My Little Pony Fan Fiction ❯ Out of Place ❯ Out of Options & Out of Sight ( Chapter 1 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Out of Place - Out of Options Part 1
DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.
America: Man's Road - written by Jimmy Webb, 1982
Found on The Last Unicorn Soundtrack

      The landing is a lot harder than I am ready for. Which means I spend some time merely trying to force air back in my lungs. This also has the effect of letting me smell the sweet grass I've landed on. As if my jaw would let me do anything with it, I think as the ache from every part of my lower body becomes real pain. The pang from each breath makes sparks in my vision, but in the darkness, those are all I can really see.

      Lights in the distance and shouts of anger and alarm bring me back to the here and now. Running is out of the question, I realize, And what can they do to me when they find me? I nearly laugh at the irony. A light in my face nearly blinds me. My shying away increases the pain. Other lights play over my body. When am I going to learn to quit tempting fate?

      "Corporal of the Guard, post number three! What are you doing here? Who are you?!"

      While I'm still woozy from the landing, I can barely tell limbs coming out of my shoulders, which I can see, from limbs coming out of my hips which I can only feel. One, two, three, four, I think as I look at my four forelegs, I don't think this is getting any better any time soon.
Horizon rising up to meet the purple dawn
Dust demon screaming, bring an eagle to lead me on
For in my heart I carry such a heavy load
Here I am on Man's road, walking Man's road, walking Man's road

      There are things you really do not want to go through in your life. Whether they are for good or ill, they are painful almost to the breaking point of the spirit. Losing my entire family in one fell swoop was that for me.

      I'd been successful engineer, a wife, a good job that challenged me, house (with the accompanying mortgage), and three great kids whose main problems were grades, after-school activities, messy rooms, and not being the cool kids. Not exactly exciting problems. Not like the guy I share an office with, walking in two hours late because he had to go to the jail to bail out his pregnant, 15-year-old daughter's 19-year-old boyfriend (and father of the child), after that sterling gentleman got high and punched out a cop. Boring is good. I like boring. I wish I could go back to consoling my 12-year-old daughter that having the most popular girl in school invite all your friends to her party, and specifically exclude you, is just something that happens.

      I could be doing that, except for the fire.

      The security troops around me are white horses, white pegasi and white unicorns. I'd laugh at their spears and Romanesque armor, except for something I learned long ago: When the security troops are nervous, especially about you, do nothing to provoke them. A nervous mugger or gangbanger is to be expected. If you made the professionals with the machineguns and artillery backing them up nervous, you have walked into a whole new tier of bad news. It isn't cool, except in retrospect, and reaching a point where you can be retrospective about it should be your entire goal. Be polite, be assertive, but keep your clever quips to yourself until after they have assured themselves you are harmless or on their side. They might appreciate a laugh at that point.

      "Should I remain here, officer, or should we move somewhere else?" I ask the nervous and very junior officer. I try not to look around too obviously, and the moon and star light don't show much more that the grass at my feet/hooves, and the dense shrubs in the distance.

      The young stallion's head is moving jerkily, looking at me, looking at terrain features, and the statues in the area. His brilliant, white coat makes him seem to flash in the weak light like a strobe.

      He's lost, I realize, And I suspect, waiting for higher authority.

      "Be quiet will you," a cultured voice tells me, a white horse with a set of magnificent, brown, muttonchop sideburns is speaking to me, "That's a good gentlecolt, you're upsetting the lads." He doesn't look at me. In fact if I hadn't heard it, his expression would indicated he hadn't spoken at all.

      I nod, and keep silent. The stallion goes to talk with the young officer. Nothing hurried or worried in the horse's demeanor, at least to my human way of thinking, Senior sergeant, I think, Some things are universal. The setting is trying to fall into place in my brain, but I don't have enough of the pieces yet. The ache every time I breathe, escalating to real misery when I so much as twitch doesn't help my clarity. Pain does focus your thoughts. They focus on that you are in pain.

      The officer decides and makes a jerking motion of his head towards an open area a short distance from where I am. Two guards march over to stand on either side of me. They give no order, so I do nothing. Their horns glow slightly, and I am lifted into the air. I expect the movement to hurt like blazes. Fortunately, it doesn't aggravate my injuries. They move me through the moonlit gloom to a small alcove cut into the high hedges that surround my crash site. Settling down makes my head swim for a moment, as every injury and twinge reports at roll call. The sergeant is back, carrying a black ring in his mouth. I only watch him very closely, as he slips the ring over the horn growing out of my head. He carefully uses a hoof to tap it down firmly. That's enough to set me reeling, which really doesn't help feeling better or thinking straight.

      "Your powers have been neutralized, and nearly any spell laid upon you will have been broken," he tells me, "Altern Canter has some questions." He steps aside and lets the nervous young officer approach. The guards tense, but I remain where I am.

      My vision is still not what it should be, occasionally doubling, or tripling, and my other senses are still jumbled. I can feel another set of limbs, but I seem to possess only the standard four legs, I think as the officer musters his courage and brains to begin interrogations, These 'phantom limbs' seem to have fingers and toes, so they must be phantoms left over from my being human.

      "Who are you?" the officer tries to sound forceful, but his voice cracks midway.

      "I am called P.T. McHorsefly," I tell him, "Some call me Barnum. I haven't used my birth-name in years."

      "What were you doing here?" he asks.

      I feel the sergeant's eyes burning in. He knows I'm not being factual.

      "Altern, if I told you what I actually remember, you'd think I'd gone mad. They're my memories, and I think they're mad," I tell him. Watching the white figures in gold armor go from two, to four, to six, and back, is making me seasick.

      "Then I am very interested in them," comes a warm, although feminine voice. The Altern freezes, until the sergeant can push him down to his knees. The two guards prostrate themselves. This all reveals a white, winged unicorn approaching. The tiara and flowing multicolored mane finally lets all the pieces drop into place.

      I'm in a kids' cartoon?! I think, I remember watching these shows with my children. That memory hurts worse than the landing did. I don't prostrate myself to the local goddess-queen as I am already on my knees, but I do bow. Keep on the good side of anyone who can make you a grease stain. And I think I'll wait until later to point out that their postures are the wrong ones to assume while guarding a dangerous prisoner. Her glances to the troopers indicate she and her periodic double and triple also thinks veneration gets in the way of efficiency.

      "Very interested," she says, and something tugs the ring off my horn. Her personal guards come into view out of the darkness.

      Okay, they aren't as foolish as I thought, I think as she lowers her head to touch her horn to mine. A faint glow holds my head in place.

      'I regret to inform you that the dental records confirm -'

      'I just can't keep the house, too many memories.'

      'Sir, it's a family reunion, the project isn't due for two weeks.' 'I want your portion done today! Is that clear?'

      Mercifully, darkness closes in around me at that point.

      Sunlight through my eyelids, smells of antiseptic, unfamiliar sheets and bed under me. Hospital, morning, I reason, What a dream. Car crash? Suicide attempt? Random accident? Then I try to close my fingers on the bedding, and discover I don't have any. That brings me fully awake. I brace for the pain, but it doesn't come.

      The white room is high-ceilinged, open and airy, although the high windows have metal mesh, like chain-link fencing, over them. There are fifteen beds, all white metal frames, light tan blankets with white sheets. All empty, save mine. Eight on my side, under the windows and seven on the other wall. A wide aisle between the two rows. Where the sixteenth bed would be, a guard stands. His gold armor and vivid green mane provide the only real color in the place. Maybe he scared away all the other bright colors in the room, I think, He looks like he wrestles bears for fun, and eats them when they lose.

      The stolid looking guard carefully backhoofs the door, but doesn't take his eyes off me.

      "Am I under arrest, or just in custody?" I ask.

      Let's see if he's even allowed to talk, I think.

      "Custody," he replies, and goes silent as we wait. He takes no action as I look around the room, but tenses when I seem to be trying to get out of bed.

      I get the message, I think as slide back in. The room is mostly white, with a few small paintings or frescos every few bunks to break the total monotony, and despite the high ceilings, there are no columns, alcoves or overhead beams. Just flat, white walls rising out of a cream-colored floor to the flat white ceiling. So there are no hiding places, I think, Except the beds. The floor is not tile, but a single piece of polished stone. Fun to go sliding on, I consider, and smirk, I can almost imagine what sliding the length of the room with 'grim and stolid' watching would do. They'd probably have me in a straitjacket.

      The light tan pegasus with the slightly unkempt, blue mane who flutters in past the guard reminds me of a cross of the animal-loving pegasus and the unicorn bookworm from the TV show. Young, almost delicate with an open, honest expression of someone who wants to learn everything about the world and the people in it. The simple peasant shirt and leather satchel screams 'bohemian' but there's nothing lackadaisical about the intellect behind the soft eyes.

      I'm instantly suspicious. This is going to be a 'soft' interrogation, I think as he sits on the bed beside mine, Lots of hand-holding if necessary, lots of questions that really are related. But at least no truncheons, drugs or other methods.

      He smiles before speaking, and goes all open and friendly. "My name is Hardwood. If you don't mind, I'd like to ask a few questions."

      "Mister Hardwood, I'd like to ask just one of my own. What exactly did I do that has everyone so upset? I know I appeared in a garden area, I know that my appearance caused Princess Celestia to investigate, and if my memories were taken at face value, that I appear some kind of lunatic with severe delusions. All that aside. If I'd been found in the Everfree Forest, I doubt I would be getting this kind of attention."

      He proves he is a professional interrogator, by not answering this seemingly reasonable question. "Where do you think you are?" he asks after a moment of consideration.

      "Hospital wing."

      His expression seems to draw out the next answer.

      "In Canterlot . . . in the palace itself. This is a security, hospital wing of the palace."

      He leans back smiling, indicating I have answered my own question. It's also supposed to distract me from the fact he didn't answer my question, I think.

      "Please don't tell me I landed near the statue gardens," I say. His grin tells me all I need to know.

      I don't want to broadcast that I know what they have stored there. Discord may be a one-of-a-kind, or one-of-a-whole-series, 'I don't turn ponies to stone', how many other maniacs are stored out there . . . right where I landed? Oh boy! I think as he pats my shoulder.

      "You didn't break anything when you landed. The doctors confirmed that."

      "To be honest, the last is the least of my worries. Breaking her Highness' art gallery is a greater worry. As well as sounding like a madman."

      "Yes," he says, "Her Highness scanned your mind and . . . came up with some disturbing images."

      "How do you think I feel? I must really have gotten someone powerful mad at me to get them to come up with something so bizarre and elaborate. I mean bipedal, hairless apes using technology instead of any magic to do all their work. A planet running itself, like the Everfree Forest? Somebody should be writing fiction. If I really believed any of that, I would be a candidate for a padded cell." I sigh. "The problem is, it all seems so real. It's all so intricate and internally consistent. I can tell you the favorite foods of people who never existed, and even describe the times I cooked it for them." I hold up my hooves. "With these two hands." I shake my head. "To be honest, I'd accept a different punishment for whatever I did. This is just disturbing."

      "I don't think you know about any settling in adjustments," he says, "After only a few hours. But I will be here if you need to talk about things you feel or things you remember."

      Or secrets of this other world you want to ferret out, I carefully don't say.

      "Maybe I should go to a lab, maybe some of this stuff actually would work," I tell him and shrug, "You never know."

      "Maybe," he says with a smile.

      Okay, now you can say it was my idea, although that's how the conversation would have ended up going anyway, I think as he leaves, then I can't help myself.

      "Hey, doc?" I ask.

      "Yes?" he replies from his discussion with the guard at the door.

      "What the heck do ponies eat? I don't think the diet I remember is either healthy, or advisable," I say in a genuine concerned tone, "Eating something that can talk to you seems a really bad idea, and eating grass seems like a good way to get very sick."

      "I'm sure the hospital will look after your dietary needs," he says as he leaves.

      "Great, I get to see if hospital food is awful in another world."

      At least I get a flash of a smile from the great, stone face.

      Sergeant-at-Arms Mile Stone sat in a chair set along the wall of the conference room, his coat brushed until it gleamed as brightly as his uniform's buttons, his expression serious but attentive, as he carefully listened to the twaddle the various officers were throwing out about the colt he and Altern Canter had captured. The experts sat around the table, while those who'd actually been there sat like ornaments against the walls. With the sovereign there, he felt he had the right to keep silent and let the officers speculate. When the time comes, he considered, We will tell them what we know.

      The poor Altern was having to field questions from the various elite desk-hussars, feather-heads, and vacuous aristocrats, who were building their houses of cards based on complete guesses, and what they could trick the poor, young officer into agreeing with.

      "Sergeant-at-Arms," her Highness asked, "Do you have anything to add to these, discussions?"

      The old soldier came to attention. "Majesty, he knew immediately he was in the wrong, and carefully did nothing to exacerbate the situation," the sergeant reported, "Unexpected in a stallion of some years, almost unheard of in a colt his age." The feather-heads immediately debated how that affected their pet theories, or that it was irrelevant if it undermined them totally.

      Mile Stone saw the recognition on her Highness' face. He is clever, and perceptive. Whether that makes the colt friend or foe is less important than he can be dangerous. And her Highness needs to be careful with him. Too many ponies wear their feelings like their cutie mark. One who doesn't, could be unpredictable. At her nod, he settled down to wait, along with the other noncoms and soldiers who'd been there that night.

      Can't figure out if these are some local delicacy, or a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, I think as I pick at the 'food' provided on the wooden tray that has no sharp edges at all and is polished to prevent even a splinter. Hunger wars with every other sense about whether this stuff is food, or not. Maybe eating the tray is the real answer. I wonder if a peanut butter sandwich would be out of the question. Straight bread and water would be an improvement. I poke something on the plate that wobbles alarmingly. Do they know how gelatin is generally made? And eating without utensils is going to be a chore. I lower my head and take another bite of something that looks like a cross between grits and minced carrots, except it's red and blue, and tastes like salsa'ed gravel. Getting it down is difficult, keeping it down is worryingly easy. I guess ponies can't barf unless it's really bad. That could be bad.

      The room hasn't changed, although the guard has. Another burly mesomorph, with a beetling brow that makes him look like a Neanderthal. The near buzzcut makes him the caricature of any US Marine ever. Except he watches everything, I remind myself, So the stupidity is an act, I'm still worthy of suspicion. That's okay.

      Another urge hits me, one I decide is better to deal with than being hungry, vis-a-vis the food I've been given. "Excuse me, sergeant, I need to go to the facilities, and I don't know where they are."

      Terrific, none of the shows ever displayed that biological necessity being addressed, I think, So what do they call it . . . and how the heck does it work?

      "You need to 'visit the euphemism', as my granny used to say?" he asks. His voice is another incongruity. Despite looking the bruiser, he's got a nearly musical tenor voice.

      "Yes, sergeant."

      "Door at the end of the room. It looks like the wall, but it is a door."

      "Thanks." I spot Mr. Friendly and Helpful Hardwood from earlier entering, as I get my feet under me, and begin tottering towards the section of wall. I ignore the gasp from him, and keep walking.

      Maybe I've got a wound somewhere, or a stripe down my back, I think, Better give myself a once over when I'm in there.

      The walls are a mustard-yellow. This is an improvement. Maybe I'll tell the sergeant I figured out where all the color went from the rest of the room. The pieces of extremely white porcelain draw my full attention. The facilities appear to be a western-style toilet, a Japanese-style urinal, and a pair of sinks, large and small. The small one has controls a distance from the sink itself. That's got to be a bidet, because there's no toilet paper, or rags, and the only other thing that could reach back there is their own tail. Which puts Rarity's tail sacrifice in the opening episodes in far too squicky a light to be the answer. Bidet it is . . . I hope.

      A few moments of profound relief, a very girlish squeal of surprise (and laughter from behind the door), and I am heading back to the bed, and the rather unappetizing food.

      "How are you doing that?" Mr. Hardwood asks cautiously.

      "Doing what?" I ask in reply, rather stunned he's actually asking a question.

      "Walking on just your hind legs?" the young interrogator stammers, "And doing well."

      I look down and realize I was walking like a human, not on all fours, like a pony. "The memories, remember, I guess this really works. Besides, walking on two legs is easy, once you know the secret."

      "What secret is that?" the guard asks, earning a glare from the professional, and ignoring it.

      "You're always falling, the key is to get a foot in place to catch yourself." I demonstrate by leaning far forward and gripping one of the beds to support myself, then walking slowly. "Standing in place is harder, you have to change pressure on the front, rear and sides of your feet, rear hooves, to counter any shift. You're constantly adjusting, constantly falling and catching yourself." I stand in the middle of the room for a while. My instability more due to weakness than inability. Then I continue to the bed.

      Now I'm ready to face this, ugh, food, and get a nap, I think as I manage to choke down some more of the nourishment. Then put the empty tray on the next bed. I look at the two conferring in the corner near the door, and decide now is the best time for a nap. The guard keeps watching me, despite the quiet, though heated conversation. Professionals, I lament, And I just gave away the store, terrific. At least they don't have capital punishment, and I think Celestia wouldn't do something too extreme to me. Not on a kids' show.

      My dreams are filled with scenes from Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons, and the phrase 'you'd be surprised what you can live through.' It should be no surprise I woke several times in a cold sweat.

      Luna stood on her hind legs, and occasionally moved a hoof as her balance changed. She watched her feet, and the ground. Then she extended her wings, held her feet steady, and moved just her wings to keep her balance.

      She looked up to see that her sister was watching her, and had been for some time. "I think we might have a solution for Crimson," Luna said as she continued to practice the deceptively easy trick. Her wing motions slowed, and she found that altering her hoof pressure was all that was needed. "The latest reports are on the desk," she said and looked up at Celestia, simply staring at her.

      "You are troubled, my sister?" Luna asked.

      "No, just enjoying watching my sister appreciate a new thing," Celestia said as she approached, "It has been too long since you had such an intriguing puzzle."

      Luna dropped down to all fours. "Is that what you and the Element-bearers' relationship is? We are immortal. They pass through so briefly. They scurry around after crumbs, when a banquet has been prepared."

      "They take many years to know the victuals are there, and then, too often they have come to enjoy crumbs too much to risk the table," Celestia said sadly, "My own student, who I love as my own daughter, is afraid of me. The whispers of the others are half-jealousy, and half-fear. The boldest either think it is loyal to remain silent, or think themselves cunning and whisper in the shadows. Too many fear I will 'send them to the moon' for even the most trivial mistakes."

      "I was insane. It was like the place you keep him," Luna said, "Safe from me, safe for me, until I could be myself again. Is that your plan? Bring all your fallen together? I love you Celestia. So does Twilight. And the other Element-bearers. Facing the touch of their power, let me know them in ways I doubt they know themselves. Although I do not recommend it to get to know them."

      "Then perhaps they can help me, us, in ways we could never do. Eventually."

      "Then what can we do?" Luna asked.

      "A disturbing idea, from the other mad resident," Celestia said, and grinned, "News of your 'unjust imprisonment' has begun spreading in the whisper galleries. I think I have a plan to turn it to the advantage of everypony in Equestria."

      "I think that madman's memories are tainting you, my sister. Nightmare Moon too thought she was too clever by half," Luna warned, "And she was both right and wrong."

      Celestia drew near and nuzzled Luna. "Then it is good my sister and my brave students are there to look out for me."

      "What is your plan?" Luna asked.

      "How does that make you feel?" Hardwood asks, during our daily sessions.

      It's too much. I get up from the bed I was sitting on, and begin pacing. I catch his faint start that I naturally walk on two legs. I drop down to four. "Look, doctor, I appreciate that as a psychiatrist, and as an interrogator, you cannot answer direct questions about my mental health," I say, my anger at feeling trapped and helpless has been eating at me in ways I hadn't expected, and couldn't deal with, "But all this Freudian asking questions with no end in sight is really starting to bug me. Is there any chance you can direct me to someone who can answer my questions?"

      Hardwood considers for a moment. He turns to the guard. "Merry Lifter, why don't you get us all some tea, and lock the door behind you."


      "If you please, Mr. Merry Lifter," the seemingly soft pony's expression seems to convince the massive stallion. Once the door closes, Hardwood closes his notepad and carefully slips off his glasses, putting them in his pocket as he stands, on just his rear legs. "Answers. Your odd lapses are too consistent to be the work of a clever actor. The information her Highness read in your mind and that you've provided, are leaps and bounds beyond anything our most advanced mages and philosophers have even thought of, and yet an Earth Pony-like race managed to accomplish them. It is patently obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain that you are an alien masquerading as a pony, yet you cling to the ridiculous fiction that you are a brainwashed pony, to avoid being considered insane." He gestures around him. "You are in a mental ward! We think you are insane! Your devotion to this fiction denies you the right to put your intellect and ideas to the test, which everyone who has come in contract with you, including, no, especially her Highness, desperately want. If we are an episodic television series, you know about threats we'll have, and your steadfast unwillingness to share this information is both childish and selfish."

      I'm stunned at the composed outrage that he's displaying. "If I divulge too much, I won't be in a position to use it when you and everyone here will really need me to use it," I reply.

      "That's the truth, and that's what you need to tell me. I am not going to harm you and drag your secrets from you one by one. The lesson of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs is known on Equestria too. If you don't want to divulge how an H-Bomb works like a sun, just tell us you don't. It's a lot better than hiding it, as if we're all panicky and stupid. Frankly, opinions are split on whether you're a 'human' made into a pony, an alien concocting a story while scouting for invasion, or a piece of Discord himself, who escaped. Since you won't give a straight answer, we can't act. As your doctor, it impedes your recovery. As an interrogator, it means I can't decide how much freedom I can arrange to give you. As a fellow sentient being, it infuriates me that you think we are all so stupid we can't see through it. And as a loyal soldier of Equestria, the fact that you can prevent untold disasters, and steadfastly refuse to help, makes me want to use far harsher methods that I'm trained in."

      I bow my head and consider for a few moments. "Thank you, I deserved that. There is something coming, something that makes the return of Nightmare Moon look like a cake-walk. Princess Celestia herself knows about it. I think she also knows how you - we, win. The more I divulge about trivial events, the more this timeline diverges from the timeline I remember, and the less likely the tactic will work. So if you don't mind, I'll keep my prognostication for that event."

      "Okay, now that's a good reason," Hardwood says.

      I sit back down. "I apologize, I've seen so many movies where the person tells the truth, and got locked up before they could do any good . . . but I'm already locked up. I guess that I didn't really mind getting locked up." I get up again, and stare out the windows. "There's a whole world out there, and if I go out and see it, and it's real, and the people/ponies in it are real, then . . . my family is gone, I'm on an alien world, and this isn't all some stress-induced nightmare." I turn back to face him. "If this is real, then it all happened, I'm on a planet where even my biology is different, and the only thing that's 'me' are the memories in my head. And those are just a source of confusion and pain."

      He has his glasses back on, and his notebook open. "Do you think it's easier just to treat all of this, all of us, as a fever dream?" Hardwood asks as Merry Lifter returns with the tea, "Ah good, just in time." He smiles and turns back. "Well?"

      "I'm not sure, what if you're right, and I am a piece."

      "Would the source know about all the things you do? Such as X-ray metal crystallography, the word, let alone the process?"

      "No, so I am who I think I am, I am where I'm, afraid I am. And the only way out that door is to accept that, or try my luck at tackling Merry Lifter, or one of the others. And while I suspect the memories will hurt more, that's going to give me a better chance of success."

      Hardwood nods. "Mr. Merry Lifter, please bring the tea. I don't think he's going to throw it in your face and make a break for it."

      The guard reluctantly sets the tray down near Hardwood. "With respect, I'll be taking my tea over here," the guard says, and moves himself and his cup of tea out of range.

      "Now I deal with not only that I can't go home, but the culture shock of this place."

      "Another new word, but I think I can parse it. You didn't think that we'd fail to notice about one in three of your sentences had some reference to a concept we didn't have a word for?" Hardwood asks, he's still smiling but I can see that his earlier offense wasn't made up.

      "Like I said, I wanted to stay out of the nuthouse and straitjacket. Eventually. I think dropping the act after a few days might have been a far wiser course of action."

      "And if you find yourself on another planet, do you think you'll repeat your mistake?" he asks sardonically.

      "I'll have to figure out if I should be a mad thing who thinks he's a human, or a mad thing who thinks he's a pony. Not being able to decide would probably let me extend it."

      "So what happens now?" Hardwood asks.

      "I know a little about culture shock from the human perspective," I tell him, "I guess I need to discover if ponies suffer from it the same way. Although your customs seem more homogenous than humans: one language, one government, one history, and one religion. We have dozens of each."

      "Sometime I'd like to hear about that."

      "As a fairly weak, and omnivorous species, we have a long and remarkably bloody history. If you want nightmares, I'll tell you what I know."

      Being allowed to roam the castle, even under guard, is a refreshing experience. If I had to teach one more dancer or ballerina how to 'toe walk' I think I was going to start beating my head against the wall, I think, then make sure I've got all four hooves on the ground, How did they find out, anyway? Did the guards talk? The guards in the halls are similar to the guards at Windsor Castle, indistinguishable from well-painted statuary, they apparently react to nothing. I wonder if these 'Horse Guards' are all elite soldiers too?

      The more disturbing revelation is the development of my 'unicorn magic'. At least I haven't developed a cutie mark, I think, But what would be the cutie mark for NDT, Non-Destructive Testing?

      The sudden development of the ability to look at a piece of material, and see the flaws throughout the structure had been fun initially, and the possibilities had been mind-boggling. Not being able to turn it off for a couple days had not been fun. Cliches about 'x-ray' vision notwithstanding. Seeing everypony as skeletons, or worse, skeletons riddled with structural flaws, had been an experience I'd rather not relive. At least I can turn it off now, I think as I look around the main hall we're walking through.

      The architecture of the main halls could best be referred to as fairy gothic, high ceilings, big windows and skylights, great arches and columns rising upward to meet at the ceiling. Yet all of it in white with occasional slashes of bright colors. Without any intricate carvings that would require endless cleaning. Just lots of straight clean lines drawing eyes upward, to the sun and skies. Okay, now I get it, I think, Deal with the claustrophobia and a tendency to venerate whichever sky goddess is out and about.

      Away from the great halls, the transition to more functional architecture is rather abrupt. Walk through a door, and suddenly you're facing 12- and not 40-foot ceilings, more earth tones, more wood, and lots more decorations. Busyness rather than glorious.

      I am not too fond of knowing that my current quarters, while built in the 'grand hall' style, used to be a 'bedlam house'. A place for quietly keeping aristocrats who'd failed their cutie marks, or run into more mundane nervous breakdowns. It meant the door was easily locked from the outside, the control for the window shutters was in the room above, and a powerful spell on the room meant that even with the windows open, you could shoot howitzers inside, and no one outside would hear. I should set up a machine shop and forge in there, I think ruefully, trying and failing to shut out a lot of comments about me, my relationship with Princess Celestia, whom I haven't seen since my arrival, my displacement of Twilight Sparkle as the new favorite, and a lot of other asides from the myriad princes and princesses who roam the castle. I guess if I merely existed, I'd be nervous about the pecking order too, I think as I walk, Maybe Twilight's obliviousness wasn't such a bad thing after all. If half this stuff actually registered, she'd be crushed. I know it's all untrue, and it's starting to bug me. The guard, Mister Brushcut today, looks like he'd like to go back and 'explain' a few things to these nitwits. It does explain how Miss 'I don't have time for friends' always wanted a slumber party. If you can't figure out who is being your friend, versus who is using you to get close to the ruler, I'd quit trying to meet people too. The Princess probably hears these kinds of horse apples every day.

      The library is a transition back to the 'grand hall'-style architecture, at least the one open to me is. Even within, there are only a few sections I can go, mostly with restricted, escorted access. History and psychology are the first stops. A few general texts. At least the language is readable, I think as I speed-read through several of the books in the stack that I had pulled off the shelves. Then back to the shelves and more books, and more and more. Lots to catch up on.

      One officer stops and stares over the crenelations I've accidently created in my skimming/reading. His joyful expression is suddenly dashed as he sees me.

      "I'm sorry, officer, did you need this space?" I ask the slightly embarrassed unicorn in the officer's armor.

      "I'm sorry, there's only one pony I know, who would set up a 'book fort' like this and miss noticing everything else," he says.

      I raise my head over the walls to look around, noting the guard has changed, and it's nightfall. My stomach wakes from its nap and gives a not so gentle reminder that I skipped both lunch and dinner. "I'm sorry Captain, I'm not Twilight Sparkle."

      He shies. "How do you know my sister?" he asks, then grows suspicious.

      These ponies need ear-acting lessons, I think, It gives them away every time.

      "Princess Celestia's personal student, sent to Ponyville, and almost the next day Princess Luna returns, but not Twilight Sparkle? It's not too big a stretch. Besides, people have been comparing me to her, in some rather unpleasant ways, where I can hear, but not figure out who exactly said it. For a place built on love and tolerance, jealousy seems to run rather high," I say, ignoring the fact that steam is nearly blowing out the stallion's ears, "I suspect your sister worked very hard for her position, and is still working hard. I've heard some stories you might want to hear." That calms him down and changes his entire demeanor.

      He glances at the guard. "I don't think anyone would be too worried about you attending the officer's mess, both of you," he tells me, "It'll also let the librarians close the place. They called me in about a half-hour before closing time. Like they did with Twilight, on numerous occasions." He gives a good-natured snort of frustration. "Until she finally asked for permission to have round-the-clock access."

      Why do I think that Celestia is trying to teach her to be more assertive? Or at least communicate her needs more effectively? I think as we walk. Behind us, the doors close and lock. I think they're nailing them shut. Well, at least I'll get the reputation as an intellectual.

      The mess looks like any cafeteria at any government-owned building from a grade-school, to a fort, to a NASA test center. The trays are metal, with inset, shaped areas for the various foods, rather than flat and the food coming on plates and in bowls. What is served is vaguely more appetizing-looking than the hospital food.

      "You must be from another world," the officer says as he notices my reaction, "This is good stuff. Her Highness even eats here."

      "I'll take your word for it. It isn't what I'm used to." Once we are headed towards a table, I add, "And I think you have the cart before the horse."

      He considers the expression. "You think the food is good because her Highness might drop in at any time?" he teases, "You have a very suspicious mind."

      "Good, I'm glad somebody suspects I have one."

      I get a thorough download of Twilight's Canterlot years, and I relate some of what I know from the episodes I'd watched with my kids. I put the pain of that reminder away for later. Since Luna is back, and there's been no mention of Parasprites, I guess what I can safely reveal, and what I can't. No guesses that my mouth gets away from me.

      "Some of that is very secret," he points out as we eat, "And how did you hear it about it?" he asks pointedly. His expression tells me he means to have an answer, as both a loyal officer, and a big brother.

      "Like I said, there are plenty of others who like to make comparisons. It doesn't take a genius to put things together."

      He relaxes slightly.

      "You should send her a letter, now that she's settled." I lean close and whisper. "If the rumors of her facing Nightmare Moon are correct, she'd probably be pleased as punch that her 'Captain of the Royal Guard' brother knows the apple didn't fall too far from the tree."

      His suspicions are back full force. "How do you hear things even I haven't?" he asks in a whisper. His glare speaking volumes.

      "People aren't constantly searching for the most hurtful thing to say around you. You'd beat the crap out of some people if they said what I've heard them say, about her Highness, your sister, and me."

      He glances at the guard, and settles back to finish cleaning his tray.

      I'm glad Sergeant Mile Stone is escorting me back. At least he speaks his mind. Politely, and diplomatically. But if you have your head up and locked, at least he'll strongly allude to it, I think as we walk through the moonlit halls and corridors. The light is bright enough to read by, although the shadows are more numerous and more pronounced. I decide to get a little exercise and 'back hoof' walk.

      "You don't approve of dragging Shining Armor into what is essentially my battle?" I ask the sergeant who, upon relieving a rather beleaguered trooper, also heard a bit too much about a captain's family and a ruler, both of whom he respects and genuinely approves of.

      "Depends on how much of the heavy cavalry you wanted to bring to the fight," he replies, his expression stoic. The guards are equally unimpressed by the trick that supposedly is quite difficult to master.

      "So you approve, if I know what I'm doing, and disapprove if I am just throwing fuel on the fire," I say once I've let him get into whispering range. The few functionaries of the 'Night Court' are out and about. Guards are fewer and farther between, but still present. Their brilliant, white coats, like the sergeant's, stand out worse in the moonlight than in daylight. "On a different subject, are they going to be transferred to her Nightjesty's service?"

      "There have been rumors, sir," the sergeant says, "And some of the guards have been approached."

      I drop down to four legs to walk beside him. "You'll do very well, although I'd hold out for Sergeant-Major of the Guard, or the Corps," I stop as I see the facade crack ever so slightly, "You'll do well in any position, but I think you'd do best instilling your level of professionalism to the new organization. Sometime esprit de corps is all a new organization has, until they develop a reputation."

      He relaxes slightly, but still eyes me worriedly as we walk along. "You enjoy that a bit more than is thought wise."

      Typical, I don't say aloud, A rebuke but never personal. And always 'you can do better', not 'you are wrong'.

      "Would you rather have Prince Buttercup as their leader?" I ask, reminding him of one of the local bits of royal fluff that got a commission and avoided any real training or discipline, through a huge amount of patronage. Before someone finally wised up and discharged him, as the same low-ranked officer he'd gotten in as.

      The stallion considers deeply, instead of simply throwing up on the floor. "You should join up. Plenty of room for advancement, and you seem nocturnal."

      "Don't play kicks with a mule, Barnum you idiot," I say, and actually get a smile out of him.

      I open the door onto the room, moonlit, and all the beds save one pushed up against the wall and stacked. "At least the cleaning crew left it the way I asked," I say, then feel my hooves slip on the freshly polished floor, "Who waxes a stone floor?"

      We're both yanked inside, the shutters slam closed, the door shuts and locks behind us, and for a few instants, absolute darkness reigns. Then the powerful glow from a unicorn horn brilliantly illuminates the area.

      On dramatic entrances, I give it a nine of ten, losing one point for the heartbroken filly at the center, I think as I decide against giving the tearful princess a hug.


      Sergeant Mile Stone had never considered himself a coward, but he had no intention, despite his orders to the contrary, of intervening in this confrontation. There's too great a difference between 'keep the lad out of trouble', and 'get killed facing Nightmare Moon reborn'. He bowed to her Highness, and considered any means to de-escalate. He spotted Major Hardwood curled up in a ball in the corner. He'll be of no help, the sergeant realized.

      "I greet you, Princess Luna, her Nightjesty," the lad said and gave a bow like you might see on a stage, "And tell you what an honor it has been to serve as the, rubbish tip, for all the vile rumors circling her Highness Princess Celestia. It has been my pleasure to divert attention of the know-nothings from speculation about all the time her Highness has been spending with her beloved, and now-returned, sister."

      That lad could talk the legs off a mule, and make him think it was his idea, he thought as the Princess reined herself in.


      "That while her Highness, whom I have seen only on the day of my arrest, is suspected of colt-cuddling with me, she has in truth, been spending the time with you," he replied, seemingly immune to the 'Royal Canterlot Voice' that set the sergeant's knees buckling.

      Princess Luna looked around nervously. The colt walked uncertainly on the slippery floor, over to the pile of blankets the maids had stripped from the beds, and not picked up yet.


      "Oh, answers are extra cost," the colt replied, "You have to pay for them." He said and pulled two of the blankets off the stack, laying them out on the floor.

      The Princess marched over, unaffected by the slick floor, and thundered at him, "INSIGNIFICANT PIPSQUEAK! THOU TREADS UPON ICE OF THE GRAVEST THINNESS! AND WE DO MEAN GRAVEST!"

      He bowed again but remained standing, where Mile Stone was nearly ready to throw himself on the ground or hide. Barnum spoke coldly, not facing her Highness as he told her, "You cannot threaten a man who has already lost everything he cares for." He gentled his tone, and bowed his head, as if the memories themselves dragged him down, "You have your sister again, and are gaining the respect and love of those around you. I have lost my wife, my children, my siblings, and their families." Now he turned and stared at her, almost pityingly, "No pain you wield can match that. Any you inflicted would merely be a distraction. Even if you took my life, that would be a respite. Your Highness, you cannot hurt me worse than has already been done." He bowed again. "Yet, I have what you earnestly desire. Meet my terms, and you will have it all, and my goodwill."

      Her Nightjesty was warming up to give him a blistering, when he knelt onto the blanket, pushed off with his back hoof and skidded the length of the room on the blanket. Trying and failing to stop, and running into the far wall, were clearly not his plans, but he seemed game to try again.


      "My price, there's another carpet. Although running into the wall is your choice. I don't recommend it." He mounted his blanket and slid across the room again. Stopping short of the wall this time. "Sorry, sergeant, you have to be the grown-up," Barnum told Mile Stone, then took off back across the room, setting himself spinning this time.

      Her Nightjesty watched him, then glanced at the blanket, then back at the arrogant colt who'd throw her dire warning back in her face, and who seemed equally content with making a fool of himself in front of her. Barnum stumbled and fell over after he bumped into the wall this time. He climbed back on the blanket and slowly pushed himself across the wax-slickened floor with one rear hoof.

      Her Nightjesty put her forehoof down on his blanket as Barnum slid to a stop. "AND WHAT IS THY GAIN IN THIS?"

      "I get to be the first mortal in a thousand years to hear her Highness Princess Luna laugh," Barnum said in all seriousness.

      Her Nightjesty shook her head, and stared. She was clearly not used to the corkscrew logic that governed Barnum's personal world. She stared at him in utter confusion for a time. "This is madness," she said finally.

      "So?" Barnum asked, rolled over to look up at her, "You could crush me with a thought, Hardwood is practically comatose with terror, and Sergeant Mile Stone is the most discreet stallion in the entire kingdom. Who'll hold it against you?" He rolled back on his belly. "Fifty feet of dead smooth, polished stone with a fresh coat of wax, if I had socks I'd be sliding on it with those. I know it's your royal palace, but imagine the stunned horror of all those stuffy courtiers knowing you did this, even in secret."

      She frowned, but put a hoof on his backside, and shoved him across the floor.

      "Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Look ma, I'm a hoofball!"

      Her horn glowed slightly as she slowed him, before he crashed into the far wall. "Sergeant?" she said and glanced over. She frowned and then moderated her expression and tone, "Thou mayst stand in our presence."

      "Oops, shot blocked by the goalie!" Barnum said as Mile Stone arrested his decent to the floor.

      Her Nightjesty walked over to confer. "Dost that one face anything with seriousness?" the Princess asked.

      Mile Stone steeled himself. Her Highness asked a direct question.

      "I believe he takes a great deal seriously, Highness. He just doesn't want anyone to know he takes it seriously," Mile Stone explained.

      Her Nightjesty stared at Mile Stone a bit, then chuckled.

      "Her Highness has paid, lad," Mile Stone called. Her Highness stared at him in shock, and Barnum skittered across the floor, sans blanket.

      "And I didn't hear it?!" the colt exclaimed as he slid towards them, trying to remain upright, legs going in all directions and almost unable to stop.

      "I remained on duty, you were playing," Mile Stone said and scowled at him as he caught the hobbling colt by the scruff of his neck.

      Barnum stood up and growled at him. Then his feet seemed to lose purchase and staying upright took most of his attention. Through it all, the sergeant remained impassive. Her Nightjesty raised a hoof and laughed into it.

      "You are the second, sir, I will attest to it," Mile Stone said, letting go and letting the colt skitter on the floor. The frown he received was half-hearted, both knew getting her Highness to laugh was the real goal.

      "All right," he said as he returned to the blanket pile and pulled out another, "Your sister, her Majesty, found me a few days after your return. As I understand, I was found near the statue of Discord."

      Her Nightjesty stopped laughing and stared at Barnum for that.

      "She decided, I would be just interesting enough to divert all the gossips and nev'r-do-wells with royal pedigrees, while she got acquainted with her sister again. I don't think you did anything like what they are supposing her Majesty and I do, but to forestall even offhanded suspicions, she leaves me here, under guard, and does nothing to deny the unspoken allegations," he explained as he slid across the room.

      Her Nightjesty looked at the carefully folded blanket, and knelt down on it. Her horn began to glow.

      "With respect your Nightjesty, using your wings might be a superior experience," Mile Stone said, "A lack of perfect control is part of the affair."

      "Thou mayst address thy Sovereign of the Night as Princess Luna, or Luna," her Nightjesty said quietly.

      Mile Stone bowed, then stood at attention. "Most gracious and undeserved, your Royal Nightjesty." He raised an eyebrow.

      Her Nightjesty raised her own, then smiled, understanding the joke. And accepting his usage of the most formal and respectful title, as a subtle act of deferential defiance. She spread her wings and let their beats push her forward.

      The sergeant smiled at the two kids enjoying themselves. Her Nightjesty looked serene and haughty, as her wings let her circle the freely sliding Barnum. He was glad the lad took it in stride. The faint knock on the door took his attention away. He cracked the door open to see the face of Major Hansom (Cab). The young man was a 'mustang' an officer who'd started as a private soldier. As such, he had a better head on his shoulders than most officers.

      "We've lost her Highness," the worried major related.

      Barnum would likely berate him for losing something that big and important, Mile Stone thought briefly.

      "Her Nightjesty is in conference, not to be disturbed unless it is an emergency." He moved slightly when the confused Major attempted to crane his neck to see around him. Mile Stone felt his heart freeze as her Majesty looked around the edge of the door, and into the room. He was nowhere near tall enough to block her view, and her Nightjesty took that opportunity to slide by on her blanket, haughty and arrogant, yet enjoying herself thoroughly. Then her Highness turned and raced out of sight with a stroke of her wings. He saw it all reflected in the golden tiara of his sovereign.

      "More an educational colloquium," her Majesty observed.

      "As her Majesty says," he replied as best he could.

      "My sister has been located, she is safe, and I think doing important work," her Majesty said, "Thank you Major, Sergeant. I think a single escort for when the conference ends would be all that is required. Remain on guard until then, Sergeant."

      "Oh course, Majesty," Hansom and Mile Stone said and dipped their heads.

      The smirk on her Majesty's face told Mile Stone his life had just gotten very much more interesting.

      "Oh, Major. A moment if you please, sir," Mile Stone said.

      "I think I can spare a bit more than that," the Major replied.

      Mile Stone closed, but didn't latch the door, then retrieved a still curled up Hardwood, and dragged him to the door. "On your feet lad, no more napping," he hissed, and placed the awakening intelligence officer outside with Hansom, "Someone needs some salted coffee, Major, and a good Major to Major talking to. I'll fill in the rest, later sir. I am on guard."

      The Major nodded, a soldier on guard outranked even a general, until properly relieved. Hansom escorted the intelligence officer away. Mile Stone closed and latched the door. When he turned, he was facing both Barnum, and her Nightjesty. The colt could barely keep his footing, while her Nightjesty simply stood there.

      "Was he harmed, by us?" she asked worriedly, "We were more forceful than we are being now."

      "Nothing that a little rest can't cure," Mile Stone said, "He always was a little too sure he could control others." Mile Stone shot Barnum a look.

      The boy nodded.

      "You could try it yourself," her Nightjesty said, "With the door locked and guarded, no one would know."

      "There are three of us who would," he replied, then allowed himself a slight smile, "And I rather enjoy you two skylarking."

Out of Place - Out of Options Part 2 DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc. America: Man's Road - written by Jimmy Webb, 1982 Found on The Last Unicorn Soundtrack I'm hungry, weary, but I cannot lay me down The rain comes, dreary, but there's no shelter I have found It will be a long time till I find my abode Here I am on Man's road, walking Man's road

      The list of metal- and wood-working tools grows with each trip to the library. How am I going to pay for any of this? I wonder as I glance around the room that has been effectively ceded to me, I need to do something to balance the scales. I have a roof over my head, some clothes, regular meals, and no means to pay for it. I pack the list away, and begin my daily trip to the library. The other reason for the trip is a break from the experiments: what began as being able to sense cracks and faults in a material, has grown to being able to move them in metal and glass. They have to be heated, which is also a growing ability. I guess my cutie mark is going to be an arc welder. Or a recrystallization rig, I think as I walk, Funny, I've got a power that would be an engineer's dream back home: find flaws in a material, and move them all to one part of the material. Cast something and then sweep all the flaws into the sprues, then break them off. Better parts every time. Except I'm making the guards nervous. I bet they're thinking I could burn my way out of any lock up.

      The only reason I don't stay the entire day at the library is the after-lunch sessions with Hardwood. And I suspect those are merely to make sure I take a break and eat something, I think, If I'm hungry I eat, if I'm not I don't. Nothing shows you have to eat three meals a day. But I guess ponies are used to 'grazing' all day.

      The guard today is the one who looks like a neanderthal pony right down to the beetling brow. He refuses to give his name, yet still has a deeply-ingrained intellectual streak. His mane and tail color is very different from 'Brushcut's', and he's got a basso profundo voice.

      Maybe I should suggest a barbershop quartet, I think of the group who seem to be on 'crazy unicorn' rotation.

      " 'By the brand on my withers, the finest of tunes Is played by the Lancers, Hussars, and Dragoons, And it's sweeter than "Stables" or "Water" to me, The Cavalry Canter of "Bonnie Dundee!"

      Then feed us and break us and handle and groom, And give us good riders and plenty of room, And launch us in column of squadron and see The Way of the War-horse to "Bonnie Dundee!" Rudyard Kipling."

      Neanderpony's expression is one of weighing confusion. He is deciding if he can show he likes it, or not, I think as he considers. We enter the library, and proceed to the stacks.

      "Never heard of him, or her," he answers as I collect the books for the first part of the day's reeducation.

      "One of my wild memories," I explain as I head back to a table I favor. Near the light, but out of the main paths of traffic. "A poet beloved by the army."

      "I can see why," he replies.

      Tough crowd, I think as I look at the people rushing towards the windows.

      "Should we join the stampede?" I ask as I look.

      Perambulate pursuit of the precipitate precipitation of panicked ponies peering at the panorama, I think, then close my eyes and shake my head.

      "Are you all right?" he asks.

      "Just thinking too alliteratively," I reply.

      "There's a dragon out there!"

      Pronounces a panicky prince prancing past, I think.

      "I think I need to take you back to your quarters," my guard tells me.

      "I was going to offer to go with you to the battlements, but if I keep alliterating, I think it's a bad idea."

      He stares at me as we get up from the table and head back. Out in the halls, more ponies are running here and there. The military and some civil servants with a sense of urgency. The rest with panic and confusion.

      "If I run, you have to chase me, right?" I ask.

      "Until I tackle you, yes," he replies.

      "Then save the tackle until you can lock me in, I'm headed towards my room. Big windows facing the prime direction," I tell him as I dash away. I arrive at my room, to discover someone has taken the door off the hinges. Inside is a command post: maps of the castle and surrounding grounds attached to the empty bedframes stood up as makeshift plotting boards. Several officers and troopers are setting more bedframes on end, and attaching maps. And framed perfectly by the windows, is a thick cloud of black smoke. My guard arrives, and seems as nonplused as I am. Fortunately, I spot Sergeant Mile Stone and Major Hansom. "Should I leave?" I ask.

      "No, lad," Mile Stone says, "We'd be collecting you anyway."

      Hansom glances at the sergeant, and lowers his voice, "Auxiliary damage control, and as one of the more heavily shielded rooms, we're assembling a lot of the too-young royalty and VIPs."

      Get the useless kids all in one place, I translate, At least I'm not thinking alliteratively any longer.

      "No sliding on the floor, lad," Mile Stone reminds me that I look like a midteen, despite what I think I am. My guard is collected by one of the other lieutenants, and tasked with some job.

      VIPs is right, I think as the dignitaries arrive, There are several zebra, a griffin, a young buffalo, as well as dozens of ponies.

      "So, you're the blank-flank who caught Celestia's eye," one white unicorn mare with a pack of sycophants sneers at me. Several of the others, and especially the diplomatic group, watch with interest.

      Queen Bee going after the local, round one, I think, then smile.

      "If that's what you choose to believe, I can't stop you," I reply, "I can chuckle, even laugh at you, but I can't stop you."

      "I don't see a cutie mark, or do you call it a 'stud stamp'?" the bee's beta nudges me in the flanks as she laughs.

      "You're too young to do that to a boy," I tell her in a stage whisper, "And this is the wrong place if you mean it." She's shocked enough to retreat. "All that means is I haven't discovered my talent, or that I have, and the mark is the same color as the rest of me."

      "I think it means you'll never amount to anything," the Queen Bee says.

      "Quite an insult to our diplomatic friends," I reply and nod to the others who lack markings, "I'll have to tell your mother to school you in manners."

      You're out of your league kid, I don't tell her, You can sneer, but I know it's you, and your friends who don't break away, who will grow up to be nothing. I've already been through High School. The prom queen married the quarterback. He's a used car salesman, and she sells cleaning supplies. Most of their money goes to booze on the weekends. The nerds like me and second stringers are the engineers and entrepreneurs with the fancy cars and houses.

      Queen Bee puts her nose in the air. "I don't know why I'm talking to you," she snorts and walks away. Like a shoal of minnows, her pack follows.

      "You were bored?" I offer, and walk over to the legation kids, who all seem somewhat nervous. "Don't worry, Princess Celestia has her most trusted knights on the job. At this moment, I bet they're assembling to deal with the dragon," I tell them.

      If I remember the episode correctly, I think.

      " 'Knights?'" the buffalo asks, "Like, her?" She looks over at the Queen Bee and her pack, who are harassing Mile Stone about 'doing something'.

      "Good Lord, no," I tell them, "Not royalty, or nobility. People who actually go out and do things."

      "Like Daring Do?" the griffin asks excitedly.

      "More like that, than the Queen of the May Not," I reply and nod over to Snooty the Great who is on the receiving end of Hardwood's most patronizing 'I'm here to help' speech. "Have any of you ever heard of a heavier than air flying machine?"

      There's confusion among them. A few of the other royal/noble ponies drift over, deciding on safety in numbers, while the shark pack cruises for victims.

      "There isn't one," the griffin says, "An artist came up with pictures of a machine that would fly like a bird, but nobody can build one."

      "An ornithopter," I say, then realize what I've done. They are all staring at me in confusion. "A machine that flies like a bird. Ornitho - for bird. Sorry, ancient language. But nothing other than that?"

      They look around, politely discussing and shaking their heads.

      "Why would we need that?" the griffin asks, extending and preening one wing, then the other.

      "Some people can't fly naturally," I reply.

      "What about balloons and airships?" one unicorn filly asks. She's wearing a vest and shorts, but the muffler and tail 'bag' are the odd parts. She's more than slightly resembles the Princesses: tall, thin legs, smaller barrel, but the look in the eye is the clincher.

      "They aren't the same. The gas bag gives you lift, but it also gives drag, so you're limited in speed by the very thing you need to fly. And the winds will drive you more than any motors would." I borrow a blank piece of paper, and draw out a diagram. "Lift, weight, drag and thrust, each pair in opposition. Pegasi, griffins, and other flying creature have less drag, but more weight, a balloon has more lift, but more drag. A flying machine would be more like a pegasus or griffin. Or maybe even a hummingbird."

      They laugh, but it's different than the discordant sound from the shark pack.

      "Hey loser, what's this?" the Queen Bee asks as she holds up a metal box that I had concealed beneath a loose board in the window sill.

      "That contains the dye I use to hide the mark on my butt," I tell her, "I wouldn't shake it if I were you."

      "Why's it labeled 'sch-muck bait'?" she asks as she shakes it next to her ear.

      "Because 'Do Not Open' never seemed to keep people from doing just that," I reply, "I wouldn't, by the way."

      The officers are overhearing, and putting things together. One or two have broken away from their discussions and are heading her way. Too late, she opens it. The dye covers her to her withers, three of her posse get a face full. The dye is the exact color I am.

      There are a number of filly screams, and more as they realize magic won't get the dye off. Most of the legation kids and the Queen Bee's normal victims are laughing at her. The officers corral the fillies who've been dyed, and hustle them towards the bathroom. Mile Stone is heading my way.

      "Excuse me, I think I'm going to be punished," I say as I stand and separate myself from the group. I move to meet the sergeant halfway.

      "While I do think she deserved it, what would prevent anyone else from tripping that?" he whispers sharply.

      "I had it hidden. And it's going to get worse. That dye is fairly magic-proof. I ginned it up after I found out someone other than the security forces had searched this room. It's been tripped before, three times. I needed some way for the tabloids to explain why I was a 'blank flank'."

      The poor sergeant crosses his eyes, then shuts them. "I'm going to let an officer deal with this." He glares at me. "You stay here, lad."

      I nod, and let him head over, not to the Major, who actually looks worried he would, but to a senior lieutenant who seems to hold an advanced degree in superciliousness.

      The lecture on responsibility and deportment had been vaguely entertaining, and admitting all wrongdoing while reducing the lieutenant to raging contradictions had been useful in keeping the diplomatic kids occupied until nightfall, when the all-clear came through. They'd thanked me. The dyed fillies ran to their mommas and daddies, who were horrified by the 'maiming', but even more so when they were informed their darlings had decided to break into the place where the labeled material was kept, and ignored two clear warnings not to do what they'd done.

      And my punishment, after they discovered the dye does not come off, and that it didn't affect their eyes, is to clean up the mess, I think as I sweep up the food wrappers, and mop up the spilled drinks, while half of Canterlot is celebrating the victory. The upright bed frames still have the maps hung from them, and those are harder to deal with. Why is paper the thing my telekinesis is weakest against? I can practically weld and forge metal with my bare horn, but paper . . . I guess I'm no Rarity. The mop and broom handles are wood, which presents no problems. The dust pan and buckets are metal, which are trivially easy. The maps I take down with my teeth, and carefully roll them up as best I can. If no one comes to get them, they're mine. I leave them where they aren't easily seen from the doorway, but a trivial search would spot them. The door is back, and bolted from the outside. A demand the Queen Bee insisted on, and I was only too happy to agree to.

      Restacking the beds, and finally, applying the special lye soap to remove the dye from the floor and the bathroom fixtures completes the evening's cleanup. The party sounds like it's still going on, I note as I see the lights of the city illuminating the room's ceiling, and the sounds coming in.

      I stand on my rear hooves, with my forehooves on the window sill and look at all the lights still moving through the town beyond the castle. The Great Hall is ablaze with light and people move through the gardens. But I could care less. Tomorrow, assuming they let me out, I've got a project, I think as I hop down to the floor, And if the Mane Six just dealt with the dragon, a trip to Ponyville will get me plans or at least examination of a working prototype.

      Morning brings a rough shake from a guard I've never seen before. That's bad. The angry, white alicorn is a greater threat. "Lye soap, a minimum of water, and a bit of scrubbing. It's the ink they use on magic scrolls," I say quickly, "Good morning, your Majesty." I do my best bow, considering I'm still in bed and half-asleep. The paper that drops in front of me tells me I guessed wrong. There is a picture, of me, full side-view and the caption 'What is Celestia's toy hiding?'

      "Ah, uh, oh," I manage as my brains spin up to speed. "Nothing, your Highness, but they don't need to know that." A skim of the article reports almost verbatim that I dye my cutie mark to hide it.

      "There's no shame in not having your cutie mark," she says, stern, but motherly.

      "Your Majesty, I never mentioned that, until last night. And the people who'd previously opened the box, and got a dye job, never hung around to ask." I glance around at the squad of guards, all of whom seem as disturbed as her Highness, "And this is irrelevant, isn't it?"

      "Clear the room and lock it," her Highness orders. Some of the guards follow the order unwillingly, but in a few moments we are alone. One of the stacked beds floats over, a mattress floats from where they are stacked onto the bed, and is then covered with a sheet. All before the frame lands. It's an impressive display of power and control. Celestia kneels on the bed, eliminating the obvious height and size difference.

      I wonder if she's even aware she feels a need to do this, I think uneasily, I am not going to tell her it's unnecessary. But I may mention it to Hardwood, let him decide what gets back to her Majesty.

      "I can't understand more than a tiny amount of what I saw in your mind. And I thank you for the warning about Discord. I hope to be more ready than my counterpart. But you have to understand something about burying yourself in your work, or your studies. While your mind is in some ways more durable than my ponies. You've sealed away a huge pool of pain. If you don't find a way to release it, the explosion will destroy you. And I don't think a hug from friends will restore you. While my ponies break more easily, they heal much more easily."

      This was not what I was expecting, I realize as I try to catch up to where I thought this was going.

      "I'm doing what I always do," I admit, "I'd bury myself in work, to avoid dealing with problems. I thought I was over that."

      "Pon - people do what they are comfortable with, especially when they don't know what else to do," she tells me.

      "Something I suspect you've learned from recent experience," I say, and get a stern glare, "I guess I haven't decided that all of this is real. I mean this is a kids' show. Except it isn't, and I don't know how to deal with that. I have - I have to make sure I am who I was first. Then I can start discovering who I am now. There's a simple way to do that, and it might give one of your knights an insight into herself she desperately needs."

      "Another of my students goes to Ponyville?" she asks sardonically, "The poor Ponyvillians are going to get a complex."

      "I think they'll get an even bigger countercomplex when I get what I'm after. I think they'll survive."

      "Can your trip wait?" she asks, "I'm planning to visit there next week. Why don't you come with me?" she asks, and nuzzles me.

      She draws back when I react with horror. " 'Next week'?! I think I need to get there as soon as possible, and I'd better have an accordion when I get there."

      "Trouble?" she asks in alarm.

      "Nothing the locals can't deal with," I assure her, "The other is a just an immediate credential and entry."

      "I'm not sure I want to know," she admits.

      Then something about the column catches my eye. " 'What is Celestia's toy hiding? By Sunny Days'?"

      There's only two people in Equestria who would get that reference, I think, And they're both right here.

      The look of utter and abject innocence practically radiating off the ruler of Equestria tells me all I need to know. "You are trolling the ponies who think you're a monster."

      "I don't have any idea what you mean," she replies.

      I look up from my packing. "What's up, doc?" I ask Hardwood as he enters my room.

      The poor pony looks chagrined. "One of these days, you're going to have to explain that. I asked her Majesty, and she had an attack of the giggles. While it's good to see her Majesty able to laugh, I'd really like to know what's so funny."

      "It's the ears," I tell him, "They're perfect."

      He tries to stare up to see his own ears. "That's nice, perfect for what?" he asks.

      I sigh. "A joke isn't really funny, if you have to explain it. Suffice it to say, you physically and intellectually resemble a cartoon character."

      "One different from the cartoon ponies we all resemble?" he asks.


      He shakes his head briefly. "I'm glad you're going to Ponyville, once you see you fit in there, maybe you'll let yourself fit in here."

      "Whatever do you mean, that everypony in Ponyville is crazy?" I ask, "That's a paraphrase from the show."

      "More an egalitarianism that exists there, but is lacking in all but the real movers and shakers in Canterlot," Hardwood says, "Too many people wondering about the pecking order here. I don't think you like that too much."

      "Okay, now I'm worried. No questions, just statements?"

      "Oh, I'm here as Major Hardwood, not Doctor Hardwood," he offers, "And we'll need your help on a mission of some importance. One I don't think you would have seen on the show, but one of significant importance to the rest of us."

      "I've been sponging off the government for a while. I'd be glad, no eager to pay back."

      "You'll need to use your insights to get a very special mission completed, for Princess Luna herself."

      "I'm glad they sent Corps-Sergeant-Major Mile Stone with me on this trip," I tell him as he walks beside me. For a few moments pride wars with embarrassment on his usually stoic expression.

      Although he has a mission of his own, I think as the two of us walk through the town of Ponyville, Although Hardwood tasked me to help, in between preventing a disaster.

      "I think you look good in charcoal-gray, although the solid black sideburns makes you look younger than the salt-and-pepper did," I tell my friend, guard and the eyes of Canterlot, and especially Princess Luna.

      The sergeant who glares at me currently possesses the highest, noncommissioned rank in the entire Equestrian military.

      "Just think: There is no one, not even the princesses, who is the sole holder of a high rank, commissioned or noncommissioned." I glance over at him. "You'll forgive me eventually," I tell him. The scowl is worth it. "On a serious note, if they didn't believe you deserved it, you wouldn't have gotten it. The Night Guards have their own princess back, and they have to establish an identity of their own. Other than 'the Day Guards' castoffs'."

      "They will need more than that."

      "The First Special Services Force was recruited from an elite Canadian force, and Americans assembled from training cadres all over the west. So you had half-trained ruffians, who'd learned lots of nasty tricks in their civilian life, and a disciplined force of professional soldiers. The combination had their enemies name then 'The Devil's Brigade'."

      "Where do you come up with this stuff, lad?"

      "Human history."

      The Ponyvillians are preparing for the princess' arrival in a few days. They note our arrival, but take no real mind of us. "I very much doubt I'll forgive you, sir, but it is something of an idea," he replies. His only revenge for my 'help' in getting his post, is redoubling his efforts to turn a callow youth into a good officer, despite me not being a member of the military. He notes the large tree/house we're heading towards. "I thought we were heading towards this genius. I believe the library is Miss Sparkle's domicile."

      "I need to drop off a housewarming gift, and a way to introduce myself without it appearing completely contrived."

      "She might have read the recent column by that despicable 'Sunny Days'," the sergeant says, "That mare has never been given proper training in manners. Or even, discretion."

      "You were about to say 'decency'," I tell him. "When we can secure an area, I'll tell you some things you need to know about him."


      "Sunny Days is no Earth Pony mare, Unicorn mare or Pegasus mare," I reply, "I even think I've figured out who Sunny Days is. I'll hold your coat, while you give the blackguard a good, sound thrashing." I smile at his embarrassment.

      "I hadn't meant that," he explains, "I am sure a stern talking to would suffice."

      "I can just about guarantee, he'll politely tell you to mind your own business," I explain as I knock on the door. The voice on the other side is not the one I came to see.

      The baby dragon revealed by the opening door looks at us in confusion. "Hi, I'm Spike. Twilight Sparkle's assistant."

      "Hello Spike. I'm P.T. Barnum McHorsefly, and this is Corps-Sergeant-Major Mile Stone. Is Twilight Sparkle in?"

      The little dragon looks worriedly at the mess inside. "She left to check on the preparations for the Princess' visit."

      "Do you know where Miss Rarity's boutique can be found?" the sergeant asks.

      The little dragon perks up immediately. "I can take you there!" he says happily, then his joy fades. "After I've cleaned up here."

      "You take Sergeant Mile Stone to the boutique. I can't properly reshelve the books, but I can deal with the dirt."

      "Would you?" the dragon asks happily.

      "There are worse ways to introduce yourself," I tell him, "Besides, with my magic, it won't take long."

      "Would you teach Twilight those spells?" he asks eagerly as he and the sergeant leave.

      The dust and dirt are easily gathered in one spot, that being directly over the dust bin. The cleaning supplies, mostly for cleaning wood, are quickly mixed and a dozen sponges are soon hard at work on the shelves and carvings. With only the books to reshelve and the wood gleaming, I remove the gift I brought for Twilight. The stuffed bumblebee toy with the gray collar marked 'Mrs. Buzzy' I leave in a prominent place.

      That should have her a bit curious, and just slightly off-balance, I think, then immediately facehoof.

      "I didn't ask him where - " I facehoof again. "She should be at Rarity's." I check the rest of my parcels and head in that direction.

      "Does anypony know where I can find an accordion?" my target asks the people within Rarity's boutique, "Gals, hello! This is important!" She stamps her hooves in frustration.

      "Ma'am," I say, "I have one"

      The pink mare immediately brightens up. "Ooo! Can I borrow it?"

      "Parasprites?" I ask, praying that I correctly remember the details of the episode I only saw once.

      "Of course, silly!" she says happily.

      "Where can I set up to start assembling the instruments? Frankly, my musical skills would get me banished to the moon by either her Highness, if they ever heard me play. But I can build like no one's business."

      "I'll have to modify it!" Pinkie Pie announces as she runs away with the accordion.

      "I'll be glad to help," I tell her as I pursue.

      "I'll have to make it a player accordion. Do you like ice cream, what's your favorite flavor?"

      A player accordion!? Is that -? Never mind! This is Pinkie Pie we're talking about! I remind myself.

      "I'm a fair engineer, I can help."

      "Okie dokie loki. You drive trains?" she asks, "What do trains have to do with ice cream?"

      "Only to test them after I build them. That's what I came to talk to you about, but let's deal with the Parasprites first. What do Parasprites have to do with ice cream? Feeding them makes them multiply!"

      "Yeah, and we want to subtract them from the town!"

      "So are you a descendant of Sleipnir?" I ask.

      She turned her head to look at me. "How do you know that? Are you some alien being who dropped down to Equestria from outer space?"

      "I'm from Canterlot," I tell her, "I only work in outer space."

      The evening is spent assembling, welding, screwing bits together, and getting Pinkie Pie to get a night's sleep. 'Pinkamena Diane Pie, you are going to have to run this thing tomorrow. It's important that you rest. So you will rest, or I'll knock you out,' I had told her, and checked up on her twice. We compromised on two three-hour naps. With her cutting the roll that would control the accordion's player mechanism between those naps. During one of those naps, I located the wreckage of her Pinkie copter.

      "I still have to get more instruments," she announces as she leaves at first light, "We need a banjo, and some tambourines! Maybe AJ will have a harmonica."

      "Don't forget the tuba, that's the centerpiece. I've got the mounting fixtures all ready when you get them," I tell her as I work on the collection of musical instruments, and the frame that will hold the assembly comfortably. I've progressed steadily from an NDT lab on four legs, to being able to do a form of welding that most machinists only dream of. All based on my growing unicorn magic.

      I'd almost be afraid to describe this to people, I think as the crystals of material twist and shape themselves into each other like roots or tentacles growing and twining, wood, metal and glasses all are easily attached to each other using my new power, I'm almost glad this doesn't work on living things. That would be a little too tempting.

      The sergeant enters. "There are Parasprites in this town!" he gasps as he closes the door behind him.

      "Hence the musical instruments." I don't look up from my work.

      "That will get rid of them?" the sergeant asks.

      "Yep, lead them back to the Everfree Forest, where the predator-filled environment will make short work of them," I explain as I test the spell to power the player accordion. The music is serviceable and I listen as I watch the clock. "I've have got to improve that spell," I comment, "Four minutes isn't enough. If I can't get at least twelve, we could be in a lot of trouble."

      "There is a magic expert in town," Sergeant Mile Stone points out.

      "Been by three times, and she's been gone each time. If she's avoiding me, she's doing a good job."

      "What can I do?" the sergeant asks.

      I glance around. "Are you any good at jigsaw puzzles? The real reason I came is in the shed out back, and it's in a lot of pieces." I look up from the cooling weld. "Oh, did you have any luck with getting the uniform designs out of Miss Rarity?"

      The gentleman doesn't show his true frustration. Instead, he manages, "Yes, although I need better words to explain the difference between 'dress', 'battle dress' and 'ambassadorial dress' uniforms."

      "Black tie, Business Casual, and White tie," I say as I return to staring at the mechanism, and try to wrack my brains to figure out how to store more power in the assembly, without blowing it up or setting it on fire.

      Pinkie Pie drops off the sousaphone-style tuba and rushes off.

      Now I can integrate that into the assembly . . . and now I have the mass to store the energy the spell needs! I think happily and begin threading the harness and the other instruments through the circular coils of the sousaphone. I note the sergeant has departed at some point.

      "That is what you were after, sir?" the sergeant asks as he returns from the shed, "It appears - " Even his ability to remain polite and expressive fail him.

      "It's a level of technology beyond anything you're used to. I'll give you a hint," I say, between using my horn to carefully tack weld the frame to the tuba, "It is damaged from crashing. It did actually fly."

      "And the lady, flew it?" he says in disbelief.

      "The lady designed, built and flew it," I tell him. I look him over, then abandon the thought. "No, you're too big, help me on with this thing. She has to have freedom of movement and I have to keep the weight balanced. It's going to be hard enough playing a half-dozen instruments all at once, without the harness stabbing you someplace, or the whole thing trying to tip over."

      "I don't understand," he admits as he helps me test fit the assembly.

      I walk around the room, trying to make sure all the important pieces are within reach. "What is that rattling sound?" I ask as I look around.

      Mile Stone sticks his head in the bell of the sousaphone, the impulse is tempting. "There appears to be a harmonica at the bottom," his voice echos strangely.

      "I am not going to ask how you saw that," I say as he helps me set the 'one-pony band' rig down, and I fish the harmonica out of the tuba and fit it into the wire frame. "All we need now is the musician." I feel a massive surge of magic pass through. "What the hay was that?" I start looking around, expecting the Death Star to appear.

      "I didn't feel anything."

      Before I can explain, there's a hammering at the door. "Don't let me in! They're eating the tambourines!" Pinkie Pie shouts through the door.

      "If they get the tuba or accordion before we're ready -" I shout.

      Mile Stone has lowered his head, and paws the ground. "Let the lady in," he says harshly.

      I yank the door open for the pink blur, and slam it behind. From the ruined satchels, and the disappearing tambourines, come dozens of the grapefruit-sized monsters.

      "Go, lad!" he tells me. Then we get a display reminding us that Celestia's soldiers are not decorations, or ornaments, and that sergeant means he's a master of the fighting craft. Dozens of Parasprites try for the musical assembly. Rear hooves, fore hooves, teeth, and tail, he lashes out at the Parasprites, dashing them against the walls and ceiling. He whirls and twists, too utilitarian to be a dance, but none of the Parasprites gets past as I buckle Pinkie Pie into the contraption.

      "This only has 12 minutes, the player roll is looped, so it'll play as long as it has power," I tell her, then strap the cymbals on her legs.

      "Ready, steady, go!" she grimly announces, as the Parasprites outside begin eating through the door.

      "Gone," I tell her as I release the spell that sets the mechanism going. The door falls away, revealing a swarm of the eating machines. She plays the tuba and harmonica as she marches determinedly through the pack and out onto the street. The Parasprites stop trying to eat the instruments, the building, or anything else as she moves long.

      I glance at the sergeant, as he trots after her, and I fall in behind.

      I came here to convince Pinkie she's not a caricature or a joke, but I was thinking Sergeant Mile Stone was a bit of a joke, I realize, That too proved not to be true by a long shot.

      "Lad," the sergeant asks as we follow the pink music machine and her trail of Parasprites onto Ponyville's main street, "What are we really doing here?"

      "Getting our horizons broadened, sergeant," I reply.

      "You'd think we could get that in the capital," he says.

      "Good Lord no," I reply, "The capital, any capital, is the last place that can happen. True here, true everyplace I remember. Cosmopolitan, but not really inventive."

      He puts a hoof on my shoulder. "Before you start making plans to repair all this damage." He and I look at the collapsed and collapsing buildings all over the town square. "When was the last time you slept?" he asks.

      "Canterlot. Too long," I admit, and glance back at the shed. "A half-hour, then I'll help."


      I trudge back and collapse on the floor, exhausted.

      My nose tells me I'm not asleep in the shed anymore, there is no smell of wood, dust, burnt metal or machine oil. I try and place where I've smelled this before, as my other senses report I'm in a bed, with clean sheets and a comforter, and I've been washed.

      The last brings me fully awake. I sit up and realize I'm back in the library. Twilight Sparkle is below, studying diagrams and papers, and I'm in the guest bed. Okay, I don't know the societal implications of this, so I'm just going to go with being a good neighbor.

      I look around carefully, and spot the sergeant asleep on a couch in another room. Spike is asleep in his basket in the bedroom alcove, and Twilight is off in study land. Outside it's dark, with barely a moon in the sky. I make it down the stairs to the library's main floor before she notices me. I carefully close the door to the sergeant's sleep room, before walking to the table she's working at.

      "How long have I been out?" I ask.

      "Since yesterday afternoon. I appreciate your help with Pinkie Pie and the Parasprites, but from personal experience I can tell you that depriving yourself of sleep is not the best thing. Especially for a growing colt who's trying to do delicate work and make good decisions," she replies, and visibly restrains herself from continuing her lecture. "I do have one question," she says as her horn glows. "What is this?" Mrs. Buzzy lands in front of me, and the glow around her fades.

      "The mathematician's answer is 'A present of a stuffed bumblebee named 'Mrs. Buzzy''," I tell her.

      " 'Mathematician's answer'?" she asks.

      "Technically correct, but utterly useless," I reply, I look side to side, then lean close. She leans closer. "It's a joke that even should you bend time and space for a solution, you shall never know, for it rests in a universe twice-removed from your own."

      The flat ears and frown show exactly what she thinks of that answer.

      "I heard you only had Smarty-Pants and Spike, so I figured you needed a fourth for bridge," I tell her. She stares at me worriedly. "If your partner messes up the bid, can't you declare 'dummy' and play their hand?" I ask. She still stares at me. "You do know I came here primarily to get Pinkamena Diane Pie's permission to produce industrial versions of some of her inventions?"

      "Pinkie Pie?!" she asks, now adrift in the only island of rationality in an insane world.

      "Yes, the flying machine, and a few other items," I tell her, "Pure genius."

      "Pinkie Pie?" Her mane is noticeably frazzled by now.

      I pick up Mrs. Buzzy with my horn magic and set her before Twilight. "Go get some tea, and cuddle Mrs. Buzzy a while. The world will make much more sense."

      She puts the bumblebee on her back and walks into the kitchen. "Pinkie Pie?" she asks the universe in general.

      I look over the lists and diagrams, mostly involving the repair of Ponyville. "I think I'm going to have a lot of work to do."

      The sergeant comes out of the room he'd been sleeping in. "No arguments, you needed the rest," he tells me without preamble.

      I shrug as best I can, and return to staring at the plans.

      "What do you think?" he asks.

      "She's a great organizer, but a rotten engineer," I reply, "There are much better ways to do this."

      "You are two of a kind. I was referring to her charm," he says, "She's quite lovely, and an intellectual. Considering your desire to shake things up, you could do worse. Especially if 'Sunny Days' got a hold of the idea that Celestia's favorites were stepping out on her, with each other."

      I stare at him. His expression is guardedly neutral, but I've learned to see the laughter in his eyes. "I still think I used to be a married, hairless ape. I'll take your word that she's attractive, but I don't see it. I have enough trouble telling girls from boys without looking underneath."

      "Your loss, lad," he says and shrugs.

      Okay, you're learning my tactic of giving up something easy, and going for broke on what you really want, I realize as I can still see the hidden laughter.

      "So, are the designs unusable?" he asks, "Or just inefficient?"

      "Poor use of resources, and bad, well, overly complicated designs," I reply, "It overworks the fliers, and under-works the ground-bound. But there's a simple way to fix that."

      "Glad to hear it, Engineer Officer, you're conscripted, her Nightjesty's orders," he says and grins at me.

      I look at him. His grin remains unshakable. "Great," I comment, "Shanghaied on dry land. So does an Engineer Officer outrank a Corps-Sergeant-Major?"

      "In everything but ordering troops around. And now you have a rank no one in all of Equestria has. And no one to command but yourself," he says, just barely hiding his grin, "Congratulations." He salutes me. "Sah!"

      "Great, now I am the Royal Corps of Engineers, Ubique to you too."

To their Highnesses Princess Celestia and Princess Luna,

      The repair work is going surprisingly well, and quickly. Having a mage who rivals the Alicorn Sisters in raw power is handy. Teaching said mage and the Ponyvillians about prefabrication made the speed possible. The Earth ponies and a few others would assemble a large section on the ground. The unicorns led by Twilight would raise the piece into place, and hold it there. Then Earth pony/pegasi teams would drive the nails or turn the screws to attach it securely. Entire buildings would go up in a day, instead of requiring several. Patches took minutes instead of hours. Once they got the bit in their teeth, they ran with the idea.

      Of course Sergeant-Major Mile Stone walked around like a proud poppa. More proud that I was smart enough to teach them something, and let them work it out without micro-managing. That left the final touches . . .

      "How could you?" Rarity holds me in the alley's corner, and shows every intention of driving her glowing horn straight through my chest and into my heart.

      "I only mentioned dazzle painting in passing, and I only mentioned it to Rainbow Dash," I explain quickly to the irate unicorn, "I had no idea Pinkamena Diane Pie and Derpy Hooves would paint your shop that way."

      "I want it fixed!" she says carefully and emphasizes with a hoof stomp. She glares at me, so I understand my entire future rests on my answer.

      "We'll have to give it a coat of dark, gray primer to cover the existing paint, then start over from there."

      "Fine," she says, satisfied. She moves back to give me figurative, and literal breathing room.

      I decide to take a chance. "You should leave one interior room in that pattern," I suggest.

      She stares at me, as if I had been the one threatening to impale her.

      I think waking up to find the two or possibly three of them painted her boutique, inside and out, with the garish patterns has pushed the refined mare too far out of her comfort zone, I think as she looks at me in horror, It was originally designed as naval camouflage.

      "Why would I ever do that?" she asks, nearly swooning.

      I shrug. "Oh, inspiration, a reminder that no matter how badly something fails, people have done worse on purpose," I suggest, "Or as a waiting room for really troublesome customers."

      She smiles and laughs at that. "Like your dear friend, Sergeant Mile Stone. I simply do not know what he wants."

      "Something simple, comfortable, that could intimidate an enemy into surrendering/negotiating with a good hard look."

      She leans back and stares. "Why didn't he say that?"

      "Because you two don't speak the same language," an inspiration hits and I get it out before it fades, "Ask Fluttershy's help. She's a wildlife expert. She understands about threat displays. The clothes should say 'no better friend, no worse enemy.' Has he asked for camouflage?"

      "Oh goodness, yes. Urban, woodlands, and arctic." She looks at me in confusion. "How does one hide in snow, unless one is solid white?"

      "Like I said, ask Fluttershy."

      Rarity stares at me. "I think I believe you did come to town to speak with Pinkie Pie," she tells me and saunters off.

      Go talk to the paint crew! I think, then spot Twilight staring at Rarity's hideously and insanely striped boutique, the glow from her horn and sigils of the spell visible in broad daylight.

      Rarity's shriek as the spell takes effect sends me running.

      "Get the paint crew, NOW!" I tell myself.

      The Mane Six, minus Pinkie, watch as the Apple family's barn goes up. Again prefabricated, and four walls go up against each other. Twilight is saving her strength to place the roof.

      "I'll have to ask you all to forgive Pinkamena Diane Pie," I say as I look up from the progress on the roof. The crews are fixing the four walls to each other with practiced ease.

      "Pinkie Pie?" Rainbow Dash asks, "What did she do now?"

      "Oh, she was doing what she was supposed to be doing. You see Twilight Sparkle, Pinkamena Diane Pie had to keep throwing parties and dragging you to them, to prevent you from concentrating your efforts on the pony space-program. Rainbow Dash could theoretically have been the first pony sent by rocket magic to outer space."

      "I coulda flown higher and faster than the Wonderbolts!" Rainbow Dash exclaims, "Pinkie! Why'd she do it?"

      I ignore the agitated pegasus' frantic circling, and reply in a calm tone, "The fear was that they'd send someone to the moon, and release Nightmare Moon. Then she'd come back on the return rocket."

      "Hold your horses," Applejack interjects, "That makes no sense no how. We freed Princess Luna from Nightmare Moon, months ago. Pinkie is still throwin' parties like crazy. Always has, always will."

      "The change in bylaws hasn't made it through the steering committee," Rarity says, "Semicolons must be used properly, on such a momentous document."

      "You mean you kept me from being a - space flyer?" Rainbow Dash laments to Rarity, "I thought we were friends!"

      Rarity looks offended. "It's not as if I painted your home some hideous color scheme."

      Twilight sighs and shakes her head. "I'm going to go check the roof."

      "Say what you like about good ole' Twi, she can raise the roof when she wants to," Applejack says as she trots after her.

      Rainbow Dash begs, "Rarity, please, please, please tell Pinkie Pie I can be a -"

      "Astromare?" Rarity offers, "I shall consider it."

      "Is that a yes?"

      Fluttershy just stares at me for a moment, then flutters after Twilight and Applejack.

      "Why does he have to take me seriously!?" Pinkie Pie shouted in frustration as she sat with her friends in Sugarcube Corners. She gripped the straw in her teeth, glared at the wall and blew bubbles in her drink.

      "Don't you like that someone appreciates your inventions?" Fluttershy asked quietly, "You seemed happy about it."

      Pinkie glanced over at Fluttershy. "I told him I was going to build a moon rocket, and he said to be sure Rainbow Dash got a ride on it."

      "Well, I -"

      "Then I told him I was going there to solve world hunger," she exclaimed.

      Pinkie's hair went flat, and her eyes half closed. "I think that you should check with Princess Luna," she said in a deep monotone, "About the presence or absence of cheese on the moon, before committing so much effort to the endeavor."

      Her eyes widened and her hair reinflated to her usual style. "It was a joke, and he acted as if I was serious! Just to test it, I told him my funniest joke!" Pinkie Pie exclaimed.

      Then her hair flattened out. "Oh, very droll," she said in a deep voice, "Very droll indeed."

      Her hair poofed out. "I told him about adding all the candy canes and flower decals to my flying machine."

      Her hair flattened. "I think that would be very good for sales models, but for an engineering unit, plain is better."

      Her hair poofed. "I even got his friend to laugh. But not him, I tell a joke and he looks like Twilight reading a book."

      Her hair flattened and she stared at the wall. A faint wisp of smoke could be seen rising from where her gaze fell.

      "I'm not that bad," Twilight grumped.

      "Sugarcube, sometimes you're worse," Applejack said and patted Pinkie on the shoulder, "Maybe you've just ain't got to what he thinks is fun."

      "Oh, I know what he thinks is fun!" Pinkie exclaimed, "Work! I leave him with one of the things I just threw together and he's so busy studying it, that his friend has to remind him to eat."

      "He isn't ignoring you," Fluttershy pointed out.

      "No, he just won't go to any parties, and when I invite him, he acts like he's imposing," she said, "Let's have fun!"

      Her hair went flat. "I am having fun Pinkamena Diane Pie."

      Her hair poofed. "But you're working all the time!"

      " 'The joy of discovery can exceed what any party ever conceived can do. And I appreciate your eccentric genius,'" Applejack said along with Pinkie Pie.

      Pinkie stared at Applejack in surprise.

      "I heard him say it when I invited him to this little get together. He was out at Sweet Apple Acres, I think he was taking your new 'Diane' out for a fly," Applejack added.

      "And that's the other thing!" Pinkie shouted, "Why did he name it after me? And why not name it a 'Pinkie'!?"

      Her hair flattened out. "Diane has more gravitas, and sounds like 'dyna' which is movement, and di- means two which can refer to the twin rotors. The inventor gets to name the invention, and you deserve an honored place to cement their recollection in history."

      Now her hair stuck straight out. "I don't even like cement! I really don't want it all over my name, and all over history!"

      "I think that's not what he meant, dear," Rarity said, and forcibly hid her smile.

      "He hasn't made you feel bad, has he?" Fluttershy asked.

      "No! He's . . ." Her hair flattened. " . . . been very respectful and encouraging. Praising my ingenuity, my ability to think beyond existing design paradigms, and designing superb manufacturability into even the prototype models." Her hair poofed out. "But where's the FUN!"

      "Don't ya'all want to be thought of as somethin' other than 'party, party, party'?" Applejack asked nervously.

      Pinkie stared at her. Applejack drew back.

      "If I can't have that, and parties too. I - don't - want - it!" Pinkie returned to angrily blowing bubbles in her drink.

      Rainbow Dash couldn't help herself. She fell on the floor, hooves waving in the air, laughing.

      "And what do you think is so funny?" Pinkie Pie indignantly demanded.

      "I think she realizes, he pranked you," Fluttershy said, "Maybe he shouldn't have. You seem hurt."

      "Pranked me?" Pinkie asked in confusion.

      Twilight quietly explained, "He gave me a stuffed bumblebee, and told me it was a joke I'd never understand. And after a week studying everything I could about bumblebees, stuffed animals and my family tree, I still don't get the joke!" Twilight ended shouting.

      "That's the joke!" Rainbow Dash laughed, "You couldn't just leave it alone."

      Twilight growled at her friend.

      "He had Rainbow Dash convinced that you were preventing Twilight from making her an Astromare," Rarity told her.

      "He gave Angel a set of little bagpipes," Fluttershy added, then glanced around nervously, "Uh, he is really good with them."

      "I kin think a better ways to scare off bears, but I ain't no bunny," Applejack said.

      Pinkie Pie was looking from friend to friend in amazement. "You mean, all the seriousness, 'yes Pinkamena Diane Pie', all the-" Her hair flattened and her eyes half closed. "Was a prank? On me?" She shook her head. "Help! My face got stuck this way!"

      Twilight leaned over and whispered in Pinkie's ear.

      Pinkie's hair stood straight up and her eyes opened to the size of saucers. "Don't even joke like that!" she exclaimed. Then her expression went back to normal. "Ask Fluttershy, bees are hardworking, they'd never cheat at cards."

      Twilight grinned.

      "Well, if you want to give him a piece a yur mahnd, he's out at mah farm. That would be the best place, and I reckon all a us should talk ta him," Applejack said.

Mrs. Buzzy Creation of FiMFlamFilosophy (in My Little Pony: The (Abridged) Mentally Advantaged Series)

Out of Place - Out of Options Part 3 DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc. America: Man's Road - written by Jimmy Webb, 1982 Found on The Last Unicorn Soundtrack Moon rising, disguising lonely streets in gay displays The stars fade, the night shade falls and makes the world afraid It waits in silence for the sky to explode Here I am on Man's road, walking Man's road, walking Man's road Walking Man's road, walking Man's road, walking Man's road

      "What's going on, Applejack?" Twilight asked as the pair trailed the rest of the group. Spike, riding on Twilight's back just shook his head.

      Ahead of them, Rainbow and Fluttershy were trying to calm down Pinkie Pie. They might have had better luck with an active volcano. Pinkie's head was down and she walked quickly, forcing the others to occasionally canter to keep up. Rarity trotted along, seemingly at peace with what was happening.

      "What?" Applejack replied.

      "I'm almost sure you're plotting something," Twilight said.

      "Twilight, this is Applejack we're talking about," Spike interjected.

      "I'd never let somethin' hurt mah friends," Applejack said, "If'n ya'all need ta talk ta th'man, we talk."

      Twilight stared at Applejack, who was actively fighting a smile, and wouldn't meet her gaze. "Applejack, what did he do to you?"

      "Nothin'!" Applejack said so sharply even Pinkie Pie stopped to look. "We talked, 'bout phil - philoso-." The others resumed walking.

      "Philosophy," Twilight said.

      "No, study a words." Applejack started walking after their friends.

      "Philology?" Twilight asked in confusion.

      "That's the critter. Just pointed out that mah Element is 'Honesty', not truthfulness. That ya'all can be truthful, and lie through yer teeth, and ya kin be honest, without sayin' the truth."

      "That's just manners," Rarity said.

      "Not 'xactly," Applejack said, "Manners sometimes involves lyin', I want no parta that. But sayin' nothin', or answerin' the question they didn't ask, but shoulda, isn't lyin', may be more polite, and is still honest. So, the honest answer Twilight, is I'd never be parta somethin' that would hurt mah friends." She smiled. "The other honest answer is, I don't mind somepony prankin' the pranksters."

      The shriek made Rarity's and Twilight's hackles rise.

      "That's Applebloom!" Twilight shouted.

      "Rein in," Applejack said, "That's also a happy noise." Then her eyes went wide. "Woah Nellie!"

      The 'Diane' popped up over the apple trees. Big Macintosh pumping the pedals and steering. Granny Smith beside him, holding Applebloom as the Diane raced over their heads faster than most ponies could run.

      "Cutie Mark Crusaders Diane-pilots!" Applebloom shrieked.

      "Nope!" Big Macintosh said as they disappeared among the trees of the orchard.

      Twilight and the others picked themselves off the ground. Twilight noted that Pinkie's expression had softened, as she stared at someone else thoroughly enjoying not a party she'd created, but a machine she'd created. She shook herself and resumed her angry expression and posture, but her heart wasn't in it anymore.

      "But I wanted to stay angry," Pinkie grumped as they walked along. Fluttershy and Rainbow shared a chuckle.

      "I hadn't realized how useful that thing was," Twilight commented on the departed 'Diane'.

      "Or how fast," Rainbow enthused, her eyes shining with delight.

      "You have wings, Rainbow," Rarity pointed out.

      "Yeah? But a machine, that flies! On just pony power! That is so cool!" Rainbow enthused.

      "HEY!" Pinkie shouted, "I wanted to stay angry."

      "Too late," Applejack commented, "We're here."

      Seated before the restored barn were Barnum and Sergeant Mile Stone. They were having tea, and sharing a plate of cupcakes.

      "What, you didn't come to my party, so you could have one of your own?" Pinkie shouted at them.

      Twilight noted that Applejack had settled in to watch the show. Rarity was heading toward the barn doors.

      "We didn't know if it was correct to invite you," the sergeant said solemnly, "Most improper to invite you to a celebration you couldn't participate in."

      "What kind of celebration?" Pinkie demanded.

      "Why, an unbirthday party of course," Barnum explained, "Statistics prove, prove that you've one birthday."

      "One birthday every year," the sergeant clarified.

      Barnum explained, "But there are three hundred and sixty-four unbirthdays."

      "Precisely why we're gathered here to cheer." The sergeant raised his teacup, toasting Barnum.

      "A very merry unbirthday to you," Barnum sang as he toasted back.

      "To me?"

      "To you."

      "A very merry unbirthday to you," the sergeant sang.

      "To me?"

      "To you."

      "It's great to drink to someone, and I guess that you will do," they sang together, "A very merry unbirthday to you."

      Pinkie's mouth hung open, but the corners were slowly drawing up.

      "A very merry unbirthday to us, to us, a very merry unbirthday to us," the pair sang, "If there are no objections let it be unanimous. A very merry unbirthday to us!"

      "Ahem, gentlemen. I do believe it's Pinkie's Unbirthday as well," Rarity said as she grasped the handle to the barn.

      "Oh dear," the sergeant said and turned to Barnum, "You must have miscalculated."

      "That's a good reason not to count mares, you often miss calculate," Barnum said as he grasped the other handle to the barn doors. The two threw them open, revealing the 'Happy Unbirthday Pinkie Pie' banner, and the rebuild Pinkie copter, complete with decorations.

      "A very merry unbirthday to she," the sergeant sang.

      "To who?" Rarity asked.

      "A very merry unbirthday to me," Pinkie sang.

      "To you!" Barnum sang, "Let's all congratulate her with a present I agree." He handed Pinkie a stuffed toy version of her copter.

      The two stallions sang, "A very merry unbirthday to she."

      "Ya'all, it's Twilight's Unbirthday too." Applejack smiled at Twilight's near horrified expression.

      "It's a regular epiclectic," the sergeant said.

      "No runs, no drips, no errors?" Barnum asked.

      "I'll let you explain that to the kids,"

      "A very merry unbirthday to you," Barnum sang to Twilight, "To me?"

      "To you," the sergeant answered, "A very merry unbirthday to you."

      "To she?" Rarity asked.

      "To you," Barnum told Twilight.

      "Let's all congratulate her with a present I agree," Applejack sang.

      The entire group sang, "A very merry unbirthday to she."

      "Oh, a little yellow pad," Twilight said of the gift she'd been handed, "I can always use more paper."

      "Another Pinkamena Diane Pie special invention besting the sorceries of even the Great and Powerful Trixie!" Barnum removed the top sheet, and carefully stuck it to Twilight's horn. She tried to shake it off, but it stuck there. He removed it, and stuck it back to the pad. Twilight shook the pad, but the odd paper remained. She began to grin. Barnum removed it and stuck it to her horn again. Spike looked over Twilight's shoulder at the pad, and the paper stuck to her horn. Twilight's manic grin worried him a little.

      "Sticky notes?" Spike asked, "Put them in books -"

      "On walls on doors on books on chalkboards on windows on -" Twilight exclaimed.

      "Wait," Pinkie asked, slightly frightened by Twilight's expression, "Those things are actually useful?"

      Barnum stood on his hind legs, on Pinkie's head. "In another world, in a far away land beyond all dreams and nightmares, an invention just like this languished in obscurity for 30 years." He shouted, "Such a crime against sentient creation must not be repeated in Equestria!" He jumped down.

      "That's a load off my mind," Pinkie said.

      "A very merry unbirthday to all, to all," the sergeant sang, the others joined in, "A very merry unbirthday to all, to all."

      "Let's have a celebration, hire a band and rent a hall," Barnum sang.

      "A very merry unbirthday, a very merry unbirthday," the others sang, "A very merry unbirthday to all."

      Miss Twilight approached the sergeant. "Excuse me, but the word you wanted, was epidemic."

      "I thought that was a random set of tastes," Barnum said.

      "That's, eclectic," Twilight said.

      "Isn't that something powered by a generator?" Barnum said.

      "No, that's electric."

      "Isn't that a bunch of people who vote?"

      "That's an electorate."

      Mile Stone began nudging Pinkamena away from the pair as they played.

      "They're missing the party games," Pinkie protested.

      "That's a diuretic," Twilight said.

      "No, the other one."

      "An emetic?"

      "Exactly, and why does it take two to help a doctor or nurse?" Barnum asked.

      "They're playing one of their own," he explained.

      "They're having fun?" Pinkie could hardly believe it.

      "So if it's a pair of scissors, what's the singular?" Twilight asked.

      "A knife," Barnum replied.

      "Yes, ma'am, a great deal of fun."

      "I'll take your word for it," Pinkie admitted, then watched as Fluttershy settled near the pair and just listened.

      "Of course it does, for very large values of two, and very small values of five," Twilight said.

      "Would that be considered putting Decarte before the horse?" Barnum asked.

      "She's a wild one," Applejack said.

      The sergeant half-trudges along, his face nearly brushing the dirt, as I walk spry and happy. I'd resigned my commission, and am looking forward to the upcoming tasks.

      "How did you manage it?" he asks, "I feel like that mare sucked every detail of my life from me."

      "I used a series of tactics: nonsequitors, bursting into songs that had absolutely nothing to do with the question. But asking counter-questions was most effective. One extremely simple tactic was more effective than all the others."

      "What tactic was that?" the sergeant asks as he raises his head.


      "Because I'd like to know if we meet her again."


      "I'd like to think I - " He stops and stares at me. "What is the atomic weight of asphalt?"


      "To prevent spontaneous combustion of albino penguins."


      "Because I wouldn't think to use a trick any five-year-old has outgrown."

      "Why?" I ask and smile.

      He begins walking again. "Because I underestimated her, but I shan't again."







      "He's center field."

      The sergeant gets in front and stares at me. "Lad, do all of Equestria a favor, and do not marry that mare. The planet couldn't survive your offspring," he says, and covers my mouth with his hoof.

      Rarity looked nervously at the flying disk of dough that Sweetie Belle and Pinkie Pie were tossing into the air. Elsewhere, the Cakes and Applejack were supervising putting more ingredients on a completed disk. "Is this safe?" she asked and stifled the urge to use her magic to capture the disks and return them safely to the ground.

      "Of course not," Barnum told her, "This is deepest magic that even the gods tremble before. For when my people first stole fire, we created such a charm that even the gods forebears the Titans were laid low."

      Rarity glared at him. "I think I'd like you to write my ad copy," Rarity said sourly, "Except you'd tell people my clothing would give them superpowers."

      "Um," Fluttershy said, "I think this one is ready." She pointed to the oven specially constructed for this new baking.

      "Got it," Twilight said as she wielded the baker's peel to lift the heavy iron pan from the oven. "This is the most unpastry-like pastry I've ever heard of."

      "It smells great!" Rainbow Dash hovered over the pan as Twilight looked at the combination of tomatoes, onion, garlic, cheeses, mushrooms, herbs and spices all in a flaky crust.

      Applejack and the Cakes loaded another into the oven and closed the door. Fluttershy dutifully watched that one too.

      "What is it called again, lad?" Mile Stone asked.


      "Lad, are you sure this is safe?" the sergeant looks at the new, two-pony 'Diane' I've built with Pinkie's help.

      "Of course not. But as opposed to walking back to Canterlot, it's relatively safe," I reply. I'd completed my checkout over an hour ago, and stowed the gear before that. "Besides, I can carry you. It's you who'll have to figure out a way to keep me from going splat."

      He checks all his 'cold-weather' head gear, and steps onto the frame over the pedals. "As long as I don't have to steer," he says, "It looks bloody complicated."

      "It is. It would be worse, and a lot more maneuverable, if we didn't have to use all our limbs to power it. I've already talked with the lady about a newer version that would let us get the maneuverability back, and still keep a simple control layout."

      "What do you mean 'us'? As soon as 'us' get back to Canterlot, I'm never setting hoof on one of these again," the sergeant tells me.

      Taking off into the dusk is a bit dangerous, but there's to be a full moon tonight and running into the Wonderbolts or an aerial patrol would not be good. I'd be too tempted to try and run circles around them, and I'm not a good enough pilot to pull that off safely.

      The flight goes smoothly, the glow of Canterlot provides us a beacon to home in on during the entire flight. And an encouragement to continue.

      Our reception committee is somewhat more disturbing than expected. "SURRENDER IMMEDIATELY!"

      "Of course, your Nightjesty," the sergeant remarks to a figure I can't even see, "Should we follow you in to land? Or just hover here."

      The Diane shudders slightly, and comes to a complete halt: forward movement and the rotors. "WE CONTROL THE VERTICAL, WE CONTROL THE HORIZONTAL." A moment later, we appear back in 'my' workshop. And I can see who I strongly suspected had arrested us.

      "A little demonstration of who is really in charge around here," I mention to the sergeant.

      "I hardly needed one, lad," the sergeant whispers back, "Nor should you."

      "WHAT IS THIS?" her Nightjesty walks in front of us and demands. Both of us bow, the sergeant's far lower than mine.

      "It's a heavier-than-air flying machine," I tell her, "Pony-powered, and able to reach from here to Ponyville in a simple hop."

      "Speak for yourself, lad," the sergeant says.

      "WHY WOULDST SUCH A DEVICE BE NECESSARY?" her Highness winces slightly as the echo of her own voice comes back at her. She stares at us, since we weren't getting it as bad as she was. "PLEASE, remove your earmuffs."

      "They aren't exactly earmuffs," I say as I pull mine off, "They are a headphone and throat mike combination. Lets you hear, and keep your ears warm at the same time."

      "Your Highness, we brought you and her Majesty a present," the sergeant says, "If I may?"

      Luna nods. The sergeant retrieves the small toys from the cargo pod on his side.

      "Are those the new uniforms?" she asks.

      "Yes, Nightjesty," the sergeant says, and produces the two stuffed toys. They are a pair of 'dazzle-painted', stuffed alicorns. Both the same size, although with slightly different patterns. "Miss Rarity did enjoy the challenge, and thought you'd both appreciate an unbirthday present."

      "Un-birthday?" her Nightjesty asks.

      "Lad, don't sing," the sergeant warns as he removes the uniforms from the cargo pod, "A bit of a prank we pulled on their resident party-thrower. Celebrating a day, because it is not your birthday."

      Her Highness looks away from the sergeant and stares at me for several moments. "We understand."

      "It goes away with a bit of rest," the sergeant confides, "Your Highness."

      "The device is based on a one-pony, general use prototype. This one is a two-seater, and a strong enough mare or stallion could carry another person, or the equivalent weight. I should be able to build one that two strong ponies could carry a large weight, or move for an extended time, or some combination."

      "Why shouldst thou desire such a thing? Are not pegasi chariots, balloons, and one's own wings sufficient?" her Highness asks, "And most unicorns could lift a weight themselves."

      "It's more complicated than that."

      "Thy weird is ever thus," her Nightjesty remarks sourly. Instead she looks at the uniforms that Mile Stone was laying out on one of the bed frames. "They are, supposed to be menacing?"

      "A certain intimidation factor was requested, Nightjesty," the sergeant says, "They are far less intimidating to children, your Highness. Miss Rarity truly is a miracle worker."

      Princess Luna looks over at me.

      "Your Highness, I would guess that children are all right with something slightly scary, but that is still familiar. These are similar enough to the Day Guards' uniforms that they still carry the connotation of 'the Princess' soldiers'," I explain, "I admit, I'm guessing. They scare me plenty."

      "We will consider them," her Nightjesty said, "Sergeant, please return to your family. We grant you two days' rest, for your exemplary service in Ponyville."

      "Most gracious," the sergeant says.

      She looks over her shouder at me. "We would grant you surcease as well, but our sister has plans for you. We advise you to avoid the 'Sunny Days' column for the next two days." She vanishes.

      "You never did tell me who that ruffian with an inkwell is," the sergeant says.

      I tell him.

      "Please tell me you're joking, lad," he says.

      "I can, but I'll be lying. I'm afraid it's an idea her Majesty got from reading my mind," I say, "And it has proven effective in spreading absolute drivel as 'information'. That's called disinformation."

      "Lad, I am going to take the next days off. And forget I know that people I admire, can even think that way," he says as he leaves, taking the new uniforms with him.

      Neanderpony is on guard outside.

      Evidently, someone knew we were coming, I think as I head to one of the two made up beds, I need some sleep as well. Then I look at the machine, and the door. There's no way to get it out of here! I realize, Okay, funny joke Luna. Ha, ha, it is to laugh. I settle in and am soon asleep.

      The next days' 'Sunny Days' column speculates on my time in Ponyville as an odd attempt at youthful rebellion, and an effort to give a poor suffering Earth Pony inventor a powerful patron (both a unicorn and someone in the capital). At least it paints the Mane Six in a positive light. Although I need to remind her Highness that she needs to be flat-out wrong occasionally, or her alter-ego will actually undermine her position.

      The walk to the library is a weird one. There are still the undercurrents of jealousy of 'Celestia's toy', but there's also a slight undercurrent of pity for me as well. 'Poor kid doesn't understand they know everything' cut through to the heart of it. For once, I detour into the civil service wing. The guard doesn't try to stop me, which I should have raised suspicions.

      The stallions before me are older. They look like they are the age I was back on Earth, I think, Hmm, I didn't think 'back home'.

      "Gentlecolts, I thank you for your time, and I'd like to know about the process and procedures necessary to bring manufacturing here. If somepony developed a new device, what governmental hurdles would they have to face in getting it out to the public?"

      The pair are beyond perplexed by the question. "There would be a survey of location to verify that the device isn't inherently dangerous," Sir Peaceful Warrior explains, "As part of the patent process. They might ask for and accept a government grant or low-interest loan, but really, as long as there are no complaints against the manufacturer, there are no hurdles to overcome."

      "Not at the Canterlot level. They would have additional restrictions at the local level," Minister Chair Maker adds, "I am curious, what is the genesis of these questions?"

      "You shouldn't read too much into that ridiculous 'Sunny Days', even when it points to you," Peaceful Warrior adds a touch fatherly, a touch patronizingly.

      "There were some scurrilous accusations several weeks ago about favoritism in rain distribution. This office showed the figures, and the reasons for the uneven distributions. Why couldn't even farmers remember that certain crops require more rain at different times and we try to accommodate those needs?" he sounds angry at his and his office's profesionalism being questioned, "If any of the complainers needed more rain, they could have contacted the local mayor and he or she would have told us. It's not like we hoard the stuff."

      "There are people who look at any hero or authority figure, and immediately see the enemy. I've even met people who rail against not having rules. I guess because without rules, they can't complain someone is limiting their freedom."

      "If you can find a way to deal with that, we'd be most appreciative," Chair Maker says, then glances nervously at Peaceful Warrior, "If you wouldn't mind, we have -"

      Peaceful Warrior closes the door to the office.

      "A delicate problem."

      "That perhaps you can be of assistance, vis-a-vis your current project perhaps being, inadequately or insufficiently staffed in the expert classes. The not inconsiderable gratitude of certain high government officials could be expected for allowing us to redirect your staffing problems to personnel. Although we could not provide direct assistance in any official capacity. And while the official to most greatly benefit would be unable to acknowledge your most welcome assistance, for fear of undoing the raison d'etre of the entire plan. I can say, with some confidence, that even in retirement, a wise voice and guiding hand would become available, and would be extremely fortuitous to a young pony whose start at court has been, shall we say, less than completely stellar, and would in fact change your complexion from the courtesan to the cosmopolitan. Any additional laurals from the success of your project or projects would be entirely your own and your staff's as you would care to disseminate those successes."

      Chair Maker stares at Peaceful Warrior. "Do even you have any idea what you just said?"

      "He said for possible future advice and counseling, I need to undertake a mission: hiring an assistant, that has you two absolutely petrified," I reply.

      "Did he really?" Chair Maker asks.

      "I wouldn't go so far as to call our understandable trepidation petrification more a . . . " Peaceful Warrior says, searching for the right world.

      "Pissing ourselves, rolling on the floor, and screaming would do it," Chair Maker says flatly.

      "Pardon me for asking, especially asking bluntly, but who is this assistant and why is it so dangerous?" I ask.

      They tell me.

      "Gentlecolts, I'll get back to you." I dash from the room. Brushcut hard on my heels. I manage to get to a bathroom before I start laughing so hard I nearly make myself sick.

      "Are you all right, sir?" Brushcut asks as I hang onto a counter and try to start breathing again.

      "I'll be fine," I tell him, "Please go tell the elegant gentlecolts I said 'yes'. I'll be waiting here, trying to breathe."

      "It might not be a laughing matter, sir," Brushcut says.

      "It is, Sergeant, but not for the reasons you think," I gasp. He leaves and returns a few moments later.

      The trip to the library is as usual. Although more ponies simply get out of my way, rather than expect me to dodge them. This leads to one where we mutually dodge into each others path.

      "I'd offer to dance but they'd never let the music in," I tell the bewildered filly, "So I'll stand still."

      "Thank you," she scampers off, as if afraid.

      "Does Ponyville really have that bad a reputation?" I ask, "Or is it just me?"

      "There were reports you'd openly defied her Highness, and went to Ponyville on your own. Everyone expects you to be sent to the moon any moment," Brushcut offers, "I don't know where they hear these things. But that's the rumor, and rumors fly fierce around here."

      "So either I'm the next moonshot, or I have something over on her Highness," I sigh, "Why can't people - ponies understand that sending her sister to the moon was an act of desperation? She didn't want to kill her, and she lacked the power to heal her, so she had to wait."

      "Most ponies don't see it that way," he replies.

      "Just out of curiosity, of the five of you on regular rotation, three joined the Night Guards," I say as I collect books for the morning's reading, "Do you mind telling me why?"

      For the first time, the gruff soldier looks nervous. "A lot of reasons, I guess the biggest one for me, is that Princess Luna seemed to need me more. I love both Princesses, but serving Princess Celestia, she needed police and a few bodyguards. Serving Princess Luna, and I can deal with threats that are real, and out there. I never realized the things happening under the cover of night."

      "Weren't there always night patrols?" I ask.

      "There were," he explains, "But her Highness Celestia's power is the Sun, and daylight. While her Nightjesty's is darkness, and the moon. We can see things, do things at night we could never do as Day Guards. A cockatrice in Everfree, we'd have to wait until the sun came up, and deal with it. Her Majesty sees everything under the sun, her Nightjesty sees everything under the moon, we aren't guessing and hoping so much at night anymore."

      I nod, and continue studying Equestrian patent law, and learn it's very different.

      Lunch comes early, with a runner from the Princess. The green coat and yellow mane don't give me a clue to which Princess. Lunch with Celestia, or a 'midnight-snack' with Luna? I wonder as we hurry behind the excited colt-page.

      Oh crap, both! I realize as I enter. There's a buffet, and a place set for me at the table with their Highnesses, and about twenty other ponies. Stallions and mares, all older, all chatting amiably. I don't recognize any of them, and Brushcut departs with all the swiftness decorum allows.

      I take my place, halfway down the table, between two elderly mares, who look at me as if I smelt bad. "So, you were in Ponyville, during that terrible infestation," one drones, "However did you deal with them?"

      "A local expert lured them back into the Everfree forest," I reply politely. No one has food on their plates, and there are no servers to be seen. Their Highnesses are chatting, and if they aren't moving, evidently no one else can either.

      "Do go on," Celestia says to the entire group, then returns to her conversation with Luna.

      Okay, another Princess 'Trollestia' trick, teaching everyone to not be so hidebound, I think, and shock several of the guests by getting up. I offer my arm to both of the old mares, who seem stunned I would take the Princess at her word.

      I use my horn to serve up a few items, and hear a few chairs moving as everypony starts realizing that I'm not going to the moon. Time to really mess with their heads, I think as I take the two plates I'd filled, to the head of the table. More gasps as I serve their Highnesses.

      "Why, thank you," Celestia says.


      I bow, and move the salt cellar to their end of the table, before returning to the highly depleted buffet. For old timers, they sure can tie on the feedbag, I think as I collect a plate for myself and return to my place.

      My two table mates are staring at me as if I'll become a cockatrice any second. The grizzled old stallion on the opposite side of the table nods pleasantly, then returns to his conversation about gardening. Sounds like they're rehashing an old argument, I think, And I don't think a 'young colt' suggesting a scientific experiment would be welcome.

      The dinner continues, and continues, and continues. I haven't felt this alone, in a long time, I think as the plates are cleared by the servers who place the desert before us. A sherbert creation that is more sculpture than food. Again there is the paralysis that no one moves unless a princess does, and both are still talking about current events, and past events, and planning for future events. All the while, the sherbert sculpture slowly becomes modern art.

      The instant Luna takes a taste, it becomes open season on half-melted sherbert. The sounds of spoons on glass becomes the predominant noise. It's good, but not that good, I think as I see the hurried, almost frantic effort to down the whole thing as quickly as manners and decorum allow. I guess when the princesses are finished, so is everyone. I feel vaguely disappointed, but understand the lesson being taught. Too many are too tied to tradition, and outward shows of respect, they can't be themselves. Even with their Highnesses permission.

      "P.T. McHorsefly," Celestia says, and the entire room goes silent. I stand at attention at my place.

      "Present, your Majesty," I answer and bow.

      "You went to Ponyville, despite what we had discussed. Do you have anything to say for yourself?" her voice is inquisitive, rather than stern.

      "With respect your Majesty, your Highness did not forbid me. And I believe the benefits greatly outweighed the risks," I reply, "The mission succeeded, although it could have gone better. I will not repeat those mistakes."

      "Very well," Celestia says, then glances at Luna, who nods. "You may go."

      Dismissed. I bow, and head for the exit. The conversations behind me rise, but I can't pick out any thread from the hubbub.

      I hope they learned something, I think as I close the door behind me, Because I could have spent the time doing something more fruitful. I sigh. Her job is to watch over all of them. One pony's discomfort against breaking a centuries-old paradigm that stands in all their way. She's only got one answer.

      I'm amazed there isn't a guard waiting for me. I could run to the city gates, out into the wilderness, and they'd never find me, I briefly consider, And they'd hunt me down in about two days. Unless I hid myself in the Diamond Dogs' caverns. But I have no desire to be a miner the rest of my life.

      Out in front of my room, there is a guard, different livery than the Day or Night Guards, and while it's hard to tell, this one appears to be a mare. She comes to attention as soon as it's clear the door to the room is my target. Neanderpony comes trotting in.

      "It's okay, Claire, he does belong here," he says to the guard.

      She stares at me fiercely. "I dunno Fluffy, he doesn't - "

      There some sudden eyeball dancing as Claire realizes what she called him in public. Neanderpony/Fluffy realizing I heard it. And both of them trying to make as threatening a front against me as they can. I sit back and study them for a bit.

      "Now, perhaps to purge my mind of what I obviously couldn't have heard," I say, "What is going on, especially, what am I getting myself into?"

      Neanderpony sighs. "For you, probably nothing."

      I consider the possibility, then go for broke. I walk through the door. The room had not substantially changed since this morning. Then a fireball flares from my bunk, and is gone.

      Neither Claire or Fluffy is willing to advance past the doorframe.

      Terrific, I think as I'm left with the question of advance or retreat. I advance, and playing goldilocks, is the unicorn filly from the dragon day incident. Except her tail bag and muffler are missing. Her mane looks like someone caught fire in an instant and painted it on her, and her tail is similarly colored, but is twitching. The alarming part is not I recognize her, and she's my 'assistant', but she's curled up the bedding like a bolster, and she's got her nose buried in it.

      Great, horses may not have the sense of smell of dogs, but it's better than humans. So what dreams is she having? I think as I consider awakening her, Naw, at least not like that. So this is the challenge, 'Fluffy' is right, not a challenge. Glory Bell, the niece of the current head of the civil service. I can see where 'so beautiful it's a curse' could get a young teenager into trouble, both from unwanted attention, and from being able to get whatever you want from manipulation. But for me, the solution is simple.

      I head over to where we moved the Diane on Princess Luna landing us in here. The power-train still either needed parts beyond even my ability to build them, or the machine would lack the full abilities of a modern helicopter.

      "Wha!" came from the bed, and the girl nearly fell out of it she got out so quickly. "I wasn't doing anything!" she explains immediately.

      "Other than sleeping," I reply, not lifting my head from the tables of calculations, and pages of diagrams. "Sorry about the delay, I had to be reprimanded in front of the court, it took a little time."

      She makes sure her shorts are in position before she walks over. The two guards are watching as though observing a live rattlesnake, from inside its coils. She walks over, and stands in my line of sight.

      "Aren't you going to say something?" she asks, a teenager's challenge to another.

      "Your mane and tail are very beautiful," I tell her, and ignore her jaw drop as I try to force the diagrams and my memories to yield up a better control system. "With magic this would be easy, but I want to stay away from that. Too easy to neutralize." I put the paper aside, and start sketching the system for a four-rotor helicopter that could depend on differences in thrust to maneuver as needed.

      I'm halfway through, when she speaks up again, "You're serious, that's it?"

      I look up at her. "Well, I do find the alicorn physiognomy more pleasing than the standard pony type, but that's like saying a sunrise over a mountain is prettier then either the sunrise or the mountain itself," I tell her, "Do you know anything about multi-input transmissions?"

      "You are joking," she comments.

      "I was told you had an interest in machinery, and this item in particular. You want to help, fine you're hired, welcome to the team. Now we get to work. The problem I have, is it can't perform at top efficiency because the limbs needed to provide control inputs are the same limbs needed to provide motive power. And using a limb to do both, or worse, splitting the control actions between two pilots, would make it too tiring to fly practically."

      "You are serious," she says.

      "Of course." I sit back. "How much do you know about me?"

      "Just rumors," she says, then blushes, "And what I've read in the papers."

      "There's no stallion alive that could do the things that Sunny Days has alluded to in her column. I have an interest in machinery, and her Highness has graciously decided to see how much of what I know can be made practical and helpful to her subjects."

      "But you didn't invent this," she protests. In the background, the two guards are unwinding from preparing to dash over and separate a war. "An Earth Pony in Ponyville did."

      "Pinkamena Diane Pie, yes, hence the name 'Diane'. But she only built one, and a single seater, and only suitable for short hops with minimal cargo. I want to develop that idea into something that is a tool, not a toy."

      She stares at me in confusion. "I was there at your speech on 'dragon day', but you really are serious. Make this, thing, into a practical machine? For what?"

      "Flying crane, air ambulance, scouting, cargo vehicle, even equip it with a gas bag and increase the maneuverability and long-range lift capacity of existing airships," I said, "If you want to move 1000 tons somewhere, you have to use the railroad or a ship. What if you need it where there are no railroads, and the roads are donkey tracks?"

      She seems to consider, but still stares with trepidation.

      "Look, the first thing I need another pair of hand for, is taking this apart. While I appreciate Princess Luna wanted to keep my arrival with this machine private, it's too big to fit out the doors, and I think asking one of the Princesses to teleport it elsewhere would be problematic."

      "Plus, you need a place to put it," she says, "And I know a place." She grins. "I know exactly the place."

      "Where's Nightmare Moon when you really need her?" I ask.

      She laughs, and dashes off.

      "STOP!" I shout.

      She freezes, and turns to look at me.

      "You forgot the rest of your clothes," I note the tail bag and muffler.

      "I'll be back for them," she says, and runs out the door, with her guard in pursuit.

      "How did you do that?" Neanderpony asks, "Even with my wife standing there . . . she's quite attractive."

      "I think your wife is also smitten with her, so are a lot of people - " I shake my head. "Ponies! Sheesh. Old habits die hard. But like I told her, ponies aren't attractive that way. And I still haven't really figured out what beyond clean limbs and symmetry is a pony standard of beauty. Some of the Ponyvillians and a lot of the ones around here vary from blobs to creepy, and they are supposed to be attractive."

      "Maybe I should introduce you to Hurdy Gurty," he says, "A musician, she's also my sister. But not pretty enough to be one of the Royal Players."

      "I probably couldn't tell her from Twilight Sparkle except by coloring," I admit.

      "If you needed help dismantling this thing, why didn't you ask?" he asks.

      "I have no idea what extent I have authority over you or any of the others. Some barely speak to me, others are friends. I didn't want to intrude on your duties."

      He nods. "Frankly, you scare the road-apples out of all of us. Half of us are betting you could fly to the moon and back."

      "Maybe I should make a spacesuit and tell 'Sunny Days' my secret plan to get to the moon, explore it, and return."

      "I'd like to get Sunny Days alone in a room, with a beam with plenty of spikes driven through it."

      "I think you'd lose, if my suspicions are correct."

      "You know who she is?"

      "I know Sunny Days is not a unicorn, pegasus or earth pony mare," I tell him, "So look somewhere else for answers. And it isn't me either."

      "Hey, Fleetfoot! Is Spitfire around?" Glory Bell asked as she walked through the Wonderbolts' practice area.

      "She's with Soarin' and Surprise," the Wonderbolt told her, "In the head shed."

      She nodded and trooped to the building where the 'bosses' hung out.

      "Hey GB," Soarin' said and grinned, until Spitfire stepped on his hoof.

      "Hey GB, what brings you out here?"

      "I'm in," she told the Wonderbolts, "I got my uncle to convince his lackeys to get him primed, then he swallowed the bait, hook, line and sinker. Poor guy thinks he's getting outside build space."

      "You know," Spitfire offered, "He might actually be a nice guy."

      "Nice or not, he's still bought and paid for by my family's money. Even Celestia's chosen has a price, and a cheap one at that," Glory Bell answered.

      "Hey guys, take five, okay," Spitfire said. The other two Wonderbolts left to discuss the plan. "Look, we aren't the plaster alicorns you want us to be. We can be bought too," Spitfire said, "We do our job, but we're still performers."

      "But you're trying to be the best. And you are the best!" Glory Bell countered, "All the high and mighty are too busy trying to climb the greasy pole to just spread their wing and soar."

      "Not everypony wants to soar. Some might want to be very good on the ground," Spitfire said, "Fine, he took you in as a favor, or as a payment. Don't make the assumption he's like - too many of the Princes around here."

      "You've been to those parties too. You haven't been just a trinket dangling in front of them," Glory Bell replied, "And you haven't been just a message scroll to someone else in your family."

      "No, I'm a trained pup expected to smile and listen as they describe tricks that will never work, or keep silent in the face of claims that anypony can do what we do, without a legion of behind the scenes experts and the dawn to dusk training regimen. I also never had the opportunities you do: your education, your family's contacts, and your good looks. Drive is great, but knowing which fork is which, and being born into that society is still a big advantage."

      "Yeah, but it also means that's all people see," she replied, "I want to make a difference without all that!"

      "Don't ignore your advantages, if you really want to win. Even we 'artists' think that winning is important enough to hold nothing back. Natural talent won't make you the best, but with a bit of practice and hard work, it'll take you a lot farther than just hard work."

      "Okay, I promise. But I think you'll see I'm right about this." Glory Bell turned and left.

      Soarin' and Surprise entered, followed by Fleetfoot.

      "I don't understand that girl," Soarin' admitted.

      "She's been given everything. Except her looks, and that's all most ponies see," Spitfire said and glared at Soarin', "She wants to earn something," Spitfire continued, "Something that can't be counted off as something 'daddy' bought for her."

      "No hard work, future guaranteed, what's she got to worry about that's got her so agitated?" Soarin' continued.

      "Trying to matter, to rise above," Fleetfoot said, "Are you telling me that if you were as rich as her, you wouldn't still be flying? You wouldn't still be a Wonderbolt?"

      "Are you nuts? Of course I'd still be flying!" Soarin' exclaimed.

      "Let her play," Fleetfoot said, "You didn't get direct orders from her Nightjesty to let them pass, like Surprise and I did. I think GB is playing with a fire she doesn't understand. I doubt she'll get burned too badly, but she is up for a few shocks."

      Spitfire frowned at that. "I don't want that filly burned at all."

      She watched the odd unicorn, Celestia's latest favorite, carrying the disassembled device out of the castle proper. Glory waved to him, and fought off a smirk as he waved back. That's it, come to mama, she thought, This is almost too easy.

      She was soon trotting alongside him, with their keepers trotting alongside each other. "Thanks for the help, I was hoping to have someplace other than just off the main corridor to do some work. Also it bothers me that the door only locks from the outside. Makes any kind of security problematic."

      "Are you afraid of someone stealing your secrets?" she asked.

      "Good Lord no," he replied, which shocked her, "More like them stealing a half-finished idea and hurting themselves. From what I can tell about patent law here, it's practically nonexistent. Anything you design, goes almost immediately into the public domain. That almost ensures only hobbyists and people with sponsors invent anything. Couple that with a small manufacturing base, and almost nobody has the incentive, or resources, to be a full time inventor."

      "You think that's some kind of plot?" she asked.

      Please, don't make him one of those 'Lunar Republic' nuts, she thought, I won't be able to keep a straight face long enough.

      "No, it's more a case of personality. You've got a huge number of basically layabouts here, and they are more interested in diversions that inventions. There's no desire to create something the entire population can use, because there's almost no way to make enough of them."

      "You still make it sound like a conspiracy," she replied.

      "Oh yes," he said sarcastically, "The evil plan to provide everyone enough food and shelter, so anyone willing to put out the minimal effort won't starve or die of exposure. For a people who are more group oriented, it's a natural paradigm. For people who are more individualistic, it presents problems."

      She glanced at him, then her brow furrowed. "So, it's not Celestia's fault, it's - whose fault?"

      "It's not anyone's fault. It's a natural consequence of pony psychology and physiology. If yours was an aggressively expansive people, you'd see things differently. But you people control your environment and have access to many skilled artisans and reliable magic. The need for mass production isn't as great. Ponies don't need clothing, except in the harshest weather or as decorations, so there's no need to produce ten thousand identical shirts. Shoes are more simply made, and more durable than cloth and wood, so again, no need for new shoes for everyone every three to four years. There are no major external threats, so weapons and armor don't have to be ginned out in the thousands. You simply don't need ten thousand electric potato peelers, so the need to make them is less."

      She tried to think of something, anything to say, and failed miserably. He's either insane, or operates on a completely different level.

      "Say, isn't that the Wonderbolts' training area?" he asked eagerly.

      "Yes," she replied, "I've got a little pull with them." She hid her smile expertly.

      "At least you won't lack for test pilots," Fluffy said.

      "Test pilots?" she blurted out, then turned to Barnum, "Why would you ask them to be test pilots. Aren't you competing?"

      "Whatever gave you that idea?" he asked, "These Dianes may fly, but as fast or as maneuverably as pegasi? Only in my wildest dreams. These will serve a completely different purpose."

      "I'd love to hear what that is," Fleetfoot said as she stepped out from between two buildings.

      "Easy, it's a cargo carrier," he replied readily, "It's not meant to be as fast, as high-flying, or as maneuverable as a well-trained pegasus. But it can be nearly a match for one, carrying a hundred or two hundred extra pounds. If some foal slips off a mountain trail and breaks all four legs, it won't be the Wonderbolts they call in to carry a doc out to the kid. It'll be a Diane team. It won't be the local 'Best Young Flier', who carries the foal back to the hospital. It'll be that same Diane. Do you and your team really want to carry the express mail from here to Fillydelphia? Or if you want to carry a mess of gear to some performance you're giving, you won't strap it to your backs. You'll put it in an underslung cargo pod, and fly it there aboard one of these, or have a crew do it."

      "So this isn't some plot to 'equalize' things for the poor downtrodden Earth Ponies?" Fleetfoot asked.

      Bell felt her skin burning to a hidden blush.

      "No, I've got that gizmo in the tools. Of course, it will work as well for any type of pony, so it just equalizes everything," he replied happily.

      Her head swimming, Bell followed Fleetfoot and Barnum. But, no it's a trick. He can't really mean that.

      "What's that crack supposed to mean!?" Fleetfoot said.

      Knew it!

      "I mean, I've never seen any flyer do that maneuver. I didn't say it can't be done, I just haven't seen it."

      "Well big mouth, I want to see you pull it off," Fleetfoot said.

      "Fine, I just need a second seater, a rope and a bucket of rocks." Barnum grinned at Fleetfoot. "And I know where to get the first."

      I knew it! Bell thought and trotted happily after them.

      The reassembly goes faster than the others expect. I wonder if Pinkie even knew why she put the break down points where she did, I ponder, Probably, but I doubt anyone would believe they were anything but happenstance.

      "Will this do?" Spitfire asks as she approaches with the rope. Soarin' is carrying the bucket of rocks.

      "That'll do fine," I tell them.

      The stallion sets down the heavy bucket. "That is one weird lookin' gizmo," Soarin' says.

      "Wait until it takes to the air," I tell them as I go over the connections. Then I put the rock bucket in a centerline position. "Fleetfoot you sort of lie on the frame, now please move the controls as I instruct, I want to make sure the links are solid."

      She does as I request, also learning the names and how the controls affect the flight surfaces. After ten minutes of assembly, and fifteen minutes of checks, we're ready to fly.

      "Just run the pedals?" she asks incredulously, "It can't be that simple."

      "It isn't," I reply, "Until we've checked you out, you're just an engine. Once you have some experience, I'll let you actually fly the thing."

      We start pedaling, with the transmission in the 'starter' gear. The rotors spin, and the air flows down over us. A gear change and the blades really start to bite the air. The lift off is smooth, except the gasp of surprise from my copilot. The other Wonderbolts jump back in surprise. I take it ahead slowly, letting Fleetfoot get used to the feeling of the machine and the rhythm of the pedaling. We head out onto the test field where the Wonderbolts practice. We're moving as fast as a pony can run. We run the slalom. Nothing to write home about in terms of speed, but the Diane is much bigger than a pony, and the control response is crisp and precise. Fleetfoot is watching our progress in amazement.

      Now we head out to the speed track. Soarin' and Surprise are way ahead of us, but Spitfire is pacing us, a short distance away. We haven't lifted more than ten feet off the ground, in case we have to bail out. Soarin' races over the speed course, and makes a tight circle around us, as if in challenge.

      But I have something else in mind, I think as I set the controls, and we begin accelerating backwards.

      "Cheater!" Fleetfoot shouts, and grins.

      Soarin' tries to fly backwards as fast as we are, but can't quite manage. Spitfire keeps pace, but isn't as steady. She's grinning at the challenge. Again we can't match the speed of the experts, but that isn't the point.

      "Okay, take it forward, and we'll get you some experience flying this," I shout over the wind and rotor noise.

      Fleetfoot isn't as sure on the controls, and I have to make a few adjustments, but after the third time around the track she's feeling confident enough to try and catch Soarin' as he practices flying backwards. The pegasus is too deft, but he has to work at it.

      "Okay, let's do that maneuver," I tell her, she looks over and reluctantly lets me retake the controls.

      The 'secret maneuver' is a basic pylon turn. A helicopter doesn't need to make such a maneuver to do what I have in mind, but a pegasus would. Once we're in the tightly banked turn, I let Fleetfoot hold the controls as I lower the bucket of rocks.

      I note Fleetfoot's surprise, and see a bit on Spitfire's expression as well. Forgot you were beating us with a big container of rocks as ballast didn't you, I think as the bucket lowers relatively straight down. Spitfire is opposite us in our circling, studying the maneuver and figuring out how to duplicate it.

      With the bucket touching down, I begin hauling it back up. Fleetfoot handles the controls expertly. With the bucket stowed, I signal for her to land the Diane.

The Unbirthday Song From Walt Disney's "Alice In Wonderland" Written by Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston

Out of Place - Out of Time Part 1

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Burning Bridges (Kelly's Heroes) Mike Curb Congregation Songwriter: Paul Scott Friends all tried to warn me, but I held my head up high. All the time to warn me, but I only passed them by. They all tried to tell me, but I guess I didn't care. I turned my back and left them standing there. All the burning bridges that are falling after me. All the lonely feelings and the burning memories. Everyone I left behind each time I closed the door. Burning bridges lost forevermore.

      Glory Bell watched in stunned amazement. That thing actually works, and a pegasus can fly it too, not just an Earth Pony. She shook her head. Okay, he's not quite the idiot I thought. But . . .

      Then she saw him surrender control to Fleetfoot, and the Wonderbolt soon was confident at the controls. The maneuver Fleetfoot took them through was deceptively simple. I've never seen anypony do that. You wouldn't have to land to pick up and lift something. And all you'd need to do is toss a rope to the flyer, and no jerk as they are carried aloft.

      Fleetfoot brought the device in for a landing worthy of a Wonderbolt. Dramatic, and controlled. The stallion adjusted the controls and let the rotors spin down as they slowed their pedaling, cooling themselves down from the effort.

      She headed over as Spitfire and Surprise landed near the machine and began chattering at the pilot and Fleetfoot. Soarin' was still practicing flying backwards around the test track. Glory cantered over.

      "How soon can you teach us?" Spitfire asked eagerly.

      "When I'm not so tired," he said, raised his head and grinned, "So, I guess I have some test pilots for the future models?" he asked.

      Spitfire, Fleetfoot and Surprise all eagerly agreed. Glory just shook her head and joined the crowd.

      "So what do you have in mind?" she asked.

      Besides collecting a herd of mares, she thought darkly.

      "With this model," he said, and pointed back to the small tail rotor, "I need to develop a cyclic, if you can vary the speed of that rotor, you can make the entire Diane rotate around it's own axis."

      "Why don't you build it?" Fleetfoot asked as she climbed off the frame.

      "With which hoof would you control it?" he asked in return.

      The Wonderbolts were left dumbfounded. Fleetfoot looked at the pedals, and then her own hooves.

      He turned to Glory. "That's why I was eager for your help," he said, "I haven't been able to figure out either. And that bugs me."

      "So you didn't take her as an assistant for her family's connections?" Spitfire asked.

      Glory stared at her friends, as she nearly died inside.

      "A few people I trust said she was a nerd, that's all I needed to hear," he replied.

      "What's a nerd?" Glory asked.

      "Somebody who uses their brain for something other than keeping their hair off the top of their mouth. It is more specific than an intellectual, because it assumes technical competence. You got your Princess-ship for a rather superb piece of engineering when you were in grade school, and you've kept up your rather eclectic studies."

      "He wants you for your brain," Fleetfoot said, finally getting through to him.

      "I - " He stopped, and noted he was surrounded by Wonderbolt mares, friends of Glory's, he was the outsider, and none of the stallions were around. He earned good marks from the others by carefully phrasing the next, "I was eager to have you as an assistant. Who you date, and why, is entirely your business. And I would be remarkably bad company in that regard."

      "Why?" Spitfire asked.

      "While I can remember which utensil goes with which dish, and I know not to drink out of the hoof-rinse bowl, I'd never fit into high society. I'd much rather be at the machine shop or the drawing board," he said.

      "Then how are you Celestia's new play toy?" Soarin' asked as he landed.

      The three Wonderbolt mares groaned.

      "I am a sounding board, not what most people think of when they hear 'play-toy'. Twilight was a student, because her magical power exceeded any non-alicorn since Star Swirl the Bearded. The Princess, Princesses, need someone not them to deal with problems. Twilight leads her knights. I do stuff like this." He gestured at the Diane. "Her Majesty wants her people to advance, and I come up with ideas others haven't."

      They nodded and accepted that.

      So what did they buy him with? Me as an extra horn? Glory wondered as she helped them carry the Diane to a large shed. Large enough that they didn't have to disassemble it to get it through the doors.

      "So, when can you teach us to fly that?" Spitfire asked pointedly.

      "Probably tomorrow. I have to get some machine tools ordered and start thinking about making replacement parts." He looked at Glory. "And yes, I took a loan from your uncle's coterie, against 10 percent of our profits on the Dianes, or one in ten of the production units. Until the loan is paid."

      Glory felt he'd stabbed her in the heart.

      Then he confused her growing sense of betrayal. "You were neither collateral, nor payment, your help was as a favor to both of us. Gives me a clever helper, and gives you an excuse to stay away from all the people who've been giving you trouble. After all, keeping an eye on Celestia's newest crazy for your uncle is good cover, and no one will argue."

      "I am not spying for my uncle!" Glory exploded at him.

      "Whether you intended to or not, you should be," he replied calmly, "After all, his job is keeping things on an even keel. If these shake things up too much, he's honor and duty-bound to stop me. I'd rather a polite word from a friend comes round to concentrate on the industrial sector or the military sector, rather than the full force of the local bureaucracy come crashing down on me. I intend to shake things up. I'd rather do so in a way that doesn't cause a panic in the halls of power."

      As Glory stared at him, Fleetfoot reached over and closed her mouth. "Flies don't taste as good as you think."

      Spitfire approaches me after Glory Bell had left.

      "I sent a couple of the trainers to see her safely home, and prevent Claire from turning back and 'talking' to the crazy colt," Spitfire tells me, "So, how'd you see through her?"

      "I got called into the offices of her uncle's most trusted subordinates for a little talk about getting some help, read: keep her out of trouble. And lo and behold, she's not only in my apartment, but asleep in my bed."

      Spitfire gasps, but shakes her head ruefully.

      "Yeah, a bit of a coincidence. You've probably run into admirers who were a little too, admiring," I say, "There's no way I warrant one of those. I may not be the most in-tune pony, but that smelled like fraud, even to me. Her uncle is smart enough to realize she's at the dangerous juncture of 'cute filly' and 'beautiful mare', and is not sailing the turbulence with particular skill or cunning."

      The Wonderbolts' captain nods. "We keep a few of the trainers and mechanics close by for our younger members, and some of our fan appearances. You know, the kind of nice stallions and mares who could snap anyone short of the Princess' guards in half."

      "She's got Claire, who looks like she regularly places in the annual, All-Equestria, Live-Bear eating contest."

      "She's really a sweetie," Spitfire says.

      "I have a group on rotation. Protecting who from whom probably changes on a moment by moment basis. I wouldn't want to face any in a fight, unless I got the first shot, and had an artillery brigade as that shot," I say, "So she getting a little too pretty, has always been inquisitive, and is getting a little too clever at ditching her guards for her uncle's comfort."

      "Frankly, she's gorgeous," Spitfire says, then stares at me, "Or aren't you interested in mares?"

      "I've already been married, and am a widower," I tell her, "Not even the Princesses come up to my wife's standard. Although most of you would think she was funny-looking, fact remains so am I, and I still love her."

      "Sorry. Did you know her long?"

      "Most of my life, and loved her most of that time. So the pretty filly is more interesting as a workmate than a love-mate."

      She reaches out, then thinks better of it and pulls back. "Sorry about prying, but she is a friend. And you are right, there've been a few stallions, and the occasional mare, who've gotten far closer than they should have, and been warned off, by Claire, or one of us. And she's been taking chances an older and wiser mare wouldn't. There's some bad ponies out there, and she thinks she can charm or clever her way out of any situation. While some were after the pretty, most so far were after her uncle, for his money or his position. I guess I'm `safe` because she came to us. I'm just suspicious for our biggest fan."

      "It's a fair question. Yes, she's very pretty, but she's a lot further down the 'not my wife' list. There are a lot of other issues I have to work out before I get tangled with another person that way. Mainly, I want to get through the next year. There are worse things than not noticing a pretty face."

      "Yeah. There's the Grand Galloping Gala." Spitfire snorts. "This year, Soarin', Surprise and I lost the pool. I'd give anything to have somepony do something at that yawn-fest."

      "I understand Celestia's knights are going to attend," I reply.

      "The Element Bearers?" Spitfire asks and her face screws up in confusion, "Is her Highness forcing them? If she is, I'd almost believe she's the monster some of the papers say she is."

      "Let's just say that it is something that has to be experienced at least once, and doing it with a circle of friends is probably the best way."

      "Yeah, if I didn't have my wingmates, they couldn't drag me to that." She looks at me. "So are you going?"

      "I haven't been asked," I reply, "And I'll probably be working."


      "If I really wanted to stir things up, I'd invite Princess Luna. So while her Majesty is stuck greeting an endless line of well-wishers, I'd be on her Nightjesty's arm."

      "You want to look around the moon that badly?" Spitfire asks.

      "I've got a suit that would help," I reply.

      Celestia noted the cupcake sitting on a table in her quarters. She scanned it for traces of dark magic or poisons. The scent of spice cake, her favorite, and dark, rather than milk chocolate icing tantalized her. She sniffed it, then fought back the impulse to gobble it down in one bite. It smelled ten times more delicious than she'd imagined.

      She checked with the guard outside. "Who besides me has been in here?" she asked.

      "Only her Nightjesty, Sir Eagle Bell, and young Barnum, Majesty," the guard answered from an at attention posture.

      Celestial considered. "Thank you." Her wards were still in place, other than being mouth-wateringly delicious, the cupcake was utterly mundane. She carefully took a tiny taste, and forcibly stifled the urge to gobble the rest down in one bite. It tasted even better than it smelled. In moving the cupcake she realized the paper it was on had writing on it. Again she checked for spells and toxins, but it was ordinary paper and pencil.

      'Feeling blue? Barnum'

      "How sweet," she said and carefully carried the cupcake over to her desk, and nibbled at it as she went over the huge volume of paperwork that running a kingdom required. All too soon, it was gone.

      I always feel like I should be going around to the servants' entrance, Spitfire thought as she rang the bell, she made a quick check that her civilian clothing was clean and in place. I probably should have worn a dress instead, but I'm not dressing up that much for anypony, she thought as the hoofman opened the door and recognized her.

      "Ah, Miss Spitfire, she's upstairs in her room," he said the next as if confiding a dreadful secret, "Crying. It seems her plan did not go well. Whatever that plan was."

      "I think it went better than she could hope for, but I'll tell her that," the mare said as the stallion let her past and she headed up the staircase. She was aware of the many eyes upon her, and fought back stage fright she never felt when performing as a Wonderbolt.

      I wonder how scandalized they'd be if I flew in here? She looked at the huge open spaces the building enclosed, and considered the maneuvers she could perform inside. The room she entered was larger than most of the sheds they stored their performance gear in, but much more thoroughly cleaned and much better organized. She found Glory Bell where she'd expected, all tangled up in the covers of what had been a four-poster canopied bed, until G.B. had learned about saws. She was glad the girl was mostly cried out. She smirked at the cutie mark of a red heart trimmed with white lace. Looks like a decoration from some of the sappier, romance greeting cards. No wonder she hides it all the time.

      "Hey, I need to know if you're going to be on the rotation to learn how to fly that thing, or if you'll wait and let one of us teach you." She looked around at the stuffed animals, one on nearly every shelf, and some shelves that was all they contained. All looking down on the interloper, like cute, furry gargoyles, waiting to pounce to defend a mistress who was outgrowing them. Adorning the walls between the shelves were a few signed posters of the Wonderbolts. One for each time the team had changed. Spitfire looked at one where she'd been the newest recruit. The captain was a gray-maned stallion who knew more about flying that the entire rest of the team put together. He still gave the current captain some sage advice from time to time.

      Caught between the little girl with her toys, and the grown up world of real things, she thought, then caught what she still mistook for a mobile, The 'flying truss', that honestly might be another big part of it. Spitfire looked at the 'class project' that had won the filly such early acclaim. While a tornado would pick up a huge amount of weight, it had to be in small pieces. For large objects they had to use pegasi teams, or magic, or both. And the pegasi lost some of their lift capacity compensating for the tendency of the weight to drag them together.

      But not with that thing, Spitfire still admired the light yet comparatively rigid structure, Takes less lift to keep it in the air, than the side force the pegasi have to exert without it. I bet that is it. That machine Barnum is working on, will make this obsolete. And right after he solved the big problem of how to lift a large, delicate object, instead of having to fly by and snag the load, or have magic lift it into the air. How do you survive going from a princess to a has-been before you're out of puberty? Spitfire nearly chuckled. You replace your old work, with your new work.

      Since she hadn't heard an answer, she grabbed the girl out of the tangled bed clothes and swung her out onto the floor.

      "Hey!" G.B. exclaimed at being 'handled' especially by a bite to the scruff of her neck, "Have you gone nuts?" She scrambled to a sitting position to face Spitfire.

      "Nope," Spitfire said and sat down on her haunches to face G.B., "Just thinking you had your cry, and now it's time to get back to work. If you can't get back up after you fall down, you're only a disappointment." Spitfire raised her voice to override G.B.'s protest, "I've got Soarin' and a couple others trying that 'pylon turn' with your flying truss. And I've got Fleetfoot out getting some real data on our new crazy. If you thought the papers were giving you good info, you've got something new to learn. Now, I am giving you the assignment to go talk to your uncle about him. Tell him you see through the first layer of his plan, but you want to know what he really needs from you. Then you get one of the four-armed versions of that." She pointed a hoof at the mobile hung from the ceiling. "Because if he's half the engineer he claims, he'll see it's the way to build his new 'quadra-Diane'. You're going to help him perfect this thing. Because the Wonderbolts are Equestria's premier fliers. Than means, if it flies, we're the best with it."

      "Okay," G.B. said softly, her eyes wide with shock at the ungentle handling and tone.

      "Good. Like I said, you're entitled to a cry. But we need someone inside, and he needs us. That means we both need you. If you're up to it," Spitfire said as she stood up.

      "Have I ever disappointed you?" G.B. said, looking up at her idol.

      She thought carefully. "There was that rocket chair," Spitfire said.

      "The rail broke!" G.B. protested.

      "Okay. Make sure this one doesn't come off the rails."

      G.B. let out a breath and stood up. "Thanks. I needed that," she sounded like the full-grown mare she was becoming, then a bit of the scared kid poked out, "What would you have done if I didn't agree?"

      "I would have walked out," Spitfire told her, "I don't coddle second-raters. Not if they want to be part of my team."

      G.B. nodded. "What'll you do if I'm better with it than you or the others?" G.B. asked with a little of her normal fire.

      "I'll finally be able to give you a uniform. You should have been a pegasus." Spitfire exited the room. As she walked down the stairs, she noted that the staff were looking at her with expectation.

      I always wondered where her parents were. It's like her uncle and the staff raised her. Did a good job, but some things a girl needs her mother for, and I'm not that much older than her.

      "She'll be fine, but she'll be running around like a bee-stung bronco collecting all kinds of things. Sorry to put you through another of her 'projects.'"

      "We prefer her projects, to some of the gentlemen callers of late," the butler admitted.

      "Then you might want to discreetly check out the man she'll be working with. He's one of Celestia's, but I think there are ponies you can talk to that wouldn't talk to me," Spitfire said.

      "I have several cousins at the palace," the cook offered, "Perhaps a luncheon with your team?"

      "As long as it's simple, some of us aren't the most elegant either," Spitfire warned.

      "Sandwiches are always an equalizer," the butler suggested.

      "Hawser, where's the ink for the drawing board?" came the call from the upstairs.

      "Time to go to work," Spitfire said.

      "Thank you, ma'am," the butler said as the servants were already bustling to get their mistress' needs seen to.

      Celestia grimaced at the blue water that she'd just added to the sewer. Feeling blue, she considered, and remembered her shock and terror at the neon-blue urine, Ha, ha, ha. Very funny. She considered the best way to repay her clever friend.

      "Perfect," she said quietly and composed herself before stepping out into the palace hubbub.

      Fleetfoot was having a devil of a time finding one Night Guard among all the palace populace. "I should have taken the flight job," she lamented as the crowd of functionaries, tourists and hangers-on closed around her. The halls of the palace would have been open and airy, save for them being packed with ponies.

      She glanced above her, Even the air is crowded in here, she thought, But if he's anywhere, here's the best chance to spot him. She was jostled, and apologized to, for the hundredth time. I also should have stayed in uniform, she thought as she had to dive and dodge through the crowd, Good practice for later flying. Then again, if I was in uniform, they wouldn't be ignoring me.

      She didn't see her target, but she spotted the next best thing. "Bran Scone!" she called to the older mare who also seemed to be searching. She ignored the reproachful looks of the others for having broken the hall's hallowed hush, and headed towards her target.

      The mare turned to see who'd called out to her in the middle of the palace, and took a moment to recognize the mare. "Fleetfoot," she whispered as the mare drew close, then spoke conversationally, "I'm ashamed to say, I didn't recognize you. Is there some reason you're out of uniform?"

      "Didn't want to have to sign autographs," she admitted as she glanced around. The crowd seemed not to have heard a Wonderbolt was in their midst. Or they didn't care. "Also, I need to talk to your husband, and it's as if he's been dodging me."

      "He seems to enjoy his new ability to be unseen," the graying mare confided, "And you haven't had time for your old friend, now that you're a big star?"

      "It isn't that!" Fleetfoot said defensively, "It's just that - I've been busy." She bowed her head. "And now I'm using that friendship to do a job, rather than just spending time with my friends."

      "So what are you going to do about it?" Mile Stone asked as he appeared out the crowd, causing both mares to jump.

      "I should report you to the Night Guards for scaring poor mares like that!" Scone complained, then nuzzled her husband, "Do you know who's in charge of the Night Guard?"

      "I think I can find out," he replied.

      "Say, I've got to quiz you for information, but there's no reason why I can't take you out for dinner while doing it." She grinned. "Or do you have other plans?"

      "No, we had a nice dinner in mind," Scone said, "And he's off-duty tonight, so we can take care of what you're doing, and find out about what else you've been doing."

      "All right," the mare said, and trotted after the married couple.

      Celestia entered her private bathroom, thankful for her sister's return, and the chance to sleep an entire night undisturbed or bathe for an hour without interruption. She felt a brief tremor of concern as the lights didn't come on as they usually did. A touch of magic to ignite her emergency candles found they had been removed. She looked around at the shadows in the room carefully, enhancing her senses, and listening. The thunder made her wince.


      Okay, Luna, I get the joke, Celestia thought and grinned at her sister's 'defense' of her partner.


      The pie hit Celestia in the neck right above her shoulder.

      Celestia smelled the meringue on her and beside her, and growled, "I'll have at thee!" Her coat flared with brilliant light revealing the stock of ammunition beside the bathtub, and she bracketed her dazzled sister, and her sister's 'advisor', with several pies of her own. But they were prepared for it and fired back.

      "I shall flush you out," she exclaimed, and lifted water from the tub and hurled it at them.

      Those sisters play rough, I think of the two giggling alicorns I just left, At least I managed to leave before they noticed the limp, I think as I try to put as little weight on the right foreleg as I can. Any weight and I don't have to leave my path through the great hall to see stars.

      "Are you all right lad?" comes a familiar voice.

      "Oh, nothing a night's sleep won't cure, Sergeant Mile Stone. I thought you were off-duty tonight," I tell him, although I'm glad it's him and not someone more inquisitive. Then Captain Armor charges up.

      "What do you know about Sunny Days slipping into Celestia's private apartments?" Armor demands. The old chestnut of fury boiling off someone is not hyperbole in the captain's case.

      I sigh. "And it was supposed to be such a quiet, little assassination," I say, "His, not hers."

      "The lad already knows who Sunny Days is, Captain," Mile Stone explains as he salutes, "And what the miscreant looks like."

      "What does she look like?" Armor asks, only the presence of Mile Stone prevents him from shaking me to speed my answer.

      "Black and blue with pools of red all around, when I got my first good look today. We, Princess Luna and I, attacked from the darkness. Oh, if either Princess tells you to stop beating someone's head against the floor. Listen to them."

      "That's where you got this," Mile Stone comments.

      "I got it from her Highness. Next time I'm ordered to stop, I'll do so with greater alacrity," I tell both soldiers.

      Armor lets out the breath he was holding. "I suspect that the Princesses are, discussing things?"

      "You could say that, without breaking the word. Although, there was a lot of giggling going on. Talk of water, and soap, and a few things I won't mention on a kids' show," I say.

      It gets an amused snort from Mile Stone and an exasperated eye-roll from the Day Guard captain.

      "At least you gave him something to think about," Armor finally says.

      "Eleven unanswered shots, I'd be prouder of that if Princess Luna wasn't there keeping the focus on her."

      "No offence, lad, but if I was fighting you and an alicorn, you'd be the least of my worries."

      "And I'd use that to my advantage."

      "Okay," Armor says, "Get some rest. I doubt their Highnesses will want to talk about it, and have they forbidden you to talk about it?"

      "I wasn't exactly sworn to secrecy, but it was strongly implied," I reply.

      He frowns, but I can't help that.

      Once he's out of earshot, Mile Stone speaks up, "Eleven, I can't imagine."

      "Luna was drawing fire, but I was using cover and fire-and-move."

      "I bet you were," the sergeant says proudly, "Let's get you in one piece, so their Highnesses don't feel guilty over breaking you."

      "If I say 'I'll be fine', you'll poke me in the side until I scream or pass out, won't you?"

      "One good prod should do it," he says dismissively.

      I fall in behind.

      The nightmare isn't too different from others I've had since coming here. I am a fully-grown stallion, and there's a mare in season. Instincts come to the fore, and I chase. The mare plays with me, teases, and runs away, but never enough that I give up. A couple times it was Celestia, once or twice it was Luna. They are better at it than Glory Bell is. And this time I know it's a dream. And it always ends the same: I catch and mount the mare, and then catch sight of my wife, my brother, or sister, and they're always disappointed, horrified or some such.

      This time, I run right past the mare and into the darkness surrounding the scene. Blackness closes in around me on all sides. Cold knifes into my flanks as I run. No sound, no smells, but darkness all around. I glance back, and the clearing with the waiting mare is receding into the distance. I turn back ahead and keep a steady pace. There's nothing back there I really want, I tell my horse instincts, my human doubts have to add, Is there anything ahead worth anything? I consider, Yes, the unknown.

      I keep running for quite a while. The spot of light behind me has receded to a dot, and nothing appears in front. Somehow, I know I'll be running like this forever, I tell myself, No, not forever. That day will come, Der Tag, and everything between now, and then, will be different. That's what you're doing here. That's why you're playing at the edges, that's why you played games with the Element Bearers instead of coming out and telling them what's going to happen, and that's why Celestia hasn't told them either. You're a wild card, but one who has already seen the game played. Played, played out, and won. As long as you don't disturb the table, then all is well. The victory you know will work, will still work.

      It's like a weight is lifted from me. I accelerate and run out of the darkness into a meadow of tall grass. I'm the only horse there, among all the grazing, playing ponies. I run past them and onto the horizon.

      "I never thought it would happen. My friends . . . have turned into complete JERKS!" Twilight announced, then began putting the Elements of Harmony on their less than enthused bearers, "Necklace! Necklace! Necklace! Necklace! And big crown thingy! Come on everypony, let's go!"

      "But Twilight, aren't you missing somepony?" Spike asked as he trotted beside his friend.

      "Nope. We've got the liar, the grump, the hoarder and the brute," Twilight said disparagingly of her friends, "That just about covers it."

      "But what about Rainbow Dash?" the little dragon persisted.

      Twilight slowly realized she had at least one friend, one person really trying to help her still. She looked at the other Bearers and considered briefly.

      "Right," she said pulling the necklace off Applejack, replacing it with Fluttershy's. Fluttershy got Pinkie Pie's, while Pinkie Pie received Applejack's.

      "I hate the Element of Honesty!" Pinkie observed.

      "Ha!" Fluttershy replied.

      "Yeah, this might work," Twilight said, as Spike received Rarity's Element of Generosity, and Rarity received the Element of Loyalty in return. "Now let's go defeat Discord, so we don't ever have to talk to each other again!"

      The element bearers cheered as they ran after Twilight.

      At this point Luna twisted the dream so the bearers' battle against Discord ended in victory, and they were restored. They then returned the elements to their proper bearers.

      "So that's the nightmare that's been riding you," Luna commented to her now-peacefully sleeping sister, "And if it is prophesy, what are we to do about it?"

      The morning brings being shaken awake by a very worried-looking Hardwood. "How much trouble are you in?"

      The interrogator/intelligence officer looks sour, but only sets a series of newspapers on the bed in front of me.

      "You know, acting like I'm an omniscient, wishing lamp is going to run thin pretty quickly," I tell him and look at the various headlines and columns, "Okay, I'm lost, I don't see anything." I get out of bed and head for the bathroom to wake up more, by both buying a little time and splashing some cold water on my face.

      "Sunny Days' column isn't there, and there's no explanation," Hardwood says as he follows me into the bathroom, "It's no secret you caught him in the princess' private rooms, and beat him to a bloody pulp."

      "And it's also no secret that her Majesty was there, and I left before I could shuffle Sunny Days off this mortal coil. Any damage I did could easily be removed by Princess Celestia, or Princess Luna, who was also there."

      "You don't understand. If Sunny Days took the day off, it implies that she took it off because of the fight with you," Hardwood said, "Reporters are generally not assaulted by ponies close to royalty or the aristocracy."

      "Is that why they can get away with printing such scandalous stuff?" I ask as I leave the bathroom, with Hardwood on my tail, literally.

      "That isn't the point. The courts are the place to settle such a dispute."

      "What are the laws about breaking and entering?" I ask, "Lying in wait, ambushing someone in the privacy of their own home? Back home, I had a 12-gauge shotgun that I'd use on anyone who'd burst into my home without permission or warning. If all that hack got was a beating, he should consider himself lucky."

      "You just can't go around beating up reporters!"

      "But I can say whatever vile crap I can dig up and misinterpret on them?" I angrily shoot back, "As long as it has some modicum of truth? Well, thank you Doctor, now if you'll excuse me, I have to go invent photoshop so I can doctor some pictures. Then to dig up the reporters' tax records."

      "That isn't what I meant!"

      I stop and stare at the agitated stallion. "Then what is, Doctor? That I have to avoid any appearance of impropriety, because I'm her Majesty's 'kept boy'? That because I'm 'bigger' than some pipsqueak reporter that I have to take whatever they hand out?" I ask coldly, "That's crap handed out by vicious weaklings who never want to be called to account for what they do. I always preferred the Marine way, where you take the biggest screw-up and make an example of them. It's a heck of a lot more effective in the real world than your theories."

      I leave the sputtering Major and head out to the Wonderbolts' practice field, it is too early for the libraries. The guard who dashes after me is a new one, a filly who looks younger than I look, and despite the highly polished armor, seems decidedly unmilitary. I nod to her and give her no more mind than I would my own shadow. Most of the guards were nervous about talking with me any way, I think as we enter the area where the shed is.

      The nervousness of the mechanics is my first clue. I ostensibly ignore it. The empty shed is the second, and gives me two possibilities. Surprise races out to greet me, then I realize it's not her. The nervous mare in the Wonderbolts uniform slows her approach. Movement from behind, and I realize my guard is ready to tackle me, just in case.

      "She isn't that cute," I tell the guard, embarrassing her.

      "Uh, hi! I'm Blaze!" She obviously expects the usual fawning over a Wonderbolt, and seems frightened when it doesn't happen. "I bet you're wondering about your machine."

      "You're a flier. So you know about the first pony ever to build a heavier-than-air, fixed-wing, flying machine? Doctor Samule Langley?"

      The nervous Wonderbolt shakes her head.

      "The reason you've never heard of him, yet Pinkamena Diane Pie will go down in history with the first, practical, rotary-winged, heavier-than-air, flying machine, is she invented something more important than just the machine. Do you know what that was?" I ask in a lecturing tone.

      The terrified mare glances at the nonplused guard filly, then merely shakes her head.

      "Flying lessons, where's the wreckage," I ask in a completely neutral tone, "Was anyone hurt?"

      "No, sir," Blaze says as she leads me to the Diane wrapped around a tree, eight mechanics and the rest of the Wonderbolts trying to untangle one from the other. It's pretty clear it backed into the tree, at a decent rate of speed.

      Fleetfoot races over, sparing Blaze a glare that wilts the other mare, she composes herself. "Hi Barnum, little accident. Don't worry, no one got hurt," she says, grinning happily. I let her block my way, and grin back at her. And grin, and grin, and grin, and grin. Fleetfoot shudders. "You aren't buying it, are you?" she says.

      "I'm glad no one was hurt, other than my feelings," I say coldly, "It does explain why her Nightjesty was asking about actually forming the Shadowbolts, a night-action team."

      Fleetfoot and Blaze freeze at that. I take the opportunity to walk past them. As I pass the mechanics' tool chests, I pick up a large spanner and an engineer's wrench of equal size. Soarin' backs up immediately.

      "Look, I'm sorry, I just took it for a little joyride. I didn't expect this would happen!" he says, backing away as I advance. He braces as the two tools fly up, over his head, and loosen a bolt, the first of four bolts that holds the main shaft to the rest of the frame. Three bolts later, the rest of the team are able to separate the modern art from the remains of the tree.

      "I thought you'd be mad," Soarin' says as he approaches carefully, his head down.

      I glance at him, and exude all the tranquility of a snow-covered, dormant volcano. "Whatever possessed you to think I'm not?" I ask calmly, "It's all I can do not to run off to find a basket of oranges, and three mice."

      "What are you going to do with them?" he asks nervously. I grin at him, showing all of my teeth. He leaves, quickly.

      "What are you going to do to him?" Spitfire asks sharply as she lands with several other Wonderbolts and a team of pegasi mechanics.

      I wave her off to the side, my new guard and a very large mechanic follow. "I'm going to let him worry about it for a day or two," I say quietly so the others can't hear, "And since Glory isn't here, I'm going to have her give him a basket of oranges, somewhere all of you can see his reaction."

      Spitfire breaks off laughing. The guard and mechanic relax.

      "I had a feeling something like this would happen. I am disappointed that you didn't let me teach you how to safely fly it, before curiosity overcame horse-sense. I'm just glad I didn't have the rocket boosters installed."

      "Like fireworks?" the mechanic asks.

      "Yes, but mounted to the frame, and no fancy sparks loaded. Just the thrust," I explain. He nods.

      "Now, what happened?" I ask.

      Spitfire explains that Soarin' tried the 'fly backwards' trick in the Diane. Then couldn't figure out how to stop.

      "Get close to the ground and quit pedaling would be a favorite," I say.

      "No, he couldn't figure out how to slow down, and stop," Spitfire tells me.

      "Probably broke something before the crash," I comment as the ruined remains are taken back to the hanger.

      "Glory probably won't be in for a while. Once she gets her teeth in a project, she tends to be a little, obsessive."

      "I know how that is." I consider. "Just out of curiosity, why is she so embarrassed about her cutie mark, or lack there of? I don't want to know what it is, or if she's a 'blank flank', but she's always wearing shorts, or something to cover it."

      "It's 'embarrassing'," she explains as we enter the hanger.

      It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the entire vehicle is a total write-off. "I'm glad no one was hurt," I say, "I just don't see how anyone survived that crash."

      "He wasn't aboard when it hit," one of the mechanics says.

      Makes sense, I think as I consider getting all the pieces to build a new two-seater main and tail rotor vehicle, or concentrate on the four-rotor version.

      Waking up under the bed doesn't fill me with joy. I look across the floor at the buckets of parts and the bedframes set up as easels to display the work in process. Several things bother me, but my mind is slow to answer the questions. Then I focus on the metal webbing surrounding the bed, the stonework looks more like the ceiling than the floor, and the fact the mattress I'm lying on is on the underside of the bed.

      I look through the webbing, and down at the floor far below.

      "What are you doing up there, lad?" Mile Stone asks as he and Hardwood stare up at me.

      "Oh well, the light's better up here," I tell them, "Please get a ladder."

      Of course you know, this means war, I think as I lie in the cage her Majesty carefully crafted for me.

      There was a scream of absolute and abject terror, followed closely by a fleeing Wonderbolt who seemed destined to be the first stallion to create a sonic rainboom.

      Glory looked at the rest of the crew laughing so hard they'd fallen out of their chairs or off their hooves. She glanced down at the basket of yummy oranges Spitfire had asked her to give to Soarin'. "What is going on?" she demanded as she set the basket down, and headed towards Fleetfoot who was on her back, legs waving in the air. Seeing that no one was likely to be able to answer her question, she took an orange from the basket and ate it as she walked through the compound.

      The hanger was where she remembered it. The absolute wreckage of the Diane was new.

      "Please tell me Soarin' didn't take it out for a practice run," she lamented, and now understood the set up she'd been part of.

      "I could, but I'd be lying," Barnum said as he examined the wreckage. The pile of supplies in the hanger suggested he'd either given up repairing it and would replace it, or he was on to the quadra-Diane design. "I looked at your flying truss design. I think we can adapt it to the four-rotor version. That still doesn't eliminate the problems with the cyclic. I wish I'd studied copters more closely when I had a chance."

      " 'Copters'?" Glory asked as she saw the blueprints of a flying truss, with a lot of amendments, including rotors at the end of each arm.

      "Nickname for Dianes," Barnum said, "Different place."

      She hadn't wanted to broach the important topic. "I know about your memories," she said, "I talked to my uncle." She smiled, trying to soften the blow. "I guess that's why you don't notice me."

      He turned to face her. "I apologize, I didn't mean to offend you. Everyone says you're quite lovely . . . "

      "But you don't see it, at all. I might as well be a statue, or a picture," she said.

      He frowned. "You're a person, and a clever one, and due all the respect that goes with that. But beyond an active intellect, and personhood, there's not much else. We can be friends. I'd like that."

      She sighed, and noted he hadn't looked at her the way most colts his age did when she sighed. "Okay, I can live with that. The next question is: what are you going to do next?" she asked.

      "Go with the two-seater quadra-Diane, the other one is a write-off," he said, "At least it showed me what broke."

      "I'd give the wreck to the mechanics and fliers here, let them understand the principles," she said, "So, what do you need?"

      "Machine tools: a lathe, a mill, and a pile of hand tools and measuring tools. I can set up the machine shop in my apartments. It's sound shielded, so we could work anytime we feel like it. The other thing we'll need is paper and pen. We'll need to generate plans from the parts. If we want to be able to mass-produce these."

      "Mass produce? Something this complicated?" she asked.

      "Yep. If we can make 30 of them, and interchangeable parts, it will reduce the price in the long-run."

      "Who'd want to do that?" she asked.

      Lieutenant Peaceful Solitude finally admitted she has been assigned to me, as the commander of my guard. At least the sergeants didn't need me to be a babysitter, doing what a good sergeant is supposed to do, turn a mush-brained intellectual into a decent officer, I think ruefully, Now is it my job to do the same, or theirs? I wonder as I glance at the filly who seems less at home in her bright uniform and polished armor, than I am in my ponydom. I wonder if they still think I'm a spy, just a crazy person, or if they are trying to get some work out of me? I wonder as the two of us collect some of the metal-working gear I need. Despite the impressive load, the cart I'm hauling is quiet, but only the four wheels keep it from tipping up and holding me in the air.

      "I think the visit to the Royal Metalsmiths was very informative," Peaceful Solitude says, every inch the nervous filly out in the big city for the first time, her voice even cracked as she spoke, "Some of them may even adopt your ideas."

      "I'm glad you think so. I was too worried about them getting ready to throw anvils at me," I reply, "I think people aren't quite ready for the idea of mass production. Or interchangeable parts."

      "They didn't grow up with the idea, sir," she replies loyally.

      I stop and look at her. She flinches, as if I'm going to hit her. "Lieutenant. I'm a civilian, and a commoner. I don't warrant the 'sir'. Call me Barnum, P.T., or if you must, Mister McHorsefly."

      "But you're with her Highness, and served with the Element Bearers," she says in a frightened tone.

      "I assisted Miss Pie with the Parasprites, and I talk with her Majesty, nothing more. Don't assume all the rumors you hear are correct," I tell her, trying not to scold her, "What I am is both more boring and more unusual than the newspapers and the rumor-mill make me out to be."

      "So you aren't a . . . transformed simian," she whispers nervously.

      "You think my memories are real?" I ask, "And that I'm not making it all up?"

      Her blush makes her go from Celestia's ugly-duckling, little sister, to Cadence's. "Whether they are real or not, you know things no one else does, and are smart enough to know not to advertise," she says, and looks guiltily at the heavy cart I'm hauling.

      Her body language clearly says she should be pulling it, but she's in a uniform, and I'm in street clothes. The last thing I want is her to get dirty. And the locals seem to like a uniformed officer, even a baby lieutenant, better than an unfamiliar yokel, I think. Then the flyer hits me in the face.

      "Sometimes I think the world is out to get me," I say of the paper spindled on my horn, and out of range of my teeth. Paper is nearly immune to my 'horn magic', if I want to leave it in one piece. Then I focus on the words. " 'Lunar Republic?' Lieutenant, is this some kind of joke?"

      Her expression is closed up. Her face and posture frozen. She's practically standing at attention before a board of generals. "I wouldn't know, sir."

      I lower my horn, and get a hoof on the paper. The stylized picture of Princess Luna, the phrase 'let the tyrant hear us' and the quality of the paper get my attention. I remember seeing some old KorCom propaganda. You use the best you've got to show off, and while the art was absolutely splendid, Mad Magazine used better paper for their printing, I think as I stare at it, This is expensive stuff, and the printing method isn't cheap. Lately I'd gotten very familiar with the local, industrial infrastructure: Unicorn Magic could produce a couple of nearly anything, but if you needed a thousand in a hurry, you were out of luck. And everything was a custom job, even if it was the hundredth one built. Printing presses could churn out newsprint cheaply, but not glossy, full-color fliers.

      "How long has this been going on?" I ask.

      "I wouldn't know, sir."

      Now I glare at her. "Lieutenant, I work for a living, same as a sergeant or corporal, or at least I will shortly. I've seen her Nightjesty, she's a terrified little girl who's nearly afraid of her own shadow. A lot like a newly-graduated lieutenant. If someone is doing this, then they may be preparing to use her as a scapegoat, or a figurehead, for something she'd rather not be part of. She loves her big sister dearly, and I seriously doubt she'd want that."

      "Agreed, si - ah, stamp it all, agreed, sir," she manages. Then glares at me to forestall any arguments. "Are you just a trifle sensitive, considering the 'Molestia' gossip?"

      Sometimes this place makes me want to scream, I remember, 'I guess Twilight got too old, now she's got a new colt.'

      "I think introducing a new martial art to the world did come in handy," I reply, as my anger and embarrassment fade.

      "It was a revelation. And you are extremely cute, sir," the Lieutenant says with a completely straight face.

      I don't growl, much. "I'm old enough to be your father's father, Lieutenant."

      "You know that, but it isn't apparent to others," she replies.

      I fold the flier and stuff it in the parcels in the cart. I suspect she's going to sneak it out and destroy it, but I saw it, I think as we head to the next shop. The cart getting heavier, and my sack of bits getting lighter.

Out of Place - Out of Time Part 2

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc. Burning Bridges (Kelly's Heroes) Mike Curb Congregation Songwriter: Paul Scott Joey tried to help me find a job a while ago. When I finally got it I didn't want to go. The party Mary gave for me when I just walked away. Now there's nothing left for me to say. All the burning bridges that are falling after me. All the lonely feelings and the burning memories. Everyone I left behind each time I closed the door. Burning bridges lost forevermore.

      Celestia looked over her lunch, then to her two dining companions. "So, Eagle," she asked, "How is the operation to allow freer access to Royal information going?"

      "Your Highness, you know I can't talk about that with your Majesty or her Nightjesty," Sir Eagle Bell replied deadpan. The two princesses and the head of the civil service laughed at the little joke.

      "I'd heard there was trouble, and I thought I could be of service, unofficially of course," Celestia said. Luna nodded, but munched her midnight snack happily.

      "The problem is, it is reaching the point of needing an actual leader. Her Nightjesty remains the spiritual head, but for it to work, a less spectacular, but none-the-less dynamic individual needs to be the one ponies turn to."

      "Or point their fingers at," Luna added.

      Celestia looked disappointed. "And you are having trouble finding candidates?"

      Bell smiled. "Quite the contrary your Highness, we've found two, simply brimming with energy, talent, charm, political acumen, and most importantly, new ideas. The problem is, there are two of them, and their ideas are completely incompatible. And they despise each other, cordially of course."

      "What are their major differences?" Celestia asked.

      "Well, one desires to abolish all government and establish a free association of self-governing "producers": farmers, workers, artisans. These associations would be in touch with other groups through the local labor exchange, which would function as a combination of employment and economic planning agency," Bell said, "Frankly all three of us would be out of a job, at least theoretically. His plan calls for economic strikes as a means of forcing change."

      "How would that actually work? The ponies in power now would by and large wind up in power again," Luna asked, "I could see that from the Moon. It would be the tyranny of the majority."

      "True, there is the underlying assumption that as all are equal, talents, breed and cutie marks notwithstanding, that leadership would rotate through the entire populace of the group, whether the individual members wanted a chance to lead or not. As you well know, individuals with a talent for leadership would be the de facto leaders, even when it wasn't 'their turn'," Bell said, "Hence the opposition, which is equally disturbing. A minimal government to protect individuals, especially minorities, from any violation of their rights, to prosecute those who initiate force or fraud against others, and, here's the sticky bit, to encourage full utilization of ones' talents for the good of all, presumably through education and experience."

      "The 'Cutie Mark Crusaders' of Ponyville writ large," Celestia suggested, earning a chuckle from her dining companions.

      "True, your Majesty. Otherwise, everypony else would be free to do as they wished, as long as they didn't use force, fraud or violate anypony's rights," Eagle concluded.

      "How would necessary but unpopular policies get enacted under either theory?" Celestia asked.

      "They couldn't," Bell admitted, "The security actions by the bearers of the Elements, who owe you their personal loyalty, would likewise be impossible. Moreover, the leaders are so polarized, and so are their factions, that the accession of either would fragment the entire movement in weeks to months. And we do not want that."

      Celestia nodded. "I can see the problems," Celestia said, "And the trouble with those views. Besides divesting myself and Luna of any authority or ability to intervene on our ponies' behalf."

      "Yes. The solution, of course, is we need a compromise. A leader who is also full of big ideas, yet is reasonable and malleable. Acceptable to both sides," Eagle said.

      "Somepony who can be guided to not overly shock the body politic, yet still push the needed reforms with vigor," Celestia agreed.

      "Somepony not already associated with either side of the debate," Luna added, "And is open-minded enough to take the bits from each side, and make them a workable, and palatable whole." She looked at the pair. "We are not taking your route of the masquerade, dear sister. We would dearly love to smash in the face of 'Sunny Days', for what she has said about our sister."

      A guard approached and bowed.

      "Yes Captain?" Celestia said.

      "Young Barnum is out there, he seems extremely agitated about something. It might be good to see him," the guard suggested.

      Celestia nodded. The guard nodded to the door. Celestia felt Eagle's eyes on her, staring intently. While Barnum was ushered in, she looked at her head of the civil service. She saw the wheels turning, and realized her mind was turning in the same direction. As the agitated colt rushed in with his new guard commander in tow, Luna let out a guffaw, then apologetically covered her face with a napkin. Celestia turned to see the old bureaucrat quietly laughing so hard he had tears running down his cheeks.

      "Oh dear," she said, trying not to laugh herself.

      "You shouldn't do that to poor, old stallions," Bell said as he got control of himself, "Your Highness."

      "I apologize," she said, accepting his assumption that happenstance was directed action, "I agree, it would be impossible."

      "Why?" Bell asked, "Your Highnesses' government would welcome a less, intentionally shocking individual."

      "Your Majesty, your Nightjesty, Sir Bell," Barnum said, bowing to each, and looking totally bewildered, "I can come back later."

      "Oh, no," Celestia said, "We want to talk to you, but first, what brings you here. I thought you were out purchasing machine tools."

      "This." He put the handbill on the table in front of Celestia and stepped away as if it were a poisonous snake. He glanced around with nervous little jerks. More agitated than Celestia remembered seeing him. The handbill itself was a stylized picture of Luna, and the phrase 'New Lunar Republic' across the bottom. "Your Highnesses, Sir Bell, that isn't something churned out by a couple of kids with a borrowed printing press. That's a sophisticated piece of work, that means good organization, and a good deal of money behind it." He looked over at Luna. "Forgive me your Nightjesty, but if they are using you as a pawn, or a scapegoat, it would be . . ., have I said something funny?" He looked around in bewilderment at the group.

      "No," Celestia said quietly, "You have been both diligent and loyal. Bringing your concerns to us, and reflexively assuming that Luna would not be so disloyal to Equestria, as to be behind the planned overthrow of the government." She paused and smiled.

      She was overjoyed when he got it. "You are behind this, this, this -?" He waved a hoof at the handbill.

      "Palace revolution?" Bell said quietly, "Of course we are. One cannot have a healthy government without the occasional revolution. Even if it is quietly handled and civilized."

      "Please don't tell me that came from me," Barnum pleaded.

      "But it was such a good idea." Celestia nodded to Bell.

      The old stallion explained, "Our real problem was that to too many ponies, any dissatisfaction with the political process, or the basic social structure, is too easily misconstrued as disloyalty to her Highness. That impression could be used as a club to beat down opposition, no matter how loyal, and nearly any reform, no matter how badly needed. The civil service, as you have pointed out to my niece, is most interested in the continuity of government. Ponies feel so much more secure when they know the rules ten years from now are essentially the rules of today. We attempt to ensure that feeling of security."

      "And reform coming directly from the crown, would be perceived as unwarranted intervention, even interference, by the very ponies I would mean to help," Celestia explained, "Odd that my powers, personally, are greater than any other force on Equestria, and my control of the government is near absolute, yet I am hemmed in by that very power. I can only influence, not directly intervene."

      "Or you'd be plucking cats out of trees for peo - ponies." Barnum nodded. "But then what is that?"

      "With our return, one could be loyal to a princess, opposed to Celestia, and still loyal to Equestria," Luna explained. She drew herself up. "WE INTEND TO LOOSE THE SHACKLES OF ALL PONIES," she trumpeted in the Royal Canterlot voice. Barnum blanched, while his guard commander tried to pull down her helmet and crawl inside. "Including our sister." Luna bowed to Celestia.

      The confusion wreathing Barnum bordered on misery. "I'm still missing a big piece of the puzzle," he said.

      "Barnum," Celestia said gently, trying to use just her voice to soothe him, "All ponies are herd creatures, it is essential they have others around them. Twilight had Spike, because she needed a companion, or the aloneness of her predicament and place would have overwhelmed her. Likewise, even if a pony doesn't like me, they are still likely to bend to my will, or what they perceive is my will, and fall silent in my presence. Any lone complainant would become merely the grousing of a single, disgruntled pony. A group would be branded treasonous by their neighbors, long before it ever gained a chance to offer reforms, or become a threat. That leaves the lone madpony, which further erodes the comfort of those who openly dissent."

      "However, with another princess available," Luna continued, "It becomes possible for a dissenter to still worship the ground a princess walks on and thus Equestria itself, and oppose the apparent wishes of the other."

      "We've had a good deal more worry about the 'Solar Kingdom' groups, who have sprung up at the hint of the New Lunar Republic," Bell added, "Who think they are, in fact, defending her Majesty's honor, policies and reputation from the NuLunies."

      "Hence your adoption of the Sunny Days face," Barnum realized, "If they have a real and hurtful target to focus on, then they leave your reformers alone."

      Celestia nodded. "And once the initial reforms of the New Lunar Republic go through, the Solarians also will feel it appropriate to speak up on their desired reforms and issues."

      "While you two are in complete accord and are in fact orchestrating the genesis of this pseudo-rebel group," Barnum said. He looked around confusedly. "Then why was my entry such a source of mirth?"

      "Your Nightjesty, have you seen the Intelligence files on our two possible candidates?" Bell asked.

      Luna shook her head.

      "Sister, you should always ask for the intelligence files on the leaders of any groups you support. Especially if you want a good laugh." Celestia turned to Bell. "If Barnum is to help us, he should see them."

      "Help you what? I came here to warn you about a potential insurrection, and you tell me that you're actually running it. With respect, your Highnesses, Sir Bell, I don't see I'm the right person to help you at all."

      "Nonsense my dear boy," Bell said cheerfully, "You can be of service to the crowns merely by being at the right place, at the right time."

      "We want you to join," Luna added hastily.

      "What would be the point?" Barnum asked helplessly, "You already have it well in hand. Her Nightjesty has implied that she's actually met with, or continues to meet with them, as 'Celestia's favorite' I'd be considered a spy, at best."

      Celestia grinned and turned to her sister. "That would be an even better idea, you can be a spy," she said happily, "Luna's."

      Barnum's rear legs collapsed as he looked from one government mandarin to the next. His expression of hopeless despair tore at her heart. "Why would Princess Luna need a spy amongst her own loyalists? And would I be a double-, triple-, quadruple- or other agent, working for Luna in her agency, while secretly working for Celestia, but really working for . . . whom?"

      "Equestria, as we all are," Celestia said confidently.

      "Being the confidant of both Princesses, would make you ideally suited to . . . " Luna frowned at the lost thought.

      "Persuade myself to the rightness of the NLR's demands," Celestia took up the thread, "And you would be equally placed to moderate the demands to those most acceptable to her Nightjesty, and myself."

      "There is also the fact that as Princess Luna's loyalists, they would be unable to bring concerns about her actions directly to her. The same disadvantage that Princess Celestia must operate under: even welcome questions unfortunately imply disloyalty. But a spy is safe to report 'rumblings and concerns' to," Bell said, "After all, you are personally employed by her Nightjesty to sniff out such things, it is only loyal and proper to ensure that your ears hear and your eyes see. They will have done their duty, proven their loyalty, and gotten the information to someone ideally suited to convey it to the Princess. Their Princess' mercy to such grumblers would not be in doubt, it is the other Princess they would have concerns about."

      Barnum had seemingly given up trying to understand the situation, and was just trying to absorb the information presented. He looked at whomever spoke with a stare like a pony trying to see a thousand yards away. He nodded as the point registered, but made no reply.

      "Perhaps the crux of the dilemma would be of more use," Bell said and produced several files. "I cannot, alas, give you the meat of the files, but enough of a taste to explain the foundation of our perplexity."

      He handed over a sheet of paper headed by the seal of the Intelligence service. "A number of mares of both high-birth and easy virtue." Another paper. "Interviews with his charioteer." Another paper with the royal seal. "And a private reprimand from her Highness herself about, embarrassing behaviors at a party. With three women not his wife. There are also numerous instances of experimentation with the wives and daughters of diplomats. Many not of shall we say, typical pony physiognomy."

      "Good grief," Barnum said as he looked over the papers, "And he's still a government minister?"

      "All participants are willing, and able to give informed consent. His predilections do not impinge directly on his skills. In addition, his wife is equally 'open-minded', and there are some implications that the various shady ladies are a smokescreen," Bell said with obvious distaste.

      "Do I even want to know his - their, true appetites?" Barnum asked.

      "No, but what is there is enough to raise the flag of 'mad pony' should it come out," Bell said, "His opponent is more mundane, but. Well, there's one from the Fraud Squad. Imperial Revenue. The Bank of Equestria. And the Manehatten Farmers' Bank and Trust, real estate."

      "This all is/was legal?" Barnum asked.

      "Yes, just very convenient for him, not so much for those who invested alongside him," Bell said, "The media too often confuse coincidence with conspiracy, and he apparently did fail to inform any of his partners of whatever warned him off."

      "So the two potential, civilian leaders of the New Lunar Republic can be written off as a pervert and a swindler?" Barnum asked as he handed the papers back.

      "Not legally, no," Bell explained as he carefully returned the papers to their correct places in the file folders, "But what must be presented to be proven in a court of law, and what can be tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, are two very different matters," Bell said gravely.

      "Hence your inclusion," Celestia said, "They are both deeply flawed individuals. Both have unshakable loyalty to Equestria, but they would be too easy to discredit, should this come out. And that is the last thing we need."

      "Your Highnesses, I'm not even part of the movement, but you seem to be implying I can simply step in and take over."

      Luna laughed at that. "Sorry, we are not suggesting you as super-eme commander. Brown Chief and Moon City will retain control of their factions, and thus the bulk of the movement. Your only function will be to appear with us on the steering committee. The only group we are an active participant of. You will have a friendly word with each of them, and let them leave the 'top job' open to interpretation."

      "You will continue to be a sounding board and baffle, they don't much like each other, and will cooperate with someone who keeps the other out of the top spot," Bell said, "Both desperately want the movement to succeed. Both equally desperately want a great deal of credit, and know the other absolutely will not share. Therefore, both want the other not to be seen as the supreme leader. If it works, there will be credit and vindication enough for both. As long as that central job remains merely a warm spot on the throne, as it were, neither will campaign too aggressively."

      "There is also the unfortunate tendency to equate proximity to real power. If you have access to Luna, and to me," Celestia explained, "You are perceived as having much greater power and influence that you possess."

      Barnum nodded numbly. "I think I understand. I think I do."

      "Excellent," Bell said, "You'll do splendidly, as long as you remember one thing."

      Barnum looked at him with hope, after a bewildering few minutes.

      "At the moment, all we are trying to get them to force us to do is, give the power of law, to customs which have had the force of law for several hundred years. Remain on that path, and all things will go smoothly. The civil service will hardly notice the change and neither will the populace. That should, as it were, open a few gates."

      "As long as they aren't the floodgates. Customs to law," Barnum mumbled, "Got it."

      "Good, lad," Bell said cheerfully.

      "Your Highnesses, Sir Bell," he said and bowed slightly to each, "I beg your leave to retire."

      "You have it," Celestia said, "And thank you."

      The colt backed towards the doors, until he bumped into them. The guard opened one and the colt slipped through, his guard commander practically trampled him to get out the door. The clattering of hooves at a full gallop sounded, before the door closed again.

      "A good lad. Didn't succumb to panic until the job was done," Bell said, "If I may say your Highness, an inspired choice. Truly inspired."

      "Thank you," Celestia said, "What part most impressed you?"

      "Well," Bell considered, "He seems an earnest compromiser, and so much less a threat to either candidate. So when Chief and City are at loggerheads, he will sit them down and hammer out a compromise that they can at least tolerate."

      "Yes," Celestia agreed and nodded.

      "And if he can't. He reaches into that bag of tricks of his, and pulls a counterproposal so horrifyingly bizarre, that Chief and City will have to combine forces to argue him out of it. Or, set them both off in another direction."

      "Yes," Celestia said and smiled. While she wondered why she hadn't thought of that possibility months earlier.

      "Oh! Hi, Doc!" he said, with a forced cheerfulness you normally associated with ponies who are too close to great heights or deep bodies of water.

      Considering my patient is sitting in the middle of the rooms ceded to him, Hardwood thought, It is a bad, though not life-threatening sign.

      "When you left your purchases outside the conference room, and your new guard commander locked herself in her quarters and drank herself insensate, I thought you might want to talk about something."

      "Me?" he said.

      The wide-eyed, rictus-grin expression gave the doctor chills despite years of training and practice. I've seen it often enough in rescue workers. Some would continue, and slowly be affected. Others would keep going like clockwork, seemingly immune, then suddenly go off. Then there were others who'd somehow betrayed their cutie-marks, this room was a place they were kept when they descended into a similar insanity.

      "Not sure if I'm even allowed," he said happily, "You know, Doc. I think I figured it out. I'm as nuts as you all think I am. There's a set of rules for this world that I thought I had a pretty good lock on. Then I find out I've been lying to myself all this time. There are rules, but I never really learned them. The rules are more like the rules I learned at home, but more polite and less predicable."

      Culture shock, Doctor Hardwood thought as he sat down opposite the distraught colt, This I've got some experience in.

      "All cultures have rules," he said, "Sometimes they're confusing, but they do make sense in context."

      The colt stared at him. "So, if her Majesty Princess Celestia, the Sun Goddess, the most powerful force on the planet, was doing something abysmally stupid, what are the correct rules for telling her? Or would you just automatically assume that you must not completely understand the situation, and keep silent?"

      Hardwood considered the question. I would consider that she was either teasing to provoke a reaction/learning experience, or that I didn't understand the situation fully.

      "So are the differences between herd creatures such as ponies, and social animals such as humans, so fundamental that a true understanding of the other's psychology is nearly impossible? Or is emulation achievable, even if understanding cannot be? Can I find ways to put myself in the mind of a pony, while not understanding the true thought processes, long enough and well enough to correctly estimate their feelings and thoughts, or am I eternally outside the 'herd' since I think independently, without the automatics which are part of your life. And if I do decide to assimilate, however well, will my progeny be fully ponies, fully and eternally outsiders, or partial outsiders, with successive generations being more pony than human in outlook?" He smiled again, but the despair was equally visible. "You've seen the mare, Glory Bell, who I've been working with. She's very clever, and I'm told quite lovely. And several of the mares in the Wonderbolts. They have guards to chase away stallions getting too close, but they don't chase me away. I may not be able to understand attractiveness standards, but I know what being interested looks like. But is there any point? Do you throw kids into a mess you've been stuck in, or just go through life like a clockwork and get close to not seem strange, but not intimate?"

      There's a reason I hate crazy people who read too much philosophy, Hardwood thought, Is this culture shock or existential dread?

      Barnum let out a breath and shook himself. "Well, enough woolgathering," he said, seemingly back to normal, "I have work to do, and people depending on me. I would appreciate you looking in on Peaceful Solitude. I think she's a new officer, a new city dweller, and has had a lot of rather bad shocks in quick succession." He headed into the bathroom with a toiletries kit. Hardwood followed. In the bathroom, he combed out his hair and got ready to brush his teeth. "Doctor, I just let myself get caught up in my worries. It'll all work out, that's one of the fundamental rules here. Your friends get you out of anything," he said as he began brushing his teeth.

      Okay, I don't believe in sudden epiphanies bringing healing. A sudden shock might snap a pony out of it, but the problem is still there. But is he more pony than human, and am I superimposing my own 'automatics' on him? Great, now he's got me doing it, Hardwood thought, and left the colt to his ablutions. There was a guard inside, keeping a close eye on the colt. Outside, Captain Hansom and Sergeant Mile Stone waited.

      "Doctor?" the sergeant asked.

      "Do they teach you some special trick to put all those questions into one word? If so, I have to go to sergeant school," Hardwood answered, "He can go back to work. Outwardly, he seems normal, but I just watched him go from near-catatonia possibly suicidal, to 'normal' in the blink of an eye. That usually means they've made a decision, and the decision is usually to end their life."

      "He's going to be working around some rather powerful tools, doctor," Mile Stone pointed out.

      "Like I said, keep an eye on him. I'll come back for the usual after-lunch session, and I should be able to pry into what that decision actually is then."

      "What about the lieutenant?" the captain asked.

      "She's a good deal more religious. I had a different kind of counselor helping her deal with whatever happened yesterday," Hardwood said, "I have an inquiry into Sir Eagle Bell, who was present when the two started their reaction. His initial response was he rather expected they've have to have a good lie down and a few drinks before they went on. He recommended a three-day bender for both of them, medically supervised of course."

      "What in Celestia's name did they talk about in there?" Hansom asked worriedly.

      "I doubt either will talk about it," Hardwood lamented.

      "What about Miss Pie?" Mile Stone suggested, "That might provide the change both need."

      "I've heard about the party master of Ponyville. I think that might be something for later."

      The office was pretty much as Hardwood remembered it. Dark wood paneling, a few paintings of colored clouds, the couch and the flowers, in window boxes, in vases and on the ceiling. Like random jewels in a dark, precisely orchestrated forest, Hardwood thought, Anyone who laughs at her name has never been in here. The gray-haired mare behind the desk was as much a fixture of the office as the furnishings.

      "Hardwood, I had been expecting you much earlier," Dr. Mud Treasure greeted him.

      "Earlier?" Hardwood asked his old mentor, "I just came from one of my patients. How did you know -?" He spotted the files on the desk. Both Lieutenant Solitude's and McHorsefly's, from the intelligence branch.

      "Her Highness's personal guard dropped these off. I knew you wouldn't be far behind. And I'm rather hurt you hadn't come to see me about these two before."

      "I hadn't realized the extent that they would need help, or I would have," he admitted as he pulled a chair over to sit in front of the desk. There were the little, hand draw/painted pictures adorning the wall behind her, like somepony might put on a cabinet. Many were of flowers, donated by younger patients.

      She smiled indulgently. "I was actually expecting someone under this kind of stress to have already had a full psychotic breakdown. Maybe intelligence is right, and he is an alien, rather than just believing he is one."

      "You don't think he's crazy for believing he is one?"

      "Or certifiable, but he doesn't make a point of insisting on it, and he recognizes it is impossible, so even he treats it as unlikely. It's insane to have those kinds of 'memories' but he'd only be a threat to himself and others, if he insisted others acknowledge it." She looked over the desk at him. "You're worried that it might be healthier for him if he would do a little insisting, instead of simply acquiescing."

      "Until this morning I did," he said, and looked around the room, at some of the many things he tried to emulate, and so many things he'd rebelled against. "I think he was playacting, and the act suddenly wore thin. Not 'who am I', he seems to have that well in hand. More of 'what will happen to my kids, should I even have kids?' I have to keep reminding myself he's a full-grown stallion inside the colt's body."

      "It isn't easy, and there are other things operating against you. But let's start on the filly, since she doesn't have the complications."

      "She and Barnum evidently had a meeting with Princesses Celestia and Luna, and the head of the civil service, and that was the source of her break. Somepony there said that ponies couldn't think of Celestia as bad, or speak out against her when they were in her presence, but she kept thinking Celestia was awful pushing a colt as hard as she was pushing Barnum," Hardwood said.

      "Ah, CIPD Syndrome, except she was transferring her own symptoms to Barnum," Mud Treasure said, "Celestia Interaction Perfection Dissociative Syndrome. The tendency of anyone in her presence to work harder than they ever thought possible, in order to either gain her favor, or to ease her burden. It also is the tendency to put her instantly on a pedestal, marked either villain or goddess. Cynical, old glueballs like me, and Sir Eagle Bell, have a clearer view of what a pony can and cannot do, so we are only really affected when she specifically asks us to do something."

      "Is that why she sent Miss Sparkle away?" Hardwood asked.

      "Of course, the poor dear was burning both ends of the candle, and the middle, studying to please her wonderful, deserving of all and everything mentor, Princess Celestia." She sighed. "Ponies who fixate on the Princess tend to become rather, warped."

      "Like 'Sunny Days', I don't know what that - pony, has against the Princess."

      "Well obviously since no one could be as beautiful, as wonderful, as caring, and the list goes on endlessly, as Princess Celestia, she must have a huge, deep, dark side, and equally huge, deep, dark secrets."

      "You means besides the impish sense of humor, a desperate yearning to be 'just like other ponies', an absolutely crushing sense of responsibility for the success and happiness of everypony, and the terrible case of survivors' guilt over banishing her own sister?" Hardwood asked, "So even those who hate her are affected."

      "Yes. Your young lieutenant is a more typical case, young filly straight off the farm and into training. And because she is clever and level-headed, she gets Canterlot."

      "And straight into what should be a simple position 'guarding' a basically harmless looney, with five senior sergeants to assist. It was more training for her, than a real position of authority," Hardwood added, "And then something that neither of them will talk about, but clearly related to their Highnesses."

      "Enough to make you scream yet?" Mud Treasure asked, she smiled. "It's sad, really, her Highness is as vivacious and playful as a mare half your age, but so much responsibility and formality surround her at every step. She collects interesting youngsters, but they burn themselves out so quickly. They get here all full of playful, childlike behaviors and enthusiasm, but before you know it, it's all 'work, work, work, Celestia might see we're slacking off.' No one around her wants to just play. It's no wonder she's happy Luna is back. That pie fight between the two of them the other night was a gift beyond measure."

      "I thought they caught Sunny Days in her private apartments?" Hardwood said.

      "Have you forgotten about Celestia's impish sense of humor?" Mud Treasure asked and smiled.

      Hardwood nearly fell out of his chair. "Her Highness is Sunny Days!" he hissed as if the very thought were treasonous.

      "Of course. What better way to show she's not some plaster perfection atop a wedding cake, and it also lets her deal with rumor-mongering to an extent, by blowing those rumors so out of proportion, that no one can take them seriously, except those who wouldn't believe she's good, if she personally saved their life."

      "I think I'm coming down with a touch of it now," Hardwood commented, "But shouldn't Barnum be immune, if what's in his files is accurate?"

      "A human suffering survivor's guilt of his own, in an alien land, in an alien body, completely dependant on the goodwill of Celestia for the roof over his head, the food on his table and the clothes on his back? Add that she is an overwhelmingly warm, kind and understanding female, who desires his happiness as well. Why would he feel dependant on her? And why would he feel the need to keep her pleased with his actions and performance?"

      "Hearing it put that way, it does explain his near obsession with that flying machine. Now, I can only guess he's got a mission, directly from their Highnesses, and he's just going to soldier on. But the cracks have appeared."

      "Celestia understands that the wounds that have scarred over need to be broken open and exposed to the light. She also knows a good deal more than she's letting on about Barnum the man," Mud Treasure said.

      "I sometimes wish he'd let me in," Hardwood admitted, "There are pieces of his psychology that are textbook. Others are so alien, I don't think I could understand them after years of study."

      "Hence the culture shock. There's also the deep secret he and Celestia share, the files hint that it exists, but not what it is."

      "He mentioned something, but I would think that would have affected him before now. But it might be adding to his troubles. Another thing I wish he would, could, talk about."

      "Security, you've worked with the guard long enough to know that," she said.

      "Yes, but I could usually be cleared for whatever was going on," he said, "There seems to be only two people who know, and they aren't talking."

      "What about you?" Dr. Treasure asked, "Aren't you trying to solve this so hard because of Celestia. You might want to take a step back and let things play out, rather than try to 'fix' them. What you categorize as a psychotic break might just be a momentary loss of composure. The filly just needs to go home, or be with her own kind for a bit: youngsters, or people from her hometown, or better yet, both. Barnum might need a mechanic, or another engineer, more than a psychiatrist. You do all those remodeling jobs at your own house, why not talk to him as a carpenter, rather than a therapist."

      "I haven't done one of those in months," he admitted.

      "Because Celestia, or one of her valuable servants might need you?" Mud Treasure accused, "She wants fully realized ponies, not automatons who only do what she wants. I think half the challenges she puts up are so somepony will actually defy her, without hating her." She sighed. "Let's go talk with the guards about the filly, and any 'colonies' of people from her hometown. Then let's see about what Barnum is doing, and I prescribe a weekend of remodeling or furniture building for you."

      "I hear he's got a lathe, I always wanted to try one of those," Hardwood sheepishly admitted.

      "There you go."

      "I told you it would be easy," the mare told her once-protege.

      "Always listen to your doctor," Hardwood said happily, as the guard opened the door, "Even a 'colt like me' - Celestia's eternal mercy," he gasped in dread.

      "What is - oh," Mud Treasure asked and looked around at every flat surface, except the window panes and floor, was covered with drawings. The fact they were on paper, instead of the walls and ceiling themselves lessened the impact, but all of the bedframes had been stood up to provide additional gallery space. Sitting in the middle of the room, like the holy of holies in a shrine, untouched by paper, were two Dianes. One a single-seater, the other a familiar two-seat model. A quick look verified that the papers all had some drawing of a Diane, or part of it. Most had intricate calculations or notes on them.

      Hardwood turned to his mentor. "It didn't look like this a few hours ago."

      "It's better he did this in a few minutes?" Mud Treasure replied.

      "SURPRISE!" a very pink pony leapt out from behind one of the bedframes and sang, "We know you're nose to grindstone, but your plans have fallen down!"

      "Pinkie," a purple unicorn said to the singing earth pony.

      "So the princess called upon us and we had to come to town!"


      "For Diane help we bring you, to chase those blues away!"

      "PINKAMENA DIANE PIE!" the unicorn thundered.

      "Were we supposed to do a chorus? Let's start again, and you come in a half-measure after me," the earth pony proclaimed, "On three, one!"

      "Pinkie, that's not Barnum, or Mile Stone," the unicorn told her.

      The earth pony looked at the unicorn. "How can you tell? He was always playing tricks on us in Ponyville. He might be in disguise," the pink one proclaimed.

      "Pinkie Pie and Twilight Sparkle, I presume," Mud Treasure said, and backed up as Pinkie Pie examined her closely.

      "Presume makes a per out of you and me. Hey! That rhymes better than the original," Pinkie said as she bounced away.

      Twilight facehooved and then smiled at the pair. "You wouldn't happen to know where Barnum is, do you?" she asked.

      "He's coming down the hall," the guard reported.

      "Ooo! Quick hide!" Pinkie said, and began shoving Hardwood and Mud Treasure behind the upturned bedframes. Then she dashed behind one herself. "Don't bother hiding, Twilight, he won't see you anyway."

      She scrambled behind a frame.

      "So the problem of lightening and stiffening the trusses," came Barnum's voice, then the door opened and silence.

      "It didn't look like this a few hours ago," Barnum said as he looked around.

      "How did two Dianes get in here?" Glory Bell asked as she and Claire approached them. The guard tried to look everywhere at once in the odd room.

      "Are these all diagrams of the machine?" Spitfire asked nervously as she peered at the paper that adorned the walls. The group moved through the maze of upturned bedframes. Claire suddenly darted forward and dragged Twilight out from behind one of the frames.

      "Uh, surprise?" Twilight offered lamely as Hardwood and Mud Treasure stepped out of their hiding places.

      "Doctor, Twilight, you can let her go Claire," Barnum said, "I know her. As long as you aren't Nightmare Moon or a dragon, you're safe." That got him stared at by Claire.

      There was the sound of running water and Pinkie exited the bathroom. "Ooo! Barnum, were you surprised, were you surprised?"

      "Very," he admitted.

      "Twilight didn't yell 'surprise' did she?" Pinkie glared at the unicorn.

      "Where were you?" Twilight complained.

      Pinkie looked back at the door she'd just exited. "Are you feeling all right, Twilight?" Pinkie looked around. "Is there a doctor in the house?"

      "She's a doctor," Hardwood said of Mud Treasure.

      "What's up, doc?" Pinkie asked.

      "Diane plans, apparently," Mud Treasure said and smiled.

      "She's quicker than you, doc." Barnum took down one of the plans, and carefully stuck it back to the wall. "Used the sticky note glue I see."

      "So you could rearrange them," Pinkie said happily, as she bounced over to Barnum. On the last bounce, her hair flattened out as she landed. "The princess was very concerned about your recent shocks, and thought a discussion among inventors would lighten your spirits," she said in a dull monotone, "As the inventor of the original design, I was the logical one to provide insights into the improved version. Have you considered using a dynamo and electric motors to power the machine? I know the weight, especially with batteries, would be higher, but it would eliminate the transmission and linkage problems. A simple rheostat would provide -"

      "Pinkie?" Twilight asked in stunned amazement.

      Pinkie's hair poofed out as she looked at Twilight and the others. "I want my friends to smile, and if that's the way," she said, and her hair flattened out, "That's the way. Now, I understand you've got some additional help."

      "Yes, Princess Glory Bell, inventor of the flying truss," Barnum said as he led Pinkie over to the mare and her nervous guard.

      Twilight stared at the group. Pinkie's hair poofed as she talked to Glory Bell, and went flat when addressing Barnum or Claire.

      "I first thought the flying truss was for stallions with medical problems," Pinkie said to Glory, getting a faint grin from Claire.

      "Uh, hi," Twilight said to the rest of the group. As the doctors, Spitfire and Soarin' approached her, forming a defensive huddle against the drawings everywhere.

      "Doctor Hardwood," Hardwood introduced himself and his mentor, "Doctor Mud Treasure."

      "Hello, I'm Twilight Sparkle, Celestia's student," she said, and kept glancing nervously at Pinkie Pie.

      Unaffected, Soarin' asked, "If there's a party, is there cake?"

      Pinkie was in front of him instantly. "Of course there's cake! What kind of party would there be without cake? What kind of party is this anyway?" Pinkie asked, then dashed over to a bedframe and pulled a cake on a wheeled table out from behind it. There were seven layers, each layer frosted in a different color, each layer of icing a mix of the colors above and below, and white icing in lines running vertically.

      "I know." Pinkie's hair flattened. "We can't have frosting all over these drawing." Her hair poofed out. "So I made the icing out of . . . wood!" she announced happily.

      "Wood?" Soarin' asked, as he stopped drooling at the sight of the cake, and became forlorn.

      "Yep!" Pinkie said proudly, and tapped it with a hoof, "Solid wood." Then she began opening the compartments in the 'cake', the joints concealed behind the frosting lines. Opening in different directions, like interlaced fingers, revealing the six unfrosted cake layers on plates inside, and the plates for the partygoers. "Tadda!" she announced. Twilight and Spitfire helped pull the cake layers out of the cake-looking box and began putting slices on the plates.

      "This is good," Soarin' said.

      "The Cakes make the best cakes in Ponyville," Pinkie said proudly, "Ooo! I forgot about the gizmo!" She dashed over to Barnum and Glory, who were staring at a set of drawings.

      Pinkie dashed back. "What does it mean you're all in the Twilight Zone?" Pinkie asked, "Just me and you being around Twilight?" Pinkie hugged the unicorn, then dashed away.

      "Don't look at me," Twilight said a bit defensively, "I don't understand her half the time anyway."

      "Good cakes," Soarin said.

      "What has she got in her mouth?" Mud Treasure exclaimed and walked over to the group clustered around Pinkie Pie.

      Glory Bell was holding a pencil with her magic, while two small grabbers that seem to have sprouted from the earth pony's mouth closed in on it. As she watched, one small gripper closed on the pencil, the other moved from the front to the side and grasped the pencil. Pinkie walked over to a sheet of paper struck to the wall and drew a smooth curve with the pencil.

      "What is that?" Mud Treasure asked.

      The happy gibberish from the pink earth pony didn't help clarify things too much.

      "It was something I asked her to work on." Barnum supplied, "She had sketches, but she couldn't overcome the problem of one gripper/tool in the frame. I worked out the improved interface and the locking system for the various tools."

      Pinkie demonstrated by walking over to a rack of small tools. She moved one gripper holding the pencil, and somehow unlatched the other, small gripper and attached a powerful pliers. She moved the pencil back in place, and the pliers easily bit right through the pencil. Pinkie giggled and cut the remains of the pencil into small slices with the pliers that seemed to have sprouted from her mouth.

      "The control is precise," Glory said as she watched, "And the two grippers operate separately. But, why?"

      "Extra hands," Barnum said, "Unicorn magic is fine for some things, but I can't pick up a piece of paper without shredding it, or setting it on fire. Pegasi and earth ponies might appreciate being able to pick something up without directly using their mouth. Like taking a hot pan out of the oven. With a little adaptation, you could do all your work a foreleg away from the actual material you were manipulating. It also lets you tailor the gripper to the job. A metal snip to a tweezers."

      Pinkie demonstrated by changing out both tools by putting her head down over the rack, and seeming to take the tools on and off with no unicorn magic. As she held them up, one tool moved then the other, they opened and closed synchronized and separately. Glory and Mud Treasure stared at the sight. Pinkie giggled, but her explanation was garbled.

      "The units are set up so each side of the mouth controls one. And they can be moved, or locked down with the tongue. The tongue control also locks the tool in place, or releases it. It also leaves the lips and front teeth free for other work, if you need them."

      Pinkie unlocked the tools, and put them back in the holding cradle, then set the device in its place. It looked like a split mouth guard, with a pair of boxes mounted on the outside and inside.

      "It's that simple?" Dr. Mud Treasure asked.

      "Yep!" Pinkie said proudly, "Imagine changing a diaper, without having to touch it!"

      Nearly everyone cringed at that thought.

      "Or get a pie out of the oven," Barnum added, "Or handle a bottle of corrosive or poisonous material. Not quite as good as hands with opposing digits, but serviceable."

      "YAY!" Pinkie proclaimed, "I got all of them to smile! Even if it is a boring party!"

      "The joy of discovery -"

      Pinkie put her hoof over Barnum's mouth. "Don't need to hear it."

      "This is incredible," Twilight commented on the device, "You built it?"

      "Duh!" Pinkie and Barnum said in unison, then laughed.

      Twilight took the hint.

      "How's the party cannon working?" Barnum asked.

      "How do you think I got all these blueprints up so quickly, silly?" Pinkie replied.

      "Remind me never to talk about cluster munitions around you," Barnum said.

      The flight back to Ponyville was a trifle melancholy for Pinkie. She looked over the side of the air chariot, at the forests and rivers and plains below. She thought about the afternoon, and evening, and what had happened I showed people I'm not just a party-pony, she thought, And getting my friends to smile is more important than how I get them to smile. I just wish I could have it all. Parties, and people who like my toys. She glanced over at Twilight, who was studying, by the faint glow of her horn, some of the plans for the grabber that Barnum had drawn up when he was in Ponyville. My Pinkie sense, all over again, Pinkie thought, If she can't get it out of a book, she can't grasp it. She giggled at that, then looked at the two 'Dianes' flying in formation. Being flown by the Wonderbolts themselves.

      Too bad Dashie was busy, or she could have come with, Pinkie thought, then grinned at the great practical joke she'd play on Dashie, 'Where'd you get a limited edition poster, signed by all the Wonderbolts!' 'When I went up to Canterlot with Twilight and showed off my flying machines, and gave them some lessons on flying them.' Flying them safely. I can't believe they crashed poor Barnum's. She chuckled at the reaction she'd get from Dashie, on learning she'd been 'too busy' to hang out with the Wonderbolts.

      That still doesn't come close to the joke Princess Celestia and Princess Luna playing on all those ponies who don't like her. Get all of them organized, and demanding the things Celestia hasn't had 'permission' to give them, Pinkie thought and glanced over at Twilight, Yeah, I can see how people can't simply accept, and have to get things the way they're used to getting them.

      "I think you're sweet on Barnum," Pinkie told Twilight. And waited as the thought penetrated the mare's study-obsessed mind.

      Twilight actually shuddered as the thought made it past the barriers, and struck home. "What?"

      "Sure, he's the first stallion to give you a present you can't understand," Pinkie said happily, "I can see you deciding to study him, and then there's the wedding, and children, and after 20 or 30 years of married life, you'll finally get it. Twilight, you do plan ahead. I like that about you."

      It was all Pinkie could do to keep from rolling around on the floor of the air chariot at Twilight's expression changing from confused to horrified and back. Never lingering with one emotion too long.

      "You're crazy!" Twilight finally exclaimed.

      Pinkie gave her best confused look. "You think it will take longer? Naw, I have faith in you Twilight. Thirty years, tops."

      The mare stared at her open-mouthed.

      Pinkie giggled and enjoyed watching Twilight try to work it out.

      Brushcut, Neanderpony, Claire and a pegasus of Luna's Night Guard stood together, then sang as Octavia began her accompaniment on the cello.

      "How can I just let you walk away - just let you leave without a trace? When I stand here taking every breath with you, oooo You're the only one who really knew me at all."

      Celestia let out a slight sniffle as Luna nuzzled her older sister.

      "How can you just walk away from me, when all I can do is watch you leave? 'cause we've shared the laughter and the pain, and even shared the tears You're the only one who really knew me at all So, take a look at me now - well, there's just an empty space And there's nothing left here to remind me - just the memory of your face Take a look at me now, well, there's just an empty space And you coming back to me is against the odds, and that's what I've got to face."

      Celestia was openly nuzzling her sister, and both sisters were weeping.

      "I wish I could just make you turn around - turn around and see me cry There's so much I need to say to you - so many reasons why You're the only one who really knew me at all."

      The musicians glanced over at Barnum, who nodded for them to continue. Celestia smiled inwardly as the musicians continued, even as her tears flowed freely.

      "So take a look at me now, well, there's just an empty space And there's nothing left here to remind me - just the memory of your face Now, take a look at me now 'cause there's just an empty space But to wait for you is all I can do, and that's what I've got to face Take a good look at me now 'cause I'll still be standing here And you coming back to me is against all odds - it's the chance I've got to take Take a look at me, now." They held the note, and let it fade off slowly.

      The two sisters were hugging each other and weeping. The musicians stood stock still, but their eyes darted around, seeking Barnum's who smiled and nodded.

      "Thank you," Celestia said, "It was very beautiful."

      All right, point to you Mr. Clever, Celestia thought, But I think my reply will be more cunning, and more obvious. But thank you, none-the-less.

      Barnum and the musicians bowed as they left the two sisters alone.

      Outside, Octavia spoke up, "I'm not comfortable, making their Highnesses cry like that."

      "Music touches a chord in the soul. And even the godlike rulers of Equestria need a good cry now and again," Barnum soothed, "Your performance just provided them the excuse to. Excellent job all of you, by the way. Besides, all you have to do is tell them it was my idea, and you were simply eager to perform."

      "Was that song really about their Highnesses, as, as Nightmare Moon manifested?" Neanderpony asked nervously.

      "No, just a song about loss and hope," Barnum replied, "A song smith from my home, Phil Collins, wrote and performed it. I always preferred his version which was more a 'I'm terribly hurt but I must go on', to most of the covers which sounded like a wounded animal mewling to be put down."

      "Why do I think you just used us to prank their Highnesses?" Octavia accused.

      Barnum looked around. "Weird, the moon looks just like Canterlot castle. I guess Luna was busy and homesick all those years."

Out of Place - Out of Time Part 3

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc. Burning Bridges (Kelly's Heroes) Mike Curb Congregation Songwriter: Paul Scott Years have passed and I keep thinking, what a fool I've been. I look back into the past and think of way back then. I know that I lost everything I thought that I could win. I guess I should have listened to my friends. All the burning bridges that are falling after me. All the lonely feelings and the burning memories. Everyone I left behind each time I closed the door. Burning bridges lost forevermore. Burning bridges lost forevermore

      The crowd is far larger than anything I expected. There can't be this many displeased with Celestia's rule, I think as I look at the faces, Of course this is more like a concert than a political rally. I just hope it doesn't turn into a Nuremberg rally.

      Cries of 'Luna nobis providet' and 'Luna nos custodit' shake the air. (provides us the moon, the moon keeps us).

      It's like a summoning spell, if they shout it loud enough, Luna will appear.

      The crowd noise fades to nothing so suddenly the sound of the flags flapping in the breeze stands out like thunder. Luna stands on a small rise at the end of the field. She looks all the world like a Princess in control, rather than as nervous as she said she was.

      I bet she uses the Royal Canterlot voice, when she could whisper and this crowd would hear it, I think as I note the rapt expressions, the worshipful looks, and the feeling of expectation from each and every person here.

      "De pomis fructuum solis ac luna," she says in a normal tone of voice, yet it carries across the crowd, starting little murmurs among them.

      And for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and for the precious things put forth by the moon, I think, Put the whole thing together, not a bad motto.

      "Citizens," she thunders to the crowd, even a hundred yards away, the din is still unpleasant. "Beloved ponies of Equestria, we are glad you are here. We are overjoyed you seek to serve Equestria better, with your talents, with your love, and with your loyalty."

      The cheers are as powerful as the silence had been profound. It is chaotic and raucous. Some shout her name, some stamp their hooves, and some shout slogans. Luna and I alone are silent.

      "My dear sister has been wrong," Luna thunders, "We ask that, for us, you forgive her. Now, that we are back, we can change things that should have been corrected centuries ago. With your voices, with our understanding, we, all of us, can convince her that we are not all children to be coddled, that we all desire and deserve to be treated as adults. That though she deserves respect, and is a goddess. None of us are infallible. And the answer for one, is not the answer for all."

      More thunderous hoof stamps, and shouts of 'freedom!' Someone takes up the chant of 'we will forgive!' and more and more voices join the chant as Luna smiles on them.

      I can see how she might have formed a rebellion, and that she needs the adoration of the crowd, I think as I watch her bask in this outpouring of raw emotion. Some of the ponies are more controlled than others, but there isn't a single one that isn't a true believer.

      I pick out the two leaders I'll need to speak with. They are about 50 yards apart, surrounded by shoals of their supporters. Each one glances at the other, but their followers are throwing a whole series of looks my way. Their leaders aren't sure, but they do know Luna herself brought me. So am I a convert, or am I undecided? They haven't really decided which.

      Luna speaks on themes which appeal to ponies, except she throws in bits indicating that they shouldn't blame Celestia for their predicament. "You all know what it means to be alone. We went, a little mad. You will all be fortunate to never have to live for a moment under what was our lives as we grew up. Then our sister was alone, and she kept doing what was right at that time. To give her ponies stability. But those days are not even legends now, and some changes are in order. But we will make those changes, and make them orderly. She will hear our voices, she will see our resolve, and she will not be alone, and she will see we are ready for change. But the changes we desire!"

      The crowd takes up the chant of 'our changes!', washing the area with noise as Luna smiles and nods.

      All sugar and sizzle, I guess the steak comes in individual meetings, I think.

      "You, our brave ponies, stand here facing a thousand years of 'it isn't broken don't fix it.' But it is worn out, it is time to change. If the only reason is 'we've always done it that way', then it is time to look and see if there is a better way, or understand there are deeper reasons. Some of you quietly spread the word. Some of you research why things are the way they are. Some of you quietly toil, knowing things are going to change." Now Luna speaks with real emotion, "We will not be shackled by any tyrant. We will not descend into madness of stultifying order, or madness of change for its own sake! We will lift up all ponies, not pick and choose. We will not cast them down on a whim."

      My attention focuses as I realize, She's talking about Discord, but refuses to mention him. But I guess her memories are still somewhat fresh of that villain. She already said that few if any remember him. Did Celestia tell her he's coming? Did she warn Luna of that? And if so, how much? I want to ask, but keep watching the crowd, and their enthralled expressions.

      "Together!" Luna thunders.

      "Together!" the crowd bellows back and stamps their hooves, "Together! Together! Together!"

      Luna steps down from the hillock, and another pony ascends. He talks about individual posters to be made, areas to blanket. All the nuts and bolts of a Velvet Revolution, run to 'win the hearts and minds' and more importantly, to sway Celestia, as much as show her their resolve.

      "What do you think?" a massive stallion in royal white, sporting two black eyes, a ragged mane and tail of royal blue, and a patchwork of bruises. The bruises were fading to yellow in splotches.

      I don't want to think about what he got into a fight with, I think, and notice the entourage following the stallion. They know who I am, and they are not happy about it.

      The stallion tosses his head in an emphatic nod. "Sneaking into the Princess' private quarters was pretty stupid," the stallion says, "And I certainly got what I deserved. And got off a lot more gently that I expected."

      "You were guilty, Sunny Days, of doing exactly what many of these ponies accuse Princess Celestia of."

      The stallion shies at that, and my cold tone. Murmurs from the others are undecided.

      "How did it feel to be the tyrant, and have the revolt be less than peaceful?" I ask.

      "How was I the tyrant?" Sunny Days asks, "I'm just a unicorn."

      "No place you can be yourself. Fearful that people are watching at all times. Forcing someone to be their public self at all times." I turn to the crowd. "All of you have secrets you wouldn't want everyone in town or at work talking about. That you're an accountant who paints on the weekend, and are terrible but getting better. That you're a gray hair who still frolics with your spouse. That you are a banker, who loves making fancy cupcakes. Little spaces, little dreams, but yours' and no one elses'." I turn back to Sunny Days. "And you insist on knowing about and ridiculing everything her Highness does. She likes cakes. She likes teasing. She indulges her pet when it teases people. Blemishes to a porcelain character, but touches everypony shares. Places we do not want everypony to know about and comment on. But you, tyrant, denied her even that. That wasn't a secret meeting of government officials." I pointedly look around the group. "But a mare simply wanting a few minutes, or hours of privacy with her own thoughts. And if you claim her intentions are the same as the results of her actions, then you'd better take a sword to most of the ponies around you, because I would bet they each have had bad intentions they'd never act on."

      Sunny Days bowS his head. "I can see why her Solarity keeps you around. Are you always so straightforward with her?"

      "She doesn't usually require pounding her head on a marble floor to see she's been in the wrong. I won't go into details, but remember what her Nightjesty alluded to, that she and her sister grew up in a world that makes this one look like a golden-age of undreamt of prosperity, stability and safety. You and others have desired stability and it's attendant safety, that tomorrow be much like today, which was much like yesterday. Your movement is as much to give her Majesty permission to change, as it is giving it a direction to change."

      "Well said, lad," Brown Chief says as he and a few of his coterie approach. In the distance, Princess Luna is speaking with Moon City. "Her Nightjesty said you had something to tell me. Having Celestia's latest," the earth pony pauses as I glare at him. "Protege, so eager to speak with me, and her Nightjesty bringing you here to say. I don't know if I should be honored or worried."

      "I just needed to have a little chat with you," I tell him, "In private."

      He looks around. "We're all friends here."

      "You remember I was lecturing Sunny Days about leaving a few shadows for ponies to be ponies in. I think this is one of those things that would take a good deal more explaining than a few column inches in the paper would give."

      He became suspicious. "Over there." He looks at Sunny Days. "Anything I should be worried about."

      "Don't make him angry," the huge stallion warns, "And he's very sensitive about Celestia being accused of 'colt-cuddling' when she was spending time helping Luna through her recovery."

      The stallion gulped and nodded, then we walk to a small building. Inside, he instantly drops all pretense of politeness. "I don't like games."

      "Then you should know you have someone rooting for you to take over the mission. Imperial Intelligence," I tell him, "The Fraud Squad, the Bank of Equestria, and others will provide them with more than enough. Need I go on?"

      "It was all legal, and all looked into, by those. A pony can get out of investments any time he likes."

      "It's the fact you didn't warn any of your partners, that is the most damning," I tell him, "Leading the herd from a sudden grass fire is one thing, leaving them to burn is something else."

      He starts to pace, for all the confines of the small building allow. "I did warn them," he says in a small voice. Then stops to confront me. "How the hay was I supposed to explain that we should get out because of some sense even I don't understand. I'm not a unicorn to have magic. But it's steered me in and out of the rapids, let me build up a very substantial portfolio, and warned me when to run from that grass fire," he says angrily, "Like it's warning me to run right now. So Intel thinks I'm a good candidate, cause they can cast me and the whole movement down with a sneeze? Well I'm not supporting Moon City." He turns sideways. "I haven't got a bit mark on my flank, just two bricks and a bit of mortar. I'm good at what I do, and whatever I do. Cutie-mark, breed not withstanding," he says, sounding defeated.

      "Let's just say that I'm here to talk to Moon City about hard to explain shadows as well."

      "I'm not supporting you either."

      "No one need know there isn't a 'top spot'. No one in your faction would go to Moon City before seeing you anyway. Besides, I'm a Federalist at heart. Let each community choose how they are going to run themselves. Ponies have hooves, if they don't like a place, they can vote with them and walk away."

      "Thanks," he says gruffly as he leaves.

      One down, one to go, I think.

      Moon City could barely restrain himself from stamping his hooves in frustration. Of all the insufferable things! Celestia's Intelligence deciding I'm 'harmless', I never thought that would be a damning phrase.

      "How did you get this?" he asked the colt who seemed to be able to stand his ground despite the stallion's angry posture.

      "The one who provided me this information very much wants to see your movement succeed. But is aware how easily it can be discredited," he said calmly.

      "My wife would laugh at this 'scandal', and our neighbors' reactions," he assured the colt.

      No need to tell him why, if Luna is correct, Celestia is after his energy and drive, same as Twilight. No colt-cuddling involved, he thought.

      "And about the movement you're part of?" the colt asked.

      "Damn you and your questions," he said without heat, "Yes, they would have a field day with that." He turned to the colt. "How did you find out? I just want to know, so when Brown Chief is stampeding us over a cliff, I know who warned I was to be the Judas goat."

      "You think Brown Chief is going to get the leadership?" the colt asked a little too innocently, "I thought her Highness held that position."

      "You know very well what I mean, but what do you mean? You had the same conversation with Brown?" he asked.

      "Shadows, remember."

      "That uptight, stick-in-the-mud, oughta-be blank-flank?!" he exclaimed in shock.

      "You might be stone bruised in your forehoof, he might have a pebble caught in a rear shoe, but you both limp just the same," the colt said calmly, as if from years and hard-won wisdom belying his youth. He also ignored the 'blank-flank' comment. "Leave the 'leadership' open. Let people think her Highness has the reins, as it were. Having crazy subordinates is very 'in' this year. Celestia's knights are all a bit 'off', but they take on Nightmare Moon and dragons, by themselves. Having two, diligent but flawed supporters raises her image: that despite your flaws, Luna loves and trusts you."

      "I think you might be good at the job."

      The colt shook his head. "I have absolutely no ambitions in that direction. But if my colleagues found me to be the best pony for the job, they could prevail upon me to serve Equestria to the best of my abilities."

      "Drop the 'might'," Moon City said and grinned, "Someday I want to find out who wanted me warned."

      "After the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights have Celestia and Luna's hoof-prints on them, I'll tell you and Brown Chief. I can guarantee, you won't believe it."

      "You make it sound like Celestia herself is looking out for us."

      He laughed at that bizarre thought.

      "Trouble lies heavy upon thy brow," her Nightjesty says.

      Again the guards are back, and I'm walking between their Highnesses. "I was never a very political animal, but they just folded far too easily," I tell the pair.

      "You don't understand ponies," Celestia says, and nuzzles me.

      I admit that feels good, I think and compare it to human activity.

      "I don't get how they can walk away from the position of power, and let the scandals break."

      "You haven't seen the teasing that a blank-flank gets. The 'jack-of-all-trades' your kind admires, is an object of uncertainty and some dread, if they aren't pitied. You have your position attracting comments, and your accomplishments deflecting them, so the complaints about you aren't centered on your cutie-mark."

      "I heard the teasing, and understand the implications," I tell them, "I just don't get into the mindset of the herd. I was too independent, as a human as well."

      "Then we are fortunate to have you," Luna admits.

      I just don't want to think about the nightmares I'm going to have tonight about this, I consider, I guess my dreams are beyond Luna's reach.

      I jump out of the bed into darkness. The moonlight illuminates the far walls of the courtyard, but little is reflected back in through the windows. I stand and listen, hearing only the clink of cooling stone, the occasional footsteps of Night Court functionaries passing through the hall outside, and, and, and silence. No entity bursts out of the now vacant bed. The shadows don't detach and come to smother me. The sun doesn't pop over the horizon and burn me to ashes as I claw at the door to escape. None of the bad things that I woke from, only to find myself in another dream happen. I stand for several minutes, looking, listening, scenting and waiting for some clue that this isn't another dream.

      As the sheer normality of the surroundings drives home the point, I go to the bathroom. For an instant, I'm frightened to open the door. I'm frightened of what might be in there, I'm frightened of what might have replaced the door, and I'm frightened that there won't be anything on the other side.

      I managed to get the door open, and get inside without slamming it behind me. The brighter light and the odd coloring actually soothe me. The nightmares never came in here, I remember, Of course I never made it this far, I always ran for the other door.

      With the knowledge that the toilet might jump up and bite me someplace tender, I relieve myself, then wash up. The mirror shows a pony who had seen better days. "At least I should have been drunk three days to look like that," I say to my reflection, who does not jump out of the mirror with a knife, which is good, or a hairbrush, manicure set, and curry comb, which while weird, would have been welcome.

      I guess that's my trouble with Discord. All catastrophe, but no eucatastrophe. Nothing good and wonderful, nothing joyous and inexplicable. If he'd stopped with the chocolate milk rain for a few days, he would have had something. Nope, straight to ponies thinking they're dogs forever, delusions and lies that hurt ponies. Has to be a horrorfest, I think as I wipe off my face.

      The room has been cleared of all the papers. They are neatly stacked in a cabinet. The lathe and mill are there, along with an anvil and a small brazier. All powered by magical sources, and all solid, steady and real. None were present in the dreams. The little grabber is in its rack, and ready to show to investors. Now that I know Brown Chief's 'hidden talent' I should talk to him about it, I think, and look out the window, Yeah, fly out there in a Diane, and ask him about how 'crazy' this gizmo is to invest in.

      I lie down on the floor, enjoying the cool, hard stone under my belly. When is the Gala? That's the first sign. That's when I really start living on borrowed time, I wonder, And what's after? I don't remember much after that episode, and Twilight going crazy in the aftermath. So what do I do? I lie there and think for a while. Lots of ideas and improvements for the inventions form in my head, but no new ideas for living.

      Soarin' looks at me, in positive terror. "I kinda broke it," he admits, "Please no oranges!" he pleads from his knees.

      "You really need to just learn to ask. That, and take more lessons from Ms. Pie," I say as gently as I can, "Take me to it." Several of the other Wonderbolts look positively sheepish as we walk to the hanger where the recently completed 'quadra-Diane' is/was housed.

      It's good they're on edge today. Princess Luna has a 'surprise' for us, and considering she's Celestia's sister, I can bet how that surprise is going to go down.

      The group waiting for us at the hanger is a surprise for everyone.

      "Amethyst Crown?" Fleetfoot asks the charcoal-gray, sunglasses-wearing pegasus stallion who looks like he'd just stepped out of a recruiting poster.

      "It's Tuxedo Stallion now, since I joined her Nightjesty's service," the dark pegasus says, although enough white peeps out of the uniform you could imagine he was wearing a tuxedo.

      "You've met Topaz Breeze, Storm Diamond, and Jubilee Rider," the pegasus introduces three mares, all with the same darkened coloration, and sunglasses.

      "Let me guess," I say, "The Shadowbolts."

      Tuxedo stares at me in confusion. "Good guess, and accurate," he says, then looks over at a salt-and-pepper maned, iridescent-gray pegasus stallion who regards all of the group with sternness.

      "S - S - Shadow Pearl!" Soarin' exclaims, "H- h - how are you doing?" Soarin remembers himself, he straightens up and salutes, "Sir!"

      "I'm here to see to it that you all start workin' together. The Princesses, please note the plural, are concerned that the Wonderbolts might have a problem with the Shadowbolts, until their roles are properly spelled out," the stallion says in a vaguely bored tone, as if he expects childlike behavior from the ponies before him, and will have to make an example of one.

      "Sir, should I leave?" I ask politely, "I have some equipment to check on, and I am not aware of being part of either team."

      "Your equipment is the reason we're all here Mr. McHorsefly, and is of glowing interest to me, and the Shadowbolts. I can think of no better place to discuss the situation, than in that hanger, where the rest of the Wonderbolts have already been assembled."

      Having received all but an order to lead the way, I do so. I ignore Soarin's worried muttering about having 'broke it'. The rest of the Wonderbolts, Glory Bell and all of my guard are there, and waiting.

      "Fans won't turn," Glory says without preamble, and glares at Soarin'.

      Spitfire is the only member of the entire group who looks pleased. "Captain, for a stallion who said he was through with flying, you're a welcome sight."

      " 'Through with flyin' for fun' was the exact quote," Shadow Pearl says and salutes Spitfire, who returns one of equal perfection, "Raisin' a pack of colts, didn't have time to raise you colts too."

      Then the two hug like the old friends they are. "I'm glad we're the same rank, I always wanted to do that."

      "Technically we aren't in the same chain of command anymore," Shadow Pearl says and breaks off the hug, "And what's this about the centerpiece being broken?"

      "Not broken, sabotaged," I say, "By me." I flip open the cover to the transmission, spin one of the gears, and slip a pin the size of a human pinkie back into place. Once that's locked, I put a hoof on the pedal and the small movement takes all the slop out of the drive train until the four large fan blades move ever so slightly.

      "But, why?" Soarin' asks, "Don't you trust us?"

      "He trusted you to do exactly what you did," Shadow Pearl says, "You always were too interested in toys."

      Soarin' takes the ribbing from the others in stride.

      "Forgive me for jumping ahead," I say, "But all of you have a history, even Glory seems to know who you all are, but I haven't the foggiest."

      "Barnum," Glory says, "Shadow Pearl was the captain of the Wonderbolts."

      "Still is," Spitfire says.

      "He developed a lot of their more complex maneuvers, and handled the training regimen. They wouldn't be half the team they are today, if not for his innovations."

      So not a stick up the back martinet, I realize, An innovator, just a by-the-book one.

      "The rest of us," Tuxedo Stallion says, "Either washed out, or turned down a chance to fly for the crowds."

      "I didn't 'wash out'," says Jubilee Rider, a mare who looked like a charcoal bodied Rainbow Dash, although her mane was the three secondary colors only.

      "You wanted to be the soloist on a team," Shadow Pearl says, "Now you have that chance."

      "I can't imagine that night-flying would be a popular spectator event," I say.

      Chuckles from the Shadowbolts, especially Tuxedo Stallion. "I didn't want to fly, because I wanted to do something with my flying."

      "The Wonderbolts do, do something. We inspire thousands every year." Spitfire says heatedly, her ears flat against her skull. Tuxedo responds with a knowing sneer.

      "The Shadowbolts' primary mission, will be search and rescue," Shadow Pearl injects, before the argument can come to blows, "Our primary problem has always been heavy lift. A pegasus might carry a child, but not a full-grown adult. A flying truss can make a team carry the weight, but it's difficult to maneuver in broken terrain, and again: what do you carry? We could recruit every pegasus doctor, but that still means supplies are limited to what one pegasus can carry."

      "But with a team of Dianes, you can let them carry the supplies, while the Wonderbolts, and Jubilee scout," I say, "Then the Shadowbolts carry out the close-in work."

      Shadow Pearl smiles. "Pretty close. We'll work out who does what, but you're right that the Wonderbolts will be better at what they're best at: fancy flying, and the new Shadowbolts will do the workpony-like job of controlled flying. The flying truss, plus that pylon turn open up new possibilities. Possibilities the Princesses strongly urge us to look into."

      The group nods. There's still tension between Spitfire and Tuxie, but Shadow Pearl glances at both and they simmer down.

      "Good. Now, I want a check flight on that thing and to learn to control it," Shadow Pearl says.

      "As long as the check flight doesn't exceed about a hoof-width off the ground. This is all new, no one has ever flown one of these before," I admit.

      "Then we'll be the first to find out," Shadow Pearl says.

      I point at Glory, who immediately snaps back her planned protest. "She's your pilot, you're the copilot. I'm just the flight engineer."

      "Three?" Shadow Pearl asks.

      "Fully loaded, this quadra-Diane should be able to pick up two full-grown ponies above and beyond the flight crew of three," I reply, "For short hops of a few miles. If they have to travel say here to Ponyville without stopping, it's less."

      "Good enough."

      Why don't you just pat me on the head? I think of Shadow Pearl's tone.

      "The first flight isn't a complete disaster," I say from where I'd dropped a moment earlier. A quick survey shows that ponies are more durable then their Earthly counterparts. I.e., none of the three of us is plastered all over the landscape.

      "I'd like your definition of a failure," Shadow Pearl asks as he sits up from where he was thrown.

      "Any landing you can walk away from is a good one," I tell the former Wonderbolt as I walk over to where the quadra-Diane sits, and Glory hangs onto the controls with an iron grip, "Having the bird in one piece, is a special bonus."

      "I think the pilot's seat needs replacement," Glory says as she slowly releases her grip on the control stick, " 'Cause I'm not sitting on it until it is."

      "How soon can we be up and ready for another go?" Shadow Pearl asks as the rest of the team rushes over to where the bird sits, the rotors spinning down.

      "Replacing the seat will take about 20 minutes, but I want to do a full structural and control damage check. It'll also let our pilot get a bath, and hose off the frame."

      Spitfire and Claire are guiding a still-shaken Glory away from the others.

      "Can you teach us that maneuver?" one of the younger Wonderbolts asks, "It looked really cool, until you let go."

      "If I could decide which of the three of you said that - " Pearl growls.

      "Hit the one in the middle," Fleetfoot suggests, "And you are getting a lie down as well. Your brain will work fine while the doc checks out that your structure and control system are all working, both of you."

      "If it gets me out of carrying this to the shop, or the tool boxes out here, I'm all for it," I suggest and let Fleetfoot and Soarin' guide me towards a very worried-looking, medical pony. Blaze and Tuxie are doing the same for Shadow Pearl.

      I see the smiles between those two, I think, proving I'm not too far gone, I think somebody followed somebody else to the Wonderbolts, then couldn't hack it.

      "There it is." Barnum held the small piece of metal up for Pearl to see. "The shear pin didn't exactly shear completely, but it jammed the drive train to one of the rotors. That's why we went into a flat spin."

      "Is there a way we can start up testing today?" Pearl asked.

      "I can replace this pin, but the gears that chewed on it, that's a few hours work to replace them. If I had replacements. I'd also like to understand why it sheared at such low speeds. It's meant to keep someone from getting the rotors going so fast that they break."

      "Don't fly without shear pins," Peal said, "Wouldn't a governor be better?"

      "What soldier ever let a governor live, when there was speed to be had?" Barnum asked.

      Pearl nodded. Really smart kid, the old flier thought.

      "So are we clear for ground tests, pull the other pins and let the drive shafts rotate. At least we can see how the controls operate. And let Glory get a bit more settled as the pilot."

      "We can try that, but all it will do is let you see what the controls do to tilt the rotors, not how they'll affect it in flight."

      "For some of us, that will be a start," Pearl said, thinking of at least three of the current Wonderbolts, and two of the Shadowbolts. "What is that?" Pearl asked of a small box with a painted orb inside attached to the control panel. He hadn't been able to ask before the incident.

      "An artificial horizon," Barnum said, "It indicates your actual attitude, rather than what your senses tell you. With that, a gyrocompass, and good charts, you could fly across the open sea in a pitch black night."

      Pearl stared at Barnum as if he'd turned into Nightmare Moon. Barnum smiled at the stunned, old pegasus.

      "Now do you understand? With good instruments, a map and a stop watch, a pilot could fly Ghastly Gorge in a flier with no windows."

      "I think I'm going to go outside and be terrified," Pearl said.

      "Welcome to aircraft design," Barnum said.

      Pearl walked out of the hanger. Lieutenant Solitude and Sergeant Mile Stone just happened to be between Topaz Breeze and Fleetfoot. Spitfire and Tuxedo Stallion were at least being civil to one another, although Claire and Soarin's close proximity may have had something to do with it.

      "He should have it useable in a few minutes," Pearl told them, "Not for flying, but for ground testing. Spitfire, Blaze, Tuxedo Stallion, Storm Diamond, Glory Bell, and Lieutenant Solitude, you'll be cycling through training with the machine. It won't be flight capable, so don't worry."

      The Lieutenant looked worried. "Sir, I wasn't briefed on getting, flight training."

      "How are you going to guard him, if you stay on the ground?"

      "I'm afraid of heights, sir," the Lieutenant answered.

      "It can't fly, and if something goes wrong in the air, you have to know what to do," Pearl replied. The mare's fear did not subside.

      "That's it," I say as I horn the sheer pin to Glory. I look at the tools scattered on the desk in my room and consider what I'll need to finish the gears.

      "That's nice," she says, "What am I looking at?"

      "The fruits of a too-hasty design, and a few assumptions that proved untrue. There's enough slop in the shaft that the sheer pin was acting as a universal joint, so the load exceeded what the pin was designed for, and it did more than it was supposed to do. It's supposed to fix it so only part of the force goes to the rotor, not bring the assembly to a sudden stop," I tell her, "If it had happened in the air, or with a less steady pony at the controls, it might have gotten very interesting."

      "Define 'interesting'."

      "Sir Bell, I'm deeply sorry, here's a coffee cup full of all the bits we could find," I reply.

      "You are not making me happier about our second flight," she responds, "So do we go with solid shafts, install a universal joint there, and a sheer pin near the fan assembly, or go without the pins entirely?" she asks as she walks away from the table and among the bedsteads with the designs pasted up on them.

      "Don't know," I tell her, then glance out the window, "I think that's a question for tomorrow. With the sun down, it's time for some of us to get some sleep."

      She walks up behind me. "Aren't you slighting Princess Luna, not walking out under her night sky?"

      "To tell the truth, the sun doesn't hold any real fascination for me either. But I can understand why Luna feels the way she does. Most ponies are not nocturnal, and too many predators are. With time comes astronomy, and night clubs, but I'm an early riser. I look at her night as it ends, not from beginning to middle."

      "Poetic way to put it." She glances over at Claire, asleep on another of the beds. Brushcut standing guard inside the room. "I think she has the right idea," Glory says as she floats another bed over, so Claire is between where she'll sleep and where I will. "Keeps the gossip down," she tells me, but gives me a peck on the cheek anyway.

      I ignore Brushcut's raised eyebrows and settle myself into my own bunk.

      The morning has us out on the Wonderbolts' practice field, the new gears going into the transmission. Many of the mechanics who set up the practice fields are watching the change out. Pinkie's gizmo is making the need for four hands to do some jobs irrelevant. Glory installs a double-cardan type universal joints to each drive shaft. It's midafternoon when the vehicle is ready for another attempt. The mechanics have tethered the machine to the ground.

      "I am not lifting more than against the tethers," Glory says, "But I will run the controls."

      Spitfire is with her, and Jubilee as 'flight engineer'. The rest of us watch, and those of us with horns get ready to restrain the quadra-Diane should it get loose.

      Several fancily-dressed civilians have wandered past the barriers and are approaching the flight line. I move off to intercept them. Mile Stone, Tuxedo and Soarin' move up to support me. "Excuse me, I'm afraid that I must insist that you take your place behind the barriers. They were set up for your safety."

      Several of the people nod and turn back, but there's always one. "Do you know who I am?" the unicorn in the polo shirt and tied sweater asks.

      If he isn't a preppy stereotype, I think vaguely.

      "No, sir, and if you stay here, you'd better tell me. Because if that machine breaks loose and crashes over here, we'll need a medium to discover who you were. Dental records only help so much."

      "Dental records?" the preppy whines.

      "Yes sir," I say enthusiastically, "Big, fast-whirling blades, restaurants use the same principle to fast chop their garnishes. Once a pony is reduced to cubes less than a bit width, it becomes very difficult to get any identifying factors, and if you're mixed in with your lovely, minced companion, we won't be able to tell who is whom."

      "Perhaps behind the barrier is safer?" the mare with him asks, "Are any of the barriers more . . . solid than those ropes?"

      "Ma'am, a hoof-width of concrete might not stop it. It travels in a fairly straight line, just run at right-angles and you should be fine."

      The mare drags her brain-fried stallion away behind the barriers. Brown Chief and Moon City have also arrived to watch the test. They automatically stay behind the barriers. On a balcony at the castle I can see the flash of white that can only be Celestia.

      "Not nice," Mile Stone says approvingly, "But very effective."

      Glory and Spitfire are concentrating on their jobs. Jubilee is looking rather uncertain. Then they begin pedaling. The quadra-Diane raises about a foot into the air. The tethers strain but remain solidly in the ground. Glory moves through the various controls, making the machine dip and twist as the four rotors change their rotational speeds or directions. The crowd 'oo's and 'ah's a bit, but the test is not that momentous. Spitfire occasionally takes the controls and duplicates Glory's maneuvers. After several minutes, they land it back safely, and Jubilee takes Spitfire's position, while Spitfire moves to the back. Jubilee is clearly not the natural flier Spitfire is, or as skilled a pilot. But with Glory backing her moves, nothing untoward happens.

      The quadra-Diane settles back down, and the two mares climb off. Blaze and Storm take their places, and the quadra-Diane goes back up, to complete the exact same test maneuvers. The learners are switched out and the new copilot goes through the entire set of maneuvers.

      I don't know if the crowd was expecting blood, I think as I notice the diminished collection of gawkers, At least Celestia, Moon City and Brown Chief are still watching. I just wonder who that fancy pants unicorn and mare are.

      Tuxie and Lieutenant Solitude are the last of the group. The lieutenant is the most nervous of any of the copilots, but the proximity to the ground gives her enough confidence to perform the maneuvers. Tuxie visibly rails against the restriction, but Glory is firm.

      Good girl, I think, then spot Spitfire and Shadow Pearl nodding, I think some - pony is going to get an attitude adjustment.

      When the machine sets down for the last time, Glory wilts over the bench. The lieutenant very carefully steps off, then collapses onto the ground. Tuxie sees Shadow Pearl headed over and looks more frightened that the lieutenant was. I head over to the barrier and pull them aside to let the few lookie-lous see the team.

      "What exactly is the, well, purpose of this machine?" the unicorn stallion I couldn't place asks.

      "P.T. Barnum McHorsefly, Fancypants," Moon City introduces us.

      "What does the P.T. stand for?" Fancypants asks while the alicorn-like unicorn mare heads over to talk to Glory. Claire lets her, so I concentrate on the groups near me.

      "Whatever is of use at the moment. The machine is to allow a wider access and utility to flight. A pegasus could easily outrun or outmaneuver one, but not out-carry. Enhanced carrying capacity and the inclusion of electrically or magically powered engines would make them even more powerful, but a pony-powered unit will let us train pilots and is does give adequate performance."

      "Rescuing foals off cliffs, placing weathervanes on barns and the like all seem like something a pegasus/unicorn team could easily achieve. Is this some way of equalizing things for earth ponies?" Fancypants asks.

      "No sir, anyone can fly one, and anyone can have the advantages of one. In a less efficient version than this, Sergeant Mile Stone and I flew from Ponyville to here, in one night. Carrying a fair weight in cargo. Most of the ponies being trained are pegasi and unicorns. Part of the reason you build devices like this, is to see what others will do with them. One other obvious use is as a firefighting machine. A large, refillable water bag, or a unicorn passenger picks up a large amount of water at a lake or stream, and moves it where they need it to fight a forest or house fire. Or even a fire aboard a ship. I'm sure if I left you three gentlemen in a room with one of these, you could develop hundreds of uses, from joyriding, to more businesslike functions. My job is to work the bugs out so other ponies can make use of them."

      Fancypants nods. "I think you are correct. Too bad you can't do the same with these New Lunar Republic ponies. Can't they leave her Highness, their Highnesses alone? Do we have to hear the same squabbles about cutie-marks define us, or they restrict us? That the monarchy is inherently unfair/uncaring, and why doesn't her Highness do more for individuals and everypony?"

      "If the rumors I've heard are true," I say, as both Moon City and Brown Chief are sweating bullets, "Is that her Highness Luna has them well in hand and is softening up her Highness Celestia to accept some of their more reasonable demands." I look around carefully. "I've even heard that there are elements of the government which approve of these changes. Giving the power of law, to customs which have had the force of law for several hundred years. It doesn't really change anything, but it allows other groups to voice their desire for change. They aren't going to get it right the first time, but it isn't intended to make Equestria a perfect paradise. Who could agree what is paradise in any case?"

      "True," Fancypants said, "Are these for sale, or will they be, once you've ironed the bugs out?"

      "Yet they will be," I reply.

      "I think a sky yacht would be well served in having one or two, rather than go through the dangerous proposition of landing for each and every little thing."

      "I'll make sure you are informed when we begin manufacture. If you're interested in a smaller model, you might want to contact Pinkamena Diane Pie in Ponyville. She has built several small, single-seat models."

      "I think we would prefer a two-seater," Fancypant said, "And later, a cargo carrier."

      "I understand, sir."

      We move towards the machine. The two NLR-types hold back, leaving Fancypants free to look. I note that while he looks very carefully, he doesn't touch anything without first asking permission, usually of Glory. The inspection he gives is thorough, and Moon City and Brown Chief seem to be willing to await his pleasure. So does everyone else, including Glory. So I wait.

      "Would you and your lady like to go for a short ride?" I offer, and ignore the warning looks from everyone else in the area.

      "It wouldn't be too much trouble?" the stallion asks eagerly.

      "No, I need a little time at the controls myself," I admit, "The tethers will hold it down, so we can't really go cartwheeling all over the horizon."

      "Then what was the fence for?" the unicorn mare asks.

      "If pieces came flying off, they might fly quite a distance. But I doubted that would have dissuaded them," I explain.

      Fancypants accepts the nod from the mare, and they climb into the pilot and copilot seats. The Wonderbolts and Shadowbolts around the test site snicker, but I ignore them. With the two of them pedaling enough to get the rotors turning, I explain the instruments and the controls.

      "You'll have to pedal much faster to get airborne." They do, and we lift, jerk against the tethers, and gently bump down again.

      "I'm afraid that's all the courage I have at the moment," Fancypants admits, and his lady agrees.

      "You can come back when you can just be an observer," I tell them as they shakily climb out and stagger away to sit down on the grass.

      "Well, played," Glory whispers, "Discounting their Highnesses, he's one of the biggest wheels in Canterlot. And where did you meet Moon City and Brown Chief? Add my uncle and you've got the top tenth of 'who's who' in Canterlot."

      "Carrying messages," I reply, "Don't ask unless you want to hear about what I did to Sunny Days."

      "How did you beat up that monster of a stallion?" Glory asks.

      "Pure ferocity, and no sense of morals or fairness. If just Luna or Celestia had been there, it might have had a very different ending."

      "Even you aren't a match for both Alicorn sisters," Glory says as she frowns.

      "That's what I said. But if there'd been only one . . . You can ask them if you don't believe me."

      "It'll take at least two hours to fix," I tell Shadow Pearl as I examine the twisted drive shaft.

      "I expect it in half-an-hour," he says and walks away.

      "You won't get it," I tell him.

      "I gave you an order."

      "The order's not possible. I don't pad my estimates. You asked how long, I told you. You want to fly with three rotors, that's fine too," I tell him, "You want four, it's going to take two hours."

      He glares at me, but I return my attention to the job and don't even look at him. Despite the heat of his stare, I keep working.

      After a bit, Spitfire walks over. "He's going to expect that job done in half-an-hour."

      "It's always good to want things. But like I told him. This job typically takes the time it takes and I'm not going to cut corners, and safety, just because he's in a hurry. We aren't being shot at, no lives are in the balance, and so there's no excuse to do something that'll endanger you and the others because he wants to prove who's boss."

      She shakes her head as she walks away. The drive shaft comes out easily, eight minutes, but the holes in the mating pieces for the pins that held the drive shaft are enlarged. That means weld and temper, which means at least an hour. He walks over as I'm setting up the temper.

      "This should be ready," he tells me.

      "If you want a vibration from the shaft rattle tearing something loose, it's ready now. Then it's grounded until I can figure out what damage was done. Unless the connectors do open the holes more and the whole assembly slips out Then I'll be further delayed by helping with the funeral of whoever was flying it."

      "What would you do if we were under fire?" he asks.

      "I probably would wedge something in there and weld up the whole thing, and hang all but the briefest temper," I reply.

      "Why not here?"

      "Because then we'd have to replace the entire line from the rotor to the transmission, or spend hours breaking the welds and fixing things. There aren't any other shops making these, just me. If you want interchangeable parts, I have to make them, or I have to recruit others to make them to exacting specifications. That takes time that the level and speed of repairs you require don't allow for."

      "So it's my fault."

      "If you want 100% up time on a machine that is essentially a work-in-progress prototype, talk to your own mechanics about building a second, or even a third one. I have the blueprints of how the machine is as it currently stands. It's not a question of 'fault', it's a question of resource allocation," I tell him as I finish the tempering and begin reassembling the piece with the pins and the new drive shaft. I can feel him staring at me.

      "If you quit wasting time locked up with the Princesses, you'd have more time to work," he says.

      "They outrank you, sir, and that is the work. This, is the time off," I tell him flatly.

      Luna looked around the small conference room accessible only through the two sisters' quarters, at the diligent ponies working with her and her sister, and felt ashamed asking these bone-weary ponies, "Why do we specifically need to prohibit our subjects from being able to sue our Highnesses?" She ignored the polite but faintly pained expressions, as they struggled to hammer out, yet another bump in the 'Magna Carta'.

      Barnum looked up from his notes and noticeably stifled a sigh. "Because if you are encouraging your subjects to freely seek redress of grievances, there will be a portion who will demand redress of frivolous grievances, as well as people who will seek to use the pretense of a grievance to waste your Highnesses' time, resources, or to simply enrich themselves at the government's expense by lawsuit. There are always those willing to 'use a shield as a sword'," Barnum explained.

      "Very good, young sir," Sir Eagle said, as exhausted and as polite as the colt, "We'll make a proper civil servant of you yet. It is a good point, and we are talking about enshrining items in law that have always been the accepted custom."

      "If Brown Chief and Moon City knew who was really 'redrafting' their documents, they'd have a conniption fit," Barnum said.

      "Oh dear, and I was so hoping for a complete coronary," Sir Eagle said and sadly shook his head, "Give them a heroes' funeral with all the trimmings. State Funerals are such a nice and honorable way to close the book on a useful tool."

      Luna coughed up her tea as Celestia chuckled. "Their deaths should not be celebrated!" Luna insisted.

      "Oh no, your Highness," Barnum corrected, "Their deaths shouldn't be arranged. But their deaths should be celebrated, all of Equestria honors their bravery and dedication."

      "Tragic loss, cut down after such a momentous accomplishment, what other wonders could they have achieved?" Eagle Bell asked rhetorically.

      Luna was staring at them with utter horror. Celestia's suppressed laughter didn't help.

      "Your Highness," Barnum said, "It also prevents people from thinking the movement was tainted by these people who didn't just have hooves of clay, but were clay up to their necks."

      "Tips of their upraised ears, I should think," Eagle Bell corrected, "Discovering such things after someone has died just elevates the stature of their accomplishments."

      "I'm rather glad you two are on our side," Luna said, then considered, "You are on our side?"

      "We are happy and eager to serve, your Nightjesty," Eagle Bell said as he and Barnum bowed slightly.