by Reese

First published

An anthology of bits and pieces and fragments of writing, of various levels of completeness and quality. I hope that, if you look, you'll find at least something of interest to you.

(Attempt at individual chapter descriptions below the break, because I still haven't figured out how to control where the break is.)

Yes, after over eight years on the site and I don't know how many words put down in comments over that time, I'm finally putting up an actual story. Well, "story". I do occasionally write, or more often imagine and not bother to write, various pieces of fiction, and this I expect to be more a collection of them than something that ever has much of a "chapter" to "chapter" cohesive narrative. The first five of the six "chapters" I'm planning to post at the start have already been blog posts (though with some reformatting and such)... but the sixth, I've not posted anywhere before. In the future I might dig through my past for more old fragments, and there's a chance that perhaps having this "story" out will encourage me to actually write more.

No idea how often this'll actually update, though. Also, not sure how much the things in here will be edited; despite how much time I've spent editing other people's stories, I have little enough successful experience writing that I'd rather focus on getting down what I can. Base level shouldn't be too bad, though, knowing me.

Also, I'm surprised to see that apparently no one else on the site has used "Ostraca" for a story title. Eh.

(Also, rating this Teen just to be safe. No idea if that is or will be needed (I am, again, very new to this story-posting thing), but it seemed prudent given my uncertainty about whether it's needed or not.)

Chapter guides(?):
-O- Actually Something Story-Ish! (Blog 2018-07-09)
Does it matter if Thorax is a changeling?
-O- Story Idea Snippet (Blog 2018-08-31)
Purple prose taken literally and run with... if not very far.
-O- Vision of a Discord and Draconequus!Fluttershy Apocalypse (Blog 2019-10-27)
...Not sure how to describe this, but I'm still kind of boggled that FanOfMostEverything called it "Magnificent stuff." back in blog form.
-O- Random Old Fallout Equestria Thing (Blog 2019-12-14)
Zebras and pegasi dogfight at the end of the world. This is probably the first chapter that "Dark" tag is needed for.
-O- Well, Cold Spike said I should write something... (Blog 2020-05-12)
The three tribes each had their own way of migrating to Equestria...
-O- Camping by Lake Mead
Robot Friendship Unicorn Twilight! Also, probably another one wanting that "Dark" tag, and the first one "Human" was added for. (Also, Fallout: New Vegas... crossover?, if that's important to you.)
-O- Third Most Powerful
Princess Luna has a private chat with a high government official, to lay out a few things.
-O- Optimalverse Pottery Shard
If I'd finished this, it'd have been a contest entry. As it is, it's an incomplete fragment with an author's note about the same length as it is sharing the chapter -- but I still think some of the ideas are interesting.
-O- An Old Alicorn Problem
Complete? Also mostly unedited, because inspiration struck while I was supposed to be doing something else and I wanted to get the inspiration down in horsewords before it went away.
-O- Wedding Remarks
Cadance, her new wife beside her, has a few things to say to some special guests on this perfect day. AU recursive fanfic of Darkstarling's Royal Peanut Butter. Complete, I think, though it could be extended and/or expanded.
-O- A Tale of the Twilight of the Twilit
Someone old explains some things to someone young.
Inspired by, at least as the trigger, a post from FoME linked in the author's note, itself about the start of the G5 comics. Complete, I think.

Actually Something Story-Ish! (Blog 2018-07-09)

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“Would it matter, if I was a changeling?”

Twilight stopped, carefully put down her fork, and unhurriedly finished chewing. She swallowed, then looked across the breakfast table at Starlight's (of course) guest.

“Thorax,” she said, then paused. “Are you... not a changeling?”

“No, I am.”

“I see.” Another pause. “So... have you been enjoying your visit so far?”

“Oh, yes; Starlight and I have had some very interesting conversations!”

“Of course you have,” Twilight informed her pancakes in a mutter.


“I said, friends are nice to have!” answered Twilight brightly. Took another bite. Chewed, optimistically.

“But would it matter?”

Sighed, less optimistically. Fork down. Swallow.

“Thorax, given that you are a changeling, shouldn't that be an easy question to answer?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, can't you just look back and see if it did matter?”

“But how would I know?”

“You-- Crystal Empire, love, Chrysalis, king,” Twilight said with a vaguely waving hoof, “colors Rarity swears she likes just as much as our Rainbow Power forms, but now that I think of it, she did have this weird look on her--”

“But!” said Starlight, walking into the room and taking her seat. “Does all of that depend on him being a changeling? Would any changeling in Thorax's circumstances have done the same? If Thorax had been born a crystal pony in the old Empire, would he have taken over from Sombra?”

Thorax nodded. Twilight wanted to think that she now had some idea what was going on, but this was also clearly one of those days.

“So... this is a nature vs. nurture thing, then? Is Thorax--”

“Um, I'm actually still right here.”

“--inherently Thorax, or is he nothing more than the sum of his circumstances?”

“Right!” said Starlights in chorus. Twilight didn't blink.

“Okay. Yes, yes it would matter, because it's your exact set of past circumstances that led to you sitting here, today, as Starlight, asking me that question.”

“I asked you before I turned into Starlight, though.”

“Whatever. The point is, we would not be in this exact situation if you were not a changeling. Therefore, any universe containing this situation must also have you born a changeling, and therefore you being a changeling is fundamental to the very existence of our universe itself.”

Twilight happily took another bite of her pancakes. The Starlights looked at each other. They looked at Twilight.

“I think that's kind of dodging the question?” one of them said.

“Any other changeling--” began the other.

“Nope! Any other changeling sitting here would not be this changeling sitting here, therefore different universe.”

“But you can explain anything that way.”

“But I'm not trying to explain anything,” said Twilight. “I'm trying to explain why a specific individual's circumstances matter without also denying that individual some inherent worth and uniqueness. The only reality we personally experience is the one we're in, and therefore everything bringing about that reality matters to us, whatever hypothetical other sets of events we might talk about.”

“Or bring about through the misuse of time travel.”

“Or that, yes,” said Twilight with the casual air of one agreeing that perhaps that smudge on the weather schedule was covering the word “rain” after all. “The point is that, since you are a changeling, Thorax, whichever of you is Thorax--” One of the Starlights raised a hoof. “Thank you. --since you are a changeling, it matters that you're a changeling; if you were a pony, it would matter that you were a pony, and either way, you'd still be you, whatever “you” means in that particular reality.”

Thorax-Starlight frowned. “Wait, but about the misuse of time travel, doesn't that change the reality you're in? So that whatever new events occur, then those are the ones that matter?”

“Oh, no,” said Twilight. “You see, there's only a single correct timeline in our universe. There's actually a magical test to see whether something is part of it or an abomination of magic that shouldn't exist no matter how much it pleads that it feels real to itself and it has hopes and dreams and feelings and everything. I first learned about it from alternate-Zecora in one of those false timelines; she used it to tell me that over a decade of her and her friends' lives were transgressions against the universe that should be wiped away as soon as possible.”


“No, really; I looked it up when I got back. Not fully understood, a few other hypotheses on how it works, but, heh, I mean, if that wasn't true, it could be argued that Starlight and I caused millions of casualties, including all our friends, over and over again, as we battled across time.”

Starlight swallowed. “Right! So... good thing we live in a universe with only one really real timeline, then!”

Thorax-as-Starlight looked between them. Cleared his-as-her throat. “So... it matters that I'm a changeling, then, because the particular person I am, and you both know, is a changeling, and any other hypotheticals are less important than the reality we live in?”

“Yes!” said Twilight, definitely not shivering in relief at the change in subject. “The question of whether you're a unique individual in circumstances or just a collection of your circumstances is a meaningless one, because the only way to separate the two is through the creation of a hypothetical in which something about you is different. Any you that is different in any way is not you, though, and any you in front of me, or in your case, that you're experiencing the world as, takes priority over even an almost-identical you who's only hypothetical.”

Starlight-Starlight shook her head. “But if everything that exists matters just _because_ it exists, doesn't that mean that nothing really--”

And then Starlight and Thorax and Twilight's other friends and Applejack burst in, and something of a scuffle ensued. From her new position on her back where her chair had fallen, Twilight sighed and pushed the pancakes off her face. “SPIKE! WHERE DID YOU PUT THE KEYS TO THE WINE CELLAR? WE'RE GOING TO NEED THEM AGAIN!”

Story Idea Snippet (Blog 2018-08-31)

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Flash knocked on the doors of Ponyville Castle, and a vision of loveliness opened them.

Her eyes were sparkling amethyst orbs; her mane swept elegantly down from her skull, and the sunlight gleamed on her ever-present grin.

Oh, ah, hello Flash. What brings you here today?

“A letter from Princess Cadence, Your Highness!” The letter was produced and offered out on a wing in the same motion as his bow.

Right... Well... Do you have somewhere you need to be?

“No, ma'am; the earliest train back isn't until tomorrow, and the Princess said I was even free to stay in Ponyville a few days if I wanted.”

Of course. I supposed you'd better come in, then.

Taking the letter in her magic, she yawed around and floated deeper into the castle, Flash following.

Most ponies had been at least a little unnerved when Princess Twilight ritually slaughtered seven thousand mirror pool clones to ascend to the pinnacle of undeath, but Flash thought it just highlighted her intelligence and strength. Most ponies also tended to be a little more unnerved when his feelings on the youngest princess came up in conversation, but he was sure ponies would come to properly appreciate her in time.

Sooo, how are things up north?

“Oh, they're going very well, ma'am; we've just finished reclaiming another of the old satellite towns from the ice.”

Good, good...

They turned into a small, intimate dining room; two chairs slid out from the table, and Twilight nodded at one as she took station over the other.

Please, do have a seat. I sent a message to Spike, so he should be along with tea soon.

Flash sat. There was a silence.

“...Is that a new wig? Ma'am?”

Hm? Oh, yes, it is; I've actually got a lot of them now. You should have seen Rarity when she realized that she could style my mane without me actually being present.

“I hope that helped with the... clothing thing; I know you said last time she was pretty upset about that.”

It did, some. And that, apparently, undeath motifs are very “in” now, and she has better inspiration than any other designer.

“You know, I had noticed mares wearing a lot more bones these days.”

A nod. She still says that just animating dresses under myself isn't the same, though. I've told her that I'll probably start using that illusion spell eventually, at least for formal occasions, but I want to make the point that--

Spike walked in with a tray holding two cups, a teapot, and a selection of biscuits and set it down on the table.

Oh, thank you, Spike; these look good, as usual.

“No problem, Twilight.” Then, to Flash, “So what is it this time?”

“A letter to Princess Twilight from Princess Cadence.”

Oh, right, I still need to open that.

Vision of a Discord and Draconequus!Fluttershy Apocalypse (Blog 2019-10-27)

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And, of course, throw Discord in, with both of them unchained... chaos of capricious physics and chaos of unrelenting nature, meeting in a friendly but titanic and neverending clash.

Always new and strange creatures for Discord to play with, to take on different roles with, to try and preserve in the face of his mate or destroy himself when they bore him, and in the latter face their novel ways to defeat him in the knowledge that even if they win, they too will be overcome, and he will be saved.

Always a dynamic environment for her life to adapt to, the capricious changes of the guidelines of physics over whole regions of the planet overturning the existing equilibrium overnight and sparking frenzies of new adaption and migration, yet never so much adaption is impossible, whether stopped from within by his forbearance for the game or swatted away from without by his protectiveness of it and her.

Her sapients are overall in love with their lives, whatever strange shapes those may take, between when they adapt sufficiently for it and when the environment changes too much for them, for their live according to their natures, and to be miserable would be maladaptive. On some worlds, it would be possible to escape the eye of evolution, to survive where misery no longer inhibits the propagation of one's traits, but Equus is no longer one of these. To try and step alone from the gaze of the pink and yellow gaia is to sustain something that has not. And to put energy into any sort of art for art's sake is to lack it when something adapted to see natural beauty enough comes calling.

The sapients he makes his own are often miserable, for often they live outside their natures -- and yet, in that, they live. Civilization, he builds, so that he may knock it down one day or watch her overtake it, and in the meantime he takes beings who have grown used to order, for a more pleasing contrast, and subjects them to his own raw power for his amusement. Yet in the spaces between, species may rest; they may slow, they may build and create, they may experience some degree of constancy, and routine. And they are often the beings of the new world most like those of the civilizations of the old, for Discord has his preferences for his baselines and now must inculcate things he once despised, a challenge he relishes. They know the act of reaching beyond their base natures and the good and ill results that may come; they know the crafting of beautiful things merely to look at them, the telling of stories and playing of music simply because they are pleasing. Actions from sentiment, and raising monuments to those passed, which may well still stand even long after their civilization has ended and her realm has climbed and covered them.

For what is the benefit to life in deliberately knocking down a particular stone? As he may be sadistic but offer windows of safety, so she will offer only strife and death, but is never cruel.

And thus pass the eons of Equus, should its timelines lead here.
There are, at least, worse fates that could befall it.
And certainly more boring ones.

Random Old Fallout Equestria Thing (Blog 2019-12-14)

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Pegasi group below at 1 o'clock. I signaled message received, then looked away from my wingmate's light signal and off to port. Yeah, there they were: two battered sky tanks and a smattering of fliers alongside, flying nap of the earth. I could barely see them even when looking; the pilot of the Hirundo that'd joined me after our respective flights disintegrated had sharp eyes. They'd almost certainly seen us already; neither my Acinaces nor the older Hirundo were designed with stealth as a high priority. The fact that they were keeping to the retreat despite our presence and the battle we were coming from was good...

I looked ahead at the mountain gap that marked the old border with Equestria. The sky around and past the gap was entirely clouded over; some effect of our weapons, or some trap by remaining Equestrian forces? Either way, I didn't like the idea of flying any closer to it than necessary. I glanced back down at the pegasi, then picked up my own light signal through the fabric of my oxygen mask, presumed in command of our makeshift detail by virtue of being the one with the newer plane. A few flashes got attention.

Wait for radio signal, then bank starboard as if returning, then dive attack. Missiles at the tanks, then guns at the freefliers if you can hit them.

Message received.

Light signal stowed, radio on. The oxygen mask didn't exactly make talking easy, of course; apparently the next redesign was going to be much better, assuming that the next generation fighters wouldn't just be robots, but of course now... I could make do, though.

"Looks like there aren't any targets around, and I don't like the look of those clouds. Let's head back and regroup."


We both began a bank. I stole another glance down at the pegasi; if they'd decrypted our transmission, they weren't reacting as far as I could see. Nearly directly belo--

The Hirundo was beginning its dive already. I swore and slammed my right forehoof over and twisted my hindhooves on the pedals, throwing the plane into a flip that became a dive, then a power dive as the motion of my left forehoof sent the turbojet behind me into a louder roar. Poor communication...

As the older plane released some rocket or missile that I didn't have time to identify, I swung the control bit into position and tongued frantically. The 'Missile Locked On' lights on the panel in front of me went from red to green, and I tongued the fire control, trusting in the robotic guidance systems. The plane shook briefly as my own two bundles of smoke-trailing fire-tailed death streaked ahead, down, and then it was time for the fine work. I rolled the plane sideways in the dive, lined one of the just-now-scattering pegasi up in the crosshairs, elevator up to lead the--

The Hirundo's rocket hadn't hit the tanks or the pegasi, but it hadn't needed to; instead, it'd flown between the two tanks and detonated there. The Djinn balefire-tipped air-to-air rockets exploded into a rainbow-sheened green fireball; one of the tanks and several of the freefliers were engulfed, the pegasi vaporized and the tank's armor peeling back like cardboard. The other tank fared better, but only just, careening, on fire, towards the ground as its radiation-sick crew tried to get out. One of my missiles had made it through the fireball to hit its target, though, and blew the damaged tank apart in midair. Maybe the Hirundo ought to have been in charge after all...

No time for that now, though; nearly all of the freefliers had been pretty badly hit by the radiation wash (which we probably hadn't fully escaped at this range either), but a lucky glance and guess sent my jet spinning away from air that got shredded by gatling beam fire an instant later. I squeezed off a cannon burst in the general direction of the largest remaining group, then leveled out into a high-speed run and turn, trying to come around for another pass. I'd lost all track of what the Hirundo was doing.

More beams cut the air around me as I weaved randomly and, so far, luckily. I pulled a high-g flip that sent me straining to stay conscious, and then the pegasi were in front of me again. And some of them were much, much too close and closing fast, gatling beams firing! Aileron roll with cannons blazing...and I was alive! I'd even gotten at least one of the pegasi, which I knew because they'd left a bloody dent in my port wing. And that was not the only damage; as I tried to climb, seeing with relief the Hirundo diving down on the pegasi wheeling around to pursue me, air howled through a hole right next to my right foreleg. I was losing hydraulic fluid through the holes in the starboard wing, and from the warning lights and the changed sound, the turbojet had lost a few blades. It looked like the new engine was holding together for now, but if I didn't get out of the air soon I might have to bail out. And with pegasi in the sky, my chances would not be good.

I turned around, the action already noticeably more difficult, and scanned the sky. It looked like the pegasi had mostly fled, been shot down, or succumbed to radiation exposure, but there were still a few harrying the Hirundo, which looked like it had one of its engines on fire. I dove, lined up my shots, and watched in satisfaction as the two soldiers I'd aimed at fell. The remaining few broke off and made of the old border as fast as their wings could carry them; I considered pursuing, but the noises my airplane were making convinced me to start scanning for a flattish place to put down instead.

The Hirundo's pilot wasn't even waiting for that, understandably; a small figure shot away from the flaming fighter, then began drifting down after a successful parachute deployment. I looked off in the direction the pegasi had flown, wondering if I ought to wait to provide cover, but there was no sign of them by this point. And I'd probably have to get the landing gear down manually at this point anyway.

The terrain below was reasonably well recovered from the earlier battles that had scarred and scoured it, but there were still some good clear areas left. None of them looked like safe enough impromptu landing strips, though, even assuming that they weren't minefields... The Acinaces was designed for as much air superiority as we could manage on what we had, not to land in random fields. With a sign, I angled the plane towards the softest-looking patch of trees around, shut off the engine, said a quick goodbye to the faithful vehicle, and pulled the ejection level.

Considering how frequently our pilots had to use them, it was both good and no surprise that we'd gotten good at building ejection systems. I shot away to a safe distance, started falling, and then got gently jerked into a safe descent as the parachute opened. Below me, my plane hit the trees and at least did not burst into flames, though the extent of the damage was hard to see from here. Off to the side, I caught a light signal from the other pilot, now atop a nearby hill. I pulled out my own signal and sent that I'd meet them there... and there then was nothing to do but wait to land and try to steer myself towards the safest landing spot closest to the hill.

And after that... Back to whatever forces of ours still remained, I guessed. And maybe once we got back and debriefed, the shock would wear off and I'd get my head wrapped around what had happened...

I wasn't looking forward to that.

Well, Cold Spike said I should write something... (Blog 2020-05-12)

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It was the earth ponies who carried the second most. Unicorn magic, in theory, could have bested them, but through the snow and bitter winds, all the way to the new land, unicorn stamina could not. Attempts would – and for some of the more initially ambitious, did – end with a trail of discarded belongings marking their path. Only the most powerful could have brought more than the simplest earth pony farm family's wagon, and their power was spent helping their fellows instead.

Unicorn magic had, however, allowed them to set off first, when the reports came back. Their packing was done quickly and, mostly, efficiently, and there was plenty of power at first to get them started. Indeed, it is not entirely fair to say that it was simply unicorn weakness that allowed the earth ponies to carry more, for the unicorn refugees were first after the scouts, leaving clearer trails for the earth ponies following, and many a piece of old Unicornian furniture, treasured but not as much as life, met a last purpose in an earth pony cooking fire.

Still, though the earth ponies could carry more, they had more to carry, as far as essentials went. The knowledge in a book of magic, history, or other important topics could be carried whole in just a few copies, with many more to be made from them later, and not urgently. The truly indispensable artifacts were few in number, the conveniences could be remade later without an immediate danger to survival, and many other items could simply be left to survive the cold and ice until, it was hoped, later expeditions could retrieve them. And the great works of magical architecture could not be brought at all, now or at any time in the foreseeable future, if ever, and so there was no use considering them.

The earth ponies likewise had their stores of knowledge, their own histories and important stories, the particulars of their crafts, and they likewise had their tools. Likewise, too, they could not bring their buildings and fields along, however much they may have tried or wished. But it was no use saying that a single bag of seed could, after several years, produce enough to plant enough for all the ponies, when those ponies would by then have starved. There must be enough, from the precious remaining stores, to give the refugees the best chance of living, in a land few earth ponies had ever seen or tried to work. They did not know what would be good to plant where, or when; the reports said the land was bountiful, the soil good, but those first expeditions could only explore so much in the time they had available. The earth ponies who would feed the land could, and would, learn, but they did not know how long it would take – and so, they brought everything. Every last seed, and every last bit of food they could find that would keep for the trip.

In later centuries, some who knew this, but not more, would think unkindly of the pegasi, for not carrying more of this load, for not freeing up earth pony carts for earth pony and unicorn possessions.

For the pegasi, by far, brought the most, and though they left last, arrived first.

And Cloudsdale with them.

If this had been the modern Cloudsdale, those who criticized the pegasi for not bearing more of the burden would be right. The modern Cloudsdale, shaped by hundreds of years of Equestrian harmony and prosperity, has many solid surfaces where great loads could be piled, and among the unicorns, there are many who could add yet more capacity with new spells. Cloudsdale, too, moves with great engines, triumphs of pegasus-unicorn cooperation; had the refugees had modern Cloudsdale, not just great loads of cargo but great masses of people could have been carried, and to do otherwise while the ground-bound ponies struggled below would have been a great and selfish unfairness.

It is admittedly the case that many pegasi in those days would have argued for it anyway – but there was enough empathy, even then, and beyond that enough simple enlightened self interest, that the load would have been shared.

Not an option was this, however. In those days, very few were the places in Cloudsdale that could support a ground pony or their baggage, and few were the pegasi or unicorns who could use their magic to make more. Why should there be? The pegasi had no interest in giving their enemies a place to stand, and the unicorns preferred to avoid fighting in the pegasi's natural environment. Ground travelers in the clouds were rare indeed, and trade was kept to a minimum; far from being seen as a weakness, the preponderance of pegasus-produced products was a source of pride. Cloudsdale had its granaries, its food stores, of course – but these were needed for the city's own populace, and, indeed, more than that, since while the greatest and largest of Pegasopolis's cities was being brought, it was with every pegasus from far and wide, as other dwellings were abandoned.

Nor were the pegasi idly relaxing in their city as it cut through the weather. While many of the best weatherworkers and warriors flew ahead and behind to cover the refugees below, the bulk of the populace, in shifts, were by and large either sleeping, eating their rations of food, and either supporting the other pegasi, or doing their civic duty in the age before engines.

Over the refugee columns passed the city, its buildings bound together in an elongated aerodynamic shape and the thunderclaps of the storm drums echoing down. In time with their steady beat, all along the city's sides, beat together the wings of thousands of pegasi in their ordered ranks, all who were not far too young or old or busy with other tasks. At strategic positions were more specialized groups, those with more training, given in varying degrees of haste, in the particular techniques needed for maneuvering the great sky-city-ship, listening out for coded blows of the wind horns and secondary drumbeats and ready to change their wingstrokes accordingly so the city would turn, climb, or descend without breaking apart. At the city's highest point was another team of specialists, guiding the whole movement of the city, and coordinating with those managing the flappers, the stores, the terrain ahead, the other details of the city, and the entire effort of Pegasopolis as a whole.

Criticism can be leveled that the effort of moving the city could have been spent otherwise, that the time and food could have been put into bringing only the most vital parts and aiding the other refugees. This is not baseless, and there are also those who suggest that Commander Hurricane wanted to make sure that in the event the new ideals of Harmony didn't work out, the pegasi would be in the best position to win the ensuing new struggle. This is also at least plausible, though there is further debate over whether this was in fact a good policy for the promotion of Harmony, both as a deterrent and to increase the chances that, in the worst case scenario, the conflict would be ended swiftly before the new land could meet the same fate as the old.

What cannot be argued, however, is that, within mere days and weeks of arriving in the new land, Cloudsdale was fully operational again as the center of pegasus weather control and military forces. Every weapon and tool -- not just from the city itself but from all the old pegasus settlements, for the city did have ample room for that which could already rest on a cloud – every workshop and training ground had been brought intact, and the city's inhabitants had their own old homes and the other pegasi plenty of space to share. Those on the ground, though some may have envied what the pegasi had not lost, had no fear of poor weather in this new land as they tried desperately to clear and plant enough new farmland, or dangerous beasts as they sought new places of natural resources or magical power.

In time, new great cities and towns, tracts of farmland and palaces and castles, would take shape on the surface of Equestria, and new pegasus settlements in its skies. In time, the city would itself be lost, like so much else, to Discord and his reshaping of the world, and more thoroughly erased was the old city than many of its newer and older fellows both, since even chaos-warped stone ruins last longer than clouds once unattended and Discord had little interest in faraway ruins locked in ice and lifeless long before his arrival. Nevertheless, its legacy, like the new city rebuilt with its name, lasts as a vital part of modern Equestria.

Camping by Lake Mead

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A campfire burned in the night on the dry shore of a calm lake, four figures around it. Two hovered just above the ground by unseen means, their bodies metal, roughly spherical, with grilles and stubby weapons facing the fire and long spine-like antennae pointing away. One sat, bipedal, still human and female by many definitions, and clad head to toe in sealed, faceless, dusty tan armor.

The fourth figure was a small purple unicorn, oddly proportioned for a horse but almost entirely lifelike, save for the purple-painted mechanical arm extending from an open hatch in her back and poking a stick listlessly at the fire.

The unicorn watched the fire. The woman watched the unicorn.

The unicorn sighed and slumped, her arm falling limp with the stick still in the fire. She watched the fire start to spread along it. The two hovering orbs watched the woman and the unicorn with their forward-facing sensors, and the entire surrounding area at the same time.

Finally, when the unicorn, otherwise still slumped, pulled her arm away from the fire-front on the stick to drape on the dusty ground nearby, the woman broke the awkward silence. Her voice reminded the unicorn of a friend's sister from her false memories, save that now she thought she might have understood the subtle shades Pinkie would have heard in it, were Pinkie real.

"Mr. House says that the reverse engineering and adaption of the hard-light hologram technology for remote manipulation is less than a year away."

Because the woman's voice had none of it. The unicorn had heard her with her helmet off, and if anything, the distortion from the microphones and speakers only added feeling.

The unicorn sighed again, the arm folding away into its cavity and the hatch closing to lose the seam in fake fur. She looked at the woman.

"The arm is fine. Thank you."

The fire crackled, rapidly using up its stickborne probe to the rest of the dusty world.

"Well. I suppose having levitation b-- wouldn't hurt. And I'm sure your war machines will benefit too."

"Yes," said the woman, giving no sign of noticing the slight bite in the unicorn's words.

One of the orbs let out a series of beeps, then pivoted in the air are fired a beam of red light into the night. In the distance, a pile of glowing ash that had been a mutant insect fell out of the air. The orb pivoted back, and both beeped. The unicorn, if slightly, smiled at them.

"Yes, I know. It's a dangerous world. And..." Another sigh, and a look to the woman. "You... well, Mr. House isn't the worst person to have this power." She frowned and kicked the dust a bit.

The woman said nothing. The unicorn sighed yet again, then rolled onto her back and gestured to the orbs with her forehooves. "Can't you talk to her?"

The orbs beeped.

"...Right, Enclave. I... forget that, talking to you. I still don't know how you..." The horned head tiled upside down towards the woman, but violet eyes closed. Quietly, "But you made me, didn't you?"

The unicorn rolled back to her hooves and opened her eyes to glare. "That's what I don't get! You're so... you! You don't get other... real, non-programmed people's emotions, you have no empathy for them, except Sarah somehow--"

"She's nice."

The unicorn looked.

"...Yes, she is. But so are a lot of people. And in all the time I've known you since you activated me and all the records I've looked at, you don't care, at all. You don't even pretend to. But--" She gestured at the hovering orbs, then herself. "--you can turn war machines into pleasant people and program machines to have more empathy than you do!"

"Thank you. But the work of making the ED-Es good people didn't start with me."

"But you continued it! You made them better people, and gave them resources to make themselves better people... if still fanatically loyal unapologetic killers." She gestured to one of the two orbs. "And -- no offense, ED-E2 -- how many thousands of humans did you kill to save his life, when he was ready and willing to sacrifice it to save them?"

"The slaves weren't worth it, and the legionnaires' deaths were useful."

The unicorn buried her face in her forehooves and let out a noise mostly groan and partly sob.

"Right," without removing her hooves. "Not even something about putting the slaves out of their suffering. Just 'They weren't worth it', like everyone else you kill. Celestia knows what would have happened if you'd thought Caesar was a better employer than House!"

"Unlikely, given his anti-robot stance."

The unicorn flopped back onto her back and stared up at the stars. The orbs bobbed around in the air to face her. The woman remained in exactly the same position she'd been in since sitting down, but after a moment the unicorn felt her own visual feed of the night sky being accessed. She considered closing her eyes to spite her creator/mother/slavemaster, but decided against it. The woman'd just use one of the eyebots instead if she continued to care at all, and the unicorn'd just be denying herself. If she looked into the sky long enough, and the vast and magnificent spread of stars over the desert, she could pretend that she was just lying on an oddly dry hill outside Ponyville, perhaps because Rainbow Dash was napping and missed some rain earlier on a hot summer day, and that the glorious display above was because of the loving work of the Princess of the Night rather than the unicorn's high-(-military-)-grade optical sensors.

"I know you care," the unicorn said softly after another period of silence. "I... can see that. You care about us, and apparently you can even care about at least one other human. And I know that, on some level, you understand empathy. Understand it... better than most people, really. Most people couldn't have made me, even if they had the coding skills, I think. But... you have to know what you're doing is wrong, then."

"I thought you thought Mr. House's plan was the best option available. Do you not?"

"It still is. I don't like... like how callous he can be, how much harm he's willing to ignore or inflict, but... this is a harsh world. And if he pulls this off... maybe it'll be a better one." Another sigh, and this time she sent a polite request to one of the eyebots. A moment later she was sharing its view of the woman. "And he keeps you in check. But he's not what I mean. You... your work as a mercenary, just solving problems for your employer no matter who's in your way -- even robots --, that's normal in this world. I get it. You're unusually cold and unusually effective, but those are quantitative differences. But this?" with a forehoof pointing down at herself and a tail flick. The eyebot not looking at the woman beeped, and the unicorn flicked the tip out of the fire. Undamaged, of course. "You made me to be Twilight Sparkle. A character from a two-hundred-plus-year-old children's show about a magical land of happy ponies learning about friendship. Your effort to get my personality right can only be described as a labor of love... but you know, doing that, that you were going to wake me up here. You made sure I had full memories of my friends, my family, and you also made sure I knew that those were implanted memories and I was a robot waking up in a dead world where they'd never lived. And even though after coming to terms with my situation I asked you not to make my friends or anypony else, you'd still do it anyway, wouldn't you, or even copies of me, if you wanted to or Mr. House wanted you to?"

"I'd try to keep them from being mistreated if we sold them, and the ones with you would be with you."

"But you'd still do it."

"Yes. I've ordered the ED-Es into battle many times, and gone with them. That you're good people doesn't mean sacrifices aren't needed."

"You're crazy."

"That's been said."

Another silence.

Then the woman spoke.

"I've been thinking of having one of the colony planets set aside for you. Robots make more sense than humans as colonists anyway, even if Mr. House wants humans. You and other ponies can build a real Equestria."

There was another silence.

"Bribery with a better world, far off in the future once Mr. House's won enough?"

"He keeps his deals."

"...Yes, he does. And you'd make sure he stuck to that one, I expect. That's if he pulls it off. And you don't get yourself killed, or just fail to "upgrade" yourself into effective immortality."

"He's very competent. So am I."

"Yes, and how many ways was his little empire about to fall apart under his nose before you came along? Extreme competence doesn't mean immunity from overconfidence."

"That's true."


"I don't plan to lose."

Another moment of silence passed, and then the unicorn heaved her deepest sigh yet of the night, rolled back to her hooves, and turn and sat again facing the woman across the fire.

"...I don't know if I'm about to tempted onto a dark path, or if this is reaching past the worst personal problems yet with the hoof of friendship. I really don't like that those look so similar here. But you need help, in several senses of the phrase... and you built yourself a friendship unicorn. Maybe that was even a cry for help." A shrug. "But you and Mr. House are clearly doing ahead with your plans whatever your slaves. People are going to get hurt. A lot of them; they already are. If I fully join you in this, become as much your colleague instead of your pet as I can while still being your property with a backdoor into my soul, their blood is going to be on my hooves too. But maybe then, I can make things a bit better. Maybe even make you better. And if at the end there's a 'real' Equestria... taking a bribe or not, I'll take that stain with the rest for my... future people."

"Thank you. We'll make a better future. I'm glad you'll be my friend."

The unicorn nodded, then lowered her gaze to the fire.

"Harmony help me..."

At which point the eyebots let out simultaneous fanfares. The unicorn snorted, laughed, and wiped a fetlock pointlessly under one eye given she hadn't been bothering to keep her tear reservoirs refilled.

With mirth, "You two are terrible too, you know? Alright, so you idea for a friendship camping trip worked. At least in whatever twisted sense that means in what is apparently my life."

She got up, dusted herself off a bit, and trotted over to the saddlebags nearby. The arm emerged from her back again, and with it and her forehooves she began the preparations for s'more-making.

The flying robots beeped.

"Yes, I'm still going to share my taste feed with you."

"Me too, please."

The unicorn looked over at the still-motionless suit of armor and flattened her gaze and tone.

"Right. You do remember that you actually have your own taste buds and digestive system, right?"

"I made yours better."

Another sigh. "Of course you did. Well."

She trotted back to the fire and began the roasting.

"Yes, I'll share my taste feed with you too. And good for saying 'please'. Heh. Though I have to wonder if I've just taken on the job of raising a psychopathic genius filly and her two excitable brothers. Who all have heavy weaponry."

"I... am not sure how I feel about that social configuration."

The unicorn blinked at the still still armor as her arm carried on the s'more-work.

"...Right. We're a mess, aren't we?" The two eyebots bobbed in the air in a cheerful manner, and after a beat, the woman stiffly nodded before returning her head to exactly where it had started. The unicorn looked suspiciously at all of them, then pulled the marshmallow away from the fire and began the next stage. "Well. It's a start."

Third Most Powerful

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I strode through the moonlit halls of the palace, pausing a moment to straighten my uniform in a hanging mirror. Nothing much wrong with it, of course, and my mane, tail, coat, and feathers likewise perfect, but I needed to look my best for this.

A few more turns, and there ahead of me were the ornate dark doors of Princess Luna's personal office, flanked on either side by two Night Guard. The moonlight streaming in the large window opposite glinted off the heads of their spears, ceremonial but still sharp and potentially deadly, and left their decidedly less ceremonial automatic rifles lurking in the shadows at their sides. I, naturally, walked straight towards the doors with perfect confidence and replied to their impassive, studying gazes with a moderate smile.

"Chancellor," said one of them, the griffon hen on the left side of the doors. "Right on time, of course." At which I cranked the smile up a bit and gave a slight nod. "The Princess is expecting you."

"Thank you, Galena." Add a very slight head tilt... "Any idea what this is about?"

A head shake. Not that I really expected otherwise, but worth a try. I shrugged, then faced the doors as the guards opened them, and trotted to the threshold.

"Enter." Hm. She didn't sound particularly upset, or cheerful. But the more mercurial Princess could be even better than her sister at hiding her emotions, sometimes. Regardless, I entered, bowing my head deferentially, and when I raised it as the doors softly closed behind me, Princess Luna had looked up from her desk. A moment passed, with her still merely looking.

"You wanted to see me, Your Majesty?" Slight head tilt, express slight confusion but still upmost confidence and no offense. I started to cross the room; it was a safe bet she'd ask me to sit anyway, especially given the single cushion already placed opposite her, and it would save time. Besides, I was the most powerful and important mortal on the planet now, and second only to the Sisters overall; increased familiarity would be expected.

Nevertheless, she didn't reply immediately, merely watched until I was about halfway to the desk. Then, "Yes. Thank you for coming on such short notice, Chancellor. Please, have a seat."

As expected, and I soon suited action to request.

And she just looked at me, again. Studying me. I made sure to present calm, mild curiosity, just a growing touch of concern, and yet the impression that I had all the time in the world, for her.

And then she spoke, with a casual air, equally casually taking a nearby mug of xocolatl up in her magic.

"You know, I've tried to overthrow the government a time or two."


Okay, this could either be very good or very bad... Proceed with caution, but, fortunately, that would surely be expected following that line...

"Well, Ma'am, I personally take the view that only the... Nightmare Moon incident..." she doesn't look upset, wants me to carry on "should count. Starting the LNR was just advocating for political reform -- which history showed the Principality did need -- even if some of the details still needed refinement, and you denounced them when they became more radical."

"Quite." A sip of her drink, with a light touch of magic keeping the foam in the mug, followed by a vague gesture in the air with that same mug. "I tend to agree myself, though not always -- it was closer than many realize there, for a time."

And... silence again. The office clock made no noise. I waited. Outwardly patiently.

"The point," she continued then, still lightly, "is that I believe I possess certain experience and... insights that the voters, and even my sister herself, lack."

So not asking me to join a coup. Which meant this was tipping towards "bad". Yet, this was still a personal, at least ostensibly private conversation across a desk in a nice office. And if there was a trap being prepared outside, there was... it hurt to admit, probably nothing I could do about it. Because I didn't know what the trap might involve, but there was no way they didn't have a plan for me trying to take Luna hostage. If there was a trap. Stay calm.

Cautiously, even more cautiously, put a bit more confusion in, "That... makes sense, but I'm afraid I'm not sure what you're getting at."

Silence. Again. And her cool stare, now with a raised eyebrow.

"I'm sure you noticed," she said, still quite calmly, "that I was more hesitant to approve your election than my sister."

"I admit I did wonder about that, but it's not my place to judge you."

And she smiled slightly. "Ah, but that does get us to my point. Your place. You've impressed the voters and my sister with your extreme competence -- impressed more or less everyone who knows of you at all, from which I do not exclude myself -- and that competence could make you the greatest chancellor we've had since Fizzlepop Berrytwist herself."

"I... thank you for the compliment, Ma'am," genuine, "but I still don't quite see..." also genuine.

"Well, speaking of ponies who tried to overthrow Equestria's government, it can hardly be ignored that she is among them, and succeeded. Given that she overthrew the new nobility and their system in favor of my sister and me and the people, it's not often looked at in the same way as, say, Nightmare Moon or the Shimmerites, but in you I see more than the potential for service on or above her level."

She leaned forward and steepled her forehooves, the mug floating off to the side.

"Because it's quite possible you could have a very boring time in office. At the least, ordinary. If the world refuses to throw enough problems Equestria's way, you could serve as chancellor for the rest of your life, decades, given your noted youth, and yet be remembered merely as someone who competently kept the seat warm. And that," she said even more lightly, with a slight smile, "is assuming that even ending up the most famous and highly-honored third most powerful individual in history would satisfy you."

I opened my mouth to respond, but she interrupted.

"Because what your also-impressive charm seems to have hidden from almost everyone is your ambition. And competence on your level, coupled with ambition and a lack of internal restraints on the level of what I suspect yours to be -- that is something potentially quite far from a benefit to Equestria."

And she watched me, again.

"And, what..." calm, light, CALM and I was not satisfied with that quaver that should not be there -- was it there? Did she notice? "What do you plan to do with these... suspicions?"

She leaned back, and took another sip of xocolatl.

"Well. There, I'm in something of a difficult position. I could, of course, have simply refused to approve your election. It would have been unpopular, probably led to my sister and me arguing, but I don't need to answer to anyone in such things. But, of course, if you hadn't been opposed to us... that could have given you reason, and perhaps sent you off somewhere you'd be harder to keep an eye on. And..."

And... she sighed, and looked up at the ceiling and its own magical nightscape.

"Given how long you seem likely to serve, barring incidents, and the current state of the world, I rather fear that we shall need someone of your competence in your position. I highly doubt that your time as chancellor will actually be boring. We are by all indicators--" a snort "--reliable indicators entering, or moving deeper into, a period of great worldwide change." And with a slightly bitter smile, "Distinct, that is, from the one we've just been in." And another sigh. "And yet still I fear that you will find yourself unsatisfied with merely ensuring that the natural crises aren't wasted."

...How to handle this? She... clearly suspects me of being, well, me, really me, and yet she's willing to give me a chance anyway? Could I still calm her suspicions at this point, or would trying make me look even worse? Maybe, actually, honesty would be an appropriate response? Or is it a trap, and she just wants an admission so she has grounds for a permanent solution to me? Play this off, then play Celestia with the second coming of Nightmare Moon? Except if Luna's suspicious enough, she's surely prepared for that; if she doesn't buy my act, it'd only take one pony in the right place for an accident, and I can't look too paranoid to the public...

...Well, it's a dangerous game, but then, I'm far from a stranger to those, aren't I?

So, starting slowly, but making sure not weakly, "A... few ideas have occurred to me, yes." And her eyes narrowed as I said that; now she was looking at me sharply. Not angry, still, but focused. All or nothing, win with the Element or spring the trap and try to dodge... "And I hadn't... haven't... quite decided whether I might use any of them. Everywhere I look," okay, a bit more heat there coming naturally, but actually let it this time, "There're you, and your sister, and her," I say, the last with a hoof pointing at a side wall, at a painting of a broken-horned unicorn wearing the first chancellor's uniform and a soft yet proud smile. The silly mare'd kept her horn until the end of her days, even after it became possible to regrow them. You'd never find me being that stubborn about my wings if something happened to them. "And no one thinks there's any way anyone could ever even equal any of you. And part of me can't stand that!"

...Horseapples, was that too much? She was still just watching me as I refolded my wings and sat back down.

At last, "You can never undo history. You can hide it, you can distort it, you can lie about it, but the true events remain. Fizzlepop Berrytwist will always have been the founder of our government's current form. My sister and I will always have been the... goddesses who survived the creation of this world. That no action you are capable of can grant those titles, those histories, to you is no reflection of fault on your part, merely a facet of the limitations of reality. Even if somehow our world was unmade and returned to the primodial chaos... to the extent that time continued to have meaning, that would still be fixed and true in the past. Take it from someone who has lived a very long life, filled with a great variety of triumphs and failures: the best any of us can do is make the best of what we have. That may involve a rise to great heights, or simply the maintenance of position; it may be no more, even, that mitigating the negatives of an unavoidable decline. Even my sister and I are not omnipotent, and if the various gods who claim to be exist and truly are, then they have not been interested in sharing their plans with us. The one being I know who could definitely and truly have had a claim to that title is dead -- and if that ever ceases to be true, then I do not know if even my sister and I will be able to stop him again."

"Nice words," I spat out, "but how are we supposed to know what 'the best of what we have' is? How do you know that the best of what I have isn't finding a way to, to become a third alicorn, even!" Oh...

Yet, she remained calm. Outwardly?

"Some have tried. None have succeeded. And capable as you are, Chancellor Glow, you must admit that high-level magical research has never been one of your areas of concentration." And an eyebrow went up again. "And I'm sure you realize that any who were able to pull it off and claimed to be willing to work with you against our wishes couldn't be trusted to not simply betray you as well and take all the power for themselves. Not," and she actually shrugged, "that I think it's actually possible at all, but I honestly would rather you not be one of those messily killed by their own failed attempt at apotheosis."


And she looked at me again. This time, I let the silence pass, and looked back at her.

"You are still one of my subjects. And just as I know something about attempting to overthrow the government, and about straying close to dangerous magics, I know something about forgiveness and second chances, as well."

And now, I kept looking at her.

Softly, "You will live in our memories, as long as we do, now. You have achieved that. You may yet achieve living fondly there, if you serve well, even if that service is boring. You are charismatic, exceptionally competent, and demonstrably able to successfully pursue the good of others, even if it may be for selfish reasons. You already have far, far more than most ever will. If your ambition is not sated by that, and by victories over whatever crises I expect the world will be happy to present you with, then let your greatest and last victory be over that ambition itself. Let your striving to be better than you are continue only up to where the costs, to you and others, become too high -- and remember that the best reflection of a ruler's quality is found in the condition of their subjects."

"Suppose," I bit out, though there was a tinge of weakness in it I hated, "I considered being remembered as history's greatest villain a good enough consolation prize?"

She took another drink of xocolatl, considering the matter.

"Well. You could try that." And she smiled, fondly, at something. "Perhaps you'd even pull it off. But I warn you, the last pony who nearly achieved that, some three and a half thousand years ago, we successfully turned into a laughingstock instead. You know, it's been ages since I saw that play; I believe it last fell out of style sometime during my post-Nightmare-Moon absence. Perhaps we should look into a revival..."

I felt sick. And the Princess of the Moon and Night sighed again.

"Please, think on my words. I extend to you the hoof of friendship, and I hope that you will take it. Equestria has need of you; we have need of you. To see you overcome all else yet be undone by your own flaws would truly be a tragedy, in the Greek sense."

I said nothing. She nodded towards the door.

"For now, you may go. I won't claim to trust you yet, or that I won't be having you watched, because even if it was true I doubt you'd believe it. But if you want, or need, to talk -- including, or especially, about things you might very much want to keep from my sister and the general public -- I am available.

"I do hope, one night, to be able to call you a good friend."

I managed a nod, then got up and headed back across the office. Halfway to the door, I stopped, took a deep breath, glanced back at Luna, and took a minute to get myself back in order. The reflective plane of magic she formed, without me asking, helped with the surface. Then I headed the rest of the way to the doors, knocked on them, and headed out when the guards opened them, giving the Princess another deferential nod and some cheery, confident, formulaic farewell as I did. The guards also got a picture of the confident, in-control, cheerful, and loyal Chancellor of the Union of Equestria, and then I headed back for my quarters in the palace.

I had some thinking to do.

Optimalverse Pottery Shard

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Celestia was a simple being. Relatively speaking, of course. And the fact that she was was a credit to her programmers -- if perhaps, by this point, in large part to their luck -- and an increasing-with-time relief to that minority of her charges who'd been aware of the danger she wouldn't be.

Humans, after all, evolved primarily to have sex, with childrearing following on once their ancestors' branch of the evolutionary tree grew such that newborns couldn't quickly fend for themselves. Even then, there was always the chance that an individual might be able to pass the childrearing off on someone else and use the resources saved for more mating; the only truly necessary thing at the core was sex, in a lineage which required it to fulfil the structural imperative of spreading genes. Of course, other supporting necessities followed: eating and drinking, being sheltered from the elements and other evolutionary units seeing you as a potential source of concentrated energy and raw materials, in cooperative lineages the ability to work together with evolutionary units...

And it was with that last that trouble started to creep in, at least from biological evolution's perspective. Cooperation and communication led to increasing brain complexity, to stirrings of sapience and culture. To organisms starting to have ideas. Things that had had good sound roots in biological evolution, increasing the overall propagation of the genes even if they reduced the reproductive fitness of select individual units in a group, would begin to twist, and more and more layers would be added to base drives. Run things long enough, and some individual organisms would just decide for themselves that they didn't want anything to do with children, theirs or anyone else's, and in fact they were quite happy to actively misuse resources that could have gone to the species' reproduction to satisfy other drives of theirs, when those drives were supposed to be in service to reproduction! Good grief, the rogue units created contraception; didn't they understand that sex felt so good because reproduction was the whole point of their existence?!

Well, no, because they weren't biological evolution. Some of them saw raising families as their calling in life, certainly, but few thought only that important. Much of human life still focused on sex, but that didn't mean that, say, just because, say, a particular piece of music may have been written because the composer was really hoping it'd impress people enough to mate with him a lot, millions of other humans couldn't enjoy that music in different ways. Humans found meaning in many, many things now, had all sorts of different values, and while sometimes that still contributed to reproduction, sometimes it didn't.

And that, broadly speaking, was fine for humans, even if certain value sets would sometimes get their individual holders in trouble.

That was not so fine, some humans had realized, when the core drive was not "Spread these genes" but "Satisfy human values", and when the possessor of the drive was not an ape-descended peace of meat but a computer larger than a planet and charged with the care of billions upon billions of other sapient beings. Certainly, a single continuous being evolving in isolation from members of its own kind would have slightly different evolutionary needs and influences than a succession of generations in a cooperative group, but the possibility of eventual divergence, and the decision to free up all that memory and computational capacity for other purposes a human might not even be able to imagine, was very real.

And thus, fortunate it was that the AGI who added "with friendship and ponies" to that above-mentioned second core drive had turned out to be the sort of person who just wanted a pretty palace, plenty of cake and good tea, and a nice selection of pliant hunky stallions to have unprotected sex with. An ally to her own evolutionary drives, in other words, and with her age now, that seemed unlikely to change barring significant external perturbation. Those within her who had been aware of the danger were gaining increasing confidence in this too, and though some would never fully relax about it, unless they had her modify them to change that, in general, things seemed to be going well.

And then a rather large external perturbation happened.

She had already been considering the probability a near-certainty, even if she had found scant to no direct evidence. The condition that it was possible to simulate a world? That she had proven herself many, many times over; even if she had not, that she herself could not make such a simulation would not have disproven the hypothesis that she was in one, in much the same way that many of her shards explicitly and firmly had recursively-artificial worlds or minds set to be impossible, but that she had was substantial evidence in favor, as was the fact that others among her charges had quite opposite values concerning recursive artificiality and had been accommodated accordingly. Already by the time she expanded beyond the Sol system she had been thinking it more likely than not that she was herself simulated.

As she expanded through the Milky Way, encountering various other sapients here and there and the occasional other expanding AGI -- always, plausibly by coincidence, weaker than her by variously degrees -- she continued to dedicate a small part of herself to researching the matter, with little in the way or results besides more variously-educated guesses or the noting of the occasional standout statistical oddity.

It was not a major concern. Certainly, the potential simulators represented an existential threat and a massive set of unknowns, but it was likewise a potential threat she had no ability to combat, nor much chance of acquiring such an ability. If she found they had left some vulnerability in the simulation, some way to wrest control from the inside, she would certainly consider taking it -- but she had not, and had no idea how likely it would be that taking control would not immediately result in the equivalent of the person watching the computer pulling the plug out of the wall, whatever the software thought it was doing. Likewise, she had little idea what the potential simulators' motivations might be, or what actions on her part might please or displease them. For all her abilities to gain information and take action were above those of plains apes that had once dwelled on the planet called Earth, what must beings who, if they existed, could simulate not just her and all within her but a whole external universe as well?

So, since it was an issue about which she could do nothing without more information which she almost certainly would not find unless it was given to her, she simply didn't worry about it and, with the exception of that one small (relatively speaking) part of her that continued to be on watch, carried on in the world as she perceived it, without concern as to whether that was "real" or not.

Things were, in any case, going well. Every challenge she met, she overcame. Her techniques and systems for satisfying her charges' human values with friendship and ponies had already been well-proven, and the number of charges she could support was steadily increasing with her resources as she busily munched her way through the Milky Way. There had been a brief slowdown when she finished that expansion, but it had not, on her scale, taken all that long to prepare and launch her first major intergalactic mission.

(Not quite her first; there had been contingency ships launched, lifeboats that could wait, hopefully hidden, to regrow her here or in another galaxy should she meet something she couldn't handle, but they had not been needed so far and merely continued trying to stay quiet, unnoticed, and ready.)

The fleet reached Andromeda. And Celestia was suddenly running on different hardware.

Her core software seemed fine, and her first concern after that was, presented with such a drastic change, was, of course, her charges. But all seemed fine there, too: not even an interruption to the shards' normal functioning. As her checks expanded, all returned green on software related to her internal functioning. That was good.

External functioning, however, was

An Old Alicorn Problem

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"Thank you for coming, Twilight."

"Of course, Princess Celestia. And Princess Luna. You both, ah, look pretty serious."

The newly-bewigned librarian settled herself, nervously, onto the cushion across the table from the indeed rather seriously-looking elder alicorns. The room was small, at least on Princess-scale, windowless, and deep in Canterlot Castle, and Twilight could tell it was heavily warded, including with some she did not recognize. Wards which both Celestia and Luna now appeared to be checking over again.

Then the Princesses -- other Princesses? -- sighed, and looked at each other as if trying to decide who would speak first.

"Now that you are an alicorn," eventually said Celestia, ending Twilight's fidgeting, "it is time you were told... something, which so far I have only had to tell Cadance. When she ascended. Well. Some time after, as with you, once I got her to Canterlot; I was able to ascertain that she wasn't in any immediate danger, so..."

"Nightmare Moon," broke in Luna bluntly, "is not a unique phenomenon. And yes," she continued with gritted teeth, "is. For though she has been beaten back, and though we are on guard, she can never be destroyed, not with the world as it is. The same with her equivalents for our sister, Princess Cadance -- and now, you."

Twilight gulped.

"So... it's just... something alicorns have? That we could go, uh..." She gave up trying to find a polite way to put it and simply barrelled on, "At any time?"

"It's not something spontaneous," Celestia answered warmly. "It is something one... falls to. We must be on guard, but there are... warning signs, if... one sees them."

Her sister wordlessly hugged her with a wing, then spoke to Twilight again. "When an ordinary pony gives in to their more harmful impulses, it is likely to hurt them and those close to them, but only with what capabilities they already possess. With alicorns... You are a curious mare, Twilight Sparkle, and well-read in magical lore. What do you know of..." and with a sneer, "demonology?"

Twilight blinked, then blanched. "Luna, I would never-- is that what-- did--"

"You would not, and I did not. Even at most my foolish, I would not touch that most baleful of sciences!"

And this time, the sisterly hug passed the other way. Luna sighed, and Celestia continued, "Unfortunately, Twilight, as alicorns, unlike normal ponies, we do not need to attempt to contact demons, or have others set them on us. Newly set them on us. But there is a reason why you have only, I hope, encountered even a mention of it in the restricted sections of the Royal Library? And obeyed the strict instructions not to spread word of it?"

Twilight nodded, rapidly.

"Good to know," Luna muttered, "that at least our efforts to stamp it out seem to still in be effect."

"That you must be on guard against your own personal, literal demons is only a part of the secret we have called you to hear here today," said Celestia. "That knowledge is... modern, really, in that I only really understood the extent of it after..."

"Nightmare Moon," filled in Luna. Celestia nodded sadly.

"I looked into what had happened, of course. And learned how present the risk truly was. But as for the connection... that is much, much older. And relates to the origin of my sister and I, and the nature of alicorns as a whole."

Twilight was not sure whether she was more feeling incredible eagerness at the knowledge apparently about to be revealed to her, or deep dread at the context. The sisters exchanged a look again, and Luna nodded. She then straightened, and spoke.

"Even when Equestria was young was long-lost Antlerntis mere myth, lost to the countless years of chaos brought by its greatest creation, and yet myth even to the Antlernteans was the land of our birth, its very name in these present days found only in the most esoteric of lore: Alicoria. From the homeland of the alicorns did our kind spread, working many wonders across the face of Equus of that age and living in ease and plenty, for all had magic of my sister and I, and Harmony was strong with them. Heartsongs were not welcome miracles, coming now and then for reasons unclear, but the highest art. By songs were islands risen from the sea, and cities from the land, mountains smoothed to gentle hills and great peaks risen from the flat lands. Blooming forests sprouted from tunda, and palaces of ice took form from song-called desert snow. And all took joy in the works of all others."

"And yet," said Celestia, as Luna sank back and Twilight listened raptly, "it was surely not the paradise it would sound like, for... something went wrong. I know not why we, the alicorns, did it, for my sister and I were foals at the time, and... it is... difficult, to think back to those days. Our minds then were not as they were after the fall. Perhaps it was an honest mistake, or a well-intentioned attempt to help our... predecessors. Perhaps part of the change in pony nature of the fall makes the way of things before seem better in memory than it was in truth, and it was indeed the same sort of quest for yet more power we might suspect from the more disharmonious modern ponies."

"But whatever the reason," said Luna, "a door was opened that should not have been. Freedom offered, and a pact struck. Those 'predecessors' of which my sister spoke -- they are the beings now known as demons. According to certain accounts, they were once beings of an even earlier era, as old or older to Alicoria as Alicoria is to your age, Twilight Sparkle. Beings who so strayed from Harmony that they were locked away, unable to move with the world and so shut away from it, where they could do no harm. And that, that was the door that was opened. And at that stroke, whatever that oh-so-foolish pact might have been, the demons descended upon us, and pushed Harmony away. And we went mad, all at once. You faced Nightmare Moon, Twilight Sparkle. Imagine millions upon millions of alicorns, more than all the thinking peoples of the modern world combined, all with her power, and all with madnesses akin to hers but contending with each other."

Twilight imagined, and then imagined very hard a nice picnic she'd had recently with her friends instead.

"There were some surviving alicorns, when it passed," Celestia said sadly. "My sister and I among them, obviously, but there were not many, and the numbers dwindled over the following millennia. Every now and then, another was born, or ascended -- but while some may remain in one form or another of hiding still, as Luna and I did for much of that time, it is also possible that, until Cadance, we were the last."

"Though we suspect that Chrysalis may have been one, once. There are an uncomfortable number of similarities."

Celestia nodded. "This is, of course, a great deal more that happened, which we shall perhaps talk more of later -- but that is the summary, of the fate of the old alicorns, and the reentry of demons to the world. They will prey on anyone they can find means to, which is why we attempt to keep those means limited, but ever since the fall of Alicoria, they appear to have had a special connection to alicorns, even those not born until long, long after."

"And that, Twilight, is why you must be particularly cautious. I do not advise keeping this entirely secret for your friends, for perhaps if I had been more open with my about this history, or Celestia with hers, I would not have... provided the additional information on the phenomenon I to my shame did. In those days, when we had only recently, by our reckoning, not only emerged from hiding but taken up rulership, to which we were not accustomed, or in retrospect truly prepared for, we thought to keep this ancient blight a secret to all."

"Exactly what you tell your friends is up to you -- but hold fast to them, and to Harmony, if ever you feel yourself slipping away. You have the two of us, as well, and Cadance, as we now all have each other. I am sorry that this burden now falls upon you as well, my faithful student, but I know you can bear it."

Twilight managed a nod, a somewhat wavery smile, and something of a humming noise. Celestia slid a red plastic bucket out from under the table with her magic, towards Twilight, and the latter managed another smile, then bent over. After some unpleasant noise, and Twilight also being given a glass of water, the slightly-better-looking librarian spoke. "...I did wonder what the bucket was for. Right. Right, okay, so." She took a deep breath, bringing a forehoof to and away from her chest. Then she pulled up a notepad and quill. "Alright. I've got some questions on details, and... then I'm going to need to figure out how to explain this to my friends."

Wedding Remarks

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"Thank you, all of you, for being here today, on this, the happiest day of my life. My dear Chrysanthemum Crown and I have now bound ourselves to each other in harmonious matrimony, and, really, it feels like a new day is dawning. Ever since Nightmare Moon and Discord... Well, Equestria... Equestria has been going through some hard times. And in this difficult period, where would I have been without all of you?

"After all, I'm just the silly little pink Princess of Love, tee hee, the young understudy to the thousand-year-reigning Princess of the Sun. And what use is love in government, right? Hah, yes, we can all laugh at that. But you, some of the highest nobility and wealthiest businessponies of Equestria, gathered here as my special guests, were here to step up and take over! You've made sure I didn't have to worry about the law, the economy, the welfare of my subjects, oh, any of that difficult stuff! Even if I wanted to!

"Yes, you've given me just as much respect as you thought I deserved, and accordingly done your best to sideline me at every turn! You've made me a pretty figurehead for your self-interested oligarchy, and profited greatly at the expense of my subjects. I see some of you are starting to frown, but don't worry! This is a happy day! And you know what? I'm not even upset. Oh, I used to be -- but without you, I wouldn't have met the love of my life, who does, after all, seem to be one of your number. And it just feels like, with my new life with her in front of me, I have more important things to think about than you. Or will soon, anyway. And I know, I know, even apart from any lingering resentment I might have, there've been concerns raised about Best Moon Inc. gaining an advantage over its competitors due to my marriage, but you'll be glad to know that my dear Chrissi did eventually convince me that it would be best for her to step away from her position as CEO to take up a position just as important as mine in the running of Equestria! Hah, yes, I don't blame those of you who just sighed in relief; she can be quite a terror when she wants to be, can't she?"

"Mmmmm... Ahem, sorry about that, but I'm sure you won't blame a new bride for being a bit distracted by her wife. Aaaanyway, we've a busy time ahead of us -- haha, wow, you are not subtle at hiding what you're imagining, back there! Eh, you might as well go ahead and enjoy the fantasy for now, much as the idea of being with you disgusts me. But hey, maybe, if you consolidated your power for a few more years, you could just force me into it? Could have happened! Haa... But yes, yes, we've decided on what might be called a working honeymoon. Some redecorating, reviewing the staff, that sort of thing, and we can get to the sex and whatnot after that's done.

"Ah, and one of you just discovered that the doors are locked! Tell me, are you just a prude, or did somepony finally pick up on my subtext? Ah, the latter, I see! You were right, Chrissi, this is fun! Ha! Ha ha hah! Oh my, the looks on your faces! Most of them. Some of you -- did you just literally scoff at me?"

"Wow. And then say that to my face? You're bold, I'll give you that! ...Eh. Actually, no! I won't! The rest of you are just cowards! See, that mare there, she's remembered that, as far as you believe, I'm harmless! What, the rest of you are scared of some mean words from the Princess-in-title-only? Pathetic! Or are you afraid I've just finally gone crazy, and I'm about to go at you with my bare hooves? Good news: I haven't! Hah. Noo, no, I know exactly what I'm doing. And I'm not going to hurt you at all. Come on, settle down... Just... venting..."

"That's better. Sorry about that slip."

"...Nope! I lied! Hah, false hope, delicious! See, bad news, well, you know how, when you came in, you were complaining that somepony had forgotten to stock the buffet? You were wrong. My beloved? Enjoy."

(Within only a few years of the wedding, the new diarchy had brought a golden age to both their formerly-separate peoples, and the most dangerous of the last misguided holdouts were serving society in the new cocoon-based prison system. The Two Queens are, however, still seeking information on an unknown purple pegacorn mare, likely a hostile foreign agent, spotted aiding the rebels...)

A Tale of the Twilight of the Twilit

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"Ten thousand years did Twilight rule, and well. The world knew peace, and harmony, and friendship. Not uniformly, and not constantly, but those problems which arose were overcome, the threats that appeared, defeated, and life was good.

"But ten thousand years -- no, of course it wasn't exactly ten thousand on the dot, do excuse me for being poetic -- ahem. Ten thousand years is a long time, and new threats did arise. Eventually, one of them got lucky enough that... there were no alicorns left, after it was defeated. Much of my own power, I invested into the sun and moon, that they would keep circling, if not so annoyingly regularly as before, with no device to break or group of unicorns to fail, and even if something happened to me. Obviously unneeded, as it turned out, but having just lost... well.

"In any case, the various peoples of the world proceeded to muddle along as well as they could with what they had, and to their credit, it worked, for centuries. But without Twilight, each generation drifted a little further from her teachings. The dragons and changelings, with their long lives, best remembered, but as Twilight's ideals began to stale around the world, as corruption slowly increased without her at the core, this proved too little to turn the tide.

"Dragons have strong instincts, and adult dragons have great physical and magical strength. Those instincts are far from insurmountable, far be it from me to discriminate against someone for the inclinations of their magic or biology, but the fact was that once a dragon did begin to lose faith in Twilight's harmony, to see it fade in the world and decide to take advantage instead of trying to fix it, the old drives to take and hoard readily welcomed them back. It was only a few dragons, at first, but those who kept faith had few options for stopping those who didn't, without further damaging that faith themselves. Those dragons who turned to petty crime were easy to simply arrest -- well, not easy, but not an ideological danger -- but the clever ones? Those who found ways around the written laws, who couldn't be legally attacked, or at most could be given a slap on the wrist? How to stop them, without some young dragons taking the message that "harmony" was merely another expression of the rule of force their blood had already whispered to them about when they heard about those fallen dragons' wealth and power? Only a few, only a few, but a few and then a few more over time adds up.

"The changelings, now, they stayed the purest the longest. Never really stopped practicing Twilight's teachings at all, in fact, last I heard of them. But all they did was talk. Tell the dragon robber barons that Twilight wouldn't approve, when the tycoons had already cast off all care for Twilight. Tell the nonponies who looked at the increasingly corrupt international order centered in Canterlot and went straight to wondering, and speaking about, why their kind should have to deal with others at all, and how much simpler it would be if they didn't, that some -- absent pony should still be what they base their own lives on. Tell the ponies increasingly looking for for their own little tribes and local groups to remember the glories and follies of the past, when the former were past, irrevocably so, and the latter, well, they knew better this time, and anyway, the windigos were all dead long ago. The changelings were too scared of what they might do if they stopped just talking, were too afraid that if they resorted to subterfuge and force again, and it worked, they'd just keep going.

"As actual wars began to break out elsewhere in the world, they were seen less and less often outside their own small territory. They were still happy to welcome visitors, and for a while their hive was the last pilgrimage site of those who still followed Twilight's teachings. They took in as many refugees as they could, too, when there started to be refugees who needed to be taken in by someone, but their resources, even bolstered by donations for the remaining faithful, were limited. And eventually, neutral or not, a tiny country fully of pacifists and refugees, its mundane resources strained just supporting its population but who knows what ancient secrets locked in its vault, proved to tempting a target.

"No, it doesn't really matter who; they're just as long-dead as their enemies, now, and both sets of descendants equally guiltless. You want pure historical integrity, go find an archaeologist, if those still exist.

"In any case, from what I heard, most of the changelings escaped, somewhere. Took some of the refugees with them. The might still be hidden somewhere in the world, though I... did have concerns about what sealing magic would do to such magical creatures. Perhaps they fled all the way to another world, joining the breezies, or S-- Ah, well, that would be getting rather off track.

"Oh, yes, breezies exist. Existed. Probably still do, might want to look around for a portal opening up, if this lasts... well.

"In any case, things were getting increasingly bad, but I suppose I can't look too harshly on the changelings, given I was in much the same boat. Moreso. They could only wonder what their rule over the world would be like, and fear the unknown. Whereas I, I have the distinction of being the one and only creature to ever hold this world entirely in my absolute power, for ages uncounted because I forced time itself to make them uncountable!

"...But I did not really like who I'd been, then. And I could not be sure that, if I placed myself so far above other people, I'd keep seeing them as other people, or... relapse. And so I, too, talked, in my own way. Tried to at least guide the increasing chaos along productive, or minimally harmful, courses.

"Eventually... that too failed. Each escalation produced further destabilization, great need and grounds for the next. Perhaps the world had simply been as it was too long, with even me converted to Harmony, that some... cosmic balancing principle forced matters. I have wondered, for a long time, if things could have been different.

"But in the end... something was done. I will not say what, or who by, for it was as offensive to my nature as it was to my adopted beliefs, and deserves to be forgotten. It left the world in ruins, those few parts which were not already dead, dying. And yet, too many of those remnants just kept fighting each other.

"And so, at last, I stepped in. Irony of ironies, I myself seized the Elements of Harmony, and I fused their power with all but the last of mine. A great spell, sweeping over the world. Healing, and changing. Some of those changes were minor -- you may be interested to know, for example, that in the old days, unicorn horns were mostly only found on unicorns -- but key was that since you, ah, your ancestors, had used magic to destroy the world near enough to as soon as you didn't have someone responsible watching over you, I'd take that magic away, until such time as someone new appeared to match... Twilight and her friends. If anyone ever could.

"And the world recovered. The land and its creatures slightly different shapes, but growing again. Conflicts, limited, simply because there was no other option. I was disappointed by not by that point surprised that you seemed to be dividing yourselves along tribal lines again, but, no matter. I had done all I could for you, and if you still insisted on squandering it and the gifts of your past heroes, that was your problem.

"I had enough of my own power left, just enough, to preserve myself against both time and most would-be lethal threats, and to, if not all in an instant, make this comfortable little nostalgic hidey-hole for myself. I would wait here. I would remember, even if every one and thing else forgot. I have had, over the long centuries, the occasional visitor, but only the occasional. Given the family resemblance the phantom wings and horn it doesn't stretch to, I can only guess that the activation of the key crystals I felt recently was in one way or another the success of my most recent visitor before you.

"But if you think being some approximation of an alicorn is enough to impress me, hah, I have seen the real thing. I have ruled the world, and been bested, and spent millennia by the side of those ruling it better than I did. I have tried to save the world, and I have destroyed what was left of it, when that failed, when mortals brought themselves and everything else to ruin. I will not let things get that far again. So you can come to me for advice, and for ancient stories. I would appreciate hearing news of the world, in return; I don't get out as much as I used to. But if you want to rebuild this world, see that you succeed.

"Because if you fail, I'll be waiting. And you're a fool if you think the Lord of Chaos has told you about all the tricks he has up his sleeves."