• Published 7th Jun 2014
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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 4

The interrogation room door swung open. An elongated rectangle of light swept over the darkened interior until it settled on the sole occupant. Huddled in the corner, the Changeling stirred weakly, raised its head and hissed. Its obsidian chitin was dull and dented. The membrane of its wings was cracked and dried.

The Colonel stood in the doorway. Her shadow stretched out across the length of the room, from her hooves to her beret-topped head, framed by the light from the observation room behind her. “Lights,” she called over her shoulder. The ponies in the observation room flicked the overheads on. The Changeling snapped its eyes shut and winced against the harsh glare; the Colonel's mirrored shades protected her eyes quite well. She strolled into the room, past the table, while the thing shied away from the light. But it had nowhere else to go except to burrow further into the corner. She stopped and loomed over it.

As she stared down at the misshapen degenerate creature, for a brief and fevered moment she sensed her true power. And it wasn't just hers; it came from the Shadowbolt uniform she wore, too. In a flash of insight she perceived herself as a primal force made mundane, like the old legends about ponies becoming one with the universe. She was entropy, responsible for breaking the thing down into its component parts. She was a debaser. Her duty to the moon was to return the Changeling to the earth from which it had sprung. It did not have the lunar divinity inside it. All it could do was corrupt the empyrean city they had built.

And then the moment passed. Her perception of events returned to normal.

Her stern, set scowl dissolved into a grin. She asked, "How you doin' down there?" She walked to the wall and leaned against it. "See, it's like this: I know you don't want to be here. Honestly, I don't really want to be here, either. I've got better things to do with my time. More important things. So how's about you do me a favor and tell me the cover identities of the other Changelings in Canterlot, and I'll be on my way. Alright? No hard feelings between us."

It hissed at her again. Its ears were folded, however. It was terrified.

The Colonel sighed and threw a leg up in exasperation. "Somehow, I knew you were going to say that." She rolled her eyes and shoved herself off the wall. "Alright. If you wanna do this the hard way...."

Lightning quick, she grabbed the Changeling and hauled it up off the floor. It thrashed against her grip, but it was too weak to do any real damage. She took hold of its head and slammed it down onto the table. A terrific clap like thunder resounded throughout the bare walls of the interrogation room. One of its fangs splintered. The pieces sprayed everywhere from the force of impact. Its chitinous muzzle cracked and dripped ichor over the table's surface. The Colonel pulled its head back up and held it aloft.

"I'll ask again," she said, her voice flat and dry. "Who were you here to meet?"

The Changeling tried to hiss, but the ichor in its mouth made it gag. With a weary sigh, the Colonel brought its head down and slammed it into the table again, once, twice, thrice. The last time, she drove it into the surface so hard that, when she got her hooves clear of it, it rebounded and toppled backwards, landing on the floor in a heap. She casually sauntered towards it while it crawled away, leaving a slimy trail on the floor. With one stomp, she broke the chitin on its hind leg. The thing howled in pain, which made her stamp down harder. At least it stopped moving.

"Ready to talk yet?" the Colonel asked.

It drew its forelegs in front of its face while shivers wracked its degenerate hippoid body. Something came from its mouth, but the Colonel couldn't hear it through the ichor welling up from its guts and dripped out its mouth. Rather than bend down, she took her leg off the Changeling, grabbed it, and picked it off the ground.

"What was that--?"

The thing took a swing at her, obviously intending to catch her by surprise, but the blow was graceless and clumsy and barely grazed her. Its hoof did, however, hit her shades, making one lens crack. Half her vision was hinted, while the other half saw the room much brighter, although jagged from the broken pieces still in the frame. She sprang into action and bodyslammed the thing into the wall hard enough to force all the air out of its lungs. It slid to the floor, spent and wheezing. Taking a step back, she calmly removed the shades and inspected them.

“I liked these shades,” she said faintly. She held them out so the thing could see what it had done. "These were my favorite pair." When it gave a sickly wheezing hiss in response, she shrugged and said, “Well, you know what they say. An eye for an....” In one deft motion, she shot forward and jammed one of the glasses' hooked tips into its eye. “Eye.”

The Changling screeched at her and flailed its forelegs to knock her away, but it was too late. The fluid from its punctured eye dribbled down its cheek. The Colonel causally tossed the ruined glasses over her shoulder, then pulled her purple beret off as well and flung it aside. Without rushing, she started unbuttoning her dress uniform until it hung open.

“You're starting to annoy me," she said. "Can you please tell me who were here to meet, so we can both get this over with?"

The thing was gingerly touching its ruined eye socket. Its mouth wormed up and down in horror.

With an impatient groan, the Colonel grabbed the Changeling, picked it up off the ground, and slammed it into the wall. She leaned so close to its face they were practically muzzle to cracked chitinous muzzle. The disfigurement she had wrought on it didn't faze her in the slightest. It wasn't a real pony. It was a hippoid, closer to an animal. And animals had to be trained until they knew who their master was, or else they would be put down.

"Pretty please, will you tell me?" she asked.

The Changling spat in her face, which made her flinch. Mostly because of the smell. The Changeling had been in the room for three days without a bath, and its ichor was rank. The Colonel wiped her face clean with her sleeve, then stared at the thing. Tension, thick and heavy, filled in the air as she wondered what to do next. Then, she pinned the Changling's head to the wall with her left foreleg and raised her free hoof.

“If you can't see this is going to end with you spilling your guts to me, then maybe you don't need that other eye after all."

The unruined eye widened. But in the glassy blue orb, she still saw the resolve of defiance; it wasn't going to crack. Well, not just yet. She grinned at the Changeling as she reached forward to gouge away--

“Colonel Dash!”

On hearing the very young voice from the doorway, she paused, her hoof an inch from the bubble of the Changling's quivering eye. “What is it?” she asked, her eyes not leaving the Changling.

The filly said, “Um, they told me to get you.”

The Colonel smiled at the thing in front of her, then let it go and let it collapse to the ground. She spoke down to it, “Looks like this will have to wait. Try and entertain yourself until I get back.”

She strode to the door, scooping up her beret as she went and settling it on her head in one smooth and effortless motion. The filly in the doorway looked awed as she approached. The Colonel vaguely recognized her as one of the cadets from the junior officer training program. From the looks of her, the rookie wasn't far out of diapers. The Colonel paused at the threshold, then turned back to the Changeling.

She asked, “By the way, do you like music?”

The Changeling panted heavily before working up the effort to hiss in response.

She stepped into the observation room and went to a record player on a table. Its wires were spliced into the interrogation room's intercom. She pulled a vinyl record from its sleeve. Leaning around the doorframe so she could see into the room, she placed it on the turntable and dropped the needle. The song 'Rockafilly' started blaring at ear-splitting volume. The thing howled and clutched its head in pain. She grinned as she swung the door shut and locked it, then hit the lights and plunged the room into darkness. The music was still incredibly loud, even through it was muffled by the walls.

“Listen up, rook,” she said to the cadet as she buttoned her dress shirt back up. “You have a job. Every twenty minutes, I want you to come back here, flip the record over, and play the other side.”

“Yes, ma'am!” the cadet said, snapping her hooves against the ground as she saluted.

“So, uh....” She racked her brains for the filly's name, but came up with nothing. "Umm...." She gestured at the rookie, but the cadet just tilted her head and raised her eyebrows in confusion. The Colonel jabbed her hoof at the cadet, then swept her leg up and down, from the filly's hooves to her purple mane. The rook still didn't get it. "Uhhh...." The Colonel motioned for the filly to spit it out.

Understanding brightened the cadet's face, then it darkened again. But she hid her wounded feelings well and declared, “It's Scootaloo, ma'am. You, um, showed me around last month.”

“Right,” the Colonel said. “So, Scootaloo, what wild goose chase does Spitfire have us on this time? More Griffon sightings? Cragodiles in the sewers? What?”

“Actually, the radio room sent me. They received a report from Source Alphane about Armor's sister.”

“What?!” The Colonel's nostrils flared. She grabbed the filly by the shoulders. “Why didn't you say so in the first place? What did the report say?”

The rook's eyes widened as she was shaken. “All he said was he recommended putting her under surveillance.”

“We already have her under surveillance!”

The filly swallowed heavily, panic rising in her eyes. “Uh, I, um, I, uh....”

“Did she confide anything about Shining Armor's current whereabouts to her shrink?”

The filly dropped her gaze and looked around the room, as if a clue would be written somewhere, then looked up and asked, “Isn't....isn't he dead, ma'am?”

With a great groan, the Colonel let the rook go, brushed past her, and headed out of the observation room and into the bullpen. “Isn't anypony in this organization on the same page?!” she hollered. She strode out into the space between the desks and swept her eyes over the other officers. She pointed at Soarin. “You!”

Major Soarin looked up from his box of Donut Joe-brand donuts, crumbs falling from his lips.

“You have a job: I want you to go around to every single Shadowbolt in this building and make sure they all know that Shining Armor is still alive, and more importantly, that we're supposed to be finding him.” She pointed at the filly, who lingered near the door to the interrogation room. “That includes the rooks!”

From across the room, the cadet called, “Uh, it's Scootaloo, ma'am!”

The Colonel glared at her, then flapped her hoof in the filly's direction. “Whatever!” She faced Soarin, who hadn't budged from his box of jelly donuts. “Well, what are you waiting for, jelly belly?! Yes, you! Go! Now!” When he took a tentative step away from his desk, she encouraged him by shouting, “That's it! Just like that! Come on, I have faith in you!”

“Colonel Dash,” said a gruff voice from behind her.

“What?!” she exclaimed, spinning around to face the challenger. But she immediately dropped her voice into a respectful tone when she saw who it was. “I mean, yes, ma'am?”

Spitfire stood in the doorway to her office. The medals pinned to the front of her dress uniform gleamed in the lights. “Let's have a talk,” she said, then walked back inside, leaving the door ajar in invitation. On its frosted glass was written: 'Spitfire, Director-General'.

The Colonel trudged after her. Though before she entered, without even looking back, she called, “I still outrank you, Soarin, so don't you dare sit back down in that seat!”

Spitfire took a deep, long drag of her cigar. The Colonel stood in front of the desk and watched the smoke curl up into the silent air, just like the thick smog she saw through the window that obscured the city and the High Castle. On the General's desk, model pegasus ponies and airplanes, sculpted paperweights, and several books on military history were immaculately arranged alongside her paperwork. Her peaked cap was resting at the desk's front, facing the Colonel. The silver insignia of the winged skull spanning its front grinned at her.

After a long silence, Spitfire said, “You're still fixated on the Shining Armor situation.”

“Because he's not dead," the Colonel stated, eager to defend herself. "You saw the report, same as I did.”

“All that report said was the wreckage of his hovercarriage was too charred to determine if there was a body inside. It's a big leap from that to conspiracy theories about his survival.”

“We're the Shadowbolts. We make conspiracy theories for breakfast and get everypony to believe them by supper.”

Spitfire smiled. “True. Very true.” She leaned forward and tapped the cigar's ash into an ashtray. “I used to like that bravado of yours, Colonel." Then she turned around and looked out the window, as if she could see the High Castle through the smog. "When they gave this agency to me, they thought what it needed was young blood. The High Castle said all the old warhorses cluttering up the ranks were too stodgy and set in their ways to be useful. So I did what they asked. I gutted the upper echelons and got some new blood pumping into the place. But perhaps I took things a little too far. My colleagues on the Defense Council said you were too young to promote to Head of Internal Security, and I'm starting to think they were right. See, I thought you had the right attitude for the job, but ever since you became obsessed with this, it's starting to irk me. One of several things, actually."

The Colonel bristled at Spitfire trying to change the subject, to make everything about her rather than the mission. “It was the Midnight Guard who put out a press release stating Shining Armor was dead. The report doesn't support that.”

Spitfire twisted around and glowered at her. “Well, Colonel, obviously if he hasn't reported for work after his vehicle blows up, it's a fair assumption he's dead. Do you, or do you not agree?”

“Somepony inside the Guard is covering for him. Helping the world think he's dead.”

“Somepony like Cadence, you mean.”

The Colonel sealed her lips, to which Spitfire smirked and launched an offensive. “Now let me make one thing perfectly clear: I never sanctioned a hit on Shining Armor.”

“He must've rigged the hovercarriage to blow by himself--”

Uh huh. Right. Hold on while I get some new batteries for my bullcrap detector. It's run dry at the moment. Now, while I appreciate an enterprising spirit and an ability to think outside the box, I will not have my officers pulling off autonomous operations like that inside my Directorate without my explicit say-so. Hear me?”

Softly, the Colonel said, “If you won't, somepony has to.”

“What was that?!”

The Colonel found her courage and fought back. “You heard me. Did you forget why they wanted to get new blood in this place? It's because the Directorate failed to see the Winter Rising until it was too late." She pointed out the window. "You're so busy looking for Changlings that it's blinded you to the threats from our own species. Degeneration doesn't just come from outside. It also comes from within."

Spitfire scoffed. "Somepony just read The Empyrean Herd."

"We need to put more resources on internal threats, and that includes our so-called 'sister' service, who've been working to undermine our operations at every turn. Who spooked Source Mustang during Operation Glue Factory? Who told him we were about to set him up to take the fall?”

“You were about to set him up to take the fall.”

“Yeah, but who told him? I ran that operation every step of the way. I had access to him locked down tight. And I know I sure didn't tell him.”

“Did it ever penetrate your thick little skull that maybe he pieced it together on his own? As soon as I saw your proposal, I told you that operation was bad news, but you insisted you could make it work. You're lucky I went to bat with the Council for you on that fiasco.”

“There's no way Source Mustang was smart enough to figure out we were playing him. Somepony got to him and turned him against us, and only two ponies knew his dead drop protocol: me, and the liaison from the Midnight Guard. Miss Perfect Pegasus Cadence. Who used to be our liaison to the Guard before she jumped ship for...." But the Colonel realized what she was about to say and stopped herself. She finished lamely, "For a nice cushy job with the Guard.”

Spitfire stubbed her cigar out forcefully. “You are on thin ice with your accusations, Colonel. I practically had to get on my knees and wash Sunset Shimmer's hooves before she'd accept my sincere reassurances the death of her boss wasn't our doing.”

“Why would you degrade yourself like that for a unicorn--?”

“She's a pony, Dash, just like you and me.”

“She's a unicorn! We're pegasi! There's a world of difference. Our wings mean we're closer to the divine moon than they are. And the princess of this city is a pegasus more than she is a unicorn. The unicorns just want us to think otherwise so they can chain us to the ground. So we don't fly higher than them.”

“That's your problem, Colonel. Right there. The moment you start spouting off about superiority, you upset the balance of this city. In our Empire, every pony race needs to pull their weight equally. It's not degeneracy corrupting this city, it's the idea of degeneracy itself. It's turning us against each other." She sighed and sat on her haunches on the leather-backed chair behind the desk. The chair that marked her as the leader of the Shadowbolt Directorate, like the throne of an old duke from the feudal era. "Of course we make the Midnight Guard edgy. The unicorns think they need to manage us pegasus ponies every step of the way, whereas the Directorate clearly doesn't. We don't prove them wrong by striking back at every injustice, real or imaginary. We prove them wrong by doing our jobs. This isn't about fighting battles, Colonel Dash, it's about picking them. The most important quality in a Shadowbolt is subtlety, something you sorely lack. The Midnight Guard are better equipped to deal with ideological issues. State security is what we're allegedly in charge of, and that means Changelings. That's an order, and I won't hear another word about it.”


Not. Another. Word,” Spitfire said. “Dismissed.”

The Colonel opened her mouth to protest, but when she saw Director-General Spitfire's raised eyebrow daring her to speak out of turn, she stormed out of the office. The eyes of the Shadowbolts in the bullpen watched her keenly. Soarin hadn't parted himself from the box of jelly donuts at his desk. She swept over to him and grabbed the mirrored shades from his shirt collar.

"Hey!" he protested.

"My pair got broken," she said, slipping them onto her face. "If anypony asks, I'm checking one of my dead drops."

She headed for the exit, passed through the lobby, and descended the steps of Firefly Center, headquarters of the Shadowbolt Directorate. It was a little early, but Major Dust would be debriefing Source Witchcraft later, and the Colonel had something to discuss with her. If Spitfire wouldn't listen to reason, Lightning Dust would.

The murky, acrid air billowing through the city tingled the nostrils and the tip of the tongue, tasting and smelling faintly of coal and oil. The streetlights, those lonely sentinels of the eternal night, bloomed in the haze, while the buildings down the street became as indistinct as serpents and leviathans under the water's surface. On a billboard, a neon cartoon pony held up an Easy Breezy-brand respirator while winking at the pedestrians. Her smile invited them to buy one at a special low, low price, fit it securely over their muzzle, and delight at how much better the filtered air smelled and tasted.

Twilight Sparkle turned away from the ad and walked stiffly down the street, wrapped up in her own mind. I must become like the princess, she thought firmly. I must master myself and raise myself to the moon.

But the moon wasn't visible. Neither was the High Castle. She imagined it standing on the mountain above. It was also a kind of billboard, she saw. The princess's glowing royal image winked at the ponies below and invited them to buy Luna-brand Mindset, guaranteed to make the world seem one hundred percent better. After all, the princess of the night was the embodiment of the moon, everything that was right and just in the world. In turn, that natural law flowed from her to the land she ruled over, forming a bridge for their ascent.

We're all buying the princess's vision from the High Castle and selling it to everypony else we meet, Twilight thought, feeling half-mad. She was dangerously sober by now, and her thoughts had a bitter and sarcastic edge to them. We're walking billboards for the Land of the Eternal Moon, advertising its greatness with our own success and happiness.

But that product, the Empire of the Moon, was one Twilight had to have, no matter the cost. Luckily, it was absolutely free. All she had to do was hold that ideal of the princess in her mind. It would show her how to undertake the struggle, the same uphill climb the princess once had to make, a thousand years ago, to found this city.

While she wrapped herself in her thoughts, her hooves carried her to the red-bricked building of the Super-Duper Market. It stood alone in a vast, nearly-empty parking lot. Its neon sign glowed in the mist and its inner light spilled out through the rows of glass doors. As she passed through them, they parted automatically for her, welcoming her inside. She made some room in her moon-filled mind for her grocery list.

She harnessed herself to a metal shopping cart and set off down the aisles. But the deeper she went into the twisting labyrinth, the more an unsettling loneliness stole over her. She didn't pass a single other pony. Her only companions were the sound of her hooves clacking on the polished linoleum, the squeaking of the cart wheels, and the hum of the hanging light strips and distant refrigerator units. Everything else was silence, absolute and complete. She told herself it was just after three o'clock. Everypony was still working, doing their duty for the city. She craned her head back, staring up the height of the towering aisles for what she needed. The slogan of the Super-Duper Market said, 'If ponies need it, I got it,' and it was true. Everything a pony could ever want was on those shelves, aisle after aisle of them, a whole labyrinth. The shelves were so full of products they all seemed to lean over her head very precariously. You're crazy, she told herself. It's just vertigo. A trick of perspective. The aisles stood as straight as straight could be, like canyon walls. But the thought of being trapped in a canyon only made her creeping disquiet worse.

To quell the feeling, she stared down at the floor and forced herself to think of what she still needed to get. But the polished floor, where she stood on her own reflected hooves, captivated her. She was supporting herself in mid-air, and below her was a whole new world waiting to be explored. Surely it was more interesting than the one she lived in.

Focus, Twily. She stopped in her tracks. Twi, I meant. Why would I say 'Twily'? The answer, of course, was obvious: he used to call her that when they were young. Before he....

Oatmeal, she suddenly thought. I need oatmeal. Like an aimless pilgrim, Twilight wandered to and fro. She avoided the imported stuff, from the settlements overseas. Those always carried a hefty price tag, and she was trying to save money. A conapt like hers didn't come cheap. So she sought out a box of this or a cup of that, always buying domestic. She refused to let her thoughts wander, trying to shut out the emptiness while her cart filled up. Be like the princess.

But there was too much interference from the supermarket. The crippling loneliness was embedded in its very walls and drowned out the princess's transmission. The store was so empty she felt like she might be the only pony left alive, stuck in a clockwork world that kept ticking away in futility. What happened when there was nopony left to wind it up again?

Get a grip, Twilight, right now.

The deeper into the market she went, the more cut-off from the outside world she felt, like she was digging her own grave.

I'm being tested, that's all, she thought.

But tested by whom? There was nopony around her. Only the can and boxes on the shelves. They sat there, watching her and waiting for her to pick them up and take them home. Commanding unicorns and heroic pegasi and diligent earth ponies adorned the labels. Those cans and boxes were all she had for company. All she ever had for company. Pictures of ponies, not ponies themselves. Voices on the radio, instead of voices in her home. The friendliest ponies in her life were the billboards on the streets, smiling and inviting her to share in their abundance, for a very low price, for this week only, while supplies last.

Cold sweat broke out on Twilight's brow. The shelves on either side of her looked very unstable; she was hesitant to take anything off them in case they came tumbling down. For all she knew, the world might come tumbling down after them, and the cosmic stagehooves running around behind the backdrop would be exposed.

There are no ethereal breezies waiting in the wings to work their charms and change the scenery. This is real life, Twilight. You've just been reading Starswirl's Storm too much.

And why not? The play and the ponies in it were her best friends, now that Shining Armor was....was....

Apples! she thought viciously. She gritted her teeth, on the verge of hyperventilating, and trotted to the canned fruit section, past a pyramidal display of Lorca-brand Canned Watermelon. She scanned the shelves for her favorite brand, keeping an eye open for the quaint little woodcut of an idyllic pastoral market on the label. There: F&F Consumables-brand Apple Sauce. But the closer she looked at the label, the more the hanging light strips glinted off the shiny paper and into her eye. The ancient woodcut, probably dating from the feudal age, leaped to life for the briefest of moments. The stalls on the dusty dirt field and the ponies milling around them came alive as they shopped and laughed to one another and the ponies selling their food. Everypony were so close and friendly. It made the supermarket seem that much emptier. But when she blinked, the label was exactly as it was. As it always had been.

Get a grip, Sparkle.

She looked at the back label. 'All natural', it said. That was good, natural was good. Then below that, the instructions:

1. Open can with can opener (sold separately)

2. Pour contents into bowl

3. Consume

Caution! Use only as directed

There was no expiration date on the label, so she checked the top. And there, in the bare metal circle, she spied somepony looking over her shoulder. A familiar blue-and-white-striped mane. She dropped the can and spun around.

She was alone. As alone as she'd ever been.

Sweat poured down her face and dripped off her muzzle. She felt dizzy and her back muscles were taut and itched with tension. The shelves closed in around her, teetering precariously over her head. She had to finish up and get out, because the place was driving her insane. She pulled a forelegful of F&F apples off the shelf, dumped them into her cart, and took off at a brisk pace to finish getting what she needed.

Physically needed, anyway. What she truly needed, she couldn't get.

On the factory floor of the F&F Consumables building, which was crowded with both great big churning machines and weary earth ponies, the workers heard the windows rattle and the walls rumble. It started softly at first, but the whine rose in intensity, getting louder and more ear-splitting. It crescendoed in a fever pitch, then screamed overhead and shot off into the distance. Most likely, Applejack reckoned, wiping the sweat from her close-cropped mane, one a'them newfangled rocket planes shuttling ponies in from the coasts. The airstrip was just past the industrial sectors, separated by huge drainage channels for rivers of waste runoff and industrial byproducts, miles of imposing chain-link and concrete fences with watchtowers and spotlights, and frequent security patrols.

For a fleeting moment, she wondered what it'd feel like to travel on a rocket plane, soaring through the clouds at hundreds of miles per hour.

Don't ya dare get a notion, she warned herself. Never in a million years will ya board one a'them things, so best strike it from yer head. This ain't some magical fantasy world where everything is wonderful all the livelong day, like in the stories. This is the real world, and ya best get used to it, ya hear? For right now, yer life is apples, and don't ya forget it.

Applejack let out a weary sigh, and let her notions go with it like the hot air they were.

A crate was rolling down the conveyor belt towards her. Its stencils revealed it'd come from Appaloosa. She took a crowbar in her teeth, wedged the flat end under the lid, and used her forelegs to pry it loose. The lid popped off. She leaned over and pierced the airtight plastic wrapping. The apples inside were small, hard, tough. The smell was bitter. Her senses were tickled by some intuitive sense that the apples were wrong. Stunted and sickly. But she ignored the thought. There was only so much the earth ponies in the homeland could coax from the ground without sunshine. This wasn't the settlements. Her kind were determined to make things sprout from the hard, lifeless ground, and she admired them for that.

She upended the crate into her hydraulic press. The apples rolled out and settled into a pile in the trough under the masher. After tossing the crate onto a pile to be wheeled out, she yanked the lever to bring down the mashing plate. It squeezed the apples until they were a nice, thick paste in the bottom of the trough. To her hungry stomach, they looked so juicy. She hadn't eaten since yesterday evening.

Just mash 'em, Applejack. You'll be up fer some extra ration credits soon enough.

She fiddled with the pump machine. From a pipe extending into the masher trough, thick and gooey Horselover-brand Artificial Fat solution spewed into the apple mash, mixing with the yellow-orange of the apple pulp and the red of the skins. Her bosses used it to get more volume per can. If Flim an' Flam can figure a way ta save a bit, ya can bet they'll do it. Food was scarce in the homeland, and the scam proved profitable. Once the automated pipe stopped spewing the artificial fat out, she pulled another lever that opened the drain and sent the mixture pouring into the blender below the trough. As it whirred to life, beating and pulverizing the mix into a fine, edible paste, her thoughts started to wander again, and they turned decidedly melancholy.

She reached up and scratched around the uncomfortable hunk of metal in her ear, wondering what life in the settlements was like. The farming was bound to be more fruitful, for sure. But how was it for her kind? The commercials made it sound like paradise, but they were also trying to sell the trip to unicorns. 'Sign up now fer yer free earth pony workers!' she thought sarcastically. 'They're all hard workers and they never, ever complain!' She scoffed, but she couldn't stop the sinking feeling inside. How did the Bureau of Foreign Affairs decide which earth ponies should go? Was it at random, or did a pony have to volunteer? Was it a punishment, like being given the stick, or a reward, like being given the carrot on the stick?

Her brother would probably know how to go about it, but she didn't feel like getting a lecture. Boy howdy, ain't nopony able ta talk an' talk like Big Mac can.

Applejack probably couldn't go, anyhow. She'd never farmed a day in her life and wouldn't have the first clue about what went where. Her family left the countryside and moved to Canterlot during the industrial boom centuries ago, when life in the city was better for earth ponies. Not great, but better.

And then....the Rising. Her breathing and heart rate quickened as she remembered the sight of her parents swinging from the trees lining the March of Triumph, along with a hundred other broken and bloody Winter Brigadiers. That was the day the pegasus ponies demonstrated the lengths they would go to in order to keep the 'peace', and it wasn't something she was about to forget. She glanced around at all the other weary, broken earth ponies. Many had lived through the Rising, and they weren't apt to rise again. Not this generation, anyway. And considering some of the horror stories she had heard from her brother about life in the Equestrian fields, it stunned her to think the city ponies were the lucky ones.

Fer a thousand years now, they went and blamed us fer not makin' enough food, she thought. Fer a thousand years, it's all come down on us. Every time something happens, we get the brunt of the blame. When that book, The Empyrean Herd, came along, they finally had the perfection explanation why, and when the Winter Rising happened it was as good as confirmed. After the Rising, the pegasus ponies had free rein in dealing with 'degeneracy'.

The machine buzzed as the finished apple mix dribbled into a steel canister. She capped it and sent it on down the assembly line to the next station.

What's the point? she asked herself, not for the first time. Of anything?

But the answer came to her instantly: her family. Through thick and thin, they held her together and gave her a reason to go on. It made the bad bits – pretty much everything else - tolerable. She smiled thinly to herself as she got to work on another crate. Together, they could weather anything. Even if it wouldn't put food in their bellies, it kindled the flame of love in their hearts, which was so much more important than nurturing the body.

The medical suite's white tiles and shiny metal surfaces gleamed under the flourscent lighting. The small room was cold and sterile, with a faint blue tint the same color as a pony's face during asphxyiation. A grim thought, for a grim place. Fluttershy shuffled her hooves, wanting more than anything else in the world to leave the Rarefaction Industries factory. But they weren't done yet, not by a long shot. It was enough to make her cry.

Another pony came in, escorted by two pegasus overseers. An elderly green-coated mare, with white stubble dotting her shaved head. A poor, scared little thing, like the critters in Perky Pet. The pegasi led her to the examination table and helped her up onto it. When she lay on her stomach, her head and ears sagged. Her eyes, set in deep wrinkles, looked from one face to the other, too tired to be terrified. She only had weariness left in her. Poor thing, she's so old she can barely keep her head up, Fluttershy thought. Don't worry, soon it'll be all over with. Earth ponies were so helpless and scared all the time. Fluttershy felt a kind of kinship with them. When she spoke to them, all her nervousness melted away, almost like she could understand and communicate with them on a deeper level.

The unicorn doctor pulled a stethoscope from his white lab coat and checked the old mare' heartbeat.

“So what brings you here?” Fluttershy asked, stepping forward.

“Well, last week, I-I went and collapsed,” the mare admitted, full of shame. “I was at the sewing machine, like I was supposed to be, and the room was all a'hot and stifling, and a'fore I knew it, down I went. Hit my head on the floor. But they was nice an' gave me a whole hour break a'fore I had ta start workin' again."

“When was your last meal?” Fluttershy asked.

“Supper, yesterday. Been tryin' ta save up money fer some more meals, but it's mighty hard.”

“Aw,” Fluttershy cooed in sympathy, rubbing the mare's hunched back. She ignored the doctor's impatient look. “Well, you just hang in there, alright?”

She wished she could give this mare, or any of the earth ponies she dealt with when she went out on assignment, a decent meal. Even if it went against the rationing laws. But the Bureau would fire her, and then how would she afford her little bunny?

Well, at least she won't ever know another hungry day, Fluttershy thought sadly.

She took the clipboard off the table and looked at the documents she'd received from Vinyl Scratch. Under the stylized logo of the High Castle and the words 'Bureau of Harmony, Livestock Division', she scanned the text and confirmed what it said. 'Stock #AC-219-41. Movement status: free range. Employer reports productivity falling under minimal threshold. Liquidation authorized under paragraph 7 of Racial Harmony Law of 988.'

Fluttershy checked the metal earmark stapled through the old mare's ear and confirmed it was the same number. Swallowing heavily, she gave the nod to the doctor behind the old mare's back. He crossed to the medicine cabinet. The loud creak of its hinges opening sent spikes of pain into Fluttershy's eardrums. She flattened her ears against her skull. When the door was fully opened, she saw her reflection in the glass, twisted and distorted. The doctor pulled out a bottle, its label covered with complicated, clinical chemical terms. Nowhere did it say, in plain and simple terms, what it did. He shook the bottle until a small pill fell out into his up-turned hoof.

“What's your name?” Fluttershy asked the elderly mare. She was owed that much.

“Granny Smith.”

“You just relax now, Granny. We're going to give you some medicine, and you'll feel right as rain, alright?”

The mare nodded slowly, her head shaking, as the doctor came back with the pill and a glass of water.

“Drink this,” he said, his words terse, his demeanor smooth and with no wasted movement.

She took it and drank it down with the water without hesitation. Fluttershy wondered if she knew what the pill was. Earth ponies were sometimes reassigned if another firm could afford to license more workers from the High Castle; did this mare think the ponies who left their desks and never came back were being sent somewhere else? Going on to better things? In a sense, they were: the World to Come was waiting. Or maybe the old mare just knew it was her duty to obey her guardians without question. She had lived through the Winter Rising, after all.

My race, Fluttershy thought sadly.

The sudden impulse to take the bottle and swallow every last pill in it, to sail away to the World to Come and spare her heart and soul from any more, overcame her. But if she did, who would give these earth ponies a last bit of dignity and respect? Certainly not the doctor or the pegasus overseers, that was for sure. No, she had to keep subjecting herself to this. Maybe it was a filly's foolishness, but she thought the touch of kindness she offered these earth ponies made all the difference for them in their final moments. Even if it was destroying her on the inside.

Just think about the adorable little bunnies, Fluttershy, she thought as the mare settled her chin on the examination table. Fluttershy ran a hoof through her shorn white hair. Snowy white hair, like the little bunny she would soon own, and care for, and love. She could not save these earth ponies, but she could save her little bunny.

“You have a family, Granny?” she asked.

“Yessum, ma'am. Three beautiful grandchildren.” She yawned suddenly. “Sorry, awful impolite of me.”

“That's alright. You've had a long day.”

“Long life, more like. Seen an awful lot of things....”

“You've worked hard, haven't you? All your life?”

“Yessum,” Granny Smith said, her eyelids fluttering as she sank down. She yawned again. “The World to Come don't let nopony in who ain't worked....long and hard....for it....” Her breathing became labored.

This is it, Fluttershy thought. She's going....

“Just think of how beautiful it'll be, you and your family all together there.”

“....best grandchildren....anypony could ask for....”

“You rest now, Granny Smith. You've earned it.”

The earth pony breathed a few more times, long and laborious. Then she was still, her last breath leaving her in a soft sigh. In the silence that followed, nopony moved. They watched the body closely, because sometimes the unconscious mind spasmed as it fought against the Tetroxide-D in one last desperate attempt to live. But Granny Smith's body didn't move. It had been waiting for this moment for a long time now. Now her spark of life had gone up to the eternal moon. Put out to pasture in the World to Come.

One of the pegasus ponies lifted the body up, slid a body bag under it, and then dropped it again. It thumped heavily against the examination table.

“Alright, take the body away for cremation,” the doctor said, utterly disaffected. “How many more of these are there? I have tickets for The River Runs Wild tonight and I want to be ready early. Parking is going to be a nightmare.”

Fluttershy checked her clipboard again, and what she saw made her want to start bawling. “Five more,” she mumbled. She had to do this five more times before she could go home.

As they zipped the bodybag up, Fluttershy took one last look at its calm, serene face. Already a statement had been drafted and mailed to the little ghetto hovel she surely shared with her family. She would've gone out there and done it herself, face to face, but watching the old mare die once was enough. She couldn't stand to see it happen a second time in the eyes of her family. When she finished filling out the paperwork and tucked it back into the folder, she waited for the next earth pony to enter.

She wondered what to do after work. Stare wistfully at the pet shop window? Sit home alone, thinking about Granny Smith's last moments? Maybe she'd go see the new show, The River Runs Wild, at the Chariot Theater. Trotten Pullet was in it, and Fluttershy had loved Pullet since her supporting role on the radio comedy, Derby and Me. If she hurried, there might still be some cheap seats left. It was settled, then; she'd go and laugh and forget about her job and her life. For a little while, at least.

The next earth pony was escorted in. He was much younger than Granny Smith. His wiry body was taut with tension, but one of his legs was withered and discolored. He limped heavily, and his skills with a sewing machine were probably next to useless.

Fluttershy's thoughts turned to the mare who owned the factory. I hope you're happy with this, she thought. Wherever you are.

“Oh, I love it!” Rarity squealed.

She's so happy, Coco thought. Her heart leaped with delight as her mare circled around the finished dress standing in the center of her office. She didn't let it show on her face, though. It wouldn't do to let Rarity see her as anything other than calm and composed. She had to remain collected at all times. Coco existed to serve, not to indulge in base, emotional passions; her purpose was to plant the foundation of the Empire, a foundation the unicorns managed and the pegasi defended.

“It's just so marvelous,” Rarity said, eyes shining. "I'm so impressed with all my workers. I should do something nice for them.” She put a hoof on her chin, then turned to Coco and asked, “What do....your race, ahem....like?

Coco didn't answer immediately. She walked to the window overlooking the factory floor. Below, rows and rows of earth ponies were hunched over sewing machines, doing their duty for Canterlot.

She had been a manual laborer, once. Her duty was to clean the floors of an industrial waste plant. But unlike some earth ponies, she had never blamed others for her situation. She had taken responsibility for her own life and worked hard to better herself, to make the ascent upwards. The promise of the city. It rewarded those ponies who gave their all. After sending application after application to the Bureau of Harmony, she had gotten a chance to prove herself when the inspectors came and interviewed her. She went above and beyond simple duty and strove to embody everything an earth pony should be: diligent and tireless and quick-witted, sacrificing her petty selfish desires for the good of the Empire. And in reward, she had earned the supreme right for an earth pony: the removal of her earmark. If the mares and stallions down there on the factory floor hadn't gone anywhere in life, it was their own fault. She had nothing but contempt for ponies who refused to better themselves. Those who blamed others for their problems would never get to make the ascent and frolic in the lush pastures of the World to Come.

Turning back to her mare, Coco finally said, “Can you hear the earth ponies sing, ma'am?”

Rarity tilted her head and raised an ear, listening intently for a moment. “I'm afraid I don't hear anything but the sewing machines.”

“Exactly,” Coco said, allowing a sliver of a smile to show. “Listen to those machines joining together in rhythm, cadence, melody, harmony. From that, a music emerges. That is the song of the earth pony, and we sing it with every motion of our hoof. What we love most, ma'am, is to serve. And you've already given us ample opportunity for that.”

“Very poetic, my dear.”

“You're too generous.”

“But still,” Rarity said, trotting to the window beside Coco, “I should do something for them. Maybe I could upgrade their ration credits? Is there a wholesale discount, maybe?"

Coco did some quick calculations in her head, then announced, "With how many earth ponies you're licensed for, it would cost about seven times what your company makes in a year. And besides, ma'am. Earth ponies are of the dirt."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Rarity asked, her voice rising in indignation.

Coco knew well enough by now that her mare hated the idea of degeneracy. That the earth pony race, by its very nature, was more earthly than the unicorns and pegasi. More bestial and impulsive, and less in tune with the divine moon. It sickened Coco to think that her ancestors had interbred with those hideous beasts, the Griffons. That she had their blood inside her, no matter how diluted. Chimerism: the source of racial degeneration. But in the end, everything had worked out for the best. That closeness to the profane earth had allowed them to grow food for Equestria, even if the princess sometimes needed to employ harsh measures to keep their more degenerate instincts in line. Like the rationing, once a wartime measure for all Equestria, made permanent for the earth pony race after the Rising.

But Coco's unicorn was her all, and if Rarity didn't want to hear about degeneration, Coco would have to discuss the matter indirectly.

"What I mean is," she explained, "for every hardworking earth pony, there's one who'll take a mile if you give them an inch. Giving them more food without them earning that right would only make them work less and drive down production."

Rarity paced to the other side of her office and thought a moment. Then she spun round, her face lighting up. She clapped her hooves together. "Perhaps a new line of couture! A discount line for earth ponies, and one free dress for everypony who works for me!”

“I don't think that's wise, ma'am. We wouldn't want to encourage the development of a distinct earth pony culture, would we? After all, the Winter Rising started small, with...." Coco nearly said 'them'. Struggling to sound objective, she announced, "With some members of my race donning their own homemade fashions. Creating a distinct culture for themselves, apart from normal Canterlot culture. That led to gathering in discotheques and mingling unsupervised with impressionable young unicorns and pegasi."

"I enjoyed 'mingling'."

"Not all unicorns have your purity of heart, ma'am," Coco said. She allowed herself a brief smile, to please her mare. "Look at the Winter Rising: the lack of a strict hoof controlling the city's culture emboldened some earth ponies to take control and declare a revolution, and the youth culture that sprang up around the discotheques supported them wholeheartedly. And since fashion is inevitably tied to culture, giving earth ponies the means for a separate culture would only put them in a revolutionary mood again. Make them think they can exist apart from the greater glory of Canterlot."

Those traitors, Coco thought. It was their fault life was so difficult for her now. The Racial Harmony Law would never have been written in the first place if the earth ponies who formed the Winter Brigade had just learned how to play by the rules of society. The rules that got hardworking ponies like her where she deserved to be. Coco just thanked the moon that her mare didn't bother much with the logistics of the company. She wondered if Rarity even knew the Bureau of Harmony was euthanizing earth ponies who failed in their duty. It wasn't a government secret, exactly, but neither was it advertised on the EBC or spoken of in polite company. Rarity always had her head in the clouds, close to the moon. Perhaps she knew, on some abstract level, but Coco Pommel was the pony who tended the foundation of Rarefaction Industries. She was the one who allowed her mare to soar, and to raise Coco in turn.

"I know you have only the best of intentions, ma'am," Coco said, "but think practically. Some ponies will be more than happy to take advantage of your generous nature."

"Good point." Rarity rubbed her cheeks with her hooves. “I hadn't thought of that. Oh, this is hard! Like getting a gift for an aunt you haven't seen in decades.” She worked the dress off the display pony and carefully laid it in a plain white box on her desk. “I'll think of something later. Right now, Coco, be a dear and fetch me that accounting paperwork. I want to finish it before the day's done.”

“Right away, ma'am.”

Coco left the office and walked along the catwalk and into the office complex built on the side of the factory building. She knocked on Golden Hoofshake's office door. The alabaster stallion raised his head from his ledger. When he saw her, he narrowed his eyes ever so slightly. She knew Hoofshake had no great love for earth ponies, ever since his own accounting firm had been burned down during the Winter Rising. She couldn't say she blamed him, but she was disappointed that no matter how hard she worked, he couldn't recognize that not all earth ponies were degenerate. Some of them actually put in the effort to make the ascent upwards.

"What do you want?" he asked, his voice cold but calm.

He may not have liked her, but he could put his feelings aside in the name of doing business. Coco was not herself right now, but rather a representation of Rarity, and that shielded her.

"Rarity would like the D23 paperwork, please."

He got up and went to a file cabinet, rifled through it, and plucked a thin folder out. He gave it to her. She flipped it open and checked that most of the relevant information had been typed into the spaces already. All the forms required was Rarity's signature. Coco thanked Golden Hoofshake and left the office. She was halfway back to her mare's office when, out of nowhere, she thought of Surrey Polomare.

Why her? she wondered. Why now?

Coco's gait slowed a little bit, as the shame filled her. She remembered the heft of the rusty iron bar in her fetlocks, the long hours waiting in the alley beside Surrey's ramshackle little ghetto back-to-back house, the fear in the usurper's wide eyes when Coco brought the bar down and broke her hind leg clear in half. But she deserved it. The interviewers from the Bureau stated to Coco's face that there was only one position open, and she sure wasn't going to let a fraud and a cheat like Surrey Polomare get it. Surrey didn't care about serving; all she wanted was the reward. She was a smiling face who only told ponies what they wanted to hear, not help them. The Bureau of Harmony euthanized Surrey for that, she thought, shaken a little. For being too lame to work.

But Surrey Polomare didn't deserve to ascend. Coco was the genuine one, and she deserved the position more. Besides, all that was in the past.

So is the Winter Rising, she thought, feeling a chill from nowhere. And yet....

Coco Pommel shook her head. If she truly thought she had earned her place, then she shouldn't stand around while her unicorn was waiting. She picked up her pace and walked back across the catwalk to Rarity's office, high over the rows of earth ponies bent over their sewing machines.

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