Aside from the glow of the screens before them, there was no other light. Light was a luxury. Light was a luxury of the time before, the past which was further afield with every waking moment. The now was dark. The now was bleak.
The now had seen another Now.
Laid out before them was a tableau of sights. Rolling verdant hills, gentle slopes like the curve of a woman lying in the afternoon sun. A forest brimming with life, crawling with every shape and hue of warm, breathing living thing that the two observers could have imagined, and things that they struggled to explain. They saw a great hulking beast, its gargantuan form covered in ragged, matted fur and living snakes as its tail and mane devouring some other hulk in a wooded copse. The play of light on its back was enchanting in a way neither of those watching had felt before outside of moments they would never discuss, even with a lover. It woke something in them they tried to keep asleep.
They saw barely traveled paths. They saw signs of civilization, and the only sound in the room was their heavy, focused breathing.
They did not speak as the probe and its camera continued down one such path. They did not comment on the sign with worn lettering which was disturbingly familiar. They did not, nor could they have, said a word as they stared at the cottage built into a large tree. The striped creature that exited the structure and set up a primitive clothesline right outside could not draw from their astonishment even a gasp.
They were too focused for that.
More images. Flowers, plants. Flora, fauna, all of it categorized properly and samples taken. The probe left the woods behind.
The hills hid a dozen small houses, picturesque in their rustic charm. One of them had a small stream that ran beside, and a arching stone bridge. The probe stopped here, cataloguing the sights of dozens of birds flocking worriedly to their houses, built into the house itself and hanging from the trees around it.
A small equine creature with wings on its back emerged from the house, its expression unreadable. It warbled and hummed, repeating phrases of its alien music in an almost linguistic way, until at last they could almost pick out patterns as it comforted the many birds. It began to search, as if it knew the probe was nearby.
The probe kept still as the strange creature approached, getting footage of it up close.
It was a pleasant, soft yellow that caught the light nicely. It’s large, expressive eyes were brimming with intelligence, and its expressions became more readable as it neighed and warbled at the air, as if calling for someone or something.
It sniffed, pawed at the grass with almost dainty legs, and then flared its avian wings to take to the sky. The watchers’ mouths dropped in unison to see this creature--they both thought for a moment that it was beautiful--take to the sky as easily as one of them might walk into the next room.
The probe continued on. It ascended a hill and found a sea of trees. But these were not as the previous had been. These were not gnarled and twisted in surreal tangled heaps, but orderly and filled with growing fruit.
The sun hung overhead. More equines could be spotted here and there among the rows of trees, and in the distance, there was a large barn. They had never seen a barn before, but knew what barns were from pictures.
It was a farm, and this revelation broke their long silence.
“Agriculture,” said one.
“I’m not sure. Matches what we know of pre-modern techniques. Would need more to confirm rotation, irrigation, the rest.”
“No machines,” noted the first.
“Wasted potential,” hissed the second in horror.
“Less than half as productive as it could be.”
“But a farm.”
The second shook her head.
“Settlement,” she corrected. “There’s a difference between civilization and habitation.”
The first licked his lips nervously.
“Category 2,” he said. “Inhabited. Pre-Modern. Mineral resources unconfirmed. Advise further study before landfall.”
“Agreed. I’ll write the report.”
“It’s fine. You’ll deliver it.”
The screen panned as the probe moved on. The watchers were too busy talking to notice that a bright pink equine had stopped along a distant path to stare at their probe. She convulsed, almost as if her whole body had sneezed, and then went rigid. With stiff and hurried movements, she galloped back the way she had come.
“Resources negligible,” murmured one of the Suits.
Speculator A19 licked his nervous lips again and quietly pleaded with his knees not to lock up.
The Suits were offworlders. They were Post-Humans, Gods among Men, if there were in fact Gods. Which there were not. They moved on flows of raw power and everything they touched either died or prospered as per its good or bad deeds. The lower levels sang hymns to Corporate four times a day at the appointed times, but A19 knew better than they the true nature of these beastly apparitions, with their slack faces and translucent skin.
He couldn’t help but think about the yellow equine and her large, soulful eyes. As the suits grumbled, he replaced their worrisome noise with her pleasant, almost songlike language.
They did not speak because they needed to. They spoke for his benefit alone, so that he could hear their chittering and the whirring of their inner-workings, the low hum of their augmented shells. Even their appearance was calculated to impress upon him their imposing position and their absolute power. No doubt they had chosen these forms precisely because his internal personnel files indicated that it might unsettle him. None of the other Speculators had ever described the Posts before, at least not where he could hear them do it. Perhaps they had a new form for every interviewee, perhaps.
And they did unsettle him. Their gaunt faces with blue veins everywhere, filmy flesh and solid black eyes married to archaic clothing--literally fused to their bodies, you could see it--yes, it unnerved him. It made his skin crawl. To be in proximity to these beings made him feel things he dared not feel elsewhere. It gave him something like the inklings of thoughts that he would have suppressed with violent rapture in any of the Hiveworld's many halls.
“Did you write this?”
A19 stared ahead. He dared not look at any one of them too closely, for more reasons than one.
“No, sir, I did not.”
“Your partner, ah… J7, wrote this.”
“She includes a brief section recounting some of your observations as well, I see it now.”
This was a calculated lie. The Posts could read a page in a picosecond. What was the point of lying? He noticed every time that they did this. Was it to unbalance him? Were they toying with him? Was there some decaying shred of baseline human in them that wanted to pretend it had not ascended to commune with the macrobe?
“Give us your observations in your own words. Be brief.”
“There are obvious signs of cultivation and large scale agriculture by pre-modern standards. Breathable air. No signs so far of mining. Some signs of habitation and possible civilization.”
The Suits bristled. He heard whirring and shivered.
They did not hiss, but they spoke in unison. “Civilization?”
“Houses,” he replied, feeling cold sweat begin to gather on his brow. “Organized apple orchard. Paths, some more used than others. Signs of larger communities elsewhere that our probe did not encounter before returning.”
“Hard evidence?” asked one flatly. "Anything that would indicate its classification as a Reserved or Claimed world?"
“No. Just conjecture based on what we’ve seen. I suggested in my contribution that we further investigate.”
“We noticed,” they chorused.
“You may go,” the Suit in the middle said. “Corporate is pleased with your work.”
“Nos numerus sumus et fruges consumere nati,” the Speculator breathed and then bowed before beating a hasty, panicked retreat.
Twilight Sparkle had just sat down in her office to look over the day’s correspondence when Pinkie arrived.
Arrived is not the right word, but exploded doesn’t quite do it justice. One moment, Twilight was sipping coffee out of a mug and opening a letter with the letter opener she’d received from Celestia as one of several house warming gifts, and the next she was staring into the panicked eyes of a very agitated pink pony.
Pinkie convulsed on top of Twilight’s desk, knocking the coffee from her shock-weakened telekinetic grip.
Twilight pushed her chair back, still trying to understand what was happening. Pinkie fell off of her desk and vanished from view.
They were both quiet for a moment. Twilight could hear Pinkie’s gasping breath, and rose from her chair cautiously.
“Pinkie? Pinkie are you alright?”
“B-better. That was a doozy!”
Twilight walked around her desk to find a frantic but exhausted looking pony peering up at her from the crystal floor. She reached out and helped her friend to her hooves.
“Can you explain what just happened?” she asked. “I… I’m not mad about the cup, Pinkie. Don’t worry. What is going on?”
“I… I…” Pinkie flailed. “I don’t know! Something! Something bad! The worst thing! I…”
Twilight frowned, and then it came to her with such force that she almost stumbled.
“Pinkie sense. Something big, something bad, and you feel it. Am I there?”
Pinkie nodded. “I don’t know what it is, Twilight! I almost always know what it is!”
She would have continued on, but Twilight hugged her fiercely and she broke into ragged little sobs. Confusion could wait. Twilight had a distressed friend here and now, and whatever mystery was coming, she could afford a moment to make sure Pinkie was alright.
They stayed that way for a moment, and then Twilight had her sit down and brought her some water. Pinkie accepted it with uncharacteristically subdued thanks.
“I’ve been having Pinkie Sense off and on for… for an hour or so,” she said at last after she’d refreshed herself. “That’s not usually a bad thing! Usually it’s really helpful, but… like…” she waved her hoof. “Sorry. My brain is all scrambled.”
“If they were all as bad as this one, I can imagine you’ve had a rough time of it,” Twilight finished for her, softly. Pinkie nodded, so she continued. “Coupled with the fact that you have no idea what this new danger or disaster is… No idea at all? No, I guess that’s too much to hope for.” She sighed.
“No,” Twilight said firmly, shaking her head. “It’s not your fault, Pinkie. You’ve done well. Very, very well. I’m sorry it’s been rough on you. I think I need to talk to Princess Celestia.”
“That’s why I came to you! We could write a letter!” Pinkie said, perking up again.
But Twilight frowned. “That’s not enough. She’ll waste time trying to understand what I’m talking about. We need to go straight to her and convince her in person. There’s no train headed to Canterlot until this afternoon, so we’ll have to go the old fasioned way.”
Pinkie cocked her head to the side. “On hoof? But that’ll take forever.”
Twilight allowed herself a smile. “You know I have a chariot the same as Celestia, right? She had Luna work on the ornamentation awhile back. I need you to find us a few pegasi. I’ll go drag the thing out into the square. We’ll ride in style.”
It came out of the sky, burning bright like a shooting star. But unlike those beautiful sights, it did not burn up in the atmosphere. It hurtled itself suicidal upon the earth and the hills shook with the impact.
There was a crater in the Everfree, blackened and burning, and at its center was a small, sleek black pod.
The pod opened up like a horrible flower, and out of its innards leaked squirming gray death.
The grey puddled and began to churn and heat the air around it. It rose in two pillars which flattened out and began to write with life of their own. Limbs appeared one after the other. A form could be seen now, not unlike the equines from the screen. The grey good hissed and retracted into the bodies it had birthed.
Two earth ponies, one stallion and one mare, stood heaving in the blackened earth. They looked at each other.
“You’re hideous,” the mare said.
“You’re a horse,” said the other.
She snorted. “Observant still. Transfer go fine?”
The stallion nodded. He shook out his limbs and grimaced. “It’s creepy,” he said. “No hands.”
“Not a fan either,” the mare groused and shook out her mane and then grumbled at it. “Absurd,” she commented, and then pushed it awkwardly back. “Luckily we don’t need hands. I’ll set my sensor pack up in the woods. You go towards the mountains about… Eh, the pack will tell you.”
The stallion rolled his eyes and fished the strange backpack out of the pod before wiggling his body into its straps. “I know what I’m doing, J.”
“Maybe,” she said with a grin, having already done the same. She threw him a mocking salute and made her way up and out.
The stallion sighed and began his own ascent.
He found a road and followed it.
He hadn’t done so with any real intention at first. A whim, just that. What in him was human, the motivating spirit, was still enamored with straight lines and where they might lead. It was the same instinct that teaches us to wait in lines and queues and great amoebous blobs for bread instead of just taking it. It was the motivating spirit, this instinct, that had left him sitting at the screens which had first located this planet. It was the human desire for padded, comfortable shackling to the mute directives of form and function.
The road led between rolling hills and cut at last over a bit of water and opened up into a meadow where sat a village of thatched roofs and life. He could see it now, and hear it now.
The stallion who in this form had no name stopped short and blinked. He stood with a wide, unschooled stance in the rough but well-trod dirt path and it was as if many different points were all at once connected.
He knew what the sensation of walking on dirt roads was like. He had already known--he had walked in the hab-rings during training and in the tunnels of his CorpHive before Employment--but now he knew it with an alien form, one harmless and attractive to his aesthetic. He knew the pleasant shock of a hoof’s trotting pace and he could imagine it on every inch of the road.
The stallion shook his head and centered himself.
Euphoria and confusion were common side-effects of Transfer. He didn’t pretend to understand the science of it. Employment meant specialty, and specialization meant blocking out anything irrelevant. But he’d been briefed before his first Transfer and had always noticed that his mental state on landfall was always tumultuous.
There were more important things to do than to stand weepy in the middle of the road. This settlement had been part of the secondary scan, and they had prepared accordingly. They would need to infiltrate it, obviously, but that could wait until after he had set up his machinery.
Twilight and Pinkie were not quite a storm, but they came rather close.
Pinkie had regained some of her usual character on the journey and Twilight had grown more somber. Pinkie meandered in her royal wake, eyes roving to and fro through every hallway and chamber, catching and cataloguing every pony as was her wont. Twilight had none of that bouncing, nervous force prompting her. She was like an arrow pushing aside mail and stabbing to the flesh beneath. Stars help anything that came between her and Celestia.
So when she opened the doors to the throne room and found the day’s court still in session, she acted accordingly.
The Royal Canterlot voice wasn’t that hard, once you got the hang of it.
“ATTENTION. THERE HAS BEEN A CHANGE OF PLANS, IF YOU WOULD ALL PLEASE LEAVE THE THRONE ROOM IN AN ORDERLY MANNER!”
A hundred pairs of eyes, blinking and baffled, looked at her.
Twilight blinked back.
“NOW. IF YOU WOULD.”
She flared her wings and sent a few of the closer hangers-on scattering. Deaf to their protests, their speculations, she marched ahead towards her former teacher and current friend and the mass of ponies parted before her.
She did not know it, but something in her demeanor had changed. It had been changing all along, really. When had it started? When she got her wings? Maybe, but as Pinkie followed along she stopped her wandering and stood somehow straighter.
The ceremonial guards, perhaps delighted at the chance to actually do something for once, were already busy shuffling onlookers out the door. Celestia had risen from her throne and stepped down from the dias with a stern expression.
“Twilight,” she said, and then stopped short. Perhaps she too felt the change in her former student, for her sternness faded into something harder but less condemning. “You have a reason.”
“Yes. I’m sorry, but I need to meet with you in private immediately. You and Pinkie.”
“Of course. I take it I should wake my sister.”
“That would be best,” Twilight said, and took a deep breath.
“Then I shall.” She looked over them and summoned a nervous looking attendant with a nod before giving her brief, staccato instruction and sending her off at a gallop.
Without another word, she looked to Twilight and there was a flash as the throne room melted away and was replaced with an elegant, if somewhat spartan study. Pinkie stumbled, caught off guard, but still without speaking, a golden aura righted her.
Celestia sat behind a great oak desk and her magic took her vestments and placed them elsewhere.
“Luna will be along presently. She wakes slowly this time of day, but I’m sure we’ll see her soon. Pinkie? May I offer you some tea?” Her hard look melted momentarily and she smiled at the little pony who nervously sat in one of her old patched plush chairs.
“Um, no, I’m fine-a-doodle!” Pinkie said with a grin that just managed not to wilt.
Celestia tipped her head slightly. “I’m glad to hear it, Pinkie Pie.”
Twilight had not sat down. She stood still as a statue before Celestia’s desk, a swirling riptide of memory threatening to pull her down into herself. This room, this desk, the gentle sunbeam of light that streamed through the round window above the imposing bookshelf behind Celestia’s head…
It was perhaps for the best that Luna apparated in their midst in full plate, a warhammer held in her magic’s fierce grip and her eyes blazing with silver moonlight.
She wasted no time, but got to barking her ire. “I can have the city garrison roused in moments, sister. Whatever this threat is, Equestria’s Warmistress is more than prepared to--”
Celestia held up a hoof and Luna stalled, frowning.
“We’re not sure what it even is yet that we face,” said the Sun’s shepherd. “Twilight?”
“Thank you.” Only now did Twilight’s stiff shoulders begin to loosen and she sat on her haunches. “Celestia, do you remember the letter I wrote you years ago about Pinkie’s extrasensory abilities?”
Celestia nodded, and her brow furrowed. “I remember it. I had encountered seers among earth ponies before, so I recognized the pattern. Though the manifestation of her talent was rather not what I had expected.”
Twilight stopped short, pausing for a few beats before saying. “Wait, you… No, I’ll ask later. Moving on. I’m guessing this means that I don’t need to convince you that Pinkie’s Pinkie Sense can be trusted to a point?”
“I perhaps trust it more than you do, I think,” Celestia said mildly. “Pinkie?”
“Well…” Pinkie hugged her tail close. “It’s… You know how you feel like somepony’s watching you, but then you look and they aren’t, but then you still feel that creepy feeling that they have to be there watching?”
“Aye, the Evil Eye,” Luna groused and put a hoof beneath her horn solemnly. “An ill omen.”
Celestia rolled her eyes. “Go on.”
“It was like that at first. But then I got the shakes, and then--”
“Maybe move past the actual actions,” Twilight said quickly.
“Oh! Okay! Well I got to feeling like we were being watched! And then I felt something was wandering around and I found a shadow! But it ran away. Then I started to feel something really, really bad was going to happen.”
“How bad, would you say?” Celestia asked.
“Very,” Pinkie said. She paused, frowning. “Very-very.”
“She saw no vision?” Luna asked. “Then how are we to plot defenses against things we cannot see?” She stomped her armor-clad hoof with a snort. “There must be more. Pinkie Pie of Ponyville, surely you can stretch your gift but a bit farther for us. It is vital.”
“I… It’s never been…” Pinkie shrugged. “I don’t know how, Princess! I just get little feelings and my tail goes twitchy and I know what’s gonna happen! But I don’t know because I see stuff. I just figured out what a bushy tail means and stuff.”
Celestia had already risen. “Pinkie, with your permission… I know a way in which we might further unlock your ability. I have not offered before because every earth pony I encountered in my long life which could see beyond despised their gift. I did not wish to burden you. May I…?”
“Whatever you need,” Pinkie said quickly. “I wanna help, Princess! Even if its scary! I can giggle away ghosties, after all. I can handle it.”
Celestia allowed herself a smile. “Twilight? This will take some time. I need to be alone with her. Will you and Luna prepare the guard? I need you to go to my seneschal, Raven, and tell her that she must keep up the appearance of normalcy. If you could, send a messenger to Ponyville so that the mayor is prepared to recieve an influx of rather serious guests.”
“Of course,” Twilight said, looking at Pinkie. She bit her lip. “Pinkie, will you be okay?”
“Yup! I’ll be fine, Twi!” Pinkie replied with a grin. “Now shoo.”
Twilight chuckled halfheartedly and helped push a somewhat belligerent Luna out of the room. It was just the two of them now. Princess and little pony. Sovereign and subject.
Pinkie deflated, almost literally. “Will it hurt?”
Celestia sighed and sat before her. “No. It will not hurt, but it will not be pleasant. Your bravery is to be commended, Pinkie.”
Pinkie squirmed. “I’m… scared,” she said. “I didn’t want Twilight to see. It’s a secret.” She pursed her lips. “You have to keep those.”
A ghost of a smile haunted Celestia’s face. “That you do. You are a faithful friend. I am going to touch my horn to your head. It will feel strange. Are you ready?”
Pinkie nodded. Celestia lowered her head.
And Pinkie saw the universe open like a bloom of incomprehensible darkness, and fell into it.
The stallion let his pack slump to the ground beside a tree.
The tree stood atop a gentle hill with a nice view of the small town. It did not trouble him that he had no word for the town, nor for this planet or most of the things on it. It also did not trouble him that the pack had begun to vibrate and beep when he had been deep in some thought.
He sighed and operated the zipper with his teeth clumsily for a moment before freeing the sensor package and rolling it out into the grass. Once he backed away and it sensed sunlight, it began to open up of its own accord, singing its familiar chorus. It was, in fact, an actual tune.
He had asked about that once, during a brief rest period. One of the others had told him that it was for when Transfers went poorly, for when a way was needed to complete the mission with a creature now devoid of most of its will.
As soon as the tones filled the air he felt a pleasant vibration in the back of his head and smiled lazily. Yes, there it was. The reward signal. The indoctrination was intact. That was the first one, so he’d been told. Recognizing the Company’s chosen Music and feeling warm endured even through the most disrupted Transfers and CryoSleep.
He had some trouble pulling himself away from it, but he did at last. The town needed to be surveyed.
J knew this, obviously, and so the best place to meet her would be the settlement. Part of him hoped that he made it to those streets first. He always enjoyed arriving first. All versions of him always had.
His approach into the town was not as quick an affair as perhaps he would have liked. There were things to consider first.
He didn’t even have to think for the Company’s augments to activate. As he walked along the path, he could feel the small pockets of synthsteel pull back on his legs and release tiny clouds of autonomous machines. They listened, they learned. They returned. If there was a language to learn, he would know it. Everything they saw would be stored inside him.
The houses drew nearer. He slowed down, gave the swarm time to go on ahead.
It was a nice world, he thought, but he thought it for only a moment.