Darius trotted through his ship with his head held low, his hoofsteps ringing lightly after each step on the hard metal walkways. His bleak mood was slowly but surely spreading through the ship. Many of the ponies he had spent years of his life with were looking at him with eyes filled with concern and fear. He knew that he had to start acting like a captain again, but he lacked the will to do so.
He was heading to his quarters through the well-scrubbed halls of the ship. As usual everything was spotlessly clean, just as he liked it. Today, however, he didn’t feel that little burst of pride that seeing his ship and crew in tip-top shape usually brought to him. Something was missing.
The stallion subconsciously made his way to his small room, ignoring the ringing and banging that came from various parts of the ship as it was being loaded with cargo and provisions.
Darius opened the door and dragged himself over to his bed, slumping onto the small grey cot. The day had been one filled with hardship. He was berated by his superiors, spending hours sitting around a table being told that all of his actions were wrong. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Corporal Green Lance was released of all charges and actually promoted. It had taken all of Darius’ considerable leverage to get the pegasus to be put on a different ship than his. He couldn’t abide having someone so rude and self-righteous on the Conformity.
He shoved his head into one of the small hard pillows and let out a long sigh. The ship thudded rhythmically under him as it was loaded with more cargo. His crew had let him leave. They were loyal to him first and the empire second, they could feel the tension emanating from him. The crew had said nothing when he prematurely stepped away from the command to go to his chambers.
He pulled his head out of the uncomfortable pillow and glanced at the small image on his drawer. The frame was slightly crooked from how he had last left it. Sweetie Belle must have touched it, he thought. The memory of the young white mare sparked a pang of emotions in his chest. He pitied and admired her at the same time. Thought not the one to admit that he had feelings for the pretty mare, he knew that to deny it was to lie to himself.
Reaching out with his magic, he gently floated the frame over and gazed at it. Beside him stood his daughter, almost a head shorter than him, but already thinking of herself as a full grown mare. He smiled as she smiled back. That was the last time he had seen her smile.
She had begged and even threatened him to let her serve alongside him aboard his ship. At some point he caved in and let his daughter join the forces under his own supervision. She had brought life to the otherwise grey and monotone ship; the entire crew was in love with her quick wits and curious mind, not that it didn’t cause quite a bit of trouble. His smile slowly faded.
Back then he was a Vice-Admiral in Celestia’s own royal air guard. One of the first airship captains in Equestria. He had even greeted the princess and her six champions themselves on board his ship many times, an honour he still reveled in today. The war was simply a game. Who could move troops faster, who could muster more soldiers. Nopony was really out to kill one another; even their enemies were lax to assault anything that wasn’t strictly military. The few hospital ships that flew across battlefields had been real safe havens for allies and enemies alike.
It was almost a peaceful war. Darius barked a sarcastic laugh. Things had changed. He'd often wondered what triggered such a dramatic shift. At what point were decency and common sense thrown away, in favour of pure brutality and mindless slaughter? His ship burned, his daughter died, his Princess vanished.
He was left with nothing; a mere husk of his former self was all that remained. Oh, he could still captain a ship as well -if not better- than most, but his passion was gone. That is, until a week ago, where he fought against a tiny little ship with no odds of surviving. He watched it struggle and fight back desperately. It mimicked his inner turmoil so well that something inside him snapped. It was usually against regulations to board a ship in mid-air, but he ordered it anyway. What he received shocked him to his core.
A filly, hardy befitting of the title of mare, with so much fighting spirit and power in her little eyes. She was just like the daughter he had lost long ago. He had sworn to protect her right there and then. As he learnt more about her, that need grew. Darius was a father searching for a daughter. And he had found one.
When he trotted into the jail and saw the three ruffians, part of his crew, attempting to do such a vile act on her. He could have killed them there and then were it not for the eyes of the filly in question looking at him. He settled for a slightly more diplomatic approach. Now the leader of the bunch was free once more, and the girl he swore to protect was a captive heading to the most depraved location in all of Equestria.
He let the image drop on the rough surface of his bed. He didn’t want to look into her smiling eyes. `You should smile more.` Her last words came back to him. They were so similar, he thought. His daughter and this Sweetie Belle.
He twisted around and stared at the grey ceiling. Everything was grey. He hated grey.
Right there and then he made a decision that he knew would change his life forever. He was going to save her.
Darius jumped off of the cot with renewed energy. He knew what had to be done! He lifted the frame up and gave it a parting kiss as he quickly made his way out of the room. A small, sly, smile adorned his face, making every member of his crew he passed as he galloped towards the fore of the ship do a double take.
“Empty everything unnecessary out of here. Make room!” he ordered as he galloped into the cavernous cargo hold. Everypony stopped to stared at him, wide-eyed and curious. “Quartermaster!” he called.
“Um, here sir.” said an old stallion in a dirty grey jumpsuit. Darius recognized him, that same stallion had served with him right from the start.
“Make room in here and fetch me a dozen transport ships. I want enough to evacuate the entire crew.”
“Er... Yes sir!” saluted the quartermaster before turning to the soldiers under his command. “You heard ‘im, the captain wants some transports, get some!” Dozens of ponies raced around, attempting to carry out the strange set of orders. The quartermaster turned to Darius. “Now sir, where do you intend to get those ships?”
“I’ve no clue!” He smiled broadly.
The quartermaster smiled along with him, “I’ve got a few friends here ‘n there. I’ll get you some of ‘em old gunships if ya want.”
“Brilliant! Just make sure to strip them of their weapons and to store them elsewhere on board.” Darius turned and began to trot away.
Darius turned his head and looked at the Quartermaster who spoke.
“I like it when yer happy, the whole crew does. You can count on us sir, we gonna follow you through hell an’ high water!” Darius smiled at him and started trotting away, glad to hear the sounds of ponies working and ships landing within the cargo hold. He stopped mid stride as a wave of cold air washed over him. A ship was in the hold?
“Captain Darius!” ordered a strong feminine voice. The captain turned around, expecting to talk to another member of his crew. The pony that greeted him with a false smile made him immediately lose his own.
“Admiral Trixie, how wonderful to see you on board my ship,” he lied. The blue unicorn gave him another false smile then whispered something into the ear of one of her many guards on her private transport, a beautifully curved blue and gold light-gunship-turned-transport. The name "Magnificent" was emblazoned along its side in strong purple letters. As she alighted from the ship, he called out, "I see that you have yet another new ship!” he said with forced good humour as the ship’s thin metallic ramp was descended using expensive hydraulic arms.
“Indeed, The great and powerful admiral Trixie is worthy of many ships!” He wished he could facehoof, but the staggering amount of soldiers packed in the small blue ship discouraged him. Members of his crew ran towards the Magnificent to tie it down, as was the normal procedure. Trixie, still halfway down the ramp, noticed their approach.
“Trixie doesn’t want that filth to touch her ship. Begone!” she bellowed. The ponies near her ship backpedaled wide-eyed away from her and her ship, fearing the retribution of a high-ranking admiral.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of having you on board my fine vessel?” he said in an attempt to distract her. She glared at him with a look filled with contempt, like somepony forced to view a mere ant as an equal. Darius worked hard to keep his false smile plastered onto his face.
“The great and powerful Trixie does not wish to suffer through your pleasantries. Know this: because of your stupid actions the Imperial navy’s high command has decided that you are to be re-stationed far to the south of Equestria!” She flourished her velvet cape and climbed back on board her ship.
Darius felt his heart sink. “Where will I be stationed, exactly?” he gulped. “Admiral.” he added when he fixed her glare.
“At Tartarus, you and your idiotic crew will escort the prison ship Adamant Fury to the stinking place.” She smiled wickedly at him, “then you get to patrol the desert skies until your case passes to the tribunals. Don’t worry, I am sure it will only take a few years!” With an unnecessary puff of purple smoke the mare ran into the light transport and it took off, slowly building up thrust as it lifted in a fury of wind and exhaust fumes that left everypony in the hold coughing.
Darius sat where he was and thought, ignoring the looks that spread on the members of the crew nearby. This was perfect, everything was going to his favour.
Slowly, a mischievous smile crept along his face, a smile that his crew hadn't seen in years...
They were going to war.
Bunnyhelm Chronos was in an excellent mood: Blueblood had granted him more power. The plant was running at optimal, and his position with the social hierarchy of the Canterlot elite was more than secure.
He overlooked Canterlot from his office within the Sol Control Facility. The tall spires of the city were all below him, none reached the height of the enormous plant. None could. It was built upon what was once the Canterlot mountains where, years ago, the city of Canterlot was carved from. He enjoyed the view, the sun -his sun- glinting off of the building and vehicles as ponies went along their daily mundane routines. “My city,” he said as he gently placed a hoof on the glass plane separating him from the outside world.
“Is there a problem sir?” His secretary, Inky Scribeswell, trotted into the room with a concerned expression.
He smiled at him. “No Inky, everything is just fine.” He had a wonderful smile. Bunnyhelm prided himself on his appearance.
“Okay then sir.” Inky began trotting out of the luxurious office but stopped midway out of the door. “Oh, Mr Chronos, don’t forget that appointment with the Spectrum Skies representatives.”
“Of course not; I’ll get right to it.” He smiled till the secretary could no longer see his face, then returned it to its usual scowl. “I guess I have to go.” With one last look at the city behind and a final sigh he trotted out of the room.
Bunnyhelm walked from his office with a light step and quickly reached the executive elevators. With a tap of his hoof the steam-powered lift propelled him upwards and to the top floor of the building. He glanced at his reflection on the elevator’s mirrored wall one last time before opening the door and trotting out with a large beaming smile. Immediately the wind tousled his mane and tail as he stepped onto the roof.
Placing a protective hoof over his face he could make out the ever-growing shape of a rainbow-coloured transport balloon. Anchors dropped from the sleek vessel and were expertly picked by the ground crew as they went about docking the small craft, seemingly unaffected by the strong high-altitude winds. With almost reckless speed and agility the small ship dropped onto the landing pad, guided by the expert hooves of its pilot.
Once docked, the ship’s side door popped open with a pneumatic hiss and a ladder unfurled, hitting the landing pad with a light thump. A pale blue pegasi with a white-streaked navy blue mane hopped out of the vehicle and was soon followed by two secretaries. The fat pegasus thumped down the ramp and quickly joined Bunnyhelm near the elevator.
They greeted each other with a hoof shake and words that were quickly lost in the strong wind. Twisting his head, Bunnyhelm indicated they should head into the elevator. The blue pegasus complied and ran in, followed by his two secretaries.
“Hi, I’m Soarin,” he reintroduced himself with another hoof shake. The fat blue pony smiled and bobbed his head, his curls of fat bobbing in time.
“Hello Mr. Soarin, I am Bunnyhelm Chronos.” He noticed Soarin about to laugh. “Please, call me Chronos,” he said in a manner that left little room for negotiation. “I am glad you could make it here on such short notice. I would have gone to your factory, but as it is my time is very precious.”
Soarin smiled amiably at him while he pressed a button on the elevator’s wall. “That's all right Mr. Chronos. You are, after all, one of Spectrum Skies’ best customers! Now about that order of the new Vanquisher models...”
Bunnyhelm smiled at the pegasi. “Don’t worry, we will have plenty of time to talk about such mundane affairs later. How would you like it if I gave you a tour of the plant?” Chronos watched as his words sank into the daff pegasi’s head. The plant was a symbol for the empire. Not everypony was allowed into it. Even fewer were allowed to see the actual mechanism.
“I would love to!”
“Excellent. And of course your secretaries will have to wait for us here.” The elevator’s door opened with a perfect little ding just as Bunnyhelm finished his sentence. Bunnyhelm turned to address the secretaries. “Please go down a few more floors. I am sure the ponies in the reception area will treat you nicely.” He smiled to the two and led Soarin out of the metal box and into the well-lit and luxuriously decorated hallway beyond.
“Now Mr. Soarin, would you like to see how we raise the sun?” Soarin bounced ecstatically on the spot. “Good, it is already twelve-hundred hours. We are about to pass into the second shift.” The pair trotted along the circular path that wound its way across the facility. “So Mr. Soarin, that ship you came here in...”
“Ah, the Thunderbolt. Nice little ship isn’t it? Miss Dash’s idea. A single-pilot light transport, it even doubles as a gunship. Single balloon and double chassis. The bulk of the ship is built around the balloon. Less space but more customization and armour. They are also quite maneuverable, they use the new Sparkle Five engines that Miss Twilight created. Two of them in fact, gives the little ship a bigger bang for your bit. The army is looking forward to buying quite a few.”
Bunnyhelm smiled. Soarin’s big mouth had once more gained him some valuable information. “The Equestrian army?” The pegasi nodded. “Interesting, I might be interested in purchasing a few, at a better price then the army could afford of course.”
“That would be great!” Soarin sounded genuinely happy. Bunnyhelm gave him a condescending smile but the pegasi was too daft to figure it out.
“Ah here we are.” Bunnyhelm scooted the pegasi into a large room filled with hundreds of ponies in lab coats hurrying along on their business caring for gigantic machines that billowed and puffed as they worked their magic. All of them connected to a large brass sphere in the center of the room. “And this is where we rise the sun.” Soarin’s face drooped in disappointment.
Bunnyhelm laughed. “Don’t worry, we often see that expression. Most ponies expect something wondrous and not a room filled with techies and scientists.” He tapped the blue pegasus on the shoulder. “Come on, I’ll show you around while we talk business.” He led Soarin through the ever shifting maze of ponies and brought him to the colossal brass sphere held up by large steel legs. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” he said while running a loving hoof down its smooth surface..
“Um, yeah? You er... wanted to talk business?” Soarin fidgeted nervously. Bunnyhelm smiled viciously to himself while facing away from the pegasus.
“Yes, yes I did.” He let go of the sphere and started trotting towards another exit at the opposite end of the room. The factory workers spilt and made room for him almost subconsciously. Soarin quickly followed. “Commander Trixie has been put in charge of my private military force. Oh, not a big thing mind you, just something Bl-- Emperor Blueblood gave to me. A few Interdiction-class ships and a Valour-class battleship. Unfortunately they are not at full capacity, if you know what I mean.” Bunnyhelm opened the door with his magic and ushered Soarin into the passageway beyond.
They stepped onto the railing with loud clangs. Soarin immediately looked down at the impressive distance below and gulped. “This is where we store the fuel and energy required to move the sun.” explained Bunnyhelm as he pointed to the giant vats full of very toxic chemicals below. “I’d suggest breathing through your mouth, although that tends to leave a rather unfortunate aftertaste.” He started walking along the metal bridge and soon heard Soarin’s less than confident hoofsteps behind him.
“Now, as I was saying. My little force needs some ships... Unfortunately, I know that Spectrum Skies is really busy with the last big order of ships...”
“Yeah, we can’t even meet the demand we have now. If you want to order ships you’ll have to wait a bit.” Soarin smiled sheepishly.
“You know Soarin, I can call you just Soarin, right? I really want those Vanquishers. In fact I want a lot of them, twenty to be exact. I also want fiv-- No, six of those new Thunderbolts you have. All equipped of course.” Bunnyhelm stopped walking right above one of the huge vats and turned to face Soarin.
“I’d be happy to supply you sir, of course there is the paperwork, and as I said, we are not ready to fill out the current demand. I doubt we could get your ships for at least another year.”
“You know what is wonderful about being a unicorn?” Soarin’s brow tightened as he tried to comprehend the change of subject. “It’s the magic! Oh sure, you can fly and earth ponies are strong. But we can do so much. Levitate for example. My, I could levitate you right up and clasp your wings shut with little to no effort.” Bunnyhelm made a show of looking around the large room. Nopony was in sight.
Soarin started to sweat. “That’s great, Bunnyhelm.”
“It is great. And call me Mister Chronos. Now, about the tardiness of those ships. I can’t have that. I really want them. Couldn’t you do something to... speed things up?” Soarin’s eyes filled with tears and he began to sweat. Bunnyhelm smiled brightly within the rising plumes of fog.
“You say that like you’ll kill me if I refuse.” His laugh contained no humour.
“Then I suggest that you don’t refuse.”