Out of Place

by Dan_s Comments

Chapter 1: Out of Options Part 1

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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."

Next Chapter: Out of Options Part 2 Estimated time remaining: 6 Hours, 22 Minutes
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