* * *
Ingress. Triage. Quarantine. The unfamiliar words swirled within Fluttershy’s mind as she drifted across the expansive landing platform. The concepts themselves were not completely foreign, but the enormous scale and clockwork coordination they implied were dizzying to comprehend. Stranger still, how the feelings simply manifested as she passed the lip of the platform, drifting closer to the rows of doors at the far wall.
“What do you mean, you don’t know where everybody is?”
“Well... It’s hard to say. They could be anywhere.”
“Somewhere on this... Ship?”
“No. I think they might have left.”
“All of them?”
Trent shrugged. “All six of them.”
She spread her wings and coasted to a stop, rubbing one yellow hoof against her forehead.
“I’m sorry, was that from the translation spell?”
“No,” she winced. “It just didn’t make any sense. That wasn’t one of your jokes, was it? Because it didn’t sound like it.”
“It’s just that, well, this place is really big. And it wouldn’t make sense to only have six people here.”
“That is a good observation.”
“How many people can this ship hold?”
“The crew, or rather the people that run the ship, would be about seven thousand or more. Similar to an older aircraft carrier, but this is actually a lot bigger.”
Fluttershy winced again, squeezing her eyes shut for a few moments.
“Oh... Um, Mr. Trent? Does an aircraft carrier float on water?”
“Why, yes it does. This spell is pretty handy.”
“So... Is this a spacecraft carrier?” she asked slowly.
“Okay, now that’s just spooky. But yes, it is. And this is where the spacecraft come in to dock.”
She nodded slowly, contemplating the steady stream of new ideas.
“Space feels very empty,” she shivered.
“It is very empty.”
“How many people can this spaceship hold? I mean, besides the crew?”
“Oh, between embarked commands, civilians, science teams, and other ancillary positions... About a quarter million.”
“A quarter of a million people?”
“That’s almost as many ponies that live in Phillydelphia!”
“Ahh, that’s interesting.”
“But why? Why only six? Who would send out a ship this big with only six people?”
“We only needed six people to run the ship.”
To Fluttershy, the word ‘We’ sounded odd in her head. As if it were somehow talking about the same person.
“Um... If you only needed six people, why were they sent on a ship like this? On a ship this big?”
Trent smiled wistfully. “We had a ship like this to spare.”
Fluttershy’s eyes bulged, and her mouth hung open.
“But why... Why was it sent?”
“To conduct an experiment.”
“Ow,” she rubbed her forehead again.
“It’s.. okay. I’m sorry, this really doesn’t make a lot of sense yet,” she meekly protested.
“That will come soon enough.”
“Oh. Okay. Um, Mr. Trent? Where do we go now?”
Trent raised one hand, and pointed at the far wall. His fingers twitched, and a door quietly slid open. Unlike the rest of the doors, this one was just big enough for one person and one pony to walk though.
Fluttershy nodded, flapping her wings and sailing across the platform. Her forelegs grasped Trent against her belly, carrying him as a torpedo bomber would firmly clutch its precious payload.
“Um... I still don’t understand how you’re doing that. Is that some kind of magic?”
“How you open doors, just by pointing at them.”
“Ow! Ow! Ow!” she squealed.
“Ach... Sorry about that.”
She wrapped both forelegs around her head this time. The magical migraine was nearly excruciating. Trent drifted free, scissoring his legs until he turned around to face Fluttershy.
“Well... You’ve listened to a radio, right?”
She nodded quickly, legs still pressed across her throbbing temples.
“Yes, Well, some of my friends have a radio. Sometimes we listen to the news, or music on there.”
“And it doesn’t make your head hurt when I say it like that, does it?”
“No, not really.”
“Do you know what a radio uses to play music?”
“Um, it’s okay. It wasn’t as bad as the first time you said it. But what do you mean, that it uses radio?”
“Well, do you know how light comes from a light bulb?”
“Radio comes from an antenna.”
She clenched her teeth as she inhaled, feeling the headache subside slightly.
“Are they the same kind of thing? The antenna and the light bulb, I mean?”
“In a way, yes. They both produce electromagnetic radiation.”
“Ooh...” She winced slightly. “So light and radio are both kind of the same thing?”
“And, heat too?”
“Yes. Well, infrared radiation, which induces heat when it's absorbed. But very good anyways.”
She whimpered softly as she rubbed away the last traces of pain from her head.
“Then what was was that word you used the first time? It sounded exactly the same.”
“Sometimes the same word can have many different meanings.”
“Well, I know that.”
She looked at him oddly as she ruffled her wings.
"Yes. Not to be confused with feather."
Her face scrunched up in confusion.
"To.. twist?" she asked slowly.
"That's part of it."
“Or fold, like this?” She tucked her wings against her body, until they were perfectly streamlined.
“That’s pretty close too.”
“Um. I don’t really understand,” she sighed.
“Don’t worry, I can explain later. I’m going to turn on the gravity first.”
“Ohh. Okay. Do you turn on the gravity with radio too?”
Trent tapped his fingers at the air, and the platform began to pull them closer. Fluttershy trotted against the deckplate as her weight slowly returned, while Trent simply touched down and slid on his back for several feet.
“Here we are!” Trent announced as he sat upright, and stood gingerly.
Fluttershy walked towards him, her hooves tapping with a metallic tinge against the platform.
“Does radio carry information?”
“Or is it made out of information?” she pressed the question, already knowing Trent’s response.
“Yes. That too.”
“This isn’t one of your jokes, is it? Because it’s very confusing how you say it’s both at the same time,” the yellow pegasus stated succinctly.
“Oh, no. It’s not a joke. But understanding it probably will make your head hurt - even without the translation spell.”
“What do you mean?”
Trent stretched his back, as he wobbled slightly within the artificially induced artificial gravity.
“Never mind what it’s made of. Forget about that for now. Let’s focus on what it can do, rather than what it is.”
“How it.. carries information?” she asked.
“Yes. And like any sort of information, it has to be interpreted for it to be useful, right? Sort of like how everything I say would sound like complete gibberish, if it wasn’t for that translation spell.”
“And do you know how that spell lets you know if I’m telling a joke - or when I’m being a sarcastic ass?”
“Um.. yes,” she blushed slightly.
“So, I can say the same exact set of words, but they can have completely different meanings - all depending on whether I’m being serious or silly. Now when a radio system is conveying information, it has to send the information itself, along with a signal to tell what the information means. Or it has to have some sort of pre-defined language used on both ends. A protocol, basically.”
“A protocol is like a language?”
“Yes. Very good.”
“And radios have many many different languages? I mean.. protocols?”
“Again, yes,” he shook his head. “Fluttershy? Do me a favor, and never get a job as an interrogator.”
“Am I asking too many questions? I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s not that. Just another one of my jokes. Don’t worry...”
“I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone. By asking questions, I mean.”
“Let’s forget about that for right now. I’m just surprised that you’re able to get the right answers without asking hardly any questions.”
“Oh. Um... Okay,” she paused briefly, as they began walking towards the door. “Um, Mr. Trent? If radio can be used for a lot of different languages.. or protocols, then who is actually talking?”
“Ahhh...” he muttered as he slowed to a stop. “Okay, this might be a little hard to explain, but I’ll try anyways.”
“Okay,” the pink and yellow pegasus stopped, and looked up attentively.
“Now, do you remember how I said that a planet’s mass creates gravity?”
“Well, something called a superconducting electron channel collimated quantum field induction array.. or SECC-QFIA, for short.. that can create artificial gravity. Like what we’re standing in, right now.”
Fluttershy blinked slowly, wordlessly acknowledging that she had heard what he said, despite not understanding any of it.
“Ohh... I hope that wasn’t painful to listen to.”
“N.. no,” she lied as convincingly as possible. Tears welled in her eyes as her head pounded, but she tried her best to hide it.
“Okay, moving on...”
“Um... It doesn’t create gravity, does it? It just.. lets it through?”
“But just a very tiny amount?”
Fluttershy shuddered as she looked at the deckplate.
“I’m scared of gravity.”
Trent nodded quickly before he quietly spoke.
“I am too.”
Her ears flattened against her head as she considered the statement. It wasn’t a joke.
“Anyways,” he continued. “Let’s not get too sidetracked. You wanted to know what uses radio to talk, right?”
“So gravity can be made naturally through mass, or artificially through technology.” He tapped his foot at the deckplate.
“This ship is made out of technology, right? A lot of different technologies?”
“Yes. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“I still don’t really understand it though. Not all of it, anyways.”
“We’re getting there, don’t worry. Now, this,” he tapped at his forehead, “is what gives me thoughts, and intelligence.”
“Oh... Well I know that already,” she said evenly, resisting the urge that any other pony might have to cross their eyes and shout ‘Duh!’.
“And just like superconducting electron channel quantum induction thingy can create artificial gravity... A computer can create artificial intelligence!”
She blinked, genuinely not expecting to hear that.
“Is a computer a kind of technology that thinks?” she asked in a high pitched quaver.
“Almost. It’s not quite that smart yet. But it’s still very good at certain tasks. Like, how a plow is really good at digging furrows in the ground, but it doesn’t know anything about how to plant crops. Someone still needs to tell it what to do, right?”
“Um, yes. Okay.”
“So some computers just exist to calculate or process tasks. Like solving math problems, or recording information. Others are designed to act as artificial intelligences. And some others, are just designed to help us communicate.”
“And the computer that talks with radio knows all of the.. protocols?”
“You’re pretty quick at this.”
“Are you a computer?” she asked, her eyes opened wide.
“Ehh... No. But I do have one inside of me.” He waggled his fingers in the air. “I talk to to the computer, and it talks to other computers by radio.”
She stared at Trent contemplatively. The word no longer sent her head spinning.
“Did you understand all of that?” he asked hopefully.
“Yes, I think... The superconducting quantum interference array attached to your C3 vertebrae picks up signals from your central nervous system, processed by a field programmable gate array which sorts recognizable signals through a buffered memristor loop channel. Then the primary command module compares modulated nervous signals in the buffer against the precompiled symbol library, which are interpreted as actionable commands when the synchronous control channel is active. Then, the processor nodes attached to the thoracic T3 through T5 vertebrae interprets the commands through portable runtime software cluster, and sends packetized data to the software modem controlling the radio interface on your C5 vertebrae, which then modulates the data signal with an intermediary frequency, before sending it to one of the antenna arrays in your forearms, back, or shoulders.”
Trent crossed his arms, and the two stared at each other for a short time.
“Did you understand any of that?” he asked again.
She shook her head gently, as she cradled it upon her crossed forelegs.
“No. Not at all.”
“But it’s a good start,” he smiled as he kneeled next to her. “You already seem to grasp that a computer can act like a person, and carry out lots and lots of complex repetitive tasks. That’s a good thing to know, because you may end up learning a lot more about that.”
“Is that why the ship only needs six people? Because the artificial intelligence can run everything by itself?”
“Mm, yes. Very good observation.”
“What does it like to talk about?”
“Oh, I’m not really sure. It’s designed to run the ship, not to hold conversations.”
“Have you tried asking it? It might be lonely out here. In space, I mean.”
Trent chuckled. “I haven’t asked it how it’s feeling, but I suppose I could give it a try later. Or maybe I could let you talk to it.”
There was a brief pause as she looked up nervously.
“Would... Would I need a computer inside of me? To talk to the ship?”
“Well, that’s one way...”
“Are you going to put a computer inside me?” she asked quietly.
“Umm... I’ll leave that up to you. Sometime later. Don’t worry about it right now.” He stood, and offered his hand to Fluttershy’s trembling hoof.
“Does the ship know where those six people are?”
“No. It just knows that they’re not here. It doesn’t know why they left.”
She looked around nervously, before staring back to Trent.
“But I’ll try to find out, okay?” he said reassuringly.
Trent pointed his hand at the unlit room beyond the doorway, and snapped his fingers. The clinical glare of harsh white fluorescent lighting flickered to life, revealing the entrance to the medical bay.
“Finally... Good to find some lights that aren’t burned out already.”
“Is Officer Lancaster okay? We’ve been in here for a while now.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be fine. He brought a book, after all.”
“Yes, but we’ve been in here nearly an hour.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be back before he knows it.”
* * *
Countdown. Four minutes to impact. The stopwatch ticked silently in the dark cramped compartment, strapped tightly to the cuff of the secondhand space suit. There was no light to see the dial, and no air to convey the incessant mechanical ticking of the large brass gear inside. Only the muffled tapping through the back of the watch as the seconds were sliced away. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Three sharp taps and two soft taps in rapid succession. Three minutes, thirty seconds. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Just like her rubber reflex mallet in her toolkit. Just hard enough to be felt through the suit against the terminal spur of her ulna.
Not the radius. The ulna. She should know. She had to know. She was going to be a doctor.
Six cervical vertebrae. Twelve thoracic. Five lumbar. Five sacral. No... Seven! Seven cervical vertebrae.
She clenched her fists in frustration. She was going to be a doctor! Doctor’s can’t make mistakes like that. Seven cervical, twelve thoracic, five lumbar, five sacral.
Hangman’s break. Fracture of the pars interarticularis or pedicles of the C2 axis vertebrae. Common injury sustained due to hyperextension of the neck during sudden deceleration.
During a crash.
TAP, TAP, TAP, tap. Three minutes, fifteen seconds to impact. She reached out to touch the console, feeling it in the dark. Airbags on both sides. Nitrocellulose charges. Easier to make than sodium azide. Not as touchy as some of the other propellants. She hoped they would fire anyways. The heaving of her breath came as a muffled rush of hot air within the glass faceplate. That’s what the airbags were for. To keep the glass from shattering against the console, or the canopy.
Vacuum exposure. Exhale as fast as you can. Scream until all the air is out of your lungs. Scream until you pass out. No way to know if you’ll wake up, but it’s the only chance you’ve got.
TAP, TAP, TAP. Three minutes.
Fifth cervical compression fracture. Paralysis from the arms down. T12 disc herniation. Loss of feeling in the lower limbs. She hooked her fingers beneath the spiderweb of thick nylon straps, and pulled. The restraint harness still didn’t budge. She kept checking anyways.
Nothing floating in the cabin. No free float projectiles. She felt her forearm. The stiff metal handle of her scalpel was sealed within the riveted sleeve of folded leather. She unsnapped the sheath to feel the smooth roundel at the end of the milled stainless steel rod. The counterweight. Her fingers squeezed the familiar shape through the silicone pads in her gloves. It was reassuring to her. The only thing within her reach that she felt comfortable with.
Seven hundred and sixty five kilograms of steel, carbon fiber, and propellant. A singleship quietly adrift in the plane of Sol. Ahead, a small B-type carbonaceous chondrite asteroid. Low albedo. Nearly invisible from the dull distant glimmer of the sun.
Seven hundred and sixty five kilograms of spaceship. One scared little girl. Two minutes, thirty seconds to impact.
Dim pinpoints of light burned quietly overhead. The old stars. The remnants of the early universe. Children of the stellar titans that forged the first heavy elements. So few remained, high in their eccentric orbits above the galactic bulge. She stared longingly at their steady glow, thinking back to the times when the sight of the universe outside instilled a sense of amazement and wonder. Back when space was a rich and beautiful vista that beckoned for discovery. Back before the war. Before the raids. Before the colony firefights, and the vacuum deaths. Before the hunger and the long silence. Before life became a vicious and vindictive game of cat and mouse.
Before they made ten year old girls learn to pilot spaceships.
When she was little, she had wanted to become a doctor. After the raids started, it became a necessity. But that changed nothing as far as she was concerned. Learning a little about everything was a necessity. Specializing in medicine went beyond that. It was her drive. Her duty. Her hand drifted back to the leather sheath strapped to her arm, feeling the long heavy scalpel silently rattling inside.
Kids her age, kids back on Earth. Those kids got presents. They got toys. The scalpel was neither a present, nor was it a toy. It was a gift. A tool. A symbol of her special talent.
The scalpel could harm, or it could heal. A spectrum of potential. But the scalpel was useless without the hand to guide it. Just like her. Useless without her instrument. It was an extension of herself. An infinitesimally narrow edge through which she could touch another life.
To harm, or to heal. Her legacy written by the scalpel, as a pen within her fingertips. That was her purpose in life.
The light from above shone down faintly. The same light that had witnessed the birth of humanity, and the fiery genesis of the planet that borne them. Light that sang across the heavens since long before the furnace of Sol flickered into a stellar inferno. The ancient stars. Wise and stalwart in the immense measure of their years. Cold and uncaring in their unfathomable distance. Feeble pinpricks of light that silently whispered the violent and breathtaking history of the early universe.
For what stories they could tell had long since been lost to the void of space. All that remained was an undisputed moral. That all things, meek and magnificent, will someday end. Even the stars. Even the cosmos. Time had the final say.
The crude grid of welded tubing cast a barely perceptible shadow across her. The waffle grate was wired shut across the crumpled rim of the cockpit, where the glass canopy would have been. She reached through the gap, seeing the glove of her suit illuminated brightly outside of the dark confines of the steel bathtub. A distinct shadow crossed her arm where it passed through the metal grate of the ersatz canopy. The brass bezel of the watch glinted in the void.
TAP, TAP, tap. Two minutes, fifteen seconds. She quickly pulled her hand back inside.
She leaned forward, and the seat leaned with her. Solid stainless steel segments that followed her body like a second spine. Metal ribs that curved with her back. Thick nylon straps that embraced her limbs and torso. She was not sitting in the ship. She was melded with it.
Her helmet pressed against the grate, and she peered through. Where the stars above were sparse and distant, those to her side were thick and bright. Clouds of gas became clouds of stars, stretching brilliantly across the disc as far as she could see.
Seven hundred and sixty five kilograms of spaceship, adrift in a river of stars. A young girl, at peace with the universe. Gliding quietly through contested space.
A species of hateful factions, vying for control of a damp rock circling a glowing mote of gas, as ants fighting for purchase upon a leaf within a turbulent stream. Resolute in their reasoning and prideful in their prejudice. Words shouted into microphones were amplified into the roar of nations. Indignant in their imagined impotence, united against one another. Strained by their incessant squabbles until they were stranded upon that very rock, defiantly dictating their will upon those who had left them behind. Hurling their enraged epithets to those who watched from above.
Yet those who looked down from high above were not immune. Gravity held back the mass, yet light still carried the message. A message of dissent, and polarizing division. At one time, they were explorers and entrepreneurs. Scientists and scholars. Colonists of the void, one and all. Those few of Earth’s burgeoning population that were driven by their own free will to nail their names into the pages of history. To simply go forth, and leave behind the world they knew.
Those times were gone. The ties had been severed, the bridges burned. The Van Allen belts burned hot with radioisotopes, their magnetic regions grossly swollen and impassable. Dirty bombs. The few and final shots fired in a war of independence. An act of containment. Defiance against those who sought to carve up the colonies into their far-flung fiefdoms.
Across the barrier, through the many years, two branches of humanity endured the sacrifice of separation. Resentment stewed and smoldered, but slowly fell by the wayside. New conflicts emerged. New hatreds festered in the minds of good men.
All from a simple decision.
Indecision kills you faster than the wrong decision. That was drilled into her head many times. Many clung to it as a spiritual mantra. Their last refuge against self doubt.
The decision to go to war against Earth. To blockade her orbits with hot fissionables. It was not the right decision, as some would argue, nor was it the wrong decision, as others steadfastly claimed. It was simply the decision that they lived by. It had been argued for and against many times, by many words. Many impassioned speeches, fervent debates, and pleas for compromise.
Now it was argued by the barrel of a gun. The scientists and explorers and colonists were no more. There were no citizens of space. It was simply us against them.
Stupid, stupid, stupid...
TAP TAP. Two minutes.
Too dark to check her notes. She had to go by memory. Thirty minutes since the last burn started, seven minutes since it ended. Frame change. Low thrust with the flame suppressor bolted on. Didn’t want to be seen. Push the throttle too hard and everybody on this half of Sol will see the infrared plume. Don’t want that. Don’t want to be here at all. Two impulse turnaround from the reaction wheel. Not a good idea to use thrusters. Delta-V burned off, relevant velocity knocked down to about fifteen meters per second. About thirty-five miles per hour. Whatever a mile was supposed to look like. Stupid unnamed rock, relevant in less than two minutes. Six hours of being strapped into the ship. All going to be over in two minutes.
Assuming her math was right. Assuming she flew the ship properly. Didn’t want to miss. Or come in too fast. This was her test. Her training day. The last place she wanted to be.
TAP tap tap. One minute, thirty seconds.
She leaned back, feeling the seat recline as straight as a ramrod. Checked the straps again. Still tight. The faint pinpricks of light peeked through the grate of steel tubing. She laid back and blinked her eyes for a moment as the singleship sailed quietly toward its destination.
She hoped that she was alone.
TAP. The brass watch snapped against her wrist with one last solid thwack. One minute.
She felt at her arm again, pushing the end of the scalpel home into the leather sheath. Pressing the button on the end of the flap until it clicked shut.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
Training day. Nobody cared about birthdays anymore. Didn’t matter. Three hundred and sixty five days. Days didn’t make any sense. Not out here. Not in the harsh monochrome palette of space. The bright sunlight of the day and the muted twinkling starlight of night were always there, just depending on which way you looked. To the sun or to the stars. Days, months, and years were meaningless. Just an arbitrary increment on a clock or a computer. Nobody kept track of days. Nobody kept track of birthdays either. No. It was training days that mattered. That’s when your name changed. Today she was going to become a pilot. Someday she would become a doctor. First things first.
She closed her eyes and sighed, nervously clenching her fists within the loose fitting gloves. Today would be over soon.
Tap, tap, tap, tap.
Impact in about thirty seconds. Her last test. She pressed her back against the seat and checked the harness again. Solid. She didn’t want to crash. Even if she knew exactly what she was supposed to do. Can’t use the radio. Rescue beacon disabled. Had to pretend it was active, and wait. Waiting was the worst. Waiting could make you claustrophobic. Even with just millimeters of rolled steel between you and the rest of the universe. No way to see out, but they can’t see in. She’d be lit up like a light bulb in the IR spectrum. The ship could be kept cool. She couldn’t. Had to stay inside. And wait.
Tap, tap, tap.
She hated waiting.
The seconds ticked by. Impact any time now. No way to tell if she was going to be perfectly on time. No way to tell if she was going to hit her target. She didn’t want to crash, but she didn’t want to fail. She’d just have to do it all over again.
The cockpit was dark. The world was silent. Her body was calm, but her mind raced.
She wanted to be a doctor.
The watch stopped. She did not dare to look. Laying flat, and staring through the grate, she forced herself to relax.
Never close your eyes. Ever.
Seconds passed. The watch had stopped, but she could still feel the invisible tapping.
No! Something was wrong! It should have happened already. No, no, no! Her hand shot towards the watch, grasping the bezel and twisting it a quarter turn. Tap tap tap. About fifteen minutes. Had to keep it ticking. Had to keep track.
What if she missed. What if she had to do this all over again! No! Her breaths came fast and shallow. What if...
There was a short sharp shock, and a long silence.
Tap, tap, tap...
* * *
The medical bay did not share the vast quiet expanse of the hangar. As Fluttershy stepped through the door, the abrupt transition to a straight narrow corridor within the belly of the ship sent her heart racing within a renewed grip of claustrophobia. Back in the hangar, the hot steady glow of the arc lights cast their diffuse glow through the twinkling of dust and reflected from the grimy texture of every steel surface. Inside the medical bay, bright artificial lighting flickered across shiny sterile tiles that melded neatly into the beige plastic walls. It felt lifeless, as if the corridor strove to be impartial and wilfully ignorant to the lives that passed through it.
“Is this the hospital?” she asked quietly.
The corridor stretched on for a ways, ending in a set of tall imposing steel doors with circular glass windows.
“Well, this is the entrance to the hospital,” Trent began.
“Ah, yes. You see how long this corridor is. Imagine how it would look when it’s filled with people, all standing in line.”
“And not everybody that comes in needs to be treated, but it’s a good idea to check them out, just in case.”
“What about the people that are hurt?”
“Well, they would go into one of these rooms,” he gestured at the wide squat doorways that marked the corridor at regular intervals. “That’s where they can get treated.”
There was a sharp gasp.
“Is something wrong?”
She shook her head, but stared fervently at the doors running along the wall.
“That’s not really where they treat people, is it? That’s where they decide who gets treated,” she uttered nervously.
“It can be,” he said slowly. “It’s called...”
“Triage,” she finished.
“Yes, very good!”
“But why would they do that? It would be just awful to make that kind of decision!”
“The decision about who gets treated?”
“Well, you see how many people can fit in here, right? Imagine if a lot of them are hurt. Seriously hurt.”
Her knees began to shake at the vague imagery of Trent’s idle thoughts.
“This isn’t like any hospital I’ve ever seen. Hospitals are where sick ponies go to get better. Not... Not like this.”
“Ohh, Fluttershy. Don’t worry. It’s not always like that. Just, sometimes.”
“Sometimes? You mean that only sometimes people are hurt really badly?”
“Yes. But sometimes, a lot of people are hurt really badly.”
“But... Is there another place they could go? Is there a hospital like this for every platform outside?”
“Yes. Now imagine if every one of them is being overrun with refugees, survivors, and the seriously wounded. It’s not an easy decision to make, you know... To say who dies so that others might live. But they try to do the best they can, with what they have.”
“Is that what the doctors on a ship have to do?”
Fluttershy shuddered at the thought.
“Trent?” her voice cracked as she slowly asked the question. “How do they decide?”
“As quickly as possible.”
She started to look sick.
“That... That wasn’t one of your jokes. Even if it did sound like one.” Her voice carried no trace of question.
“No. It wasn’t. There are times where they don’t have the time to choose carefully. At that point, it’s not about who gets saved, but how many get saved.”
She stepped back, and sat near the base of the wall, shaking her head firmly.
“I don’t think I could ever do that. I’d never, ever want to make that kind of choice.”
Trent kneeled next to the pink and yellow pony.
“Nobody wants to make that choice. But sometimes they have to. Life isn’t always easy.”
“I couldn’t do that.”
“Are you so sure about that?”
She started to nod, but looked back up at Trent.
“Are you asking me, because you already know the answer?” She sniffled, staring back through wide wet eyes.
“Well maybe. Maybe. It depends on you, really.”
“I said that I can’t do something like that. Not ever.” Her head shook resolutely.
“Ahh! But you did! Just now!”
She started to look surprised, but no longer had the capacity for it.
“What do you mean?”
“When you brought me down here. You thought I was seriously injured, right?”
“Yes... But I was wrong.”
“Doesn’t matter. You acted, and you acted because you knew what had to be done. You acted when any other pony might have just screamed and ran around in circles.”
“But I am the pony that screams and runs around in circles!” she wailed.
Trent shook his head. “You did it when it mattered. That’s what was important. And it was very brave of you.”
“Oh... Um, I mean...”
“Why do you keep saying it’s so important? You said that you’re going to be okay. I didn’t really do anything to make a difference.”
“Because... Indecision can kill faster than the wrong decision. And not just yourself, but perhaps the lives of those who depend upon you. Remember that. Imagine if I had been injured badly. Perhaps bleeding out, and unconscious. In that case, you would have made a difference. You would have saved both of us.”
“Both of us?”
“Well, without me, you would be trapped here.”
Her only response was a sharp intake of breath.
“Sorry. I probably should have mentioned that sooner. But don’t worry though. I’ll try not to die or anything. Or become otherwise incapacitated.”
“Tr... Trapped?” she choked out.
"Well, yes. I don’t think we’re in Equestria anymore, Toto.”
“What do you mean trapped?” her voice rose several octaves.
“It doesn’t matter right now. We’ll be fine. But I wanted to point out that you had a very hard choice to make. You were terrified of coming down here, right? But you did it anyways, because you knew exactly what needed to be done, and you didn’t let your fears get in the way of carrying that out. You didn’t hesitate. You did the right thing.”
Her head nodded slightly. Her eyes simply gazed at an invisible point far distant from the confines of the corridor.
“Sometimes, the doctors who would work in here, would have to make hard choices like that. Sometimes it’s an absolutely terrible choice to make, but if they let that slow them down, then more people would have perished. They couldn’t stop, because others depended on them. The same goes for the pilots that repeatedly threw themselves into harm’s way for the fleeting chance that the risk to their life might save another.”
“I can’t make that kind of choice...”
“Sometimes... It’s hard to make the right choice, and sometimes the right choice is hard to make. But be aware that time is very rarely on your side. You have to think quickly, and act quickly.”
Her head shook. “I’m not a hero.”
“That’s what they all say.”
She turned to look quizzically at Trent, seated next to her. He flashed a quick smile, and patted the base of her neck.
"Come on. Let's go."
“Through there?” her hoof gestured to the end of the corridor.
“Nah. Nothing we need in there, right now. Let’s go this way,”
Trent stepped to the squat wide door set against the hallway, pressing his palms against it, as if he were listening through his fingertips. It lacked the slick automation of the other doors in the ship. Instead of pointing and gesturing, Trent grasped a long bent stainless steel handle, and threw his weight behind it. There was a loud groan as metal slid against metal, and a soft hiss as the bar reached the horizontal position, clicking into a mechanical detente. Satisfied, he rotated the bar to the floor, and pushed to the side, sending the large steel plate sliding along its rails.
What lay before them appeared to be a hospital emergency room, but unlike any that Fluttershy had seen. In place of soft comfortable beds, there were rows of folding steel gurneys topped with thick plastic slabs. At one corner of the room, dozens of these beige slabs were stacked like plates at the end of a buffet table. One slab laid atop supports jutting from a track in the wall, ready to carry its contents elsewhere within the ship at a moments notice.
“Are those the hospital beds?”
“Yes. Well, not really. They’re just temporary until the patient is, ah...”
“Yes. Exactly. Anyways, they’re used to transport the patient to a specialized room, depending on what sort of injury they’re being treated for. It’s really rather quick and efficient, and it does help speed up triage.”
“Well, I was just going to say, they didn’t look very comfortable,” she tapped a hoof at the utilitarian slab of plastic.
“Ahh. Yes. The comfy beds are elsewhere in the ship. Just not here.”
“And sometimes it’s not even a bed. Sometimes it’s a pool, a walk-in freezer, or something that looks like a tanning booth.”
“For all the different kinds of people?”
“You guessed it. Anyways, let’s get me patched up, so we can get out of here.”
“Okay. What do I need to do?”
“Two things. First, do you see that bag hanging on the wall there? Grab one of those.”
She flew gently up to the wall, where a bulky plastic package hung on two metal rails. A plastic strap emblazoned with bright red letters stretched loosely across the top.”
“Trent, what does this say?”
She grasped the strap with her teeth, and pulled. The plastic rings tore away from the rails, and the bag fell against her chest. Suddenly, there was a quiet shuffling sound from above her, and she darted backwards.
A new bag fell down from an open chute, sliding along the rails until it slapped into the wall. ‘Pull here’, emblazoned in bright red letters across its handle.
“See? Guaranteed fresh. The Autofab never sleeps.”
“Ahh. It makes things.”
“It made this?” she said, dropping the bag on the gurney.
“And this?” she tapped at the plastic slab where Trent was sitting.
“And even the whole ship?” she gasped incredulously.
“Well... No. But it could, if it had to. Things wear out after a while, and it’s easier just to make replacement parts than carry them around.”
“What if the Autofab breaks?”
“Then the other Autofab would build a replacement.”
Her eyes went wide, and a soft whimper escaped from her throat.
“And you had a ship like this, to spare?”
“Ah, yes. Doesn’t mean it was cheap, though. Just happened to be the right tool for the job.”
“Are there.. a lot of ships like this?”
“Yeah. Don’t know the exact number off the top of my head though. Kinda lost count. Anyways, lets not get sidetracked here.”
“O... Okay. Um. What was the second thing you wanted me to do?”
“Ahh... Well. Kind of an odd question, but do you, or the other ponies, generally wear clothes?”
“What? Well, um... Yes, sometimes. Why?”
“I suppose what I’m asking is, is it generally considered vulgar or obscene to not be wearing clothes?”
She winced, again.
“Ah... No idea what I’m talking about, right?”
“Not really,” her head shook at the completely alien thoughts. “Why?”
“Nevermind. I was going to ask you to turn around for a moment, but I guess it’s not really necessary. Or applicable.”
“Oh. I could still turn around, if you want,” she said, thoroughly confused.
“It’s fine. My sense of modesty died out a long time ago.”
He reached into his pockets and emptied their contents onto the gurney. A matte black plastic cylinder, the rectangular metal handle with the ring on the end, and a thick brass timepiece.
A pen, a knife, and a watch.
From his back pocket, he proffered the cast iron cookie that Pinkie had made. Fluttershy stared at it briefly.
“Um... Mr. Trent?”
“Did Pinkie Pie give you that?”
“Oh, this? Yes. I thought it was very nice of her.”
“What is it?”
“Can you see in X-rays?”
“Um... Nothing. Nevermind.”
Trent shook his head, as he pulled his belt from his waist. He kicked his boots off, and shuffled his pants down, before hopping up and sitting on the gurney.
“Why do you wear two pairs of pants?”
“...I’ll tell you later.”
“Do you need to take those off too?”
“Oh. Um... Mr. Trent?”
“Look! You know how male ponies tend to keep it tucked away when it’s not in use? Not us. It just hangs out, all the time. Ponies go clippity-clop, and humans go flippity-flop. I’m sure you’re dying to learn all about human anatomy in the context of emergency medicine and trauma response, but probably not on the first date.”
She blushed until her face was as nearly as pink as her mane.
“I’m sorry. Is that what you were asking about?”
Her head shook. Her eyes stared straight at his midsection.
“No,” she squeaked.
“Ahh. Sorry about that.”
There was a long awkward silence.
“When you said that we could be trapped here...”
“Don’t worry, we won’t.”
“Okay. But... This ship is in space, right?”
“Then where is Equestria?”
“On a planet.”
“Is the planet in space too?”
“Are they in the same space?”
“Do you mean, are they near each other in space?”
Her head shook.
“Umm... Probably. I don’t really know, to be honest. I just got there a few days ago.”
“How did you get there twice?”
“Ahh, I’m just loving this translation spell... Yes. I can come and go to the same place. Just like we’ll be going back to Equestria when we’re finished here.”
“Oh, well I understand that. But how did you arrive twice, at the same time?”
There was another long awkward silence.
“No more questions right now, please. I’ll tell you later, when it can make sense.”
“Now do you see this bag?”
“Let’s start with this,” he said, as he pulled open it open. The thick plastic hissed and inflated as the vacuum seal broke. Trent dumped the contents onto the gurney, and shuffled them with his free hand.
“Here we go. Gauze, bandages, a saline sponge, and an iodine sponge. Don’t touch anything yet.”
“Now first you need a sterile covering - but I don’t think this would fit you,” he waved a five-fingered latex glove, before setting it aside.
“Is that to minimize.. contamination?”
“Yes. Very good.”
“What are those?”
“Ahh, well... Do you know what happens when a pony gets sick?”
She nodded. “Do the germs make ponies get sick?”
“Well, sort of. Being sick is what happens when your body is fighting off the infection caused by the germs.”
“Ohh. But... How do germs make ponies sick? They’re very very small, right?”
“Yes, but they reproduce and spread very quickly. Fortunately, your body can fight them off, and kill all the germs that make you sick.”
“But, how do you know that? You’ve never met one of us until just a few days ago, right? How do you know that our bodies would um.. kill germs?”
“Because. You’re still here, right?”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, just about every creature you know of has the capability to fight germs. And it’s been that way for a very very long time.”
“What happened to the creatures that didn’t kill germs by themselves. By getting sick, I mean.”
“They’re not here anymore.”
Fluttershy breathed deeply.
“I’m sorry. No more questions,” she shuddered.
“It’s fine, don’t worry. Although, I have a question for you.”
“Are you able to grab anything with those? Er, your hooves, I mean.”
She nodded, once again resisting the urge that any other pony would have to roll her eyes and shout “Duuuh”.
“Can I see?” he held out the packet containing the saline sponge.
Her hoof pressed over it and flexed, squeezing it between the horseshoe shape.
“Oh, that’s interesting. So your hooves are kind of flexible?”
“Well, yes. Everypony knows that. How else would we hold things?”
“Where I’m from, we have ponies too. But they don’t look anything like you. Their eyes are a lot smaller, they don’t have binocular vision, and their hooves are completely solid.”
“Oh! How do they eat then? Or pick up things?”
“Straight from the ground, or a feed trough. And they don’t pick things up, build houses, or organize themselves into nation-states either.”
“And they don’t have wings and horns. Or speech. Or tool making. I mean, they’re sentient, depending on who you ask, but not sapient.”
“What’s binocular vision?”
“Ahh, that’s when you have two or more eyes facing straight forward for better depth perception, or stereopsis. Like you and me. It’s common in most...”
“Predators?” she asked quietly.
“Er, yes. Just like animals that have eyes on the sides of their head are usually...”
“And the other ponies, where you’re from... are prey?”
“And you’re a predator?” she shirked away slightly.
He sighed again. “Yes, yes. Just as much as you are,” he pointed two fingers at Fluttershy’s wide eyes. “But don’t worry. We don’t eat ponies. Just... No more questions for right now, okay?”
“Okay,” she squeaked.
“Right. Now, put this on,” he held up a large floppy plastic tube.
It was the sort of tube that caused universally widespread snickering among any heteromorphic species that shared a similar reproductive topology.
“Umm...” she eyed the luridly dangling plastic sheath. She took a deep breath, and swallowed.
“I don’t think I can do that.”
“Huh? Why not?”
“Well, it’s just that... Um,” she looked nervously from side to side. “I don’t think I have the right... I mean... I’m not sure if I ever told you that I’m actually a mare,” she stammered.
Trent slapped his hand to his face.
“It goes on your hoof.”
“Oh! Ohhh. Okay.”
“Urghh... And in case it ever comes up, never ever use it in the manner you were just thinking.”
A high pitched embarrassed squeaking came back in acknowledgement.
“It’s just like a regular glove, but this is the one-size-fits-all variety.”
“Oh,” she held her foreleg up high. The sheath slid down past her knee.
“It’s called heat-shrink latex, despite being made of neither. Really complicated chemical name, but that’s the best way to describe it. Now do you see that loop at the end? Pull it.”
A seam ran down the length of the tube, terminating with a small loop. Fluttershy bit it with her teeth, and tugged. The whole length of it stretched like taffy, until the rest of the plastic suddenly shrank around her leg until it resembled a sausage casing.
“Eeep!” she darted into the air, shaking her leg in a panic.
“It’s perfectly fine. Just relax. I told you it shrinks. Mechanically catalyzed chemical reaction. It’s not too tight is it?”
“No,” she stared at her encased hoof.
“Once again. Never use it as a substitute for... Oh, nevermind. You’d be surprised how often people can’t follow simple instructions. Anyways! Moving along...”
Trent pulled his knees up to his chest. The flesh was raw and abraded, with dried blood caked around the jagged bits of torn skin. He picked up one tiny packet, and tore it open. A moist sponge fell out.
Fluttershy rubbed the sponge over the wounds, washing out dried blood and blackened flecks of non-skid.
“Iodine,” he said, opening up the next packet.
She grasped the reddish sponge, and pressed it against the wound. Trent hissed.
“Ow... No, no. Keep going. You’re doing good.”
“Is this what sterilizing means? Killing all the germs?”
“Yes. You’re pretty astute at this.”
“Thank you.” Her wings ruffled with pride.
“Now for the last bit.” He tore open a package of gauze. “Hold this here, and put some pressure on it. If someone’s bleeding, always apply pressure first. You can think about the next step later.”
“Okay,” she said, as her hoof pressed firmly.
He started to roll a long bandage around his knee, holding the gauze in place.
“This can be kind of hard to do without opposable thumbs. But you’re doing a great job so far.”
She smiled. “Well, I have had some practice. I take care of many animals near my cottage, and in the nearby swamp. All kinds of pets and woodland creatures, really. Sometimes they get sick, or hurt really badly, but I was always there to help.”
The roll of bandages passed from hands to hooves, and she finished wrapping it around Trent’s knee.
“That’s quite admirable of you.”
“Thank you,” she said, carefully pressing the wet sponge against his other leg.
“Did you ever have to rescue an injured creature from something dangerous?”
Her head shook. “No. Well, not usually, I mean.”
The iodine sponge pressed firmly against Trent’s knee, beneath a gently quivering hoof.
“There was one time,” she started softly. “When a log rolled down from the edge of a stream bank, and there was a baby deer drinking from there...” her voice trailed off.
“Oh? Was it trapped?”
She nodded. “It was. It was nearly crushed too. The stream was only a few inches deep, but... But the baby deer could barely keep its head above the water.”
She pressed the gauze to Trent’s knee, and rolled the bandages with mechanical precision.
“Did you have to call for help?”
“No. No, I couldn’t. It was inside the forest, and there were no other ponies around. Just me.”
The bandages pulled tighter.
“The log was so heavy. But when it happened, it didn’t feel that way. I tried to move it later, but it wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t even make it roll. But when I was there... I lifted it by myself. Enough to pull the deer out and fly us both out of there, before I dropped it.”
“I did everything I could. Everything. But it didn’t move. It couldn’t move. It... It was still breathing, for a while. I don’t think it could feel anything. It must have been really painful, but It didn’t seem to feel anything where... Where it was broken.”
“Have you ever told anyone about that?”
Her head shook.
“I think... That must have been very scary for it. Not being able to feel. I wasn’t able to help. I really wish I could have. But all I was able to do was hold its head in my lap. I sang to it too. Mostly lullabies. That’s all I could think of.”
She looked up at Trent.
“I told it that everything would be okay.”
Her head sank. One stiff palm rested atop her shoulder, and squeezed gently.
“You did everything you could. You did exactly what needed to be done.”
An imperceptible nod came as her only reply.
“It wasn’t enough,” she whispered.
“I’ve been in some situations like that. Not that I can say that it’s anything like what you’ve been through. No. I’m not going to make your experience sound cheap by saying that I feel exactly what you’re feeling. But... I’ve seen things before. The kind of things that I don’t like to tell to anyone.”
There was a long pause, as the two sat on the gurney. One hand softly patting beneath a pink mane.
“Were you a doctor?”
“No. No... I had a good friend that was one though. Picked up a few things from him. Swell guy, even if he was a bit of goofball.”
“Did you ever see anypony... I mean, any person, die?”
Trent pursed his lips together, holding his words back carefully.
“Stransky. I remember Stransky.”
“Oh? Who was that?”
“Third platoon leader. Down planetside in Colombia. He got hit.”
The fur pricked up on the back of Fluttershy’s neck.
“I wasn’t really there to help,” Trent continued. “Had more pressing matters at the time. But I stayed with him for a bit. Good kid. He came from a different country with a different language. He taught me a bit of it, but Меня зовут Трент Питерович is about the most I can remember. Anyways. It was pretty dark at the time. Third platoon was making an advance, trying to keep up the pressure. Had to stay low. Plasma and counterbattery fire coming from downrange. Bastards just wouldn’t climb that hill. We sent the banshees after them. Pneumatic cutters and discus launchers. Shaped charges that looked like a frisbee. Puff puff puff, POW POW POW! There was this godawful scream when they recharged their differential tanks. Hilsch tubes. Maxwell’s Demons. That’s how they got the name. Robots made out of razor blades. They tore into em while we beat them down with the auto howitzers and the fission drones. Still wasn’t enough.”
He paused to breathe.
“Anyways, like I said... It was pretty dark. Pitch black jungle lit up by the criss cross of green plasma and flashes from the shot-fall. Everybody stuck out like a sore thumb on the thermals. Even them. Couldn’t see them up close, but they didn’t look like anything natural on the IR scope. That... That’s around the time he got hit. Some people scream over the radio when they get hit, you know. Not Stransky. No. He tried though. Just... Didn’t have the lungs for it. Diaphragm torn out. Wasn’t plasma though, that would’ve been easier. Rail shot. Took out half of his torso. Made my way over to him, but I couldn’t do much to help. Fleet Surgical Team Four did the real work. Up on the Houston. I wired a teleop circuit into a few grunts on the ground and they got him stable. That’s pretty much all I did. All I could do at the time. Had to keep the pressure up. Had to keep moving.”
Fluttershy listened quietly. Her head swam with hundreds of thoughts, all bizarre and unintelligible. The descriptions were meaningless, yet the emotion struck with profound clarity.
Trent continued to speak, breaking off into disjointed sentences and slurred fragments of dredged thoughts. His lips moved, but his eyes simply stared.
“Ninety thousand feet. Skipping like a stone over a river. Dove in over El Atlantica Concordia. They used to call that Venezuela, you know. Dove hard. Down to thirty thousand in a few minutes. Glowed red like a cherry, all over. Ground came up fast, and so did the streamers. We traded hard. Lit em up with the bright lights. Dumped every point defense we had. God... Just so many of them.”
“Counterbattery fire looked like a red carpet. Nowhere to run. Just had to stay put and let the mechs sort it out. Thunderclaps in the sky. Thunderclaps on the ground. All walking towards you. Everyone was a statistic eventually. Pencil rain made sure of that. Trying to fight two wars at once. Shot-fall tearing up the jungle. Streamers and pop tops slamming into the hull. Engine three gone. No lateral control. Pitched her into a dive while streaming a forty tesla coronal loop behind us like a kite tail. Lost power, and the field collapsed hard enough to induce a paramagnetic ionization heave in the thermocline. Dropped past five thousand, and the potential equalized. Whole forest canopy lit up. Lichtenberg lightning off the tip of every treetop, all in one big blinding swoop from everywhere at once. Then there were the big flashes. Electric field strong enough to jam the reset button in your brain for a few seconds. So bright you couldn’t see. Loud enough to give you a concussion. Couldn’t remember much from that. Nobody could.”
“Um... Mr. Trent?”
“They had a whole army in front of us. Planetary beachhead. But they were too late though. Ohhhh.. ho ho. Just a little too late. I got to stand there and watch. I watched them burn.”
His lips peeled back into an angry snarl. Short breaths hissed through bared white teeth.
“Bastards almost got away with it. Oh, how they pleaded. And we fell for it. Lambs to the slaughter, each and every one of us. Even those poor bastards we fried in the jungle. Even them.”
“Trent,” she laid one hoof on his shoulder. His head snapped up with a jolt, eyes coming back into focus, staring back at Fluttershy in confusion.
“Huh? Oh, yes?”
“Yeah... Yeah. It’s okay,” he sighed.
“You did everything you could, right?”
His head shook quickly.
“No. I didn’t really. I could have stayed. Wouldn’t have changed anything, though. He’d probably still be dead. Myself too, perhaps.” He slumped forward, resting his head on his freshly bandaged knees.
“But... I thought you said you saved him? Stransky, I mean.”
“High explosive round. Didn’t hit him directly, but the shockwave did him in. Him and the other three guys teleop’d back into the Houston. It might have been different though. The mechs and the mobile platforms were keeping the sky clean, but... I had the priority. So much shot-fall. Not enough pinpoint beams to go around. I had my job to carry out, and I did. We traded pretty hard, but we won. Anything else might have gone differently. But that was the choice, and it was the choice I made.”
“They tried to call me a hero when we got back,” he closed his eyes and shook his head. “That’s us. The survivors. The Heroes. Everyone else was a statistic. None of us believed that for a minute.”
“I think,” she said quietly, “that you all were heroes.”
“We were all just statistics. Task force against a forward army. Had to play it by numbers. Wasn’t any choice there. That’s the game we played. Could have saved a lot of people that night by not engaging. Let it be someone else’s problem. But that... That would’ve been a full scale war, with exponentially higher losses. The lives of many were paid for by the lives of us few. We could have done it differently though. Might have found a better way. We had at least that much of a choice. You didn’t. There was nothing you could have done differently. But you did it anyways. You did everything you could when there was no hope of changing the outcome. That... That’s something more than being a hero. That’s compassion. Selflessness. That’s who you are.”
His head lifted, eyes locked with the pink and yellow pegasus.
“I told Stranksy that everything was going to be all right.”
They stared at each other for a short while. Hoof and hand grasped together, silently speaking what words could not convey.
“Are you ready to go?” Trent asked, after some time.
“Are we all done here?”
“Yes. I believe so. Lets just clean up here, and pack everything else back into the bag. Waste not, want not, you know.”
“Oh, of course. Um... Trent? What about this?” she held up her gloved foreleg.
“Ahh. That’s easy,” he said, hooking his finger into the plastic loop, and giving a sharp pull. The glove split down the seam, all the way to the tip of her hoof, shedding like a skin of a snake.
Trent stood, and dressed, slipping the various items back in his pocket, and cinching his belt.
“Fluttershy? Do you remember a little while back, when I said that we didn’t need to come down here?”
“Yes, I do. But I’m glad that we did. You’ve shown me that I really need to face my fears, and press on when I might be too scared otherwise. You showed me that the greatest obstacles are sometimes in my mind, rather than directly in front of me. And that sometimes, others might depend on the actions I take, and how quickly I can do it.”
“Um... Is that what you wanted to ask me?”
“Oh, not really. I was just going to mention earlier, before you pushed me off the platform... That we could have just taken the elevator,” he pointed at the wall and flicked his fingers.
A single smooth recessed door slid to the side.
“Ready to go see a spaceplane?”
She smiled and nodded, waiting for Trent to turn around before twisting her face into the most grotesquely profound visage of incredulous annoyance.
Yet, for her, it was still graceful.