“How much longer?”
How much longer, indeed. Boxcars pulled her shivering little brother closer and when she did, she could feel and hear his stomach growling. How long had it been since he had eaten anything? She had lost track. He had eaten the last of what little food they had a while ago, and she had saved every last morsel for him. It was fine, really, because for some unknown reason, she had stopped being hungry days ago.
“Not much longer, Domino,” she said to her brother and she had a hard time hearing her own voice over the sounds of the steamer ship and the ocean. Black, sooty smoke belched from a nearby stack and blew sideways from the ship due to sharp winds. “It won’t be long at all, Dom, and we’ll be in the magical land of Equestria. There’s so much food there that they don’t know what to do with it all and everypony lives safe and free under the protection of the Princesses.”
The tattered remains of her brother’s cast aside wool coat were tugged on by the sharp, cutting wind and she could see tears in his eyes; from the gale of the wind, her words, or his hunger, she had no way of knowing. Trying to pull him closer, she did her best to shield him from the worst of it and ignored how the icy, stinging gusts cut through the ragged remains of her own jacket.
“The world didn’t end,” Domino said in a weak voice that was difficult to hear.
“I told you it wouldn’t, silly.” Even with her own infirm condition, Boxcars laughed because of her brother’s irrational fear of sailing over the edge of the world and falling off. The idea of getting onto a boat terrified him and she had dragged him aboard against his will when they had departed from Monkeylore.
Leaving Windia had been her idea, her great gamble.
She and her brother were part of the Great Unwanted, half Grittish and half Kathiawari, a product of the Colonial efforts of the Grittish. Undesired by the Grittish for polluted blood, and a painful reminder of Grittish rule to the Kathiawari, she and Domino had no real future in Windia, so she felt, so she had smuggled her brother and herself out of Windia. Thus began The Great Equestrian Gamble, a journey around the world that would end in Equestria, the great and fabled promised land.
The journey had begun with her bonking the fantastically cruel Grittish marm of the orphanage over the head to subdue her, and escaping with her brother before the nightmarish Miss Blackstrap could recover. After escaping the workhouse that served as the orphanage, she and her brother had stowed away on trains and with a little luck, managed to cross the entire sub-continent, reaching the coastal city of Monkeylore.
In the city of Monkeylore, Boxcars did whatever had to be done to secure passage, and a number of those things were acts that she wasn’t proud of. Swallowing her pride had almost choked her, but she had her brother to look after. For Boxcars, securing passage meant dishonourable thievery or degrading acts of prostitution. She had chosen dishonour to spare herself from the worst that Monkeylore had to offer.
But all of that unpleasantness was behind them. Equestria had jobs aplenty, food, and all of their problems would soon be over. Getting here was the hard part, and the hard part was almost over. Hopefully Equestria had warm places, because the cold was particularly cruel after living in the warm, tropical jungles of Windia.
“What will it be like?” Domino asked, a question that he had asked at least a few hundred times.
Sighing, Boxcars summoned her patience and gave answer to her brother’s question once more: “I’ll get myself a job and we’ll find a place to live. It might not be a nice place, not at first, but things will get better. In Equestria, there is a job for everypony and everypony has a job. With luck, everything will be fine.”
Just as she was about to continue, Boxcars saw lights on the horizon.
The ship heaved and was thrown in the heavy waves as it approached the shore. Fearing that she and her brother would go overboard, they had retreated from the rail and were now indoors in the tiny room where stowage passengers were allowed to congregate. It was a dirty place, yellowed with cigarette smoke, and the floor appeared to have never been cleaned. Ever.
A whistle blew, a bell rang, and the entire ship lurched as the engines powered up. Once they could slip into the harbour, there would be safety from the rough waters. One of the pipes overhead—which suffered a leak—hissed and filled the tiny observation cabin with steam. This made the yellowed walls rather slimy and they glistened with an unwholesome sheen.
“Don’t be scared, it’s been worse,” Boxcars said to her brother. Domino was many things, but brave wasn’t one of them. At least not yet, but he had a good, forgivable excuse. He was far too little and helpless to be brave. Perhaps when he was older he would find his courage and her job was making sure that he lived long enough to do so.
For a moment, it felt as though the boat was going to capsize and she found herself sliding along the sticky floor. With a terrific thump, she banged into the wall and a second later, her brother smacked into her. At least she had spared him from the cruel, unyielding wall of rusty, flaky steel. Reaching out with one foreleg, she circled it around her brother’s neck, pulled him close, and held him tight.
This would all be over soon.
The city of Baltimare was a glittering jewel and was unlike anything that Boxcars had ever seen before. She had seen cities—Monkeylore was a vast city that was mostly made up of sprawling slums—but the sheer wealth on display in Baltimare flummoxed her. Buildings were made of glass, steel, and brick. Some of them were so tall that just looking at them made her dizzy.
Now in smooth, almost tranquil waters, the steamer ship chugged towards the docks. The journey was over… the long, dreadful, sometimes terrifying journey was over, and she had brought her brother to the promised land, doing the job of big sisters everywhere. He stood beside her, reacting in much the same way that she did, with his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide.
“Are those griffons?”
Hearing her brother’s voice startled her, and she looked to where he was pointing. She had never seen a griffon before, but she knew their description. This looked like a griffon made of nightmares, and there were two of them. A long curving beak protruded from a strange, distorted face that was obscured by a broad-brimmed hat. Heavy black cloaks hid their bodies, making it impossible to see if there were wings. As the ship drew closer, more and more details became visible.
What strange creatures were these?
The city was now forgotten because Boxcars was so focused on the curious figures that stood on the dock. Never had she seen anything quite like them and she was quite captivated by what she saw because there was so little to see. She blinked and when she opened her eyes, one of the figures was no longer standing on the dock, but on the deck right in front of her.
Her little brother was already screaming at the top of his lungs and she struggled not to do the same. In her terror, she resorted to the only option she had left and she pulled the rusty, heavy revolver out from beneath the tattered remains of her coat with her magic. It trembled in the air and she pointed it at the tall, terrifying figure, who breathed like a chuffing train. Round red eyes flashed beneath the brim of his hat and she realised that he was wearing a mask.
“Give me that!” The monstrous creature’s voice was every bit as terrifying as his breathing and unable to help herself, Boxcars screamed as the rusty old revolver was plucked from her telekinetic grasp. The cylinder was opened, two bullets went clattering down to the deck, and then the gun was thrown overboard.
So loud were her own screams that she failed to hear the splash of the revolver hitting the water.
“What is the world coming to when some disease-ridden little waif pulls a gun on you?” A sound almost like a clucking tongue could be heard from beneath the mask and the figure shook his head from side to side. “If you don’t stop screaming, I’ll be throwing you overboard next!”
Quaking with terror, Boxcars began to back away and she pulled her brother with her. After several steps, she felt the warm tingle of magic surround her and she along with her brother were lifted up into the air. She wrapped her forelegs around her brother’s neck and held on tight as the masked figure seemed to be examining them or inspecting them.
“The both of you are covered in fleas. Ugh! Now, will you let me help you or will there be other surprises? Another gun perhaps? A knife? A shiv? A stick of dynamite? Any further surprises and I’ll be very cross with you!”
“Who are you and what do you want!” Boxcars cried as she found herself just inches away from the terrifying masked figure. “Do with me what you want! Just don’t hurt my brother!” Pulling her brother closer, she tried to wrap as much of herself as she could around him to shield him from the nightmarish stranger.
“Oh… oh crap, I knew I was forgetting something. Sorry kid.” More locomotive chuffing could be heard from the mask, like a steam boiler letting off pressure in puffs. “My name is Doctor Needle… Doctor Cactus Needle, not the stab you in the ass kind of needle, though I do that on occasion. Sorry kids, it’s just part of the job, nothing personal.”
“What do you want?” Boxcars demanded while she clung to her sobbing brother.
“To do my job,” the masked figure replied. “This ship is loaded with rats and disease. It has to be quarantined and so do you, by the looks of things. You feeling alright, you adorable little murderous gun-toting psychopath?”
The gun was gone, and with it all hopes of protecting herself and her brother. A keen sense of loss filled Boxcars, and she wasn’t sure how to recover from this. Closing her eyes, she clung to her brother as she was turned in the air. She felt the shredded remains of her jacket being lifted as she was examined and the cold, salty air tickled at the now exposed places. Her brother had quieted, but was still crying.
When she felt her tail being pushed aside, she froze, paralysed in terror, not knowing what to expect.
“Had the squirts?” Doctor Needle asked. “The wet and runny shits?”
Overcome with shame and fear, Boxcars had a hard time responding. “For a few days now. I haven’t eaten much… my brother has had them too.”
“I’ll tell you what… you cooperate with me, and I’ll see that you get something good to eat. You’ll also get nice, warm beds in a nice, warm room. I’m guessing that you don’t have parents.”
“No.” Boxcars felt herself being lowered, and she was set down on the deck.
“What happened?” the doctor asked.
“War,” Boxcar replied with nothing else to say. That one word alone was enough to bring to mind all manner of unpleasant memories, memories that her brother was too young to remember, and memories that she could not forget. The cold air now stung her eyes as tears made them glassy.
“Shit, kid, I’m sorry. Well, it’s pretty obvious why you are here, so welcome to Equestria.”
Sitting on her haunches on the cold wood, holding her brother tight to her, she looked up at the strange masked creature, whose unexpected kindness had warmed her somewhat. With a crackle of magic, something that was a dull, dark grey manifested near Doctor Needle, and when he gave it a shake, she saw that it was a blanket. When it was wrapped tight around her and her brother, she began sobbing with relief and it wasn’t long until she was shivering to get warm.
“Kid, I’ve seen a lot of shit in my day, but I’ve never had a filly pull a pistol on me—”
“I’m sorry,” she bawled as her emotions poured down her cheeks.
“No, no, it’s okay!” The doctor sat down beside her on the deck and slipped a foreleg over her withers, which was heavy and somehow reassuring. “I’m guessing that you are a brave little filly that’s never been coddled. A scrappy little survivor. As it just so happens, Equestria needs scrappy little survivors, so you came to the right place.”
Without even realising that she was doing so, Boxcars pressed against her masked benefactor, glad for his warmth. One foreleg slipped from around her brother, reached out from beneath the blanket, and wrapped around Doctor Needles’ foreleg. Something about him reminded her of her father, who was now a distant but vivid memory.
“Here is what is going to happen next… you and everypony on this ship are going to go into quarantine and my friends and I are going to make you better. You are going to get food, and medicine, and the care that you need to get you healthy. My friends and I, we fight disease and the causes of disease. We’re part of what makes Equestria great, but ponies really don’t know much about us and we never get thanked for our job. Probably because we stink like the sewer most of the time.”
Boxcars hardly heard a word as she shivered and sobbed, but was thankful for the kindness of the masked stranger. It wasn’t the greeting that she expected upon her arrival in Equestria, but the great nation had welcomed her. She didn’t know what was going to happen next, or how she was going to take care of her brother, but these worries seemed distant.
For now, somepony was going to take care of her, and for this, she was grateful.