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A Glimmer of Hope by Handsome Jew

By SlavePonyGeneral
Created: 21st December 2020 01:29:23 AM

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  3. No idea why the old Pastebin got removed. Found a backup, though.
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  6.         You’re woken up by a bump in the road.
  7. You started out on this trip in the mid-morning, the sky had long since darkened when you’d fallen asleep. It’s still dark out, so you probably didn’t rest for too long.
  8. You’re about to go back to sleep when a voice from the truck’s cabin pierces the chilly night air.
  9. ”Alright y’all, we’re about five minutes out from the farm. Wake each other up, if’n any of ya are still asleep.”
  10. You’re in the truck’s bed, with two earth ponies and a pegasus, all stallions.
  11. You look to your left and find Crystal Skies fast asleep. At least you’ll know somepony at… wherever it is you’re going. You give him a gentle nudge and he wakes up.
  12. The earth ponies across from you are strangers, but it’s not like that’ll matter much.
  13. Word at the auction house was that the man in the front seat was a regular buyer, meaning he probably has plenty more slaves for you to meet.
  14. You can see that they’re both already awake.
  15. As Crystal Skies stirs to life beside you, slightly restrained by two light chains, your new owner’s rough voice once again rings out.
  16. ”Everyone up? Good. I’ll make this quick, you’ll get a more thorough run-down tomorrow mornin’. I’m Anonymous, well at least that’s what they’ve called me since freshman year of high school.”
  17. The truck hits another small bump, pausing him for a moment.
  18. ”Y’all probably know we started out in Seattle, but right now we’re actually about 45 minutes out from Boise. It’s been a long trip, but your new home will be in sight shortly. It’s about 3 AM right now, so we’ll get y’all somewhere to sleep soon as we arrive.”
  19. You aren’t expecting much, but it can’t be worse than an auction house floor or this truck bed.
  20. ”I realize that rumors abound in that place, and half the ponies I pick up are convinced I’m gonna cook and eat ‘em. Don’t you worry about that though, you’ll see soon enough why I keep comin’ back for new hands.”
  21. His accent is curious. It’s got a rustic twang, and yet it’s still somewhat defined.
  22. ”There’s the front gate now. Welcome to Sweet Wheat Acres. Most of the grain grown here is actually barley, but that don’t matter much. The work’s the same.”
  23. A farm, then. It could be worse. The name might bother you, though, it’s too reminiscent of home.
  24. The truck continues on in silence (apart from the engine) for another minute, before you stop in front of a small single-story building.
  25. Anonymous gets out from the truck cabin and begins fixing leashes to your collars. As he’s doing it, he begins to speak again, “I know it’s late, and y’all need some rest. But before you get it, I’d like your names. How about you, pegasus?”
  26. ”Crystal Skies, sir.”
  27. ”And you, earth ponies?”
  28. One of them speaks up, “I’m Peg-Leg, and my brother here is Strong Winds. Maritime family.”
  29. ”Well, not much water around here, but you should still fit in. Discipline and all that.” He latches your leash last, and begins releasing your other bonds. “And how about you, Miss Unicorn?”
  30. “Starlight Glimmer, sir.”
  31. ”Alright, I’m no good with names but I’ll do my best. This is the temp house, just find yourself a bed. Doors and windows lock from the outside, but don’t worry, you’ll get a full night’s rest.”
  32. You follow the other ponies into the building. It’s little more than a room with six sets of bunk beds in it.
  33. ”’Night then, y’all. I’ll be around in eight hours with a forepony to give ya the full run-down.”
  34. The door closes, and you do the only thing you can do, and get into a bed.
  35.  
  36. As you expected, sleep doesn’t come easily. Too much anxiety over the days ahead.
  37. Your previous ‘job’ was a lucky get. You were an assistant librarian in a comfy Portland suburb. Not only were you treated well, but you enjoyed the work. Made friends, even.
  38. Plus, with all the books, it reminded you of Twilight, and home.
  39. But, the good times weren’t to last. The library lost funding, and couldn’t keep you on. Nobody in the community would take you, and so you went to the auction house.
  40. You’d studied maps enough to know that you were now hundreds of miles away from that quiet community, yet only one state over. Such a big place, the United States.
  41. It’s essentially the size of the known world you came from.
  42. You’d heard plenty of your new master at the auction house, although none of it was trustworthy and often it was contradictory.
  43. You never bought into most of the rumors, including the cannibalism one.
  44. Crystal Skies did. Poor bastard’s probably having nightmares.
  45. He claims this is a farm, but whatever’s going on out here, they need a lot of new hooves. Supposedly he’d bought over 100 ponies this year alone.
  46. He never sold anypony back, either. Which was either really bad, or a sign of good times ahead.
  47. These thoughts and more dance in your head as the night drags on, and you’re not sure when you fall asleep beneath the brittle, old sheets.
  48.  
  49. You’re woken by a pounding on the lone metal door to your current quarters.
  50. A quick look around indicates that your company is also only just now rising from their slumber, as well.
  51. ”Alright, ponies. Rise and shine. It’s your first day, let’s make it count! I’m opening the door, now.”
  52. The door swings in, and you see the tall figure of Anonymous is flanked by two ponies. Both are on the small side, and mares.
  53. All three walk in, and you can get a better look at the-
  54. No.
  55. ”Is that? Starlight Glimmer?”
  56. ”I think it is, I think it is!”
  57. Do your eyes deceive you? No, they’re fine. But before you stand Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo.
  58. You’ve not seen a single pony from Ponyville since the portals opened.
  59. “Sweetie Belle? Scootaloo? Is it…” You don’t know what to say. “You’ve grown up so much.”
  60. For some reason, that’s the first thing that strikes you. They’re not quite adults yet, but easily into their teenage years.
  61. You suppose it’s been a while.
  62. Anonymous looks surprised, before looking down at the ponies beside him, “Y’all know her? Where from?”
  63. ”She was a resident of Ponyville,” Sweetie Belle answers. “And not just that, but a friend of Twilight and her crew.”
  64. The other ponies in the room are looking back and forth between you and your old neighbors, but staying quiet.
  65. You’re surprised the two Crusaders haven’t rushed you yet. Perhaps slavery has given them a bit more… discipline.
  66. Regardless, Anonymous appears pleased at this development. “I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later, what with how many we’ve been taking on.” He looks directly at you. “She said you knew Twilight Sparkle. Does the name ‘Applejack’ ring a bell?”
  67.  
  68. Anonymous instructs Sweetie Belle to take the other three newcomers on the usual rounds. Your hometown apparently warrants some special instruction.
  69. Scootaloo takes off along the edge of the fields, now well-lit by the midday sun, and so you’re left following Anonymous at a leisurely pace.
  70. It’s a farm all right, and a big one. Fields of golden grain stretch on for miles on three sides, although in the distance you can see rows of something green sticking up slightly above the rest of the crop.
  71. It’s hard to see much in the distance, though, because you’re only about three feet tall.
  72. Scattered about, however, you can see dozens of ponies tending crops, operating machinery, watching children, transporting materials, and doing all sorts of work that come with an operation of this size.
  73. After the debacle mere minutes ago, you’ve got more than a couple questions, but decide to start with the basics and work your way up.
  74. “So, umm, master.”
  75. ”Call me Anonymous, or Anon for short. A friend of the Crusaders is a friend of mine.”
  76. So they kept their name. Interesting.
  77. “Anon. How big is this place, exactly? I can’t really see due to my height, but it looks… huge, to say the least.”
  78. ”Lemme help you with that,” he says as he reaches down and hoists you over a shoulder. You don’t complain, he’s surprisingly gentle about it. “That a better look? But ‘course, you still can’t see the ends. This property’s about twenty-six hundred acres. Only around half that is bein’ harvested this year, but that’s 30% more than we had last year.”
  79. That would explain the regular trips to the auction house.
  80. “Okay,” you continue, still slung over his shoulder. “And you said you harvested barley? Anything else?”
  81. ”Good question, I like your spirit. No, barley is the main crop, but everything we’re expanding into is growin’ a hybrid from your world. Your Crystal Berries or whatever, turns out they breed real well with raspberries here, and they like these cold semi-arid conditions.”
  82. He chuckles, a soft but hearty chuckle. “People buy ‘em up like crazy. I got margins over 60% with ‘em. By next planting season we’ll have another four hundred acres growin’ ‘em, with the profits from this year’s harvest.”
  83. So, that’s your work, then. Now for the important questions.
  84. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, how did you get the Crusaders here? And you said something about Applejack, yes I know her, is she here?”
  85. You aren’t really containing your excitement at the prospect, but you don’t really care, either.
  86. ”Why don’t you ask her yourself?” He points towards a growing orange dot on the horizon.
  87.  
  88. “Applejack!” You jump off Anon’s shoulder, and run towards her. A firm hug welcomes you.
  89. ”Ah never thought ah’d see the day! It’s been so long, sugar cube, how’ve you been?”
  90. You don’t care what kind of work this place gives you, reuniting with your old friends is worth anything.
  91. ”I’ve been alright, but I’ve missed you… And everypony else.” You look back and see Anon is still about a hundred feet away, and so you lean over and whisper in her ear, “Does he treat you right? Are you okay here? Is your family here?”
  92. Your old friend breaks the embrace with a slight laugh, “Heh, don’t worry about that, sugar cube. Everything’s fine here, and yeah, all the Apples are here.”
  93. All of them? Even-
  94. ”Except Granny Smith.” She takes off her hat and looks to the ground. “Poor mare passed just four months ago. At least she went with her family nearby.”
  95. Evidently, the emotions pass quickly, as she immediately puts her hat back on and beams at you.
  96. ”Ah can’t believe we found you! Out of all the places, all the people coulda found you, it was us!” She begins to trot back and forth across the dirt road. “Oh man, Big Mac is gonna flip! And Applebloom, hell, she loved ya!”
  97. By now, Anonymous has reached you. “Glad to see y’all enjoying your moment. So, Applejack, was she close? Or just a neighbor.”
  98. ”Yeah, I reckon ‘close’ is an apt word.” She pauses to reminisce for a moment. “And if’n you’re still concerned about it, yes, everyone still forgives ya for the whole ‘evil mind control’ thing.”
  99. Anon raises an eyebrow. “Evil mind control thing?”
  100. Fuck
  101. ”Don’t worry, she’s changed. Seein’ as she hasn’t tried to kill anyone yet, I can see Twilight’s lessons stuck.”
  102. You’re not helping.
  103. ”Well, I’ve learned enough from y’all and your family to not question that. Let’s get ‘er up to speed then, shall we?”
  104.  
  105. Anon wasn’t bluffing about the size of this property. Over 2600 acres of fertile soil, with production constantly expanding.
  106. It’s one of the largest pony-based farms in the state, and turns one of the highest profits. A few interviews and news stories about the place have been put out, but generally he keeps his business secrets, well, secret.
  107. He’s a single man, and had just purchased this property with inheritance when the portals opened.
  108. Within days of the slave auctions opening, he had his first workers.
  109. Among them were the Apples and the CMC.
  110. At the time, there were laws about keeping family and friends together. The Apples were sold as a package, along with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle, as the latter two couldn’t find their parents and were effectively orphaned.
  111. It was hard work at first, breaking ground and getting the barley planted. But through the Apples’ farming expertise and their assistance in managing the place, it grew fast.
  112. Anon realized he couldn’t run the place on his own, and ever since those early days, the Apples have effectively been co-owners of the farm, and the CMC foreponies. They even got to choose the name.
  113. After the first few harvests, business was booming, and so Anon had a new, larger home built on the property to house both him and his advisors. So, while the rest of the four hundred or so workers here lived in a few sets of barracks, the former group lived in relative luxury.
  114. Aside from the initial group, only one pony from Ponyville had found her way to the farm, a unicorn named Lyra. You hadn’t known her well, but a familiar face is better than a strange one.
  115. The day-to-day operations here are designed around the ponies. About 7 in 10 workers are earth ponies, who do most of the planting, harvesting, and tending of crops.
  116. Most of the rest are filled in by unicorns, who, depending on how much trust is placed in them, have limited and variable control over their magic.
  117. Most were used for transporting materials and reaching to high places, but the more skilled magic users were useful at harvest time, especially for the berry crop.
  118. That’s why he bought you, you had a documented history with expert magic.
  119. He doesn’t know the half of it.
  120. Only about twenty pegasus ponies are present on the farm, since they’re seasonal workers. In the spring, they help to spread fertilizer and seeds quickly over the massive acreage, but throughout the rest of the year only mild doses of insecticide are needed.
  121. During those off seasons, they help to cook, clean, and conduct other domestic duties, for both Anon and the other ponies.
  122. The farm was run mostly by the ponies, in a sort of hierarchy. At the top was Anon and Applejack, who treated each other as equals. Next were the Crusaders and Big Mac, followed by a ring of trusted leaders and managers who kept the rest of the lot in line.
  123. Importantly, you learned that Anon was not against discipline when it was warranted, although he claimed to be fair in it. Along the road to wherever you were going, he found an earth pony napping in a ditch.
  124. Without hesitation, he ordered the mare up, removed his belt, and gave her ten strokes across the rear.
  125. ”Belting is common,” he said. “It helps keepin’ ‘em in line. But whipping is reserved for grievous offences, and unless it’s real bad, we don’t do it in front of the others.”
  126. We?
  127. Applejack affirms his statement, “Only had to do it twice in three harvests, this one bein’ the fourth.” She catches your stare, and follows up, “It’s just part of the job, sugar cube. Ya gotta be fair, but ya can’t let ‘em walk all over you. A belt ain’t gonna hurt em bad, but it’ll keep ‘em in order.”
  128. “So you do it too?”
  129. That’s… kind of fucked up, actually.
  130. ”Me, the Crusaders, but not Big Mac. He ain’t opposed to it, but he’s just too strong.”
  131. You hope your distress at the situation isn’t visible.
  132. Evidently, it is, because Anon stops and sighs. “Look, Starlight, Applejack and her kin are slaves in law only. If it was legal to let ‘em go and have ‘em co-own the farm, that’s what this situation would be like. And you don’t have to be a farmer to know a place of this size needs some harsher discipline to stay in order.”
  133. You’d prefer to drop the point, but Applejack continues it, “Usually, if we need to call somebody up, Sweetie Belle or Anon does it. Hands n’ magic make it easier and all that. But the rest of us can get in a few whacks if need be.”
  134. Great.
  135. ”That brings me to another point, about your duties here.” Anon looks directly at you, “Just because you’re a family friend don’t mean you got my trust just yet. Trust is earned here, Starlight, although you’re probably starting with a decent amount. Which reminds me, lemme see your horn.”
  136. He kneels down and pulls a small paper from his pocket. You feel him tapping the small device which restricts your magic, and immediately you can feel some of it wash back over you.
  137. ”There. Limited to small levitation, for now, but we can get ya more if’n you earn that trust we talked about.”
  138. “So, then, I’m still a slave, and will be working with the rest.”
  139. ”Right.”
  140. “But I can earn my way out of it.”
  141. ”Right.” That one came from Applejack.
  142. “Well then, thank you. I… I guess that’s all anypony in my position can ask for.” A thought strikes you. “But if I did earn that, would I… have to be a forepony?”
  143. Anon seems surprised by the question. “I guess so? I don’t see why y’all wouldn’t want to be, it’s just about the most power you can get as a pony nowadays. Why wouldn’t you?”
  144. There’s that word. Power.
  145. Something you’d ample time to distance yourself from. Something you knew you couldn’t ever touch again.
  146. But none of them know the real reason why, not even Applejack. She’d probably attribute it to your… earlier incidents. And so you hide it.
  147. “No, no that’s… fine. I just don’t know if I would be, uhh, comfortable, with it.” You put on your characteristic nervous grin.
  148. ”Sugar cube, ah’m the element of honesty. Ah know when you ain’t givin’ us the whole story.” She looks up at Anon. “Ah thought the whole ‘ah can’t be a leader’ thing was resolved after the second Changeling invasion, but ah guess not. But Anon, I can tell ya right now, that there mare was one of Equestria’s most powerful unicorns, and regardless of whether or not she’s forepony material, she’ll have somethin’ to earn with trust.”
  149. That piques his interest. “What kind of magic can ya do? If’n ya can only do more levitation or faster berry-pickin’ that’s fine, but I am curious.”
  150. “Uhh, well, just about anything short of alicorn magic, really. I was kind of a scholar on magic. Two of my closest friends were nationwide authorities on it.”
  151. You hadn’t given him as much thought as Twilight, but you still wondered what happened to Sunburst.
  152. ”Well, that’s an interestin’ prospect. But, unfortunately, you’ll have to demonstrate later. Much as I trust Applejack, there’s a certain line I draw with magic. I ain’t too keen on bein’ blown to bits today, so we’ll have to see how you get on.”
  153. He turns around and begins walking again. “But just know, Starlight Glimmer: if ya got it in ya, there’s a spot for you in the big house over yonder.” You follow his finger as he points.
  154. That’s a big house.
  155.  
  156. You had plenty of time at the old library to use the computers, and had read up on enough history to know a plantation owner’s house when you saw it.
  157. Although you were thousands of miles from where those homes were traditionally built, this structure is the spitting image of a perfectly-preserved center of a slave plantation.
  158. Three stories tall, mansion is the only word to accurately describe it. It’s roughly rectangular, and the front is marked by a set of four tall, marble columns connecting the stone stairs to the roof, although a generously-sized balcony cut between them on the second level.
  159. No expense appears to have been spared in its construction; the exterior is entirely composed of red brick except where broken by windows or marble.
  160. An excellent architectural style to be sure, but its significance in this setting isn’t lost on you.
  161. ”That’s where we stay,” Anon says, keenly aware of your staring. “As you can see, it can hold all of us just fine. Pony farmin’ is good money, we were able to start this after only two harvests. Should be paid off in two more.”
  162. Your attention is also drawn to the yellow, orange, and white mares looking out from its front porch.
  163. Anon looks down at you. “Y’all comin’ or do I need to pick ya up again? The girls are waitin’.”
  164. You start walking over, although at a markedly slower pace than you expected of yourself.
  165. The massive stone-and-brick structure seemed poised to swallow you up, if anything.
  166. As you near the porch, the Crusaders pop like a bubble, unable to contain their excitement any longer. They rush you as a trio, just like they would to everypony years ago. Good to see that they still have fire in them.
  167. Applebloom is the first to speak, or rather shout, up, “Miss Starlight Glimmer! It’s been so long, ah almost didn’t believe the girls when they’d said you’re here!”
  168. Scootaloo puts on a proud grin. “Man, you shoulda seen the look on her face! I came straight here. Sweetie Belle took her sweet-ass time.”
  169. ”Did not! I had to pass the newcomers off to Old Lenny, then I came straight here!”
  170. Applejack gives her a slightly concerned look, “Didn’t ah tell you not to give that poor ol’ stallion any more work? He’s got his hands full enough already, what with all them colts n’ fillies runnin’ about. He don’t need no grown-ass ponies to look out for, too!”
  171. Sweetie Belle looks apologetic for a moment, before quickly explaining, “It’s all right, Applejack, I gave him an apple for it.”
  172. ”He’ll do anything for an apple, dag-nabbit!”
  173. “Girls, please, I’m sure it’s fine.” Their arguments were a bit irritating at a time like this, but thankfully not hostile. “So, are you three really foreponies around here? That’s fantastic!”
  174. You hope your slight discomfort at that prospect doesn’t show through.
  175. Scootaloo gives you a nod, “Yep! And we do a damn good job at it, too, don’t we girls?” Two more nods are elicited from them. “And, oh oh oh! Check out what I can do now!”
  176. You watch as her wings buzz, lifting her off the ground as you’d seen so many times before. This time, though, she stays up in the air.
  177. You can both see and hear that she’s straining, “Human technology… hoo!... Is the best! It’s not exactly e-easy, but I can fly now!” She stops and drops to the ground. “I can go higher, too, up to a minute at a time!”
  178. You knew human medicine was far more advanced than anything in Equestria, but you’re surprised at their ability to solve such a distinctly pony-related problem so quickly.
  179. The R&D budget for something like that can’t be very high, either.
  180. Anonymous gives her a pat on the back. You’re comfortable with such gestures, having been used to them from small children in your previous occupation, but you still take note of when a pony is comfortable with human touch.
  181. Nopony around you bats an eye at it. That’s a good sign.
  182. Giving her a quick pet, Anon says, “Yeah, treatments’re a bit expensive, but well worth it in mah book. Anything to help lil’ Scootaloo. Also, pony insurance policies are surprisingly generous. I guess most folks don’t bother with ‘em.”
  183. “If you don’t mind me asking, do you? Like, for the other ponies around here?” After the display earlier, you were still ever-so-slightly concerned for your well-being here.
  184. ”Well ‘course I do, this farm’s a place to live and work, not to die.” He motions to the Crusaders and Applejack. “’Course, these three and Big Mac are more well-protected than the rest. No point in getting’ the expensive plans for everyone.”
  185. You suppose that’s better than you could’ve expected. At least a broken leg isn’t a death sentence around here.
  186. Applejack seems to have an epiphany of sorts, and hastily looks around. “Girls? Where’s Big Mac? Y’all did tell ‘im about our guest, now, didn’t ya?”
  187. Applebloom sighs, “A ‘course we told ‘im. But you know him, Mr. ‘I’ll come in when the workday’s done’ an’ all that. Just can’t get it through ‘is head that he don’t need to be out there so long any more.”
  188. You were a bit disappointed at his absence as well, in all honesty. It’s been so long since you’ve seen these familiar faces. But you suppose hard work and long hours were Big Mac’s thing, after all.
  189. Anon turns to you again, “By the way, can I just call you Starlight? It’d make everythin’ a lot easier for me. Pony names are certainly a mouthful.”
  190. “Oh, sure, that’s fine.” Anon is about to speak again, but you cut him off, “Not to be rude, but, you said I’d have to work my way up to being a… forepony, and that probably means this house too, right?”
  191. He shrugs his shoulders, “Yeah, I reckon so.”
  192. “Could we go to the regular sleeping quarters, then? I’d like to see what’s in store for me here and now, if you don’t mind.”
  193. He gives you a grin, “Mind in the present but eyes on the prize. I like that. Sure, c’mon, the barracks start behind the mansion. Can’t see ‘em from here, though.”
  194. You and the troupe follow Anon around the corner of the house, and sure enough, several long buildings previously obscured by the house and a small orchard are brought into view. You count five buildings total, with a sixth under construction.
  195. A closer look reveals multiple rows, and there are, in fact, twelve of the buildings, with three more being built.
  196. At least the facilities will be new, and probably have a decent amount of space.
  197. Applejack starts talking about the housing as you walk beside it. “We all agreed that a solid roof and your own room was a necessity in a place like this. We got small rooms for individuals, bigger ones for families, but some ponies have opted to live in a communal fashion, what with bunk beds n’ all.”
  198. Sweetie Belle adds, “Two of the newer buildings are designed that way. We don’t force anyone to live in them, but I guess it’s just more comfortable for some of them. The other ponies, I mean.”
  199. ”How ‘bout you, sugar cube?” Applejack questions. “You gonna want a room, or should we find ya an open bunk?”
  200. “A room would be appreciated, thanks.”
  201. She nods. “This way, then.”
  202. You’re led to one of the obviously newer buildings. The paint is fresh, the floors are clean hardwood, and most of the doors are free of obvious wear. The room you arrive at looks like it’s never been used before.
  203. The walls are a plain white, with a simple wooden bed with red sheets in the corner. A nightstand with two drawers and a lamp resides next to it, and a decently-sized locker rests at the foot of the bed. A small dresser and mirror line the wall opposite the room’s sole window, which is barred.
  204. It’s Scootaloo’s turn to comment on your living arrangements. “It’s not much, sure, but you’re free to customize it how you like. The bed sheets are new and clean, the chest is yours and the key is inside. Two copies exist, yours and ours.”
  205. “Wait, why do you have a key?”
  206. She shrugs, “Not everypony is as comfortable with the situation as you seem to be.”
  207. Of course, contraband. Silly question.
  208. You also notice that this room, like the ones before, locks from the outside. A quick look also reveals a set of inside locks as well, so at least you’ll have privacy.
  209.  
  210. It’s still the middle of the day, so you and the group leave the barracks almost as quickly as you’d entered it. After a bit more walking and touring, Anon sends the Crusaders off to their duties, leaving you alone with him and Applejack.
  211. The two obviously seem to like each other, Applejack especially. She laughs and talks with him just like with her friends back in Ponyville.
  212. This farm certainly sends a lot of mixed messages. On the one hoof, the place certainly isn’t a fun factory. There’s plenty of work here, and a lot of it looks hard. Accommodations are modest at best for everyone but the Apples, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo.
  213. You’d caught a glimpse of the mess area near the barracks, too. The place was just a simple outdoor cafeteria, covered by a massive metal awning. Beneath it you could spot a half-dozen pegasi cooking things in large pots.
  214. And Anon had been quick and to the point about his stance on corporal punishment. You’d expected as much, but having other ponies doing it just seemed… Not right.
  215. It was apparent enough, though, that Applejack and her kin only did it when they approved. You’d only seen them treated as equals or family since you’d arrived.
  216. Considering the fact that they lived under the same roof, maybe that wasn’t far from the truth.
  217. “Hey, Anon, Applejack? Can I ask you something?”
  218. ”Sure, sugar cube, shoot.”
  219. “Are Applejack and the Crusaders still, you know, technically slaves? Like, do you still own them, or…?”
  220. Anon lets out a loud sigh. “Believe me, if’n I was able to, they’d be set free. They are slaves in writing ONLY. But the law clearly states that every pony on U.S. soil’s gotta have an owner, and if it don’t, then it’s government property.” He shares a sad look with Applejack. “We check all the time for changes to that policy, though. The moment it does, they’re free to go. Y’all have more than paid yourselves off.”
  221. He said that last part to Applejack, of course, but you felt like it might’ve been meant for you too, perhaps. Or maybe you’re just that desperate for freedom and you just don’t know it. You decide to change the subject to something more immediate.
  222. “So, tomorrow’s my first ‘real’ day here, right? What am I going to be doing?”
  223. Applejack answers that, “I figured we’d start you out helpin’ in the barns and silos, makin’ sure everythin’s ready for the harvest. We’re about a week out from when crops start comin’ in.”
  224. Anon gives you a serious look, “That means we’re gonna have-ta give you some reasonable control over your magic. That’s a lot of trust for someone, err, somepony on her second day. You think you’ll be alright? Just lifting boxes and stuff with your magic, mostly.”
  225. “Sure, no problem. I’m not too out of practice, they let me use it in my old job.”
  226. Of course, you didn’t really lift anything heavier than a reference book, but you doubt that the most powerful unicorn in the world will be upset by some heavy crates.
  227. Gah! There’re those thoughts again! No, Glim Glam, just forget about that whole deal…
  228. ”Y’all right there, sugar cube?”
  229. The sound of Applejack’s voice snaps you back to reality.
  230. “Oh, uhh, yeah sorry, was just thinking about my old job. I was working at a suburban library this whole time.”
  231. Anon seems to like that. “Oh! How’d you like it? Nice place?”
  232. You give a nod. “Yeah, I most liked being able to use the computers. Such advanced stuff compared to what we had back home. I’m gonna miss it, the internet and all that.”
  233. You spent, like, at least two hours per day on the Chans, even though you could only use the computers in between duties.
  234. Anon gives you a grin, “Well, there’s somethin’ else to work towards. The barracks all have Wi-Fi, actually, and I got some spare laptops for ponies who earn ‘em.”
  235. That’s a surprise. “You trust them with that? Really?”
  236. ”Sure, why not? By the time they’ve earned one, everypony who gets one is loyal enough. Y’all are mighty enamored with our digital shit, it tends to be a great motivator.”
  237. You guess that makes sense. And you’re not about to argue otherwise, either. You’re a filthy weeaboo pony and you need your daily dose of /a/.
  238.  
  239. The farm is big as hell, and it’s a solid fifteen or twenty minutes of walking before you arrive at your next destination.
  240. In a row are three large barns, and past them are about half a dozen more structures, simple metal columns rising up several stories with metal roofing on top.
  241. ”The barns store some of the harvest and most of our materials,” Anonymous explains. “Most of the grain, though, gets compacted and piled up under those awnings. We actually ain’t too far from a train depot, though, so we usually don’t pay anything excessive to transport it all out of here.”
  242. As with the rest of the farm, this area shows signs of recent expansion. One of the barns is brand new, as are two of the large awnings.
  243. The three of you enter the newest barn through a side door, and inside you find a number of ponies sorting through boxes and removing tools.
  244. ”You’ll be helpin’ them tomorrow, sugar cube,” Applejack explains. “Shouldn’t be too complex work, just take advice from Lemon Poppyseed over there. He’ll help ya.” She motions to a light blue unicorn with a muffin on his flank.
  245. You spend a few minutes getting to know what kind of work you’ll be put up to tomorrow, before heading out again with Anon and Applejack. However, when you cross in front of the last barn, Anon ducks inside and motions for you to follow.
  246. Inside, the area is a lot clearer, but a few service vehicles are present. Anon approaches a few ATV’s in the corner.
  247. ”Hey Starlight, ever rode one-a’ these before?” When you indicate that you’ve not, he tosses you a helmet, which you catch with your magic. “You best be wearin’ that then. I think I’m done walking, though.” He points you towards Applejack, who’s already mounted one of the vehicles and is apparently waiting for you.
  248. You’d be lying if you said you weren’t a bit anxious, but what better pony is there to ride with on something like this?
  249. The roar of the engine catches you off-guard, but the helmet dampens its sound. You hear a muffled “Hold on tight, sugar cube!” As you take out through the barn’s large back door.
  250. As far as first days go, this isn’t so bad.
  251.  
  252. You spent a few more hours touring the farm. Even though you knew it was only a couple miles on each side, the entire place felt overwhelmingly massive.
  253. Over the winter you’ll be helping to clear more of the rough that still occupies about half of the property. In its place will grow hundreds of acres’ worth of raspberry-crystal berry hybrids. They were highly profitable, and the local environment suited them perfectly. Apparently there’s enormous demand but very few active growers.
  254. After sampling a few, you had to agree, it was a splendid mix of flavors.
  255. Towards dusk, you’re dropped off back at the central barracks. You’d learned that there are actually multiple temporary housing and living centers across the farm, generally only used during the harvests and planting seasons. Otherwise, trekking all the way back from the border areas would lose copious amounts of time.
  256. It’s about half an hour until dinner, but the crew is hard at work and beginning to set tables. They’re pretty quick, even for pegasi, but you decide to help out anyway.
  257. “Hey, everypony, do you need any help?” They’re hard at work and you try to interrupt as little as possible.
  258. An aging purple mare takes a break from ladling soup from a pot to respond, “Sure, sweetie, if ya got nothin’ bettah ta do, go ‘head and help Cranberry Jam set the tables.”
  259. Interesting accent. Manehattan? Not many of them ended up in this world.
  260. You put your thoughts to rest and move to help setting places. Each place at the long, mess hall tables gets a plastic tray, napkin, fork, spoon, and hard plastic cup. Your companion must have to work exceptionally fast to get everything set up by the time the dinner bell rings.
  261. It occurs to you that you haven’t tried once today to use your magic. Anon said he’d restored some, but you don’t know what that could be.
  262. At least you had one of the more high-end magic suppressants. It was an electronic device, fully removable, that was strapped to your horn and only changeable with the input of a passcode or fingerprint scan.
  263. Other unicorns had to deal with permanent implants, medications, or even horn filing. You were thankful that the library had opted for the expensive but less permanent solution.
  264. Come to think of it, everypony you’d seen on this farm had an electronic suppressant, although some were permanent. Anon must look for them specifically.
  265. Back to the task at hand. There were about a dozen long, wooden tables lined up, each of which could probably seat thirty to forty ponies. Just enough space for all the farm’s workers.
  266. A quick test of your magic on the dinnerware reveals a surprising amount of control, and with ease you can pick up an entire long table’s worth of equipment at a time. You’ve not lost practice, either, and you neatly arrange everything in just a moment.
  267. You repeat the process for a few more of the remaining tables before looking over to your coworker, who is looking at you slack-jawed.
  268. “What? Never seen magic before?” It’s a rhetorical question, plenty of unicorns on the farm had use of their magic, but it still occurred to you that some poor foals out there had probably never even seen magic used.
  269. ”Yeah, sure, but wow! You, uhh, have a lot of control.”
  270. Nothing you haven’t heard before, “Yeah, I was pretty powerful back in the day, even by Equestrian standards. Had a lot of time to… refine my technique, too.”
  271. ”Well, with the harvest only a week away, the bosses are sure to like that. Heck, might even invite you to dinner if you can pick berries like that.”
  272. “Should be similar enough.” You turn around and do two more tables at once. It isn’t easy, but the end result is flawless. You’d forgotten how good it feels to show off.
  273. ”Well, thanks for the help, I think I can get the last one. Why don’t you see if you can help everypony else with serving and preparation?”
  274. A quick glance at the cooks indicates that they, too, have to scramble to get everything finished in time.
  275. You move around the kitchen area, helping out anypony along the way. Whether it’s pouring soup into bowls, putting fries into baskets, or lifting kegs onto stands, the cooks are quickly outclassed by your skilled form of magic.
  276. It’s too bad you didn’t have any way to generate heat. Dinner could’ve been done an hour ago.
  277. There’s still about twenty minutes left until the bell is rung, but by now ponies are coming in from across the farm in anticipation of the day’s end. The cloudless sky is being tinged with the gentle pinks of a rural sunset.
  278. Activity near the housing has picked up, and all the fillies and colts of the farm are eagerly dancing and playing. There are dozens, of all ages and sizes. Many of them bear striking resemblances to other ponies on the farm.
  279. It’s good to see the families being kept together. Although you doubt the Apples would approve of separations, anyway.
  280. Naturally, many ponies are curious about your escapade with the bosses earlier. About ten had gathered near you to ask questions, most along those lines. You gave them the simple truth, you’d known and befriended Applejack back in the old world.
  281. ”So, that mean you’re a new forepony ‘round here?” A white earth pony asks.
  282. “No, no, I’ll be helping with the harvest, and then with clearing out new fields. Hopefully we can get it done quickly, and have a few days of rest.”
  283. ”So you’re just another worker then, toiling with the rest of us.” An old but strong earth pony looks up for a moment, as if to consider the idea. “That’s good. We got Big Mac of course, but having somepony else who knows the higher-ups will definitely help.”
  284. “Help with what, exactly?”
  285. He sighs. “Just things we need. We got food, water, housing, and education for the little ones, and that’s all good. But sometimes we have need of other things, like new parts for a plow or patching for a roof leak, and it can be awful hard to get word up about them.”
  286. You don’t really want to be a messenger-pony, but his legitimate concern encourages you.
  287. “Sure, I suppose, if I see anything like that, I’ll try and get a word in. But, remember, I still have my work duties, and I can’t be a dedicated messenger-pony.”
  288. Truthfully, you mostly want to avoid drama and politics. Being a messenger or mediator, well, it’s easy to get caught up in those. A bit of simple work will probably do you good, and with your magic, it probably won’t be too hard either.
  289. ”We understand, don’t worry. Big Mac is the same way, always insists on working with the rest of us. And he beats out damn near every one of us in production, too. At the end of the day, he’s usually too tired to do much more than rest.”
  290. Huh. You’d heard the others mentioning Big Mac working in the fields, but this pony makes it seem like he’s near working himself to death.
  291. And when considering the lives and livelihoods of those around you, that’s a pretty strong sentiment.
  292. You’re about to ask more about him and his duties when the bell sounds for dinner. By now, hundreds had congregated in the area, and all came rushing to grab a tray and get a good spot in the lines.
  293. By the time you make your way over, hundreds were ahead of you in the queue. You pick out one of the few remaining trays and join them in line.
  294. Despite their length, the lines move quickly, as it’s a simple buffet-style serving setup. You spot the arrangements and setups neatly laid out by you being quickly taken and replaced in a constant race between the cooks and patrons.
  295. The food is decent quality. Tomato soup with bread, and a side of fries. For drinks, everypony can choose from sweet tea, lemonade, or water, all stored in large barrels on tap.
  296. You grab your soup and fries and opt for a cup of tea, before going to sit back at your place. As you approach, a distinctive white-and-green striped mane sticks out, seated directly opposite you.
  297. “Is that… Lyra?”
  298. At she perks up from her soup at the mention of her name, before jumping up and putting on a glowing grin, “Starlight Glimmer? Wow, it’s been so long! When’d you get here?”
  299. She looks like she’s ready to leap across the table, so you take your seat and motion for her to sit down too.
  300. “Arrived before dawn today, actually. I heard you were here, actually, and I was planning on searching for you, but lo and behold, here you are right in front of me. How have you been?”
  301. Food completely forgotten, she cheerily replies, “I’ve been pretty good, actually! Came here a few weeks before last here’s harvest, and you wouldn’t believe the look on Applejack’s face to find somepony from Ponyville.”
  302. ”Since then, I’ve worked my way up to a management position. Not a forepony or anything, but I do get to call some shots, and most of my magic. It’s pretty sweet.” She tilts her head at you, as if considering something. “So, what are you gonna be doing here, then?”
  303. “Oh, just helping out with the harvest, to start. Somepony said I should try to work with the berries, and I do think with my magic skills I’d be helpful. You know any way I can get a specific assignment with that?”
  304. ”Do I?” She magics up her basket of fries, quickly rearranging them midair in a small feat of showmanship. “I’m in charge of one of their orchards, actually! I’ll put in a request to Sweetie Belle, she’s forepony for the berry crop, get you working on my team.”
  305. She puts down all the fries but one, chomping down on it. “You were some crazy powerful magic user, right? Yeah, I’m sure we have plenty of room for you.”
  306. “Well, thanks. Until then I’m just helping out in one of the big barns. Shouldn’t be too hard.”
  307. ”Sure, sure, especially with somepony with your magic. Oh, by the way, you aren’t evil any more, are you?”
  308. “What? Oh, no no no, I stopped being totally evil years ago. I think. Hopefully.” She doesn’t push it further, and you’re pretty sure that you doubt that claim more than her.
  309. ”Well, if you wanna hang out, I live in the third building on the right. My name’s on my door, just stop by whenever. But not, like, in the middle of the night or anything.”
  310. She leans over, “Also, I have a key to the big house, so if there’s an emergency or anything, you can just tell me.”
  311. “Uh, sure, thanks, will do.”
  312.  
  313. The two of you chit-chat for a while longer, until you finish off your food. As you go to throw away your scraps and stack up your tray with the rest, you spot a familiar red earth pony moving away from the dining area, tray in his mouth.
  314. “Big Mac! Hey! Long time no see!”
  315. He turns his head back to look at you, keeping his full tray firmly between his teeth, and gives a brief nod.
  316. And he starts over to a now-almost empty table, without a word or even a second glance.
  317. You turn to Lyra, but she just motions you to go over and sit by him.
  318. He looks up as you approach but doesn’t stop eating. A moment passes, and when it becomes apparent that he’s not going to talk first, you break the ice.
  319. “So, Big Mac! What, uhh, what brings you out here?”
  320. ”Always eat here.”
  321. Ah, yes, you’d almost forgotten his quiet nature.
  322. “You don’t eat with your family in the house?”
  323. ”Nope.”
  324. “Well… If you don’t mind me asking, why not?”
  325. ”It’s important not to forget who you are.”
  326. He never struck you as a riddler, but he could certainly pass for one at this rate. A few moments of silence pass between you as he continues eating.
  327. “I… guess I should be going, then. Need to settle in my room and all.”
  328. ”Eeeyup.”
  329. You turn to leave, still a bit confused about his limited presence out here. He slept in the big house, the others had told you as much, but it’s interesting that he-
  330. ”And Starlight?” You pause, and turn slightly towards him. “Don’t you forget, neither.”
  331. You give him a nod, before continuing on your way.
  332.  
  333. Lyra lives in one of the older buildings, and once inside, it’s a world away from the new, crisp development that would be your home.
  334. Many of the doors have custom adornments or paints on them, and some are covered in pen and crayon, the art of the children within.
  335. Lyra’s door is hard to miss. It’s painted mint green, predictably, with big wooden letters to spell out LYRA hung on its front. It’s not out of place in this setting.
  336. You try to knock on the door, but after only the first tap it bursts open, with a mint-green unicorn beaming at you from the other side. “Starlight! Welcome to La Casa Lyra!”
  337. The walls are thankfully spared of any offending paint color, but are adorned with plenty of paintings, photographs, and other decorations. In addition to the locker, table, bed, and dresser of your room, she also has a comfortable couch, a bookcase, and a desk with a laptop on it crammed into the room.
  338. “Huh, nice place. He gets you all this stuff?”
  339. ”Oh, yeah, the brass are all good with rewards. Furniture, decorations, if you’re loyal and a good worker they’ll help you out.”
  340. “And they really do let you have computers, huh? Looks nice.”
  341. ”Yeah, this one’s pretty good compared to most of the rest.” She gives the device an affectionate pat. “I can even run CS:GO on this bad boy, 60 FPS. Unfortunately, nopony around here is any good, so LAN matches are shit.”
  342. You’re on Chan withdrawal. You’d even take an hour on Wheelchan at this point, the lack of husbando arguments is slowly killing you. It takes every fiber of your being to stop you from opening up the laptop and trying to connect.
  343. ”I’m sure you’ll be good at it, though. Magic helps to get around the whole ‘no fingers’ thing. Might take some getting used to, but we can get you up to speed on computers and technology.”
  344. “Oh, that’s not a concern, I had plenty of time with them at my old place.” Oh, and don’t forget the obvious, “I don’t even have a computer here, anyways. First day, remember?”
  345. ”It won’t be long, so long as you don’t act up too much. Computers and furniture cost a lot less than the new ponies that come in every few days, Anon only buys the good ones.”
  346. She puts on a more serious look, “Also, do avoid acting up in general. I’m kind of a boss pony, and in some ways you are too. Just try to keep things in line here, and don’t be afraid to snitch. Punishments are light, and the rewards are good.”
  347. The belting you’d seen earlier didn’t strike you as ‘light,’ but you suppose sleeping on the job couldn’t really be tolerated. Especially around harvest time…
  348. “Okay, then. What do you do for fun, then?”
  349. ”Ooh, good question!” She looks excited to answer. “A lot of the time, there’s a dance or a party or something going on that we can attend after the work is done, sometimes even a movie. We have this party pony named Cheese Sandwich, Anon gives him a big budget to raise morale.”
  350. “But I’m guessing nothing is going on tonight?”
  351. ”No, not tonight.” She looks somewhat dejected. “But, I do have a Playstation. Aaand, we’re both unicorns, so again, don’t have to worry about lack of fingers!”
  352. “Don’t you need a TV for that?”
  353. ”Did you even look behind you?”
  354. Sure enough, on the wall behind you, parallel to the doorway, a moderately sized flatscreen TV hung. A few boxes and a game console were mounted below it.
  355. Lyra’s got a pretty dank place.
  356.  
  357. You proceed to get your ass kicked for a few hours across multiple racing games.
  358. Apparently Lyra is actively helpful at most opportunities, and correspondingly gets a lot of rewards.
  359. At some point in the night, a loud buzzer goes off in the hallway, and a glance at a clock reveals it’s 10 to 8.
  360. You jump slightly at the noise, but Lyra barely acknowledges it. “Oh, forgot to tell you, curfew is 8 PM. That’s the ten-minute warning, after that the doors lock from the outside until 6 in the morning.”
  361. “Ten hours locked in their rooms?”
  362. She shrugs. “Most of the earth ponies are tired enough that they use nine or ten hours of sleep anyway. If not, almost everypony has something to keep them entertained in their rooms.” She looks up at you from the game. “Actually, you don’t really have anything yet, do you?”
  363. Your room is a bit drab, to say the least.
  364. “Yeah, think I can stay over here? If it’s not against the rules or anything. Plus having friendly company will be nice for the first night.”
  365. ”Yeah, sure. Most ponies only need permission from the block administrator to spend the night in another room, but I’m the admin of this building. Soo…” She motions to the couch, “You have my formal permission to chill here tonight.”
  366. “Thanks, Lyra.” You look over at the bookcase; most of its contents seem to be collecting dust. “Say, would you mind if I took a few books over tomorrow? Just to give me something to do.”
  367. ”Oh, sure, no problem. I never read them anyways.” You’d figured. They looked less used than the Pony History section at the library. “Lots of good nonfiction, too. Haven’t read any of that since Mr. Anonymous started handing out computers to loyal ponies.”
  368.  
  369. Lyra went to bed after about an hour, and you did likewise. The couch was surprisingly comfortable, perhaps because it was human-sized and a pony could easily stretch out on it.
  370. You’re awoken in the morning by another loud buzzer from the hallway, and the sound of locks across the building being released simultaneously. Much like Alcatraz, you consider, although it somehow seems slightly less dreary.
  371. Venturing out of the housing block, you spot the pegasi already well underway with breakfast preparations. Food is served at twenty past the hour, a half hour is given for eating and leisure, and then everypony heads off to his or her work.
  372. Lyra has some administrative tasks to perform, almost as a morning ritual, so you opt to assist the cooks again with breakfast preparations. As before, they’re grateful for your help, and enjoy an extra ten minutes or so of idle chatter.
  373. Breakfast is uneventful. For the most part, you don’t really get to choose your seating, since each tray is assigned to a spot and once you take it, that’s your designated spot. So, you end up amongst strangers, although they seem to be friendly.
  374. ”So you’re new here, are ye?” a jaded-looking earth pony mare questions?
  375. “Yes, yesterday was my first day here. Now, it’s off to work. I hope I can keep up around here.”
  376. ”Ah, pish-posh,” she waves a hoof at you. “You’ll do fine. Hell, more’n a quarter of everypony here’s less’n two months new, discounting the children.”
  377. ”She’s right.” Another earth pony, this one a stallion with a bright orange coat. “I only been here six weeks. You get the work real easy, ain’t too complicated. ‘Course, maybe it’s different for the unicorns but at least for me, ‘long as they see you puttin’ in the effort, none a’ the brass is gonna bother you.”
  378. You chat a bit more about your immediate future on the farm. The mare who spoke first, Grassy Field, has been here since the first harvest. The rest of the ponies nearby were much newer, with Tangerine, the orange stallion, being the newest aside from you.
  379. After a while, a buzzer rings, and everypony gets up to leave for work. Tangerine is headed for the barns as well, although he’s assigned to a different one, so you opt to walk there with him.
  380. Looking around, the two of you are fairly isolated. It’s fifty feet or so both in front of or behind you that somepony else is walking.
  381. “Hey, could you answer a question honestly.” He casts you an inquisitive glance. “How… how are all the ponies treated here? What do you think of it?”
  382. He sighs. “Well, far as I can tell, ‘long as you do your work right and don’t speak up too much, none of the higher-ups give you any problems. But they don’t much like anypony stepping out of their bounds, and too many ponies forget that those fine lines are all’s between them and a beltin’.”
  383. “What kinds of things do they give out… physical punishments for?”
  384. You’d only been truly beaten once in this world, and that incident was well-deserved. In truth, you’re terrified at the prospect.
  385. ”Oh, depends on which forepony you got. Anon an’ Sweetie Belle’re the worst, they’ll belt you for most anything, sometimes I think they do it for fun. Applejack an’ her sister do it less, but don’t really seem to go easy if you done something to deserve it.”
  386. He looks around, as if to make sure your conversation wouldn’t be overheard. “Scootaloo, she’ll do it, but only when somepony really steps outta line or gets reported by somepony else. Big Mac, though, I ain’t ever seen him do it once.”
  387. “Heard somepony say he’s too strong, might hurt them permanently.”
  388. No point telling everypony that the bosses themselves had told you that.
  389. ”That’s what he says, but I think he just don’t wanna do it. Good stallion, he is. He works harder than ten of us put together.”
  390. “Have you ever…?” You hope you’re not being intrusive.
  391. ”Me? Not once, not yet at least. I do my best to keep my head down and work.” He puts on a small smile, but it doesn’t seem entirely genuine. “They reward you well for that. Especially around harvest time, or so I’ve heard.”
  392. The two of you continue on in silence for a minute or two, before he speaks up again.
  393. ”By the way… I know you’re new, and I’m new, so that’s why we’re talkin’ now. But, uhh, watch what ya say ‘round here. The brass have informants everywhere, and they’ll report you for anythin’ and laugh at your welts later.”
  394. How Orwellian.
  395.  
  396. You quickly get into a good rhythm with your work.
  397. It’s simple, mostly, but important. In the rafters of the barn were boxes of tools and supplies that constantly needed to be brought down or up, and only magic could make quick work of it.
  398. You find out that there isn’t a lunch break, and the two meals at dusk and dawn are prepared to give everypony enough calories to get by.
  399. Still, some choose to bring snacks out to the fields. Some ponies in the orchards even tried to sneak a few bites there, but it was risky work, as the berries were expensive and unauthorized consumption could earn a pony stiff punishment.
  400. You don’t really get any dedicated break time either, but the work is sporadic, and you end up getting relatively evenly-spaced 5 or 10 minute breaks throughout the day.
  401. You get to leave a bit early, too, since it’s almost a half-hour walk back to the farm’s center in the evening.
  402. But throughout the day, it’s not the work or the relative ease and difficulty of it that stays on your mind. Instead, Tangerine’s words seemed to echo constantly, and gave you a lot of questions. Informants… but who?
  403. You’re not stupid, of course Lyra is one. Most of the housing administrators probably are, as well, along with anypony in a position of command. You suppose you’ll just watch your conversations with her, it can’t be good to just throw away an old acquaintance like that.
  404. But a good secret police force doesn’t permanently reside in the spotlight. Practically anypony could be an enemy, somepony eager to turn in another and collect rewards.
  405. And, of course, there’s the reasonable amount of trust placed in you by Anon and the others, of course. For one, you get to call him not just by name, but by a shortened version of it. Everypony else you’ve talked to refers to him as ‘Mr. Anonymous’ or ‘the boss’ or brass, or something.
  406. Nopony but the higher-ups refer to him informally. Even Lyra seemed intent on keeping the ‘Mr.’ when referring to him.
  407. Chances are, you’d get more than one pass if you slipped up, even stood defiant. But how far would their patience go? Do you even want to try it? They’d been hospitable, and it felt genuine.
  408. Even if it wasn’t, you weren’t about to start scheming. You’d heard horror stories at the auction house, but no human had really harmed you so far. Why plot against Anon – and the Apples – just because he’s in the position he’s in?
  409. Well, you are a slave, you suppose.
  410. Having plenty of time throughout the day to mull these and similar thoughts over, you conclude to just take the advice of Tangerine and Lyra. Keep your head down, do your work, and stay within your bounds.
  411. Hopefully, when the harvest rolls around, you can get some extra credibility with your magic skills. Gain enough favor to turn your room from a cell into a studio apartment, perhaps.
  412. It still bothered you a little bit how the doors locked from the outside on a schedule, but you suppose it’s reasonable. You suspect Lyra and other ‘trusted’ ponies have some way out, too.
  413. As you near the residential area, the sounds of discourse and laughter interrupt your thoughts. Good, you think.
  414. Better appreciate what you have, and enjoy its benefits.
  415.  
  416. After again helping out the cooking staff, you mull about and find a few of the ponies you’d met so far.
  417. Crystal Skies had been placed on cooking duty as a starter job. Apparently, the pegasi have a reasonable number of occupational choices in the off season.
  418. Once he gains more trust, he wants to be a teacher. Of course, like everything on this farm, that trust has to be earned.
  419. Tangerine came in a bit before you, and didn’t really have much to say about the workday. Much like yours, it was uneventful and reasonably tiring.
  420. You introduce the two of them, and they seem to get along well. You three decide to sit as a group, using Crystal Skies’ job and your brownie points with the cooking crew to reserve a few seats right next to each other.
  421. The dinner bell soon rings, and you have a good spot at the front of the line. Alfredo pasta tonight, simple but delicious. You briefly wonder why dinner and breakfast are called with a bell but the latter is dismissed by a buzzer.
  422. Tangerine explains that the bells aren’t mandatory like the buzzers. Also, they give a nice aesthetic.
  423. Somehow, a seat across from you remains unclaimed, and Lyra eventually comes along to grab the tray. She quickly gets her food, the lines now being much shorter, and takes a seat across from you.
  424. You notice that your orange earth pony companion seems to wilt as she takes her position, but keeps up cordial conversation.
  425. Crystal Skies, evidently unaware of her status or any reputation she has, just tries to be friendly.
  426. ”So, pleasure to meet you Miss…” he begins, in a not-so-smooth introduction.
  427. ”Lyra, nice to meet you too. Crystal Skies, right?” He appears confused for a moment, nodding in the affirmative, before she points to you, “Starlight mentioned you last night when we were hanging out. Said you were a pegasus in the same group as her, haven’t seen you around before, figured you were him.”
  428. ”Well, you’d be right in that, ma’am!” He puts on a devilish grin. “By the way, has anypony ever told you that your mane is absolutely gorgeous?”
  429. He seems to try something with every mare he meets. At least, every one at the auction house. You were merely the mare who decided to turn his failed attempts into playful banter, forming a friendship.
  430. ’If at first you don’t succeed’ must play on a loop in his mind, though.
  431. But if Lyra’s at all creeped out, as most mares are around him, she doesn’t show it. “Oh, yeah, I get comments on it all the time! If you like, I can tell you what products I use, to give it that satisfying sheen.”
  432. The two continue on for a time as you and Tangerine look on silently, amused by the pegasus’s futile attempts and Lyra’s ignorance of or uncaring attitude towards them.
  433.  
  434. After dinner, it appears that the farm’s resident party pony Cheese Sandwich has something planned.
  435. ”Surprise, everypony! Or, well, everypony who wasn’t here last year. It’s the annual Pre-Harvest Surprise Party! Music, games, fun, make sure to have a good time!” A nearby unicorn whispers something in his ear. “Oh, and we close down at ten to eight for curfew, don’t forget.”
  436. You’re slightly amazed that he has the energy to put all this together so suddenly. You know he’d been out in the fields with the rest of the earth ponies today.
  437. But after seeing Pinkie Pie in her prime, you know that nothing can slow down a party pony once they’ve started doing their thing.
  438. She once threw what was simultaneously the best and worst ‘3 AM Surprise Birthday Party’ you’d ever had.
  439. This event, by comparison, was much tamer. Plenty of small games set up everywhere, comfy country music, and even a dunking booth. Looks like somepony brought out punch, too.
  440. The adults mostly chit-chatted, some opting to try a few games, but you nearly tripped on multiple occasions as fillies and colts excitedly dashed about between stations and events.
  441. It was a lively scene, but by Lyra’s account, a relatively tame one for the farm. With a professional party pony present and hundreds of other ponies around, the bigger ones can get to be rowdy affairs.
  442. Supposedly, once the harvest was in, there was usually a days-long celebration. Even Anon and the foreponies helped to set things up. Also, hybrid berry punch. Nice.
  443. The event continues at full force for about an hour, but as time drags on, many of its patrons start heading into their housing. By the time the curfew warning buzzer sounds, only yourself, your posse, and a few others remain.
  444. You’re about to start expediting cleanup, because magic, but you can barely do a double-take before Cheese Sandwich has the place entirely cleaned up.
  445. Fuckin’ party ponies, man.
  446. With nothing else to do, and an admittedly exhausted body, you head back to your as-of-yet mostly unfurnished room.
  447. You hadn’t noticed before, but the rooms actually have shared bathrooms between them, which is nice. Nopony lives in the room next to yours, so for now, you have a private washroom to yourself.
  448. You take a quick, cool shower, brush your teeth, and head to bed right as you hear the exterior locks clicking into place. Once you go back into the room, there will be no leaving it until six tomorrow.
  449. Heading to bed, you fall down on the surprisingly comfortable mattress with a mighty crash, and fall asleep within minutes.
  450.  
  451. When morning comes, you wake up an hour early and notice two things. First, you slept above the sheets, and are now freezing because it’s autumn in Idaho. Second, you forgot to grab books from Lyra’s place, so you now have an hour to kill with nothing to do.
  452. Further attempts to sleep are futile, even as you slip under the sheets, as you’re too cold and you don’t have enough control of your magic to cast a sleep spell.
  453. So, instead, you let your mind wander to the day and week ahead.
  454. It’s a Tuesday now, and the harvest begins Sunday if weather patterns hold. Until then, you’re doing relatively menial work. Using magic for heavy lifting isn’t hard, but gets a bit exhausting after a while.
  455. Apparently, Anon and most of the ponies here are pretty religious, so Sundays are normally an off day. However, for two weeks in harvest season, every day counts, and those two weeks are the next ones. So, two or three solid weeks of work.
  456. Although, it was usually paid back in time off after the harvest is in, if everything gets done on time. You suppose that’s reasonable, an early frost could seriously hurt the crops.
  457. You have a feeling that your magical expertise could help out a lot this year. Lyra has already approved your work in the berry orchards, but you’re still waiting on word from Anon and the foreponies on whether or not you’ll be able to use more of your magic for the task.
  458. You wonder a little bit about why they still choose to grow barley. The margins on it are, by their word, far lower than the berries, and the latter seem to have an insatiable demand.
  459. Labor costs would probably be lower, too. Much fewer earth ponies would be necessary on the farm, although of course you would need a lot more unicorns.
  460. Maybe unicorns were just more expensive than you thought? You never got to hear what you went for at the auction, and any pony sales websites were blocked at the library.
  461. Those sick, perverted old librarians blocked Pony-Auctions.net but not /d/? Weird. Not like you were going to tell them to block it, though.
  462. But all that’s irrelevant. Just do your work, and everything will go great here.
  463. After about half an hour of waiting, you decide to try the doors anyways. To your surprise, the bathroom door is open, and you opt to take a warm shower. It must unlock earlier than the other doors.
  464. You step out when you hear the buzzer, quickly drying yourself with a simple spell. You feel bad for any earth ponies that have to dry their manes out the old-fashioned way.
  465. There isn’t even a hairdryer in the bathroom, just towels.
  466.  
  467. For five days, you quickly settle into a rhythm. Wake, eat, work, eat, leisure, sleep. A drab existence, and a somewhat tiring one, but you know that there are certainly far worse fates, especially for a pony.
  468. Your little circle of acquaintances develops into a circle of friends, with you, Tangerine, Lyra, and Crystal Skies now sitting together at each meal.
  469. Even if four seats can’t quite be found right next to each other, Lyra makes good use of her privileges and switches somepony out.
  470. Through these meals, you also learn that your companions play a mean game of poker. You’d never played Texas Hold’em before, but you were sharp-minded enough to pick it up fairly quickly and easily.
  471. Too bad ponies don’t get paid. All you have to bet with are food and a set of practice chips Crystal Skies got from somewhere.
  472. You do wonder, though, why Lyra doesn’t really have many friends around here, especially given her apparently outgoing nature. Maybe she’s actually been evil this whole time and you’re just desensitized to that?
  473. Regardless, by the time Saturday rolls around, you’ve actually begun to enjoy life here. There were plenty of ponies to meet and talk to, the work was satisfying in a way, and you had to admit that the accommodations were generous.
  474. Some ponies seemed to share the attitude, and were entirely comfortable starting a family here.
  475. Others, like Grassy Field, the mare you met on your first workday, seemed far more cynical of both their superiors and the entire situation. You couldn’t blame them, a happy slave is still a slave.
  476. You still had yet to see anypony get beaten, however. Then again, you were at the edges of the farm, and you’d only seen one of the foreponies once this entire week when Scootaloo came in to get a progress report.
  477. With everything under budget and ahead of schedule, she found no reason to stick around.
  478. You also weren’t going to be the newest pony on the block this harvest. Since you arrived, a total of ten more ponies in two additional groups had been brought to the farm. Three unicorns and seven earth ponies. Most had taken rooms in your housing block, but some had opted for the communal living areas.
  479. You can’t imagine why they would give up privacy like that. Maybe they’re just hippies.
  480. But as Saturday Night comes around, your usual free time after dinner is replaced by a meeting called by Applejack and the Crusaders. If anything, you’re surprised that they waited this long to make a speech, the harvest was right around the corner.
  481.  
  482. ”Awright, settle down y’all, this meetin’s comin’ to order. Y’all know why we’re here tonight, don’cha?”
  483. Looking down from her elevated podium, Applejack seems to expect a response. With none forthcoming, she continues, “Well then. Ta’morrow’s the start’a the harvest. Ah realize that we have a lotta new blood this time around, even more than last year, so ah’m gonna try to get y’all up to speed before ya go in blind.”
  484. A brief look around reveals that most every pony has their entire attention focused on her as she speaks, “Now, this work ain’t gonna be easy. It’s gonna be long, it’s gonna be tiring, but once it’s done, it’s done. We’ll be out there with y’all, and not just makin’ sure you’re workin’. We need every pair’a ha- hooves we can get, so believe me, ah’ll know what y’all’re goin’ through out there.”
  485. A few of the newer ponies try to clap, and a couple even holler, but the old blood knows that this is the norm. Even though the brass doesn’t usually have reason to work in the fields, Lyra claimed that they’d done their share of work in every harvest so far.
  486. Although that was partially second-hand information, as she’d only been here for one other harvest, you’ll take her word for it, especially knowing the Apples.
  487. Applejack serves up some more motivation, before the teenage CMC take the podium one-by-one to lay out schedules and plans for the days ahead. Sweetie Belle goes last, but you pay close attention to her, since she’s your boss now.
  488. Funny, just a few years ago, these fillies were always getting into trouble and going to the tiny Ponyville school. Now, you’re a slave, and they’re drivers.
  489. It comes as no small surprise when you’re named as one of the senior harvesters in the berry orchards. Sure, you’d started out above the rest, but you didn’t think you’d be given such responsibility so early on.
  490. Technically, you can’t boss anypony around, but your magic will be restricted less and you’ll be given more leeway in the work. In turn, you’re expected to have a significantly higher output than other harvesters.
  491. Sweetie Belle stresses that the berries must be picked delicately, and that the process takes much more time than with other crops. Twilight had once taught you how to clear a small apple orchard all at once with magic, but that wouldn’t apply here.
  492. Berries must be picked individually, although a more adept unicorn such as yourself could probably handle multiple at a time. If too much pressure is applied with the magic, they get crushed, and are only good for juice past that point.
  493. For jam, wine, whole export, and most other purposes, they generally need to be free of blemishes.
  494. It’s a lot of work for a few little fruits, but Lyra had shown you what their products sell for online. Anon must have some strong legal defenses in place, because you can’t imagine any other way to keep other companies from capitalizing on the margins.
  495. You get to bed early, excited yet determined to rest well. Starting tomorrow, you get your chance to start proving your worth to your old friends.
  496.  
  497. You awake before the buzzer, the small clock in your room indicating about an hour remaining before the big day begins.
  498. Your bathroom isn’t private any longer, but your neighbor is still asleep, and you’re able to shower and take care of your hygiene in peace.
  499. With about twenty minutes still remaining before you’re allowed to get up and at ‘em, you practice your magic on a collection of rocks and pebbles, levitating them in complex patterns and rearranging them with precision and speed.
  500. This is going to be a piece of cake. You’re Starlight fucking Glimmer, unicorn extraordinaire! Get your game face on!
  501. The buzzer finally sounds, and your door unlocks with a metallic click. You practically rush down the hallway into the open commons.
  502. You’re the first to arrive at the tree where you and the other senior harvesters agreed to meet. Lyra is close behind, as she’d always been an early bird. Shortly after, two other unicorn mares come up to greet you, both brimming with confidence.
  503. ”I think that’s everypony,” Lyra says as they arrive. “Starlight Glimmer, meet Ruby Heart and Sunny Streak.”
  504. ”Pleasure to meet you,” the red-maned Ruby Heart beams. “We’ve done this before, so we’ll be here if you need our help or advice.”
  505. Her white-and-cream companion adds, “But I don’t think you’ll need it, if half of what we’ve heard of your magic is true.”
  506. The four of you discuss tactics and magic for a few minutes before the breakfast bell rings. You didn’t get a chance to help out this morning, but the cooking crew thankfully managed to get everything ready on time. You get four seats together, and continue your conversation over warm pancakes.
  507. As you’re eating, the corner of your eye spots Applejack weaving in and among the tables, offering encouragement to all sorts of ponies along the way. After a few minutes, she manages to break away from the clinging masses and come directly to your table.
  508. ”Whoo-ie, there’s plenty’a eager ponies today. Ah think we’ll do just fine this year. How’re y’all doin’? Starlight, ya think yer up for the challenge?”
  509. You put on your ‘confident face’ and boast, “You know it, AJ. Don’t forget, though, I still need Anonymous to dial down my magic restrictor before I get out there.”
  510. Your teammates’ faces light up with a hint of surprise at your informal reference to the boss.
  511. ”Oh! Can’t believe we almost forgot! And naw, don’t worry, I can get it. Bend your head down, lemme see that horn.” You shrug your shoulders and crane your neck. “Now, it’s a bit harder with hooves but… there. You should be set and ready to go.”
  512. You suppose it makes sense that Applejack has the authority to control your magic, and you’d probably prefer her doing it to anypony or anyone else, but the act still unsettles you somewhat. How could it not? It’s the greatest reminder of this entire system you can think of.
  513. You can feel your magic returning. You could probably levitate this entire sitting area at once with this much power.
  514. Of course, you’re still gimped, to a degree. None of the crazier spells are going to work today.
  515. Applejack sweeps her gaze across the rest of your companions, “And y’all have your magic opened up’n ready to go too, right?” They all nod in the affirmative. “Well then, ah’ll leave y’all to yer talk, then. Good luck out there, and remember, if anyone gives ya trouble, just tell one of us.”
  516. As she trots off, you ask your companions, “Trouble? Would anypony give us trouble?”
  517. Ruby Heart shrugs and responds, “Harvest time is a chance to prove yourself, if that’s what you care about. Lots of rewards and awards handed out to the ponies who really pitch in. Some of ‘em get a bit pushy in their rush to outperform.”
  518. “Pushy? How, should I be worried?”
  519. Sunny Streak shakes her head and smiles lightly, “Oh naw, don’t worry about that. Nopony’s ever started a fight over a few berries. Might just try to move in front of you, keep you from working in a high-yield area, something like that.”
  520. Lyra adds, “We get seniority, which means that if we think we can get more work done somewhere, other ponies have to clear out. If they try to cause any trouble, just get Sweetie Belle to help you out. She’ll sort things out.”
  521. Sweetie Belle would be in charge of your orchard, both helping out with the harvest and mediating disputes. She’d never been very good with magic, though, so she isn’t part of the senior harvest team. That doesn’t mean she isn’t the boss, of course.
  522. The breakfast buzzer sounds, but rather than slipping away haphazardly to their respective corners of the farm, the ponies now begin to arrange themselves into large groups of about 80-100 each. Big Mac, Applejack, and the Crusaders each lead one of the groups, separated geographically.
  523. You wouldn’t have to walk far, the primary orchard where you would be working was nearby the main house and pony housing. Others, like Big Mac’s group, had over a mile to walk.
  524. There was talk that a secondary housing unit would be built over the winter for ponies working near the property lines, to keep them closer to their work permanently and cut walking times.
  525. You’d even heard a few rumors of a small rail system being set up instead, although you doubted any credibility they could have had. Regardless, you couldn’t imagine this property expanding hundreds of acres more in production without some transportation solution.
  526. Your group gets organized quickly, and before you know it, you’ve got a collection basket around your neck and are being led towards the sprawling orchard.
  527. Time to show them what you’re made of.
  528.  
  529. The work isn’t tiring, especially compared to the heavy lifting you’d been doing all week. With your freed magic, the harvest was smooth sailing.
  530. It did require concentration, however. The berries were easily crushed by hasty magic, and you were afraid for a while that too many were being cast into your discard pouch.
  531. A quick comment from a fellow worker, however, helped you to realize that a few mishaps were to be expected. It wasn’t a huge deal if too many were crushed, as they could still be used in a number of products.
  532. You start slow, picking just a few at a time with your magic. Soon enough, you’ve mastered just how much pressure to apply and how firm to pull on the tiny red orbs, and you can do an entire branch and eventually an entire bush at a time.
  533. Although that’s supposed to be the limit of your magic, you find yourself easily able to harvest two or even three entire plants at a time. By the end of the day, you’ve managed to reach a production speed three times that of your fellow senior harvesters.
  534. Most other unicorns have only a limited grasp of their magical skill, and can only work with the few berries at a time that you started the day with.
  535. You’ve had to fetch a new bag to hold your crop over a dozen times, while most of the other ponies only had to go for a single replacement, or never even filled their first bag.
  536. The sky is starting to dim when you hear Sweetie Belle call, “Alright, everypony, pack it in! Come over to the main road, we’ll weigh your bags and see how we’ve done.”
  537. You come back to the road to find a long table set up with multiple weighing stations. Each pony’s extra bags have been put off to the side and name-tagged. There are a lot of lone bags, a few in pairs or trios, piles of five and six for your fellow senior harvesters, and a total thirteen filled bags from your own production.
  538. You walk up to place your last bag with the rest, just in time to see Sweetie Belle coming around from behind the pile, eyeballing it with awe.
  539. She looks over to you, with an incredulous expression, “Starlight? Did you really do all this?”
  540. “Yeah, although the first few bags have extra discards. I wasn’t as familiar with the process then, made some mistakes. Sorry.”
  541. She shakes her head, “I just don’t understand. HOW did you manage to collect thirteen-no-fourteen bags of berries? That’s more than one per hour!”
  542. You feel yourself blush slightly, “I-I guess I’ve always just been good with magic. You remember, right, back in Equestria? I could give Twilight Sparkle a run for her money sometimes.”
  543. Sweetie Belle doesn’t respond, but instead opens up a few bags’ drawstrings and looks inside. You look around to see more than a few other ponies looking at you with expressions of mixed jealousy, awe, disbelief, and admiration.
  544. ”Well, that’s amazing,” she declares after opening and inspecting a third bag. “The yields are all in average, if not above-average condition. Speedy AND meticulous.”
  545. She turns to you, a wide grin now on her face, “Starlight Glimmer, I’ve never seen anything like this. The rest of the family will be, just, really fucking happy about this! I’ll get everything weighed, you head on back to the mess area.”
  546. “Oh, uhh, thanks, it was nothing.” The other ponies still haven’t averted their gazes, and you can feel your blush and embarrassment only rising, not falling. “Just glad I could be of help early on.”
  547. As you start walking away, half ashamed of your utter outclassing of everypony else on the farm, Sweetie Belle calls out one last time, “And don’t you worry, Starlight! I’ll make sure you get your rewards! You’ve earned it.”
  548. Have you? It’ll only be harder for everypony else to make an impression now…
  549.  
  550. The mess area is mostly empty when you arrive, as only one other group has made it in. A few from yours are also scattered about the place, but you don’t see anypony familiar.
  551. You grab your food and take the same seat you had in the morning, waiting for others to come in.
  552. A few more ponies from your group trickle in one at a time, compared to the dozens at a time that flood in when the other groups meet their daily quotas. It seems that their work is less focused on individual performance, and they simply get released as a team.
  553. You’re not unaware of the looks cast your way from the other unicorns, with the same mixed expressions of congratulations, irritation, and pure curiosity that you saw before. The overriding factor in all of them seems to be awe, however.
  554. Relatively soon to arrive are the other senior harvesters who, despite having a solid day’s take, were also dominated by you. You’re slightly worried, but as they sit down it quickly becomes apparent that there are no hard feelings.
  555. ”Starlight!” Lyra, the first to arrive, rushes over and takes a seat beside you. “You were incredible! You just smashed Sunny Streak’s record of seventy-two pounds in one day.”
  556. Sunny Streak, following closely behind, gives you a big grin and a playful bop on the shoulder, “Your final total was one hundred and twenty-two pounds. More than a dozen other unicorns put together.”
  557. “Thanks guys, and sorry for overperforming. I guess I just started to get into a rhythm, and it’s been so long since I’ve let my magic go free, I just got carried away.”
  558. Lyra looks at you as though you were born yesterday, “You’re apologizing? Starlight, it looks good for all of us when somepony does that much. The total take today was 10% over expectations, and that’s pretty much entirely due to you.”
  559. Dinner is mostly filled with congratulatory laughter, praise, and back-patting, not only from your fellow senior harvesters but also the rest of the crew. It makes sense, an unexpected 10% rise in production means that everypony gets to be finished a day or two early.
  560. But as your plate gets smaller and your belly fuller, you start to wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into.
  561. Obviously, there are ponies here who are happy to work, and a sudden boon to production like yourself is going to make them happy.
  562. But, as proven by Tangerine, many remain cynical. If all he said was true, the happy faces Anon and the foreponies drew on this farm are only a mask.
  563. You’d read enough Orwell in the library to know how that could be dangerous.
  564. Those without an ambiguous or positive attitude towards the situation could see you as a threat. Not only as somepony coming in to show them up, but also a new ally of the family.
  565. After all, Sweetie Belle had reassured you that a reward would be coming soon. Hopefully that would be limited to some furniture and decorations for your room.
  566. If it had more to do with your role here, you’re not sure if you’re ready for a position of responsibility.
  567. Given your past, a simple life of comfortable work is probably what you should strive to keep.
  568. But, given the events and circumstances of the past week, you don’t think that status will be maintained.
  569. As dinner starts drawing to a close, but before ponies start wandering off to their quarters, Scootaloo brings out a podium and appears ready to address the crowd.
  570. From what you’ve gathered so far, she’s the overall favorite forepony. Always fair, generally kind, and she gets sympathy for her handicap. When Anon got a partial fix for it earlier this year, the celebrations were honest and hearty.
  571. ”Mic check, mic check!” The mic is indeed on, and everypony turns to its source. “OK, great, let’s get right into it. First of all, it was a great day today. Every group was above expectations, and certainly above quota. If we keep this pace up, we’ll be done two days early.”
  572. You hear a few hollers, and the crowd looks overjoyed, but you know that rains are coming tomorrow. That should slow things down.
  573. ”I’m going to keep things short tonight, but there are a few ponies we’d like to give mentions to for their performance.”
  574. Oh shit. There’s no way you won’t be called out, you can feel the stares already.
  575. ”First, from Applebloom’s group, Sandbar! When he noticed several newcomers struggling with their harvest equipment, he dropped his work to show them properly.” She points to a green earth stallion, who gives her a big grin. “Remember, everypony, production quotas are less important than a good turnout overall! Help each other out.”
  576. ”Next, from Big Mac’s group, one Starry Night!” She singles out a surprised deep-lavender earth pony stallion. “Normally, Big Mac himself is the only one strong enough to pull the heavy harvesters. Starry Night, new for this season, stepped up to the plate and took one on. I know that can’t have been easy, so you should know that we recognize the performance!”
  577. The barley harvest was a curious affair. There were tractors, but those were only manned by the most trusted ponies or Anon. The rest of the ponies had to utilize specially-designed pull machinery or scythes. You’d helped to assemble one of the largest variants, and could barely imagine that anypony other than Big Mac could pull one.
  578. ”And, finally, I’m sure she knows her name is coming.” That’ll be you. “With a record-shattering one hundred twenty-two pounds of berries harvested in a single day, everypony give a round of applause to Starlight Glimmer!”
  579. Many of the unicorns had been knowingly looking your way by the end of the first sentence, but now you could feel the eyes of well over four hundred ponies on you. Judging you, sizing you up on your achievements.
  580. Their applause was loud, louder than the two ponies before. The mix of expressions you picked out from the crowd, however, bothered you a bit.
  581. Many gave big grins, or open-mouthed looks of admiration. Others were indifferent, or even amused.
  582. Others, like the orange visage of Tangerine peering out from across the crowd, wore something almost akin to disapproval.
  583.  
  584. The speech wraps up quickly, and everypony is left to their devices. You receive a multitude of congratulatory remarks, pats on the back, and even a pick-up line from Crystal Skies, but most ponies simply opt to retire to their quarters early.
  585. Although the work was easy for you, most unicorns had to strain to meet their quotas. And the earth ponies, well, you can understand their tiredness.
  586. Still, one familiar bright orange earth stallion seeks you out once the crowd thins. As he approaches, you can see a weak smile on his face, dimly lit by the outdoor lights.
  587. ”So! Breakin’ records on your first day of the harvest! Must’a been mighty hard work…”
  588. “A bit, yeah. I might see if I can get more tomorrow, I was a bit slow in the morning.” He cringes a little, and you quickly add, “But of course I’ll pace myself. No point in wearing myself or my magic out, eh?”
  589. You put on your favorite fake smile that you know never fools anypony.
  590. ”I’m sure you’ll be fine. I’d heard you ‘ere a talented unicorn, but damn, twice as much as the next best.” He sighs and continues without looking at you, “To be honest, I’m just worried you’ll raise the bar. I hope the foreponies are reasonable ‘nough to know that even though you can do so much, most the rest of us can’t.”
  591. “I think they’ll understand, Tangerine. After all, Sweetie Belle herself was out there harvesting, and she barely got in eight pounds.” There’s truth to your words, and as he detects it, Tangerine seems to lighten up a tad.
  592. ”Well, if you say so. Not to be rude or anythin’, but I’m gonna hit the hay. Was with Big Mac’s group, and while he’s a good stallion, you ain’t goin’ in til’ he’s tired. And he don’t tire easily.”
  593. “Good night! Sleep well, and watch for the rain tomorrow!” He nods, and heads off to one of the housing blocks.
  594. You hadn’t noticed it before, but he lives in one of the communal housing blocks. Interesting. You still couldn’t understand the appeal, sleeping in one big room with everypony else, with no privacy.
  595. You probably couldn’t get in a single private conversation in there without somepony hearing. You aren’t exactly as picky as Rarity used to be, but the only word you can find to describe that situation is ‘dreadful.’
  596. You think on it for a moment more in the chilly night air, and then head in to your quarters to shower.
  597.  
  598. The next morning starts in a manner largely the same as the one prior, with breakfast and discussion with the other senior harvesters.
  599. Most of the talk was about the weather, the heavy clouds weighing down on the landscape and threatening a downpour at any moment.
  600. At least it’s not snow. Early snowfall would force Anon to scramble everypony, probably put in 20-hour workdays. You suppose it depends most on how much of the berry crop comes from the crystal empire; the Equestrian varieties could grow in freezing temperatures.
  601. The rain proper doesn’t start until about two hours into the next day. When it comes, it comes hard, and the ground quickly becomes a sloggy, muddy mess. You hope nopony had a hoof manicure.
  602. It slows down production in the orchard, as the rain and the wind accompanying it cause branches and bushes to bob and sway. Add that factor to the slowed transportation, and you estimated that the day’s yield would be half that of yesterday.
  603. At least you’ve managed to get the technique almost mastered. By midday you have more bags filled than you did at the same time yesterday, but you don’t see yourself picking up speed any time soon as you did yesterday.
  604. Sweetie Belle ends up calling the ponies in an hour early when the rain threatens to take a turn for the worse. The mood is dim, and you can tell that few of the ponies have enjoyed being forced to work out in this weather.
  605. Your total for the day is sixty-one pounds. Exactly half of what you had yesterday, but still far above everypony else. The second-place yield came from Ruby Heart, with thirty-nine pounds.
  606. You start to walk away, when you notice a commotion at the other end of the weighing station’s long table. Sweetie Belle looks furious with a light pink unicorn mare.
  607. ”What the hell is this, Soda Pop? Look in these bags, tell me what you fucking see!”
  608. The mare nervously looks into her two bags, before answering, “I-it’s my take for the day. F-fourteen pounds, I worked e-extra hard to get them.”
  609. ”You worked extra hard? On this? On berries covered in mud, trodden on, and picked with the care of a bulldozer? Look at this shit, everyone look at this shit!” She kicks the backs over, and their contents spill out. Even though you’re a few dozen feet away, you can see they’re muddied and many are crushed.
  610. ”I did! I-I just saw S-Starlight Glimmer doing so good, and wanted to pitch in a bit extra! P-please, it’s fine, we can still use them, right?”
  611. ”You picked these off the ground, didn’t you? After everypony else had stepped all over them. And if you did actually pick any yourself, you just snatched them off the branch and threw them in! Quality over quantity!”
  612. Sweetie Belle shakes her head, and walks around to the back of the table before continuing, “This is your third harvest, and you know better. And you also know what’s coming, so just get yourself in position and get ready. Everypony else, stay and watch. This is why you be careful with the crop.”
  613. She bends herself down, and when she comes back up, you see that she’s grabbed a wooden cane from under the table.
  614.  
  615. You’d already seen Anonymous give one of the ponies a belting, but he’d been outright sleeping on the job, and it wasn’t really too hard.
  616. This, though. A pony beating another pony. It’s just… not right.
  617. You want nothing more than to run and hide, or avert your eyes, but Sweetie Belle had made it very clear that she wanted the crowd to see. She wanted an example made.
  618. You don’t want to be a second example.
  619. Soda Pop, the unfortunate center of attention, has her tail between her legs and her eyes closed. They open for a brief moment, and you can see the fear, her irises each the size of a pea.
  620. As if to complete the scene’s dramatic effect, the rain starts up again in earnest, and the wind begins howling. And yet none of the ponies try to shield themselves from it; their attention is solely focused on the scene unfolding before them.
  621. Sweetie Belle has to shout over the howling wind, “Head down, legs apart! I’ll let you take your pick, flank or hindquarters?”
  622. You can barely make out her response, “Flank!” over the sound of driving rain.
  623. Eyeballing not the pony in front of her, but the crowd, Sweetie Belle raises the cane, holding it up with her magic for a brief moment before it comes down hard on the soft drink cutie mark of her quarry.
  624. You flinch at the first stroke, as it obviously hits hard. Soda Pop’s eyes open and widen, and a brief yelp escapes from her mouth, before she quickly resumes her position, ready for the rest of the punishment.
  625. After the first blow, Sweetie Belle picks up the pace but doesn’t let up on intensity. You count twelve strikes in total, the entire affair taking about a minute.
  626. It feels so much longer, watching the only partially-grown-up filly you once knew striking this adult mare with a practiced hoof. Her face remains stoic throughout, not betraying a hint of hesitation.
  627. When at last the ordeal is done, there is little immediate reaction. Some ponies simply move to resume their weighing or start off towards the mess area, but others, such as yourself, simply stop and ruminate on what just happened.
  628. After at least half a minute of just standing and staring at the sobbing mare, watching as in the corner of your eye Sweetie Belle calmly replaces her weapon and walks off, you feel a gently tap on your flank.
  629. Lyra is behind you, with an unreadable expression on her face. Not sadness, not anger, and certainly not indifference. The closest thing you can pin it to is resignation, although that doesn’t fit perfectly either.
  630. ”Come on,” she says, straining to be heard over the wind, “let’s just get back to the mess area and eat.”
  631. You don’t move from your spot, and after a brief moment, she comes forward and embraces you. Without a word, she turns and starts to trot towards the mess area.
  632. You follow, eager to get out of the rain.
  633.  
  634. You end up in a full sprint to the mess area, mostly due to the weather but certainly encouraged by a desire to get away from the previous scene.
  635. Thankfully, a number of large tarps have been stretched out around the area’s perimeter underneath its metal awning, providing solid enough protection from the elements.
  636. As you slip into its sole opening, which faces away from the wind and rain, you find that you’re not the only soggy, disheartened pony here. A few of the earth pony crews came in early, and most of their members are covered in both water and mud.
  637. It’s also no warmer than 45 degrees or so, and you’re happy to notice that somepony set up a number of space heaters throughout the area.
  638. You silently pick up a tray join the line with Lyra, neither of you talking or even looking at the other.
  639. It was no secret that she was on friendly terms with the boss ponies and human, and you were curious to hear what she had to say about their disciplinary actions.
  640. Soda Pop had disobeyed orders, and probably lost a great deal of money in an attempt to heighten her own standing on the farm. That deserved punishment, sure.
  641. But a public flogging? It seemed… harsh.
  642. Soon enough, you and Lyra grab your food and take your seats. Your fellow senior harvesters arrive late, and sit elsewhere.
  643. After a minute or so of quiet eating, you break the ice, “So… that happened. I… want to know, what’s your take on the whole situation?”
  644. Lyra puts down the spoon she was using to cradle a bit of soup and sighs, “I never like to see a punishment like that. Nopony does, and I doubt you did. Honestly, it seemed like a bit much for that, if it was me I would’ve at least done it in private.”
  645. You can only imagine the humiliation of that poor mare. It’s almost an entirely separate punishment in and of itself to have that beating seen publicly.
  646. ”But I can understand why she did it.” She pauses, and seeing your surprise, elaborates, “There are a lot of new ponies here this year. A lot of ponies who haven’t seen that the brass are willing to give out punishments – actual punishments – and need to know that.”
  647. She shakes her head lightly before continuing, “Any other time of the year that punishment would probably at least have been in private. But with a farm of this size, I can get that it would be hard to keep everypony in line if they weren’t at least a little bit afraid.”
  648. “So, what, you’re just perfectly fine with them using the fear factor like that?” She just shrugs. “I don’t think that’s really necessary. I mean, why can’t they just keep rewards high and punishments light? Wouldn’t that improve morale, at least?”
  649. Lyra takes a bite of her food before answering, “Starlight, you’re… different from the rest of the ponies here. You’re insanely powerful with magic, you waltz in and get more work done on your first day than most other ponies will across the entire week, and to top it all off you’re old friends with one of the big bosses.”
  650. She motions behind her to the assortment of tired, mostly earth ponies, “Look around, Starlight. Most of these ponies just want to get by, but they’re not special like you, or even I. They can barely fill their quotas, and they have feelings too. Feelings that get them in serious trouble sometimes. Unlike you, they can’t just fall back on talent.”
  651. She has a point there. While you aren’t fooling yourself into thinking you’re immune to punishment, you know very reasonably that you’d be allowed more leeway than most everypony else.
  652. “And so that gives Anon, the Apples, and those little fillies the right to just whip everypony who steps even the slightest out of line? How is that fair?”
  653. ”It’s not fair, but it’s how things have to work. Most ponies are resigned to it, because they’re not stupid; they know that despite the hard work and occasional punishment here, they have it a lot better than most other ponies do.”
  654. “That’s not true. I’ve seen plenty of ponies in the suburbs where I used to work, lots are just home cleaners, others work odd jobs, and some are even just treated as pets or companions.”
  655. She gives a slight chuckle before looking down, “Starlight, there’s a difference between most of the ponies here and the ones you’ve seen there. These are low-skill earth ponies, the ones that fetch the bottom-rung prices at auction. No human wants one of those to do most work where a unicorn or pegasus could be so much better at it.”
  656. “I guess you’re right… I saw a lot of people coming into the library I used to work at with pegasi or unicorns. Plenty of earth ponies, sure, but not in the same volume.”
  657. She nods solemnly, “Then you get it. Realistically, this is the best most of these ponies can hope to get, especially the country types that end up here. Have you noticed that a lot of them have rural or Appaloosan accents? Mr. Anonymous picks them up specifically because of that, because they’re generally strong but inexpensive.”
  658. This fucking world. At the end of the day, that’s what it always comes down to for ponies. You’re commodities, judged by your features and tech specs. A slaver looking for a new addition to his collection is no different from a kid spending his first $500 on a new laptop, trying to pick out the one with the best internals.
  659. Lyra lets it all sink in for a moment, as she finishes up her meal. Seeing your tray still half full, she gets up and simply says, “You know where I live. Feel free to spend the night if you want to talk more,” before leaving.
  660. You don’t resume eating, instead listening for her hoofsteps to fade out of range.
  661. Once they do, you can feel tears forming, and coalescing into sobs.
  662.  
  663. Eventually, you pull yourself together enough to leave the mess area. By then, the place is mostly deserted, and many ponies have already gone in for the night.
  664. As you leave, however, you come face-to-face the familiar orange face of Applejack under a porch light just outside.
  665. ”Ah! There y’are, sugar cube! Ah was wonderin’ when you’d be comin’ out.”
  666. “Applejack, it’s nice to see you and all, but I’m, uhh, a bit tired from today’s work. Not to be rude, but could we make this brief?”
  667. Truth be told, you just really don’t want to talk to her or her kin right now. Your greeting was a bit rude, but you honestly aren’t terribly concerned.
  668. ”Oh, well, alright then. Just wanted ta give ya this, all the other senior berry harvesters got one. Just give it a look-over and get back to me or one’a the Crusaders tomorrow.”
  669. She reaches into the light bag slung over her back and retrieves a sealed envelope with her teeth, your name written in rough handwriting on the front.
  670. You pluck it from her grasp with your magic, but don’t open it just yet. You’ll take her up on her offer of talking about its contents tomorrow, and simply nod your farewell and head off to your quarters.
  671. Still without a desk or even a table in the room, you instead flop down onto your bed and open the letter. To your surprise, it’s written manually in pen, and although it carries the same rough handwriting as the front of the letter, nothing is crossed or scribbled out.
  672. ’Hey, Starlight Glimmer, Appplejack here. I’ll keep this quick for you, but after a bit of discussion with the Crusaders, Big Mac and Anon, we decided to invite you and the other senior harvesters to a meeting with us tomorrow night. The rain is going to pick up late in the afternoon, so we figure you can beat it by heading in and maybe get a well-prepared meal to boot. We have some things to talk about, but don’t worry, they’re good things! Hope we can see you there.’
  673. ’Sincerely, Applejack.’
  674. You kind of expected Applejack to write how she talks, but it’s actually surprisingly succinct and lacking in country twang. Maybe you should give her credit.
  675. Most likely, it’s probably just easier to write in brief sentences and get to the point when you have to use your mouth for the task.
  676. You’d seen the weather forecast with Lyra the other day, and if the meteorologists are still saying the same thing, you’re going to want to beat that storm inside.
  677. But… seeing the foreponies and Anon was among the bottom items in your list of things you’d like to do, right below ‘literally eating shit’ and right above ‘getting soundly beaten by Sweetie Belle.’
  678. You just throw the letter off to the side of the bed and get up to shower. You’ll think on this in the morning, and right now, you’re just too muddy and sodden to give a shit.
  679. But in the back of your mind, you know that some way or another, you’d probably be eating dinner with the pony you’d just watched mercilessly beat another. And all of her kin.
  680.  
  681.  
  682.  
  683.  
  684. The next day’s work is marked by occasional light rainfall, markedly quieter conversation among the orchard workers, and a lot of mud.
  685. True to forecast, sometime in the mid-afternoon the wind begins to pick up and heavier rains loom. You’re heading to the storage area with your eighth bag of the day when a small, white unicorn accosts you.
  686. ”Hey, Starlight, looks like the storm is about to come in,” she dashes up to you, but slows as she gets close. “Have you thought about our offer? It’s not a mandatory meeting, but we’d like for you to be there…”
  687. You look up at the foreboding clouds and solidify your decision.
  688. “I suppose it would be best to come, yeah. And I think I’ve met my quota for the day, hah.” You magic your full bag off of your back and over to the storage area.
  689. ”Alright, great! Just head on over to the main house, the rest of the senior harvesters are already on their way.” She turns to the group of earth ponies whose jobs involved transporting and weighing the berry crop. “Hey, Starlight’s done for the day, get her stuff weighed and stowed.”
  690. They nod resolutely, and Sweetie Belle follows you toward the main house.
  691. You have hopes that the walk will be a silent one and you’ll be allowed to simply think quietly before arriving, but those dreams are quickly dashed when Sweetie Belle trots up to your side.
  692. ”So, Starlight, aren’t you at least wondering a liiittle bit about what this meeting’s about?”
  693. “I guess so. I was just thinking it’s about the weather and production, or something along those lines. Is that right?”
  694. She smiles, “A little bit of that will be discussed, yeah. But don’t tell anyone I told you this, but the meeting is kind of about you!”
  695. “Me? What?”
  696. ”Well, you and the other senior harvesters, but mostly you. I know this is your first harvest here, but believe me when I say it’s going way better than the past few years.” Her grin widens before continuing, “You’ve made a huge impact on all the ponies! Despite the weather, production was actually up a few percentage points yesterday. We were expecting something along the lines of 50 percent less.”
  697. “I thought quality was more important than quantity though? You made that pretty clear, yesterday, when you… you know.”
  698. She shakes her head. “That was an isolated case. Well, mostly. One other stallion got a lighter punishment for doing something similar. But overall, most of the ponies kept up acceptable quality, and put in the extra effort.”
  699. “So what does that mean for them?”
  700. ”Well, for you, you’ll find out at dinner tonight. That’s what this really is, kind of a mini-celebration and nice dinner for you all. For the rest of the ponies, though, aside from a few extra days off we’re trying to get some things planned.”
  701. “Such as?”
  702. She gives you a quizzical look, “We were actually hoping that you could help us with that. We’ve got some ideas, sure, but nothing concrete. You’ve been out there, with everybody, err, everypony else. You probably know better than us what would be good for them.”
  703. You consider that for a moment. What would make the ponies here happy? For the week or so you’d been here, you’d mostly been focused on making good impressions and a few friends. Twilight and your darker past had both taught you to be happy with just those little things.
  704. But what about the Average Joe ponies? What do they want, to be happy? A roof over their heads, they have that. Hot meals, check. Family was often a big problem for ponies in your predicament, but the Apples wouldn’t tear a family apart. They’d be the last ponies on earth, or Equestria, to do that.
  705. “I mean, there is a party pony here. Why not just ask him?”
  706. ”You mean Cheese Sandwich? Of course we ask him. You know he doesn’t even work with the rest of the earth ponies, right? He plans and puts on recreational events full-time.”
  707. “And so if you don’t want the party pony’s help, then you probably don’t want a party this time.”
  708. ”Well, not necessarily,” Sweetie Belle looks up, as if in thought. “It’s just that we do that every year, and there are events like that all the time. We’re just trying to find something really special this year, as long as everyone keeps up the pace.”
  709. “I’ll think about it, then. Honestly, for me personally, I’m pretty happy already. Having a job I’m good at, new and old friends around, and a good home is all I really need to be satisfied.”
  710. Sweetie Belle is silent for a moment, before responding, “I’ll keep that in mind, Starlight. Don’t think you’re getting away with your amazing performance without reward, either.”
  711. She leaves it at that, and pulls ahead of you.
  712.  
  713. The rain starts coming down harder just as you reach the front steps of the massive home.
  714. You’d been up close to it before, but it was no less imposing this time than when you first set eyes on it. Three stories tall, with massive marble columns and detailed oxidized copper adornments on its red brick exterior, the structure was an architectural marvel.
  715. It must have cost millions to construct, but then again, a single property of this size on fertile soil is probably worth far more.
  716. You certainly can’t imagine there being any financial hardship around here.
  717. You find that the steps are the perfect height for a pony, unlike many human buildings and constructs. This place was designed with pony navigation in mind.
  718. It’s a reasonably high climb, as the building’s foundation is several feet high. The ground floor is technically just above your head.
  719. The front door is imposing as well, a wide entrance composed of solid, dark hardwood. It has two sets of peep-holes, one slightly below your eye level and one far above it. The door has both a round knob and a latch designed to be easily manipulated by a hoof.
  720. Finding the door unlocked, you cautiously shake yourself off outside and step in.
  721. The door leads to what appears to be a main living room, a large, open area with hallways, doors, and arches opening up on all sides. The walls are either painted a soothing, dark green, or covered in dark laminated wooden panels. Decorating them are countless wall arrangements, ranging from landscape paintings to weapon displays to collections of framed photographs of varying sizes.
  722. On the far side of the room is a massive cobblestone hearth, expertly crafted to give the room a rustic feel yet clearly precisely engineered to maximize functionality and safety. Above it hangs a reasonably large flat screen television.
  723. The room’s sole occupant, Anonymous, is currently engaged with a weather forecast on the television, but shuts it off and turns to you as the door opens.
  724. ”Ay, was wonderin’ when you’d be comin’ by, Starlight Glimmer.” He squints his eyes slightly, appraising you. “Aw shit, you’re soaked. I know how long y’all ponies stay wet for what with all that fur; lemme get you a towel.”
  725. He quickly moves to open one of the room’s doors, revealing a small half-bathroom inside. He grabs a reasonably large towel and tosses it to you.
  726. ”I think you can dry yourself with that magic of yours. Everyone else’s in the kitchen, just come on in when you’re ready. It’s on the left.”
  727. He closes the bathroom door, and exits the room into the kitchen to the left. You start to dry yourself with the towel, before remembering your newly freed magic and quickly zapping all the water and mud off.
  728. You shove the small, airborne collection of water droplets out the door, catching one last glimpse of the now-raging storm. Looks like you made the right call to come here.
  729. Laughter from the room to your left reminds you of your purpose here, and so you make your way through the wide archway into the kitchen and dining area.
  730. This room is about the same size as the one you just left. In other words: large. A large, modern kitchen area takes up most of the far wall, with a long island separating it from the rest of the room. You count a total of four stainless steel sinks of varying sizes.
  731. What you almost immediately notice, however, is how the entire room is designed to accommodate ponies and humans equally. The refrigerator, instead of being tall and upright like in most homes, is instead long and positioned below the higher countertops.
  732. Although Anon would have to kneel or bend down to access it, a pony or even a tiny filly would have no problems.
  733. But it’s not just the fridge. Everything else in the kitchen is custom designed to allow the ponies to access it with ease. Along the base of all the counters runs a small ledge, which apparently allow a pony to stand on his or her hind legs and access the full breadth of the counter area.
  734. There are no overhead cabinets. Instead, all of the storage is located down below, well within your reach.
  735. Appliances such as the blender and microwave have oversized buttons, knobs, and handles to allow even the clumsiest earth pony to operate them with hooves and teeth.
  736. And, lastly, a portion of the entire countertop is at about half height, where a pony can work while standing on four legs.
  737. It’s just a functional kitchen area, but the lengths taken to make it accessible to the building’s shorter residents are just… unheard of in the human world.
  738. All of this registers in just a moment, and your attention is quickly taken up by the ponies happily chatting around the bar and seating area.
  739. Ruby Heart is the first to notice your entrance, “Hey, Starlight, glad you came! Come on, take a seat with us!” You meander over to the bar area where she’s sitting in a row with Lyra, Applejack, and Scootaloo, and take an end seat beside the pegasus.
  740. Anonymous and Applebloom are working on food in various spots throughout the kitchen, and each give you a brief nod or welcome.
  741. Sweetie Belle and Sunny Streak are standing near a smaller, lit hearth in the corner of the room, with drinks levitating next to them. They give you a wave but don’t break their conversation.
  742. The four other ponies at the bar turn their bodies to look over at you, and Lyra slides a drink your way. “Here, have a drink. It’s cider, just like in Ponyville, remember?”
  743. Applejack beams at you, “The same Apple family recipe! We don’t produce it commercially, but we still maintain a few apple trees over yonder by the back shed. Stuff’s fresher’n newly-picked zap apples!”
  744. You pick up the glass with your magic, and give it a testing swig. The alcohol in it is light, but it’s been a long time since any has touched your throat. It’s good stuff, to be sure.
  745. “Oh man, it’s like a little taste of home. I’d almost forgotten how good your family made it.” You take another sip and smile, “Almost.”
  746. ”Well, glad you approve, sugar cube. If ya prefer, we got harder stuff too, or just beer. Local town ain’t too big, but they got a well-stocked liquor store.”
  747. “I’m good, thanks. Honestly, it’s been years since I’ve had alcohol in me at all, this is a nice reminder.”
  748. As you take another sip of the sweet, cool cider, Scootaloo asks you, “If you don’t mind us asking, what HAVE you been up to these past few years? Ever since, you know, we last saw each other. If you don’t want to tell us, I get it, but still…”
  749. “Oh, no, don’t worry about that, I’ve been pretty fine. You see, after the portals closed…”
  750. And so you spent the better part of an hour telling them about what you’d been up to since the portals closed and Equestrians were declared indentured workers. The term was a euphemism, as there weren’t any expirations on the contracts as the term used to imply, and manumission was made globally illegal.
  751. You realized the situation for what it was pretty early on, and did your best to fall in line and keep a low profile. You made your talents partially known, to escape a life of hard labor, but never really told anyone of their full extent.
  752. The way you see it, you got off lightly. You worked with a contractor for a few months, working in a warehouse doing work mostly similar to what you did the first week on the farm, before being sold to a local library in a Seattle suburb.
  753. The people there were generally nice, as it was a stable, upper-middle class area. You were given a small room in the back, access to computers and books, and your work was light.
  754. Mostly, your ‘bosses’ consisted of elderly librarians, who generally treated you with respect and courtesy. The kindest was the place’s benefactor, Mrs. Clemens. She was a wealthy old widow, and always made sure that you were treated well.
  755. On a couple occasions, when unruly library patrons accosted you, she had authorities come and fine or arrest them. One fat, old, mean woman even got herself tased. Good times.
  756. A few months ago, though, she passed, and the library suddenly found itself short on funds. Although the community was successfully able to keep it open and running, they could no longer afford to house and feed you permanently.
  757. And so you were sold at auction on good terms, without ever having been mistreated. You weren’t there by choice, but that was about all you could say negatively about the past few years.
  758. Plus, with access to the internet, which quickly occupied much of your time, you were able to learn well enough of human customs, society, science, history, and just about everything else. You would even sometimes join a high school study group or two to learn their material.
  759. Of course, they also wanted to know what happened before the portals closed, too. They hadn’t seen you for months before then. You just told them that you’d been working in Canterlot with Twilight for a few months, and by sheer bad luck were in the countryside when the portals opened for the last time.
  760. You know that’s not the whole truth, and they probably do as well, but they nonetheless seem satisfied with their answer. Which is good, because it’s all they’re going to receive.
  761. Your thoughts once again wander, briefly, to your old mentor Twilight Sparkle. You had always wondered what happened after the two of you got split up. She’s smart enough to have avoided the harsher fates, but certainly didn’t lay low like you.
  762. She is an alicorn, after all.
  763. But you wave those thoughts away, and instead focus on the ponies in front of you.
  764. “And, well, I think that’s it. After I was on auction for a few days, Anonymous picked me up, and you all know the rest.”
  765. ”Glad to hear that you were safe,” Scootaloo says, in a happy but serious tone. The other three ponies nod in agreement.
  766. “What about you guys? How did you end up here with Anonymous, and dare I say, in such high regard.”
  767. ”Well now, sugar cube, that’s a much longer story for a different day.” Seeing your frown, Applejack just laughs and points to the table, “Don’t worry, you’ll hear it sometime. But now, we got dinner, so let’s eat!”
  768. You look over to the table to find Anonymous, Sweetie Belle, and Applebloom finishing setting the table. The five of you at the bar slip from your seats and take places along the long dinner table.
  769.  
  770. Dinner is laid out on a series of platters, bowls, and plates along the center of the long table.
  771. The table itself keeps with the rustic, hardwood theme of the rest of the room, although is a distinctly lighter color. Butter-yellow overhead lights compete with the flickering orange glow of the nearby fireplace.
  772. The cooks have aimed to impress, as the table is filled with not only a copious amount of food, but also a high degree of variety.
  773. No matter how much the average earth pony ate, the leftovers from this meal will feed the household for days.
  774. You almost settle into the chair nearest your bar stool, before noticing ‘Sweetie Belle’ embroidered in blue on its cushion. You take the seat next to it instead, which lacks a name.
  775. All the ponies take their seats, and Anonymous goes around the table filling water glasses. Cleverly, the glasses are tapered at the middle, allowing a set of hooves to gingerly grab its smooth surfaces without worry for spillage.
  776. ”I’ll be the first to say it,” Sunny Streak proclaims as she sits down, “Mr. Anonymous, this meal looks just fantastic.”
  777. ”Why thank you, Sunny Streak. And please, when we’re in the house, y’all can drop the title. Anonymous, or hell, even just Anon is fine by me.”
  778. ”Well, Anon,” Lyra gives him a wink as she uses the shorthand name, “I’ve got to agree. I can’t wait to dig in. The roasted beets look just fantastic.”
  779. ”Well then, let’s say grace and get to it.” He nods to Applejack, “AJ, how ‘bout you lead tonight?”
  780. ”Sure thing. Alright everyone, bow your heads.”
  781. Each of the ponies and Anonymous put their hooves and hands together before them, bowing their heads. You do likewise.
  782. ”Bless us, o Lord, an’ these gifts which we’re about to receive…”
  783. This is an… interesting development. You’d known that many ponies had adopted the local faiths, but to see an old friend not only partaking but leading in a Christian prayer is a new experience.
  784. For the most part, the Christian churches acknowledge that the ponies have sentience and souls, which makes them candidates for salvation and worship. Islamic, Jewish, and most other faiths had differing opinions, which meant that those ponies who chose to take up a faith overwhelmingly went to the Christian churches.
  785. The topic of slavery, though, was a thorn in their sides. Abrahamic faiths never expressly prohibited slavery, and some still saw it as potentially a moral good. Most denominations chose indifference towards it.
  786. The biggest schisms tended to be related to interspecies relationships.
  787. Having established that pony souls are just as valid as human ones, the churches were now stuck between banning marriages between them in accordance with ancient opposition to bestiality, or approving them on the basis that ponies carry the same spiritual identities as people.
  788. Protestant churches were all localized in their opinions, with some preaching against it, others for it.
  789. The hierarchal Catholic and Orthodox churches’ higher-ups continue to hotly debate the topic.
  790. Overall, though, all churches drew in plenty of ponies, simply due to the promise of salvation. Plus, Christian morality is surprisingly close to traditional Equestrian values.
  791. You personally had had no reason to take up religion. The library patrons and employees alike never gave you trouble about it, and you’d never been terribly spiritual in Equestria, either.
  792. But here you sit, silently, as the ponies and sole human around you recite the mealtime prayer by heart. You’re not even sure what denomination the prayer belongs to, if any.
  793. ”…Amen!” the table ends together, and if anypony noticed your voice absent, they didn’t acknowledge it.
  794. Anonymous opens his eyes and spreads his hands before commanding, “Ponies, dig in!”
  795. There are too many options on the table for you to sample everything. You decide to load up your plate with a roasted, seasoned beet, a bit of Caesar salad, and several fried mozzarella sticks.
  796. As expected, the choices presented are entirely vegetarian, although you observe Anonymous cutting up a small steak on his own plate.
  797. Initially, the regular consumption of meat and especially beef by humans shocked you, but upon learning of the complete non-sapience of their local fauna, those fears dissipated.
  798. You aren’t even bothered by the use of horses as farm animals and food sources in some regions. They’re entirely different from you ponies, and also lack any kind of sapience.
  799. It’s unusual having only two thinking species in this world. In Equestria, even the smallest rodents could understand and engage a gently pony.
  800. But you digress. The meal before you is expertly prepared, and laboriously constructed. You’re somewhat surprised that Anonymous and the other residents had done the cooking, as they certainly can afford to have a private cook.
  801. But then again, the Apples traditionally made their living on food products. And they are indeed slow to drop tradition.
  802. For about fifteen minutes, conversation at the table is light, and compliments are easily exchanged for everything from the home’s interior to the table setting to the actual meal’s preparation.
  803. You notice early on that Big Mac is still missing from the table. You’d assumed that he would be coming in late, as he usually stayed out long in the fields, but his seat remains unfilled.
  804. As everyone starts finishing his or her meal, Anonymous picks up his glass and raps a fork against its side to quiet down the table.
  805. ”I’m glad y’all have enjoyed this meal, we worked real hard on it and wanted to do somethin’ nice for ya for workin’ so hard. But, ‘course, we do got some business to discuss.”
  806. Although the mood dampens somewhat, nopony groans or complains about the conversation’s shift. You’ve observed them all as very professional so far when it came to actual work, and that pattern is sustained tonight.
  807. ”Now, I’d like to preface things with the reasons behind this little celebration. First of all, Starlight. I think everyone here knows by now what you’ve been doin’ these past few days. I’ve never seen anythin’ like it.”
  808. You feel yourself blush slightly, and say in your best dismissive tone, “Oh, it was nothing, honest. Just using my magic for good is all.”
  809. ”It certainly weren’t nothin’. I’ve dug out one of the better laptops for you, brand new. It’s yours, sittin’ on the living room couch. Same one Lyra’s got.”
  810. Lyra winks and mouths something to you, but you can’t make out the message.
  811. ”But that’s not it, ‘course. Soon as the harvest is over, you’re gettin’ three grand to outfit your room however you want. The full package, whatever. TV, game console, stereo, I ain’t leavin’ anything off the table. Just send me an Amazon wishlist, and for furniture, we can drive into town sometime.”
  812. You’re taken somewhat aback, and noticing your mouth slightly agape, quickly spit out, “Three grand? As in three thousand dollars? Are you sure? That’s a lot of money, and I’ve only been here for-“
  813. He puts up a hand to cut you off, “I’m sure. Trust me, you’ve made us a LOT more than that in profit already this season. It’s just the beginnin’ of what we can do for ya.”
  814. Applejack smiles and speaks up, “Didn’t ah tell y’all she’d be great here?”
  815. Anon returns the smile, “That y’did, AJ. I really need to start takin’ your word at face value more often.”
  816. He clears his throat, mostly to shift the train of thought, “But she ain’t the only one who’s been picking up the slack ‘round here. Y’all senior harvesters have been boostin’ production by anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five percent since last year, after accounting for the weather. I know y’all probably got all’s you need for furnishings, but you’ll be gettin’ some more privileges too, soon enough.”
  817. Lyra perks up at that, and you observe Sunny Streak and Ruby Heart sharing a hoof-bump at the prospect.
  818. ”Now, for something a bit less congratulatory. I know y’all had to see the punishment that was doled out yesterday to a mare named Soda Pop. Starlight, that was pro’ly a shocker to you, and I’d like to talk about it more with ya later.”
  819. He waits for an acknowledgement, and after you give him a tentative nod, he continues, “She weren’t the only one. The other ponies all saw Starlight’s production, and they’re jealous. Some are tryin’ to artificially bump their numbers, pickin’ up stepped-on and ruined berries and passin’ ‘em off as whole. We can’t have that.”
  820. He looks around the table, but everypony is silent, and all eyes remain fixed on him. “I know we never done this before, but starting tomorrow, y’all are being given boss powers. That means, if’n y’all see anypony doin’ something they shouldn’t, you don’t report it. Instead, you line ‘em out yourself. Now, that don’t mean I want you beatin’ ‘em, but try to cut off bad behavior at its root.”
  821. You feel some of your hairs stand up straight on your back as what Anonymous just said registers. Like it or not, you’ve been put on the spot as a boss, and it’s your job to hold authority once more.
  822. You want to raise a hoof and decline, but his expression is dead-set, and you can see that there is no room for discussion on this topic.
  823. Your fellow senior harvesters each take the news differently. Lyra reacts subtly, but her widened eyes and slightly upturned mouth corners indicate her willingness to take on the task.
  824. Ruby Heart simply seems lost in thought, but a small smile eventually graces her lips, as well.
  825. Sunny Streak gives an immediate, resolute nod, but her straight face is impossible to read.
  826. You follow her example and try to keep your own poker face, and give a less pronounced, but still visible, nod.
  827. ”Good. Glad y’all are up to the task. Do a good job, and we can see about more permanent positions for you four.” That gets their focus even more, and you hone in on his next words as well. “Fact of the matter is that this farm’s gotten too big for just us to manage. We’re gonna need allies, and y’all are at the top of the list.”
  828. This… is not what you wanted. Not only are you being forced to take a position of authority almost immediately, but it could be permanent, as well.
  829. Is there anypony on the farm as qualified as you to do it? Probably not, and chances are, Anonymous and the foreponies know for certain.
  830. But that doesn’t mean that you actually want to be a leader. You can handle the responsibility, sure, but can you handle yourself? History is, after all, doomed to repeat itself.
  831. And do you even deserve it after everything else? Fuck no, that’s an easy one to answer.
  832. The conversation doesn’t go much further on the point, as it’s already decided. Your new duties are pretty simple, stop anypony you see picking berries off the ground or stealing from others, or even just going too fast. Give them a verbal command, and if things escalate, fetch Sweetie Belle.
  833. After ironing that bit out, a few thoughts are exchanged about the after-harvest celebration, but nothing substantial really comes up. It’ll probably be similar to last year, although the Crusaders want to bring in some extra fun and games activities, like a bounce house.
  834.  
  835. As the conversation winds down, so does the weather outside. With time now being stretched thin, you and the other senior harvesters make ready to leave.
  836. As you’re getting out of your chair, Anonymous calls out to you, “Actually, Starlight, if’n you don’t mind I’d like you to stay a bit longer. We got a few more things to talk about.”
  837. Although you no longer have the same fear of your superiors that had gripped you as recently as this afternoon, you don’t really want to stay much longer either. But, you suppose, it’s good to make a good initial impression with your… owner.
  838. “Yes, Anonymous. Would you like to talk here, or…?”
  839. ”My office, if you please. It’s through the living room, left hall on the far wall, second door to the left. I’ll meet y’there, got a bit of cleanup to do first.”
  840. You nod and head for the office room. As you pass through the living room, you spot a smooth black laptop resting atop a waterproof carrying pouch designed specifically for ponies. As promised, it’s the same one Lyra has.
  841. The hallway you’re directed down has three doors on each side, although the second door, which you’re headed for, has much wider margins of wall on each side. It’s a long hall, and you’re again reminded of how large this house actually is.
  842. Finding the door slightly ajar, you push it open and enter the room.
  843. It’s much larger than you expected, and despite the lights being off, you can see that it extends up to the second floor, as well. On the far wall are four tall windows, with one set being on the bottom floor and the other on the second.
  844. By the moonlight filtering in, you can see that the upper level is composed of a wraparound balcony that overlooks the space below. Flicking on the lights reveals a thin spiral staircase connecting the two levels.
  845. Along three of the walls, excepting the one with windows, are sets of imbedded bookcases. Both levels are well-filled, with various knick-knacks adorning the book ends and shelves. You’re reminded of your recent home and employment, now hundreds of miles away.
  846. Aside from the bookcases and soft, rouge carpet, what catches your eye is the working space situated between the tall windows in front of you.
  847. Seemingly tailored for a supervillain, a massive and expertly carved wooden desk is paired with a high-backed leather office chair, its surface adorned only with a small work desktop which occupies not even a fraction of its area. In front of the desk are two much smaller chairs.
  848. But behind the desk, hanging on the wall, is something much more interesting. A massive collection of framed photographs hangs, almost all of them recent and containing one or more of the ponies occupying this house.
  849. Pictures with them and Anonymous, solo portraits, snapshots of the Apples together, and even a few old photos from Equestria. Everypony in the house is represented here, including old Granny Smith.
  850. Of the dozens of photographs, only one small one lacks a pony: a small photograph at the bottom-left of the collection, featuring a younger Anonymous and two older humans, presumably his parents.
  851. Although each of the ponies has at least one solo photograph, he fails to appear alone throughout the collage.
  852. You’re lost in thought examining the collection, and don’t notice as he enters the room behind you.
  853. ”Enjoying the photographs, I take it?”
  854. You jump a bit and swirl around, slightly embarrassed for gawking at them instead of taking a seat.
  855. “Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Anonymous, it’s just a big collection. Very well put-together. I’ll take a seat.”
  856. ”Nothin’ to be sorry about, I lose myself in thought lookin’ at it sometimes, too. It’s why it’s there, behind my work area. Need somethin’ to remind me of reality and the good things in life.”
  857. He steps up beside you for a moment, silently scanning the pictures himself, before taking a seat in the massive office chair. You move to place yourself in one of the smaller chairs.
  858. “This is quite the office. I love the bookcases. I was working in a library for the past few years, you know. One of the older sections looked a lot like this, but a lot less personal.”
  859. ”Thanks, put a lotta time – and money – into the place.”
  860. He pauses, placing his elbows on the desk and his chin on his clasped hands, looking you down. You think he’s expecting you to speak, and you open to mouth to do so just as he begins, “So, how’d ya do it? How’d ya smash the records of our most talented harvesters twice over?”
  861. “I… suppose that it’s just my talent. You’ve heard that unicorns have wildly different levels of power and control over their magic, right?”
  862. He gives you a brief nod.
  863. “Well, not to toot my own horn or anything, but I was honestly one of the most powerful and practiced unicorns in Equestria before coming here. Aside from Princess Twilight Sparkle, my mentor, there really wasn’t even anypony to compare to aside from the ancient Sisters.”
  864. No point in hiding that from him, or explaining details about how Equestria worked. Chances are, Applejack had already told him everything, and this is a test more than anything else.
  865. ”Lucky buy for me then, I guess. But truth be told, Starlight, I’m ready to put a lotta trust in you, and need to know you’re worth it. I meant what I said earlier when I told AJ I’d start takin’ her advice more at face value, and she says you’re a pony she can trust with her life.”
  866. You’re flattered, but not surprised by the admission. You’d hurt her in the past, but you’d also been through tough times together as well.
  867. ”But let’s start with a question for you, Starlight Glimmer. Why do you think we even grow barley here? No secret that the berries are way more profitable, and take less labor to grow.”
  868. You’d thought about it briefly, but never given the topic hard consideration.
  869. “I… don’t really know, to be honest. I just assumed it was profitable, is all, and that maybe you wanted some crop diversity. Or, something like that.”
  870. ”What if I told you it’s not profitable? What if I told you we lose tens of thousands on the barley crop every year, after you factor in the costs of its labor force?”
  871. His gaze narrows at you, “Why in hell would we grow it, Starlight?”
  872. “I-I don’t know. Why?”
  873. ”Security, Ms. Glimmer. The barley, and all the ponies growin’ it, are nothin’ but security.”
  874.  
  875. You wait for an elaboration but, finding none, ask, “Security, Anonymous? I’m sorry, but, what?”
  876. He stops staring at you and instead swivels his chair slightly, putting his feet up on an unseen footrest below the desk. “Well, I suppose I’ll start with the backstory. Here’s another question for ya: what have you noticed about all the ponies on this farm? What sets ‘em apart from the average indentured?”
  877. “I suppose there’s a lot of earth ponies. And, not a lot of pegasi.”
  878. He shakes his head, “No, not what kinda ponies they are, their personalities. Noticed a big behavior or personality factor that stays the same in every pony here?”
  879. You find no immediate answer, and just shrug your shoulders. He continues, “The difference ‘tween the ponies here and the ponies at other farms, Ms. Glimmer, is that I don’t take no broken ponies. Every other farm or plantation or whatever this size in the whole country makes it a point to demand absolute obedience from its workforce.”
  880. ”It just ain’t right,” he continues. “The ponies’re already workin’ for me, why would I wanna hurt ‘em more? Plus, when you break ‘em, all those special talents y’all got go to waste. If I didn’t give ‘em breathin’ room, we wouldn’t have ponies like Lyra or Sunny Streak, with outputs twice or three times that of the average unicorn.”
  881. He sighs, “I spend a lotta time at the auctions, makin’ sure that each pony still has a soul, still has that fire t’live. And trust me, it costs a lotta money too, ‘cause these are the same ponies rich people wanna dress ‘em up and make ‘em into a fuckin’ maid.”
  882. ”Wanna know what I paid for you?” The question takes you by surprise. You really don’t, but he answers anyway, “Eighty-six thousand dollars. A pony with proven good behavior, strong spirit, documented talent in magic, and a long life ahead of her. You’re about as expensive as they get, Ms. Glimmer.”
  883. You’re both unsettled and disturbed by that fact. On the one hoof, there are cars that cost more than you apparently do. On the other, you know through internet research that such a price is more than twice the cost of an average, ‘unbroken’ unicorn.
  884. “But, how does that relate to security? What’s the concern there?”
  885. ”Here’s the thing. No matter how well I treat ‘em, no pony is gonna like their predicament. I sure as hell wouldn’t, and I know even AJ and the fillies feel rough about their situation. But why am I tellin’ that to you? You know. You don’t like bein’ a slave, and you don’t wanna be here, do ya?”
  886. “I mean, it’s been nice enough so far, and I’ve been able to make friends here.”
  887. ”If there was a way I could hand you a piece of paper right now, and have you sign for your freedom ‘long as you never came back here, you’d sign it, wouldn’t ya?”
  888. You just sit silently in response. That’s all the affirmation he needs.
  889. ”Starlight, I trust you to sit in here with me because I know that you know that AJ and her kin trust me. I’d trust the three that just left ‘cause they’ve proven their loyalty in the past.” He puts his feet down, and looks you in the eye, “But I’d be a God-damned fool to trust the rest of the ponies on this farm.”
  890. You’re about to say something, but he raises his voice slightly and continues, “Now, that ain’t too much of a problem with the earth ponies. They ain’t dumb, despite what most’a humanity thinks. They know that this life is about the best they’re gonna get on earth, and if my word don’t prove it, the internet I give ‘em access to does.”
  891. ”But the unicorns, Starlight. The unicorns have a lot more to look forward to here. They could be livin’ in a comfy suburb like you, playin’ with little kids all day. They could be a simple maid, or a retail worker, or even a fuckin’ pet if’n that’s what they want. This place is nothin’ but a muddy hellhole to them.”
  892. ”They’re also the only ones who can be a threat.”
  893. That sentence makes you shift uncomfortably, and Anon prompts you to speak. “What do you mean, ‘the only ones who can pose a threat’? I don’t doubt you know full well how hard an earth pony can buck.”
  894. He shakes his head, “Starlight, there’s a big difference between an earth pony rushin’ up to buck you and a unicorn hidin’ in the bushes waitin’ to levitate you just high enough to break a femur. Magic is dangerous as shit. Hell, there’s dozens of ways you could kill me right now in this room with nothin’ but your magic.”
  895. He’s right, and you know it. You notice a degree of nervousness in his tone, as if he expects you to choose one of those methods to try out.
  896. “I’d never do such a thing, Anon. And honestly, I doubt any of the other unicorns would, either.”
  897. His seriousness cracks for a moment, and he releases a slight chuckle, “Well now, I ain’t sayin’ you’re far from the truth, but let’s just say that if we were playin’ darts, you just missed the whole board with that claim.”
  898. His expression quickly resumes its previous straightness. “Starlight, I know for a fact that there’re more’n a couple unicorns on this farm that’d like nothin’ more than to see my guts strung over the orchards. But they’ll never do it, know why?”
  899. “Wait, how would you know that? Don’t you confront them about it?”
  900. ”And get ‘em even more riled up? Hell no. And c’mon, I ain’t stupid puttin’ up private rooms and spots all over the place. We got microphones and cameras where we need ‘em, and we pick up a fair bit of conspiratorial talk.”
  901. You shudder slightly, but he doesn’t stop speaking, “It’s also why we resort to physical punishment. Belting, caning, and a few whips for major violations, they need to know we ain’t afraid to hit ‘em back. Now, I’ll ask you once more Starlight, do you know why that talk never gets to be anythin’ more than just talk?”
  902. “Fine, I’ll bite. Why?”
  903. ”Simple. It’s ‘cause you ponies, at your core, aren’t black and twisted like most people. Y’all care about each other, even the ones that want my head on a pike. And the unicorns know that the day they rise against me, all them earth ponies’re gonna start seein’ a much harder life. Or worse, I could sell ‘em, and break up families.”
  904. “You wouldn’t do that. If you could, you would’ve done it already.”
  905. ”I don’t like doin’ it, true. And AJ certainly don’t like the idea, neither. But if it comes to protectin’ myself and her family, it’d happen.”
  906. He gets up from his chair, and focuses his gaze on the picture collage behind him, “That’s why we have the earth ponies, and why we grow barley. The berries, I got patents on ‘em. You know I’m a geneticist by trade, not a farmer? Yeah, this is the only place in the world anyone can grow this strain, and I charge enough for ‘em to make millions every year.”
  907. ”If I could, I’d just keep the whole farm earth ponies and pegasi. They’re good workers, and most of ‘em are grateful for the life I give ‘em. But the berries, somethin’s fucky with ‘em. They need magic to grow, and they need to be harvested by magic. Otherwise, they wilt and die, hard enough so we can’t even make wine from ‘em. Don’t know why, it’s some magic bullshit.”
  908. You remember reading a book on the Crystal Empire sometime long ago, during your days as Twilight’s student. The crystal berries could only be picked by unicorns, which was a source of no small amount of conflict between them and their earth pony neighbors who wanted a monopoly on agriculture.
  909. ”So, you get it now, why things ‘round here work how they do?” You think on it a moment, and give him a nod. “Then, you’re probably still wonderin’ why I’m tellin’ you all this. I-“
  910. He’s interrupted by a bright flash from the window, and the deep roar of thunder that followed. “Well, anyway, next year we’re rampin’ up production again. Got enough saved up to build a whole new residential complex, and so we can afford to start developin’ more land on the edges of the property. Most of that’ll be new orchards, the soil there’s rich’n good for their growin’.”
  911. ”What that means is we’re gonna effectively double how many unicorns we got on this farm, without addin’ too many earth ponies. So, we’re gonna need somethin’ else to dampen the effects of their sour moods. Gonna need more control over ‘em.”
  912. “And you… want me to help with that, right?”
  913. ”Now you’re gettin’ it. You’re a pony who not only can lead, but has exceptional skills she can use across this farm. A ‘lead-by-example’ mare, y’are. AJ’s already given me the run-down of your past, and I know you probably got some, ah, inhibitions about that.”
  914. “To be frank, I do. I don’t really think I’m the pony you want for the job.” You’re certainly not the pony you want to fill the spot.
  915. ”AJ says you’d changed since that whole debacle, an’ like I said before, I believe her. She is the element of honesty, after all.” He finally breaks from inspecting the photographs to turn back towards you, but doesn’t sit down, “But ‘course, her past experiences only go so far. Which is why I put you on the senior harvest team, to see how you could handle an important position. It’s also mainly why we’re givin’ y’all more authority tomorrow, kinda as a dry run.”
  916. He finally sits down in his office chair, and once again looks into your eyes, “Please, Starlight, now y’know why I wanna give you more authority, and why we do what we do ‘round here. I need your help, but I won’t force ya into it. I ain’t that kinda guy. Will ya at least give it a try?”
  917. You think for a moment, but you’d already internally accepted the request before it was made, “Alright, Anon, I’ll give it my best shot. But, I should probably get going, need to be up on time tomorrow and all.”
  918. He raises an eyebrow before swiveling around in his chair, first facing the large wall clock hanging above the pictures, then the windows, which now have the raindrops of a renewed storm hammering them.
  919. ”I’m afraid it’s a bit too late for that. You’ll probably have to stay the night here. We got plenty of spare rooms, I think you knew that. Unless you wanna walk home through that?” He points a thumb to the window behind him, and the storm raging against it.
  920. “No, thank you, if you’re offering I’d like to stay here. Do you have a shower I can use? I take mine at night.”
  921. ”Sure, I’ll show you to a room. Got its own private bathroom, too.”
  922.  
  923. Anon leads you to a room on the second floor which is about the same size as your room. In fact, it’s almost identical, except the windows lack bars, the doors are wooden instead of metal, and the attached bathroom is private and lacks stalls.
  924. Like the rest of the house, the room is specifically designed to accommodate a pony, with bathroom fixtures, heating controls, and other furniture displaying careful considerations for equine inhabitants.
  925. He gives you a short ‘Good night!’ and heads off to another room down the hall, presumably the master bedroom.
  926. You make your shower short, as your normal bedtime has already passed. You skip teeth brushing and other hygienic considerations partly due to time constraints, and partly because the bathroom isn’t stocked.
  927. Between the well-cooked meal you had earlier and the day’s work, you’re exhausted, but sleep doesn’t come as easily as expected beneath the fresh sheets of this comfortable bed.
  928. Anon gave some pretty good reasons for why the farm worked the way it did, and why they took pains to keep ponies in line. He seemed to put a lot of emphasis on the unicorns’ behavioral problems, are they really more trouble than the earth ponies?
  929. Perhaps that’s why Sweetie Belle has earned a reputation for her punishments. Perhaps she doesn’t actually have a proclivity for beatings, but just has to deal with more issues than the other ponies.
  930. And then there’s your future role to consider. There’s no doubt about it now: Anon, Applejack, and the other foreponies want you in a position close to them. But you still don’t know if you’ll be able to handle that authority.
  931. And if you can… will you be able to administer punishments? You seriously doubt you could.
  932. Even if Anon is kind to you, and even if the foreponies confirm his statements…
  933. He’s still your owner, and you’re still a slave. A slave legally on the level of everypony else.
  934. You eventually drift off to sleep, troubled and anxious.
  935.  
  936. You almost forgot about the alarm spell you set up when you first started here. You’d been waking up before it every morning since.
  937. Now, however, you’re rather cruelly reminded of it as a loud ethereal bell appears inches away from your right ear.
  938. You don’t know how long you slept, but it can’t have been eight hours. Probably not even six.
  939. You wash your face with cold water and are out of the room within minutes of waking. After all, you don’t wear clothes, and the bathroom still isn’t stocked.
  940. You find a note taped to the far wall as you exit your room.
  941. ’Dear Starlight,’ it begins, ‘I’ve had to leave the farm early to head into town. When you wake up, chances are Applebloom is making something for breakfast downstairs. Get yourself something to eat, and just leave for work when Sweetie Belle does. Also, I went ahead and dropped your laptop off in your quarters, along with a spare mouse and headset I had laying around. -Anon.’
  942. Following its advice, you head downstairs and are, as expected, greeted with the aromas of a freshly-cooked breakfast.
  943. You find Applebloom serving up pancakes in the kitchen, with her older sister and Scootaloo talking in two side-by-side seats along the long kitchen table. They have a line of sight on you through the living room, and wave you over.
  944. ”Glad to see you up early,” Scootaloo beams. “There’s not even an alarm in that room, and you’re up before Sweetie Belle!”
  945. “Mmhm” you half-mutter, half-grumble.
  946. Her expression fades a bit, but retains its optimism, “Not much of a morning pony, then?”
  947. “Not this morning…” you respond in what is definitely now a grumble.
  948. Applejack nods knowingly before pointing a hoof towards a full pot of coffee on the counter. “Neither’s Sweetie Belle. Coffee’s mostly for her, but I doubt she’d make a fuss if you took some.”
  949. Without saying a word, you shamble over to the coffee pot and pour yourself a mug. No cream today, you need it black.
  950. Thankfully, it’s quality stuff, and your mouth isn’t left feeling as disgusting as the rest of your head.
  951. Just as you’re arriving back at the table, Applebloom reaches it with three plates stacked with pancakes. You’ll never understand how earth ponies manage to hold food on their backs and in their mouths simultaneously without dropping anything.
  952. While your three bosses each grab a plate of pancakes and top them with butter and an assortment of syrup flavors, you choose to work on your coffee.
  953. ”You can get yourself a plate too, sugar cube. We always got leftovers ‘round here, since Big Mac eats ‘em up when we ain’t lookin’.”
  954. You mumble something incoherent in response, and magic two pancakes over to your plate. You decide to indulge yourself and pour on a syrup incorporating the local berry crop.
  955. It occurs to you that you haven’t actually gotten to try the lucrative little fruits, although you imagine them to simply be a fusion between the average raspberry and the almost impossibly sweet taste of crystal berries.
  956. A single bite is all it takes to understand why these have huge demand. Far better than either fruit individually, the syrup catches the tang of a raspberry while keeping the taste of a crystal berry, although with some of the overwhelming sweetness overridden.
  957. Seeing your expression light up in a way the coffee could never cause, Applebloom smiles at you, “Them berries’re good, ain’t they? Rich folk all ‘round the country, even abroad, pay fortunes for even the cheap stuff made from rejects like you’re munchin’ on now.”
  958. You swallow your bite and don’t even hide try to hide your surprise as you ask, “How much, exactly, do these go for wherever you sell them? I can see why everypony, err, everyone wants them.”
  959. Scootaloo shrugs, “I do the financial dealings with Anon. Their prices just keep rising every year. Last year it was two thousand dollars per pound, this year we can charge four. Saudi princes have ditched their rare caviar for the berries grown on this very farm. Also depends on the product. For example, the wine we have made at a brewery nearby sells for something like twenty-five thousand a bottle, even though it’s made with reject berries.”
  960. And you’d already personally gathered hundreds of pounds. To add hundreds of acres of production next season probably means eight-digit profit margins, even accounting for the infrastructure needed to start growing on the property edges.
  961. Suddenly the hundred grand Anon paid for you doesn’t seem like such a daunting sum, nor does the thousands they’re willing to spend on your personal furnishings.
  962. “That’s, wow. You girls have it made.”
  963. ”Depends on how you look at it,” Sweetie Belle says through closed eyes as she walks past, straight to the coffee pot. “Financially, we’re better off than most humans in this country. Hell, this whole world. But we still need Anon around every time we so much as want to leave the farm, even just going into town.”
  964. Applebloom sighs and turns her head down, “Well, ‘least Idaho don’t have leash laws. Thank God for that.”
  965. Of course. You’d almost forgotten. You rarely left the library over the past few years, and this farm is massive enough that it would probably take an hour just to walk out of its borders. But outside of those bits of private property, the world changes, and so does your place in it.
  966. Returning with her coffee, Sweetie Belle sits down at the table with an expression even more grim than yours had been. “So, did you all sleep well? Because I sure as fuck didn’t. As usual.”
  967. Applejack gives her a cool look, “Watch yer language now, missie.”
  968. ”Oh, hush, you know that I’m too tired to give a shit at this time of morning.” She partially opens one eye towards you, “And now she knows, too. Welcome to my desert island in the sea of morning ponies. Population: me.”
  969. The rest of the table shares a laugh as she takes another sip of her coffee.
  970.  
  971. Soon enough, your company starts to leave according to how far they have to walk for their day’s work. Big Mac enters the room late, wolfs down a few pancakes, and leaves. You try to pester him a bit, but it seems he’s retained his classic, globally-applying ‘eeeyup’ response.
  972. Eventually, you and Sweetie Belle are all that remain, since your orchard is the closest crop to the farm house. You could save time and just teleport over, but you decide to enjoy the brisk morning air with your still half-asleep boss.
  973. The two of you arrive at the orchard just before the rest of the ponies assigned to it, and stand in front of the check-in station. Sweetie Belle brings out a wooden box, and stands atop it.
  974. ”Now, I’m not sure how much Lyra, Sunny Streak, and Ruby Heart have told you about the changes we’re making, so I’m just going to go through the whole thing. First, let me just say that I’m very proud of you all. On the whole, we’re doing a much better job than last year, even with the bad weather. That weather should be gone now, so you can look forward to clear skies from here on out.”
  975. You notice several ponies notably relax as she continues, “But, we’ve also had a couple incidents where ponies weren’t acting and working how they know they should. I won’t name names, you all know who you are. But that’s why we’re having a change in command structure around here. Could the senior harvesters please step forward?”
  976. You remain in your position to her front left but turn to face her, and Lyra, Sunny Streak, and Ruby Heart line up next to you.
  977. Sweetie Belle announces, more to the rest of the audience than you, “These four are now being promoted to acting managers. If they see you misbehaving, causing problems, or disobeying orders, they have the authority to stop you. If physical action needs to be taken, they still come to me. But if they tell you to do or don’t do something, you listen to them. Everypony understand?”
  978. The crowd utters murmurs of understanding, and many nod their heads. “Good, then we can get to work. Remember, quality over quantity. And if you need advice or want to improve your work, ask one of your new bosses.”
  979. The work day picks up quickly after that, much the same as the past few ones. The ground is muddy, but thankfully the skies are clear, and you’re able to get going at your fastest pace yet.
  980. It quickly becomes apparent that your new authority is not taken lightly. Where other workers were previously happy to joke and banter with you as you worked, they now gave you a more cordial tone and more polite words.
  981. Some of the brighter spirits kept up their previous attitudes, though, so you aren’t left totally wanting for socialization. You keep track of the ones who do.
  982. Sweetie Belle’s order for them to come to you with questions or in search of advice doesn’t go unanswered, either. While you still work fast, you lose a little bit of time showing ponies the proper way to pick berries, and some of the more adept unicorns how to speed up production.
  983. You’re able to work until sunset once again, and as the sky starts to shift from blue to orange, you head in with your take. You set a new record, just barely, with one hundred twenty-five pounds of berries picked.
  984. You stay to observe the measurements of several ponies you’d helped during the day. Their bright expressions and, in one case, pats on the back from Sweetie Belle indicate that you’ve likely improved their skills significantly.
  985. You wait for Lyra to finish weighing her take, less than half of yours, before heading to the mess area.
  986. ”So! Another new record, huh?” she asks you cheerily after weighing her take.
  987. “Yep! I can probably break it again tomorrow, too, when the ground is drier. So, you feel up to helping me break in my laptop after dinner?”
  988. ”Sure, I’ll just ask the residence hall manager if it’s okay.” She takes you by surprise, darting to one side of the path and looking toward you, “Say, Lyra, could I have Starlight Glimmer over tonight? We’ll be good, I promise!”
  989. She jumps over closer to you, and looks back at the spot she just occupied, “Why sure, Lyra. Sounds like a plan!”
  990. You chuckle and ask, “So, before I log on to some, uhh, unscrupulous sites and check for myself, are there any blocked websites on the internet they give us?”
  991. ”For most ponies, there’s some, yeah, but I’ll give you the admin password. If anything’s blocked with that, I haven’t found it yet.”
  992. “You think that’s allowed?”
  993. ”Well, technically only Mr. Anonymous is supposed to give it out, but it was given to me by another pony like six months ago and he hasn’t given a damn since.” She smiles and nudges your side, “So, ever played Counter-Strike?”
  994.  
  995. ”Starlight, you massive faggot! I told you to buy armor at the start of every round!”
  996. “Why? What’s the point of it?”
  997. ”Aim punch. Look, it’s important, okay? Also, holy shit you are trash at this. I know you’re a newbie, but wow.”
  998. You are pretty bad at this. Just because you can manipulate the mouse and keyboard easily with your magic doesn’t mean you’re any good at it.
  999. “Not my fault they didn’t allow downloads on the library computers! The best I could do was bootleg Minecraft.”
  1000. A male voice comes through your headset, “Holy fuck, purple, you are bad. Are you like a pony or some shit, playing with your hooves?”
  1001. ”Hey, fuck you faggot,” Lyra cusses through the chat. “Just because you got a small dick and shitty attitude doesn’t mean you’ll ever make it out of this rank. I could fucking throw, if you want, and you’d lose your carry!”
  1002. ”Fine, green, I’ll just mute you both and put on music. Grill or not, you’re still faggots.”
  1003. You get shot in the face and look over at her, “Why are you so much ruder in-game than in real life?”
  1004. She just shrugs without breaking her concentration on the game, now stuck in a 1v4 scenario. “Everyone playing Valve games is a massive faggot, and it’s my job to tell them that. Also, everyone’s gotta vent. OH COME ON, how was he not flashed?”
  1005. Despite Lyra hard-carrying with almost forty kills, your team is tied 13-13 with the other, and you have no money. She mutters something about how playing on a ‘smurf account’ was a good idea, whatever that means.
  1006. You end up losing the match, and Lyra angrily types out a string of profanities directed towards both teams. When the main menu appears, she just closes out of the game.
  1007. ”How about we try something you like. You said you spent time on computers at your library, what did you do there?”
  1008. All of a sudden, hundreds if not thousands of hours of anime come rushing back to you. You consider discussing your husbando, but decide to take baby steps.
  1009. “Uhh, ever watched anime?”
  1010. ”Oh God, you’re not some disgusting weeaboo, are you? Loose Ends, that weird blue stallion down the hall, all he ever fucking talks about is that shit. Saw the inside of his room once, had all kinds of creepy posters and pillows everywhere. I don’t go down to the end of the hall any more.”
  1011. “Hey, c’mon, so what if I am? Lots of ponies watch it.” It’s true, the market is so big that around a dozen pony-focused animes are now in production or finished. “Besides, weren’t you into that whole human fandom thing before the worlds actually collided?”
  1012. The first signs that the efforts to manipulate dimensional space were working came in the form of a rather unusual string of enchanted and unenchanted comics that started being published in Equestria.
  1013. Art, stories, and even moving pictures of human civilization started being produced, and it gained an unexplainable following among a large part of the population. Lyra was probably Ponyville’s most visible fan, and she got made fun of a fair bit for it.
  1014. It was hard not to give her shit after the whole ‘Human Parade’ she tried to put on.
  1015. A similar process had happened on Earth, too, in the form of a television show. Episodes were made documenting the adventures of Twilight Sparkle and her friends, and were oddly specific.
  1016. Of course, neither series was entirely accurate, but it was close enough to each universe to not be a coincidence. When the experiments took an unexpected turn and caused the dimensions to collide, the true nature of these long-running anomalies became apparent.
  1017. It was no small feat to be able to lay low at the library considering your appearance in multiple episodes of the show. Of course, it seemed to gloss over some of the finer and darker details of your exploits…
  1018. At the mention of the human fandom, though, Lyra turns a slightly paler, slightly redder shade of her usual mint green. “Hey! I was far from the only pony in town who read the comics! I know for a fact that even Rainbow Dash had a secret stash of them!”
  1019. You give her a smug smile, “Ah, but you were the only pony in town who DREW her own comics, and tried to get the published in the Foal Free Press, no less!”
  1020. ”I’ll have you know those comics have since gained an internet following!”
  1021. “Wait, you published that shit online? Did you keep your name on it?” You’re about to fall over laughing.
  1022. ”Yeah, why? It’s got a lot of fans! I make money on Patreon for it!”
  1023. You can’t contain it, and fall off your chair in laughter, “Ahahaha! Oh man, really? You’re still drawing it, even after everything that happened? Holy shit Lyra, ahahaha!”
  1024. ”Hey! At least the faggots on the ‘chans like it”
  1025. You drop the laughter and perk your head up, “Did you say the ‘chans?”
  1026.  
  1027. The two of you spend the next hour catching each other up on your favorite boards. Apparently, since the two universes actually collided and ‘PONIES R REAL’ /mlp/ grew to be one of the most popular boards, where both media series are discussed.
  1028. Your jaw dropped when Lyra showed you how much she makes monthly for her shitty comic series.
  1029. You mostly stuck to /a/ but showed up on /r9k/ sometimes, sometimes to laugh at spergs, sometimes to sperg a bit yourself.
  1030. Lyra spends less time on the site, but wanders across /pol/, /k/, /an/, /pc/, and others. You’re fascinated by the ‘NatSoc Pony General’ that seems to be maintained on the former.
  1031. How a slave can find Nazism appealing is beyond you. Then again, those ideas had started in Equestria before the worlds collided, what with the ‘Happy Hitler’s Baking Bonanza’ series that documented the entire holocaust in extreme detail.
  1032. With such a jubilant Hitler as the main character, ponies began to associate antisemitism with happy fun times.
  1033. If only you’d known that all that was real, maybe you could’ve just stopped… no, it would’ve happened anyway.
  1034. You only get a glimpse of them, but you’d never really seen these other boards before. It’s… interesting. Everywhere else on the internet, there exists a stigma. Ponies and humans don’t usually interact with each other, and if they do, it’s somewhere between tense and awkward in tone.
  1035. But where everyone is anonymous, ponies and humans call each other ‘faggot’ with the same gusto and lack of reservation as they would have when directing the language at their own species.
  1036. It’s beautiful, really.
  1037. Eventually, though, the ten minute warning buzzer sounds and you opt to pack up your stuff and head to your own room. You still need to catch up on sleep from last night, especially after a record-breaking day.
  1038. But before you go to sleep, you check in on your favorite anime.
  1039. You stop yourself as you’re about to start catching up on missed episodes; you still need to wake up tomorrow.
  1040. Not a bad day, you suppose. Hopefully the rest of the week goes as smoothly.
  1041.  
  1042. For the most part, it does go over well. There are a few bumps in the road, but overall the next week ends up being relatively pleasant.
  1043. You’re worked hard, but you can’t complain: even the head honchos are working the same hours in the same conditions.
  1044. The whole ‘acting manager’ thing is also much easier to deal with than you expected. Mostly, your job consists of sorting out quarrels between two ponies, lining somepony out when they do something they’re not supposed to, and generally keep order.
  1045. You don’t have to send a single pony to Sweetie Belle for corporal punishment and, to your knowledge, neither do the other new managers.
  1046. Production also noticeably increases as you provide more advice and tutelage to ponies who ask for it. Scootaloo did the math, and the rate is overall just under 20% higher than it was in the first few days, even accounting for the weather.
  1047. Speaking of, the clear skies and unexpected warm spell that comes in the next week is also a nice touch. While ‘warm’ is used in a relative sense, and only one day even reaches into the 60s, it’s much better than the high 40s that are typical for this time of year.
  1048. You end up setting an overall record on your fourth day into your new managerial role, with one hundred forty-five pounds harvested in a single day. Try as you might, you’re not able to top that number in any of the next three days.
  1049. By the time a week in your new role has passed, or ten days since the harvest started, it’s become apparent that there’s less than half a day’s work left before the orchard is completely cleared. The mood is light and the ponies are excited as they come in that evening, bags loaded and expectations high.
  1050. You weigh your take, once again reaching well into the triple digits but failing to overtake your all-time record, and notice an upbeat Sweetie Belle bringing out her ‘speaking box’ as the ponies had chosen to call it.
  1051. She stands atop the wooden crate, her intentions of an announcement immediately clear to all observers. “Good evening everypony! How are you all tonight?”
  1052. Her good mood is felt through the words, and the crowd reciprocates with a series of cheers and hollers. Even you let out a congratulatory whistle, knowing the whole job is drawing to a close.
  1053. ”Glad to hear it! Now, I’m sure you all have already realized it, but we have less than half a day of work left until the entire orchard is cleared! That makes this year’s harvest a full three days shorter than last year, great work everypony!”
  1054. The crowd again goes wild, and you feel a degree of satisfaction welling up inside you, knowing that you helped contribute to that effort. In addition to vastly improving other workers’ performance, your own harvests had shaved off at least a full day through their sheer volume.
  1055. ”Now, there will be plenty of time for celebration later. You’ve all ensured that. But, as you all know, we had to make some changes to get done so fast.” She looks at you, and then elsewhere in the crowd. “Could the senior harvesters please step forward?”
  1056. You oblige, this time with several cheers audible from throughout the group. Ruby Heart, Sunny Streak, and Lyra also make their way to the front.
  1057. ”I’m asking this to you ponies out there directly,” she says, gesturing over your head to the group behind you. “What did you think of having an additional level of management? Did you have any problems, any issues with it? Do you feel like it helped? Please, speak your minds, there will be no retribution for anypony even if you say something offensive. Raise your hooves if you would like to comment, please.”
  1058. The crowd stays unmoving for a moment, unused to having feedback directly requested from them. Nervously, a yellow unicorn stallion raises his hoof to speak, “I-I think they were really helpful, actually. Me and Blank Canvas got into an argument, she thought I stole her berries, but Sunny Streak was able to break it up.”
  1059. Sweetie Belle looks over to a white unicorn mare with a paint brush cutie mark, “Is this true, Canvas? Did she do a good job getting things resolved?”
  1060. The mare nods her head in earnest, “She did, ma’am! No bad blood between us, now.”
  1061. With a pleased expression on her face, she sweeps her gaze across the audience, “And has anypony else been helped by the senior harvesters, in a similar way?”
  1062. Dozens of hooves shoot up this time, almost everypony in the audience. Somewhat taken aback, Sweetie Belle asks another question, “Alright, then, has anypony had an actual problem with them?”
  1063. The crowd unanimously lowers its hooves. However, one new one shoots up, belonging to a large, brown unicorn stallion. “Muddy Water, go ahead,” Sweetie Belle nods to him.
  1064. ”Yeah, the green one, Lyra, she been barkin’ orders at us non-stop. Doesn’t ever let up. Hell, I kicked a berry out of the way, and she told me to stop pickin’ up ground berries!”
  1065. A few murmurs are heard from ponies agreeing with the sentiment. You had seen Lyra giving more commands than you or the other senior harvesters, but you hadn’t seen anything done without reason.
  1066. Sweetie Belle casts a sober look down to her, “Lyra, there seems to be some agreement about that. Care to explain your reasoning, or offer a defense?”
  1067. “Sweetie Belle,” you butt in before Lyra can open her mouth. “If I could offer my two bits, I’d say that while Lyra has been giving more commands than the rest of us, I think they’re overall justified. Whenever I saw her giving one, it was either necessary or led to an increase in efficiency or morale.”
  1068. ”And you’re willing to stake your reputation on that claim, Starlight Glimmer?”
  1069. You pause for a moment, but firmly state, “I am, yes. While she could probably have gone a bit easier, there was no excess.”
  1070. ”Would you like to add anything, Lyra?” she asks, her attention again focused on the slightly relieved green mare.
  1071. ”I-I was just trying to keep things running smoothly. Just trying to keep order. If I was being too strict, I’ll tone it down next time, I swear.”
  1072. Sweetie Belle bites her lip for a moment, thinking. Then she sighs, and tells the mare, “Alright, I’ll take Starlight’s word on this one. But if I get private complaints later about something especially grievous, you’re both going to hear about it.”
  1073. Lyra relaxes fully, and sends you a thankful look.
  1074. But Sweetie Belle isn’t done with her presentation just yet, “Now that you’ve had a quick chance to get in words about their performance, I want to put it to a vote. Know that you will not be reprimanded, chastised, or whatever in any way no matter what you do. Now, everypony that would like to see a new level of management like this staying around, please raise your hooves.”
  1075. Several hooves shoot up right away, but more come up in a trickle as the seconds wear on. After about five or ten seconds of no more hooves raising, Sweetie Belle does a count.
  1076. ”So, let’s see, thirty-seven hooves out of… sixty-five, subtracting our senior harvesters. That’s a majority in favor of keeping the system. It’s not unanimous, so we’ll give it more talks, but thank you all for your feedback. Now, finish weighing, and go get yourselves something to eat!”
  1077. You share a smile with your fellow managers. With how much you’d impacted production, there’s little chance of losing your new positions.
  1078.  
  1079. At the mess area, you grab seven contiguous seats, kicking out a couple of earth ponies who had already claimed them. Technically, you’re pretty sure you have the authority to do so, and they weren’t about to argue.
  1080. With you are three of the most well-behaved and highest producing unicorns under you. All but Ruby Heart had picked out a favorite protégé, as she’d done less instructing and interacting with the common unicorns overall than the others.
  1081. Your aspiring pupil, a new arrival like you, is a tan stallion named Looking Glass with a star-shaped cutie mark completely unrelated to his name, quite obviously has a knack for magic and you believe he also has potential for more advanced spells.
  1082. That is, of course, if you’re able to convince Anon or any of your other bosses to knock down his magic restrictor enough to cast those spells.
  1083. You don’t really know the other two ponies with you, but from what Lyra and Sunny Streak had told you about them, they didn’t have a huge amount of magical talent but were eager to please.
  1084. Looks like being a suck-up does get you places in life, at least here.
  1085. Halfway through the meal, which is overall characterized by happy jokes and shared experienced over the past ten days, Lyra nudges you and pulls you slightly aside.
  1086. ”Hey, Starlight, I just wanted to say, thanks for backing me up back there. I never even realized I was giving too many orders… I don’t want to be a slave driver, really.”
  1087. “Don’t worry about it, Lyra,” you dismiss her in a tone equally as hushed as her own. “I was just telling them what I saw, and what I’m pretty sure is the truth. Just, go easy on them in the future, okay?”
  1088. She gives you a firm nod, before picking her smile back up and rejoining the table’s conversation.
  1089. As the discussion goes on and your plates are emptied, the subject of the talk eventually shifts to you. You’d expected as much, given your rather visible impact on the farm so early on.
  1090. ”So Starlight,” your would-be apprentice asks, “How did you do it? How’d you manage to, well, just blow the rest of us away? I mean, I thought I was doing pretty good by the end, but it’s just nothing even close to what you had.”
  1091. He had been getting better at the job slowly but surely throughout the week. Today’s harvest, his best, weighed in at forty-one pounds for him. That put him fifth on the scoreboard, right below Ruby Heart.
  1092. “Well, like I’ve said before, it’s just kind of a natural talent thing. I’ve always been really good with magic.”
  1093. ”I know. My old owner and I watched the whole My Little Pony series they had before the whole dimension thing happened.”
  1094. “Pffft, that was embellished. Glossed over a looooot of details. I mean, they even got my cutie mark wrong. But, honestly, I’m pretty sure I was the single most powerful unicorn in Equestria when the dimensions collided.”
  1095. ”That’s a pretty bold claim to make,” Sunny Streak counters, with a cynical but playful expression.
  1096. “I know it is, but honestly, I’ve got reason to believe that it’s true. Unless you count Princess Twilight, when she was a unicorn she was more powerful than me. Of course, as an alicorn she far outclassed me.”
  1097. ”What reason would that be?” Sunny Streak’s expression doesn’t move from its humorous disbelief.
  1098. “Look, let’s just say that I had a lot of time to study magic with the princesses in-person. The show catches a little of that, but stays focused on Twilight’s little ‘friendship lessons’ for some reason. Those were really just a side project.”
  1099. ”Side project to what?”
  1100. “To, well, magical research of course! Really complicated stuff.”
  1101. You hope your expression doesn’t convey how much you want to move away from this topic right now.
  1102. ”Whatever,” Ruby Heart interjects, “She seems pretty powerful to me. Hell, I was in a magic academy back in Equestria, and I can’t even hope to keep up with her. It’s like trying to find out if a tank has more horsepower than an entire warehouse full of go-karts. Maybe somewhere there’s a go-kart that goes faster, but who gives a damn, it’s a tank!”
  1103. You’re somewhat surprised by the analogy, but then again, the senior harvesters have all had years of unrestricted internet access. You can see it lost on the companions of Lyra and Sunny Streak, but Looking Glass snickers lightly.
  1104.  
  1105. The senior harvesters and Looking Glass all head over to Sunny Streak’s room for a minor celebration.
  1106. The festivities are light and quiet, but apparently she gets her rewards in the form of alcohol, and has a small fridge full of beverages to choose from.
  1107. You just grab a light beer, still unused to the renewed presence of alcohol in your life. Ruby Heart and Lyra each grab a bottle of cider, Sunny Streak pours out a bit of whisky and brings out Coke as a mixer, while Looking Glass just chooses a soda to drink.
  1108. ”Aw c’mon, Glass,” Sunny Streak complains when she sees his choice of drink. “Don’t be shy, no rules against booze when the bosses are getting some too.”
  1109. He smiles and shakes his head lightly, “No thanks, I want to practice my magic some more tomorrow. Can’t do that with even a mild hangover. Starlight says I have a lot of potential, but right now I’m still learning.”
  1110. The orange-maned mare shrugs and takes a sip of her drink, “Alright, your loss. But I expect you to make up for it with an extra drink tomorrow night.”
  1111. ”Whatever you say, boss!” he cracks open the soda and laughs lightheartedly with the rest of the room.
  1112. You talk first after the laughter subsides, “So, what do we do, exactly, with spare time? We have at least four days until the other groups are done, and then a few days more until the original completion date?”
  1113. ”Well, last year we had two days extra,” Ruby Heart explains, “and most of us did a whole lot of nothing. The earth ponies especially were exhausted. But after a few days of rest, Cheese Sandwich threw a massive party that lasted three straight days. Probably going to be the same this year, since we couldn’t decide on anything new with Mr. Anonymous.”
  1114. Looking Glass perks up slightly, “Oh yeah, you guys get to talk to the bosses. What’s Mr. Anonymous like? The only time he talked to me was when I first got here a few weeks ago, and that was at like three in the morning.”
  1115. You just shrug slightly, “He seems like a pretty decent guy. A bit too focused on money I think, but that can be expected from anyone with this many sla- err, workers. He treats the foreponies like his own kin.”
  1116. The other senior harvesters, who have been present in the main house on other occasions, murmur in agreement.
  1117. ”Hey Starlight, I’ve been wanting to ask,” Lyra begins, after a sip of her cider. “What was your night like in the main house? None of us have been able to stay the night there, did you get to eat breakfast with the rest of them?”
  1118. You’re slightly surprised, both by the question posed and the fact that you’re apparently the first common pony to be invited to spend the night in the farm house.
  1119. “Oh, well the room was nice, but a lot like the ones here. Really plain, mostly because nobody lives in it. The morning was nice, Applebloom made the rest of us pancakes and I got to try some syrup made with the berries grown on this farm.”
  1120. ”Shit, really?” Sunny Streak questions with surprise, “That stuff is expensive. That bottle is probably worth more than you.”
  1121. Thinking back on the price figures they gave you for both the berries and yourself, you chuckle, “Oh, actually, I know exactly how much it costs. Not quite that much, but I was sure surprised when they told me.”
  1122. ”How about Mr. Anonymous,” Looking Glass questions, “what was he like in the morning?”
  1123. “Didn’t get to see him, actually. He left the house to go into town before I woke up, but he dropped my laptop off in my room for me. That was nice.”
  1124. ”I gotta get me one of those laptops,” he mutters to himself.
  1125. With no more input on the topic, each member of the group just takes a sip of his or her drink. You aren’t even halfway done with your beer, nor are Ruby Heart or Lyra finished with their ciders, but Sunny Streak is on her third glass of whiskey and Coke.
  1126. “You sure you want to drink that much, Sunny Streak? We still have to work tomorrow.”
  1127. ”Bah,” she waves a hoof at you, and you think the alcohol is beginning to get to her. “I’ve had more before a full day of work. Besides, tomorrow’s basically just cleanup duty. We’ll be done before ten in the morning.”
  1128. You roll your eyes slightly and shrug, “Whatever you say. I’m too much of a lightweight for that. Always have been. I think I’ll follow Glass’s example and cut my drinking off after this one beer. Speaking of, you say you want to practice some magic later? I can see about getting your dampener turned down a bit for it.”
  1129. He looks at you with surprise, “You can do that? I’d really appreciate it, yeah. A chance to learn from THE Starlight Glimmer herself, well, that’s an offer no one can refuse!”
  1130.  
  1131. There actually ends up being enough work the next day to keep you out until noon, but that’s mostly due to everypony – including yourself – slowing down a bit as they realize the ordeal is almost over.
  1132. Much celebration is had when Sweetie Belle announces the workday finished, giving everypony the next four days as free time.
  1133. You’ve decided to start trying to train Looking Glass today, as neither of you lost sleep or drank too much the previous night. None at all, in his case.
  1134. It’s actually only Anon and Applejack who know how to alter the magic restrictors’ configuration, but Sweetie Belle agrees with your sentiment and goes to fetch the former to let up on Looking Glass’s a bit.
  1135. While you’re waiting for her to return, you both find a seat among a few spare crates near the weighing station, enjoying the afternoon sun with the help of a magic heat source you’ve created nearby. It’s pretty quiet out, with only a few trees nearby to house birds and the rest of the ponies gone in to their quarters or currently moving out the final berry production.
  1136. You’re honestly somewhat surprised by how much magic you’ve been given. It’s not full control, but you can probably do most spells that don’t require years of study to master. Perfect conditions for teaching. You’re even able to use teleportation, although it’s more taxing than normal.
  1137. ”So, Starlight,” Looking Glass begins, still laying atop his pile of boxes. “Do you really think I can improve my magic? And you think Mr. Anonymous will let up on my restrictors a bit?”
  1138. You wave a hoof dismissively, “I don’t see wouldn’t. After all, they’re pretty big on their whole reward system around here, and you’re, like, our fifth or sixth best harvester. And I wouldn’t have offered to teach you if I didn’t think you could improve, and vastly, at that.”
  1139. ”Well, thanks Starlight, but I just don’t know. I never really did more than levitation in Equestria, and then I certainly haven’t had the chance to practice my magic beyond that here.”
  1140. “What did you do before coming to the farm, by the way? If you don’t mind me asking, of course. Just… I know you’ve had access to computers, which isn’t too common, even for unicorns.”
  1141. ”Eheh, I was kind of a… butler, of sorts,” he says with a slight blush. He shouldn’t be embarrassed, it’s not like you get to choose your lot in life in this world as a pony.
  1142. Well, mostly. There are a few ponies who’ve managed to become celebrities here, and can’t really be restricted by their owners for fear of losing the massive profits. Looking Glass, however, doesn’t really strike you as that kind of stand-out personality.
  1143. “Nothing to be ashamed of, dude. Probably beat working in this dump.” He’s somewhat surprised by your dismissal of the place that has admittedly been so generous to you, but your playful expression calms him.
  1144. ”It wasn’t that bad, yeah. I had to work pretty hard when my owner was home, and after he went to bed, but he worked at some big company and was gone for most of the day. Let me watch TV and use his computer while he was out, as long as I didn’t act up too much.”
  1145. “And I’m guessing you didn’t act up often?”
  1146. ”Never,” he smiled. “I just figure that if this is how things have to be, I might as well do my best to make the best of it. That’s why I wanted your advice during the harvest, I just want to do my job well enough to keep life good.”
  1147. That’s a philosophy you can identify with. A creed to bring you some good in this bad life. It seems to be reaching some critical levels of success, as of late.
  1148. “So why’d you end up being sold, if you did a good job?”
  1149. He sighs wistfully and looks up at the sky, “My owner, Mr. Bisbee, bless him, passed away a couple weeks before I came here. He left his entire estate to a charity in his will. Well, that charity had a policy against taking on ponies, something about being morally opposed, so they put me up at auction.”
  1150. “You come from Seattle, too?”
  1151. ”Just north of it, yeah. Word on the farm is that’s where Mr. Anonymous gets just about everypony. I can’t blame him, it’s a much bigger market than what must exist in… Wherever the Fuck We Are Now, Idaho. Hey, could you turn the heater up a little bit?”
  1152. You oblige, and the next few minutes are passed in silence as you both allow the heater to counteract the chilly late autumn air.
  1153. Supposedly, there’s a lot of environmental concern about magic. Spontaneous heat generation like this wasn’t really possible in this universe before the dimensions crossed, so a lot of people are concerned that some magic activities could mess with both climate change and universal heat averages.
  1154. They always seem to forget that there are spells for the opposite effect, too.
  1155. You spot Anon and Sweetie Belle walking over to your area, and hop down from your box pile. The motion catches Looking Glass’s attention, who does likewise as he sees your new company.
  1156. ”So!” Anon remarks, bringing his hands up as he approaches. “You’re Looking Glass, the upstart I’ve heard so much about?”
  1157. ”Y-you’ve heard about me, s-sir? From whom?”
  1158. ”What? ‘Course I heard ‘boutcha, you’re shapin’ up to be our next big producer. And don’t you worry now, there’s no reason to be nervous. I don’t bite, promise.” He crouches down in front of the stallion with a warm smile.
  1159. Anon looks over to you, “Now, Starlight, y’think this one’s got potential then, right?”
  1160. You move over to be side-by-side with the visibly anxious stallion, “That I do, sir. I’ve seen it before, unicorns that can improve their magic that quick are capable of much more.”
  1161. ”Well, I suppose he’ll be needin’ some more magic, then. Lemme see your horn, alright?”
  1162. Looking Glass obediently cranes his head down to give Anon access to the device mounted on his horn. It’s much the same as yours, perhaps even the exact same model. Anon punches in a passcode, toys with a few buttons and a scrolling mechanism, and stands back up.
  1163. ”Think I did it right. You feelin’ it?” Looking Glass nods his head in approval, slightly overwhelmed by the returning magic. Anon looks at you again, “He should have enough for more complex spells now. Not as much as you, but close to it. Try and keep him under control, alright?”
  1164. “Yes, sir! Where should we practice? Anywhere’s good for what I want to start with.”
  1165. ”I suppose I’ll be in my office today, and it overlooks this side of the property. Why doncha just pick out a nice spot anywhere you can see that window?” He points to a part of the house you remember as containing the office.
  1166. “That sounds fine, thank you. Is everything going well now that the berries are all in?”
  1167. ”We’ll be makin’ some announcements in a few days. Til’ then, enjoy yourselves, y’all have earned this breather.” He looks around conspiratorially for a moment before leaning down with a grin, “But ‘tween you and me, we just got construction permits to go through. I reckon you know what that means.”
  1168. “Congrats, Anonymous! I hope everything goes well.”
  1169. He stands up and chuckles, brushing his sleeves off, “Everything seems to go great with you ‘round, Starlight. Now, I got some more paperwork to do, y’all have fun. C’mon Sweetie Belle, I need you too.”
  1170. The two start back to the house, and you and your new student head off towards an empty field in view of the window.
  1171. He’s eager, and ready to learn. He doesn’t seem to expect much of himself, but you can tell he would fit in well in even the most prestigious magic academies.
  1172. Reminiscent of yourself under Twilight, in a way.
  1173.  
  1174. “Three out of eight! Not bad, but you can do better! What happened to that six you pulled off earlier?”
  1175. You’d decided that improving his levitation skills would be the best way to go about his learning. To that end, you’d started teaching him the basics of an Apple family favorite that had quickly developed into a national sport by the time everything went to shit.
  1176. ”I’m trying, Starlight, but buckball isn’t exactly the easiest sport to learn! There’s a reason ponies went pro, you know!”
  1177. He’s clearly exhausted, but you’re barely an hour in.
  1178. “Alright, one more round, then we take a break, okay? Let’s see some improvement, come on!”
  1179. He steels his gaze and stance, and once again levitates the bin above his head. You, in turn, levitate the eight tennis balls you’ve gathered for the occasion from behind him and twirl them above your head.
  1180. You shoot them out quickly towards him, at varying heights and angles. The balls don’t really bounce out, as they’re all dead and have lost their spring. You go quickly, and all the balls have been expended before ten seconds has passed.
  1181. “Five of eight caught. Not the best, but I’ll take it.”
  1182. He sets the bin down, panting and not even noticing the balls rolling out from it across the ground. You quickly collect them with your magic and deposit them back into the bin for safe keeping.
  1183. ”Starlight, let’s go in for drinks. I’m parched.”
  1184. “Oh, we did forget to grab water, didn’t we?” You glance back at the weighing area, hundreds of feet away, where water and energy drinks were kept for ponies working in the orchard. “Looks like the drinks are still out at the weighing station. I’ll go snag a case of Gatorade for us.”
  1185. You quickly teleport over to the station and grab a case of the sugary beverage, plus a few bottles of water. You balance them on your back and warp back to your prior position.
  1186. You set down the drinks and crack open a water, taking a long gulp before you notice Looking Glass staring at you. “You alright, Glass? Grab a bottle, you need it.”
  1187. ”How did you teleport so far?” his expression doesn’t move from its awestruck state. “Every unicorn I’ve ever seen can only go twenty or thirty feet at a time, fifty at best for the strongest ones! And you just did that like it was nothing!”
  1188. You give him a wink, “Told you I’m the best.”
  1189. His face morphs into a smile, and he shakes his head in unconcealed admiration.
  1190. Looks like you’ve still got it, Glim Glam.
  1191.  
  1192. The next four days are characterized by afternoons of improving Looking Glass’s magic, nights of enjoying Sunny Streak’s surprisingly extensive alcohol reservoir, and mornings of attempting to shake the effects of said alcohol.
  1193. You do your best to keep the whole situation on the down-low, as alcohol is generally only given out during major events or to trusted ponies. Few ponies get any access to the stuff, and you doubt any have a collection like Sunny Streak.
  1194. It’s almost scary how her otherwise cheerful expression doesn’t belie how hard of a drinker she is. Perhaps that’s because it seems to be physically impossible for her to get a hangover.
  1195. Looking Glass progresses well in his magic, getting a pretty solid grasp over advanced levitation and moving on to some more advanced uses of it. On the final afternoon, he manages to teleport, a new experience for him.
  1196. Usually unicorns learn that spell at a younger age to avoid the side effects. It’s half disheartening and half hilarious watching him vomit up his breakfast after doing it the first time.
  1197. As you’re heading in for the evening, you notice the earth ponies carrying a distinctly lighter set of expressions overall. You and the rest of the unicorns had been getting the stink-eye from them for the past few days, but few seemed to care. Now, though, the relaxed mood is shared across all workers.
  1198. Cheese Sandwich, conspicuously absent for the past week or so, has set up a DJ booth with multiple large, loud speakers. Currently, he’s catering to some foals gathered in front of him, playing some mindless pop tunes.
  1199. You smile to yourself watching the scene. If there’s one thing that stayed absolutely constant between the two dimensions, it’s the abysmal quality of modern music.
  1200. The mess area is significantly cheerier than you’ve ever seen it before, and the feel is only added to by the green and white Christmas lights somepony seems to have strung up today.
  1201. They snake along the edges of the area’s wide awning, and in lines underneath it to provide a powerful glow. As opposed to the dim lighting the area normally gets, it’s a nice scene.
  1202. You spot Lyra eating across from Tangerine, coincidentally with two open seats next to them. You’d not gotten to talk to the orange stallion much lately, so you reason it’ll be nice to hear how he’s been doing over the past week.
  1203. You and your companion grab your trays, only exchanging a few pleasantries before joining the short queue for food. It’s only when you settle down at the table that real conversation starts up.
  1204. ”So, y’all,” Tangerine begins with a joyous but tired face, “it’s done! Whole farm’s fully cleared, all the earth pony teams got done today. Three days ‘head a schedule. Now we get to join y’all unicorns in relaxin’ all day.”
  1205. ”Speak for yourself, Starlight and I have kept busy,” Looking Glass motions to you. “Should you tell them what happened today, or should I?”
  1206. He’s awfully proud of himself for somepony who vomited up the contents of his stomach immediately after achieving victory, but you motion to him to continue. “Well, I finally learned to teleport! Only a few feet, but still, I’ve never done it before!”
  1207. Lyra looks at him with some surprise, “Never? Most magically gifted unicorns figure it out before they even reach grade school.”
  1208. He scratches the back of his neck in mild embarrassment, “Well, my folks never had much talent with it, nor did anypony else in the family. I guess we all always assumed that I would be the same.”
  1209. Tangerine probably has trouble relating to the conversation, but he nevertheless is paying attention enough to ask, “So then how’d you figure out you had that talent, then? Somethin’ you figured out pickin’ berries?”
  1210. ”Nope! I can thank Starlight for that. She was helping everypony when they asked for tips to improve their work, and I guess she saw how fast I was learning and decided to teach me more.”
  1211. Tangerine looks at you, his face curiously relaying both surprise and pride towards you, “Well, that’s mighty kind a you, Starlight. You doin’ it just to see him improve, or what?”
  1212. “I just thought he had room to grow, yeah, and I remembered how much time Princess Twilight spent teaching me. I figured I could at least pass some of that on.” You turn your attention to Looking Glass, “Of course, there’s only so much we can learn from me teaching you. We’ll need to find some spell books, either online, or on a Kindle or something.”
  1213. ”A Kindle? You mean like those book computer things?”
  1214. “Yeah,” you explain, “we had a lot of people use them in the library I worked at. I know how to work them, mostly. Maybe we can ask Anon to get you one when the rewards are rolled out.”
  1215. Tangerine cringes slightly at your use of his nickname, “Starlight, doncha think maybe you should stop usin’ his short name like that? He’s been pretty clear in the past that we oughta call ‘im ‘sir’ or ‘Mr. Anonymous’.”
  1216. You just shrug, “He told me that I could call him that, and it’s much less of a mouthful. So, why not?”
  1217. You don’t get why, but he huffs slightly and refocuses his attention on his food, “I just think maybe you should treat your master with a bit more respect.”
  1218.  
  1219. You wake up the next morning feeling bright and ready, excited to see the sun’s warm rays and hear the birds chirping.
  1220. Actually, scratch that, you are hungover to hell and back. Every bit of light and sound intimidates and offends.
  1221. It seems as though you had even more alcohol than the previous few nights, as this time you don’t appear to have made it out of Sunny Streak’s room. At least you’re not alone, and you can see Lyra slung over the back of the couch nearby.
  1222. You, on the other hand, seem to be stretched out on the floor, in a corner, surrounded by bottles. Rarity would throw a fit if caught like this.
  1223. Sunny Streak is also in the room, happily watching the morning news on the same couch that Lyra is currently passed out on. A half-eaten chocolate bar levitates nearby.
  1224. “Uuuuunghhh” is what your attempt at a ‘good morning’ morphs into.
  1225. ”Oh hey,” Sunny Streak perks up, looking at you, “I was wondering when you’d be awake! How’re you feeling on this fine morning.”
  1226. “Please tell me you have something for hangovers in here…”
  1227. She smiles, “There’s an unopened case of Sprite in the fridge. I never need the stuff, but everypony else seems to, so have at it.”
  1228. You make your way to the fridge, slowly and without grace. It takes you a moment to focus your magic enough to tear open the cardboard case and bring out one of its precious aluminum cans.
  1229. You plop yourself down on the couch, careful to avoid Lyra’s dangling lower half. You’d like to focus on the television, but it’s just not working out.
  1230. “So, what happens today? That whole celebration thing?”
  1231. ”No, they’re giving the earth ponies a day to relax first. That and something about Cheese Sandwich not having slept for the past week.”
  1232. “I feel like I haven’t slept for the past week.”
  1233. ”You certainly did sleep in. It’s already 10 AM.”
  1234. “Wait, really? That mean we missed breakfast? Lyra’s not gonna like that…”
  1235. ”Ehh, don’t worry about it. I’ve got a microwave and breakfast burritos. People end up in your situation more than you’d think.”
  1236. You suppose that this room is pretty much the Booze HQ of this farm. Where the other senior harvesters and trusted ponies get hundreds or even thousands of dollars in rewards, she takes hers in beverages. Which reminds you.
  1237. “Oh shit, I need to get down to the farm house. Today’s the day I’m supposed to tell Anonymous what I need for my room.”
  1238. ”Heh, about time. I thought you’d never get tired of plain white walls and a single bed for furniture.” The news ending, she shuts off the channel. “So, how much is he giving you to work with again? All I remember is it was a lot.”
  1239. “Three thousand I think. More than I know what to do with.” You finish off your soda and turn to her, “Maybe I could get you some more drinks with the leftovers.”
  1240. She beams, “That would be nice. So when do you have to be at the farm house?”
  1241. “Less than half an hour, I should probably get going now.”
  1242.  
  1243. About halfway to the farm house, you realize you forgot to grab a breakfast burrito at Sunny Streak’s. Oh well, you’ve gone half a day without eating before. It’s probably good to avoid so many fat calories anyway.
  1244. Although, it’s not like you have much weight to lose. You’d kept slim at the library, and it’s hard to gain weight in a place like this, aside from muscle mass.
  1245. You decide to just teleport the last three hundred feet or so to the house. Normally, it would be a trivial distance for you, but the magic restrictors cut down on your range.
  1246. You make it, with a reasonable amount of effort. It must be set down to a minimal level of restriction, but just enough to keep you away from those most complex and dangerous spells.
  1247. You knock on the door, expecting it to be answered by one of the resident ponies. Instead, the door swings open to reveal the tall (even by human standards) figure of Anonymous himself.
  1248. ”Starlight, I was wonderin’ when you’d come by!” he cheers, as if the two of you are old friends. “Come on in, I got about ten minutes ‘til I gotta leave, should be plenty of time to get whatcha want written down.”
  1249. You step in and find the living room not unoccupied, with Applebloom and Scootaloo watching television on one of the couches. They both give you a quick wave and the latter lets out, “Hey, Starlight,” but that’s all that passes between you.
  1250. Anon motions for you to follow him to the kitchen, where he reaches into a drawer and pulls out a notepad and pen. You remain standing until he sits down at the bar, when you then hop up onto a stool next to him.
  1251. ”So, first thing on the list is construction stuff. You want paint? Maybe some special molding, or like a kitchen area?”
  1252. You have limited space to work with, but the room isn’t exactly restrictive in size. If anything, it’s more the size of a studio apartment, and significantly larger than the average college dormitory.
  1253. “I was thinking to just keep the paint and flooring in the room. That shouldn’t be a problem.” You’d noticed that the carpeting in the rooms varies by building, but yours luckily has an agreeable navy blue color. “But a small kitchen area sounds good. Probably a couple cabinets, a sink, fridge, and some countertop space?”
  1254. ”Sounds good to me, should be easy to get. By the way, I went ahead and just decided to say to hell with a budget. You made us enough this harvest season to pay for just ‘bout anything you could fit in that room.”
  1255. You’re taken aback somewhat, but truth be told, you hadn’t expected him to stick hard to the $3000 he’d quoted you. “Thank you sir, that’s very kind of you.”
  1256. ”Drop the ‘sir’, okay? You don’t have to call me that.”
  1257. “By the way, about that. Are you sure? I mean, the other senior harvesters call you that, and Mr. Anonymous. Are you sure you’re fine with me talking to you, well, you know, casually?”
  1258. He looks at you with incredulity dancing on his face, “Starlight, y’do realize that you ain’t bein’ treated as just the average pony ‘round here, right? C’mon, AJ and her kin are like family to me at this point. A friend of theirs is a friend of mine.”
  1259. “Well thank you. But, back to the task at hand. I couldn’t get a cooking top, could I?”
  1260. ”Well, ‘fraid the answer to that one’s a no. Just for safety reasons, we keep built-in cooking tops out of the residence halls. We could getcha a wall-plug one, though.”
  1261. “That should work, then. And, could I get a microwave, and maybe a toaster? I don’t plan on doing too much in there, but I do get hungry at night sometimes.”
  1262. ”That’s fine. You know, there’s a few ponies out there who don’t even bother goin’ to the mess area. They all just sit around at home, cookin’ up whatever strikes their fancy each night and morning.”
  1263. Suddenly, his watch beeps, an alarm of some kind. “Well, shit. That means I gotta get goin’. And ‘course we don’t have nothin’ on this list but kitchen stuff.”
  1264. “It’s fine, I can wait a few days, or weeks, or whatever until you have time again. It’s no big deal.”
  1265. ”Naw, I ain’t lettin’ you do that. You’ve done too much ‘round here for me to let that go. Tell y’what, how about you come into town with me and pick your own stuff out? No leash laws, and I got your paperwork ‘round here somewhere if someone causes trouble.”
  1266. “That… sounds really agreeable, actually, yeah. That’d be great, thanks!”
  1267. ”No problem at all. And hey, you ain’t even seen the town yet, nor the landscape. Probably hard to when it’s the dead of night, huh? Well, we’ll be takin’ the big red truck out front, should be unlocked. Go ahead and wait out there for me, I’ll be out soon as I grab your ID.”
  1268. You’d be lying if you said you aren’t eager to see the town. You have no idea how big it is, what kind of amenities it has, or even where it is, short of being within an hour of Boise.
  1269. You go out through the front door, again giving a simple wave to Applebloom and Scootaloo in goodbye, and climb into the shotgun seat of the truck.
  1270. It’s a large, new vehicle, with a cabin to seat five and a massive bed. You forgot to check the front grille for a brand and model number, but the Ford window sticker gives you a pretty good idea.
  1271. True to his word, Anon appears a few minutes later holding the few papers that certify your status as an ‘indentured equine’ and his property. He tucks them into a front pocket and climbs in the vehicle.
  1272. He’s about to start it up, but turns to you, “Say, Starlight, I read through your file, and you didn’t move ‘round too much the past few years. You ever actually rode shotgun before?”
  1273. “I… no, I don’t think I have.” Even when you traveled more in the first few months here, it was always in a truck bed or the back of a van.
  1274. ”Ah, no big deal, was just wonderin’ is all. So, watcha like to listen to?”
  1275.  
  1276. If there’s one thing about this world that is most certainly better than it was in Equestria, it’s rock music.
  1277. Ponies are bit more… tame in their lyrics, which made the whole genre somewhat disingenuous.
  1278. Human rock music, though, is a pretty solid addition to your life.
  1279. Thoroughly approving of your music taste, Anon plugs his smartphone into the dash and plays a downloaded Spotify playlist. It’s hundreds of songs long, likely taking up a huge amount of space. But when questioned about it, he has a simple explanation.
  1280. ”Well, I gotta make trips up to Seattle pretty damn often. Along the way, I go through a whole lotta the middle of nowhere. Can’t rely on radio or streaming out there.”
  1281. Well, if he approves of the genre selection, you approve of the playlist. Riding front seat in an automobile is also somewhat more thrilling than you expected, and at some point you roll down a window and dangle your right hoof out the side.
  1282. It takes twenty or thirty minutes of driving to actually reach the town, maneuvering through back roads. Although the main driveway on the farm is paved, most other roads out here are actually just dirt and gravel.
  1283. It’s actually a reasonably sized town, and Anon says it has about fifteen thousand residents. It has a lot of commercial locations, though, due to the many square miles of farmland it services.
  1284. Your first stop is at a Home Depot to pick up the materials needed for a small kitchen area. As you’re exiting the vehicle, it occurs to you that while you know these chain businesses well enough, you’ve never actually stepped hoof in one before.
  1285. Hell, it’s been years since you were in a parking lot, excluding the few times you had to go out to the one outside the library.
  1286. You’re somewhat startled by the location’s automatic door, having never seen one before. Anon sees you and chuckles slightly, but continues on through the second door. You follow, the slight blush of embarrassment tingling your cheeks.
  1287. This place is massive. Holy hell, they never had stores like this in Equestria. As far as the eye can see, shelves reach up twenty feet above your head, containing everything from candy bars to plastic pipes to whole toilets.
  1288. ”Uhh, Starlight?” Anon looks at you with equal parts confusion and amusement. “You alright?”
  1289. You realize you’ve been standing in place, simply looking around you. “Oh, yeah, sorry Anon. I’ve just never been in a store like this before. Or any human store, really.”
  1290. ”Don’t worry, Applejack and the rest of ‘em did the same thing the first time I took ‘em to a Wal-Mart. Which you’ll also get to see, by the way.”
  1291. You start walking with him, but still look up to ask, “So, are human stores everywhere like this? Just… big?”
  1292. ”Depends on where you are. Towns like this, they got enough farmers but few enough people in the actual town that most every retail place is like this. Other places, though, you’re hard-pressed to find a single one.”
  1293. You walk through a few aisles of the store picking up odds and ends needed on both the farm and for your home improvements. Eventually, though, you reach an entire section devoted to cabinets, countertops, sinks, and kitchen sets.
  1294. “You know, this one section would be a whole store in Equestria. And a big one, at that.”
  1295. ”Sounds comfy. Well, you go ‘head and pick out what you want. I got a few more things t’pick up, I’ll come by in ten minutes or so to make the purchase.”
  1296. “Okay, thanks Anon! I’ll try to keep it inexpensive.”
  1297. ”Don’t worry ‘bout that. And remember, anyone gives you trouble, I’ll be right over here in these two aisles.”
  1298. “Sure thing.”
  1299.  
  1300. Was deciding on something to buy always this hard?
  1301. It’s been years since you were actually allowed to buy anything, but you’re pretty sure it wasn’t this hard to decide on something before.
  1302. This set of dark wood cabinets with navy tiles on top would go well with the carpets… but if you’re keeping the walls white, it just wouldn’t make sense.
  1303. Probably the country-style light wood with white tiling, then. But what about the sink and fridge?
  1304. You’ll just keep it simple and cheap and get their least expensive options. You don’t want to take advantage of Anon’s generosity too much.
  1305. But this one with a drink space on the bottom might be a better choice…
  1306. You’re opening the fridge’s bottom drawer to check out the drink space when you feel a tap on your flank.
  1307. You turn around, expecting to find Anon. Instead, you come face-to-face with a frowning, middle-aged woman with an orange vest with the Home Depot logo on.
  1308. ”Hey, pony,” she half-barks at you. “Your owner around here?”
  1309. “Yeah he should be-“ you point to the aisles where Anon said he would be, but just as you do so, he rounds the corner of one and starts towards you. “Actually, that’s him right there.”
  1310. ”Hey, mister,” she says, in a much lighter tone. “Could you please keep your pony close to you and under control? Management doesn’t like them playing with merchandise.”
  1311. ”Playin’ with merchandise, you say?” Anon puts on a quizzical face, scratching his chin. “Where and how?”
  1312. ”I just caught her fooling around in the drawer of that refrigerator.”
  1313. ”Oh really now? Hey Starlight,” he calls out to you.
  1314. With a hint of nervousness, you answer, “Yes, Anon?”
  1315. ”That the fridge you picked out?”
  1316. You give it another look, finalizing your decision, “If that’s alright with you, yes.”
  1317. ”Then we’ll take it.” He looks at the surprised store employee, “Y’should probably stop treatin’ your customers so shitty. A lesser man would go to Lowe’s for makin’ assumptions like that. But whatever, ring ‘er up and take it to the front. Starlight, you decide on a sink and countertop, too?”
  1318.  
  1319. While the countertops are cheap, the fridge isn’t. But if Anon minded, he didn’t acknowledge it with either words or physical cues.
  1320. You only got a few feet of counter space, to preserve space in your room. The fridge is pretty large though; most ponies prefer a mini-fridge to save space.
  1321. With the help of your magic and some of Twilight’s old lessons on organization in packing, you fit everything into the bed of the truck pretty easily and leave room to spare.
  1322. ”Nice choice on the fridge by the way, I like the drink drawer. Guessin’ you’re probably gonna need somethin’ to stock it though, right?”
  1323. “If you don’t mind, sure. Probably mostly vegetables and drinks.” Honestly, the fridge is probably bigger than you needed, but you’re working on a blank check here.
  1324. ”Well, if you thought that store was big, wait ‘til you see this next one. We’re goin’ to a Wal-Mart.”
  1325. The store is only about a block away, and as promised, it’s even bigger than the last one. Oh, the glories of consumerism!
  1326. You manage to get through the automatic doors alright this time, and while you’re tempted to stop and examine the sheer size of the store again, you keep it together and follow alongside Anon.
  1327. ”Alright, so, Wal-Mart’s kinda the general store of general stores. We only got the kitchen stuff on our list before, but whatever else you want, they probably got it here.”
  1328. “Electronics?”
  1329. ”There’s a huge section at the back. Wanna just go straight there?”
  1330. “Sure. Also… never mind.”
  1331. ”What is it? Don’t be shy.”
  1332. “Can I ride in the cart? It looks fun.”
  1333. He just stops and laughs a deep, hearty laugh. “Ahah! If you’re serious, go ahead and climb in. Why not?”
  1334. You try to magic yourself into the cart, but you forget about your magic restrictor. It always puzzled you why self-levitation was so much harder than regular levitation. And the basket is small enough that teleportation probably isn’t safe…
  1335. “Anon?”
  1336. ”Yeah? You gonna get in?”
  1337. “Can you, uhh, pick me up and put me inside?”
  1338. You’d been picked up before by adoring library patrons, but the act still embarrasses you.
  1339. Anon’s renewed laughter doesn’t help, either.
  1340. He pulls himself together enough to just say, “Sure!” and reach down to pick you up, quickly depositing you in the cart.
  1341. You feel another rush of embarrassment as you notice several groups of customers stopping and watching you, alerted to the scene by Anon’s unrestrained mirth. Thankfully, none appear to be taking photos or videos…
  1342. “Alright, funny guy, can we keep moving?”
  1343. ”Sure, sure,” he gets out between chuckles.
  1344. You make it all of ten feet before he goes back to the issue, “So, Starlight, I didn’t really take you for the cute and cuddly type. Thought you were more into the ‘powerful, formerly evil wizard’ thing.”
  1345. “Hey! I just wanted to ride in the cart to rest my legs, and because it looked a little fun!” you retort in the most dignified tone you can muster. “And if I had full control of my magic, I assure you I could have managed on my own.”
  1346. ”Pfft, you can probably do it on your own as-is. Just wanted ol’ Anon here to do it for you, am I right?”
  1347. “No!”
  1348. ”Whatever you say!”
  1349. It really is a pretty long walk to the back of the store, but you can’t deny enjoying the ride you get to it.
  1350. When you arrive in front of it, the size of the electronics section surprises you. Flat screen TV’s line the back wall, and in front of it, rows of shelving house DVD and Blu-Ray players, audio systems, video game consoles, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and all manner of modern devices.
  1351. ”Mr. Anonymous! Welcome back!” an employee stocking the shelves calls out with a wave.
  1352. Anon leans down to you and whispers, “With all the stuff I get for the ponies, I’m a big customer for ‘em.” He then stands up and calls out, “Hey, Jim, you mind helpin’ us out a bit?”
  1353. ”Sure, sure, sounds good to me! What’re you looking for today?”
  1354. You notice that he doesn’t even seem to notice your presence, looking over your head at Anon.
  1355. ”Well, uhh, I’m actually not sure. Starlight, what’re we gettin’ here?”
  1356. Jim seems somewhat surprised, and you don’t blame him. It’s probably not a typical situation for these store attendants, helping a pony with a sale.
  1357. “Again, if anything’s too much for you just say it, but… probably a TV, a set of small speakers, and a game console. Oh, and maybe a good pair of headphones?” You look up at Anon, “I know I have a pair already, but I’d like something a bit higher quality. I was spoiled with a really good pair at the library.”
  1358. He shrugs, “Fine by me. I ain’t forgotten your contributions last week, an extra pair of headphones don’t seem like a big price to pay for that.”
  1359. You end up getting a 50” TV, an Xbox to match Lyra’s, two small wall-mounted speakers, and a nice pair of Sony headphones.
  1360. Jim, the employee helping you, was at first getting Anon’s approval for each purchase, but eventually just ignored him altogether when it became clear that he didn’t really care what you’re buying or how much it costs.
  1361. Anon also gets a few items on his own, which he says are Christmas gifts for the Crusaders. Just like with your purchases, price doesn’t seem to be a concern with the items he’s picked out.
  1362. Jim rings you up, giving Anon a special 10% discount that he explains goes out to regular, big spenders. Your space in the cart has become a bit more cramped, but you’re not pushed out entirely.
  1363. However, as you go through other parts of the store getting food to stock your new fridge, other items for the farm, and more items for your room, you’re eventually forced to walk again like a normal pony.
  1364. Other people at this store have ponies with them, but you don’t recognize any of them. It’s interesting to see the range of expressions and relationships. Some bound happily alongside their owners, or contentedly by their sides, much like you.
  1365. Others view the situation with indifference, boredom, or annoyance.
  1366. And some ponies appear saddened, and unable or unwilling to interact with their masters. Some of this camp are also kept on leashes, despite there being no laws or store policy on it.
  1367. As you pass by a unicorn on a leash with a number of visible bruises and scars, Anon curses under his breath. When the pony and his owner are out of earshot, Anon quietly relates his feelings, “Fuckers like that’re despicable. And if it ain’t enough to hurt the ponies, they gotta parade their pain too.”
  1368. “Sick fucks. We had people like that come into the library with their ponies every once in a while. It felt so good asking them to leave.”
  1369. ”I can imagine. How’d they react to a pony tellin’ ‘em that?”
  1370. “I got to call security on multiple occasions. The cops even got involved once.”
  1371. He smiles and gives you a pet on the head. “I know I might sound like a hypocrite to you, seein’ as we use corporal punishment on the farm. But we never really hurt nobody, and we only do it to prevent bigger issues down the road.”
  1372. You’re not sure how much you agree with that statement, so instead of commenting on it, you turn your attention back to the store. “Hey, Anon? Think we could look around for some wall decorations?”
  1373.  
  1374. It’s well into the afternoon when you actually get to leave the store. In tow you have several thousand dollars in electronics, fresh and preserved groceries for you, decorations and small items galore for your room, several cases of beer and cider for your own use, and one for Sunny Streak.
  1375. ”I give that pony so much booze ‘cause she works better with it,” he explains. “I go into town all the time, every single trip I at least stop into a case station and get ‘er a 12-pack. Can’t explain ‘er drinking, can’t fight it, so I work with it.”
  1376. When your stomach rumbles, he takes you to a Subway. “Normally, I’d go for a burger, but y’all ponies don’t eat meat and I ain’t lettin’ you near the travesty that is vegetarian meat.”
  1377. Your hunger sated, you take a few more trips around the town, stopping in at a mechanic for some machine and equipment parts, a liquor store for more specialized drinks for you, Sunny Streak, and the farm house, and a gun shop.
  1378. ”I got enough guns for myself, but since she’s the only one who can shoot ‘em, Sweetie Belle takes a likin’ to ‘em too. Figure I’ll get ‘er a proper hunting rifle this year.”
  1379. “She goes hunting with you?”
  1380. ”Well, I ain’t sure about that, I’d take her if she wanted. If not, it’s still somethin’ long range to call her own. She’s only got a shotgun to herself now.”
  1381. “Huh, that doesn’t seem like something Sweetie Belle would be interested in.”
  1382. ”I wouldn’t think so either, but I guess livin’ with me and the Apples for so long has caused some of us country folk to rub off on her. Too bad AJ ain’t got fingers, she’d probably love shootin’. Hopefully the manufacturers’ll think of somethin’ for pony shootin’.”
  1383. Ponies aren’t allowed in this store, for understandable reasons. So, you wait in the truck while Anon goes in. By now, the sky has started to dim, with the sun drawing long shadows across the streets.
  1384. You’re enjoying the silence with a window open to feel the cool autumn air, when a voice calls out from the street, “Hey, are you…”
  1385. You see a young man in a sweater, looking towards you. “Starlight Glimmer? Like, the Starlight Glimmer?”
  1386. You weigh your options, but considering your proximity to hundreds of lethal weapons, you don’t see anything unsafe with responding in the affirmative. “The one and only. What’s up?”
  1387. ”Nothin’, I guess I just didn’t expect to see you in this little slice a the middle a nowhere. I watched the show, back in the day.”
  1388. “Ah, figures. I’m new around here actually, just waiting for my owner right now.”
  1389. ”He treat ya alright? If he don’t, I can probably help ya out, y’know.”
  1390. This kid should watch his mouth. That offer is all kinds of illegal. “Considering how he just spend several thousand dollars on me, he’s alright in my book.”
  1391. ”Oh!” You see him perk up a bit, “Well, good! Just wanted t’make sure you’re alright. I’ll get goin’ then, hope to see you around sometime!”
  1392. As he starts to turn away, Anon exits the store carrying a long, gray case. The man stops, and calls out, “Hey, sir?”
  1393. Anon throws the case into the back seat of the cabin and calls out, “Yeah, what’s up?”
  1394. ”You’re aware a the fact you got a famous pony sittin’ in that seat, right?”
  1395. ”Well aware, thanks. You a fan?”
  1396. ”I guess y’could say that.”
  1397. ”Well, don’t you worry, I’m treatin’ her right. Same guy who’s keepin’ the Apples safe.”
  1398. ”Oh, well damn! Starlight’s in good hands, then! Y’all stay warm tonight!”
  1399. He walks off, and Anon starts up the engine. “So, you get that from a lot of folks?”
  1400. “Surprisingly, no. The cutie mark is different, for one, and I do my mane differently now. That throws off anyone who doesn’t know my color scheme. You get a lot of people trying to find the Apples?”
  1401. ”Sometimes, yeah,” he admits, backing out of the parking lot. “Once I realized the deal with the TV show, I made sure to let people know they’re bein’ treated right at my farm. Keeps folks from breakin’ in to save ‘em, and gives my products a good name.”
  1402. “What do you do if anyone tries to come out and visit?”
  1403. ”Only a couple’ve ever gone out so far to try and see ‘em, but we keep the gate closed and turn ‘em away if they try to ask to come in. Ain’t had anybody break in yet, and I reckon we’ll just shoot ‘em if that happens.”
  1404. A minute passes in silence, after which Anon starts up the Rock n’ Roll playlist again. The sun can be seen going down over the horizon through the right window, the sky a brilliant mix of gold, pink, and orange.
  1405. “Hey Anon?”
  1406. ”Yeah Starlight?”
  1407. “Thanks. For everything.”
  1408. ”How many times I gotta tell you money ain’t an issue with me?”
  1409. “Not for the shopping,” you explain. “For, well, everything else. For giving the ponies a good life. For keeping the Apples, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo safe. For welcoming me.”
  1410. He reaches out to ruffle your mane, but stops quickly. “You mind that, by the way?” You shake your head, and he does it again. “And it’s no problem. Y’all have helped me enough. Just try and stay good to me, alright?”
  1411. You look at him and smile, “I will, Anon. I will.”
  1412.  
  1413. Darkness has fully set in by the time you get back through the farm’s front gate.
  1414. You’ve long since rolled the window back up, as evenings this time of year transition from chilly to bone-cold as the sun goes out.
  1415. It’ll only be a couple weeks at most until the first snow falls.
  1416. Birds usually cling to the few trees planted along roads and creeks that criss-cross the landscape, but now, they’re silent.
  1417. Although the paved driveway ends at the farm house, dirt roads more than wide enough for the truck connect it to the residence halls just a field away. It’s down these roads that Anon takes the fully-laden truck.
  1418. ”So, we still got plenty of time ‘fore curfew I think. We shouldn’t run over, but if we do, I got the keys on me so we can keep workin’.”
  1419. “You’re going to help me get everything set up?”
  1420. He’s somewhat surprised by the question, but keeps his eyes on the road, “Well, ‘course I am. Ain’t got anything else to do tonight ‘side from bringin’ the other stuff we got out to the sheds it all goes in.”
  1421. “Alright, but where are we going to put the cabinets and sink? We probably can’t get those in tonight.”
  1422. ”Nonsense, shouldn’t be hard at all. Already got all the tools we’ll need in the truck bed.”
  1423. “If you insist…”
  1424. You pull up in front of your residence hall, the vehicle’s headlights presenting more than enough warning for any ponies in the way. You start unloading the larger items from the truck, while Anon goes in to set up doorstops and make sure that the room is ready to go.
  1425. ”Whoa, Starlight!” Crystal Skies calls out, trotting over from the mess area. “Is this all your stuff? Did I really see you in the car?”
  1426. “Oh, yeah,” you respond, gently setting down the television box on the ground. “Anonymous decided to just take me to town with him today to get my rewards, instead of a list.”
  1427. ”Well that’s fucking cool! Is the fridge yours too? It’s so big.”
  1428. “Yeah, I was going to get a smaller one but check out what this one’s got,” you say as you open up its bottom drink drawer.
  1429. ”Well that’ll sure be useful.” He gives you a nudge and a wink, “Maybe you could have me over for a drink to test it out sometime.”
  1430. “Ayyy, maybe not.”
  1431. He’s unfazed by the rejection, “Pffft, fine, suit yourself. But still, that’s a lot of stuff he got you. Guess you earned it after all you did out in the fields. And helping us out with table setting and cooking before the harvest.”
  1432. You’d forgotten entirely about that, and hadn’t lifted a hoof to help since the harvest ended. “Oh, shoot, have you guys been managing alright? I’ve just had more stuff on my mind, haven’t really helped out.”
  1433. ”Well, it’s not easy but we get it done every day. And nopony’s making you help us, so don’t worry about that.”
  1434. It’s then that Anon comes out from the residence block, “Alright, Starlight, your room looks good to go. Should be easy to set everything up soon as we move the bed away from the water lines. Oh hey, you’re the new pegasus. How’s the cookin’ crew doin’? Y’all need any more hooves to get things done?”
  1435. Crystal Skies shakes his head, “No, sir. We’re managing alright. We’ll probably need somepony helping out when the planting season rolls around, though.”
  1436. ”Oh sure, ‘course. We usually get a replacement team of earth ponies in, don’t you worry ‘bout that. You’re the one what wanted t’be a teacher, right?”
  1437. Apparently pleasantly surprised that Anon remembered his request, Crystal Skies breaks a grin, “Yes, sir! As soon as you can let me!”
  1438. ”We’ll talk after the plantin’ season’s done. But me’n Starlight gotta get movin’ if we wanna finish this job tonight, so unless you’re plannin’ to help, best say your goodbyes.”
  1439. ”Sure, sure. You have a good night, Starlight. Heh. Maybe I’ll write you a song sometime.”
  1440. “Please don’t,” you sigh, eliciting a lighthearted laugh from Anon.
  1441.  
  1442. Working as a team, you and Anon manage to get the entire kitchen set installed and the fridge stocked, the television and speakers mounted on the wall, and all the rest of your wall decorations and items in order.
  1443. The room has ample wall plugs, but you hook things up to an extension cord nonetheless. In all, your new furniture consists of the fridge and countertops, a floor lamp, an end table with another lamp, a coffee table, a large, light blue rug, and a small bookcase that is temporarily unstocked.
  1444. Anon also fetches a brand new couch, having a small stockpile of them ready for new ponies that move in and claim their furniture rewards. It’s surprisingly comfortable despite its obviously inexpensive construction.
  1445. He also brings back a small desk and swivel chair for you to have a formal writing and computer space. With these additions, the room appears to be fully packed, without much space remaining for any additional items.
  1446. The walls still have a few empty spaces that you plan to cover with photographs, paintings, or perhaps magical displays as time goes on. Until then, the room is comfortable, but still somewhat impersonal.
  1447. You also managed to acquire new sheets and a comforter for your bed. Those are more to your style, as the store actually had a series of bedding themed on the old pony show. It was amusing watching the cashier do a double-take as she scanned its package.
  1448. As he starts to leave, Anon stops in the doorway and reaches into his pocket. He pulls out something small, thin and black and slaps it on the counter. He only turns around and winks at you before heading out for the night.
  1449. You peer over the edge of the counter and identify it as an Amazon gift card, with a small slip of paper containing mailing instructions to the farm. You rush out into the hall to thank Anon, but he just gives you a thumbs-up and continues on his way.
  1450. You quickly boot up the laptop, exit out of the hentai that you seem to have left open, and log into your old Amazon account. You’d made one early on at the library, before you realized that you didn’t actually have any money to buy anything.
  1451. $250. Nice. That should buy you some spell books.
  1452. But before you know it, the curfew buzzer finally sounds, and you’re reminded to hurry up with your shower and get to bed. You don’t want to be tired for tomorrow.
  1453. It’s party time.
  1454.  
  1455. You wake up the next morning with an hour or two to spare, so you opt to try making yourself breakfast with the few perishables you’d purchased the day prior.
  1456. On the countertop you have a small microwave, a wall-plug cooking top, and a toaster. Stowed in the cabinet below is a blender and a fairly large toaster oven for anything needing to be baked.
  1457. You decide to take it slow and just fry up some vegetables with seasoning. Almost immediately, you find a need for something you hadn’t picked up: a step-stool.
  1458. You’re able to look over the countertop on your hind legs, but you can’t really see anything in a pot or pan. Excellent.
  1459. So, instead, you grab some cereal and milk. Not really a luxury, but the sugary bits are a nice relief from the usual nutritious but tasteless farm food.
  1460. With plenty of time to spare, you open up your computer and resume your shopping from the previous night. Spell books are still not the biggest market, but selections are growing fast and transcriptions continue to be made.
  1461. You opt to order a Kindle, to get large volumes for cheap without taking up space, but most of the advanced tomes you’re interested in are print-only.
  1462. You add a few that catch your interest to the cart, but Amazon’s selection only goes so far. You’ll probably need to find a specialist seller for the really good stuff.
  1463. With plenty of money left over on the card, you get a series of beginner spell books for Looking Glass. There’s only so much you can teach about magic without having a set of written spells for reference.
  1464. With about $50 remaining, you order an entire series of manga. Hey, you can’t fill up that little bookcase with just spell books, can you?
  1465. Well, you probably can but that’s beside the point.
  1466. Your literary spending spree complete, you flop down onto the couch and turn on the television. Unfortunately for you, the TV here only has access to an antenna, which means you get about fifteen channels to choose from. Half of them are unwatchable static.
  1467. So, instead of watching a morning news recap of all the people murdered and homes burned down last night, you switch the input to your Xbox. You’ve got Grand Theft Auto VI, Battlefield 2143, and a fresh subscription to online services.
  1468. It’s not incredibly easy to navigate, considering the only time you’d ever handled this controller was your fleeting experience at Lyra’s with it (before she cut the console’s power in a fit of rage).  
  1469. After about twenty minutes of confused menu-scrolling, you’re able to start up the single player of GTA. As expected, you suck ass and can barely finish the tutorial, but you’re only looking to get a feel for the controller anyway.
  1470. Although you can manipulate handheld devices with your magic, it takes a bit of getting used to compared to how fast humans can understand what they’re holding. You remember reading a news report on a study that revealed that the phenomenon is due to a neural delay, or something like that.
  1471. You’re barely able to finish the tutorial mission when the wake-up bell rings, and the doors unlock. You turn off the system and trot outside.
  1472. Apparently, Cheese Sandwich was allowed to set things up last night past curfew. Snaking across the road that cuts through the residential halls are streamers and banners, with confetti blowing in the light wind from an indeterminate source.
  1473. Lined up in the center of the road are probably a dozen plastic tables covered in food items, most with a fall theme. Pumpkin, apple, and berry pies are hot and fresh, huge bins of soda and water are filled with icy water, and every manner of autumn foodstuff is present.
  1474. Spotting a few flies already working their way towards the selection, you quickly set up a light ward around it. That should keep the insects off for a few days.
  1475. The two small recreation fields positioned next to the residence halls have been converted into dedicated festival areas. One field is packed with game and prize booths, concession stands, tents, attractions, and even a few mechanical rides.
  1476. The other is filled with rows of tables and seating circled around a large center stage, which is laden with speakers, microphones, and musical instruments.
  1477. The entire scene carries a theme of yellow, orange, and brown, with the occasional cherry-red accent. Although the leaves have already long fallen away from any non-evergreens, it does help to complete the scene.
  1478. You’re actually one of the first to arrive outside, since your room is positioned pretty close to your hall’s entrance and you were up early. But, your presence is quickly overshadowed by the mass of fillies and colts that flood out from each building, excitedly sweeping across the as-of-yet unstaffed fields and gawking at the attractions.
  1479. It’s quite the sight, and you’d never believe it if somepony told you that a single earth pony put this together. That is, if you hadn’t seen more put together in less time with Pinkie Pie around.
  1480. You make little adjustments around the place with your magic, mostly various minor warding spells to keep things sturdy and worry-free. As you do, dozens of ponies pour out of the residence halls, chatting happily and moving to take up places at the booths and stations around the festival.
  1481. Lyra spots you as she’s headed to her booth, “Hey, Starlight! Ready for your first harvest celebration?”
  1482. “I think so! I’ve just been going around putting up some safety spells, making sure everything stays in one piece. You working at a booth?”
  1483. ”Pretty much everypony who’s been around longer than a month or two is. That’s when we did the signups, and you know ponies, always willing to pitch in for this sort of thing.”
  1484. “So what about us newbies, then?”
  1485. She just shrugs, “Nopony’s stopping you from helping out if that’s what you’d like. I’m doing magic shows this year, I guess you’d probably be a pretty good fit if you’re interested.”
  1486. You give her a smug look, “Me? Magic? I just don’t know, Lyra, magic isn’t really my thing.” She laughs, and your smile turns from sarcastic to genuine in nature, “Sure I’ll join up. Sounds like fun! Though, it’s been a long time since I last did performance magic.”
  1487. ”I doubt that’ll be a problem. Anything flashy will get the little ones going crazy, trust me. I still remember that stunt you and Trixie did with the manticore, that was great!”
  1488. You smile, but wince inwardly at the memory of another good friend you’ve lost track of. Hopefully, she’s putting on magic shows for human kids somewhere, but more likely than not she’s stuck in some miserable retail store like most unicorns.
  1489. Or, she could always be horribly mistreated, or dead. You choose not to visualize those prospects.
  1490. Your thoughts are thankfully cut off as a voice booms from the faraway stage and speaker set. “Helloooo, Idaho!” the cheerful voice of Cheese Sandwich rings out. “We are just about ready to kick off the third annual harvest celebration! Are you all excited?”
  1491. Cheers and whistles erupt around you, but you doubt he can hear them.
  1492. ”Great! I’ve worked extra extra extra hard this year to get everything perfect, so things should be a blast! We’ve got performances lined up for all three days, games, prizes, shows, dances, and all sorts of other crazy stuff planned!”
  1493. Several fillies and colts are running around in random directions in their excitement. After weeks of their parents coming home exhausted, this celebration must be an incredibly important outlet for their energy.
  1494. ”This year’s special game is a trading card hunt! Scattered all over the recreation areas are well-hidden cards with my face on them! Match two cards by finding or trading for them, bring them to me, and you’ll win a special prize!”
  1495. You’d already been told of the games put on every year for the celebration, but that doesn’t stop the reactions of the foals – some of whom are literally bouncing in their joy – from warming your heart.
  1496. ”So, without further ado, let the festivities begin!”
  1497. Some warm country music quickly replaces his voice, easy on the ears and played at a volume that is both discernable from afar and not overbearingly loud.
  1498. It’s also just now that you notice additional speakers mounted on rooftops, in trees, and on erected poles around the field, giving good audio coverage from all angles.
  1499. Since you haven’t done any formal practice or scripting, you’ll be entertaining the foals in between regular showings. It’s actually a taxing job, since you have to think of so many remarkable spells in the meantime, but a rewarding one.
  1500. The magic shows are held in a relatively large tent, one of the largest in the festival. Plastic chairs are lined up in front of a small stage inside, enough to seat forty. It’s still a bit chilly, so one of your first spells is a set of small heating orbs thrown up over the audience and your stage.
  1501. The performances throughout the day go well, as do your in-between shows. You make heavy use of a few versatile spells you know, especially one that can create ethereal shapes and patterns from your magic. It’s utterly useless for anything but show.
  1502. Trixie taught you that one. Something so arbitrary would never make it into the kind of spell books you studied.
  1503. The formal shows are over half an hour long when they run, so you have multiple opportunities throughout the day to wander around, grab food, and socialize.
  1504. You get to watch two separate performances on the stage, one starring an exceptionally talented earth pony fiddler and his dancing children, and one featuring a barbershop quartet of stallions. Big Mac himself is on stage for that one, and his deep singing voice seems just as fluid as it was years ago, when you last heard it.
  1505. The magicians end their final performance at 5:30, just as the sun is starting to go down. You opt to take the time during their final performance to walk around and see if any of your protective spells from earlier in the day have worn off.
  1506. After a few minutes of searching, you find one booth where that seems to be the case. A ball-throwing station, where ponies can try to win a prize for accurate throws, seems to have collapsed in on itself.
  1507. “Excuse me,” you start to offer, trotting up to the distressed earth pony mare and stallion trying to set the stand back up, “Having some trouble?”
  1508. ”Nope. We’re fine,” the stallion mumbles, straining as he tries to prop the stand back up with his hind legs.
  1509. The mare spits out the board she’d been trying to yank from the mess, and follows up, “No trouble at all, Ms. Glimmer. You enjoy the festival, we’ll have this back up in a jiffy.”
  1510. You look at the fiasco a moment longer, unconvinced. “Are you sure? It’s really no big deal, I could set things up and put on a protective spell if you-“
  1511. ”No ma’am, we’re fine.” The stallion repeats, straining even harder. “We don’t got no trouble, we don’t want no trouble.”
  1512. You try to speak again, but the mare cuts you off, “Please, Ms. Glimmer, just go. It’s fine, you’n the rest of the bosses just enjoy the festival, alright?”
  1513. “I’m not-“
  1514. ”Please. We’re fine.”
  1515. Against your better judgement, you comply and turn to walk off towards the buffet area. You catch a few more words exchanged between the two as you leave, “Hell, get this up faster ‘fore another one comes ‘long. Damned Master’s pet…”
  1516. You fight the urge to turn tail and confront them about that comment, and keep on your way.
  1517.  
  1518. It doesn’t take long to spot the bright orange coat of Tangerine, sitting alone at a table with a plate of food.
  1519. You bring your own over to the table and sit across from him, no acknowledgement passing between you aside from his meeting your eyes.
  1520. Normally you’d be the first to break the ice, but you’re still trying to process what just happened and what you’d like to relate to him.
  1521. Eventually, though, he finishes chewing and sighs, “So, Starlight, somethin’ tells me you got somethin’ on your mind. I’ll help you, but you gotta spit it out first.”
  1522. “It’s just... something that I overheard between two ponies, and what they think of me.”
  1523. ”Didn’t take you for one to care much what other ponies say ‘bout ya.”
  1524. “I’m not, but it really, just, I don’t know, changed how I view things around here.”
  1525. He waits for a moment before nodding slightly to indicate that you should continue.
  1526. “Just… tell me, what do the other ponies think of me? The earth ponies?”
  1527. With a flat expression, he answers, “They certainly see you as a hard worker. Lots of ‘em compare you to Big Mac. Guess most just respect your work ethic.”
  1528. “Not like that. I mean, well, alright I’ll just tell you what happened.” His neutral expression calms you somewhat as you continue, “So, I was finished helping out with the magic show, and going around rechecking the protective wards I’d set up during the day. And, I came across one that had failed, with a game booth that had collapsed or something.”
  1529. ”And so, what, you helped set it back up?”
  1530. “Well, that’s just the thing. I wanted to, but the earth ponies working the station just told me there wasn’t a problem and that I shouldn’t worry about it. They- they called me ‘Ms. Glimmer’.”
  1531. You pause, and after a moment, Tangerine just responds, “And?”
  1532. “What do you mean, ‘and’? They treated me like I was their boss, hell, they even called me one of the bosses!”
  1533. ”And this comes as a shocker to you?”
  1534. “Well, yes! I was a manager during the harvest season, and I guess Anon told the ponies that we’d be staying there, but I’m not, like, a boss or anything. And they called me a ‘Master’s Pet’ too, what the hell?”
  1535. ”Starlight,” he just states with some force and a lot of cynicism. “You really don’t think you’re already a head honcho for the rest of us? C’mon, lookit yourself, you know you literally just called Mr. Anonymous not just by his name, but by a pet name, right?”
  1536. ”You been talkin’ to him more’n anypony else on this farm since day 1. By now, most ponies ‘round here know you were friends with the foreponies back in the day, too. You got to sleep in the house for God’s sake, somethin’ not even the other managers done!”
  1537. He’s growing somewhat angry as he continues, “You been gettin’ on their good side for weeks, which is understandable, the rest of us do it too. But you been gettin’ all sorts a good shit for it! And then, last night, you come rollin’ in in Mr. Anonymous’ big red truck, sittin’ in the front fuckin’ seat! In the back, where everypony else gotta sit, you got thousands of dollars worth a shit just for you!”
  1538. “I-“
  1539. ”Naw, you listen,” he says, eyes narrowing slightly. “You been treated like a goddamn princess ever since you stepped hoof on this farm. You watched a mare get her ass beat over nothin’ in front of everypony, then go in to have dinner with her assailant. And then you try and say you ain’t sure why ponies’re startin’ to treat you like a boss? C’mon.”
  1540. A tense moment passes between you, before you break it, “Is… is that view shared by the other ponies?”
  1541. ”Damn right it is. Look Starlight, I like you, but you gotta be dumber’n a sack a bricks if you don’t see where you’re headed on this farm. The rest of us, we see. We see another fellow pony who gon’ be thinkin’ she’s better’n the rest of us.”
  1542. “I’m sorry,” you waver, keeping yourself from blinking to stop tears from forming in your burning eyes. “I don’t want to be a forepony, or a boss, or whatever. I just want to help, to make everypony happy.”
  1543. He sighs and pushes away the rest of his meal, “Look, ain’t like you got a choice in this. That choice, t’make you an in-charge, was made the moment Anon bought you at auction. If you do what you’re supposed to, you win big. If you don’t, you get your ass beat. It’s the same game everypony else ‘round here plays, ‘cept you got a bigger jackpot to take.”
  1544. “That just doesn’t seem fair though…” You can hear your voice dimming in volume and strength.
  1545. Tangerine’s, on the other hand, is growing more empathetic, “It ain’t, but what about this whole damn world is? Is it fair that ponies’re bought n’ sold like common goods? Is it fair that you’re three times as valuable as me just ‘cause you got that horn juttin’ outta your head?”
  1546. “I guess not.”
  1547. ”Damn right it’s not. Now, Starlight, I gotta go help out at one a the game booths. When you do get t’be a forepony, maybe live in the farm house, just don’t forget ‘bout the rest of us.” He gets up, but before walking away, remarks, “And know that I, at least, don’t blame you none. Just how it’s gotta be.”
  1548. He takes his leave, leaving you with none but your still-full plate to talk to about these things.
  1549. You’re still absent-mindedly poking at your food when the music cuts and a familiar tall figure takes the stage in front of you.
  1550. ”Goooood evenin’, ladies n’ gentlecolts!” Anon starts, instantly drawing the entire sitting area’s attention to the stage. “And how is everyone enjoying the celebration so far?”
  1551. Cheers and whistles erupt around you, but you stay silent.
  1552. ”Well darn, that’s a better response’n we got last year! I got a couple announcements t’make, then I’ll get my sorry butt off the stage and make way for our next performance. So, first up, I’m announcin’ we already got our first winner for this year’s special game! A very lucky filly out there found two a the same card in one day, and she’s already got her prize! We got fourteen sets more to finish, so don’t let up y’all!”
  1553. Whispers and mumblings from groups of fillies and colts around you can be heard. You wonder briefly who the lucky filly was to get a prize so early on.
  1554. ”So, another announcement. I’ve got word that Ms. Starlight Glimmer herself is performin’ at the magic show tent ‘tween regular showings, so be sure to swing on by if you got the time!”
  1555. You wave somewhat nervously as you feel dozens of pairs of eyes focus in on you.
  1556. ”Alright, next, the bakin’ contest has a formal winner! Sunspot, your cherry pie has won a dazzling blue ribbon, and will be on display for all to see!” You see an excited earth pony mare nearby giving hoof-bumps to her tablemates. Anon adds, “And folks, lemme tell ya, that award is well earned. Probably the best cherry pie I’ve had in my life.”
  1557. Anon proceeds to go through various other announcements related to the celebration, winners of competitions and prizes, and endorsements of various ponies’ handiwork in a manner similar to that of Sunspot’s pie.
  1558. ”And, finally, bear with me for one more y’all. This one’s important.” He pauses for a moment, pulling a notecard from his pocket before quickly replacing it. “Now, those of you out there who’ve been here more’n a season or two will remember what we did last year after harvest. We set up the big sheds out at the edge of the fields, cleared a few more, and did some road work. It was a damn good job done.”
  1559. Several cheers can be heard from the audience, but not enough to halt his speech, “This year, I’m both excited and anxious to announce, we’re gonna be bringin’ on a similar project, only much bigger. Instead a just a few weeks’ construction then a lotta maintenance, we’re gonna be workin’ through the winter on this project. Any maintenance work’ll be hired outside a the farm.”
  1560. ”We got a lot of expansion planned,” he continues, “although that ain’t much of a secret. But what is important for y’all to know is just how big it is. We’re gonna be more’n doubling the size of our orchards, and one hundred percent of the land we clear is gonna go towards ‘em, a total of three hundred acres.”
  1561. To hear the number as it’s put out is shocking to say the least. That’s not just doubling, you’re pretty sure that’s tripling in size.
  1562. ”This all’s gonna be on the edges of the property now, so we’re also gonna be buildin’ a second residential area. It’ll be smaller, only four buildings, but we’ll be housin’ ponies new and old out there. We already got permits and plans, just need to throw the walls up. Which is where y’all come in.”
  1563. ”Ain’t just buildings we need. We’re gonna be settin’ up a new mess area, redoing roads, clearin’ rec fields, and even puttin’ in a little tram system to get y’all movin’ between the two areas fast and easy.”
  1564. ”Now, don’t y’all worry ‘bout bein’ overworked. Those who’ve worked on buildin’ the halls in the past know how it goes. Same amount of work as a usual day in the fields, me’n the foreponies workin’ along with y’all, same as usual. And if sh-stuff happens and the homes ain’t done by spring, we’ll just finish ‘em next year and go with the same setup as this year. Sound good?”
  1565. The range of emotions around you is interesting, with some ponies groaning at the prospect, but others discuss it with friends excitedly. You, at least, are feeling what can best be described as muted curiosity towards the project.
  1566. ”To add to this,” Anon continues, “we also got some management changes comin’ in. We’ve all decided that the farm’s just too big now for me’n the foreponies to run things on our own, so we’re gonna be puttin’ in a set of managers to keep things organized at the lower levels.”
  1567. His eyes lock with yours for a moment, before he continues, “Unicorns, y’all have already had a taste a this. The response we got was positive overall, and most of ya said y’wanted the system to stay. So, we’re gonna keep the four managers y’all already had. We’re gonna be takin’ on a lot of new unicorns this winter, though, so we’ll probably see plenty of opportunities for more promotions.”
  1568. ”Earth ponies, we’ve decided on a list of your most helpful and hardest-workin’ to bring up in the ranks. So, listen up y’all, here’s who’s gonna end up bein’ a manager.”
  1569. He lists off the names of a dozen ponies, with several more happy exchanges happening around you as he does so. You don’t fail to notice that there are fewer managers for the earth ponies, at least for their population, as compared to the unicorns.
  1570. ”So, congratulations to all! I ain’t talked with y’all individually yet, so if you ain’t comfortable in management, just come talk to me tonight and I’ll find a replacement. No biggie. Now, y’all have a good night, and please welcome the Fall Field Fiddlers to the stage!”
  1571. He hops down off the stage, quickly replaced by four fiddler ponies. You don’t stay to listen to their performance, though.
  1572.  
  1573. Anonymous is sitting down in a chair behind the stage, greedily drinking from a bottle of water, when you approach.
  1574. He notices you approaching in the dim backstage light. “Hey, Starlight, congrats on the permanent promotion. Y’need somethin’?”
  1575. “Anonymous,” you start, just wanting to get it out, “I don’t think I can be a permanent manager here.”
  1576. His eyebrows arch in surprise, and he closes the bottle and sets it on the dirt beside him. “What was that, Starlight? Did I hear you right?”
  1577. “I don’t think I should be promoted, sir.”
  1578. He sighs, “First of all, you don’t gotta call me sir, or ‘mister’ or anythin’, alright? Second, why?”
  1579. “I just… don’t think someone with my past should be trusted like that.” It’s at least partly true, and partly why you don’t want to do this.
  1580. ”We been over this. I’m willin’ to take the chance, ‘specially since you did so well the past couple weeks. Hell, your new protégé, we’d never’ve noticed him without your eye.”
  1581. “Then, I’d like to decline the offer, because I don’t want to.”
  1582. He repeats his previous expression, raising an eyebrow, “And why, Starlight, is that?”
  1583. “I just… I don’t want to be seen as somepony’s boss. I know it sounds silly, but I-I heard two ponies talking about me tonight, and they seem to think you’re, hell, how do I put this gently? You’re grooming me, to be another forepony.”
  1584. ”And?”
  1585. The monosyllabic response takes you by surprise, “Wait, you are? Really?”
  1586. ”Told you as much on your first day, if I recall correctly. You been provin’ your loyalty and strength ever since, and if AJ had her way, you’d already be in charge of everypony new we take in this winter.”
  1587. “But, why me? Just because I know Applejack, and the Crusaders, and Big Mac from before doesn’t mean I’m better than everypony else!”
  1588. ”No, Starlight, it don’t. But it does mean that I can trust you more, and that’s the most important thing you can have in a place like this. Plus, I been watchin’ you and your apprentice; you got leadership skills whether you like it or not.”
  1589. ”Ruby Heart, some of the earth ponies, they’re good leaders too and probably suited to a forepony role. Maybe they will be someday. But for now, they ain’t already old friends with AJ like you are.”
  1590. You don’t really know how to respond to him. So, instead, you just repeat yourself from before, “Anon, I’d like to request a demotion, back to being a regular worker here.”
  1591. He sighs, grabs his water, and stands up, “Request denied, Starlight.”
  1592. “What?”
  1593. ”We need you, the farm needs you, and all your new fans among the ponies need you. I’m sorry, but with the challenges we’re gonna face next year, we need someone like you helpin’ us and keepin’ things under control.”
  1594. “Please, Anon, I don’t want this!”
  1595. He’s starting to get annoyed, but that’s the least of your concerns, “Look, Starlight, I don’t do this often, but this is an order. You’re in charge now, so own up to it! You were doin’ just fine the past couple weeks, and now ponies ‘cross the farm look up to you. So, man up, or pony up or whatever, and get ready to lead. Now, I gotta get goin’, you have a good night.”
  1596. And so you’re left alone, more upset with yourself than him, or the first order you’d been given that you don’t agree with.
  1597.  
  1598. The next day is Sunday, so most ponies are absent from the festival in the first few hours of the morning to attend church services. You’d been offered a seat in the communal hall they converted for the purpose, but had declined, preferring your solitude.
  1599. Especially with your future to consider, and reconsider.
  1600. It’s foolish to assume that the indenture of Equestrians will end, either sooner or later. While there is some sentiment for it in this world, the ponies who base their lives, hopes, and dreams around that fleeting concept of freedom are bound to be disappointed.
  1601. You’ve simply assumed from the start that this is how things will be for life, and it’s best to assume that your owner at any given time is in it for the long haul, too. A slave who works for the future of herself and her master is a good slave indeed.
  1602. With that mindset, even the luckiest gambler couldn’t hope to find such a sweet deal as the one being opened up before you on this farm. It’s become clear enough that the foreponies live lives that are not only comfortable, but even luxurious by standards both Equestrian and human.
  1603. And Anon has now clearly stated his intention for you to end up alongside them. How better a fortune could you hope for?
  1604. And yet, you’re afraid. Afraid not only of yourself, but of what such a position would mean for the other ponies on this farm. The logic of your mind says to embrace the opportunity, but the emotions of your heart say to reject it.
  1605. Perhaps you no longer have a choice. Perhaps you had no choice in the first place.
  1606. These thoughts turn over in your mind as you sit idly in the magic tent. Every last foal on the farm is in church now, so you’re left with nothing to do for the time being.
  1607. Backstage, you can hear Lyra rustling around and humming lightly. She’s one of the few remaining on the farm who chose to forgo Christianity. Less remain with every passing year.
  1608. Thankfully, she’d caught onto your light despondency pretty quickly and left you on your own. Still, her presence is a constant nip at your hooves. You’re not sure if she’s helping or worsening your mood.
  1609. ”Hey Starlight,” she calls out, coming over as you let out a sigh. “I know you’re busy being sad and all that, but would you at least like to talk about it.”
  1610. You’d seen her excitement last night when she’d finally found you. Lyra is an ambitious pony, glad to be moving up in the farm’s ranks. She probably wouldn’t understand how you’re feeling. Still…
  1611. “I just… I don’t know, Lyra. About the whole manager thing. This whole time, ever since we got to this world, I’ve just been trying to keep my head down and work hard for good owners. Now Anon wants me to be a slave driver, and I don’t know if I can do it.”
  1612. She sighs, “You don’t have to be a slave driver. Well, I guess technically, but you know what I mean. You can make it good for them, help to improve their lives here in a way you can’t without leadership.”
  1613. “You know what happens when I start trying to lead. You knew me before, at least a little bit. And by now you’ve seen the show. It’s not inaccurate.”
  1614. ”Look,” she says, with a stoic face, “if you’re really bothered by this just tell Anon, he said he-“
  1615. “I already tried,” you butt in, cutting her off. “I went to him last night, and he, well, he said no. He said to pony up and accept my new job.”
  1616. She seems surprised, but just sits down on her haunches, “Oh. Did he say why?”
  1617. “Fuck it, why not tell you? He wants me to become another forepony, lead all the new unicorn recruits that are going to come in this season. Even though I haven’t even been here a month.”
  1618. ”He said that to you, directly? Sure you’re not misinterpreting?”
  1619. “Yeah, he did and I’m sure.”
  1620. She casts her eyes down a moment to think, but then just shrugs her shoulders, “I guess it makes sense, though.”
  1621. “It does? Even with you and the others being here so long, getting to actually prove loyalty or whatever?”
  1622. ”Well he’s probably watched the show too, knows more about your character than you think. Anon’s told us before that trustworthiness is the most important thing he looks for in us, and you were pretty close to Applejack before everything.”
  1623. “I wasn’t even part of their circle of friends, though!”
  1624. ”No, but you were damn well closer than anypony else short of that little dragon they had.” She stands up and starts to pace, “Honestly, the only reason I’m even being given a promotion is because I’m from Ponyville, too. There are unicorns more loyal and settled here than me.”
  1625. “Oh come on, I haven’t heard you say a word against Anon or any of the foreponies since I got here.”
  1626. ”And have you?” she stops in her tracks, giving you an inquisitive look. “Even now, you’re obviously pretty angry to have this forced on you, yet you haven’t said one thing against them.”
  1627. “I… I don’t blame them, is all. I know Applejack and the Crusaders are good ponies, and that they don’t do things to hurt ponies. And after talking with Anon, admittedly a lot, I really feel like he’s a good person too.”
  1628. She smiles slightly, “Yeah, he’s a good guy, but a bit of a penny-pincher if you ask me. Sure, he gives all the ponies out here all kinds of stuff, but you and I both know how much they sell those berries for.”
  1629. Your head lifts up with a bit of shock, “Did you just say-“
  1630. Her smile widens slightly, “I’m still a pony just like you, Starlight. I’ve got thoughts about them all, they just tend to be positive overall. Now come on, tell me what you really think of them.”
  1631. You’re unsure of how to answer, but decide to just say what you think, “Honestly, I don’t think he’s greedy. Lots of ponies, and people, want to be rich, and that’s what he’s going for. And, when he took me to town the other day... It wasn’t just money, he really tried to make me happy. It was sweet.”
  1632. ”What did you two do?”
  1633. “Mostly just went around to shops, but he did fun little things too. Toyed with a store employee who was bothering me, let me ride in the cart, took me to get some vegetarian food.”
  1634. She bats you playfully on a front leg, “And bought you tons of shit, too.”
  1635. “Yeah, that. But if it was just the money I would’ve thought he was just trying to win me over. But he really seemed to care.”
  1636. ”Damn, and they call me a kiss-ass.” She turns to look towards the tent opening, from which the delighted squeals and light rumbling of an incoming mass of foals can be heard. “If you want, we can talk more later. Think you’re up for some magic shows.”
  1637. “I think I can do that.”
  1638.  
  1639. You have about twenty minutes of entertaining to do before the first ordinary show starts. You’re still troubled, but calmed somewhat seeing the foals laugh and cheer at your feats of magic.
  1640. It’s too bad you have it restricted. Otherwise you could pull off some cool transmutations and really send them head over hooves.
  1641. You decide to grab an early lunch during the first break period. Three meals per day isn’t part of the normal schedule here, so you’re taking advantage of the buffet-style arrangements while you can.
  1642. You pass by the booth that troubled you so much last night, now repaired and stable but bearing the scars of a hasty repair job. The couple who so hurriedly shooed you away last night gives you a polite wave, and you cast a fresh, extra-strong protection spell on their structure.
  1643. Their cordiality, however, only serves to remind you that their description of you – a boss to them – is now not only symbolically but also factually true. You have the ability, or rather the duty, to push them around and keep them in check.
  1644. You arrive at the buffet area and find your appetite gone. Instead, your body seems content to continue digesting the situation you now find yourself stuck in.
  1645. Walking away, you can’t help but notice the ponies’ attitude towards you. You’re greeted by regular waves, nods, and pleasantries from just about every pony you pass. You wonder if they’re new, or something you’ve simply not noticed before.
  1646. Most ponies would be happy with the attention, as would you under normal circumstances, but you can tell that most are disingenuous as they go through the motions unprompted. You’re just another authority to keep on the positive side.
  1647. Another boss to keep satisfied with productivity.
  1648. Another driver to keep from hitting her slaves.
  1649. And so you find yourself working your way back through the tents, booths, stands, and stages of the festival towards the magic tent near the back of everything, in a much sourer mood than the one you’d started with.
  1650. You don’t have much to hold against your owner, nor the ponies he seems to think of as family. They’d been kind and generous to you without exception, and although you disagree with both the motives and particulars of the deal, there’s something to be said for their willingness to entrust you with so much responsibility so early on.
  1651. But you’ve started to worry about the lines that have clearly been drawn on this farm. Those ponies, and Anon, clearly sit on a different level than the rest. Neither they nor the worker ponies try to deny that.
  1652. What worries you is that you seem to have been elevated, as well. You’ve seen the looks of envy, of mistrust and even of fear they give you. And of course, Tangerine’s words spelled it out clear as day, too.
  1653. Much as you disagree with it, you can’t deny that you’ve suddenly been placed on a pedestal, although one certainly lower than that of the foreponies and Anon.
  1654. Oh, look, you’ve already arrived back at the magic tent. And you’ve still got, let’s see, fifteen minutes to spare before the show will be over. That either means more aimless walking or fifteen minutes with nothing to do.
  1655. Sighing, you fold your legs under you and rest in the dead, dry grass outside of the tent’s entrance. Another quarter of an hour with your troubles it is, then.
  1656. Pony passers-by continue their gestures of courtesy, nodding, greeting, or even (in one case) saluting you as they partake in the festivities. What gets you is how casual it is, how ready they are to acknowledge you and your new (old?) position.
  1657. All without stopping their celebrations, or dampening their moods. In a way, it makes you feel good to know that the signs of respect don’t hurt the ponies giving them. But, then again, that means they’re already used to the act. Already used to you being in charge.
  1658. ’In charge’. You say the phrase, and it rolls off your tongue as a tiny whisper. It almost leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
  1659. Since it’s a construction project, you’ll probably find yourself in that leadership position sooner rather than later. Anon will want work to begin as quickly as possible to have everything ready by spring.
  1660. You’re not sure exactly how big the project will be, but you can presume it will require several blocks of the existing residential designs. They’re efficient, reasonably comfortable, and probably inexpensive. Judging by how many unicorns it takes to run the current orchards, such an expansion will likely be over half the size of the current one.
  1661. The tram system also sounds like an interesting prospect. Although your talents will probably be put to use handling the delicate and difficult construction work, and of course the other ponies involved with it, you can’t help but wonder what Anon has in mind to provide fast transportation.
  1662. And what would the capacity be like? Big enough for just one or two ponies at a time, or dozens? Would it go anywhere but between the two housing areas?
  1663. You sigh. Even distractions like this can’t keep your mind away from your new responsibilities. Lyra and the rest are taking it so well. You suppose that’s only normal, though. Most ponies on this farm would probably do anything for your spot.
  1664. Much as you’d like to deny it, they probably do need your help. You’ve certainly got the magical talent for this job, and without your restrictors, you could probably get the whole thing done in a matter of days on your own. But that’s only a passing thought, you know Anon wouldn’t do that. Not now, at least.
  1665. He’s fully aware of your powers, and he’d be foolish not to treat them with caution. An unbridled unicorn is a dangerous creature.
  1666. At last the flood of ponies young and old exiting the magic tent alerts you to the show’s ending. You slip inside and set to work entertaining the stragglers, or those who hadn’t been able to find a seat for the main show.
  1667. A few foals have barely left the tent since the festival started, all but one of them unicorns. It’s heartwarming to see them discovering passions, even in a place like this.
  1668. It’s easy to forget what life is like for the worker ponies, since your time seems to be so occupied with the higher-ups. But this is a place where a family can be raised, where fillies and colts can run, play, and find their talents. A place where they can find love and, perhaps someday, a family of their own.
  1669. It strikes you, even as flashy green flames spit out of your horn, how much of a microcosm this place is. Most of the ponies here probably haven’t even seen the outside world with their own eyes in years. The farm might as well be stuck on a small island in the middle of an ocean.
  1670. But, not for you. You have a boat, if Anon’s willingness to take you into town is any indicator. You’re the odd one out, the recruit who’s already made herself a first mate while the rest of the crew looks on with wearied jealousy.
  1671. Your heart questions why, but your mind knows why. Your heart questions how it’s fair, but your mind knows it’s not.
  1672. You wonder what Twilight would think of you now. Of course, if your hunches are correct, and if she kept acting how she did when you last saw her in that fateful week, she’s probably on a pedestal too. Perhaps one far higher up than yours, at that.
  1673.  
  1674. Three days have passed, the festival has run its course, and preparations are already underway for the new developments and farming operations.
  1675. You’re going to be overseeing teams working on the residential block and its amenities, but the larger project is really clearing fields and setting up new work buildings. The orchards require some very careful soil conditions and infrastructure, taking up most of the labor and management.
  1676. In fact, aside from a single earth pony manager, you’re the only one in charge of the building developments. Aside from regular oversight by the foreponies, of course.
  1677. On this dreary Wednesday morning, you find yourself seated at a long table in the farm house with Anon, Applejack, and the rest of the managers. Big Mac and the CMC are currently occupied around the farm improving roads, checking for problems, and making initial preparations for construction.
  1678. ”Glad y’all could make it here, and thanks for showin’ up on time,” Anonymous starts. He pulls a small remote from his pocket and turns on the projector situated on the table in front of you.
  1679. The room you’re in is a perfectly bland office meeting room, with reasonably comfortable fabric chairs, a single long meeting table, blank white walls on all sides, and decorations consisting only of two small windows, a clock, and some potted plants.
  1680. The projector shines on a blank section of the wall, and as it finishes booting up, you’re presented with an annotated view of the farm from high up.
  1681. ”If y’all ain’t already seen it, this here’s the farm from satellite.” Applejack sticks a hoof up to the image, as if your attention wasn’t already on it. “Down here in the lower-left is the farm house, and just above it you can see the current residential blocks. Right there at the bottom is the main gate. Here’s the current orchards, and the rest of the cleared area’s all barley.”
  1682. The room stays otherwise silent as she moves to point at each part of the farm on this view.
  1683. ”Now, y’all see these little drawn-on bits? Them’s where we’re puttin’ the new orchards. Everythin’ circled in red is orchard land, everythin’ yellow is new rec fields, and the purple rectangles are new residential buildings.”
  1684. Five halls in total, plus a new mess area comparable in size to the one you’re used to. It’s certainly not a small project.
  1685. ”Now, ‘fore we continue, anyone got questions ‘bout their specific role?”
  1686. You raise your hoof, slightly before several others do. Applejack sees you and gives you a nod, “Go ahead, Starlight.”
  1687. “I know Frostfern and I are leading the residential block construction together. But, who’s in charge of what, exactly?”
  1688. Anonymous answers the question, “For the most part, y’all will lead your own races. Earth ponies go with him, you’re gettin’ the unicorns. That means he’s got more of ‘em to manage, but your work’s probably gonna be about the same.”
  1689. Frostfern, an aptly-named earth pony stallion with a blinding white coat and pine green manespeaks up, “But how’s command gonna work? We’re just separate then? Or we work together, what you want us to do Mr. Anonymous?”
  1690. Anon sighs slightly, and looks between the two of you, “No, I’ve decided t’give you the head role, for now.” Frostfern’s eyes light up slightly in surprise, but Anon continues, “I’ve taken some things Starlight told me the other night into account, and I think it’s best to keep her in charge a just the unicorns this time ‘round.”
  1691. ”But lemme be clear,” Applejack cuts in. “Y’all are still equals, he’s just takin’ on a few more responsibilities. Don’t want no bossin’ or fightin’ between ya, so if y’got a disagreement, just come see me or Anon and we’ll work it out.”
  1692. It’s not what you wanted, fully, but it’s a start. A relief from some responsibility here will be welcome, something to slow the seemingly unstoppable train of your rise here on the farm.
  1693. Your job is gone over first, with Anon outlining the building plans, labor estimates, and other requirements for the facility. He’s obviously spent a lot of time planning this, evidenced by the detailed blueprints and sets of instructions you’re given.
  1694. But your first project isn’t on those housing areas. First, you’re going to need to setup the rail system.
  1695. It’s a light rail, going up to about twenty-five miles per hour at full speed. The design is simple, using electric motors and a robust wooden platform to transport about fifteen ponies at a time between the two housing areas. Another line is going to be run out to the large warehouse area you worked at in your first week, which is also being expanded this season.
  1696. There are two tracks with two platforms each, meaning up to sixty ponies can be moved along it at once, in separate directions if need be. It’s about a four or five minute journey between the housing areas, and twice that to the warehouses.
  1697. Getting that system done first will hasten travel times between the current housing and the work site, and provide easy materials transport without the use of vehicles. Pony-drawn carts and Anon’s truck will likely still see some use in getting the construction materials out, but the new motorized transport should take care of most of the jobs.
  1698. Once your job has been detailed, talk turns to the orchards, which you aren’t involved in. Anon soon lets you and Frostfern take your leave.
  1699. While he goes out to help with the ongoing preparation work, however, you instead take a seat in the living room and watch the news broadcast that’s currently running on its resident television.
  1700. After about an hour more of discussion, the meeting room opens and the group of ponies floods outwards. They’re surprised at your presence in your living room, but nopony verbally acknowledges it.
  1701. You hop down from the couch and go back to the room, finding it empty save for Applejack and Anon, who are chit-chatting and putting away the projector.
  1702. They notice you standing in the door, however, and motion you over. “What’s up, Starlight? Presume you got somethin’ to talk about?” Anon opens cheerfully.
  1703. “It’s just, well…” You’re not really sure how to relate what you’re thinking in a cordial manner. “I’ve been thinking about what you want me to do here on the farm, and the project we have coming up.”
  1704. The two just lean on opposite sides of the table, watching and waiting for you to continue.
  1705. “And, I know you have reservations about it, but I, well, I want to make a request.”
  1706. ”Well go ‘head, I ain’t gonna hold it against you even if the answer’s not what y’want,” Anon prompts lightheartedly.
  1707. “I think you should consider, maybe, dropping my magic restrictions. Entirely.”
  1708. Applejack seems taken slightly aback, but Anon keeps his posture. He puts forth a plain response, “That’s a big request.”
  1709. “I know it is, but I think I can really help out more on the project if I had my magic back, fully. I could teleport between the two housing blocks in one trip. I could raise walls and install roofs all at once, by myself.” You can feel yourself getting slightly more passionate as you continue, “There’s just so much I can do with my magic to improve things around here.”
  1710. ”Starlight, before we go further with this, why do you want your magic back?”
  1711. “I just think it would help get a lot more done around here.”
  1712. He shakes his head, “Naw, naw, none a that. Gimme the honest reason. Why do you, personally, want your magic back?”
  1713. “I… I don’t know, I just thought it would help.”
  1714. ”You ain’t a machine, Starlight, you got your own reasons. Now, can y’just tell me, why you go from the conversation we had just a couple days ago to wantin’ more privilege’n every other pony on the farm all at once?”
  1715. It’s something you’ve thought about endlessly ever since the magic restrictor first got placed around your horn, years ago. No matter how much freedom you were allowed, no matter how much your owners trusted you, there has always been some level of control over it.
  1716. At first, it was painful. You lost sleep over it. The feeling is much like being lightly choked, but with time, that feeling changed to one of dull discomfort.
  1717. Sweetie Belle would understand, but she’s not here right now, and she doesn’t have the authority to tamper with your magic anyway. So, you decide to just continue with your now-standard course of action, and be honest.
  1718. Sighing, you drop your eyes involuntarily, “Having your magic restricted, it’s just… it hurts. Not in like, a painful way, but imagine if you suddenly lost some or most of the feeling in one appendage. Every touch, every sense of heat or cold is just replaced by an unpleasant tingling.”
  1719. You force yourself to look up to them, struggling to contain tears, “Every unicorn feels it, but most can just ignore it. But for the ones who have magic as a talent, it’s just so much worse. The restrictors, instead of just cutting off an ear’s feeling, cut off a whole arm.”
  1720. It seems the tears have started to flow, and your voice cracks slightly, “I-I’ve been trying to push them out of my mind for so long now, but now that I see you guys here, and you’ve been so generous so far and so trusting, I just don’t know if I can take it any longer! I just want it gone!”
  1721. A moment of silence appears, but the two in front of you stay silent, allowing you to continue your monologue, “I know i-it’s a lot. I know how serious of an act it is to let a unicorn’s magic go free, especially one as powerful as me. But, please, just give me this one chance. I’ll do the whole construction project myself, do whatever, just help me out here!”
  1722. Well, fuck, that came out a lot harder than you expected. You’re sobbing now in the fullest sense of the word. You thought this conversation could be done professionally, that your magic was just something you wanted that Anon could give.
  1723. Apparently, it’s actually a need. A hunger that you’ve ignored for far too long. And, having taken a nibble with your now mostly-free magic, you want a whole plate.
  1724. The two sit silently for a minute, sharing looks and observing you as you slowly pick up the pieces of your suddenly shattered strength. They exchange whispers, and by the time you think you’re capable of holding a proper conversation again, they’ve turned back to you.
  1725. ”Starlight,” Applejack says gently, “this is a big thing you’re askin’ from us. But it’s somethin’ we’d already talked about before. But before we say yes or no, you’re gonna have to talk to Anon in private ‘bout a few things.”
  1726. “I-I think I can do that. Sorry you h-have to see me like this.” Fuck, you’re a mess.
  1727. ”S’alright, Starlight,” Applejack says with a tender smile. She comes over and embraces you, “You remember where Anon’s office is, right?”
  1728. “Yeah,” you practically whisper, accepting the hug.
  1729. ”Whenever you’re ready, head on over there.” She looks behind her, and makes an imperceptible motion to Anon, who quickly slings a bag over his shoulder and walks out of the room. Once he’s gone, Applejack says quietly, “You alright? Gonna be okay?”
  1730. “Yeah, yeah,” you say, breaking off the hug. It’s been too long since you’d shared one with any of your friends.
  1731. You start to move for the door, but Applejack calls softly, “Hey Starlight?”
  1732. “Yeah?”
  1733. ”Just know, you can always come and talk t’me. Not as no boss, just as a friend.”
  1734. “Thanks, AJ.”
  1735.  
  1736. You find Anon’s office to be surprisingly cozy when there isn’t a massive storm outside.
  1737. But comfort is the last thing on your mind as your curiosity begins to override embarrassment from the breakdown of five minutes prior.
  1738. Anon has his desktop booted up, and a laptop open on the other side of the desk. He switches between the two, and you’re tempted to lean over to see the displays, but you stay seated and wait patiently.
  1739. After a few minutes of clicking, he folds his hands and focuses his attention on you. “Alright, Starlight, I’ll just give it to you plain n’ simple. I’m ready to give you what you want.”
  1740. Your heart leaps for a moment, but you keep control, “Thank you, Anonymous. It means a lot.”
  1741. ”But if I do this, you gotta know what you’re gettin’ yourself into. The moment ponies see you teleportin’ half a mile or self-levitatin’ around is the moment you become a big boss in their eyes.”
  1742. “I… I know that, and I think I can handle it. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, and I reali-“
  1743. ”No, no, lemme stop you. You don’t realize.” He swivels slightly in his chair, his eyes going to the ceiling, “I told you last time that I ain’t well-liked by a lotta ponies on this farm. I wasn’t lying, Starlight. Tell me, you seen or heard any ponies talkin’ shit ‘bout me?”
  1744. “No, actually. They seem pretty respectful.” You’d actually been starting to doubt his cruel claims with how positive the attitude is on the farm.
  1745. ”Well, guess that’s expected. Despite what many seem to think, ponies ain’t dumb. Even the most weak, downtrodden earth pony is probably smarter’n the average nigger.”
  1746. The racial expletive discomforts you, being used in such a fashion. But Anon continues, “They seen you and where you’re headed afore you, or maybe even I did. Lemme guess, they’ve all been nice to you, right? Not many actually been goin’ against you, have they?”
  1747. “I suppose not.”
  1748. ”And so you ain’t heard anythin’ at all from ‘em that don’t sit right with you?”
  1749. “Well, the first night of the festival, when you made me a manager… Right before that, a few ponies called me boss, shooed me away. That hurt, I guess.”
  1750. You’re mostly over it now, but the looks of poorly-concealed fear on their faces are still fresh in your mind.
  1751. ”And that’s it?”
  1752. “I guess, yeah,” you shrug, unwilling to share the details of Tangerine’s conversation.
  1753. ”Welp,” he claps, sitting up in his chair, “Then you might be in for a surprise today. I take it you’ve noticed our surveillance by now?”
  1754. In reality, the systems are hard to miss. Cameras are set up in every hall, most outside areas, throughout the fields, and you’ve noticed a few microphones as well. You just give a nod.
  1755. ”Thought so, it ain’t a secret. But you probably don’t know just how extensive it is.” He turns the laptop so you can see it, and brings up a folder. “This external drive contains just forty days’ worth a audio recordings and relevant video. As you can see, it’s got a lotta files in it.”
  1756. It’s a long list of files, evidenced by the miniscule scrolling bar on the right. At the top, however, is a folder labeled “Noteworthy.”
  1757. ”One a the biggest time-consumers for me is goin’ through all this. Someone’s gotta do it, and seein’ how I’m damn near the only one in this house who can type more’n ten words a minute, I get the job. Guessin’ you wanna see what’s in that folder?”
  1758. Not waiting for a response, he opens it up, and a much smaller list of videos and audio recordings is presented. Rather than being named by date and time, these have custom-typed filenames.
  1759. Before you can ask questions, Anon selects an audio file from the list.
  1760. ”So, what do you think of the new unicorn?” a mare’s voice asks at the audio file’s start. You can see that it’s only about a minute long, and the quality isn’t too great.
  1761. ”That Glimmer chick?” another mare with a slightly lower voice responds.
  1762. ”Yeah. They say she doubled the old record today for a single day’s berry harvest. Somepony said she was on that TV show, some crazy powerful unicorn.”
  1763. Hearing them talk about you is somewhat unsettling, but Anon’s dour expression stops any potential questions from forming.
  1764. ”Ain’t she a senior harvester? Thought them unicorns only gave that title to the strongest suck-ups they got.”
  1765. ”She is,” the lighter voice responds. “They just gave her that spot like it’s nothin’! Emerald Shadow’s pissed!”
  1766. Emerald Shadow was one of the few other ponies who could bring in a harvest even remotely close to you and the other senior harvesters each day. He usually hovered at sixth or seventh place each day for productivity.
  1767. ”So, watcha make of it? Think she’s another lackey?”
  1768. ”You really need to ask that?”
  1769. ”Guess not.”
  1770. Their voices get harder to discern as the pair evidently walks away. When the conversation is completely unintelligible, the recording ends.
  1771. Anon turns the computer back towards him, and looks through the files, “That one was only just after the first day a the harvest. A few a the other recordings here are along the same lines.”
  1772. “Not really a surprise, I guess. Apparently they’ve seen me that way for a while now…”
  1773. Your thoughts go back to Tangerine’s conversation, but Anon cuts into them with his own words, “Well, let’s get to somethin’ a bit more rough. This one’s from a hidden mic out in the orchards, seems a couple unicorns got loose tongues.”
  1774. The recording starts, with a deep, gruff voice already talking in a voice reminiscent of the Bitalian mafia, “-ook, all I’s sayin’ is we gotta start thinkin’ ‘bout these new boss ponies. The human ain’t gonna just let ‘em go after all this is done.”
  1775. Another male voice replies, “Which one you think we gotta watch out for, then? There’s always one that takes advantage of it more.”
  1776. ”Prolly that new one. The human wouldn’t put nopony in as a new boss so soon if he ain’t sure she’s loyal. Dame’s prolly just beggin’ for a chance to help.”
  1777. ”But don’t forget about Lyin’ Lyra.” The nickname obviously carries hostility, sending a shiver through you. “Now she’s in charge too. Just what we fuckin’ needed.”
  1778. ”True, true. But everypony already knows to keep away from her. That new one, though, she’s a wildcard.” His accent makes everything sound so dire.
  1779. ”So what do you think we do with her?”
  1780. ”Just keep an eye on ‘er, maybe she’s bein’ forced or somethin’. Can’t do nothin’ without knowin’ she ain’t havin’ a foal kept from ‘er or somethin’. Maybe she’s just some pony with real strong magic who Anon’s usin’ as a pawn.”
  1781. Several moments pass with the only audio being the sound of rustling plants, and background chatter.
  1782. ”You hear she spent the night in the big house?” the voice lacking an accent prompts.
  1783. ”Yeah, heard ‘bout that. Not a day after she watched that poor dame get her ass beaten senseless.”
  1784. ”She did seem pretty down about that whole incident, though.”
  1785. ”Well, take a look, she’s just down there.” The voices stop for a moment, as do the sounds of harvest work. “Looks fuckin’ chipper to me.”
  1786. ”Heh, guess you’re right.”
  1787. ”Maybe she needs to get ‘er ass beat too, know who she’s dealin’ with, eh?”
  1788. ”Dude, keep your voice down out here. Never know who’s listening.”
  1789. The audio continues for several seconds of relative silence before ending.
  1790. Anon closes the laptop, keeping his eyes on you as he does so, “Looks like you’ve seen, or, well, heard enough. You startin’ to get the picture how you’re seen ‘round here?”
  1791. You sit silently, still processing the audio clips. Anon answers the question for you, “Yeah, you are, I can see it. By now I’m used to it, and so are the girls, and Big Mac on the rare occasion he gets that talk.”
  1792. “You get this a lot?”
  1793. ”Oh, sure. I don’t punish ‘em for this kinda shit, that would show we’re payin’ too close attention and get ‘em to be even more secretive. But you can’t just bug a property a this size entirely, there’s always holes.”
  1794. You let the consequences sink in for a moment, “So how bad does the talk get?”
  1795. He wipes a hand across his mouth, seemingly recalling past recordings. “They get real bad sometimes. I’ve heard my death described in pretty gruesome detail more’n a couple times. And the foreponies, too.”
  1796. “And, if they see me as one of you…”
  1797. ”That’s right. You’re part of them fantasies.”
  1798. You bite down for a moment as you realize the words are true. Seeing your discomfort, he follows up, “But, ‘course, that’s all they are. Fantasies. They ain’t ever gonna try somethin’ long as we got enough earth ponies and happy pegasi to talk ‘em down.”
  1799. “And without my magic…”
  1800. ”Their suspicions are only validated, right. I think you understand the weight of the situation.”
  1801. You hadn’t realized how strong sentiment could be against Anon and the foreponies. But, as these recordings proved, the ponies haven’t exactly been very forward with their opinions of you, either.
  1802. If it’s not already proven to them, having full control of your magic would be an undeniable indicator of your status here. Thoughts of your own inhibitions about your personality nag at the back of your head, but they’re dwarfed by concerns of the request you’re making that would, for all intents and purposes, paint a red target on your flank.
  1803. ”At this point, I’m pretty sure that you can’t really be a ‘normal pony’ on this farm. I’m sorry for not givin’ you the choice, but it is how it is. Now, you still want your magic back?”
  1804. You’re concerned, but now that you’re aware of it, the cries of the gaping hunger for magic can’t be silenced. After so long having such an import of you caged, you can finally be freed…
  1805. “You’re willing to give it to me?”
  1806. ”I think you’ve been honest enough, and worked hard enough for it, yeah. And I think you wouldn’t hurt Applejack or her family. And I think you’re smart enough to know that nothin’ good would come of runnin’ away. So, yeah.”
  1807. “Then yes. Please.”
  1808.  
  1809. The rush of unrestrained magic almost proves too much for you, and you’re left shaking on the ground in the wake of the restriction device’s sudden deactivation.
  1810. But, before Anon can get too concerned, you pick yourself up as the power flows back in.
  1811. Far more than you’d thought had been held back, and this feeling can only be described as a flood, sweeping over the banks of your mind and filling your entire body with the old magical power.
  1812. The device still wraps around your horn, but now, it’s for naught but vanity.
  1813. You are the most powerful unicorn in the world.
  1814. Anon has taken a step back, slightly concerned for both his safety and yours. The former, at least, is unfounded. You have no intention of harming him after such a gift.
  1815. As for the latter, he speaks up worriedly, “Starlight, you gonna be alright? You’re shakin’ a whole lot there.”
  1816. “I-I’m fine. It’s a lot.” You close your eyes and focus a bit more at the returned sensation. “I didn’t realize that so much was being held back.”
  1817. ”Well, if you say so. But if you wanna try it out, best do it outside. This house ain’t built for crazy magic.”
  1818. Your eyes open, and you teleport out of his office. You’re easily able to go straight to the now-barren recreation fields behind the residential blocks in one trip, startling a pair of nearby pegasi.
  1819. You make a second journey to the field outside of Anon’s office windows. Again, the travel is seamless, and you feel like your magic hasn’t rusted in the slightest.
  1820. You target a shovel laying in the dirt nearby and try your hoof at transmutation. It turns first into a pogo stick, then a baseball bat, and then a disco ball.
  1821. Everything is as you remember it. The complete mastery of magical skill, years of study in its finest details, countless hours of experimentation with Twilight and the others.
  1822. You have to focus to achieve self-levitation, but then again, you always have. But you don’t feel bad, as most of even the most powerful unicorns can barely manage the technique in the first place.
  1823. Your flips and somersaults are impossible for all but a few of the most practiced, all of whom would still be in Equestria.
  1824. Is this what Caesar felt like as he campaigned through Gaul? The same triumph felt by the Two Sisters as they sealed Discord in stone?
  1825. If you weren’t seen as a superior before on this farm, it’s going to be damn well impossible to shrug that appearance off now. Ponies without magic restrictors are rare in this world, and some states even ban unrestricted magic entirely. Sweetie Belle is the only unicorn you’ve ever seen without a magic restrictor.
  1826. But you don’t give a damn. You’re free to use your magic, free to pursue the talent you were born with, free to continue the practice and studies and experiments and skill refinement you had in Equestria.
  1827. Freedom under the law, freedom from labor, or this farm, it pales in comparison to the freedom you’ve earned today. How long could you have lived without this? How could you have pushed that choking sensation to the back of your mind, unaware of your own asphyxiation?
  1828. You’re aware of Anon’s steady gaze, observing you as you test these more complex and demanding bits of magic. Through an old visual magnification spell you learned long before meeting Twilight and her friends, you can see a subtle smile forming on his face.
  1829.  
  1830. The next day, you begin work on the rail construction.
  1831. Although you’re able to teleport between the construction site and the current residential blocks in a single go, the other ponies are going to need something much faster.
  1832. The rail systems are being constructed by both unicorns and earth ponies, with the finesse of the former well matching the strength of the latter.
  1833. The road has already been more than doubled in size, with the rails being constructed on the right side, leaving enough room for a vehicle to pass through on the left.
  1834. Your new degree of magical freedom is lost on none of the unicorns, and few of the earth ponies. But, then again, it’s not as if you’re attempting to hide it. You’re practically juggling pieces of rail that weigh thousands of pounds each above your head.
  1835. It quickly becomes clear that you have enough magic to match the efficacy of virtually everypony else involved with the project combined. So, you’re left to develop an entire rail section on your own while the rest work on the other.
  1836. With access to all necessary blueprints, it’s not very difficult for you. Tiring, sure, but you’ve done far more before.
  1837. Long-lasting runes are tricky work, especially in a world that rejects half of them, but you manage to put in some speed and structural stability enchantments that should last the rail for decades.
  1838. By the end of the day, you’ve not only created half of the current track on your own, but you’ve also professionally enchanted both sections and scoped out and eliminated several problems that would have cropped up further down the line.
  1839. Although you seriously doubt that the implications of your exceedingly long-range teleportation and self-levitation skills have been lost on the unicorns, none confront you over or ask about them. Instead, they mostly carry muted expressions of curiosity, surprise, or indifference.
  1840. You head in a bit early and finish the table-setting and cooking work of the kitchen staff. They’re grateful for your help, but somewhat surprised as you temperature-control all of their pots and pans at once.
  1841. You don’t really need to use your new abilities to this extent, but you’d be lying if you said it didn’t feel good to do it.
  1842. With some time remaining before the meal starts, Lyra comes up to you with a light smile on her face. You’re not sure what, but something else also lurks on her expression. “Hey, Starlight. What’s up?”
  1843. “Just figured I’d help out the kitchen crews, but we’re done.”
  1844. ”Nice.” She scrunches her mouth slightly, as if considering her next words, “So, you uhh, seem to have a lot of magic now. Like, a lot a lot.”
  1845. You can’t say you didn’t expect this to come up. She finally gets her question out, “So, is your restrictor, just like, completely disabled now? Because you were self-levitating, and I couldn’t even do that in Equestria.”
  1846. “Well, don’t go around telling everypony, but yeah. I asked Anonymous to remove the restrictions, and he, well, he made me understand the potential consequences, but he did it.”
  1847. ”So how’s it feel?”
  1848. It feels like an incredible, indescribable relief, but you downplay it for her, “Well, you know how strong my magic was, and err, is. So, it’s a really pronounced change for me.”
  1849. ”I can only imagine. It must have been so much more noticeable for somepony like you.”
  1850. “I guess you can say that.”
  1851. You think you can identify that hidden emotion on her face now. Longing, and perhaps a bit of reminiscence towards better times.
  1852. ”So,” she continues, still slightly subdued, “are you being promoted, or, what? Just the magic, or something more?”
  1853. “No, no. Just the magic.”
  1854. That seems to reassure her somewhat, “Oh, well nice! Just wanted to make sure I don’t have to call you Ms. Glimmer or something, heh.”
  1855. “Pfft, no, and you don’t ever have to. We’re friends, right?”
  1856. She pauses for a moment, a curious look flashing over her eyes, but it passes quickly and her smile widens into a more genuine one, “Yeah, of course. Think you can answer something for me, though?”
  1857. “Probably, what’s up?” you respond, slightly unsure of the question to come.
  1858. ”I’ve heard rumors aplenty, but, I just thought this one was worth asking…” She leans over and quietly asks, “Are you going to be put in charge of the new orchards next season? Like, as a forepony, or what?”
  1859. “What? No, who told you that?”
  1860. She shrugs, “They have to put somepony in that position. They’re already spread thin enough as it is. It’s got to be one of us four managers, and, well, with how much you’ve been rising already, I just figured it would probably be you.”
  1861. You sigh, “Honestly, you’re probably right. But truth be told, it’s not my decision to make. I certainly wouldn’t choose to do it.”
  1862. ”Oh, come on, don’t be so modest,” she says with a slight laugh. “Are you trying to tell me you wouldn’t like a comfy bed up in the big house? The privileges that come with that status?”
  1863. “No, really, I mean it.” You put your hoof down, literally, to make the point. “I don’t want to be in charge around here. I just want friends, satisfying work or study or whatever, and some time to myself. And I’ve already got all that!”
  1864. ”Chill, Starlight, chill,” she says, reaching out a hoof with a bit of mirth still in her eyes. “Look, you’re way better with your magic than the rest of us, I get it. It makes sense for Anon to let you have it all, as long as he’s sure you won’t blow up him or anypony else. You won’t, right?”
  1865. You raise an eyebrow, “Do you really think I would do that?”
  1866. ”No, I don’t. But, putting you high up is just natural with how much potential you have. Only reason it’s happening so fast is because Applejack knows she can trust you. Element of honesty and all, I bet her word goes a long way with Mr. Anonymous when she says you’re a good pony.”
  1867. “Friends in high places…”
  1868. ”Exactly. But I’m sure you would have piqued his curiosity even if he had no idea who you are. After all, he did buy you. Not everypony makes the cut.”
  1869. “What do you mean?”
  1870. ”Hasn’t he talked to you about how he picks us out?”
  1871. “No, how?”
  1872. She sits on her haunches as she begins to explain, “Well, he pays up for us, especially the unicorns. He wants the ones that are capable, that can learn well enough. Plus, he always looks for at least a little magical talent. Sweetie Belle is just about the worst magic user on this farm.”
  1873. “Really?”
  1874. ”Yeah,” she says with a snicker, “but don’t tell her I said that. Although, she’d probably agree. Anyways, there are a lot of ponies that go through Seattle. It’s the second-largest hub for them on the West Coast, behind only L.A. So he takes his time, and his money, and puts it into ponies that have a proven history of good work.”
  1875. “Well, yeah, most buyers with a facility this big probably want capable workers.”
  1876. ”But not just that. He makes sure that they haven’t been hurt, they haven’t been abused, they’re still the same pony that got shit out of the rift years ago. Sometimes, he looks for ponies like you and me, who have extra strong skill with magic.”
  1877. “Alright, so what’s the big deal?”
  1878. ”So the big deal is he knows full well who you are. He knows what you’ve done the past few years, he knows your personality, and since he’s so close to Applejack, he probably already knows who you are. Like, on a personal level.”
  1879. “But he had no idea I was from Ponyville until the next morning after he bought me, when Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle saw me.”
  1880. She tilts her head, “Did you ever tell the auctioneers your hometown?”
  1881. “Oh, shit, right.” You’d forgotten that you’d listed your old Commie town under your place of residence. Part of the whole ‘laying low so the government doesn’t take me’ thing. “No, I gave them a different town.”
  1882. ”Well there you go. But I bet he knew exactly what he was buying: a super-strong unicorn with a long life ahead of her, and leadership skills to boot. Somepony he could build up trust with, have as a long-term worker and, eventually, boss.”
  1883. “So you think he was investing in me as a leader before he even made the purchase?”
  1884. ”I don’t doubt it, really,” she says, waving a hoof. “Has he told you how much he paid for you?”
  1885. “Yeah. Eighty-six grand.”
  1886. She smiles, “Nice. That probably makes you one of the most expensive ponies in the state.”
  1887. “Probably less than our resident foreponies, if only for their fame.”
  1888. ”True, true. If you’re wondering, he paid sixty even for me. A good bit more than the average unicorn mare, so I’m proud.”
  1889. You’d seen ponies who’re aware of their prices bragging about them to friends and over the internet. To you, the price is just a number, something that indicates what you really are here, but it seems to be a dick-measuring contest to many.
  1890. “Told you that?”
  1891. ”He’ll tell anypony that asks. Doesn’t make a secret of it. The sales are public data anyway, so a pony could just search through a database and find it.”
  1892. The buzzer for dinner rings, and the two of you cut the conversation short and walk in.
  1893.  
  1894. You’d decided to permanently section off a few tables for the managers, with six spots at the unicorn managers’ table to allow guests. Looking Glass had taken one for almost every meal so far, and the other spot was rotated between other friends, or just left vacant.
  1895. It might be just a little bit elitist to have your own designated seats, but it probably beats kicking ponies out when you need theirs.
  1896. You and Lyra grab your food and places at the table first, and the rest of your company quickly files in. Today, it seems, the extra spot remains open.
  1897. As expected, conversation quickly shifts to your new freedoms.
  1898. ”So, Starlight, did you really teleport the whole distance between track ends?” Sunny Streak prods.
  1899. “A few times, yeah.”
  1900. Her tone remaining playful, “Aaaand? Got anything to say for that?”
  1901. “If you mean my magic restrictor, yes, it’s off. And no, that doesn’t mean anything other than that. It’s off, nothing else.”
  1902. ”Hey, no need to get defensive. I’m pretty sure everypony at this table is glad for you.”
  1903. She has a point. This group is a collection of some of the farm’s most loyal and elevated workers, plus Looking Glass, who seems to be more of a kiss-ass than Lyra. Or you, you suppose.
  1904. “I just, I don’t know. You all know how strong my magic is, and how strong it was in Equestria, too. Once Anonymous started lifting the restrictions, I guess I just… I just started feeling the restrictor again.”
  1905. ”What did it feel like for you?” Ruby Heart asks. “I’ve heard everpony reacts to it differently. Some don’t even feel it at all. I just get a mild, dull headache sometimes.”
  1906. “It felt like I was choking. Like, all the time.”
  1907. ”Ouch.”
  1908. The table talks a bit more about its experiences with the restrictors. Everypony here has one in the same line as yours, easy to change at a moment’s notice and more expensive to install.
  1909. Lyra gets headaches too, but they’re more pronounced, and she actually takes light pain medication for them.
  1910. Sunny Streak just has an intense, eternal tickle at the base of her horn. Supposedly, it’s easy enough to ignore after five minutes or so of being awake.
  1911. Looking Glass can’t really describe his beyond ‘a slight pressure’.
  1912. Once each pony has shared his or her experience, the conversation quiets for a moment. Seizing the opportunity, Looking Glass asks, “So, Starlight. Does the whole ‘no more magic restrictor’ thing change our practice sessions?”
  1913. You put a hoof to your chin, considering the inquiry, “Well, I don’t really think so. You still have your restrictions, and we’re still really only on the basics. Haven’t even gone into molecular magic manipulation yet.”
  1914. ”What do you mean, ‘only’?” Ruby Heart asks. “That shit isn’t usually taught until second year at a magic academy.”
  1915. “I’m a fast teacher, alright? Besides, does he really need to know fifty different methods to levitate the same fucking object ten feet?”
  1916. You’re still angry at those abstract magic techniques. If only Twilight wasn’t so thorough, you could have made so much more progress in those early days.
  1917. ”And, uhh,” Looking Glass probes, “when exactly are we going to get to practice again? I mean, there’s Sundays, but I’d like to do it more often if we can.”
  1918. “I was just thinking we could try the evenings, after dinner. I could teach you some stuff tonight if you want.”
  1919. ”But aren’t the fields too dark?”
  1920. You raise an eyebrow and point at your horn, “I could light up every square inch of this farm at once if I wanted to. I don’t think one field will be a problem.”
  1921. He beams, “Sounds good!”
  1922.  
  1923. True to your word, the two of you move to one of the rec fields after dinner, with Lyra coming to help out. With newfound ease you create a luminescent orb above the setting, casting everything in a bright, slightly green light.
  1924. Looking up at the shield briefly before shielding his eyes, Looking Glass asks, “So, can we learn that one?”
  1925. “Don’t you know how to make a small light?”
  1926. ”Kind of. I can light up my horn, but not make a remote one like that. And I definitely can’t do it that size.”
  1927. “Well, of course you can’t make it that size. I probably would have struggled before today. But, light spells are pretty handy, and not too hard. Lyra, wanna show him one?”
  1928. Lyra smiles and creates a smaller light of her own next to yours, giving the field a slightly brighter glow and a touch of golden hue.
  1929. She considers it for a moment before turning to you, “You sure Mr. Anonymous is okay with us being out here and doing this? Like, casting so many spells without oversight?”
  1930. You shrug slightly, “Well, he’s watched me teach Looking Glass before. But really, I don’t see why he would mind. He did give me my full magic, after all.”
  1931. ”Yeah, c’mon Lyra,” Looking Glass teases. “You wouldn’t want to disappoint Mr. Anonymous by getting in the way of this approved apprenticeship, would you?”
  1932. She rolls her eyes, “I guess not. So, let’s get to teaching. Now, to cast a basic lantern spell…”
  1933. The two of you spend a good hour teaching multiple spells to Looking Glass. There’s no particular theme, just textbook spellcasting. He needs to get the basics nailed down anyway before he can move on to the more difficult concepts.
  1934. He’s a fast learner, which helps you greatly with the coaching. His eagerness is also refreshing after seeing the uncaring attitudes many unicorns here seem to take towards their magic. They may not be very talented in it, but most of them could improve at least somewhat if they tried!
  1935. The earth ponies seemed slightly more interested. At varying points in the training, groups would stop and watch, sometimes forming a small crowd. Particularly interested were the few fillies and colts with unusually late bed times.
  1936. For them, you worked in a few more showoff-ish spells. The magic fireworks one, while completely useless, drew enough gasps from the onlookers to satisfy you.
  1937. But, eventually, you decide to head in before the buzzer rings so as to leave time for showers and perhaps a bit of reading.
  1938. A quick test of your abilities reveals that, surprisingly, teleportation is entirely possible into and out of your room. Of course, Anonymous wouldn’t have had anypony on hand with the kind of knowledge to cast a magic ward like that.
  1939. Except you, now. Maybe you’ll talk to him about it and earn some extra brownie points.
  1940. You really don’t need a shower at all, since your hygiene is taken care of with a simple cleaning spell you can now cast on yourself. It’s always amazed you how difficult that one is to pull off, and you know few unicorns are able to do it.
  1941. But, regardless, you’re still in the shower enjoying its soothing rain as the buzzer rings. Hot water feels good, man. Especially when it’s magically tuned to the perfect temperature.
  1942. Hair dryer, nope, you just magic all the water out of it. Teeth brushing? You cast a ward on them this morning, your teeth won’t get any grime on them for at least four months.
  1943. In fact, any and all toiletries are now entirely irrelevant. With nothing left to do, you slip into your room and sit down with one of the books that came in the mail today.
  1944. ’Complex Inversion and Geometric Manipulation Spells, Second Edition’. Newly-written on earth, this volume is supposed to be much more in-depth than its predecessor, which you’ve already read.
  1945. Half a chapter turns into two full ones, and then four, and you’re not sure when you end up falling asleep. If you were able to see yourself, you’d comment on how much like Twilight you’ve become, falling asleep with your face between two pages of a complex academic book.
  1946.  
  1947. The first snow of the season has long started to fall by the time the buzzer wakes you up in the morning.
  1948. You’d procured a few winter garments during your trip out with Anon, and now you enchant them to be extra warm.
  1949. Although it’s only a set of booties and a cheap scarf, you feel as though you’re next to a roaring hearth as you step out into the cold.
  1950. Foals are immediately setting to work, constructing snow ponies (and one snow man) and making angels and shapes in the snow. A few adult ponies have gotten in on the fun, too.
  1951. It’s a heartwarming scene, but it does concern you. The snow is coming down thick, and while wind is thankfully lacking, if this keeps up conditions will become miserable.
  1952. Not for you, what with your garments and the ability to self-levitate over the snow, but you’re concerned for everypony else.
  1953. A quick search for your unicorn friends finds them starting up a snowball fight, with Lyra and Ruby Heart on one side, and Sunny Streak and Looking Glass on the other. A few foals are crouched behind the magically-constructed snow forts on each side of the road, helping to shape snowballs in preparation for the coming battle.
  1954. You’re not really going to interrupt this with talk of work are you? No, Starlight, loosen up.
  1955. So instead, you give them a cheerful shout, and quickly slap together your own fort in the center of the road. Anon probably wouldn’t approve of blocking vehicles off like this, but it’s not like it’ll take long to clean this up.
  1956. The first snowballs come at you before you get a chance to make even one of your own. Taking one thrown by an overzealous unicorn filly to the face, you wipe the slush off to see her and Lyra laughing at your predicament.
  1957. You take the only logical next step, and with a bit of flair levitate up a pile of snow, melting it away in a pattern so as to reveal a set of twenty perfectly-formed snowballs. The colors blanch from their faces even before you start to hurl the projectiles one-by-one.
  1958. When’s the last time you were even in a snowball fight? Couldn’t have been after you arrived on earth. Oh, right, that one time in Canterlot, with Twilight and the other researchers. That was fun.
  1959. The fight drags on until the breakfast buzzer sounds. Of course, you could have literally buried them if you tried, but you and the other adults hold back and let the fillies decide the contest. The right side of the road, with Looking Glass, Sunny Streak, and an assortment of pastel earth pony and unicorn foals, is declared the winner.
  1960. You quickly whisk away your snow fort, but leave the ones on the sides of the road for later play. You have no doubts that some excited foals will make good use of them today.
  1961. Your clique jokes and laughs about the fight all the way to the mess area, which has had several additional space heaters brought out today. You could probably cast a few spells and take care of it, but the work is already done, so you just take your seat.
  1962. It’s not until everypony is sitting down that you notice them shivering. It’s so easy to forget the chill that comes with the creeping, watery tendrils of freshly-melted snowballs when everything you’re wearing is enchanted to keep you warm.
  1963. You cast a small heating spell around the table, “Better?”
  1964. ”A little,” Lyra smiles, taking a long drink from her hot cocoa.
  1965. “I’m sorry, guys, I would have done something earlier but I forgot all about the cold. I put some nice enchantments on my winter gear, could do the same for you all if you wanted.”
  1966. Sunny Streak lets out a light laugh, “Well, you’re certainly using your magic freely, aren’t you? Enchanted half your stuff by now, I’d imagine.”
  1967. “Only this, to be honest. I probably need more practice before I can do the more complex stuff again anyways.”
  1968. ”More complex stuff?” Ruby Heart asks with some surprise. “I’d been in an academy for years, and those heating enchantments always eluded me. That’s basic to you?”
  1969. Looking Glass gives her a curious look, “Are you really still surprised by her magic?”
  1970. ”Guess not. But man, if she can do enchantments, I’ve got a few things that could stand to gain.”
  1971. “Alright, look here, Ruby, Glass.” You swap your eyes between the two, “My magic’s strong, yeah, but it’s not unlimited. Enchantments are hard stuff, and these weren’t exactly easy. I can help you all out with the winter weather, but I’m not about to go running around enchanting half the stuff on this farm.”
  1972. ”I would,” Sunny Streak says, putting down her chocolate. “Damn, if I had that kind of magic, I’d never stop using it. And c’mon, you can’t say you haven’t been indulging yourself with it too.”
  1973. Yeah, you may have been using just a teensy bit more magic than necessary the past day or two. Like, did you really need to atomize that spider you found on your wall this morning? Probably not.
  1974. “About that, by the way. You don’t think I’ve been overdoing it, do you? I don’t really want to be a showoff.”
  1975. ”I think you might’ve thrown the whole ‘not being a showoff’ gig out the window when you started self-levitating in front of everypony yesterday,” Sunny Streak rolls her eyes in response.
  1976. Lyra quickly follows up, “Look, every unicorn and his mother knows your magic’s been set loose by now, so what’s done is done. Just, try not to rub it in everypony’s faces, okay? I think they’ll understand if you don’t use your magic just for the sake of using it.”
  1977. Like loud, bright, public displays of magic under the guise of ‘training’ last night… Lyra might be right on this one.
  1978. “Alright, thanks, I’ll think on it. Now, who’s got a scarf or something I can enchant before breakfast ends?”
  1979.  
  1980. It’s now four days since the start of rail line construction, and the finishing touches are being installed as the day draws to a close. With your magic finishing things up in about half the time, you’re now more than half a week ahead of schedule.
  1981. As the other ponies complete safety checks and functionality tests, you occupy yourself with transporting building materials to the site via teleportation. It’s not easy, given the heavy weights you’re working with, but your magic needs exercise anyways.
  1982. It’s kind of like a muscle in a way, requiring regular workouts to maintain strength. Although, atrophy is much, much slower, and even those unicorns completely barred from using magic will only just now be losing strength. It’ll take many years more for anypony to truly be magic-deficient.
  1983. Predictably, Anon is thrilled with your work. But, at this point, he has little to reward you with aside from junk food and booze. And you can only stomach so much of either.
  1984. Not like you care. Simply being able to use your magic to its fullest extent is reward enough.
  1985. To your slight dismay, the boss-like respect given to you by the other ponies has only intensified and solidified. The unicorns are well aware of your abilities and their implications, and the earth ponies are probably just fearful of such a powerful unicorn.
  1986. It does bother you, but you’re finding yourself better able to cope with the feeling. You’ve also started actually giving them directions, too, both because it’s necessary for the work and because you feel slightly more comfortable with the situation.
  1987. Your earth pony partner, Frostfern, has been immensely helpful with his advice, even if he doesn’t know even a high school level of magic. He was a lieutenant in the royal guard, and one of the few guards unlucky enough to be outside of Canterlot when the rift happened. So, he knows enough about leadership and how some ponies struggle with it.
  1988. He probably could have made better money as a therapist, really. Way better at it than any of the real therapists Twilight had sent you to.
  1989. But you digress. Life is good, and you might just be starting to overcome some of your demons.
  1990. Your friends are obviously and understandably jealous, except for Tangerine, who’s mostly just melancholy (as usual). But, if they think any less of you for your freedoms, they don’t show it.
  1991. Ruby Heart is especially thankful for the fast work on the rail system, as her orchard is nearby. She and her crews have a lot less walking to do now.
  1992. You’re also happy to learn that Cheese Sandwich normally puts on some form of event every Sunday night. Sometimes it’s a simple party or dance, like this week, but other ponies have told you of past events that really knocked their socks off.
  1993. Anon even supplied some funds and hired labor for a full rodeo last May. You’ll have to see about using some of your influence to turn it into an annual deal.
  1994. The skies are almost entirely dark by now, but the call still hasn’t sounded for the ponies to turn in. Hungry and admittedly very tired from the heavy labor you’d been doing, you decide to head in early. After all, who’s going to stop you?
  1995. The foreponies probably wouldn’t care even if you were unlucky enough to encounter them on the way back. And you doubt the other ponies would bring something up, given their new deference towards you.
  1996. …Okay, whoa there Starlight. You know better than to let those thoughts grow again.
  1997. But then again, there really isn’t a whole lot more for you to do, so you decide to teleport back to the housing blocks. Maybe you can get in a bit of spell study in before dinner.
  1998. But as the scene shifts and you’re once again outside of your housing block, you’re surprised to find Anonymous climbing into his parked pickup in front. Seeing you, he hops down from the step.
  1999. “Oh, uhh, hey Anon. What’s up?”
  2000. He raises an eyebrow, “Deliverin’ mail. Ain’t much of it, but I usually get it in ‘fore y’all come in every day. Now, how ‘bout you? What’re you doin’ here?”
  2001. “Well, I, uhh,” you stutter. “I just kind of finished my work and decided to come in and study. I got some killer spell books from the internet.”
  2002. He considers you for a moment, then shrugs his shoulders, “Fine by me. Ain’t like you been lazy the past few days. But you probably don’t wanna let the other ponies know you’re comin’ in early. I know it’s only ten, fifteen minutes or so, but they don’t take too kindly to anypony else gettin’ outta work early.”
  2003. “Which is why I teleported. But I don’t think it would be a big issue anyways.”
  2004. ”Hope not. For your sake. ‘Member, them unicorns can be a wily bunch.” With that, he climbs into the driver’s seat and shuts the door.
  2005. He looks as though he’s about to start the vehicle, but stops and leans out the rolled-down window, “Oh, almost forgot. Me, the Apple sisters, and Scoots are headed into town a couple days from now. Gonna see a movie ‘n pick up a few things I need at the stores. You wanna come?”
  2006. You hadn’t expected an offer like that to come so soon after the last outing. “Well, I don’t want to intrude. Only if Applejack and the fillies are okay with it.”
  2007. ”Hardly fillies any more, but they’re the ones who asked. Say they ain’t been able to talk to ya too much since you got here.”
  2008. “Then, I suppose so. If they want me to come.”
  2009. You don’t really want to create an image of yourself as being close to them, but at this point, that’s probably already cemented. Plus, getting a chance to talk something other than business with Applejack and the others would be nice.
  2010. ”Alright. We’ll probably leave Thursday mornin’. Just walk over, or teleport or whatever after breakfast. Or before, if you wanna eat with us.”
  2011. “See you around, Anon.”
  2012. ”Seeya, Starlight.”
  2013. The truck’s engine roars, and you head inside, your mind filled with expectations for both your spell studies and this new planned outing with your owner.
  2014.  
  2015. It’s Thursday morning, and you wake up feeling better than any morning you can remember since leaving Equestria.
  2016. You’re not excited or anything, it’s just that you discovered a nifty refreshing spell last night that can be used as a morning wake-up.
  2017. Human greed does a lot of harm, but hot damn it does push the development of these spellbooks along nicely. It would take a scholar years to perfect something like this before.
  2018. Of course, there’s probably a massive testing facility with unicorns being forced to find these spells under less-than-humane circumstances, but at least it’s for a worthy cause.
  2019. You’ve plenty of time in the morning, so you opt to browse the web. On a whim, you decide to look up some of the products of this year’s berry harvest. Surely some of the more refined foodstuffs will be hitting the markets by now.
  2020. Holy fuck, that little container of jam goes for that much? And it’s an auction?
  2021. That greedy bastard Anon sure has a real racket going here. You wonder if it’s just a few exceedingly wealthy families that can’t get enough of the stuff, or a “rich people thing” worldwide.
  2022. It’ll surely be the latter next season, though. The crop should triple at least.
  2023. Your thoughts also turn to safety as these expansions happen. Anon said that the earth ponies are here mostly just to act as a counterweight to negative unicorn sentiment. Would a change in the ratios between the races end up causing problems?
  2024. It’s not just the safety of him and the foreponies, either. You’d be foolish not to count yourself among their ranks if something got out of hoof here.
  2025. But you’ll just have to wait and see. It’s somewhat alarming to see the respectful attitudes of ponies around the farm while knowing that darker feelings lie behind them.
  2026. Bringing your thoughts back to the present, you realize there’s only a few minutes left until the morning release buzzer rings. You close the laptop and teleport out.
  2027.  
  2028. In the pre-dawn gray, the farm house looks both imposing and comfortably rustic. Compared to the flat barrenness of the fields and the barracks you call home that don’t even reach a third of its height, it’s a monolith in this landscape.
  2029. Your teleport carries you to your intended location, plus or minus a few feet. Warps at these distances require some room to account for error.
  2030. Seeing lights on and movement through the kitchen windows, you trot up to the front door at a brisk pace. This refresher spell is a godsend, you’ll have to teach it to the other unicorns.
  2031. You knock on the door and await their response. You briefly worry about other ponies noticing you’re out, but you’d already told the other unicorn managers and Frostfern that you’ll be gone today.
  2032. The door unlatches and swings inward, revealing a somewhat confused Applebloom inside. “Starlight? Watcha doin’ here already? Doors ain’t unlocked by now, are they?”
  2033. “Oh, no, I just cast a quick teleportation spell.”
  2034. ”What?”
  2035. You shrug, “Those kinds of distances aren’t too hard for me.”
  2036. ”No, no, ah get that. It’s just, ain’t there a protection spell that’s s’posed t’block that?”
  2037. This causes you to raise your eyebrows in surprise, “I don’t think so? If there is, it’s not strong enough for me to notice it.”
  2038. It could have been there the whole time, as you hadn’t even tried teleporting out of the room until your magic restrictions were gone entirely. And it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that whoever cast such a spell simply isn’t skilled enough to stop a unicorn like you from flashing through any barrier.
  2039. ”Well, damn, we’ll have ta tell Anon ‘bout this,” she ruminates with a hint of concern tugging at her face.
  2040. “It could just be me. I’ll ask Lyra and the others later if there’s anything stopping them from ‘porting out.”
  2041. ”Well alright, whatever. Now c’mon in, it’s freezin’ out there!”
  2042. You walk in and shift the conversation, failing to resist the temptation to brag about your enchanted garments, “Oh, that’s not a problem. I put some enchants on my winter clothes, it feels like I’m next to a fire whenever I’ve got this stuff on.”
  2043. Applebloom closes the door behind you and trots over to catch up, “Well that’s nifty! Wish Sweetie could do stuff like that…”
  2044. You give her a warm smile, “Got a scarf or something you’re planning to wear? I could do it before we leave today, if you’d like.”
  2045. ”You can do that?” she asks, barely subdued excitement present in her voice. Perhaps these fillies haven’t grown up so much after all.
  2046. “Sure, probably for everyone’s stuff, too. Probably only one or two pieces of clothing each, but trust me, it’s a lot better than having nothing.”
  2047. ”That’d be great, thanks! Knew it was a good idea to bring you along!” She beams you an enthusiastic grin.
  2048. The two of you are stopped right in front of the arch leading to the kitchen area, so you presume that whoever is inside also heard your conversation. Walking in, you’re a bit disappointed to find only Applejack working on some breakfast, alone.
  2049. “So, Applejack, how’s that sound?” you call out to the mare, hoping she isn’t too occupied with her task.
  2050. ”Sounds good ta me, Starlight,” she responds without turning away from her cooking. She flips a pan, likely not terribly easy with only her teeth to work with, and you catch a glimpse of some eggs as they turn over on its surface.
  2051. “So, where’s everypony else? Anon’s got to drive, of course, and isn’t Scootaloo coming?”
  2052. Applebloom rolls her eyes a little, “Well, Scoots is always preenin’ her wings ‘round this time a mornin’. Ever since she got ‘em fixed she’s been obsessed with keepin’ ‘em in top condition.”
  2053. “Hey,” you chide lightly, “don’t knock it ‘til you try it. Maybe it’s important, especially with her fix.”
  2054. ”Nah, doctors said she only needs ta do it once a week. But whatever, ain’t hurtin’ her any, so it just means she gotta wake up a bit earlier than the rest of us to get out the door on time.”
  2055. “So where’s Anon? I thought he was an early bird?”
  2056. ”Normally is,” Applejack replies from across the room, letting her pan sizzle. “But he had some business last night what kept ‘im up. Said he mighta stumbled onto somethin’ real important, or somethin’ like that. Should be out soon enough, though, he ain’t the type to keep company waiting.”
  2057. As if on cue, you hear a single set of footsteps descending the stairs a room away, and the distinct sound of Anon’s deep, rustic voice chatting with a lighter one you presume belongs to Scootaloo. A moment later, both are in your field of view, Scootaloo happily making use of her wings to descend.
  2058. ”Aw, hey Starlight!” he calls out with a bit of surprise. “How’d you get here so fast?”
  2059. “Teleported a few minutes before the wake-up buzzer. By the way, we should probably see about getting that magic barrier strengthened a bit.”
  2060. ”Naw, that’s okay. Lyra helped me check it a month ago, it stops her from gettin’ through, and she’s the best unicorn we got barrin’ yourself. Don’t really see any problems with you gettin’ through when needed, either.”
  2061. Interesting. Even considering the fact that her magic is restricted, if the barrier is strong enough to entirely stop her teleportation without you so much as noticing it, you might have grossly underestimated your power.
  2062. But then again, you’ve seen the disastrous results of that power being used to its fullest extent. Perhaps it’s better not to push those limits.
  2063. “If you say so,” you reply with a shrug.
  2064. ”That eggs I smell?” Anon calls out past you, to the mare cooking breakfast in the kitchen.
  2065. ”Yep. And bacon for you, Anon.”
  2066. You hadn’t noticed any bacon, not even the smell of it. Perhaps it’s leftovers, or maybe Applejack has just been up since the wee hours of the morning. Either is entirely plausible given her tendencies.
  2067. Despite the fabulous wealth Anon obviously has numerically, he and the ponies close to him don’t seem to flaunt it all that much. Perhaps Applejack’s humble origins have rubbed off on him, or perhaps he just shares her rustic affinity for modesty.
  2068. It says enough that on a farm with this many ponies and so much money to spare, not one slave keeps the house clean and the masters fed. They take care of that themselves.
  2069. ”Well, move over,” he says, walking over to the kitchen area. “I’m gonna make and butter some toast for everyone. Starlight, you hungry? You ain’t had breakfast, right?”
  2070. Not a minute earlier, your stomach had growled longingly. “Yes please, I’d like something, if it’s not any trouble.”
  2071. ”None at all.”
  2072. The two continue making breakfast, with Applejack taking her time to cook a few batches of eggs to perfection. You spend the time slapping warming enchantments on scarves, hats, and booties for each member of your party.
  2073. Anon’s jacket proves to be a slight challenge given its size and ruggedness (something about well-worn clothing makes them resistant to magic), but his gratitude for the service is more than enough to convince you to weather the strain involved.
  2074. Breakfast is finally served once you’ve done enough enchantments to keep this table warm through the next five or six winters. If they were at all cold before, they aren’t now. Nobody even looks at the empty hearth near the table.
  2075. Applejack seems to have put a lot of care into her work, since there isn’t any work to be done for you five anyways today. The eggs are cooked over-easy, and seasoned just enough to have their taste significantly brightened without the additions being overbearing.
  2076. She’s certainly cooked more than enough for all, and everyone ends up with some amount of food left on their plate, which Anon starts to wrap up. You’re about to help with cleanup, but something across the table catches your eye.
  2077. Bacon. Meat. Something you’d just never eaten in Equestria. Supposedly, ponies are actually omnivores, if human science is to be believed. But with every animal in Equestria being sapient to some degree, nopony there had ever tested it.
  2078. Here, though, animals have less intelligence than most plants did in Equestria.
  2079. The thought of eating an animal still makes you a bit uneasy, but you can’t deny your curiosity.
  2080. As Anon moves to wrap the plate and two slices of bacon remaining on it up, you blurt out, “Anon, wait.”
  2081. ”Starlight?” he asks, stopping his movements.
  2082. “Can I, uhh, maybe try a slice? O-of bacon?”
  2083. Oh God, you hope they don’t think you’re weird for this. But it’s not like you’d ever gotten a chance to do this before, as your meals at the library mostly consisted of whatever hay and vegetables the librarians would bring you.
  2084. His eyes widen a bit in surprise, but he just tosses you a strip, “Sure, but if’n you’re anythin’ like the rest of the ponies, you probably won’t like it too much.”
  2085. ”Ah just can’t understand how you eat the stuff, Anon,” Applejack comments with a grimace. “It just don’t sit funny in my mouth.”
  2086. “So, you’ve all tried it?”
  2087. ”Well sure we have,” Scootaloo answers. “The key word there being ‘tried’. I don’t think anypony here wants a second taste.”
  2088. Gingerly, you lift up the strip and examine it. You’ve heard that bacon can be cooked either crispy or soft, and this piece is definitely on the crispier side. Perhaps that will help if you don’t like the taste of fat.
  2089. You break off about a fifth of the strip, and quickly chew it in your mouth.
  2090. It’s… different. It doesn’t taste like blood, as you’d expected. Instead, it’s more of a full, saturated taste, kind of like fast food but also different. Different, that’s the only word that comes to mind.
  2091. But you don’t think it’s unpleasant by any means. Perhaps even good.
  2092. ”So, watcha think?” Anon prods, curiosity evident in his expression.
  2093. You don’t answer him, instead biting off a second, bigger portion. “Hah!” he exclaims, looking to the three other ponies in the room, “I knew one of y’all ponies would come around to meat! Scoots, you owe me fifty bucks!”
  2094. ”Oh come on, it’s not like I have my own bank account anyway,” she says with an insincere glare directed at him. She turns to you, her expression changing to one of incredulity, “You really like that stuff?”
  2095. “I mean, it’s different. But, kind of a good different, you know?”
  2096. ”Great,” Applejack laughs with a roll of her eyes, “Now we got two mouths to cook this fatty food for. Anon’s never gonna get slim now.”
  2097. Anon’s bellowing laugh at the joke seems like a bit of an overreaction, but you can’t help but get drawn into it, and soon all five of you are sharing in the moment.
  2098. It’s good to have friends.
  2099.  
  2100. You’re about five minutes down the road, with Anon driving, Applejack riding shotgun, and you in the back with two teenage ponies.
  2101. At least you have a window seat.
  2102. ”Aight y’all, quiet down back there,” Anon says with a wave of his hand. “That means you, Starlight.”
  2103. You pout at him and maintain your silence.
  2104. ”So, I stayed up a bit late last night. And y’all know me, I don’t do that for nothin’. But, I think I really hit the jackpot here.”
  2105. ”Well don’t keep us waitin’!” Applebloom bubbles, that interminable excitement still present in her voice. “What is it?”
  2106. ”Guess I’ll just say it, won’t beat around the bush. Think I found Rainbow Dash.”
  2107. Your attention snaps to him, and you see Applejack turn her head sharply from its former position looking out the window, “Anon, don’t tease me. You sure you wanna say somethin’ like that?”
  2108. ”I know it’s her, AJ!” he exclaims with a big grin on his face. “Blue coat. Rainbow mane, lightnin’ bolt cutie mark. And get this: I found ‘er on a race roster!”
  2109. ”A what?”
  2110. ”See, down in the Southeast and some a the Appalachians they’re startin’ to get real big on pegasus racin’. And guess who won herself a big fat trophy at a regional event out in Alabama?”
  2111. ”Holy shit, that’s amazin’!” She turns around in her seat, revealing to you an expression of unbridled optimism, “Starlight, you got no idea how long we been searchin’ for everypony else! And, and now you just fall into our laps, and we know where Dash is? Hoo-ey!”
  2112. Anon reaches an arm out and puts a hand on her head, “Easy there, AJ. We still gotta look into contactin’ the guy, see if he’s interested in sellin’. Or if Dash wants to move, for that matter. Might not wanna be pried away from the first racin’ she’s done in years.”
  2113. ”So who’s her owner?” Scootaloo asks from beside you.
  2114. Anon winces a little, “He’s, ah, a new owner. Think he’s a nigger.”
  2115. ”A nigger?” Applejack blurts out, her expression suddenly darker. “Aw shit, that ain’t gonna be good. Everypony knows niggers’re pony-beaters!”
  2116. Holy shit. Was that real, genuine racism from Applejack? Towards a human race, at that?
  2117. You’d seen and even taken part in some slur-slinging on the internet, but you’ve never seen a pony say something like that.
  2118. “Oh, come on Applejack, I’m sure she’s fine. Dash isn’t a pony who’ll let anyone take her down without a fight.”
  2119. ”Maybe, sugar cube. Maybe he’s a good one. Lord help her if he ain’t, though.”
  2120. “Anon, where’d you hear about this win?”
  2121. ”It was in some local newspaper’s website,” he responds.
  2122. “Any pictures in the article?”
  2123. ”Nope, woulda printed ‘em out otherwise.”
  2124. ”I think Starlight’s right,” Applebloom adds. “An abuser wouldn’t let ‘er go out and race, probably. And if he is, I bet we can get ‘er here without much trouble then.”
  2125. ”Throw some big bags a cash at ‘im ‘til he relents, that’s what I was gonna do,” Anon says with a nod.
  2126. Applejack qualifies his statement, “No nigger could resist a few million for some ‘dumb pony’. Money’n cars, sometimes ah think that’s all they care ‘bout.”
  2127. Anon just gives a slow nod off agreement, and the corner of your eyes catches the girls beside you exchanging a glance. Perhaps this is just how they are, Applejack and her family do fit into a lot of the human ‘redneck’ stereotypes.
  2128. Or perhaps Anon himself has just rubbed off on them that much over the years. The only forepony you’d interacted with on the regular since you’d arrived is Sweetie Belle, and most of your conversations with her are just business.
  2129. Hell, you’ve talked to Anon way more than any of them.
  2130. But that’s probably to be expected. After all, they do work in entirely separate areas, eat away from you, sleep a field away, and for the most part just stay within their little family group.
  2131. Family group. That’s all this can really be described as. Between the photo collage that wholly excludes anyone else and the extreme lengths taken to accommodate the ponies in that big home, it’s pretty obvious that Anon considers them all his family. But how close are they really, and how did it get this way?
  2132. He’s certainly not so hospitable towards the rest of the farm.
  2133. By now, talk of Dash has died down, and each pony (and person) seems to be thinking over their respective thoughts. Now might be as good a time as any to ask them how deep their ties really run.
  2134. “So,” you break the silence with a single word, getting attention on you before you continue. “If… if you don’t mind me asking, how and, uhh, when exactly did you all… you know. Get close?”
  2135. ”I assume you’re askin’ how we met Anon, and why we live up in the big house while everypony else gets their locked rooms?” The bluntness of Applejack’s response surprises you, but then again unfiltered honesty has always been her thing.
  2136. “That’s one way to put it, yeah.”
  2137. ”Mind if I start at the beginning?” Anon intrudes before Applejack can continue. Seeing her shake her head, he starts up the tale.
  2138. ”Well, this was the fourth harvest we been through, so that means they’ve all been here since the beginnin’. In fact, I was one a the first in the whole region to start buyin’ up pony contracts. This big tract a land I got, it was freshly inherited. Grandpa only ever maintained a little of it, with a tiny little prairie house sittin’ where the big one does now. My, ah, my parents passed when I was 20. Car crash. So, I got everythin’ he had.”
  2139. ”But I think I told you, I ain’t a farmer by tradition, education, nothin’. Just by circumstance. Really, I was in college for genetics, but I dropped outta that once I got the farm. So, I needed someone to help me if I was gonna actually do anythin’ with the land.”
  2140. ”Back then, they kept pony families and even friends together at auction. AJ and her family and friends were the only ponies I ever got from Boise, but I was damn lucky findin’ ‘em there. Literally the first day a the auction house openin’, I got all of ‘em for a real small sum, even takin’ out the celebrity AJ has. Everything I could want: farm family, good workers, just wanted somewhere safe to work, eat, and sleep.”
  2141. ”That little prairie house only had two bedrooms, so Granny Smith ended up in the guest room with the fillies, and AJ and Big Mac had to sleep on the sofas. Thank the Lord there were two of ‘em, otherwise we woulda had to use a pet bed. But we made do.”
  2142. Applejack chimes in with a bit of commentary, “That were a damn uncomfortable sofa, too.”
  2143. ”Hey, I already ‘pologized for that! And we got it replaced later, but yeah. Anyways, it weren’t easy at first. ‘Course AJ and her kin didn’t like me at first, who would? Didn’t expect ‘em to, but I guess I’m a good man and they’re good ponies, so we always respected each other at least.”
  2144. ”And if we didn’t, Granny would line us out,” Applejack says with a reminiscing smile.
  2145. ”Damn right she would. That includes me, that mare wasn’t afraid a nothin’. But, that went on for a while. They just about took over the farm, got some fields cleared and planted, and I did some breedin’ work with those crystal berries. By the time harvest season was rollin’ around, I’d managed to get that variety we got growin’ now down pat.”
  2146. ”Wasn’t cheap to make the strain, neither. Had to get some expensive magic shit to make ‘em grow. Even mortgaged the property at one point. But things turned out fine at the harvest.”
  2147. ”Well,” Applejack challenges, “not entirely. Still had to get help.”
  2148. ”Yeah. See, that first year, winter freeze was comin’ a whole lot faster’n normal, and I was a stupid fuck without crop insurance. So, we had to get more workers to help out.”
  2149. Huh, he’d waited a long time before getting any of the other ponies. With the rate at which he buys them now, you’d expected a much bigger initial crew.
  2150. ”Still didn’t have nowhere but the home for ‘em to stay, so the dozen or so I bought had to use sleepin’ bags. Ten earth ponies, two unicorns. Was a bit worried havin’ so many ponies in the house, but AJ and Granny kept everyone calm.”
  2151. “And so did you get the harvest in?”
  2152. ”We did. Weren’t too much profit, just enough to pay off debts, but it was enough. Got more credit to build the first set of housing rows and ponies to fill ‘em once I showed off the few berry samples I had.”
  2153. ”Ever since then,” Scootaloo explains before Anon gets the chance to, “we’ve grown the farm each year during the off season. Nothing quite as big as this year in sheer size, but proportionally, those first couple seasons were huge steps up. Started work on the big house after the second season, got it done around a year later.”
  2154. “So, you’ve just kind of been together since the beginning?”
  2155. ”Guess so. Reckon we got real lucky honestly, Anon’s real nice and I dunno if I coulda made it with some city slicker,” Applejack ponders.
  2156. ”How about you, Starlight?” Applebloom queries.
  2157. “Me? Well, in the beginning, I bounced between a few construction jobs, just doing some basic magic lifting. After a few months of that, I just did quiet work in a library until they had to sell me.”
  2158. ”No, no, ah know all that. What about before it, though? You’n Twilight were up in Canterlot for a whole year! How’d you even end up here?”
  2159. Oh, this path again. Cue the prepared response.
  2160. “We were just doing research there. Lots of complex stuff about teleportation. The two of us were on a train headed for Appleoosa to investigate an anomaly out there when the rift hit.”
  2161. Canterlot, Manehattan, the Crystal Empire, and just about everywhere in between had been spared. The rift didn’t have quite enough power to take them.
  2162. Instead, ponies were taken from the more rural areas. Places like Ponyville and Appleoosa were completely wiped out. The outskirts of Vanhoover, Las Pegasus, and other cities outside of the Equestrian heartland also had some losses, but by your estimates, most of the cities had to have been spared.
  2163. At least the rifts only took ponies. While that did mean that poor Spike would be stuck without friends back home, it also meant that the dangerous shit infesting places like the Everfree stayed put.
  2164. ”So, just a ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ situation?”
  2165. “Pretty much. If it happened a few hours earlier, I’d still be in Canterlot.”
  2166. You’re not sure if that’s bullshit or not, given the circumstances.
  2167. ”So you were with Twilight then?” Scootaloo asks.
  2168. “Yeah. She went through the rift, too. The only alicorn to do so.”
  2169. ”So what happened to her?”
  2170. You wish you knew.
  2171. “Honestly, I don’t know. We were together in the first few days, but those were pretty chaotic. And with Twilight being an alicorn… I think we both knew she couldn’t stay with me.”
  2172. ”Why not?”
  2173. “Being the only one of her kind, it was kind of a priority not to get dissected by anyone. She’s probably deep in a forest somewhere, maybe causing UFO sightings.”
  2174. Avoiding dissection was indeed a priority, but you seriously doubt she’s still on her own. Crafty mare, probably worked out some deal with someone like you’d never be able to.
  2175. But it’s not like you can tell them that. Those final days, they can’t be discussed.
  2176. ”Guess that makes sense.”
  2177. The truck continues on in silence for another few minutes before Anon turns on the radio.
  2178. Well that made the mood a whole lot better.
  2179.  
  2180. “They really charge that much for a pony ticket at this theater?”
  2181. Your group of five stands in front of the local movie theater’s ticket booth. You’d actually expected pony seating to be discount, but it’s $25 a pop! Anon’s going to have to spend over a hundred bucks just to get in the door!
  2182. ”Hm? It’s like that everywhere. Ain’t never seen a pony ticket cost less’n a human one, no matter what it was for,” Anon says with a shrug, clearly unperturbed by the highway robbery he’s currently falling victim to.
  2183. ”Folks with ponies in tow always got plenty a money,” the teenager behind the counter explains with a roll of his eyes. “Management knows that, and charges ‘em accordingly. If it’s a problem, ‘tween you, me, and the fella punchin’ tickets inside, ah can just getcha some adult tickets.”
  2184. ”That won’t be necessary,” Anon quickly replies, handing over a hundred dollar bill plus a twenty for his own admission. “I know that’s ten dollars over, just keep the change and call it a tip. For not bein’ a stickler.”
  2185. The teenager smiles and puts the money below the counter before handing over five tickets and a voucher for a free popcorn. “Just tell ‘em Max sent ya if they ask.”
  2186. You walk in and get the tickets punched by another youth waiting inside. There’s still a bit of time before the movie starts, so you all head over to the concession stand.
  2187. Anon ends up handing the voucher to a teenage couple, waving off their thanks. You go to the counter and order and order just a soda, not willing to encroach on his generosity for yourself.
  2188. The other three ponies in your party, however, seem to have no inhibitions towards either price or calorie count, and load up on massive piles of popcorn, candy, and baby pools of sugary beverages. Anon gets a drink and a few items for himself, and swipes his credit card without even looking at the total.
  2189. He looks at your single drink, held aloft by magic as the other ponies pile food items onto their backs. “Starlight, y’sure that’s all you want? Don’t be shy. In case you ain’t noticed, I don’t really give a flying fuck about money.”
  2190. “I’m fine,” you blurt out, but you pause for a moment before reconsidering, “Actually, know what, could I get a popcorn?”
  2191. ”Sure, whatever.” He reaches into his pocket and hands you a $20 bill, more than enough for the food. “I would tell ya to keep the change but you ain’t got any pockets. Or clothes at all, really.”
  2192. “If you don’t mind me asking, Anon, why are you so loose with money? Like I get the profits from the harvest and all that, but shouldn’t you be a bit more, I dunno, fiscally stable?”
  2193. ”I’m a simple man with simple needs,” he says with a shrug. “Let’s put it this way. We made well, well into the tens a millions in profit this year. But I ain’t got any use for that kinda money. If it weren’t for the ponies, I might still be livin’ in that old prairie house.”
  2194. “So you just kind of throw money into the wind?”
  2195. ”Somethin’ like that. ‘Course I got my share a investments and a healthy bank account, but the money can only pile so high. Talk to Scootaloo to know about that borin’ shit, she handles it. I just go to the ATMs and throw money where they want me to.”
  2196. If he’s bothered by that prospect, he doesn’t show it. You get your popcorn and hurry into the showroom.
  2197.  
  2198. That movie was absolute shit.
  2199. You thought it would be halfway decent. It’s one of the first high-budget flicks made with pony actors. And actual actors too, not just random ponies used as extras.
  2200. But holy shit, it was bad. Also, the old stereotype of the Black guy being first to die held up. Hell, there  were two Black guys, and they both died before any of the ponies or White people.
  2201. To make up for it, Anon takes you all to the town’s central park. It’s not terribly large, but they allow ponies and even have a couple pony-specific pieces of equipment on the admittedly large and well-maintained playground.
  2202. You’re chilling under a shady tree with Applejack, contentedly sipping from a lemonade you got from a nearby stall. Away from you but not out of sight, Anon plays with the girls who, when presented with so marvelous a playground, very much still appear to be fillies.
  2203. ”Think they’re gonna be done any time soon?” Applejack asks, out of the blue.
  2204. “No, why? In a hurry to get somewhere?” You, for one, are enjoying a day off.
  2205. ”Naw, got somethin’ else in mind if we got the time.”
  2206. “They seem pretty busy, and I think Anon said he was going to make some sand castles with them or something. Might take some extra time with hooves.”
  2207. ”Hm. Maybe.” She rests her head on her forehooves and stretches out. After a sip of lemonade, she asks another question, “So. What really were ya doin’ ‘fore you got here?”
  2208. Uh oh. Element of Honesty is still on top of her game. “I told you. I was doing research with Twilight, and we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
  2209. ”What, specifically, were you doin’ research on?”
  2210. “Mostly, uhh, inverse teleportation and testing several theories behind it.”
  2211. ”Oh, okay. Ah was just thinkin’, maybe, it mighta had somethin’ to do with your stayin’ invisible for the past four years.”
  2212. You steal a glance towards her, and find her eyes, once covered by a now-folded pair of sunglasses, looking at you intently. She’s not going to take anything but the whole story.
  2213. “There… may have been some experiments that had something to do with that. But it’s not important.”
  2214. ”Ah think it is important. If it’s somethin’ bad, ah gotta know, for the farm. C’mon, you know who you’re dealin’ with. Ah know when you got more to tell ‘bout a story like this.”
  2215. You just stay silent. She follows up, “How ‘bout this: even if it’s somethin’ bad, ah won’t tell nobody else about it. You got my word.”
  2216. For anyone else you would scoff at the offer. But straight from the mouth of the one who cannot tell a lie…
  2217. “Alright. Fine. But no note-taking.”
  2218.  
  2219. It was initially just going to be a weekend trip to a laboratory in Canterlot. It was a wild theory, but one that deserved some experimentation. It couldn’t have actually led anywhere, could it?
  2220. But then it did lead somewhere. The same face was mirrored across the faces of yourself, Twilight, and every other researcher present for the trial. This shot in the dark had, in one sudden flash, become a very stark reality.
  2221. It had been you who had first developed the theory, first written the hypothesis down. It was a laughable explanation for the phenomenon, but Twilight was interested enough to give it at least some attention.
  2222. It was a sudden change. About two years after you’d first started studying and working under Princess Twilight Sparkle, a cultural anomaly had swept the country. Comic books magical and basic appeared, music was developed, artwork hung in the streets, new fashion trends emerged. Equestria’s very basic understanding of film animation even got involved.
  2223. Humanity. This bizarre, mythical race which seemed to be a cross between a Minotaur and a Diamond Dog but very unlike either, had suddenly not only appeared but propagated in media around the country.
  2224. It was a minority that ever truly was interested in the concept, but a large one. Some ponies, like Lyra, had made their love for the trend very public, often in cringeworthy ways. Nobody ever forgot her shitty ‘parade’. Others, like Rainbow Dash, simply had a hidden trove of comics and fanfiction which was slowly added to as time went on.
  2225. The fictional race had initially developed in a lone comic series. Its creators remained anonymous up until the very end despite massive and widespread readership.
  2226. But why? Why had ponies so suddenly not only created but had their entire lives sucked away by this utterly unprecedented anomaly? Plenty of psychologist hacks tried to answer, but scientists in all the respected fields and learned mages couldn’t produce an explanation.
  2227. But what if it wasn’t fiction? What if the sudden implantation of these beings on ponies’ minds wasn’t just some fad or psychological mishap, but instead a magical or physical leaking of one dimension into another?
  2228. Discord had been very clear when he outlined the details of the Law of Chaotic Multidimensions. About the only good he ever did for science, come to think of it. But, that law provided the basis for this strange idea to become a formal theory.
  2229. So, with some concentrated chaos magic, you could theoretically open an actual portal to this dimension if it actually existed. And if it was ‘close’ and ‘leaking’ into Equestria as your theory postulated, that wouldn’t be terribly difficult. Especially when you had an alicorn providing the magical energy.
  2230. So you went to that underground Canterlot lab. They had some unimportant project going on, and of course halted it at the Princess’s order. So they prepared the test chamber, got their machines ready, and you were testing by Friday night.
  2231. Twilight concentrated her magic through the special refracting lens, turning it into nearly pure chaos. It focused in on one point, creating a dangerously bright light which forced all observers to close their eyes.
  2232. So, when the spell was over, nopony had actually witnessed the portal opening. But they didn’t need to.
  2233. On the ground lay a single round, shiny object. A 1982 United States quarter dollar. The exact same pattern as had been observed in numerous comics you, uhh, had on record. Except this time, it was physical and real, even carrying signs of wear and tear consistent with decades of circulation.
  2234. Your friends in Ponyville had been understanding when you’d written back to them explaining that you would need a week or two more to do more tests. And then a month or two more. Eventually, it turned into a year-long project with no end in sight.
  2235. All the Princesses agreed to an almost unlimited budget for such a groundbreaking project, and so the royal coffers were poured into it. A massive, sprawling underground laboratory had been hastily constructed, and hundreds of the nation’s best scientists of every discipline gathered in secret to work on the greatest scientific project Equestria had ever seen.
  2236. But you could never get the portals big enough. They were always restricted to a tiny hole, sucking in one or two objects at a time. The biggest item you ever got through one was a dirty baseball.
  2237. But you did manage to get access to a digital camera at some point. Although it lost its charge and became useless quickly, it contained photographs confirming that the universe you’d discovered and the one being written about (and growing in popularity by the day) were one and the same.
  2238. By eleven months in, however, everyone was getting tired of the same results, yourself and Twilight especially. It was actually a junior lab assistant that proposed the solution that would lead to critical success in the project and the undoing of everything.
  2239. Using a far more complicated refracting lens, two magic streams would be combined to create a portal that was simultaneously larger and able to pull in the opposite direction. Instead of stealing an object or two at a time from their world, ponies could walk in and make contact themselves.
  2240. You hope he got a promotion for that idea. More likely, however, he was probably imprisoned or executed.
  2241. It was true that Twilight and you happened to be near Appaloosa when you decided to test that theory. None of the test chambers you had could contain that much chaos magic, so it had to be done in the middle of nowhere. Preferably, it would be as far away from civilization as possible, just in case a horrific virus or something got through.
  2242. So you, Twilight, and the half dozen or so senior researchers went out to that grassy field forty miles away from Appaloosa on that sunny winter morning. You set up the refracting lenses, and combined the magical streams of an alicorn and the most powerful unicorn ever to live.
  2243. It worked. A door opened up before you, leading to a densely wooded part of what you would later learn was western Washington. It had worked, and your team had rejoiced.
  2244. But it didn’t last long. Much like a tear in fabric, once this hole had been created, it was quickly ripped open wider. At long last, the two dimensions had not only collided, but opened up a gash in their sides. The rift grew and expanded, quickly pulling in every nearby pony.
  2245. It grew, and grew, and grew, for hundreds of miles. Ponies were taken from across rural Equestria and deposited across the western United States. By the time you and Twilight realized what was happening, all of Appaloosa had been sucked through.
  2246. By the time you figured out a way to close the rift, it had started reaching urban areas. By the time you actually did close it, some of those had been taken.
  2247. Reports estimated that no major city had seen more than half its residents taken. But given Las Pegasus’ distance from ground zero, chances are that it was almost entirely engulfed.
  2248. You realized how much shit had hit the fan real hard, real fast. First, you had just ripped half of Equestria’s population out from its dimension. Second, there would be no way to get them back, since the magical materials required to create the lenses shouldn’t and don’t exist in this dimension. Third, you, Twilight, and the team were stuck in the middle of buttfuck nowhere.
  2249. Two of the scientists committed suicide within the hour. The other four left, deciding to try and find a way to live in the woods. There’s no way any of them could face the public and let their actions be known.
  2250. That left you and Twilight. A bit of wandering later, you found a dirt road. A few hours of following said road later, you found train tracks. Two days of following tracks and avoiding trains later, you arrived at a town.
  2251. Twilight obviously couldn’t stay with you. She would be needed by the ponies, and probably whatever government was ruling. Whether or not they knew who had opened the portals, she had to leave. And so you were alone, at the edge of some coastal Washington town.
  2252. To your surprise, this world apparently knew of you as well. They too had a media phenomenon years in the making which focused on your universe. To this day, however, nobody knows how or why the company and individuals involved with the television show’s creation made what they did.
  2253. They’d quickly disappeared once things got real.
  2254. The country was in absolute chaos. Millions of hungry, lost, sapient beings had suddenly appeared in a nation that imported food. They couldn’t be put down. They couldn’t be left to starve. No other country would take them, it would be too risky.
  2255. Although many of the ponies had been located in a few population centers when the disaster happened, they were spread out far and wide. Ponies in the vicinity of one another stayed together, but it was mostly random where their group would end up in this world.
  2256. At least that meant family units like Applejack’s stayed together. Although some, like Sweetie Belle and her sister, were instantly separated by thousands of miles.
  2257. If your estimates are correct, it should have been a fairly even spread across most of the United States west of the Mississippi River. No ponies had appeared in Canada or Mexico, but they had been near both borders.
  2258. The lucky ponies, like you, found work or hospitality in those early weeks. You never went hungry for a day on this Earth. Most, however, struggled to find a meal or a place to stay.
  2259. In the face of this desperate new population, the only solution anyone could find would be to privatize the ponies’ care.
  2260. Which lead to indentured servitude.
  2261. Which quickly devolved into abject slavery.
  2262. You don’t blame the humans for developing the system. The country just couldn’t support this massive new population. If they hadn’t acted, millions would have starved.
  2263. But now, with expanded food production and a booming economy, there’s little humanitarian justification for it.
  2264. Regardless, you went to the government offices like the rest of the ponies, and got sold quickly. You’d put down a pseudonym and false background information, and thankfully nobody had recognized you.
  2265. You’d worked for a single construction company for a couple months before their finances failed, at which point you were then resold and got lucky with the library position.
  2266. Sometimes you wonder what you could have done in this world if you’d shown off your magic instead of hiding your potential. But back then, you couldn’t be sure of your safety. Did the ponies know who had caused this disaster? Did the humans? Would you be imprisoned or worse?
  2267. Unlike the scientists with you, you preferred to remain alive and a functioning member of society. At least, as well as you could be. So, that meant keeping your trap shut and your horn powered down.
  2268. Now, though, it’s pretty apparent that the general consensus on the rift was that it was an accident. That it happened without intervention from anyone, human or pony.
  2269. You’re not eager to correct that notion.
  2270.  
  2271. ”So. It… it were you what did all this?”
  2272. “I… yes. Our team was trying to open up a rift, but it wasn’t supposed to get out of hoof like it did.”
  2273. She stays silent, and stares at the grass.
  2274. “I’m being honest with you. We definitely didn’t mean for everything to happen how it did. It was supposed to just be a few of us that could send a probe or scout through.”
  2275. ”Well. S’pose ah know why you ain’t eager to tell that story now.”
  2276. “Do you… do you hold it against me?”
  2277. ”Dunno. It… it ain’t a good thing you did. But ah think you know that. And ah know you wouldn’t want somethin’ like this to happen.”
  2278. Applejack raises her gaze from the ground toward Anon and Applebloom, who are currently trying to swipe Scootaloo out of a tree, to little success. Sporadically, laughter from one or another pierces the cold air around you.
  2279. ”But, me at least, ah think… Ah think we got it pretty good here. And to be honest with ya, I dunno if I’d rather have it any different.”
  2280. “If that’s your attempt at making me feel better about my actions, it’s not very convincing.”
  2281. She looks at you, her brows furrowed in thought. “No, ah mean it. It ain’t perfect, ‘specially not for most ponies but… lookit what we got. We got each other. We got a nice big farm. We got stuff to do and games to play. And we got him.”
  2282. She points a hoof at Anon. “He’s family, Starlight. If he ain’t in blood, he sure as hell is in spirit. Just like Scoots n’ Sweetie. Ah just, ah dunno if I’d wanna be back in Equestria if he weren’t there.”
  2283. “So, what’s your point? That doesn’t excuse what I did. Doesn’t excuse how many millions of lives destroyed because I just had to chase that wild little theory.”
  2284. ”No, it don’t,” she agrees, turning back to the fillies and Anon, still playing games around the tree. “But just remember things ain’t all bad, neither. And no, ah won’t hold it against ya, it were just an accident anyhow. Ah won’t tell nobody neither, ‘course.”
  2285. “Thanks. I guess… I guess I’ve just needed to get this off my chest. To tell somepony, anypony really. Knowing that somepony doesn’t hate me for it is a big relief.”
  2286. ”Just don’t go spreadin’ that story ‘round. Now c’mon,” she says, standing up and stretching. “Let’s go have fun with the rest of ‘em.”
  2287.  
  2288. It’s been two and a half weeks since your town outing with Anon and his family.
  2289. You figure that’s probably the best term to describe their relationship, and you doubt any of them would contest that from what you’ve seen.
  2290. Having told what really happened to somepony has helped to clear your mind somewhat. And her comforting yet still firmly honest reassurance that your actions weren’t all bad has undoubtedly helped as well.
  2291. Construction on the residences has, to your great frustration, ground to a halt. Issues keep cropping up, and as soon as one problem is resolved, two more take its place. One day there isn’t enough cement mix to fill a foundation. The next, you find out that the bolts you’ve been using the past four days have all been the wrong size. The problems just don’t seem to end.
  2292. Any time advantage you had from the rail construction has been wiped out, and other construction teams are starting to move ahead of yours.
  2293. At least you’ve started growing more comfortable with a position of leadership. It’s easier now to organize the ponies and give commands. You still hold reservations about yourself, but it’s probably not healthy to outright avoid responsibility.
  2294. Today, work has been progressing well, but you’ll have to shave a few hours off your planning (and perhaps a few days after that) due to a massive incoming snowstorm. To be fair, you’ve had exemplary weather so far, but you’ll be damned if you like it when good things come to an end.
  2295. Before that storm hits, you need to have the metal roofing in place for the first residence hall. You’re going to be cutting it close, as there’s a lot of work to do, but if it’s not done feet of snow will inevitably pile up inside, causing incalculable damage to the fresh foundation and scattered materials.
  2296. Thankfully, you pulled a few strings and got some pegasi to help out. Their assistance in placing the sheeting is invaluable, and might make the difference between success and failure today.
  2297. You haven’t seen much of Crystal Skies lately, but his help was critical in rounding up their group. Apparently, he’s actually managed to attract a fine young pegasus mare, a green-coated beauty with a fiery yellow mane named Cloud Skimmer, and you’re glad to see the end of his nonstop half-joking flirting.
  2298. You can see the couple working hard, straining under the weight of a metal panel they’re flying up to the roof. But, they seem happy, chit-chatting with each other to take their minds off the work.
  2299. You, on the other hoof, have few ponies to talk to here. Looking Glass and the other unicorn higher-ups are working elsewhere on the farm, and your co-manager Frostfern isn’t the talkative type.
  2300. As for the rest of the ponies, they don’t seem comfortable talking to you when it’s not strictly business. And you’re fine with that, really. Almost all your friends here are in elevated positions, and thus you don’t expect the ‘common workers’ to fraternize with you.
  2301. After all, you’d almost become the Karl Marx of Equestria, and some of that sentiment still carries over.
  2302. As the day goes on, you become less and less sure that you’ll be able to finish the work before the storm hits. You can see the clouds starting to move in from the west, and they don’t look welcoming.
  2303. You have the ponies start working double time, breaks reduced. You get a few groans in reply, but they by and large comply without complaint. After all, none of them want to be caught out in a blizzard either.
  2304. As for yourself, you’ve been working on transporting materials and doing heavier lifting throughout the day. Now, though, you’re joining the pegasi and unicorns frantically applying the roofing materials to the building itself.
  2305. Several feet of snow are expected to fall tonight alone, so tarping won’t be an option. You have to get this done.
  2306. But as the clouds draw nearer, you start to become less confident in your situation. The other construction teams have started to go in already, and you can see your ponies getting anxious as their friends trot by.
  2307. The temperatures have dropped, and the wind is picking up. It’ll only be a few minutes before the sun has been blocked out by the clouds.
  2308. ”Starlight!” you hear Crystal Skies call out. You look over and see him wiping his brow after bolting in another sheet of roofing. “We’re out of time! The storm is gonna hit us, we have to go in!”
  2309. You scan the building from the air. It’s only a pretty small corner left, it’ll go fast. And if it’s not done, days or even weeks might be shaved off your schedule to repair the damages the building will incur.
  2310. “We can get it done! Just keep going, we can do it!”
  2311. The ponies look to you with varying degrees of concern, but they all get back to their tasks and pick up the pace. A look towards Frostfern reveals him to be of a similar mood, anxious but determined.
  2312. Within a quarter of an hour, the work is done. By now, though, the cold has started to bite and snow is falling thick. Any traces of the sun’s warmth are reserved for land miles away, yet to be caught up in the storm.
  2313. “Alright! That’s the last of it! Everypony stick close, I’ll get a heater orb to follow us!”
  2314. Creating an orb large enough to keep everypony around you comfortable indefinitely isn’t possible, but it should help to prevent anypony from being hurt in the walk back home.
  2315. The strain is compounded by the pegasi, who can’t fly back in the driving, wet wind. They’re forced to walk alongside your group.
  2316. The rail system can’t hold everypony your with, but that doesn’t matter much. By now the tracks will be too icy and slick to use.
  2317. So instead, your group plows forwards. You’re comfortable in your enchanted winter clothing, but you have to get back fast for the sake of the ponies behind you who are already shivering.
  2318. Halfway there, and you’re officially caught in the storm. Although the heating orb melts most of the snow that comes inside its radius, visibility is reduced inside of it due to the dimmed sun and present fog.
  2319. Outside of the bubble, you can’t see more further ahead than a few paces. If you didn’t know the dimensions of this road and the farm as well as you do, you wouldn’t be able to tell when you’d arrive at the housing area until it was just a few feet in front of you.
  2320. The ponies behind you are shivering, but not just from the cold. You can understand their concern: if not for this heating bubble, there’s a very real chance none would make it back.
  2321. You’ll have to do something to thank them. Perhaps arrange for a special event, or empty out your liquor drawer.
  2322. At last, the barrack-style housing blocks come into view. You give a cry in excitement, with the added effect of rallying those behind you. You pour into the nearest building, one of the communal housing blocks.
  2323. The ponies inside quickly make way for your group, which pours into the warm interior. You recast a heating orb, to get everypony back to a healthy body temperature quicker.
  2324. As the last of them trickle in, you go back to the door and scan both visually and magically for anypony still outside. Finding nothing, you shut the door and turn back to your relieved crowd.
  2325. Ponies are hugging, chatting, and curling up for warmth. A few dirty looks are shot your way, but you ignore them. Those sentiments are to be expected and forgiven after such a difficult and dangerous hike.
  2326. But, before anything else, you need to do a head count.
  2327. “Everyone! Everyone, quiet down please! Before all else, we need to do a head count. Can I have everypony not in our team to please go to the other end of the room?”
  2328. Somewhat reluctantly, the ponies separate themselves, leaving your group on its own and away from the rest. It looks like everypony is here, but you’ll do a head count just in case.
  2329. One, two, three… fifty-five, fifty six. Add yourself and Frostfern, and that makes fifty-eight ponies.
  2330. But… wait.
  2331. Before you can speak, a pegasus darts up from the crowd and wildly looks about the room.
  2332. ”HEY! WHERE IN GOD’S NAME IS CLOUD SKIMMER?!”
  2333.  
  2334. You didn’t find her body for two days.
  2335. The snowstorm ended up being far worse than expected. Over six feet in total fell in those two days, the wind and the darkness not letting up for a moment. Being the only one capable of safely going out into the storm, you had to bring each of the residence halls the food and supplies they needed.
  2336. But that’s the least you could do. Then again, no matter how hard you try, you know you’ll never be redeemed in their eyes after this. Not for many years, at the very least.
  2337. Your friends assured you that it wasn’t your fault, that she should’ve stayed closer in the storm. After some discussion, Anon and his family also agreed to forgo punishment so long as you swore to be more cautious. But, none of them were actually there.
  2338. Of course it’s your fault. You didn’t want to fall further behind. You didn’t want to explain to Anon that you’d need thousands of dollars in replacement materials and extra time to repair the damages. You didn’t want to disappoint.
  2339. But now, a pony has paid the ultimate price for your recklessness. Again. But now, you’ve destroyed the hopes and happiness of everypony around you. Again.
  2340. They’ve glared at you openly. They’ve insulted you. Some have even spit on the ground in front of you. But it’s well-deserved, and you assured the other higher-ups that you don’t want to see those actions get punished.
  2341. Punishment for them would be like icing on a massive cake of loathing.
  2342. Most vocal of all is Crystal Skies. Once a pony you would call friend, and the only one here who saw you at the auction, is now understandably your greatest detractor.
  2343. After failing for so long in his romantic pursuits, he finally found a mare willing to except his mannerisms. And, by the looks of things, a very sweet one at that. No longer would his desperation stain his personality, and no longer would loneliness drive his actions.
  2344. Until, of course, you took her away from him. It was less than a week into their courtship.
  2345. On that third morning after she first went missing, the snow had finally stopped coming. You and a search party set out immediately, melting and digging through the snow and trying to find her underneath. Few still clung to the notion of finding her alive.
  2346. It was you who ended up finding her. About ten yards off the road, and not sixty from the housing. She must have lagged behind, lost the group and ventured off the road. Perhaps she fell into some deep snow, or tried to fly back.
  2347. More likely, she was probably overwhelmed by the wet, freezing snow that would have quickly sent her body into shock.
  2348. As the snow melted around her, her body remained rigid. It was frozen solid, and when he was the first to try and move it, a stallion in your search party vomited. You were glad that Crystal Skies wasn’t there to see the scene.
  2349. Tonight, the same night you found her, a funeral service is being arranged. Anon hasn’t had to deal with many pony deaths due to the generally young age he acquires them at, but he claims to be treating this incident with the same reverence as the last.
  2350. A pony-friendly preacher is brought in to administer her last rights, and oversee the burial. A coffin of quality cherry wood has been purchased, custom made to allow the pegasus to be buried with her wings unfurled. A respectful dinner to honor her memory is planned, and Crystal Skies will receive time off and other amenities to help him in recovery.
  2351. Of course, you’re barred from the funeral and all related services. You wouldn’t go regardless.
  2352. You could go to your room and study, but you instead decide to actually be productive and head out to the construction site. Perhaps you can lighten the workload for the ponies who have to get started tomorrow.
  2353. You’ll be switching roles with Ruby Heart, to keep you away from your old group. The new one won’t be friendly either, but it’s probably far less likely to inflame the situation than the still-hurting ponies formerly under your command.
  2354. You teleport over to the job site, and find your work thoroughly buried under snow. A quick peek inside reveals that at the very least, the building was properly sealed from the elements. No difficult repair jobs necessary.
  2355. You sigh and start removing the massive piles of snow from the sides and roof of the building, and then the snow around the two other foundations you’ve poured. It’s easy work for you, but the ponies will struggle when they inevitably must face another winter storm further down the line.
  2356. With little else to do, you teleport back, and go to rot in your room as you wait out the funeral.
  2357. Study magic? You doubt you’ll be able to concentrate. Video games? Not appealing at the moment. That fiction book you haven’t read yet? No thanks.
  2358. So it’s liquor then. You’re glad Anon sprang for the fridge with a drawer.
  2359.  
  2360. Morning comes, and you’re all able to finally eat breakfast as usual.
  2361. Well, not entirely as usual. A pall of silence seems to have fallen across the tables, and where there is usually lively conversation and laughter, few raise their voices beyond a half-whisper.
  2362. Your table is no different, although thankfully all its regular members are still here. At least you haven’t made an enemy of everyone.
  2363. At last Looking Glass breaks the silence, “So, Starlight. Are we still on for magic training on Sunday?”
  2364. “I… yeah.” Maybe some honest teaching and practice would be good for you. “Yeah, we can still go.”
  2365. Further conversation fails to ignite, and your meal continues in relative silence.
  2366. It’s only when one of the breakfast servers, a plump and somewhat elderly pegasus mare, comes over that the silence is again broken.
  2367. ”Starlight, dearie,” she speaks, poking you lightly in the back. Turning around, you can see her face is a mix of emotions, although you think you can detect some pity in there for you. “Just wanted t’let ya know, Crystal Skies ain’t holdin’ up too well. Somepony caught ‘im heading towards ‘is room with a rope last night, but managed t’yank the thing away from ‘im. I know he probably don’t wanna see you, but if you could do somethin’, anythin’, it’d mean a lot.”
  2368. She turns tail and walks off. You’d thought his melancholy to be exaggerated (if still valid), but if he’s really that far gone…
  2369.  
  2370. That evening, a set of six bottles of hard liquor are placed in front of his door.
  2371. By the time curfew sets in, they’ve disappeared.
  2372.  
  2373. It’s been two weeks since the incident.
  2374. Some things have gone well, like Looking Glass’s magic training. He’s every bit as talented as you’d originally estimated.
  2375. And Anon has talked with Rainbow Dash’s owner, too. He doesn’t have a lot of money (which is surprising given the fame of the pony he’s picked up) so Anon would have to pay for his airfare and any hotels. Not a problem, of course.
  2376. But overall, these two weeks have probably been the worst since you opened the rift.
  2377. Much as you’d like for the incident to fade away, everything you’ve seen has indicated otherwise. Aside from the other managers and Looking Glass, hostility towards you around the farm is palpable. You’ve been spat on, yelled at, cussed out, and condemned to damnation more times than you can count.
  2378. The refusal to punish these actions only emboldened the ponies. Eventually, one of your earth pony workers even slapped you.
  2379. You couldn’t stop it when Anon demanded him whipped. Punishment for that particular action was probably necessary to ensure that things wouldn’t escalate further, but whipping is a bit much, you think.
  2380. To make it even worse, this would be a public punishment. The proceedings are just now beginning.
  2381. The workday has just ended, and all the ponies have headed in. Snow falls lightly, but temperatures are warm enough that you can melt it away with ease.
  2382. Attendance isn’t mandatory, and minors are barred from watching. You estimate that about half of the farm’s population is here in the rec field to watch, with the rest inside buildings or eating dinner early.
  2383. Your magic, in addition to providing a bit of warmth, illuminates the area with an artificial and slightly green glow. A small stage has been set up, with a lone pole standing upright in the center of it.
  2384. Public punishment is rare on the farm, but Anon and his family have grown tired of the defiance they’ve seen. So tonight, he plays the bad guy and delivers his punishment.
  2385. You stand with the other managers away from the crowd, but still well within view of both them and the stage. With no scene being played out before them, they whisper amongst themselves and cast glances toward your group.
  2386. None of you have spoken in favor of the punishment, but likewise none have rebuked it either. As a result, sentiment is not with you tonight.
  2387. But your spotlight is short-lived, as it’s not long before Anon’s pickup truck pulls up next to the field. He and his family climb out of the front, while Big Mac guides the pony in the back out as well.
  2388. You’ve seen little of the red stallion in your days here, but from what you’ve gathered, he seems to stay closer to the workers than the rest of his family. Tonight, however, he’s using his size and strength to keep the accused in line.
  2389. He’s a stallion with a dark gray, almost black coat, light teal mane, and a music note cutie mark. Bright purple eyes gaze out towards you, illuminated by one of your nearby light sources. He flinches as the crowd turns to observe him, but with a light prod starts walking towards the stage and its resident post regardless.
  2390. Anon and Big Mac follow him to the post, while Applejack and the Crusaders come and join your group of higher-ups separate from the crowd. They each carry the same face: stoic and unflinching.
  2391. The crowd has silenced, and once more you look across it. Your gaze stops on the two visages pointed at you: Crystal Skies with a face of unbridled scorn, and Tangerine with the same silent disapproval he’d faced you with for weeks.
  2392. Neither talks to you much anymore, but you can understand why. Few ponies do.
  2393. Anon, Big Mac and the pony who struck you, Bright Voice, step up onto the stage. It’s not imposing in height or breadth, but rather just big enough to give everyone in the crowd enough of an angle to view what happens.
  2394. Anon pulls out a note card, and addresses the accused in a loud voice, “Earth pony Bright Voice: you stand accused a striking another pony. This act always incurs a punishment ‘round here, but doubly so because you done it in a show a defiance to a mare who’s already endured weeks a harassment. Whatta you got to say for yourself?”
  2395. The pony considers for a moment, pointing his gaze down. But then, he looks out to the crowd, and finally rests his sights on you. “I done it, Mr. Anonymous. An’ I know I gotta get punished for it, ain’t no excuse to be had. But ‘least I ain’t no murderer.”
  2396. A couple gasps can be heard in the audience, but you can feel their attention turn to you and the tension in the air heighten significantly. You shrink back and drop your head.
  2397. You feel Lyra lean into you slightly, in an act of reassurance. It’s welcome and certainly helps you, but are you even deserving of that?
  2398. ”Well then,” Anon declares, shifting attention once more back to the stage. “Your original punishment shall hold. Fifteen lashes, to be administered by me in the first public whipping this farm has seen. Let it also be known to any observers that similar punishments will occur for anyone who strikes Starlight Glimmer, or any other pony in an official position of management.”
  2399. He nods to Big Mac, “Tie his front hooves up to the post.”
  2400. Big Mac obliges, as Bright Voice has already moved to place his hooves on the post. You’re closer to the scene than most, and you can see him shaking as the binds are tied.
  2401. To your surprise, Big Mac remains on the stage as Anon reaches into his coat and pulls out a whip. It’s not a particularly cruel one, but three metal tassels still adorn its end. Fifteen lashes are going to hurt, but there probably won’t be any serious damage. That is, assuming the wounds are treated.
  2402. ”I’m gonna count and so are you, Bright Voice. That way we won’t see one more or one shy a fifteen. Got it? I want you t’yell it out after each strike, you hear?”
  2403. ”Yes sir!” he exclaims, already bracing for the blows.
  2404. Without another word, Anon raises the whip and brings it down against his back.
  2405. You flinch at the strike, but don’t look away as many in the audience do. Nor do any of the oligarchy ruling this farm, including Big Mac. They all maintain their composure.
  2406. The first hit isn’t particularly hard, but it certainly cuts into his side. From your position, you can see streaks of red immediately visible on his side. He doesn’t scream, only letting out a strained “One!” in sync with Anon.
  2407. The next seven hits land much the same way. More of the onlookers are able to glance up, but many including yourself still flinch at each hit.
  2408. On the ninth strike, you see a pair of wings unfurl in the audience and the outline of a male stallion flying away. Judging from its position, it was probably Crystal Skies.
  2409. The tenth blow lands harder than prior ones, and Bright Voice lets out a whimper in response. Several gasps, whispers or noises can be heard from the otherwise silent audience. The higher-ups, however, remain focused in their gaze, save for yourself peeking out to the other ponies and Applebloom, who now looks to the ground.
  2410. The final five come more gently than the first ten, leading you to believe that Anon doesn’t intend to hurt the poor fellow so much as send a message. In the crowd, several mares are sobbing, and many have already left, so you believe that message to be successfully delivered.
  2411. Bright Voice, on the other hand, has maintained his composure commendably well. His back bears the obvious marks of his sentence, yet his tears are shallow and without sobs. Aside from the hard tenth strike, the only vocalization he’d made throughout the ordeal was a large gasp as it all ended.
  2412. Much like the past beating you’d seen, the matter was resolved in less than two minutes, but it felt much longer.
  2413. Perhaps chillingly, though, you don’t feel the same creeping sensations of dread and disgust. Not because of anything Bright Voice did to you, but rather from the new light and new context you’ve seen Anon in.
  2414. It’s an epiphany, and you’re struck by how much your outlook has changed.
  2415. Perhaps it’s simply a more mature way of looking at things.
  2416. Perhaps your view has become distorted since your arrival here.
  2417. You’re immobilized by the consideration, but only for a moment. Even if you could determine which is the truth, there’s not much you could do about it. This is your lot in life, and it’s all you can do to improve on it.
  2418. That philosophy has gotten you this far, right? A comfortable position with friends new and old and a good workplace you can hone your magic in, these things are more than most ponies can hope to have in this world.
  2419. But your ruminations are cut off as Lyra nudges you once more, and you again are aware of your surroundings. The ponies are filing out, many distraught and others angered or saddened.
  2420. Your attention turns to Anon, who is kneeling beside Bright Voice and whispering to Big Mac. Spotting you glancing his way, he waves a hand to motion you toward him.
  2421. As you get closer, Bright Voice’s wounds are more apparent. They aren’t deep, but they certainly look like they sting. If they aren’t sanitized and closed soon, infection is likely to set in.
  2422. ”Starlight,” Big Mac asks before Anon gets the chance to. “You got any kinda spell to clean these hurts up? We got bandages and alcohol, but magic might do ‘im better.”
  2423. You study the wounds for a moment more. Barely more than skin deep, probably easily closed. You’re no expert in healing magic, but this isn’t a very difficult job.
  2424. “The good news is, I can probably get the cuts closed up right here. The bad news, I can’t disinfect it for you. I mean I could, but it’s a risky procedure and these aren’t nearly severe enough for me to try.”
  2425. Cleaning and sanitizing wounds with magic is possible, but it’s a delicate process. Unicorn doctors would only eschew magicless sanitization options under extreme circumstances due to the volatility of the spells involved.
  2426. ”I’ll go get the rubbin’ alcohol then,” Anon says as he stands up and walks back to the truck.
  2427. As he nears the vehicle, Bright Voice lifts his head from its previous position dangling betwixt his forelegs and speaks in a near whisper, “Starlight, I… I just want you t’know, I know it ain’t your fault. And I’m sorry for hurtin’ ya. Just, ponies, all of us, it ain’t been easy times on us. The emotions we got, they come out sometimes. Just make sure I get patched up and we call it good, okay?”
  2428. “I… yes, okay. Thank you,” you get out, slightly struck by his willingness to forgive you.
  2429. You’re silent until Anon returns with the disinfectant. He applies it carefully but thoroughly, to the repeated winces of Bright Voice. The stallion even makes a lighthearted comment that he’s taking this harder than the actual punishment, earning a polite but genuine chuckle from the entire huddle.
  2430. As expected, his wounds all close up with ease, and he bears not a scratch nor a patch of redness to indicate what happened only minutes before. Attitude-wise he seems to be recovering as well, confident enough to talk with you, Anon, and even Big Mac if the latter would allow it.
  2431. But you can still hear him tremble or stutter, and still see the subdued fear in his eyes as he looks upon each of you. Tonight, even the monolithic red stallion provides no solace aside from what has been earned.
  2432. After a short time, you’re dismissed, and you make for your quarters. Dinner is likely still out, but you have food in your room and your cooking needs improvement anyway.
  2433. And so you enter your housing block, devoid of occupants aside from two fillies playing chess at the end of the hall. The block has filled up almost entirely since you first moved in, and now instead of being a fresh and unmarred development, it bears the hallmarks of its tenants. Dents, decorations, and even the stray marks of crayon dot walls and doors, and stains show in several spots of carpet.
  2434. It’s not a bad look, by your estimates. Makes the place seem less like a house and more like a home, which is probably a good thing if that cliché is worth its salt.
  2435. But as you approach your door, third on the right, you find a new adornment to this hallway. A strip of paper, lined and torn from a notepad, hangs from your door by a single strip of tape. Rough hoofwriting is scrawled on it, the letters deep and heavy with purpose.
  2436. ’We won’t forget.’
  2437.  
  2438. You’re walking back in from the fields after the next day’s work, chatting happily with Lyra, whose group has been working in fields right next to yours. Although you could probably teleport back in a single trip, you elect to walk with her to enjoy the company.
  2439. The air, while cold, is dry and free of clouds. You like this climate, it’s drier than you’re used to but still safely outside the classification of a desert.
  2440. The conversation you’re engrossed in is of little consequence, mere discussions of the video games Lyra seems to take so seriously. You’re a drag on her whenever you play together, but she insists on teaming up regularly. As of late, it’s been a nice escape of normality in your otherwise tumultuously life, so you appreciate her efforts.
  2441. But something catches your attention as you walk behind the other ponies. You haven’t spent much time with this group yet, but you’re almost certain there were more of them before.
  2442. The ranks of the crowd ahead of you seem… thin. Instead of forming a column of clusters that consumes a long stretch of the road, they’re more spread out and don’t fully reach the sides.
  2443. You do a quick head count, and while you may have skipped or double-counted a few, there are definitely fewer ponies than normal ahead of you. About a fifth are gone, by your estimates.
  2444. “Lyra, stop.”
  2445. Startled by your abrupt end to the conversation, she stops and fixes her attention on you. “Yeah, Starlight? What’s up?”
  2446. “Look at the group in front of us. It’s not everypony we head-counted before coming in.”
  2447. She squints at the group for a moment, and her mouth forms several numbers as she counts under her breath. Suddenly, her eyes widen, “What the hell? They didn’t stay back in the fields, did they?”
  2448. You levitate yourself up, to get a bird’s-eye view of the landscape. There’s not a soul in the fields you came from, nor ahead of your group along the road. There are over a dozen ponies missing from your group, where the fuck can they be?
  2449. Your eyes fall on the large thicket that borders the area you’ve been clearing. It runs along a creek, cutting through the otherwise bleak and flat property. It’s the only place they could be, right?
  2450. “They had to have gone into the trees,” you say to Lyra as you set yourself back on the ground. “There’s nowhere else they could be.”
  2451. ”What the fuck would they be doing in there, though? We aren’t even going to start clearing those lands until next month!”
  2452. Before you can work out an answer, you observe a lone figure flying toward you from the horizon.
  2453. Too large to be a bird, you can make out Scootaloo’s orange coat and purple mane as she draws nearer. She lands beside you on wobbly legs, obviously strained from working her still-fragile wings so hard.
  2454. “Scootaloo! Are you okay? You were flying awful fast.”
  2455. She wipes sweat from her brow and takes a deep breath before speaking, “Starlight, no time to explain, but we have to get back to the house, fast. Lyra too. Can you teleport us?”
  2456. Three ponies, at this distance? It wouldn’t be easy…
  2457. “Is it serious? I can do it, but only if it’s urgent.”
  2458. ”Do it.”
  2459. Without another word, your horn glows, and a green bubble momentarily encompasses the three of you as you teleport to the farm’s central structure.
  2460. When you pop back into space, you nearly stumble to the ground, but you’re able to maintain enough composure to catch yourself. Your two companions look to you with a bit of worry, but you wave off their concerns.
  2461. Thank God you’d been practicing your magic these past few weeks. That teleport could have seriously hurt you otherwise. But it still wasn’t exactly easy and you might be a bit sore in the morning.
  2462. ”There y’all are!” roars the voice of Anon from the kitchen window nearest to you. “Get inside, we don’t got much time!”
  2463. You’d like to ask what’s going on, but the urgency in his face and voice indicates that you should probably ask that particular question later on. The three of you run to the front door, where Sunny Streak waits, holding it open for you. Her eyes dart from side to side, as though expecting some ethereal horror to materialize before her.
  2464. The three of you get inside, and she quickly shuts the door hard behind you, almost slamming it. You pause to watch as she does each of the three sets of locks on the door, all of which are easily manipulated by hooves and teeth.
  2465. You walk into the kitchen, which has become a sort of standard meeting-place in the home. Inside, you find Anon, his pony family, and Ruby Heart. Each carries an expression of deep worry similar to the ones you’d already seen on Scootaloo and Sunny Streak.
  2466. ”Alright y’all,” Applejack says as you enter the room. “We’re just gonna give it to ya flat. We done made a big mistake last night, and shit’s hittin’ the fan.”
  2467. Anon is the next to speak, “We’re used to seein’ some hostile thoughts and words from our surveillance. But today, things’re turnin’ up a notch. The communal housin’, where ponies are usually most afraid to talk, today they weren’t holdin’ back.”
  2468. He slaps a hand on a laptop on the counter beside him. “Started payin’ more attention to our security tapes, and ever since last night, talk’s really been loose. Thought it was just more a the same, but I was wrong. We got a situation on our hands.”
  2469. ”Y’all notice you had some ponies missin’ from your group after the sun started settin’?” Applejack asks.
  2470. ”Yeah,” Lyra responds, “we were just about to look for them when Scootaloo-“
  2471. ”Yeah, they went through the woods. But by then, we already knew what was goin’ on.”
  2472. She and Anon exchange a look, and he delivers the next line, “They’re startin’ up a lynch mob.”
  2473. “They’re doing WHAT?” you blurt out.
  2474. ”Looks like they done had enough a you, Starlight,” Applejack answers grimly. “They’re plannin’ to grab ya and do who-knows-what soon as you sit down for dinner.”
  2475. ”When we realized they were actually gonna do somethin’, slippin’ away from their work groups, we went out to grab y’all. I took the truck to grab Sweetie, Applebloom, AJ, Ruby, and Sunny. Scootaloo went out to find you two, since you’d probably be able to warp back here.”
  2476. Holy shit, things have turned sour.
  2477. ”Now,” Anon continues, “they ain’t out for no blood other’n hers, thankfully. So Starlight, I want you to hold tight here with me. Sunny, Ruby, Lyra, ain’t seen anything to indicate any malice towards y’all, so I want you to go out there and try n’ reason with ‘em.”
  2478. ”Are you sure it’s safe?” Lyra asks, obviously uncomfortable with the order.
  2479. ”Pretty sure, but if it ain’t, I’ll be watching here with my rifle. Just make sure nobody gets too close, and turn tail n’ run if things get bad.”
  2480. Looking past him, you only now notice a long hunting rifle with a large scope mounted atop it. Spare magazines and ammunition are set up beside it. This is serious.
  2481. But even with Anon watching over, they won’t be very secure.
  2482. “Anon, maybe I should go with them.”
  2483. ”Not gonna happen. You forgotten that you’re what we’re tryin’ to keep ‘em away from?”
  2484. “Just hear me out,” you say, before taking a deep breath. “They’re going to want to see me, and if I go out there, I can probably talk them down. If not, I know how to set up shields for myself, and keep myself protected. If things take a turn for the worse, I can just teleport out.”
  2485. ”Why can’t ya just shield the others, then?” Applejack asks.
  2486. “Same reason I never did it for you in Equestria. Shields are one of the only spells that can’t be cast on other ponies, only on an area or an individual.”
  2487. The room is silent for a moment, aside from a deep sigh from Anon. Finally, he says slowly and deliberately, “Alright, fine. You go out, but make sure them shields’re up. And take the other three with ya anyways, I don’t want you out there alone.”
  2488. ”And Starlight,” Applejack adds, “you teleport back here at the very first sign a trouble, you hear? We’ll have the sheriff already dialed.”
  2489. You nod, cast a shield about yourself, and start making for the back door.
  2490. Perhaps it’s finally time to confront your actions.
  2491.  
  2492. You get about fifty feet from the house before you start realizing how terrible this decision probably is.
  2493. The ponies don’t really want to hurt your friends, and they’re also the most talented unicorns on the farm aside from you. Even if something were to happen, they could probably handle themselves.
  2494. Teleporting could be an issue, too. You hadn’t thought much about that scenario, but if it comes down to it teleporting four ponies all the way back to the house won’t be easy.
  2495. But you can see their group in the distance, which means they can see yours as well. Turning back now after they’ve already seen you might make them give chase.
  2496. Why are they even doing this? Even if they’d caught you by surprise and had their way with you, they’re taking a huge risk doing this. Few ponies here are stupid enough to think there won’t be massive retribution for a riot.
  2497. Maybe it’s not even that, though. The other ponies could just be misinterpreting whatever this is. Probably best to go and find out yourself before anyone does anything hasty…
  2498. And so, despite the second-guesses that fill your mind, you continue your march toward the yonder group of ponies. As they grow closer, you can make out the expressions of the mob’s front-facing members.
  2499. Some gaze upon you with muted, almost masked anger. These expressions don’t scare you, you’ve seen them aplenty in the past several weeks. The ones that truly worry you contain unmitigated rage. Their eyes burn with the desire to see you hung from a tree limb, or ground to a pulp below their hooves.
  2500. You’re within hearing distance, and you’ve long since held their full attention. You stop in your tracks, and hold out a hoof to keep your companions back as well. There’s no point in getting dangerously close to their group.
  2501. Neither party moves for a moment, aside from clothing, fur, and manes being ruffled by the icy winds. In the distance, behind them and amongst the buildings you all call home, you can see many more of the farm’s residents peering out at what’s unfolding before them.
  2502. ”So I reckon y’all know what’s goin’ on here, then?” a buff, young earth pony stallion asks from the front. His tony is colder than ice, and cuts through the winter air to freeze your heart.
  2503. “I’d rather not make assumptions. I’m hoping this, whatever it is, isn’t anything bad.”
  2504. ”Not for them,” he says, motioning to the unicorns flanking you on each side. “But we done had enough with you, Starlight Glimmer. Either you get the hell outta this farm, or we make ya wish ya had.”
  2505. Then there’s no question in their motives, or their intentions. Talking this matter down isn’t going to be easy. But panicking now isn’t a good idea, they’re staying back at the moment.
  2506. “I know I’ve done wrongs. And I know and feel deeply the consequences of my actions. But believe me when I say I never wanted any of this, this authority. I’d rather have never taken it on.”
  2507. He smiles, “Well, Glimmer, I don’t believe you. You might believe it, but not me. Ever since you got here you just been workin’ to get all nice an’ cozy with the bosses, don’t seem like the actions a somepony wantin’ to avoid power to me.”
  2508. “It’s the truth. But even if it wasn’t, is that really a reason to resort to violence?”
  2509. ”Oh, that ain’t the reason we’re out here. It’s just that folks don’t appreciate when murder goes unpunished. An’ they appreciate it less when the suspect has her critics whipped after she’s got away with it.”
  2510. Technically, by any legal definition, the death would be negligence or at worst manslaughter. But telling them that probably won’t help your case in this informal outdoor court.
  2511. “So, then, what? What can I do, for you all, for forgiveness?”
  2512. ”Runnin’ the hell off this farm, and not comin’ back.”
  2513. Disregarding the illegality of that, you know you’re not ready to do that. Here you have friends, freedoms, a life, and maybe even a family of your own. You’re not going to throw that away.
  2514. “How about anything short of that?”
  2515. He shrugs, “We got some rope and a tree. Or we can just buck n’ kick the life outta ya, if you prefer.”
  2516. The words are left to simmer, and the tranquil silence is only broken by the sounds of wind rustling through what little vegetation remains on the landscape.
  2517. You look to your right, at Lyra and Ruby Heart. The sun, now just beginning to touch the horizon, nearly blinds you as you look straight into it. But you’re nonetheless able to see their faces, set firmly against the group twenty yards ahead of you.
  2518. To your left, Sunny Streak stands attempting to mirror their form, but failing to cover up the hint of nervousness that now plagues her features. But she sees you looking, and gives you a brief, almost imperceptible smile before returning her attention to the front.
  2519. They’re here for you. They won’t fail you.
  2520. And neither will your shields.
  2521. “And that’s your final word?”
  2522. ”Decision’s already been made, Glimmer,” the stallion says with a distinct firmness.
  2523. “Fine, then.” You strengthen the shield about you and your allies. “I’m going to give you one chance, now, to return to your quarters and back down. I am the single most powerful unicorn to ever live, and I could wipe you all out without the slightest of-“
  2524. ”Fuck off, Glimmer. You won’t do shit to us.”
  2525. That remark came from a different member of the group, but the fallacy in his statement is striking. Perhaps you should capitalize on it.
  2526. “I wouldn’t? Then what are you out here for?”
  2527. ”She’s a God-damned killer!” Another voice pipes up. “And look, she ain’t ashamed of it, neither!”
  2528. Fear dances across their faces for a fleeting instant, but that effect is quickly replaced by a renewed vigor in their anger. The throng collectively narrows its eyes and raises its voice, and it seems your attempt at intimidation has only riled them up further.
  2529. The stallion at the front takes a step forward.
  2530. And then another, this time with others following suit.
  2531. By the fourth step, the entire group has started moving.
  2532. Your friends stiffen beside you, but you quietly reassure them. The shields are now strong enough to keep all of them back.
  2533. Hopefully, they’ll see the futility in their attempts to reach you, and call it off. If not, you can use your magic to end this quickly.
  2534. But as the group marches down the road, covering a third, then two fifths, then almost half the distance between you, your mind starts racing and wondering if the shield has been set up properly. They should have hit it by now, right? How are they still moving forward?
  2535. Your rising panic is cut off suddenly when the front members of the group stop abruptly, and as the ponies behind them continue their march, they are pressed up against the near-invisible wall erected twenty feet from you.
  2536. They shout and the group stops, allowing them to remove themselves from the wall. The ponies naturally try to find a way around it, but the bubble holds tight on all fronts, completely protecting your group.
  2537. Within a few minutes of their reaching the bubble, each member of the group starts to express some amount of frustration or even defeat. Some are enraged further, while others seem to realize the inefficacy of their actions and start to settle down.
  2538. One or two even turn around and start to walk back, and it seems that your plan has worked.
  2539. Until, between their ranks, you can see the tan coat of another pony racing toward the group.
  2540. Long before you can see any cutie mark, face, eyes or racial features, you already know who it must be.
  2541. Looking Glass has come to see the commotion, or even perhaps to help his tutor.
  2542. Your eyes must have gone wide, and perhaps you lost a shade of color or two, because the ponies quickly turn around to view the incoming unicorn. Once again, you witness them reacting uniformly en masse, narrowing their vision and tightening their mouths.
  2543. But their beef is with you, right? They’ll probably just tell him to fuck off, right?
  2544. However, before any of them get a chance to call out – or heckle – his voice rings out with a distinctly angry tone, “What in hell is going on over here?!”
  2545. ”Get lost,” the same stallion from before orders, his hostility now directed away from you and toward your student. “Get lost ‘fore you end up like them. Mean, nasty, and trapped in a bubble with three dozen ponies crowdin’ around.”
  2546. ”Leave them alone! Don’t you have any idea what kind of trouble you’re going to be in after that?”
  2547. ”Trouble?” the stallion responds mockingly. “Boy, I hope I get sold the fuck off. I’m done living somewhere the bosses can not only kill us an’ get away with it, but give the same damn power to other ponies.”
  2548. ”Well, I can see they have a shield bubble up. You’re not going to get past that, a pony like Starlight can cast that in her sleep!”
  2549. That’s bullshit, but you’d believe it if you didn’t know better. The spell is actually pretty taxing under this much load and being sustained for so long.
  2550. ”Maybe,” he says, clearly frustrated by the prospect. But to your dismay, an inherently sinister grin soon replaces his scowl, and his attention hones in on Glass. “But if that’s the case, and they gotta put the bubble down for us, we might as well give ‘em some motivation.”
  2551. He exchanges glances with a number of other ponies, and a set of more physically fit stallions begins to encircle Glass.
  2552. No.
  2553. No, if only it had been a week later! He was going to learn teleportation in a matter of days from now!
  2554. But there’s no way he can defend himself against this crowd. And the look on his face shows that he knows it, too.
  2555. He knows no shielding spells, but a ring of blue magic shoots up around him, keeping the crowd back behind a fence of kinetic magic. Smart move.
  2556. He might actually be able to hold them back this way. You certainly hope so, as there isn’t really any way for you to shield him yourself.
  2557. It’s starting to look like the group might back down again. The ponies have again grown frustrated, and a group has broken off and stomped away in anger.
  2558. But, to your alarm, they don’t head back to the houses, or even out to the fields.
  2559. Instead, they head for the nearby ditch, and start picking up rocks.
  2560. You’re frozen for a moment, before collecting yourself enough to cast a kinetic spell to knock the ponies down.
  2561. But the commotion causes the rest of the group to freeze, and look over to see what the splinter group had been doing. They see the rocks, and the quickly-recovering ponies.
  2562. And many move over to join them.
  2563. A few stallions you could knock over while holding up this shield, but fifteen or more? There’s little you can do other than knocking them back individually as they move over to pick up stones.
  2564. The other unicorns try to help, but with their still-gimped magic they’re not able to make much progress.
  2565. And, ultimately, one stallion launches his missile.
  2566. It arcs through the air, but your magic is occupied preventing others from doing the same. You can only watch its trajectory, and hope it’s a miss.
  2567. But the stone strikes true, and lands directly above Looking Glass’s right eye. He falls to the ground, and the kinetic spell around him fails.
  2568. Before you or anyone else can act, the crack of a rifle sounds from behind you, and a lead projectile goes spinning overhead. It’s a warning shot, but the message is clear.
  2569. For you, it’s time to leave. For the ponies surrounding you, it’s gone too far.
  2570. You’d expected to be able to teleport four ponies that distance, but five? It would be over 50% harder. A spell of this magnitude stands to seriously hurt you, or even kill a lesser unicorn.
  2571. But as you look around and see the ponies starting to recover from the shot, another one cracks and whistles overhead, closer this time. If you don’t do it, then someone is going to get killed here, be it Looking Glass or one of the enraged ponies.
  2572. So you charge up the spell for what may be the hardest teleport in your life, and zap yourself and your four friends out of the fray.
  2573.  
  2574. In the blink of an eye, five ponies fall to the floor across Anon’s kitchen. He jumps in surprise, but almost immediately rushes over to the bleeding and knocked-out Looking Glass.
  2575. You probably don’t show any outward injuries, but inside, the spell you just cast has taken a toll. Initially on your feet from the teleport, you collapse to the ground as your legs refuse to hold your weight.
  2576. You’ve felt this only once before, but have read of its effects many times. Magical over-exertion is a dangerous condition for any unicorn, and leaves hundreds hospitalized every year in Equestria.
  2577. A teleport over hundreds of yards with five ponies would normally only be even attempted by an alicorn or other incredibly powerful magic-wielder, like Discord. But you’ve not only attempted it here, but successfully accomplished it.
  2578. But it has taken a toll on your mortal unicorn body. Muscles across your body all ache and cry out in their exhaustion simultaneously, while the otherwise ever-present tingle of magic has subdued to little more than a murmur within you. Your horn aches, and you feel dizzy and lightheaded. You’re glad you never got dinner, else you might have retched.
  2579. Sounds are muffled and your vision is blurry, but you can make out the shapes of ponies and a single tall human rushing about the room. Several are crowded over the limp form of Looking Glass, while others rush about bringing things to them.
  2580. After a minute, your head clears a bit, and you’re able to shakily bring yourself up to stand on your hooves. But a quick test of your magic reveals it to still be almost entirely wiped out, and momentarily creates a headache that threatens to send you crashing once more to the hardwood floor.
  2581. You half-walk, half-stumble over to Looking Glass, and can thankfully still clearly see the rise and fall of his flank as he breathes. There have been injuries, but no lives lost today.
  2582. ”Hey!” Anon shouts with a clap, snapping you out of your examinations. “Starlight, you hear me? You alright?”
  2583. “I think so… Not… not in the best shape.”
  2584. ”We gonna need to take you to the hospital too?” he asks with concern tugging at his features.
  2585. “I think I’ll be okay… just need to rest. But we need to get him to a doctor,” you say feebly, motioning to Looking Glass.
  2586. ”Aw shit!” Applebloom’s voice cuts in from across the room. You snap your head over to find her looking out one of the kitchen windows, toward where you’d been only moments before. “Anon, get over here!”
  2587. The urgency in her tone makes him scramble upwards and over to the tall, Victorian-style window. “No, no this ain’t good,” he says to no one and everyone present. “They’re comin’ this way!”
  2588. Applejack and Sweetie Belle stay to continue caring for Glass, but the rest of you all move over to one window or another along the same wall. True to Anon’s word, the group seems to have realized what happened quickly, and is now starting to move down the road toward the farm house.
  2589. ”Scoots, get the sheriff on the phone, tell ‘im we got a pony revolt! Sunny, you remember where I store the guns, right? Bring ‘em out, enough for me’n every unicorn we got.” He turns to you, “Starlight, can you set up a shield ‘round the home? Even just for a short while?”
  2590. You test your magic once again, and while some control has been regained, it’s nowhere near enough to cast any kind of shielding spell, let alone one big enough for an entire building. Even if you stretched every fiber in your being to the max, to the point of near death, you’d not even be close to strong enough to do it.
  2591. “That teleport sapped most of my magic. I’m sorry Anon, but I can’t, even if I killed myself in the process.”
  2592. He rattles off a string of curses, more to himself than you. As he does so, he moves back over to the window where his rifle is still loaded and mounted, and takes a shot at the group.
  2593. Alarmed, you press against the window, praying that his shot hasn’t struck true. But it appears to just be another warning shot, as the group stops and looks upwards where the bullet has evidently flown past them. But once again, they only remain in place for a moment, before once again starting their march toward the house.
  2594. Anon continues firing off warning shots, but by the fifth shot, the magazine is out and the group barely notices his harmless fire. He sets aside the rifle and angrily slams the window shut, locking it in the process.
  2595. In the attached living room, Sunny Streak and Sweetie Belle have begun checking and laying out firearms. Across the room from you, Scootaloo is on the phone with the authorities, urgently relaying the situation.
  2596. Applejack is the sole attendant to Looking Glass, but with him still unconscious, there’s probably little reason to devote anyone more to his side.
  2597. Big Mac is hurriedly rushing about the home, locking doors, windows, and even securing the hearths to protect from any crafty pegasi flying in from above.
  2598. In short, the scene is one of chaos. Chaos, but a determined, frightened, and remarkably efficient chaos.
  2599. ”Starlight, is your magic good enough to hold a gun?” Lyra asks from the other room.
  2600. “I think so, but do we really need to, well, go this far?”
  2601. ”We ain’t gonna shoot nobody,” Anon answers for her. “But if they see us armed n’ ready to fight back, they probably won’t try anything. No matter how much they try, ain’t nobody on this farm who can block a bullet, who ain’t one a the unicorns in this room.”
  2602. With few other options, you hurry into the other room and examine the options. Anon’s collection of firearms is impressive, and reminds you of the sword and axe collections you’d seen from a few Canterlot diplomats, military officers, and exotic researchers.
  2603. You know a bit about guns from internet research and video games, but like most ponies, you’d never before even dreamed of wielding one. You take a simple semi-automatic shotgun from the array, as it loads and operates without many kinks or curiosities.
  2604. A quick glance outside reveals the mob of ponies rapidly approaching the home.
  2605. The other unicorns each use their magic to grab a rifle or shotgun of their own, with Sweetie Belle taking a pink, modern rifle kept in a case bearing her name. Anon soon enters the room, and quickly grabs both an AK with a shoulder sling and a holstered sidearm.
  2606. ”I know we don’t got time for a gun safety class, but first rule, don’t aim at nothin’ you don’t wanna shoot,” Anon says to the room as he checks his own weapons. “Second rule, don’t you never pull that trigger if you ain’t ready to shoot. Third, keep the barrel pointed at the ground unless you’re bringing it up to aim. All y’all got it?”
  2607. Brief affirmations sound from each of you. At this moment, Scootaloo flies in from the other room. “The sheriff’s got himself and a posse coming but they ain’t gonna get here for fifteen minutes. What should the rest of us do, Anon?”
  2608. ”Scoots, you take AJ and Applebloom and hole up with Looking Glass in the basement. Big Mac, just be ready in case things take a turn for the worse.” He turns back to the unicorns, “Ruby, Sunny, you both watch from the kitchen, make sure the ponies can see your guns. Lyra, you watch the west side of the home, and holler if they come ‘round that way.”
  2609. ”And what about us, Anon?” Sweetie Belle asks, fear obviously shadowing her tone.
  2610. ”Starlight, Sweetie, you’re with me and Big Mac here in the main room. We’re gonna open that front door and talk to ‘em. Remember, we don’t wanna be shootin’ nobody, so we’re just gonna try and drive ‘em off.”
  2611. As each unicorn goes to her position, you line up at the front door with Anon, Sweetie Belle, and Big Mac. Behind you, you can hear Applejack and her sister struggling to carry Looking Glass soundly to the basement.
  2612. It’s not long before the mob arrives in front of the house. The front door and porch are elevated, and you can now see the individual members of the group much more clearly. They’re at least forty or fifty strong: easily enough to have overwhelmed you had they caught you by surprise, but still a small minority of the ponies on the farm.
  2613. Among them are unicorns, earth ponies, and even a couple pegasi. Your heart falls a little when you recognize Crystal Skies in their back ranks.
  2614. ”Not a step closer!” shouts Anon as they reach the base of the steps. He unslings his rifle and points it toward the group. Cautiously, you and Sweetie Belle do likewise. “Y’all got one final chance to head back, ‘fore I sell each and every one a you off at the auction! And trust me, I’ll make sure y’all get stuck with the hardest, cruelest labor I can find.”
  2615. ”I’m sure we can come to an agreement, Mr. Anonymous,” answers the same nameless stallion who’d led their group earlier. “Just get rid a Starlight Glimmer, and we got what we want. See? Negotiatin’ ain’t hard.”
  2616. ”Negotiating?” Anon scoffs. “Listen here, you lil’ scumbag. I ain’t gotta negotiate shit. I own you. You’re my goddamn property. Starlight’s my property too. And just like I ain’t about to sell my couch ‘cause my coffee table wants it gone, I ain’t about to get rid a her, neither.”
  2617. ”That what you see us as? Just property? Just tools t’make you a fortune?” the stallion asks, anger tinging his voice.
  2618. ”Don’t matter what I see y’all as. At the end a the day, that’s how things are. I wanted to give y’all a better life, but I guess that ain’t enough for ya, huh?”
  2619. ”Bullshit,” the stallion replies, growing more confident in tone. “You ain’t ever cared about nothin’ but linnin’ your pockets. Tell me, ‘master’, you even know my name?”
  2620. Anon stays silent, and his only reaction to the question is to squint his eyes slightly and readjust his weapon. “Thought not,” the stallion says, seemingly not put off by the rifle in the slightest.
  2621. ”So what now, huh?” Sweetie Belle pipes up. “All that bullshit don’t mean anything. You’ve got rifles pointed at you, we don’t. What do you think you’re going to do?”
  2622. ”Can’t shoot all of us.”
  2623. Despite his bold assertion, no one moves an inch for a few moments. Instead, each group stares each other down, waiting for any movements. In reality, if it came to it, you probably could shoot them. Anon and Sweetie both have high-capacity rifles, and both probably know how to use them. And aside from the two or three pegasi in their ranks, the group below would have to ascend almost a full flight of stairs to reach you.
  2624. But finally, a movement catches your eye. Near the back, several ponies shuffle around, but you can’t quite see their movements. Anon and Sweetie keep their weapons pointed on the front of the group, but you almost subconsciously move yours up toward the spot of movement.
  2625. By now, it’s almost dark, and the group is mostly illuminated by the porch lights and radiance emanating from the home’s many tall windows. But they’re still shrouded in relative darkness.
  2626. Which is what allows you to easily see when a small flame flickers between the ponies you’d trained your weapon on.
  2627. That small orange flicker quickly increases in size, and it would seem that they’ve lit up a torch. But if they plan to throw it, it probably wouldn’t be difficult to extinguish, even with your still-recovering state of magical ability.
  2628. But as you inspect the new light source closer, something catches your eye. The flame is reflected off the object below it, unlike any primitive torch they could have made. It almost looks like… glass.
  2629. And suddenly, the realization dawns on you that the ponies have crafted a crude, but highly dangerous weapon. They’ve torn a page from an anarchist’s playbook and created a Molotov cocktail, enough to set fire to both your group and the rest of the home.
  2630. The ponies around the weapon’s wielder thin out, but giving a clearer view of the weapon. But apparently, Anon and Sweetie don’t recognize this new threat, as they keep their sights and their weapons centered on the ponies closest to the stairs.
  2631. But their attentions are surely caught when the wielder takes to the air. His wings carry him but a few feet upwards, but his body is already tensed and ready to throw his projectile. In his hoof, you the flame illuminates the label of some high-proof vodka you’d left at a doorstep barely two weeks before. But its contents have long been consumed, and a far more sinister mixture now undoubtedly lies within.
  2632. Before he can throw it, and before Anon and Sweetie can react, you feel your magic wrap around your shotgun’s trigger. And finally, Crystal Skies’ form starts to contort, and you see his hoof beginning to reach out and throw his blazing projectile toward you.
  2633. But in the middle of the throw, he’s cut off, as a small flare from the home’s front door is accompanied by the massive roar of a firearm. And suddenly, three objects fall in tandem. The red, smoking shell hits the ground first. Next comes the pegasus, his body failing to offer even the slightest air resistance to the fall. And, finally, so too does his bottle reach the ground, smashing open and releasing its contents.
  2634. Your ears ring from the firearm, but you can still hear the screams that ring out from below as the Molotov explodes into the center of the group. Those outside of its initial reach quickly jump away from the fire, but many are suddenly burned or even set on fire as they fail to fully escape the rapidly-spreading fire.
  2635. An unlucky few are caught in the center of its spread, and their terrible cries are both the loudest and the most jarring you can hear. But as their lungs rapidly fill with smoke and are deprived of oxygen, their screams fall silent to match the pegasus, whose unmoving form lies crumpled just beyond the reach of the flames.
  2636. Most of the group turns to run or moves to put out their friends, but a few recover from their initial shock and turn back to the front door, an intense anger in their eyes illuminated by the fire raging before them. Seeing their reaction, Anon shouts at them to stay back.
  2637. But they don’t, and five or six of the original group march past their wounded, dying, and dead comrades to the front steps. Anon shouts again, “Get back! Get back or I’ll shoot!”
  2638. But they fail to heed his warning, and whether from recklessness, overwhelming anger, suicidal disposition, or a combination of the three, two finally place their hooves on the stairs.
  2639. Before they can move any further, your ears are again sent into shock as both Anon and Sweetie discharge their weapons. The ponies at the foot of the stairs, a unicorn and an earth pony, both stallions, fall almost simultaneously and move no more.
  2640. The rest of the group is sent running, even leaving behind an unlucky pony or two who still struggle against the fire raging through their gasoline-stained coats.
  2641. And the four of you still sit, stunned, watching them as they go. The last of the sun’s rays disappears from the horizon, and only the glow of electric lights from within the massive home breaks the dark.
  2642.  
  2643. By the time the sheriff arrived, you’d already had a final casualty count. Eight ponies lay dead, and another five were too injured to run with the rest of the group. An ambulance was called for them as well as Looking Glass, who’d regained consciousness soon after being brought to the basement but would still need medical attention.
  2644. There was no more trouble that night, and to your slight surprise, surveillance revealed that every other pony was in his or her quarters by the time curfew locked them in.
  2645. The next morning, the ponies were allowed out only to eat breakfast, monitored all the while by armed security hired by Anonymous. Thankfully, no more issues presented themselves, and once again they all went back to their quarters without struggle.
  2646. It seemed that any resolve they’d had was thoroughly broken.
  2647. As soon as breakfast was finished, Anon left the farm in the care of Applejack and the hired security. He, Lyra, Ruby Heart, and yourself had elected to drive down to the emergency medical center in town to visit Looking Glass.
  2648. The other ponies had been taken to a much larger equine-specific facility in Nampa. Thankfully, all had survived the relatively long drive, and were in stable condition. Looking Glass, however, was being treated at great expense at a smaller but much closer medical center.
  2649. It’s this medical center you find yourself driving to, looking out the window at barren fields and empty plains devoid of any color in the dry winter. There’s no music, no conversation in the car. In the back seat, you know Lyra is likely doing the same.
  2650. But her head is probably bogged down with less guilt and less worry. Her soul is marred by less sin and less blood. Her person and image is smeared by fewer naysayers and less wrongdoing.
  2651. Cloud Skimmer had died under your care. You were responsible for her death, but it was through negligence and accident. But Crystal Skies, although you were no more or less responsible for his death, was instead directly struck down by your actions. It was a conscious effort, and a conscious pull of the trigger that cut his life short.
  2652. And that’s to say nothing of the ponies who’d been burnt alive once the Molotov fell to the ground. They, too, would still be living, breathing, perhaps even happy had it not been for you. If only you’d kept your magic off the trigger, or maybe mustered every bit of energy you had to push him back and stop the throw…
  2653. And again, you won’t face any sort of punishment for your actions. It wasn’t hard for the sheriff to determine that the scene was one of self-defense, but little would have likely been done even if that wasn’t the case. Most law enforcers take the word of a human over the word of a pony even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
  2654. Was it even right, what you did? You were protecting those closest to you, sure. And despite their growth, the Crusaders are still far from being adults. If that Molotov cocktail had been allowed to arc through the air, not only would the four of you at the door been burnt alive, but the whole building would have been set alight.
  2655. But at the very least Lyra, Ruby, and Sunny could have escaped any fire with a teleport. So you’d saved seven lives, at the most. Eight more paid the price, not counting those burnt and disfigured. Who are you to determine which set of lives is more valuable?
  2656. And what if, even disregarding the numbers, what if they were in the right? Most of the ponies out for your blood only wanted to live their lives in peace, but here you come barging into their tranquility, bringing death and hardship while being placed on a pedestal by the bosses.
  2657. Violence may not have been the answer, but perhaps their cause was true after all.
  2658. Your thoughts turn away from your own actions for a moment, and to those with you last night. You’d been responsible for six of the deaths, but Anon and Sweetie had each ended one of their own. You turn your head from the window to view the former.
  2659. He stares straight ahead into the road, and you notice his grip on the steering wheel is tighter than normal. He’s been tense and understandably not talkative, but hasn’t truly shown any emotion since the incident.
  2660. But Sweetie Belle is whom you’re most concerned about. She’s still young, and oh-so impressionable. Taking another pony’s life so early on in life is an experience that will stay with her to the day she dies an old mare.
  2661. You ask these questions to none but yourself, or perhaps silently to the fields of dry, dead grass that pass outside the truck’s window. Finding no answers, you sigh and turn back to the cabin.
  2662. “Anon, Lyra, mind if I turn on the radio? I just… want something else to think about.”
  2663. Anon casts an eye towards you, grunts in acknowledgement, and turns the radio on himself. The station is set by default to a late-morning local news broadcast, which none of you elect to switch away from. Their words and reporting will probably occupy your mind more than music, anyway.
  2664. Election season is coming up. Maybe you should take the time to learn what each political party represents here, it might help you gain some perspective. Oh, and they’re building a new elementary school in town, that’s nice. Too bad ponies can’t attend.
  2665. ”…And in our final story for this broadcast, we’ve received word of a, get this, a pony rebellion out on Sweet Wheat Acres, a local farm which has been cited for years as a model of modernized equine labor systems.”
  2666. Oh, of course they’d report on it. Why would you think otherwise?
  2667. ”Sheriff Calwell reported that over four dozen ponies were involved in the insurrection, targeting their sole human overseer and several other ponies with managerial duties. Channel 3 News is reporting that although neither the farm’s owner nor any of the Sheriff’s posse were harmed, eight ponies-“
  2668. The radio abruptly changes stations to a country music channel, with Lyra’s yellow magic enveloping the tuning knob. You look back to thank her, but she’s already looking back out her window. You elect to let the music wash over you, and let it overcome your sins and failures.
  2669. But the music doesn’t stay on for long. You’re already almost to the town, and in just a few minutes, you’ll have arrived at the medical center.
  2670.  
  2671. ”Starlight! Lyra! Mr. Anonymous, you guys came to see me!” Looking Glass perks up from his hospital bed, one eye covered in the same bandages that wrap around his head. He winces in pain slightly, and slowly lies back down onto the pillow.
  2672. “Of course we came,” you reassure with a smile. “We wouldn’t let you rot in here all by yourself.”
  2673. ”They treatin’ you alright?” Anon asks with genuine concern. “I don’t want one a my best and bravest ponies takin’ any shit from the nurses and doctors.”
  2674. ”Best and bravest, I dunno about that, Mr. Anonymous. If it wasn’t for Starlight, who knows what could’ve happened?”
  2675. His eyes, as emotionally affected as any other pony’s, look to you with a mixture of admiration and gratitude. He believes you to be his savior, the pony who saved his life. It may be true, but you’re also the reason it was in danger in the first place.
  2676. “I did what I had to… to protect you. To protect everyone.”
  2677. That message is more for you than him, but he seems encouraged by it nonetheless. Of course, he’s likely clueless as to what fully occurred last night. He’d not had contact with anyone from the farm since last night, and he’d been transported in a separate ambulance. He might not have even seen any of the bodies in the darkness of the night.
  2678. ”So Glass,” Lyra says after a brief but awkward moment. “How’re you feeling? Doctors have anything good to say?”
  2679. ”They said I was unconscious for a pretty long time, so they’re going to monitor me and make sure nothing’s broken in my head. But aside from a nasty bruise and some cuts that should heal up, there’s nothing both obvious and serious.”
  2680. ”Glad to hear it. And don’t you worry, soon as they let you outta here we got a nice bed waitin’ for you in the farm house.”
  2681. ”Really, Mr. Anonymous?” he responds with some surprise. “You’re letting me stay in the big house?”
  2682. Anon is silent for a moment before answering, “I think it might be best t’get all you involved in last night’s incident living with us now. Starlight, Lyra, Ruby, Sunny, all y’all can stay, we got rooms to spare. Don’t think y’all are welcome any more in the pony housing.”
  2683. “All things considered… yeah. I was going to ask you about that too.”
  2684. ”By the way,” Looking Glass interjects, “What exactly did happen last night? I wasn’t really fully awake until after I got here.”
  2685. ”You don’t remember none of what you saw?” Anon asks.
  2686. ”Only some blurred faces, scenes, and some loud noises.”
  2687. Anon, Lyra, and yourself are silent for a moment, glancing between each other for any tell on how to answer the question. At last Lyra speaks, “Glass… ponies died last night. Eight of them.”
  2688. ”W-what?”
  2689. “After we teleported to the house, they came after us,” you explain. “Things escalated, and one was about to throw a Molotov cocktail into the home. So we… we had to…”
  2690. ”We had to shoot ‘im,” Anon finishes for you. “And two more. Other five were lost when that cocktail exploded on the ground.”
  2691. Looking Glass looks past you for a moment, taking in the short but jarring summary of last night’s events. “Were- were any of you hurt? Or Applejack, or Sweetie Belle, or-“
  2692. ”We’re all fine,” Anon answers, his intent to stop his line of questions short. “But that don’t mean we shouldn’t mourn the lives we lost last night. Even if we had to lose ‘em.”
  2693. He’s silent for a moment, and the only noise in the room comes from the air vents and the loud television blasting through the walls from a room over. “Who pulled the trigger?” he finally asks.
  2694. ”I did,” Anon answers immediately. You look to him with some disbelief, but he keeps his eyes locked on Looking Glass.
  2695. “No, Glass, it- it was both of us. We both had to do it. If that Molotov reached the home, it would have engulfed us, and probably burnt the building down around you.”
  2696. ”Well,” he says slowly, “then I guess you just have to put it behind you. It hurts, but sometimes doing the right thing hurts no matter how good the intention. You saved three fillies and an injured stallion, among others. I suppose losing a few of the others isn’t as bad as losing us.”
  2697. “Glass, c’mon, their lives are just as valid as ours.”
  2698. ”Are they, Starlight? Were they?” he asks with fresh determination. “You saw them ganging up on me yesterday. Do you think they cared about the value of my life, the one friend who wasn’t protected? Do you think any of them were thinking about whether it would be right or wrong to draw and quarter a unicorn they barely even knew?”
  2699. “I…”
  2700. ”Starlight, I can see it’s bothering you. You’ve looked crushed since the moment you walked through the door. But you made a decision, and that decision saved ponies’ lives. And would you rather save our lives, or the lives of the ones who were trying to end yours?”
  2701. He’s probably right. After all, the five who died from the Molotov were killed accidentally. You’d been able to live with Cloud Skimmer’s death, why not the others? And Crystal Skies, well, anyone would have done the same. Your actions there had been pure self-defense.
  2702. Hearing that from not just someone else, but one of the ponies you’d saved… it helps.
  2703.  
  2704. ”Starlight, Lyra, we got one stop to make in town ‘fore we head back to the farm, alright?”
  2705. “Sure, Anon, where are we going?” you ask, eager to visit anywhere that’s not an immediate reminder of your moral quandary.
  2706. ”Suppose you’ll see when we get there. But it’s just a return, should only take a few minutes. Y’all can look in the store if you want, I know they ain’t got any pony policies.”
  2707. He drives down the road a few blocks, before pulling into a small strip mall. He parks the car in front of a small jewelry store, and to your slight surprise, heads into the same building, a small box held in his left hand.
  2708. “Anon? You’re returning some jewelry?”
  2709. He stops, looks at you for a moment, and then stares a bit longer at the box. “Might as well tell ya. It was for AJ,” he says, opening the box to reveal its contents. Inside is a dazzling necklace, with a massive orange citrine set in a pendant of silver, suspended from a chain of the same material. Although it lacks the apple shape of her Element amulet from Equestria, it certainly rivals it in beauty and craftsmanship.
  2710. ”I… I  got this to let ‘er know how special she is to me. She… well, ah, I really dunno how to verbalize what I wanna say without y’all lookin’ at me funny. Was gonna give it to her last night, had it in my shirt pocket. But it just don’t feel right now.”
  2711. “It’s beautiful, Anon. Why are you returning it? She’d love this.”
  2712. He flips the box over, pointing to a stain covering a little less than half of its bottom face. He says in a hushed tone, “Had to help pick up the bodies, never took this outta the shirt. When they got big buckshot holes in ‘em, that ain’t always a clean task. You can put together the rest.”
  2713. If only it could be so easy to discard your own stains. They seem to mar not your belongings, but your very being.
  2714. A fresh order placed and an exchange made, the three of you quickly exit the store, to return to the farm and your new home within it. For better or more likely for worse, your life won’t be the same. There will be scars and reminders of your actions, but perhaps you can ignore them. Perhaps the faintest glimmer of hope still resides within you.
  2715. Perhaps you can live with yourself.
  2716.  
  2717. A month later, Applejack is surprised by a stunning, custom-made platinum necklace. Centered in its pendant rests a large orange garnet. It, like its box, is free of stains.
  2718.  
  2719. ++++++++++++++EPILOGUE++++++++++++++
  2720. One of the things you’ve grown to appreciate the most since you moved out into this rural, rugged stretch of the western United States is the rising and setting of the sun. Each day, the world’s greatest source of light and heat twice puts on a truly stunning display of light and of color.
  2721. Early in the morning, you find yourself gazing out of your second-story window to the east. The first rays of sunlight are breaking, and can be seen shining against the few wispy clouds breaking the otherwise crystal-clear July skies. You count yourself lucky that you ended up with one of the two rooms on this side of the home, to be able to see this scene every morning in privacy.
  2722. You open the window, and are immediately greeted by a cacophony of birdsong. The apple trees below your window are new, but the birds are already treating them like old friends. While they have ruined a few mornings you’ve planned to sleep in, it’s overall a nice addition to your day to listen to their songs.
  2723. It’s a sharp contrast with the silence of the house. Up until a month or two ago, the loud clopping of Big Mac’s hooves leaving earlier than anyone else would be the only noise emanating from within. Now, though, even he wakes up at a reasonable hour, and the house is silent behind you.
  2724. It’s been almost seven months since the incident, and not a day goes by that it hasn’t danced between your thoughts and graced your dreams. Initially, it was a constant thought, always occupying the front of your mind. Anon took it better, but Sweetie Belle was certainly in the same boat as you.
  2725. Now, though, the pain has subsided and the thoughts no longer sting as they once did. They’re brought back to your attention most often in the sunsets and sunrises you so cherish, as the long shadows and land bathed in an orangish glow both serve to remind you of the setting of that fateful evening.
  2726. In the distance, you can see a black pickup and a corresponding trail of dust ambling toward the farm. That would be the security team relieving the overnight shift. Anon elected to hire them on indefinitely, just to be safe.
  2727. With your magic recovered, and with Looking Glass advancing ever further in his studies, that’s probably not even necessary at this point. He’s a surprisingly powerful unicorn, and the two of you together could probably put down a riot of the farm’s entire population.
  2728. Their presence won’t be needed for much longer anyway. After the harvest in a few months, the farm will drastically shrink in population. The bidding process for Anon’s patents is ongoing among the world’s leading seed and food distributors, and if their offers keep coming, he may end up one of the richest men in the country.
  2729. The last crop will be collected, and the ponies will be given one final harvest celebration before being sold off on the market. A few favored individuals, like the ever-loyal and ever-working Cheese Sandwich, already have specially picked good homes to be sent to. The vast majority, however, will face the auction.
  2730. At least the families should be kept together. That might make their living conditions a bit worse overall, but most would probably prefer to remain with their loved ones in misery than be separated in comfort.
  2731. Of course, some families have already been broken apart. Those involved with the past riots were sold off mercilessly, and torn from any family they might have had here. Even if Anon had wanted to be lenient on them, he would have been hard-pressed to do so. Nobody buys a pony who’s tried to kill his owner unless there are already plans in place to chain them down.
  2732. As for the ponies residing in the big house… all of you will be staying, permanently. In the past few months you’ve grown from more than just friends and coworkers into what you can truly describe as a family. And with the fortune Anon has amassed and continues to obtain, there’s more than enough money to keep you all living with as much or as little work as you like indefinitely.
  2733. You sweep your gaze once more across the landscape. Plains stretch out to a distant horizon to your front and right, while the creek and its thicket cut through the farm to your left. You’re glad the pony housing is on the west side of your home. Otherwise, every day this view would serve as a reminder of what you’ve left behind.
  2734. Through your closed door, you can hear another one open, and the clip-clop of a set of hooves down the hall. Odd, Sweetie doesn’t usually wake this early unless she’s had a nightmare. Although they’re rarer now than they used to be, you’ll have to make sure she’s alright at breakfast.
  2735. The decision to put your room on this side of the home and move Sweetie Belle to the room next to it was no accident. The working ponies barely tolerate you when you’re out in the fields. Seeing you perched in the windows of a luxurious mansion every morning would only heighten tensions further.
  2736. Thankfully, the other foreponies, managers, and guardsmen do a good enough job at watching over them. Nowadays, you mostly assist Anon with his research and spend time tutoring Looking Glass. The former may already be onto more lucrative strains of Equestrian crops, and the latter is always eager to learn more advanced magic techniques.
  2737. He was especially ecstatic once he learned the Third Eye spell you’d personally crafted for him. The poor soul had lost most of the vision in his right eye, and now wore a patch to cover it. With the spell, which more resembled an enchantment than anything else for its duration and low magic draw on sustain, he can once more see with two eyes.
  2738. The spell is another patent Anon is in the process of selling. The whole concept of owning and selling a spell seemed at first ridiculous to you, but that view wore off quickly once publishers started making offers.
  2739. By now, the sun has risen almost completely above the horizon. You shut and lock the window, realign your mane with a bit of magic, and head out into the hall.
  2740. Just as your door closes, the door to Anon and AJ’s room opens. Out walks an orange pony, signature cowboy hat and now-precious necklace adorned on her head and neck. The accessories complement each other well, coupling the aesthetic of a rugged farmer with an aristocratic beauty.
  2741. ”Well hey, Starlight!” she says cheerfully but quietly, careful not to wake anyone still sleeping in the hall. “How’d ya sleep?”
  2742. “I slept fine, thanks,” you answer, matching her hushed tone. “Although I don’t know about Sweetie. Heard her walking downstairs about ten minutes ago.”
  2743. ”Aw shoot. Been two weeks since her last nightmare. Y’think that’s what it is?”
  2744. You shake your head, “I hope not. Maybe she just woke up early and the birds didn’t let her settle back down.”
  2745. ”Maybe, maybe. One thing’s for sure though, that filly wouldn’t be up at this hour without a reason,” she chuckles softly.
  2746. The two of you descend the stairs to find the living room unlit and silent. Lights shine from the kitchen, where Sweetie appears to be starting breakfast. Leftovers are gone, so you all have to cook up something new.
  2747. ”Morning Starlight, morning AJ,” she says without turning to you, instead focusing on removing several cartons of eggs from the fridge. “I figured we could just make scrambled eggs. It’s easy and everyone likes it, right?”
  2748. ”Don’t forget the bacon,” Applejack comments lightheartedly. “Starlight n’ Anon won’t eat eggs without it.”
  2749. “Why would we? It’s not like we ever run out of the stuff.”
  2750. The three of you each get to work starting breakfast, and one-by-one members of the household begin to trickle downstairs. On most days, you and AJ would have been the last ones down, but it’s a Saturday in the slow season. Lyra is the last to arrive and help out with the cooking, bright and awake as ever.
  2751. With eleven members of the household to cook for, and three of them earth ponies, you always need to make a big breakfast. Generally, you’ll make two or three days of food at a time to avoid cooking later, but on the weekends there isn’t much reason not to take the extra time to cook up something fresh each morning.
  2752. Coffee, milk, tea, and lemonade are all poured out with the meal, and the breakfast table is as lively an affair as ever. Within the warm, comforting walls of the massive home, laughter echoes and good times are fostered. It’s a great improvement over the cold, loud, and unwelcoming breakfasts you’d once shared with the workers.
  2753. One by one, you each finish and migrate into the living room. Its seating arrangements are more than enough for all of you to find a spot, and the group settles in, chatting idly as it waits for the main event to begin.
  2754. For all its wrongdoings, humanity had certainly done something right in commercializing pegasus airshows and races. It’s such a wild success that massive pro events have already started organizing. This morning is the opening ceremony for the first of its kind, the First Annual Pegasus Cup.
  2755. Unfortunately, it’s only the opening ceremony for today. The rest of the events will trickle in throughout the week, mostly in the afternoons and evenings to capture the most American viewers.
  2756. The broadcast takes about an hour, and when it’s done, each of you reluctantly rise to attend to your duties. Some go out to check in with guards and monitor the small amounts of work being done across the farm, while others, like yourself and Anon, tend to other business.
  2757. Your experiences with science and magic both lend themselves to his experiments. It’s here, in the home’s basement laboratory (an actual laboratory, unlike most ‘labs’ found across rural America), that he really becomes the man you’ve come to call a true friend. Twilight would be proud.
  2758. Here, he breeds plants, splices their genes, and creates hybrids the likes of which you’d never think possible. With magic accelerating their growth and sometimes producing unique results, the two of you likely have a highly lucrative business plan that’s honestly enjoyable.
  2759. Of course, you won’t be cultivating anything developed here. Anon has learned his lesson on that front.
  2760. But your lab work today is limited. Reluctantly, you leave the clean, well-lit room and ascend back into the now-empty home. Well, not empty, but much quieter. Looking Glass studies in the library, and below him in the same double-decker room Scootaloo sits behind Anon’s desk leafing through paperwork.
  2761. You quietly peek in on their otherwise silent habits, earning nothing more than a polite wave from each before they return to their tasks. Behind Scootaloo, the wall-mounted collage of photographs has grown considerably. Ringing its outer edges are the orange and red manes of Ruby Heart and Sunny Streak, along with the mint green and purple coats of Lyra and yourself, with Looking Glass occasionally working his way into the pictures as well.
  2762. You close the door as quietly as possible and determine what it is you should do for the day. You could probably just sit around and watch TV, but you still feel uncomfortable doing nothing to help out in this hospitable and generous setting.
  2763. You already cleaned the entire house last night. It took an entire ten minutes with your magic to whisk away every last dust particle in the massive building. And there’s plenty of food left over from last night’s meal, so it’s probably not worth your while to start cooking anything.
  2764. You would study, but by now you’ve already gone through every magic book you own. And with the next one you ordered arriving no earlier than tomorrow, the prospect of finding something new to peruse is fleeting.
  2765. Perhaps you should just go help the others make sure the farm is running smoothly. It’s a big place, and no matter how many foreponies or guards are around to watch over it, extra eyes and ears are always helpful. The ponies may not talk to or even look at you anymore, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help corral them.
  2766. Levitating yourself up with magic, you opt to go check in on the deconstruction site for the housing expansion that had started all your problems. Or at least, it had been a catalyst for the worst of them. With no unicorns to occupy the buildings and no plans to ever acquire more, all that can be done is to tear down the half-finished construction. Without your magic, the project is proceeding slowly.
  2767. One pony on the crew catches your eye. A bright orange coat, belonging to an earth pony you’d once hoped to befriend. When you look his way, he’s occupied with something else, but a quick cast of Third Eye confirms your suspicions and reveals him staring at you with an expression somewhere between frustration and anger.
  2768. Best not to hurt him. After all, you’ve already pulled a few strings to make sure he’s treated well by his future owner.
  2769. You get a curt acknowledgement from Frostfern, the earth pony who had once shared responsibility with you in equal amounts. Now himself shunned by many on the farm, he’s the only one at the job site who even acknowledges your presence.
  2770. He’s another one of the few who have good homes lined up for the future.
  2771. Finding no reason to stick around, you fly out from the deconstruction site and examine the fields from above. Below, at the intersection of two roads running between large, green and growing fields of barley, you spot Applejack and her little sister discussing something. They spot you, and each sends off a warm smile and a wave in your direction.
  2772. All seems fine in the fields. Another slow day, with little of note occurring. Compared to the frenzy of the harvest season when you’d first come here, the farm is quiet and mellow.
  2773. …Too quiet and mellow. Spotting a yellow form curled up in a ditch a field away from the Apples, you descend to the ground with a tinge of annoyance. Ever since you got here, this fucking mare has been sleeping in the fields nearly every time you find her.
  2774. “Sweet Dreams! Up and at ‘em!” you shout, jolting the mare from her light slumber. “Sleep well?”
  2775. The mare sighs, “As good as I can, I suppose. I’m guessing my usual excuse, that sleeping is my special talent, isn’t going to save my flank today either?”
  2776. “Yeah, that sounds about right.” You look to each side. Not many ponies in this part of the farm, and the others are tending to there work like Sweet Dreams should be doing.
  2777. ”Just don’t use the magic directly this time. I don’t know why but that stuff hurts more than anything else.”
  2778. “What’s the usual punishment again? Ten strikes?” you ask, already sure of the answer as you pick up a nearby stick with your magic.
  2779. ”Across the flank or rear, yes. Just don’t be too hard, please. I’m used to it, but the harder hits can still hurt later.”
  2780. Without much more fanfare, you bring the stick down upon her rear ten times in quick succession. Of all the times you’ve ever punished a pony on this farm, she probably accounts for at least half of them. At this point, the interactions are nothing new to either of you, and no further words are exchanged as she gets to her work and you fly off to finish your rounds.
  2781. With no other incidents, you head back to the house. Maybe Glass has finished his reading, and can entertain you with some magic lessons.
  2782. But instead, you walk into the living room and find a very tired and very socially-deprived Scootaloo settling into her spot on the couch. Spotting you, she motions for you to come over and take a seat next to her.
  2783. ”It’s done, finally,” she says as you plant yourself on the cushions.
  2784. “Done? What’s done?”
  2785. ”The plans to see Dash. It took an absurdly long time to get all the paperwork done, but we finally have a date, time, and place for our meetup. Ever been to San Diego?”
  2786. “Only Montana, Idaho, and Washington.”
  2787. ”When’d you go to… ah, never mind. But yeah, three weeks from now, we rented out a whole floor of a hotel there. Dash and Buster are going to fly out on our dime, and we’re gonna get a full week of beach and relaxation time with them.”
  2788. “It’ll be nice to finally see her again in the flesh. And meet Buster too, I suppose. Hope he’s as cool as she says he is.”
  2789. ”I really just hope all of us can get some good leisure in. Especially those two, you know how busy things have gotten for them lately.”
  2790. “Heh, Dash still sends me email updates on her life almost every single night, you know. AJ gets entirely different messages, too.”
  2791. ”I’m guessing you’re going to be getting an especially long one tonight?”
  2792. “Maybe, maybe. But you figured out what to do with the farm while we’re gone?” That had been one of the most difficult nuts to crack. Laws regarding ponies being left home alone are convoluted to say the least.
  2793. ”I got one of the neighbors’ teenage sons to come over and stay at the house while we’re gone. The security guys will be in charge of everything, but as long as he’s coming over and staying here, we can’t get fined or whatever.”
  2794. “I’m guessing we’re paying him for that?”
  2795. ”Two grand. Chump change, but of course he’s happy about that.”
  2796. If there’s anything this household has to throw around, it’s money. Technically speaking, every one of you could buy a new sports car every year and you still have enough in the bank and investments to live comfortably for the rest of your lives.
  2797. The two of you sit in silence for a moment, the topic at hand discussed as much as either of you would like. You’ll probably hear it all again at dinner.
  2798. “So, I’m bored. Anything on the agenda for tonight?”
  2799. ”We could go flying,” she shrugs.
  2800. “Already did that. Anything else planned this weekend?”
  2801. ”Church tomorrow, then the Pegasus Cup starts tomorrow night. That’s really it.”
  2802. The human religions are… interesting. With them all accepting it readily, it was easily predicted that Anon and the ‘original’ members of his family would try to introduce the rest of you to it. Ruby and Glass have already taken the faith in full stride.
  2803. You’re not sure if you’re ready to believe it just yet, but you have to give them credit for the thoroughness. Religions and cults in Equestria were a lot more basic in both foundation and details.
  2804. You’re also not unwilling to attend services with them each week. In those faith-fueled speeches are some very strong, very agreeable lessons and morals. Some have even given you inspiration and hope when you needed it, especially in those middle and late winter months.
  2805. But what you enjoy most of all about the trips is the companionship. Sometimes in the cabin, sometimes seated comfortably in the truck bed, there’s always merry chatter and good times to be had traveling to and from town. With evenly-spaced homes, paved streets, a public park and plenty of shops, the town is a microcosm that can ward off your troubles like nothing else.
  2806. Once upon a time, ponies came to a town you founded for the same thing. But those poor souls didn’t have what you do. They didn’t have a family to go with.
  2807. Eventually, evening starts to set in, and the home’s residents trickle back in. Anon comes up from the basement, proudly displaying a new sample to test and taste with tonight’s dinner. Lyra, Ruby, and Sunny walk in the front door together, laughing about some pegasus who crash-landed into a mud puddle.
  2808. The Apples arrive next with Sweetie Belle, looking slightly more tired than the previous group. But when Scootaloo gathers everyone to relay the same information she told you earlier, their expressions brighten, and a glimmer of hope sparkles in each of their eyes.
  2809. A week of time spent with an old friend, away from any trouble of farm work, of business, or of ponies. A sliver of life dedicated only to bonding, leisure, and luxury. A taste of times to come.
  2810. You’re all looking forward to it.
  2811.  
  2812. A few months later, the guards pack up and head home for the last time. All but one residence on the property lays abandoned, and all but one will be demolished by the end of the year. The sun sets once more on the suddenly idyllic and uncharacteristically peaceful Sweet Wheat Acres, the only sounds coming from the faint chirping of crickets and muffled voices calling a toast inside the land’s well-lit central mansion.
  2813. The sun sets once more on eight marked gravestones, laying beneath a grove of eight new apple trees.
  2814. End.
/spg/ Starlight Glimmer Applejack

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