Chapter 18: A Hot New Ride
'They have electricity, rudimentary electronics and indoor plumbing. Why don't they have washing machines?'
These were James' thoughts as he sat in the back yard of his home and scrubbed out all the filth from his uniform. It was almost lunch time on Sunday and he was getting his laundry done in anticipation for the next week. James was just about finished, the rest of his clothing was hung up on the wall behind him, all he had left was his uniform pants. After this, he could go fix some lunch and have a beer. He really didn't plan on doing anything today, just relaxing and listening to some music.
It was faint, but he heard it. James stopped what he was doing and listened.
"James!" Louder now and accompanied with the sound of galloping hooves.
He stood up and looked around. Feather suddenly rounded the corner of the building and would have bowled the human over if he hadn't jumped clear. Expecting trouble, James immediately became serious and addressed his his teammate.
"Feather, what's wrong!?"
"Nothing, but you gotta come see this!"
"See what? Where?"
"It's almost at the training grounds, c'mon!"
The dark blue earth pony galloped of in the direction of the camp. James just shrugged and ran off after him. The stallion was so intent on getting there that James almost had a hard time keeping up with him. What was so important as to warrant such haste, James couldn't perceive.
'Whatever it is, it had better be important.'
When the two arrived, James saw that Sparks was already there, looking up in the air.
"Sparks! The hell is going on?"
The dusty red unicorn pointed to the sky without looking away. James turned his gaze up. Coming from the northwest and descending towards the ground was one of the strangest flying contraptions James had ever seen. Next to Pinkie's of course, her bizarre mode of flight was beyond his comprehension. This particular aircraft was about the size of a medium sized yacht. The main body consisted of some kind of boxy rectangular cabin of wood with windows here and there around the sides and a large one on the tapered front nose. The rear had large diameter wooden propeller enshrouded in a metal cage with two large rudders mounted on the face, much like a fanboat. On top of this was a platform rimmed by a guard rail about waist height. The whole thing was attached to a large, streamlined balloon. James thought he could see a couple of figures moving about the top deck.
The vehicle slowly descended and touched down upon the ground before the trio on a pair of skids. A door in the side unlatched and swung inward. Out stepped Flash. James really wanted know what was going on.
"Flash, what in the world is this thing?"
"It's an airship."
"You flew it here? Where'd you get it?"
"Oh, no. I didn't fly it here, I just flew up to guide it to the training grounds. I thought it would be a good place to keep it."
"Yeah, here, this is the pony who pilots it. She should be able to explain more."
Flash moved aside to allow the pilot to reveal them self. Out stepped a light gray unicorn with a slightly darker, short cropped mane and tail. Her eyes were the color of deep blue water. Her cutie mark was two different sized gears, teeth interlocked and half sunk into a cloud.
"Aria!" Sparks rushed forward and wrapped his forelegs around the mare in a hug.
"Lectric? What are you doing here?" She was confused, but a smile grew on her face as she returned the sentiment.
"I work here now, I was assigned to a new command." He looked over the flying machine with some wonderment. "So this is what you've been up to. No wonder I haven't heard from you in so long!"
"Yeah, she's a prototype. Princess Celestia commissioned a scaled down version of the airships we use for mass cargo and transport. I was immediately recommended by my superiors for the project!" She beamed with pride.
"Ahem." James was still waiting for some information.
"Oh! Sorry James. This is Aria Myst. We went to engineering school together. She was top of her class, could have had any job she wanted. Instead, she went to go work on airships."
"And improve on their designs." She added.
"Aria, this is Commander Kaughn. He's my new CO."
She snapped to attention and gave James a smart salute, "Sir! I apologize. Lieutenant Myst, reporting as ordered."
"At ease, Lieutenant. So, What are we looking at here?"
"Sir, please allow me to give you the grand tour of 'The Clipper'."
"'The Clipper', huh?"
"Yes sir, she's the fastest airship ever constructed. A trip from here to Canterlot usually takes about two to three hours, this baby can do it in just about forty-five minutes."
"That's not even the best part!" She exclaimed, starting to become excited. "Modern airships get around by riding the swift currents of air found at high altitudes, or with help from a squad of pegasi. The Clipper is self powered!"
James was interested, "Care to show me more?"
"With pleasure!" The aeronautical engineer enthusiastically lead him into the interior. "This is the main cabin. Along the inner walls are seats that can be folded down individually or left up to accommodate large loads. In the deck is a cargo door that can be opened and closed in flight or on the ground. Above it is a winch that can be used to lift loads up to eight hundred pounds. The winch is powered by the same engine that drives the propeller. That ladder leads to the upper deck. There is a secondary control station up there, but the main one is in here," she lead James through a door in the forward bulkhead, "from this station you can control speed, altitude and direction." There was a console filled with arrays of buttons, instruments and levers including what James assumed to be the control yoke.
"How does the craft change altitude, does it function like a hot air balloon?"
"No, it's held aloft by a special type of helium I created myself. It's enchanted to react to pulses of electricity generated by the engine and can be adjusted from here in the control station. The more intense the charge sent through it, the more the gas expands inside the bladders in the balloon. On it's own, the gas has only enough buoyancy to slow the aircraft's rate of decent. Not slow enough to land safely, but enough that the occupants will survive the crash."
"Show me the engine room."
Myst lead him into another compartment aft of the main cabin, where a bundle of wires attached to the winch ran from. Mounted on the deck against the aft bulkhead was a large mechanical contraption of gears and belts surrounding and attached to a core of metal. Another bundle of wires ran from it up into a small opening in the overhead that was sealed against the weather. Currently, it was off.
"This is the source of power for the whole craft. It's of my own design as well."
"Did you design this whole thing?"
"From the ground up!"
"How does the engine work, is it electric?"
"Nope, it can generate electric power, but the engine itself is powered by magical energy stored in a specially designed battery."
"Outstanding. I only have one more question. Why are you here?"
Her enthusiasm disappeared and her eyes went wide with realization, "Oh my gosh, I almost forgot, I'm so sorry!"
Myst ran into the cockpit and rummaged around for a bit. James waited for her in the main cabin. She came back levitating a scroll stamped with a wax seal bearing the royal crest. James pulled it from the air and broke the seal.
I hope this finds you in good health. I received your letter and am glad to hear things are moving smoothly. I have sent this with a new prototype airship as you can most likely see. With it is it's creator, Miss Aria Myst. She is an excellent engineer as well as an accomplished pilot. I hope you and your new team can assist her in testing and assessing it's capabilities. My only other request is that you come to Canterlot so that I may speak with you.
James rolled it back up and pocketed it, then stepped outside to speak with his team.
"Alright, looks like we got a new ride. Say hello to The Fixers' very own 'Clipper'. One other thing, in about thirty minutes, we're gonna get to take it for a joy ride. Sparks, I need a favor from you. You how to dry fabric with magic, right? Everypony get some lunch if you haven't already and meet back here in uniform. We have a meeting to attend. Myst, welcome aboard."
The ride to the capitol was a bit hectic. James wanted to see how maneuverable the aircraft was and asked Myst to demonstrate. She happily obliged and put the craft into some sharp turns, dives and climbs. With the skillful pilot at the controls it was actually quite nimble. Unfortunately, this resulted in the passengers getting tossed about the cabin. James made a mental note to have seatbelts installed, at least four point contact. Maybe five. Other than that, The Clipper lived up to it's creator's boasts. In no time, the city set upon the mountain side, Canterlot, was filling the view out the windows.
James climbed up the steeply angled ladder to the upper deck for a better view without cramming into the cockpit. He moved to the the railing in front of the small secondary control station. The first thing that stood out to him was the castle. Many tall towers and spires rose from a seemingly random collection of foundation buildings. Closer to the mountain side was a residential area, separated from the actual castle by a courtyard ringed by a high stone wall. This was all protected by gigantic gatehouse at the edge of the city. A long flagstone road lead from it's entrance and passed close by to a beautiful cascading waterfall.
'That has got to be the weirdest design for a castle I have ever seen. Looks nice though.'
Myst brought the airship into a dock area jutting out from the cliffs under the castle with much, much larger and more ornate versions of The Clipper moored along side them. The Clipper was too small to tie up next to such behemoths and instead opted to land on one of the wide piers. Waiting for them was a small contingent of the Guard. The five were escorted up from the docks to the castle. The Guards Ponies left them in a grand foyer while the princess was notified of their arrival. Flash walked up to James.
"What do you think she wants us here for?"
"I'm not sure. Could be that she just wants to see the results of my program for herself. She did fund it after all."
'After guilt tripping me into running it.'
"Or she might have some sort of task for us. Hopefully it's the former."
They didn't wait long until two large double doors at the opposite side of the way they entered opened and two of what James now knew were called 'Alicorns' walked through flanked by two guards. One was the Princess Celestia. The other James had never seen before, though she seemed strangely familiar. She was a deep midnight blue with a mane that darkly sparkled and waved like twinkling starlight. She was a little over a head shorter than Celestia.
"Please excuse me Luna, I have a small matter I must attend to. Can we continue our conversation another time, perhaps later today?"
"Of course, sister. I shall be in the gardens."
The other alicorn turned and left. Flash, Feather and Sparks lined up at attention behind their CO as he saluted the princess. Myst was the only one who bowed. The guards looked furious and moved to put the foolish human in his place, but were stayed by motion of one of Celestia's forelegs. James noticed this and offered an explanation.
"My apologies ma'am. Where I come from service members never bow to anyone while in uniform, royalty or not. You did ask me to train them the way I was, remember?"
'She may have funded the training and we may ultimately answer to her, but these are my soldiers, dammit.'
"Of course, Commander. Could you please come with me? We have much to talk about."
"Yes ma'am. Is my team required to stay here for anything?"
"No, they may do as they please."
"Just on moment then." He turned towards Myst and the four ponies in uniform. "Go have some fun, check out the town. Muster back here by the end of the day. Dismissed."
James redirected his attention back to Celestia as they all left. "I'm all yours."
"Excellent. Guards, please leave us, we are not to be disturbed unless it is an emergency."
"Your grace..." both bowed and excused themselves.
Celestia turned around and walked back the way she came, down a long, echoing corridor. Each side was decorated with enormously beautiful stained glass windows. James followed along side her. Having not really talked to he face to face, James now realized how tall she was compared to all the other ponies he'd interacted with. They all came up to about his chest, except for Big Mac who stood higher, but the princess could easily look him right in the eye.
"So James, how have you been adjusting to your new home?"
"I make do."
To many, that would have contained almost no information, but Celestia was over a millennium old. With that age came unfathomable wisdom. To her the simple statement spoke volumes.
"You're lonely, aren't you?"
The human just calmly continued walking by her side, showing no reaction to her question.
"Not so much. I do have Flash, Sparks and Feather. Even the girls drop by from time to time to see how I'm doing.
"I see." She was still unconvinced.
The truth was, he actually had been a bit lonesome. As far as he knew, he was the only one of his kind in this world. The only things that even came close were those vile monsters. Sure, his teammates had a few things in common with him and he would do anything for them, but it just wasn't the same.
"Pleasantries aside, ma'am, was there anything in particular you wanted to speak about?"
"Straight to the point, I see. Yes, there has been some troubling news as of late. There have been reports of disappearances along the outer reaches of our borders."
"That is certainly not good."
"Certainly. The disturbing thing, however, is their nature. The only ponies that disappear are unicorns and any ponies that happened to be with them were found beaten within an inch of their life."
"You think it's them?"
"I certainly hope not, but the theory is becoming more likely by the day."
"What would you like me to do?"
"I need a force sent to the most prevalent region to dig up any information they can. In the meantime, I've increased the presence of the guard in those regions, but I'm afraid it won't be enough."
"Understood ma'am. I'll gather my team and set out as soon as we're ready."
"Thank you. I'll send a letter with the details."
"Anything else, ma'am?"
"Oh yes, I would like you and your team to stay stationed in Ponyville. It's a central location within the country and you would be able to reach anywhere with ease."
"Outstanding. Ma'am, may I ask you something?"
"Of course, anything."
"A while back you said that other objects had been 'shifted' or 'teleported' into this world before. And that you had all the dangerous looking ones you found locked up. Would you permit me to view the items?"
Celestia thought for a moment about his request. Ultimately, she reluctantly granted it to him.
"Come with me please."
James followed the princess down several corridors, twists and turns and finally down a long spiraling stone stairway that terminated at the bottom before two large oak and iron doors guarded by no less than four Guards Ponies and under heavy lock and key. Upon the princess' arrival, all four snapped to attention and promptly bowed before her.
"Arise, my little ponies. I require entrance to this vault."
The guards jumped into action and quickly opened the vault. She crossed the thresh hold, magically lighting several torches as she did. James stepped inside as the doors shut behind him with an echoing boom. The space he was now standing in was huge. The ceiling was so high up he could barely see it. Large columns, spaced every twenty feet or so, were each ablaze with a torch in a bracket. As James continued to follow the princess, he looked around him. Everywhere he could see fleeting glints of metal and reflections of light. Eventually, Celestia reached a large, shallow vat of viscous fluid. With a flash of her horn, the fluid burst into flames with a loud whumpf. James stared in awe around him. All about the room were piled old and rusty decrepit looking things. Some appeared more recent.
There were centuries old weapons stacked in crates and stored in barrels. A majority of it was swords and spears and the like. He could see some old armor scattered around, not all of it looked like it would fit the human form. Then he noticed one corner of the room that was separate from the rest. Because this corner had what the rest of the room lacked: Firearms. Most were old and broken down, completely unsafe to fire, but there were a few gems. A few assault rifles, some LMGs, even an M110. However, that all paled in comparison to what he saw stashed behind some boxes. James almost wet himself in excitement. He bent down and extracted an old M82 Barrett sniper rifle. The Big .50 BMG. He cycled the bolt a few times. It stuck a little, but it was serviceable. He could have it back to prime condition in no time. It even had it's optics. He rummaged around some boxes and managed to scrounge up some of it's magazines and a two whole ammo cans of munitions for it. These were among more ammunition for all the other weapons and even some explosives.
"Ma'am, I assume you are aware of what these are."
"Yes, they are instruments designed and built solely for the purpose of death." She said with some disdain.
"Correct. I must ask you to allow me to take them."
The princess looked appalled.
"I know what you're thinking, but trust me when I say that superior technological advantage my be our best bet with defending against those creatures."
*sigh* "If I must. I will have the items of your choosing packed up and delivered to the airship."
"Thank you, ma'am. I promise I won't let you down."