Derpy led Rainbow through the tunnels dug out of the side of the canyon that was their main base of operations. They passed by the dining area, the sleeping quarters for the troops, some of the beds occupied, and a large open room with a forge and several machines constructing various weapons and ammunition. Rainbow Dash noticed several open crates with guns and bullets inside, tipping her off to what was the ponies working the equipment were making. As the Commander passed by, she received and returned salutes from the diligent workers.
"Rainbow!" a familiar voice yelled from the back of the room.
The pegasus turned in the direction of her name and saw a large, purple friend laying on the ground, watched over by Lockdown and a pair of guards. Sparks flew from the section of his wing that was being repaired as a brown-coated stallion with a face mask on welded the metal sheet together.
"Commander," Lockdown greeted. He and his comrades saluted as Derpy approached them with Rainbow following right behind her.
The blue mare trotted up to Spike, happy to see a friendly face again. Everypony that Rainbow had come across had a deathly serious look in their eyes. Considering everything she had been told about what was going on, it ultimately didn't surprise her. The dragon's escort stiffened up as she got closer, in case there were any unexpected surprises. The welder continued about his business, not taking his eyes off his instructed work.
"Hey, big guy. How're you doing?"
"OK. They fixed up my tail and should be finishing up my wing soon."
The welder nodded in agreement without looking at them. "The damage wasn't terribly extensive, so it hasn't been hard. Maybe five or ten more minutes," the stallion commented. His work had looked impeccable so far. Most of the tears were smoothed out that one wouldn't have guessed there was anything wrong with them in the first place. After the last couple were fixed, all that was needed was to get the dents out and Spike would be ready to go.
"Rainbow," Spike said with a pause, "thanks. For everything. I doubt I would have been able to get back home if you hadn't asked them to do this."
"You'd probably be right about that," Lockdown bitterly added, earning a angry scowl from the cyan pegasus.
"Don't worry about it, Spike," Rainbow smiled at the grateful drake. "I don't leave my friends hanging. You know that."
A warm smile crept across his cheeks. Hearing one of Rainbow's almost trademarked phrases for the first time in so long left him with a lump in his throat.
"Like I said earlier, Spike, once you're finished there, I want you gone. Is that clear?" Derpy asked with authority.
The dragon hung his head slightly and nodded. While it was nice to see so many familiar faces again, he knew it was best for his health to make himself scarce. He likely wouldn't have lasted one night there without being attacked. Not only that, he couldn't leave Rarity alone. Not only would it be that much more difficult to survive without any help, she'd worry herself sick over him. He wasn't about to do that to her.
"Good. You three escort him out of the base when he's finished."
"Come on, Rainbow, let's move on," Derpy said, placing a hoof gently on her friend's back. She made it a point to avoid the wings. In their current condition, she couldn't be sure if touching them would cause Rainbow any pain, but she didn't want to take a chance.
"Take care, Spike. Tell Rarity that for me too, OK?"
"Will do. It was really nice seeing you again, Rainbow."
He reached his claw out and squeezed her hoof, not wanting to say goodbye again, but they both knew there was little choice in the matter. They smiled deeply at each other until Rainbow broke away. She returned alongside the patient Commander and followed her down the hall.
Rainbow was slightly relieved to be out of that room, despite seeing Spike again. The air was thick thanks to all the heat from the forge and made it a little difficult to breathe. After being in that sweltering area, she wondered how anypony managed to stay cool, or even manage to avoid suffocating, inside a mountain. She reasoned that there was more to the compound that Derpy had yet to show her, but the grey pegasus had explicitly told her after they read the Doctor's note that there was somepony Rainbow needed to see.
At the end of the long hall, the pair came across a massive, open room. In front of them were rows upon rows of stands, tables and baskets with carrots, lettuce, potatoes, beets, and just about every other various crop one could think of growing out of them. Not far above the many plants were numerous, excessively bright lights that radiated enough heat that Rainbow could feel it from many feet away. It almost felt like she was basking in the rays of the sun on one of the many bright days she would spend hanging out with her friends in the fields, relaxing and enjoying their company. To the left against the wall her several dirty buckets, some of which appeared to have been used recently, as remnants of soil remained stuck to the inside.
Several ponies were walking through the artificial farm, checking the quality of the soil, the sizes and conditions of the fruits and vegetables, adjusting the temperature where necessary or going over some checklists. On the far right wall were several large, slow moving fans bolted to a smoothed out wall. Behind the fans were similarly-sized dark holes. The slight breeze the fans created was barely noticeable above the practically scorching heat. If Rainbow thought staying by the forge for any length of time was brutal, this indoor garden blew her away.
As Rainbow and Derpy stood in the mouth of the hallway and examined the gargantuan underground garden, a familiar accent pierced through the quiet buzzing of the flood lights. The unmistakable voice, followed by the top of a certain stetson overtop some of the plants, instantly grabbed Rainbow's attention. She followed the hat as it moved through the aisles, its wearer overseeing their bounties.
"Those carrots are lookin' mighty nice, Caramel. Hayseed, nice work on that celery. About another week or two and those tomatoes should be ready, right, Black Cherry? Good!"
"Sergeant? Can I speak to you, please?" Derpy called out.
The orange farm pony dashed out to the end of the aisle and sharply turned the corner, yelling at those around, "Commander Derpy in atten- "
Her eyes exploded as large as her head would let them and her jaw nearly hit the floor. Applejack stood in front of Derpy and Rainbow Dash, frozen in place by the shock of seeing her long lost rival in front of her. Cautiously, she walked up to the cyan pegasus for a closer look, thinking her eyes had betrayed her. Rainbow momentarily did as well when she saw that half of 'Kicks McGee' had been replaced with a mechanical leg.
"At ease, soldiers." Derpy said to the others, once Applejack had gotten close. They returned to their work.
The older orange mare gently caressed Rainbow's face and neck. She looked real. She needed to be sure she felt real too.
"Ra.. Rainbow Dash? I-Is that really you?"
"Hey, AJ," the time lost pony smiled. She was amazed that despite her old age, Applejack still looked rather fit and young. Only a few grey hairs flowed through her mane and tail and the number of wrinkles she had was surprisingly low. Time had been good to the girl.
"Oh Luna, it is you!" Applejack wrapped her legs around Rainbow tightly and lifted her off the ground in a bear hug. The pegasus screamed when she squeezed her wings.
"Oh gosh, are ya alright? Ah'm so sorry! What'd Ah do?!" The farm pony panicked, setting her friend gently back onto the ground. The pain in her wings caused Rainbow to collapse onto her knees, gritting her teeth and clenching her eyes. Derpy knelt and caressed her damaged wings, hoping to ease the agony.
"It's OK, AJ," Rainbow said between heavy breaths, "my wings are damaged. Nopony's fault but my own. Heh, I see you're still as strong as you used to be."
Applejack knelt in front of her friend and delicately hugged her neck, tears raining down her cheeks. "Rainbow, where've ya been?! Me 'n the others haven't seen ya in ages! What happened to ya?"
Derpy cleared her throat, "Rainbow, I know I said that I'd take you to get something to eat, but I think you're in good hooves here. I'll let her show you around a bit. Sergeant, when you're finished, bring her to see me in the control room. I have some things to do in the meantime."
"Yes, Commander," Applejack said with a salute from the ground. Derpy saluted back and left the two old friends alone.
"You gotta be kiddin' me. Accordin' to the Doctor, ya hit light speed?" Applejack stated in disbelief as she showed Rainbow Dash around the compound.
"That's what Derpy said the two of them figured out. I went so fast I basically broke reality, and here I am. I don't understand all the details. Something about time freezing for me or whatever, but that's basically what Derpy told me."
"Ah knew you were fast, Rainbow, but.. just.. wow."
The pegasus sighed. "I wouldn't 'wow' if I were you. Not only did I miss forty years of life, it's the reason my wings look like this. I pushed them so hard, this happened," she said, nodding to her midsection. "Now I can't even move them without them hurting. What about your leg? What happened there?"
"Ah took a bullet that split right through the bone. They were able ta replace it, but any fighting days Ah might have had left in me were over." She managed a small smile in spite of reminiscing about the injury. "Ah work in the gardens now, like ya saw. Can't really work on a farm that don't exist anymore, but Ah help keep the troops fed. Guess some things never change."
"Speaking of the gardens, what were those big fans all about?"
"Those're the tunnels the quarry eels used to come out of. They're where we get our air from. It's funneled throughout the place," Applejack explained. "There's no worry about any patrols seein' 'em either. The Princess only uses planes to look around, and they're far so in, ya can't see 'em."
"Ah yeah, Rarity mentioned that you guys scared off the eels with the guns and such," Rainbow recalled.
"Wait, y'all saw Rarity 'n Spike? Where?" The earth pony stopped herself short as she spoke the names.
"Yeah, Spike brought me here. We had to fight off a few planes on the way, though. I remember when I finally slowed down after racing around like I was, I ended up coming across Ponyville. I guess they found me there."
"They found you?"
"Mhm. You remember Twilight's little spell that turned off any feeling to my wings?" Applejack thought for a moment and shook her hoof side to side, vaguely recalling the event. "It started to run out over Ponyville after I got finished being chased by a couple of planes and I felt everything all at once. The last thing I remember was me crashing into a building before I woke up in front of them. They said we were in your old cellar hiding out when I came to."
The former farm pony rolled her eyes, "Sentimental ol' coot. Ponyville's one of the worst places ta be and she lives there. Can't get away from what she used ta be, huh? Well, despite everything that happened, Ah hope she's OK. She told ya about how she 'n Spike left, right?"
"She told me they did, but she didn't get into why."
Watching Rarity fall apart and eventually deciding to abandon the war was one of the more painful things Applejack had experienced in recent memory, next to learning what happened to Twilight. Even though it was only a few years prior, it was still quite fresh in her mind and she didn't care much for thinking about it.
"Well, Twilight was shot in the back by that son of a bitch Blueblood during one of the fights, and as the enemy was retreating too. Damn coward. Rarity became so enraged that she charged straight at 'im, ignorin' all the gunfire flyin' past her 'n.. well, from what she told me she did, it wasn't pretty. She said there wasn't enough of his head left ta recognize him."
The thought of somepony's grey matter splattered all over the ground, even somepony as despicable as Blueblood, made her stomach turn. Applejack saw plenty of her comrades die next to her, and she had taken down some enemy soldiers herself, but for the honest pony, it wasn't an easy thing to deal with for the longest time.
"Anyway," the old mare continued, "Twilight slipped inta a coma. They brought 'er back here 'n she's been bedridden ever since. No real response to anythin' either. They haven't unhooked 'er just in case she comes out of it. She was one of our best weapons out there, so Ah can't blame 'em for trying to revive 'er.
"Well, afterwards, their squad looked ta Rarity to lead 'em. The two of 'em 'n Spike coulda probably taken on Celestia's entire army on a good day if they wanted ta," Applejack said with a small chuckle. "Despite bein' one hell of a fighter, Rarity couldn't lead them as well as Twilight. Plus, with only two of 'em in their group, they weren't as strong as they used ta be. We lost a lot of good soldiers over a few fights, and she blamed herself."
Applejack continued through the tunnels, leading Rainbow around the compound as they talked. The former farm pony didn't explain what was inside any of the rooms they visited, more interested in telling her friend about what had been happening while she was away.
"She came up ta me 'n Pinkie one night cryin' 'n said she couldn't handle it anymore. She was tired of fightin' 'n tired of the war. She didn't want ta leave Twilight, but at the same time, bein' around here in a military base was just remindin' 'er of everythin' that she wanted ta get away from. So, one day she up 'n left. Spike went with her, which wasn't a surprise ta anypony. They had been together for a while at that point."
"Yeah, Spike mentioned that."
The blonde mare nodded. "Ah can't recall ever seeing Rarity so upset, even when Twilight went down. Ah guess she just reached a breakin' point and Ah'm sure Twilight being in a coma was a big part of it. Ah don't know if the Commander knows where Rarity is right now. Probably doesn't care either. She didn't tell us where she was goin' anyway.
"Even ta this day, Ah still don't understand why she suddenly felt like blamin' 'erself for anythin'. If it wasn't for her in the first place, we probably would've lost this war before it even got started."
Rainbow cocked a curious eyebrown, "Why's that?"
Applejack sat down and leaned against the dirt wall, getting comfortable for the tale she was about to tell. "We went inta hiding in Appleloosa after Celestia went nuts. Well, all of us except Fluttershy. She was always timid, as ya know, but she was so terrified by what happened, she raced back home 'n holed 'erself up."
"Yeah, Derpy told me about what was found in her cottage." Rainbow's heart sank again as thought about what horrifying things must have happened to the fragile pegasus.
Applejack hung her head and nodded. She continued with a heavy sigh, "Well, Rarity came up with a plan that we passed along ta Derpy when she managed to track us down, lookin' for some ponies to help her bust the Doctor out of Celestia's prison. We did succeed with that a little while later 'n those who came with us when we rescued him looked ta him as the leader of this here army since he was the most aware of what Celestia was doin'. Ah don't think he wanted ta do it, but it ended up fallin' onta his and Derpy's shoulders.
"Anyway, Rarity was gonna try turnin' on the charm for the Princess 'n act like she was never appreciated 'n felt she always belonged with more respectable ponies 'n such, hopin' to get her hooves on somethin' we could use ta help our side. How she managed ta convince the Princess, Ah'll never know. Not that much earlier, she was about ready ta kill us all.
"She somehow managed ta get in 'n stayed with 'em for a long while. She even told us about how she was basically forced inta a relationship with that prick Blueblood just ta keep up her act. Would explain why she went so crazy on 'im when Twilight was shot. Anyway, she was able to weasel some info outta Blueblood when he was a little too drunk one day.
"Apparently, they sent a copy of the plans for all the technology they managed ta get their hooves on ta Fillydelphia, among other places I'm sure. Once she had the details, she escaped back ta where we were hiding when she drew up the plan in the first place. The ponies that were still there sent 'er here, 'n the Doctor sent one of his top Generals, a certain stallion named Shining Armor, with a strong force to raid Fillydelphia 'n get those plans. He's still there now as far as Ah know. From what Ah've heard, Celestia's forces have been tryin' ta take it back for a long time now. But, we got those plans, eventually a copy got back here, 'n now we have the weapons 'n the bases needed to fight back. All thanks ta Rarity."
Rainbow stood still, deep in humble thought as the story sank in. "She.. she never told me any of that when I saw her. Why wouldn't she?"
Applejack shrugged, "She probably wanted ta forget about this war as much as possible. Can't say Ah blame 'er."
The orange mare looked down the hall and sighed. Not far away was the medical ward. "Rainbow, Commander Derpy asked me to help ya look around. Well, the medical ward where Twilight is is just over there," she said, nodding in the direction she faced. "Would you like to see 'er?"
The pegasus blinked at the sudden question. After a few seconds of pondering, she took a deep breath and slowly nodded. She steeled herself as best she could, knowing that seeing her friend lost in a state of unconsciousness was going to be a hard thing to accept. Applejack rose from her seat and escorted the blue mare down the corridor.
The pair came across the medical ward entrance and stepped inside. It was no Ponyville Hospital, and the air had smelled faintly of dust throughout the complex thanks to being far underground, but all the necessary equipment was where it needed to be. There were several beds up and down the room with monitoring equipment next to them. A couple were being used by sleeping soldiers wearing some bandages and traction. Tables to their immediate left had various plastic boxes containing medicines or small equipment sitting on top of them. A few other tables were located at strategic spots between some of the beds further down the room with more of the same boxes perched atop them.
A slightly larger, yet slimmer, light pink pony at the far end of the room caught Rainbow's attention. As the pegasus stopped and took a brief look around the room upon entering, Applejack had continued ahead. She seemed to be making a beeline toward the stranger.
As Rainbow caught up behind her friend, passing a nurse as they went, something about the mystery pony started seeming familiar. Her purple, bright pink, and yellow mane and tail, as well as the somewhat large wings for their small stature, seemed to spark something deep in the recesses of Rainbow's mind. Something in her brain recognized this pony, but she couldn't figure out who it was. Their hoofsteps in the grainy dirt gave them away and the pink pony turned to face them.
Rainbow's eyes shot open wide in surprise, but it was a pleasant one.
"Princess Cadance!" Rainbow knelt down quickly before being waved to her hooves. The alicorn didn't look a day older than she did the last time the prismatically-colored mare saw her.
"Oh, no, please. I'm no princess anymore. But you.. why do you look so.. familiar?" Cadance asked, feeling the same feeling in her mind as Rainbow had a moment ago.
"Cadance, you remember Rainbow Dash? She performed a Sonic Rainboom at your weddin'."
The former princess sat up as fast as Rainbow had just bowed. "Oh my gosh! Shining Armor told me that Twilight mentioned you had disappeared. What happened? Where have you been?"
"I.. sort of went too fast during a flying stunt and ended up jumping forty years into the future. Derpy explained it to me earlier," Rainbow explained, kicking at the ground and looking away rather embarrassed.
"That would explain why you're still so young. And you missed this entire war up until now," Cadance said somberly. "I envy you for that. You're here to see Twilight?"
"Yeah. I heard about what happened to her. But you're not shocked or confused about me skipping through time?"
"After everything the Doctor and Commander Derpy told us and have given us, it doesn't sound like something out of the ordinary anymore."
Rainbow and Applejack stepped around Cadance and saw the sleeping unicorn. Wires and tubes grew from her body like roots from a tree. Suction cups covered her forehead and chest. The heart monitor showed a strong, steady beat, but there was next to no brain activity. The beeps from the machines played a quiet, almost haunting tune that everypony in the base would like to see concluded and its maestro returned to them.
One look at her friend's helpless, vulnerable state was all that was needed for Rainbow's heart to crumble and her tears to flow. Her chest felt like it was about to explode. She found herself suddenly short of breath as she began to sob, taking the unicorn's hoof in her own.
"Twilight.. I'm so sorry.. "
She slammed her face onto the mattress and wept loudly. Applejack lovingly rubbed her mane, trying to assure her that things would be alright.
"I've been watching over her ever since I got back from Fillydelphia," Cadance explained. "When we heard what happened, I asked Shining Armor if I could return and look after her. He'd been doing well enough in charge that there wasn't any harm in my coming back here. We've tried everything we know to try and pull her out of it, but nothing's worked. Not even magic."
"Ah wouldn't be surprised if 'er own magic was the only thing keepin' 'er with us anymore. She's been like this for a few years now," the orange mare remarked.
Their words did little to ease the heartache. One of her best friends was knocking on death's door right in front of her and there wasn't anything they could do but wait. The absolute worst part of it all.
"Believe me, if anything changes, this base will know immediately. Regardless if it's good or bad."
They sat in relative silence for a few moments, silently wishing for a magical fix to this waking nightmare their friend was trapped in, until Applejack spoke up.
"Rainbow? We really should get goin'. The Commander did want to speak to ya, after all."
The miserable pegasus looked up at her longtime rival, tears still spilling from her eyes, and nodded. As they got up to leave, a gentle hoof took hold of her leg.
"It's been good seeing you again, Rainbow Dash," Cadance said with a graceful smile. "Thanks for stopping to see her. I know she'd appreciate it."
They quietly left the medical ward and stepped back out into the hallway, the pegasus doing her best to wipe her face clean.
"Rainbow," Applejack spoke up, "Ah don't know what the Commander needs ta talk ta ya about, but Ah just want ya ta know something. Ah know that what you've been through since ya got back probably hasn't been easy, but ya have ta remain strong, especially if she's gonna be wantin' ya ta fight. Ah'm not expectin' ya to go on out there and win this war all by yerself, and neither is anypony else. Just stay strong, alright? Ah know ya can do it."
"I'll try, AJ."
"That's all ya can do. All any of us can do," the orange mare said softly. "Believe me, this whole thing hasn't been easy on any of us. But, just like old times, we'll be here for ya. All of us."
The uncomfortable conversation was suddenly interrupted by an angry, painful roar from Rainbow's stomach. She almost felt sick from the discomfort.
"When was the last time ya ate, sugarcube?"
Rainbow paused and thought for a moment, "The morning I did that trick."
"So.. let's see.. not counting the time you were away.. been at least a few days then?"
"Yeah, something like that. Though I was out like a light for a few days while Rarity and Spike took care of me."
"Still, you should get somethin' in ya. Let's head ta the mess hall. I'll make somethin' good for ya. Can ask me anythin' ya want once you've calmed down some."
The offer was too good to pass up. Rainbow was starting to feel a bit weary after foregoing any nourishment for as long as she had been forced to. She nodded humbly and the pair trotted away.