Twilight slid to a halt against the base of one of the computational stacks, groaning as the rough-hewn stone floor scraped her hide. She looked up to scold Dash for her rash behavior but saw nothing – her friend was gone.
Luna looked horrified. "That device – it fired a blast of energy and she... she dissolved." The princess turned to Twilight. "It would have hit you, had she not intervened. What is this? Some new teleportation spell?"
Twilight pushed herself to her hooves. "Celestia’s notes didn’t say anything about this... but there’s no way Celestia would create something that destroys ponies, so Rainbow must be safe, wherever she is." She moved back to the master console, inspecting the display, mentally retracing her steps. "I had been running through the Princess’s commands, re-entering them one at a time to see what they did. There was no indication in her available research that a computational engine could affect the physical world, so I didn’t realize... okay, new assumption: any command I enter here could result in an interaction with the physical world in some way, so I need to be more careful in my experimenting with her system."
"Agreed." Luna stepped closer. "Twilight..."
"Do you think it’s possible that the same thing that happened to Rainbow Dash happened to my sister?"
"I have to think so. And it would be logical to assume they’re both in the same place."
"But that place must not be in our world. There is no force that could have prevented Celestia returning to Canterlot."
"So... some sort of alternate plane of existence or reality..."
Luna nodded to the display. "Perhaps she’s in there. And now Rainbow Dash as well."
Twilight almost laughed before she caught herself. "Prin– Luna, that... just doesn’t make any sense. ‘In there’ is just a string of ones and zeros, infinitesimal surges of electricity along tiny metal circuits. How could a pony be in there?"
Luna shrugged. "I do not know. This area is as indecipherable to me as unicorn magic is to an earth pony. But I do know two things: all my senses tell me Celestia is here, inside this room, yet I do not see her. And magic takes many forms."
Twilight looked at the strange cylindrical device, still humming slightly, its blue glow fading, and wondered.
• • •
Dash stumbled, hitting the ground and managing to not smash into the master console; she looked around wildly, trying not to panic.
The room was empty of anypony save herself, but everything else – the console, the towers, the cables – were exactly the same. No... not exactly, she thought, frowning as she willed her heart to stop beating quite so fast. The glowing telltales on each tower, previously a riot of color, were now all a cool white-blue. Everything, in fact, looked a little bluer than normal, a little cooler and crisper.
She spat and worked her mouth uncomfortably, a bitter metallic taste on her tongue. Dash shook herself out and pawed at the ground uneasily, unsure what to do. There was no sign of Twilight or Luna. You don’t think...
"Princess Celestia! Are you there?" she shouted, and listened intently. No reply.
Summoning up her courage, she cantered out of the room.
• • •
Dash emerged into the castle proper and looked around warily. Nopony around. Is that weird? She wasn’t sure if there would normally be anypony in this area of the castle at this time of day. Er, time of night? It’s still pretty early... She started making her way toward the exit – or at least, where she thought the exit was; she hadn’t really been paying much attention when they’d all come down this way.
Out of the basement, every surface looked like smooth black marble, polished to a shine. Streaks of blue light ran along the floor at the base of the walls, casting an eerie glow over everything. What the hay happened to me? Everything looks different... Twilight and Luna disappeared... some kind of spell? That panicky feeling rose up in her again and she tried to force it down. She remembered what Twilight told her about the machines in the basement of the library, thinking about Ponyville, filled with simulations of everypony...
Coming around a corner, she almost walked face-first into another pony.
"Oh! Sorry, didn’t –"
"Halt," the pony said in an odd voice, deep and sort of garbled. Dash wondered if he was sick. Maybe he was really sick – it could explain the suit he was wearing, or at least why it covered him from head to tailbase. It was jet-black and formfitting, with thicker pieces of some kind of matte-black armor attached at key points; he wore a helmet with a smoked-glass visor that hid his eyes and mane, though his ears and muzzle poked out. It almost reminded her of a Wonderbolts flight suit, except for the armor plates... and the channels of glowing orange all over it, tracing along the pony’s body and legs.
"Hey, cool outfit! Are you okay? You sound kinda funny."
"This program has no disc," said the same voice from behind her.
She whirled; an identical pony stood behind her, expressionless, wearing an identical suit. "It’s not smart to sneak up on a pony like that, you know," she growled. "You might end up bucked. Now, maybe you ponies can help me out. I think I’m lost, I need to find my way out of here. Can you give me some directions?"
"Another stray. You will come with us."
"Yeah, not happening. Just tell me where –"
"You will come with us." They grabbed her and started taking her down the hall.
"What the hay is this?! Let go of me!" She struggled against them, bucking and twisting, flapping her wings as hard as she could, but they were much, much stronger than they looked – much stronger than her. Dash kept fighting them, until one reached up and smacked her on the back of the head. A burst of power surged through her nervous system, and she speculated in a detached sort of way that this must be what a lightning strike felt like before her eyes rolled up into her head and she was gone.
• • •
She came to in the middle of a circular room, with the distinct impression she’d been dumped there with little regard for her personal well-being. Groaning, the pegasus untangled her limbs and gingerly felt the spot where the guardpony had shocked her; it was tender and there didn’t seem to be any lasting damage, though her mind felt like it was packed in fluffy white cumulus. Pushing up to her hooves, Dash shook her head, blinking away the last of the fuzziness, and the room came into focus.
More smooth walls, lit by glowing lines. There were seams running over some portions of the wall, their purpose not immediately apparent. In front of her, two panels set into the wall looked like a good way out of here.
Dash made to run for the doors, but couldn’t lift her hooves. She looked down in irritation and saw transparent blue cuffs glowing around the ends of her legs. "Are you kidding me? Hey! Jerks! Get back in here and let me –"
A low hum filled the room and the seams on the walls split, panels sliding away to reveal racks of equipment and four unicorns wearing pure white suits, unarmored, with cool blue lines glowing on them instead of orange. Their manes and tails were pure white and elegantly styled. They stepped out of their alcoves and walked toward her, surrounding her, all moving in unison. Dash was seriously creeped out.
"What are you doing? Get away from me! Somepony had better tell me what’s going on around here!"
All four unicorns stopped just shy of her. None of them spoke. Dash looked around at each of them uneasily. "What... uh..."
The lead unicorn’s horn ignited. Dash flinched, but nothing happened. She felt an odd sensation around her hooves and looked down. Sleek black material was materializing around them, sparkling into existence, moving up her legs to completely enclose her body.
The other three unicorns lit their horns and pieces of armor floated from the equipment racks, attaching themselves to the bodysuit at strategic points. White-blue lines glowed into being all over her. "Heh, that’s... kinda cool, actually..."
The unicorns exchanged glances.
"What?" Dash asked. She turned her head to look back over her body and raised her wings experimentally. The black material had covered them as well, but they seemed to be able to move and function freely. Flapping a few times, she could tell she hadn’t lost her lift, though she was still shackled to the floor.
"Your flank had a representation of a... colorful storm on it. Why?"
"You mean my cutie mark? Everypony has a cutie mark. Don’t you guys, under your suits?"
The unicorns just stared at her, until one murmured, "You are different."
Before Dash could respond, the lead unicorn spoke. "You shall receive an identity disc. Everything you do or learn will be imprinted on this disc. If you should lose your disc, or if you should fail to follow commands, you shall be subject to immediate deresolution."
Dash started and looked back at the unicorn. That voice...
One of the other unicorns magicked over a strange-looking disc with the middle cut out. She attached it to a port on Dash’s flank, turning it to lock it in place. It glowed, and Dash twitched. Something felt... funny. The back of her neck tickled for a few seconds.
"Mirroring complete. Disc activated and synchronized. Proceed to games."
The four unicorns retreated to their alcoves. Dash tried to follow, but she was still stuck to the floor. "Wait! Rarity...?"
The lead unicorn gazed at her. "I am Jewel."
"Jewel?" She could have sworn... Sure, her mane was different, but the way she moved, the way she talked...
The wall panels began to slide closed. Dash called out, "What am I supposed to do?"
Jewel grinned at her just before her panel sealed shut, her ice-blue eyes twinkling.
• • •
Dash followed the luminous symbols on the walls; a different wall panel had slid open and indicators had lit up, guiding her down a hallway. She reached the end and stopped: it was a dead end. She frowned and turned around, looking back the way she came, when without warning the floor jerked and sped upward, taking her with it. She tensed into a crouch, watching as the walls around her blurred. Be cool, Dash... just an elevator.
The floor slowed as it reached the top and smoothly clicked into place at the surface, with no apparent seam. Dash looked around, almost overwhelmed by the roar coming from every direction – what sounded to her like the roar of thousands of ponies eager for a fight.
She was in the middle of a vast arena. There were other ponies with her, wearing similar black suits with glowing blue lines, all standing at attention as though they were waiting for something. The ground level of the arena was broken up into different sections, some of which she recognized, some of which she didn’t. Horseshoe pits... tug-of-war ropes... high strikers... looks like another Iron Pony competition to me.
The ground level was surrounded by stands, and the stands were filled with thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of ponies, all wearing suits that glimmered either blue or orange in the distance, all cheering and stomping the ground. They aren’t eager for a fight... they’re eager to see some competition! At one end of the coliseum, there was a high tower; she thought she could make out some movement at the top.
Dash looked up, glad to finally be out of the castle and back under the sky... but she paused at the strangeness of this one. Dark clouds roiled above her, white-blue lightning cracking between them – the sky of an angry goddess. Even allowing for the oppressive clouds, she got the sense from the quality of light that it was still nighttime. Wait, ‘still’...? With a start, Dash realized it had been less than an hour since she had been with Twilight and Luna in the other castle. She felt a sudden surge of longing and homesickness: she already missed Twilight and her friends, missed Ponyville. What the hay have I gotten myself into?
A calm voice reverberated through the arena. "All combatants, prepare for Pillar Weave."
The crowd went even wilder, stomping their hooves and chanting, "Pillar Weave, Pillar Weave!"
On Dash’s left, there was an area she had more or less ignored, as it seemed to be empty. Now she watched with interest as the border of the area lit up and glowing blue pillars extended themselves out of the ground in a straight line. Two lines shimmered to life on the ground at the beginning and end of the line of pillars, perpendicular to them. Looks familiar enough.
Dash found herself caught in the press of ponies moving toward the first line. "Hey, watch it!" she said indignantly, but nopony reacted. They formed a queue, and she ended up in the third spot. A scoreboard materialized, suspended in the air over the course with no apparent supports, with a line for each combatant’s identifier and time.
"Combatant One. Pillar Weave. Begin."
The first pony in line, a unicorn mare, tensed, leaned forward, and took off. As she passed over the first line, it flashed, and the first scoreboard entry, the one labeled Combatant 1, started counting up. When the pony reached the second line, it flashed again and the counter stopped.
"Combatant One. Pillar Weave. Twenty-one point three seconds." 21.3 flashed on the board as the crowd stomped their hooves.
"Oh, please. I could beat these ponies in my sleep," Dash muttered as the second in line, a pegasus colt, started their run. "I wonder how bad they ding you for nudging a pillar..."
As he neared the end, one of the colt’s wings extended a feather too far and brushed against a pillar. Dash jumped at his agonized scream, watching in horror as he shattered, falling apart into a thousand tiny blocks that scattered on the ground before dissolving into nothingness.
"Combatant Two. Pillar Weave. Disqualification." An X flashed on the board.
Dash gulped. That’s different.
"Combatant Three. Pillar Weave. Begin."
Dash took her mark and launched herself forward, making a point to keep her wings tucked tightly against her sides, her trademark rainbow trail blazing out behind her as she sped between the pillars.
• • •
High above the arena, a pegasus mare wearing a black bodysuit, cloak and helmet gazed out idly over the combatants and spectators as she lounged on her private observation deck. It was the highest point in the entire coliseum. The orange telltales on her outfit flared as she turned at the sound of the entrance sliding open. Another pegasus mare in an orange-striped suit entered.
"Um... no unusual activity. Security sweeps and patrols have been intensified... I hope that’s okay?"
"Good," said the first mare. Her voice was deep and distorted by the helmet. She turned back to the arena and smirked as a pegasus colt derezzed after letting himself brush one of the pillars on the weave course. "Idiot. I tell you, Shy, I could beat any of these programs in my sleep."
"I’m... sure you could, ma’am. W-was there anything else?"
"Nah, not right now. Go hide yourself in a corner somewhere."
"Um, yes, ma’am." Shy meekly backed toward the exit.
Below them, the next combatant started their run, a spectrum of light trailing behind her. The mare sat up, staring at the sudden burst of color as the combatant crossed the finish line.
"Combatant Three. Pillar Weave. Fourteen point seven seconds." Below them, the crowd hesitated in surprise before breaking into raucous cheers.
The mare turned. "Shy! Get back here. Who is that?"
"Oh, um, I don’t know." Shy nosed a wall panel that lit at her touch; biographical information on the combatants on the field flashed past. The screen titled Combatant Three was filled with question marks. "No data, ma’am... I don’t understand how –"
"Well?" the mare prompted impatiently.
Shy squeaked and nosed another control, then spoke. "Combatant Three, identify yourself... if you wouldn’t mind." The mare rolled her eyes.
• • •
Dash grinned, looking out at the assembled ponies cheering her. Showed them, she thought triumphantly. Fifteen seconds wasn’t bad, but she could do better. She chalked the relatively marginal showing up to the strange situation. If these ponies love athletes, I bet I could get to like it here... wherever here is.
A voice echoed through the arena. Not the announcer, somepony else. Another familiar voice. "Combatant Three, identify yourself... if you wouldn’t mind."
Dash looked around, confused. Where is that coming from?
A harsher voice: "Identify!"
Dash frowned and spoke to the air. "I’m Rainbow Dash, from Ponyville." A hush fell over the crowd, murmurs replacing cheers. "What? You guys heard of me?"
The first combatant, the unicorn mare, had been standing nearby, looking generally impressed by Dash’s performance. Now she looked tense and afraid, ready to back away.
"What’s the big deal?" Dash asked her. "Where are you from?"
The unicorn made as if to speak, but nothing came out. She looked behind Dash, and Dash turned. An armored pegasus stood behind her, orange suit stripes burning menacingly. She could see nothing of the mare’s face, completely encased in a smooth black helmet that reflected Dash’s apprehensive expression right back at her.
"Combatant Four. Pillar Weave. Begin," said the calm announcer’s voice. "Combatant Three. Accompany Cracken."
Dash groaned. The guardsmare moved to grab her and she flapped once, kicking herself back out of reach. "Chill out! I’ll come quiet, no need to get rough."
• • •
She was taken out of the center of the arena, under the stands, spectators leaning over the railings to watch them go. Two more armored pegasi met them at the edge of the field and took the lead, the pony the announcer had called Cracken bringing up the rear. Cracken’s name didn’t strike Dash as the sort of name a friendly pony would go by; she glanced back over her shoulder, watching the other pegasus. Dash couldn’t help but think there was something familiar about this pony too... something. She ran though the names of the pegasi she knew in Ponyville as they walked, but couldn’t put her hoof on it.
They came to a door that hissed open at their approach and stepped through. Another elevator ride took them to the top of a tower – it was a long ride, so she figured it was the one she’d seen earlier. More doors opened for them and the guards marched through, Dash following.
The room’s walls were made up of more of the smooth black material she’d seen elsewhere and lit by glowing conduits of light running up and down the walls and along the ceiling. Big bay windows on the wall across from her looked out over the arena. She saw another pony make their run down the weave course, and heard the announcer state their identity and time, but it was muffled and distant.
A pegasus mare, wearing a cloak over her bodysuit and a glossy, opaque helmet similar to Cracken’s, was standing in front of the windows, her back to Dash, her cloak covering her tail. The two guardsponies moved to either side of the cloaked mare and stood at attention, their hooves snapping on the floor. Cracken took up a position behind Dash, just off to one side, a little more relaxed than the other guards, though Dash got the sense Cracken would be the one to watch out for in a fight.
Nopony moved for what seemed like a long time.
"Where am I?" Dash finally asked, a hint of frustrated impatience in her voice.
The cloaked mare turned, faced Dash, didn’t say anything.
"Who are you?!" demanded Dash, stomping a forehoof.
There was a moment of silence. Then –
The cloaked mare’s helmet hummed, split along hidden seams, and folded itself back behind the mare’s head, letting a lock of multicolored mane fall across her forehead.
Dash gaped at her own face smirking back at her.