- Oliver Wendell Hooves
Twilight Sparkle gaped in horror and astonishment as the strange carriage plummeted down the improbably steep, narrow roadway. Both sides of the road were deadly cliffs, but the worst and most unlikely thing about the road was that it terminated in an abrupt drop with no barrier and no possible way to stop. The road seemed to have been built purely for the purpose of being a deathtrap, since it could serve no other conceivable function. Its design and very existence was insane.
The shrieking ponies in the runaway carriage would simply die, horribly and horrifically, when they flew off the end of the ridiculous road only to smash into bloody, bleeding masses of ruptured flesh and powdered bone. Below the precipitous road, on the wide green, Twilight could see ponies milling about, some enjoying picnics, others strolling to and from the shops that surrounded the greensward. None had seemed the least concerned about the impossible existence of the granite mount that had somehow come to exist in the center of the flat river land that was Ponyville - at least until the screaming carriage had begun its dash to destruction.
Now the ponies, many of which Twilight recognized, were gazing helplessly in terror at the imminent tragedy. Forcefully wrenching her own mind from her shock, Twilight refused to allow this travesty to occur. Gathering her magic within her, she bore down with all of her might and encompassed the runaway carriage and its howling occupants within her hornfield just as they shot out past the end of the road. Held firm inside her softly glowing thaumaturgical grasp, Twilight slowly lowered the carriage to the green and released her telekinetic grip. The glowing field projected by her horn collapsed, and she felt herself sag in exhaustion from the effort. The carriage had been traveling at quite a speed, and nullifying that much kinetic energy had been taxing.
Ponies began surrounding her, congratulating her, and comparing her to some sort of comic-book heroine she had never heard of. Most bizarre, it became clear that this was a regular occurrence, and that all manner of similar nightmares had happened before, apparently at the rate of several a week - because she could not, would not accept the claim of several times a day.
None of it made the least sense. Even if carts and carriages met their doom even once per week, Ponyville would become a mass grave within mere months. It was absurd, and Twilight could take no more of it. Screaming incoherently at the crowd of well-wishers, she galloped off in a panic away from not only the location, but the implications of the ponies words.
Down one street and then another Twilight ran, blindly, afraid that she had somehow gone mad. After a time, loss of breath conspired to slow her, and she was forced to trot, and then to amble. She found herself in the main ponyville marketplace, within the wide cobblestone courtyard that surrounded the City Hall. Twilight stopped and looked around her.
There was no sign of the great stone mountain where the deadly road had been. Twilight scanned the horizon, but there was no sign of where she had just run from. The terrible death-road had been hundreds of hooves in the air, cut into a vast and tall ridge of granite that could not possibly exist upon the flat lands of Ponyville, and now, it once again did not. She shook her head. She could make no sense of what had just happened or for that matter, where.
Twilight was thirsty, after her efforts and her panicked dash. Merely being around the kind ponies of the marketplace would serve to calm her nerves. She could get something to drink, something to eat perhaps, and she could make some discrete inquiries as well. If the mountain road was real, other ponies would know of it, and if it was not, she would know she had suffered some kind of insult to her mentation.
She enjoyed the Ponyville central marketplace. Unlike the snooty, upper-class stores of Canterlot, the market stalls, carts and small shops of Ponyville were welcoming places filled with kind ponies more interested in a friendly word than a successful sale. It was a place where if a pony was short a bit it mattered little, where generosity and kindness were the rule. Twilight thought of Carrot Top's little cart, where Spike often shopped - many was the time when he would come home with an extra bunch just because Carrot Top had decided that he looked especially hungry that day. Twilight recalled the time that Banana Moon had outright given her a bunch to take for no reason other than she had felt like doing it.
The market ponies would be a stabilizing influence on her disturbed thoughts and troubled feelings. Plus, she could really use a nice fruit smoothie, now that she thought about it. That was her plan, then. She would go pretend to shop, ask a few discrete questions, purchase a nice fruit drink, and sit down and try to make sense of things. It was a rational plan, taking care of mind and body both.
Twilight strolled through the market, on all sides were colorful stalls and carts selling everything from asparagus to cherries. But something was off. For one thing, the number of carts and stalls seemed much greater, as if Ponyville had increased in population by twice or even three times. But more disturbing was that the voices coming from the constant bartering of the ponies around her were anything but gentle or happy.
"What do you think you're doing?" An angry pony slammed a hoof down on a countertop.
"Mindin' my own business, maybe you should try it." The response from the tough-looking vendor was harsh, cold, and... mean.
"Two bits for tomatoes is outrageous, one bit is the right price!" The customer practically spat her words.
"You don't like it, go take a hike!" This was not the market that Twilight knew or understood. In some ways, seeing ponies act this way was more upsetting than that... insane, mountain death road just moments ago.
Everywhere she wandered, Twilight heard the same harsh tones, the same angry, bitter arguing over price or quality or amount. Prices were raised on the spot in order to gouge customers in need, and nothing was ever offered without a steep price demanded. The market had turned into a cutthroat effort to profit at all cost, filled with shouts and anger.
"I...I j-just have a few bits. I need some sugar for my grandfoal's birthday. It was only two bits y-yesterday!" Twilight turned and recognized the quavering voice of kindly Granny Smith, Applejack's grandmare. She must be planning for Applejack's birthday, which was coming up in just two days. Twilight suddenly realized, sadly, that she could not accurately calculate the hours and minutes as well, because of the current strange circumstances.
"Well, because you need it so much, it's four bits today, so dig a little harder in that fleabitten old saddlebag of yours, granny - Haw, Haw, Haw!" Never in her entire year in Ponyville had Twilight Sparkle heard anypony speak to any other pony in such a manner. Certainly not to one of the very founders of the town itself.
"Excuse me?" Twilight stepped in, nodding and smiling at Applejack's beloved grandmare. "Allow me to help. I'd love to chip in for Applejack's birthday, she's one of my best friends. Here you go, here's ten bits, Granny Smith, get everything you need, please!" Twilight smiled, happy at being able to resolve at least one conflict in this strange day.
Granny Smith looked at the bits on the counter, and spat at them. "Y-you think you're all better than simple f-farm folk, because you're the f-fancy student of Celestia an' all? K-keep your bits, I ain't takin' no charity from some upstart unicorn!"
The Apple clan were a stubborn group, but this was unusual even for them, and definitely unusual for Granny Smith. Twilight backed away, shocked at the response she had received for her kindness. "You gonna take your bits back or what?" The vendor was insistent. Twilight shook her head to clear it, confused. "Well, happy day then! More for me!" The bits were instantly swept under the counter as if they had never existed. "No refunds!" The vendor stallion gave Twilight a harsh look.
Twilight's hooves moved of their own accord, as if they could no longer bear to be near the marketplace. She would find no succor, no refreshment here. The crowd was definitely greater than normal, and none of it was the least bit polite or pleasant. Twilight found herself in a fast trot between the carts and stalls, seeking the open courtyard.
It was at this moment that a cyan-blue blur swooped out of the sky, flaring wings at the last moment, to stand in front of her, blocking her exit from the market. The rainbow-colored mane shook itself out of cerise eyes. The eyes looked angry.
"What were you DOING back there? I HAD that carriage, Twilight! You completely ruined my awesome entrance and stole ALL of my thunder! What did I ever do to you, huh? What, now you're out to be the next big hero of Ponyville? You wanna challenge my supreme awesomeness? Don't make me laugh! I'll take that challenge! Any day, any time, right now if..."
"I... I don't understand... Rainbow? What is..." Twilight was utterly confused.
Dash was livid with anger "On the Cliff Road, the runaway carriage! I HAD that, Twilight! But you butted in, and stole all my glory! There were reporters and everything!"
"B-but the ponies..." Twilight's mind reeled at the thought that the Element Of Loyalty, one of her dearest friends, would ever value her own fame over the lives of others "It doesn't matter who saved them, as long as they were..."
"Shyeah, right! Get with the program, Sparkle!" Rainbow Dash's expression was mocking and cruel "It's all about the fame... and you jumped my claim!"
Twilight was running again, ducking and weaving through the market, just trying to escape. Dash was angry with her because she had saved the runaway carriage on the deadly road. Dash was so angry, and all of it was directed at her. The road, the market, Granny Smith, and now this. Tears ran from Twilight's eyes as she dived between two overly tall buildings only to find herself standing on a road overlooking a large construction area.
The construction zone was busy, and many ponies in yellow hard-hats wearing tool belts were at work within it. They were constructing a tall building in the center, a structure that seemed like it would dwarf even the brick buildings of Manehattan. Twilight stood on the edge of the pit and wiped her eyes as she caught her breath.
The construction ponies were using machines that Twilight had never seen before. There was a large crane machine that ran on some kind of strange wheels that were surrounded by bands that moved when the wheels turned. The crane machine had a sort of little shed with a chimney on it, and a pony worked levers from within the shed while dark smoke puffed from the top. It couldn't be steam, steam was white. It wasn't a cold day, it was summer.
The crane moved! It swung and extended like some great leg made of wood and metal, and the hook on the end dropped on a long cable. It wasn't magic, Twilight could sense that much. The construction ponies were using the crane to lift beams up to the higher levels of the skeleton of the building.
Where were the pegasai? Pegasai could fly, they were excellent construction workers, they could work together to lift beams and even pull entire cartloads of supplies into the air. Whatever was hitched to a pegasus became an extension of them - they could simply park vast loads of building materials in the air for ponies to use. There wasn't a single pegasus in the work crew. They were all earthponies, every last one.
The smoke from the noisy crane-machine smelled oily and terrible, but the strange banded wheels that moved the whole of it, shed, crane and all, did capture Twilight's attention. They were truly a clever invention, though one she had never heard of before. They must be brand new, yet the machine looked as if it had seen many, many years of use. This was the second impossibility, Twilight's mind noted. No, the third, she instantly corrected, the very fact of whatever was happening was itself impossible, which counted as a third imposition on causal reality. The street, the cliff road, and now this... technology.
The idea of steam-powered armatures had been considered, at length, in several volumes of The Journal Of Equestrian Equineering, and even Starswirl himself had intimated that one day other forces than those of magic and of intrinsic and extrinsic pony abilities might permit unheard of advances - but he had warned, as she remembered, against pursuing such advancement because, as he had put it, 'innovation demands excavation'. He had pictured a world gone mad, where entire mountains were leveled to provide the raw materials for speculative mechanisms of the future. Always a wild read, that Starswirl, such a visionary.
But here in front of her was just the sort of future technology that the old master of thaumatology had cautioned about. The sooty chimney on the crane shed must burn something, Twilight reasoned, lost in rational examination, that had more power than mere wood and water and steam could provide. Some other fuel that nopony had discovered yet. Twilight's eyes grew wide. Of course! She had been shifted into the far future where...
No. That could not be it at all. Twilight, sitting now on the edge of the construction site, considered the ponies she had met. Rainbow Dash, not a day older. Granny Smith, still alive. This could not be the far future. Yet the loud, smoke-belching, strangely wheeled... tracked?... crane-machine appeared well used and ...old. It was impossible. It was as if she had somehow stepped into another Equestria altogether. A mirror Ponyville where Rainbow Dash was uncaring and less than loyal, where Granny Smith and the entire marketplace was bitter or mean, and... no. That was not the answer either. The matter of that impossible, vanishing deadly cliff road glared out. An alternate universe would be just as consistent and solid as the universe she knew. Vanishing mountains suggested something far more exotic.
Twilight stood once more, calmed by the work of sorting and organizing her experiences, and looked around once more for the great mountain that must exist in the center of Ponyville. There was nothing - Ponyville was its usual, flat, riverland location as always. No mountain. No cliff. No deadly road.
This could not be explained, Twilight concluded, by time travel, nor by some alternate universe variation of the world she knew. This was stranger than either of these fantastic, speculative notions. She was not insane, either, she decided, at least the likelihood was very low - Rainbow Dash had been aware of the impossible road, and despite the mountain mysteriously vanishing, everything else remained constant. The crane did not vanish when she looked away and then back again, neither had anything in the marketplace appeared dreamlike or mutable. The death road was a blatant inconsistency, but everything else seemed solid. There might yet be some explanation for the missing mountain. An invisibility spell, perhaps? No, it would be a pointless and gargantuan effort.
She needed more information. She also needed to find out if she could return to her own Ponyville, for this certainly was not it. Whatever this place was, it was not her home, even if the ponies she knew seemed to live here. Wait! There was a simple means to determine if this was a changed Ponyville, an alternate Ponyville, or something else. Granny Smith lived here. Rainbow Dash was represented, or at least some variant of Dash. It would be reasonable to expect all of her friends - or variations of them - would be in this place too.
She needed to go to the library. Home. Or at least the version of her home that existed here, wherever here was, whatever here was. Would there be another Twilight Sparkle in the Books and Branches? If there was, this must be an alternate reality of some kind. Vanishing mountain notwithstanding, meeting another her would strongly suggest some kind of parallel universe as described by Starswirl in his seminal work 'Speculations on Thaumatic Ontology', volume three, pages 223 to 226. Such a thrilling book - such tomes were one of the few things she missed about living in Canterlot. Well, that and proximity to the princess, of course. Twilight blushed slightly at the thought.
Twilight headed towards the direction of the library. She could, if she wanted, stop at Sugarcube Corner and check to see if there was a version of Pinkie Pie here as well. It would also be interesting to see if the Pinkie here was in any way different from the Pinkie she knew. That might be telling.
Twilight deliberately skirted the marketplace, she did not want to chance another run in with the self-centered, uncompassionate Rainbow Dash of this... realm. It bothered her that she did not know what to call... whatever this was. A term would come in time, she reassured herself. It was always so disconcerting to lack proper terminology.
Sugarcube Corner was ahead. Would the Pinkie-Pie here be as loving, gentle, fun - and occasionally teasing - as the Pinkie she knew? The circumstance she was in had entirely removed any remaining ire she had possessed with regard to her friends. She felt foolish to have allowed herself to become so angry over their ribbing of her. She was a bit prepossessed with details and overly concerned with propriety and... face it, she thought, she was anything but 'loose'. The fact of it was that her friends were right about her. She never had been able to truly let go, not even when she was just a foal, growing up alo....
Twilight found herself smacked to the ground, stunned and on her rump, her legs splayed out from the brutal impact. She looked up to find a bright yellow and pink wall of fury looming over her. It was Fluttershy, but it was no Fluttershy she could have ever imagined.
"WHEN SOMEPONY TRIES TO BLOCK, SHOW THEM THAT YOU ROCK!"