The two rainbow-maned, blue-coated pegasi stared at each other. Dash couldn't believe what she was seeing. She'd always felt she was unique: not just the tripe parents fed their foals about "everypony being special in their own way", but because ponies with naturally many-colored manes were fairly rare, and she had never met another pony that shared the same shades that were her namesake. Even worse... even worse, this pony was her – the same face, the same coat, the same rose-hued eyes she saw every morning in the mirror.
A wave of vertigo swept over her, as though she'd been riding a thermal a mile up and lost it suddenly, plummeting down; she scrambled to regain control, to stay calm, to figure out what the hay was going on.
This wasn't her. This... other self looked grimmer than she ever had: there was a hard set to her jaw, a tightness around the eyes, and the eyes themselves, well... she knew she'd never looked so cold and calculating. There was darkness there, and she didn't like what it did to her face.
"Rainbow Dash," said the cloaked mare, and Dash shuddered with unease at the sight and sound of her own voice coming from another pony who looked exactly like her, and moved exactly like her – for the other Dash had stepped forward with an easy, athletic grace, sauntering toward her, looking her up and down. "I never thought I'd meet you in the flesh, as it were. How did you get in here?"
"I... Twilight found Celestia's thinking machine in the basement, and turned it on, and..."
The other Dash circled her. "Ohh,""So it's just you?" she said speculatively.
"Yeah..." Dash found herself feeling more alone than ever, and fought to keep the fear away. Her friends flashed in front of her mind's eye before settling on the lavender unicorn that had gotten her into this mess. Twilight could be a little scatterbrained, but she always knew what to do; having her here would be so reassuring...
"Just you," mused the other Dash. She gestured to Cracken. "Disc."
Cracken stepped forward, removed the identity disc from Dash's flank, and gave it to the other Dash.
"Who are you?" Dash asked, finding herself dreading the answer. If they shared a name as well, she didn't know if she'd be able to handle it.
The other Dash glanced back at her, a dark little grin quirking her lips. "Call me RBD." She held up Dash's disc, eyeing it for a moment. "Let's have a look." A stream of light and color sprang to life above the disc and RBD watched intently. Dash peered over her shoulder and saw a torrent of images of her own life: her time in flight school, her first sonic rainboom, running the weather patrol in Ponyville, her friends. A flash of angry heat passed through her. Those are my memories! That's private. Before she could do anything, the playback ended and RBD tossed the disc back to Cracken, who reattached it to Dash's flank with a click and stepped back to her original position smartly.
RBD appeared lost in thought for a moment. "Hmm. I expected more."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Dash asked indignantly.
A glowing hoof waved away her question. "Now... since you're here, I have to decide what to do with you. I suppose you could join me. It's not often a program can be in two places at once, that could be... useful."
Dash frowned, looking around. "Join you? You run this place? Where's Princess Celestia?"
An ugly look crossed her double's face. "Ah, yes. The creator. She's... indisposed. I'm the top pony here. And I'm offering you the chance to be a part of something impressive, be my right-hoof lieutenant. It's obvious you don't have much going on back home."
"I have plenty going on! My friends, my job –"
"You arrange clouds, taking orders from somepony else," RBD said cuttingly. "You work a dead-end job in a backwater town, far from the glory and admiration you so obviously want. I can give you these things. Here, all will know your name, all will look upon you and marvel at your speed and power. You could lead the Guard, my most elite and trusted pegasi warriors. The... Wonderbolts, I believe they're called?... have nothing on them."
Dash looked around her at the other ponies in the room: motionless Cracken and the members of the Guard that had led her here, one cowering in the corner. She needed a distraction, she needed to keep her cool, she needed to keep the burning resentment and despair RBD's words had awoken within her from overwhelming her. So I lead the Ponyville weather patrol instead of the Wonderbolts, so what? I'm happy in Ponyville, happy with my friends, happy with –
"Well?" said RBD impatiently. "Will you join me or not?"
"No," Dash said quietly. "I like my life. I want to go back to it. Now. You tell me how to get out of here, and I'm gone. My... friends are waiting for me."
RBD stared at her, and she stared back, unwavering.
"Your friends? Applejack, Fluttershy –"
A meep came from the pegasus in the corner. Dash started a bit but immediately snapped her attention back to RBD, who had ignored it. Fluttershy?
"– Rarity, Pinkie Pie... Twilight Sparkle."
Dash stiffened at the sound of her own voice saying her friend's name in such a distasteful tone.
"Yes... Twilight Sparkle. The know-it-all egghead. The idiot who spends all her time locked away in her precious library, snout in a book, ignoring you unless she needs your help with something. What possible interest could you have in returning to that?"
Dash gritted her teeth. "Don't talk about her that way."
"Why not? She's spent years ignoring you; you can't deny that. Now it's your turn. Ignore her, ignore all of them and stay here, and live like a goddess."
"No," spat Dash.
RBD looked at her, unamused. "Last chance, Rainbow Dash."
"Did I stutter? I'm not staying here, I'm going – hey, get your hooves off me!" The pegasi Guards had come up to her, grabbed her, started dragging her out of the room. "Where are you taking me?"
RBD moved away, looking back out over the arena, her back to the others. Dash struggled against the Guards, thinking fast.
"RBD!" shouted Dash. "Where is Celestia? What did you do to her?"
RBD turned, glaring at Dash with such hateful intensity she went slack in surprise for a moment, unaware her face could look so cruel, unhappy to learn that it could.
"The same thing I'm going to do to you, user."
• • •
They took her back to the arena, which had been cleared of the other combatants and reconfigured in her absence. The various Iron Pony-style competition areas had disappeared, leaving behind a smooth glassy surface. Looking up, Dash saw the same roiling, stormy sky – but frowned when she saw less of it than before, and less of it by the second, for the arena was closing itself off, a ceiling materializing above them, sealing them in. Trapped.
The guardsponies released her and she stood alone in front of the stands, thousands of ponies pushing and jeering above her, eager for a look at the newcomer. She glared back at them, striking a defiant pose, and quickly scanned the interior of the now-enclosed coliseum, looking for any possible way out but finding none.
Behind her, she heard this place's version of Fluttershy begin speaking, at the same time hearing the timid voice boom from the arena's loudspeakers.
"Greetings, programs. What an... um... occasion, we have here before us. That is, because, we do indeed have in our midst a... user..."
She trailed off as Dash turned to look at her and squeaked a little before she continued, a little more strongly, pointing a hoof at Dash: "A user."
The crowd shouted and jeered, a roar of disapproval that crashed over Dash, almost making her wince at the force of it.
"So... what should we do? What does this... user... deserve? Maybe... um... the challenge of the Grid?"
Another roar, this one of approval and anticipation, of ponies wanting to see an enemy destroyed and secure in the knowledge they'll soon get their wish.
"And... who better to battle this... singular opponent? Perhaps someprogram who has some... um... experience... in these matters?" More approval from the crowd. Dash didn't like where this was heading. She readied herself, tensed up, wishing she knew what she was readying herself for.
"Your liberator... your luminary... your l-leader... the one who vanquished the tyranny of the user so many cycles before..."
An explosion of light from above made everyone look up. Dash saw the remnants of a firework sizzle out of existence and RBD come soaring out of it, banking, spiraling down toward the ground, moving faster and faster.
"Arrr Beee Deee!"
At the last second she flared her wings, braking, and slammed into the ground, sticking the landing perfectly, sending a wave of energy rippling through the strange glassy material they stood on. The crowd erupted, everyprogram leaping to their feet and calling, cheering, stamping their hooves. RBD reared up on her hind legs, shadowboxing, spreading her wings to full extension, reveling in their adulation. She fell back to all fours and stalked over to Dash, swishing her tail, flicking Dash in the face as she walked past.
"I've dreamed of this for a long time," RBD murmured in her ear, coming back around to face off with Dash, staring her down.
"Dreamed of what?" Dash snapped, but Fluttershy's double was approaching, balancing a tray with two bracelets on her back. She drew up between them and RBD reached out, taking one of the matte black devices and fitting it around her hoof with the detached air of somepony who's done this a thousand times; small telltales glowed to life on it. Dash reached out for the second, hesitating when she saw the bearer balk at the approach of her hoof.
"What's your name?" she asked, trying to inject a note of kindness in her voice, not sure if it was audible through the gruff bravado she felt obliged to keep there in this situation.
"I'm... I'm Shy," murmured the other pegasus.
Dash started to roll her eyes but caught herself. "I know you're shy, we're frie– I mean... I have a friend a lot like you, back home."
"Oh, no," Shy said, "that's my name. I'm Shy."
"Oh... right." Dash reached out again and took the band from Shy's back, who didn't recoil this time.
"Y-you... have a f-friend... like me?"
"Oh, yeah. She's my oldest friend, actually. We've known each other since I was just a little filly."
Shy bit her lip and looked ready to ask another question, but RBD swatted at her haunch; she yelped and galloped toward the stands. She blew past Cracken, who was standing in the entrance to the arena. Dash had the distinct impression Cracken was watching her.
"Enough chit-chat," RBD growled. "Game on!" She leapt and Dash ducked, though Dash realized belatedly she had taken off and was soaring over her; in slow motion, Dash looked up to see RBD touch a control on the band around her forehoof. Glowing lines of energy pulsed up her forelegs, snaking around the shimmering outline that was forming out of nothing: individual components coalesced from pure light into physical form and snapped together almost faster than she could process. Less than a second after RBD launched herself forward, a sleek black pack sat between her wings, and another touch of her forehoof triggered a burst of heat and light from shaped vents at the back of it, kicking her forward through the air at breathtaking speed.
"We've got no chance, user." A garbled voice came from behind her and she whirled, seeing four earth ponies rise up level with her, each with a bracelet around a foreleg. "They're all pegasi, and we don't have wings – we can't maneuver like they can." At her frown, the pony pointed up with his hoof, and she saw four pegasi Guards blast out into the arena from RBD's tower. They trailed ribbons of burning orange light that didn't dissipate behind them, looking like shimmering stained glass suspended in midair.
Dash heard hooves and turned back from the sky to her new friends, but they were already sprinting away, and one by one they touched the control on their bands and their packs lifted them away from the ground. She could tell immediately they wouldn't be as agile in the air as a pegasus, and there was something almost charmingly ungainly about an earth pony with its legs tucked under itself banking into a turn in midair. She shook herself out, unfurled her wings, and grinned.
"Okay, this I can do."
Dash exploded straight up, flapping hard once, twice, before touching the activation stud on her own band, seeing a smoked glass helmet unfold itself into place around her head, feeling the pack materialize on her back, feeling the kick as it activated, the thrust carrying her into the sky, like nothing she'd ever felt before. The effortlessness of it was exhilarating, the sense of speed and power as she cut through the air faster than she had in years.
The coliseum's new ceiling was coming up fast; it was clear, the same strange glasslike material as the floor, and she could see the sky beyond it, though somehow it wasn't all that reassuring. She twitched a wing and banked to the right, spinning out toward the center of the arena, startled by the beauty she saw there.
Everypony had ribbons of light trailing from them: the four Guards with their orange, led by RBD, whose ribbon was deeper, almost bloodred, and her four squadmates a delicate blue. As they twisted and dove around one another, the ribbons swirled and spun, tracing their flight paths, forming an enchanting crystal sculpture. She arced gently toward it, taking it in, feeling more at peace than she had since arriving in this dark place, loving the wind in her mane and tail, the rush of the air over her wings, even the hum of the device strapped to her back was somehow comforting...
One of the blue ribbons of light ahead of her flickered and died; the abrupt disappearance snapped her out of her trance, and she peered into the crystalline construct, frowning. She saw an impact mark on one of the orange barriers, a cracked star pattern, like she'd seen when a bird flew full-force into a windowpane. The shattered remnants of the earth pony who'd hit it rained to the ground, dissolving completely as they hit. She heard a cheer from the crowd, saw the exultant looks the flying Guards exchanged, and her eyes narrowed. Get your head in the game, Dash. This isn't some leisurely drift through the night sky, this is serious. Now get down there and show them how it's done! She hit the only other control on her legband and looked back, watching her own barrier flare to life behind her. She was grimly pleased to see that unlike the others' single-color ribbons, her was imbued with her very own rainbow dash, that prismatic streak of light that trailed behind her when she was moving at speed.
Dash tucked her wings in and dove, spinning into the outer layer of crisscrossing ribbons, blowing past one of the Guards like he was standing still. She smirked at his shout of surprise, swooping in front of him, hearing him get cut off as he smashed into her barrier at full speed, bursting into thousands of pieces that chimed and tinkled as they bounced down through the ribbons.
The Guard's ribbon disappeared as he did, opening a new path toward the other side of the translucent maze, and she sped through it, looking around, assessing the situation. While she'd dealt with the Guard, another of her teammates had been lost, and the two remaining were retreating to the outer edges of the arena, RBD and her minions in hot pursuit. She kicked up and over the central core their ribbons formed and blasted toward them, overtaking the trailing Guard from above. He looked up at her and she waved down at him before furling her wings and cutting the power to her pack's jet, dropping like a stone across his flight path, trailing rainbow death. He screamed and covered his face with his forelegs but it afforded little protection: one more out of the game.
Dash reignited her thruster and sped forward, coming up between the two remaining Guards, who gave her one look and immediately banked for each other, trying to sandwich her, but she put on a burst of speed and whipped past them; they skidded along either side of her ribbon for a moment before righting themselves and taking after her.
Ahead, she watched as RBD did much the same to the flying earth ponies, but when they dove together in an attempt to pincer her, she pushed ahead and cut right, catching one of them in the curve of her barrier, his anguished cry ending abruptly. Dash gritted her teeth and strained forward, catching up to her last squadmate, the two pegasi Guards trailing her, RBD banking in a long loop around the arena.
"Come on!" shouted Dash. "We've got to work together!"
The earth pony looked behind himself, then over at Dash and nodded. Dash looked back as well, gauging the distance from their pursuers, and sideslipped a little closer to her partner. Their barriers were corralling the two Guards behind and between them, though the idiots didn't seem to have realized that yet. Dash gestured to the earth pony and they both slowed imperceptibly, allowing the Guards to catch up... but also decreasing the amount of time they'd have to react to any maneuvers.
"Steady... steady... now!" Dash and her squadmate swerved toward each other, locking in a midair hug and corkscrewing around; Dash looked down between their bodies to see their ribbons spin into an impassable cone of light, saw the shocked expressions on the Guards' faces just before they both vaporized against the glassy barriers.
The two survivors broke apart and pulled right, skimming along the outer wall of the coliseum above the crowd. Dash reached out a foreleg and the earth pony bumped it with his own, grinning widely, riding a sweet wave of adrenaline. "That's what I'm talking about! Now let's get out there and show that madmare how it's done!"
Dash pivoted so her belly faced the wall and kicked, her strong back legs instantly adjusting her course, sending her shooting back out toward the center of the arena. A quick glance back told her that her wingmate had managed to come around on her tail. Not bad for an earth pony, she mused. Looking ahead, she found the arena much changed: with seven ponies out of the game, most of the light ribbons were gone, opening up more maneuvering room but making it harder for her to trap RBD in a bad spot. Speaking of... where the hay is she? Dash darted her gaze around frantically, following the trail of the bloodred ribbon slicing across the sky.
It looped through the center of the arena before coming up and over behind them. Dash gasped and looked left just in time to see RBD streak at her wingmate from above, savagely punching his pack; it exploded in a dazzling burst of energy and the earth pony fell out of the sky, howling in terror. RBD glanced over at Dash, a wicked smirk on her face. Dash growled and shut off her own pack, pointed herself at the plummeting earth pony then reignited, shooting towards him at breakneck speed.
He saw her coming for him and spread his legs, trying to increase his drag to slow his fall. She stretched out a foreleg, reaching for him... he reached back, and she could see the fear in his eyes through his visor... their hooves were almost touching, the ground was coming up fast...
Something slammed into her from the side, knocking her away from him. Instinctively, she tucked in her wings and braced just as she hit the ground, bouncing and rolling. As she tumbled, she felt the weight of her pack dissolve away. She scrabbled to a halt and looked back, seeing the shards of her last teammate melt away, as RBD banked up and around, coming back towards Dash to finish the job.
Dash growled and punched at her legband, but nothing happened – looking down, she saw its telltales flicker and fade before it dissolved into light. She looked back – RBD was streaking toward her, a vicious grin curling her lips – she braced herself, grimacing in pain, frustration, anger – not like this, she thought, it wasn't supposed to be like this!
A burst of pure white light blinded her; when her vision cleared, another pony stood next to her, and RBD was arcing away erratically, her forelegs covering her visor. Dash gaped.
"Grab my tail!"
Dash stared at the newcomer. A unicorn, in shades of purple. "Twilight?"
Dash clamped her teeth on the mare's tailbase, and white-hot light consumed her.
• • •
"Okay. Objectives: one, determine which of the commands I entered is specifically responsible for... dematerializing Rainbow Dash; two, determine if any other available commands are capable of interacting with the physical world, in the interest of our safety; three, determine where Rainbow Dash is now, which should hopefully lead to four, determine where Princess Celestia is now; five, determine how to get them back. Simple," said Twilight.
"Is it?" asked Luna.
"Well... probably. Hopefully?"
"Then let us begin."