I didn’t see Twilight Sparkle again for another week. She’d had to report to the royals, of course, and as long as she was in Canterlot, she figured she’d talk to the library staff and learn more about that mysterious Internet stuff. By the time she got back to Ponyville, she’d acquired enough skill to set up terminals in the library, and she was delighted. From (it said) email@example.com:
How have you been? I’ve spent hours wandering around on this Web of yours. Some of it is fascinating, and some of it is a little scary. I’m not sure I’m going to allow Spike to look at it.
I told Derpy about how her name was misinterpreted, and she said that as long as you liked her, you could call her whatever you wanted.
Princess Luna was thinking about diplomatic relations with the humans, but Celestia talked her out of it, saying it would be too much too soon. What do you think?
Your friend (for sure),
I hit the Reply button and typed in a batch of vaguely techie pleasantries. It bounced, of course. And as I was muttering dire imprecations against a mail server in a world I’d never seen, the doorbell rang in a familiar pattern.
She was wearing some sort of bonnet. “You like it?”
“Unexpected, but very nice. One of Rarity’s?”
“Yes, it is. I asked her for a little something to keep the sun off my horn. I don’t know who controls the sun here, but it’s way too hot.”
“There are times,” I said, “when I think everything around here is out of control. How have you been?”
“It’s been one thing after another all week,” she said. “Not that I’m complaining or anything. Keeping busy is good for me. If I can clear all the items on the day’s checklist, it’s a good day.” That smile again. I could spend years looking at that smile. “But seriously, who does the sun?”
I grinned. “The official story these days is that the sun is more or less stationary, and we go around it fast enough to see it for half a day and then not see it for the other half. Not exciting, and not scientifically accurate for that matter, but it manages to avoid personalities. The old god Apollo, who used to be in charge — well, he was kind of a pain in the flank, if you know what I mean. He had a twin sister, but you didn’t see her much. I’m not even sure if she was in charge of the moon.”
Twilight frowned. “We expect so much more from our deities.”
“And you can,” I pointed out. “They’re right there where you can see them. This has been a problem with all of our deities since whenever. They’re always someplace remote, and there’s always someone who claims to have a direct line to them, but you never see them actually getting a message through. At least Princess Celestia answers her mail, or so I’m told.”
“She’s been very good about that, at least with me. But she’s known me since I was a foal. A random somepony from the middle of nowhere might not get through the first time.”
“Sounds like me,” I laughed. “A random somepony from the middle of nowhere, that’s me.” Then I remembered something I’d wanted to know. “How many ponies are there, anyway?”
She shrugged, and you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a pony shrug. “I don’t think there’s ever been a formal count made.”
“Count the legs and divide by four,” I said.
“But that doesn’t make sense,” she protested. “If the pony is there in front of you, you can count the one and move on without having to do any arithmetic.”
“Sorry, bad joke.” Got to watch that alleged sense of humor. “We do a lot of those on this side of the Breach.”
“I don’t get it.”
“It’s not supposed to make sense,” I said. “Forget it. I never said it, and I’ll deny it if anypony asks.”
She seemed satisfied with that, and countered with a question of her own: “So how many humans are there?”
“About seven billion.”
“Oh, my. Is there really room for that many?”
“Well,” I began, “we’re not exactly evenly distributed. We have cities with ten million; we have towns with only a few. If we were spaced evenly, we’d have lots of room still. But we’d have to give up the forests and the deserts and build out over the oceans.”
“I’ve never seen an ocean,” said Twilight. “There are seas on the Moon. Princess Luna has told me about them. And there are seas beyond Equestria. Maybe one of them is really an ocean.”
“Sounds like you have your next research project.”
“I already have my next research project,” she said. From her bag she levitated what appeared to be a half-size legal pad and a proper quill. “We know there are equines who live among the humans. What are they like?”
Oh, my. This is way beyond my pay grade. “Tall,” I said. “Very, very tall. So tall that the shortest ones are called, um, ponies.”
“They’re not like us, are they?”
“Vaguely similar. Nowhere close to being as advanced, technologically speaking. And not a unicorn or a pegasus in the bunch.”
“There once was a pegasus actually named Pegasus. Used to hang around with the deities in the days of Apollo. When he finally died, he became a group of stars, and some nights he can actually be seen, if you have better eyes than I do. Or a telescope.”
“But no unicorns?” She seemed worried.
“There have been reports of unicorns for thousands of years, but no one seems to have seen one lately. The ones we are supposed to have had are the same height as regular equines, plus a very long horn. According to one legend, the last of the unicorns perished after nearly a month and a half of rain, which flooded their homes.” I stopped, took a breath, and wondered if I was making any sense at all.
“Could you tell me what your equines do? And, uh, how they are treated?”
Oh, boy. Or should that be “Oh, colt”? I’m going to have to watch my phrasing here. “Many of them do draft work: they assist with farming. Others, specially bred, race. Still others serve as companions to humans. And some run wild on the Great Plains.”
“Are they happy?”
“I’d like to think so. It is considered very bad form for a human to do an unkindness to an equine, and in many places humans will be punished for harming them. We don’t understand their language, but we can usually tell what’s on their minds.”
At least she didn’t want the gory details. Or maybe she did, but not from me. I’d worry about that later.
Then she hit me with the question I feared most: “What is their legal status? Do they have rights equal to humans?”
“They do not,” I said. “They occupy some zone, not well defined, above pets, but below humans. Humans have a tendency to think of themselves as the rulers of the world.”
Nice save, I thought. And then: “But how can you justify it? How do you get to be the rulers of the world?”
Deep breath in 3… 2… 1…
“We built — admittedly, with help from those so-called ‘lesser’ species — a civilization that perhaps rivals your own. And we did it without magic, relying on brain power and occasional feats of brute strength. We’re probably not as civilized as Equestria, and we get into ridiculous disputes all the damn time, but we haven’t done so badly, if I say so myself.”
She put the quill away and smiled at me. “I knew most of those things already, poking around in the library at Canterlot.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“I wanted to make sure that you were being honest with me.” She blushed slightly. “And I was running a small spell to monitor your nervous system, which I guess I should have told you about.”
It occurred to me that if our positions and abilities were reversed, I’d have done pretty much the same thing. “So can you trust me?”
“I trust you,” she said. “Still friends?”
“Still friends. Pinkie swear.”
She laughed. “I think that only works with Pinkie.”
“Well, we’ll find out, won’t we?”
- = * = -
The next time I heard that familiar doorbell pattern, it was almost midnight. She looked, well, happier: “Now this is more like it. Not so terribly hot.”
“Well, yes, there is that,” I said, stifling a yawn. “Although it is a little past my bedtime.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I really didn’t know what kind of hours you kept, but I wanted to come at night so I could see the stars.” She looked up at the sky, rolled her eyes a bit, and added: “You do have stars, don’t you?”
It took me a while, but I figured out the situation. “Too many lights, this close to downtown. We’ll have to head out to the country.”
“Is it far?”
“Too far to walk and make it by daybreak. Fortunately, I have, um, other means at my disposal.” I opened the garage door, and she stared in apparent disbelief at the huge metal chariot.
“This … belongs to you?”
“And to me alone, now that it’s paid for.”
“What does something like this cost?”
Dollars obviously meant nothing to her, so: “How much for three tomatoes?”
“About two bits,” she said.
“Then this was about twenty thousand bits.”
She looked at it and frowned. “It doesn’t look very comfortable.”
It dawned on me that I probably shouldn’t mention the leather seats. “Pony cars, I imagine, would be very different.” And then I went into a ridiculous fit of laughing over the phrase “pony cars,” which I hoped I didn’t have to explain. Especially the Mustang.
“You don’t think ponies could build something like this?”
“Of course they could, if they had some reason to. But they’d be useless in Ponyville: nothing’s more than a short walk away, and I seem to remember that the streets aren’t paved. Nopony wants a face full of dust.”
She seemed satisfied with that, and said: “Let’s go for a ride, then.”
I had to drop the passenger seatback as flat as I could so she could sit properly — this wasn’t Lyra Heartstrings, after all — but it was good enough, and after about ten miles I pulled onto a back road that led nowhere in particular.
Twilight Sparkle was delighted. “Almost a forest!” But then: “Are there any creatures I need to watch out for?”
“This isn’t the Everfree,” I said. “Maybe a snake or a bobcat. They’ll usually ignore you if you don’t seem to present a threat to them.”
“Late at night sometimes, I like to go on long walks to the edge of town. The moon is so bright and — Why is the moon not round?”
I hoped I remembered everything in my Junior Astronomer kit from half a century ago. “It’s round. It’s just that there’s a shadow on it.”
“What’s big enough to cast a shadow on the moon?”
“This very planet. The shape changes from night to night; sometimes it’s just a sliver, sometimes it’s a big silver ball. The whole cycle takes about a month.”
“But it’s always really the same size, right?”
“Always the same size. So is the sun. But you can’t look directly at the sun without hurting your eyes.”
“I knew that, silly,” she said, and playfully — I think — poked a hoof into my side.
And she was so very beautiful in the moonlight, shadows playing on her coat, highlights I’d never before seen in her mane. I remembered a picture from an old EqD Drawfriend, showing her running through a field late at night. It was, someone had said, “the Twilight I love best: spring in her step, the moon in her eyes, and maybe for once a song in her heart.”
She ran maybe a hundred yards into the woods, then doubled back. “Somepony’s put a fence up.”
It figured. “Lots of those out here. Some folks just like to keep to themselves. And that reminds me: we need to be getting back, before that spell of yours kicks in.”
I’d seen Twilight’s look of Total Alarm before on television, but never at this range. “Let’s go. Fast.”
We went. Fast.
- = * = -
Two days later, or maybe two and a half; it was just before sunset. And she was hungry. “I was hoping you’d feed me. It’s been a long day.”
What was a dyed-in-the-wool carnivore like me supposed to do with a request like that? I thought for a moment, then retreated to the kitchen, sliced up everything in the fridge that looked remotely vegetable in origin, and brought forth a bowl of “Random Salad.” Too much romaine, if you ask me. She tucked into it as though it were going out of style, pausing once to observe that “At least the food tastes the same out here.”
“Organic,” I said without thinking.
“Of course it’s organic. It would have to be.”
I decided I didn’t want to explain this one, and that I would rely on my mostly-reliable Subject-Changing Routine. “So what about Princess Luna’s idea of appointing an Equestrian ambassador to the humans?”
Dinner: interrupted. Facial expression: frightened.
“Twilight? Are you all right?”
That old phrase about all the color running out of one’s face? It’s a lot scarier if one’s face is sort of lavender-colored to begin with.
She shook her head. “I’m so sorry. There was an … unpleasant discussion at the Castle.”
Had a pin dropped at that moment, it would have resounded like thunder on a spring day.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She was fighting back the tears. So far as I could tell at that point, it was a draw. “Luna,” she said, “wanted me to be the ambassador.”
“And you didn’t want to?” asked Captain Obvious.
“That’s not the kind of pony I am.”
“I’m not following you.”
“It’s like this,” she said. “Ambassadors are supposed to be older and more experienced and should be able to deal with everypony no matter what the situation. I can hardly deal with anypony at all.”
I was lost. “But you’re — what, the third most powerful pony in all of Equestria?”
“That makes it worse! Something goes wrong, I’ll try to fix it, and if I fail, it’s twice as bad. I’m not any kind of diplomat. I get embarrassed making suggestions to Mayor Mare.”
“You seem to have no problem talking me into things. And I’d like to think I’m reasonably representative of my species.”
“But you’re different,” she said.
“How so?” No, really: how so?
“You seem … favorably disposed toward us.” She paused long enough to levitate a few strands of lettuce, which I read as a good sign. “As a diplomat, I wouldn’t always be dealing with friends. Sometimes I would have to deal with enemies.” Then suddenly she wailed, “It took me this long to learn about friendship! I don’t know what to do!” The veggies fell to the floor, and the tears began to flow.
What could I do? I took her in my arms and held her. She whimpered, but she offered no resistance. Reasoning that the next few words I said would be of vital importance, I wound up saying nothing.
A few minutes later: “Thank you for that. I’m sorry I ruined your evening.”
“The only evenings you’ve ever ruined for me,” I said, “were the ones when you weren’t here.”
She clambered to her hooves. “I think I need to go.”
- = * = -
A week went by with no word from Twilight. By about day five, I’d figured out that she’d wearied of this back-and-forth bouncing, and had decided to give it up.
Then on day eight:
I feel really bad about what happened. Can you ever forgive me?
Please, Celestia, let it work this time.
“Dear Twilight: I will be more than happy to forgive you if you ever do anything wrong.”
An hour passed without a bounce message, and I went to bed.