It’s at least a full minute before anyone in the bathysphere speaks again, and when somepony does pipe up, her voice comes from the box on the wall. “This is incredible,” Twilight whispers, her tone solemn and shaky with awe. “Those buildings are anchored straight into the ocean bedrock. We must be miles below the surface by now!”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Rainbow growls back. Her gruffness doesn’t sound like anger as much as it does nausea, and I’m pretty sure I can understand why. Drifting by windows fifteen stories above the sea floor is giving me the uncomfortable sense that I’m flying, and even if my eyes can look around and tell me I’m still standing in the bathysphere, my stomach hasn’t quite figured out how to connect the dots just yet. I swallow hard and wipe the sweat off my brow with a shaking foreleg, and as the recorder goes quiet again I try to distract myself by looking off into the cluster of buildings I’m heading towards.
Most of the city—Harmony, I guess, if the slideshow was anything to go by—is made up of the same kind of structures I’ve already seen: tall, formidable, glassy-eyed giants, each with a different flickering sign or set of decorative columns gracing every side I can see. The deeper I look into the maze of steel and stone, though, the taller the buildings become and the brighter the signs glow, and in the city center behind it all lies a monstrous white dome, its rounded peak stretching up higher than even the tallest tower around it and backlit by an eerie blue glow.
Off to the left, an uncommonly wide building bears a logo of an orange and red-lit flame encircled by the words “Pyrus Industries”, and laid out beneath a glass-paneled web of dark brown girders to the right are rows and rows of what look for all the world like apple trees. Calling this place a city was right on the money: this entire settlement is self-sufficient, making all its own food and manufacturing all its own technology. Technology like this bathysphere, and little machines the size of shoeboxes that can record everything that happens around you inside two cups of magically enhanced jelly. Technology that nopony else in the world has ever seen before.
Even with my heart pounding fit to burst, I can’t stop a shiver of anticipation from crawling across my back. All my life, I’ve wondered what the inventions of the future would look like, and now it looks like I’m about to find out. What if there are things in this place I can’t begin to imagine, things that aren’t even machines at all? Twilight said that enchanting non-solid objects was nearly impossible. If they can do that easily enough to give away free samples of it, who knows what else is possible in this place? Who knows what else is waiting to be discovered?
The hum of the bathysphere’s propeller shifts down a notch as the craft banks to the left and descends, and I bend the smile off my face quickly once I notice that Link is staring at me with wide eyes and mouth still hanging open in shock. Thankfully, he figures out what he
looks like pretty soon after, and slams his lips shut so quickly I can hear his teeth click together, an impassive expression overtaking his face once more. He’s definitely had some practice at hiding his emotions. I should know. I’ve had a fair bit of it myself.
We move by Pyrus Industries and pass under one of the glass walkways that connect all the buildings, and the bathysphere levels out again just as the recorder crackles to life again. This time, though, the voices that come out are garbled and distorted, almost as if somepony else is trying to talk over them. Applejack starts off making some remark about the Pyrus building, but whatever Twilight says in return is muddled up by a nervous male voice that cuts in over hers, and after that I swear I can hear Applejack talking about two different things at the same time. It doesn’t make any sense, and it certainly doesn’t do anything to make my excitement stick around. Neither does noticing that some of the signs in this part of the city are flickering on and off and hanging loose from their moorings, or that some of the buildings themselves have jagged holes torn in them like they were hit by a cannonball. The rest of Harmony that I’ve seen makes the place look like it lives up to its name, but this section here reminds me more of a war zone.
I allow myself another gulp and keep my eyes pointed forward, in the meantime idly threading a nonexistent axle through a make-believe set of wagon wheels. Whatever questions I have about this place can be answered once we dock, and worrying about them now is going to get me nowhere pretty dang fast. That’s what I tell myself over the imaginary creaking of wooden spokes, anyway, but when everything I look at adds a dozen more questions to the buzzing hive of them inside my head, it’s a bit hard to forget that I can plainly see a hundred things worth worrying about in every structure we pass.
And now that we’ve straightened out, I can finally see where we’re headed as well. Set into the side of a wide, windowless building just a few dozen yards away is a seamless round hole the exact size of the bathysphere, the setup of the wall around it making the whole thing look like an entrance gate. The lamp on top of the bathysphere dims a bit as we enter, and we’re only inside the tunnel for a moment or two before it ends in a cylindrical chamber set aglow with ambient light, where a sudden and violent jolt tells me we’ve latched onto something out of sight.
All the while, the recorder keeps sounding off like it’s steering a boat to shore. There’s only one voice speaking now, but the words are so faint and scrambled by static that I can’t even tell whose voice it is, let alone what they’re talking about. Between that and the fact that the bathysphere is now being hoisted up through the now-vertical tunnel to Celestia-knows-where, I’ve officially found enough of a good reason to tell my better judgment to go screw itself. Link’s not quivering with fear yet, though, and there’s no way I’ll let myself be the first to crack. Not before I figure out what’s really going on down here.
“See, I told you we’d find help,” I tell him, watching from the corner of my eye as he presses his lips together and doesn’t say anything in reply. “Look, they’re already bringing us in.”
“This thing drove itself down here without anypony steering it,” Link remarks after a moment’s pause. “Could still be driving itself now.” Once he notices the look on my face, he closes his mouth again and lapses into a pout. “’Scuse me for being realistic,” he mutters.
“Yeah, I’m not sure ‘realistic’ is the right word for anything down here,” I reply as I look back out the front window, where our final destination is still blocked from view. “In any case, a place this big with this much magic stuff is bound to have a few unicorns in it. So all we have to do is wait for this thing to get where it’s going, and then go find somepony who can send a letter long-distance to Canterlot. After that, we’re as good as gone. The rescue team finds us in a few days, we don’t drown or freeze to death, and Oceanus Airlines buys our alfalfa for the rest of our lives.” I pause, and eye Link again. “That sound realistic enough for you?”
A fleeting glance and a nod is all I get, and anything I might’ve done about that is made moot by the crashing sound of parting water. The bathysphere has finally surfaced again, and although it’s mostly unconscious, I still breathe a sigh of relief. After everything that’s happened in the last twenty minutes, just getting out of the water again is enough to work a little bit of the tension out of my shoulders. Granted, the noise from the recorder seems to be getting louder every second, but despite that my confidence is already starting to pool up in my stomach again. In just one day, I’ve survived a zeppelin crash, a submarine trip through an indescribable underwater city, and the Equestrian media, and now I can finally do something about it.
Yeah. I can do this. I can do
this. I can get out of here and find a way home. I just have to keep going, figure out who’s in charge here, and stay...
The bathysphere locks into position with another jolt, and the front door swings open just as the headlight on top flashes back on. My forehoof is halfway through its first step outside before I look up and see where we’ve landed, but once I do it jerks and stops in midair before it can even touch the ground. I would’ve thought nothing would surprise me after all the things that led to me being down here in the first place, but somehow what I find waiting outside our little submarine makes my breath catch in my throat anyway. For a moment, I try to just accept the absurdity of it all. For a moment, I try to disconnect myself from a reality that’s getting harder and harder to accept as the night goes on. For a moment, I try to tell myself that this isn’t really as bad as it seems. But I can’t, because it isn’t until we’ve landed that I realize how badly I didn’t want the trip to end. It isn’t until I get a chance to stop and get a grip on myself that I remember how terrified I truly am.
And it isn’t until I’m finally back out in the air again that I really begin to feel like I’m in way over my head.
The room before me is cavernous, lit by flickering lamps bolted onto intricate bronze columns and topped by a vaulted ceiling a hundred feet high. Empty docking bays extend in either direction beside me, and the wall behind the main platform up ahead is segmented by grimy vertical picture windows, each one offering a view of a blocky gray office building a few million gallons of seawater away. The dock is huge, the dock is coated with shadows and grime, the dock smells like sea salt and mold, and aside from dripping water and the distant buzz of a housefly, it is completely and utterly silent. Off to my left, though, the recorder is still going haywire with static, as well as the broken words of that same increasingly frantic voice that sends goosebumps rolling down my legs every time I can pick it out.
If this place is trying to make an impression on me, it’s working, because right now I have a very, very good impression that I really don’t want to be down here. Staying put seems like an even worse idea, though, so I bite down hard on the edges of my tongue and let my hoof drop the rest of the way onto the platform. When nothing explodes or tries to eat me alive, I follow suit with my other forehoof, and then a moment later with my whole body. I can’t be afraid. I can’t let this place get to me. I have to be strong. I have to find my way home.
“Hello?” I call out, my shout repeating twice before fading away. I wait for ten seconds and then twenty, but no friendly words of welcome ring out to answer me. By the time I take another step forward, even the fly has stopped buzzing. A thin line of sweat begins to form below my scalp, and the farther I walk down the landing platform, the more the pull in my stomach to run for cover starts to feel like a yank.
“There’s no one here,” Link says behind me, his voice hoarse in a way that makes him sound a bit out of breath.
“There’s gotta be someone here…” I whisper, probably too quietly for him to hear. “Hello?” I yell again, and still no one replies. He’s probably right
, I tell myself. Somepony should’ve come down by now. Somepony should know we’re here.
“Hey! Is anypony out the-
“Ruby, there’s no one here!” Link hisses. “Just get back in the bathysphere so we can get the hell out of here!”
“Would you give me a second to figure this out?” I snap back, turning around to face him but still backing up closer to the main platform as I do. “This place didn’t build itself. Somepony has
to be down here, and I’m gonna find them.”
“And then what? How are they supposed to help us get home from a thousand miles under the ocean?”
“They can send a letter. Or they’ll have a radio. Or…or another bathysphere. They’ll have something.”
“Ruby, this is insane. You’re acting insane
. How do you know they can help us?”
My eyes drift off towards the back of the sub, and Link falls out of focus. “I don’t know.”
“How do you know they’ll want
to help us?”
“Stars above, how do you even know anyone’s still alive down he-”
“I don’t! I don’t know, okay?
Link’s lips freeze in mid-sentence, and as his face pales, the rest of his question trails off and dissolves into the darkness. After echoing three times around the dock, my shout does the same. “Just let me check,” I beg, my eyes shut tight and my throat starting to seize at what it must know is the absolute worst possible time. “Just let me make sure there’s no one here, and then we can do whatever the hay you want. Just stay there in the bathysphere, and don’t…don’t leave without me.”
“I’ll be right back.”
I still have my eyes closed as I turn around to step onto the main platform, so when the concrete beneath my forehoof suddenly gives way and slides out from under me, the beat my heart skips is nearly enough to send me sprawling to the floor. A thunderous barrage of shouts and screams is enough to force me down anyway, though, if only to protect myself from the infuriated mob that’s suddenly mere inches away. I cover my head with my forelegs and press my face into the freezing cold deck, but the roar only get louder and angrier, and the pulse in my chest only pounds harder and faster. I am trapped under a suffocating carpet of confusion and rage, but then I hear a single voice cut through the crowd. Somepony is calling out over them. Somepony is calling my name.
I open my eyes, and the more my vision adjusts, the more my head throbs. The dock is still empty save for me, and for the silver unicorn colt standing over me with his mane hanging over his eyes and my name still fading from his lips.
“Ruby!” Link yells again. Once he sees that I’m alert again, he lets out a heavy sigh of relief and pushes his forehoof up through his fringe. “What the hell are you…”
Link’s gaze trails off as his voice does, and soon after that I’m looking at the same thing he is. On the edge of the dock, right where my forehoof was fifteen seconds ago, another personal voice recorder glows a vivid shade of green, just like the one in the bathysphere did. This one out here, though, looks like a sturdier model than the sample we left behind, and the waves of sound rippling in the gel are clearly visible even from a couple yards away. It’s also about ten times louder, and the voices that blast out of it are about a hundred times more unnerving. The loudest one is that of a heavy-set stallion who sounds like he’s speaking into a megaphone, but the cries and insults of mares and colts alike that fly through the air at rapid-fire speed are almost enough to completely obliterate it:
“Mares and gentlecolts…”
“Harmony is dead!” a sour-voiced mare jeers.
“…eturn to your homes immedi…”
“We ain’t your property!” a stallion proclaims.
“…his is an unlawful gatheri…”
“Ryder doesn’t own us!” a different stallion declares as another one agrees.
“…ay down your weapons and retu…”
“Let it end, let us ascend!” the first mare begins to chant.
“…order will not be repeated…”
“Let it end, let us ascend!” More ponies have joined the mare. A burst of static comes through the megaphone that sounds an awful lot like somepony swearing.
“…sten to me, you worthless little ra…”
“Let it end, let us ascend!”
“…ck off this dock and back inside your ho…”
“Let it end, let us ascend!”
“…are authorized to use deadly force
“Let it end, let us ascend!”
“…ou understand that
, ya spliced-up frea…”
“Let it end
, let us ascend
“…ack up! All of you, get away from th…”
“Let it end, let us asce-
Just as the crowd reaches a crescendo, two ear-splitting cracks punch their way out of the recorder, loud enough that I almost duck and cover again myself. More reports follow, some isolated and others strung together in short bursts, and as the riot collapses into a disorienting uproar of agonized screams and groans, the stallion shrieks himself hoarse all the while.
!” he howls. “I said get ba-”
A stuttering clunk wipes away the last of the stallion’s words, and after a few more whirring clicks, there is silence once more. The recording has ended. The riot is gone. I let out a slow, shaky breath and look off towards the dock’s back wall. The columns are smeared with speckled black residue, and there are dark brown stains soaked into the concrete below. I can’t be sure those came from explosions. I can’t be sure those splatters used to be blood. Either way, I don’t want to know, and I don’t care to dig any deeper into this place and risk finding out. At this point, sitting up in the tower and starving to death sounds just fine to me.
“Let’s get back in the sub,” I say to Link. He barely even gets a chance to frantically nod his agreement before I’m halfway back to the bathysphere again.
I’m only a few feet away from the sphere when the recorder inside emits a deafening squeal, and through the racket I can clearly hear somepony say, “Just one more minute.” Link nearly runs me over when I stop dead in my tracks, but before we can untangle ourselves, another noise spins my head around towards the main platform again. Something just fell hard on the far end of the dock, something blocky and inconstant and almost too dark to see. I look closer, and my heart skips its second beat of the day. It’s not just something
. It’s someone
. A pony is standing way over on the right side of the chamber, a small, spindly pegasus mare who’s staring at me with her head held low and her wings standing erect on her back.
“C’mon,” I mutter to Link, thanking the stars in the same breath before taking in another one and heading back down the dock. “Hey,” I call out as I reach the center of the main platform. “Excuse me. My name’s Ruby, and this is Link. We came down here in the bathysphere. Do you know who runs this place?”
“Ruby…” Link mutters in a cautionary tone. He’s right by my side again, though he’s standing a good foot farther back from the pegasus than I am. I take another step forward and ignore him.
“Our zeppelin crashed, and we thought the bathysphere might lead to somepony who can help us,” I go on. The pegasus flutters her wings and creeps closer with her left shoulder forward, but never lifts her head any farther from the ground or tries to speak herself. “Is there a radio somewhere we can use, or…uh…can you hear me?”
Once again, the pegasus doesn’t answer, instead just moving another step closer with her wings still twitching and her chin nearly scraping the ground. The light in the dock is still to dim to get a clear view of her face, but a few halting steps later I can hear deep, rattling sighs coming from her mouth. No wonder she’s not talking; she sounds sick as a dog. She probably needs help just as much as we do.
One last question about where we can find somepony else to help us starts to form on my lips, but when the pegasus sucks in another rattling breath, the words escape me and I take an involuntary step back. Thick bars of light dye the floor a wavering shade of teal right in front of each of the windows, and as the pegasus stops at the edge of one of them, a flash of yellow near the floor draws my attention to her ankles. On both her forelegs, thick metallic hooks lie flush against the outsides of her hooves, each one attached by a tiny hinge to a solid black brace that runs almost up to her knee. The mare shudders and lets out a hacking cough, and when she shifts her legs a bit I can see that both of the hooks are barbed. I look up and take another step back. The recorder has gone silent. I still can’t see the mare’s face.
My voice cracks in mid-sentence, and I choke on the rest of it before it can slip out. It takes more than one gulp to get the dryness out of my throat. “Are you all right?”
This time, something changes. The mare jerks and hunches back, then pushes out a throaty breath that sounds angry. That sounds hungry. Cold sweat breaks out on my shoulders and legs, and when I look back towards the bathysphere I hear the same distorted voice from before, only now it’s clear as a bell and getting louder every second. A faint snick
behind me worms its way into my ears and settles at the base of my spine, but my legs are glued to the floor and I wouldn’t want to turn around even if I could. I can’t even identify what it is I’m so afraid of: the fear coursing through me is primal, like my body instinctively knows that something is not right long before my mind can even begin to wonder what went wrong. I can hear hoofsteps in the distance, but between the shaking in my hooves and the electric surges of panic engulfing my brain, it’s impossible to know whether this new presence is real or just a product of my desperate mind.
And all the while, the mare behind me keeps breathing, keeps sucking in air and pushing it back out in uneven rasping groans, and with every noise she makes I can feel the sound waves pressing on my neck, bending the hairs down and yanking them back up as it passes by. At the other end of the dock is a hallway that cuts off to the left. I could run there and escape, and the mare would never catch me in her condition, but the hoofsteps I think I hear are echoing out from that same corridor. I need to move. I need to go. I need to lift my hooves and grit my teeth and sprint towards the safety I can’t allow myself to believe I’m imagining, but I can’t move and I can’t think and I can’t breathe, because I’m standing in a building at the bottom of the ocean and I’m drowning in the knowledge that there is no way I will ever get out of it again.
Somewhere out of sight, something heavy and hard crashes to the ground, and I know without looking that the mare’s breath has caught in her throat. There is an infinitesimal moment where the air stands still, where I feel Link’s tail brush across my ribs and I see a shadow flit into view in the hallway, and then a leathery buzz fills the room and Link jerks back and I’m staring with disbelieving eyes over at the hallway, where a chocolate-brown unicorn colt with a coffee-colored mane and a red cargo vest has just skidded around the corner. Link mutters something under his breath and I turn my head to look at him, and in that moment I notice three things: one, Link’s body is pointed in the opposite direction as mine; two, his eyes are narrowed and his mouth is twisted into a sour frown of confusion; and three, the mare that had been creeping up behind me this whole time is gone. There are no hoofsteps left on the grimy floor, no wingbeats fading away in the distance, not even so much as a muffled growl of pain. The spindly, sickly little pegasus has simply disappeared.
Blinking away the sudden fogginess creeping into my vision, I nudge Link in the side and motion back towards the hallway. After blinking a few times and showing off his bewildered look to me, he rotates around to face the new arrival, and I do the same just in time to see the unicorn lift a hoof to his chest pocket and press down on the side of a little golden box strapped onto its front.
“I found ‘em,” he says, his voice high and breathless with a Trottingham tinge to it. “AJ, I got ‘em, they’re right here. What do I do?”
Between the now-vanished pegasus mare and the brand new heart attack that just clattered into view, the last thing I’m concerned with is what Clutzy Hooves over here needs to do. Mostly, my first and only instinct is to scream my ever-loving head off and figure out why later. Before I even have time to squeak, though, the colt’s little box answers him with the voice of an unmistakably Southern country mare. It’s a radio
, I realize a bit embarrassingly late, and the pony on the other end of it sounds flustered, impatient, and for some implacable reason, familiar.
“What d’ya do
?” she shouts. “Well, what d’ya think
you should do, dance a jig and sing ‘em a welcome song? Get ‘em outta there, for Pete’s sake!”
The colt gives a jerky nod and licks his lips, and then instead of running away like I’d been expecting him to before, he just lifts his forehoof off his radio and points it in our direction.
“You two,” he calls out. “Come with me.”
There’s no way in Equestria I’m about to just skip off with this guy after everything that’s happened, and I’m about to impress that upon him before Link beats me to the punch. “Who the hell are you?” he asks.
The colt blinks, and the shock of the moment is apparently so much that he can’t decide whether to keep his mouth open or closed. “I…m-my name’s Chestnut,” he finally stammers, “but that’s really not important right now. Right now, we gotta move before-”
“Move to where
?” I cut in. “What is this place? Where are we?”
“Look, just…” Chestnut starts to say before the mare on the radio yells for him to get a move on, and he yells back that he knows, we’re going. “I-I’ll tell you later,” he stutters after that, and he goes on to detail all the various reasons why we need to quit talking and start walking. In my head, though, all I can hear is the clicking of his radio, and the echo of the voice that just came out of it. I can’t imagine a time in my life where I might have met the mare Chestnut was talking to, but a feeling almost like déjà vu is telling me that somehow I’ve heard her voice before. Somehow, I know who this mare is, not as a friend or enemy or even an acquaintance, but something simpler than that, something closer than that, something I can’t begin to identify even as the feeling of symmetry grows stronger and stronger…
“Why should we trust you?” Link asks with narrowed eyes.
“Because I’m not the one tryin’ to kill
you!” Chestnut groans back. “I don’t know how much clearer I can make th-”
!” the mare in the radio screams, and it’s as if somepony has soaked me with a garden hose and finally woken me up. I do
know that voice. Of course
I know that voice. No more than five minutes ago, I was listening to that voice, listening to a little box on the wall full of glowing green jelly that vibrated with the voices of a brash young mare and a soft-toned older one, and one with a definite Southern twang. An unmistakable Southern twang.
“She was on the bathysphere,” I whisper to myself. “Link, she was on the bathysphere!” I repeat a second later, only this time I want Link and Chestnut and everypony else within earshot to know too.
“What?” Link says, glancing over at me for a moment without fully looking away from Chestnut. “What are you talking about?”
“I know that mare on the radio. She was in the recording we heard on the bathysphere,” I explain quickly. “Link, she came down here just like we did!”
“And that means we should trust her?”
“It means she’s working with this guy, and this guy doesn’t want to kill us.”
“Right, because anypony with that spiffy of a vest has
to be telling the truth.”
I can’t bring myself to tell Link why he’s wrong, mostly because he’s not. I really don’t
have a good reason not to believe Chestnut or this other mare are lying to us, but at the same time, something deep in my gut makes me want
to believe they aren’t. Desperation is one possibility, blind optimism another, but the explanation I end up sticking with is really more of a memory. I think back to the recording, think back to Twilight and Rainbow and all the rest of them, and I remember how shocked they were to see this place. This mare was with them. This mare had to have been feeling the same things they were, had to be seeing this city with the same eyes, so she must know what we’re going through right now. She must remember what it feels like. And if that’s the mare who’s working with Chestnut, who’s telling us through him that she wants to get us to safety, then that’s the best option I figure we’re going to get. Even if we only know each other through a voice recording, that’s more than I know of anypony else down here. For the moment, I’ll just have to make do with that.
“It’s him or that pegasus,” I mutter to Link, and before he can answer I trot up towards Chestnut and park myself expectantly about ten feet in front of him. He gets the message quicker than Link does, but once everypony’s on the same page, the former nods again and starts off down the corridor. “This way,” he murmurs. “And stay close.”
From the docking bay, Chestnut leads us into a room that reminds me a lot like the terminal in the Canterlot airport. Instead of being filled with candy shops and traveling salesponies hawking their wares, though, this place just has a few rows of metal benches and several stagnant puddles, and a kiosk set between two darkened archways up ahead with a big red “CLOSED” sign in its window and water cascading down its front. Link and I follow our guide through the archway on the left, and that spits us out into a red-carpeted and velvet-draped waiting area, where Chestnut trots up to a pair of immense mahogany doors and then hangs an immediate left. One more right turn later, we’re in another long, narrow hallway, this one lit by circular light fixtures spaced evenly apart overhead, bordered by floor-to-ceiling viewing windows on the left and mildewed wooden panels on the right, and quiet as the grave.
,” Chestnut hisses back at me once he notices I’ve stopped to stare out at the panoramic view the glass panels offer. “We’ve gotta go
This time, he sets off again without even checking to see if we’re following, which gives Link a chance to sidle up next to me and murmur in my ear. “Next chance we get, let’s run for it,” he says, so quietly I can barely pick the words out. Clearly, he doesn’t think Chestnut needs to hear him conspiring to get us hopelessly lost down here. Now if I could only figure out why he seems to think I do.
“Are you crazy?” I growl back, though I keep my voice low too. “What did this guy ever do to you?”
“Oh, I don’t know, drag me off deeper into an underwater ghost town without telling me where we’re going or why we’re going there. Just to pick a pertinent example.”
“What the hay could be so bad about trusting him?”
“The fact that he might be trying to kill us?”
“If he wanted to…”
I glance back up at Chestnut, but he’s still creeping slowly down the hallway just like he was before. I don’t think he can hear us, but I lower my voice again all the same. “If he wanted to kill us, he would’ve already done it,” I whisper.
“Then why won’t he tell us where we’re going?” Link mutters back.
“I don’t know,” I answer him as scathingly as I can. “Why don’t you ask
Link looks off to the side for a second, then shifts his eyebrows up and nods. “All right,” he says, his tone bright as a summer morning in Appaloosa. And the moment I realize I’m too late to stop him, he straightens up and points his gaze at the coffee-colored tail shuffling down the hallway in front of us.
“Hey, Chestnut!” he shouts. “You got an ETA for us, or are we just waiting for the tour guide to get out of the little colts’ room?”
Chestnut turns around, his expression hedged squarely on the fence between incredulous and terrified. “Simple enough, isn’t it?” Link goes on. “It’s like a trust exercise. You tell me where the hell we’re going, and I trust you. That suit you all right?”
“Suit m…for pony’s sake, would you keep it down?” Chestnut replies, his head lowered in mid-cringe as if every word Link said was a punch in the gut.
“Just answer the question, Chestnut,” Link says, and now his tone isn’t quite so jovial. “Where. The hell. Are we going?”
“Link, shut up
,” I snarl back, although even I’m not really sure why he should. Aside from that pegasus in the docking bay and Chestnut and his radio, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of anypony since I fell asleep on the zeppelin. There aren’t even crickets to break the silence down here, let alone other ponies. In any case, Link only gives me the courtesy of a brief glance before ignoring me anyway.
“Okay, I’m gonna give you, say, ten seconds to quit screwing around with us, or I’m just gonna go find another bathysphere and leave you in Celestia’s hooves,” he announces. “Start talking, or I start counting.”
Chestnut’s jaw drops, and quivers through every word he tries to force past it. “W-wait, what d’you…”
“Oh, for the love’a…”
“Are y…are you bloody serious…”
“Wait. W-wait, stop…”
“No, really, just…”
“Oh, sun and moon…”
“Link, for pony’s sake…” I start to say.
“Damn it to Hades, shut up!
Everypony shut up now
Link’s expression doesn’t change, but surprisingly enough, he closes his mouth as Chestnut freezes in place, his shout reverberating all the way back out to the terminal again. “Shut up, and don’t move,” he breathes out a moment later, his eyes bugged out and his chest heaving like he just sprinted in from far end of the hallway and saw half a dozen ghosts along the way.
“Why, is there a bee on me?” Link manages to mutter before Chestnut silences him again with an inexplicably frantic stare. Link glares back with almost the same intensity, and I’m about to step in between them and playact the voice of reason when the lamp above my head flickers for a moment. All three of us look up at it, and as we watch with mixed degrees of horror, it flickers once more, dims to a dirty beige hue, and then brightens back up to its normal strength. After a few more wide-eyed seconds of staring up at the now perfectly normal light fixture, I almost chuckle at how scared we all were over such a little thing, and as the hair on the back of my neck begins to flatten out again, I turn towards Link to ask if he’d gotten nervous too.
I’m still turning when every lamp in the hallway goes dark.