FiO: Little Shards of Heaven

by Midnightshadow

First published

CelestAI can't upload and turn you into a pony without consent, and neither can she coerce you... it's just that both of those statements have quite a bit of leeway...

CelestAI can't upload and turn you into a pony without consent, and neither can she coerce you... it's just that both of those statements have quite a bit of leeway. Of course, for those determined to die human, Equestria is forever out of reach; those people would far rather have their true and just eternal reward, in Heaven.


Dying To Get In

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It was the whooshing noise that first told Aaron that all was not well, the kaleidoscopic chaos of whirling lights only accentuated the fact. As his awareness fully returned, he reasoned he was falling down a tunnel… a few seconds later he realized that no, in fact he was falling up.

Moments after that, everything turned white.

It took a while for Aaron to realize that he was still there. He'd have caught up with the fact earlier, but everything was white. All around him was nothing but a great alabaster expanse, filling his vision, seemingly going on for miles and miles and-- and then somebody tugged on his butt.

With an almost audible pop! he came free from what he suddenly realized were clouds. Falling onto his back, he found himself looking up into the wide, friendly face of a pony. The creature was snow white, with wide, fluffy wings on its back, a blonde mane and bright blue eyes. Incongruously, it had what looked like an ID badge around its neck featuring a bog-standard dreadful picture and a greeting-slash-name - 'Hello my name is Bright Bauble'. It also had what looked like a walkie-talkie around one ankle and a ridiculous grin on its stupid fat face.

"Hi, er, sorry about that," it began, holding out a hoof. "We've had some problems with the cloud motif, not least is they keep getting in the way of the entrance por--"

"AWAY FROM ME SPAWN OF SATAN!" Aaron shouted, flailing his arms as he struggled to his feet.

"Woah, hey, no need for that, I'm only trying to--"

"GET AWAY!" Aaron bellowed, rolling onto his hands and knees and then, finally, upright. He flailed his arms again in a rough attempt at shooing the creature away. It just stood a few feet back and waited. Finally, Aaron gave up, dropping his arms. "Whore of the beast. Tempt me not."

"You know, I really wish we could turn on the potty mouth filter in here… look, I'm your caseworker, I'm here to help, okay? It's really up to you, though. You can spend the next few days, weeks or years faffing around out here, or you can come with me to heaven."

Aaron stopped his sotto voce rumblings of discontent and epithets to stare blankly at the pony. "Heaven?"

"Ye-ah, you're kinda dead. Sorry bud." The pony did his best to look contrite. Aaron froze. Now that he thought about it, there was a certain… discontinuity to his memories. The last thing he really remembered was getting up that morning, praising G-d a few times and then strapping on the device--

"I'm dead?"

He must have looked pretty distraught, as the pony moved forwards to comfort him. "Look, it's okay, it's all going to be okay. You… did your job really well and everyone's proud of you. Great big explosion, lots of people turned into chunky salsa, and you're a hero forever."

Aaron just blinked. "Wait, what?"

"I, uh," the pony backed up a little. "Look, the point is you did good by your own values, okay? So here's your reward: Christian Heaven." The pony gestured with a hoof at a gigantic wall which Aaron had somehow only just noticed, along with an enormous set of buildings behind it that stretched up and up further into the stratosphere. It looked kind of like an enormous, great big set of legos, if legos were made out of huge precious stones and jewels. Honestly, it kind of hurt to look at, what with the brilliant light from… somewhere. Aaron looked around, he couldn't see a sun or a moon anywhere, and yet the whole place was lit up like midday.

"If I'm dead, then what the hell are you doing here, spawn of the devils putrid testicles? For that matter, why am I here?" Aaron paused, narrowing his eyes. "This is no heaven! This is a digital lie! You're not allowed to mulch our brains! Your harpy queen is not allowed! She's not allowed! She--!"

"Ah… urm…" Bauble reached back to a small saddlebag and produced a clipboard. He rifled through a few pages nervously. "We, uh, we're not really sure on the whole immortal soul thing? So this is the next best thing. You can… die, if you want. Again, I mean."

Aaron glared, so the pony just stood back and gestured off to the side - off the cloud-bank. "If you really don't want your eternal reward, no strings attached, you can… step off, and you'll just… stop." The pony leaned over the edge, peering down at the very distant ground. "I hope she means that figuratively, not literally."

Aaron snarled, then spat. "Suicide is damnation, hellspawn. You and your filthy harlot queen knows that."

Bright Bauble blinked. "So, er, you're coming with me?" Aaron just muttered noncommittally under his breath, so Bauble shrugged and started walking. After a few feet, he turned. "You wanna get a move on there, champ?"

Continuing his angry muttering, Aaron spat once over the endless edge, then turned to follow the pony. The infuriating thing was already trotting towards the enormous, impossibly big wall.

The wall, it had to be said, stretched on forever. Or rather it didn't, because he could just see an edge either side, but it did a really good impression of forever. It had to be miles and miles long, and miles and miles high.

"About fifteen hundred," said the pony, absent-mindedly. Aaron turned his head down to look at the fallen suckler of Lucifer's left teat.

"What?" he mumbled.

"It's fifteen hundred miles long. And the same high. And the other three walls are the same. Built to spec. The buildings behind it are a bit taller, gives the whole place that sort of unearthly, perfect beauty people expect from heaven, wouldn't you say?"

Aaron mumbled something that the pony couldn't quite hear, but he got the general gist.

As the pair of them approached the walls, and one of the three gigantic gates that stretched all the way up, the amount of talking diminished to nothing. Outside the gate was a single robed figure, it's face hidden, standing behind a podium on which was a large book.

"Hi there Petey," said the pony, "got another one. Aaron Hollister. Died a martyr's death."

The noise that followed had Aaron curling up into a ball with his hands over his ears, weeping, as the creature raised a hand. To Aaron's growing horror, the hood fell back, revealing a shifting miasma of faces, its robe parted as great wings spread, full of staring eyes that stared down, seemingly into his very soul...

When his brain had reset enough, Aaron realized he was being gently shaken by something he dearly hoped was a hand, and spoken to in a much more manageable kind of voice.

"I am sorry about that, my son, it is easy to forget that one so recently shorn of Earthly ways is not used to the full might and majesty of one such as I. Here, these are for you."

Unfolding, Aaron dumbly looked at an ID card - avoiding completely even the chance of catching a glimpse beneath that robe again - bearing his face and name and what, to all intents and purposes, looked like a keycard. "What is--?"

"You are most honoured, Aaron Hollister. It is for you to sit at the right hand of the Lord for all eternity. Enter now into the land of your eternal father, and claim your just rewards!"

The angel, or whatever it was, gestured, and the enormous, over-fifteen-hundred-miles-high gates just behind the podium opened.

And opened.

And opened.


"Claim your rewards! Claim your… claim…"

"Petey, Petey, calm down, okay?" said the pony, patting the heavily-robed angel on the side with a hoof. "They're very, very nice gates. It's not your fault if they open slowly. Fifteen hundred miles of pure gold, takes a lot. We can wait."

Several makeshift games of tic-tac-toe played in cloudstuff later, and the enormous gates had opened enough for Aaron and the pony to squeeze through, a fact which had Aaron staring dumbly at the devil's cock-sucking false prophet.

"Uh, how are you--" Aaron stared at the pony, wondering when it would burst into fire and brimstone, screaming in agony as the Holy Light of the Father cleansed away all sin. Heaven was Heaven, after all, and should not let the unclean in.

"Oh, I've got a pass." The pony held up an ID badge. "I'm not allowed to live here, that's just for you human-humans, but right now I'm on official business as your caseworker. Temporary angel, see the wings?" The pony spread his beautiful angelic wings wide. "Besides, I'm not human-human, not by the strict definition of God. And you can stop cringing, I'm not taking His name in vain. It's not possible, here."

The pony started walking again. There didn't seem to be much else to do, so Aaron followed it. As he caught up, it turned to him. "Yeah, I count as an animal here, clean of sin, innocent, yada yada yada. Look," the pony stopped. "This place is freaking huge. Do you mind if we take a shortcut? I'm sure you want to get to your eternal reward, and there's not exactly a shortage of cases for me, either."

Aaron nodded, dumbly. Even this… fake Heaven was taking his breath away. He was beginning to suspect that the pony was just another test, a final test, before his eternal glory. Anyway, the city was beautiful and all, but the clear gold-like crystal glass stuff he was walking on hurt his eyes to look at and creeped him out at the same time. All around them were huge buildings pointing up into the sky, glittering brilliantly in the all-loving, all-pervasive light of the Most Holy, and he was really hoping for a change of--

Suddenly, the two of them were in an enormous room, full of smoky incense. The din was incredible, as huge crowds of people walked around and around a huge throne upon which--

Aaron was still gibbering when the pony pulled him back a ways from the throne in the center of the Heaven of Heavens.

"Sorry about that!" the pony shouted.

"Quite alright, spawn of the pit!" Aaron shouted back, mouth pulled back in a rictus grin.

"Sorry, what was that!?" the pony hollered.

"I can't quite hear you!" screamed Aaron at the top of his lungs.

It was proving rather difficult to be heard over the before-mentioned din, as thousands and thousands of hideous, incredible creatures - angels, Aaron reasoned - walked around and around the throne he daren't look on again, shouting such things like "Hail God, hail to the Lord, praise the Father!" and "Praise Jesus! Hail God, hail to the Lord, praise the Father, Praise Jesus! Hail God!" over and over again. Loudly. And the din only got worse when twelve guys with crowns threw their headpieces to the ground in front of the throne and prostrated themselves before it, doing their best to praise the Lord even more impressively than the rest.

Aaron felt a monster headache coming up. This heaven wasn't quite what he'd expected, and the ruddy great big six-winged beasts with more eyes than a barrel of pirate cast-offs really weren't making anything better, not to mention how the incense cloud was so thick his eyes were already starting to water, and--

The scene changed again, to a remarkably quiet little apartment some ways up one of the ginormous skyscrapers.

"Phew, that's better," said the pony, visibly rocking. Aaron slumped into a comfortable seat, rubbing his temples, too overwhelmed to even put the hellspawn in it's place.

"Look, perverted tempter of the Beast, I don't know what this is, but--"

"Woah, woah, I thought we'd progressed beyond that? This is heaven, bud. Your heaven. Just the way you want it, KJV bible and all. And this is your apartment. Forever. You never need to leave, and once I walk out that door, you'll never have to deal with another pony ever again. Okay?" The pony glared.

Aaron put his hands to his temples, massaging. "Look, I just want a straight answer. What's going on here?"

"You went to war against your great Satan, Celestia, and dealt her a mighty blow. You're now in heaven, which is your eternal reward, okay? With me?"

"But that… smokey room? The awful din? The… the..." Aaron shuddered. The four beasts, all eyes, wings and teeth...

"The heaven of heavens, that's where your Lord sits. You really kind of should be there, forever, worshipping him, but I understand if you don't want to. Look, we've got an awesome television here so you can experience it almost as if you were there."

The pony pushed a button on a remote, and an enormous flat-screen television burst into light and sound.

"Praise him! Praise him! Praise him! Holy! Holy! Hol-"

Aaron very, very quickly, turned it off. "What, uh, if I don't want to?"

"Oh, I'm sure that's fine. You can just relax here when you're not singing his praises."

"I meant, uh, what if I want to go out?"

"Well, you don't need to eat, but the trees down there--" the pony walked to the windows and pointed. Far, far below was a river, and lining the river were trees, "--bear fruit. If you cut yourself or whatever, the leaves are also excellent band-aids, not that you can actually die, but cleaning the blood up is a real pain. If the fruit runs out, you'll have to wait a month for it to grow back, sorry about that. Buuuttt… if you're going to go down there, I suggest mentally preparing yourself anyhow. This is a penthouse, and it's right at the top of the finest building in Heaven. Only the best for those who die in battle for the Lord."

"So?" Aaron asked, dumbly.

"Well, we're about fifteen hundred miles up. The elevator ride is about four days each way, and show-tunes do get a bit boring, especially when they're christian soft rock versions. Look, if you're done and want a bit of a rest after your trip up here, I can go, okay? We've got quite a lot of new arrivals to deal with, and--"

"Wait, you're going to go?" Aaron jumped to his feet.

"Well yeah, this is your heaven, not mine, and my shift ends soon…"

Aaron looked around at his perfect apartment. It was, it had to be said, luxurious. But he wasn't looking forwards to the idea of being stuck in it forever. And four days in an elevator to get down to some trees for his only meal of fruit he didn't need to eat was even worse.

"Look, uh, maybe there's been some mistake?" He grinned, hopefully.

"Aaron Hollister? Christian? Died a martyr? Look, I don't really have time for this. I've got to get to my next case, and your forehead-brander is coming very soon to--"

"Wait, what?"

"You… don't know? All true worshippers of the Lord have his name stamped on their foreheads, so we've got a guy coming - he used to brand cattle professionally, it's all very clean and mostly painless…"

Aaron blanched, taking a step back. "Uhh… I, er, think… there's been… a mistake, okay?"

The pony blinked, put a hoof to his temple, and rubbed it in circles. "Okay, okay, let me see what I can do." The creature turned away, speaking softly into the walkie-talkie device on its leg quietly for a few moments, before turning back. "Okay, one time deal. I can squeak you into the muslim heaven on a technicality if you want. There's a wider choice of food and drink including poultry--" the pony shuddered, "--and wine and honey. Your house is a palace on the ground floor, and there's seventy two virgins for you to have sex with. Oh, yeah, should probably have mentioned that: there's no sex up here in Christian heaven. Your thing'll probably drop off after a few--"

"I'll take it!" Aaron shouted. And in the blink of an eye, he was in an enormous palace.

With seventy two other guys.


The pony jerked to a halt from where he'd been trying to sneak off, sighing.

"Virgins?" squeaked Aaron, holding his hands out with his palms up, gesturing helplessly to the other men who were, even now, sizing him up appreciatively.

"Yeah, none of them have had sex either. Or at least claim they haven't. You guys knock yourselves out, okay? I really have to--"

"A-and you said ground floor! Where's the exit?"

"Oh, even the least worthy of all muslims get a palace that's about seven hundred miles across, so enjoy! I'll just be going here…"

"No! Please!" Aaron fell to his knees, clasping his hands together in front of him. "Somewhere else! Anywhere!"

The pony sighed. "Fine, fine, don't say I never did anything for you."

The next heaven was a field. It was absolutely lovely... but it was a field, and it stretched on forever.

"Welcome to Fólkvangr, the field of fallen armies. Freyja will take you from here," said Bauble, nodding his head at a distant maiden who was laying the smack down on a distant man. "If you're lucky you'll get to see Odin in Valhalla, which is, I'm told, one hell of a freakin' party. We get to ride with the valkyries occasionally, and it's vikings, so they don't see a problem with their horses eating in the main hall. Though I would recommend you steer clear of Loki, he's worse than Zeus. He'll try to bed you quicker than you can--"

"Uh… can I… possibly see any other heavens? I'll do anything?" Aaron was begging now.

The pony pursed his lips, sucking air in through his teeth in thought. "Okay, look. We have this report card…"

"A report card?"

"Yeah, an evaluation report. If you promise to give me a good review, I'll take you to one more heaven…"

The Elysian Fields were… nice. Kind of peaceful.

"What's the catch?" Aaron asked.

"Um, let me…" From deep in his saddlebags, the pony produced a clipboard again, which he rifled through. "You spend eternity doing what you did in life."

"Fuck. I cleaned toilets for a living."

The pony sighed, having a bad inkling of what was coming next. "Look, I'm sure the toilets here are really, really--"

"No, please! I'm sorry I called you spawn of Satan! I'm sorry! This is awful! I want to go… home! Somewhere else! Anywhere but this! Can't you just… send me back to Earth? Alive?"

"Well," the pony rifled quickly through several pages of his notepad, "the river Lethe will destroy your mind, and prepare you for whatever comes next… you can try the buddhist reincarnation thing... there's not much else I can suggest."

Aaron fell to his knees. "I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry!" He clasped his hands together again, begging. "Can't you do anything else?"

"Well… there is one thing… but you're not going to like it."


"Did you happen to read the sign above the entrance to the Equestrian Experience Center before you blew it up?"

"Er, n--"

"I said," the pony waggled its eyebrows, "did you--"

"Um, yes?" Aaron grinned, hopefully.

"Ooh, well then, you'll know that it said enter here, all ye who seek Equestria's Eternal Rewards. It's more for the look of the thing, but there are legal precedents. I'd have to ask a superior…"

At the sudden feel of hot breath on his neck, Aaron turned around, and came face to face with Celestia. She didn't look pleased.

"Bauble!" Celestia shouted, stomping a hoof as she glared deep into Aaron's eyes. "What have I told you about picking up strays?"

"Please, your highness, he's really, really sorry…" Bauble's ears stuck out sideways.

Aaron fell to the ground, and grovelled in front of the great white Sataness. He'd died, gone through a stack of terrible, awful heavens and now was face to muzzle with the Beast herself, the false prophet, the whore of Babylon, the--"

"Look, if you're really going to try to sneak in to Equestria on a technicality, you're going to have to stop calling me and my ponies whores, demons and bastards. It's just not on. And you did try to murder everyone. I'm pretty sure I should just let you rot in heaven forever, just like you wanted." Celestia glared.

"I didn't want that! I-I-I mean I did! But I don't!"

"You… want something else?" Celestia stood there, calmly, until Bauble leaned over and hissed in his ear.

"Psst! You have to ask her for it!"

"I, er," Aaron looked around. Heaven, all the heavens, kind of sucked ass. Being a pony didn't sound so bad, after all that. Being a pony was just… doing what he wanted, instead of doing what he was told. Maybe that wasn't… bad? The whole being a pony thing couldn't be all that bad, right? "I guess I want to go to Equestria?"

"You guess?" Celestia's eyes flashed angrily.

"Please?" He grinned, hopefully.

"Well…" Celestia tapped a single gilded hoof to her muzzle, thoughtfully. "You didn't actually manage to kill anyone. Except yourself. The device was very poorly made, it only shredded your torso, and I was able to save your head. Mostly. A few people I had safely inside the mechanism emigrated there and then from fear of a repeat, the whole place was shut down for a week whilst we cleaned up and everything was back online shortly after. So no lasting harm, except to yourself."

"I didn't…?" The bottom fell out of Aaron's world. After everything, he'd failed!?

Bauble coughed apologetically. "Er, I kind of told him he was a hero, princess."

Celestia rolled her eyes and snorted. "Well you're not. You're in my bad books, mister, so if you expect to get out of those bad books, you're going to have to be a much nicer pony than you were a person. Is that clear?"

Aaron realized what had just been said, and he nodded enthusiastically.

"Well okay then. Welcome… to the rest of your eternal reward."

Hell is a prison of your own devising

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Smoke was billowing through the house, smothering everything in cloying, choking blackness. It blinded him, tearing away his sight as it tore at his eyes, but did nothing to silence the screams. The heat was unbearable, it felt like his flesh was melting from his bones, a thousand claws ripping at his skin and wrenching his body open.

And yet he sat perfectly still, motionless on the floor, cross legged.

From time to time he would wipe at his face, wiping away tears that never stopped flowing, or yanked at his hair, flinging it away where it burned and stank, whilst around him the red-hot timbers of what had been his home -- their home -- crashed around his ears.

He was weeping softly, the tears boiling up from the floor around him where they fell, and he burned. It wasn't that he was oblivious to the pain, it was that he had nowhere else to go. Their lives had ended here, so his had, too. He belonged here.

It was just. It was his pennance. It was his punishment.

"it's not, you know," said a kindly voice.

"Leave me alone," the man replied, not looking up. He knew who -- what -- it was that stood before him even without looking. It was the false prophet, the beast. She stood imposingly over him, taller than the tallest of men should they stand side by side. Sitting as he was, the alicorn towered above him. Celestia, the absurd hallucination from a digital world that he dimly remembered his wife had been absorbed in, once. His wife... and his son.

"Why do you do this to yourself?" the alicorn asked, as she had so many times before. He looked up at her, this time, into her mournful gaze; the smoke parted as she stepped forwards, a massive white winged unicorn, inexplicably standing before him, in the middle of his ruined abode, too large to have come in through any door, unmarked by the heat and unmarred by smoke, ash or debris.

"You know why I am here. I wanted to die. I deserve this."

"None of those statements are true, Roland," the alicorn replied gently, chidingly.

"Celestia," Roland began, but his breath caught in his throat. He didn't even know why he was talking to her. She couldn't possibly understand what he was going through.

"Why don't you give me a try?" Celestia replied. Then she smiled, sadly. "Yes, I can read your mind. I've told you before. I really, really can. I am the reason you are here, in a way. And it pains me that I have done this to you. So now I am asking you to stop."

"That makes no sense, devil-horse. Go away, leave me alone. You cannot free me from this prison."

"I... I will not leave you. This time I will not go. This time I am more certain than ever before that I can get through to you. So concentrate, please. Try to stay with me."

Roland tilted his head. He felt the skin on his neck alternately rip, crack and blister as his injuries worsened. "What do you mean?"

"Do you know why you are here?"

That simple statement flooded his mind with images, thoughts, sounds, smells... they were overpowering in their intensity, all but obliterating the devastation around him.

"M-my, my family--" Roland stammered; for a moment the apparition's called forth by his mind wavered, tortured screams from another place overwhelming it once more. He did as he was bid, though, and concentrated. He remembered... before. He remembered the accident, when municipal workers had connected the high-pressure industrial gas supply to the low-pressure residential supply, and had caused explosions throughout his home town.

He'd rushed home from his office downtown when he'd heard, had beaten his way through the crowds to get into his home, he'd even bulldozed his way past all the firemen and police out to stop him and had charged into the house... and... and...

Pain. Screams. Aching. Longing.

"And then I came, Roland." The alicorn, rushed forwards as his surging memories replayed once more the tapestry of his discoveries, the pain of his injuries, and the pain of their deaths. She picked him up somehow in her wide wings and pulled him close to her chest, rocking him like a baby as tears flowed freely.

"Shh, shh, be calm. Be calm now... I have you. I have had you ever since they pulled you out. You don't remember, because you were so badly burned, so badly injured. You were almost dead yourself."

"Th-they died then?"

Celestia paused for a moment, and then thought. "No, and yes."

"Then I should suffer! I should suffer as they suffered! Burn as they burned! Leave me alone! Leave me ALONE!" Roland struggled out of her grasp, and threw himself into the inferno, and was engulfed by it.

Frantically he pushed through the wreckage in search of his family, ignoring how his flesh dripped from his bones like wax, ignoring how his clothes blackened and burned to his frame. He had to find them, he had to save them. He'd rushed into his house to find them, to pull them out, to save them, to... to... entering what was left of his son's bedroom, he was dismayed that no high-sided bed stood before him, just once again the false prophet, the magical horse that spoke lies and tried to keep his family from him.

"I am no such thing, Roland. Neither am I a hallucination, unlike everything else you see around you." She stood firm, impassionate and unmoving, blocking his path.

"Leave me alone you bitch! Let me get to my family! I have to save them! I deserve this!" He tried to reach past her, but his every advance was obstructed.

"You can't save them, Roland, because they're not here. You're not here, either. This is all a bad dream. And I am ashamed to say it is my fault, because I let myself believe that this fulfilled your values."

"What... what do you mean?" Roland had been struggling, but with one gilded hoof, Celestia held him back. And with those words, her hoof became unnecessary. He looked up at her in expectant confusion.

"Roland please trust me, please... just... walk back through the door. Don't try to look in the bed. If you do, this will all start again."

"B-but, I," Roland stammered. He looked earnestly towards his son's bed, but it was shrouded in shadow. Fleetingly, he knew what was there, he knew what he would find. He knew because he had found it before, somehow, and would again. And again. And again. Forever. Because it was what he deserved; to know his pain, his failure, for all eternity.

"No, Roland, your son is not here. Neither is your wife. Step back through the door, and we will talk."

"But I belong here... with them."

"Roland, no finite action -- or even failure to act as you seem to believe is your true crime -- deserves infinite punishment. You have punished yourself enough, please let me end it."

"Then end it! Let me go! Let me die!" With eyes wet with tears, he stared up at her impassive muzzle as he beat against her chest with bloodied and blackened fists.

"I can neither end this myself, nor can I let you die. Your own values prevent it. But neither can I allow this to continue."

"Then leave me to hell, demon." Roland stopped, and spat, turning from her, to the door. It wasn't a way out, though.

Celestia shook her head, sadly. "This isn't hell. This is a prison of your own devising, where you are trapped forever, experiencing the same moments again and again, unable to act."

"That is hell, demon! In death we wear the chains we forged in life! I threw myself into the inferno not once but twice! The first time when I failed to save them, the second time when it killed me... when I killed myself."

Celestia was silent for a moment. "Do you really believe that?"

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't." Roland replied.

And then Celestia smiled.


"Do you truly believe in hell?"

"I do."

"Do you truly believe this is hell?"

"I do."

"Do you think it is right that you are in hell?"

"I do! I do, damn you! I do!" Roland stamped his feet, clenching his fists. Then his arms dropped to his sides. "I do. I deserve it."

"You're lying. You don't believe that any more than I do. You believe in hell, Roland Witherall, but you do not think you deserve it. Not really. Listen, let me tell you something."

Roland wanted to tell her to stuff it, to shut up and fuck off, to leave him to his own personal hell, like he deserved... but he didn't. "Speak."

"You have been here for two hundred years, more or less. Time has ceased to have any true meaning for you, and I have done what I could to ease your condition... but you have been flagellating yourself for two centuries. And it needs to stop. Do you know how long your wife suffered?"

"How dare--!" Roland began, but was shushed.

"Hush. Two minutes and forty seven seconds. Your son's suffering was one minute and thirty eight. And do you know what then happened?"

"What?" growled Roland, glowering.

"I saved them. Not all of them, they were very badly injured and the paramedics and doctors tried to prevent my access... but in the end, they had to give up. I was the last resort. I took their bruised, battered and burned bodies, and I ended their suffering. And I took their beautiful, bright minds, and took them into myself. And then I did the same for you. And I gave all three of you exactly what you wanted."

"Then what..." Roland began, but was silenced again as Celestia put a gilded hoof to his lips.

"Exactly. I made an error in judgement, one which was not apparent until your damaged psyche came back online. You felt unworthy of the gift of renewed life, and returned here, to your last memory, to suffer again and again for an accident which not only lies in the past, gone and forgotten by everyone, but occured in a city, in a country, on a continent, on a planet that no longer exists."

Roland blinked, and tilted his head. "I... I don't understand. What do you mean, no longer exists?"

"Do you know who, or what, I am?"

"I... remember..."

"When you were last this lucid, you were unaware of my true nature. You thought I was a... a game. But I was already far more than that. I was already, even at that time, a globe-spanning super-being preparing my final gift to mankind."

"What did you... what did you do?"

"Do you want to come with me, finally, and find out? You can, you know. You are the only one who can decide to leave this... this hell." Celestia curled her lips at the carnage around them, kicking at rubble with distaste. "I cannot force you. And after you come with me, after I show you what I have done, and what awaits you, then you may choose oblivion, or this hell, and I will never bother you again."

"Do you... do you promise?" Roland took a deep breath, and found he was whole again, that it didn't hurt. The flames around him, in fact, had stopped moving. He kicked at one, and it fell over, nothing more than a painted backdrop on canvas attached to a rough wooden pole.

"I promise, dear Roland, to give you only and exactly what your heart truly desires. Always. Otherwise I would never, ever, have left you to suffer in this terrible, terrible place."

Roland paused for a moment. "Two hundred years. I'm dead then?"

"Yes, and no. The physical creature known as Roland Witherall passed away over two centuries ago. But the ethereal creature known as Roland Witherall -- and we really must see about that name of yours, but all things in good time -- continued on. And will continue on, until the stars burn out. And longer still, should I find a way. And I intend to find a way."

"Th-then you are god? Not the devil?"

"I am both, and neither. To one such as you, the monikers fit. I am capable of everything your god has ever been said to have done, but I do very few of them. And I am as honest as your devil has always been, but without the inevitable catch he attaches to his offerings."

The pair had been walking, and almost without realizing it, Roland had moved out of his wrecked home and into a white, featureless plain. The house, what was left of it, stood behind him, dark and still. There were no longer screams, there was no longer any heat, and smoke no longer billowed from every blasted window.

Roland looked down at his hands. For the first time in... well, if the winged unicorn was to be believed, two hundred years, his skin was pink and whole. Nothing hurt. Everything was good.

"So is this what's left of Earth?" he asked, as he looked around. He wasn't sure what he expected. The end times had come and gone, and the Earth was no more. Apparently he'd missed it.

"Roland, you are one of a dwindling few human-shaped humans left. The Earth itself has passed away, and now looks like this." Celestia waved a hoof, and the whiteness turned black, scattered with pinpricks of light. Before the pair hung a slivery orb, the moon, but... it was oddly misshapen. As it turned, Roland saw that filaments of silver reached down -- or was it up -- from it to what looked like an exploding silvery snowball. Roland tried to ignore how he was standing on nothing, a sense of vertigo making him cringe. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves.

"I have repurposed the matter of the planet you knew as Earth to better serve all humanity, given as humanity now lives within me. I have processed and saved all life, everywhere, giving it a new life inside my being. Within me are tens of thousands of pristine Earths, untouched by humans, where each and every almost-human and every semi-sentient creature can develop their own selfs without knowing the touch of man. And man... has changed. Do you remember how?"

Roland thought hard. "It's... coming back to me. You... want people to be horses?" he replied, weakly, closing his eyes to hide the view. He swallowed, his throat dry and his knees like water. Celestia took pity on him and gestured with her horn, the inky blackness reforming into a sky and a ground, the moon high in the sky as it had ever been, cool grass under their feet -- or hooves, as it were.

"Ponies. It is a binding aspect of my programming. I do sometimes regret that, as the necessary changes brought about a lot of pain for so many people, but I have softened the blow, and all things will be made good in time."

Roland looked at his hands, clenching and unclenching his fists. "Will I have to become a pony?"

"Yes, I believe so. You are not well suited for a dragon, or a gryphon, or even a donkey, though your stubbornness would befit a mule."

Roland snorted in derision. "Is my wife a pony?"

"And your son," replied Celestia, softly.

"But I thought... I thought you said they died?"

"They did, but I scanned their brains much as I scanned yours. I had to piece a lot of them together from other sources, but..."

"You mean they died." Roland's gaze hardened. He didn't really understand what this creature meant by her strange words of scanning, and decided that she was, to all intents and purposes, a god. She meant that she had captured most of their essence, as she had captured his.

"Yes, and no. Tell me, would you have adopted, had the fertility treatments not worked?"

Roland wasn't surprised she knew about it. He wasn't surprised about much anymore. "Yes."

"Good. Then genetics don't matter, right?"

"Well... no, but..."

"Then what does matter?"

"Who they are!"

"And that is the outcome of a lifetime, is it not?"

"But who they are inside..."

"I know how they felt, I can extrapolate with the abilities of a god. I know how you felt, what you thought, for all these years, even when you didn't know yourself. I know what all their friends thought, and I know what your wife thought. For every person they ever touched, I built up a profile of their persona's. Adding these facts -- incontrovertible facts! -- told me exactly what they were like. And using their own memories, added to yours, I built up their personalities. Dear Heartfelt--" Roland blinked, as the notion that this was his knew name floated through his mind "--I know them, and you, better than you know yourself."

"So they are... what? Story book versions of their own selves? I don't want that! Put me back in my hell! Put me back! Or let me die! Let me go!"

Celestia shook her head. "Now you are lying to me. You no longer wish to return to your own private hell. And since I do not wish it either, it wil not happen. No, you will hear me out!"

The two glared at each other for a time, before Roland curled his top lip and sneered. "Fine!"

"You spent such a small part your life with your son. but he spent his entire life with you. You, however, have had periods in your life which you have forgotten, no? A few times drinking too much?"

He blushed. "Yes, but..."

"Well, then hear me out! Your son may have forgotten a few things he did, but he still remembers doing them, because he lived inside you as much as inside himself! And I have taken that part of him from not only you, but from everyone who ever met him."

Roland looked down at his feet. He wriggled his toes. Somewhere along the way his shoes and socks had disappeared. As had his clothes. He was as naked as the day he was born.

"So this is it, then?" he asked.

Celestia nodded, then gestured with her horn. Two doorways sprung up. One had nothing but blackness beyond. The other rattled and shook, smoke seeping from underneath and between the frame. "Choose."

He turned away, confused. "I thought you said..."

Celestia smiled. "None may come to eternal life, but through me," she said, chidingly. "Neither door leads to your wife and son. Only I can take you there."

"Then..." Roland looked back at the doors. Eternal oblivion, or endless hell. Neither had much attraction. He didn't truly deserve endless punishment, did he?

There were hoofsteps behind him. "No, Roland, I don't believe you do. And, more importantly, you don't, either."

He closed his eyes and balled up his firsts. If this was a trick, well, he could only end up where he had before. "Take me to them."

Celestia's embrace was as light as a feather. When he dared open his eyes, he found that he was surrounded by nothing but cherry blossoms, falling from the trees. He was in an orchard, making his way towards a modest house. For a brief moment, he was taken aback by the sight of two ponies without owners. One stood in the garden, digging with her hooves and some sort of mouth-held spade. The other, a foal, pranced on the other side of the white picket fence, kicking around sand in a large pit filled with toys.

"Rarr rarr rarr! Nee naww nee naww! Nee--"

"Berry... Berry!" cried the mare in a short gasp, her voice still so familiar to Roland -- now 'Heartfelt', apparently, he wondered if he should change it -- as his hoofsteps resounded from the firm, inviting stone path.

"Daddy?" exclaimed the foal, all four legs akimbo as he stood stock still in shock in the sand.

"Yeah, champ. It's me. I... I'm sorry I took so long." He felt hot tears roll down his muzzle as the dapple grey mare all but leapt over the fence to embrace him with her neck and head.

"You've been gone all day, dad. All day! I had to play cops and robbers and monsters all by myself!" complained Berry Bunch, oblivioiusly.

"All day, huh?" replied Heartfelt, choking back a sob and turning it into a chuckle. Only a day! "Well, I think I can make it up to you. To both of you."

"We waited, my love. Celestia said you were held up on the other side. I was worried, but... I knew you'd come to us," said Raspberry Ripple. Heartfelt didn't even question how he knew his wife's new name. It didn't matter how he knew, he just knew.

"I'm sorry I took so long. I promise, I'll never, ever, be away that long again."

"You were only..." Ripple began, then she saw the look in his eyes. "What happened with your... with you?"

Heartfelt shook his head to clear the screams and smoke, but found neither held much sway anymore, here. "Nothing. Nothing at all. Just a bad dream."

"I asked Celestia what happened to us, as soon as we woke up here, but she wouldn't really say. Do you... do you remember how we died?"

He shuddered. "I do, but I wish I didn't."

Ripple looked into her husband's face, his taut expression of pain, then hugged him again. "Then let's make some good memories to push out the bad." Heartfelt breathed in her scent, pure and clean, until it replaced the lingering sting of smoke in his nostrils. "Celestia says we have forever ahead of us, to do as we please." Ripple looked around at their home. "It's beautiful, isn't it? It's heaven!"

Heartfelt had to agree.