September 16th AD 3070/1023 RC
“My soldiers verify at least two solid hits on the upper portion, but sadly neither of which stopped the enemy or even slowed him,” Starbuck reported to the human standing beside him at the top of the town hall steps. They both stood facing out over the square where the pegasi assault wing had landed to rest their weary bodies.
“I can't say I'm happy with that,” McKenna admitted, and then shrugged. “But war is like that. You do your best, and so does your opponent. Sometimes his best is better than yours. And that's before you even factor in something as unpredictable as luck.” The human shook his head and then reached into his shirt pocket for a piece of chewing gum. “That your men- er, troopers even managed two hits on something as relatively small and fast as a Spider shows great skill. If luck had been on their side they could have nailed the cockpit and at least stunned the mechwarrior, or even killed him.”
Stabuck felt a bit of pride at those words, and he wondered why. It's the way he speaks, the pegasus finally concluded after a moment of thought. He talks much like the princesses; from a position of experience, and perhaps even a little wisdom. Of course, the human's wisdom and experience were mostly in the field of war and combat, neither of which was something that Starbuck felt eager to increase his standings in. Yet I find myself in a position where I need such things, and here is a being willing to share of it freely, much the way Celestia or Luna would share their observations of the world.
The chewing noises that came from James just then made Starbuck blink himself back to reality, and he nodded to the human. “I will pass along your compliments to the soldiers. I think it will help them to hear some praise.”
“Yeah, people love praise,” James agreed. “But don't lay it on too thick, okay? This wasn't a real battle, only a minor skirmish.”
“If I hadn't seen the initial attack in Manehattan I would find that hard to believe,” Starbuck replied. “I still have a hard time understanding it all, it moved so quickly.”
“So do I, in fact,” James admitted, and then smiled sheepishly at the pony as he looked up in surprise. “Again, war is like that. Fortunately, humans have figured out how to apply a scientific approach to figuring these things out, and I will introduce you to what we call a “post action review”.”
Starbuck raised an eyebrow at James. “I believe there we are even with you. We too find it a good thing to debrief those who return from combat and try to understand what occurred.”
James smiled more widely at that. “Excellent. Then you will find it rather easy to slip into one of our reviews,” he said, and then glanced to his watch. “That is, if my daughter gets here with the equipment any time soon.”
“Should I send a scouting party?” Starbuck asked.
James shook his head at that as he lowered his arm. “Naw. My heavier units stayed back at the DropShip so I know that they're safe. Probably just taking time to get the Ferret out of storage.”
Starbuck sighed. “I wish you would stop using names I have no reference for.”
“Now, where would the fun in that?” James asked and then flashed a smile. “Besides, don't you have ferrets here?”
“Yes we do, but you make it sound like another one of your machines,” Starbuck observed.
James nodded at that. “A good supposition, and a true one. The Ferret is a helicopter used for scouting and troop movements. The Dark Horse have one because it's handy to use to scout locations when we're on garrison duty, or even moving some lightweight supplies on some missions.” James paused then to fiddle with the gum in his mouth. “If we have any time, ask me about how we used it on Port Arthur back in '59, and I'll give you a story that'll ruffle those wings of yours.”
“I will look forward to that,” Starbuck agreed with a nod. “But you did not explain, what is a “helicopter”?”
“Oh, it's a machine that flies through the air,” James said. Before he could continue though, a low growling pierced through with a high whine could be heard coming from the west, and every pony in town tensed up at the new and strange noise. All save Starbuck, however, who saw the knowing look cross James' face. “Well, you'll see exactly what it is in a moment,” the human said, and then glanced over the square. “Do you think you could have your men make room? I'd like the 'copter to land close by so it's easy to get to.”
“Fair enough,” Starbuck replied, and then trotted down the steps as he took in a deep breath. “Attention! Clear the square! Clear the square for incoming friendlies!”
The pegasi started to scatter at that, as did the few Ponyville citizens who had come out in the wake of the skirmish. Scarcely had they cleared out when a dark gray, angular shape lazily flew overhead. Most of the ponies, especially the civilians, startled heavily despite the forewarning given by the machine's noise, and a few bolted. Most of the rest stayed and watched as the machine made a wide right turn and flew behind the town hall before banking to make an elongated circuit of Ponyville.
By this time Starbuck had finally cleared the square and then was able to turn his eye to the so-called “Ferret” as it leveled out and approached the square from directly in front of the hall. The pegasus guard felt a moment of brief panic as the machine seemed to come in a bit too fast, but at the last second the helicopter pitched backwards and slowed rapidly as it descended below the rooftops of the buildings lining the square. Starbuck felt his jaw drop a bit at witnessing that, as well as the way the machine gently settled to the ground on strange protrusions that had come out just before the thing would have hit cobblestone. The whole maneuver looked as practiced and natural as a pegasus' landing, although it was much louder. The noise started to die out then, and Starbuck blinked as he finally realized that there was some sort of blur above the main body of the machine; something he'd noted before but his conscious mind hadn't quite grasped. As he continued to watch from his vantage point at the foot of the town hall steps, though, he finally paid the blur careful attention and watched with interest as the movement of the machine slowed and he finally made out the five long spars that stretched out from a central hub as their spin slowly died. That must be how it flies, he realized, though he admitted to himself that he didn't have a clue how it worked.
The growling of the machine had died with the slowing of the spars, but the whine had continued, albeit at a much lower volume. As the spars finally ground to a stop, though, the whine died out abruptly, dropping in pitch to silence in less than a second. Starbuck saw movement through the glass-like canopy at the front of the craft, and he recognized the human shape, as well as a bright orange color that moved quickly into the back. A few seconds later the human disappeared into the main body of the helicopter as well, and a moment later the side opened up, revealing it to be a door that slid backwards to reveal the human pilot, an orange earth pony, and an apple cart.
“Applejack!” A voice shouted from behind Starbuck, and the guard looked back to see Twilight Sparkle and Spike descending the steps, apparently drawn out of their recent task of sending messages to Canterlot and the scouts around Manehattan by the noise.
“Twilight!” Applejack shouted happily as she hopped down and out of the Ferret and trotted over to meet her friend at the bottom of the stairs. “Y'all gotta try that whirlygig! It's one hay bail of a ride!”
“I'm glad you enjoyed it,” the human walking up behind the pony said, and her voice marked her as a female to Starbuck's ears. The way her body seemed shaped was odd, though, showing more difference between her and a human male than there was between a mare and a stallion. “Especially after my mother had to threaten you with a punting to get you on board.”
Applejack blushed as the human and Spike chuckled at the comment, though Twilight shook her head. “That's a mean thing to say,” she observed.
“That's my wife,” James said as he walked up. He then turned to give the female a look. “How'd she take being ordered to stay back with the heavies?”
“Frankly, dad, she wanted to punt you with her Warhammer,” the female replied with another chuckle. “I think that's why she was short with Applejack here.”
“Is that any way to greet a superior officer?” James asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh, of course, excuse me, commander,” the female said, and then crossed her eyes and offered a sloppy salute while sticking her tongue out. “This good enough for ya?”
James sighed and closed his eyes at that, and then rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You get that from your mother, you know.”
“Well duh,” the female said, grinning as her expression and stance returned to normal. “Someone's gotta keep you from getting a big head.”
James shook his head, and then turned to look at the ponies standing nearby. “Captain Starbuck, miss Sparkle, I'd like you to meet my daughter, Melissa Alice McKenna,” the elder human said with a wave towards Melissa. “She is my unit's chief pilot and commander of our air lance.”
“Captain,” Melissa said, her expression losing its flippancy as she knelt down to offer a hand.
Starbuck brought up his hoof and the two exchanged a brief shake. “Miss. I must admit to being impressed at your landing; it looked as natural as that of a creature born to the wing.”
Melissa beamed at that. “Thank you, captain. I try to practice as much as I can, despite my father over worrying about my style.”
“You mean your insane stunt flying?” James asked. “Need I remind you that this is the second helicopter we've bought?”
Melissa grimaced at that. “I belly flopped into a lake once.”
“In front of a duke who was our employer at the time,” James sternly countered.
“Well, I did learn from it,” Melissa replied with a blush and a sheepish look. “Always make sure your altimeter is set for local conditions.”
James sighed at that and shook his head. “Blondes. Ack!” He clutched his belly where Melissa had delivered a short, light punch. “Striking a superior! It's the brig and hardtack for you, young lady!”
The younger McKenna shook her head and then knelt to offer her hand to Twilight. “My apologies for ignoring you, but you've met my father and so you understand.”
“Far more than I ever thought I would,” Twilight agreed with a grin as she shook the human's hand with her hoof. “Although I can't wait to learn more. Your father mentioned you were bringing books?”
“In the chopper with the rest of the gear and Applejack's cart,” Melissa said, gesturing with her head. “I hope you like reading, because dad told me to bring copies of the whole library, even the electronic versions of the stuff we have in hardcopy.”
Twilight's smile remain stuck on her face even as her eyes blinked in confusion. “I have no idea what you just said.”
“You will,” Melissa warned, and then looked to her father. “So, commander,” she said this seriously now without a trace of sarcasm. “I assume you'll want to unload immediately?”
“Yes, Mel,” James said with a nod. “First let's get Applejack's cart out so she can get it back to her farm.”
“I thank ya kindly for that,” Applejack said, and then the group turned to head to the Ferret. “And fer the ride. I'll help y'all get that stuff inside too if'n ya want?”
“Thank you miss Applejack,” James replied. “We would much appreciate it.”
“Whoa, did you see that?” Rainbow Dash asked of the two friends she walked with. “I'm going to go check it-”
“You most certainly will not,” Rarity interrupted, glaring at the pegasus as the latter opened her wings. “You promised to come with to make sure Fluttershy is okay after that terrible battle.”
“Humph,” Dash grunted as she folded her wings back up and lowered her head a bit. “I would've only been a minute.”
“And then a minute and a minute and a minute and a minute and a minute,” Pinkie Pie said, repeating the same words over and over again. “And a minute and a minute and a minute-”
“Pinkie!” Both Rarity and Dash yelled at the pink pony.
“And then you'd be late!” Pinkie finished, as if she had intended to speak precisely that long the entire time. “This way will be much better 'cuz you'll be with us as long as we need you and then after you can go flying off and find out what that fancy thing that flew was and I bet it's really cool and neat but friends are more important so I know you'll stay because you're so loyal and nice even when you try to pretend you're not because you're afraid of being hurt again after-”
“Pinkie!” This time it was only Rainbow Dash who erupted. Her face looked almost purple after the red of her blush made its way through her blue fur, and she moved over to nudge her pink friend. “You promised.”
“Oh right nevermind I forgot what I was talking about,” Pinkie Pie suddenly said, blushing slightly herself.
“Now you hold on one moment there,” Rarity said, moving to stand in front of the pink and cyan ponies. “Rainbow Dash, if somepony has hurt you I demand to know who it was so I may deliver them a sound verbal thrashing!”
Dash stood silent for a moment as surprise registered on her face. Then her blush returned and she turned her head to the side. “Aw, it's nothing like that, Rarity,” she said, and then looked back to the unicorn. “Pinkie was just talking about Gilda.”
“Oh. Oh!” Rarity said, and then blushed herself. “I'm sorry, Dash. I didn't mean to bring up that old wound.”
“It's okay,” Rainbow said as she flapped her wings and hovered in the air a bit. “Now come on, let's go check on Fluttershy,” she added and then glided ahead, keeping her speed low so that her ground-bound friends could follow easily enough.
Rarity sighed at the change in her friend's demeanor, but she pushed aside her concerns and resumed trotting forward. One friend at a time, Rarity, the white unicorn told herself.
So the group moved onward, leaving the town proper and heading into the grassy outskirts on their way to Fluttershy's cottage. The silence they had fallen in grew somewhat more ominous as they passed by the fallen remains of the war machine that had plowed into the dirt just outside of town, a lone human in armor guarding it. The figure – whether male or female nopony could tell underneath the boxy armor – simply nodded a greeting to them and then resumed standing watch. In the distance they saw one of the machines belonging to McKenna's company standing at guard, and both Rarity and Dash couldn't help but shiver slightly at the alien imagery that had superimposed itself upon their world.
Pinkie Pie, however, seemed immune. Or if she did feel nervous, she didn't show it as she continued to move forward in the peculiar bounce she used when she wasn't in a real hurry. But even she seemed to calm slightly and slow into a regular walk as the group crossed over the bridge that led across the stream in front of Fluttershy's home. Rarity easily took the fore and knocked a hoof on the cottage door as Rainbow landed next to her. “Fluttershy? It's Rarity,” the unicorn spoke, raising her voice so it could be heard through the thick wooden door.
No answer came through the door, and the three ponies shared a look of concern before Rarity knocked again. “Fluttershy!” She called out more loudly. “It's Rarity. I'm here with Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. May we come in?”
Again, no answer was heard. Rarity raised her hoof to knock a third time but stopped herself when the door clicked and slowly pulled back to reveal Fluttershy's animal companion, Angel Bunny. The small rabbit glanced up at the three ponies with a worried look that was utterly out of place on the normally intransigent creature, and he beckoned the ponies in with a forepaw before he stepped out of the doorway.
Surprised and not a little bit curious, Rarity quickly stepped into the cottage, followed by Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie. Once they were inside Angel closed the door behind them, and the ponies blinked as the room fell into near darkness. “Fluttershy?” Rarity asked, looking around as she willed her horn into glowing to provide light.
“Maybe she's sleeping?” Rainbow suggested. “The curtains are all drawn.”
“Uh, no Dash, she isn't,” Pinkie said, her voice surprisingly serious and smooth. Both the pegasus and unicorn turned to look at the pink pony and saw her pointing a hoof towards the corner of the main room where the stairs to the upper floor descended into a landing. There in that corner, huddled behind her favorite sitting couch that she had dragged over from its normal spot was Fluttershy, curled into a ball and shivering.
Rarity trotted over almost instantly. “Oh Fluttershy, what happened?” She asked, bending forward to gently place a hoof on her friend's shuddering back.
“Don't touch me!” The harsh scream that erupted from the normally quiescent pegasus startled the other ponies in the room, and Rarity hopped back out of fright as Fluttershy brought her head up and cast a wild-eyed stare at her. “They'll see me, they'll find me!” She yelled, her voice only slightly lower but no less hysterical. “They were in the city, but they followed me here!”
“F-Fluttershy, no,” Rarity said in a low voice. “Oh dear, no, they weren't here for you,” she added and stepped forward, intending to wrap her friend in a hug.
Fluttershy would have none of it. She sprang to her hooves and backed further into the corner, her wings held high and her frazzled mane flopping down along the side of her face. “Get away! You'll bring them, you'll bring them!”
Rarity backed off again, her mouth agape at the usually demure Fluttershy now raging in paranoia. “Fluttershy, please, I'm your friend. I would never do anything to hurt you.”
“GO!” The yellow pegasus demanded. “Just go! Go go go!” Fluttershy's voice cracked then, and she sank to the floor, her legs folding beneath her. “Go. Just... Just go.” With that, she buried her head beneath her hooves and went back to shaking on the floor.
The other three ponies just stood there blinking in shock and confusion. Finally, they turned to each other and shared several worried looks before Angel hopped over to the shuddering pegasus in the corner and softly patted her head. Fluttershy seemed to relax a bit at this, and the bunny looked up and waved the other ponies away.
They took the hint, and Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie all slowly turned and walked out of the cottage, pausing only long enough to open and close the outside door. “She's so much worse than before,” Rarity said quietly once they were safely walking away from the cottage. “She must have seen those things fighting,” the unicorn added, dripping scorn now as she gestured towards the ruined machine lying on the ground near Ponyville.
“I don't know why that would set her off,” Dash observed with a furrowed brow. “I had a decent look from above, and it wasn't like Manehattan. These were machines shooting at machines, not like ponies at all.”
Rarity shook her head, her mane bobbing back and forth. “Rainbow, it doesn't matter what they were doing, the fact that she saw them again and their terrible wrath sent her back into fearing for her life,” the unicorn explained with a tone of tired patience. “Oh this foul war, those cursed humans,” she grumbled, casting a harsh eye towards the war machine standing to the north. “How much more must we endure? How long must we suffer before this chapter is put behind us?”
“You're such a drama queen, Rarity,” Dash said, rolling her eyes. “Is it bad? Yeah, it is. But come on, we can whine about it or we can get something done about it.”
“That was not whining,” Rarity countered, her voice haughty and deep. “Thiiis is whiinniiiinngg.”
“Augh!” Dash yelped, stopping in her tracks so she could rear back on her hind legs and press her forehooves to her ears. “Stop that, please!”
Pinkie Pie, who had been silent, suddenly giggled in a mad fashion, causing both Dash and Rarity to look at her. “Oh Rarity, you are so random!” The pink pony said, and then started bounding off in her usual bounce towards town. “I'm going to ask Ivan for help with Fluttershy!”
“Did Pinkie Pie of all ponies just call me “random”?” Rarity asked, her expression askew in the manner of utter confusion.
“Yeah, she did,” Dash said as she rested back on four hooves again. “That's a bit like the cumulonimbus calling the cirrus black.”
Rarity huffed. “You pegasi and your cloud metaphors. Wait a second,” she asked, again looking confused. “Who is "Ivan"?”
“One of the humans,” Dash replied as they resumed walking towards Ponyville. “And disturbingly, he thinks like Pinkie Pie.”
“Oh sun and moon, there are two of them now?” Rarity asked in surprise. “I think I may faint.”
“If you want to fall on the dirt, be my guest,” Dash replied with a smirk. “I'm not going to catch you.”
“You have absolutely no manners, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity huffed.
“Tell me something I don't know,” Dash countered, her smirk now a grin. “Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to see what that flying thing was.” With that, the cyan pegasus leaped into the air.
“Rainbow Dash!” Rarity hollered, causing Dash to partially freeze in mid-air. “Are you so ready to just fly off on a whim? Did you not see how much poor Fluttershy needs our help?”
Dash didn't respond right away. Instead she just slowly landed again and stood quietly, facing away from the white unicorn. “Rarity,” she said, her voice low and tense. “We both saw how she is. I don't think there's anything we can do for her right now.”
“So you're just going to fly off and indulge in idle curiosity, just like that?” Rarity asked in a huff. “Don't you care about Fluttershy at all?”
Rainbow Dash turned to face her friend at that, and Rarity took a step back as she saw the intensity of the pegasus' stare. “Don't you dare ask me that again,” Dash stated flatly. “Fluttershy is my oldest friend, and I don't like seeing her like that anymore than you do. But she was about to attack you, Rarity. Fluttershy was about to attack you to keep you away.” Dash sighed than and shook her head. “I love her like a sister, but even I know there are times when a pony needs to be alone. She needs to calm down, Rarity, and...” Dash let her voice trail off then, and she glanced to the side.
Rarity's eyes widened as she caught on. “She doesn't trust us, does she?” She asked.
“Hurts, doesn't it?” Dash replied, and then shook her head. “I know, she's had a shock. We all have. I still wake up with a nightmare now and again about those poor ponies. But we've been able to at least talk to one another about it. Fluttershy refuses, and I don't know what to do.”
“Then why the interest in something else so soon?” Rarity asked, more curious than scornful.
Dash sighed again and then took to the air with a wince of pain. “Dang burns,” she muttered. “Rarity, if I don't focus on something that's interesting or cool, then I'm just going to keep thinking about Fluttershy. But I can't do anything to help, and it will just tear me apart if I just keep going on about it.
“So I'm off to see what that flying thing was all about,” Dash added, and then smiled faintly. “Besides, it beats talking about hairstyles, which is what you're going to do now that I've given you the idea of distracting yourself.”
“Oh please,” Rarity sniffed, turning her head to the side and closing her eyes. “I'm not some one-trick pony. I could talk about how I'd like to update your gala dress, instead?” She asked, turning to give a pleading look.
“Sorry, another time,” Dash said, flippantly, and then disappeared in her idiomatic blur.
A yellow pegasus watched as Rainbow Dash disappeared into the air and Rarity took a moment to sigh in exasperation. Fluttershy smiled at the scene, so normal it was that she forgot her troubles for a moment. Then her eyes traced over the fallen machine lying outside of Ponyville, and then shuddered and let the curtain fall back into place.
Why did they have to come? The pegasus asked herself as she turned and trotted back to the corner of her cottage that she had taken to lay in. Am I the only pony who sees? Who understands what these "human" are? Fluttershy shuddered again as she curled back up on the floor, barely noticing the blanket that Angel had placed down for her while she had been at the window. Instead her mind drifted back to earlier in the day, when the bird-like machine had walked around and then stood looking at the town. In a way, it had almost been calming, seeing the machine walk with the same stilted movements of a bird, and Fluttershy had even caught herself giggling briefly as she likened it to some sort of metal creature that had crawled out of the giant metal egg that landed in Manehattan.
Her memories had started to trigger then, but even more unfortunately so had the new machines appeared, soaring on burning wings of silvery flame to land on either side of her cottage. Fluttershy's understanding of the creatures that piloted the metal monstrosities solidified as they attacked and destroyed the first machine. They're predators, she thought with another shudder. Predators are usually well equipped by nature with talons and teeth, and they know not to hunt ponies. But these humans, they make their own equipment, just like ponies. And they hunt with it, they hunt each other in a way no pony would ever do. So why wouldn't they hunt ponies like prey?
Her shuddering increased as she went back into the mental feedback loop. Her mind kept replaying the scenes she had witnessed; the casual, heartless slaughter of a dozen ponies whose only crime had been curiosity, and now this mindless terror of mortal combat that had intruded itself upon her home. And the stories about how the humans looked like, the ones Rarity had told her in an attempt to shake the pegasus out of her funk, they had concerned her the worst now that she had seen humans on the hunt.
They do not have fangs, or claws, or speed or strength, and certainly not magic of any kind, Fluttershy told herself. Yet they hunt and are so very good at it, despite their lack of abilities. Don't the others see? Don't they understand the kind of creature that can do that in spite of its weaknesses? She whimpered unconsciously at that. They choose to hunt, to prey on themselves and other species. How can anypony stand up to such things that defy the natural order? Defy it, and win?
In the middle of the room, Angel Bunny looked on and shook his head again in sadness and hoped that help would come soon for his mistress.
“Here's the last exchange from your viewpoint,” Schneider said as he pressed a few buttons on the control pad for the holoprojector. The image immediately shifted from the BattleROM recording of his Firestarter to Griffin's Assassin, and the conflict that had looked so distant from Schneider's point of view suddenly became up close and personal. Of course the image was frozen to allow everyone at the table in the town hall a chance to take in the new view, and for those who could read the data tags along the side of the image, the basic information of the Assassin's status. Schneider waited a moment for everyone to get acclimated before he hit the play control, and the image sprung into life, showing the withering blasts of lasers and missiles that scoured sheets of metal from the enemy Spider, which returned fire but with less than stellar effect. Only one laser hit, and a quick glance at a readout labeled HTAL revealed to the initiated that the weapon's effect was minor.
The image continued moving in eerie silence, the sound having been muted to allow the viewers a chance to observe with as little subconscious interference as possible. They watched at the Spider staggered from the weapons impacts, though its mechwarrior showed better piloting skill than he did with his gunnery, managing to keep the 30-ton 'mech upright and moving closer to his opponent, both arms already coming up to rain physical blows down upon the heavier Assassin. Griffin had acted first, however, and the image from the so-called “gun camera” beneath the cockpit faithfully recorded the large metal fist of the Dark Horse 'mech as it slammed into the armored canopy of the Spider, crushing through it and into the cockpit behind it, killing the mechwarrior within instantly.
One of the viewers of this grim spectacle looked away as a flash of red was briefly seen. Twilight Sparkle felt her stomach churn a bit at having just watched someone die, even if he had been an enemy. Even if he did help assault princess Celestia in Manehattan, the lavender unicorn thought.
“Is there anything you'd like to add to the playback, Tania?” The voice of James McKenna broke the silence, and Twilight looked over to the dark-skinned human woman who sat on the other side of the long table. Her face was almost unreadable, but as she studied the human Twilight thought she could make out a bit of regret.
“Not really, sir,” she replied, her voice low but steady. Griffin turned from the recording and looked to her commanding officer. “Only that he seemed to know his fate. He could have twisted away, tried dancing that 'mech of his around to get a shot at my backside, but he just came right at me.” She fell silent then for a moment to think, then “He was buying time for his ally to get away, and it worked.”
James nodded to the younger MechWarrior. “We'll give the remains a proper burial,” he said, coming as close to open praise of the enemy as he was willing to at the moment. He then turned to Schneider. “Okay Hermes, we got the rundown settled. How's it stack?”
“Well obviously it was much in our favor,” Schneider replied, and then tapped the controls of the holoprojector. The image switched to a simple, flat, text-based table that hovered and rotated in the air so everyone could read it. “As you can see we lost no tonnage while we took out one hundred five tons of light 'mechs. If captain Starbuck's men are correct about landing hits, we can also count a pound of flesh from the one that got away, as well.
“Overall, the fight was fast and ugly, with no time to plan. Although our heavier weight and better experience gave us the edge, we were frankly lucky that the enemy was not concentrated and tried to decline battle instead of rallying to combat us. If that lance had been given better upgrades and had better training and leadership, Tania and myself could have been in some hot water 'til Dark Horse Eight and Nine showed up.”
James nodded, having come to the same conclusion. “Agreed, we were lucky,” he said, and then turned to look over the ponies who had come to sit in on the post battle debriefing and analysis. Starbuck was there, of course, as was Twilight Sparkle, the mayor, and two pegasus lieutenants from the newly-arrived assault wing. Spike the baby dragon was there as well, and he was writing down notes at Twilight's behest, even as the unicorn herself made different notes about the debriefing at Starbuck's request. “What do you think, captain Starbuck?”
The steel blue pegasus, now bereft of his helmet, shook his head, causing his short orange mane to bob about. “I think I have never seen anypony win something so completely and still call it on luck.”
“That's not entirely fair,” Schneider interjected. “I believe we would have won no matter what. I was just observing that it could have been a much more costly victory than it was.”
“Even so, it's odd to see you being so modest,” Starbuck replied. “That brief conversation between O'Connell and the princess and his actions in Manehattan since then have been rather megalomaniacal.”
Schneider chuckled. “You just haven't seen Jim on one of his bad days,” he said, grinning to his commander.
James rolled his eyes at the joke. “Just because I get a little excited in battle-”
“Excited?” Schneider interrupted, shaking his head. “You forget Jim, I was your contact on Proserpina. I still have flashbacks on occasion about the things you said during that ambush outside the rebels' base. What was that one phrase you yelled at the Panther that shot your 'mech's backside? Something about his mother and, er,” he paused and glanced over at the females in the room before continuing. “Ah, considerable physical abuse of an extremely unlikely nature.”
James blushed heavily at that and covered his face with both hands, and then leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table. “Oh, you just had to bring that up, didn't you?” He asked sardonically. “Rebecca still throws that in my face when we fight and it was over fifteen years ago.”
“Excuse me, but I feel this meeting is getting off track,” Starbuck interjected, and promptly received a look of extreme gratitude from James. “I think we all have a good understanding of what happened with the battle. If there is nothing else to your procedure, I'd like to discuss some other topics and then write up my report to my superiors and to princess Luna so they may know more about what happened.”
“An excellent idea,” James said as he worked to regain his composure. A grin split his face then and he looked over to Schneider, who stiffened at the glance. “In fact, I think that as allies – in practice if not quite officially yet – we should submit to your superiors our own, lengthy, written report on the battle, the tactics used, individual health reports, statistical anomalies, the whole works.”
“You are an evil, evil man,” Schneider said to the commander with a tone that bespoke his understanding.
“Only to certain smarmy MechWarriors whose memory is a bit too long,” James replied, still grinning.
Twilight Sparkle watched this interplay in fascination, amazed at the different layers of meaning that the humans used with ease. I doubt that most other ponies even understood that, she thought, glancing over the other beings native to Equestria. The two pegasus lieutenants seemed almost perplexed, and the mayor looked equally out of her depth, though she seemed to understand the subtle reprimand James had just inflicted on Schneider.
Captain Starbuck understands, though, Twilight thought as she glanced briefly over the stallion, seeing the amusement in his eyes. It must be something only experience can give you.
“Come on, dad,” Melissa spoke up just then, and Twilight turned her attention to the younger McKenna. “Hermes didn't mean it. Couldn't you let him off easy?”
Twilight cast her eyes at the other humans and again was fascinated by their differing reactions. Schneider looked hopeful, while James suddenly frowned and looked conflicted. Tania Griffin, though, shifted uneasily in her chair, looking uncomfortable at the exchange. Twilight didn't understand this for a moment, until she recalled her friends often would act the same way when two ponies they liked argued over something relatively unimportant. They really are like us in so many ways, the lavender unicorn thought. Then her memories of watching the recent recordings washed over her, and Twilight had to suppress a shudder. And yet so much unlike us, as well.
“Johannes, you do know that you've got the best luck, right?” James asked, and Twilight once again watched the curious interplay as Schneider's face showed a mix of relief and chastisement. “I still want a written report, but make it a simple one,” he said, and then turned to look at Starbuck. “That is, if the captain agrees to sending it. I apologize sir, I forgot to ask.”
“It's alright,” Starbuck said, smiling faintly, briefly. “I think it's an excellent idea to send your own views on the fight. Hopefully my superiors will understand your honesty for what it is.”
“You have my thanks, sir,” James said, his tone respectful. “How soon do you intend to send your report?”
“After we've finished discussing a few more things,” Starbuck replied. “Firstly, with Ponyville being the only settlement of any size between Canterlot and Manehattan, I would like to know your intentions are concerning its defense?”
“That will depend on several factors,” James replied. “But I think it would help if we had some visual aids. Hermes?” He turned to the man at the holoprojector console. “Bring up the map we made from the orbital pass.”
“Yes sir,” Schneider replied evenly, his tone very much that of a respectful subordinate. He tapped at the controls in a rapid-fire fashion that told of his experience with such things, and Twilight found herself admiring the human's fingers for their fine dexterity. If I didn't have my magic, I'd want something like those, at least, she idly mused.
Any further thoughts on that idea passed when the text table was replaced with a new image file that laid out horizontally rather than vertically. Twilight and the other ponies had to stand to look down on it properly, but once they did they recognized an accurate map of the area surrounding Ponyville and stretching north to Canterlot.
“Here you can see that while Ponyville is technically closer, it's not necessarily in a direct line between Canterlot and Manehattan,” James began, and Twilight had to stifle a question at why he and the other humans seemed to have problems with the ponies' town and city names. They always seem to stutter a bit, as if they want to say something else.
As he was not privileged to the unicorn's private thoughts, James went on, pointing with his hand towards Canterlot. “Your capitol is well sited for defense, and there's only one approach up the mountain for a ground-based force. Although one might try a combat drop directly on top of the city, O'Connell is likely not going to risk losing his sole DropShip and his entire battalion on such an operation, so I think we should plan for a ground advance.
“Because of this, I think we can rule out a direct threat to Ponyville anytime soon,” James continued, and then glanced up at the pegasus captain. “You'll remember that we discussed O'Connell's choices this morning. I still feel that he will try for an all out attack, now more than ever once he knows there are modern mechanized forces opposing him.”
“We do have a slight advantage because of that, though,” Schneider interjected, and then continued when James gave him a polite nod. “O'Connell is a typical bully personality; he likes winning too much to accept a plan that will give him anything less that complete victory. Knowing we're out here will make him more cautious and curtail further probes from his scout lances lest he lose them to ambushes. Furthermore, he will take extra time to make sure that his remaining forces are in top-notch condition before committing to battle.
“On the negative of that balance, when he comes it will be utterly without mercy,” Schneider continued with a shake of his head. “I managed to question the two prisoners a bit before our review, and though I didn't get much I did pull out the fact that they were to avoid collateral damage. Likely O'Connell wanted to try a softer approach towards you poines, but with us being a real threat both to his physical assets and the psychological control he wants, he will drop that and go hardline. Resistance will be met with deadly force, and no quarter will be offered or asked for once the fighting starts.”
The room fell silent at that, and Twilight shivered briefly at the import of those words. Finally, though, Starbuck spoke. “I believe I understand that. I also think I understand where you are going with this, but I would like you to explain it for me, please.”
James nodded to the pegasus. “O'Connell is not going to risk frittering away his forces on secondary objectives, not when he has the Dark Horse to worry about. We have some more breathing room while he doubles his preparations, but he will come out soon enough and he won't stop until your Canterlot is a burning ruin, or he's driven back in a crushing defeat.”
“Then Ponyville is safe for the moment?” The town's mayor asked, speaking up for the first time.
“For the moment, yes,” James agreed with a nod to the elder mare. “O'Connell's not a good strategist, so he's going to go for the biggest target he can find. Ponyville is not that target, not yet. Hopefully not ever, but you must be aware, madame mayor, that war is a fluid situation and things may change. I would suggest you find a way to make your town able to protect its citizens in case things do change.”
The mayor nodded sagely to the advice, while Starbuck shifted and then leaned over to look at the glowing map more closely. “So, O'Connell will make a direct line for Canterlot?” He asked, and then pointed a hoof at the green forest that surrounded the Royal Mount in a thick belt. “Whitetail Wood is a considerable obstacle.”
“Indeed it is. But not an insurmountable one,” James replied. “However, I note there is both a significant roadway and a rail line between Canterlot and Manehattan running through the forest.” He pointed out the thick line with a single finger. “He may just use them as a main avenue of advance.”
“I'm not so sure about that, Jim,” Schneider interjected, and reached out to point at the forest. “Unlike the one we landed in, this forest is thinner and has smaller trees. Even his light 'mechs will be able to press through and bulldoze a path through it. Which he may well do; he may not be inspired, but O'Connell's not exactly stupid, either. He's going to see the highway or the railroad right of way as a good place for an ambush, and he might decide to bypass them entirely.”
“Which means,” Starbuck said, his voice slightly distant as his mind raced to catch up. “That if you try to meet him in the wood or on the transport lines, he could avoid fighting you altogether?”
“Or split his forces up and try a classic pincer movement,” James replied. “He could easily move his lights through the forest fast enough to match a march by his heavies and slower mediums along the highway.”
“And if we spread out to engage both avenues of advance then all the advantages in the world won't mean spit if we dilute our strength,” Schneider added.
“Well, you will have our support,” Starbuck pointed out, and then raised his one unbandaged wing briefly. “It was our scouts that told you of the incoming enemy, and we can keep a good watch on them from outside of their combat range. We can easily relay to you their dispositions before you move to engage them.”
James nodded and despite the situation, grinned at the pegasus. “I was hoping you'd offer that. I know we've made a good impression today, but I don't want to presume too much in our planning.”
“Given what I saw in Manehattan and here, I don't think we can defeat O'Connell without your help,” Starbuck replied. “At least, not before a tremendous number of ponies would be killed in the meantime.”
All of the humans, and the two pegasus lieutenants nodded somberly at that. “Indeed. Well, that's what we're here to stop,” James evenly said.
Starbuck nodded nodded back to the human. “I believe you,” he said, sounding almost surprised. He paused for a moment and then sighed. “I just hope I'm not being foalish in trusting you.”
“You aren't, and that's a fact,” Melissa spoke up just then after having fallen silent to absorb the discussion. “My parents raised my siblings and me with love and affection and an eye to make us into good, productive, concerned human beings. They taught us right from wrong and what to do about it when it goes all out of whack. Because of that I know they're good people, and living with them has taught me to recognize that sort of goodness in others, like Hermes or Tania here.” Melissa waved to each of the named MechWarriors, both of whom blushed slightly at the praise. “That's one of the reasons the unit is small: because my dad won't hire anyone he doesn't trust to do the right thing when the chips are down.
“So you're in good hands, captain,” Melissa added as she sat back against the cushion that she'd been provided to make up for the lack of seats. “If you can't trust our words because you don't know us, then trust your eyes when you look at me. I was raised by that man over there,” she pointed to her father at that. “And by my mother, and even a bit by all the men and women in the unit over the years. Ask yourself: if they were the kind who would stab you in the back, would they raise up someone normal like me? Or wouldn't I be an emotional wreck that would be doing her best to sabotage everything around her instead of trying to do her best to help others?”
Again silence fell over the room as every being paused to consider what had been said. Twilight chewed on her thoughts, and once again she found herself admiring the similarities between human and pony. These humans, at least, she reminded herself. Yet even then her mind drifted back and the unicorn recalled that there were bad apples in ponydom as well, and that her world wasn't perfect. Why is it always the bad ones who ruin things for everypony else?
Starbuck cleared his throat just then, and everyone looked to him. “It has been said that words are cheap,” he spoke carefully. “But it is also said that actions speak for themselves. So far your actions today have been noble and considerate, and through them I can find myself open to your words. I find myself trusting you, and I promise that so long as that trust is not betrayed then I shall do what I can to aid you.”
The two lieutenants nodded to their captain's words, and even Twilight nodded as she felt herself caught up in the moment. “I agree with the captain,” she found herself saying. “I've spent the last two years learning the sort of trust and friendship that exists between those of good hearts and minds. I believe I recognize it when I see it.”
To her surprise, James and the other humans blushed a bit at the words she and Starbuck spoke. They're humble in their own way, Twilight thought as the elder McKenna shifted to sit more upright. “I thank you for your trust. I know it cannot be easily given, and for that we shall treat it with all the respect it deserves.”
“And on that note, I think it would be best if we adjourned again,” Twilight said, and then grinned sheepishly as her stomach growled audibly.
Everyone else around the table grinned back at her, and James even chuckled. “Indeed, it's grown late and I haven't eaten all day,” the human said.
“Yeah,” Griffin added. “I'm so hungry I could eat a-” She abruptly stopped then, and her blush grew a bit. “Er, a lot.”
“What do you eat, by the way?” Twilight asked, her curiosity getting the better of her. “You look so different that I can't help but wonder.”
“Uhm,” James temporized, and once again Twilight was surprised as all of the humans became instantly uncomfortable. “Well, fruits, vegetables, that sort of thing,” the human leader said somewhat nervously.
“Grains,” Schneider added. “Lots of grains. Wheat mostly.”
Off to the side Melissa sighed dramatically, and she shook her head as everyone turned his or her attention to the younger McKenna. “Dad, just tell them. They're going to find out eventually.”
“Tell us what?” Starbuck asked, confused.
A small gasp left Twilight's throat just then as her mind finally made the connections. “You're omnivores,” she said, looking at the humans in a new light.
“What's that mean?” One of the lieutenants standing next to Starbuck asked.
The mayor was the second to gasp as she recognized the title. “They eat meat,” she said in horror. Her words made the guard ponies tense up and then snap their heads to look at the humans in surprise and a bit of suspicion.
Twilight felt like doing the same, until a memory of the walk into town imposed itself upon her mind. “James,” she said, trying to keep her voice even. “You said that where you're from, animals don't talk?”
The elder McKenna nodded to the lavender unicorn. “They don't. Point of fact, most animals in our reality don't think or talk at all. They're not like you, they're more like... living machines, programmed to stay alive and procreate, but don't really do anything else beyond that.”
“Well, that's not entirely true,” Schneider interjected. “There are some animals that display intelligence and thought and feelings.”
“But those aren't the ones we eat,” Melissa hastened to add. “We only eat the really, really stupid ones, the ones that are like how my dad said; just living machines, unthinking and very stupid.”
“Animals here aren't quite like that,” Starbuck said cautiously. “Even the smallest creatures have some sort of intelligence and are willing to live with us, or at least work with us.”
“Not so where we come from,” James replied evenly. “We have animals that work with us, but they are a minority. Most of them are at least too dumb to understand or work with us and just bumble about. Others actively steal from us to take our food. And some are just plain dangerous and try to hunt us like we were the animals.”
“Be that as it may, you do know you cannot just go eating animals here willy nilly,” Starbuck said. “They have families and friends and such.”
“Oy,” Schneider said, reaching up to rub his face with a hand. “There go my dreams of a nice, fresh porterhouse.”
“Ixnay on the orterhousepay,” James muttered to his subordinate and friend, before he turned to nod at the pegasus captain. “I understand. I'll make sure my crew knows that the local wildlife is off-limits to hunting.”
“You can live without meat, right?” Twilight asked, more curious now than worried.
James shrugged. “We can, but we're not made for it. Our bodies require certain proteins and other nutrients that are only found abundantly in meat and other animal products, not to mention the fact that meat contains many more calories per gram than any plant. We can survive off of an all-plant diet, but it weakens our bodies and can cause medical issues later in life.”
““Other animal products”?” Twilight asked, tilting her head in thought. “What do you mean by that?”
“Stuff like eggs, milk, cheese, that sort of thing,” James replied. “They can make up for not having meat in our diet. It's not as satisfying, but it will do.”
The other ponies in the room quivered a bit at the word "satisfying", but Twilight found herself grinning a bit. “Well, no worries there. We actually use eggs and milk and cheese in our diet as well.”
“Really?” Schneider asked, his face perking up, and the other humans matched his improved expression. “Well, that's not so bad then.”
“I'm glad to hear it,” Starbuck commented. “So you won't be abducting any innocent being to consume it?”
“Of course not. Not unless you tell us it's too stupid to live, anyway,” James replied with a shrug. “However, you should know we do have frozen and preserved meat stored in our ship,” he added carefully. “As I said it is from the dumb livestock back home, so you don't need to worry about it being from something that said goodbye to its kid before it became a sandwich.”
“Are you always so callous?” The mayor asked, her face showing disgust.
“If I seem that way, ma'am, it's only because this is a non-issue to most humans,” James patiently replied. “We eat meat. The animals we get that meat from aren't sapient, heck they're not even sentient. They're just machines made out of flesh rather than metal, and when they die it's not so much a tragedy as just another thing that happens on a work day.”
“Besides, mayor,” Melissa interjected. “How do you think the plants you eat feel when you cut them up and serve them in a salad?”
“B-but plants don't feel!” The mayor replied.
Melissa shrugged. “Says you, but then you can't talk to plants to find out, now can you? Just like we can't talk to animals back home. But plants are living creatures, ma'am. Just like us, you must kill and consume another living thing in order to survive. Sure, animals have faces and move and make noises, but the ones we eat aren't much more intelligent than a plant. And frankly, there are some plants that are smarter than a lot of animals.”
“In any case,” James began with a raised voice to gather attention to himself. “The fact remains we don't eat people. We won't eat ponies, we won't eat any animal in this world, unless an expert on it can attest to us that it's not intelligent in any real fashion. We will however eat what we brought with us, though I will do what I can to make sure that we don't do it where ponies can see it.” He paused then to sweep his gaze across the gathered ponies before settling on Starbuck. “Does that sound fair to you, captain?”
Starbuck thought this over for a few moments. Eventually, though, he nodded. “Fair enough,” he said, the tension gone from his voice. “And truth be told there are some troublesome creatures in the Everfree Forest you're welcome to if you can kill them.”
“Captain!” The mayor exclaimed.
“Although you might want to wait for an expert on that, as well,” Twilight quickly interjected. “I know of at least one being in the Everfree Forest who's quite intelligent and, as you say, “sapient”.”
“Then we shall keep our weapons safe'd until we know in absolute certainty that the creature we face is not intelligent,” James replied with a nod to the unicorn pony.
“Thank you, commander,” Twilight said.
“You are most welcome,” James replied. He then stood up slowly, stretching his legs and back as he became erect, his bones snapping into place. “Oh man, I was sitting there too long,” he said as everyone else who had been sitting also stood. “If there's nothing else, I think some filled bellies will make us all less belligerent.”
“Agreed,” Starbuck replied. “I'll write up my report after dinner, so I would suggest yours should be done about that time as well.”
“Very well,” James said. “Now that's settled, let's go eat.”
Twilight Sparkle remained in quiet thought as the meeting broke up and the various participants walked outside. Part of her insisted that she should be scandalized and wary of the humans for their eating habits, yet the remainder of her felt acceptance as many animals in her world consumed meat to live. Part of her even was morbidly curious at how a civilized being would go about preparing meals and recipes for meat, and despite the queasiness these thoughts brought her Twilight continued to muse on them. Until, that is, she finished descending the steps to the town square and was startled by a multi-colored blur that raced in to hover before her.
“Twilight, how's it going?” Rainbow Dash asked, her expression cocky as ever.
Twilight blinked at the sudden interest, and she shrugged. “Well, it was an interesting-”
“Yeah yeah, that's nice. Listen,” Dash interrupted, clearly unconcerned about the recent meeting. “What is that thing over there and how does it fly?” The pegasus asked, pointing a foreleg towards the mercenaries' helicopter still sitting in the square. Several braver ponies had come out and were standing around it, looking over the strange machine and talking to one another.
Fortunately for the unicorn, the humans had come out behind her and the other ponies, and Melissa walked over as she overheard the conversation. “That is a Ferret scout helicopter,” she began as she stood next to Twilight, her body language as confident as Dash's. “And it flies rather well, thank you.”
Rainbow flapped her wings a bit harder for a moment so she could look into the human's eyes from the same height. “Oh yeah? I don't see any wings on it.”
“They're right there,” Melissa said, and pointed to the top of the machine where the odd spars jutted out, each drooping down now that they weren't moving.
“Uhh... what?” Dash asked, her face a study in confusion. "Those don't look like wings.”
“Well, they're not wings per se,” Melissa said, and then shrugged. “The technical term is “airfoil”. They're shaped to provide lift like your wings are, though since it's a machine we use engines rather than muscles. Most aircraft used fixed or sometimes variable geometry wings, relying on forward movement to create lift. But a helicopter is a rotary-wing aircraft that spins its airfoils around to generate lift and thrust, allowing for vertical landings and takeoffs.”
Both of the ponies near her gave the human odd looks, though after a moment Twilight's expression brightened. “Ohhh, of course! A wing surface generates lift by shaping the air to reduce pressure on one side when it moves through the air. But there's no reason it has to be moved through the air in a straight line! Brilliant!”
“Twi, you understood all of that?” Dash asked, astounded. She then frowned when the lavender unicorn nodded back. “I don't get it. It sounds like a bunch of egghead to me.”
Melissa sighed at that. “I suppose you take flying for granted, since you were born to it,” she said, sounding almost wistful. “But people like me had to learn it the hard way in machines like that Ferret, or in fixed-wing trainers. You tend to pay more attention to learning something when it's not handed to you on a silver platter.”
Dash turned to the human and puffed herself up a bit. “Hey now! I may have been born with wings but I had to learn to fly like every other pegasus!” She said, her tone indignant. “And "the hard way"? You try actually flying with your body instead of using machines to do all the work for you.”
Melissa narrowed her eyes at that, and just stared at Dash for a few moments. The cyan pegasus finally realized who and what she was talking to, and she slowly settled to the ground. “I don't know who you are,” Melissa said in a quiet voice that was laced with silent threat. “But you don't seem to understand the difficulties of flying that exist to beings born without the ability. I'm sure you worked hard to be a good flier yourself, and I don't begrudge you that. But I would ask for you to give me the same courtesy. I worked my rear end off to learn how to fly when I was specifically born unable to do so, and I don't like anyone calling my dedication into question.”
“Melissa,” a voice said from the side, and the small group turned to see James walking over. “We're probably going to spend the night here. Why don't you take the Ferret back to the Steel and grab our field kits?”
“Mom's not going to like that,” Melissa replied, her voice strained from earlier but respectful. “She's already had Mei start plotting a short hop to get the Steel over here.”
James smiled a bit at that. “That's probably a good idea,” he said, nodding. “But tell her it will have to wait until tomorrow. Right now I think all of the locals have had enough excitement for one day. I don't think them seeing an eighty meter ball of battle steel descending on a pillar of plasma fire will be calming to their state of mind.”
Melissa chuckled lightly at that. “Okay, anything else while I'm on my run?”
“MREs,” James replied, his voice flat as he glanced to the ponies standing near them.
“Right,” Melissa said with a nod, understanding his unspoken meaning. “I'll make sure to leave them in the box,” she added, and then turned to confidently stride off to the helicopter.
The trio watched her go for a moment before James turned to give Dash a look. “I would appreciate it if you try not to antagonize my daughter,” he said evenly, and then grinned. “She takes after her mother, after all, and neither are the kind of woman you want to have angry with you.”
“Yeah, well, she didn't need to be so mean,” Dash protested, though her heart wasn't in it.
“Dash, she was only telling you how much more she had to study to learn how to fly since it doesn't come naturally to her,” Twilight joined in. “Sort of like how you've had to give some help to Fluttershy over the years.”
Rainbow blushed at that, and her face fell at the mention of the yellow pegasus. “Yeah, okay,” she said, her voice low as she picked a spot on the ground to stare at. “I guess I overreacted a bit.”
“Just a bit,” Twilight agreed.
“To be fair, Melissa didn't exactly cover herself with glory, so to speak,” James interjected. “You have my apology for that, miss Dash. I suspect being sensitive about your flying abilities is something you two have in common.”
Twilight chuckled at that, and even Rainbow cracked a smile. Until, that is, the unicorn spoke up again. “Speaking of Fluttershy, how is she?” The unicorn asked, hoping to move onto a less sensitive topic.
Unfortunately, though, Dash's expression became even more downcast as she looked up at her friend. “She's really bad,” the pegasus began. “The fight today made her all paranoid. She screamed at Rarity, told us all to go away before curling into a ball in a corner of her living room. I... I'm worried about her, Twilight.”
Sparkle froze for a moment as her friend's words registered. “She wouldn't listen to you?” She asked.
“No. Just freaked out when Rarity tried touching her,” Rainbow Dash replied. “We left after that. It didn't seem like we were helping at all being there, even making it worse somehow. I think Pinkie said she was going to talk to that Ivan guy, though.”
“Might not be the best time,” James muttered. “I'll go off and see if I can't convince those two to wait a day. It'll be better for-”
The beginning of a loud whine interrupted James then, and the small group turned to see the Ferret's turbine engines spooling up. The rotor started moving seconds later, and soon the helicopter was rising into the air amidst its usual noises. Fortunately the spectators who had been crowding around it had been chased off by Melissa and no pony was hurt as the downdraft from the rotors increased and the helicopter took to the sky.
Twilight felt a sense of awe as she watched the vehicle ascend, knowing as she did that it used no magic whatsoever. She wondered what powered the device and decided to ask Melissa about it later. For now, though, the unicorn simply watched as the angular helicopter lifted up and retracted its landing gear, eventually reaching a good hundred or so feet off the ground. The craft pitched forward at that and started to move, slowly at first but gaining speed as the pilot slowly banked it to make a wide circle to its left, eventually leveling out on a course directly away from the town hall.
“You have to admit that's impressive enough,” Twilight found herself saying to the pegasus at her side.
Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Maybe. It's not bad,” she allowed, though Twilight noted her friend never took her eyes off the machine as it soared northward. “Hey, is she coming back?”
Twilight looked back to the helicopter as it made another turn and angled down towards the square again, picking up speed. The two friends suddenly tensed as the Ferret angled down enough that it started losing altitude as it approached, looking as if the machine was about to crash right into them.
At the last moment, though, the Ferret yanked its nose high and banked hard to the left, redirecting its lift and shifting its momentum. For a moment the craft looked as it if were balancing on its rotor as it pirouetted in the sky above the square, but soon enough the two-hundred seventy degree turn was over and the Ferret leveled out as it accelerated westward towards the Everfree Forest.
The helicopter had barely disappeared beyond the rooftops when Twilight finally remembered to breathe again. A quick glance around the square showed a large number of ponies in similar conditions of near panic, though when she looked to the pegasus on her right, Twilight saw that Rainbow had a look of surprise and even a bit of admiration.
James broke the silence, sighing in relief. “That, dear ponies, is what we call "proving a point,"” he said, and then shook his head. “Again, please don't antagonize my daughter. She gets a little crazy when she's mad, and her flying gets more reckless.” With that he turned and started walking away. “I'll see you later after I make sure Ivan and Pinkie wait a bit before talking to your friend,” he said over his shoulder.
The two ponies sat there for a moment before Twilight cleared her throat. “Well, I think I'm going to get some dinner at the Clover Café. Want to join me, Dash?”
“Huh?” Rainbow asked, blinking as she looked over to her friend. “Oh, sure,” she replied, and then followed as Twilight trotted off towards the café. “Hey, Twilight?”
“Yes?” The unicorn asked, glancing to her friend.
“...I don't suppose you could explain to me how that thing flies?” Rainbow asked, a sheepish look on her face. “Even if it is in egghead.”
Twilight chuckled at joke. “Well, I'm not sure where they get the power from, but I can explain the general principles, even in non-egghead terms.”