• Published 7th Jun 2014
  • 3,077 Views, 318 Comments

The Mare in the High Castle - ponichaeism

Under the eternal moonlight, a hoofful of strangers cross paths on the streets of Canterlot, capital of the Empire of the Moon, over the course of one eventful day.

  • ...

Chapter 2

Once, the photograph had been straight and the marble pegasus in it had soared majestically upward. But the single strip of peeling yellow tape that kept it fixed to one side of the bathroom mirror had worn away with age, making the photo slant until the fearless flier, sculpted in ancient times by Galloptea, was angled towards the floor. It wasn't fair. She was so bold and brazen, with her stone wings spread wide, and yet she, the pinnacle of physical perfection, was doomed to fall.

Fluttershy had taped the photo there years ago, hoping it would encourage her to work-out like a madmare at the gym and bulk up her wing strength. Make her into a real pegasus. Dozens of them, magazine ads and newspaper pictures and postcards and recruitment posters, went up all around her apartment, surrounding her every minute of every day.

She wiped the steam off the mirror and spread her own wings, those feeble and pathetic things. She frowned at herself.

Over the years, the tape had worn off one by one, and down they came. She didn't bother picking them up again unless it was to put them in the trash. Now, the photo on her mirror was the only one left. The only one still flying.

The longer she stared at her reflection, the bigger the lump in her throat got, until it was too big to swallow down again. Her downturned eyes, her cowardly yellow coat damp from the bath, her pink mane dangling in wet strands that hid her face; nothing about her suggested strength. Quite the opposite. Even at a glance, she looked more likely to shrink away than stand up and fight. Though she had wings, she was most definitely not a pegasus.

You're supposed to have no fear, she thought savagely. You're supposed to guard the eternal night. But you were too much of a wimp for the army and you couldn't fly fast enough for weather patrol, so now you're stuck with the Bureau of Harmony, where even weaklings like you can do their duty. You have nopony to blame for this but yourself.

That didn't stop the gnawing in her stomach, though. The burning, acidic feeling, like she was about to throw up, that came to her every single morning. If it was only desk work, she might be able to handle it. But every time she went in to the office, there was a chance they might send her out on assignment, and that was what dug into her nerves like a spear. She thought yet again about quitting, but who would hire her? She was timid and quiet in job interviews, and she certainly didn't have what it took to fight to the top of the job market. Not to mention pegasus ponies rarely landed jobs that didn't play to their strengths. Security, transportation, and weather, in other words.

The radio was still playing in the living room. "....Canard-brand Osteological Vitamins," an announcer said, catching her ear, "when used as directed, are guaranteed to cure those unsightly aches and get you back in tip-top shape! Ponies who use Canard have nearly twice the bone strength of those who don't! Our loyal customers agree." Testimonials chimed in: "When I got tired just walking down the street, Canard got me up and on my hooves again!" "I feel healthier than ever, and it's all thanks to my little bottle of Canard." "Hi, I'm Thriftier Spend, owner of Super-Duper-brand supermarkets, and I've sworn by Canard for years. That's why I'm pleased to announce a special low price at all my stores across the nation! This is a product that ponies need, and when ponies need it, I got it. And remember...." The Canard-brand jingle played as he finished: "'When getting up is hard, reach for Canard!'"

But Fluttershy had used the stuff for a whole year, and it hadn't done a thing to make her wings stronger. All it did was drain her bank account.

Then, blessedly, the voice of Thorny Bends returned: “Welcome back, folks, and aren't Canard-brand Osteological Vitamins great? I think they're swell. They really put the vigor back in you, like those old patented tonics used to promise. This really is a land of plenty, you know? Now, before the break, we were talking about questions. The big questions. But really, don't we know the answers already, deep in our bones? The pegasus ponies know it. No matter how high they fly, they always hit that glass ceiling, don't they? Sure, most ponies don't come right out and say the winged ones are just the brawn, that they shouldn't soar to the top because they don't have the brains for upper management. We all just kind of silently agree that it's their duty is to get along out there and do their part for the good of us all.”

“So when are they coming to arrest you, then?”

“Ha ha. But be serious, Freepony. The pegasi follow the orders, not give them. We call that duty. Legends say that in the old days, ponies got a mark on their flank when they realized what path they were supposed to take. A custom-tailored destiny. The meaning of life. Nowadays they say that's a myth, and that our way is better. Simpler. Now, we just have rubber stamps, 'Accepted' or 'Rejected', that the corporations or the High Castle stamp on our job applications. 'Sorry, colt and/or filly, no openings here. It's the market, you see. But best of luck, though!' It's much more efficient now. You don't have to spend time searching for who you are. You just become what they need you to be. Another wonderful facet of standardization: one size fits all; use only as directed; follow the duty we need you to fulfill. Couldn't be simpler. And you know me, I'm all for simplification.”

There was always a faint incredulity to Thorny's voice. A whiff of irony, like she couldn't believe what she was saying either. Fluttershy pictured her raising her eyebrow - though she couldn't ever remember seeing a picture of the DJ - and smiling. Thorny was in on the joke. It was a brilliant way to get around the Midnight Guard. Thorny Bends felt like a friend, regardless of how much a pony agreed with the High Castle. A much better source of inspiration than those pictures of pegasi.

Relieved that somepony else understood what she was going through, she smiled at her reflection.

After a light breakfast, Fluttershy walked out the front door of her apartment building. She paused on the sidewalk as a stiff breeze blew through her still-damp mane, making her shiver. Canterlot was the center of the nation. When the weather patrol brought warmer air in from around the world, it all congregated here. This was the crossroads of the winds, the focal point where they all converged, and it seemed like those winds got a little colder every year. Down the street, a crew of earth ponies in bright orange vests watered and tended a row of trees planted next to the curb. Those meager trees always wilted a little more with every passing year.

The final winter, she thought with a shiver of dread.

She told herself that was just a conspiracy theory. During the Reawakening, some mathematicians studied the past five hundred years' worth of crop yields and concluded the magic was fading away. The EBC and her own schooling condemned it as a misinformed lie, but the EBC and the schools always followed the High Castle's lead. And despite the exploding population, every year the High Castle bragged about the increase in weather patrol recruitment, yet all that extra horsepower never made the wind warmer.

Oh, well, she thought finally, that has nothing to do with me. If it's real, then the High Castle will protect us. That's what it's there for. All I want to do is get work over with and go home.

She started walking up Cavalcade Street and passed an abandoned lot, a relic of another winter: the Winter Brigade. The ponies who first dusted off those old books and began to whisper about the final winter.

The gaps in the warped wooden fence allowed her to see the twisted wreckage of a building toppled twelve long years ago. Had it really been that long? she wondered. When she was just a filly, she looked out the window to see fighting in the streets down below. Some memories a pony never forgets. They stay as vivid and vital as the instant they're formed. And the brief, scattered impressions of the Winter Brigade clashing with the Civil Force was one of them.

Now that the economy was improving again, the city could rebuilt itself and slowly heal the scars of the Rising. Put it in the past, where it belonged. The High Castle said the economic crash had nothing to do with the Rising, but as she slipped past two bulky pegasus ponies in gray fatigues standing guard on the street, she reminded herself that the High Castle also said the Civil Force had never shelled a building, when she knew for a fact that wasn't true. But the Rising was down and the economy was up. It was a brand new Canterlot, like the slogan said. A row of identical posters had been pasted onto the fence, covering up the broken view of the ruined building. They told pedestrians that, 'In harmony, we stand as one'. Below a bold illustration of the pony races in their natural harmony, in the corner, was the Bureau of Harmony's logo.

A canary-yellow autocarriage rolled around the corner and down the street. She raised a foreleg to hail it. The taxicab pulled to the curb, its engine idling, while she pulled the latch down with a hoof to open the rear door. She climbed in and sat on her haunches on the padded seat.

“Where you headed?” the pegasus in the driver's seat asked her.

Maybe I should become a cab driver, she thought idly. But what if her fares expected her to chat with them? She could never handle that. Avoiding his eyes reflected in the rearview mirror, she mumbled, “Um, Bureau of Harmony, please.”

“You got it."

He put his forelegs through the holes in the steering wheel, stepped on the gas pedal, and deftly maneuvered the cab into the morning traffic. She stared out the window and tried to look deep in thought.

"Some weather," he called over his shoulder. "Supposed to be a whole bunch of smog coming in later."

"Oh," was all Fluttershy could manage. "Is that so?"

"Yeah. They say it's good for the environment. Keeps the cold out."

Even though Fluttershy was a pegasus, she knew nothing about the weather. She only knew how to work in an office. Should she bluff her way through the conversation? She didn't really have the energy to keep up a conversation, and the hack might know more than she did. He might think she was pathetic for being so ignorant. So she kept her mouth shut and watched the buildings go past. Most of them had been rebuilt, but a few still bore scars. An empty lot here, a shuttered storefront there. They rode in silence, the city muffled by the glass, plastic, and steel of the autocarriage. She felt so cut off from the world. Like she was inside a tomb. She swallowed heavily and tried to bury the thought. Thorny Bends and her Lovely Friends would've lifted her mood, but the hack was busy driving, and she didn't want to be a bother or attract too much attention to herself. She dreaded to know what awful things he was already thinking about her, behind those scornful eyes that demanded to know why she was so cowardly and weak. All she could do was cower in the back seat.

The cab drove past Perky Pet, at the bottom of a building on the corner of her street. She instead thought of the adorable little bunny trapped inside his cage somewhere inside its walls. Just a few more paychecks and he would be hers, forever and ever. Until the winter comes, she thought, and shivered a little at that.

As if the hack had read her mind, he turned the radio on. But he hadn't read it very well and tuned into The Galloping Gossips instead of Thorny Bends, a sitcom about the wacky misadventures of a catty yet close-knit group of high society mares. Fluttershy didn't mind too much. She would never be part of the high life, but there was always the radio. She could hear all about it and imagine what it was like. Of course, in her imagination, she could have to be a unicorn, but that didn't bother her either. She certainly wasn't cut out to be a pegasus.

Hoarsely, Blanche said, "Rose! What am I going to do with a forty-foot parachute at a garden party?!"

"Y-you said to bring a parasail! Your exact words!"

"She said a parasol, you dolt!" Sally Lander shouted.

"....a parasol?" Rose asked. "You mean I ran around to every sports outfitters in town for nothing?"

"Yes, a parasol!" Blanche said. "A frilly umbrella you carry around to complement the exquisite antique dress you aren't wearing. That was the theme of the party, Rose! Were you even listening to me?"

"Well, I was a bit distracted with daddy's fussing, if you'll recall!"

"Did you try giving him his bottle?" Sally shot back.

As the driver and Fluttershy were finally united by laughter, his a boisterous chortle, hers a slight chuckle, she thought wistfully, Being the idle rich sounds like fun. Just a neverending string of garden parties and vacations and chauffered hovercarriages. No office jobs for those lucky mares.

The moment Rarity set hoof on the rooftop of her skyscraper, the wind went to work on her mane. She clamped down tight on her wide-brimmed hat, trying to protect her newly-coiffed hairdo, and pulled the stylish black trenchcoat tight around her body.

“Here are the talking points I mentioned,” Coco said, taking long-legged strides to keep pace. “For the meeting with General Horsepower.”

With her close-cropped mane, Coco had nothing to fear from the strong wind. Rarity was jealous, but only slightly. She took the folder and made a mighty effort to keep it closed until she could slip it into her designer saddlebag. They climbed the corrugated metal steps up to the concrete landing pad. The warning lights ringing its perimeter blinked red against the skyline's jagged golden spires. The illuminated city gleamed in streaks off the lush navy chrome of her sleek hovercarriage. It rested silently on the pad while her pegasus pilot, dressed in a windbreaker, fueled it. When he saw her coming he yanked the nozzle out of the tank and dragged the hose snaking across the concrete out of her way.

Rarity spared a thought for the delightful irony: these top-of-the-line hovercarriages, only invented fifteen years ago, had brought General Horsepower to the brink of ruin because nopony could afford them after that dreadful economic crash. Nopony except the wealthy, like her. And now she was swooping in on one to buy the bankrupt firm out. Under her guidance, though, that would change. General Horsepower's profits would grow so high they'd touch the moon. When she was done with this city, it would truly be, like the High Castle's slogan said, a brand new Canterlot.

With a spark of her magic, she made the latch on the rear door come undone. The door swiveled open vertically like a scissor blade. She and Coco climbed into the back and sat down while the pilot closed the door after them, then climbed into the front and settled himself behind the controls. The hovercarriage hummed to life as he flicked the ignition switches and cycled the jet engines up.

He checked the radar scanner, then announced, “Airspace is clear. Taking her up.”

The engines rumbled and thrust against the concrete. They lifted the vehicle up and into the eternal night sky. As it rose, the pilot angled it towards downtown and pushed the wheel forward. The nose dipped as the hovercarriage swooped forward, through the dense canyon of skyscrapers. It rushed past a billboard erected on top of a nearby building that declared 'A Brand New Canterlot for a brand new millennium!' and continued into the canyons of steel and glass and concrete that made up the city.

"I'd like to listen to the radio, please," Rarity said.

"Sure thing," the pilot said. "Which station?"

"Radio Free Canterlot."

"I'm, uh, not familiar with that one. What's the frequency?"


He fiddled with the radio on the instrument panel, dialing it past the disjointed clamor of chattering ponies and snippets of music until the voice of Thorny Bends emerged from the hiss of the static.

"....question to end all questions: what is it that separates ponies from animals?"

Long ago, Rarity read The Wealth of the Wellspring. Despite her distaste for the protagonists, all those self-important ponies with no generosity whatsoever, there were some very poignant bits. Like the part about money being the seed of dreams, and how that set ponies apart from animals. She wondered if Thorny Bends was a fan of the book.

To her pilot, she said, "Delightful, thank you."

The pegasus stared at her in the rearview mirror, eyebrows raised incredulously. "You want to listen to this?"

He was young and fresh and straight from the company motor pool. Rarity missed her old pilot, who had just retired; a stoic old warhorse who flew perfectly and didn't ask questions, especially about her taste in radio programs. She found Thorny Bends and her Lovely Friends a much-needed breath of fresh air among all the hot wind piping from radio speakers around the city, especially those gossipy talk shows that poured over every petty rumor circulating throughout the nation.

"Need I remind you who's paying your wages?" Rarity asked sweetly.

The pilot gave a shrug and returned to his flying. Satisfied her taste in entertainment wasn't being mocked, she resumed listening to the transmission. As she stared out the window, her eyes relaxed and her mind drifted, taking in the city going past.

"....it's not our ability to use tools," Thorny was saying, "it's not our opposable fetlocks that let us pick things up, and it sure isn't the herd mentality that lets us band together. Animals can do all these things. So how are ponies different? What makes us so special? I'll tell you what, folks: we can use symbols. We can say, on a very basic level, that one thing stands for another. We don't just think about symbols, we take them and make them and share them with each other. In the end, that's all language is: taking a certain noise from the vocal chords or a set of lines on paper and saying they're really something else. And with language, our thoughts can travel through space and time and last for eternity. Symbols let us embrace a higher rationality and become part of something larger and grander: civilization. That is what animals can't do. Sure, our pets can learn a few words if we say them enough times and associate them with simple tricks in order to get a treat, but they can't make the great leap our symbolic minds can. No intuition. Animals just act on instinct, live in the here and now. They can't grasp the meaning behind my words."

"In that case," Freepony chimed in, "I envy them."

Rarity suddenly became aware of the flashing neon billboards outside. From every rooftop and the side of every building, they shone and left streaks of light on the curved hovercarriage windows. Each one peddled its wares to the already overcrowded real estate of the watchful pony eyeball. They glowed in bright and vivid colors, an autocarriage maker here, an expensive cider manufacturer there, clamoring for attention over every other advertisement. All those symbols competing for attention. Which one would she pay attention to? But the question was instantly settled: as the city's premier dressmaker, her discerning eye was razor-sharp. It would pick out only the most fabulous of them all. But what if all those inferior ads try and tear the most fabulous one down? she thought with a sudden shudder. She told herself that was crazy. Billboards were just billboards. Her frightful reaction made no sense. But the uncomfortable feeling, unable to be fully articulated, lingered in her mind, shapeless and formless.

An instinct, she suddenly comprehended. Like an animal. But I'm more than an animal, she thought. I have my thoughts. My 'higher rationality'.

"And this goes far beyond just language and writing, folks," Thorny said. "We are defined by symbolic acts and gestures and objects, and that definition is what we carry with us when we interact with others. In the end, we're all made of symbols...."

While the cab idled, Fluttershy stared up at the hovercarriages darting overhead. Their running lights shone against the night sky like shooting stars. I wish I could fly, she thought. Real flying, I mean, in a hovercarriage. Ha, these measly little wings of mine would probably break if I got more than ten feet off the ground. I wish I could afford a hovercarriage so I didn't have to wait in these checkpoints.

She looked through the front windshield to see how many vehicles were in front of them, waiting to pass. Only three left, luckily.

The sound of rain came from the radio. "Well, it looks like my parasail came in useful after all," Rose Wilting declared. "With this makeshift tent, Blanche's decorations are safe from the downpour!"

"Quick thinking, Rose," said another pony. "But what if there's a breeze?"

The long agonizing silence that followed was slowly replaced by the studio laughter growing more uproarious, and then the sound of a stiff wind and flapping fabric being pulled taut. A distant elderly stallion shouted out, confused, then yelped for Rose.

"Oh, no!" the other mare said. "Rose, the parasail's ropes snagged your father's chair!"

Rose gasped. The sound of hooves hitting grass came from the speakers. "Hold on, daddy! I'm coming for you!" She grunted. "There, I've got you!"

"But....but who's got you?!" her father asked.

"Wha....? Ah, ah, AH!" Rose's voice trailed off into the distance, as the sound of flapping fabric and wind whipped her away into the sky.

"Oh, no!" Blanche moaned. "My decorations are getting all wet!"

Faintly, Rose hollered over the wind, "Blanche, help!"

"Is that Rose in the sky?" Sally asked.

"ROSE!" Blanche shouted at the top of her lungs. "CAN YOU HEAR ME?!"



The studio audience roared with laughter as the ending theme, a snappy violin piece, played. Fluttershy checked the clock on the cab's dashboard. Eight o'clock already.

The cabbie turned the radio off as she rolled the cab up to the blockade. The brakes squealed as it stopped, and the hack rolled his window down. Fluttershy pulled her ID booklet out of her saddlebag. She glanced at the two armored pony carriers that blocked off the street, except for a slim gap an autocarriage could squeeze through. More than anything, she loved to read books about the ancient natural world. In the woodcuts, creatures called 'bears' walked about hunched over on all four legs. The APCs reminded her of those illustrations a little. That is, if bear legs ended in big crushing wheels half as tall as a pony.

Behind the sawhorses marking the cordon line, pegasus ponies in the gray fatigues of the Civil Force ambled around. Some kept watch with alert and steely eyes, while others just stretched or chatted to each other. But even the ones who didn't seem all that invested in their duty had daggers in their eyes when they glanced in her direction. Their contempt pierced her coat and skin, dug into her, hurt her. Several pony-shaped shadows waited on the rooftops, watching for pegasi who tried to fly past without going through the checkpoint. Atop the tanks, the Civil Force troops sitting at the turrets waited for something to shoot at. Memories of cannons just like those pounding the apartment building down the street from her own came to Fluttershy unbidden and refused to be banished again.

A pegasus in a black patrol uniform with golden trim walked up to the driver's side window. A large emblem of a winged skull was embroidered onto his dark purple beret. It scowled down at her, as ugly as death itself. When he moved, the muscles bulged under his skin. Power was coiled in his wings, waiting to burst out. She whimpered as the stallion's eyes casually swept over the cab's interior, then returned to the cabbie.

“Destination?” the Shadowbolt officer asked.

“My fare's headed for the Bureau of Harmony,” the hack said as he gave his passport over.

The officer flipped through the book while more Shadowbolts walked around the cab, inspecting it. Meanwhile, the Civil Force lingered in the background, ready to rush into action if necessary. Fluttershy's heart hammered in her chest and pounded throughout her head as the weight of all those eyes came down on her. She had never felt more like a shoddy, misshapen imitation of a true pegasus.

The officer in charge passed the driver's passport back, then strolled to Fluttershy's window. She rolled it down and gave him her own passport. Her hoof trembled badly. Surely he would notice how nervous she was and give the order for her to be arrested. They would drag her away, to who knew where. Locked away, never to be seen again. But who would miss her? Nopony at the Bureau, that was for sure. Sweat made her mane sticky and threatened to drip down across her face.

Keep calm, Fluttershy. He won't keep you here long as long as you don't act suspicious.

The Shadowbolt officer took a good, long, agonizing moment to check the booklet over. Then he gave it back and waved to the other officers at the checkpoint. To the driver, he said, “Alright, you're good to go."

The hack thanked him, rolled his window up, and put his hoof to the gas pedal. He maneuvered the autocarriage into the gap between the two APCs, which filled the cab's window as it scraped past them. Soon the checkpoint was behind them and Fluttershy could breathe again.

She went through the same ordeal every workday, but it never got any less nervewracking.

With all the morning traffic backed up by other checkpoints here in the heart of the city, there was no telling how soon they would make it to the Bureau. As they wound through the streets, Fluttershy stared out the window again. Billboards bombarded her from every building, so many of them that the driver could take the same street for a week and she could read a whole different set of them each time.

'The settlements are waiting for you!' one exclaimed. On it, a dusky sky stretched out behind a smiling family. Fluttershy shuddered at the thought of moving out to the territories. Working for the Bureau was terrifying enough for her. She certainly wasn't brave enough to travel out there, under the edge of the harsh sun, and become a settler. Even if the Bureau of Public Health deemed limited exposure to sunlight safe in small doses and with the proper precautions.

The next billboard that passed by had a photo of a model prancing in a pretty dress, showing off how beautiful Rarefaction-brand dresses were. She looks so stylish, Fluttershy thought. They say the clothes make the mare. Maybe a Rarefaction dress will make me look that beautiful. Then she thought of what kind of price tag a quality dress like that would carry, and suddenly felt more strapped for money than ever. She thought about the little bunny waiting to be taken home instead.

Another billboard drifted past her eyes. A line of stoic pegasus ponies in flight suits stood in three-quarter profile against a starry backdrop. The distant streak of a rocket arced towards the horizon of the large moon hanging behind them. 'In the first millennium, we carried ponykind across the world. In the next millennium, we'll carry ponykind beyond it. The Icarion-9 rocket engine, launching in 1010. Auriga Heavy Industries: our wings are yours.'

Finally, after nearly forty-five minutes of driving, the cab entered the roundabout in front of the squat stone Bureau of Harmony building. The tall, slender, graceful princess dominated the grassy center of the circular road. Her stone figure wore a suit of eloquent, antiquated armor. Fluttershy had seen pictures of the original on display in the Equestrian Museum, and the representation was perfect in every painstaking detail. She remembered the celebrations seven years ago, for the eight hundredth anniversary of the Crusade of 192. The statue was built to commemorate the princess leading her knights into battle against the heretical Legion of Discord. Fluttershy stared up in awe at her princess. Now there was a mare who knew what needed to be done and did it. Eight centuries ago, she took it upon herself to destroy the pagan statue the Legion idolatrized, for the good of her realm. She didn't cower in fear, as Fluttershy could tell just from one look at the statue. The princess's wings were fanned out firm, her lips and jaw were set, her head was held up, her one foreleg was raised to stride forward boldly. The worthless and insignificant Fluttershy couldn't take her eyes off that perfect figure. Especially since the cab was revolving around it as it circled the roundabout.

The hack weaved in-between two other autocarriages and stopped at the front entrance of the Bureau. Fluttershy looked at the meter, then pulled some coins from her saddlebag and passed them over to the hack. She didn't wait for him to count out her change. He could keep it, a token of apology for tolerating her pathetic presence. She hurried out of the cab and darted up the stone steps into the lobby, keeping her head down as she slipped into the back of the line for the security checkpoint. Her eyes flicked to the large poster on the wall, illustrated by well-defined pegasi heroically pursuing hunched-over, slimy, evil-looking black creatures with fragile wings, that read:

'If you see a co-worker behaving erratically, THEY MAY BE A CHANGLING IN DISGUISE. Alert the proper authorities at once.'

The mare in front of Fluttershy waved to two laughing stallions in dress shirts walking in the doors. They drifted in front of Fluttershy and struck up a conversation with the other mare, and when the line moved again Fluttershy realized they'd cut in front of her. That's alright, she thought. They can go ahead of me. I'm sure they're in a hurry and just didn't see me here.

When she finally reached the security desk, Blue Baton, a middle-aged pegasus security guard, took her passport. He asked, “Hey, kiddo, how you doing?” as he looked her papers over.

“I'm, um, fine,” she mumbled.

He gave her a form with three randomized security questions: 'Hometown?', 'First Kiss?', and 'Favorite Radio Program?' She took his proffered pen between her teeth and scribbled 'Cloudsdale Air Base', 'None', and 'Thorny Bends and Her Lovely Friends', then gave the paper and pen back. He scanned her answers and compared them to his own book before nodding in approval.

He touched her paper to a flame and then set it in an ash bowl to burn. “You're good to go."

“Thank you,” Fluttershy whispered.

She took her identity papers back and slipped past the desk, down the hall, and into a waiting elevator that took her to the fifth floor. When the doors opened again, the old familiar rows and rows of cubicles greeted her. All at once she felt the weight of hundreds of eyes on her. She started to sweat. It'll be alright, she thought. You've done this a thousand times. Just put your lunch away, then go to your desk and start your paperwork. Nopony's going to stare at you or laugh or do anything. She went to the break room, took her wrapped-up veggie hoagie out of her saddlebag and put it into the refrigerator, and then headed back out to her cubicle. It was one among hundreds, indistinguishable except for the picture of adorable rabbits tacked to the wall. They never failed to brighten up her day.

“Good, you're in,” Vinyl Scratch said from behind her.

When Fluttershy turned around, she saw her manager looking as bored and listless as ever. The only frivolity Vinyl allowed on her immaculately pressed outfit was a set of musical notes running down her tie. Fluttershy took solace in the small comfort that at least one pony in the office treated everything with contempt, rather than just her. It made Fluttershy feel almost normal.

"Yes, Ms. Scratch?"

“Don't bother getting settled.”

Oh, no, Fluttershy thought, her eyes widening. Please don't send me out on assignment. Anything but that. I'm begging you, please!

“We're sending you out on assignment,” her manager said.

In Fluttershy's chest, a great big gaping chasm opened wide and swallowed her whole. Surely Vinyl could see her trembling? Could see how much she hated being sent out on assignment?

“Rarefaction Industries has some stock they need you to inspect. A full list is in here.” Vinyl Scratch levitated a folder onto the desk. “Move along, they'll be expecting you soon.”

Fluttershy slunk back to the breakroom to get her lunch. Maybe she could feign sickness? But she had already done that twice this year, and between that and her bout of the feather flu, she had no sick days left. They would fire her. Would that be so bad? At least they couldn't send me out on assignment again. But for a cowardly pegasus like her, where else would she work? How would she save up enough money for that adorable little bunny rabbit from Perky Pet without a job? Even though the pay was paltry, a government job was a lifeline she couldn't afford to refuse. The princess took care of her ponies when the job market didn't.

Inside the breakroom, Quarter Pounder stood by the fridge eating a veggie hoagie Fluttershy distinctly remembered making just a few hours ago. He froze in guilt when she met his eye by accident, but she quickly dropped her gaze and slipped out of the room again. It's alright, she thought. He was probably just hungry and didn't notice it wasn't his. No need to get angry.

As the elevator took her back down, she pulled the folder out of her saddlebag and glanced at the red cover. It felt much heavier than it looked. She got tired of carrying the weight and stuffed it back into her bag. You're a pegasus, Fluttershy, she told herself sternly. This is your duty. You're lucky to have this job, so you could contribute to your nation in your own measly little way. Now buck up and get this over with like a pegasus should.

Under the sprawling main building of the Equestian Museum, which lay in the shadow of Mt. Canterlot's peak, the Canterlot Archives went deeper still. Down there, Twilight Sparkle could leave her worries, her fears, her sorrows, even herself behind on the surface. Insulate her mind from the world at large, tune herself out and turn onto the radiant knowledge, accumulated over centuries, pulsing from between age-worn covers. The books and the secrets they held were the only things that mattered. She did not. The Archives were a temple to the written word, and she was an acolyte who had carved her own heart out to become a vessel for pure wisdom. Here, insulated by countless tons of dirt and stone, priceless works of art dwelt in blessed silence, just the way she preferred it.

What a supreme irony, she thought. The fruit of the mind, kept safe under the earth. Oh well, at least it's very high underground.

She walked down the hall of the annex. Her elongated shadow contracted and expanded on the cobalt-blue wall and mahogany floor as she passed from electric sconce to electric sconce. Her hooves clacked in the still, dusty air, her steps ringing out and echoing to the ceiling twenty-five feet above. To her right stood the enormous stacks, their shelves filled to overflowing with books and scrolls. Each one was a treasure trove full of forgotten secrets and overlooked tidbits begging to be brushed off and studied. She could spend an entire year just working her way through one aisle.

Save the dreams for when you're asleep, Twilight, she thought. But then she remembered she had dreamed about the Canterlot Archives. Running through the endless stacks, searching for a way out. All in all, not a pleasant dream. She would rather forget it, all things considered.

She reached bookcase #H-821, where the master reference books told her The Sculptures of Galloptea was located. She squeezed into the narrow aisle and tilted her head to scour the titles as she edged on down the row. When she found it, she let loose an "Aha!" in triumph. Using her magic, she pulled it off the shelf and flipped the large book open. A breathtaking photograph of "The Ascent" dominated the first page she opened to. Stunned by its beauty, Twilight soaked up the exquisite detail.

The vast world tree rose up behind an ancient priestess, her veils trailing behind her as she lifted herself into the sky. The tree's fruit was the stars hanging in the heavens, dotting the cosmic dome. She reached for them, smiling in delight, even as she stood atop a pillar which, unbeknownst to her, had large cracks running up its sides.

It was an ancient myth, probably predating even the founding of Roan itself. It spoke of ponies from the dawn of time who believed they could attune themselves to the cosmos and become transcendent beings, but in their hubris they strained the pillars of ephemeral creation until they cracked and broke. The world lay in ruins, its cosmic supports destroyed. The sun stood still in the sky. The seasons froze and the crops refused to grow. So the ponies, infused with the primordial energy of creation they had sought, took up the burden of maintaining the world to heal the damage they had done.

Twilight especially loved the poetic ring of ponies having to actively take part in the upkeep of the universe and, in doing so, ascend upwards and unite with the cosmos. Of course, the myth was just that: a myth. The sun and the changing seasons weren't natural at all, as the prosperity of the Land of the Eternal Moon proved. But the mythmakers, limited by their time and place, may have foreseen the essential metaphysical truth of Equestria's founding in their own way. In allowing every Equestrian to take part in the ascent upwards, the princess had concluded what the ancient Roanans started. She had brought ponies a world in which they could all reach the moon. 'The pinnacle of pony history,' the High Castle said.

Then why did all the powerful magic fade away--?

Shut up, Twilight, she thought to herself furiously. You shut up, right now. Maybe there never was such a thing as powerful magic like that. You learned about it from a play, after all. Just a myth. Anyway, it doesn't matter. Our princess came along after all these fairy tales and swept them aside.

She slipped the cider bottle out of her saddlebag and took a swig to drown out the nagging voice in the back of her mind. It was bringing her down. Making her feel like she had that morning. The alcohol went down hard, spread through her stomach, and climbed up to her head and made it tingle. She smiled in satisfaction and popped a breath mint into her mouth. Then she stowed the cider bottle back into her back and, using her magic, lifted the book up and shut it. The thundering clap resounded throughout the stacks and the vaulted hall. She walked back into the cavernous rotunda of the Canterlot Archives, the center of all knowledge in Equestria.

Every single book and scroll in the nation - and since the founding of the Empire of the Moon, many from beyond its borders as well - had passed into its possession at some point or another. It had been created after the proliferation of knowledge during the Reawakening led directly to the first civil war. In the aftermath, the princess issued a decree for the creation of a central repository where all texts would be cataloged and reviewed before passing into general circulation. In the modern era the Midnight Guard had taken up the duty of reviewing texts, but the grand Canterlot Archives still kept all the master copies in one of the eight separate annexes radiating out from the rotunda. Marble columns and gilded gold frescoes ringed the room. The domed ceiling, laboriously carved out of the mountain rock, depicted a vast starfield. Each constellation had been embodied by an illustration, so that snarling tigers and brave hunters and great sailing ships and capricious gods danced across the stellar expanse. Underneath the painted eternal night, hundreds of research desks were arranged in concentric circles, where other archivists bent over the ancient texts and poured over their wisdom.

Twilight arrived at her own desk and cleared out a space in her mess of notes for the enormous book, while secretly hoping the mare in the research desk across from hers wouldn't open her mouth. But, as usual, Twilight had no such luck.

“Is that Galloptea I spy, hmm?”

Twilight sighed softly. “Yes, Trixie.”

Trixie put on a disaffected frown and inspected her hooficure. “Well, I always thought she was a little melodramatic, myself.”

Swallowing down her contempt, Twilight said, “Galloptea was a master of the form.”

Trixie huffed. “If you say so--”

“I do. And so does everypony else.”

"That's not what they said when she was alive. You do know the story, don't you? It's sad, really. They said she used dark magic to make her statues so realistic, and in Ancient Roan that was strictly forbidden by the Law of the Ancestors, their sacred book of law. The penalty was death, and they executed her for it. But if you ask me--"

"I didn't."

"--it sounds more like somepony else was just jealous they weren't as good as her. After all, a rival sculptor made the initial claim against her. Ponies do get so jealous and petty in the shadow of the great and powerful, don't they?"

"Fascinating, Trixie," Twilight said, deadpan. "Are you done?"

Trixie lowered her foreleg and stared across the desk, her narrowed eyes boring into Twilight. “What are you sticking your nose into ancient art for, anyway? Weren't you supposed to be working on proposals for the planning committee? You know, in honor of the Empire's millennial celebrations? Remember?"

Blood beat in Twilight's temples. Perhaps it was just Trixie's bloated ego irking her to no end, but Twilight heard the possessive in that sentence loud and clear. "The Empire is not a thousand years old," she said, her teeth grinding. "It's a thousand years of eternal night. The Empire was only declared forty-five years ago."

"Officially declared. A thousand years ago was the Empire's symbolic founding."


"Ha! You're going to lecture me about being a pedant?"

"Anyway, I thought that maybe, just maybe, patterning the designs after ancient art would be a nice bridge to ponydom's past.”

“Let's see if it floats past the planning committee.” Trixie buried herself in a thick book. “And if it doesn't, I'll be here to pick up your slack.”

Twilight felt like throwing a book at the arrogant pony, the thicker the better. Or, more than that, she felt like having another drink. The cider in her saddlebag demanded she take it out and drink it. Only then would this maddeningly mundane world go away. Struggling to keep calm and ignore the thirst in her suddenly-dry throat, Twilight put the book of Galloptea's sculptures on her desk. Hard work would keep her occupied. She flipped the book open to The Neigh of Victory.

It's even more beautiful than I remembered, she thought. Galloptea's muse really went the extra mile on this one.

The photo took up an entire page, its detail ultra fine. She could make out every stroke of the chisel and every crack and nick left by time on the sculpture. A pegasus with one hoof on her defeated enemy threw her head back and neighed. Such exquisite detail on the taut muscles, the fanning feathers, the creases of the face. Her expression really captures the essence of triumph. Twilight felt a cathartic thrill in sympathy with the victorious mare. She could've spent an hour staring at the picture, losing herself in its marvelous details. The ancient historians, though sometimes unreliable and contradictory, all seemed to be in agreement that Galloptea slipped into trances while she worked, going mad with the passion to make her statues perfect, as if possessed. Twilight felt the artistry pouring off the page, and was almost as entranced with admiring Galloptea's art as the sculptor herself had allegedly been while making it.

Twilight threw herself wholeheartedly into designing her preliminary design proposal, arranging the text and sketching out the area where a duplicate of the photo would go, until she had made it perfect.

It's such a beautiful statue, she thought, how can they say no?

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