"You ever unwittingly use a magic letter to Celestia to roll a joint? Well, if you're wondering why I'm like, a girl unicorn now, that was the short version." Will this finally teach Rob not to be such an insufferable hipster?
“You know how when you're at a party, and you use what you didn't realize was a magic letter to Princess Celestia to roll a joint? I guess maybe that's not, uh, a thing, but yeah, I did that this one time. It was at that huge party Shannon and Adam had a while back. You know, Max's friends? …No, Celestia's not one of—They wouldn't know each other... But anyway, yeah, in case you were wondering why I'm all like, a girl unicorn now, that was kinda the short version.”
Meet Rob, a 27 year old musician who gets more than he bargained blah blah blah Get a front-row seat in his brain for the Long Version, as he wracks it trying to weasel out of being a pony, or at least not let anything slip by as he takes it one freaky moment at a time.
What will the other lost-weekenders think when they walk in on him passed out on their couch? Will he be able to get through the city and at least back to his apartment, if not to normal? Will he learn anything about REAL friendship along the way and stop being such an insufferable hipster? What if some blowhard fan author just couldn't “turn it off” and ended up trying to write a pony story as actual sci-fi? Will Ahuizotl get the statue? Does P=NPony? Can you grab me another beer while you're up? And did that letter ever get to Princess Celestia? ------------------------------------------------------------ Your standard pony Trip Report, with your standard pseudo-autobiographical narrator, written to flush out my creative plumbing and play around with, uh, like, good...thinkies and word-putting, and because the urge to do it just wouldn't leave me alone, so I just had to get it outta my system. I just really like the juxtaposition of humans and ponies, I guess.
Title is obviously a reference to M-Theory and Tristram Shandy, respectively. Because I can never pick just one thing.
Rated T for Adult Situations, gratuitous overthinking, and fuckloads of swearing. Oh and I guess drug use.
For Katie. May you never realize I just made you up for this dedication.
Well I could be condemned to hell for every sin but littering
-Soul Coughing, “The Idiot Kings”
+ + +
According to the microwave clock I still had an hour.
According to the wall clock above the toilet I only had about forty minutes, but with so much time before I had to leave, I decided not to get involved in their little dispute.
I gave my increasingly shaggy hair a quick blow-dry (will have to cut it again soon...), and just like every night going out I grabbed a small silver scissors from out of my medicine cabinet to raise and smooth out the bottom of my mustache—You never know who's gonna be there and what kind of turns a night might take with one or another flannel Aphrodite.
I shook any loose hairs off my face and wiped the leavings out of the sink, then popped on the gray long sleeved t-shirt and navy blue jeans I'd set out, some black socks, and a pair of square-toed Oxfords, then tried on several loosened ties I thought might work on top of it, but it was a little too much, darling and I decided to go without.
A couple squirts of Febreze around the place in case I bring people/a girl back? Check.
A couple minutes to kill before I needed to catch the subway? Spike, put a big check next to Pony Time.
As had been happening more and more for now almost a year, I'd found my thoughts drifting back to broad, colorful landscapes and the wacky adventures of their kaleidoscopic, four-legged inhabitants. For reasons still unknown to me, whenever I decided to watch something, the popular cartoon Friendship is Magic was day by day making its way to the head of the queue. I'd known about its cult status and supposed quality ever since a long-time friend pointed out to me the show's existence, and for a while I assumed it was simply some kind of internet 'secret handshake,' though I avoided actually taking a look out of the simple—and prescient—fear that I'd like it.
But except for dropping or remixing the occasional fan song, I kept myself aloof from its online Republic of Letters, wanting to remain blissfully ignorant of haters or anything else that might spook my internal press secretary: Not that I'd ever denied having seen or even being entertained by it, but “Fan” was just no longer a part of who I was when I got up to my business out there in the world. It wasn't how I saw myself and it wasn't how I wanted to be seen. Maybe I was a bit of a “Gilda” that way, and maybe that's why it had all gotten so thoroughly under my skin.
I plopped down in my taped-up rolly chair, opening iTunes and grabbing the cheap ukulele leaning against my printer, a delightful find that a buddy had abandoned here one night. I picked out “Episode Zero,” one I hadn't seen in a while, and started plinking out a little rhythm to accentuate Twilight Sparkle's descent into madness.
Those checklists'll getcha, dude!
Building into some full-blown finger picking getaway music for the riot over Smarty Pants (hard with a uke), I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed seeing the whole premise of the show deconstructed and rebuilt, as Twilight learns to just be natural and follow whatever inspires her, instead of sticking to a set formula. And how the scope was opened up by allowing the rest of the cast in on the personal growth—Surely it was only a matter of time before everypony from Big Mac to Derpy got to say their piece to the Princess.
Everypony. I'd caught myself randomly thinking that word while on the town more than once.
Urrypony in the club gettin' tipsy!
Hearing those cute ponyisms in lyrics on the store playlist of the place where I'd bought this very shirt was actually what got me to check out the show in the first place, but a part of me worried I'd let one slip myself at some point and the Totally-Not-A-Brony-Dude jig would be up. The last thing I needed was my friends to find out I didn't want to go see their band for the twentieth time because I was deliberating over whether or not to add hand claps to the breakdown for my own kickass track about Rainbow Dash.
But the party that night, I was genuinely excited about. I'd never met the hosts, but they were friends of one of the most interesting people I knew, and they'd apparently been planning it for quite a while, inviting people from all over the city's various creative scenes, as well as enough friends and friends-of-friends from out of town that, after a hangover-killing greasy breakfast, it was supposed to start all over again the next day to make it fully worth the trip. I didn't know who else was going, and likely it was going to be an ocean of new faces, but after that whole world had finally “clicked” in college, and the subsequent years of carousing with strangers, I had nothing but confidence in my superficial, one-night charm, and felt certain I'd have them eating out of my hand before midnight. Especially after I'd discovered that indoor smoking bans had created vulnerable little circles of people huddling around outside, I'd proven I could make friends with just about anybody for a night.
Dear Princess Celestia, I'd write, sometimes Friendship is waiting right outside with a pack of American Spirit Yellows. All they needed was a light and a funny story and for somepony to listen to them complain about waiting tables.
Your Faithful Student,
Rob “Not a Pony Name” LeCroix
Suddenly I heard what sounded like my stove belching. The old gas contraption certainly had its quirks (along with the building, and the neighborhood), and after moving in I'd bothered the landlord with many calls about why it wasn't properly stove-ing, but it generally refrained from making any sound suggesting I was about to get exploded. After a second's hesitation I got up and walked back to the kitchenette, but the stout off-white cube was inert and there was none of the sulfurous miasma of a gas leak. I chalked it up to old pipes, or any of the other myriad things that made this apartment so cheap, as the microwave clock nearby told it me was about time to leave. Should I pop on a little moisturizer on that face, maybe? Snort a bump? Nah. We were solid.
I opened the barren fridge and grabbed the fourpack of Colt 45 I'd picked up as my offering to the party (I sure as shit wasn't carrying that open case of Pabst, and who'd want that head of broccoli?), as well as a mason jar containing a couple dime bags from the cupboard above, stuffing them into the ancient camo shoulder bag hanging by the door, trying not to crush the notebooks and other paper detritus within. Immediately the condensation on the cans evaporated and I glimpsed the tiny wisps of steam corkscrewing their way into invisibility.
I hoisted the bag, opened the door, and turned out the light.
+ + +
The party was only a short walk from the Red Line stop, and though on the way I passed a half dozen other townhouses emanating the muffled rumble of bass and the occasional penetrating high note of a conversation, it proved easy to find, and—I felt a tiny wave of pride to notice—it was the loudest. I hopped up onto the porch and slipped inside, scanning the riotous, busily-furnished living room for familiar faces but as expected I recognized no one. Ignoring the snack table and projector showing the Talking Heads' “Stop Making Sense” barely audible over the thumping party mix, I ambled into the kitchen, exchanging nods with the strangers relaxing against the wall while I took out the fourpack of malt liquor to place it on the counter. Not finding any other options in my line of sight, I casually pulled a can off for myself.
My connection to the party strode into the brightly lit room. “Max!” I called out, and raised my can to him when he turned. I thanked him for the invitation, he grabbed his own can, and then we chatted for a while. Before long I remarked how taken I was with his t-shirt, an apparently custom job entirely covered by an extreme close-up photo of pretzel sticks—An expressive look, certainly, as well as complementing his lanky frame and enormous black Jew-fro.
A small brown-haired woman with green plastic framed glasses entered the kitchen soon afterward, and Max greeted her before introducing her as one of the hosts of the party.
“Hi, I'm Rob.” I straightened up away from the counter I'd been leaning against and shook her hand.
“Shannon. Nice to meet you! ...So how do you know Max?” She gestured to the cans I'd brought and took one when I nodded an OK at them.
“Oh, ya know, music and film shit around town. I wrote a—Hey, this place is great, by the way. Really love the projector in the living room.”
“Thanks! It was actually my roommate's idea.”
“Cool, it's a nice touch.” I activated a smile and nodded casually. “But yeah, I wrote a song and played guitar in this commercial he produced—What was it for, Max? 'There's never any time / But you might make it if you hurry...?” I remembered it just fine but wanted him to associate being around me with feeling on-the-ball.
“Yeah, it was the insurance one, out by the pier. With the little dog?”
“Ohhh right! Remember, we were having that perfect take and then it just peed all over the singer's dress?” I grinned sardonically. “I still maintain we should've used that one, since it was for insurance after all—Just end the spot right there with us all breaking down, all like, 'anything can happen, buy our shit.'”
Shannon chimed in. “Client probably didn't go for that, huh?”
I laughed, “They never do ...But yeah, I felt pretty bad for her...What was her name? We actually hung out a couple times after I ran into her again at the Rooster Room, but I'm blanking on it right now.” This time I honestly didn't remember.
“Erica, wasn't it? I invited her but I don't think she's here,” Max supplied.
“Thaaaat's right... Aw, too bad, though, she was actually pretty cool.” I turned back to the host. “So Shannon, how about you? What brings you and Max, uh, under the same roof tonight?”
“We did film together in college.” She turned to him, “I still love that fake documentary you made about viral videos.”
“Oh noooo, that thing? I'm never gonna get away from that...” Max made a theatrical show of drowning his sorrows. “Hey, that reminds me—Rob, I wanted to talk to you and Troy again about working on that script. What're you doing next Thursday?”
“I dunno, probably that.”
As we went on, I shifted into autopilot, nodding appreciatively or riffing back and forth off small incongruous things one or the other said.
We continued in this vein for twenty minutes or so, until I became bored and excused myself to check out what I discovered to be the back deck, grabbing the final can on the way. A scuffed silver keg was sitting in a blue tub of ice in the far corner, right above an alley, with a half dozen people crowded around it pumping or pouring, and another half dozen evenly spaced along the railing and wall, cigarettes in various stages of depletion. I asked a girl for a cigarette and introduced myself, popping it in my mouth and enunciating around it to ask her name as she passed me the lighter. I wasn't especially interested in flirting with her—Never much cared for the blonde & wholesome look—But she seemed friendly and intelligent, and I figured making her laugh and meeting her friends would be a fun way to run this particular lap of the party. I lifted the shoulder bag strap over my head, careful not to disturb the cigarette, and set the bag down under the eroded wooden bench along the outside wall of the house.
The girl's name was Stephanie (there is always a Stephanie) though despite the everydayness of her name she was sharp and had interesting stories, from camping misadventures while on mushrooms, to once teaching English in Mexico City, to doing guerrilla theater in Austin. I also met her friends Douglass and Ben, who matched her in their easygoing Midwestern guilelessness. The three of them had come down from Michigan to stay overnight with the hosts and hopefully make connections here at this party, and had their bags stashed somewhere upstairs in the bedrooms. I exchanged business cards with Ben (his was some kind of web design... thing) and nodded politely at their ideas for creative projects before launching into my own proposals that were obviously 20%, if not exactly cooler, at least that much more of a commentary on the current Scene...You Know?
By this point I'd finished both my cigarette and Colt 45, so grabbed a red Dixie cup from the stack on the bench and poured myself a nostalgically cheap-tasting and foamy draft of what might have been Old Style or Milwaukee's Best. Having now checked 'keg' off my party itinerary, I was finished with the deck and its entertainments, so excusing myself and pointing to the bag under the bench with a jovial “Hey, watch my shit, will ya?” I strolled back inside to check out that snack table.
Pretzel sticks were on offer, naturally enough, as well as several containers of homemade hummus and some other things I couldn't identify. I've always been a picky eater, to my eternal embarrassment, and stoically masticated some cold, bitter, olive-colored paste I'd put on a chip to humor Shannon, who was deservedly proud of the creative spread she'd assembled. My good food deed for the night accomplished, however, I returned to the safety of the pretzel sticks and tiny, toothpick-speared cheese cubes, which I found made a fantastic accessory for conversational gestures, especially since they could be consumed as a final punctuation.
Check & Mate, sir. NOM.
I milled around in the living room, joked with Max again, and met the other host and resident whom Shannon had mentioned—he of the projector—Adam, a stocky, soft-spoken IT guy with a permanent smirk I recognized from my own face, and a surprisingly beguiling way of getting more and more excited and enthusiastic as conversations went on. He'd been hanging out upstairs, where he and Shannon actually lived (so naturally quasi-off-limits for the night) and before long he excused himself to return there due to an early engagement the next day.
I plopped down on one of the living room couches and looked up at the projector, now showing an old Guns & Roses arena concert, reflecting a glow onto a cluster of people in one corner singing along to “Sweet Child of Mine.” I relaxed for a while and sipped my beer, making eye contact with the little karaoke circle and joining them with an appropriately taut falsetto upon our mutual smile-and-nods, but there wasn't much left in my cup and I was staring at its plastic bottom long before I was satisfied.
Standing up to revisit the keg, my foot bumped against something bulky and hard. Looking down, I saw the old familiar olive bag I was sure I'd left under the bench outside, but quickly concluded I must have absentmindedly put it back on and carried it back inside. I didn't fully believe that, but as a small child I'd gotten in trouble for daydreaming and losing things so many times that my own fix on the location of my possessions was always the first suspect.
With a dismissive shrug, I picked up the bag and began another round of mingling. Snack table. Bathroom line. Keg. Kitchen. “Sure, I'll do a shot.” Living room. “'Sarah?' Hi, I'm Rob. Nice to meet you, dig the shirt, the whole flannel thing is great.” Bathroom line. “Crank it, I love this song!” Drop that bag for impromptu dance circle by the snack table. Pick it up and hit the living room to confirm an outlandish story. Kitchen for telling my own. Bathroom line. Deck for a cigarette.
It was now 1AM-ish and the party had been packed and in full swing for quite some time now. I ran into Stephanie again on the deck and she told me Max (“this pretzel guy”) had been looking for me to ask if I wanted to smoke a bowl with him and some other dudes I kinda-sorta knew, or who at least apparently knew me, but unfortunately that ship had already sailed, and more importantly, going to look for them now would be boring.
I was in luck, however, having brought the dime bags, and now I could be the sweet chariot to swing low and provide, as Steph and her two friends asked to join in as soon as I mentioned the option. No one had a pipe, but I was sure in the bag I had some rolling papers, or we could at least find someone who was part of the roll-your-own-cigarettes fad. I dug through the bag, pulling out wads of convenience store receipts, notebooks of various sizes, guitar picks, a tuner, pens, erasers (but no pencils), assembly instructions for a media center no one I knew could possibly afford, a Hmong-language hospital waiting room pamphlet for expectant mothers, and then I pulled out a roll of delicate golden paper, tied with a green silk ribbon. The sight of it was arresting and we all paused for a moment to look at it.
“Heh, what's that thing?” Douglass smirked and leaned forward to examine the scroll.
“I dunno... I've never seen half the crap I find in here.”
“Well you should stop leaving it places,” Stephanie quipped.
“Apparently I didn't. I guess I took it back inside with me...?” I started undoing the ribbon so I could see if there was anything written on the inside of the paper.
“Yeah, probably. I dunno, though: It's not like anyone ever actually watches someone's shit when they're asked to, right?” Ben jumped in. I chuckled and nodded.
Finally unrolling the paper, we could see it had some markings on it, but they looked more like squiggly pen tests than preservation-worthy writing. I'd been worried about ruining it if it were some kind of document, but this was clearly just some nice paper I'd bought for a project I'd eventually lost interest in, and it was matte-surfaced and apparently not dyed or treated, so I figured it'd be safer to burn than any of the other materials. And, most vital of all for something like this, it had panache.
I took out my keys and used the tiny scissors on the Swiss army knife keychain to cut a strip of the thin, scintillating paper all along one edge. It was surprisingly difficult to cut, and I began to wonder if it wouldn't burn funny after all, remembering a disappointing experiment at a friend's wedding with the seemingly ideal blank final page of a hotel bible. I tied up the “scroll” with its ribbon again and returned it to be bag, along with the other ephemera it had expelled.
Except for the mason jar, that is, from which I removed a baggie and crumbled some of the purple and green fluff inside into a nice thick line. The paper rolled around it easily enough, and I licked the edge to seal it, before holding it up with a flourish honed by an evening of cheese cubes, and placing it in my mouth.
I began inhaling softly in preparation, but as soon as I touched the lighter flame to the end of the joint I was nearly blinded by a brilliant green flash, and felt a hot rush of air painfully burn my lips. I gasped in surprise and inhaled a massive gust of smoke, then began coughing fitfully as my vision faded to white and my hearing became distant and muffled. For a fraction of a second I thought I heard a familiar, cheerful voice but I couldn't make out the words, and the next thing I knew someone was hitting me on the back and asking if I was alright. I hacked a few more times before I could speak again, then rubbed my burned lips before asking what happened.
“I dunno!” Douglass squawked and adjusted his glasses, “You lit it and it, like, blew up! Like I dunno, like you're Yosemite Sam with a cigar after you pissed off Bugs Bunny.”
Ben joined in with a deadpan “Yeah. Just this big green explosion and puff of smoke. It must have been...fireworks paper or something.”
“Yeah, that's exactly what it looked like!” Stephanie offered, “One of those chemicals they burn in those. 'Magnesium-whatever-ate' and like...Jiminy-oxides. You're lucky you didn't burn your fucking face off!”
“Yeah...” I couldn't think of anything good to say. “My lips hurt.”
“Why did you have that shit, anyway?” Ben grimaced. “The crazy-paper.”
“...I'unno. Life is mys'rious,” I said with a practiced nonchalant slur, simultaneously trying to stifle a hiccup. Seriously addressing the issue of the mystery paper right then and there sounded tedious and I wanted to change the subject.
“The whole thing's just gone, though—You figure there'd be ash or, or SOMETHING left...” Douglass shrugged and glared at where he expected to find debris, as if he could shame it into appearing. Several other people on the deck had been looking our way, but they went back to their conversations and didn't come to investigate.
“I think it all went in my lungs...?” I croaked, making my voice squeak in theatrical helplessness on the last word. “I'm gonna go get a glass of water...!” I continued in a pained falsetto.
“Are you gonna be OK?” Douglass and Stephanie said almost in unison.
“Yeah. It's good, y'know, just gonna be all... y'know,” I croaked again, giving a casual two finger salute/wave to the group before turning around to walk back inside. I felt dizzy and somewhat faint—Not stoned but definitely fucked up, and hoped I managed to hide it on my way to the kitchen and the promised relief of its faucet.
You're done, dude. I dunno what was in that, but pop them highway goggles on 'cuz we're going for a riiiiiide, buddy! I call sidecar!
We definitely are...and it's all yours...
My head throbbed as I fumbled through the cupboards for a glass, picking the largest I could fi—No, that has gross plastic palm trees on it—second largest I could find, then filling it to the brim, quickly taking a big sip off the top to minimize spillage. I shuffled to the living room, where I saw a few people already passed out on a couch or in easy chairs, and a couple making out behind an upright speaker, but just intending to drink my water and then go home, I sat down at one end of a couch and momentarily closed my eyes.
OK, I was feeling... pretty heavy. Maybe I'd take a little Disco Nap. “Please let me not have to barf later,” I mumbled, bringing the glass up to chin level. I took maybe four more sips before losing consciousness.
+ + +
My next moment of awareness was an out-of-body dream about a deep purple void, with what could have been stars strewn in ghostly filaments throughout, and a chorus of almost exclusively female voices talking over each other in a language I didn't understand. It was staccato and a little sing-song, and punctuated by the whinnying of a herd of invisible horses. Gradually I became aware of small rectangular objects flitting in front of my vision, almost too fast to perceive, but the rhythm of their passing seemed to match the rising and falling in volume of specific voices in the incomprehensible chorus.
Suddenly I felt my non-existent stomach do a flip, and it was as if the voices turned inside out like a wireframe Necker Cube in a book of optical illusions—I couldn't detect anything different about the sounds, but they were suddenly comprehensible, mapped onto meanings I wasn't aware they had. Even the intermittent neighing seemed to take on a cast of significance, like the tongue clicks of Khoisan tribes, but their strangeness was buried under the realization of what I was hearing.
I chuckled in recognition. Thousands of voices were talking over each other in time with the objects zipping through my field of vision, blending into a roar broken only by nearer, louder layers of speech. Gradually I became aware of an image, or an impression, accompanying each one, and time seemed to dilate so I could process each in turn. Slowed down, I could see the objects were bound scrolls resembling the one I'd found in my bag. “Of course,” I thought with dreamy detachment, “I knew that paper thingy reminded me of something...That's probably why I bought it in the first place...”
Faces, or impressions of faces, accompanied each whizzing scroll, elongated and strange and indistinct, and swathed in a riot of bright, saturated colors. They reminded me of nothing so much as Ponies, and I smiled, recalling that the charming creatures had never actually appeared in a dream of mine up until that moment. The impressions were too vague to fully discern their features, but it was clear what they were supposed to represent.
I came to imagine that this purple void was “Letterspace,” the timeless otherworldly corridor every scroll traversed, between when it was burned and when it rematerialized in another puff of fireworks.
Slowly, my disembodied view rotated upwards until I was staring at an immense disc. It was difficult to discern the size of it, and the details on its surface didn't suggest any kind of familiar material. It was primarily a dull gray-brown, coruscating with various subtle hues, cut by long, sharp striations and fractal-branching crags, like some surreal combination of shale, marble, and tree bark.
A mottled gray sphere was perched at the apex of a long spike that tapered down in a shallow hyperbolic curve extending smoothly out of the center of the disc, almost seeming to dangle from it like a Christmas tree ornament, or the landing strut of a looming chandelier-shaped starship from the end of an alien encounter film.
I was approaching the disc rapidly, cutting across the stream of flying letters, but they were entirely insubstantial, and I felt only a transitory pang of danger before I realized we would pass right through each other, and once more my stomach dropped as the letter contents reverted to unintelligible foreign chatter and animal braying.
My speed gradually increased, and before long the procession of scrolls became an indistinct squall streaking out from the center of my field of vision. The disc scarcely approached at all, however, and suddenly its staggering immensity became clear.
Now, I have never been to space, but from orbital photographs and gazing out the windows of airliners, I feel like I have a ballpark sense of how large a planet looks. The disc above me now was easily wider than the Earth—A colossal megastructure floating serenely in the glowing abyss, and suddenly the patches of gray on the sphere in the center clicked in my consciousness, and it resolved into a moon, stowed safely in some incomprehensible field that held it fast at the invisibly fine tip of that titanic spike.
I was going even faster now, what must have been many hundreds of miles per second, and saw that I wasn't heading towards the structure itself, but obliquely toward its edge, which I would pass within minutes. A razor-thin line of iridescence bounded the circumference of the disc, and from it I could see projected over the opposite side a faint but luminous bubble, a hemisphere of ghostly haze enclosing whatever lay on the far surface.
As I rocketed past the edge of the disc, the purple glow that suffused the space around me gave way to pure black, but I was far too taken with the sight of the disc's inhabited side to worry about being lost in a frigid vacuum.
My incorporeal view rotated back down towards it, and I saw the swirling white-on-blue of clouds and oceans, and the hazy browns and greens of continents hidden underneath, sprawling out in unrecognized patterns.
It wasn't flat at all, but sloped upwards into a vast, shallow central dome, surrounded by a complementary toroidal depression, as if a world-sized donut had been pressed into the fresh material of the landscape before it had change to dry. A thin, delicate layer of electric blue-white haze clung to the contours of the world below and conveyed its truly astronomical scale.
Suspended far above the surface, at the very boundary of the ethereal dome, was a point of almost solar brilliance, a small yellow disc that shone with a soft but indomitable light, illuminating the landscape and casting a subtle shadow on one side of the central dome, the clouds above catching the last of the light and creating a scalloped white boundary around the small patch of “dusk.”
Below me now was a true geocentric world, straight from humanity's oldest, most natural intuitions and the ravings of the few regressives who will never let them go. In keeping with the elements of the dream so far, I guessed what world this must be, and counted myself lucky that my subconscious had painted me such a vivid and beautiful image.
Looks like we got somethin' from that bone you smoked after all! Whatsername—Erica—was right, that Kevin guy sells some bomb-ass herb.
My speed began to drop off as I arced over the top of the dome, and as my view continued to rotate downward I saw the soft purple glow in which I'd originally appeared trailing from the underside of this world like the tail of a comet, splaying into numbingly intricate multicolored fractals and filigrees as it faded away into the vacuum.
Gradually, near the top of the dome, I seemed to “roll” to a halt, and felt myself catch on something immaterial with a sensation not unlike trying to force uncooperative magnets together. Something vague and green and smoke-like flitted around me, breaking apart and recombining as it traced out a sphere with my point of view in the center. I knew without a doubt that I had been under scrutiny since the beginning of the dream and presently felt a fuzzy, static-like sensation as if I were now being more thoroughly examined.
The vaporous sphere began to exchange rapid pulses of multicolored light with invisibly distant sources on the landscape below, which flashed in response with an array of waving pastel auroras, and as it did so I became aware of an image gradually forming in...no, not in front of me, exactly, but in my mind's eye, though with an immediacy that precluded its being purely imaginary.
It was blue, and roughly horizontally rectangular, though it was presented to me from so many simultaneous shifting angles it was impossible to determine any physical features beyond simple curves or corners. The object seemed to reach some point of maximum solidity, and then with a green flash I was assaulted by the smoky globe as it imploded around me.
It felt like an electric shock, and I felt my stomach drop with a surprisingly corporeal weight as I began to slide “downhill” along the opposite side of the dome.
As I picked up prodigious speed and closed on the opposite edge, I could see the full extent of the purple “comet tail” dragging below the disc. It was much more discernible now, as if it had approached out of a fog, and I could see that in the interminable distance it more closely resembled a scintillating stained glass mandala or spider web, centered on a glowing object I couldn't quite make out.
I shot past the hundred mile-thick edge of the disc in less than a second and once again found myself in the violet, milky expanse of the strange “tail.” With startling quickness, the glow inside the distant lattice came into focus as another sun, this one with a piercing, nuclear intensity that seemed to sear my very consciousness, so different from the diffuse, welcoming glow of the miniature star that illuminated the world rapidly receding above.
Slowly, in front of me inside the “tail,” a vast black circle faded into existence and blocked the scorching light of the other sun, seeming to exchange solidity with the purple glow around me and the monstrous solar net in the distance, which had now faded to spectral, almost subconscious impressions. As I approached the circle, I could discern filaments of ragged light tracing out ancient patterns of humanity inside it, and saw that I was falling directly toward a now quite visible and very familiar grid of glowing orange urbanity.
There was a violent shock and an intense green flash, and then I don't remember what happened.
Extending its roots into the sterile soil of unconsciousness from somewhere behind me—the kitchen, that's right, there are kitchens—was a conversation: two men and a woman talking about going to get breakfast. Ah, a 'morning.' Alright. I had this figured out.
A nice coating of American breakfast grease for my stomach sounded fantastic, and I thought about inviting myself along, but the pounding in my head and my thick, depleted-uranium blanket of tiredness meant any corner diner might as well have been in the Large Magellanic Cloud.
Footsteps approached the living room, and suddenly I heard a clatter accompanied by a screech of “Jesus Christ!” I winced at the noise, closing my eyes even tighter. Nothing on Earth could be surprising enough to justify that kind of volume.
“What?” I heard the woman yell from another room.
“Get in here!” the same man continued. “There's a fuckin'...!” he trailed off just as two other voices cried out in surprise.
“That's not a...?” The woman left her rhetorical question unfinished as she stopped at the doorway.
“Yep,” one of the men deadpanned.
Inside I groaned. OK, so some asshole knocked over a potted plant and left dirt everywhere, or they yodeled groceries in the corner and now mushrooms are growing out of the carpet stain, or they fell into the glass coffee table and bled out. C'est la vie. Do you all really have to give that much of a shit right now?
The same man continued, with a tone of quiet frustration. “I don't remember anybody bringing... this.” I could hear him cracking a smile of chagrin as his tone rose to an exasperated singsong. “We would have noticed if there was a horse.”
“Well it wouldn't have just wandered in off the street,” the woman said, “And it's too little to be a horse cop's. And it's blue!” She sounded disgusted. “Who would do that to it? Dye it and just take it around? That's awful! I didn't think they even did that to baby chicks on Easter anymore.”
One of the men groaned with trepidation. “Nnnnnnghah, you don't think it's dead, do you?”
“It better not be!” The other man exclaimed. “What kinda asshole leaves a fuckin'...?” He didn't feel the need to finish.
I wondered if they were playing some kind of joke on me, but didn't know how they could have determined I was awake. I didn't smell anything dead—Just stale beer and some other especially pungent “morning after” funk—and finding a dead horse in the aftermath of a party sounded too much like something out of a phoned-in Van Wilder sequel to take seriously. It was just one notch above the groaner that was the Dead Prostitute, though I did derive a spark of amusement from the confluence of equine-themed events. It's been well known since Poisson's day that truly random events tend to clump together, and there's some psychological phenomenon called the Baader-Meinhoff Effect (can't believe I remembered that), where once you encounter a random topic that stands out, you “magically” start seeing it everywhere, and I smiled inwardly as I filed the events away. This was certainly a strange example, but I didn't have the energy to contemplate it further and just zoned out again.
My preferred view at the time.
“No, look, it's still breathing.” I heard the woman say. Well that's a relief—I was ever so worried.
I heard soft footsteps as someone walked to the center of the room. The woman's voice was suddenly a lot closer. “WH... Hey, c'mere! Someone's, like, glued a horn on it, too...! That's...” she sounded dismayed.
"No...," one of the men mumbled, "I think—I think that whole thing is like a wig or something... You ever seen a horse with hair like that?"
"I guess. Still... It must be stuck on or something, I can't believe it wouldn't shake it off otherwise."
A wig and horn? A blue dye job? Yeah, that would be pretty weak, dying and dressing up some petting zoo pony and taking it around to loud parties full of drunk, rowdy people (...) as a joke, all like, “I got a unicorn! NOW what, bitches?!” Dumbass. Glad s/he and I didn't get around to hanging out last night.
But I wasn't ashamed to admit it would've been cool to see, I mean, as long as it was there already, right? And assuming this whole horse thing wasn't some desperate “made you look” prank they were trying to pull to wake up anyone still sleeping in here.
I considered opening my eyes but still felt too messed up to participate in reality. My skin felt like it was made of TV static—All across my body was a sensation of soft, subtle prickliness, most evident as a sensation of “bed head” in the places I was pressed against the couch. You know you're hungover when even your clothes feel too “loud.” I was lying on my right side, and my arms and legs were hanging off the couch, though they felt stiff and contorted, like I'd been somehow sleeping on them funny, and my neck felt bent up to the side in an arc that shouldn't have been possible. But it didn't hurt, which was more than I could say for the head on the end of it.
“Ohhhhh my god, it's so cute, though!” the woman said, momentarily shifting to a deeper, relieved- sounding voice.
Well, good find then. Knock yourselves out.
Two more sets of footsteps traced a path into the living room. “What do we do with it?” one of the men said.
“Take it to an animal shelter? I dunno,” the other one offered. “Do you think it'll fit in your car?”
“Uhhh... Probably? It's not any bigger than I am. If we could get it to lie down in the back seat and not shit everywhere, maybe.”
This was getting very strange. Normally “omg ur so gullible” pranks don't proceed to the logistics stage, especially if they haven't even been acknowledged by the mark. I began to lend this little party pony of theirs a bit more credence, and, melding with the dream from which I'd just awoken, the germ of a very uncomfortable, frightening, impossible thought formed in the back of my mind to accompany it, but I suppressed it before it could be verbalized. I inhaled sharply through my nose and shifted on the couch. Even through the attention-monopolizing headache and numbness of fatigue, it felt—and sounded—wrong. And I'm pretty sure my lungs don't....touch my elbows.
“Whoooaa...!” one of the men called out in mild surprise the instant I stirred. My stomach started to levitate like it was in a demonstration on superconducting magnets, but it already felt like it was far too high and there was far too much of it, and I started to swallow repeatedly to keep from gagging. I tried to stretch out my legs and lie straight on the couch, but my hips and inner thighs protested with the dull twang of inflexibility after they made it only halfway out and touched the far arm rest. I told myself they were stiff from sleeping on the couch all night but I knew it wasn't true. The more “inclusive” explanation, however, was simply not up for discussion.
Nevertheless, the fatigue began to lift as my body became flooded with adrenaline. Whereas before I was as awake and energetic as a fossil at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, now it took conscious effort to keep my eyes closed. I tried to turn my head down to bury my face in the pillow, but something was wrong with my nose, and, along with an object drilled into the front of my skull, it pressed into the pillow at a spot inches ahead of my face and refused to proceed further. And I didn't know what was pressing into my hair, but it definitely was not my ears. I squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I could and shook momentarily as my skin began to crawl.
Noooooope. Not gonna acknowledge this with words.
I cautiously moved my arms, and they traced mincing little arcs through the air as if my forearms were restrained with rubber bands. Three pairs of feet stepped back. I was certain everything below my wrist normally did not feel that long and heavy, and that most days my shoulders were a good two feet closer to my head. I tried to open and close my fists but nothing happened save my middle finger waggling up and down as if I were beckoning a misbehaving student to see me after class. I inhaled sharply and held my breath.
“I think it's waking up!” the woman said.
I wouldn't know! Sorry!
My stomach advanced from “electromagnet” to “trapeze act” and was intent on demonstrating its acrobatic prowess and disdain for a net.
In the deeper recesses of my mind, a part of me was no longer content to let the obvious reality remain unacknowledged.
Ponyyyy...! Ponyyyyy...! You're a pony, dude!
You're totally a pony, dude!You know where your head's been at and now you're reaping the Wages of Pony!
I exhaled the breath I'd been holding as a silent groan. I couldn't form my higher-order thoughts into anything but wordless disbelief.
Ponyponyponyponyponyponyponyponypony...! Here we goooooo! Ta-da! Poof! Ponified! You got Pone'd! You ate a Pony Island hot dog! I know who the boss is 'cuz you're Pony Danza! You, in the Conservatory, with the Being A Pony! Gimme a P!
All I could do was continue making silent, indignant scoffs and glacially shake my head like a disappointed dad. This. Is. Impossible. Saliva began to pool around my gums as my lips froze in a panicked sneer.
Gimme an O!
Nope, not real. Don't look outside and see it look like it's real, 'cuz it's not.
Gimme an N!
...Doooo not want to deal with this right now. Reeeealllly want to go back to sleep.
Gimme a Y! Ahhhh ha ha ha ha ha! Go! Go! Go! Giddyup!
Alright. Alright. Alrightalrightalrightalrightalrightalrightalri – I forced myself to open my eyes and saw three people staring at back me, standing about five feet away. I recognized them from the party—Shannon, Ben, and Douglass in retrospect—but actually trying to remember their names was not even on the radar in that moment. There was a blue translucent blur in the bottom left of my visual field, and a glimpse of what looked like knees, covered in a dense coat of hair. I felt violently embarrassed as the trio's eyes darted across my entire length and I fought the always-accompanying reflex to smile sheepishly, managing what I hoped looked like innocent intestinal discomfort. I focused on anything in the room except their eyes, feeling heat continuing to build up in my cheeks. Please don't let it be visible through the hair...
Not at all my preferred view whatsoever.
Yep... This is... This is the real deal. It's impossible... but it's happening... but it's impossible... but there I am, right there, that's me. So clearly I'm wrong about everything in life if this kind of thing can just go down at all...and I kinda don't feel so good... And I think I might be totally fucked...
This was a worse feeling of being fucked than every collection notice I'd ever gotten put together... Worse than that time in high school I covered up falling asleep at the wheel and driving into a ditch... Worse than every missed deadline, missed flight, missed train or bus, every incorrectly filled out form or forgotten assignment or pop quiz, every smoke or carbon monoxide alarm, every siren in the rearview mirror, every sudden angry knock on the door.
Because those kinds of things happen. This. Can't. Happen. But here I am. I can see it plain as the (oh god) muzzle on my face and feel it in every contorted bone, and on every inch of hair-covered skin. I am now a p-... A p-....
Keep it together... Everything's always worked out fine so far when it counted, right? When had I not been able to weasel or lie my way out of a major jam or get some kind of exception made, leaving with nothing but some lost time and a funny anecdote? How many papers had I aced with nothing but an all-nighter of confident bullshit? How many things had I just plain-ol' gotten away with? That's right, that's right, I was pure Teflon! Everything was always OK! Who cares if we all know that can't really be true? Who cares if that comforting, breezy arrogance has no real justification? There was always a first exception to be made, and dammit, why shouldn't it be me?
And this time there was precedent on my side: I'd thought “species” was permanent, but I'd just been proven dramatically wrong in that assumption and had to discard it: I could no more be stuck as a pony than I'd thought all my life I was stuck as a human. If there was a path into this mess, there was a path out of it, and that journey had to begin with a single hoofstep. What was it going to be?
The one saving grace was that they didn't know who I actually was, that it was me in here. Whenever this transformation took place, at least these three hadn't witnessed it. For all they knew, Rob had gotten up and gone home, and so I resolved to stay silent and let my real self remain at a safe remove from...this entire business. That bought me a little time and room to breathe.
I inhaled sharply again and steeled myself to look over my shoulder at what lay on the couch. I craned my neck up to an unnatural height and angle, straining my resolve as it effortlessly exceeded the range of human motion to leave me feeling comfortably—sickeningly—upright, and it took a massive burst of willpower to break my reluctance to turn my head to the side and face what I knew I'd see.
Well, I was entirely blue, alright—The medium blue of painter's masking tape or some foreign bloom in a museum greenhouse. I looked to be more or less the same size I'd been last night, folded down at the hips and up at the shoulders. Between the two sets of limbs I could see a softly-defined ribcage and abdomen rising and falling with my now very deliberate breath. Along my neck I could see a light blue mess of hair pressed up against the back of the couch, and just the edge of a similarly light blue and teal-white striped tail draped over the far arm rest, the remainder obscured by my frighteningly large ass, which was-
It suddenly dawned on me that I wasn't wearing any clothes. In a way it was a relief, since it would have been a total giveaway of my identity, and no doubt have been very uncomfortable if not outright choke me. Furthermore, there was a kind of glib appropriateness about it: As long as I was going to be a pony, I might as well take it seriously and remain au naturel. I did, however, wonder where all my stuff had gone—Especially my iPhone and that pair of Oxfords, of which I was particularly fond (and I hope I didn't spill that glass of water). My wallet and apartment keys were in those jeans, too, and while that should have been the least of my worries at this point, possibly losing them stung simply by virtue of being an actually comprehensible problem.
I was also a blank-flank, apparently, which while disappointing in its own small way (Aren't I an adult?) at least meant there wasn't one more thing for people to be curious about. I half-consciously wondered if earning a cutie mark might not be a condition for changing back.
Speaking of change...
Ahhhhh yes, the matter at very-obviously-a-hoof: Why, pray tell, was I a fucking pony in the first place?! I realized for the ten or so seconds I'd been examining myselllllllthe pony on the couch, my own curiosity had calmed me down significantly, but now that my attention had returned to the outside world I was once more fully cognizant of my situation and went about as rigid as if Spetsnaz were zapping my nipples with a car battery. My teeth clenched together uncomfortably and I found myself grimacing and squinting in a way I imagined made me look like I was in a wind tunnel. For the first time I had to acknowledge my pony ears as they folded down and pressed into my hair, while two unfamiliar patches of muscle tightened on the top of my skull, as if my cheeks had been relocated then attempted a smile. The sensation made me shiver and momentarily cock my head.
“...Is it alright?” the man on the left (Ben?) asked. As soon as he spoke I realized no one had said anything for almost a minute.
“It's scared! Of course it's scared,” the woman in the center turned to him, then back to me. “Aren't you?” she cooed. Lady, I do not even... I didn't think my mood at the time could be described by any series of words so much as furiously scrawled punctuation marks—Shapes my ears seemed to mirror as they reflexively pricked towards her. I looked back at her and was now able to meet her eyes without too much discomfort. It was Shannon, one of the people who lived here. I recognized her green plastic frames and brown flip hairdo. I loosened a little bit and stretched my narrow shoulders and accompanying elbows, puffing a quick breath out of my mouth off to the side, then turned my head back toward her. A tuft of light blue hair fell into my vision. Hopefully I seemed calm and safe.
She approached me slowly with a slight crouch, making soothing babytalk noises the way humans always do when they want to approach a skittish animal. I'd done it myself often enough but never expected to be on the receiving end. I squinted again and drew my lips into a frown. No wonder they always ran away—This was mad embarrassing.
It was also frustratingly slow. In her effort to avoid spooking me she was creeping forward at a pace that made me temped to give up the charade and tell her to just hurry the fuck up. On one level I knew her seeming slowness was just the adrenaline overclocking my brain, and in spite of myself I almost mimed looking at a watch, but was able to intercept the gesture just before it left on its way to my...leg. What I didn't realize before it was too late, however, was that I'd conspicuously rolled my eyes, which made Shannon stop and blink for a second before resuming her tectonic motion.
After a period of time which couldn't have been more than fifteen seconds but felt like it should have had an intermission for us all to get up and go to the bathroom, Shannon came within petting range and reached out to touch my stomach. My eyes followed her hand with what I worried might have been an explicitly human expression of anxiety, and I tried to make my face go slack as soon as she met my eyes again and started to scratch my belly, all the while cooing various stock phrases my dignity forbids me to transcribe.
Nevertheless I tried to make some cute—sometimes disturbingly realistic—horsey noises back, because that is simply what one does when having their tummy scratched by a fawning stranger. Those years as a baby weren't for nothing! Ha ha ha! Oh, we're having so much fucking fun!
She leaned to the side a little and looked at my...tail? In the familiar rhetorical chirp of humans talking to animals as if they were always the last ones to know something, she continued. “Oh, you're a girl horse, aren't you?”
My eyes went wide enough to likely void their warranty, and I made what must have been an unmistakeably human scowl. Reflexively I scoped out what I assumed was the right spot, and sure enough I didn't see any hint of the meat thermometer, but then I wasn't exactly sure what pony porksword was supposed to look like, and I wasn't about to raise my leg for a more thorough inspection. I didn't sense any familiar ornamentation, but maybe it was all stowed away like a Derringer in a gambler's—No, that's too small—AMRAAMs in the belly of an F-22, or one of those old wall-mounted ironing boards.
What the shit, dude!? You actually wanted an eyeful of big ol' horse cock? I dun' wanna see that!
I briefly considered the notion that having a body inspired by (...that inspired?) a show rated for such young audiences meant I might simply be like the proverbial Ken doll, but given the fact that I was very obviously covered in real horsehair and already filled with even more age-inappropriate real blood and entrails, that didn't seem likely—And I reflected that at least suddenly having an innie instead of an outie was still far better than deliberately not being trusted to be...a real creature, with any organs for participating in one of Nature's most august and popular institutions: Femaleness was at least legit. Suddenly remembering I would still be a female mammal, however, I instantly spun my gaze up towards the ceiling, grateful that if...whatever ponies had a set of were there at all, they were inconspicuous. That would've been just too weird.
You wanted to look at a dick but not tits?! Well it's a good thing you trained for this by apparently being gay! Yeah, I know it's not the same thing—Don't be, waaaaaaait for it—such a fag, dude! Aaaaaaaahahaha!
Shannon withdrew her hand at my tense, jerky behavior, and I stared back at her with an expression more appropriate for an unamused Winston Churchill than a magical unicorn, as if it were her touch that had somehow given me a sudden-onset case of Girl.
I had also come down with a case of Pony, however, the symptoms of which were severe enough I didn't need to rely on someone else's diagnosis or even a visit to WebMD. I derived a bit of comfort from the idea that being a female pony was clearly not the same thing as being a female human, as much as waking up as something there are about four billion of would be a much less fraught state of affairs than waking up as something which, as far as I knew, was unique in all the world. At least this way I wouldn't have to worry about my clothes still fitting right or constantly being told to 'smile' by strangers, and looking down at my quartet of legs I failed to suppress a desperately self-conscious snerk at the idea that at least I still wouldn't get any grief for not shaving them.
“What's so funny!? Errrr...!” Shannon was suddenly taken aback by her own reflexive question.
“Heh, that did sound like a laugh.” Ben said from behind her.
I snapped my head to look at her, thinking the jig might be up. Red alert klaxons were going off in my brain, and tiny imaginary sailors were closing bulkheads and clutching their rosaries or pinups. Shannon and I met each others' eyes, but I turned away after a second, and looked towards her two friends still standing a safe distance off behind the coffee table. A lock of that light blue hair fell over one eye, and without thinking I tried to blow it back into place, but the air puffed ineffectually out of my mouth at the end of a distinctly equine muzzle, inches ahead of where the hair was actually resting. Even in this body, did I still need a haircut?
I looked incredibly guilty, knowing that I was telegraphing my thoughts but unable to construct a new model for how to arrange my face on such short notice. I was so used to sending deliberate signals with my expressions that even feeling them stretched and displaced to float in front of me, they were able to commandeer my features to serve their agenda.
The other guy, I think it was Douglass, suddenly pointed to me. “Whoa, lookit its eyes! Can they be that color? They really went all out! Where do you even get contacts for a horse? ...Now I really wanna know who brought it here.”
Great, what improbable color were my eyes now? I'd gotten the full Extreme Pony Makeover, I see. Those reality shows weren't kidding about a 'whole new you.' At least no one would actually try to put makeup on me, right? I winced with disgust at the image of my blue hair-covered face matted and clumpy with human flesh-toned “foundation.” This time it fucking better have been tested on animals...!
After being examined for a stretch that felt longer than the time since the discovery of fire, I was able to let my face go slack, and then swallowed as I looked at Shannon. She leaned in slightly and narrowed her eyes as they met mine. Clearly she realized I was not your everyday couch unicorn.
She swallowed as well, and hesitated for a moment before finally speaking. “...C...Can you understand me...!?” She blushed, aware of how ridiculous she'd look if she were wrong.
I did not know what to do. I met her eyes, then looked away, then back to her eyes, my mind churning too fast for me to grab hold of any kind of decision. My mouth felt drier than the most sun-scorched mountains on the moon, and unconsciously I licked my lips. My prodigious endowment of guts filled with butterflies as I was once more forced to confront what I was. I couldn't decide between letting them think I was probably just a non-miraculous petting zoo resident simply done-up funny, or unequivocally “coming out” as a sapient being and suddenly being a, shall we say, “person of interest.” On a visceral level I simply recoiled from the knowledge that if I spoke, everyone would act like it was this huuuuuge fucking deaaaal, with the “oh my god”s and the “holy shit”s, and I'd have to sit around awkwardly waiting for them to calm down. As selfish as it was, from my insider's perspective, me being capable of language was some pretty old news.
A fountain of boldness suddenly shot up from the pit of my stomach—I would almost certainly need to talk to someone at some point, and these people weren't likely to let me out of their sight whether they thought what I needed was a hideout or a barnyard. I might as well get it over with, and if I were going to be dealing with these people for the foreseeable future, I might as well make sure we were all playing with the same rulebook. And suddenly it occurred to me I wasn't actually sure myself if I could talk. For all I knew I could be built to only speak Pon-ese. That wouldn't do at all, and I needed to find out immediately—If I were going to be mute it would only be on my own terms.
I cleared my throat and Shannon started back, eyes wide.
“Eeeeeeeyup,” some unseen girl tried to drawl, making a clear but dopey and nervous whine. Well that confirms that, then—In for a penny, in for a pound, I s'pose...
I was relieved that I could still speak human words, but even more relieved that all I faced was stunned silence. Apparently a serious, conspiratorial mood had already descended, and no one felt comfortable breaking that tension just yet. This was going to a slow-burn freakout, as the reality of the impossible creature on their couch gradually sunk in.
Douglass was the first to speak up. “That's it. I'm out.” He threw his hands up and started walking towards the front door.
What all you fast talking cats would do if you could
you know I'm ready for the final suprise
-The Steve Miller Band, "Space Cowboy"
+ + +
Shannon grabbed the fleeing Douglass by his sleeve. “What? You don't wanna see this?! This is like... I don't even know!”
“Exactly!” Douglass growled, “This is too much. Something's gonna...happen,” he shrugged and rolled his eyes. “Her...friends or...whatever are gonna show up, and it's all just gonna get...” he snorted quietly. “Oh my god, just... This is too big. This...This kinda thing just isn't gonna end well for us.” He threw up his hands again and made for the door.
I respected the guy's... I was about to say horse sense, though the faded Wolverine shirt suggested “genre savviness” might be more appropriate. Nevertheless, I panicked at the idea of letting a “witness” go free.
“It's like finding a suitcase full of money!” I interjected, suddenly flashing back to a family anecdote about Prohibition times. Everyone stared at me in abject shock. I was a little taken aback myself—That voice would take a lot of getting used to, though hopefully I could get back to normal before I started feeling like I already was.
Now painfully self-conscious, I struggled to push the words out through clenched teeth and a strong feeling of uncanny dissociation, like talking about yourself in the third person as if you really were someone else. “It'sssss jusssst trrrrouble, y'knO?” I chirped at the end in a way that made me wince. “Bbbbbbuuut...” I continued with tremendous effort, “Ddddon't gggo annnnywhere or ttttell anyone I'm here, OK? Sorry to make you keep a secret!” Somewhere along the way a little of the resistance dampened, to the point where speaking no longer felt like fighting with an uncooperative tube of toothpaste, but there was still an eerie, uncomfortable disconnect between what I was telling my mouth to say and what I heard coming back to my now-unclenching ears. If I kept a diary, I imagined this is what it would feel like to hear some unknown woman impersonating me and reading from it to an audience of hostile critics. I heard my tail swish nervously across the far arm rest.
Douglass seemed to relax a little knowing that someone was on the same wavelength, even if it was the very source of his paranoia. “How did you get here?” he over-enunciated, probably mistaking my earlier sluggishness in the thin, chilling air of the higher octaves for unfamiliarity with English. I glanced off to the side. Think fast.
“Magic!” I said at him brightly, with a manic smile that made my cheeks and (ugh) muzzle hurt. I turned to the side to face the other people in the room and chimed “Mmmmagic...!” one more time, with a voice hopefully breathy and full of wonder, trying half-intentionally (and instantly regrettably) to channel Adventure Time's Magic Man and reflexively making 'jazz hands' with appendages that just last night were the genuine article. Fortunately I was still lying on the couch, or I likely would have faceplanted the first time I unthinkingly made a two-handed gesture. I made a mental note to be careful when I eventually tried to walk.
Everyone stared at me, unsure of what to say. I don't think any of us actually believed there was such a thing as magic, but given the circumstances I figured we were all on some level reevaluating that idea.
I'd been so in-the-moment it hadn't even occurred to me to try to explain my situation rationally. 'Aliens scanned your brain and are taunting/experimenting on you!' was the first and most obvious explanation, followed by the fundamentally identical 'Equestria is a real place somewhere and has interacted with you somehow!' with 'Some kinda quantum multiverse... observer... fungibility... effect... y'know?!' wheezing along far behind. At no point had it occurred to me I might be dreaming or hallucinating or otherwise destined to become a chapter in an Oliver Sacks book (“The Man who Mistook Himself for a Pony”)—Everything was happening too fast—And even if it ultimately were some kind of dream or illusion, playing along would still be the smoothest way to see myself through it.
Suddenly I remembered the strange and vivid dream I'd had that night, which definitely lent credence to the idea that I was dealing with unknown, otherworldly forces that were responsible for my predicament, though whether what I saw was real or my own hallucination or some kind of intentionally deceptive vision implanted in my mind I still had no way to tell.
“So...magic? Like, capital-M Magic? Spells and...and...wizards and all that?” Douglass asked, with a fraught mix of trepidation, curiosity, and skepticism.
“Wha?” I hadn't realized just how lost I'd gotten in my own cogitations. “Oh. Well, uh, you know, like Arthur C. Clarke said, 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,' so, really you can call it whatever you want! 'Magic,' uh, 'femtotechnology,' uh, uh, 'Planck-scale spacetime folding...' I mean, whatever dude!” I blinked at the combination of my incongruous word choices and the high, chirping voice of the invisible girl who apparently lived in my throat. Something was wrong with the way my tongue moved, too, like when the axis controls in a video game get reset and everything slides out from under you. I swallowed as my own longer tongue nearly triggered my gag reflex, like a permanent finger down my throat, and I was becoming more and more aware of a disconcertingly wide span of flat gums between my front teeth and molars that I just knew I wasn't going to be able to leave alone. I could already feel saliva beginning to pool in it from my speech, and I worked my lips as best I could to clear it. Would I have to learn a whole new way to talk with this mouth?
Douglass squinted and leaned back slightly. “How do you know about Arthur C. Clar-”
“MAGIC!” I instinctively interrupted with an embarrassing squeal, while rolling onto my back and kicking my forelimbs in the air before completely losing my shit and cracking up, more than happy to open my mouth and reset the sensation of just how much mouth there was inside to open. I was also on an absolutely monstrous adrenaline high, but the foreign-sounding giggle quickly gave way to a more familiar laconic, derisive cackle I recognized from my original bass voice. Natural as it was, it always made me feel a little guilty, like I was trying to show off a degree of callousness and disdain, and I couldn't decide whether or not it sounded nastier shifted a few octaves up.
I regained my composure after several seconds, but no one else had laughed. They were probably still too weirded out by my very existence, and as annoying as that was, I could hardly blame them. They were beings I thoroughly understood, but to them I was an inscrutable, unpredictable, and possibly extremely powerful invader. Suddenly it dawned on me what a precarious position I'd put myself in—I was still human on the inside (I thought), something I was trying to hide so that when (not if, dammit!) I returned to normal, I could put this entire...event...behind me and not be hounded by people who wanted to know about that time I turned into a pony and how I did it and if I could do it again and if I could show them how to do it. But I could be in a great deal of trouble if it got out that I was a fraud.
I mean, in an important sense I wasn't a fraud—I really was a talking unicorn—but I was treading on some very thin ice by allowing them to believe I represented some other realm that might not actually exist and that I had no business pretending I knew anything about. My only advantage was that as far as I knew, no one had any way to check my story, and any inconsistencies I could cover up with mystical nonsense and implied threats of magical punishment, made plausible by my already fantastical nature. If I said the omnipotent Princess Celestia would come curb stomp anyone who gave one of her subjects trouble, what reason would they have to think I was bluffing? I recalled Marty McFly's “My name is Darth Vader, I am an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan!” antics and smiled. If it really came down to it, I supposed I could also threaten to melt a brain or two. I thanked whatever powers were behind this that I ended up in this situation as a unicorn and not a pegasus (as wonderful as flying would be) or—I shuddered to think of the bullet I dodged while simultaneously chiding myself for my habitual snobbery—as an earth pony. But then how could I help it? I was a unicorn.
In fact, I reflected, the biggest volatile factor was encountering someone else who was clued into FiM, especially if I ended up with a cutie mark, which would make it impossible to maintain that I was an entirely unrelated sort of magical unicorn, and place clear limits on what I could claim about myself. Of course, I could assert that's it's just a TV show and got a bunch of things wrong about the real Equestria, where I am totally from by the way—West Fillydelphia Born & Raised—but that was assuming I was the only pony around, which I had no way of knowing. But having seen several Mane 6 cosplay groups while out clubbing the previous Halloween, I knew if I set foot outside it would be a sure bet I'd soon be recognized for what I really was.
Oh, and what if being a unicorn meant I had some kind of weakness I didn't even know about? What if there was some kind of EMP or infrasound that -
“A...Are you alright?” Shannon asked nervously. I realized I'd been glowering into empty space for over a minute.
“Oh yeah!” I replied, then jumped, as I hadn't at all intended for that to come out as another adorable squeal, or for my ears to lock onto her like automated defense turrets. I cleared my throat and spoke from as much of a contralto range as I could manage. “Just...unicorn stuff.” Gravelly and uncooperative on vocals as it often was, I liked my old deep voice and missed the way my rib cage used to rumble when I spoke from down low, but I still retained my original cadences which gave this pony voice a brassy, mezzo-soprano vibe that wasn't without its own appeal. I couldn't place it in terms of anyone familiar, but in the moment I detected hints of some kind of Amy Poehler character, or one of those proto-feminist career women from a '30s comedy. Nevertheless, I felt increasingly self-conscious and could feel the unease radiating from everyone in the room.
“Soooo...” I began awkwardly, with no idea of where I was taking it, “How're you guys?”
Huh. We're going with that, are we?
Clearly it had backfired, as they all looked at each other nervously, afraid of saying the wrong thing and making the alien on the couch flip out because they'd unknowingly violated some arbitrary taboo or failed some kind of test. I felt a kind of petty satisfaction at being perceived to have that much power, but that was drowned out by the guilty realization that I was essentially holding them all hostage, the only difference being that the guns trained on them were only limited by their own imagination and fear. It couldn't have been past eleven in the morning but it suddenly felt like the middle of the night. At least it meant they weren't making the big scene I originally dreaded, and as an extra bonus, somewhere along the way my headache had disappeared.
I decided to try a two-pronged approach. I wanted to show a little vulnerability to put them at ease, but at the same time see if I could perform some kind of magical demonstration to prove that I was not just all talk. After a few seconds of rifling through ideas, I settled on asking for a glass of water, and, if I could, levitating it to my mouth. I reached up with a forelimb, trying to ignore its wonky joints, and pressed on my horn to thoroughly assure myself of its reality. I couldn't directly feel it, not through a... hoof, but it was indeed firmly fixed to my skull, stably spread out in such a way that I hardly felt any shear stress in my forehead as I pushed on it, though my neck protested. Everyone stared at me, as I expected, but at this point my every twitch was going to be scrutinized, and this was pretty innocent as far as mysterious alien behaviors are concerned. I made a face as if I were meditating for a few seconds, then gave my horn a couple pats as I nodded and smiled around the room. As soon as I'd talked, it didn't seem to have occurred to anyone (why would it?) that this horn might not be the real thing, and so I wanted to give the impression that All Systems Were Go.
I waited a few beats, then cleared my throat again and spoke up. “Umm, could I ask one of you for a glass of water?” I said with mock hesitation, tweaking my voice on the last few words.
“Of course!” Shannon got up and dashed to the kitchen before I'd even fully gauged how everyone reacted. Somehow along the way she'd naturally fallen into the position of her side's lead negotiator in the Human-Unicorn Hostage Standoff. I glanced around the room at Douglass and the still-silent Ben, but both of them refused to make eye contact.
Shannon came back in with the water, but hesitated as she approached, unsure of how she was supposed to give it to me. “Just put it by me on the coffee table, thanks,” I said casually. It was far enough away that I'd likely have to sit up and lean over to reach it, something I didn't want to manipulate this body into doing just yet, and I figured that'd be some extra incentive to practice levitation. I doubted any of them would be able to tell what I was trying to do, so if I couldn't manage it I would simply seem inscrutable rather than incompetent.
I had no idea how to approach this, as on a very fundamental level I still didn't believe in actual Magic magic in the first place, thinking that how I got this way, and any tricks I might be able to pull off, must still have perfectly rational explanations in terms of physical causes, even if they were utterly beyond our current understanding and we could only speculate about what they were. Of course, as per the quote I'd deployed against Douglass earlier, what was the difference at that point? 'The horn translates mental commands into a field that can effect objects in the external world in complex, information-rich ways' was the same whether you labeled it as the invoked actions of spirits or of, say, quantum AIs hidden in higher dimensions or surrounding dark matter. It was just a point of ontological hygiene. Indistinguishable really meant indistinguishable.
But still, I mean, if I were going to get any magic working at a level that would help me out of this situation, I needed to know just that "working" actually entailed, didn't I? It couldn't be anything as simple as suspending the laws of physics—What's going on at that boundary to make them stop? And if whatever's directing action in their absence has effects consistent enough to be useful, isn't that exactly what a law of physics is? Certain things happened and other things didn't happen because of that guidance given to each and every part of creation...
Beyond that, even the very idea of exceptions themselves, all the visions of breaking free from those laws were in fact their very handiwork, as they machinated inside our skulls...
...That universal Order was precisely why my suddenly being...this way was unprecedented, and thus a problem, in the first place. It was because everyone implicitly knows atoms like to do certain things and not others that I was fearing for my future and not clip-clopping off with these people to go get some hash browns and oily coffee—I'd broken a taboo bequeathed to us anonymously by the invisibly small.
Never mind how they did it for now (let alone why...)—'magic' is as good a name as any—how did they know where to coax every little particle in order to make this specific body, while also figuring out which ones in my brain were especially dear to me and letting them be? I could sense that I was still a perfectly authentic physical object, flush with information and with an answer for every material question about me—I had every level of answers common to a real object, and they all had to be in agreement, or there would have been no magic but only a magic trick—I would have been stage magic, an illusion, as much a real pony as a conjurer's assistant really was sawed in half. Surely on some level, even a pre-conscious one, a trillion trillion things had to be deliberately decided to make this body appear fully-formed the way it had, and not some other way: Assuming I still had DNA or an equivalent, surely the appropriate genome couldn't just fluctuate into existence like an on-demand Boltzmann Brain, picked without searching from inside the Borgesian space of all possible genomes... And that was only a single component: Were there, say, isotope ratios in my bones that would tell you what this body had grown up eating...? Did a whole fake history need to be made up, just for the proverbial 'holes in my socks' it would leave behind? What had I just encountered that could do these things?
And if I were trying to do these sorts of things myself, with just a bony projection growing out of my skull, where would I even begin? I could only scratch the surface.
But that was always true, wasn't it? We only see our own self-created surface of things...'blue,' 'hooves,' 'horn'... They look so simple to us, in our imaginations, but it's the parts below that we can't just imagine that make that surface what it is... Humans can't do magic precisely because they can't make that dependency go the other way around. At least not directly... Atoms are hopeless at figuring out anything that big on their own (unless you give them a good 13.8 billion years), but if they're working together just right, so there's a "you" to reach allll the way down and figure it out for them...
And oh, fuck me, I hadn't even started yet... OK... All stations give me go/no go for magic.
Glass of water? Go.
Unintentional Twilight Sparkle impression? Go.
Flight, we are GO for magic.
*ksshkBEEP* Rrrrrrrrrroger that, Houston, switching over to mmmmagic—Wwwwe'll have that horn telemetry for ya in juuust a minute, over. *ksshkBEEP*
GROUND CONTROL TO MAJOR ROB: Fucking FOCUS.
I tried the most obvious tactic, simply “strenuously imagining” the glass floating over to me, but no luck, and in retrospect if it worked that way it would be very easy to accidentally kill myself one day in the enormously unlikely event a daydream ever got out of hand.
I decided I first needed to get a handle on what the “substance” of magic actually felt like, and from there I could figure out how to project it into the world. As far as I could tell I didn't have any sensation in my horn, it was just an inert rod of... well, I wasn't sure. I doubted it could really be ordinary keratin or bone, at least inside, and must really be some blood-chillingly complex engine of roiling subatomic metastability, quietly ticking away on my forehead. Though for all I knew, you could get bone to do that if you were clever enough.
I was not, however, and though I couldn't make a unicorn horn, I felt certain I could figure out how to use one. Assuming it wasn't just cosmetic... So far I hadn't noticed anything at all 'magical' about myself. I could talk, but I'd been doing that almost my entire life without so much as a bunny in a top hat. They could use magic on the show, and it was clear that ponifyingly powerful forces were lurking nearby, but that didn't mean they'd rubbed off on me.
I stared at the glass again, and tried to pour my attention into my horn, but there was no sensation of any kind. I closed my eyes and tried to extend some kind of sense into the space around me, but nothing appeared outside my own imagination.
Screw it. I'll figure it out later.
I was actually pretty thirsty, now that I though about it, and I was going to wrap up this water the earth pony way. The glass on the corner of the coffee table would have been easily within reach if I had my original arms, but I'd have to invent a new way to grab it and keep it steady enough to drink out of. I shifted myself slightly up the arm rest to support sitting up a little, and reached out tentatively with what, from their weighty ends and foreign geometry, I could only think of as my forelegs now. I grasped it between them, fitting it into a subtle hollow in my “shins” (were those the things called “fetlocks?”) that from the feeling of it used to be the soft sides of my palms that faced my very-much-missed thumbs. I was still coasting on the residual adrenaline and shock from when I woke up, but I had a premonition of rising anger when I thought of how trivially easy this used to be.
There was something arrestingly strange about my shoulders, as well, and I couldn't sense how they were put together. They were narrow, like an ordinary horse's, but unlike the ball and socket joints I'd had all my life, it felt almost as if there were two joints in each shoulder, very close together or nested hierarchically, one to keep my forelegs on an even straight track for locomotion, and one to allow them to move laterally and act a bit more like arms, a setup I'd never seen in anything I'd ever learned about biology. As I'd moved them around earlier, I noticed a few seemingly arbitrary zones in my range of motion that offered a bit of resistance, as if I were stretching before a workout. Maybe it was indeed some novel kind of joint or complex of joints unknown to animals on Earth, or no joint at all but just a complex of muscle, and, as I mused a bit more about it in the back of my mind, pulling those shoulders back to maneuver the glass, I half-consciously wondered if it didn't have something to do with the way pegasus wings would be attached if I'd had a pair—Something universal in Equestrian embryology that lays a foundation for their development. Nothing on Earth had both bones and six limbs, so it wasn't necessarily surprising that the “chassis” for them would be equally otherworldly. I'd have to poke around when I got the chance.
I shakily lifted the smooth-sided glass to within what I guessed was the movement range of my neck, and could feel the extra pressure I needed to apply to the drink to compensate for how much less traction I got with short, soft pony hair instead of rubbery human skin. I was able to lean my head up much farther than I thought, easily reaching a vertical position, and slowly raised the glass to my lips, carefully watching the end of the transparent blue haze at the bottom of my vision to confirm where they actually were and not accidentally pour it down my nose. The rim clinked against my top teeth, and I repositioned it to create a better fit, then lifted my head and front legs up to pour the water into my mouth. It was a surreal experience to feel it travel much farther down before I reflexively swallowed it, but in a combination of thirst and worry over dropping it, I drained the whole thing in one go. A little bit dribbled out the sides of my mouth, following the same track as the water on the inside, until it fully soaked into my coat on the underside of my chin. It felt cold and unpleasant, but less so than on bare skin.
Playing the tape in reverse now, I had much less trouble placing the lighter glass back on the table, then settled back down into my original position on the couch.
I made a conspicuous “ahhhh” of satisfaction, and glanced at my three companions. Shannon and Douglass were sitting on a round ottoman and the carpet respectively, leaning forward and watching me with calm curiosity. Ben had been inert in an easy chair against the back wall since I'd spoken, only occasionally glancing at me. He seemed relatively unperturbed, however, and I hoped he hadn't been hiding in plain sight to take a picture of me and tweet it to half the planet, but from his low-energy movements it seemed he thought this situation was simply out of his purview and he was going to let someone else deal with it—A more sedentary version of Douglass' earlier attempt to escape.
If he wanted no part of me now, he probably wasn't going to go telling anyone in the future, so I decided to oblige and let him be.
My number one priority, of course, was getting back to normal, but in the immediate situation, with such meticulous eyes on me, that goal faded into the background to be eclipsed by simpler, more immediate concerns, such as “now what?”
I couldn't get up and leave, but even more obviously I couldn't just stay here. In all honesty I had no idea what to do next, but I'd been awake no longer than ten or fifteen minutes, and the reality of my becoming a pony had yet to fully sink in—I didn't know what I was going to do, but with reciprocal certainty, I knew I'd think of something when I had a chance to figure it out. At the same time, however, I didn't know how long I could forestall a reaction to the true magnitude of what had happened.
One thing at a time. Right now I was on this couch, and people were watching me. People who could either help me or lead to my ruin, whether they intended to or not, and my first task at—oh god—hoof needed to be making sure things went in the former direction.
Names! That's what we needed. Always a reliable first step to building a relationship. I was relatively sure I remembered their names from the previous night, but that didn't matter because it wasn't “me” doing the remembering. Time for an introduction.
“I wanna get out of you guys' hair as soon as possible...” I said with a bit more genuine timidity than I'd intended to inject, “but I might be stuck here for a little while...” Ben gritted his teeth slightly and Shannon bit her lower lip. “So I should probably learn your names...” I was trying to sound trustworthy and harmless, but my real uncertainty of how to deal with the situation and the accompanying unwillingness to make eye contact made it all come out as a kind of shy whimper. Hopefully it was at least disarming.
“I'm Shannon, and this is Ben and Douglass.”
Douglass nodded, and Ben briefly met my eyes then stiffly raised his hand at the wrist. Shannon, after a moment of no doubt weighing the decision to probe me for personal information, followed with “…What's yours?”
Ohhhhh, shit. I can't believe I'd charged ahead with only half the plan. I couldn't give my real name (what kind of mare is named “Rob,” anyway?) but I hadn't given any thought whatsoever to a good pony name.
And I wanted a good name. It mattered to me to get it right the first time, especially if I was going to be dealing with these people for a while. In junior high I'd tried to get people to start calling me “Rob” instead of “Robert,” but, unwilling to give up control and wanting to teach me a lesson for thinking I could sound cooler, everyone started calling me “Viper” instead. And in college I got saddled (ha!) with the nickname “Seattle” due to being the only member of our circle of friends from out of state, a name that stuck to this day, at least some of the time. Names mattered.
And I was totally blanking on a pony one. I suddenly recalled popular fantasy stories I'd heard about, involving word magic and things like secret “True Names,” and decided to once again bluff my way out.
“I can't tell you...!” I said cryptically. Quickly realizing I needed to maintain open trust I added, “not yet, anyway...” Everyone looked away from me, uncomfortable with the notion of some kind of initiation or oath they might be coerced into taking later on. Dammit, I just needed a name!
Skye. Nice, but that's more for a pegasus.
Mr. Ponington. C'mon, at least try.
Valued Glue Factory Temp. No, I don't wanna play right now.
Gregor Samsa. What did I just say!?
Bluebelle. Too girly and probably taken by a background pony.
Gas Flame. Not girly enough; sounds like a fart.
Spacewarp. Awkward; sounds like a Transformer.
Jetstream. Again, that's a pegasus name.
Cobalt. Getting there. Too short/generic, a little harsh/radioactive.
Blue Blazes. WAY too twee, also no idioms.
450nm. A wavelength of light, har har.
NATO the Pony. Just because of the color of the flag? C'mon. Maybe if I had stars on me.
What's in a name? A 'you' by any other name would be as royally boned. Stay on task.
Blue State. How parochial and eventually dated. Something more... universal.
Blue Shift. There it is!
“Oh what the hell,” I smiled, “it's Blue Shift.”
Douglass smiled for the first time since this ordeal began. “Cool,” he said. He might have been the only one who knew what it meant.
Just then I heard a sound like a room full of TVs powering on, and clearly it was a real noise because I wasn't the only one who began looking around for the source. A bright light evenly filled the space around us, and I heard something like a cross between a static discharge and a high whistling pop, and felt a chill race up my spine. With that, the light and sound vanished so abruptly my brain continued filling them in for a moment. I noticed everyone was looking at me, only not at my face this time. I turned my head around to follow their gaze and noticed a white two-armed barred spiral galaxy stamped right on my flank. It looked to be steaming a little.
“Well, now you know!” I said cheerfully, not having any idea what I meant by that, but wanting to give the impression that I expected this to happen.
“What is that?” Shannon seemed genuinely curious but a little worried about it somehow contaminating her if she got too close.
“Tramp stamp,” I said while nonchalantly examining a hoof (shiny, but lookit the little lines...), though failing to fully hide how both relieved and excited I was to see something actually magical about myself, and to have it be seen. “I'm just kidding. It's complicated. You can say my name all you want, though—I'm not going to disappear after three times or anything!” I smirked and looked around. Frankly, I had no idea how to best explain the mark, and I wasn't even sure what it meant, myself. And I hoped I hadn't just jinxed myself by telling them invoking my name wouldn't do anything... Who knows what crazy factors existed they hadn't gotten around to telling us about in the show?
“It's kinda like my insignia,” I finally explained, and that seemed to satisfy them. I looked at it for a moment, and thought it was pretty classy as far as butt tattoos go. The borders were sharp, and I swear that when I tried shifting my hip the proportion of a strand of hair that was white or blue changed almost imperceptibly to keep the outline unbroken as the hairs slid over each other. Neat.
I'd never had even a small tattoo—
Yeah man, you don't like anything THAT much.
—so having a nearly foot-wide white spiral permanently adorning each hip was a strange experience. Not that it was necessarily unwelcome, though, since I thought it was a tasteful design, all ponies were supposed to have one, and because I knew some powerful and presumably benevolent mentality had...evaluated me and come up with that symbol. Much more reassuring than picking it from a binder in the window of a standoffish storefront with a name like “Fatal Ninja Ink,” between the failing bead shop and a Chipotle. And also because I still didn't fully think of it as “my” ass, but just a loaner, while my original ass and accompanying body were in storage somewhere.
But whoever they were, they must have been watching me, and apparently my choosing a name now put me on the official "pony register" somewhere. And if I were being watched, at least I had an "in" with whatever had done this.
Being so suddenly forced to confront my appearance, my overwhelming desire now was to see myself in the mirror and to get a sense of what other people could tell from my face. I considered asking for one, saying I needed to groom myself (something else I'd have to improvise), but the amount of time I'd spend making faces and prodding around would quickly give lie to that little scheme.
Frankly, a lot of it simply came out of knowing that there was a real-life magic pony here and that was cool and I wanna see the pony. The bathroom mirror would be ideal, but I was paranoid about my curiosity somehow making it clear that I wasn't who and what I seemed. What's another reason I might...
We got a long way to go and a short time to get there
-Jerry Reed, “Eastbound and Down”
+ + +
Immediately in my imagination I punched myself in the head. 'I gotta poop'?
Pssssh, 'you're welcome'.
Christ, I could at least have borrowed a page from some antediluvian Miss Manners and claimed I was going to “powder my muzzle” or some other cutesy euphemism. Sure, I could be the foul-mouthed, “ironic” unicorn right out of another kind of cartoon, usually shown after midnight between screens of white-on-black text, but I thought it better to not betray too many expectations and play the hoof I was dealt.
Oh, who was I kidding? I'd been acting like a maniac from the moment I'd opened my mouth - Hopefully only because I had no idea how to handle this situation and not because this pony body and brain were somehow corrupting me. I felt like a home invader, which is essentially what I was, but making my threats by not correcting assumptions, and wanting escape rather than valuables. Maybe I was more like a fugitive demanding to be hidden. That character at least had a sympathetic angle—Everyone can identify with a desire for freedom, especially if it's unjustly taken away. I knew that ultimately I'd recklessly wandered into this situation, and that in all likelihood “unjust” is the last thing it was, but they didn't need to know that.
But now it was finally time to put this body through its literal paces.
As much as a part of me still wanted to just forget this whole “suddenly being a pony” business and go back to sleep, there was no way I was going to get my original human body back by lying on this couch. I'd have to use this one sooner or later, and while it was regrettable I had to take the plunge under such intense scrutiny, I figured if I'd learned to walk on two legs when I was not even that many years old, surely I could learn to walk on four when I was twenty-seven. Why, proportionally I should be able to handle ten pairs!
I thought for a moment about how I wanted to do this. I was still lying on my side with my legs hanging over the edge of the couch, so if I pulled them in a little I could simply roll over onto the floor and then stretch them out again to whatever ended up being my full height. Once I felt comfortable in that posture I could start moving one leg at a time, and though I might look clumsy and inelegant, presumably I'd have no major problems.
Let's get to it. I bent my legs a few times to get a feel for how they moved, and was struck immediately by how different this was going to be. While I still had all my original joints, all bending in their original directions, their position and function had been shifted “up” by one rung. What had been my wrists were now...fucking...knees. And as for my original legs, my ankles were now effectively knees that bent the wrong way. It was like a full body version of accidentally skipping a question on a fill-in-the-bubbles test, or getting your hand misaligned by one key on a Guitar Hero controller.
The main direction all my limbs bent had been effectively reversed, and I blanked on even trying to plan how I'd move. Up until now, I could pretend to a degree I was fundamentally unchanged, simply reclining in an unusual way on a couch, like some kind of vaguely equine Caligula, but now I was forced to confront a fundamentally different way of...Well, I didn't even know yet, and the thought of proceeding without a biped's more sensitive inner ear made me wary of trusting any intuitions.
I pulled my front legs up ahead of my face and my back legs up into my stomach so that their heavy hooves were facing outward, then shifted my weight and pushed off, rolling over and thudding onto the carpet with a surprisingly loud “whumph,” my long stomach getting a jolt as it slammed into the floor. I felt constricted by the strange pressure on my joints and immediately pushed down with all four limbs, shooting up faster than I anticipated—At least these legs were strong enough to forgive a lot of failed attempts, and push ups (squats?) were certainly going to be easier. But I was immediately confronted by how front-heavy I was, and reflexively leaned my neck back for fear of pitching over. At least my sense of balance was still working, though there was indeed a loss of sensitivity, a bit like a with a mild head cold.
The sensation of having hooves was tremendously strange as well, though on the soft carpet I couldn't be sure how representative an impression I was getting. Something a little like the balls of my feet were pressed on the ground in four places below me, but registering on the ends of my middle fingers and toes—The sensation of the other digits compressed into an indistinct mush above it—and each hoof somehow had another ghost of a little toe inside it(!?). The hard, blue outer material of the hooves themselves was completely insensate but transmitted feeling just as well as fingernails, giving me the sensation of touching the carpet through impossibly thick calluses or heavy welding gloves. They seemed to be a little softer on the underside, around that extra invisible “toe” and I told myself I'd have to check out the bottoms of them when I was out of sight. Before I'd even get that chance, however, I felt a powerful desire to scrape the hard, alien material off onto the carpet as if I'd stepped in four different dog turds, and suppressing this urge caused a building, claustrophobic itchiness and irritation. My own coat began to feel scratchy, and I continued staring straight down at the carpet.
Standing like this did not feel at all like being down on all fours as a human, namely because the immediate impression was being “up” on all fours instead—I felt like I was standing fully upright, but somehow in two places at once, with my stomach on a tightrope in between. If I ignored the sensations from everything behind my shoulders, it was almost possible to imagine myself as a short, armless human with a very flexible waist, but if that was the alternative I'd frankly rather be a pony, and quickly dismissed the image.
So I was left with a second “lower body” standing upright a couple feet “behind” me, with legs that bent in a way that was utterly foreign, except I couldn't let myself think of them that way because I still had to move them using the original motor commands.
I lifted my left front leg from my original elbow, my weird shoulders providing a groove of resistance to keep it on track, then extended it forward and let it droop so that the hoof contacted the carpet. I watched it splay outward subtly, an effect that felt slightly sickening, as if I were bending back a fingernail, but it was all in my head as my hoof felt perfectly comfortable. My first step as a pony had been a qualified success.
I finally looked up, as if I were expecting to have somehow advanced, and holy crap was I short: I couldn't have been much over four and a half feet tall, my eyes barely level with the seated humans.
I took another step forward, foolishly with my other front leg, slightly stretching myself out into an unnatural position. It was all so strange and uncanny, and I had no standard by which to judge how it was supposed to feel to walk as a pony, but this was obviously not it. Whatever force was behind my transformation, it had apparently not bothered to update any of my “software” or give me an appropriate Pony Operating System (Perhaps the only time I'd want a “POS”), and I was left with a human sensorimotor cortex connected correctly to the outside, but still containing the neural “homunculus” image of my original human form, and trying to map the commands for it onto the very differently proportioned pony of which I'd suddenly found myself in the proverbial saddle.
People with a physical disconnect between their neural body schematic and their proprioceptive sense, like say, a leg not being included on the map, can often have a burning desire to have that part amputated as the cognitive dissonance becomes a blight on their lives, but at least in my case, when one's conception of their entire body doesn't match its sensory input, there's nothing to make one part much more abhorrent than any other, and the whole thing blends into a sizzling mush of ickiness.
“Abhorrent” wasn't the right word, exactly—No more than trying to ride a unicycle for the first time is a traumatic experience in and of itself (falls excluded, of course), and I was simply too overwhelmed by the mechanics of the task at hand to feel violated at having been wrenched into these baffling contortions.
I wasn't sure how much of this was just my own kit, however—I'd never felt so much like I had a body as that I was really up in a little cockpit somewhere controlling one, and any sense of its parts was less a feeling of who I was than a mere "instrument readout." In fact, I'd always been somewhat ashamed that there was no sensation of "who I was"; all I'd ever truly felt like in my life was a floating camera and two manipulators, or like I really was just a brain inside a skull, consulting an imaginary internal display. I'd spent my whole life feeling trapped inside one animal only to find myself trapped in another, but now with readouts I didn't understand.
But I was torn about trying to recalibrate those readouts. On the one hand - hand, dammit! - I wanted to regain my competence and independence, but on the other, it would mean a degree of acquiescence to whatever had done this to me, and that if I were stuck like this for a while, when I finally changed back I'd require yet another period of adjustment.
But this was the here and now, where I had just taken two full steps forward and shouldn't I have gotten somewhere instead of being stretched out like a yawning cat!? But nooooooo, I had to have an entire extra set of legs to take care of! My life had suddenly become so much more pointlessly complicated, and for a moment I imagined myself sitting in a doctor's office, getting news about some terrible condition I'd suddenly been struck with, and maybe one day I'd be able to live a normal life, but I'd never again do X or Y or whatever activity I'd enjoyed up to that point, such as being a human, or male, or having hands - Things I had been doing every day. And this time there wasn't even a stem cell lab to join or ethics board to lie to in hopes of inventing a cure.
It was an infuriating condition, unjust and unfair. These consequences were astronomically out of proportion to any behavior. What lifestyle changes are you supposed to make to avoid getting turned into a goddamn girl unicorn? Avoid trans fats and...and... alfalfa? I knew the proximate trigger was that magic dragon I puffed but how could I ever have anticipated something like this would happen? My life had been suddenly turned inside out—attacked!—but I was blameless, wasn't I?
I'd always thought it was insipid how people looked for someone to blame when visited by disaster, demanding some agent out there “take responsibility” for the accident or the diagnosis or other calamity, pinning it on politicians or God or whomever, as long someone paid the price for fate's inevitabilities, but in spite of myself I felt the stirrings of this urge, and the resulting self-implication made me even madder, and down went my brand new ears. I clenched my teeth in response.
The thing is, this time there was someone (somepony?) who'd inflicted this on me - There had to be, this wasn't just something blindly going wrong with me - but they were so remote and so unknown my anger had nothing to grab onto. They were just the wispiest of concepts, watching me but remaining invisible, and I didn't have a single lead on how to make them solid and track them down. It was like I'd been shot and left in the street.
I drew a ragged breath through my nose and my legs shook for a moment, but I was able to relax them enough to maintain a normal facade—Causing me to resent having to do so in the first place. And now I knew my composure was about to fail as I sensed the incursion into my thoughts of the inborn grandiloquence I was habituated into restraining.
Yeah you talk all super gay when you're either mad or wasted.
'Pissed,' you mean? (And don't use 'gay' like that, dumbshit.)
Well that was one thing—At least my relationship to language was unaffected. Whether my brain was truly a bastion of untouched humanity or I was merely misjudging the pony alternative, I was grateful for my continued frictionless use of profanity. What a blow it would have been to feel the easy seduction of euphemism to limit myself to counterfeits or pale shades—Didn't linguists call them “denatured”?—
Stop. Stop before you embarrass all of us.
—of those aboriginal exponents of intensity, looseness, conspicuously hidden vulnerability, and lively rhythm, chaining my choice of words to pegs at one-remove from the edges of the full verbal spectrum, never believing in my listeners' capacity to follow me there, asking them to play a substitution game in my stead.
I prized every hue in my verbal palate too highly for my blueness to ever be limited to the color of my coat.
Like Dorothy Parker zinging Norman Mailer's sop to editors in bowdlerizing his soldiers' language (“So you're the man who can't spell 'fuck.'”), I remembered how many times it took me to get past the first few episodes of Battlestar Galactica for just the same reason. At least ponyisms weren't trying to cover up or run away from anything. And anypony could tell you they were adorable.
I sighed as the tension began to leave my body. I'd been looking down this whole time, though—Unseeing as I once more fell into the core of my mind as if, in imitation of the mark on my flank, it hid its own supermassive black hole, where no light could reach. But now I was back in the starlit outer universe and had more prosaic matters to address.
Realizing that I was reaching forward with my forelegs like a mild stretch, I arced my back downward in imitation of a yoga pose, and affected a groan as if I were letting out the tension of a long day at the office. But as I reached a certain angle and pressed into a real stretch, a chill went up my spine, somehow building into something like a sneeze, and as it broke I actually neighed a little bit. I screwed my face in anger and almost screamed in frustration. Unable to let go of the bizarre shaking feeling in my throat that accompanied it, I clenched my whole body and dearly hoped this wasn't a preview of myself a possible month from now. But no. People. Out there.
“Man!” I commiserated, “That...That interdimensional travel, amirite?” I smiled and looked around the room. I was uncertain of how long I'd been holding that pose, and hence how long they'd been watching me, but it surely couldn't have been longer than it took to, say, compose your average text message.
will b a bit late, but plz order 4 me. bus hasnt shown up, also got turned into unicorn
“For sure,” Douglass replied knowingly, earning concerned glances from Shannon and Ben. If he weren't on the other side of the coffee table, I'd have offered him a hoof bump. Now it was time to start walking for real again, though, and I felt a momentary disorientation as I wondered which of my displaced joints I should move first to get my back legs to pull their weight.
Suddenly something clicked in my head, and I realized I'd been overthinking it.
You? That's crazy talk.
Oh, fuck off.
Sure thing! Enjoy never having dreams again!
...Regardless—Benighted terrestrial horses with little more intellect than the glue they were destined to become could walk and gallop with presumably only a minimum of concentration, so I just had to figure out what “handle” to mentally grasp on these legs to get them to move, and if Nature was operating at even close to its usual cleverness, the rest should take care of itself. That's what my human legs did, didn't they?
I thought back to what it was like to walk as a human. Basically the will to walk was a pair of staggered ovals attached to my feet, and centered on the ground. The top half of the oval raised them up and forward, and the bottom half was compressed into a flat line against the floor, exchanging that curvature for forward momentum. I never even thought about my actual legs while simply walking, just moving my feet like a puppeteer holding them by two attached sticks, or even more often merely thinking “that-a-way.”
I visualized myself as one of those little windup Triceratops toys, where the four legs have stubby flanges on the end that you can see move up and forward and down as they waddle along. Imagining a stick going sideways through my rear left hoof, I mentally grasped the stick and arced it forward. Sure enough, the leg raised properly and extended, the hoof naturally rotating back out to contact the ground, just like my original feet used to do. Elated, I tried the right back hoof, grasping its handle and tossing it forward, and except for a little stumble as the hoof failed to fully turn back out, it seemed to work much better than the “manual override” I'd been using before.
Right front. Left back. Left front. Right back. Right front. Left back. So easy now. First being able to speak, and now being able to walk, I realized I'd passed two major developmental milestones for the second time in my life, although this time I hoped no one was capturing them on home video.
“I'll be right back!” I smiled, but the humans simply looked at each other.
+ + +
I padded along the carpet and around the corner of the mustard-colored stucco walls. There was the bathroom door, a huge plank of wood blocking my access to my own face. The doorknob was just below the level of my head, and while it was the round kind, it was luckily not very wide. Time to put it in my mouth.
Disappointingly it still had the metallic taste of an ordinary doorknob, but I was able to grip it firmly with my teeth and turn just enough to free it, and I pulled my neck back to open it. I released it, ritualistically spit out the taste, and pulled the door open the rest of the way with a forelimb.
Sure enough, there was the mirror, just where I'd left it on the wall the night before, where I'd checked my hair and general affect after each time I completed the precipitation stage of the Beer Cycle. I wondered what kind of face would look back at me now, especially since from the rest of me I could tell I was entirely “real” and bore the same physical relation to the ponies in the show as the actual Harvey Pekar did to an R. Crumb sketch.
It was a little sad in a way, since that crisp, minimalist design was such a core part of why Ponies Are Awesome, and I'd want the full Roger Rabbit package if I could get it... After all, the same shapes done up in real pony-stuff instead of their animated equivalent would not truly be the same pony, not with what those 'chibi-style' shapes were drawn to represent in the first place.
I supposed my physicality was inevitable, since you likely had to be of the same substance as a given world to actually interact with it, once you stopped to consider why we have working real objects and people around us to begin with (If I still needed oxygen, how thick were the outlines on cartoon hemoglobin? And if that's not how it worked, why would I need oxygen?), unless I could get some ethereal stooge to read my intentions and instantly draw me doing them in Flash: Matter Edition at every moment, consciously deciding what to show and what to omit from the viewing distance and angle of everyone who would ever see me.
That might be a little abstruse an objection, but then those hangups are exactly the reason we see some things happen and not others in the first place...
Wait, maybe if you had an infinite number of Korean animators at an infinite number of Wacom tablets...
Now, I may have lived a sheltered life, but I was pretty unfamiliar with real-world unicorns. Tables, trees, clouds, and houses, on the other hand, I had seen in reality, and from what I could see of myself below the neck, I was separated from the look of the ponies in the show by about the same level of stylization. Whether the show was abstracted from a real Equestria somewhere out there, or the other way around, however, I could only guess. Either way, we had only been looking at it through the tiny keyhole of television.
But enough theory, it was time for observation. Use: Mirror On: Pony. There was a sink in the way, naturally enough, and a disconcertingly short amount of floor between it and a bathtub on the other side. I walked forward and clack clack clack and oh god the hooves on tile. These are not feet, these are definitely not feet. No, come on, get a grip.
I was too long to turn around without putting one pair of legs in the tub on the way there, and I hesitated simply for the silly acculturated reason that I wasn't taking a shower and it was someone else's bathroom. But I had to do it if I were going to shut the door behind me, so I lifted one back leg over the rim, then the other, then holding my head up high and back so I wouldn't whang it on the sink, I walked my front legs to the side and then stepped back over the rim, leaving me facing the door. I walked forward and wrapped my lips around the doorknob (I was going to go through toothpaste so fast if I remained a pony) and then backed up, pulling it shut.
I was now snugly between the sink and the tub, and in the gloomy light of the tiny frosted window I noticed a light switch up by the mirror. I backed up a little more and hit it with a forehoof. True to custom, it was for the mirror lights.
The sink was about at the level of my “collarbone,” and if I looked to the side I could actually just see my eyes and the top of my head in the bottom few inches of the mirror. I leaned in until my neck hit the side of the sink, and looked straight into those eyes.
My irises were a saturated burgundy, the kind you might see on expensive curtains from a department store ad or a chopped Studebaker pulling up to the Players Ball. I'd always had large eyes, but these were still about one-third larger and more “open” than they had been, but still set at one eye's width apart. They were angled ever so slightly out to the side, on either side of what I thought of as the “bridge” of my nose, revealing slightly more white on the side facing out when I looked straight ahead, but still remained primarily forward-facing and stereoscopic, unlike an Earth horse's, and were definitely the eyes of an intelligent creature, though not strictly human. Each was rimmed with rather feminine eyelashes, though the lack of any, uh, whatever-that-stuff-is-called on them kept them looking at least tasteful. I didn't seem to have eyebrows in the traditional sense, but there was a slight thickening of the hair above each eye that I could contort in much the same way. I closed one eye, then the other, seeing a lighter blue eyelid covered with very short, even hair descend over them, then crossed them and saw my image split into two transparent, blurry copies before I relaxed my eyes and it snapped back together.
Next was everything else. The most obvious point of interest was the horn, which was a little over six inches long and thickly spiraled, blunted in an inviting, won't-poke-your-eye-out way, and the same blue as the rest of me, with the very faint striated texture natural to horns in general, though covered in what seemed like a slightly glossy lacquer of some kind. Overall, it was the part of me closest to looking like it was straight from the show. It was set in a much larger forehead than any pony from this world ever had, part of a clearly human-sized cranium, but all of that was thankfully hidden under a thick mane that preserved the more aerodynamic, anodyne contours of the rest of the face.
The mane was feathered and straight and long-ish, and a light, delicate blue, with a single four inch-wide white, or actually very light teal, stripe down the center abutting the horn on the right - No, I was looking in a mirror - left side. That curved around to my right, terminating in the untrimmed forelock I'd earlier swept out of my face, which hid the base of the horn, for which I was grateful because I was sure that “interface” or whatever would have looked freaky without bangs. Sorry, Rarity. This forelock came over the top of my head between my ears, with what looked like a few cowlicks at the top from sleeping on the couch. I couldn't see the back from this low angle, but just from looking around, and from the sensation of it moving, it seemed equally shaggy and eager to get in my way.
I looked up at my ears, pointing out and up like two elongated radar dishes, each about four inches long and tapering to a narrow point. A strip up the inside was made ever so slightly purple by the presumably pinkish skin under the shorter hair, and examining them closely I was glad that no gross veins or anything were conspicuously visible on the inner surface, like you sometimes see. The longer hair on the back and interior sides of them extended a few millimeters over the edge, and for all intents and purposes they seemed identical any ordinary horse ears. I flopped them down and was somehow reminded of the hands of Wile E. Coyote trying to protect his head from a falling anvil. The tips of them curved almost imperceptibly back up, like the edges of a wry smile, which I thought gave the gesture a disarmingly innocent look I might be able to exploit later.
I'd been staring at the top of my head for a minute or two, and decided it was time to work my way down the reflection, and so seesaw my real self upwards. I'd have to stand on my back legs and hold myself up with my front, and wasn't sure how difficult this was going to be, but it seemed like the kind of thing I should make sure I'd be able to do, if for no other reason than to feel a bit more human again. I sat back on my haunches and scooted myself forward so that I was in front of the sink, grateful nothing sensitive was actually touching the floor, then turned myself to face it and put my front hooves up on top in a pose that reminded me of trying to drape some kind of delicate fabric. I didn't think I'd be able to use them to just do a “pull up,” but with a simultaneous kick from my back legs I shot up into a standing position much more quickly and easily than I anticipated. Too easily, almost, since as I was now standing at almost ninety degrees to the way I was “designed” to stand, my head tried to pull me over backwards and I had to quickly lean far forward to avoid no doubt cracking it on the tub.
I remained frozen for a few seconds as I waited for my heart to stop racing and my stomach to return to its customary spot below my lungs. I told myself I probably would have been alright—It wouldn't be the first time I'd fallen over backwards onto something hard—But it still would have been a tremendously unpleasant experience whether I'd seriously injured myself or not, in addition to the fact that lying around in pain is actually surprisingly boring. I made a low sigh, but what emerged from my throat was once again a nicker of some kind. I winced. It was like the vocal cord equivalent of angling your leg in just the right way such that it twitches on its own. It occurred to me to try it again to make sure, but I demurred.
My organs now returned to their default positions, I refocused my eyes and looked up into the mirror.
The rest of the mane was just as shaggy as the forelock all the way down my neck and was either styled, or naturally had a tendency, to sweep forward, resulting in little “sideburns” under my ears, gradually tapering down into one final lock, or curl, or whatever, at the “wicker,” I think it's called, where my neck bent outwards into my back (I'd have to learn more about horse anatomy...). The teal-white stripe curved around on the left side and out into the bottom of one of the little “sideburns.” The blue was a lighter, more “dainty,” robin's-egg hue than I'd normally consider adorning myself with, but overall I'd gotten off pretty light, as it were, in terms of girly colors. For the first time I consciously wondered how they were chosen. I thought they looked alright, but were they really supposed to be “so me,” picked from the palate of whatever entity assembles ponies to order, or was it just a coincidence and this was an unfortunate somepony's body I had hopped into like a garage attendant into Ferris Bueller's Ferrari? If that was the case, what happened to her? I could guess, but she was effectively beyond my reach in any case...Well, good luck to ya, lady. Maybe if we meet eventually at least we'll have this as an ice breaker.
She ain't squeezed back here with us, neither, so don't worry 'bout that.
I continued my scan of the pony in the mirror. My nose—muzzle—sloped out from a shallow start between my eyes and ended in a dainty, rounded snout maybe four inches ahead of my original face, with flattened nostrils on its corners. It tapered slightly as it went down to my almost non-existent “chin,” before rounding off entirely and shooting back about six inches to meet to my neck. On the sides it smoothly transitioned into rounded cheeks and a flared “jawline” that I presumed was the chewing muscles, which pressing my teeth together and seeing it tighten quickly confirmed, and the end around my nostrils was slightly darker and almost velvety, disturbingly like a normal horse's. Set about two-thirds of the way down from my nostrils was my mouth, not much changed, but shifted forward several inches and slightly more exposed on either side by subtle, light lavender-colored lips that extended a tiny bit into where I once had cheeks. The way my mouth angled up and out to the tip of my nose gave the impression of a slight overbite. I pulled my lips back and saw two rows of straight, flat, identical teeth, forcing the scents various hygiene products to the front of my brain by association. No canines, just a small gap before a transition to equally regular molars on the sides, and I ran my tongue over it, trying to remember that I hadn't violently lost a tooth. They were clean and white and well-aligned, and I hoped I'd figure out a way to keep them that way if my condition turned out to be....
I stuck out my tongue to a distance that would put Gene Simmons to shame, waggled it from side to side, tried to touch my nose (finally success), tried to roll it (could still do that, too), then made as many faces as I could think of, slowing down when I realized I could see that gross gap behind my front teeth if I smiled too broadly. I didn't have much in the way of eyebrows, and they probably would have been covered up by my bangs in any case, but it was an expressive face, and I had hardly any trouble making it do whatever I wanted.
My overall impression was of a creature that was to a terrestrial pony what a Homo sapiens was to an Australopithecus. The face in the mirror couldn't be mistaken for anything but that of a real horse, but at the same time was too dynamic and delicate to belong to something that lived in a barnyard. The effect was exotic, but not bizarre or unnatural, and could've been the believable product of some stable's long-term program to breed a pony that looked as if it could hold up its end of a conversation. The forward-facing eyes, the outré colors, and of course the unicorn horn no doubt added to the impression that this was not just a horse, of course, of course.
I thought about trying to see my aft section to find out what it was, exactly, that had tipped off Shannon as to my sex, and how heavy a “gauge” I was unwittingly blasting people with when I turned around and gave them both barrels, but logistically it didn't seem practical in this bathroom since I didn't see an obvious way to get my back end high enough. And I was reluctant to try harder: Everyone knows about male horses and the cable they're swinging, and I was a little afraid that whatever mare bits had been installed back there might be correspondingly over-the-top. I figured I'd remain happily ignorant for now and rely on the tail and the Nudity License I got as a quadruped, improvising some kind of pants if my sapience voided it.
I put on my best angry face and growled a few times as I tried flexing, one foreleg and then the other (once I figured out how to position them to even see anything), and then my stomach, but the result was disappointing as I had almost no muscle tone, just soft, round, undeniably quite feminine pony meat everywhere. I wasn't sure if ponies were ever supposed to have abs, but the fact that my stomach seemed to just be a smooth convex barrel shape with only a hint of even a navel suggested that they were not. Oh well, situps were a chore anyway, not that I knew how a pony would even do one.
I was embarrassed to admit it, too, but I, or at least this mare I was piloting around, was massively cute, enough to inflame my already enormous vain streak. While “totes adorbs” was not the look I usually aimed for, I found that as long as I felt I was easy to look at, I was much more OK with things than I would've predicted. I didn't think that reflection looked attractive in any sense, but I briefly imagined trying to make out with myself in the mirror, something I'd also jokingly tried as a human, realizing that now the anatomy of my face also meant my nose wouldn't get painfully squashed, but refrained as a twinge of something in my brain coalesced into “no pony,” in imitation of the inane fratboy disclaimer, “no homo.”
Realizing I was now blushing a little bit, I leaned in close to see how this was even possible, and saw that a lot of the hair on my cheeks was actually standing slightly on end, leading to a darker look, and seemed to be slightly translucent, or have some kind of...fiberoptic property, though the majority of color was in the less covered areas such as around my nostrils, eyes, and inner ears. Overall it was a subtle effect but definitely noticeable.
Wanting to reestablish my aesthetic approval of the face in the mirror, I held up a foreleg and wagged the end up and down while nodding my head in an attempt at the “mad props” gesture, snapping out “Lookin' cute, feelin' cute!” with a bouncy rhythm.
Daaaayum, guuuuuuuuurl! Get over here an' lemme tap that plot! Way you stand, y'all halfway to twerkin' already!
The effect wasn't quite what I'd hoped, and I looked more brain damaged than funny.
...Which I must have been, because suddenly I realized that most of this time I actually did have to poop. In my defense, it wasn't recognizably the same sensation at first, probably due to whatever weird new pipes were in there were for digesting things like hay, but it was unmistakable the “check anus” dashboard light was flashing. I didn't think I could reach my cake decorator afterward, however, and then winced with hypothetical shame as the notion of me cavalierly wiping my ass on various things in the room flashed through my head. I thought about the dynamics for a minute and figured that even though I could likely get everything in the bowl just by backing up to it, the fall might be enough to splash poo water out onto the nice people's floor, and more importantly my own absorbent, hair-covered legs.
Oh, and tail. Damn. Uh... Now would be the time to learn to use it, I guessed. My earlier hunch, that my sensorimotor cortex had not been considerately rewired for pony use (though maybe that was the price to pay for feeling as unchanged mentally as I did), gained another point as, one muscle group at a time, I clenched everything I could feel south of my equator, to see it do no more than occasionally shake from the exertion.
It then occurred to me to approach it from the outside in, and I lowered my rear end until my tail touched the ground, then carefully stepped on it with a back hoof, and ever so slowly raised myself again. As soon as the hair became taught I felt something on the end of my spine “open up,” like a new pocket discovered in a familiar pair of jeans, and by sending commands into that new space I was able to flick it around clumsily until I started to feel a bit of a burn—Clearly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn't very strong.
Feeling confident that I could avoid shitting all over myself, I raised the toilet seat with a hoof and turned around, half-squatting at a very awkward angle to bring everything as low as I could, held my tail up and to the side, and then freed the legless dogs to sea. A regular series of deep bloink sounds made me grimace and stick out my tongue, but I remained unsplashed and didn't stink up the place too badly. Wishing I knew how to use my horn, assuming it really worked, I pulled down a long stretch of toilet paper and pressed it up against the wall with my butt, moving up and down to hopefully at least make an effort at hygiene, and angling my rear end slightly downward to make sure that's all it remained. Fortunately it looked like I was pretty clean to begin with, so I ripped off what I spooled out by pressing it against the wall again, and flicked it into the toilet.
Oh—And that's what a hoof looks like on the bottom, I see... I wasn't sure what I expected, but they seemed entirely ordinary. Flat, and hard. And with some little... folded thing of flesh at the base which must have been what I felt earlier. And I noticed a lot of long hair on the backs of my "fingers," filling up what would have been empty space. 'Unshorn Fetlocks'? How much hair was this body 'supposed' to have, anyway? Did I have the equivalent of mare 5 o'clock shadow? If I met a real Equestrian, would I be censured for not shaving my legs after all?
But it didn't matter at the moment, because it looked like the only other Equestrian object in the world was floating just a few feet away. I may still have been magical, as far as the humans back in the living room knew, but it was fortunate none of them were in here to ruin the mystique, because what lingered in the bowl would've been both senses of plain old horseshit. I briefly considered examining it more closely to see if there was any evidence of what I'd been eating as a human (that frozen pizza?), or if somehow this body came “pre-loaded,” but my more sensitive pony nose was telling me that I wasn't that curious, and I guessed that no one back in the living room would be particularly interested in any discoveries.
The humans back in the living room! I'd been so interested in checking myself out I'd forgotten how much I was putting my fate in their hands by leaving them alone. I waffled for a moment over whether to wash my hooves, and if one even does that, but I decided to play it safe and at least give the outward sign I was savvy about this kind of thing, so quickly launched myself up to the sink and turned a faucet knob, just swiping each hoof quickly through the stream and then wiping them one at a time on my chest so they didn't drip. I dropped back down to all fours and put my mouth around the doorknob... I really needed to get that horn working... and as soon as I began to turn it, I heard frantic scrambling from the other side of the door.
Of course—They were far too curious about their otherworldly visitor to remain in the living room and do something so gauche as sit and discuss their plan of action. They probably wanted to know if I was going to talk to some entity through their mirror or spin straw into gold or any number of supernatural things a fairy tale creature might do when left alone in a bathroom. Hopefully I was quiet and fragrant enough that they didn't figure out I really did just flex in the mirror and take a crap.
+ + +
As with most new things, coming back was a lot simpler than going over. The three humans were in their original seats, and pretending I never knew otherwise, I hoisted myself back to my own spot on the couch, and once more comfortably lay on my side, then smiled at my companions.
“...Have everything you need?” Shannon asked by way of moving things forward.
Of course I didn't have what I really needed, but knowing that what she meant was soap or Goldfish crackers or something, out of habit I chirped “Oh yeah! Thanks!” before I could stop myself.
Alright. Think. Thinkthinkthinkthinkthink. ...Sink, drink, stink, rink, “Sink the Pink” is really an underrated AC/DC song... Oh man, could I still do a good Angus Young impression with this voice?
Suddenly I heard footsteps coming down the stairs from the bedrooms that I'd ignored the previous night. Stephanie, the girl from the deck, groggily popped out from around the corner into the living room and froze when she saw me, then suddenly gasped with excitement.
“A PONYYYY!” she cried out, with a smile I didn't think existed outside of commercials set on Christmas Morning. Before I could even form a coherent thought she bounded over to me and squeezed my neck, then pulled back and looked me over. “Oh my god, how is this even... ? You've got a cutie mark and everything! What's your name? What are you even DOING here? Ohmigod, is...is Equestria REAL? Oh wow, this is just...! Augh, you're so cute! Is that...? Can I touch your horn? Ohmigod can I see you do magic!? I'm sorry, I just...” She descended into a string of similarly incredulous exclamations as she started stroking my mane. The rest of us were all too stunned to say anything.
Either Douglass or Ben spoke up. “Steph, do you—”
Recovering my wits, I turned to look her straight in the eye. “Stephanie!” I said in what I hoped was a forceful but friendly manner.
“You really talk! You really TALK! And you know my name! Ohmigod!” she smiled even wider and sucked in air to make a scratchy squeaking noise.
“That's right! And I have a very important message for you from Princess Celestia herself!” I felt incredibly dirty for telling her a lie like that with such feigned excitement, and building up her own excitement even more, but it was the first thing out of my mouth as a way to keep control of the situation. She looked like she was about to faint. “Can we talk somewhere privately?” I asked.
“Of course!” She shot back up to a standing position, startling me slightly. “C'mon!” Stephanie bounded back over to the stairwell and motioned for me to follow. I reached out my legs again and rolled into them to make contact with the floor, then looked around the room at the other humans.
“It's very important you all help Stephanie out with what I'm about to tell her, so nopony go anywhere, OK?” I'd done a little bit too good of a job trying to sound like a kindergarten teacher, and it made me feel...weird.
“'Nopony'...!” she squealed again at the foot of the stairs. Oh forget it - I knew I was only letting out more rope to eventually hang myself, but in the moment I was having an absolute blast making someone this excited. Excuse me, somepony. I couldn't keep from smiling ridiculously back at her. Finally this was getting fun.
I stepped with increasing confidence around the coffee table, past the humans, to the foot of the stairs against the far wall, wobbling only slightly as a back hoof slid on an unnoticed empty bag of nachos.
She leaped up the stairs and disappeared into what I presumed was the room she picked for our talk, and as I reached the bottom of the stairs after her, I turned around to face the Living Room Trio. “Alright, we'll be right back,” I said, “we just need to talk for a little bit. Remember, we need your help for royal unicorn business! I'll explain everything later! Don't go anywhere!”
Before I could start my mission to walk up the stairs without looking like a stroke victim, Shannon turned back to me and somberly but cautiously asked, “How does she know about...? What was she talking about just now?”
I winked at her. “Oh, it's alright!” I accidentally squealed out, and cleared my throat again, “None of you are in any danger.”
Good job, Secret Agent Man, THAT'LL make 'em feel safe. Maybe you should keep a “this is for your own protection” in the pocket too, if you want 'em to REALLY trust you.
Wait! Of course! “...As long as you trust me and stick close, that is. I promise you'll all be fine,” I lied. As long as I was essentially holding them hostage, I figured I might as well get some Stockholm Syndrome working for me.
Now say “Come with me if you want to live!”
As I turned around and my head passed the corner of the stairwell, I heard Douglass cry out with sarcastic resignation, “I fucking KNEW IT!”
In front of me was a mine shaft climbing up to some dark, unseen surface miles above, lined with the same comfy, broken-in carpet as the living room. Didn't an insurmountable grade this steep and high normally have a big, hissing platform elevator? I wondered if there was a way for me to sue the architect for not making this house Pony Accessible.
It's just stairs, dude.
Alright. I only needed to put one hoof in front of the other and follow Stephanie to whatever awaited me. As if preparing a landing strip, she hit a switch out of sight in the upstairs hallway, and the stairwell filled with light. My front end was safely out of sight behind the living room wall, but I wanted to get my back end hidden as soon as possible as well.
With my human legs I would regularly bound up stairs two at a time, but now that'd be a synchronized dance I wouldn't attempt without at least a helmet, and maybe a zipline to get back down (and some way to clean off mysterious tree sap).
The hand rail on one side would have seemed a lot less mocking if it didn't intersect my eye level, but ignoring it, I walked my front legs up the stairs until I felt a pull on the rest of me, then raised my back pair onto the bottom step. It turned out to be surprisingly trouble-free, actually, though I felt like a clumsy accordion as I alternated my front and back to keep them about three steps apart.
After about twenty seconds I reached the top, and walked myself forward and then sideways until each leg was safely on the second floor.
Stephanie was waiting in a door about eight feet down the hall, watching me with a big smile, and I quickly covered the distance and then walked past her through the door.
“Oh... I'm sorry, I didn't think about that,” she said, “Are stairs hard? For ponies?”
“Uhh, no, I'm kinda off today... I just don't know what went wrong!” That was some low-hanging fruit, but it still earned me another neck hug.
Stephanie closed the door, and without stopping to think that maybe I shouldn't grab the Money Spot (c'mon, I've had a rough morning), I ignored the sleeping bag on the floor and put my front hooves up on the big bed, then jumped with my back legs, flopping down on the covers and arranging myself on my stomach in a pose that I knew objectively I was capable of, but the way my limbs suddenly retracted under me made me involuntarily retch. Fortunately Stephanie had been looking away, pacing around the tiny room in excitement.
“Oh my god, ohhhhhhhhh my god, this is just so cool!” Stephanie was shaking her head and smiling.
“Ican'tbelieveI'mtalkingtoapony!” I smiled back. On one level I still couldn't really believe I was a pony, talking. I shifted on the bed, trying to hide how incredibly strange it felt to be folded up with my legs tucked underneath me like the flaps of a cardboard box. I felt physically fine, but couldn't stop anticipating the strange contortions to begin hurting at any moment, which prevented me from actually feeling comfortable. The blanket was bunching up in some indiscernible way at my waist, and the sensation of my knees on the sides of my stomach made me think my hips were seconds away from popping out of their sockets. In fact, everything below my waist just felt...
I retched again. Maybe this pose was a bad idea. No—If there was a way to get back to my old body, surely it required me to first master this one.
“So what's your name?” Stephanie was still excitedly pacing.
“Rrrrro-(YAWN) Blue Shift. It's Blue Shift.” I smiled and gestured knowingly to my Ass Galaxy.
“So what does it mean, exactly? What kind... What kind of talent would that be? ...Cosmology?” She asked with genuine curiosity.
I'd been dreading this... I wasn't entirely sure myself, but knowing that it was somehow representative of me, I gambled that just saying the first thing that popped into my head would have a good chance of being right. “It's, uh... I take...disparate...things from very far away, and quickly bring them close together...” Not terrible. “Uh, 'consilience!'” I shouted. No, too pretentious. “I go in my own direction, against the flow of the expanding universe...” What are you, Hot Topic Steven Hawking? “Also, space is neat!” There we go.
“So are you really from Equestria? It's...real?” She leaned in a little, and I laughed weakly and shrugged, avoiding her eyes and unwilling to answer either way. “You know there's a show about you guys here, right? It's a cartoon, uh, about the Elements of Harmony? Does it bother you if I talk about it? Wait, have real ponies actually seen it?”
“Oh no no, it's fine, but please don't go telling everyo- pony, 'cuz it'd just make things more complicated for me,” I said jovially, and she nodded acknowledgment. “But no, I like the show... It makes us look good!”
“Wow... Have any other ponies seen it? Has Celestia seen it?!”
“I wouldn't really know...I can really only speak for myself on that...”
“Oh, wow... So you came here on your own, then... Are you not supposed to come to Earth or something? You're not gonna be in trouble, are you!?" She slapped her palms down on her knees to support leaning far forward. I felt a twang of discomfort as the familiar bipedal gesture suddenly struck me as alien and uncanny, as if she were some kind of avant garde chair.
"Noooo no no no! It's fine! I'm—But yeah, I'm here on my own. I just wanted, uh, I just wanted to check it out."
"Well, I hope you can stay for a while! So tell me, did ponies like, plant the idea for the show in humans' minds, or...what happened? It can't be a coincidence!”
“No, I should say not, but, uh, that kinda thing's really not my bailiwick!” I stuck out my tongue.
Stephanie laughed and sat down facing me, on top of a rumpled sleeping bag, and scooted forward a little causing her plaid pajama pants to bunch up around her waist. Reflexively I glanced at her crotch, but looked away again before anything could register. I made a mental note to check later if I still liked girls, but at the moment I was too stressed to be attracted to much of anything. The possibility of having my sexual preference flipped around to mirror my original gender made me ambivalent (On the one hoof, ew and how dare they, but on the other, fair enough I guess), but as long as I genuinely liked what I liked either way, I didn't regard it as a high-priority problem.
The fact that I so far I'd seemed unchanged in other respects and didn't feel any “different” inside in general (though how would I tell, if a different me was doing the looking?) didn't lead me to suspect any changes of that sort, but who knew what different ratios of sex hormones my brain was now marinating in and what effect that might eventually have? And more worryingly, there could be totally unknown pony factors that might manifest themselves later: My memories and personality—everything I had effortless conscious access to—seemed to have been faithfully maintained, but there's a lot more to a brain than that, and I hoped I wouldn't find myself betrayed by some equine instinct I didn't know was there to be defused. Was I constantly being “dosed” with some alien concoction? Was there pony “spyware” hidden in my brain, and what would happen if it turned on?
“You know, you're a lot bigger than I thought...!” I mentally thanked Stephanie for bringing me back to reality. “Way more... realistic, too. You look pretty much like a real pony.”
I looked down at my chest and forelegs tucked underneath, then grinned. “I am real.”
“Hahaha, no... I mean, not all stylized like the show. Have you seen an Earth po- I mean, a pony from our world?”
“I always imagined ponies—Equestrians, I mean—were like, this tall,” she held her hand about three feet off the ground, “like a big dog, maybe, but you might be bigger than I am!” She wasn't the most massive individual, at about 5'3”, but it was true—I was definitely within the size range of Earth-as-in-the-planet ponies and not something that could curl up in your lap or walk on your keyboard. Though I didn't seem much different in terms of theoretical stretched-out length from my original body, I was thicker all over, and as I glanced back at the rising and falling contours of the blue hairy thing I was piloting around, I wondered how much I weighed now. I was making a respectable dent in the bed.
Stephanie apparently picked up on my eye direction, blurting out “How much do you wei-” before stopping herself with a facepalm worthy of a dictionary illustration.
“No, it's alright... I...I don't actually know!” She flashed an expression of pleasant surprise, and I considered making a Dove billboard joke or invoking Lena Dunham, but paused as it only made me wonder again where the hell my own clothes had gone.
“Try to pick me up and tell me,” I deadpanned. I didn't know where that came from—probably the same place my clothes had run off to—but she laughed and scooted forward again.
“Ohmigod, I just have so many questions!” She was right, asking in such a rapid fire succession that thankfully I didn't need to come up with answers—How old I was, where in Equestria I was from, what did we real ponies think of the TV show, did I have any family, what kind of magic could I do, and ooh ooh had I met the Princesses, what were they like, how long had Luna been back, had I been to Ponyville, did I know any of the Mane 6, was it really dangerous with all the monsters everywhere, do ponies ever seriously fight each other, had I ever seen a sonic rainboom, or the Wonderbolts, or Celestia raise the sun, what other holidays were there, did that Discord thing actually happen, what about the Changeling thing, and several more I couldn't even parse into words. I grinned as wide as my cheeks would allow and my heart almost burst at how excited she was, and wished I had some actual answers I could give her.
“Could you turn on some music so they can't hear us?” I changed the subject.
“Right! The message from Celestia! Sure!” She went over to her computer and futzed with the mouse for a few seconds.
“My name is Pinkie Pie (Hello!) And I am here to say (How ya doin?) I'm gonna...”
The instant I heard the opening guitar strums I threw my head back with laughter and let myself sing along with her until the end of the first chorus. “Ha...haha... Alright, alright...That was awesome, but we both know that's a long one. So if you—OH, what the hay!!” We both sang along till the bridge, at which point she stopped it so we could move on. It was physically less of a struggle to sing with this even, non-gravelly voice, though not being used to it I had trouble staying on key.
“Hahaha, ha...OK,” I wheezed in between laughs, “Something a little more cloak and dagger, if you don't mind.” She opened up a rock playlist and the fuzzy, rolling opening of The Black Keys' “Gold on the Ceiling” blared out of the little portable speakers. I nodded my approval at the unexpected choice, and then a little bit to the beat. She was still concentrating on the laptop, which was almost too bad since I wanted to see how she'd react to a pony digging on rock music.
She abruptly spun around. “Before you tell me, can I just touch your ears? ...I'm sorry, it's just...!”
I glanced away. This was going to become “weird” after the fact if she found out I was the same human male she'd been talking to the previous night. Hell, it was weird now. At the same time, I couldn't deny the appeal of little affection in these troubled times, and far be it from me to crush in someone else the very same curiosity I'd indulged earlier.
“It...uh...Sure! I mean, hooooowwwww often do you get to meet a pony, right?” I said with an avuncular drone I hoped would later make it seem like I was trying not to enjoy it too much.
She squealed and hopped over to the bed, sitting down next to me and putting a thumb and forefinger on each ear. I remember those... I shuddered and tensed a little at the sensation of being touched in what I naturally considered the empty air above my head, and with a mild involuntary snort, automatically both ears both flopped down out of her grasp. “Sorry. Try again,” I said and relaxed my...scalp...and they popped up again. She lightly rubbed them like a pair of dollar bills as I stared straight ahead at the wall, hearing the loud PWUHFPWUHT of movement so close to my eardrums and then listening to how the timbre of the music changed as she moved them around by their tips.
She let go and I shook them out, noticing for the first time that they actually felt like the closest thing to fingers on this body. I closed my eyes and played with them a little more, seeing if I could make them dance or otherwise do something interesting. It still felt utterly bizarre, but gradually became just “novel” as I gained more coordination with them over the course of half a minute or so.
“Oh that's so cool!” she squawked in a tiny, pinched voice and hugged my neck. I dialed up a low-key nervous laugh from my catalog of tension-defusers and kept staring straight ahead. She pulled back, but left a hand on my shoulder, and started petting me. I frowned slightly despite the fact that everything rearward of my frontal cortex very much did not want her to stop. Like ostentatious facial hair that strangers ask to touch, the hairs of the coat... multiply it: If you ever find yourself in the body of a pony, "being petted" absolutely needs to go on your to-do list.
“You're so soft!” Steph squeaked excitedly, before jerking her hand back with a self-conscious “Oops!” and her own nervous laugh, shifting away on the bed.
I echoed it and looked back at her with a shrug, which was actually possible now in the traditional sense because I was lying on my stomach. Deep in my lizard brain, which I noted I still had, I realized if I wanted to, I could totally just kiss her right there, and on a higher level I noted that the fuzzy feeling in my stomach and rise in my throat meant that, in fact, I did still like (human) girls.
Suddenly I worried if the laconic chuckle I had just given didn't in fact come off as bedroom eyes, and more importantly if my unfamiliar equipment out of sight in the back wasn't automatically spooling up into Standby Mode, or whatever it was supposed to do. No activity so far as I could tell...unless that—NOPE, just my imagination—and I pressed my tail hard into my whole butt...area...just in case. Even though the way that tail had twitched a couple times when she was petting me was also totally voluntary and on purpose and that's final.
I didn't want to deal with this—It still felt like I was “house sitting” this body, and now on top of it I was taking care of the unknown owner's metaphorical expensive pet bird or heirloom piano, and if I so much as sat on it wrong some kind of silent alarm would be tripped and then Virginia Woolf would kick down the door and demand to see my papers, lest she bludgeon me to death with a copy of Orlando.
For the first time since I'd woken up as a pony, I actually felt naked.
I glanced idly around the room, trying to look like I was doing anything except defending myself from my own charges of thoughtcrime for so much as entertaining the concept of inter-species lesbianism, with its inevitably ensuing mental slide show.
Fuckin-A, man, I'd do both a' them chicks. Even the weird-shaped one.
'It's a travesty of justice, Your Honor! The defendant was of the same species less than twenty-four hours ago and remains mentally unchanged!' And life had conditioned me, in a very Pavlovian way, to expect that a situation where I was sitting naked on a bed while a girl put her hands on me was tacitly agreed to end in fucking. I wasn't the badguy here, right!? If it turns out I can't change back, there's still no goddamn way I'm gonna remain celibate for the rest of my life!
I wondered if she'd be this forward and open if I'd been a stallion. Probably, but I still felt like some kind of insidious sleeper agent. Even though I hadn't actually done anything inappropriate as far as I could tell, I knew this kind of inherently deceptive situation was one of those things people are encouraged to get upset about, and that surely in the eyes of some cadre of advice columnists or bloggers somewhere I was evil just for being there and still on a major thoughtcrime-spree. Perhaps if I were rumbled, I could exploit (ahem) this female voice to keep the truth from sinking in on anything but a purely intellectual level...
I wondered if any equivalent of this had entered Stephanie's mind, or if the tension was entirely unilateral. I doubted anything major had made it to the forefront of her consciousness, since while I was accustomed to thinking of human women in that context, she didn't know that, and to her I was very likely not even on the radar in the first place. Then again, we shared a culture full of sexualized riding crops and saddles, and that “Riding My Pony” club song by Ginuwine with what sounds like frogs burping in the background, etc., and that laptop she brought could be full of Rule 34 for all I knew. Anything was possible, as of today.
But no. No no no no no. I'd had enough of that. I didn't actually want to, I mean, not the real me, not really. Not in a way any more salient than a simple appetite, like sleep, food, really being able to kill for a beer, or suddenly and inexplicably wanting to go play mini golf—Which I suppose is exactly the attitude that always made me something of the manwhore I was worried about being outed as. But Steph wasn't even my type—Shannon downstairs was a lot closer, looks wise—and while idle flirting and casual sex were decent entertainment, once the challenge of charming your way into someone's pants had been met, it was honestly pretty downhill from there, made worthwhile mainly by a desire to be seen as good in bed. Ironically, that desire itself helped keep me from seriously considering moving things in that direction—How do you even kiss someone with a... a muzzle? Was it better or worse than braces?
But dude, if SHE wants a slice a' that—
Noooooooope. You're done. Shut it down, she's not touching us anymore and we've got more important things to think about.
Like yer hopefully not too weird lookin'—
Right, we get it. You can stop.
I ain't gonna stop till it starts doin' somethin'! Quit box-blockin' yerself!
What? Is that even—OK, I promise when I have a chance I will get up on that, so to speak.
'S all I'm askin'...
Are you done? OK... Always conceiving of every crazy thing I could do was so exhausting. Poe called it the Imp of the Perverse, and Sartre said it was the price of free will, but I doubt even they managed to foresee someone trying to repress their knowledge of the fact that, if they wanted to, they could indeed inflict pony pantyhamster on anyone they encountered.
But that awareness of the normally inconceivable or taboo was also a wellspring of creativity, and I wouldn't trade it for peace of mind in a zillion years. I still apparently had a human brain, and I wondered if I had been a pony through-and-through, assuming they really were qualitatively different inside, if suddenly a whole realm of thoughts would now be closed to me. It was an upsetting idea—Besides the inherent creepiness of being thus rewritten, there were already too many ideas forbidden to my brain (higher dimensions sprang to mind immediately, or rather didn't, to my daily dismay). It was more upsetting, in fact, than the awareness of unsettling possibilities which it would aim to dispel.
Reconciled once again to thinking uncomfortable thoughts, I now glanced at Steph with genuine calm, and tried to assess any tension between us. If she thought I'd acted weird after she pet me I'd just dismiss it as “a pony thing,” I mean, how would she know otherwise?
Heh heh heh, I'LL show her a Pony Thing!
You're back? Good luck with that. ...At that moment, from somewhere deep in my brain's sub-basement I heard Stephanie as the French knight from Monty Python & The Holy Grail cry out “We've already got one, you see!” There we go: Few things can kill game (or bring it back to life, depending) like a Monty Python reference.
“This is kinda stupid, but...” Stephanie looked sheepish and glanced anywhere but my eyes. Oh no, what did she figure out...? I sniffed as stealthily as possible—Did I 'smell'? I dearly hoped not but I didn't have any experience with this new tapestry of fragrances... “But... umm..” She brought her shoulders up and leaned in conspiratorially. “...Do you wanna see my OC pony?”
I smiled broadly. You know what? I definitely did.
The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate.
+ + +
“Oh, she's adorable...!”
“Hahaha, wow, thanks! You have no idea how awesome it is to hear a real pony say that!”
She showed me a vector image apparently made in some kind of character creator, a peach pegasus with a wavy turquoise mane, and a mark of what looked like a theater light. That's right, we'd been talking about acting out on the deck...Or was that—No, guerrilla theater in Austin, that was it.
...What would an actor pony do about an...acting mark? I doubt they only played other actors. Did they dye it out, or was there some spell that could disguise it for the duration of a play or a run of takes? Did they always wear clothes on stage? Or maybe they just ignored it as suspension of disbelief. If I ever found out, Steph'd be the first to know.
Wait—Unlike Rob, Blue Shift didn't know anything about her story. “So what made you choose that cutie mark?” I asked.
“Oh, well...I guess I can tell you,” she prefaced, “I used to go to college in Aus—In this place called Austin, Texas. University of Texas.”
“Oh, like in 'Slacker!'” Oops.
She would have done a spit take if she'd been drinking anything, but instead buried her face in my back and yelled a muffled “ohmigod!” Her breath felt humid and kind of gross, even through my coat. She pulled her head away and breathed deeply as her peals of laughter subsided.
“I never would have thought a pony would...!”
“...Why not?” It was too late to salvage any pretense of innocence, so I decided to move things in the direction of honesty. “I might be a pony, but I can still think it's the best Richard Linklater movie. 'Dazed & Confused' is good, sure, but 'Slacker' just has... it's purer, I guess you could call it.”
“Hahaha, wow, where did you see all this?”
“Uh, well, I'm something of a 'Lyra,' I guess you could say. That's a big part of what I'm doing here.”
“She's... really like that, huh? So...you're...interested in humans?”
“Well, are there any questions you have? About Earth or anything?”
“Hmm, well, you were telling me about when you were in college...”
Braaaaaa-vooooo [Clap. Clap. Clap.] Way to get her to open up to you under false pretenses, you not-actually-a-pony bastard.
Shut up, I wanna put off telling her my thing as long as possible.
“Oh, yeah...” She straightened up and her voice dropped to a more relaxed register. “So I was in college... Now, my family wa- is pretty strict, and since I was the first one to actually go to college, they weren't going to let me study anything but some kind of engineering. They pushed for 'nuclear' and I went along. But the thing is, I could muddle through OK but I really hated it. It was absolutely the last thing I wanted to spend my life doing, and it matters to me what I do—I'm not just one of those people who can get any job and then settle down to have their 'real' life with their family in the off-hours. I'm not even sure if I want to have a family. It's not like mine gave me a good impression of the whole idea.”
Uh oh. I tried not to inhale too dramatically, but I was nonetheless bracing myself: 'An ordinary pony, asking an ordinary question, has now crossed into... The Drama Zone.' I was terrible at this kind of thing. I'd never been able to maintain interest in the supposed 'traumas' in my own life and felt like I had no right to trivialize other people's serious issues by letting them even pass through my brain, which would pounce on them with as much implacable playfulness as a kitten following a laser pointer.
Well obvs. None of that shit is fun on its own.
Exactly. You're not helping.
“I see,” I provided by way of formal acknowledgment.
"My family is kind of... I feel really weird talking to a pony about this because you have...you know, um, actual goddesses, but for my family, there's only one right way for anyone to do something, and they'll tell you it's the one God decided, so when I, um..." She paused, then sniffed absentmindedly, pulling her upper lip into a momentary sneer. Something about the scent in the room changed, a kind of mixing-in of an abrasive substance, but I didn't have the experience to interpret it. "You have to understand, they put all their hopes and dreams into me, and when I discovered theater and realized that's what I really wanted to do, and how much I hated all the... dead machine stuff—When I met Amir and Demetrius and Kate, and they showed me... They showed me the kind of person I actually want to be, it was like I turned into... some kind of alien in their eyes."
"Hmm." No hoof in mouth so far. Alright. Keep it simple.
"They stopped helping with my tuition, and my scholarship ran out... I picked up a job but it wasn't enough. I had to drop out and so I invested everything in my theater troupe, but after a couple years everyone kinda... They kinda developed their own dreams and drifted apart. We all moved away, one at a time... I moved back to Michigan, and lived with—Do gay ponies... Is there, um, an 'issue' with gay ponies in Equestria?"
"No, ev...everypony's just really cool about... all that." It was the right answer either way; if there really were pony homophobes, she didn't need to hear about 'em right now.
"Ugh, you're so lucky. Anyway, I lived with an old gay friend of mine from high school, as if I couldn't already not talk to my parents after dropping out." Stephanie leaned back and looked at the ceiling. "Or my siblings. They were kind of... 'Oops Babies,' and I was the only one who had anything you could call a college fund at the time. God... I bet I sound so selfish, don't I?"
"I, uh... I couldn't tell ya... It sounds like they were just, uh, using you as a feather in their cap instead of letting you have your own life... I guess?" Ohhhh boy, get ready to backpedal.
"Hmm, I suppose that's one way to look at it." Stephanie exhaled a puff of air, mirroring my own relief, then leaned forward a little and smiled. "But my friend and I were pretty, you know, isolated in rural Michigan, and that's when he and I got into—That's when we started watching that show about you guys, and when we found out how big it was, and started making friends through it online and going to conventions and stuff, I started to think things might get, I dunno, fun again."
"Let's hope so...! We'll, uh, do what we can..."
"Haha, thanks ...But that's about it. Heh. If you wanted to learn about Earth I guess that's the best I can offer. It's kind of a fucked up place... Ohmigod, I'm sorry—I didn't mean to swear."
"No, that's cool, I'm... We ponies are adults the same as you..." I leaned my head slightly back and mimicked Stephanie's earlier gesture towards the ceiling. I wanted to articulate a defense of human moral progress, and ask just what she expected a civilization bootstrapped up from bacteria to look like, but sufficiently casual, incisive words wouldn't come.
Stephanie chuckled at my admission of maturity, then leaned forward again, raising her hands off the floor behind her to sit once more in her lap. "I didn't mean to bring you down or anything. I just figured if anyone would listen it would be a pony."
I smiled. "Of course."
Your turn, dude.
Alright. "Stephanie..." I began. Names. Names meant serious. "I have something I need to tell you, too."
She leaned forward and smiled. No doubt she thought it was the eventual message from Celestia. I continued. "First I want to say thanks for being as nice and helpful as you've been, but I need to tell you something important, and it's not good." I made sure my eyebrows were appropriately drawn, and she leaned forward even farther, her own eyebrows knitting into an expression of steely resolve, though her mouth was suppressing a smile, and her left foot was jiggling to bleed off the excitement of this encounter.
“Okay, don't be disappointed...” I said, looking down at my hooves stretched in front of me on the bed.
“How could I be disappointed!?” she was shifting back and forth excitedly, sitting cross-legged on the floor below me.
“I know how you feel... I would feel the same way...” I smiled sheepishly and tried to affect just a pinch of a stoned Mitch Hedberg ramble, a reliable way up until then to seem guileless, though I wasn't sure if it was coming out as intended with a female voice—I would say maybe I pulled off a passable Sarah Silverman in a sleepier mood. “...But I wasn't really honest with you back there.”
She stopped rocking and leaned in to pay close attention. “I just needed to keep... hmm...” I paused. I didn't know how to spin this. “The other people didn't know about the TV show, or at least didn't associate me with it, and I just didn't want to...um...” I exhaled deliberately “I didn't want to be recognized. It would complicate things.” She nodded and seemed convinced, and technically I wasn't lying, but I felt she deserved better than yet another layer of manipulation, and frankly I just wanted to lay out the whole truth to somepony.
“Okay...” I began. This was going to be a difficult needle to thread. I needed a way to tell her who I really was and that I wanted to get back to normal without her getting the idea of trying to don the “best theoretically possible cosplay” of the character she'd just showed me. If I were in her situation I know I'd be almost irresistibly tempted to try out hooves for a while too, and it occurred to me that my own suppressed but constant excitement at the literally miraculous situation I found myself in might be the real reason I'd been acting so manic.
I wasn't exactly sure why I had to keep her from becoming a pony as well, it just seemed like the kind of thing one does in this sort of situation. It was complicated and probably quite dangerous to be a pony, and I guessed it would be irresponsible to allow someone else to put themselves in harm's way. Also, I didn't know if I'd ultimately be able to change back, and stopping someone else from making such a huge, permanent life decision in such a heightened emotional state was basically the plot of every medical drama ever.
But deep down I knew that on a visceral level I wanted to be the only pony. This was probably the most mind-blowing thing that would ever happen to me, and I did not want to share. But she saw me light that paper, and if she figured out exactly who I was, making the connection would be only too easy and I probably wouldn't be able to stop her if she got a hold of it, wherever it had gone. Appropriately enough, Green Day's “Minority” came up next on the playlist, and the temptation to simply scrap my confession and sing along with abandon was difficult to resist. Nevertheless, I forced myself to continue.
I decided to start off vague. “Okay...I've only been letting this out a bit at a time, but I hope at the end you'll understand why,” I began again. “I both am, and am not, what I appear to be. I am an Equestrian unicorn pony...” I gestured with my eyes to my horn and flank. “But I've never been there, or met Princess Celestia and to be honest I don't know if all that really exists or not.” She suddenly looked puzzled. That was OK, we were in the same boat then.
“But let's assume they're real, because I am,” I knocked on my chest twice to demonstrate my corporeality, then continued in dismissive rapid fire, wanting to get the bizarre ideas out of the way. “So why not the whole shebang? It's just simpler. The only other explanation involves someone else just as powerful pretending to be them, so...Occam's Razor n' all that, right?” She nodded and was more or less following along but her brow was knit in a way that told me she was concerned about where this was going.
“So... I came into being when...No, that's not even true, hang on...”
Fucking out with it, dude.
Alright, first gotta set the context: “Last night, did you meet someone who...Alright, you know what? First I need you to absolutely PROMISE me you won't tell this to anyp—Anyone, aright? Give me your hand.” She did, and I lightly touched it on either side with two smooth blue hooves. It was a strange contrast. She promised to keep quiet. We both smiled a little as we knew the other one was wondering if one of us would invoke a Pinkie Pie promise.
I continued. “OK, last night, did you meet a guy who, uh, rolled a joint with paper cut from a fancy scroll he pulled out of his bag?”
“Yeah. ...He was kind of a weirdo.” I scowled for a instant. “He took the whole thing in one monster hit and then wandered off. Wait...” her pitch dropped, “the, the green flash and everything, that was a 'Letter', wasn't it?” I nodded. “We thought it was...I dunno, fireworks. So, that was...delivered, and you were...sent here in response? Or...?...I don't really understand.”
“No...The... That huge hit, right?” I grimaced with rapidly mounting discomfort. It felt like I was leaping off a diving board into ice cold water. “That was me. I'm that guy,” I croaked out, and fought to keep the embarrassed smile from my face.
“hhhhwwWhat?” she voicelessly exhaled.
Some of my nerve had regenerated now that my secret was out. “That's right...Got... Got turned into a pony...!” I roughly ran a hoof up the side of my face in embarrassment. Somehow, even though it was a perfect summation of my entire morning and the most honest thing I'd said all day, it felt almost intolerably strange to hear it finally come out of my mouth, in the voice that served as its proof. I realized that feeling was the last barrier between myself and the reality of the situation finally crumbling to ash. “So y-you understand, right? Why I didn't just... tell you?” She still seemed stunned. “I mean, one surprise at a time, right?” I tried to say brightly.
She'd left her legs crossed but flopped down on her back, and was staring up and the ceiling. “...Wow,” she flatly intoned. Suddenly she sat up and smiled. “Do you have any more of that paper?”
+ + +
I explained to her everything that had happened so far. I skipped a few details like the dump I took and flexing in the mirror, but I conveyed the gist of the interactions I'd had, and both my own ideas and what I figured the humans downstairs believed. Steph turned off the music and listened passively, nodding along at intervals.
When I'd finished, she waited for a moment then scooted forward again. “So what's it like?”
“Being a pony! Duh!”
“Oh, uh... it's, uh...it's alright I guess... Ow! You didn't have to punch me in the chest!”
She started laughing. “No, I just wanted to, you dick! C'mon, tell me for real.”
“Well what do you say to something like that? OK, ummm... Well, I think 'Mr. Ed' is really offensive now... OK, OK, I'm sorry! Don't hit me again! Hahaha, alright... Well, it's all...horizontal, and actually really, really weird.”
“So... I'm sitting, right? Only I'm not sitting, because half of me is lying down, so I'm like... My head and neck, and I guess my chest, feel like I'm sitting upright, with my head waaay up here on this crazy thing," I rolled my neck around like a wrecking crane. "But then suddenly doink, I'm lying down. On my limp hands pressed into my chest. And I can feel my knees above my stomach and my one toe on my ribcage.”
“I can't stop being hyper-aware of it... And it's just...normal. Like, it doesn't hurt, so you feel like it must really be that you're coiled up to face some challenge or disaster, so your stomach is just...butterflies, just constantly, but whatever it is never comes, and then it hits you again and again—'Holy shit, it's me, because I am an actual pony now and...and I have four legs and I have a tail and...hooves and...I'm covered in hair and... is this going to be my life now?'” I had to fight to keep my voice from breaking towards the end. There was no way Steph didn't notice.
“Like, lookit this...” I turned my head back to watch it and then swished my tail a few times. “That's me. I'm doing that. It feels like someone yanked it out of me, all like 'Here you go! This is what your spine does now!'” I released a puff of air and my ears slowly drooped to the side. “Oh yeah, and the ears...” I looked up and straightened them out. “Just... It's like...what you've relied on your whole life is gone, and there's all this extra stuff you don't know what to do with.”
It dawned on me as I was speaking that I was also realizing what I had been thinking myself on the matter, like an instructor not knowing how much they really know about their own technique until they lay it out for a student.
“What about the horn, if you don't mind me asking?”
“No, that's fine... Uh... I don't know. Yet, I mean. So far it's just an ordinary horn, but I've only been a pony for like an hour and a half.”
“Maybe I can help you think of a way to get it working.”
“That'd be great. I tried to levitate that glass of water earlier, but like I said, nothing happened at all—the horn doesn't even have feeling in it—so I just grabbed it with these.” I used my head to gesture down at my forelegs.
“Was that hard?”
“Yes.” I let that segue into a moment of silence for my thumbs.
“What kind of stuff did you try to move the glass?”
“I dunno... Just concentrating in different ways on different things, I guess. Something tells me I'm going to have to 'notice' my horn first, before I can do anything with it.”
“What do you mean?”
“So earlier, right? When I was in the bathroom? I was trying to move my tail but I couldn't do it, there was just nothing to move, so I stepped on it and pulled a little, and then ta-daaa, there it was. It wasn't something I could just will myself to do because it was something outside the range of sensations I knew about. So I had to force it into my consciousness from outside. But now...” I swished it again a few times for effect. “But I have to squeeze a muscle in what used to be empty space. Same with the ears...” Flop, flop. “Though that was easier because they move on their own. Like yawning or smiling—You can kinda control it but also kinda not.”
“It sounds like... Like you can use all the things you already had...arms, legs, mouth and such...But new things like a tail or pony ears or a horn aren't... plugged in right away.”
“Something like that. That's certainly what it feels like. The connections are there, but I don't know how to access them because I have to come up with entirely new things to try to think and feel, and they're just guesses. It's like trying to come up with the color blue if you've never seen it before, but if someone shows it to you it's like, 'oh, of course.'”
“Riiight... The potential was there, but you don't have the experience to draw on.” Steph nodded slowly.
“Yeah... It kinda seems to be happening with my sense of smell, too. Stuff just smells...'more.' And more than it did when I woke up. Like the olfactory bulb or whatever is getting more...funding.”
“Hmmm... Oh, here, go like this.” She pulled her lips back to expose as much of her teeth as possible in a kind of fake Hollywood smile. I mimicked her and suddenly started back—A block of animal scents in front of me suddenly popped out of the landscape of odors in the room. I immediately realized it was Steph herself but I had no idea how to interpret any of what I was smelling.
“Whoa!” I closed my mouth and she faded back into the scentscape. “You, like, 'popped out.' Smell-wise. Uh, not in a bad way.”
“I wanted to check something, about how close you were to a regular pony.”
“Really close. That lip thing is something a lot of animals... um, sorry...”
“...A lot of animals, including horses, do in order to better pick up the scents of friends and mates and stuff... I forget what it's called, though.” I blinked in surprise, not knowing exactly what to do with this information. “There's some extra gland or something in there that gets exposed, and I wanted to see if that was wired up, too.”
“I guess it is. My poor brain's got a lot on its plate now... Hopefully this isn't all zero-sum and I'm going to forget all of 2006 or something.”
“Haha, yeah, let's hope...!”
“But that might be worth it if I could get this horn working.”
Suddenly Steph's hand shot out and batted my horn. My head went with it and I yelped with shock and not a little pain, then righted myself and glared at her.
“Anything? I figured it was worth a try...” She leaned forward a bit in earnest curiosity.
“No, sorry. My forehead kinda hurts, but warn me next time.”
“OK, I just thought the surprise might make it stand out more.”
“Sure... Anyway, I think it's gonna take something else. It's supposed to be magic, right? The other ones were ordinary muscles, but this is something totally different. We don't even have any good leads on what it would react to. It might not even be real, or it might not work outside of Equestria. If that's even real.”
“I think it's a safe bet that it is at this point.”
“Yeah, probably. But it could still be a... style or something some... alien has adopted to mess with me. I don't want to take too much for granted.”
“Brony aliens, huh?”
“Can't deny that's wide appeal.”
As a natural conversational silence fell over the room I suddenly realized both the names “Equestria” and “Princess Celestia” and been loudly thrown around in front of all the people downstairs, and I hoped with all my might it wouldn't occur to them to google those names and add an entirely new dimension of unanswered questions to this ordeal. Please let them at least have accidentally turned on safe search...
“OK, we'll go and... Well shit, we will probably have to go find it anyway,” I said as Steph snorted with amusement at seeing a swearing unicorn mare, “We'll go get that paper, but first can you do me a huge favor?”
“Sure.” She was still friendly and energetic, but I was a little sad to see the ecstatic excitement fade as she learned there was really just some guy inside this magical mare instead of a real-live citizen of Equestria. But at least I represented a path to more potential wonders, and she was still captivated by the whole situation, despite it losing a layer of mystique.
“Can you go downstairs and check on the other -” I caught myself before I said 'humans' but I didn't know what better to call them and besides, that was the difference between them and me that was the crux of the whole matter. But I didn't want to give the impression that I was somehow drifting away from humanity or creating an 'us and them' dynamic. “...On the people downstairs who might have seen me? You know, just so that they haven't left and gotten a news crew or called the Pentagon or something?”
Both those thoughts froze my blood... I didn't think I'd simply be attacked or otherwise abducted—I was far too valuable alive and once they knew I could communicate, no First World government with so much to lose would risk upsetting the unknown and powerful forces I could claim to represent—Or that were responsible for my impossible transformation, lest the same happen to them—But they were still complete unknowns and could end in any way whatsoever, or not end at all...
And while getting discovered by the media and being famous through no effort on my own part sounded pretty cool, it also sounded like it would involve far too much getting up early and following directions—Interestingly the exact same pro and con that had once stopped me from joining the very same military I was now planning again to avoid.
“Of course. Do we have...a plan, or anything?” Steph asked as she got up and walked to the door. I brightened as she said 'we,' but darkened again as I realized the answer.
“No, I've just...” my voice broke as the stress finally started to show through it, “I've just been taking it one minute at a time since I...woke up like this.” I looked down at the floor.
She made a pitying sigh then knelt back down and stroked my cheek with one hand while scratching behind an ear with the other. I was stunned, but it was lucky she realized what she was doing and pulled away or I would have nuzzled my face into her hand in spite of myself. While the rational part of my mind wanted her to go downstairs and maintain the situation, the rest of me wanted someone to stay and pet the pony till she felt better.
“I'm sorry, I'm sorry I keep doing this!” she said as she pulled back, “I know you're really a guy, it's just—”
I was sad that Necessity kept me from just asking her to stay and continue, but on top of that I didn't want her to think I was somehow being “affected” by my condition on a level more insidious than the merely psychological. Not that I supposed there was even theoretically a way to clearly separate the two...Did I like that scratch behind the ears so much because of the ears, or because of the “me”? Did I want it to continue for the reassurance and distraction (and because I “d'awwww'd” imagining what it must look like from the outside) or because I'd been...deliberately modified so that that was the sort of thing I'd seek out now? It was like the zen monks arguing over whether the flag was moving or the wind was moving (punchline: mind is moving), and I forced it out of my own mind as best I could.
“D-don't worry about it...” I tried to sound nonchalant. “I know what I look like.” As soon as I heard myself I felt compelled to add, “And sound like.”
“Is that...” she began, “How do you feel about that? I mean...” I didn't even know. Talk about your intersectionality—I didn't want to sit around watching 'species' and 'sex' take each other on in the Oppression Olympics.
“Well...” I wasn't sure what to say. “You seem OK,” I quickly joked. “But uh, I dunno... The voice makes me feel...weird, you know? But that's like the only thing I can really even...tell, I guess? Everything is so different that at this point it's like, 'what difference does it make,' kinda. Like, I had a mustache and all that before, but now my face has more hair on it than it ever did. How do you even judge?”
“Really? You don't feel 'wrong', or miss your...stuff?”
“Well... You're not aware of that most of the time, though, right? I mean, I've used my voice like a hundred times already today but I haven't peed or had sex even once, so you tell me what's more integral.”
She thought that was merely another joke, a misunderstanding I seem prone to, though on another level I knew I was just rationalizing the whole thing away.
Duh! That's all you EVER do.
There was some comfort, however, in knowing that being the only one around in this situation meant I could be as flippant about it as I wanted—Who was going to say “too soon” now, right? Half-jokingly this time I did add, “I'm so straight, that is literally how uninterested I am in all dicks.” She laughed, and that inspired a new degree of actual boldness, as well, and I figured I might as well get something rather central out of the way.
“Hey, as long as we're on this topic, can you do me a...a kinda stupid favor?”
“...Sure. I'd be the one to ask, right?”
“Exactly. OK, you don't have to do this if it, uh, makes you uncomfortable or anything—That's always a great start, isn't it?—But I can't see my own...hindquarters. Can you, uh, look back there and, y'know, tell me how 'obvious' everything is?”
“Yeah, that's fine.” She was clearly a little uncomfortable, and hell, I was perhaps a good deal more than 'a little,' but it was equally clear I was asking out of a 'professional' interest, and she understood the need to assume a Mary Roach-like unflappable spirit of investigation and find out exactly what I was showing the world. She hopped up and walked around the side of the bed, then craned her neck around. I scooted forward a little bit away from the wall. “Stand up,” she said.
This was going to be tricky on the bed. I slowly extended my limbs, but the bed was firm and with four legs and a low center of gravity I was much less wobbly than I expected, and felt a boost of confidence, contrasted with the sensation of her gaze, rendered as a formless cold miasma between my legs.
“Well, move your tail out of the way or I can't see!” she said with theatrical impatience.
“Oh, sorry.” I lifted it up off to the side, and like my jaw at the dentist I hoped I could hold it there long enough before it started to ache.
“Oh my god!” she cried out, “We need to get you to a Planned Parenthood RIGHT NOW!”
She cackled gleefully. “I'm just kidding.” I felt relieved on at least two levels. “I actually dunno what to tell you,” she said, “it's an... ordinary pony's.”
“What's a... What does that mean?”
“Really?” She was mildly surprised. “Uhhhh...Hang on a sec.” Maybe that laptop was full of R34...
She walked around the bed, rifled through her bag for a second, then hopped back behind me, and I heard the tacky fake click of a cell phone camera. I winced and collapsed back down onto my stomach with a muffled thud.
“You will delete that later,” I decreed in a firm monotone.
“Obviously,” she groaned with an all but visible eye roll, then walked back around the bed and held out the little screen at my eye level. “Here.”
“Tha—Jesus Christ!” My head jerked, and my tail went slack, before I smooshed it down in lieu of underwear, then held it away again as the touch caused the subject of the photo to suddenly corroborate it. “That's what—Augh! Back there...!?” I squeaked, then bit my lip as I realized how related to it my voice was.
Steph was laughing at my display of shock, though I can't say I blamed her. I looked back at the photo and its sucker punch of a biology lesson.
'Lord, grant me chastity-remedying anatomy...but not yet.'
“Just...dang,” I added by way of a final assessment, my earlier worries about any over-the-top-ness confirmed.
“C'mon, it's not that big a deal.” Steph tried to put me back on track. “It really doesn't stand out all that much, you were just expecting a human-looking, uh, 'ninja foot.'” I begged to differ. “No one else knows you were human, though, so they'd have no reason to expect any different. It'd just be like a...like watching a nature documentary! They'd just be all like 'Huh, so that's what a unicorn's vagina looks like. Still learning every day...'” She rubbed her chin and nodded with mock intellectual satisfaction.
I looked at her with equally deliberate incredulity. “Yeah, why did David Attenborough never get around to that one?”
“You do look a little bit different,” she went on, “but you're still a real pony, and you're gonna have real pony parts.”
“Why couldn't that part have been different?” I groaned, looking up at the ceiling.
“Why would it be?” she countered. I suppose. I'd said when I first woke up that I was fine with being naked, because as long as I was a pony I might as well not half-ass it, and now I was being held to those words by a facefull of my own ass and a half.
“You'll get used to it. Ponies sure have,” she chided, and sat back down on the floor in front of me. “Same with the teats.”
Steph again threw her head back with laughter and clapped her hands. “Of course! Why do you think I had you stand up?” She began to crack up again. “Wait, did you really expect not to have any? I mean, it's not like you've got these. ” She pointed to her own relevantly-sized chest. “Trust me, you'd have noticed already.”
“I, uh... I dunno, I guess I just didn't want to think about it...” I trailed off into a mumble.
“What's so weird about it? Nipples're the one thing you already had!” She was smiling broadly and barely keeping her composure.
“Well yeah, but like, two.” My face began to assume its own embarrassed smile and I glanced away.
“Huh? You still have just two. They're down here.” She pointed just below her waist with the two fingers of one hand.
“Oh. Huh. Still learning every day...” We both laughed. “That's, uh, that's quite the Treasure Trail, then.” I looked down as if I might see them through the entire length of my body. I wasn't entirely sure I could tell—No. I was sure. Now. I'd thought it was the blanket bunching up down there.
...Great. But like Steph had said, I wasn't walking around with any boys-to-the-yard-worthy milkshake. And it wasn't going to get suitably cold for a few more months, either.
“Jeez, what kind of brony are you!?” she teased. “You don't know any pony details! Bet you don't even have any blind bag figures...!”
“I don't know what those are, but whatever! I'm the one who's actually a pony.”
“So jelly..." She paused. "Oh, shit. I'm sorry, you're probably pretty upset about what happened to you. I shouldn't have been so...”
“Nooooooo, it's fine!” I reassured her brightly, “Thanks for being so cool about me asking you to do weird, awkward things.”
“I understand, I'd have to know, too. Plus, I mean, like you said, you're a real-life Pony! Of course I wanted to just, you know, see everything.” Now it was her turn to be embarrassed, as she blushed and gave a little shrug. She leaned in slightly, narrowing her eyes and adding, “I bet you did, too...!”
“Uhh...” I gave a little chuckle. “Sure, why not?”
“...But don't get the wrong idea or anything! From what I said.” She waved her hands in front of her face. “I just meant...”
“I like guys. I do. Human guys.”
I gave her a Look.
“You know what I mean! Aaaarrgh!” She got up and roughly tousled my mane. “Sorry if you're disappointed!”
“If I'm stuck this way I'll probably be hearing that a lot.”
“Awwwwww...!” she hugged my neck, then laughed. “Don't worry, there are lots of people out there who would fuck a pony!”
“Haha, then I hope you can reach back there in the meantime.” She nodded to my rear end.
“I don't think I can, but I haven't really tried.”
She shot me look of exaggerated puzzlement, then shrugged. “You'll figure something out.” She stepped back and paused for a second before adding an amused, “Oh, you're going to have fun!”
“So I hear.” We looked away from each other's faces for a second or two.
“...Actually, in all seriousness,” she stated with sudden concern, “you should probably figure out a system before you go into heat.”
“Into... Are you fucking kidding me?! Do they... do we...do they do that?!”
“Or, I mean, change back! But, uh, judging by what I've seen of...'you' so far? How you... turned out? Yeah, you're gonna... I mean, yeah, probably. I don't know what that'll mean for you, though.”
Great, now there really was a time bomb lurking somewhere in my brain. I foresaw days and days of paranoia, every “oh, she's kinda cute” being the first warning sign of...Actual-Celestia-knows-what. I wondered if there were any parallels with gay panic in some unfortunate LGBT kid who'd internalized the views of a repressive family. A period (lawl) of all-consuming Horny I could deal with—I was in eighth grade once—but I dreaded the blast of cognitive dissonance if there were more specific urges programmed in there that conflicted with a lifetime of still-genuine “dudes: ewww!”
The Sword of Madame-ocles...!
“...How do you know so much about horses, anyway?” I was grateful for the lesson, but as a life-long city boy, also a little bit surprised.
“Um, you are aware that I was a little girl once, right?”
“Ahhhh. So how long was your photography phase afterwards, then?”
“Har har. No, I did debate.”
“No way, me too! I hated it.”
Steph laughed a little for real this time. “Also, one of my older sister's friends had horses, and I used to get to ride them sometimes. I guess a lot of that just stuck with me.” I fought the urge to look at my own back and wonder if I could pull that off. She seemed to pick up on my head twitch. “Not that I'm suggesting anything! My feet would probably be almost dragging on the ground, anyway.”
“Yeah, probably. This is hard enough already without 'brakes.'”
“Hey!” I said suddenly, surprising the both of us. “ I just realized something.”
“Downstairs, right? I talked for the first time as a pony, and I walked for the first time as a pony, right? Even got a cutie mark. Big milestones in growing up.”
“Just got the Sex Talk as a pony.” I'd have leaned back and crossed my arms if I weren't already lying on them, so I made due with just my head and neck.
We both lost it for a good ten seconds.
I keep saving your ass and what do I get?
“Well, uh, shoot,” I changed the subject, “I hate to ask you for another favor—I mean, first you gave me a cigarette on the deck last night, then you promised to keep my secret about actually being human, then you let me see my, uh... see my own vagina and anus—but could you go downstairs like we talked about and be my KGB for a little bit? You know, just keep everyone together 'till we can figure out what to do?”
She shot to her feet and saluted. “Yes, ma'am!” What passed for my my eyebrows tried to fly up off the top of my head. “You yourself pointed out what we were just looking at,” she glibly explained. Touché. I rolled my eyes and shrugged in response.
She hopped over to the door and saluted again. “I go, Comrade Red Shift!” she exclaimed in a broad Russian accent.
“Bury them,” I added with narrowed eyes and a wry nod, imitating her pronunciation. “From Stalliongrad with Love.”
She opened the door a crack and slipped through, then closed it softly but quickly behind her.
Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.
-Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant”
+ + +
Canterlot Royal Palace, West Tower
Third Functionary Suite "The Ever-Fragrant Delphinium"
10 AM, 5th day of the Month of the Lyre (June)
31st Year of the Restored Sisters, Full Measure; 7 Cockatrice 93 Fetlock, Adjusted (Conversion N/A)
Along the bottom of the cup, almost irresolvably fine flakes of tea were still rocking back and forth. Did it still taste the same? One of the indigo curtains by the open window curled luxuriantly in the intermittent breeze, but nopony saw it, for they were all fixated on the teacup, or on the placid face of its owner. Celestia's lips felt dry, and she licked them unconsciously. Four heads leaned toward her in anticipation.
Celestia suppressed a grin, then with deliberate slowness craned her neck until her head was nearly on its side, her curious eyes never straying from the teacup. She mentally counted to seven, then began to raise her head once more, coaxing another round of leaning from her audience. As her head was nearly upright, she had to fight to keep her ears from twitching at the small intake of breath from Autumn Glow, then, giggling inside like a filly who just found the family sugar bag, she paused for a beat before, with preternaturally elegant slowness, rolling her head to the other side. Now even Autumn Glow held her breath, while Celestia held another seven count.
"You know..." she said, her head still suspended sideways, causing one of her curled sideburns to droop across her cheek and muzzle. Every mare in the room but Luna, failing to conceal her own amused smile, was a statue. "I think..." She quickly licked her lips again. "...That really, every cup of tea tastes a little different. ...Wouldn't you agree?"
The three Mares in Waiting seemed to melt with relief. Celestia closed her eyes and smiled with genuine amusement, before following their example and letting her own head pull her over sideways onto the black satin cushions, the air in them escaping with a soft hiss. She nuzzled her face into them for a moment before gently exhaling, feeling the tension in her body replaced by contentment.
No, it hadn't tasted the same, but it was still good tea, from good ponies, and that's what mattered. She let her mane waft over her face and replace the crisp yellow daylight filtering through her eyelids with its own subtle glow—She didn't need her work following her here.
But of course, as the ruler of Equestria, work would indeed follow her inside even her own skull. No. She was the co-ruler. Ensconced in her little mane fort, Celestia hadn't noticed her sister's approach until Luna nuzzled her exposed neck.
"Thou'rt a very imp of Tartarus, dear Sister!" Celestia heard her lilt, then felt her sister's weight tug on the cushions underneath her.
"I know..." she responded drowsily from underneath her mane, then languidly shifted, almost seeming to ooze among the disturbed pillows. Her exposed wing fluttered briefly as she found the right spot.
Luna leaned toward her ear. "Prithee drink, ere from the steaming cup hath steam its warmth and flavor sapped."
"I will... But you know I don't like it as hot as you... Right now... Right now I just want to ruin your cushions with little white hairs and feathers..." She shifted again and then nickered decadently for emphasis.
Luna laughed softly. "Betimes I think the younger station thine must be, and mine the older..." She glanced back at the low table, a circular slab of obsidian inlaid with elegant platinum constellations, which were at the moment covered by tray upon tray of confections, arrayed around a small plain white teapot. The things those three poor mares had gone through to recover such a seemingly common piece of cookware...
The Mares in Waiting around the other two thirds of the table were now giggling amongst themselves, partly from the tableau of the two sisters but overwhelmingly more so from relief—Celestia was kind and merciful and just, but her immense age conferred on her a perspective and grandiosity that often made her seem capricious or manipulative, and an aloofness from the everyday that kept her from even realizing it, like a farm pony never imagining what geographic calamities his hoofprints were to the ants in his field. While Celestia was only harsh with her subjects in cases of overt maliciousness or gross irresponsibility, failing or otherwise upsetting her simply involved a... drifting away. With her infinity of other commitments, a pony might simply find herself no longer on Celestia's mind, a position that hurt almost more in a way, because the sadness on both sides was so apparent.
While she used her own sociability as a powerful tool to coax good behavior from her ponies, you never knew exactly where you stood with Celestia, and "I'm tired" was the height of the vulnerability she showed to even her closest confidants—For one thousand years. Since the return of her sister she'd occasionally shown a new side in the presence of those she truly trusted. Or perhaps it was a very, very old side. Whatever had unlocked it, seeing it was admission to her innermost of innermost circles—The "Terminal Dogma" of the Sun Princess.
Luna levitated a crumbly wing-shaped biscuit off a tray and brought it close to Celestia's nose still peeking out from under her hair, making her nostrils briefly twitch. "Care'st thou for a cookie, then, child?" Luna cooed, moving the treat back and forth. Celestia gave a weary, truculent groan, but her nose still subtly tracked the moving cookie. "Heeere cometh ye ship of the air! 'Aye, a shiny bit for she whose eye first fixes the mouth of fair Celestia!'"
She brought the cookie closer, but with a faint, drowsy "noooooo..." Celestia tucked her head down into her forelegs, then folded a wing over herself—About as close as the towering alicorn could get to curling up into a ball. From under her wing came the tiniest whine, thoroughly colored by a smile. "...Stop talking like thaaat...you know I hate iiiit...!"
Luna laughed. "Thou plays't a waif again, as if by play could thine own royal carriage be free from artifice or guile!" She turned back to the other mares. One of them immediately grinned, and amid a flurry of giggles from her compatriots nosed forward a tray of tiny, individually baked cake slices, each frosted in a way that mimicked the stained glass of the palace. But she started back as, with almost predatory swiftness, Celestia snapped the now unattended cookie out of the air with a deliberate "nom," then just as swiftly retreated under her wing. Though her mouth was full, it was clear that what she mumbled from underneath was "gotcha."
"What's this!? Hast thy... OK, Tia, I s'pose you're right—This is getting rather exhausting. It's almost funny, I didn't think I'd take to modern Equestrian this quickly, but it really is simpler."
"That'f...mnufm... why we swiftched..." Celestia finished her cookie and then folded her wing before rolling onto her back.
"So plain, though."
"Hm..." A scintillating aura surrounded Celestia's teacup and it rose into the air before tracing a graceful arc to hover next to her. She raised her head and sipped. "Much better... I don't know how you drink it so hot." Another sip. "Mm, delicious as always." She turned her head to the three ponies at the table. "By all means, help yourselves, girls."
"Are... M..may we?" A petite unicorn named Tidepool sat up straight. "I mean, it's you and your sister's special..."
"It's all of ours, now. It was high time for the old thing to change, I think." Celestia closed her eyes and smiled warmly. Whether it was the snacks and tea or her sister switching out of Fancy Mode, something of Princess Celestia seemed to have reasserted itself.
The featureless white teapot was ancient, like the sisters themselves. It had always been "their" teapot—One of many, of course, but the oldest and their favorite. Like nearly all of the sisters' early lives, its provenance and original significance had been blurred by time to the point of erasure. Just as Celestia had "always" simply been the older sister and Luna the younger, the small white vessel was simply one of many things they had "always" shared.
And last week somepony broke it. An unnamed kitchen servant had shattered it while... well, that never came to light, actually, but the true offense was the conspiracy to hide the accident, orchestrated by the head butler on duty at the time, Consummate Poise. His determination to shield his subordinates was admirable, but at the same time his demanding of silence from them was the type of harshness and control Celestia did not want in her castle. The cleanliness of the halls and the aroma of the meals would not have their origin in fear.
The ancient teapot had so thoroughly insinuated itself into the castle's ambient Semantic Field that reconstituting it in a straightforward, material fashion was trivial for a magic user of Celestia's Olympian power, but as its history and intent of creation had become so scrambled over the millennia, perfectly recreating it in its every relational aspect to its surroundings, most importantly tea, would have been an undertaking on the scale of the Manehattan Project. That was for seals, or tomes, or the occasional suit of armor, but not teapots. Though the thought had flicked across her mind.
No, the project would be on the other end: She'd asked Consummate Poise to begin writing her letters, a method she'd developed about eight hundred years ago and since discovered dramatically improved her subjects' character and behavior, simply by getting them to be mindful of it. She never enforced compliance with the letter writing, though ponies generally kept up out of a desire to please or get close to her, or out of a fear of her she never seemed to be able to dispel.
Luna had been immediately on board when it was explained to her, and the relief to Celestia's workload was tremendous. Nevertheless, she always relished the final response she would send a pony, to the effect that the lesson had been learned and neither one of them needed to bother with any of this anymore.
The first letter from Poise had yet to arrive, but he was a busy stallion and likely hadn't had time to compose his thoughts. That wasn't important in the moment, though—A lull had appeared in both the princesses' schedules, and those were rare opportunities that couldn't be spent on anything but an entire day off.
Not that a part of her mind wasn't still grinding away at Equestria's problems—She was always the Princess, whether that aspect of her was in front or behind. Most recent on her list of troubles was yesterday's faint, incoherent pulse of magic from beyond the upper limits of the sky. It never reached Equestria proper, and nopony ever would have known about it but for the resonance it created in her sun, like a building ringing from a bird's tiny chirp. It was weak, simple magic—more a twitch than a spell—but from a place that should have been as magically frozen and unchanging as the glaciers that had entombed the Crystal Empire for all those centuries.
The thought of that thousand years of ice made Celestia savor the warmth of her sister next to her. She levitated her crown off her head and over to the table by the long couches built into the wall. Her hoof shoes followed, then her heavy, jeweled peytral, something she was always happy to shed, then leaned into her sister's side. "Missed you Lulu..."
"I was so tired..."
She used to cry every time. Weep, really—But almost fifteen years had passed since the last time her shoulders heaved and she hid her face and running nose from her sister's handkerchief. Now she would simply lie against her sister's chest, often under one of her wings, and sleep contentedly for an hour or so, but tiny snores still belied her discompusre. It would take more than a few decades to undo a millennium's heartbreak and self-reproach.
Luna wished she could disentangle her memories of her past with her sister from an eternity of dreams and hallucinations during her imprisonment, or the time-dilated visions she experienced while caught in the beam of the Elements of Harmony, but their early pasts were smeared into numberless different impressions, any or all of which might have some truth to them—Or none. Had Celestia always been so much taller than everypony else, and always so insecure about it at school? Had there even been schools when the two of them floated miles above Equestria and watched it slowly cool from magma constantly stirred by lightning and toxic rain? Were either of those memories true, or even memories? In a very real way, both sisters had lost Luna.
Luna gently stroked her sleeping sister's neck with a forelimb, the other tucked under her own chest as they lay on the cushions. Celestia's dreams could be just her own for today. Luna yawned and glanced across the table. It was the part of the afternoon where drowsiness seemed to have suffused the air itself: Autumn Glow was napping as well, no doubt intentionally in an arc of sunlight that made her auburn coat almost blaze, while Tidepool was using her telekinesis to unhurriedly comb the elaborate Manehattenite curls that Wandering Crescent had recently taken to wearing. Crescent herself had fallen asleep, her muzzle cradled in the spine of Voyages of Sea & Sky, Collected Tales vol. IV.
Some distant yelling in a thick Outer Cloudsdale accent made Luna momentarily raise her head. No doubt another airship captain had mistaken the local weather team's wide spools of unused cirrus clouds for a mooring spire, apparently not realizing that ponies aboard would then have to shimmy down the ropes that kept the spools from floating away. Luna could have projected her hearing to within a parasprite's breadth of the angry pegasus' lips, but the trust that ponies can work things out for themselves was one of the basic assumptions that made Equestria function.
It was fortunate she'd been pulled out of her reverie, because the sudden blast and shower of sparks might have otherwise made her launch herself into the ceiling. Wandering Crescent had in fact catapulted Tidepool's floating comb straight into her nose, which she was now rubbing between her fetlocks. The green smoke and sparks of the apparition quickly dissipated, revealing strip of paper that twisted in the spell's levitation field before falling at the sleeping Celestia's hooves. She stirred slightly but did not open her eyes.
It looked for all the world like a tiny scroll, and now that the fussy, pungent odor of the materialization fireworks had faded, she could tell it positively reeked of hemp. One edge of it was still sparking, little green tongues of flame racing along its edges before somehow slipping outside of the castle's local aether without actually dissipating. There was writing on one side, some of the letters obliterated by physical scorch marks that seemed to have nothing to do with its teleportation.
Dear Pr ess Ce st a,
Luna stared at it perplexedly—Neither she nor her sister had ever seen a letter arrive in this state, and she began tallying what she could discern about it. Likely from an earth pony or pegasus, judging from the practiced mouth-cursive script... The plant smell would seem to suggest the former. That butler Celestia had been expecting a letter from... Impeccable-Something... no, Consummate Poise, was an earth pony, but then so was Autumn Glow over there... And that charming Canopy Dew in the greenhouse, and Doc Coals (whenever you could actually find him), and Plowshares and his fat, weird little sister in the other greenhouse, and...
She was interrupted by a familiar magical aura intermingling with her own around the mysterious strip of paper. Looking down, she met Celestia's eyes, but only saw a flash of resignation before her face solidified into its royal impassivity. Luna, though disappointed, found herself adopting a similar expression.
Celestia calmly rolled away from her sister and brought herself to her hooves with a sharp flap of her wings. Luna released the paper, letting it float towards Celestia's face, then began to rise herself.
After a moment of examination, Celestia blinked and a frown flickered over her face, before her eyes suddenly shone with a brilliant white radiance and the regalia on the far table flashed back over to her with a bolt of searing gold light and a small thunderclap, suddenly resting on their owner as if they'd never been taken off.
Luna telekinetically parted the cushions between them, and walked over to stand beside Celestia. "What is it, sister?" She could sense Celestia's magic probing it, feeling along with her the tiny flames slipping through her grasp into invisibility.
I don't practice Santeria, I ain't got no crystal ball
+ + +
There was once, for a few hours, a photo of my nuts on Facebook. Well, not of them; I mean, it wasn't a photographic study of manjigglies or an Arrested Development-style Iraqi landscape, but they were clearly visible if you looked down there, or maybe you just saw it pop up in your feed if you were friends with “Rob's Balls.”
New Msg: Blue Shift's Vaj wants to be friends on Facebook. How do you know each other?
It was an accident, of course, involving a hot tub party and my thinking boxers would make an effective swim suit, and my friend deleted it the instant someone noticed. It could have been because I was 'Las Vegas' drunk, but I didn't mind the photo at the time, and I didn't see now why I should ultimately mind a remake that the real me could never realistically be tied to. Neither version of my face was even in it.
Besides, if I could trust anyone right now, it was Ms. Stephanie Whatever-her-last-name-was.
Now that I had some time to calm down and wasn't under any scrutiny, I decided to put together some kind of plan to get someplace comfortable and safe, and eventually bring back Rob Classic.
Finding my bag and especially the scroll inside that started this whole mess was the immediate Primary Mission Objective. Presumably I could use it to contact Celestia, or whoever was playing at being her, and beg her to sort out said mess. It should still be somewhere inside the house, though in retrospect it had proved capable of moving around on its own, following me from the deck to the couch, so it could be anywhere. But at the time it had wanted to be found, so assuming I hadn't ruined whatever magic was directing it by cutting the scroll, or it hadn't just timed out, finding the bag might take care of itself. Nevertheless, at least a cursory search was necessary to put my mind at ease.
Similarly, my clothes were hopefully still around. They could be in a heap in the alley, or reduced to a distant expanding sphere of photons, or back in my closet, folded with utmost care after a delicate and cleansing trip through a scented cloud by the finest laundry pegasi, but I hoped they'd at least taken all the shit out of my pockets first and left it somewhere I could find—Most importantly my apartment keys. When I'd moved in, my landlord had the very good suggestion of making duplicates and burying them under the bushes outside the gate (“Just in case you suddenly turn into a pony one day and lose your pants,” I'm sure he meant to add by way of example), so if worse came to worse I could likely still get inside, assuming the manilla envelope hadn't soaked through and they'd rusted into uselessness. But aside from familiarity and privacy, I wasn't sure there was anything actually helpful back home and no reason any other place couldn't become a good Pony Forward HQ. Nevertheless, there could be something waiting for me there related to my situation, so I resolved to at least go back and reconnoiter.
The next order of business was to assemble a Team. At least that was the first word that came to mind for a circle of trusted friends and/or family I could hide out with and who could make sure I had food and a place to sleep until we solved this. Sam and Ryan, my two best friends for close to a decade—good enough friends to quickly delete a photo of my nads on Facebook—were the most obvious choice. The three of us had been inseparable since meeting in the dorm freshman year. I was going to get cartloads of shit for having turned into an adorable female pony, because obviously I had done it entirely on purpose somehow by watching too much MLP (after Sam was told what it was) and now surely they're seeing the true Inner Self of someone who had actually always been Blue Shift. If TV as a whole had taught me anything about friendship it's that it's easier to magically raise the sun and moon than to convince someone you're not actually keeping a secret. Just gay or trans as a human, they could deal with, but believing I was really a pony deep inside would be far too fucked up even for them. Hopefully I wouldn't have trouble getting them to acknowledge I was only one on the outside and as surprised by it as they were.
Once I could convince them this had all happened by accident we'd all be a lot more comfortable and they'd devote more energy to helping me get back to normal than anyone I could think of.
Though if I went to sleep around them, it was almost certain they would shave something into my butt.
I could contact my mom and dad, but there wasn't much point, since both of them lived far away in Boston or Idaho, respectively, and hopefully by the time any of us could get to the other I'd be their fully human son again. If I called them I'd have to waste far too much time convincing them the girl on the phone was me and not some loopy tomboy friend I was colluding with to play pointless tricks on them (Me? Tricks?), oh and by the way I'm also totally a blue unicorn now, so...uh... Maybe you should get a plane ticket and a hotel and come, uh, hang out, I guess. Dad, bring hay, Mom, bring, uh, Benadryl 'cuz I'm probably not hypoallergenic.
If I got too much heat on me in the city, retreating to Dad's secluded spot in Idaho was an option. He'd enjoy seeing me once the shock wore off and we could still smoke cigars and drink whiskey and go hiking, and even fishing once I got this horn figured out, all away from the world's curious, burning gaze. And appropriately enough, aside from this entire morning, my last visit there was the closest I'd been to a real horse in many years. He didn't own any (that he knew about, as of today) but they were, you know, "around." I really hoped as an attempt at stealth I wouldn't be shoved in with them somewhere to play “new kid” and interact with them now, though, since we would probably not have anything in common. At least I hoped not....brrr.
The other problem with escaping to Idaho, however, was that unlike my dad, I didn't want to live out in the middle of nowhere. It might end up being my only safe option, but by god I was going to exhaust the rest of them first. I wasn't going to forever give up on the world or the kind of life I wanted merely for fear of what might happen if I were discovered. I would either be human again, or take my chances as as pony.
There was Mom, but going to Boston wouldn't be a change from where I was now, the only difference being that family was there instead of my friends. She'd be happy to do what she could to get me back to normal, but I couldn't go outside without risk of disaster and I'd only be a burden.
All of my other relatives were similarly spread throughout the country, and couldn't offer me any better aid or protection (who has experience with this kind of thing?) than anyone else closer, so family was a non-starter.
Steph was a powerful ally, however. She knew who I was, what I was, how I got to be it, and in fact was more clued in to my situation than anyone excluding myself. It was hard to remember to factor her in since I'd only known her for a total of maybe four hours, but her help would be invaluable and it seemed unfair to deprive someone so excited about seeing a real pony with the opportunity to see the whole thing through. She'd said “we.”
And “we'd” have to figure out a way to remain in contact in case we got separated. I didn't know if I could use my phone's touchscreen even if I found it, but if I had her number, at least, I could get someone else to dial it. The internet was another option, and I felt confident I could use a mouse with both front hooves (one to move and one to click) though they were too wide and round everywhere to consider trying to type with the edges of them. A pencil in my teeth would suffice if I got desperate.
Or magic, dumbass.
Magic! Of course! It's hard to remember a capacity you've never used, that you can't feel, and that you can't see the source of right on your forehead even if you cross your eyes and look up till they hurt. My bangs were in the way, but even if they weren't I doubt I'd be able to see it without straining upward. My ...snout on the other hand... God, now that I'd noticed it that huge blue translucency down there was all I could look at, like when you notice your own breathing and feel like you're going to have to consciously control it for the rest of your life. At least until you think about something else.
Like doing magic. OK. I thought about the experience with my tail, and wondered if there wasn't some way to prod this horn from the outside into doing something I could then feel on the inside and recreate. Electricity and magnets seemed like the most obvious choice, and I carefully crawled off the bed, narrowly avoiding landing in a heap on the floor, then waved my horn over the softly glowing laptop, the speakers, several lamps, and an electrical outlet (it even occurred to me to try sticking it in, but that was daft and anyway the blunted end was far too wide to fit) but no luck, and I resumed my prone position on the nice, soft bed. I tapped my horn increasingly hard with a hoof, trying to focus my attention on where it attached to my skull, but there was no sensation there that betrayed the existence of anything but bone.
In pretty much every story ever written about paranormal powers, extreme emotion seemed to be the key to switching them on for the first time. The “No, Boom” I'd heard it called, where our helpless heroine screams in terror at her approaching assailant, awakening her latent powers at the last moment and causing the unlucky schmuck's head to perform a 100% Organic fireworks display.
My own emotional state since finally confessing my true nature had been a tautly suspended equilibrium, like the skin of a drum stretched to immobility by incredible tension from every direction. At the moment I felt... Not relaxed, not even close, but perhaps “calm.” It was the kind of low-activity emotional state that was still pregnant with apprehension, like soldiers playing cards in a bunker, and I didn't think I'd be able to work myself into any kind of frenzy without becoming too overwhelmed by other future possibilities to maintain it. I couldn't even take advantage of my privacy to work myself into a different kind of agitation—There was no way I'd be able to keep my mind on my business.
I reflected that among my many problems at the moment (as much as they were all ultimately facets of the same problem) not being able to use this horn was far and away the most "first world" of the bunch. After all, I could have wound up an earth pony.
That thought made me far more uncomfortable than I was willing to acknowledge. Being an E.P. might have made it easier to pass myself off as an ordinary animal if I wanted to avoid massive attention, but if I were still blue and so humanly expressive that might have been impossible no matter what. I didn't think the supposed extra strength or endurance would come in handy when I was trying to stay hidden, and any power over plants and the soil would be next to useless here in the wind-blasted asphalt expanse of a major city—I doubted anyone would be moved enough by my generosity to leave me be if I presented them with a dandelion I'd summoned from between the sidewalk cracks.
That kind of thing was no good for some...pony like me. It Takes All Kinds, certainly, but when stood against the wondrous or impossible, the merely "instrumental" good of feeding and nurturing the community seemed like a stifling burden compared to the vastly horizon-expanding and fundamentally new capacities for exploration and knowledge I considered ends-in-themselves. Of course I wanted to be closer to Nature, but streams and hills and trees and fertile fields to till were incidental ornamentation in a world where Nature encompassed every extreme from the seething of subatomic quantum foam to the fathomless voids between galactic clusters.
I had zero interest in a pastoral lifestyle, or in agriculture and plants save as curiosities, so better communing with the biosphere, or more capability to productively engage in the necessary-but-loathsome banalities of daily existence sounded to me like being buried alive.
People told me to appreciate the small things in life, but what they failed to appreciate was that I had already wrapped that up—Each had been appreciated, assimilated, summarized, and cross-referenced in its little museum drawer, ready for mental combination with the others into something hopefully qualitatively different and interesting, the space between them collapsing as they're pulled from their respective archival drawers, each marked with precious little cards, proclaiming:
I was already frustrated enough with the tiny scope of human capabilities, and if other options were now, actually, finally available, I wanted my umwelt, my personal sensorium, not expanded but entirely redefined—To ignore all the new possibilities of (and for) creation in favor of what I already automatically perceived as life's texture would be an abdication of everything it meant to me to be a sapient being.
Having the transcendence of magic or the sublimity of flight dangled in front of me yet forever out of my reach would be an insult that I could never forgive. If changing breed was against the rules, then I would tear down heaven and earth to be the first exception or that would be the last rule they would ever make.
Suddenly that feeling was doubly charged with the knowledge of the inevitable injustice, compounded over who-knows-how-many millenia, of innocent ponies who ended up the "wrong" sort—An earth pony with a deep, abiding need to directly interact with the magic that undergirded her world, a unicorn who spent every waking moment looking at the sky and then incinerating the confining dirt at his feet in frustration and resentment, a pegasus who dreamed of making things grow to nurture the community and the strength to turn that into a life's unimpeachably pure and honest labor, and on and on. What a scope for suffering.
The casual injustice of Nature angered me enough on this world, and to think it might continue in another, where the ability to prevent it should be trivial, made me almost livid.
I was actually seeing red. No—I was touching red, in some impossible synasthetic confluence of perception in the space ahead of me, and it jolted me out of my rage. Ahead of me was a...patch of diffuse material about four feet in diameter and of the purest primary red. Only it wasn't any color at all, because I couldn't actually see it—as far as I could tell it had no physical existence whatsoever—but nevertheless some form of perception of which I'd been wholly unaware was pressing into it from all sides, informing me of its location several feet in front of my nose, and of its texture: A little like the resistance of pushing two identical poles of a magnet together, with a roiling fuzziness like static electricity on one's arm hair or the snow between TV channels.
It seemed, for lack of a better word, magical. Ah.
It was perhaps not the most saintly or big-hearted method, but inadvertently giving my horn the emotional kick it needed by riling myself up with the idea I might have been denied one in the first place had a pleasingly elliptical quality; appropriately just the kind of thing, out of the three possibilities, a unicorn would likely appreciate most.
Maybe it had never actually been a danger, and whatever force was responsible for matching minds with pony bodies would do so as reliably and subtly as the Hogwarts Sorting Hat, and nopony would end up in a niche they found intolerable. And even if they did, if the power existed to turn a non-pony such as myself into any kind of pony at all, surely the power existed to jump that much shorter gap. A force with enough psychology and graphic design prowess to craft a symbol representing each pony and engrave it on their tuchas surely wouldn't be so clueless as to let a much more fundamental, daily aspect of their existence be so woefully mismatched. There was a bit of a chicken-and-egg possibility, of course, that anypony of a certain breed simply wouldn't develop the kind of personality that would generate unmeetable needs in the first place, but the end result was the same.
Now that I could actually use this magic, however, those speculations suddenly became much, much less interesting.
Something was... going on on my forehead. Another space had been opened, or my awareness had extended to fill it, but it was “cold” and unlike any sensation I was familiar with. Placing all my attention on it, I was able to “tighten” or “slide” something that caused what felt like an electric arc to shoot out from my horn and roll along the far wall. It bisected the red-seeming blob floating in front of me, which suddenly dissolved into a shower of invisible curlicues.
There was a tapered cylinder of sensation in my horn that I could manipulate, causing more arcs to appear in front of me, seeming to snap to invisible lines of force like wires suspended in a magnetic field. I kept the icy sensation in my horn “tense,” and an arc held itself in midair, curving through the space ahead as I shifted that feeling back and forth. It suddenly jumped across a gap, staying anchored to both my horn and the spot on the wall, but curving now in the opposite direction.
I withdrew one foreleg and tapped my horn with a hoof—It felt almost like a tooth being touched, and I swallowed with apprehension at the knowledge I'd probably always have to keep it out of harm's way, then replaced my foreleg underneath me. There was magic to be done.
I'd been keeping it “tense,” and attempted to pull the arc backwards towards me, and it dragged something out of the air as it moved, like the wake of a speedboat. It curled through the air a bit like dye in water, and unthinkingly I tried to swat at it with that arc of energy. It turned solid, in a manner of speaking, and hovered in the air before fading away, while the “tether” of light momentarily stuck to it.
Gradually I developed a sense of what a horn was and what I was supposed to do with it. While it didn't physically move of course, by “moving” the sensation within it I was able to control a ghostly point of focus which could stir invisible “stuff” out of the air. Whatever it was I was creating seemed to have a mind of its own, and shifted shape and color as I batted it around. I tried to see how quickly I could move things, and the point of focus bifurcated as if I'd crossed whatever was the equivalent of my eyes. I now found myself controlling two invisible tendrils of energy, and then without warning as many as I could mentally hold. Any color I imagined as I touched these floating wisps of “aether” was transferred into them, and their behavior would suddenly change accordingly.
My overall impression was... No, that's not right. Hm. The closest thing I could compare it to would be a “breakthrough” salvia trip, or watching the end sequence of “2001,” somehow in braille, somehow outside of your body in the space in front of you.
A small part of me had been disappointed I wasn't a pegasus, since having an extra pair of limbs and then flying with them would have been an amazing experience... To tell the truth, however, that part of me would remain disappointed I was anything except an alicorn, and the rest of me was bowled over by how this was an entirely different order of experience altogether: Forget ordinary appendages of sinew and bone, I was creating sheets of force with a “muscle” it seemed my imagination had suddenly grown inside my horn.
I mean, this was magic. A different realm, with different rules, alongside our own—One that people had dreamed of for...forever...and here it was, right in front of me, and I was touching it with otherworldly senses and manipulators that before this moment I literally was incapable of imagining were possible. It really was a sixth sense, not like any of the others but just as unarguably real, like receiving cochlear implants and suddenly being able to hear for the first time. “Magic” was the only term worthy of it.
I made some green, smooth, very ductile material that was easy to stretch into long and complicated shapes that stayed still in the air like the trails of sparklers on a summer night, fading over about thirty seconds if I stopped paying attention to them.
I made a smooth crimson tetrahedron, and it split in half, then the halves split in half, and again and again until it had vanished into imperceptible dust.
I tried to make a sculpture of a person from the white base material, but I inadvertently changed it to blue and it instantly snapped into a low-fi holographic mirror of myself as a pony, invisible to normal sight. I dispelled it immediately with a shudder.
I made a yellow...thing...about the size of a standing human that began to rapidly turn itself inside out, cycling through about two dozen configurations in a way I had previously thought inconceivable outside of an M.C. Escher drawing, before abruptly imploding to a point.
I tried to make something gray, but it kept “slipping” out of my grasp into other colors instead.
I made a blue sphere, and tried to make it “pixellated,” with a texture of tiny stacked cubes, and as soon as I did so it flattened and stretched into a horizontal ring that expanded almost faster than I could perceive, zipping out through the walls until I lost track of it. I recalled that a sphere turning into a torus like that was mathematically impossible, at least in a purely topological sense, but more importantly I'd hoped I hadn't just pinged every other magic user in, god, hopefully not the whole solar system. I tried to convince myself it had dissipated quickly, if there was even anypony out there to see it.
I formed a disc of material but as soon as I colored it a kind of deep purple, it became “fuzzy” and developed a strong tendency to fold over onto itself and I had to consciously hold it open like the jaws of a bear trap. Eventually I couldn't maintain the pressure and it folded itself over and over until it was a small sphere. Deciding that whatever it was, it was beyond me at the moment, I let go, and it immediately “popped.”
Up until now, none of these forms had shown any hint of physical reality, but in the space occupied by the tiny purple dot, there was suddenly a bright yellow shower of sparks and a disconcertingly firecracker-like report. I was simultaneously elated to have it confirmed I wasn't actually hallucinating any of this, and afraid I might have just set the carpet on fire, though the sparks dissolved before they hit the floor.
I decided not to try any more colors or textures until I was either far away from anything flammable or was able to get some kind of guidance.
Dear Princess Celestia, please send some books on what any of this shit is, and also the instructions for how to shoot some lasers at fools. Make sure they're in English, though—Can't read no Pon-ese.
I pulled out another “mass” of material and began to play around with it, getting comfortable controlling whatever extended force of mine it was that was manipulating this invisible field.
Overall it reminded me just a little of a 3D printer. I was generating a shape in the external world from abstract plans in my head, able to vary the “material” inside it by thinking in different colors or textures as I “touched” it with the appropriate kind of force field. It seemed likely that creating interacting parts out of various shapes of different magical “materials” was how more complex spells were attempted. If that were the case—if spells really were massive hyperdimensional “machines,” or a kind of command syntax, like a spatial equivalent of the strings of magic words in so many fantasy stories, and these strange forms were the individual sub-commands you'd assemble into some kind of grammar—then Twilight Sparkle's rationalist, scientific bent suddenly made lot more sense, as did the need for extensive study to be proficient in any magic at all. Maybe this was like magic's “GUI” and familiar metaphors about “weaving” spells suddenly took on a much more literal cast.
Right now I was like a caveman when it came to magic and hadn't even discovered the equivalent of the wheel, let alone the pulley, inclined plane, or Large Hadron Collider, but I felt that there were rules, and they were graspable, as clearly different as they were from the rules obeyed by “physical” machines.
I thought of teleporting and Twilight's horn “lasers,” and imagined the invisible, surrealistic, non-euclidean “gateways” and “cannons” she must have been constructing from memory with furious speed. How transformation spells might work I couldn't begin to guess, despite their sudden relevance to my life, but I had a brief mental image of ethereal alligator clamps going between the target object and an invisible blueprint, with a Frankensteinian switch hovering nearby waiting to be thrown. I could already feel that magic could theoretically perform its motions as fast as they could be imagined, working with robotic speed and precision (Maybe a truly powerful unicorn is at all times surrounded by an invisible “factory,” even), but I blanched at the idea of remembering hundreds of schematics or recipes to instantly assemble impossible contraptions at a whim, and the unlimited combinatorial possibilities for new and powerful spells once one understood what each of those surreal “units” was actually for.
Equestria in fact had incredibly high technology, just not the kind you can see in only three dimensions. To a unicorn (or perhaps any pony) the entire countryside was no doubt a hymn to industry, worked into its beautiful shapes by legions of quietly purring, elegant, invisible contrivances called spells.
I momentarily recalled the colossal, prismatic “Indra's Net” lattice I'd seen in that dream, stretching its inscrutable components across the solar system to engulf the very sun, and on the chance that it really existed I marveled at the potential of the realm into which I had just stepped.
If being a pony was permanent, it was not without its perks. Putting that now uncomfortably ambivalent notion aside, however, I continued experimenting.
The default magical “substance” was white and almost slippery-smooth, though of course it wasn't really white at all, but “felt” white when I touched it. It had a consistency that reminded me of those magnetic flake toys you sometimes see on office desks, where you can push them into various shapes and they'll stay that way—Or of very malleable clay, if it were perfectly elastic and lighter than air. It had a “volume” that stayed fixed if ignored, but I could “pull” more of it out or “push” it back in, in a way that reminded me of theories about objects in a higher spatial dimension extruding through ours—Like a cone, say, moving through a two dimensional sheet on which it would seem to be a mysteriously growing or shrinking circle.
When brought in contact with a solid object, the field conformed to it without resistance, becoming visible as blue “foxfire,” reminding me of electromagnetic phenomena like ball lightning or hot plasma. I immediately guessed what it was and why it was blue, as well as what my horn must also look like at the moment, and glanced out to indeed see little blue highlights glinting off almost every shiny surface. I shoved all of the field away to where it came from except for a blob about six inches across, which I pushed into a pen on the desk across from me until it engulfed the pen entirely, blue haze about an inch thick glowing around it, then I pulled on the material. Immediately the pen lifted off the desk, held in the center of the blank, blue-glowing “field,” and like the field, would stay stationary wherever I pushed it.
I was not even close to the point where 'levitation would have been a breeze,' but it was at least doable, and if I could keep it up I felt like I'd be much less at the mercy of an environment not geared toward the handless. I pushed the pen back and forth through the air, then set it back down on the table. I didn't feel confident enough yet in my control to try to write anything, and didn't want to interrupt this experience to look for paper to do it on.
Besides, my horn was actually beginning to ache, and I noticed that I was a bit short of breath. This really was physically taxing, and I wondered how much stamina I would have to build up before less than ten minutes of messing around wouldn't leave me winded and I could cast something resembling a real spell.
Nevertheless I felt a great deal of confidence and connection to an increasingly real-seeming Equestria. Surely this whole realm of esoteric power hadn't been concocted just for me to play around in on my own.
So which came first, the show or the... place? Almost certainly the real Equestria existed prior—Real places and events had been turned into fiction countless times but I wasn't aware of any examples of the opposite, at least outside of a theme park (And a theme park that could turn people into ponies you'd think would be more famous). So somehow it'd been leaking through, or implanted in human minds like the images of Devil's Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Maybe that synergy is how it got so popular. Who knows? The alternative was some fathomlessly powerful mentality “playing” Equestria (giving another layer to Discord's resemblance to Q, I smirked), but not having anything even remotely in the same league in terms of experience to make a call over which was more plausible, or even how to tell them apart, I figured in either case my best course of action was to play along.
Ironically, dealing with the real Equestria might be more dangerous, I thought. A mysterious black Monolith or Discord-like being playing a game with me based on a work of fiction would be more likely to keep to the canon that we mutually understood, but if he was out there, the real Discord, or any number of similar trickster demigods or razor-fanged monsters waiting in the wings, would have no reason for any such compunction and be far more unpredictable. The one ray of hope was that if Discord or Chrysalis or Sombra or whomever really existed, the powerful and apparently omnibenevolent Celestia likely did as well, and I could think of no better sun goddess to have in your corner. I hoped if she were out there she knew I wanted some guidance, and also didn't mind that I wanted to see if she really did look that cute eating cake. And if Luna looked that cute just standing around.
Suddenly I realized for the last several minutes I'd been so taken with magic and my own thoughts that I'd been ignoring some loud talking coming from downstairs, and the futile attempts by my ears to alert me to it by pointing at the door. Unfamiliar voices, mostly, but I thought I could make out Douglass and Steph, talking to at least one man and woman. They were muffled and unintelligible, but the way they climbed up and down in intensity made it clear they weren't entirely playing nice. There was a brief period of silence, and then I heard a series of sharp thunks coming up the stairs. Steph burst through the door and almost slammed it behind her, slowing down at the last instant to avoid making a racket.
“OK, um...OK... You gotta go.”
“What...!?” My stomach sank. I was in real trouble now, wasn't I?
“Shhhh!” Steph lightly stepped over to me and knelt so that her face was only a little below mine. “Do you remember Adam, the roommate from last night?”
I mimicked her hushed tones. “Uhhhh, kinda stocky guy, super short hair, uh, works in IT? Smiles like this?”
“You can say he's black, you know. But anyway, yeah, that's him. He left really early this morning to go into work, before we all got up, and he, um, saw you.”
“And he called the cops.” My eyes bulged. “Or... I mean, not the cops, but like animal control or a game warden or something, and some cops just came along because they wanted to track down who was mistreating, um, you.”
“And they're downstairs right now, aren't they?”
“Yeah. Adam just came right in with them on his lunch break or something, and...um... you shed a little bit on the couch.”
“Oh...” I felt a mixture of dread at leaving evidence and shame at leaving a mess. “Sorry...”
“No, we should be sorry. We, um, we kinda fucked up.” She sucked her teeth, and I blinked conspicuously to prompt her to elaborate. “We didn't know what to do—None of us were on the same page, but Ben kinda stepped in and said you'd run off, and we didn't stop you because you were kinda agitated and we didn't want to get kicked or bitten or anything.”
“But now they wanna look around and stuff, and the two cops with them noticed there was a party here and now they're all interested in anything that might have, um, happened. Adam caught on pretty quick, plus he doesn't want them snooping around any more than we do.”
“Wait, why didn't they follow you up here? Oh shit, did they!?”
“No, I don't think so... I dunno... There are all of us downstairs, and then with the three animal control guys, and leftover stuff from the party all vying for their attention and I think they're just kinda confused. And Ben is amazing! He got up and just sorta... He's like leading them around out back on the kitchen and the deck, saying you got up and walked all around there. He also made up stuff about your, um, 'owner' being there and that's really got a hold on them. That's when I ran up here.”
“Wow, uh... Tell him thanks...” He'd been so silent and detached before, but maybe that was simply a pragmatic, worldly nature that refused to touch situations he didn't know how to handle. Talking to a unicorn might be outside his purview, but talking to cops was a damn useful skill to have—The common advice that one shouldn't do it ever was not really applicable once the ice had been broken.
“But you gotta go! They're gonna come up here any minute!”
“Uhh, how do I...”
Steph shot to her feet and over to the window, putting her weight underneath the middle frame and pushing upwards.
“Ohhh no... You gotta be kidding...”
It slid open with a wooden squeak, and she lifted it up with her palms until it was flush with the top pane. “I think you can fit. It's, uh...” She stuck her head out and looked down. “There's a dumpster right below here. It's actually not that far if you dangle down first. Go out backwards, and then hook your...arms over the windowsill.”
“Uh, I, uh...”
“C'mon!” She was right, there really wasn't any time to argue. I slid my forelegs out from under me and pushed with my back pair to send myself forward, then caught myself on the floor, and walked forward until my back legs fell off the bed. It felt so much harder when I knew I had to hurry. I glanced behind me, but on the dark purple bedspread I couldn't see clearly if I'd left any traces or not. Steph chimed in again. “Yeah, I'll ditch the covers. C'mon!”
“Uhh...” It took me a second to remember how to walk with my mind moving this fast, but I moved as quickly as I could over to the window, while Steph placed a chair up against the wall, so its back was pressed against the sill. I moved up to it, then turned around and, looking carefully behind me, lifted my back legs onto it, then pulled myself in, then with some trepidation lifted one back leg and then the other so they were sticking out the window, alternating with raising my front legs onto the chair.
I started sliding myself backwards out the window until I would reach a tipping point. Steph was right, I was able to fit, and—
"Are you OK!? Why did you just squeak?"
"Y-you were right about where my nipples are," I hissed, more at myself for even making such a sound.
I continued sliding out the door, then as my center of gravity passed the windowsill my front legs began to rise, and Steph grabbed them to help steady me while I hooked them over the frame. My head was still inside, and as I pulled it out, I cracked my horn on the wooden bottom of the pane.
“Augh!” I winced. It really did feel like hitting a tooth.
I was now dangling out the window, my back legs and stomach pressed against the wooden siding while my head hovered at the level of the wooden frame. I felt heavy, but only a bit more than when doing an ordinary pullup, even though my grip on the windowsill with what used to be my wrists was less than ideal, digging into the insides of my "front knees."
I was able to crane my neck quite far to the side and look down to assess my landing spot. Steph was right, there was a dumpster almost directly below me, but she neglected to mention that the lid was closed. I stared at it and gaped vacantly as I wondered if I could use magic to open it. Or if landing in garbage would even be preferable.
“I think if you let go you'll be fine!” Steph still had her hands on my forelegs but wasn't gripping them anymore.
“W...Wait!” It still seemed like quite a drop, though it couldn't have been more than five feet from the dumpster lid to my hanging bottom hooves. “...What should I do?” Once I was out in the alley, I was back to square one, really. And there was no Rainbow Dash down there to catch me if I let go.
“I...uh...” She hadn't really thought about it either. It just seemed natural to flee. “Get somewhere safe, contact your friends...? Uh, or call—” She smooshed her eyes shut at the realization I didn't have a phone or a way to dial it. “I know who you are now, so I'll try to find you online or something. I wouldn't come back here, though!”
“Th...Thanks! Thanks for everything—I'm sure I'll be alright.” That wan't true.
“You will!” She gave me a peck on the cheek, with a perfect imitation of Princess Leia's "For luck!" causing me to start sliding back in surprise. Here we go...
I let my forelegs slide off the windowsill and let my back legs go loose to absorb the impact. I hit the dumpster with a heavy metallic bang, my legs collapsed into my stomach, and I fell onto my butt while rolling sideways off the plastic lid. Fortunately it had a lot of give, or my legs probably would have ached a lot more than they did. The uncomfortable thought flashed through my head that normally a hard landing like that would make my balls hurt, as opposed to another pair of sensations informing me I wasn't quite as much of a 'surfboard' as I'd hoped. I lifted my head up as I fell so I wouldn't smack it on the concrete, then landed hard on my stomach, knees, and forehooves. And the smell—Ugh, stupid pony nose...
I lay there for a second and desperately hoped the noise wasn't too obvious, then raised myself onto all fours again. I looked back at my knees and was relieved to see they weren't scraped, but my coat was mussed and gritty in several places along my sides and legs. My back hooves still stung a little bit, but I was undamaged.
And utterly unsure of what to do. I glanced up and saw that Steph had closed the window, and hopefully was hiding any evidence left behind that I'd been lying on that bed. Had the authorities heard me fall? It sounded like regular alley clatter, so hopefully they'd chalk it up to someone taking out their trash, since any “amazing diving horse” is traditionally expected to land in a tank of water.
Looking behind me, I could see I was exposed to the street, so I quickly stumbled to the opposite side of the dumpster to get out of sight. I was in shadow, but anyone looking out of the windows on the opposite side of the alley would easily see me.
...Oh no... What if none of this had even been necessary? Besides just a healthy wariness of cops, why was I so worried about the police? Being a talking pony wasn't against the law. I doubted there was even a procedure for this and it would only embroil them in my situation, so why would they be any more likely to give me trouble than to exercise discretion and forget the whole thing? Their job was to serve and protect, which sometimes they actually did, and didn't my even being able to articulate that mean I still counted? At the very least I could threaten them with causing an interdimensional diplomatic incident...
And what if they analyzed the hair I left behind to see what kind of dye was in it, as a lead on their imaginary suspect who's abusing and then abandoning potentially dangerous animals around town? What would they do if they found out it was natural? It was still just pigment either way, so would they even be able to tell? There are natural dyes made from plants and stuff, right? Plants can be blue.
Maybe I should have stayed, and also tried to win the cooperation of these trained professionals, instead of taking my chances with just anyone on the street. This way it was only a matter of time before I joined the Alabama Leprechaun as a local news legend.
Who all seen the unicorn, say YEAAAAAAAH
The Fuzz inside were still a complete unknown, and the fewer people involved the better. And I was wasting time out here. “So long, dogcatchers! 'Fuckity-bye!'” I allowed myself to mumble by way of closure.
I wanted to go home. So that's what I decided to do.
I glanced around, trying to orient myself. My view was completely blocked on every side except one. There was a rectangle of blue sky overhead, but I couldn't see the sun, and I couldn't see the skyscrapers downtown to act as a compass. Back alleys would keep me reasonably hidden, but I didn't want to spend one second longer outside than necessary.
Especially not here. Once the Heat was done inside, no doubt they'd do a once-over of the block, trying to find any hoof prints or other evidence of where I'd wandered off to before I bit a kid or whatever they were afraid I might do.
There was really only one direction to go, so I straightened myself out, and put one hoof in front of the other.
If you would be known, and not know, vegetate in a village;
if you would know, and not be known, live in a city.
-Charles Caleb Colton
+ + +
Uh. Which...uh... North is...
OK, so... If the sun is over there, and I'm a pony, then...
I’m outside I’m outside everyone can see me and they can see I’m a pony...fuuuuuck! Why do I have to even deal with this!?
The sensation of my moving limbs seemed to be fighting through a mass of coal tar suddenly filling my brain, as a lifetime of human bipedalism fought for dominance. I wanted to run, to get home and be forever safe from human gazes, but I felt so contorted that all I could manage was a clanking, almost autistic powerwalk.
As if I didn’t feel feminized enough, I was forever limp-wristed now, with what used to be my hands drooping down as new shins to catch me as I fell forward with every other step, the resounding ‘clop’ sending the force of reaction up my middle fingers and into my narrow shoulders.
Biting my lower lip, I continued down the alley. I rotated my left ear to scan behind me, but didn’t hear any signs of the authorities widening their search. I’d gone thirty feet at most; how long would I have to go before I could safely duck into a side alley and try to hug myself with my forelegs until I wanted to cry with frustration? They thought I was a dumb animal, didn't they? There's no way they'd look behind or under any place a pony could squeeze. I'd be safe if I could just—
No. If I were strong I wouldn’t stop, right? I’d keep going until I got home, without rest or distraction. That’s what the truly admirable did, the kind of men and women who achieve so much that their examples of fortitude are worth relating in the first place.
I mean, really, this wasn’t too different from trying to get home while piss drunk, except instead of muggers I was looking out for everyone.
I’d gone about ten more feet down the alley, fighting to maintain a decent speed while cursing the clatter my hooves made on the cement, then, reaching to my right, I was able to deftly tack around a corner and into a side alley bordered by two wooden fences. I felt like I could maintain this pace for quite some time, but at some point I would need to stop and thoroughly check I was moving in the right direction, and more than anything I just wanted to stop and break down for a while.
Now that I was fully in the present, no immediate circumstances forcing me to plan ahead or maintain an image, the texture of awareness felt even more uncanny and false than usual—The dissonance was actually painful, in a way, and I clenched my teeth in the face of how hobbled I felt simply trying to walk home.
It was that same feeling of impotent rage as when, as a child, you're forced into an awful, scratchy turtleneck or your mom gives you a terrible haircut, but magnified to self-flensing, thermonuclear intensity. I was desperate to get home and under the covers and close my eyes and do whatever it took to not... feel like a quadruped anymore. I was a piece of PlayDoh being perpetually squeezed through a pony-shaped hole, and the pressure and confinement were maddening.
I was cute, but that just felt like a part of me had been annexed for the enjoyment of others—"Everyone come hug the pony, she has no agency of her own and is only here for your squee-ing pleasure!"
Pshhhhhhhhhhh, you love it.
Like hell. OK, Maybe for like, half an hour, but I have things to do. I have a life, and plans, and—Christ, I can’t believe I’m talking like this—dreams, and all the rest. I could still play music as a pony, certainly, but what about studio time, or live shows?
Maybe I could just be some secret of the music industry: Decades from now, some spotted, emphysematous old rocker would be interviewed against a pure black background, his gaze momentarily distant behind opaque sunglasses, before leaning in to belly laugh and wheeze out, “Oh, Blue Shift? Yeah... it’s true—She was a little unicorn chick. We all knew it. It was just one a’ those things. Crazy times back then, crazy times,” before a hologram of two well dressed young people would interrupt the program to ask you to donate to... Space PBS.
But that was ridiculous—Everyone would find out I was a pony right after my glamorous overdose, naturally.
What? You don’t even like heroin.
On cupcakes, obviously.
But I had no way to know how long this was actually going to last. A day? The rest of my life? Both extremes felt unlikely—This was too big to be a just minor speedbump in my week, and too meaningful and organized a change to work on someone and then simply forget about.
However I'd gotten like this, it had to be for some... agenda. It's not like I was just sick: "unicorn" is simply not a failure state of the human body, or any reasonable vector for contagion, since it makes you want to avoid humans. Someone had to deliberately conjure this new form, and then seamlessly “transplant” my brain into it. My only way forward was to find out who and what they were, and what they hoped to accomplish by doing so.
But would I want to go along with it? Would it be right to go along? What if this were the opening pawn move of some sinister game to somehow exploit Earth or Equestria? No doubt everyone’s wondered if they’d have the courage to stand up to a tyrant or conqueror at great personal risk, but would I really do it? Granted, being a pony for the rest of my life was certainly better than being executed or languishing in a dungeon, but what if I were really forced to make that decision? And even if what I was expected to do with this form seemed evil, might it just be stupid to second guess any entity advanced enough to do this to me? Or should I trust my own moral sense no matter what and not simply be awed by power, like Captain Kirk standing up to some... brony V’Ger?
Dammit, this was not fair! I hadn’t done anything wrong, I wasn’t a bad guy, and now I had to hide like some kind of falsely-accused fugitive! It was as if Alfred Hitchcock and Franz Kafka had conspired to ruin my morning...
Everyone else was in on the conspiracy to catch me, just by being human. They didn’t even know they were working together. Maybe they’d take pity on me if I explained I was human once, too, and had just been transformed into this, but... That was just the thing. Pity. Saying it out loud—actually admitting this had been done to me—made me a victim.
As Rob I was powerless, without agency and at the mercy of everything, but as Blue Shift at least it was still my life. I could be here for my own reasons, and all I needed from anyone I met was to simply not hassle me for what I looked like. What I was doing here was my own business.
I’d rather be seen as Blue Shift the adventurous unicorn mare than Rob the human... victim.
I could have it a lot worse. I was a cute little unicorn, which in terms of otherworldly creatures is about as non-threatening as you can get. I could have been grotesque or frightening, or simply too alien to even consider engaging with, but just as is so unfairly the case with humans themselves, I was lucky enough to be pretty. Almost certainly no one was going to attack me on sight, and no one would believe an eyewitness report about me or likely even a photo—My blurry flank might pop up on The History Channel and that would be the end of it.
I noticed my breathing had become somewhat ragged, and that I’d made another turn—left this time—pointing me back in my original direction. I desperately hoped that was south, as my apartment was just over two miles in that direction, but without a good view of the skyscrapers to the east or a street name I recognized, I might as well have just been spun around blindfolded.
The clatter of my hooves suddenly snapped me back to the present. I stopped, relishing the concealing silence, and what I realized was a numbness that had been building in my hooves gave way to a mild ache of exertion. Good lord, would I need to get... shod, or something? How much was there about this body that needed maintaining? What different things would I take for granted about myself if I’d actually been born and raised in this body?
I certainly could have been. There could have been, from the beginning, a real Blue Shift and no Rob LeCroix. It’s not like there was anything wrong with this body—I didn’t seem to be sickly or weak, beyond a kind of atrophy born of so many parts being “fresh out of the box,” so my problem, my situation, was never a function of this body in-and-of-itself so much as its being socially unacceptable. And it was only unacceptable because it was unprecedented.
Was that it? Was it my responsibility to break some kind of... species barrier? I fell to my haunches with a sigh, catching myself off-guard with the pitch of my voice, just as a cold, gritty sensation between my legs shot to the forefront of my consciousness as it contacted the ground. Is... Is that another thing I’m going to have to do now!?
I’ve heard of having sand in your vagina, but thiiiis is ridiiiiiiiii
Yeah, yeah. I stood up, vigorously shook my flank, then clenched what I figured was the right layer of shielding and sat on my haunches again out of pure pique. I knew I’d need to clean myself back there eventually, but right now trying to touch it felt like some form of acquiescence, not to mention gritty hooves wouldn’t be any help to begin with. This time, at least, everything felt normal. From the waist down, anyway: Being the first time I’d sat on my haunches, the top-heaviness of it, and the way so much of my weight was still carried in my shoulders, was immensely disturbing, and I let out another angry, impotent yell between clenched teeth.
Forgetting myself and my earlier determination to sit however I wanted, genitals be damned, I fell forward into a full pony sitting position, the gritty cement mussing the hair of my stomach, and my rear hooves once more pressing into my sides. My eyes were squeezed shut, but I forced them open and took stock of where I was.
Above me was the black rectangle of an apartment’s fire escape, concealing me in shadow. I crawled toward the building until I hugged the wall, then forward until I was hidden behind a parked hatchback. I heard myself hiccup, which was apparently all the signal I needed, because immediately I felt my mouth twist into an exaggerated grimace and my chest spasm with the first of many dozens of sobs. I was completely silent save the occasional slurping inhalation, but to anyone who saw my prone form hidden behind that powder-blue Geo Metro, it would have been obvious I was a pony in trouble.
It was pure, simple frustration.
It wasn’t even so much what I was, but what I didn’t know about what I was. I wasn’t so much a pony as an infant again—Just as ignorant and just as helpless. And in this moment, just as incapable of expression beyond tears.
My breath caught in my throat as I exhaled, and then leapt some brand new inner hurdle to come out as an inhuman whinney. I clenched my teeth and screamed once more in anger, but that was again interrupted by a sob. I felt tears drip from the corners of my eyes into the fur of my cheeks before spreading out and becoming intangible.
I lay still for several minutes, listening to my breathing. My nose lay on my forelegs, and I could smell my own sweat and oily, dirty coat, the gasoline and old exhaust on the car at my side, day-old mushroom and sausage pizza from the apartment above, late-season dandelions in the patch of grass I’d just walked over, wintergreen gum on the railing of the fire escape overhead, garbage in the dumpster across the alley, human urine on the telephone pole next to it, several more things I’d simply never smelled before at all, as well as an acrid, alkali stench that I realized had been assaulting me ever since I left the house. I tried to plug my nostrils, but I had to press uncomfortably hard on my muzzle if I didn’t want my chin resting on the ground. This could not go on.
Maybe I should call my mom, I thought.
“Hello?” She’d say.
“Hi MommmMs. LeCroix,” I’d say, suddenly reminding myself of my female voice, “this is Rob’s friend, uh, Alex.”
“Oh, hi,” she’d respond, “I’m not sure I’ve heard Rob mention you. How’re you doing?” We’d exchange pleasantries and I’d tell her I’m a
The daughter you always wanted
I dunno, a barista or something, and I’d say Rob has laryngitis but wants to say hi, and now I’ll hand off the phone to “him,” and if you would please just say a few encouraging words... Thank you, Ms. LeCroix, he said he really appreciates that. Yes, I hope to meet you in person, too, sometime. No, that’s alright, no need to get a plane ticket—I’m sure he’ll feel better before you even make it here. Put him on again? Oh, I’m not sure he—OK *croak*hyi mahm*croak*
...Well... that kind of got away from me.
I sighed and wiped my nose with the back of what used to be a finger. My fetlock? Pester? I again became determined to google horse anatomy once I got home. I didn’t want to look at my forelimb for fear of noticing the snail trail no doubt smeared across it now, and I certainly wasn't going to use that same area to wipe away any tears. I was filthy enough already; surely that would all come off just as much as the rest of the dirt—Once I got home.
I sniffed, my unnaturally long nasal passages finally feeling clear, and rose to my hooves. They tingled a little, no doubt a remnant from the earlier force exerted on them, but they felt strong and I felt ready to move again.
No, better than that. I felt cleansed—almost giddy—from muzzle to tail, and even claiming those parts no longer seemed like admitting my life was in ruins, or that its reset button had been suddenly and sadistically pressed—This was just... one of those trials that happen from time to time, and before long it’ll all work itself out.
I looked up at the sky and smiled. Normally a day this gorgeous would lift my mood to the point that I almost swaggered down the street, and now that feeling of breezy, cosmopolitan confidence returned, running as a kind of warmth down my legs and into my hooves. My tail swished involuntarily, and I took that as a signal to set off for home, with a subtle but unsinkable bounce in my stride. The motion of my shoulders made it easy for my head to nod along with the rhythm of my walk, and I started humming an impromptu melody, playing with the timbre and other qualities of this new voice.
You know what? I didn’t even really care if someone saw me. Being an alien creature among humans, it was a bit like I was in a bad neighborhood, but then the number one rule of bad neighborhoods still applied: Sheer bravado. Look like you belong there. If they were so ignorant they’d never seen a talking unicorn before, that was their problem. I’m not causing trouble, so nobody had a right to cause trouble for me, no matter how many legs I walked on. If they’re not cool with a magical pony, they’re welcome to fuck right off.
As if to illustrate my point, I suddenly bucked the empty air behind me. It felt good, though I wasn’t exactly sure how I did it. It was like jumping and punching backwards at the same time, and a timid second try just had me barely catching myself with my back legs before falling on my knees. I decided to keep walking, then, remembering the sequence of turns I’d made so far, rounded another corner to travel perpendicular to where I thought home was.
I emerged into the grassy back yard of a small apartment building, a dark plywood concatenation of a fire escape and a series of decks winding its way up the rear of the full three stories. A high wooden fence bordered it on all sides, with only a small mesh gate providing access to the proper back alley and its dumpsters. It was the most secluded place I'd encountered so far, and I decided to take a quick rest and collect my thoughts.
Before I could do so, however, my stomach growled fiercely and I realized I still hadn't had a proper meal since waking up. I certainly wasn't strolling on into a Jimmy Johns for the #2-hold-the-mayo or stumbling on a quaint little diner, and I didn't have any money, anyway. I could corner someone and beg (or threaten) them to go buy me a meal, but that was tempting fate on an insane scale, and I winced at the very idea.
I continued across the grass to hide for a moment under the wooden stairs, and the feel of my four hooves on the softer surface caused in my mind the reconstruction of a now very practical syllogism:
-Oh my god I am actually a pony I am actually a pony this is really happening to me that is insane.
-All ponies are mortal eat grass.
-I was standing on my own food. Q.E.D., baby.
Ugh, could I really eat the grass, though? I mean, really? It was still grass, the same grass it had always been—That stuff I'd spent years just pulling out of the ground when bored on field trips or while waiting my turn in gym class; that fibrous, surprisingly durable stuff that just grew out of the dry, gritty dirt I sat on in my proverbial short-pants.
What if I was wrong and I couldn't eat this grass? What if it was the “wrong kind” of grass, or was covered in some nasty yard chemicals? Would I get sick, or would it just go right through me if I couldn't digest it?
I approached a healthy-looking patch and sniffed it. It didn't obviously reek of any kind of pesticide or other 'Hank Hill'-ery, so I leaned my neck down and—I can't believe I'm doing this please don't let my nose touch the dirt—bit off a mouthful of lawn.
The whole motion was so strange that it took me a moment to even register what the stuff tasted like. I frowned as I felt with perfect clarity that I had a mouthful of grass, but I shifted it to the side and began chewing.
If you've ever gotten bored at a restaurant while your companions are nattering on about NCAA brackets or babies or whatever, and just idly eaten the garnish, it had the same dry, card-stock quality, but as I chewed and it transformed into an abstract mouthful of food, wet by saliva, it released several flavors that weren't at all unpleasant. It had a whisper of sweetness not unlike sticky white rice, and a subtle but unfamiliar savory quality that was entirely new to me.
Those were quickly overwhelmed, however, by a battery-like alkali taste, and I swallowed to get it out of my mouth. It lingered for a second or two, and I hoped it wasn't an indicator I'd just eaten Panamanian Death Grass, or some other hypothetical poison strain popular in lawns because it looked pretty and no idiot would actually eat the fucking grass, but now that it was simmering in my mouth, the same metallic, alkali aroma was cast into relief against the cornucopia of city smells I'd been wading through since I'd escaped the house. It was in the grass, it was in the air.
It's just harmless pollution, dude! Dig in!
Not since noticing the total absence of mosquitoes when I moved to the city had I been more relieved to encounter industrial waste. I didn't want to ingest too much of the contaminated grass, but I was breathing the crap in already, and I was so hungry that I felt compelled to tell myself pony tongues were probably just over-sensitive to the artificial, and that a few more mouthfuls wouldn't hurt me—It wasn't like the lawn was getting sick from it, right? I mentally saluted my possibly-magical gut bacteria and gulped down about a half dozen mouthfuls before their alkali marinade became too obvious, and made a mental note to monitor my stomach(s?) for any signs of distress.
The stuff wasn't very filling, but my hunger was momentarily thinned, and I decided to continue slinking through the back alleys towards home.
Rounding the corner, I finally saw it—One of the titanic steel and glass obelisks that rose from the city center. I had been doing alright, navigation-wise: I had mainly been travelling west instead of south, but since my apartment wasn’t exactly due-south anyway, I had been covering a component of the distance I would have needed to travel later in any case.
I nodded with self-satisfaction, but my ears were suddenly pulled behind me by an aggressive barking. My stomach turned inside out and my neck snapped around, and I found myself staring at an improbably tiny gray, button-eyed dog behind a wrought iron fence. The little guy was free to roam around this stinking back yard, but fortunately couldn’t squeeze through the bars, as I didn’t have the confidence to stand on three legs while simultaneously giving him a gentle push away.
I began a halting retreat, when I heard a husky female voice yell something unintelligible from inside the apartment. I scrambled towards the corner to hide myself behind the building, my hooves intermittently slipping in my haste, when I heard the screen door creak open and saw, over my shoulder, an almost perfectly square older woman waddle out onto the raised wooden steps above the grass. She yelled several clipped Spanish phrases at the dog, but didn’t seem to see me at all, the noisy pet occupying her whole attention. After no more than a second or two, I rounded the corner, then stopped to catch my breath. The sudden silence made me realize just how much of a racket my hooves had made as I was running away, and I hoped she hadn’t noticed it over the barking dog. I held my breath and listened for any sign of pursuit, literally straining my ears forward to catch even the softest footstep.
She muttered something, and I thought I caught the word “caballo,” before I heard several more heavy footsteps and then the screen door open and close once more. I waited for at least twenty more seconds before moving again, then turned around and headed in the direction I was now confident was south.
Ten or fifteen minutes passed in uneventful walking. Fortunately I'd managed to avoid any large streets, and in the few instances I needed to cross one, I was able to move a block up or down and stick to areas shaded by overhanging trees.
I was much, much better at walking now, and could direct myself around with almost the same ease I enjoyed in my original body. “Go there,” I could simply think, and both sets of legs would oblige, carrying me along and minding themselves well enough to step over or around any minor obstacle or unsure-looking footing.
Despite violently resenting my new four-legged posture not long before, having a degree of mastery over it now filled me with a sense of agency and control of my situation. I considered trying to move faster, beyond just a walk—What was that, a canter? Trot?—and hoped that whatever little module I'd assembled in my brain would be able to keep my legs moving properly without tripping over themselves, but decided I didn't want to risk falling and hurting myself out in the open.
On the other hand... What if I got cornered and needed to make a break for it? Did I want my first attempt at anything faster than a leisurely stroll to be that desperate? I resolved to try for a little bit of speed as soon as I came across a long enough stretch of alley to approach the problem gradually.
I peeked around another corner, and with the coast clear I moved behind a dumpster, then slunk around the corner of a chain link fence to park myself behind what appeared to be a gas meter. But I immediately noticed some intolerable acrid stench coming from the baseboards of the corresponding apartment (Is this how rumors about where the meth labs are get started?), so, feeling a twang of rage that the increased sensitivity of my nose was coupled with an inability to hold it shut, I padded through the grass in between the buildings and around the corner to hunker down on the cement, between an old couch and a discarded Ikea bookshelf. I heard voices and music coming from one of the upstairs apartments through the fence against which the furniture was set, but a quick glance over my shoulder showed me that they were all still inside. This flexible pony neck certainly did make a good periscope.
I scanned some of the other apartments, but didn't see any presence of people in the alley—Everyone was either safely contained inside or simply not home. I peeked out from around the bookshelf, and saw that I was in a narrow concrete back street, lined with garbage and recycling bins against the fences on either side, as well as the occasional bicycle or moped chained to a street light or chain link fence post. It went down as far as I could discern, cutting across several “real” streets before disappearing into what was less a vanishing point than a Cubist explosion of urban detritus. The corner I had just turned was the very start of it, and up in the other direction it simply ended in a “T” at the tall wooden fence marking the perpendicular alley I had come through.
The back street was no blinding-white lake bed out in the New Mexico desert, but for my purposes it was enough of a proving ground for going experimentally fast. I glanced around one more time to make sure no one could see me, then stepped into the center of the alley and tested my footing.
I began walking at a brisk pace, planning to stop at the intersection where it met a normal street. At the moment, my hooves were making a syncopated four-beat rhythm so familiar from the movies I half expected a cowboy to start singing over it, but as I picked up speed, the syncopation grew more pronounced until they blended into a two-beat stroke and I found I was launching myself into the air with the combined motion of diagonal pairs of legs. That was a 'trot,' right? It felt a little bit like a combination of jogging and jumping rope. Regardless, I was almost out of Runway and began to slow down before I reached the intersection, stumbling slightly as I searched for my original four-beat walking rhythm.
I pressed against the corner of the building bordering the sidewalk, and not hearing any footsteps I peered around the corner. The brick was scratching my side, and not for the first time I wished I had one of Twilight and Pinkie's espionage outfits. If nothing else maybe I could pass for a giant black dog from behind.
The coast being clear, I stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked across the street for another suitable alley to duck into, but presently I head two muffled voices around a corner ahead of me and the automatic turning of my ears toward them only served to startle me further. I jumped into a hollow in the side of the building next to me, and realized to my immediate horror it was the entryway to an apartment. An intercom was set into the wall just above my eye level and a big glass door was right beside me, a staircase leading up and out of sight immediately on the other side. I was exposed in two directions, and counting on both the pedestrians to pass by and no one to come down the stairs was more of a gamble than I'd anticipating making. I turned around and pressed myself into the wall right below the intercom as hard as I could—thankfully the side in shadow—hoping to somehow blend into the brick and remain out of sight, blue against red in the purple shadows. It was scratching me and pulling painfully on the hairs in my coat with every breath, and I excoriated myself for even noticing discomfort at a time like this. My eyes darted between the stairs and the sidewalk, dreading the moment someone would inevitably appear in either.
After about ten seconds of nauseating anticipation, a man and a woman strode into view from behind me, past the corner of the entry alcove, and after the instant of terror where we were side-by-side, they mercifully continued past me down the street.
I looked towards the stairway again, not daring to step out just yet, lest the sound of my hooves make the pair turn around. I don't think I was even breathing at this point.
That was fortunate, because I might have cried out in surprise when the intercom directly behind my head suddenly and insistently buzzed. I realized to my absolute horror that I had been pressing one of the buttons with the solid base of one ear, and whoever was up there had decided to let in their visitor. How long had I been pressing it? Would they come down if no one answered? I hadn't taken too seriously the idea that someone would pick the particular minute or so I was hiding here to use this door, but of course it was a different matter if I called them myself.
I could still hear the man and woman on the sidewalk talking, though they were at least fifty feet away by this point and seemed involved enough in their conversation that a minor noise or two wouldn't make them turn around.
I was paralyzed with indecision. Stay and be discovered or throw myself into plain sight?
Oh hell! It was a terrible hiding spot anyway!
I shoved away from the wall and winced as the rough brick yanked at every hair from head to tail. Stepping carefully into the street, I scanned the length of it until it disappeared behind the lines of parked cars and leafy trees on either side. Each step I took sounded to my paranoid ears like the banging together of two world-sized coconuts, and I felt fear rising again as my pace slowed enough to set my hooves down silently. I pressed myself into the parked cars on my side of the street as I went along, and then slithered around a curved headlight to peek out from between the bumpers of two aerodynamic minivans.
On the other side of the street was a line of wrought iron fences, their spindly black gates barring entry into every alley. With increasing urgency I scanned back and forth, until I saw the line of townhouses end in a strip of grass dividing them from the scruffy beige siding of a cheap apartment. It was easily a hundred feet away, however, in the same direction that pair of humans had gone, and dangerously close to an intersection well-traveled enough to deserve a stoplight.
They say if you're ever separated from someone and want to be found, just stay in the same place, so I imagined that I then had to keep moving, and I had to take risks. I reflexively shook my head to either side to check for cars, then propelled myself across the street as fast as I could, managing a successful trot for a second time.
I squeezed myself through the nearest space between two cars, then letting my two left hooves step down from the curb, I pressed myself against the door of a boxy white sedan as I scanned around once more.
“Hello?” I heard a man say from across the street. Whoever I'd buzzed at that apartment had come down to greet me. I glanced back to make sure no part of me was sticking out from cover, but it was all I could do not to peek around the corner and size up whatever hornets' nest I'd disturbed. “Hello?” he said one more time, then, straining my ears up by the hood of the car, I heard a slow hydraulic hiss and burst of tiny clicks as the door was left to swing shut. These pony ears could be pretty useful after all.
Immediately, however, they swiveled to focus on something behind me that my conscious mind hadn't yet registered. Someone was opening one of the iron gates, maybe sixty feet behind me. My head jerked around before I could think, and I saw a squat woman in a green tent of a t-shirt stepping through the gate, holding something small in her hand. She gestured into the air with it and I was almost deafened by two deep chirps from the nearest car opposite her from where I was standing, exposed right there on the sidewalk.
Viscous, smothering panic rose from my stomach. I didn't know if I should just run, or if I should get behind another car, but either way I had no more than a second or two to act. Unthinkingly I tried to squeeze myself into the space between “my” car and hers, but it was too tight for my body to fit through and my chest was now smashed uncomfortably into the rear of her minivan.
It was right then that I saw, however, that the car and I were almost exactly the same color. I didn't dare look back but I knew she must be heading in this direction and could only hope with all my might that being silhouetted against it gave me an extra second or two before she noticed me. I prayed to every party-trick flaw in the human perceptual system as I shoved myself away and almost shoulder-checked her car again as I scrambled along it to slide around its front bumper. There was enough room on this side to fit through, and I ducked down and pressed close to the car's opposite side as I sat exposed in the street, jerking my head in every direction to see if I'd been spotted.
The coast was clear, and I quickly walked up along the line of cars to hide in between another pair, two car lengths away. Being about as long as I was tall meant I couldn't turn around in there, and had to be content with my head facing the sidewalk, and my rear end sticking out towards the street. I lay down, hoping the shadows the cars cast on me in addition to the leafy overcast from the trees above would keep me from being too conspicuous, since I didn't dare move from this spot until I was sure the woman had gotten into her car and off the sidewalk.
As soon as I heard the car door open, I stood again and checked both directions on the sidewalk, then ran as fast as I could towards the grass alley still up ahead. But I'd run faster than I could, apparently—I'd never moved this fast in all my bipedal life—because after an achingly short interval my rear legs stumbled as they lost their rhythm and tripped each other just as they were pushing off. I felt my hips skewing off to the side just as my front hooves contacted the ground again, causing me to pivot around them with a stomach-churning twinge of knee pain, and I spun out onto my left side, facing the other direction.
Fortunately my rump had absorbed most of the impact, and I was too full of adrenaline to let the throbbing dullness into anything but the very back of my mind. I threw my head back over my shoulder and let the momentum corkscrew me around until my front legs could reach forward again to contact the ground. I pushed up with them and waited the instant for my back half to catch up before pushing off again with the inside hoof and starting a brisk walk. I let myself gather speed gradually this time, but as I did so I noticed a pain in my right front “knee” with every step. I'd overextended myself and this was the price.
Automatically I began favoring the leg and my rhythm began to falter again. I slowed down considerably, and though now the alley was only about thirty feet away, I became so much more aware of the sound of every step that I screamed inside my head to go faster. I felt like I was a chain between a heavy anchor and a speed boat straining at full throttle, every link beginning to bend from the tension.
“Leg be damned,” I thought, “It's not that bad!” and shivered as I firmly stepped down with it to push myself into a trot. I covered the remaining distance in under ten seconds and kept pushing into the alley until I could unclench my teeth and lie down on the grass around the corner of a wooden fence, where I hid behind a large plastic garbage can.
My right front knee ached dully, but I could already sense the pain was on its way out. It wasn't actually the pain that had slowed me down so much as an unvocalized dread of permanently damaging it somehow if I wasn't perfectly careful. Somehow in that moment the idea of being a female pony for the rest of my life seemed positively golden compared to the idea of also having a gimpy knee.
Fortunately, however, these pony legs seemed very sturdy, and again I thanked whoever was responsible for this body that it was evenly filled out, without the bony, fragile-looking legs of the equines of Earth.
I looked myself over, and didn't seem to be too banged-up anywhere, though I certainly wouldn't win any prizes for grooming. My coat was matted and sticking up in places, with a few grains of dirt or gravel caught in some others, but it seemed to have been a good layer of protection and kept me from getting any actual road rash when I fell, though already being naturally so low to the ground probably helped a little. I had scars on my original human knees from falling off bicycles, and I didn't want to lose my clean dermatological slate so soon.
I sighed and let my tongue roll out of my mouth. I had, what? Two miles to go before I got home? How many more times was I going to have to do this? Should I even be trying? But where else was I going to go? Could I hide out somewhere and wait for dark? Where? Would it even make a difference? It was a Saturday, and a Saturday night was not the time to be outside if you didn't want anyone else around.
I imagined just giving in and somehow calling for a taxi, and pretending to cast a “make tons of money” spell on the guy's cab or something in lieu of payment, but if there's anyone I didn't want seeing me it was someone with access to a city-wide radio network in a language I couldn't follow. If he blabbed on the radio or his little Bluetooth gizmo he'd probably have to take me back to the hangar and make me bless everyone's cab, then their families, then... I couldn't even guess how something like that would end.
I briefly imagined a life of criminal adventures as an underground secret of the taxi industry, and from there other shady circles, inventing magic to forge green cards or turn bags of cocaine invisible, and consorting with a series of unnaturally glossy women I suppose one could term “dames.” What prison would they put me in when I finally got caught?
Dude, I bet you could totally just use magic to escape! You should do it! Go all Walter White on this shit!
No, you maniac. The plan is to find out how I got turned into a pony and reverse it, not use unicorn magic to rise through the ranks of organized crime.
“Oh my god, there it is! We were totally right; I knew that's what I heard!” I heard a young woman's voice frighteningly close by and my ears turned back in the direction of the street. I looked around the garbage can I'd used to somewhat conceal myself, and saw the same man and woman I'd avoided earlier standing by the corner of the fence, staring right at me.
Anyone who has no need of anybody but himself is either a beast or a god.
+ + +
I just sat.
I was tired and my leg hurt.
And I simply didn't know what to do. There was no way I could outrun them “driving stick” as I was, and judging by the looks of concern on their faces, they Knew What's Best for the animal in front of them and were determined to make sure that I—that "it"—got it.
They approached together, slowly and with their hands held slightly out at their sides, as if they were unsure of their balance. “Who put all that shit on her!?” the young man said with a kind of righteous disgust.
Oh come on, I thought. Would I have to go through this song and dance every time a human saw me? I felt a pang of empathy for people who have something they “don’t want to talk about.” How many times had I seen friends answer the same battery of insipid questions about this or that syndrome, traumatic event, or unclear ethnicity? Being turned into a talking pony, I supposed I now had one of each.
The woman mirrored her friend’s sentiment with a dismissive “What a buncha assholes!” and spat. “Think they can fuckin' do whateeeeever they want!” she continued with an exasperated drawl towards the end, as if this were something she'd needed to say far too many times.
It was then that I consciously noticed the pair's vaguely punk-ish appearance, a constellation of piercings across the man's face and gauges in his ears, with scrawny light brown dreadlocks, while the woman had close-cropped bleached hair and extensive tattoo sleeves, which she'd no doubt cut the arms off her Black Flag t-shirt to display.
“What're we gonna do with her? We could clean her up at Duncan's place, or get him to come over, he's got that huge tub or whatever...” The man whispered while looking sideways at me. I was going to be worried if he could tell that easily that I was—that this body was female, but he might have simply been defaulting to “she” to show off just how hard his Privilege had been Checked.
“Yeah...” the woman replied distantly, as if she weren't paying attention. She was staring right into my eyes, which made me extremely uncomfortable and my gaze started darting around as I thought of what to do.
“Plus I think he knows a bunch of farm people, that's sorta his thing.” The man continued. “Or like a ranch or whatever. She's probably real fucked up—I dunno what you do for a... 'rescue horse.'” They were still walking towards me, only about eight feet away now.
I really wanted to tell them to just fuck off.
“Lookit the poor thing...” said the woman. I’ll grant her I was in a sorry state. My forelegs were laid in front of me, my left pressing on the wrist I’d strained, never having used it as... a knee before, and all over me was the evidence of my bumps and falls. I’d been sweating, and along my sides and shoulders it had soaked into my coat, surface tension pulling the hairs into dozens of little shark’s teeth, to which clung numberless gritty specks. The weight of it was whisper-light but unignorable. One more new thing to take care of. The woman spoke again, quietly, shifting her head slightly towards her friend. “I’m pretty sure she’s been abused, by whoever... whored her up like this.”
Well thanks, Ms. The Illustrated Man. That slight to my inborn looks drove home just how frustrated I’d become at their patronizing approach. In working to not to upset the dumb beast they thought they saw, they were upsetting the language-using person I actually was.
If you're really up there, please save me, Wittgenstein!
They probably would have granted me sapience right away if I’d looked more like a cartoon character (whether they’d have stuck around is another question), but a real-life Pony turned out not to look radically different from, well, a real-life pony. But a horn and a coat color are what they are, no matter how stylized, and I wasn’t going to escape notice even before they picked up on the many unmistakable differences that marked me as an equine apart.
The man caught himself at the beginning of a no-doubt habitual toss of his head, and instead tried to blow his thin white-guy dreads out of his face, before finally giving up and whispering back to his friend. “Yeah... That’s so fake... She doesn’t look anything like a real unicorn would.”
That’s it. It might not have been my real body but it was still mine, even if I felt a twinge of worry over what it meant that I was now coming to its defense.
I let them approach to within about twice an arm's length, then tilted my head up and back while sighing casually to give them a second of warning about the whole ‘talking pony’ thing, and looked back at them. “You guys, I'm... I really am a magical unicorn, OK? I'm supposed—Whoa, be cool! You alright?”
The man had been in the process of crouching down, no doubt to pat my head, and fell over backwards almost immediately, while the woman simply froze and stared.
“Anyway,” I went on, “I'm supposed to look like this, with the horn and the colors and...” Don’t say vagina. “…all that,” I lied, not being 'supposed' to look anything close to this. “So...just...y'know, go back to, uh, your stuff, and forget you ever saw me, OK?” I lifted a forelimb to wave a hoof a few times in a shooing gesture off to the side.
“What the fuck...!?” the man stared at me with an expression of confusion so exaggerated it was surely some affectation he practiced. “Is this for real? Are you real?” He got up and turned to his friend. “That's gotta be like some lady in a suit, right? Aw shit, there's no way—just...” he broke up into an incoherent stammer before suddenly turning to me and laughing with relief. “We thought you were like a real horse or something. That is one fine-ass costume. Are you doing some kinda film school thing back here? ...Oh my god, we're super sorry if we like, fucked it up or whatever!”
“No, it's fine,” I said cheerfully, “I'm just taking a little break. This costume is hot!” Thanks for that, guy.
“I bet! With the face and everything it probably takes like ten hours to put on or whatever, so it's not like you can just...”
“Haha, yeah,” I picked up, “It's no plain old rubber suit.”
“That's not a costume,” the woman said with measured calmness—Ostensibly to her friend, though she was still staring at me fixedly.
“What? It...” The man trailed off. He hadn't believed it, either, but I wasn't going to be the one to stop him pretending otherwise.
“Look,” she said, leaning towards him but still keeping her eyes on me, “The way her mouth moves, and the ears, and where her eyes are, and the legs in the back, that's all real!” she gradually became more agitated, as if making up for her earlier catatonia. As soon as she said “ears” I self-consciously clenched them down and back, as if that would somehow hide them instead of make them even more conspicuously alive.
Great. I was tired and hungry and I wanted them to go away, and decided to just tell them as much. “OK, look—I'm not supposed... Lemme start over: I'm here by accident, and I'm trying to stay out of sight, so...Can you just...? Look, can you just go home and forget about this? It can be like some little 'thing' between the two of you—'That time you saw the unicorn,' you know?” The fact that I was lying down let me make an imploring shrug.
“Are you lost!? Do you need a place to hide!? I mean, we can...” She was serious but very energetic. Technically I did need a place to hide, but I didn't want things to get any more complicated than absolutely necessary. Like adding a card to a poker hand, each new person multiplied the possible combinations of Fuck.
“I don't want to involve anyone,” I said flatly.
“Why!? Are you in danger?” She jumped in with absolutely no delay, then seemed to almost retract her legs into the air to fall onto the grass in a seated position. She reached out and put a hand on that part of my neck where the mane ends...'withers,' was it called? "It's OK now..." I tensed for a moment but decided to ignore the gesture. “But you've got to get help if you're in danger,” she said with such genuine urgency that I felt inappropriate and disrespectful just by existing in the same space, as if I'd worn a tuxedo t-shirt to the Crucifixion.
“No! I'm not!” I involuntarily protested too much, trying to clear that deadly pall away, my voice climbing to a register I'd never have thought possible before today, and that I didn't know how anyone could be happy hearing come out of their mouth. I brought it down to a more casual level. “I'm really not. I just want—I'm just trying to get home, with as few people seeing me as possible.” Oh well.
“Where's home? Is it—Are you—We can get you there, or if it's not, like, a place on Earth we can help get you what you need to get back there!” She was absolutely determined to help, and the look of concern on her friends' face as he watched over her shoulder made me think he was, too, and taking it all in while he thought of a course of action. I doubted even in Equestria they had magic that could get someone to listen to you once they thought they had you all figured out.
I began to consider just threatening them with a telekinetic display, but my stomach growled with unreal volume and I realized there actually was something they could help me with. It was a short-sighted move, but I wasn't going to be useful at long-term thinking on an empty stomach.
“Actually...” I smiled, and they returned it—Clearly they'd heard my stomach as well. “If you really wanna help, I am craaazy hungry. Do you guys have any food, or could you just like... go get me a sandwich or something?”
“...Or something.” I shrugged, then half jokingly began, “Actually, some pierogies sound—”
“I know the perfect thing!” The woman brightened and finally took her hand off my back, giving it a little scratch as she did so. I'm not going to lie, it was pleasant for what it was, but it still made me feel like a toy. She stood up and turned to her friend, saying something I couldn't quite make out but apparently involving a car and someone named Jeremy.
“Oh no, no—No cars! I'll just stay here,” I protested.
“Out in the open like this?” The man looked shocked.
“You can't! Trust us, this is our world and it's much safer this way if you don't want anyone to see you,” the woman said, looking back at me, her eyes large with concern. She nodded to her friend with a quick “OK, see you later,” and he took off back down the alley.
I groaned quietly and let my head fall to rest between my forelegs. She put her hand on my neck again and started running her fingers down the length of it through my, uh, mane, which she naturally assumed to be comforting but only made me feel awkward and patronized—Not that I told her to stop, though now I felt a little bit guilty on top of everything for secretly enjoying it.
Then it IS working, innit?
“Oh by the way, my name's Nicole, and that was Derek,” she said in a staccato burst as if she were trying to get it out of the way, then tried not to look like she was looking at me expectantly.
“Uhhh,” pony name, that's right, “Blue Shift.” I looked at her with a lopsided grin.
“That's a cool name, does it mean anything?”
“Oh, uh, well... So light waves, OK? We see their wavelength as color, so when something is moving towards—”
“Ohhh, that thing! Fuck... what's it called? The Dar... The Doppler Effect! Wow, I wouldn't have...expected a, a unicorn to be named after...science.”
“Well, we're mysterious...!” I said with exaggerated coyness. Telling her I just thought it was a cool sounding name that went with the color I turned out to be would probably have spoiled some of that mystique. “Uhhh... Think of short wavelengths that resolve lots of detail. Of keeping things densely packed. Like stars blending together in a glowing band across the sky.“
...Where did that come from? “It's sorta what the galaxy on my butt means.” I gestured back with my head.
She withdrew her hand when I moved and leaned over to look. “Oh cool...” She didn't seem particularly impressed by the mark, but then I suppose it wasn't much compared to her own tattoo sleeves. I saw an old sailing ship resting on the crease of her elbow, waves cascading down her forearm into an intricate Escher-esque collection of Japanese carp that I thought was particularly stunning. What special talent was that?
She inclined her head back towards me. “So... how did you get here? You can tell me if you’re...” Her eyes flicked to the side. “...running away from something.” Evidently she was still of the mind that I was fleeing some traumatic situation. I supposed in a sense I was, and my dirty coat did make me look the part, but it didn't feel right to wear that mantle over it. No one had been nasty to me, I had just unexpectedly become a walking news bombshell, and unable to easily perform daily tasks I took for granted. ...Could you go on disability for being a pony? Doesn’t hurt to have a backup plan, I guess...
Dude, I'm pretty sure the injection disabled horses get isn't into their bank accounts...
“Uhh, no... ” I replied hesitantly, “I’m not. I’m really not. I’m fine, just...” I didn't know what to say that would satisfy her and hopefully get her and her friend to leave me alone. My knee didn't hurt anymore and I considered just making a break for it, but she was still, on some level, operating under her first impression that I was an animal that needed help and wasn't able to ask for it. From her perspective, letting me run away would have been massively irresponsible. Even a display of magic to frighten her off would have just reinforced her belief I was scared and not behaving rationally. ...Maybe I wasn't. Would a rational pony... do what?
I'd seen over the years that people who decorated themselves to seem like something of a sharp-edged outsider, like she did, often had experience dealing with deadly serious drama, from family or friends or whomever, and might eventually become magnets for it themselves without realizing it (though of course sometimes they just thought it was a cool look). She was probably primed for this by long nights, in person and no doubt on her social justice Tumbr, of comforting her own friends as they tried to escape their issues, or being the one comforted herself. There were many, many worse people I could have encountered—Almost anyone, really—but none are so hard to shake off as an earnest do-gooder who thinks they have you pegged.
The fact that I was hiding so much about myself made me feel like I didn't have a right to be in the presence of someone so dedicated, and I guessed she could sense this, and interpreted it as a different class of shame. Should I have come clean and explained everything? It wouldn't be what she expected, but it was still a case of a person in trouble and with the potential to be victimized. I wanted to keep my true identity a secret, because I still believed on a fundamental level that I'd be back in my old life before too long, and I didn't want the time I spent as an impossible pony to define the remainder of that life or otherwise haunt me. No doubt that was the “running away” she smelled on me.
My family and closest friends were the only ones I could trust to help me and then let this lie, and theirs was the only help I wanted. And there was Steph now, as well, to whom I at least owed closure. But still, a part of me wondered if it might be somehow petty, or even just strategically unwise, to refuse these people's immediately available help.
As if answering my thoughts, Nicole shifted to sit next to me so we were both facing the same way, and then with perfect candor said, “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.” Thank you, I’m going to take advantage of that.
In a way she did have me figured out, only missing an added wrinkle that, in terms of simply keeping me out of harm’s way, didn’t make much difference. As far as most things were concerned, I might as well have always been a pony.
Nicole shifted slightly. “So... If I can ask, where do unicorns... I mean, where did you come from...?”
Nicole stifled a laugh. "Wow, shit... I should have guessed it’d be something I’m just not... ready to understand. I guess they do say Bigfoot’s up around there, though... You wouldn’t know if he’s real, would you?"
"I doubt it."
We sat in silence for five minutes or so, with Nicole periodically rising to walk from one end of the alley to the other to make sure we weren’t disturbed, and she moved a few more trash cans to block sight lines as much as she could. Feeling useless, I attempted to stand up and help push the cans, but like someone who won’t let you pay for a meal seeing you pull out your wallet, she insisted I remained where I was and that I should rest, and it struck me that not having the will to go through that whole “no I insist” back-and-forth meant she might once again be right about me.
I was somewhat relieved, not just because sitting around doing nothing is always preferable to a chore, but because I was still, on an only semi-conscious level, afraid for my right front knee. No doubt if I’d grown up in this body I’d have injured it countless times, and seen countless other foals weather the playground’s slings, arrows, and thousand natural shocks, but there was no one in this world to teach me what my limits were.
Nicole spent most of the time simply keeping me company, which was nice, and after she’d been “caught” staring at me a few times, I turned my head to lie facing away from her so that she could look all she wanted without feeling rude.
That backfired, however, and she pushed herself back a few inches before apologizing. "I’m sorry, I don’t meant to stare, It’s just that no one ever thought unicorns might actually be real.” Count me among them. “But I always knew it, that there was more. I knew there was more.”
“No... No argument here.”
“I guess it’s no surprise but you’re kind of different from the legends we have... Without the long tail or cloven hooves or the, you know, beard,” she said. What? Was that a thing? Why does everyone know more about this than me? “You’re more like... a pony, almost.”
“Mpff...I guess you could say that.”
“Oh wait, are you... An adult? Or... fully grown, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Haha... As far as I know.”
“Can I ask how old you are?”
“How long do unicorns—Excuse me.” A muffled jungle cat had roared from somewhere, and Nicole pulled a phone from her pocket to glance at the screen. “OK, Derek's back with the van, let's go! ...Can you walk OK?”
“Oh, yeah, I'm fine, uh—” I replied automatically before warning klaxons began sounding in my brain. They say if you're being assaulted, the one thing you should fight against, as if you planned to die right then and there, was being moved to another location.
But I wasn't being assaulted...was I? This was almost the opposite—Wasn't I being rescued? Didn't the exact words “rescue horse” come out of Derek’s own mouth? But I was still traveling into unknown territory and this had the potential to spiral wildly out of control. That's what it was: I was no longer in control of the situation but had let someone else take the reins, and now I had to walk down whatever path that rider chose.
Maybe in a way I was being kidnapped... “Uh...!” I stammered, “N...no, it's alright, I just asked for a little food, and then I'll be on my way! You know what, forget it, I’m not even that hungry; I mean thanks, but I—”
Nicole had gotten up to lead the way but then turned around to face me with a look of pained confusion. “You can't stay here! Just out in the open!? You've got to let us help you, you don't know how dangerous it can be around here!”
In this yuppie neighborhood? C'mon. No wait, wasn't some girl telling you her friend got shot outside of the Channel Club?
Sure, but he lived...! And who'd try to mug a creature with no pockets, anyway?
Regardless, I still couldn't bring myself to show my true colors. “No, really! Just listen to me! There's a lot you don't understand!” I implored, but I still stood up in spite of myself. It was no use, anyway—She was convinced of my traumatized irrationality and would probably go get Derek to help carry me if I resisted. Shit, I was being kidnapped!
She was looking at me, waiting for me to follow. I ran through my options but there weren't very many. I couldn't—didn't know how to run, not on this bumpy grass and dirt. I'd just hurt myself again and only make their case stronger. Maybe I could wreck the van with telekinesis, but I didn't have enough confidence in it's forcefulness and besides, that seemed kind of... evil. The best bet was probably to take a page from the Doctor, and simply go along with my captors until I could find a new opportunity to escape and rendezvous with my Companion and TARDIS, or friends and apartment in my own case. At least these people weren't planning to disintegrate me.
You don’t know that, maybe the Men in Black have gotten really into zines.
I stepped forward, and felt only a ghost of pain in my knee, so light it was almost certainly my imagination. At least something was going my way. I followed Nicole around the corner, and paused as she checked the street for witnesses, then motioned for me to enter the back of a scuffed, forest green minivan, one corner of its front bumper made into a little crumpled cove by some forgotten collision.
I reached far into the van's hold to place my forehooves on the hard felt-covered surface, then jumped with all four legs, landing on my side with my back against the rear seats. I rolled over onto my stomach and raised my head to signal my safe arrival to Derek and—Who the hell is that guy?! I knew it, I fucking knew it...
“That's Jeremey, we're going to his place. You can clean yourself up there and we'll cook you something,” Nicole said as she prepared to close the back door, while the puffy, freckled man in the passenger seat gaped at me and shook his head. “Derek's a really good vegan cook. Hors— Uh, unicorns are herbivores, I'm guessing, uh, you don't eat meat, uh, right?”
“...Well I dunno, I guess if we were all in like a lifeboat, and there was no other food...” I said, completely surprising myself. My mouth had apparently entered some kind of holding pattern while I panicked upstairs about another person getting involved, but Nicole chuckled and softly shut the rear door.
Derek leaned over his shoulder to ask if I was secure and I nodded affirmative—It's not like any of them were wearing seatbelts—And we set off along the tree-lined avenue.
At a red light shortly into our voyage, in the oily shade of some overhead train tracks, Derek leaned over his shoulder towards me again. “Do you like music...?”
What kind of question is that? Everypony likes music! I was startled that I'd just thought a ponyism without specifically intending to, but it somehow felt like the “correct” choice of words right then... Maybe this body was getting to me. Maybe some music would take my mind off it.
“Y...Yeah,” I said lightly, “Go ahead.”
“Is dub reggae OK? Uh, do you know what that is?”
I suddenly snorted, then grinned—I was always more of a ska fan but reggae was right up there. Maybe I’d get along with these people better than I thought. “Yeah, it's fine,” I tried to say as nonchalantly as possible—I still didn’t want to have a conversation about it.
He played something I didn't recognize. I thought about having that conversation after all, but doubted I'd still be able to remember the name he gave me the next time it even occured to me to go on iTunes. Instead I lay my head down on a forelimb to stare up out the window with one eye and let the rhythm relax me for the duration of the ride, lightly twitching a hoof as if I were strumming up on the 2 and 4 beat. I'd been saving up for a new bass guitar, but now even four strings seemed like too much to handle.
Even though my head was down so I wouldn’t be spotted, I recognized a lot of the tops of buildings or their signs I could see by looking up through the back windows—There was the 5AM taco place, the Family Dollar that was always out of frozen pizza, a bar I once got kicked out of but it so totally wasn’t my fault, the theater where a girl and I went to see a midnight showing of “Pink Flamingos,” and what used to be my friend Dan's apartment...Or maybe that was Paul.
The trip lasted about ten minutes, and then we pulled into a dirt driveway between two old houses in a part of town I didn't visit very often. Miraculously, only a bit of my progress walking home had been undone—Now I simply had to head west instead of south. That is, once I was able to... extricate myself.
When I raised my head I could see a stand of trees enclosing the little dirt parking area, and the mud-brown top of a boxy sedan as we pulled up along side it. “OK, here we are!” Nicole said cheerfully. “This is Jeremy's place. He's got a few roommates, but they won't be a problem. Right?” She turned to him.
“Yeah, they're fine,” Jeremy lazily called back to me, the first thing he'd said to me the whole time, only occasionally mumbling back and forth with Derek until now. I could guess who they were talking about.
I sighed. Of course he had roommates. I bet they had a dog, too, who'd be overjoyed to meet someone closer to his height. Nicole opened the rear door, and I timidly climbed out, back legs first. I followed them up a short flight of DIY wooden steps and through a screen door, into a dim, linoleum kitchen and then a stuffy living room, with huge mismatched couches and puffy chairs, and a coffee table covered with papers and all sorts of little domestic detritus, as well as a stout purple bong. There were a few earthy rugs in well-traveled spots on the plush gray-brown carpet, and a large TV on a Victorian credenza in the corner, sporting a jungle of wires that no doubt eventually reached the Xbox and DVD player and other gadgets on the floor in front.
On the end of the wide wooden bannister fencing off the stairs, someone had placed an open laptop, its wallpaper a group photo of smiling protesters, just visible under a shotgun spray of icons. A few unframed, goopy abstract paintings hung on the walls, as well as some rather snappy posters advertising bands that seemed only vaguely familiar. The blinds were closed, and a few shafts of early afternoon light cut through the dim room to emphasize its coziness and autumn colors. It was actually quite nice in its way, like a big, broken-in sweater that smothers you a little but keeps you warm on house-bound Sundays. It smelled like... a burlap kaleidoscope. My nose wrinkled slightly on its own, but it was just too sensitive an organ for its owner to wrest much meaning from.
A gray and black striped cat oozed out from under the coffee table and crept silently towards me. “That's Lumpy,” Nicole said as the cat brushed against my legs, tracing a figure-eight around the two right ones before hopping up onto an easy chair to stare at me. I had no idea of the range of ordinary pony coats, but mine was shorter, thicker, and smoother than the slightly fluffy cat's. I guessed that I might look a little bit shiny if I were very thoroughly brushed.
“He's a rescue, too. Shit, I mean...!" Nicole waved her hands in front of her face, and I cocked my head to the side with a loose smile I hoped communicated I knew what she meant. "...Have a seat and just relax!” She indicated any of the chairs or couches.
"Are you sure? I'm kinda..." I looked back and forth at my matted sides.
Nicole laughed once and rolled her eyes. "Don't worry, Jeremy and them have long since given up trying to keep anything nice in here." She glanced around, then reached into the cushions of a chair to pull out a crushed, empty Hamm's can, holding it up as Exhibit A, then her shoulders drooped. "Sorry. That it's not...probably as nice as a unicorn needs, I mean, but I hope you can at least get comfortable."
“Ah...don't worry about that...!” I replied as a sleepy groan. This room was having a bit of an effect on me, and I climbed up onto a fat, pumpkin-colored corduroy couch, pressing my back into it and laying my head on an armrest, while letting my legs stretch out off the front to almost reach the coffee table. I sunk into the sofa and shifted slightly to bask in the little zone of comfort I'd discovered. I was almost tempted to take a nap.
From couch you came and to couch you shall return! Try going back to sleep—Maybe this whole time you just needed to turn yourself off and back on again.
“Derek's going to cook you something. Is there anything you like?” Nicole had her hands on either side of the entryway to the kitchen, and was leaning forward into the living room like the mermaid on the bow of a pirate ship.
“Anything he wants to make is fine, thanks...” I said in a thin, dreamy voice. I really was tired. Too tired to risk ungratefulness by saying no eggplant or tomatoes. Those could be Future Blue Shift's problem.
Everything in me wanted to sleep, but I couldn't afford to waste time and I didn't know how long I'd be unconscious. It's not like they would stab me in my sleep and steal my shoes, but I just couldn't stay here... Though before I left I needed some way to repay their generosity. I could at the very least play them a song, but I wasn't nearly dexterous enough with magic to touch anything more complicated than bongos.
The cat was still staring at me from its nest in the seat of a big fuzzy armchair. I hoped this body wasn't allergic to cats... Normally at this point I would never have let my face touch something in this house, but I'd put my trust in this body so far, and hoped with no small amount of selfishness that an allergic reaction wasn't something I'd have to think about anymore—Cat allergies are a curse for anyone living in a city who likes girls, because all urban single women own cats. All of them. Or are at least assumed cat-owning until proven innocent. But maybe now I would finally like cats as much as I claimed I did.
It'd sure simplify things if I were now free of animal allergies, but I immediately remembered a much bigger obstacle to dating human women was likely my being a small female horse. Where would I even begin? I'll start a “P for F” section in the classifieds, that's what I'll do, but we can't run a whole new section with just one ad, the editor said, so I threw a smoke bomb on the ground and split into eight projections of myself, so now you have enough, right, Mr. Editor, but can you tell which is the real pony and not just an illusion?
Suddenly I was back on the couch. I'd fallen asleep for a moment, and was startled by the jolt of being pulled through that tunnel back to reality. Maybe I should just let go—They'd wake me up to eat, right? Unless this became one of those “Oh you looked so sweet sleeping there I just couldn't wake you up” things... As an adorable pony, the risk of becoming my own living Do Not Disturb sign was probably a lot higher, but on the other hand it's not like the hotel maids really pay attention to those signs; I mean you could be trying to sleep in, or punch the clown or whatever before taking a shower and it's all Knock Knock Knock and in she comes Oh hey I know you! Sorry though can’t talk I have to go back over to the window and finish jumping out of it, and then because the cars outside slowed down to avoid hitting me time also slowed down of course (cars and time are the same thing you know) so I wasn't falling as fast and
Back on the couch again. The wall clock told me I'd been lying there for less than five minutes. A minute to win it, this is the big game son, and they're the rich kids' camp from across the lake who pushed the Fat Friend into the water when the panty raid went wrong before the scene where the monster turned out to actually be Old Man Withers from the abandoned
Couch. Yikes. I felt like I was getting whiplash. That seemed to have tripped some necessary switch, however, and second by second I was growing less tired until I no longer had to fight to keep my eyes open. Maybe it had jumped over to the cat, who now looked away from me and yawned, forcing me to do the same, and I was surprised by how wide my mouth could open if I really pushed, probably to assist in grasping more unwieldy objects.
I heard thumping in the kitchen, and slowly the scent of some kind of oil wafted into the living room to mix with the stuffy blend of soil and upholstery and untold summers' worth of pot resin that already filled it.
Nicole came back into the living room and grabbed the laptop off the bannister, then sat down on one of the other sofas, across the table and against the same wall as the TV. “Here, let me put on some music. Do you like Animal Collective—Haha, what am I saying...?”
“Whatever you want is fi...” It suddenly dawned on me that someone who had been so worryingly lax about not involving other people was now holding a device that could talk to anyone in the world.
I bit my lower lip. Should I break the laptop? Is that what an “expert” would tell me to do? I “flexed” the strange presence inside my horn and tried to reach into it with my magic sense, but I couldn't clearly distinguish the components from the electricity running through them. It was a bit like sticking my tongue into a box of jittery iron filings. Glancing up, I could see my bangs subtly illuminated, but focused on her laptop as she was, Nicole didn't seem to have noticed my horn's faint activity.
...What did it matter, anyway? Derek could have snapped a photo of me and tweeted it to hundreds of people the instant he was out of sight. This house probably contained at least a dozen ways of getting online and there was no way I could break them all without being the obvious culprit, not to mention a huge asshole for breaking all their stuff. I'd have to just trust them.
I began to shift onto my stomach to once more sit pony style, but the way I shivered and then frowned halfway through made Nicole blink and lean forward. I could either let her think it was a painful memory, or tell her it was the corduroy couch's rather cheeky reminder of the two... objects between my hind legs. I sighed. “Nothing, it's fine.”
“You don't seem to believe that. I understand if you don't want to talk but I'm here whenever you do.”
“I know. And you're probably just dying to know what my deal is—I would be, too—But really, it's better for me in the long run the fewer people know about this.”
“I can understand that. But I don’t think it’s helping you to shut down or keep it all to yourself. I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to know all about you—I still can’t get over that this is even happening, really—But I’m not the lost unicorn and this isn’t about me. If it’s something you’re ashamed of, or something painful, I can understand, and I don’t want to push you, but you won't be able to get any real help if you don't open up.”
“Wow, uh, thanks... It is something... pretty embarrassing, I guess. But not, uh, the way I think you’re thinking of.”
“What way is that?” She lost no momentum getting a foot in the door.
“Oh, you know... the ‘Lifetime Original Movie’ way,” I obfuscated. From her expression, that seemed to be enough of a smokescreen to lose her for the time being. "Lemme, uh...Hmm...” I gazed upward in thought and Nicole blinked. “OK: I'm in a bit of a 'situation' right now, but eventually I won't be, and then I don't ever want it coming up again, because it would follow me and define me for the rest of my life. I don't want there to be any links between 'me' right now, and 'me' in the future, and telling you why would itself be a link. Does that... make sense?”
“Are you...being blackmailed or something?” It was a good guess, and it was a fair assumption on her part that if she sussed it out on her own, I might as well fully open up to her.
“Oh, no no no no no!” I backpedaled, then hesitated for a moment with a pinched “Well...” and then “No. Not like—No. I'm not.”
“It's not really my place to say this, but maybe whatever it is you should think about accepting it and not trying to run away.”
I frowned at the empty air between us. This was getting irritating. I didn't begrudge her all that curiosity, but if she fully believed it was my prerogative to remain silent she wouldn't be trying so hard to drag things out of me, and so I decided to employ some of the same Bullshit I'd used earlier. “Look, I didn't want it to come to this, but I'm sworn to secrecy. All the information pertaining to what I'm doing here is classified on the orders of the Princesses, and there's no way I can break my promise to the alicorn royalty. Uh, not after all the trust they put in me.”
I didn't know if that would have any effect on someone with such an explicitly anti-authoritarian bent, but I wanted to at least give the impression I was beholden to the good guys. From the way she raised her eyebrows, however, I guessed that she was at least taken aback enough by the idea to not press me further. Part of me thought it was wrong to let her go on thinking I was a real unicorn—
You ARE! What the hell did you spend like twenty minutes staring at in the mirror!? You could be the very apex of unicorn actuality for all you know!
—But I couldn't gather the strength of will to come clean about having been human. There was a special kind of irrational shame to it, as if I were so bad at life I couldn't even manage to stay the same species.
Suddenly a door opened upstairs and I was immediately blasted with the ice-smooth pungency of extremely potent marijuana. One of those strains heavy-duty enough to deserve its own name, among the ranks of White Widow, Sour Diesel, Northern Lights, Bubblefunk, Strawberry Ice, Maui Mist, Blue Moon, Blue Velvet, Silver Haze, Crazy Daze, Wonderberry, Granddaddy Purple, and all the other background ponies.
There was some thumping from the second story and then a young man trundled down the stairs, a knit cap barely containing his wild black hair, and a flannel shirt open over his uniformly soft chest and stomach, thankfully leaving a visible square of striped boxer shorts in the front to prove he wasn't going totally bottomless. I clenched my teeth and shook my head. Whatever part of Nicole's brain had been making her so helpfully cautious back in the alley seemed to have completely died.
“Gonna play some Skyriiiiim,” the new guy croaked at the TV in the corner.
“Brandon!” Nicole groaned slightly. “You're going to fucking play video games? We've got a real live unicorn right over here! Her name is Blue Shift!”
I rolled my eyes, and fought an urge to look for someone behind me when she used a female pronoun. Brandon glanced over his shoulder at me after flopping down into an easy chair.
“Hey,” I said with my most disaffected nod.
“Whoa, haha, it's a 'my little pony,'” Brandon mumbled with a slight smirk.
My eyes bugged out and I pulled out a forelimb to wave hastily across my neck. Brandon nodded sagely. Nicole didn't seem to have picked up on any of this—Maybe she was used to ignoring strange things he said.
“Hey pony, you wanna watch me play Skyrim?”
“Yeah, OK,” I nodded and let my eyelids droop a little in imitation. This Brandon guy was alright. I seemed to have luck with pony fans coming down the stairs.
I heard more sizzling from the kitchen, then Derek walked out. "'Bout another half hour," he said, his eyes lazily drawn to the game booting up. "Hey Brandon. ... I said hey Brandon." Derek looked towards me, then grinned and shrugged. I was fading fast, and managed little more than raising my eyebrows in acknowledgement.
Nicole set her laptop on the floor. "Oh hey, I messaged Duncan, he's on his way over. I told him to bring his horse stuff." Wait, what...?
Derek twirled the spatula he was carrying. "Did you tell him why?"
"No, but I think he'll figure it out pretty quick."
I was too drowsy to worry about Future Blue Shift's problems. I watched Brandon's warrior or barbarian or whatever it was dither around the countryside for about ten minutes before, despite my token resistance, truly falling asleep.
Another sharp burp of deep cracking sounds echoed across the courtyard, as if somepony were being careless with some very beefy firecrackers. None of the students even flinched; they'd all become used to it by now.
No, he had only himself to blame. Princess Luna had teased him in a letter that if he didn't return to the palace soon, she was going to rent out his dedicated quarters to some craftsponies. And so she had, if only temporarily. Though he'd soon have access to his files and equipment again, it would no doubt take months, and all of his rations of public incense, before the room was finally cleansed of whatever acrid chemicals and molds those cheesemakers were constantly using. Spells were too literal to ever get it all.
In the ornately tiled courtyard below, a Royal Guard with a face like steel wool had been drilling a small team of yellow-helmeted watchponies in the use of the elaborate, nominally ceremonial cannons that ringed the city. The unfortunate unicorn trainee who'd acted as the target was struggling to free himself from a heavy, tangled net, his magic and hooves pulling at cross purposes and rendering him ever more immobilized.
The ornamented bronzework cannon rang as the guard banged his steel-shod hoof on it for emphasis. "...Aaaaand as you can see, ol' braggy-pants here is completely incapacitated. Now, this'll stop your Changeling or your Golem Pony, but for a dragon you're gonna want somethin' to weigh 'im down..."
The cadet had stopped struggling, though smoke the color of dead grass was still rising from the improbably-stretched mouth of the pony that formed the barrel. Sitting by what was presumably the loading hatch was a worryingly disorganized pile of what looked a bit like big canvas-wrapped bundt cakes, each displaying its yield and charge type in clumpy red paint.
The large, whimsically-ornamented cannons had been sitting in their fountain-batteries for centuries, dutifully polished every week and the sundry wishing tokens (and duck shit) cleaned from in and around their pools, until Princess Cadence, recently taking an interest in her husband's duties, pointed out that nopony actually knew how to use them. Given the rise in the number of creatures to which Canterlot was essentially a prepackaged economy tub of delicious pony, it had begun to seem like something of an oversight.
Taking inspiration from an obscure contraption that blasted out confetti and streamers to hastily decorate a room, the Guards' Sorcery and Clockwork Corps developed an armory of exotic munitions to immobilize or repel invaders. Princess Cadence began to endure teasing and harsh looks every summer, however, as the gunnery crews drilled with their nets and birdlime seemingly without regard to anypony's desire for quiet or outdoor space around their practice ground, but the Princess would point out that they at least had the decency to train with the stink charges and other irritants off in the mountains.
Another explosive report knocked him out of his reverie, and he turned from the window back to his desk, folding his quill into an “L” shape with a hoof and placing the bend of it in his mouth to stiffen it for writing. He idly flicked its sideways barbs with his tongue and adjusted the paperweights on the scroll, trying to remember where he left off.
...due to the weathering of the statues, which makes identification by their mane and tail styles inconclusive. However, ceramic fragments found in a layer above, bearing Windigo motifs and containing residue of hays native to the sub-arctic (artifacts diagnostic of the Clover A Culture, see endnotes) indicate the statues date from no later than the Lower Paleohippic. The pose of the statues, however, indicates
"...No, they ain't like dragons at all, who can't stand to get dirty. The birdlime ain't even gonna stick to a Must-stang under all that garbage! Tartarus, you try to tackle one, they're liable to take a crap right on ya! Why I knew this reeeeal pretty pegasus gal once, who..."
Rubbing a hoof on his temple, he silently cursed whoever had built these windows with mere anti-weather fields instead of thick, closeable shutters—no doubt another combatant in Equestria’s ancient conflict over whether deep silence or invigorating fresh air was better for studying. Princess Luna knowing his preference for the former, it was no wonder this was the front line to which he’d been shipped.
It wouldn't do any good to move to another part of the lounge—All the other tables were occupied by students who would no doubt be unable to resist an opportunity to talk to the Doctor Ever-Burning Coals, personal physician to Princess Luna and renowned eccentric Renaissance Pony.
Though, again, that was no doubt part of her intention in assigning him an unused room in the library dormitory. His recent archaeological obsessions had left him secluded, sallow-faced, friendless, and frankly weird, and a week of the Ordinary and Alive—Halls filled with laughter about mares, stallions, cider, pranks, and pastry—would return him to a proper place in a proper herd. Sometimes he got the feeling he was Luna’s patient, instead.
Coals sighed and returned to his manuscript, but before he could even dip his quill in the inkwell, he heard something heavy drop on the other side of the reading room, accompanied by a burst of mild profanity and a familiar alto voice chiming in with a self conscious "Oh... oh, sorry!" He smiled briefly, then composed himself, grasping the quill between his forehooves and laying it on the table, as a lanky mustard-yellow form made its way around the stacks to his secluded corner.
"Hey Doc!" The tall, ungainly young earth pony bounded forward and pulled a bundle of papers from her saddlebag. "Here'sh your 'ail for sh’day!" she enunciated around it, then set it down on the table, nearly knocking over a bottle of Coal's painstakingly concocted custom ink. She raised a hoof to push her glasses up her muzzle and then tugged on her red denim vest, in an endearingly transparent attempt to coquettishly fluff the hair of her chest where the lapels met. "And of course, a little something extra! Muenster, this time." She reached into another pocket of her saddlebag, and gingerly pulled out a small burlap package, setting it on top of the mail before releasing the urbanely trimmed gripping-strand of the pink twine that held it together. She withdrew her head in a subtle rightward arc, “accidentally” brushing her neck against his, with the briefest of pauses as both of them tensed in reaction.
"Again, thanks so much for letting us use your quarters in the palace. Colby and Pepperjack told me to say they’re still real sorry about what happened with the rennet and vinegar." Her ears slowly sunk to half-mast.
"Think nothing of it." Coals smiled weakly. The muscles of his cheeks and muzzle felt heavy from the fatigue of long concentration.
"Princess Luna just really likes her cheese. I mean, she came back before I was born, but I guess it's true what they say, about her getting really into it on the moon? Cheese, I mean."
"All those poor cows, though, right? Haha, I mean, they thought it was changelings abducting 'em! I told you about my great grampa's dairy farm, right?"
“Freaky stuff, right?”
“My mom donated a ton of bits to the bat-ponies’ thing to help the moon ones’ descendants be reunited with their families. They can give bad milk, you know? If they’re really down about something? You wouldn't think it would matter all that much, but it’s like, Wow! Night and day.”
“I see.” Coals sniffed and casually tossed his head to make the magnification armatures of his spectacles fall into position, then blinked in momentary disorientation.
She blinked herself, seeming to suddenly remember she was, in fact in a library. She leaned in and stage whispered. “Whatcha working on?”
“It’s…” He glanced at the box on the floor containing one of the statues. His unkempt tail shifted behind him, rasping on the low, upholstered bench. “Some funny old stuff I found. Nothing too exciting.”
“Oh but I love old stuff!” The young mare reached back into her saddlebag, and began snuffling around for the scent of whatever she was looking for while her tail swished excitedly. Each side of her bags was embroidered in bold white letters with half of her name, “SHARP” on one side and “CHEDDAR” on the other, no doubt causing her to spin around to correct anypony meeting her for the first time and usually knocking something over in the process, which no doubt brought endless amusement who whoever had gifted her with them. It was a very old practical joke, but as tricks were one of ponykind’s oldest vices/trust rituals/predator deterrents, every prank was eventually recycled.
Sharp Cheddar pulled her head out of her bag, eliding a “ta-da!” around a metal disk, a container lid of some kind, displaying an embossed, painted Wonderbolts member. Her frumpy mane style and baggy uniform marked it as being at least a century old. Sharp Cheddar leaned down to drop it on the corner of the oak table, where it gyrated tinnily for a moment before lying to rest with the pegasus image upside down. “Isn't it cute? We found it when we were cleaning out my dad’s stuff,” she said, a subtle dreaminess replacing some of the energy in her voice. Coals felt a pang as he looked at it—It wasn't a close resemblance, but something in the cant of the pose reminded him of a winged mare he’d rather not think about.
"Good shot, Wavecrest! Feels good to be on the firing end this time, huh?” The Guard’s husky voice carried up from the courtyard as Sharp Cheddar nearly jumped into the air, and Coals wondered when he had begun tuning it out. The sergeant continued. “Now answer me: What do you do if you see a mag-mare?"
"Sir, remove everything flammable and stay out of the proper Guards' way, sir!"
"That is correct!"
“Yikes!” Cheddar had recovered, though her mouth was still drawn into a look of dismayed surprise. “I mean I know this is Canterlot and all? We’re all crammed together on the side of a mountain, right? But isn't the Palace supposed to be like the one place that’s quiet?”
“Nothing is ever fully what it’s supposed to be,” Coals heard himself say, with a tone of unreal remove he hadn't intended. Something resonant of deep time and symbols that struggled to be understood across unremembered ages. His eyes refocusing, Doc Coals couldn't bring himself to look at either Sharp Cheddar to his left, or the humble box on the floor to his right, containing the statue that had so preoccupied him, and he continued staring at the baroque wooden bookshelf across the table.
His earth pony’s emotional sensitivity to magic hadn't warned him off the idols before, so this project had been getting inside his head more than he realized, and he felt a pang of stifling discomfort as he wondered if Princess Luna had indeed been right to worry about him. He quietly drew breath through his teeth. The scents of the reading room took on a smothering cast, as if harmonizing with the dusty vapors and melancholy resonance emanating from the old tin lid on the table.
“Haha, that’s true, I guess!” No more than a second or two had gone by before Sharp Cheddar’s rejoinder, but time had telescoped with the intensity of Coal’s momentary dissociation, and his ears’ sudden turn toward her nearly startled him. She continued, and he deliberately shifted over on his haunches to engage with her fully. “Are they gonna be doin’ that for a while, d’you think?”
It took conscious effort to keep his ears from lowering. “I don’t know.”
“Oh… Well…” Sharp’s head swiveled awkwardly. “I guess I should get back to the worksho—I mean, your...room. Thanks again!” She leaned in and wrapped her neck over his. He tentatively returned the hug, and through his withers he could feel the subtle motion of her swallowing, and the strange, rhythmic shaking of her pulse. “See you tomorrow, Doc!”
He smiled and nodded back to her. Ultimately he was glad he got his mail the non-magical way.
She raised her head and backed away before turning around and trotting off to the door, earning a frown from a small, silver-gray, somewhat boyish pegasus who had to flatten herself against one of the shelves to avoid being shoulder-checked. Coals heard Sharp quietly hum the first few bars of a popular melody before it was muffled by the door knob as she exited.
"...And dismissed! Good work, ponies! Gimme forty laps and then hit the baths!" A series of groans rose up from the volunteers in the courtyard, echoed by students throughout the reading room—This Palace wing would have no fresh towels for the rest of the day.
+ + +
A shared glance was all the Sisters needed to know it was once again time to work. The three mares with whom they’d been sharing the afternoon drew their lips or nodded solemnly, then retreated to the far wall as a building static charge in the room began to make their coats stand on end. With a pair of staccato violet flashes and claps of once-displaced air, the Royal Sisters vanished from the suite. A wax paper biscuit wrapper was drawn upwards by the draft of their passing, its moth-like loops the only sign they had been there at all.
The three mares-in-waiting stood motionless for a moment, before returning to their original practiced composure. “Goodness,” said Tidepool, “You know those looks, ladies; the Princesses shan't be returning today, I’m afraid.” The three mares began to collect their various effects and place them in their respective saddlebags. “I’ll call the maids; surely the poor things would appreciate a change from the laundry and a break for tea... Shall we finish our luncheon on the roof garden, then?”
Her two companions nodded with all the enthusiasm their station allowed.
+ + +
Coals examined the pile of mail Sharp Cheddar had left for him. It was the usual: Issues of scientific journals as well as invitations to speak or examine some local curiosity, updates from distant relations about how little so-and-so had finally gotten a cutie mark, fliers for everything from public sing-alongs and season-team volunteer requests to travelling magic shows and motivational seminars, and one small downy, pink, sweet-smelling mailmare feather. So Sugar Wind was on shift today...
As he neared the bottom of the pile, however, he paused, recognizing the Möbius strip logo of the Telos Foundation, which had finally replied to his request for a hearing of his latest findings in the primeval catacombs beneath the city. As an organization dedicated to promoting harmony and symbiosis among the three pony tribes, Telos was always interested in any new scholarship on Equestrian prehistory, or pony thaumatobiology, two of many fields in which Coals could claim world-class expertise, should he ever stop reigning himself in so as not to tip his hoof or seem too imperious in public.
His liaison to the organization, the fussy pegasus Upper Reaches, had apparently taken time from his busy schedule of… being fussy and important to travel with Coals into the heart of the mountain to examine the object he now believed he understood. He was free to meet at the specified place at any time in the next two days, all Coals had to do was tear the platinum-leaf sigils at the bottom of the letter and Upper Reaches would be alerted by one of the (unsurprisingly expensive) crystals he carried for the purpose.
Coals examined his unfinished manuscript and decided this would be the perfect time to perhaps make it unnecessary, if Upper Reaches would relay all the relevant information for him. He held the Telos letter down on the table with a hoof, then tore the bottom of the letter cleanly across the sigils with his teeth. They flashed for a moment before lifting off the paper, then disintegrating and rising into the air like quickly fading fireflies. He was unsure of how long it would take Upper Reaches to arrive at the meeting point specified in the letter—The statue of Distant Zephyr in the Moonstone Enclosed Commercial Plaza—but it wouldn't do to be late, and he began organizing his effects to place them in his saddle bags.
The case at his hooves containing the small statue entirely took up one side, and he slid his mail off the table to slot into an open file in the other, and then began rolling up his half-finished manuscript and capping his ink. The quill was one of the library’s, so that’s—The cheese, of course! He almost forgot Sharp’s little present. Gingerly picking it up by its twine binding, he dropped it into a side pocket on his bags. A glint caught his attention, and he noticed she’d forgotten the little tin lid she’d placed on the table as well. Ignoring the musty feeling on his lips, he placed it into the bag alongside his files, trying not to look at the pegasus embossed on the top, for the sense of loss it brought to mind.
He slid into his saddle bags and then fastened the hook and eye of his heavy cloak around his neck, its subdued forest green falling all around him to leave only his hooves and the sandy hair of his neck exposed. He took a deep breath and blew any dust off the table, then set his hooves on the hardwood floor with a resounding metallic clink. He was shod, yes, and he didn't care who knew. It only befitted him in his travel-intensive line of work, and its being an earth pony stereotype was merely a coincidence. Several busybody unicorns had petitioned the library to have carpet installed, claiming that hardwood implicitly discriminated against normally-shod earth pony scholars, but were rebuked by the Royal Agricultural Adjutant herself for being patronizing and ignorant, and the matter was quietly forgotten. Nevertheless, Coals, with the practiced grace of a stallion accustomed to danger in foreign lands, turned around and glided toward the door.
+ + +
As always, the guards did not so much as blink when, with a pair of intense flashes and rivulets of crackling brush discharge, Celestia and Luna appeared in the center of their throne room. Once again exchanging no more than a glance with her sister, Celestia gracefully strode to her plushly upholstered seat to pose regally on her haunches, while Luna propelled herself through the air with a single deft flap, alighting in front of the throne room doors and opening them inwards with a steady telekinetic tug.
Two more guards on the far side of the doors nodded in response, and set off in opposite directions at a determined canter, the sound of their hoofsteps quickly vanishing into the deep vermilion carpet.
Luna once more raised herself into the air and glided through the kaleidoscopic shafts that beamed down from the stained glass, before landing back at her sister’s side with four delicate clicks on the marble floor and reclining on a luxurious silver and black chaise lounge of her own design, which she effortlessly manifested from her capacious mental repertoire.
Celestia’s horn glowed, and she rematerialized the charred letter fragment from within the palace’s Semantic Volume, where it had been left to be digested and processed into the network of associations that made up the structure’s various enchantments. If anything like it had been encountered before, by anypony who frequented the palace, something else retained from the building's long history would seek it out and latch on like a thaumatic antibody.
Wisps of association with their recently broken teapot followed it back into physicality, but like remembering an event coincident with a smell or a song, these kinds of connections were common and inevitable. Nevertheless, they refused to be shaken off, no doubt because of the importance that old piece of tableware had held for her and her sister, and Luna’s mind tugged at Celestia's to disregard it.
The sisters straightened their posture and concentrated on their breathing. In, two three four, out two three four... Their horns began to glow with soft, individually-tuned Cherenkov radiation and wisps of plasma as time and energy exchanged uncertainties to bite into the quantum foam surrounding them and congeal it into a dizzying array of tessellating Planck-scale wave guides. Already the Sisters could feel a kind of austere, arctic wind blowing upwards from the backs of their minds, up through their hindbrains and calming their eternal cyclone of inchoate thought, and clearing away all other fogs of mortal sluggishness. It was a state of consciousness inherent in alicorn thaumatobiology, but the concentration required to maintain it frequently left them drained after long sessions of royal activity.
As they reached their peak readiness, the oscillations of their flowing manes intensified, and the apparent depth inside them dropped away to infinity. The fields of magic abutting them became so intensely charged that any sensitive being would have perceived their coats glowing faintly in the manner of a plasma ball toy, and light began to bend around them to a degree too subtle for any but the most discerning mortal vision. To the sisters, time itself seemed to dilate, and they felt buoyed by an unassailable calmness, and a confidence that nothing inside them was any longer standing in the way of their expressing their love for their subjects or discharging their duties to them.
Now feeling fully prepared and at the apex of their capabilities, they were able to cordially greet the first members of their cabinet to shuffle into the throne room.
Wanting to prime her courtiers with the exceptional nature of the situation, Celestia decided to forgo the traditional circular oaken meeting table and instead called forth five planes of concentrated force to flash through the marble floor, liberating a long rectangular slab which she then raised and bound firmly to the very spacetime of the room, leaving it to hover, ominously inert, at a seated pony’s chest level.
No fussily dressed maids entered with trays of confectionery or sumptuous, palatial cushions. Instead, Luna, reading her sister’s intentions, conjured a mat of black, utilitarian padding trimmed in silver, to bridge the pit left by the floating table, and two rows of similarly spartan black and silver drinking bowls, filled with clear water.
Two dozen ponies of all descriptions and manner of dress quietly split themselves into two lines and filed down the sides of the hall to assume positions on their haunches at the impromptu table, several of them keeping their forelegs close to their barrels as if they were afraid to touch it. A pair of Guards closed the massive throne room doors behind them as they exited, and Luna raised her head to blast a formal greeting in her magically-enhanced voice. A few pairs of ears attempted a retreat, and she continued once they’d returned to standing, her affect stony and unchanging. “A matter curious and singular weighs upon the Royal poll, its regal jewels transformed to leaden bulk. Thy sovereigns, holding dear thy council, would have thy wisdom pierce the riddle of a parchment sphinx, whose fiery visitation burned away the last of our repose.” She closed her eyes and cocked her head with satisfaction.
“Thank you, Luna, that was fun.” Celestia smiled warmly at her sister, then turned to address the table. “What she means is that earlier today the two of us received a damaged piece of a letter of unknown provenance, and as this could signify a problem with the various spells that underlie Equestria’s systems of communication, we decided to cut short our day off—Terribly sorry, by the way, if we've interrupted any of your plans—but this is the kind of thing that’s simply best taken care of before it gets out of hoof.” There were grumbles around the table, but everypony nodded in acknowledgement. Celestia continued. “Here is the letter scrap in question.” She levitated it off the hoofrest of her throne to hover in the air above the center of the table, then projected around it an image expanded to the proportions of a hanging rug, and the leisurely spin of a prize on a display. There was a murmur from the assembly.
“...Anypony have any ideas?” Luna’s earlier bombast was replaced by a whine of puzzlement.
“It looks burned, non-magically.”
“Why does it smell like... rope? Definitely some kind of hemp derivative.”
“Obviously written by mouth. Sawtooth, you've dabbled in graphology, right?”
“Do we know what kind of ink that is?”
“It’s core of parchment is quite sound / No vellum or papyrus found.”
“What’s that magic still on it? It doesn't seem to be connected to anything.”
“Ah, very perceptive, Blueblood. I’m also getting an emotional coloring of displacement, myself. Could we get a pegasus to weigh in?”
“Of course… Oh, how peculiar: magically it seems to be... pulled upwards, indefinitely. A bit like an astronomical body.”
Celestia and Luna listened as the ponies began to break off into little neighboring groups, brainstorming and comparing ideas. So far they’d said nothing the sisters hadn't figured out on their own, but it still surprised them how regularly their immense perspective could blind them to something right on the ends of their muzzles, things the fresh eyes of a mortal pony would uncover with ease.
Still, the thought began to creep into the Sisters’ heads that it might simply be some kind of statistical fluke and a false alarm. Part of Luna’s mind began devising a snack she would later realize is actually just cheese fondue.
There was a momentary consensus it might have been the result of a dragon’s sneeze in a library, quickly abandoned when it was pointed out one of the edges had been deliberately cut, after the letter had been addressed. Otherwise it was perfectly ordinary—Regular dragon's fire-grade paper, regular ink... Contributions began to dwindle, and two giggling, blue-uniformed mares excused themselves to return to their duties reviewing weather petitions.
“You know...” One of the ponies broke the silence that had descended over the hall. “If it’s being pulled heavenward in a—what did you say, astronomical? Astronomical fashion, perhaps we should follow it.”
“Follow it where, Upper Reaches? There’s no provision for something like this in the sky. What are you suggesting?”
“I’m suggesting we let it tell us where it belongs. Even Princess Luna will tell you the night sky isn’t perfectly predictable and contains many mysteries. We should let the sky itself do the deciding as to what belongs in it or not."
“But it’s obviously of terrestrial origin. Look at the writing.”
“Perhaps. All I’m suggest—Oh my.” Upper Reaches blinked and glanced down at the breast pocket of his coat. “I’m dreadfully sorry, I’m needed on Telos Foundation business. Your Highness, I don’t suppose I could get a facsimile of that scrap, could I?” Celestia nodded and a copy flashed into existence on the table before him, unfortunately lacking the magical tug of the original, but duplicating such an idiosyncratic part of its semantics was beyond the scope of this meeting. He took it in his mouth and placed it in another pocket. “Fillies and gentlecolts,” he said with a bow, then turned towards the door.
+ + +
Coals was making good time, and decided to stop for a moment to pull the little block of cheese out of his bag, so he stepped onto a grassy verge to get out of the pedestrian traffic. Eating on the street could get you fined in sparkling-clean Canterlot, but a tiny morsel like this could be taken in one bite, leaving nopony the wiser. Practiced teeth and tongue quickly undid the twine and freed their contents from the burlap, placing the cube between his back molars before spitting them into a nearby public garbage can. Coals quickly re-moistened his lips, and resumed his rhythm among the cosmopolitan throngs of the gleaming capitol, energized by finally being back in the literal and figurative center of the world.
As always, it was excellent cheese. He was actually disappointed on one level to be kicking the world-class artisans out of his private quarters in a week. As Luna had intended for him to realize, they were getting better use out of it than he had been, with his constant travel. He made a mental note to maintain contact with them, though it immediately occurred to him Sharp Cheddar was probably on top of that already. Maybe her presence was something else Princess Luna had—No…
Not that a part of him wasn't flattered by the girl's awkward little advances, and not that she wasn't cute—He did like the way little dimples formed behind her nostrils when she smiled—but he felt it would be somehow inappropriate, and had attributed her seeming interest in him to her simply feeling gawky and unfeminine, and wanting a bit of validation from a well-known, and now unmarried, stallion.
Apparently Sharp had developed a distrust of spells after her father’s accident, and Coals wondered if his being a fellow earth pony wasn't part of why she’d latched onto him, or why she’d been so excited about her apartment joining the current yuppie fad of getting electric service as opposed to every object having its own magical motive power. All those gaudy blue fliers touting electricity’s “safety & reliability” apparently had the desired effect.
It was true: too much magic in too small a space carried a risk of unpredictable accidents. Coals himself, as a foal, narrowly avoided being scalded in the bath when their downstairs neighbors tried to use magic to dry off their pet ferret. There would be a high-profile magic incident in the news, and ponies would begin clamoring for electricity, until over the decades it became its own thicket of disquietingly intricate wires and fields, and the pendulum would swing back, in a textbook illustration of pony alarmism and herd behavior.
Coals rounded a corner and descended the marbled ramp into Canterlot’s brightly-lit lower tiers. A youngish peach-colored pegasus mare standing halfway down the ramp made to pass him a flier in her mouth, saying something about a street performance art show, and without thinking he took it between his own teeth, feeling a sudden chill at the way the mare's eyes momentarily transfixed him with their odd, probing severity. Switching to a momentary three-legged gait, he folded the paper and placed it into his bag, before emerging into a wide, rococo atrium, with furnishings and ornamentation of ebony and marble inlaid into the floor and walls, marking pedestrian lanes with flowing script about which parts of the city they lead to. The magic powering the lights registered in his mind as a feeling of calm welcoming, as if he'd been expected.
In the center of the atrium stood a monumental statue of a robed unicorn rearing onto her hind legs and planting one forehoof on the ceiling, the other supporting an open golden book against her chest, from which a sheet of water trickled down the pages and along the bottom. Strips of material inlaid into the ceiling in baroque, filigreed patterns glowed with a soft yellow light, giving the plaza an atmosphere a human might associate with an upscale department store lobby sometime around Christmas.
Beyond a row of planters bearing small red blossoms was one of the city’s interior canals, and his specified meeting point with Upper Reaches. Coals trotted over to the row of benches around the giant statue, and lay on his stomach, stretching his forelegs out in front of him, underneath his cloak. He thought about eating a flower or two off the planters (half of what they were for, after all) but a kind of fatigue overcame him and he decided to rest.
+ + +
The energy of the meeting had fully dissipated. Celestia and Luna, no longer sensing productive input from the fresh eyes of their mortal compatriots, dismissed the crowd, and while Celestia rubbed her temples with her pasterns, Luna reattached the floating marble slab to the floor, the original cut so clean that its natural grain structure rolled seamlessly back into place with just the daintiest touch of a razor-thin flash of blue-white heat, and a whiff of vaporized limestone.
Mares and stallions, chatting idly amongst themselves, shuffled out of the throne room. As the doors closed, only a teal hoofkerchief and smattering of pegasus down were left behind. While her sister meditated, Luna discorporated them and added their essences to the palace’s eternal memory. Like the sisters, the palace forgot nothing, but actually recalling something could be a level of challenge far above mere retention. Things became lost among orders of magnitude.
Celestia, still sharing the transcendent alicorn sense of clarity, did not have to voice her next idea to her sister; the mere inclination of her head and narrowing of her eyes conveyed her meaning as plainly as the most laborious explanation. Luna responded with the most delicate raising of her brow, invisible to any but her sister.
So certain art thou, that such a trifle shall drive thee to the claws of chaos?
Celestia nickered, and momentarily closed her eyes. He’s shown no evidence of harmful behavior since Project Fluttershy. And we both know how invaluable he was in repelling Typhon.
Luna stepped close to her sister and nuzzled her neck with a concerned whinny. Thou say’st such, yet with such a fiend such concord to appeal; ere today thy battered soul mine wings and fetlocks hath much succored. Pray, let thy sister of the night be thy lantern in such realms where Chaos doth the light of Harmony make pale as the awful calm of mine own faintest star.
Celestia snorted and flexed her wings, then ran her teeth across Luna’s poll, the magic in them pulling her mane against its ethereal breeze with what Luna felt as a pleasant, grooming tug. You're lapsing again, sister. But no: It was my idea to involve Fluttershy, and it was my idea that Discord could be reformed at all. I took that risk in trusting him, and until we know he’s truly on our side, that’s a risk I, and only I, have to continue to take.
Luna nuzzled her sister back and began to neigh. Tia, I—
Celestia withdrew, then kissed her sister on the cheek. Trust me.
It was Luna who finally spoke aloud. “Very well, dear sister. We shall withdraw to our Tower of the Darkening Sky. Prithee call on us, when thy duty is discharged.” Returning her kiss, Luna took a deep breath and teleported away. Celestia felt her feathers and the hairs of her coat momentarily rise as the electric charges in the room regained equilibrium. Letting her eyes remain closed, Celestia began her mental preparations for Contact.
As likely as not, Discord would be completely unhelpful. When the entity could even be reached at all, making any sense of “his” (the pronoun he seemed to prefer a bit more often than any of the others) free associating, elliptical word salad was usually more trouble than just solving the problem on your own. When he’d appear, looking like a hurricane that had blown through a zoo, it was usually best all the guards were dismissed from the chamber, otherwise rather unsavory rumors tended to spread around the capitol. There was still too much suspicion after his re-emergence, as much as ponies were grateful he’d limited his unusual manifestations to mostly foodstuffs this time, in contrast to the rather lurid and graphic legends passed down from his original appearance.
Now, supposedly, he was “safe.” Many advisers had wracked their brains trying to understand the creature, but it was only Celestia, consummate master of Harmony, who was able to devise a solution, even knowing she’d have to let it out of her own hooves: It was only the actions of one very brave pegasus spending enough time in contact with the entity that seemed to convince him ponies were, in fact, alive. Celestia and Luna, in their own contact with him, had come to the conclusion he was a being of Configuration Space itself, existing “orthogonal” to their own conception of existence, like the axis of Imaginary numbers perpendicular to the Reals. Something about Equestria had lured him from… elsewhere, and until they were finally able to “impale” him on an abstruse spike of petrified, congealed unfreedom, he was regurgitating regions of those... other places, dredged up through his abstract body that stretched like an ancient dragon through numberless possible worlds.
But Equestria still had some mysterious property the entity called Discord claimed to need for his life cycle or growth or whatever his equivalent of those things were, something he called “appreciation,” thought it was unclear if it was in the sense of the aesthetics of his constant tricks, or accumulation, or both.
In either case, whenever the strange or the unearthly needed probing, or whenever something seemed connected to nothing whatever in Equestria, Discord was the one who might hold the answer.
+ + +
With the sudden realization of his unconsciousness, Coals was jolted awake on his bench. The clock on the corner told him no more than ten minutes had passed, and he was about to relax once more, when a cry caught his attention.
“Doctor Coals! I say! Over here! Yoo hoo!” The voice of the always-ruffled Upper Reaches was unmistakable. Coals stepped his left pair of legs off the bench, then shifted his weight and caught himself with his other pair, before trotting off to meet his contact. He saw the pegasus by the canal, half out of a covered, deep maroon gondola, one foreleg on the bank while the other waggled in the air for attention.
“Upper Reaches! Well, what a quick arrival—I’m impressed,” Coals returned, still trying to shake the grogginess from his brain.
“Surely you expected nothing less from the Telos Foundation…!” There was a subtle wink in his voice. He knew his position was enviable and granted him special privileges, and it would be beneath his dignity to pass an opportunity to acknowledge such. “I've taken the liberty of hiring us some convenient transportation. Please, hop in! Don’t worry, I've already paid the fellow!”
Coals leaped from the bank into the wide front deck of the gondola, between Upper Reaches and the distracted gondolier, a dark green unicorn with prodigious, corded neck muscles and a rather vacant, bored expression. He was chewing on something, the action of his mouth making small, wet popping noises whenever his lips parted. Upper Reaches momentarily stretched his wings, but quickly withdrew them as Coals slid onto a plush gold cushion underneath the little boat’s awning.
Upper Reaches’ dark purple-gray top hat and overcoat were suitably elegant and timeless, and matched as a darker shade of his natural coat, while a neat green pocket square coordinated with his immaculate white mane and tail, though the white cotton “chaps” he wore on the upper surfaces of his wings spoke to his fastidiousness, almost to the point of affectation, or a statement that he should not be expected to exert himself in flight. He was what, in the more uncouth parts of cloud cities, was known as a “penguin”—A diving bird who might as well not have wings at all.
He settled down next to Coals, then nodded to the gondolier. “Awrigh’,” the unicorn mumbled back, still chewing on whatever was in his mouth. “You all tucked in back there?”
“Oh yes, thank you!” Upper Reaches nodded enthusiastically, and the unicorn levitated his long, bite-marked paddle up from its cradle on the gunnel, then spat the contents of his mouth into the canal and locked his teeth around it. Several ducks noticed the change and began lazily paddling out of the way, preening and quacking softly among themselves.
Upper Reaches tried to draw information out of Coals about what he’d discovered in the catacombs, but all he was willing to volunteer was that the artifacts he had with him were deeply connected with it, and it would be better if the two were seen side by side.
They mostly passed the trip in silence, the gondola occasionally tipping down ramps into lower tiers of the city. The boats were more for tourists, and the majority of them were easily convinced the magical barriers would indeed keep them from completely pitching over a waterfall, but the lurches were still somewhat disorienting.
They emerged into another, slightly less opulent pedestrian mall. Down a brightly lit side street, a crowd had gathered to listen to a public performance on an instrument a human could be forgiven for calling a harpsichord. Down another street, two fat, officious-looking griffins were watching a unicorn levitate several marionettes in some kind of slapstick comedy.
They soon disembarked in the soft orange lamplight of the Taproot district, an ancient zone of workshops, cider houses, and budget inns, carved primarily out of the mountain itself, near the very bottom of the city. The extraordinary amounts of public incense were able to cover up the acrid odors of smithies and centuries of pony sweat, but only just, and the dense aroma made Upper Reaches' eyes water for several seconds once he stepped onto the embankment.
He followed Coals down a wide alley, past several squat stone buildings emitting an indecipherable combination of metallic clangs and raucous laughter. They exchanged a polite nod with a circle of ponies and one diamond dog sharing a hookah made from an old municipal censer, then turned another corner to arrive at the surprisingly plain and unadorned entrance to the most ancient part of the tunnels. Upper Reaches had expected a sign, or a curtain, or at least some kind of frame around the threshold, but it was simply a rough circular shaft sunk into the face of the rock between two shops, sloping gently downward and swallowing the light as if it were stuffed with ink-stained cotton.
“After you, Doctor.” Upper Reaches retrieved a pair of lanterns from his saddlebag, and set one on the floor for Coals. The specially bred moths inside stirred to life, their tireless activity summoning a flame for them to dance around by conservation of symbolism. Coals took the handle in his mouth, fitting the pads against the gums of his bar, and noting the residual flavor of expensive Shetland Highlands hay that Reaches had been indulging in earlier.
Coals was only vaguely familiar with this part of the tunnel network, and assumed Reaches had chosen this location as an indirect method of gauging how thorough his research had been, but Coals had a schematic of the mountain in his head, and was confident he’d be able to lead them to his discovery. “Yes. Well… Let’s go.” He rolled his shoulders to give his cape a dramatic flap, then trotted confidently into the darkness.
“Oh! Oh, um! Yes! Let’s!” Reaches’ high tenor was clear around his lantern, something they both subconsciously felt as a shred of camaraderie—It was a rare unicorn who was practiced enough to speak clearly while holding something in his or her bar.
There was simply nothing to say. For more than two hundred meters, the pair just appreciated the silence and warm glow of the torches continually maintained in the sconces built into the walls. This was one of the older parts of the crystal mines below the city. For millennia, long before the founding of Equestria proper, ponies had been mining this mountain for the unusual minerals and crystals it contained. It was fiercely contested, but as what they considered Equestria's only "true" civilization, and with the reflexes, observational skills, and teamwork born of being raised from the cradle as a prey species, no other creature could keep them away for long.
Not to mention that Celestia and Luna had promised them this mountain, after their long interregnum in the Windigo-besotted latitudes. A wave of marching hooves pushed back all other scattered tribes with what the ponies themselves saw as token resistance. Only extremely rarely did things escalate to any kind of lethality, mainly through accident, but ponies were not ones to refuse to match their opponent measure for measure.
Some sections of these tunnels dated back to the original construction of Canterlot itself, atop the wind-swept crystal mining encampments, and if the ancient graffiti left behind in them was any indication, the interests and obsessions of bored workponies had changed very little in the intervening millennia.
The pair rounded another bend. Now there were no more sconces, and the tunnels were defined only by the strokes of long rusted-away pick axes. The pair’s lanterns were the only thing between them and absolute darkness. Upper Reaches was almost glued to Coals’ side, and even he had trouble fighting his instincts to flee whatever predator might be lurking in the blackness beyond the flickering bubble of his lamp. Even the walls were only visible as an occasional glimmer of quartz or the sides of a timeworn ax stroke, while the floor was worn smooth through periodic rivulets of overflowing rainwater—Something that had never happened in either of their lifetimes. It was as if the two of them were walking on a stone treadmill suspended in a thin tunnel of stars. They walked onward in fitfully broken silence for nearly another hour, following what approximated a wide, downward spiral.
Coals stopped momentarily and closed his eyes. Upper Reaches bumped into his flank, and worked his mouth as if he were about to ask a question, but then realized he shouldn't distract the stallion while he was mentally confirming their route. The tunnels were vast, but laid out logically.
The pair descended an eroded flight of stairs, barely managing to maintain their footing, broken only by several landings, before arriving at in a chamber so vast that their lanterns were utterly unable to reach the walls. They were stranded on a platform of stone in an infinity of echoing blackness.
“We’re here.” Coals doffed his saddlebags and opened one side with his teeth, then withdrew a hefty wooden case, unclasping it with his front hooves, and removing a small artifact wrapped in tissue paper, then setting it on the floor.
"Are you familiar with the full story of the Queen of Equestria? Not the metaphorical, 'even the Princesses serve Equestria herself' one from civics class, but the actual legend?" Coals nudged the statue toward Upper Reaches.
"I think so... Wasn't it something like... 'Once she ate all the wild grass in the heavens, she got sleepy, so she lay down until her hooves became the earth, her feathers became the sky, her horn holds it up, her eyes became the sun and moon, her voice became magic, and her cutie marks became the first two ponies?' Something along those lines."
"Very good. Now who do you suppose… planted all that grass She ate?"
“Well, it… Um… it was just there, of course. It was the grass of heaven. What else would you expect to be there in heaven?"
“Hm. I wonder.” Coals gave the object at their hooves a tap with his nose. “Here, unwrap this. It was found in the North, before there's any record of the Three Tribes living there.”
Upper Reaches gently took a flap of the tissue paper in his teeth and pulled away, sitting on his haunches and keeping the object steady with his forelegs. Slowly, it was revealed.
It was a statue of an earth pony, rearing on its hind legs, but its front hooves were... split, with an extra toe on either side, bent down to form stubby tripods at the ends of its outstretched forelimbs. Upper Reaches had heard of such a rare deformity, but it usually affected all four of a pony's hooves, and was never capable of that range of movement. Nowadays, foals born with extra toes usually had them removed right away, or magic was used to prompt the body to reabsorb them during growth. Like a dragon with feathers instead of scales, he'd only seen the deformity in medical texts.
One of the statue's "toes" had broken off, as well as its tail, apparently, giving it an even more half-formed, distorted appearance. More remarkably, however, the statue's eyes were closed, and a stylized symbol of single open eye had been carved into its forehead, where a unicorn's horn would be, its mane slicked back to expose it.
"What is this?"
Coals didn't respond. Instead, he bounded forward and held his lantern up as high as he could. A muzzle, and then a pair of split forelimbs loomed out of the darkness. Larger than life, another rearing stone stallion, ancient as the hills, stood before them in the bowels of Caterlot, the single abstract eye carved into its forehead still able to fix them with an interstellar detachment made all the more remote by time.
"They..." Coals set the lantern down on the raised dais that supported the frozen apparition, "... were the First Ponies."
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Configuration Space Equestria/Terra-spectrum Ontological Paradox Nest Timelike Iteration 99999999999999999999999999999999999999[ERROR: OVERRUN]
The preponderance of Discord was still pleased, even here, that the innumerable rocky needles that had so infuriatingly fixed him in place (and still did, back there) had long ago reached the limit of their spread. Before long, this advancing front of his consciousness would be too far away in the “change” direction to even sense them.
He had been foolish to ever consider himself alone (and friendless), he realized—The intricate point patterns that varied dazzlingly quickly over even short distances had in fact been a form of life—some kind of sessile, multicolored crystalline entities that fed on the entropy gradients across their extent. And they were not pleased with his attempts to develop the area into something a little more hospitable, piercing him all over with stone thorns like some omnidimensional cactus.
He should have been ready, given the unusual nature of the area, so different from the homogeneous wastes of unchanging dust and light that tiled Configuration Space like dunes, or the singularities that regularly blocked his way with their leeward shoals of non-being, and perhaps he had been a little… very well, more than a little cavalier in his probing of its inhabitants, but Discord’s life had been a solitary one, without so much as another soul he could confidently see within the horizons of his memory. He never dreamed there was anyone home inside these formations, let alone that one of them would try to communicate, the patterns of her intelligence, her wings, and her kindness spelled out along her every axis. The universe was a vastly richer and more welcoming place than he had believed, and it gave him pause.
Having oozed this far in the direction that these strange, baryonic creatures called “tiem,” several... somethings were wont to shift. There were flashes of the native phenomenology of “white” all around him. The entity that called itself Celestia had once again risen to communicate.