He was falling, the world around him receding even as it flipped beneath him. He frowned, the physical sensation drifting across his awareness like an errant leaf.
Breathe. The command drifted across Sabra’s awareness as gravity returned with a sudden lurch deep in his gut. Breathe. Focus inward. Forget.
Faint voices echoed around him, mixing with the dull roar of The Hummingbird’s propellers … and the ever-present howl of the wind. For a brief moment the identities of the voices resonated within him, his mind attaching names to each of them.
Sky Bolt. Captain Song. Hunter. Nova. Dawn.
Then they were gone again as his mind settled. The deck beneath him shook as well, another gust of wind shaking the airship, but he let that fade like the voices had, slipping to the back of his consciousness. It wasn’t that they no longer existed—he could still feel the soft give of the rubbery deck coating beneath his hindquarters, and the chill cool of the airship’s air against his skin. They were simply part of the physical, part of the world. He sank back, deeper into the void. A sense of falling overtook him, this one mental, rather than real, as he dropped further into his own mind.
Every breath was a measured movement, every firing of a muscle a controlled, monitored motion. Everything flows together, he intoned, the words echoing through his mind. Everything flows as one. Each breath. Each twitch of an ear. Each pulse of his heart. All were around him, part of him.
All were physical. He let himself sink back further, a void closing around him as he dove deeper. And with it … With it came the lake.
He could see it now, stretched out all around him like a mirrored pool. An endless pool of water, stretching from horizon to horizon. His own hooves rested against the surface, their touch barely enough to send ripples cascading out from his position, endlessly outward toward each edge.
It appeared tranquil and quiet, but he knew the truth. He could see the ways the ripples of his own appearance were shifting and shaping as they moved across the surface. The lake appeared calm, but it wasn’t. Soft waves lapped in the passing of each ripple, small at first, but then larger and larger. Currents boiled beneath, roiling and spinning.
He was ill-at-ease.
Some of the turbulence held a clear cause. A set of new ripples broke out across the lake as those caused by his presence swept over them. With them came scents and sounds, feelings and discomfort. Smells of oil. A taste of ginger. A churning feeling inside his gut.
The Hummingbird. Sky Bolt was doing her best to make their experience a comfortable one as the weather had worsened, but despite her efforts over the last two days, the craft had continued to rock and pitch with every gust. Which in turn had left him feeling less than capable. Again the sense of the real world swelled as he thought of the physical, and he had to steady himself, pushing back as the ripples of The Hummingbird’s memories became waves.
Peace. Sabra let the word roll out of him, echoing across the unruly waters. The waves subsided, but they didn’t truly fade. Worse, he could see other areas of the lake beginning to churn as well, the normally smooth stillness breaking apart as more thoughts and memories surged within his mind. Even the normally blank void around him was showing signs of color, swaths of deep purples and greens rolling across the “sky.”
Breathe. For a brief moment he let the real world come back to him, his breaths steady and even. Breathe. He could feel the pulse of his heart with each beat, feel the rush of each wave of blood as it pulsed through him. The lake began to still once more, the waters growing less turbulent with each passing moment. Breathe.
He let the physical realm slip away once more, his focus solely on the spiritual. The lake beneath him clarified, each lapping wave thrown into sharp relief.
You cannot force peace. The thought drifted across the void, bringing with it another cascade of ripples that were soon lost among the waves. You can only gain it by truly understanding.
That, he knew, was the problem. Around him, the various waves rippled against one another. He could not find peace because he was not at peace. Because I do not understand, he thought as he watched the waves bound off of one another.
All this time, and I still lack an answer. Part of the lake rippled, new waves cascading out from a place very close to the center, mixing with the ripples of his own presence and forming small waves atop what was already there. Different ideas and feelings, mixing with one another to create something new. For better? For worse? He couldn’t say.
Again the sensation of falling threatened to pull him away, the void lifting away around him before jumping back in sharp clarity. New waves ran across its surface, brought on by his sudden attachment to the real world.
That part, at least, he understood. The real world could often make understanding the one within more difficult. It was immediate, tangible. Its cries for attention were like cannon shots across a moonlit lake. Achieving the mental clarity needed to peer deep within one’s self took both focus and practice.
And even the most capable mind, when it believes it is falling, will have difficulty peering inward.
The waves still cascaded, rolling back and forth across the lake like wind-swept grass on a field. He steeled himself, looking out across the rolling waters, noting the points where the largest waves came together and tracing them back to their points of origin.
Of course. It was a part of it. The question. He could feel himself circling it. Like a leviathan it lurked beneath the waters, each movement sending out a new cascade of ripples.
What is life? He still didn’t know. With each being he’d asked, with each answer they had given, the space beneath the waters had grown only more vast. He could feel it, pressing against his psyche, an underwater mountain of knowledge growing with each adding insight, each new approach. And yet for all that, it only felt more restless.
What is life? The question that had seen him leave his home to find a new one. The question that had been his sole driving force for several years of his existence. The quest that had brought him out of the Plainslands and into Equestria.
And yet the more I give it, the further I feel from my goal. He couldn’t explain it. He didn’t understand it. And all around, he could see the impacts of those ripples as they combined with every facet of his life, building to waves across his mind, making the surface of the lake pitch beneath his hooves.
Life is a gift to be shared. Life is the triumph of becoming more than we are. Each ripple brought with it a new memory, a new face, another pony’s answer. Life is being you. Life is just life. Life is hardship you succeed in. Life is ‘freaking rad.’ The last one had left him with some confusion, at least until he’d gotten Sky Bolt to explain some of the unfamiliar wording.
Sky Bolt. More ripples erupted across the lake, colliding with others in what would have been wet slaps had there been any reality to what he was seeing.
So unsure, he thought as the waters churned around him. So much to understand.
Again he let himself fall inward, sinking into the waters, and bit by bit they began to quiet, though none of them stopped. It was a sharp shock compared to the stillness they had possessed just weeks ago.
Then again, according to many, that was his answer. Hardship you succeed in. Progress through struggle. New knowledge came with it a demand for understanding. Inability or unwillingness to understand led to turmoil. Careful contemplation and study led to insight and growth. Which in turn, led to peace once more … at least until the next drip of knowledge came along.
The Hummingbird shook again beneath him, sending more ripples across his mind, distractions that tugged at his senses, but he slipped below the waves, feeling them out, locating their sources.
He had much to think about.
* * *
Some time later he opened his eyes, stretching and feeling pins and needles rush down his lower legs. It had been a long time since he’d adopted the most basic position for falling into his own mind, but with the tumbling and the pitching of the airship, it had felt like the best choice.
Especially as balancing on my staff was out of the question, he thought, cocking his head to one side and then the other. The interior of the airship was brightly lit, the sky outside the windows nearly black. He had been out for some time.
“Hello, Sabra.” Captain Song was standing in front of the small galley, hooves darting around two pots. “I was wondering when you would be done.”
“Captain,” he said, still blinking as he looked around the rest of the room. Nova was standing by the table, breaking several eggs into a bowl with his hooves. Of the rest of the team there was no sign. “How long …?”
“Thirty minutes almost to the dot, like you said,” the captain replied, and Sabra let out a quick sigh of relief. The darkened windows had made it look much later, though now that his eyes had adjusted, he could see that it was mostly the cause of the lights inside the airship making it appear darker than it really was outside the ship. Though the thick, black clouds certainly weren’t helping.
“Good.” He rose from his seated position on the deck, a shiver rolling down his back as he became aware of how cold he felt. Even clad in the dark bodysuit that made up the underlayer of his armor, simply sitting motionless in one place for so long had brought a chill to his skin. Still, he was warmer than he had been earlier that day, when they’d left the confines of the airship to practice maneuvers on the ground. Another shiver grew atop the first, prompted only by the memory. Never in my life have I felt such cold.
“May I help?” he asked, slowly moving toward the table, giving time for blood to flow through his rear legs once more.
“No need,” Nova said, using his magic to pass the bowl of shelled eggs to Captain Song, who shook his head. “We’re pretty much done.” The captain emptied the bowl slowly into the tall, deep pot he’d been stirring, pausing every so often to give it another adjustment with his ladle. “Pretty much done.”
He nodded. The pair had already been at work when he’d taken a seat to begin his meditations, working with a pre-made broth and other supplies. Now that he was more alert, he could smell the result of their efforts, a rich, tantalizing scent that curled through his nostrils. His stomach let out a growl, and Nova grinned.
“Guess we did pretty well.”
“Ndiyo. You did,” he said with a nod. “What is it?”
“Egg-drop soup,” Captain Song replied as he set the now-empty bowl aside. Then he shrugged.”Well, sort of. The closest we can get to it with canned broth and a smaller cooking window. And with a few add-ins for our nutritional needs: dumplings, onions, potatoes, carrots, noodles—”
“Plus beans as a side dish,” Nova said, deftly stacking the leftover empty eggshells one by one atop a hoof. “Canned, but hey, protein.” The Hummingbird shook again, the eggshells falling from his hoof only to be caught in a magic glow just before they hit the tabletop. They floated over to a nearby garbage receptacle and dropped in with faint plops. “And I’m sure looking forward to that after running around in the snow.”
“Agreed,” Sabra said as his stomach let out another little rumble. Even after the captain had directed everyone to put on the “snowshoes,” moving around across the thick snows had been far more difficult than he had expected. The frozen scenery had lied about everything, from how deep it was to how lightly he could put a hoof upon it. More than once he had found himself sinking deep into snowdrifts that only a moment earlier had appeared perfectly safe. Lieutenant Hunter had stated that with time, he would grow familiar with the signs and subtle differences of the terrain, but as for the current mission?
Well, he’d spent a lot of their exercises digging himself out of snow drifts or picking himself up, snow caked to his suit. He’d drained the thermal mod multiple times over the course of the short hour they’d spent on the ground, but always, without fail and within minutes, the chilling cold had returned.
“Here,” the captain said, sweeping an empty metal can off of the galley counter and into the same garbage can. “If you want to lend a hoof, you can take the trash back into the back and deposit it in the garbage stowage. While you do that, Nova and I can clean up our mess.”
Sabra nodded and stepped up to the can. “All right,” he said, the words rolling off of his tongue. The affirmation was met with nods of thanks, and he pulled the can toward him, noting the way the back seemed to “stick” to the galley wall.
Magnetics, he thought as he began pulling the plastic bag out of the bin and rolling it in his hooves. Clever. With all the pitching and rolling the airship could be—and currently was being—subjected to, the design made a lot of sense.
It only took him a single try to roll the open end of the bag around one hoof—a marked improvement, given his lack of luck with knots thus far—and tie it off. He pulled it out of the can slowly, checking for any signs of leakage before setting it astride his back. The cans within it let out a metallic rattle as the contents shifted. Keeping the load perched on his back with the swaying of the airship would be a fitting challenge.
“Hey, while you’re back there,” Nova said as he turned for the door. “You want to let Dawn know we’ll be eating soon? Say, maybe …?” His voice trailed off as he looked at Captain Song.
“Three minutes or so,” the captain replied as he slid a few dishes into the galley’s deep sink.
“That I can do.” He turned and stepped out of the common room, carefully making each step to counteract the faint, jerky motions of The Hummingbird as the exterior winds lashed at it. Another dull rumble rolled through the ship, and he felt his ears twist as the hall around him let out a faintly resonant echo.
That one was close, he thought an answering rumble rolled past the ship again, rebounding off of the nearby mountains and across the Crystal Plains. Or perhaps more violent.
Then again, he thought as he raised a hoof to rap against the med-bay door. It could easily be both. He waited for the rumble to fade before bringing his hoof down against the door, the thick, rubbery coating of his suit deadening the sound somewhat, but not completely.
“Enter,” came Dawn’s voice from inside. He slid the door aside, noting almost immediately that the floor was no longer covered in the various emergency medical kits that it had been the day before, but rather occupied by two large wooden crates that likely had only barely fit through the doorway. Both were open, and the sergeant herself was currently occupied with sorting through the contents—or so he assumed based on the way she was floating several of them in her magic as well as spreading them out on the table. She smiled as she saw him, the motion slight but ever-apparent. “Yes, Sabra?” she asked. “What is it?”
“The captain wished me to inform you that our meal will be ready in around three minutes’ time.”
“Ah, excellent,” Dawn replied. “Thank you for informing me, Sabra. I’ll be right out.”
“Karibu.” As he slid the door shut, another rumble rolled through the airship. A moment later the deck jerked, as if the wind itself were trying to match the electrical fury of the storm with its own boasts. His cargo shifted, rolling across his back, and he dropped himself low, catching it before it could tumble off entirely.
The garbage stowage was in the rear of the ship, near the boilers on the left—Port, he reminded himself—side of the vessel. It was a small room that was sealed against leakage into the rest of the ship and had venting to the outside air to dispose of any noxious scents that built up—which also meant it was, at the moment, ice cold.
Thankfully, there was little more for him to do than open the door and toss the partially-filled bag from his back through the opening into a large, waiting metal box that was, at the moment, almost completely empty. It hit the bottom with a ringing thud, a cascade of metal on metal crashes following behind it as the contents settled. As quick as the motion had been however, he still felt a cool chill of freezing air roll across his body as he shut the door.
How could a whole empire live here comfortably? He turned and looked out a nearby porthole, watching as large flakes of snow swept past, darting out of the darkness and flashing white under the lights of the airship before vanishing once more. As he tilted his head back, looking up, he caught sight of a distant jagged fork of lightning arcing across the dark, a brilliant bolt of neon clawing its way through the clouds. A flick of his ears was just in time to catch the faint crack and echoing rumble left in its wake. All this cold, this weather … It’s so inhospitable.
He shook his head, driving the foalish thoughts away. And the same has been said of many about the Plainslands, he reminded himself as he turned away from the cold glass. Yet our nation has thrived, survived numerous challenges, and risen to be grander than we ever hoped. He glanced back, eyeing the glass. And if we could do that in the endless heat of the plains, who is to say others could not in the endless storms that seem to wrack those that are frozen? He resumed his pace back toward the common room. After all, there are beings living further north, on the Ocean of Endless Ice. Surely it must be even colder there.
He paused for a moment as a thought occurred to him. But how do they do that? He’d seen the news stories about the Ocean, especially since what was apparently the usual fighting across the ice had turned into a small war of some kind. And it hasn’t been lost on anypony that Hunter and Captain Song have had strong words about it. Which meant, everyone knew, that Hunter had been involved, though exactly how outside of something to do with the griffon they’d faced at the ERS headquarters, no one could specifically say. Or was permitted to say, after Captain Song had issued orders to be quiet about the whole thing until it blew over.
Still, he thought as he passed the med bay, once again smelling the scent of food from the common room. How do beings live up there? Where do they get food? Or fuel? Do they import it? He frowned as his mind caught up with the implications of what he’d just been considering. Will this Crystal Empire need the same? Will there be trains coming up the rail line the Princesses built loaded with food and needed materials?
The captain may know. He stepped into the common room, ears twitching and swiveling in the direction of the galley as dishes clattered against one another. As may Lieutenant Hunter. Or even Sky Bolt. He smiled as Nova and the captain glanced at him. I’ll have to ask.
“Dawn coming?” Nova’s voice pulled Sabra away from his thoughts, and he answered the unicorn with a nod.
“In a moment,” he said. “What about Lieutenant Hunter?”
“Cockpit,” Captain Song said, motioning toward the front of the ship. “He’s flying right now, under Sky’s tutelage. That way he can keep an eye on the ship tomorrow when we drop, and she can get some experience and practice in the snow.” The captain turned to the pot of soup and gave it another quick stir. A fresh cloud of scented steam rose into the air, and Sabra’s eyes darted to the nearest windows, which were beginning to fog over with condensation.
“I see. Should I inform them?”
“I already did,” Nova said, his magic aglow as it settled a small array of bowls and spoons on the table in a single stack. A moment later the ship shook again, wind slamming into it from outside, and the stack wobbled. Nova frowned, his horn lighting as he split the stack in two. “For now, if you’re ready …” A single bowl lifted up in his magic and floated over toward Sabra.
The door to the cockpit slid to one side, Hunter poking his head out. “Well,” he said, his voice ringing through the room as he entered. “That smells like it was delivered by the Creator. We about ready to eat?”
“Grab a bowl.” Captain Song stepped away from the pot. “Just be wary. It’s hot. Beans are on the side.”
“Soup first,” Hunter said, grabbing a bowl in his teeth and stepping up to the galley. “I’d rather that warmth heat me up than the room.”
Sabra nodded in agreement, taking his own offered bowl and moving up behind the stallion. “I agree,” he said slowly, taking care to enunciate the Equestrian tongue around the foreign object he was holding in his teeth. “The warmth will be appreciated.” His eyes slid to the side as Hunter set the bowl down and ladled himself a steaming dollop of the soup. Diced carrots and potatoes mixed with noodles dropped into his bowl amid a thick, almost gooey broth.
He could feel himself salivating. He couldn’t help it. While the meal looked to be a far cry from the traditional form he was familiar with from his homeland, it still smelled heavenly. Hunter ladled another half a ladleful of the soup into his bowl, then gently picked it up with his teeth and made his way over to the table. A moment later The Hummingbird jerked to one side, and a pained yelp echoed across the compartment.
“Ow!” Hunter said, holding a hoof to his muzzle and glaring down at the bowl, which was sitting steaming on the tabletop. It wasn’t until Sabra noticed the dampness around the pegasus’ muzzle that he realized what had happened. “Right up the nose!”
“I warned you!” Captain Song said as all of them, Hunter included, began to laugh. A richer, more vibrant laugh echoed from the cockpit, followed by a faint “Sorry!”
“You did,” Hunter said, wiping at his nose with one hoof. “But I did it for the good of the team. All of you?” He sat back, making a grand wave with his hoof. “Steel, Nova, Sabra …” He paused as Dawn trotted into the room. “Esteemed doctor, and Sky Bolt, I have learned, for the good of the team, that in the current, inclement weather conditions, one-and-a-half ladles of soup in a bowl is a little too much. Heed my warning, and beware!” The last word came out stretched out like a storyteller around a late-night fire, and Sabra grinned as the lieutenant threw his hoof back dramatically.
“Never fear, Hunter,” he said, throwing the ‘wounded’ pegasus a quick bow from one knee. “I shall learn from your example. One ladle, no more.” He turned, and with a quick flip of his head, scooped out a single ladleful, dropping it into his bowl.
“Good pony,” Hunter said, his voice ripe with mock seriousness. “The rest of you could do to learn from his example.”
“And learn from your mistakes?” Nova asked, grinning. “How many more do you plan to demonstrate tonight?”
“Hey now, I’m a superior officer,” Hunter said, pointing a wing at Nova. “No whinging, or I’ll send Steel after you.”
“Hunter,” Captain Song said, though Sabra could see the faint smile on his face. “I’m your superior.”
“Really?” Hunter asked as Sabra carefully dropped a spoon into his bowl, and then glanced toward the cockpit. “I don’t know. Sounds like a wonky way to run a company.”
“Well, we could always trade,” Captain Song replied. “I know you’d love to have more paperwo—”
“What was that, captain?” Hunter asked, snapping a quick salute and sitting up straight. “I’m not sure what you’re referring to, sir! No idea, in fact, sir!”
Sabra turned and caught sight of Dawn rolling her eyes as she walked over to the table. “In all seriousness, Hunter, you weren’t burned, were you?”
“Just my pride,” he said. “It’ll be fine once I blow the soup out of it.”
Dawn shook her head, stepping away with an exasperated look on her face. Her horn began to glow, one of the bowls on the table lifting up and floating along beside her. Nova, meanwhile, grinned and tapped his bowl into the air with a flick of his hoof, catching it with his magic and jumping up to the pot before Dawn got there.
Of course, Sabra thought, carefully grasping his own bowl and trotting over to the table. From behind him he could hear Dawn making her displeasure known at Nova’s actions, along with an amused defense in return. He would.
He set his meal down—without any accidents—and took a quick look around the table. “Will Sky Bolt be joining us?” he asked.
Hunter shook his head, the motion a little truncated by the hoof he was still massaging his burned nose with. “No,” he said. “She wanted to stay in the cockpit and keep an eye on things.”
“Don’t worry!” came Sky’s voice, echoing around the open door. “I’ll stick it on autopilot in a few minutes and come dish up. As long as you leave me some I’ll be fine.”
Sabra looked down at his meal, his stomach letting out another little rumble as a wisp of steam blew into his nostrils. Then, his decision made, he bent down and picked the bowl up in his teeth once more. “No need,” he said quietly as he turned and moved toward the cockpit, Hunter giving him a knowing wink as he went.
He stepped in as quietly as he could, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Sky was barely visible at first, sitting in near darkness in front of the control board, the only light coming through the door or from the running lights on the outside of the airship. Snow was sweeping past the glass, occasionally getting stuck and melting, but more often than not sweeping away to one side or the other.
“—is really picking up,” Sky was muttering to herself, her attention completely fixed on some of the instruments in front of her. “I’m going to have to keep a good eye on it tonight while—Oh!” She started as she turned, wings snapping out slightly. “Sabra! Habari!”
“Habari,” he replied around the bowl held carefully in his teeth. “I brought you some dinner.”
“Aww.” He couldn’t make out the color of her cheeks under the dim light, but he knew from the look of surprise on her face, as well as the way her wings had shifted position slightly, that she was blushing. “Sabra, you didn’t have to.”
“I know,” he replied as she reached out with one hoof and pulled a small drawer out of the side of the control panel. It was indented, one of the depressions in its surface slightly larger than the base of the bowl. And, he noted as he set the bowl down, rubbery. How clever. The bowl would not slide, not with a gripping material underneath it. Further still, as he stepped back The Hummingbird shook again, and the platform tilted slightly, adjusting its angle to compensate. Somepony was thinking ahead. He looked back up at her, smiling. “But I wanted to.”
His stomach let out another growl, and Sky laughed, the sound ringing through the cockpit. “Oh Sabra, you’re just … Wewe ni mzuri sana. Na njaa.” She glanced back at the controls before turning to look at him once more. “Would you like to keep me company in the cockpit for dinner? Once you get food, I mean,” she added quickly, but he was already nodding.
“Napenda hiyo,” he said, smiling. “I will be right back.” He turned and stepped back through the door, a lightness to his movements. Captain Song was standing by the pot of soup, ladling up his own bowl, while Dawn and Nova had joined Hunter by the table.
“If I may, captain,” Sabra said as he neared the galley. “Could I—?”
“You may,” Steel Song said, one corner of his mouth turning up in a smile even as his eyes stayed fixed on the pot of soup. “We’re not going to be discussing anything important over dinner. Go keep the specialist company so she doesn’t have to eat alone.”
The captain gave his head a slight shake before bending down to pick up his bowl. “Think nothing of it,” he said before biting down. Then he stepped back without a word and trotted over to the table.
“So,” Sabra heard Hunter say as he served up another bowl and began making his way back to the cockpit. “What do you say tomorrow we make a giant snowpony? Huh? Anyone?”
He stepped again into the cockpit, the conversation behind him fading from his focus. Sky had left her seat, standing on the left—Port—side of the cockpit. As he looked at her, eyes adjusting once again, she waved a hoof at him.
“Bunk’s down,” she said, lifting into the air with a quick flap of her wings. “Here.” She darted forward, cupping her hooves under his bowl and taking it from him. “There’s a place for your bowl over on this side.”
“Not a problem.” She settled back into the pilot’s seat shrugging. “You brought me my dinner, so …” She motioned, and he stepped past her, taking a seat atop the waiting bunk.
“Settled?” she asked. “Good.” She leaned over and slid the cockpit door shut. “There,” she said as the light from the common room vanished. “That’s better.”
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but as they did, the world outside the glass grew, clouds coming into view. He could see distant swirls of snow spiraling through the air, as well as distant flashes in the sky where more bolts of lightning arced, concealed by the thick storm.
The control board, he realized after a moment, was lit as well, small gemstones near the instruments glowing with a faint light that didn’t distract from the world outside the glass.
“So,” Sky said, her attention fixed on her instruments once more. “This weather is wild isn’t it?”
“‘Wild’ in the sense that it’s untamed by pegasi?” Sabra asked as he bent down and blew on his soup. Even in the low light he could see a faint wisp of heat rising from it. He could feel it too, against his cheeks. “Or ‘wild’ as in ‘frantic and furious’?”
“The latter,” Sky said, her attention still fixed on her instruments. “We’ve got wind shears coming from every direction, cloud currents that make no sense …” She adjusted a lever and sat back in her seat. “I mean, look at this!”
She reached up and folded the map down. A light set at its base began to glow in a soft green, illuminating the map and the plastic overlay Sky was pulling down over it.
“Look,” Sky said, motioning with her hoof at a tight cluster of circular arrows and patterns drawn across the plastic. “I’ve been trying to make sense of these wind systems, but it’s chaos, and I’m not a weatherpony. I only know as much as I need to fly. This?” She sank back with a frustrated sigh. “It’s like there are twenty different storm systems all fighting out here.”
“Maybe there are,” he suggested. The airship shook again, the flurries of snow outside the glass suddenly switching direction and soaring off into the night.
“No, I know there are,” Sky said. Her voice held just a hint of weariness. “It’s just frustrating trying to keep us on course with all of it. If the patterns were more regular it’d be a bit easier to compensate for, but even today a number of these storm clouds have just plain switched directions and angles.” She let out another sigh. “I know it’s probably the whole ‘empire from beyond returning’ with leaking magic or whatever, but I just wish I could pilot us through it a bit better.”
“Oh well.” She shook her head, then scooped up a spoonful of soup before letting out a sharp yelp. “Hot! Hot!” Her wingtips came up, fanning her mouth as she jerked back from the offending bowl.
“Yes, it is,” Sabra said, trying not to laugh as Sky continued to fan her mouth. “Didn’t you hear Hunter’s warning?”
“Meh,” Sky said, sticking her tongue out at him and then smiling. “It just caught me by surprise, that’s all.” She reached out and folded the map back up, the world outside the cockpit coming into greater detail as the source of light vanished. At the moment, however, Sabra found his eyes drawn back to his soup. He reached out, carefully spooned up a small portion, and then, with a careful look to see if it looked to be releasing too much steam, sipped it up.
His eyes widened in surprise. It wasn’t identical to the soup of the same name from his homeland, but at the same time, the difference wasn’t unwelcome. It wasn’t better, nor was it worse—unless, of course, he compared it to his mother’s, but that was hardly a fair comparison—but it simply was …
Comparable, he thought after a moment. Different.
And, he realized as he took another bite, and then another, delicious. They ate quietly for a moment, each of them focused on sating their hunger. Only when his spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl did he realize that neither of them had spoken in several minutes.
“Good soup, isn’t it?” Sky asked as his spoon clattered against the empty metal bowl.
He nodded. “It’s different, but no less delicious. And the warmth in my stomach is most appreciated.” He sank back, leaning his shoulders against the vent and letting his legs stretch out in front of him. “I may need to go get more before long, however.”
“Well, after all that running around and climbing you did in the snow today, I’m not surprised,” Sky said, her own spoon dropping into her bowl with a metal-on-metal clink. Another gust of wind shook The Hummingbird and sent it skittering to one side, a pair of twin clicks following as their spoons both spun freely. “You were really working out there.”
He nodded. “It was … harder than I expected.” Somehow, the knowledge that she’d been observing from above wasn’t at all surprising. “You were watching, then?”
She nodded. “Steel told me to. It’s an awareness thing. I have to keep an eye on the sky and on the team at all times, in case they signal for an evacuation, or I see that they need my help.” She reached out and flipped a switch with an audible click, before leaning back and eyeing the compass carefully.
“So you know how often I got stuck.”
Sky let out a small giggle. “Sorry,” she said, turning to look at him. “I shouldn’t laugh, but it was funny.”
“I don’t disagree,” he said, returning her smile with one of his own. “I would have been laughing myself had my face not been too frozen to make any expression.” A shiver rolled through him.
“Did the thermal mod help?” Sky asked.
“It did, but it could only do so much. I’ve never felt so cold before in my life.”
Sky frowned as she slid down from her seat, stealing a single glance at the compass as she did so. “Well, hopefully you’ll get used to it before long. And the mod should help.” She stepped up to the bunk and sat down next to him. “In the meantime, well …” She leaned up against him, resting her cheek against his shoulder. “We’ve got all that winter gear. You could try putting that over your armor.”
“I think I will,” he said, shifting his position slightly so that he could lean into her as well. It felt … good. Soothing. “Ah, which reminded me. I had a question you might know the answer to.”
“Oh?” One of Sky’s ears flicked against his cheek as she perked up, her body rising slightly. He smiled.
Ever the engineer.
“What’d you want to know?”
“The Ocean of Endless Ice,” he said, shifting his head slightly so that he could just see her fire-red eyes out of the corner of his own. Another gust of wind roared past, snow shooting past the cockpit and out over the endless Crystal Plains below. “Do they grow their own food? Or fuel for their boilers? Or do they pay for it?”
“The Ocean?” Sky shifted slightly against his side before settling. “Well, I’m not an expert on it, but I know they do pay for imported foods and goods. It’s expensive, but they’re producing ethereal crystal, so they can. They do grow some too, though. They use these huge greenhouses with really thick, multipane glass and lots of heating. They grow plants that they can harvest for fuel, too. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s what they can do, so …”
He nodded. “Those must be impressive greenhouses.” He’d seen some in his homeland, but they were often quite open, given the climates of the Plainslands.
“What made you ask?” Sky asked, burrowing a little deeper into his shoulder as another distant rumble of thunder echoed through the air.
“I was wondering about this place we’re saving. The Crystal Empire. The weather we’re seeing … How did they grow food? Did they purchase it from others? What with?”
“If they did, you can bet the Princesses knew about it,” Sky replied. “And that they’ve got some plan for dealing with it.”
“They do seem to have a plan for everything.”
A brilliant flash of light lit the cabin, almost blinding against the sudden darkness, and both of them jerked up. An almost deafening crack followed seconds later, the very bunk beneath them vibrating.
“More lightning,” Sky said as the rolling roar echoed across the plains, rebounding off of the distant mountains and rumbling back.
Sabra nodded. And no sign of any city, he thought as Sky settled back into position.
“So,” Sky said. “How’d the meditation go earlier?”
“It …” He paused for a moment, mulling the memory over in his mind. “It could have been better,” he admitted.
“Hard to think?”
“Not entirely, but that did have a bit to do with it.” He smiled. “It is hard to focus on the spiritual when the physical makes such urgent demands for attention.” The Hummingbird jerked in the air, rising and then falling. A chorus of clinking sounds rang through the cockpit as their spoons bounced. “Such as that.”
“Sorry,” Sky said sheepishly, blowing a tuft of hair out of her face with a short snort.
“It’s not your fault. It’s just a challenge of where we are.”
“But that wasn’t all of it?”
“No,” he said, giving his head a slight shake. Out in the distance another bolt of lightning arced across the sky. A distant rumble followed a moment later. “I am merely … unsettled, I think, would be the best word. Trying to … ‘digest?’ Yes, digest recent knowledge.”
Sky nodded. “The question?”
“The question.” Neither of them needed to expound any further on what it was, or what it meant to him. Sky understood, in her own way.
“No answer yet?”
He shook his head again. “No. Not as of yet. But sometimes I wonder if I’m coming closer to an answer, or if I’m simply adding more knowledge to a peak I may never reach.”
“Didn’t the Princesses give you good answers? And the teachers at Princess Celestia’s school?” Sky asked with a faint frown.
“They did. And they have,” he answered. “But while all of their answers are amazing, none of them has felt quite … right? Sijui.” He shook his head again. “All of their answers are thought provoking or insightful, but none of them feels … Again, I do not know. Maybe all of them together.” He shifted again, only to pause as a warm blanket descended over his shoulders, one of Sky’s wings wrapping around him.
“You’ll figure it out,” she said, pulling her wing tight against him. “You’re the youngest master your monastery has ever seen. How long did it take others to find answers to their great questions?”
“Exactly,” Sky said. “You’ve only been at it for a few years. You’ll find it. And while you look, you’re always going to be welcome here.” She smiled, burying her head in his shoulder. “And we’ll all do what we can to help. Even if that does mean you’ll need to go when you’ve found it.”
He smiled. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Sky Bolt said. “And besides, you’ve earned it. You brought me soup. Speaking of which …” She sat up, her wing leaving his side and leaving it feeling bare, even through the suit. “I don’t know about you, but I’m still pretty hungry. I feel like I’m up for another bowl. You?”
“Ningependa hivyo,” he said, rising as Sky dropped off of the bunk, grabbing both his bowl and hers in her wings. She gave the controls a quick glance, checking that they were still on the same heading, then slid the door to the common room open.
“Vizuri?” she said, giving her sky-blue mane a toss. “Nje!”
He smiled and followed her out. He’d correct the slip up later.