Chapter 1 - Awakening
Applejack woke feeling like an Ursa Minor had just sat on her, and the hard bed underneath her - harder than the one she'd laid down on - wasn't helping. Shifting uncomfortably, she reached out blindly for sheets that didn't seem to be there as her mind foggily took in just that fact.
A moment later her nose twitched as the smell in the room, an odd mix of mint and alcohol, hit her nostrils. Had Dash snuck in at sometime during the night and pulled some kind of prank? Groaning in annoyance at the thought, she wiped a foreleg across her face to help shove away the sleep still hanging heavy on her. Suddenly her eyes opened in shock.
When she'd brushed her hoof across her eyelids, it felt like warm metal. Sitting up, she looked down at her forearm. It looked like bronze coloured armour, the hoof replaced by a paw like Spike's, though with longer digits. She could feel them; flex them, as if they were a part of her, but they were the same bronze metal as her fore-leg.
That prompted a frantic self-examination. Her legs were articulated bronze with the hind ones ending in normal shaped hooves of the same metal, but her body seemed to still be flesh and blood, covered by her normal orange pelt. She could feel her tail, and her face had a muzzle, though the shape felt different.
"Heavens to Betsy! What happened to me?" she breathed. She didn't feel ill, in fact she felt fine, at least physically, but her mind was in a whirl. She started to feel panic, but horse sense quickly came to her aid. However strange the situation was, freaking out wasn't going to do anything to find the answers, and neither would lying there like a windfall apple.
She slid off the bed, which was more like a gurney in the Ponyville clinic… that was the smell, antiseptic! Then she looked around for a mirror, or any shiny surface, desperate to find out what she looked like. The reflection from her fore-hoof gave her some idea, but the curved surface distorted it so much it was pretty much useless.
The room was made of metal and ceramics, no wood or stone, and looked across between an examining room and some mad scientist's laboratory. Instrumentation and machinery to rival Twilight's underground lab lined the walls, festooned with winking and glowing lights. A long window showed part of a metal corridor, and there was what must be a door, though there wasn't a handle.
"How did I get here, and where is 'here'? What in the name of all that's sweet and made with apples is going on?"
It took Applejack a few seconds to realise she was standing on her hind legs. All ponies did it on occasion especially earth ponies, to look over something high, or hold something in their fore-hooves, or even to sing songs about evil enchantresses and cupcakes, but it was an unstable position. Not for her, it seemed as natural as standing on four legs.
It was another shock, but after all the other ones she'd been faced with, she was a bit numb At least this was a useful one. The room wasn't that big, and if she could have gotten down on all fours, she wouldn't have that much room to move about. Walking on her hind legs had somehow become easy too, and she strode over to the nearest mirrored metal surface.
Examining her reflection, she saw her mane and tail were still in their regular golden ponytails, tipped with red ribbons, but the rest of her had changed. Her eyes were too small and her muzzle too big, though she still had white freckles on her cheeks. Her legs were longer in proportion to her body, and fused seamlessly into the flesh at shoulder and hip, with her triple apple cutie-mark enamelled on them.
It was as if some-pony had tried to turn her into a human knight from the old filly tales, but stopped half way. Why was still a mystery, but one she'd have to leave until she knew more. She turned her attention back to her surroundings. The place was some sort of hospital, but that was about all she could figure out. Memories of some of the more gruesome filly tales surfaced, had whoever lived here changed her?
Looking around for answers, or at least another way out, she noticed a small table by the gurney that had her hat resting on it, complete with every last scuff and stain. She picked it up, glad of one familiar thing in this unfamiliar place, and set it on her head. Only then did she realise she'd grasped it with her paw rather than picking it up with a hoof or her mouth. Like walking on her hind legs, it seemed to be reflex, as natural as trotting.
There were other items under the hat, and she examined them for some clue as to what was going on. There was a halter top with a leather 'saddle' back panel, a green tassel fringed skirt and bracers for her fore-legs. No, if her form was like a humans, then that should be 'arms', and her paws were 'hands'. All the clothing seemed to be modelled on her Gala outfit, and clearly fitted her new form.
There was also a pair of crossed belts with pouches hanging off them, adorned with her cutie-mark. That puzzled her for a moment until she realised they went over her shoulders, allowing the bags to hang down at her waist, like saddlebags. An examination of the contents was no more enlightening, a few small nuggets of glowing orange crystal, her Element of Honesty pendant, a full canteen of apple juice and some neatly wrapped individual apple pies, as well as a couple of fresh apples.
There was also her new lasso, the one Rarity and Twilight had given her as a birthday present. Both of them had contributed hairs from their manes to weave into the hemp. They'd both infused it with unicorn magic, and as a result it was strong enough to bind an Ursa Minor (Twilight's contribution), and would shrug off dirt and never tangle (Rarity's speciality).
The pies were her own make, wrapped in muslin the way she would for carrying around, and the apples were fresh picked from Sweet Apple Acres' own trees. A quick swig from the canteen confirmed it was also her home farm's brew. She had no idea how any of it had gotten there.
She slipped on the clothes and her pendant, finding unsurprisingly that the fastenings were all made for hands, not mouth and hoof, and clipped the lasso to a fitting on one of the belts that looked made for it. She might not understand what was going on, but these had to be her things, and wherever she was going, she wasn't going without them.
Kitted up and ready to go places, she tried to figure out just how she was going to get there. She checked the door but it was sealed, with no visible way of opening it, or a keyhole for that matter. She was about to test the picture window to see just how resistant it was to her new set of metal hooves, when someone appeared in the corridor.
He fitted the description of a human, though his skin in the few places it was visible was blacker than in most of the stories, and what she could see of his beard and mane was white. He was also wearing clothing, a blue bowler hat with a lot of yellow metal decoration, and a matching cloak and white string tie shirt. He also had odd blue leggings and what must be human-shoes on, and what could be either a waistcoat or body armour.
He stopped dead, clearly surprised, then moved to the other side of the door and did something that made it slide aside. Applejack's first impulse was to charge past and make a break for freedom, but he didn't seem hostile, pleased if anything. Besides, she was half a head taller and built like Big Macintosh in comparison to him and he also had answers, if a human could speak Equestrian.
"It seems our Sleeping Beauty is finally awake." he said, proving he did. "I'm Doctor Clayton, but most folks just call me Doc, and you're probably feeling a bit confused."
Granny Smith had taught her proper manners, so she reined in her thousand and one questions, took a couple of steps back so she loomed less, and replied, "The name's Applejack, and I'd like to say it were a pleasure to make yer acquaintance, but I ain't no good at lying.
"Not that it's your fault, I'm sure you're a very nice… human? But right now 'a bit confused' don't even begin to describe how I'm feelin', and I ain't able to find any pleasure in the circumstances. Bein' kept in this room didn't help none."
"Kept?" Doc Clayton looked surprised. "The door was closed, not locked!"
"Then how'd ya open the apple-picking thing?"
Doc stepped through, turned and tapped a lit hoof sized panel on the door frame. The door slid back. "Just press the pad. You haven't seen a powered door before? Odd, Thirty Thirty didn't have a problem with it."
"Magically powered doors? Nope, I'm sure some artificer in Canterlot could make 'em, but then that's why we have door handles." She shook her head at the waste. "And who's this Thirty Thirty character?"
"He's the only other Equestroid on New Texas, or anywhere else as far as we know. Haven't heard of a planet called Canterlot though." He started looking oddly at her, stroking his beard. The power's electricity… Your cybernetics run on it too. How could you not know that?"
"Right now I don't know where I am, how I got here, or how I got to be this way, what did you call it, an Equestroid? I know about electricity, Ponyville has it's own dam for lighting and stuff, but I never heard of any-pony using it to open doors, let alone for any kinda fleas. How would that even work?
The orange mare shook her head, her pony-tail swinging like a pendulum "Anyhow, I don't have any. I may not be Rarity, but I clean my fur regular-like. Now I want some answers! So are you gonna give 'em to me, or do I walk out that door and find 'em myself?"
She hadn't meant to be so aggressive, but the stress was getting to her. The doctor motioned her back, and pulled out a chair from the side of the room, pressing a button on the gurney that shifted it into a seat for her. He motioned her to take it, and spoke calmingly.
"Now calm down, I'll do my best, but then I hope you'll answer some of mine. You're a regular mystery, something New Texas seems to have more of than Kerium. Where did you get the idea you had fleas?"
"You said I had cyberneticks. If they aren't fleas, what the hay are they?"
"I guess I've got more explaining to do than I thought. Not parasites, you're healthy, as far as I'm able to tell."
He went over to one of the machines on the wall and pressed some buttons, and two cups appeared in a slot at the bottom. "Your bio-scan shows you're able to drink this apple juice, as if the stuff in your canteen wasn't a clue. Though I suggest you wait a spell before eating, you were in suspended animation a long time…"
He handed her the cup, forestalling the multiple questions he's just raised, and sat down in front of her. He started talking, explaining terms where he saw her about to ask what he was talking about.
"This is the infirmary in the town of Fort Kerium, where I work when I'm not making house calls, and this is the world of New Texas… I should have asked Thirty Thirty what he called it. Some miners were prospecting for Kerium, a valuable mineral, but came across a sealed underground vault. All that was in it was you, lying on a slab, with your clothes and those bags."
"At first they figured you were dead, though perfectly preserved, but they called me and Marshall Bravestarr out there, and a basic bio-scan, a way of examining someone's health, showed you were alive, though in a suspended animation, a deep sleep where you age very slowly, sustained by your cybernetic systems…"
Applejack took a sip of the juice, not a patch on her home made brand, but it was cold and wet and took the edge off of a thirst she hadn't realised she had. "You still ain't explain what these cybernetick things are!"
He broke off his original sentence and changed tack. "Cybernetics are machine components built onto or implanted in a living organism, and usually tied directly into the nerves, so they can be controlled like as if they were regular flesh and blood."
"Machine components? What in Equestria are you talking about? I'm a pony, not a… steam engine or a food mixer, even if someone's gone and transformed me, and stuck enchanted armour on my legs." Applejack gulped down more apple juice, talking was making her throat sore.
"I can prove it, if you'll permit me." He picked up a tool from a tray under the small table. Seeing her eye it nervously, he said, "Molecular de-bonder. I'm going to remove the cover plate on your upper arm. It won't hurt."
She still hesitated for a moment, but it didn't have any sharp edges or anything, so she let him have her arm. If he could get the armour off, it was all to the good. It buzzed as he ran it along an almost invisible seam on the outside of her upper arm, and pulled away the bronze cover, which was attached underneath by a bunch of wires to the interior. Inside she could see pistons, metal 'bones', tubes and ribbons of coloured wiring, as well as other metal components.
Worse, she reflexively pulled her arm away and saw the pistons move. She could feel the panel strike against her arm, and the even stranger sensation from the metal panel as it struck Applejack touched the ribbon that still connected it to a box inside her arm, using her other hand to trace it back. When she reached the junction, a spark leapt from the bare connections, and she felt a slight stinging sensation.
"What…" She slumped back in shock. "Who did this! Why?"
"No-one knows anything about Equestroid culture except Thirty Thirty." Doc Clayton shrugged. "…and he doesn't talk about it."
She brought her free hand up, feeling her muzzle "Is the rest of me…"
"Flesh and blood, mostly, though you have reinforcement in your skeletal structure, organ and nerve enhancements and a micro-kerium power unit that hooks into your digestive tract. Just shave a few slivers off of one of the nuggets into your food every few months, and you'll be set."
"Your body can recycle pretty much everything, and repair almost any kind of internal damage. About the only thing you need to do is keep hydrated when you're out and about, your body still sweats to lose heat, though you didn't need to down in that vault."
He took advantage of her lack of movement to put the panel back in place and re-seal it. "I know this is a lot to take in, but remember, you're still yourself, and you're among friends."
Applejack was still suffering from the shock of finding out her limbs really were some kind of machinery, and there was supposed to be other kinds of machinery inside her. However, once again her horse sense helped her to cope, and one question came to mind ahead of everything else.
"What happens if one of those contraptions breaks, or wears out? The one time I rode a steam train, it broke down half way to Appleloosa, and the engineers had to tow it the rest of the way. Metal don't fix itself."
Doc Clayton was intrigued, this was all coming as a complete surprise to her, that much was obvious. He wondered how that could have happened, but right now she needed help and support, not questions. Fortunately he had good news.
"Equestroid cybernetics are, quite frankly, the best in the known galaxy. I've learned a lot just trying to keep an eye on Thirty-Thirty's health. The internal systems only augment what your body does naturally. So even a full systems failure wouldn't hurt you, just weaken you a bit.
"The only parts which don't self-repair are your limbs. But they're even more robust than the rest of you. An internal power reserve in each leg means even if the main system goes down you could still walk for miles. Thirty Thirty abuses his hardware on a daily basis, and he's only ever needed to go to Iron-arms' repair shop once, when he pretty much rammed his foot down in a pothole at a full gallop and busted a knee joint."
Applejack shuddered, that was the kind of permanently crippling injury that was any pony's nightmare. Doc Clayton noticed this and reassured her.
"It's alright, a couple of days in the shop and he was back up and better than ever. Of course, if he kept his regular check-ups with me and Iron-arms, he probably wouldn't have had a problem in the first place."
Applejack looked a little dubious, but finally sighed. "I guess you're the doc… Doc. So why aren't I still sleeping or whatever I was doing?"
"Breaking the seal on the chamber had started some sort of revival cycle, so we brought you back to Fort Kerium, where we could care for you if something went wrong. Lucky for you, what with Thirty Thirty, I'm about the only doctor in the galaxy who has any experience with Equestroid physiology.
"I gave you a full examination when we got here, and as I said, you were in perfect health. Messing about with the revival cycle would have done more harm than good, so I figured the best thing was to let you wake up normally. I had to go check on another patient, but I came right back. I was just on my way to transfer you to one of the after-care beds, more comfy than a gurney, but you were already up."
"You were the one who removed my clothes… wait, if you knew about the apples you must have gone through my saddlebags!"
"Only to see if you had any identification, or anything to explain why you were there. Nothing's missing, is it? As for removing your clothes, if you were all organic, I could have done the scans without taking anything off, but clothing would have interfered with scanning your cybernetics. I'm very sorry if I violated some sort of nudity taboo."
"What's a nudity taboo?" She parsed the phrase. "Some sort of rule about not wearin' clothes? That sounds about as crazy as the rest of the stuff I've heard since I woke up. I just don't like the fact I was helpless."
Doc shook his head. "Maybe it's best if you tell me in your own words what you last remember."
That made Applejack pause for a moment, what did she remember? "Last thing I recollect, I went to bed as usual, okay, maybe a bit later than usual. That was at my home, a farm called Sweet Apple Acres. It's in a town called Ponyville which is in the land of Equestria. And Canterlot isn't a planet, it's the capital of Equestria.
"I know enough from hearing Twilight rattle on that planets are things in the sky, like the moon but so far away that the Princesses don't have to bother with them. Haven't heard of one called Texas, much less New Texas. For that matter, until I see something more than a set of metal walls, you can expect me to take that whole tale with a lick of salt."
Actually, as far as she could tell, he was being straight with her. While she'd always been terrible at lying of any sort, even harmless things like acting, she could almost always tell when some-pony else was doing it, one of the benefits of her Element. Apparently it worked on non-ponies as well. She finished off the last of her apple juice, and found she was still thirsty. She looked herself up and down.
"As for how I looked, from how I move, I figure I was less than half as big as this, went around on all fours, and these…" she held up the hand with the empty cup. "… were proper hooves, and not made of metal."
"You called yourself a pony?" The Doc pulled out a clip-board sized device from under the side table, and manipulated the glowing images that appeared on the surface. He held it out in front of him, face up, and a Terran pony appeared, a projected hologram. "Like this?"
Applejack examined the illusion spell, impressively solid, but not quite right. "Pretty close Doc, but the proportions are a mite off, the eyes are too small, the muzzle's too big, and it don't have a cutie mark."
It felt good to be the one telling the human something. She hitched up her skirt, and tapped the enamelled pattern on her flank with a metallic clink. "Like this. Every pony gets one when they figure out what makes them special, usually around when they start growing out of foal-hood. As you can probably figure, I'm real good at growing apples, and baking apple products. Of course, they're normally on the coat, not metal."
"You tattoo every child? Or do you use an indelible dye?" The doctor seemed a bit shocked.
"Whatever gives you that idea? It just turns up when they realise what makes them special, part of the magic every pony has. Pegasi fly and walk on clouds, unicorns make things float with their horns and do magic, and we Earth ponies are strong and tough and can keep on going. And all of us have cutie marks."
"Unicorns? Pegasi? Magic?" Doc Clayton sounded even more surprised. "This world sounds more like a fairy tale than anywhere I've ever heard about."
That made Applejack chuckle for the first time. "You mean filly tale, which is good coming from a human. Hate to break it to you Doc, but where I come from _humans_ are the filly tales. Don't you have magic around here?"
"Well, yes, but it's something only a very few can do. It sounds like it's common-place there."
"I wouldn't exactly say that, but somewhat. Though we earth-ponies mostly get by on hard work and horse-sense."
The doctor kept asking her about her home, and Applejack didn't need asking twice. Chatting about Sweet Apple Acres and her regular life almost made her forget where she was and that she was telling her life story to a human.
"… things have been quiet since the Gala, except for my birthday party last night. Pinkie out-did herself. I went to bed, full of cake and some nicely aged cider, and woke up here. I just knew I shouldn't have had that last piece of strawberry cheese-cake…"
"You're thinking this is some sort of nightmare?"
Applejack gave a lopsided grin. "Figuring on this being a dream is helpin' me to not go completely outta my apple tree. I bet you're gonna to tell me that Equestria was the dream I was having while I was kept in suspense… that deep sleep thing, and it's somehow made me forget what happened before I was asleep."
"I might, if it weren't for those apples in your bags. Apples don't grow on New Texas. We import most of our fresh produce from a local sector world called Missouri Prime. But those aren't Missouri hybrids, they're closest to Earth stock apples. And I know for a fact that no Terran produce has arrived on New Texas for years. So something is going on beyond an Equestroid with some false memories."
"So you believe me?" Applejack asked, relieved. "What's Terran mean anyway?"
"From Earth, the world humans originally came from. Apples and ponies too. Except our ponies aren't any smarter than… a dog." he told her. "I'd be a lot more sceptical if I'd just gotten off a ship. But seeing some of the things the Marshall and the Shaman, for that matter what Tex Hex and Stampede can do has made me a bit more accepting of stuff I can't explain."
"You think one of them could help me figure out what the hey's happening? Return me to Equestria and the body I'm supposed to have?" The pony turned horse asked, excited.
"Now hold your horses… sorry…" He realised what he'd said, but she didn't seem to take offence. "You don't want to go near Tex Hex, much less Stampede. Tex Hex runs the biggest band of outlaws and no-good thieves on New Texas. From what I've heard, Stampede is the one that gave him magic powers, and is really the one in charge, though I've never heard exactly what kind of creature he is."
"If you're going to approach anyone it'll be the Shaman. He was Bravestarr's mentor, and Stampede's enemy. If anyone can figure out what's going on with you, it'll be him."
"Then let's go!" Applejack stood up, and almost hit her head on the overhanging examination lamp. "Goldarnit!"
"You'll need the Marshall to take you to Star Peak." Doc Clayton stood. "However, he's out on a mission right now, some dingoes attacked the outpost at Drifting Sands. But you can go outside, have a look around if you're still hankering to go outside. While I can't give you your old body back, that one you're in can transform to a four hooved one which might be a bit more familiar… and less likely to run into things."
He walked out through the door and Applejack followed him, protesting as she ducked under the lintel. "I'm not a unicorn. I don't know the first thing about transformation magic!"
"Think of it as innate, like a pegasus flying… I can't quite believe I said that. From what Thirty Thirty's said during his check-ups you just will it, and it happens."
Applejack decided to try it, and thought furiously about being back to normal. Sparks started crackling over her, and Doc Clayton turned, exclaiming, "Not now, we don't know if those clothes will…"
But it had already happened. She was down on four hooves, metal ones, but still a big improvement, and her clothing had made the change with her, reverting to her Gala costume, though fitted to her larger frame. The bags and straps that held them on had changed into a proper pair of saddlebags, and the back panel of her jacket was a carrying saddle. Her lasso was even in easy reach of her mouth.
She looked back along her length, realising she was longer bodied in her proportions and size than her human or even pony forms. Closer to Princess Celestia than any-pony she was familiar with, though she made Celestia look positively skinny. Still, she liked it. This was a working pony's or rather horse's body.
She reared up a little, testing her balance. Her bronze hooves made the tough synthetic flooring ring when they came down. She might prefer her real legs, but at least these metal ones seemed strong. For now she could put up with them, especially as there was now a hope it was only temporary.
"Hooee! Now I feel equine again!"
The corridor had other rooms with sliding doors and frameless windows, all lit by recessed lighting in the ceiling. It opened out at the end into a reception area, just a space with a couple of cheap chairs and a desk with a computer terminal, currently unoccupied. Health posters were tacked to the walls.
But Applejack was more interested in the view through the front windows. Her first impression was Appleloosa township, but done in metal rather than planks, and with humans, and even weirder bipeds replacing the regular pony-folk, though the costumes were human shaped versions of regular Appleloosan clothing. A couple of the people even seemed to be made of metal, or have metal parts like hers.
Some other metal things that didn't make much sense were things sort of like metal bulls or buffalo, but rather than standing on legs, they had magnet-like attachments on either side, and hovered. They were floating outside various buildings, including what looked like a saloon. A human came out and got astride one, then flew off on it. That made sense, with only two legs they probably couldn't run hardly at all, so they rode those things like a chariot.
The door slid open automatically as she approached, and she stepped out into the sun-light, and the heat, it was as hot as Appleloosa too. The clinic was clearly on the town square, such as it was. It was only after she'd taken a few steps beyond the verandah that she noticed her shadow was odd, or rather shadows, three of them, with colour in each one, only truly black where all three overlapped.
She looked up carefully, three suns were in the sky, red, blue and yellow. The purple sky seen over the rooftops was cloudless, but interrupted on one side by a tall mesa, with some sort of tower built up the side, leading to a platform that extended out, more like an entire building. It seemed a lot of trouble for a look-out post.
Then a shadow fell across her and the town square, and she saw a huge spiky metal object flying overhead to dock at the top of the tower. It was smaller than Cloudsdale, but not by that much, and bigger than any air-ship that she'd ever seen, even when she visited Manehatten as a filly. Doc Clayton came up alongside her, and she tore her gaze away from the thing.
"Now ain't that a sight! I gotta agree Doc, this ain't Equestria. What is that thing?"
"A star-ship, a Kerium freighter to be precise. That's how we travel between worlds." He pointed over to the bank where people were bringing out several carts full of bags, the tell-tale orange glow of Kerium. "They've come to pick up the Kerium we've mined, and bring everything we can't make on planet."
"Whoever raises the suns must be some kind of juggler. Not only do they have three of 'em to keep track of, they've gotta avoid hitting those things."
Doc would have been sceptical about Applejack's assertion that in Equestria the sun and moon were run by executive decree, if Stampede hadn't once made two of the suns vanish with his powers to try and force an evacuation of the planet. Only Bravestarr figuring out how to reverse it had stopped Fort Kerium from becoming a ghost town.
"Around here, the suns and moons generally run by themselves. For that matter, we don't control the weather. If we did, there'd be more cloud cover."
"That don't sound safe at all!" Applejack shook her head. "But I guess there's not much I can do about it."
"Let's get you over to the Marshall's office, you can wait for Bravestarr there. Though I don't know if he'll be back in time to take you to the Shaman's place today. If it looks like he's going to be late, I can put you up at the clinic for the night. Or you can get a room at the inn."
"I don't know what you folks use for money around here, but I don't have any of it, or even Equestrian bits."
"I wouldn't worry, any of those nuggets of Kerium you're carrying is worth a month's food and lodging." The Doctor looked over at the bank, where carts were being brought out. They were piled high with sacks, and a few were open for sampling, showing the chunks of Kerium inside. "I just hope Tex Hex doesn't know the Marshall's away, this'd be the perfect time for him to strike."
A siren started to sound, and Doc Clayton sighed. "I hate it when I'm right."