Life Among The Distant Stars
Chapter 1: Fallout
As the TARDIS touched down, the noises associated with time travel died down, giving way to the moans of ponies.
"Isn't there a less…jarring way for us to travel?" Rarity asked, tidying her mane.
"I like it!" Pinkie Pie said excitedly. "It's like a rollercoaster, but with more bumps and noise and shaking!"
"That's precisely what I'm talking about."
"Oh, trust me, you'll grow to love it," said the Doctor. He jumped up and grabbed his brown coat from the floor. "Right, here we are: Ponyville, Equestria, in the year…well, I don't know what year it is – I don't even know what year we left – but I'm pretty sure it's sometime in your future. Hmm, I'd better look into your dating system; it'll probably help with avoiding paradoxes and such. Anyway!" He threw open the door. "Welcome to the future of…Ponyville…"
The seven ponies were met with a wasteland. The ground was scorched by fires long dead and riddled with old craters. What remained of the buildings they knew so well were grey, unrecognizable piles of rubble and ash. Worst of all, along the paths were hundreds of gravestones, leaving no doubt what had happened here.
"Oh my Celestia…" Twilight breathed. Fluttershy began to cry in Rarity's soft embrace; Applejack held her hat to her heart solemnly; Rainbow Dash simply stood, her mouth hanging open in shock.
The Doctor walked over to a nearby sign – the only unmarred thing in the ruins, besides the gravestones – and read aloud:
"HISTORICAL SITE: PONYVILLE
In the 1563rd year of Celestia's reign, our planet was attacked by the Twelfth Sontaran Battle Fleet. Several cities, including Manehatten, Canterlot, and Fillydelphia, were hit by their orbital bombardments. In this time Ponyville was destroyed, taking the lives of the nearly 300 colts and mares that called the town home.
Thankfully, the 5th Fleet of the Earth Empire had been following the Sontarans, and defeated their fleet before any further attacks were made. Princess Celestia decreed that the former site of Ponyville would remain as it now is, in memory of the thousands of ponies lost across Equestria."
The Doctor knelt and touched his hoof to the sign. "I'm sorry…I'm so sorry…"
He remained there silently before ushering the mares back into the TARDIS. "Let's go; there's nothing we can do."
"Wait," said Twilight. "I want to see Celestia."
"Twilight, I don't think – "
"Take me to see her!" she demanded "I want – I want to see if she's okay."
The Doctor held her gaze, then walked to the console and started up the TARDIS.
Twilight was shocked to see the new Canterlot. The city was crowded with more homeless ponies than she had ever seen. As they walked to the castle, she saw that every house had two or more families living in them, often in houses meant only for one. There were even several blocks lined with tents, covered wagons, and other forms of temporary housing – and still the streets were packed with ponies with nowhere to go.
The castle itself had more guards present than Twilight remembered, likely due to the potential threat of rioting. The Doctor showed his psychic paper to all who asked for ID – another addition to security – though he showed them that the paper gave their real names rather than aliases. When they reached the throne room, the guard gave them a look of disappointment. "Finally decided to show up, huh?" he grunted as he opened the door. "Luna's in Manehatten to assist the recovery, but Celestia will see you now."
The first thing Twilight noticed about her former mentor was how old and tired she looked. Her rainbow mane had faded and no longer flowed on its own accord. Bags had formed under her eyes, along with wrinkles around her mouth. Her jewelry was tarnished, as if they hadn't been tended to in months. Even those purple eyes Twilight knew so well had lost some of their motherly shine.
The Princess looked up wearily, but her eyes widened when she saw the group. "Twilight…is that you?"
It was too much for Twilight to take in. She ran to the princess and threw her front legs around her, tears streaming from her face.
"Shhh…" Celestia wrapped her wings around her and stroked her mane softly. "It is good to see you again, my faithful student."
No one dared to interrupt the heartfelt reunion of teacher and student. It had only been a few hours for Twilight, but to see every year of separation in her mentor's eyes was heartbreaking.
"Celestia…"she said, wiping her eyes. "What happened?"
The Sun Princess did not answer for a moment.
"When you came home from your travels with the Doctor, you wasted no time telling any pony who would listen of your adventures. You told them of the vastness of the universe, of all its wonders…and horrors.
"As I listened, I came to realize how small we truly were, how utterly defenseless we would be if any of the aliens you spoke of were to come. And so, in the interest of our own protection, I began the Equestrian Space Initiative.
"I gathered all the scientific minds from across the planet to work together to establish a credible space defense. But compared to the rest of the universe, we are a primitive civilization. Even after years of constant research and the technology and techniques you brought back with you, we were hundreds of years behind the other races.
"It is likely that those efforts are what alerted the Sontarans to our planet. We were a fledgling race in their eyes, an easy conquest to be taken advantage of before we grew stronger. They would have destroyed us, were it not for the Human Empire." She looked out the room's great windows to her healing kingdom. "Equestria has not seen war for thousands of years. If the humans hadn't gifted us with their terraforming technology and agreed to trade, I fear we would never have even begun to recover."
Celestia sighed. "Even so, many, many ponies died that day; more in the days following. It's the most horrible thing to ever happen to Equestria. Nightmare Moon was stopped before any harm was done. But after this, I doubt we will ever truly recover."
"But…we can fix it!" Twilight said suddenly. She ran to the Doctor. "You have a time machine; We can go back! We can warn them, or stop the Sontarans before they get here, or – "
"I can't, Twilight."
The purple mare stared in disbelief. "What?"
"I can't save them," the Doctor said gravely. "Not this time."
Twilight stepped back, a look of horror coming across her face. Her mouth hung open for a moment before she finally found words.
"What kind of pony are you?"
She ran after that. She ran blind, eyes filled with tears once again.
How could he?
She ran until she found herself in the library. Navigating the shelves and piles of books, she reached a quiet corner she had often visited during long hours of study. She sat there in its familiar embrace, and let her tears flow freely.
How could he?
She didn't know how long she sat there, huddled among the dusty mounds of literature, before she heard her friends walking towards her.
Rarity cleared her throat. "Twilight, darling…" she began slowly, "Why don't you come out of there? All that dust can't be good for your mane."
Twilight said nothing. Rarity looked to the others and motioned them to assist her.
Applejack sighed. "Listen, Twi. I know as well as any of us that all that the Doctor says don't always make sense – "
"That's an understatement." Rainbow whispered.
The farmer shot a glance at her before continuing. "But I also know that he don't do anythin' without a good reason. Maybe you should jus' ask him why he…"she trailed off not wanting to finish the sentence.
Twilight's eyes opened, filled with rage unlike any they had seen in the librarian. "Yes, let's ask him," she said, approaching the Doctor. "Let's ask him who he thinks he is. Let's ask him how truly 'sorry' he is about everyone in Ponyville. Let's ask him why he thinks he can sit idly by when he has the means to avert the BIGGEST DISASTER EQUESTRIA HAS EVER KNOWN!"
Her eyes were brimmed with tears as she breathed heavily, but her intense gaze never left the colt's eyes. As she searched them, she only saw sadness…directed at her.
"It's not my choice, Twilight," he said quietly. "If I could I wouldn't hesitate to save every last one of them. But…"His eyes turned down for a moment, then met hers again. "There are rules. Rules of time, things you can and can't do. One says that some points in time are in flux, and they can be changed, but others are fixed. Fixed Points in time have to stay the way they happened. They can't be changed, or something far worse will happen. I checked while we were in the TARDIS; I'm sorry, but the attack is fixed. Even though I want to help them, I can't."
Twilight's face softened slightly as he spoke. She was silent for a moment. "…how do you know?"
The Doctor kneeled in front of her. "I can show you, but I need you to trust me. Can you do that, just for a moment?"
Her remaining anger screamed no, but Twilight sat and hesitantly nodded.
"Close your eyes."
She obeyed, and felt the Doctor's hooves on the sides of her head. She tensed at the contact, but then relaxed. An odd sensation appeared in the back of her head, which then spread forward and stopped at her eyes.
"Alright…you can look now."
The mare opened her eyes, and she saw.
She saw Time. She saw it everywhere, in each of her friends, in everything around her down to the last book. She saw it flow in its majestic motion. She saw it in the Doctor, saw how it poured through him more than the others, a being so wonderfully and strangely existing in so many places and times at once. She saw it move forward, and how slow it suddenly seemed.
She saw Time, its wonders, its intricacies, every secret of its workings laid bare.
And she screamed.
The Doctor removed his hooves, and she fell to the floor, gasping for breath. The experience had been indescribable. So amazing, but for a moment, for just as quickly it became agonizingly horrible. So much input, her senses so suddenly heightened and overloaded. So much information, that it had nearly driven her mad.
And all that from half a second.
She looked up at the Doctor, but now she couldn't meet his eyes. Where she once held anger towards him now was filled with shame.
"That's the burden of the Time Lord," he said softly. "I can see everything I can change…and everything I can't."
Twilight's voice caught in her throat. "Doctor, I – I'm sorry…"
The Doctor shook his head. "It's a hard lesson for anyone to learn; believe me; I've struggled with it myself. Come on now, Celestia's waiting."
They spent the next few hours with the princess, helping her as she travelled around the city to assist relief efforts. The whole group pitched in: Rarity gave out hand-made blankets and clothing; Rainbow Dash ran supplies to the various building projects; Applejack organized a communal soup dinner; Pinkie Pie put on a puppet show for the young foals and fillies; Fluttershy attended to medical needs to both ponies and animals; and Twilight spearheaded their efforts and made plans for the town to follow after they left. The Doctor went between the six, helping out wherever he was needed.
Celestia stopped Twilight before she entered the TARDIS at the end of the day. "Twilight, before you go…did you learn anything about friendship today?"
"I did, Princess," she said happily. "I learned that in friendship and in life, you can't predict what will happen to you or others. Sometimes, good things happen, sometimes bad things do. But you also can't change what happened or will happen. What's left is that you have to do everything you can to help others with the time that you do have, rather than wait for someone else."
Celestia smiled. "It's good to hear that a second time. Now go, your friends are waiting."
But as soon as the TARDIS disappeared, Celestia's smile fell.
"Take care of them, Doctor," she whispered. "For my past is their future, and I know what dangers await them."