Second Act: Chapter 3

The largest single operating room in the Royal Canterlot Hospital has no natural light. When this wing was constructed, rumors flew that the Chief Surgeon at the time had a financial interest in the only manufacturer of luminescent tubes in all of Equestria, but nopony was ever able to prove anything, and the next two Chief Surgeons declared that they had better things to do than second-guess their predecessors, an attitude that sat well with Midas Wellbe when he assumed the post in 998, and ultimately with Princess Celestia when she observed the next year that the hospital was no longer running an annual deficit.

So Desert Brush had no opportunity to observe Celestia’s sunrise from the bed in the prep room. As partial compensation, he was given a few minutes to observe Nurse Greyheart, who at that moment was administering a rather hefty anesthetic.

“This won’t hurt at first. You may feel a little queasy shortly thereafter, but it will fade, and so will your consciousness. This dose is intended to last eight to nine hours; at the eight-hour mark, you will receive a second dose, which you should not notice.”

He grunted in something resembling assent. Greyheart picked up a sheaf of papers.

“Your medical team numbers five, headed by Doctor Wellbe. There will be two nurses and two technicians. The techs will work on specific tasks: one will analyze and resequence your DNA, and the other will prepare sections of epidermis for the skin regraft.

“You have had one stroke of luck: your current body mass is already appropriate for a normal-sized stallion, which will save one step in the process. However, this advantage is offset by the fact that you have next to no coat, which makes the epidermal procedure more difficult. The following body parts will not be carried over: teeth, which will be replaced with dental implants more appropriate to pony dietary habits, and phalanges, which are redundant, though the nerve connections will be preserved to improve hoof control. Everything else will be resized, reshaped, and reoriented, as necessary.”

Brush winced. “Queasy” was arriving right on schedule.

Greyheart continued: “The single most time-consuming procedure will be the retuning of your limbic system to resonate with the hypovibration of the ley lines. This is the means by which earth ponies, who lack a specific connection point, utilize the magic around them. Once you are released, you will begin to build your own supply, but it will be some time before you are up to full strength.

“As this procedure winds down, a Healing Spell will be activated, which will close all incisions and ward off infections. This will last all night, and it has its own anesthetic effect. You may regain consciousness by tomorrow morning, though noon is more typical. The doctor will decide whether you can be released at that time, or if you need to stay for a second night.” She looked at her bleary-eyed patient. “All this material will be included in a booklet in your folder; it will be given to you at the time you are discharged.”

The last thing Brush saw was, he hoped, merely hallucination: he was strapped to a table in Dr. Frankensteed’s laboratory, facing an array of bizarre-looking equipment with DANGER: HIGH COLTAGE signs plastered thereupon. And after that, he didn’t see anything for quite a while.

##–##

About an hour into the proceedings, the runner from Central Lab brought the bloodwork report. “Doctor,” Greyheart said, “you might want to take a look at this.”

Wellbe backed away from his patient for a moment. “What sort of horrible things did they find in his blood?”

“Surprisingly, nothing,” she replied. “Nothing at all. Within ten percent of pony normals for almost all components.”

The doctor ran a hoof down the report. “Well, I wasn’t expecting this. Most ponies who end up on the table aren’t within ten percent of pony normals.” He tapped the clipboard. “Either this species isn’t quite as carnivorous as I anticipated, or this patient actually made a conscious effort to switch to an appropriate diet beforehoof.” And then, unexpectedly, he smiled. “Thank you, Nurse.”

Greyheart, who hadn’t heard anything like that in weeks, very nearly blushed.

##–##

“He’ll be along any minute now. Apparently he had to redo the duty roster before taking lunch.” Princess Cadance sipped her tea. “What can I say? I married a workaholic.”

“He wasn’t always that way,” said the workaholic’s little sister with a grin.

“Oh, I know. But he takes his position very seriously. And the Guards respect him.” She leaned toward Twilight and whispered, almost conspiratorially, “The pony he replaced as Captain? Worked overtime at being a plothole. There were parties for weeks after he retired.”

“Who retired?” inquired Shining Armor, sliding beside his wife on the bench and planting a kiss on her nose.

“Tempered Sword. You remember him, don’t you?”

“Too well.” He laughed. “Twily! It’s about time you came up here to see us. What’s the occasion?”

“Final report on an ongoing experiment,” Twilight said, “and then off to Vanhoover for the Equestrian Library Foundation. I’ve just been so busy lately.”

“So we’ve noticed. I don’t think I’ve even seen you since the wedding.”

“I’m sorry about that. I’ve just been incredibly busy, and, well, what do I have to say to a pair of newlyweds?”

“We’re hardly newlyweds,” said Cadance. “It’s been almost a year.”

“She’s like this,” he explained. “She always has been. When she was living in the Ivory Tower, she wouldn’t come home for days at a time, and it was only about a fifteen-minute trot.”

“And thank you, dear BBBFF, for defending me in my hour of need,” Twilight laughed.

“What do you need?” asked Shining Armor, perfectly deadpan. “Except, of course, to see Mom and Dad, and you’ve been needing that for quite some time.”

“I know, I know. I’ll go over there tomorrow. How are they?”

“Oh, same as always. I figure we have about a month before Mom starts in on that whole grandfoals thing again.”

“Again?” Cadance groaned.

“It’s either that or find somepony for Twily.”

“Not a chance,” Twilight laughed.

“You sure about that? Because the second-shift report last night shows you and some earth pony on the way back to one of the guest rooms. With a two-guard escort.” And then, in a high, sing-songy voice: “Twily’s got a coltfriend! Twily’s got a coltfriend!”

Twilight Sparkle froze. Of course this was on the guard report. What was I thinking?

She forced a smile. “Oh, that’s one of the ponies going to the librarians’ convention. It’s his first time.”

“First time at what?” her brother teased.

“Now stop that,” Twilight said. “You shouldn’t go around making assumptions about ponies you don’t even know.”

“But I know you,” said Shining Armor. “And how can I help making assumptions under circumstances like these?”

“Please, just drop it.”

“It’s not my place to interrupt,” Cadance said, “but if you don’t tell us anything, how can we assume anything but the worst?”

“Okay, fine. His name is Desert Brush, he’d had a meeting with the Princess, and he was feeling sickly. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to run,” and Twilight took off for the Castle.

“What’d I say?” asked Shining Armor helplessly.

“Enough to get her talking,” said Cadance. “Which is a start. I’ll see if I can get to the bottom of this.”

##–##

Perfect Stitch’s parents had always wanted him to become a doctor, but after finishing his pre-med studies, he decided that he’d much prefer the aesthetic side of medicine, and after specialized training and years of experience, he was now among the nation’s leading regraft professionals, highly sought after by ponies desiring the latest in cosmetic surgery but wanting something a little more permanent than a spell. Dr. Welbee, an old-school medical pony, wasn’t big on aesthetics, and he definitely wasn’t keen on what he saw as Stitch’s artistic temperament, but for difficult tasks, there was no substitute for Stitch.

And, he had to admit, Stitch had outdone himself this time. “Doctor, you can see here that we’ve applied some custom touches to this coat, to make it appear slightly worn in random locations. which would be appropriate for a pony of his age.”

“A stallion, maybe,” said Wellbe. “Mares want to be twenty-nine forever, or at least until the grandfoals arrive.” He inspected the coat, and sure enough, this pony looked about forty-five, maybe even forty. Beats the hay out of sixty, though, he thought, an age he’d reach all too soon himself.

But he had to pass judgment here, and so he did. “Very good. Anything else I should know about?”

“We spotted some macular degeneration while reworking the eyes. Not severe, but easily fixed. And shaping the flanks was a little tricky, given the underlying musculature.”

“Looks fine to me,” said the doctor.

“It’s an optical illusion. The cutie mark contains several parallel lines, only they’re not actually parallel. The eye thinks they are, though, and the correction applied by the brain also makes the flank itself look slightly less fleshy.” Stitch smiled. “We probably don’t want word of this to get out.”

“Not unless we want every vain mare from here to Fillydelphia parked in the waiting room.”

“These days,” said Stitch, “the stallions are just as image-conscious. Maybe more so.”

“You’re probably right. When will he be ready for the Limbic Tune?”

“Within the hour, I think.” He called to the other technician. “Helix! Where are we on DNA?”

“Regen is 95 percent complete,” Helix replied. “Twenty minutes, tops, plus a few minutes for test samples.”

“Not bad for six hours’ work,” said the doctor. “The rest of you can take an early dinner. I’ll shoot him up for the second round. Be back here in —” he looked at the clock — “seventy-five minutes.”

##–##

A second knock, louder. “Twilight, it’s Cadance. Would you please let me in?”

“Why are you even knocking? You could just park yourself in the center of the room and there’s nothing I could do about it.”

“All right, be that way,” said the Princess, and parked herself in the center of the room. “Are you happy now?”

“What do you want from me?” Twilight demanded.

“I want you to get your head out of your tail and pay attention. I don’t know what in the hoof is wrong with you, and I don’t know why you took it out on your poor brother, but I’m not leaving until I do know why.”

“I don’t want to fight about it,” said Twilight.

“We don’t have to fight about it. But something’s wrong here, and it’s got to be put right before everypony starts yelling at one another.”

“You’re not my foalsitter anymore,” Twilight snapped.

Cadance groaned. “I’m not trying to be your foalsitter. I’m trying to find out why you’re so touchy all of a sudden.” She dropped to the floor. “Tell me about him.”

“About whom?”

“This stallion you’re seeing. The one you can’t, or won’t, talk about.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” said Twilight.

“I don’t believe you.”

“And why not?”

“Because,” said Cadance, “I’m the resident expert on love, remember? Now tell me about him.” She softened her voice. “I won’t say a word to Shining Armor if you don’t want me to.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Twilight wailed. “I wasn’t like this yesterday.”

“What was different yesterday?”

“He was here. In this room. Most of the day, anyway.”

“And where is he now?”

Twilight sighed. “Royal Canterlot Hospital.”

“Oh, no! What’s the matter with him?”

“He’s … in love with me.”

“And that’s bad? You think maybe you don’t return his feelings?”

Twilight stared at the ceiling. “I’ve never wanted anypony so much in my entire life.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“I don’t know!” Twilight pushed her face into a pillow. “I keep trying to tell myself this is everything I ever wanted, and I’m just not hearing it!”

Cadance nodded. “This just sort of spontaneously happened?”

“It was pure chance that we met at all,” said Twilight.

“How does this affect your plan to become an Assistant Mage at thirty, marry a unicorn from a good family, and bear three lovely foals?”

“When did I plan that?

“When you were seven and I was just the foalsitter. You had every aspect of your life already nailed down back then.” Cadance pointed a hoof at her. “Twilight, you don’t do spontaneous. You never have. If it’s not on your checklist, it didn’t happen and it’s not going to happen. Now there are no expected vacancies in the office of the Grand Mage for the next fifteen years, and you’re in love with an earth pony. No wonder you’re upset.”

“Shouldn’t I be happy I’m in love with an earth pony? Doesn’t love bring happiness?”

“It can,” said Cadance. “But it doesn’t have to. According to legend, one of Luna’s guards had fallen in love with her the same night that the Nightmare took possession of her. He stood by her loyally, just the same. After Luna was imprisoned in the moon, he grieved, and eventually he took his own life. Nopony would call that happy; but it was clearly a matter of love.”

“That’s just terrible,” Twilight said. “Couldn’t he have made, you know, a move on her before she was banished?”

“Do you see anypony putting the move on Luna now that she’s free? The Nightmare is gone, and yet Luna never seems to get so much as a lunch date. And Celestia’s not doing any better.”

“They are the rulers of Equestria,” Twilight pointed out. “One does not simply walk into the Castle and ask for a date.

“If one had the sheer guts to do it,” Cadance replied, “one might be surprised. Would your coltfriend have that much nerve?”

“I don’t think so,” said Twilight, shaking her head. “Before it happened, things were moving too slowly. Now they’re going too fast.”

“Before what happened?”

Twilight Sparkle sighed. “Would you like to know why Desert Brush is in the hospital?”

“You already said it was because he was in love with you.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

##–##

From the bog at the south end of the Everfree, through the near side of Ponyville, to the caverns under Canterlot Mountain, runs a single ley line, a channel for the transmission of magic. Some believe Star Swirl the Bearded himself, finding a resonance at a constant frequency in those caverns, followed it on hoof all the way across the forest, seeking its source. Others, more skeptical, suggest he foisted off the job on Clover the Clever. One assignment given to second-year students in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns is to calculate the exact frequency of that resonance. They are not told, of course, that the number denoting that frequency is an irrational number, the decimal places stretching out to infinity. Focusing mechanisms generally round it off to 1.7 million cycles per second, which provides 99.8 percent accuracy.

The hypervibration itself is well beyond the range of equine hearing; it was detected only because inside the caverns, the multiplicity of reflective surfaces would occasionally yield up an audible frequency, which the mages of the time were able to analyze in a limited way.

Both unicorns and pegasi take advantage of this hypervibration, each tribe having specific access points sensitive to its frequency. For the unicorn, it’s near the base of the horn — the tip of the horn is a transducer, used to propagate energy. For the pegasus, it’s between the wings, between the backbone and the spinal cord. No such receptor exists on the earth pony, and early experiments with directing magical beams at earth ponies, in an effort to find a resonance point, were unsuccessful.

It was not until the year 878 that science was able to answer this question of earth pony magic. The physicist Prismatic, analyzing the hypervibration to discover its components, determined that there exists at very low levels a second vibration, at a frequency too low to hear: approximately 1.61803398875 cycles per second. (Twilight Sparkle, of course, would insist on at least eleven decimal places.) Thinking this might be an impurity in the waveform, Prismatic rigged up a crude high-pass filter, which would eliminate the low-frequency component. His assistant at the time, an earth pony whose name has been lost to history, fell ill, and did not recover until the filter was deactivated.

From this experience, Prismatic concluded that it was this low-frequency vibration that transmitted earth-pony magic, and speculated that since there was no known specific receptor point, the magic was absorbed through whatever part of the pony’s body, usually the hooves, happened to be closest to the ground at any particular moment. Princess Celestia ordered further investigation, and eventually Prismatic’s theory was verified experimentally. The low-frequency wave was dubbed “hypovibration,” thus causing confusion for thousands of students in succeeding years.

In 967, two distraught parents discovered that their earth-pony foal was taking in little or no magic, causing occasional spasms and general weakness. A specialist, a unicorn, was called in, and eventually she hit upon a treatment: mild electrical stimulation to the cingulate cortex. The shock to the system, as it were, temporarily reordered randomized synapses long enough to restore normal magic absorption, though it took several hours and three booster shocks. The patient went on to live a normal life. Over the years, the process has been refined: today, the components of the limbic system are exposed to multiple harmonics of the base frequency, which then create sympathetic vibrations throughout. It is still a lengthy process, however, since eventually every synapse must be thus retuned.

It was two hours before sunrise, and Desert Brush could faintly hear an occasional ping from some machine somewhere. It was too early to tell, he decided, but for the moment he wasn’t feeling the same anxiety that had been tormenting him. Which aspect of the process had produced this happy circumstance, he didn’t know, and he didn’t really care. All he knew was that his sense of anxiousness had been replaced with a sense of belonging, a sense that he’d done the Right Thing after all.

For the first time ever, in fact, he felt like a pony.

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