• Published 19th Jul 2012
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The Best of All Possible Worlds - McPoodle

The philosopher Voltaire finds himself in the most-frustrating place imaginable: Equestria

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Chapter 15

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Chapter 15

Alright, so what if you considered the mockery as a form of constructive criticism?” read the words on the piece of paper in Algarotti’s hand. It was evidently the draft of some sort of apology from Voltaire to King Friedrich for writing Micromegas.

The Italian shook his head incredulously. Voltaire, he thought to himself, how can you be so smart, and at the same time so very, very foolish?

Just then, he heard the sound of someone stepping into Voltaire’s cell. He glanced over his shoulder in annoyance, only to freeze on seeing Ivan, the seven-foot tall mental patient.

Ivan quietly raised his finger to his lips, in an attempt to keep Algarotti from crying out.

Algarotti responded by screaming like a little girl.

~ ~ ~

Ten minutes and ten burly attendants later, the Siberian was finally subdued.

Algarotti’s primary contribution was to not wet himself.

Beside him stood Jordan. His primary contribution had been to try and coordinate the fisticuffs of the attendants. Jordan shook his head and sighed. “Let’s bring him back to his cell, boys,” he said.

The men surrounded Ivan, and, led by Jordan, began the short walk back to his cell, leaving Algarotti once again alone in the cell. He just needed a little more time to collect his thoughts, and he’d be able to figure out what happened to the magic pencil (and to Voltaire, but that was entirely secondary). This process was once again rudely interrupted by a visitor.

“Excuse me,” said the voice of a little girl, “but what did he do?”

“Shh!” replied Jordan’s daughter in a near-identical voice. “Daddy said not to let anyone see you talk. And I’m not really sure what’s wrong with Ivan. I never could get a straight answer out of anybody.”

Algarotti furrowed his brow in frustration and looked around. There was the girl, and approaching him was...

“But this is important! Sir, do you know what’s wrong with Ivan?”

Oh dear God, it’s a talking donkey.

Algarotti thought for a moment that he was going mad. But then he thought about the pieces of paper he had seen in this room with pencil lines on them forming a huge circle, and finally put the pieces together.

On closer examination, this creature before him wasn’t really a donkey at all. Algarotti was an expert on all the different ways that God was depicted in art. That included an awful lot of manger scenes, and an awful lot of donkeys. So even though he had very little experience with real live donkeys, he had seen enough depictions to know what a donkey was supposed to look like. This creature had a proportionally-larger head than a real donkey, and a more-prominent forehead. These were precisely the ways that the ponies in Oscar’s drawings differed from real ponies. So that meant that he was now face to face with a magical donkey from another world.

This wasn’t exactly the way Algarotti had been planning to exploit the magic pencil situation, but it would have to do. Speaking of which, Algarotti soon spotted what must have been that very pencil poking out of a satchel the donkey was wearing around her neck.

“Sir...?” she asked him hesitantly.

In any case, the first thing to do was to take control of this situation. Algarotti was not a man of violence (in fact, he was quite the opposite). He managed to get most of what he wanted in life, from both men and women of power, by means of his natural charm. After all, was he not author of the best-selling Italian book Newtonism for the Ladies? He had already lowered himself to conversing with peasants today. He supposed there was no real difference between this and talking to a filthy animal, so he dived right in.

“That man is here because he is confused, little girl,” Algarotti said with a smile and what sounded very convincingly like a kind voice. “He is so far away from his home that nobody speaks his language, so he kept getting into fights with people. My name is Francesco, by the way. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He held his hand out expectantly.

“Thank you, Francesco,” replied the donkey with the girl’s voice, putting a hoof in the man’s hand. (That is just so weird! Algarotti thought to himself without betraying anything in his expression.) “My name is Genevieve. I’m not from around here.”

I already figured that one out, Algarotti thought wryly as he completed the handshake. He made a mental note not to use that particular hand for anything decent until it had had a thorough scrubbing, followed by a wash in fresh rosewater.

“See, Jenny!” exclaimed Genevieve, looking at the girl, “I told your father that the others wouldn’t go crazy if I talked!” She then turned back to address the human towering over her. “What about the man who stayed in this room?” she asked him.

“Oh Voltaire? That was just a joke.”

“So he’s not dangerous?”

“Not really.”

“And the people here in the cells are patients, not prisoners?”

“That is correct.”

“Oh, good!”

“Hey, Genevieve,” Jenny interrupted. “Maybe you can use your pencil to fix Ivan!”

“Sure!” the donkey replied, sitting down on the ground. As Algarotti watched, she slid a mostly-blank piece of paper towards her with a hoof, and then used her lips to pull the magic pencil out of her satchel.

Algarotti leaned forward expectantly.

Jenny stepped forward and pulled a strip of fabric out of a pocket in her dress. It looked like it had been cut out of a scarf. She used the strip to tie the pencil to the front of one of Genevieve’s hooves.

On the paper, the donkey quickly began to sketch a scene, although she had to stop from time to time to adjust the wobbling pencil with her teeth.

For the art expert, this was even more amazing than hearing her talk. After all, he reflected, any boob can talk!

The scene quickly brought into focus on the page depicted the inmate Ivan, surrounded by Jordan and the attendants. Each of the dozen men in the picture were individually depicted, with startling details of personality. Algarotti had never noticed that Jordan’s smile was wider on the left side than the right, for example. Of course, Algarotti had never had occasion to make Jordan smile before.

When she was finished drawing the figures, she added a cartoon speech bubble with the German word for “hello” written in big letters. The bubble was carefully drawn so that all twelve characters were speaking it.

The donkey untied the strap and placed both it and the pencil in her satchel, then turned to the girl. “Let’s see if it worked!” she exclaimed, before they both ran out of the room.

Algarotti picked up the drawing and quickly followed.

~ ~ ~

I’m not speaking German,” he heard an unfamiliar voice say. “You all suddenly started speaking Selkup.

Peering into the open door of room 102, Algarotti saw Ivan carrying on a normal conversation with Jordan. The group was in exactly the same arrangement as the drawing. Algarotti had to step away from the door for a few seconds to stop himself from shaking.

Jenny and Genevieve took one peek into the same room before they started dancing around each other in the hallway. “It worked, it worked, it worked!” they sang in chorus.

“Girl...Jenny!” Jordan exclaimed from inside. “What did I tell you about keeping quiet?”

“Sorry!” said Jenny, as Genevieve put a hoof over her mouth.

Algarotti leaned against a wall to think. If he was right, what that donkey could do with the magic pencil was something he had wanted all his life, something he wanted much more than the ability to create portals into a world where he would be outnumbered by magical beasts. And who knew if Oscar had been telling him the truth earlier about how the pencil worked? Maybe now that the donkey had “primed” it, anybody would be able to do what she just did. He led Jenny and Genevieve a few steps away from the door so he could talk to them without being overheard by Jordan. “How did you learn how to do that?” he asked.

“I didn’t mean to—it just sort of happened,” explained Genevieve with a frown. “At least...I think I did that the first time. It’s weird, I can remember changing the drawing to learn how to speak German, but at the same time I feel like German and Equine were always the same language, but that doesn’t seem likely. It’s like I’m remembering two things at once, and they are fighting it out in my head!”

~ ~ ~

I can actually ask for things now!” the voice of Ivan said from inside his cell. “Could I please have a drink of water?

Algarotti poked his head into the room. “I’ll get it!” he said, before taking Jenny aside and presenting her with her drawing. “Draw a glass of water,” he suggested, pointing at a spot on the paper. “Over here where we are, so Monsieur Jordan doesn’t get mad.”

Genevieve looked up at him, her eyes wide, for a few seconds, and then nodded once. She pulled the strap and pencil out of her satchel, and then pointed a hoof in his direction. “Could you...?”

“Of course,” Algarotti said nervously, as he picked up the pencil and the strap. For a brief second, he examined the magic pencil. Outwardly, it looked exactly like a paper-wrapped pencil, but somehow it felt different, in a way he could not define. Then, before he had paused long enough to attract attention, he placed the pencil along the donkey’s hoof and tied it in place.

Jenny drew the outline of a glass, stopping for just a moment with the picture incomplete before finishing it.

Right before their eyes, an oversize glass of water materialized.

Algarotti noticed that Jenny seemed just as surprised as he was. He reached out, to pick up the glass, and found it to be a perfectly ordinary object, if not perfectly round. It felt like glass, weighed about right, and was cool to the touch. Its contents certainly looked like water, with a couple of too-cubical ice cubes floating in it. Algarotti decided not to taste the water (after all, that was what Ivan was for) and instead took the glass into the room.

Nothing horrible happened to Ivan when he drank the water. Algarotti stood watching in the doorway for a minute, just in case the glass decided to fade away after a while.

As he stood there, he felt the same internal battle that Genevieve had described earlier. His mind seemed to rebel against the impossibility of a glass of water appearing out of nowhere, and it did this by inventing one implausible explanation and false memory after another.

That glass had been there since the moment the building had been erected, the thought entered his head.

But how did the ice remain frozen all this time? his rational mind countered.

It’s part of the lunch left out for Ivan, anticipating his inevitable capture, was the second foreign thought. I clearly remember walking past it on the way to Oscar’s room.

No! Algarotti shook his head furiously. The ice would still be melted.

Jordan put the glass there, right before Ivan was captured, as a good luck charm meant to speed his discovery. It’s one of the peasant’s idiotic superstitions.

This explanation was good. It fitted with Algarotti’s poor opinion of Jordan’s intellect, and required no false memories. Glasses do not appear out of nowhere. It was the memory of seeing it appear that was false, and now that memory would fade away...

NO! Algarotti slammed his head into the doorjamb. I will not give up the opportunity to wield that power! That pencil controls reality!

Twelve men were now giving odd looks to Algarotti.

“Err...I slipped,” he said, putting a hand up to his head to make sure he wasn’t bleeding.

After one last look to be sure the glass (now empty) most certainly was still in existence, he headed back into the hallway.

“Are you alright?” Jenny asked.

“Never better!” said Algarotti. How can I get my hands on that pencil? he asked himself. Step One: try the direct approach.

“You know,” he told Genevieve, “when humans use that pencil, they draw portals to the place you came from.”

“Oh is that how that works?” she said. “I thought you had different pencils for different things.”

“So if you give me the pencil,” Algarotti said, “I can draw you a portal so you can go back to your family.”

He saw a look of panic pass across her eyes when he said that.

“No...I’m going to stay here,” she finally said, pushing the pencil down into the satchel and out of sight. “Maybe I can get a job helping the patients.”

Algarotti frowned. It looked like concern, but was actually a mild case of panic. “I don’t think there are that many mental problems where the solution can be drawn,” he told her slowly as his mind raced to find a way to keep her (and her pencil) as close to him as possible. Finally he got an idea. “It so happens that I myself am an artist,” he told her. “How would you like to become my apprentice?”

Step Two: Theft through deception.

“Really?” the donkey asked, hopping up and down in excitement.

“Sure,” he said. “Follow me. The attic of this building has been converted into an artist’s studio, as a reward for the calmer patients. We’ll evaluate the areas where you need help.”

“I’ll tell Daddy where we’re going,” Jenny said, walking into the cell.

That poor man, Algarotti thought to himself, looking at the ebullient patient sitting on his bed. If only he had opened his mouth earlier, he could have saved himself years of misery in this hellhole. After all, he’s been speaking fluent German all his life.

Algarotti carefully took his time evaluating Genevieve’s artistic skills. After all, Jenny was watching everything he was doing, and her father knew where they were.

So Algarotti started by spending time to gain Genevieve’s trust, and to get her to lower her guard. He found some wooden shims, and with his penknife made a little rounded shelf with a notch in one side. Once this object was tied onto the donkey’s forehoof, it was able to hold pencil, pen or brush steady so that she didn’t have to keep adjusting it. After that he spent nearly a half an hour going over subjects with her like color and perspective, covering several canvases with simple drawings.

Finally, Algarotti felt ready to make his next move. “Let’s take a look at your shading,” he said. “We’ll work with pencils.”

In a small wooden box that he had positioned between himself and the donkey several minutes ago (and out of Jenny’s direct line of sight) were a collection of pencils of multiple lengths and types. Algarotti now reached into that box and pulled out all but one of the pencils to spread on the ground between them. The pencil that was left behind looked exactly like the one that Genevieve had in her satchel, except for the fact that it was sharpened.

“Now for pencil work, it helps to have pencils that are both sharp and dull, depending on what effect you are trying to achieve,” Algarotti told Genevieve. He picked up his penknife, then used it to sharpen several of the pencils, one at a time, letting the shavings fall into the box with the one pencil in it until it was nearly covered. He made sure to take an awful long time doing this.

Inevitably, Genevieve pulled her own pencil out and gave it a look before rolling it with a hoof towards him. “Could you sharpen this one, too?” she asked.

“Of course,” he said, picking up the magic pencil and starting to sharpen it, holding knife and pencil less than an inch above the box. “Now why don’t you take one of those pencils and draw me a face three-quarters illuminated by the setting sun, while I dump out these shavings?”

Genevieve placed an ordinary pencil in her holder and focused her attention on the canvas before her.

Algarotti gently dropped the magic pencil into the shavings, where it made not a sound. Then he fished out the identical-looking ordinary pencil, shook it a bit to get the shavings to fall off, and placed it right next to Genevieve.

Genevieve kept drawing.

Algarotti got up, walked over to a wastepaper basket, and dumped out the shavings. He then picked up the magic pencil and started sketching a Reichsthaler on the inside of the box.

It didn’t turn into a real Reichsthaler. Instead, it turned into a portal to what looked like a kitchen.

So Oscar was telling the truth—only a donkey has the ultimate power.

Sighing inwardly, Algarotti wet his thumb with his tongue and rubbed the edge of the portal. Once he had erased part of the circle, the rest of the portal turned back into a pencil line.

He had learned something useful, but it was clear that theft alone was not good enough. The magic pencil was placed back in the box, and Algarotti walked back over to sit next to Genevieve. He placed the box next to the pencil at the donkey’s side.

“Alright, that’s pretty good,” he told her, reaching out one hand to point at the shading, “but this is too extreme a graduation. What you need to do is to try bringing out the highlights.”

As he said this, he reached down with his other hand without looking and picked up the magic pencil, bringing it up to the paper. “Now if you try it like this...” He then looked down at the pencil in his hand and faked surprise. “Oh, this is yours,” he said, and put it into the donkey’s satchel. He then reached down and picked up the ordinary pencil. “As I was saying, if you try it like this...”

Step 3: Manipulation. Which requires I find out how this creature ticks...

Feeding Genevieve turned out to not be that difficult: she just went out the back door and chewed on some grass.

While she was out, Algarotti explained to Jordan that he had accidentally discovered Genevieve’s little secret, and far from wanting to get her into trouble, was willing to pay to have her as an apprentice.

“I can get her works sold without anybody else knowing what she really is,” he explained.

He also explained that he thought it best if he spent the night at the asylum, so to have a full day working with Genevieve starting first thing in the morning.

He shared a wretched dinner with Jordan and his attendants without complaining, and then helped one of them drag a bed up from one of the empty cells to the attic, where another bed had been set up for Genevieve. Originally, the donkey had wanted to sleep in the same room as Jordan and his daughter, but there simply wasn’t enough space in their tiny bedroom for another bed.

Everything seemed to be working out for Genevieve. But that didn’t keep the nightmares away.

They’re going to find out about you,” the voice of Blue Belle taunted the donkey. “They’ll find out you were fighting in front of your monarch and they’ll send you away into the wilderness. Where you’ll starve to death!” In the dream the filly unicorn towered over her. Your only hope is to come crawling back to me and become my slave!

No!” the sleeping donkey said to herself. “You can’t make me! Nopony tells me what to do.


Illuminated by a single candle, Algarotti sat in a chair, listening and watching.

Author's Note:

This chapter was accompanied by the minor blog post "Conceptual Difficulties".