Three: Lawn For Dinner
When morning came, Alexi barely remembered the feast the night before; he was still exhausted and was having trouble getting his wits about him. It was very early in the day, Celestia's magical sun had just barely begun to peek above the horizon. Around Alexi were many shouts and complaints, and the sound of many hooves scuffling through packed straw.
"Alexi? What... what is going on?" Caprice was struggling to wake up now; she checked on Buttermilk still asleep close to her belly, and Pumpkin snuggled behind.
"ATTENTION! ATTENTION!" The voice was somehow being amplified, but unlike the sound of a terrestrial loudspeaker, the voice seemed everywhere and nowhere; it was clearly magic, but that was all that they could tell. "ASSEMBLE WITHIN THE CORRAL AT THE BACK OF WELCOME TOWN. REPEAT - ASSEMBLE IMMEDIATELY INSIDE THE CORRAL, LOCATED TO THE REAR OF WELCOME TOWN."
"That's the place with the stones!" Caprice shook Pumpkin, who finally began to escape from dreamland.
Everywhere newfoal ponies were rising, shuffling through the straw, leaving the sleeping tent. Some grumbled at the early call, others simply stumbled along, half asleep. As Alexi and Caprice looked around them, waiting for Pumpkin to clamber to her hooves, they noted to each other the presence of armored Equestrian guards.
Each guard was a huge, muscular stallion wearing gold and silver livery, sporting helmets with tall, Roman-styled crests. Even though she was barely awake, the Romanesque helmets spoke to Caprice once more that there must be some ancient connection between Earth and Equestria, but now was not a time for questions; only obedience.
"MOVE AS ONE HERD, MOVE TO THE CORRAL. ASSEMBLE IN THE CORRAL."
Little Buttermilk was very frightened, now that she was fully awake, and tried to freeze in place every few steps, hiding inbetween her mother's legs. This caused Caprice to occasionally stumble, and she was forced to once more take hold of Buttermilk's mane and move her, squealing and bleating, along.
Somehow, the family made it to the corral, the gates of which now stood open. They entered the strange arena, and more than once Caprice found her hooves clopping across the odd stones imbedded in the ground. There was no time to study the arcane writing on them; the crowd of newfoals pressed ever inward until the corral was packed.
"DO NOT STAND ON THE STONES! BENEATH YOUR HOOVES ARE ROUND STONES. DO NOT STAND ON THE STONES. MAKE ROOM AND STAND QUIETLY."
The newfoals shifted as one, and Caprice could no longer see the ground for the closely packed bodies of other ponies. She could feel Buttermilk pressing against her legs; she brought her hind legs closer together so as to pinch her foal firmly in place as best she could.
"I do not have good feelings about this, Caprice. If this was Earth, I would be fearing a firing squad." Alexi had shocked Caprice with that statement, and she suddenly found herself feeling fear for the first time since she had arrived in Equestria. It did seem strange to be driven as a group to the corral in this manner. They hadn't even had breakfast! Overall, what was now happening did not feel particularly friendly at all.
"MAKE WAY FOR THE ROYAL UNICORN CORPS. THEY MUST STAND ON THE STONES. MAKE WAY FOR THE ROYAL UNICORN CORPS."
Tall, ancient unicorns began to enter the corral. The newfoals did their best to make paths for the grand and royal ponies to reach the stones in the ground. Each of the royal unicorns was dressed in some kind of silken cloak, embroidered with the magical symbols that Caprice had studied when she had lived on Earth.
The Royal Unicorn Corps took positions upon the stones set into the ground, each standing with all four hooves carefully centered on their individual stones. "YOU WILL NOW BE TAKEN TO YOUR FINAL DESTINATION; YOUR OWN LAND TO SETTLE FOR THE GLORY OF EQUESTRIA. PLEASE REMAIN CALM DURING TRANSFER. PRINCESS CELESTIA OFFERS HER GRATITUDE TO YOUR PIONEERING SPIRIT. TRANSFER BEGINS NOW."
The Royal Unicorns, as one, began to weave some massive spell, their horns glowing like miniature suns. Swirls of color and dancing points of light rose up from the packed sand upon which the newfoals stood. The morning sky above them began to change, fading to a strange blackness streaked by flowing ribbons of color.
"COOOOLLL!" Pumpkin was overjoyed at finally getting to see magic, especially on such a grand scale. Alexi stared around at the swirls of arcane energy swarming around the corral. He could no longer see anything of Welcome Town, or indeed the outside world of Equestria at all.
Caprice looked down at Buttermilk, who had freed herself from Caprice's back legs. Buttermilk walked forward and stopped, quiet and still, inbetween Caprice's front legs. The little foal raised her head, as if basking in the strange light that flowed out of the ground itself. The light streamed up past Caprice and Buttermilk's hooves, and Caprice could see swirls of it curving around Buttermilk's tiny horn.
Suddenly, Caprice couldn't breath. There was no air. Frost formed on her lips, and she felt her tongue bubble as if the saliva on it was boiling. Fear caught her heart, and she began to scream, only there was no breath to scream with. She felt herself rising from the ground, as though she were falling.
Then, as soon as the moment of terror had come, it was gone. Caprice felt her hooves slam into the sand, and she gasped for breath. The air was cool but pleasant, the light early morning. A commotion had arisen among the newfoals, with many screaming or yelling, and all talking at once.
"Are you alright?" Alexi looked very grim and very serious. "Caprice? Pumpkin? How is little Buttermilk? Answer me, are you alright?"
"I... I think we're OK, Alexi. I think we're all fine. It was just... a little scary, that's all." Caprice checked again on Buttermilk, she seemed strangely unperturbed by the experience. The little unicorn was still standing quietly with her head raised; it was almost as if she were somehow savoring something that Caprice could not feel or sense.
"Scary! That was terrifying! I could not breath for a while! I have frost on my nose! It is criminal that we were not warned of what would happen! What is wrong with these Equestrians that they would do this without warning!" Alexi seemed angry now, and to be fair, Caprice thought, he had a point.
"TRANSFER IS NOW COMPLETE. YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR NEW HOME. CALMLY EXIT THE CORRAL. REPEAT. YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR NEW HOME. PLEASE EXIT THE CORRAL CALMLY AND IN AN ORDERLY MANNER."
Caprice suddenly recognized the booming voice. It was the voice of the unpleasant pegasus with the small, round glasses... Windfeather. That was it, his name was Windfeather. She hadn't liked his attitude at the Registration tent, and she liked it even less now.
The crowd of newfoals began to move. As Caprice and Alexi worked to stay close to Pumpkin and Buttermilk, they passed the Royal Unicorns as they stood on their stones. The Unicorns seemed exhausted, and their heads hung low. They were breathing heavily; apparently such magic took a heavy toll, and they needed time to recuperate.
Welcome Town was gone.
So was the Equestrian side of the Barrier, the rocky cliffs and the desert of sand. Beyond the wooden fence that encircled the disk of desert that was the corral, endless rolling hills of green, dotted with patches of colorful flowers, stretched off to the horizon. In one direction there seemed to be what might be a small patch of forest, in another was the possibility of mountains, very, very far away.
Occasionally interrupting the endless rolling hills and expansive plains were ponds and small lakes; these shone bright blue, reflecting the sky above. As the sun rose into that sky, the air became warmer, and Caprice could smell the flowery scents of summer fields.
The newfoals spread out in little clumps, some taking to the tops of nearby low hills, the better to scan the horizon, others clustered close to the corral, unsure of what to do, or where to go. Alexi and his family stood just under a hundred feet from the corral entrance; Caprice was looking through the crowd for one specific pony - Windfeather the pegasus, but so far she had not discovered him.
The Royal Unicorn Corps were apparently sufficiently rested now; their horns glowed as they levitated a small mountain of crates out of the back of the corral, placing them on the grassy plain well beyond the wooden fence. Caprice had not noticed the crates as she had entered the corral, but then with so many ponies packed in so tightly - and with Buttermilk to worry about - it was little wonder.
The crates neatly stacked, The Royal Unicorns got into some kind of position, facing the cargo. They seemed to be preparing to do something magical with the crates, or their contents, but they were abruptly interrupted. A small, winged pony walked up to them, and addressed them. It was Windfeather! Caprice easily recognized the round glasses, the perpetual smirk on the little pegasus' face. The Royal Unicorns seemed confused about something, and they and Windfeather argued for a short while. Eventually the Unicorn Corps returned to the corral, to stand once again upon their stones, Windfeather followed them, closing the gate with his teeth as he did so.
Something seemed wrong to Alexi. He had a strong sense of when a deal was about to go bad, or when something 'off' was occuring. In his earthly life, he had been a procurer; he had discovered what people needed and arranged deals for them to acquire those things. He had long dealt with Earth's underground economy, and he knew well the moment when things turned from good, to not so good.
"Wait!" Alexi bolted from Caprice's side, struggling to gallop for the first time. This was only his second day of being a pony, and while he had mastered walking, he simply had not tried running before. When Caprice reached him he was swearing in Finnish, trying to get up from where he had tripped. "Caprice! Enough about me - you must stop the little pegasus with the glasses; he is up to no good, of that I am certain!"
Caprice looked up to see the corral already appearing strange in the morning light; thin streams of energy were rising from the large circle of desert sand; the Royal Unicorns chanting, their horns blazing.
"YOU HUMANS THAT THINK YOURSELVES PONIES!" It was Windfeather, somewhere in the corral, using the same loudspeaker-like magic. He was shouting in North American English, and somehow Caprice had the feeling that this was a language unknown to the mages of the Unicorn Corps.
"YOU ARE NOT US! YOU YOU MAY WEAR OUR BODIES BUT INSIDE YOU ARE STILL MONSTERS. YOU WILL NOT DESTROY MY HOME!" The corral was a shining column of light and streaming arcane forces now, and Caprice, though she tried to run toward it, felt pressed back by impossible energies.
"CELESTIA WAS WRONG TO BRING YOU HERE. YOU MUST BE KEPT APART FROM TRUE PONYKIND. OUR TWO SPECIES WILL THANKFULLY NEVER MEET AGAIN." Caprice pushed against the swirls of color, trying to get through, trying to make it to the fence.
Suddenly there was an unutterable brilliance and a swift rushing of air. Caprice found herself falling forward onto tall green grass where before there had been a large circle of desert surrounded by a wooden fence. Now there was no sand, no corral, no fence. It was as if the corral had never been. The green plain stretched on, unbroken.
Alexi was at Caprice's side. "Caprice! Are you alright? Where did it go?" Caprice was bruised, but unhurt from her tumble. She stood up, angry. "That... narrow-minded, god-damned, bigoted little bastard!" It was the first time Alexi had ever heard Caprice swear.
The ponies on the nearby hills and around the field began to cluster together near the general area where the corral had once been. The only remaining signs of technology of any kind were the stack of crates that the Royal Unicorns had placed. The crowd was frightened; they could see nothing in any direction except more rolling hills and the occasional pond.
The newfoals had heard the words of Windfeather, and while they were uncertain of what those words entirely meant, they had the strong suspicion that they had been abandoned in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't that they couldn't understand this, rather that they did not want to face such a fact.
"What just happened?" Asked a middle-aged newfoal unicorn. "Are they coming back?" It was a nervous elder earth pony newfoal. "cèsuǒ zài nǎli?" Demanded an uncomfortable looking blue pegasus. "¿Me puedes ayudar, por favor?" asked a polite, but worried yellow stallion. Alexi looked at the crowd of confused, nervous newfoals, and began to fear a panic. If they were to survive, they must stick together, that was the first issue.
"Caprice, we need to keep everypony together. We can only survive if we work together." Alexi moved to where he could more easily be seen by the largest possible number of newfoals. He chose a very small rise in the grassy plain.
"ATTENTION!" For a moment, Caprice imagined Alexi working the microphone back at Clinic 042, in the Conversion Bureau, announcing the latest applicant. Alexi found he had no idea how to whistle, so he went back to shouting. "ATTENTION! EVERYPONY! LISTEN TO ME!"
Gradually the crowd calmed, eager for any answers at all. Alexi pondered what he should say. He had no idea where they were, and no idea if help would ever arrive. Alexi felt fairly sure that Windfeather had made certain they were as lost as it was possible for them to be; maybe Caprice could explain something of that to him later. He knew he did not want to frighten the crowd, but at the same time telling them a comforting lie could backfire later. Alexi, however, was no stranger to risk.
"My name is Alexi. I am an official from the Conversion Bureau." Not strictly true; Alexi had been the handyman and announcer for Clinic 042, and his position ended when he left for Equestria with Caprice. But perhaps it was just enough of a title to give them some feeling of authority to cling to.
Alexi tried to look as strong and dominant as he could manage. He stood as tall as he possible, and flared his wings a bit for effect. "As you have heard, we have been betrayed; a bigoted pony named Windfeather has seen fit to try to abandon us here, far from anypony else. But I tell you now that his plot will not succeed; for he is one, and we are many!" It seemed to be working, at least for now, and in any case, they were listening.
"I was warned of this possibility before I was Converted and came to Equestria!" This was dangerous, of course, but right now, these newfoals needed something to believe in, Alexi reasoned. If he was clever enough, this could work. "There is already in place a powerful system that can find and rescue us, so be confident!" The Big Lie. A standard tool of the would-be leader, he hoped it would work for somepony just trying to keep things together. This was the really dangerous part. If it worked, Alexi would have saved the day. If not, Caprice might be a pony widow.
"There is a catch, however! The land we are in, the Exponential Lands, are vast, and constantly growing. It will take some time before we are found. It may be a very long time. But this has also been provided for!" Alexi was thinking on his hooves, and he was briefly fascinated to learn that he could sweat.
"Look around you! What do you see?" Alexi waited a short pause for dramatic effect. Lush, green grasses covered the wide plains and the rolling hills, stretching off to infinity.
"Food! Around you is an endless supply of food and water!" Alexi was on a roll, his quick mind racing. "Look above you! Our princess's glorious sun, the same sun that shines over Canterlot, shines also over us! We cannot go hungry, and there are no enemies or dangers in sight!" Alexi dearly hoped that there were no dangers; time would tell. "We could just lay back and eat and sleep as if we were on vacation for as long as we wished!"
Alexi let this set in.
"But we have been INSULTED! Our betrayer, Windfeather, thinks that we are not truly ponies! He thinks that we are helpless and useless! He thinks that we can do nothing, that we will live as animals and accomplish nothing at all while we pathetically wait to be found!" An enemy unites a people. Alexi knew that rule from Earth, and he felt sure it would still apply to newfoals, despite all the changes of body and mind.
"I say that the despicable Windfeather is WRONG! I say that we ponies, working together, can accomplish anything! I say that when we are finally found, our saviors should find not a bunch of lazy animals, but the very SAME village that we were sent to BUILD in the first place! What does it matter where we make our home? This patch of land or another? WE are the village, WE are the pioneers, and WE, TOGETHER, can prove that evil Windfeather wrong!"
The crowd of newfoals, perhaps one-hundred and fifty in all, were utterly focused on Alexi. He mustered all of his remaining bravado.
"I say that we are true Equestrians! I say that we are true citizens of this land! I say we can settle this land and make Celestia herself PROUD of us! Are you with me?" The crowd mumbled. "I SAID, ARE YOU WITH ME?" This was the moment of truth. Alexi felt his stomach do cartwheels inside him.
The newfoals, afraid and fearful of their total abandonment, needed something to cling to. They needed a leader, they needed to believe that things would be alright. They had been human once, but now they were equine, and they were compelled by new biology to follow the herd, to work together, that once a path had been chosen to follow it without argument. All it would take is one pony to tip the fragile balance.
For a moment, there was silence. One cheer broke out, two stamping hooves acting as applause. Then more cheers broke out echoing that first pony, followed by a thunder of stomping hooves. More and more of the crowd joined, until the very ground shook under their approval. Alexi felt he would faint at any moment, but he remained tall and proud, despite feeling terrified and shaken inside.
Caprice, standing just a little distance away, smiled and winked at Alexi. Then she returned to cheering and stomping as loudly as she possibly could.