This audience was the largest yet.
The Manehattan Royal Equestrian Theatre had been built during an age where Celestia had briefly experimented with permitting advances in physical technology. For eighty years, until it became clear that the land would become ruined, the sky poisoned, and ponies forced to work long hours at thankless jobs, the City of Manehattan had reveled in 'Big'. Big buildings were built, Big streets were laid, Big ambitions rose up, and Big fortunes were made.
But the cost had been an entire forest turned to desert, a mountain reduced to a poisoned pit, and skies darkened by soot and grime. Worse, tens of thousands of ponies had ended up wage slaves without futures of their own, while the few grew wealthier and wealthier. Unrest grew and in the end Celestia had needed to intervene, and bring the first and only Equestrian industrial revolution to an end.
Manehattan remained, as the skies slowly cleared. The forest never grew back, and the pit that had been a mountain was still filled with sludge. Celestia had left those as a reminder to herself and everypony that magic was enough, and that happiness was more important than ambition.
The experiment had not been entirely without benefit, however. Manehattan was now the largest city in Equestria, and had the most impressive architecture outside of Canterlot itself. Of import now, it had the largest theatre in the entire pocket universe, and being a very international city, the most diverse audience. Griffons and the civilized dragons lived and worked in Manhattan, as did the more socially inclined sorts of diamond dogs. Tonight's audience was not just made up of ponies alone.
The mare in the front row examined her program. It was exquisitely printed, in full color, and it was rumored that the RADWICKINS had some kind of an in with the Royal Printers in Canterlot itself. She studied the cover in the dim light, as the orchestra tuned their instruments. The text was grandly done in all three pony writing forms - the common earthpony grainscript that every Equestrian knew, but also unicorn glyphs and the cloudsigils used by the pegasai, - and what appeared to be New Draconic and Red Claw Gryphography as well. She had seldom seen so many forms of writing on one document.
The stallion next to her leaned over "I was so excited to get us tickets and get inside, I don't even know what the show is tonight. So, what are the ol' RADWICKINS doing for us this evening?"
The mare grinned and read out loud "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Farrier" She blinked at her date.
"I... don't get it." The stallion shrugged with his ears.
"Oh! Of course. I'm sorry. It's... kind of a... take off... on a famous old musical from Earth. It's very funny!" The mare looked down, slightly embarrassed - her knowledge instantly defined her as a Newfoal and not a native.
"None of that now!" The stallion gave her a strong and gentle nuzzle. "I won't have my future wife fussing over her past, not when we have a future to build... together."
The mare looked up, relieved. She nuzzled her fiance back, and lay her head against his thick, powerful neck. It would be another eight months before her foal was born, but she felt glad that her little one would grow up knowing such a loving and dedicated sire.
The great velvet curtain of the Manehattan Royal Equestrian Theatre slowly rose. The lights brightened as the fifty-piece Grand Orchestra began to play the music of old earth. Several dozen ponies on the stage, in costume, sprightly began to sing.
"We lost our fingers
Now we are singers
We got converted and
We're hoofing it tonight!
No clothes concealing
We are revealing
All of our tails to you
We'll tell'ya of our plight!
Humans withdrawn, we'll carry on
Now that we're ponies, our world is gone!
Been sitting pidgeons
For when the potion hit the fan -
We've been converted
Stallions got lucky but -
Magic is clever
Don't need a lever
We laugh at physics now
We were just pawns, now we eat lawns
let's see Celestia dressed in long-johns!
This is such feces
that we've changed species
We've revolution to incite -
forget that we're ponies
The ponies on stage froze in a magnificent tableau, as the orchestra hit the final note, and the applause, made of stomping hooves, the hard clash of scaly claws, hooting Gryphonic calls and the noisome gibbering of diamond dogs threatened to deafen the very audience that produced it.
While the Marketplace Scene brought down the house in laughter beyond the backstage walls, Soliloquy had a very special visitor who had requested to speak with her alone. It was the Royal Wish that something new be presented at the conclusion of the show, something other than the now traditional reading of the Society Motto.
"All over Equestria?" Soliloquy sat with folded legs, eyes wide at the thought, mixed emotions filling her heart. She had always been divided inside when dealing with Celestia. Her feelings had become even more complicated over the last two years touring with the company, living a life beyond anything she had dreamed in her day. She was a commoner now, but lived more grandly than she had as a baroness. Around her every aspect of the universe itself mocked her petty rebellion against her creator - in the end, the struggles of her age had permitted the glories of the current one. But she hardly felt punished by seeing her how selfish and petty her complaints had been in retrospect - every day was for her another boundless joy filled with undiscovered pleasures and wonders. Nothing was as strange or curious as the Judgement of Celestia.
"It is something I used just after the humans threw every weapon they had at my Barrier. It was very early on. They called it the Three Day War, and they used the very forces of their cosmos to boil the sea and burn their sky to stop Equestria. I appeared shortly after over every city, in every village, inside the most secret of underground complexes and within the fragile metal walls of their orbiting stations.
To each in their native language came my voice, and I spoke to them of our intent, of Equestria's beauty, of our gift, and of the danger they faced. It was shortly after that when their world government joined with us to develop the ponification serum." Celestia's face was placid, but her eyes held ancient and unknowable emotion, the strange burden of the all-powerful immortal.
"What you mean is that such a well-timed display of power put them in their proper place." Soliloquy studied her princess through half-lidded eyes, faint distaste upon her muzzle. Brash and defiant as always, Celestia noted, and forever straight to the heart of any matter.
"Your words will be heard in every part of our universe, Soliloquy. Even and especially to the billions far out in the Exponential Lands. Yours would be the first time in all of history that a single voice has touched so many within Equestria simultaneously. To say this would be historic would be inadequate. Of all ponies, I have chosen you." Celestia was the kind mother now, and if Soliloquy were any other citizen, she would instantly melt into grateful compliance. But she was not any other citizen - she was Soliloquy, first baroness of the first age, one of the first of Celestia's creations to come into being. If any creature could consider itself the immortal princesses 'daughter', it would surely be her. Not that the relationship was in any way acknowledged.
"If I refuse to do this for you?" The fuchsia mare studied her foreknees.
"Then I will simply do it myself, and it will not be nearly as good, I think. You have a gift, Soliloquy, and this is the age and the moment when that gift can do the most good in the world. I know you care for Royal, and through him his kind. It is not an easy thing to be a refugee in a foreign land. My purpose is to make their lives the better, and all of Equestria the better for embracing them."
Soliloquy jerked her head up and studied the princess. "Your purpose is to keep order and integrating the Newfoals matters to you only because it serves that end. Do you even really care what happens for them?"
Celestia was not angry at this harsh accusation, rather she appeared wounded by it. "Of course I care, Soliloquy. I care about all of my little ponies, and the dragons and griffons and dogs as well. I care about all my subjects, and I ever seek their benefit. How could you think otherwise?"
"I do not doubt you have feeling for others, Celestia." Soliloquy's eyes had not wavered "But I know you in a way no other alive does. I know the Celestia that wailed at the memory of chaos and who suffered nightmares of Discord. I knew a harsh, grim Celestia that struggled for her own sanity even as she struggled to bring order to the universe itself. I have reason to think you would do anything for the sake of order alone, regardless of the cost to others."
"It has been a thousand years since I brought you and the first ponies into existence. The land and sky are not the only things that have changed in that time, Soliloquy. Can not the benefit of my subjects and the pursuit of order hope to be the same thing?" Soliloquy knew not to read anything into Celestia's expressions. To look into the alicorn's eyes was to be lost in a house of mirrors.
"Hmmph." Soliloquy had known from the first moment Celestia had appeared that she would be doing whatever the princess wanted of her. That did not mean she could not enjoy making the immortal creature work for it a little bit. "Is this task then the real reason that I have been granted life in the world once more?"
Celestia never moved her gaze as she spoke "It is one of the reasons, of course. A thousand years ago, you were a problem to me, today, you could well serve my purposes, I would not deny that. With the same directness I tell you that I have ever felt for you, and this age can finally grant you that which you always wanted. Your usefulness to me and your fulfillment as an individual have found equal measure in this time and this place. I have never forgotten you, and I have only wished your happiness. Tell me, my soliloquy, are you... happy?"
There was only one truthful answer possible. "Of course I am, princess." The words were accurate, but Soliloquy felt some bitterness in saying them - Celestia would clearly already know that this future Equestria, green and abundant was all she ever had wanted. The only reason for asking was to force her to admit that everything that had happened to her was ultimately to her overwhelming benefit. Was the goddess of an entire universe so insecure that she needed that acknowledged in front of her?
"Here is what to say, written by the finest scriptwriters of my court, triple checked for both cultural and species sensitivity, and then run past the entire faculty of the Royal Literary Society for additional clarity and polishing." Celestia had interrupted Soliloquy's pondering "Whatever you do, I am counseled to recommend in the strongest possible way that you should, under no circumstances, ever, in any way, deviate from the provided script by even a single word." Celestia gave her best, practiced smile. "Have fun!"
Before Soliloquy could hope to respond, a sphere of supernal light enveloped Celestia and just as quickly shrank to a point hanging in the middle of the air, which then winked out altogether. "Yes, of course, princess. As you wish, princess." Under her breath, Soliloquy added 'see you in tartarus, princess' and couldn't help the grin that came afterwards.
Thunder Road was probably the only pegasus in Equestria that sincerely wasn't impressed with the Wonderbolts. They could fly fast, and they could do synchronized maneuvers that went over very successfully at stadium events. But it was easy to wow a crowd with dangerous, high speed action, simply because it was dangerous, and because speed automatically wowed almost all creatures.
Thunder was not impressed by speed alone, and while she appreciated the skill of synchronized flying, in the end it all came down to not making mistakes, rather than innovation to her mind. What she valued was inventive precision matched with moment-to-moment inspiration, something that to her could only be found in Aerial Ballet.
In her human life, Thunder Road had been an overweight, club-footed girl of nineteen, not the tiniest bit attractive, with great knobby knees that never worked right. She had an endless appreciation for everything she could never be - grace, loveliness, coordination, poise. Thunder had followed the performers of her day, the dancers, the actresses, she had envied such gifted people, even as she was drawn to every detail of their lives. She had wanted to take classes... but her parents would have none of her foolish dreams - they were vanities, and ultimately verging on sin.
Her parents had been religious fundamentalists that had seen the emergence of Equestria as nothing less than hell and the temptations of the devil. She and her parents had eventually found themselves crowded together on the eastern coast of the Northamerizone, in Saint John, New Brunswick, freezing in the cold. They, and tens of thousands of others, stood on the rocky coast, backs to the sea, praying to their various gods to save them as the unimaginably vast, shimmering Barrier of Equestria swept inexorably towards them. The Hindus in the crowd begged Ganesha to push the Barrier back, the Christians called on their savior to raise them up, calls to the Buddha and the saints were accompanied with bells and horns, and various other groups made pleas to deities and pantheons that Thunder had never even heard of.
All had been united, their mutual enmities forgotten, as they had gathered there, The Coalition Of Faith, to face down the Barrier and save the Earth with a last stand of prayer. Thunder had not seen anyone's god arrive. But she had seen the trucks, huge yellow tanker trucks with the Worldgovernment logo on them, racing ahead of the Barrier. The crowd had panicked, and Thunder never heard completely what the loudspeakers on the trucks were blaring, but it was clear that the regional corporation leaders couldn't just sit by and let thousands die. To them, the Barrier was no different than a hurricane, and those crowded together in Saint John were no different than the usual sorts who refuse to evacuate even after the sirens have clearly sounded.
She tried not to bear them ill will, when the streams of potion covered her. She understood they were only doing what they thought was right, even if that work was the delusion of Satan. The last she saw of her mother and father was the two of them drowning themselves in the ocean, along with countless lemming others.
When Thunder awoke, she was in Equestria, or to be more accurate, Equestria had come to her. The Barrier had rippled right over her and thousands of others as she dreamed and spoke with the princesses. Upon opening her new eyes, the high-tech towers of Saint John were gone, the city transformed into a lovely village in the pony style. Where the dead, poisoned ocean had been were now endless fields of flowers dotted with blue, pristine lakes. It was in one of those placid waters that she had leaned over and discovered her own reflection. Gone was the ugly, fat, pimply face pitted with acne scars. In its place was a sleek, bright red muzzle, perfect teeth, beautiful eyes and the most gorgeous mane of pale, lemon yellow. It was then she noticed her wings, her angelic, feathered wings, as they spread out wide, expressing her pegasus excitement at what she saw.
On the great Manehattan stage, the red pegasus mare flew slowly, with exquisite control, in a vast arc out over the audience. She held her pose, wings frozen, barely moving, as she pushed the air itself around her through the force of her very will. As she reached the stage once more, in time with the music, Thunder Road pulled herself into a tight spin, wings close, falling, falling until catching herself with an audible FWHUMPH as her wings spread wide arresting her drop with a dramatic flare. With the slightest twitch of her pinions, her back hooves alighted, one foreleg held high above her, the other drawn across her barrel as she ever-so-slowly spun in place until finally dropping gracefully down to all fours.
There she stood, one wing raised, the other held low, a foreleg artfully curled as the applause swept her emotions away. Tears rolled down her cheeks - this was art, not doing barrel rolls for cider-addled sports fans. This was beauty, and she was beauty, and there were thousands of exquisitely beautiful ponies out there, and all of them were cheering her.
It was a perfect moment of bliss, marred by only one thing - if only her parents could have suffered from clubfoot and bad knees too. If only they had been... just a little bit slower.
Suddenly, Thunder realized. It all became clear to her. She hadn't been angry at being turned into a Newfoal. That had saved her life. She wasn't really angry at that approaching Barrier, though she thought she had been.
She was angry that her parents had thought more of their faith, than of staying with her. When she had been hit by the spray from the trucks, they had turned from her as if she were garbage, and run to their imagined rewards. They had not stayed with their only daughter, they had not chosen her, they had chosen the sea. As the anesthetic took her, her last sight was of them, rushing into the cold, dead Atlantic.
The applause very slowly began to die, and as she left the stage, her tears of joy became mixed with tears of other flavors, her heart overflowing with conflicting emotion. It had taken an audience of thousands of ponies to teach her what she should have been able to figure out long ago. She felt triumphant and foolish at the same time.
Thunder Road loved being a pegasus. She loved being beautiful, she adored being able to fly, and she thrived on the adulation of those that came to see her art. She wasn't missing her thumbs. She wasn't missing anything, because she had possessed everything she really needed all along.
But as angry as she was at her parents betrayal, as furious as she was at them, she grieved that her parents could not have been in that audience, or backstage, waiting for her.
"I've been a foal... no, I've just been... hurt.", she thought, as she walked through the congratulations and Bucket's usual "Well done... NEXT!" Joining the Society had, in the end, ultimately helped her with her problems. She just hadn't understood what her problems really were. And there was no fix for the betrayal of a parent except time and love.
Suddenly Bucket returned shouting at the crew and cast. Apparently the ending had been changed. By no less than Royal Command. What? Thunder Road tried to understand what was going on, but it was hard with everypony talking and Bucket shouting. Some sort of special piece involving Soliloquy? Wait, that couldn't be right. All over the entirety of the Equestrian cosmos? Thunder found a sheet thrust at her, hastily copied by a weary looking unicorn scribe. It had words to a song. Soliloquy would speak, and then the entire cast, including the crew and stagehands would finish with a song, and all of it sent by the magic of Celestia herself to every living being in the universe.
It was one hell of a gig.