• Published 24th Jun 2018
  • 1,694 Views, 282 Comments

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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6. On The Horizon

Octavia crouched behind the bush, getting her hands and knees dirty.

My skirt is getting dirty as well, she noted. I don't look forward to explaining this to Mum. She'll probably think I'm being bullied or something.

On the other side of the street, Pinkie Pie was acting very suspiciously. She had a big cloth sack over her shoulder which clanked as she walked, and was checking surreptitiously around every few seconds before conspicuously moving from cover to cover.

She's being so obviously sneaky, it's like she wants to draw attention to herself.

“Why are we hiding?”

“In case Pinkie Pie sees us,” replied Octavia in a whisper.

She cautiously watched Pinkie’s odd behaviour for a few more seconds before the source of the question registered. She turned round to look into the big, grinning face of Pinkie Pie.

“Surprise!” whisper-shouted Pinkie.

She was crouched down behind the same line of bushes as Octavia, as if she were following her. This particular Pinkie had a blond streak in her hair, unlike the Pinkie they were watching.

Don’t flinch, don't scream, don't fall over no matter how much my left ankle aches in this position. Just turn calmly around and talk to her.

“What are you doing here?” she asked the cheerful girl behind her in a whisper.

“Following you,” said Pinkie, matter-of-factly. “What are you doing here?”

Well, if she's not ashamed to admit it, neither am I. “Following her,” she said, indicating the other Pinkie Pie who was now crouched behind a hydrant down the street. People gave her odd looks as they walked past. “What is she doing?”

The part-blonde Pinkie leaned past her to watch her lookalike sneaking along the sidewalk. “Oooh. She's just laying down a Chekhov's gun for later.”

“She what?” said Octavia rather louder. “She's got a gun in there?”

The Pinkie Pie giggled. “No, silly, it's a trombone.”

Octavia turned to see that, sure enough, the other Pinkie Pie was now trying to stuff a full-sized trombone into a mailbox. “I don't get it. Why is she trying to hide a trombone there?”

“For trombone-related emergencies, of course!”

“What's a trombone-related…”

Octavia turned to find her gone.

Vinyl eased her foot onto the brake, sliding to a stop at the junction. She flicked the indicator left.

She found driving helped her think. While her hands were busy with the mundane task of hurtling down the road and not killing anyone, her mind could focus on other things.

The roads were quiet this morning, so she was able to make decent time. She’d already circled the town twice, and this was the third time she’d come to this junction.

But I’m still turning left again. Why is that?

Vinyl reached to change the indicator, and found herself hesitant. Left was the road back into town, taking her past the waterfront. Straight ahead was the tunnel under the river to Griffonstone. Right was just the road out of town, going south to… wherever it was.

I could take whichever road I want, but turning left feels more... natural?

Her hand hovered over the indicator, not quite flicking it.

I’ve already cut school today. I don’t have a gig or practice. I don’t have to work in the shop. I’ve got time on my hands. I should be as happy going either way. So why do I... just not feel like turning right?

The tip of her finger was resting lightly on the indicator, and still she didn’t move it.

When was the last time I actually left town? Where was the last place I went?

Vinyl realised she simply couldn’t remember leaving town recently. Her memories from childhood couldn’t be trusted, apparently – and if she was honest, it did sometimes feel like those had happened to a different girl.

So I’m just turning left out of lazy habit? All the more reason to change that, right? Rules are there to be broken.

The car that had pulled up behind her honked its horn in annoyance, and Vinyl quickly flicked the indicator and turned right.

One of Trixie’s favourite lunch spots was a secluded bench surrounded by trees. It was near the music wing and, helpfully, a long way from the bees. She was part way through her sandwich when she spotted Applejack moving with purpose.

After a moment’s indecision she decided to follow her. She shoved her sandwich into her bag and scurried to catch up, making sure not to get too close.

When exactly did this sort of subterfuge become normal for us? she wondered. We’re suddenly listening at doors and following people around. Are they really going to lead us to any sort of answer? Or even a clue? They don’t seem to know what’s going on in this town either.

Wait, where did she go?

She hurried around the corner and located Applejack taking the path down to the school’s motor shop. Trixie kept a safe distance as she followed.

“There ya are, Sunset,” said Applejack as she strode through the big doors of the motor shop. “Snails said ya’d be down here. Whatcha up to?”

“Just patching up my bike.”

Applejack whistled. “This yours? I didn’t know you had such a sweet ride.”

“You thought the jacket was just for show?” She paused. “Okay, it’s at least partly for show. I guess I really was quite shallow before,” she muttered. “Plus being down here gets me away from everybody’s eyes for a while.”

There were a pair of four-wheelers with big tyres parked by the wall. Trixie clambered carefully onto one of them so she could stand on tiptoes and see through the small high window. She winced as she touched the metal wall of the motor shop; it really got warm in the afternoon heat.

She was just in time to see another girl enter from the other room. She was light pink with big fluffy hair, and was wearing an adorable pink boiler suit, now sadly messed up with streaks of engine grease. Her face and hands were stained with grease too, and she had various tools shoved into pockets and sleeves.

On seeing Applejack, she gasped, ran over and wrapped her in a big hug, pinning her arms to her sides.

“Oh. Hey there, Fluffs,” said Applejack in a flat tone. “Tell me, do you really need to do that every time you see me?”

The pink girl nodded her head enthusiastically, rubbing it against Applejack’s shirt.

“Okay. Only you’re getting a little grease on me there.”

The girl leapt back with another gasp, pressed her hands together and gave a series of short apologetic bows.

“Tha’s fine, really, it’ll get mussed up anyhow when I do the planting later.”

The girl grinned, broadly.

“Are ya working on the motocross bikes?”

The girl shook her head. She gestured to the other room, where the back half of an elderly station wagon could be seen with several pieces scattered around it, then brought her hands together to mime separating them with fingers spread.

“Yer takin’ it apart? The whole thing?”

She nodded.

“Why?”

She mimed the same action in reverse, bringing her hands and fingers back together.

Sunset said, “She’s been at it for months, taking the whole thing apart and putting it back together. She won’t let me help, either – seems she wants to know where every bolt goes.”

“That’s kind of impressive, actually,” said Applejack. “Anyhow, Rainbow and the crew sent me lookin’ for ya, Sunset. We were hopin’ you wouldn’t mind hangin’ around the practice room a bit, give us feedback, tell us what needs fixin’ up, that sort of thing. That and Rainbow really loves an audience.”

“Really? Are… would that be alright?”

“Why wouldn’t it be, Sugarcube?”

“Well, I assumed, after Princess Twilight went back home, that…”

Again they’re calling her a ‘princess’.

“That what? We’d drop you in it?”

“Well… Being seen with me right now probably won’t do any of you any good. You know, what with me turning into a demon and trying to enslave the school and…”

Sunset petered out, and Applejack said nothing for a few seconds. The pink girl looked from one to the other in concern.

“Sunset, darlin’. Y’all can be a right moron at times.”

“What?”

“We all of us promised Twi, before she went back to Equestria, that we were gonna take proper care of ya.”

Where's Equestria? wondered Trixie.

Applejack continued, “Now, I realise there’s plenty of folks out there who might go and break a promise like that. But Applejack ain’t ever gonna be one a’them. Nor’s Rainbow, or Rarity, or Fluttershy, or Pinkie. You’re one of us now, you’re a friend. We ain’t going to be ashamed of that, no matter what anyone says.”

Sunset said quietly, “Thank you.”

“’Course, we ain’t gonna lie to you either. You can expect plenty of hard truths.”

“I’m sure I deserve them,” said Sunset with a chuckle.

“Now, enough snifflin’. You all done with that bike there?”

Sunset nodded.

“Good. Now get yer scrawny—Whoa Nelly!” she squawked as the two of them were pulled into a sudden group hug by the pink girl.

“I think she's glad we made up,” said Sunset.

“Boundaries, Fluffle Puff, boundaries!”

Vinyl slowed down as she approached the city limits. The houses had petered out a few miles ago, replaced by farms, scattered trailers and landscape, but this was still technically town land. Ahead, she saw the town exit sign approach. She indicated, slowed and pulled off the road.

She parked close to the battered ‘you are now leaving town’ signpost. On the other side of the road, facing the other way, stood the corresponding welcome sign.

Getting out of the car, she walked past the signs, and as she did the perspective of the world ahead of her seemed to change. It formed a wall or barrier. The closer she got to it, the less real it looked. The landscape just stopped here, like she’d travelled all the way to the horizon, and whatever was beyond it looked different.

Gingerly she reached out, then stopped. No sense doing something stupid. She picked up a stick from the ground and pressed it into the barrier; it stopped like there was a wall there. Then she threw the stick; it passed straight through. She reached out her fingers, felt them touch the boundary. Nothing blew up.

Vinyl Scratch rested her hand on the horizon. It felt rough to the touch, like terracotta. Looking through and beyond it, the landscape appeared to continue on in three dimensions, though much simpler than the real landscape on this side. Plants, dunes and even wildlife were repeated in regular patterns, as if the rolling hills around town were mass-produced.

She felt the warmth of the sun and a pleasant breeze. Glancing up at the sky, she wondered just how much of it was real. Where did reality end and illusion begin?

Birds flew overhead, distant dark specks that seemed not to care which side of the horizon they were on. She jumped as a small rodent of some sort scuttled past her feet and through the horizon. As it did, the creature changed, real fur and skin swapped for a simplified, cartoonish imitation.

‘Little mice can scurry in and out of the cage, and never even know it’s there. But as soon as they see the bars, they’ll be stuck inside forever.’

The creature doubled back through the horizon to the real side with a beetle in its mouth. Mock fur was replaced by the real thing, every hair in place, every toe on its little feet, every little tooth, every detail you’d expect to see on a real animal.

Did that animal just stop existing, then start again? she wondered. Was it paused, or was it stopped? Is there a difference? Is it even the same creature as the one that went through? Does it remember its previous life, and does it also remember catching that beetle?

A noise announced the approach of another car. As it got closer, Vinyl could see three people inside, laughing and singing along with the car radio. It was moving quickly, and Vinyl realised with horror that it was going to hit the horizon, that they simply couldn’t see the solid wall ahead.

“Stop!” She had barely a moment to raise her hands and start shouting a warning before the car hit the wall… and passed straight through. It carried on down the road, now a boxy caricature of itself filled with simplified placeholder people.

Casting a glance behind her to make sure the road was clear, Vinyl stepped into the road and up to the exact spot through which the car had passed. She rested both hands against the surface of the horizon and pressed, feeling absolutely no give at all. It was solid like rock.

She pulled a foot back and kicked the horizon, earning nothing but sore toes for her trouble. Hopping back, she rested leaning against the town sign.

The people in that car had… stopped being people. Now they were just… cardboard cut-outs of people. And they were fine with it. At some point they’d probably drive back, complete with memories of events that never really happened. They could go in and out freely, but Vinyl couldn't.

This really is it, she thought. This is the answer we’ve been looking for. The walls of our cage, entirely of our own making. We could have stayed oblivious, been free to go wherever we wanted, for the low, low price of our souls.

Vinyl had expected to feel anger, desperation, even some kind of offence at finding herself imprisoned like this. Instead she found an odd form of peace.

I know what I am. I know where I came from. I know my place in the world. All the questions that were keeping me awake have been answered.

There’s just one question left: am I going to take it lying down?

She stared into the horizon a little longer, but it had given her all the answers it was going to. Ahead of her was nothing. Nothing real, anyway. Behind was her whole world.

She pushed off the road sign with a grunt, her feet stirring up a little cloud of dust where they landed. As she turned back to her car, she spared a glance at the far side of the road where the other sign sat pointing the other way, welcoming people into town.

Welcome to
TARTARUS
Drive carefully!

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