Dash stumbled – that’s getting old – as the ground changed from slick smoothness to rocky unevenness beneath her hooves. She tried to look around, but it was pitch black.
Lavender light sparked up to her left, illuminating a horn the same shade, and she shielded her eyes; a moment later warm yellow light filled the room. Room might be the wrong word, Dash thought as she blinked, looking around.
She was standing in a chamber hewn from blue-black rock, the surfaces rough, a contrast to the sleek surroundings of the Grid. Beside her stood a unicorn wrapped in a skintight jumpsuit not unlike her own, with channels of pale yellow tracing over her body that reminded Dash of sunlight.
“I’m afraid not, Rainbow Dash... but I can understand your confusion.” Purple eyes twinkled back at her; Dash stared, her mouth hanging open. Despite the coloration, this was definitely not her Twilight. The outfit was one thing, but the rakishly-styled haircut was quite another. Both her mane and tail were cropped short, though they maintained her usual straight-angled cuts.
“Uhh...” Dash found her voice. “Yeah, you’re not Twilight. So... who are you? And how do you know who I am?”
“My name is Spark. And I know a great deal about the great Rainbow Dash! Celestia’s told me all about you and your frie–”
“Celestia!? Is she here? Is she okay!?”
Spark grinned. “Yes, she’s perfectly fine, if a bit lonely. I guess I’m not always the best company. And I’ll take you to her now, she’ll be really excited to see you!”
Dash allowed herself to be led off through a short tunnel cut out of the rockface. She was silent at first, trying to come to grips with her rapid-fire reversal of fortune and mildly distracted by Spark’s too-short tail bobbing in front of her. Finally, she said, “You’re not Twilight. I’ve already met not-Rarity, not-Fluttershy, and not... me. So what are you?”
They’d reached the end of the tunnel and come to rest on a smooth platform. As Spark turned to face her, the platform lit up and began to rise, taking them with it. Dash looked up and saw darkness stretching away above them.
“I’m a program. I was written by Celestia, based on your friend, as were the other familiar programs you’ve met.”
“Yeah... Twilight sorta explained this stuff before, but... I didn’t really get it. What exactly is a program?”
“At the most basic level, I’m simply a sequence of instructions designed to be carried out by Celestia’s computational engine. I’m admittedly a fairly complicated sequence of instructions, covering everything from how I look and move, to how I’m allowed to interact with the world around me, to how I sound when I speak and how I process information – that is to say, how I think.”
Dash considered this. “That’s weird,” she announced before tentatively prodding Spark’s side. “You don’t feel like a list of instructions.”
“That’s because one of those instructions is to make me feel like a real pony,” Spark said cheerfully.
Dash sighed. “Of course it is. So am I a list-of-whatever now that I’m in here too?”
“No,” Spark said thoughtfully. “You’re something else entirely. You’re a user – a real flesh-and-blood pony, represented within the virtual reality interface by very powerful magic that I don’t fully understand.”
“Now I know you’re not Twilight,” Dash laughed. “There’s no magic she doesn’t understand.”
Spark looked indignant. “I doubt your Twilight would either! Only Celestia is capable of manipulating and maintaining the necessary spell matrix. She’s taught me the theory behind it, but I haven’t yet figured out how to actually execute it. It can be quite draining for her; she spends a lot of time in meditation to keep her strength up.”
“Huh.” Dash turned this over in her mind. She’d never seen Celestia look tired... well, there was that one time Chrysalis had knocked her down... She opened her mouth to ask a question, but Spark shushed her and she managed to keep herself from bristling impatiently.
“We’re almost there. She’s meditating now, so keep quiet while I rouse her.” Dash nodded, and the platform clicked into place. They had arrived in a large room with polished floors that matched the platform – like before, she couldn’t even locate the seam – but rough blue-black walls, like the tunnel they’d come from.
There was furniture scattered throughout the room, low-slung sofas and lounges and tables, and bookcases along some of the walls. The far wall wasn’t a wall at all, but a great wide window looking out over the darkened landscape. Dash thought she could see Canterlot off in the distance.
In the center of the room sat a great shape, softly glowing in a mystical field of light. It almost looked like slow-falling stars, or raindrops made of energy. The shape itself was dark, roughly twice Dash’s height, and she almost wouldn’t have recognized her, except she’d known to expect her: gone were the crown and jewels of office, replaced by a flowing black robe with one or two streaks of light tracing its curves, and her usually rippling mane hung limp on her neck. Dash realized she was seeing a different Celestia than she’d been used to in her youth. Celestia was cloaked, secretive... in hiding.
She stayed where she was as Spark trotted over to the silent form of the princess. Her large eyes were closed, and their eyelids flickered gently when Spark bent her mouth to a great white ear and murmured, “Celestia, we have a visitor.”
Eyes still closed, Celestia smiled ruefully as she shifted and sat up, rolling her neck, shaking out each leg. “That’s a new one, Spark. Very funny; your studies of humor are coming along nicely.”
“She’s, uh... she’s not joking, Your Highness.”
Celestia froze. She turned to face Dash, and opened her deep magenta eyes. Spark bit her lip and stood off to the side as the two flesh-and-blood ponies stared at each other.
A few hours ago, Dash had been sure she’d never hear her name in that voice again. She was surprised by how anticlimactic it felt: ten years since she’d last seen her princess, and they were just standing there looking at each other. She remembered herself and dropped her front half into a bow; her suit squeaked in protest. “Princess Celes–”
She felt herself swept up by forelegs much larger and stronger than hers, and found her face pressed into a vibrant multicolored mane that was not her own. “Rainbow Dash!” the princess half-choked, and they fell to the floor, Dash frantically trying to think of something to say or do as the Goddess of the Sun wept into her mane. She looked to Spark for help and was further surprised by a wistful smile on the program’s face. “It is you – not a program, not a simulacrum, not a fevered dream! I can tell.” She pulled back slightly, staring into Dash’s eyes. “Do you know you are the first real pony, other than me, to enter the system?”
“I, uh... I guess it’s an honor, Prince–”
“Call me Celestia, please,” the princess cut her off. She seemed to come back to herself slightly, looking down at the two of them huddled up together on the floor. “Forgive me. It has been... it has been a very long time since I have seen anypony I did not personally create.”
Celestia stepped back, her robes falling into place, and Dash pushed herself to her hooves. “Ten years is a long time, Prin– Celestia. We’ve all missed you.”
Dash was shocked to see a haunted look flit through her princess’s eyes. “Ten years is a long time, my little pony. A thousand years, a much longer time.”
Spark came up beside Celestia. “She means, Rainbow Dash, that time passes more quickly within the simulation than it does outside it. By a factor of one hundred, to be precise.”
Dash gaped. “You’ve been trapped in here for a thousand years?”
Celestia nodded. “When did you arrive in-system, Rainbow Dash?”
“I dunno, an hour or two?”
“Then only a minute or so has passed in the real world.” Before Dash could ponder the implications of this, she continued. “I must know, Miss Dash – well, I must know a great many things, and truth be told I am having difficulty ordering my thoughts, but most importantly: how did you come to be here?”
“Look, both of you, just call me Dash. And it was kind of an accident. I’d given Twilight a ride to Canterlot after she got your letter, and –”
“Yeah, you know, the one you sent to Twilight, asking her for help?”
“My letter... Of course. Please, do continue.”
Dash frowned, but kept going. “So anyway, I was tagging along with Twilight and Princess Luna when they figured out how to open your secret bookcase thingy and get into your hidden room, and Twilight started messing around with your master console or whatever, and then this other machine almost zapped her but I pushed her out of the way and got I zapped instead! Next thing I know, I’m in a weird version of the castle and everything’s different.”
“I expect you were then captured by a Black Guard patrol and taken to the Challenge Grid.”
“She was about to be derezzed by RBD, but I intervened,” Spark chimed in.
“Well done, my student. But only programs are subject to deresolution; the correct term for a user is ‘death’.”
“Wait – I really would have died? Like for real?”
Celestia pursed her lips. “Yes. Your consciousness would be transferred to temporary storage for eventual permanent deletion, and your body would be ejected from the matter storage matrix – that is to say, it would reappear in the real world."
Dash scrunched up her face. “That seems like a really stupid way to do it... uh, no offense, Prin– Celestia.”
The princess laughed lightly. “I agree, Dash. I didn’t have a chance to write all the necessary subroutines for handling that particular situation before I became trapped inside, and it’s not possible to modify the simulation’s executable code from within.”
“Celestia,” said Spark, and Dash thought for a moment how strange it was to hear Twilight address the princess so directly.
“Yes, my student?”
“You sent a message to the outside world without mentioning it?”
Celestia’s face grew dark and troubled. “No, I did not.”
Dash started. “Hey! Yes you did!”
Celestia turned and strode slowly to the window. Spark followed and Dash hurried to catch up, and was surprised to see there wasn’t a window at all: the room was completely open to the outside world. She looked out and, despite the lack of illumination, recognized the view. “We’re in Smoky Mountain, right? Where that dragon was trying to take a nap, and you sent us to get rid of him?”
The ghost of a smile passed over Celestia’s muzzle. “Yes. It seemed the safest place to lay low. Who would ever think to look for the Creator in an unremarkable cavern, deep within a mountain chain?”
Dash muttered, “I still don’t really get why you sent us to do that. You’re Princess Celestia, you could have just made him leave.”
Celestia arched an eyebrow. “Is that the world you want to live in, Dash? One where all your problems are solved by your princess, where you must never learn nor grow, where you make no decisions of your own?"
“Uh... I guess not.”
“No. Little good comes of trying to do everything for everypony. Dictatorship, no matter how benevolent, rarely ends well, and in the meantime it makes everypony's lives very... boring.” Spark looked up at Celestia with an unreadable expression, and Dash suddenly felt uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry, Pri– Celestia. I’ve – we’ve all – had good lives.”
Celestia turned, looked down at Dash, smiled. “I am glad to hear it. And I would be glad to hear more. Are you hungry?”
Dash paused to think. “I... I guess so, yeah. Does that even make sense?”
Celestia laughed again. “Of course; you’re still a pony. Come, I’ll prepare something for us while you tell us of Equestria... the real Equestria.”
• • •
While Celestia magicked up raw ingredients and Spark acted as assistant chef, Dash told them about life back home since the princess had disappeared. She regaled them with tales of Rarity’s expanding business interests, Applejack’s reluctant acceptance of a certain small degree of automation at the farm, Fluttershy’s successful series of ‘home care for critters’ guides, and Pinkie Pie’s inheritance of Sugarcube Corner when the Cakes had retired. Celestia asked questions here and there, visibly relieved when Dash reassured her that Luna had done an admirable job of managing the country in her absence, and Spark soaked up the first-pony account of life in the real world like a sponge.
Dash helped carry plates to the table and they all sat. She was surprised to see that Celestia carried two settings, and Spark took her place in front of one of them. “You can eat?”
“Oh, mine’s not real food. Simulated food for a simulated pony.”
“So... what’s the point?”
“Sharing meals together is a very important social act, a key aspect of companionship.”
Dash choked on her first bite of grass burger, her mind racing ahead. “Companionship? Are you two, uhhh...” How would that even work, come on –
Spark gave Dash a blank look; Celestia looked startled, before bursting out into peals of laughter. “Oh, Dash! I haven’t laughed that hard in years, thank you, but really, don’t be absurd. Of course, I mean no offense to you, Spark...” Spark turned her blank look on the princess, who sighed and nodded as if she should have expected that reaction. “Dash misinterpreted your explanation as meaning that you and I were intimately involved.”
“Aren’t we? We live together, take care of each other... I mean, you wrote me, for –”
“Sexually involved, Spark.”
Spark ground to a halt, looking surprised. “Well, that’s just silly. I’m not even capable of sexual activity! I only know what it is because I’ve read about it in your reference books.”
It was Dash’s turn to look surprised. “Wait, you can’t –” She turned to Celestia. “She can’t –?”
Celestia managed to look both amused and regretful. “I’m afraid not. Another piece of the simulation I hadn’t completed before my accidental imprisonment. It did make for an interesting conversation the day Spark ran across the entries on reproduction in the Encyclopaedia Equestria.”
Dash snorted into her hay fries. “I bet.”
“And what of your... involvements, Dash?” Celestia was openly grinning now, a mischievous glint in her large eyes. “You’ve told me about your friends’ courtships, but nothing of your own... or my original most faithful student’s, for that matter.”
“Well, I – uh – there hasn’t really – I mean, it’s not like –”
An indulgent smile. “Calm yourself, my little pony; I’m only teasing.”
“Dash, why is your face so red?”
“Shut up, Spark,” Dash muttered.
• • •
After lunch, they retired to one of the groups of furniture dotting the cavern. Dash stretched out on a sofa, gazing out the opening at Canterlot glinting in the distance. She frowned.
“So it’s like... early afternoon, right?”
Spark’s face went slightly slack as she recited tonelessly, “It is 11:12 AM, System Standard Time.”
Dash blinked. Even Twilight didn’t have a clock in her head. “Creepy.” Spark’s expression became quizzical, but Dash went on obliviously. “So, why’s it still dark out? Didn’t have time to make the sun shine here, either?”
Celestia laughed softly, a mellifluous sound. “Oh, I did, but within the simulation it was largely aesthetic, as the climate and so on are controlled by weather subsystems. When I was not inside the simulation, the sun would automatically raise and lower itself as scheduled, but when the system detected I was present, the automatic subroutine deactivated, allowing me to raise or lower it manually. A silly force of habit, you understand. But since going into hiding, I’ve had to restrain myself. The necessary spell is too easily traceable.”
“What would RBD do if she found you?” Dash asked uneasily.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Celestia admitted. “I assume she would attempt to kill me, and with the Black Guard behind her she could easily succeed.”
“I kinda thought, yannow... actually, I’m pretty sure everypony thinks that you’re immortal.”
Celestia looked thoughtful for a moment before explaining, “In the real world, it would be very nearly impossible for somepony or something to end my existence, though ‘immortal’ is perhaps a touch too strong a word. In here, however, I’m just like anypony else, and... well, I already explained what would happen to a user who was terminated within the simulation.”
“So you’ve hidden away all these years – centuries – because you didn’t want to risk getting your mind erased?”
“Yes. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, after all, and I must admit to a certain fondness of my own.” The princess grinned.
Dash blew out a breath. “But you’re Princess Celestia! How in Equestria did you end up trapped inside a dinky box inside your own castle!?”
“Unfortunately, the Portal requires enormous power to stay open and active. To keep from burning out the associated circuits, it is programmed to shut down after eight hours of system time, or just under five minutes in real-world time.”
“You couldn’t just turn it back on?”
“As I said, it’s not possible to enter commands from within the active simulation: it can only be done from outside. I never anticipated anything would prevent me from returning within the allotted time.”
Dash’s brow knotted. “What happened?”
Celestia looked mournful. “You happened. Or rather, RBD happened.” Dash couldn’t decide if she should look angry or indignant as the princess lit her horn, ghostly images beginning to coalesce between them, illustrating her words. “I don’t know how much Twilight already told you –”
“Not much,” said Dash, suddenly impatient to finally find out exactly what was going on. “She kept what she was working on a secret, I only found out about it when she needed a ride to Canterlot.”
“I see. Well, a brief overview: for some time before my... unfortunate disappearance, I had been engaged in a project. Even immortal princesses of Equestria need a hobby, you understand, and mine happened to be the creation of what came to be a computational engine: a mechanical contrivance that was capable of carrying out very complex calculations in an instant.”
Swirling mist came together to form geared mechanisms and a big complicated mass of equipment and thread; small notecards with holes cut in them appeared next to the equipment. Dash wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“Some of the advanced looms used by the textile industry can store instructions on punchcards, which in turn control how the loom weaves the fibers together to produce specific patterns. I realized I could combine this idea with a mechanical calculator to produce a machine that was capable of instantly carrying out complex mathematical calculations.”
The mess of gears, cotton, and cards melded together, and in a flash transformed into what might have been a very primitive version of the boxy machines Dash had seen in Celestia’s hidden workshop.
“I knew such a device would result in much time saved in many different fields, but as I worked and improved my models” – the primitive machine was replaced by successively more advanced versions, and in greater numbers – “I began to realize that it was capable of far more influential accomplishments than mere number-crunching, and I eventually created the system you have entered: a simulation of the real-life Equestria.” The view of the machines expanded, as though Dash was flying into them, and inside was a three-dimensional view of her home, glowing softly in the air.
Dash looked out the window again, taking in the almost-familiar skyline. “Yeah, but... what’s the point? We already have an Equestria. I mean, Twilight did the same thing in her basement, making a copy of Ponyville. But even she didn’t understand the point of it. She said it just... sat there.”
Celestia hung her head slightly. “As I have managed to demonstrate several times, I am not all-knowing, nor do I possess future sight. Age and experience has granted me wisdom, but not infallibility. I do possess the capacity to make mistakes, and when I do, it is often with far-reaching consequences for my little ponies.” The images in the air turned to confusion, angry and scared ponies running, other creatures chasing them, and Dash winced.
“Having a simulated version of the real world that ran at a much faster speed would allow me to perform trial runs, as it were: I could implement a policy change or announcement here first and let the simulation run for a time, to see if there were any unplanned side effects. With tweaking and revision and multiple runs, I could perfect all my decisions ahead of time.” The view split, and showed the same image to begin with, but as the ponies within began going about their business, they all went different ways.
Dash stared at the princess. “Seriously?”
Celestia smiled softly. “Seriously.”
The pegasus looked incredulous. “How is that even possible? The thing would have to know more than you, be smarter than you! How could a machine possibly predict what one pony will do, let alone all of us?”
“A large enough database of information allows it to predict the actions of ponies en masse, if not individually. I loaded it with all of equine history, all details of the entire social, political, and economic situation in Equestria and the same for the surrounding countries, a wide knowledge of psychology in all its ramifications, a wide knowledge of technology with all its possibilities, weaponry, communications, strategy and tactics, science, medicine... the entire contents of the Royal Libraries, in fact.” Dash saw countless books flying into Celestia’s workshop, being scanned by a glowing field.
“Every book, every scroll, every document since Equestria’s founding and even earlier thanks to the Archaeology department. I can confidently and without shame state that the system does ‘know more than me’, more than any one pony has ever or can ever know. That’s the only way it could possibly make accurate predictions.”
Dash looked at Spark helplessly, but the unicorn was humming to herself and gazing thoughtfully at a game board sitting off to the side. She frowned and looked back at Celestia.
“If this thing’s so smart, how come everything’s gone to Tartarus? You’re hiding in a cave, for crying out loud!”
Celestia nodded. “As I have mentioned, my work was incomplete at the time I became trapped. Several key aspects had yet to be built into the simulation. For example, there is no concept of aging here – that is to say, physical degradation over time.” A cross-section of an earth pony appeared, vitals displayed alongside. “Every program left in the simulation now has been active since it started; they have all lived through the equivalent of a thousand years, and will go on indefinitely.”
“So they don’t get sick, or die of old age?”
“Precisely. A program will only derezz here through an accident, or deliberate violence.” The earth pony dissolved into shards of light.
Dash thought back to the pegasus who’d clipped the pillar. He was over a thousand years old, and he died because of a stupid mistake? Then, with a start, she remembered the aerial lightpack battle. I killed programs. A bunch of thousand-year-old programs...
Another voice chimed in. You didn’t have a choice, it was you or them. It’s not like you killed ponies... She looked uneasily at Spark. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.
“It took some time for the population to notice they weren’t aging, and to realize that if left alone they would live indefinitely. Once the situation was common knowledge, it made the programs cautious; few were eager to give up immortality.” The three-dimensional view of Equestria returned, this time with small glowing dots scattered across the map, which slowly began to contract to the center. “Those that still lived gathered together in Canterlot, and that is where the majority of the survivors live today.”
Dash couldn’t figure something out. “Okay, but where were you while all this was happening?” She was startled by an expression on Celestia’s face she never imagined there: shame.
“I was here. Hiding. Exhausted by maintaining the life support spell, I was unable to prevent any of it.” Spark was paying attention now, watching Celestia with a concerned look on her face.
Still utterly confused, Dash asked, “But why were you hiding in the first place? You said I – RBD did something. What happened?”
Something flared in Celestia’s eyes; Dash almost took it for anger. “Corruption. During my test simulation, RBD spit her bit, as the saying goes, though ‘flipped her bit’ would perhaps be more accurate. Like the others, RBD was meant to represent her Element of Harmony, but it skewed away from allegiance to her friends. She became loyal to herself alone. She felt she deserved to be in charge, that nopony was a better leader than her. She brought some of the guards around to her way of thinking, and they came for me.” Pain flashed in her eyes now. “I was with APP – Applejack’s simulacrum – when they arrived. When she saw RBD meant to cause me harm, she forced me to leave and held them off long enough for me to escape. I – I –” Dash was shocked again to see tears running down Celestia’s pained face. “I heard her screams. APP’s, I mean. I of course know that she is not truly Applejack, that the real Applejack was safe and sound in the real world, but... it was little comfort.”
Spark spoke up quietly. “She came to Ponyville, to the library, and found me. We ran – didn’t even stop to pack anything.”
Celestia sniffed, wiped her eyes with a hoof, cleared her throat. “I explained the system’s true nature to Spark, and we made for the Portal, but before we could get there...”
“The Portal closed,” Dash said hollowly.
“Celestia led us here to regroup, but we slowly realized there was nothing to be done. So we... settled down, built this place.” Spark looked around the room fondly. “Over the years, I’d sneak back to the library to grab books, at least until RBD figured out what was going on and destroyed it.”
“Spark has had to be much more careful since then about venturing outside our Smoky Mountain hideaway,” Celestia said, the barest hint of admonishment in her voice.
“I’m always careful!” Spark protested. “And it’s a good thing I do go out; if I hadn’t, who knows what would have happened to Dash!”
“Hey! I can take care of myself!” Dash glared, but her heart wasn’t really in it. “I do, uh, appreciate the help, though.”
Spark sniffed. “You’re welcome.”
Dash turned back to Celestia. “So what now? The Portal’s still open, right? Let’s get going, we can finally get you back to Equestria!”
The princess hesitated before admitting, “It’s not quite that simple, I’m afraid.”
Dash snorted. “Seems pretty simple to me. The Portal’s only open for, what, another four hours? We gotta get moving before it shuts down again.” She stood, pawing at the ground.
“Celestia isn’t exactly in the best condition, Dash...” Spark said reluctantly.
The pegasus eyed the alicorn. “Right... you’re usually pretty tired, from maintaining the life spell?”
“It is a great drain on me, yes,” Celestia said sadly. “I’m afraid there’s no way I could summon the energy or focus necessary to teleport us there, and flying would take too long.”
“Well, Spark can take us!” Dash whirled back to face the unicorn, grinning. “She teleported me here, she doesn’t have to deal with the life spell!”
“I can only teleport someplace I’ve been before, or at least that I can see clearly. And even if I’d been to the Portal before, it’s practically at the other end of the system, in the middle of the Badlands... long-distance teleportation with two passengers?” Spark bit her lip. “I don’t know if I could manage it.”
“There’s gotta be another option!” Dash said, a touch of desperation creeping into her voice. “No offense, guys, but I’d really rather not be stuck inside this place forever!”
Celestia looked thoughtful and her horn glowed softly, the map of Equestria appearing in the air between them all once more. “Of course, the system includes all the major railways that exist in the real world. A branch line runs past the mountain range we’re in, through Ponyville, and out to Dodge Junction, near the Badlands.” A glowing line swept along the track’s route. “Close enough that I believe we could manage the remainder of the trip on the wing.”
“The next train will pass through our area in approximately ten minutes,” Spark said. “We’d need to change trains in Ponyville...” Her eyes unfocused as she called up a mental copy of the train schedule. “I think we could make it.”
Celestia turned to look out of the cavern. Dash followed her gaze, and to the right of Canterlot and farther away, she noticed a bright blue star, but it was much too low to actually be in the sky. She looked back at the princess, and saw the star reflected in her magenta eyes, which hardened in sudden determination. “Of course you’re right, Dash. This may be my only chance – our only chance – to return home. We have to try.” Then she looked taken aback, and turned to the unicorn sitting across from her. “Spark... my most faithful, faithful companion. You understand that if we succeed...”
Spark nodded and said simply, “It’s not possible for me to leave the system.” Dash winced and ruffled her wings awkwardly, and Spark noticed. “It’s okay, Dash.” She gave Celestia a determined look. “I belong here – literally. You belong outside, in the real Equestria. I want you to go. It’s the only logical course of action; nothing else makes any sense.”
Celestia looked as though she was trying very hard to not cry; her eyes shone as she spoke. “I swear to you that if... when we make it out, I will do everything in my power to correct the... the damage I have wrought here. You don’t deserve to live like this... noprogram deserves to live like this.”
Spark smiled softly up at her mentor. “I know you will, Celestia.”
And then Celestia staggered back, as though somepony had stabbed her, almost falling to the ground. “No...” she whispered, staring madly into the distance.
Dash and Spark both rushed to her side. “Princess! What is it?!”
The alicorn raised a weak hoof, pointing out the cavern mouth. “The Portal, it’s...”
Dash looked, and her belly turned to ice. Her vision shrank to a dark tunnel, centered on the bright blue star in the distance. It flashed once, twice, and then it winked out completely, leaving a pitch-black horizon and no way out of the nightmare she’d found herself in.
• • •
“Okay! I suspected as much, but it’s good to know for certain: the last command I entered, right before Rainbow disappeared, was the one that actually caused her to disappear. It was the activation command for the device behind us – referred to here as “the Gateway” – and several of the previous commands were responsible for routing power to it and actually turning it on.”
“Can you deactivate it?”
“Yes, I think so... Once I do, we should be safe – I won’t enter those commands again, and it’s not possible for this thing to turn itself back on. Stand over there, Luna, just in case.”
Luna stepped back, watching the device closely, as Twilight entered a few commands. The faint hum that had emanated from it dwindled to nothing, and the princess turned back to Twilight and the master console, ignoring the Gateway as the light behind its gems faded to darkness.