Equestria is an ancient land, and the one thing you can count on in an ancient land is that it’s not going to be optimized for speedy travel: the topography is what it is, and the earliest settlers located where they could, not where they could make easy connections thousands of years in the future. The old pony was something less than delighted with the fact that he’d have to take the train to Canterlot, spend the night in one of the capital’s overpriced hotels, and only then catch a train to Ponyville. This was, of course, inevitable: Ponyville had connections north, south and west, but none to the east, officially because building adjacent to Rambling Rock Ridge was discouraged, what with the potential for landslides and such, but mostly because nopony wanted to run a rail line through the Everfree Forest.
It could be worse, he thought, and anyway, the station in Baltimare was only six blocks from his home, so the first step at least was easy. And he’d have several days to come up with something to say to somepony he’d hadn’t seen in forty years.
What could he say, though? “Hey, babe, remember me? I bought you cider back in the day!” He shook his head. There was no way she’d remember him at all. She’d had a coltfriend back then, and he’d have taken up all her time and all her memories. This argument seemed to be unassailable, and somewhere near the switch for the spur line to Detrot, he’d just about talked himself into turning around and forgetting the whole thing.
Except, of course, that he couldn’t forget. Not now, not ever. If it turned out to be a waste of time, well, it was his time to waste. He vowed to press ahead. He would suffer whatever embarrassment it might entail, but he would see this thing through to the end.
Once off the train at Canterlot, he hiked the four blocks to the Westphalian, a boutique hotel that had served him well in the past. Usually he didn’t venture into the bar on the ground floor, but that night he felt the need for something in convenient liquid form to unjangle his nerves. To his delight, the place was relatively empty when he arrived; to his dismay, it filled up rather quickly.
“Hey, buddy,” said a voice behind him. A grey pegasus with a shiny, somewhat oily black mane, whom he didn’t recognize. Out of force of habit, the old pony introduced himself: “Broken Spoke, Baltimare Carriages.”
“Fiscal Cliff, certified public accountant. What brings you to this part of the world?”
“A little unfinished business to take care of down in Ponyville.”
“Ponyville? Really? I’ve heard some really strange stories about that town.”
“Only been there once, so I can’t confirm them for you.”
Cliff took a swig of whatever brackish stuff he was drinking. “Probably a load of horsefeathers anyway. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that anypony will pull your leg if you give ‘em half a chance.”
“You’re probably right about that,” said the old pony, wishing he’d stayed in his room.
A changeling of indeterminate age fluttered her way towards them. “Cliffy!” she exclaimed. “We were wondering if you’d make it tonight.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Cliff said. “Give me a couple minutes and I’ll be right with ya.”
The changeling backed away, and the old pony started breathing again. “You know her?”
Fiscal Cliff looked at him disbelievingly. “Don’t you get it? Changelings! They can be anypony you want them to be! I’m pretty sure she’s got a sister, if you want to give her a go.”
“Uh, that’s all right. I think I need to go upstairs and, uh, get some work done.” He climbed down from the bar. “Nice talking to you.”
“Work,” for the evening, consisted of reading one of the local papers — somehow Canterlot was still able to support three competing dailies — and wondering what might have happened had he actually engaged the services of a changeling. As he understood matters, they could duplicate anypony within a reasonable distance; duplicating somepony who wasn’t nearby, however, seemed decidedly problematic at best. And even if they could, how likely would it be that they could come up with a match for present-day Twist? A copy of filly Twist was definitely out of the question, more than a little creepy, and probably illegal. He thought to himself that this was a question he might like to have answered some day, but that he’d rather not have to answer it himself.
Still, this disconcerting line of thought aside, the trip seemed to be doing him some good. For one thing, he was actually getting a reasonable amount of sleep, something he hadn’t enjoyed in a long time. And while he’d persuaded himself that he really didn’t like these long-haul train trips, he had to admit that they were a lot less annoying than the short hops. It had been nearly a year since he’d traveled anywhere farther away than Manehattan, and the miserable little feeder line that crawled up the coast was slow, uncomfortable, and often as not delayed in Fillydelphia. The main cross-country lines, all things considered, were much nicer, and if his dream of someday going coast to coast in less than two days was probably never going to come true — there was talk about some sort of “flying coach” being developed out in Los Pegasus, but he’d believe that when he saw it for himself — well, he had a more immediate dream to work with, and he had every reason to think that it would work out.
Except, of course, if it didn’t. The likelihood that little Twist had spent four whole decades pining for him, he had long ago concluded, was pretty close to nil; even if she hadn’t been conventionally pretty back then, she might have blossomed into a real beauty, and even if she hadn’t, surely somepony would have noticed her by now. Even a surly, disagreeable, slovenly mare occasionally found a mate; in his twenties, he had met several, and he was grateful for whatever brand of magic it was that caused them to be scooped up by somepony else. Then again, he’d known several stallions who had little or nothing to recommend them, and even they had found love, or at least somepony to help them kill the time.
And besides, the goal here wasn’t to sweep Twist off her hooves, although he certainly wouldn’t complain if he managed to pull that off; even if she rejected him outright, at least he might be able to put down that torch he’d been carrying since he was eleven years old. Maybe.
One thing, at least, had changed in Ponyville in forty years: somepony had seen the wisdom of building an inn, admittedly a small one, in proximity to the train station. They had one room left, which the old pony was happy to take, for a price that turned out to be 60 percent of what he’d paid the night before in Canterlot. It was, he noted with some amusement, the priciest room they had.
He left his bags in the room and walked into town, and within five minutes happened on a phenomenon more or less unchanged in forty years.
“Ooh, a new friend! This calls for a party! Welcome to Ponyville, the friendliest town in all of Equestria, and you’re invited to the very next party at Sugarcube Corner!”
He laughed in spite of himself. “I remember you. I was just a colt last time I was here.”
Pinkie Pie smiled, because that’s what Pinkie Pie did. “Well, I’m a little bit older and a little bit slower, but I’m still happy to see anypony come to our little town, and I do party hearty.”
“I bet you do,” said the old pony. “Any chance you could help me find somepony? I’m looking for … an old friend.”
“Friends are my specialty,” Pinkie said. “My name’s Pinkie Pie. What’s yours?”
“Broken Spoke. I make — that is, I used to make — carriages and wagons in Baltimare.”
“Oh, I’ve been there! Do they still have that gorgeous harbor?”
“Still there. I live only a few blocks away. Sometimes I go down there and just sit and think.”
“I do a lot more of that than I used to,” Pinkie admitted. “But don’t you go telling anypony.”
“I won’t,” he promised.
“Now tell me about your old friend.”
“She’d be in her early fifties about now. Earth pony, white coat, curly scarlet mane. Her name was Twist.”
“First name or last name?”
“I honestly don’t know,” the old pony confessed. “To me she was always just Twist.”
Pinkie pondered for a moment. “Did she wear humongous glasses, about the size of a frying pan?”
“Yes!” he shouted.
“Then I can’t help you,” Pinkie said sadly. “I think she’s moved away.”
His face fell. “Do you know where she might have gone?”
“I don’t,” said Pinkie, “but I bet we can find her.” She pointed down the block. “Turn right behind Quills and Sofas, and you’ll be at the brand-new library, which is where you want to be because the old library is closed now. They know everything, or at least where everything is supposed to be, which is close enough, right?”
“I hope so. Thank you for your help.”
“It’s what I do best,” said Pinkie. “Except, of course, for throwing parties. Sugarcube Corner, right after sunset. Be there or be totally rectangular!”
“You mean ‘square,’ don’t you?” he laughed.
“You can be a parallelogram or a rhombus or even a trapezoid, as long as you’re there!”
A pleasant young unicorn greeted him: “Welcome to the Twilight Sparkle Ponyville Library. How may we assist you?”
“You named a library after an Archmage?” the old pony said, puzzled. “Is there a major collection of arcana here?”
“Archmage Sparkle actually was our town librarian for many years.” The unicorn smiled. “We’re very proud of her. And yes, there’s a lot of arcana here, though most of it requires the usual mage permit.”
“I don’t think I need any arcana right this minute. What I’m trying to do is track down somepony who once lived here.”
“A relative of yours?” asked the librarian.
“Just … a friend.”
“How far back are we going to have to go?”
“About forty years or so.”
“This may be just a little bit tricky,” she said. “We don’t have full electronic versions of the archives that far back, so at some point we’ll have to start digging into actual paper.” Just the same, she smiled. “This is where the job gets to be fun.”
Finding one pony in a nation of millions? As the enormousness of the task began to dawn on him, he wondered: How long could that take?
“I think we’ve found her,” said the librarian. “Did she look something like this?”
He looked at the screen. “That’s her.”
“Here’s the basic information. Strawberry Twist, earth pony, born 8/7/89 here in Ponyville. Parents: Dutch Treat and Cherry Surprise, both earth ponies. Siblings: none. Cutie mark, 2/1000: two candy canes placed to form a heart.”
“Wow. Her flank was blank even longer than mine was.”
“The timing of a cutie mark,” she said, “is never really predictable. But you know that.” She pulled up a sheet from a bin on the desk. “This is a reprint from an old Canterlot newspaper. In aught-nine she opened a candy store, Twist’s Sweet Shop, at 47 Chestnut Street.”
“Holy Celestia,” he whispered. “The hotel I stay at in Canterlot is on Chestnut Street. How did I not see that?”
“It’s not there anymore. According to the article, she sold the store after five years to work on her college degree full-time.”
“Do we know where she went? What she studied?”
“Let’s see if I can find this online.” She turned to the terminal on the desk, and a bewildering array of patterns and colors appeared on the screen. A quick glow from her horn, and the patterns coalesced into a swirl, and then into a page of text. “Three degrees, in fact. BA, University of Canterlot, 1020; Master’s, Manehattan Institute, 1022; Ph.D, Manehattan Institute, 1025. Thesis: Vision and Revision: Failures of Memory Retention in Aging Pegasi.” She smiled at him. “It will cost you twenty bits to read the whole thing, or forty to have a copy printed and mailed to you.”
“Probably way over my head,” he said. “I’m a technician, not a scientist.”
“Perhaps you underestimate yourself,” the librarian suggested.
“Wouldn’t be the first time, I guess. What’s she doing with that fancy degree? Not still making candy, I imagine.”
She turned back to the screen and watched the colors dance for a moment. “Here’s a Doctor S. Twist, speech therapist. I’m assuming this is the same pony.”
He burst out laughing, to the librarian’s apparent annoyance. “Why would that be funny?” she asked.
“I’m sorry. When she was younger, she had a bit of a lisp. I guess she taught herself how to get rid of it.”
“Or possibly somepony taught her, and she was inspired to do the same for others. There’s no way to tell unless we stumble across a full biography.”
“Is there any chance we can find a current picture?” he asked.
“Not on this page. Give me a couple of seconds.” The colors resumed their furious flashing, then stopped; the librarian shook her head. “Nothing recent.”
“Can you tell me where she’s working now?”
“Hold on a second. I’ll need to bring back that previous record.” More splashes of color. “Here we go. Foal Health Center of Detrot North, 311 Eight Mare Road.”
“That’s what it says.” She pushed something with her left front hoof, and the bin on the desk emitted a whir, then yielded up a map. “A long way from here, but at least we found her for you.”
“You’ve been a great help. Do I owe you for anything?”
“Our services are always free,” she said. “However, there’s a jar by the door, if you’d like to donate a few bits.”
“Thank you so much,” said the old pony.
“Just happy we could help,” the librarian replied, stuffing sheets of paper into his saddlebag.
He headed for the door, pausing just long enough to drop a fifty-bit note into the jar.
“You made it!” shouted Pinkie Pie as the old pony pushed through the door of Sugarcube Corner. “Everypony, this is Broken Spoke, and he’s come all the way from Baltimare!”
The three other customers in the dining area waved at him.
“It’s a small gathering, but a friendly one,” Pinkie said. “I can’t scare up as many ponies on short notice as I used to, but everypony deserves a welcome party, don’t you think?”
“I do appreciate it,” he replied. “It’s a good day, and this is a good way to bring it to a close.”
“Did the library help you find your fillyfriend?”
Fillyfriend? He was going to correct her, but thought better of it. “Found her. She’s up in Detrot, helping foals with speech problems.”
“Oh, that’s totally incredibly sweet! Are you going to meet up with her?”
“I’m certainly going to try. She probably doesn’t remember me, but it’s something I’ve been needing to do for a long, long time.”
“You miss her that much?” Pinkie asked.
He nodded. No sense trying to hide it. “I miss her that much.”
“I can see it in your eyes,” said Pinkie. “When you say anything about her they light up like they were catching reflections off the stars. And that’s pretty hard to do when you’re inside.”
There was a menu sitting on the corner of the next table. “Watch this.” Pinkie brought down one hoof on its edge; the menu flew up into the air and landed right in front of him. “Take your time, and don’t forget dessert, ’cause it’s on me. Although the last time I said that I dropped the bowl and it really was on me.”
The old pony stared, then smiled. Somepony as wonderful as Twist, he was sure, had to have come from a town like this.