“Captain Darius, something is wrong on board the Adamant Fury!”
Darius rose up from the Conformity’s command seat, his back cracking as it moved for the first time in days. Ever since the Adamant Fury had left port, the grey unicorn had sat on that chair, refusing to leave. Darius knew what he had to do, but he still didn’t know how he was going to do it. “What’s wrong?” he said as he headed for the comm-station, stretching his limbs once he arrived there.
“We’re picking up inter-ship communications. Sounds like there was some sort of commotion in the brig. Every soldier on board was called to arms.” The tech officer furrowed his brow as he placed a hoof against his headset.
Darius leaned forward. Maybe Sweetie Belle got out. Had she found the key? Had she dared to use it, or was this all a coincidence?
“They... they got out, sir. The prisoners are pushing through the ship, multiple casualties reported. Armories one and three are under siege...” Suddenly, the officer threw the headset off of his head and jumped back. A piercing wail burst forth from the headset where it lay against the dial-filled control board, resounding around the room. Ponies everywhere in the command room winced and grabbed their ears.
Darius flicked off the set. “I think they reached the communications room, captain...” said the officer duly.
Darius hurriedly walked over to the main viewport of the ship. The sentry on duty moved away, giving the captain some privacy as he installed himself in front of the glass windows that gave a one hundred and eighty degree view of the fore. From there, Darius looked at the gigantic green shape of the Adamant Fury.
The Adamant Fury. His new enemy.
No, this wasn’t the group he had joined, this empire was not lead by a princess of noble birth, just some lowlife scum trying to pass himself off as an Emperor.
A sudden movement to his right caught his attention. The Decimate, the other escort ship, was maneuvering to flank the side of the Adamant Fury. "What's it doing, getting so close?" he muttered under his breath, a horrible suspicion growing in his chest.
“Captain!” screamed the one of the watch officers.
“The Adamant Fury’s hangar is opening!” The officer pointed a hoof at the opening on the ship's side. Small Vanquisher-class fighters flew out in a blaze of grey and red, each and every one twisting desperately to avoid the large frame of the other Interdiction-Class airship.
The Decimate’s anti-aerial cannons opened fire. Hundreds of bullets poured through the air in an attempt to bring down the agile Vanquishers. The light fighter planes weaved through the gunfire that hurtled through the air around them.
Darius abandoned the scene and ran to his command chair. “All units, prepare for battle!” he bellowed. Immediately every officer in the room sped up their work; throughout the ship, hundreds of ponies ran to arm and prepare the ship for war. Darius placed his hoof on his command chair’s console, quickly navigating the keys until he opened a direct channel to the Conformity’s gun stations. “All units, take aim at the Decimate,” he ordered.
“Comms-officer, I want all default fighter plane frequencies on the loudspeakers right now.” With a nod, the officer jumped to work, and soon the room was filled with the panic-stricken chatter of the rebel fighters.
“ --Preacher out yet?”
“What are our orders?”
“May Celestia guard my life, may Luna bless my aim...”
“--I’m hit, I can’t stay with you.”
“Get clear Wedge, you can’t do anymore good back there!”
“Fuel support hit! Main engine ou--” An explosion was felt as the Decimate finally hit one of the fighter planes. The fuel tank ruptured, creating a great ball of fire that rocked the Conformity before the massive airship stabilized itself.
The comms-officer reached his hoof over to the controls and decreased the volume. Turning to Darius, he asked, “What now, sir?”
“Now, I talk.”
Darius leaned back into his seat and typed a code into the seat’s small interface, causing a loud ping to sound through the entire ship. “Hello, crew of the Conformity, this is your captain speaking. As you may have found out by now, I have decided to desert the Empire in favour of taking my own course in life. The Empire has changed. It is but a husk of the values it once stood for. We lost our Princess, and now we are not even allowed to talk of her.Today, I rebel. I ask nothing but the servitude that you have always given me. If you feel the need to leave, the cargo hold is filled with unarmed transports. Take your pick: stay or leave. Whatever you choose, choose... now." With that, Darius turned off the comm and looked up.
Everypony in the room was staring at him. They knew of his plans, of course, but hearing him speak them so openly shocked them a little.
“You’re more of a father to us than my real dad, sir. I’d follow you to hell and back,” said one. All the other ponies in the room silently agreed.
“Perfect,” said Darius, a bright smile on his face.
Darius slumped back into his chair, relieved, and began absently listening to the chatter on the fighter planes’ comm. The rebels were in a fair bit of disarray. It seemed like their leader was still trapped in the ship. Some wanted to return, while others wisely chose to keep to the chain of command. The rebellion was going to have a hard time if it was all so disorganized, he thought to himself.
Trying to suppress his frustration, he rose up from his seat and calmly trotted over to the viewport. Less than a klick away, dozens of Vanquishers were circling around the Decimate, their light machine guns spewing streams of bullets into the armoured sides of the Imperial airship in a vain attempt to damage the much larger craft. Bullets pinged and dented against the metallic plates to no avail. Across the ship, small puffs of smoke and punctured pieces of brass showed where a lucky shot was made.
The Decimate’s cannons were firing wildly at the fast-moving ships, but they, too, were unable to hit the agile crafts.
"This is going to end badly for both sides," Darius said grimly.
Scanning the battlefield, Darius noticed a small gunship zipping out of the Adamant Fury’s open hangar, headed straight for the Decimate. He cringed, expecting the gunship to ram into the ship’s hull.
“Move, Sweetie Belle!” yelled an unfamiliar voice.
A shiver of fear ran through Darius’ spine. Was she in that gunship?!
Turning, he galloped to his command chair. Opening the channel to the gun stations, he yelled, “All guns, fire!” Just as he finished speaking, the Conformity’s first salvo roared, shaking the entire ship with the force of their explosions. The heavy shells arced through the air, and then, almost gently, they touched the Decimate’s armoured side.
The Conformity recoiled as dozens of explosions dotted the flank of the neighbouring airship, sending everypony reeling and tumbling as shockwave after shockwave lurched over them. The Decimate screeched loudly as its metal frame bent out of shape in midair. Half of its motors were missing along one side, huge gouts of flame spewing out of the newly-torn holes along its canvas walls. The Interdiction-class’ inch thick armour wasn’t made to resist that type of battering. Soon, the Conformity’s comm was flooded by the screams and pleas for both help and vengeance from the Decimate. From out of the fire a small, white gunship appeared, only slightly scarred by the hungry flames.
When the waves had subsided, Darius looked at the ship that was once his ally. Tapping on the comm, he muttered a new command, “All units, cease fire.” Then, turning to the comms-officer he ordered, “shut off all communications units.” With a pop, the ship’s speakers silenced themselves. Darius could feel the tension mounting in the room. These ponies would follow any order he gave them, he knew, but they all had comrades and friends on board the Decimate.
“What now, sir?”
Before Darius could give an answer, the Vanquishers turned away from their now-dying prey and started flying towards the Conformity.
Darius didn’t care. The little gunship was safe.
Now, all he had to do was survive. The Vanquishers whirling towards him could still pack a punch if they tried. The little gunship behind them also seemed well armed. But, without a doubt, their greatest weapon was Sweetie Belle. If they had her, he wouldn’t dare to attack.
“Empty main gas-bag to forty-five percent capacity,” he ordered. The engineering officer hesitated, then complied. Darius nodded to himself, then continued, “shut down main Sparkle Generator, set auxiliaries on half power.”
“I don’t intend to be rude, but that will make us sink incredibly fast, sir,” said the engineer.
Gulping, the engineer relayed the order. As the main bag began to empty itself a loud ‘whoosh’ was heard throughout the ship. Darius felt himself become lighter as the ship quickly began to lose altitude, catching up to the slowly falling form of the Decimate, whose crew was still trying to raise the ship.
“Should we launch the fighters, sir?”
“No. Let’s not waste good ponies because of some stupid protocol written by an idiotic noble who never saw the inside of an airship. We are no longer part of the Empire.”
Before the officer could answer, half a dozen Vanquishers whizzed by the falling ship, only to reappear on the other side, heading in the opposite direction. “Sir?”
“Open comm between us and them.” The officer nodded and jumped to it.
Darius trotted over to the communications unit and picked up the microphone. “Hello, this is Darius, captain of the Conformity. I wish to plead formal surrender.” His words were met with the gasps of everypony in the room.
With a crackle, the voices of many ponies flooded the command room at once. Suddenly a loud brash male voice took command.
“This is Spray, current leader of the New Lunar Republic Strike Force Three. Please repeat request.”
“New Lunar what?” asked a small voice that Darius recognized over the static of the radio.
“Miss Belle, is that you?” he asked.
The line went dead for a while, then popped back into life. “Um, hi, Mr. Darius... thanks for that key. It was really useful.”
“He’s the one that gave you that?” said another voice in a whisper.
“Yeah, he’s really nice...”
“Shush,” said Spray, “Captain Darius. You know this girl?”
“Indeed. Miss Belle and I are... acquaintances. Now, will you let us go? Or do you want me to fight back? Know that the ponies on board the Conformity have a lot more training than those fools on the Decimate. We won’t miss.”
With a pop, the signal was cut. After a long pause and a few crackles, Spray spoke again. “That was the worse plea for surrender I’ve ever heard; aren’t you supposed to beg for your life, not threaten to kill us all? Bah, all right, we’ll leave you be. Echo division out.”
Darius sighed and slumped back into his seat. There was going to be no more bloodshed that day.
“Hang on!” screamed Apple Bloom. The Griffon Chaser sped across the desert landscape. Every few meters, one of its short metallic wings would clip some of the bright green bushes that were becoming more and more common as they sped along. Behind them, long trails of dust marked their passage before being swept away on the light breeze.
“We’re all going to die, aren’t we?” cried Pipsqueak, who was hanging on for dear life to the rear rudder. Apple Bloom wasn’t able to make the small fighter plane airworthy, but she was able to make it move. Now, Pipsqueak was tasked to ‘aid’ the rudder that hardly responded to the controls.
“Shut up, Squeaks. We’re almost there. I can feel it!” said Keen Eyes, who was strapped onto the main body of the plane, slowly twiddling with the engine’s main boiler in an attempt to keep it at a stable pressure. Every few minutes long plumes of steam would jet out of it when she opened the emergency release, battering the only colt onboard in the face with hot vapour.
“That’s the third time you’ve said that!” accused Pipsqueak. The buffalo mare ignored him, turning her smiling face towards the front.
The trio were not quite flying, although the device they were on was made for just that. The Griffon Chaser’s nose was bobbing at only a few hoof lengths above the ground as the plane-turned-car sped along the increasingly grassy hills. Squinting, Apple Bloom focused on the scene that was unfolding over the next hill. Her face twisted into a crooked smile as she saw her hometown appearing over the horizon.
Ponyville hadn't changed from the last time she saw it, only a few weeks past. Colourful ponies still trotted around the massive town square where the shadows of airships roamed. The sky dock at the edge of town was, as usual, busy loading apples into small cargo ships. Beyond the town, miles and miles of apple orchards stretched over what was once the Everfree forest: now, only perfect rows of pruned apple trees remained, dotted with mechanized apple pickers and the small red airships that emptied their collected loads.
“We’re almost there!” she screamed back to the two accompanying her. Pipsqueak’s face changed from a look of sickened stress to one of pure relief. Meanwhile, Keen Eyes simply nodded, suddenly serious. Apple Bloom picked up on this. “What’s wrong?”
“Hmm, oh, I was thinking... How are we going to stop?” Apple Bloom could hardly hear the buffalo over the sound of rushing wind.
“Stop?” she repeated.
Apple Bloom’s eyes widened as she turned around. The Griffon Chaser was speeding downhill at an alarming speed, which meant that they wouldn’t be able to stop easily. Quickly judging from the direction they were going... they would pass right through the center of the busy, house-filled town.
The plane thundered past the first few houses dotting the town’s exterior, rusty wheels rattling on old bearings. Heads popped out of homes and businesses alike to look at the sight of three on board desperately hanging on the the aircraft-turned-projectile charging into town.
“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” screamed Pipsqueak at the top of his lungs. Ponies everywhere ran for their lives as the Griffon Chaser flew past, kicking up clouds of dust. Apple Bloom forced the nose of the ship down, the old prop cutting wedges into the paved roadway before disintegrating in an explosion of shrapnel and metal bits. The nose dropped further, ripping off one wheel then the next until the belly of the plane rubbed against the road, sparks and small parts of the craft flying everywhere as the entire town was alerted to its presence by the loud grating of its metal hull. The three on board bounced and bobbed within the ship as it rattled and shook.
“Get outta the way!” Apple Bloom yelled, as building after building that she recognized passed in a blur. The library, Carousel Boutique, the town hall. Apple Bloom leaned over to the side and looked down. Maybe they could jump off? The dark hardtop road encouraged her otherwise. She gulped. If they couldn’t stop or jump off... they had to crash. Looking ahead, she sighed mournfully, before aiming the ship towards the softest building she saw, Sofas and Quills.
“Apple Bloom!” yelled Pipsqueak, “before we die, I just want you to know that I’ve always lo--”
With a resounding crash the ship slammed into the front wall of the wooden building. Apple Bloom was lifted from her position in front of the wheel. From in the air, she briefly glimpsed ponies screaming as they scattered in every direction, while others just stared, transfixed, at the disaster.
With a loud, ominous crunch, she felt herself slam into the remains of the wall, then roll onto a soft cushion-like surface. One eye cracked open, and she drowsily noticed a brown form hopping out of the Griffon Chaser, wearing a saddlebag with the symbol of three little red apples.
She blacked out.
Bunnyhelm Chrono smiled contentedly at the piles of letters, plans, and blueprints that adorned the top of his desk. Everything was perfect. The main pile had his new allocations of troops and vehicles, the smaller pile to its side was shipments of maintenance equipment, Empathy, and ammunition, and at the far end were blueprints and reports on every aspect of the rebellion he could get his hooves on. All he needed now was a motivator and then he co--
“Mr. Chrono,” said Scribeswell as he poked his head into the luxurious office. “A letter for you, sir.”
Bunnyhelm sighed, his smile fading. He hated interruptions. “Inky,” he addressed the secretary. “I get hundreds of letters a day... put it on the ‘in’ box. I’ll have a look at it later.”
The secretary coughed, standing his ground. “But, sir, this one is from one of your... special sources. It has an attachment you might be interested in...” The pony trotted into the room, smiling kindly and ignoring Bunnyhelm’s growing frown until he arrived at his desk and gently laid the letter atop the tallest stack of paper.
“Inky, wait,” said Bunnyhelm. The secretary stopped mid-stride and turned around to face him. “What is your job, Inky?”
Inky’s face scrunched up slightly as the question bounced around in his head. “To serve you, sir?” he answered uncertainly.
“Exactly!” exclaimed Bunnyhelm. The secretary smiled. “To serve me, that means that your job is to make me happy, is it not?”
“Um, yes, sir...”
“Inky, what does happy look like?” Inky stared at Bunnyhelm, then cracked a small, sheepish, smile. “Brilliant! Now Inky, look at my face.” Bunnyhelm furrowed his brows and stared at the secretary with his piercing eyes. “Is my face like this?” he smiled for a short second, “Or like this?” his face returned to an expression of fierce annoyance.
“Um, the second one, sir?”
Bunnyhelm cracked a wicked grin. “Good...” he said, stretching the word. Then he deadpanned, “Get out.”
Bunnyhelm furrowed his brows as the door closed. Inky was a great pony, but he had seen too much of his real personality. He was becoming a liability. Oh well, he thought, glancing out the window behind him towards the city filled with tens of thousands of ponies. He could always find a replacement...
He turned back and looked at the letter. Using his magic he flipped it into the air and pried it open.
As his eyes scrolled across the contents of the page his face broke into a large, wicked grin. Some days, everything just went along perfectly. Getting up, he trotted out of his office and into the lobby. Scribeswell jumped as the door slammed open. “Inky, where’s the Emperor?”
The secretary stared at him dumbfounded for a few seconds before answering. Glancing at some of the sheets on his desk, Inky shuffled through them until he found a detailed schedule. “Er, the Emperor is heading to some event at the Spectrum Skies Speedway, sir.”
“Inky, how would you like to go to the Speedway with your family today? My pay, just deliver a letter for me on the way there...”
Inky blinked, stunned. “I’d love to, sir! Thank you very much!”
“Oh, you deserve it Inky, you deserve it,” he said as he backed back into his office and shut the door with a delicate click.
From within the top floor of Ponyville Imperial Docking Bay Four, Keen Eyes adjusted the binoculars with a quick tap of her hoof. The image of a yellow, bow-wearing mare laying on her side on what, moments before, was a sofa, shifted, and refocused itself. A sad smile creeped across her buffalo lips. At least Apple Bloom was all right.
Turning slowly, Keen Eyes began to search for Pipsqueak amongst the rubble left after the Griffon Chaser’s crash. Sofas and Quills was a mess: the small, flightless airship had torn through the entire front wall, rupturing and breaking into the building. All that was left of the shop front was a single intact display, where Apple Bloom had fallen. Keen Eyes kept looking, slowly, turning from left to right until she spotted a single white-and-brown leg poking out from beneath a pile of quills.
Keen Eyes winced when the earth pony dragged himself out of the pile, only to tumble across the floor. Other ponies, curious as they were, started streaming nearer and nearer to the crash site until, finally, two of them wearing white coats with little pink butterfly emblems ran into the building and immediately jumped onto Pipsqueak, pinning him to the ground as they went about inspecting him. Keen Eyes let out a small sigh. At least with ponies from Empathy Medical around the pair would be alright.
“A response to your letter, ma'am,” said a voice from behind her. She jumped, startled, before turning around and looking at the bored earth-pony technician. He simply hoofed over a long folded piece of telegraph paper covered in furious pen strokes.
Keen Eyes glanced at the sheet, then looked at the pony, her brow wrinkling. “You decoded it?”
The dirty technician just shrugged. “Yeah, figured you’d need the help.”
“Look here, missy, my clearance level is more than high enough to look at this jumbled crap. Now I’ve got things to do.” The earth pony turned and began to walk away. “Don’t forget to shut the door of the tower when you’re done,” he called over his shoulder.
Keen Eyes grumbled before opening the letter and reading it. When her eyes reached the end of the sheet she began grumbling even more, crushing the brittle paper under a fore-hoof before turning back to the scene of the Griffon Chaser’s crash.
Grabbing her binoculars again, she peeked at the scene far below. One of the ponies from Empathy had moved on to Apple Bloom, touching her forehead with a hoof while taking her blood pressure with another. Apple Bloom didn’t seem to care, as her attention was divided between talking to a hat-wearing orange earth pony, glancing at the crashed ship, and worriedly looking over at Pipsqueak.
Keen Eyes followed the young mare’s gaze and broke out in snickers at what she saw. Pipsqueak was standing on three hooves, with one of his bandaged hooves hovering just above the ground. Every few seconds, a pained wince would cross his face in time with the glow of a bored medical unicorn's horn. Quill after quill was being pulled out of the white-and-brown earth pony’s flank.
The small clock tower that Keen Eyes occupied resonated with her laughter as she rolled across the floor, clutching her chest with her hooves. “Poor Squeaks!” she said, wiping a tear from her eyes. Her laughter died off quickly as she felt the oppressive loneliness that comes from laughing on your own.
Coughing, she climbed back to the window’s edge and looked down again. This time, she focused on the orange mare that was speaking to Apple Bloom with grand exaggerated gestures. Suddenly, the mare’s head tilted upwards, revealing her face to Keen Eyes’ sight. A small gasp escaped the buffalo’s lips as she recognized the cowpony. “Is that Applejack?” she whispered to herself.
The two mares seemed to be talking quietly. Apple Bloom’s face slowly began tearing up when Applejack suddenly hugged the little mare. “The hay, they know each other?”
Keen Eyes tore her eyes away from the heart-wrenching scene and looked around. Ponies stood all around the building, giving it a respectable distance that was uncommon for ponies looking at an accident. Keen Eyes quickly spotted the reason why: thick, burly bouncers sat facing the crowd evenly separated from one another. Nopony stood within a few hoofsteps from them. That was all the evidence she needed to confirm the cowmare’s identity.
Quickly sliding back to the couple, Keen Eyes witnessed the beginning of a fight between the two. Apple Bloom had put herself in a defensive stance, screaming tearfully at the cowmare, who simply bowed her head in shame. Suddenly, Pipsqueak appeared within Keen Eyes’ scope, trotting over the debris-covered floor to Apple Bloom, putting a reassuring hoof on her shoulder.
Apple Bloom seemed to calm down at her friend's presence. The doctor behind Pipsqueak, on the other hoof, was fuming. The pair turned to Applejack and spoke calmly for a few minutes while the doctor resumed his quill-picking duties. Applejack seemed to remain quiet, only nodding her head every once in a while, or opening her mouth to say a few short words before continuing to listen.
Eventually, Applejack shushed the younger mare and began speaking in turn, Apple Bloom and Pipsqueak’s face, twisting in confusion and anger, then sudden understanding. Apple Bloom got off the couch, stumbling to the ground before Pipsqueak righted her, then pointed to the downed ship.
Slowly, the three earth ponies walked over to the ship, followed closely by the doctor. Apple Bloom reached the ship first and began trying to climb into it. With an exasperated sigh, Applejack trotted up to the mare and helped her up and into the rusty ship. After a few moments, Keen Eyes saw all sorts of tools, parts and other junk fly out of the ship as Apple Bloom threw them overboard. Minutes late,r the mare poked her head out and shrugged.
Applejack shook her head then lifted it and hollered. Half a dozen workponies thundered over to the mare, not even panting as they raced from halfway across the town to stop at the mare’s hooves.
Applejack talked to them for a while, gesturing to the ship before turning back to Apple Bloom, who was still trying to climb out of the ship. One of the burly workponies trotted over to her and lifted her up on one hoof, making Pipsqueak blush indignantly. Keen Eyes smiled at the little pony’s adorable pout.
Keen Eyes was distracted by the sudden shadow that passed above her. Discarding her binoculars, the buffalo looked up at the tube-and-mechanical-arm-covered belly of a small, single engine airship. As the ship flew past her she read the name emblazoned on its side under the symbol of a bright red apple; F&F-Co: Super Apple Picker Nine-Thousand and One. “The hay?”
The apple-scented ship maneuvered its way around the town, and to the group of ponies gathered around Applejack. Stopping near her, a hatch along the vehicle's side opened, and a long cord dropped from the ship, hitting the ground with a puff of dust. Applejack patiently trotted over to the cord and picked it off the ground with a forehoof, revealing to Keen Eyes that it was tipped with a small microphone.
A loud pop was heard throughout the town as the mic was turned on. Everypony in the nearby crowds turned their attention to the airship hovering overhead. “Hey everypony,” began Applejack. “I don’t want to bother you too much but we’re kinda looking for a buffalo filly. Brown... goes by the name of Keen Eyes. Anyway, if y’all spot her, could ya bring her over to one of my ponies, or, better yet, get one of them to catch her. She has something that belongs to me... There’s a reward... Thanks!” With a screech the microphone went dead.
Keen Eyes panicked, turning to the pair of brown saddlebags with three little apples stitched onto their lapels that was at her hooves. She gulped. Abandoning her binoculars to the windowsill and picking the bags up in her mouth, she galloped out of the room and into the next room over. As she slammed the door open, the first thing Keen Eyes saw was the smiling face of the technician, “Hello, buffalo. Seems like you’re in a spot of trouble...”
“Get outta my way,” she said, seething. Her eyes wandered around the small room, desperately searching for an exit.
“Aw, come now, I ain’t that mean... fine then. Go down two levels; there you’ll find an Order-class light patrol ship. Get in it and hide somewhere. I’ll make sure you get out of here alive. Goodness knows what the Apple goons would do to you.” He smiled wickedly at the thought,
“Why should I trust you?” asked Keen Eyes, knowing full well that there was little else she could do.
“I’m under orders from Bunnyhelm to keep you alive. You don’t cross Bunnyhelm.”
Let’s see, as usual, a big thanks to TheWattsMan and Cheezesauce for the editing Eruedraight and ChaosMedler for the reading and a big thanks to Burraku_Pansa for the last minute help, thanks a bunch guys!