Written by Napalm Goat
Top of the hill, Heroes of the Revolution Park.
The distant glasteel buildings of the city centre were glinting in the pale white light of the young star. The many birds and other creatures hidden in the nearby aquamarine hued trees were busying themselves with their daily life. Pathways, benches and picnic tables dotted the immediate surroundings. A nearby pond with its flat mirror surface shimmered in the sun. And not a soul was in sight.
Save for a single pony, the area was deserted. Even the nearby street was silent.
A quick glance at her hooves for one last check was followed by a content sigh. The rigid neon pink and black shoes were secured and tight.
The mare let out a breath, waiting for her heartbeat to steady. She adjusted her outfit to feel most comfortable, then cleaned her brow and muzzle with a quick rub of a sweatband.
She brought her forelegs to her head and firmly inserted the small white earphones. She had no need for a helmet. Not at her skill level. It would only be an annoyance.
She looked down on the path before her; it was steep.
But not for her.
She drew in a deep breath.
She muttered a single word-
-and threw herself off the hill.
As her body gathered speed, she moved her lips silently to the lyrics. The mare’s eyes were focused firmly on the path ahead.
Soon, the objects around her were matching the speed of the beat thumping into her ears. The early hour made it easy to navigate the park’s smooth pathway. No passers-by to keep an eye out for.
But she couldn’t afford to grow complacent. Doing that could lead to lapses in concentration. Slips. Accidents. It was not a luxury she was privy to - not here, not on the job.
That didn’t mean she couldn’t have some fun.
With a smooth move of her left legs she sailed diagonally across the pathway, right in time to miss a surprised jogger. They yelled something behind her back, but she was too far away already.
The blasting drums made it easy to not hear the cry of protest anyway.
She didn’t care.
It was not the time to care.
The time and place for that would come later.
A place for everything, and everything in its place. Especially time.
Now was the time to enjoy the simple things.
She smiled to herself as she bent her legs and drew her body closer to the ground, her speed only increasing. The fear had been exterminated years ago; she was content in her abilities.
There was no stopping her.
Not here, not now, not ever.
The shop assistant sat on the uncomfortable chair with a drooping posture. Luckily, the slow graveyard shift was almost over. Only thirty more minutes and he’d be able to get back home, take a nice hot bath and perhaps spend some time with the missus.
A loud beep of the door sensor ripped him out of the daydream. He looked up slowly at the entering pony and forced a fake smile.
The mare was an earth pony. She had a long, loose mane and tail the colour of charcoal. Her coat was of a strange shade, a colour he found impossible to name properly, even when she was standing right in front of him. Maroon? Rose? It was a striking mix of thin purple, pink and gray, and all of that muted like a washed out t-shirt.
She was taller than the average mare. Her body was lean, like that of someone used to light athletics. Her tight fitting sports pants and loose sleeveless shirt didn’t leave much to the imagination. Her sporty appearance was fitting, given she always appeared drenched in sweat and in a set of sleek rollerblades.
But that was not what always caught his attention. Every time she appeared when he was behind the counter, he saw them. He was pretty sure no one could have missed them.
Those piercing golden eyes. Like the shiniest doubloons from the pirate holovids he had liked so much when he was a colt. He had a wife, a wife that he loved very much. But something drew his attention to them. They were beyond being simply attractive. They were mesmerizing.
Many times hehad found himself lost in them. Luckily she never noticed, or she didn’t care.
Probably for the best.
He was always wondering about her when she dropped by. There were lengthy stretches of time where she walked into the shop day after day to buy an isotonic drink at 5:45 am. Like clockwork. Then she would vanish for weeks, sometimes months, before just reappearing all of sudden one morning like nothing had happened, buying another drink.
The stallion watched her awkwardly walk to the freezer on her locked rollerblades, grab her drink - always the same, blueberry - and display the autocash machine. She paid quickly with a swipe of her multiband, gave him a barely noticeable nod and left the shop chugging on the bottle.
They never exchanged a word.
The hazardous material detector blinked a green light as she walked through the guardhouse into the compound. A small gated community on the outskirts of the city, reserved mostly for those with cushy business positions or the retired and wealthy. She was the only pony that was going inside; everyone else was leaving in their shiny premium class e-cars to inevitably be stuck in the morning rush. It never ceased to amuse her.
The bored security guard had been granted a brief glance and a tiny nod. She never bothered to utter a greeting, more as professional habit rather than spite. Getting too friendly with those that were irrelevant to a mission could result in dire consequences.
With the rollerblades hanging around her neck she began to walk towards her flat. It wasn’t far. She just needed to follow the gravel path past the artificial pond. It was still early; the groundskeepers were out and about, cleaning the azure water, trimming the neat rows of conifers and mowing the large open lawns with precise machines. The whole area looked like it was maintained by automatons. Not a pinecone was misplaced, not a bush untrimmed, not a wastebasket filled. She had chosen this place because she liked it that way. Orderly. Organized. Uniform.
Qualities her usual work environment severely lacked.
Following the winding path, she passed by a playground. Spring riders in the shape of colourful cartoon characters, ornate synthwood seesaws, big polymer slides, but most importantly, no foals in sight thanks to the early hour. She didn’t hate children, they were just alien to her. She didn’t know how to deal with them. She had no point of reference.
She had never found the time.
Soon, she reached the building. A four story block of yellow cavorite with subtle steel beam highlights and many balconies sticking out. Just as she was about to input the code to the building’s door she heard a grinding male voice right behind her.
“Wine Glass! He’s done it again! I’ve had it up to my horn with these escapades! Tell him that I did not allow my daughter to marry him so he can throw away the money from her- MY family business willy nilly on such idiotic things like independence!”
The mare turned to the stallion, quickly smiling. “Mister Grape, I am Laser Point. And I am not your daughter. I am your neighbour.”
The elderly unicorn narrowed his eyes at the mare with a visible look of confusion on his face. “Say what missy? I do not recall you ever marrying into the family, you are no daughter of mine.” He pointed a cane-armed hoof at her. “And do not ever think of calling me dad!”
She sighed, slowly walking over to the elderly pony and gently lowering the belligerent cane. “Where is Miss Pitter Patter? Isn’t she supposed to be taking care of you?” The stallion found himself being very slowly rotated away from the flat and towards the nearby trees. “Go back to the park, she must be worried sick about her charge.”
He screwed his face and tapped the cane hard on the concrete. “That skank? I do not care what she thinks, no one will babysit Grape Juice! I have a reputation to uphold!”
“Yes, a reputation of a very hard pensioner. Go back there before she calls for security.”
The stubborn unicorn waved his cane in the air a few times before slowly moving towards the indicated spot. “And you are with her? You lied to me all my life? Damnit, if only Princess Celestia saw how the youth are treating their elders these days she’d banish you to the moon right away!” He turned his head surprisingly quickly for someone of his age and gave the mare an evil eye. “Say, what was your name again?”
The earth pony smiled patiently, lightly nudging him in the direction of the park.. “Feedback Swirl.”
She returned to the door.
Grape Juice could be heard walking away and grumpily vocalizing his displeasure at the current generation as she input the six digit code and entered into the foyer. She passed the glass elevators standing at the ready and made towards the staircase, then with a few quick preliminary steps in place the mare began to jog upwards.
The toughened door smoothly slid open and just as smoothly closed behind her.
The rollerblades were tossed into a corner, soon the shirt and pants followed into the laundry box in the nearby bathroom and the multiband and earphones were put on the shelf by the door.
Her hooves softly clattered on the bocote paneling as she got close to the open doors separating the antechamber from the rest of the apartment. Beyond them was a large room, two stories high. The opposite wall was fully transparent, doubling as a window and showing the neighbourhood. Further beyond the gates and the low urban sprawl, the city. Tall oblong buildings of the downtown, easily visible even from this distance, and even further than that, the jagged peak of Mount Reis. To her right were stairs consisting of nothing but a set of synthwood blocks embedded in the nearby wall, leading to the raised sleeping area and a small private lounge. Under the stairs, a kitchen in a simple yet elegant style, light gray nu-modernistic furniture holding less than a dozen plates and a barely used set of kitchenware. On the far right wall, rows and rows of shelves filled with paper books, more of a fashion statement than a practical collection in this day and age. She did read them from time to time, but the smell and the feel of old paper could not beat the convenience of a simple e-reader.
The left wall was adorned with many intricate metal hangers and holders, the vast majority filled with house plants of all shapes, colours and sizes. A miniscule lizard-like drone was climbing between the fragile leaves and vines, dutifully spraying the plants with hydration agent. The few remaining empty pots were waiting their turn for new occupants from far off worlds in far off nations.
Everyone needed a hobby.
She flexed her neck and shoulders a little, then, with a light heave, she threw herself up on her hindlegs and hooked her left foreleg on the metal bar mounted in the doorframe. Then she took a deep breath and pulled herself up.
She dropped on the floor and gave herself a moment to catch her breath, then looked up at the bar and threw herself back up again. The right one needed work too.
Her forelegs were burning as she returned to the ground. Breathing heavily, she started walking, or more accurately, stumbling, towards the bathroom. As soon as her breathing steadied, she called out.
A gentle guitar began immediately from the ceiling mounted speakers.
‘I'm on lonely street age nearly three. Recently mama's crying all the time...’
“Stop playlist.” She took a deep breath and exhaled softly. “Change playlist. Chill 2. Play.”
Again, the apartment was filled with soft music, this one purely instrumental. Full of light drums and bi-wave xylophones with a sprinkle of macro synthesizers. The mare nodded with satisfaction as she entered the bathroom, a medium sized room entirely covered in ivory tiles, only the floor made of black marble. With a neutral expression she glanced at her reflection in the big wall mounted mirror and walked into the corner, under a free hanging shower head. She tapped one of the multitude of identical white squares, which blinked to life with a light green holo-interface, then adjusted the settings to ‘Hot’ and ‘Rain/Mist’ before tapping ‘Start’.
The shower hissed and the mare let out a moan more befitting a bedroom as her muscles melted in bliss.
With white towels firmly wrapped around the top of her head and her entire tail, the earth pony stepped out of the bathroom. A different song was playing now, a slow paced ambient track with a lot of grand piano mixed with aggressive use of electronic samples. She looked around the apartment as she prepared a mental checklist for the day, and smiled as she realized it wouldn’t be long.
First: Plant care. They all need to be tended to; the donkey tail would need to be replanted soon and the desert rose would have to be trimmed. The really exotic ones would be fine - she’d taken care of them on tuesday. Often she chuckled to herself when she imagined her coworkers reacting to her taking care of houseplants, rubber gloves on hooves and holding a small trowel, or even the tiny shears needed for the rose. This time was no different.
Second thing on the agenda: one of the window’s false-image holoprojectors had been acting up and she’d rather no one from the outside could actually see in. Of course, she could forward a request to logistics to have them install bulletproof shutters, but she didn’t want a bunch of agency techs milling around her home during her leave. Besides, shutters had an annoying tendency to block sunlight. She could change the holoprojector herself as soon as they delivered a new one.
Lastly: she was out of strawberry jam.
All of those could wait. At least until noon.
She walked upstairs, approached the big modern couch and slowly climbed up. Hindlegs stretched, back propped up with a large satin pillow, she let out a content sigh,
The music stopped, then the transparent wall showing the distant city instantly dimmed. A second later it lit up, showing a handsome stallion in a checkered suit sitting at a desk. To his side, a smaller video feed was visible, showing a crowd of ponies brandishing crude signs and chanting angrily in front of an impressive official-looking building.
“-citizens gathered in front of the Royal Senate to voice their displeasure at the contentious Repopulation Bill which was proposed last week. At the moment, the bill aims to lower yearly income tax for families with at least two children. Princess-Regent Luna is yet to-”
As the music resumed, the mare sighed again, this time with annoyance.
She narrowed her brows, then reached to the coffee table and picked up an ebook reader. It took her awhile to finally find a desirable position that didn’t irritate one old scar or another, but once she was satisfied, she clicked the reader and opened a page.
‘Chapter 9: Colonel Kraft's Ingenious Plan’
Two chapters in, the mare’s attention was grabbed by a soft jingle coming from the apartment’s speakers. A very particular jingle she had purposefully selected for that specific contact. Without taking her eyes off the reader, she frowned at the audacity of the caller to ruin her leave.
The speakers chirped; she didn’t wait for the caller to identify themselves.
“What do you want?”
Even though the voice was purposefully distorted, it was clearly displeased at her lacking discipline, or even common courtesy. “Standard operating protocols require you to ID yourself first.”
Her frown deepened. “You are calling me at home during my free time. The only one I will identify myself to is the Zebrahan restaurant’s delivery drone.” She locked the reader. “This better be important.”
“It is. Eagle Eye has intercepted a message that you might find very interesting.” There was a short pause. “I don’t have the details yet, but it must be related to Snowdrop.”
The lounging mare slowly looked up and put the reader back on the coffee table, then she got off the couch and descended the stairs towards the kitchen. The wall mounted panel blinked, indicating the call was rerouted to this section of the apartment. “COMINT doing their job? That’s a new one. Are they sure it is not some solar flare radiation, system glitch or dud decryption?”
“I made them check thrice, and I also asked Section Twelve to do it too. They are all certain it’s legit.”
She filled the wireless kettle with water and set it on, then opened a cupboard, pulled out a metal mug adorned with stenciled floral patterns and set it down on the counter. “I trust twelve to know their job. Fine, what do you have?”
“It is not about what the message says, it is about where it was sent from...”
The mare was looking through the small ornate porcelain containers on the counter as the distorted voice continued.
“...And to whom it was addressed.”
She finally decided on the content of one of the containers and pulled out a rose scented teabag to drop in the mug. “And who would that be?”
The digital distortion on the caller’s voice failed to mask their consternation. “We have no idea. But we are working on it.”
“Oh. I think I can see where this is going.” She smiled at herself as the orange light on the kettle faded before grabbing it and filling the mug.
“HeadOps wants you to find that out, but that is enough details. I expect to see you in my office in the next two hours.”
She let out a defeated sigh. So much for leisure time. “I’ll see you there then.” The speakers clicked and the soft instrumental music resumed playing. She blew into her mug and took a small sip. Immediately she recoiled as the tip of her tongue was burned.
The mare gave the kettle a flat stare.
Eight hours and a short jump later, a reinforced bulkhead opened with a hiss of pressurized air. Behind it, a long tubular corridor was visible. She walked into it at a brisk pace. The other end was nearly three hundred meters away.
To some, the sights the glasteel tube presented would have been breathtaking. Naval Station Tiberius One; the primary anchorage for the Republic fleet, right above the capital planet of Hope. Even though majority of the navy was constantly patrolling the borders of the Republic or based in other, more distant locations, the sights offered never failed to impress newcomers.
All around, the vacuum of space had a strong colouring to it. Swirls of sapphire, midnight blue, ultramarine and everything in between, with tiny dots that were different stars sprinkled all around. White, yellow, orange and red. The Galleon Nebula - named after its appearance bringing an ancient ship of the line to mind when viewed from the far away Equestria.
On her left was a panoramic view of Hope’s southern hemisphere, half of it perpetually covered in darkness, tiny gatherings of faint yellow visible here and there. The other half presented massive mountain ranges and vast clusters of landmasses broken apart by malachite green seas.
Hope was a pristine world not unlike primeval Equestria. Perfect to settle for the exiles, who had turned the virgin planet into their new home away from home over the past three decades. Much of the world was still untouched purely because of the simple fact that the republic’s population had spread very thinly in this sector of the galaxy. There were simply not enough ponies to fully exploit the controlled planets. But they were getting there. It was best visible with Hope.
With a population of roughly half a billion, the planet had only a few dozen major cities, most of them located on the perpetually dark side to accommodate the majority of the bat pony citizens living below. Only the capital city was built on the equator, right where the dark and light sides met. It was entirely possible to drive around the city in circles, thus experiencing sunset and sunrise multiple times in a short span of time.
On her right was a massive orbital station that always brought to mind an image of a flattened spider, dozens of ships attached along the leg-like berths. The Royal Republic Navy was far from the biggest, maybe not even the third biggest given the Crystal League’s aggressive expansion the past few years. But even Nightmare Star’s vast armadas had to be wary of the modern ships of the NLR. Especially since her sister’s followers rarely engaged in a direct confrontation. The RRN was never meant to destroy the enemy in a decisive battle. They were meant to raid logistics, strike high value targets far behind enemy lines, disrupt strategic capabilities of the hostile power, sow chaos and force the superior opponent to scatter. Only so the enemy could be singled out and destroyed in a series of swift strikes.
Lessons learned from eight bloody years of civil war.
That didn’t mean there were no hard hitters however. Closest to the walkway, in the nearby berth, lay a massive dreadnought easily over a kilometer long. Its hull was shaped roughly like an ancient battleaxe, with the bridge at the cutting edge and superheavy mass driver turrets along the ‘shaft’. The pride of the fleet built almost forty years ago, back during a better era. Now upgraded countless times, outfitted with the best offense and defense systems available to the Republic, and sadly the only one of her type on this side of the galactic core. The RRNS Celestia.
Right on the other side of the berth- rested the sleek and modern teardrop shape of a Stormreaver class battlecruiser with its bulbous gravity well generator. The first indigenous supercapital design of the fledgling republic.
Two berths away, as if purposefully isolated, rested a strike carrier, dwarfed by its supercapital sisters in arms. Merely three hundred meters long. Either Princess Cadance or Shining Armour. The only two of their class. It was hard to tell which one was it from this distance.
Among them, near and far,was a multitude of smaller capital and sub capital ships.
A single mobile shipyard, a squadron of missile destroyers guarded by an electronic warfare frigate, a cruiser sized fleet tanker, orbital bombardment monitors. All were being resupplied or repaired, docking or undocking, or simply waiting for their next assignment.
And in space, around them all, dozens of various corvettes and even smaller craft. Venoms, Banshees, Vertigos. Even a couple Harpies long withdrawn from frontline service, now retrofitted and affectionately nicknamed ‘salvettes’.
The mare didn’t pay an ounce of attention to any of this. In fact, the only thing that occupied her mind was the duffel bag on her side, filled with essential supplies. Going to the Periphery always meant that she had to pack heavy, and carrying one of those all the way from the shuttle depot was not a pleasant task.
Walking the full length of the corridor took her well over a minute. As always, at the end there was a single security bulkhead with two guards standing up front in full zero-g combat gear. She was just about to walk through the door when one of the helmeted ponies stood in her way. His opaque visor stared down as his electronically tainted voice rang out.
“Halt! Turn around and go back where you came from, miss. This area is for clearance zero personnel only.”
The mare very slowly shifted her gaze from the ground and pierced the overzealous guard with her golden eyes. She calmly reached into a front pocket of her tacsuit and withdrew a plastic ID card. Before she could fully show it to the guard, he was shoved away by his companion.
The other guard stood at attention with rigidness that would make a statue blush. He saluted sharply with one of his leathery wings and barked out.
“Good evening ma’am. I apologize for my partner; he was transferred here recently from the surface.” The smart guard quickly moved himself from the way, allowing her to go through the door.
The mare made an ‘o’ face and looked at the newcomer before returning to the second guard. “At ease Master Sergeant.” She hid her ID again and walked through the door.
Just as they were about to close, she heard an annoyed voice behind her.
“You absolute reta-”
The door shut with a hiss.
The mare smelled the air with a deep breath as she relaxed on the perfectly fitting seat. The suited pony allowed herself a smile when her nostrils caught a whiff of silicone mixed with aloe. She closed her eyes and slacked all the muscles she could. Only the soft humm of the reactor somewhere behind her existed now; nothing else mattered at this precise moment.
Then she thought of her mission, of her contacts, of her plans, of her backup plans. The mental checklist was being ticked nearly as fast as it was appearing. Finally, she took another deep breath, opened her eyes and keyed the radio.
“Tiberius flight control this is Paladin. Requesting undock clearance at berth D-nineteen. Over.”
The reply was quick and to the point. “Paladin this is Tiberius, you are cleared for departure at D-nineteen. Assume vector two-two-seven by negative nine-zero until the perimeter break and egress spinwards. Over.”
The mare started flipping the multitude of switches on the console in front of her. “Understood flight control. two-two-seven by negative nine-zero. Paladin departing now.” She quickly keyed the coordinates into the nav unit and slightly pushed the throttle forward.
The superstructure on the other side of the tinted canopy began to move. Soon, it disappeared behind her.
“Separation successful. Tiberius flight control out. Good hunting.”
She allowed herself a tiny smirk as she pushed the throttle further and heard the humm from behind intensify.
Only the dark blues of the nebula and the distant stars lay ahead of her. Not even the sensors picked up any contacts in range. A quick glance between all the status displays for one last check was followed by a content sigh.
She looked down at the job before her; it was tough.
But not for her.
She drew in a deep breath.
She muttered a single word-
-and initialized the magicdrive sequence.
She moved her lips silently to the same lyrics again as the space in front of Regulus flickered and the dimensional rift began to open.
‘Would you take a bullet? Would you bite the gun?’
The mare’s eyes were focused firmly on the path ahead.
‘Through the fire I'll keep burning on.’