The End

by shalrath

Chapter 16

* * *

It was a beautiful day in Ponyville.

It was a miserable afternoon for Twilight.

The sun lay waning, plump and shimmery in the pale blue sky.  A milky white orb that cast crepuscular rays through the roiling cloud bank that soared across the western horizon.

The cool light warmed Twilight’s face, but could not match the inferno within her head.  Where one might stare at the sun with a squint, Twilight simply scowled ahead.  

She turned with a snort, stamping back to her bedroom.  Books lay strewn in discarded heaps, arranged as sandbars within a flowing stream.  Her mind raced as her hooves paced.  The sum of written knowledge within her trust placed had failed to answer the questions she faced.

“Come on, Twilight.  Think.”

She did, ever so painfully.

The sun was a star.  Equestria orbited the sun.  Gravity caused less massive objects to orbit around more massive objects.  

Or so she was told, earlier that morning.

She tapped her hoof as she contemplated Trent’s matter-of-factly stated principles.  It seemed so natural coming from him.  No trace of smug condescension, or haughty declaration forged from fervent faith.  He didn’t even believe in what he said.  He didn’t have to!  He simply knew it to be true beyond any reasonable shadow of a doubt.  Unmistakable unshakable confidence.  

Just as she knew that Princess Celestia brought the light of the sun to Equestria, and Luna raised the veil of night’s starlit tapestry.  

A chill ran down the length of her spine.  One innocuous little thought that sent shudders down to the tips of her hooves.  

She considered Trent’s explanations again.  They made sense, even with her admittedly tenuous understanding.  Had it been any other subject, she might accept it on face value, with the same trust she extended to the many authoritative reams of knowledge penned within many books of many libraries.  Silent sanctuaries of immutable wisdom.  

Yet, it tore at her.  Knowledge was truth.  Truth was inviolate.  It was comfort and stability within a tumultuous existence.  Contradictions were heresy.

The sun was a star.  Stars were the same size as the sun, if not larger.  Equestria orbited around the sun.

Sometimes, the most audacious thing you can do in life, is to question it.

Her thoughts turned briefly to Celestia.  A mentor like none other.  She respected her.  She challenged her to excel.  She trusted her, and Twilight drove herself to deserve it.  

Equestria orbited the sun.  Celestia raised the sun every morning.  

Question everything, but believe in yourself.

It was treachery.  Two-timing.  Treason.  And probably a whole lot of other words that began with the letter ‘T’.  Her horn glowed as she absentmindedly pulled another book from the shelf.

She shook her head.  The tome titled ‘Thesaurus’ tumbled to the trestled floor.

Celestia raised the sun every morning.  Equestria orbited the sun.

A low whisper escaped through the hairline crack between her lips.

“Prove it.”

* * *

Into the black she arose.  The dark chalky asteroid disappeared from her narrow band of vision, and she released her thumb from the throttle.  The thrust from the pogo stick ceased, and she held tight to the handles as the stick began to pull down and away.  The guide wheels raced along the braid of wire rope, sending an angry buzz through the palms of her clenched gloves.  Several wraps of SuperTape held her boots fast against the stubby metal rods that served as footrests.  She was losing speed slowly, but she could almost feel her ankles pressing into the collar of her boots, as if she was hanging upside down.  

Three minutes, or thereabout.  Counting down from five.  Couldn’t be counted on, though.  Longest recorded survival was shy of four minutes.  And even then...

She shuddered.  

Don’t hold your breath.  Scream until you pass out.  That’s the only hope you’ve got.  Hope that someone’s there for you.  Hope they get there in time.  No good if your blood boils from the outgassing, and every vein ruptures in your body.  

She squeezed her glove around the glowing symbol she drew.  She hoped she would be there in time.

Through the narrow gap in the pitch black foil, she could see out.  She watched fervently for movement, searching for a single speck among the backdrop of a spiral galaxy.  A hunter was out there, stalking between stars as a lion would watch patiently behind stalks of amber grass.  

The radio hissed softly, crackling with the faint afterglow from the dawn of creation.  She could be seen if she wasn’t careful.  The clockwork hum of a turret motor would be her death knell.  Then the whistle.  The screaming radio whistle of a hot slug trailing metallic plasma as it crossed the distance.  The ship could be kilometers away.  It would be all over in less than a second.  

At this range, even a gas rifle would be point blank.  You couldn’t hear those.  Just a tiny flash.  Easy to miss.  Not for them.  

She strained her eyes, peering through the gap in the foil that masked her telltale infrared signature.  

A thin metal collar shot through the forward rollers of the wire guide, squeezing the brake calipers with a ratcheting click.  The pogo stick jerked downwards in her hands, and she could almost feel her feet slipping from her oversized boots.  

*Click*  *Click*  *Click*

The cable pulled taut behind her, whipping from side to side in a meandering metronomic fishtail.  She gripped the pogo stick with all the force she could exert with her bony arms, crushing the bulky gloves around the handles with toothpick fingers.  

It was starting to get rather warm inside the suit.  Nowhere for the heat to go.  Only two minutes, and it was starting to feel like an oven.  Her gloved fingers could still move freely, but the joints in the suit were starting to swell from the pressure.  

With a sickening lurch, the wire guide stopped.  She could feel the cable behind her undulate and sway, as if standing atop the tallest rung of the narrowest ladder.  The suit didn’t give her the mobility to look up, but she raised one arm tentatively, and felt something solid.  It was the towing bar from the crotch rocket.  Raising her other arm, she felt her way along the tail of the vehicle, reaching further towards where Jake would be sitting.

A jagged gap swallowed her probing glove.  She pushed herself away to see.

The craft had been eviscerated, ruptured from the inside out where the lance of light speared through the pressurized reaction mass tanks.  She unhooked herself from the pogo stick and pulled herself up smoothly, careful not to push away from the craft.  

Jake was nowhere to be seen.  Nearly blind, she reached forward and tugged on a white nylon strap concealed within the floating seaweed growth of shredded flex hose, ruptured brass pipe, and stripped copper wiring.  

She tugged, and the strap went taut.  

There was a soft steady hiss from the radio.

No time to think.  The wire knife was trapped in her leg pocket, but the scalpel found it’s way into her hand readily.  She pulled the nylon ribbon, and slashed through it with a flick of her wrist, pushing away from the craft with one panicked push from her long gangly legs.

The craft pushed back.  For a split second, she could feel a rapid staccato of taps through the tips of her toes, and then the craft tumbled away from beneath her.  She pulled firmly on the strap, turning her back as she climbed.  Jake’s spacesuit nestled between her arms, now concealed by the foil cocoon wrapped around her suit.  

Through the corner of her eye, she could see the craft gaining momentum, lurching away as a hailstorm of invisible slugs silently tore through it.

She shuddered silently, not daring to move a muscle.  Her voice refused to betray her as well, even if she was the sole audience for one final shrill shriek.    

It was nearly four minutes.  The watch didn’t remind her.  The severed hose dangling from Jake’s suit did.

As quickly as she could risk moving, she tore a hole through the inky black foil wrapped around her belly.  She squeezed the release on the hook snap, and detached the life giving umbilical from her suit.  She wedged her pinkie finger between the pair of hoses, holding it within reach as she deftly removed the coupling from the other suit, slapping hers in place with a quick fluid motion.  

The suit inflated quickly, revealing a perforated line across the belly.  Droplets of blood leaked through in some places, fizzing as the gas boiled away from the dull red plasma.  She held her breath as she worked, shutting down any portion of her mind not responsible for guiding her hand.  A small silvery tube was procured from her belly pocket, which sprayed a clear sticky sealant across the holes.  A roll of inside-out tape stuck firmly to the side of his torso, and she pulled it quickly across the breach.  

It was getting very hot inside the suit.  Her faceplate began to fog up, cutting her off what narrow band of vision she had left.  It was starting to get hazy, not just from the oppressively hot and humid air, but within her mind too.  Slowly starved for oxygen.  The tank strapped to her leg was their oasis in the void.  She pulled the hook snap release and plugged it into her suit once more, feeling one last respite of cool air.  

The hose returned to Jake’s suit.  Her arms wrapped around his chest, and she squeezed as hard as she could, compressing his chest several times.  She held him within her arms as the foggy dreamlike state returned.  With one last motion, she reached around his helmet, and pressed her hand against the faceplate.

A blocky medical crossbar set within a squiggly drawn heart.  It glowed in the palm of her glove.  

It was getting too hot.  Her lungs were burning from the lack of oxygen, but she was past caring.  Pain slipped away beneath the encroaching comfort of sleep.

No!  She couldn’t sleep.  He needed to wake up.  She needed to stay awake...  Awake.  The day would be over soon.  Just need to stay awake.  Her vision blurred.

She could still see everything, yet her eyelids had long since fluttered closed.

Please wake up.

* * *

It was a boring day in Ponyville.

It was an exciting afternoon for Applebloom.

The pen laid still for a moment, a slick black instrument that seemed out of place atop the cheery cherry red tabletop.  It was a good pen, much better than those favored for the routine and mundane acts of jotting notes or scribbling shapes onto the backs of cocktail napkins.  

It rolled smoothly beneath a small yellow hoof.  A slow and methodical rhythm that passed the time as one’s limb would lazily dip in a fast moving stream, drawing ripples with the absence of effort.  Each measured movement as the silent swing of a pendulum.  An impatient ticking in the background of calm pensive contemplation.

This particular pen’s days of scribbling and jotting were long past.  For some time, the pen had served as a keepsake rather than a writing utensil.  Carried as a memento of many brief momentous moments, where the flourish of its tip would write history.  A time when words shaped worlds, and a signature spoke for civilizations.

It rolled, and stopped.  The hoof holding it against the table paused in anticipation.

The history of the pen would remain secret beneath the unassuming ebony finish.  Were it to be properly appraised, one might expect a bidding war from collectors willing to hurl their fortunes with the same zeal that warring nations would hurl thermonuclear bombs, consumed by the glinting hope of a pyrrhic victory.

The red haired filly bit firmly on the pen, holding it between her tongue and cheek as the glistening black tip pressed tentatively against the coarse white paper.  It nestled comfortably between the crowns of her molars, as the glossy synthetic hardwood gave with the firm pliancy of ballistic rubber.  

The pen was not a toy.  It was a gift.  A tool brimming with potential and purpose.  

Ideas swirled within her head.  A roaring furnace of imagination that stoked the forge of creativity.  Every idle thought built relentlessly upon a towering edifice of ideas.  A tower that pierced the constant constraint of the pale blue sky, soaring higher than any pegasus, and seeing farther than any telescope.  A perch of dizzying heights that revealed the full majesty of unseen lands, unparalleled in scope and scale.

Applebloom slashed the first sentence into the sheet of paper.  

The pen once shaped the course of worlds.  

Now it would build them from the ground up.

* * *

“Almost done, I guess,” Trent sighed.  

They walked through the narrow aperture, back into the vestibule.  Fluttershy trailed behind, not speaking a word.

“Look...  I’m sorry about this.  This probably isn’t my best idea, not by a long shot.  We’ll be on our way out soon, unless you’d like to go right now.”

 “It’s okay,” she whispered softly.  “I mean, I really do appreciate what you’ve shown me.  We can still see the ship.  I don’t mind.”

“Okay,” he conceded.

The vestibule widened, revealing the circular stone mosaic set into the floor.  A breaking wave driven by typhoon force winds blotted out the distant dry land.  Just above the wave, a tiny gleaming gray glass shard soared above the battered harbor.  A symbol for the ship itself, as a still bridge over turbulent waters.

Trent stared at the end of the vestibule.  The far wall branched off into several corridors, each departing in their own direction.  It somehow felt familiar, and at the same time, unsettling.

A strange noise crackled to life from recessed speakers.  A whisper that seemed to reverberate from every compartment within the empty hull.  

“What?”  Fluttershy asked.

“What?  Oh hey, did you hear that too?”

Fluttershy nodded slowly, still looking up at the ceiling.

“Sounded like gibberish to me.  Ship must be having some problems.  Have to look into that later, when there’s time...”  Trent groaned.

The speakers spoke once again.

“Everything will be all right, Miss Flutter...”
“There,” Trent announced with a snap of his fingers.  “Speakers muted.”

“Ohh.  Okay,” she gulped nervously.

He sighed.

“Sure you want to see the ship?”

Her eyes shifted from side to side, unsure which answer to give.

“Well, you did say you wanted me to see it.”

“I know, I know.  Just that, I’m not sure if it’s still such a good idea.  I mean, teaching you to fly it as well.  Even if that meant that you could help some..  people,” his voice trailed off.

“Um...  Mr. Trent?”


“You did say that a bad decision was better than no decision, right?”

He smiled weakly.

“Never can be sure, until you’ve tried it.”

“I think..” she paused for a moment.  “That everything will be all right.”

Trent shuddered, ever so slightly.

“Which way do we go?” she gestured one hoof toward the array of passages.

He paused for a moment, before the flicker of a smile crossed his face.

“Oh?  What do you mean by that?  There’s only one way we can go."


“Forward!” he grinned.

“Oh,” the corners of her lips curled upward.  “Um..  Mr. Trent?  That joke wasn’t nearly as terrible as the other ones.”

“Pff.  Tough crowd.”

“Lead the way, Mr. Trent.  If that’s okay with you, I mean.”

There were many passages leading to many tram stations.  One would take them to the ship, and one would take them home.  A simple decision with any number of outcomes.

Don’t look back.

Trent shivered.

“Second passage on the right.  That will take us to bay Four Bravo.”

“Okay,” she trotted across the tile mosaic.

“Ah, Fluttershy?  I’m sorry if the tram frightened you earlier.  We can take a detour and walk the rest of the way, if you’d rather.”

“Oh.  No.  I think it will be fine,” she said nervously.  

He shrugged, and waved his fingertips in the air.  The tram doors opened, and she darted inside.  She was already seated when he entered, her hooves hooked over the back of the seat, and her wingtips nearly brushed the roof of the cabin.

An unmistakable smile radiated through the nervous facade.  One that Trent returned as he sat down in the seat behind from her, their eyes locked together for a brief tender moment.



“You’re facing the wrong way.”


The tram departed with the speed of a bullet, and a high pitched squeal.

Trams do not usually squeal.

* * *

It was a slow day in Ponyville.

It couldn’t be fast enough for Scootaloo.

The wind whipped through her fuschia mane as the grass receded behind each sharp stamp of her hooves.  Her short wings buzzed as they bit into the air, pushing herself with every erg of energy she could muster.  

Tap tap tap.

The brass watch rode high on her foreleg, nearly up to her shoulder.  It threw off her balance when it had been fastened near her hoof.

Tap tap tap.

Her sight blurred as she forced herself forward, speeding past her own persistence of vision.  A small hill was fast approaching, followed by a dip that curved down into a wide open meadow.

Time it just right...


She leapt into the afternoon sky.  Her wings spread further, slowing their rhythm but pushing harder with each swoop.  The ground fell away as she drove onwards and upwards with exhilarated determination.

Tap tap tap.

Scootaloo’s wings were undeveloped for a pegasus of her age.  Not to say they were small or stunted, because that would be a very insensitive thing to say to a nervous young filly.  Even if it was true.  Undeveloped was the preferred choice of words, as most doctors would agree.  It pointed out the obvious, while offering some meager measure of hope that the wings might someday develop normally, while retaining plausible deniability in the case that they most likely would not.  

Tap tap tap.

It was a difficult subject to broach.  Pegasi were born to fly, much like giraffes were born to reach the leaves from the high branches of tall trees.  Not to say that a giraffe was born with a long neck to reach those leaves, as that’s not quite how nature works.  Rather, the giraffes that could not reach the tall branches simply ceased being giraffes after repeated and sustained bouts of malnourishment.

Nature is so fascinating.

Fortunately for short giraffes, people with glasses, and pegasi with underdeveloped wings, there was little pressure for selection on these traits.  The same could certainly not be said for their ancestors, whereby natural selection honed such features to a needle-like point.  A sharpening of the species paid through the whittled sacrifices of the many undeveloped individuals that ended up on the wrong side of the cut.

Tap tap tap.

Pegasi of yore were a fierce and proud race.  Warriors and poets, one and the same.  They wore their emotions on their shoulders, and their personalities were often as fiery as the brilliant colors of their manes.

While nearly all animals are subject to the “Four F’s”, that genetically hardcoded programming of fight and flight, feeding and.. well.. fucking, pegasi bore the notable distinction of taking ‘flight’ a bit too literally.  

They had asked for it, after all.  
If one were to pick a specimen to personify the valiant spirit of the pegasi, you would be hard pressed to find one more fitting than Athon.  A thoroughbred brute with a heart of gold and a vocabulary that could tarnish steel.  Her coat was a deep cobalt blue, a luscious hue, as if stolen from the very depths of dawn.  Her mane and tail bore the brilliant fury of a sunrise, a sight oft seen streaking across the morning sky, as night was routed before the break of day.

She stood nearly shoulder to shoulder with Princess Luna, and could match her bellowing timbre with ease.  Yet where a Princess was the very model of calm reserve, Athon remained proudly bereft of this concept.  

Patron saint of awesomeness, if such a word existed in her day.  If not, she would be the one to invent it.  There was little doubt to her physical prowess, though it remains in question as to whether the word ‘athlete’ was named after Athon, or if it were the other way around.

Tap tap tap.

Scootaloo may be a far cry from Athon physically, but if the Iron Mare herself happened to be watching from beyond the veil on that particular day, seeing that tiny orange pegasus putting forth every effort to defy the towering edifice of low expectations that had been built up over her entire life; brick by brick, every condescendingly hopeful prognosis, every sympathetic shake of the head, every eschewed pick for the hoofball team; she would have bared her teeth and grinned.  

There was more to being a pegasus than just having wings.  There was a spirit to it.  A spirit of moving forward.  Charging forth into the unknown.  Treating every challenge as a juicy morsel to appease an insatiable hunger.  To define predator and prey with the same blind distinction as ‘me’ and ‘everything else’.

This particular sense of spirit was not well remembered by the pegasi of today - some particularly more than others.  The doldrums of peace and harmony afflicting Equestria had left that sense to atrophy over the ticking centuries.  

Tap tap tap.

Athon was a rather notable pegasus, alas one lost to history.  Few remained to recall her exploits, but for those few, they are remembered vividly.  She was a champion to the royal court, long before the first stones of Canterlot Castle were set to mortar.  A confidante to the Princesses themselves, and ambassador to the kingdoms of Dragons and Gryphons in the days when such alliances were raw and tenuous.  

While it is unknown whether she bore a foal to carry on her genetic jackpot, she was certainly responsible for birthing numerous stories and legends.  Yet, even the most outrageous embellishments of these tales often suffered from an imagination that was far too modest.  As they say, truth is often stranger than fiction.

She had never slowed down to consider the placid pace of family life, and spent many years living outside of the loosely drawn borders of Ponykind.  Indeed, she had drawn many of these borders in the first place, along with the maps to keep track of them.  However, if one were to place a wager, it would be safe to bet that one or more descendents of Athon lived on within modern day Equestria.

Athon was a mare who took her “four F’s” very seriously.  

Tap tap tap.

Her renown was not limited to the Royal Court, nor even the surrounding nations.  Her importance extended far beyond any distant horizon, or any line drawn on a map.  She bore an Element of Equestria.  One of six.  

The Element of Sacrifice.

While there are few who remember Athon, and even fewer that remember her personal brand of vitriolic vibrance for squeezing the most out of every moment of every day, there is just one that remembers her final minutes.  Her final words.  Her last blood choked whisper.

“A pillar of light strikes the East, and moves to consume us!”

Few words.  She had made them count.

Tap tap tap.

Despite Scootaloo’s best efforts, her flight was looking more like a parabolic trajectory.  She strained and struggled, but the apex was behind her, and the ground was coming to meet her.  It was a fight that she would not win, but one she would not concede.  

The nature of a pegasus was not simply to fight.  Anypony could play that game.  Any pony that was certain of victory, would play to win.


It took a special sort of derangement to fight against hopeless odds.  An honor of acquired taste.  One did not simply wrestle a full grown dragon, lash a sinking ship to an enemy vessel, or challenge a Type III galactic civilization, and then scream in defiance as claws pinned your chest to a cavern wall, or as your ship sank beneath your boots, or as planets burned under the onslaught of an interstellar armada;  “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Tap tap tap.

In a roundabout way, Athon was the inventor of penmanship.  Not as a champion of succinct legibility, but rather that her infrequent illiterate illegible drunken scrawlings left such a blighted besmirchment upon the heart of wordcrafting that entire generations of scribes and schoolteachers were united in their cries of ‘Never again!’

Yet, she did leave one lasting written legacy.  A short and lucid treatise of her reflections on a life of adventure and turmoil.  One clear message hidden amidst the charcoal chicken-scratching that occupied the careers of a small legion of historians and graphologists to decipher.

“The measure of a mare (or a stallion (and I do not mean *that* kind of measure (though I shall admit freely to receiving the measure of a great many))) lies not upon such tally of bygone victories, but rather the hunger for challenge (and stallions) and resolve to carry on through defeat.  Those who play to win shall never prevail against those who play to lose.”  

Scootaloo was playing to lose.  

Yet it was not gravity that Scootaloo fought, despite all appearances to the contrary.  She had challenged a far more insidious beast.  One that drove the engines of the cosmos.  One that laid eternal siege to the bounds of mortal existence.  One which ground away the traces of kingdoms and empires with inexorable impassive aplomb.  A vulture that patiently awaited the demise of the stars themselves.  A beast that eternally laughed with shrill mindless prejudice as it delivered the one rule of its game; that one must run as fast as they can to simply stay in place.

She was fighting time.  And she was determined to prevail.

She could hear it.  

Tap tap tap.

The brass watch ticked against her foreleg.  The heartbeat of the invisible demon that spanned every measure of the universe.

Tears streamed from her eyes and her wings burned from exertion.  The ground was approaching quickly, and she raised her hooves to forestall the inevitable.  

Her wings were noticeably undeveloped.  In fact, they would certainly stay that way if she never learned to flap them properly.  Buzzing along like an overgrown hummingbird does not properly stimulate the full range of muscles needed for flying, and she would certainly not be flying if she never flapped her wings properly.  And why would she?  The official prognosis was always to wait for her wings to develop.  

Waiting.  Indecision.  Inaction.  The demon laughed.

Ha ha ha.

Tap tap tap.

Scootaloo landed fast, the tips of her hooves tearing through the soft grass as she skidded to a gallop.  She slowed to a trot, and finally stopped, panting for breath.  Her heart pounded with a tempo that outpaced the methodical ticking of the brass watch by three to one.  

Her flight was finished, but she was not.  A manic grin spread across her sweat drenched face as she craned her neck around to look at the glass faceplate.  Thirty-one seconds!  She had stayed aloft for thirty-one seconds!  

This was not a record that most pegasi her age would be particularly proud of.  Yet, she was.

It was four seconds longer than the last time.

For one brief moment, time was given pause.  A respectful nod to a worthy opponent.  This little orange pegasus wielded one of the few weapons that could pierce its Achilles heel.


A small tremor ran through the ground, a vibration in the very firmament of bedrock that could be felt from Ponyville all the way to the outskirts of Canterlot.  It briefly captured the attention of those who felt the tremble through their hooves, as a moment of mild interest in an otherwise ordinary day.  Such trifling events could be readily explained by recent theories of geology, whereupon tectonic activity was actually caused by great slabs of underlying rock grinding against each other, powered by the millennia long nocturnal stirring of great and terrible elder leviathans entombed many score of miles beneath the upthrust rise of mountains and plateaus.   It certainly was not caused by the long dead spirit of a long forgotten mythical pegasus stomping her hooves in exhilaration as she whooped and cheered for those few and far between who let their actions speak for their convictions.

Scootaloo bit the lever on the side of the brass watch, and the gears whirled inside, resetting the countdown.  She twisted the bezel by five clicks.  Four to cool down, and one to fly like her life depended upon it.  

Five minutes.

TAP, tap, tap, tap.

* * *

TAP, tap, tap, tap.

Five minutes.

The parabolic radiator faced the distant sun.  A glowing marble that grappled all within its reach.  Bodies of gas, rock, and flesh swung round in their eternal ballet, guided by gravity’s indiscriminate precision.

The polarizing cap floated against the face of the rock, falling in the slowest of motions.  In it’s place, a sheet of foil that absorbed everything yet emitted nothing, save for frequencies that could not be easily perceived.  

A hole was torn in the center of the gossamer metallic sheet.  A hole covered by one large glove, belonging to one even larger person.

He waved.

Dot dash.  Dash dash.  Dash dot dot dot.  Dot dot dash.  Dot dot dot.  Dot dot dot dot.

* * *

“Pelorus, bridge.”

“Pelorus.  Go ahead bridge.”

“Interrogative, ready status.”

“Pelorus manned.  Chain locker tapped for thermal dump.  Negative sixty and sitting pretty.”

“Good.  Standby.  I want you to bring me that floating fat man.”

“Hah.  Load called at one-four-eight-zero kilos.  That’s Terry plus the singleship, and the kids are a rounding error.”

There was a loud snorting symphony of laughter over the intercom, echoing from many different compartments at once.

“Okay.  Very good.  Frame offset two-two dot three meps, bearing one-eight-zero, relevant ten minutes.”

“Shite!  Bleedin arseholes.  Ya could’na just said about fifty miles inna hour.  Or is ye too busy playin pirates up there?  Swabbin each ya other’s pretty little poopdecks?”

“Never knew you were so fond of the English system, O’Dwyer.”

“Oh feck off!”

“No love for the NATO phonetic standard these days.  Damn shame.”

“Think they’re still using that?”

“Eh, probably.”

“No, I mean, do you think NATO still exists down there?”

There was a pause.  A weary collective sigh.

“Don’t think that really matters much anymore.”

“Okay, okay, kill the chatter.  Day will be over soon.  Just a pickup and a frame change.  Naught seven degrees off axial.  Next hop is about seventy-six hours.”


“ for horses.”

“Line discipline on the net, please.”

“Bridge, Comms.  EM return on forward element.”

“Whoa.. okay.  Um.. Comms, Bridge.  What sort...”

“Bridge!  This is Dorsal lookout.”

“Dorsal, stand by.  Comms, Bridge.  Report.”

“Weak signal in the S-band.  Peak at two dot four-four-three-seven.  No sideband data.  I’m guessing it’s voice.  Terry’s group is using channel eight, right?”  

“Ahh...  Confirmed, channel eight.  Could you hear what they said?”

“Negative.  Signal’s too weak.  Only lasted a few seconds.  Someone might’ve keyed their mic on accident.”

“Roger that.  We’re still about twelve miles out.  Can you calculate the driving power from isotropic falloff?  Make sure the range matches up.”

“Guessing about ten to fifteen milliwatts from the source.  And, um.. twelve miles out.  Yeah, looks about right.”

“Bridge! Dorsal!  Flash spotted!”

“Dorsal, Bridge.  When you’re giving a report, you need to tell me properly.  Like, IR return, bearing such and such.  I’m assuming that’s what you’re seeing, right?”

“It’s IR and visual!  I mean, it was.”

“Right...  Now, where exactly did you see it.”

“About three arc degrees above the asteroid.”

“Dorsal, that’s the rendezvous point.  You’re looking at the tail end of a crotch rocket.”

“Um.. Bridge, I don’t think so.”

The mute button flickered red with a quick jab from Jones’s finger.

“Someone needs to relieve that kid...”

“Bridge, Dorsal.  There were two flashes.  IR return was...”

“Och..  I’m bettin thas me boy showin off for the lassies.  I’ll be havin a talk with ‘im, believe you me.”

Jones tapped the mute button.

“Understood.  Thanks O’Dwyer.”  

“Bridge, Dorsal..”

“Dorsal, standby!  All hands, can we get any cateyes up to Dorsal and verify what he’s seeing?”

There was a momentary lull on the bridge, save for the soft static hiss of the ventilation.

“I’m on the way, Jones.  Gimme a minute to get up there.  Still in my rack with the blackout goggles on.”  

“Load Toad here.  I’ll take Hobgoblin up to Dorsal.”

“What.. and sacrifice your precious beauty sleep, mon ami?”

“C’est bien.  J’ai besoin de regarder le RCB, bientot.”

“A watched kettle that never boils.”

“Ha ha, oui.”

“Okay.  Dorsal, bridge.  Report on IR return.”

“Nothing hotter than a spacesuit.  I don’t see any exhaust plume.”

“Dorsal, I want you to check the calibration indicator.  Has it popped up?”


“Is the scanner set to ‘static’ or ‘pan and scan’?”


“Hmm.  Okay.  Go to pan and scan.  Widen the FOV until you’ve got it trained on target.”

“Bridge, the second flash was really bright, but it’s gone now.  I’ve got no visual, and just a weak IR return at the rendezvous.  I do have normal IR return on the rest of the group though.”

“Well, sit tight.  Hobgoblin is on the way up to lend a pair of eyes.  Do you have magnification on visual, by chance?”

“I don’t have access to the big scope.  Just a pair of binocs.  Can’t make anything out clearly.”


Jones sighed.  The forward telescope was stowed.  A short squat cannister with a big wide shiny lens.  A telltale twinkle in the starlit sky.  

Couldn’t risk that.  

The monitor showed the same unfocused patch of pitch black plate.  The same image for the last three weeks.  A high precision piece of Earth engineered optics, staring at it’s own servo mount.  A dangerous liability, if pointed elsewhere.

His fingers drummed the console.  If there was some cock-up with the rendezvous, it would be worth knowing now.  Worth the risk.  Jones reached towards the small black box mounted above the console.  It would be quick.  A flip of a switch would let him know everything.

“Do you think you’re being a bit hard on him?”

Jones paused, his fingertips hovering over the camera’s servo control.  He turned to look back at Trent.

“Well, he’s a good kid.  But he’s gotta learn a few things.  Comms protocol for starters.”

Trent leaned back in the padded chair, idly swatting at the floating straps of the restraint harness.  

“They grow up fast, out here,” he mused, staring ahead at the whitewashed wall.  

“Pff.  Literally.  They’re taller than us before they hit puberty.  First humans born off Earth.”

Trent sighed.  “You know what I mean.”

“They’re tough.  They’ll adapt.  Hell, they’re doing things that we wouldn’t have dreamed of back at their age!  Like how O’Dwyer’s boy built a working railgun a few weeks ago when nobody was looking, or Saeed’s girl managed to fabricate a bipropellant actuator with better flow control than the standard Energia kit.  And your girl just piloted a four frame course by instrument, dead reckoning, and a pocket watch.  I know you’ve gotta be proud of her for that.”

“I am.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s just..”  Trent sighed.

“They’re gonna make it,” Jones declared.  “We’re gonna make it.”

“I hope.”

“Trent, we all hope for the same thing.  That’s what got us into this mess, and that’s what’s gonna get us out.  I know you like to wax poetic sometimes, even when nobody is actually listening.  And I know you can be a moody sonofabitch when you stop and think about what’s been riding on your shoulders.  But you need to get over it, and start looking forward again.  The ship’s set sail, and you need to remember that everyone out here still thinks you’re in charge.”

“I never said I was in charge.”

“I didn’t say you were in charge.  I said everyone thinks you’re in charge.  I’m the captain of the Hornet here,” he slapped his hand against the command console, “And I still think you’re in charge.”

Trent sighed, staring blankly at the confines of the steel bunker.

“Sometimes, I wonder why.”

“Because I’ve got a nuclear starship, and you’ve got a way with words.  Odds go to you.”

“Some starship.  I hear it’s a long way to Alpha Centauri.”

“Gah.  You and Terry are the king and queen of stupid jokes.”

Trent cleared his throat, speaking with a solemn and steady measure.

“..And here we are, past the familiar blue horizon of starless skies, looking forth upon the interminably vast cosmos.  Leaving one home to seek another..”

“Oh fuck me, he’s going to give a speech, ladies and gentlemen!”

“Ah, no.  I’ve spewed out enough hope and promises already.  I’d rather not start another civil war before this one’s finished.”

Jones snorted in amusement.

“It’s been months since the last major raid.  We’ve got some agriculturals back in operation, and the capacity to manufacture new ones.  Give it another three months and we can go back to rationing instead of just plain starving.”

“Please stop talking about food.”

“The point is,” Jones continued, “That war is over.  They’re hurting for resources more than we are, despite what they’ve managed to pilfer from us.  But it won’t be long before Earth gets its shit together and tries to colonize in force what we’ve built out here.  And when that happens, they’re not going to dole out any favors to those Benedict Arnold scumbags.  It’s going to be quick and indiscriminate.  There will be kangaroo courts and lynchings for us, and everything and everybody else is going to be divided up between the highest bidding Transnationals and continental Protectorates.  That’s where we’d be right now, if it wasn’t for you.  And if our former compatriots have any brains, they’ll get with the program and realize that.”

“I wouldn’t put it past them to try and hang us in zero gravity.”  

“Never underestimate incompetence combined with imagined authority.  Anyways, we can be ready for them.  We’re rebuilding, we’re training, and we’ve stopped fighting.  Well, mostly.  And do you know why?  Because we’ve got hope.  We’ve got a future.  When we meet up with Earth again, it’s going to be on our terms.  I know it’s been tough on you, and I don’t blame you for staring out the window sometimes.  But, we need you.  There’s a whole lotta people out here that look up to you, because they’re hoping for a future without food shortages, kinetic jousts, supply raids, or having their livelihood auctioned off by the Powers That Used To Be.  Trent, I can tell people what to do, but you’re the one that makes them want to do it in the first place.  So for everybodys’ fucking sake, we need you to put on a big smile, lend a guiding hand, and keep all of us looking forward to that day where we get to choose how we’re going to live the rest of our lives.”

Trent plastered both hands over his face and groaned.

“I thought I was the only one that loved to hear myself talk.”

“Touche.  Anyways, back to work.  I’m starting to wonder if Terry’s got a problem getting the rendezvous set up.  I’m thinking about deploying the 280mm scope to see what’s going on.”

“Would they call us if there was a problem?”

“If there was a problem, yeah.  If it was serious enough.  I’m not too worried about using the radio here.  Million to one odds that anyone’s going to listen, and a billion to one that anybody’s in range to take a pot shot.  Terry would radio us if there was some sort of cock-up.”

“Suppose so.”

“Hey, Trent.  You remember that one thing you said a while back?”

“Mikey, I’m a thirty-eight year old senior citizen.  I don’t remember shit anymore.”

“And I’m a forty-four year old Lieutenant Commander in the old Wet Navy.  Now you’re making me feel old.  Anyways, that thing you said..  something about ‘hammering our names into the history books’ or words to that effect.”

“Oh, that.  Back before we even got the Public Space Infrastructure Group off the ground.  Something like ‘Space is not a spectator sport’.  ‘Get there first’...  And..”

“Don’t look back,” Jones finished.

“Don’t look back.  Yeah,” Trent sighed wistfully.  “For a second, I thought you were going to ask about that other speech.”

“Well, you managed to take ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ and turn it into a five minute dissertation, but it got the job done.”

Trent grunted.  “Dirty bomb diplomacy.”

“Without any casualties either.  I’ll take Cold War part Two in Space for eight hundred, Alex.”


“Oh.  Yeah.  I think Jeopardy was before your time.”

Trent shrugged.  

“Anyways, what about this?” he gestured at the telescope console.


The intercom crackled to life as Jones reached for the controls.

“Bridge, Dorsal lookout.  IR return forward.  Repeating flashes.  On the face of the rock.”

“What?” Jones and Trent whispered in unison.

“Ah, Dorsal, Bridge.  Say again your last.  Repeating flashes?”  Jones’s fingertips rested on the telescope servo joystick.

“I think it’s Morse code, Bridge.”

“What does it say?”

“Um.  Bridge, Dorsal.  I don’t know Morse code.”

“Ahhh.  Shit.  Okay, I think we have a codebook up on the real bridge.  The one with all the painted windows.  Can someone traverse there and grab it?”

“Bridge, Hobgoblin.  I’m at Dorsal lookout now.  Don’t worry about the code book, I still remember it.  Used to operate shortwave sets back on Earth.  I’m looking at the scope now.  Yeah, definitely reads as Morse.  Stand by.”

“Is this part of the exercise?” Trent whispered to Jones.

“No.  Shut up for a minute.”

They waited.  A minute passed.

“Bridge, Dorsal.”  

“Bridge.  Go ahead, Captain Greybeard.”

“Jones, You need to set Ship Condition One, and Suit Condition Two.”

“Whoa, what?”

“Just do it, Mikey.”

“What the hell is going on?  What do you see?”

There was a brief pause.  A slow raspy intake of breath.

“O’Dwyer, are you on the net?  Trent, you too?”



“All stations this net, Dorsal lookout.  Message received as follows:  ‘Ambush.  Ambush.  Laser.  Jake hit.  Rescue underway.  Make ready to return fire’.”  

* * *

It was a tranquil day in Ponyville.

It was a waking nightmare for Sweetie Belle.

A scenic trail meandered along the shore of a shallow pond.  Through a break in the vegetation, a brown muddy beach claimed ground between the placid water and the thick burl of grass that marked the edge of the meadow.  

Sweetie Belle drew her breath as she stepped past the thin green line, her hooves sinking softly into the smooth brown sand.  Her hind legs followed numbly in turn, pushing forward despite her silent screaming protest.  

She was alone.  She was scared.  

A gentle breeze wafted across the meadow, rustling the leaves of the bushes surrounding the pond.  It was a soft innocuous sound, amid the chirping of larks and warbling calls of unseen insects.  Just like what she heard only two days before; a rustling of branches followed by the rhythmic stamp of so many black bristling legs.

She shivered.  

The beast haunted her through dreams and waking hours.  A segmented chitinous carapace that silently stalked the spaces out of sight, but not out of reach.  In lieu of a head, dozens of gibbering tooth rimmed tendrils flailed blindly with violent vile ambition.  She could see them still, no matter how far she fled from that afternoon in the Everfree.

Such a creature was seldom seen by ponies.  Just as ponies were seldom to never return from the lush labyrinthine jungle.  Fortunately such meetings were rare, in spite of how unfortunate they were.

The meadow near the pond was a well trodden playground for Sweetie Belle and her filly friends.  A sanctum of innocence and laughter, mirth and play.  But those feelings were behind her now, beyond the green line of the meadow’s edge, and a distant memory of recent days.
Against all rational compunction, she felt compelled to step to the very edge of the pond.  The mirrored surface shimmered and sparkled, a wavy reflection of the far bank.  The gaping maw of the Everfree Forest spread far and beyond the distal shore, a fortress of hidden terrors near the place she used to play.

She was scared.  But it was not the forest, nor it’s quick quiet denizens that caused her heart to race.  It was a something small and innocuous.  Something carried with her, and something carried within her.  

A candle to light the darkness.  

She could faintly feel the small object tucked away within a cloth purse, and braided securely within the base of her mane.  A little secret that she could not reveal to her older sister, nor even her closest friends.  

A spark to ignite the flame.

It was a strange gift.  Hers to use, provided that she did not.  Not without reason, anyways.  The cloth purse was tied tightly within her mane, and sewn shut with sturdy thread.  Retrieving it would be either painstakingly slow, or painfully quick.  

A path to true purpose, and a promise to be met half-way.

It was not the small silvery object that had brought her here, to the edge of the pond, within a stone’s throw of the forest; but it had helped.  

“Being brave only happens when you aren’t, but you do it anyways,” she whispered.

Her flank still stung from the paralytic venom, and the tiny sutures that pulled the skin tightly back together.  Despite the tiny scar, it was still white as eggshell, and blank as a newborn foal’s.

She sighed.  The last few years had been a fruitless struggle to find her cutie mark, but that felt pointless now.  Not that she didn’t want to keep trying, if only for the fun she had with her friends in the frequently disastrous process.  

There were many things that she dreamed about doing someday, and a great many more that had been unceremoniously crossed off that list with a vow never to attempt again.  On the other hoof, singing seemed to come naturally, and she was quite good at it.  She actually enjoyed singing from time to time.  It was a nice hobby, but to define herself by that single talent, it suddenly seemed a little underwhelming.  

Sweetie Belle sighed as she tapped her hoof at the water’s edge.  She spied a small branch that had fallen from the far forest and beached itself upon the near sandy shore.  Long lapping waves gently nudged the piece of wood, beckoning her attention.

It was about the right size.

Living under the shadow of her older sister had instilled a fair amount of awe and envy for her talent and fame.  Though she gagged inwardly at the thought of being so fussy in exchange for such fabulousness.  She gagged again at that last word too.  

Her horn glowed weakly as she attempted to lift the stick from the sandy shore, but it scarcely budged.  

Rarity’s command of magical telekinesis was quite exceptional among unicorns.  Elegant efficiency and delicate control that even Twilight couldn’t pretend to match.  Sweetie Belle wished for a mere fraction of her sister’s ability.  Yet, while Rarity was busy summoning a hurricane of strange shiny fabrics and assorted metallic implements within her workshop, Sweetie Belle was exerting the very limits of her concentration to pick up a stick from the mud.  

At least it had kept Rarity preoccupied enough for her to sneak out.  

She tried again, focusing her ethereal sense upon the waterlogged branch.  It felt much different than it looked.  Had she picked it up, it would have felt grainy and solid, albeit rather damp.  Through her magic though, it felt like bundles of tightly woven fibers composed of impossibly small membranes packed together like a foam of tiny bubbles, each filled with graveyards of inert chemical machinery, adrift listlessly within a sea of derelict protein chains.  Not that she knew what those were, or why it felt that way.  

It probably just meant that she wasn’t focusing properly.  

Her eyes squeezed shut and she concentrated; attempting to focus on the stick, rather than its innumerable components.  A glowing corona surrounded her horn as the stick began to stir.  

A gentle breeze washed across the pond.  

There was a rustle in the bushes.  

There was a sharp stabbing sensation on Sweetie Belle’s flank.

She bolted away with one panicked heave of her legs.  The stick shot into the air, and slashed viciously across the space where she once stood.  A prickly bush exploded in a shower of pointed leaves, leaving stripped bare branches waving in their wake.  

The waterlogged stick remained firmly fixed in the air, enveloped by a bright green magical haze.  Jets of steam whistled from both ends of the stick, crushed tightly within her telekinetic grip.  

After several long laborious seconds, she remembered to breathe again.  The stick dropped to the ground as she forcibly exhaled, gasping for air to appease the ravenous hunger in her chest.  

What if somepony had been next to her?

What if she was holding something other than a wet stick?

The thought sent shivers down her spine.

A cutie mark in singing would be okay.  It would be nice and safe.  And she did like to sing.  She really did.  

What if that hadn’t been a bush full of prickly leaves?

It wasn’t a desire to sing that brought her out here today, near the edge of the forest.  She tentatively lifted the stick again, somewhat more easily this time, but she didn’t imagine it as a microphone before a captive audience.

She could be anything she wanted, so she was told.  And it could be whatever she wanted, rather than something specific or predetermined.  Or safe.

The stick hovered unsteadily before her, and she closed her eyes once again.  She would need to practice, if this was what she wanted.

There were monsters in this world.  And maybe even beyond this world as well.  

The stick speared through the remains of the brush, straight and true.

She was scared.  But it was not the forest, nor its skittering abominations that terrified her.

It was her.

* * *

The tram hummed to a halt.  

Trent spat out a delicate tuft of pink hair.

Fluttershy was no longer kneeling on her seat, which was absolutely the wrong way to ride the tram.  It even said so on a series of glossy white public service placards on the wall, describing the several ways to properly ride the high speed eMag, and the several other ways explicitly depicted under a big red slashed circle.  No loose objects, no weapon discharges, no unrestrained children or wild animals, and no sitting backwards on the benches.

Failing to heed these warnings, she was splattered across Trent’s lap like one big yellow feathery snowball.  

“Um, Fluttershy?  I’m sorry.  That was probably my fault.”

A low growl issued forth in response.

“Anyways, you’ll be glad to know that we’re finally here!  We can see the ship, and then go back home, if you like.  Whenever you’re ready.”

She shook her head the way someone might slap the side of an old television, attempting to merge several blurry images into one clear signal.  

“Again, sorry about that.  But I will have you know that these trams are perfectly safe.  Er, as safe as they can be while still doing their job.  I mean, this isn’t exactly a civilian ship, so it doesn’t have all the safety protocols you’d expect.  They go really fast for a good reason, because you don’t want to skimp on acceleration when you’re trying to send firefighters to fires, technicians to hull breaches, or just trying to outrun.. um.. really bad things.”

Fluttershy rolled off of Trent’s lap, and looked up with a forced smile, taking deep breaths through clenched teeth.

“They’re actually vacuum rated with self-contained life support systems.  In case.. you know, one gets stranded, or ejected from the ship.  The odds of that happening are pretty rare, but they’re built for contingencies like that.  They also provide quick egress to the Torpedo, which is kind of like a giant escape pod, except it..”

Fluttershy smiled a little wider, bearing a grin that could be best described as ‘mostly herbivorous’.

“..Right.  Ah, follow me please.  This way.”

Trent strode briskly out of the tram.  Fluttershy followed moments later, after successfully resisting the urge to hurl herself upright on two legs and wring Trent’s neck as best as she could without the benefit of opposable thumbs.  

“Miss Fluttershy?”

She halted, just inches from the tram door.  

“We are so glad to see you again, Miss Fluttershy.”

“Oh..”  she looked up to the speakers set in the tram’s ceiling.

“We are so glad that you made it, Miss Fluttershy.”

“Um.  Thank you,” she said nervously.

“You’re welcome,” Trent called from the platform outside.  

“We never forgot about you, Miss Fluttershy.”


“You don’t need to be scared.  Just step onto the platform.  Mind the gap though.  We’re almost there.”

Fluttershy poked her head out of the tram, setting one hoof on the suspended steel grate.  

“Miss Fluttershy?”

“Yes?” she asked softly, turning her head to look behind her.

“What time is it?”


“What time is it?”

“I..  I’m not sure..”

“Come on, it’ll be fun!” Trent coaxed.


Fluttershy dashed out onto the platform and huddled behind Trent, looking back at the open doors of the tram.  Her wings folded tightly against her sides.

“WHAT TIME IS IT!” the voice thundered throughout the station.

“Ow!” Trent clapped his hands over his ears.  “Noise, noise, noise...  Mute!  Hah!”  

Fluttershy watched the tram doors close and seal with a soft hiss, before it sped away.  

“What the hell was that all about?”

“I.. um,”  Fluttershy gulped.  “It was nothing.”

“Huh?  No, I was talking about that noise we just heard.  You heard it too, right?”

She nodded slowly.

“Weird.  Oh well.  Are we ready to go?”

“Um..  Mr. Trent?”


“What time is it?”

“Ahh..  it’s the year Sixty-Seven thousand, Nine hundred B.C., give or take.  I was wondering why I felt so jet-lagged.”

“That was a joke, right?”

“Yes.  Mostly.”

“What do you mean by ‘mostly’?”

“Okay, we didn’t magically travel into the past just now.  And I’m using magic as a metaphor for anything completely inexplicable here.  Not your kind of magic.  Anyways, the year is..  um..  what did I say earlier...  Ah, yes.  It’s the year Two Thousand One Hundred and Twelve, minus about one hundred and fifteen million.”

Fluttershy blinked.

“Remember how I said that this ship is one hundred and fifteen million light years from where it departed?  That, then, and there was the year Twenty-one Twelve.  But from here, what we see is one hundred and fifteen million years old!  That’s how a light-year works.  It takes one year for light to travel one light-year.  But the ship travels faster than light!  So we’ve arrived at a place that’s a hundred million years in the future, relative to where we left, which is now a hundred million years in the past, relative to us right now.  Mind you, this is the incredibly simplified version, and I don’t have a differential chronometer to give me an exact answer.  If you want me to get any more specific, I’d say it’s probably Tuesday.”

Trent crossed his arms, rubbing one thumb pensively against his chin, oblivious to the pounding magical migraine that Fluttershy suffered from his helpful explanation.

“Now, the ship thinks it’s still seventy thousand years before it was invented.  I don’t know why, and I really don’t have the time to fix every starship with a clock blinking twelve.  I can’t!  That’s a really complicated job on something like this!  It’s not supposed to happen in the first place!  I mean, seriously!  If the clock was off, the hyperdrive wouldn’t work, the AI systems would fence off into a split-brain condition..  not much of anything would actually work.  Ohh.  Oooh, wait a second...”


“The hyperdrive!” he waved his hands excitedly.  “It’s what makes the ship move!  If it wouldn’t work then..  then they’d be stuck here!  I mean the big ship would be stuck here, so they would have probably left on the smaller ship.  But the other smaller ship is still here!  So that means they could be back already!”

Trent’s fingers flipped open, showing a patch of glowing green symbols on his palm.  He tapped at one, and curled his fist in front of his face.

“Any station this net, any station this net.  Please respond.  This is Trent.  I say again, this is Trent.  Please respond.  Wilber, Branson, Richards..  you guys there?  Jones?  Terry?  Anybody?”

Trent’s voice boomed from the overhead speakers, yet to Fluttershy, the words sounded like gibberish, and the names foreign.

He tapped his foot, waiting expectantly.  After a minute though, he shrugged and sighed.

“They’re probably out there somewhere..”

“Why do you think they’re here?  Didn’t the ship..”  Fluttershy glanced upward nervously.  “I mean, didn’t the ship say they were gone?”

“Yes it did.  But can we trust it?”

Fluttershy’s eyes grew wide.

“I mean, we’ve got complete database corruption, a minor case of clock skew, the entire crew is MIA, hyperdrive probably doesn’t work, and we’re literally the farthest away you can get from any star system in the whole local group.  Fat chance of getting towed home.  Anyways, when I said we can’t trust it, that’s because it could be wrong, rather than, well, being malicious or deceitful.  Computer’s don’t do that, so there’s no need to worry.  Well, not unless you explicitly program them to do that, but that’s also unlikely.  Then again, it’s pretty unlikely to be wrong too.  Hmm.”

Trent blew a raspberry with his lips as he swung his arms back and forth, lost deep in thought.

“What about the ship?  I mean, the one you wanted to show me?”

“Huh?  Oh.. yeah.  Yeah.  It’s right this way.”

He pointed his finger at the wall, as if he were firing an imaginary gun.  A light blinked red, and a metal cage descended.  

“No ordinance, no unsecured objects, and no gravity.  Hang on to the rails, please,” he gestured at the sign on the wall.

Trent stepped past the green line on the floor, and drifted weightlessly into the white wire cage.  Fluttershy followed, flapping her wings as she slowed to a stop in the center.  The feeling of falling gripped her like a python’s embrace, but she took a deep breath and exhaled calmly.

“I mean, about the ship, are we just going to take it?”

The wire cage moved, and so did they.

“I don’t see why not.”

“Doesn’t it belong to somebody?  Will they need it?”

“It was registered to a Mr. Simon Hadley,” he said with a smirk.  “Knowing that, where it came from, and where it is now, I can safely say that it’s sitting there waiting for nobody but me.”

An airlock slipped open as the lift cage zipped through.

“But what about Mr. Hadley?”  

He chuckled.

“I wrote a silly little story once, a long while ago.  Mr. Hadley happened to be in it.  However, he is fictional, along with any claims to who owns that little ship.  So I probably left it there for me to find.”

The wire cage started to coast, and Trent flipped his feet toward what used to be the ceiling.  Fluttershy followed, flapping one wing as the world rotated around.  

“Probably?  Do you mean you can’t remember?” she furrowed her brow.  It didn’t sound like a joke.

The cage started to slow, and they fell to the ceiling.  

“Eh, sometimes I forget where I put things.  Keys.  Wallet.  Atmospheric dropships,” he counted on his fingers with a wry grin.  “Anyways, that ship is there for me to use however I want, as long I want, and I have all the time in the world to figure out why.”

Fluttershy decided not to ask any more questions, as it only made more of them.  Trent continued, blithely disregarding any such plea.

“Anyways, if the crew of this ship needed to get away, they could have borrowed it.  But since it’s here, then they would be back.  On the other hand, they could have left on their own ship, or had the AutoFab build them one.  But then they’d be gone, and I’m fairly sure they need to be here.  Hmm.  At least they’d be safe..”

In Fluttershy’s mind, the word ‘safe’ didn’t sound the same as it meant.

“Will they come back?”

The cage rattled to a stop, and they were flung back to the free float void.

“They would be back,” he stated flatly.


“It’s complicated.”

Trent kicked away from the cage, rolling his feet towards the deck as he flew into the field of false gravity.  He resumed walking without breaking stride, flinging aside a solid steel door with a flick of his fingertips.  Lights flickered in the compartment beyond, revealing a bathroom and a break room, a table and a television.  

There was a small glass window set into one wall, black as obsidian and as reflective as the depths of a well.  He sauntered up to it, and raised two fingers in a vee shape.

“Two, please.”

Fluttershy stepped over the groove in the doorway, listening as it scraped shut behind her.  The room was dingy, but not dirty.  A vacuum cleaner was clamped to the wall, just inches above the threadbare green carpet.  Rows of lockers stood as silent sentinels across the far wall, each concealing a pile of dust where a space suit once stood.  

She lofted into the air, traversing the dimly lit room.  A solid door occupied the far corner, with a window inset in the upper half.  Light flickered in the far room, revealing a vault of machinations standing as hollow men, a tomb of steel sarcophagi awaiting their occupants.  

“That’s the armory,” Trent spoke nonchalantly, as he pulled two plastic cards on lanyards from a receptacle on the wall.

Fluttershy hovered in front of the door, still peering through the window.  

“You know how most of the guard ponies wear suits of armor, right?  Same goes for the people that would work here.”

“What do they need it for?”

“For whatever awaits beyond this wall.”

Fluttershy frowned.

“You don’t really mean it like that.  There’s no monsters.  Or things that would try to hurt people.  Are there?”

Trent smiled.  

“No..  no monsters.  No storybook ones, anyways.  But it’s always good to be prepared.”

The door near Trent opened.

“Come on, this way.”  He jingled the lanyard, and tossed the access card into Fluttershy’s waiting forehooves.

Fluttershy followed Trent into a small vestibule.  To one side, there was a wide door emblazoned with the red cross that she had seen earlier in the medical bay.  Straight ahead, there was another door, slick with condensation and cool to the touch.

Trent slid his hand across the door, flicking the water droplets from his fingers.  He tapped at a round gage, noticing the needle was slightly off center.

“Hmm.  A little pressure differential.  This will probably feel funny.”

Trent twisted a handle on the wall, and the air rushed out with a whistling wail.  The needle slowly returned to vertical as the pressure equalized.  

To Fluttershy, the sudden drop in pressure felt like a quick trip up a tall mountain, but it didn’t feel terribly odd otherwise.  On the other hand, Trent winced as he alternated between puffing his cheeks and opening his jaw as wide as he could.  

“You okay?” he asked, while pressing his palm against his ear.

Fluttershy nodded.

Trent turned his attention to a long metal handle set into the door, throwing his weight against it.  There was a squeal as spring-loaded catches ground against well worn metal ramps, and a small sudden whoosh of air as the door was pried away from the frame.  He finished rotating the lever until it pointed down and away, and then pushed with a labored grunt as the door slid sideways along slick steel rails.

The room was black as pitch, save for a small square of illumination that spilled from the vestibule.  Two silhouettes stretched into the interminable abyss, huddled upon an island of light within the empty gulf; standing at the threshold of what was, and what may become.

Fluttershy shivered.  The air was chilled, teeming with fine dust that swirled within the plumes of steam from her nose.  A blackened veil encroached from all sides, offering no hint of what lay beyond.  Yet, even in the absence of sight, her ears perked forward at every creak and groan of the ship’s labyrinthine structure.  The very whisper of her breath could be heard from the depths of the void, a soft siren’s call that echoed in vast distant chorus.

“After you, Miss Fluttershy,” he beckoned.

Her wings folded tightly against her sides, as surely as her hooves remained rooted to the deck.  Trent crossed his arms, waiting patiently.

“You’re still curious to see it.”

She nodded.  It had not been a question.

“And you know there’s nothing to be afraid of.”  

“It’s just another dark room,” she nervously asserted.

Trent tapped his foot, toeing the line where the door once stood.

“Just another dark room,” Trent mused.  “One that could contain anything.  Anything and everything, or exactly nothing at all.  Adventure and excitement, romance and fulfillment, or despair and anguish.  Any of these.  An infinite number of paths leading out from the crossroads beneath your very hooves.  The paths are meant to be taken, Fluttershy, and you will travel them, no matter how still you stand.  We have no say against the cadence of time.  You will march to the drumbeat that drives the universe.”

He drew his breath, kneeling down to stare directly into Fluttershy’s eyes.

“But you do have a choice.  Any path to choose from.  All depending on where you step.  Standing still will not lead you to what you desire, nor will it delay that which you fear.  You will find both in many forms, just as it will find you.  The path is not clear, and the choices are not always safe or easy.  But you can still decide.  You have that freedom to choose, Fluttershy.  Curiosity is your candle to light the darkness.  Courage will be the spark that ignites that flame.  All that remains is the conviction to take that first step, and you will meet your destiny half-way.”

They shared a short silence, a quiet lull suspended within the very center of the vast eternal nothingness that dwarfed the galaxies surrounding it.

“Mr. Trent?”


“You really do like to talk a lot.”

Trent erupted with a loud bellowing laugh that reverberated from the far end of the maintenance bay.

“Onward then!  To the unknown!”  Trent thrust his arm into the dark room, his fingertips crossing through shadow and disappearing from sight.

Fluttershy gulped, uneasily raising one hoof over the threshold.

“To the future,” she whispered.

Hoof and boot stepped across together, plowing forth into the cold still air.  They marched side by side, stepping off the island of light and plunging into the sea of shade.

Trent waved his hand, and light flooded the bay.  It burned bright and brilliant, as expected from  the Kreshtahl - Phillips halide arc array.  

The bay stretched tall and wide, stopped short by an immense door.  Cranes dangled from the ceiling and towering cages rose from the gritty gray floor.  Tools lined laden chests, slick with grease and arranged neatly within their metallic nests.  A broad boulevard through the city of steel offered passage for two long awaited guests.

Hangars stacked along the walls in sweeping expanse, an empty hive where hulking spacecraft once moved and danced.  The scope and scale hinted at the bustling activity that took place in the brightly lit room.  Now quiet, save for their footsteps.  Silent as a tomb.

Red lights spun and green lights flashed.  A klaxon blared with shrill warning as Trent waved the mountainous door aside with a deafening crash.  Onward they strode with purposeful gait.  

Onward toward their prize.  

Onward to their fate.

* * *