Act III The Grandfather Paradox
Part 8: Masquerade
"Ooh, how's your scar doing?" asked Pinkie Pie. "Gilda really did a number on you when she attacked you in the library."
The intent of the question was fairly obvious to her. Too obvious. "What are you talking about, Pinkie?" answered Trixie, trying to provide enough inflection to sound genuinely befuddled. "Gilda found us in the mountains, near other me's secret base. It was Silver Shield that was hiding in the library."
She thanked Madame Orange's detailed spoilers for helping her to answer the question. Trixie had been sure to prod her for as much information as possible, and she was now fully confident in her ability to impersonate Twilight.
"Oh, right," said Pinkie, giggling. "Silly me."
"It's fine," said Trixie congenially. Trixie's opinion of the pink mare was still yet to be determined. On one hoof, Pinkie had attempted to confirm Twilight's identity with a question. On the other hoof, however, the attempt was not only painfully obvious, but it also pertained to knowledge that could easily be learned or picked up by a keen observer. If the question had been more personal, Trixie wasn't sure if she would have known the answer. However, since she hadn't been expecting Pinkie to ask at all, she hadn't felt the need to prepare. The end result, she reminded herself, still tipped the odds in her favor. If Pinkie Pie had any suspicions about the identity of the mare before her, those concerns had been alleviated.
"I wanted to go back and save Rarity and Rainbow Dash and Appleorangejack," explained Pinkie Pie. "I really did. A friend that doesn't help a friend in need isn't really a friend at all. But then I realized that I was the only one who even knew that Trixie was bad! I mean, we all knew she was bad in our world, but she wasn't really this bad. It was going to take more than a party to try to change her attitude. She'd need like, a total attitude makeover. While holding my friends hostage! Can you believe that? So while I really wanted to help them, I knew that if I got caught, it was all over for Pinkie Pie. And besides, you don't ignore a Pinkie Sense feeling. When it tells you to run, you run. And so I ran. I knew I needed to find you.
"But now I have found you! And I got the perfect idea on how we're going to capture Trixie and rescue Rarity, too! By doing the exact same thing she tried to do to me!"
Trixie feigned curiosity. "And what would that be?" she asked, pretending it wasn't obvious.
"We're going to set a trap for her!" answered Pinkie Pie. "When I was looking for you, I decided to kill two birds with one stone! Except not kill, because that would be messy, and I don't want to kill anypony! Maim them maybe, but I don't know if the expression still works that way, so
The two of them were sitting up against the bar at the Salt Lick, Appleloosa's most popular pub. It seemed that no matter what had happened to Appleloosa, it hadn't stopped drinking from being a popular pastime. The room was crowded with ponies getting rowdy, each of their individual discussions getting lost in the sea of noise. Despite the large number of ponies there, it seemed unlikely that they would be overheard.
According to Pinkie Pie, over a drink was the only real way to discuss schemes, and Trixie begrudgingly accepted. Not wanting to impair her awareness, however, she had been sure to just order water, assuming (correctly) that the behavior was still consistent with the self-conscious Twilight.
Pinkie looked at "Twilight" sipping from her glass of water and giggled. "You sure you don't want something more exciting?"
"I'm fine, Pinkie," Trixie assured her. "Now what's the plan to capture Trixie?"
Pinkie Pie laughed. "Oh, you'll see! But when we hijacked that old radio transmitter, we knew Trixie would probably pick up on the signal. So we prepared for it! And now that you're here, you can help us! It's like a big reunion, and we're going to need everything we can to take down Trixie."
Trixie weighed her options carefully. She needed to bring Pinkie Pie back into custody, but in doing so she would ruin her element of surprise. And right now her cover would be valuable, especially if Pinkie had told somepony else whatever it was that she knew. Reconnaissance came first.
"A reunion?" she asked, her curiosity piqued. "Who else have you gathered?"
"Not many of us," Pinkie Pie admitted, "but enough to take on Queen Meanie and her gang. We're going to capture Little Meanie and force her to tell us how to rescue Rarity and Rainbow Dash and Appleorange."
"Yes," said Trixie, beginning to become frustrated. "But where are they? What's the plan?"
Pinkie Pie opened her mouth to answer, but before she spoke she spotted something behind Trixie and leaped up excitedly. "Hey!" she cried. "Over here!"
"Pinkie," growled Trixie. "We're in hiding. Let's not make a scene." But she turned and followed Pinkie Pie's gaze. To her surprise, Madame Orange had just entered the bar and was heading toward them.
She corrected herself when she saw that Orange was wearing only a cowboy hat, and her cutie mark had changed from the martini to three apples.
Knowing that a double of Orange was running around didn't make it any more awkward or fascinating when Trixie finally got a chance to meet her face to face. So much of her was familiar, including the way she smiled at Pinkie Pie as she approached. Orange's cheeky grin seemed pasted on a body that, while certainly reminiscent, had its differences. This mare had a much stockier build, and she appeared more confident. She may have had the same face with the same smile, but that smile somehow looked more sincere.
Applejack's eyes widened as she stopped at the table. "Gosh, Twilight. Is that really you? It's been so long I was worried I was never gonna see you again."
"Really?" asked Trixie, trying to act as excited and relieved as Applejack was. "And why's that? Did you hear that something bad had happened to me?"
"No. Worse," said Applejack. "We hadn't heard anything about you."
"Well worry no more. I'm here, safe and sound. Pinkie Pie was just about to explain how you were planning to capture Trixie when she arrives."
"Alright, alright," said Applejack as she sat down next to her. "Tone down the theatrics and I'll show ya what we're planning."
Trixie shut up, realizing she'd been perhaps been straying a bit too far from her role. Stupid Twilight. Who didn't enjoy a good showmareship?
"I suppose I should tell ya what's happened since we last saw ya, and what we're doing all the way out in Appleloosa."
Neither Applejack nor Rarity spoke as Applejack packed what scant belongings she had into a small knapsack. Finally, Applejack stopped, scowled at the sack, and upturned it, spilling the contents.
"I can't do this," she said. "I can't take any of this, not after what's happened. It wouldn't be fair. I came with nothing, and I'm gonna leave with it too."
"You have helped us, Applejack," insisted Rarity. "A lot. We don't blame you for what happened."
"And yet you're still kicking me out," said Applejack, not bitterly, but as a statement of fact. "You might not blame me," she muttered as she neatly sorted out the foodstuffs and the scarf. "But Pinkamena sure does."
recover," mumbled Rarity. "I hope. And it's nothing personal against you. It's just, well, you've got a lot on your plate. And now it seems like you have enemies too. You're a target for danger, Applejack, and my family needs to be as safe as possible."
"It's not just that I need help, though," said Applejack. "I need your help, specifically. Even once I find the elements, not just anypony can use them. You and Pinkie can, even if you don't think you fit the bill."
Rarity sighed. "I know. And I believe you. I think you're a brave pony, and I wish you well in your journey, but I still can't come with you. My family is my top priority. You must have a family, back in your own world. Surely you understand."
Applejack remembered the faces of the other members of the Apple family under Rarity's care. "Yeah," she said dreamily. "Ah do understand. I think you're doing an amazing job looking after everypony, and I'm not gonna put a stop to that. They're not just your family now, ya hear? They're mine, too, and I know when my family's in good hands." She hugged Rarity. "It's funny to think about, the fact that we're family. Never thought it would happen in a million years. But you know what? I don't mind that much. I think Big Mac's good for you. And you're great for him. I couldn't have asked for a better sister-in-law."
Rarity gasped and pulled back from the embrace. "Idea!" she exclaimed. "If you're not going to take anything with you, I do have one thing. Consider it a parting gift." She left and returned carrying a very familiar hat.
"Is that my Stetson?" asked Applejack skeptically, not allowing herself to become too excited. "I thought I lost that in the mountains."
"Not exactly. If there's more than one you, there's more than one hat. It used to belong to your father, right? And he gave it to you when you were old enough. But the other you refused it. I think it's rightfully yours."
Applejack took the hat reluctantly, turning it over in her hooves. It really was the same hat, marred with the same blemishes and stitches as her own. "Thanks. I won't forget your hospitality."
"And I won't forget your commitment to helping us," responded Rarity. "Even if we won't be by your side, I'll be rooting for you all the way. And once you save the world, come back here and we'll have a toast to your success."
Applejack decided to end things with a hoofshake. "I still owe ya one," she told Rarity.
"Nonsense. If you actually manage to save the world, I think that will be payment enough."
With the past events weighing on her mind, Applejack left the farm behind her, more determined than ever to set things right.
Applejack marched deeper into the Everfree Forest, pushing aside the thick branches and brambles that assaulted her with every step. She could barely see in front of her, and the darkness weighed down on her. She knew better than to be scared of the dark, or to honestly believe that darkness was some sort of tangible muck, but when roots and tree trunks could hide away until they were upon her, she couldn't help but feel tormented by such a secretive non-entity. And that was not to mention the native creatures.
Going alone was never her original plan, and it seemed even more foolish now that she knew somepony was after her. There was an alternative available, she knew. Rainbow Dash had given her a machine that had supposedly come from Applejack's alternate self. The Columbus Device, it had been called. For emergencies. After hearing Rarity's depiction of the other Applejack, though, the earth pony was skeptical. If this situation could at all be resolved without getting her dubious counterpart involved, then the risks would be worth it.
Besides, who knew if the attackers were still even there? According to Rarity's story, there were two of them, and well
There was a good chance Pinkamena had scared the remaining one off, and it would take her time to organize reinforcements. If anything, this was the moment to get in, find the elements, and get out.
She pondered the mystery of the attackers as she trod the path toward the old castle. The question of who was after them was easily solvable: Nightmare Moon, or one of her lackeys. But did she always have the castle guarded, or had the information of Applejack's plans somehow been discovered? And if the latter turned out to be the case, how were the plans leaked? She recalled Rainbow's skepticism about the other Rarity's trustworthiness. She remembered her promise that she wouldn't tell the other Rarity who she really was.
"Sometimes plans change," Applejack muttered to herself, but the rest of her self-discussion was cut short as she emerged out into the field overlooking the chasm, the abandoned and desecrated palace emerging in the distance. It was almost exactly as Applejack remembered it from two years ago. A brief incline led up to the sudden drop, where the river thundered far below.
And just like two years ago, the bridge was out.
Sometimes plans change. Applejack berated herself for not considering the bridge. Rainbow may have fixed it in their own timeline, but in this world, nopony had even been near the castle for decades, at least.
She cautiously made her way to the edge and peered over. While the side of the chasm was maybe jagged enough to find hoof-holds, she wasn't certain about its stability. Climbing down was too risky, and jumping across was simply impossible. Applejack quickly realized that the best course of action was to follow the edge along until another opportunity presented itself.
A couple minutes after Applejack left the path, she began to realize that she was headed downhill. Looking over the edge, she noted that the drop did appear to be a little shallower. Emboldened, she pressed onward, the sound of the river gradually getting louder, emerging from the background to become the dominant sound.
The ground ended suddenly, although the slope here was more manageable than the chasm, and Applejack was able to find the hoof-holds to descend. The ground at the bottom was nearly level with the river, and Applejack was preparing to test the waters when she spotted the ponies downstream.
Noticing first and foremost the black and purple Shadowbolts uniforms, she considered heading into the forest and getting out of sight. Another part of her told her to confront them, and get some information out of them. After what they did, Applejack knew she wouldn't feel bad if she roughed them up a little bit. Common sense was quick to remind her that one earth pony against two pegasi wasn't exactly an even fight, and she was about to give them a wide berth when she finally noticed their behavior. Neither of them was moving.
Curiosity getting the better of her, she tried to get a better view. She ran into the trees, moving around them in a wide arc until she could see them from a better angle. She was now able to clearly make out the profile of the mare, who was sitting over the prone stallion. After a moment's confusion, she realized that she recognized both of the figures.
She made the judgment call to step out of the darkness. "Spitfire?"
The mare turned toward the source of her name, but noticing Applejack, she huffed and turned back to Soarin.
Applejack moved closer, noticing with slight repulsion the state of Soarin. He hadn't moved at all, and now that Applejack could see the damage done to his head, it was clear that he wasn't going to.
She wasn't sure how long she stood there, allowing Spitfire to have her moment. Back in her own world, Applejack had only met the mare once, at the Best Young Flyer's competition. The two weren't close at all. But she felt an inexplicable connection to the grieving mare.
"I'm sorry," Applejack finally said, breaking the silence.
"I should have come back for him," moaned Spitfire. "When he wasn't right behind me, I assumed he had turned himself in, not
oh, gods. He probably didn't put up a fight, either. I think part of him wanted this. He joked about it a lot, about how he'd finally figured out how to escape from it all. And sometimes I tried to laugh with him, because I wanted him to keep joking, keep smiling, keep laughing, 'cause it was all I had left. But I never brought it up, because I was so afraid that he meant it that I just pretended he didn't. And now I'm not going to hear him laugh again. I'm going to miss him so much."
Applejack couldn't help but pity Spitfire. But looking at Soarin's broken body was beginning to unnerve her. "We should bury him," she said. "I'll help."
Spitfire ignored her.
"It should have been me," she said. "He always tried his best to smile, through everything. He never wanted to do the things we did. He fought them. He didn't let them break him. And when I think about how hard that must have been for him, while I took the easy way out and followed order blindly, I know that he deserved to live, not me. And I took that away from him."
"You didn't do this," said Applejack sternly. "Nightmare Moon did. She's the one you're working for, right?"
"Forget the Queen. I don't care anymore. She told us to come out here and put an end to somepony. That pony was you, wasn't it? You're the one we were supposed to kill, not a couple of innocent little foals. I was the one who suggested we follow orders anyway, because that's what I knew. And he's the one that paid. For nothing."
"I wouldn't say nothing," said Applejack, trying to make the best of a bad situation. "Sounds like he never cared much for the way things are either. But in the end, he finally got what he wanted."
Spitfire glared at Applejack with contempt. "You never knew him. Tell me, what did he want?"
"You. He finally knocked some sense into you. And that's only nothing if you let it be nothing. You wanna to do right by him? Help us."
Spitfire eyed the newcomer critically. "You're working for Twilight Sparkle, aren't you? The rebellion? How can I help you?"
"Well, to start, we're looking for a piece of magic that can save Equestria. And to get to it, we need to fix a bridge."
Applejack reached into her saddlebag and removed a smooth round stone. "And we found them. Or, one of them, at least. There was only one Element in there. Don't even know which one it is. The others are Celestia-knows-where. Which is why we were hoping to get in touch with you, seeing as you were trying to get ahold of Celestia and all."
"Tried and failed," said Trixie honestly. "Sorry to let you down, Applejack."
Applejack smiled. "That's okay. It's still nice to see you again. And we're gonna have to stick together if we want to have any chance of winning this war. So after I ran into Pinkie, we broke into the radio tower to send out the SOS. I remembered the station from the last time I visited Brae, but we discovered it wasn't being used no more. So we hightailed it down to Appleloosa and figured if they weren't missing it, we could put our own message in its place. Like I said, we were really worried about you. We hadn't heard back from you in forever, and our own plans had gone south. We thought maybe you'd been captured. So with no sort of rendezvous and no backup plans, we took matter into our own hooves and cried for help. It was risky, we knew, 'cuz if Twilight could get the message than so could anypony working for Nightmare Moon. But then we thought we could use that to our advantage by laying a trap."
Applejack removed a map of Appleloosa from her bags and unfolded it on the table. She pointed to the bar.
"This is where we are now." She then pointed to the radio tower, and a building close to it that had been circled in ink. "We've been waiting at the same place and time every night. Course, when Trixie shows up she's gonna get there even earlier, thinking she's gonna catch us off guard. We get there, see her, and run. She chases us just a few doors down. She follows us in, thinking we're cornered, and then we spring the trap."
Pinkie nodded excitedly. "I made this big giant contraption! As soon as Trixie steps in the doorway, Applejack pulls the lever and a cage springs up around her. And then she's trapped!"
"That's it?" said Trixie, incredulously. "That's your plan to capture her? A cage? Won't she just bust her way out of it with magic?"
"Not if we build it out of crystal," said Applejack.
Trying to act impressed was the most difficult challenge of Trixie's career. "That's a brilliant plan!" she said with as much sincerity as she could muster. In truth it was a ridiculously stupid plan. While a perfectly smooth crystal would reflect magical energy, there was nothing that would stop magic that didn't affect the crystals itself, like teleportation or a strength spell. If this was their plan, it was tremendously short-sighted.
"But you're only going to capture one pony that way. What if she brought backup?"
"She won't. If she's anything like the Trixie we knew, she'll be tryin' to handle this one on her own."
Trixie wasn't entirely out of questions. "Why didn't you use the signaling device your own counterpart gave you?"
"The bird-calling doohickey?" Applejack leaned in close and lowered her voice. "Don't you go hollering this to the hilltops, Twilight, but I don't really trust other me. Especially considering what she did to the farm and all. We'll get to her when we're good and ready."
Pinkie Pie set her bottle of sarsaparilla back down on the bar, disrupting the conversation between Applejack and Trixie. "Uh oh," Trixie heard her whisper.
"Uh oh? Uh oh what?"
"Don't look now, but I don't think you were the only one to get the message."
Trixie was confused. "You mean Trixie's here?" she asked. Her thoughts were racing, trying to figure out what had startled Pinkie Pie. Had the real Twilight shown up? That wasn't possible. They were both dead. Orange had made sure of it.
"No," said Pinkie Pie. "This might be worse. To your left."
Trixie turned, pretending to try and get the attention of the bartender. She quickly discovered that there were a lot of ponies to her left, and none of them looked familiar.
She swore. Pinkie was clearly expecting her to notice whatever had set her on edge. One of those ponies was familiar to Pinkie, and should be familiar to Twilight too. Trixie felt the panic welling up inside of her, and she pushed it down. No. She'd been trained better than to go hysterical at the first sign of a problem.
There were a couple of tables along the far wall. A group of rowdy earth ponies in the first booth were listening raptly to a pegasus who was probably sharing a daring story with all the details blown out of proportion. The second table was occupied by a couple who were a bit too preoccupied with each other to be considered any sort of threat. The last table only had one occupant, a violet earth pony with a bad attitude. He finished brooding over his cup of tea and looked up, his eyes quickly finding Trixie. Trixie looked away as she realized that he was indeed watching them. And now he knew they had seen him.
Trixie didn't like being out of the loop. But she couldn't ask without giving herself away. Still, she thought, she could still get out of this is she played her cards right.
"What are we going to do?"
"I don't know," said Applejack, "but we better come up with something fast."
The stallion, having noticed them, had gotten up from his table and was walking toward them, trying to move with the crowd as to not cause any sort of disruption.
"What's everypony worried about?" asked Trixie, not understanding their concern. "A minute ago you were ready to take on a unicorn. And he's just an earth pony. We can take him."
When neither Applejack nor Pinkie Pie immediately responded, Trixie realized they were staring at her. Had she said something wrong?
"But what about the last time you faced him when he totally beat you and held you hostage and almost finished you?" Pinkie asked, with what Trixie decided was probably a little too much excitement given the topic. "He's mean and tough and smart too."
Trixie was skeptical. She had assumed that Twilight Sparkle was an actual threat, not a wimp that lost a fight to an earth pony. It didn't matter how clever Pinkie Pie said he was, if Twilight couldn't muster the magical strength necessary to pummel him into submission, then she was either a weakling or a simpleton.
"I think I can handle him this time," Trixie said confidently.
"Not that I don't think you're capable of holding your own in a tussle, Twi, but weren't you the one that said we shouldn't be drawing attention to ourselves?"
Trixie swore silently. She had forgotten she was undercover. The cost of pretending to be a weakling was that she had to act like one.
"Alright then, Applejack, what do you propose we do?"
"Well," began Applejack, not removing her gaze from Silver Shield. "We do have the trap ready to spring. Would just be a different target, but if it can hold a unicorn, I don't see why it can't stop an earth pony."
Trixie stood, ignoring them. "We'll save that for a backup plan," she told them. "For now, if he wants a fight, he'll get one. I know I'm not really the brawling type, but hey, when you're in Appleloosa
Applejack and Pinkie Pie exchanged an uncertain glance with each other.
Trixie strode forward into the crowd, making eye contact with Silver Shield to let him know she was ready. As soon as he returned the gaze, she focused on her magic, generating a small ball of energy in front of her horn. It fell to the ground and immediately began snaking its way across the floor, avoiding the hooves in bodies of all the ponies in its way and heading toward its target.
Silver Shield calmly watched the spell approach, waiting until the last minute to leap up onto the back of the pony adjacent to him, a bulky white pegasus. The spell, confused but unwilling to violate the commands it had been given, circled around the other pony aimlessly.
The other ponies in the bar were beginning to react, some in confusion, others in fear as they tried to distance themselves from the ball of energy. Silver Shield pushed off of the pony he was using as a pedestal and landed on a smaller blue earth pony mare, springboarding off of her and landing back on the wooden floor. Now that many of the ponies were trying to escape the fight, the path to his target was much clearer, and he set off at a gallop. The spell, sensing him, began to pursue, but it was unable to keep up with him and fell behind.
Trixie quickly launched another spell, a lance that shot out toward Silver Shield's head, but the stallion dropped into a roll and it passed above him. Pulling out of the roll he leaped.
Panicking at the closing distance, Trixie raised a magical shield in front of her. Peering through the sparkling energy of the shield, she watched the earth pony orient himself in midair, landing hooves-first directly on the shield. The energy in the shield reached out for him, but was repelled by his horseshoes, made of some material Trixie did not have time to recognize. Using the shield as a platform and climbing over it, he landed on top of her, knocking her to the ground.
In anger, Trixie attempted to launch another spell, but a swift kick to her horn disrupted it. To her horror, she realized that the shock from the attack had also lowered her illusion, if only for a brief moment. She focused again, ignoring the pain in her horn and willing a fire to break out across her body, but the stallion was already off of her.
Trixie began to wonder if perhaps she was in over her head. She swore as she stood up. She was supposed to be the most powerful unicorn in Equestria, having been schooled by one alicorn and under the tutelage of another. This battle wasn't just irritating, it was humiliating.
And now she had another constraint to consider. Not only did she have to pass herself off as Twilight, a pony whose power level she was very uncertain of, but she also couldn't let the illusion dissipate. Part of her focus would be needed on keeping the spell up.
She ran over to Applejack and Pinkie Pie, who had retreated to the corner but were still watching. Astoundingly, Silver Shield let her.
"On second thought," she said, "Your plan's starting to look a little better."
Applejack nodded. "We're not too far."
"Yeah, I remember the map. Like a fly to a spider's web, right?"
The apt comparison made Applejack grin. "Exactly," she agreed.
"See you in a few then," said Trixie before she winked out, air rushing in to fill the void with an audible bang.
Silver Shield, in the middle of the now mostly empty bar, spun furiously, attempting to locate his lost target. He spotted her beyond one of the windows, escaping.
Confident that he had is prey on the run, he relaxed his battle stance and gave a courteous acknowledgment to the other ponies in the room.
"You still think this plan is a shot in the dark?" he asked ostentatiously.
"Actually," admitted Applejack, "for the first time I've got hope."