The little-used passing loop was almost overgrown; tall grass hid the tracks. A small makeshift train sat on the siding, concealed from possible eyes in the night sky by overhanging tree canopies. Under the foliage, a very few gas lamps and alicorn glows cast a minimal light for tasks that couldn’t—or shouldn’t—be put off until morning.
Physically and emotionally exhausted ponies sat or lay on the uphill embankment on the outside edge of the loop, between the track and the nearest trees. Some slept. Some murmured or whispered to each other. Guardsponies cleaned their rifle barrels of corrosive and obstructive black-powder fouling. A few who already had finished stood watch. A couple of trainponies did what they could to sweep out the shards of window glass, shattered by stray musket shots, covering the decks and benches of passenger cars. The engineer and her assistant inspected the little switcher locomotive, not designed to deal with heavy work, for overstrain and battle damage. A crew of volunteers was scooping out a small number of shallow graves.
In the midst of it all, lantern beside her, Rose Brass struggled with a fountain pen and compact hardback journal pulled from her transformed baggage, scribbling notes for an after-action report as best she could, unaccustomed as she was to writing with lips. She looked up when Cook and Sunset settled down next to her.
“Captain, would you like me to transcribe for you?” Cook asked gently. The pegasus gratefully surrendered her pen and journal to his pale-gray levitation aura and with a sigh lowered her head a little before starting to dictate in dry, scratchy-throated sentences. Cook wrote with solemn equanimity. Sunset waited, listening, patiently and somewhat somnolently. The activity around them continued to slacken as more ponies finished what they were doing and sought their own rest. At last only the sentries, the gravediggers, and they remained awake and aware. After a few trailing words, Rose finished and Cook returned pen and book to her.
They lay silent for a moment. Birdcalls, cicadas, shovels, footfalls, muttered lookout calls and responses—and a few snores—almost drowned out faint rumbles that might be explosions somewhere far away. The air was redolent with sweat, blood, heated metal, powder, freshly turned earth, and pine.
Finally Sunset looked around and, seeing no one nearby, turned to Rose with a sleepily curious expression. In a cautiously soft voice potential listeners might put down to tiredness, she asked, “Um, Rose? How did you know what to do back there? That’s been bugging me ever since I had a minute to think about it. I mean, that wasn’t exactly what you were trained for, right?” Not wanting to speak more explicitly, she gestured vaguely in the general direction of Ponyville, the portal hidden there, and by extension the other world.
Rose raised her head and put a hoof to her chest proudly. “Well, now, an officer is trained to be flexible and to adapt to any situation she finds herself in, and of course she’s taught all sorts of military history to help with that.” Then she deflated and confided in an undertone, “But I got a lot of it from an old movie I watched years ago. I did have to make up a little as I went along.” She raised her forehooves and glanced at them meaningfully. “But I figured most of the commands were simple and obvious enough nopony would have trouble with them even if I didn’t use exactly the right phrases.”
“It certainly worked,” Cook commented, also sotto voce. “I had a feeling it was something like that, and I’ll bet I even know which movie it was. My question is what kind of trouble this will make for you, Captain. A medically retired foreign national usurping command of a combat unit just before battle is . . . irregular, to say the least. Not all senior Guard officers will be privy to the ‘foreign national’ part, but they certainly will understand the ‘medically retired’ part. As far as I know there’s been no formal reactivation of your commission, either your assumed one here or your real one back home, so you had no legal standing for command at the time you exercised it.”
Rose huffed and nodded. “I’ll take my lumps when they come, but I couldn’t stand by and watch it all drop in the pot. Those lieutenants are good kids, but they’re green as grass. If they’d frozen or just plain lost it, we all would’ve been dead on the spot. Even if the senior one stepped up, I don’t think she’d have held it together long enough. It takes a lot of grit and concentration to run line infantry.”
“Like yours, Captain?” teased Cook with a straight face. Rose’s blush was barely visible in the lantern light, but she ducked her head as well, and mercifully he let it drop. “Well, after all, we can argue the exigencies of the moment, the results, and your past military record. One thing about a predigital society is, it’s easier to play fast and loose, and I’ve had some practice with that here over the last year. I’ll do my best on your behalf, and if I have to I’ll wave around my own status as chargé representing your nation.”
Rose peered at him, bemused. “. . . Thank you, Mister—ah, Platter. I appreciate the offer from, well, almost a total stranger.”
“It’s my duty as an FSO. Besides, you’re a good officer and a good per—individual, Captain. And any friend of Analemma . . .” Cook shrugged with his own share of discomfiture.
The silent Sunset in question, having slowly listed to her right, suddenly overbalanced and ended with her head and side leaning against Rose’s wing and barrel; a small snore escaped her slack mouth. Cook looked down at the younger pony. “She’s got a point. It’s time we hit the sack too.”
Rose looked down as well, more difficult with her blind eye on that side. Her brow furrowed and she bit her compressed lip. Cook examined the mare for a moment. “She’s not one of your soldiers, Captain,” he pointed out quietly, and after a pause continued, “Rose. She isn’t even one of your clients.”
“Then what is she?” Rose asked, uncharacteristic uncertainty coloring the ghost of her voice.
“I can’t answer that.” Cook looked outward, toward the train and the moonlit right-of-way beyond it. “All I can tell you is what she is to me.”
“And what is that?” Rose responded dutifully.
“A niece in truth,” Cook answered. “Maybe even a little sister.”
Rose thought it over before sliding her good wing out from under, then draping it over, the filly. In a distant tone she asked, “Isn’t that a conflict of interest, though? From what she told me before this whole circus started, part of your job’s to keep an eye on her—and her friends.”
Cook nodded wryly. “Yes, and that caused some trouble early on. It’s a little different now, though. They’re good girls, the lot of them, and I think the Powers That Be finally are convinced of it. At least, so I surmise from being given permission to help them with letters of recommendation and searches for university grants and loans. Mind you, I hadn’t asked for it. What does that suggest to you?”
A snort was all the answer his rhetorical question needed. “How did you get the job, anyway?” This time simple curiosity seemed uppermost. “You’re not exactly like other diplomats I’ve met.”
“It’s not exactly like other diplomatic jobs, so that’s fair enough.” A thoughtful pause followed before he began. “I assume as a military officer you have some idea how the Foreign Service works, so I’ll cut to the chase.” By that he meant skipping over graduating from university with a degree in international relations, passing one of the most difficult oral and written civil-service exams in the world, enduring a microscopic scrutiny resulting in security and medical clearances, and placement on the glorified waiting list that was the employment register.
Instead he described the strange and cryptic assignment offer that arrived just a few short months before his listing expired—and with it any hopes of a diplomatic career—then went on to relate meeting and winning the trust, even friendship, of Sunset and her circle, becoming not just a minder but occasional mentor and adviser to them. When he finished, Rose cocked her head. “Huh. Pretty good story.”
“It’s true,” he protested mildly. “Every word. Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.”
“I’m not even gonna ask about that,” Rose riposted. “What I am gonna ask about is, they sent a young guy to keep an eye on seven pretty girls?”
This time the pause was even longer. “That’s the social worker talking, I think. I told them I’m a sophisticated and debonair, ah, stallion of the world, just the sort to charm a group of young ladies, and that really may have been part of the logic. I know for a fact one reason I was chosen was because I was more likely to get past their guard than some old fossil who’d be just another adult authority figure.”
He let out a breath and looked away. “But to answer your real question, I’m about a decade and a half older than they are. I’m not into that kind of age difference. And . . . I like the ladies just fine, but I like guys better. I’ve had relationships with both, though not recently. No one ever said so, but I think that was a factor too. Well, both preferring guys and not having any recent relationships.”
“Oh.” The single word held a trace of apology for prying. “Okay.”
“Yeah.” Cook lowered his head to the grass. “It really is time to get some sleep now. Good night, Captain.”
“Before we board, I need to say a few words.” Rose stood downslope and faced the whole crowd of escapees. Early-morning sunlight filtered down, dappling the right-of-way and even a little of the embankment. The expressions in the eyes that looked down at her ranged from sharply interested to numbly glassy, but at least none looked wild, small mercies.
“Yesterday was a nightmare, no question. None of us woke up in the morning expecting to go through anything like it, but we did. I want you all to know, whatever you’re feeling right now—grief, fear, anger, depression—is perfectly normal.” She glanced pointedly over at the troops who’d formed up as best they could. “I don’t have the education or experience for full-fledged treatment, but I have some background in counseling, and I’ll do my best to be available to anypony who wants to talk about it. Understood?” Nods and a general mumble, spiced with more formal acknowledgments from the soldiers, answered her. “All right. Time to board, then.”
As trainponies helped others to climb onto the cars, Rose rejoined Sunset and Cook. “How about you two? How are you feeling?” she asked with concern.
“I—I’m not sure.” Painstaking honesty marked Sunset’s voice and face. “While everything was happening I didn’t have time to think about it. By the time I did, there were too many other ponies who needed help. It wasn’t until I saw you looking down from the roof that it all hit me. Right now I just feel kind of empty.”
Rose nodded, and after a moment’s thought her good eye narrowed. “Come to think of it—how many times now have you and the girls put yourselves in danger to save the day? You may have more experience with this sort of stress than those poor lieutenants. Still, that was pretty intense, and a lot bloodier than you’re probably used to, so you might have strange or delayed reactions later. If you need to talk—”
Sunset leaned forward to press her cheek against Rose’s neck. “I know. I can talk to you. I will.”
Rose reciprocated the gesture before turning to Cook. “And how about you?”
“I’m coping.” His tone was sober and understated. “The soldiers and townsponies may be more affected than we are. Our friends and loved ones are far away and safe, and we came expecting trouble, but they just watched their squads or families get torn to pieces out of nowhere.”
“You’re awfully calm.” She peered at him closely. “You’re not going to be one of those peo—ponies who suddenly blow up, are you?”
Cook shook his head. “No, probably not. I’ve always been pretty laid back and cool-headed; it’s one of the things that helped me get through university, and it’s something my, hm, employers look for. Still, do not mistake composure for ease.”
Recognizing the quote, Rose shot him a sharp look. “Huh. Okay. Well, the same goes for you, if you need to talk.”
He nodded. “And what about you, Captain?”
“I’ve got you two, don’t I?”