now, I just need to get the job done. Not just for me or you, but for everyone that’s been disconnected.”

A trickle of relief surfaced within her. For all the company-speak that her friend had been using, at least she could still fill in the blanks without needing to be told everything up front. Not only that, but Samantha was even willing to go out of her way to give her friend some much-needed attention.

Lisa’s thoughts screeched to a halt. Was that what she wanted? Attention? No—it was more than that. This was about emerging from the comfort of the simulations’ lies. About rediscovering herself.

This was about finally stepping out the door.

4 ◈ Break out.

View Online

Lisa opened her eyes. The soft light of morning streamed through her little window.

Morning.

She closed her eyes again.

Samantha said that today was the day when she could reconnect.

Could being the keyword.

Lisa sat up, rubbing an eye. Her stomach grumbled.

“Heyyyy!” Samantha burst through the door, startling her friend. “Guess what? I’m officially on vacation now!”

Lisa raised a brow. “Vacation?”

“Just for a few days.” Samantha shrugged. “I’ve already done pretty much everything I can do while I’m out here, so I’m passing the work off to someone on-site ‘til I get back.”

“Oh, that’s nice. How are you planning on spending the time, then? There’s not much left to do here.”

A smirk grew across Samantha’s face. “How about a road trip?”

“R-road trip?” Lisa’s eyes widened. “But what about your work?”

“Hey now, I know I’m a workaholic, but even I need to take breaks sometimes. Besides, the person I put in charge of the whole hacking fiasco’s more than familiar with this sorta stuff anyway.”

“Oh… okay then.”

“So then,” Samantha continued, “just gonna ask one more time so that I don’t accidentally kidnap you or anything: Do you wanna reconnect today? The network’s live again, and everything’s back in working order.”

Lisa hung her head, shaking it a little. “No, I’m not reconnecting yet. Though… I’m still not entirely sure about anything. I know that you know how I feel, so…” She let out a sigh. “Yeah, I’ll hold off on saying more about it. No point in dragging down everyone else’s mood, right?”

She looked up, a weak smile on her face. Samantha didn’t return the expression.

“Lis. I’m serious. If you feel like this is too much, you still have the chance to reconnect. After today, though, I won’t know when you’ll have the chance again. I know that smile’s just a front. And even then, you said yourself years ago that the simulations shouldn’t be a permanent solution. I know you’re torn over this.”

The smile on Lisa’s face faded. “…Yeah, I know it shouldn’t be permanent. I… you… well, you pretty much summed it all up, didn’t you?” She chuckled. “I’m torn alright. I wish I could have both worlds, but I know I can’t.”

“Ehhhhh, not quite can’t. You’ll see in time.”

“Huh?”

“Do you really think that technology’s still frozen in time from when you first plugged yourself in? C’mon, let’s get some breakfast.”

~~~

“Lisa?” Samantha stuck her head out of the doorway of the town hall. “You coming in or not? I thought you were following me.”

Lisa looked over her shoulder. “Go on ahead. I’ll catch up in a bit. I’m just enjoying the view for a bit.”

“It’s a lot emptier than it was yesterday, huh?”

Lisa nodded. “It’s like a ghost town. Kinda spooky.”

“Yup. Quiet as heck, too.” Samantha walked up beside her friend. “Though, I wouldn’t say that that’s necessarily a bad thing.”

“Yeah.”

The pair fell silent for a moment. Only the muffled voices from within the building broke the peace.

“Do you think the whole hacking situation’s going to be dealt with by the time your vacation’s over?”

Samantha shook her head. “I wish it could be over, but nah. Stuff like this usually takes a bit. Especially if there isn’t very much information to go off of on who did what.”

“Didn’t you say something about someone named Rosanne before? It’s her account that was being used, right? What’s going to happen to her if she really is the one doing all of this?”

“We’ll probably turn her in to the police in that case.” Samantha shrugged. “Beyond that, I’m really not sure. I guess it’d depend on what her motivations were.”

“What about what you and Argall were talking about before with suing?”

“He was making a suggestion. I’m not planning on doing anything like that just yet.”

“Hm.”

Samantha turned her head. Lisa was staring off into the distance.

“Sam?”

“Yeah?”

“You’ve known me for a long time, right?”

Samantha’s words came a little slower this time. “…Yeah?”

“What was I like back then? Before the simulations. You were teasing me about not remembering.”

“Oh. Uh.” Samantha chuckled. “Sorry about the teasing, by the way. As far as how you acted when we were little…” She pursed her lips. “Downtrodden, I guess, is one way to put it. You were usually pretty down in the dumps.”

“I’m guessing it was something about my parents?”

Samantha nodded.

“They’re dead, aren’t they? Or at least, somewhere far, far away.”

“I—” Samantha sputtered. “Y-yeah, they are. How are you so calm after realizing that?”

Lisa shrugged. “It happened a long time ago, right? I hardly remember them anymore. I guess the simulations really did fill their purpose… a second chance at life; that’s what Argall said. I hardly remember anything from before the simulations anymore. It’s like it was all a dream. To be honest, even now, it still feels like I’m only dreaming.”

“Oh… yeah, I guess that’s how you wanted them to work when you first came up with the idea.”

“…I came up with the idea?”

Samantha nodded. “I said you were part of the original devteam, didn’t I? You were the developer for a while, though I hopped on board not long after you started.”

“So, I did all of this, then.” Lisa gestured to the barren town before them. “Right?”

“Eh, indirectly, I guess. The whole dedicated town thing was an idea that you had originally, but Grace’s mom expanded on it. I think I remember that you said at the time that you were worried that any glitches found in the transmitters could turn people into zombies or something.” Samantha laughed. “At least we don’t have to worry about that anymore!”

“How did she expand on it?”

“Economics stuff, more or less. She was saying that it’d be cheaper to have many simulation-goers in one place so that resources weren’t spread as thin. Hey, quick question.”

Lisa turned her head.

“What sorta jobs did most people in the simulations have?”

She scratched her head. “Well… I’m not entirely sure what my parents do. I know that there was a pretty big market for digital products, though—things like animation and computer programs and stuff. Some of my friends were looking into jobs in that field.”

“You can thank Daalmans for that.” Samantha smirked. “Money that you guys pay for things like home ownership and utilities goes into the cost of maintaining the simulations instea—”

“Hey!” Timothy stuck his head out the door. “You two coming in or what?

“Yeah, yeah, we’re coming!” Samantha shouted back. “Well, I guess we can talk some more about the simulations later then. You wanna stare at the tumbleweeds for a little longer, Lis, or have you seen enough of town? Whatever food they’ve got out is probably getting pretty cold by now.”

“…I’ve seen enough.”

~~~

“You two sure took a while out there.” Timothy didn’t look up from his plate of scrambled eggs. “Any longer and I would’ve considered saving some plates for you before the catering crew starts packing things up.”

“Mm-hm, sure you would.” Samantha glanced at the professor. “Argall, you’re not eating alone this time?”

“Couldn’t be bothered to. We’re leaving today, anyway.” Argall shrugged. “Lisa, Timothy, you two coming back with us?”

Lisa gave a tentative nod. “What about Grace?”

“She’s got her own car, don’t worry. Though, once things are wrapped up here, she’s going to have to head to the other affected towns and help direct recovery and reconnection efforts there, too. I don’t believe we’ll be seeing her around again for a while.”

“Yeah,” Samantha added. “Gotta give her props for taking on something this big. I can’t say much about how I’d manage the reconnections and stuff, but I’m sure it’s a tough job making sure that everyone’s safe and ready. Oh, speaking of which—” she pointed at Lisa’s side “—before we go, we’re gonna have to do something about those silicone retention sutures in your side. They’re not like the regular ones that fall off on their own.

4 ◈ Explore.

View Online

“Sam?” Lisa scratched her side. “How long is it going to be itchy like this?”

“Give it a day or two.” Samantha shrugged from the front seat. Just be glad that those things were designed to be easily removed. We’d kinda need to put you in a hospital for surgery if they weren’t. Wouldn’t want that over a roadtrip, would you?”

Lisa shook her head as she moved her hand to her neck. “No, not really… but it doesn’t mean that I have to like it.”

“Probably shouldn’t be scratching so much, either.” Samantha’s eyes peered at her from the rear-view mirror. “Especially not there.”

“Hmpf.” Lisa folded her arms. She glanced out the window. A cursory glance at the mirror showed that her friend wasn’t looking. Slowly, she began to snake a hand down to her side and—

“Saaaam, Lizzy’s gonna scratch herself again.” Timothy punctuated with a cocky grin aimed at his sister.

The glare she spotted from the rear-view mirror was enough to stop her again. “Fine then.” Lisa planted her cheek into the seatbelt. “I’m taking a nap.”

~~~

Twilight hummed idly to herself, sifting through the stack of papers on her desk. Raindrops quietly tapped on the window, accompanied by the occasional distant drum of thunder. She paused to rub her eyes. Who knew that princess-ing would involve so much paperwork?

Actually, scratch that. She did.

She set down her hoof and reached for her quill.

“Lis?” A quiet knock tapped on her door. “Lisa?” Her father opened the doo—

Wait.

Lisa?

Twilight blinked. The man at the door was clearly a human, yet… She looked down at her hooves, only to find hands.

“That cough of yours getting any better yet?” Her father set the cup of tea down on the desk. “It’s been going on for quite some time now, don’t you think?”

She had a cold? Twilight—no, Lisa eyed the cup of tea. It did look rather enticing. And come to think of it, her throat did feel a little scratchy for whatever reason.

Perhaps she did have a cough.

Her father pulled a spare chair to the desk and sat down. “Busy with homework?”

Homework? Since when did official Equestrian… her eyes landed on the page in front of her. Sure enough, nothing on the page indicated that it was anything remotely close to what she’d been working on before. Nevertheless, she gave a singular nod in response.

“Your friend Sam stopped by earlier. Wanted to know if you were planning on hanging out sometime soon before school starts again.”

She brought the mug to her lips, sipping her drink. It was… surprisingly sweet, much unlike the bitterness she’d been expecting.

“I put honey in it, just how you like it.” Her father smiled. He stood up and pushed his chair in. “Don’t forget to bring the cup down to the sink when you’re done, ‘kay?”

Bring the cu—huh? She glanced about the room. Somehow, without her noticing, the grand study of Twilight Sparkle had been reduced to a mere bedroom.

This was a dream, wasn’t it?

She set her mug down and pulled one of her worksheets closer, scanning over the problems one by one. Did these always look so easy?

Then again—she turned to the door—if it really was just a dream, why…

The rumble of thunder interrupted her thoughts.

“You really need to watch out for those potholes more, Professor.”

Huh?

“Are we gonna stop somewhere for lunch soon? It’s getting pretty close to noon.”

Lisa spun around. Where was her brother’s voice coming from? Was that part of the dream as well? “Timothy?” she murmured, standing up from her chair. She made her way to the door. If her little brother was trying to prank her again, and in a dream, no less—

“Sorry, Tim. We won’t be seeing any rest stops around anytime soon.”

And now it was Samantha’s voice! There’s no way this couldn’t have been a dream! Still, it wouldn’t hurt to try and find them before she woke.

“Tim? Sam?” Lisa opened the door. “You there?”

Nothing.

She set her hand on the railing at the top of the stairs.

The downpour outside continued to pound relentlessly against the roof.

Samantha’s voice echoed once more through her head. “Careful now, the roads here are narrower. We’re hugging the canyon walls.”

Still, dream or not, this was admittedly a little weird. She began to descend the stairs, taking a turn at the bend and continuing downward to the bottom. In front of her was a tidy family room. Some noise turned her attention to the kitchen on her left.

“Slow down, Argall. I know you saw those falling rock warnings.”

Her father stepped out of the kitchen with a cup of his own. “There you are, Lis!” He hummed before taking a sip. “Was wondering when you’d be coming down. I was gonna ask Zoey to call you down and help get ready for dinner.”

“…Zoey?” She cocked her head.

Her father returned the confusion. “…Yes? Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about your own older sister.”

“Olde—huh?” A stream of muddled words was all she could manage for a moment. “I thoug—”

“Oh hey, you’re already here.”

Lisa spun around in time to spot another girl peeking out from the living room behind her.

“Well, with both of you here now—” Her father returned to the kitchen. “—Zoey, Lis, mind setting the table? Mom’s working late today, but she should be back soon.”

“But what about Timothy?” Lisa furrowed her brows. Weren’t dreams meant to draw off waking experiences? “Don’t I have a brother?”

“Brother?” Her father snorted, keeping his attention on the wok on the stove. “Lis, I think you should take a nap after dinner, alright? I’ll check to see if you’ve got a fever later.”

“Remember seeing those waves in the rock when we first traveled through here?” Samantha’s disembodied voice once again surfaced in the girl’s head. “You were a whole lot younger back then, but I’m pretty sure you were just as fascinated by them back then as you are now.”

That did it. This was a dream, no doubt about it. As far as the voices go, though… maybe the sounds around her were making their way into this dream?

“Lisa, you okay?” Her father set down his spatula. “You haven’t really moved for a little while.”

“Hey, sis.” A phantom hand jostled her shoulder. “Are you really gonna sleep through the whole trip? At least do some sightseeing with us!”

Why couldn’t she wake up, though?

“…Lisa?”

She felt herself getting nudged again.

“Hey.” Timothy’s voice echoed in her head. “Lizzy, you alright there?”

~~~

A soft whimper rose from Lisa. She opened a groggy eye, staring first at Timothy, then at Samantha and Argall. She closed it again.

Finally, she was awake.

She slowly raised a hand to her face and rubbed her eyes. “How… long was I sleeping?”

“An hour or so, give or take,” Timothy answered. “You kept making noises and moving your head, though. Were you dreaming about something?”

Lisa gave a weak nod, fumbling for the clasp of her seat belt, though the numbness on the tips of her fingers made it far harder than it should’ve been.

“Whoa now, take it easy, Lis.” Samantha’s face appeared behind Timothy’s shoulder. “You don’t need to rush. We’re just parked on the side of the road.”

She tried to turn her head, though the most she could manage was a small tilt toward her brother and Samantha. “It’s hard… to move.”

“Hm.” Samantha gasped, snapping her fingers. “The transmitter. I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible that you might’ve knocked something loose while scratching in the area that it’s implanted in.”

“Knocked something loose?” Lisa mumbled. “How could that happen if it’s implanted?”

Samantha shrugged, shooing Timothy to the side. “I guess to put it simply, the transmitter is tapped into your nervous system. It’s how you’re able to move around without a controller in the simulations. Scratching in just the right spot or a little bit too hard might’ve knocked something loose. Think of it as short-circuiting something.”

“I’m short-circuiting myself.”

“Mm-hm.” Samantha nodded. “That’s how I’m seeing it, at least. It’ll probably have to be removed so that this doesn’t happen again, though that means that if you want to rejoin, you’ll—”

“No.”

“No?”

Lisa shook her head. She could feel a bit of strength beginning to return to her already. “I want to see more of this world first. I’m not ready to go back yet.” She reached for her neck, stopping as Samantha’s glare hit her in full force. “Right. No scratching… what’s the transmitter like, by the way? I don’t remember ever feeling any chip or whatever back there.”

“Ehh, it’s more a patch than a chip, to be honest. There’s a little conductive tattoo that goes over it to serve as a backup connection to the headset as well.”

“Oh, okay then.” Lisa averted her gaze from Samantha as she scratched her side.

“I know you’re scratching, Lis.”

“I know you know, but it’s so itchy!” Lisa grumbled, folding her arms. “Hey, if we see a rest stop with a convenience store, could I get some of that anti-itching cream for bug bites?”

“And food!” Timothy added.

“Yes, yes, we can get both of those.” Samantha stepped back. “Though, I don’t know if something meant for mosquito and tick bites is going to do any good for you, Lisa. But, if you think it might help, then I’m not stopping you. In the meantime, we kinda have to get back on the road, so just… stop scratching anywhere close to those two spots for now, ‘kay?”

“Fine.”

“Argall! You’re driving now!” Samantha climbed into the front passenger’s seat. “Lis, you wanna talk a little in the meantime?”

“Sure.” Lisa scooted a little to make room for Timothy. “So… I guess things started off pretty normal, though things got a bit funky when I suddenly stopped being Twilight Sparkle. I also had a sister, I think, and...” She scratched her head. “Oh, and Timothy didn’t exist in the part of the dream where I was human. Either that or he became the sister in my dream.”

Timothy let out an amused grunt as he shut the door.

“A sister, huh?” Samantha hummed. “That’s interesting. You remember her name?”

“Zoey.”

“…Zoey?”

“Yeah.”

The van rumbled to life beneath them.

“…Huh. Strange.”

“Strange?” Lisa cocked her head.

“Mm-hm. There’s this kid that works the front desk back at HQ named Zoey. I think you might’ve met her before, a loooong time ago. Just—” Samantha began to pull the van back onto the road. “—don’t worry about it for now.”