by Dave Bryant


The sun was on the verge of setting before the erstwhile passengers of the last run trudged wearily to the summit. By that time those awaiting them had some inkling what had happened, thanks to an impulsive young pegasus colt who’d swept into a breakneck flight downhill, shouts chasing fruitlessly after him. He’d returned much later, worn out and a little dehydrated, with the news a connecting rod had failed spectacularly, destroying a critical drive component and, as it thrashed, rupturing the main tank; the whistle’s distress call had sounded with the last of the steam pressure.
The new arrivals were greeted with exclamations of relief and demands for more details. Most of the soldiers simply grunted and shouldered past, but Rose, after a brief conference with the lieutenants, turned back to the crowd and sat heavily, fatigued muscles trembling slightly. “We were partway up the hill when the engine let go with a bang. They threw on the brake right away—we hadn’t even started falling back yet—and ordered everypony off. I tried to talk ’em into coming with us, but the old coot insisted she couldn’t abandon rolling stock on a through line, especially not mid-slope. She said they had to clear the line by rolling back to the loop we started from, and they’d catch up with us.”
Sunset and Cook weren’t the only listeners to exchange glances. There was no way the elderly earth mare could do anything of the sort, even with the support of her crewmate; she had, in effect, told Rose to leave them behind. Even that assumed they avoided a mishap with the brakes, sending the freewheeling locomotive and boxcar flying off the tracks to smash against rocks or trees.
After a few desultory questions and answers, the audience broke up to assist in the last stages of pitching camp for the night. Without the locomotive, the downhill trip would become a difficult—for some, potentially life-threatening—march on foot. The least they could do to prepare was to get a good night’s sleep for all.
“Rose?” Sunset leaned forward and nuzzled the older mare comfortingly. “You did what you could, okay? You had to get the rest up here safely, and you said yourself she was in charge of the train, right?”
“Yeah,” came the tired-sounding reply. “But—”
“But nothing, Captain,” Cook interrupted firmly. He frowned slightly as he examined her face, then in a gentle tone added, “Are you having a flashback?”
The good eye snapped open. “Uh—”
“Yes, you are,” he decided. “Whatever caused those injuries had to be pretty terrible, and it’s not hard to figure out something like this would bring it up. You feel responsible, and you feel helpless, don’t you?”
A sigh gusted out of the damaged officer. “You are way too good at that, Mister Coo—Platter.”
“Intro psych classes,” Cook murmured with a shrug. “Diplomacy is like a combination of poker and chess. Play the odds or play the other participants, and to do that you have to know how they—and folks in general—tick.”
Sunset glanced at him in shrewd speculation. “And I’ll bet it’s your magical specialty, too. You are way too good at it, and I should know.”
Cook gave her a startled look, and both mares managed a brief snicker, though Rose’s was more of a snort.
“Wish I hadn’t left my phone with Principal Celestia.” Sunset waved a hoof at his unwonted, if momentary, gawk. “The girls would never believe this unless I took a photo.”
“Yes, well, the battery probably would be drained by now anyway,” Cook pointed out a bit testily. “If the portal didn’t do something strange to it or just whisk it away like your pendant.”

A bugle reveille sounded bright and early the next morning. The tune was simple, and to Rose and many of the civilians unfamiliar, but effective—the more so for the unpracticed rendering by the private detailed with malice aforethought to sound it. Ponies all over the summit cut flailed to startled wakefulness. The senior lieutenant high-stepped among the tents, her mostly recovered voice belting out the agenda for breaking camp and starting the march.
The company, of course, accepted this business-as-usual with no more than the usual chaffing, but some of the townsponies raised surly objections. Rose addressed those personally in a brisk, no-nonsense tone. “No time for tea and biscuits. Strike the tents, gear up for travel, rig the shelter halves as travoises for the wounded and infirm, form up for the march—how long do you think that’ll take? Whatever your guess, I can guarantee it’ll be too low. On foot it’s more than a full day to Tall Tale, folks, so we need to get going as soon as we possibly can.”
The troops, most of whom probably could, and did, break camp while half-asleep, were ready in fairly short order, but the rest, as Rose predicted, took longer. The officers took advantage of the delay by assigning a couple of the fresher squads to the task of turning shelter halves into the promised conveyances for those unable to march.
The only ponies excused from the bustle were the few able-bodied pegasus adults. They would catch a few more hours of sleep, then skim down the hill and meet up with the main body over lunch, according to the plan. All of them had made the arduous overnight flight back to recover the locomotive crew, returning with the pair of non-flying ponies cradled in shelter halves rigged with rope to serve as riding slings, and had arrived only a short while before.
At last, though, the three officers paced up and down the meandering lines trailing along much of the cut’s length. Roughly half of the ponies were on each side of the tracks, well away from the space an approaching train would occupy, with elements of the company at the head and tail of each column—for protection, the officers stated, though the additional unspoken reason was to set the pace and rest intervals. Inspection complete, Rose and the sergeant-major settled into place at the front of the columns, with the lieutenants at the back. Then they were off.

They built a cairn. There was no time or energy to spare for digging. The filly had seemed to be doing relatively well . . . until she wasn’t. Her parents, fled or lost, hadn’t made it onto the train. She herself had said little, preoccupied with the injuries done her by a suddenly cruel and incomprehensible world, apparently aggravated by the jolts and bumps of travel by travois. Sunset wept freely, as did others. Cook’s face was iron. Rose looked tired.
The march resumed.

Rations and water were limited; only the wounded received full allotments. Regulation rest and meal breaks were adhered to with rigorous fidelity, though Rose had been forced to ask the particulars of her lieutenants, claiming she was rusty on the Guard’s infantry procedures—which was true enough, if not in quite the fashion they might think. The sun inched across the sky.
Route march was literally the order of the day, at least for the soldiers. The civilians, most of them inexperienced with long-distance alpine hiking, bunched and straggled more unevenly. Pegasus flight was limited to low level, the better to avoid attracting the notice of enemy airships. Sunset and Cook plodded in determined and slightly achey silence, helping where they could, taking their turn at pulling travoises. Rose did as well, but swung along seemingly effortlessly, having kept herself in taut shape and being a firm believer that an officer must be able to do anything her troops can, only better.
Afternoon was wearing into evening. Everyone was thinking wistfully about the dinner break still an eternity away. All that changed with a shout.
“Pegasus!” The sharp-eyed corporal halted momentarily to raise an arm, pointing ahead. Indeed, gliding along a few lengths above the tracks, a mile or more away, was a mare wearing the indigo pillbox cap and tunic of a railroad employee along with a set of packs not unlike the Guard’s. From her body language she was as astonished to see them as they were to see her.

“A couple of airships showed up out of nowhere and blew the snot out of the track, the station, and the yard,” the track inspector admitted frankly. “A few bombs fell in town, which was pretty nasty, but that was about it. We’re pretty sure those just missed the targets.” The ponies crowded around whispered and murmured to each other, but at least no one interrupted.
Rose’s brow furrowed. “Did they land any troops?”
“Uh—come to think of it, no.” The younger pegasus looked nonplused. “They stuck around long enough to be sure they did the job, I guess, then they lit out for somewhere else. Dunno where, but it wasn’t back the way they came. Maybe Vanhoover?”
Sunset spoke up. “Can we get into town?”
“Sure, that shouldn’t be a problem.” She doffed her cap and rubbed the top of her head with the other forehoof. “It’s not like there’s gonna be any traffic until they open the line again.” Her expression turned aggrieved. “My job’s t’ go as far as I can, check for any other problems.”
“If you plan to go as far as the junction, be very careful,” Cook warned. “The enemy still may be there. Even if they aren’t, the Guard company fought a sharp action right in front of town. Not everyone survived, and I’m sure those who didn’t are still there.”
The railroader swallowed. “Maybe I won’t go quite that far, then. At least not by myself.”

“Why didn’t they drop any troops?” Sunset asked in puzzlement. “They sure did at Ponyville, and they sent a bunch on the road after the company.”
Rose turned back from watching the inspector winging away down the track. “The question of the hour. We could speculate all day, but we just don’t have enough information for anything but wild guesses—we don’t even know who or what they are. I’m wondering if they don’t have the resources for a full-scale invasion. They had to secure Ponyville; it’s the gateway to Canterlot, at least from the south. The battalion on the road might have been chasing down the company before it could warn anypony, or sent to secure the junction, or both. Bombing Tall Tale was just a hit-and-run raid, maybe one of a series, if those airships headed off to other targets.” She glanced over to make sure the lieutenants were forming up the columns again.
“That makes no sense. Seize the capital, fine, that’s an excellent first step if one can pull it off.” Cook shook his head. “But one has to be ready for a rapid and thorough follow-through; Equestria’s big enough to put up a stiff fight otherwise, even with the capital taken. Why risk a drawn-out campaign that would bleed one’s country white?”
“Unless . . . the leadership doesn’t expect it to be a drawn-out campaign.” Rose sighed. “Wonderful. Looks like the delusion of a ‘short decisive war’ is universal.”
Sunset bit her lip, then suggested, “Or maybe they’re after something else, whoever they are.” Rose and Cook both looked at her with inquiring expressions, and she went on, “I don’t know what. But it reminds me of Twi’s story about Chrysalis and the changelings, only this time it worked.”
“The princesses, maybe?” Cook hazarded. “All four were there for the festival. But then, they meet fairly often, so that’s not unusual.”
“And we have no idea what happened to them,” Rose growled. She’d met Twilight and corresponded occasionally with the sisters, and liked all of them. Moreover, her officer’s code of honor extended, even if at one remove, to friendly heads of state. “Dead, alive, captured, escaped—not a word. Not even any rumors, at least not yet.”
“We haven’t been in one place long enough to pick up on rumors,” Cook reminded her. “We might hear some in town, though.”
“The sun and moon are still moving,” Sunset pointed out hopefully. “So Celestia and Luna should be okay, at least.”
“Maybe.” Cook grimaced with patent dislike for being a wet blanket. “From my own observation of the process, there’s momentum in the system. Their Highnesses go through the ritual daily to keep up the habit and to minimize effort, but if something’s happened to them, it might be days—or even longer—before we see any cosmological effects.”
“But when Tirek was running around and the other princesses transferred their power to Twi—” Sunset objected.
Cook’s sour chuckle interrupted her. “We both heard that story from Twilight. You know her better than I do. What are the odds she, ah, exaggerated for effect?”
“Oh. Yeah.” Sunset subsided in disappointment.
Perforce the discussion ended there; it was time to get moving again.