• Published 12th Oct 2011
  • 27,182 Views, 913 Comments

The End - shalrath



A friendly stranger delivers some unsettling knowledge about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

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Chapter 11

* * *

“Has anyone ever told you that you have a very nice mane?”

Fluttershy blushed slightly, looking around furtively before she answered.

“Oh, yes. Just this morning.”

“That was nice of them.”

“Yes. Well, I mean...” She sighed wistfully. “I hope he thinks that way.”

“Ahh.”

“Trent?” she beat her wings softly, hovering alongside him. “How do you fly?”

“Ahhh... Well, first, an airfoil or lifting body generates a pressure differential...”

Fluttershy rubbed her head gently, at the unexpected tingling sensation.

“No. I mean, how can you fly, if you don’t have wings?”

“I can fly without wings as well as I can run without shoes.”

She gazed quizzically at him.

“Which is to say, not very well.”

“Oh.”

“But, where shoes can help me walk, something called an airplane can help me fly.”

“Eep!” She rubbed her forehead vigorously.

“I’m sorry, did that... Try to make sense?”

“...Yes. How did you know?”

“A bit of magic imparted by your Princess. I can understand what you’re thinking...”

Fluttershy’s eyes shot wide, and her face turned beet red. She slowed to stay behind Trent, out of his view.

“...as you say it. Kind of interesting actually. And it works the other way around too. I say something, and you suddenly think about the meaning of it.”

“Umm... Are you able to read anypony’s thoughts?”

“No. It just helps me understand what they say.”

“Ohh,” she sighed with relief, quivering slightly as her heartbeat slowed back to a hummingbird’s pace.

“But, as you’ve just felt, it doesn’t work right unless we both understand what’s being discussed. Like you’ve probably never seen an air... Eh... You know what I mean.”

“Won’t that be a problem?”

“Only slightly. I can teach you from the ground up, the old fashioned way. That way, you can understand things as you go, rather than trying to understand it all at once.”

“I see.”

They continued to walk, leaving the forest clearing for the rolling meadows.

“Where are we going?”

“The Everfree forest, I believe you call it.”

“Oooh!” she gasped. “No. No, we can’t go there. Not by ourselves. It’s not safe!”

“Hmm... You’re quite right. I hear that it’s the home to the most dangerous creature in all of Equestria.”

“Oh?”

“One that devours tasty animals.”

“Eeeep!”

“One that shoots fire from its hands,” he intoned in a deep rumbling pitch.

“Ooohh! No!”

“One that has set cities ablaze, and left fields of ash in its wake,” he said, as his arms swooped wide in the air.

Fluttershy began to quiver, and fell over on her side. Her legs twitched erratically, despite their imitation of rigor mortis.

“No, no, nooooo!”

“One that has toppled powerful nations!” his voice rose to a booming crescendo.

She gasped.

“One that has ended the lives of entire worlds!” his hands clapped together with a final thunderous retort.

Her mouth hung open, a drawn out silent scream.

Trent stood over her, looking down with an amused grin.

“It’s me!” he exclaimed with bashful modesty. He broke into a mischievous smile as he touched his pinkie to the corner of his lips.

“Whaaaat?”

“Ohh, Fluttershy,” Trent said as he sat down next to her. “Don’t worry. I like to make jokes sometimes.”

She stared at him, her chest heaving rapidly. A nervous laugh bubbled up from within her, as she tried to calm herself.

“Ahh. Ha. Ha. Ha...” she laughed in stuttering bursts. “G..Good one.” Her wide shocked eyes did not dare to waver or blink.

She rolled upright, looking over to Trent.

“But why are we going there?”

“Before we start, I want to show you something. Something that no other pony has seen. Later, I will present you with a choice. One that decides whether you wish to continue, or whether you want to return home. I will support your decision either way.”

“Oh.”

“But before you make that choice, I want you to think deeply about who you are. What drives you. What defines you. It will be a very important decision, and I want you to weigh both options equally.”

“Why? Why would you offer a choice like that?”

“It is not mine to offer. It’s yours entirely.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, I don’t want to spoil any surprises... But let us say that I can show you what you could become. And then, you will decide if that is who you want to be.”

“Oh... I thought I already said yes?”

“You did. That’s a great start.”

“But...”

“I want to know that you will continue to say ‘yes’, all the way through till the end. Like how a bird always flies south for the winter, makes a nest for its eggs, and takes time to feed it’s young. What would happen if they decided to shirk that responsibility? It would be fine for them. No consequences. But what happens the next year, when the nests are empty and the air is quiet. Not a song, warble, or chirp.”

“Oh.”

“You said you like to help others, right?”

“Yes. Very much so.”

“Then show me. Show me how deeply ingrained that is. Show me that compassion is your conviction, rather than your hobby.”

“Ohh, but I...”

“No, no. Don’t tell me now. When the question is asked, you will know the answer. Tell me then.”

The two travelled in silence for a short time, plodding through the lush green meadow.

“Umm, Trent?”

“Yes?”

“Do you remember that joke you made earlier? It... Well, it wasn’t very funny.”

“Hrmm? Oh... Yes. That would have been absolutely terrible as a joke.”

Fluttershy looked at Trent for a moment, before shaking her head.

* * *

“Oy! Took you long enough this time! No idea what you’ve been eating lately, but I can safely assume it’s by the shovel-full.”

“Good to see you too, Laurie.”

“Oh, what’s this now? Heey, did you make a new friend there?”

“Yes, indeed. Have you met Fluttershy?”

The pink and yellow pegasus timidly peeked out from behind Trent.

“Ahh, yes. So it is you. Knew we’d see each other again. Or rather, you’d be seeing us. Isn’t that right?”

She nodded, still retreating from Laurie’s chastising gaze.

“Now, now... No need to worry. You’re not in trouble or anything. If Trent’s okay with you getting up close... Ahh... Breaching our defensive perimeter, yeah. Then it’s all right by me. Lot less paperwork that way too, you know. Incident reports. Filed in triplicate. Real world of pain that you don’t want to set hoof upon. So I can let you off with a warning here, see? Please don’t sneak up on our visitor like that. Gave us a bit of a scare earlier, and I was whisker breadth away from springing into action. Didn’t look that way, did it? Just goes to show how well they train us back at Canterlot. Strictly professional. Elite. The vanguard of her Royal Majesty’s armed forces.”

Trent’s eyes rolled far enough to complete a full circle.

“Another minute like that, and I might’ve had to assume the worst. And that’s where the fun starts. All those years of training kicking in. All at once. Take your eyes off us for one second, and then... Gone! Vanished! Look around to try and to spot us again, and that’s when you hear a little rustling in the bushes. Next thing you know, you’re flat on your back, and there’s me! Holding you down against your will... Er... Well, that’s the way it has to be, I mean. Holding you down, until backup arrives. Or till you’ve learned your lesson, I guess. Could be a while, anyways. Holding you down. Probably have to rethink that a bit.”

Fluttershy darted out from behind Trent, her expression erupting into gleeful ecstasy.

“Umm... Yeah. Sorry, let’s forget I said that. Just sorta came out wrong there.”

“I wouldn’t mind!” she blurted out.

“Ahh... That’s the spirit. Cooperation with authorities, due process... All that. Right then. Okay. Sooo... Trent! What’s the plan for today?”

“Taking a little trip into the Everfree forest.”

“Splendid! Er... I mean that’s crazy and dangerous, but great idea nonetheless! Yeah. Ahh, Miss Fluttershy. Sorry to run here, but it appears that duty calls.”

“She’s coming with us.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“There’s something I’d like to show her.”

“It’s not slow agonizing death, or sudden evisceration by some nightmare-given-flesh that might be lurking around in there, is it? Because there is plenty of that.”

“No.”

“Trent. It is dangerous out there,” Laurie repeated.

“That may be. Fortunately, we have the vanguard of Canterlot’s royal forces here, to ensure us safe passage,” he grinned at the nervous brown and white pony.

“Ahhhh...” he raised one hoof in protest - a placeholder for a lengthy verbal rebuttal against the idea of wasting a perfectly good afternoon by dying horribly.

He looked aside to see Fluttershy staring at him expectantly, her hooves clutched together over her chest as she gently hovered with her wings flapping excitedly.

“Lead the way. Captain,” Trent smirked.

Laurie drew a hissed breath through clenched teeth, before shaking his head in resignation and marching towards the treeline at the far end of the meadow.

“...hate you,” he whispered, as he trod by.

The two followed Laurie from a short distance back.

“Umm... Mr. Trent?”

“Yes, Fluttershy?”

“It is dangerous in there. What if we do see a monster?”

“Good question. Some monsters can be quite friendly, you know.”

“But aren’t you scared?”

“No.”

“Because you’ve never met one before?”

“Because they’ve never met me before.”

* * *

The clock read Noon. There was a knock on the door.

Twilight groaned. Partially from the throbbing in her head, and partially from the fragments of the headboard encircling her neck. She tugged back slightly, but found herself stuck.

“Well Twilight, there’s always a logical and rational response to any problem!” she said, to no one in particular.

She smiled. Her horn flared with a twitch of magic. The bed exploded.

“That’s better!” she exclaimed, walking through the maelstrom of wood chips and splinters. She casually brushed the impaled scroll from her horn, watching it lazily drift to the floor.

“And what a great idea. Writing letters to convey your deepest feelings. And just not sending them! Ha. Ha.”

She turned her cheerful gaze to her writing desk. It exploded.

“Ohh, they just don’t make them like they used to...” she trotted happily across the room.

A single scorched sheet of paper floated above the carnage of it’s former home. It was gripped violently by an unseen force, jerked upwards, and slammed against the wall.

Twilight grinned at the blank sheet, contorting her lips into the smile of a Cheshire Cat, and lolling her head to one side. A quill floated alongside her - ink still dripping from it’s sharpened nib.

“Never can decide what I’m going to write...”

The quill shot forward at the immobile sheet. It slashed, it stabbed, and it drew tiny hearts over the letter “i”. The corners of her lips twitched upwards with each violent stroke.

The paper fell to the floor, lifeless. She wrenched it back into the air, hovering just inches before her face.

It read:

To whom it may concern.

AAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!

Twilight Sparkle.

“Nothing like a job well done!” she exhaled happily. The letter hung in the air for a moment, before abruptly bursting into flames.

Not the magical aether kind.

The burning kind.

Oddly enough, it did make her feel better.

The knocking at the door repeated. She checked her clock again.

Two minutes past twelve.

“Well, time to open the doors to Ponyville’s book reading public!”

The clock imploded into a steel ball the size of a marble, and fell to the floor.

* * *

Applebloom raised her hoof to knock a third time, but thought against it.

“Horsefeathers...” She turned to leave, just as the door opened behind her.

“Oh, hello Applebloom. Please do come in.” Twilight greeted from beyond the threshold.

“Hi missus Twilight. How’re you doin today?” she trotted inside.

“Just wonderful actually. I’ve been trying a few therapeutic exercises recently, and now I’m feeling very relaxed and refreshed!”

“That sounds mighty swell. Shucks, I know there’s some days I’m feeling a bit steamed, and it just makes me wanna see the whole town go up in a big ol ball of flame. Might hafta try some of them exercises myself sometime,” she grinned sheepishly.

“Yeaaah... I know how that can feel,” Twilight said with a wistful roll of her eyes.

“Anyhow, I figured it was high time I brought these back,” Applebloom reached into her saddlebags and tossed a small stack of books onto the nearest chair. “And you can keep this one too. Wasn’t much all that interesting,” she picked up John Canter and the Planet of Mares with her teeth and set it atop the pile.

Twilight’s ears twitched.

“Gotta wonder who reads this stuff. I mean, just look at it.”

The cover depicted an enormous warhorse, standing atop a ruins of a castle wall. The sky was a blackened tapestry with a smattering of stars, and the barren landscape was dotted with towering spires of grey rock. A metal tube with wide fins and a tapered nose sat upright in the distance. The warhorse clutched a spear within it’s yellowed teeth, holding it’s head high, with knotted muscles that rippled all the way from it’s neck to it’s obscenely bulging hindquarters. A bevy of green hued otherworldly mares lay supplicant around it’s stout hooves.

“I don’t think they even bother reading it.”

“Heh,” Applebloom replied, as she wandered into the library, zipping from one shelf to the other.

“Missus Twilight, do you know if there are any more of these sorta books? Any more with excitin adventure and all kinda unknown things happenin?”

“I think you’re looking at all of them right there,” she pointed at the stack.

“Awww.”

“But we do have a fairly wide selection of other genres. Books that deal with what we know, rather than any made-up fantasies.”

Applebloom’s enthusiasm deflated noticeably.

“That’s allright Miss Sparkle. Don’t think I got time for all that, what with all the chores I gotta get to.”

“Hmm... Why do you like those books so much? I’ve read them myself, but I didn’t learn anything, and they weren’t even very well written.”

“Oh, I don’t read em to learn about things. I read em to think about things!” Applebloom pranced with wide eyed excitement.

“Eh?”

“I know it sounds like a whole mess of gobbledygook in there, and often times they can’t even get it straight themselves. But I like it when they talk about ideas that are all new and exciting. Not for what’s it themselves, but because fer what they can do! How things get all changed up. Like... Like... Ohh, I know. One of them books talked about planets actually being whole giant worlds all of them own, and because of that, they had to travel between em in giant metal tubes that shoot flames out the back. Crazy huh? And another one where everypony could talk back n forth to any other pony out there - but without havin to put a letter in the mail, or havin some dragon spit fire on it. It’s little things like that, that make it all exciting. Thinking that someday we could see that sorta thing fer ourselves.”

“Planets?” Twilight eyed Applebloom curiously.

“Yes Missus Sparkle. Ah know. They’re really just tiny lil dots that come out with the stars. Just like we learned in school.

“Ooh, no. It’s not that... Um...” Twilight wrestled with her response for a moment.

“It’s okay, I know what’s in them books is all just made up make-believe.”

Twilight shook her head, through no conscious effort of her own. She leaned in close to Applebloom, with a nearly conspiratorial expression.

“It’s okay to question things. It’s good, actually. There’s a lot that we don’t know yet.”

“But I thought you knew near just about everything?”

Twilight shook her head again. “I thought I did, too.”

“Huh?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“Missus Twilight, I think I might kinda know.”

“Oh?”

“It’s kinda like a dark room with all the lights turned off. But just because you c’ain’t see nothin, doesn’t mean there ain’t nothin in there.”

“Oh... And asking questions is like lighting a candle to help you see your way around.”

“Well, kinda, yeah. But here’s the thing. What if that room’s so big that the candle can’t light up the walls on the far side. Still doesn’t mean it’s full of nothing. There’s just more stuff out there that we can’t see yet, till we get some more candles.”

“Or turn on the light switch.”

“Yeh, but you ain’t never gonna find that light switch until you get in there and start flailing around a bit.”

“Is that why you like those stories so much? Because they like to talk about the unknown?”

“Ahh... I guess. Sometimes they have pretty neat pictures in em too.”

They both turned to look at the book on top of the pile.

“‘Cept that one...”

Twilight giggled.

“You know - I think you should meet Trent sometime. You kinda talk like he does.”

“Who?”

“Our visitor.”

“You mean the giant metal thing with a head made outta glass?!” Applebloom’s eyes went wide with a mixture of fear and excitement.

“Yes, and no. That’s him, but that metal armor is just a suit he wears.”

“Oh! Ooohh... I was wondering who that tall mostly hairless monkey thing was. Gosh. How do you think he does his business while wearin a whole ton of moving metal?”

“I never thought to ask...” Twilight deadpanned.

“Wait a second. Did you say he can talk too?”

“Yes.”

“That sure is convenient...” she remarked suspiciously.

“Oh, it’s not that. He can’t speak our language on his own. We used magic to help him communicate.”

“Ah... Wonder how he got here too. More magic?”

“He doesn’t have magic. If he used something to get here, it was probably something called technology.”

“What’s that? Is it like magic?”

“Only when it’s sufficiently advanced, apparently.”

“What if... What if he got here in somethin that’s made outta technology?”

“Made out of it? That’s just... How can you make something out of a skill or ability.”

“I dunno.”

“Well...”

“And you don’t neither!” she snapped.

Twilight sighed. She had a point.

“Er... I’m sorry, missus Twilight.”

“No, it’s okay. Asking questions like that is what helps us discover new things. And it never hurts to ask, even if we’re wrong.”

“Cuz if we never ask all the wrong questions, we might not ever find the right ones!” Applebloom beamed.

“Are you sure you haven’t met Trent before?”

“Umm...”

“Besides that.”

Applebloom shook her head.

“Hmmm... Miss Twilight? What other sorta things did he talk about?”

“Well, he did talk about science. The act of observing natural phenomena, creating a hypothesis that attempts to describe how it might work, and then performing testing and experimentation to see if the hypothesis can match or predict the observed results.”

“Oh? Well, that kinda makes sense pretty well.”

“I know. It’s something I’ve done myself, even if I didn’t know it at the time. But he told me how much they use it, and how many things they’ve discovered before they could even see them directly. It’s like they have the act of doing science, down to a science!”

“Gosh... That’d be somethin fun to try.”

“After you finish school, you mean?”

“Well, not really... I mean, why wait around to get started?”

“Because you’d need to learn the fundamental laws first. And then...”

“Yeh, I get all that. But just learnin about things ain’t gonna do me a lick of good if I wanna think about things.”

“Why don’t you learn things first, and then think about them later?”

“Because thinkin about things is what makes me wanna learn about em in the first place! Don’t work the other way ‘round.”

“But how would that even work?”

Appleblooms eyes widened. “I know. You said that science involves making an idea, and then running an experiment to see if it matches up, right?”

“Yes... That’s part of it, at least.”

Applebloom ran to the chair, and tapped her hoof on the stack of far-fetched stories.

“Just like this here! Some of these books have ideas that are outta this world. That’s like a hypothesis right there!”

“But there’s no way to test that.”

“Not yet! But someday maybe. Someday we might be able to build giant flaming metal tubes that can take us out there and see what them planets actually look like up close. Someday we might all be able to fly around without wings, or travel back in time to keep ourselves from doin’ something we didn’t know we was gonna regret. Can’t know till we try and test it out, but we ain’t gonna test it out if we don’t got the ideas to start with!”

“Yes, but there’s no way that you can experiment like that. Some of the ideas in those books won’t even be possible for a very long time.”

“Oh, I know it. But that’s just the thing. Coming up with those ideas now means somepony can try and run an experiment way off in the future!”

“In the future, you say?”

“Yep! Reckon that’s where all the fun stuff is, anyhow.”

“Are you sure you haven’t talked to Trent?”

“Not yet... Any reason in particular?”

“No reason...”

The two ponies stared at anywhere but each other for a short time. Adrift through the sudden lull in the conversation, as a ship without the wind beating its sails.

“Well, it was very nice of you to stop by...” Twilight began. “If I see any more books like those, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“Mmm, yeah... Uh, missus Twilight?”

“Yes?”

“Do you have any paper? That I could borrow?”

“Borrow? It’s not exactly borrowing if it comes back covered in words.”

“Well this is a library, ain’t it? Figure I’d be doin you a favor if it came back like that.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and furrowed her brow. A thick ream of paper floated up from the lower shelf, and firmly crammed itself inside Applebloom’s saddlebag.

“There you go...”

“Oh, and do you have a pen or a quill I could borrow too?”

From the upper floor, a sharpened quill darted upwards from the ruins of the bedroom, flitting about in the air, before aligning on the young red-maned pony. It shot forward, covering the distance in a heartbeat, stopping just inches from her nose.

“Ah, much obliged,” she stated, as she gripped it with her teeth and placed it within her bag. “Gonna need it back anytime soon?”

“Keep it.”

* * *

The trip through Everfree forest had been fairly quiet. Not necessarily because Trent had instructed them to be quiet, but rather that Laurie and Fluttershy were equally terrified of saying anything further within earshot of each other.

He walked slowly. A casual pace where he seemed to know his footsteps well in advance, and simply allowed his body to slither along from one to the next. As he walked, he held his arm out in front of him, swinging it lazily from side to side. A rounded rectangle of polished metal with a ring fused to one end lay within his upturned palm, held loose within his fingers.

“We’re here,” he announced as he slipped the device back into his pocket.

“Where?” the two ponies asked at once.

Trent stuck his fingers into the plastic camouflage curtain and tugged it aside.

“Inside here.”

They stepped through. The sunlight filtered through the plastic mesh, showing each irregular swatch. Overhead, a drab metal structure hung over them, vibrantly coloured in many shades of grey and black.

“What is this?” Fluttershy trembled.

“Think I know... This is what those guards were looking for earlier. The draft pegasii team told me about it our last flight. Said they were ordered to go find it, and setup a perimeter. Thing is, they never could find it! Said they ended up searching for a few hours, before just setting up camp someplace, and telling the rest of em that’s where they were supposed to be. Case of ‘lets not, and say we did’ sorta thing.”

“Hmm... Our little secret for now, then.” Trent mused.

“You know what this thing is?”

“Of course.”

He pointed his finger at the structure’s belly and bent his wrist downward. There was a sound of many slick steel pins sliding out, and the blackened hull plate lowered with a soft hiss. A second ramp laid down over the first, telescoping out until it pressed into the forest floor. A cavernous black gulf stood before them, beyond the sharp edges of the rectangular threshold.

“After you.”

Fluttershy stood at the base of the ramp, nearly paralyzed. She looked up at Trent with pleading eyes.

“You will be fine.” Trent stated.

She gulped, closing her eyes and letting one hoof fall forward. It struck the ramp with a metallic ting. The second hoof fell, causing the ramp to echo with a tiny reverberation.

“Trent. Trent! What are you playing at?” Laurie hissed. “What’s inside there? Why are you making her go?”

Fluttershy’s hoof slid backwards slightly, towards the familiar soil of Equestria.

“What is inside bears no importance at this point. And I am not making her go. She has to do that on her own.”

“Trent. What is inside there?” he raised one hoof at the inky black shade.

“The unknown. The future.”

Fluttershy let her hoof slide back, until just the tip was touching the ramp. She looked sidelong at Trent again.

He smiled reassuringly. “You will be fine.”

Trent marched up the ramp, stopping at the halfway point. He turned back, and offered his outstretched palm.

“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” he asked.

Fluttershy raised her hoof from the ramp, staring at it for a moment. She turned to look back through the camouflage mesh canopy, to the filtered beams of sunlight, and the lush vegetation of the forest outside. Beyond the shimmering mesh veil, the life that she knew well.

Beyond the ramp, a dark gulf. That which she knew nothing of.

Fluttershy turned without flourish, marching up the ramp with measured pace. She hesitated as she approached, nearly stopping short of Trent. Her hoof thrust out, coming to rest firmly in his hand, just as her legs would carry her no further. She looked up, trembling and breathing heavily through nervous shudders.

Trent smiled back.

“You did very well.”

Fluttershy’s back stiffened, and her legs straightened. She rose to look at Trent.

“I don’t think I could have come this far without you.”

“I don’t think you would have come very far without yourself.”

She broke into a short laugh.

“Um, Trent? That joke was pretty terrible too.”

“Heh. Yes it was, wasn’t it.”

Trent turned to look at the brown and white pony standing by the edge of the ramp.

“Captain Laurie!”

“What.”

“Did you say that the Celestia’s guards were looking to setup a perimeter around here?”

“Yes, assuming they haven’t buggered off and left already.”

“Ahh... It appears to be your lucky day then!”

Laurie groaned hard enough to make himself heard.

“We won’t be longer than a minute. Just going inside to get something.”

“Whatever.” Laurie snapped off a salute, before turning and stiffly marching several paces toward the opening in the mesh. At this point, he tossed his satchel to the ground, fished out a dog-eared pocketbook, and laid down.

“Miss Fluttershy, are you ready to continue?”

She looked up at the dark interior one more time, swallowing nervously.

“Yes, I think...”

“Splendid!”

Trent snapped his fingers, and the two ramps shot upwards, sealing against the belly of the craft with a tight hiss. Trent and Fluttershy were gone.

* * *

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