The Trouble with Unicorns 3: Telephones
There were dozens of appliances in her Earth apartment that Acorn liked, things that ponies simply did not have. A big, glass-faced box on the wall was her own personal movie theater—that was nice, although she’d learned that it gave her a headache if she watched it for too long.
The kitchen was full of appliances she’d never dreamed of. There was an icebox that magically kept itself cold, a food processor that could chop her veggies as fine as any Canterlot chef, a stove that never needed to have coal or wood put in it.
There were little vents on the wall that could blow hot or cold air if the temperature outside wasn’t to her liking. All she had to do was set the temperature she wanted, and the little box on the wall did all the work after that.
Her kitchen had a machine that would wash dishes for her and dry them, too. Another machine to make coffee. A blender to make smoothies, which could be chilled with the unlimited supply of ice her icebox spit out. Downstairs, there was a laundry room where she could wash her blankets and towels.
There was a gym, too, but the only piece of exercise equipment that was really pony-friendly was the treadmill. Free weights were okay for building field strength, but people got shouty when she started to use them. Still, she’d met lots of her neighbors while trotting on the treadmill.
In short, Acorn’s apartment was nearly perfect. Except for the telephone.
At first, it had seemed like another convenient appliance. Restaurants sent her fliers with their telephone numbers on them, and she could order pizza or submarine sandwiches or Chinese from the comfort of her apartment, and even get it delivered right to the building’s front door.
The telephone of course worked both ways, and anybody could call her any time they wanted to, with no regard to what she was doing.
Acorn might be in the middle of a movie, when all of a sudden the rude jingling of the bell would interrupt her and completely break the mood. Or she might be relaxing in the bath, or eating dinner, or laying in bed.
If it was a friend, she didn’t mind so much. She politely reminded them when it was a good time to call her, and they respected that.
Sometimes it was work, and while she didn’t always enjoy getting calls from work, they were necessary. Shifts occasionally got moved around or had to be covered because somebody was sick, and that was just the way of things.
Most often though, it was people trying to sell her things. Sometimes not even proper people—she hadn’t realized at first that humans had invented simulacra to talk on the telephone, but they had.
Usually switching to Equestrian confused them, and they’d hang up—but not always. Sometimes they’d just go on oblivious to whatever she had to say, reading off their pre-programmed script.
They’d offer her forgiveness for her student loans or an extended warranty on her car or help with the viruses and malware that were plaguing her computer. Telling the simulacrum that she didn’t have student loans or a car or a computer didn’t make it give up.
Occasionally, she got actual people on the telephone, also trying to sell her things she didn’t want. Most of them were polite when she told them ‘no’ at least.
Most of them.
Despite the general advantages of telephones, they were virtually unknown in Equestria. In some of the big cities, there were buildings with local sound-powered telephone systems, but these did not connect to any other buildings.
Given that Equestria was largely—in people’s perception—quaint and old-timey, most people didn’t think about that too much. Most people didn’t stop to wonder if there was a reason that ponies had not bothered to invent a long-distance telecommunications device.
There was a reason.
Acorn was in the bathroom when the telephone started ringing. It had been a long day at work with miserable customers, and it had started raining on her way home—it was still raining, in fact.
I can ignore it. The water was just the right temperature, the bath bomb was fizzing away, and she’d even figured out how to make her television play soothing music.
She dipped her hooves in the bathtub.
The ringing stopped.
She waited one more moment, just to be sure, and then eased herself in, sinking down until only her head was still above the water, until her nose was full of the steamy scent of lavender.
There it was again. Her ears cocked, unbidden, towards the hateful telephone.
How long could she ignore it? If it stopped now, surely it would just start ringing again until it was satisfied.
It was tempting to just rip the instrument from the wall—she knew it wouldn’t work if its wires weren’t attached. But it could be work, or it could be the pizza restaurant calling to clarify her order or when she wanted it delivered.
She got out of the bath and trod across the living room to the little side table where the telephone sat. By the time she got there, it had stopped ringing again.
So she stood there, dripping water, staring daggers at her telephone, just daring it to ring again, and it did.
She grabbed the handset in her aura and jerked it up to her head. “Hello.”
“Hello, good evening, I would like to tell you about—”
“I don’t want it,” she snapped. “Don’t need it. Thanks, bye.”
“Hello, good evening, we got cut off. This is Mark calling from All County Building Supply & Maintenance, and we have a great offer for you.”
“I don’t want a great offer. Goodbye.”
She took two steps before the telephone rang again.
“Listen here, lady—”
“No, you listen here. I had a long day at work and I was just about to relax in the bath.”
“You’d be a lot more relaxed if you knew what kind of peace of mind a new maintenance contract would give you,” Mark said.
“There’s a trail of wet hoofprints across my living room.”
“It only takes a moment to sign up,” Mark explained.
“I don’t have a minute. Bye.” She dropped the handset again.
The phone rang.
“Hello, good evening.”
“Stop calling me!”
I won’t give him the satisfaction. She looked at the telephone. She could unplug it at least long enough to take a bath. She’d want to call the restaurant first and cancel her food, though; they’d have no way of reaching her if the telephone was unplugged, and what if they’d already started making it? They’d be mad when they couldn’t deliver it to her.
She grabbed the handset. “What?”
“Listen here, you cow, stop hanging up on me.”
“Cow?” Acorn’s cheeks burned with fury, and the handset started to crack under the pressure of her aura. “Cow? You’re . . . you’re a mule. Stubborn and—” Realization struck, and she didn’t hear his angry retort, because she was carefully examining the instrument. Finally, she reached her decision. “Shut up and listen. You call me one more time, you’ll regret it.”
She dropped the handset back in the cradle and waited. Five seconds later, it started ringing again.
She gave it two rings, then pushed it off the cradle. His vituperations were clearly audible even at this distance.
A gentle poke with her hoof stopped its rocking, and she tilted her head down at the mouthpiece, aiming her horn just so. “Okay, mister Mule, I warned you.” It only took a moment to cast the spell, which melted the mouthpiece a little bit, and then—
—and then it went through the wires—copper was a fine conductor of magical energy. The spiral cord of the handset lit briefly, followed by the entire telephone glowing for a moment.
The spell moved on, through the internal circuitry of the telephone and then into the wall. It followed the wires down to the PBX in the basement of the apartment building and after it had skimmed through the boards, it found the wires leading out of the building.
Had Acorn looked outside, she might have seen it for just a moment as it whisked along from pole to pole, a brief glow on the line that quickly passed.
The insulation on the wires wasn’t what it once was. Cell phones and VoIP had greatly reduced the demand of actual landlines, and these hadn’t been properly maintained since Ma Bell’s days. Little bits leaked out: Mrs. Rochow, who was having a conversation with her sister, suddenly wondered if fresh cut grass was as delicious as it smelled; Mr. McNaught scraped his foot on the ground and then kicked back at the wall when his mechanic told him that the engine would have to come out of his Explorer.
It traveled halfway through town until it came to a rather plain-looking brick building, one of the holdovers of local exchanges. Many modern systems were digitized but this one was not, not entirely.
The spell traveled through a series of relays—the electromechanical patchboard that had replaced human operators—until it came back out the other side, once again on good old-fashioned copper wires, and then it was off, zipping back up to a telephone pole, once again racing to its destination.
It had a bit of difficulty when it got to an unassuming storefront with a faded ‘for lease’ sign still in the window. There was an auto dialler on the line and it bounced briefly into that before finding its way again, rushing along a bundle of wires loosely draped from the trusses. They were fairly new and the insulation was good, so it had no trouble finding its way to another telephone and rushing through the instrument and up the headset cord.
Having found its target, the spell took but a moment to do its work and then it faded as if it had never been there, leaving the telephone connection perfectly intact. As for the man with the telephone . . .
Acorn didn’t hang up until she heard confused braying on the other end of the line.
“Hmph.” She crossed her living room, back to her bath. A bit more hot water and if she was feeling decadent, a second bath bomb. “Now everybody’s gonna know he’s stubborn like a mule.”