Everypony in Martingale On Hackamore knew him now as 'Dumpy Dungcart'. Dumpy had considered having his coat dyed, but this far out on the borders of Equestria, it was an extra step that would have been too much work to maintain, and ultimately would raise even more suspicions about him. Besides, he was well enough hidden by the fact of his job itself - he was not exactly the center of anypony's attentions, considering his occupation.
He was, he felt, perfectly hidden. Nopony could ever find him, or imagine he had once been Bucket, the stage manager for... well, best to just put all of that in the past. He was Dumpy now. Dumpy Dungcart.
Dumpy pulled his rickety, heavily burdened cart down the road that ran along the Hackamore river. Martingale was a small village, hardly more than a thousand ponies, very rural and very isolated. They were far to the east, almost to the beginning of the Exponential Lands, but still well within Equestria proper. The ponies of Martingale were very traditional, very old-Equestria, most hadn't a clue what a Newfoal even was. They had seen the Last Performance, of course - every creature in Equestria had seen the Last Performance. There was no escaping it, thanks to the princess. It's hard to miss a show performed in the sky above your head.
Fortunately, the show hadn't meant anything to the ponies in Martingale On Hackamore. They had no context, they had no way to comprehend what they had seen. That had been such a relief to Bucket when he had first arrived as 'Dumpy'. Nopony here would take him as anything but native, and so long as he kept to himself, so long as he made no close, intimate connections, he felt sure he would do them no harm. And that was something 'Dumpy' wanted very much - to avoid contaminating these utterly innocent, guileless, native ponies of Martingale.
The Last Performance had taught Bucket many things, things he wished he did not have to know. The princesses were deific, if not outright goddesses - he had heard that before, of course, but had not been prepared for the reality. Even with the impossible manes and tails, they seemed so approachable and modest, normally. When they truly used their power... it was one thing to speak of godlike power, and another entirely to be faced with it in reality. There was, he found, a special horror to witnessing such things, even from the most benevolent of beings.
Bucket had also learned that such beings could make mistakes. Celestia might be all powerful, she might be all Good, but she certainly could not know the future, and she absolutely did not know everything. Was there a flaw in the ponification serum? Was it the fault of Man, or of the unicorn mages on the Equestrian side? Was it that the spirit of humanity was just too strong? Did Celestia grant the Newfoals too much latitude when they were converted? Bucket had no way to know. He would probably never know. But he did know how to run, and he had run, and now, as best as he could be, he was hidden. If Celestia could not know everything, she could be hidden from.
Bucket reckoned that it was just that human nature was irrepressible. But whatever the case, it all meant that the dramatic changes that Newfoals underwent, to mind as well as body, were not as total, not as absolute as he had imagined. Sure, they came out strikingly less aggressive, certainly they had their mental illnesses cured, they ended up happy, well adjusted - for the most part - and Newfoals were incapable of true human hatred or murderous impulses. But it was not enough. That much had been made clear. So very, very clear. Not even close to being enough.
'Dumpy' kept to himself. He deliberately refused the one mare that had taken a shine to him. He stayed alone, which suited most in town just fine, ultimately. Once a week he allowed himself a cider in the little 'pub' - Bucket thought of it as a pub, anyway - and sat in the corner, sipping it. He remained aloof when approached. He felt sure most thought he was just a grumpy loner who preferred his solitude. Inside, Bucket wished he could be part of his community. He wanted to have friends, but... he reckoned that in the end, he would just ruin them. He couldn't taint them, harm them that way. Not after... not after The Last Performance.
Dumpy finally reached the large composting pit. It was some distance from the river, and he had to make several trips a day to keep up with things. Martingale had welcomed him, when he had arrived - their last dung hauler had been a donkey that had quit to seek fame and fortune, leaving a hole that needed filling, and piles that needed emptying. If there was one thing Bucket knew, it was nightsoil, and the same day he had arrived, 'Dumpy Dungcart' had found employment and a nice little cottage far, far on the outskirts of the village.
The cart needed to be upended, and the contents evacuated. Dumpy adjusted the cart carefully next to the edge of the pit before using a back leg to kick the lever that locked the wheels. With his teeth he quickly undid his bindings and was free from the cart. Putting his weight on his forelegs, he slowly raised his hindquarters and tilted the cart in a sort of slow-motion buck. It was easy to do - most of a pony's weight was in the front, so raising one's rear was almost effortless.
With the cart tilted, the contents were already pouring out into the compost pit - pony dung was fairly dry, compact, and cohesive, so the majority rolled out on its own. But it was not enough, regretfully. When all that could be emptied by gravity - or whatever passed for gravity in Equestria - had been emptied, Dumpy leveled the cart bed and locked it down. Then he climbed into the cart, took his rake in mouth, and began sweeping the remaining dung out of his cart. It had never ceased being astonishing to him how easily he could use his mouth like a single, incredibly strong hand. The long jaw, the strong, flat, solid front teeth, the immensely powerful muscles - and a strange, unhuman maxilofacial dexterity. It was trivial to wield the rake, and his long, sinuous neck never tired from the effort of sweeping. What amazed him most, though, was that he never became dizzy from such movement of his head.
The others... they had all found such happiness. Well, until the Last Performance, of course. There was no way to know what had become of them. Maybe they were all statues now. Bucket had not stayed to find out. He had run, as soon as he realized. As soon as he had recognized... the song. That blasted last moment song. He was stage manager! They should have run it by him! But he never really had gained their respect. Not really.
Royal had gotten to be important again, respected, and ultimately loved. He and Soliloquy had a stormy relationship, but there was no doubting their affinity for each other. They had been talking marriage, before that night, before the Last Performance.
Golden and his butler Bitsworth - both had found their calling, their passions in the society. Bitsworth had found an outlet for his voice and his poetry, and Golden had found something better and more fulfilling than corporate predation. It was so clear how much he loved arranging prizes and giving them away.
Thunder Road just blossomed as a flyer during her time in the society. She had gone from giving thrill rides through thunderstorms to literally dancing in the air, and the way she glowed and beamed with joy could have given the princess of the sun a run for her bits.
Argent and Hot Topic had become the most loving of couples, and their smiles and gentle sweetness with each other had gotten them the nickname the 'Sugar Twins' back stage. Ponies were incapable of earth weaknesses like diabetes, but among the Newfoals who knew of the disease, the joke was that if such an illness did ever come to Equestria, Argent and Topic would have been the cause. They were so happy, it was impossible to feel down in their presence.
Chair... Chair, who had started things off with his complaints - he and his wife Honeybutter, they had become singing stars, touring Equestria. Hopefully they still were. They hadn't participated in the song - they had left before that moment, off to a gig on the other side of Manehattan. Probably they were spared anything that might have happened. Probably. Hopefully. Unless Chair had written the song. It was possible. There was no way to know.
Dumpy finished sweeping the last lump out of his cart. He carefully replaced the rake into the slot built to hold it. His hooves were a mess, and dung covered his pasterns all the way to his knees. Specks had gotten on his coat elsewhere, too. The saving grace was that disease was all but unknown in Equestria, and what illness there was came mostly from strange magical issues that were fortunately fairly rare. He was dealing in pony waste, but unlike Earth, it was not dangerous. Just unpleasant.
Dumpy clambered back down from his cart, and trod around to the front. Strapping himself in, he nudged the lever back down with his back leg to release the wheels. This was the last haul of the day, so it was time to head home, stow the cart, and head to his favorite spot in the river for his first bath. His second, hot bath was something he eagerly looked forward to, but he was not about to use the tub in his cottage until he had first washed the chunks off.
The little tan pony pulled his cart back towards the river, away from the compost pit. The wheels rattled as he turned the corner and began following the Hackamore back towards Martingale. It was a good cart, he thought, solid, well built, heavy. A human would be stymied trying to pull such a massive wooden thing, and would require a vehicle. Dumpy was his own vehicle, powerful beyond measure with the almost inexhaustible endurance that was one of the gifts of being an earthpony. As he trotted, pulling the cart as if it were nothing, he could feel the life of the soil itself through his hooves. His magic senses told him that the lush greenery by the road was glad of him and his cart, and the little bits of plant food that fell from it as he passed. He could feel the gratitude of the flowers as he traveled. While ponies may not like his smell, or completely appreciate his work, an entire world of plants and insects sang his praises as he paraded by. He was royalty to them, and he could feel it every step of the way, like a conquering hero, head covered in laurel leaves, charioting down the streets of ancient Rome.
The cart came to a stop. Bucket shook his head, his mane sweeping across his back. No. Oh, sweet Celestia, no.
It just couldn't be denied. The process was amazing, and he knew that there had been changes to his mentation, to his thoughts, to his emotions but... it was still there. It kept coming back. It had to be memory, the memory of everything he had learned and seen and done on Earth. It kept coming back, the ghost of humanity. Conquering hero. Of all the thoughts to think, of all the notions to entertain. He could have thought he was the providing father to the plants, or the nurturing mother, or even just the best friend of the plants and insects. No. The first thing to enter his brain was 'conquering hero of Rome'. Too many movies, too many holoprograms, too many stories of war and history and Who Was Important. Important to humans. Warriors, emperors, kings... killers, all. Behind every great human empire was an equally great human atrocity. This was real. This was history, and even with the planet gone, and all of humanity converted, it still came back. It still came back in little moments where the mind wandered.
It was the curse of Grayback. All primates evolved to follow Grayback, the most powerful ape in the troop. The big leader, with the silver hair that spoke of his age and prowess. That said he had survived and triumphed. It wasn't the call to be part of the herd, it was a call to follow the leader. To serve the commander. Grayback, the eternal Ideal of the Monkey General, the emperor, the president, the king, the CEO, the... chief of the hunter-gatherer tribe. Humans had evolved to follow a Grayback, and when they could not find one, they made one.
Ponification had not been one-hundred percent conversion. The Newfoals would never truly be Equestrian, not completely. Their foals could be, innocent of the world their parents came from. But the actual Newfoals... would always be apart. They carried within them the knowledge of kings and empires and what it meant to be an evolved creature instead of a created one. Celestia had been too gutless to do the obvious thing.
That he could think that, that he could think to call the princess gutless, was Bucket's pride... and also his horror. It was what condemned him to his self-inflicted solitude. Oh, he could mix in. But ponies were curious. Not so much about the world, like humans, but about each other, about other beings. Ponies wanted to know all about you. They wanted to know your birthday and your likes and your dislikes and your favorite color and every little detail about your life. They wanted to know what you had seen, what you had felt. And in no time at all, they would learn from Bucket all about kings, and empires and what primates did when there was not enough to go around, or worse - when there was never enough to satisfy the desire to live like a god, while others bowed and scraped.
He didn't want any part of that. He didn't want to corrupt these innocent, loving creatures. Bucket wanted to forget ever having been a human, he wanted to forget that he even was a Newfoal. He wanted, desperately, to not be around other Newfoals. His hope was to just lose himself in the native herd, literally, totally lose... himself... and go completely native. That was why he had gone so far away, out to distant, barely remembered Martingale On Hackamore, where he felt certain he would be the only Newfoal around.
When he had finished washing himself in the river, he had forgotten most of his ruminations, and felt more like Dumpy the native than Bucket the Newfoal. He tried hard to forcibly believe that he had always been a pony. In his head, he had invented a foalhood that never was, and a sire and dam that never were. He pretended to himself that he had enjoyed an innocent life with no knowledge of primates from another world. He willed himself to not be amazed inside at magic, at the beauty of the world, at the incredibly bright pet lightsprite fireflies that lived in his lamps, and that he fed and watered every day. These were normal. These were all he had ever known, he kept telling himself. But it never quite worked.
Always, he felt the twinges of awe and wonder at every little thing, and that brought him out of his fantasy of having been born Equestrian.
The bath in his home was almost warm enough. The tub was very large, as it must be for an equine, and was heated from below like a big stew kettle. It was the most efficient solution. The logs underneath burned merrily, yet they were never consumed. Once made, and properly enchanted, the logs used for fireplaces and heating burned with supernal fire, the fire of magic itself. It certainly saved on trees. Apparently these logs had been made five centuries ago. They had come with the cottage.
Dumpy settled himself into his bath. He had placed around the tiled edges of the tub a few treats. He would eat his dinner in leisure, after the bath. He had a tankard of light cider, and a bowl of sweet flowers. He liked the blue ones best, though the big red flowers were more juicy. He nibbled one of the blue flowers and let the warm, scented waters soak into his coat.
He couldn't stop thinking about it tonight. It was probably because it was almost exactly one year ago. One year in the past, the Last Performance of The Reasonably Adamant Down with Celestia Newfoal Society. Almost to the day. The day he had stared in abject horror, and fled.
Soliloquy floated, hundreds of hooves high, over every city, every village, every town. Inside the caves of dragons, the burrows of diamond dogs, the aeries of gryphons. Celestia herself had introduced her, and explained the curious transmission. She had explained the story of the Newfoals, where they had come from, and what they had endured, and that they had been transformed. And then, she had brought forth Soliloquy.
Soliloquy stood, plain and simple, in no elaborate gown, just as herself. And as Celestia knew she would, she tossed aside the bland, utterly inoffensive, utterly boring prepared speech that the court had devised for her. She knew that Celestia was depending on her to do just that, and part of her almost wanted to defy the princess and actually read her dull address. But she couldn't, she just couldn't. Tweaking Celestia was always fun, but this literally was the opportunity of an entire lifetime. It was so difficult, sometimes, dealing with a truly superior intelligence always ten steps ahead.
Somehow it was actually worse, in the long run, that Celestia wasn't smug about it.
So Soliloquy began her speech, straight from her heart. She had not prepared, beyond some consideration of what she might say - she felt it got in the way of authenticity. Every word she spoke was made of her special magic, golden, perfect, with a hypnotic cadence that no other creature could hope to duplicate. When Soliloquy spoke from the heart, it went directly into the heart of any who listened. It was her special talent. It was her unique gift.
Soliloquy spoke of her origin, of coming into being as an adult, torn from the chaos by Celestia, along with thousands of others. She told of how each was assigned a role, so that they might work together and survive. She described the harsh universe they had found themselves in, and how hard it had been merely to live from one day to the next.
And then she described the arrival of the dragons. They themselves were not sure where they had come from, or if their fragmented memories of a previous existence were real, or bits of chaos making them imagine a false history. Even Celestia and Luna had no idea if they had been born from Discord, or if they were refugees from the past, or from another world. But they were there, and all had to live together, somehow.
It was a fragile peace that often failed. The dragons were not civilized, not then, though they were highly intelligent. They could eat stone, but they craved meat. Ponies, in those days, vanished sometimes, their disappearances seldom fully explained. But they also needed each other. It took everything both species had to survive not only the incomplete world, but the occasional terrors that fell from the unfinished sky.
When the gryphons arrived, fallen from their original cosmos, during a cataclysmic eruption in the chaos overhead - the result of Celestia and Luna trying various methods to alter the sky to make some kind of sense - there was a brief war, followed by a tense peace. Celestia had to make more ponies, for many had vanished and the reason was not mysterious at all.
For a long time Celestia had concentrated on making animals and plants while her sister Luna had struggled to keep the three species alive and assisting each other, rather than fighting or eating one another. It would have been easy for the ponies to despise the dragons and the griffons, for they both could eat meat - indeed the griffons desperately required it.
But things kept falling from the sky, and many found a home in the one place that the princesses could never affect, the one area their ultimate power could not touch. That terrible zone became a forest, and in that forest the terrors from the sky hid and bided their time. At the center was the ruin of a castle already ancient, the place where Discord had kept his little pets, Luna and Celestia. The very site where they had defeated the tyrant of chaos.
Without the griffons to fight, all would have been slaughtered by the nightmare creatures of the forest that could not be tamed. Without the dragons, there could never have been soil to grow the first crops - the harsh rock that was the only ground was too hard for the ponies to do anything with. In those days, Celestia was still learning the machinery of the web of life, but the guts of the dragons solved the problem of living soil for her, and all benefited as a result.
Solioquy had since learned that the three founding species had chosen to separate after her time, each to their own region and culture, but her point was clear - all the life of Equestria were refugees of one kind or another. Whether from chaos itself, or from some other universe, Equestria had no true natives, only beings desperate for life, for a home.
Finally, she introduced the idea of the Newfoals, refugees no less than any other, as deserving as any other, who now lived within Equestria. Yes, they could be strange. Yes, they could have odd ways and curious means, but they were part of Equestria now. They were home, just as all ponies were home, just as the dragons were home, just as the griffons, and long after her time, the diamond dogs, were home. Home. Equestria was home to all.
Her words were diamonds to the dragons, tasty and bright, and meat to the griffons, rare and dripping with fresh blood. Her words were the tenderest shoots of new grasses to the ponies and lovely, fat rabbits to the diamond dogs. The many ate her words up, and licking their chops, felt full of contentment and love, for each other, for Equestria, and for the Newfoals, so recently added.
When Solioquy was finished, all of Equestria sighed at her leaving, such was the power of her speech.
The vision in the sky, in every domicile, expanded to include the stage with all the performers that were the RADWICKINS. Royal stepped forward, and explained, briefly, what they were, and why they had started, and how they had been wrong. They were proud to be Equestrian, and in working together, they had found what they had lacked, and it was not, as they thought, their old world and lives at all. They had found love, and purpose, and community, and above all, belonging, and in the end, that was all that mattered.
They had also found something more, though! Something that had finally, truly touched the human part within them. Something that satisfied that part, the part that would never truly be pony, the unique, humanness within. It had been there, all along, and they had been too blind to see it. But now they saw clearly. So very, very clearly.
Celestia had looked puzzled, Bucket recalled, something he had never seen before, despite the many times she had appeared on holo, or the times she had visited their troupe. Celestia had been surprised. At the time, Bucket had wondered how often that ever happened.
And that was the moment, in front of all of Equestria, every species, in every home, that the RADWICKINS had stood forth, proudly, the orchestra beginning soft at first. Then the Newfoals began to sing the song they had prepared in secret, filled with passion, filled with devotion, filled with gratitude for feeling human once again: Tomorrow Belongs To Hooves...
The Sun in the morning, the Moon in the night
From Canterlot to Everfree
Oh Gryphons and Dragons and Dogs delight
Equestria's home to thee
All ponies together in love and respect
The pegasus flies to be free
Earthpony and unicorn join in glee
Equestria's home to thee
We newfoals have found a new life in this land
Celestia has opened our eyes
In friendship and magic we take our stand
To Her our right hooves we rise
Now Princess Celestia to You we do bow
It's human to follow Your call
In Equestria as we once claimed of Earth
Equestria Over All!!!
Bucket had begun running, away from backstage, the last of the song fading with distance in his ears. He ran and ran, then took the train, and ran some more. He took a boat, always glancing back, worried, but no approach sounded. When he reached the opposite shore he ran again, and ran and ran and ran.
Eventually he reached the last native eastern village before the beginning of the newly created Exponential Lands. Somewhere, in those new lands eight billion Newfoals now lived, but they were far from him. He took the name Dumpy Dungcart and was gladly welcomed as the new Dungmaster of Martingale On Hackamore. For months he kept expecting a burst of light and gold-shod hooves, but they never came.
The curse of Grayback. Celestia had tried, her collage of unicorn mages had tried. Everypony had tried, but it just hadn't worked. Not completely. Not one-hundred percent. To do that, she would have needed to erase even memory, and she was too gutless to do that. Her kindness would be the undoing of her ponies one day, Bucket felt sure of that. And that would be such a sad, terrible thing.
Bucket felt waterlogged, and he hungered for his simple dinner. He climbed from the water, and took his towel to his coat.
If he had been in charge, he would have made sure that potion erased all memory, maybe right after the end of the Earth. He would have made sure that no trace of humanity survived. He understood that this was necessary, because he understood that assimilation must be complete, lest a society end up divided into ghettos and barrios and reservations and walled off areas. Bucket understood that, because he understood conquest in a way that even the all-powerful sun goddess was incapable of.
He understood, because he had once been human, and he remembered his human life and his human world, and so long as that memory remained, despite his body and brain being utterly changed, a small part of him - and of every Newfoal - would remain irrevocably human still.