“Hello,” a strange mare said while introducing herself. “My name is Bertie Bunsen. You’ve already met my colleague, Doctor Needle. He’s a parasitologist and I am a pathologist.” The mare spoke with a familiar Grittish accent that Boxcars found comforting. “First things first, food is coming. Second, I would very much like to speak with you and I need your help. I’m trying to understand what took place on the ship you were on.”
Confused, but also hopeful for food, Boxcars blinked and felt her brother press up against her side. He was a bit miffed about being bathed, but she thought it felt good to be clean again. Together, they sat on a steel table that was covered in a clean green blanket that was a little bit scratchy. Bright overhead lights shone down upon them, which made it difficult to see, and the lights made it a little bit warm as well.
“I need to draw blood and give you both a thorough examination. I know it is scary, but I’d like to get a few samples before you have eaten. I promise I’ll be gentle and I’m told I have a much nicer bedside manner than my associate, Doctor Needle. He has a scary name for a doctor, doesn’t he?”
Domino nodded, but Boxcars did not respond, because she rather liked Doctor Needle.
“If you cooperate with my examination, you’ll get ice cream.”
“What’s ice cream?” Boxcars asked.
Doctor Bunsen paused and now had a look that was very much like distress. Boxcars studied her and she could hear her brother’s stomach growling. The doctor stood there with her mouth hanging open, and Boxcar’s decided that the doctor with the bright orange mane and screaming yellow pelt was pretty. She also had an accent that made Boxcar think of her father, a distant memory indeed.
“Excuse me, I lost my composure for a moment. I hope you will forgive me.” The doctor blinked a few times, shook her head, and then began writing something down upon a clipboard. “Let us start at the beginning, shall we? Did you notice anything strange about your fellow passengers on the ship? Were they acting funny? Did you notice when they stopped leaving their cabins?”
“No,” Boxcars replied. “I avoided them. I was scared of what they might to do to me and my brother. I kept away from them to stay safe.”
“Hmm, how peculiar.” Doctor Bunsen’s face wrinkled into a thoughtful expression. “The both of you are still sick, which means you were exposed, and if you were exposed, you should both be just as sick as the rest of the crew and passengers. Yet both of you are in relatively good condition compared to the rest. Perhaps you just got lucky by limiting your exposure.”
“We’re sick?” Boxcars asked.
“Nothing life-threatening like everypony else has,” the doctor replied right away. “We don’t even know what they have, at least not yet, which is why I am so interested in you. You seem to be almost okay. Doctor Needles thinks it might be some kind of new influenza, but he’s a parasitologist and not a communicable disease specialist.”
Confused, Boxcars didn’t understand what any of this meant.
“It’s hitting the foals of the steerage passengers the hardest and I don’t think most of them will survive.” Holding her clipboard aloft, Doctor Bunsen peered at the two foals in her care through narrowed, squinty eyes. “Did you share food with any of your fellow passengers?”
“No.” Boxcars wiggled a bit because her brother’s squirming was tickling her. “I stayed away from them because they scared me. I know what can happen to a filly for the cost of a meal.”
The doctor sighed and her ears drooped as she wrote something down. “Yeah, the world is a rough place. You sound pretty smart, Boxcars.”
“Did you sleep in a common room?” Doctor Bunsen asked.
“No.” Boxcars shook her head. “My brother and I snuck away and found a storage closet. It had a steam pipe along the back wall and it was warm.”
“Hmm.” The doctor’s pen moved with great rapidity and her eyes now focused upon her clipboard. “You’re a very lucky little filly indeed. In trying to keep you and your brother safe, you might’ve saved your own lives. Anyhow, your seemingly limited exposure is why we need to get blood samples for you. I’m like a detective that tries to figure out what is going on, and your blood is a valuable clue for me. Do I have your permission to draw some blood?”
“No!” Domino cried.
Reaching around, Boxcars grabbed her brother, dragged him in front of her, and looked him in the eye. “This is our home now and we must do our part to help. Behave, Dom.” She looked down at her brother, studying his face, and noticed how scared he was. It was awful, but there wasn’t much she could do. “I’m in charge and you will do what I say. Got it?”
“No,” her brother whined, and Boxcars was forced to shake him a bit to get his attention.
When this failed, she tried something else. Wrapping her forelegs around him, she pulled him close and began rocking him a little, knowing how this comforted him. She was all too aware of the doctor’s eyes upon her, and there was a part of her that was more than a little fearful about the consequences of refusal. This was a new land, with new rules, and she didn’t know what might happen. Domino’s stomach rumbled in protest, and then made a squelching, gurgling sound.
“I need to go potty,” he whispered.
“Excellent, maybe I can get a stool sample.” Doctor Bunsen had far too much enthusiasm about the whole thing and Boxcars gave her a suspicious stare. “Look, I’d really like to feed you, but I need samples before you eat. Can I please get just a little bit of blood after you go potty? Please? Pretty please with shredded carrots and honey on top?”
“Do as she says, Domino, or I’ll spank you.” For Boxcars, this was pretty much the worst threat she could think of, and she felt her brother shrink in her embrace. She felt ashamed, but understood the desperation of the situation. A good spank or three was usually enough to get her brother to cooperate and do exactly what he was told to do.
“Fine, I’ll do it… but I need to potty right now!”
This room was different, but also the same. It was small, the walls were covered in pale green tiles, and the floor was an unpleasant shade of yellow. There were no windows, but there was a big brass vent that blew in warm air. There was a metal table in the middle of the room that did not move because it was stuck to the floor and there were four short steel chairs around it that had some kind of weird, slick fabric cushion that Boxcars didn’t like sitting on.
They had only been in here for a short time, but it felt much, much longer. Doctor Bunsen had promised to return with food and had left, leaving Boxcars alone in the room with her brother. Domino was still weepy eyed from crying over having his blood drawn, and she was too. Even after mustering all of her courage, she had still cried like a yearling when the big needle had poked her in the neck so that a vein could be tapped.
“I’m proud of you, Domino,” she said to her brother, and he turned to look at her, he did not reply. No doubt he was upset by everything that had happened, and the threat of being spanked by his big sister no doubt had done terrible things to his mood.
“These ponies have funny ears,” Domino said, saying something but changing the subject.
They did, but Boxcars said nothing aloud because she didn’t want to be rude. Reaching out with her magic, which was weak and flickery, she tried to do something with her brother’s unruly mane. He squirmed, but could do nothing to stop her as she slicked it back away from his horn and his face.
“Stop!” he whined as he backed into a corner. “So mean!”
“Who’s being mean?” a masculine voice said as the door opened.
Boxcars whirled about to face the stranger and saw a stallion with Doctor Bunsen. Now, she too backed into a corner, the same one with her brother. The stallion had a scary face, almost as if some of it was made of wax and had been melted. The scent of food filled the room, and Doctor Bunsen was carrying a tray loaded down with containers.
“Oh, shit, sorry kids,” the stallion said, “I didn’t mean to scare ya.”
“Watch your mouth, Doctor Needle or I’ll smack what’s left of your face into next Tuesday.”
“No way,” he replied, “my mouth is gross looking and I don’t want to look at it. I don’t see how you kiss it every night.”
“I turn off the lights first so I don’t have to look at your gross-looking mug, you imbecile.”
At this, Doctor Bunsen rolled her eyes, and Boxcars heard her brother laughing just a little. It was a happy sound, a good sound, because she liked hearing Domino laugh. His laughter had been in short supply for a long, long time. The tray was set down on the table and Boxcars could feel her mouth watering. Something smelled amazing, but she had no idea what it was, not yet. The food smelled foreign and strange, but also familiar and comforting.
“You were on the boat?” Domino asked while he clung to his big sister’s hind leg.
“Yeah, that was me on the boat.” Doctor Needle lowered his head. “Wow, both of you are white… I had no idea. I thought you were grey, or brown. Look at you and how clean you are. What a difference a bath makes, eh? Are you hungry? Did you find another gun to pull on Doctor Bunsen when she drew blood?”
Domino was giggling now, and Boxcars found herself smiling, but only just a little.
“It isn’t often that I get to sit down and have a meal with my husband,” Doctor Bunsen said with a wry smile. “We’re both very busy sorts. So, we’re going to sit down and how about we pretend that we’re a nice, happy family together, okay?”
Still chuckling a bit, Domino replied, “Okay.”
Ice cream was a magical treat indeed; cold, creamy, soothing, and delightful, it melted in Boxcar’s mouth and trickled down her throat. Doctor Bunsen was feeding Domino, trying to use a spoon and fighting a good fight to keep her brother’s head out of his bowl. As for Boxcar’s own ice cream, it was gone, much to her dismay, but there were other things to eat.
Good things. Amazing things.
There was some kind of chickpea stew served over rice that was almost like Windian food; it had some of the same flavours, some of the same seasonings, which is why it smelled so familiar, but it was entirely unlike anything that would have been served back home, except for maybe the very rich. It seemed that Equestria had its own Windian food, and it was delicious. Her spoon trembled in her weak telekinesis and it was a struggle not to drop it. As weak as she was, she was determined to have her best manners.
“You have to be quite a special little filly to have somehow managed to travel halfway around the world with your brother,” Doctor Needle said as he paused between bites. “Most kids these days, they can’t even be trusted to cross the street by themselves. To do all that you have done and to keep your brother safe, that takes guts, kid.”
“I made a promise,” Boxcars replied after she swallowed the food she had been chewing on. Thinking back, she had trouble remembering that promise because it had been so long ago. Her brother had been quite tiny, hardly even a weanling at that point, and she had been so little and helpless herself. The memories troubled her and she felt the unwanted sting of tears.
“Kid, the world is a better place for bossy big sisters.” Cactus Needle made a circular gesture with his spoon and smiled. “I saw that look in your eye when you pulled that gun on me. I think you would have done it… I’m pretty sure you would have shot me. Good thing you didn’t, because the barrel was crooked and the gun probably would have blown up in your face. You’re a very lucky filly that nothing happened.”
“Did you really pull a pistol on Cactus or is he just telling tall tales again?” Bertie Bunsen spoke with her mouth full and a few grains of rice dribbled down her chin.
Ears drooping from guilt, Boxcars nodded and thought about what Cactus had said. Getting to Equestria was just one long streak of good luck, it seemed. Not dying of disease was just more good luck. Keeping her brother alive and safe no doubt had something to do with good luck. And now, she was eating a fine meal because she was lucky enough to run into some kind ponies.
“Holy alicorn shit, I thought you were pulling my leg, Cactus. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry that you somehow let a teeny, tiny little filly get the drop on you—”
“Hey!” Cactus turned to look at his wife while he fought to hold in his laughter. “You weren’t there! She was a quick draw. Happened so fast that I almost had me some trouble on my hooves. I still managed to take the gun away from her before anything bad happened.” Waving his spoon at his wife, Cactus sat there, laughing for a moment, and then added, “You know, she could be one of us… I mean, look at what she’s done, Bertie. You came by boat too, all by yourself.”
“Later, Cactus… not right now—”
“Aw, but she’s so scrappy.”
“Hey, kid, you want a job?”
“Cactus, I swear, I woke up this morning with one nerve left and right now you’re treading on it!” Bertie elbowed her husband in the ribs, which made him grunt, and then turned to look at Boxcars. “For right now, just focus on eating. You need to eat. It’s scary how skinny you and your brother are.” While she spoke, she spooned more ice cream into Domino’s mouth as the colt sat laughing, and then scraped some from the colt’s chin in a practiced motion.
Boxcars did want a job, and she wondered what Cactus had in mind. She could sweep, mop, do dishes, clean all manner of things, remove spots from glass, polish silverware until the tarnish was all gone, she was more than capable of all manner of domestic work, thanks to her time in the orphanage and having been loaned out to do labour. Hard work was better than the shame of prostitution and she was no stranger to menial, degrading work.
“Serves me right for marrying a scrappy mare,” Cactus mumbled to himself while he rubbed his ribs.
Watching all of this, Boxcars thought of her parents, and how they had loved one another. She understood all too well how most of the Great Unwanted came to be and how little love was involved in their creation, but her parents loved one another. She could remember her father dancing with her mother, how happy they had been.
But that happiness did not last. When the trouble came, her father, an officer in the great Grittish Empire, sided with the natives and fought to defend them. The uprising was crushed, as most of the uprisings that happened around that time had been. Closing her eyes, Boxcars didn’t want to remember, but it was a memory that she couldn’t forget: both of her parents had been hung for their part in the uprising, and she had been made to watch so that she might understand the fate of those who resisted Grittish rule.
Reaching up, she rubbed her eyes, determined to scrub the tears away. She had kept her promise, at least, and now that she was away from the land of her birth, she had to find a way to care for her brother. When she pulled her forelegs away from her eyes, they were red and glassy with tears.
Equestria was her best chance to start over and give her brother a good and decent life.
“Hey, kid, you okay?” Cactus asked.
“I’m fine,” she replied and too late, she realised that her husky voice had given her away.
“See, Bertie, I told you she was scrappy.”
Fighting back tears, Boxcars focused on eating her chickpea stew with rice