1. “You always have to make everything about you, don’t you?”
DJ-Pon3 was a slick, sassy and sensational. Ponies from all over Equestria regularly competed for tickets to see her and scalpers could make a month’s rent from one night avoiding authorities outside her shows. Even ponies who didn’t like her style of music had to agree she was one heck of a performer. With her penchant for ending concerts up to an hour after the scheduled close if she was enjoying herself, elaborate lighting displays, dancers that doubled as acrobats and arguably the quickest hooves on the turntable circuit, whether at a club, on a stage or in an open amphitheatre, DJ-Pon3 gave one hell of a show.
The pony who slammed through the doors of Manehattan General was not slick, unless you counted the rainwater gluing her mane to her skull. She was not sassy, unless you counted the way she sassed the receptionist. She was definitely not sensational, unless you counted the tantrum she threw in the middle of the waiting area. She did, however, give one hell of a tantrum.
“What do you mean you can’t tell me where she is?”
“Family only,” said the receptionist, a middle-aged mare with hair the colour of barbed wire and a mouth to match. She flipped through her notes, though it was clear she wasn’t actually reading them. “You’re not family.”
“I’m practically family!”
“’Practically’ doesn’t cut it, ma’am.” She said ‘ma’am’ the way others might say ‘nutcase’. “Blood relation, spouse or adoptee. Are you any of those?”
“Well, no, not exactly, but –”
“Then step aside please. You’ll have to wait down here for news. Next!”
Two white hooves planted themselves on her desk. Given that the receptionist was protected by an enchanted, shatter-resisted window with a hole cut in the bottom, the dramatic move was ruined by lack of space to properly slam them down. “Listen, I need to get in there. I ran all the way here from the friggin’ Palladium! I skipped out on a sold-out show to be here!”
“My heart bleeds for you,” the receptionist deadpanned. “Rules are rules. Next!”
“Why you –”
“Listen, can’t you just –”
“Augh! I’m not going anywhere no matter how many times you say that.”
“Ma’am, if you don’t move I’m going to have to call security to forcibly remove you from the hospital.”
The two mares engaged in the kind of staring match that, if sheer willpower were converted into a physical force, would have levelled a city block. Neither said anything for several seconds – long enough for a hesitant voice to interrupt.
“Is that … are you DJ-Pon3?” A young stallion, no more than a colt really, levered himself off the row of uncomfortable plastic chairs to get a better look. He crept closer, face lighting up. “You are her, aren’t you? I almost didn’t recognise you without your glasses.”
She was in no mood to pander to a fan right now, but her instincts as a consummate performer kicked in. She tried to keep DJ-Pon3 and Vinyl Scratch separate, but becoming a big star had blurred the lines. Nevertheless, it was definitely DJ-Pon3, not Vinyl, who turned her mouth up in a smile and shot off a salute that she usually used to end each show. There were no fireworks exploding behind her this time but the effect was the same.
The colt squealed like a filly half his age again.“Sweet Celestia, it’s DJ-Pon3!”
“Who? Hey!” The mare in the chair he was standing in front of pulled her hooves in. “Watch the merchandise there, junior!”
“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh!” he giggled, not seeming to realise he had stepped on her when he jumped up and down. “I can’t believe I’m, like, three feet away from DJ-Pon3! This is so cool!” He blinked, looking around at where they were. “Or … maybe not. Why are you here? Aren’t you meant to be doing a concert tonight? I tried to get tickets but they were all sold out by the time I convinced my dad to make them my birthday present.”
“Yeah, there’s a concert tonight.” A concert she had run out from. A concert that was going to cost her record company a whole lot of bits to reimburse. A concert she should turn around and head back to – except that there was no way that was going to happen. “I’m here because my … friend was admitted.”
“Aw, dude, that’s harsh.” The colt trotted up to the front desk. Evidently he had heard enough to understand some of what was going on. Or maybe he had simply felt the tension crackling through the air. He landed his own hooves on the desk and leaned towards the hole to speak to the grim receptionist. “Look, lady, do you know who this is? This is DJ-Pon3 and she has a concert to perform tonight to over three thousand ponies at a little place called the Manehattan Palladium. Maybe you’ve heard of it? So why don’t you just tell her what she wants to know and then she can get back to those three thousand ponies who are all waiting for her? Okay?” He leaned back, as if his intervention had solved everything.
“Family only,” the receptionist impassively replied.
He deflated. “Can’t you make an exception?”
“But she doesn’t have any family!” Vinyl exclaimed in frustration. “We grew up together in a friggin’ orphanage. Check your records. It’ll say so.”
The receptionist consulted her note, this time actually reading them. “Hm.”
“What ‘hm’?” Vinyl demanded. “Is that a good ‘hm' or a bad ‘hm’?”
She rose to her hooves. “Wait here, please. I need to consult somepony.”
“Yeah, well … you go do that!” Vinyl called after her. The riposte was weak and made more so by the door behind the reception desk slamming shut. She sighed harshly and raked her mane off her face. It was bucketing rain outside and she had galloped several dozen blocks to get here. She must have received some strange looks but she was beyond caring, her mind awhirl with what Quaver had told her.
“In the hospital? Why? For how long? Is this why she hadn’t been returning any of my calls? I thought she was just mad at me. Where is she? Which hospital?”
“One question at a time, Scratch!”
Quaver didn’t like her. Vinyl knew that. His insistence on not using her full name was a constant reminder. That just made it more significant that he was the one to come and tell her. She wondered absently whether he was he still at the Palladium. She couldn’t imagine that well-groomed pony dashing into the rain.
The colt next to her jiggled from hoof to hoof. Vinyl glanced sidelong at him. Did he need the bathroom or something?
“You okay, kid?”
“Could I … um … c-could I … couldIhaveanautograph?” he babbled.
She sighed. “Sure, why not. What do want me to sign?”
He scuttled back to his chair, upon which sat a backpack ornamented in swirls of marker pen. She realised after a moment that they were actually lyrics. Moreover, they were all things she had remixed. Off the zipper hung a collection of key-rings bearing her image, her logo and that cartoon version of her from the failed TV show pilot that had aired last year. The kid really was a fan. Most ponies didn’t even know of that cartoon’s existence. He rummaged in his bag and brought out a CD, which flashed under the halogen strip-lights. It was her latest album. He also retrieved the eponymous marker pen, which he presented with a flourish.
“Who should I make it out to?” Vinyl asked.
“Tone. I mean Dulcet!” He flushed. “Dulcet Tone. Sorry, I’m just so … I mean you’re … my name’s Dulcet Tone,” he finished in a mumble.
She blinked at him. She had left her shades at the concert, which was just as well, since she couldn’t see crap in the dark while wearing them. She might have ended up under a carriage or a taxi-cart in the street and been whisked here herself as a patient. Then again, if that meant she got past this friggin’ desk it might be worth trying.
“This is so awesome,” Dulcet continued to mumble excitedly. Even though she was signing his CD he kept jiggling so that no more than two hooves were on the floor at once. “I’m almost glad my cousin fell out of my treehouse and broke his collarbone. Not that I don’t like the dude or anything, but if he hadn’t then I’d be home right now instead talking to you. I have all your CDs! They’re on a special shelf in my bedroom. My mom says it’s going to collapse one day but I refused to put any in the attic when she said so. I got to see you once when you performed at the Hearts n’ Hooves Charity Concert – I was right at the back but I saw you on the big screens and it was so totally amazing!”
“That’s great, kid. It’s always cool to meet somepony who likes what I do.”
“Like? Like? I love your music! You made me want to be a musician when I grow up.” For a moment he pouted. “My mom made me pick trombone as an extra-curricular though. I don’t want to be a dumb trombonist. I want to be a DJ, like you!”
Vinyl smiled tightly. So did hundreds of other ponies, if not thousands. She wondered how many actually realised the amount of work involved to make it in the music business, let alone rise to the top like she had. A band of nausea snapped across her stomach. A thought like that, right now? Here? Topical yet terrible. She knew exactly how much you had to sacrifice to get to the top.
Before Dulcet could say more the door behind the empty receptionist chair opened and the grey mare reappeared, followed by a pony in a white doctor’s coat. She looked like she had swallowed the contents of a doggy poop bin in the park. When the doctor unlatched the door into the waiting room and came through to speak to Vinyl, it became clear why.
“I’m dreadfully sorry, Miss Scratch, my colleague was misinformed about who was allowed entry. If you’ll accept our sincerest apologies and follow me, I’ll escort you from here.”
“About friggin’ time.” Vinyl finished signing ‘DJ-Pon3’ across the front of the CD with a jagged underline and gave it back to Dulcet. “Thanks for the assist, kid. I appreciated the effort.”
“Wow.” He stared at the autograph like she had used liquid gold instead of ink. “So. Awesome.”
She stepped after the doctor but paused, struck by a thought. “Hey, kid?”
His head snapped up. “Yeah?”
“Don’t knock being a trombonist. All music’s cool, yeah?”
“Um, yeah,” he agreed, even though a few seconds ago he had clearly hated the trombone.
“Maybe someday I’ll do a remix of some famous trombone piece, yeah?” she offered. She knew Indigo would throw a fit if she did and call it unmarketable, but the encouraging words rolled off her tongue anyway.
Dulcet’s eyes rounded and she could hear him squealing under his breath as she followed the doctor to the elevator.
“My name is Doctor Thorntree,” he said, pushing the button. “I’m the neurosurgeon assigned to this case.”
“Case?” Vinyl said sharply, all thoughts of trombones and her agent driven from her mind. The elevator pinged and they stepped inside, slightly skewed versions of themselves reflected in the mirror at the back. Her white coat matched Doctor Thorntree’s mane and tail, though he had obviously gained his colour from age. His coat was greying but had clearly once been gingery orange, his flank bearing a stethoscope and scalpel that stood out against the pale fur. “What case? Quaver told me there was an accident.”
He nodded. “There was. A stage light, I believe. It came loose and fell during a rehearsal. The incident occurred…” His horn glowed as he levitated a clipboard out of one oversized pocket to hover in front of his nose. “Seven days ago.”
“A week!? A friggin’ week!? Why didn’t you tell me this before? Was I not important enough? I knew you hated me, but this is low, even for you.”
“You always have to make everything about you, don’t you? This isn’t about you, Scratch. It’s about her.”
They exited the elevator when the doors pinged open. Vinyl noted the sign on the wall that read ‘Neurology Department – Recovery Unit’. It was quieter than she had expected. Their hooves echoed as they walked to an unassuming door labelled ‘Room 219’. Apparently there weren’t many ponies on this floor. Even the nurse’s station, which was right outside, had nopony there at present.
Doctor Thorntree pushed open the door to Room 219 and gestured for Vinyl to enter. Once all four of her hooves were across the threshold she stopped, unable to go any further. Her insides compressed in on themselves like a black hole had spontaneously opened in her gut and was sucking them through. Even when he cleared his throat she remained frozen, every scrap of her taken up with staring at the sole bed and its occupant.
“Miss Philharmonica has a special clause in her health insurance mandate stating that you are to be treated as family.” Doctor Thorntree cleared his throat again. Maybe he was choking on his moustache, which was the size and shape of a juniper shrub, or maybe her intensity was just unnerving him. So few ponies were born with red eyes, it always unnerved others when she stared, especially if she didn’t blink for a long time. “This is, if you’d like to hear the details.”
“Go ahead,” Vinyl said flatly.
He cleared his throat again. “Blunt force head trauma was the most significant injury. She sustained a depressed fracture that required surgery. There were also some complications from brain swelling. It was necessary to remove a small piece of skull to give the brain room to expand.”
“You took part of her skull away?”
“Only temporarily. Once the swelling had gone down the piece was returned and a small valve was placed inside the skull to measure pressure on a moment-to-moment basis.” Doctor Thorntree looked up at Vinyl, who still hadn’t moved. “Do you want me to go on? I’ll understand if you don’t.”
“Go on,” she said, her tone still flat as a shadow. “Tell me everything. All the gory details. And don’t try to dumb it down or sugar-coat it for me. Tell me exactly what’s wrong and I’ll ask if I don’t understand.”
“All right then. If you insist.” He cleared his throat. “I first have to emphasise to you that trauma to the head is a complex issue. It can produce many problems because so many components may be injured. Brain tissue is surrounded by the skull and also by a tough membrane called the dura, which is right next to the brain. Within and surrounding both of these are arteries, veins and important cranial nerves. The most obvious damage from head trauma is a broken skull, but even more dangerous is if these blood vessels, nerves, or the brain tissue itself are damaged. Miss Philharmonica’s injury was life-threatening because the impact of the stage light did not merely splinter her skull but broke an entire piece off and pushed it inwards onto the dura and brain. However, because she was operated on quickly, ischemia was avoided.”
“Sorry. Ischemia. When trauma is enough to swell the brain, the blood supply to it may be blocked, which can lead to tissue death.”
“Tissue? You mean brain tissue? That didn’t happen to her, right?” Panic edged Vinyl’s question. Tissue death? That meant brain damage, didn’t it? Octavia couldn’t be brain damaged. That wasn’t possible. It would be too … too …
Except that it was. It was entirely possible. The weight of that reality settled over Vinyl’s brain like a shroud.
Doctor Thorntree shook his head. “No, she suffered no significant tissue death during the surgery.”
She blew out a sigh, which hitched when he continued.
“However, after the surgery was completed she did not regain consciousness when she should have.”
“Yeah.” Vinyl choked slightly on the bowling ball she didn’t remember swallowing. “I can see that.”
Octavia looked so small, surrounded by beeping machines and stuck all over with wires and tubes. Her skin was exposed where they had shaved her fur, leaving ugly pink patches, slightly raised where needles poked in. A gigantic swathe of bandages encompassed the whole top half of her head. They were clean and such a bright white that they hurt Vinyl’s eyes but she could all too easily imagine them red with blood.
Vinyl could see nothing but her eyes. The lower half of her face was obscured by a breathing mask that looked like it belonged in some sci-fi movie. Octavia’s eyelids were closed, the eyes beneath perfectly still. Vinyl remembered waking more than once and watching her in the predawn light, wondering what she was dreaming about that had her closed eyes moving faster than a caffeinated jackrabbit.
“There’s something called the Glascow Coma Scale,” Doctor Thorntree was saying. “It’s how we assess the severity of patients with head injuries. It runs from zero to fifteen based on various parameters and tests – things like motor functions, responsiveness to light and the like. Fifteen is the best prognoses possible, with little to no lasting effects. That usually refers to things like concussions. Less than eight is the worst prognoses.”
“And what does she score?” Vinyl croaked.
He hesitated before admitting, “Three.”
Vinyl’s heart sank. With great effort she asked, “What does that mean for her?”
He hesitated again. “How blunt do you wish me to be?”
“I said I wanted all the gory details, didn’t I?” she snapped acidly.
He recoiled a little but spoke in the same calm manner. He had probably learned to talk that way at doctor school, she thought bitterly. “Her score would rise significantly if she recovers consciousness – but there’s no guarantee she will after this long. However, that’s not to say she won’t, and if she does there’s a twenty-five to thirty percent chance she would have a reasonable to good long-term outcome. That means she would retain full control of all her brain and bodily functions. However, there’s also a seventeen percent chance she would sustain moderate to severe disabilities.”
“Those sound like okay odds.” They didn’t, not really, but twenty-five percent in favour of Octavia waking up and still being Octavia was better than a seventeen percent chance of … something else.
Doctor Thorntree audibly breathed out, though once again his tone did not change. “There’s also a thirty percent chance she will die. Or she may remain in a permanent vegetative state, as you see here. The fact that she has not recovered consciousness at all since the surgery is not a good sign. Even a small moment of waking would raise her score but there has been nothing. To put it in layman’s terms, the longer she stays in her coma, the less likely her chances are of a good recovery.” He winced. “Or, indeed, any recovery.”
If Vinyl had thought her heart dropped before, now it plummeted through the floor, smashed through all the stories below and tunnelled into the earth, where it found a dark cave and huddled, whimpering to itself. “I …” She stopped, unable to think what to say. “Magic. You’re a unicorn. Isn’t there some sort of magic you could do to help her?”
“You’re thinking of medi-magic, I suspect.” Doctor Thorntree paused, as if thinking how best to phrase himself.
Vinyl was suddenly transported back to her school days, the years before Octavia came into her life, when she couldn’t give a rat’s butt about her grades and spent more time blowing spit-wads while the teacher wasn’t looking than actually paying attention. Her bravado had only stretched as far as end-of-semester exams, when she sat and stared at questions she had no idea how to answer while her classmates beavered away and left her in their dust. Knowing Doctor Thorntree was putting things into smaller words for her to understand made her feel just as stupid and useless as she had back then.
“Medi-magic is … problematic,” he said at last. “It’s a controversial issue. Perhaps you’ve seen things about it on the news? No? Oh. Well, you see, because the brain is such a complex, uh … thing.” He watched for her reaction. Vinyl pulsed with irritation but motioned for him to go on. “Because it’s so complex we don’t fully understand how it all works. What we do know is that exposure to magic can cause unpredictable side-effects, some of which can be worse than the initial injuries a doctor is working to repair. This is especially true if the magic they use is more than basic telekinesis, or if a patient possesses a great deal of magic. I could, for example, lift and use tools during an operation that requires more delicate work but no more than that, and even then I would have to take into account whether a patient is a unicorn, pegasus or earth pony. The more magic a patient has, the less a surgeon can use when operating on them.”
“So what you’re telling me,” Vinyl said slowly as her brain raced to keep up, “Is that medi-magic is a big bunch of donkey dung?”
“Not at all!” Doctor Thorntree looked affronted. “It is simply not as widely used as some might think – especially since such a high proportion of doctors are unicorns. There are some hospitals that champion its use but Manehattan General is more circumspect. Um, what I mean by that is –”
“I know what circumspect means,” Vinyl bit off. “Whatever. Tell me what that means for Octavia.”
“It means that because she is an earth pony I was able to use telekinesis during surgery to ensure the repair work on her skull was completed with an extra delicate touch. However, because I was operating on her brain, I could use no more than that and would not recommend using any medi-magic to supplement her healing progress, since nopony can guarantee what sort of side-effects it may have.”
“What do you mean by ‘side-effects’?”
“Ruptured arteries. Memory loss. Early onset Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis. There are other documented consequences but these are the most common.” Doctor Thorntree put a hoof on Vinyl’s shoulder like he expected her to knock it away. “I’m sorry. I know it’s a lot to take in all at once.”
Vinyl wanted to shrug him off but hadn’t the energy. “So there’s nothing you can do to wake her up? Drugs or something like that?” Surely there was something. You heard all the time about how medical science was getting better every day, even if medi-magic was no use.
“Other than take care of her physical needs and maintain palliative care, no.”
“We can dull the pain for if she does wake up.”
“Oh.” Vinyl swallowed compulsively but her mouth was dry as a desert. “I should’ve … been here,” she croaked. “Sooner. I should’ve been here sooner.”
“I’ve heard a lot of loved ones say things like that. I’ll say to you what I’ve said to them: you cannot change what is past and you cannot predict the future, therefore you must focus on the present. Your friend is alive, Miss Scratch, and the surgery was successful. The swelling in her brain has gone down and I can see no reason why her skull fracture will not heal cleanly.”
“But she’s still in a coma.”
“Yes, but that isn’t to say she will remain in one.”
“But you said her Glass-thingy score is only three!”
“Again, yes, her GCS score is less than optimal, but that isn’t to say her fate is written in stone. You must focus on the positive rather than negative.”
Vinyl turned away. “Easier said than done. I’m seeing a crapload of negatives and not many positives.”
“The most significant things in life usually are easier said than done. That does not make them any less worthwhile.”
His words struck home. They entered through Vinyl’s ears but sparked things in her heart that she hadn’t allowed herself to feel for a long time. In the farthest recesses of her memory something stirred. It felt like a box opening – a box she had shoved a great many things into before snapping off the key in the lock. Doctor Thorntree’s advice was apparently the mental equivalent to a locksmith. Though Vinyl would usually sit on the box to keep its contents from getting out, now she let it creak open and a few memories slipped free.
“Hi there. I’m Scratch.”
“My name is, uh … my name is Octavia Philharmonica.”
“Wow, two names. Classy. Hey, you don’t gotta sound so nervous. I don’t bite, I promise. Well, not very hard. We’ve all had first days and they always suck. You want me to show you around?”
“I … I suppose so.”
“Wow, you talk real funny. Where the heck are you from?”
“Trottingham, but I was living with my aunt here in Manehattan until she … um … until she … mrrf!”
“Hey, you don’t gotta talk about it if you ain’t ready. We’ve all got stories about how we got here. How about I give you the grand tour and you ask me questions about living here and work real hard at getting that scared rabbit look off your face? Afterwards, we’ll take it from there. Sound good?”
“It … I … yes, that sounds good.”
Vinyl could still remember pressing her hoof to the frightened grey filly’s mouth to stop her talking about the obvious pain behind her eyes. Now she couldn’t even see Octavia’s mouth, much less touch it.
She spotted a chair in the corner of the room. It was just like the uncomfortable plastic things downstairs in the waiting area. She forced herself to move, dragging it to the side of the bed before sitting down. She inched it back a little, in case she accidentally jarred one of the many machines attached to Octavia. Only then did she look at the doctor.
“Is it okay if I stay?”
“By all means. Talk to her. You may have heard stories of patients who wake up when they heard the voices of ponies they care about. Well, they aren’t as commonplace as media would have you believe, but they aren’t all bunkum either.”
“Bunkum?” The word distracted her from the suspicion that he was only saying that to make her feel better. It was a very Octavia word. Vinyl narrowed her eyes at the doctor. “Your accent … where are you from?”
“Me?” Doctor Thorntree looked surprised at the question. “Silverdale. It’s a small village outside Trottingham,” he added when the name provoked no recognition.
For no explicable reason whatsoever, that gave Vinyl comfort. She looked back at the bed, though it still made her stomach lurch and her heart cower in its burrow. “I thought it might be something like that.” When she was silent for several minutes she heard him start to trot away. “Hey, doc?”
“Yes?” He sounded put out. Evidently he didn’t like his title being shortened.
“I need to contact the Manehattan Palladium and tell them I’m not coming tonight.”