• Published 12th Oct 2011
  • 27,191 Views, 913 Comments

The End - shalrath



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

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Chapter 8

* * *

He found himself alone on the concourse. His shoes squeaked against the polished tile, each reflecting the shimmering flicker of the cold fluorescent bulbs overhead. The silent crash of an ocean wave was depicted through the many irregularly shaped ceramic shards, their chaotic ordering conveying a brisk dynamic image through the silent still mosaic.

It was more vivid this time. He walked aimlessly in a tight circle, taking in the scene with stark clarity. The long plate glass windows of the concourse revealed a pitch black void on either side. Nothing discernible save for the faint twinkling of so many points of light. One side of the corridor neatly melded with the other. There was no way forward. Only a interminable winding passage that lead back from where he came. This was the terminus. This was safe.

His shoes scuffed against the low pile of the well trafficked nylon carpet. It felt familiar, much like the diamond stamped steel plates or the tile mosaic that he had trod upon before. Discolorations from years of neglect and mishandled coffee cups littered the utilitarian environment.

Don’t look back.

Before him stood a glass case, mounted neatly upon a rough hewn, but well varnished wooden pedestal. A bear stood within it. Brown fur draped over a lumbering frame, two sightless glass eyes staring listlessly down the never-ending concourse. Heavy paws rested upon sculpted boulders, propping the stuffed carcass up; mercifully unaware as it gazed eternally against the harsh empty vista.

Staring into the sun would only burn your eyes. Staring down the corridor would burn your soul.

He walked around with care. It left him nervous, not as if the beast would suddenly come to life, swinging sharpened claws or lunging forward with bared teeth. But rather, instead of roaring a hostile challenge, that it would merely utter a whimper. An agonized plea.

The single path stretched out ahead. Barren beige walls and shiny plastic flooring. He stopped for a moment, to glance behind. As he turned, the corridor’s path branched off into innumerable fractal hallways, each bearing their own unique features.

The paths did not beckon to be explored. They simply bespoke the travels of others. He quickly turned back to face the concourse.

All paths lead forward. One path lead back.

He was not alone. The concourse bustled with activity. A veritable migration walking in opposition to him, eyes glazed as they stared singlemindedly down their own path, striding purposefully towards their own destination.

Each one was him.

Each path, a choice once made.

The heavy rhythmic stomp and soft hiss of hydraulics caught his attention. Amidst the crowd was him, once again. The blackened steel breech suit with the head shaped like a dragon’s skull and the crown of glowing glass eyes towered slightly over the heads of others. He looked to it, and it looked back briefly, not saying a word. The bleak countenance of the utilitarian armor did little to hide the forlorn sadness of the man inside it.

He nodded sympathetically, knowing well the weight cast over that heart. The steel clad interloper strode past him, utterly resigned with regret. That which drove him seemed to be only a tiny sliver of hope, a candle in the harsh uncaring void. A sense that wrong could be righted, even at a terrible cost.

“See you soon,” he whispered, as the heavy metallic footfalls receded behind him.

He continued down the endless corridor for some time, lost in his own listless thoughts. Every rendition of himself shuffled past silently, unwavering in their journey.

Do I have somewhere to be?

The concourse was nearly as wide as a freeway now. The crowd shuffled by at their strident pace, briskly following the path that stretched as long as the universe was old. Each fleeting lifespan touching upon a fraction of that long branching thread.

He stopped, turning around to gaze into the depths.

The universe gazed back. Myriad alternate realities, each of their own unique structure and unfathomable detail. Each pathway forged by seemingly arbitrary or inconsequential decision. The total sum of all that he was or would be. Every one of him receding to an infinitesimal point in the distance, crossing the event horizon of a future he would never know.

He saw everything.

* * *

Laurie awoke with a start. Not from any imagined nightmare or panicked sense of anxiety. A deep guttural bark from across the room sent him bolting upright.

He looked across to see Trent, sitting up and perspiring heavily.

“Are you okay?”

“Ahh... Yes. Sorry, did I wake you?”

“Just me, as far as I know. No idea about the rest of Ponyville. Dear Celestia, I didn’t know you could make noises like that!”

“Sorry. I think I was having a dream.”

“Well I don’t want to hear about it. I’m going to have enough trouble getting back to sleep already! Bloody hell. I think I know the last thing those animals must have heard before they ended up on your dinner table.”

“Eh? Oh... Not really like that actually. I’ll explain later,” he mumbled as he flopped back into bed.

Laurie sighed. “Okay. Auughhh... What in Luna’s Oceans were you actually dreaming about there?”

“I can’t even remember.”

* * *

The first rays of sunlight cast their warmth over Ponyville, greeting those who started their mornings early. The streets were still mostly bare, and the beds were still mostly full, but one small grey pegasus stood ready to meet the break of dawn.

This was her favorite time of each day. The early sun warmed the soft fur of her neck as she craned her head upwards. Her haunches rested on a thick gnarled tree root that jutted out from the base of the Ponyville Library, as her bright blonde tail absentmindedly swatted at the packed earth. Every day brought something new and different, but she enjoyed the constant familiarity of her morning ritual.

A looming shadow slowly moved across her, marked by the soft crunch of gravel under boots. She looked back to see a tall strange figure approach. A pair of eyes that would match the level of Princess Celestia’s stature gazed downward curiously. She stared back; surprised, but intrigued.

It raised one hand, palm flat with fingers gently splayed, and waved.

“Hello,” Trent said.

“Oh, hello!” she replied, happy to meet a new friend.

“That bag looks pretty heavy.”

She nodded enthusiastically. “Yep! It’s all the mail from yesterday! And I know just where to deliver it!”

“Ahh... I hope I’m not keeping you from that.”

“Nope! No problem! I’m waiting first.”

She turned back to look up into the tree. Overhead, an obscenely swollen honeybee nest buzzed with activity.

“I see. What are you waiting for?”

“To get everything right!”

“Hmm?”

“My mail route! I need to get it just right, every morning. That’s why I’m here!”

“Oh. Do you have it written down?”

She gasped slightly, shaking her head and twitching her tail against her flanks.

“Oh no, no, no... If I wrote it down, it would be... It would be always... Always the same! No, I can’t do that. It’s never the same! Never. I keep it all in here instead!” she swiped her foreleg across her head and nodded vigorously.

“That sounds very... dynamic.”

Two yellow rimmed pupils widened, each locking their gaze on Trent for a brief moment. A smile broke across her face as she nodded her head with her whole body.

“Yes! I like that word! It’s all very dynamic! Dynamic!” She hummed to herself as the new word made itself at home. Her tongue happily slathered itself over the wet matted fur around her lips, as she turned back to look at the beehive.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what’s so interesting about that?” he gestured towards the hive.

“They have to make deliveries too! Just like me!” She watched the bees overhead - not seeing them for individual black and yellow specks, but for their flow and direction.

“Is that why you like to watch them?”

The blonde and grey pony nodded, her eyes still tracking the Apinae swarm.

Trent stepped over the tree root, settling down next to her, and looking up as well.

“I guess they have a very dynamic route to take too,” he observed.

“Oh yes. So many routes too! So many routes! If they all flew to one field at a time, they would just get crowded! And all the pollen would be used up! All that flying would be wasted. And then...”

She turned to look at Trent, torn with worried empathy.

“They would have trouble making enough honey. They did have trouble making honey! They didn’t make enough to keep them all fed!” she began to tremble slightly, shaking her head from side to side. She sniffed slightly, holding back a tear. “Those bees aren’t here anymore. These ones are.”

Trent looked down, intrigued at the sudden outburst.

“There, there, now. It’s okay,” he stroked the fur on her back. “Here, I think I have something that might cheer you up.”

“Oh?”

He reached into the paper sack, recently procured from Sugarcube Corner. Out came a steaming hot muffin. Derpy’s eyes locked on with precision.

“Ooooh! Thank you, thank you!” she exclaimed, diving forward and biting into the cinnamon sprinkled top. Trent held his hand out, pressing back against the firm nose and greedily lapping tongue until nothing was left but a crumb-laden paper wrapper.

“You’re welcome,” he chuckled.

She smiled gratefully, before looking back up at the hive.

“So what happened to all those other bees?”

“They’re just not here anymore. Not even the others. Just these. They’re here because they’re the best bees! The very very best!”

“Because the other bees were not as good at getting pollen and making honey?”

She nodded sagely.

“Hmm... It sounds like these bees were selected... Naturally.”

She turned to look at Trent. Her ears flapped against the side of her head, as she twisted her neck, deep in contemplation. The inconsequential pairing of words seemed to allude to a hidden meaning within her mind. A subtle reference that rattled around like a nut inside of a hard burled shell. A nut that soon cracked within a vice-like grip.

She gasped with excitement.

“Yep! They’re the best bees! That’s where they came from too! Naturally too! They were naturally selected, because they’re the best!”

She looked up happily at Trent. He returned the stare, wide eyed and mildly shocked. As if he were sitting next to a lit powder keg, but held in place by an overwhelming curiosity to see what would happen when the fuse ran out.

“So why do you like watching these bees?”

“Because they know just where to go!”

“There are a lot of places they could go...”

“Mmmm, yep! But these bees know the best way to go!”

She turned to look at Trent again, smiling from ear to ear, with her tongue poking out the side of her mouth.

“They’re the best!”

“Heh. Okay, I believe you there. Do you like to watch them every day?”

She nodded vigorously, one eye on Trent, and one eye on the hive overhead.

“They help me think! I have to think about my route every day. It’s always different!”

“Your route must be pretty long,” he said, eyeing the hefty brown sack of letters.

“With so many places to go,” she agreed.

“How do you usually plan it?”

“Oooh, it takes a lot of planning! There are so many places to go. And there’s so many paths to take between each place. And then, there are so many packages too! Most of them weigh just a little, but some weigh a lot! I have to think about that too.”

“Sounds like a travelling mailman problem.”

The blonde and grey pegasus bounced up, her head twitching as the gears in her mind started to spin. She kept her head low for a moment, backing up in a tight circle. Suddenly she spun back around to face Trent, ducking her head between her legs, and looking back up.

“But I’m a mail mare!” she whined.

“Ahh, of course.”

“And it’s not that hard! You just have to add more... More... Things! More things.”

“Hmm, I don’t follow.”

“Things! More things! Like going from one house to another. That’s like...”

“A route?”

“Yes. But no...”

“A vector?”

She looked up again, twitching her ears slightly.

“No. But yes! It’s like a vector. But it’s not. It’s like a vector with vectors all on it’s own!”

“A metric?”

She danced with excitement, her hind hooves tapping the dirt at a staccato pace.

“Yes! Yes! All routes have metrics! So many metrics too!”

“Hold on a second. I never said what a metric was.”

She looked back, confused.

“But I know what it is! I know what it is now! It’s like a trait, or like... Like a... Oooh! Like a price in a store, but its different for everything.”

“So each route has several metrics, each with a different cost?”

“Yes yes yes!” she nodded her head vigorously.

“Interesting. Did you know what a metric was before, but just needed to match a word to the idea?”

“Umm...” she looked confused again, crossing her eyes slightly and bobbing her head in a small circle.

“Did it make sense after I said it? Or more sense, for that matter?”

“I think it did.”

“I have a question for you.”

“Okay!” she exclaimed excitedly.

“What is spread spectrum frequency division multiplexing?”

Her eyes went wide for a moment, independently staring in their own direction. She sat down for a moment, letting her head twist about as she thrust her nose upwards.

“It’s like a piano!” she squealed, as she hopped back up.

Trent stared for a moment, before breaking into a smile.

“Very good. Would you like another muffin?”

She practically bowled him over as she dove head-first into the paper sack.

“Thank you!” she managed, with the paper wrapper still sticking out from her lips.

“You’re welcome.”

She finished the warm muffin, smacking her lips and running her tongue over her grey furry jowl.

“You’re very nice.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“My name is Ditzy Doo! But a lot of ponies call me Derpy... I don’t mind really.”

“Mmm. I’ve been called a lot of things too. But you can call me Trent.”

They both turned back to look at the hive.

“Did you see that big metal monster the other night?”

“Hmm... can’t say I have. What did it look like?”

“Well it was really scary! But it also acted really nice. Everypony saw it, and even the Princess came to see it too!”

“Maybe it was from outer space.”

Derpy breathed slowly for a moment, deep in contemplation.

“No, I don’t think it would come from outer space.”

“Oh?”

“It must have come from another place just like this,” she stamped her hoof against the dirt.

“Another planet?”

“Yes yes! Another planet! A planet in outer space... Not this planet, but another one like it!”

“Would you like another muffin?”

“Oh yes please! But... I’ll save this one for later,” she smiled.

* * *

“Any day now,” Spike muttered, tapping his small claws against the floor.

“Mmmuurmmmghhhh,” Twilight responded, with all the lucidity she could muster.

“Finally. I hope you remembered to give the Princess a change of address, because I’ll be happy if I don’t see another one of these for a while!”

The juvenile dragon unceremoniously dumped the pile of letters next to Twilight’s bed, a mixture of clean white parchment and cracked yellowed scrolls, each coalesced from the magical vapors that emanated from the dragon’s belly.

“Whaaa?”

Spike did not dignify her question with a response. He simply held out the calendar pilfered from the downstairs kitchen, tapping one claw at the series of X’s that blotted out the next week.

“Ohh... Your grooming thing.”

“Molting! Do you see these?” he poked at the loose scales around his belly.

“Well, that just means your baby scales are going away.”

“Why, you’re exactly right! Thank you, wise and learned magical master of the obvious.”

“Spike...” she groaned.

“I know what you’re going to say. The books are shelved, the kitchen is swept, and your supply of ink and paper is stocked. Everything should be just fine here, while I’m gone.”

“The caves near Dragon Mountain?”

“Only the best place to get a mineral oil bath. And did you know they have fresh pumice from the lava pools? I’ll have my new scales polished until I can eat off them! I hear they have water polo in the sulphur springs too. And all the gemstones I could eat!”

“That sounds...”

“Like the most relaxing week of my life,” he said with a grin.

“Mmm, well don’t let me keep you waiting,” she said as she buried her face in the pillow.

“What did you make last night? The kitchen was a bit of a mess.”

“Oh, that was for our guest. You were already asleep when he came over last night.”

“Hmm... Meh. How’d that go?”

“Well it was interesting, but we didn’t have a lot of time. I think he’s going to come over here again today.”

“Ah. Well that would explain the mostly hairless monkey looking thing standing outside.”

“WHAT!” Twilight bolted out of bed.

“He’s been out there a while now.”

“Aaaagghh!”

Twilight tore around her bedroom in a circle, brushing her hair back into long straight strands, jabbing a toothbrush in her mouth, and spitting it back into a levitating bucket. The magical multitasking mare stopped to collect herself, breathing steadily as she marched down the staircase with measured restraint.

She turned to look back upstairs.

“Well Spike, I hope you have fun at the Dragon Mountain spa. I’m going to be busy learning new and amazing things from our guest. And it’s only fitting that he, where-ever he’s from, should make official contact with only the most intelligent...”

She paused for dramatic effect.

“Smartest...”

Her mane tumbled across her back as she propped herself up with the absolute worst display of false humility ever known to Equestria.

“And scientifically minded pony in all of Ponyville!”

The door opened swiftly, and she stepped outside with confidence. Moments later, her jaw dropped as she caught sight of Trent and Derpy sitting on a tree root, staring up absentmindedly at the hanging bee hive.

This left the proud purple pony in a state of panic. To the casual observer, it would almost appear if she was choking.

On air.

* * *

“Have you finished planning your route?”

“Almost done!”

“You must be very good with math.”

She shook her head.

“Oh, no. No... I’m not. But I wish I was.”

“Well, you must have a natural talent for it, if you can do this every day. It really is a very hard problem.”

“But I don’t... I don’t know how to do it like that,” she said, looking up with a hint of sadness and shame.

“You can still solve the problem though. You should be proud of that.”

She looked back and forth between the hive and Trent several times, still feeling uncomfortable.

“Other ponies at school always told me to solve problems one way, but I was never good at that.”

“Can you show me how you solve it?”

Derpy’s eyes lit up, as she smiled and nodded.

“Oh yes. Yes yes! I know a lot of ways!”

“I’m listening.”

“First you add things!”

“Ummm... you add the route costs first?”

She shook her head.

“No no... First you add things that make the costs! Things that change... Things...”

“Variables?”

She nodded vigorously.

“Yes! Variables! And some variables that change too! Sometimes a lot of variables change.” She stood up and pointed her hoof up, slowly tracing out a large circle in many discreet ticks.

“Sometimes time is a variable! Sometimes it’s a vector!”

“Okay. What do you mean when a lot of variables change?”

“It’s like... It’s like... Ohh, It’s like a tree!”

Trent looked at the enormous trunk of the glorified treefort library.

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Trees grow up!”

“Yes, yes they do...”

“But they only grow up!”

“Hmm... And if they grew sideways?”

“They wouldn’t line up! Nope! Things fall down, so trees grow up!”

“So they line up with gravity?”

She thought to herself for a moment, before nodding slowly.

“Yes, but it’s not because of that. It’s because of what it is!”

“Trees grow up, because gravity creates a vertical gradient?”

Derpy shot into the air, spinning around several times with her wings outstretched, bouncing on her hind hooves.

“Yes yes! Yes! It’s a gradient! So is the wind! It changes so many variables at once.”

“Hmmm. So when you plan your route, you add all the variables to create route metrics, and then you add a wind gradient to follow...”

“Which changes during the day! It’s a gradient with a time variable!”

“Oy... That sounds like it makes things more complicated.”

“Nope nope! All that makes it easy!”

“Do we have the same definition for ‘easy’?”

“It’s easier to choose. It’s... There’s more choice. The choices are bigger, so they’re easier to make!”

“The number of choices?”

She shook her head.

“The relative cost of each choice?”

Her eyes lit up as she nodded excitedly.

Trent thought for a moment, rubbing his chin and studying the bubbly grey pegasus.

“So... You add many variables, such as the wind speed, wind direction, the weight of individual packages, distance between houses, density of houses, and whatever else... So that the costs of various paths will have a wider range of magnitude. Then you can group routes by similar costs, and use a selection bias to preferentially favor lowest cost aggregate routes?”

She stood still for a long moment, letting here eyes roll gently back and forth.

“Yep!” she said, with a curt nod.

“That’s really impressive, actually."

“Yep! Yep! Almost finished too!”

As they sat staring, they heard the unsteady trot of hooves approach from behind.

“Um... Hello,” Twilight said.

“Oh, good morning,” Trent returned with a smile. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, I did. Did you have a good night yourself?”

“Ah... It was okay. Woke up a bit early for some reason.”

“I see. Am I interrupting anything?”

“Oh, no. We were talking about trees just now.”

“They grow upward!” Derpy nodded her head with enthusiasm.

“Yes... Yes they do...” Twilight remarked. “Um, Derpy? You’re not getting sidetracked again, are you? I see you still have a pretty full bag of mail sitting there.”

“She’s planning her route.” Trent offered. The grey pegasus nodded in agreement.

“Well, do you need me to get some paper so you can write it down? I imagine it might be kinda hard to keep track of it all?”

Derpy’s eyes went wide again.

“Ohhh, no no no... Nope! It’s okay. I’ve got it all ready!” She tapped her hoof against the side of her head.

Trent nodded sagely.

“Goodbye Trent! And, thanks for all the muffins!” She squealed happily as she hoisted the hefty mail sack over her haunches.

“Have a good day. I know you’ll get it all delivered too, because you’re the best pony.” He winked. “The very very best!”

She danced around happily for a moment, before waving to the two, and departing into the cool brisk morning air.

Twilight approached slowly. “I’m sorry about that. I hope she wasn’t bothering you or anything.”

“Hmm? Oh, no, it’s quite all right.”

“She can be a bit... out there. But I’m glad you were nice to her. Not everypony is.”

“Ahh.” His brow furrowed.

Twilight sat next to Trent on the tree root, curious about his fixation on the bee hive.

“What’s so interesting about that?” she asked.

“They know just where to go,” he turned to look at Twilight with a grin. “They’re the best bees. The very best.”

“Uhh... Ok.”

“She’s brilliant, you know.”

The purple pony simply slapped her forehead by reflex.

“Ah... Good one.”

* * *

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