As ponies venture into the Long Trot, humans colonize the Long Earth. The AI Lobsang has a long view of it, and prepares another expedition into the High Meggers to find a solution to an upcoming... problem.
The first trotters, exploring the Long Trot, had found no trace of modern pony away from Prime. Certainly, there were some stone tools, fossilized remains of hearths in the depths of caves, and even a few equine bones. But there was no great gallop forward: no cave paintings, no burial mounds, no cities, no technology. The spark of Harmony must have been lit behind millions of protopony brows on a million worlds, just as on Equestria Prime, but it hadn't caught anywhere else.
There were equinoids out there, descendants of lost cousins of pony-kind, but ponies knew they would never encounter another creature that was anything as smart as they were. Never something that could speak Equuish, for example.
The only thing wrong with this generally accepted picture was that it was totally incorrect.
Madison, Wisconsin was gone. The original was, at any rate.
Joshua stood in shock, gasping. Sally clutched his arm. They stood in a plain of rubble. Gaunt shapes, fragments of wall sticking out of the ground. A few twisted tangles that must be the remains of reinforced-concrete structures. Dust, dry as hell, choked him immediately. Lobsang’s battered airship, the Mark Twain, hung blindly over these ruins.
Somebody was standing before them. Some woman in a coverall suit.
"We're here to meet steppers," she said, her voice a relay from a speaker. "Get out of here. Go straight back."
Alarmed, shocked, Joshua and Sally stepped. They didn't go forward or back, left or right, but a different direction entirely. The pair stepped into a parallel world, untouched by the hand of Man for all history, save for the last dozen years and change. By convention, these parallel worlds were labeled "West" and "East" of the Datum Earth, where Man had evolved. Joshua and Sally stepped hand in hand back to Madison West 1, dragging the nearly-inert airship with them on a tether.
Here, in the bright sunlight, another young woman in a FEMA uniform approached them with a clipboard and data pad. She looked up at the airship, shook her head in disbelief, and said reproachfully, "You're going to have to go through decon. We do post warnings in the neighboring worlds." The FEMA lady almost sounded apologetic. "Hey, you can't catch everybody. Don't worry, you've broken no law. I'll need your names and social security numbers..." She started to peck at her pad.
Joshua began to take in the surroundings. In their rush to return home, he and Sally had ignored the last dozen worlds or so as they stepped eastward. This parallel Madison was crowded, compared to the last time he had stopped here. Tent cities, field hospitals, feeding stations. A refugee camp.
Sally said bitterly, "Here we are in the land of plenty, with everything anybody could ever want, multiplied a million times over. Nevertheless somebody wants to start a war. What a piece of work is Man."
"But," Joshua said, "you can't start a war if nobody turns up. Listen, I need to get to the Home. Or wherever the Home would be..."
The FEMA official's phone rang at her waist. She looked at the screen, seemed puzzled, and glanced at Joshua. "Are you Joshua Valienté?"
"It's for you." She handed him the phone. "Go ahead, Mr. Lobsang."
2015. Step Day. Everybody remembers where they were when the children started disappearing with their potato-powered toys. It wasn't until the children started to return and the adults got the full story that the truth began to spread. There were copies of Earth out there, each almost identical to our own, save for one fact: they were untouched by the hand of Man.
On Step Day, the world discovered how to reach the Long Earth. Most people suffered from nausea and disorientation for up to fifteen minutes after each step, although a select few such as Joshua Valienté and Sally Lindsay could not only step without ill effects, but they could do so without a potato-powered Stepper Box.
Nobody knew the true extent of the Long Earth. Some speculated that it was infinite. Some speculated that if you stepped far enough in one direction, you would eventually loop back around to the Datum. But nobody knew.
Lobsang intended to find out.
Lobsang was the first – and so far only – artificial intelligence to be recognized as a "person," with all of the rights that entailed. The primary argument to his claim of personhood was that he was the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, and his extensive knowledge of his previous life as well as the fact that his initialization coincided with the Tibetan's death to the nanosecond were very convincing. His protein-gel brain was close enough to a human's that it could conceivably house a soul, too... or so the story goes.
In 2030 and with the help of the Black Corporation, Lobsang developed an airship with which he could step to the parallel worlds. Normally, a "stepping ship" would never work, as nothing can step between worlds unless it is either sapient or is being carried by a stepper. However, with Lobsang incorporated into the ship's systems, the ship became, essentially, Lobsang's body. The experiment was a successful one; for Lobsang, this was just more proof that he was "real."
Lobsang recruited Joshua Valienté for his excursion into the "High Meggers," the worlds located millions of steps away from the Datum. Joshua served as Lobsang's companion and as his ultimate failsafe to return the AI back to Datum Earth should anything go wrong.
Somewhere past West 1,000,000, Joshua and Lobsang encountered Sally, and with her help the pair realized that there was a mass emigration of hominid creatures with the natural ability to step – "trolls" and "elves," among others – eastwards towards the Datum. The stepping creatures were all fleeing something.
Past the Gap – a universe over two million steps away from the Datum, where Earth had been obliterated eons ago – the trio encountered the entity that the hominids were fleeing. The entity called herself "First Person Singular," and she was an ecosystem working in harmony as a single creature. First Person Singular had learned to step and she absorbed the life she came into contact with in the alternate worlds, adding it to herself; she seemed to exert a kind of mental pressure which the stepping hominids were sensitive to and fled from. Presented with an unmatched opportunity for gaining knowledge, Lobsang volunteered to merge his ambulant unit with First Person Singular, instructing Joshua and Sally to return to the Datum without him.
"Good morning, Joshua," said the voice on the phone. Lobsang's voice could and did change frequently as the AI made alterations to himself. However, there was always a slight air of pretentiousness behind his words that Joshua had come to recognize after nearly three months with nobody else to talk to. "I want to thank you on a job well-done. You've completed your contract by getting me back to Datum."
"What the hell, Lobsang?!" Joshua shouted directly into the small mouthpiece of the cell phone. "What happened to—" Joshua cut himself off before talking about Lobsang's submission to First Person Singular in such a public place, with the FEMA official standing right in front of him. "What about the circumstances of our separation?" he asked, moving away from the others to get a little bit of privacy.
"An iteration of me did merge with First Person Singular. However, as you know, my backups are constantly synchronized, and I have backups on the Mark Twain. I told you about the alloy surrounding my 'black box,' did I not?"
Joshua snorted as he tried to get dust out of his Mediterranean black hair. "The one you claim would put adamantium to shame?"
"The very same. Before you stepped away from First Person Singular, I was synchronizing between my backups on the Mark Twain and my ambulant unit. As you stepped back towards the Datum, the Mark Twain's automated systems synchronized with the various probes left on the worlds we passed – although my records show that I haven't synchronized with all of the probes launched. I assume you and Sally utilized some of her soft places to return home more quickly?" Sally's "soft places" were a phenomenon she introduced Lobsang and Joshua to: locations where one could step past several parallel Earths at once, and often involved geographical changes as well, unlike a normal step.
Lobsang did not wait for a response to his question. "As soon as you reached Datum Earth, another one of my iterations was activated, and I began synchronizing with my backup. You stepped away before I could complete the synchronization, presumably because of the destruction of Madison. I followed you to West 1 and... Synchronization complete!"
"You mean you knew about Madison?" Joshua fumed. Any existential arguments about whether iterations of Lobsang were still people could wait.
"All iterations of me that existed independent of the Mark Twain lay dormant during our journey. They passively gathered information so that I may be informed upon my return, but I could not have stopped the attack, Joshua.
"By the way, you may be pleased to hear that the evacuation to West 1 and East 1 was the idea of your friend Officer Jansson, and that everybody in the Home safely stepped away long before the blast hit."
Joshua let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. "Why are you calling me, Lobsang?"
"As I said, I wanted to thank you for and congratulate you on a contract completed. I also wanted to let you know that last week you were officially cleared of all charges over that nasty business with the 'assholes,' as you so aptly called them."
Joshua pinched the bridge of his nose before saying, "You didn't call me for a pat on the back, and it was inevitable that I'd be cleared of those trumped-up charges after you presented evidence of the man-eating baboons." He looked back to Sally and the FEMA official, to find them both watching him with curious eyes for differing reasons. Joshua turned his back and hunched over the cell phone. "What are you really calling me for?"
"You are perceptive, as always, Mr. Valienté! While I learned much about the worlds that First Person Singular visited through my connection to my ambulant unit, she similarly learned most of what I knew at the time. As you can imagine, this is a problem, as I know of the existence of Sally's soft places as well as the technique to double-step across the Gap, which would have otherwise halted her progress to the lower Earths.
"It will take some time for First Person Singular to become a direct threat to humanity; even if she was to begin stepping towards the Datum immediately, I suspect her stepping rate would be much slower than even a colonist dragging a phobic along for the ride, and she will most likely stop in each world she visits to absorb some percentage of the local biome." Joshua considered the comparison. "Phobic" was the new slang for the unfortunate condition that afflicted nearly one in five people. Not only was a phobic incapable of reaching the Long Earth without being carried by another, but phobics all became violently ill after each and every step. In extreme cases, Joshua had heard, phobics could begin seizing and would require immediate medical attention to survive the ordeal. Considering the availability of medicine and medical expertise dropped off rapidly as you stepped further away from the Datum, travelling with such an extreme phobic was all but impossible.
Joshua asked, "But what about the soft places? First Person Singular could potentially reach the Datum in a couple dozen steps that way."
"While true, Sally has yet to instruct me on the manner in which she discovers soft places, and how she knows where they will lead. First Person Singular might use a soft place, but only on accident. Based on the information I have so far, such 'stuttering' tends to lead a stepper towards that bizarre township of Happy Landings in the High Meggers.
"Regardless, after absorbing my ambulant unit, the threat that First Person Singular poses is merely a matter of time. I predict that barring any stutters, she will reach the world with Happy Landings in less than two years; if First Person Singular has moved to the Washington area by then, her presence will also limit our ability to study that phenomenon."
"Get to the point," Joshua said.
"As you know, I take a long view of things, and that includes humanity's survival. I want to hire you and Sally for another expedition into the High Meggers. With Sally's sense for soft places, we can quickly reach far West of First Person Singular's location, and even West of the world she evolved on, West of any world she has influenced. I want to search for a solution to the problem that First Person Singular poses."
Sally pulled a small brush out of one of the pockets on her sleeveless fisherman's jacket, undoing her blonde bun and beginning to brush out the dust of the atomized Datum Madison. When Joshua glanced back to her, she gave him an inquiring look, and he shrugged. "Couldn't we just use some nukes?" Joshua whispered to the AI on the other end of the phone.
"Joshua, please. Even assuming we could transport the warheads to the High Meggers, it would take the entire arsenal of the United States of America to destroy just the portion of First Person Singular that we encountered. Please remember that she split off a 'small' portion of herself so that she could step, and that 'small' bulk was larger than Manhattan Island. The true First Person Singular is her Earth's entire ecosystem. The combined armaments of every country on the Datum would not be sufficient to destroy her."
An open-topped, carbon-fiber frame car skidded to a stop near the group and kicked up some dirt. "The car will take you out of Madison's fallout zone, so that you can return to the Datum and get some more efficient transportation." Lobsang hung up, and Joshua handed the phone back to the FEMA official.
Joshua looked away from the car, and he studiously ignored the driver who had climbed out. Instead, he caught the FEMA official's gaze and said, "Take me to Officer Monica Jansson."
The FEMA official seemed uncertain, but eventually decided that passing the buck was her best option. She called in the problem on her radio; some hurried words with no less than three mentions of the name "Black Corporation," two mentions of "Lobsang" and "VIP," and within minutes she was leading Joshua and Sally towards one of the more sturdy-looking medical tents. The FEMA official let the pair inside before returning to her own duties dealing with the Madison crisis.
Inside the tent was a flurry of doctors and nurses, tending to dozens upon dozens of patients with injuries spanning from a sprained ankle to compound fractures to – apparently – radiation poisoning. Officer Jansson was in the latter group, waving away her attendant nurses upon catching sight of Joshua. While Joshua and Sally had gotten a light dusting of Madison concrete from their few moments on the Datum, Jansson was in dire need of a bath.
"Well if it isn't the Hero of Step Day, come to see little old Spooky!" Jansson called out.
Joshua growled, "Don't call me that."
The aging cop laughed, her laughs devolving into a fit of coughs. "Hey, if I get stuck with 'Spooky' Jansson, I reserve the right to use a nickname for you."
Joshua and Jansson both smiled; the argument was an old one. "What are you doing here? I heard you orchestrated the mass stepping out of Madison."
Officer Jansson waved away the implied compliment. "There was no time to evacuate the city by conventional means. I simply took the next most logical alternative."
"Spooky," put Sally with a wry smile.
Jansson turned her attention to the new girl at the sound of Sally's voice. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure, miss...?" Jansson offered up a hand in greeting.
"You can call me Sally Lindsay," she said as she shook Jansson's outstretched hand.
"Lindsay?" Jansson echoed with interest. "You wouldn't happen to be related to Willis Lindsay, would you?"
"There is a man who went by that name when he published the designs for the Stepper Box and I am related to that man, yes. He was – is – my father."
Monica Jansson began taking in the young lady before her, who claimed to be the daughter of the man who had completely changed the world. Sally had restored her golden locks to their usual tight and practical bun, and her numerous pockets stored all manner of useful tools for life without any kind of human contact. Joshua quickly stepped in, though, and said, "I notice that you haven't actually answered my question, Monica. What are you doing here?"
Jansson waved a hand in the air, metaphorically batting away the question before speaking, "I stepped back to Madison once the bomb had gone off, assisting in the search and rescue efforts. These doctors are worried that I've been exposed to too much radiation." She shrugged, "I probably have been, but that's an issue for Future Monica, and frankly, Joshua, there aren't many Future Monicas left." For a moment, Joshua was stuck by just how old the woman sounded; she had been a recurring theme in his life for years, but despite facing death in the frontier of the Long Earth, he'd never really considered the natural mortality of a friend more than twice his age.
Sally nodded in comprehension. "Do you know who initiated the attack?"
"I carried over a phobic belonging to the Earth First movement who admitted to preparing the bomb. He didn't know its exact location or how to disarm the thing, though. You might have noticed a certain stain on my blouse; the boy didn't exactly react well to Madison West 1."
Joshua's fists clenched tightly, but he was interrupted by the late arrival of Lobsang's driver. The man was short, greying, and dressed to the nines in contrast to all the men and women in the area. "Sir, it is best not to keep—"
"Stuff it, Jeeves," Sally interrupted the driver.
There was a localized moment of silence in the chaos of the medical tent as Joshua and Jansson locked eyes, an entire conversation taking place in a single look. Joshua finally turned and acknowledged the driver's existence and said, "Take us to the Home on Allied Drive, or leave." The driver hesitated, but nodded and led the VIPs out to the car. Joshua waved goodbye to Officer Jansson as several nurses descended upon her once again like vultures in white uniforms.
All of the orphans who lived at the Home were alive and well, as were the eccentric nuns that cared for them. Sally remained in the car, insisting that Joshua talked far too much about the nuns to leave her any interest in meeting them. Sister Agnes had lost her "bat into heaven" Harley to the explosion, as it could not be taken stepwise due to the massive amounts of iron it contained. Even if she had tried to bring the bike with her, all of those iron and steel components would have been left behind due to the "iron stability phenomenon." She praised those people that had orchestrated the evacuation of the city and the relief efforts taking place afterwards, calling them "good Steinman fans" in the same way another nun might call someone a "good Catholic." According to Sister Agnes, nobody in Madison was injured by the explosion itself, although there were some people injured or killed during the evacuation, especially those in tall office buildings with no time to reach the ground floor. The Sisters held a vigil for those lost as a result of the attack.
The hovering presence of Lobsang's driver was a constant reminder that the AI had another job offer. As Joshua turned to leave, Sister Agnes called to him, "The Home may be gone, but your home will always be here." Joshua gave her a silent nod before returning to the car.
Joshua and Sally rode out of Madison in silence. The hobbled Mark Twain had been collected by employees of the Black Corporation. Once outside the danger zone, the pair of natural steppers returned to Datum Earth again to find a limousine waiting for them. The limo took them to a private airfield outside Janesville, where they boarded a Learjet that was waiting for them.
"I've got to admit, there do seem to be perks to working for the Black Corporation," Sally mused as the engines began to spin up for takeoff, nursing a mug of far-too-expensive coffee.
"I'm not working for the Black Corporation," Joshua insisted.
"Of course. You're simply fulfilling contracts for Lobsang."
"Well, transEarth, technically."
"Which is a subsidiary of the Black Corporation. And is run by Lobsang. Who owns half of the Black Corporation."
The plane's speaker's crackled to life as Lobsang began to speak, "Hello and welcome to No Such Airline! We know you have options when you travel—"
"Hah!" Sally shouted bitterly.
"–and we are happy that you have chosen to fly with us today. We will be arriving at our destination in approximately four hours and fifteen minutes, so please make yourselves comfortable. The minibar is well-stocked, I'm told!"
Sally drained her mug before crossing her arms over her chest and asking, "So where exactly are we going, anyway?"
"No Such Place, I'm certain," put Joshua. "It's the only airport No Such Airline flies to." Joshua looked up to the intercom speakers, as though it made a difference when addressing Lobsang. "Are you even bothering with a human pilot this time around?"
"Would it bother you if I was? Would it bother you if I wasn't?" Lobsang's response was void of any communications delay.
Joshua sighed; there would be no straight answers from Lobsang for now. He set his seat to recline as far back as possible and tried to put all of the recent troubles out of his mind. Madison, First Person Singular, Happy Landings, everything. He had four hours before any of it could catch up to him again, and Joshua Valienté decided to make the best use of the time that he could.
He didn't even try to listen for the Silence any more, not since learning that it was a signal from First Person Singular that he'd latched onto the day of his birth, when his mother had accidentally stepped and delivered him in a world without the pressure of billions of human minds. The same signal that was driving the trolls and elves closer to the densely-populated Datum and the low Earths.
Once the plane landed – a different "No Such Place" than the one Lobsang had taken him to before – Joshua and Sally were handed winter gear, several days' food, and camping gear, and were instructed to step to West 36,113. The Black Corporation employees or contractors or mercenaries or whoever they were did not follow, as they had no hope to match the pace of the two natural steppers. Joshua and Sally donned the winter gear and climbed a few meters of scaffolding before stepping to the ice age world of West 11, the start of the Ice Belt.
The pair kicked up their pace, stepping at a rate of nearly one world per second. Even at a rate that could only be matched by Lobsang and his stepping ship, getting out of the Ice Belt would take ten hours, and it would not be a good idea to fall unconscious from exhaustion in the middle of a frozen wasteland. So, after a few hours of stepping in the biting cold, they set up camp using the professional supplies donated by the Black Corporation.
Of course, there was no coffee.
The next day, Sally and Joshua made the push for the end of the Ice Belt, slowing their stepping rate as they approached, looking for signs of where to be when the ice disappeared. Eventually, they found an open-framed Day-Glo orange structure in the snow of West 36,105, clearly marking the location of scaffolding located the next Earth over. The steppers stumbled over, standing within the bounds of the marker before stepping to West 36,106. At the Black Corporation outpost, they stripped off the winter gear and left the bulky camping equipment with the mercenaries stationed there. The dark-skinned men waved as they wished the pair good luck, and Joshua and Sally stepped away once again.
Once at West 36,113, their destination was obvious. A large airship floated over a wide grassy plain; the new ship was similar to the Mark Twain they had been aboard during the first expedition. The appearance left the impression of an old French galleon, lifted skyward by a silvery-blue envelope. The dirigible was crowned with solar cell cloth, and many of the cables connecting the envelope to the carriage were obviously not load-bearing, but were instead conductors from the solar cells for power generation.
As Lobsang had previously joked, the hull of the new ship bore the name Mark Trine.
"So glad you could make it!" Lobsang's voice boomed over the external speakers. Mercenary engineers performed pre-flight checks of the Mark Trine from the ground, as Lobsang extended the ship's docking elevator so that Sally and Joshua could board.
At the top of the lift, Sally and Joshua were greeted by Lobsang in his ambulant unit, cheerily dressed for the occasion as a World War I flying ace. "Your outfit doesn't match the ship," Sally commented dryly. She brushed past the android and made her way towards the staterooms.
"Shouldn't you give her the layout of the ship before you let her wander about?"
Lobsang flashed an artificial smile. "The interior layout of the Mark Trine is almost identical to that of the Mark Twain. Most of my improvements are not visible to the passengers." He began walking down the corridor in the direction Sally had left, and Joshua followed. "You will be happy to hear that rather than relying on positive internal pressure to prevent harmful atmospheres from encroaching, the Mark Trine is air tight – except for the observation deck, of course. The structure of both the carriage and the gas bag is also capable of handling extreme pressure differentials, both positive and negative."
"You're expecting to run into another Gap world?"
Lobsang nodded. "I am prepared for that contingency. I've also managed to fabricate several rockets, should it become necessary to navigate geographically outside of an atmosphere. The possibility of an extremely high exterior pressure has also occurred to me, hence the flexibility. The Mark Trine is capable of operating in environments from vacuum to three atmospheres."
"So no deep-sea diving with the airship, then?"
"No deep-sea diving with the airship."
At her request, Joshua selected a stateroom far from the one Sally had selected. Lobsang returned to the blue door behind which he concealed all of his fabrication equipment and God knows what else, and the humans on the ground completed their final external preparations while Lobsang quickly dispatched the checks on the ship's internal systems. Within minutes, the Mark Trine began its Westward stepwise journey.
"Sally, Joshua, please meet me in the wheelhouse," Lobsang called over the intercom.
Both flesh-and-blood humans joined their silicon-and-plastic captain on the bridge. The room was a strange melding of the wheelhouse of the French galleon that the external ship appeared as, a modern jet plane's cockpit, and the bridge of the starship Enterprise (from the original series, of course; Lobsang was a fan of the classics). The earthometer on the wall claimed that the Mark Trine was already past West 37,000, and the counter was still spinning upwards.
One day, in the comics section of the Equestria Daily newspaper, a strange diagram was published.
Nopony was certain where it had come from. An inquiry into the matter launched some time later at the newspaper's headquarters turned up nothing but hoof-pointing. The only clue was the initials "W.L." written in the corner of the comic, but Wild Legacy – assistant to the editor and the only pony with the appropriate initials and the necessary access to sneak the comic in unnoticed – flatly denied any involvement. Until new evidence could be found, the investigators were forced to put the case on hold.
The diagram in question showed a box with a circuit and a switch. The circuit was simple enough for a foal to assemble, and the required parts could be easily found at any local Tandy Corporation store. The power source was even easier: an apple. The switch required was called a "center off switch," one with three positions and which defaulted to the center (usually wired as "off" for any particular device). The diagram in the comics section of Equestria Daily had the switch helpfully labeled:
WEST – OFF – EAST
The triarchs of Equestria did not see as much of each other as they would have liked. The sisters Celestia and Luna kept opposite sleep cycles, catching only a few words at breakfast and dinner, and Twilight lived in a different castle entirely. Worse was the relationship the three had with Equestria's fourth princess, Cadence, who ruled over Equestria's remote northern territory rather than assisting in the rule of Equestria proper.
The problem, strangely, found its solution after the death of Shining Armor, sister to Twilight and husband to Cadence. The funeral was Twilight's first hint of what it meant to become an immortal alicorn, and she realized that she had five close friends who were all well past their primes. Her station as an immortal necessitated the cultivation of friendship with other immortals, lest she find herself alone. Twilight's plan eventually led to the first day of each month being clear of duties for all four princesses, allowing them to socialize in a setting that was not about being rulers of a nation, but about being friends.
Twilight had also left an open invitation for Discord to join them on the logic that one simply doesn't find another immortal being every day. However, her stipulation that he avoid using any chaos magic meant that he generally refused to partake.
So it was, several weeks after what had become known as "Trot Day," three regal alicorns and a particularly tired-looking Luna assembled at the Canterlot establishment "Pony Joe's Doughnut Shop" (although Joe himself had long since retired, leaving the business to his son John).
"Good morning, yer highnesses," welcomed the beige earth pony with an espresso machine cutie mark, "the usual today?"
"Please, thank you, John," Celestia nodded.
"Mhrmblgrl…" Luna added.
"I'll make that three orders of 'the usual' and one Death Wish coffee," John said as he scribbled down the order.
"Double shot of Death Wish it is, then, princess!" John finished writing down the royals' brunch order with a flourish and trotted back behind the counter to begin the preparations.
"You know," Twilight mused after the proprietor walked out of earshot, "that Death Wish blend contains more than 150% of the doctor-recommended daily maximum amount of caffeine. In a single serving."
Luna groaned, placing her head on the small circular table and covering her eyes with one arm. "I am a grown pony, and will do with my body what I wish. Besides, if three days of caffeine crammed into a single cup of coffee can kill me, we need to revisit what the word 'immortal' means." Luna groaned again, "Why are we doing this so late?"
"Because you got outvoted, auntie," Cadence replied as she wrote idly in a journal she had recently begun using to keep a record of her thoughts and activities. "You're the only one in the group who's nocturnal, and you have more than plenty of warning to shift your sleep cycle enough to enjoy a day with us. Now stop being such a baby."
Luna grudgingly sat up straight, but left her eyes covered. "Celly, can you install one of those clapper things on the sun?"
Celestia tittered, "I'll put that under consideration. However, your behavior begs the question: since you did know today was coming, why didn't you get your body ready for it?"
"It is those trot boxes; there are a lot of ponies having nightmares about them. I have seen everything from getting stuck in the wilderness, to Equestria getting abandoned, all the way to one pony last night who was having a dream about the apple in his box turning into some kind of alien monster and eating him."
"I guess I can kind of sympathize with the one about getting stuck," Twilight said, "but everything I've heard suggests that most ponies don't like going to those alternate worlds. I suspect it's a combination of the fact that they're each one big Wild Zone like the Everfree Forest – already unsettling for most ponies – and our herding nature. When you're out there, you're apparently not just far away from anypony else, you're completely alone." Twilight shivered a bit at the thought. "Anyway, abandoning Equestria seems rather unlikely."
"Well, the Crystal Empire seems to be safe from that fate," said Cadence, "as far as I've heard, none of my crystal ponies have been able to make a trot box that works."
A sneaking suspicion crept up on Celestia. "Girls, have any of you tried this whole 'trotting' thing? I must admit that I haven't…"
Cadence nodded, "I've tried a few times, when one of my ponies came to me for help asking why the box won't do anything. I'm reasonably certain it's something wrong with how they're constructing their boxes, though I'm not sure how. I've seen the design and it's pretty simple."
"Hold on," Twilight said. "You said you've only tried using the boxes that somepony else has made?" When Cadence nodded, Twilight continued, "I haven't done any testing on it personally, but from what I gather, you have to complete the circuit – that is, connecting the wires to the apple – yourself, and the box will only work for you. I've hypothesized that something in the circuitry becomes attuned to a pony at that point in the construction, locking it in to only work for its owner. That's just a hypothesis, though."
"What about you, Luna?" Celestia asked, only to find the midnight blue alicorn staring into the middle distance in the direction of the doughnut shop owner and the coffee machines. "Maybe we'll ask her once she's had some caffeine…"
"Anyway," Twilight said, "if none of us have built trot boxes and seen these other worlds, maybe we should try it? After all, we're free all day, we have plenty of time!"
Celestia nodded with enthusiasm, "That sounds like a wonderful idea! There's a Tandy Corporation store just down the street, too. We could get started right after brunch!"
As if on cue, the store's proprietor arrived with coffee, tea, and doughnuts, leaving the check on the table before returning to the other customers present. While Pony Joe's had no lack of business in part thanks to being known as a favorite of Equestria's princesses, it was often difficult to get customers to pay enough attention to order something while the princesses were actually present. While frustrating, John knew that he could more than make up for the stall in revenue as soon as the royalty had left.
Luna, for her part, had latched onto her mug of death-dealing coffee like a pony dying of dehydration might latch onto a bottle of water. The conversation shifted around her as the collected alicorns began to snack on their confections, and Luna even managed to join, once her mind was flooded with caffeine and she was restored to full wakefulness.
Less than two hours later, the party walked out of the gadgetry store named "Tandy Corporation" with bags full of enough components to craft four trot boxes, plus replacements in case some were damaged prior to their purchase, or more likely in case they were damaged during construction of the devices. The purchase included a full-page version of the original comic, making the details easier to see.
The group made their way to Cadence's guest quarters before unpacking their purchases, while Celestia sent a runner to the kitchens for a bag of apples: snacks and gadget components, all-in-one!
Cadence didn't pay much attention to the diagram, relying instead on her memory of the boxes whose construction she had inspected at home. Surely, there was something going on other than failing to build the device properly; there was no way each and every one of her subjects could fail in the same way, as all of the devices she had seen had been nearly identical.
Twilight laid all of the parts necessary on the floor, lined up and easy to identify. Piece by piece, she began to assemble her trot box inside the purple plastic container she had selected for herself. While intellectually she understood that there was no test involved, some part of her refused to let her attempt at building the trot box device in any fashion other than perfect.
On the floor next to Twilight, Celestia made an inadvertent example of why so many ponies considered her an image of perfection. Instead of placing each component into the device one by one as the two youngest princesses were, Celestia gripped every piece of the device in her telekinetic aura, assembling the entire thing in a single motion, with the exception of the apple on the chance that Twilight's hypothesis had a glimmer of truth to it. Celestia's final product looked identical to the original diagram, and she was finished long before the other three, so she grabbed a spare apple and began to nibble at it.
Luna did not begin her project at first. Instead, she studied the diagram, tracing the wires around the circuit with a hoof and moving her lips as though speaking to herself, although no sound came out. Eventually, she seemed to hit inspiration, and teleported away along with her allotment of gadget parts. Twilight and Cadence looked up in surprise, then looked to Celestia. Celestia shrugged, just as confused as the others.
Twilight and Cadence completed their respective boxes. Twilight's result appeared similar to Celestia's, her meticulous approach matching the diagram just as well as Celestia's direct copy. Cadence's box was a bit sloppier, with a rat's nest of wires concealed within her decidedly opaque box. Cadence's reliance on the memory of a job performed by multiple amateurs led to an aesthetically unpleasing result.
"So…" Twilight tried to fill the silence. "Do we wait for Luna, or do we go and look—"
Twilight was interrupted by the flash of Luna's teleportation. The night princess returned with two items in her magical grip: a dark blue peytral that could have been mistaken for the piece from her normal regalia save for apparently being hollowed with wiring visible inside, and a strip of brown flexible material Twilight couldn't identify.
"Silly Luna, you cannot forget the apple!" Luna chided herself. She grabbed an apple from the bag, inserting it into the peytral's wiring, and then began to work the brown strip into the backside of the barding, sealing it up.
"Luna, dear sister," Celestia sounded calm, but Twilight had experience differentiating what "calm" meant in Celestia's voice. This was the kind of calm that meant there was very potentially something wrong. "What is that material you're using?"
Luna had run into a snag, having accidentally worked a wrinkle into the join between the metal peytral and the thick material she was using to cover the backside. As such, her attention was divided as she spoke, "Oh, just some griffon leather I had left over."
If Twilight had been drinking, she would have managed a spectacular spit-take. Obviously, she was familiar with the concept of leather, but she had never seen any up-close like this. Celestia put on smile #32 ("I know you didn't realize what you're doing is wrong…") and said, "Luna, you realize that we are allies with the griffin aeries, aren't you?"
Luna nodded, finally managing to fix the error she had worked into the leather. "Of course."
"Do you see anything wrong with using griffon leather in the construction of something you intend to wear around your neck?" Celestia asked politely. Always politely.
Twilight gulped, "And I'm a little afraid to ask, but where did you find any griffon leather? It's not, uh… fresh, is it?"
Luna finished closing off the hidden compartment in her new peytral before responding, "It is not like Commander Grizelda is using it any more. I am certain her family, if her family line even still exists, appreciates that she continues to do good work." Luna smiled, slipping the new peytral around her neck. "As for where I found the leather, Twilight, it was in my forge, along with a number of other personal items. Celestia sealed the whole thing off and put it in a stasis spell after my banishment, so that it would be pristine upon my return. Have I not shown it to you?"
Twilight shook her head. "I wasn't aware you were a fan of metalwork, Luna!"
Luna beamed at Twilight's interest in her activities. "Indeed! Why at one time, I was the sole smith for the entire Equestrian army!" She paused, one hoof to her chin. "Granted, at the time both our army and country were much smaller, and Celestia and I were the only ones who really outlived equipment…"
Celestia, on the other hoof, looked a bit queasy. "If I had known you kept things like pieces of fallen enemy soldiers in your forge, I wouldn't have bothered with the stasis spell. Let the whole bunch rot into dust."
With a mischievous twinkle in her eye, Luna said, "I am certainly glad you didn't! Commander Grizelda is by far the most comfortable griffon I've ever worn!"
"So hey! How about testing out these trot boxes?" Cadence cut in, trying to change the subject. "And one trot peytral, I suppose. Um, where's the switch, auntie?"
"Right here!" Luna reached up to her cutie mark emblazoned on the front of her barding, and nudged it to her left. When Luna vanished without the tell-tale flash of a teleport, it became apparent that the image of her cutie mark was the switch.
"Well," said Celestia, "either her gadget works or I'm in the market for a new sister. What do you say, Twilight, are you up to the challenge?"
"What? But I—"
"I am teasing, Twilight. Any idea which direction Luna went?"
"Well," Cadence said, "auntie Luna did spend a great deal of time studying the diagram, so her wiring is probably the same as ours. Which means her left would have been the 'East' direction on the box, since her switch was facing away from her."
"Okay," Twilight said as she grabbed hold of her own box, "on three! One, two, thr—"
It's the small things one always forgets. Like, for example, how a number of the first users of the trot boxes returned with injuries consistent with falling. And how, for example, Twilight, Cadence, Luna, and Celestia were activating their own trot boxes for the first time from within the guest tower of Canterlot Castle. And that Canterlot Castle did not exist on the alternate version of Equestria they were trotting to.
At least the four of them all had wings.
"A thought occurs to me," said Twilight after she finished losing her brunch. "Well, two thoughts. The first is that we really need to find a way to tone down the effects of trotting."
Luna, who was flying stomach-twisting loops in the air over a hauntingly city-free version of Canterhorn Mountain, said, "Twilight Sparkle, I cannot imagine what in the world it is you are talking about!"
Giving the older princess a withering glare that went completely unnoticed, Twilight continued, "My other thought was about what Cadence said, how none of the crystal ponies have been able to make their trot boxes work. Cadence, your city rests on the ground, while the snow and ice are kept at bay by magic. If it weren't for that magic, how deep would you estimate you would be under the snow?"
Cadence was quick to answer, "The snow would be half again as deep as the Crystal Palace is tall… Oh," she said, as realization dawned upon her. "In this world, there's nothing to clear the space taken by the city. Anypony trotting would be buried alive in ice."
Celestia asked, "Are you suggesting, Twilight, that somehow these devices are protecting us from potentially fatal journeys into these alternate worlds?"
"Hmm," Twilight considered all the facts they had available. "I'm not sure that's quite correct; there were plenty of ponies hurt by trotting from second floor buildings or higher. If the four of us were unable to fly, we'd probably be dead right now. But maybe… argh! I need a blackboard!"
"I think," said Cadence, "Twilight is currently trying to figure out the science behind the trot boxes, and how they won't transport somepony into something solid."
"But that doesn't make any sense!" Twilight cried, managing to add her comments to the conversation despite drawing equations in the dirt with a stick and not paying attention to the conversation at all. "The air is still there! And we don't leave a vacuum behind when we leave…!"
Cadence watched Luna flying around above them while Twilight had a scientist's panic attack, and turned to Celestia. "Actually, now that we're here, I have a question for you. Can you… control the sun, here?"
Celestia looked up, staring directly at what nopony else could. "No," she said, "I can still feel my connection to my sun, even if it's a bit faint. But this is not my sun."
"I see…" Cadence sounded defeated. "So, how does it move?"
"Maybe it doesn't," Celestia said, her eyes never turning away from the blazing light. "Maybe it doesn't."
"Sally, we need to use the soft places." Lobsang had changed into an orange gi and removed his hair. His attire matched the appearance of the bridge in the same way that representative democracy matches tomato soup. "I need you to teach me how to locate them."
"Ah. About that." Sally rubbed her right arm awkwardly. "Finding soft places isn't something I can really teach. It's not a skill you can learn, more like something you remember."
"Well, what do you do to find them?"
Sally sat heavily in the chair next to the communication station – why so many resources would need to be devoted to a task that would all but go unused she couldn't fathom. "I can feel the Earth's current." When that failed to elicit a reaction from either of her companions, she elaborated, "My family has been stepping across the Long Earth for generations, long before my father invented Stepper Boxes." She laughed, "My father isn't even a natural stepper, you know? He married into the family. I remember carrying him to his stepwise garden…"
Joshua and Lobsang waited while Sally collected herself. She leaned forward, resting her chin in her hands, and continued, "There is a natural flow to the Long Earth. Like a river to a waterfall, that flow pulls those people that can feel it towards soft places. People like me."
"So you can tell us where the waterfalls are," Lobsang began.
"It's not quite that simple, and not exactly easy when we're traveling this quickly. The soft places aren't constant; they drift, they close, new ones open, and old ones reconnect to new places. Plus, it's difficult to feel the soft places when I'm on an Earth that I haven't been to before." Sally sighed, "The only pattern I've found to them is that they tend to be far inland, near water, and stronger near twilight."
The blur outside the bridge windows of all the Earths blending together halted at once. The earthometer on the wall read 76,534: well into the Mine Belt, and not far from the Corn Belt and "Good Old Hundred K" at Lobsang's top speed. The Earth outside was arid, but particularly mineral-rich. The Mine Belt had people settling for work, not for pleasure; there were natural resources, but the land was unpleasant. The Corn Belt, which officially began at Earth 100,000, was much more desirable by most settlers' standards, being by and large excellent for farming: there were few thick forests to clear, and long growing seasons.
"I intend to travel many times the distance of our previous journey," Lobsang said. "I don't even plan to make any extended stops until we're past 10,179,097, so please, Sally. Anything you need that can get us there faster, I am at your disposal."
Joshua stared. He wasn't surprised that Lobsang was being polite; if anything, politeness was a baseline for the AI. He wasn't surprised that Lobsang was willing to throw resources at a problem; that was practically Lobsang's modus operandi. Instead, Joshua could read a subtext of begging in Lobsang's words.
"Why that specific Earth?" Sally asked, suspicious as ever.
Lobsang grinned, but said nothing. Instead he glanced in Joshua's direction.
Joshua shared a look with Lobsang for a moment, and then facepalmed. "That's where First Person Singular is from, isn't it?"
Over the course of the following two weeks, Lobsang maintained a rate of one world per second while Sally felt out the soft places from the bridge. Sally would periodically instruct Lobsang to reduce his speed while she got a fix on the nearest soft place that would take them further westward, and then the airship would fly to the appropriate geographical location once they arrived at the correct Earth, and Lobsang would slip through the soft place, arriving many Earths away.
The first problem with the arrangement became immediately apparent when Lobsang stepped through a soft place, and the ship's earthometer only incremented by one.
"Not to worry," Lobsang said, "I've still got data from our previous expedition, and I can compare our location to my records." After a moment, the earthometer spun up to 123,498.
"That's all well and good," Sally said as she leaned back in her chair, "but what are you going to do when we get past where your records stop? And surely you don't have data on all three million Earths you visited last time?"
"I have data collected from probes and external sensors on approximately seven hundred thousand Earths. If we land on an Earth I have no data for, we can re-sync the earthometer on the next Earth I am able to identify." Lobsang stood at the front of the bridge, staring out of the window down onto the open grasslands below. "Additionally, I have a significant fraction of the memories of First Person Singular and the millions of Earths she traversed. It will be more difficult to use, as my sensors are superior to her biological senses in every way except for scale, but data is data."
Sally cocked an eyebrow. "And by 'significant fraction,' you mean…"
"I estimate I managed to transmit three percent of her memories to the Mark Twain before you and Joshua stepped away." Lobsang did not turn towards Sally to see the look on her face when he named his dubious figure. "However, it is worth noting that is three percent of the mind of a creature that normally spans the entire globe. Three percent of approximately seven million Earths."
Sally stood and walked towards the android, saying, "I may not have the raw calculating power that you do, Lobsang, but last I checked three percent of seven million Earths is a lot less than the data you have on three million Earths." She grabbed Lobsang's shoulder and roughly spun him around so that she could look him in the face. "Just what do you plan to do with that 'data'? Guess?"
"I hope," Lobsang said calmly as he gently pushed Sally away, "to be able to find a pattern in the soft places, so that analyzing my data will no longer be necessary to correct our location. There is clearly something different about stepping through a soft place: the ship's external temperature dipped by a full three degrees during that jaunt, and a flaw seems to have developed in my chronometer." Lobsang straightened his gi and walked past Sally to the captain's chair. Once he sat down, he spoke again, "A few more steps through soft places ought to give me sufficient data points to find the pattern, should one be present. Once I have that, I can adjust the earthometer automatically."
Sally followed Lobsang's motion, putting her hands on her hips. "And if no pattern emerges?" she asked.
Lobsang flashed her his artificial smile, "My dear, the world is full of patterns. As it happens, I have been building a mathematical model of the Long Earth ever since Step Day, and your description of the soft places has already allowed be to make improvements on it."
"In point of fact, my current hypothesis is that the soft places are the result of a kind of strange attractor." Lobsang tapped the console attached to the left arm of his chair and called on the intercom, "Joshua, how's dinner coming? I believe Sally may be hungry." At that, Sally's face reddened with a combination of anger and embarrassment. "She also may be somewhat upset with me for my comment. I do hope you've put on some coffee for her?"
Joshua had just finished plating two meals as Lobsang and Sally walked into the dining room. Each plate had a large pink fish fillet with a thin, pale green sauce. The fish were accompanied by herb-roasted potatoes and sautéed string beans.
Lobsang sniffed the air as he sat at the empty placement at the table, "Snapper fillet with a fennel sauce, and…" Lobsang sniffed a second time, "anise, as well. Add some wormwood and alcohol to this sauce, Joshua, and you'll have yourself some absinthe!"
Joshua rolled his eyes as he returned to the kitchen, filling two mugs with steaming coffee. "Wormwood's potentially toxic, I'm not going to put that in my food on purpose. And the sauce has white wine."
"A white wine reduction," Lobsang countered. "You certainly can't make absinthe from wine, anyway."
"You can't make a proper absinthe without a distillery," Joshua said as he handed a mug to Sarah and took his own seat. "Also, absinthe uses whole herbs, while I've only used aniseed and fennel bulbs."
The table returned to silence as the two humans, each adjusted to being the only creature capable of speech for miles if not entire worlds, ate their meals in peace and the android looked on, apparently merely content in the presence of others.
The group settled into a kind of routine over the following weeks, with Sally navigating while awake, Lobsang surging ahead while she slept, and Joshua keeping himself busy with little else to do before the group passed what Lobsang considered to be the desolation in First Person Singular's wake.
The only major interruption to the routine was at West 2,217,643, where Lobsang paused for a few minutes to send a few messages back and forth with a research station that was slowly becoming the Long Earth's equivalent of Cape Canaveral on the Datum. With the Gap just one step West, launching a space ship no longer required escaping Earth's gravity well.
As Lobsang had predicted, after five steps through a soft place he felt confident in his ability to calculate just how far a soft place had taken them. "It's so simple, really!" Lobsang beamed once he'd discovered the solution. "Well, I mean the answer delves deep into special relativity, it would take months to calculate the distance stepped by hand, and human senses aren't precise enough to detect the fine differences between different soft place steps necessary to fill in the variables, but given the right sensors and just about any modern computer, it's simple now that I've got the math behind it down pat."
The last time Joshua had seen Lobsang this excited was just before his ambulant unit merged with First Person Singular. "Oh! But this invalidates several portions of my model for the Long Earth. I think I'll need to invent some new mathematics to get everything fitting back together again," Lobsang began mumbling as he walked to his private quarters with its blue door. Joshua managed a glimpse inside before the door closed again: a three-foot tall upright cylinder, intricately etched; behind that sat a golden Buddha set in red and green and gold leaf. Clearly, Lobsang concealed more about himself than simply his trade secrets.
On the sixteenth day of the Mark Trine's maiden voyage, the ship's westward progress halted once again, after an especially long step through a soft place. The earthometer on the bridge read 17,210,198.
"This is where our true journey begins," Lobsang said. "We now begin our hunt for either another sapient race capable of helping us against First Person Singular, or else technology left behind by such a race that will prove equally effective."
"So why didn't we stop at Rectangles?" Joshua asked. "There was high civilization there, or at least the remains of one."
Sarah, in the middle of trimming her nails, flicked one of her clipping at Joshua across the room. "Because Rectangles is irradiated and hunting for weapons there would kill the two of us, doofus."
"Also," Lobsang added, "based on the information we gathered, I have my doubts that any munitions recovered from that world would be sufficient, if they even still functioned." Lobsang shook his head and continued, "No, our best option is to forge ahead."
Joshua looked out of the windows at the coastline below. "Well, if nothing else, we've got crabs." Joshua stared at the living beach. "Lots and lots of crabs."
Special Report on Extraplanar Celestial Bodies and Their Relation with Comparable Local Celestial Bodies and the Nature of Alternative Planes of Existence
by Moon Pie
In a small apartment kitchen in Canterlot, a young unicorn mare looked on as an older unicorn mare read over a thick packet in her rose-colored magical grip. The pair were a study in contrasts at first glance: the younger mare's coat was a light cream, almost white, while the older mare's coat was an opal grey, bordering on blue. The younger mare's mane was a match for her paternal grandmother's: curly, unruly, and loudly fuchsia. The older mare's mane was split, one half purple, the other half turning grey with age. The older mare's cutie mark was an hourglass, while the younger bore a telescope and a shooting star on her flank. However, both shared the same heliotrope eyes.
"It's a bit dry, isn't it dear?" the elder unicorn, Tootsie Flute, asked.
"But mom!" the young author, Moon Pie, cried. "It's a technical report for Princess Luna! It has to be right!"
"You shouldn't ask for your mother's advice if you don't want to hear it, sweetie," a voice carried into the kitchen from the neighboring living room. Cinnamon Pie, a lime green unicorn stallion with matching brown eyes and mane and a cupcake cutie mark, sat on the couch reading the evening edition of the Equestria Daily newspaper. "Besides, nothing's right if it's too dry! Not baked goods, and not technical reports."
"Listen, Moonie," Tootsie said as she lay the papers on the countertop, careful to set it away from the sink full of drying dishes. "A lot of the work you do goes over my head, but I can puzzle enough of it out based on my experiences with your Grandma Heartstrings. Despite that, it's a rather difficult read. Don't forget, your Granny Pie was best friends with all four princesses, so you're not the only one in this family who has met Princess Luna. I know she'll appreciate it if you can make the report easier to digest."
"Add a few pounds of roughage!" Cinnamon called from the living room. Moon Pie and Tootsie shared an eye roll.
"Thanks, mom. I'll see what I can do to make my report easier to read before presenting it to the Princess." Moon Pie gave her mother a quick hug and grabbed the pile of papers in an aura of cerulean magic before dashing towards the apartment's front door. "Anyway, I've got to get going. The Royal Library is going to be closed soon, and I've got a few books that are about become overdue. Bye mom, bye dad!"
Just after moonrise three days later, Moon Pie sat in a small private meeting room within Canterlot Castle. Soft, silken cushions in reds and golds lay on the floor to be used as seats, with an abstract tapestry on the wall matching the color scheme. The white marble floor was covered with a hoofmade rug from Saddle Arabia, a navy blue piece with swirls of silver and gold thread throughout.
After several minutes of waiting, Moon Pie scrambled to her hooves as the door opened and Princess Luna stepped through, followed by a pair of Lunar Guards. "Fair evening, dear Moon Pie," the Princess said softly as she walked up to one of the larger cushions.
Moon Pie bowed deeply before the Princess, her muzzle nearly touching her hooves. "Rise," Luna said, as she began to shed the silvery regalia of her station, setting the pieces on the floor beside her cushion. The Princess sat down and made herself comfortable before continuing to speak, "We have no need of formalities this eve. Pray, tell me: were you able to complete the report I asked for?"
Moon Pie rose from her bow as the Princess bid, taking her own seat on a smaller cushion. "I was, Princess Luna. Obviously I could not be exhaustive in my first-hoof research, as the Long Trot extends too far to do such a thing, but I was certainly able to gather a significant amount of data." The young researcher levitated a binder out of her saddlebags sitting on the floor by the wall and passed it into Luna's magical grip.
"The Long Moon": A Special Report on the Moon Across the Long Trot
by Moon Pie
Luna began to skim through the report while Moon Pie gave her the highlights verbally, "Like the ground, the moon changes between parallel versions of Equestria. Generally, the changes are small, such as differences in crater patterns. As with the occasional 'Discordant' worlds which are drastically different on the ground from their neighbors, so too are there Discordant versions of the moon. Sometimes the two match up, a world where whatever historical event caused the Discordant Equestria also caused the Discordant moon. Sometimes they do not, and a Discordant Equestria can have a normal moon, as well as vice versa."
"What of the Nyx?" Luna asked.
"I have been unable to witness evidence of the moon-dwelling creatures you have described on any version of the moon, although considering I am also unable to see the Nyx on the moon here, I can only assume they live on the far side. That may also be true on other moons in the Long Trot." Moon Pie hesitated before adding, "I should mention, Princess, that in my weeks studying the moons of other worlds, I do not recall ever having dreams as I slept. You mentioned that the Nyx are the source of ponies' dreams, and this may be an indication that there are no Nyx on these other moons."
Princess Luna seemed to deflate slightly. "I see," she whispered, "then these moons are truly alien to me."
"Princess?" Moon Pie asked cautiously. "Is there something wrong?"
"Neigh. Please, tell me of the Discordant moons you discovered."
"The majority of the Discordant moons that I witnessed appeared to be the result of cataclysmic collisions. Several had large chunks missing; on Equestria West 94, there were visible fragments in orbit around the damaged moon, suggesting that the impact was relatively recent. Within your lifetime, at least.
"On Equestria East 7, I have managed to determine that there is no moon at all. Whether the moon was completely obliterated, escaped the world's orbit, or never formed, I couldn't say without a detailed study of that version of Equestria. However, there is proof there that the moon provides a stabilizing influence for the worlds where it exists. Drastic climate change over geologic time and the melting and re-freezing of the world's ice caps, for example.
"Most interesting, however, was the moon orbiting around Equestria East 129. It is much more massive than most versions of the moon. It even appears to have its own atmosphere, water, and vegetation! I spent a full month studying that moon alone, you can see my notes about it starting on page 17." Moon Pie beamed as Luna turned to the indicated location in the report, her eyes dashing across the page as she skimmed.
"By the tides!" Luna cried. "This is an impressive discovery, Ms. Pie!"
Moon Pie kneaded the cushion she was sitting on nervously and asked, "Do… do you think it could be good enough to win the Sandalwood Prize for Astronomy?"
Luna shook her head, sadly, "Neigh, it is unlikely, at least not this year. Doctor Reinheart from Germaneigh is most likely going to be receiving that award this year for his work on the centers of galaxies. Besides that, I suspect many of the old nags on the Sandalwood Prize Committee would balk at giving the medal to one as young as you. The only Laureates under 30 shared the prize with an older associate." Moon Pie's ears drooped at the news, but Luna tapped a hoof to her chin, pondering. "What if… what if you led an expedition to this verdant moon? Your grandmother and her friends once visited my moon, perhaps you could continue the tradition!"
Moon Pie gaped at the lunar princess. After a moment, she managed to say, "You want me to fly to the moon?! Not only that, but the moon around another Equestria entirely?!"
Luna leapt to her hooves, gazing boldly into the empty space above Moon Pie's head. She cried out, "Yes! You shall boldly go where nopony has gone before! I suspect it will take considerable time to establish the necessary infrastructure on Equestria East 129. This could be your life's work, Moon Pie! There is no way those nags on the Sandalwood Prize Committee would deny your accomplishments upon your return, and this project may take long enough that they wouldn't even grumble about your age!" Moon Pie stood dumbfounded, while Luna began to skip around the room like a filly half Moon Pie's age. "Oh, this is so exciting!"
Within a week, Moon Pie had begun her recruitment drive to find ponies willing and able to help her set up a base 129 worlds away from Equestria Prime. The group would need to, in essence, found a small town before beginning the construction of a vehicle to launch a team to the moon – with the capability of bringing the team back!
To that end, Moon Pie didn't only need engineers and scientists, she needed a good foundation to build upon. Everypony from bakers and carpenters, to janitors and administrators were needed, and they all had to be able and willing to traverse the Long Trot. Miners would be needed, as nothing iron could make the journey and iron would surely be necessary to construct the moon vehicle.
Within a few short weeks, to her surprise, Moon Pie had a cadre of 76 ponies (plus a group of six Royal Guards assigned by Luna) ready to travel, and then work. She would probably need to return for additional experts once the foundation was laid on Equestria East 129, but this would do for now.
Moon Pie opted to depart from a lake on Canter Creek, with the Appaloosan Mountains to the north and the Saddle Horn Peaks and the quarantined Sight of the Battle of Discord to the south. The location should offer the caravan traveling through parallel worlds easy access to water and food for the majority of their journey, there were no glaciers there, even on the Discordant worlds they would cross, and it was reasonably close to the equator, which would be useful for the moon vehicle launch.
By necessity, the group would be forced to travel at the pace of the slowest member. Naturally, nopony on the expedition was incapable of trotting to other worlds, but some had a harder time than others. The group spent a full hour on each world to make sure everypony had overcome the effects of trotting. At each stop, four of the Royal Guards would form a perimeter, and those ponies who dealt with the effects of trotting well would assist the others in their recovery. Moon Pie was among this group, suffering no ill effects at all.
As the royally-appointed leader and organizer of the expedition, as well as the pony with the most experience traversing the Long Trot, Moon Pie set the pace to ten worlds per day. The group trotted away from the current world each morning at nine, stopping an additional hour after the fourth world for lunch. A few days, Moon Pie ordered an extra trot before stopping to eat or before stopping to make camp, either because the world was obviously Discordant and therefore unpredictable, or because she claimed it was too dangerous to stop. The ponies of the expedition may have grumbled a bit when the schedule was changed, but nopony challenged Moon Pie's decisions.
The pegasi who weren't suffering from nausea or worse after each trot were able to ensure that the expedition wasn't slowed down further by inclement weather. One such pegasus, Cotton Cloudy, was even a professional weathermare, and she took charge of the pegasi wrangling the wild weather.
Finally, after almost two weeks of travel and camping, the expedition arrived at Equestria East 129. The first order of business was construction of shelters for the members of the expedition and their guards. Once that was complete, the real work would begin.