The Taste Of Grass

by Chatoyance

First published

Within The Conversion Bureau Universe, Newfoal immigrants face settling new lands within Equestria. Unfortunately, not one of them knows how their new universe actually works.

A direct continuation of '27 Ounces: A Tale of Eight And One Half Ponies', the lives of a family of newfoals from their very first arrival in Equestria is followed. Join Caprice, Alexi, Pumpkin and Buttermilk in their day-to-day lives as they adapt not only to being humans-turned-Equestrian, but struggle to help found a new village in the ever expanding Exponential Lands. This is a story of courage, survival, and the process of bringing a new landscape under proper Equestrian dominion. Starting without weather, shelter, or any understanding, these brave newfoal pioneers face daunting odds.

Knowledge of the previous novel is not needed to enjoy this tale.

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One: The Exponential Land

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By Chatoyance

One: The Exponential Land

The ship once had been white, with a merry red stripe along it; but that was long ago, and now it was patches of rust and streaks of oil, and places where paint clung as if in defiance against time itself.

Though once a luxury liner, it served only as a ferry now, a new bark of Charon, carrying the formerly human to an unhuman land. But quite unlike Charon's boat across the Styx, the WGS Celestina ferried the newly reborn away from a dying world, and took them to a world of the living.

Those who rode the Celestina found her moniker a delightful coincidence - one of the rulers of the new world was named Celestia; it was as if fate itself had chosen this destiny for the ancient vessel.

Far above the Celestina, more than a thousand feet in the air, a lone gray pegasus flew; she was returning home carrying mail from the cities of Men to those who had once been of that tribe, but who were now something very different. Ahead of her the vast shimmering dome that was the great Barrier of Equestria gleamed in the sunlight; beyond that border lay the wondrous country she called home.

Far below the golden-maned flying pegasus, the old ship was but a speck, a tiny dot of white making its way across the vast, dead, gray Pacific. The mail pegasus would reach the Barrier long before the ship, so she could spare the time to make a few circles in the air to entertain those below; she had no doubt that she was being watched. With her acrobatics done, the pegasus speeded on to her green and lovely land.

Down on the deck of the thrumming, lumbering liner, hundreds of former human beings stood or sat. They were called 'Newfoals', and they had existed as sapient equinoids -'ponies'- for only a matter of weeks, days, or even hours.

Filling the sky ahead of them was their destination, their new and final home – the emerging cosmos of Equestria.

Only eleven months ago, a tiny sphere, no more than a few hundred feet in diameter, had been noticed by a passing satellite, far from any shore, out in the middle of the dead Pacific. By the time the first reconnaissance planes had flown over it, it was nearly half a mile in diameter. This was the emergence of Equestria, and it was expanding; a sphere that replaced space and time and the very Earth with itself.

By the time Equestria was over a mile in diameter, the world government had been contacted by its regent, and two small robot probes were permitted to cross Equestria's impenetrable shield. On the other side of the barrier they had found a green and pastoral realm, and the hungry eyes of the rulers of Mankind saw opportunity and riches to exploit.

When that had proved impossible, Man followed his primary strategy when frustrated in the attempt to acquire; war. For three days humankind poured every kind of weapon and force at the growing bubble, to no benefit; the ocean boiled for weeks, but the Barrier remained utterly unaffected.

As Equestria nibbled away at the Earth, at reality itself, it was found that the intrusion also brought a kind of poison with it; thaumatic radiation, the deadly energies that were called simply 'magic'. Fatal to all earthly life, 'magic' pooled and streamed invisibly, increasingly leaving the land still left to Man uninhabitable.

At last the World Corporate Government revealed to the people of the Earth the true message of the sovereign of the invading cosmos – that all humankind was invited to leave their dying world for the green and living paradise of Equestria. The offer was warm and welcoming and utterly free, save for one small price; to escape earthly doom, all must give up one tiny thing, one insignificant possession; the physiological state of being human.

The new Earthly industry of nanomachines that could reconstruct matter itself was combined with arcane Equestrian magics to create the process that could transform a human being into an Equestrian equinoid. This nanotechnomagical miracle could do even more; 'Conversion' cured all ailments, regrew lost limbs and organs, and gave fresh new life in the process of remaking ape into equine. It was the ultimate seduction; a perfect new body, and a perfect new world, and all that could oppose this tempting offer was the miserable wreck of an already dead planet.

Of course they came, by the hundreds, by the thousands, and eventually, by the billions.

And as they came, the humans -remade as newfoals - changed Equestria with their presence, expanding and enlarging the magical realm beyond the shimmering Barrier at an exponential rate.

Mountains grew farther apart, lush green landscapes pushing them from each other. Newborn hillsides arose from the expanding plains, bucking up into the Equestrian sky. Villages, once close to each other, found their roads longer with each passing day; eventually sister cities were not even on the same continent.

For every mile of the Earth that Equestria devoured, ten thousand miles within Equestria were gained; the rate itself increasing with time. No one could calculate how great the scale of Equestria would be when the day came that the invader finished off the very last of Earth altogether; but it was no exaggeration to say that there would be room enough within Equestria for the nineteen billion of Mankind many, many times over.

They called this new frontier the Exponential Lands.

* * * * *

Her name was Caprice, and she was without the horn of a unicorn, or the wings of a Pegasus; she was an earth pony, so named for a presumed connection to the land. Her exquisite coat shimmered in the light, a pale peach. Her mane and tail were a deeper, richer peach; she gazed at the floating dock below the rail of the ship with emerald green eyes.

She had been a human woman only four days ago; despite this she had adapted uncannily to her new Equestrian form. She was gentle in demeanor but almost ruthlessly determined in action; in her first four days as an Earth Pony, she had somehow assembled an entire family for herself.

“Alexi! Pumpkin! Stay close! Above all else, we do not want to be separated!” Caprice was keeping a close eye on her tiny foal, a two-week old, pale yellow unicorn named Buttermilk - only recently converted from a foundling human baby. Buttermilk had gained the ability to walk from Conversion; a natural trait of the newborn equinoid. That said, the foal was still very unsteady, and easily frightened.

“Come on, that's it, come on little sweetling, that's my little filly, come on!” Caprice knew that the tiny foal could understand nothing of what she said, but like all mothers, she instinctively knew the primal language of loving tone and comforting musicality. Buttermilk followed her gentle voice, and sought the comfort of her sweet-smelling peach-colored mother.

Wow! Oh, Caprice, it's amazing to be this close to the wall. It's like a HUGE soap bubble!” 'Pumpkin Licorice' was now Caprice's little sister; she was gravid with foal but not yet showing. In her human life, the sixteen year old had been abandoned by her much older lover at the San Francisco Conversion Bureau. When her lover had learned of her pregnancy, he had fled, leaving her shattered. Caprice had adopted the teen after her Conversion. Pumpkin got her name from her orange coat; she was made striking by a shiny black mane and tail. Pumpkin's dark eyes eagerly scanned the artificial shore, and even more the Great Barrier of Equestria that the platform abutted.

Alexi Venäläinen had not yet had time to choose a proper Equestrian name. He had been Converted only the day before, under rather difficult and nearly fatal circumstances. He was more concerned with simply functioning within his new and different body, than in trying to find a new moniker. Alexi was a white pegasus stallion with a deep blue mane and tail, he had quickly found himself Caprice's chosen mate, it was a status he was very, very happy with. What Alexi was not as happy with was the difficulty he had suffered during the voyage; not only had he been seasick, but he had found walking on the occasionally unsteady deck difficult for his newly created legs.

"Caprice, I am sorry - are you alright?" Alexi had lost balance for a moment, and almost toppled sideways onto Caprice. She had borne his weight well, having been braced ahead of time. "I caught you! It's OK, Alexi - we'll be on dry land again in just moments. If you need to, you can lean against me." Caprice smiled at Alexi, the kind of smile that suggested that the leaning was not just for his benefit, but also for her own delight. Caprice liked having Alexi close to her.

Little Buttermilk bleated; the ramp down from the deck was steep to her, and the crowd of exiting newfoals was confusing to her. Caprice bent her neck down and took a mouthful of Buttermilk's mane, close to the withers, to steady her, and to pull - if necessary - the balking foal. Little by little, Caprice and her little unicorn made their way down the ramp. Finally they all stood on the artificial dock.

Alexi, seeing that Caprice needed to concentrate on Buttermilk, turned to Pumpkin for help. "Hey, little sister, perhaps you could help poor Alexi down the perilous ramp of certain death?" Alexi enjoyed a certain silly drama in his words at times; in the Bureau he had announced Conversions with great style, and some humor.

"I'll try!" Pumpkin stared up at Alexi, he was almost twice her size, but she was a very determined filly. "Just be careful, alright?" While Pumpkin's pregnancy was not far along, she had become perhaps overly protective of her body, and besides, Alexi was just... large. The thought of the muscular stallion dropping on top of her was not pleasant to think about.

"I do not want to fall, I give you my word little Pumpkin. I am just having a little trouble sometimes, my legs and the ocean are not happy friends it would seem." Alexi felt ashamed to be so unsteady, even though it was ridiculous; for having only a single day and night to adapt to his new body, he was actually doing quite well.

Though Alexi lost his balance slightly on the ramp, he did not tumble, and soon all four newfoals pressed close together on the floating dock. Three ramps led from the floating dock up to the great Barrier of Equestria. Beyond the shining surface of the shield lay desert sand, populated by a small city of tents as well as countless newfoals and natives. The city of tents was simply called 'Welcome Town', and it had been erected to help support and place new arrivals from Earth.

The ramps proved to be more of an obstacle than they had seemed as Caprice and her family drew nearer.

The floating dock was pressed as close as was deemed safe to the magical barrier. Material objects from Earth often suffered strange and bizarre changes when they passed the boundary, so engines constantly maintained a precise distance so that the floating dock would never pass beyond the enchanted wall. Several docks had already been lost in this manner; one had turned into an iceberg, another into what was apparently cotton candy. In the latter case, the newfoals had needed help to climb out of the sea and into Equestria.

The three ramps were suspended by cables from arches above them; computational systems worked to counteract the effects of wind, ocean, and the steady expansion of Equestria itself. The last few inches would require a small jump; not a problem for ordinary newfoals. But for little baby Buttermilk, perhaps the youngest human ever converted, those last few inches were a terrible danger. If the tiny, unsteady foal missed, she could tumble into the sea, perhaps to be crushed between the floating dock and the wall of sand that marked the edge of the vast, spherical Barrier.

"What are we to do, Alexi?" Caprice was uncertain, and afraid for her child. She was not willing to chance Buttermilk trying to jump the gap.

"Would... would it be safe if I were to hold Buttermilk up by her mane? I think I could bear her weight, carrying her like a mother cat would carry her kitten!" Alexi studied Buttermilk's pale yellow-white mane, and tried to size up whether it could sustain her mass during the carry.

"I... honestly don't know, Alexi. I worry that it would hurt her terribly, or even worse, that her hair could be pulled out and she might fall. There has to be somepony that can help us. I guess they never expected a newfoal as young as her."

"I have an idea!" Pumpkin touched Caprice lightly with her right hoof. "Maybe she could ride on one of our backs! She's really small, I bet I could do it!" Pumpkin gave the bleating foal a nuzzle, and licked her face to help her calm down.

"Alexi..." Caprice was thinking rapidly. "Can you spread and hold your wings out yet? You could provide a kind of... basket to help her stay on." It was probably a lot to ask the pegasus, considering, but his was a very broad back, and his wings would make a wide surface.

"I have tried my wings already, a little, sydänkäpynen, and I can but try again now." Alexi stood back a bit, then tried to find the place inside him that worked his new wings. The left wing extended, but the right one held even tighter to his side. Alexi's face grimaced as he fiddled about with his new nervous system. Now the right wing drooped, while the left wing contracted -somewhat painfully. "Ow! I think I almost gave myself a cramp!" Alexi's ears dropped down. "I do not think I am very coordinated yet. I am a failure daddy, I think."

"Oh, Alexi, I'm sorry. It's just all so new to you is all." Caprice extended her head and gave Alexi a comforting nuzzle. "You are my big, wonderful stallion. Always remember that! And you are 'total success daddy', always and forever, alright?"

Alexi smiled at that, and worked to get both wings even and in place once more.

Caprice looked beyond the barrier for any help. Beyond the ramps, on the desert sand, she saw a unicorn using her horn to levitate bales of hay, removing them from a cart, and stacking them neatly inside a large tent. "Alexi! I know what to do! Keep an eye on Pumpkin and Buttermilk!"

Caprice trotted quickly off, up the nearest ramp, and made a graceful leap onto the sand of Equestria.

As she had passed through the great Barrier, she had felt a strange, almost electric tingle run across her body. She turned to see behind her.

She was standing in the middle of a vast desert, surrounded by rocky cliffs. On this side of the interface between the universe that contained the Earth and the cosmos of Equestria, she faced a much smaller shimmering sphere. The dome that rose out of the Equestrian desert could not have been larger than two or three hundred feet in diameter.

On the Earth side, the sphere was over eight hundred miles in diameter and growing, the majority of the upper half hung out into space becoming a no-fly zone for orbiting satellites. On the Equestrian side, the same sphere was only three hundred feet in diameter, perhaps less. Through the Equestrian side of the sphere, everything of Earth looked strangely small and far away. Caprice could see the horizon inside, and Earth's late afternoon sun, which starkly contrasted with the Equestrian noonday sun on her side. The ship, Alexi, Buttermilk and Pumpkin seemed like tiny toys inside that smaller, Equestrian sphere.

Caprice had studied as much as she could about Equestria before she came to the San Francisco Conversion Bureau. She understood that the interface between the two worlds was called a 'Rucker Gate', that it was a hole in higher dimensions, and that every point on the Equestrian sphere corresponded with a point on the Earth side. In reality, it was just one hyperdimensional, spherical hole, which she was seeing from one side, and which her family was seeing from the other. But the weirdness of it boggled her mind.

With effort, Caprice turned away, and approached the unicorn. The ease with which the pony used her magic made Caprice sure that this was a native and not a newfoal.

"Excuse me!" Caprice ambled up, and smiled at the unicorn. "My name is Caprice, and I really need your help."

The unicorn, a pale yellow-green mare, carefully placed the bale she was floating, and turned to Caprice. "I'm sorry, I'm kind of busy here, really and..."

"It's my foal!" Caprice was not going to be dissuaded. "She's a newborn. She can't make the leap over the bridge. Would you please..." Caprice wore her most pleading look "...please lift her over for me? I'm so afraid she might fall, and as you can see, I'm just an earth pony!"

The unicorn sighed. "Sorry... you wouldn't believe some of the things we get asked to do by newfoals. I guess I've gotten a little... grouchy... over the past months. Of course I'll help you." The unicorn began to walk towards the ramps on the other side of the barrier. "My name's Summergrass. 'Caprice' was it?"

"Yes. I used to be quite a joker, before. Not so much now, but... I really like the name."

"It's a good name, Caprice. It could pass as Equestrian. We hear some really strange attempts at making up Equestrian sounding names. Last week we had a pony come through here who called himself 'Satellite Dish'. The unicorn chuckled as she walked.

"You are kidding me. Right?" Caprice was sure this couldn't be true.

"I seriously wish I was. Earth must be a pretty wacky place, I guess."

"No, not wacky." Caprice looked slightly sad. "Just kind of dumb."

The unicorn seemed surprised at the admission. "I assume the little yellow unicorn there is yours?" The only ponies left on the floating platform now were Alexi, Pumpkin and Buttermilk, so that made things simple, at least.

"Yes. She's Buttermilk, and she's my little darling." Caprice smiled, looking at her little foal.

"Now that's a really sweet name!" Summergrass seemed impressed. "She does look like buttermilk, too. Oh, she's a cutie, alright." Summergrass concentrated briefly, her horn glowing. A similar glow appeared around little Buttermilk, and the foal lifted into the air, bleating and kicking in fear.

"Oh! hang in there sweetheart!" Caprice felt worried for her poor foal; she wished she could somehow comfort her. Alexi and Pumpkin looked on in fascination as Buttermilk hovered over the ramp and through the Barrier. The little pony shivered and squealed as she passed through the wall, then hung quietly. Perhaps the shock of passing the Barrier had made her forget to make a fuss, or perhaps she was getting used to hovering in the air.

In moments, Buttermilk was on the ground, her tiny hooves touching Equestrian land for the first time. Caprice went to her and nuzzled and licked her repeatedly. Buttermilk began to press in close to Caprice's legs, hiding under her body. "Thank you so much, Summergrass. Thank you for rescuing my little Buttermilk!"

"You are welcome, Caprice. I'm glad to have been able to help." The unicorn started to trot back to her work. "Oh, and by the way - Welcome to Equestria!"

"Thank you!" Caprice felt happy to have met such a nice pony for her first contact with a native Equestrian.

"You came up with unusual solution. My Caprice is brilliant pony, of this, there can be no doubt!" Alexi drew up beside Caprice and pressed close to her. Caprice checked to make sure Pumpkin was right beside Alexi. "How'd you like crossing the Barrier?" she asked Pumpkin.

"It was kind of tingly." Pumpkin turned to look back. "Wait... what? I... don't get it! I expected... It's really small on this side!"

"It's a dimensional thing. I read all about it, if you want to know, I'll tell you later. Right now," Caprice looked around at the tent city ahead of them "I think we need to check in or something. Anypony see anyplace we should be...?"

Right in the middle of the semicircular tent city, straight out from the place on the Barrier where the ramps led to the floating dock, a large and very colorful tent stood out. In front of it was a huge banner, written in a script that Caprice couldn't read. This puzzled her, because she had studied what she thought was Equestrian script; a pictographic language that was made up of symbols such as star, horseshoe and spiral shapes.

The banner was covered in symbols that seemed almost like English - or perhaps Cyrillic - letters, or fragments of letters, mixed with chicken scratches. Did they have more than one writing system in Equestria? What exactly had she studied?

"That's got to be it." Caprice motioned with her head for her family to follow. "I'll bet you anything that the banner over there says something like 'Newfoals Register Here' or 'Humans Go Home!" Caprice chuckled at the last bit.

"No humans here. Just ponies." Alexi tried to walk proudly, as best he could on his new legs. "We are good family of good ponies, and we leave the human world behind. Is that not right, little Pumpkin?"

"Humans are yukky!" Pumpkin grinned. "I'm an Equestrian, through and through!"

"That is the correct spirit! We proudly stand on four hooves for Equestria!" Alexi thought for a moment. "Or no hooves, if Alexi should fall down."

Pumpkin giggled at that. "We proudly stand on NO hooves for Equestria too!"

Little Buttermilk was doing her best to cross the soft sand of the desert, Caprice stayed close, shepherding her, and brought a quick leg in to support the tiny foal if it looked like she would fall. In time, they made it to the colorful tent with the banner.

Inside the large tent were several wooden tables strung together to form a long counter. Sitting on hay bales, or standing in place behind the makeshift counter were a number of ponies; all had clipboards either floating in front of them, or on the counter itself. Behind the ponies, at the back of the tent were shelves filled with binders, as well as rolled up maps and other documents.

"Welcome to Equestria!" A bookish looking pegasus greeted Caprice and her family. "I'm Windfeather, and I can get you sorted out. First off, are you together or..." Windfeather looked up over small, round glasses.

"Together!" Caprice looked Windfeather in the eye. "This is my family. Alexi, my stallion, that is Pumpkin, my sister, and the little one here..." Caprice bent down and gave a little nuzzle "is Buttermilk, my little foal."

"Interesting. She is tiny. Newborn?" The pegasus behind the counter stretched his neck and brought a binder nearer with his teeth. He looked through the pages of chicken scratches and strange symbols.

"Yes, she's just two weeks old." Caprice reasoned that Windfeather really didn't need to know all the details about Buttermilk.

"Then, congratulations." Windfeather looked at little unicorn Buttermilk, then at pegasus Alexi, and then at earth pony Caprice. "Or... whatever is appropriate."

Caprice pursed her lips at that statement.

"So, will we be living in the places we have heard so much about?" Alexi seemed excited. "Ponyville, Fillydelphia, the grand castle of Canterlot, perhaps?"

"No. Certainly not." The bookish pegasus was still flipping through the binder he had brought over. "There are billions of you, apparently. It would be absurd to imagine you tail-to-nose, blocking up every available square foot of just a small mouthful of towns."

"Then where do we go to live?" Alexi seemed puzzled.

"As your world vanishes, Equestria expands." Windfeather went back briefly to the shelves, when he returned he flattened out a map with his front hooves. "There is more land all the time, growing out of the Equestria we know. These new lands are where newfoals get to go. You get to settle the new lands for the glory of our Princesses and Equestria." Windfeather pointed with his nose at a spot on the map; the land depicted seemed recently drawn. "You and a few hundred other newfoals are going here. You can name it what you want when you get there; it's your village. Or it will be, after you build it."

Windfeather gave a slightly nasty little smile. He was clearly not as friendly as the unicorn, Summergrass, had been.

"We call this new frontier the 'Exponential Lands'. Because that's how fast they are expanding into existence." The bespectacled pegasus gave his unpleasant little smile again. "I'd stay close together when you get there, if I were you."

Caprice decided she didn't like this particular pony one bit.

Two: Milk For Breakfast

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By Chatoyance

Two: Milk For Breakfast

For the longest time after checking in at the large colorful tent - which Alexi had discovered was called the 'Newfoal Registration Center' - Caprice and her family had wandered the semicircular temporary city. They had been shown to a large communal canopy thickly floored with straw, this was to be their temporary sleeping location. They had been informed that they need spend only one night at Welcome Town before they would be transported to their permanent new home.

Caprice was desperate to find some way to feed Buttermilk. The poor thing was hungry, and they had not been allowed to bring any material object with them to Equestria - The makeshift baby bottle from the clinic had needed to be left behind. Eventually, Pumpkin had spotted a fabric and wood structure that seemed to be related to food or supplies, and so the family decided to try to find a solution there.

"Hello? Anybody home? Helooo?" Pumpkin had her front hooves up on a wooden plank that served as a counter of sorts, and was peering into the back, past stacks of crates and barrels.

"Just a moment!" The male voice came from the back; it seemed friendly enough.

Pumpkin hopped down, much more comfortable on all fours. Trying to remain on her back legs for any length of time was a strain, and made her feel uncomfortable. She had thought this odd, since she had spent her previous life entirely on her rear legs, now she found that her front legs supported most of her weight, and were her strongest pair.

"How can I help you?" The earth pony that faced them now was a brown and cream colt, young but apparently in charge.

"My little filly here needs milk. We used to have a bottle to feed her with, but we couldn't bring it. What can we do?" Caprice tried to nudge Buttermilk out from between her legs for the colt to see, but the little foal had taken to hiding whenever she could now.

"Hmmm... that's not something we've had to deal with before. I assume you can't feed her yourself?" The colt seemed puzzled.

"She's adopted - her birth mother abandoned her, so I took her as my own. I have no milk to feed her with. Surely this is not an unheard of situation even in Equestria?" Caprice was beginning to come to the conclusion that the colt might not be as helpful as she had hoped.

"Just...abandoned... her own...newborn foal?" The colt seemed horrified. "No, I've never heard of anything like that. I... you newfoals... I just..." The young pony looked around as if he wished he were anywhere else. "Listen, wait here. I'll get some help. I just do inventory... give me a moment." Brown and Cream trotted off into the back somewhere, leaving the newfoal family waiting.

"I am guessing ponies do not drop their babies in dumpsters. I think you may have shocked the little fellow." Alexi looked around, trying to see any other tent that might be more useful.

"I am kind of getting the impression that being this close to former humans is traumatic for the natives here." Caprice looked thoughtful. "I guess, to them, Earth must seem pretty cruel."

Pumpkin looked up from where she was trying to cheer little Buttermilk. "Earth was cruel. Of course it was cruel. Have you forgotten or something?" She seemed peeved; Caprice remembered how Pumpkin had been abandoned by her older lover after becoming pregnant. Pumpkin had reason to be bitter about human nature.

"I haven't forgotten, Pumpkin." Caprice gave Pumpkin a little nuzzle. "It's just that I think maybe some of the native Equestrians may be... a little tired of us already. That's all."

"But we're ponies now!" Pumpkin stomped a hoof. "We're.... them... now. We're ponies!"

Alexi lowered his head to Pumpkin's level "Yes, we are pony now. But, we are also former humans. Even though we could not bring possessions in to Equestria, we still come bearing heavy baggage." Alexi bumped Pumpkin's nose with his own. "What we have seen, where we have come from, these things are heavy baggage indeed."

Caprice moved closer to the wood plank 'countertop', which was a board supported on two tall saw-horses. "I wonder if our colt is ever coming ba... Ah! Here he comes. Apparently, with help."

The brown colt approached the plank that served as a counter; following him was an older unicorn, an aged mare of faded topaz coat and silvern mane. On her back was a set of saddlebags, filled with books and bottles.

As the elder unicorn moved around a stack of crates to come to the counter, Caprice recognized her cutie mark as being that of a medical unicorn. If anyone could secure a new baby bottle for Buttermilk, she was the most likely source. Apparently, Mr. Brown colt had turned out to be helpful after all.

"You have a hungry little foal, I understand?" The medical unicorn looked around over the plank. "Ah! There she is." Buttermilk was trying to hide between Caprice's back legs, pushing her back end into Caprice's tail. "You are the mother?"

Caprice nodded. "I have no means to feed her since I arrived. Do you have a baby bottle or some such device? We could really use your help."

"We do have such things, but I may be able to offer you a better alternative, especially considering where you are going." The medical unicorn illuminated her horn; the contents of her left saddlebag began moving, lifting out far enough for her to see, then dropping back in again. Finally, she chose a thin, aged book. It had once been white, now it was gray. "Let's see here..." The book was on the wooden counter now, the pages flipping by themselves. "Yes... This is it. A spell for dry udders. I can induce lactation, allowing normal feeding of your child. I think this would be a more practical solution."

"You can do that?" Caprice was surprised.

"Yes..." The unicorn was taken slightly aback, as if it were inconceivable that anypony would not know such things. "It's really basic magic. I used to know the spell by heart, but... I haven't had to use it in years. It's just simple physioloturgy. Won't take a but a moment." The unicorn read the symbols in the book, mumbling under her breath.

Caprice suddenly realized she could read the book too. "Excuse me, those symbols in the book... what are they? I thought they were common Equestrian script!" Pictograms of star-shapes, crescents, spirals and other forms covered the pages.

"You can read this?" The unicorn mare looked up at Caprice. "How do you know thaumatic script? I've never met an earth pony that could read thaumatic script before. It's not really... something they would have use of, no offense."

"I studied what was available before I was Converted." Caprice felt proud. "I wanted to prepare for my new life. I taught myself how to speak and read Equestrian... or so I thought. But I can't read the sign over the tent at the front, yet I can read your magic book. I guess I learned the wrong thing?"

"Not wrong, exactly." The medical unicorn studied Caprice. "But perhaps less than useful for an earth pony. Of course, your daughter here is a unicorn, so perhaps you studied just the right thing - so that you can teach her. By the way, my name is Argent... and you are...?"

"Caprice. This is my stallion, Alexi, and my sister Pumpkin," Pumpkin tried to do a little bow, but wasn't sure how to pull it off, it came across as a bit ungainly. "And that's Buttermilk down there. Come out and say hi to Argent, Buttermilk! She's going to help mama be able to feed you!" Buttermilk preferred to stay buried in Caprice's tail.

"Well, then, nice to meet you." Argent the medical unicorn looked at each in turn. "Shall we do this then?"

"What do I need to do?" Caprice had never had magic used on her before - not counting the magical component within the Conversion serum itself - so she was unsure of what to expect.

"It would be best if we had a little room." Argent looked around. "Go around behind the depot, and I'll meet you at the back. There is an open area there were I can safely cast." Caprice nodded.

"Pumpkin, will you look after Buttermilk for a bit? I'll be right back. I assume, anyway." Caprice turned to Alexi. "I never imagined I'd be getting spells cast on me when I decided to be Buttermilk's mother. Wish me luck!"

Alexi bent down and gave Caprice a long kiss. "You are the best luck of my life. I cannot wish you yourself, sydänkäpynen."

Caprice carefully disentangled herself from Buttermilk; the little foal did not want her to leave, and began bleating and trying to follow her. "No, Buttermilk. Caprice has to leave for a bit!" Pumpkin tried to corral the little unicorn with her legs. "She'll be back with yummy milk for you, soon! Just stay with me for a bit, alright?" Finally, Pumpkin had to resort to grabbing Buttermilk by the mane, to hold her so that Caprice could leave.

Behind the fabric structure, Caprice found Argent waiting for her.

"I've never seen magic before. It doesn't exist on... where I came from." Caprice suddenly felt embarrassed to even say the name of her planet of birth. It seemed that being newfoal was not universally embraced by native Equestrians, and she did not want to offend the medical unicorn that could help her.

"Just stand still, I will do the rest. It might feel a little strange, but do not worry, it really is a very basic spell." Argent's horn began to glow, then pulse. She closed her eyes briefly, and the tip of her horn became too bright for Caprice to look at directly.

A beam, or ray, or something lanced out at Caprice, and she felt waves of sensation she could not describe washing over, around, and through her. For a moment it seemed like there was light inside of her eyeballs. Then, just like that, it was over.

Caprice felt heavy between her legs. Her udder tingled, and she was very aware of her nipples. She presumed this meant the spell had worked. "I feel... full... down there. I guess it worked?"

Argent had her neck bent low, at Caprice's side, looking up between her legs. "Indeed. You should have no problems feeding your foal now." Argent raised herself and trotted around to face Caprice. "The effect will last for as long as nursing continues, if nursing should stop for any length of time, your udder will dry up, and that will be the end of that." Argent thought for a moment. "Oh! Should you become pregnant, it will not affect this work, you will still produce milk as long as you keep nursing as I stated. So don't worry about that little issue. That's all there is to it, very basic stuff, as I mentioned."

Caprice tried to take a step; she felt very full indeed, and realized there was one downside to the equine model of breast placement; it felt strange now trying to walk because her inner thighs rubbed against her swollen udder. She briefly worried that it might eventually lead to chafing, if she wasn't careful. "I really, really want to thank you. When I adopted Buttermilk, I didn't think through everything that I might need to do to care for her, I guess. I just wanted to save her from being termina..." Caprice stopped herself. No. Argent didn't need to hear such things.

Argent stared at Caprice with a distant, vaguely horrified look. She shook her head, disbelieving. "Good luck out there, and I wish you and your family only the best." Argent took one more look at Caprice, then went on her way, heading out into the tent city.

Caprice began to amble back to her family; it did feel a little strange, and a bit pendulous, but wasn't as difficult as she had first imagined. Being a Newfoal seemed to be an endless stream of new and unusual sensations, this was one more. She saw Alexi and Pumpkin walking back to meet her, they had been curious and had seen no reason not to follow her.

"What was it like?" Pumpkin was excited and disappointed, only now did she realize she had just missed seeing real magic being used. Buttermilk suddenly bolted from where she was hiding, close to Pumpkin's tail, and ran to Caprice.

Buttermilk had no trouble in finding where the food was; even expecting what the foal was after, Caprice was startled a bit. "Ulp!"

Alexi laughed. "Buttermilk was very, very hungry it would seem. And it is clear the magic was a success. Perhaps we should stay here for a while, so that Buttermilk may enjoy the snack bar, I am thinking." Alexi winked at Caprice, she stuck her tongue out at him playfully.

"Woo, she is hungry!" Pumpkin watched Buttermilk tugging at Caprice, guzzling milk as if she were starved half to death.

"It was... strange. The magic I mean." Caprice tried to remain still, to allow Buttermilk to feed. "Argent's horn glowed, there was a bright... something.. and I felt like I had a light inside my head. Then..." Caprice looked down and gave little Buttermilk a nuzzle "I was suddenly... different. It didn't hurt or anything, but... it felt weird."

"Weird how? I mean, what was it like? Was it like when we went through the barrier, or like when a leg goes to sleep or what?" Pumpkin was fascinated; her sister had experienced magic!

"I wish I could tell you. I... don't know how to describe it." Caprice tried to think of words, but nothing really seemed to fit. "It was, well, warm and cold at the same time. And it kind of swirled, just not... in any direction I can describe."

"I really hope I get to see magic someday." Pumpkin seemed down, now. "I should have gone with you, darn it."

"No, I needed you to keep an eye on Buttermilk. Thank you for that, Pumpkin." Caprice grimaced momentarily; Buttermilk was being a little too eager. "Ahem. I have no doubt we'll see more magic eventually - think about it sis, our home is a magical land."

"I... liked that. When you called me 'sis'." Pumpkin came close and Caprice nuzzled her.

"Well, you are. We decided that, back at the clinic. It's permanent, so you'd better get used to it." Caprice smiled.

"I wonder when they will feed us - I do not know about you, but it is not just little Buttermilk that is wanting dinner." Alexi came around to the other side of Caprice. "Perhaps, when the little one is done, we can go to find food for ourselves. Apart from breakfast, we have been kept starving all day! And while it is noon here, the clock of my stomach says that it is dinner time." Alexi looked grave. "I always believe in my stomach, for it has never lied to me. Except once, when I was twenty, and it thought entire bottle of vodka was dinner. Stomach paid for that, BIG TIME, in the end."

Caprice and Pumpkin giggled.

When Buttermilk was finally done, she seemed both much happier and less afraid. The little foal trotted alongside her mother, sniffing at the air, no longer tripping Caprice by trying to hide between her legs as she walked.

The search for food led the family to a large circular area on the far side of Welcome Town, which had been fenced off as a simple, wooden corral. The corral was quite large, and could easily hold a hundred or more ponies. "What in Equestria is this?" Caprice was at a loss.

"I think I may know, I have read about such things. I think it is a 'rodeo', where cowboys would do tricks on horses to amuse a crowd." Alexi looked over the space. "However, I do not think there are cowboys in Equestria, neither do I think that such events had strange stones in them."

There were, indeed, several dozen, strange round stones, each about four feet across, flat and set into the sand, in some pattern within the corral. Caprice walked close to the wooden fence and noticed a sign, written in the chicken-scratch letters that she could not read. The sign was yellow, and had black stripes on the ends. It looked like some kind of warning sign.

But what truly caught her attention was the nearest stone, which was close enough to the fence that she could see the flat surface; there, engraved around the top of the round disk were the pictographic symbols she had studied, and which she now recognized as the language of magic.

"'Change-sky'... 'magic-place'... that one I can't make out... and possibly 'fast' or 'swift'. They aren't being used as they would in a book. There seems to be a whole different grammar here, using the same symbols. Huh." Caprice could make nothing more out. She wanted to go inside to see what the stones really said, but something about the corral made her nervous. The hairs on her withers felt like they were standing up. "Um... let's move on, alright?"

Alexi and Pumpkin apparently also felt strange; they also had no desire to stay. Only little Buttermilk seemed drawn to the place, standing still and staring at it until Caprice pushed her with her nose, and forced her to move along.

Back near the colorful registration tent where they had met the unpleasant, bespectacled pegasus named Windfeather, they found lunch being served. Fortunately they had not missed it; but only barely. Alexi, Caprice and Pumpkin were given metal pails filled with food, which they could easily carry by the handle. The found a nice place covered in straw to lay down upon, and wasted no time in checking out the contents of their lunch pails.

Inside of each pail was a quantity of mixed grains, three carrots, two sticks of celery, and a rather juicy apple. At the bottom of the grain a surprise was waiting, a cube of sugar. Alexi found his by accident, remarking that it made the grain taste like "the most marvelous breakfast cereal in all the world." Pumpkin, now alerted, was careful not to eat hers with the grain, but instead savored it on her tongue as candy.

Caprice wanted to give hers to Buttermilk, but Alexi suggested that it might not be a good idea. "Perhaps that much sugar would not be good for such a baby pony; for now, you should eat the sugar, and let little Buttermilk get her sweetness from you." Caprice smiled shyly at that, and ate her cube.

The Equestrian sun felt warm, and the family rested on the hay long after the other ponies left the lunch area. Alexi practiced opening and closing his wings, encouraging Pumpkin to try hers as well. "I expect that we will be given flying lessons eventually, you and I. It will be interesting to learn to fly, don't you think?"

Pumpkin was thrilled at the idea. "I really want to fly, I can't wait to learn how. But I am kind of afraid of crashing, too. Hopefully we'll get a good teacher."

"Think of all we can do for the family, once we can master our wings!" Alexi had finally managed to be able to stretch out both wings in unison, and bring them back with an impressive snap. "We can scout for water, look for fine pasture lands, search for tasty berries and carry things to market. We will be invaluable, you and I. We are the wings of the" Alexi looked distraught for a moment. "What is the name of our family? How do they do family names here in Equestria? Caprice!"


"What is last name of our family? How is this done here? You have studied so much, tell us!" Alexi waited for the answer, Pumpkin seemed equally anxious to know.

Caprice thought for a moment. "Well, according to what I read, Equestrians have at least two ways to express kinship of some kind - there are clans, that all have the same last name; a name chosen to express something they share in common. For example, a clan that specialized in growing berries, for example, might all share the same last name of 'berry'. But there are also pony families that choose their last name based on what they do for a living; if they have watchmakers here, one might find a single family with the last name 'watchmaker' or whatever."

Alexi nodded "So ponies either belong to a clan, or they choose an original last name to unite their family. But there are no lineages as we know them, no family names handed down for generations, then?"

"As far as I can tell, no. Lineage names on earth began among those that founded small empires, kingdoms, or states; they wanted to keep the spoils of conquest only within their bloodline. Ponies don't conquer, and there is only one royalty; the two princesses. Inheritance is based on clan, or is just arbitrary. They don't value bloodlines the same way humans do." Caprice looked thoughtful for a moment. "I guess we just choose a family name that means something to us. Of course, a lot of ponies never have last names. So it really isn't considered that important, ultimately."

"Well, I am an old-fashioned Alexi, and I like the idea of a last name to say that we four are family!" Alexi beamed at the three fillies.

"We'll be five, soon." Pumpkin looked both shy and proud.

"All five, then. Five ponies, one name!" Alexi had settled that much. "But what name do we pick?"

"We could all use the last name Caprice and I chose for me!" Pumpkin exclaimed "Licorice! Pumpkin Licorice, Caprice Licorice, Alexi Licorice..."

"I don't think so, Pumpkin, sorry. I don't think that works for me. Plus, ponies will think we make candy, and we don't." Caprice felt bad saying this, because Pumpkin had been so happy with her name.

"Poo." Pumpkin pretended to sulk. "I still get to keep 'licorice' as a middle name, then."

"Of course you do!" Caprice rolled over on her back, just because it felt good. "We have plenty of time to think of a family name, so let's take that time and pick out a good one, OK?" Buttermilk began to try to climb onto Caprice's belly, the reason for this known only to the little yellow foal.

Pumpkin rolled over too, because it looked fun. "Ok. I guess we'll have to see what we end up doing."

Alexi, who would not miss out on an apparently good thing, joined his family, and also rolled onto his back. His new wing control allowed him to roll without damaging a single feather.

The four newfoals gazed up, fed and content, into the blue Equestrian sky. Soon the sun had passed the zenith, and was beginning to descend. The straw was soft, the day was warm, and their eyes felt heavy.

Alexi was the first to wake up. He had been asked to move by a dark blue earth pony who he vaguely understood needed to set up the area for a feast of some kind. The word 'feast' always made Alexi perk up his ears, now, as a pegasus pony, his ears literally lifted up. Somehow, this rather pleased him.

Alexi roused the rest of his family. All had turned over on their sides in sleep, Caprice curved around Buttermilk who had snuggled up close to her. Pumpkin had a hard time rising; she had been having the most wonderful dream. Apparently it involved an endless supply of peach pies and there was no limit to how many she could physically eat. Awake, she was still craving pie.

Alexi led his three groggy fillies to the communal sleeping tent they had been shown to earlier. It seemed like a reasonable place to be; they could all lay down again if they chose, or decide what else to do, but in any case they wouldn't be in anypony's way. It was early evening now, and some kind of lanterns had been lit, illuminating the whole of Welcome Town.

Once inside the straw-floored sleeping canopy, they folded their legs and sat, considering what next to do. They were alone in the tent, save for a couple on the other side of the space, busy talking with each other.

"There is to be a feast, or so I was told. I like a good feast. Perhaps it is to welcome us all to our new home?" Alexi carefully scooted closer to Caprice; he was getting better and better at using his new body.

"I wonder if they do a feast every single night, considering how many newfoals go through this place?" Caprice was laying still; Buttermilk was hungry again and had decided that the milk bar was now open. Caprice briefly imagined herself as a four-legged 'Roach Coach' catering truck; that made her giggle. Still, it was currently not far from the truth.

"Where do you think we are going to end up?" Pumpkin seemed contemplative. "They said we only spend one night here, then they ship us out or something. And what did that featherguy pony mean when he said we had to build our own town?"

"Windfeather. I think that was his name." Caprice looked out of the canopy at the constant milling of ponies along the lantern-lit avenues between the tents. "He seemed almost... sinister for a pony. I got a weird vibe from that one."

"I am sure it will all be fine, pikku tammavarsa. All of this must have been set up by the princesses themselves. Therefore, we can trust that everything will work out for the best!" Alexi raised his white wings and shook them gently, to let several strands of straw fall from where they had become trapped between feathers.

"Yeah! If the princesses set it up, it must be OK!" Pumpkin seemed in good spirits with this, but sometimes it was hard to tell with her; she wanted very much to please both Caprice and Alexi.

"This is Equestria, not... the other place." Caprice noticed that Buttermilk had finished, the little unicorn was busy licking her chops, apparently content with her latest visit to Caprice's 24-hour, all night milk bar. "I think things have worked out pretty well, if you think about it - I can naturally feed and take care of my daughter now, we have a place to sleep and a feast coming up - and we are all together. Aside from one vaguely unpleasant pegasus at the Registration tent, I'd say that overall, it's been a good day, our first day in Equestria."

Looked at that way, both Alexi and Pumpkin had to agree. So far, things seemed to be working out in their new country.

Little Buttermilk seemed content enough; she was now trying to stand up on her hind legs in order to lick her mother's chin for some reason. Caprice pushed Buttermilk gently down with her head, and began grooming her tangled yellow mane to calm her. "Who's a silly pony, hmm? Who? You are, yes you are!"

Buttermilk suddenly erupted with a surprisingly loud burp.

Alexi grinned at his tiny daughter. "Another satisfied customer!"

Caprice gave Alexi a look of mock indignation, then smiled.

Everything looked as if it could only get better.

Three: Lawn For Dinner

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By Chatoyance

Three: Lawn For Dinner

When morning came, Alexi barely remembered the feast the night before; he was still exhausted and was having trouble getting his wits about him. It was very early in the day, Celestia's magical sun had just barely begun to peek above the horizon. Around Alexi were many shouts and complaints, and the sound of many hooves scuffling through packed straw.

"Alexi? What... what is going on?" Caprice was struggling to wake up now; she checked on Buttermilk still asleep close to her belly, and Pumpkin snuggled behind.

"ATTENTION! ATTENTION!" The voice was somehow being amplified, but unlike the sound of a terrestrial loudspeaker, the voice seemed everywhere and nowhere; it was clearly magic, but that was all that they could tell. "ASSEMBLE WITHIN THE CORRAL AT THE BACK OF WELCOME TOWN. REPEAT - ASSEMBLE IMMEDIATELY INSIDE THE CORRAL, LOCATED TO THE REAR OF WELCOME TOWN."

"That's the place with the stones!" Caprice shook Pumpkin, who finally began to escape from dreamland.

Everywhere newfoal ponies were rising, shuffling through the straw, leaving the sleeping tent. Some grumbled at the early call, others simply stumbled along, half asleep. As Alexi and Caprice looked around them, waiting for Pumpkin to clamber to her hooves, they noted to each other the presence of armored Equestrian guards.

Each guard was a huge, muscular stallion wearing gold and silver livery, sporting helmets with tall, Roman-styled crests. Even though she was barely awake, the Romanesque helmets spoke to Caprice once more that there must be some ancient connection between Earth and Equestria, but now was not a time for questions; only obedience.


Little Buttermilk was very frightened, now that she was fully awake, and tried to freeze in place every few steps, hiding inbetween her mother's legs. This caused Caprice to occasionally stumble, and she was forced to once more take hold of Buttermilk's mane and move her, squealing and bleating, along.

Somehow, the family made it to the corral, the gates of which now stood open. They entered the strange arena, and more than once Caprice found her hooves clopping across the odd stones imbedded in the ground. There was no time to study the arcane writing on them; the crowd of newfoals pressed ever inward until the corral was packed.


The newfoals shifted as one, and Caprice could no longer see the ground for the closely packed bodies of other ponies. She could feel Buttermilk pressing against her legs; she brought her hind legs closer together so as to pinch her foal firmly in place as best she could.

"I do not have good feelings about this, Caprice. If this was Earth, I would be fearing a firing squad." Alexi had shocked Caprice with that statement, and she suddenly found herself feeling fear for the first time since she had arrived in Equestria. It did seem strange to be driven as a group to the corral in this manner. They hadn't even had breakfast! Overall, what was now happening did not feel particularly friendly at all.


Tall, ancient unicorns began to enter the corral. The newfoals did their best to make paths for the grand and royal ponies to reach the stones in the ground. Each of the royal unicorns was dressed in some kind of silken cloak, embroidered with the magical symbols that Caprice had studied when she had lived on Earth.

The Royal Unicorn Corps took positions upon the stones set into the ground, each standing with all four hooves carefully centered on their individual stones. "YOU WILL NOW BE TAKEN TO YOUR FINAL DESTINATION; YOUR OWN LAND TO SETTLE FOR THE GLORY OF EQUESTRIA. PLEASE REMAIN CALM DURING TRANSFER. PRINCESS CELESTIA OFFERS HER GRATITUDE TO YOUR PIONEERING SPIRIT. TRANSFER BEGINS NOW."

The Royal Unicorns, as one, began to weave some massive spell, their horns glowing like miniature suns. Swirls of color and dancing points of light rose up from the packed sand upon which the newfoals stood. The morning sky above them began to change, fading to a strange blackness streaked by flowing ribbons of color.

"COOOOLLL!" Pumpkin was overjoyed at finally getting to see magic, especially on such a grand scale. Alexi stared around at the swirls of arcane energy swarming around the corral. He could no longer see anything of Welcome Town, or indeed the outside world of Equestria at all.

Caprice looked down at Buttermilk, who had freed herself from Caprice's back legs. Buttermilk walked forward and stopped, quiet and still, inbetween Caprice's front legs. The little foal raised her head, as if basking in the strange light that flowed out of the ground itself. The light streamed up past Caprice and Buttermilk's hooves, and Caprice could see swirls of it curving around Buttermilk's tiny horn.

Suddenly, Caprice couldn't breath. There was no air. Frost formed on her lips, and she felt her tongue bubble as if the saliva on it was boiling. Fear caught her heart, and she began to scream, only there was no breath to scream with. She felt herself rising from the ground, as though she were falling.

Then, as soon as the moment of terror had come, it was gone. Caprice felt her hooves slam into the sand, and she gasped for breath. The air was cool but pleasant, the light early morning. A commotion had arisen among the newfoals, with many screaming or yelling, and all talking at once.

"Are you alright?" Alexi looked very grim and very serious. "Caprice? Pumpkin? How is little Buttermilk? Answer me, are you alright?"

"I... I think we're OK, Alexi. I think we're all fine. It was just... a little scary, that's all." Caprice checked again on Buttermilk, she seemed strangely unperturbed by the experience. The little unicorn was still standing quietly with her head raised; it was almost as if she were somehow savoring something that Caprice could not feel or sense.

"Scary! That was terrifying! I could not breath for a while! I have frost on my nose! It is criminal that we were not warned of what would happen! What is wrong with these Equestrians that they would do this without warning!" Alexi seemed angry now, and to be fair, Caprice thought, he had a point.


Caprice suddenly recognized the booming voice. It was the voice of the unpleasant pegasus with the small, round glasses... Windfeather. That was it, his name was Windfeather. She hadn't liked his attitude at the Registration tent, and she liked it even less now.

The crowd of newfoals began to move. As Caprice and Alexi worked to stay close to Pumpkin and Buttermilk, they passed the Royal Unicorns as they stood on their stones. The Unicorns seemed exhausted, and their heads hung low. They were breathing heavily; apparently such magic took a heavy toll, and they needed time to recuperate.

Welcome Town was gone.

So was the Equestrian side of the Barrier, the rocky cliffs and the desert of sand. Beyond the wooden fence that encircled the disk of desert that was the corral, endless rolling hills of green, dotted with patches of colorful flowers, stretched off to the horizon. In one direction there seemed to be what might be a small patch of forest, in another was the possibility of mountains, very, very far away.

Occasionally interrupting the endless rolling hills and expansive plains were ponds and small lakes; these shone bright blue, reflecting the sky above. As the sun rose into that sky, the air became warmer, and Caprice could smell the flowery scents of summer fields.

The newfoals spread out in little clumps, some taking to the tops of nearby low hills, the better to scan the horizon, others clustered close to the corral, unsure of what to do, or where to go. Alexi and his family stood just under a hundred feet from the corral entrance; Caprice was looking through the crowd for one specific pony - Windfeather the pegasus, but so far she had not discovered him.

The Royal Unicorn Corps were apparently sufficiently rested now; their horns glowed as they levitated a small mountain of crates out of the back of the corral, placing them on the grassy plain well beyond the wooden fence. Caprice had not noticed the crates as she had entered the corral, but then with so many ponies packed in so tightly - and with Buttermilk to worry about - it was little wonder.

The crates neatly stacked, The Royal Unicorns got into some kind of position, facing the cargo. They seemed to be preparing to do something magical with the crates, or their contents, but they were abruptly interrupted. A small, winged pony walked up to them, and addressed them. It was Windfeather! Caprice easily recognized the round glasses, the perpetual smirk on the little pegasus' face. The Royal Unicorns seemed confused about something, and they and Windfeather argued for a short while. Eventually the Unicorn Corps returned to the corral, to stand once again upon their stones, Windfeather followed them, closing the gate with his teeth as he did so.

Something seemed wrong to Alexi. He had a strong sense of when a deal was about to go bad, or when something 'off' was occuring. In his earthly life, he had been a procurer; he had discovered what people needed and arranged deals for them to acquire those things. He had long dealt with Earth's underground economy, and he knew well the moment when things turned from good, to not so good.

"Wait!" Alexi bolted from Caprice's side, struggling to gallop for the first time. This was only his second day of being a pony, and while he had mastered walking, he simply had not tried running before. When Caprice reached him he was swearing in Finnish, trying to get up from where he had tripped. "Caprice! Enough about me - you must stop the little pegasus with the glasses; he is up to no good, of that I am certain!"

Caprice looked up to see the corral already appearing strange in the morning light; thin streams of energy were rising from the large circle of desert sand; the Royal Unicorns chanting, their horns blazing.

"YOU HUMANS THAT THINK YOURSELVES PONIES!" It was Windfeather, somewhere in the corral, using the same loudspeaker-like magic. He was shouting in North American English, and somehow Caprice had the feeling that this was a language unknown to the mages of the Unicorn Corps.

"YOU ARE NOT US! YOU YOU MAY WEAR OUR BODIES BUT INSIDE YOU ARE STILL MONSTERS. YOU WILL NOT DESTROY MY HOME!" The corral was a shining column of light and streaming arcane forces now, and Caprice, though she tried to run toward it, felt pressed back by impossible energies.

"CELESTIA WAS WRONG TO BRING YOU HERE. YOU MUST BE KEPT APART FROM TRUE PONYKIND. OUR TWO SPECIES WILL THANKFULLY NEVER MEET AGAIN." Caprice pushed against the swirls of color, trying to get through, trying to make it to the fence.

Suddenly there was an unutterable brilliance and a swift rushing of air. Caprice found herself falling forward onto tall green grass where before there had been a large circle of desert surrounded by a wooden fence. Now there was no sand, no corral, no fence. It was as if the corral had never been. The green plain stretched on, unbroken.

Alexi was at Caprice's side. "Caprice! Are you alright? Where did it go?" Caprice was bruised, but unhurt from her tumble. She stood up, angry. "That... narrow-minded, god-damned, bigoted little bastard!" It was the first time Alexi had ever heard Caprice swear.

The ponies on the nearby hills and around the field began to cluster together near the general area where the corral had once been. The only remaining signs of technology of any kind were the stack of crates that the Royal Unicorns had placed. The crowd was frightened; they could see nothing in any direction except more rolling hills and the occasional pond.

The newfoals had heard the words of Windfeather, and while they were uncertain of what those words entirely meant, they had the strong suspicion that they had been abandoned in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't that they couldn't understand this, rather that they did not want to face such a fact.

"What just happened?" Asked a middle-aged newfoal unicorn. "Are they coming back?" It was a nervous elder earth pony newfoal. "cèsuǒ zài nǎli?" Demanded an uncomfortable looking blue pegasus. "¿Me puedes ayudar, por favor?" asked a polite, but worried yellow stallion. Alexi looked at the crowd of confused, nervous newfoals, and began to fear a panic. If they were to survive, they must stick together, that was the first issue.

"Caprice, we need to keep everypony together. We can only survive if we work together." Alexi moved to where he could more easily be seen by the largest possible number of newfoals. He chose a very small rise in the grassy plain.

"ATTENTION!" For a moment, Caprice imagined Alexi working the microphone back at Clinic 042, in the Conversion Bureau, announcing the latest applicant. Alexi found he had no idea how to whistle, so he went back to shouting. "ATTENTION! EVERYPONY! LISTEN TO ME!"

Gradually the crowd calmed, eager for any answers at all. Alexi pondered what he should say. He had no idea where they were, and no idea if help would ever arrive. Alexi felt fairly sure that Windfeather had made certain they were as lost as it was possible for them to be; maybe Caprice could explain something of that to him later. He knew he did not want to frighten the crowd, but at the same time telling them a comforting lie could backfire later. Alexi, however, was no stranger to risk.

"My name is Alexi. I am an official from the Conversion Bureau." Not strictly true; Alexi had been the handyman and announcer for Clinic 042, and his position ended when he left for Equestria with Caprice. But perhaps it was just enough of a title to give them some feeling of authority to cling to.

Alexi tried to look as strong and dominant as he could manage. He stood as tall as he possibly could, and flared his wings a bit for effect. "As you have heard, we have been betrayed; a bigoted pony named Windfeather has seen fit to try to abandon us here, far from anypony else. But I tell you now that his plot will not succeed; for he is one, and we are many!" It seemed to be working, at least for now, and in any case, they were listening.

"I was warned of this possibility before I was Converted and came to Equestria!" This was dangerous, of course, but right now, these newfoals needed something to believe in, Alexi reasoned. If he was clever enough, this could work. "There is already in place a powerful system that can find and rescue us, so be confident!" The Big Lie. A standard tool of the would-be leader, he hoped it would work for somepony just trying to keep things together. This was the really dangerous part. If it worked, Alexi would have saved the day. If not, Caprice might be a pony widow.

"There is a catch, however! The land we are in, the Exponential Lands, are vast, and constantly growing. It will take some time before we are found. It may be a very long time. But this has also been provided for!" Alexi was thinking on his hooves, and he was briefly fascinated to learn that he could sweat.

"Look around you! What do you see?" Alexi waited a short pause for dramatic effect. Lush, green grasses covered the wide plains and the rolling hills, stretching off to infinity.

"Food! Around you is an endless supply of food and water!" Alexi was on a roll, his quick mind racing. "Look above you! Our princess's glorious sun, the same sun that shines over Canterlot, shines also over us! We cannot go hungry, and there are no enemies or dangers in sight!" Alexi dearly hoped that there were no dangers; time would tell. "We could just lay back and eat and sleep as if we were on vacation for as long as we wished!"

Alexi let this set in.

"But we have been INSULTED! Our betrayer, Windfeather, thinks that we are not truly ponies! He thinks that we are helpless and useless! He thinks that we can do nothing, that we will live as animals and accomplish nothing at all while we pathetically wait to be found!" An enemy unites a people. Alexi knew that rule from Earth, and he felt sure it would still apply to newfoals, despite all the changes of body and mind.

"I say that the despicable Windfeather is WRONG! I say that we ponies, working together, can accomplish anything! I say that when we are finally found, our saviors should find not a bunch of lazy animals, but the very SAME village that we were sent to BUILD in the first place! What does it matter where we make our home? This patch of land or another? WE are the village, WE are the pioneers, and WE, TOGETHER, can prove that evil Windfeather wrong!"

The crowd of newfoals, perhaps one-hundred and fifty in all, were utterly focused on Alexi. He mustered all of his remaining bravado.

"I say that we are true Equestrians! I say that we are true citizens of this land! I say we can settle this land and make Celestia herself PROUD of us! Are you with me?" The crowd mumbled. "I SAID, ARE YOU WITH ME?" This was the moment of truth. Alexi felt his stomach do cartwheels inside him.

The newfoals, afraid and fearful of their total abandonment, needed something to cling to. They needed a leader, they needed to believe that things would be alright. They had been human once, but now they were equine, and they were compelled by new biology to follow the herd, to work together, that once a path had been chosen to follow it without argument. All it would take is one pony to tip the fragile balance.

For a moment, there was silence. One cheer broke out, two stamping hooves acting as applause. Then more cheers broke out echoing that first pony, followed by a thunder of stomping hooves. More and more of the crowd joined, until the very ground shook under their approval. Alexi felt he would faint at any moment, but he remained tall and proud, despite feeling terrified and shaken inside.

Caprice, standing just a little distance away, smiled and winked at Alexi. Then she returned to cheering and stomping as loudly as she possibly could.

Four: Worth His Salt

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By Chatoyance

Four: Worth His Salt

Alexi Venäläinen had never wanted to be a leader, certainly not the leader of an entire community. Being conspicuous and 'important' only led to trouble; everything Alexi was best at required him to be invisible to the world, pulling strings and making arrangements essentially from the shadows.

In his very early human life, Alexi had been a dark mage of technology, weaving quantum-encoded data spells to acquire and transfer information from source to buyer; later, as an adult, he had developed similar skills involving relationships with people and institutions transferring physical goods. This was what he was good at, and the only way to succeed was to be the neutral middleman whom everyone relied on, but nobody really knew much about.

Suddenly, with one speech at a critical moment, Alexi had become the alpha male of a society of over one-hundred and fifty newfoals, the most visible, known and needed member of the herd. Alexi was not a happy pony.

Demands and questions were constant, and Alexi knew that unless he found a way to satisfy those needs, his reign would be short-lived and likely end in tragedy. "Why did I do this thing? Alexi is truly crazy pony!" Caprice pressed her head close to his, and then gave him a lick on the nose. "You did it to help, Alexi. If someone hadn't done what you did, half of those newfoals would have run off in different directions looking for Welcome Town. They would have been lost forever, and died alone. I am glad you were the one to do it." Caprice rubbed Alexi's cheek affectionately.

"I am not sure I can keep doing it. How am I supposed to lead these ponies? I do not know what I am doing!" Alexi and his family were laying on the crest of a soft, rounded hill. It was night now, and Luna's moon had risen high into the sky. The new community had all eaten their breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the soft and plentiful grasses, and had drunk their fill from one of the many nearby ponds, filled with fresh, clear water.

Shortly after his dramatic speech, Alexi had become the focus of intense demand. Now that they had been inspired, the ponies wanted to know what exactly they should do. Caprice had suggested that the first order of business might be to catalog just what they had to work with; Alexi felt silly not thinking of such an obvious thing himself, but the fact was that he was being besieged by constant questions he could not truly answer and had little time to think.

There were twenty wooden crates on the grass, piled by the Royal Unicorn Corps when they had all arrived together. The first problem they faced was trying to open them. There was no obvious way to accomplish the task; the crates were nailed shut, and there were no tools. Alexi longed for a crowbar; even without hands he was sure he could mouthhandle such a device and pop open the side of a crate. One young stallion, barely out of colthood, tried to kick one of the crates open in frustration; Alexi had to stop him before he damaged whatever was inside. He had achieved little, though; apparently Equestrians built their crates solidly.

Alexi had finally come up with a way to keep the more restless of the newfoals busy for the rest of the day; he created a scouting party to survey the land in order to discover what was available to them in this place. It was a clever idea; by the end of the day two aims would be met; they would know what was near them and the majority would become exhausted, thus giving Alexi time in the evening to try to think of his next step.

Alexi insisted that the scouting party stay together as one single herd, rather than breaking up, and he took them on a spiraling path away from the spot where they had arrived. For the rest of the day almost half of the community trotted along past endless similar hills, ponds and lakes, always keeping an eye on where they had come from.

To assist with that, Caprice and Pumpkin, along with much of the remaining pioneers stood or rested on the crests of the hills surrounding the flat area where the they had arrived and where the crates were stacked, providing a visual indication of that spot. Whenever the scouting party felt lost, they climbed a hillock and looked for the colorful ponies dotting the hills near their 'base camp', such as it was.

The result, as the sun sank, was little. The land was identical in all directions, though they had found several isolated clumps of flowers and some unidentifiable plants hidden among the endless grass. One thing that Alexi had noted though, was a complete absence of any other animal life; not once had they encountered even a single insect, much less any other creature.

As far as they could tell, they were the only animals as far as the eye could see, surrounded by an empty desert of grass interrupted only by the rare, occasional flower or plant. Not even the scattered ponds contained fish or any other life that they could see. The sun was very warm; it was clearly summer, hot and humid, and the scouting party had to stop many times to drink water and to rest, sweating from the exertion.

The community of ponies shared supper, grazing on the grasses, and eventually had sat down to talk amongst themselves in little groups. Alexi had addressed them once more, informing them that he would consider all that they had learned, and consider the best course of action to take in the morning. Then he had retreated with his family to a hill overlooking the great mass of newfoals, clustering near the sealed crates - their only link to civilization.

Pumpkin wanted to be with the rest of the herd below. "Why are we up here, Alexi? It's lonely up here. Don't you want to be down there with everybody?"

Alexi nibbled a stalk of grass and swallowed. "I have made myself their leader. I did not wish this, but it is so. There are rules to such things, rules that make it easier for the many to believe in the wisdom and power of a figurehead. One such rule is distance; a commander must not mingle with the troops; it destroys morale."

Alexi laid his head on his forelegs, stretched out in front of him now, as he lay on his belly. "Up here, on this hill, I appear elevated and apart, on watch for danger, and more of a leader. Of course I want to be down there. I do not want this job. But poor, stuck Alexi knows how to do the job, at least a little."

"It's true, Pumpkin." Caprice was again suckling little Buttermilk; the tiny unicorn required several feedings every day. "For now we all must keep a distance from the rest for the sake of creating the illusion of competency - no offense beloved." Alexi did not seem offended, rather he just sighed in grim resignation.

"Caprice. I need to know something of where we are, and what it means to be in these 'Exponential Lands'. You studied about Equestria, what can you tell me about all of this?" Alexi looked up at the Equestrian moon, drifting among the sparkling stars.

"I don't know a lot, Alexi. But I'll tell you what I can." Caprice moved slightly so that Buttermilk would take her other nipple to continue feeding; the little foal sometimes forgot there were two, and kept pointlessly suckling when the milk was gone. Buttermilk was so young; Caprice wondered if she had any memory at all of having been a human baby. "First, Equestria is not a planet, not like Earth. As far as scientists figured out from the probe telemetry, it is probably a pocket universe.

"A pocket universe? Like from the old sci-fi shows, some little baby cosmos hanging like a booger off our own gigantic universe?" This made Pumpkin laugh, mostly because Alexi had used the word 'booger'.

"Yeah, pretty much." Caprice smiled. "Equestria seems to be a place, a landscape that does not exist in what we would call 'space'. One article I read suggested it resembled an artificial environment, like a holopark or an amusement dome. The sky is like something from a theme park; the stars aren't burning suns, the sun and moon are not gigantic bodies. No one knows what they are really, they just know they aren't actual things hanging in some big universe out there."

The family looked up at the stars. The stars did not look like terrestrial stars; they were brighter, larger, and the sparkled in a way that was very pretty, but very odd. "The moon up there." Caprice raised a hoof at it. "That isn't a body orbiting a planet. It may be flat, it may be... some kind of disk, or even a device for all we know. But it isn't a planet, not like we have in Earth's universe."

"So what about this land we are on? Is it some kind of chessboard hanging in the air? Do oceans fall off of it's edges? What is this place if not a planet?" Alexi was on his side now, looking at Caprice, thinking how beautiful the curve of her croup was, right before it met the dock where her tail fell.

"I don't know. I can't answer that." Caprice saw how Alexi was looking at her, and it made her feel happy inside. "The best the scientists could work out is that the area near Canterlot is stable. It doesn't change. But farther out, as the Earth is absorbed, the land itself changes and expands away from that stable zone. That's where we are - that's the Exponential Lands. Basically, we're in the middle of a creation myth."

"We're in a myth?" Alexi had no idea what Caprice meant.

"Like from some religion. The world, or at least more world, is being created right now, right here. We're somewhere out in the middle of that new creation." Buttermilk had finished entirely now, and was licking the last drops off of both her own muzzle and wherever any could be found on Caprice. "I guess I kind of imagine all these hills and lakes just rolling out of the stable zone near Canterlot like a carpet or something. Or maybe all this landscape just kind of crystallizes out swirling chaos or mystic vapor beyond the borders of Equestria."

"So, where exactly are we, Caprice?" Pumpkin was trying to follow all of this heady talk, but it wasn't easy for her.

Caprice thought for a moment, trying to find a better way to express their situation. "Imagine a sort of carpet-making machine. It keeps rolling out more and more carpet; that carpet is our land here - grass and hills and flowers and lakes, right?" Buttermilk was standing now, swaying slightly, eyes half closed. The dear was full and sleepy, but apparently not ready to lay down. "The carpet machine has been going for some time now. There could be zillions of miles of carpet. We're at some random spot, somewhere out on the carpet already made, being pushed farther away from the machine all the time, as more carpet comes out."

"We'll never see anypony ever again! We'll just keep getting farther and farther away from Canterlot and Ponyville and Hoofington and everything else!" Pumpkin looked sad and frightened. "We're totally alone! They'll never be able to find us!"

"That is not entirely true, little Pumpkin sister." Alexi gave Pumpkin a lick on the ear. "This is a magical place. That mean pony Windfeather brought us here with magical teleportation. Pif! We were here in an instant. When we are found, Pif! We will be able to go wherever we wish." Alexi looked at Buttermilk. "If nothing else, perhaps when little Buttermilk grows up, she can use her magical horn to save us all!"

But the fact was, Alexi grimly thought, Pumpkin was probably correct. It could be generations before anyone found them, if ever.

Pumpkin cuddled closer to Caprice, and lay her head down. Buttermilk had finally decided that she could no longer defy sleep, and snuggled back close to her mother. Caprice hummed a little nursery rhyme she knew until the soft breathing of her sister and foal slowed to match the rhythms of sleep.

For a time, Caprice and Alexi sat close, gazing at the stars and the horizon, thinking.

"Alexi?" Caprice was suddenly very serious, almost worried. "When you were all out on your scouting expedition today, did you see any outcroppings of rocks, specifically any mineral deposits? It's important."

Alexi thought for a moment. "To be honest, I did not even think to look. But I do not remember any rocks, just rolling hills of grass. Why is this important?"

"We won't starve, Alexi... not immediately, anyway. But we need more than just grass to live. If our bodies are anything like Earthly animals, we will all need one very important thing, and relatively soon. Salt. All animals need a source of salt, and other minerals too, but salt especially." Caprice leaned closer to Alexi, and spoke more quietly. "In time, this will become a matter of life and death, Alexi. Back when animals lived in the wild on Earth, they would travel hundreds of miles to find an exposed salt source. They would even eat dirt, if it had a high salt content. All of this is an even bigger deal if it is hot, and it seems to be the middle of summer here."

Alexi looked down at the moonlit crowd of newfoals, all comfortably asleep, below. "What happens if we cannot find salt?"

"We will get sick, and eventually we will die. It will take time, but it is inevitable. Salt and minerals make everything work in a body; your heart cannot even beat without a precise balance of salts. That is why a herd of wild horses in ancient times would go hundreds of miles to lick rocks or eat dirt. Back when we still had a natural world, of course." Caprice nuzzled Alexi. "It's so important, it would be worth going any distance to find it. If you cannot find a source nearby, we will have to travel until we find a mineral deposit, or we die trying."

"Caprice - how long do we have?"

"I don't honestly know... for us. I remember reading that a human can go several months without salt, but it isn't pleasant. I don't know how much salt we need, but I do know that the hotter it is, the more salt is needed. So I would guess anywhere from two to six months before we become too sick to cope, or start to die off. The more we sweat, though, the worse we'll get, and I was certainly sweating today, and I know you were as well." Caprice licked Alexi's forehead. "Salt! I'll just lick you." She grinned.

"Promises, promises." Alexi grinned. "So, what you are saying is that we have some number of months to find salt, but if we cannot, eventually we will die, is this correct?"

"Pretty much. Sorry. And..." Caprice paused, but went on "We probably need more nutrition than Earth horses, because of our big brains. So keep a look out for anything else edible - berries, wild carrots, anything. There must be a reason that Equestrians eat such a varied diet. I suspect we need a complex diet for a number of reasons. I could be wrong, but..."

"No. Caprice is smart pony. I have no doubt of your wisdom in this. I depend on you. Alexi could never try to do this without his Caprice." Alexi kissed Caprice for a long time. "Someday, perhaps, we will have a nice honeymoon, minun rakas vaimoni."

"You'll need to wait for me to come into season, silly stallion." Caprice snuggled close to Alexi; Pumpkin and Buttermilk were already sound asleep. "I'm not like human girls."

"Hallelujah to that, my Caprice."

Five: Pool Of Knowledge

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By Chatoyance

Five: Pool Of Knowledge

Alexi had decided that another expedition would be useful, now that he knew what to look for. He felt a little foolish for the previous day's journey in that he had essentially taken half of the herd on a wild goose chase just to keep them from fussing. Today, he made sure that his scouting group understood that the previous journey was a "general reconnaissance mission", ever so standard for such situations; and if they just happened to imagine that he was following some established Bureau protocol, well, he certainly wasn't going to disabuse them of that.

Indeed, Alexi was beginning to suspect that the less he said the more he would be accepted as an authority; with effort he began to restrain his normally gregarious nature to serve that end. It was not easy for him; back in his days at the Bureau he had enjoyed saying silly things and imitating actors saying well known lines. Now it was necessary for him to imitate the 'strong and silent' type, a role he was very uncomfortable with.

Caprice had suggested that what he needed to discover was any kind of mineral deposit. She had explained that he should look for either outcroppings of rock, or areas where the grass could not grow, where the soil was relatively barren. In the initial foray the previous day, he had seen no sign of such things at all. However, there seemed to be one direction that had what just might be mountains. If they were mountains, they must be very very far away. Whatever they were, they were just barely visible, faded by what must be a great deal of intervening atmosphere. It was at least a definable direction, and one that hopefully might have some chance of finding rock outcroppings.

Alexi was also looking for any kind of plant other than grass; he intended to bring back samples of anything novel that they might find. To that end he had asked members of his group to act as carriers; collected specimens would be held in their mouths until the group returned. Once again, ponies stood on the hills around 'base camp', to act as a living beacon of color so that the scout group would not become lost out in the endless, repetitive landscape.

Caprice, for her part, had decided that the most important thing she should be doing is collecting information. While nopony in her family had experienced any of the training available at a Conversion Bureau, the other newfoals doubtless had. Despite Caprice's own efforts to learn as much as she could about Equestria and being a pony, there was surely much knowledge that could help them, if she could but bring it all together.

Before Alexi had started out, Caprice had asked him to address the population, and request that anypony that considered themselves an expert on anything about Equestria remain at camp and work with her. Only a few from his group remained; the majority of those newfoals that had scouted with him the previous day were restless individuals, eager for action, but having no concept of what action to take.

After Alexi's group had set out in the direction of the seeming mountain, Caprice set about organizing a discussion, in order to determine what anypony might know, and if any knowledge they might have would help.

"Alright! Thank you, and let's begin." Those newfoals not standing on the hills to use their colorful bodies as beacons had formed a loose circle, laying down on the flat land between the hills that was Base Camp, and it was here that Caprice addressed them.

"My name is Caprice, and I am Alexi's mare. I have been assigned to pool our knowledge in order to help Alexi make the best possible decisions in order to assist our survival." Caprice smiled to herself; using words like 'assigned' helped lend additional support to Alexi's position as leader - she was helping him even now! "I was involved in the study of Equestrian life and biology before my Conversion," She had really just spent a lot of time on the hypernet watching media and visiting online sites; but she actually had studied what she found really hard; that part at least was true. "but there is doubtless much that you can add that will be useful. I want to hear what you have to share, and I want us all to share in that knowledge. The more we know together, the better we can achieve our goals."

A young roan earth pony lifted her hoof and interrupted "What... what exactly are our goals? I'm still not sure what we are doing out here!" Another newfoal, a sea-green unicorn, seconded this "What exactly is going on here? I mean, I thought we would be placed in a nice village or something!" Many others also seemed confused. Perhaps not everypony had fully understood the events of yesterday.

"Very well, perhaps the first order of business would be to reiterate just where we are and why." Caprice sighed; she really thought this much had already been made clear. "Yesterday we were transported here by the Royal Unicorn Corps. As far as we can tell, they were probably supposed to build us a village to live in using the contents of those crates over there." Caprice pointed with a hoof towards the twenty large crates, still unopened.

"We were betrayed, however. A nasty little pegasus named Windfeather somehow ended up in charge. He doesn't like newfoals like us; he apparently felt that we would spoil Equestria somehow. So he arranged to have us lost out in the middle of nowhere. I saw him order the Unicorn Corps to abandon the crates and leave us behind; I do not think they had any part in this. They argued with him, but he pulled rank or somesuch." Caprice was having to shout, so that the entire crowd could hear her, this made her throat hurt a little.

"So this isn't their fault, and this isn't anything to do with Celestia or the crown. We have been stuck out here by the actions of one pony bigot acting alone. But that is not going to stop us. We were going to colonize some place, so we might as well colonize here; eventually we will be found, it is our plan to make sure that when that day arrives, we will have something great to show for our time here." Caprice felt anger rise in her.

"Let's show that damnable Windfeather that newfoals are true Equestrians! When we are finally found, let's show those who find us that we are just as good, just as loyal, just as real as any native of Equestria. That is what we are doing here. Alexi is out there now, looking for resources we can use. We here today are putting our heads together to figure out the most Equestrian way to do things. So, who knows what? Let's hear some areas of expertise!" Caprice needed to catch her breath, this also let the newfoals digest what she had said.

For a while there was relative silence, with some ponies talking among themselves. Finally, a young golden-yellow, green-maned earth pony stallion spoke up: "I know about farming!" The stallion looked down for a moment then corrected his statement. "Well, gardening, really, but the principle is the same."

Caprice needed to keep the ball rolling. "That's good, what kind of things do you know?"

"I used to grow things on the roof of the apartment mall I lived in. Fruit, some peppers, a few onions, some herbs, that sort of thing." The stallion looked a little embarrassed to be the center of attention now. "By the way, I'm Sweetpepper. You know... because of the colors?" A few in the crowd chuckled at the green mane and golden yellow coat. "That, and I really do like yellow bell peppers. Anyway, I am really glad I ended up as an earth pony, because of what they can do!"

This was interesting. Maybe this could be helpful. "Then hello, Sweetpepper! Tell us, what exactly can earth ponies do? Did you receive any special training, are there any special abilities you could share with the group?" Caprice was personally intrigued; she herself was an earth pony.

"Yes! I had a week of training all about earth pony powers. We've got all kinds of magic to us; it isn't just unicorns and pegasai that can do cool stuff." This was news; most humans generally figured that ending up as an earth pony was the worst type of the three Equestrian races to be.

"Please tell everyone what earth ponies can do, Sweetpepper. I think this could be useful to many in the group." Caprice was very eager to hear what he had to say, but she didn't dare show that eagerness, lest she lose control of the discussion.

The golden yellow stallion stood up and nervously looked around. "My instructor was from Equestria! Her name was Leafshine. She told me that being an earth pony was a wonderful thing." Sweetpepper scraped the grass with a hoof. "She said that where unicorns had really obvious magic, magic that you could see, that was all dramatic and stuff... that we earth ponies had subtle magic, but that our magic was just as real, and maybe even more powerful."

Caprice was very interested indeed, now, and she was not alone.

"Earth ponies give off magic, she said. Constantly, all around them. She called it an 'aura' of magic, like a field, like radiation, you know? We can't cast spells, not like unicorns, but we sort of are a magic spell all the time. Like... you know how, back on Earth, there was all that stuff about how, if you talked to plants, and sang to them, and felt love for them, they would grow faster and better? A lot of people thought that was silly, and maybe it was back there, but for Equestrian ponies, it actually works!" Sweetpepper was excited to be talking about something he was interested in, and his fear was fading away.

"We can make things grow, just by caring about them! Just by being near and tending whatever we want to grow. All that goofy stuff about singing to make things grow, or being nice to plants actually works for us." The stallion stepped further out into the circle of sitting newfoals. "Leafshine had this sunflower, in a pot, right? It was just a sprout. Every day, she'd water it and talk to it, and she'd even sing it a lullaby at night. That sucker was four feet tall in just three days. In THREE days. Seriously. Just like that. It was amazing! I swear that I could actually see the plant growing sometimes."

Caprice found this astonishing. "Is there some special thing that earth ponies have to do, to make this ability work?"

"Sort of." Sweetpepper looked suddenly shy. "You kinda have to really care. It's like love, she said. You have to really care about the plant you are tending to like it was a favorite person. You have to put the plant into your heart, she said. I know it sounds silly, but I'm telling you, that sunflower went from a seedling to four feet by the middle of the week! Occasionally she'd even pet it, like it was a cat or something." Sweetpepper backed up, nervous again to be the center of attention. "She said that an earth pony can make even the worst ground grow anything. And she said that just being nearby makes growing things grow better, whether we even try or not! I never got to experiment on my own garden, because I got shipped out, but... I really did see that flower do that." Sweetpepper sat down again and tried to make himself as small as possible.

"Thank you Sweetpepper, that was really useful!" Caprice looked around. "Now we know that we can grow food easily to enrich our diet. Now we know how to do this, and we know how earth pony magic works. Very good, Sweetpepper. In the future, I want you to try to train other earth ponies to use these abilities. Can you do that?"

Sweetpepper nodded. He was a little shy, but he also clearly felt proud now.

"Let's hear it for Sweetpepper!" Caprice, resting on her elbows, started clopping her front hooves together. The other ponies in the circle joined in; for the few standing ponies, they stomped their hooves. Sweetpepper grinned.

"Now, who knows anything about unicorn magic? Anypony?" Caprice felt happy, this actually seemed to be working out fairly well.

* * * * *

The scouting party had gone as far as they dared to travel by midday. That was the distance limit Alexi had set; at noon, they would turn around. The herd was hot and tired from trudging in the summer sun, and everypony was sweating profusely. Alexi thought of the salt issue again, all this walking in the heat was not without risks.

They had come to a small pond, no more than sixty feet across. The water was clear, pure, and clean. Alexi decided it might be a good idea to cool everypony down. "Hey! Let's get nice and cooled off! We have a long walk back. Everypony in the water! We've come a long ways, we deserve some fun now!"

He hadn't needed to say much; some ponies were already entering the water. It was hot and the water was very inviting. Soon the pond was full of happy, splashing ponies.

One of the scouting party, a violet unicorn colt who had named himself 'Lightning Flash' - he looked forward to the day he would get his magic to work, and dreamed of being some sort of pony wizard - had been following Alexi closely the whole journey. It seemed that Lightning needed some kind of father figure, and Alexi had been a natural target for that need.

In the water, Lightning was being playful and began using his front hooves to splash gouts of water at Alexi, dousing him. Alexi instinctively reared up in the water and held his front hooves up to protect his face, perhaps for the moment remembering having once had hands.

Suddenly Lightning froze in mid splash. "Coool...." Lightning turned his head to the side and shouted. "Hey, everybody! look at this!"

Alexi opened his eyes, still balanced on his hind legs. It was easier to stand on his back legs with the water supporting some of his weight. In front of him, the remains of the last splash hung in the air. It was bizarre, and Alexi had to blink several times to make sure what he was seeing was really there.

Around his upraised front hooves, tiny specks of water hung in the air. As he watched, one of the larger drops slowly fell, like a feather would fall, through the speckles of mist hanging motionless. The large droplet reached some sort of invisible boundary just inches from his hoof, and then fell normally into the pool.

By now, most of the nearby ponies were still and watching carefully. Alexi slowly moved his right hoof. The tiny, hovering specks of water moved with his hoof for a while, only reluctantly pulling away; the tiniest of them remained hovering in the air, while the larger ones began to fall slowly into the pool.

Alexi lowered his right hoof. Once again, tiny beads of water fell from the suspended clot of particles, dripping into the pond. But the very tiniest droplets, small as pinpricks, shone and gleamed, hanging in the air over the surface of the water.

"How... how did you do that?" Lightning's eyes were huge with wonder.

The tiny, shining specks of water were shrinking as they dried out, evaporating in the heat. As they shank to nothing, they winked out, like dying stars, first one by one, then more and more. Soon the small mass of hovering water spray was entirely gone, vanished into the summer air.

Alexi raised both of his front hooves again, close together this time. He struggled to balance on his hind legs, extending his wings to help him stay upright. "Splash some more, only try to make tiny drops! Splash carefully! Come on!"

Lightning began splashing water with one hoof, trying to do as Alexi asked. That only sent a jet of water to hit Alexi in the eye. "No! That isn't working. Try smacking the water to send splashes up!" Lightning followed Alexi's direction, eventually using both hooves when it seemed to be working. Though many useless large drops were made, a small glob of tiny, suspended particles began to accumulate around Alexi's front hooves. Eventually the suspended droplets filled an area about the size of a volleyball.

'Enough!" Alexi pulled his hooves apart. The hovering blob of water drops hung in the air, as before.

Alexi, still balancing - his hind legs were becoming tired - gave the blob a push with his left hoof. The rough hovering ball of shining droplets moved slowly away, towards Lightning Flash. The violet unicorn raised a front leg and poked at the orb of water specks. His hoof went through it, and when he pulled his leg back, it left a hole in the mass, which now looked like a sparkling doughnut.

"That's pretty awesome, dude. Seriously amazing." Lightning tried licking the floating water specks. "It tastes like water. It's just water, only in the air." By now, just about everypony had crowded around to see the curious spectacle.

"Maybe... maybe it has something to do with..." The voice came from a bright blue pegasus mare to Alexi's left.

"What, what do you know about this?" Alexi let himself down. It felt good to be on all fours again. He folded his wings to his side.

"I was told that we would get training in Equestria, that they didn't have classes yet on our side, but that there would be traveling instructors that would help us..." The mare trailed off, as she raised a hoof out of the water to bat the evaporating ball of tiny droplets before it vanished entirely. The ball moved away from her push.

"Please, tell me everything. I need to know." Alexi's tone was insistent, the mare looked back at him.

"They told all of us pegasai that we'd be taught how to actually be a pegasus after we got to Equestria. They didn't have a pegasus training program in place yet on the earth side. They said there would be Earthside training next year." The mare tried moving the water of the pool itself around, but nothing out of the ordinary happened; apparently whatever magic this was only affected very small particles in the air. "All I was told was that pegasai had the job of controlling the weather, and we'd learn how to do that in Equestria. Teachers would come to our towns and instruct us in groups." She put her hoof down, back into the pond. "That's all I know."

Alexi considered what the mare had said. That promised education wasn't going to happen; nopony in Equestria knew where they were, or probably, even that they had been lost at all. "Is there any pegasus here that has had any training in actually being a pegasus?"

The ponies looked around; the pegasai shook their heads, feeling lost.

Alexi took that in. "Alright, then. Some time in the distant past, ancient pegasai must have had to figure out everything they do now. We can do that too! Look at what we just learned today - we apparently have some kind of control over water! That is amazing!" Alexi grinned. "Before we head home, I want every pegasus to try to catch water on their hooves. All the non-pegasai, you get to splash our asses silly! Well? What are you waiting for? WATER FIGHT!"

The pool erupted as the entire mass of ponies began splashing each other as fiercely as they possibly could. It wasn't much, perhaps, but it was a victory - the herd had learned something about what it meant to be Equestrian, and after half a day of marching in the heat, worried and unsure of the future, a victory was a victory.

Six: Little Schoolhouse On The Infinite Prairie

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By Chatoyance

Six: Little Schoolhouse On The Infinite Prairie

Caprice studied the carefully arranged selection of plants that Alexi's scouting party had returned with. Sweetpepper, the golden-yellow earth pony that had been so knowledgeable lay nearby on the flattened grass. The wide space between hills that was 'Base Camp' had so completely been pressed down by hooves and bodies that it had become a floor of packed stems.

"Hmmm. This one here -" Sweetpepper waggled a hoof to indicate a feathery-leaved plant specimen "looks like it could be wild carrot. If so, that could be a wonderful addition to our diet. I never appreciated carrots the way I do now as a pony." This seemed to be almost universal; the different senses of the equinoids found many foods strikingly more delicious than they were to the human tongue. Carrots, for example, tasted both sweet and spicy to Equestrians - such that they were considered a favorite treat at the Conversion Bureaus.

"Of course, I can't be sure, and if I am wrong..." Sweetpepper looked unhappy. "Well, the fact is that wild carrot and poison hemlock look similar, at least according to what I have read on the hypernet. I've never seen either for real, of course, because, well, Earth doesn't have them anymore. So I'm working from ancient images here, and old articles."

Lightning, the violet unicorn colt that had taken to following Alexi around, sniffed at the plant. "Hey - when I was at the Bureau, I remember one of the holos they showed us said that 'within the boundaries of Equestria, there is no sickness and nothing is poisonous.'" The colt gave another sniff at the plant. "But then I overheard a native -one of the teachers, right?- and he talked about having a cold once. So maybe the holo was wrong. But maybe he had the cold on the Earth side or something."

"Leafshine told me something similar." Sweetpepper looked up at Caprice. "She said that inside the actual boundaries of Equestria, nothing was poison. You could eat anything that grew without worry. But she also said not everything was tasty, and some things could give you a stomach ache - just not kill you." The earth pony pushed at the leaves of the suspect plant with an idle hoof. "Outside Equestria, though, just about anything could happen. She said that there were endless dangers. I wish I knew what being 'outside' or 'inside' Equestria really meant."

Caprice was puzzled. "I thought all of this IS Equestria. I thought once we stepped through the Barrier, everything was Equestria." She looked around at the small group assembled to examine the fruits of Alexi's expedition. "Anypony? What exactly is... Equestria?"

"I... might be able to answer that." It was the bright blue pegasus mare that had explained the lack of pegasus education to Alexi. She had started calling herself 'Droplet' since then; the experience of discovering something about pegasus abilities had meant something to her. "I... kind of paid a lot of attention to the holos. I suppose I was kind of a nerd, back when I was human. I really wanted to know everything I could. It didn't seem like anypony else did, though."

Lightning looked down, embarrassed, he had spent more time chatting with a girl in the classroom than actually paying attention to the instructional holos during his time at the Bureau. He was not alone in this reaction.

"Go on, Droplet, what do you know?" Caprice gave the mare a smile.

"Well, the holo was kind of confusing, really. Equestria is the whole 'world' or whatever this place is, yet it also seems to just be those lands that are under the direct control of the princesses. Their... 'country' more or less. You see, there are these places that they don't control -I don't know how big those lands are, or where, or anything like that- but the places they don't control are dangerous. It's like they have dominion over everything, except for certain areas where they don't."

"Can you elaborate, even a little?" Caprice felt even more confused now.

"Ok. There's this place called the Everfree forest, right? They showed it on the holo, made a big deal about it." Droplet nervously flapped her wings. "Inside the forest, it was like our Earth used to be. Plants and animals grew and lived on their own, without any work by ponies to make it happen. Even the weather worked like on Earth, all by itself. That was described like it was really scary and wrong, like that's not the way normal Equestria works."

"So, inside Equestria, we ponies have to make Nature work, but in places like this forest, it works on its own. Is that it?"

"I think so, Caprice. But in the Everfree, there were also dangerous beasts -monsters and creatures that could kill or eat us. The basic message was 'don't go in there'." Droplet pulled her wings tight against her body.

"Then we have a way to tell whether or not we are inside or outside of the princesses dominion, and that will tell us if we can eat anything we want or not!" Sweetpepper seemed very proud of his thought. "If we have weather happen, then we have to be careful, but... if weather never happens, then everything is safe!"

"So far," Caprice looked up at the perfect, clear sky, slowly turning to evening "there's been no sign of any weather. I haven't seen even one cloud. Anypony? Has anypony seen a cloud?"

Droplet, Sweetpepper, and the others of the small group looked at each other; nobody had seen a cloud, the sky had been a constant, empty blue.

"We've only been here two days, though." Droplet had a point. "Well, going on three, I suppose, if you count our arrival at Welcome Town."

"If only they'd brought back the roots of this one, I think I could tell you for sure." Sweetpepper poked once more at the suspect plant.

So far they had identified five of the six different plants that Alexi's team had brought them. Dandelion was easily recognized; on the way back the scouts had found a large patch hidden behind a hill; after an impromptu feast, there was little to bring back to base camp. Sweetpepper had identified one of the plants as a plantain leaf; he had suggested that this was a treasure of a find, because of the root vegetable underneath.

One of the plants Sweetpepper felt pretty sure was celery, another excellent find. Daisies were found; this was a treat that most of the ponies recognized from their meals at the Bureau, along with dandelion. There was one plant that nopony could identify; tiny leaves on a short, slightly woody stalk. Alexi had found it entirely by accident. "I'm sorry... it's just not something I've ever seen." Sweetpepper sniffed the tiny, wilted sprout. "Not even on the hypernet."

Once again, Alexi, Caprice, Pumpkin and Buttermilk spent their night on a hill overlooking Base Camp. This was their second night since the abandonment, yet they felt in reasonable spirits. Alexi's scouting trips had found many useful things; they now had at least four new plants they could feel safe about eating, and two others to consider. They had found something fundamental about how to be a pegasus, something that thirty-two of the ponies thought personally important. Although the pegasai had no idea as to how the ability to make small globs of floating water specks might be useful, it was a beginning. "At least we can water the crops, if you don't mind it taking all day!" Alexi had joked.

Among the 152 ponies that made up their herd, 32 were pegasai, and 41 were unicorns, including little Buttermilk. The remaining 79 were all earth ponies. Caprice had a theory about that.

"Remember how it has been described that the Equestrian races make up a kind of caste system?" Caprice was laying slightly apart from both Alexi and Pumpkin, the night felt warm, and it had become less comfortable to cuddle. "Earth ponies, with their ties to the land are kind of like terrestrial peasants; growing and harvesting food. The unicorns are like the middle class, doing all the fiddly work thanks to their general ability to levitate and manipulate objects. Pegasai are like lesser nobles or something; they make the weather, supposedly. Finally the Princesses rule."

"Speaking of the unicorns, minun rakkaani, did you have any luck unlocking the secrets of magic today?" Alexi yawned, as princess Luna's moon rose into the sky.

"No. Not a one of them knew anything useful. Some had been trained in basic levitation; they could move small objects. In the Bureau, they had practiced with cups and bites of food and such. One of our unicorns could open and close doors really well back then. But as for doing spells, nothing. It may be that the Earth government deliberately requested that spells not be taught Earthside; I can see some reasons for that." Caprice grimaced; Buttermilk was hungry again, and sometimes her little teeth indicated her eagerness. Caprice tried to sooth the tiny foal; the little unicorn finally settled into a less aggressive suckling, one with less sharpy-ouchness involved.

"I am sorry to interrupt; please continue my most lovely of mares." Alexi knew how to sweet talk a girl, Caprice thought happily.

"Anyway, if Equestrian society is built on three pony races that each depend on a unique and utterly necessary ability set, then the distribution we are seeing here makes a lot of sense. You need more farmers than anything else in an agricultural society, skilled craftsponies and makers are next most important, and the group you need the fewest number would be... well your group, actually." Caprice rested her head on the knees of her own outstretched forelegs.

Alexi swished his tail to cool his own underside. The air was very moist, so the hot summer night made parts of his body feel sticky. "What should I lead my troops to do tomorrow, then, Caprice?"

"I've been thinking about that, actually." Buttermilk moved to Teat Number Two and proceeded to chow down, once again Caprice grimaced slightly, this time giving the little foal a bit of a bop on the head with her nose. "If she keeps biting me, I don't know what I'm going to do. I feed her whenever she's hungry; it's just that she's always so eager when it's feeding time. I'm starting to get sore."

"Sis, I've got an idea about that." Pumpkin had been laying very quietly; Caprice had thought her asleep. "I had a game I liked before I... left home. It was about raising horses. Kind of weird, huh? I ended up being one, and I'm going to have one." Pumpkin thought for a moment. "Well sort of, anyway. We're sort of like horses... more or less. But anyway, the horses in the game always fed their babies standing up. You always feed Buttermilk laying down. Maybe it's harder for her or something."

Caprice considered the concept. "I don't want to move now, but I'll try it. Next time, I'll try feeding Buttermilk while standing. It's worth a shot, anyway. Thanks, Pumpkin."

"Sis, call me sis!" Pumpkin needed so much to feel like she belonged.

"Of course, dear sister! Thank you sis." Caprice smiled at Pumpkin. It was such a small thing, just a word, but it seemed to mean so very much to her. Pumpkin lay her head down again, but Caprice could see the edge of a happy smile on Pumpkin's muzzle.

"Anyway, Alexi," Caprice turned back to her stallion. "I've been thinking about a lot of things and there is something I want you to check on tomorrow, and everyday, actually. I want you to keep an eye on the water level of the ponds and lakes."

"Do you think we will run out of water?"

"Let's just say I kind of have a concern. We have lots of water, now, but... where did all that water come from? Are there underground springs or... was the water just there when the land was created? It could be important. Just keep an eye out, OK?" Caprice gave Buttermilk a few loving licks to make up for the nose bump.

"Anything for my peach pony. And what will you be doing tomorrow, if I may ask?"

"I am going to try to start a basic magic class for the unicorns, I think. They need to start learning how to use those horns of theirs. If anything is going to help us in the long term, it is going to be their potential. Unicorns got us here, unicorns are probably what can get us out... or get things done that we need done."

"Always thinking ahead is my Caprice." Alexi rolled onto his side, the grass felt cool in the warm night air. "You are the real power behind the throne of Alexi the First." Alexi's big grin was met by one from Caprice in return.

* * * * *

Day after day, for the following several weeks, a routine of sorts emerged for the 152 citizens of Base Camp. The pegasai spent time each day in two classes; Spray Ball Making and Flying Lessons. Since nopony actually knew how to fly as a pegasus, the latter was a bit of an issue, but it was made up for with understanding brought from the human world.

Many among the ponies had some idea of the basics of flight and aerodynamics. One of the unicorns had worked, for a time, building government surveillance drones; he gave several lectures on the concept of lift, the dangers of stalling, and even the concept of flaring during a gliding landing. One thing that bothered him, and several other of the newfoals, was that flight should not be physically possible at all; clearly magic of some sort was involved.

The wings of pegasai were vastly too small to support them using the physics known to Earth, and even if their wings had been some horrific size, dozens of feet across, their muscles would never have been able to provide enough power. There was concern that the laws of aerodynamics themselves might be fundamentally different in Equestria; and if so, all the lectures on terrestrial flight would be essentially useless.

In the end, they would need to learn from scratch, on their own, through experimentation.

The first efforts involved gliding. Pegasai would climb to the top of a grassy hill, open wide their wings, and run forward trying to gain what lift they could. Although they suffered a few tumbles, and a few bruises, they were fortunate, and nopony was seriously injured. In time almost all the pegasai could glide down the hills, and began to have a great deal of fun with it; Caprice, watching Alexi's 'Flight Team' told him that it looked like laughing children playing with sleds on snowy hills from old media, climbing back up and gliding down again, over and over. Alexi had put Droplet, the pegasus mare that had helped when they had originally discovered water glob making, in charge of the flyers, freeing him for other things.

Caprice enlisted the would-be 'Pony Wizard' Lightning to lead the unicorns in magic practice. Here the goal was simply to get anything to happen at all. Half of the unicorns could not even cause their horns to glow; of those that could, only a few could lift small objects into the air.

One intriguing solution to the ability gap had been developed; one unicorn capable of engaging their horn would touch horns with another, incapable pony. The unable unicorn tried to concentrate on the feeling of energy produced by the more capable partner, this seemed to help them 'find' whatever it was they needed to do inside themselves. Caprice had gotten the idea remembering how little Buttermilk had almost bathed in the arcane energies of their transport from Welcome Town; clearly the horns could act as sensors in some fashion, as well as transmitters of energy.

Sweetpepper showed an innate talent for teaching the earth ponies how to garden. He was calm, patient, and very enthusiastic about making things grow. Alexi's scouting missions brought back more and more specimens; digging with their hooves, they were able to return with mostly intact plants that were assembled into a growing tiny farm.

The earth ponies first ate a patch of grass very low to the soil, then began to dig furrows with their hooves. It was slow and difficult work, but in time they had prepared a small plot of earth. The intact plants that Alexi's scouts brought back were carefully replanted, and watered using mouthfulls taken from a nearby pond. The suspect wild carrots had indeed turned out to be carrots, and this brought much joy to all of the ponies; their diet was gradually getting better.

Using the skills that Sweetpepper taught them, the earth ponies had begun to duplicate Leafshine's sunflower stunt; the transplanted celery, dandelions, plantains, wild carrots and daisies grew strong and tall within days. They also grew astonishingly larger than the samples they had come from, an effect that left the earth ponies both proud and filled with wonder at their developing abilities.

But something odd had been happening all this time, unnoticed, and it was only discovered because some of the scouting ponies wanted to travel again in the direction of the seeming, distant, mountain.

The faint mountain wasn't there.

Alexi and his scouts scanned the horizon, checked the angle relative to the pile of still unopenable crates, but there was no sign that any mountain, however faint, had ever existed. The same was true for the possible distant forest that had been noticed early on. In fact, the horizon held nothing at all now, nothing but a white haze.

That is when they noticed, for the first time, that the sky was no longer truly blue. The sky was now a faded shade of what it had been. Indeed, it was almost white. This had happened so gradually that nopony had noticed. There were no clouds; it was just that the entirety of the sky was pale, faded, and covered by a perfectly even white haze.

The answer was found in the ponds; Alexi had been keeping track of their depth as Caprice had suggested, and already they were half full and dropping. The ground was becoming dry, and as the third week since arrival ended, it was clear that the grass was drying out too. Patches of brown now interrupted the previously lush green, and the hot summer was increasingly becoming unbearable.

"Alexi..." Caprice was very worried. "The land is dying."

Seven: The Land Above

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By Chatoyance

Seven: The Land Above

It had become clear that all the newfoals were in danger. The abundant grass was drying out, gradually turning from a lush green to a faded brown. The many ponds and small lakes were now less than half their original depth, drying mud ringing their shorelines. The heat was unbearable; the humidity only made it worse.

The crystal clear, blue sky had been replaced with a white expanse, the stars no longer visible at night. The moon shone only as a fuzzy patch of dim light. It was the one-month anniversary of their arrival at Base Camp, but nopony was celebrating.

Frustration at the situation had turned toward the pegasai. It was their job to control the weather, somehow, and both fear and the heat had brought out the worst in many of the ponies.

"You splash in pools and you glide down hills! While you are playing like fillies, everything is going to hell!" It was a fairly upset topaz and white earth pony named Goldrivet; as a human he had been in the corporate navy. He stood nose to nose with poor Droplet, the leader of the 'Flight Team', yelling at her.

"We're doing the best we can! Nopony told us how to be what we are, we're trying to learn as fast as we possibly can!" Droplet's golden eyes looked on the verge of tears; she really had been trying her best to find out what pegasai could do. Goldrivet's anger mirrored her own at the lack of success she had achieved.

"Please, everypony! We've still got our crops; we're still growing food; and even if the grass tastes dry there is still a lot of it. We just need to give them time!" Sweetpepper always tried to be a peacemaker, but this time the green-maned earth pony was not being listened to.

A huge, red unicorn stallion loomed over the more delicately built Sweetpepper "Have you looked at your precious little crops, you pathetic gelding? Look at them! They're wilting, foal!"

Sweetpepper was taken aback by this "I am NOT a gelding, and I don't see why this needs to be personal, I was only trying to help."

"I don't see you unicorns doing anything!" It was a roan mare pegasus, upset at the attack on Sweetpepper.

"It isn't OUR job to control the weather, it's YOURS! So DO something about it!" The muscular, red unicorn began to dig at the matted, dry grass with a hoof. It almost looked like he was getting ready to charge.

"ENOUGH!" Alexi flared his white wings, braking from his glide down from the hill that he and Caprice considered 'home'. "BICKERING LIKE HUMANS IS NOT GOING TO HELP ANYPONY!"

In some deep way, this shocked the crowd; the word 'human' had not been used in weeks. The mention brought back memories of their blackened, dead world; of endless slums and continent-spanning ruined cities. In this normally green and unspoiled world, 'human' felt like the worst insult possible.

Alexi stood tall, his hooves firmly planted on the dry, flattened grass. "Yes, we are in trouble. Of that there is no doubt. It is time for action; study and practice has been VERY useful, but it has gotten us only so far." Alexi nodded at Droplet and smiled, the blue pegasus mare sniffed. "Today, I Alexi, will fly up as high as I can go, and see what can be done. If it is the job of a pegasus to control the weather, it is clear that this job cannot be done down here on the ground!"

Hearing this, Caprice began to immediately trot down the hill, feeling worried.

"I will go with you!" Droplet stepped away from Goldrivet, toward Alexi. "I'm sure I am not alone, either!" Only a few of the Flight Team pegasai echoed her sentiment; gliding was one thing, but the fear of falling from a great height was another.

Alexi spread his wings as he stood. "I tell you honestly that I do not know what to do once I get up there. But I will try everything and anything I can, perhaps something will work." The newfoals were listening, and they had stopped arguing. "If... something should happen, Caprice will lead you. Caprice is my peach princess; let her be yours!" With that, Alexi flapped his wings, pushing up from the ground, struggling to maintain balance in the air. It was tiring, but he had tried such a take off several times over the past few weeks, and had managed to get nearly thirty feet up, before needing to glide down again. This time, he had a new notion to try.

"Alexi!" Caprice had finally made it to where Alexi had been standing; for the first time she was angry to be a mere earth pony. Why was he doing this? Why did it have to be him? She knew the reason, of course, but in the moment she did not want to face it. Alexi had been made the leader. This was a job for a leader.

Alexi drove his wings powerfully against the humid air, twenty feet, twenty five; his muscles ached and soon he would be at his limit. I really should have done a gliding take off from the top of a hill he thought But no, Alexi has to be dramatic, like big media star. Alexi quickly went into a glide, as he had many attempts before, but this time he angled his wings slightly, as if he were flaring to land. It was tricky to get the right balance, but his glide became very shallow, and this gave his muscles time to rest.

When he reckoned that he was down to about fifteen feet from the ground, Alexi began pumping his wings again, climbing once more. The forward motion he had gained seemed to aid his ascent, making him feel all the more foolish for his wasteful vertical lift off. He would need all the energy his new flesh could provide to achieve his goal; to climb above the haze.

If being on the ground was useless, then being in the air was all that was left. Perhaps, once he was above the whiteness that hid the blue sky, some hidden magic would be revealed, or some new power. It wasn't much to go on, but it was all he had; something had better work, and soon.

Below him, Alexi could see Droplet and several other pegasai trying to follow; they made a decent height but then ran out of strength, forced to glide down again. He wished he could somehow tell them to try a gliding start, and the trick of angling wings to gain a shallow glide with which to rest, but he was too far away now.

Alexi repeated the process over and over, pumping to gain altitude, using shallow gliding to rest. He was now easily over fifty feet up, above the survival limit if he fell. The unicorn that had lectured them on Earthly flight had made a big point of that; fifty feet was the terrestrial limit for any reasonable hope for survival. Alexi did not believe in miracles, so he knew his life was on the line. Then again, maybe things were different in Equestria. Alexi fervently hoped so.

He was flying in a circle around the four hills that made up the borders of 'Base Camp'. The hundred and fifty-two ponies below looked more and more like colorful dots against the tan grass. The lakes and ponds shone white, reflecting the haze. Alexi could no longer tell his height; he only knew that it was terrifying.

Alexi was gliding now with great speed, he could tell that much, and the wind howled through his ears, bending them back. The forward speed helped, it provided more and more lift, which helped his aching wing muscles when he returned to flapping. If it were not so frightening, if he truly knew what he was doing, Alexi imagined that all of this would probably be a great deal of fun. This was true flight, like a bird, the wind on his face, the lift in his wings; just pegasus and air, working together. It felt like he was somehow making love to the sky itself.

The heat began to lessen, the higher he climbed. Now his abundant sweat was starting to cool him, and he dared to look above; the haze seemed closer, but it was difficult to tell. His wing muscles felt frighteningly tired; he ruefully thought of how awfully sore he was going to be if he survived this madness.

Far below, Alexi could just make out what appeared to be a mass of multicolored candies that had been spilled upon a wide green carpet. Those tiny candies were everypony he currently knew, everypony he might ever know for the rest of his life. Each speck was one of his herd, three of those specks were his family.

Suddenly, Alexi could see nothing but white. In all directions, glowing whiteness stretched, smooth and without any difference wherever his eyes gazed. For a moment, he felt panic, unsure of direction. He briefly worried that he might be pushing himself downward, but quickly realized that this was ridiculous; he could still feel the pull of whatever passed for gravity, and he knew he was fighting it still.

On and on the whiteness went. Exhausted, he tried a shallow glide again, but the total blindness caused by the cool mist panicked him. He knew with his intellect that there were no mountains to crash into, nothing that he could hit, but his gut kept expecting a large brick building to comically pop out of the fog, with no time to avoid it. The white blankness unnerved him so greatly that he could no longer maintain the glide to rest his wings.

Once again Alexi began to flap, pushing the air with all of his might. Faster and faster he pumped his wing muscles, fear overtaking his mind. He just needed to get above it, he just needed to be able to see anything, anything at all.

The mist was so cool, almost cold now. Large drops of water flung off of his white feathers with each stroke as he pushed himself harder and harder. Liquid drizzled down his long neck, and he could feel it flowing down his nose and into his mouth. His breathing was ragged and his heart pounded in his chest like a caged animal, desperate to burst free.

Just as he felt open, raw panic begin to consume him, he was instantly surrounded by brilliant golden light and a pure and perfect blue. Still pumping his wings frantically, a white floor dropped below him, stretching from horizon to horizon.

He was above the layer of haze; above an infinite landscape of seamless, blindingly white fog.

Alexi began to laugh with relief; the astonishingly azure sky filled his eyes and the cold air bitterly stung his nostrils. He could no longer feel any pain in his muscles; everything felt numb. The sun seemed so close, so huge and near, that he half believed that he could stick out his tongue and lick it. The air was now an almost icy cold, and it felt so incredibly good to his overheated, dripping body.

It was at that splendid moment that the first cramp began. It was in his right wing, in the powerful muscles that attached to his back. The pain was unbelievable; the wing clamped itself to his side and would not pull away again. It was the worst muscle cramp he had ever experienced in his life.

Alexi began falling, his left wing outstretched, spinning faster and faster, with no way to stop. His right wing was useless, a searing agony; it felt as if it would shatter itself from its own contraction. He could barely breath, his ribs cramping in sympathy with his wing.

Alexi fell, utterly helpless, a one-winged angel falling from a sky-blue heaven; the only thought remaining in his agonized mind was the regret that Caprice might accidentally see his broken, splattered body smashed against the brown fields below.

Eight: Brume Broom Boom

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By Chatoyance

Eight: Brume Broom Boom

Alexi Venäläinen rolled over in the large foam bed that he prized so much. He had wrangled many deals to acquire it; the frame had come from the ruins of the old Ghirardelli Arcology; though greatly damaged by the bombings after the Collapse, several gangs had made parts of the gargantuan ruin their territory. The location had become both a warzone and a center of commerce for the favela that covered the Bay Area.

What made the remains of Ghirardelli Arcology so valuable was that many areas within the impossibly large structure had been essentially untouched, leaving behind a wealth of pre-Collapse goods and products; most in near perfect condition. This was what the gangs fought to protect their control over, and the politics of dealing with them was complex.

Alexi's bed frame had come from the 37th floor habitation zone 'Archangels' gang, but to get passage for any item from that part of the Arcology, he had needed to make deals with three other gangs first. It had been a massive undertaking that had occupied most of his spare time at Clinic 042 for his first two months. But, as his Russian mother had often told him 'A good bed is worth a thousand troubles.'

In the end, Alexi had not only gotten his frame, but two fine foam mattresses as well, one of which he gave to the physician of Clinic 042, Dr. Roselyn Pastern. It never hurt to be on the good side of the person with the power to hire and fire, but more than that, Alexi liked Dr. Pastern. She was always friendly to him, and for an Undergrounder like Alexi, genuine friendliness went a very, very long way.

Right now, Alexi loved his soft foam mattress very, very much. He hurt all over, and all he wanted to do was sleep. But there would be new Conversions to announce; he had his daily routine of helping Miriam in the kitchen feeding the 'animals' -Alexi's pet name for the conversion applicants and the newfoals alike - and there was always his maintenance chores.

What ever had he done last night to cause him so much discomfort? Alexi tried to remember what day it was, what he might have been up to. Briefly he worried that the Collectors had come, the agents sent by the Unpleasant Man to deal with scoundrels like him. Had there been a fight? Alexi's right wing felt like it had gone through a shredder, he lifted a hand to rub it and found that his hand was a hoof.

Alexi's eyes opened wide. He searched around him, unable to interpret what he was seeing.

He was laying on a soft, springy lumpiness. It felt somewhat like his old foam mattress, and it dawned on him now that he had been dreaming of his old life on Earth. The lumpen surface was limited to a strange shape, irregular and bent, the floor of a deep hole of some kind. The walls were white, as was the floor. He reckoned that he was about twenty feet or so down what appeared to be a white, irregularly shaped pit. Above him morning was just beginning - the sky was still quite dark, but he could see the golden rays of Celestia's sun shining on the edges of the shaft far above. It was this light that let him see his surroundings.

The walls of the shaft sparkled in the morning illumination. Alexi was still mostly laying down, he had brought himself up halfway with his front legs, the better to see. Holding his weight with his left leg, he stretched out his right hoof and prodded the wall of the strange, white, shaft. His hoof left a dent in the wall; he felt almost no resistance at all. Alexi began swiping his hoof left and right, up and down, leaving scrapes on the wall. It carved easily.

When Alexi pulled his hoof back, and examined it, it was dripping, covered with beads of water; the hair on his fetlocks was soaked.

Alexi began scraping away the walls next to the flat, springy surface on which he lay. Spinning his body around as he lay there, he managed to carve out a space next to one edge of his strangely shaped platform. Digging down from the edge of the surface, he saw in the increasing light that his platform was a darker shade than the surrounding white; it was gray and dense.

He stood up, grimacing from the pain in his right wing, and looked around at the shape of his support. The platform was very odd in shape, long here, short there, with odd extensions in strange directions. He let his right wing hang from his side for now, it seemed to hurt less that way. It wasn't broken, but it was very bruised. He remembered it cramping before he fell. That cramp had been the worst pain he had ever felt.

The shape of both the shaft, and the platform itself, began to make sense to Alexi - there was the curve of his own neck, over there was the shape of his own back legs. Another longer curve in the shaft was the form of his left wing, which he had kept extended to try to slow his fall.

The shaft had been made by Alexi's own body slamming down through the white layer of haze, and the platform had been created by the compression of that mist as he fell.

Alexi tried to take that in. He was standing on a platform made of compressed mist.

He remembered all the practice at the ponds making water speck blobs. Mist was a fine suspension of water particles in air. That is all haze was, just water in the air. Tiny, microscopic droplets, bounced around by the molecules of the atmosphere. It had seemed that the finer the suspended particles, the more power the pegasai had over them; back when they practiced in the pond it was only the tiniest specks that remained floating. Nothing could be a finer suspension than this endless white mist.

The platform, his 'bed', was gray. Gray was the color of storm clouds, the darker the wetter. Clouds were just dense mist.

The mechanism by which pegasai controlled the weather burst upon Alexi's mind like the light from the rising sun above him. He had a fairly good idea of what to do; but could he actually accomplish anything?

Alexi struggled to retract his right wing. The muscles were stiff and sore, and felt swollen. He gritted his teeth, a feral grin wrapping around his muzzle. With effort, he managed to bring his wing closer to his body. Now he began to lift it, to work it, trying to increase circulation, trying to loosen the muscles. It hurt, but he would not give up. He had a job to do. He was a procurer, he found things that were needed and supplied them to those that needed them.

Right now the greatest need was for weather, and Alexi had found the secret. He had to fly again. He had to bring the knowledge of making clouds back to Base Camp, back to his Caprice, back to the ponies that depended on him.

Over and over, Alexi slowly, painfully raised and lowered his right wing. Again and again he struggled to bring his wing in tight to his body, to keep it from dragging on the... cloudstuff? He would not give up. He would fly again. He must.

* * * * *

Within herself, Caprice was frantic. Alexi had not returned. He had been gone the entire day and night, and this morning there was still no sign of him. She had sent searching parties out to look for his body, dreading what they might find, but hoping for some kind of survival. He must be out there somewhere, there is no way he could still be flying; no pegasus had such endurance.

Perhaps he had made a soft landing in a pond, far out there. Alexi might be hurt, unable to walk back to Base Camp. If he could walk, he might be lost, unsure of which direction to go. For that possibility Caprice had ordered several of the pegasai to fly in circles around Base Camp to act as a color beacon. She had ponies crowning the four hills, also to act as a beacon. If Alexi was out there, somewhere on the brown plain, the colorful bodies of the herd would show him the way home.

The herd had taken her instructions without complaint. She had not even thought about this until after her plans were in place and there was little to do but wait. Just like that, the herd had instantly obeyed her.

She remembered things she had read about terrestrial horses, long ago; they were matriarchal, once a leader was defined, she was followed without question. It was unusual, then, if Equestrians were kin at all to Earthly equines, for Alexi to have been accepted as a leader at all. Perhaps, it was just natural that she would be listened to in his absence.

What was the connection between Equestria and Earth? Was her body some kind of evolved or modified terrestrial creature, or perhaps...

Suddenly Caprice realized that she was trying to think of anything but her fears over Alexi. He was just... gone. Every scouting party had returned with the same news; no sign of Alexi, dead or alive. Where could he be?

That he had flown upwards, everypony had seen. Droplet and several other members of Flight Team had tried again and again to duplicate Alexi's apparent success; none had managed to climb indefinitely. Caprice had finally demanded they stop after Droplet had partially fallen, weakened by successive attempts to follow Alexi.

That night had been terrible for Caprice. Pumpkin could not help but fear the worst, adding to her own terrors. Caprice could not follow the dictate of remaining removed from the herd; she had remained below, on the packed dry grass with the others, unable to sleep. Buttermilk somehow sensed her grief and worry, and constantly got in her face, trying to lick her muzzle with little foal kisses. Caprice understood that Buttermilk was just trying to comfort her in her own tiny way, but the constant licking became annoying, like having to deal with an overexcited puppy; to her shame she had screamed at the little unicorn, frustration overcoming her.

Buttermilk cowered, unsure of anything, and began to cry; a strange sound halfway between an animal bleat and the sound of a human child. This had broken Caprice's heart, and so she spent most of the night nuzzling and licking her little foal, apologizing endlessly for her moment of anger.

Droplet had been a great help through the night; she had laid close to Caprice, often resting her head on Caprice's back, hugging her in the pony way. She had also helped to sooth the distraught Pumpkin, and kept her distracted, so that Caprice could attend to her foal.

Lightning and Sweetpepper also slept nearby, wanting to be supportive, but not knowing what to do.

The unicorn who had the aerospace background - he went more or less by the nickname 'Boeing' - had tried to offer the possibility of a long, shallow glide; Alexi might simply have a trek longer than a day or two in order to return. It was meager hope, but Caprice had been grateful for the kindness behind it.

Very late in the night, sometime before morning, Caprice looked around her at the herd clustered close by, barely illuminated in the dark by the setting moon. Everypony was asleep it seemed, save herself. She was exhausted and numb, but her worry overrode her body's need for rest. Alexi might already be dead. He might never come back, he might never be found. He could be out there, somewhere in the dark, broken and bleeding, so terribly alone.

She simply could not help herself; softly she prayed to Luna and Celestia, in her mind knowing how foolish she must be, and yet no longer caring. "Please, let Alexi be alright. Please, princesses of the moon and sun, please." she repeated her prayer, over and over again.

* * * * *

The prototype cloud was not much to look at. It was an ovoid mass of compacted mist, roughly the size of a Volkswagen Solarlectric Neobeetle, and it did not look like an earthly cloud at all. For one thing, its edges were strikingly well defined, as if it were a giant mass of cotton, rather than a diffuse patch of fog.

The cloud was now a medium-to-dark gray; the result of Alexi rolling it around the endless field of white mist as if it were a huge snowball. At regular intervals, Alexi had used his hooves with force and packed the amorphous sides down, making the cloud increasingly dense. He began to wonder just how dense it could be made. The custom cloud had many uncanny properties.

He could stand on it, walking across its surface as if it were a large, rounded boulder. He could push it with his hooves, thrusting forward with his wings, to move it wherever he chose. Once placed, it would hang in space, just as the small cloudlets of water spray had in the ponds. Alexi considered the possibility of making floating stairs out of little clouds, allowing the other pegasai to climb up to the white expanse. But this idea was quickly abandoned; it would require an awful lot of individual clouds to make a staircase reach so far into the sky.

Alexi's cloud, after even more rolling and packing, was now quite dark in color. It was a proper little storm cloud, or at the very least it was quite a dark shade of gray. The shape of it was not puffy, it was more like a big round lump than anything else. It did not directly resemble a proper cloud from Earth. His wings tired again, Alexi flew up above his hoofywork and simply let himself drop; he already knew the soft and springy cloudstuff would catch him without risk or danger from the short fall.

As his hooves heavily impacted the dark cloud, his eyes were momentarily blinded and he found his ears ringing. There had been a terrible flash, and a great noise, like a slow explosion. Alexi looked around. What had happened? Was there some new danger? Had war broken out in Equestria?

No, that was silly. War was alien to Equestria. Then what had made the flash and the great boom?

It couldn't be, Alexi thought. But then, physics was clearly different here; he had just rolled up a cloud with his hooves and was now standing on it - worrying about whether lightning could come from that was a bit silly at this point.

Alexi raised his right hoof. He held it suspended for a moment, then plunged it down with as sharp a report as he could manage.

A smaller flash crackled and boomed from under his hooves, he could feel it rattle his bones where he stood. Alexi began to bounce on the cloud, as if it were a trampoline, occasionally giving it a smack with one or two of his hooves. Each time he attacked the small, dark cloud it flashed and boomed, and as he bounced on it he heard the distinctive sound of rain.

Alexi spread wide his wings, sore but functional, and flapped away from the cloud to observe it from the side and below. As he circled the floating raincloud, he could see rain pouring down from it, disappearing through the layer of haze below. As his hoofmade cloud rained, it slowly began to shrink in size, the water content of it draining away to fall through the haze and onto the land far, far below.

Alexi let out a great laugh as he circled his work. He had found out how his kind could make rain! He howled in triumph, soaring directly under his cloud, letting the rain spray him as he passed beneath. Out the other side, he rose above and over his shrinking raincloud, the sun and air drying his feathers, yelling his joy to the sky.

* * * * *

Caprice stood in the midday sun, her legs locked in dreamless sleep. She had stood to allow Buttermilk her lunch; Pumpkin had been right about how to properly feed the little foal. Buttermilk seemed to find it much easier to latch onto Caprice this way, and not once did she feel teeth on her delicate udder.

As she stood, letting Buttermilk suckle, her long night of worry and wakefulness caught up to her. The sun, a glowing patch behind the opaque, white sky, was nevertheless warm, and before she knew it, her eyes had begun to close in exhaustion.

She struggled to keep them open, but between the repetitive suckling and the warm drowsy heat, her lids became so heavy that she decided to just let them remain shut, just for a while, just for a moment...

A shocking cold wetness awoke Caprice. It was the afternoon now. Bethany, the receptionist back at clinic 042, had once explained pony sleeping techniques to her; Beth had been correct in saying that standing sleep did not permit dreams. Dreaming was somehow necessary for truly restful sleep, and thus while her nap had helped, she still felt she needed more.

Caprice's mind returned to the cold wetness she had felt. Had somepony spit water on her head and back?

Caprice looked around, becoming aware of the herd about her starting to yell and cavort. Pumpkin was screaming something at her over the din; finally she reared up and began frantically gesturing at the sky with her hooves.

Caprice looked up, to see a round, dark shape descending from the haze. Suddenly a flash of lightning burst from beneath it, temporarily blinding her, and making her ears ring from the boom. When she could see again, the shape was much lower and slightly to the side of Base Camp; as it rapidly dropped she made out the shape of a white pegasus pony flapping his wings powerfully, pushing what could only be a dark, raining mass of cloud down to the ground.

She tried to run, but only then remembered that her legs were locked. Swearing silently to herself, she unhooked the spurs of bone and freed her legs to move again. She was galloping now, as fast as she had ever run as a pony, the still air streaming past her ears as she pushed through it.

Alexi flapped furiously, maneuvering the diminishing cloud over the top of Sweetpepper's small patch of garden. He stomped twice; two dramatic booms followed bright flashes announcing his triumph. The now tiny raincloud continued to drain out upon the shriveled crops as Alexi half hopped, half glided to the ground.

The entire herd crowded around him, stomping their approval and cheering Alexi's dramatic arrival.

Suddenly Alexi found himself sprawled on the ground, half under his own cloud, the ground becoming mud, the rain in his face; Caprice was on top of him now, holding him down with her weight and her legs, kissing him and crying, her tears of joy mingling with the rain until it seemed as if the cloud itself were an extension of her relief.

Nine: Whether Thither Weather

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By Chatoyance

Nine: Whether Thither Weather

Caprice and Alexi stood by the pond. The basin was more than half empty, the water evaporated into the hot air, now somewhere in the haze that blocked the sun above.

Caprice pointed with her hoof at a whitish rime that had formed as the water had evaporated. She bent her head low and sniffed at it; Alexi could hear her stomach gurgle when she did so.

As he watched, she bent her neck very low and gave the crystalline deposit a brief lick. Caprice smiled, then gave it several more licks before raising her head. "Salt. Minerals. Mineral salts!" She thought for a moment. "You should really give this a try, It. Is. Soooo. Good." Her head down, Caprice began licking the thin ridge of salts in earnest.

"Caprice?" Alexi was just a little surprised to see his peach princess licking the ground; his human expectations conflicting with his animal reality. "Is... is this safe? I mean, it is the ground and such and..."

Caprice lifted her head again, licking her muzzle and smiling. "I'm a pony, Alexi. Ponies do this."

"When in Rome, do as the ponies do, I guess." Alexi lowered his head and gave a tentative lick to the pale mineral crust. It tasted good. It tasted better than good. It didn't taste salty, exactly. It tasted sweet, somewhat like sugar. He found himself licking the salt rime almost desperately, hungry for the taste of it. It was astonishing to him just how much he needed it, how much he wanted it.

After some time, the minerals finally began to taste salty to him. The curious, sugar-like sweetness began to fade, and the salt taste slowly became oppressive. Only then did Alexi find the will to stop licking the deposit.

Caprice was staring at him, smiling. "Your body knows what it needs, Alexi. Wasn't it amazing? Did it taste sweet to you at first, too?"

Alexi nodded. "It was like sugar at the beginning. It didn't taste like salt at all. It was like I couldn't get enough of it. I've never experienced anything like that before. But at the end, the taste was just salt, and then it was enough." Alexi thought for a moment. "We need to collect this and keep it safe, somehow."

"That's a very good idea, but I don't see how. If your team makes it rain, it will rain, and we have no way to keep a collection of salt deposits dry. We have no buildings, not even a tent." Caprice looked around. "We don't even have trees."

"Confound those damnable crates!" Alexi stared angrily at the twenty wooden cubes. "We have no way to open them! Inside could be anything, everything! Salt, construction materials, some magical way back to civilization, anything!" Alexi stomped a hoof in frustration. "They sit right there, mocking us all, and no way to open them! I want to kick that Windfeather over and over. I am ashamed to be a pegasus, thinking that he is one of my kind."

"I've been working on that problem, Alexi." Caprice took one more lick of the salt rime and raised her head again. "The unicorns constantly practice. Every one of them can now get their horns to glow, and most can move small objects, at least a little. I've been having the unicorns work with fine control, too; weaving small ropes out of grass stems using only their magic. Other unicorns have been working on raw power. There are three, Ocean, Lightning and Boeing, that can project enough force that they can actually push each other around bodily. Just a few feet, but still."

"Lightning? The little colt that follows me around? The would-be pony wizard?" Alexi seemed surprised; he had been sure that Mr. 'Flash' was all talk and nothing else.

"Yup! Turns out that he really does have some decent power behind him. I don't think he's going to have anyone calling him Gandalf anytime soon, but I have to say the colt is surprisingly dedicated." Caprice came close and rubbed her head against Alexi's shoulder and neck. "Mmmnnn... I am so glad you are back, safe and sound, Alexi."

"I am glad of this too, minun pieni ponini." Alexi nuzzled Caprice in return. "So what do we do about the salt issue, then?"

"I guess we do what wild horses do; lick our fill and then find more later. I don't see any alternative at the moment. However..." Caprice looked back at the stacked crates "If our unicorns can just master fine control combined with raw power, then I'm betting they can pull those nails right out of the crates, and open them right up. Even if the damn things were completely empty, at the very least we would have crate-sheds to store things in."

"You don't think they could be empty, do you?" Alexi had a vaguely horrified look on his muzzle.

"No, of course not!" Caprice licked an errant bit of salt from Alexi's lip, a not unpleasant feeling, he thought. "I don't think Windfeather had much say beyond getting the Royal Unicorns to leave, and they did that reluctantly as it was. I seriously doubt he had any control over how those crates were packed. I suspect he was acting on anger, at the limit of whatever authority he had been given."

"This makes sense, I think." Alexi seemed relieved. "Then why do we not get the rest of the herd to take their fill of salt, before we consider making clouds and rain? The salt is here, let us use it."

"See, that is why the great Alexi is leader!" Caprice grinned and trotted off; midday was time for yet another feeding for little Buttermilk, and by now the foal would likely be fussing and driving Pumpkin to distress.

* * * * *

Pumpkin galloped across the dry grass for a few dozen feet, then called out to Buttermilk. "Come on, you can do it, come to me! Come on!" Buttermilk began walking, so Pumpkin stomped her front hooves to encourage the foal. Buttermilk moved to a trot, which was better, so Pumpkin stomped once again. "Come on! Run! Run to me!" Finally, Buttermilk quickened her pace, arriving next to Pumpkin.

Buttermilk didn't like to run very much, but nevertheless it was Pumpkin's desire to run with the little foal. Pumpkin had been trying every day to get Buttermilk to use her legs more and more, and hopefully, to enjoy running.

Pumpkin groomed and kissed the little unicorn for her effort; Buttermilk nuzzled her back. Pumpkin started walking, and Buttermilk began following her. She picked up her pace, to a trot. Buttermilk sped up to stay even with her; Pumpkin tried edging forward a little faster. They were rounding the little hill that was one of the four hills of Base Camp, the hill that Alexi had chosen to sleep on. Buttermilk was now cantering, the staccato three-beat gait clomping and swishing through the brown grass.

Suddenly, Pumpkin came to a halt. Buttermilk ran on past her a ways, slowing, unsure of what she should do. Making a soft, plaintive sound, the little foal turned and trotted back to Pumpkin, looking at her for some sign of reassurance.

The woody stem rose only eight or so inches from the dry grass, but there was no mistaking it. The stem bifurcated twice, with leaves that Pumpkin remembered seeing pictures of on the hypernet, and from old media. But there was another place she had seen something similar, and that was the dead, dry garden just as one entered the San Francisco Conversion Bureau building; the woody stem almost certainly had to be some kind of tree.

"Look, Buttermilk! I think it's a tree. It's a baby tree!" This was a wonderful discovery for Pumpkin; back in the bureau her favorite daydream was one of running through a grove with her own foal one day. Until now, she had been unsure if she would ever see a tree again, that perhaps all that existed here was grass and low plants.

"NO! Don't eat it!" Buttermilk nibbled at one of the leaves; she was not at all close to being weaned yet, but the tiny unicorn did mouth leaves and stems. Buttermilk never actually swallowed them, she just liked to work her little teeth over them. Pumpkin grabbed Buttermilk by the mane and pulled her back, then gave her a nuzzle and a kiss to comfort her confusion.

"Come on! We need to tell Caprice and Alexi! It just has to be a tree, I know it!" Pumpkin started back around the hill, Buttermilk following her.

It took Sweetpepper to confirm it; but the woody plant was indeed a tree. The golden colt could not tell what kind of tree it was, but it was enough for everypony that it was a tree at all. Hopefully, it would be a fruit tree; this was what everypony was hoping, of course. It was decided to replant it, very carefully, in the center of the space where the four hills defined Base Camp, so that it would be easy for the earth ponies to tend it.

Soon many earth pony hooves began to dig out the soil around the tiny tree, while others dug up the ground at the center of Base Camp. Gently, the small tree was lifted from the soil, and carried by Sweetpepper to its new home, where it was placed gently in the ground. Soil was packed lightly around the roots, and water carried by mouth for it.

The earth ponies gathered around their new tree, their first tree, and did their best to show it what love they could. Some sang to it, others told it stories and jokes. On Earth, this would have been ridiculous; in Equestria, it was proper agricultural practice.

* * * * *

While the earth ponies were busy with their new 'Town Tree Project', Alexi was busy teaching the pegasai his trick of climbing and gliding. Over the next week most had mastered the method; only a few were still having trouble getting the shallow glide angle right.

Alexi himself found that he felt much stronger than before. He could climb for a much greater distance before needing to glide, and almost every day he needed to glide less to rest. Droplet, His flight team leader, was an eager student; she wanted to get to the business of making rain as quickly as possible.

Over the next week, the pegasai increased dramatically in strength the more they used their wings for power and thrust instead of merely gliding. It was becoming embarrassingly clear to everypony that perhaps the primary reason for their lack of ability to fly high in the air was essentially that they had been too afraid to actually try. It seemed that the wing muscles of pegasai were particularly prone to atrophy, but also equally able to grow strong again with regular use.

"It seems so obvious now, Caprice." Alexi woefully explained, one night as they readied themselves for sleep. "This is a world where natural abilities matter. That is life, here. On Earth, it is years of study and debt and maybe there is job, and maybe there is more debt. But in Equestria, what matters is what a pony can naturally do."

Caprice cuddled in for a bit; it was still terribly warm, even at night, but she liked to be close to Alexi for a bit before sleeping, despite the humidity. Alexi nuzzled her cheek and continued "If we had been mere children, we would have tried to fly, not thinking of any consequence, and we would have flown. But, because we were cautious adults from a dangerous world, our wings became weak as we refused to try, waiting for some teacher that would never come. I feel ashamed. Day one, I should have been flapping like a pigeon aiming for a bald head. It is great shame for all of us."

"Alexi, you must remember that this is all new to you, to everypony. This is a brand new life, in an entirely new world; everypony here has dealt with this new existence with extraordinary courage. You, especially." Caprice was proud of Alexi; despite being thrust into a new world only a day after his Conversion, he had from the start thought not of his own plight, but always of those around him. This is why she had chosen him, back in the Bureau, and he had only shown his selflessness the more as time went on.

The next day marked a turning point for the pegasai; over the past week they had become strong enough that all agreed that it was about time to make a unified attempt to reach the haze layer, all together. Of the thirty-two pegasai, twenty-five were considered strong enough fliers now to attempt this goal. If enough of these capable pegasai could make it all the way up to the haze layer, they could stomp out a large and solid platform from the mist to act as a Sky Base from which to construct clouds.

Alexi had some thoughts as to how the manufacture of clouds might be improved; many of the newfoals remembered having seen Equestrian pegasai clearing smog from the skies of earth. They recalled groups of the flying ponies working together to drag vast funnels of smog behind them, peeling away some of the damage Man had done to his world.

Perhaps a similar technique could be used to make truly large concentrations of mist, constructing large and dense clouds that could affect equally large areas. Or perhaps there might be some means to cause the haze to collapse into clouds, or even some additional pegasus power they had yet to discover. There were many possibilities, but none of them could be done by exhausted ponies. First, they must have a base in the sky, to rest and recuperate on.

"Alexi?" Caprice pulled away; the heat and humidity made too much closeness sticky and uncomfortable after a while; worse, if their coat became too damp, it simply wouldn't dry out during the night.

"Yes, my peach princess?"

"There just may be something I can offer you for your group flight attempt tomorrow. The unicorns have been working hard all week on it. If they get it done in time, please... be kind to them. They've really tried very hard." When Caprice looked at him with those huge green eyes, Alexi could never say no. "I will be an angel - see, I have the wings for it!" Alexi extended his feathers and waggled them. Caprice gave a soft laugh.

Down the hill, late into the night and on into the morning, Lightning, Boeing, Ocean and several other unicorns used their horns diligently, the tiny fairy lights from their efforts concentrated on entwining long, dry strands of grasses together. They also used their teeth and their hooves, as best as they could, looks of deep concentration on their muzzles.

Their work did not look very good, and for that they felt ashamed. But even so, what they were making just might be useful, if only they could get it all done in time. Each one wanted their leader, Alexi, to be proud of them, and each hoped that Alexi would not scorn their efforts, however poor. For a week they had been working, just as the pegasai had been working, for the big attempt on the sky.

Although the unicorns could not follow where the pegasai were going, they wanted to prove that they too could be useful to saving the herd. "No... no! Come on Boeing! It twists the other way, like this..." Lightning used his magic to bend the twisted stalks, fighting Boeing's efforts. The two magics tussled with each other, the woven strand wriggling like an enraged serpent.

"Come on, dudes, seriously." Ocean had never been a surfer; the seas of Earth were far too poisoned for such things anymore, but he had devoured the idea of what it must have once been like, and adopted the surfer attitude as much as he possibly could, as taken from ancient media.

"Like, we're all one herd, right? So be righteous already!" Ocean made up for his lack of proper understanding of real surfer lingo with sheer enthusiasm. Boeing and Lightning blinked, not entirely sure what Ocean was saying, but getting the general idea even so.

"Sorry, Boeing. I'm just tired. I didn't mean to grab it away like that." Lightning released his telekinetic hold and looked down.

"It is alright, Lightning. We used to get this way back at the drone division, when crunch time came. I'm used to all-nighters." Boeing gave a weary grin.

"See! Now that's being righteous, my little pony dudes!" Ocean swung his blond mane out of his eyes with a toss of his head.

It was going to be a long night.

Ten: A Walk In The Garden

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By Chatoyance

Ten: A Walk In The Garden

Windfeather's glasses kept slipping down his nose. Every few feet, he would have to stop, raise a foreleg, and push them back up with his hoof. His glasses kept slipping because the coat on his nose was slick with sweat, and his nose had been sweating because he was so nervous.

As soon as the small, bookish pegasus stopped to fix his glasses, he would immediately trot forward to keep up with Her Royal Highness, and because he was approaching her, he would do a quick bow, which of course caused his glasses to slide down his nose again.

Over and over he went through this pattern, his breathing ragged from the many starts and stops. Gradually, it seemed that Her Highness was walking faster and faster, causing Windfeather to work harder to catch up and remain just behind her, at her side. Now they had passed a trot, and were heading into a canter. Windfeather's glasses had become even more unstable, now that he was sweating not only from fear, but also from exertion. The glasses slipped down the pegasus's nose, and threatened to drop off entirely.

Suddenly, Windfeather saw, out of the corner of his eye, that Her Highness had stopped in place, and that he had inadvertently dashed on beyond her. He tried to stop suddenly, but his glasses slipped off of his face; he tried to catch them with his foreleg, which put him off balance. Windfeather made the effort to compensate with his wings, but by then it was too late; torn between trying to catch his glasses, stopping suddenly, and trying to stay upright, he found himself utterly confused, and in no time at all tumbled to the ground in a heap.

Sprawled on the pathway, his glasses on the ground, his wings unfurled and pointing in different directions, he looked up to see the placid, cold eyes of his regent, Her Royal Majesty, Princess Celestia of Equestria, staring at him. They were eyes utterly devoid of either contempt or compassion; eyes more than a thousand years old, ancient and alien, as distant from his own mortal gaze as his was from an insect in the garden within which they walked.

"Gotcha." The words were soft, the ghost of some ancient humor a millennium gone. To another pony, at another time, the jest might have been warm, even friendly; but this was not such a time, and Windfeather was not a pony that Celestia was happy with in the least.

Windfeather carefully used his hooves to place his glasses back on his nose, then clambered up from where he was laying on his belly. He closed his wings, and tried to regain some dignity, but of course his dignity was entirely gone now, and with it the last shred of the bravado and fire he had imagined he would show in front of Her Majesty. Doubtless, he realized, this was why she had done it.

The little pegasus trembled now, for looking around he understood where Celestia had led him. It was the Royal Gardens; beyond he could see the entrance to the vast hedge maze, tall and colorful flags slowly moving at the gate. But the maze was not what captured his attention, rather it was the many statues scattered around the gardens.

There were rumors about the statues, the perfect, uncannily detailed, life size statues; dark frightening rumors. It was said, in whispers, that the statues had once been living ponies; ancient Equestrians that had defied Celestia, or who had endangered her goals. There was no proof of this, of course, but the possibility made Windfeather feel weak in all of his knees, and he feared another tumble at any moment.

"Tell me again why over two thousand of my subjects cannot be accounted for." Celestia's speech was even; measured.

"I... I... I'm sure that with some... it's just that... I really feel that..." The carefully rehearsed cover story that Windfeather had worked on was in shambles within his head; he could remember nothing of it. He could find nothing of strength within him now, it had all been lost when he had stumbled.

"They cannot be accounted for because you chose to abandon them in the Exponential Lands." The cold eyes gazed down at Windfeather from far above his small stature, and thousands of years beyond his wisdom.

"You know, my dearest majesty, there is a reason for that, it's a funny thing really, I just couldn't help but..." Windfeather was stammering; originally he had intended to tell Celestia off, to inform her of her mistake. What had happened to all of that? How had he been reduced to this state?

"Tell me, in your own words, what motivated you to take your action." Suddenly, Celestia's eyes were warm and kind, her face a gentle smile. This threw Windfeather completely; he stood frozen, unable to decide what to say or how to say it.

Celestia just stood there, towering above him, smiling gently with those kind eyes. She waited, and somehow Windfeather knew that she would have no problem whatsoever just standing there, waiting, until he grew old, and his bones finally fell to the ground, dried out and dead, vines covering his remains. She had seen centuries pass as he watched the hours of a day. Windfeather decided to speak.

First, however, he bowed. Low. Of course his small round glasses slipped again, and so he had to push them up once more. He stood, his head still down, gazing up sideways at his sovereign like a foal caught with a hoof in the cookie jar.

"Celestia..." His voice squeaked like a yearling; he lowered the pitch of it, feeling embarrassed "I mean... your highness... I honestly think that there is a danger to our nation, a danger that perhaps..." How should he say this... how could he put it without appearing to lay the blame on Her..."your... ministers... may have overlooked, and that... well, I thought to take action to protect you, and our great country..." Windfeather trailed off, hoping for some kind of response, some suggestion of how Celestia was taking what he had to say.

Celestia just gazed down, with gentle, kind eyes, and a soft smile on her face, her sun behind her back, blinding him.

After a long while Windfeather realized he would need to continue; Celestia could literally wait forever for him to finish. "The newfoals, Majesty, they remain a threat to our culture, to our very way of life!" That was it! That was the old spirit! Windfeather began to remember something of what he had intended to say. It was coming back now.

"Those otherworldly creatures can never be Equestrians, not true Equestrians! They may wear our shape, they may eat grass now, but once they were carnivorous monsters who ruined their entire world! These are beasts that delighted in killing their own kind! They believe insane things, perform insane acts; they can never be trusted and they will never be free from the evil of what they truly are." Windfeather began to feel increasingly confident now. He would get Celestia to see, to understand.

Celestia remained still, the gentle, patient smile on her muzzle. She was listening, that was certainly true.

"Don't you see? Inside them, even if their outward flesh is Equestrian, their experiences and memories are those of monsters that kill not only their own kind but who slaughtered every other creature on their world! They are more dangerous than dragons, more vicious than griffons, more terrible than any hydra. They are an insidious evil, one that will corrupt our very society just with the stories of their world alone!"

Windfeather stood tall, more sure of himself. Celestia had not reacted in any negative way, perhaps she could be made to support his goals.

"Frankly, your Highness, trying to save such monsters was ill-advised. How can you expect such beasts to keep Equestrian traditions and ways when they cannot even keep what few ideals they claim to possess? These are creatures willing to scrape away entire mountain ranges, leaving only poisoned pits, all just to make a few bits to spend. They stripped their oceans bare, then devoured all the fish and animals until none were left! Virtually the entire population of their world has always been forced to live in abject poverty just so that an incredibly tiny elite can live beyond their means!"

Celestia blinked, once, still waiting.

"I am not alone, Celestia! I am slowly gathering together those that can understand the terrible danger that this foolish effort to take in such monsters represents. Together we have sent thousands of the... newfoals... to distant, random locations where they can never be found, and where they can never destroy the glory of our beautiful Equestria! Our number will grow, and with your support we can make sure that these alien invaders live their wretched lives apart from us - it is not my intent to harm them, of course not - only to keep them far, far away!"

Windfeather needed to catch his breath. His glasses had slipped again, so he pushed them up with a hoof. Celestia had not changed her expression. She had not reacted at all to what he had said. Was she even truly listening? Was she... mocking him somehow, with that stupid, bland expression on her face? Surely something he had said should have gotten some kind of reaction from her! But nothing!

"Listen you - this is not something that is going to go away. This is going to be a movement! I intend for this this... segregation... to sweep through all of Equestria! There are others who agree with me, and when I get back, all they need is a little organization to make certain, once and for all time, that "

Celestia's smile faded to a calm, ageless expression.

Princess Luna stepped out from behind a topiary. She looked over her work. He had not even felt it, he had not even known it was happening. Exactly as it should be.

It was a beautiful statue, wings unconsciously flared in anger and indignation, mouth open in impassioned discourse, front right hoof jabbing upward in self-righteous defiance. The statue stood now on a lovely pedestal, summoned into existence just after the work was finished, completing it.

Celestia leaned close and squinted at the tiny, round, stone glasses, perched on the end of the nose of the marble pegasus. She found them cute, so dramatic! The perfect touch.

Luna and Celestia, ancient as time, walked slowly back through the garden.

There on the left was Direspeaker the Rebellious, with her long, flowing list of 1,001 complaints to the crown; her voice had possessed an unexpected magical power to motivate the masses and cause them to march. She had nearly taken the old capitol, eight hundred years ago.

They walked by the Three Godlike Foals; accidentally born with some unimaginable level of magic, they had been small earth ponies that could fly and reshape reality itself; unstopped they would have innocently obliterated Equestria forever. Theirs was a tragic story; for they were too young to know the danger they represented, and too rambunctious to listen to any but themselves.

It was because of them that Celestia had not instantly and decisively dealt with Twilight Sparkle; despite her truly fearsome power, she might yet be permitted to live, if only she could learn enough compassion and self control to balance her potentially unlimited abilities.

Still, Celestia had come very close to attending to her, it was not that long ago. Time would tell; it always had, it always would.

Luna stopped, for a moment, to look at the Archer of Equilonia; her stone eyes still gazing in concentration on the deadly god-slaying shot she had once aimed at Celestia's left eye.

As they left the garden, Celestia gave one last look towards the Mysterious Starkeeper of long lost Phetlocknecia; every year she was given a fresh flag to hold, her stone one long since crumbled away, two of her stolen stars still beside her.

Windfeather was in superior company, far greater than he deserved. But order must be kept, and no ruler can brook open rebellion.

Indeed, thought Celestia, she would have his statue removed from Canterlot, and shipped to some smaller town or village, one more in keeping with his terribly low status. A nice statue always improved a town square so very much.

"What art thou going to do, good sister, to succor these dispossessed newfoals then?" Luna strode with unnatural grace along the pathway that lead to the castle.

"I shall do nothing. I shall, however, set the task to the Unicorn Corps, for now. Their order has grown dull over the centuries; they never should have accepted the orders of one such as Windfeather. It is fitting that they should correct this error, and it is my intention that they shall." Celestia, as always, spoke with a velvet voice, but beneath that melodious sound was always the iron hoof of Her absolute Order.

The two princesses walked past the armored, Royal Guards on duty outside the threshold of the palace Garden Gate. "You may allow entrance to the gardens once more. Also, send for the groundskeeper, there is a matter I wish to speak with him about; a matter involving transport of one of the decorations." Celestia smiled at the Guard; she always smiled at the Guardstallions when she gave them orders, it was automatic for her.

"Would you join me for some tea, sister? We could take it on the fifth balcony overlooking the garden; I don't think you've seen that view yet."

"Command then the repast; we shall attend."

With that, the immortal living goddesses of day and night began to slowly, gracefully climb the long and winding marble stairs that led up to their chosen place. They did this not because they could not fly, or teleport, or bend space and time around them so that the very substance of reality itself changed such that the fifth balcony happened to be where they were, but instead because it was slightly more interesting to take the longer path.

Eleven: Thunder Road

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By Chatoyance

Eleven: Thunder Road

Twenty-five pegasai flew in formation, pushing against the still, hot, humid air. Their tiny wings flapped with literally unearthly power, heaving the heavy bodies they supported ever higher. After a time, the lead pegasus, Alexi, called out "GLIDE!" and the formation spread their wings carefully to soar at a shallow angle, resting muscles and catching breath. Sweat dripped from the colorful equinoids, the perpetual summer as much a danger to them now as the height; enervation an enemy as deadly as any beast.

"FLY!" called out their leader, and the practiced constellation of pegasai moved as one, pumping the air with powerful strokes, climbing once again. Their height now was prodigious, the hill they had started from a tiny spot on the brown world below surrounded by colorful specks; their herd, their community.

The woven wreaths of grass that each wore around their necks were an additional burden; the clever unicorns had twisted and braided the irregular and clumsy torus shapes to serve as a food supply. With water to drink from the clouds they would make, the pegasai could stay above the haze layer for several days without growing too weak to make a successful descent.

It was clear that some in the constellation were struggling more than others; Alexi was finding the climb exhilarating and almost easy now. Droplet was working hard but keeping up. A former terrestrial Meteorologist who had taken the name 'Cirrus' was falling behind, while 'Cherryblossom', a white and pink mare was now gliding out of sync, desperately trying to follow the group.

"HAZE! LAYER!" Alexi barked the words between breaths, as the constellation of pegasai drove into the blank, white, disorienting mist. This was the most dangerous part of their flight; they would be rendered effectively blind, unable to see beyond the ends of their own wings. A collision would be catastrophic; they had three absolute rules for this part of the journey: keep flying, keep going in a straight line, keep calm.

The glowing white blindness was horrifically silent, erasing all sound that came from each other. None could hear the wings of the other pegasai and grunts of effort were absorbed, leaving only eerie quiet. Even the odd loud call was but a distant, muffled whisper. As the pegasai worked their sodden wings, water spat from the tips of their primaries, the long feathers that provided their greatest thrust, while more wetness trickled down their muzzles, soaking their coats.

The white layer seemed to extend forever, and it was easy to imagine that there was no open sky above; just an endless hellish world of silent, pale mist.

Alexi was the first to breach the surface of the sea of haze, his white wings and blue mane soaked and shining in the bright, late morning sun. One by one the remainder of the expedition burst through into the clear, cold air, immediately beginning to glide as per their instruction. Alexi did not want any of his constellation to suffer the same cramps that he had; entering the cold air while dripping wet, so the pegasai began gliding, skimming their hooves on the haze layer.

Astonishment awaited them as they found that they did not sink twenty feet through the layer as Alexi had, instead they sank only to their stifles, the smaller of them to their hocks; a gentle landing allowed them to stand on the haze layer with only slight compression of it.

Alexi, testing the sharply defined interface between haze and sky could not help but imagine the plummet that had drove him twenty feet down into the layer. He felt gratitude that he had not been injured; thoughts of starving on a bed of cloud with a broken wing, unable to return to the ground, briefly terrified him. He had been very lucky indeed.

Alexi called out "ROLL CALL!"

One by one, each pegasai shouted out their names, identifying who had made it above the layer. All were now accounted for, except for Cherryblossom; Twenty-four pegasai were panting and gasping on the mist, wings drooping in exhaustion, grateful for the rest.

Careful instructions existed for any pegasus that felt they could not make the full journey; they were expected to immediately glide back down. There would be other times to try again in the future. After all, this was their unique task for the sake of nature; to fly and make the weather that all life relied on.

It was a strange concept to face; every pony in Equestria had a part to play in the maintenance of the workings of Nature itself; they themselves were the engine of Nature in this new universe. Equestria had no natural processes as humans had known them on Earth; instead ponies, Equestrians, acted as natural forces, working together to keep the very world running.

In their human lives, the world was a place one existed within, a stage on which the theater of a person's life might unfold. In Equestria, the world was a career, a calling, and every pony was needed to create and maintain Nature herself. In Equestria, nopony stood apart from Nature, instead they literally were Nature, and the world depended upon them.

Suddenly, a panting desperate Cherryblossom burst through the haze, nearly crashing into Cirrus as she passed. She was blind with terror, pumping her exhausted wings, flying higher and higher trying to escape the white hell she had already unknowingly left.

"Droplet! Assist!" Alexi and Droplet leapt up, beating the air furiously in order to reach Cherry before she fell. This was a maneuver the pegasai had practiced on the ground, an emergency technique that did not always work, but which was better than nothing.

Alexi and Droplet flew on either side of Cherryblossom, calling out to her to glide. She eventually heard them, and went into a steep decline, too tired to angle her wings correctly. Alexi called out "LOW!" indicating that he would take the low position. He soared underneath Cherryblossom and attempted to allow her to put a hoof or two on his broad back, just enough to help support and stabilize her glide.

"TAIL!" Droplet flared her wings and dropped behind Cherry, then flapped forward to catch her streaming tail. The newfoals had been astonished, early on, at just how well constructed their new bodies were. It was almost impossible to pull hair out, and their tails were amazingly strong and durable. One of the Bureau holoprograms had actually demonstrated this fact; early tests of the newfoal body showed that a pony could be entirely suspended by their tails with no ill effect. No terrestrial equine could survive such treatment intact.

If Cherryblossom were to fall, then a last resort was to catch her by her tail, then try to land her as softly as possible through an effort of strength. In effect, the Tail Assist pegasai would try to act as a living, flapping parachute, one that could make the difference between broken bones and mere bruises.

Cherryblossom had pulled back from panic, now that she could see blue sky, and having a hoof on Alexi's back had relieved some of the effort of flying, allowing her wing muscles needed rest. The three pegasai were close to the haze layer now, skimming just above it. "I can handle things now!" Cherryblossom called out.

"You sure?" Alexi still felt weight on his back; Cherry was still depending on him for support. "I'm sure! Let me go!" Cherryblossom began using her wings in earnest again, and Alexi felt the pressure of her hoof removed from his back. He glided off to the side and flared for a gentle landing on the mist.

Droplet remained attached to Cherryblossom until she had safely landed, her tail still in Droplet's mouth right to the end. Alexi felt proud of Droplet, there was a pegasus a pony could depend on.

They had made it, they had all of them made it.

The winged newfoals gazed in wonder at the new land spread before them, a landscape only their kind could walk upon. Above, the wide clear sky almost shouted 'BLUE!' at them, the color so intense that it seared their eyes. The endless white expanse was like an infinite field of snow, blindingly bright under Celestia's gigantic sun.

Alexi stared at the sun. It was safe to do such a thing in Equestria; unlike Earth's sun, Celestia's creation could not permanently blind any creature, nor harmfully burn their flesh.

He had never really thought about it, but up here, with only sky and endless white, he found himself in awe of the size of the sun. It was much larger than the sun he had known on Earth - the few times he had ever seen it under the perpetual smog - and it dominated the sky.

"Pretty incredible, isn't it? That sucker is way more than 32 arc minutes. I'm thinking, gosh, at least a hundred arc minutes! Maybe even more!" Cirrus Uncinus, the former meteorologist had carefully made his way across the white plane to stand near Alexi.

"Ark... what?" Alexi looked at the pale blue and white tufted pegasus in confusion.

"Arc minutes. It's a unit of measurement for celestial bodies. It WAS a unit of measurement, I don't think it even matters anymore here, I guess. Basically it means it's big. The sun here is really, really big! In the sky, I mean. It looks just huge!" Cirrus grinned, as though he had found a new toy.

"Big. Yes, the sun is indeed big. Gigantic, I would say. It makes me fear it should fall on me, almost!" Alexi grinned back, just excited that everypony had made the trip successfully, everypony safe and unhurt.

"This is... I don't know how to describe it. On Earth, I studied the weather. Here... I guess I'm going to be helping to MAKE the weather. It just blows my mind. I'll tell you something..." Cirrus looked off at the endless glowing plain "If it all ended for me right this moment, it would have been worth it. I mean, damn. Just... damn." The look in Cirrus's eye when he turned back was one of almost religious ecstasy; this was his life's abstract fascination, and now he was standing on it.

Scientists, Alexi thought, they're all just big kids, and the world, any world, is their toy. Alexi liked dealing with scientists; they were almost always easy to make trades with, if you could give them a reason to be interested. He liked how excited and happy they would become when talking about the things that fascinated them. And he'd never been cheated by one.

"I agree, my friend." Alexi shook the water from his ears and mane. "It is a good thing to stand in the sky. I think I like this being a pony business!"

Cirrus grinned widely "It definitely beats my old corporate job. Heh..." The pale blue pegasus also shook the water from his ears, the curved tufts that made up his white mane rippling as he twisted his head. "Hey, Joe, what did you do today?" Cirrus spoke in a silly voice "I filed the radiative forcing reports! How about you?" Cirrus changed voices "Well, Bob, I flew up and made some clouds. Let's get a beer!" Both Cirrus and Alexi were laughing now.

"Hey, what's up?" Droplet had finally made it over; walking through the mist layer was a little like walking through a thick but lightly packed fall of snow; each hoofstep had to be lifted high and brought down carefully to compress the material underneath. "What's so funny?"

Alexi ended on a few chuckles, they had made it and the relief was intoxicating, as well as the view. " We were just marveling at the beauty of the world. Also, we like our new careers." For some reason this brought both Alexi and Cirrus to laughter again; Droplet just stood tilting her head, perplexed, but smiling. At least everyone seemed happy, and that was good enough.

"EVERYPONY! Listen up!" All ears swiveled to listen to Alexi "We need a place to spend the night. Let's meet in the..." Alexi scanned the endless plain of white "...middle... here, and begin stomping out a nice, flat, solid place. Maybe we can find a faster way too, if we try. But we need a sleeping platform before night."

Stepping carefully, the pegasai made their way to where Alexi, Droplet and Cirrus stood. Already, Droplet was stomping mist into a floor around her, trying to make it as flat and even as possible.

* * * * *

The unicorns horns pulsed and flared with arcane light. Together, Ocean, Lightning, Boeing and several others focused on a single nail. The nail appeared to be made of iron, more or less, and the head of it was huge; in some ways it was more like a spike. The nail was embedded in the thick Equestrian wood of a crate, one of the twenty that had been left behind by the Royal Unicorn Corps when the newfoals had been abandoned. For almost two months the crates had stood, impossible to open.

It was everyponies wish for that situation to change.

The unicorns pulled with their will, with their mind, with the small organ at the base of their horns called a carbuncle, a tiny, red, jewel-like organ that collected and focused the very stuff of magic itself. They pulled at the nail, some using fine control, others using raw power.

They had worked out a clever way to meld their abilities; those with raw power would sheath the nail in force, while those with fine control would compress and guide the raw power of the others. Together it just might work; together raw force might be restrained by fine control; each capability making up for the lack of the other.

The nail moved. It jerked out a tenth of an inch. Lightning got a sudden inspiration; he began to twist his mental grasp on the nail clockwise; it was enough to loosen the friction on the nail.

The nail shot out, caught in the glowing fields of seven unicorns, all working together. In the thick, Equestrian wood a hole remained, a hole the diameter of the nail.

They had done it! They had proved that they could open the crates using the same abilities as the Royal Unicorn Corps; magic. They needed to work together; it was exhausting, and it would take time... but it could be done. One nail after another. All they needed to do was to keep at it.

By the end of the day, when it grew dark and the unicorns became too weary to continue, they had extracted five nails. There were dozens on a side, but it was a significant start. If they could train other unicorns to do what they had discovered, the process could be accelerated.

After the dinner graze, Lightning, Ocean and Boeing lay together on the flattened mat of grass between the four hills. They were not far from the pile of crates. In the rising moonlight, Lightning played with the nails, making them dance, and chase each other with the power of his horn.

"Dude, we can really do this!" Ocean was basking in their success. "It was, like, awesome. Working together, and that twisting... oh that was like totally radical, dude."

"The torque you applied did seem to make the difference. I think we should use torque application as a standard technique, and teach it to others." Boeing took one of the nails up in his own glowing force, and examined it, spinning it end over end. "You lowered the friction coefficient significantly, Lightning. Excellent strategy."

"Heh. I guess maybe I can become a proper unicorn wizard now. If they have wizards. And if they don't, I'll be the first!" Lightning felt a wave of excitement and hope; he felt like he could become something amazing. He could matter to others. "We all did it together. Thanks, you two. We make a great team."

"Dude! We're like a unicorn rock band or something! We should totally have a name! Like... the 'The Nail Twisters', or the 'Spike Pullers', or maybe the 'Rod Yankers!'"

"Uh... No." Both Boeing and Lightning said simultaneously. "Just... No." The frown on their muzzles mixed incredulity with horror.

"Dude, what? Like, I don't get it! What did I say?" Ocean seemed genuinely surprised by their reaction.

"I think..." Said Boeing diplomatically "...that having... a band name... would set us apart too much. We all need to work together."

"Yeah, Ocean." Lightning picked up on where Boeing was going "We need to help the other unicorns feel a part of it all, right? All together, right?"

"Yeah!!!" Ocean grinned widely as a lock of blond mane fell across his eyes "Righteous, dudes! All, like, together! I can dig that!"

Lightning and Boeing glanced at each other, briefly, then settled in to sleep.

Twelve: Falls Mainly On The Plain

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By Chatoyance

Twelve: Falls Mainly On The Plain

The cloud platform was about forty feet on a side, it was relatively flat but a bit lumpy; it felt like walking on a great sheet of marshmallow. Droplet had discovered a wonderful way to transform the loose mist into solid 'ground' - she found that she could lay down on her side and turn over, becoming a pony rolling pin. This process mashed the mist into surface very effectively, and from time to time members of the Flight Team would do a bit of rolling to expand their 'Sky Base' even more.

Cirrus Uncinus ran about like a yearling, excited at essentially everything; pushing and prodding the cloudstuff, exclaiming about how everything was so different from terrestrial physics, how mist could be compressed or shaped like some kind of semi-etherial clay. Cirrus had already formed a crude sculpture of a pony, two misshapen cubes, and rolled up a fairly large ball from the mist; now he seemed to be trying to make a formidable cloud fortress of some kind.

Alexi looked at how happy the former meteorologist was; scientists really are just big kids, he thought.

The other members of Flight Team were finishing dinner. The woven wreaths created by the unicorns below were entirely edible, which was their reason to be, and several pegasai had unburdened themselves so that all could eat from the braided rings of grass. An earlier attempt at a cloud-cube made by Cirrus had served as drink; the compressed cloudstuff could be gobbled for mouthfuls of water.

One grass wreath had been entirely lost; it was discovered that while the pegasai themselves could eaily walk on clouds and not fall through, grass wreaths had no such power... more or less. It was noted, before the wreath vanished below the misty platform, that it sank very slowly, rather as if it were sinking through pudding. Cirrus believed that whatever power the Pegasai possessed might somehow permanently affect the way water molecules act within Equestria; if so, then it might be possible to make a dense enough cloud material that actually could support physical objects indefinitely, or at least for a long enough time to be useful and practical.

Cirrus was quite giddy at this prospect, going on at some length with the notion of building actual cities in the air; perhaps even buildings capable of supporting any number of physical objects. All that would be needed would be floors made of the right cloud material, or so he reasoned. Alexi thought this sounded quite mad, but then, what was not mad in this new world? If he, Alexi, could be a flying pony, then maybe cloud cities were just the same kind of crazy that his own existence represented. Why not?

Alexi missed Caprice as night fell. He missed Pumpkin and Buttermilk. He even missed that silly colt Lightning who followed him around all the time. He was part of a constellation of twenty-five pegasai, all together on a nice safe floor of cloudstuff, but despite the bodies pressed around him, he greatly missed the rest of the herd below. It was strangely lonely, up close to the stars, in the cold, with only a flat, white horizon in every direction. He felt like he was on a raft, floating in an endless sea of milk.

Tomorrow, they would all get busy. Tomorrow, they would begin to make the clouds that would save the land below.

Cherryblossom had an idea how they could accomplish this task. "When I was... back in the Bureau, I remember a morning when everypony was up on the roof. Well, every... body... since that was before... anyway, we were all up on the roof because the sky was being cleared." Cherryblossom looked around, everypony was listening intently to her. She wasn't used to having everypony listen to what she had to say. "There were all these pegasai from Equestria, natives, who really knew how to fly. They were in this kind of formation - like planes in an air show - and they all flew together and pulled this huge cone of smog along with them."

"I remember that! I was there!" It was 'Gasket', a former corporate mechanic. He had fixed the pressure seals on the air filtering systems for the elite; it was what he knew, and he had chosen his pony name from that. "They just peeled the smog away like... like peeling the backing off of sticky tape!"

Cherryblossom grew exited at the memories. "They were amazing, weren't they? They just sort of pulled the huge cone along with them, and it bent and moved with them. They took it through the Barrier, where I guess... it stopped being smog anymore. They cleaned the sky! It was the first time I ever saw a blue sky in my life!"

Droplet couldn't help but join in. "Me too! I didn't even believe that the sky could look like that! When I was a kid, back in San Mateo, right? I used to always draw the sky gray, because, well, that's what it always was. Gray! I'd heard stories about the sky being blue, up behind the smog, but... I didn't really believe it. Then that day on the roof. Wow!"

"So you were there too?" Cherryblossom felt glad that Droplet had seen it. " Wow! We might have even been standing right near each other and we never knew it! That's so cool! I mean, here we all are together, now!"

Alexi wanted to hear about the formation; he hadn't seen the smog clearing, though he had seen the result, later in the day. "So, what was this formation, Cherry? Can you describe it? More to the point, do you think we can do what you describe?"

Cherryblossom thought for a moment. "It was kind of like a triangle... sort... of shape. Like an arrow. There was a pegasus in the front, then others behind, going off in a 'V' formation. Sort of." She was having trouble finding a way to describe the arrangement.

"Ooh! it was like a cone itself!" Droplet had recalled more. "There were pegasai under and above, too, and they were in a 'V' shape as well, only all around!"

"Yeah! That was it!" Cherryblossom recalled more clearly now. "And they were kind of staggered, so that it... I know! It was like a spiral pattern!"

"A spiral cone! A helix! The pegasai flew in a conical helix formation!" Gasket turned his head to Cirrus "What do you think? A conical helix, right?"

"I didn't see it, actually. I was the morning Conversion that day, so I missed it." Cirrus looked sad; seeing pegasai peel smog away was something he really had felt bad about missing back then.

"Well, how about you? Conical Helix, right?" Gasket looked square at Cherryblossom.

"Um... I'm not sure. I think I get the 'conical', but... what's a 'helix'?" Cherryblossom suddenly felt very small.

"A helix is a spiral, my dear Cherryblossom! It is a fancy word only used by big smartass blowhards like myself." Alexi grinned at Cherryblossom, and she felt a lot better.

"Then I guess Gasket is right. It was a spiral shaped cone, a helix cone." Cherryblossom gave Gasket a hard look. Gasket looked down, he hadn't meant to embarrass her, he had just felt excited to be helping to solve the problem.

"Then tomorrow, I say we should practice flying in this formation, and see what happens. If we can master it, we shall try diving through the haze and see if we can match what our native brothers and sisters did back on the Earth!" Alexi looked up at the rising brightness of Princess Luna's moon. "We should get our sleep now; tomorrow we become professional weather ponies!"

Spirits were high; they had achieved much, and now they had a plan. Not bad for a bunch of abandoned newfoals, thought Alexi.

* * * * *

"Alright!" Boeing had been directing his fellow unicorns in which nails to remove in what order from the crate; he wanted to make sure nopony was hurt should the heavy wooden side fall open. "This is the last nail, step back, try to do this from the sides, if it should fall, don't be near it!"

Ocean and Lightning joined Boeing in concentrating on the nail, located in the middle top of one side of a crate. The crates had been built as cubical frames of wood, or so it seemed, with six sides nailed to that frame. It was a curious way to build a crate, but perhaps there was some reason for it. In any case, any given side was identical to any other; and any could be removed the same way, by pulling out the nails.

By now, after more than two dozen nails, the trio had become quite expert at combining their power with control, and the nail popped free; it hung now in the air, suspended by the unicorn's mutual will.

The side of the crate did not fall.

"Save the nail!" Boeing reminded.

"Dude! Waste not want not, right?" Ocean took the nail in his magic and floated it to the space by the crates where they had made a little 'garden' of nails sticking out of the soil, towering over the flattened, brown grass.

"So... now what, Boeing?" Lightning stared doubtfully at the still sealed crate. All the nails were gone. Why was the side still there?

"Stand way back. I'm kind of pulling it out of my ass but... I have a hypothesis." Boeing lowered his head, angling his horn at the side of the huge crate.

"Like, dude, that sounds painful!" Ocean seemed concerned. "Maybe you should go spend some quality toilet time, we can handle it from here!"

"No, Ocean, he means he has an idea." Lightning tried not to roll his eyes.

"Oh, like, I get it." Ocean looked sheepish.

Boeing concentrated on the wooden, strut-braced side of the crate, his eyes narrowed with intensity of purpose. The crate side panel glowed in sync with his horn, gradually it moved, tilting away from the crate. "I... thought... so. Just... stuck... a.. little!" Boeing pulled with all of his might. The crate panel ripped away from the crate, then began to fall. It hit the grass with a creaking smack.

The first crate had been opened.

The newfoals crowded around; everypony wanted to see what was in the crate. It was packed solid, every space within it taken up with heavy materials and supplies; it was clear now why the crates had been so solidly constructed. There were stones for building foundations, pre-cut and pre shaped. A stack of lumber, all carefully worked, took up a third of the crate; Boeing instantly thought that it all must be components for prefabricated buildings. Carefully folded blocks of compressed fabric, something not entirely unlike canvas filled a large section. Several lacquered boxes, with lids and hinges were stuffed carefully in, as well as durable canvas bags filled with something were stuffed into every available remaining space.

Lightning recognized an image printed on one of the bags; it was a carrot. "Seeds! Those bags there... see? I think they're seeds!"

"The boxes there... I'll bet those are probably filled with tools." Boeing looked over the contents of the crate, trying to piece together what he saw. "I'm thinking that these crates represent a prefabricated village. Everything needed to start a new town. The fabric here suggests pavillion tent buildings, only possibly with rigid frameworks. It may not be the fanciest construction, but it will be shelter; homes, storage spaces, probably a barn in one of the crates."

"EVERYPONY! LOOK!" Trotsky, a gray and tan earth pony who once had worked as a corporate management instructor, was rearing up, wildly thrashing his hooves in the air. "LOOK UP AT THE SKY!"

Far above the crowd of newfoals, soaring through the haze was a formation of pegasai. As the colorful, flying ponies ripped through the layer of mist, they dragged behind them a crudely braided snake of cloud, which writhed and followed them.

It was Droplet's Flight Team, and they were weaving the snake of cloud through itself, then tightening it into a spiral, the spiral compressing until it formed a dark thunderhead. As the ponies on the ground watched in awe, the constellation of pegasai broke away from their formation and flapped over their new thundercloud, vanishing into the surrounding region of haze.

High on the hill overlooking the flattened grass, were Caprice, Pumpkin and Buttermilk.

Somewhere up there, thought Caprice as she stood upright, legs locked, feeding little Buttermilk, is my Alexi. He's up there right now, looking down on us, working so hard to bring us rain. Caprice smiled to herself, then lowered her head down and to her side, grooming her foal. She whispered to the tiny creature "Your daddy is up there. He's up in the sky, flying around. He's making rain like a proud pegasus should. Yes he is!"

Buttermilk paused from her nursing, licking her lips. She raised her head and licked her mother's nose. Caprice nuzzled her little foal. Buttermilk burped in her face, then went back to greedily enjoying her after-breakfast before-lunch meal. Caprice chuckled softly; the tiny yellow unicorn was such a cutie. She felt so glad to be able to care for her.

"Do you think we'll have rain today?" Pumpkin had climbed the hill to check on Caprice and Buttermilk; she had been watching the unicorns open the crate. "I could use some rain, it's so hot!"

It was hot, and very humid, as it had been for weeks now. The still, stifling air had become onerous to breath, and sweat never completely dried, leaving everypony vaguely damp and uncomfortable. All wanted the rain to come, the air to clear, and to see sunshine again. Everypony looked forward to the hope of dining on grass both sweet and green once more.

A second snake of cloud was being drawn from the mist; Caprice thought that the process was not unlike how cotton candy was formed. Her wealthy father had once paid to have a circus-themed birthday for her, it had featured a cotton candy machine. As the mist was woven into a second gigantic stormcloud, a large space in the haze was left; for the first time in almost two months, rays of sunshine poured like glowing honey over the ground.

The newfoals danced in the beams of light, cheering and yelling for their heroic pegasai. Caprice found herself cheering as well, until she realized that the noise was frightening Buttermilk; she stopped and folded her legs, laying close to the tiny foal, cooing and comforting her.

The sunshine grew in intensity as more clouds were spun into shape, compressed, and turned into dark, lumpen masses. Then, for an hour, the show stopped, presumably so that the Pegasai could rest. After the break, the formation flying resumed and a fourth and a fifth huge, looming storm cloud was created before evening came. The pegasai returned to wherever they were staying up in the sky, and Caprice could see that they flew wearily and no longer with precision. It had clearly been a very exhausting day for the tiny, colorful specks that soared above.

The newfoals had wanted to unpack the crate that had been opened, but Boeing put a stop to this; there would almost certainly be rain in the morning, and it would be terrible of any of the supplies were damaged in any way.

Reluctantly, the unicorns carefully replaced the side of the opened crate, and pinned it with two nails reset into holes in the wood. It took all of their strength of will to levitate the wooden panel back up and into place, and at the end all were panting and sweating from the effort.

Caprice was besieged with questions as she grazed her dinner; would there be rain in the morning, would there be another day of making clouds first, had Alexi given any special instructions - all things that she could not answer. She did her best to allay any worries and to deflect any difficult questions; she knew her role and how to play it. In the absence of the primary figurehead, it was her duty to act as the leader of the herd, to comfort the many, to provide the illusion of certainty in an uncertain world.

That night, though she did not want to, she forced herself to climb back up to the hilltop, away from the other newfoals. She wanted to be down among them, but she knew what they needed, and that superseded her own wishes. They needed to feel that they were being looked out for, and that was her role now, with Alexi absent and in the sky, unreachable.

It was not too difficult, though; she felt certain that Alexi was alright. Though she could not have hoped to pick him out from among the flying specks that had made the clouds that day, she refused to think anything other than that he was happy up there; sleeping on a cloud no doubt, perhaps missing her in return.

The sight of the sunlight had caused a strange feeling in her; the brightness had aroused her. She selfishly wanted Alexi back down on the ground, right now. This surprised her for a moment; but this was something she had once studied before entering Clinic 042 of the San Francisco Conversion Bureau two months ago.

The triggering factor for estrous in the Equestrian female was essentially the same as for terrestrial equines; increasing levels of light. She remembered how powerful this trigger was for Earthly horse breeders; mares could be kept in heat longer simply by keeping them under artificial illumination. She briefly wondered why it had not triggered in her when they had first arrived, and all was sunshine and blue skies; perhaps it was because she had just been transformed, and her new body needed time to settle in to the rhythm of simply being alive.

But there was no doubt, after the long period of dim light and perpetual haze, the shafts of golden sunshine had... stimulated Caprice. She wondered if this was true of the other newfoal mares as well.

"Pumpkin?" Her orange and black sister was playing with Buttermilk, trying to wear her out for sleep. Pumpkin had a daisy in her mouth, which Buttermilk was trying to take from her. Pumpkin swept her long neck so that the daisy was always out of reach of the foal, who by now was giggling at the simple game. Hearing her name, Pumpkin froze; Buttermilk did a clumsy leap and snatched the daisy from Pumpkin's mouth. Buttermilk began contentedly mouthing and sucking on the daisy, occasionally stomping her front hooves in pride at the accomplishment.

"Yes, Caprice?"

"I have a question, maybe you can answer it... did you get any impression that the mares today were... affected... by the sunlight at all?" Caprice had an odd look on her face, making Pumpkin wonder what this was about.

"Affected?" Pumpkin didn't have a clue, it was nice to see the sun again, certainly. Buttermilk tried to press the Daisy back into Pumpkin's mouth; she wanted to play some more. Pumpkin half-heartedly indulged her.

"Well, let me be more blunt. I think seeing the light after so much dimness may have... put me into the beginnings of being in heat. Light is a factor in pony reproduction. I want to know if any other mares were exhibiting such tendencies today. I thought that maybe you may have noticed something." Caprice called Buttermilk over to her, to give Pumpkin time to think.

"I didn't know that. About the light, I mean. I didn't... feel anything." Pumpkin thought for a moment "But then, I'm already preggers, so I guess that could be why, huh?" Pumpkin grinned.

"You think?" Caprice smiled back at her. "But what about the others?"

"Well..." Pumpkin half closed her eyes, deep in her memory of the day. "You know, towards the evening, Grassdancer was being a little more... friendly... with Goldrivet than I ever remember her being. It kind of stood out for me, now that I think about it."

"Interesting." Caprice nuzzled Buttermilk and tried to get her to settle down. "This was inevitable, of course, but it would have been much better for it all to have waited until we had everything ready; proper weather, decent housing, a sure supply of salt; irrigation! We don't even have a sure form of irrigation! I am very unsure about this new factor; there are bound to be many problems." Buttermilk was finally laying down, yawning. "Should Alexi and I use our position to temporarily outlaw mating until things are more settled? It could be difficult, and it would likely strain our position, but if we don't do something about this then we..."

Pumpkin put a hoof gently on Caprice's mouth, silencing her.

"Remember, back in the Clinic, when I was kind of freaked about how different everything was?" Pumpkin's wings unconsciously fluttered briefly; Caprice had long noticed that they acted as a barometer of the filly's emotions. "And you told me 'we are ponies, now' and how I should embrace it, because this is what I am forever? Ponies don't need houses. Ponies don't need everything to be perfect, I know that much. I read stories about ponies when I was little. Ponies just live." Pumpkin just looked back at Caprice as if she had finished reciting the Great Secret Of The Universe.

Caprice thought about that. She thought about her life as a human; all the planning, all the worry, all the study; her father angry at her for not wanting to become a proper corporate drone, for leaving, for refusing to be his plaything anymore... Ponies just live. That was part of the reason she had wanted to be ponified so very much; to be able to live in the now, in the moment, free from human overthinking and human overplanning.

In her human life, Caprice had tried to be as wild as she could be, as extreme as she could manage, always trying to escape from her overly controlled life. Finally she had run away entirely, but only after having been heavily augmented and modified. It hadn't helped; no matter how much Singularity she had implanted into her, it still didn't keep her father out of her room at night. Memories were pain, as much as thinking too much.

But now she was in Equestria. She was no longer human. She was a pony, and her old life was as dead and gone as if it had been some tale of reincarnation, as if it were a life from centuries ago. She was a pony in an entirely new world. There was only now. There would be only now.

Ponies just live.

"Little angel..." Pumpkin loved it when Caprice called her that; the orange filly flapped her wings hearing it again. "... sometimes I think you are the brighter of the two of us."

"No way, Caprice!" Pumpkin giggled at the notion. "But thank you. I know I'm not the brightest pony around, but occasionally I think I get things right. Right?"

"More than right, little sister. Now let's get some sleep. I think we might be in for some stormy weather!" The two sisters laughed happily at the thought; maybe tomorrow the rain would come and they would be yet another step closer to their goal of making a properly Equestrian go of things on the frontier.

* * * * *

The first drop tumbled, a shimmery blob of water, wobbling and turning end over end, falling through the Equestrian sky. The droplet began to elongate, slightly, as it picked up speed, heading to the brown world below. Waves crawled rapidly over its miniscule surface as a wave of sound impacted it; thunder echoed back from the ground.

The first drop fell down from the early morning sky, and landed on the nose of a lime green mare. Her name was Kiwi, her parents had originally come to San Francisco from the Corporate Megaplantation Of New Zealand to escape the overcrowding and the radiation. The droplet woke Kiwi from her sweet dreams about the stallion she had finally talked to the day before, when the sunlight suddenly came back.

Kiwi shook her head to get rid of the drop; it tickled.

Another droplet hit her in the ear. It went right in! Eww! Kiwi shook her head again. The drop had been cold. Suddenly it dawned on her. Water. From the sky.

Kiwi stood up, the drops increasing in number. Other ponies stood up as well, shouts and cheers waking the remaining sleepyheads. Rain! It was raining! It was actually raining!

Somewhere, high above the ponies on the ground, Alexi stood on the largest, stormiest cloud in the sky. He smiled, then grinned. Then he reared up as high as his hooves could reach and slammed them down upon the cloud like Ukko, like Zeus. Light flashed from beneath the cloud, bright as midday.


Thirteen: Mildly In Tents

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By Chatoyance

Thirteen: Mildly In Tents

After the rains came the bright light of day. Sunlight golden and warm spilled from the sky, making everything glow, bringing smiles to every muzzle. Drying coats gleamed in party colors as the newfoals clustered on the flattened brown grass of Base Camp. All were abuzz; the crates were finally being opened.

The contents of several had been levitated out and spread across the ground; piles of building materials gleamed in the bright day, boxes and cylinders of supplies, cases of tools, bags of seeds and foodstuffs too. Near the very first crate, spread out on the grass was a huge mass of fabric, sewn and cut in the form of a vast tent. The material was painted brilliant colors, and had clearly been designed to resist the weather.

"It's a dormered armoring pavilion." A pitch black unicorn with a bright red mane nudged the heavy, painted, canvas-like material with a shiny, black hoof. His name was Renaissance, and he had once been a member of the Society For Creative Anachronism.

On earth, he and many others had turned an entire section of the Market Street slums into a perpetual recreation of the early 1500's. Before the Collapse, such efforts were done as tourist festivals called Renaissance Faires; essentially places where historical recreation fandom could get tourists to pay for their hobby. By putting on shows and providing food and things to buy, the Faires were a win-win situation for everyone involved.

But in a world where money had ceased to have any useful meaning, where there were no jobs for the majority of human beings, and only a daily ration to look forward to, the Faires ceased having any financial support. Without jobs, the humans of the slums had time, and they had the ruins of their city to plunder, and they had a dream. Ren had lived in the Market Street Perpetual Faire, as it had been called, and spent his days living in a fantasy of knights and castles amidst the post-Singularity ruins of San Francisco.

When Equestria began to expand in the sea, the man who would one day become Renaissance The Unicorn felt a joy and a hope he had never known. Here was a world not unlike his most cherished dreams, with the only real difference being the number of legs required to enjoy it. By the time the San Francisco Conversion Bureau had been in business for six months with no problems, he felt confident enough to consider emigration.

On Earth, Renaissance had been a useless favela dweller, eccentric even by slum standards. Right now, in the Exponential Lands of Equestria, he had become the most valuable pony in the world, at least to the newfoals trying to understand the contents of the twenty Royal Equestrian Settlement crates.

"How do you even know that?" Droplet was incredulous; this unicorn had identified item after item as if he had lived in Equestria his entire life. "Are you a ringer? A native pony secretly sent to help us or something? Or are you just making all of this up?"

Ren laughed. "It's just that all of this is what I love! I've studied this kind of thing for years. I just... love it." The unicorn grinned, his golden eyes gleaming. Renaissance was a striking stallion, and Droplet found herself fascinated by his dramatic appearance, even as she was skeptical of his apparent knowledge.

"What did you call it again?" Droplet had already half forgotten, but she also wanted to test whether Ren was just making stuff up.

"It's called a 'dormered armoring pavilion' - see the little structures over there?" Ren pointed a hoof at a pile of prefabricated constructions that looked almost like gabled bird-houses. "Those are called dormers, and they provide ventilation as well as style to the finished building. Pavilion tents were a structure common to the battlefield or to tourneys; essentially they were a portable house."

Renaissance trotted over to where another part of the canvas had been laid out on the flattened grass. "See this? This is the roof, or it will be. Spiral pattern, it should be quite pretty, actually. It forms a kind of cone shape, and the dormers fit into these rectangular slots, here." Ren carefully stepped out onto the canvas to indicate the holes; he was very cautious that his hooves did no damage to the material.

Droplet was becoming impressed. "You really know all this stuff? But.. it's all from Equestria! It's not Earth stuff!"

"It could have been." Ren ambled back. "This structure, despite a few historical inaccuracies, would have blended right into the Earth of, say, 1530, 1540, or thereabouts. I mean, it's going to be a lot bigger, it will have more than one floor, that's not accurate, and the colors are right out, but the basic design might as well have come right from our own sad old world a long time ago."

"Why? How? How can something that looks like it came from our world be native to Equestria?" Droplet was puzzled, to say the least.

"I could argue for parallel development, but even I don't believe that." Ren used his horn to levitate one edge of the enormous tarpaulin, straightening it and smoothing it. "Ever wonder why we're called 'Ponies', and not something else?"

"N-No, not really. Not as such." Droplet seemed distracted. In truth she was; the bright sun shining off of Ren's muscular flanks fascinated her, and it bothered her that she couldn't figure out why. Droplet ran her eyes over the gleaming black coat, studying the way the light rippled over Ren's muscles. Ren was still talking but...

"The word comes from the name 'Epona', which is the name of an ancient horse goddess that... Are you ...alright?" Ren had noticed that Droplet's attention seemed strained.

"What? Yes! I'm fine! Sorry." Droplet looked away, feeling embarrassed, for some reason. Why? She couldn't figure it out. "Uh... pony, Epona, ancient goddesses, go on."

Ren, who had finally caught on to what was up with Droplet, smiled gently to himself before he continued. "To cut to the chase, almost every culture on earth has horse goddesses of one form or another, and pretty much, they all look like Celestia, one way or another. I think she's been here before."

This startled Droplet. "You think Princess Celestia has visited earth?"

"Why save us?" Ren waited.

"I don't understand."

"Why save us? Why bother at all?" Ren kicked a hoof at the ground, pushing aside the flattened blades of brown grass, underneath he spied a tiny green shoot; the grass was growing back.

"Well... I was told she needed the Earth." Droplet tried to remember "Something about Equestria needing the... life force of the planet or... some such. Or maybe it was the mass, or maybe something else. Anyway, I knew this guy who was sure this was all just a big invasion to steal the Earth." Droplet felt hot, even with the new breeze. The Pegasai had found that making holes in the haze changed the dynamics of the atmosphere, so now the newfoals enjoyed slight breezes.

"She could have waited until we were gone, you know. Humans are already on the way out; Earth is basically dead, or nearly dead, and the whole human species is just on life support, using technology to cling to survival. We're a nuisance and a lot of trouble, so why save us? She could have just waited a decade or two. Nothing to an immortal." Ren walked to the other side of Droplet, admiring the view. Her... terrain... had some pretty nice views.

"Equestrians are more compassionate than humans, they aren't capable of just watching us die off, they... well, I guess they kind of did just do nothing for millenia, eons, while we butchered ourselves... huh. I don't know! So why?" Droplet watched the unicorns over by the crates unloading materials with their magic; rolls of fabric, piles of construction materials, sacks of various things.

Three crates had been opened now, of the original twenty, and so far the contents had included the components necessary to make buildings of some kind. The newfoals were beginning to come to the conclusion that the crates represented a prefabricated village, and that the original job of the Royal Unicorn Corp was to have magicked the village into existence for them. Now they would have to do all the work themselves; first they had to understand what it was they were supposed to actually build.

"There are many legends of a white horse goddess, some of them even have her taking a human lover. Others portray her as a witch or a fairy." Renaissance walked close to Droplet, and noticed that she shivered slightly as he did so. "Maybe Celestia is repaying an old debt. Maybe, long ago, some human mattered to her, or maybe she saw something in humans that was worth saving. But I think she has been here before, long ago, because it makes no sense for her to bother with humans. Yet here we are, transformed, but alive, but saved from ourselves. Consider the scale of such an act of charity!"

"Charity...? I never really thought about it that way." Droplet began to realize what it was that was distracting her. She felt the most enormous desire to rub up against the shiny, black stallion. To experience what that would feel like, on her side, on her flanks, in this amazing new body of hers. She felt... attracted to him. To a stallion.

"Are you happy?" Ren bent his neck so that he could look Droplet in the eyes. She had yellow eyes too. Ren liked that.

"W-wha-huh?" Droplet didn't know how to respond. What was he asking her? Could he tell she'd been looking at him?

"Being a pony. Are you happy being an Equestrian, more happy than when you were human?" Ren's gold eyes seemed so intense.

Ah! OK, thought Droplet, I see. "Yes. Oh, absolutely yes. I am more than happy. I was never this happy before. I... I guess I really love being a pony. I feel... grateful, actually. Really... grateful."

"Maybe someday we'll get the chance to tell Celestia herself that. It's an incredible act of kindness, really, an incredible gift; 'Come join us, become us, and live a life of wonder and joy in a green and beautiful world'. The first time I heard her say that, I thought it was a joke, some kind of ad for a holoprogram or something. But then the Corporate News Network logo came up, and it turned out it was real. I spent the entire day torn between feeling giddy and being angry at myself for daring to believe anything so good could ever happen." Ren looked pensive, and his ears dropped slightly.

Ren's ears stood up again. "She didn't have to save us. She could have taken the Earth without any trouble, if she had just waited for a decade or two. Humans would be dead, all of us, by then. But she didn't." Renaissance brightened "She needed to wait until we developed nanotech of course, until ponification was even possible; but Celestia didn't let us die out. She's been watching us, over the eons. I really believe that."

"And that's why we have an armored dormitory parliament or whatever, you think?" Droplet smiled at Ren, his eyes were even more golden yellow than her own. They shone in the sunlight like golden coins.

"Dormered armoring pavilion. With a spiral design canopy. Yes." Ren sniffed the air; it was cool now, and sweet, and smelled, he noticed, slightly of... her. "That's what humans called such a structure, anyway. I don't know what the native Equestrians call it. But they have a lot of them, as you might have noticed in Welcome Town."

"I think I may have seen something like this in the first holofeeds of what Equestria looked like! I remember thatched-roof buildings - like something from the days of Shakespeare - and... tall tent-like structures. Those were what this is going to be, right?" Droplet looked down at the canvas, and over at the pile of wood struts that would form the internal skeleton that would support the building. "I can't wait to see it finished!"

Ren sniffed the air again. Sweet princess Luna, that cute little pegasus smelled good today.

* * * * *

Alexi and Caprice lay close together on the hill, enjoying the bright sunshine; below them a busy community was excitedly cataloging the contents of the crates as they were opened. Pegasai flew above the project, or stood on the crates; With the help of ropes discovered amidst the supplies they could act as living helicopters, cooperatively lifting and moving things for the other ponies.

Unicorns busied themselves by levitating and sorting items, removing objects from the huge crates, and pulling out nails so as to open even more crates. Earth ponies used their teeth and hooves to pull and move objects taken from the crates. Some earth ponies practiced with the many tools that had been found, others tended the rapidly expanding gardens near the full pond just beyond Base Camp.

"We're going to need a name for our metropolis after we build it." Caprice was grooming Alexi's mane, chewing and lipping the long hairs into order; while this was loving and comforting, the fact of it was that she just couldn't get enough of how Alexi smelled. It was a pleasant way to be intimate and it was surprisingly intoxicating for her. "Mmnn... your mane... really took a beating up in those stormy old clouds!" Caprice rested her head across Alexi's back, taking in deep nosefulls of his delicious scent.

Alexi, for his part, was trying to remain still; Caprice's attentions had left him embarrassed to even think of standing up; she had explained her theory of how sunlight related to the Equestrian estrous cycle, and he was in no doubt of her current condition. Equestrian physiology clearly had some powerful ways to indicate who was... interested. Alexi was having trouble because he could smell just how interested Caprice was. He was surprised at how strongly he could smell her, and the scent was so utterly compelling that Alexi was finding it hard to remain a proper gentlestallion. Very hard. Indeed.

"We could call the city 'Suokki', that is the Finnish name of a breed of horse from..." Alexi lost his train of thought; Caprice was doing something to his left ear and it... was... "what were we talking about?"

"I think you were asking me for some kind of favor..." Caprice continued to nibble Alexi's ear; she liked the way he twitched when she slipped her long tongue down inside his ear canal. "It sounded quite delightfully rude, actually."

"Caprice!" Alexi pulled his head away, The peach mare seemed terribly disappointed. "That is just how the word is pronounced; it is a type of horse. I would never say anything rude to my peach princess!"

"Pity." Caprice leered at Alexi, then changed to a soft smile. "Say the word again, twice in a row, so that I can hear it."

Alexi looked very puzzled but complied "Suokki Suokki." Suddenly he grimaced at her. "Caprice!"

Caprice giggled like an adolescent at this, and rolled over half on top of him, her belly almost entirely up, her hooves batting at his muzzle like a kitten. "Anything you say, dear." Caprice purred.

"I am thinking you need a dip in the lake, little peach." Alexi couldn't help it; he found himself nibbling her upraised front fetlocks and cannons.

"I'd rather have a roll in the hay, actually." Caprice looked up at him in a way that made Alexi need to catch his breath. Both stared at each other, then they started laughing. Alexi looked out over the busy community of newfoals, just down the hill, working so diligently to sort the contents of the crates. Somewhere out there Pumpkin was taking Buttermilk for a walk. Alexi looked down at Caprice, laying on her back. He bent his head down and kissed her, nibbling her lip.

"I would remind you that we already have one foal already. And it was you who was so worried about our herd having a population explosion, minun pikku ponini." Alexi had pulled his head up and away; Caprice had not been content to settle for just one kiss, and nibbling her lip had only made things harder.

"Oh, Poo." Caprice pouted. "Poo-poo. Kaka. Doo-doo. Fooey." Suddenly, she grinned. "Do me. Dooo Meee. Make me a pony. You know you want to."

"Caprice?" Alexi was a little shocked.

"That's what I said to Beth, the receptionist, back at the Bureau. I went right up to her desk and that's what I said to her."

"Really? You said that to poor Bethany?" Alexi chuckled at the thought.

"I rolled all over her desk going 'Dooo meeee! Just Dooo Meee! I am SOOO thirsty for pony juice!" Caprice wiggled next to him as she imitated her actions at the Bureau.

"You didn't say such a thing! Did you?"

Caprice crossed her hooves "I swear on Celestia's beard, that is exactly what I said to her." Caprice looked ever so serious.

"Celestia doesn't have a beard - at least that I know - and I think you are just being silly, telling poor Alexi such stories!" Alexi tried to look stern, but he had a feeling that his grin was failing him on that score.

"I still am, you know." Caprice had such an innocent face, Alexi thought. She is like an angel.

"Still am... what?" Trying to follow Caprice in conversation when she was in certain moods was difficult.

"Thirsty." The way she said the word would have made an entire fleet of sailors blush.

"CAPRICE!!!" This was just too much; a punishment in belly raspberries was long overdue for a certain naughty pony. Alexi set to the task with gusto; Caprice was soon giggling half out of her head, and desperately trying to keep her hooves from lashing out from the torment and accidentally clocking poor Alexi.

* * * * *

Halfway down the hill, Pumpkin was leading Buttermilk back home. Buttermilk was clearly hungry, and kept trying to suckle poor Pumpkin, who had to gently push the insistent little foal away, just so she could walk straight. "No, you silly little thing, If I had any I'd give it to you. Wait for mommy!" Pumpkin sighed; Buttermilk couldn't understand yet, there was nothing to be done but endure for now.

They had enjoyed a happy day together; Buttermilk had discovered some pretty little blue flowers growing up from the brown grass. They had both enjoyed a patch of newly grown daisies; Pumpkin loved the tasty, sweet treat, and Buttermilk enjoyed sucking and mouthing one of the flowers for the longest time. Buttermilk seemed to like flowers, even if she wasn't yet ready to eat them.

The biggest thrill of the day, though, was seeing the butterfly. It wasn't very fancy, just a simple, white creature, but it was there, it fluttered and flew, and it was alive. Pumpkin didn't know where it had come from, but she was delighted when it appeared. She and Buttermilk had followed it for a while, until they were worried they might become lost. The news that at least some insects existed, wherever they had been hiding, was surely something Caprice - and maybe everypony - would want to hear.

As Pumpkin rose above the curve of the hill overlooking Base Camp, she heard Alexi blowing noisily on Caprice's belly; Caprice was giggling like a filly. Pumpkin stopped, and sat down in the grass of the hill. Buttermilk looked in confusion between Pumpkin and Caprice, unsure of what to do or where to go.

Finally, Pumpkin got quietly up and started back down the hill. "Come on Buttermilk, come on," She whispered close to the little unicorn "Let's leave sis alone for a little longer. Let's go look at the crates, OK?"

Buttermilk didn't really want to go down the hill, but neither did she want to climb the rest of the way up alone. Reluctantly she followed Pumpkin. It was clear that she was very hungry; this time Pumpkin just stopped and let her do her worst; eventually Buttermilk gave up, the milk bar was closed, apparently. The poor foal's ears drooped, she was disappointed.

"Oh, you poor little dear." Pumpkin nuzzled and groomed the little unicorn. "I know you're hungry. Just a few minutes, really. Let's just give them a little longer, OK?" Buttermilk perked, slightly, at the pleading tone. She waggled her little tail almost like a puppy.

Pumpkin once again sat down in the grass, near the base of the hill. "You are such a sweety. I just know you and my little foal will become the very best of friends." Pumpkin began to lick Buttermilk behind the ears, this always seemed to settle her down. In a short while, Buttermilk's eyes were half closed, her tiny muzzle smiling in contentment.

Fourteen: In The Land Of The One-Armed Men

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By Chatoyance

Fourteen: In The Land Of The One-Armed Men

The construction manual, discovered in the sixth crate along with a small library of books, was a find that was greeted with cheers from Ren and Droplet. For a while the cheers became sighs of sadness because they soon realized that the book was written in Equestrian, and was therefore unreadable to them. Fortunately, it was discovered that several other newfoals had actually paid attention in their basic Equestrian Language and Writing classes during their time at the Bureau. These thankfully studious ponies could translate -with difficulty- the scrawling, chicken-scratch script of the tome.

Building the prefabricated dormered armory pavilion kit was not a simple task. It was far more than a mere tent; it was a true building that just happened to have cloth walls. First, a good site was needed to be chosen, then the ground had to be prepared for the provided foundation.

The newfoals chose a spot not far from the single tree they had planted, imagining that one day the tree would be surrounded with a little garden to decorate the front of what would be their town hall. This was the purpose of the pavilion; it was supposed to be a central building that could house the entire colony if needed for whatever purpose was required. By chance they had opened the crate that contained the very building that was expected to be built first.

The ponies truly needed a building; they needed a place to store things, a place to shelter from the work of the pegasai; but more than this they needed to have the feeling that they had a future, that they could actually make it whether they were ever found or not.

Inside the third crate, landscaping tools were found; shovels, rakes, spades, post hole diggers; even picks and axes. Learning to use these tools was a clumsy, sometimes scary endeavor. More than one pony flat out stated that it was impossible to do anything without hands. But they were proven wrong.

The Equestrian jaw turned out to be incredibly strong, and much longer than anypony thought. It made sense; terrestrial equines had very strong and heavy jaws, and the newfoals had already discovered how incredibly long their tongues were. All that length of tongue needed to be anchored to something, and that something was a jaw that was far larger than the size of their mouths would seem to indicate - again just like terrestrial horses.

The strong, large jaw, combined with wide, flat teeth permitted the newfoals to easily hold tools with great strength and power. Control was more difficult; the ponies had to learn that their long, crane-like necks could be moved with precision, acting like an extremely flexible and powerful lone arm.

The earth pony Goldrivet put it best; ponies were rather like really strong, one-armed men when it came to using tools and building things. While it was true that hooves could be useful too, especially for holding things in place; when it came to actual tool use, Goldrivet's description summed up the condition of being an Equestrian fairly well.

Working together, ponies could do everything that an army of one-armed humans would have been able to do, and perhaps more; they were innately wired to cooperate closely with each other. The unicorn Boeing had marveled at what the Equestrian form was capable of. "You know," Boeing explained one night to Gasket as they sat around after grazing their dinner "I was quite a fan of science fiction, back on Earth. I used to argue with... a friend of mine... about how impossible it would be for any sapient species to arise that lacked the equivalent of hands. I used to be so very certain that no creature could ever develop technology without a pair of grabbing organs. Two minimum, and you gotta have a thumb!"

Boeing thought for a moment. "In a way, I guess, I was both right, and wrong. Our necks and jaws are basically an arm and hand, and the fact we can bite down does the job of a thumb. But we don't have a second 'hand', just hooves; they push and hold, but they can't grab. We have only one grabbing organ - or so you'd think at first glance. But we actually have many. A lot more than two, really. We have each other. It's funny how I never included cooperation into my thinking, back when I was pondering such things."

Gasket had an answer for that. "Really, if you think about it, cooperation was always kind of 'Plan B' for Humans. That's the reason, I bet. As ponies, cooperation is always 'Plan A'. Maybe that's the real difference between our species."

Before the pavilion could be erected, the foundation needed to be placed, and before that, the grass had to be cleared. The ground for the new building could be prepared by the newfoals holding tools in their mouths and using their necks; the power was there, but a great deal of the issue of control was simply how odd it was to try to consider the head and neck as a sort of large hand and arm. But, in time, the area had been cleared and leveled, and the site prepared.

Lightning, Ocean and Boeing led the other unicorns in placing the provided foundation stones; each had been carved and numbered to fit the plan in the construction manual. Next came the wooden first floor; most of which came from crate two; polished, lovely planks fit with puzzle precision - though they did have to shift one of the foundation stones due to a minor error.

Goldrivet and Trotsky seemed born to use hammers with their mouths; they worked with a teal unicorn who called herself Aurora to hammer the floor into place. Aurora levitated nails and wooden pegs into place, Goldrivet and Trotsky would take hammers in their teeth and nail them down. They were astonished that this did not give them headaches - or pugilistic dementia - or even hurt their teeth; apparently the Equestrian body could take such abuse without any harm.

When it came time for the outer framework and the second floor, the unicorns truly came into their own; holding struts and buttresses in place with magic, allowing the earth ponies to hammer and pin the wood rigidly. Pegasai also were needed; lifting beams into place, hammering hard-to reach sections, and carrying tools and supplies from the ground to the developing second floor. Using ropes, the pegasai even lifted earth ponies and their tools up to the second floor and down again.

The stairs were a single kit, found in crate six; there was some embarrassment that the crate hadn't been opened earlier, the stair kit was listed in the manual, and it just made sense to have built the stairs before even starting the second floor. But they were learning; and ultimately, things were getting done.

When they weren't helping the unicorns and the earth ponies with the construction, the pegasai continued their weather work. Each day they grew stronger simply by flying more and more; now most could reach Sky Base from the ground easily, barely even panting at the effort. Cirrus practically lived at Sky Base, coming down only to eat. He was obsessed with discovering every last secret about cloud-stuff, and had already expanded his crude, experimental cloud fort into the beginnings of a castle in the sky.

During the month and a half it took to complete the pavilion, no rain was allowed to fall on Base Camp. Instead, the pegasai spread their rainmaking efforts over more and more of the land surrounding the four hills, filling the ponds and lakes, attempting to make larger and more impressive thunderclouds, and working to green the landscape for as far and wide as they could.

As they grew more ambitious, they found tricks that made their work easier; there were ways to so construct clouds from the mist that they would gradually grow on their own, magnetically drawing surrounding mist into themselves. This dramatically increased overall cloud production, and even suggested to Gasket the notion of a perpetual cloud-generating device of some kind. Droplet found a way to generate chain lightning and rain by how clouds were placed in conjunction with each other; such 'cloud circuits' allowed a single hoof-stomp to set off any number of thunderheads to great effect, and to begin a rain over a very large area.

One ambitious cloud-circuit experiment earned Droplet a second, last name; now she was 'Droplet Deluge', and if it had not been for the determined effort of all the working pegasai, she might have utterly flooded Base Camp. The principles behind wind still boggled the pegasai; they knew there must be rules to how it was generated, but the rules eluded them. They could make wind, sometimes overpowering wind, but the process seemed very unpredictable.

It was clear that wind making had something to do with how the ground was affected by the sun or by the shade from clouds, and that the various factors included the size and placement of holes in the haze layer, as well as how clear the sky was in general; even the presence of clouds at all made a difference. Even with that in mind they just couldn't grasp the nuances yet. This lack of understanding is what almost led to Droplet wrecking Base Camp. Still, everypony agreed that wind was a very welcome addition to the world - as long as it wasn't overdone.

As the Pegasai reclaimed more and more of the dry, brown land, insects were seen with increasing frequency; one of the unicorns, a mare named Dragonfly, had a fascination with entomology; she offered that the insects had been hiding under the soil as the land dried, and were only now coming out as weather was developed. It seemed a reasonable explanation.

Nearly two months after beginning construction, the town hall pavilion was nearly completed. Pegasai and unicorns worked together to sheath the wooden framework in the gigantic, painted canvas. They covered the top with a great conical fabric roof and then installed the peaked, windowed dormers. The finished pavilion looked like something out of a fantasy holomovie, which was rather appropriate, after all, for a magical land of talking ponies.

Alexi now stood next to Caprice, in front of the nearly completed pavilion. The structure was eight-sided, with a round, cone-shaped roof. The strong, canvas-like sides were painted a pale yellow with climbing vine decorations on the corners, the conical upper canopy sported a bright red spiral. The construction manual had guided them to find within crate ten a flag for the peak of the structure; it was the Royal Flag of Equestria, with sun and moon.

Inside the pavilion was a framework of wood, buttressed with diagonal beams. There were two stories to the pavilion made of polished wooden planks, and a beautifully carved, prefabricated staircase running between the levels. Eventually, there would be chests and shelves and tables installed; as soon as they were completed from the kits provided in crate nine. They had yet to install the lower windows into the sides, and there were still problems with the door frame, but these could all be fixed eventually.

The pavilion town hall stood like a beacon of civilization and pony technology, in the middle of the ground of Base Camp. It was marvelous to see completed, and this is why Alexi stood in front of it now, surrounded by the entirety of their colony, to proclaim a new day for the poor, lost newfoals: to announce the turning point the pavilion represented.

"A long way have we come!" Alexi felt utterly in his element; doing announcements was what he had loved best among his jobs back at the Bureau. Finally, he was able to announce once more. More than this, he also had access to a decent sound system - of a kind - once again.

One of the items found in crate seven was a loudspeaker of sorts; it was a fascinating object, and a quick look at it allowed the unicorns to see just where a proper study of magic could lead. Inside the conical device was a small, glassine bulb-like artifact, within which could be seen a curiously wrought work of metal. The metal shape spun slowly inside the bulb, glowing constantly with an arcane light, the same light that shone when they used their horns. It was clear what its purpose was; it must be a thaumatic battery of some kind, or perhaps a magic engine. Nopony knew if the enchantment upon the metal inside the bulb was permanent or would wear out, but whatever the situation, it made the loudspeaker function.

"We who were abandoned almost five months ago," from first arrival, several newfoals had been counting days, while they could not agree on an exact count, five months was certainly close. "We have overcome great obstacles! Our brave, strong earth ponies have discovered the secrets of growing the delicious food that we eat, and great are our ever-expanding gardens!"

This got a cheer; Sweetpepper had worked tirelessly on what he whimsically called his 'Galloping Gardens'; he had trained as many earth ponies as would listen in the arts of Equestrian agriculture as he understood it, and now a fairly large farm had risen next to the small lake just outside the four hills of Base Camp. The contents of the crates promised even better delicacies; the newfoals had wasted no time in making use of the tools - including several plows - to expand and plant the newly discovered seed collection.

"Our unicorns also have reason to be proud; without them the crates would never have been opened, without them we would not be here celebrating our first building!" The cheers were very loud for this and accompanied with hoof stomps; everypony was extremely happy about the crates. Thanks to the crates, they could all hope to live like civilized beings once again. The unicorns had become heroes for having opened them.

"And, it is entirely possible that the pegasai may have been of some small help as well." This got a great laugh; the addition of weather had lifted everyponies spirits, as well as bringing life back to the land itself. Increasingly, the region beyond the influence of the pegasai was turning to desert; in time it seemed that the newfoals would be situated upon a green oasis located in the middle of a vast dry wasteland.

"We have survived our predicament - better than this we have THRIVED!" This got the biggest cheer of all; between the bright sunlight that graced them once more, the gentle, cooling rains, the new, green grass, and above all the towering pavilion in their midst, the newfoals finally felt in control of their lives, and their future. They stomped their approval, hooves echoing like thunder in the bright, cool air.

"You know, it may be that we could be found tomorrow. But even if we are not found for years, even decades, I know one thing now for certain; we are together the masters of this place, this land, this realm. Together we can do anything, and together we are building a community. This is no longer just 'Base Camp'. I say this is now Our land. Our home. Our VILLAGE, and we have reason to be proud of it!" Alexi paused, Caprice, standing next to him held up a bowl of water in her teeth, Alexi drank before continuing. Bowls and jars and plates were another gift of the crates; already these artifacts were beginning to be used in various ways.

"Caprice and I have thought for some time about what to call our new home, and a suggestion was brought to us that we thought perfect. The sun shines here, bright and beautiful; more than a few of us have felt its effects of late." There were many nervous titters and chuckles in the crowd at this; the effects of the sun had been very much noticed indeed. "Standing here in front of our first building, looking out at the green and lovely paradise that is our own, I declare this to be the Village Of Summerland!"

While the reference was lost on many, the feeling was not; truly they did live in a perpetual summer land of increasing plenty, and so a cheer rose up for this, not so much for the name - it could have been any name, really - but rather for the idea that they were no longer the wretched orphans of Base Camp, but the proud citizens of Some Place.

Some Place. That meant something to every pony there. They could no longer be truly lost if they lived in a place that had a name. The newfoals instantly clung to the name. Summerland. Summerland Village. They lived in Summerland Village, they could finally see themselves as belonging to something, to somewhere.

For the first time since they had set hoof in Equestria, the stranded newfoals finally felt like they had a home.

The cheers began again, along with the hoof stomping applause, and it was loud, and it was good, and it lasted a very long time.

Fifteen: Notta Lotta Desiderata

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By Chatoyance

Fifteen: Notta Lotta Desiderata

Alexi tilted his primaries forward, just enough to catch the wind and slow his descent. It was something new he had learned quite by accident; he was quite surprised that he could rotate the feathers at the tips of his wings. His new body seemed to have a lot of little quirks and sometimes he felt like he was at the controls of some kind of sub-orbital transport like the ones that the corporate elite used back on Earth. He sometimes felt in his new body as if he were surrounded by thousands of confusing readouts, unsure of what action to take, or what any of the switches did.

He had found he could rotate his feathers one night when Caprice was trying to... when she was being a little overly... frisky with him, and he felt a strange no-pain in the tips of his wings. Alexi had become so fascinated with the fact he could rotate his primaries that he quite ignored Caprice, and she had stormed off into the dark in a huff.

It was starting to become a problem. It wasn't just that Caprice was in heat; almost all of the mares were. No, it was more than that.

Alexi was lost in thought, as he drew ever closer to the hill he called home. Below, the spiral roof of the new town hall reflected the light of the setting sun. It had been a long day of making weather; Droplet had an ongoing project of trying to keep the green land around Summerland Village as large as possible. She and Cirrus both agreed that once the land beyond the village truly turned to desert, it would be very hard to reclaim. The greenery they had now should be maintained, even expanded if it was possible. It was just a lot of work, and with the generation of breezes and wind, the haze layer was receding. It was not as easy to find the raw material to make clouds as it had been.

Alexi recalled the first time he had met Caprice, just after her Conversion. He had flirted with her right from the start, but then things just seemed to accelerate, sweeping him up and away. Everything happened so quickly; within three days he had found himself the head of a family, with a foal and a sister-in-law. Somehow he had ended up being effectively married without even knowing it. It was as if he had been caught up in a strange dream.

Next he had suddenly ended up in Equestria, with all kinds of responsibilities, and somehow the dream had ended. It felt like waking up, as though he had been asleep somehow. How the hell had he gotten into this? What was he doing? One moment he had been announcing newfoals and helping Miriam in the kitchen and getting supplies for Dr. Pastern, and the next he was... getting on a boat to Equestria with Caprice.

Alexi altered his glide and began flapping his wings. He turned away from his decent to the hill, and started climbing. He didn't want to go down there. Caprice would just keep throwing herself at him, trying to get him to consummate a marriage he didn't even remember agreeing to. Not consciously, anyway. As he flew, he began to slowly feel angry. One minute, he was a free man. The next minute, surprise Alexi, now you are a dad, look at little Buttermilk, she is now your daughter. Another minute and he was having ponification serum drooled down his throat. It had been to save his life, but still...

Finally, here he was with even MORE responsibility. He had not wanted any of this; he had not wanted to lead a community. He had always preferred to be in the background, helping others to get things done. Now he was some kind of leader figure. It had all happened so quickly. It hadn't been his choice, had it? It had all been Caprice.

Perhaps he would spend the night at Sky Base. Just for some peace, if nothing else. But he also needed to think. How in Equestria had all of this even happened to him?

* * * * *

"Venice!" Roman Bertarelli was not a man who waited. When something was to be done, it would be done, and that was that. Roman mentally sent a Daimon to determine his daughter's status. A window appeared to the left of his vision; the symbol projected onto his retina indicated that a lockout barrier had been encountered. This was the third and last time. He had warned Venice about this very thing just the other day.

Roman cancelled the Daimon and generated another; he'd send the blackmesh storming into her room if he had to. This was all for her anyway; the least she could do is to be on time.

Venice Elspeth Bertarelli descended the wide, marble staircase, one hand on the gold plated rail. Behind her the holowindows displayed scenes and sounds of blue oceans from long, long ago, the aromarators had already given the grand foyer the scent of the ancient ocean of that time.

"Venice. You know that I do not have time to waste on your foolish..." Roman's lips were covered now by her jasmine flavored ones, his mouth full of her tongue. His anger receded as his arousal increased. As usual. Predictable as clockwork.

"Now, daddy," Venice pulled away from his lips and cuddled close to his shoulder "You know it is important to give the right impression, even for a trip to the butchers." There was little he could say; there was little he could ever say.

"If you insist on calling them 'butchers', perhaps we should cancel this." Roman didn't exactly approve of his daughter's fascination with extreme augmentation, but he had been assured that all of it could be removed at a later time, even the permatech. He was willing to indulge Venice, but not if her passions should compromise her future, or the family's position, within the world corporation.

Venice twirled away from her father, her backless strap and short gossamer skirt rippling with holographic colors that automatically transformed the mathematics of her moving curves into figure-enhancing patterns of light. It was a mesmerizing outfit that made it seem like she was standing naked in a rainbow, and as always, he found himself struggling to disapprove.

"Come on, Daddy, you really shouldn't be so tardy!" Venice danced out the door, held open by Bohn and Drohl, the lower floor doormen. The lifterlimo was waiting in the north courtyard, blackmesh at the base, ever watchful. She really should be more careful exiting the mansion, Roman thought - the blackmesh were useful, but they were not perfect.

Venice wiggled her bottom at her father and giggled. It was a calculated, precision behavior, practiced and adjusted for angle of view and current ambient lighting. Her retinotopic occipital implant relayed an image of herself as seen from the north entrance scanner directly to her brain, she angled her body slightly so that the curve of her breasts was just visible under the backless strap. She noted that her father's heat signature demonstrated increased flushing of the face and genital region - good, that would make him more pliable.

Roman began following his daughter to the airship. Like a puppy, Venice thought. He had been fairly easy to train, considering his position. But then men were simple creatures, far easier to program than her holovision recorder.

In the air, Venice reflexively began messaging her friended contacts on the hypernet. Every once in a while, a reminder conveniently popped up within her visual field informing her it was time to smile happily at daddy, or give him a pat or a snuggle. If daddy began talking, a brief summary would appear like subtitles below her view; the chime sent to her auditory complex let her respond as if she had been listening. It was a simple system to operate; hear the chime, scan the summary, offer the appropriate response. She had no idea what he was going on about; probably his work.

Venice finished publishing her current thoughts about her upcoming augment, a full-spectrum TX-03 permatech 'Nightwander' system, to be implanted right into her skull, just over her frontal lobes. This wasn't at all what daddy thought she was getting, of course; he'd have a complete fit when she showed up after the procedure with a secondary visual system poking out of her forehead! She couldn't wait; if what she had read was correct, she'd be able to actually see any hidden aneurysms blow inside of his brain if she got lucky. Venice liked making Roman angry; it was both punishment for the old letch and a delightful challenge to win him back afterwards; such games broke up the monotony.

Seducing him when she was thirteen had opened up worlds of opportunity for her; now she could have anything in the world that she wanted, whenever she wanted, however she wanted it. That said, she despised her father because he was so easily manipulated and therefore weak, but mostly because he was a monstrous, incestuous creep; after all, he could have said no.

Then again, she smiled to herself, who could ever say no to these - she teasingly wiggled in her seat, her bosoms dancing like happy kittens under their strap.

As they landed at the Stockholm Regional Augmentation Center, a chime inside her brain alerted Venice that daddy had said something again. She sighed internally, which automatically fired off a memo to 234 of her closest followers; they loved to see how often her father exasperated her within a given day - there was a prediction pool with prizes and everything. The conversation summary suggested 'fatherly concern' as the topic. How sweet. She spoke the appropriate responses and mechanically gave the required amount of tongue in her goodby kiss. Her father was a vending machine, she just had to use the right credit stick.

He'd actually been pretty easy to handle this trip. Almost... fatherly. Venice felt a tiny twinge of guilt because of that and returned to the lifterlimo where her father sat. On a whim, she temporarily disengaged from her hypernet connection and shifted to realworld for just a moment. "I... I just wanted to say thank you for dropping me off. I hope you do well at... your thing... at that place." Her smile was genuine, an odd feeling for her face.

Roman seemed taken aback. Genuineness was not something he was used to, especially from a family member. "Uh... indeed." He had no response to this. There was no response to such a thing.

The awkwardness was uncomfortable. What ever had she been thinking? Venice instantly reestablished her interfaces and connections, and returned to full function mode. "Ta, daddy!" She gave her butt the expected waggle at him as she left; her internal gyro indicated that she had performed the act within expected erotic parameters.

The microscopic sensor dust that she had secretly peppered in his underwear relayed to her implants that his blood chemistry had enjoyed an increase in norepinephrine; this outcome had triggered a 'reward!' icon in her visual field. The awkward moment had been successfully rendered invalid. Excellent.

As Venice entered the Augmentation Center, she suddenly had the strangest empty feeling inside. It was the god-damnedest thing! She was having fun, wasn't she? That was all there was, so... why...? Never mind. It was probably daddy's fault somehow. It always was.

Caprice awoke, disturbed and shaken. For a moment she wanted to cry. It took her a moment to remember where she was, to realize that she had only been dreaming. Pumpkin was softly breathing, asleep on her right, pressed close for warmth and comfort. She checked on little Buttermilk; the yellow foal was fine, curled close to her udder as usual, head resting on her thigh. Caprice saw what had awakened her; Buttermilk's horn had been growing, and the sharp point had jabbed her in her other thigh. Ow.

It was dark, and the moon was high in the star-filled sky. Alexi was still not back. He had still not flown down from the growing mass of the cloudstuff castle in the sky. She had waited for him all day. He hadn't shown up for the dinner graze. He hadn't joined her on the hill at night. And she had sooo needed him tonight. The feelings caused by the increased sunlight were driving her mad. It was hopeless to tend to her urges herself; her new equinoid anatomy made it virtually impossible to reach her own sexual organs, they were too far back and too high up for her hooves to reach. Her legs just couldn't stretch or bend far enough. Caprice had even tried rubbing her rear up against the side of a crate when she thought nopony was looking; that hadn't worked either. This lack of personal access was one fact that had never been mentioned at the bureaus; right now she felt it really should have been discussed.

The dream. Caprice hated dreaming of her life before. She didn't like who and what she was back then. When Equestria arose, when she had heard the words of Celestia, when she had met the ambassadors (thanks, Daddy!), something in her had changed. She had lost all of her excuses. She had lost all of her rationalizations.

In her human life, as Venice, she never had difficulties, or problems, and the only drama in her life was what she created for herself. She had no one to blame but herself for anything that had happened to her; nothing had ever really been denied her, and she had never known anything but getting exactly what she wanted.

After meeting the Equestrians, the comparison had shocked her with an understanding of what she herself was; a spoiled, manipulative, ultimately nasty person. The Equestrians were just... so nice. They were so terribly, sincerely, truly, impossibly nice. Venice had never known 'nice' before. Well, maybe once. Long ago. In her dim, faded memories of mother.

She became obsessed with the aliens, and as she saw more of their world, and learned more of their lives, she became more and more unhappy with herself. She had studied everything she could find about Equestria. She used her position to gain access to the most secret details of their language, their culture, their world - at least as far as the world government understood such things at any rate.

As she learned about the Equestrians, she began to see, for the first time, the world she lived in. For the first time she actually noticed the endless favela, the sea of impoverished humanity, the dying world outside of her father's mansion. The more she saw, the more unhappy with herself she became. She left her home one night, using the power of her augmentations. She began to wander through the ruins of San Francisco. She was never in any real danger: she had senses and enhancements vastly beyond any human that might try to harm her, and could avoid trouble with ease.

What she saw in the ruins destroyed her; amidst such terrible poverty, despite the occasional act of violence and horror, were acts of kindness, and of sacrifice that truly meant something. She had looked back at her own life, and the feeling of hollowness came back in force. She didn't want to be 'Venice' anymore. She didn't want to be anything of what she had been anymore. The worst of it though, was that she had chosen to be the person she had been. Any fault belonged solely to her.

Finally, she had come to the Conversion Bureau. There was no point in going home; she had ruined what few relationships she had once had. If she went back to that life, she knew she would slip back into her old persona like a hand fitting a glove. But... as a pony, as an Equestrian, maybe, just maybe, she could become someone worth... existing.

She had felt desperate; if she could just assemble all the pieces, all the parts, she could be a good person. She could fill the right role, she knew how little of her was real; with the right situation around her, she would have no choice but to be a decent person. It would come naturally. She just had to bring the components together. It was like augmentation, really.

She thought she had succeeded. She'd done everything right, hadn't she? She had a sister now, Pumpkin, who depended on her. Nobody had ever depended on her before; if they had, it certainly would have been the biggest mistake of their lives. She had a daughter now, Buttermilk, to whom she was the entire world, not to mention breakfast, midmorning meal, morning meal, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, supper and midnight nummies.

And she had Alexi. Caprice the pony had a family, she had a complete family of her very own, and she was important to them. Caprice wanted to be responsible, to take care of them, to support them. She wanted so much to be genuine with them. It was just so hard; she really didn't know what genuine precisely meant, but she had managed to find a way. She ran on instinct. She was a pony now, so she did her best to step out of the way and let her body guide her. In a way, her natural flesh was her new augmentation system; it had no chimes or bells or icons, but it nevertheless filled her with information. Surely that was being genuine - just be the body, right?

So where was Alexi? Had she done something wrong? Did something else happen; was he OK? She was worrying, and it felt painful. Worrying was a new sort of feeling for her, at least this kind of worry, and she didn't know what she was supposed to do about it. Alexi wasn't here, he should be here, and yet he wasn't. Now she felt angry. Didn't she always do her best to help him, to support him? He should be here. Where the hell was he? Dammit! Where the hell was Alexi?

Buttermilk had awakened. She had awoken her; apparently she had been shaking her head somewhat violently and pounding her left hoof to match her angry thoughts. Sorry, little girl, she thought. Caprice licked Buttermilk behind the ears, but the little unicorn didn't settle down. It was like the foal could tell that she was upset.

Buttermilk began to cry. It was a plaintive sound, surprisingly human. Caprice tried licking Buttermilk more, and nuzzling her harder, but it didn't help. The crying would surely wake up Pumpkin, and then there would be questions and talking and Caprice didn't want that. Shut up, Buttermilk! Dammit, the crying was getting worse. Here, suck on a nipple: Caprice tried to push Buttermilk's head down towards her udder. Buttermilk wasn't hungry. Dammit, where was Alexi? Why didn't he come home?

Caprice lay her head down on her front legs, and tried to ignore Buttermilk's crying for a while. She could feel Pumpkin shifting, half awake. It had all been so perfect. It had just been so perfect. Why wasn't it perfect tonight? Why wasn't Alexi home just like always, and more importantly, why wouldn't he... fuck her?

The words burned like two coals from hell in her mind. She hadn't used words like that, even in her own head, since the day she was Converted. Well, except about Windfeather. What was going on with her? Maybe it was just part of being in heat? That must be it. It was a new experience, and she was just outside of her normal, operating parameters - like that one time the implants in her hands had sent spurious data to her occipital lobe. She'd been pretty weird, for nearly an entire month, until the fault was traced.

"Ca..Caprice?" Pumpkin raised her head, heavy with sleep. "What's going on... Buttermilk... she's crying really loud."

Buttermilk was wailing now, and Caprice didn't know what to do about it. "I don't know, Pumpkin. I can't get her to stop crying. I don't know what's going on."

Pumpkin looked around. "Where's Alexi? Isn't it late?"

"Alexi... he didn't come home tonight." Caprice said the words flatly; she felt besieged by her own emotions, she wasn't sure what she felt anymore.

Pumpkin struggled up, then carefully walked around to the other side of Caprice, then folded her legs to lay down again, close to Buttermilk. "Shhh.... Shhh.... it's alright, it's alright! Auntie Pumpkin is here, right here, shhhh...." Buttermilk turned to Pumpkin and buried her head into Pumpkin's chest. Pumpkin groomed and comforted the little unicorn.

"No. It isn't alright. And I don't know why." Caprice sank her head between her legs, her chin resting on the grass, her cannons pressed tight against the side of her skull, her ears flat and pulled back. "Something is wrong, and I don't know what, and I don't know what to do." Tears dropped from her eyes, yet she felt strangely numb.

For a long time, this is how it was; Caprice laying flat, half-crying, and Pumpkin comforting a crying Buttermilk.

Eventually, Caprice was out of tears, and Buttermilk was finally quiet.

"Caprice?" There was a long silence.

"Yes, Pumpkin."

"You kind of... push." Pumpkin's voice was very soft, very quiet. "I know you don't mean anything bad by it, I know you only want the best for all of us but..." Pumpkin paused, her voice just a little quavery "You kind of... push."

The faint breeze rippled the grass on the hill, the moonlight shining on the blades.

"I know."

Sixteen: The Cloud Tower

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By Chatoyance

Sixteen: The Cloud Tower

Droplet Deluge (dammit, it wasn't intentional that those stormclouds got loose!) led Flight Team Alpha toward the direction of the incredibly distant mountain. The changes in the atmosphere over the past month had made it just visible once again. Distant Mountain made an excellent and necessary point of reference in the endless flat plains.

The view from the air was strange. In her human life, Droplet had occasionally enjoyed the opportunity to ride on one of the large lifting body transports high over the smog layer. She had seen mountains on Earth from altitude, and the view in Equestra conflicted with her memory. There was no curvature to the horizon. As far as Droplet could tell, the geometry of Equestria was that of an infinite, utterly flat plane extending to eternity.

There was no intention to reach the mountain, of course; while there was no way to tell exactly how far away it was, it was possible such a journey, even by air, could take weeks or even months. This could possibly be done, provided food was found along the way, but she could think of no way to find Summerland Village again on a return journey. It would be so very easy to become lost, to pass by the small patch of green amidst the infinite brown. A journey to the mountain would almost certainly be one-way only.

Her real goal was to scavenge water from the receding haze layer. As the pegasai had worked to create weather, the effects had spread much farther than they had imagined. It should have been obvious, perhaps, that the atmosphere was contiguous, that a change in one spot could affect everything around it, but nopony had even considered this in the rush to generate rain. Even if it had been considered, what else could they have done? Rain was vital.

Their cloudmaking had initiated changes in the atmosphere, and the haze layer had begun to vanish. Much of the local haze had been collected and turned into clouds, which in turn had been used to water the land. This had opened up holes for sunshine, and generated winds; the winds had come from rising and falling air creating high and low pressure zones. The zones had affected the surrounding air far beyond Summerland, and the result was a rapidly changing world beyond the village.

Increasingly, the land beyond had turned to true desert, and water vapor in the air had become harder to find. The lands around Summerland Village were green, the lakes and ponds full; if it had not been for the accidental discovery of clouds that could absorb surrounding moisture the pegasai might have had only one or two rains before desert claimed everything.

Now, above every lake in Summerland hung an absorber cloud, these kept the available water within the area, creating a controllable cycle. But if more water could be collected, the size of Summerland could be increased, and this would mean more water security for everypony.

Droplet called out to Cherryblossom and Gasket; she had spotted patches of white amidst the endless blue; a 'sky mine' of water. They could now work together to corral the vapor into an absorbing cloud; what they were coming to call a 'seed cloud' and it would, over time, grow into something large and fat enough to be worth slowly pushing back to Summerland.

Teams Beta and Gamma had gone different directions, they would be doing the same thing.

Droplet wished Alexi had headed one of the other teams; those pegasai needed an experienced leader. But Alexi was busy with Cirrus on some project or another; he had isolated himself inside the growing 'Cloudcastle' effort. A castle of cloudstuff seemed a little silly to Droplet, but if nothing else, it did store water in a relatively solid state, acting as a vast, floating reservoir.

It was actually kind of strange, now that she thought of it; Alexi hadn't gone down to the ground except to eat for over a week. He hadn't given any instructions or provided any leadership, either. Droplet had needed to pick up the slack; more and more the newfoals were turning to her for guidance. Maybe that was what Alexi wanted, but Droplet felt odd about it all. Probably she'd better have a talk with him and find out what he expected her to do.

Mostly, though, Droplet wanted to just get this damn cloud built. She wanted to get back to Summerland before sunset, if she could. Ren was waiting for her; they were going to go off and graze together - the closest thing to going on a date that was possible right now. He said he had composed a poem to tell her; he had spent several days committing it to memory as he wrote it in his mind. Droplet spent a lot of time thinking about Ren. He was delicious.

Gasket banked to the left, Cherry to the right as they circled the mass of vapor. It was a rich load; quite a lot of water in there, Droplet could tell. This was good but... dammit... being larger it would take more time to weave it into the shape required to act as a seed cloud. Oh well, nothing for it; this was the reason they were out there.

Droplet hoped Ren wouldn't be too disappointed if she wasn't there exactly at sunset.

* * * * *

Cirrus Uncinus carefully held the beautiful, delicate cup over the flat, white surface. The surface looked like compressed snow; it was a rectangular slab of highly worked cloudstuff about three hooves wide by five hooves long. It had taken Cirrus several days of work to create it; constantly adding more cloud, working it in, squeezing it down between hooves, flattening and working the result like clay.

Under the hovering slab of white, Alexi lay on his back, belly up on the fluffy floor of Cloudcastle (formerly Sky Base). The plan was that he was to try to catch the precious cup -taken from the collection in crate eleven - using his body and hooves. Hopefully, between his belly and his reflexes, the cup could be kept from sinking through the floor of Cloudcastle, inevitably to smash on the ground below.

Perhaps it was risky to use a cup, since they had a limited supply, but Cirrus wanted a real test of his creation. He needed to know if it was truly possible to create a functional, viable city in the air. A floating city would be pointless if there was no way to store goods, keep objects, or support structures made of materials other than cloud. If cloudstuff could not be made to support something beyond pegasai, the clouds would always be nothing more than a convenient platform to briefly rest on.

Cautiously, Cirrus lowered the cup held in his teeth, closer and closer to his expertly created slab. The cup was but fractions of an inch over the flat surface now. Just a little more... Cirrus felt resistance from the cup, the slab of cloudstuff was blocking it. Good. Good. Now for the real test.

Cirrus did his best to make sure the round base of the cup was flat and centered. Holding his breath, he slowly released his bite on the cup, ready to snap his jaw shut at any moment. Looking down his muzzle, he could see the edge of the cup, immobile. He gave the cup a gentle prod with the tip of his tongue. It moved slightly, then settled. It wasn't sinking.

The white-tufted, sky blue pegasus slowly pulled his head back and regarded the cup.

"What is going on, Cirrus? I am ready for any falling of the cup. Is it sinking? What is its status?" Alexi held his front hooves up and ready; he was on edge, tense and primed to react.

"I think, my good Alexi, that we have a success. It's not sinking. Not a bit. Come up and have a look!" Cirrus spoke in a careful way that belied his internal excitement; he really wanted to shout and dance around, but the experiment was not over yet.

Alexi carefully rolled away from Cirrus, and got to his hooves. Standing, he shook his mane; it was quite a mess, with many tangles and a generally disheveled appearance, and tended to get into his eyes. Alexi stepped over to look at the floating 'shelf'. The cup stood on it, with no sign, as yet, of sinking through it.

"How many days did you say it took you to make this?" Alexi had lost track of time; living at Cloudcastle was slightly disorienting, especially with only Cirrus to interact with.

"Almost three days. It wasn't constant work, of course, but I did put about... oh... three to six hours a day into this. Maybe a little more." Cirrus held his head low to the small shelf of cloud and squinted, looking for any sign of the cup breaking through the shining, white surface.

"Then I don't think anypony will be paving the streets of a cloud city with this material." Alexi lowered his head to look at the cup on the shelf from the side; still no sinking.

Cirrus moved to look at things from a different angle, from the long side of the 'shelf'. "I have to agree. It was exhausting and dull work. But, we pegasai can easily walk on normal clouds; I see this material as something to be used sparingly, only as needed. With this, a cloud city could have, say, a library, with books on shelves. Or a restaurant with places to store foodstuffs, and surfaces to prepare dishes on. Or better still, factories!"

"Factories? In the sky?" Alexi looked puzzled.

"I've been thinking about the seed clouds, Alexi. What if a small seed cloud was fitted inside of a... chamber of some kind. Something that could hold water at the bottom, with the cloud above the pool, and a smaller opening at the top? I'm thinking, it might be possible to pour water inside, and have the seed cloud generate cloudstuff from the moisture as it evaporates. It could be the basis of a cloud-making machine!" Cirrus' eyes widened with excitement "Think of it, Alexi, perpetual cloud manufacturing plants, of whatever size, constantly pumping out cloud material for any use; weather, cloud city construction, cloud homes, rain on demand!"

"Like a corporate utility of some kind, providing basic, needed materials?"

"Exactly! And I've noticed something else too; as seed clouds grow, their temperature drops. I don't know how it works, or why, but it's noticeable. Somewhere in that is a way to make cold; I'm thinking cloud-powered refrigeration, maybe even a full cycle of weather, maybe even... snow!"

"Snow? Why would anypony want snow?" This baffled Alexi, they had perpetual summer. What more could anypony ask for?

"A complete yearly cycle is important to many forms of life, Alexi. It's even important to us, if you think about it. Do you really want... the current rutting cycle... to go on forever?"

Alexi considered this last one. No. No he did not. "But, would not the snow mean cold as well? Cold would kill the grass and freeze the gardens."

"This is true, but that is what seeds are for; some plants actually need the cycle of winter and summer to thrive in the long term. It is what they are adapted to. The same is true for many animals, including insects. We know we have insects. Eventually, animals may show up, as they expand their range to reach us out here... wherever we are." Cirrus gave the cup a nudge with his nose. It tippled, gyrated, and came to a stop, just as it would on any wooden table. It did not sink through the cloudshelf.

"I think you have done it, Cirrus. This cup is not moving. Congratulations are in order!" Alexi grinned at Cirrus, he knew how much this meant to the meteorologically-minded stallion.

"Thanks, Alexi, but not quite yet I think. Phase two." Cirrus took the cup off of the cloudshelf and placed it carefully into the cloth saddlebags he wore. Several dozen of the incredibly convenient bags had been found in crate seventeen, and now many ponies had no idea how they could have lived without them. From the other side of his saddlebags, Cirrus took out a stone, and placed it with little ceremony on the cloudshelf.

"Now what, Cirrus? First a cup, and now a stone?" Alexi couldn't understand the reasoning here.

"The cup proved that useful objects, made by native Equestrians, could be supported. But now we need to see for how long such support will last. If the stone falls through, nothing of use is lost, so we can just let it sit that way and check on it every day. If it still shows no sign of sinking through the shelf after a week, then perhaps congratulations really are in order." Cirrus lifted the stone with his mouth an inch and then let it drop, just to see what would happen. The stone bounced slightly, then came to rest. It did not sink.

"Why not just use the stone from the beginning? Why bring the cup at all?" Alexi had to ask.

"Because..." Cirrus seemed startled by the question; Alexi could almost see the effort of Cirrus' scrambling brain " the materials of Equestri... well..." Cirrus looked very sheepish and blushed slightly "Basically, the cup was for what we meteorologists call 'The Awesome Factor'."

Alexi laughed "The... Awesome Factor?"

"Well, it was, wasn't it?" Cirrus grinned like a little foal, excited at a favored toy.

"Actually, I don't entirely know, I was under it all, if you remember. So as to to catch the cup if your awesomeness failed." Alexi couldn't help but smile. It was clear Cirrus loved his process of discovery.

"Oh, um, yes. I could put the cup back for a bit!"

"No, I think I understand. It is OK. Good work, Cirrus." Alexi shook his head slightly. It had been fun, the past week, wandering about Cloudcastle - such as it was - helping build more walls and floors, and assisting Cirrus with his curious experiments. Alexi hadn't had to worry about anything except for making sure that when he flew down to eat, he landed far away from the rest of the herd. He hadn't wanted to accidentally bump into anypony right now. Well, a certain pony anyway.

The week had given Alexi both time and space to reflect on everything that had happened over the last five or so months. He had also been free from any demands; he had made it clear to Droplet that he was not to be bothered.

Alexi had constructed a bed for himself in the unfinished tower of the floating fortress. Cirrus had been a little haphazard in constructing Cloudcastle; there were only three walls to the 'castle', none of them were complete, the tower was barely even there. The tower did feature a spiral staircase of cloudstuff however; an experiment to see if such a thing could even be done, and at the top of it was a flat, circular floor of sorts. Partially completed walls surrounded half of that upper floor. There was even a lone, complete, arched window built into the unfinished wall of cloud-stone. The absurdity of the thing delighted Alexi.

Alexi's 'bed' was little more than a roughly rectangular mass of cloudstuff, the top of which he had fluffed, giving it a puffy, soft appearance and feel. Laying on it felt like floating, and it easily was the most comfortable sleeping surface he had ever experienced. It was truly a shame that Caprice could never experience such a thing.

That thought surprised him a little. He had not been thinking overly charitably about Caprice of late; quite the opposite, actually. She reminded him uncomfortably of his very first roommate, way back when he was young, and stupid, and just starting out in Oulunsalo, long before he moved to the North American Corporate Zone.

He had been only eighteen, and his name was not Alexi Venäläinen, not back then. Unknown to his parents, he was a hacker, a quantum outlaw, very highly ranked among the red hats. He wasn't out to hurt anyone, but he did love the feeling of power that came from being better than anyone else. He wanted to be on top. He wanted the respect, the admiration, and yes, the fear.

The young would-be super-hacker was at an impasse. He had gone as far as he could with the connections possible from the citizen hive where he lived with his parents. If he wanted to be a truly big shot in his secret world, he would need to move; he would need have better access.

He had not wanted to live out on his own; he adored his mother, he admired his father, and his home life was warm and filled with love. But in order to gain the access he thought he needed, he required a special connection to a primary quantum carrier node.

Only such unique access would allow him to truly advance to the status of being a respected and feared 'Dark Mystic'. Oulunsalo had a massive node that served most of the region; it had likely been placed there for the benefit of the Oulu Nanofabrication Center that used the sea for cooling.

In order to gain the special access he required, it was necessary to pose as a fast-track worldcorporate recruit; Alexi needed to have everything about him fit this role, and that included having an apartment in the Oulunsalon Arcology, which housed the node. In order to make his plan work he had needed to contact a fellow dark lord of the quantum arts, a mysterious figure that only went by the name "äpärä". The name meant 'Illegitimate'; appropriate, he thought, for a black hat Dark Mystic level hacker.

äpärä had seemed a safe bet at the time; he had helped the young hacker on numerous occasions with minor things; they seemed on good terms. When they had finally met in meatspace, äpärä turned out to be an older man who was very friendly and outgoing. äpärä had arranged changes in identification - including temporary implants - simulated contacts, history, and background check information as well. It was incredibly thorough, and the would be Dark Mystic had been very impressed.

He and äpärä ended up at an expensive dinner together. He could pay for this because he had a wondrous treasure; several very special, custom hacked credit sticks that allowed him nearly unlimited wealth - so long as he used them very, very rarely, and very discretely as well. äpärä was funny, exciting; he had the most incredible stories and all of them were thrilling. äpärä was charming, too, and in no time it felt as if äpärä was his oldest friend, perhaps even a long-lost brother.

It only seemed reasonable that äpärä should stay the night in the his new apartment; it was a long trip back to... wherever it was the man came from. Besides, there wouldn't even be the new apartment, or the new identification, except for äpärä. And, being a Dark Mystic, äpärä could teach him so much!

Morning was even more fun, with laughter and more incredible stories over breakfast. They took a trip together to the holocomplex, and toured the arcology, at least as much of it as could be fit into a day. Dinner was another exclusive, expensive experience, and äpärä never seemed to run out of stories and the most amazing jokes.

It was only when boxes of clothing, personal items and several pieces of furniture arrived on the third day that things somehow began to feel off. All the stuff belonged to äpärä, who claimed he just needed to store them for a day or two. This seemed odd, and became stranger still as more and more of the boxed items started appearing in the environment. Any attempt to confront his new acquaintance always seemed to be interrupted by something new to explore, or something interesting which needed to be done.

It took to the end of the first month, before he realized that äpärä was now his roommate. The boxes were gone, and the apartment was now mostly filled with the things that belonged to äpärä.

It was then that he finally checked his personal accounts, including his very special credit sticks. äpärä had been using them for the most unbelievable things; yachts, a mansion, a lifterlimo. There was no question that his accounts would be traced now; äpärä had done the most incredibly stupid, indiscreet things imaginable with them. It was likely that they had only hours before blackmesh armored troopers would raid their apartment, and their lives would be over.

äpärä wasn't anywhere to be found; doubtless he was out enjoying one of his new purchases. Worst of all, it seemed that äpärä wasn't even a Dark Mystic, and that he had never had anything to teach. äpärä was barely even a hacker. äpärä was just a con man with connections. He had been taken.

In desperation, he changed every aspect of his identity, using every last trick he knew. He ran from location to location, carrying only his cerebral jackbox and the clothes on his back. äpärä ended up in the newsfeeds, along with his own online identity; they were now criminals of the planet.

With effort, he managed to make it to the North American Zone, to San Francisco. It was there that he had constructed the identity of 'Alexi Venäläinen', son of corporate work transfer parents. For several years 'Alexi' worked in the underground economy, but this was a frightening life, filled with danger and severely desperate men. Eventually he hacked his way into being a 'trusted' entity within the Conversion Bureau structure. As the official handyman for Clinic 042, Alexi had finally felt as if he had a home, an existence that was both stable, and helpful to others.

Alexi felt uncomfortable on his cloud bed. The stars shone above, the moon was high. Somewhere out there, Caprice was looking up at the very same moon. Alexi turned on his other side. Caprice. Always Caprice.

It angered Alexi that the same thing had happened to him twice. äpärä, who had somehow mesmerized him into a situation that had cost him everything, and now Caprice, who had suckered him into a life of responsibility he never had time to even consider agreeing to.

How had it happened? Big green eyes, a shiny peach mane, and a bulge in Alexi's pants is how it happened. She had played him, manipulated him, all to get... what? What was Caprice after? Alexi was confused. He had no wealth, not as a handyman at a Conversion Bureau - besides, Caprice was a pony when he had met her.

If it wasn't wealth, then what? Plunk, here is your daughter Alexi. She had done that with Buttermilk. Was that it? She just wanted someone to support her while she raised her daughter? Only it wasn't her daughter, exactly, Buttermilk was a foundling. Caprice had rescued her from termination. It didn't make sense.

And Pumpkin. Caprice had just adopted her, an abandoned teenage mother. What was the profit in that? Who gained from any of this?

Alexi tried to think of any way that Caprice would have benefited from her manipulation of him. There was no gain at the Clinic, she could have done perfectly well without him. Here in Equestria, she had become the mate of the leader of the community! No, that was his own damn fault. She hadn't made him stand up and talk to the ponies like that. He'd done that stunt all on his own.

At worst, she was at fault only because he wanted to impress her. That and save everyone from doing something stupid.

Again, Alexi felt uncomfortable. He was laying on a cloud, yet it felt lumpy. No, it didn't feel lumpy... Alexi felt lumpy. He got out of his cloud bed and stood up. He walked around the small, unfinished tower room. He peered out through the window, set into an open, unfinished wall of cloudstuff. The rolling hills shone in the moonlight. Somewhere down there was his hill. No, not his hill. He's chosen it but... it was somehow her hill. It felt like her hill tonight.

Alexi lay down on his floating bed. There. That was better. Cloud bed. Nice. Where was he?

Alright, Alexi thought. Manipulation. There must be some gain for her. It wasn't wealth. It wasn't power. It wasn't support; the grass grew everywhere; ponies did not have to walk far to get everything they needed. But there was no question he had been manipulated, just like with äpärä long ago. It felt like the same kind of spell; things just happened, everything spiraling out of control.

She hadn't asked him for anything. Not anything, in all of the past months. She'd told him what was what, that was for sure - but she hadn't demanded a single thing. It had all just happened, Pif. No, the demand was there. The demand was implied. Here is your daughter, Alexi; the implication is 'Love her. Help me raise her. Care about her.' Here is me, Caprice; the implication was 'Love me. Be my partner. Share your life with me.'

Alexi didn't grasp where this led. Reduce the basic demand to its essential entity. What was left? 'Love'. That was what Caprice was trying to gain. She was manipulating events to gain love. Love for herself, and love for her adopted daughter. Love for her adopted sister.

That didn't sound so evil, really. It wasn't evil, not by itself. It was the methods Caprice used that were the evil. Alexi rolled fitfully on his cloud bed. So, Caprice wasn't trying to do anything wrong, as such. Maybe, in time, all of what had happened could have grown naturally, without such manipulative tactics. Alexi had to admit, he certainly liked Caprice, and he did find her attractive.

But what she truly wanted seemed clear; commitment. Caprice wanted a long term commitment. Alexi wasn't sure how he felt about that. He liked Caprice, she was wonderful. Well, except for the manipulative streak, of course.

But did he love her? Did he actually even want to commit to her, or to anything for that matter? He definitely didn't want to be stuck with so much responsibility. Being a... husband, a father, a leader, it was all too much. It seemed like too much. Wasn't it too much?

Dammit! How is it possible to not be comfortable on a bed made of cloud? Alexi turned again, angry. It was a goddamned bed of cloud! It couldn't be softer if it tried! Alexi tried laying on his back. He remembered how Caprice had lain that way, teasing him. It was fun blowing raspberries on her belly. She had such a nice belly.

Dammit! Even now, she was in his head! Caprice must be some kind of witch! Caprice, the gypsy witch!

Alexi sighed. How much of what happened had been manipulation and how much... had been something he had secretly wanted? Is it manipulation if you actually want it? Did he want the life she manufactured?

Did he truly want... Caprice?

Seventeen: Under A Sacred Moon

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By Chatoyance

Seventeen: Under A Sacred Moon

Princess Luna's exquisite moon was just rising, the last wisps of delicate twilight melting away at the horizon. The stars were coming on, just a few at first, then more and more, in waves and ripples across the sky. Sometimes the stars began to shine in waves, like those on an ocean, other nights they began to glow in clusters, or even in kaleidoscopic patterns. They were always in the same place, they rarely moved, but the way in which they became visible seemed up to whim.

Tonight, the stars began to shine in almost a playful way. For the delicate, graceful gardener Sweetpepper, the stars guided his mood as he performed his evening tending. Sweetpepper always sang his Galloping Gardens to sleep every night. The flourishing plants loved him for it; and he loved them back.

Sweetpepper sang ballads to the tomatoes. They seemed to like ballads; the tomato was a ponderous fruit, sanguine and cheery, tomatoes liked a good story. Now celery seemed to like classical; understandable, really, stolid stoic stocks standing with such a superior air.

Beets liked opera; unfortunately Sweetpepper only knew one piece and that incompletely, he compensated by humming Bach. Carrots, oddly, seemed to like pop music. Hay, fescue, oats and barley all liked western songs, no surprise there, but kinky little alfalfa had a penchant for naughty nautical songs. Happily, Sweetpepper knew more than his share of those.

But his favorites, of course, were the bell peppers. Gentle, sweet, dignified and yet just a little sassy, the bells of the garden ball loved musicals. Here was a botanical fruit fabulous enough to relate to. Sweetpepper knew a lot of musicals, and by now, so did his rather incredibly sized bell peppers.

Sweetpepper was singing them one of his favorites, from a Pre-Collapse author named Sondheim, a song called 'No One Is Alone' It was originally from a musical play that combined the stories of many fairy tales all together. Sweetpepper had once had an adequate voice as a human, but as a pony he was delightfully surprised to find that his voice was almost... excellent. He delighted in the tenor sound of it, the tone, the vibrato, he pegged himself as almost being a proper Leggero tenor now, and wished he knew how to use it more knowledgeably.

When he had tended his garden on a roof back in San Francisco, he had used a bicycle generator to store up enough electricity to run his romcube player. The holographic data in the romcubes contained a vast musical collection, spanning countless eras and forms. Sweetpepper had always loved music; he dearly missed the machine and his collection of romcubes. The only place his music remained now, was in his head and in his throat; the works of Man were forever closed off to him now. It was his only real regret in becoming a pony.

The song was intended for two voices, for Cinderella and a Baker, and Sweetpepper was doing both, alternating pitches between the male and female parts. He had just finished with a solo section for the Cinderella character, when the next line for The Baker sounded behind him. The voice was deep and mellifluous, and knew the song well.

This was delightful and mysterious! Whoever the stallion was, he knew his Sondheim. Sweetpepper picked up the next line, alternating with the mystery voice; it took all of Sweetpepper's self control to remain facing away, to avoid turning around. It was just so magical, standing there, singing with a mystery pony who shared his love of music.

The song reached its abbreviated end; in the play, the characters had been interrupted. Sweetpepper stood still, letting the silence enfold them both, himself and his mystery stallion. Slowly he turned around, smiling, to greet his partner in song.

Pale, green eyes met his, the face framed by a white, shaggy mane. The earth pony stallion was topaz in color, with a strong, well muscled stature. It was the ex-corporate navy petty officer who had named himself 'Goldrivet'. This was quite the surprise; Sweetpepper would not have pegged him as a fan of musical theater, and Sweetpepper had a very good sense for such things.

"You have a lovely voice." Sweetpepper genuinely thought so; he had really enjoyed the duet with Goldrivet.

"You have an even better one." Goldrivet approached, carefully stepping over the neat rows of vegetables. "I've stopped to listen to you sing to your garden many times. I guess I just couldn't help myself tonight. I hope you didn't mind." Goldrivet stood now, just a short space from Sweetpepper, his mane swept down half over one eye.

"No, it was wonderful, actually. Thank you." Sweetpepper didn't know what to make of this; his usual sense of things was giving him conflicting results. Alone in the garden, in the moonlight suggested one thing, but Goldrivet had never seemed to be the least bit the sort of stallion that would... enjoy the company of other stallions. Yet, here he was.

More than this, it had been clear for some days now that the roan mare Grassdancer had been pursuing the topaz stallion with clear and determined intent. It had been a forgone conclusion that the two would end up a couple. She never left him alone. Goldrivet was a stallion's stallion, strong, fierce, tough as iron.

Yet, here Goldrivet was. Singing Sondheim. In the bellpeppers, in the moonlight.

To hell with his 'Pepper Sense'. Sweetpepper took one step closer, his eyes drifting over the taught flanks and strong back. Goldrivet did not back away. He stood tall and strong, his large frame contrasting with Sweetpepper's lithe and slender shape.

"So... you've been listening to me sing, you said?" Sweetpepper carefully lifted his eyes to look directly into Goldrivet's ocean-deep green gaze. It was too much to hope for; with a population of only 152 ponies, only half of them male, Sweetpepper had all but given up hope of finding anypony for himself. Statistically there could only be six potential mates in the entire herd, and being a matter of probability, it could also just be zero. Add to that the unlikelihood of finding a single stallion that was the least bit compatible, well... it just seemed to Sweetpepper that it was his fate to be lonely - potentially for the rest of his entire life.

But Goldrivet was there. Alone. In the bellpeppers. In the moonlight.

And he was only a hoofstep away. And he was gorgeous. And he loved music. And... he had deliberately chosen to be here.

Sweetpepper trembled. It was too good. It couldn't be true. Good things didn't happen. Not like this. It just wasn....

The kiss was warm and soft and gentle, and unexpected. Sweetpepper shivered; his mind reeled. It was impossible. Good things didn't happen.

Apparently, under Luna's beautiful and enchanted moon, they did.

* * * * *

Flight Team Alpha had finished the construction of the seeder cloud; the woven structure would act as a kind of atmospheric sponge, gradually accumulating any ambient moisture. In a few days Droplet would lead the team back to check on the cloud; with any luck it would be fat and swollen with water vapor drawn from miles around. Then would come the somewhat arduous task of pushing the cloud across the sky back to Summerland Village.

Once home, the cloud could be parted out to various uses; additional building material for Cirrus's Cloudcastle project, additional material for pond seeder clouds, or even used to extend the boundaries of Summerland 'County', the green land that extended far beyond the village proper.

Droplet was eager to get home for several reasons. A second, smaller pavilion was under construction now, the first official 'home' for the village. Until they could get a proper forest growing from the provided seedlings found in crate nineteen - thankfully still alive, though even Sweetpepper had been unable to explain why - the only buildings in the village would be the prefabricated tent-structures from the crates. Droplet wanted to check on the progress of the second building. There had still not been any agreement on how the prefab homes would be parceled out.

She wished Alexi would get back on the job. His little 'vacation' was causing problems; and she did not feel properly qualified to lead the herd, a job she was increasingly being forced into. She had never worked for the Conversion Bureaus, she had no special training of the kind she assumed he had been given. She had just been a normal favela dweller, trying to get by in a post-Collapse world.

But the real reason she was so eager to get back to Summerland was not a building, nor was it the chance to tell Alexi to get off of his flank. The real reason was... Ren.

Renaissance had been invaluable to Droplet and to the construction effort. He understood two valuable things; carpentry and sixteenth century technology. He knew what the artifacts in the crates were, he knew how they went together, and how to make use of them. It was astonishing, really; even for those who lived in the slums, life had always been a quantum world; they may have been without jobs, living in ramshackle housing made from scavenged materials, but there were always the holographic media kiosks blaring world government-sponsored media, and almost every family had at least one old romcube player or holoscreen.

Droplet's own father had been a consumer electronics repairman. It was a prized profession in the favela, rating higher than doctor. Her father had made her childhood a happy one for the slums, thanks to an uncanny ability to get older devices working. There was always a demand to have something fixed, and the community worked together to protect and defend his large cache of spare parts and tools.

Her father had joked that the last man at the end of the world would be clinging to a holoset as though it were his lover.

Soon the Earth would end, likely within five to six years, and she could actually picture his joke coming true. The thought of him made her smile as she beat her wings in formation with the pegasai of Flight Team Alpha.

The sun was already down, the moon just beginning to rise as she, Cherry, Gasket and the others set hoof on the flat ground of Summerland. It was clear that the evening graze was already over; everypony had gone to their favored sleeping locations. Most clustered together in one large group around the new town hall pavilion, many having a favored spot relative to it; a few, like Alexi's family, found more isolated locations for various reasons, one of them being... privacy.

The bright sunshine of Celestia's day had encouraged an increasing desire for privacy among some of the newfoals; there were quite a few couples now, and at least two polyamories; families were being constructed along with the new pavilion buildings. Summerland had become a home now, and the newfoals were doing what anypony would do in such a circumstance; get on with life.

Droplet thanked her team, said goodnight to Cherryblossom and Gasket, and began to look around for Ren. He was, perhaps, not the easiest stallion to find amidst the hundred plus citizens of the herd; he was the color of the night itself, dark and delicious, but his golden coin eyes would surely stand out in the moonlight, if only she could spot them.

He wasn't by the crates, now almost entirely unpacked. Carefully stepping around the bodies of the resting ponies - some trying to sleep, some whispering in the dark, talking over the days events - Droplet made it past the piles of materials and tools, and checked the other side of the town hall. Ren wasn't there, either.

She decided to check out the new building. Droplet briefly considered flying over to it, but dismissed the idea; with so many villagers sleeping all over the center of the village, she feared accidentally landing on somepony in the dark. That would be uncomfortable and embarrassing. She cautiously navigated a path to the construction site.

They had managed to nearly complete the floor of the new pavilion house, only a few of the polished, pre-shaped planks were missing. It was clear that the earth ponies were getting quite adept at using tools now; Droplet shook her head in amazement. Ponies using tools. The part of her that remembered being human found that amusing. Then again, as she ruffled and straightened her wings, look who's talking. Bizarre, she thought. I am bizarre, and this is bizarre and the entire situation is bizarre.

Bizarre felt pretty good, actually. Droplet stretched her wings all the way out, and found herself yawning. It had been a long flight, and her wing muscles were tired. It was amazing how quickly all of the pegasai had grown in strength; now flying for most of an entire day was natural to her; only a month and a half ago it would have been unthinkable. Equestria was a very generous realm; it was not the frugal, cruel Nature of Earth, red of tooth and sharp of claw. Here, a body could be brought to the peak of ability in mere weeks, here injuries healed in mere days.

Looking up at the moon, Droplet caught the light on her feathers. She tilted her wings so that the moonlight shimmered in a wave down from her scapular feathers across the soft plains of her coverts, right out to the tips of her primaries. She smiled; she had remembered the parts of her own body. That was one of the little fads going through the village of late; the newfoals had made a sort of contest of knowing their own new bodies. There was some prestige in being able to rattle off the names of joints or feathers or parts of the ear.

Perhaps this was normal for any group who had no threevees, no romcubes, no MicroSony Mindstations, and who had to find ways to occupy themselves somehow. As ponies, with little in the way of physical objects to fuss over, all there was left to them was talk. Word games, memorization games, telling stories, singing songs, inventing poems; these were the current recreations that the newfoals had available to them. That... and the gifts of the sunshine days, of course. Droplet blushed at the latter.

"Thy beauteous wings, a repast of light, glow brightly tonight under Luna's soft caress." The voice was what she had been longing to hear all day. Droplet slammed her wings to her sides, turning to face the shining golden eyes and flame-colored mane of her lover.

In an instant she was pressing her shoulder into his chest, her neck far over his back, her head resting on his far barrel. "I'm sorry I was late. We found a big patch of vapor, just huge, and it took time to..."

"Shhh..." Ren began grooming her withers; Droplet shivered, she loved it when he did that. "Shhh... it's fine. I am hungry though. I waited so that I could dine with thee." Droplet could almost feel Ren grinning in the dark.

"You are a silly romantic, you know." Droplet rubbed her head up over Ren's side, and caressed his coupling and croup with her chin.

Ren laughed softly. "Of course I am, what else could I be, with such inspiration. Hey... speaking of Hay, I know a delightful little late-night cafe just beyond West Hill. They serve some wonderful lawn, I hear." The large pond next to where Sweetpepper had set up his Galloping Gardens farm had collectively been decided to be 'North', the remaining directions radiating out from the four hills that defined the village had therefore become the remaining cardinals. Alexi's hill was the north-east one; the town center was in the middle of the hills, the crates between the pavilion and Alexi's hill. West was therefore a very private direction at the moment.

Droplet giggled. Lawn sounded delicious. "I just adore lawn, why it's my second favorite dish!"

Ren chuckled softly at that.

* * * * *

"Really? You actually visited all of those places?" Pumpkin was whipping her tail left and right, just ahead of Buttermilk, who was trying to catch it in her teeth. Buttermilk seemed to like 'keep-away' styled games, she liked to chase things, but best of all she liked to catch them. When she finally succeeded the little unicorn paraded about, stomping her hooves in triumph and making little noises. Pumpkin was not making her tail an easy target; a triumph by Buttermilk would probably be mildly painful. She now wished she'd thought of that before going along with the little game.

"That's how I got my human name. It was where I was born. I never got to go back, though. That's the one place Daddy absolutely refused to take me." Caprice had begun to open up to Pumpkin about her life and her self during Alexi's absence; at first she had been terrified. She was convinced that Pumpkin would hate her for who she had been, just as she hated herself; much to her surprise, Pumpkin had been completely supportive. Caprice had been shocked by this and unable to understand.

"Pumpkin, how... how can you say that it's OK? After everything I've just told you?" Caprice had just told the story of her past to Pumpkin, this had been a few days previous to tonight. "I... sort of worried that you wouldn't want to be my sister anymore."

"Of course I want to be your sister! Besides, you said we would be sisters forever, remember? You're not getting out of it just because you failed at being a human. Like you said, we're ponies now. Now and for the rest of our lives, right?" Pumpkin glared at her, but there was humor behind her expression.

"So, new body, new life, and all is forgiven, is that it?" Caprice wondered if it really could be that simple. No, that was silly. If it were that simple, Alexi would still be at her side.

"No. If what you told me is true, you were a pretty bad person back then." Pumpkin thought for a moment "If you were the same person, I don't think I could be your sister. I don't even think I could be your friend. But you aren't that person anymore. As a pony... you kind of do still use the same tricks, I can see that now."

At that, Caprice hung her head low; it had been hard telling Pumpkin about herself. But Pumpkin had listened with compassion and a great deal of understanding.

"Maybe you use the same tricks, but you don't use them for the same reasons, and you really do seem to care about others now. I've never felt like you didn't care about me, and it's really obvious you care about Buttermilk."

It still didn't make it right. Worse, the old tactics had ultimately failed Caprice; Alexi was gone, maybe for good, and it was a miracle that Pumpkin was still around. At least it felt like a miracle. Caprice was grateful for Pumpkin, grateful just to have her near.

"Caprice, everypony makes mistakes and does stuff that they regret, or that they feel bad about. What matters is whether or not they can get better. You got better. You're getting better all the time. I mean, you told me about yourself, right? That's a lot of trust. You could have just told me a lie or something."

Pumpkin was right. In her previous, human life, that would have been her first and preferred choice. 'A lie is twice as good as the truth' she used to think. Telling Pumpkin had been a big risk. She'd just felt so... bad... after Alexi left that she... why did she tell Pumpkin? She didn't really know. If she had never said anything it would have been easier. It definitely wouldn't have hurt so much.

Maybe she was trying to punish herself; push everypony away or something? No, that was not it. In a way, telling Pumpkin was like what she wanted to do with Alexi. She wanted to tell Alexi everything. She wanted to try to be honest with Alexi, completely totally honest. Maybe, maybe if she tried something new, maybe if she tried being really open, if she really tried, Alexi might... want to stay.

In that realization, in that moment, she had understood something that had amazed her. Alexi wasn't just a component. He wasn't just a Best Choice to serve her needs. He wasn't an augmentation to help her be a better person. She really, genuinely missed him. It wasn't being in heat, and it wasn't because her plans had been spoiled.

She felt something - she didn't know what it was - but it made her feel really sad that he was gone, and it made her unable to concentrate on anything but trying to make up for anything and everything she had done to push him away. She just wanted him, Alexi, to be around. Just to see him. Even if he didn't want her, even if he never came back. Just to know he was OK, just to see him at all. The feeling burned. It scalded and it ached. Something was wrong with her, clearly, but... what could she do?

That had been three days ago. The ache had never stopped. The days had gone on, talking with Pumpkin, caring for Buttermilk, telling other ponies to "Go Ask Droplet!" - Caprice had no more answers for them, she had no more ability left to lead anypony anywhere. It was hard enough just to get through each day.

Now, the moon was halfway to the zenith, the stars fully bright in the night. Caprice and Pumpkin and Buttermilk all laying together on the grass, next to the empty space where Alexi once had lain, his absence haunting the hill like a ghost.

"Caprice..." Pumpkin looked down, uncomfortable "...back in those days, in your human days, did you... did you ever feel ...ashamed?"

Caprice idly pushed at the grass with a hoof, concentrating intently on the act. "No. Not even once. I'm sorry." Caprice felt like a monster; which, perhaps, she had once been. "But I did feel... hollow, sometimes. That was the feeling that kind of woke me up a little, even before Equestria emerged. I'd be going about my... life... and I'd just feel all hollow inside, like, I don't know, like being sad only... it was more than that. I felt like I was lost, like being out in a limo without central navigation, stuck in the favela with all the stupid eaters. I mean... the people. Oh shit. Sorry. Just... AUGH. Alexi deserves better than me. You do too. Dammit."

Caprice felt tears falling down her muzzle. Her hoof had begun to dig up chunks of soil. "I'm really sorry, Pumpkin. I'm sorry you have to have a sister like me. I'll... I will do better. I will be a good sister, I promise." Caprice's eyes were wet, shimmering in the moonlight, and the look in them made Pumpkin want to cry too.

Pumpkin leaned forward to nuzzle her sister. "Oh, Caprice..." She hardly noticed Buttermilk grabbing her tail and shaking it like a bulldog, teeth biting hard. "It's not like you're the only mess-up around. I abandoned my parents and ran off with a complete jerk. I probably broke their hearts. I feel bad about that a lot. They'll never know what became of me. They'll never know their grand...filly. Grandcolt. Grand-foal. I don't know the right word, but they'll never see me, or my child ever again. We've all done things we regret, Caprice."


"What?" asked Pumpkin.

"Grandfoal. That's pretty cool. I like it." Caprice was smiling through her tears. Pumpkin grinned. "Yeah. Grandfoal. Ok, that's the new official word then." The two sisters rested their polls together, head to head. Caprice sniffed. "I guess I'm a big mess now, aren't I?"

Buttermilk had tromped around, bored now with her victory over the evasive tail. She stuck her head in close to where Caprice and Pumpkin had their heads together. "Gaffol!" She announced.

Caprice and Pumpkin slowly turned their heads, still pressed together at the polls, in unison, to stare at the little unicorn.

"Did she just?" Pumpkin spoke in a hushed, shocked voice.

"Grandfoal!" Caprice said, calmly and carefully.

"Gaffol!" Buttermilk stomped her front hooves just as she did when she won a game of keep-a-way. "Gaffol!"

"Wow! It's her first word!" Pumpkin lifted her head and began nuzzling Buttermilk, praising her and licking her behind the ears the way she liked best. "Good girl, Buttermilk! Wow! Very good girl! Can you say 'Pumpkin?'"


The two sisters laughed at this. "What was your first word, Pumpkin?" Caprice was nuzzling and grooming little Buttermilk now, proud and happy at her daughter.

"Nothing big, probably just 'mama', if I remember. Certainly not 'grandfoal'. What was your first word, or were you ever told?"

"'Light.' My very first word was 'light'. Apparently I wanted the light turned on. I hated having the light turned off or something." Caprice began grooming Buttermilk's crest, working her way down to her tiny withers.

"Seriously? 'Light?' That's so cool!" Pumpkin seemed truly impressed.

"I was probably just being bossy and controlling right from the day I was born." Caprice seemed sad at the thought. Buttermilk squirmed away from Caprice's grooming and went to see if Pumpkin's tail wanted to play anymore.

"No. I don't see that at all." Pumpkin smiled at Caprice with kindness. "I think you just wanted light. And I think that says a lot of good things about you right there."

It took Caprice a moment to grasp the sentiment, but once she did, she smiled. "I'm really glad you're my sister, little angel."

The moon, Luna's moon, made a wonderland of the four hills of Summerland Village. It rippled across the wide fields of grass, following the faint breeze. The moonlight shone on two lovers far to the west, and on two more deep in the peppers.

And the moonlight also shone on the wide, white back, and bright blue mane of a pegasus, who stood on the ground, looking up at a certain hill.

Eighteen: Imagine There's No Heaven

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By Chatoyance

Eighteen: Imagine There's No Heaven

Grassdancer stomped her hoof again. She felt angry, and why shouldn't she? That darn Goldrivet had gone and turned out to be... to be... a fan of musical theater! It just wasn't fair. She'd done everything she could to attract him, and it just wasn't fair.

It was San Francisco, that was the problem, filled with all those gosh-darned fa...

Humph. That was odd. That was very odd.

She couldn't bring herself to say the word. It kind of hurt to think it. She never had that trouble in her human life. She'd been taught to hate those quee... uncommon... stallions... that... liked other stallions...

What the Gosh? What was wrong with her? She was angry, she was definitely still angry, she felt spurned, she felt like she had been somehow judged not good enough for the likes of Goldrivet. But... they did make such a cute couple, singing in the garden and...

No. This was very, very strange. This was something more serious than whether or not the stallion she had wanted turned out to be a... singer... in the... garden. What was going on? She should be denouncing him, decrying his... what?

Grassdancer struggled inside her own brain. It was hard to recall, it was right on the tip of her tongue, but yet not there. It was... some kind of... immorality. That was the word! Those... she forced herself to say the word, it burned her, but she managed - fa.. fag.. faggots. Those... two... were wrong. Somehow.

Why were they wrong? She had a memory that they were wrong, but it was hazy.

Church. She had been taught at a church. It was a place she had gone, back when she was human, back when she had been Grace Laird from San Mateo. She had gone to the church of the New Reformed Jehovah's Templars. They had been very conservative, very traditional, very pre-Collapse in their attitudes. That was the point.

She hadn't thought about any of that since she had been Converted. She hadn't wanted to. Remembering it now filled her with a feeling of sadness... of shame. Why? It had been a big part of her life.

She walked through the village. They were busy constructing the new house. So many ponies working together. A part of her wanted to run over and ask if she could help, but she was too upset for that. Something was strange, and losing Goldrivet had made her aware of it.

Grassdancer hadn't prayed in over six months. She hadn't even thought about god. She hadn't thought about Jesus. She had thought a lot about the Princesses, Celestia and Luna. Every time she saw the moon... goodness! In her mind, she had been... thanking... Princess Luna... for the moon.

That was blasphemy, wasn't it? Then again, it was her moon.

Suddenly it hit Grassdancer as if she had been punched in the stomach; she wasn't a Christian anymore. It hadn't been something she exactly chose. It hadn't been anything dramatic. It... just didn't apply anymore, somehow. How could it?

During her Conversion, she had experienced a dream. She barely remembered it anymore, but at the time it had been very profound. What was that dream? It had seemed so important back then.

The new town hall was casting a shadow over the packed earth pathway that had gradually developed with the traffic of ponies every day. Celestia's sun was warm, and Grassdancer felt hot. She decided to lay down on the new grass growing by the path, in the cool shade of the pavilion. She had to figure this out.

The dream. In the dream she had somehow met Celestia and Luna, she was sure of that. It was very intense, she knew that as well. But... for the life of her, she couldn't remember any of the details anymore. It was too long ago.

Is that what had changed her beliefs? She didn't remember anything like that at the time; Grassdancer was pretty sure that she hadn't gone running around the clinic shouting that she'd seen the light of Celestia or anything. No, she'd just told others, newfoal and human, about her dream, and they had told her of theirs. It was just something you did at the clinic, because Conversion dreams were kind of interesting. That was all. Nothing more.

Grassdancer tried to think about Jesus. She tried to think about how to pray. With effort, she remembered, but... it just didn't seem to matter anymore. The bible, the crucifixion, Noah's ark, Revelations... all of it... that was kind of human stuff.

Human stuff. She really did think of it that way. Strange stuff that those weird humans would do.

It was hard to imagine ponies nailing anything to a cross, even a sweater. And if some big, scary god put ponies in a garden and told them not to eat from one tree, they would pretty much not eat from that tree. It wouldn't be right. It wouldn't be nice.

And, if anypony did eat the fruit, it would certainly be some yearling or foal who didn't know any better; and being angry at them and throwing them out would just be cruel. It would be mean. Suddenly, Grassdancer felt a strange mixture of fear and relief in her heart. She didn't like the human god anymore. He was really pretty mean.

Grassdancer felt troubled. She felt confused and worried. How had this happened? She used to be mad at a lot of different people. She had hated a lot of people, once. She couldn't imagine hating any of the ponies here; they were her herd, they were her friends. She couldn't even hate Goldrivet and Sweetpepper, and she was really trying to. They really did make such a happy couple, and they sang really well together and...

She wasn't Grace, anymore! She absolutely wasn't Grace Laird, favela dweller, Christian, church member anymore. Worse than this, she realized she was alright with that. She was actually... glad of it. Looking back, she had been so angry all the time. Angry at the... musical theater lovers. Angry at politics, angry at other religions, angry at other sects of her own religion, angry. Just angry. All the time.

Now she wasn't angry anymore. She felt like the sun was a gift from Celestia, and the moon a gift from Luna. She felt a part of the land, being an earth pony and all, and when she sang to the plants in the garden, or to the tree by the town hall, she felt love and joy. That kind of behavior would have been 'witchcrafty stuff' back in her human life. She realized that she kind of used magic now.

That was a thought. By the standards of Grace Laird, she was a witch now. Not like the unicorns, of course, but... earth ponies had their magic too. What had Sweetpepper said? Earth ponies were like walking magic spells, wherever they went they radiated life magic. Magicians and sorcerers and fortune tellers were condemned in the bible. Or so she thought she remembered. It all seemed so unimportant now. It was hard to recall the details anymore.

What was important was being a friend, and helping out. Grassdancer got up again, and wandered over to the new construction project. She could work on this weird issue in her head, and still help!

"Hey! Can I help?!" Grassdancer shouted up at Crescent, a green and white stallion, dragging a toolbox with his teeth.

"Grab a hammer! We're putting in the last of the flooring. I could definitely use an extra hoof!" Crescent grinned and began rooting through the toolbox. He pulled out a hammer and held it for her "Heah!" he slurred, mouth full of hammer.

Grassdancer took the hammer from Crescent, biting lower on the long handle. Crescent regarded her. "Grassdancer, right? Thanks for helping out. Dragonfly's on nails today, she can hold several at once with her magic, so we can get this done really fast now!"

Dragonfly, a yellow unicorn mare with a brown mane, floated two nails out, each in different directions. It was a fairly impressive stunt, but then she had been practicing constantly -along with the rest of the unicorns - ever since the decision to try to open the crates. She was proud of being able to levitate two separate objects at the same time. The nails hovered over the marks provided in the prefabricated floor planks.

Grassdancer tossed her head, releasing and catching the hammer with her teeth, until she felt she had just the right balance to her grip. It always felt good to help out, and working here, with Crescent and Dragonfly, kind of pushed her earlier thoughts away entirely. As she hammered the floating nail, concentrating on swinging her neck just right so that the nail would be driven in straight, Grassdancer felt happy. She was helping everypony!

Soon the floor was finished. Grassdancer looked around at the fine, smooth, polished floor. She pranced about on the beautiful wood; her hooves made such a warm, happy sound on the boards. She couldn't help but grin.

"It sounds pretty nice, doesn't it?" Crescent swiveled his ears, and smacked the floor with a deep green hoof. Clomp. Clomp. "I love the sound of hooves on a wooden floor. It just sounds sa‘iid, somehow."

"Sah...aye..eed" Grassdancer tried to say the odd syllables. She'd never heard that word before.

"Sa‘'s Arabic for 'happy'." Crescent began to gather up the hammers, putting them into the toolbox. It was always a good idea to keep the work area tidy.

"Are you... did you used to be... an A-rab?" Grassdancer was shocked. The green stallion didn't look like one of them.

"wa ‘alekum es salaem, that is the truth. Middle East Corporate Zone. That's where I grew up. My family moved to the North Amerizone when I was thirteen. Already knew English, though, so in some ways it wasn't so hard." Crescent had finished with the hammers, and was collecting nails; there was a limited supply, so it was smart to account for every one.

Grassdancer felt curiosity surge in her. "Can I ask you a personal question?"

"Of course. My life is an open book." One nail had rolled into a corner; around the floor was a short border that acted as wainscoting within the structure.

"Were you... religious... before? Before becoming a pony, I mean. Are you now?" Grassdancer felt nervous asking about such things. It just didn't seem appropriate, but she had to know.

The green and white stallion stopped, a curious expression on his face. "You know... I was, once. It's odd. I... haven't really thought about such things since, well, since I became a pony." Crescent set himself down on the floor. "My family were very devout. I was too. Five times a day, we kept halal as best we could, and I... but now, no."

"Did you have a dream? During Conversion? Did you dream?" Grassdancer felt like she was on to something.

"Yes, yes I did. I had a wonderful dream. In it I met the two princesses. They were very nice to me." Crescent smiled, slightly, remembering.

"I did too. They say a lot of newfoals have the same dream. Or at least dream of the princesses. Do you remember the details?"

"I did. For a while." Crescent seemed slightly sad, like he had lost something precious "I remember that the dream was very important to me. But, like all dreams, it gradually faded from my memory. It is a shame, really. I know it was beautiful and very nice."

Grassdancer folded her legs and joined Crescent on the floor. The wood felt cool and pleasant to her legs and belly. "Do you think we're supposed to worship the princesses here?"

Crescent laughed. "They are, if what little I remember of my dream, and also that which I have been told, without doubt whatever passes for 'God' here in Equestria. But I know in my heart also beyond any doubt that they do not want to be worshiped."

"How do you know this?" Grassdancer shifted her weight slightly, the wooden floor was nice, but it was also hard, and her hocks were hurting just a little.

"Because that is the one thing I can remember clearly of my dream; they told me not to. In my dream, I saw them as a manifestation of Allah, and so I prayed, and they were very clear that they did not want to be worshiped, that they did not want a mosque or a temple or a church. They had the power to tear the mountains from the land itself, the power to remake the very sky, but when we deal with them, they just want us to be polite. Nothing more. Worship is an evil, here." Crescent noticed that he had somehow scraped his cannon, just below his left foreknee, and began to lick the small wound.

"Why? If they are so powerful, if they are so great, why don't they want to be worshiped? Why is that so wrong?" Grassdancer felt dizzy, as though her world was falling, somehow. Echoes of her past beliefs swam in turmoil in the back of her mind.

"Look around you." Crescent paused from licking his injured leg and nodded at the happy newfoals going about their work, hammering together the buttressed frames that would become the walls of the pavilion cottage. "Peace. Al-Salam. Perfect peace, ideal peace. Everypony working together, everypony kind to each other. There is no hate here, there is no judgement of the kind we had on the Earth. I told you that my family was very devout. What religion were you, in your human life - I think I can guess. You were Christian, were you not?"

"Y-Yes, I suppose I was." Saying 'was' made the back part of her mind, where her past lay, upset. Her words were automatic, from the heart, and it was very clear to her that she was no longer a Christian, she was no longer religious, and there was no going back.

"I was a Muslim. If you had come to my childhood home, you would not have been welcome, and my parents would have looked down on you as dhimmi, as an inferior to be tolerated at best, to be protected from your own wretched state. Would I have been welcome in your home if I had come to visit you?" Crescent looked at Grassdancer with intense eyes, serious and without humor.

Grassdancer looked down, her ears low. "No. No, you wouldn't. My mother would have lambasted you up one side and down the other. You wouldn't have even been let in the door. And not just for your religion, either. It would'a been as much for your race as anything."

"Here, I am a green pony. You are a roan pony, strawberry and white hairs together, and very pretty I might add. We look far more different from each other than we ever did as human beings, do we not? But we do not hate each other for that." Crescent gave his leg a few more licks, it stung a little, the licking helped. "Where are all the gods and saviors in this place, in this Equestria? Do we need them here? We have the princesses, but they are neither jealous nor wrathful. They do not want our worship, and they have no sacred books. What is their only law? Friendship. That is our religion now, and it is universal here. I have met nopony who has managed to cling to what they believed on Earth. Not one."

Grassdancer raised her head, her ears back and flat "Don't you think that's a little, well, not entirely right?"

"Would you change it? Would you go back to a world where you would not be welcome in my house, or I in yours?"

"N-no. I wouldn't. Not for anything in the world." The realization sat heavy for a moment, but then Grassdancer felt strangely light, strangely glad. "You know, I really wouldn't go back to that. I think... I think I like having modest princesses that don't need to be worshiped. I think I like that better than... church. I get more fellowship just building this house than I ever got back then. And more joy, too, I think."

"You know," Crescent got up; the sides were done and soon the unicorns would be levitating them over to be hammered into place "It's a little hard to face Mecca, when the only direction is outside of space and time altogether. It's hard to take Mecca seriously, when in five years the entire Earth will no longer exist. In the place where I was born, I would have been put to death for such apostasy, if I had clung to it; good thing then that I am a pony now!"

Grassdancer laughed. Crescent was a really nice stallion, and green really was a nice color. "Maybe... maybe it's OK, whatever happened to us, coming here. Being what we are."

Crescent regarded the roan mare. "Perhaps faith is only useful to those in a hopeless world. Look!" Crescent held out his leg, the one he had been licking. "Healed." There was no sign of the scrape at all. Crescent's leg looked perfect, untouched, although a little dirty from all the construction work.

"Healed." Grassdancer repeated the word; in a way it meant more to her in the moment than it had for Crescent.

* * * * *

Caprice would not leave Alexi's hill, except to take care of basic bodily functions. She ate little, and had lost considerable weight, her soft curves rendered more angular now. Pumpkin did what she could, constantly reminding her that little Buttermilk depended on Caprice eating well enough to continue to make milk for her. Some days it was the only thing that got Caprice to eat at all.

Pumpkin wanted to try eating lunch out by the big lake to the south. She hoped that the change of scenery might help improve Caprice's mood. She told Caprice that Droplet had seen a big patch of tasty flowers out that way, and that it might be a treat for Buttermilk to go there; the little unicorn seemed to love flowers so. Caprice thought that Buttermilk should go ahead; she wanted to be easy for Alexi to find, if he should want to talk. She promised to eat something, really.

This was getting entirely out of hand, Pumpkin decided. Maybe Caprice had her problems, and maybe Alexi did too, but there was just a point where a pony had to grow the buck up and work things out. It was pretty clear to her that Alexi had just plain run away to the clouds rather than face things, and Caprice was pining like some adolescent.... well, like Pumpkin herself once had, not that long ago, in the human world.

Well, dammit, if she could deal with being a young pony with foal, if she could accept that responsibility and find a way to live, then it was about time that Caprice and Alexi, both a lot older than she was, should stop this nonsense! Pumpkin stormed off, leaving Buttermilk with Caprice; her sister might be a mess, but the one thing that still mattered to her was her little foal.

After she calmed down, she went to Sweetpepper and told him all about Caprice and Alexi. She was tired of this nonsense, and unwilling to put up with it anymore. Besides, she figured everyone in the community must know everything by now; she was not the least surprised to find out that this was indeed the case. Baskets had been discovered in crate nineteen along with the cups and bowls and such; Sweetpepper and Goldrivet filled up a basket with goodies from the garden. If Caprice wouldn't leave the hill to eat, then the food would be sent to her.

Pumpkin dragged a basket of hay, carrots, alfalfa, oats and two bell peppers back up the hill. She demanded that Caprice eat everything in the basket by the time she got back. No excuses, no whining. Eat, sister. Caprice pouted, but agreed.

Pumpkin had been so involved with Caprice and Buttermilk and everything that she hadn't bothered to learn to use her wings properly. Now she regretted this; if she had just spent some time actually building them up each day, trying to fly, she could just go on up to Cloudcastle and give Alexi the what for. She gave that idea a shot, just to see, but her wings were very weak, no surprises there. She resolved to practice every day from now on until she was a good flyer. It made her even angrier to deal with this; she had wings, real wings, and all she had been doing was sitting on a hill or taking little walks. It was a stupid waste of a fantastic gift.

Just like Caprice and Alexi, really. They had the gift of love, and they were wasting it. It didn't matter who did what or how much trouble it all was; it was love, Pumpkin could see that even if they couldn't, and the whole thing had just gone totally stupid.

This idiocy ended today! She remembered how Tyler had left her in the clinic when she had told him she was pregnant. Right now, she felt angry at Alexi. He had basically done the same thing; he'd run away when life wasn't perfect anymore. Pumpkin had seen more than enough of that kind of crap.

Pumpkin marched fiercely, straight into the middle of the village, and sought out any pegasus she could find. Naturally, there weren't any; they were all out collecting clouds or fussing with Cloudcastle. Just awesome. She needed to get Alexi down from his cloud so she could give him a good talking to. The problem was... how?

Maybe the unicorns could help, they were like all magic and stuff, weren't they? Unfortunately, they didn't know how to do much. They could lift and move things; many had gotten quite good at that, but not one knew an actual spell. Yes, there was a book of spells - several in fact - in the crate that had the small library, but the books were mostly written in the special script that only Caprice understood, and she hadn't been very helpful lately. Nopony had dared to bother her, considering the situation with Alexi and everything.

Pumpkin stormed away from the unicorns at that; this was just friggin' nuts. It wasn't enough that her new family was falling apart, oh no, the problem was retarding the entire development of the community! Pumpkin had to sit and calm herself down, being angry still wasn't helping. Darnit.

OK, what could she, like, do? She could wait until the pegasai came back for the evening graze; but she wanted to settle this now. She looked up at Cloudcastle. Hey... there were a few specks of color up there, darting through the piles of reserve cloud above the main structure. They had probably just brought back some cloud from somewhere out beyond the edge of the county, out in the desert. Pumpkin had an idea.

She returned to the unicorns helping to finish the pavilion cottage. It was time to put the top canopy on, a cone of violet fabric, this one painted in checks. She outlined her plan to them, and they were more than happy to help; besides it would be an interesting test of their abilities.

Lightning and Ocean led some of the unicorns - Boeing, Aurora, Ren and Dragonfly among them - to levitate the cottage canopy up into the sky as high as they could push it. Next they tried spinning the cone of fabric, to try to gain any attention from above. Whether or not any of the pegasai noticed, the rest of the community certainly did, and soon a crowd of newfoals oohed and aahed at the impromptu sky show.

The unicorns, used to working together from pulling the nails out of the crates, began to force the spinning canopy to swing across the sky and orbit the town hall. This got a thunderous hoofstomping applause from the crowd; by now the unicorns had begun to enjoy the effort to signal the pegasai, and had forgotten the original purpose entirely.

"DUDES! I've got an idea!" Ocean was excited, his eyes narrowed in concentration, his horn glowing brightly "Up and down, make it pulse like a jellyfish! It'll be AWESOME!" Jellyfish were the last animal to have lived in the Earth's oceans before they finally died, almost everypony had once known someone who had seen the creatures.

The unicorns put their will into the effort, but it was hard synchronizing the new motion with the spinning and the skating across the sky. Lightning suggested a verbal chant, so the unicorns were soon shouting in unison "Up!" "Down!" "Up!" "Down!" and the conical roof began to pulse as well as spin, as it danced in a circle above the village.

This won them a very loud "OoooOOohhh!" from the assembled newfoals, and by now even Pumpkin had forgotten her anger enough to be wowed by the show. "This TOTALLY ROCKS dudes!" - Ocean was beside himself in glee.

Unfortunately, in the excitement of the moment, the chant became confused, with some of the unicorns pushing "Up" at the moment that others were pulling "Down", and the effect of the combined stresses exceeded the tolerances of the straining fabric. The beautiful, lavender-and-blue checked canvas ripped right down the middle, the parts exploding away from each other with a remarkably horrifying sound. "NooOOOoooOO!" yelled the crowd.

The two halves of the precious canopy fluttered down like dead birds from the sky; one section landed on the northwest hill, the other flopped across the top of the town hall. The unicorns hung their heads in grief and shame; what a terrible end to such an amazing performance. Ocean was inconsolable, wailing "DUUUDE! OH! DUUuuUUUUDE!" over and over, Lightning just kept saying how sorry he was, and Ren invented a brief, rhyming epitaph for the ruined roof.

"Oh marvelous canvas of checkered guise,
How great our sorrow at thy sad demise
Our show of power both wondrous and strange
Apparently exceeded our ability range
Forgive us, forgive us, beautiful roof
To your glorious memory I now raise my hoof."

The moaning of the crowd was interrupted by the ever-practical Trotsky, who called the crowd to attention; the two sections needed to be recovered; doubtless they could be sewn together with a little effort, and the roof ultimately saved.

As the earth ponies and unicorns set about the task of dragging the half from the northwest hill, and levitating the section from the top of the town hall, Pumpkin spun around looking desperately to see if the desired goal had been achieved - had any pegasai even noticed?

She couldn't spot any pegasai on the ground mixed into the crowd, so she looked up, towards Cloudcastle. The tiny dots of color that had been soaring between the storage clouds above the castle were gone; she could see no pegasai up there at all any more. While it had all been a great show - albeit an expensive one - it had ultimately failed.

Pumpkin slunk off. She would have to wait for evening, when the pegasai landed to graze with the rest of the herd. She decided to go back to the hill, to check on Caprice and Buttermilk. As she was walking, she remembered her vow to start exercising her wings. She flapped as hard as she could, in bursts, until she became tired and had to stop for a while; her gait was one of walking interrupted by brief low hops of feathery fury.

When Pumpkin finally made it to the top of 'Alexi's Hill', she found that Caprice had barely made a dent in the basket of treats. She lost it at that point and found herself screaming at Caprice in a remarkable mimicry of how her own mother had once yelled at her back on Earth. Finally, Pumpkin just broke down in tears; she collapsed on the grass weeping. She'd tried so hard, everypony had tried so hard, and Caprice just wouldn't eat her vegetables, and Buttermilk was going to starve when Caprice's udder dried up, and Alexi would never come home, and the canopy had exploded, and everything was wrong!

Suddenly Buttermilk was wailing too; strong emotions always seemed to upset her, it was doubly sad because she kept shouting her one word "GAFFOL!" in between her cries of anguish, perhaps thinking that the problem was a lack of enough Gaffol on her part. She was just too young to understand anything of what was actually going on.

Caprice hung her head, and felt the strongest urge to flee; she just wanted to run, and keep running, and never, ever stop running. It took her entire will to hold still, realizing that this was not the kind of pony she wanted to be. Every moment was a gift, she told herself, even the bad ones, because those were the moments that let a pony have the chance to do something good.

She calmed herself, as best she could, and began trying to reassure Buttermilk; Pumpkin was just sobbing softly now, so the little foal was the first priority. It took some time, but she eventually got her foal calmed down; Buttermilk was no longer crying, though she was still repeating 'Gaffol', for which Caprice tried to reward her with more licks and nuzzles. Clearly the little unicorn was trying to make things better, the only way she could. Yes, Buttermilk, thank you, what we need right now is Gaffol, no question about it.

Pumpkin was a more difficult problem; she wouldn't talk. She was upset, and Caprice could understand that some of that upset was with her; so she made a point of eating the contents of the basket, even though she really didn't feel like it. At first, anyway. As she ate more of the produce, she began to realize just how hungry she really was. The carrots were fantastic.

Pumpkin looked up at the sound of Caprice's hearty munching, and finally smiled - Caprice offered her a carrot "They are just SO good, Pumpkin!", so Pumpkin took a bite, more just to humor her than anything. The carrot really was good. Very good. Pumpkin crawled on her belly closer to the basket and soon both sisters were enjoying the bounty of Galloping Gardens together. Pumpkin even bit off a small piece of carrot for Buttermilk to mouth and suck on; she paraded around with the little orange bite as if it were First Prize for Best Gaffolling In Equestria.

When evening came, there was still no Alexi, but at least Caprice seemed to be in a better mood. She was willing to eat now, and she seemed much less mopey. She hadn't even noticed the canopy spinning right below her, so Pumpkin had fun astonishing her with the story of her failed attempt to contact Alexi. In the end, they were laughing together.

"Oh, Pumpkin. I'm sorry. I really am." Caprice looked up at the moonlight shining on Cloudcastle above, then she focused on her sister. "Heh. I wanted Alexi to take on all sorts of responsibilities, and here I was failing at my own. You were absolutely right - I need to stay healthy, I need to eat, because this one here..." She gave Buttermilk a nuzzle "...depends on me. Whether Alexi comes back or not, I have a daughter that needs me."

"And a sister, too. I need you too, you know." Pumpkin stared with sad, lonely eyes. "I need you so ...much."

"You know what, Pumpkin?" Caprice had a mischievous grin.


"To hell with Alexi-the-fancypants-pegasus! We're all the family we really need, anyway! Right?" Caprice giggled at that, and it was wonderful, because it had been several days now since last she had laughed at all.

"To hell with Alexi!" laughed Pumpkin.

"TAHEL!" beamed a prancing Buttermilk.

"Oh Celestia!" a shocked Caprice half-whispered in horror; then they were all laughing for a long, long time.

Nineteen: A Mouthful Of Love

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By Chatoyance

Nineteen: A Mouthful Of Love

Comet Tail The Intractable strode with silver shod hooves through the ancient halls of the Royal Unicorn Corps sacred Guildhouse. Her gray coat was mottled by fine white hairs; her once crimson mane was entirely white; age had gradually touched her despite the powerful and questionable spells to ward it off - there was only so much even one of the greatest unicorn mages could do.

She had lived three times the span of other unicorns already; she knew that she could not escape the Pale Mare forever. But long before that bony hoof touched her, she would have the honor of the Royal Unicorn Corps restored. It was a matter of principle, and what had happened had shamed all of unicorn kind in Comet Tail's mind.

That it was a pegasus that had brought shame upon the Corps, this did not surprise her. The pegasai had always been trouble; not that it was considered proper to speak such realities in public. Her opinions were her own, and she kept them, like everything within her, completely guarded.

The mages had been scouring the ancient tomes for any works of magic that might aid in correcting the error of the Corps; the princess had made it clear that it was their job to find and retrieve the lost newfoals, and that is exactly what would happen. The first task was to locate the lost ponies; a problem indeed, for they had been scattered at random across an ever-increasing space. Not an easy task, but neither was it impossible. Where there is magic there is always a way. This truth had constantly guided Comet Tail.

The small scrivener humbly approached Comet Tail. He was almost half her size; extended life and proximity to magic had made Comet Tail's legs long and her bearing regal. The scrivener's silvern saddlebags carried scrolls and letters; the scriveners themselves carried messages and great burdens for the Royal Mages. "Great Mage, I bring word." The scrivener bowed his head and lowered himself slightly, the traditional greeting.

"I will hear it." Hopefully those foals in the research department finally had something to show for their efforts. It had certainly taken long enough.

The weary little unicorn levitated out a scroll; opening it before him he summarized the contents - it was well known that Comet Tail had no time for florid language or pompous missives. "Milady: they have found a spell." The scrivener bowed again, after folding and replacing the lengthy document, filled with endless 'by your graces' and 'for the illustrious causes' and other such fluffery.

"Thank you, scrivener. About your duties." The little unicorn left, bearing his overladen saddlebags. Briefly, Comet Tail tried to remember his name, then recalled that she had never bothered to find out - there really wasn't much point, none of them lasted that long; either they retired or they died. Some were better than others, but in the end, they were not all that different from one another.

The stone steps led down to the Secret Library; Comet Tail knew that this would be where anything useful would be found, and where the researchers must be. The Secret Library was known only to the Corps and to the Princesses; in it were books and artifacts from before the Conquest Of Discord and the Rise Of Harmony; indeed, there were chambers that contained things, strange and terrible things, that predated even Discord himself. Some of these would only open for the princesses alone; even the Corps were not allowed such knowledge.

"Comet Tail!" The hushed voices repeated her name in surprise and reverence; it was all such a sham, they had sent for her had they not? Bowing and scraping, the lot of them would just as soon she met the Pale Mare so they could move up in rank.

"Can you find the newfoals?" It was a simple question. It was the only question.

"Well, your gracious wisdom, we have searched through the most ancient of texts with the most careful of eyes to finding a solution, and after great effort - but a greater resolve, of course - we..."

"Can. You. Find. Them." She said the words clearly and precisely; they were not a question, they were a command. Night Watcher the Ponderous would babble endlessly trying to curry favor through florid verbiage. Comet Tail had run out of 'favor' a generation before Night Watcher had been foaled, and had grown weary of political machination within her first decade of heading the Corps.

Night Watcher coughed once, obviously aggrieved at being interrupted; though her face remained grim, inside her mind Comet Tail smiled at his frustration. "Yes. Your Wisdom, we... believe that we can discover the whereabouts of the lost newfoals."

"They weren't 'lost', the newfoals were deliberately abandoned through an act of treachery and sedition." Comet Tail bored her eyes through the old goat of a stallion and enjoyed watching him shrivel slightly. "I do not want your 'belief', I want them found and rescued. What can you show me."

The assembled department heads of the Royal Corps Of Unicorns shifted nervously; this was always the case, Comet Tail never would settle for anything less than results. Far worse than this, though, the results actually had to be useful; such a condition really made things ever so much more difficult than they really should be.

"Well?" Another day in the mines, thought Comet Tail. Inside her mind, she sighed. Outwardly, she tightened the perpetually stern look that acted as her face.

"We have succeeded! Oh, happy day, such a grand success!" Night Watcher gave his aged hooves a tiny prance, Comet Tail could practically hear his joints creaking like weathered wood.

"Have you begun the rescue of all the newfoals, then?" It was far too much to hope for; of course they hadn't. But it would serve to deflate and utterly crush Night Watcher's little tantrum of misplaced joy, and that was good enough for the moment.

"Um.." Night Watcher became crestfallen, the rest of the staff pressed nervously against the walls of the underground library "...Not... as such."

Comet Tail could smell the ineptitude, it permeated the room. "How many newfoals have you located, then?"

Night Watcher looked down, and a little to the left, perhaps at a moldy spot on the ancient stone floor. "Exact figures are hard to come by, of course, Your Wisdom, but you can be assured that..."

"How. Many. Exactly." It was like dealing with children. Comet Tail detested children.

"Exactly, Your Wisdom?" Night Watcher seemed especially unhappy today. Good. Still, Comet genuinely wanted results.

"Yes, exactly. How many?" Maybe things would be better in the Everfree. She could conjure a cottage, collect a menagerie of horrible monsters, put them in conjured cages. Feed them department heads. Then the bodies. Smile.

"Well..." Night Watcher shifted his hooves nervously, still studying the splotch on the floor "... accounting for various errors such as false readings, the topology of Equestria itself, and of course the extreme difficulty of dealing with an exponentially expanding..."

"Number." Comet Tail didn't have all day. Well, actually she did, but she'd be the daughter of a mule before she'd spend it listening to this old foal.

"So far, as of today, well..." Night Watcher swallowed, audibly. "One. We are proud to announce the discovery of our first lost... um... cruelly abandoned... newfoal."

Comet Tail had been prepared for pathos, but this was too much. No, she must have misheard. She was becoming ancient, after all. "Only one single colony. That is what you have found?"

"Um. No. Not precisely." Night Watcher not so subtly backed up towards the wall a few steps; the rest of the staff pressed against the wall moved left and right as if to be more distant from any association with the aged unicorn stallion.

"You mean you have found exactly one single, individual newfoal?" If her face were not a frozen perpetual mask of disdain already, it would have become one, as it was, it became more so.

"Exactly! Well put, Your Wisdom!" Night Watcher dared to smile at Comet Tail, as if actually congratulating her. Had the old foal become senile? Suddenly, Comet Tail almost began to feel the faintest whisper of pity for the wretched thing.

Almost. "Would you care to explain that?" Night Watcher looked excited at this, Comet Tail instantly realized that her words were a mistake. If there was one thing that silly old unicorn liked it was explaining things. "No, on second thought, allow me to explain it." Better. Night Watcher now looked like a shriveled lily. Excellent.

"You have a spell that can locate newfoals, but only one at a time. Doubtless you are relying on Brokenhoofs Listening Heart as a basis, and doing Call Of Desperation as a seeker. Stripehorn's Enhancer to increase the range?" It was the most obvious thing to do, and required the least amount of actual work; Comet was fairly certain she had nailed this shoe right to the hoof.

"Your Wisdom!" Night Watcher seemed truly impressed - this of course meant that he wasn't. The staff heads clopped their hooves in admiration, nodding vigorously; they were undoubtedly upset at being found out. "Your brilliance shines upon us all!"

Oh Celestia, those were the spells exactly. It was like biting hay in a haybale. "The rescue?" A part of Comet Tail wanted to roll her eyes in disgust, but she'd spent so much time constantly looking with disdain that she'd rather forgotten how to.

"We are set to dispatch a single unicorn to retrieve the lost newfoal, Your Wisdom!" Night Watcher seemed almost proud. Mistake.

"You do realize that where one newfoal exists in the expansion, the rest of an entire colony almost certainly surrounds them? That was how they were originally transported. In colonies." Comet Tail enjoyed the storm of emotions subtly rippling over Night Watcher's muzzle, no, of course he hadn't thought of that, why would he?

"Ah! I... see your point." Night Watcher looked as if he felt like an old, doddering, completely inept idiot; it was pleasant to see some light finally shine into these dark, forbidding stone halls. Comet Tail inwardly grinned; score!.

"Arrange a class one rescue mission, I want it in the field in one hour; failure will mean permanent dismissal from the Corps with dishonors." That ought to stir them up! She hadn't used a threat so severe since dead old Greythunder The Impulsive had been suckling an udder. It felt soooo good.

The Corps staff heads were in shock. Night Watcher peed himself, right there on the stone floor, in the middle of the sacred underground Secret Library. Oh, Celestia!

Night Watcher, wet and ashamed, found himself looking up to see a truly legendary horror.

Comet Tail The Intractable was physically grinning.

* * * * *

The desert stretched to eternity in every direction. The hills were brown and grey, the grass long since dead; it rustled as the tan stallion with the white mane dragged himself through it. His burgundy eyes no longer shone brightly, they were sunken in his weathered face, his skin clung to his bones as if in fear of falling off.

In his bulging cheeks was water, it was not clean but brown with dirt, and it tasted of salt and metal. As he crawled from the cracking, dried out remains of what had once been a lake, the young stallion fought with all of his might not to swallow the water. Every instinct in his body demanded him to swallow; his mind reeled as if with madness as he fought to deny his flesh.

There was another pony who needed the water more, and that pony was more important to him than his own life.

Hoof by agonizing hoof, the tan stallion pulled himself forward on his belly; he was going downhill now, which helped. The dry soil was hot and burned his belly. He had lost a lot of his coat there, from crawling, so his stomach was a mass of red scrapes and stinging grass cuts.

Finally he made it to the shade of the crates. The sky remained an implacable white, yet the vague glow from above beat down - it was never truly cool, not even at night. But shade mattered; at least it was less hot.

The stallion crawled on his belly, past the body of a fallen pony. She had named herself Brightwish, because she saw coming to Equestria as the beginning of a life of shining wishes come true. Her glazed, shriveled eyes stared blindly up at the obscured sun. Celestia's terrible sun.

Finally, the tan stallion made it to his lover, his life, that which was more important to him than his own existence.

The gray unicorn with the blond mane lay on his side, barely breathing. His blue eyes fluttered half open, sticky with dried tears.

The tan stallion nudged the unicorn with his head. He put his lips to the unicorns lips and forced the head to a more vertical position. He began pushing the water in his cheeks into the unicorn's mouth, trying desperately to get it all in, to not let any dribble to the ground. The grey unicorn began reflexively swallowing, then began choking. As the unicorn coughed, precious drops were lost, spattered onto the ground, or into the tan earth pony's face.

"Summer. Please summer, it's water. I brought as much as I could hold. Please hang on, Summer. Please." The tan pony tried to cry, but there were no tears available.

"Sand... sands. Sandcastle... you should... don't waste it on me. Jus... just stay where the... water is." The grey unicorn had stopped coughing, his raspy voice somewhat soothed by the water. He licked his cracked lips. "It's really... good.. though... so sweet. So sweet. Like you." Summer Raincloud's blue eyes fluttered again, half open, as he drifted back to whatever place he went most of the time now.

Sandcastle began licking Summer's half-open eye, trying to get any moisture he could to sooth the orb. The eye was sticky and gummy, but with continued licking it began to shine again, wet once more from Sandcastle's efforts.

"Listen, Summer. Just keep hanging on. I'm going to go for the other lake. There might be some water left there. You have to hang on. Please. I love you Summer. I love you so much. So very, very much." Sandcastle was crying now, jerking with grief, even without tears his body was wracked with sobs. "I'll get you more water. I will."

Sandcastle shifted to look at the area near Summer's stifle; there was no sign that the unicorn had urinated at all. Sandcastle smelled the dirt; there was no smell either. This was bad; if Summer's kidneys had shut down then... no. No. There's no thinking that. Water. More water is the only answer.

Sandcastle began to turn his exhausted body around, to begin the crawl to the far lake. It would be brutal, but he had tried all the others within range. Suddenly he felt an intense pain in his chest. It was terrible; he curled instinctively, his forelegs pulled tightly to him. Oh god, oh god, was it his heart? It felt like it. Oh god it hurt. Gradually, as he lay still, the pain subsided. No more crawling, no more crawling today. Sorry Summer, oh god I'm so sorry.

When the pain was a dull ache, Sandcastle managed to shift until his head was touching Summer. He wasn't sure what part, but it didn't matter. Just so long as he was touching him, touching his beloved, dearest Summer.

Suddenly he realized this might be the end. If he couldn't crawl, there would be no more water for either of them. If it was his heart, then he might not last in any case. Despite the pain, he pushed himself closer to Summer Raincloud. He could smell his stallion, he could smell the scent. That was a blessing. The spattered water had given Summer a scent again, for a while, and Sandcastle sniffed the comforting perfume of his lover in.

Sandcastle found himself panting now. He felt short of breath. That wasn't good. He felt panic, he began looking wildly around; the body of Brightwish, the carcass of Swifthoof, still hanging, pinned by his own horn halfway up the side of the crate he had charged in a desperate attempt to save everyone, the front hooves of his beloved Summer, the bright, multicolored spire of lights forming in the flat land between the hills...

Ha! So this was death as a pony! They had an afterlife here, or something! Sandcastle watched the spire become a tower of sparkling, shimmering energies, spiraling into the sky. The shapes of ponies, unicorns, began forming in the light; their bodies made of stars coalescing into solid flesh. "Beautiful!" he croaked out between his parched, pained lips. He and Summer would go to pony heaven! How delirious! How astonishing! Celestia really was a goddess! So... beautiful.

So... beautiful.


When Sandcastle awoke, he felt confused. He was in some kind of billowing structure, a great pavilion covered in shimmering golden silk. Delicately engraved ivory-like posts supported the rippling fabric. The most delightfully cool - oh so cool - breeze crossed his belly. It was so nice. Sandcastle could smell beautiful flowers and he began to hear distant laughter and talking.

He found that he was laying on a soft bed of some kind, the covering smelled soft and sweet, and it was white as snow. The bed was very low to the ground, just perfect for a pony, and there was something beside it, something gray... he knew that gray. It was his favorite shade of gray in the world, the exact shade of a raincloud in summer.

"Summer! Summer!" His voice was no longer scratchy; he felt so much better! "Summer! Welcome to pony heaven, Summer!"

The gray unicorn snapped his head up, tears just beginning to pour from his eyes "Oh, sweet Celestia, Sands, oh Sands!" He just kept repeating Sandcastle's name over and over while kissing him everywhere.

"Summer? Are you OK?" It was a silly question, being in pony heaven and all, but Summer was carrying on so.

"I thought I'd lost you, Sands! They said you'd had some kind of cardiac thing from all the heat and the crawling. They had to do serious work on you. Oh, sweet Celestia, sweet Luna, you're going to be alright, you're going to be alright." Summer was crying again. Slowly Sandcastle began to interpret things more coherently.

"We... we were rescued, weren't we. This isn't pony heaven, is it?" Sandcastle felt silly all of a sudden.

"Pony... what? NO! We're alive, Sands! We're in Canterlot! The Royal Unicorn Corps came back for us. Were in an infirmary; they have a whole bunch of these tents set up in some gardens or something. There's a really fancy palace right out that way!" Summer pointed with his nose "You'll love it. You just have to see it, it's amazing, very storybook, very posh. I'm so glad you are alright!"

Sandcastle lay back again, he still felt very tired. "I was so afraid, Summer. You... you weren't doing very well."

"Says the heart attack pony!" Summer gave Sandcastle the most fragile, delicate kiss; love mixed with fear. "Sands, we almost lost you. I just needed water and... some stuff with my kidneys or something. But you... Listen. The medical unicorns - they have the best in all of Equestria here, hoof-picked by the princesses themselves - the unicorns said they can regenerate all the damage to your heart. You'll be good as new when they're done. They've already magicked you up one side and down the other, but they need to do a few more spells on you over time. Just relax, rest, and I'll keep you company."

"I'd like that. Actually, I really need that. Please stay with me, Summer." Sandcastle couldn't help himself, he must sound like a plaintive little foal.

"It's the only place I ever want to be. By you. Don't worry. They couldn't pry me off with a crowbar. Made of real crows!"

Sandcastle laughed, and the sight made Summer want to cry again. Just to see him laugh, it was everything in the world.

"Summer... what happened. Why were we left there, why...?" It was a question the 160 ponies had all asked constantly since the day that pegasus had left them on the plain.

"Windfeather. He was a rogue pegasus. A racist or something. He did this to us. They've been looking for us. It isn't just us, though. Windfeather stranded a lot of newfoals. Dozens of groups or something like that. It's a huge scandal. But we're safe now. We're one-hundred percent safe now." Summer nuzzled his mate tenderly, but also delicately, as if he were afraid the earth pony would break.

"How many. How many of us made it, Summer?" Sandcastle tried to mentally brace himself. They had all tried so hard. They had all tried to help each other, they just didn't know what to do. Nopony knew anything. They couldn't open the crates no matter what they tried. Maybe if they'd had even one pegasus in the group... after all, pegasai could supposedly control the weather. But they were 160 earth ponies and unicorns, and no pegasai.

"Um... maybe we could discuss that later, Sands, the important thing is that we made it." The look on Summer Raincloud's face was not encouraging.

"I can handle it. I have to know. How many." Sandcastle tried to put on his bravest face.

"Not a lot, Sands. Forty-three of us. One still might not make it. Jewelstone. She's in pretty bad shape. They've got her on some kind of magical life support or something. It's way beyond me, but they are doing what they can."

"Starbright? Deep Purple? Stoneskipper?" Summer just sadly shook his head, his blond mane flopping from side to side.

Sandcastle began to cry. He couldn't help himself, it was just so sad, and so terrible, and so wrong. Summer put a leg over him, gently, and Sandcastle rolled into Summer, pressing his body into Summer's as best as he could.

"Sands... I don't know what to say, except that it's going to get better now. We have the best care, the best of everything here, all the water, all the food... it's the capitol of Equestria. They intend to take care of us, to try to make it up to us. It will get better." Summer felt helpless. He wished he could somehow make everything all right.

"Can they bring back the dead? Can they do that?" Sandcastle's eyes were filled with anger and horror.

"I don't know. I don't know anything like that." Summer stared intently into those angry eyes, trying to soften them with sheer love "I only have one thing that I know, the thing that kept me alive: I love you Sandcastle. I will always love you."

The silk pavilion rippled with a gust of cool breeze, the smell of delicate flowers filled the tent. Sandcastle could hear birds, singing and chirping outside, and he could smell the sweet scent of Summer Raincloud, pressed tight against him.

"I love you too. I love you so much."

Twenty: Equineimity

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By Chatoyance

Twenty: Equineimity

The 'talk' that the new leader of Summerland Village had given him had not changed anything; he had already intended to go deal with Caprice. Still, Droplet's words stung; Alexi didn't think he was being childish. He just needed some time to consider, time to figure out what he really wanted in life, time to assist in important meteorological... stuff. If he hadn't spent all the time that he had in Cloudcastle, Cirrus might have broken that cup. He might have broken several cups.

They had a limited number of cups. Droplet should understand that. It was a matter of practicality!

He had also helped with construction of the castle in the sky over Summerland. Alexi alone had finished his tower, and he had started another; he had also single-hoofedly invented a cloud-portculis, with a working gate of cloudstuff 'bars'. It had taken forever to roll and compress those bars to make that gate. Alexi felt sure that not many other newfoal colonies in Equestria could claim they had an actual sky castle. He had been working for the glory of Summerland itself! Sometimes mares just didn't get it. The important things.

Alexi stood at the edge of the cloudland that supported Cloudcastle. This was the original packed cloud surface they had created over two months ago when the first team effort to create rain had begun. The borders of the white landscape had been increased; it was quite the little island in the sky.

Alexi wasn't sure how to approach things. He had come to several decisions, however. One was that he just couldn't help himself; he wanted Caprice. He couldn't stop thinking about her, he constantly wished she could see the things he had accomplished in the name of meteorology, he felt sorry that she would never be able to lay on a bed of cloud. The fact of it was that he just couldn't stand her not being around.

Alexi sighed. There was no question; devil or angel, he had it bad for Caprice. This he must admit, because it was true.

But there must be some rules! He would have no more of such manipulations. Things would take their own time. No more of the smug, 'here is what is what' Caprice from before. No, Alexi is wearing the pants in this family, even if there is no more need for pants. Alright, not pants. The horseshoes in this family. If there ever were any, Alexi would be wearing them!

Alexi would accept Buttermilk as his daughter too. But not because Caprice had told him to. Alexi just could not keep from thinking about her as well. He remembered the day Caprice had told him that he was a daddy now, how he had held the little foal in his arms in the clinic. How tiny and helpless the baby unicorn was. How she had looked up at him with those big yellow eyes and...

Of course Buttermilk would be his daughter. It was his choice, though, because Buttermilk needed a father in her life, and because Alexi wanted to be that father. Alexi could provide that. Alexi was good at providing, and his daughter would have the best of everything. Caprice must be made to understand that this had nothing to do with her. It was entirely the choice of Alexi!

Lastly, Caprice must understand that her times of being in heat would not dictate his sex life. Well, actually, that probably couldn't be avoided, considering that is how things actually worked here. Alright, perhaps Alexi would have to bend with regard to that fact; even the strongest man... the strongest stallion... could not fight Nature herself. Or whatever passed for Nature in Equestria.

But even so, she would see that.... never mind. The fact was, Alexi missed Caprice. And Buttermilk. And Pumpkin. He missed having a family, and the truth of it was that sitting on the cloud with Cirrus had gotten very lonely, and very old.

Perhaps Droplet was right. Perhaps Alexi had been acting like a colt a little bit. Just a little bit. Not that much. A little. Maybe.

Alexi kept staring down at the landscape below. They had done a very nice job on the town hall. Droplet had mentioned that; the big pavilion with the spiral roof was pretty impressive. Apparently the cottage they had begun next had suffered some trouble; the roof had ripped somehow. He could see the fabric spread out, dozens of newfoals working to sew it back together. They looked like ants on a candy wrapper from up here.

Alright, so. If he was to have this talk with Caprice, then when would be the best time? Definitely not morning, no. Morning was a terrible time for talking; everypony was just waking up. Nothing serious could be decided with a head full of sleep.

Lunchtime then? No, of course this would be a bad time. The bright sunlight, the crowd talking and making a fuss; no, this was not a time for serious talking. Lunch was for eating and enjoying the daylight.

Dinner then? The evening graze was relatively sedate, but still, too many ponies. No, not dinner.

After dinner then; the early evening! He could swoop down like an angel from on high, and set forth the Word Of Alexi to the masses of... Caprice. In the light of the setting sun, he would strike an impressive figure, dominant, strong, and she would see how things would be from now on. Yes, this was the perfect time, and it would be glorious.

Then, everything would be perfect. The ache in his heart would end; she would say she was sorry for everything and he, Alexi would become her hero and take care of her and their daughter and all would be right.

He missed her. He missed her so much. Why did he leave? He couldn't even remember anymore. Stupid Alexi, stupid. It didn't matter what she had done. Alexi hung his head, his ears drooping.

He was a proud, stupid, silly Alexi. All his life he had wanted a beautiful... well, to be fair, he had wanted a beautiful woman, but that was before Equestria. There was no question that Caprice was beautiful, and she was a woman, if perhaps a pony kind of woman. But then, Alexi was a stallion kind of man. It took time to get truly used to these things.

No. He must stop thinking in those terms. Once again, Caprice was right. Always it was so maddening; she was right about so many things. They were ponies now, she often had said. They were ponies now, and they would be forever, for the rest of their lives. This was so. She had accepted this completely. Caprice had embraced it! There was nothing else to be done. Alexi could do this too.

Alexi paced back and forth near the edge of the cloudfloor. He was a stallion now. A pegasus stallion. He could fly, he could run, he dined on the green grass of the land, and the vegetables of the garden below. This is what he would be for the rest of his life. This was, as Caprice had said, what was right, and what was good, now. Because he was a pony.

A stallion needed a mare. Unless they needed another stallion, like Sweetpepper and Goldrivet. But that was not for Alexi. Alexi needed a mare. Alexi needed... Caprice.

For a moment, he wanted to fly to her, right now, without hesitation. He wanted to apologize, to just have things back the way they were. Why did he get so upset? Everything in life was manipulation of some kind, and all Caprice had wanted was a family. That was all Alexi wanted. For a while, he had made Clinic 042 his family. But, really, it wasn't what he had truly needed.

Caprice had given him what he had always wanted, and he had stormed out. Silly, stupid Alexi!

Enough. Droplet was right. Enough was enough. He would go to Caprice now, and work things out. Somehow. The time did not matter. Now was always the right time. Now.

Alexi spread his wings and began the long, spiraling glide down.

* * * * *

Caprice, Buttermilk and Pumpkin had set out for their picnic by South Lake. Droplet had not been wrong; a vast patch of colorful flowers had grown up as the lake had filled once more with rain, and they looked like candies scattered on the green. Caprice wore saddlebags, borrowed from the colonies shared supplies, and they had been filled with goodies from Sweetpepper and Goldrivet's farm; when she had last seen them they were laughing and singing silly songs in the hayfields.

It was a bright, warm day, and Caprice wished she had a hat. Her poll and forehead felt hot, and a hat would have been so nice, and kept the sun out of her eyes. Maybe someday there might be things like hats in Summerland Village; recently, anything seemed possible.

The Galloping Gardens were constantly expanding, and the rate of food production was prodigious. The subtle magic of earth ponies did not seem the least bit subtle in this growing colony; they had gone from a diet only of grass to feasting on all manner of delicacies. Entire crops could be raised to harvest in less than a month; some in mere days. Caprice had even noticed a little of her own earth pony magic at work; the top of Alexi Hill grew greener and more lush than the other three hills, and it had more flowers around it as well. Pumpkin was convinced this was because Caprice had spent so much time there.

Pumpkin was beginning to become strong of wing, and this made Caprice very glad. Back at the Clinic, Pumpkin had seemed so proud to have wings, and she loved being called a little angel. But she had made no actual use of her lovely wings, and Caprice felt pretty sure it was mostly her own fault that this was so; her issues and problems had consumed her doting sister. No more! They had all decided to make a clean start of things.

Pumpkin hovered just a few feet above the ground, her wings following a steady beat now, instead of the aimless flapping she had begun with; she enjoyed low flight because it was a strength-building exercise, yet allowed her to remain close as they traveled. Buttermilk seemed entranced by Pumpkin's flying, and followed around underneath her, occasionally trying to leap up, as if to catch her. Occasionally, Pumpkin would lower her tail and tease Buttermilk with it; this resulted in squeals of laughter and giggling on both their parts.

Caprice lowered her head, watching the rhythm of her own peach-colored hooves. They really were rather pretty, these things called hooves. Very stylish, in a way. Clop, swish, clop, swish as she stepped through the tall, untrodden grass. It was so nice to see everything green and lush again. Looking up, the lake shone blue, as if the sky somehow had come to rest on the land for a while. On the far side of the lake, the large patch of flowers made her mouth water; she couldn't wait to try them.

Pumpkin flew out over the lake a distance; Buttermilk stopped at the edge unsure of this new, wet thing. That's right, thought Caprice, Buttermilk had not really been to any body of water as large as this. She'd seen the pond beyond the gardens, that was where most ponies went to drink, but it wasn't truly large. She'd certainly never approached it closely.

No reason to, really, Buttermilk got everything she needed from the milk Caprice provided her.

This was a perfect day to play in the water!

Caprice carefully set down her saddlebags; there was an art to it. If done right, they would be easy to pick up again, without help. Caprice lowered her body, so that the durable saddlebags stood upright, the reinforced material linking them forming an arch. Carefully, Caprice wriggled backwards out of the arch, leaving the bags standing on their own. If they didn't get knocked over, she could slip them on by sticking her neck through the arch and sliding them down her neck to rest on her back once more. She felt proud when she accomplished a perfect saddlebag maneuver.

Free from the bags, she turned to see poor Buttermilk complaining at the horrible unfairness of Pumpkin breaking all the recognized rules of Catch-A-Tail by flying out over the scary, wet blue thing. Oh, what a cruel, cruel meany!

Caprice came up beside her little yellow unicorn, who immediately turned to her for help; Pumpkin wasn't playing fair and Buttermilk wanted some kind of authoritarian adjudication to correct this injustice. There there, Caprice comforted the buttery foal, it isn't as terrible a travesty as you imagine.

To Buttermilk's shock, her mother had sided with mean auntie Pumpkin and stepped into the big wet thing; worse, she was calling for Buttermilk to join her! Calamity! Buttermilk stomped her hooves and moved first right, then left along the shore, unable to cope with this terrible new reality. What was she to do? Didn't her mother understand that it was wet and blue out there? What had gone wrong with the world to make stepping into wetness a real thing?

Even the rational solution of bleating and saying 'Gaffol!' did not fix this; it had become an intractable dilemma. On one hoof, mother and auntie were right there, just a few steps away, and whenever things were troublesome, being near them was the final solution. Everything was always fixed whenever she was near mother. But the very nightmare that was the problem happened to be what mother and auntie were currently standing in, and this paradox tore and ripped at poor Buttermilk's mind. Water, scary, need mother, mother in water - HAD THE VERY COSMOS ITSELF GONE INSANE???

Mother wasn't leaving the water. Buttermilk tentatively tried her other word, 'TAHEL', but this only made mother and auntie Pumpkin laugh. That wasn't fair. This was just too much. She needed mother! Couldn't they see that? Something had to be done. Suddenly, Buttermilk knew the answer! Of course, it was so obvious! The logic had been there all along, it simply needed some panic to bring it into focus. Mother equaled safety, there was scary water between her and mother, the answer was clearly to get to mother as quickly as possible and everything would then be fine! Nothing more needed to be understood.

Buttermilk began wiggling her hindquarters; this was a proper and necessary traditional behavior for the type of action she would have to take; all of her several months of life assured her of this fact. Wiggling, check. Ready hind legs. Hind legs ready. Prepare forward hooves. Forehooves are go. Do we need more pacing left and right first? No, all indications are that sufficient pacing has been achieved. Operation Mommy Leap is go, repeat, Operation Mommy Leap Is Go!

The soft yellow unicorn foal leapt like a cat, springing forward from the shore of the lake. She soared majestically, like the eagle, like the condor, like the griffon, the full, incredible six inches straight to her mother! Miscalculation! Buttermilk's mother was a solid object, something she had forgotten momentarily. Buttermilk impacted on the soft, peach-colored surface; we're going down! Alert! The foal is going down!

Buttermilk made a splash as she hit the water. It was cool and wet, and it made her hot coat feel nice. As she stood up, dripping, she pressed into her mother unsure of her own complex emotions over all of this. She sort of remembered something about a scary blue thing and how she needed to get to mommy. But now, there was this really interesting wet thing she was in, and it splashed and plooped when she stomped. Whatever mommy wanted could wait. This stomping and plooping was incredible. She'd get back to mother later; this really needed to be explored thoroughly.

Caprice and Pumpkin laughed in delight as Buttermilk, apparently completely oblivious to her previous panic, began stomping about trying to make bigger and bigger splashes. Now she was trying to bite the splashes in mid-air; this seemed an amusement that totally captivated her. Buttermilk looked up at Caprice and Pumpkin, her muzzle dripping, her coat soaked, the look on her face almost seeming to question why nobody else was stomping and biting. Clearly it was the single most important thing in Equestria to be doing, why was it that she, Buttermilk, had to pull all the weight around here?

Caprice was curious to see if she could swim. "Pumpkin? Would you keep an eye on Buttermilk for a moment? I want to try swimming!"

Pumpkin waded closer to Buttermilk, ready to grab her mane if she decided to try to join her mother in the deeper water.

Caprice had once been quite good at swimming. In her human life, it had been yet one more rare and special luxury her daddy's position had afforded her. Now, however, she wasn't quite sure if she even could swim. Did ponies swim? Could they?

She decided to wade out to where her hooves just barely touched the bottom. She began moving her legs, trying to find something that worked. Much to her delight, she found herself swimming fairly easily. It wasn't unlike treading water, only with double the legs to achieve lift and stability. It was actually pretty easy.

It was clear that she wasn't going to be doing human swimming styles ever again, but then, she was a pony now. It felt good to tread through the water, it was cool, and she felt buoyant and light. She wondered if hovering, like Pumpkin could do, felt like this. For a moment she regretted not having wings herself.

"Hey! Pumpkin, I'll head back so you can swim!" Caprice started back to the shore.

"It's OK! I don't want to get my wings wet. They take forever to dry out!" Pumpkin tried to grab Buttermilk, but she was too fast. The little unicorn was swimming out to meet her mother, just like that. "Caprice? Look! Buttermilk can swim!"

There was no doubt about it; Buttermilk was just chugging along as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Maybe it was. Maybe ponies could just swim. That was something that Caprice had never read about, but... it seemed to be the case. Still, better not to do too much on a first trip to the lake. Caprice aimed straight for Buttermilk and met her; together mare and foal made it safely back to shore.

Out of the water, Buttermilk shook herself, the water spraying out all over Caprice and Pumpkin. This carefree act brought a giggle from both of them; Buttermilk just kind of lived in the moment, and somehow it was endearing.

Caprice walked a short distance away before attempting Buttermilk's way of drying off; it wasn't as easy or as automatic for Caprice as it had been for Buttermilk. She did her best, though, shimmying her body to throw off as much water as she could from her coat. The sun would dry the rest; fortunately pony hair was short, and dried fairly quickly. Her mane and tail, on the other hand, would take longer. Nothing for that, though she did briefly recall with some fondness her old hair-dryer from her human days.

With one smooth motion, Caprice slipped her saddlebags on. Beautiful! She was really getting good at such things. It was strange, really. As a human, she had depended utterly on having hands and fingers; she probably wouldn't have been able to even imagine putting on saddlebags without them. Not that she could have worn saddlebags before, of course. But still.

At the Conversion Bureaus, when they said that the lack of thumbs would not be a problem... it had actually turned out to be true. Caprice tried to remember what having hands felt like. She couldn't, not exactly. Her mouth was much stronger, she knew that for sure, than her hands had ever been. It was just normal to move things with her mouth, and sometimes to guide with a hoof. Walking was better with four legs; trying to balance on only two seemed scary to her now. How in the world had she managed it back then? It would be so easy to tip over!

As they ambled to the patch of flowers, their coats drying in the sun, Caprice thought about all the things that seemed to matter to her, back in her old life. Clothing. That was a big one. She always had to have the fanciest, most expensive designs. Now she was always perfectly dressed, in shiny peach, with a lovely peach mane. Shoes, oh, she had once owned a mountain of shoes. Her hooves were a thousand times prettier, and they never went out of fashion.

Caprice felt a little sad. If only Equestria had risen ten years earlier. What would it have been like to grow up as a filly instead of as a girl? She found herself envying Buttermilk. Lucky little filly. All she would ever remember was green, flowers, and galloping about. So... lucky.

Then again, Caprice ruminated, Buttermilk would never appreciate things the way she and Pumpkin did. They had escaped the hell that was earth; for them every little thing was precious. Natural born Equestrians could only take the world for granted; it was all they knew, they had no comparison. For all intents, Buttermilk was a native; she could not possibly remember anything of her brief glimpse of the human world.

The family picnicked in the middle of the tasty flowers. They were indeed delicious, though the blue ones were slightly sour, the rest were light and sweet. In the saddlebags was hay and oats, carrots (of course!), celery, bell peppers (sweetpepper insisted, they were his specialty after all), tomatoes, and the first of the strawberries. Well, what was left of them; it had been impossible to keep from nibbling at the supply on the way over. Fruit, oh... delicious fruit. There were more berries growing, blackberries, boysenberries, even huckleberries. They weren't ready yet, but the strawberries were, and they were so good that Caprice had already decided to spend more time helping in the garden; there Must. Be. More. Fruit. Soon. It was just too good.

Buttermilk seemed to like the strawberries too; she kept sucking on one until it disintegrated in her mouth. Caprice wasn't sure if this was alright entirely; it was clear that Buttermilk was swallowing a significant amount of the berry. Then again, she would have to be weaned one day, and for all Caprice knew, that day had come and gone. She just didn't know enough. If Buttermilk started liking solid food, then it must be natural; Caprice trusted these new Equestrian bodies to have some animal sense about them.

"Pumpkin? You said you used to read about horses when you were younger. Do you know anything about weaning? I don't know when Buttermilk should start on solid food. It just wasn't part of the kind of research I did before I went to the Bureau."

Pumpkin finished munching a mouthful of oats and flowers; she said the taste reminded her of oatmeal and syrup, sort of, only better. Finally she swallowed. "Mmm...yeah, I read about that stuff once. Let me think." Pumpkin nibbled at some white blossoms, savoring them as she tried to remember "Back when there were horses and they raised them, they kinda just ripped mares and foals apart after a few months. It sounded mean to me even then. I saw an old program about wild horses - there used to be actual herds of wild horses that ran around before the Collapse - and they talked about how long foals would nurse in the wild."

"Ulp!...and?" Buttermilk must have somehow gotten the idea of what they were talking about, because she had gone straight for the milk bar, which was always a little uncomfortable when Caprice was laying down. Caprice felt too lazy to stand at the moment, so she decided to endure Buttermilk's occasional nips in order to remain comfortable otherwise.

"If I remember correctly," Pumpkin smiled; seeing Buttermilk nurse always made her tingle inside - someday she would be nursing her own foal. She figured she was just past the halfway mark, if those keeping track of the days were correct. "wild horses basically nursed their foals until they got pregnant again. It could be as long as a year, even two. Pretty much as long as mare and foal both... I don't know... felt good about it?"

"Whoa. That's a lot longer than I expected." Caprice was surprised. Humans didn't nurse their babies for years at a time. Did they? That was another thing she had never bothered to study anything about. Maybe this was normal for both humans and ponies. She just plain didn't know. Then again, it wasn't like nursing Buttermilk was unpleasant. Most of the time she actually looked forward to it; it was a tender, loving time, and since she had learned to stand up when nursing her foal - most of the time anyway, right now was an exception - there was no discomfort.

Actually, she never felt more loving, and loved, than when she was feeding Buttermilk. "I guess I really don't need to worry about it at all, do I? Things will take care of themselves." Caprice felt some joy in that notion, and gave her little love a nuzzle. Buttermilk really was such a good little foal. She'd just nurse Buttermilk... as long as Buttermilk wanted to nurse. That was simple enough. Solved.

"That's what Dr. Pastern told me." Pumpkin was rooting around in the saddlebags, probably looking for any strawberries that might be hiding under the last of the hay.

"Dr. Pastern? What did she tell you?"

"When I was dithering like an idiot about whether to be converted - before you came over and helped me - Dr. Pastern tried to answer some of my questions about what would happen with my foal... my baby... anyway, she said that the whole thing would be really easy as a pony. A lot easier than it is for humans in every way. It was one of the things that kinda helped, you know?" Pumpkin lifted her head up with a strawberry in her teeth, proud at the discovery "Al schyar ih wih you. Wan hath?"

"Mmm!" Caprice leaned way over and bit half of the strawberry away. "Mmm... thanks. Oh, those were good, weren't they?"

"Pretty soon, we won't eat grass outside anymore. We'll probably be baking cakes and pies and casseroles. They found parts to make stoves and other kitchen stuff you know. With the garden and a kitchen, we'll be eating like regular Equestrians do!" Pumpkin was excited at the thought.

Caprice felt happy about this too, but also just a little sad. "It all sounds wonderful. I am looking forward to it... but in a way, I think I will miss our days of grazing together, out on the plains. One day, we'll all be cooking at home, each in our own little house. It won't be the same. All of us together, one big herd. I... kind of like that, you know?"

"I hadn't thought of it that way. Huh, I guess you're right." Pumpkin brightened "Still, Caprice - pie! And cake. And muffins. And biscuits. And haycakes! Remember Miriam's hay pancakes?"

That was a happy thought. Caprice had only eaten at the Bureau for a few days, but they were very tasty days. Miriam ran a really good cafeteria. Those haycakes were pretty darn good. So were the apples. Like the apples she had shared with Alexi.

"Caprice? Are you alright?" Pumpkin was leaning over "Your ears suddenly dropped and you looked really sad."

"Just thinking... about... stuff."

"Alexi, right?" Pumpkin sat back. "I understand." Pumpkin looked around at the lake and the flowers. "You know, we could still ask Droplet to go give Alexi the what for. I know she'd do it."

"No. No." Caprice lifted her head and consciously raised her ears. "If he wants to come home, he will. That's the only kind of coming home that will matter, sis. Whatever is between us shouldn't be a contract or a burden. If he wants me, I'm here, just like I told him at the Bureau. I told him that I chose him, and that my choice wouldn't change."

"Maybe you should reconsider that." Caprice gave Pumpkin the kind of look that had a bodycount measured in megadeaths. "Come on Caprice, seriously. You can't just wait for him forever. That would be dumb. That's all I'm saying."

Caprice softened. "Sorry. Yes, I suppose, eventually... but not yet. Not for a long while, OK?"

"Whatever you say, sis. I just want you to be happy. That's all." Pumpkin tried searching the saddlebags again, but that had been the very last strawberry. There weren't any more.

"It's getting late in the afternoon, little angel." Pumpkin smiled at that. She practically beamed when Caprice used that endearment. "Maybe we should start heading home."

"Yeah. We're out of the best goodies anyway!" Suddenly a shadow passed overhead, and the sun's light was briefly blocked. It took a few moments for this to be processed. "What was that? Did you see that, Caprice?" The two mares looked up, but whatever had flown over them was not in the sky now.

Caprice began to look around the landscape. Lake. Across the lake, the village and the town hall, the hills... Pumpkin, flowers, more flowers, big tall shape with the sun behind it. The big tall shape folded its wings.

Caprice's heart suddenly began racing like the wind.


Twenty-One: Bathing In Moonbeams

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By Chatoyance

Twenty-One: Bathing In Moonbeams

The late afternoon sun cast long shadows; a slight breeze ruffled the tops of the great patch of colorful and delicious flowers that grew by the large South Lake. In the sky, in the distance, unfinished Cloudcastle hung in the air, its pale towers shining white like puffy chalk. Beyond the lake, over the rolling hillocks were four large hills, in between them the red-spiraled peak of a pavilion, the flag of Equestria set above it.

The calm waters of the lake reflected perfect azure, the shoreline giving way to tall new grass, tender and green. Four newfoals sat by the placid water, legs folded in the blossoms, the scent of flowers embracing them like a floral hug.

The little yellow unicorn had run to the white pegasus stallion; there was no complication to her love, she only knew that daddy was back, and she was covering him with kisses, licking his face, leaping and wiggling her tail like a joyful puppy.

The young, orange pegasus filly, not yet truly heavy with foal, wore a startled expression, unsure of how she felt. Heady mixtures of hope and fear, joy and anger fluttered across her muzzle like butterflies; she struggled to remain silent, the task was not easy.

The peach-colored earth pony mare seemed as placid as the lake; she watched the tiny yellow unicorn ravage the stallion with unbounded affection. Inside, despite her constrained appearance, she wanted nothing more than to join her foal, smothering the stallion with licks and kisses and never, ever stopping.



She looked into his purple eyes, the color of deep twilight, the border of night. They looked sad, and lonely, and sorry.

For the first time in her life, Caprice did not know what to do. No augmentation told her any appropriate response. No hidden sensors reported on the blood chemistry of the pegasus in front of her; she had no plan, no scheme, and no preparation in place. Alexi was here; she wanted him more than anything she had ever wanted in her life, and she was terrified to the core of her soul that whatever she might do or say would only push him away again.

Always she had possessed the upper hand, the greater vision, the wider understanding. It had been trivial to get what she wanted, because others were so simple, so easy to control. This was not easy, and this was not simple, and she had no advantages. She was just a mare, and she had never felt so helpless and desperate in her two lives.

"Caprice..." Alexi's voice thrilled her; it was enough merely to hear him again. She tried to keep the tears from forming, but her eyes wouldn't listen, and there were no implants to control such things. She felt helpless in her flesh, rudderless, adrift on her own longing.

"I... wanted to see if... what I mean, Caprice, is that perhaps we might..." Alexi seemed lost, his normal bravado absent. He seemed like a little colt, forlorn and unsure. This was not the Alexi of the loudspeaker in the Clinic, this was not the Alexi who brought the herd together on that first day. This Alexi was one Caprice had never seen; fragile, almost shy, ears drooping, looking up with a lowered head.

Pumpkin wanted to scream, she wanted to yell, there was so much she wanted to say, but she bit her own tongue, just to keep it still. She put her head between her foreknees, pressing them tight against the sides of her jaw. Quiet, be quiet, this is their time now.

Caprice felt tears running down her cheeks. She hadn't intended them, and they just wouldn't stop. She had no idea what to do. Should she say something? Alexi had trailed off, he wasn't saying anything now; should she speak? What if she said the wrong thing? What if being quiet was the right thing to do? If she only had some clue, something, some way to know what to do.

Buttermilk had finally settled down, her excitement turned to contentment. She licked Alexi's mouth a few more times, just to be sure, and then turned to look at her mother. Well, come on, what is wrong with you? Her eyes almost seemed to speak to Caprice; why are you sitting all the way over there?

Caprice had always been in control. She had always maintained exactly the persona she needed, spoke precisely the words that would do the job, moved her body the way that served her interests the most. She felt frozen. What was the appropriate persona to bring out now? Who should she become for this situation? She had no answers. She felt like she was going to explode. Just literally explode.

Something in her broke. She felt it break, it cracked somewhere in her heart, somewhere in her soul. It felt like glass falling on a marble floor. She could not do this anymore. She just couldn't... do it anymore. The weight of being Venice, of being Caprice, of trying to control the best outcome... she absolutely could not carry that anymore. Not anymore.

The peach mare launched herself at Alexi. He found himself bowled over onto his back, his chest weighted with soft peach pony, crying and sobbing, shaking with violent tears. Caprice was trying to talk but no words came out, just whinnys and nickering filled with emotion, beyond reason, beyond sense. Alexi slowly, carefully closed his forelegs around her body, holding her. She was like a peach storm in his forelegs, raining on his chest, thundering with grief and longing.

He had almost forgotten how good she smelled, how soft she felt. He held her tighter, feeling her delicate body against him even as it jerked and spasmed, caught up in pure emotion. He tried to be strong for her, for Caprice, but it had been too long, and he was too overcome. He found himself crying now, out of his head; he no longer cared about trying to be strong, brave Alexi. All he knew was that he was so lonely and she was there, finally, she was there.

When Caprice could breathe again, when her vision began to clear, the sun was going down. The sky had become the color of Alexi's eyes, his precious, beautiful eyes, and she could see a single star preemptively claiming the heavens for the cause of Luna.

Alexi's chest was sodden, covered in sticky-cold, drying tears; Caprice's eyes felt like dishrags that had been wrung out too many times. Her throat burned from crying so hard, her nose was clogged and swollen inside. But Alexi's forelegs were tight around her, his chest pressed against her head, his legs wrapped around her stomach. Caprice sniffed and snorted, trying to get her nostrils clear again.

She lifted her head to see Alexi's tear-streaked face. Their eyes locked for a moment, green gazing into purple, words too clumsy for the speech of the heart. Alexi's muzzle descended, and Caprice's mouth was filled with his lips, his tongue, his warmth.

When the kiss finally ended it was because Caprice could no longer get enough air; her nostrils were still clogged, and she had to blow them clean. She sneezed and blew out streamers on the grass; it was terrible and not the least attractive. "Oh, Celestia, I'm sorry..." She sneezed out tears and snot, she couldn't help it. "...I'm so sorry. Not the most romantic thing. I'm sorry."

"Shhh.... shhh..." Alexi had only smiles for her. " is messy, even here. If it means being with you, I can handle a little mess." She felt embarrassed, but Alexi just kept smiling at her.

"Alexi... I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I pushed you, I'm sorry I tried to control everything. I don't want to be like that, I really don't. I don't care about anything except that I want you. I just... want you, Alexi. I need you. I just... need you." Caprice trailed off, unable to think of anything else to say. She wanted to just keep repeating the words over and over until Alexi promised to stay with her.

"And I am sorry for running away. I was a coward, using my anger to justify fleeing like a frightened child. It is you that should forgive me." Alexi began kissing, then licking her eyes, it felt good; her eyes stung from crying and his tongue soothed them.

After a time, Caprice dared to ask. "Alexi, I meant what I told you, back at the clinic. I meant it with all of my heart. I want you. But I will tell you something new." Caprice took a few breaths; it was somehow harder to say the words when she actually, truly meant them. "I... love you, Alexi. I don't just want you, I don't just need you. I really love you." It felt good to say it. It felt good to say it and really mean it! "I love you! I just do!" Her face was grinning, and she felt like she had somehow won some kind of great prize. She found her tears had started again.

Caprice sniffed again. "I just needed to tell you that, Alexi. I... I'll understand if you don't want to stay with me. I'm just glad you came back so I could say that. Thank you for that." Caprice tried to soak in the feeling of laying across Alexi, as if it might be the very last time, because... it might. She'd probably pushed too far, saying that. She'd probably ruined everything again.

"Oh, you don't get out of things that way." Caprice was confused now, Alexi wriggled and flipped her over so that now he was on top. He lifted his weight up on his hooves and looked down at her. She pulled her forelegs close to her chest, uncertain. "'I'll understand if you don't want to stay with me'" Alexi repeated her words in a mocking tone. "In the clinic, you told me that you were mine, and that I had a daughter, and that we were a family now. You said you would not change your mind, however long. Very well. I am claiming that! I am claiming you and this life together, forever! Alexi is staying and that is that; now you must deal with this fact - and no complaining from you either!" He was trying so hard to be fierce and stern, but the laughter in his eyes was incapable of lying.

"Absolutely." Caprice felt as if her mouth would rip from how wide her grin was "Whatever you say, dear." She affected her most doe-eyed domestic look; calculated expression no. 236, Complete Submission To The Master.

"You... troublesome pony!" And Alexi was gently biting and nipping at her chest and belly and neck, and Caprice was giggling because it tickled, and because it was good, and because it was the most wonderful thing in the world.

As the moon rose, Pumpkin held Buttermilk close; the tiny foal wanted to jump on Caprice and Alexi. Pumpkin had pulled Buttermilk away by the tail when Caprice had pounced; now she soothed the little unicorn as best she could, but it was difficult keeping an eye on her because of her own grateful tears.

She pulled the little unicorn some distance away in the tall, tall grass, and gently licked Buttermilk's ears until the tiny foal fell asleep.

* * * * *

Caprice lay on her stomach, panting. The weight of Alexi on her back was heavy, but it was not a burden. She turned her head; Alexi's lips hungrily sought hers, then pulled away - he had less breath than she to spare; he had been doing most of the work.

Alexi slowly rolled off, laughing in between his gasps for air. With effort he rolled back to press into Caprice's side, her warm softness glowing against his body. The sweat in his coat was beginning to cool as it evaporated; her warmth was a delicious counterpoint.

Caprice pressed her body even more tightly against him. She turned her neck so that her head was just above his, and breathed in the sweet scent of the sweat on his forehead and poll. She wanted to lay her foreleg over him, but her position made it awkward; besides it was too comfortable as it was to go through all of the effort it would take. Instead, she licked his ears, slowly and lovingly.

The moon was high in the sky now, the stars gleamed like jewels on a vast, purple tapestry. The night sky of Equestria was never pitch black; always it gleamed with deep and rich colors; dark and mysterious blues, vast and echoing violets, royal, infinite purples.

"Caprice..." Alexi's voice was soft and gentle, almost a whisper. She'd never heard him sound like that before.

"Mmm?" Caprice shivered slightly, but it was not from feeling the least bit cold.

"I want you to know. I love you too. I think I loved you the minute I first saw you, when I was called to bring you out of the Conversion Room. Bethany and I sat with you until you woke up, but... I couldn't keep my eyes off of you. Or my hands, to be very honest."

"Hmm... heh... I recall. You were petting me. I drifted in and out for a long time, and I remember... you stroking my flanks and my mane. You naughty stallion." Caprice smiled, her lids half open.

"Very naughty, since back then, I was still a human. Alexi regrets nothing!" Caprice smiled even wider, now that sounded like the Alexi she knew.

"Was it weird for you? I mean I came on kind of strong, and I didn't care one bit about the species barrier. Tell you a secret; it kind of turned me on. I sort of regret that we... never did anything back then." Caprice grinned.

"You scamp! And you call me naughty." Alexi rubbed his head against Caprice's neck. "I... had some issues back then. It was a little strange for me... then. I do not think you missed anything, though. I was not built like a stallion back at the Bureau. It would have terrified me if I had been, to tell you the truth. Goodness!"

Caprice giggled at this, then laughed, Alexi joined in. Things were... a little more intense as a pony. No question.

"It would have been you, that's what would have mattered." Caprice began to lovingly groom Alexi's mane, at least what she could reach of it. "Well, that and the kinkiness factor. I mean, let's be serious here."

"Then I am sorry that I did not oblige you when I could have. It will be my lifelong regret." Alexi rolled away so that he lay upon his belly, crawling, he positioned himself so that he was side by side with Caprice again, only now they were even, and he could kiss her, which he did.

"HmmHmmHmm..." Caprice laughed through the kiss "We'll just have to see about making that little oversight up over time. I have some ideas about that.... which..." Alexi's lips were warm and soft "...I could... explain... if"

"Ahem-hem!" Another voice sounded in the dark. "Could... could we go home now?"

"PUMPKIN?!?" Caprice and Alexi both raised their heads in shock; scanning around, they could see nothing but flowers and the tall grass.

"I... didn't want to go back to the hill in the dark!" Pumpkin's head raised up from the tall grass about 25 hooves away, like some orange and black periscope. "GAFFOL!" squealed another voice, beside Pumpkin. "Oh, I think Buttermilk is hungry, too."

Caprice and Alexi flopped their heads down again, staring in abject horror at each other. Then they started laughing. They rolled onto their backs, kicking their hooves at the sky, big belly laughs sounding out to the stars.

"We're PONIES!" Alexi roared. "I'm a FUCKING ANIMAL!" He laughed again.

"PONIES!" shouted Caprice to the sky, kicking all four hooves at the stars. "And you absolutely are, sweetcheeks." She added more softly.

"Equestria. What a place!" Alexi shook his head, rolling it back and forth in the grass. "I give up. That's it. The last of human Alexi is gone. It just died. Kaput!" and with that, Alexi flopped still, eyes wide as if in death, tongue lolling out of his mouth.

Caprice giggled again and rolled so that she could poke him with a hoof. "Stop that, you'll scare the children."

"Scare the children!" Alexi came to life again and roared "I think it is a little late for that!"

"It wasn't scary, it was beautiful. And I'm not a child; I'm due in a few months. Yeesh." Pumpkin declared.

"You're a pervert, and I was talking about Buttermilk in any case." Caprice stuck her tongue out at her sister. The pervert.

"I'm not perverted, I'm just scared of the dark." Pumpkin tried desperately to look miffed, but if there had ever been a time when guile had thought to take up residence in her, it must have fled in terror almost immediately.

Caprice stood up and called to Buttermilk; the hungry foal dashed over, eager for dinnertime. "I didn't mean it as an insult, dear. I think it just shows what close sisters we truly are." This made Pumpkin blush; while Caprice could not see that, she knew enough to presume it.

Alexi lay on his belly now, watching Buttermilk suckle. His eyes drifted over Caprice; mentally he cataloged his favorite parts until he gave up, realizing they all were. She was so beautiful, in the moonlight. Her messy coat gleamed in the moonlight, her tangled mane almost seemed to sparkle. She looked so serene, nursing her foal. In the moment, Alexi imagined that he was in heaven; he must have died in that clinic, the serum had failed, and somehow Equestria was heaven.

When Buttermilk had finished, burping with contentment, the four began to head slowly back towards the hill they called home. Caprice almost tripped, but Alexi was there, and supported her with his body. She tried to be more careful; the grass really was high, and clumpy too.

Alexi, Caprice, Buttermilk and Pumpkin carefully threaded themselves through the sleeping bodies of the herd, spread out across the middle of the village, couples resting with their heads close, their legs intertwined, groups piled close to each other. Wearily they climbed their hill, and found their favorite spot, green and lush, and circled with tiny white clovers; doubtless the result of a certain earth pony spending so much time there. The family lay themselves down to a well deserved sleep.

Buttermilk curled up close to her mother, positioning her head, as always, on the inner thigh, next to Caprice's udder. Alexi curled his body around Caprice, laying a foreleg over her, nuzzling her mane. Pumpkin crawled close to Caprice, resting next to Buttermilk, her head tucked just under Caprice's chin. It was warm, and intimate, and it was the very essence of love.

Above Summerland Village, Luna's radiant moon swept through the sky, streaming soft radiance down upon the contented newfoals. Tonight the herd was one, tonight everypony was together, every family was whole, and a blessed peace filled the night.

And on one special hill, drenched in silvern moonbeams, Alexi snuggled close to his Caprice, finally certain that he had made at least one decision in his two peculiar lives that was truly, perfectly, unmistakably right.

Twenty-Two: Cornerstone

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By Chatoyance

Twenty-Two: Cornerstone

It was Ocean that found the first one.

The sea-green unicorn was goofing around, dashing to and fro among the thin trunks of Horsewood Forest, when he accidentally kicked it; it bounced off one young trunk, ricocheted of another, and hit him in the chest. It was covered in dirt, and clearly had been gouged out of the soil; Sweetpepper, who later examined the scene, had suggested that it had grown like a potato, over time.

It was, of course, the first rock.

That it was found in Horsewood Forest seemed strange at first, but Sweetpepper - who had named the tiny stand of very young, carefully planted trees - had a theory about this too. Sweetpepper reasoned that a stone could not have grown in Galloping Gardens because the soil was constantly being worked and churned as crops were grown, harvested, and replanted. But the effort to grow a forest was different; once planted the soil had never been touched, yet earth ponies constantly walked and sang and ran there; the unique magic of their kind permeated the trees and the stable ground both.

Ocean, unfazed by the blow from the rock, picked it up and carried it back to pull a joke on his friends Lightning and Boeing; he hummed a surf tune then spat out his burden "Check it out dudes! ROCK MUSIC!"

While this was perhaps not the best of comedic routines, Ocean's discovery changed how everypony, especially the earth ponies, saw their world, the realm of Equestria.

Careful inspection and judicious digging revealed enough small stones to begin the first true rock farm; Cirrus came down from his growing cloud city eager to discover the secrets of stone. In all of the ten months that the newfoals had lived in the village of Summerland, never had a single stone or outcrop of rock been seen. The soil was perfectly even and consistent in texture as if - as Cirrus once put it - "It had been manufactured, or created, deliberately, to be so."

Cirrus, through meticulous experimentation, discovered the rules of how stones were grown. The seeds of rocks, small grains of stone, formed in uncultivated soil frequented by earth ponies using their special, subtle magics. Such seeds reached a maximum size of two to three inches at most, mere pebbles, then seemed to stagnate.

The small stones would not grow larger on cultivated land, or land that was covered in green growing things. Cirrus suspected that something intrinsic to plants interfered with stone development, and he offered several wild theories ranging from biological interaction to some kind of 'life force' issue. In any case, true rock growth only happened in the most barren of spaces, such as the seemingly infinite desert that surrounded Summerland County.

Beyond the green hills of Summerland, Trotsky, Crescent and Grassdancer had set up the first rock farm. Stones needed to be tended by earth ponies to become rocks, and eventually boulders. However, it was found that once a stone had grown to a certain size, it would continue to grow on its own, much as how seeder clouds worked for the pegasai. Cirrus felt sure that this was indicative of some fundamental law of physics within Equestria itself, but with only two examples, it was hard to codify it.

Stones needed barren land, sun, heat, and occasional rain. They needed to be turned over, and they needed to be moved to new areas, presumably so that they could absorb different minerals to add to their crystalline structure. Properly tended, they grew slowly but steadily; once they became large enough, they could be rolled out to even more lonely parts of the desert, where their growth continued, and sometimes accelerated.

The value of stone could not be underestimated; stone was one of the fundamental resources of a 16th century level of technology, as Renaissance passionately argued. It was his emphasis on the need for a source of stone that led to the creation of the rock farm.

The earth pony newfoals had started their new lives at the San Francisco Conversion Bureau in disappointment. They had almost universally felt let down when they realized they lacked a horn to perform magic, or wings with which to fly. Now they had begun to see just how important, indeed invaluable, they truly were. It was not merely that without them, without earth ponies, there would be no food, no flowers, no trees, no green landscapes; one of the most basic elements of the world itself - stone - depended on their unique magic.

Ocean, in one of his more... mystical... moods had offered "Dudes, what if, like, somehow, earth pony magic, like, made the whole world originally? Whoa! What a mind blower!" The notion may have been wild, even spurious, but something about it settled into the minds of the newfoals; what if earth ponies truly were, in some magical way, the foundation of Equestria itself?

It didn't seem so bad to be an earth pony anymore; gradually pride in being an earth pony grew.

There had been many more changes in the past five months; the remaining pavilion buildings had all been completed; Summerland Village now was truly a village; twenty-five small cottages surrounded the city hall, with an additional four medium-sized tent buildings. One medium pavillion had been allocated as a barn of sorts to the Galloping Gardens farm, another had been set as a general storehouse for all the tools and supplies taken from the crates. The third pavilion became known as the 'Ranch House', it served as a group home for those unattached ponies who had not ended up in a cottage.

The last medium pavilion became the first and only restaurant/kitchen for the community; the teal unicorn named Aurora had found a special talent in cooking, and her creations had become a source of great joy among the colonists. In doing this, she had become the second newfoal to gain a Mark on her haunch. It had appeared one day, in full sight of dozens of newfoals, while she served up the very first haycakes made in the village; three spoons now danced on her flank.

The first Mark, however, had gone to Sweetpepper, the diligent farmer who had worked from the very beginning to provide the newfoals with fresh and tasty foodstuffs. Three bell peppers, two yellow and one red, appeared one day, while he was busy singing to his crops; Goldrivet had been watching at the time, frankly admiring his lover's rump as he worked.

The story had delighted the ponies at the time; the first 'Cutie Mark', as the Guidebook For Newfoals designated them; and Goldrivet had been excited to describe the moment while the community gathered in the city hall pavilion to stare at Sweetpeppers picturesque posterior.

"Alright, alright... let me explain how it happened. Settle down, Ocean! According to the guidebook, every pony will get one, eventually." Goldrivet stood close to Sweetpepper's sweet cheeks, not unlike a teacher standing next to a blackboard; this blackboard however was firm, rounded and featured an image of bell peppers. "We were working on the farm; Sweets here was working a hoe into the furrows, plowing them for all he was worth. I was trying to help, of course, but I just had to stop and watch for a while; I wasn't being lazy, it was just pretty hot, and well, so was he."

The crowd laughed at this; their tenderness towards each other was very inspiring.

"Anyway, I was just kind of running my eyes over this delicious lump of rump here," Sweetpepper looked back over his body at Goldrivet in mock embarrassment at this 'Goldrivet!!' and stuck his tongue out as punctuation "and as I watched there was this kind of... not light exactly, but, a kind of brightening. Then the three bell peppers just appeared, and I swear I heard a sound when it happened too. Kind of a 'fwooping' sort of sound, it's hard to describe. Almost like a kiss, sort of. Strange sound, really. But there it was."

"I felt it happen, too!" Sweetpepper craned his neck back to look at the audience "It didn't hurt or anything, it felt... I don't know, kind of electric, kind of 'zap! Here I am!' and it almost tickled too. Actually..." Sweetpepper blushed "it felt kinda good, if you know what I mean."

"Sweetpepper!" Goldrivet seemed shocked, but he wasn't. "We kind of wondered what it was. If you take a close look, you can see that it's made of hair; the picture is just there, like his coat had been painted or dyed somehow. But it's also more than that; the hairs that make it up are really shiny, really reflective, like they're special, somehow. And if you look down, between the hairs, you'll see the pattern is in the skin, too."

"It's kind of like a tattoo that makes the coat on top grow special shiny hairs that match the image below!" Sweetpepper swung his head around and bent his spine to see his own Mark. "Only the hairs aren't just one color. Some are more than one color, so that the fine details are there. It's like magic!"

"I kind of think that's all it could be, Sweets, considering." Goldrivet gave Sweetpepper a kiss on his peppers, which made the pony jump slightly. "Apparently, they're kind of sensitive, too, somehow."

"Yes, they are, Goldrivet!" Sweetpepper was genuinely embarrassed now, and this produced a chuckle in the assembled crowd.

"Why do we get them? What do they mean?" Dragonfly was always curious, and this was a curious thing.

"I've been reading about that." Caprice had ended up with the job of being the village translator; it was a task she was well suited for. In her human life her father had taken her all over the Earth, and she had found a natural inclination for learning languages. She had boosted this with numerous augmentations. While the augmentations were no longer a part of her, Caprice's natural ability was still present, and she had spent the last several months learning proper Equestrian - not just the magic script she had thought was Equestrian - all from the provided library of books and records.

An old-fashioned Victrola-like record player had been found in crate twenty, along with a supply of 'Introduction To Conversational Equestrian' records; a supplement to a thick textbook printed in North Amerizone English and the native language. With these tools she had made excellent progress, and so had everpony else; classes were held every other day, and already the newfoals speech was more than half proper Equestrian. The goal was nothing less that total linguistic assimilation; status in the community was now partly based on just how correctly 'Equestrian' a pony could speak and write.

"Apparently, they are indeed magic, they usually appear when ponies are still fairly young - so we are a little late to the gate here, sorry everyone - and they always represent something about a pony's purpose in life. Or, if not their purpose exactly, the thing they are truly good at, the thing that... is their specialty." Caprice had been the first pony Sweetpepper and Goldrivet had gone to; she had been studying the manuals, after all. "So, if you are good at building things, you might get an image of a hammer or something. Or if you were an artist, maybe you would get a paintbrush, perhaps. But it isn't always literal. The image could be anything; but it will mean something to you. Oh!" Caprice remembered one more element. "They tend to come in groups of three symbols, but not always."

Everypony thought Sweetpepper's Mark was amazing, and soon the community was excited at the thought of earning their own. Cutie Marks were clearly some kind of 'coming of age' or 'badge of achievement' in Equestria, a rite of passage matter. The newfoals saw getting a Mark as evidence of truly belonging to the world, of truly being real Equestrians, and not just lost former humans, forgotten and separated forever from the rest of society.

This was part of the drive to learn the language, both written and spoken, to study the culture described in the library from the crates; the colonists wanted desperately to be something more than abandoned ex-humans. They wanted to belong, they wanted to be... Equestrians.

Caprice and Renaissance taught classes on Equestrian language and culture in the evenings, just after dinner. The upper floor of the town hall pavilion had been designated the 'library' as well as the 'schoolhouse' for the village, and it was packed to overflowing every other night when class began. Classes had become a social activity in the village; it was something to do, it eased the feeling of collective isolation, and it made everypony feel like they were achieving something.

The unspoken thought was that if, somehow, some kind of contact with the rest of Equestria was ever made, they would be so authentically Equestrian that maybe they just might be welcomed and accepted. Maybe they could prove that Windfeather had been wrong to abandon them.

After dinner and classes, the ponies went to their homes. The twenty-five cottages had been allocated by Droplet first to established families, then to groups of close friends, then to those willing to share a cottage. Each cottage was expected to be the home of four earth or unicorn ponies. The pegasai agreed to live in the sky, in Cloudcastle for the most part; exceptions in the cottages were allowed where a pegasai and a nonpegasaus were mated, and formed a family.

Some ponies did not need a cottage or a cloudhome; Sweetpepper and Goldrivet wanted to live together in their 'barn', the medium-sized pavilion they had been allotted to store food and farm equipment. Dragonfly was comfortable living in her 'kitchen' pavillion, along with Ocean, Lightning, and Kiwi who helped her with both cooking and serving. Together, these four were becoming fast friends, although perhaps this was most true of the latter three - Dragonfly often felt as much their 'employer' as she did their friend.

The strange construction of the crates was finally explained; they had been built in a modular fashion so that the wood that made them up could be used for numerous purposes. According to the manuals, the crate wood could be used to create chicken coops - apparently they were supposed to have had access to regular shipments from other cities, including shipments of livestock. The wood could also be used to make more traditional buildings, once stone and other materials had become available, again something dependent on being within contact range of other towns and cities.

As it was, some ponies had straight up used the empty crates as additional houses as is; a little carpentry had added working doors and simple windows to the large boxes, and thus, for now, there were twenty additional homes in the village, albeit small apartments for couples or roommates.

Thus Summerland Village had a town hall, with a library upstairs, a communal kitchen, a farm with a pavilion barn, the beginnings of a forest (maybe even an orchard!), twenty-five pavilion cottages, twenty couples apartments, a 'ranch house' community home, a communal storehouse, a rock farm out in the desert, and of course a growing city of pegasai overhead, Cloudcastle, now with multiple towers, and over a dozen rooms. Inside those rooms were shelves and platforms made of the heavily worked cloudstuff that permitted the support of physical objects; Cloudcastle had its own pantries and larders, tables and tools in the sky.

The biggest project in Cloudcastle was the development of winter. Cirrus had demonstrated to the new officially elected Mayor and leader of Summerland, Droplet Deluge, that the manufacture of cold was possible; more than this Sweetpepper had backed Cirrus in explaining it's necessity.

Already, simple cloud making machines had been constructed from the same super-compressed cloudstuff that made up the shelves; the material had been formed into vessels wide at the base and small at the top. Inside the vessels was suspended small seeder clouds. As buckets of water were poured in - buckets were another gift of the crates - cloudstuff of controllable quality and consistency could be produced from the top.

The side effect of this process was a dramatic drop in temperature around the vessels; the rooms that the cloudmakers were constructed in became useful as refrigerators; vegetables and fruits kept far longer there, stored on pallets of cloudshelf.

It was there, on the side of the most used cloudmaker vessel, that Cirrus had been able to demonstrate Summerland's very first snowflake. He'd done the carving himself, and he was very proud of the result. Nearly six-inches in diameter, it sparkled like a white jewel.

Sadly, nopony but a pegasus could see it, it would never survive the trip to the perpetual summer below. But Cirrus had drawn a sketch of it on the blank end page of a book he had carried up, the drawing had delighted many.

Project Seasons would probably take a long time to become real. It might take years. It was like reaching for the stars. Certainly it was a dream, but Droplet okayed it, because big dreams are the very soul of a growing society, and, as Sweetpepper had made clear, living things weren't built to have summer last forever.

The first anniversary of their arrival was in just a little over two months. Everypony was excited at this thought; once they had been afraid they would not survive at all, now they had a nice little village, a happy community, and they were beating Windfeather with everything they did. They were proving themselves to be good ponies; diligent, strong, hardworking ponies that knew the meaning of friendship and cooperation. They were absolutely not the monsters that Windfeather had claimed them to be.

A celebration was being planned; Pumpkin was especially looking forward to it.

Because, by then, she would have had her foal, and she was dreaming of them going to the anniversary celebration together.

Twenty-Three: Dambusters

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By Chatoyance

Twenty-Three: Dambusters

"Try it! Just give it a try, Caprice. Be adventurous! Be bold! I promise you it will not hurt. It will feel wonderful! It will be magnificent." Alexi was dripping with sweat, excited and eager; this had been his fantasy for months, and only now did he think he could get away with it. Only now, did he think the time was right, and that Caprice would be receptive. He had been beating his wings like a madpony to get everything in place.

They were alone in the pavilion cottage. Pumpkin and Buttermilk were off on a long stroll. Alexi had made sure that nothing of their simple belongings could be damaged this time. There would be no embarrassment; their privacy was assured. The only law they were breaking was Natural Law, and in Alexi's fevered opinion, such law could definitely use a revision.

They had tried before, and it had been a disaster. Caprice had laid her body down for him, but it had hurt, especially when she moved incorrectly and fallen on the floor. Worse, she had ended up dripping wet all over; Alexi's fantasy had left her sodden and bruised. But if Caprice was anything, she was a good and game mare, and although she was nervous, she agreed to try again. Alexi would just not let this go; he would never reach true satisfaction until this particular fantasy came true.

"Caprice, listen to your Alexi." He kissed her deeply, his sweat-drenched face dripping onto hers, the smell of his musk filling her senses "I promise you, this time you will feel such pleasure as you have never known. Your body will thank you, your udder will thank you, and I will thank you. Please, please my dearest peach princess, lay your body down and trust in me."

There in the mid-day sunshine, in the privacy of the pavilion cottage, Alexi was shaking with eagerness, like a frisky colt. His excitement at the thought of finally succeeding was making his heart pound; Caprice could feel it through her cheek where she pressed it against his neck. She bit her lip; this was too much, too extreme, yet... part of her was also curious. There was no doubt about it, something in her wanted this, even with the terrible risks.

What could she do? She desperately wanted to be the best mare possible to her beloved stallion. Although she was filled with fear, and worried about the consequences, she submitted to Alexi's plea, and lowered her vulnerable body slowly, carefully, while he watched, shivering with anticipation.

It was firm. Firmer than she had ever felt it. Not like rock, no, that would be too much, but springy, almost like rubber; in places it was like foam. She tentatively began to move, her body rocking sensuously back and forth. It felt good this time, in fact... it felt fantastic! Caprice had never felt anything like it! She honestly felt like she was floating, like she was flying! Still cautious, Caprice rolled onto her belly, feeling the sensations flow across her. Her swollen udder did not hurt in the least in this position - and it normally always did - this was wonderful!

Caprice carefully rolled onto her side. "It's exquisite, Alexi, my miracle stallion! You were correct, I have never known such pleasure in bed before."

"Did I not tell you this would be the best experience that you ever had? Alexi does not make idle boasts!" Alexi puffed out his chest, breathing more easily now, his wind back from his earlier rush down from the sky.

Caprice looked up at her beloved with bedroom eyes "Let's try the next part. Lie down beside me, my sweetest lover."

Alexi walked around the floating, supercompressed cloudstuff bed, until he got to the side opposite Caprice. He had remained close to her, crouched and ready to throw himself on the floor to soften her fall, should the cloudstuff give, as it had last time. That collapse had resulted in the compressed material bursting open, raining a torrent of rainwater that had flooded their pavilion cottage. Caprice had nearly been washed out the door; it had made her very skittish to try laying down on a cloud a second time.

Alexi had worked for over a month on this second attempt; he had enlisted the help of Cirrus, Cherryblossom and Gasket to massage enough cloudstuff into a truly stable platform, one that could take the abuse of a moving, rolling pony on top of it without busting. Successive layers of cloud had been squeezed to varying degrees to create a multitiered layer of fluffy softness above the platform. This was new; Alexi had reasoned that the fluffy padding on top of the cloud platform would absorb any excess force, making the cloud-bed both stronger and even more comfortable.

From the first moment that Alexi, as a pegasus, had rested upon the clouds, he had yearned to share such wonder with his beloved Caprice. To lay on a cloud, to sleep cradled within the air itself, floating, weightless; it was the most incredible of experiences. It was far too good for the proletariat needs of simple Alexi, no - this was truly something that the princess of his heart should be enjoying. But Nature had decreed that she could not, purely because she was an earth pony.

But Cirrus's discovery of compressing cloudstuff to make platforms that could hold solid matter - this had to be the answer. He had seen the possibility right from the beginning. But the problem was that such cloud material was fragile. It was fine as a counter or a pallet to hold a still object; if it were subjected to too great a force, it would break and rain away to nothing in minutes. But if it were buffered by layers of varying densities of cloudstuff, perhaps a true bed of cloud could be made that any pony could use.

When the cloud-bed was completed, Alexi could not wait to share it. He had pushed it down to their cottage on the ground, beating his wings as hard and fast as he could. This time it would work. This was his dream, his fantasy; to share with Caprice the exquisite pleasure of being able to sleep on a floating cloud, to give her the miracle that she had idly once wished for, when they had talked about what it was like for him to be a pegasus.

Alexi carefully lowered himself next to Caprice on the white, fluffy, rectangular mass. The bed hovered four or five hooves off the wooden planks, an easy and comfortable height from the floor. Alexi lay still, feeling the familiar sensation of total comfort only a cloud could provide. "I am truly, deeply impressed, Alexi." Caprice was on her side again, looking at him with total admiration. "You have achieved the impossible. I have honestly never felt anything like this before, and it is fantastic."

Caprice rolled further, so that she could put a foreleg across Alexi's chest. "I'm sorry for being so much trouble about this. I should have trusted in your determination. When I said I wished I could feel what it was like to sleep on a cloud, I should have known that you would somehow make it happen. That's what you do, isn't it?" Caprice snuggled her head against Alexi's shoulder. Even pressed in tight, she could still breathe; she was literally floating on air.

A strange sound filled the room. It wasn't a noise, exactly, it was more musical than that. Caprice almost felt it in her head as much as in her ears. The brief sound swelled to a pop, almost like the sound of a kiss. At the same time, something near Alexi's legs seemed to brighten somehow.

"Whoa! What the..." Alexi began rolling, squirming, trying to see his own flank. Caprice raised her head, startled. "Alexi? Was that? Goodness!"

It was. A stylized image of a snow-capped, two-peaked mountain had appeared on Alexi's flank, below it three drops of water. It looked like a mountain floating in the sky, raining like a cloud. "What... what does it mean, Alexi?"

Alexi blinked, looked again, and then roared with laughter. "Ha! Water from a stone, no, water from a mountain!" A tear appeared in the corner of his eye, clearly he found something amusing.

"Alexi, I don't understand." Caprice smoothly curled down to study the cutie mark in more detail; she ran a hoof over it tenderly.

"AH! Easy, dearest! These marks are indeed tender... though in a pleasurable way, I must say." Alexi relaxed on the cloud bed grinning; this had just been the best of days. The bed was a success, and he had finally gotten a mark!

"My grandmare, she was a wonderful pony. She was from the <Russian Corporate Productionzone>, from a section of the <global favela> that still had a touch of old world charm." Alexi interspersed his language with NorthAmeriZone English, because the carefully studied Equestrian they now spoke simply lacked certain terms.

"She used to tell me old fairy stories from long, long ago. One was about a young colt tailor that went off into the woods and met there a giant." Alexi rolled over to cuddle with Caprice; she snuggled into him, having finished admiring his new Mark. "For some reason, the giant threatened the colt, who challenged the giant to a contest of strength - he was a clever pony, you see."

Caprice's nose was near Alexi's chest; she breathed in his warm and familiar scent. Floating on the cloud, she felt happy and drowsy. Alexi kissed her poll, which was just under his chin. "The giant, he... hmm... it has been a long time, Caprice. I cannot remember all the details. But, to make a long story short, one of the challenges made is to squeeze water from a stone; the giant cannot, but the clever pony can. He has a cheese, you see, one of the old fashioned wet kinds of cheese, and he claims this to be a stone and squeezes liquid from it."

Caprice nibbled affectionately at Alexi's chest, the hairs of his coat sliding between her lips. "Ah!" Caprice awakened slightly from her comfortably drowsy state. "The giant was then intimidated, because the colt could do something that he could not! I vaguely remember a story like that now... oh, that's an old, old story."

"Hmm...!" Caprice was fully awake now, her mind racing to see the connection. "The colt seemingly did the impossible, providing a material that the giant could not; your special talent has always been getting ponyfolk what they need, even when it seems impossible. And a mountain is much greater than a stone, so... it represents the scale of what you want to achieve, doesn't it? That's what it means to you - to squeeze out of the big mountain of life every little drop that anypony needs. To do the impossible for others. I get it!"

Alexi kissed Caprice once more. "That, exactly, is what I am thinking that my special mark means, at least to me."

"That's how the marks work, if I've understood things correctly. The marks represent something personal to the pony that gets them, and the mark that appears can be fairly abstract or quite obvious. I wonder if I'll ever get one. I don't have a special talent. Well, other than getting my own way, which I'm trying to be better about, thank you very much!" Caprice giggled at that.

"Sweet, Caprice..." Alexi nuzzled her "You have many wonderful talents. You are good with languages, you brought us all together, and you keep us together, and you are a good mother to our daughter, and a good sister to Pumpkin. You are my favorite pony in all of Equestria to be around, and you are my very best friend. And..." Alexi made a wicked grin.

"And...?" Caprice felt lost.

"You do have a special talent, I must say. A very special talent." Alexi gave her ears a suggestive lick.

Caprice feigned shock and then smiled. "Thank you, but that is not the sort of cutie mark I want to have on my ass, if you don't mind!" They both laughed at that, then snuggled closer together, floating on a bed made of cloud, hovering in the air.

* * * * *

Pumpkin was tired. She wanted to head home and rest. A little over a month ago her foal had dropped, causing her belly to distend, now she had to cope with the true bulk of the unborn pony that she was carrying inside herself. It was much easier to breathe now, but in exchange it had become more difficult to move; running was unpleasant at best, and flying was a near impossibility. Her belly was suddenly huge, and it affected how she stood, how she moved, how she sat and how she lay when sleeping.

Unfortunately, Buttermilk was being difficult. The increasingly larger little yellow unicorn seemed to be going through what Teaspoon had called a native equivalent of 'the terrible twos'; Buttermilk had learned many new words, her current favorite being 'NO!'. It seemed that Equestrians enjoyed a remarkably accelerated development in childhood; the books from the crates described three phases of rapid growth. The first happened within the the initial days of life; a foal would learn to stand, walk, run, and would know to follow her mother and to stay with her.

The next phase began a few months later; rapid growth combined with a vast increase in vocabulary, the young Equestrian would gradually become a functioning individual before the end of its first year. Buttermilk was in this second phase, and had already demonstrated abilities that, compared with a human child of the same age, would seem miraculous.

Buttermilk, at eleven months of age, knew thirty-three words and names, could count to ten, and could recognize herself in a mirror. She had a distinct personality, and was currently, annoyingly, demonstrating independence and rejection of authority. She was effectively potty-trained. This would be unthinkable in a human; it was expected for an Equestrian.

At the end of the first year, a long plateau in development would occur, a long and lazy early childhood that would last five to six years. Then a steady growth to sexual maturity would begin, ending some twenty years later. This greatly extended childhood was counterbalanced by a much longer lifespan than humans; the average Equestrian lived to be the equivalent of a hundred and fifty years in vigorous health, with any obvious physical decrepitude left to the final two decades of life alone.

"WANT!" Buttermilk had forgotten the two (vaguely) English words that she had first learned; Caprice had insisted on her learning the Equestrian language only. It was clear what her new favorite words were; they revolved around acquisition and rejection. She wanted more cookies, she did not want to go home and take a nap. Today, she was being very adamant about her position on these matters and negotiations were at a standstill.

"You've had enough sweets, sweetie. It's time to go home now." Teaspoon, who had once been known as 'Dragonfly' - until she had gotten her cutie mark of three spoons - had jumped on the introduction of sugar. Sweetpepper and Goldrivet (who now also had gotten his own mark - a trinity of hammer, sickle and plow which had caused Sweetpepper to invent the endearment "My Little <Communist>") had surprised the community with the true value of beets.

Sugar had allowed cakes and cookies, pies and candy to be baked, and this had made all of the ponies very happy, as well as granting not a few cutie marks along the way. The unicorn, Lightning, had offered that lately it had been "Achievement city, like an easy game played on an old AppleSoft NeuroBox." It was true, the last five months had been filled with ponies getting their marks, now that the struggle for survival had turned to finding niches within the self-sustaining community.

"NO!" Buttermilk reasoned. She extended this line of discourse with some weighty and well considered stomps of her forehooves, After a brief pause to cogitate further, she concluded with a disciplined Argument By Tantrum. "NO! NO! NO!"

Oddly, Auntie Pumpkin seemed strangely unswayed by this logic, and irrationally proffered a ridiculous rebuttal: "Come on, now!" Pumpkin was not feeling good, her belly felt terribly swollen, her hooves hurt, and her lunch was not sitting well at all. In frustration, she took Buttermilk's tail in her mouth and began tugging her in the direction of home; it was her intention to drag the little... foal... the entire distance if she had to.

Now, this was certainly out of line. Buttermilk had tried reason, she had tried persuasion - she had repeated 'Want!' a prodigious number of ways and at diverse pitches and volumes - and she had even tried the Gentle Art Of Dashing Away. Nothing had worked with this impossible mare, and even if Auntie Pumpkin was a member of the family, there really was a limit. No reasonable eleven-month old should be expected to put up with this kind of lack of more cookies! It was just... uncivilized.

There was only one appropriate thing to be done; immediate and forceful digging-in of all hooves, followed by a determined and straightforward effort to rip the offending relative's molars straight out their muzzle; at times like these it really was the only way they would learn. Buttermilk began pulling and scrambling towards the community kitchen heedless of the pain in her tail; if anything it just served to spur her on.

For Pumpkin this was enough. She gave Buttermilk's bratty tail the biggest yank she could. Buttermilk was surprised to find herself flying backwards, only to land right right between Auntie Pumpkin's forelegs. These then closed together like clamps around the foals body while Pumpkin grabbed Buttermilk by her crest.

Of course, Buttermilk began to squirm free immediately, so Pumpkin squeezed her forelegs together with all of her might; this was the exact moment her water broke.

Twenty-Four: Welcome To Equestria

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By Chatoyance

Twenty-Four: Welcome To Equestria

Pumpkin tried to be brave. Buttermilk had panicked, and had begun fighting to run away. It was everything Pumpkin could do to keep hold of the frightened, bucking and shrieking unicorn. The yellow foal had managed to get loose from between Pumpkin's forelegs; the only grip she had on Buttermilk now was by the mane, low on the crest, almost to the withers. It wasn't the best of holds, but Pumpkin didn't dare let go to try again. If Buttermilk ran off aimlessly, perhaps to be lost out in the desert beyond the town, she would never forgive herself.

Buttermilk had been frightened by Pumpkin's water breaking. A prodigious amount of liquid had come out of her, pouring onto the ground; far more than she had imagined when Caprice had read to her from A Mare's Guide To Foaling. Pumpkin also felt fear, because she remembered the that the following paragraphs from the book indicated delivery at any moment after such an event. She had from zero to thirty minutes before she would begin giving birth, and she was afraid to even move for fear that it would start.

This wasn't how she had imagined all of this happening. In her daydreams, she had seen herself in a lush green valley with flowers all around, Alexi and Caprice close by, the book close by, and Aurora there too, just in case. The teal unicorn Aurora had discovered a talent for healing one day. Ren had fallen when trying to hammer a strut on one of the pavilion cottages; she had mended his leg with magic and gained a cutie mark in the process.

Pumpkin was alone, between cottages, in the early afternoon, and nopony was around. She wasn't sure how far she was exactly from her house; she had been paying too much attention to Buttermilk's tantrums. The village wasn't that large, but right now, with a panicky foal in her teeth and a dripping, wet behind, in the beginnings of labor, the place seemed gigantic. "HE'O! HE'O! ITH ANIHONI HYERE?" Pumpkin yelled from around her mouthful of mane. "HEL'K! HYAN SYUMHONI HEL'K ME?!?"

Little Buttermilk was frantic; the yelling had not helped her calm down. Suddenly the first contraction hit. The book had said that mares experienced massive contractions that could expel a foal in mere minutes once the process started; the book was a goddamn liar. 'Massive' did not do this experience justice; the word 'horrendous' would have been so much more appropriate. Pumpkin winced, her mouth open with shock. Buttermilk tore away from Pumpkin's grip racing off in an unknown direction; by now Pumpkin's eyes were closed from experiencing something that the scrawny wimp called 'pain' could only dream of being.

No, this wasn't precisely pain, as such. It was more the feeling of being turned inside out like a rubber glove. 'Rubber glove!' thought Pumpkin, what an absurd, useless thing! What would something like that even be used for? She started to laugh, hysterically, at the thought. Maybe it was an udder cover, except it had three too many nipples on it! Maybe gloves were for cows to wear oh Celestia here it comes again oh Luna what the flying buck am I supposed to...

There was now something sticking out of her, pushing her tail aside. It was big. Very big. Pumpkin felt like she had a log sticking out of her hindquarters. Actually, it felt more like a tree. She had an entire tree in her ass! Pumpkin was laughing again, or rather her body was; she wasn't actually feeling anything akin to humor right now at all. If her body wanted to laugh, let it, she was worried about other things at the moment.

Lay. Down. That's what the book said. If she tried to deliver standing up, her foal could fall to the ground and be injured. She didn't want that. She had to lay down. Down on her side with her legs extended. Pumpkin tried to lay herself down, but she found her legs were locked. Great. She struggled to unlock them. It was difficult because she could only try between the contractions; when those hit her the world started to go black and she couldn't move or think anymore. As the agony faded for a moment, she scrambled to lay down in the dirt. She would never make it in time all the way to the grass beside the dirt pathway.

Damn that book. It had said she would know a whole day in advance; it had said she would feel uncomfortable and... actually she had been feeling kind of bad. Dammit, now she couldn't blame the book anymore, but what did any of that really mean anyway and oh Celestia here it comes again oh Luna why wasn't she screaming she really should be screaming because then somepony might come and oh yes now THAT'S good screaming you just keep that up body because I have to concentrate on this mighty redwood currently occupying my oh...

That last contraction had done it; Pumpkin felt the last of it pass, pushing her tail aside. The pain was gone now; just like that it was gone. She felt distended, exhausted, bedraggled but... the pain was finally, blessedly gone. Dr. Pastern had been right! Pumpkin had once heard her mother tell her about having gone through eighteen hours of labor. She couldn't imagine suffering almost an entire day of what she had just been through. The very thought was too much to bear. Ten minutes had been enough. More than enough.

When she had caught her breath, she began to drag herself around to face her newborn. There were things she needed to attend to, things she had prepared for. Behind her, in the mud made from her own fluids, partially covered in a pale membrane, was her foal. It was vastly larger than she had ever imagined. Her child was easily as large as Buttermilk had been the very first day she had met her. How had all that ever fit inside her? It was impossible!

Breathing. A newborn foal had to be able to breathe, and the membrane was an issue. Pumpkin did the only thing she could; she began pulling and tearing at the translucent sac with her teeth and lips. She licked it away from her foal's nose and mouth, the thin taste of something not entirely unlike blood on her tongue. The tiny, sky-blue creature moved a leg; bubbles frothed out of its nose. Liquid drooled out of it's mouth for a while, and then it gave a little gasp.

Pumpkin began pulling and licking away the last of the membrane from the azure coat. Tiny hooves kicked weakly; her foal was breathing and moving under her administrations. As she worked her way down she saw that she was still connected to the newborn; an umbilical stretched from the tiny blue belly on back between her legs and under her tail. What had the book said about all that? Right, just leave it for now, let the last of the blood stop pumping on it's own. Fifteen to twenty minutes. Yeah, that was it.

"Hello! Help!" Pumpkin said weakly. This would have to happen during the one part of the day nopony was in their cottages. If only Caprice was here, if only anypony was here! Pumpkin returned to licking and comforting her foal, trying to take in what it was that she had brought into the world.

Sky blue he was, with a dark blue mane and tail. Midnight blue. He looked like a big berry. A big blue berry. Blueberry! Pumpkin smiled. That was her favorite berry, she loved blueberries. Blueberry it was! My little Blueberry. My little tasty treat. Not that tasty right now, perhaps, but nevermind. This is our first moment together, Blueberry. Welcome to the world. Welcome To Equestria. I am your mother, Pumpkin. I am so very glad to meet you at last.

Blueberry opened his eyes. They were the color of cherry blossoms, pink with shades of peach towards the pupils. They were lovely. Pumpkin began licking Blueberry's still wet face, drying his muzzle, his nose, his ears, cleaning him as best she could. She felt so tired. Finally she had to lay down for a while.

She lay on her side, facing her new foal. He looked at her, then around, never quite focusing on anything for long. Quite understandable, really, the delicate little creature had never seen anything before.

It was then that Pumpkin noticed that Blueberry didn't have wings. She had expected her foal to have wings. Caprice had found a chart in the foaling book of Equestrian genetics; Pumpkin had just assumed that her offspring would look like her. But then again, the father had been human. Maybe that made a difference. Maybe the conversion serum had changed the fetus inside her separately from her own conversion. If so, Blueberry could have become anything.

What was Blueberry? No wings, so he wasn't a pegasus. That was kind of sad; Pumpkin had wanted to share flying with her foal. She licked the locks of mane away from Blueberry's head to check for any tiny button of possible horn. Nothing.

Blueberry was an earth pony.

That was OK. That was fine. That was wonderful. Her little Blueberry. He would grow up to make the flowers grow and the fruit ripen on the vine. He would have a wonderful life, here with all the kind ponies. He would run with her through the trees, when the Horsewood had grown. Blueberry would grow up right alongside their very first forest.

Her old daydream, from the Bureau, came back; running through the trees with her own foal. Now that foal was Blueberry.

Feeling a little more energetic once more, Pumpkin raised herself to look at the umbilical cord. The ropy-slick tube of flesh had stopped pulsing, and lay quiet now, no blood moving through it. Blueberry was beginning to become restless; she needed to deal with this before the newborn colt attempted to stand, which the book had indicated would happen fairly quickly.

It was not at all easy, this giving birth; it was messy and grotesque and strange. But it was life, and it was real, and she had to take care of this.

Pumpkin moved so that she could get a good angle on the cord. About three inches was what the book had said. A little less than a hoof. Pumpkin lowered her head and brought it close to her little colt's soft blue belly. Gingerly, she took the cord in her mouth, doing her best to make sure that the teeth facing the foal were three inches, as best as she could reckon, from his tummy. Then she bit down as hard and definitively as she could.

The squish of soft, living flesh filled her mouth. The cord flopped free from her jaw, and landed on her colt's belly, a pink and white stub. Pumpkin dropped the other section of the cord, the portion that led back into her own body, and spat out a chunk of it that had been left in her mouth. The metallic taste of blood was strong.

She checked the cord on her colt's stomach. It was not bleeding; her teeth had crushed the open end entirely. Good. Next she checked the cord leading to herself; this was oozing, but the blood was not pumping out, just draining. That was alright. Good enough. It should be good enough. She really didn't want to bite the thing again.

It could be any moment now. Or it could be eight hours from now; eventually she would have another powerful contraction or two, so as to expel the placenta. This could not be rushed, and it was dangerous to even think of trying to pull it out of herself.

But this was a problem; she had a long tube of flesh hanging out of her, and it wasn't like she could go for a stroll. She knew she had to be careful that nothing, be it something on the ground, or her own hoof, should tug on that cord. She had to wait for the placenta to be naturally discharged.

"Hello? HELLO?" She called out again. She looked around, trying to figure out how close she was to home. Laying in the path, she wasn't sure. Wait, that had to be Boeing's cottage. And that one over there, with the red flowers painted on the canvas, that wasn't far from her pavilion. She was close. At least it seemed like she was close. If only somepony would come by. They were doubtless all out doing things; working in the gardens, or on the forest, helping with the rock farm, or just enjoying the day.

Blueberry began to kick, trying to get the feel of being a pony, of having legs, of being alive. Pumpkin turned to him and continued to lick the residue of his arrival off of him. She nuzzled him, gently. He was on his belly now, his severed cord flopping on the moist earth. Pumpkin hoped this wasn't bad. Equestrians never seemed to get sick or infected. Maybe it would be alright.

Blueberry tried to stand. He immediately fell down. Pumpkin felt like she should try to show him how; with effort, she tried to stand up herself, being ever so careful to keep the dangling umbilical cord away from her hooves. Finally she raised her weary body and locked her legs in place. Never had she been so grateful for that ability as now; she did not think she could have remained standing if she had needed to rely on her own muscle power alone.

The cord dangled out of her; it felt cold and wet and awful. Nothing for it. She would just have to be brave. Untold generations of living creatures, in Equestria and back on old Earth, had coped with this, so she could too.

Blueberry tried to stand again, this time he flopped on his side. Pumpkin wanted to help so much, but she dared not unlatch her legs; she was just completely exhausted. "Come on, you can do it!" Her voice was soft, not just because she was trying to be gentle, but also because she had so little energy. "You can stand, I believe in you my brave little colt."

Shining pink eyes focused on her. The tiny sky-blue foal tried again, and this time succeeded, standing on four wobbly legs. Blueberry made a plaintive sound, almost a mew, and stumbled towards Pumpkin. Seeing her foal yearning for her brought tears to her eyes. "Come on, come here! Blueberry, my little Blueberry!" The tears ran down her muzzle, she could taste salt through her wide smile.

Blueberry made a few more jerky steps, his delicate little hooves leaving tiny marks in the moist earth and dragging sections of the drying membrane that had recently covered him. The stub of his umbilical cord dangled underneath his belly. Blueberry was close, now. Pumpkin lowered her neck and began licking and grooming him, kissing his head and babbling about how beautiful he was.

The azure foal began licking her in return, covering her face in kisses. Then another contraction suddenly ripped through her awareness, the world almost fading to black. A few additional squeezes followed and she heard a wet floppy smack hit the dirt. If her legs had not been locked, she surely would have collapsed from the contraction.

Pumpkin curved her neck to look behind and below her. A horrifying wet lumpen mass of pink, red and white tissue glistened on the ground, it's sagging flesh was the origin of the long, severed umbilical cord. Pumpkin breathed out a long sigh of gratitude; she was free from the placenta now. No complications, no problems. The process was essentially complete. She could expect a few hours of lesser contractions as her internal organs reset themselves, but the worst was over.

Pumpkin Licorice had successfully given birth, on her own, all alone, in the middle of a dirt pathway. Her foal was a sky blue earth pony colt, and he was healthy and strong. A surge of triumph went through her; she had handled this all by herself. Then exhaustion hit her once more, and her head sank on its own, and she found herself half dazed, her son licking her face and eyes once more.

Pumpkin became aware of her udder now, it was swollen and straining. It felt a little like having a full bladder. Sort of. She felt drops of milk beginning to drip from her. Colostrum. It was colostrum milk, the most important milk her foal would ever drink. The first 24 to 48 hours only; it contained all the biological instructions to program a lifetime of immunity to disease. It was vital that Blueberry take as much in of this most precious of milks as possible.

She did not need to worry; her little colt was already there now, she felt his tiny mouth trying to grab onto one of her nipples. He was under her belly, his head between her thighs. Clumsily, he managed to grab her right nipple in his mouth. She could feel her udder contracting, all of its own, milk streaming out of her, into her foal. Caprice had made a point to her of how important it was for a newborn to get colostrum into them.

Pumpkin let her head hang, she was so tired. It was good, everything was good now. It was going to be alright. Her foal, her own precious Blueberry, was hungrily feeding; he was getting his lifetime supply of protection from the world right this moment. Caprice would approve of her. She had done everything right. Oh, Celestia, but she was tired.

They found her that way, Alexi and Caprice, when they had left their cottage. They had fallen asleep on the cloud bed - it was just so comfortable that a nap was inevitable. They had been awakened by hooves scratching on the front door; opening it had revealed Buttermilk, alone and terrified. The little yellow unicorn was panting; she must have been running about for some time, somehow she had found her way home all by herself.

Knowing that Pumpkin would not willingly abandon her niece, Caprice and Alexi had leapt to the obvious conclusion; they began searching for Pumpkin, and had discovered her some distance away; down a path between a small cluster of the colorful pavilion cottages.

Pumpkin was asleep, still standing with locked legs, her tiny blue foal beside her, sniffing at her thighs and burping. His face was covered in thick, yellowish first-milk. He bleated at them as they approached, courageously trying to defend his mother against the unknown threat of not-mother.

It took quite some time to assist Pumpkin back to the pavilion cottage; they helped her onto the cloud bed; Alexi had pushed it the way flat to the floor to make getting onto it easier. Blueberry curled up on the cloud, close to his mother's stomach, nuzzling and sniffing her, pressing his soft, light blue body into hers. Pumpkin was snoring now, something she normally never did. Caprice gave her a kiss on her ear and tiny Blueberry a tender lick across the head.

Later, they brought back a basket overflowing with tasty goodies for her to eat; the entire community was excited and beyond eager to help.

The very first foal in the Village Of Summerland, Summerland County, Equestria, had been born.

Twenty-Five: The Book Of Memories

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By Chatoyance

Twenty-Five: The Book Of Memories

It was the simplest of ideas, but sometimes the smallest things can be the most important.

The book sat on the low, intricately carved table. The tome was heavy, because it was large, but also because it was filled to the bursting with scraps of paper, preserved leaves and flowers, small patches of cloth and sections of ribbon and twine, and other little keepsakes pressed and sewn with thread into the thick, hoofcrafted paper.

The book had fifty pages, and each page had a tab which stuck out from it. Each tab was staggered, the first one starting at the top of the page it was a part of, each successive tab positioned slightly below the last, until the last tab, at the end of the book, located at the bottom of the page to which it was part. Seen from the side, the tabs formed a little staircase that ran up the pages of the book when it was closed; if a pony the size of an ant existed, it could have climbed from the table to the top of the book using a staircase of page tabs.

Renaissance had thought of the idea of tabs; now lipping tabs were the standard for all books in Summerland Village. Because of the page tabs, any pony could read any book; and books had ceased being the primary province of unicorns alone. To flip a page required only the easiest lipping, teeth were not even required - well, unless one was skipping to the middle of a thick and heavy book of course.

He had come up with the idea after seeing his wife Droplet struggle with a book in the new library one afternoon. She had asked him to assist her with the magic of his horn; suddenly the gulf in basic abilities became strongly evident to him. Even if each of the pony races had their own special importance, abilities and magic, the brutal fact was that knowledge, writing and reading, were vastly easier for a unicorn than for a pegasus or an earth pony. And it didn't have to be that way.

Ren remembered concessions made to the handicapped on Earth, to make their lives less troublesome, to make some things the abled took for granted even possible. There could be no equality in Equestria if something as primal as being able to read a book was a great burden -or even impossible- for some ponies.

So it was that all books in Summerland now had lip tabs on them, even blank books used for keeping memories.

The paper had come from the ever expanding Horsewood forest. The Horsewood now surrounded Summerland county like a tall green ring, claiming more and more of the cracked desert as it grew. Part of the Horsewood reached the base of the growing peak of Only Mountain.

Only Mountain was a pretentious name; the peak was barely 400 hooves high. Still, the rocky cliffs could be seen for miles, all of them started from the original rock found by Ocean. Over time, many more rocks had been added to assist with the mountain; Only grew now on its own, and nopony knew how large it might one day become.

The new library had been built from the self-renewing quarry there; it was an impressive stone building that looked rather like the keep of a castle. That design had also come from Ren.

Buttermilk bent down over the book and took a tab from the middle in her teeth. Carefully she lifted the pages by the strong tab, opening the book to page 24. "We could put it here, mommy. This is the beginning of our recipes, so it fits!" The yellow unicorn filly looked at her mother expectantly; the placement did make sense.

"Great!" Caprice lifted the hoofmade ribbon with her teeth and tried to find an open place to attach it to the page. Page 24 was covered with small strips of paper covered with lists of ingredients and instructions for cooking on them; Miriam's Bureau Haycakes, Pumpkin's Blueberry Muffins, Blueberry's Pumpkin Muffins. Those last two always made her laugh. Her sister and her little colt were quite the whimsical pair.

Buttermilk had needle and thread ready, floating in the air, captured within her horn's field. Caprice placed the ribbon down between the muffin recipes, so that it only obscured part of them. Looking at it, she dipped her head again, and lipped the ribbon to straighten it slightly. "There! Your turn!"

The thread wriggled in the air, glowing with arcane light, and darted into the eye of the needle after only a few tries. Buttermilk's eyes were squinting with concentration. Her daughter had gotten so much better with her control in the past year. Caprice smiled with pride; she enjoyed simply watching her daughter accomplish things.

The thread whipped through and Buttermilk caused the needle to move toward the page. "Mom, could you lift the page slightly for me, I don't want to get the page under it!" Caprice bent down and complied, lifting page 24 up at a roughly forty-five degree angle. Oops! The ribbon slid down the incline of the page and into the cleft of the spine. "Thorry!" Caprice said, mouth full of page tab.

Buttermilk moved the needle and thread, still captured in her glowing field, close to the ribbon. Her tongue popped out of the side of her muzzle as she concentrated even harder. Caprice was impressed to see Buttermilk's field encompass the ribbon, at least partly, enough to lift it back to where it had fallen. The ribbon quivered, but it remained.

Slowly, carefully, Buttermilk drove the needle through both the ribbon and the page, shifting her head slightly to see the underside of the paper as she worked. She repeated the process several times, until the top of the ribbon was sewn to the sturdy, thick paper. Buttermilk pulled the needle free of the thread, and stuck it in the red pincushion that Droplet had made for them as a gift for Hearth's Warming.

Now came the difficult part; Buttermilk struggled to tie a knot in the end of the thread and pull it tight to the ribbon. It took her a while, but she eventually accomplished the task. "Wow! Very good! I'm impressed!" Caprice nuzzled her daughter, and gave her yellow mane a shake with her teeth. "You're getting so good!" Caprice pouted, her face a mask of sadness "Pretty soon you won't need me anymore. All grown up, and I'll just be useless and forgotten. Boo hoo hoo."

"Mommy!!!" The exasperated unicorn was used to this ploy "I'll always need you, mommy. You just do that for attention." Buttermilk rolled her eyes, but laid her neck across her mother's crest in a pony hug. "Don't be so silly. Mommies shouldn't be silly."

Caprice reveled in the closeness. "Is that a rule now? Mommy can't be silly?" Caprice pulled back and crossed her eyes "How about this, is this OK?" She hung her tongue out the side of her mouth and swung her head back and forth, causing her tongue to act like a pink pendulum.

"MOMMMYYY!!!" Buttermilk hated that. She claimed it freaked her out. "STOP THAT! EWWW!" As usual she had her eyes tightly shut, and was shaking her head in disgust.

"I canth underthand you, I'n too dumn. Helt! Helt! I'n dumn now!" Caprice leaned at a disturbing angle, her tongue dangling disturbingly.

Buttermilk slammed her hooves down on the table, shaking her head "STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT!"

Caprice straightened up, laughing. Buttermilk frowned at her, but then joined in laughing too. "Bad mommy! You need to behave!"

"Yes, yes, I suppose I do. But it's really hard, sometimes, sweet Buttermilk, especially because...." Caprice looked very serious as she trailed off; it was clear that something terrible was wrong.

"Because what, Mommy?" Buttermilk felt worried, what was going on?

"Bethuz I'n all dumn now!!" the scary mommy face was back in full force, and once again there was a tantrum and laughter.

Caprice and Buttermilk had won the ribbon at the Summerland First Annual County Fair; they had made a strawberry layer cake that had placed third. They were very proud to have won at all; baking did not come naturally to either of them, so third place was a major success. Especially against ponies like Teaspoon and Grassdancer.

The Fair had been held as part of the celebrations leading up to Goodbye Earth Day. Cirrus and Boeing had both determined that, based on the projections that had been made of the growth of Equestria back before they were converted, The fifth year since Arrival Day in Summerland would mark the last day for their old planet. Unless something strange had occurred, their fifth anniversary would roughly coincide with the final moments of the Earth.

Not a pony in the community felt any sorrow in this; instead it was a special event - the last unpleasant reminder of their 'difference' from any other Equestrian would be gone, erased forever. Their last embarrassing tie to their former existence would be eliminated. It felt like being able to finally bury a shameful past.

The pale pink foal ran into the room. She skidded to a stop, barely missing the low table with the book. In an instant she was on the table, her hooves dancing all over the book in an effort to lick Buttermilk's face like an overexcited puppy. "MOMMMM!!" Buttermilk whined, trying to back away while turning her head from side to side "STRAWBERRY'S DOING IT AGAIN!"

Strawberry kept trying to lick Buttermilk, her little white tail rapidly swishing back and forth "MAKE HER STOP!"

Caprice got up and snagged her other daughter's tail and pulled little Strawberry away from Buttermilk. With a practiced flair, she made a jail of her legs, holding the little pink ball of excitement steady. "She just loves you, Buttermilk. You're her big sister and she just wants your approval. You know that."

'Well I wish she'd be less... kissy about it." Buttermilk wore her sulky face, using her foreknees to wipe her muzzle dry.

"She can't help it, Buttermilk. She's only a few months old. She doesn't know any other way to express her love." Caprice began grooming her new foal; after four years of trying, she had been afraid that she wouldn't ever be able to conceive at all. Then, when she had just about given up, along came little Strawberry.

Strawberry was her little darling, especially now that Buttermilk was becoming increasingly independent and absent much of the time, off playing with her friends; the colony had experienced a constant rise in population thanks to the eternal summer. Cirrus had never been able to crack the secret of winter, so the cycle of being in heat never truly ended. Two thirds of the mares had foaled over the last four years; the village had become a very noisy place filled with the shrieks and giggles of many fillies and colts at play.

Many of the old pavilion cottages had been replaced with permanent structures; Renaissance, Boeing and Gasket had helped work out how to construct proper Equestrian thatched-roof houses, now Summerland looked less like an abandoned colony and more like one of the holoprograms about 'Your New LIfe In Equestria' that were shown in the Bureau long ago. From some locations, especially near the new fountain, it was easy to imagine that Summerland Village was just a normal part of Equestria.

To make that illusion more complete, when the ponies had worked to pave the dirt paths with stones they had extended the cobbled road, curving it all the way around the northwest hill, so that the abrupt end could not be seen. This had become Hopeful Road; it existed just so that the villagers could imagine that it led somewhere, anywhere.

Some ponies liked to pretend Hopeful Road led to Canterlot, straight to the princesses. Others imagined that it led to Manehattan or to Hoofington, or to any other city that they could remember from their days back at the Bureau, when they had been learning about Equestrian geography. It was a silly notion, perhaps, but it was also strangely comforting to many. Useless it might have been, perhaps, but not pointless.

Overall, the villagers of Summerland were happy; they had more than enough food (not a few had become a little portly, in fact) perfect weather (the population boom was proof enough of that), and water to spare. The discovery that it was possible to dig wells and reach unlimited underground water had freed the pegasai from vapor hunting; the floating city of Cloudcastle was enormous now, and sported a new racing arena constructed low enough that ponies on the ground could watch as well. Some among the 32 pegasai had found themselves to possess a competitive streak, and flying was exciting to watch, and to participate in.

The books in the crate library had been studied meticulously; the citizens all spoke only in native Equestrian. They celebrated Equestrian holidays - at least those that had any application to their lives. Winter Wrap Up was pointless without winter itself; the Running Of The Leaves was also without meaning absent Fall. But the Summer Sun Celebration had been held annually since their second year, and they had built a proper Solar Plinth that resembled, as closely as possible, the one depicted as belonging to Celestia in several of the books from their library collection.

Nightmare Night had become a favorite as well, now that there was a population of fillies and colts enough to enjoy it; the adults spent the weeks preceding the holiday making candies and treats to be able to hand out. Celebrations during the year helped everypony feel connected to the distant rest of their world.

In every way, Summerland Village had become a model community; they upheld the Equestrian values of honesty, kindness, generosity, loyalty and laughter. They made a religion and a politic of friendship; if there was a problem, there was always one solution - love. The ponies of Summerland had everything they needed to live - almost.

That 'almost' bothered Caprice more and more as the years had passed. Her worry had begun the day she had been trying to help her sister, Pumpkin, figure out how it could be that her foal, Blueberry, had been born an earth pony instead of being a pegasus like herself. While the answer was almost certainly that the Conversion process had altered Pumpkin's unborn child separately and uniquely; trying to work out that answer had caused Caprice to study a chart on Equestrian genetics.

This in turn had led her to think about the issue of inbreeding.

152 ponies - the starting population of Summerland - was simply not a large enough gene pool to survive. In time, successive generations would burn themselves out as genetic flaws accumulated, at least if Equestria was anything at all like Earth with regard to such matters. The village would end up inbred and eventually sterile, with the entire population one day dying out, the fire of life snuffed from lack of contact with the outside.

The minimum viable population for mammals is generally considered to be between 500 and 1000 individuals; some studies Caprice had read long ago when she was human suggested a number closer to 5000. One hundred and fifty-two initial colonists was not even close enough to survive for more than a few mouthfuls of generations. They were happy now, but Caprice knew that collectively, they had no future.

She had discussed this with Alexi one night in their new thatched-roof cottage, as they lay on their extra-large cloudbed (the old one having gone to Pumpkin, downstairs.) Alexi had no answers for her, but he had begun thinking about the problem. Caprice had made a point of wishing out loud, so that Alexi could hear her, that some means might exist to allow their colony to be discovered. Making wishes in front of Alexi now made sense to her.

Making wishes come true was what Alexi did, after all, and by now, Caprice had absolute faith in her husband.

That is what had resulted in the Unicorn Beacon. It was a crazy notion, a silly idea, perhaps, but it caught on perhaps because it offered a more rational hope than a paved road that went nowhere.

Lightning led the Beacon, which Cirrus and Boeing had jovially referred to as 'Summerland SETI.' Once a month, most of the unicorns would get together and form a circle on the top of Only Mountain, now the highest location as far as any eye could see.

Together they would try to focus their magic to call... Anypony. Anywhere. Somehow. They didn't know what they were doing, and the books on magic for unicorns supplied in the crates had not been overly useful; the only spells offered were of the most basic and practical sort. They had mastered spells for dealing with fabric, or shaping wood, or healing wounds, but the sort of high level magic needed to reach beyond an infinite horizon were not included.

So they did their best to invent a spell. They named it the 'Ping Spell', and it amounted to shouting, as loud as they could with their minds, everywhere at once, in as powerful a burst as they possibly could.

Whenever the 'Ping' was cast, every pony in Summerland heard it in their minds and felt it in their bones. It did have a more practical use; pegasai could be sure of never becoming lost however far they roamed from Summerland County. The Ping always guided them home. The longest anypony could theoretically be lost would be one month.

Using this, large distances of the desert had been explored. The pegasai had made it all the way to the 'forest' that had been spotted when they all had first arrived. It had indeed once been a growing stand of trees, but without rain, the stand had died, and tall dead trunks were all that remained. Nevertheless, the pegasai had collected dessicated pinecones, shriveled apples, and acorns, in the hope that somehow, some spark of life might have magically survived. Astonishingly, it had, and several new types of trees had joined the expanding Horsewood.

An attempt to reach the distant 'mountain' in the opposite direction had failed; it was just too impossibly far away. Distance was deceptive on an infinitely flat plane, and however far away the faint mountain was, it was too far to reach with current carrying capacity. They simply could not carry water enough to reach that far. The mountain might as well have been the moon.

In the evening of the Summerland First Annual County Fair, Lightning and Ocean put on a little show; while they had no means to make fireworks they could levitate burning stakes of wood; spinning and dancing in the sky, the result was entertaining and well received. The Summerland Village Orchestra - a pretentious name for eight ponies that liked to beat on drums and plink on hornmade lyres - provided music, and a general sense of community and good will provided the fun.

"You know," Alexi reflected on the show as the family strolled home. He had been listening to their children going on excitedly about the not-fireworks. "It is amazing how two unicorns tossing burning logs with their minds can be the best show I've seen in ages. What is the magical secret of this Equestria we live in?"

Caprice thought for a moment, as she studied her family; Alexi, Buttermilk, Strawberry, Pumpkin and Blueberry. "Community." She decided. "The magic is community. We aren't out to judge or control or demand or reject. We're just happy we're all together."

"So, two unicorns flipping kindling is entertainment because we have no standards, then?" Alexi laughed.

"No." Caprice seemed strangely serious. "A lovely show by Lightning and Ocean is fun because all they wanted to do was to make us happy, and we were willing to let their love matter more than our picky tastes."

"My peach princess seems strangely philosophical tonight. Is there something bothering you, my love?" Alexi was concerned. Caprice was seldom like this anymore.

"No. Yes. I... I just have a funny feeling, that's all. Like... like every moment is so precious, and I don't want to lose it." Caprice walked in silence; Strawberry trotted up and grabbed her tail. Strawberry liked to hold her mother's tail in her mouth whenever they went walking, somehow it comforted the little foal. Caprice had reasoned that it was the pony equivalent of humans holding hands; her little filly just wanted contact.

"Caprice. We will not lose anything. What could happen? We are in the middle of an infinite desert with no threats. We control the weather, and our resources constantly replenish. There are no dangers. Everything will be fine, and as for your concerns about our future population, well, someday they will find us. Of that I am sure!" Alexi wasn't sure, but he wanted to be; he wanted to believe such things for Caprice.

"Maybe, in a way, that's exactly what I am afraid of." Caprice opened the door to their sprawling thatch-cottage. Sometimes she missed the small pavilion tent they had lived in for a year and a half; it had been so... cozy... all crammed into one room, always in contact with each other.

Alexi had nothing to say to that, so he let the matter drop.

Pumpkin and Blueberry said their goodnights and went into their rooms beside the kitchen. Alexi, Caprice, and their two daughters climbed the curving stairs up to the second floor. Caprice tucked Buttermilk in, only to find Strawberry trying to wiggle under the covers. Buttermilk, for once, didn't object and let Strawberry snuggle close to her. "I... feel it too, mommy."

"Butter? What do you mean?" Caprice felt a strange chill run down to her withers.

"Don't let it change, OK? I like it the way it is." Buttermilk licked her sister behind the ears, a surprisingly motherly gesture.

Caprice didn't know what to say. "I'll... try, sweety. I'll do my best. Goodnight, to both my little ponies." She kissed her two daughters sweetly, and finished tucking them in. "Night-night, mommy!" Buttermilk snuggled close to Strawberry in the dark.

Alexi was already in their cloud bed when Caprice returned. She climbed in next to him and snuggled as close as she could, feeling the sheer solidity of him, the warmth of him. "Alexi?"

"Mnnn...yes... my darling princess." Alexi was only half awake, it had been a long day.

"Maybe tomorrow, we could go on a picnic together, out near South Lake, all of us. Could we do that?"

Alexi adjusted his body so that Caprice fit more neatly into the small of his back. "We could get a big basket full of tasty goodies and..."

"No... No. Not like that." Caprice nuzzled Alexi, drinking in his scent. "Maybe we could just... eat the flowers and... the grass out there."

"No cake? No pie? No daisy sandwiches? No fruit?" Alexi found this odd indeed.

"N-no. Just... Just what is there. I want it like... when we first arrived. I want to taste the flowers. I want the taste of grass." Caprice spoke so softly.

"I don't think the children will like that very much, but we'll see what we can do." Alexi let himself relax again. Creating the cloud bed to share with Caprice was the best thing he ever did.

The moon sang sweet songs of night over the sleeping Village of Summerland. The new town hall, still under construction, gleamed under Luna's moon, the stones that made up the unfinished walls glowed blue-gray in the pale light. The library stood quietly, it had been the first stone building the villagers had constructed. Three dozen thatched cottages were divided by paved roadways, the stones had been laid by teams of hard-working unicorns levitating materials brought in carts; these had been pulled by sturdy earth ponies all the way from the quarry in Only Mountain. The two stone wells, with their buckets, stood at opposite ends of the village. A big red barn had replaced Sweetpepper and Goldrivet's old pavilion tent; now it dominated the sprawling farm to the north.

The stars shone brightly over the new fairgrounds. The grounds were really just a big corral with simple seats and some of the old pavilion tents repurposed, but it was the current pride of the community. The grass that had filled the wide, empty space had been trampled flat by hundreds of hooves.

The night was dark and quiet and lovely. The fairgrounds were empty and dark, until the light appeared.

A tiny ray of luminance rose up from the middle of the fairground. The streaming brightness grew stronger, tiny sparkles appearing in the shaft. More tiny beams began to rise from the soil, reaching to the sky. The shaft of light expanded to dozens of hooves in diameter, a sparkling, shining column of light splitting the night, illuminating the fairground pavilions, spilling through the gaps in the corral fence.

Tall shapes began to coalesce in the column of light, tall moving shapes, each with a horn on their head.

Twenty-Six: Whistlestop

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By Chatoyance

Twenty-Six: Whistlestop

Night Watcher The Ponderous had seldom been speechless. His wrinkled mouth hung open as he slowly turned his head from the right all the way to the left. "This cannot be the location. What maladroit balourdise have you wrought this time, Girandole?"

Girandole The Opacous, studied a small, spherical brasswork held in his ancient horn's glowing grasp. Tiny lenses of crystal swarmed on armatures around the clockwork before settling into an agreeable alignment. The device made a thin, musical chime. "Th-There can be n-no question, O' Scion of Th-Thaumaturgy; this is w-without argument th-th-the proper and t-true destination."

"Check that decrepit dunderpate's readings, Tagtail." Night Watcher took a tentative step forward in the corral; ahead in the moonlight was Ponyville, perhaps. It would be like that shaking, superannuated driveling to dump them all a colt's run from Canterlot. No, it couldn't be Ponyville, there were no mountains. The buildings were certainly right, but... wait, there was one mountain. Strange sort of mountain, hardly more than a hill with pretensions.

While Tagtail the Obsequious struggled with Girandole for control of the Globate Translociter, glowing field slapping glowing field like two children fighting over a toy, Night Watcher limped forward with confidence. This was clearly still the solidity of Fundamental Equestria. They were surely nowhere near the Exponential Lands. Night Watcher felt a distant echo of pity for the incompetent fool. Girandole's forced retirement was all but assured now. The marrowless wretch could no longer even perform a basic transport any more.

The cottage that Night Watcher passed was beautiful and looked recently constructed. It was as fine as any other he had seen in Equestria. The cobblestones of the path under his hooves were lovingly crafted... was this Clydesdale, perhaps? At the corner, Night Watcher noticed how dark the streets were. There was not a single lantern anywhere.

Now that was odd. Lightsprites were a basic element of civilized life; whatever village this was he would certainly register a complaint! Street lanterns were a basic necessity; a pony could stumble in the dark without proper lighting. The entire village was devoid of illumination. Outrageous! There would be fines, he would see to that!

A beautifully constructed well and bucket stood to his right now, solidly made, true Equestrian work. South Withers, perhaps? This could be Withers... no, it was too small for that. The Lesser Fetlock!? Of course! That was where Girandole had landed them! This had to be the rustic little village of Fetlock. It was obvious. Why just this other direction, down the...

The cobblestones and cottages ended, abruptly. Beyond the two hills, a lake shone in the moonlight, and beyond the lake stretched an aching void of grass that turned to an endless expanse of desert which ran to infinity itself. The desert was flat, save for short, rolling hills. Night Watcher instantly recognized the untended form of the newly created Exponential Lands. There was no mistaking it. For the first time in almost a century, Night Watcher The Ponderous was flabbergasted.

On his right, a perfect Equestrian village. Lovely cottages with thatched roofs, cobblestone roads, a beautiful little well. To his left an abrupt end, a lake, and a desert reaching to unimaginable distances. It was impossible. This could not be.

Night Watcher felt uneasy as he began to quietly limp down the cobblestones, turning his head from the dizzying emptiness of a dry desert infinity. Save for the lack of street lanterns, this could be any small village in proper Equestria. He stopped at a stone keep.

Summerland Village, County of Summerland, Equestria
Founded Year Three Post Arrival
To The Honor and Glory of Our Princesses

Night Watcher sat down on the cobblestones. His hip was bothering him again, but the real reason was that his legs had become weak. He normally only felt fear when dealing with that senescent virago Comet Tail. Oh, how he despised her, and oh, how he feared her iron grip upon the Corps. But this improbably perfect little newfoal village almost frightened him more. He read the inscription over the entrance to the keep again, the letters in perfect Equestrian, flawless.

This library was better than the one in South Withers. It was actually superior to several libraries he could think of, even the library in Clydesdale. He had no idea what books it might contain, but the building, in the shape of an ancient castle keep, was just exquisite.

Night Watcher creaked to his hooves. This... this... whatever was going on here, he wanted no part of. There was something very odd about this place, this Summerland. Summerland County, indeed. No, he would let Comet Tail deal with this herself. If there was a fall associated with whatever this aberration was, he, Night Watcher, would not be taking it.

There was no way that this... place... could exist. Mere newfoals from that vanished sphere of evil could never have done this. It made no sense, something else was going on. Night Watcher's thoughts turned to ancient rebellions against Celestia. Perhaps this was some settlement of traitors from long ago... no, that could not be. The Exponential Lands were new, and there would have been no place to hide and...

That is when Night Watcher's eyes happened to glance above. A wisp of cloud had caught his eye, shining from the rising moon.

Above him a vast pegasus city hung in the sky. It had a castle. No rainbow falls, but it had a castle made of cloud.

And a racetrack.

Yellow liquid spattered on the cobblestones between Night Watcher's rear hooves.

A limping attempt at a gallop brought Night Watcher The Ponderous back to the corral. Tagtail was still fighting with Girandole for the brass Globate Translociter; they had turned to pathetically, comically slapping each other with their hornfields. Somnolence The Intrepid somehow managed to doze while levitating the Loci Stone; sixteen hooves of arcane rock hovered beside the old stallion, a shining cylinder of engraved stone.

"Listen to me, you doddering simpletons!" Night Watcher controlled his panic and did his best to project a commanding presence. "There is something strange going on here. Somnolence?"

The fat old mage startled awake; the glowing grip of his incredibly powerful horn did not fade even the slightest as he woke, the massive column he carried remained unshakably still in the air.

"Somnolence! - place the Loci Stone immediately. As soon as this is done, we are returning to Canterlot. Comet Tail can deal with this... situation... herself. Get to it! Now!"

Somnolence The Intrepid reached out his mind and encompassed a mass of soil. A huge column of dirt floated out of the ground, covered in glowing light; with a flick of his ancient mind, Somnolence piled the dirt thirty hooves away. The massive Loci Stone hovered over the newly created shaft, then plunged into it, fitting with uncanny precision. Nopony could best Somnolence when it came to heavy levitation. Nopony other than the princesses, of course.

With the Loci Stone set, Night Watcher gave both Girandole and Tagtail a slap on the back of their crests with his hornfield, the two senile old fools had never once stopped fussing over the Translociter; Night Watcher simply wrenched it from their weak grasps. It didn't matter anymore; it was clear that they had successfully followed the strange, monthly burst that pulsed out from some impossible distance in the Exponential Lands.

"We're leaving, before any...pony in this... village... notices us. Prepare for translocation!" The four unicorn mages arranged themselves in transport parade; Night Watcher, as team leader, took point, Tagtail the medical mage to Night's right, the translocation mage Girandole began the spell of transport to Night's left, and pulling up the rear was Somnolence, their heavy levitations specialist. Together they really were a truly formidable team, even if the decades had piled resentments and churlishness upon them.

Streams of light sprang up from the ground beneath their hooves. Girandole focused intently as their forms began to waver in the growing column of sparkling light. The shaft illuminated the fairgrounds; the enchanted Loci Stone now embedded in the soil of the fairground hummed like a tuning fork in reaction to the arcane forces at play. The unicorn mages vanished into the Elsewhere as the shaft of light dwindled to a tiny line. Finally the dimming energies entirely vanished, and once again, all was shrouded in night.

* * * * *

Mayor Droplet, Renaissance and a few others had taken all of the foals, colts and fillies out to the south lake flowers for a sing-a-long. There was no point in bothering the youngsters with something that they could not, and really should not, understand.

Today had been declared 'Goodbye Earth Day'. One hundred and forty-three villagers gathered together in the fairgrounds. They sat, stood, or lay in a big circle all along the corral fence. Teaspoon and her staff passed out trays of little cakes and cookies; some had been decorated to look like the continents of old Earth. Cirrus and Boeing hosted the event, and a makeshift podium had been set up so that they could address the crowd, and so that anypony who wished to, could talk.

"<My good friends.>" Cirrus spoke in NorthAmerizone English; he was a little rusty at it. "<Today we come together to celebrate the passing of an old enemy: Earth.>"

This received scattered giggles from the villagers.

"<About a quarter of a million years ago, the first true Homo Sapiens began their reign of terror on the Earth; but let us not be overly cruel to them. The child is a product of the parent, and Mother Earth was, if anything, a vicious, brutish, stingy bitch!>" Cirrus laughed with the crowd "She really was, wasn't she?" Then continued in the alien-sounding terrestrial language "<If human beings were cruel, aggressive, selfish and greedy, it was only because they had evolved to be so, shaped by a planet of scarcity, constant danger, disease, and suffering. It was necessary, in such a harsh world, for the human species to do whatever it needed, merely to survive. Earth was a world sharp of tooth and red of claw.>"

The ponies looked at each other, remembering. They remembered the favela, the world-slum, the corporate overlords that lived like gods while the majority suffered in poverty and squalor. They remembered the horrible diseases, the terrible injuries, the defects of birth, the constant struggle for wealth, the unending battle just to survive. They remembered themselves, before, and the things they had done -the things they felt they had to do- just to have a slightly better life. Some began to cry at these memories.

"<When Man became a technocratic species, the old hunter-gatherer instincts remained. Though Man had the power to make of Earth a paradise at any time, he did not. Man would not share, he would not care, and he would not get along. When he could have lived in peace, he went to war for profit. When he could have cared for every illness, he kept healing only to the wealthy. As a species he did only one decent thing; at the end, the very end, thanks to nanotechnology, he finally fed every human. It only took 10,000 years to get around to it, and he did it only because nanotech made the cost of creating food from human waste essentially free, and it was deemed necessary by the elite to quiet the angry poor.>" The horror of the true depravity of humanity was difficult to bear. Cirrus had to stop for a moment, his pony life had made such memories painful to recall.

"<Many humans have claimed over the centuries that Man's achievements somehow made up for this essential cruelty to his own kind. Man invented music. Man invented poetry. Man invented science. Man went to the moon. It is easy to claim such things when the individual defending Man is well-fed, well-clothed, healthy and warm. Man made this sort of argument throughout his entire ten-thousand year reign, right up to the end.>" Cirrus took a sip of water from the little bowl that Lightning had provided him earlier.

"<But again, it was not just Man, it was the world that spawned Man, the planet, the universe, the physical laws that made him a monster. If Man was a selfish, insane, murderous ape, it was only because that was what the universe itself demanded of him.>" For effect, Cirrus switched back to the sweet, gentle language of Equestria, the ponies had suffered just about enough of the harsh alien English. "Today, we, we most fortunate of ponies, are no longer <newfoals!> I say that we are Equestrians, through and through!"

This brought cheers and hoofstomps of triumph.

"My dear ponies, we are free from the thoughts of the ape. We are free from the actions of the ape, the diet of the ape, the violence of the ape; the selfishness of the ape. These traits have been eliminated from our brains, our minds, our very souls. And today..." Cirrus paused for drama "...we are finally free of the terrible world that spawned that ape nature itself. By now, the Earth is gone!" A thunder of hoof stomps filled the air. "By now the Earth has been entirely eliminated, transformed forever into the stuff of Equestria itself. Thank you princess Celestia, thank you princess Luna, for giving us this new life! Thank you for saving us from being cruel, selfish, murderous apes!"

The crowd laughed and cried, stomped applause, and hugged. It was all gone. All the slums were finally gone. All the poisons, all the guns and bombs and rockets and nuclear devices, all of the biological and nanotech weapons were gone. All the stories of wars and fighting and killing were gone; all the military marches, the nationalistic anthems, the religious calls to dominion. The pain, the suffering the despair, all of it was gone, and in but one generation, only one single generation, even the memory that it had ever existed would be forever gone.

All they had to do was to simply not speak of it to their foals; and why would they? Tales of a terrible world and a shameful past were best kept buried. Their children would grow up free from the burden of any taint of earthly life. By comparison, Equestria was heaven; their foals would be true angels within it, native to the core.

For the next two hours, various ponies approached the podium and told tales of their lives, before their Conversions. Most of the stories were tragic, some were merely lonely, or sad, or troubled. Caprice thought to say something, then stopped; she had once been part of the elite, wealthy beyond all imagination. Becoming a pony had saved her soul, not her life; unlike everypony else, she had never lacked for anything material. She felt that she really had no right to speak.

One stallion talked of his suffering from an easily curable, fatal disease; he had no wealth but the free ponification had saved him. A mare remembered her days of hunger in the slums, eating rats and the time her father killed the neighbors for their threevee set. Another mare sobbed while she described the rape gangs in her part of San Mateo.

When the time allotted was up, the crowd began to disperse; they had sat shivah for an entire world, for an entire set of physical laws. It had been difficult, but this final letting go perhaps would free them from their past.

It was Ocean that found the strange stone. He had been sitting on it without even thinking about it; when he stood up he finally noticed why the ground had felt so hard. "Whoa! Check it out!"

Everypony recognized the stone, they had seen many like it when they had been brought to Summerland five years ago. It absolutely had not been there before.

"Caprice! Give me a hoof!" Boeing was having trouble with the arcane Equestrian glyphs engraved into the dark octagonal stone in the ground. The grammar was wrong.

The peach pony studied the stone. "I remember that about the stones set into the big corral they used to bring us here. This is the same thing." Caprice thought for a moment, then sounded annoyed. "Of course! Duh! It's not a language, as such. In the spell books it is used as a language, except for the spells themselves... look at it!"

It was obvious now; the stone had a spell written into it. Not a statement, not identification, or description or even a poem was there; the glyphs were being used thaumatically - as a spell. The stone itself was enchanted.

"So, like, what does it do?" Ocean's question was the obvious one to ask; everypony wanted to know.

Lightning, who had surpassed Caprice with such matters several years ago, took a look. After carefully studying the glyphs and pondering their meaning, he concluded "I think these stones -this stone, anyway- are kind of like our 'Ping' spell. It's a beacon, a pin in a map, a way to define where someplace is. Um... it's an address, really."

"That means the rest of Equestria can find us!" Teaspoon had come over with Lightning.

"DUUUDE! Maybe they already have! I mean, like, how'd this GET here?" Ocean looked around, eyes wide.

"That is a very good point, Ocean." Cirrus tapped the stone with his hoof. "But if somepony from outside brought this here, where are they? Why didn't they stay? Why didn't they say hello?"

"It must have happened last night." Kiwi was adamant "I was sitting here yesterday. It wasn't there then. It must have happened during the night."

"What if it's Windfeather, here to finish the job?" Goldrivet had finally spoken the hidden fear in everypony's heart.

"No, Goldie, just NO!" Sweetpepper was horrified at the thought. "Besides, ponies don't do that sort of thing!"

Goldrivet looked angry. "Ponies obviously can abandon other ponies. That's how we ended up here."

"Windfeather abandoned us, but he didn't try to hurt us directly!" Sweetpepper looked frightened.

"Maybe he couldn't then, because of all the fancy-ass unicorns that..."

"LISTEN UP!" It was Droplet. Everypony turned their attention to their alpha female. "We don't know the story here. Maybe this stone was sent ahead, like a... like a space probe. We know that unicorns can be trained to teleport. Maybe this was teleported here, to serve as a guide for a rescue force. I seriously doubt that this is an attack - because if it is, then all those grand words a few minutes ago were pretty meaningless."

Goldrivet turned to Droplet "Windfeather ABANDONED US!"

"Yes, yes he did." Droplet was calm, every bit the leader. "But abandonment is the act of a coward. Windfeather was a coward. He was a racist. All bigotry is just fear. If he'd wanted us dead, there would have been no crates at all. If he could tell those unicorns to transport us like that, imagine what else they could have done! We'd already be dead, if that is what he wanted. I don't think ponies can kill other ponies. Intrinsically, I think we are governed against it. Hurt, yes. Abandon, yes. but not outright, face to face kill. I literally don't think we can kill. This is something else."

"Is it a probe then? Are they coming for us? Will they take us away?" Caprice looked around at Summerland. Soon everypony was looking around. Summerland Village. Their home. They'd worked so very hard. They'd hauled and mined and sawed and nailed and painted and carved. The library, the wells, the thatched cottages. It was all so beautiful. It was... home.

Goldrivet hugged his precious Sweetpepper to him. He thought of their farm, the new forest, the orchard, their beautiful new barn.

"I almost wish it was Windfeather coming to kill us."

Twenty-Seven: All Summer In A Pie

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By Chatoyance

Twenty-Seven: All Summer In A Pie

Comet Tail examined the little mare. Roan, white mane, blue eyes, a pile of rocks for a Mark. Unremarkable. Her speech was strangely perfect, too perfect, actually - Comet Tail could hear that peculiar, unique inflection that Loquacity The Garrulous had unwittingly introduced into the 'Introduction To Conversational Equestrian' recordings she had made for the benefit of the newfoals. This... 'Grassdancer', yes, that was her name, sounded remarkably like Loquacity.

Comet Tail had never liked Loquacity. Loved the sound of her own voice too much, which was rather curious as her voice as not particularly appealing. Still, there could be no faulting the impressive effort these newfoals had made.

Comet Tail was being led to see the mayor of the village. 'Droplet Deluge' was her name. 'Mayor'... of an abandoned group of newfoals? A bit pretentious, perhaps. But also ambitious. If those laggards at the Royal Unicorn Corps had even a portion of the drive and determination of these abandoned newfoals, the Corps would instantly be restored to its former glory. Behind Comet Tail hobbled Night Watcher The Ponderous, still grumbling under his foul-smelling breath. Following him was the rest of his original team as well as the majority of the department heads of the Corps. They had all come; Comet had demanded it.

It was about time the lazy old liches left their shadowy tombs and saw something of their princess's day. Mayhaps it might inspire some shred of life within them.

Night Watcher had gone on at much length about the terrors of Summerland Village, the impossibly perfect horror that had somehow risen out of the Exponential Lands. He had made great mention of his unease about the eerie monthly signal from nowhere, and how his unease had been justified, and how something strange was surely going on.

The only strange thing in this lovely village was Night Watcher himself, Comet Tail reflected; the old foal truly had no idea of what genuine determination and cooperation even looked like. He simply couldn't recognize it when it was plainly in front of him. Comet Tail felt genuine pity for the old goat at that moment; feeling such an emotion about her would-be rival surprised her.

Grassdancer led the procession - virtually the entire staff of the Royal Unicorn Corps - out of the fairground corral, and down the cobbled street. Comet Tail felt astonished, a sensation which now quite a rare thing for her, at how lovely the little village was. The thatched roof houses were perfect. They looked as if they had been copied directly out of an Equestrian architecture book. The cobblestones were new and freshly swept. Lush greenery grew everywhere, flowers burst from window boxes and bordered the cobbled street. For newfoals, it was more than exceptional. It was positively incredible.

Night Watcher wanted these ponies fined for lacking lanterns. PFFFT! Comet would find some way to make that frightened, bitter old mule's life a little worse for displaying such a petty attitude. Night would rue the day he darkened her door about those lanterns; the old unicorn just needed to lighten up a little.

Comet Tail stopped to look up. The grand procession stopped with her; Grassdancer walked ahead for a bit, then realized what had happened. She turned around, quickly returning to Comet's side.

A pegasus city. Just as reported, directly above. The cloud castle was a bit crude, but ambitious. It was fairly clear that the newfoals did not grasp the finer points of nephological construction: not a single rainbow fall, not even proper doric columns. Nevertheless it was a city, and it was there, and none of the other abandoned newfoals had even come close to this remarkable achievement. Several groups had managed to build simple platforms, and had even made rainclouds. But this... this was quite amazing.

"Um... are you alright Miss Comet? Do you need anything?" The escort pony called Grassdancer seemed genuinely concerned, but not about anything Comet Tail expected. She wasn't afraid, or grovelling, or even the least bit worried about herself; she appeared to be concerned about... her. As a pony. How intriguing! This newfoal had probably never seen anypony as old as her; apparently the humans had much shorter lifespans than Equestrians, such that even the oldest of them found comparative vitality and youth after their Conversion.

Comet turned to her escort. "I merely wished to examine your work. It is quite satisfactory."

As they continued, Comet Tail pondered her response. Really, she should have said more. She should have said something more... indicative of her actual impressions. The efforts of these newfoals really were quite beautiful. 'Satisfactory' somehow seemed a little cold, in retrospect.

Then again, after so many lifespans within the Corps, Comet felt cold inside. The Royal Unicorn Corps wore a mask of smiles and politeness laid over a skeleton of underachieved dreams. No wonder Celestia seemed bored and annoyed with her court; there was no group among them that had any real warmth.

They rounded a well, and passed another cluster of pleasant cottages. Comet spied a building different than the rest; for all of Equestria it looked like a proper little roadside inn. How very curious! A roadside inn within a village that could not normally ever receive visitors. If it hadn't been for their monthly beacon, they would never have been discovered. Not only was Summerland almost unimaginably distant from Canterlot, the newfoals here had not suffered sufficiently for their pain to be detected by the spells Night Watcher's group had chosen. Brokenhoofs Listening Heart and Call Of Desperation only located those that desperately needed help.

It had been unthinkable that any of the abandoned newfoal groups would not... desperately need help.

Comet trotted directly to a wide, open counter at the front of the quaint little inn. 'Teaspoon's Tasty Treats' it said in flawless Equestrian. The village escort pony cantered up to her.

"Miss Comet? I'm sorry, and don't mean to be any trouble, but the library is kind'a the other way." Comet was taken aback. Did the little pony think that she had become confused, or lost? The poor thing was almost being motherly. This was a most peculiar day indeed.

"I should like to... sample the local cuisine first... Grassdancer, was it?" Comet knew the pony's name; it had simply become her habit to pretend that remembering the names of lessers was difficult. It was all a part of maintaining status.

"Ah... of course, if you want 'n all. But the mayor is waiting." She, Comet Tail, appointed by Celestia herself to lead the Royal Unicorn Corps Of Equestria, was keeping the mayor waiting. She almost allowed herself to smile.

"You. You are the proprietor of this eatery?" Teaspoon had walked to the counter at the front, having noticed the crowd in front of the community kitchen. Everypony had been asked by Droplet to try to act as natural as possible; all had agreed that should they be visited, they wanted to demonstrate a functional, established community and not run around either terrified or fawning as though they were a bunch of broken newfoals, desperate to be rescued.

"Hello! I'm Teaspoon. I guess you could say that. What can I do you for?"

Comet Tail regarded the yellow mare with the three-spoon Mark. 'Do you for?' Very colloquial. "I wish to partake of the flavors of your Village. Do you have a recommendation?"

Teaspoon saw this as a test. What would best sum up all that they had all achieved in Summerland together? What defined their community in terms of flavor? Sweetpepper's 'Galloping Garden', really. Sweetpepper had dedicated his life to making that farm feed everyone. From the very first, he had worked to improve their diet.

Teaspoon went into the back, yes, they still had some. Using her hornfield, she plated a slice and floated the result out to the counter. "Here you go. I think you'll find this a unique treat that represents our little village perfectly!"

"Really?" Comet Tail twitched an ear; these newfoals were utterly unperturbed by her arrival. The plate was standard newfoal resettlement supply issue; nothing unexpected there. But the slice of pie was an unknown. Comet Tail studied the slice for a moment. She could not identify the filling at all.

"Go on, give it a try. See if you can guess what kind of pie it is." The unicorn called Teaspoon grinned at her. Comet Tail could not remember the last time any pony had grinned at her. Shriveled in fear, certainly. Frowned with anxious concern, absolutely. Grinning quite startled her. Very well, then, let's see what you have to offer, oh grinning eatery mare.

Comet Tail encompassed a small piece of the strange, red, green and yellow pie and levitated the bite neatly into her mouth. Hmm... very unusual taste. Sweet, but not overly so... with a strange piquant quality. Savory-sweet, as though bitterness had been transformed into joy. It was an odd sort of pie, but it was a flavor she rather liked. Comet simply could not identify the filling at all. "It is extremely intriguing. What is the fruit used in this?"

"That pie is a specialty of Summerland Village; it's Sweetpepper Pie. The filling is bell peppers."

Comet Tail's eye twitched. "Bell... peppers?"

"Yup! You'd never think it would work, but according to Sweetpepper - he and his husband Goldrivet run the Galloping Gardens Farm, north of the village - anyway, Sweetpepper says that bell peppers are botanical fruits. Since they're fruits and all, there isn't any reason not to treat them like any other fruit, or so we thought. So, we came up with a way to make bell pepper pie! Good, isn't it?" Once again the grin, this time wide as can be. Despite herself, Comet Tail was beginning to feel something not entirely unlike mirth, crawling up from some hidden alcove, down deep within the locked dungeon of her soul.

Night Watcher had actually been right. This was a strange place; not only had these newfoals thrived, they had busied themselves creating intriguing and delicious new desserts. No wonder they had not been found for five years; the only desperation to be found here was likely indigestion from overeating.

"This is indeed a remarkable creation, Teaspoon." Comet Tail levitated five bits from the small pouch she carried in her mane; that should be far more than was needed. The shining coins slapped down on the counter with faint, bell-like tings. "Thank you. This should cover the pie." Comet prepared to leave.

Teaspoon immediately lifted one of the golden disks in her hornfield. "Hey! Is... is this a bit? A real bit? The official currency of Equestria?" Teaspoon studied the coin. It was small, round, surprisingly thick. There were no markings of any kind on it, it was a simple, fat disk with a smooth, raised rim. If it wasn't gold, it was something very similar.

Teaspoon's grandmother had continued collecting coins, long after they had ceased having any meaning. She fancied herself an amateur numismatist. She had always said that the soul of an entire civilization was expressed in the design of their currency.

The Equestrian 'bit' had no markings; no images, no words, no numbers, not even a portrait of the princesses. It was a simple slug of golden metal. The rim had no milling, no grooves at all. Teaspoon remembered enough of what her grandmother had taught her to read the coin; it had a lot to say.

The lack of imagery spoke of a modest national attitude; instantly Teaspoon knew that Equestria was not a land of intense, pompous nationalistic pride, nor were the princesses the least bit narcissistic. The absence of numbers indicating value suggested a culture devoid of guile; a coin was the weight of the precious metal it was made of, nothing less, nothing more.

But the lack of grooves around the edge said the most; this was a people, a species, that did not have, as a rule, thievery. Grooves exist on coins for one reason alone; to prevent the coin from being filed. A little filing on a great number of coins was an ancient human method to steal a significant amount of metal from them; eventually the metal dust could be melted down to form valuable bars. Equestria apparently had no coin shavers. There was no need to add grooves because nopony would think to shave a coin. Some nearly vanished part of Teaspoon felt as if she should be shocked by this; the notion was utterly unhuman.

Then her five years of being a pony reasserted itself. Of course it was unhuman. What did humans have to do with anything? Ponyfolk were a pretty honest lot. That's just how they are. How could it be otherwise?

Comet Tail turned back, momentarily surprised. "Yes, this coin is called a 'bit'. You do not use currency here? Is there some other form of payment you require?"

"It's just I've never seen one before. We don't exactly use money here. Never have. No real need for it, you understand. We just take care of each other. We're kind of a big family, really. I cook because I like to and everypony seems to appreciate it. It just kinda became my place over time, I guess. Here, you'd better take these back. Not really how it works here." Teaspoon looked embarrassed; she had suddenly realized her admission had undoubtedly made Summerland Village seem pretty odd and even downright weird not to have ever bothered with money.

Comet Tail's face tried to smile. She hadn't planned on that sort of thing happening, and it made the sides of her muzzle hurt. "Please, keep the bits. Perhaps you can show them around; others might find them interesting to look at. Besides, when you are all integrated back with the rest of us, you will need to get used to coinage, won't you?"

"T-thank you." The look on the pony's face was a complex one; excitement, hope, gladness were all there, but also a deep sadness too. Teaspoon's ears dropped, and her head lowered. Comet Tail thought about all that she had seen since she had arrived in this Summerland Village; these ponies had all made such an astonishing effort. They were the last victims of Windfeather's betrayal to be found, but they were by far the most successful, ambitious group Comet Tail had ever seen. Having to leave all of this behind must be weighing heavily on them.


"Um... yes?" Teaspoon looked up; Comet Tail could see the beginnings of tears in her eyes.

"Your pastry..." Comet thought of the endless intrigues of the Canterlot court. Her several lifespans of watching backbiting, useless pretenders trying to rise within the Royal Corps, of frustrated old unicorns with little to do and no hope of advancement. Endless insults and bitter bantering within the ancient, dark halls. And now, suddenly, these eager, innocent, incredibly determined ponies. Comet simply could not call them 'newfoals' anymore. These ponies truly held the authentic spirit of Equestria within them. "...your pastry was exceptional, Teaspoon. I have honestly not tasted better even at Celestia's table."

Comet Tail was old. She was ancient; having lived three centuries she knew the exact moment to turn away and discretely leave. She did not need to see the tears to know they would fall. She had not bothered with such matters as simple kindness in a very long time. That was a terrible shame. A terrible, terrible shame.

The Summerland Village city hall was under construction; Grassdancer led Comet Tail to the library. This was where Mayor Droplet waited. They would need to talk, to plan the evacuation of the village, to discuss how best to proceed. It would not be an easy conference, that was now exceedingly clear.

* * * * *

"Of course I need your help! I may be the alpha around here now, but you started this place before hoofing it off onto me. Your support on this would strengthen my position. You know there are going to be objections! You know someponies are not going to be alright with this!" Droplet was angry, and she was angry because she was frightened. It was one thing to govern a community where the biggest issues revolved around whether a rescheduled rainstorm would interfere with somepony's picnic and quite another to have to tell everypony it was time to pack up and leave forever.

Alexi hung his head, his bright blue mane falling over his eyes. Caprice pressed into him, trying to offer what comfort she could. "Droplet, Alexi really prefers kind of staying in the background. That's why he didn't want the job of leader. He's at his best providing support to the leader, not trying to act like a leader himself." Caprice looked at Droplet with an earnest expression; surely this was old news.

"That's all I'm asking him for! I just need his support here. I need Alexi to stand up with me, one last time; the old Alexi, the Alexi from when we first arrived and he kept us all together. That's what I need - a unified front! It's imperative!" Droplet sounded desperate - what was the true issue here?

Caprice gave Alexi a comforting lick right on the lower edge of his ear, the way that always made him relax. Then Caprice looked squarely at the mayor "Droplet, out with it, what is the real story here? If we knew what this was about..."

"Fine, fine. They're going to move us - there's no way around that. You would not believe how far away that wretch of a pegasus dropped us. What was the old diameter... no... the circumference... of the Earth? Something like 24,000 miles or some such? We're not on a planet here. Equestria is a realm, a place - it's different. This isn't like our old universe at all, and... twenty-four thousand miles is nothing here. That's how big this place is, now anyway." Mayor Droplet struggled to wrap her mind around the concept; the Royal Unicorns had certainly been no help at the meeting.

"Anyway Caprice, our Summerland is like... the distance from the old Earth to its moon or something. Maybe farther. If we all set out walking, it would take generations to reach Canterlot, even if we had some way of knowing the right direction and sticking to it. You're the one that brought up the inbreeding issue - we can't stay here. They know that, you and I know that. But there are a lot of ponies in this village that don't want to leave. They don't want to leave their work, their effort, the village itself, they don't want to leave."

"Caprice... Alexi. We don't have a choice, we're being moved. Royal decree. It is a done thing. But..." Droplet looked very sad, very helpless now "...I don't want us to be split up. That's the problem here. If we can't all agree on what we want, they can't guarantee to keep us all together. We have barely the minimum population to count as a community. That's another thing Windfeather did to us. The newfoal colonies were all supposed to have five times the number of ponies in them that we ended up with. If some of us get snippy and demanding with the Royal Corps, we could all end up parceled out to different newfoal settlements. We'd never see each other again. We wouldn't be... well, Summerland Village anymore."

Caprice looked intently at Droplet; she could see the pegasus quaking slightly, this meant so much to her. "So what you're saying is that if we present a unified front, all eager to work with the Royal Corps, then we'll meet some requirement to... what, get a new village all together somewhere closer? We get to all stay as a unified community?"

"EXACTLY! That's what I've been trying to say! We're just barely at that population threshold, even with all of our foals." Droplet sank back on her pillow, slumping against one of the beams that supported the west wall of the cottage.

Caprice groomed Alexi's dangling forelocks. She could see him smile out of the corner of her eye.

"Alright!" Alexi raised his head, shaking his blue mane out of his eyes. "Let it never be said that Alexi is one to abandon his community when it calls on him to heroically help! Alexi is no pathetic shirker! Alexi is no useless pony who cowers in the corner, clopping his hooves in wretched anguish and... and... "

"Overblown drama?" offered Caprice, helpfully.

Alexi glared at Caprice, though there was a barely repressed grin at the edge of his muzzle. "I... will help." Caprice leaned slightly and gave her stallion a sweet kiss on the side of his nose. "Alexi needs more of those." Caprice smiled softly "If Alexi is a good boy, perhaps that, and more, might be his reward." Her eyes spoke of a long night with zero sleep.

"When do we start?" Alexi was standing now, eager to begin.

* * * * *

"The Village of Summerland, our village..." Alexi was addressing the entire population, all gathered in and around the new fairgrounds. The ponies were careful to avoid the area near the Loci Stone; Lightning and Ocean had roped it off so that nothing unfortunate would happen should the Royal Unicorns decide to return. "...what is it? Really, I ask you, what is Summerland?"

The villagers looked at each other, unsure of what Alexi meant.

"IT'S US! We are the Village of Summerland! It isn't the land - the land is just an expansion made from some old dirty planet. Summerland isn't the buildings - we all worked hard, so hard on our beautiful cottages, on the library, on the roads - but buildings are just... stuff! Stuff that we put together, but still stuff. The thing that makes them valuable is our working together, the thing that makes them beautiful is our work as a community!"

Alexi was sweating; although his voice was being amplified thanks to a little unicorn help - Canterlot Voice, page 22, Benthorn's Practical Guide To Fundamentals Of Magic, crate 18 - he felt terribly nervous. He hadn't spoken to a crowd in years, and had grown very comfortable helping from the shadows. Public speaking was not his favorite thing anymore. Alexi's days of doing announcements over the Bureau speakers seemed another lifetime ago; those days had nothing to do with him anymore.

"I know some of you don't want to leave, and I don't blame you. I love this land. I love the four hills, the south lake with the flowers there, the north pond and the farm. I love Hopeful Road and eating at Teaspoon's and watching the races. I love my cottage and Cloudcastle and the red salt from the north end of Only Mountain." One side of the mountain had different minerals than the other; the red salt lick had a complex flavor that the white salt lick lacked. Everypony except Trotsky preferred the red lick; he said it tasted bitter to him.

"I love every little thing about what we have created here. But I love us, together, more. I love Teaspoon making pies and cakes and cookies more than I love her kitchen. I love Sweetpepper and Goldrivet and their amazing ability to make things grow more than I love their barn, or their garden, or the orchard. I love you..." Alexi looked with fierce eyes in the general direction of a portion of the crowd "...and you, and you and you, vastly more than I love this fairground, or the unfinished town hall, or the library, or my own cottage. I love us. All of us together. THAT is what I fear losing. Not these things of stone and wood!"

The ponies were rapt now, leaning forward, understanding. They knew all of this already, but their attachment to their own effort had blinded them.

"If we all face these Royal Unicorns together, if we show them a strong and united front, if we make it clear that we intend to stay together, to remain one community, one village NO MATTER WHAT, Droplet assures me that they will be forced to concede to our demand!" This was stretching things a bit, but the old rabble-rousing art was rising again in Alexi; a common enemy united a people. The Royal Unicorns weren't eager to split up the community; actually they had no stake in the matter at all. They just didn't care beyond getting everypony evacuated. By framing things in this way, Alexi hoped to create a point of common cause that would help the villagers to be willing to let go of their attachment to the things they had built. He wanted to avoid calls for concessions and compensations and get everypony to concentrate on a single uniform demand: togetherness.

"We can stay together! We can keep Summerland Village alive! We may live in new houses, and till new land, and gallop through different meadows, but together, wherever we end up, that is where Summerland Village will live!" Alexi was on a roll now, his previous discomfort forgotten. Oh, yes, he felt that thrill again, the excitement he had once had announcing new Conversions back at the Bureau. "We take our village with us, in our hearts, in our relationships with each other, in our common lives! We are one family! We will not let these unicorns break us up! Join me in standing firm, in showing these Royals that what really matters is staying together, not any one spot of land. ARE YOU WITH ME?"

Yes, they were absolutely with him. Alexi stood tall, flaring his wings, doing his 'Action Pony Pose' while the crowd cheered and stomped and yelled. He could see Droplet nodding at him; this was what she had hoped for. Alexi looked down at Caprice, sitting off to the side; her smile made him actually feel like the image he was trying to present. He was Great Leader Alexi now, and the crowds cantered at his command! How had he ever forgotten what this had felt like?

The crowd suddenly fell silent, as if a switch had been pulled. Alexi relaxed from his dramatic pose and looked around. He followed the eyes near him.

A glowing shaft of light was rising from the Loci Stone.

The Royal Unicorn Corps were returning. They were coming to transport the entire community; suddenly Alexi's heart sank. For all of his grand words, the fact was he didn't want to go. He knew that Caprice was right; they didn't have a future here. They would be finally joining the greater community, this was the answer to the cobblestone prayer that was Hopeful Road. This was what they had all wished for so long ago. Life would be better, life would be richer, it was absolutely the best possible thing to happen.

But the fact was, he was going to miss this land so very, very much.

Twenty-Eight: Her Last Imbroglio

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By Chatoyance

Twenty-Eight: Her Last Imbroglio

Two hundred and nine ponies of all ages waited in and around the Summerland Village fairgrounds. The foals, fillies and colts of the group fidgeted, ran about, or sat sobbing and frightened of something they couldn't entirely understand. The adults, stood or lay on the ground; some of them wept openly as well. Many had saddlebags filled with meager possessions; small mementos of their lives, little gifts given over the years, scrapbooks bursting with treasures. Others carried nothing, but just stood there, helpless, angry, powerless.

Today was moving day.

Summerland Village was being evacuated; ostensibly by Royal Decree but the real reason was basic practicality. The utterly isolated community had no future; inbreeding would destroy them over the generations, the only hope their offspring could have would be found in joining the rest of their kind. That this needed to be done, nopony disputed. That it was terribly sad and a little cruel that they should be forced to give up their homes, their farm, their effort, and leave it all behind was also beyond dispute.

"I said goodbye to the pears. Is that silly? I even hugged the little tree that we healed - you know, the one that got whacked with the rake? Poor little thing. That's silly isn't it, Goldrivet? I'm just a silly pony, aren't I?" Sweetpepper had been crying; he loved Galloping Gardens. He'd always wanted a farm, he loved every inch of the place.

Goldrivet pulled his husband close with his neck, squeezing the smaller pony as tightly as he could. "Not silly in the least, lovely. Not silly at all. I... I kind of apologized to the pumpkins, myself." This made Sweetpepper smile and weep at the same time. "We really did a good job, didn't we? I mean, our farm is really... good... isn't it?"

"It's the best farm I can imagine. The very best, Sweets. You did a magnificent job." Goldrivet rubbed his head slowly, comfortingly up and down the length of Sweetpepper's neck, feeling the tense muscles underneath with his chin and cheek. "No - we did a magnificent job. It's our farm, ours, together!" Sweetpepper pressed his face into Goldrivet; his husband's warm chest was the most perfect place to shut out the world for just a moment.

The Royal Unicorn Corps had translocated into the village a circular marble disk of Loci stones bordered with an elaborate golden fence; it was similar in design to the original translocation corral that had brought the villagers to this place in the Exponential Lands, but much, much finer. This rich, royal platform was clearly of Canterlot design; it was larger as well, and had appeared to the east, just past Alexi's Hill.

The villagers were to be transported in two groups, the process would begin at midday, just a mouthful of minutes away.

The Royal Unicorn Corps did not have power enough to even consider translocating an entire village; it was beyond reason to expect such a thing. However, the incredible success of the newfoal colonists had greatly impressed and pleased the princesses, and the newfoal's loss would be compensated.

They would be all be housed in Canterlot itself, in the finest of quarters, while a fashionable and stylish new village was constructed especially for them. Their new home would be well situated, on the border between the original boundaries of 'proper' Equestria and the beginning of the Exponential Lands; they could not possibly be more centrally located. They could even choose to name their new village 'Summerland', if they liked.

During their future months in Canterlot, they had been officially requested to tell their story, to mingle and mix, to be sure and let the court and the citizens fully appreciate both their struggle, and above all else, their great achievement. Indeed a complex itinerary of events, appearances, tours, promotions and lectures had already been planned for virtually every member of the newfoals to attend, to make sure their story was fully and completely heard.

It had been made clear to the newfoals that their collective assistance in these matters would be greatly appreciated by the princesses as it would support and validate their decision to rescue the human species through Conversion. This would assist in putting a permanent end to any pesky remaining concerns regarding the inclusion of former humans within Equestria. The newfoals of Summerland Village were a truly exemplary case, and by embodying the true spirit of Equestria had shown the absolute and perfect wisdom of Celestia in gracing humanity with pony bodies and pony lives.

For their efforts for the crown, they would also be given wealth; they would never lack for bits in the future, and could be sure of a very comfortable existence with only one proviso; that they might occasionally be called on in the future to tell their tales once more, if it should ever become necessary or useful to the crown.

They would be celebrities, and would never need to work again in their lives; their special reward for having endured such a terrible betrayal.

When this had been explained to the villagers, cheers and hoofstomps had been expected by the court official; he was quite shocked to find a restless crowd turning to each other in unease. Unable to comprehend this, the finely garbed stallion had left muttering about how ungrateful the greedy former humans must still be.

They had lived for five years as ponies, they had tried to be as Equestrian as they could be, living up to the ideals within the books inside the crates, the few books that made up their precious library. Now their previous life as humans had returned within them; this was a situation they understood all too well. No others of the rescued newfoals were receiving such benefits and attention; each and every newfoal understood what was happening all too well. They had heard how the other betrayed newfoals had suffered; while these ponies were being taken care of, it was nothing compared to the elaborate media circus that Canterlot had planned for them. This wasn't about compensation for suffering at all. It was so very, very... human.

"Caprice?" Alexi looked at her with worried eyes; the expression on her face was strange.

"Make a wish, Alexi."

"What?" Alexi was lost. "I... don't understand, Caprice."

"If you could wish for anything right now, this very minute, what would it be?" Caprice's eyes were cold and hungry, the eyes of some jungle cat, lurking in the shadows. When she had realized that they had been abandoned and betrayed by the pegasus Windfeather, Alexi remembered hearing Caprice swear for the first time. She had been so angry. What she seemed to be feeling now was not simple anger. It was something else. Alexi could not read it.

"I...I wish that this would not happen? I wish that we could keep our village and not be used in this way. That is what I would wish, if I could. I still do not understand." Alexi did not like the look in Caprice's eyes. This was not his peach princess.

Suddenly, Caprice smiled. "Thank you, Alexi!" she gave him a cute, sweet kiss, her strange mood somehow vanished. The odd look in her eyes did not return, even as the villagers returned to their homes, worried and complaining about this news. The wealth was nice, living well was always nice; but not one of them for a moment imagined that this was a true reward. This was propaganda; a life on earth had made every one of the newfoals keenly aware of the smell of it, the taste of it. Politics. They were disappointed; they had honestly, innocently, truly expected better of this new world.

The very next day, the fine and royal translocator with the golden fence had been installed, and the population had been herded out to await transport to their new lives. Moving Day.

Caprice waited in line with the rest of the crowd, her family around her. Droplet and Ren stayed close as well; if there were any problems, being near Alexi might be useful. Caprice constantly scanned the area, searching. Alexi had the strange feeling that she was waiting. She seemed as though she was expecting something, or someone, though he had no idea who or what it was. Asking her directly had met only with casual chatter; whatever was up with her was not something she wanted to share.

Suddenly he felt her stiffen beside him, her muscles rigid. He followed her eyes. There, walking with eerie, unequestrianoid grace were the two princesses, Celestia and Luna. The twin divinities were rounding the cottage that had, until now, served as home to Cherryblossom and her family. Celestia and Luna, the two princesses of Equestria, the living goddesses of this world, suddenly here in Summerland. Alexi had not seen them arrive; they had not come with the Unicorn Corps, somehow they had just... appeared.

The princesses were being taken on a tour of Summerland Village by Comet Tail; they seemed interested in seeing everything for themselves. Alexi found himself fascinated watching the distant princesses; their strange and insubstantial manes that fluttered and waved in some arcane breeze that did not exist in the world of ordinary ponies.

It was then that he noticed, to his horror, that Caprice was no longer by his side.

"It isn't real, you know, FAKE! Soooo totally fake. I've seen this sort of thing done at carnivals you know." Caprice was on her back, right at the feet of Celestia and Luna, pointing up at Cloudcastle with her hoof! Alexi's heart began to pound, what in Equestria was she doing?

"Big cloud city. PFFFT! That's clearly not true. It's just a story. No newfoal could ever accomplish THAT." Caprice rolled her eyes at the princesses, her voice dripping with utterly venomous tones. "They can talk all they want, but I'll never believe it. Not for a moment! It's a LIE. The princesses put them up to it."

Comet Tail was speechless. The sheer impropriety of this, the audacity of this was beyond all comprehension. This was beyond outrage; Comet could not even think of how to respond.

In an instant, Caprice was up on her hooves, staring intently into the face of Celestia herself. "This whole village, the whole story is a lie. Those newfoals, put up in a fancy special village, given all those bits to talk about their adventures; it's all a fanciful story, all just made up to make the newfoals seem acceptable! But I'm never going to trust those creatures! Where's the PROOF? Where's the evidence?"

By now all of the village had noticed the princesses; shocked by the presence of the regents, they found themselves involuntarily bowing; they couldn't help it, their bodies just... bowed. The mystical presence of the princesses was palpable, it pressed down upon the crowd like an invisible weight.

Alexi found himself bowing with lowered head, wondering how Caprice was able to stand, much less do what she was doing. What was she doing? He found himself afraid for her; this time she had gone too far. Much, much too far.

When he dared to look again, he could see the faces of the princesses; they were not the least bit amused.

Princess Luna was shouting something at Caprice with regard to her sanity, the voice she used was terrifying; Alexi saw Princess Celestia interrupt her sister with nothing more than a glance. Luna nodded and fell frighteningly quiet. Alexi felt a terrible dread; in some manner he was convinced that his precious Caprice was suddenly in some horrific danger, though he could not define what that danger was, or even why he felt the way he did.

Caprice dismissively turned her body in place, looking back over her croup at Celestia "Some pretend, storybook village out in the Exponential Lands? Surely SHE can do better than that!" Caprice finished her derisive turning in place and faced the princesses again. For the briefest of moments, Caprice dared to stare at Celestia. Then she looked down, instantly humble. Silent as death, she bowed as deeply to the ground as she could, her forelegs outstretched, her jaw on the grass. She looked up at the supernal Celestia, and let her Venice side drop away as completely as she could, allowed all of her internal defenses to drop, and became, inside, utterly vulnerable.

Celestia, ruler of all Equestria, living goddess of the sun, looked down quietly upon the fragile peach pony. Caprice lay down the rest of the way, and willed her heart to be as innocent, as pure, as devoid of guile as she could. She put herself fully into the Caprice she had gradually become, over the last five years. If Celestia was genuinely more than mere flesh, if she truly was a deity, then she should be capable of reading Caprice's true heart.

"My dear princesses," began the flabbergasted Comet Tail "I assure you that..." A single glance from Celestia cut the unicorn off. Comet Tail lowered her head.

Celestia's expression was utterly blank. Neither anger nor mirth showed now. "Comet Tail."

"Y-Yes... your majesty." Comet now knew how she had made Night Watcher feel. It was not a pleasant sensation.

"Have your teams remove the translocation platform, and return to your halls. Such services are no longer required at this juncture. We will speak at some length later, about road improvement."

"R-Road... improvement?" Comet Tail sputtered, unable to comprehend her princess.

Celestia turned slightly and nodded to where Hopeful Road ran around the northeast hill, where it ended abruptly. Beyond it was grass, stretching to the edge of Summerland County, just beyond that edge was the vast desert. The vast desert directly outside of Salt Lick City. Comet Tail could just see the tops of buildings near the horizon, far beyond the low, rolling hills. Tiny specks of distant pegasai soared in the air.

Comet Tail blinked. She looked around; the entire county of Summerland was now on the outskirts of Salt Lick City. As far as she could tell, it always had been here; the lands blended seamlessly into each other in all directions. Without any fuss, without any apparent effort, it all just, impossibly, was.

Celestia smiled at Comet Tail "You should also inform the court that your staff made a small clerical error. It seems that the last abandoned group of newfoals was actually discovered just outside of Salt Lick City. The poor things had simply never realized just how close to civilization they had actually been. Almost humorously tragic really, but also desperately heroic, don't you think?"

"Yes... your majesty. Right away". Comet Tail left, her tail literally between her legs.

Caprice closed her eyes. She rested now. It didn't matter what happened next. The community would stay together now. Everypony's work would not be lost forever, all of their love would be kept in one place. Celestia's political needs would be served; that was why, of course, this outcome had happened at all. Caprice had won her internal bet; Celestia really was a goddess and not just a pony princess with extra magic. It would be alright, in the end. Her only regret was for her family; they would miss her. She felt so very, very sorry about that.

But that was her gift. It had always been her gift. She wasn't good at anything else. She was decent with language, but not exceptional. She wasn't the best cook, she couldn't draw or write or invent. She wasn't very strong, she wasn't particularly intelligent, a little clever, perhaps. A little clever.

But Caprice knew how manipulation worked. Personal, political, social. She'd always known. She'd come out of the womb knowing. It was the one thing she was good at. It wasn't a very nice thing, but it was her thing. And she could recognize, instantly, another playing the same game.

But there would undoubtedly be a terrible price. Such rudeness to a mere monarch could be cause for imprisonment or even death. But to a goddess, a living goddess? Pissing off a goddess is not something anypony can hope to survive.

Please forgive me, Alexi. Forgive me, Buttermilk and Strawberry. Forgive me Pumpkin and Blueberry.

And she felt it coming, the suspense was ripping at her mind; any moment now, the terrible punishment - she would be torn apart, her very soul shredded like leaves in a tornado of terror, her precious pony flesh broken down into its constituent molecules, her organs pulled like taffy into long ropy threads only to be dissolved by impossible nightmare forces; the eternal wrath of a implacable horrific.... wait.

Caprice opened her eyes, just a crack.

Vast violet eyes gazed at her from inches away, a white coat surrounded by an eternally waving arcane mane of pastel violets, greens and blues. A faint mischievous smile.


Celestia, princess of Equestria, living Goddess of the Sun, walked quietly, daintily away beside her sister, Luna, the Living Goddess of the Night. Caprice watched them as they strolled off.

Just before they turned the corner, around Cherryblossom's cottage, she saw Luna stick her tongue briefly out at her.

Twenty-Nine: It's Only Human

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By Chatoyance

Twenty-Nine: It's Only Human

Lilly Jewel slowed down, then stopped. The old, faded mare was at it again.

Her friend, Distinction, frowned, and tried to nudge the young unicorn. "Just leave her alone. She's kinda weird. Come on, we need to get to school."

Symphonia finally caught up with her two friends "What's going on?"

"Lilly's staring at Missus Lawn Ornament again." Distinction whipped her black and white streaked tail against Lilly Jewel's yellow flank, as hard as she could. "Come ON... let's just go, Lilly!"

The pale old mare stood out on the lush green that surrounded her cottage. Her legs wobbled slightly as she reset her stance; at her age it was hard to keep one's knees locked - or so Lilly Jewel's great grandmare had once complained. Lilly Jewel watched as the aged pony slowly bent her neck down once more, and began taking mouthfuls of her lawn.

"Eww... She can't be THAT poor. Besides, she could just apply for Lunassistance!" Distinction dug at the ground with her silvery-gray hoof. "She's just a crazy old mare, now let's goooo!"

"Cordiality's mother once said that she's one of those converted ponies." Symphonia studied the old mare with narrowed eyes. "She said that they're not normal in any case. Maybe converted ponies don't like real food." Great, thought Distinction, there always had to be a not-normal condition with anything Lilly Jewel became fascinated with.

"She looks so lonely." Lilly Jewel's large orange eyes shimmered. She had that look again, thought Distinction. Lilly always got that look before she took in a stray dog or got them all stuck helping some silly pony with some dumb problem. Distinction considered Lilly her bestest ever friend, but sometimes she could be a real pain.

"No, Lilly Jewel. We are NOT going to go over there and make friends and stuff. She's weird, and we're late, and lets GO!" Distinction grabbed Lilly's golden mane and gave it a fierce yank. It was like trying to pull a frayed rope tied to a barn.

"Listen, girls. We see this poor old mare out here all the time, eating grass. Nopony even knows her name, do they? She never goes out, she's never at any of the festivals; think about how lonely she must be!" Oh, there was no question; Lilly had that look, she had it strong, and there would be no escape. Under her breath, Distinction quietly cursed; today was going to be another weird day.

"Hey! I've got an idea! Wait here!" Lilly Jewel suddenly galloped off towards the new Starcolts stand; that, at least, wasn't too bizarre a thing for Lilly to do. Since the famous chain of tea-houses had finally reached all the way out to smaller towns like Clydesdale, everypony seemed to be looking for any excuse to visit them. 'Weird old mares' had apparently become the latest excuse, at least for Lilly.

Distinction stomped her hooves in frustration. "Here we go again. What was it last time? A duck?"

Symphonia thought for a moment. "No, the family of ducks was last month. You're thinking of the Magic Chicken."

The Chicken hadn't actually been magic, more's the pity, but Lilly had been convinced that it was; the girls had spent most of a week taking care of the decidedly unimpressive fowl until Distinction had tracked down the farm it had wandered away from. They had gotten some very nice 'thank you' cookies from that adventure, but it was not enough to make up for a week of catering to the every whim of a chicken that was not in reality a powerful sorcerer in disguise.

"Don't remind me. If I never see another chicken as long as.... Hey, Lilly!" The sprightly yellow earth pony had returned; on her back she had a saddlebag-styled take-out carrier heaped with small cakes, cups, and a container of tea.

"Come on, girls! Let's make friends!" Lilly Jewel grinned widely, and set off towards the ramshackle cottage and the grazing old mare.

"We could just go on to school, you know." Symphonia was her usual, coldly rational unicorn self.

Distinction shook her black and white mane. "No, that's useless. Remember the Mrs. Tincture incident?" That had ended up with the entire school involved, paint spilled on all of their coats, and that's not even including the overturned compost cart - no, leaving was NOT an option.

"We'd better follow and take our lumps then." Symphonia was, if anything, practical.

"And hope they're made of sugar." Groused Distinction.

"Helooo!" The yellow and gold filly stood, tray on her back, grinning and blinking at the ancient mare.

She was an old earth pony mare, with a faded pinkish coat and a white shock of mane. The mane also had just a touch of remaining pink - or was it peach? The oldster slowly turned her head, still chewing on a small mouthful of grass nibbled from right off of her front lawn.

"B-Buttermilk?" She squinted her old green eyes, trying to see who was speaking to her.

"No, actually, it's tea. I have some tasty cakes, too! I'm Lilly Jewel, and these are my friends, Distinction and Symphonia! Hello! It's nice to meet you!" Lilly stepped closer and raised a hoof in greeting.

Tears started to form in the eyes of the old mare. She hung her head, her ears drooping. "Buttermilk. I was hoping you were... Buttermilk."

"I could go get you some buttermilk, if you really want. I'm really sorry, I thought everypony liked tea and cakes!" Lilly Jewel looked slightly disappointed. Distinction knew she'd do it, too. She'd just go off and get some buttermilk for the old weirdo. She was like that.

"No... no. Buttermilk is my daughter. One of my daughters." The old mare sighed and looked up. "She's a yellow unicorn, with a yellow mane and yellow eyes. You look a little like her when she was young. Sweet little Buttermilk..."

"Oh! Duh!" Lilly Jewel rolled her orange eyes. "I see now! On to my reason for being here then! Me and my friends here see you a lot, out eating your lawn. We figured that maybe you might enjoy a change of pace! We've got lots of fresh, hot, Starcolt's tea, and some really yummy cakes too! But best of all, we've got a big old heap of friendship to offer!"

'Missus Lawn Ornament' looked at the grinning yellow pony, and then at her two nervous, uncomfortable compatriots. It was clear who was actually offering anything in this group. But then again, there was always one. One pony who instigated things. If anypony knew that, it was her.

Also, that grin. The yellow filly might not be her Buttermilk, but she didn't want her to leave. "I... I'd love some tea and cakes. And friendship."

The little yellow pony named Lilly Jewel immediately lit up like a street lantern at dusk. She was a sweetheart, that one. The aged mare gave a tiny bow. "By the way, my name is Caprice. Caprice Venäläinen. Pleased to meet you." The old mare hobbled over to the flat spot in her yard and carefully, slowly, folded her legs and lay down. Lilly trotted up and did the same; she immediately began reaching into her carrier and setting out cups and portioning out cakes and tea.

There was nothing for it; Distinction and Symphonia joined the impromptu lawn party. When Lilly was on a kindness kick, there was nothing else to be done. Even hiding under the bed was useless. They'd tried that. Instead, the silvery-gray earth filly and the purple-black unicorn filly folded their legs, sat down, and sipped tea. Free tea, what the hay.

"Ven..ah..lie...nin?" Lilly Jewel tried to pronounce the strange name. She had no idea what the word meant, it sounded strange, even alien. "That's a very unusual name."

"It's not from around here. It's not from Equestria, sweetie." Caprice carefully sipped at the tea in front of her. It was good. She hadn't had tea in a long time.

Lilly Jewel took a nibble of the little carrot cake in front of her. "Try the cake, Caprice! It's really tasty, and I figured you could use something a little nicer than just gobbling lawn all the time!"

Caprice regarded her own cake. It looked delicious; it even had a little orange carrot made out of frosting on the top. "You really are a sweetheart, aren't you?" She took a small bite of the cake, and then sipped some tea. The flavors of tea and cake warmed her mouth and danced on her tongue. "But you needn't worry. I assure you that I can afford any kind of food I might desire. I'm not poor."

In for a bit, in for a bridle, thought Distinction. "Pardon me miss Vena... layla... um... Caprice, if you don't mind me asking..."

"Missus, actually. I'm married. Well, I was. In my heart I'll always be. He died a few years ago." The old mare looked down at her cake, sad and lost in memories. "Ah, sorry dear. Just call me 'Caprice', it's easier. Your question?"

Distinction felt bad for bringing up sad things but pressed on, "What I want to know then is, if you can eat whatever you want, why the hay do you eat dumb old grass out on your lawn?" Distinction looked away, a little uncomfortable. "I mean, Clydesdale's not a big city like Manehattan or anything, but we've got restaurants, markets, smoothy shops, fancy restaurants, cafes and... fancier restaurants!"

Caprice laughed. Her laugh was still delightful, and helped put the little fillies more at ease. "Clydesdale has grown over the last five or six decades, no question. At some time or another, I've probably been to every one of those places. You know that bulger place over by the Quills and Sofas superstore? The one with the double-soaked wheat? Best hay fries in town."

"Sweet Celestia, she's right!" Distinction was surprised. "I love their fries! They season their hay, that's the secret, you know."

Symphonia washed some cake down with tea. "Then I would conclude that why you eat the grass off of your lawn is because of some personal reason that we do not, as yet, comprehend."

Caprice laughed again. "You remind me of a pegasus I once knew. He studied the weather. Old Cirrus. He was very intelligent. My Alexi and he used to be friends. Well, before..." The old mare looked briefly sad again. "Anyway, to answer your question, I like grass. Right off the lawn. The greener and taller the better."

Lilly Jewel smiled, that was good enough for her, mystery solved. Symphonia cocked an ear, her questions just beginning. Distinction, however, was appalled "Listen, I don't want to be mean or anything, but eating grass is weird! Nopony eats grass anymore. Not off the ground - I mean, it isn't like we're living in caves or anything. Ponies see that and they'll think you're weird. No offense. Ma'am."

Caprice looked squarely into Distinction's blue eyes. "But, I am weird."

Symphonia sported a half-smile at that, Lilly's eyes grew wide, and Distinction stared right back "That... that's not the kind of answer you're supposed to give to that!"

"It's almost..." Symphonia's half smile became a three-quarters smile "...weird, huh, Distinction?"

Lilly Jewel giggled at Distinction's sputtering; Caprice joined in. "It's alright... Distinction, was it? It's fine. It's alright to be weird. In fact, sometimes it can be wonderful to be weird. I know it doesn't seem like it at your age, but... as an old pony, I can assure you that being a little weird is almost a gift."

"Oh, you're not THAT old!" Lilly Jewel was trying to be nice. "You're only as old as you feel, right?"

"No, sorry Lilly. I'm quite old, and that is just a fact. I'm turning three-hundred and fifty-five tomorrow. I'm afraid that's pretty darn old. Well... for an earth pony without any forbidden magic, anyway." Caprice remembered Comet Tail from long ago. She was supposed to have lived seven centuries, if the stories were true. Old Comet Tail.

"So it's your birthday tomorrow?" Lilly Jewel brightened even as Distinction's ears began to droop. "We'll bring you a birthday cake! We could have a little party even!" Distinction began wondering about how this became a 'we' thing.

"So you actually like the taste of grass, plain old grass. And you don't give a hoot about who sees you gobbling your lawn. Is that it?" Distinction couldn't help the slight dismissive snort, she hadn't wanted to be sucked into this particular Lilly-project in the first place.

"It's more than that." Symphonia had been working things out, as always, while her friends talked. "It is my understanding that you may be a converted pony. A..." The filly struggled to remember "...a newpony, I think they were called. Is this true?"

Caprice became silent for a moment. She hadn't thought anypony in Clydesdale remembered such things anymore; she had taken some pleasure in the thought that nopony thought of her that way any longer. She had imagined being free of her past in her old age.

"Newfoal. We were called newfoals. Yes. I was... am... one of them." Caprice decided to celebrate being outed with another taste of delicious cake and tea. "By the way, Lilly, the cake and tea is really wonderful."

"Oh, thank you Caprice!" This is what Lilly Jewel lived for, she began beaming at Symphonia and Distinction.

"You were, um... creatures once, right? From another world." Distinction was studying Caprice, trying to discern any anomaly, any freakish clue to some monstrous heritage.

"I heard they were like dragons!" Lilly was feeling bubbly "With rubbery claws instead of hooves. But they didn't have tails, and they had tiny, itty-bitty eyes like moles!"

"That's actually pretty close, Lilly." Caprice studied her tea more carefully than it deserved "The creatures we came from were a lot like dragons in all sorts of ways. Mean dragons. But Celestia sorted us all out. She arranged for us to be converted into ponies, in order to save us."

"Did it hurt?" Lilly Jewel gave a concerned look.

"Actually Lilly," Caprice raised her gaze "It was the happiest day of my life. There was a waiting line, but I begged to be turned into a pony. I got lucky and didn't have to wait. I was so glad. It didn't hurt at all. I went to sleep, and woke up a pony. It was... so wonderful." The ancient mare's eyes became misty; remembering her first steps on hooves, back at the Bureau, so long ago.

"I was told you destroyed your world." Distinction still couldn't find anything about Caprice that looked like it had once been part of a tail-less rubbery dragon-thing.

"Distinction!" Lilly Jewel scolded "That's not very nice."

"No it wasn't very nice, and we never should have done the things we did to our world." Caprice turned her head to face Distinction. "You are right. We killed our world, and if Celestia hadn't intervened, we would have all died out, and it would have been entirely our own fault. When we became ponies, we weren't like that anymore. It was a complete job, Distinction, you won't find any trace of what you're looking for: you shouldn't ever doubt Celestia."

Distinction turned red under her coat; she had been staring rather rudely at the old mare, but she hadn't expected to actually be called out on it.

"You seem to like your cake and tea. So being a... newfoal... isn't why you eat grass." Symphonia was still trying to figure out the central issue of why they had come visiting.

"Actually, it kind of is." The aged mare had a strange, sad smile on her muzzle. "When we first arrived in Equestria... there was a... problem. We ended up with almost nothing, far, far away. All there was to eat was grass, so that is what we ate for the longest time."

"That must have been terrible!" Lilly Jewel extended her hoof and gently patted Caprice on the foreleg.

"Actually... in some ways, it was the best time of my life." The fillies were surprised at this. "It was difficult, and scary, and we weren't sure that we would be rescued. But it was also when I found love with the stallion of my dreams, had my first foal, and worked together with a whole community of ponies, sharing everything." Caprice sighed wistfully. "Every meal, we would all gather together on the grass and eat as one herd. At night we slept out in the open, all together, one big family. Everypony depended on each other, and we all needed and cared for each other every day."

"I think I understand." Distinction seemed more at ease now. "You eat grass because it reminds you of those times. You miss your friends. You miss your herd. It kinda makes sense to me now."

So Caprice told the three fillies about Windfeather, and Alexi and Pumpkin; she told them about Summerland Village and about how the pegasai worked out how to make rain, and how Sweetpepper had figured out the secrets of what it meant to be an earth pony. She told them about how sad it had been for her when they had finally been found.

And she told them rather vaguely about how she had gotten her cutie mark - a pyramid with a small heart right near the apex - the day she had met Celestia and Luna, the day she had convinced them to spare Summerland village. Caprice left out the detail of the village being instantly moved; it had been clear from that day that Celestia did not like to openly show what she was capable of.

Caprice also left out what had happened after Summerland had been moved. How the villagers, for all their tears at having to leave the village, had been become unbelievably angry when they realized that they wouldn't get to stay in Canterlot, have wealth for life, and be famous anymore. Caprice had been crushed by how very human their reactions were, how she and her family had been shunned by the very ponies she had thought were her herd, her community, her closest friends, for the crime of saving their village at the expense of a lifetime of wealth and privilege.

Caprice, Alexi and Pumpkin had been forced to move away from Summerland Village, to start a new life in Greater Fetlock. For many decades, they had lived together, raising their foals and knowing a warm, domestic happiness. Then Pumpkin had met a stallion and moved away with her son, Blueberry. Buttermilk, possessed of great talent with magic, ultimately joined the Royal Unicorn Corps, and Strawberry had moved away to Fillydelphia with a cute pegasus mare named Winter Melon. When Alexi had finally died, Caprice couldn't stay in Fetlock anymore; her grief at losing the love of her life was too great.

Caprice heard tell that her old friend from the Conversion Bureau, Dr. Pastern, had been living in the little town of Clydesdale. She'd always thought of Roselyn Pastern as a friend. Roselyn had made her into a pony. Roselyn was now a pegasus named Rose, but she was still a doctor, specializing in herbal remedies. They had shared the cottage behind her for several years, until the day Rose Pastern never woke up again.

Now, Caprice was all alone. She lived in her cottage, and ate her lawn to remember the happiest days of her life; the days before she made the mistake of thinking that Conversion eliminated every single aspect of humanity, turning it to pony.

Or perhaps, she had believed the idealistic books in the crates too much, and had clung to an illusion that ponyfolk were universally immune to bitterness and selfish ambition. Equestrians were not in any way as greedy or cruel as humans had been, but they were not the perfect, ideal beings Caprice had imagined. The villagers of Summerland never forgave her for cheating them of easy, elite lives; they blamed her for clinging to a selfish dream of an idealized village that had never existed the way she imagined it to be.

As she finished the last bite of her carrot cake, Caprice suddenly realized another reason she ate only grass; it was a kind of penance, for that final time she had thought that the arrogant part of her that was Venice could take on a goddess, and win. She had honestly thought that saving the village was what everypony wanted the most; it was another human trait to cry for one thing while secretly desiring another.

Caprice sometimes wondered if everything had simply played out the way Celestia had wanted all along, and that all she had done was to make it easier for the princess to achieve her true goal. Caprice would never know. But she did know that she was never welcome in Summerland Village again.

Sometimes, Caprice wondered if Windfeather had not been entirely wrong.

But these fillies didn't need to know any of that. It was enough for them to know that she treasured her memories, memories of that sweet, young-love flavor that was, the taste of grass.

When the cake and the tea was gone, Caprice thanked her little visitors; the intellectual Symphonia, the forceful Distinction, and the compassionate Lilly Jewel. They were good little ponies, and she had enjoyed their visit. Lilly had told her to expect a nice surprise tomorrow, for her three hundred-and-fifty-fifth birthday; Caprice had softly laughed to herself at how uncomfortable that promise had made Lilly's friend Distinction.

Inside her cottage, Caprice felt very tired. The cake was not settling well with her; she wasn't used to such rich food anymore. She sat for a while and looked through her memory books. Pumpkin's wedding. Buttermilk's graduation from the Academy Of Thaumaturgical Studies. The cards that Strawberry and her partner always sent her on her birthday. The love notes that Alexi would write her and hide around the house, just to let her know how much she meant to him.

'Caprice, my lovely peach princess!
I am sure that you are amazed to find that
your hayfresher is also a mailbox.
Hopefully my effort to tell you how much I
adore you has not accidentally been eaten.
If this note should find itself in your stomach,
then be aware that your Alexi loves you
inside and out.'

When she had dried her tears, she got ready for bed. Her hip hurt as she settled into her bed on the sofa. She hadn't been able to climb the stairs to her proper bed for some years now; the sofa was good enough.

It was difficult to get to sleep. Perhaps it was that cake. Perhaps it was how much she longed to see Alexi, even just for a second, just for a moment. Maybe it was that she felt so uncomfortable. Her left front leg had been hurting all day, she must have pulled a muscle somehow.

When finally sleep came, she drifted in and out of it, Sleep playing tag with her mind, until it finally won.

In the dream, she was with Alexi. They were young again, and they were walking together through the grass next to South Lake, towards the patch of flowers. That was the first place they had ever made love, out in the flowers. Now they were laying together in the flowers, Alexi bent over her, on the ground.

"I have missed you, my peach princess. But that is in the past." Alexi kissed her, warm and deep. Caprice's heart skipped with the sheer joy of it. "Alexi! Oh, sweet Celestia, my Alexi!" It was all she could say, there were not words enough beyond that. The scent of him again. The feel of his warmth. It was too much. It was just so wonderful, her heart skipped again and again.

"Caprice, there is someplace I want to take you." Alexi nuzzled her. "Get up, and follow me."

Caprice rose to her young, fresh hooves. Alexi was already ahead, beginning to run. "Come on!" he shouted. "Run with me!" Caprice began chasing after Alexi; catching up to him. They ran together over the endless grass, two happy ponies, the wind rushing through their ears and manes. As they ran, misty shapes joined them, cloudy ponies of every color and type; earth ponies, pegasai, and unicorns. The vague shapes became more defined, they became a herd. The herd grew with every second, in moments it stretched to the horizon in every direction; unimaginably vast, an ocean of ponies.

Caprice ran with the vast herd. They were almost flying now, hooves barely touching the ground, over a misty green something that stretched onward forever. Caprice remembered this scene, it was familiar... this was her Conversion Dream! No, wait... she had already been Converted so... it was becoming hard to remember. The herd around her was her herd, and she knew she belonged to them, and that they belonged to her. Caprice felt enfolding love, love sent to her from the impossibly large throng, and love given from her, to them all. The herd became misty and indistinct once more, and so did she, when she looked at herself. Her spectral hooves ran on fields of light.

Above, she saw in the sky the vast, infinite cathedral of stars and morning; and in that rose the formless essences that were Celestia and Luna. They had many names, and many guises, and Caprice wondered how she knew that. Caprice also knew now, somehow, that the herd ran forever, and occasionally that they would graze in fields of experience and sorrow and joy and wonder. Her belly was full; the herd had just finished grazing and were running to the next field. Yes, that was what was happening. She remembered this; it had always been so. It was the way with her kind.

It was only to be expected, now that she was a part of the herd, a herd led by living goddesses. The cruel universe she had come from, the empty place where there was only one field, where nothing ran save only to darkness, that place was behind her, forever gone. She belonged to Celestia and Luna now, and in this place, this universe of glorious day and sacred night, of grass and hoof and laughter and song, the chase would never end.

How did she know that?

Because it had always been so. It was the way with her kind, it was the way of the herd that ran on fields of light forever, it was the way of Equestria.

In the morning, the medical unicorns had cordoned off the cottage. Lilly Jewel had come with a big cake on her back; Distinction and Symphonia had brought little gifts; a mane brush and a scrapbook; old mares always loved a good scrapbook.

But there was nopony to give them to. The head medic tried to explain it to them as gently as he could, but Lilly ran off, crying. Distinction thanked the stallion and told him she would take care of her friend; Lilly was such a sensitive pony, but she was Distinction's best friend. Symphonia followed after wondering if she could get her bits back from the scrapbooking store.

Later, Lilly would look back on it all and be glad; "At least we were able to share one last happy day with her, right Distinction?"

And Distinction, for all of her unease at Lilly Jewel's wild heart, had to agree.

Thirty: The Permutation Bureau

View Online


By Chatoyance

Thirty: The Permutation Bureau

The glasses at the end of his muzzle were making crinkling and popping sounds, like ice melting during Winter Wrap Up. The gray, stone shapes were turning to golden metal, the gray stone lenses became glass once again. It was then that Windfeather realized that he could not move, and he began to panic.

The strange sound continued; soon the bookish pegasus could feel his entire mouth, and move his lips. He found that though he now had a mouth, he couldn't scream because his chest was still made of stone. He was not breathing, yet he did not die; neither was he suffering except from the horror of the experience itself.

Now Windfeather could turn his head, and move his neck. He swung his view around; the stone that was his body and legs and tail stood on a stone base, the very kind that supported the statues in Celestia's garden.

Slowly his mind wrapped itself around the concept of what must be happening; he was gradually turning from being just such a statue, back into being a living pony. Just a second ago, just an instant, he had been shouting at Celestia, then... the stories were true. The horrifying stories were actually true.

He could move his upraised hoof, now. He had raised it to make a point. That was it. He rotated his hoof and flexed the muscles in his cannon. Just one second and... no. Something in him, something he could not identify felt a strange distance; a distance in time. It felt like having dozed off in the sun for a short nap, and then being surprised to find out that one had slept for hours and hours. Some amount of time had passed, longer than just one second, but beyond that, he could discern nothing more.

The crinkling revivification was spreading downward, soon he would be free. He worked to calm down, to assess his situation. He was a pegasus, after all, and not some dim earth pony, or some pretentious unicorn. He was by nature quick. He would figure this out.

Windfeather looked around, bothering to notice, for the first time, something besides his own body. He was on a dais of some kind, at the center of... something that felt like a workshop. It wasn't a normal workshop; it wasn't even a room in a building as such. It was more of a space, a place, a zone... he had no words. Whatever it was, he had a dim feeling that he had spent a long time here as a statue, on one of the... shelves... here.

The only word he could come up with was shelf; the flat ribbons of layered light streamed in exotic curves round and across and into unfathomable distances. There were things on the shelves, if that is what they truly were, and as Windfeather idly pushed his glasses higher on his nose, he could see that they were ponies.

No, not ponies; the shape, the form, the essence of ponies were there. They were not alive; but they were the form of what a living being might be, and they were all different.

One, near him, began a shelf. It was not a pony as he knew his kind; it was chubby, rounded, with almost no neck. The face was very short, the mouth large. The head drooped low as if the creature were plodding. It had a colorful mane and tail, and some form of cutie mark, though he could not make out what it was. Windfeather had the strange feeling that these were some kind of molds, as if life itself could be poured into the shapes and living creatures would walk out. How did he know this? It was as if some part of him had been aware of his surroundings, despite having been a statue.

The next spirit mold -where did that name come from?- was very different. This was an elegant creature, much thinner and longer of leg. The head high, the muzzle elongated, far more so than the ponies of his generation. Generation? Had there been generations of ponies? No, not just ponies. The part of him that had been aware in the stone whispered to his mind that there had been iterations of his world, of his entire universe. It wasn't just ponies, it was the nature of reality itself.

The third form he saw was stout again; a roly-poly sort of pony reminiscent of the first form, but only marginally more appealing. It looked ridiculous to him; the face short and almost oppressively fetal.

Finally he saw a mold of his own kind. It was unmistakable. That was a pony, that was true ponykind. The elegant shape, the beautiful curves, the perfect muzzle, the lovely mane and tail.

But wait; there was a fifth generation, and a sixth. The fifth was more like the second, thinner and taller. The sixth was almost stylized, almost abstract. As windfeather turned, the strange shelves of light curved on beyond his sight, hundreds, thousands of spirit molds, each different, each more alien than the last.

As the curving shelves returned from the distance, the forms upon them were barely recognizable as ponies at all; some were made of sharp, mathematical planes, others were masses of curves, still others seemed to only represent the idea of ponyness, devoid of shape as he understood it.

Names came to him; a valley of dreams, a garden of friendship, A town of ponies, Equestria, then name after name after name flooded his mind, endless ages whispered to him from the part that had lived even while he had been stone. They were names of the world, the land, the universe itself. Always there were constants; rainbows, princesses, magic, friendship and laughter, music... these were the primal elements that they worked with.

Who worked with? Whose workshop was this?

Beings. There were beings, beyond understanding, beyond reason. Elder gods, they made these iterative universes. And Windfeather began to remember, just as his feet were freed, just as the statue base melted away into the air and he found himself falling to the dais itself - spirits went into the molds and became the ponies in each iteration.

It must have been done to him, long ago, or to his ponykind, the ponykind unique to his Equestria. The bodies changed, the universe changed, but the souls went on, sometimes with new names, new shapes, different personalities, but some essence was always the same and...

Now he was falling, the dais had spiraled open and Windfeather found himself falling down a terrible shaft. The shaft sank through nameless spaces, through time itself, and he knew that he had left the workshop of the gods and he knew not where he was being pulled.

When he could focus again, Windfeather used his hooves to carefully lift up his glasses, and place them on his nose again. Able to focus, he saw that he was standing on a platform made of... something he could not quite describe. It was a little like a cloud and a little like a mass of bubbles. It shimmered in the light; a strange light that came from all around.

When he finally took it in, his mind reeled, and he struggled to keep from screaming.

Equestria was gone. Everything he knew or understood was gone. Windfeather stood on a platform of bubbles in an endless sky streaked with neon curves of light. The sky slowly shifted in patches of pastel colors, against that backdrop. Clusters of strange, fractal shapes drifted, complex beyond understanding, bulbous and covered with protrusions.

The neon snakes of light wove around the bulbous masses, interrupted only by the hanging arches of unsupported rainbows and curious formations of not-cloud that disturbed Windfeather so much that he could not look at them for long.

"Welcome to the Conversion Bureau, Windfeather." The voice was strange, but it had a familiar cadence, and familiar quality. It reminded him of... Celestia.

Windfeather spun, only to look up and see two immense horrors. Vast, like zeppelins, the creatures were great living sacs, balloon like, they swam through the air with gossamer fins extending from long tentacles. Huge, flat eyes gazed down at him. Ethereal curtains of light ran down the backs of the monstrosities, with another curtain, long and ribbon-like, hanging from the back.

One was translucent white with curtains of sea-green, pink and blue, the other dark purple with curtains of deep blue sparkling with tiny, glittering lights.

As his bowels evacuated, as his mind recoiled in horror, Windfeather understood. These floating whales of the air were ponies. They were what ponies had to be, here, in this endless sky of neon streaks and floating globs. These two creatures were Celestia and Luna in this universe, in this generation.

The Celestia-thing laughed, her voice echoing through the strange void. "Yes, Windfeather, it is time to join the herd."

"How... long?" It was all he could do to say that much. His consciousness felt like it might buckle at any moment, crumbling into madness.

The vast floating mass that was Celestia here wriggled tiny tendrils near its front, this was where it made speech. "There are no words that you know to express such passages of time in any meaningful way. A long time. It has been a very long time." The horrific entity seemed as though it were trying to be kind now; Windfeather felt something like pity emanating from the here-Celestia.

"To live forever is a burden, Windfeather. Eternity is made bearable only by change; so it is that there have been many versions of our pony world, each different, yet each retaining the primal elements that define what we are. In this iteration of the world, you are an alien, strange and unfit to survive. The only place you can exist is on this platform, suspended in the void. But there is a way out, if you will take it."

The Celestia-thing wriggled its fins and tendrils and puffed up with air. Lights ran over its gigantic, inflated body.

"Windfeather, this is the Conversion Bureau of this place. Here is your salvation." A long, white tentacle snaked down from somewhere in the folds of the blimp-like body of the strange Celestia; it held in its writhing coils a sphere, a ball of liquid. The liquid was purple, and gleamed with a metallic sheen.

The creature's delicate tendrils wriggled as the strange Celestia recited: "Our plan is to ponifaloonify you, the sooner the better. Expect this to happen when you least expect it. You'll get used to our culture, our food, and our lack of hooves. Trust me, it's easier than it looks. Because ponies can't handle the magic radiating from Aerostatica's borders, becoming a ponifaloon is crucial to expanding the peaceful, friendly aura that surrounds Aerostatica every dae of every monath of every Yuur. Thank you."

Windfeather was screaming now, but his voice was lost in the strange winds of this alien realm. Yet other-Celestia's voice was clear and crisp.

"We welcome you to Aerostatica, with open tentacles and open sacs. Join us and float in peace and harmony. Just drink this, a mere three ounces of ponifaloonification serum, and you will live in love and joy as one of us."

The tiny, alien creature, heavy, solid and filled with bones, stood on the small platform that had been made for him. His weird, round eyes darted from side to side, the pupils small. His ears were flat against his bizarre, hard skull, and though copious amounts of air went inside and out of him, he did not inflate in the least.

The orb of liquid sat in it's nest of writhing Celestia-tentacle. "Go on, Windfeather, it's completely painless. And after you are changed, there will be many friends to help you adjust to your new life." The horrific creature radiated only love and concern.

Somehow, that only made everything worse.

The End

The Lost In The Herd Series:
One: The Big Respawn,
Two: Euphrosyne Unchained,
Three: Letters From Home,
Four: Teacup, Down On The Farm

The Conversion Bureau Novels:
27 Ounces: A story of eight and one half ponies
The Taste Of Grass
The Conversion Bureau: Code Majeste
The Conversion Bureau: The 800 Year Promise
The Conversion Bureau: Going Pony
The Reasonably Adamant Down With Celestia Newfoal Society!
Recombinant 63: A Conversion Bureau Story
HUMAN in Equestria: A Conversion Bureau Story
The PER: Michelson and Morely
Little Blue Cat
Cross The Amazon
Adrift Off Fiddler's Green: The Final Conversion Bureau Story

The Short Stories:
Her Last Possession
The Conversion Bureau: PER Equitum
The Conversion Bureau: Brand New Universe
Tales Of Los Pegasus
The Poly Little Pony

The very first and original
Conversion Bureau Group
archives only the best Three Rules Compatible stories!

Optimalverse Works:
Friendship Is Optimal: Caelum Est Conterrens
Leftovers: A Friendship Is Optimal Story
My Life In Fimbria

Injectorverse Works:
I.D. - That Indestructible Something

The More Conventional Fanfics:
The Ice Cream Pony Summer
Around The Bend

PRIDE related works:

My FREE music streaming service!

Rare, personally chosen anime, SF and fantasy television, movies, and comedy music. A truly unusual collection to listen to, featuring Spot Announcer Dr. Sandi!

Guest Epilogue: A Taste Of Home (By Midnight Shadow)

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Special Guest Epilogue by Midnight Shadow

Epilogue: A Taste Of Home

Amber Nova looked down at the letter. It was... disturbingly plain. It lay innocently on top of another letter, a far older letter.

The first bore the Royal Seal of the Pony Sisters. The second the seal of the First Bank of Clydesdale; the name on the back was well known to her - but to very few others. That the letters had both found their way to her meant it was the official sort of business which was hard to ignore, even for the Grand Mage of the Royal Unicorn Corps.

Amber Nova’s brow furrowed. Whilst the name on the back was well known to her, the name on the front was even more so.

Amber Nova stood up, stretching. At something over a hundred and twenty, even with the control of magic she possessed, such an age was nothing to be sneezed at. She idly wondered if she’d live to be as old as her famed predecessor, Comet Tail. She also wondered if she wanted to.

“Ma’am? Is... is something wrong? Do you wish to make your inspection early?”

“No, Star Jewel, no. There is a rather... personal matter I must attend to. I must journey.”

“Great Mage, I shall make the carriage ready.”

Nova huffed and scowled, “I thought I made it clear that this was personal business. I will not be requiring the carriage. I shall travel myself.”

“B-b-but Great One...”

“Enough! I was not asking your opinion, I was not seeking your approval. Am I some foal needing my nostrils wiped and my tail cleaned? Perhaps thou dost desire to check if my weaning has proceeded apace? Begone.”

Star Jewel fled.

Amber Nova relaxed, and snorted. She had yet to instill the kind of fear that could cause the expulsion of bodily fluids as her predecessor had, but there was time. Oh yes, there was time, for her. For others, time oft ran out.

She lifted the first letter in front of her with her magic, positioning the glasses upon her nose and squinting through them. One of these days, she thought to herself, I must learn that spell to bend the air like a lens, but then glasses are kind of an expected feature of mine, and far more intimidating to stare down.

A small smile played her lips as she reminisced about her rise to power - power, but never glory. No, she wasn’t one for glory, despite the position she held. She had it because she deserved it, not particularly because she wanted it.

The smile left her lips as her suspicions were confirmed.


* * * * *

“Mommy! Why! No! I don’t wanna go!”

Caprice sniffed, weeping openly, “We must, my little one. We... we are no longer welcome in Summerland.”

“But I don’t wanna! Fluffy Stuff and Big Bear don’t have to move! Why do we?”


“And Daddy, not to be forgetting Daddy, Sweetness.”

Alexi, her Alexi. Her beautiful, proud Alexi.

“And Daddy,” Caprice leaned into her stallion, burying her head in his mane, “has to leave. That means you do too, love.”

“If you’re leaving, so am I!” Pumpkin said, trotting smartly up to the peach pony. A disappointed Blueberry followed her.

Strawberry skittered around Caprice’s hooves, bleating. She could talk, she’d been talking for a while, but today... today she felt sad, shocked, worried. Mommy wasn’t... wasn’t being Mommy like she should.

“There there, Strawberry. We’ll be alright.” Caprice bent down and licked her foal, her so very loved, so very special foal.

“We’ll all be alright. all of us. Together.” Pumpkin nuzzled Caprice, whose face lit up with the tiniest of smiles. Alexi curved a wing over his peach princess.

Caprice burst into tears again. She’d been doing that a lot, lately, ever since she’d been Venice one last time. She’d... she’d thought it was what everypony had wanted. There’d been cheers, hoof-stomps, celebrations, but then... no, Caprice, we don’t have any more pie. No, Caprice, we don’t have any fruit to spare. No, Caprice, I can’t watch Strawberry today. No, Caprice, Biscuit is sick and can’t play with Buttermilk.

Hopeful road now led somewhere, she realized, her heart heavy. This fact hadn’t brought joy, instead it had brought nothing but sadness.

Hopeful Road, she realized, led away.

Caprice’s eyes filled with tears as she took one last look back at the village. Her village, their village. Summerland. Lost in the wilderness of the Exponential Lands, they’d braved drought, they’d faced starvation. They’d made it rain like the ancient gods of old... and finally, they’d been found, rescued... and promised an easy life. The poison chalice, even here in Equestria.

Caprice hadn’t stood for it. No, Caprice had fixed everything with the help of her old self, Venice. She’d stared down a goddess, taunted a princess and had got her way, like so many times before... and Summerland, Only Mountain, The Galloping Gardens, even the forest, the cloud castle and the racetrack, had been moved, just like that, a distance so great she could barely imagine it - and all in a heartbeat. She hadn’t even noticed. Nopony had, at first.

Everypony in the village had been famous, of course, and for a time it was good. The stories started soon after however - the stupid newfoals had thought themselves lost in the Exponential Lands and instead had just been a few furlongs out of Salt Lick City.

Silly newfoals, foolish newfoals.

Caprice hadn’t cared. Nopony had cared, at first, but then the realities had hit home. They didn’t have money, they didn’t have resources. All they had was a fantastic tale that nopony would believe and a hill with pretentions.

The only other thing they had was somepony to blame.


The only thing Caprice had... was Alexi. And Pumpkin. And Strawberry, and Buttermilk.

Caprice lifted her head high, squared her shoulders and flicked her tail. She kicked her back hooves one after like she was cleaning them from an accident in the little mares’ room. Caprice would leave and never return, and she would take her family with her.

For the second time in her life, she left everything behind. Well no, not quite everything. This time she had everything she needed.

“Kyllä tämä tästä.” Alexi whispered.

“Is this all the great Alexi has to say for himself?” teased Caprice.

“Ah, my peach princess, such words as Alexi Venäläinen would say are not suitable for such sweet ears as yours.”

“Try me!”

Alexi had rolled his eyes, spread his wings, puffing himself up to be as big as possible. “Te saatte kaikki haista paska! Saatanan kusipäät!

“And what did my big strong husband say to Summerland?”

“Alexi was, ah, wishing them well.” The pegasus seemed rather reluctant to explain the precise meaning, but Caprice wasn’t about to argue, for once.

“Then Caprice wishes they would haista paska as well.”

The family, the herd, set off trotting with nothing but what they carried.

As Summerland disappeared into the haze behind them, Caprice felt the sun on her back. She soon found herself in the wilds again. This part of the Exponential Lands was no longer the desert it had become just after its amazing creation as pristine wilderness from the dead husk of Earth. With the resurgence of ponykind, most of them newfoals, it had blossomed. From desert to paradise, to desert... to paradise again. Maybe there was a lesson there, she reasoned.
She let her mind wander, as her family, her herd, moved. When they called a halt, instinctively she bent her head and cropped the sweet grass.

Tears fell, again, but this time at something she’d forgotten. Summerland village had grown self-sufficient during it’s brief exile, and the need for such things had ended. Now, out of necessity, Caprice re-learned the simple truth. She had forgotten just how wonderful it was to just taste the grass.

* * * * *

Amber Nova walked out of Canterlot Castle, alone, nothing but two almost-empty saddlebags on her back. All marks of her station were left behind in that stuffy dungeon better known as the Sacred Guildhouse of the Royal Unicorn Corps. Those dundering blockheads known as the Royal Unicorn Corps would breathe a collective sigh of relief at her sudden holiday and disappearance. Likely they would share round the faint hope that she had left for good, so somepony a little bit less like Comet Tail the Insufferable could take over, and they could all get back to the quiet life they’d been enjoying before those blasted newfoals turned everything upside down.

Amber laughed to herself, and broke into a trot, then a canter, and finally a gallop. As she moved, she weaved a spell. This spell was rather important to her, and she mentally made a note to practice it more often. It was her spell, she had created it, it had given her her name. Its creation was what led to her getting accepted to Celestia’s prestigious School for Gifted Unicorns, and its perfection was what led to her almost meteoric rise to power.

Her horn burst into light, sparks spun from her hooves, and she began to really move. She moved without moving, her body slipping the mere bonds of space and time to jump kilometers at a time, bending the very fabric of reality around her to cross vast distances in moments. Very few unicorns could manage her spell for long, none could keep pace with her - save the princesses, but they didn’t seem to need to. Most unicorns had never given the idea any thought - if they wanted to go anywhere, they would teleport. Amber Nova was different. Amber Nova was a newfoal.

Amber Nova had another name, one she was returning to.

One her mother had given her, many years before.

Amber Nova, Great One of the Royal Corps, was better known to a very select few as Buttermilk.

Buttermilk was going home.

* * * * *

The house was small, modest, unassuming. Few knew that the pony who had lived here was a newfoal, let alone a newfoal who had had the temerity to face down a god. Amber idly wondered if her fate had been a curse or a blessing. As she nosed her way inside, she caught the faint whiff of decay and death. It caused her ears to flick back against her skull and she silently admonished herself for it.

“Madame, as first of kin, we alerted you. You... were not easy to find.”

“My mother and I did not always see eye to eye, she preferred to keep herself to herself.”

“According to your wishes, we have preserved her body, and-”

“Thank you, that will be all.”


“I said thank you, that will be all.

The constable pony bowed his head, nervously. This strange yellow pony with the burning yellow eyes quite turned his water. He skittered out of the house and excused himself on some makeshift errand. Amber watched him from the window and laughed. Then she turned to the old mare on the bed.

Once this mare had been peach-coloured, she had smelled of love and milk. Now, she was gone.

Amber bent her head reverently, and gave her mother one final kiss. “I’m sorry, Mama, please forgive me.”

* * * * *

“You never let me do anything I want! We always have to move! Don’t talk to the boys! Don’t stay out late! Don’t this, don’t that!”

“But Butter-”

Clop off, Mom!”

Caprice had bit her tongue, shaken. She remembered her father, long, long ago in another life. She remembered, however briefly, her mother. Venice had been alone, even when surrounded by adoring suitors. Caprice on the other hoof had very few members of her herd, and she needed every single one of them. Now, one of them was seemingly leaving.

Please, Buttermilk.”

“That’s not my name.”

Caprice had turned away so her daughter wouldn’t see her tears, “Then... what is?”

“I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I know. Goodbye, Mom.”


“I love you, Mom, but... I have to go.”

And just like that, she’d left. The stipend and scholarship in her bags, she’d left.

Oh, she’d made contact with her mother again, but briefly and infrequently. Then, slowly, not at all. Now, it was too late. Her father, Alexi Venäläinen, had consoled her mother at the loss of their eldest daughter. Eventually he too had passed on.

She’d shown up for the funeral, of course, and she’d done something she hadn’t understood until now. There were two jars in her saddlebags. One was empty, the other held nothing but ashes. She’d stolen the body of her father out from under the noses of everypony and had secreted his remains away. She hadn’t understood it. She’d loved her father, she’d loved her mother. She hadn’t been able to stand them, but she’d loved them.

“Mother,” she whispered, “I brought Father to see you. You’re going to be together again, forever.”

The mage-fire burned hot, far hotter than any fuelless fire had any right to burn. To some the scene would be grizzly, the stench unbearable. Amber Nova watched dispassionately as the body of her mother burned in the white-hot flames. It didn’t take long, and she didn’t flinch, not for a moment, as she held the body aloft. It was effortless for her to keep the fire going as she rendered the mortal remains of one of the ponies most dear to her to nothing but white ash.

Eventually the flames died out, the floating ball cooled, and Amber funnelled the ashes into the urn. Wordlessly, she sealed the top and placed the urn in her saddlebags.

Mother would go home where she belonged, and if those ridiculous ingrates in Summerland dared whisper so much as a smidgeon of disapproval she would turn them all to sheep and set the dogs on them. She’d buy dogs, train them specially and then set them on the sheep.

Amber Nova traversed Equestria in a blaze of light, sliding through some nether-corridor that so very few ponies understood. Within a few minutes she had crossed half a continent, and came to rest in the middle of a desert, just outside Salt Lick City.

There was a road. One road. The only road, still. Now, however and to her great surprise, this one lonely road was almost a megahighway of the sort she had learned had existed in Old Earth before it had been gobbled up like some gobstopper. She was an expert with her magic, and there was a distinct lack of explosions and screams from her sudden arrival - it was, after all, a rather dangerous spell to the uninitiated - but she could hardly have been more shocked.

“You stupid old mare,” she whispered to herself, “did you really think nothing would change in a hundred years?”

The village was a village no longer. Neither was it a town, it was practically a city. Amber stared up at the raceway, thronging with pegasi, unicorns and earth ponies alike. Cloud walking spells and smoke-powered elevators, all the crazy hallmarks of newfoals that other places, even places such as Manehatten and especially stuffy metropoli such as Canterlot, lacked.

Presently, she heard music, and had to jostle to pass through the growing crowds. Eventually she was stopped by a large red ribbon, set between two bollards.

No, she realised, it was a huge long makeshift fence. The main street lay beyond, and this was where the music was coming from. A marching band, some hundred strong, meticulously in time, paraded down Main Street to rapturous applause and an almost constant rain of confetti.

“Excuse me,” asked Amber of a passing pony, “I’m trying to get to Alexi’s Hill... what is all this?”

“Alexi’s Hill? No chance, miss, though you can hear the address from almost anywhere.”

“Address? Why... why can’t I get to Alexi’s Hill?”

“The ceremony - don’t you know about it? I thought everypony knew about the ceremony. It’s Capricious Day, don’t you know? What on Equestria are you here for if it’s not to celebrate Capricious Day?”

The pony moved off, ostensibly to get a better look. Amber, not to be denied, followed. She soon found herself heading in a general wave towards a hill in the distance.

That has to be it, she thought to herself, but what is all this... bedlam?

“My good sir, either you inform me what this... Capricious Day is, or I shall forcibly remove your hooves and stuff them in your ears.”

“It’s Founders Day, when we celebrate the founders of Summerland City, Summerland County. Look, listen, Mayor Mare’ll be along in a tick... there she is! Mayor Droplet the Third. Woohoo! Mayor! Go Mayor! I voted for you!” the un-named pony shouted, waving a hoof and stomping.

“That’s it! Founders Day or not, I have had enough!”

Amber Nova ducked under the ridiculous red ribbon and stormed past the carriage being pulled by four earth ponies. With her tail held high, she cantered up Main Street, through the band, who broke left and right, their melody falling away into squeaks and wild trumpets, and up to Alexi’s Hill.

She had been expecting to see nothing.

When she’d left, not that she really remembered, the hill had been nothing but a hill. Her family had stood their lonely, symbolic vigil on that hill, so very long ago. From it, Alexi and Caprice had pulled their little fledgling community together, before they had been so cruelly cast out.

Now though, now the hill was not just a hill. Upon it were two things.

One was a wall of black basalt with golden chicken-scratch Equestrian names on it, one hundred and fifty two of them, if her count was correct.

The other was a statue, or rather a monument - a collection of statues.

Amber fell on her rump, just as the cantering constable ponies surrounded her.

“Ello ello, what’s all this then?”

“Constables, my good sirs, I can handle this. Madame, please, are you quite alright?”

“What... what is all this?”

“That? That’s the wall. This side has on it every pony who lived in Summerland, during the five year exile, every pony, so that we do not forget. The other side... has the name of every victim of Windfeather’s plot. Once a year, my dear, we gather here and read their names.”

“And... what,” Amber’s voice faltered, “what is that?”

Mayor Droplet the Third cleared her voice, and activated the amplification spell, “That is the monument to our greatest folly, our greatest shame. That is the monument to the five, to Caprice, Alexi, Pumpkin, Buttermilk and Strawberry.”

“Shame? Shame? How dare you...” Amber’s voice was ice cold.

Mayor Droplet took a step back, “I don’t... I don’t think you understand. This is a monument to our founders, to honour their name. We tell the story every year, lest we forget. When this town was founded, one hundred and twenty five years ago, it was lost in the Exponential Lands. Five years they were out there, living off grass, fighting to build a community, braving the elements. They were newfoals, stranded by sedition and treason, left to die. Against all odds, they survived. They thrived, as true Equestrians would, better even! After the five long years of isolation, they were found.”

Amber spoke up, interrupting, “The princesses appeared on that day, to oversee the transferral. We were to be moved.”


“They had decided, we were going to get a new home, and all we had to do was pay the price. Thirty pieces of silver, my mother called it. I don’t know what she meant.”

“Your mother?”

“Caprice. I remember, though I didn’t understand. She rolled around in the grass, pointing up at the sky, at all the buildings. They were such pretty colours. We lived in tents, you know, at first. Just one tent, to start with.” Amber started to cry, “We figured out how to make rocks, where to get salt from, how to make it rain. We grew our own food, made a forest... and they were going to take everything away from us. Everything we’d built. Mother couldn’t let that happen. She taunted the princess, and for her crimes, the whole village was moved, just like that. I know how she did it now, the princess. I’m one of the few who do. I could never do it, not on that scale...”

“You..?” Mayor Droplet was all but speechless.

“Do you know what they did to my mother, my family, to me? They kicked us out.”

“...Who are you?” asked Mayor Droplet, in a strained voice.

Amber walked up to the monument, to a small unicorn foal. The monument was some metal, dark with age, but the likeness was surprisingly accurate.

“My mother was Caprice, my father was Alexi. My name is Buttermilk. I have come to bring my mother and father home.” Amber floated the two urns out of her saddlebags, where they were taken by the astonished mayor.

The crowd grew silent. At the front of the throng were a whole host of ponies of all shapes, sizes and colours. As one, they stepped towards the butter-yellow unicorn, looked into her eyes, and bowed.

Mayor Droplet the Third, with tears in her eyes, spoke first, “My grandmother realised her error a long time ago, but it was too late, we could never find Caprice or her family to apologize. We always hoped we’d get the chance to... to say sorry, to beg her forgiveness. We’d let the same base pettiness we’d thought better left behind us overcome our better judgement. Caprice took away our ‘easy life’ when she arranged to have Summerland moved, but she gave us so much more. She gave us our dignity, our pride, and our home. In her honour we named her birthday as Founders Day, as Capricious Day.”

Mayor Droplet turned to the crowd, “She gave us Summerland!”

The crowd roared, and Amber Nova wept.

The Lost In The Herd Series:
One: The Big Respawn,
Two: Euphrosyne Unchained,
Three: Letters From Home,
Four: Teacup, Down On The Farm

The Conversion Bureau Novels:
27 Ounces: A story of eight and one half ponies
The Taste Of Grass
The Conversion Bureau: Code Majeste
The Conversion Bureau: The 800 Year Promise
The Conversion Bureau: Going Pony

The Novellas:
The PER: Michelson and Morely
The Reasonably Adamant Down With Celestia Newfoal Society!

The Short Stories:
Her Last Possession
The Conversion Bureau: PER Equitum
The Conversion Bureau: Brand New Universe
Tales Of Los Pegasus

The Non-Conversion Bureau Fanfics:
The Ice Cream Pony Summer
Around The Bend

Guest Alternate Chapter Ten (By PeachClover)

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Special Guest Alternate Chapter Ten by PeachClover

Δ Ten: Their Last Wishes
The following is an alternative chapter ten to The Taste of Grass which completely omits chapter thirty.

Windfeather was nervous. When the guard pointed through the back doors of the palace toward the garden with the statues he began to sweat diamonds, but when the guard said the princesses were waiting for him behind the garden maze the hope that keeps all creatures from believing it could be that bad kept him from believing it was... well, that bad.

As Windfeather walked out into the garden his path was subconsciously and expertly calculated to keep him just far enough away from the statues that adorned the entrance to the maze as he could without going out of the way for a direct path to the edge of the maze. The whispers were that those statues were not statues at all, but once living ponies that were turned to stone for some great atrocity. The fact that the legend of absolute chaos, Discord, had been confirmed to have burst forth from a statue of his likeness in this garden had made those tales greatly more disturbing than they would have been otherwise.

Not that he had committed any atrocity, but being called to meet with the Princesses in the place that held these statues after taking an administrative action such that he had was unsettling. Maybe she wanted him to be unsettled. That's what she wanted, and he wasn't going to give in so easily just on a matter of foalish fear. He stopped a moment and took a few breaths willing away the parasprites in his stomach before continuing his trot.

Windfeather was nervous, that is, he was nervous until they came into view. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna sat gracefully and disarmingly at a small table with one extra seat for him. Celestia was in the middle of a sip as she casually looked up to see him.

“Please have a seat, Windfeather.” Celestia's words showed no anger, no disdain at all. That actually shocked Windfeather as he caught himself and made sure to bow respectfully which caused his glasses to slide down his nose. Moving a bit automatically he had already taken his seat at the third chair that was pulled out and waiting for him before he could manage to slide his glasses back into place.

Celestia's horn glowed as she lifted the teapot and filled Windfeather's cup. “As I'm sure you are aware, I have called you here because two thousand of my new little ponies are missing. This was discovered upon an inquiry for the unbalanced distribution of supply crates to the number of newfoals assigned to the Welcome Town where you work.”

Windfeather took a sip of his tea. Here it was; he hoped this day wouldn't come, but he had prepared for the possibility. “The newfoals are not missing your highness. They were placed in locations farther away from the borders of Equestria so as to protect our values and culture from corruption that the newfoals would bring - even if unknowingly - from their twisted evil world.” Haha! His speech was so perfectly selected there just wasn't anything that could be said in defense of those monsters. Maybe he thought, he should try becoming an ambassador.

Celestia took a sip of tea and levitated her cup back down silent for a moment before saying, “Is that really how you see it?”

Windfeather was caught off guard and stammered for a moment. He was expecting an argument, or maybe if he was lucky, for the princess to agree without further debate, but he was not expecting whatever the muffin you call her response. “W- well, yes your highness, and I acted in the best interest of all of us.”

Oh Ponyfeathers! That statement sounded weak and defensive. Maybe he was not yet ready to be an ambassador.

Celestia gave the slightest hum, a pause, sipped again at her tea, and remained silent for a while looking, for all that Windfeather could see, directly at the center of the table with the slightest hint of sadness on her muzzle. Time seemed to crawl. Despite the fact that her gestures seemed to indicate that he had won, Windfeather sat there as still as possible; any movement that he made before she did would be seen as disrespect to her and that would surely mean he would lose... As the moments crept by his careful attention to detail had Windfeather thinking that maybe he wasn't ambassador material, but perhaps he should pursue playing chess.

Celestia lifted her head and smiled softly and sadly at Windfeather. “Windfeather, I had decided before you came here that your actions were completely wrong. I wanted to hear your reasons though, but before you are punished, let me promise you that even though there are many more newfoals than there are native ponies, it is not their problems that will spread to us, but our love and kindness that will blossom in their hearts. I am sad that you were not an example of that compassion toward them.”

Punished?! Windfeather felt a rush of white fear overcome him. His body told him to run, but he couldn't move already knowing he could not get away by either running or flying; they would be ready and just catch him in their magical fields. Stoned, statued, that WAS why she brought him here. Why didn't he just have the sense to flee when he received that summons? I'm going to die, and there won't even be a grave just a gravestone that was once Windfeather. For the briefest of moments Windfeather imagined himself as a statue holding his own gravestone - funny how he could think of humor at a time like this. No, this isn't funny; this is actually happening! Oh Princess save me, but the Princess is going to turn me to stone! Luna's blessed moon Help!

At that last thought Windfeather's head jerked and stared pleadingly mouth agape in the direction of Princess Luna who just sat there sipping her tea as silent as the grave.

“Stand up, please, and come over here.” Celestia had already stood and moved a small distance from the table.

Windfeather slowly stood knees shaking and stood in position. Maybe it wouldn't hurt if he just complied.

“Stand here and lock your knees.” Celestia's horn began to glow.

“W- why?” It was all that came to his mind; none of the other statues stood with knees locked. The idea that maybe just by locking his knees he was about to receive a punishment worse than being turned to stone made the pegasus's stomach knot up.

“Because there is a good chance you will collapse after this otherwise.”

It was too good to think at this point he would not be getting turned to stone, but if the other stories were true then, as Celestia just indicated, when he was turned back into a pony he didn't want to be thought of as the most pathetic looking statue that ever stood here. Windfeather straightened up, locked his knees, closed his eyes, and summoned all his courage to try to make a decent looking statue. Maybe this last act would get him freed early.

Celestia bent her head and lightly touched her horn to his forehead. Windfeather's eyes shot open as he gasped.

* * * * *

Windfeather was a child; no not a foal, but a human child. And he was... no she was... lonely. Oh princess she was lonely! Her parents were working somewhere. They locked down the holo so that she wouldn't be tempted to use it while they were away. Something about “only barely scraping by.” Wait a minute. Windfeather understood money she was just, no he, was just unsure of why he was now a human child. That was gross... er disgusting, and... lonely. He didn't know how long it continued like that. They talked in the morning and at night after the ten hour wait of doing nothing, but Ashley and her parents, no Windfeather and his, er those parents didn't have much time together. She couldn't go outside because it was dangerous, she could only eat when they ate, and - HE was lonely and in the dark all day. The only outside world he saw was on the holo when they would watch it together.

Windfeather's fight against the vision was difficult and he lost touch of how long it had continued, but he was used to the dull and empty feelings by now.

Then it happened - the night she would never forget. Ashley saw on the holo a free and required program where some beautiful horsie spoke about taking them away, taking them away to a wonderful place. A feeling windfeather had forgotten welled in her chest. No more living in a dark and small house because it wasn't dangerous there? No more cancer, as mommy called the thing that made it hard to see out of her left eye? And they all get to be there as the horsies she saw on the screen. Windfeather cried as she hugged her parent, which ever one was sitting close to her; she kinda forgot while thinking about the impossible miracle that was their future.

Ashley and her family went to the conversion bureau as soon as they could. Neither parent bothered to quit their job, something that seemed bad, and they had to hurry that day. Ashley was the first of their family to be ponified so that her parents could help her where she didn't know how to do things as a pony. She was a yellow pegasus with a purple mane. It was so exciting to think that when she grows a little stronger and after some classes, where she gets to meet other pegasi, she'll be flying in the sky free from the cages that were called buildings, and maybe if mommy and daddy were pegasi too they could all live in the clouds.

They all left for Equestria soon after. Ashley was thinking about how nice it was to be outside. She had met many new friends from her classes at the bureau, even a colt her own age named Ponyboy, a name his parents gave him from some old book because he didn't know what to call himself and didn't like his old human name. When they crossed the barrier, the sky was amazing. It never looked like this before. The air was so fresh, and so many ponies here. She would never be lonely again!

Ashley was awoken later by something loud it was scary she was huddled into a ring with a whole crowd, and then they were somewhere else. This place was empty, and something, her parents looked worried; that made her scared. The blue pony with wings was yelling something at all of them.

"YOU ARE NOT US! YOU MAY WEAR OUR BODIES BUT INSIDE YOU ARE STILL MONSTERS!" Wait a minute, that was her, er, him! That was Windfeather yelling out his practiced speech. It sounded so.... hateful. Windfeather had never used that word before...

Everything was dead. Ashley was laying on her side under the three boxes that had been stacked to form some sort of shelter the colt beside her in the shade was dead and smelled horrible, but she was told to stay there. No, she may have been told not to move, but couldn't even if she wanted to. Her mother... no, her mother was dead, the mother of this colt told her not to move while she went to get water. She stared at the corpse for a while. Hey, that was Ponyboy. The hunger and the heat were so intense. Thoughts didn't stay with her long, maybe that was a good thing for how she felt. Things hurt inside. Why did the nice pony say they would be happy here, when everypony was dying. Just a few days ago her father stopped her crying and said it wasn't the nice pony who said they would be happy here who left them in this bad place, but the blue pony that yelled at them who did.

Ashley saw movement, it was the colt's mother, but then she fell down. Ashley knew that she had died like everypony else, and soon she herself would go. “Mr.Bluepony, why did you do this to us?” Windfeather felt the words as spoken from his own mouth as well as hers, then she died.

NO!!! Dear sweet Celestia NO!

Windfeather only had a moment to contemplate what he was feeling before he found himself as Shawn Alexander, a troubled man walking to the nearest conversion bureau after having just seen the ad on the public kiosk. Two weeks of real food and a warm bed were a most welcomed dream before the ensuing nightmarish mangling of his body that these types of delusions often brought him. This time it was called "ponification" and/or "conversion." He wondered what it was that he would really be eating and where he would really be sleeping while his mind was doing this to him, but after living with the schizophrenia nearly all his life, he just hoped that going along with it would keep a good one lasting.

* * * * *

The visions kept coming and Windfeather was each of his victims, and worse they were each of the ponies from one settlement until they had all died out before seeing those from the next. He tried to block it out, but it kept coming. If he was ever counting he was unable to remember. All of them suffered and died. Some of them were the monsters he had feared, and his parallel mind told him that they were the ones who should have suffered, and shouldn't be allowed among Equestrians... At least until they were converted that is, none of them could be that way after they were converted; even until their death there were decent to one another.

There were two things that remained constant about these lives: the tone of hate in his speech when they were abandoned and their feelings right before they died. Many of them tried to cover it with anger, but after the uncountable times it had happened, Windfeather knew that it was not hate they felt, but sadness for being deceived, for having the hope of a bright, beautiful, and seemingly perfect world in which each of them did their best to better themselves to be accepted, was shattered.

Windfeather was so frustrated and hurt; he wanted Windfeather to know what he had done to him.

* * * * *

Windfeather opened his eyes and gasped hard then half screamed half bellowed at the top of his lungs and bawled with enough force to convince anyone that he was trying to force his very soul to leave his body, and the truth of the matter is - that's exactly what he was hoping would happen. His glasses having been violently flung off of his face landed with a clink in the grass. He felt like he was going to throw up. He heaved, but no amount of air would stay inside of him without it being blasted immediately out as uncontrollable crying.

Was there ever a time before when everything felt so wrong? Windfeather remembered Discord's appearance, but Discord had done nothing so horrible on purpose that he had done accidentally.... Accidentally? Could he honestly say that? He didn't mean to... kill them did he? Windfeather wasn't sure of himself. He wanted to believe that he was not a monster, but as the thoughts and feelings of those lost newfoals flooded his memory, he bawled harder and wished he could have done something to stop himself.

Princess Celestia was right, he would have collapsed flat on his face if he hadn't have locked his knees, it also made crying a little bit easier by not having to support himself. By the time Windfeather had stopped crying and could see again, the ground was darker. The sun must be setting. A towel floated toward him. He took it with one wobbly hoof and worked his way to the ground so that he could clean his face.

“Your punishment, Windfeather,” He heard the princess speaking and knew that he deserved whatever she said and wanted it to make amends for what he had done, not that that would be happening in this life, but just as each of those lost newfoals saw beauty in this world and wanted to be beautiful for it so too had he, and only wanted to protect that beauty when he had made that horrible mistake. “is to live with the knowledge of what you have done. That is all.”

“No,” His words left him as a whimper, “Princess, I've done something unthinkable, please give me a real punishment. Please let me... walk into the Exponential Lands and die as they did.”

“I think you have died enough before the end of your natural life, and if you did that, the lesson would not sink in. In the end, what did each one of those newfoals want?”

Windfeather sniffed, the pain came again, not once had he looked up since he come to his senses, “They wanted... to know why I had done that to them, and for me... to know, feel what they were feeling.”

“And if you went and let yourself die, would that be fair to them? To try to escape what they wanted you to know as a punishment for what you did?”

Windfeather whimpered like a foal, “No.”

“Then live, Windfeather.”

“Can you... Can't you change the past with your magic?”

“No, not really.... You may go now, Windfeather.”

Windfeather wiped his eyes once more laying the towel on his chair and left somber and not once looking up. The guards wondered what happened to him as he walked slowly out of the castle and just kept walking. It was only when he had reached Ponyville and was greeted by a rather happy pink mare that he remembered that he had forgotten his glasses at the palace... That was alright, he thought, he needed a new pair as his eyes weren't the same anymore.

* * * * *

Luna comforted her sister. Tia was wrapped around her drying her own tears with the other cloth from the table. She was so upset she was using her hoof instead of her magic to hold it. Windfeather never saw that, but he left as was asked. Celestia didn't like to look directly at the memories of her ponies because it made life feel like nothing more than a daydream, but she could not give those memories to Windfeather without living them herself. Celestia asked her sister just to be here and comfort her when she did this. Soon they were walking back to the castle.

“Was it the right thing to do, sister, not turning the pegasus Windfeather to stone?”

Celestia's response was not rushed, but was given with little pause, “As Nightmare Moon, even in all your rage, you did not mean to kill anypony. It was only because I could not show you how you were effecting everypony that I had to use the elements against you. Windfeather is no powerful being, just an ignorant foal. I love all my little ponies, Luna, even him, and I meant what I said; he should learn this lesson. Harmony, should not be a delusion held only by those who have not suffered, but the knowledge that wrongs can be forgiven and life eventually returned to peace.”

Celestia stopped by a statue of three foals that seemed to be balanced one on top of the other. They were once extremely powerful three earth ponies who could fly and cast magic, breaking the understood rules of how ponies work. They were just too powerful, too young, too dangerous, and that wasn't their fault. Celestia dealt with them as she had too, and it never brought her joy. Even though it took a long time, they lived happily now. It was only their being family and born triplets that made the bizarre thing happen in the first place, and that was all that remained trapped inside of that statue. They always manage to find each other, no matter what life they have; she even remembered how, not too long ago, all three of them had walked right past this statue and didn't think anything of it.

Celestia remembered why she had this statue moved here all those years ago, and her usual smile returned to her face; all was right in the world, or no, it wasn't really, but it would be, and that was worth smiling about.