• Published 24th Jun 2018
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The Fishbowl - Shrink Laureate



Vinyl remembers the doll. It's unmistakably hers. Except it's in Octavia's closet. Why do they have the same doll – and the same memory?

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19. Descent

What is a pony?

Is it an equine creature with four or six limbs, a short muzzle, a big head and big eyes?

Or is it a heart willing to accept others and live in harmony? To sing of its troubles and its desires? To—

“Hey, Gummy!”

“Hiya, Gummy!”

“Hey there, Gummy!”

“How’s it going, Gummy?”

“Hi, Gummy!”

Mare after mare after mare trotted in through the back door of Sugarcube Corner, each of them ruffling the top of Gummy’s head with a hoof as she passed. The little alligator looked on passively.

I picked the wrong day to give up icing sugar.

Octavia grimaced as she pulled the skirt of her long silk dress further up to allow her to clamber awkwardly over the barrier. Her poor dress, beautiful and fresh this afternoon, was so scratched now that she was never going to be able to wear it again. Vinyl offered a hand to help her over the barrier, then Octavia offered the same to Trixie.

The endless stream of cars rushed past, their noise amplified by the enclosed space of the tunnel. The noise got louder as the girls headed down the slope in single file, clinging to the wall. They ducked past pipes, stencilled signs, emergency lights and various unidentified boxes attached to the wall. The narrow space between cars and wall afforded little comfort.

A semi hurried past, inches from them, the wind stirred up by its passing whipping at clothes and hair.

“You do realise that I’m a musician, don’t you?” shouted Octavia, barely audible. “I rather appreciate my hearing!”

“You’d best hurry up then,” shouted Chrysalis from the front of the line. Behind her, Fluffle Puff beckoned them forwards with a hand motion.

Trixie, at the back of the group, clung onto her hat, gripping tight with every car, van, truck and lorry that passed.

“I wish we could have at least changed clothes,” said Octavia, clutching a bag to her side.

“No time,” replied Chrysalis. “We need to do this quickly.”

The tunnel flattened out and turned slightly, revealing a metal door a little further down. It had a flickering ‘emergency exit’ sign above it. Just past that door was the horizon, a wall cut straight across the road. Even down here in the tunnel, it was an impermeable barrier. Every car that drove past them went through that wall, instantly swapped for a simplified representation of itself. On the other side of the road, blocky imitation cars were transmuted into the real thing as they returned to the real world, complete with bored drivers and passengers, and swept on up the tunnel.

They edged along the narrow gap, and when Chrysalis reached the door she pulled at it. It refused to budge. Catching up, the girls gathered in a line along the wall. Trixie leaned out just far enough to shout, “It’s locked, isn’t it?”

Chrysalis simply grinned back, her smile promising mischief. She lifted her hand and politely knocked on the door, three metallic clanging sounds. A second later the door opened with a click, and she immediately pushed through, pulling Fluffle Puff after her. Vinyl turned to share a glance with Octavia, then the three followed through.

The sound of cars stopped the moment they stepped through, replaced with blessedly comfortable quiet. The ticking of a clock and the low crackle of a fireplace were all they could hear now, though a glance back through the door showed the traffic continuing to rush past. As the ringing in their ears faded, they took in the comfortably furnished room, the faded wallpaper, the well-worn furniture.

Trixie turned around and around in confusion. “I’ve been here before. This is Cerberus’ place! Except I came in that door last time, not this one.”

“I thought you said that was in the City Hall?” asked Vinyl.

“It was, but this is definitely it.”

“You mean it’s just like the other room you saw?”

“No, I mean it’s the actual same room,” insisted Trixie. She pointed at the small round wooden table with its accumulated years of dark circular marks. “Unless they went to the effort of copying all the coffee stains exactly?”

“Maybe they moved all the furniture down here?”

“And the wallpaper too? Why would they—”

“Ladies!” called out Chrysalis. “Time waits for no mare. We need to be moving before Cerberus gets back here.” She gestured through another door. This one was shorter and had a triangular wedge cut out of the top to allow it to fit under a stairway. It looked to lead to a cupboard with shelves filled with dusty cleaning supplies.

Chrysalis pulled out a flashlight and turned it on. She had to hunch over to get into the cramped cupboard without bumping her head. Fluffle Puff had no such trouble, being somewhat shorter. Carefully the girls followed them into the cupboard, around a corner, then another corner, along a short stretch, then round again.

With every step the warped wooden ceiling and walls, lined with shelves and hanging cupboards, got lower and more misshapen, until the structure was leaning in on them, held up by beams like a mine shaft. Irregular stone could be glimpsed behind and between the wood panels. Gnarled old wooden shelves, curled up with time, had long ago deposited their cargo of knick-knacks, faded papers and parchment, little old pottery jars with cork stoppers, and trinkets so decayed they couldn’t be identified.

Without an obvious join, the wooden tunnel transitioned into a twisting shaft carved from red stone. Sand filled the bottom of the tunnel, making a relatively flat floor interrupted by jutting shards of rock. Octavia brushed a hand against the rock wall. It sluiced away, leaving her grey fingers dusted with fine red sand.

“Sandstone?” she asked. “Are we still underneath the river?”

“Not exactly,” replied Chrysalis. She had ducked down to avoid hitting her head on the low ceiling.

Octavia looked at her. “So where are we then? And how did we get here?”

“It’s… complicated.” Chrysalis waved a hand in a circular gesture as she walked. “I could explain, but I’d rather escape while we have the chance.”

She proceeded to turn and trace the tunnel down, followed by Fluffle Puff and the girls, their evening dresses increasingly torn and damaged.

The skies above the Whitetail Woods were clear, calm and pleasant in the evening air. The occasional sounds of wildlife echoed far below. An idle cloud drifted by, pushed by the mildest breeze and lit by the moon.

With a screech of tearing reality, the cloud burst apart, shredded by a dark hole in the sky. Through it tumbled a frenzied swarm of bees, their collective sound loud in the night. Though it bulged at the edges, the swarm was pulled sharply together by an unseen gravity, so close that every wing scraped against another’s body, until with a snap the swarm became a single creature. It was larger than man or pony. It had six limbs and a pair of diaphanous wings, which it frantically started flapping to keep it from falling into the canopy below. Its head was white, its body a series of wide black and white stripes with occasional yellow flecks, and its tail ended in a vicious stinger.

The rift was closing inexorably, but a roar could be heard through it. “Bugbeaaaaaaaaaar!”

The creature swerved in the air to dodge the sudden appearance of a giant, black, three-headed hound which twisted in mid-air, attempting to grasp it with massive paws. The dog fell straight down, lacking any means to keep itself up, but disappeared into another rift a second later. The bugbear strained to fly faster, to veer unpredictably around the sky.

Again the dog pounced, dropping without warning from a sudden rift above the bugbear, plunging straight past it with outstretched claws almost close enough to scratch its prey. Its roar was cut off as it vanished again a moment later.

The bugbear tensed, massive head twitching as it looked up, down and around to try and find its attacker. It brought its stinger up, ready.

The dog appeared above and behind it, wrapping its front legs around the creature, two of its heads biting into it. Together they fell, dropping towards the forest below.

A shimmer of air, a screeching tear, and they dropped onto a cold stone floor: a monster gripped by three large men in suits. What little light they had suggested they were in a narrow cavern of grainy red stone.

The creature exploded into a swarm of bees, dropping the three men to the sandy floor. The swarm scattered in every direction, through every passage and twist of the caverns. The buzzing faded as the swarm spread out and thinned. The three men picked themselves up from the ground, looking quickly around, searching. The noise picked up in intensity down one passage, and the rest of the bees quickly swarmed that way, joining back together as they gathered before a bright, narrow crack in the cave wall through which the night sky could be seen. The men ran to follow, but couldn’t reach them before the swarm slipped away through the crack.

Reforming into itself again, the bugbear tumbled out into the open air, turning to look back at the crack of darkness it had come from. The fissure hung in the open air, but stitched itself back together and soon evaporated entirely.

A moment’s screech of torn space was all the warning given before the three-headed dog landed on the bugbear’s head, all four paws gripping tight. The bugbear swiped and twisted, trying to dislodge the massive hound. The two tumbled, both scrambling and snarling, towards the trees below.

A moment before they would have hit, they fell instead through a rift that appeared beneath them.

They fell a distance inside the cave, alongside a deep waterfall. The hound quickly became three large men, clinging to the beast’s back. The bugbear again became an angry swarm just before hitting the ground, taking the brunt of the impact. Hundreds of bees died under the weight of the men, or drowned in the pool at the waterfall’s base, but the rest scattered. Before they could get far, the men lifted their heads in unison and together produced a deep, massive roar that reverberated throughout the tunnels. Each and every bee was stunned, their wings locking and dropping them to the cavern floor where they lay, a twitching carpet.

The men stood up, and brushed down their suits. One said, “Find it quickly. It can’t—”

“—have gone far,” completed another. They scanned the downed swarm as members of it twitched and bled ichor.

“Aha!” The man in the green waistcoat knelt down. “Here it is.”

On the red cavern floor, among the many bees, was one that was larger with a long, golden thorax. The man took from his inside pocket a queen cage, a small wooden enclosure no bigger than his finger with a wire grille covering one side. He carefully slid the paralysed queen inside it and replaced the cork seal.

“Let’s get you—”

“—back where you belong,” he said to the queen. “I have other—”

“—things to deal with.”

Vinyl followed the fickle glow of Chrysalis’ flashlight through narrow caverns that danced with shadows with her every step. Trixie’s phone light added a small measure of illumination behind them. Various scrapes and dents in the soft walls indicated that somebody had been down this way before, possibly while carrying something metal. As she edged down a step, her dancing shoes slid unnervingly across the flaking sandstone floor, threatening to slip from under her. She offered a hand to help Octavia down the same step.

I see light up ahead. Not a lot, but something. Is that…

With a final awkward clamber over jagged rocks, she emerged into a larger cavern. It sloped slightly downwards, and at the far side of it a small stream trickled down the wall and through a narrow crevice in the floor that had been worn smooth. There were several lanterns on the floor spaced around the outside, lighting it passably, along with a variety of heavy tools.

It also contained a car.

What the… How did that even get in here? She looked around the cave walls for some opening she must have missed. There’s no way it could have been driven in here. Unless one of these walls has a hidden opening? Or the car’s an illusion? Or…

It was a sturdy, solid looking station wagon, though an older model, with an extra row of rear-facing seats bolted in the back. Its front was pointed at the stone wall with the waterfall. It looked completely out of place in the caves, the clean metal a stark contrast to the natural stone. There were a few sandy red scratches in places, and all the windows except the windscreen were empty of glass, but it otherwise looked to be in good condition.

“Is it all ready?” asked Chrysalis.

Fluffle Puff stepped out from behind the car, carrying a wrench and wearing a pink boiler suit with plenty of black oil stains. Her big pink hair was tied back with a scrunchie. She gave Chrysalis a thumbs up and a satisfied grin.

Wait! Didn’t Fluffle come down here with us?

Fluffle Puff was indeed standing just behind Chrysalis, still wearing her dainty pink evening gown.

Octavia stepped into the cave behind her. “Um. Vinyl. Why are there two Fluffle Puffs?”

“I… uh, I don’t know.” She looked from one to the other.

“Trixie would appreciate an explanation as well.”

The Fluffle Puff they’d spent the evening with grinned a sharp and very unfluffy grin, and in a gout of green fire she was replaced by the female one of Chrysalis’ assistants. She wore an evening gown a similar shape to the one she’d worn as Fluffle Puff, but in shades of black and green. She lifted her wide skirt as she curtsied, the satisfied grin never leaving her face.

“You…” Trixie jumped straight from confused to offended. “Trixie did her show with you! We rehearsed and everything. You were lying to Trixie this whole time? How could you… wait, is that the car from the motor pool? The one you were taking apart and putting back together.”

The real Fluffle Puff nodded her head enthusiastically.

“You took the whole thing apart and reassembled it down here, piece by piece? Really?”

“Seriously?” asked Vinyl. “They moved the whole thing in pieces? How long must that have taken?”

Hands on her hips, she beamed with pride. Then she blinked, tilted her head, scrunched up her pale pink face tight and scrutinised Trixie.

“Yes, she was spying on you,” confirmed the black girl, stepping round to the car door and opening it. “And we helped her carry some of the big bits. Come on, hop in.” She slipped into one of the back seats.

Chrysalis strode round to the driver’s seat. “She’s right, girls, we need to be going.”

The girls looked confused. “Trixie still doesn’t understand. How are we supposed to drive anywhere from here? We aren’t exactly on a road here, there’s nowhere to drive to.” She regarded the elderly car. “Also, Trixie calls shotgun,” she added.

“I’ll explain on the way,” said Chrysalis impatiently. “Now get in, before Cerberus finds us down here.”

Vinyl hesitated. Moment of truth, she thought. This is when we decide whether we’re going to leave or stay. What are…

She realised that Octavia and Trixie were both looking to her to make the decision.

So it’s all on me. Wonderful.

It would feel a bit silly to come this far then turn around, but that isn’t a good reason not to. Chrysalis is in a hurry, so I’ve no doubt she’ll drive off without us if we stop here.

I still don’t trust Chrysalis. There are things she still isn’t telling us, things she kept out of the plan. Like swapping one of her assistants for Fluffle Puff at the Gala.

They really need names. The boy one didn’t seem very talkative when I drove him to school. That might be something to do with me locking him in my trunk overnight, though. And he turned back into Flash Sentry before getting out.

Wait, is there even a real person called Flash Sentry at all, or is it just him?

Not the point. Concentrate!

Chrysalis has a plan, even if she’s being coy about some bits of it. That’s in her nature, she’s just naturally secretive. It’s gotten us this far, and as far as I can see, it’s our best shot for getting out of town and finding out what’s really going on.

Finding out what our lives are about. That’s what this is about. All the things we’ve seen, all that Chrysalis told us, all that the Celestia impersonator told me at the Gala, just served to make it more confusing.

Going with her is a gamble. We don’t know for sure what Chrysalis has planned, we just have to hope it works out for us. Not going with her means we’ll never get answers. Unless another chance comes up, we’ll spend our lives in doubt – about each other and about ourselves.

Unless the system, whatever it is, arranges for us to forget. Makes us feel okay. And that’s probably the most frightening option of all.

She stepped forward to get in. The others did the same, following her lead, Trixie sitting in the front next to Chrysalis. Octavia, Vinyl and Fluffle Puff sat in the middle row. As the did, they saw that both of Chrysalis’ shop assistants were sitting in the extra back seats, alongside one other person.

“Mr Tirek?” asked Vinyl, twisting round to see the small, elderly gentleman sitting behind her. He’d acquired an oversized coat with a hood to go over his suit. “What are you doing here?”

The old man smiled kindly. “Just hitching a ride, dear.”

Chrysalis said, “I asked him to come along. Now buckle up, this is going to get bumpy. Fluffie, darling, do you have the thing?”

From a pocket somewhere within her boiler suit, Fluffle Puff pulled a rugged-looking little box with a number keypad and a little stubby antenna, which she passed forward to Chrysalis. “What is that?” asked Trixie. Grinning, Chrysalis held it up and entered a short sequence of digits. Vinyl tried to catch the numbers she entered, but couldn’t see clearly.

“A detonator,” said Chrysalis, and pressed the ‘enter’ button. Trixie shrieked as the cave wall in front of them exploded in a shower of red sand, peppering the windscreen and filling the cavern with a thick cloud of dark red sand, obscuring what little light the lanterns gave off. It filled the car, too, through the missing windows.

As the dust settled it became clear that the bulk of the explosion had been directed outwards, into the much larger cavern to which they were now connected by a ragged opening.

Trixie’s hand were shaking. She nervously lowered them from over her head. Somehow, the station wagon looked to be intact. The sound of its engine starting prompted her to look across at Chrysalis.

“Hold on tight, ladies!” She turned the headlights on and dropped the hand brake.

With a lurch the car started forwards, through the new hole and down the slope of scree left by the detonation. It swerved around a stalagmite, dodging cave formations and streams of tinted water, rushing relentlessly downwards as the cavern twisted.

Vinyl gripped Octavia’s hand as they were thrown to one side and the other by the car’s movement. The limited light from their headlights did not fill her with confidence as Chrysalis sent them hurtling around corners at dangerous speeds. With a sudden crunch the left wing mirror was torn off as the car scraped past a rock formation.

“Where are we going?” shouted Trixie.

And then suddenly, with an unpleasant drop in their stomachs, they weren’t in a dark cave any more. The car was in the open air. The moon hung large in front of them, the stars glittered above, and a dark forest lurked somewhere far, far below.

Author's Note:

Thanks to Admiral Biscuit for helping me figure out how to break a car.

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