A C o n v e r s i o n B u r e a u S t o r y
10. The Stars Will Aid In Her Escape
The surface was without friction. Crimson found herself gliding toward a distant wall immediately upon stepping through the swath of cosmic ribbon behind the tapestry in the bistro. Her legs found no purchase and splayed out around her, like a deer failing to walk on ice. She spun, slowly, as she slid. She had felt no impact when her barrel and undercarriage had fallen a great distance to the surface she now lay upon.
The substance that surrounded her was both zero-coefficient and cared little for Newton's third law.
As the wall ahead grew closer, Crimson found the strange surface she lay upon of interest. It seemed crystalline, glass-like. She could perceive depth to it, in the manner in which a murky lake or cloudy gemstone scatters light. Like ice, though it was neither cold nor warm. It had no temperature or feel to it at all. It was simply solid. She would call it hard, save for the lack of any feeling of concussion when she had lost her hooves and fallen.
It was also utterly, deeply blue. Dark, midnight blue in the murky, dim light. They had walked from a brightly lit bistro into night, and slippery ice that lacked coldness. The onrushing wall came swiftly. Instantly, Crimson was moving away from it, she had not felt the wall, though she had experienced her body deforming against it. The wall was solid, like the floor, and made of the same material. Her spin had ceased, thanks to the manner of her rebound. It was difficult to think of the event as an impact. She felt no harm from it, just as had happened when she had first collapsed upon the strange floor.
Frontpage was sliding toward her, slightly off center to her line of travel. "Crimson! Try to grab me! Or stick a leg out so I can grab you!"
Crimson attempted to sit, but this was impossible. Without friction, she could not stand, she could not even lift her body from the ground. She struggled, uselessly, to alter her trajectory, or to place herself in a position where she could snag the reporter. Finally, she resorted to extending all of her limbs as far as she could - her tail, too. Perhaps Frontpage could figure something out, she felt at a loss. "I think this is the best I can do!"
Frontpage, much to her amazement, had found a means to sit upright. She watched, as he slowly approached. He struggled to grasp his own hindlegs with his forelegs. He fell over several times, but gamely fought to leverage half of his own body for the benefit of the rest. Using both a hooking foreleg and a stiff and locked hindleg that fought slipping away through sheer effort, he managed to raise his body and support it on carefully balanced flanks and hindlegs. "I do yoga!"
Crimson stretched as wide as she could, prone on the not-ice. "What?"
"Flexibility is important!" Frontpage suddenly lunged, throwing his upper body with the spring-action of his lotus legs. The motion was ungainly, ridiculous, like a manatee with severe personal issues. But it worked. It worked surprisingly well.
Frontpage rose above the slippery blueness, and almost floated closer to Crimson's trajectory line. His contact with the ground was gentle, and surprisingly slow. Crimson found her face full of tan coat and a fedora-and-press-pass cutie mark. Much scrambling and fussing ensued. After some difficult twisting, grunting, and clambering over each other, Crimson and Frontpage both sat, upright, gliding silently on their flanks.
"Where the bizcocho are we?" It was a reasonable question, Crimson thought. It was also possibly unanswerable. "Not Equestria, surely!"
Frontpage was staring straight up, a look of wonder and fear upon his face. "We're... we're not exactly on... Equestria. We're above it."
Crimson regretted looking up the moment she did it. She returned her eyes to the ground, and to Frontpage, almost immediately. "Sweet Luna!"
"Apt, considering. Very apt."
They were in a pit. The deeply cerulean pit was roughly cross-shaped, like an 'X', with sides that looked strangely melted. The pit was deep, the walls at least several dozen hooves high. They were in no danger of sliding up and out of it. Which was good, very good, because somewhere, along one of the dark walls of the pit, was a length of cosmic ribbon, their only means of escape.
Above them, far, far above them, so very far, was an impossibly vast parabolic shape, curving away into infinity from some focus almost directly overhead. The strange contour above was covered with sparse clouds, and below those were the familiar landscape of Equestria. Mountains and rivers, seas and endless grasslands, deserts and even frozen, icy regions made a geographical quilt that hung above their heads. It was akin to a view from orbit, back when the earth had existed, save that the cosmos of Equestria had no space, and most obviously now, had no planets.
"The dome of the sky." His words were flat, but also almost filled with religious reverence. It was one thing to read that Equestria was essentially a flat plane, covered by a crystal dome upon which the disks of sun and moon moved; it was quite another thing to look... down... from that dome.
"Why don't we... fall?" Crimson clung tightly to Frontpage, making his breathing difficult. It took some adjustment and effort before he could reply.
"There's something like gravity here. Low gravity, not strong I think. I feel light, and my little stunt... I floated to you, it was like some dream..." Frontpage looked again at the land above them then returned his gaze to Crimson. "No jumping, I think. We need to be careful."
Crimson laughed nervously. "You think?"
Frontpage started to laugh, but just then the two ponies found themselves crushed into each other as they rebounded off a wall of the azure pit. Their heads smacked painfully into each other, and they spent some time rubbing their polls afterwards. The speed of their travel seemed unchanged.
"Four... stars. Four." Frontpage was looking around the curious indentation upon what must be the smooth and crystal dome of the sky.
"Four... stars? What is it? Did you figure out something?" Crimson struggled to not look upwards again. The view was fascinating, amazing, breathtaking. It was also terrifying.
"We're in an 'X'. An X-shaped pit. The walls look... strange. Like melted candle wax. This place was excavated. It's as if four laser-bulldozers had a battle in here. Remember the story of Luna? Of how she returned?"
Crimson nodded. "That supposedly happened just before Equestria made contact with earth. Luna was basically having a time-out for bad behavior. A thousand years as an 'aspect of the moon', whatever that means."
"I've come to the conclusion it was literal. Every painting before that time that depicts the Equestrian moon shows a dark stain across it. That stain is gone now. We know the princesses are shape-shifters, they can take any form. I suspect Luna was... disbursed, sprayed, across the disk of the moon. Somehow. I think it took her a long time to... pull the bits back together, so to speak. WALL!"
This time they were both ready, and worked their rebound so that neither injured the other. "I think we're getting better at this!" Crimson made an effort at a smile. She was trying very hard not to think overly much about just how meringued they probably were right now.
"The story goes that, and I quote, 'The stars will aid in her escape'". Frontpage rearranged, carefully, his hind legs so that they draped over, and interlocked more effectively with Crimson's legs. bound together, sitting upright was much easier and more stable. It hurt their tailbones, but it was the only way to see well, and to take effective action. If any action even could be effective here. "The best understanding is that the stars, in Equestria, are living beings, created by Luna, to populate the dome of the sky. I've heard it suggested that they march around, glowing, to whatever patterns the princess orders. I suspect now that they slide, like we are doing. I also think they are as described - alive - and that they carved this pit. Four of them, specifically. Because that is the number of stars that supposedly helped Luna escape."
Crimson studied the dark blue depths as they rushed beneath her. "Yes. I remember being told that too. Four stars. And that they came together from different directions in the sky. Like... like an 'X'!"
"Exactly. We may be standing... well, sliding, on our butts... in the very location that Nightmare Moon escaped from. Maybe this was dug out so that Luna could drip off the disk of the moon and not slide off across the dome. Maybe she needed a... a cup... in which to reform into a proper shape. This could be that. And that ribbon cutting was her way out, her way back to the surface of Equestria!"
"She has wings. Couldn't she have just flown? Or teleported?"
Frontpage considered. "Yeah, maybe. Or maybe there's something between the dome and the land that we can't see. Or maybe she put the bit of ribbon in later. This is a nice view. For all we know she comes here to remember all the reasons that led her to be an outcast for so long. All I know is, we have to get the swirl out of here. WALL!"
Their contact, this time was less controlled and the result was a slow spin as they spanged off across the polished floor of the pit. They were now out of the leg of the 'X' shaped pit that they had started within, and were traversing the wide, open middle between the legs of the cross. The light was very dim, but they could roughly make out the walls of the strange, slippery, deep blue gorge.
"Whoa!" Frontpage and Crimson stared in quiet horror as they silently slid past what appeared to be a very large pit, right in the exact center of the four long canyons. They had passed within less than a half-dozen hooves of the hole. The edges of the shaft were rounded and appeared as if melted by some impossible heat. The hole was wide, several bodylengths across, and the drop was vertical. They had no idea how deep it might be, but considering the lack of friction, any significant depth was almost certainly inescapable. "We really, really need to avoid that."
"I assure you, I have no desire to see what's down there!" Crimson shuddered. Apparently it wasn't enough to be in some strange, slippery pit, traps were included at no extra charge. It was appearing to be a very generous nightmare, all things considered. "That said... how can we avoid it?"
Frontpage watched the dark circle of the strange shaft recede. "We need to be careful about how we interact with the walls. It's the only time we can control our direction. Just do our best not to get a 'hole in one', right?" Golf was one of a great number of sports the newfoals had introduced to Equestrian culture over the last century. Frontpage had tried it several times, though it had not truly caught his attention or interest. His editor, Gotchararzzi, loved the game, though.
"Do you have a plan? I'm at a bit of a loss right now." Crimson shifted her flanks to spare her tail. She moved very carefully, to avoid tipping both of them over onto their sides. It would be a struggle to sit upright again.
"Look for the ribbon! We have to locate it again. Maybe there are other ribbon sections. Just find a way out however you can!" Frontpage began scanning the walls, looking for any rectangular shape darker than the midnight of the pit itself.
"There!" Crimson instinctively pointed with a hoof. The motion tipped them over from their precarious balance, and they were forced to scramble to avoid separation. It took even longer to right themselves once more.
"I'm sure I saw something. Sorry." Crimson pressed her poll against Frontpage's barrel. "Sorry."
The reporter groomed her for a short while. "It's okay. Come on, let's try again. If nothing else, it should get brighter in time. It's the same dome, night or day!"
Crimson raised her head, determined to find the ribbon. "Actually... it's a little brighter already, don't you think?"
It was. The deep midnight blue of the crystalline pit was now more of a deep true blue, and it was clear that one side of the pit as a whole had more diffuse light than the other. The effect was faint, but very real.
"Um... yeah." Frontpage scanned the melted edges of the cross-shaped enclosure. There did seem to be slightly more light. "I just had a thought."
"A thought?" His tone of voice did not inspire Crimson.
"It's cool at night, and warm, even hot sometimes, during the day. Just like on earth."
"Oh, definitely. Before we were granted a Bevelmeiter for cooling, sometimes the only relief was sleeping out in the yard at night. There were times I begged mother to spend the extra bits to get the pegasai to make it rain. It's always hot on a banana planta..."
"No. This isn't casual conversation, Crimson. WALL!" They prepared themselves carefully this time, the additional light assisting their efforts. This rebound was smooth, and straight. "Nicely done. As I was saying... hot. The Equestrian sun is hot. It's not a ball of nuclear fire, like in our old universe, of course not. But it is bright, even if it can't blind you, and it is also hot. It makes daytime warm."
"Yes? Oh..." Crimson looked around. The light seemed slightly brighter now, the not-ice had become an even lighter shade of blue. "The sun and the moon follow the same path. Across the sky, I mean. They chase each other... because the princesses based Equestria on..."
"Earth. They based it on our old world. Our old universe. But they didn't have the details, just the appearance. So, instead of space, we get a dome, and instead of planetary spheres, we get a flat world and disks for sun and moon. But the moon is cool and the sun..."
Crimson looked about wildly. The melted edges of the cross-shaped pit. The drippy candle-wax walls. The smoothness of the excavated floor. "We have to get out. We have to get out right now!"
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking. What happens here probably wouldn't even phase an immortal being like Luna. But for an ordinary pony?"
Both Crimson and Frontpage began desperately searching for any sign of the segment of cosmic ribbon through which they had come. The pit was quite large, and the shape of it made walls that hid large sections from view at different points along their constant slide. It was becoming gradually brighter moment to moment and whether imagined or real, the air seemed warmer now.
"Oh no!" Crimson nodded her muzzle, carefully, at the dark rectangle on the wall of one leg of the X-shaped space. It must be a strip of cosmic ribbon. But it was not low to the ground. It was halfway up the frictionless wall. Had they fallen so far? Then again, impact with the strange material conferred no damage or harm. Perhaps a fall from any height would be meaningless here.
"That's... that's not good. Not good at all. Pretzels." Frontpage hung his head. "Listen... the gravity, or whatever counts as gravity, is weak here. That helps." He raised his head and looked Crimson in the eyes. "If we can knock ourselves into that section, and find a way to bounce between the two walls there, instead of drifting out here in the middle, then maybe we can kick off. Get some speed going, and then leap up. With luck, we can hit the ribbon, and not the wall, and we're through."
"How do we leap? It's impossible to stand, the ground is just too slippery!"
Frontpage considered, watching the needed leg of the 'X' vanish as they headed down a different canyon. "You could stand on me. I lay flat, you use me as a rug, and jump for your life. It should work."
"How will you get out?" Crimson did not like the sound of this one bit.
"Listen, I'm clever. Real clever. I'll find a way. First, though, we gotta get you to safety. Then I can start thinking properly, without having to worry about you, see? You're too much of a distraction. Now help me out, diagonal this time - WALL!"
The two interlocked ponies rebounded with a twist of their masses around each other. This created a zig-zag path that caused them to leave their current leg of the cross shaped pit at an angle. The ultimate goal was to work their way back into the leg with the strip of cosmic ribbon. Effectively, they were playing frictionless pool with their own bodies as the ball.
"While I admire your chivalry, your solution is not acceptable mister Frontpage. We are leaving this place together. I insist."
Frontpage chuckled. "You insist, do you? Decided you like this sad old muzzle, huh?" He wiggled his ears and made his eyebrows dance.
"Don't flatter yourself. It is just not proper to leave a traveling companion in the lurch."
"If no reporter survives, the story never gets printed. CORNER!"
Crimson worked with Frontpage to kick themselves off the space between two legs of the 'X', and down into the correct canyon. They had gained speed from their various navigational efforts, and were moving now at a much improved velocity. They were greatly relieved when it became clear that their path of motion would not directly traverse the exact center of the cross. The wide pit there still occupied their attention, and falling down it would surely be a fatal, or at least utterly helpless, outcome.
"Then, in that case, I should play carpet for you. You are the reporter here, after all." Crimson noted that she could see the rectangle of black cosmic ribbon clearly against the blue walls ahead. It was very decidedly brighter now, and the air overflowed with the warm smell of morning. More ominously, she could hear a faint staticky, sizzling sound in the distance, and it was growing louder.
They were zig-zagging down the correct canyon now, using careful kicks to try to angle themselves so that they would remain, bouncing between the walls, rather than rebounding off the farthest surface and back into the middle of the huge 'X'. Frontpage tried to make a better estimate of just how high up the dark dimensional doorway actually was. At least two stories, higher than he had thought. Even within a greatly lowered 'gravity', it would take a serious leap to reach it. "I won't deny the Cloud Koo-Koo Gazette its star reporter. It's furlongs above the Querier. How'd you end up working for a pegasus paper anyway?"
Crimson Acres did not bother with witty banter. She easily whipped Frontpage around with her powerful hooves, and pinned him, facing away, in front of her. She bent her strong neck forward and clamped her jaw onto the hair of his withers. Tilting back, she rolled onto her spine, lifting the light brown stallion over her body with all four of her legs. He was utterly unprepared, and barely flailed at all.
She held him for only a second, as she calculated the angle to the ribbon far above. Her sister the show pony had taught her many things during the off season. One of those things was how to buck like a circus pony.
Frontpage's attempt to reason turned to a yell. The ribbon was fast rushing to meet him, and his backside felt like he had been kicked with all the power of an overmuscled plantation pony, which he had. The air became warmer, and though he was nowhere near the lip of the pit still farther above, light, bright light, shone through the translucent azure material of the dome of the sky.
His arc was large, and strangely slow, thanks to the bizarre gravity. There was nothing he could do. He tried to turn, to look back, but there was nothing to struggle against but the air, and it offered little resistance. "CRIIIIIIMSON!!!"
The next moment the black of the ribbon filled his view. He felt himself suddenly smacked upside down - Crimson's aim had been just a little high, and his best guess was that his head had painlessly struck the place where the cosmic ribbon intersected the crystal wall of sky-stuff. He tumbled and fell with full force onto something hard.
Frontpage lay, gasping, the wind knocked from him, his barrel struggling for air. His head and all four of his knees throbbed from the sudden impact. For a moment, he was concerned he had broken something. In time, he caught his breath, and the various pains reduced to tolerable levels. He lay, regaining composure, until he felt he could stand.
Up, on his legs, he looked around for the other side of the ribbon-portal. "CRIMSON!!!" She was nowhere to be seen. "CRIIIIMMMSON!!!" Finally, he found the black aperture of cut spacetime. It stood upright, like a section of wall which followed the curve of a vast circular platform apparently made of some form of marble. Beyond the platform was a void, composed of splashes of color without form, set into a general, misty grayness. The colors shifted like sunbeams from absent clouds, and Frontpage somehow felt certain that beyond the edge of the marble disk lay nothing but endless freefall.
He looked behind him. The disk of stone was wide, but in the center was a floating pillar, made of the same stone. The pillar was several stories high, and as wide as the largest of Equestrian trees - the kind libraries were carved from. The stone monolith was covered in raised, bas-relief symbols, almost pictoglyphs. They were unlike anything Frontpage knew or could read. As he watched, the pillar seemed to be very slowly fattening in the middle, as though it were changing shape.
He shook his head. Crimson. Crimson was still back there, in the pit, and the disk of the sun was coming.
Looking around, there was nothing. No rope, no curtains, no cloth from which to make a rope, if he even could. Tying things was still difficult for him, even after a century of life as a pony. There was certainly no ladder laying about anywhere. Just a massive, flat stone disk, and a floating rock at its center. He considered his clothing. Vest, hat. Press pass. Bits in his vest pocket, spare ones stashed in the band of his fedora. Saddlebags no longer filled with provisions, but still a canteen. Filled full in the bistro. Reporter's notebook and pencil. Stash of spare, sharpened pencils. His tie. A stallion looks good with a snazzy tie, Gotchararzzi was adamant on the issue.
Maybe the tie could... no, it wasn't long enough. Nothing he had could act as any means to pull Crimson up from such a height. The saddlebags, maybe... no, the straps were short. Same with the strap on the canteen. Rope, he should have brought rope, but... it just wasn't something he had even imagined he'd have any need of. Not in a forest! What good was a rope in a forest? He wasn't some Daring Do adventure clone, he was a reporter! For the Canterlot Querier. Wasn't like he was writing for Equestrian Geographic or something.
This was taking entirely too long. He moved back toward the ribbon segment, at the very edge of the stone plate. He thought to stick his head through, maybe he could help somehow. Maybe Crimson couldn't make the leap... of course she couldn't make the leap, she'd had to kick him up and through with all of her might. If he stuck his head out, maybe he could grab her if she came close, pull her up with his teeth.
More likely he'd just get pulled out himself, back into the pit. The marble floor here was very smooth. Not frictionless, thank Luna, but very polished. The thought also came that... what if he was blocking the portal just as Crimson managed to just barely make it... she'd be knocked back. That wouldn't help one bit.
Then it hit him that if the sun had come, if it was now over the pit, if he stuck his head through, even for a moment...
Pencils. He could stick a pencil through, carefully, and check first. That was smart. Check, then stick his head through for a peek. Maybe they could work out a plan. If nothing else, he could muffin-well jump back down, grab that mare by the withers and buck her the strudel up and save her flanks instead!
Frontpage dug through his left saddlebag with his teeth, and took hold of a long, pre-sharpened pencil. He moved swiftly to the very surface of the impossibly black swath of spacetime. He jabbed the pencil through the plane of darkness and immediately pulled it back.
Frontpage dropped the pencil the moment the heat and light registered. The entire length of it that had passed the dimensional sheet was on fire. As he watched, most of the pencil rapidly turned to one long, thin, carbonized coal.