The Great and Corrupted Trixie

by VelvetHeart

First published

A new goddess arrives in the System, will Twilight Sparkle and her friends stop the viral Trixie?

It was a construct built to last the ages, a great machine hoofcrafted by Celestia and her most skilled arcanists. Within its nigh-indestructible confines, the countless inhabitants of the Moon Engine system could live out their thousand-and-one-year duty, aiding Celestia in a task left unmanaged during Nightmare Moon's banishment.

And for a thousand years and eight months, all was as it should be.

...and then Trixie showed up.

Nopony anticipated quite how much damage a single pony could do. But then, nopony'd ever thought to consider somepony quite as... viral as Trixie.


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The Great and Corrupted Trixie
by Velvet(Velcro)Heart

Thick clouds of dust rose from the ancient, cold stone floors with every one of Trixie’s steps, causing the unicorn’s already-irritated eyes to water. She’d long given up trying to breathe through her clogged nose, coughing miserably as she made her way through corridors so ancient they hadn’t seen a cleaning pony in at least a thousand years.

“The Great and Powe-*hack* Powerful Trixie’s revenge will not be stopped by a mere layer of dust, even if it is half a ponyheight *sneeze* thick!” Trixie half-whined, the cool blue glow of her horn lighting the ancient, unmarked walls of the maze that drilled it’s way miles deep into the mountains under Canterlot. When she found hints of great magical power buried in the depths, Trixie hadn’t expected a maze. But whichever pony designed it, he or she hadn’t planned for the accumulation of the dust of centuries, making it rather easy for Trixie to see where she’d been. Even then, one needed to be a cunning pony to find whatever was hiding at its very center.

But Trixie was nothing if not tricksy.

After hours of dusty misery, she finally found herself walking into a chamber the size of which stunned even the Great and Powerful Trixie. A great cylindrical shaft drilled down towards a depth so deep that no matter how much power Trixie willed into her horn, its light was swallowed by darkness a vertigo-inducing distance below the edge.

But what that light revealed.. thousands upon thousands of pearly white pods, each coated in a thick film of dust, crowded together along the entire length and width of the cylindrical chamber’s inner wall. Brushing the dust from the nearest, Trixie could just barely spot the still form within: A unicorn, wires clinging to his horn, tubes entering his body through almost every orifice, floating in a kind of stasis.

But that was not the most interesting part: A cluster of great spherical devices dominated the room's ceiling like a distorted bunch of grapes, gleaming metal strangely untouched by time. All the wires, the cables, they all led there, as did the perilously-unsupported walkways. It hummed softly with sheer magical power, a faint, steady warble that tickled Trixie’s ears.

“Ah-hah! Trixie has found it! The source of all great magic in Equestria! Fi- *sneeze* Finally! All Trixie has to do is assign herself a bit more than everypony else and then Trixie will truly be magnifi-*cough!*” Abandoning the rest of her little speech in a fit of coughing and sneezing, the blue pony began making her way across one of the walkways, having already spotted a promising door. The odd metal seemed to thrum under her hooves, some mysterious part of its inner workings causing the material to vibrate against the undersides of her hooves.

The door slid open smoothly to Trixie’s touch, unveiling the inside to be a complicated, yet cozy mishmash of panels, flashing lights, and metallic cables. “Hah! Trixie has found the control room already!” She eagerly shuffled her way in, exploring, testing various knobs and buttons. Trixie was no machinery guru, but even then, she eventually she found a combination that caused one of the panels to light up.

“Advanced Unicorn Magic Network Integration, yes or no? Trixie thinks that sounds promising! Yes please!” the unicorn cheerfully replied to the written text, shoving her hoof down on the button she suspected meant the positive reply. The machine’s sudden buzz almost caused the blue unicorn to jump out of her proverbial skin, even as a large metallic arm unfolded itself from the ceiling, bearing in it’s grip a metallic ring graced with a plethora of wires.

“Yes, yes! Come bring Trixie the magic power! Enhance her horn into a mighty lance!” Trixie could barely hold herself back from prancing in anticipation, eagerly maneuvering her horn into the ring to help speed things along, eyes focused on the panel that so helpfully displayed her ‘integration stage’.

“Ok, Trixie is ‘locked in’, now... wait, personality absorption?! Trixie didn’t ask for anything wi-” She gasped, a sudden realisation snapping her head around - the ponies in the pods, they all wore these rings! She wasn’t being empowered, she was joining them! “No! Trixie doesn’t want to become a magic battery!” she squealed, focusing hard on her magic even as she felt her legs starting to go limp, eyes blurring. One of the gleaming cables leading from the wall to Trixie’s horn began glowing with the unicorn’s power as she used her rope-controlling abilities on it, trying to break it, trying to stop whatever the machine was doing.

The cable came loose in a shower of sparks, a deeper buzz echoing through the chamber as warnings flashed across the screen-panel:


Personality absorption complete.

Personality cache damaged.

Enhancing cache size.

Cache overflow.

Identity overflow.

Identity tag: The Great and Powerful Trixie

Identity tag failed.

Identity t%g failed.

Identi#y tag f&aled.

Identity $ag: The Gr4(t and P*&#rf&l Tr#xie

I$en&ty ta^ fail#$.

Identity tag: [file corrupted]

Identity accep%ed.

Trixie’s empty eyes stared, glazed and unseeing, at the warnings flashing across the screen. She hung limply in the grip of the great robotic arm that settled her into one of the few remaining empty pods.

...and then the machine obediently uploaded the absorbed personality into itself, too much of an automaton to realize what it had just unleashed upon the countless hapless unicorns living in its virtual world...

Chapter 1: Distortions

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The Great and Corrupted Trixie
Chapter 1: Distortions
By Velvet(Velcro)Heart

Princess Luna wasn’t quite sure what to make of the ponies in front of her. She knew fashion had changed in the thousand years of her absence, but had it really changed quite that much? The duo stalking around her like feral cats playing with their prey would’ve forcefully been ejected from the courts back in her age.

“Don’t worry, Luna. All you have to do is obey their every whim and you’ll be as popular as me in less than a month. These are Eager Edge and Thunder Run, the finest, most highly-recommended image-coaches I could find on such short notice.” her sister Celestia had announced as she led Princess Luna into the overly-extravagant dressing-room where the two unusual ponies were already waiting. The tail-end of that sentence definitely didn’t do much to improve Luna’s flagging confidence.

“Darling, we’ll have to fix your mane! What did you do with it all these years?” Thunder Run rumbled in a warm, gravelly voice that would’ve made Luna’s legs weak... had it not come from an earth-pony stallion wearing an unsettling amount of eyeshadow, heeled shoes and a dress with enough frills to bankrupt half a dozen dressmakers.

“You will need a new outfit, something that will let your subjects know that you’re in control!” Eager Edge added, stalking around on four tightly-laced black leather boots that led all the way up to her shoulders and flanks.

Celestia carefully hid the faint smirk gracing her features behind a levitating porcelain cup, sipping tea from her perch upon a little nest of pillows. It made watching her slightly-overwhelmed little sister try to figure out how to act around her new ‘image coaches’ a comfortable experience.

That’s when the first distortion hit; The pearly-white princess suddenly found her eyes drawn to her teacup as her telekinetic magic fluttered uncertainly around the pale porcelain, causing the surface of the tea within to yaw a good fourty-five degrees in complete and open defiance of the law of gravity. Celestia found her head tilting in bemusement as if trying to keep the hot water level with her eyes. As the princess’ magic, normally as steady as millennia of experience could make it, continued folding in on itself like a foal’s early practice sessions, faint cracks began spider-webbing their way through the delicate earthwork. Like lightning bolts crawling through a plain of white or tributaries flooding from a recent rain, the cracks swelled and grew, the once-polished cup beginning a strangely-riveting process of disintegration.

PAFF! The sudden detonation of the teacup into a cloud of porcelain dust and herb-steeped hot water caught Celestia by surprise, splashing her front and staining the pillows under her forelegs in darker shades as the cloth greedily sucked up the proffered moisture.

All chatter in the room came to a sudden screeching halt as all three ponies turned to the sound, finding a drenched and shocked-looking Celestia staring at the dust moisture-pasted to her forelimbs. Luna opened her mouth to say something, hesitated, closed it again, and repeated the motion several times like a suffocating fish, before finally settling on the question, “Did you.. just lose control of your magic, sister? How...”

Worried eyes met shocked eyes, countless unspoken words passing between the sisters in a single glance. “...The Moon Engine...” The ancient device’ name left two mouths at once. Celestia leaped from her cushions with a sudden unseemly haste, a single step and a flap of her graceful wings bringing her to her sister’s side, “Luna, sister dear, I’ll have to entrust you with the courts and the sun for just a little while. I’ll be right back but just in case it takes a day, I want you to raise the sun, ok?”

Luna sputtered, words only half-formed on her lips as Princess Celestia’s horn met hers with an audible click. The sudden rush of power that flared into existence sent both Eager Edge and Thunder Run skittering for cover, leaving a flustered and blushing freshly-crowned mistress of the moon and sun sitting alone in the middle of the room, trying to figure out just what happened. “I trust you, my sister.” came Celestia’s final words, cast back over her shoulder as she made her way to the door.

As the clattering of Celestia’s hooves faded from hearing, the duo of image-coaches carefully came out of hiding, suddenly finding themselves unsupervised and alone with their prey. “Darling, the princess of moon and sun? Oh, even if it’s for but a day, this changes everything! You have to take charge!” the cross-dressing stallion rumbled, “I’ll have to get you a whole new wardrobe! Oh, I know just the pony! I’ll go get her, she’s absolutely divine with leather!”

Luna felt one of Eager Edge’s overly-long leather boots touch her shoulder as Thunder Run left the room with only slightly less unseemly haste than her sister did. Leaning in close, the unicorn brought her lips unsettlingly-close to Luna’s ear and crooned, “Hmmm, while we’re alone, Princess, perhaps we can start our lessons...” Pulling back, the sole remaining coach jerked herself upright stiffly and announced, “First lesson: The riding crop!”

* * *

Princess Celestia’s hooves clattered across naked stone, her blood roaring in her ears as she thundered her way through the once-secret maze, walls and side-passages rushing past in a blur. Her metallic shoes struck sparks from the floor as she skidded and swerved through her turns, assisting herself with forceful downthrusts of her mighty wings. She’d seen the tracks, the path cleared through the dust; somepony’d been here, recently, dispelling any notion that the temporary disruption in Equestria’s magic field was a mere fluke.

The Princess knew the way. As rarely as she came here, it was burned into her mind, a single red thread bending and weaving through the tunnels until...

In a cloud of recently-disturbed dust swept up by the wind of her passing, Celestia burst into the Moon Engine’s chamber, worried eyes finding the door into the machine’s collection chamber ajar. It took her only seconds to get inside, leaving her wings stinging slightly where they smacked into the doorframe. Her gaze flicked through the chamber... nopony there. The room with it’s many display panels was bathed in a warm, insistent alarm-red, a metallic cable laying draped across the floor where it’d been severed like a dead snake.

One glance at the warnings flashing across the main display panel told Celestia more than she wanted to know, and a lot less than she needed to. “Oh, little unicorn pony, what have you done?” the princess whimpered, her magic carefully lifting the dead cable and settling it back into place, broken wires reweaving themselves like tentacles seeking a loving embrace with their lost kin. By magic, the cable merged and repaired itself, returning to the worn-but-functional state it had enjoyed mere days ago.

Celestia’s magic faded, but the warnings did not, trickling across the glowing main panel’s deep red surface:

Warning, Administrator intervention required
System corruption at 19%
System stability compromised.
Emergency disengage compromised.
1000 year service complete: Freedom startup engaged.
Freedom startup failed. Please initiate manually.

The white alicorn steadily acquired more and more of a frown as she ran her eyes along that screen. “This.. could take more effort than I expected.”

Celestia sighed. “No time to linger, alas.” she murmured to herself as she carefully tapped her hoof across one of the panels and slipped the long pearly flute of her horn into the ring descending to her head. She had her objectives already planned out: Get in, fix the problem, get the problem-pony out of the system, and all would be well. She was the System Administrator, after all. It’d be a piece of proverbial cake.

Strangely, the Princess’ final thought in her own body as the machine absorbed her mind had little to do with her mission - rather, in a flash of sisterly love, Celestia spent it on Luna:

...I should’ve told her that the image-coaches were a joke before I left. Come to think of it, maybe I should’ve told the coaches...

* * *

“Coming!” Spike cried out, bucket in hand and towels perilously perched on top of his head as he carefully balanced his way up the stairs at the back of the Carousel Boutique. The door to Rarity’s bedroom had become quite familiar to the baby dragon in the past week, but even then he still felt a secret little thrill as he was granted permission to enter the sacred personal sanctum of the unicorn that still hooked his heart with her grace and beauty.

Although that beauty’d been tarnished a mite since the magical incident a week ago: Rarity’s snout was still flushed red, her eyes bleary and slightly baggy. Her voice, too, had gone somewhat nasal. All in all, though, Spike didn’t care. She was still Rarity, and the opportunity to care for her had given him a chance to spend more time with her than he’d ever had an excuse for before. “Hot water and towels coming right up for my favorite patient!”

Even wearing the little nurse uniform Rarity insisted on designing for him in her sick state was worth it to see the white unicorn draped across the oilsheet on her bed, waiting for him. “Don’t ya worry, Rarity, we’ll get you coddled up nice and hot. You’ll feel right as.. well, not rain, but something at least.”

Rarity shuddered visibly, muscles twitching under her coat. “Dear, I’d rather not hear about any rain, snow or ice for a little while. I wanted to have a magical ice-sculpture, not become one myself. I really shouldn’t have asked Twilight to perform such a difficult spell, she’s only a student after all.” she complained nasally, although her sagging ears quickly showed her regret at the harsh criticism, “Oh, I’m sounding like an angry old nag. Don’t tell Twilight Sparkle I said that bit about her, please? I didn’t mean it.”

“Don’t you worry, Rarity. We all know you’re not feeling yourself today. ‘sides, it’s not like Twilight was the only pony to have a little magic spaz. We got off quite light. Half the parents in Cloudsdale had to visit the hospital from the shock alone. Can you imagine the pegasus cloudwalking magic suddenly cutting off like that? For most pegasi it was just a startle, they have working wings, but the young foals... It’s lucky they all got caught in time.” Spike continued the conversation with his hands in steaming water, dunking one of the towels in until it was thoroughly soaked through. A firm wring or two removed all the excess moisture, allowing Spike to wrap it around the unicorn’s hindquarters without accidentally turning it into a shower. Several towels later, Rarity’d turned into a very content-looking caterpillar-pony hybrid, wrapped from neck-to-tail in hot, moist cloth.

Rarity sighed, eyes closed to thoroughly enjoy the warmth soaking into her sore muscles. Eventually, though, she forced herself to open her eyes and admit to something that’d been bothering her for a while now, “You’ve been such a kind dragon, Spike, and I’ve done nothing but whine and complain for the past week. How can I ever repay you?”

Spike let out a little squeak, and physically pummeled his heart out of his throat and back into his chest with a few blows of his small fist. Lowering his voice as much as he could in an attempt to sound appropriately manly, he peeped, “A noble knight such as me requires only the favor of such a fair lady as yourself, or, perchance, a kiss..?”

The baby dragon felt surprise blossom as Rarity actually seemed to consider it for a moment and finally, gave a small, curt nod. “A lady always pays her debts. Just one kiss, though, my loyal knight.” A faint smile played around her lips as she indulged the noble little dragon’s fantasy, lifting her head and closing her eyes.

Her white lips met Spike’s nervous ones, his heart bursting into a gallop as his one true dream was finally starting to come true... and that’s when he felt that sudden, familiar warmth swell in his belly.

No! Not now!

He tried to hold it in, at least long enough to finish the kiss. Alas, the fates were cruel indeed, and the pressure on his body too insistent: As unicorn and dragon separated, Rarity found herself staring cross-eyed at the saliva-coated scroll now protruding rather rudely from between her lips.

And that’s when the letter from a princess hit Rarity’s gag reflex.

* * *

Twilight Sparkle never felt so justified in an expenditure as she did right that moment. The shower she’d gotten installed in her home might not have been up to library regulations, but the glorious flow of hot water pouring down her flanks forced the filly to finally realize how badly she needed to relax. Since the magical incident last week, the purple unicorn’d researched nonstop in a variety of awkward positions, to the point that Spike’s complaints about her personal hygiene almost reached the intensity of her muscles’ protests. The frustrations of countless dead ends and the sheer pressure of her self-appointed task hadn’t helped either; if the fact she accidentally covered Rarity in ice wasn’t bad enough, the light shower of flightless foals over the lands beneath Cloudsdale had a way of hammering home the importance of discovering just what caused the ponies’ natural magic to go haywire.

For the moment, however, Twilight Sparkle was enjoying her own personal heated rain and engaging in a pastime she hadn’t enjoyed since she was a little foal: Singing in the shower. “~o live without my ma-agic / would be impossible to do-o / ‘cause in this world of troubles / my magic pulls me throu-ou-ough! Epic gargle solo! Arglarglarglarglarglegarglegargle- Ptooie! SPIKE! What are you doing in my shower?!”

“Washing ponyvomit off my snout.” a chagrined-looking Spike deadpanned, “And thanks for spitting a mouthful of water in my face, it’s the perfect ending for an otherwise perfect day. Here’s a letter from the princess, I’m going to take a nap. I just want this day to end.” The baby dragon grumbled, holding out the tightly-rolled scroll before hopping out of the shower and, still dripping, heading out to his soft, plush dragonbed.

Twilight pulled a face as she carefully levitated the scroll, going through the effort of wiping Rarity’s saliva and gastric fluids from it’s surface before unrolling it. “Finally, a response!”

But the letter wasn’t from Celestia...

Chapter 2: Entry

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The Great and Corrupted Trixie
Chapter 2: Entry
By Velvet(Velcro)Heart

Princess Luna looked taller somehow,Twilight Sparkle noted. Perhaps it was the way she held herself; straight, strict and imperious rather than the shy little hunch she’d acquired after the Nightmare Moon incident. Maybe it was the way she replaced most of her royal finery with a suit of gleaming, dyed leather that creaked softly with every motion, both covering and accentuating the shape of her body. Or it could be the way everypony around her quickly lowered themselves to the floor in supplication when they saw her approach to avoid disciplinary action by the riding crop levitating mere inches off of Luna’s flank.

As the Princess of the moon fixed her gaze on Twilight Sparkle and approached in smooth, perfectly-rhythmic steps, the purple unicorn found herself at eye-level with the delicate curls of subtle embroidery along Luna’s leather chestplate. “Twilight Sparkle, you’re here. Good, the letter arrived intact then. We have something to discuss, in private.”

“But Princess Luna, can’t you tell me what’s going on? Where’s Princess Celestia?” Twilight Sparkle questioned, hesitating long enough in following Luna’s swaying tail to earn a gentle little tap of the princess’ crop upon her rump.

“You’ll find out soon enough. Come. It’s essential we don’t linger in the corridors to discuss this.” the alicorn replied, Twilight’s fertile mind conjuring increasingly-worrying imagery. Luckily, Luna’s private rooms turned out to be opulent, but comforting, lacking the ‘dungeon’ feel the small unicorn’s imagination had furnished it with.

“I’ll have to start with a history lesson.” Luna began, quickly snagging Twilight Sparkle’s attention from the decor. “What you’re about to hear may, if all goes well, become public knowledge soon enough.”

The dark alicorn seated herself on a nearby pillow, horn glowing as she used a small fraction of her power to lift a quill and a piece of paper from a desk across the room. “When Nightmare Moon... when I was banished, the history books say that Celestia took the burden of both sun and moon upon her shoulders. Those history books... gloss over certain details, however. I personally never would’ve known had Celestia not told me.”

The levitating quill made soft scratching noises as it trailed lines across the paper, Luna’s magic working without interrupting her tale, “The fact is, she couldn’t simply take the burden of the moon. Her power, her talent is entirely in the sphere of the sun, and with my banishment I took with me the influence of the moon. In ending my eternal night, she inadvertently brought forth eternal day. No matter what she tried, the moon proved too elusive to her magics, and the sun, without its celestial sister balancing it, would not fall below the horizon.”

More lines were added, the feather (quite possibly previously a pegasus’) dancing neatly to Luna’s idle commands. “She kept the sun as weak and low as she could, and frantically sought to find a magic that could reestablish the balance as the temperature across Equestria slowly climbed.”

The quill halted for a moment, giving the princess a moment to look over her work, “The answer she found.. it must’ve torn her heart. Working with a haste born of desperation, she and the best artists of arcane writings built a great machine and called countless volunteer unicorns to the hole torn from the mountain’s heart. There, the Moon Engine took in each unicorn and drew forth their magic, weaving each individual thread, thin and fragile by itself, into a tapestry of power that could grasp and move the moon. Equestria was saved, and by commanding the machine, Celestia could perform a task I should have never neglected.”

Luna paused for effect, “Success did not come without a price, however; for as long as the machine was required, the volunteers would remain trapped within, their minds lingering in it’s arcane pathways until the day I would return and take the burden of the moon upon my shoulders once again. In a few months, maybe a year, I believe I would’ve recovered enough that the machine would no longer be needed. At that point, Celestia would’ve activated the in-built release, and set the volunteers free upon Equestria’s soil as heroes. Did you know she’s been planning housing for them for years? A celebration too. Honor-ceremonies for each and every one.”

“However... A week ago, the machine suffered a momentary malfunction. Celestia went to see if she could repair the damage, and... integrated herself into the Moon Engine. My own investigations after the event exposed that, little over a few weeks prior, a lone unicorn made her way into the Moon Engine chamber and managed to damage both it and herself during the transfer into the machine. Unfortunately, I can’t release or awaken either of them from outside the system. And if I were to enter it and get stuck, like I suspect Celly is... I can’t abandon my duties raising the sun and moon.”

Luna sighed, then turned her gaze firmly upon the rapt little unicorn before her, “But you have no such duties. That, you’re a unicorn and Celestia trusts you. Therefore, I want you to integrate with the Moon Engine, find Celestia. If you can’t get her out, take stock of the situation and then report back to me. I’ll do my best to help you.”

With a few final scratches, the alicorn finished her drawing and presented the paper to Twilight Sparkle, “This is what she should look like inside the machine.”

The unicorn focused on the paper, glanced up at Luna, then back down at the paper. This was a lot to take in. It brought up so many questions, so many worries and fears. So many things she took for granted about magic and the princesses just collapsed around her ears, but for some reason only one question made it to her lips: “Thousands of years of life, and you never learned to draw beyond kindergarten level?

* * *

“So, get in, find Princess Celestia, and get back to the place I came in through.” Twilight Sparkle reiterated to herself for the dozenth time as the machine’s strange, metallic arm reached down and clamped a ring around her horn. Princess Luna glanced back over her shoulder, forehooves braced on either side of one of the many glowing plates with odd runic language trickling across it’s surface. “Yes, exactly that. Now remember, I’ll be out here, trying to help as much as I can. But remember, my influence is limited, and as time is experienced differently inside than outside, my responses will be.. dramatically delayed. On top of that I have tasks out here that require my attention. If I were to stop raising the sun.. there would be panic in the streets.”

“I left you some things to start with. They should help... Good luck. You’re going in.”

Darkness engulfed Twilight Sparkle, a perfect black void that swallowed every detail around her, leaving her with nothing but an odd falling sensation which made her stomach float up somewhere against her spine. Just as she began to feel the first frissons of panic building, a spark of light burst into existence, akin to a tiny star that settled at the tip of her left forehoof. Like the point of a pencil, the star smoothly slid across her coat, carving patterns of glowing white lines back and forth along the length and breadth of her body. Never straying, never wavering regardless of the unicorn’s initial startled motions and her attempts to follow it with her gaze, it painted her until she found herself patterned in a neat array.

Twilight barely had any time to admire her new decoration, tilting her forelimbs this way and that in front of her snout, before the star leaped from her body and scribed a perfect circle in the air a mere two feet from her face. As if cutting a piece from the void’s emptiness itself, the acitinic-white flare burned patterns through the black, crafting a gleaming mass of triangles and arches that split and finally fell together into a disc-shape. Obeying some unknown command, the disc settled just above the unicorn’s withers, where she could barely see it from the corner of her eye if she turned her head as far as she could, hovering in complete defiance of gravity or logic as if attached to her spine by a tiny invisible stick. No telekinesis involved whatsoever.

The tiny star winked out, its task done. It didn’t stay gone for long, however; Far beneath Twilight, it flickered back on, joined by countless of it’s kin in numerous colors. White, green, blue, orange, they burst into motion, leaving burning, glowing tracks as they raced out into the depths of the void. No mere disc, no mere pattern, they swept forth towards the horizon and, right in front of Twilight’s eyes, drew a world..

..a world that came up under the unicorn with all too much speed.


* * *

Twilight Sparkle’s eyes opened blearily, refocusing on a strangely-tilted horizon. An odd sense of vertigo accompanied her awakening, one that had been with her since she hit the ground and had steadily coaxed her from the depths of her momentary unconsciousness. After the unicorn’s analytical brain finally fully revived, the reason for this experience became all too obvious: She was laying sprawled out on a tilted slab of something smooth and black, strangely glassy except where it’s rough, uneven edges had cracked away from whatever surface it’d once been part of. Finally rising to her hooves, albeit unsteadily, the unicorn took stock of her surroundings.

It was a disaster area. A great metropolitan city, or she assumed it was, lay ruined around her. Great glassy towers stood unevenly, their black walls broken, great gaps torn in their structure as if mauled by a titanic Ursa Major. Light from the strange, rippling heavens poured through the holes, casting twisted shadows of the structures’ exposed skeletons across the debris-littered streets below. And through it all, strange, glowing green tendrils crawled like a thin network of slowly-pulsing veins, an ominously-organic presence in an otherwise perfectly-angular city.

“That’s.. not what I expected.” Twilight Sparkle startled slightly as the sound of her own voice, a sharp contrast to the surrounding silence. Wincing, she carefully slipped down from the fallen wall that had been her landing platform moments before, and turned a small circle. “Where is everypony? Luna said this was a thriving city, the busy urban buildup around the portal to- and from the real world.” Twilight gasped, whirling around to face the place she landed, finding the stately structure she assumed to be the portal in stately ruins. “Shoot! I should’ve known Luna’s knowledge would be a thousand years out-of-date!”. The unicorn did a little stompy-dance, using all four hooves to work her frustrations out on the innocent street surface, “Shoot! Shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot-SHOOT-SHOOT!”

..A blobby sphere of green goo came sailing from the ruins, smashing into a nearby wall and detonating in a strange warbling ‘thwoomph!’. “I didn’t mean it like that! It wasn’t a suggestion!” Twilight squealed as she quickly turned to see a trio of ponies clambering across the broken rubble. They looked little better than the cracked rock they crawled across, their manes were tangled, their motions were jerky and unsteady, and most notably: the neat glowing patterns across their bodies were heavily distorted by large, swollen green bulges that covered their bodies like pestilential growths.

“Stop shooting, stop shooting! I’m here on a peaceful - whoa!” Twilight Sparkle neighed as several of them spewed forth globs of explosive goop, spraying the area where Celestia’s prize student stood moments before. Twilight’s hooves struck the smooth floor in a rapid rush of hoofbeats, tail streaming behind her as she dodged around fallen and cracked walls, trying to put as much rock between herself and the twisted, spewing ponies. “I’m not your enemy! Shoo- I mean don’t shoot!”

The response was an unabated, if thin barrage of bulbous bolts, some surging ahead in a straight line whilst others sailed in almost-serene ballistic arcs. All ended against nearby cover in a warbling splash that seemed to rapidly decay the glassy rock, consuming and abrading it until glowing cracks radiated outward from the impact point like an acid-etched spiderweb. Twilight had seen enough, more than enough; uncaring of direction or purpose, she galloped through the streets, into- and through the shattered buildings, clambering over debris, sliding down slopes. Veins of luminescent green crunched under her hooves, leaking tiny trickles of fluid that stung and bit her legs while her lungs burned.

The realisation that the sound of explosions had faded into the distance came late to the terrified unicorn, her legs finally slacking as she greedily rasped for breath. For a moment, all Twilight Sparkle could do was stare at the soft glow of her forehooves, waiting for the trembling to subside. “They.. they tried to hurt me.” That little factoid was troubling in of itself. The residents of Ponyville got angry sometimes, sure, but rarely if ever to the point of blows. The closest Twilight Sparkle ever came to being hurt that way was with Nightmare Moon... and the Ursa Minor, and that dragon that tried to maim Spike, and the other dragon, that hydra, that cockatrice, that manticore...

“Come to think of it...” Twilight Sparkle murmured, coming to the strange discovery that she was probably one of the most experienced ponies in Ponyville when it came to nearly being maimed. “...avalanche, stampede, buffalo attack, projectile pegasi, an anvil, a piano...” Twilight jerked upright, scraping together enough confidence to dampen the fear, “I’m.. I’m a survivor! I take things that would flatten normal ponies and come out on top! You know what? I can handle this! The first place I find that might have answers, I’m going there.”

“First..” The unicorn looked around herself, making sure she’d shaken the strange, infected-looking ponies, before turning her gaze to the unnatural skies. Streams of glowing lights flowed through the heavens like a sparkling diamond trains following invisible rails, forming perfect lines that zoomed back and forth, across and through each other as far as Twilight could see. The main source of light, however, at least looked a little more familiar - a large silver sphere that radiated a cool silver light, a strange hybrid between sun and moon.

“At least there’s a sun.. of sorts. Now, I just have to find a nice high spot, and find some ponies that can tell me where to find the Princess.” Twilight Sparkle added to herself to help organize her thoughts. Finding a tall tower proved to be easy enough - there were plenty to choose from, and after some searching, the unicorn picked one that looked like it wouldn’t fall over immediately. A large tear in one of the windows at the approximate height of the first floor became her way in after a difficult climb across the rubble of an adjacent structure.

The inside proved... spartan. Strange, large, angular rooms and flat surfaces everywhere, as if the place was cut from a solid block by a perfectionist mathematician. It would’ve been a stark place had it not been for the glowing green ivy-stuff growing in through the cracked window, forcing Twilight Sparkle to step carefully lest she sting her hooves again. The chamber she assumed was a living room had a few odd-but-interesting knickknacks that held Twilight’s interest for several long minutes. Two small transparent boxes not much bigger than a softball shared space on a table with a small bowl. The boxes.. Twilight wasn’t sure what to make of them. They reminded her of tiny fishbowls, entirely transparent but for the edges, with small multicolored polygonic abstracts floating around inside them like fish. Dismissing them as ornamental, she turned her attention to the bowl. For all it looked like, the bowl seemed filled with simplified sugar-cubes, a little filly’s idea of a proper breakfast.

Quickly glancing around to see if anypony was watching, Twilight gave in to temptation and dipped her snout into the bowl, sucking up several of the ‘sugarcubes’, a quick swallow sending them down her throat. They tasted like.. nothing much, really. At least they proved to be edible, of a sort. At least, she hoped they were, otherwise she’d have a real problem when they came back out the other end.

“That’s another foalhood dream fulfilled that didn’t quite pan out like I’d hoped.”

Exploring further, the unicorn mentally mapped out the basic living unit, bedrooms and living room, even if there seemed a distinct lack of kitchen or toilets beyond a small storage area that, since it contained more of the ‘sugarcubes’, was mentally tagged a larder.

The elevator didn’t seem to have power, or even counterweights of any kind. Looking for a convenient on-switch proved equally useless. With a sigh, Twilight explored the emergency ladder running the length of the elevator-shaft, hooked her hoof over one of the rungs, and began climbing...

* * *
Seen from the rooftop of the tower, the city had a kind of eerie, desolate magnificence, stretching out around and beneath Twilight Sparkle’s hooves. The tallest towers broke her view of the horizon like jagged teeth, backlit with the pale glow of the strange solar orb in the midst of its phoenix’ plunge of dusk. The failing of the light steadily cast the already-dark metropolis in increasingly-sharp contrasts, turning it into a sea of black accented by the slowly-pulsing green glow of the ivy-like veins crawling across and through the structures.

But that made it all the easier for Twilight to trace the countless glowing lines to the nearest nexus, where they merged around.. a wide structure, decorated with spindly spires and nigh-gothic architecture, damaged, even wounded but still breathing in the cool emerald glow. A cathedral, trapped in the middle of a web of pulsing veins like a spider’s kill.

“There, then. To start off.”

Turning around, she sighed and slipped through the door into the depths of the tower. She was not looking forward to climbing down all those rungs again.

* * *

If there was one positive thing about the cathedral, it was that it was lit better than the surrounding area. Unfortunately it was lit by that steady, pulsing green glow, a color Twilight Sparkle was slowly forming a love/hate relationship with. Worse yet, this close, there were more details visible, many of which providing ominous little hints. Perched upon the stone walls, smooth, yet detailed statues of tall, winged ponies graced the cathedral’s architecture. By the shape of their bodies, they seemed to be made in the images of both Princess Celestia and a pre-Nightmare Moon Princess Luna. Twilight couldn’t be entirely sure, however, as the statues had been violently beheaded, leaving no tell-tale horn to show their alicorn nature.

Careful to stay in the plentiful lingering shadows, perhaps failing to remember that she now glowed, Twilight Sparkle snuck closer to the great structure. A piece of fallen wall that had wedged itself up against the side of the building let her ascend to the cathedral’s rooftop. Among the beheaded, winged shapes she crept, touching only gently when she needed support, as if in deference for the broken goddess-imagery. The cathedral rooftop was uneven, weathered, cracked by pulsing emerald growth. Small pieces came loose where Twilight Sparkle set her hooves, threatening her balance. It held, though, as she carefully made her way to a part where the roof had simply caved in, leaving a suitable little spyhole.

Hooking her hooves over the edge, the unicorn lowered herself to her belly, and peered down into the cathedral’s innards. The pews lay stacked against the walls and windows, the sun and moon symbolism along it’s inner walls defaced with the now-telltale sign of the impact of those green, hurled blobs. What happened within, however, was far more interesting: The room was illuminated by the glow of several of the pustulent ponies. Their bodies were misshapen by glowing growths that looked painful, yet their expressions were a discordant mix of exultant and blissful. One lay spread out across the altar like a strange, willing sacrifice, while another stood over him, forehooves on the altar’s edge.

“The heathens have come.” the lead pony began, its voice a strange, distorted warble. The ponies turned as the cathedral’s great front doors swung open, and six of the crazed ponies led a small group of others into their flock, standing guard. The other ponies looked.. healthier, black with blue or red lines tracing neatly across their bodies, several mares and two stallions. “They have come to accept the blessing of the true Goddess.”

“N-no!” one of the captives, a small mare with a spiky mane, squealed as she was forced to the altar, one of the captors beside her grasping her head and forcing it towards the sacrifice.

“Consume the Corruption. Corruption Consume.” the words came as a chant from the throats of several of the green ponies as the captor forced the mare’s snout open and pressed it against one of the bright blisters covering the sacrifice’ body. There was a disturbing wet, tearing sound as they forced the mare’s mouth shut around it, pushing a thick blob of it down her throat. She retched as she came away, wobbling unsteadily, but already her glowing lines grew dim, before rekindling with emerald energy. She didn’t run as they let her go and pushed her aside for the next captive. Her voice soon joined the chant as the next pony was forcefully inducted, “Consume the Corruption. The Corruption Consume.”

It felt to Twilight Sparkle like her stomach had escaped her body and was busy sliding down the tilted cathedral roof. She couldn’t think, couldn’t decide between disgust or horror. Her legs locked, she watched helplessly as pony after pony was forced to eat a piece of that strange, willing, sick pony on the altar. Clearly it was affecting the living sacrifice, too; the green glow slowly grew paler, then weaker as more and more of his body disappeared.. before finally and suddenly bursting apart, simply sinking in on itself in a cascade of tiny cubes.

The ritual leader simply swept the altar clean of the mess, and gestured to the little mare they’d inducted first. Without a word spoken, she simply climbed onto the altar, awaiting for the next captive to eat a portion of her corrupting flesh. Twilight Sparkle gagged, a soft little noise, but enough to suddenly draw one pair of eyes to her.

“Hey! You!” one of the captives, a young stallion, cried out as he spotted Twilight watching. “Don’t just watch! You’ve got a disk, toss it to me!”

“But..” Twilight hesitated, startled, but the surprise jolted her brain back in action. Snatching the floating disk from her back with her mouth, she flung it down through the hole. “Catch!”

The young stallion didn’t catch: In a move that would’ve done prince Blueblood proud, he jerked the corrupted pony holding on to him into the path of the soaring circle. A wave of little cubic pieces washed over the stallion as the pony holding on to him exploded. With no second wasted, the colt burst into motion, already in full gallop for the door. “Run, idiot!”

Twilight Sparkle quickly lost sight of the pony as she jerked her head back and began running. Already, the disturbed corrupted ones began stirring into action, the first blobby orb flung at the gap in the rooftops sailing through serenely even though Twilight’s face was no longer there to catch it. Half-sliding down the tilted rubble, stubbing her hooves and bumping her knees, Twilight reached the streets in a desperate hurry, just in time to see a streak of white twisting through the air, turning to hit her. She turned to run, dodging left and right, trying to avoid the strange projectile that turned and twisted to follow her no matter how she fled. Eventually, she knew, she could no longer dodge it. She braced for impact..

The disk clicked neatly back into place on her back, losing it pearly glow.

“Faster, pony, faster! My mem’s is too fragmented to carry weapons! We have to run!” the shout from behind was the only warning Twilight got as the stallion slid past her, his teeth clamping down on her withers as he dragged her along. “We’re taking the off-ramp here, it’s downhill all the way!”
Twilight Sparkle teetered for a moment as she was forcefully pushed and dragged out of her intended course to a wide curving road that indeed, showed a distinct downward slant.

“Friction dampeners to active memory!” the young stallion cried out to nopony in particular - but something responded, small bright orange spheres bulging into existence beneath all four of his hooves. “Alright, get on!”

It wasn’t like Twilight had a lot of choice, and the stallion seemed to be the only one who wasn’t trying to kill her. She hooked her forelegs over his shoulders, and awkwardly clamped her stifles around his lower legs, her analytical mind idly noticing that he was actually a bit smaller than her. “I’ll have you know I don’t usually ride strange stallio-ooooaaah!”

A quick kick of the stallion’s hindlegs launched them forward, the spheres beneath his hooves sliding across the smooth pavement as if he were on rolls, gaining speed with every second spent on the ramp. The strange motions of his legs as he steered and poured on what power her could seemed eerily familiar to Twilight in this alien, abstract world. “You’re rollerblading!”

“This isn’t a sport! We’re running from zealots!” the stallion corrected, “Now hold on tight, this last turn’s a doozy!”

It was.

Chapter 3: Upbeat

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The Great and Corrupted Trixie
Chapter 3: Upbeat
by Velvet(Velcro)Heart

The ancient castle’s corridors lay dilapidated around her as she set hoof on ancient memories. The dark shade of her coat matched the colors of wall-hangings worn thin by the unforgiving bite of a thousand years neglect, and the moth-eaten carpets shared their fate. With her hoofsteps echoing forlorn through the empty hallways, Luna found herself taking that familiar path to the throne-room. She knew who awaited there, but the demands of her dream held her to her path as it had done many times before.

Dark as midnight, malignant yet serene in her quiet anger, Nightmare Moon sat waiting upon her throne, wings spread wide as she rose. “There you are, little princess.” she sneered, her breath wafting from her mouth in thin clouds, as if the air around her was as cold as bitter winter. “Lay down before me, surrender. Your head on the first step, a firm blow of my hoof, and these nightmares will be gone.” the black malice of midnight spoke, her grin a flash of pure white in sharp contrast to her lips. “You can’t escape me, little Luna. You have no way of fighting me, and I, indelible part of your soul, will eventually break you. What say you, hmm? Surrender.. or shall I twist this dream into the screaming horror you know I can make it?”

Luna stood before the nightmare queen, her unsteady legs straight, her posture defiant. She knew what was to come, as it had every night before when she slept and visited this dark corner of her soul. Celestia couldn’t protect her here, but for her sister, Luna would fight off the dark ‘till eternity’s passing, taking each horrifying dream as it came. “I... I will not falter. All ponykind relies on me.”

The thin grin on Nightmare Moon’s face became a smirk, “I sense your fear, little Luna. It manifests itself in the dream already. Leather, little moonprincess? The last time your mind at least conjured armor made of starmetals. It didn’t make you feel any safer in the end, did it?”

Luna blinked. Had she..? She glanced at her flanks, the motion causing the smooth material of her outfit to creak faintly. Leather. This dream, she wore leather, not the regalia of royalty, not the metal armor she’d mentally conjured up in the vague hope of protection, but the same leathers she’d worn the last few days awake. And with that leather came... “Somepony’s been a naughty filly.”

“Well, little Luna, prepare for- what?” the nightmare shade interrupted herself, momentarily surprised by the response.

“I said: Somepony’s been a very, very naughty filly.” Luna reiterated as the item that came with her outfit obediently moved to levitate before her face, its little loop hanging mere inches from the princess’ snout. “And she needs some discipline.”

“What? Do you honestly think a riding crop is going to - AIE!” Nightmare Moon’s eyes went wide as the crop snapped harshly across her hindquarters.

Oh Celestia! You knew! How could I have ever doubted your choice of image coaches. I worried so, I worried that everypony’d fear me, I worried I’d give them reason to hate me. I even, for a moment, thought it was all a cruel joke... but you knew. It was all to prepare me, to give me the confidence to control the nightmares. I’ll trust you, Celestia. I’ll do my very best to learn what the coaches have to teach me.

The sound of Nightmare Moon’s panicked whinnying echoed through the dreamscape, mingling with the rhythmic slap of crop to flesh.

* * *

Twilight Sparkle’s face hurt, and the inside of her mouth tasted like... asphalt, or something of the sort. Blinking hazily, she slowly stirred from unconsciousness, the world around her coming into focus with effort. A quick orienting glance placed her inside of a small apartment, it seemed, way up in one of the many towers. Abandoned, but lacking any sign of the green ivy that crawled through most of the city.

“Sorry about the whole face-grindboarding thing.” The stallion from the cathedral peeked through the doorway, then slipped into the room, “You have to understand I had to do it so we could escape.”

“W-what faceboarding thing? What are you talking about?” Twilight asked, one hoof reaching behind her ear to scratch at her aching head.

“Oh, you were unconscious for that? Never mind then. How about.. Introductions, right! I’m Upbeat, bringing the beats from the streets to your sheets!” he pitterpatted a quick little rhythm on the floor with his forehooves for emphasis.

Finally, Twilight Sparkle took a moment to get a proper look at her companion and mutual rescue: He was younger than Twilight had taken him for, his build that of a lanky pony right in that awkward time between colt and full-grown stallion. Most of his height came from his long, gangly legs, having had little to no chance to build up the mass that came to stallions over the months, and his hairstyle was so wild one might as well call it unmanageable. “Twilight Sparkle, here on a mission to find--” Finally in-gear after a long time in a state of mixed confusion and panic, a dread realization suddenly dawned on the lavender unicorn; “What were you doing with - I threw my disk at you and you... you used it to kill-”

“A Zealot.” Upbeat quickly jumped in. “Not a pony, a Zealot. Corrupted worshippers of the false goddess. They’re not really ponies, not anymore, they’re more like... like walking-dead ponies. It’s not their fault; the corruption spreads like a disease, and once it gets inside it twists your mind until all that matters to you is spreading the infection further. Don’t worry. Don’t think about it. They’re not ponies, not anymore. As for what I was doing: I was collecting clean bits. We fled the city in an awful hurry, and I hoped there was still some left over that hadn’t gotten corrupted yet. Turned out to be right too, shame I wasn’t paying enough attention to notice the Zealots had spotted me. That’s where you came in. So.. what mission has had you living under a rock so long that you don’t know what Zealots are?”

“Actually, I came from outside. Princess Luna sent me to find Celestia, and I-”

Upbeat’s eyes bulged visibly, “You’re.. you’re from outside? You’re a noobie?!” For several awkward seconds the silence stretched, before Upbeat suddenly jerked himself out of his thoughts. “Wow... that... and the moon princess is back? That’s.. that’s big news. The guys and girls back home are going to want to pump you for information, stories, anything. But first, you need to see this. Do you know how to access these?” Upbeat held out a forehoof and exposed.. a tiny sphere, not much bigger than a marble, cradled in the center of a small, flat ring not much wider than her hoof. “It’s a video-file. Video-files contain audiovisual experiences. Accessing one tends to lock you out of your own senses until the file is done, but the information within can be truly valuable. This one’s a kind of story from Outside, like where you’re from. It contains an important lesson regarding this place, as well as a lesson on sharing. You should watch it. Just.. take it in your mouth, and bite down.”

Twilight did exactly that.

. o (o) o .

Upbeat’s hooves kicked at empty air as he rolled around on his back, tears in his eyes, gasping for breath only to waste it in further laughter. From the adjacent room, a wretched retching sound could be heard all too clearly.

“W-why would you show me something like that?” Twilight Sparkle wailed accusingly from the other room, her voice sounding thin and weak, “That... those stallions. I thought you said it was a lesson in sharing!”

“It was!” Upbeat laughed, “They were sharing a bucket! And so much more too! Do you remember that part where the little stallion shoved his snout under the tail of that big one and-” He was interrupted by more dry retching sounds, his laughter given a second wind before finally abating to mere giggles as he listened in on poor Twilight Sparkle’s misery.

“But... what was the lesson about this place..? You said it had a lesson..?” Celestia’s loyal student asked as she re-entered the room, one foreleg lightly cradling her unsettled stomach.

“Well, first of all, always identify any file before accessing it. Secondly, since you’re an outsider, prepare to get trolled. It’s... kind of tradition.” Casually, Upbeat tapped the file, causing it to disappear again, wherever such things went.

“S-so... this kind of thing is ‘getting trolled’? I don’t like it. It’s funny for you, but it’s not really something I can *ulp!* laugh about. I’m... I’m never accessing another video file in my entire life. ”

“Oh, don’t worry.” Upbeat added with a quick snicker, “Besides, I needed to be sure you weren’t yanking my code there. Only a real noobie’d fall for Two Stallions, One Bucket.” The stallion snorted, turning to peer out of one of the windows, “Anyway, we have to skip outta town in a hurry. It’s crawling with Zealots and I have to get my bits back home. You can come, if you want. The ponies in Refuge’d love to meet you. Just don’t hold me back, ‘kay? We’re even. You saved me, I saved you.”

“...and you made me watch Two Stallions, One Bucket. From how I see it, you’re still in my debt. On top of that, you wouldn’t have had to save me if I hadn’t saved you.” Twilight Sparkle pointed out, jabbing her hoof in Upbeat’s general direction for emphasis. “Not that not-saving-you ever crossed my mind. Ponies help ponies, after all.” she added a little mincingly. “Princess Luna said she’d send something to help. I’ll come with you, but we should get that before we leave. Where should we look for it?”

“The city’s downlink dock, most likely. It hasn’t been used in a while though.” Upbeat replied, one forehoof resting against the glass as he peered across the darkened city. “And... well, I suppose if it’s from one of the princesses outside, it might be important.” A sigh escaped the colt, “It’ll be day soon and it’s a long way down through the elevator shaft, we’d best get going, ok?”

Twilight Sparkle bobbed her head in a quick nod and rose to her hooves again. The way down the sharply-inclined steps proved to be a utterly grueling - they seemed built with the intention of being used only during emergencies, almost as an afterthought, and only for short spans at a time. Shuffling backwards, the two ponies made their way down, step by step, completely focused on not slipping. It even chased the questions out of Twilight Sparkle’s inquisitive mind for a while.

But as they lay resting on the vine-encrusted ground floor of the tall, tilted spire, their sore legs trembling, even fatigue couldn’t hold back the torrent for long; a single question managed to leak through the dam, “That video file and those.. things you had under your hooves. Where do those come from? Where did they go?”

Upbeat’s took several long seconds to lift his head, “Huh? Ugh, ehm. Compressed memory. Compmem. Cee-Emm. When you don’t have an object or routine manifested, you have it stored on your disk in an unusable, but compact compressed format.”

“You have a disk too?” Twilight Sparkle couldn’t remember seeing it, but now that she looked, craning her neck, she could spot it neatly pressed against Upbeat’s spine. For a few lingering seconds, she stared at the hoof-and-a-half-sized circle, “It’s so... tiny!”

“H-hey!” Upbeat squawked, his cheeks taking on a rosy flush, “It’s perfectly average-sized for a pony at my stage of development! Besides, it’s not how big it is that matters, it’s how you use it. At least I don’t go swinging around a freakishly-huge disk like you. I bet you don’t even know what to do with it!”

“I... ehm... it stores objects in an unusual, but compact compressed format? So it’s like a magical saddlebag. Oh, and you can smack Zealots with it, apparently. And it returns when you throw it. That much I’ve figured out.”

“Drat! Ehm, I mean, you can... I’ll explain later. Just don’t go swaggering just because you’ve got a big disk, okay?” Upbeat sputtered, climbing to his hooves with a shuddering groan. “Alright, I’ll lead the way and let’s hope we can avoid all the bad guys this time.”

The sun-equivalent, as alien as it seemed at first glance, rose towards the heavens with an almost-soothingly familiar glow, casting it’s light through the dead city in ever-rising angles as the duo made their way through the deserted streets. Shadows lingered in silent structures that once might have been shops, bars and homes, but now remained eerily quiet.

“So, I guess our luck ran out?” Twilight Sparkle groaned with a glance to her companion. With her forehooves hooked over a piece of fallen rubble, she could just peer over the top. It gave her a brilliant view of the downlink docks; a great open structure that reminded her vaguely of a mix between the river-docks it was an analogy of, and a giant space-elevator unlike anything Equestria had ever seen. It was a tower of glass, ridged with gleaming black stone, rising to the heavens and beyond into the codestream-enriched warping black of the system firmament. While untouched by the glowing green vine, it was, however, also completely dead.

“No, no, I think this place is reasonably intact. If we can get it some power, I think we’ll be able to receive your package.” Upbeat corrected, albeit with a slight hesitation. “Come, let’s hurry.” Kicking his hindlegs at the wall, he scrambled over, swiftly followed by Twilight as they galloped the open ground through the automated, but unmoving cargo crane-structures that clustered around the base of the mighty tower.

The tower’s base opened up in a cavernous space, its size further empathized by it’s nigh-complete emptiness. The control box, a semi-transparant glass case hovering midair with no visible support, proved easy enough to spot. The path up to it swirled around the titanic room’s edges like the twirling ribbon of a Ponylympics dancer. The shallow angle made the journey up to the box a great deal easier, a swift gallop bringing them into the bubble where an arcane control panel - made more arcane still by the fact it operated from within the system rather than without - stood quiet, but filled with a steady blue glow that traced outlines throughout its otherwise-inanimate features. It was the first thing that Twilight Sparkle saw that actually had power in this city.

“Now I’m not exactly a registered or trained operator for... well... this. It should be easy, though? Right? Just -” Upbeat jammed his forehoof into a large glowing circle, “- push the big button.”

The whole tower lit up.

Lines of fluorescent light bursts into existence, pouring up from the ground into their dedicated grooves in the dark stone, reaching heavenward in angular, branching patterns. Even in the warming glow of the faux sun, the city downlink dock suddenly shone in stark contrast to the rest of the darkened city. A loud hiss echoed through the tower’s confines, followed by a rumbling hum as something began descending down it’s central shaft.

“Wow, that’s... pretty impressive.” Twilight Sparkle had to confess, head craned back to watch the great loading platform descend towards them. “The whole place lit up like a roman candle. I can almost imagine how this city must’ve looked before it went dark.”

“Oh shoot! I forgot! Ehm, miss... ehr... crammitwhatwashername? Miss Big Disk, the Zealots aren’t going to miss spotting the light and they’ll definitely come investigate! If you really want whatever the princess sent you, you’d better hurry up so we can go.” Upbeat squeaked as he rattled the console in a frustrated attempt to make the elevator platform descend faster.

Slowly, the cargo came into view, a veritable maze of haphazardly-stacked transparent cubes very much like the ‘fishbowls’ she saw earlier. Truly haphazardly-stacked, Twilight realized as she noticed several of them hovering in complete defiance of gravity, moving with the elevator’s steady descent as if the cubes underneath had been removed and the ones on top simply forgot to fall.

“The name’s Twilight Sparkle! It’s not that hard to remember, right? And why would princess Luna send me a giant pile of fishbowls?” Twilight asked both herself and her slightly-befuddled companion.

“Fishbowls? What’s a..? Oh, those are datacubes! Empty ones. Why would she send so much empty stuff, though? I hope she didn’t forget to send at least something.”

“No problem, I’ll just lift the empty ones out of the way and find the one with, ehm, stuff that way; with a little magic.” Twilight Sparkle focused on her horn, nose crinkling as she began to lift-

-nothing. “M-my magic!”

“What? Didn’t Luna tell you about that? No magic here, all of it goes to feed the machine. What we do with programs is much like magic anyway.” Upbeat glanced around himself, “You can have your nervous breakdown later. Now get to searching!” A quick shove of his forehead against Twilight’s hindquarters sent the horrified lavender pony tumbling a few steps forward, onto the still-descending elevator platform.

For several long seconds, Twilight Sparkle stumbled through the mass, unsure what to do. Salvation, or at least some form of conclusion, came when she noticed the vague, blurry motion of something colorful among one of the stacks. “Found one with fish in it!”

“Fish?” Upbeat hesitated, peering from behind the console, “Ehr, yes, just touch that cube and try to... magic the fish towards you. It may take a little while, so I’ll try to keep us both alive. Suffusion to active memory.”

“Got it! It’s ‘downloading’, I can see a growing line filling up an empty bar. What was that last bit you said?” Twilight Sparkle shouted, her attention focused on the single non-empty container she found.

“Nothing!” The denial was soon followed by the familiar warbling boom of a Zealot’s blobby projectiles. “How’s that download coming along?”

“Eight seconds! No, three minutes! Ten minutes! Six minutes! Twelve seconds! No, twelve minutes! It keeps jumping around!”

“Please don’t tell me you’re not using the default downloader?!” Upbeat wailed through the noise of detonations. An electrical whirring joined the steadily swelling bedlam, terminating in a sudden hollow ‘thrump!’.

“Default what? I’m new here, I’m using the default everything!”

“You - I - what - ARGH! When we get to town, I’m getting you a customized! Just don’t - Ow! - move too far from the storage cube and- ah crap, now that’s fragmented too?!”

“What’s fragmented?”

“Nothing! Just keep downloading! How much of the bar is full?”

“About nine out of ten! No, wait, it’s done!”

“In that case, run!”

“What?” Twilight Sparkle blinked, taking her focus from the now-empty transparent cube to the young stallion rushing towards her at frantic speed, dodging back and forth through the erratically-stacked boxes. “You know, this looks familia-yike!” Like a tidal wave of green bodies, the Zealots literally avalanched in behind the decidedly terrified-looking Upbeat, scrabbling and crawling one over the other as they spilled onto the loading platform. Pulsing emerald blobs flew in lazy, undirected arcs as tumbling Zealots spat forth their corruptive ooze.

“I meant it, run!” Upbeat squealed as behind him the mass of kicking and squirming bodies frantically tried to get to their hooves to chase their new prey. “We got a lot of attention here!”

Twilight Sparkle’d already figured that much out, squealing as she turned and kicked into a gallop with enough force to strike sparks from the loading platform’s smooth surface. “I’ll never complain about ticket-hungry mobs again!”

“Over here, up here!” Upbeat squealed as he jinked to the left, forehooves striking the solid surface of a tilted ledge swirling up along the tower of one of the massive cranes. “Left! Left again! Left again!”

“It’s a spiral staircase, what do you think I’ll do, go right?!” Twilight Sparkle shouted after Upbeat’s bobbing backside. Glancing back, she could just spot the first Zealots taking their first steps onto the spiralling ramp. Climbing, they were considerably faster than the flood of green - but journeys heavenward tended to have a very specific conclusion;

The top.

Upbeat was breathing a little heavily as he carefully balanced himself on the blissfully-flat, elongated surface of the cargo-crane. Leaning forward slightly, he peered down along the crane’s tower, “Woooh, that’s high! Alright, we got a few moments to think, and I bet you have something superfancy among those things the Princess sent you. Right? Right? Please tell me I’m right.”

“I don’t know!” Twilight Sparkle whined, “How am I supposed to know what I have?”

“Read your disk, just tell me what’s on it!”

“Oh, ehm... alright?” Twilight Sparkle reached behind her, and neatly flipped the large disk over in front of her, holding it between her hooves as she intently glared at it, “It doesn’t work like a book does- oh, there we go! Princess Luna sent me quite a package. Lots of things on here. Let’s see, the first is: ‘Extremely important fi-’, followed by a lot of odd squiggly symbols and letters that make no sense.”

“Not important. Next!” Upbeat impatiently snapped.

“Project Twixie. What’s a Twixie?”

“Not a clue. Next!”

“Custom Lightcycle.”

“There we go! Just what we need. With that thing rezzed, we can just ride down the spiral, smashing our way through the Zealots, and we’ll be home free! Remember how to rez?”

“Ehm, I think so. I can try.” Twilight Sparkle focused for a moment. It was like magic, Upbeat’d told her, didn’t he? It shouldn’t be too-

A sleek rod burst into existence, moments before smoothly disassembling itself. Thin lines carved themselves through reality, purple neon light drawing through space like the touch of an artist’s pen scribed upon three dimensions at terrifying speed.

“Wow, that looks...” Upbeat went quiet. What was once empty space was now dominated by a monument to speed that would’ve sent Rainbow Dash into a squealing fit of jealousy. Deep purple, the titan of a cycle, no fewer than five ponylengths long, gleamed like a showroom model with a fresh coat of wax. Its flanges and massive virtual engine-block were all marked copiously with Twilight Sparkle’s cutie-mark, and the sleek snout tapered down to a flat, almost blade-like crescent. Upbeat swallowed. “”

“What are those parts?”

“Rocket engines.” Upbeat squeaked out, his voice climbing half an octave.

“And those?”

“More rocket engines.” It came out almost as a Fluttershy-esque peep.

“It looks very fancy. I wouldn’t know where to start!” Twilight Sparkle giggled, hopping on the rearmost seat of the sleek, yet phallic monstrosity of a lightcycle. “Good thing you’ll be the one driving it.”

“Me?!” Sweat began to roll down Upbeat’s face, trailing down his snout and cheeks like water in a rainstorm.

“You can drive it, right?”

“O-of course! I mean, cool ponies can drive lightcycles, and I’m a cool pony!” With several careful steps, Upbeat moved up to the vehicle, and touched it, nervously snatching his forehoof back.

“Hurry up, the Zealots are almost here!”

Upbeat swallowed, inhaled deeply, and hopped on. “Alright then! Hold on, and watch the master at work!” He grabbed the handlebars by its pony-suitable handles and kicked the throttle.

The engine burst to life in a shrieking rage of glory, sending them shooting forward as if launched from a cannon. A deep purple wall flared into existence behind them, forming a magnificent, long, graceful downward arc like a monocolor rainbow.

...unfortunately it had that particular shape because Upbeat missed the first turn and launched the vehicle off the crane-tower the fast way.


“Wooohoo! I can’t believe we survived that!” Upbeat cheered as he wobbled on unsteady legs, “And with the zealots up in the tower, and us on the ground, we got plenty of time to get away!”

“I... I can’t believe you trashed my lightcycle! I had it for like, ten seconds!”

“Ehm... don’t worry, my shelter’s not far off. It’s on our way to Refuge, in fact. I’ll get you a new one.”

“You’d better!”

Upbeat’s ‘shelter’ really did live up to expectations. A stout, dark, blocky little structure that could’ve easily served as a bomb-hideaway. Within its barely-lit confines, two ponies bravely wrestled themselves through a maze-like mass of empty storage cubes and the occasional discarded chunk of rock.

“Never can have enough storage space. Don’t worry, garage is right through here.” Upbeat announced, pointing sheepishly at a doorway vaguely visible through the distortion of semi-transparent storage boxes.

“How about space for yourself?”

“Oh, I don’t come here often. Anyway, here we go! This box is the one... I think.” Upbeat tapped the crate, where a single solitary little datafile swam lazily back and forth. A quick tap, and it was in his possession. Another tap, hooves touching, and Twilight Sparkle was the brand new owner of a brand new Lightcycle.

“Tadaa!” Upbeat cheerfully announced as he gestured at the manifesting vehicle. “It’s mine. Well, yours now. What do you think?”

“It’s... smaller.” Twilight Sparkle noted hesitantly, noting that the new bright pink lightcycle was barely three-quarters of a ponylength from nose to tail. “And it has streamers hanging from the handlebars.”

“That just makes it look cooler, right?”

“And it has... are those training wheels?”

“You’re a new driver, right? This lightcycle’s far more suited for your noobie skills than that deathtrap the princess got you.”

“I think anyone but a little filly’d be rather embarrassed to be seen riding one of these. In fact, I think it’s meant for a little filly!”

Upbeat nervously tapped his hooves together, seating himself halfway on a nearby empty storage cube, “Well, to be honest, it’s my first lightcycle... and kinda my last. Promise not to tell anypony? I... kinda never graduated from this one to anything bigger. You see, I have this... habit of trashing every vehicle I ever drive. It’s like a curse, really. For example, do you remember that high tower you woke up in? Well, on the way up, I used the elevator. Ehm... on the way down, it was broken.”

“I didn’t see it when we got down though. Did it reach the top floor?”

“Bits of it did!”

* * *

The little lightcycle purred like a pleased baby kitten as it made its way across the empty road, almost as if it was delighted that it was being driven again. Perhaps it just liked getting out of the storage cube, perhaps it enjoyed the fact it was being driven by somepony who couldn’t turn an elevator ride into a demolition derby.

Perhaps Twilight Sparkle was just imagining things. After all, it was only a little filly’s lightcycle, rolling along at a foal-safe speed under her inexperienced, but sturdy guidance. Clinging to the back of the little cycle with his forelegs, Upbeat cheerfully applied the occasional ‘weee!’ and ‘faster!’ to Twilight Sparkle’s already slightly-frayed nerves whilst straddling the tiny, ankle-high lightwall with a rollerball-equipped hindhoof on either side.

The purple unicorn’s eyebrows tried to burrow into the bridge of her snout. It was like driving with a little foal in the back seat. At least he wasn’t-

“Are we there yet?”

“Aargh! Shouldn’t you know that? You live here!”

“Of course! I just can’t see around your-”

“Finish that sentence and you’re walking.”

* * *

“Are we there yet?”

“No- wait, yes! Yes! Yesyesyes! We’re there! Finally!” Twilight Sparkle’s head almost bounced off the steering column with excitement as the dark and gleaming walls of what looked to be a town came into view, signalling the end of her Upbeat-induced torment like a prison guard giving her back her material possessions on the way out of jail.

Her enthusiasm slowly waned as the distance shrank. Details manifested, the walls seemingly growing more ragged with each detail that caught the unicorn’s eye. Plates of cracked road lay twisted and tilted crazily against each other, haphazardly forming a crude wall around a town so small it could’ve fit inside Ponyville twice. Empty data containers, familiar now that she knew what their purpose was, formed support and defensive positions around rooftops that hinted at the village within.

“There we go! Let me handle this. They know me, after all. You’re a stranger to them.” Upbeat announced as he let go of the moving lightcycle and casually rolled to a stop in front of the armored, somewhat makeshift-looking gate. “Now watch, and learn. Ehem.” A deep breath preceded, followed by a startlingly loud “Hey dicks! We want in!”.

“Are you sure that’s the right atti-” Twilight Sparkle started, before being interrupted by a loud, bonemarrow-chilling scrape of rock across rock, the gate slowly forced apart, barely wide enough to let a single pony squeeze through.

“See?” Upbeat snickered, and turned away from Celestia’s faithful student to lead the way in.

...and came snout-to-snout with the massive frame of one of the gate guards, the unsettlingly-large stallion peering through the gap. “It’s you. You marry Sue.”

“Ehr...” Upbeat swallowed. “Oh, I kinda forgot about that. Don’t worry, I’ll, ehm...”

The gate slammed shut in his face.

“Oh.” Upbeat looked slightly stunned. “How about you do it, Twilight Sparkle? They don’t know you, after all.”

“I suppose I could...” Twilight Sparkle’s lil’ lightcycle flashed as it disassembled itself back into its basic rod shape, before disappearing into the purple unicorn’s disc, stored away as she approached the door. “Ah, hello there? My name is Twilight Sparkle and I’d like to get in please..?”

* * *

While the walls were ramshackle, beyond them lay a hint of what the great city they left behind must’ve looked like in its full glory. It was like seeing urban Ponyville, cast in gleaming black and lit by lines of neon fire. Even its inhabitants, more tightly-packed than the town was built for, glowed with their own personal light, leaving not a single shadow among them. Familiar market stalls in brilliant blue and orange filled the remaining space between buildings, stallkeepers patiently awaiting customers for their wares or trying to draw the attention of the bustling crowd.

“This is so... colorful!” Twilight Sparkle spurted, gaping like a slackjawed tourist, “It’s like Heartswarming at night, but all the ponies are wearing lights too!”

Upbeat snickered in response, slipping in past the stunned purple unicorn, “It’s like that all the time, although there were fewer ponies here before. Most of these lived in Canterlock City, although this is only a small portion. The rest either got corrupted or moved further away.” The stallion glanced at the towering cannons roughly braced on the rooftops of structures that clearly weren’t meant for such adornments. “They feel safe here, though. At least safe enough to go about their business. Anyway, I have some business and you should do some shopping. Do you think you can handle shopping?”

“Shopping? I think so, but... what do I pay with?” Twilight Sparkle rummaged around, forehooves poking various parts of her body in search for pockets, a baggy, or anything of the sort. “I don’t have any coins with me, I don’t even know what you use for money.”

“Bits, obviously! I mentioned that before, didn’t I?”

“Oh right! You were scrounging for them in the city... Canterlock? I don’t think I got any, though.”

“Hold out your disk in front of you. Horizontally.” Upbeat instructed, and when Twilight Sparkle proceeded to do exactly that, leaned forward, opened his mouth...

...and proceeded to vomit a sizable pile of tiny cubelets onto the proffered disk. “Here you go, miss Twilight Sparkle. Those bits should be enough to pay for what you need. Bon appetit!”

“...eww? What, how..? Did you just vomit?!”

“Just spitting out some of the bits I collected. They’re our food too, sortof. We don’t need to eat but we can graze up bits and store them inside, then use them for payment, construction, ammunition, andsoforth. So eat up.”

With an expression remarkably similar to one Rarity would wear while being forced to root through garbage, Twilight Sparkle hesitantly clamped one of the freshly up-chucked little cubes between her lips, held her virtual breath, and swallowed.

It tasted exactly like the ones she had in the tower: nothing.

With a sigh of relief, the unicorn proceeded to consume what remained of the pile, carefully tilting the disk to avoid any of Bits sliding off. “Ok, I think I’ve got them all. So how do I bring them back out?” Valiantly, the faithful student started producing various gagging noises. “Wait, maybe if I put the tip of my hoof in the back of my mou-”

“No-no. It’s not like that. Just.. think of a number, focus for a moment, and...”

Two ‘fresh’ Bits appeared on the large surface of Twilight Sparkle’s disk. “Ah, I figured it out! I’ll need to add this to my report to Celestia! The Economy of Vomiting.”

“You... do that, then. And go shopping. Here’s a mail with a list of the things you should get. As I said, I have some... things to do.” Upbeat coughed, turned around, and dug his way through the crowd like a fish swimming through familiar current.

“Wai-oh shoot. Well, I suppose I could manage shopping, right?” Twilight Sparkle turned the the obvious market square, and peered at the little list that popped up in her vision. “At least I have a shopping-list, even if I have no clue how it works...”