Act III The Grandfather Paradox
Part 7: All that Never Was
Pinkie stopped breathing and shuddered as the chill passed over her, the one symptom not caused by her Pinkie sense. Not directly, at least. The dread knotted inside of her as she began frantically scanning her surroundings for anything askew.
She was in the lower bed of the spare bedroom she had been sharing with Rainbow Dash at the Buraq Flight Academy. The private school hadn't even been on the original list of locations to search for the other Rainbow Dash, but the more they had dug, the more the clues pointed here. The Rainbow Dash Pinkie knew may never have set hoof on the campus, but clearly things had worked out a little differently in this world. And now, two weeks after their search of digging and scouring for information wherever they could find it, Pinkie knew they were close to finally tracking down the fate of the missing Rainbow.
The room was higher than most rooms Pinkie was used to in Ponyville, likely to give its typically pegasus residents room to fly around in. The bunk beds were not joined by any ladder, and there were bookshelves mounted on the walls well beyond Pinkie's reach.
Rainbow Dash had graciously offered to sleep in the top bunk.
As the Pinkie sense combination repeated itself, Pinkie desperately wondered where Rainbow Dash had gone off to. It was a combination she hadn't felt in a long time, not since she left the farm, but she knew, or perhaps felt on some instinctual level, exactly what it meant.
Wherever you are, stop being there. Without consciously thinking she acted, scurrying to the door. But before flinging the door wide open and making a mad dash for freedom, she stopped, forcing herself to be careful, deliberate. She pressed an ear against the door and listened.
Hoofbeats. Lots of them, enough to make the sound less of a rhythmic clamor and more of and more of a continuous dull rumble. They weren't advancing; they were merely shuffling around, waiting.
Pinkie Pie backed away as silently as she could; the door wasn't an option. Looking around for another way out, she spotted a window near the ceiling. It was closed and scarcely the size of her head, and while the walls were certainly studded with enough furniture, there was nothing that reached all the way to the window. It was an impossible escape.
Pinkie Pie liked those odds.
Seconds later, the door was blown off its hinges by a blast of magic, and a small army of armored pegasi and unicorns filed in, filling the room. Finally, a familiar face brought up the rear. The Great and Powerful Trixie frowned as she scrutinized every corner of the room.
"I don't understand," said one of the guards with a chilling demeanor and a sharp icicle for a cutie mark. "She said the earth pony was in here for the night."
"Then clearly she was wrong, Winter Frost," condescended Trixie. "I thought that was obvious."
Winter Frost fidgeted, her cheeks burning. "So what now?" she asked, knowing she was risking another retort from her superior but not knowing what else to do. "Do we wait for her to get back?"
"Well, since we're already straining your mental faculties just being here, I'll drop you a bone and just tell you. No. We are not going to wait for her, because she's not coming back." Trixie lifted a half-eaten bowl of hot soup from the cafeteria. "She was just here, and left suddenly. I'd say she got word we were coming and fled.
"But how?" asked Winter. "We would have seen her leave. There's only one door."
Trixie scowled but didn't respond. Winter had a point, although Trixie knew better than to admit it. She looked up at the window, considering it. "She's an earth pony. She couldn't have," the unicorn muttered dismissively. "At least we've already captured the rainbow freak. We'll track the pink one down; we will. But sitting on our flanks waiting for her to come back won't accomplish anything."
From the safety of the thin railing outside the window, Pinkie watched as the guards dragged Rarity out of the adjacent room she was sharing with Madame Orange and into the circle of guards.
"Where is she?" Rarity screamed. "What have you done with her?"
"Your friend can't hide forever," said Trixie. "Keep the white one here," she addressed the other ponies. "If the pink one comes back for her, capture her too."
"Why do you always close your eyes when we fly?"
The question disrupted Trixie's meditation. She hadn't even realized that she had lost focus, let alone closed her eyes. Thrust back into alertness, she scanned the ground, trying to pinpoint their location. Dry plains of struggling brown grass stretched out uniformly, offering no clues, so Trixie conjured a positioning charm, opening herself to the pull of the planet's magnetic poles.
"We're headed in the right direction, at least," she mused, forgetting the question. She closed her eyes again, getting lost in the rhythmic flapping of her partner's wings.
distracted," Spike observed.
Trixie nodded, lost in thought. "It's quiet up here," she said at last. "Like nothing else is real. Nothing can bother us when we're in the air. All the problems don't exist, at least for a while. It's nice to take a step back and look at the big picture. Can you believe it's been a month already?"
An entire month since the night she had visited Madame Orange and received the news about the death of Twilight Sparkle. Trixie had expected things to get less hectic after the elimination of the most powerful enemy of the Queen, but it turned out that wrapping up loose ends took time. Madame Orange had kept a close eye on her travelling companions, sending reports back to Trixie about their progress. As soon as Orange had found definite evidence concerning the fate of the Element of Loyalty, Trixie had called in the guards. But somehow Pinkie Pie had managed to escape.
That was two weeks ago. And now Trixie was ready to get her captive back. She pulled a pocket watch from her pouch. "And we've still got twenty minutes. Want to just fly around a little while if we get there early?"
"We can't risk that. We don't want word getting around about a dragon flying around Appleloosa. At best we'll incite panic, and at worst we'll tip them off."
Trixie knew he was right. Why was she deferring the decision making to him? She was the leader, the tactician. He was the hired help and wingpower. She was off her game, and needed to recover.
"Let's get this over, then," she told the dragon as the small settlement came into view in the distance.
Appleloosa, the western settlement founded briefly before the return of the Queen. Apparently, tensions between the settlers and the natives had already been high, and the loss of the sun didn't help matters much. The scarcity of food and resources for both parties had torn down any attempts at civility, but the railways had long since become inoperable. The isolated settlement quickly fell to anarchy.
"Why would the rebels want to hide out here?" asked Spike.
"Because no one else wants to. Our ally's in that house there." She pointed to a rather dilapidated building that was missing part of its roof, but still managed to be in better shape than the rest of the small town. The dragon nodded and touched down gently in the small garden behind the house.
A small gentle drizzle was beginning to fall, which only made Trixie more eager to get out of the rain. She dismounted Spike, who shrunk to the size of an eagle and perched on her back. The pair approached the door, which Trixie opened without knocking.
The mare inside clearly wasn't expecting visitors, as she jumped as soon as the door opened. She had been sitting on a couch in front of a fireplace, which she now stumbled over as she attempted to reach her guests and make them comfortable.
"You seem in shock, Mrs. Pinova," Trixie sneered. "Not hiding anything, are we?"
Looking at the earth pony as she struggled to keep her composure, Trixie could tell she was barely holding herself together. But it wasn't guilt. Just fear.
"I just didn't know you were coming," the mare stammered. "It's been a long time since I was
graced with you. I would have made this place more welcoming, prepared a meal." She leaned to look past Trixie, and jumped backwards when she saw the dragon riding her.
"We don't have time to eat anyway," responded the unicorn. "We're in a bit of a hurry, you see."
The mare sighed, relieved, but the motion was not undetected by Trixie, who frowned. The mare yelped and frantically attempted to cover herself. "Is there anything you do need, then?"
Trixie smiled. "A radio would do nicely," she said. The mare nodded and turned away, moving on unsteady legs to reach the crystal radio on her table. It was a small circular machine, similar in shape to the Columbus devices, but with a crude speaker mounted on the top of it, and a dial on the side.
"I was just wondering," she said as she grabbed the radio in her hoof, "I mean, if it's not too much trouble, how my son is doing."
Trixie advanced and took the radio from her. "Braeburn's doing fine," she answered. "And the more you help us, the sooner we can arrange his release." The mare nodded and smiled nervously, backing away from the unicorn as soon as the device was out of her hooves.
Trixie placed the radio on the table and began fiddling with the dial. Static crackled from the speakers but slowly settled into a low hum.
Even though Trixie wasn't obsessively preoccupied with elegance when it came to magic, she was still able to recognize and appreciate it. And the design of the crystal radio was indeed elegant. Since it absorbed the energy from the radio signal itself, it didn't need a unicorn or an expensive magic battery to power it. Magic in the hooves of earth ponies was an admirable accomplishment.
"Time?" she asked Spike, who leaned over into her saddlebag and pulled out her watch.
"Three minutes. Cutting it a little close, aren't we?"
"Close enough. That's what matters."
Technically, she didn't need to hear the broadcast. It was the same message every day for almost a week now. She just wanted to make sure that it was still playing, that the proposition it contained hadn't been withdrawn.
Three minutes later, the radio squeaked and fell back into static, but after a couple seconds, a voice came through with surprising clarity.
Trixie grimaced. The voice almost felt like it was digging into her with its sharpness. She hadn't even met the pony and she hated her already. But there was something else in the broadcast, something that Trixie hadn't been able to pick up on until the second listen.
It was the mare's peppiness. Her cheerfulness that almost seemed in denial of the world around her. Except no, maybe not denial, thought Trixie. The exact opposite, perhaps, acceptance. She didn't know whether to feel smugly superior or jealous.
"This is Pinkie Pie! I got separated from my friends and it's very very super-duper important that I find them again. Twilight, Twilight, if either of you are hearing this, I'm hiding out in Appleloosa where I kind of broke into this radio tower that nopony is really using anymore! Meet me in front of the radio building in an hour so I can explain everything."
Trixie was grinning from ear to ear when the broadcast returned to static. She may have escaped from them once, but it wasn't going to happen again.
This was just too easy.
Rarity didn't look up when she heard the heavy iron door groan open. She didn't have to. Only one pony ever came to visit. She closed her eyes and turned her head away, a display of defiance that was ruined somewhat by the shackles that kept her along the far wall of the cell. Every time she moved, she could feel them rubbing against her hooves, leaving streaks of dirt.
The dirt was easily the worst part. It was bad enough that she was chained up in the dark, but the living conditions were simply unbearable! The dust on the floor was now stuck in her coat, and she just knew she had fleas in multiple locations. She knew that if she ran a prison, she would never treat its occupants with such reckless contempt and disregard for basic living accommodations.
The sound of hoofbeats approached, and the cell door swung open.
"Hello, Rarity," said Madame Orange, and Rarity ignored the pitiful attempt at sounding sorrowful. Orange may have been a smooth talker, but in the time they had known each other, Rarity had very quickly discovered that the other mare was a terrible liar.
"Get lost," responded the unicorn. "I'm busy."
Orange looked around the empty cell. "Clearly," she commented. "But I want to talk to you."
"It won't help." Madame Orange was startled by the bluntness of the response. "The answer's no, Orange," continued Rarity.
"You didn't even know the question."
"You want me to surrender and swear allegiance to Nightmare Moon. Once I've done that, you're going to convince Trixie to let me go and live with you, where you can keep a watchful eye on me, and we both get to live happily ever after." She snorted, disgusted. "No thanks. This dungeon's still more nurturing then you. You're an open book, Orange, now that I know how to read you. You can't deceive to save your life. Not anymore." She chuckled. "Funny, that. You could have made an amazing Element of Honesty, if you weren't busy being chained to your Queen."
"I'm not the one in chains."
"You really believe that, don't you?"
Orange rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said. "But I have neither the need nor the desire to deceive you. We're on the same side."
Rarity laughed, the fake irritating laughter that ground into Madame's ears like sandpaper. "Sweet Celestia," Rarity finally managed between chuckles, after the laughter seemed like it had gone on for ages. "You actually believe that, don't you? That we've really been on the same side all along and I was just too stupid to notice. Silly me! I guess that you killing Twilight was just your way of saying 'Let's be friends!' And here I was thinking that murder made you one of the bad guys! Maybe I'm just too much of a small town girl to understand the true complexities of politics. Glad you got away from that boring old life, aren't you?"
Madame Orange snarled, fuming. "If you want to actually come to an understanding, then stop whining!"
Rarity finally opened one of her eyes. "We're not getting into that distinction again," she said promptly, before shutting it again. "Besides, I don't need an understanding. I need you to get out of my cell."
Orange sighed and approached her prisoner, gently placing a hoof on Rarity's shoulder. "Please..." she began, but she was interrupted as Rarity's eyes snapped open and she launched at the earth pony, her jaw thrashing wildly. She succeeded in only impacting their skulls, and Orange fell over backwards, quickly scuttling away from the wall and out of Rarity's reach.
"Don't touch me," Rarity screeched. "Don't you dare ever touch me again, or I'll eviscerate you."
Orange felt her heart lurch wildly from the shock as she screamed in terror and surprise. Rarity was pulling at her chains now, trying to get closer to her captor. Orange had no doubt about her intent to carry out her threat. This had definitely not gone according to plan, thought Orange as she seized up, overcome and at wits end.
Rarity examined the other pony disdainfully. "Oh no," she muttered. "Please don't tell me you're crying. That's pathetic, you know? You're the one holding the cards, and I'm the one chained to a brick wall. You don't have any right to be crying right now."
Orange tried to breathe evenly through her sobs, although she found it difficult. "You have to... change your mind," she managed. "If you don't..."
"Yes, yes, if I don't then Nightmare Moon will stop humoring you and just do to me what she's done to all the other ponies that conspire against her. I'm the only pony in this dungeon, at your request. Because you're ignorant enough to think that Nightmare Moon owes you a favor, foolish enough to try to extort one from her, and dumb enough to think that I would ever agree to it."
Orange frantically tried to recover. "I'm important to her," she stammered. "I help her."
"Well then, you can just go right on believing that until the day she disposes of you. Let me make this as clear as I possibly can, Orange. I despise you. I have absolutely no conviction that Nightmare Moon will give either of us a free pass, and I'm even less convinced that I want one if it comes from a blind, desperate, and selfish pony like you. I'll struggle as much as I can, but I'll sooner submit to whatever your boss has planned than even contemplate what it would be like to owe you a favor."
Orange stepped away cautiously, returning to the door. "You say that," she said. "But I don't think you realize just what you'd be going through. Maybe a demonstration is in order." She opened the cell door again, but instead of leaving, another pony entered.
"Maybe it's time to reintroduce you to an old friend."
Rarity wasn't sure what she was looking at at first. The new pony was dressed in the same armor as the ponies that had captured her and Rainbow, undecorated but sturdy, armor that Rarity could imagine being mass-produced easily. The lack of any consideration for style was almost an assault to her sensibilities, but she was much more concerned with the pony in the armor. Although the helmet covered most of the mare's head, locks of rainbow mane still poked through.
And her gait, Rarity thought. She had noticed something off about Rainbow's movements, and it took her until they were almost face to face to realize that the Pegasus was moving with an unnatural stiffness.
"What did you do to her?" asked Rarity, appalled. "She looks
"Just a small modification to her mind," explained Orange. "Standard procedure for the ponies who give us trouble. I know you've seen them around the castle, but I don't think you fully grasp the work that goes into them. Consider this an up close and personal demonstration."
"How many of them are there?" asked Rarity.
"I don't keep count. There are records, somewhere. I'm sure the other me has explained to you the importance of keeping track of your cattle."
"And you brainwashed all of them?"
"The brain is just a machine, really. It may be complex, organic, self-repairing and self-modifying, but it still has structure and rules. It's really just one step up from a Spell Matrix. If you know the weakest entry point, you can work your way into the system and change anything. This spell was designed by the Queen herself during the war of Endless Night. She was looking to make the prisoners of war useful, and she stumbled upon a way to easily and completely hijack the pony mind. It's a small change, minor really. Just a tiny insertion at a critical point in the decision-making process."
"This is inhumane," said Rarity. "I thought you were trying to convince me that you aren't the monster I think you are."
"I'm not," said Orange, stung by the accusation. "None of this is my doing. If I were to walk away, all it would still happen without me. But being on the inside, I at least have some control over what happens, some freedom in my life. You know how that expression goes, about what to do when you can't beat them. What I'm trying to teach you is that it's better to be in the middle than on the bottom. I may not have much, but it's a great deal more than Rainbow Dash. So who would you rather join?"
Rarity considered her options. "What did you do to her, exactly?" she finally asked. "What did you change in her?"
"Her priorities. We are assaulted every day by orders and commands. Advertising. Internal biological needs. But we don't listen to them all, do we? We don't buy every single item we see marketed in the paper. We know enough to resist temptation when it's disadvantageous. Because we weigh them and filter the bad ones out. We balance the metaphorical carrot of pleasure, of satisfaction, with the rod of pain and disappointment. And these feelings are mitigated or amplified depending on their target. To whom do we owe our minds and bodies? Who have we disappointed? Who must we never disappoint?"
"And your spell upsets that balance," figured Rarity. "It changes who you don't want to disappoint."
"Well, not me," answered Orange. "They wouldn't use it on me. They can't risk fogging up my mind. And it's not my spell. It's the Queen's. It's Trixie's. It's what they do to ponies who are no longer useful for anything but simple orders and brute force."
"And it's what Nightmare Moon is going to do to me unless I become your pet?"
"My equal," Orange corrected. "My ally. I want you to be on my side, Rarity. I want you to like me, to appreciate me."
"And the truth finally comes out," declared Rarity with a haughty chuckle. "You're not happy because you don't have a soul who cares about you. No family. No friends. And along comes a golden opportunity, and you capture her, betray her, and then you try to hold onto her for yourself. You are so thick, Applejack. You think you're the victim. You think no one loves you in spite of all the work you've done, when in reality, everyone hates you because of it. You're like a spoiled child who demands to be worshipped and can't understand why no one will. You expect to receive friends and adoration when you won't offer anything in return. But what you still haven't learned is that there is no quota for allies. Friendship is not a right, and not everyone deserves it. And I have no sympathy for anypony conceited, stubborn, and ignorant enough to think otherwise. I may have class, Applejack, but I understand the responsibility that comes with it. You, on the other hoof, seem to think that class is a cause for respect, not a product of it. I despise ponies like you."
Orange looked like she was ready to cry again. She shuddered as she took a couple steps back from Rarity, not making eye contact.
"Seriously?" asked Rarity. "You must be thicker skinned than that. Losing the respect of one pony is no reason to lose composure." A realization dawned on her. "Why am I so important?" she asked. "What's so special about me that you, a mare on top of the world, can't find elsewhere? I thought you were happy working for Nightmare Moon? After all, you chose her over the rest of us, so don't act like this is some sort of injustice. You captured me. You brainwashed Rainbow Dash." She nodded her head toward the pegasus, who hadn't even moved throughout the whole tirade. "Can she even talk?" she asked. "Or did you clip her tongue too?"
Orange managed to stop whimpering long enough to answer. "Nothing that drastic," she said. "She's really not all that different from the mare you knew." She turned to address Rainbow. "Rainbow Dash? How are you feeling today?"
The rainbow pegasus finally reacted. She focused on Orange, as if she were finally noticing her surroundings for the first time. "Better than this morning," she answered, much more casually than Rarity was expecting. She almost sounded normal, but there was just that slight absence of
inflection, Rarity supposed, as if the words were formed without any regard for emotion. "I'm still tired, but I think I'm ready to try and make a Rainboom again."
Orange smiled at Rarity, gesturing at the pegasus and putting her on display. "See? She's still Rainbow Dash, provided being her doesn't get in the way too much. Good job, Rainbow Dash."
Rarity was surprised at what happened next. In response to Orange's compliment, Rainbow Dash visibly relaxed, her rigid posture breaking. "It's important to please important ponies," she muttered, as if reading from a script. "My service is its own reward."
Orange grinned, offering Rainbow a pat on the back. "I'm glad you think that way," she said. "And I appreciate your honesty about your exhaustion. Honesty is more important than rashness." Rainbow seemed to relax further with each compliment, as if being praised by Madame Orange was the most satisfying thing in the world.
"Except for one small thing, Rainbow
The mare instantly tensed again. She grunted softly as she lost her focus momentarily. "Yes?" she asked, a bit weary of the response.
"Try not to refer to yourself when you talk unless it's necessary. You're part of a group now, remember?"
Rainbow Dash hung her head in shame. "I'm sorry, Madame," she said, and to Rarity she looked genuinely pained and remorseful. "I mean, it won't happen again."
"Rainbow Dash?" Rarity finally had the nerve to ask. "What's going on?"
Rainbow finally noticed her. "Rarity?" she asked, surprised. "What are you doing in here?" As if she were waking up from a deep sleep, she began to turn quickly, taking in her surroundings and realizing where she was. "What's Rarity doing in the dungeons?" she asked Orange. "She's a friend."
Her head kept whipping back and forth between the two ponies, her breath quickening and she was driven into a frenzy by her two conflicting loyalties.
The command broke through the confusion, not because of its volume, but because of the immediate effect it had on Rainbow Dash, who dropped to the floor with a cry of agony.
"Bad. Only answer questions asked by your superiors. When dealing with those below you, you are the one who should be asking questions. That is your place."
"But Rarity's a friend
" Rainbow managed to say between her clenched teeth.
"Not yet," reprimanded Orange. "She's a traitor. She's our prisoner. And you will treat her as such. Do you understand?"
"No. Bad," and Rainbow screamed again.
Rarity had seen enough. "Stop it!" she cried. "Whatever you're doing, stop!"
Orange sighed. "That's enough," she told Rainbow Dash. "We're done here. You can go."
The Pegasus shakily got to her hooves, nodded, and left.
"You see?" Orange asked Rarity afterward. "It's not exactly a pleasant experience."
"Like she knows any better," said Rarity bitterly. "I'm not saying that's a fate I'd wish on me or anypony, but she thinks she's doing good. The old Rainbow Dash is scarcely there to hate the new one. As punishments go, there are worse ones to endure."
Orange didn't buy it. "Oh, I assure you there's enough of her left. Enough for the real her to be fully aware of what's happening. But it's not just the loss of her body that hurts her. It's more than the loss of free will. It's the perversion, making you want something you know you shouldn't want. The shame and self-loathing of an addict. That's what we instill in her. That's what we can do to you."
"And what exactly do you plan to do to me, once I become your doll?"
Orange frowned, now trying to maintain her calm. "I wouldn't want that for you, Rarity, surely you understand that. And if Trixie and the Queen were to hijack your mind, I wouldn't try to claim you. That would be
hideous. Mortifying. Believe it or not, I care about your well-being. Taking advantage of your altered state out of the false conviction that you wouldn't be tortured by your new existence, that would be cruel and barbaric. It wouldn't be moral, and it wouldn't make either of us happy."
"I think the chance for morality and happiness has passed long ago," Rarity muttered.
"And that may be," replied Orange. "But we do all we can to make the best of things, don't we?"
"I do. You seem hell-bent on torturing yourself."
Orange ground her teeth at the accusation. "That's not true," she retorted, but the energy had long since left her. Surrendering, she backed away to the door of the cell. "That's not true. Forget about me trying to save you. When Trixie comes to turn your brain into sludge, remember who offered you a way out."
Rarity backed up against the wall and closed her eyes again, resuming the same meditative pose she had been in when Orange had first arrived. "And you can remember that you've always had a way out," she responded. "We all just know you're too chicken to make it."
"This conversation is over."
The door to the cell slammed shut. A few seconds later, the iron dungeon door closed noisily, leaving Rarity once again alone in the dungeon.
"So, what do you think?" asked Spike when they were a block away from the radio tower. "Trap?"
"Definitely." Trixie stopped walking and examined the aged wooden building from afar. Any paint had long since been worn away, leaving behind a mess of splinters riddled with holes. "You think this is the place?" she asked the dragon curled around her neck. He was smaller than his normal size now, long and thin like a lizard. Size changing, while certainly a useful tactic for battle or intimidation, also just generally made things more comfortable for travel.
Spike scanned the building before looking up at his partner bemusedly. "Not questioning," he said, "but to just get things straight, you think this is a trap."
"And we're going to walk into a building that's obviously trapped."
"That's the plan."
"Okay." Spike planned his next words carefully, not wanting to embarrass himself. "Not to sound stupid, but
"Because it won't work," answered Trixie smugly. "She doesn't know what we're capable of. There's no way she could plan for everything. Even on her home turf, she can't win."
"So that's the plan?" asked Spike. "Just walk in?"
"Pretty much. Now hide. We're going in."
Spike nodded and climbed on top of Trixie's head, shrinking down even smaller until he was hidden in her mane. Trixie focused on her reserves of magic, casting the one spell that would give her the perfect advantage.
Her coat rustled from an unfelt breeze as it darkened, changing from light blue to violet. Her cloak seemed to vanish into nothing. Her mane retreated backwards, a single stripe appearing down the side. Her cutie mark vanished, to be replaced by a six-pointed star surrounded by five others.
Twilight Sparkle grinned maliciously. This was going to be fun.
From atop a cloud hanging conspicuously above the radio tower, a violet earth pony sat atop a heavily garbed pegasus. The two of them watched as the purple unicorn approached the building, and a pink earth pony bounded out of the front door to meet her.
"What do you think?" asked the pegasus. "That's her, right?"
"Definitely," said Silver Shield with a grin. "It's been far too long. I've really been looking forward to this reunion."