The rattletrap old pre-steam trolley was hailed as a minor miracle. Paint was mottled and faded where it hadn’t flaked off completely, metal was rusted and dented, wood was gray and splintery, but the wheels still turned and the brakes still worked. The double-size team hauling it was blowing and sweated—not to mention a bit foolhardy—but they’d managed to climb the pass to another bench, where they met the ponies hiking down the right-of-way. Though much too small and light for all the refugees, the obsolete car could carry the wounded and a few caregivers, albeit cheek by jowl, back to Tall Tale more smoothly than by travois. It brought some food and water, but its only passengers were the pair of pegasus ponies who’d volunteered to fly ahead and make what arrangements they could.
Cook shook his head as he watched supplies being carried out and the injured and infirm being carried in. “That brakepony must be crackerjack. If the car had slipped somewhere along the way—”
“Yeah,” replied Sunset with a shudder. “The teamsters coulda been dragged to ribbons.”
Rose stepped up beside them. “Well, with the trains not running, they could pick the best pony for the job.” When the other two turned to her, she added, “The trolley team’s going to rest, as well they should, before heading back downhill. The rest of us will take a short rest too; it’s about time anyway. Then we keep going. We might make better time from here, since we won’t be pulling travoises, but the trolley crew have to be careful not to let the car run away on them, so they’ll be slower.”
The recent arrivals shared more news during the rest stop. The railroad company’s local office was doing what it could to repair and rebuild, but its limited resources made that slow going. The bombing had concentrated mostly on the through line, the station, and the workshops. The ancient trolley was one of the few pieces of rolling stock intact enough, and in the right part of the yard, to use for the rendezvous.
The telegraph still worked, if only locally and intermittently. Vanhoover had suffered a more intensive and widespread airship bombing, spreading across the harbor as well as the rail infrastructure. Naval maneuvering and skirmishing had been reported, though detail was lacking other than the assurance enemy forces had been kept far enough off the coast to preclude bombardment.
Soon enough, though, it was time for the ponies on foot to continue the journey, leaving the trolley’s crew to make their own way.
Tall Tale nestled at the edge of the woodlands fanning out from the Smoky Mountains’ northern slopes. Smaller than Canterlot, but a good deal larger than Ponyville, it boasted a genuine if modest downtown and featured a diverse economy—commerce, lumbering, processing of produce, light industry, even chandlery for the harbors of nearby Vanhoover and the burgeoning needs of airship manufacturing and operation.
“Give it another few decades, and this’ll be a suburb of Vanhoover,” Cook commented idly as the lines of ponies plodded down the last grades. “At least, if city growth here proceeds the same way it does back home.”
“And if whoever’s invaded gives it the chance,” Sunset observed somberly, getting a nod in return.
Little smoke rose from either city this long after the air raids, but some of the damage was visible from their vantage point, high enough to look down, close enough to see at least some detail. A Guard airship patrolled in lazy circles above the urbanized area. The ocean to the west glinted in the summer sunlight; distant pinpoint flashes followed shortly by low, faint rumbles indicated a combined naval-ærial engagement even then in progress.
Rose sat outside the line of march, binoculars trained on the small silhouettes dueling on and above the waves. The pair of unicorns stepped out of the procession and paused beside her. “What do you see, Captain?” asked Cook in low tones, not wanting to startle her.
“Hm?” Rose lowered the binoculars and turned her head. “To tell the truth, not much more than you do. Ironclads—some of them pretty big—steam frigates, a few airships. I don’t know as much about naval affairs, but I think Equestria’s right in that weird gap when ships of the line are disappearing and battleships haven’t shown up quite yet.”
Cook quirked a wry smile. “Defense of territory and commerce protection are bigger priorities than power projection, so Equestria’s never had a large battle fleet. Traditionally it’s relied mostly on frigate-built hulls for speed and cost, though some of them have been pretty big—up to the third rate, if you’re familiar with that system.” He glanced out at the distant battle. “But you’re right about the transition, and I think that may be another reason why you’re not seeing a lot of ‘heavy metal’. Still, there’s something strange about what’s going on out there.”
Sunset, who’d looked rather blank through the esoteric discussion of naval architecture and doctrine, perked up at the implicit question; hers was an agile, voraciously inquisitive mind, if not quite as obsessive about it as either Twilight’s. “Shouldn’t they be . . . I dunno, trying harder?” When both her elders gave her quizzical looks, she elaborated, “I mean, they’re fighting each other, yeah, but—it looks almost like a movie battle. The enemy ships don’t look like they’re making any moves to get past the Guard and attack the city. It’s like they’re here just to fight.”
Rose turned back to the panorama, brow raised. “Like they’re blockading,” she murmured. “Is that it?”
Sunset nodded with growing enthusiasm. “Maybe. I might not’ve noticed, but after the bombing raids and the, what was it, battalion on the road, I guess I was kinda thinking in that direction. It’s like they’re not really invading, they’re just trying to keep the Guard busy and make it hard to move anything around or get anything done.”
“Chop up the railroads and do enough damage generally for everypony to stay busy with repairs or keeping their heads down.” Cook’s eyes narrowed. “If that’s what they’re after, they can’t expect to keep it up forever. That indicates they don’t plan to hold on to Equestria—and they’re on a short time count.”
“Whatever they’re after, Canterlot is the key.” Rose’s mouth firmed. “But the key to what?”
Sunset’s expression had turned increasingly worried through the hypothesizing. “It’s been so long already. Nopony’s heard anything from Canterlot since—since it fell.” Her voice wavered with the last phrase. “What if they’re close to—”
“Ana.” Rose extended her good wing to brush the younger mare’s back. “We can’t do anything about it, whatever it is. We have our own mission. We just have to trust somepony else is in a position to do something about it.”
Word of the approaching fugitives had spread throughout the town. A small delegation met the footsore and exhausted columns at the foot of the mountains and escorted them to a fairground on the outskirts, where a hastily erected marquee tent awaited, lit with lanterns against the darkening evening. Within, at the tent’s back, representatives of the municipal authorities and private organizations stood ready to assist. The civilians were provided temporary lodgings—most in the homes of families who volunteered space, some with relatives, a few with means or credit opting for boarding houses, hotels, or other rooming arrangements. Sunset and Cook, remaining with Rose and the infantry company, watched as the crowd thinned gradually, individuals or groups plodding away with hosts or guides.
“They’re very efficient here,” Rose observed with a trace of envy.
Cook snorted. “Tall Tale’s a big enough town to deal with a small batch of refugees arriving in isolation, Captain, and we’ve been running ahead of the curve since we arrived in Ponyville. If there’s a mass movement of refugees, it hasn’t gotten here yet. Just wait until that happens.” Then his manner softened. “But, yes, Equestria still has that old-world attitude toward hospitality and helping neighbors. It’s one of the things I like about this country.”
“Atten-hut!” The sharp voice cut through the low murmur of the remaining civilians. Its effect on every soldier present was instant and electric; even Rose stiffened, imprinted reflexes translating her normal brace to the same statuesque equine pose. The pair of unicorns beside her turned to see four ponies, in a variety of uniforms and of a variety of ages, just then entering the front of the tent.
“At ease.” The flame-yellow pegasus in the lead wore a singed and damaged flight coverall, gold on blue, and limped noticeably. “Who’s the senior officer here?”
“General Spitfire.” Cook interrupted with a bemused expression. “Weren’t you supposed to be in Canterlot for the festival?”
The major general’s double-take was classic. “Mister Cook. I’d ask what you’re doing here, but that’ll have to wait.” She turned back to the company. “Well?”
The lieutenants and sergeants shuffled; their eyes shifted toward Rose. She, in turn, drew a resigned breath. “Ma’am.”
Spitfire’s brows climbed precipitously. “I think I’d remember a pony like you, but I don’t believe I’ve ever set eyes on you before. Name and rank?”
“Army Captain Rose Brass. Retired. Ma’am.” Tension vibrated in Rose’s voice.
It took only a moment for Spitfire to twig. “Really.” The general gave Cook a trenchant look. “So she’s with you, is she?”
“Yes, General, and her actions saved every life that made it to Tall Tale. I would ask you respectfully to bear that in mind, please.” Cook once more was the professional diplomat, calm and wary.
Sunset stepped forward. “Um, General, Ma’am, it’s true. She—”
A brusque gesture cut her off. “Save it.” The general looked past Rose at the assembled troops. “Listen up. At the moment I’m the senior officer present, but the colonel here is the assigned commanding officer.” She nodded over her shoulder to the tough-looking unicorn stallion on her right. “You’ll be under his orders until we can get you back to your regiment.” After a beat she added, “Oh, and on my authority Captain Brass is relieved of command, so you can go with clear consciences. Colonel?”
Said colonel stepped forward, shadowed by an earth stallion with major’s tabs. “We will conduct you to barracks in Vanhoover for a night’s rest. You’ll be given a day’s pass in the morning. Fall in.”
“All right.” Spitfire looked cool and firm as she sat behind the desk in the borrowed office, facing the other four, including the elderly unicorn mare in a white peaked cap and tunic who’d been on her left at her first appearance. “I’m betting every one of us here has a story to tell. Well, except—” She broke off and peered more closely at the youngest pony present. “Miss Shimmer. It is Sunset Shimmer, isn’t it? Maybe you have a story after all.”
Sunset looked faintly alarmed. “Uh—yeah. Yes, Ma’am. And it’s, um, ‘Ms.’ now. I turned eighteen a while back.”
The general nodded in satisfaction. “I thought you looked vaguely familiar. There was such an uproar when you disappeared; I thought Her Royal Highness was going to have a stroke. Otherwise I might not have recognized you.” Her eyes narrowed at Sunset’s obvious discomfort.
“That . . . that was a long time ago. Ma’am.” Sunset’s eyes pleaded.
One side of Spitfire’s mouth twitched. “You’ll get your chance, young lady. First I want to hear from the esteemed Mister Cook, who seems to be the perennial bad penny.”
Cook sighed and started with the trio’s arrival through the portal. Spitfire listened attentively, waving down interjections from Sunset and, once or twice, Rose until his tale wound to its finish. Afterward, her first question was, “Captain Brass. Do you have this ‘after-action report’ Mister Cook mentioned?”
“I—yes, Ma’am. I’m afraid it’s written, not typed, and it’s in a hardback journal. That was the only—”
“That’s fine, Captain.” Spitfire essayed a faint crooked smile. “I’ve seen worse. You may submit it to me now, if you please.”
With a trapped look, Rose turned her head back to extract the journal from a satchel, then placed it on the blotter.
Spitfire tapped it with the toe of a forehoof. “This is everything, Captain?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” For the first time Rose sounded sure, and she straightened to attention again. “On my honor, my report is complete and correct. I tender it for review.”
“Very good, Captain. Your report is accepted for review. You may stand down.” Spitfire’s tone by contrast was quieter, with less snap. “This seems to be an excellent idea. I may recommend the Guard require such reports in future. Assuming Equestria survives.”
Every face tightened in response to her last observation, and she cleared her throat. “Ms. Shimmer, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait, because I think it’s my turn. If nothing else, I owe that to Mister Cook for being so forthcoming, and because he represents a friendly nation. I’m afraid it’s not a pleasant story.” With that, she began.