Lacquered wood. Polished brass. Vented steam.
Things that now seemed to represent an age rapidly heading towards antiquity.
Copper coils. Iron generators. The inexorable invisible flow of electrons. They were the future, a future Twilight feared and didn't quite understand. The ever-enthusiastic pink hoof of TESLA, though – Pinkie Pie, if the mood struck her – had pulled her into a whole new world of modern science, one that she would have to tentatively make peace with.
Still, though, when Pinkie had told her that the massive steam boilers in the basement would make a fantastic power source for the generators, she had felt some small relief. It helped her to think of the boilers as the active force, and the electricity merely as a conduit of steam power, much like the elevator utilized hydraulic fluid.
Much had been accomplished in the week since she had excavated Pinkie Pie from the darkest depths of the University, like some forgotten treasure buried by the natives. Or at least by Bright Spark. The hansom had rattled along to what was now their home, at least until Pinkie's patents – a concept that Twilight still thought Pinkie didn't quite understand – had brought in enough to afford Pinkie her own place.
Until that merry day, piles of copper wire wrapped around wood had been unceremoniously dumped in the basement and converted into an impromptu apartment, or perhaps more of a lair for the budding mad scientist. The straw bed had been replaced with one of goose feather, soft and plush. Almost too soft for someone who had survived on such spartan means for so long. Twilight had offered the purchase of a wooden frame to hold it, but Pinkie had declined; she didn't feel comfortable sleeping so high up in the air, away from her rodent friends.
Twilight sincerely hoped that the rodents were another figment of the overactive mind, and not that she had a genuine rodent problem that Spike had neglected to warn her about.
The pair had worked tirelessly over blueprints that first day; Twilight with her unprecedented and unrivalled knowledge of optics and astrophysics, Pinkie with some electrical means to amplify light to a degree sufficient to penetrate the atmosphere and travel the breadth of the aether intact.
Radio had immediately been discarded as a potential means of communication. Pinkie was certain she could send a signal easily to the moon – a terrifying notion – but unless the Mare on the Moon had the appropriately tuned receiver... Twilight sincerely doubted it.
The laser, then, was somewhat of an irony. It was going to be the very pinnacle of modern sciences, a joint project from the two respective heads of two almost entirely new fields... used in the way that any sailorpony with a lamp and cover had utilized for thousands of years.
The day after the designs were drawn – Pinkie had already done most of the work, and Twilight's expertise had greatly accelerated what work remained – was conveniently the day that Applejack had personally made her weekly deliveries at dawn. Twilight had set an alarm, awoken far earlier than she personally believed any pony ought to, and waited by the door nursing coffee – and by a convenient potted plant to tip it into – eagerly awaiting the sound of the delivery wagon making its rounds.
She had pounced on Applejack in the street like an overly excited kitten – fueled by that perverse mixture of sleep deprivation and caffeine that lead a pony to the most irrational and singular of actions – and all but begged for her assistance.
Apparently more customers had switched to the cheaper colony imported or factory goods than Twilight had thought. Applejack had graciously accepted the part time work if Twilight had the bits.
The panicked thought that perhaps the farmer was only being nice to her because of the money was quickly abated the moment she said she would have to go to the basement, and that Applejack should take the lift up alone to wait for her.
That disappointed look on Applejack's face when Twilight suggested she go up alone gave Twilight far too much joy for something that would otherwise be quite sad. She made certain to keep herself from lingering on it.
Her trip to the boilers was, of course, to retrieve the prior day's blueprints, which she had left overnight with Pinkie. The pony hadn't used her new bed, it seemed, but had fallen asleep at the workbench Twilight had provided, snoring loud enough to be heard over the crackling pops and hisses of the heavy boilers surrounding her. One of her rear legs kicked out occasionally, pawing at the air like a dog's when its tummy was rubbed in just the right spot. At least the boilers would have kept her warm, as she had no blanket to cover her.
Twilight carried one from the bed and draped it around the silly pony's withers, then placed a place under her head. As she did, though, she spotted a little silver pen underneath Pinkie's mane, a pen that Twilight hadn't provided her, nor seen in her belongings. Picking it up, Twilight saw that it held not a nib or ball for ink, but a little glass lens.
Curiosity getting the better of her, as it almost always did, she pressed down on the button that would normally release the tip. Instead it shot out a brilliant red beam of light, as narrow as pencil lead and straighter than any ruler, painting the floor in front of it with a bright dot.
A laser small enough to fit in a pocket? How wonderfully novel.
As she moved to place it back on the desk, she saw something engraved into its side. Writing.
To Twilight, From TESLA
A gift, then?
She nuzzled the sleeping genius, and was rewarded for the gesture with a particularly loud snore. Twilight suppressed a giggle; it wouldn't do to wake her.
Back upstairs – or perhaps more accurately back up the elevator – Applejack was waiting impatiently. Spike wasn't awake yet to keep her company; Spike enjoyed his sleep-ins almost as much as Twilight herself, but with the difference that Spike would flame an alarm clock to a melted husk as soon as hit the snooze button.
Twilight dared not act as that alarm clock.
Most of the parts they would require had already been constructed by Pinkie Pie at the university, built as components for a far inferior version of the device they had eventually come up with together.
The only work that had to be put into those components was the rapid removal of Bright Sparks' insignia, which Twilight took to with gusto. A wordless conversation passed between the unicorn and the earth pony farmer: Applejack offered a questioning look, Twilight shot back a dangerous one; Applejack replied with raised eyebrows, Twilight said 'yes, that bad' with the tilt and nod of her head. Applejack ended the back and forth with a low whistle.
Twilight still couldn't decide whether she needed more or less witnesses for the retribution she intended.
The rest of the work, though, Applejack took to with impressive grace. Twilight's own contributions to the project didn't go unnoticed, however.
"Never seen a unicorn do earth pony work before," Applejack finally admitted after Twilight had caught her staring for the third time, this time as Twilight made measurements on the materials.
"I'm genuinely not sure whether that's a compliment or not."
"Compliment. Definitely. Takes a horn to do fancy writin' or use a typewriter. Just about anypony can use a rivet gun, though." There was another loud burst of steam and a metallic chunk as Applejack demonstrated her point with brutal efficiency. "Guess which pays more?"
"Supply and demand," Twilight sighed bitterly, marking outlines on steel that would need to be cut. Measured twice, and then again for good measure, just in case. "If only one third of the population has the aptitude for the work, then less than half again of that has the intelligence or the magical endurance. Then assume that at least half of those ponies are content to live off inherited money, which of course they'll have," Twilight grumbled, "then the rest are the only ponies fit for the work. So they can just name a price and somepony is going to have to pay it. It's not like there's a shortage of paperwork needed. It's the grease that runs the Empire."
Applejack waited a moment, seemingly having genuinely kept up with Twilight’s rant. "And?"
"Say it. You know you want to," Applejack urged.
Twilight was genuinely confused. "Say what?"
"Every unicorn that's ever explained this to me has finished by saying, 'and that's why unicorns are the best' or some such. Go on, I won't hold it against you."
Twilight was struck by the mare's honesty. Applejack genuinely wouldn't hold it against her, apparently. Had she really heard that enough times to just expect it from unicorns?
Who was she kidding? Anypony who'd been in The Capital for more than five minutes, if that, hadn't just heard some variation of that 'fact'; they'd seen the supposed proof.
"And that's why unicorns are wrong."
"Bet you feel a lot better sayin' it than... come again?"
"I said, 'And that's why unicorns are wrong'."
Applejack stared at her rather dumbfounded, silently begging an explanation. Twilight might as well have sprouted wings and told her she was the Princess of Mourning herself for all the confusion it held.
"Supply and demand. Demand isn't just what ponies collectively want, it's what ponies can collectively afford. And only the aristocracy can really afford anything, right now. Before The Empire, the aristocracy was formed by demesnes channeling local monies to a few knights – the old equivalent to peace officers – so they could afford equipment, training, castles... The military, essentially.”
She watched Applejack’s face carefully. Her audience seemed to be keeping up so far, at least. “That's not the case, anymore, though. What good's a castle when we have cannons? What good is the training, when you can drill a hundredfold in the same time with muskets? The equipment is mass produced, too, so that's not where the money is going. And the army can't support itself on plunder and expansion much longer; there's not really anywhere left, now that we have Saddle Arabia buttoned down."
"Cousin Braeburn was out in the Saddle Arabian campaigns," Applejack harrumped, "lotta good the money sent home did him, up and before it did him in. Was a Corporal, too."
"Exactly!" Twilight declared triumphantly before realizing exactly what she was being triumphant over. "Oh, dear. I'm sorry for your loss."
Applejack shrugged. "Got a lot of kin. What's one more that you never saw?"
"You don't mean that, do you?"
"Nope," the pony muttered quietly, "just helps to pretend."
"Right... well. Aristocracy is just a remnant of that. But their families – mostly unicorns and pegasii – kept all of the power, so because they already have it, they can control how much they have. Are you with me so far?"
A somewhat amused snort. "Livin' it."
"Right," Twilight repeated, lamely, "I'm sorry, I'm not used to having to explain this to ponies on the other side of the divide, as it were. Anyway... Right now, those families have factories making goods everypony wants, but not everypony can afford." Applejack nodded along, riveting away at the natural pauses in Twilight's speech. "So, soon they're gonna have to start paying ponies enough to afford the products they're making."
"Alright, I can see that. What's that mean for the unicorns at the top, though?"
"Well, if the ponies at the bottom can start affording the things the unicorns at the top have," Twilight explained with a rather sly look, "don't you think they might be able to afford an opinion on how things are run, too?"
Applejack's smile didn't fade from her face as they finished the work. It only grew wider when Twilight paid her the promised bits.
Twilight's smile matched it when the farmer promised to stop by the next week, to hear how everything went.
"Who was that?" A curious voice asked from behind her.
"Oh, you're up, Pinkie? Applejack. She's a friend, helping me actually build what you and I designed."
"Oh. That's nice." Pinkie smiled gently, rubbing tired eyes. "Thanks for the pillow, by the way. I connected the generator to the boiler, so you might not have steam power until the capacitor is done charging."
"That's fine," Twilight smiled back, "I won't need to use the elevator for a few hours yet."
Pinkie blinked, and the smile disappeared. "Hours?"
"Well, yes," Twilight's own smile disappeared, "we're running the main boiler at maximum automated capacity. If Spike watches it, we might get thirty percent more out of it without risk of catastrophic failure. Assuming lossless capacitors, which we should with all the bits I threw into gold wire, then a few hours should do it, right? We only need the laser to be visible to a single pony, and I don't think it's even possible to make the beam any narrower."
Pinkie frowned, turning back towards the bookshelves. She disappeared into them, only returning two minutes later with Twilight's notes on the boiler's output;. a bit more than the typical steam locomotive, a fact that its owner took great pride in.
A pen held in her mouth, the pink mare scribbled some figures on the page, then wordlessly showed her the figure.
"Twelve hours... per burst?" Twilight’s face scrunched up, a mixture of confusion and concern.
"So, if we want to send ten at a minimum..."
"Five days at the soonest."
"Five days without the elevator. Or the doorbell. Or the coffee machine. Or the myriad other sundry uses for the boiler," Twilight said, numbly. Five days of ladders... without coffee. It would have been kinder just to shoot her now.
"Sure looks that way, huh?" Pinkie agreed, looking back over her maths. To Twilight's dismay, it was flawless.
"What else have you got?" Straws. Great for grasping at.
"Well, if you could get me a bucket of radium–"
Twilight's response was gentle, but as firm as bedrock. "No."
"Aw. But it's so pretty!" A worryingly disarming pout. Twilight almost reconsidered. Almost.
"I don't own nearly enough lead."
"But–" Pinkie started, raising a hoof hopefully in the universal language of 'terrible idea that seems good at the time' gesturing.
"I am not buying nearly enough lead, either."
"Oh. Uh. Bright Spark uses lightning?"
Twilight cringed at the idea of crawling back to the stallion, especially now. "Let's just see what we can do with five days’ worth."
She'd just have to use Spike-power for her coffee. And get a little more exercise on the ladders. And deal with ponies knocking should they arrive.
"Oh, and make sure no birds get in the way. This thing can slice through an inch of steel every second! Imagine what it would do to a little feathered friend up there?"
Twilight considered waiting twelve hours, then sticking her head in front of it. It would be far more merciful, that way.
On second thought, if this was how seriously she was taking caffeine withdrawal, it might be for the best she take a break from it...
Five days of ladders. Five days of helping Pinkie Pie organize her inventions for the patent office, and sending them away in hansom after hansom. Five days of Spike-heated coffee without the delightfully frothy milk. Five days of anticipation as the capacitor banks grew more and more full.
Five days without being able to move the Telescope and watch the Mare on the Moon.
The most trying five days of Twilight Sparkle's entire existence had passed. The generator was disconnected, the capacitor banks fed by triple-insulated gold wire up and into the BEAM – Bright Emitter Aimed at Moon – and strapped to the Telescope, aimed at the Mare on the Moon.
A magnifying glass array as long as Twilight's foreleg had ensured the BEAM was calibrated to the micron; anything the Telescope aimed at, the BEAM aimed at too, assuming it was at the focal length of the moon.
It was a remarkably safe assumption, all things considered.
Ten minutes of scouring through moonlit lunar wastelands trying to find that blue speck. Two minutes focusing until she was framed nicely. Another minute until the Mare on the Moon felt her watching again, impossibly, and turned to look.
A big red button had been installed next to the levers and wheels. The big red button.
Twilight pushed it now.
The moonlit surface didn't change, but Twilight saw the flash of light reflect as a glimmer in the Mare's eye. For the first time since she had first seen her, the Mare on the Moon smiled, ever so softly.
Twilight's knees wobbled. Her stomach backflipped. She'd made an ancient, wise pony smile for the first time in... goodness knows how long! A rather fetching smile, at that.
She'd give anything to see it more.
Unfortunately she had only nine flashes left. Eight, now, with one to reassure the Lady that the first was no accident. To prove to even herself that it wasn’t luck. That it genuinely worked.
The first extraterrestrial communication had been achieved, and it was Twilight who had achieved it, with a little help from her friends. With a lot of help from her friends, really.
The Mare couldn’t see that, though, even now as it seemed like she was looking directly down into the Telescope. A trick of perspective, obviously. She was merely looking at the source of the light; impossible for her to see Twilight, herself. Still, though, the effect was uncanny. Surreal.
The Mare seemed to consider something. She held up one hoof, then nodded. She brought up the other hoof as well, shaking her head.
Charades, then, across the breadth of the aether! One for yes, two for no!
Twilight pumped the big red button. One flash, twelve hours’ worth of burning coal gone in a second.
Worth it to see that smile light up brighter than the BEAM itself.
The Mare pointed at the Telescope, then at her eyes, then pressed the hoof to her chest. Not hard to decipher:
“You see me?”
One flash, yes. Six left.
Hoof to chest, hoof to eyes, hoof to Telescope, head shake. Hoof to chest, hoof to eyes, and then... then her horn flashed.
“I don't see you, but I can see your light.”
The Mare frowned now. Said something, lips moving. Quizzical tilt of the head.
She'd asked "Can you hear me?" Sound didn't travel through the aether, though.
Two flashes. No. Four left.
The Mare nodded to herself, once, seeming satisfied with the answer. She began dragging her hoof in the dust, deep enough to furrow it. A line formed, then a letter and, gradually, a word.
The question mark was accomplished by a twirl on the spot with an outstretched hoof, then a little jump and a hard stomp to form the dot. The Mare looked back, awaiting her response.
A single flash. Three left.
The Mare laughed, tapping her hooves together joyously, and danced around a bit in a circle, entirely forgetting herself.
She seemed to remember herself, at last, or at least that she had an audience. She stopped abruptly, falling rather unceremoniously on her rump, blushing furiously enough that even with three hundred eighty four thousand, four hundred and three kilometers between them, Twilight saw it as clear as the noonday sun. That blush burned about as brightly, too.
It was rather fetching, really. Endearing.
If nothing else, it told Twilight that the Mare on the Moon was just that: a mare. A pony, just like her.
Well, except she seemed to have wings, too, and didn't need to breathe, but apart from that? The differences were a trifle, a trivial thing.
The Mare seemed to think long and hard about her next question. She could write whatever she wanted on the lunar surface, but Twilight could only answer yes or no. A problem.
Another message, dragged achingly slowly across the moon dust.
"Can you not say more?"
A rather miserable two flashes. A single one left now.
She could not hear The Mare’s words, but she could hear the sound of their heart breaking from across the breadth of the aether. It was echoed in Twilight’s own chest, and it was a wretched sound indeed.
"Must you leave?"
How heavy her hoof felt as she released that last burst of light and sent it on its dreadful journey.
Light burdened with a bleak and simple message.