• Published 8th May 2016
  • 3,340 Views, 127 Comments

Substitute - RQK

Everything has a price. The smallest of actions, both good and bad, can place many into the grave. The roots run deep, after all, in any and all Equestrias.

  • ...

11 - Uncertainty

Queen Adamantine sat back in her cushion and sighed. Her eyes remained on the crystal ball in front of her, where several copies of herself, once in a chamber, began to disperse. Each of them carried a few pages of notes, all unique, and as each Adamantine opened portals to their native timelines, they considered their respective contents.

Adamantine turned her attention to her own set of notes which consisted of numbers and micro-plans. Scratched-out lines led into fully fledged ideas, many of which she had circled for reassurance.

Adamantine set those notes down on her desk and glanced down at the cushion that she sat on. A few more unruly cotton balls had escaped and subsequently settled on the floor. At least a half-dozen empty styrofoam cups, bleached a chocolate color from their former contents, joined them. She picked one up to see if any drink remained inside and frowned when she found none.

Instead, she placed the crystal ball among six other crystal balls and then stood up. Adamantine hobbled toward the opening and peered into the grander cavern beyond.

The noontime sun filtered in through the giant hole in the cavern’s ceiling, its light shaded a pink hue by the magic barrier that stretched across the aperture. Underneath, several bodies lay about the cavern, some conscious, others asleep. A few gathered in reading circles or tossed objects, but they were the lucky few that still had all their parts. Many others bore deep cracks along a part or several parts of their bodies. Those were the ones that Adamantine paid attention to.

She walked among them. Each stride brought her to somepony different and she regarded each that she came across. Some rested, others glanced up. Most smiled, but some rolled away. Adamantine checked them all, observing the states they lay in. Some were cracked, some were not, and others were falling apart.

It wasn’t until she reached the other side of the cavern that Adamantine found a reason to finally stop. An earth unpony, propped against the wall, had deep cracks running along every inch of his body. Small chips and missing pieces cropped up everywhere. What drew her attention were the depressions where his eyes should have been.

She knew Calcite like she knew all unponies. From the way he sounded like a woodpecker when he laughed, and the way he’d spin tales around a campfire with his closest friends (and even the occasional passerby), to the cool head that drew others to lean on him, she could remember it all. Images of various wooden figurines depicting many unponies, including one of herself, flashed through Adamantine's mind. There were a number of artists to go around; some were concerned with literature while others dabbled with paintbrushes. Calcite was the only sculptor and the only one in a while that only worked with wood.

And now Calcite was blind.

Adamantine bit down of her hoof, suppressing the urge to sniffle, which she knew would ultimately lead to tears. She couldn’t do that until it was all over.

But by goodness was looking at Calcite hard.

She sighed and took a seat right next to him. She reached out, hesitated, and then brushed him on the foreleg. Calcite moaned quietly to the touch. He carefully lifted his forelegs and took her forelegs in his own.

Adamantine lit her horn and, in conjunction with her forelegs, pulled him into her. They lay there together in silence. Adamantine stroked him like a mother would stroke a child. Her expression was blank, and Calcite never would see it. Calcite, in turn, quietly nestled himself into her.

After a minute, Adamantine heard approaching hoofsteps, and she looked up. A pegasus unmare, carrying an acoustic guitar on her back, regarded the two of them with a sullen frown. Adamantine knew her as a musician who had, in recent months, lost her bandmates. But her cracks, unlike many others, were few and far between. Scoria was a lucky one, indeed.

Scoria sat down next to them and pulled the guitar off her back. She contemplated the two, stroked her chin, and then lay a hoof across the guitar neck.

Her other hoof strummed the guitar, creating dulcet tones that made up the short sequence of notes. After a rest, allowing those notes to fade away, she strummed the same pattern again. Her song was slow, lingering on each solemn sequence. Scoria herself swayed with the tones.

Adamantine swallowed and continued stroking Calcite, nearly content just to listen. Then she met Scoria’s eyes and some unspoken conversation passed between them. She lit her horn and pulled on something well across the cavern. A harmonica floated over seconds later.

With a sigh, Adamantine pressed it against her muzzle and joined in. Their tunes wove together into a soft-spoken duet. Those around listened in silence and peace, reflecting with the music. Where Scoria’s guitar went, Adamantine’s harmonica followed. Sometimes, her harmonica took the lead, with the guitar close behind.

Calcite sighed, a weak smile appearing on his face, and he nestled himself further into Adamantine’s bosom.

There, Adamantine lost herself to the music; into a melancholic tune that spoke more than anything she could ever actually say in words.

While Twilight Sparkle sat at the table, feverishly writing several lines into a stack of papers, her five closest friends watched from a ring of couches in the opposite corner of the room. Through those long stretches of silence, the only sounds available were the scratching of Twilight’s quill, the occasional shuffling of papers or body parts, and random noises from far-off places outside. Nothing with any meaning.

The five occasionally glanced over but otherwise had nothing to offer. They sat lost in thought.

Fluttershy sucked in a breath, preparing to speak, but ended up just shaking her head.

Applejack looked over. “You okay?” she asked, her voice a whisper.

Fluttershy nodded solemnly. “Oh, I’m just thinking. That’s all.”

“We all are,” Rarity said. “This definitely isn’t how I imagined things would go…”

Pinkie Pie shook her head. “Nope…”

“As soon as Twilight completes that there spell,” Applejack said, “we’ll be gettin’ our ponies back.”

“That’s if Adamantine doesn’t complete her spell first,” Rarity replied, tugging at her curly mane.

Pinkie Pie sighed as she toyed with her mane. She yanked it, her expression an unusual study in calm puzzlement. A few moments later, she sighed. “I don’t wanna do this,” she murmured, hanging her head.

Applejack nodded. “Ah know.”

“I mean, I really don’t wanna do this. This is super-duper terrible.”

“Tell me about it,” Rainbow Dash said, kicking about. “Shows how much we helped if she’s gotta do all this.”

“That don’t give her no excuse,” Applejack countered.

“You heard her! What else is she supposed to do? Let them die?” She sat back into her cushion and snorted. “I dunno,” Rainbow Dash said at length. “I guess if I were in her horseshoes right now… I wouldn’t leave them hangin’.”

Applejack narrowed her eyes. “Rainbow Dash. Ah can’t believe you’d even suggest that.”

“Not doing anything either can’t be much fun,” Pinkie Pie said, sitting up. “I couldn’t watch those unponies go through all that. Not even for another minute.”

Rarity swallowed. “I see what the two of you are saying. But still, that doesn’t give them the right to take lives that aren’t theirs. If they had all been volunteers, that would be one thing.”

“But they weren’t,” Applejack said, “and heck if there’d be anypony willin’ to volunteer for somethin’ like that, let alone a few thousand. It ain’t fair to them.”

“Those unponies didn’t volunteer for this to happen to them either,” Rainbow Dash countered. “Adamantine’s the only one sticking up for them right now.”

“Adamantine is committing several crimes,” Rarity countered. She shook her head. “Honestly, it doesn’t really matter how this plays out, she might have thrown herself away regardless.”

“And she’s too plum obsessed with saving her people to care,” Applejack said.

“And that’s just the thing,” Fluttershy piped up. “She’s trying so hard just to keep them alive… But up until now… all she’s managed to do is make them hurt for longer. And that’s not a kindness.”

The other four fell silent. Their expressions drew into deeper sadness as they considered her statement. Even Twilight glanced up from the other corner of the room—but only out of some cursory curiosity—before she dove back into her writing once more.

Fluttershy sighed. “I really really want to help them. But… it’s not as if we can bring the Nameless back. And everything else we’ve tried hasn’t worked. I, um… I just… I think they’re done. And I think we should, maybe, let them be done.”

Pinkie Pie slumped into her cushion. “I don’t know…”

“Eeeeeyeah. That doesn’t really solve the problem, Fluttershy,” Rainbow Dash said with the shake of her head.

“Letting them go through with this doesn’t solve the problem either,” Fluttershy replied. “It’s mean.”

“There ain’t no real good ways to fix this,” Applejack said. “Ah’ll say it. But there’s gotta be a decision here. And besides, Twilight’s got a responsibility here. And Ah’m gunna stand behind her all the way.”

“But we have responsibilities to them too,” Rainbow Dash hissed. “Don’t you remember? We’re the ones that screwed those unponies up in the first place.”

After a few moments of silence, Applejack swallowed. She stood up, her stance firm but her expression full of agony. “Eeyup, Ah remember. And Ah reckon… here pretty soon…” she said, looking them dead in the eyes, “we might just have to finish the job.”

* * *

“How did I miss it?” Sunset Shimmer thought aloud.

“How did we all miss it?” Twilight’s voice asked. “How did I miss it?”

Sunset paced, performing yet another lap around the hourglass. A few of her curls had ruffled or fallen out of place, and her eyes remained vacantly fixed ahead of her. “I don’t know. Why am I surprised? Everything’s been connected to the Nameless from the very beginning. I shouldn’t have expected anything else.”

“Gosh, it explains so much. I’ve felt a little bit strange ever since I came back from the dead. A little, you know, underpowered. That’s where my magic has been going. I’m them.”

Starlight Glimmer, leaning against a bookshelf, narrowed her eyes. “It sounds like they’re being parasprites to me.”

“I don’t understand it fully, but it just… sounds like the unponies are living spells. Somehow, my body has been sustaining their spells.”

“They haven’t been dying so much as their spells have been canceling,” Starlight said.

“Or something like that. That’s what the signs point to. And if that’s the case, then that is really interesting,” Twilight’s voice said. “Really, think about it. This isn’t a new species of pony, but an entirely different form of life! Purely magical beings! The possibilities! Oh, what I wouldn’t give to conduct some long-form studies on them!”

“It’s nice to see you’re enthusiastic about it and all, Twilight,” Sunset said, her voice stern, “but that can’t happen if we don’t buckle down right now and figure out a way to fix the problem.”

“Gosh, I’m sorry. I mean, it’s really exciting. But on the other hoof…”

“You know what this means, right?” Sunset asked.

Twilight's voice paused. “If she’s putting the unponies in the door… then the stones will starve. They can’t survive in there. They’ll be dead by the time she takes them out.”

Sunset swallowed. “Yeah. It really is all or nothing now.”

“I don’t know if Adamantine knows of her unponies’ true nature, but she knows that she is all in.”

“Well, what are we going to do, then?” Starlight asked.

Sunset sighed. “I don’t know. We’d have to think about that. But there’s gotta be something we can do with those stones.”

Starlight rubbed her muzzle, humming thoughtfully. “Maybe we should get Discord over here.”

“No good,” Twilight’s voice said. “He disappeared after helping us free Equestria C from Chrysalis. I’ve been trying to find him too.”

“Perfect,” Sunset groaned, trotting over toward the desk. She magically grabbed a stack of paper and aligned it against the desk. “I don’t even know how to find him. So, looks like it’s up to us.”

The Sunset Shimmers climbed the stairwell and stepped into the room, congregating toward the stand containing the stone collection. They glanced over the collection, briefly pointing toward now-dead stones that had previously not been.

“So, hey, we were talking...” Sunset Shimmer C said, “and we might have an idea.”

The two glanced over. “Alright,” Starlight said. “What is it?”

Sunset Shimmer C glanced at her counterparts for consensus. “We were thinking that maybe we could make some sort of tank to put these stones in. And we could pump some of that unstew into the tank. Maybe if we expose those stones to that unstew, that might do something.”

Sunset considered it. “Do you think it’ll work?”

The Sunset Shimmers collectively chuckled. “Do you know who you’re talking to?” Sunset Shimmer D replied.

“We could ask the princess to make us some unstew for that,” Starlight offered.

“Yeah,” Sunset agreed.

Sunset Shimmer N stepped forward. “What are you going to do?”

Sunset scratched her chin and met eyes with Starlight. “Well, I guess we’ll find someplace to think up some other ideas. I’m sure we can come up with something.”

“We have to,” Starlight added. “I mean, look at everything we’ve done in these last few days. We should be able to do this. Right?”

Sunset jabbed her hoof in Starlight’s direction. “Yeah. …Buckin’ straight.”

* * *

“Well, what do we have other than that?” Sunset asked, leaning back in her seat.

Starlight hovered her chalk across the board, circling around ideas encapsulated within short blurbs. She jabbed at one in particular. “I’ve got a good feeling about using Anularis to override that condition.”

Sunset stared at the words on the board, her eyes narrowed in concentration. She leaned forward. “See, I think it’s also a good idea, but… it took us several days just to get ten stones. Even with several realities able to help us out there, we couldn’t get every single one of tens of thousands of stones together in just a day.”

Starlight sighed and hung her head. “Yeah… I guess I was thinking if we could try it out on one or two of them and see it if works, we could have it for the worlds below us.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t really help us.”

“Yeah...” Starlight frowned. “That’s assuming that Anularis even sticks.”

Sunset flipped her own piece of chalk within her magical grasp. “I don’t think straight Anularis would do it.”

“Sure, but we could modify its targeting parameters. Although, I guess that would mean making new ones from scratch in the case of the unponies.”

“We’d have to get it pretty exact. It would take some time to develop that.”

“...Which we don’t have.”

Sunset leaned back against the part of the wall that served as the far edge of the bed. Her chalk spun at rapid speeds as she scrutinized the board. “I still think trying to switch control of the unponies to some object other than the stones would be a good idea.”

Starlight snorted. “Same thing. We don’t know how tangled the unponies and the stones are. …We’d have to get it pretty exact.”

Sunset rubbed her face. “So,” she mumbled, “pretty much… everything we’ve come up with would take more time than we have.”

Starlight glanced back at the board and sighed. “Yup.”

Sunset puffed her cheeks out and blew a raspberry. She pinched the bridge of her muzzle while letting the chalk fall out of her magic and onto the bedspread.

“I mean,” Starlight began, shrugging, “we have enough time to get some fraction of the work done. But not enough where we could put a whole solution together.”

“It’d be great if the whole thing was done already.”

Starlight giggled. “Isn’t that how you saved Twilight’s life?”

Sunset went to respond but then paused. Having the whole thing done already, she thought. Yeah, that was how we did it. And… Sunset stroked her muzzle, remaining silent. Even when Starlight turned back to the board to consider the other options, Sunset stared into space. The entire rest of the tower seemed to fade out of her knowledge.

Having the whole thing done already.

Sunset climbed off the bed.

Done already.

Sunset stormed toward the stairs without a word, leaving a bewildered Starlight in front of the chalkboard. She promptly arrived in the study area soon after, where her counterparts huddled in front of a half-constructed chamber. “Hey, Twilight!” she barked. “Are you up there?”

The crystal ball, which lay on the desk nearby, answered with a “What? Sunset? Yes?”

“I, uh, I have some questions. Do the worlds still follow each other?”

“Do the worlds still follow each other? Yes, as far as I can tell. Pretty closely, at that.”

An airy pop announced Starlight teleporting into the room. “Woah, Sunset! What gives? Did you think of something?”

Sunset rubbed at her skull. “I don’t know. Yes? Maybe?”

The Sunset Shimmers shared confused glances and then set their tools down, watching with intrigue.

“Oh! Well, let’s hear it,” Twilight’s voice said.

Sunset nodded. “I just have to make sure of something really quick.”

She flared her horn, levitating the crystal ball over. She briefly looked inside it. Princess Celestia sat at her desk, writing into a notebook with her quill. Her expression was scrunched with a keen and unbreakable focus.

Sunset then trotted toward the half-completed machine that her counterparts had constructed, glancing at the tall glass dome that sat on top of it. The base of the chamber hosted a vent where she assumed unstew would filter through. A half-completed skeleton designed to hold several stones filled the chamber itself. She peered through an opening in the machine’s paneling, but found nothing that caught her interest. She gave a quick nod to her counterparts before pacing toward the hourglass.

After her wandering eyes searched for ideas, she nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Somepony mentioned that there were a bunch of ponies that were studying The Answer.”

“Sunburst said that, I think,” Starlight interjected.

Sunset nodded. “Did anyone find anything out about how the worlds behave?”

Twilight’s voice hummed. “Well, there were some breakthroughs on it. A lot of that has been added onto The Answer’s manuscript.”

“And you’ve read it, right?” Sunset asked.


“Great. Did they figure out if the worlds following each other is local or not?”

“Well, yes and no. As you can probably guess, there was a layer out there where they had enough information to complete The Answer. They had a slightly different chain of events than we did.”

“And anything on the layer above them?”

“That’s just it. That layer that finished that spell pretended to have nothing. They restarted the whole information-gathering process, so they were both a top world and a bottom world. The layer above them was back to business as usual.”

Sunset blinked. “So… that would mean that the thing happens again, and then again after that…” She slowly nodded. “So, what you’re saying is the worlds are periodic?”

“Yes. There were some multilayer experiments run that not only confirmed that fact but also more-or-less confirmed that this periodic sequence goes on forever, just by the virtue that every world above us and every world below us also ran the exact same experiment. If you ask me… I think that quantum mechanics or something very strange could break that at some point, but the important thing is that this phenomenon isn’t local.”

Sunset nodded. “Nice.”

“We even determined where we are on the period. Let’s see. Yours is layer number three hundred and twenty-four from the bottom of the cycle.”

Starlight frowned. “Well, at least you two know what you’re talking about,” she said, leaning against the bookshelf.

Sunset chuckled and paced about. “Okay. So, then it’s safe to assume that every world above us has approached this problem. That’s what I was looking for. We could use what they had to break the cycle here.”

The crystal ball paused. “…Where are you going with this?”

“You remember how The Answer came down to us already complete? Well, I’m saying that now we exploit the infinite again and get a complete solution from the world above us—your world.”

Starlight blinked, tilting her head out of curiosity.

“Already complete? Woah, hold on!” Twilight’s voice cried. “You can’t be serious. There’s no way that could work.”

Sunset narrowed her eyes. “And why not?”

“I mean, I mean… causality, Sunset! You have to put it together before it can be complete!”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah. I know.”

“And, and… we’ve done nothing to put it together. Where’s the work needed to complete it?”

“That’s all been done too,” Sunset said. “Any number of layers above ours. Remember? Infinitely many worlds. We should have the definitive solution to this entire disaster figured out by now. And the best part is… as long as they figured it out exactly one time, we’re good.”

A few moments of silence passed. The Sunset Shimmers scratched their muzzles, mulling it over. Their features remained motionless and somewhat glazed. Starlight, on the other hoof, blinked, losing her spaced-out look.

And the crystal ball remained silent. Sunset imagined a Twilight Sparkle, hunched over a ball, with a million thoughts flying through her head.

“Sunset… While I think… Adamantine was right. If it existed, we’d have it by now. All of this has already happened in my world, too. I…” Twilight’s voice said. “I really, really, want to believe you.”

“You think that the unponies are a lost cause. But don’t you remember? So were you!” Sunset pointed toward the ceiling. “When we were trying to save your life, we knew you to be dead. We knew there had never been a way to save you. You were a lost cause, Twilight. And then look what happened.”

“I… I… Sunset…”

“We’ve been in this exact situation before, and look at what we’ve done since. We brought back the dead. We did the impossible. Hell, we’ve been doing the impossible since the moment we met. We’ve done the impossible these last few days.” Sunset stamped her hoof. “We can do this.”

Another palpable pause passed through the room. While Sunset continued appearing assertive, Starlight stood up, some color returning to her face. The Sunset Shimmers turned to each other and nodded.

“Well…” Twilight’s voice said, “I guess… I think it’s a long shot, but… I trust you with my life, Sunset. So… okay. What do we do?”

“Well, I still have to figure out how exactly I want to do this…” Sunset trailed off, turning her gaze toward the hourglass. She stroked her muzzle for a few moments before turning her eyes toward the crystal ball, with Princess Celestia still reading inside.

Then she nodded. “Alright. This is an oldie but a goodie.”


Sunset wrapped her hoof around the crystal ball and looked into it. “Princess Celestia?”

Celestia gasped and glanced up. While her focus immediately vanished, her features relaxed quicker than thought possible. “Sunset Shimmer,” she said, “I’m so very glad to hear from you again. I hope the train wasn’t too much trouble?”

“Thanks to your help,” Sunset replied. “But listen, I need another favor.”

“Certainly. Whatever you need.”

Sunset took a seat, glancing at the hourglass. “Let’s see… You know the tower that I worked out of the last time I was here? Well, I’m here again. Starlight’s with me. I also have a few other friends helping me out.”

“I see. And I’m happy to hear that she is doing okay too.”

“Hello again, Princess,” Starlight said from her spot near the bookshelves.

Twilight’s voice giggled. “Starlight, you know she can’t hear you if you’re not touching the ball, right?”

Starlight frowned and turned red in the face.

Sunset giggled. “She says ‘hi’, by the way.”

“Well, hello, Starlight,” Celestia said.

“Anyway, my plan…” Sunset continued, “is to have some documents. And I’ll be working with them until I leave. So…” Sunset paused to consider it. “I… am going to leave those documents here once I am done with them.”

Celestia nodded. She stood up and trotted across the room, circumventing the large cushion that served as her bed, and approached the window. Her eyes fell on a tower across the grounds, certainly trying to imagine Sunset and Starlight there. “Is there something that you would like me to do with them?”

“Yeah. I want you to deliver them someplace nine days from now.”

Celestia hummed. “Which… is eighteen days for me, yes?”


“Where would you like me to deliver them to?”

Sunset paused. “Uh, Twilight, where are you right now?”

“I’m at my castle,” Twilight’s voice replied.

“Twilight’s castle,” Sunset said. “Exactly eighteen days for you, and not a second later.” Sunset glanced up. “Twilight! Go see if Spike has anything for you!”

“On it!” Twilight’s voice replied.

Sunset glanced over at her doubles who were busy sharing astonished glances. Eventually, they met her glance in kind and nodded in approval. Sunset then considered Starlight who was perplexing.

“Oh, I get it. I see where this is going, I think,” Starlight said.

Sunset smiled.

Celestia’s muzzle twitched, signaling another thought. “Oh, are you talking to Twilight Sparkle?”

“Yeah, we are,” Sunset replied. “I guess you can’t hear anything that she’s saying, huh?”

Celestia shook her head and trotted toward her bed. “Unfortunately not. But, I guess, that’s just how the crystal ball works. It is what it is.”

“Right. Well, thanks for the help, Princess Celestia.”

“Anytime, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset released her grip on the ball. She then lit her horn and levitated a large stack of papers over. She set them in the middle of the floor and motioned for the others to gather around.

Starlight sat down. “So, what’s going to happen?”

Sunset levitated over some quills and passed them around. “Okay. One of two things is about to happen.” She took a deep breath, licking her lips nervously. “We either get something within the next few minutes… or saving the unponies was always impossible.”

Starlight bit her lip. “…Besides what Adamantine is doing.”

Sunset nodded solemnly. “Yeah.”

Starlight swallowed and laid down. “Then… I guess… for now, we wait. Gosh, I hope we get something.”

The Sunset Shimmers followed suit, laying across the floor. They remained silent, contemplating whatever came next.

Sunset nodded and took her own seat. With the good old hourglass at her back, she glanced around the room. The towering bookshelves that ringed around them had always been a mainstay. And certainly, this time, she knew the new décor. The very top shelves remained in the shade as the afternoon sun filtered through the large window behind her.

Six large machines at the edges of the room stood idle, their purposes at least a day complete. Of course, they were copies of another that she was sure she had invented herself several months prior. In this very room, in fact.

She held the crystal ball close, rocking back and forth all the while. She tried to hum something to herself: an old song from the Rainbooms’ early days. Her ears, meanwhile, listened to some faint sounds outside. A few birds chirped out songs of their own. Relatively few city sounds made it this far into castle grounds, and Sunset couldn’t make those out. Nothing loud enough that she could hear, anyway.

Sunset knew that this room contained no clocks, but she looked anyway. How much time had passed? How long had Twilight been gone? Had she found something?

Sunset shuddered. Come on, Twilight…

The Sunset Shimmers shifted and fidgeted. Starlight rubbed the back of her neck, looking uncertain.

“Sunset!” Twilight’s voice said.

“We’re here,” Sunset replied. “Do you have anything?”

“I can’t believe it,” Twilight’s voice replied peppily, “but I have something! I have a very large document right here.”

Sunset couldn’t tell if she had leaped to her hooves or if something had picked her up. “That’s it! That’s it right there!”

Some of the Sunset Shimmers swore, leaping to their hooves as well. Starlight scrambled up so quickly that she almost overshot and stumbled about as a result.

“You were right! I have it! I mean, I have no idea what’s in it, but still! You were right!”

Sunset punched the air. “Alright! Then send it down to us. We’ll be able to use it from there.”

“Sure thing! Just give me a moment to get situated here.”

Sunset passed the first few papers out. “Alright, this is it. I hope you girls are ready to write. It sounds like we got quite a bit of work ahead of us.”

Everypony cheered and lifted their quills to the ready. Their smiles brimmed with confidence and mirth. It was a start, at least. Sunset, in turn, couldn’t help but shudder in delight.

Maybe there was a way out after all.

“Okay! I’m ready to transmit!” Twilight’s voice called.

Sunset lit her horn. “Alright, let’s go.”

* * *

The crystal ball let out another ear-piercing screech that made everypony cringe. Sunset’s lit horn sputtered and shot a beam of light into the air, forming an image. The screen contained the image of two pieces of paper placed side-to-side on some wooden desk.

After examining the image for a moment, Sunset flipped said screen toward a pair of Sunset Shimmers (C and N, it turned out) waiting on the side. They examined the image and then jabbed their quills into their papers. Everypony else sat two to their own screens, copying the contents of each into several stacks of paper.

Sunset swept her quill across her own page, writing down what she saw. There was a lot of math, for certain, but she couldn’t readily tell what any of it was saying. But there had been, especially in the opening pages, plain text that, as far as she could tell, didn’t say anything definitive. One page had been a list of methods with all but one crossed out.

And she had seen an awful lot of question marks. But, then again, she had only actually transcribed a small fraction of the whole thing. Plus, it had been at least an hour and a half, judging from the orange-lit sky behind her.

Sunset grinned. It was probably nothing.

She scribbled down a few lines, cross-referenced the hoofwritten copy and the image in front of her, noted that it looked like Starlight’s writing, and then grinned as she set it into the pile. “Next.”

“Here’s the last page,” Twilight’s voice said.

Sunset sighed, poking at her aching horn. “Finally. I’ll take it.”

A shriek later, Sunset’s horn formed one last image. This page contained only a few lines compared to the rest. Sunset glanced up and continued on, transcribing letter after letter.

One by one, Starlight Glimmer and the Sunset Shimmers completed their own pages and set their quills down. They added their pages to the pile and then examined its thick size; it looked like a volume from an encyclopedia. They sat back, intent to relax.

Sunset finished her page and set it on the top of the pile and then let the images fade out. She collapsed with an exhausted groan.

Starlight smiled and lit her horn in response, wrapping her magic around the pile. She straightened the pages out and then skimmed through the first few hundred pages, taking in their work. She turned to the others. “Good work, everypony,” she said.

Sunset Shimmer I giggled. “That was a lot of writing,” she said.

“Buck yeah it was,” Sunset Shimmer T agreed.

“I didn’t see everything that was in it,” Sunset Shimmer C said, adjusting her position on her cushion, “but wow, this thing was long. I wonder what it says.”

Sunset groaned again, letting her head hit the floor.

Sunset Shimmer D smirked. “That’s rough.”

“That sucked,” Sunset replied.

Starlight presented the document. “Well, hey, this should be worth it, right?”

Sunset glanced up, looking Starlight in the eye. She grinned and pulled herself to her hooves. “You bet. Let’s see…” she said, taking the documents.

Sunset flipped them over, reading over the first page. She scanned it with a grin on her face. The first page contained a simple description of the problem. It then went on to outline some of the major discoveries. Sunset smirked. I figured all of this out several hours ago, she mentally mused.

As Sunset read on, her pacing took her around the hourglass. She read in silence before reaching the page where all the methods save one were crossed out. Sunset chuckled and then continued with her scan. She went through page after page, noting several incomplete equations along the way. “Documentation…” she muttered, “documentation…”

The others watched in silence.

“A lot of this looks like documentation,” Sunset said, flipping through more pages. “But… I guess I haven’t found the actual solution yet.”

Starlight frowned. “Uh, keep looking. It’s gotta be in there.”

Sunset flipped through pages one at a time and then several at a time. Her expression became more flustered with every few pages. Her steps became stiffer, and as the end of the document drew near, she started looking panicked.

Still incomplete math and still nothing definitive.

And then the pages ran out.

Sunset shook her head in disbelief, skipping back to random pages in the middle. She was sweating now. She then levitated the crystal ball over and floated it close. “I-is there anything else?” Sunset asked.

“No,” Twilight’s voice quivered, “that’s everything.”

Sunset frowned. “Twilight… you had better not be hiding anything from me.”

“I’m not! That’s all of it! I promise!”

It couldn’t be all of it.

Starlight glanced up. “Twilight…? What is going on?” she said, her tone hinting at alarm.

Sunset felt something crawling up her spine. Something hot. Something that made her tremble. She continued pacing around, practically pressing her face into the pages. Her body shook more and more, and with each page that contained nothing of what she wanted, her breath grew hotter and her vision blurred.

Sunset cried out and wrapped her magic around the nearest object and hurled it. Said object, whatever it was (she couldn’t see clearly at that moment), turned out to be large as it slammed into the room’s spanning window, causing it to shatter into a thousand pieces amidst a cacophony of crackles and tinkles.

All six Sunset Shimmers cried out in surprise and raced toward the window’s remains.

Starlight, on the other hoof, jumped. “Goodness! Sunset!?”

Sunset stood in place, huffing and puffing and grinding her teeth together.

“I’m sorry!” Twilight’s voice cried.

“This is bullshit!” Sunset yelled, stomping the floor.

Starlight shook her head in disbelief. “O-okay,” she stammered, “then what’s actually in it?”

“Infinitely many worlds and you know what they send me?” Sunset slammed the papers down. “Garbage! Fucking garbage!”

“Oh, you are kidding me,” Starlight nearly growled. “That’s not even right.”

“I know,” Twilight’s voice seconded. “It’s all I have for you. I… I… I’m not sure what else I can say here right now.”

“Twilight!” Starlight cried.

“It’s incomplete. Whatever it was that the worlds above yours were working on, my world… they didn’t complete it.”

Starlight threw her forehooves into the air. “Well!? Then why don’t we just sit down and complete it already!? We still have time.”

“That’s not happening,” Sunset replied.

The Sunset Shimmers glanced back toward them, but they quickly returned their attention back toward something on the ground far below.

Starlight narrowed her eyes. “And why the buck not?” she hissed.

“Because I know it,” Sunset countered. “I said that we only had to do this once. I knew exactly what I was doing. That if we already figured all of this out, we didn’t have to do anything else. I would have sent myself the complete thing.”

She motioned to the downed document. “And I get this shit. For Celestia’s sake, Starlight, I’m not going to give this to myself!”

“So? What?”

“That just means the world above us didn’t have a complete version, and the world above them didn’t have a complete version. Nopony had a complete version. Just the fact that we got this as-is means that the solution doesn’t exist. Or if it does, we never find it. And we will never find it.”

Starlight stamped the floor. “Not with that attitude you won’t! Weren’t you just saying that you’ve come back from lost causes before?”

Sunset paused, narrowing her eyes at Starlight. “…Yes,” she growled, “I did.”

“Then why can’t we do this?” Starlight asked. “Look at all the things we’ve done in just the past few days? What’s one more thing?”

Sunset ground her teeth together, dragging a hoof across the floor. She opened her mouth to speak, but she didn’t have the words. Instead, she let out one final snort. “Fine. What do you think we should do?”

“I don’t know. It sounded like this was trying at a specific solution. We can continue on that, maybe.” Starlight shrugged. “It’s better than doing nothing.”

Sunset felt the rage inside her body subside and she sighed. She looked up, her vision clearing, now to recognize that her doubles were all standing where the window used to be. Starlight glanced over at the same time, exchanged glances with Sunset, and stalked over.

The Sunset Shimmers cowered at their approach. Sunset and Starlight approached the edge with even more caution then. Once there, they looked down.

The window’s remains lay across the lawn in more pieces than could be counted. What drew their attention, however, was the mound of sand that had spilled out of half-broken glass containers. The golden arms, curved into neat swirls, lay half-buried in debris. The plates that had served as caps had fallen down the side of the pile and come to rest at either end.

Sunset felt a shiver run up her spine and she whirled around, only to find the hourglass, the room’s centerpiece, the one thing she couldn’t imagine the room without, no longer in its place.

The Sunset Shimmers shied away. Starlight looked toward the spot with a deep frown.

Sunset floated the ball (which now showed an empty room) over and held it close, almost as if steadying herself. “Twilight…” Sunset croaked. “…How much time do we have until Adamantine does her spell?”

The pause was palpable. “If I am right… then Adamantine is getting ready to try the spell in the next few minutes,” Twilight’s voice said.

Sunset’s heart sank, and her pained expression joined Starlight’s gasp.

“No way!” Starlight cried. “That’s nothing! That’s… I can’t believe it.”

Sunset stamped her hoof. “So, that’s it then. Our ponies are about to die.”

Another pause. And then Twilight’s voice sighed. “The truth is… I haven’t been trying to prevent the death of our ponies. I’ve… been trying to prevent the premature death of the unponies. That is the exact disaster that I’ve been trying to prevent.”

Starlight frowned. “Uh, I’m sorry, Twilight. But aren’t you forgetting about our ponies?”

“Our ponies are safe. Always were.”

Sunset bit her lip. “How!?”

The crystal ball was silent. I’m the other half of some of those unponies. So… there’s… a complication.”

* * *

Adamantine stood at the edge of the white-lit chamber as the last unponies stalked through portals at every corner. Those that came through made their way toward the center of the chamber. A few loitered around the portals, poking their heads through to see if anypony had not made it yet. Adamantine found herself making small portals in order to peek through, double checking the alternate chambers.

Everypony eventually gathered in the center of the chamber. With that, Adamantine lit her horn and the portals all snapped shut. She stood up and looked over the half-thousand before her. They would be the last ones to go through.

She cantered toward the center of the room. A hush fell over her unponies as they eyed her with gleams in their eyes and hopeful smiles on their muzzles. Some even fidgeted with excitement. With every face that she saw, the peppier her steps became and the wider her smile became. By the time she reached the center, Adamantine was practically skipping along.

She turned around to try (and fail) to face everypony at once, and she lit her horn. A ball of white light, containing an ever-increasing amount of magical sigils rotating around each other, formed in the air in front of her. It grew to some complexity, but eventually, Adamantine was content with it. “Well,” she said, “this is it. I will see you all on the other side.”

A bright-eyed unpony near the front nodded and smiled. “We love you, Queen Mom.”

Many others voiced their own declarations, with some “Thank you!”s and their variations thrown in here and there.

Adamantine lowered the pre-cast toward her horn and blushed. “I love you all too.”

Her horn absorbed the pre-cast and then Adamantine shot the resulting beam of light into the center of the floor. A rainbow-colored wave propagated outward through the sigils embedded in the floor. The wave climbed the walls and then met again at the top of the hemisphere. The room shuddered, and a low rumble grew into a deafening roar. Many unponies lost their footing, but Adamantine remained on her hooves.

Everything turned grainy and fuzzy and Adamantine felt her body become lighter. And then, as a white glow overtook the chamber, she felt her body disintegrating. As her vision faded to white, which happened almost quicker than she could make out, she caught a glimpse of the unponies, their bodies being similarly ripped to shreds.

And then Adamantine did not exist.

There was nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Time wasn’t even a concept. Neither was space. A sense of self was the furthest thing from thought, and even thought was an impossibility. Nothing to experience nothing.

A dim white light appeared in the nothingness, grew, expanded, and then engulfed everything.

Adamantine landed, staying on her hooves this time.

She blinked as her vision, incredibly blurred, slowly came to. Her nerves turned on, one by one, trying to restore feeling to her body. The rest of her seemingly slotted into place. Faint static evolved into fully realized sounds.

Once her senses came back in full, Adamantine looked around. The white-lit chamber, from which she had just left, lay undisturbed. Just as it had been moments before.

And it was now empty, with not a single unpony in sight.

Adamantine nodded and then closed her eyes and focused. She cleared her mind, pushing her other senses back.

The ponies that had been gathered from all the timelines all hung unconscious within the void, each like a little ball of light within an otherwise intangible expanse. Her alternate selves were there in the same state.

And thousands of unponies, once weak, were now flickers of light that she hoped soon would stay lit for a long time to come.

Adamantine felt her body sigh in relief. They were all still alive within the seal. That was good, at least.

She shook her head, allowing her senses to come back once again. She stroked her chin, perplexing. Alright, she thought. Everypony is within the seal. Now, for the final step…

Another pre-cast popped into being above her head. Adamantine built some parts of it, watched it swirl around for a bit, and then focused again. She peered back into the void and located her counterparts. Adamantine almost wanted to talk to them, but she knew that they would not respond in the state that they were in.

And she wanted to warn them. Memories came rushing back.

“So, the next item of business is how to get the spell to you. If those ponies from your timeline search these chambers, I do not think that I would be comfortable leaving it somewhere for them to find,” Adamantine C said from within a crystal ball.

“As I have seen it,” Adamantine replied as she watched them in her crystal ball, “you have bound the spell to your essences, such that I was able to read it when I peered inside the seal.” She grinned. “After all, we are the only ones able to look there for it.”

The Adamantines inside the crystal ball paused. They tilted their heads and hummed quizzically, pondering it. Finally, Adamantine I nodded. “That is… a very ingenious idea. Somewhat strange, but ingenious.”

Adamantine T nodded. “We may try to think about how to do it. Perhaps some extra instructions for the seal will do.”

Adamantine smiled. “Perhaps it will.”

She looked upon them through the void, reading the information that floated around them. The spell was intricate and, Adamantine was sure, would have been significantly longer than even the most complex spells (save one, from which this had been derived). While her senses read the information, her horn, someplace within the real world, fed that information into a pre-cast.

It was a long process. Maybe it had been a day. Maybe it had been a few minutes. There was no telling time within the void.

She read the last bits of information floating around her final counterpart, and Adamantine experienced a feeling. She was sure that her body was frowning. Her mind reached out, intent to at least touch her alternate self. There was nothing to touch, and she had nothing to touch with. But, nonetheless, Adamantine’s senses sensed her alternate self as a point. A single, vulnerable point.

Adamantine shivered. She looked back at the others. They were definitely her, but her from another life. Fleeting thoughts of stories of worlds that she had only glimpsed crossed her mind. What would they all have done together had The Great Benefactor still lived? What would their lives have been like?

“Performing the spell will require all of our energies,” Adamantine S said from within a crystal ball. “And, out here, we could only offer so much.”

“But if we are inside the seal, all of our energy may be extracted,” Adamantine N said. “That is what you must do. That is how you will power the spell.”

“As we discussed,” Adamantine replied. “That will end your lives, so I must be sure; are you certain?”

The Adamantines paused. “We are,” Adamantine D replied. “And are you?”

“I am taking the lives of my alternate selves. It is… not something that I can find any enjoyment in. But…” Adamantine nodded solemnly. “If I must do that in order to cast the spell, then I shall. For them, anything.”

The other Adamantines nodded. “For them.”

Adamantine grimaced, steeling herself. Resignedly, she let her senses blur, and the void faded away. Thank you, my companions. And may you find peace.

She touched the spell to her horn, and then her horn trembled. Energy coursed through her body and her body stiffened. And then that energy jerked her head forward; it pointed her horn at the center of the floor again and shot a beam into it. Another rainbow-colored wave coursed through the room and the room shuddered in response. It didn’t reach the roar that Adamantine remembered, and she held her ground as the spell did things that she could not readily picture.

Adamantine felt something new coursing through her body. It was energy. Her own energy, yet somehow alien. But it was energy, many times her own energy, and then some. Her body tingled, and with how quickly it rushed into her, she thought she would burst. Adamantine kept her footing all the while, but she winced under the pressure.

And then, as suddenly as it started, the pressure stopped. Adamantine felt like she could tear the mountain apart with the power flowing through her. The tingling didn’t go away, but she no longer felt it stretching her every fiber.

With the sensations, however minor, bombarding every precipice of her attention, she knew there was no way she could peer into the seal.

She frowned. There was no way she would find her selves there anymore. They were gone in every sense of the word.

Her head moved again, and then her horn fired another beam at the floor. The rainbow-colored wave spread out again, but unlike the last few times she had done something with the seal, the beam didn’t stop. The once white-lit sigils passed through the entire rainbow spectrum but did so without any regard to their neighbors. She found no pattern to any of it, but the sight of it made her smile.

And, for the first time in her life, Adamantine felt truly connected to the seal. She could feel the energies swirling inside it. She felt it all. The energy, the spell, reaching through the void, feeling about, circling around those figures within. It poked the souls floating within. And then the spell wrapped its tendrils around them.

Adamantine sighed in contentment. Finally, it was over.

Something went click, and the spell froze. The tendrils recoiled away from a few of the points (all corresponding to unponies) within the void. The various tinglings that Adamantine had felt in her bosom ceased and the beam that had been shooting from her horn dissipated. Adamantine blinked, and then her body went cold. She looked around the chamber in confusion. The entire chamber had frozen in time, the colors that had been in every sigil were now solid and unchanging.

“What?” she croaked.

She recalled the last thing that the spell had been doing and shot a beam at the floor again. A rainbow-colored wave swept across the floor and up the walls; the energy within the seal twitched but did nothing else.

A drop of sweat fell down the side of her muzzle. “N-no…” she stammered. She shot another beam, but the spell within the seal clicked in place and didn’t move another inch.

“Oh no… no no no no no no no! No!” She shot another beam to no effect. “Please, no!” she cried, grinding her teeth together. Another beam. “Oh, by the stars, please no!”

A multitude of shivers racked her body and she trembled. She tried fanning herself, but that did nothing to sedate her thumping heart. Her mind raced at a million miles a second. What had happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? Were they okay? Were they okay?

Adamantine swallowed and blocked her senses out. They had to be there. They had to. Everything faded out, and then the void appeared before her again. She peered around, seeing through the now idle energy loitering within. The souls within hung as unconscious as ever, floating in non-existence. She found a few hundred at first sense. She shifted her focus and found several hundred more, and then even more.

Adamantine’s body sighed in relief. She then took several moments to breathe in and out, trying to compose herself. She looked through the void again and found some things missing. Her counterparts were indeed gone.

Adamantine opened her eyes and scraped at the floor, examining the sigils themselves. The spell is still here, so… what…? she thought.

She swallowed. I don’t understand. How… how did it not work? It was perfect! I was sure! She paced about, looking frantically for something she knew she wouldn’t find there. I checked! That spell should have worked. So why is it…?

Adamantine paused as a conversation from two days prior flashed across her mind. She then looked into the distance, narrowing her eyes. What did she do!?

* * *

Twilight came to, blinking several times as she tried to process the blurs above her shouting any number of indiscernible things.

Her senses returned and told her that, for whatever reason, she was lying back-first on the floor, with her five friends bent worriedly over her. “Wha… what happened?” she slurred.

Rarity sighed in relief. “Good heavens, Twilight! You had us very worried. You collapsed so suddenly, and what not!”

“I… goodness…” she felt her head, trying to pick herself up.

Applejack held Twilight down. “Easy there. Don’t wanna get up too quick, ya hear?”

Twilight shook her head and laid back down. “Yeah… yeah… How long was I out?”

“You were out for about a minute. What happened?” Fluttershy asked.

Twilight prodded at her chest with a hoof. There was definitely something knotted there. “I felt something very powerful just now,” she said. “I think… I don’t know. It feels like…” She paused to prod at her chest a few more times. She then gently brushed aside Applejack’s hoof, rolled over, and then stood up.

She scratched her muzzle in thought, her frown growing deeper by the second. “I don’t know. I think… Adamantine tried her spell just now, and somehow… I blocked it.”

The other five exchanged glances that flickered between wide-eyed shock and eyebrow-raising confusion.

Twilight continued feeling at her chest, her own muzzle twisted into a befuddled frown. “I’m pretty sure that’s what it is, but I don’t really know… I don’t know how I managed to do it.”

Applejack shook her head. “Alright, wait a darn second. You mean to say that Adamantine nearly did it? And you… stopped it?”

Rarity swallowed. “My goodness… I don’t know what you did, Twilight, but it sounds to me that we just had a near-miss.”

“Ah’m glad ya did it,” Applejack said, her tone affirmative.

“I don’t know how I did it either. It’s as if…” Twilight prodded at her chest again. “I can feel it trying to continue. Right here.” She paused, biting her lip. “I could… let it go through. I know I could. I could let Adamantine switch them around and let our ponies die in their place.”

She scratched the floor, drawing circles in the tile. And then she scowled. “But… I won’t.”