Author's Note: Sorry for any formatting problems in this chapter. If you find any, please let me know so I can fix them. This is the first time I've tried using the experimental "Import from Google Docs" feature. It munged up the formatting pretty badly and I had to fix everything by hand. Won't be using it again. Going back to the old fashioned way. I apologize for any problems I missed. Thanks again. And hope you enjoy chapter 27.
Chapter 27: Unfriendly Skies
As the squadron of Pegasus Guards continued to make their way further North, the colored light shows began to become fewer and further between. Eventually, they disappeared completely, giving way to an impenetrable inky blackness on this moonless night. He looked down and could not see the ground, but he knew that only wilderness lay beneath them. This far North, only the occasional small village spaced two hundred thousand strides apart or more broke the dense evergreen forests. No roads connected them to anything. The only way in or out was by air.
The ponies that chose to live in these remote northern villages prided themselves on rugged individualism. That was something he had learned well when he had been in the small town of Whitepony several months ago. He doubted there would be much celebrating up here for the Summer Sun Celebration. Ponies up here had little use for the affairs of the princesses. The further they could distance themselves from anything that had to do with Canterlot or matters of the Royal Sisters, the happier they seemed to be.
In these parts, any form of magic was something to be distrusted—as if it were the dark hand of devils themselves at work. It was little wonder that not many unicorns were found living in these parts. The few unicorns that did choose to make their homes up here were shunned as outsiders; looked upon with fear and distrust by most, and downright hatred by some.
Indeed, even the weather was left to its own whims up here because that’s the way the ponies of the North preferred it. Controlling the weather was considered a form of magic—something unnatural to be feared and distrusted.
Knowing what he knew now about their distrust and fear of magic, he understood why he and Theory Point had gotten such a cold reception in Whitepony. The fact that they were from Canterlot was bad enough. The fact that he was a strange species never seen up here before was worse. But the fact that he was traveling with a unicorn—a pony capable of wielding the dark art of magic … the two of them may as well have been straight from the pit of Tartarus itself as far as the ponies up here were concerned. Sometimes he wondered what Celestia had been thinking with that decision. He suspected he would have had an easier time in Whitepony if she had sent an earth pony with him instead of a unicorn. And he might have been able to get a better price on the flight up to the outpost as well.
He tilted his head upward. Above them, he could barely make out the silhouettes of the Pegasus Guards flying in formation around their chariot, skillfully maintaining a distance of less than one meter of separation from the craft and from each other. He felt safer, knowing they were there. Not that he had any idea what might be out there that they would need protection from.
Frost began to form on the windows, as if they had crossed some invisible weather boundary, a cold front perhaps, and the outside air temperature had suddenly dropped several degrees. Within a few minutes, the windows were fully covered with a thin layer of ice crystals on the inside surface where the moisture from their breath had condensed on the cold glass. He didn’t bother to clean it off. There was nothing to see outside anyway.
He turned away from the window, looking at Theory Point now. For the first time since leaving the ground, it occurred to him that neither one of them had said a word since boarding the chariot. He waited a full minute for her to say something. When she didn’t he finally spoke first.
“You haven't said a single word the entire trip.”
“I could say the same about you.”
“Fair enough,” he nodded in acknowledgment. “ … So what’s the deal between you and Twilight? For as much as you were looking forward to meeting her, that introduction seemed like it could have gone better.
She shrugged slightly. “I just got the impression she didn’t like me. You know, when you just get that feeling about somepony?
“I have a feeling she got the same impression about you.”
“I’ll try again … next time she’s in Canterlot. Maybe we just got off on the wrong hoof.”
“It would be nice … if you two got along. I’d hate to have my two closest scientific friends fighting with each other … especially if I’m somehow the cause of it.
“I said I’d try again, didn’t I?” There was a hint of annoyance in her voice now.
“Alright … That’s all I ask,” he said, a bit taken aback by her sudden hostility.
She sighed, looking back at him apologetically. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just this trip … I hate these northern parts of Equestria. And I had plans for tomorrow—the last day of the Celebration tomorrow. Which of course, are now ruined."
“I had plans too. I’m disappointed, but sometimes it can’t be helped. And besides, aren’t you just the least bit curious?”
“No,” she said, averting her eyes, trying to keep him from seeing them.
“Yes, you are. I could see it in your eyes before we left. That child like gleam of excitement. That scientist part of you that just has to know what it is. It’s not enough for somepony to just tell you what it is. You have to be a part of the discovery. To be part of the excitement of cracking it. To be one of the first to know.” He could tell she was trying to remain stubborn. Trying not to smile. “For that precious amount of time after a new discovery. That time when you know something nopony else in the world knows. Not even the princesses. You need that.”
Finally, she couldn’t avoid a small smile. “Alright,” she admitted. “Yes, I’m curious. But I’m not holding my breath. If it turns out to be as useless as the last object we found, then this trip is another massive waste of time.”
“I wouldn’t say that object has been a waste of time. You have to admit, it has some very interesting properties.”
“Interesting properties or not, the object still seems to be useless—to have no purpose.”
“Well, maybe this one will fill in some missing pieces of the puzzle,” he said, closing his eyes and leaning back against the wall of the chariot behind him.
“Not really. But it’s going to be a long day tomorrow, I suspect. If we have to dig that thing out of the ground."
“You mean if you and the guards have to dig that thing out of the ground. Surely you aren’t going to make a mare go down there and dig,” she giggled.
He opened one eye slightly, saw her grinning, closed it again.
“Get some sleep, Theory …"
“It doesn’t make any sense!” Twilight complained to her friends who were sitting around the table in the Castle garden, sipping glasses of iced tea. A flash and another firework exploding outside the courtyard punctuated her complaint. “‘I’m sorry, Twilight,’ she says, ‘but his duties at the Academy pulled him away and he won’t be able to see you again before you leave,’” a note of mocking sarcasm in her voice.
Spike and the gathered ponies looked at her with expressions ranging from surprise, to downright shock. For Twilight to repeat something Princess Celestia had told her using such a disrespectful tone of voice … it was extremely unlike her. If she noticed their looks of disbelief, however, she gave no indication of such as she continued.
“During the Summer Sun Celebration? What duties? The Academy is practically shut down during the Summer Sun Celebration!” She slammed her forehoof down on the table for emphasis, the gathered ponies quickly having to grab their drinks to prevent them from tipping over. The sloshing liquid in the glasses still spilled over the side though, forming small puddles on the table that radiated outwards slowly.
“Twilight, don’t ya think yer’ overreacting just a bit? I mean this is The Princess yer’ talking about. You know that wherever she sent him, she must have had a good reason for it,” Applejack stated, a look of concern on her face.
“I’m not overreacting!” she said loudly, raising her forehoof to slam it down on the table again, but stopping short when all of the ponies grabbed their drinks in preparation. “Why won’t she tell me what’s going on?”
“I’m sure she must have her reasons, Twi. Are ya sure yer’ alright? You’ve never distrusted Princess Celestia before. This isn’t like you, Twi.
“Do I look like I’m alright?” she responded incredulously. “I’m—”
She didn’t finish her statement, instead simply standing up from the table and trotting off towards the castle, stiff legged and with her ears laid back angrily.
Spike winced as he watched her go, waiting until she disappeared beyond the outer pillars in front of the side entrance that lead out to the garden. Then he turned back to the rest of the ponies at the table.
“I uh … better go talk to her.” He stood up nervously, then turned and walked towards the entrance himself.
Once inside, he worked his way through the corridors, and up the winding staircases towards the guest rooms. Climbing the large staircases designed for an adult pony was no small feat for such a young dragon. By the time he arrived at the top of the last staircase, he was panting slightly from the workout. He turned the corner at the top, walking down the long, tapestry lined hallways until he came to the guest room he and Twilight were staying in. By time he arrived, his breathing from the stair climbing workout had returned to normal.
Given the circumstances, he thought it best to knock before entering, not that he could reach the door knob anyway.
“Twilight? You in there?” he said, knocking on the door with a claw.
The door started to glow with a lavender magic as Twilight opened it. He stepped through and she quickly closed it behind him.
Arriving in the room, he found Twilight sitting on her haunches near the bed, staring at the ground. Her ears drooped down, her tail wrapped around in front of her. For several long moments she said nothing. Finally, she spoke.
“I have to send him home, Spike. Before he loses himself completely.”
“It’s too dangerous, Twilight. Remember what happened last time you tried to open up that portal?”
“I have to figure out how to make the portal stable, and control its sphere of influence.”
The young dragon looked at the ground, his shoulders drooping as what he knew he had to do weighed on him like a brick. He sighed, gathering his resolve, and then looking at his unicorn friend.
“Twilight, you know I’m your loyal assistant. You know I’ll always be there for you. And you know I’d never do anything to hurt you. But I can’t let you keep endangering yourself like this … If something were to happen to you I … I couldn’t … I’m going to tell Princess Celestia what you’re trying to do.”
Her head suddenly shot up, her eyes going wide as she looked directly at the young dragon now. “Spike, you can’t! She’d never allow me to keep working on it!” she said in a desperate tone of voice, her eyes practically pleading with him. “Please, Spike! You can’t!”
The young dragon could feel his heart breaking for his friend—seeing her in such a pitiful state. Begging him, pleading with him not to tell The Princess. Along with his heart, his resolve was also breaking. He almost lost his nerve. Almost didn’t have the heart to go through with it. No, I have to do this. It’s because I care about her that I’m doing this, he told himself, trying to pull his shattered resolve back together.
“I know she won’t let you continue, Twilight. Because it’s just too dangerous. And that’s why I have to tell her. It’s too dangerous. After seeing what almost happened to you … I can’t let you keep doing it … I can’t.” He averted his eyes to the ground. He knew if he looked into her begging and pleading eyes, that he would lose his resolve. That he wouldn’t go through with it.
“Please, Spike,” she said quietly again, her voice pleading and pitiful. “You can’t … You can’t.”
“Why don’t you just let him stay? You want him around anyway. You like him.”
“It doesn’t matter what I want, Spike. It matters what’s best for him.”
“Twilight, It’s not for you to decide what’s best for him.”
“You can’t … You can’t,” was all she said again, still in a pleading tone of voice.
The young dragon continued looking at the ground, his resolve almost breaking again. “I’m sorry, Twilight,” he finally said, turning and moving towards the door.
He half expected her to stop him. There were any number of ways she could do so. She could ward the door, placing a spell on it so that he couldn’t walk through it. She could place a spell on him so that he couldn’t leave the room. She could place a binding spell on him so that he could not travel more than a certain distance away from her. All these things, he knew she had the ability to do. He was surprised when she did none of them.
She did not, however, open the door for him. He had to jump twice, but on the second jump, he was able to reach the latch and push the door open enough for him to slip through. He hesitated for a moment, almost turning around. Then he walked out the door, straining to push it shut.
“Spike, please... You can’t …” he heard once more as he started down the hallway. Her voice was still pleading, but now it also had the sound of defeat in it, and it broke his heart to hear her like that. I’m doing it because I care about her. And I couldn’t bare to see her get hurt … or worse,” he kept telling himself as he continued down the hallway, her pleading calls becoming more distant, until he could no longer hear them at all as he turned a corner and started down the stairs …
James found himself inside a featureless stone room lined with benches on either side. Immediately, he recognized the room. He looked away, looked at the floor, looked anywhere but forward. The stench of death lay heavy in the air. He knew what he would see if he looked forward.
He looked out the window. Canterlot castle, black and twisted, burning. The once pristine gardens, now decaying and rotting. A tangle of dried thorns and brambles dripping with the blood of those who had been forced to flee through them, attempting to escape the calamity that had befallen the ruined castle.
He shut his eyes. No direction was safe to look. Everywhere, the sight of decay and corruption. Almost everything was already dead. The few things there were not would be soon enough.
Finally, he forced himself to open his eyes and look forward. The same six caskets containing the bodies of the Elements of Harmony. Next to them, he saw himself standing, chain still around his neck. The other end of the chain, as it was last time, was held by Nightmare Moon’s fetlock, binding him to her. He looked up, the malevolent alicorn looking back at him with a twisted dark smile on her face.
“I must say, James … I’m somewhat disappointed. Still being Celestia’s puppet I see … Doing her bidding,” the midnight black alicorn sneered “I warned you about being careful who you serve,” she said in an almost snarling voice.
“I’m no pony’s puppet,” he responded, trying to hide his fear. “I know what you are. And above all, I am not your puppet.”
“Foalish boy,” the alicorn that he knew was not really an alicorn mocked him. “You belong to me. You will serve me either by choice, or against your will. I would prefer by choice. And it will go easier on you that way. But we can do it against your will just as easily.”
“You lie. You are incapable of truth. Everything you say is a lie,” James said, his voice quivering slightly as he looked away, the alicorn that was not an alicorn’s stare unnerving him.
The figure that pretended to be Nightmare Moon laughed darkly. A twisted, mocking laughter. “Is that what she told you? And you believe it. Without questioning her. Like a good little pony slave. And I thought you were a scientist,” the being laughed malevolently again.
“You lie. You are incapable of truth. Everything you say is a lie,” he repeated again. Although now, he wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince. He repeated the words again in his mind like a mantra, as if trying to convince himself of their truth.
The being simply laughed darkly again—even darker than last time. “I pity you, so wrapped around the hooves of the Royal Sisters. I don’t pity many. But I pity you. Because of that, I’m going to make your decision easier.”
He heard the sizzling buzz of electricity, saw a bright flickering bluish white light reflecting off the floor. He looked up. Electricity arced from the false alicorn’s horn to one of the caskets. He looked down again, the arc blinding—as if he had looked at a welder. A few seconds later, the hissing stopped, the light of the arc disappearing.
He looked up again. The casket Twilight Sparkle had been in was empty. She was standing next to his other self now, apparently alive, and like him, bound to Nightmare Moon.
“I will let you have Twilight Sparkle. I know you care for her. I know there is nothing you wouldn’t do to ensure her safety.”
Luna told me it couldn’t read my mind, he thought in a panic. How does it know I care for Twilight Sparkle?
He started breathing heavier, looking away again. He hesitated several moments before answering.
“She is not yours to give … You lie … You are incapable of truth … Everything you say is a lie …” Did he still believe that? Despite the fact that both Princess Celestia and Princess Luna had told him that … did he still believe it? He wasn’t sure.
“Do I now …” The false alicorn chuckled darkly. “Equestria is doomed … Even Celestia knows this. She has foreseen it. Go ahead. Ask her about it next time you see her, boy. Ask her. See if she can look you in the eye without telling you the truth about what she saw.”
“… You lie … You are incapable of truth … Everything you say is a lie …” he practically had to force himself to say the words now.
“Equestria is doomed,” the false alicorn stated again. “But you can avoid dooming Twilight along with it. You can save her. If you serve me willingly. Either way, you will serve me. The only real decision you have to make is whether Twilight will be dead or alive. You belong to me, either way.”
He hesitated again, breathing heavily, then looked up at the false alicorn again “… You lie … You are incapable of truth … Everything you say … is a lie …” he said with as much determination as he could muster.
This time, the false alicorn narrowed her eyes at him. She snorted loudly and lashed her tail once angrily, ears laid back against her head aggressively. When she spoke again, it was in a low almost growling tone of voice.
“Then … die!” She stomped her forehoof on the floor. A deafening crack rose from the ground, as if a firework had exploded next to his head. Showers of sparks flew from the ground where her hoof had struck, also like an exploding firework. But the sparks had no beauty to them at all. There were a menacing deep crimson. The color of blood.
The ground underneath her forehoof split open and the stone building around him started to shake violently. He braced himself, panicking now, struggling to retain his balance. The roar of the shaking building was like a freight train speeding past his ear. Like constant thunder if lightning strikes were going off all around him. The sound almost drowned out the malevolent laughter of the false alicorn. Almost.
“And watch her die with you!” she growled out just as the building started collapsing around him, stones falling from the ceiling, popping out of walls as if having been hurled by giants, great clouds of dust forming. And then, he saw Twilight Sparkle go down, buried under the heap of falling debris from the ceiling.
“Twilight, no!” he cried out trying to run for her, losing his footing and falling to the stone floor that was heaving and shaking under him. Fluorescent lights fell from the ceiling. Electronic equipment fell off collapsing shelves. Alarm klaxons rang out loudly as numerous warning and failure messages flashed across the screen … What? He blinked. He was back in the lab at home, the earthquake raging all around him.
He looked around frantically. He could no longer see the false alicorn, or Twilight, or the caskets, or anything else that had been in the room. But he could still hear her dark laughter as the lab continued to collapse around him.
"Twilight, no!” he called out again, feeling himself waking from the dream. But something was wrong. Even though he was waking up the shaking motion of the earthquake was still there. It wasn’t a dream this time? He scrambled, fingers digging into the floor as the ground heaved and shook beneath him. Then he opened his eyes. The floor and the walls vibrated around him. He looked around, breathing heavily, frantically trying to get to his feet.
“James! What in Celestia? You’d think you’d never flown before or were suddenly terrified of flying! Are you alright?” he heard a female voice call out.
He looked up to see Theory Point standing over him, a look of concern on her muzzle. He was lying on the floor, his knuckles white from pressure where he had been clawing at the floor, as if he had been trying to dig a hole through it.
“It’s just a little air turbulence, James. The pegasi are descending and we hit a layer of turbulence. That’s all.”
He looked around again, awareness coming back to him. Yes, he was in a flying chariot, headed North. A few more mild jolts—they had seemed so much more violent in the dream—confirmed the unicorn’s words. Yes, it was just air turbulence. That’s all.
“I’m sorry …” he finally said. “It was … The earthquake back at the lab and …”
She nodded, her expression softening. “A nightmare … I understand,” she said, offering her shoulder to help him up, which he accepted gratefully, getting back to his feet and taking his seat again.
“You know …” she continued, a bit hesitantly. “I’m not saying you … well … There are counselors at the Academy that provide free counseling services to faculty … Maybe you should talk to one … There’s no shame it it … Especially not after what you have been through to end up here.”
“You really think a pony counselor understands the mind of a human well enough to be of use?” he looked at her dubiously. “We are different species that have never met before. We grew up in entirely different societies. Molded by entirely different cultures and values. Do you really think a pony counselor would be of any use to me at all.” It was his turn to get snappy with her now, just as she had been snappy with him earlier in the trip.
“I’m sorry, James,” she looked at the floor. “I just thought … That maybe it would help.”
He sighed and frowned. She might be right. and even if she wasn’t, taking it out on her was wrong, and wouldn’t help matters any. “I’m the one who’s sorry, Theory. I didn’t mean to get mad at you. Maybe you are right. Maybe just too much has happened over the last few days. The stress of the Celebration and all.” Maybe that’s really all it was?
She nodded slightly. “Maybe you just need to unwind then.”
“I could go for a night at The Underhoof with you and the others,” he admitted.
“We’re not so different, you know,” she looked back at him now. “Despite being from different species, different societies, different cultures … We’re not that different. I’ve known you long enough now to know that. At the core, we all experience the same emotions. We all experience happiness, sadness, anger, pain, fear … We all have goals … We all need friendship and we all need to love and to be loved. Yes, there are cultural, social, and species differences. But are we really so different after all?”
“You’re right. We’re not.” He managed a small smile. “Alright then. The day we get back, we will spend the entire night at The Underhoof. We won’t leave until they kick us out at closing time."
She raised an eyebrow, then chuckled. “We’ll make a party animal out of you yet.”
He looked at the window. It was still covered in frost. Pushing his hand against it, he rubbed in a circular motion, the heat from his palm quickly melting the frost and leaving a small round viewing port. In the distance, to the East, pink color spilled out over the sky. Celestia’s sun was still below the horizon, but its faint light already heralded the start of a new day.
Looking down, the growing light was enough for him to just barely make out the dark silhouettes of trees flowing by beneath them—dense unbroken evergreens hardy enough to survive the harsh Northern climate. The changing pressure in his ears and the ever approaching trees letting him know the squadron was still in a slow but steady descent. They must be getting close their destination.
He turned his head back from the window, losing himself in his own thoughts again. Maybe he really should talk to one of the counselors at the Academy? He knew she was right in that there was no shame in it. Nopony would blame him or judge him for doing so. Not given the manner in which he had arrived here, and the fact that he could probably never go home. But that wasn’t his real concern anyway. No—his real concern was whether he really was going crazy. But then again, neither Princess Celestia or Princess Luna seemed to think his dreams were crazy, or that they were the result of post traumatic stress.
But then his mind went back to the possibility that Luna herself might be crazy. He’d only been away from his home for about a year. She had been away for a thousand years before returning. That kind of experience could leave anyone with serious psychological disturbances.
And finally, there was a much darker possibility he had to consider. One he hated to think about. But none the less, he had to consider it. What if Luna herself were behind all of it? What if she were the one causing his dreams? What if she was attempting to manipulate both him and her own sister in preparation for another attempt at grabbing sole monarchy power? The emotional part of him refused to believe that she would do that. Despite her sometimes harsh treatment of him, he had no doubt she deeply loved and cared about her sister, despite their past problems. Indeed, part of her harsh treatment of him had stemmed out of concern that he would harm her sister. He couldn’t believe she would be attempting to overthrow her sister again. But logically, he couldn’t rule it out.
The last possibility was one he definitely could not bring up with Celestia. That kind of accusation against one of the Royal Sisters by an Academy member would be considered a serious breach of respect. It would almost certainly earn him a stay in the dungeon, and quite probably, get him decommissioned from the Academy.
His thoughts were interrupted as he felt himself being lightly pulled forward in his seat. The chariot was slowing down. Suddenly, there was a pounding sound—a knocking on the door. At first he was startled—the idea of someone knocking on the door of an aircraft that was in flight obviously not something he was prepared for. He looked at the window in the door to see Captain Swordstorm flying next to them. The pegasus raised a forehoof, pointing it forward, then pointing it at the ground before making a circling motion with his forehoof. Then he pointed at the ground again, looking at James and nodding, as if asking for confirmation.
James nodded his head, also giving the thumbs up sign through the window. He had no idea if the Captain would have any idea what the thumbs up sign meant, given pegasi had no thumbs. Either way, the pegasus nodded, then gained speed and flew back to the front of his formation, presumably to give orders to his squadron leader.
James turned away from the window, looking at Theory Point now. “He’s going to have the chariot circle over the area where the device landed. So that we can get an aerial view of the damage. At least that’s what I think he was trying to tell me.”
She nodded. The chariot was slowing down again, as evidenced by the decreasing wind noise. He felt it pitch down slightly again, resuming a gradual descent. The ice crystals on the window began to condense into water as Celestia’s continually rising sun began to heat the glass and the outside air became warmer as the chariot continued its gradual path to a lower altitude. It was light enough now to see the ground clearly, but James still couldn’t see the area where the object had come down.
Another knock on the door. He looked back out the window to see one of the Pegasus Guards pointing at the ground again. Then it banked sharply away from the chariot so they would have a clear view out the window.
“Hey, Theory. Come over here,” he called out to her. He couldn’t see anything yet. But he assumed he would soon.
The unicorn moved to the side of the bench on the other side of the chariot, looking out the same window he was now. The chariot banked sharply in the direction of that window, the sky no longer visible through it, but giving them an unobstructed view of the ground. And there, underneath them, he saw it.
His eyes got wider. Captain Swordstorm had said that every tree was flattened, but James had thought he had been exaggerating slightly. He hadn’t been. Every tree visible in the damage area was flattened. But there was more. Judging by the density of the rest of the forest, many of the trees in the damage area weren’t even there anymore. They were just gone having left no trace that they ever even existed. The damage area was not very large, extending outward for a radius of less than two hundred meters. But inside the damaged area, the destruction was absolute. Whatever had impacted here had done so with an enormous amount of energy. He glanced at Theory Point. she had the same wide eyed expression he did.
The chariot continued to circle around the damaged area in a steep bank, giving them a view from all sides. In the center, there was a deep indentation where the ground had been thrown into the sky and then come back down, burying whatever had impacted there. That , at, least, was a good sign. It meant whatever had done the damage had survived the entire trip to the ground. That in itself, amazed him. The damage was so severe, he didn’t see how the object itself could have survived without disintegrating. Or simply vaporizing.
He glanced over at Theory Point to see the same shocked expression of surprise on her muzzle as she stared at the damage below them. He turned to look back at the ground again.
Other than the extensive damage, he also counted fifteen Pegasus Guards on the ground, assembled in a perimeter around the area. He thought that was probably overkill. Given the remoteness of the area, there seemed to be little chance of anypony or anything else coming across the site. Perhaps only a curious flier who happened to pass over it. It was unlikely anypony would travel this far into the wilderness. The country was simply too rough, inaccessible by ground and too remote.
The chariot made one more circle over the area before rolling back in the other direction, resuming level flight again. flying out over the tree covered wilderness once more before making one more turn, setting up an approach for landing. The escort, which had moved away slightly to give them a clear view, rejoined them.
He turned and looked at Theory Point again. “Still going to try to tell me you aren’t curious about what could possibly have caused that?”
She shook her head in response. “The parties will be there next year … But this …” she had a look of excitement in her eyes now—the look one might have if they were about to embark on a fantastic adventure of discovery to an uncharted island.
“I don’t see how they are going to land though,” he commented. “It’s solid trees down there, except for the damaged area.”
“The same way they got up,” she answered. “By coming in at a very steep angle and rapid rate of descent, hitting the ground hard, and then stopping very quickly. You’ll want to brace yourself. This ride’s about to get rough.”
She laid down on the floor and he could see her bracing all four hooves heavily against it. He looked around for something to grab onto, but found nothing. Of course there’s nothing to grab. This chariot wasn’t designed for things with hands. Instead, he copied her, laying down on the floor of the chariot and bracing himself as best he could.
For a few minutes, there was nothing, Just gentle level flight. Then, another knock at the door. He looked up at the window to find one of the Pegasus Guards making a motion at the ground, giving them a nod when he saw they were already on the floor of the chariot, braced for the rough landing that was to come.
Another minute passed with nothing. Then, the chariot suddenly pitched down sharply, as if they had just crested the first part of a roller coaster and gone over the drop. Negative g-forces nearly pulled him off the floor, and for a moment, he felt like an astronaut, nearly weightless as the chariot began to drop out of the sky suddenly. The terrifying drop lasted for several more seconds before the negative g-forces suddenly reversed, becoming positive ones that pinned him to the floor like lead weights as the chariot pitched back up sharply again. Then, a hard jolt and a loud noise as the chariot slammed into the ground roughly. No sooner had he felt the jolt, and forces started trying to throw him to the front as they slowed down rapidly, coming to a stop in a couple of seconds, as a fighter jet might do when landing on an aircraft carrier.
He tried to get his breathing back under control, his knuckles white again from his fingers trying to dig into the floor to hold on. “I didn’t sign up for this …” he said in an exasperated tone of voice when the wild ride had finally come to a stop, letting out a gasp of relief now that the chariot was firmly planted on the ground and no longer moving.
“Never a dull flight when you are traveling with the Pegasus Guard,” Theory Point grinned at him.
One of the guards outside opened the door, a blast of cold air hitting them despite the fact that it was the second day of Summer. Theory Point got to her hooves and stepped out. He followed shortly after. The smell of burned wood hit his nose immediately, like a fireplace on a cold winter morning. But there was no sign that anything was currently burning.
Captain Swordstorm approached them from the front of the squadron. “I do apologize for that approach and landing. It’s the only way we could get down into a space this tight. I have some guards unloading the equipment from the cargo chariot as we speak.”
“Thank you, Captain,” James nodded, then looked out towards the crater. He wasted no time before starting to walk towards it—the pegasi had already assured him there was no radiation danger. That didn’t necessarily mean the object was not emitting any radiation. It could mean it was simply buried so deep that none of the radiation was reaching the surface. They would have to be careful while they dug, taking constant measurements in case that changed. It hadn’t occurred to him until now that they might not be able to recover the device at all if they start detecting radiation while digging. There were no radiation suits in Equestria. If they started detecting dangerous levels of radiation, they would simply have to abandon the dig and seal up the site. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
Arriving at the edge of the crater, he looked down inside of it. It was deeper than it had appeared from the air. The walls were steep, but he thought he could scramble down them, and probably scramble back up them. If he couldn’t, the Pegasus Guards would be able to lift him out of the crater. But he had a bigger concern. Was the bottom of the crater stable? Or would it collapse as soon as he put weight on it and bury him alive? He turned to look backward again.
“Captain? Has anypony been down inside yet?”
“No. I gave them instructions that nopony was to go down inside until you arrived and okayed it.”
He nodded and turned back to the crater, looking down inside again, Theory Point standing next to him. “We’re gonna need ropes so they can lower us carefully and pull us out if the ground starts to give way.”
“I’ll go get them,” she said, turning and walking back to the cargo chariot.
He turned away from the crater, squatting down to the ground now, surveying the damage. Specifically, he was looking for trinitite—a form of glass created when an extremely hot explosion melts sand into liquid. He didn’t expect to find any. The only thing that could produce trinitite, at least where he was from, was a nuclear detonation. But he was still convinced there hadn’t been one, despite the massive heat damage. The complete lack of elevated radiation levels almost certainly ruled it out. He hoped he wouldn’t find any trinitite at least.
He heard a noise overhead and looked up to see two guards flying over. Scouts, he thought. Patrolling the area.
Looking back down, he picked up a handful of the charred earth, letting it sift through his hands like sand.
“Go! Go! Go! Go!” Captain Swordstorm suddenly shouted out, startling him. He looked up to see eight pegasus guards galloping directly at him. Before he even had time to react, they had surrounded him and roughly yanked him back to his feet.
“Doctor Peterson! Back to the chariot!” Captain Swordstorm shouted, the guards surrounding him herding him back towards the chariot rapidly.
“What’s going on!” he called out, the nervousness clear in his voice.
“Don’t argue with me! Just go!” Captain Swordstorm shouted at him again, the Pegasus Guards surrounding him forcing him to run, shoving him in the back roughly with their heads when he didn’t move fast enough for them.
“Get in the chariot!” Swordstorm shouted when they had arrived back at the door of the chariot.
He hesitated. “Captain what’s—”
“Do as I say!” the pegasus stallion shouted, raising a forehoof and shoving him roughly—with all the strength that James thought a full grown stallion on Earth would have. The force of the shove practically threw him in the chariot. As soon as he was inside, Swordstorm slammed the door roughly, turned, and galloped back out to his guards. Before he had even stopped galloping, he was already shouting orders at them, although James could not make out what he was saying through the closed door.
“What’s going on?” he heard Theory Point say, glancing to see her in the chariot as well, looking as if she’d been herded inside by the guards just as roughly as he had.
“I don’t know,” was all he could say, turning to look back out the window again. All of the pegasi had instantly formed up into formation. Another order shouted, and two of the groups spread their wings, taking to the sky. The rest, remained in formation, scanning the sky, the younger, less experienced among them looking nervous, the veterans looking confident and sure of themselves.
A low, rumbling noise. Like a distant freight train. He felt it more than heard it. Felt it in his bones. Like standing next to the subwoofers at The Underhoof. The chariot door vibrated. The rumbling feeling, growing stronger. Another shouted order, the remaining Pegasus Guard formations, including Captain Swordstorm himself, took to the sky.
The door vibrated again. His bones vibrated with it. The rumbling, closer. The sound of rushing air currents, vibrating at a very low frequency. An enormous shadow, covering the length of the entire damaged area, passed over the chariot, blotting out the sun as it moved over. The shadow changed directions, coming back around. Twenty smaller shadows rushed towards the larger one, converging on it from all sides. Compared to the larger shadow, the smaller ones looked small indeed, as hornets might look swarming around him. A loud roar, like the screech of a thousand vultures split the air.
Oh Celestia, no … This can’t be real … it can’t be, his mind scrambling, his heart simultaneously trying to sink into his stomach, rise into his throat, and beat out of his chest. The air became chilled, as cold as the grave itself as fear surged through him. Oh, but it is real. It is very real, he heard a dark voice chuckle in his mind.
Craning his neck to look upward, his worst fears were confirmed. It loomed in the sky above them, as if it had flown straight out of some dark nightmarish fairytale. He still could barely believe he was seeing it. But there it was—a fully grown dragon …