* * *
"Trent? Why are you doing this?"
“I mean, why are you doing this for me?”
"Well, I mean its very nice of you, and I really do appreciate it. But why are you spending so much time just to show me a space plane, when there are so many other things you could be doing."
“I have all the time in the world, remember?”
The elevator hummed to a stop.
“That joke is getting a little old,” she mumbled.
“Well I am old! So I get to make all the dumb jokes I want,” he harrumphed, as the door slipped open.
"It doesn't sound like a joke though..." Her head shook. “Mr. Trent? Do you remember how you said you wanted to teach me to fly?”
“Did you really mean that you were going to teach me how to fly a spaceship?”
“Well, it’s just that when we first talked, it sounded like you were just going to teach me how to fly faster.”
“Still technically true.”
She trotted alongside him, her hooves squeaking softly on the Polyslick deck.
“Was it a trick?”
"Why did you really bring me here?"
‘Well, do you remember what I told you earlier?”
“Yes. You said that you would show me what I could become. And then you would ask me if that is what I wanted to be.”
“Then why are we doing this?” She flew in front of him, face to face, eyes wide and imploring.
“Seeing the spaceplane?”
She nodded curtly.
Trent stopped, leaning against the glossy white bulkhead. He scratched his chin for a moment, as Fluttershy hovered patiently before him.
“Well, here’s a question. Do you know any ponies that work on a farm?”
“Oh, yes, as a matter of fact. One of my best friends runs her own farm.”
“Ahh, and how much farming would she be able to do without a plow to till the fields, or a wagon to harvest the crops?”
“Oh, um. She runs an apple farm. The largest apple orchard in Ponyville, actually.”
“Okay... So, um... What if she had to pick all the apples by hand, er, hoof. Ugh, this probably isn’t the best example.”
“It’s not a problem for her. She’s one of the strongest apple buckers in Ponyville!”
Trent’s hand slapped across his forehead, before sliding down to clamp over his mouth. His belly quivered as he struggled to hold back the staccato of explosive chortling.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Yes! It’s all fine,” he blurted out through a forcibly restrained smile. “Anyways, as I was saying...”
“And her brother Big Macintosh can buck enough apples in one day to fill a hundred barrels!”
Mr. Trent was in a state of distress. Both hands pressed over his mouth as he slid down the wall, and fell to one side. His body convulsed with chest spasms as he lay twitching against the blue and white speckled deck. To Fluttershy’s sudden horror, it appeared that he was choking.
“Oh! Oh no, Mr. Trent!”
She sprang into action, swatting his hands away from his face just as his mouth snapped open to gasp for breath. One surprisingly tactile hoof squished his nose shut as she planted her lips across his, and the canary yellow pegasus huffed with all the force her lungs could muster, forcing Trent’s chest to rise, and his eyes to bulge from their sockets.
“MMMMMMPPPHHH!” he said, as his limbs flailed in the body language dialect of thrashing gesticulation.
“Are you okay!” she gasped breathlessly.
He rolled to one side, panting through fits of laughter.
“Yes! Yes, I’m fine,” he wheezed several times before slapping his palm to the floor and letting the last of the giggling subside.
“What’s so funny?” she demanded.
“Oh, nothing. It’s just that this Big Macintosh fellow sounds like quite the ladies man... Er, stallion. Heh, quite the stallion indeed.”
“Ohh,” she said, nervously looking to one side. “Well, he is really nice. Very quiet, but nice.”
“Ahh. Too quiet?”
She shrugged slightly before returning to face Trent.
“Why are you doing this? Why are we here?”
He sat up with deliberation, leaning back against the smooth wall; trapped between the steel bulkhead and Fluttershy’s unwavering stare.
“A farmer can plant seeds, but he needs a plow to sow fields. He needs a tool.”
She took a step back, looking back down the corridor towards the elevator.
“You said I could help people. This isn’t going to do that.”
“The plow is what separates a flowerbox from a field. The farmer needs a tool to farm.”
She stamped her hoof, echoing sharply in the silent corridor. She turned back to glare at Trent, but he was already kneeling inches away from her, serious and sincere.
“You want to help others. I know. How many then? What kind of a difference do you want to make?”
“I don’t understand. Yes, I want to help, but...”
“Then you need a tool.”
“And the spaceship is the tool?” she nearly shouted, thrusting one hoof toward the far end of the corridor.
“Then what do you need me for?”
“Because a plow doesn’t till a field on its own. Just like spaceships don’t save people by themselves. People save people. But sometimes, they need the right tool for the job.”
“And that’s it? You want me to teach to fly a spaceship? That doesn’t make sense.”
Fluttershy sighed, sitting back on her haunches.
“You said... I would have the choice to continue, or to go home. Mr. Trent, I really appreciate everything you’ve done so far, but I don’t know that I want to continue this.”
“Mm... Still technically true.”
“What is?” she sighed weakly.
“Well, I did say that I would show you first, before you made that decision. Then perhaps you would know the answer. But as of right now, the question has not yet been asked.”
She looked toward the elevator, then back down the corridor.
“You just want me to see it, right?”
“Yes. I know that everything about this sounds very far-fetched, but I would appreciate your trust in my simple offer. I think you might find it rather interesting.”
“I do need to get home soon. It’s nearly dinner time for my pets. I know Angel, my little bunny, always expects dinner to be ready on time,“ she trailed off wistfully.
“Ahh. Well, we’re not far now. Would an extra five minutes be too much to ask?”
“No, it’s fine,” she sighed, stood, and turned toward the far end of the corridor. “Oh, Mr. Trent?”
“Do you know what time it is?”
Trent’s fingertips twitched absentmindedly as he walked. He stopped suddenly, his face contorted into an incredulous scowl. He shook his head, and stared again at the empty space in front of his nose.
“Well, that’s weird,” he muttered; his train of thought racing down the tracks with the line of cars still parked at the station.
Trent stopped again, turning around with a confused look.
“Oh? What about it?”
“Do you know what time it is?” she repeated, grating out each syllable.
Trent clapped his hands together gently, staring upwards. His body swayed in the manner of a doctor who was ready to announce that the operation had been a complete success, but wasn’t entirely sure which leg was meant to be amputated.
“Ahh... That. Well, you see, I don’t know exactly. The clock seems to be off.”
“The clock?” she looked around, seeing nothing but a web of right-angle conduit and polished brass boxes adorning the white enamel walls of the corridor.
“Ah, the ship’s clock. Radio, you know,” he waggled his fingers in the air.
“Oh, I see. Um, is it off by a few minutes? A few hours?”
“About seventy thousand years.”
* * *
Tap, tap, tap.
She gasped for breath. Air filled her lungs, and she relaxed with palpable relief. Step one on the self assessment checklist completed. She wiggled her body from her neck down to her toes. No problems there. Step two finished, on to step three.
After a cursory examination, she concluded that she was not on fire.
She checked her suit’s gauges. About half full. She initiated a software check on her radio. Diagnostics passed, reception active. She checked the ship’s propulsion control. No thrust. The gimbals sat motionless. The navigation console reported no translation, post frame change. Everything looked good.
On a minor positive note, she also reached her target.
She settled back with a deep sigh, looking up.
The waffle grate over the cockpit was open.
She jumped back, retreating by what few millimeters the restraint harness could afford. Within the dark confines of the cockpit, a gloved hand was slowly reaching toward her. Her fingers crept quickly across the belly of her suit to the leather holster strapped to her other arm.
The glove felt around in the dark, fingertips tapping at the metal collar of her suit. The hand opened, and pressed firmly over her faceplate.
A glowing greenish cross filled her vision, drawn with photo-luminescent paint on the palm of the glove. She sighed with relief, reaching up to grasp the probing hand.
It withdrew from the cockpit, and returned holding a thick wire wrapped in neon yellow electrical tape. She grasped the jack, and plugged it in; listening to the metal contacts clicking softly as it seated home. The headset strapped across her ears crackled to life.
“Good job, kiddo. Now tell me how my kidneys are functioning!”
“Umm...” she started. “The... Um... The nephrons within the kidney contain the glomerular structure, which filters particulate from the afferent arteriole input side, which, um, passes to the Bowman’s capsule before transport by the proximal tubule. Umm...”
“Close enough. How are you feeling down there? Everything okay?”
“I think so.”
“Well, good to see that the ol’ noggin is still working,” the gloved hand patted her faceplate. “And that’s my official diagnosis.”
“Did I pass?”
“Oh yeah. Looked great. You came in a little fast, but not too fast. Good thing too, because I forgot to bring my spatula! Hah!”
“Ughh,” she groaned. “That joke is really getting old.”
“Well I am old! I can make all the dumb jokes I want! Anyways now, lets get you outta there. I bet your dad’s gonna be proud that his little girl wrecked her first spaceship. Haah! Not sure if he’s gonna be thrilled when he sees the new insurance premiums though.”
“Tell ya when you’re older. Now, quick! How many thoracic vertebrae?”
“Uhm hum. Now, what would we do if one of those slipped? Number ten for example.”
“Lock the restraint harness, and decouple the scaffold from the post,” she recited from memory.
“Mmm, good, good. You can wiggle your toes, right? Nothing out of place?”
“I think I’m okay.”
“Course you are. God-given gift of indestructibility. Enjoy it while it lasts. Before you know it, you’ll be hunched over with hair growing out of places it shouldn’t, and making two trips to the bathroom for every cup of coffee!”
“Hey, that’s no way to talk about my ex wife! Haah!”
Within the vacuum of space, nobody can hear you smacking your helmet.
“Okay, freakishly tall apprentice of mine, few more questions. What’s the channel for a craft in distress?”
“Um... One thousand sixty four kiloHertz...”
“Two hundred and eighty two...”
“Agh, never pay attention to anything that doesn’t involve physical trauma, do you? Oh well, you were kinda close. The two you mentioned are both search and rescue. Want me to give you a hint?”
“Ahem...” He cleared his throat, “You’re listening to One Twenty One point Five, FM! All craft disasters, all the time! ‘Oh god we’re goooing down! Ahhhhhh!!! Cabin pressure dropping, oh god oh god nooooo! Pssshhhhhhhh!’”
There was a short awkward silence.
“Um, Okaaay. I think I can remember that. But why did you try to sound all weird there?”
“What, you’ve never heard how a DJ talks on the radio? Jeez, kids these days...”
“What’s a DJ?”
“Aaaaghh! Stop it, stop it, stop it! You’re making me feel way older than I already am! Anyways, one more thing. Show me how you’d get out of there if the release was jammed. Use your wire knife, but don’t open it, capiche?”
She dutifully reached into her thigh pocket, pulling out a rounded rectangular handle with a ring attached to the end. Lightly, she brushed it across her right shoulder strap, and then across each strap running down the left side of her torso.
“Good job. Didn’t miss any. Now pop the release and shimmy your skinny little butt outta there. We’ve got people waiting on us.”
Before she could respond, the gloved hand wrapped around the audio cable, and yanked it from her helmet.
Peace and quiet, once again.
The release handle pointed left. Left for locked. She gave it a twist, pulled, and rotated it down until it was between her legs. Half a dozen nylon straps zipped away into the steel ribs of the articulated scaffold behind her. She ducked her head to clear the canopy opening, folding her six foot frame into a near fetal position as she pulled herself upright. She released the hook-snap umbilical connecting her suit to the craft, replacing it with the hose bundle from her support pack stowed in the side of the cockpit.
Straddling the lip of the craft was a man who’s rotundness was scarcely concealed by the stretched synth-fabric of his space suit. Nor could the thick impact-rated polycarb faceplate conceal the torrent of hyperactive inappropriateness radiating from his doughy grin.
He rapped his gloved knuckles on the side of his helmet, pointing with his other hand.
Hey dumb-dumb! Anyone home? Are you forgetting something there?
She grabbed the wire knife and shoved it back into her thigh pocket.
He stood with one boot hooked inside the rim of the cockpit, careful not to mar the pitch black mirrored foil that enveloped the craft. He reached down and snapped a tie-off line to her suit, before helping her the rest of the way out.
She patted the top of her helmet.
The craft had crumpled at the nose and starboard hardpoint pylon. It drifted slightly as she pushed away, tethered by a thick cable to a small breakaway anchor embedded within the wall of dark grainy rock. The asteroid bore pockmarked depressions from the impact, with the few slowest jagged pebbles still gently drifting nearby.
Soft sunlight cast sharp shadows across the pits and prominences of the asteroid. A line of spacesuited silhouettes stood on the sunward face, clapping their hands silently and cheering without a sound. She knew each of them, mostly teenagers from an earlier creche. Kids in suits casting shadows of giants.
Their eyes turned to Terry. He raised both hands with his fingers spread, as if grabbing an invisible box. His thumb hooked over his shoulder, as his other hand splayed three fingers sideways across his chest.
Allright twerps, you know the drill. Loot and scoot. Thirty minutes!
* * *
Fluttershy gasped in panic. Her head shook and her chest heaved, until the words finally escaped her throat.
“Seventy thousand years!”
Trent stood with his thumbs hooked in his pockets, tapping his foot in impatient contemplation.
“I know. It’s impossible.”
“That this ship could be that old?”
“I never said the ship was that old. I just said the clock was off. Hell, this class of ship is only about three years old. I have boots older than that!”
“Oh,” she relaxed slightly. “So it really would be impossible for the ship to be seventy thousand years old, then?”
“Never said that either. I just meant that it’s impossible for the clock to be off. That’s what’s got me stumped.”
“Look, you know how clocks have a pendulum, right?”
“And the smaller you make the pendulum, the faster it ticks, right?”
“The ship’s clock uses a single atom of aluminum for a pendulum! It’s trapped in an electromagnetic bottle, and measured with an ultraviolet laser. It’s so accurate that it wouldn’t drift by a second in nearly four billion years! And not just that, but there’s five of them scattered around the ship, so they can all keep each other in check. And do you know what else? If one of those atoms spontaneously decays, the clock just inserts a new one. Do you know what happens when an aluminum atom decays?”
“No...” she gritted her teeth from the painfully pedantic translation.
“We don’t either! It should be stable until the universe eventually fizzles out. And if by some random chance that the clock uses up all its teeny tiny pendulums, or breaks in some other spectacularly miraculous manner, then the Autofab would just build a new one.”
She pressed one yellow hoof firmly to her forehead.
“Ohh, well that’s nice to know. Really great,” she winced as the uninvited party of bizarre thoughts rudely made themselves at home. “I’m sorry, I was just a little surprised when I thought you said that the ship was seventy thousand years old.”
“Didn’t say that either. It’s more like seventy thousand years young.”
“I know, right? My species was just learning how to bang two rocks together around that time. Definitely not building starships.”
“Well, what does it mean then!”
“A detour,” Trent sighed. “I’d like to find out what’s going on.”
“Oh... Will that take more time?”
“Yes, but not much. There will be a lot of information to go through, but I just need to download it for now, so I can read it later.”
“Like checking out a book from a library? Is that what a download is?”
“Yep. You’re getting really good at this.”
A smile crept over her bashful face.
“Now we just need to take the tram to the bridge. Shouldn’t take very long.”
“Is that like an elevator that can move sideways?”
* * *
The singleship had been stripped to its aluminum spars. The Rocket Jocks had started first, securing the fuel lines and surgically removing the cryogenic reaction mass tanks. Zip guns and cutting wheels quietly eviscerated the crafts underbelly, unbolting what could be unbolted, and unwelding that which was welded. Meanwhile, the Sparkys gutted the cockpit and the sensor pods, carefully stockpiling their precious electronics. Two of the older kids, the Spectrum Spooks, had peeled the mirrored foil onto rollers, careful to preserve the swaths of midnight colored metal.
Terry floated at the end of the tether, arms crossed, judiciously observing the ant-like disassembly of the ship. He watched as they deployed a device that looked like an inside-out umbrella - a blackbody radiator capped with a half-inch polarization filter.
He gestured with one palm flat, and the other hand pointing straight up.
Out of plane.
They didn’t need to ask. The radiator sat at the end of an anchored stalk, pointed parallel to Solar North. A thick insulated cable ran to the thermocouple within the ship, dumping the craft’s pent-up heat from its reservoir of molten sodium into the blackbody radiator, shining an infrared pencil-beam away from watchful eyes.
Never can be too sure.
Tap tap tap tap. Twenty three minutes elapsed. She waved to Terry, holding up all five fingers, and lowering three. He tapped the top of his helmet in lieu of a nod, and repeated the gesture to the organized chaos of the teenage crowd.
Listen up twerps! Seven minutes! Hustle hustle hustle!
Terry glanced back to his apprentice. With deliberate exertion, she pressed her fingers together and tapped the faceplate of her helmet.
He patted the back of his helmet.
I know. I’m sorry.
She quietly returned the gesture, before turning back to watch the recovery operation.
The singleship was scarcely recognizable. A bare skeleton of the craft that once plied the coastline of the cosmos. The piecemeal plundering of parts had passed, and the looted remnant lay lashed against the face of the rock. Pneumatic anchors as long as a man’s leg were buried to the hilt within the primordial planetoid, pulling taut against the webbing of steel rope threaded through the ship’s frame; ensnaring their Lilliputian prize.
Downspinning the reaction wheels would normally take hours. They had five minutes. There was no emergency stop for the dynamo of invisible inertia that the craft perched upon, as stopping suddenly would constitute an emergency of its own.
A single cable snaked away from the craft’s gutted innards, floating just above the dark gritty chondrite, running past the junkyard bundle next to the utility craft some distance away. Beyond the artificial barricade, eight suited figures knelt - shoulder to shoulder, belly to backpack. The cable plugged into an adaptor. The adaptor plugged into a control tablet. The control tablet plugged into one pair of keyed gloves. One pinkie finger extended, and tapped at empty space.
The craft lurched violently within the steel webbing, pulling hard at the unyielding restraints. The competing gyroscopic forces played against each other, forcing the singleship to writhe in lockstep with their torque fueled tango. It spun nearly one quarter turn despite the strained wire rope, carving ruts in the soft rock as a stricken animal might make its last anguished claw marks against the jaws of a spring loaded trap.
After some time, four minutes and thirty-nine seconds to be exact, the craft gave one final shudder and lay still. Eight suited figures turned to look at the doctor and his apprentice.
Radio silence was still in effect, but the two thumbs up from the bulky gloves said everything. Terry clasped his hands together, then slapped one hand across his chest with two fingers extended.
Good job twerps! Haven’t seen a chop job that fast since I made the mistake of stopping for coffee off the Jersey Turnpike. Err.. wait. Have any of you even seen a car before? Pfeh. Kids these days. Wouldn’t last a minute in I-95 traffic. Never mind. Swell job anyhow. Don’t get too comfy though. Rendezvous in twenty minutes!
Seven of the kids made their way to release the singleship from its ad-hoc anchorage. One kicked off from the utility craft, and dove in the other direction, coming to a stop with a short puff from his suits hypergolic thrusters.
She couldn’t make out the face behind the one-way permeable mesh. The six foot spaceman reached over and slapped it’s glove over her faceplate, showing off a glowing arrow with a spiral wrapped around it; a force diagram depicting an electromagnetic mass driver.
Her hand patted the back of his glove, before waving dismissively.
Well if it isn’t Jake O’Dwyer. What’s the matter Jake, can’t find any other girls to pick on out here?
He raised both arms and shook his hands, laughing heartily at her response. He tapped two fingers over his wrist, and hooked his thumb over his shoulder. Then one hand curled into a thumbs up, while the other hand swung out and punched her in the arm.
Ach! Well our blade fulla cheek, inn’it? Or whatever. Aight, anyways, nice one scutchin` up into this ol rock. Bleedin header of a bang up job ta is. Give us a bell sometime an maybe we’ll run a tear. Later, ya gobshite wee yank!
Before he turned to leave, she slapped her hand against her thigh, and pointed at his leg. His suit was mottled with sewn patches and SuperTape, all showing the telltale signs of age. However, the patch on his right leg was still bright and clean.
He patted his leg, and tapped the top of his helmet.
Nice one, no joke. Feelin right fine that is now. Ey, no free snogs outta the deal tho!
She smiled behind her darkened faceplate, watching as he bounded away in a flying leap towards the utility craft. He snapped his suit hook onto the seat of the ‘crotch rocket’, deftly straddling it while twirling his arm overhead.
Oy! Takeoff, takeoff! Skive off ya ha’shilling knackers!
A puff from the forward thrusters sent craft and rider rearing up, like a cavalry soldier from an earlier time. A short blast from the wide rocket bell sent him flying towards Solar North, spraying nuggets of loose rock across the face of the asteroid, and trailing a coil of wire rope.
Terry leaned over and plugged a cable into her helmet.
“You know, when I was your age, we didn’t ‘play doctor’ that literally. Haah!”
She elbowed him.
“Not a bad job though. Not bad for a rookie.”
“Thanks,” she conceded.
“Just make sure you don’t get too close to me for the next week.”
“Oh, well you know. I can’t take the chance of getting infected.”
“COOTIES! Haaah haaah!”
She flicked the cable from her headset as Terry’s laughter devolved into a series of guttural snorts and gasps. She rapped her fist on the side of her helmet and threw a backhanded gesture as she kicked away.
Peace and quiet, once again.
There was a short bright flash, followed by a low hiss.
She turned to look. Terry had gone as still as a statue, raising one hand and cupping the other against the side of his helmet. The other kids heard it too, glancing among each other to see if anyone would fess up to accidentally transmitting.
The static in her ears slowly resolved into something more organic, a faint voice drowned out by the whistling rush of air. A whisper. An agonized plea.
Her eyes raced up the beanstalk of wire rope. It seemed to stretch off into infinity, as the crotch rocket had become an indistinguishable dot within the few short minutes.
There was a short bright flash from the end of the wire. The hissing stopped.
A rough shove sent her barrelling toward the rest of the group, gliding within fingertips reach over the porous gritty rock. She turned back to look, moments after colliding into the outstretched arms of the others. Terry tapped the side of his helmet and fanned his glove at his neck. Then both arms folded over the top of his head.
Radio silence! Radio silence! We’re under attack!
* * *
The tram ride lasted less than a minute. The most terrible and intense set of adrenaline drenched consecutive seconds that Fluttershy could ever remember.
Her heart raced and her chest heaved. Falling from Cloudsdale as a filly had been one defining bookmark in the tome of atavistic terrors that occupied the library of her memories. This wasn’t like that. This was worse. This was like being propelled straight into the ground with the aid of a three mile long slingshot. The acceleration had gripped every fiber of her body, leaving her sanity hanging on for dear life.
So much power! Even the roaring furnace and hissing boiler of a steam locomotive could not hold a candle to the raw torrent of force that she just felt. The simple interior of the modest tram car did not even begin to hint at the violent wellspring of energy on tap just beneath the fuzzy red carpet. It was like being pitched towards the horizon with the snap of an invisible giant’s hand, yet with the careful precision and gentle reserve of a father rocking a foal to sleep.
She shivered, eyes blinking in swift sharp snaps. Trent stood at the threshold, one foot propped against the edge of the persistently protesting door.
“Ooohh... O.. Okay.”
“You can come out now.”
“You need to let go of the handrail first.”
“Okay...” she squeaked, as she gingerly unwrapped her foreleg from the polished stainless steel pole.
“Now do the same thing with your other three legs.”
She gulped. With slow deliberation, she peeled the rest of her limbs from the reassuring anchorage.
“You’re doing very well,” Trent deadpanned.
She gingerly lifted her haunches from the floor, and scooted back from the pole. Her outstretched wings and swishing pink tail slapped against Trent as she darted through the door. Fine fluffy feathers flapped furtively as she fought to fold them flat against her flanks; feelings of fight or flight forcing the frightened filly to flutter frantically.
“I’m sorry if that scared you. I didn’t really think about that.”
Her wings flapped erratically and her legs wobbled like jelly, but her hooves stayed firmly on the deck.
“Oh, it’s...” her words softly huffed through the hint of a smile. “It’s okay. It is really.”
“What’s going on with your wings?”
“Umm, well... Sometimes when I get frightened, my wings will snap closed all by themselves, and stay there,” she said bashfully.
The canary yellow feathers were spread open like a fan, their tips pointed to the ceiling. An embarrassed smile crossed her face, as she tried to fold them neatly against her sides.
“Are you still frightened?”
She gave a halfhearted nod, peeking out behind a waterfall of pink mane.
“Just a little.”
“Are you.. excited?”
The wings sprang back into the air of their own accord.
“Maybe a little,” she squeaked.
Trent gave a bemused sigh, facing the open end of the corridor. They exited the narrow terminus, stepping into a wide funnel-shaped vestibule.
He stopped, turning slowly. Behind him, the vestibule branched off into several other corridors, each with their own terminal stations.
“Mr. Trent? What does that say?” she pointed one hoof at a rectangular placard on the wall.
“Hmm? Frame three hundred and seventy two.”
“Oh... That’s interesting,” she paused. “It doesn’t look like the other words.”
“That’s because it’s a number.”
She cocked her head at the brass plate. It bore a series of pits and pyramids in three separate lines.
“Is that how you write numbers?”
“It’s a way of writing numbers.”
“Oh..” she furrowed her brow.
“See these?” he tapped at the brass pyramids along the top row. “Two hundred and fifty six, sixty four, thirty two, sixteen, and four. Those add up to three hundred and seventy two. That’s how many cross frames are between us and the bow of the ship.”
Fluttershy grimaced, feigning comprehension.
“It’s like coordinates on a map,” Trent offered.
“Ohh,” she looked from side to side. “I guess that’s kind of like a map. But why are there three lines if a map only has two directions?”
“Back and forth, top to bottom, and side to side,” he pointed at each row in turn.
“That makes a little more sense,” she spoke softly. Her hoof tapped at the tile floor, nervously pondering how many more rooms and corridors lay hidden beneath.
“Well, it’s usually like that now. We used to have a saying that a ship at rest is very long, and a ship in motion is very tall. Before we started laying artificial gravity decking everywhere, that is. Come on, I can tell you more about it later.”
As she followed Trent, her eyes were drawn to the deck. A mosaic of tile shards, arranged in the shape of a crashing wave, lay still beneath a thick layer of clear polished plastic. It stretched across the center of the room, a violent crescendo of white foam upon a thrusting juggernaut of blue ocean. Chaos contained within a frozen snapshot, a vast circle cut into an unbroken slab of black granite. Flickering fluorescent light reflected from the crystalline rock, twinkling as a tapestry of stars on a pitch black night.
The teardrop shaped room came together towards the end, both walls curving as a slice of an hourglass turned sideways. Two unlit windows lined either side; impassive sentinels to the narrow aperture before them.
She jolted at the sudden break in the silence.
She nodded, hooves squeaking on the tile mosaic as she came to a stop.
Trent stepped forward to the glass, tapping his fingertips at empty air. He stood still for a short time, as if regarding what lay behind the darkened window.
“There, that’s finished. Fluttershy, can you stand next to me now? Right here?” he pointed to the deck.
“Okay,” she trotted forward, propping herself up on the tips of her hooves to peer into the window.
“Now stay still.”
She looked. Where she had expected to see her own reflection staring back, there was nothing. A chill crept down her spine, as she nervously faced the towering slab. The light from the room reflected faintly from the smooth obsidian surface, yet appeared as devoid and uninviting as the mouth of a cave.
“Just a few seconds...”
Her legs trembled and her eyelids refused to close. She stared into the void, and the void stared back. A reflection of herself, as yet unmade.
“There we go, all done. Sorry about the wait.”
She tore her gaze away, retreating by several timid steps. A quick glance over her shoulder showed the other monolithic black mirror quietly querying her quivering form. She turned swiftly, facing toward the narrow exit, eyes averted from either window. Her back stiffened and she raised her head, resolutely suppressing the heavy metronomic pounding within her chest.
A small recess opened in the wall, and Trent pulled out a pair of lanyards, white plastic cards dangling from each.
“Here you go. Please wear this while we’re inside, and make sure you stay close to me at all times.”
The card bore a stunningly detailed picture of her wide eyed face, with a smaller picture of Trent’s slightly bored grinning countenance inset on the corner. Red blocky letters ran along the bottom, with a small pulsing green light just beneath the skin of the plastic.
“Oh. Trent? What does that say?”
“It says Escort Required. And do you see my picture there? That means I’m your escort.”
He chuckled quietly as he placed the lanyard over her neck.
“But please, think of me as your guide, your conciergerie, and your friend.”
“Um, okay,” she blushed softly. “Why do I need an escort?”
“Well, think of it like this. If you had to go to your nation’s capital... Um. The one on the mountainside with all of the tall pointy towers.”
“Yes, that one. And you had to go and meet with the Princess...”
“Yes. Okay, I knew that one. Anyways, if you had to go up there and meet with her for some reason, like say...”
“Being called upon to save Equestria from some terrible, awful, nightmare-given-flesh that intends to terrorize and enslave all of ponykind?”
“Suuurrre. Let’s go with that. So what happens next?”
“Well, we would meet with Princess Celestia. Or maybe Princess Luna. It’s been a little different since she’s been back,” she contemplated.
“Before that. How do you get into the castle itself?”
“Through the front doors.”
“Right,” Trent rubbed his forehead. “And who opens those doors?”
“The Royal Guard.”
Trent’s eyes rolled hard enough to rebound his gaze from the ceiling to the floor.
“And what do they say when you ask them to open the doors?”
“Oh, umm. Usually it’s ‘Right this way, Miss Fluttershy’,” she gruffed in a baritone imitation.
“Uhh. Don’t they ever say something like ‘Halt!’ or ‘Identify yourself’?”
“Okay then. So...”
“But then they usually apologize later. After Princess Celestia talks to them.”
Trent slowly sat down, kicking his legs out straight, and flopping his back against the cool polished granite. Both hands pressed over his face as he shook his head from side to side, groaning in resignation against Fluttershy’s impeccable logic.
“This probably isn’t the best example.”
“What do you mean?”
“Okay. So the Princesses both know you well enough that you’re allowed to waltz right in, anytime you feel like it, right?”
“Well, the ship doesn’t know you. Not yet anyways. And if this ship were a country, then this would be the gate to the palace,” he pointed toward the narrow entrance.
“But.. I don’t see a gate.”
“It doesn’t need one.”
“Oh.. What if someone tried to walk through there?”
“Well, it would alert the ship’s security forces, who would meet up with the individual of interest, and politely ask them to return to this area, so they can be properly registered and assigned escort.”
“Umm. What would happen if they tried to make their way in by force?”
“Then the ship would deploy countermeasures, and the intruder would be neutralized.”
Trent sat up, the slightest hint of a smirk crossing his lips. He stood, brushing himself off as he rose, slowly turning to face the terrified pink and yellow pony.
“Oh, my. Fluttershy, I am so terribly sorry. I just don’t know what I was thinking.”
Two large round tepid eyes gazed forward, locked in a thousand yard stare amidst the imagined booming staccato of heavy autocannon fire. Her jaw hung open, gasping for gulps of air through her tightly clenched throat. One hoof patted expectantly across her chest, feeling only unblemished silky fur in place of ragged gaping wounds.
“My apologies again. Perhaps we should try to save those sort of questions for later. Much later, perhaps?”
Her head jerked up and down in the semblance of a nod, eyes darting between the many well hidden recesses and grooves within the walls and ceiling.
“You don’t need to worry. The ship trusts me, and therefore it trusts you. It won’t hurt you...” He paused for a moment, pointing at the flashing green dot on his badge. “But just to be on the safe side, you might want to stay close to me, otherwise this little dot will turn yellow, and then red. And the ship might not like that.”
Shivering, she slowly lifted the card with her hoof. As Trent walked through the opening, she saw the tiny light begin to flash with a faint tinge of amber.
“Right this way, Miss Fluttershy...”
Trent’s footsteps grew softer as he passed through the opening. The green dot began to flash with a sickly yellow tone.
“Please proceed, Miss Fluttershy.”
Her eyes fluttered closed for a moment, and she inhaled deeply. One hoof swung forward, followed by another, tapping against the tile mosaic and stone slab. Her wings pressed tightly against her sides as she trotted swiftly through the aperture.
“Ahh, there you are,” Trent grinned. “Next stop, ahhh.. eenie meenie miney moe.. combat information center, here we go.”
"Did you hear something a few seconds ago by chance?"
Her head shook with the trace of a nod, not entirely sure of her answer.
"Hmm. Oh well. This way, please."
“Welcome back, Miss Fluttershy.”
Trent stopped again, twisting his head around, puzzled at the strange noise. After a moment, he shrugged, and opened the door with a flick of his fingertips.
* * *
The audio jack clicked into the port on her helmet. The other end snaked away into the homemade junction box - a coffee can with switches drilled into the side and dozens of cables belching out of the open end. Nine spacesuited figures crouched around the ad hoc communication hub, staring with fearful faces behind featureless faceplates.
“Set your watch. Five minute countdown. Now!”
She twisted the brass bezel, and pressed a lever on the side of the watch - one made for manipulation by bulky pressure gloves. The mechanism whirled inside, coming to a stop with one sharp clack. She turned it again slowly, five clicks. TAP, tap, tap.
“What happened to Jake?”
“What are we going to do?”
“SHUT UP!” Terry boomed.
They did. It was the best plan so far.
“I think they used a laser,” Terry continued. “That means it’s probably another ship out there. Too much power draw for a small craft. And in case it’s not obvious, they’re close enough to engage.”
“What about our ship? They’re going to be here in fifteen, right?”
“What about us? We’re sitting ducks here, if they shoot some back scratchers around this rock!”
“Once again, SHUT UP! Now they probably don’t know we’re here, or they would’ve zapped us on the way in. I think the asteroid was blocking their field of view. Count your blessings there. Now, they probably don’t know about our ship either, otherwise they would’ve stayed quiet and gone for the bigger kill.”
Despite their space suits, Terry’s last words seemed to knock the breath out of everyone.
“We have to warn them!”
“How do you know they don’t know we’re here?”
“Because there aren’t any frag cannisters coming over the horizon,” one kid suggested.
“HEY!” Terry shouted. “Do you know what Jake would say right about now if he could hear you? It’d probably be something like ‘Oy! shut yer cake holes and get yer bleedin arses a movin!’ He’s still out there, and we gotta go get him!”
“They killed Jake,” came one shaky voice.
“They shot Jake. There’s a difference,” Terry spoke, slow and measured. “Now first things first. You two, go grab all the mirror foil that we scavenged from the craft, and get me the twenty millimetre wire guide. You, give me your pogo stick. I’m going to wrap myself up in that mirror foil and get Jake from the top of the beanstalk!”
A chorus of “No!” came from the suited figures.
“SHUT UP!” Terry boomed. His finger jutted out to his assistant. “Time?”
“Four minutes, thirty...”
“Hear that? That’s how long we’ve got! That’s how long Jake has.”
“You can’t go!”
“I don’t have time for this!”
“We don’t want you to get shot too! We need you down here.”
“They can’t see me if I’m wrapped up in the foil.”
“It won’t fit! The pieces aren’t big enough.”
“Your ass is too big.”
One wide glass eye levelled a blank baleful gaze at the bearer of bad news. A stare that suggested a different answer was needed.
“Uhh. I mean your mass is too big.”
“That too,” came another voice.
“Oh for fucks sake! Sorry twerps, but we don’t have a choice in the matter. I’m not going to sit here and piss away our only chance at saving Jake.”
“No! One of us has to go.”
“Ehh, no. No. I’m not putting any one of you in that position either. You could get killed.”
“If you’re not down here, we could all get killed!”
Terry sighed. “Jake is going to need a doctor. We don’t have time to reel him back down here. Hold on a second..”
He stood and waved his arms at the others returning from the scrap pile in the universally understood sign language of ‘Hurry the fuck up!’
“What about warning the others? We have to get a message to them!”
“I’ll think about that in a minute. One thing at a time, please!”
“We can use the thermal radiator beam. Take off the filter, and point it sunward. The craft still has some heat in the reservoir, so we can do it in Morse code, without flashing in their line of sight.”
“Fine. Good idea. Get on it.”
“I don’t know Morse code.”
“Oh. Right. Hold on a second,” Terry sighed. He pulled the plug from his headset, turned around, and bellowed a string of profanity at the top of his lungs, clenching his fists and doubling over from the sheer volume of vitriolic verbal exertion.
Unfortunately, in space, no one can hear you scream.
Terry turned around, snapping the plug back into the headset jack. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped.
“WHAT IN THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING!”
The hydrazine fuelled pogo stick was strapped to the wire guide with several wraps of Supertape, its rollers latched to the beanstalk of steel rope. One skinny girl in a tall slender spacesuit was standing on the footrests, her legs wrapped in a cocoon of null spectrum mirror foil.
“She weighs the least, so she can get there the fastest. Once she goes up, we can send the warning message back to our ship.”
“And then we’re going to bolt the engines back onto the singleship and get it ready to fly.”
“Jesus H Fuck... Wait, what? Why? Fly us out on that thing?”
“It’s a diversion. After she gets Jake stabilized, we’ll launch the singleship. That should keep their attention while we reel them back down. Hopefully the other ship will try to shoot at it, and give away their position.”
“Right about the same time our ship gets here. If they start shooting, we can light em up.”
“Who’s goddamn idea was this?”
The children went silent. The girl on the wire rope turned back to look at Terry.
“You said he needs a doctor,” she spoke just above a whisper.
“God. No... Don’t do this,” his voice cracked.
“He needs help.”
“Please. You don’t have to go. Nobody is making you go. Let me do it. I can help him.”
She pulled the watch from her wrist, and dropped it in the weightless void between them.
“Three minutes, fifteen seconds. Warn the others.”
He numbly reached for the brass wristwatch, slipping it over his wrist in sullen surrender of his protests.
“Terry! We need your help with the Morse code.”
“It’s dot dash, dash dash... Agh, just get the radiator setup and I’ll be there in a minute, okay? Just go, now!”
The two suited figures stared silently at each other across the wire rope.
“Look. Um. If the wire is cut, the forward rollers on the guide should make contact and fire the explosive clamps on the back. Just don’t go faster than twenty five meters per second.”
“And tune to the search and rescue channels. Uh...”
“Ten sixty four kilo and two eighty two meg. I know.”
“Right. Don’t transmit until I break radio silence, got it? Um... Just stay safe up there. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next ten minutes. Fire the pogo stick at full throttle for about five seconds, but don’t burn after you get over the starward horizon of this rock.”
“And make sure that you... Um. Ah... Just...”
“Terry, can I borrow your marker?”
“Ah... Yeah. Sure.”
She took the photo-luminescent marker from Terry, and scribbled a symbol on her palm. Her glove curled into a loose fist, clutching the glowing symbol away from prying eyes.
“Hey, I guess you’ve earned it. Just be safe. I don’t want to lose you too. Er... Shit. You know what I mean.”
“Terry! Move outta the way!” one kid shouted urgently.
Terry placed his palm over her faceplate, and plucked the jack from her headset. Her glove pressed the back of his hand for a moment, and they separated. Two kids wrapped the mirror foil wrapped around her upper body several times until only a narrow slit was open across her helmet.
He kicked backwards and leaned forwards, scraping the toes of his boots across the cold dark rock, pulled down by the perceptibly pitiful gravity of the asteroid.
His fists curled into two thumbs-up, and he rapped his knuckles together.
Good luck, skinny-butt.
The rest of the suited figures backed away, save for one standing directly before her. He whirled his arm in a small circle over his head, and whipped his arm out straight. The nearly invisible cocoon of foil, darker than the starless voids of space, shot upwards on a hazy jet of superheated gas.
The children watched her ascent until the flame winked out and she disappeared from sight. The semicircle of suited figures looked back down to see one angry ogre of a spaceman barrelling toward them.
“Get that rope anchored! You have about three minutes before she hits the brake rings. You two! I want walking wires strung out for fifty meters in four directions! And someone tell me WHO THE HELL TOLD HER TO GO UP THERE?”
A nervous silence gripped them for several seconds. One voice finally broke through.
“It was her idea.”
“It was, Terry!” The rest of the kids nodded in agreement. “Kind of your idea too. You trained her to do this sort of thing.”
“I taught her medicine. Not crazy goddamn stupid! Gah! No, I think she gets that from her idiot father.”
The was a nervous silence, cut short by a more pressing matter.
“Um... When is he getting here?”
Terry reset the watch, and twisted the bezel.
“About ten minutes. Now get to work! Anchor that rope, setup walking wires, and get that piece of ship ready to fly!”
“Terry, look behind you.”
He turned. Two of the kids had plugged the thermal radiator back into the singleship’s heat reservoir. One of them was holding onto the inverted umbrella with a piece of foil covering the aperture, and the other was waving his arm at Terry with urgency.
Hurry up and get over here, you fat bastard!
“Twerps! Back to work! Rendezvous in ten minutes! The day’s not over yet!"
He yanked the cord from his headset, and dove toward the singleship.
* * *
“Here we are. Now this should only take a minute,” Trent spoke as he strode into the room of short ceilings and stout steel beams.
“Oh? What is this place?”
“Forward Dorsal CIC. Err.. Combat Information Center. It’s a command center for the whole ship. There’s about half a dozen rooms like this scattered around, actually.”
Fluttershy crept forward, shaking off the dull throbbing in her head from the attempted magical translation. Dim blue lights cast their dusky pallid glow from the far corners of the room, faintly illuminating the many rows of squat square steel terminals. A shaft of white light bathed the raised dais near the center, the foundation for a plain padded chair atop a polished metal pipe.
“You said this was like the palace, right? For the whole ship?”
“More or less.”
“Then... Is that the throne?”
She stared with reverence at the aluminum chair with blocky foam cushions. The slick sheen of the shiny blue synthetic seat reflected the bright overhead lighting, a dazzling artifact within the center of the dim metal cave.
She circled it slowly, subtly bowing her head as she went.
“Is that where the Prince, or the Princess would sit?”
“Eh?” Trent looked up from the glass console. He stepped closer to the wide eyed yellow pegasus, straining to hear her excited whispering over the low rhythmic thrum of the command center.
“Or maybe... Is this where the King would sit?”
“Not really. Not a king, anyways.”
Fluttershy’s eyes widened as far as they could within the physical bounds of her intrinsically adorable countenance. She stooped to the floor, looking up at the gleaming chair.
“An Emperor?” she shivered softly.
Trent rolled his eyes and let out a long forceful sigh through the corner of his mouth.
“No. Just a Captain. Maybe even an Admiral. Anyways, there are a lot of fancy chairs in this ship, and some of them are for pretty important people. But this one is just a glorified drivers seat.”
He spun on one foot and flopped backwards into the seat hard enough to set it spinning.
“See?” he twirled with one leg hanging out. “Just a chair.”
“Oh..” she blushed slightly. “I’m sorry. You must think I’m awfully silly, getting all worked up over something like that. I mean, like you said, it’s just a chair.”
“Well, it’s not just any chair. This one commands the whole ship.”
The magical meaning of the words hit Fluttershy like a near miss from a meteorite, a mere hint of unfathomable power hidden behind Trent’s casual description.
“What does the ship do?”
“Well... Lots of things, really. But if you want a short answer, it’s like a home away from home.”
Her thoughts turned back to the grassy meadows and vibrant pastel colors of Ponyville. The singsong warble of the birds near her cottage, her menagerie of animals, her close circle of friends.
She blinked hard and inhaled softly, opening her eyes again to face the calculating stare from the man of many things, sitting atop the throne of light, entombed within the fortress of steel.
“Are you far away from your home?” she asked.
“Mm...” he leaned back. “You have one question, and I have two answers.”
“Never mind.” She sighed, softly shaking her head.
“No, I’ll tell you. I think... I think that I am very far from home. But I do not know yet, whether my home is the one that I left, or the one that I will someday reach.”
They stared at each other for a moment.
“Do you want to sit in the chair?” he offered.
Fluttershy gasped slightly.
“Oh, me? Really? Are you sure... Um...” She looked around fretfully. “Is that okay? With the ship, I mean?”
“Sure, why not? After all, it’s ‘bring your cute cuddly alien companion to work’ day.”
An exasperated hiss escaped through her suddenly clenched smile.
“But there’s a first time for everything!” Trent hopped out of the chair and hooked his hands under Fluttershy’s forelegs, hoisting the startled yellow pegasus into the air, and twirling her around. Her legs squeezed together around her long pink tail, as the cold plastic seat cover pressed against her back and flank.
She blinked again, resigning herself to the fact that she would never cease to be surprised by Trent’s stupid impulses.
Her rear hooves dangled over the edge of the seat. She looked around around the command center with a heady feeling from the high vantage point. Before her was a blank wall, striped with bare girders, flanked on both sides by rows of consoles with their own smaller chairs. She leaned back slightly, imagining for a moment the ranks of officers and enlisted manning their stations, looking up to her. Awaiting her orders. Running the ship to her calculated whim.
The excitement faded, and the oppressive weight of reality settled atop her. It was getting late back at home, and here she was, sitting in a dark metal room in a dumb metal chair.
“Oh. Thank you. Um.. Mr. Trent? Are we ready to go soon?”
Trent’s hand patted her shoulder.
“Yes. Soon. But I was wondering though, if you wanted to see my home. The one I came from.”
“What? Where? It’s not here, is it?” she whispered, looking around in confusion.
“I’ll show you.”
His fingertips reached out, and the lights dimmed. There was a soft crackling buzz from beneath the round white platform, and a shimmering translucent veil rose around them, as if tracing the smooth curve of an invisible sphere.
And just like that, the curved veil flashed into a pitch black sheen. The round dias faded from bright white to a muted grey, and the command center disappeared from sight.
She gasped, stiffening her back and folding her wings tightly to her sides. Trent squeezed her shoulder again, and she relaxed slightly.
Before them, dim pinpricks of light hung on the black ephemeral tapestry. Most were faintly perceptible, but two shone brighter than the others.
“There,” he pointed at a single speck of light. “That’s us. That’s home.”
“That? But, what is it?”
“Do you remember how the stars look at night?
“Oh, yes. Um, are those stars?” she pointed one hoof at the cluster of tiny lights.
“I see,” she stared inquisitively for a moment, her brow furrowing. “But, I remember there being a lot more of them than this. Hundreds more, in fact.”
“They’re so tiny, though. How do you live on one?”
“They look tiny, because they’re very far away. And no, we don’t live on the stars themselves.”
“Oh... Where do you live then?”
“On the planets that orbit the stars.”
Her hoof shot to her forehead. The concept of an orbit did not make itself known as an academic explanation or a mathematical formula. Rather, as an instinctive ingrained feeling.
“Um... How far away are they? The stars, I mean.”
He waved his hand at the screen. A thin green circle encompassed the bright tiny dot. Strange letters and numbers scrolled next to it.
“Oh, about one hundred and fifteen million light years.”
The translation spell managed to imply a sense of ‘really far away’, and then simply gave up.
“That’s about a thousand times far away as our galaxy is wide.”
Both hooves cradled her temples.
“And that’s not just one star. Each of those pinpricks is a whole galaxy. Do you want to know how many stars are in our galaxy?”
She quivered, eyes fixed on the tiny dot. Two different answers screamed within her head to Trent’s simple question. But when she opened her mouth, nothing came out.
“Let’s count them!”
The tiny green circle grew to the size of a hula hoop. Another circle took its place around the cluster of galaxies. It exploded in size, followed by another, and another, and another. Hundreds appeared and expanded, giving the impression of racing down a tunnel at speeds that would leave even the fastest pegasus at a standstill. With each passing circle, a tiny counter incremented. She could not read the numbers, but she watched as it quickly sped into the range of three digits.
It was then that she noticed something. The tiny dots of light were beginning to grow. It was slow at first, as the pinholes of light became small shimmering blurry blobs. The one at the center began to grow into an oval shape.
And suddenly that tiny bright oval, no bigger than a grain of rice, exploded in size as it rushed towards her like the business end of a speeding locomotive. A galaxy of light, stretching across her entire field of view, looming silently within one wide green circle, coming to an abrupt stop just inches from her face.
Fluttershy could not scream, but she tried with all her might.
“There we go!” Trent exclaimed, pointing at the blinding white disc. “Ahh, lets see. One, two, three, ninety nine... Three hundred billion!”
She gripped the armrests surprisingly well without the benefit of fingers. Her chest heaved and her belly quivered, two shocked wide eyes reflecting the many twinkling lights of the vast cosmic engine.
“They do look so small, don’t they?” Trent mused.
She tried to respond, but her voice had shifted into the octave of dog whistles and electronic toothbrushes.
“It’s strange, really. You grow up with the stars over your head. All your life, staring up in awe and fear and envy. And then one day, you look down to find the stars at your feet. And here you are, standing upon the shoulders of giants, crawling from the teeming cradle of your world into the empty throne of the cosmos.”
Along one curving arm of glowing gas, a smaller green circle appeared. The galaxy exploded in all directions as the view raced towards one tiny glowing speck, zooming in until it was alone among the pitch black void. Fluttershy shivered, still reeling from the depth of scale.
“From that vantage point, everything seemed so much smaller. We left home, and became part of a much larger world. There was no going back. The sense of belonging among the stars was exhilarating. Intoxicating. We tamed gravity and outran light. We shattered the barriers of time and distance to please our whim. We became the means for the universe to know itself, and we wrought the tools to shape it as we saw fit. We wielded and witnessed power that made the wrath of any imagined gods seem insignificant by comparison.”
The tiny dot burned distantly, yet did not rush towards her. Trent’s fingertip gestured to it, and a list of indecipherable runes appeared alongside. He tapped at one.
The screen went black, and then the whole world flashed white.
Her eyes snapped shut, but she could still see the afterimage of the hellish glow. An immense orange and yellow sphere hung before her, boiling and blazing with appalling energy. Wispy strands of gas erupted from the roiling violent surface, writhing along invisible magnetic lines as a snake roasting on a spit.
“Look at it, Fluttershy. Don’t be afraid.”
Her body retreated as far back as the seat would allow, but her eyelids crept open.
“This is a star. There are many like it, but this one is ours. Every light you can see in the sky. Every speck, every pinprick, every fuzzy glowing cloud... Even your own sun, warm and brilliant in the bright blue sky. All are stars, from the meek to the magnificent. Even the tiniest stars are still terrible behemoths in their own right, but those very largest of them are the stuff of awe, beauty, and nightmarish reverence.”
The glowing orb shrank to the size of a softball, ensnared within a rounded green rectangle, still burning brightly within it’s shrunken cage. It was joined by several other animated icons: stars, planets, a galaxy, and one looming mass of rounded steel and angular protrusions. Trent gestured at the display, and the icons rearranged themselves. The first icon glowed, and the starship exploded into focus. A floating city, armored and armed, aquiline and angular. A patient peaceful predator within the vast void.
“But as we looked beyond our domain, we saw the universe looking back. That which we commanded, was but a speck within a cold uncaring cosmos. For as long as we imagined ourselves to last, the universe would last longer still. And for all that we could hold, we were surrounded by that which we could never truly reach.”
The dreadnought shrunk down to an invisible speck, dwarfed by the planet that appeared next to it. The cloudy marble of blue oceans, greenish land, sandy steppe, and ivory ice caps, hovered before her momentarily, then shrinking down as the ship had done. A new planet took it’s place, smooth swirling bands of brown and reddish clouds. A sphere of hazy gas that beckoned travellers through its siren call, to peer into its well of hopeless gravity.
“We were proud of how far we had come. Sitting upon the throne we had built, wearing the crown of hubris, we felt beckoned to explore the cosmos. Entitled to it. To take it and bend it to our will. But that is a journey that knows no end. To imagine ourselves as the lords of all creation is to enter a race where you must go as fast as you can, just to remain still. Lest the total sum of all your works is someday lost, spread by the solar winds and evaporated by the steady cadence of time. A race that nobody can win.”
The gas giant shrunk down to the size of a tiny marble next to the blazing sun. It too was replaced by another star that made the first seem as insignificant as a candle to a sunrise. Fluttershy gulped, whetting her throat and filling her lungs. The view zoomed out once again, and the bright blue behemoth disappeared as a tiny mote of dust within a spiral arm of the galactic disc.
“I am Ozymandias. King of Kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! So sayeth the inscription on the crumbled statue buried beneath centuries of sand. It is the oldest and most seductive of all religions. A belief as old as our species. The foolish confidence that our legacy may outlast time itself.
The galaxy sped away into nothingness, a tiny pinprick of light on a black backdrop.
“It’s a great big universe out there, no matter how high we sit and how far we can see. No matter how big we may think we are, we are still tiny. But, we are still a part of the entire cosmos. Small, yes. But, insignificant? No.”
The ship drifted back into view, enormous against the backdrop of distant galaxies.
“And here we sit. A universe of atoms, an atom within the universe.”
Trent sighed contentedly. He withdrew his arm carefully through Fluttershy’s outstretched upright wings, patting her shoulder as he went.
“You’re a part of a great big world, Fluttershy. The biggest one there is.”
She turned to look at him, her face straining to show every emotion she felt at once. She had not the words for all that she wanted to say, save for one dense meaningful phrase.
“Thank you,” her lips parted with a soft whisper.
“My pleasure. Now, no need to get up. I’ll just be a minute with the computer terminal. You can keep looking if you want.” He brushed past her outstretched feathers, stepping off the dais and disappearing through the protesting buzz of the plasma projection screen.
Her hoof rose from the armrest, shaking slightly as she gestured toward the tiny green box. It glowed as the tip of her hoof passed through it, and the galaxy sprang back to the forefront of her view. From the corner of her eye, she saw Trent through the translucent veil, scowling at the grey metal terminal.
“Whaddya mean I need to change my password? Again already? Pfeh..” Trent glared at the terminal. “Oh come on. Three special characters? Ughh.”
She sat back and stared at the great glowing disc, a brilliant white pinwheel with faint tinges of blue. It was as terrifying as it was magnificent. Striated arms trailing outwards from the blazing ring at the core. Her heart still thumped loudly, and her lips were frozen in a permanent state of amazement, but she did not avert her eyes.
It was beautiful.
“Warning. Database integrity failure QS-00899. Multi-coherence state exists for database grid.system.events. This should never happen. Please do not contact your Systems Administrator. Depot level maintenance required for following event: QS-00899.”
Fluttershy turned her head to the side. The veil turned transparent as she locked eyes with Trent’s exasperated expression.
“Well that’s what it says!” he pointed an accusing finger at the terminal.
“Oh..” she nodded at the cryptic message, pretended to understand.
“Okay, lets see here. Don’t care about fixing it right now - just want to pull some data. Um... Oh, great. Completely unreadable at the table level. Oh hell. The metadata has multiple coherent quantum states too? What the hell is this? A rejected Star Trek script? Gah! Oh, wait. Here we go. Reconstruct all table data by unique state. Think that’s what we want. Uhh... Ohh... My.”
Trent gasped. He turned to look at Fluttershy, eyes wide and quivering.
“That is a preposterous amount of data,” he said, sincerely shocked.
She nodded again. Of all the cryptic thoughts flying through her head, she recognized some of them as words.
“It says it will take several hours to complete the operation. I know I said I was planning to just download it and look at it later, but it won’t all fit!” he pointed at the base of his skull.
“But don’t worry! I’ve got an idea. I just need something bigger to put it all on. Something like... Ah! There!”
He jumped up, pointing at a small square tablet sitting on an empty table. He reached for it with his hand outstretched, curling his fingers in anticipation.
The small grey monolith sat there, unperturbed.
“Oh, what? Come on!”
He thrust his hand towards the table again, quivering angrily as his palm remained empty. Finally his arm fell to his side, and he huffed loudly, stomping towards the table some ten feet away.
“Use the force, Luke. Great idea. Pfff...”
He snatched the grey tablet and thrust it into the air before him. He let go, and the tablet fell swiftly to the floor with a sharp bang, cartwheeling several feet away on its rounded corners.
Trent’s mouth fell open, utterly flabbergasted. He stooped down to pick it up, regarding it curiously. His fingers jabbed at the blank metallic surface to no avail.
“Hmm... Must be completely dead,” he muttered.
He held it in one hand, as the other pinched two fingers together around an invisible cable. He brought his pursed fingers towards the edge of the tablet, and looked expectantly.
The tablet did nothing.
“Oh we’re gonna do this the hard way, are we? Okay, lets see how you like a taste of this!”
The tablet was unceremoniously jammed into his back pocket.
“That’s better,” he grinned, pressing the tablet against his posterior as a hen would hatch an egg. “Near-field power transmission. My ass can jumpstart anything!”
A dim green dot blinked through the metallic veneer. He pursed his fingers together and pressed them again to the side of the tablet. The green dot flared brightly, and raced across one edge of the device. The metallic sheen disappeared, and he dropped the tablet next to the computer console. It hung motionless in the air, a thin slab of glowing glass.
“Okay, so like I was saying. I just need something to put the data on. This will do.”
He grabbed the glass slab by the corners and pulled, stretching it from the size of a paperback to a picture frame.
“Now the database is like a library. We just want to check out a book. However, for the book that we want, there appears to be two copies with the same title, but their contents are completely different. Actually, all the books are like that. Two different copies. We’ll need to read both to figure out what’s really going on. Oh, and I should also mention, that someone’s taken all the pages out of all the books, and shredded them into thin narrow strips. So we’ll need to wait for the computer to put those all back together first and sort everything out. Also the library is about the size of all the libraries in Equestria. Except maybe a few million or a few billion times bigger. Make sense?”
She nodded again. Applejack was the Element of Honesty.
“Ahh, good. I can give you the rundown in a bit more detail. The process for re-assembling the quantum multi-coherence is already taking place on the ship’s computer. We can encapsulate that within an exportable virtual machine instance, and transfer it to this tablet here. That includes the data it’s working on a well, which is several compressed petabytes. Not a problem for memristor state caching arrays with a deoxyribonucleic acid synthetic base octet storage, though,” he tapped at the edge of the glass tablet.
They waited. Fluttershy turned back to look at the image of the galaxy again, two hooves pressed firmly against her aching forehead. It hung still, but as she watched, she could just see it slightly spinning.
“There we go! All done. Told you it would only be a few minutes.”
He squeezed the tablet down until it was the size of a matchbox, and dropped it in his pocket.
“Ready to go?”
She nodded gently, slipping out of the seat, and stepping forward through the screen. It prickled her fur as she walked through it, and disappeared as she stepped off the round dais.
Trent pulled the tablet out of his pocket, fiddling with the screen as he walked back to the door.
“Oh, this is good. The clock is off on this thing too.”
“What time is it set to?”
Trent turned and knelt, holding the device on two upturned palms. His eyes grew wide as he whispered in hushed reverence.
“The beginning of time itself.”
Fluttershy gasped, regarding the timeless artifact.
A grin broke through Trent’s serious facade.
“January first, nineteen-seventy. The dawn of the computer age,” he held back a snickering laugh.
Fluttershy rolled her eyes, pushing past Trent. She stopped behind him, as he giggled at his own joke.
“Um, Mr. Trent?”
“What does that say?” she gestured to a scrawling sentence written across the face of the door.
He stopped and stared.
Across the door, written neatly in with thick hasty strokes, a single sentence meant for a single person.
God damn you, Trent.
“Uhh...” he looked down at Fluttershy, his face stretching into a shaky smile.
“It says: Last one out, turn off the lights!”
She sighed. He shivered.
“You...” she growled.
“YOU! Ooohh! You... You’re like the king of a thousand dumb jokes!” she erupted.
Trent’s fingers flicked at the door, sending it racing into the recess in the wall.
“And the death of a million punchlines,” he muttered.
The lights dimmed, and they left.
* * *