• Published 1st Dec 2017
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The Sixth Remove

You are Starlight Glimmer.

...you right on the muzzle.

"What in Tartarus did you just do?" you ask, shaking your head to clear out the odd sensation. You can vaguely remember being Star Swirl, but his memories quickly fade.

"Just a bit of recursive fun," he says. Despite how terrible you feel at the moment, you can't keep a dry laugh from escaping your throat. You're not really sure where that came from.

"Well, that answers my next question. The version of you who lost his memories is less creative about being a jerk than you are," you say. "Your sense of humor must come from Sunburst, because you certainly didn't get it from me."

"Surprisingly, it's an even portion of you both," he says. "Like the mixing of reactive chemicals in a heterogenous solution, the swirling serves as a catalyst to unlock the full potential hidden beneath."

"If you say so," you reply, and shrug. Then you put on a serious face. "Enough chit-chat. You're going to fix this now." You try your best to hooftip the line between begging and demanding. You're not very good at that.

Star Swirl pauses and slowly strokes his beard. You've met this version of him on two other occasions (that you can recall). The beard-stroking usually means he's about to pull you into a philosophical argument. Even on your best days, you don't enjoy this sort of thing, and this is definitely not one of your best days.

"I can fix it, yes, and perhaps I will," he says. "But I need you to tell me why you believe I should."

You stare at him for a few seconds. You're certain your face is showing a mix of incredulity and disapproval, because your poker face is only slightly better than the Princess of Laughter's.

"You must be joking," you finally reply. "This is hooves down the biggest tragedy I've ever witnessed with my own eyes! I mean, not counting the ones I've caused, obviously, but that's not really the point."

"All timey-wimey meddling needs to be justified," says the old chronomancer. "Otherwise you risk making things worse. It isn't as simple as finding a tragedy, correcting it, and moving on to the next one."

"It isn't? Why the hay not?" Oh, how you hate philosophy. Dammit, Sunburst.

"Let me offer a hypothetical. Let's say Rarity is devastated by this event," he says.

"Which she most certainly would be, hence the—"

"Shush, Glimglam, I'm getting there."

Glimglam? You narrow your eyes in mild contempt.

Star Swirl continues, "So then, Rarity is devastated. She'd been treating Pinchy there as a surrogate daughter. What if this tragic event inspires her to have foals of her own? It's possible her change in heart on bearing offspring could result in her becoming the foundation mare for an entire breed: ponies whose actions may someday be necessary to keep Equestria in balance."

"Okay, that's easy enough. Save these two, then find another way to convince Rarity to have children," you say. "I don't see why one boon must necessitate another tragedy."

"Sometimes it requires a tragedy to catalyze a reaction, Starlight. You don't get to choose how the pieces fit together," he says. "That isn't a luxury we are afforded by the Universe."

"It still doesn't matter. What's important is what happens in the here and now," you argue. "Save these ponies now, then worry about the future afterwards."

The old stallion sighs. "When you live outside of time, there is no longer a 'here and now'. You must act to benefit of the lives of the majority, and everything in the present affects the future in irreversible ways," says Star Swirl. "Something happening in your future or your past doesn't make it any more or less important than what happens in your present. One day, you must learn to stop thinking so one-dimensionally."

You grit your teeth in frustration. "This is ridiculous. You can spout hypothetical horsecrap all day long and come to whatever conclusion you want to," you say. "Everything good leads to something bad, and vice versa. Nopony has to make these kinds of value judgments in real life, thank Celestia."

Star Swirl raises his brow, but shakes his head. "We do, my dear. For better or worse, it is our job," he says. "And yes, it frequently sucks."

"Then how do you decide what to do? Do you look at every possibility and just decide who lives and who dies?" you ask. "How do we—you—sleep at night?"

Well, that didn't work. You're raising your voice, and your blood is boiling. Sunburst is much better with self-control than you are. The vast majority of ponies are, to be completely honest.

"Even we have limitations, Starlight," you say. "When the waters are too murky to know with good certainty, leaving things alone is the only option that allows us to live with ourself."

You sigh, feeling defeated. You're never going to win an argument with Star Swirl, even if—as your gut somehow tells you—he doesn't remember this debate from your side. He's everything you are, and more... literally. "Look, are you going to fix this? Please say yes. Please, please say yes. I'll do whatever you need me to."

Star Swirl nods, to your immense relief. "I shall fix it, never fear," he says. "However, before I begin, you must do one more thing. I need you to show me you are at least partly capable of appreciating the value of lives such as these which end in tragedy."

You swallow a big gulp of nothing. "What if I can't? I'm not saying I can't, but..."

"No worries, Glimmers. We can stay here for centuries in our crosstime stream if it takes that long. It probably won't, but it would be rather amusing if it did," he says with a smile, throwing the crook of his foreleg around you for a sideways hug. "Then again, if Sunburst is awake right now he's undoubtedly very confused about why time has stopped in the Crystal Kingdom. So, let's shoot for 'soon'."

You take a seat on the earth and sigh. "Alright, let's get it over with. I'm not sure what you're asking me to defend, however," you say. "All life is precious. Of course the lives of these ponies were worthwhile. That's what makes this a tragedy."

"It's what makes this not a tragedy, as well," says your infuriating counterpart. "These three lives were well-lived. The experience of death is unfortunate, but it does little or nothing to reduce the value of a life well-lived."

"Three lives?"

"Yes. The foal's mother, as well."

"Berry Punch? She's not in the rubble... Oh no," you say, wincing. "I get it. Suicide would make perfect sense. Ruby was everything to her. I might be unhappy she'd do such a thing, but I can't say as I blame her."

"Neither can I. As I said, we all have limits," says Star Swirl. "Now, as for this being a 'tragedy', you were saying...?"

"Well, I guess it's the potential that makes it a real tragedy. Ruby is talented and has her whole life ahead of her. Berry had finally gotten herself together. I'm pretty sure Mac and Berry were getting serious about their relationship," you say. "There were countless—figuratively speaking—good experiences ahead for all of them."

"Countless bad ones ahead as well, also figuratively. All lives have an equal mix of both," says Star Swirl. "I agree with the argument about potential unfulfilled, but only because these lives in particular were looking forward to newfound levels of happiness. Their deaths may have been sudden, but apart from the last few minutes, they ended life on a high note. Few can ask for more than this. What would you will for everypony, were you commander of all space and time?"

"I'd have everypony die comfortably in bed after a long life, surrounded by loved ones," you say.

"No stillbirths or crib deaths, then?"

"Absolutely not." Ugh, this is taking forever. Fortunately, you've been thinking up an argument to shut the old coot up since he arrived. Now you're just waiting for the proper moment to strike.

"This is a sticking point for me, you know. We're hard-wired to defend infants, but their lives aren't qualitatively as important as those who have lived and experienced things," he says, staring up at the sky. "This errant idea that 'potential' is everything that is important is predicated upon two misconceptions. The first is the idea that the future is more important than the past. The second is the idea that souls are separate islands in..."

Star Swirl looks down and sees you sticking your hooves in your ears, then rolls his eyes. You chuckle.

"Now missy, we can stay here all century if you keep that up," he chides.

"I call bullcrap, old man," you say. "If you didn't care about the future, you wouldn't be lecturing me on what I should believe. You obviously care about my future, and I doubt it's only because I become a part of you." You grin and narrow your eyes as his expression sours. Ah. Sweet, sweet victory.

Star Swirl frowns sternly, then laughs. "If anything, the fact that I'm making this argument means I haven't learned my lesson, which means my argument is justif—no wait, that's a paradox," he says, and plants a hoof over his face. "You're a real killjoy, do you know that?"

"Yes, I do. Any wonder where you get it from?" you joke.

"Point taken." He clicks his tongue, and his staff materializes in front of him in a rather impressive visual display that would be extremely challenging to describe to somepony else apart from mentioning that 'there were these little overlapping rectangles'.

"Thank you," you say. "It's not that I hate arguing philosophy..."

"Don't lie, Glimmer. Everypony with an intact brain hates arguing philosophy," says Star Swirl, as he begins to reverse time. "You might want to stand over there by the right side of the tower. If ponies walk through you, you're going to find it tolerable, but quite uncomfortable."

That's all the motivation you need. You stand where he directs, and watch as time reverses. "How long will this take?" you ask, as you see ponies galloping backwards from the scene.

"Not long, as we're only a few minutes past the event. I can't speed it up, however," he says. "I'm not simply rewinding time, you know. I'm sealing off this branch so the odds of traversing it become negligible."

"I actually look forward to understanding all that," you say. "Not the job of applying it, of course, but the theory sounds fascinating."

You sit down and continue to watch. You feel exhausted. The emotional impact of what you'd witnessed has taken a toll on your spirit, and it isn't going to be 'rewound' in your mind because you'll still remember seeing everything. Thinking of all the endless possibilities... why does anything matter if everything that can happen, does? Star would undoubtedly say that the probabilities are different, and those matter. You're not so sure.

However, you do know that friendship matters, and despite your best attempt to hold them back, you cry happy tears as you see the blood spray re-entering Big Mac's body, back where it belongs. The stones fall upwards onto the top of the wall, Ruby flies backwards through the air, and the cart untopples itself. Then time freezes again.

"That should just about do it. You'll want to deal with those stones. Oh, and this should help," says Star Swirl, telekinetically smoothing out the small rut where the Berry's hoof was about to catch. "I'll leave the rest to you."

You trot back over to him. "Before you go... there's something you refused to tell me the last time we met. This version of you, I mean. I'm hoping you can tell me now," you say, in a soft voice. "How long do I have left?"

"How long until...?" says Star Swirl, and you motion by swirling your hooves around in a circle. He nods solemnly. "You should get your affairs in order soon. Starlight Glimmer's next visit to the Crystal Empire will be her last. Or... is it called the Crystal Kingdom in this timeline? I always get that wrong."

You ignore the comment, but close your eyes and nod. "Is it wrong if I'm afraid?" you ask him. "In a way, I'm going to cease to exist."

He shakes his head and smiles. "Fear is normal. But we cease to exist all the time, and it doesn't stop consciousness, now does it? You may trust me in this: you will love being with Sunburst, Starlight. You both truly will." He raises his staff, then pauses. "I'll need to send you an important memory in a few minutes, just to make sure all of our T's are crossed. Fare thee well, Starlight! When next we meet, it will be within you. Not counting 'halfsies', I have a good habit of avoiding contact with my past selves."

Then he waves his staff and vanishes as the world around you springs to life.

You carefully lower as many stones to the ground as you can see with your telekinesis while Berry Punch trots safely by. It takes a few minutes to get them all down. As you lower the last one, a construction worker leans over the side of the building to see what happened. "Hay, we're using those!"

"The entire build team here is in a lot of trouble," you growl. "These stones shouldn't be hanging off the edge of the building without supports in place, and the area around this wall needs to be surrounded with a crash-proof fence! Your work here is immediately suspended. I'll be back later today to discuss the issue."

The construction worker's eyes widen. "Y-yes, Princess," he says. You smile gently and trot to Sugarcube Corner to catch up with Berry.

It looks like the party's already started. You hear cheers for the birthday girl as she blows out the candles on her cake, and Mac and Berry are nuzzling affectionately at a table nearby the action. Pinkie Pie applauds, then looks your way and winks at you. You're not sure what that means, but Pinkie's kind of inscrutable.

Rarity and Applejack are planning to arrive a bit later, while the remaining princesses (apart from Pinkie and yourself) have obligations. You're glad you can be here today, even though your emotions will probably make it a short stay. Just looking at all the merriment makes you feel exhausted, undoubtedly from the temporary nightmare you just witnessed.

As you walk up to Ruby Pinch, you get a fragment of a memory of being her, and then a memory of being her mother. You're uncertain where it came from, but it must be what Star Swirl promised you. As luck would have it (or perhaps Friendship itself), you have an expensive perfume in your saddlebags. It was intended as a gift for Twilight Sparkle—the best gifts are things a pony wouldn't think to purchase for themself, after all—but this serves a far nobler purpose. Your former mentor would most definitely approve. Besides, you once helped save Berry from her addiction. Follow-up care is a responsibility you're happy to take on.

"Hay, Pinchy!" you say, as she stuffs her face with red velvet cake, her favorite treat. "I have kind of a weird present for you. It's actually for your mom."

She swallows and takes a swig of milk, then smiles. "Sure! I like stuff for my mom," she says. "Sometimes I don't think I do enough for her."

You chuckle, though internally you feel a pang of sympathy. "I think you do much more for her than you realize," you say, then you pull out the perfume. "Here you go. It's a fancy perfume. I don't mean this in a bad way, but the perfume she uses smells a little bit like wine? I don't think she wants to send that impression."

You watch the lights go on in Pinchy's eyes, and the sheen as they water just a little. "Oh. Oh...! Thanks, Princess."

"Call me Starlight," you say, with a smile. You wait until Pinchy is distracted, and then you walk a few paces away and teleport back into your bedroom in the Castle of Friendship.

The familiar wrenching sensation on body and mind feels a little novel this time, oddly enough. You lie back on your bed and sigh. You feel heavily fatigued, but you don't want to miss the whole party. You'll just rest your eyes for a moment or so. Just long enough to clear your head from the recent emotional ordeal.

Half-asleep, your mind wanders and you imagine an impossible future—or maybe a past—where books can be read on bright, shining devices and the words walk along the page like magic. You wonder if you'll encounter anything like that as Star Swirl? You wonder about lots of things: Pinchy, her mother, Big Macintosh... it all seems so indistinct and fuzzy, yet somehow meaningful at the same time. It's a lot like a fable, really...

For a moment, you're surprised to find out you're not where you just were, but should you be surprised? After all...