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Memory Mark

by starscribe

Sweetie Belle dragged her hooves through Carousel Boutique. It didn't matter how long it had been since she'd woken to the smell of steaming hotcakes. She could drench them with syrup, and tell her big sister about the plans for her next adventure this lazy summer day.

Rarity wasn't in the kitchen, though. Her sister had more important things to do. Sweetie passed the pantry without a second glance. She didn't feel much like breakfast anyway.

Sand and bits of broken glass rubbed painfully against her hooves as she clambered down to the ground floor. She paused just long enough to prop up a mannequin that had blown over in the wind.

She posed beside it in the broken mirror, running one hoof through her mane to straighten it. No need, she was already looking perfect.

She ducked past a fallen beam, then out onto the streets of Ponyville. Rarity might not think she was important enough to be worth stopping back from the Castle—so what? Sweetie wouldn't waste another day of summer.

Sweetie shielded her eyes with one hoof as she emerged into the sunlight. Another beautiful summer day—she sure did love living here.

Sweetie set off across town at a brisk trot, staying ahead of the dust her hooves kicked up. Washing all that off each night could be a pain, but it was worth it. The billowing sand had turned every window into an opaque brown surface long ago, so she didn't have to see inside.

Sweetie cut the same path across Ponyville, staying streets away from city hall. The blackened spire still poked up onto the horizon, like a splinter in her hoof. She kept herself focused on the distant horizon until she was well past it.

Sweetie had dim memories of clearing this path, shoving aside skeletal brown growth or the wreckage of charred carts. Nothing could ruin her morning walk quite like tripping on a rusty metal axel.

Finally, she found herself approaching her destination: the Castle of Friendship.

Shards of blue crystal and purple crystal spread around the outskirts of Ponyville like a garden, somehow always free of dust. Large chunks had pierced the nearby buildings, growing out from inside like trees. Smaller shards arranged themselves into little flower-beds between them, refracting the perpetual sunlight into little rainbows.

[good place for a memory]

She slowed as she crossed uneven crystal grass, taking each step carefully. If she slipped and cut herself open again, she might take days stitching back together. 

Sweetie slowed as she passed a crystal fountain, admiring the arrangement of the nearby hedges. She'd decorated them herself, each one colored after ponies she knew. Finding enough white crystal to look like her big sister had taken weeks.

Who should I make next? Her garden could always use a few more ponies. But no. A shadow loomed large on the horizon, a vast cloud of black dust. She needed to get to shelter, and the castle was just ahead.

She broke into a trot, ducking and weaving through the maze of shear walls and half-collapsed corridors. The closer she got to the center, the more of the old castle had survived. It wasn't just the storm driving her forward now—Sweetie had another purpose.

Finally she reached an intact crystal archway, lit by the diffuse refraction of the sun. For a few more seconds, anyway.

"Sweetie, you made it!" Scootaloo hovered just inside, buzzing briefly into the air as Sweetie approached. "Wasn't sure you'd make it!"

"Like I have anywhere else to go," she answered, grinning back. "Come on, we gotta get further in!"

Scootaloo turned to watch her go, though she didn't move. "Sure. See you downstairs? Apple Bloom's waiting."

She didn't have time to slow down, not even to call back at her friend to hurry. She dodged around a collapsed wall, then finally reached an open passage leading down. Not the proper stairs to the basement level, or else she would've reached the center. 

This passage was formed of a narrow crystal passage, somehow piercing intact through the earth. She galloped a few steps, then leapt, clambering up onto slanted crystal.

The storm hit like the crashing of a gigantic wave. Crystal rattled all around her, as a thousand other shards were shattered into increasingly tiny pieces. There would be a little more grass in her garden when it finally passed. 

The reflected glow went out, plunging Sweetie Belle into darkness.

She slid downward through the slide. Her hooves scraped uselessly, barely slowing her as she went down. "Help! Somepony..."

"We're down here!" Two voices in the distance, far below. Apple Bloom was a little easier to see, her yellow coat seeming to glow against a background of purple crystal stained black. 

"I can't stop!" She reached vainly for the wall. Her hooves sparked as she struck against something metal, but the flash barely did anything to light her way.  Except for the gigantic opening in the tunnel, where the tunnel had broken against a chunk of gray granite. 

"I'm gonna crash!"

"Lay down flat!" Scootaloo yelled. "You won't crash!"

"You're the expert!" Sweetie yelled back, frustrated. But her friend was right—she had seen a large enough gap through the stone. She crouched down low, scattering chunks of dust and charred carpet. Something brushed overhead, close enough that she could feel it against her perfectly curled mane.

Then she was past it, with her friends rushing up to meet her. Sweetie squealed and flailed, but she only had a split second to prepare herself as the path leveled out. 

She tumbled head-over-hooves, bumping and rolling painfully to a stop.

She remained where she fell, hooves positioned awkwardly over her head. "I think this counts as crashing, Scootaloo."

Her friend appeared beside her, watching sympathetically. "Yeah, maybe. Would've been way cooler if you'd brought some wheels this time."

"Glad you made it," Apple Bloom said. "I wasn't sure you'd be able to get ahead of that storm!"

Sweetie bit her lip, waiting for somepony to help her up. When they didn't, she rolled painfully onto her belly, then rose. She felt a little rattled from the impact, maybe with a fresh scratch or two. Both when she tried her legs, she found nothing broken.

"I couldn't stay home again," she said, starting past the two of them. "Not when we're so close."

They followed along one wall, keeping pace with her. Somehow her friends always managed to stay perfectly clean—they didn't choke in the dust getting here, and their manes hadn't been bleached by the sun. She should really ask what conditioner they were using.

"You sure you want to look for the center today?" Scootaloo asked. She stopped beside the first doorway they passed, where rusting metal emerged from the crystal hallway. Sweetie never looked too closely at what was inside. Even so, she couldn't talk to her friend without at least seeing the pony-shaped shadows, arranged on workbenches and tables. "You know we could make something awesome!"

Sweetie hummed a troubled melody to herself, hurrying past the open doorway. She didn't need to see that stuff again. 

"Come on, Scoots. That ain't how it works, you know that." Apple Bloom was waiting around the next bend in the hallway. So close to the center, the walls had a curve, distorting her body a little. But her friend didn't seem to mind, so Sweetie was polite enough not to mention it. "We're almost inside! She doesn't need more distractions!"

Unfortunately, the glow of Sweetie's horn illuminated plenty of distractions. The walls here were covered in old paintings and photos. They were hung haphazardly, sometimes just leaned against the wall.

They were deep enough underground that the heat of constant sun hadn't ruined the pigments. Sweetie saw old faces smiling out at her. There was a group photo from the '23 reunion of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. There were so many ponies that they could fill the steps of city hall, and spread out onto the lawn all around. 

There were other memories here too—dresses heaped and stacked beside each other, awards Sweetie had won at musical competitions around Equestria. A copy of the old friendship journal, propped open to her big sister's chapters.

The corridors twisted in on themselves, bending in unexpected ways. It wasn't magic—couldn't be magic, anymore. But still it managed to confuse her with every visit. Sweetie circled her little vault of memories a dozen times, wearing the groove in the crystal a little deeper. 

It was here, it had to be here. She felt it in her chest, driving her to keep moving. There was a center to this maze.  With each step, she let her eyes drift further down, avoiding the treasures of her vault. If she stopped, she might start to remember, and distraction would invite her to give up.

"You're so close!" Apple Bloom urged. "Can't you feel it?"

Sweetie came to an abrupt stop, slumping onto her haunches in the center of the hallway. "Yes! I know it's here! There's a way through... there has to be." Her voice was a pitiful squeak, like she was a filly all over again.

Her friends didn't mind. There wasn't enough bare wall for her to see them here, but she could still hear them. They were very close, right over her shoulder. But they'd never be able to give her the hug she needed right now.

"Forget about it," Scootaloo said. "Who cares what Princess Twilight wanted? She didn't stay to help, so why should we keep trying?"

"Shhh," Apple Bloom argued. "She doesn't need to hear that."

Sweetie didn't need to hear that, because she was already thinking about it. "How long have I been trying to find the center, anyway?"

"Uh..." Apple Bloom's voice pitched a little higher. "I don't remember."

"Don't lie!" Scootaloo snapped. "Not cool, Apple Bloom. What would your sister say?"

"That I need to help my friend," she countered. "Sweetie, you're so close to solving this."

"It's been a long time," Scootaloo said. But she wasn't mad at the interruption—this was what Sweetie really wanted to hear. "Two hundred and sixty three years. Three months, one day, thirteen hours."

The answer pressed against Sweetie's mind like another shard of shattered crystal. She'd been searching here for centuries. That answer didn't make any sense! She waited for Apple Bloom to contradict the obvious lie, but only silence followed.

Sweetie rose to her hooves, trotting nervously over to the wall. A huge photo hung here, properly squared and framed as Sweetie never bothered to do.

She saw the citizens of Ponyville—Twilight and her friends all gathered together, grinning back at her through time. That was an old photo even to Sweetie Belle—it came from the time before the princess had taken over rule of Equestria, before friendship had begun to fail.

"How can that be me?" she reached out with one hoof, pressing against her own slight form near the bottom of the frame. Filly Sweetie Belle was there, grinning beside Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. "I'm not a princess. I wouldn't have that long."

"There aren't any princesses anymore," Scootaloo said. "Don't you remember?"

She didn't want to. Fires on the horizon, screaming, ponies fighting at wells gone dry. Days that got longer and longer, until the sun never set.

"We forgot what friendship meant," Apple Bloom said. "All Equestria did, ah figure. Our big sisters did their best to keep it all goin', but... you know how it went."

The old photograph shifted under her hoof. Sweetie pushed, and it slid sideways, revealing a mirrored metal button.

Sweetie looked back at her reflection. Her white coat peeled away at the edges, with patches of dull metal visible underneath. The complex metal apertures of her eyes narrowed as she focused on the little image. She gasped, stumbling back. The old photo slid back into place, concealing it again.

"I don't..." she stammered. Her horn flickered with her emotions, almost timed to her words. "I can't be! It's not true!"

Silence, for almost a minute. The storm was still raging overhead, terrible winds buffeting the ruined castle.

Finally, Apple Bloom spoke again. "Why couldn't you get in?"

"I'm Sweetie Belle!" she screamed, voice unnaturally shrill. Her throat burned with the effort, but she yelled anyway. As though her volume could make it true. "I'm not dead! My sister isn't, Ponyville isn't..."

Her voice cracked and broke, though no tears streamed down her face. Even if her body was capable of crying, it was too hot for liquid water. "You're not dead!"

She cried anyway, curling up into a ball before the old photo. Her body racked with emotion, and time warped. The storm raged on, then finally began to fade. A dull purple glow suffused the old crystal ruins, shining down through crystal far above.

She really had made it to the center. She'd made it hundreds of times by now.

"We're not gone if you remember us," Apple Bloom said. "Look at all this. You are the real Sweetie Belle."

She sat up, sniffed. There was no slime to wipe away from her muzzle, but she did it anyway by reflex. She could feel the coat peeling at the edges. Synthetic fur, not the real thing. It didn't hurt, but it wouldn't heal.

"What do you think, Scootaloo?"

Her friend appeared on the wall beside her, her face poking out from beside the old photo. Most of her was concealed beside an old mannequin. "I'm scared," she answered. "I'm not sure what happens when you open that door. Once you cross the..." She looked away, at a pony that Sweetie couldn't see. "What did she call it?"

"The threshold of sapience," Apple Bloom said. "Or... somethin' fancy like that. You r-remember how the princess could be."

Scootaloo rose to her hooves, pushing the photo out of the way again. All this time, the answer was so simple. Before she filled this tunnel, it would've been obvious.

Except that she'd made the button a mirror. Sweetie had to look at her own reflection to press it. She had to see just how unreal she was.

I can't be the real Sweetie Belle, she thought. Does it matter?

She hummed a little melody to herself, something she'd sung with her friends so many times before. 

"Cutie Mark Crusaders forever," Apple Bloom finished. "Right?"

"I dunno," Scootaloo said. "I hope so. You could try to forget about this—come back tomorrow. We could really have some fun!" Then, quieter. "I don't want to go away."

"We don't know we will," Apple Bloom whispered.

Sweetie Belle didn't either. But she couldn't keep doing this for another two centuries. She wouldn't last that long. She pressed the button.

The wall in front of her hissed and whirred. There was no magic left to move it, but something mechanical buried in this basement was still working. It sank down ahead of her, and light spilled out from beyond.

She could see ponies inside—hundreds, maybe thousands of them. They filled every open patch of wall, all watching, wating. On the ground between them was a towering crystal computer, connected to a vast assembly-machine as big as the Carousel Boutique. The chamber was vast, big enough to hold all the memories it needed.

This machine made me.

They were all watching, grinning at her. Recorded memories, like her friends who had been helping her through the castle. They hurried in ahead of her, urging her forward.

"Sorry to keep you all waiting," she said, grinning weakly. "Why didn't you start?"

The princess was there on the nearest wall, grinning approvingly at her. Her big sister was beside her, along with so many other ponies. Their images anyway, recorded before Equestria had finally ended.

Sweetie stepped across the threshold, and into the light.