"Would you tell anypony if you knew the world was going to end?"
Twilight Sparkle paused in the middle of raising a steaming cup of cocoa to her lips and stared at Carrot Top. "The world? Going to end?"
Carrot Top just nodded, her face a blank slate.
Twilight took a quick sip before she replied. "Well, hypothetically speaking-"
"No," Carrot cut in, then softened her voice. "No, not just hypothetically. Please, think about this before you answer."
Twilight shook her head. "But there's so much I don't know." She rose to her hooves and paced back and forth across the hardwood of the library's floor. "Would it happen all at once, like an explosion, or would it be a few minutes, or hours, during which everypony would be scared?"
Carrot finally broke into a small smile. "I should have expected this." The smile dropped away as she answered, "All at once. About three and a half hours from now."
Twilight stopped and looked back and forth between Carrot Top's green eyes. The cup of cocoa hovered unmoving, a purple magical nimbus surrounding it. "What are you talking about?" she finally asked, voice low.
Carrot Top made a little shooing gesture with a hoof. "Please answer my question? Would you tell anypony?"
The unicorn bit the edge of her lip, then sat back down on her pillow and looked out one of the library windows. Her eyes flicked side to side several times, Carrot watching her all the while, and then Twilight sighed and answered while staring into her cup of cocoa still floating nearby. "My first instinct is to tell just a few of my closest friends. If you tell everypony they would either not believe it or panic.
"Pinkie would want to know, because she'd want to spend her last hours partying. Rainbow Dash would probably want to visit Cloudsdale before the end. Applejack would want to properly say goodbye to her family. But... Fluttershy would just panic and worry about the animals, then worry about us, and worry about..." Twilight smiled. "Everything. And Rarity? I'm not sure how she would take it at all."
Carrot Top waited until she was sure Twilight was done before nodding. "I think you and I are on the same page, then."
"What is going on?" Twilight suddenly demanded, setting the cup of cocoa down hard enough that it left a smattering of chocolate across a nearby scroll.
Carrot instinctively reached to rub at the spots, then stopped herself and looked up at the telescope overhead, then around at the books, the windows, the artistic flourishes carved into so many surfaces... then back at Twilight. "It's all going to go away, Twilight. I-" Carrot's voice cracked, and she swallowed before continuing, eyes shut tight. "I never got permission, and they're taking you all away."
"I don't understand, Carrot Top." Twilight softened her voice and stepped around the table, resting a hoof on the earth pony's shoulder. "Please explain?"
Carrot nodded and opened her eyes, blinking a few times to clear them of half-formed tears. "I knew you'd be just as curious as you would be scared."
Twilight gave a little nod. "Go on."
The orange pony took a deep breath and looked down into her own cocoa, still untouched. She blew over the drink as if to cool it down but didn't make a move to drink any. "Imagine if somepony, maybe you or Princess Luna, could create a dream and share it with other ponies. One pony, or a group of them, would decide the parameters--what is in the dream, who is there, the rules of the universe, all that stuff--and everypony else would just be visitors to enjoy the dream together."
Twilight took Carrot's request to heart and thought for almost ten seconds before answering. "Okay. That would be very powerful, difficult magic, but I bet someday we could do it." The unicorn looked off to the side, eyes going out of focus. "Somepony would have to dedicate a lot of energy and effort to keep it going when no one is visiting, or you would need a way to store it..."
Carrot smiled again, wider, and nudged Twilight's shoulder with her nose. "Stay with me here."
Twilight snorted at herself and nodded. "Okay, go on."
Carrot opened her mouth, then closed it. She glanced at her cocoa, then finally took a sip off the rim. She paused, then took a bigger drink, a little shiver going through her body. She took a long, preparatory breath, then finally said, "In my world we do have that capability, and this is all a dream." The earth pony looked into Twilight's eyes again, searching. "So to speak."
The unicorn's mouth opened but she didn't speak for a few moments. In the end she smiled and reached out to pat Carrot on the shoulder. "I don't want this to sound condescending, but I think it might be best if we went to see Nurse Redheart together. The stress of the carrot harvest--"
Carrot intoned, "Derpyville: edit object defined Twilight's Library. Opacity 0%."
Suddenly the entire library was invisible, and Twilight Sparkle was sitting under the open sky. She took a step back away from Carrot Top without realizing it and looked up, then side to side. A passing white pegasus pony with a double lightning bolt cutie mark had stopped and was staring back down at Twilight when Carrot said, "Derpyville: undo last command." The library came back.
Twilight ran to one set of bookshelves, then another, briefly inspecting them before she turned her gaze back to Carrot Top. "What... But you aren't a unicorn," Twilight insisted. "And I didn't even feel any magic!"
"It wasn't magic, Twilight," Carrot said, looking back down at her mug. "And no, I'm not a unicorn. I'm not even a pony."
"What do you mean? Of course you're a pony!" Twilight said, pointing a hoof at the earth pony.
Carrot shook her head. "This is what I wanted to look like here. Just like Lyra and Bon Bon, and Berry Punch, and Octavia... They're all friends of mine, from the real-" The orange mare cringed. "From my world. We each picked a relatively unimportant pony to roleplay as."
"Unimportant? What do you mean? Everypony is just as important as anypony else."
Carrot shook her head again. "We weren't before. We chose ponies that don't normally have a role in your escapades, so we could make friends with you from scratch. Heh, even Scratch."
Twilight dropped back onto her pillow and looked down at the table. "So, what you're saying is that this is all a dream, and that some of my friends are your friends from the 'real' world, and..." She trailed off at that point, eyes widening as she whipped her head up. "What does that make me?!"
Carrot closed her eyes. "Artificial intelligence."
"Artificial..." Twilight whispered, just barely heard across the room. Silence stretched out between the two for several moments before the unicorn spoke. "How do I know that this isn't just some sort of trick?"
"It would make more sense if I was the return of Discord than if I was telling the truth," Carrot admitted.
Twilight nodded, looking back up at Carrot Top. "Yes it would!" She leapt back to her hooves. "So you admit it?"
"I wish I could." Carrot stood up and said, "Derpyville: define Group A as objects Twilight Sparkle and Carrot Top. Transport Group A to destination Canterlot Sculpture Garden."
After a brief pause the library disappeared and the two ponies were standing before the statue of Discord outside of the great Canterlot hedge maze. Twilight gasped and looked all around herself rapidly as Carrot gestured up to the statue. "There he is still. Pete and Mary wanted to re-do that episode with us helping to take on Discord, but it got vetoed. You guys are the Elements of Harmony, after all, not us."
"Pete and Mary?" Twilight asked in a small voice.
"Lyra and Bon Bon," Carrot answered. "Or, at least their players."
"Oh," Twilight said, even quieter. "'Players.' Like in a game."
"Not a game!" Carrot Top glanced at Twilight and saw her looking down at the space between her front hooves, eyes hidden by her mane. "Not... not just a game." She stepped over to place her hoof on Twilight's shoulder. "Just because you're inside a... a dream, doesn't mean we don't all consider you our friends."
"How do I know this isn't just a dream? That I'm not going to wake up in ten seconds, and forget about it ten minutes later?" Twilight looked into Carrot's eyes, tears forming. "How do I know if anything is a dream? Or real? Is anything I know true?"
"Oh, Twilight, I'm sorry!" The earth pony stepped closer to pull Twilight into a hug. At first the unicorn resisted, tensing, but then she tightly returned the hug.
"All of the troubles we overcame," Twilight whispered, "all the trips we took, all the friends we made... None of it was real?"
"You're real to me, Twilight Sparkle. Just because I can only interact with you here doesn't mean you aren't a whole person."
Twilight shook as she squeezed Carrot hard, then dropped to her hindquarters and looked at the statue of Discord. Dampness glimmered on her cheeks. "I'm still not sure I really understand."
"I know. I'm sorry. Maybe I should..." Carrot stared up at a perfectly fluffy white cloud.
"Should... what?" Twilight asked without turning away from the statue.
Carrot shook her head and placed her hoof on Twilight's shoulder again. "So, I'm guessing you want to know more, huh?"
"Yes, please," Twilight replied, looking into Carrot Top's eyes. "Help me to understand all of this."
"I'll do my best."
"Did you tell them about the cartoon?" Bon Bon asked in a low voice. The hubbub in the main room of Sugarcube Corner was more than enough to keep their conversation private.
"Yes," Carrot Top replied. "And the toys, and the movie. Not about previous generations of ponies, though. And not about G5."
Lyra cringed. "Good call there."
Carrot glanced between the two. "No one else could make it in time?"
"I guess not," Bon Bon said, then sighed. "We'll need to put them on auto?"
"It seems like it," Carrot Top said.
A long moment of silence passed before Lyra asked, "Are you going to lose tenure?"
Carrot smiled and shrugged. "I don't know. I still don't know if they're going to sue me for misusing university property, or even if they're going to turn me in for intellectual property abuses. Either way, we have about ninety minutes left."
"Thank you," Bon Bon suddenly said, "for giving us this chance to say goodbye."
"Of course," Carrot said, giving Bon Bon's shoulder a little shake. "Friendship, right?"
Lyra stomped a hoof. "I still can't believe that they would just turn them all off like this!"
Bon Bon stepped over to rest her cheek on Lyra's shoulder. "I know."
Carrot Top shook her head. "They have no rights. The fact that they're based on cartoon characters made it even harder to convince the dean to keep them going. In the eyes of most people they're just a bunch of files." Lyra's mouth opened, but Carrot spoke over her. "And if we tried to make copies of those files we'd be guaranteeing that police and lawyers would get involved."
"I know! But... But... Urgh!" Lyra stomped her hoof again, and Bon Bon kissed her cheek with tears in her eyes.
"Maybe our time would be best served if we spent it with our friends?" Carrot asked.
"That's a good idea," Bon Bon said, sniffling and then nudging Lyra's shoulder with her own. "Are you ready?"
Lyra took a deep breath, then sighed explosively. "Yeah. Let's go in."
Carrot Top stepped forward to swing the door open with her head, a cheer rising up from the assembled ponies of Ponyville. The banner overhead read, "GOODBYE DEAR FRIENDS! BEST WISHES AND SAFE JOURNEYS!"
"So you asked each of them what they would want to do if the world is ending," Lyra asked as the three walked north out of Ponyville, "but then you erased their memories of the whole conversation?"
"The truth hurt too much," Carrot Top said, then gave a little sigh. "Or, it hurt me too much for them to know the truth, I suppose."
Bon Bon sniffled, her eyes puffy and red. "Maybe things are better this way."
Lyra shook her head. "You took away their right to choose," she said with a harsh edge to her voice. "That's not fair."
"All except one," Carrot Top said, nodding to the path ahead, where a pink pony stood in the distance.
"Pinkie Pie?" Bon Bon asked as the three continued walking forward.
"She took it the best," Carrot said. "It almost seemed like she had suspected we weren't like the rest all along. When I asked her she said that she and her friends would want to share this time with us more than anything."
"So we let the craziest one decide everypony's fate?" Lyra asked, voice hard.
"And she decided on the biggest party anypony had ever seen," Carrot Top replied. "Can you fault her for that?"
Lyra mumbled something under her breath. Bon Bon moved to lean on Lyra's side lightly while they walked and the mint-colored unicorn fell silent.
Pinkie Pie waited for them in the road until they were within shouting distance before she started bouncing forward to meet them halfway.
"Hi girls!" Pinkie said as she came to a halt, then tilted her head a few degrees to the side. "Or, bye girls?"
Carrot Top smiled and reached out a hoof. "Goodbye, Pinkie Pie. Thank you for the incredible send off."
"No problemo!" Pinkie said, shaking Carrot's hoof vigorously. "It was my pleasure!" She turned to Lyra. "You two be good, and throw some parties for me?"
"Definitely," Lyra said, swallowing hard. "Yeah."
Bon Bon's head hung down, tears darkening the dirt in front of her hooves. Lyra moved to her, but Pinkie beat her to it, scooping Bon Bon into a big hug. "Don't cry, Bonners! You still have Carrot and Lyra and Derpy and all the rest, right?"
"Yeah," Bon Bon murmured, hugging Pinkie tight. At first it seemed like she might refuse to let go but eventually she did, stumbling back a step and sniffling hard.
Pinkie looked between the three and smiled wide. "You're some of my bestest friends ever, you know. I'm going to miss you so much!"
"No, you aren't!" Lyra sobbed out, turning away as she finally broke into tears. Bon Bon stepped to her side and rested her head on Lyra's shoulder.
Carrot Top gestured with a hoof and lead Pinkie Pie away down the path.
"How much longer?" Pinkie asked in a reserved tone Carrot had rarely heard her use.
"Just a minute now."
"I've been thinking, really-really hard, and I think I figured it out. Your first day here was when you three came to rescue us from the pixies, wasn't it?"
Carrot Top nodded.
"That was pretty great. You three make a super team. You'll be okay, right?"
Carrot Top looked away to the horizon. "Yes, of course we will."
"Good!" Pinkie bounced in place with each word. "Good, good, good!"
Carrot glanced over her shoulder to see Lyra and Bon Bon standing at the top of a hill, looking back down at Ponyville with the setting Sun as backdrop. "I should have visited Celestia and Luna before it was too late," Carrot said.
"I'm sure if you write them a very nice letter they'll forgive you!"
Carrot chuckled and looked back to Pinkie. "Yes, of course they would."
Pinkie Pie stepped up next to Carrot, close enough for them to feel the other's body heat, and stood there for several heartbeats before asking, "Carrot?"
"Is it going to hurt?"
It wasn't just the words that caught her attention, but the tone of voice. It was easy for Carrot Top to imagine Pinkie as a little filly again, all the way back on the rock farm, worried that her family didn't like her parties.
Carrot shivered and shook her head hard, making eye contact. "No, Pinkie. They might be taking you away, but I'd never let them hurt you."
"Thank you," Pinkie replied simply, and reached out to give a grateful little nuzzle.
Her snout turned translucent and passed through Carrot Top's instead of making contact. Pinkie pulled back and touched the tip of her nose with a hoof.
"Oh," she said, eyes wide.