The Commander was reviewing the map on the table in the center of the control room, trying to form their next plan of attack. She hadn't heard from any of the scouts in a little while, but wasn't worried. They hadn't let her down yet and always managed to find their way home.
There hadn't been any interesting chatter from the radio in several days either. At least, nothing that caught Vinyl's attention. The communications expert had mentioned a few days ago about some rainbow maned pegasus flying over Ponyville. Though she didn't admit it openly, Derpy knew exactly who the former DJ was talking about. The only question that started burning through her mind was the same one that was currently bugging her: When was she going to see Rainbow Dash again?
Applejack had been speaking with the time lost mare for a while and Derpy was starting to get a bit annoyed. There were things she needed to go over with Rainbow and, despite the war going on for almost forty years, time was always of the essence. One day too late could mean victory or defeat at an important staging ground, and who knows where that could lead. Before she had the chance to stomp through the base looking for the Sergeant, Applejack appeared from the hallway.
"Where the hell have you been? Where's Rainbow Dash? I specifically asked her to come see me when you were done."
"Beggin' yer pardon, Commander," Applejack muttered, "but Rainbow's in the mess hall. We.. had a little talk. About Celestia 'n what happened. She ain't takin' it too well. She thinks the Princess snapped because of her. Or rather, because of not her, if ya get what Ah'm sayin'."
"Yeah, I think I understand. She thinks Celestia blames her for everything because she wasn't there. In a way, she's kind of right," the Commander said with a faint smirk.
"I'm not saying it in any kind of derogatory way, Sergeant. Just an honest way. But we can't worry about the past right now. We've still got a war to win. Also, Sergeant, I'm going to want you in the loop with her at all times. You and your friends know her best and she trusts you. Lieutenant Spoon, take over for me."
"Yes, Commander," she said with a salute.
Returning one, Derpy left the control room and marched to the mess hall with Applejack following.
The pair found Rainbow sitting in the same position she was when her country friend left her alone. The pegasus had only recently stopped crying; she had no energy left to spend. All she could do was think. She didn't even notice the hoofsteps of the two officers as they entered the room.
Derpy motioned for Applejack to stay put while she talked to the devastated mare. Even though she could easily see how upset Rainbow was, they weren't going to accomplish anything by moping around. Just like she said to Applejack, they had a war to win, and if the Doctor's words were correct, Rainbow was an integral part of it. The Commander walked around the table and sat down across from Rainbow.
For a moment, she kept silent. She needed to gauge Rainbow's reaction to her arrival. No change. It seemed Derpy was going to have to go on the offensive in order to break through to the blue mare.
"Look, Rainbow," she said, "I can't begin to imagine what you're going through right now. But I'll tell you right now, none of this has been easy on any of us. We've lost a lot too. Friends, family. Fathers, mothers, children, you name it. Somehow, we haven't lost our minds yet. Probably because, despite everything, we've remained strong.
"You were.. no, are.. the Element of Loyalty. If you ask me, you were one of the strongest ponies out there, whether you were to have been an Element or not. I know about how you had to fight for your friends and for your home, even if things had to get physical, and I know that you wouldn't quit as long as you could draw a breath."
Rainbow blinked and slowly looked up at Derpy. She still looked miserable, but it was the first sign of life in a short while.
"Right now, we need you to be stronger than you thought you could be. We need you to help us win this war. The Doctor passed on his Screwdriver to you above all other ponies because he saw something in you, even though you weren't even here. He barely ever let me use it, and I traveled around the cosmos with him for a long, long time. I realize you still barely know what it does, but trust me, that little tool wasn't something he just imparted to anypony."
Derpy breathed deeply and leaned forward, folding her hooves together. She steeled herself for the possibility that Rainbow was going to have a fit in a moment.
"In order for you to fight this war with us, however, we need you to be as close to 100% as possible. As it stands, those wings are in horrible shape. I'm not a doctor, so I can't say just how much damage has been done to them. But, it's a good bet that by the end of this thing, we may need you flying, even if it's only a foot off the ground. I wouldn't want you or anypony else high in the air, what with the planes controlling the sky. But, worst case scenario," she paused and sighed, "you may need new wings. You saw what we did for Spike. It's possible you'll need the same procedure done."
Her words took Rainbow's already crushed state of mind and stomped it further into the ground. Her head sunk back down again.
"I know that's something you don't want to hear. I wouldn't either. But like I said, we need you. I can't imagine that you wouldn't want to be at your best, whether you wanted to help or not. I'm asking you not as a commanding officer, but as a friend. Help us. Not only do we need you, but Equestria needs you. Show me why you're the Element of Loyalty."
As Derpy got up to leave, Rainbow shifted her eyes away, the words weighing heavily in her mind. She once said she'd always be loyal to the Princess. But after hearing Applejack's story, and seeing the obvious truth behind it all around her, she knew where her loyalties lied. If there was any one thing more important to her than the Princess at any time, it was Equestria.
"Wait," Rainbow said quietly. Derpy stopped in her tracks by the entrance and turned around.
"I told Rarity before I was brought here that I wanted to help. That hasn't changed." She slowly turned around to face them. "What.. what do you want me to do.. Commander?"
A grey hoof rested on Rainbow's shoulder, and a smile shown on Derpy's face. "Come with us to the medical ward. We'll have our doctors take a look at you. Regardless of what they tell you, just remember that your friends are here for you. They're pretty loyal too, y'know."
For the first time since she returned, she was able to smile.
"I have to say, I've never dealt with so much internal damage to a set of wings in my life. I've seen bullet wounds, burns, breaks, but nothing like this," the light purple stallion said. "Miss Dash, if you expect to fly again, you're going to need a transplant. There's no two ways about it."
Rainbow laid on the examination table. It took the doctor about a half hour to do all his tests. While he took x-rays, they only showed her wing bones. They simply didn't have any equipment that could reveal damage to muscles or tendons, but the evidence that something was wrong was obvious enough. Every touch he administered caused the pegasus to at least wince. When he tried to extend them with his magic, the entirety of the base must have thought they were under attack.
"What exactly is the situation, doctor?" Derpy asked.
"Well, after what Miss Dash told me, I wouldn't be surprised if most of her tendons are injured, though I don't believe they snapped off her bones. Her wings would be falling open loosely. That's not happening here," the doctor explained. "Amazingly, nothing's broken, but in several places they appear to have rubbed together quite a bit. If that's the case, that would mean there was little to no cartilage left in those particular joints. You wouldn't be able to fly without extreme pain all the time."
Rainbow took a deep breath, trying to remain strong like Applejack and Commander Derpy would want her to. An orange hoof never left her own as she was told the news.
"How long would this whole thing take, doc?" the blue pegasus asked. She bit her lip in anticipation.
"The surgery can be done over the course of a hoofful of hours. We've gotten fairly used to the procedure but it's still a long one. Once you're ready to go, you shouldn't be in the recovery room more than a few days at most. Rehabilitation, though, can take months. Can be only a few, but it could be upwards of a year, depending on how much effort one wishes to put into it, how well their body adjusts, that sort of thing. Everypony is different."
'Jeez,' she thought, 'Spike wasn't kidding. This is going to feel like forever.'
"You won't be able to fly for a while, and it'll probably feel kind of weird at first, Rainbow," Derpy spoke up, "but it's better than staying grounded. I know how much you loved to fly too. The ponies who specialize in the rehabilitation are very good at what they do, so you'll be in good hooves."
"I probably won't be able to actually feel anything if I touched the wings, huh?"
"Unfortunately, no," the doctor stated. "The base will be grafted to your muscles and your nerves, but the wings themselves still just be sheets of metal."
"It's.. it's just that.. it won't be me anymore, y'know?" Rainbow complained.
"All pegasi who have this procedure done go through something like that, Miss Dash. It's perfectly normal and understandable," the doctor assured.
Derpy took a step forward and spoke up. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to, Rainbow, even though it would be best. I won't force you to do anything you don't want to do."
She sighed heavily. Rainbow did want to be at her best if she was going to get involved in trying to save Equestria, but losing what pegasi would call a piece of their heart and soul would feel almost as horrible as learning that the Princess you trusted for years turned into a madpony. Still, she made a promise to herself that she'd do whatever it took.
"When can we get started?"
"Have you eaten anything recently?
"Yeah, about a little more than an hour ago I think." Rainbow hadn't noticed any clocks around until she stepped into the medical ward if they were around. Perhaps she passed some on her trip through the base and simply didn't pay attention.
"Then we'll need to wait until tomorrow. It's.. " he looked at the time, "8:40 in the evening right now. Let's schedule for 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Be sure not to eat or drink anything else till then. We'll get something in you after you wake up. I suggest you get some rest, and I'll see you then."
She nodded as the doctor stepped away to write down the appointment and prepare his inventory. He'd have to talk to some of the nurses when he saw them in the morning.
Derpy bowed her head to her injured friend, "You've got just as much guts as I remember, kid. You'll be fine, I know it."
"I hope so."
It had been the most restless night Rainbow ever had. Every minute she tossed and turned seemed to take an eternity. She wasn't sure if she got a wink of sleep and it showed. Her eyes were bloodshot and drooped heavily. However, once she made it to the operating room the following afternoon, all the fatigue vanished in a second. Now, she was just terrified, even though she knew what she agreed to. It still didn't make it any easier to deal with.
She wasn't sure how long she laid on the table as the doctor and three of his assistants did their pre-surgery planning. Where the world had slowed to a crawl the previous night, it was zooming by almost as quickly as she normally could right now. Only twenty minutes had gone by, but she would have told anypony half the day had disappeared.
A million things were flying through her mind as they looked over their equipment before hooking it up to her, checked the necessary paperwork, looked over Rainbow's vitals, and cleaned their instruments. The sight of needles, scalpels and other sharp, pointy objects laying on the tray to the side of the room made her stomach take a sudden leap from an extraordinarily high cliff and she nearly wet herself. Derpy and Applejack's presence before the doctors got started didn't help her feel at ease very much, though she wouldn't have denied that the orange hoof running through her mane felt a little nice.
Then, she heard the most unnerving words she could imagine.
"Miss Dash, we're ready."
Rainbow took a deep breath, trying desperately to shake off the fear and keep her stomach from emptying itself all over the floor. She was having a bit of trouble with both, but managed to overcome her body's natural responses. With a light nod, she turned to Applejack with worried eyes. The country mare smiled sweetly and kissed her on the forehead.
"We'll be here when ya wake up, girl. Don't ya worry now."
The doctors took one last look at Rainbow's vitals. Aside from an understandably quickly-beating heart, everything was fine. After the officers had vacated the room and the door was shut, the anesthesiologist took hold of the gas mask and wrapped it over her muzzle, turning on the tank.
"Count backwards from ten please."
She almost instantly felt the effects and felt her eyes getting heavy.
Rainbow slowly opened her eyes and shut them back tightly almost immediately. Once they had adjusted through her lids, she allowed them to creep open again. She was laying on her stomach in a soft bed. Her head was still spinning a bit but it was nice seeing light again, even if it stung just a bit at first. She tried to look around but found it rather difficult due to the anesthesia still swimming around her system. Out of the corner of her eye, she could make out an orange blur.
"Hey, sugarcube. How ya feelin'?" Applejack whispered.
Groaning softly, the cyan mare spoke up, "How long.. ?"
"They finished up a few hours ago. You've been asleep since. Yer vitals are looking fine, too."
Rainbow breathed deeply, trying her best to clear out the cobwebs.
"You.. here.. " she mumbled.
"Mhm. Been with ya since ya got out of surgery. You were under for about seven hours. All that unicorn magic sure makes difficult things a might easier, Ah'll tell ya what. Can't imagine how long somethin' like what ya went through would take without it."
The nurse watching over her walked up to the bed, clipboard in her hoof, and smiled when she saw the pegasus stirring.
"Ah, she's waking up. Good, good. She did very well during the surgery and has been doing nicely here, too," she said.
"Any idea when she'll be able to get up 'n walk around a bit?" Applejack asked.
"Should be able to tomorrow. She's got some remarkably strong will. She just needs to rest for right now. But, if you'll excuse me, I have a couple other patients to look over," the nurse said with a smile as she left Rainbow's side.
"Ah'll let ya take it easy for now, Rainbow. Ah'll see ya tomorrow at some point, OK?"
She offered the old mare a tired smile. Once she saw her friend leave the room, she tried to flex her wings, just out of curiosity. Try as she might, aside from a faint tug in her back, nothing moved. A single tear fell down her cheek and she drifted off to sleep.
The doctor let Rainbow rest halfway into the morning before disturbing her. She was feeling quite well rested, but still ached inside with the knowledge that her wings were gone. Or at least, no longer natural. The doctor had her sit up to stretch her legs a bit and the blanket fell to the bed. Even though she knew what to expect, seeing the actual transplants was incredibly jarring.
The wings were surprisingly detailed compared to what Spike had. Even though they were folded up against her sides, she could easily see what could be described as metal feathers. Not nearly as many as her real wings; there were only nine feathers mounted tightly to these. Base plates, similar to Spike's, were attached to both sides of her flesh. Smaller version of the rotors her dragon friend had connected the wings to her body, allowing them to rotate slightly for when she could get airborne again.
She rubbed a hoof along them, and the edges felt gently rounded, likely so they couldn't accidentally slice through the skin. The artificial plumage extended just slightly past her flank. She had no trouble whatsoever in holding them up, despite their length. Whoever crafted them did an exceptional job of keeping them light and strangely aerodynamic.
"As I said the other day, Miss Dash, the way you're probably feeling right now is completely normal," the doctor stated. "I admit it won't be easy to get back on your hooves for a bit, but you have friends here who I know will support you. Other than that, your test results look perfectly fine."
A faint yellow stallion with dark grey mane, wearing a white lab coat, stepped up to the pair as they discussed the situation.
"Miss Dash, this is Dr. Neurocell. He'll be helping you with gaining control of your new wings."
Dr. Neurocell and Rainbow shook hooves. "A pleasure to meet you. Commander Derpy told us you were pretty important to the war and wanted us to get started right away. Come with me, please."
Rainbow sat with electrodes on her head, hooked up to a machine that was keeping track of her neural signals. Her young, strong body was able to generate stronger ones than Dr. Neurocell expected, but it was a pleasant surprise. As they had walked to the doctor's lab, he explained to the mare the basics of what they were going to go over.
Aside from being informed that it was a long road to flying again, most of it went way over her head. The easiest translation of his technical jargon she could come up with was along the lines of 'tell your wings to move as if they were still there'. She silently thanked the stars that that was basically all there was to it, but almost seemed a bit disappointed that such amazing technology would have such a simplistic answer.
He opened her wings manually and extended them fully. They clicked quietly into place when they reached their full extension, just like Spike's did when he flew them to the gorge. When she asked about their size, the doctor explained that it was necessary to be so large, since, even though they were fairly lightweight, they were still heavier than the real thing and needed to be able to generate more lift to carry the pegasus.
She couldn't deny to herself that they were strangely intriguing, despite still feeling upset over the whole ordeal. She wondered how much more amazing stuff could have come from Derpy's TARDIS thing if it was never exploited the way it was.
Over the course of about twenty minutes, Dr. Neurocell informed her that he would want to see her on a daily basis if at all possible to see how she was doing and perform some tests. He explained that the more effort she put into forcing her wings into remembering how to flap, the faster she could be airborne again. He also provided her a few simple exercises she could do on her own to help speed things along.
Her anguish faded away slightly as she listened to the doctor. In her mind, he inadvertently laid out the groundwork for a challenge. She wondered if the doctor was ready to see how much effort she was willing to put forth to seeing the sky again once she had completely gotten over everything that had happened over the last few days, planes or not.
He was writing down some test results when he heard the sound of hoofsteps from the doorway.
"Commander, good to see you!"
"Doctor. Rainbow. How are things looking?"
"Very good, actually. She's got a lot of fight in her, it seems," the doctor praised.
A confident smirk formed on Derpy's face. "I expected nothing less from this one. I know this is going to sound a bit sudden, doctor, but I'd like to get Rainbow acquainted with her new team right away. She hasn't seen what we go through just yet.. long story.. and I need to get her up to speed as fast as possible."
"I would still like to take a look at her for a couple more days if that's OK, Commander. She could also use a little more time to recuperate from the surgery," Dr. Neurocell suggested.
"You will. Her new team just returned from a mission a couple hours ago and I want them to get a little rest before sending them right back out into the field, plus we need to go over things and maybe restock supplies. They're waiting in the war room for me right now."
Rainbow was caught off-guard at how quickly Derpy expected her to join the war, but she did tell the Commander that she wanted to help. She hoped the cross-eyed mare's confidence wasn't misplaced. Still, Rainbow couldn't help being curious about her strike team.
"Commander," the blue pegasus spoke up, "is it anypony I know? Is Applejack coming with me?"
"She's not, no. I want her to stick close to me, so she won't be seeing any action. She hasn't in years, anyway. But, trust me, you'll recognize your crew. I also expect you to listen to whatever your commanding officer tells you to do. Is that understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," Rainbow said. She saluted Derpy, almost naturally. Perhaps being around the other troops had rubbed off a bit.
The gray mare acknowledged her friend with a tiny grin. She reasonably suspected that Rainbow was still hurting inside quite a bit. However, she was showing a promising amount of resilience in spite of everything. Derpy half expected to find Rainbow laying on the floor in the mess hall with slashed wrists after learning that Applejack had told her about Celestia's breakdown and the reasons behind it. Derpy thanked her lucky stars that whatever was keeping Rainbow from having a breakdown of her own was there.
Unfortunately, the Commander also knew that, aside from the aerial battle she was involved with on the way to the base, she had no real combat experience. She hoped that Rainbow's team would take extra care of her. Losing her could be catastrophic to the war effort if the Time Lord's letter was correct.
"Doctor, if you'll excuse us, please. Rainbow, come with me. We'll discuss what I'll have you doing once you've met your team."
"Good luck, Miss Dash," Dr. Neurocell said as they departed.
Rainbow followed her Commander out of the small lab and to the right, back toward the control room. The troops stood at attention as Derpy walked by. She briefly hailed them, not stopping to pass along any orders or check on any progress. Lieutenant Spoon was handling the situation just fine in her stead. Rainbow glanced around the room, marveling at all the electronics. She wondered for a moment if she would ever have the chance to play with any of them as she walked by.
The cyan mare saw on the far side of the room a well lit, large hallway that looked familiar. She assumed it must have been where she and Spike came in. At the back wall of the control room was a corridor, fairly dark compared to rest of the area. Derpy escorted her down the dim entranceway where they came to a large metal door.
With a loud creak and a strong push, it slid open. The Commander stepped inside the war room first, interrupting the conversation her elite squad was having. Upon hearing the familiar voices, Rainbow's attention was captured completely. Derpy stepped aside and nodded her in. The low lights in the hallway hid the blue mare's form from the team's sight, but once she entered the room, four jaws hit the floor.