Golden Age of Apocalypse - Book III: Legacies

by BlueBastard

Chapter 20 - Barratry

Chapter 20—Barratry

For the past thirty-three years, Adm. Tumblehome, First Lord of the Fleet of the Royal Equestrian Navy, had prided herself on being the head of the best of what kept Equestria safe. Granted, the past few years had given her more than a few hiccups, constantly being upstaged by mere civilians, and the way the princesses had favored this behavior instead of leaving it to the professionals. It left one thinking that maybe the alicorns had been in power too long—they certainly had started springing out of the woodwork and deep down, Tumblehome had been horrified to learn that the mare who had been none other than Nightmare Moon herself was now not only the crown princess behind Celestia herself (in what could only be described as blatant nepotism by Tumblehome’s definition), but that Princess Luna had taken charge of the entire military—including the Navy!

Thankfully, however, she’d largely been hooves-off, and that had worked just fine for Tumblehome—there were enough problems from within the Fleet’s ranks that kept her hooves busy enough. Such as the one she was dealing with at the very moment.

“So let me get this straight,” said the admiral, forelegs resting on her desk while rubbing her temples, feeling the migraine of annoyance already forming—it seemed to be a chronic problem for her these days and one she refused to take medication for. “You want to strip the High Expectations of its wooden hull for some inane experiment?”

The pony being addressed, Cdre. Main Spaces was the Fleet’s Senior Shipwright, and so Tumblehome was long used to his strange ways and bizarre ideas.

One might think he was a human in disguise, she thought.

Unaware of her thoughts, Cdre. Spaces nodded enthusiastically, his head bobbing up and down like some demented idiot. “Yes, Ma’am! The design originally came from my cousin Torque Wrench and she gave it to me when I took liberty—"

“You mean shore leave?” asked Tumblehome.

“Didn’t Vice Adm. Aviso give the new term in the message she sent to the fleet three days ago?” Spaces commented. 

Tumblehome bit off a scoff—another bit of proof that Aviso was too much in bed with the humans. At this rate, probably literally, given the embarrassment to the Fleet that she was.

“Anyway, I was visiting her and her family in Hope Hollow and she gave me some rough designs for possibly revolutionizing the way we build ships. Equestria is already falling behind other international navies. Now you have Griffon warlords outfitting their ships with hardened metal and we know that some Griffon mercenaries are employing the same.

“That, and the High Expectations is, to put it bluntly, no longer fit for service. I was in charge of the recovery effort in getting her out of the Badlands following the Whisper Pitch incident that grounded her, and her hull was pretty smashed up. Additionally, she was one of the scant few ships of the Navy to survive the Tirek War unscathed simply because she was never returned to service—she was cannibalized to keep other ships of the line going due to supply lines being cut all over the place. But the majority of her frame is still intact and with the war over, we can take the opportunity to try and get ahead of other nations with improved armor that would improve durability, maybe even survive an impact with the ground and need minimal repairs if any are needed at all.”

Tumblehome looked at Spaces like he was an alien. “Commodore….you do understand that as far as our ships are concerned, the weight needs to be an exact calculation to how much phlogiston is pumped into the balloon, or else the ship does not fly at all? And you want to take a ship that already has its weight measured out and slap on heavy metal armor? The ship would plummet off the side of Mount Canterhorn the moment it was released from drydock!”

Spaces was undeterred. “But that’s just it—we use live oak timber for its strength, but modern metalsmithing can produce armor plating that is both stronger and lighter in comparison! Our ships could be faster and—"

“I won’t hear more of this,” said Tumblehome, slamming a hoof on her desk hard enough to make the various clutter on it jump in the air. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with our ships as they are and we are still critically short on ships as it is given our losses against that stupid centaur. The High Expectations will be repaired in full to her original specifications and returned to duty.” She cleared her throat before continuing, “That said, when the time comes for the next class of airship to be designed, your suggestion will be kept in mind. However, until that time, I recommend you not listen to non-naval personnel on Fleet matters. Dismissed.”

“But…” started Spaces, before withdrawing his hoof. “Aye, ma’am.” He turned and left, looking a bit dejected, getting a look of confusion from the incoming Aviso as he exited the room.

“Can I help you with something, Vice Admiral?” said Tumblehome without missing a beat. Typically, it was okay to drop the modifier when speaking to a lower rank, but it was time to put this little skylark back on the deck.

“May I ask why I am being pinned for the blame of Operation Lost Chord?” asked Aviso, putting a copy of the preliminary report on the Admiral’s desk. 

“As I recall, you were the one who lent your full support behind letting the humans have free reign over this operation instead of letting the proper ponies handle the situation.”

“Yes, as did Princess Luna,” said Aviso, “given you and I were both in that room when she overrode your veto on the matter, I hope you aren’t trying to alter history just because you felt forced to take on SIREN in the first place.”

“Regardless of your opinion of what my motives are, you knew better than to—" retorted Tumblehome, before a knock at the door had both pegasi turning to look at the guard stallion who had appeared. “Come in,” she called.

“Admirals?” he voiced, “your presence has been requested by Princess Luna.”

“Finally, now we’ll get things actually moving for once,” nickered Tumblehome. Aviso could only roll her eyes as she followed in turn.

“So, before she was called away,” said human Rarity with an impish smile, “My lovely counterpart said you and she had quite the exquisite time modeling how great the human body is for fashion.”

“Uh, yeah,” muttered Applejack, not willing to look her friend in the eye. “That was certainly a thing. That happened.”

“Well, since we’re waiting for the others, why don’t you tell me all about it?”

“Do Ah have to?”

“If not now, I’ll just have to pry it out of you later,“ the teen fashionista said, her grin seemingly growing at Applejack’s discomfort.

Sunset would normally have cracked a grin at hearing Applejack’s groan of surrender, but the oppressive weight of what had transpired had sullied her mood. She’d virtually teleported herself, Pinkie, and Ushanka back to Canterlot the second she was able to collect herself following receiving the disheartening message from Softwing. Then, after popping a quick teleported note to Twilight—Sunset wasn’t sure if the cellphone she’d given Princess Twilight was configured to work with Sonata’s homebrewed internet just yet—the two alicorns quickly met up before promptly mass-spam teleporting all over Equestria to recollect their friends, who now sat around the table of a private conference room in the castle.

“So, you wanna tell us what’s up, Sunny?” asked Rainbow, as usual having a pretty chill attitude. 

“This is about how the triplets saved our friends, right?” asked Fluttershy, who seemed to have a little more insight into what could possibly be the reason they were all recalled from the so-called “charm tour” so quickly.

“They...were successful, right?” said Twilight, looking worriedly at her big sister. “I mean, that’s why they went—they got the job done.”

“The job was done, and Tavi is at least safe,” replied the humanized alicorn. Everybody in the room caught the at least part, as well as the catch in her voice.

“Okay, so what the hell then, Sunset?” Rainbow asked. “Are you trying to say–” but she trailed off the moment she saw the despondent look in her friend’s eyes.

“You don’t mean…” started Rarity, who didn’t finish the sentence. Fluttershy looked completely shell-shocked. The rest of them similarly were forlorn.

“They didn’t make it,” Sunset barely croaked forth. She didn’t need to specify who.

“Wait… all of them?” Applejack asked, and Sunselt nodded solemnly. This set off the first sobs from Fluttershy, and Rarity took her hand, losing a battle with her own tears.

Then there was a knocking at the door. “Come in,” said Sunset, not looking up to see who it was.

“Okay, did I miss an authorized crying party or something while I was gone?”

Instantly, everybody looked up and turned to see none other than Adagio Dazzle and Aria Blaze standing in the doorway, looking perplexed. They themselves looked like ten miles of bad road with debris in their hair and some blood on their combat uniforms, but otherwise nothing a quick shower wouldn’t handle.

“Seriously, who died?” Adagio asked.

“Wha… YOU DID!” Rarity shouted, seeming both relieved and furious.

“Oh, really? Hadn’t noticed.”

“But...but…” stammered Sunset, overjoyed that her cousins were alive. “The report said–”

“Yeah, the report—we’ve already heard about it,” sighed Aria. “There was some...miscommunication, apparently.”

“Wait,” said Twilight, resisting the urge to leap across the desk and tackle the two present cousins in the room. Whether she’d hit them or hug them afterwards she didn’t know, but it wasn’t as important as the question on her mind. “Where’s Soni?”

“And that’s the miscommunication part,” said Dagi. “Believe it or not, Soni was the only actual casualty of the mission and–”

Wait, Sonata died?!” gasped Rarity. “How could you just say that so casually?!

Aria looked at Rarity with a raised eyebrow. “Rares, in military terms, casualty doesn’t automatically mean dead.” She turned to look at the group. “Wait, is this what you were all in here talking about? That you thought we’d all died?”

Slowly, but in unison, the gathered teens around the table nodded.

“Well, sorry to say that reports of our deaths have been greatly exaggerated,” the usually pigtailed teen said, then smirked. “Hey, I finally got to use that line unironically.”

“But what about Sonata?” asked Sunset.

“As I was saying, she was the only casualty—not KIA or even wounded in combat. It was after-action—pure misfortune that she got a leg caught under a rock that was falling when the whole complex caved in,” Adagio explained. “Razz can probably explain it better than me. A girl can blow a fuse trying to wrap her mind around this magic bullshit.”

“Fuck you, too, Dagi.” shot back Sunset good naturedly.

“Yeah, yeah—point is, she’s still in sickbay with a broken leg, but nothing more serious than that. Oh, and we got Corner Shot too, Sonata wants to make sure that you know to make her pay for what she did to Pinkie.”

Sunset, remembering what she almost did to that Covenant fanatic after the coronation attack, said nothing on the matter.

“And what about Tavi?” asked Twilight, involuntarily holding her hands together with worry.

Aria and Adagio shared uneasy glances but didn’t immediately reply.

Sunset narrowed her eyes—this was not usual behavior. “Dagi. Ari. What the fuck are you not telling us?”

Aria reached a hand behind her head. “See, we were kinda under the assumption you already knew, given that when we got back, Tavi said she was going to see Aunt Velvet and Uncle Night.”

“We checked in with Mom and Dad when we got teleported back here,” said Twilight, worry catching in her throat, “and they said they didn’t know what her status was!”

Sunset at this point had gotten up and was slowly walking toward Adagio, fury getting more and more pronounced. “What. Are. You. Not. Telling. Us?

Adagio sighed. “Sunset, as both a sailor dutifully employed in your service as well as a cousin who loves Tavi just as much as you...Tavi is the only one who is at liberty to discuss what happened.”

In her assigned quarters, Tavi simply lay on the bed, arms clutching one of the pillows to her body tightly. Now that the danger was over and she was back in Canterlot, her mind had finally drifted back to focusing on the one thing that she knew, deep down, even her cousin couldn’t fix. After all, Sunset could switch forms at will because she had started life as a unicorn; life amongst humans had forged for her an identity of being both pony and human at the same time.

Now, Tavi was just the same, albeit in a much more grotesque way. Sunset had often claimed to be a child of both worlds, and as it turned out, Tavi had also been so all along. But where Sunset had easily reconciled her two homes, becoming a beautiful and near-perfect woman with the best of both, Tavi was… something else entirely..

She was a monster.

It wasn’t so much the fact her lower torso was now physically inhuman (the plumbing at least seemed to be properly still human) and she had a full blown tail that was maybe three feet long, that was bad enough given she’d never fit in with human society again. No, it was the fact this was the end product of Melody who, despite everything, Tavi believed had always been part of her. She’d been a monster internally, and now she was one externally to match.

What would happen to her when she’d return to the human world? She would never be able to go back to her life as it was, that much was certain. So what then? Become a recluse, never to go out in public again? If she did decide to go out, she would be famous, but not for her talents as a musician like she’d always dreamed. No, she would become a scientific curiosity. That alone was horror beyond imagination in its own right, given how Twilight tended to treat her science pursuits. Failing that, Tavi could easily imagine the term layman would ascribe to her: freak.

A thought then occurred to her in that moment as she looked over at the glass doors leading out to her balcony. Slowly, listlessly, she got up from her bed and walked—painfully—to the balcony doors and opened them. Stepping out into the open air, Tavi leaned forward over the railing and looked down. Her room was on one of the uppermost floors of the castle; sixty or seventy feet up, maybe more.

Enough to bring a swift end to her hellish existence.

With a grunt, Tavi hooked one misshapen leg over the railing, then the other. She sat there for a time, her legs dangling over that vast abyss. It would be very easy. Just one push off from the railing and she wouldn’t have any more problems. It would probably hurt for a moment, but then it would be over. She would be free.

She placed her hands on the railing, ready to give that one last push, when the image of the aftermath came into her mind. She saw herself, a bloody smear on the pavement far below...with a horrified Sunset Shimmer standing over her. With a sobbing Twily clinging to her. With a disconsolate aunt and uncle standing next to them. And the triplets, who’d risked life and limb to save her.

Suddenly Tavi didn’t want to be up there anymore. Her heart raced as she slowly—carefully—tried to turn around and climb back onto the safe side of the balcony. She tried to hook one ungainly equine leg back over the railing when her other leg slipped, and terror washed over her. Tavi desperately pulled herself over the railing and collapsed in a heap when she was back on the balcony. She then crawled back into her room on hands and knees, shaking and crying.

She wasn’t just a freak. She was a freak and a coward.

Carrying herself with proper military bearing, Tumblehome walked right into the room and took her seat, but only after first coming to attention in front of Princess Luna. Proper decorum had to be acknowledged, after all.

“I am pleased to see that you are taking quite a prompt and serious approach to this situation,” said Tumblehome, mindful to show respect with the appropriate edge of disappointment—after all, in her mind, Luna was guilty herself of allowing this embarrassment of the Navy by overriding her veto of the operation.

“Yes, quite—there’s something to be said about that, actually,” said Luna in a flat tone. That immediately set off alarm bells in Tumblehome’s head that maybe this wasn’t exactly about what she thought it was.

She took a quick glance around the room to see who else was in attendance. In addition to herself, Luna, and Aviso, it felt slightly deja vu in how both General Halberd was present representing the Army and, serving once again in place of the ever tardy Archmagus Beryl was Sr. Mage Mystic Essence to represent the Mage Guild. The only real difference was that the Hooves were not represented for whatever reason—not like they ever should, they were merely the maid staff after all—and instead Deputy Director Clandestine Moves from the Agency seemed to have replaced them. Tumblehome had also been confused as to how the Agency got itself involved in the matter, given this fell beneath their intelligence-only modus operandi and yet the director themselves (who Tumblehome annoyingly didn’t even know the identity of) had seen fit to personally participate in Operation: Lost Chord.

“We’re just waiting for one more and then we can begin,” said Luna.

“I’m here, I’m here,” said Arrowswift, “I only just got notified this meeting was happening, so please excuse the delay.”

“The Guard is late as usual, I see,” grumbled Tumblehome.

Arrowswift’s wings flared up in annoyance but she didn’t return the remark, instead just taking her seat.

“I trust this matter is about how the Equestrian armed forces now have to explain to a foreign...dimension... why their people were killed, let alone allegedly why one of them was kidnapped in the first place?” asked Mystic, who looked like he really did not want to be there. “Based on the, erm, testimony, from that one mad pony that Princess Sunset beat up, Her Highness was the one they were targeting and it was a mistake that they took the human instead by whatever means that was accomplished.”

“Point-blank trigger teleportation charms planted on blunt knives,” said Moves, “most likely used by Corner Shot, a confirmed Covenant assassin...or I guess ex-Covenant given the mission was a success despite the heavy human cost.”

“And that is why we are here,” said Luna, turning to look at Aviso. “Because despite the report, I have not gathered us here to discuss the need for a court-martial regarding Vice Adm. Aviso as the preliminary report suggested.” The princess’s gaze then shifted slightly toward Tumblehome, “Instead, we are here to talk about you, Admiral.”

“Me?” gasped Tumblehome, “My liege, what have I done wrong?”

Luna decided to drop all pretense of even accepting the Admiral had acted out of sheer obliviousness of what her actions had done. “This entire report is nothing more than falsehoods regarding the role of humans—somepony of your experience and rank should know better than to produce and then freely distribute a document of that incendiary nature with your name on it, working off minimal information that for all you know could have been inaccurate!”

“I honestly haven’t the foggiest idea of what you are accusing me of,” retorted the Admiral.

“I concur,” said Clandestine. “Plus, is it even fair to the admiral to say she was not within her rights to assume if working off of prior incidents? The human who was kidnapped, a Miss Octavia Melody, escaped another kidnapping attempt earlier this week by griffon mercenaries.”

“I fail to see what that has to do with anything,” said Arrowswift.

“It means the humans are untrustworthy,” said Mystic Essence. “I honestly don’t see any benefit to letting such violent creatures remain part of any force that represents our country.”

Halberd looked at the senior magus and the second-in-command of Equestria’s own intelligence division like they had smooze coming out of their ears. “Are you insinuating Miss Melody is somehow to blame for being the target of a rogue Inari prince?”

“Not at all,” refuted Mystic Essence. “Just that the humans seem to have a penchant for attracting trouble.”

Stroking his mustache, Halberd thought for a moment before saying, “I find it interesting that you’d bring up the griffon mercenaries without mentioning the incident with Senechal Softwing.” He leaned forward on the table, smiling in the amical way of a chess player finishing their move. “Did the SIRENs not demonstrate their effectiveness by rescuing a recognized citizen of Equestria within moments of realizing she was in danger?”

“Through terrifying force and the near-complete obliteration of the enemy!” pointed out Tumblehome.

“I’m sorry,” piped up Arrowswift, “but have most of you forgotten Equestria can and has done far worse than a few dead enemies of the state, not to mention such a show of force is a good deterrence to any lesser threats from trying their own hand at starting trouble given these tumultuous times we live in?”

“Not to mention that those mercenaries were determined to spirit away Lady Softwing,” Halberd pointed out. “As I may remind you, Rules of Engagement require that while we should allow mercy to enemy combatants when possible, it is not a requirement, especially when lives are at stake—and I would argue that Lady Softwing would state that her life was very much in peril at that time.”

“At what point, then,” Tumblehome seethed, “do we sanction a level of death that makes us no better than–”

“That is enough, Admiral,” chastised Luna. “It is abundantly clear that even though you did give your acceptance for the SIRENs to be merged into the Royal Equestrian Navy, you don’t think too highly of them.”

“Just saying, I’d be more than happy to take ‘em,” said Halberd with a smirk. Tumblehome glared at him.

“Still, we need to get to the matter of just what exactly happened regarding this report, and there is only one individual who I think can reliably give that testimony.” Luna then clapped her hooves together, adding, “And this is where the thoughts of the Commander, Special Initiative comes in.”

The doors behind Luna—which Tumblehome had paid no attention to earlier—opened and much to her shock, Rear Adm. Sable Loam calmly walked out and took a seat to the left of Aviso. “Thank you, Princess.”

“Of course, Admiral. Would you care to tell us what actually happened during Operation: Lost Chord?”

“Yes,” he answered, clearing his throat before going into detail. “With the assistance of the captain and crew of the Super-Electric, the SIRENs, assisted by Agency Asset 1, were able to perform the insertion perfectly and arrived at what I believe was described by Asset 1 as some kind of portal to the actual enemy stronghold—we just followed the line made by Princess Cadence’s spell. After securing entry, we attempted a stealthy insertion and split into three teams of two, but we were unable to maintain covert operations and ultimately had to go weapons free. There were extensive casualties inflicted upon the enemy and it was ultimately discovered that the entire Covenant outfit was in fact a false flag operation being carried out by changelings.”

“Changelings?” remarked Mystic with surprise. “Why would the changelings want anything to do with Sombra? They just launched an attack on Oatmaha around the same time all of this went down!”

“Actually, it would line up with information which Agency assets in the field were reporting,” corrected Clandestine. “Namely, Queen Chrysalis has been steadily losing control over the Changeling hivemind ever since her attempt at conquering Canterlot was repulsed. There already was a splinter hive incident recorded earlier this year that took place in the town of Nightshade—the Super-Electric was involved in cleanup operations for that, too, as I recall.”

“To the fireteam involved, changelings were an unknown party and thus why the initial paperwork lacked any information on the subject. Regardless, we were able to rescue all the hostages as well as capture the enemy leader without any casualties as a result of combat,” Sable continued. “In fact, the only casualty sustained was when Cmdr. Dusk was unlucky enough to be caught under falling debris that pinned her to the ground and broke her leg. We were able to extract her and, everypony out safely and rendezvous with the Super-Electric, at which time Capt. Easychord sent a courier pegasus ahead. You all can imagine my surprise when we actually did return to Canterlot only to find everyone seemed to think we were dead, given no such information was carried by the courier.”

“Can we verify that the transit wasn’t compromised?” firmly asked Halberd.

“Yes, the first pony that Ens. Moonray sought out upon reaching Canterlot was me,” answered Aviso, “and following proper protocol, I immediately delivered that information to Adm. Tumblehome.” Her attention then turned to her superior as she added, “There was no breach of information relay and having read the field report myself, I have no idea where the Admiral would have gotten the impression that the successful operation was somehow in fact almost a complete disaster.”

“I also would expect that Capt. Easychord would take offense at the preliminary report distributed by Fleet HQ stating that she was trying to take control of the operation to follow ‘proper’ protocol,” added Sable. “Given that she and her crew performed above and beyond in carrying out an operation they were not normally trained to perform, on a vessel not designed for facilitating airdrop insertion of heavy vehicles. They did not try to interfere with how I led the operation and by leaving it to the SIRENs, the decapitation strike was successful.”

Clandestine Moves, however, didn’t seem satisfied with the oral report. “Adm. Loam, in my tenure with the Agency, I have gained a keen knowledge of how to read when somepony is being honest or not. And while you are not a creature native to this world, I can tell you are exhibiting the mannerisms of somebody telling the truth...but you’re also withholding information.” 

Sable couldn’t help but glance over at the self-satisfied smirk on Tumblehome’s face, wondering if the admiral knew how much trouble she was going to be in given what he had to say next. “You are correct, Director: there are...details about what occurred but I have been ordered to leave them off the record.”

“Whose orders?” asked Luna.

“Archmagus Raspberry Beryl, one of the rescued hostages; and Agency Asset 1, a.k.a. The Director of the Agency. They also told me to inform all that they will meet separately with Princess Luna on the subsequent issue.”

“Well, they certainly couldn’t be bothered to show up to tell us that themselves, now could they?” scoffed Tumblehome. “Plus, you serve under me, not them, and I hereby order you to tell—"

“ENOUGH!” shouted Luna, channeling enough of the Royal Canterlot Voice to cause the room to shake a little. She looked at Tumblehome with dissatisfaction in her eyes. “Adm. Tumblehome, in the span of five minutes it has been disclosed that not only did you issue a preliminary report based on incomplete information, but that somehow the facts you were to relay through the chain of command painted a very different picture to what Adm. Loam has disclosed here. After which, you have attempted to throw your immediate subordinate under the proverbial cartwheel to take the blame of foreign nationals dying for Equestria and trying to rope in another subordinate in these falsehoods by giving complete fiction to their actions, in this case the performance of Capt. Easychord and the crew of the Super-Electric. Finally, Adm. Loam has stated that two other service heads, both of which outrank him, have instructed him to not relay information and you presume to have the authority to override them without so much as requesting clarification for the reason?” 

“My princess,” said Halberd, clearing his throat. “If I am not mistaken, the implication here is that Tumblehome is trying to actively sabotage the Navy itself, simply to spite the fact the SIRENs became part of its ranks, and does not care about the fallout such actions may have, despite the fact SIREN has proven itself to be a formidable and powerful asset for Equestria.” 

Tumblehome, scandalized, glared at Halberd, “I would kindly ask you to mind your own affairs, General.”

“He’s certainly doing a better job of handling the affairs of the Army than you are of the Navy,” commented Arrowswift, “After all, you’re the one whining about how the Fleet gets shortchanged all the time, but here you get one of the strongest additions to Equestria’s armed services delivered right on your doorstep—effectively the only personal guard regiment of a princess not of the main Guard or the Army—and you’re trying to actively discredit them! Furthermore, unlike the Army’s ambassadorial guard or the Guard protective units, the SIRENs are a fully-operational combat unit and have proven themselves in a way that no other Equestrian military unit has!”

“I do not understand what the fuss is all about,” said Mystic dismissively, “since last I checked, this is the land of Equestria, not Human...est..ria…

“Didn’t really think that one through, did you?”

“...Not really, no…”

“I for one believe Tumblehome is justified in her actions,” said Clandestine, “since all of you only seem concerned with the raw devastation humans can output and have no respect for the ramifications on the intelligence community!”

“Which would be…” asked Luna, eyebrow raised.

“Well, we don’t know yet!”

“That is not a reason to support actively sabotaging one’s own command structure, given that regardless of who carried out the operation, the Admiral has openly falsified a report and is trying to manipulate the image of others for her own ends. Quite unfitting for the High Lord of the Fleet.”

“I think a review is in order,” said Halberd. “I recommend an investigation into barratry.”

“As the Guard representative, I second that,” Arrowswift added. The other two opened their mouths to speak, but a glare from Luna immediately shut them up.

“Yes, I believe you are both right.” Luna said before she gave Tumblehome a baleful glare. The pegasus in question looked fit to molt all her feathers right then and there. “Do you have anything else to say, Admiral?”

“I did it for Equestria!” she snarled. “I refuse to let such...such...monsters, whose capacity it is to outdo Tirek himself in wanton destruction, to even be considered part of the Fleet! And if Princess Sunset wants them so badly, she is no better, especially since she comports herself like one of them!”

Luna’s eyes glowed briefly and for a split second those present thought they saw her coat turn black, but then she took a breath to calm herself down. “First barratry and now lese majeste,” the princess stated. “You certainly are on a roll today. Adm. Tumblehome, in my capacity as head of Equestria’s armed forces, I hereby temporarily relieve you of command, subject to an internal review of your actions to see if court-martial is warranted.” She then turned to Aviso, adding “And thus you will be acting First Lord of the Fleet, Vice Adm. Aviso.”

“This is an outrage!” screamed Tumblehome, “You can’t–”

“Are you defying your princess?” asked Luna calmly.

Gritting her teeth, Tumblehome knew she had to submit. “ liege…” she managed to seethe, before angrily trotting out the door.

“I guess that adds insubordination to the potential charges,” Arrowswift said to no one in particular.

Taking the opportunity, Halberd leaned over toward Aviso and whispered “You know, if you just want to get rid of SIREN and wash the Navy’s hooves of this whole affair, the Army is willing to–”

“Nope!” grinned Aviso, who leaned away from Halberd and, much to Sable’s confusion, had the human’s left arm in a deathgrip hug, “They’re mine now!”

Sable looked at the others. “Well, I did have some ideas for training equivalent forces for the other services….”

Halberd thought about it for a second. “I find that acceptable,” he said with a wide smile.

Meanwhile, in the dungeons of Canterlot, three of the four Scions had a meeting, though one decidedly was less pleased than the others.

“So, is this what happens to ponies who put their faith in you, Archmagus?” spat Corner Shot. She currently was sitting on the standard issue prison cot, her wings secured flat against her barrel by a special straightjacket woven from Star Spider silk—unbreakable—and her fore and rear legs shackled together in hobbles to ensure she didn’t pull another stunt like she had with the exploding train incident. “We had a deal and it seems you didn’t hold up your end of the bargain!”

Razz took a deep breath, while off to the side, Lockbox just rolled her eyes and Heliodor—perched on a bench on the back wall—simply glared death in Corner’s direction. “Look, Corner,” said Razz, trying to be reasonable, “You’ve done nothing but have a nice nap—I’ve been trying to scare up every last connection I can possibly call on to get the Justice Ministry to drop charges. Do you have any idea how many legal ponies have laughed at that idea when I had to bring up your rap sheet?” She then began listing, “Three counts of kidnapping—one a high-ranking government official, one a member of the royal family—conspiracy to commit high treason, and more counts of murder that can fit on a single page. Not even an insanity plea will make all of that go away.”

“They usually stop us before we can go through the whole list,” added Lock.

“Go on, lie to me some more,” said Corner dismissively. “After all, I should have figured that much when we first met back in Ponyville, given you go around wearing a big fat lie because you scare children otherwise simply by existing!”

“Not helping your case,” sighed Razz, facehoofing.

“She could have been acting under the guidance of Queen Faust herself, wouldn’t do her any good,” said a new voice, and both Razz and Lock turned to see none other than Princess Twilight Sparkle arrive.

“What are you doing here, Twi?”

“I’ve been looking for you two ever since I got everypony back from that charm tour. Evidently there’s some trouble going down regarding the report that made it sound like all the humans died.”

Getting over the shock of the Princess of Friendship being in favor of harsh punishment, Corner couldn’t help but be herself in the moment. “I can think of one human who I want dead,” she grunted, thoughts going toward one of her now-confiscated knives running its edge along the neck of the SIREN that had captured her.

“See, my point exactly,” said Twilight without missing a beat, turning to face Corner. “For the record, what Razz and Lock said is true, but as much as they might want to—for whatever Celestia-forsaken reason—let you go, that’s not going to happen. You’ve caused nothing but death and suffering in your wake and you are going to spend the rest of your days rotting in Tartarus if there is any justice to be done.” Twilight then charged her horn with magic, adding as she turned to Lockbox and Razz, “Don’t bother trying to talk with her further; you’re just wasting your breath.” Then she instantly teleported away, which from Corner’s point of view seemed to have taken Razz and Lockbox with her as well as Razz’s bird.

“I’m not scared of that shithole!” shouted Corner in reply despite nopony listening. Then thinking, once again, of what she’d done in that sunflower garden what felt like so long ago, added quietly, “I belong there anyway.”

In a flash of purple, Twilight, Lockbox, and Heliodor appeared in Twilight’s personal office within the castle...but only them.

“Hey, wait,” said Twilight, confused, “where’d Razz go?”

Lock snickered. “I think Razz decided she had somewhere else to be—she probably cast a teleport spell on herself right before you finished yours.”

Twilight sighed. “Ugh, I hope she isn’t going to waste her breath on that murderer any more, it just isn’t worth it.”

“You know,” said Shining Armor through magically enchanted reinforced cell bars, “when I heard you had finally been captured, I will admit I wasn’t expecting this.”

“Well, boo hoo you don’t get your glorious revenge because your wedding day was nearly ruined,” scoffed Chrysalis. She then added, “I suppose we can also count the sacking of Canterlot, but I guess that isn’t as much of a priority in your memory, is it?” 

In truth, Shining Armor wasn’t sure why he had come down to the dungeons when he heard Chrysalis was being held there. Given she was a critical level threat, once the Super-Electric had come into port, Blueblood had quickly arranged for Agency personnel to spirit the species-split girl away to the most secure locations possible. Unfortunately, due to the self-investigation ongoing with the Agency in light of traitors having been found even within its own ranks, all of the Agency’s holding cells were full and so the best they could do was stick Chrysalis in a magically reinforced dungeon cell in Canterlot Castle. Obviously, there was extreme concern this was not enough, but Chrysalis didn’t attempt to resist at any point, leaving the puzzled Agency ponies wondering what exactly had happened to “Chrysalis” given some of them still didn’t even believe this human-esque thing was her in the first place. 

Indeed, looking at her now, Shining felt no satisfaction seeing the once mighty changeling queen laid so low. Revenge was something that simply hadn’t crossed his mind after the events of his wedding. But still, Shining had suffered many sleepless nights and near mental breakdowns at the thought of what had happened to him while under her thrall. He wasn’t interested in revenge, but maybe he needed...closure. However, even that didn’t seem to be forthcoming.

“At least I know that I don’t need popperweed supplements to...get going,” Chrysalis sniped, clearly hoping to get rid of him.

Wincing briefly, Shining was unmoved for the most part. “Is that really the best the great Queen Chrysalis can come up with to try and agitate me?” Of course, the thing in front of him hardly looked like Chrysalis any more. Shining was looking at a twisted child rather than a terrifying queen. 

However, Shining was taken a bit aback when the response to that question was Chrysalis laughing, though it was a hollow, humorless laugh. “No, but Queen Chrysalis is dead, gone—she’s really been dead since the time of Sombra, existing as nothing more than the essence of the hivemind that’s been in my head for a thousand years.”

Shining Armor, naturally, had no clue what the creature in front of him was talking about—but maybe his sister would be able to make more sense of it so for that sake, he decided to keep the conversation going. “So you’re...not Queen Chrysalis except you are her, too?”

Almost not even paying attention to Shining, Chrysalis answered, “No, I was Crisalide della Lucca…. Now? I don’t know what I am now. I have lost everything. A thousand-plus years of pain here, centuries of absence in the world of humans...I am a creature that belongs nowhere. And yet…” she then turned and looked judgmentally at Shining, “...I am certain I understand mercy more than you damn ponies ever did.”

Excuse me?” said Shining, offended, then got a second startle when the girl lunged up to the bars, seemingly ignoring the painful magic sensation that should have been delivered to her hand and hoof gripping them to the point her hand’s knuckles turned white.

Look at me! You think I want to live like this?! I have suffered and caused suffering across entire generations, this damned thing that is not allowed to die by her own choice because of the whims of the long dead fused into my being! Forced to endure the sensation of forever needing love, something I never truly had even when I was whole and pure! Only by mistake have I been set free of the shackles of the hivemind and yet I still am not free! I can feel it, like tendrils reaching for my mind to reassert control! I am not Queen Chrysalis now, but I could become her again—or worse! A plaything of the hivemind in disarray!” She finally fell back, letting go of the bars, as the pain became enough for her to feel in her maddened state.

“Well, that sounds...bad…” said Shining, at a loss of words of how to exactly interpret this line of ranting and raving. He was regretting still talking to this thing, and he was realizing he should have just left this task for his sister to deal with personally. “But you say the queen is dead...but you could become her again...I take it there is a way to stop it?”

“Yes, you fucking idiot!” Crisalide screeched, “If I die, then she will finally have a true death herself! But there is still enough of the hivemind in my mind that I can’t die by my own hand!”

“So what, you want we ponies to kill you?”

Crisalide rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Did it really take Equestria’s top guardspony this long to figure that out?”

Shining shook his head. “No, that’s not how Equestria does things.”

“Of course it doesn’t,” she spat. “Because despite the constant threats you horrible little ponies have had to endure in these past few years, you’re afraid to take another life! This is why you don’t know mercy!” She grinned maliciously, her quartet of small fangs looking ever so slightly out of place on an otherwise human looking jawline. “Maybe that’s why you have humans in your ranks now—you need to learn something from us.”

“I’ve had enough,” declared Shining, and trotted off in an annoyed mood. 

Five minutes passed, with Crisalide sitting forlornly in the middle of her cell, before she spoke again. “You know,” she said, looking at the empty wall which only bore shadows from the magically eternal flame in the sole lamppost, “I was really talking to you this whole time. I know you’ve been there listening ever since you teleported down here.”

The shadows on the wall started to move like some kind of rorschach illustration, pooling on the floor only for the figure of Raspberry Beryl to emerge, in her true appearance instead of her usual illusory guise.

Crisalide smirked. “I spent too fucking long around your cruel ancestor; he loved using that shadow trick to spy on those he deemed untrustworthy.” She then fully looked up at Razz, adding, “Did I answer all your questions, at least?”

To the apparent surprise of the hybrid girl, Razz took on the form of shadow once again, passing through the enchanted bars of her prison and rematerializing in her cell next to her. “To be honest, I still don’t understand how you survived. Sombra seemed pretty certain you were dead,” Razz said. “I know better than most what an unreliable narrator he was, but still. Even an alicorn wouldn’t survive being run through with a magical sword and thrown into a vat of molten metal.”

“To be honest, I don’t know how I survived that either. My memories of the last millennium are foggy.” Crisalide paused to think, and Razz could tell what she was recalling now was painful. “I remember awakening inside a metal cocoon, my wounds burned shut. I’m not sure how long I spent in that darkness, waiting to die, before I first sensed it: the changeling hivemind. It led the survivors of my…of her…of our hive to where I was buried deep beneath the snowy plains.”

Razz nodded, following along as she tried to make sense of it. She knew all about how a unicorn with her life threatened could instinctively call upon magic they hardly knew to save themselves. It was how she came to be as she is now, after all. Perhaps the same was true of Crisalide? 

If that was true, then the “metal cocoon” Crisalide had awoken in could only have been the very same molten metal Sombra had thrown her in, cooled to a solid form with her magic. According to Razz’s research, Sombra’s metallurgy was the only place in the Crystal Empire to show the weathering of one thousand years. Likely it was deep enough beneath the Crystal Empire to have avoided the spell that displaced it from time.

“When I emerged from that cocoon I was reborn; not as Crisalide, but Chrysalis, and that’s who I’ve been ever since…at least, until now.”

“What changed?” Razz asked.

“I’m not entirely sure, but I think it happened after I tried to go through the mirror portal,” Crisalide said, again pausing to think. “I remember briefly being in that space between spaces—outside of both the world of Equestria and the world of humans. In that moment of pure chaos, what struck me the most was the tranquility within my own mind. For the first time in a millenium, I could not hear the hivemind.”

It made sense to Razz. Crisalide had left the rest of the hivemind in Equestria when she went through the portal in Sombra’s mirror. The only place the hivemind wouldn’t be able to reach her would be another world...or the space between worlds. 

“And you don’t hear it now? Even though you’re back in Equestria?” Razz asked, realizing that by the time Crisalide had reemerged from the mirror portal, the changelings of her hive had already left her. Perhaps seeing Crisalide for what she really was before she disappeared through the mirror portal caused the changelings of her hive to unanimously break off from it.

“No, but…I can feel it. It’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t a part of it, but it’s always there.” Crisalide’s expression wasn’t exactly cheerful before, but somehow she looked even more grim as she said, “You heard what I said before. Queen Chrysalis isn’t just any changeling queen. She is the changeling queen. It’s only a matter of time before the hivemind returns to me.

She then lunged closer to Razz, and unlike with Shining, there were no bars between them. Yet Razz held fast; a wall of stone that the ruined girl clung feebly to as she said, “That’s why you must kill me. I can’t go back to living like that!”

Razz gently but firmly removed Crisalide’s grip on her coat. “Sorry, can’t do that.”

A feral growl escaped Crisalide’s lips then, and she did something that shouldn’t have surprised Razz, but did all the same. With her human hand, Crisalide swiped at Razz, her gnarled, twisted nails raking her across the cheek, drawing blood. “Why?! What do you have to lose, except another enemy?

“My soul,” Razz answered, and Crisalide struck again, this time with her hoof arm. The blow was powerful, and Razz was shocked to find herself knocked off her hooves. Crisalide was deceptively strong.

Razz started to get up, but Crisalide kicked her hard in the stomach, and Razz felt a rib break. Then Crisalide backed off, giving Razz a moment to stand. 

“C’mon, Scion of Sombra! Fight back!” Crisalide lunged forward with an open palm strike toward Razz’s barrel. 

It was obviously telegraphed. Even one as ill-trained for physical combat as Razz could see it coming a mile away. But she made no move to block or dodge. She just stood there and took it, coughing as the wind was knocked out of her.

Fight back, damn you!” Crisalide cried, bringing both her hand and her hoof down onto Razz’s back, shattering her spine and crumpling her to the ground. 

Razz could have avoided that one too. Could have dodged, kicked, or even cast a spell to ward off her assailant. Instead she just took it all as Crisalide stomped on her body, crushing bone and organ alike. The pain was incredible; worse than getting impaled on a spear in Lonesome Dove, or getting her throat torn out by a werewolf. But she had survived both of those experiences, and she would survive this one.

So she lay there and took back all of the pain and rage that her ancestor had given to the poor, unfortunate human girl.

Fight back!” Crisalide screamed. “Kill me!

Eventually the guards, drawn over by the sound of the commotion, piled into the cell and pulled Crisalide, kicking and screaming, off of Razz. Crisalide bit hard into the ear of one of them and ended up on the wrong side of their nightsticks for her trouble. Just like Razz, she made no attempt to fight back after that, perhaps hoping one of them would get overzealous and finally give her the death she wanted.

STOP!” Razz wasn’t going to allow it.

The guards and Crisalide all looked to Razz as she rose to her feet, her bones snapping back into place and her open wounds sealing themselves shut. In mere moments, Razz was as good as new.

“Leave us,” Razz ordered calmly.

“But, ma’am…” one of the guards started.

Go!” Razz snarled, giving them a good look at her Sombra-esque fangs. “And don’t disturb us again!”

Exchanging uncertain looks amongst themselves, the guards shuffled out of the cell. When they were gone, Razz turned to Crisalide with a deadpan expression. “Would you like to continue? Or did you get that all out of your system?”

Crisalide just gave a defeated sigh and leaned back against the wall. It was enough of an answer for Razz.

“Good, because believe it or not, I didn’t come here to be your punching bag.”

“Why did you come here, anyway?” Crisalide asked, her voice quiet and broken again. “To interrogate me? Torment me?”

“No, you’ve endured enough of both,” Razz said. “I came to answer your question.”

Crisalide furrowed her brow in confusion, so Razz reminded her. “When we were escaping the cave. You asked me ‘why are you saving me?’” Razz took a step forward and sat down across from Crisalide. “And while we’re on the subject, I can’t help but notice how peculiar your word choice was then. It’s not what you’d expect to hear from someone who wants to die.”

Crisalide said nothing, her gaze fixed on the floor, so Razz continued. “But to answer your question, I saved you because I believe you’re wrong.”

Now, Crisalide looked at her. “About?”

With a thoughtful sigh, Razz said, “We really are two of a kind, aren’t we? Me, the legacy of Sombra. And you, the legacy of Chrysalis. I can understand why you’d think we’re both damned.” Razz leaned towards her. “But here’s the thing: We don’t have to inherit their sins. We can fight fate!”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Razz said with a smile, thinking of Twilight, her friends, and her family back home at the Traveler’s Retreat. “It’s not that hard when you have friends at your side.”

With a bitter laugh, Crisalide said, “I’ve never exactly had any friends.”

“I think, if they were alive, Cocoa Bean and Musica Allegra would disagree.”

Crisalide’s breath hitched at hearing the names she likely hadn’t heard in a long time. With a shrug, Razz turned to the cell door, adding, “Just saying, it’s not too late.”

“Isn’t it, though?” Crisalide asked as Razz approached the exit. “I’ve done so much evil over so many years, killed so many innocents. I don’t think it’s possible to go all the way back to good.”

“Maybe not,” Razz said, exiting the cell. “But it’s never too late to start being better.”


“And that covers the expenditures for the northern irrigation project,” said Tealine, taking the documents off of Highfalutin'’s desk, tapping them along the edge so they all were nice and neat, then putting them back in their folder.

Nodding, Highfalutin' smiled. “Good work, Tealine, this should definitely help improve the agricultural yield and Perchron’s economy.” Internally, she added in her thoughts and the poor saps paying the raised taxes to pay for their stupid little river will gladly hand the money over!

Just then, the strange brass object on the side of the desk started to vibrate. “Oh! The, uh, device thingy is doing something.”

‘’Ah, yes, the astralpresence device I had brought in last week, I thought I told you about it,” the elder unicorn lied. “The crown mandated that all important ponies get one so that it’s easier to communicate—flamefax is going the way of the ponysaur.”

“I must have forgotten, my lady.”

“It’s quite alright,” comforted Highfalutin' as she got up from her desk and walked around to stand in front of Tealine. “Anyway, it’s probably some boring news from Canterlot, nothing you need to worry about, so be a dear and get those papers sent to the right ponies?”

“Right away, my liege!” Tealine chirped, letting out a playful eep! As Highfalutin' slapped her flank as she walked out.

The young and sexually inexperienced are so easy to manipulate, thought Highfalutin', who promptly closed and locked the main door to her office, then subsequently shut all the blinds so the room was dark. Finally, she pressed the activation button on the astralpresence machine.

Instantly the machine whirred into life and did some kind of mechanical dance of light, magic, and crystal, the end result being the form of Tumblehome appearing in Highfalutin'’s office.

“Glad to see you’re doing well, Admiral,” said Highfalutin', magically moving a chair so she could sit and not be bothered with having to stand when addressing a servant of the crown. It had been the admiral who had arranged for this device, supposedly only reserved for military units deployed in the field, and they had been working together thanks to their little ‘arrangement’ of which the details were kept tight-lipped for good reason.

“Well, there’s good news and bad news—and all I can say about the good news is that whatever the Covenant had been planning didn’t come to fruition. Unfortunately, despite being in charge of the Navy, the organization those damn humans begged me to let them into, a lot of the actual details of what happened are being kept secret.”

“All you have to do is grease a few wheels, some bits in specific hooves, and secrets can be spilled, my good Admiral.”

“Not when Raspberry Beryl and the head of the Agency are the ones ordering a need-to-know information lockdown. I’m completely shut out!”

That got Highfalutin'’s attention, as she narrowed her eyes in annoyance. “Oh, that is going to be difficult.” 

Raspberry Beryl, despite being the walking example of dark magic corruption under her well-known-to-be-fake illusory charm, was one of the most morally incorruptible ponies Highfalutin' and her associates had ever encountered. Made worse by the fact her heritage tied back to Sombra, a member of the original houses and overrode the rights of a good number of nobles that were in lock-step with Highfalutin'’s goals. And whoever the Agency Director was, Highfalutin' was of the opinion the individual didn’t even exist simply to confuse the other countries of Equus, as she hadn’t been able to glean any information about them and not for a lack of trying. 

“Still, I trust you can throw enough subordinates at the problem and you’ll get answers, just more ammunition to dethrone that ‘dear’ aunt of mine,” Highfalutin’ mused

“I can’t do that either—thanks to your other aunt,” groaned Tumblehome. “My attempt at stirring up trouble with the humans by saying they nearly botched the operation got exposed because they didn’t actually die like they should have, so now Luna has temporarily relieved me of duties and given acting overall command to Aviso, who at this point may or may not be literally in bed with at least one of them for how much she favors their...their...disregard of established naval doctrine!” Clearly growing more agitated, Tumblehome pawed at the floor with a hoof—a sign of challenge from a more primitive age and completely unbecoming for a pony of her station, in Highfalutin’s own opinion. “I’ve worked too hard to keep the Navy fit and functional and to have all that work dismantled in front of me like this...ARGH!”

You keeping the Navy as backdated as possible was why you were valuable to me in the first place, internally corrected Highfalutin', wondering what would happen to the lucrative money siphoning racket she’d arranged with some of the more... capitalistic shipwrights contracted to maintain the Navy’s ships. “An inconvenience but I’m sure things can work out.”

“I wish! I know Halberd’s been trying to get rid of me for years and now I’ve lost the support of the crew of the Super-Electric, one of the Fleet’s ‘superstars’ given how often their insane captain goes along with non-doctrine plans and tends to succeed! That is not how things should operate! This is supposedly only temporary but I very well could be forced to retire or worse and that would be bad for both of us.”

“More you than me, since my job isn’t on the line here, but point made. What are you going to do about it?”

“Me? I can’t do anything! But that’s why you are going to do something about it.”

“Oh, really? And what makes you say that?”

“Because nothing goes on in my fleet that I’m not aware of,” Tumblehome said, giving Highfalutin’ a meaningful look through the astralpresence machine. “Nothing.”

Highfalutin’ raised an eyebrow. This was the first time in their entire working history that the simple admiral had ever said something that surprised her. “Is that so?”

Tumblehome nodded. “It is. What’s more, I know other things about you. Your closet is just reeking of skeletons, so if you don’t uphold your end of our agreement, maybe I can’t be helped but air it out a little.”

Highfalutin' did not reply for several minutes. She genuinely didn’t think the admiral had it in her to blackmail her so overtly. She must be desperate indeed. “Alright, fine, you’ve convinced me—let me speak to some of my contacts and I’ll let you know what I can get going. I suppose you want Aviso to, ah, have an ‘accident’?”

“I wouldn’t be opposed to it.”

“Then I guess an admiral will be going down with the ship, or whatever naval expression would be most appropriate here.” She then turned the device off, Tumblehome’s image vanishing.

“Are you really going to take that sitting down?” asked a voice from the shadows. From behind Highfalutin'’s chair emerged Redeye, having let herself in during the conversation. She knew that Highfalutin' knew she’d been there the whole time and, really, while she’d never admit it, Redeye rather enjoyed the few chances she could be a stereotypical shadowy henchpony. It was one of her vices.

“Of course not. She’s failed, to put it bluntly, so you are not to do anything to this Aviso character. If anything, the Equestrian navy needs serious updating, if only so I can, ah, borrow some ships to deal with this damn griffon raider problem we can’t seem to squash in full.”

“Do you want me to have the actual Admiral go down with her ship, as you put it?”

“No, this needs to be handled...delicately. We need a patsy to do the deed and subsequently take the fall for us. Fortunately, I’ve been keeping up with the situation in Canterlot and know that there is just such an individual suited to the task currently sitting in their dungeons.”

Redeye frowned. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that, to be honest.”

“Oh, stop worrying,” said Highfalutin' with a grin, “all you need is a”