Chapter 37: News From Afar
The night was starting to get cold without the sun. Just another thing to remind Twilight of her country's plight. It had been weeks now, and still there was no sign of the end in sight. It constantly ate at her, not knowing what she could do to help. She didn't have access to the Elements and she didn't know the fate of her teacher.
And still other problems rubbed in her face showing just how bad the situation was. Nopony was acting like their normal selves, for the most part. Rarity was still donating her services to those down on their luck. Applejack was now running the kitchens in full and helping set up a decent set of crops they could try to grow with the harsh light of the electric lamps. But because of that, she hardly had any time to spend with her friends.
Rainbow Dash at least hadn't changed much, but she was devoting most of her time to learning how to better fight and Twilight began to worry for her. Most worrisome though was Fluttershy. Twilight was on her way to see her now.
However, this time, instead of heading to the infirmary, Twilight was on a path through the crowded tents to the edge of the camp. Just a few days ago, her pegasus friend had found an empty tent apart from the others, gone inside and stayed there. She rarely came out and she didn't eat. This most of all scared Twilight.
Softly, she walked up to the tent, an old and ratty thing, but large enough to house a few ponies comfortably. As she approached, she heard a voice inside and paused to listen. At first she thought Fluttershy had begun speaking again, but then recognized it as the unmistakable voice of Pinkie.
"Come on, cheer up why don't ya! Look~, I made you very special Fluttercakes~." She said in a sing song voice.
Twilight pulled a flap open a little ways and peered in. Fluttershy was still sitting in her corner, silent and unmoving. Pinkie was offering her a tray of delectable cupcakes made of yellow cake, pink frosting and a small chocolate butterfly gently set into the frosting of each one. But every time Pinkie changed position to offer them to her friend, Fluttershy would turn away without so much as an utterance. The look on her face was down right tragic.
"Not hungry? That's ok. I'll just set these down right here for you if you want'em later." Pinkie told her, placing the tray by her friend. Then she spotted Twilight at the tent's opening and bounced over, still all smiles. That was, until she left the tent at which point the corners of her mouth began to droop along with her ears. "Hey Twilight, she's still not doing so well..." She said in a hushed tone.
"I know Pinkie, I'm worried too", she's really depressed. I don't think I've ever seen her like this before."
"She's been downy frowny for days now, do you think she's gonna be all right?"
"I'm not sure." Twilight said. "I think right now we should stay by her, but try to give her some space and try to get her eating again. Going this long without food is really unhealthy."
"You said it." Pinkie said, glancing at the tent. "She wouldn't even look at my Fluttercakes, she loves my Fluttercakes!" She exclaimed, distraught.
"I know, Pinkie. But hopefully she'll come around in time, we just need to keep supporting her. She lost another close friend. I'd feel the same way if I lost one of you."
Intending to leave Fluttershy to her self for a little bit, the two began to walk away, perhaps check on their other friends. Twilight thought that she hadn't seen Applejack in a while, maybe they would go pop in on their hard working friend and grab a bite to eat as well. When they arrived at the new Apple home near the center of camp, Twilight saw that a larger tent had been erected nearby. This one glowed intensely from within. Curious, Twilight poked her head inside.
She was amazed to find it filled with row after row of wooden troughs filled with soil, each also had a string of bright heat lamps warming them from above. Pinkie poked her head in underneath Twilight and gawked at the spectacle, "Aw, cool!"
At the pink mare's exclamation, a Stetson covered head popped up in between a couple of the rows and waved them over. "Oh, hey there fellas! Come on in, like our new little set-up?" Still gazing around, Twilight and Pinkie entered the tent and made their way towards Applejack. "Ah talked to one of 'em 'lectricians and scrounged up some of those lights what spit out those UV rays you were tellin' me about, Twi'. 'Course Ah'm sure little guys prefer good ol' fashion sunlight, but with a little love and care, Ah'm sure they'll do jus' fine."
"This is pretty impressive, AJ!" Twilight said, inspecting one of the lamps closest to them. "How much do you think you can grow?"
"Ah reckon it could be enough ta last us a while. More if we can make another few facilities and more ponies in on it. 'Course, we woudn't of even got this far without some good ol' Apple Family ingenuity." She boasted pridefully. "Check it out, we rigged an irrigation system for 'em too."
Even as Twilight looked around, she could spot the small pipes coming out from one side of the tent and running along each of the wooden troughs. If she had to guess, she'd say they were connected to a pump somewhere outside. At least they wouldn't have to worry about food for a while.
Meanwhile, Pinkie was bouncing with excitement, "So you mean we can have corn and wheat and apples and flowers and berries and -ooh!- strawberries and pumpkins and squashes and -ahh!- cucumbers which means we can pickle them and I love pickles!"
The farm mare regarded her with a strange look, "Uh... sure. Hey, Twi'," Applejack said, returning her attention to her lavender friend, "Any word on Fluttershy, she feelin' any better?"
"No," Twilight said with a somber sigh, "she's still depressed."
"Gosh, she's really takin' it hard. Ah mean, It's not like Garth is gone forever. He jus' went for a little help, Ah'm sure he'll be back real soon and she'll cheer right up!"
"I sure hope so..."
Just then, the alarming sound of warning bells began to clash and clang outside the tent. Twilight and Applejack stopped to listen, even Pinkie Pie paused in her bouncing at all the noise. Quickly, the three of them rushed out the tent to see what was going on. Up in the sky, a night dimmed rainbow blur shot towards the southeast section of the camp. Seconds later, Aria's airship could be seen ascending up as well.
Down the road, Twilight saw one of the few Guards that made it to the camp with them, galloping towards their interim HQ. She waved him over to get some information on the situation. "Um, excuse me, sir?" The stallion skidded to a halt by them, panting from his exertion. "Could you please tell us what's going on?"
The Guard quickly caught his breath, "Some strange lights were spotted going from the direction of Canterlot. We don't know what it is, but I need to get to the HQ and tell them what we saw. If I were you, I'd stay inside in case it's an attack." Without another word, he dashed off to his task.
Twilight heard his warning, but her curiosity got the best of her. It sounded strange for an attack. "Come on, girls, let's go see what this is all about."
The three of them burst into a gallop and started running for the scene of the alarm, running up the roads and weaving in and out of the spaces between the tents to shorten their trip. As they passed a damaged one, Spike and Rarity's shocked faces blurred by. In just a few minutes, they had almost reached their destination, marked by the silhouette of Aria's ship hovering over its position. By then, the alarms had already ceased and members of the Royal Guard could be seen streaming their way, armed and ready for a fight.
Once Twilight, Applejack and Pinkie Pie had arrived, they were treated to what was indeed a strange sight. There in the grass, now a good ways out from the woods, sat a strange, large boxy object, defining features obscured behind two bright rays of light. When Twilight listened, she could hear the low hum of what she recognized as an electric engine. Then above, she heard a faint chi-chack as one of the RSTG members in Aria's ship readied one of the weapons it had mounted in its side door and trained it on the object. Nearby, Rainbow Dash flapped in place, holding a long and misshapen piece of scrap metal, the gleam in her eyes said she was ready for a fight.
Then, the object and the area around it was suddenly illuminated as Aria flipped on a spot light and brought it to bear. It was an odd looking thing, sitting on four round tires and made almost entirely of a dull gray metal. On top was what Twilight identified as one of the strange and deadly human weapons, but it was unmanned. In the light cast from the Airship, Twilight thought she saw movement behind the large window on its front. "What d' y'all think that is?" Applejack said next to her.
"I don't know," Dash said from above them, "but it made a huge mistake if it thought it could mess with us!" Before Twilight could stop her, she flapped her wings hard and charged at the thing. "You came to the wrong neighborhood!" She shouted as she swung her metal bar at one of the windows in its side. Instead of the satisfying shatter of glass she was expecting, the bar bounced of with a thunk and rang like a tuning fork. "What the hay? Tough guy, huh? We'll see about that!" She then set to pounding relentlessly with renewed vigor on the roof and sides of the vehicle, though producing nothing but scratches on its surface in the process, adding to the scrapes, scars and pock marks that marred its surface.
Over all the racket, Twilight heard a scared voice call out from inside the thing, "Please stop, I didn't come to attack you!"
"Rainbow Dash, cut it out!" Twilight shouted. "There's somepony inside there!"
"Huh?" Dash paused in her relentless attack and fluttered over to her friends. "But what if that thing's here to hurt people?"
"Didn't ya hear the poor gal in there? She ain't here to fight anypony." Applejack told her. "Now settle down!"
"Whatever. This piece of junk wasn't doing anything anyway." Rainbow conceded crossly, tossing the hunk of metal aside.
The hum of the electric motor cut off and the lights it created clicked off. The door on its right side opened, hesitantly at first, but then wider and a chestnut brown unicorn mare stepped down onto the grass, squinting in the bright spotlight. After a short moment, the light shut off and the airship descended to the ground.
The gunner in the side door stepped back and the mounted weapon with him as Aria shut down her bird and burst out of the door. "Q? Quick Fix, is that you!?"
"Aria!" Quick Fix galloped to her friend and they embraced in a tight hug before stepping away from each other. "Aria, I'm so glad you made it out!" She said with evident joy and a beaming smile.
"Yes, a lot of us did, actually! Sorry for the rude welcome, but we've all been a little on edge lately. And then I saw your little machine rolling in and all I could think was that those horrible soldiers in Ponyville stole it and came to attack us!"
"Oh no, there's no way that could've happened!" Quick Fix laughed, but then slowly stopped and looked around at all their confused faces. "What, you guys didn't hear?" Aria shook her head. "Ponyville's fine, we managed to get rid of the Renegades!"
Aria's face, as well as the rest of them, registered shock. Then after the brief moment, smiles began to spread. In her usual fashion, Pinkie was especially ecstatic, jumping too and fro, whooping with delight and eventually galloping back to the camp to spread the good news. The assembled Guards dispersed and followed gleefully as she did so. Twilight stepped forward, questions on her features, "Excuse me, you might not know me, but I look after the library there."
Quick Fix smiled, "Of course I do, you're one of the Elements! I even fixed your fridge once when the stubborn thing decided to quit."
Realization blossomed on Twilight's face, "Oh yeah! Sorry, it's been a while..." She said, face flushing with embarrassment.
"I do a good job, don't I?" She smirked.
"Absolutely! Um, I'm sorry, but I just wanted to ask... how? I mean, the last we saw when we escaped, the Royal Guard stationed there were pretty much beaten down."
Quick Fix looked hesitant to answer the question, taking a furtive glance at Rainbow Dash, but pushed on any way, "Well, you see, they had a little help..."
"What kinda help was that?" Applejack asked, also seeking answers.
"I'm sure you probably know him... I mean, it's not like there's a bunch of 'em running around. Do the rest of you know him as Mr. Kaughn, or—"
"Hold on a sec!" Dash suddenly shouted, trotting over to the unicorn and scrutinizing here with an examining eye. "Are you talkin' about James!? Weird guy, dirty blonde, about as tall as AJ's brother, walks around on two legs!?" She blurted out in staccato fashion.
"Uh, yeah, if that's his name..." Quick Fix replied.
"Wait, James is alive!?" Aria exclaimed with incredulity, glaring at Twilight.
"I'll explain later." She whispered sheepishly.
"Are ya sure?" Applejack said with a hint of skepticism. "Ya sound like you're bein' full honest with us, but the James we know don't take too bustin' heads much any more."
"Gotta be. Not too many things that walk on two legs, and last I checked, he wasn't a Diamond Dog. As for the fighting, well; he stole Daisy over there and came tearing into town, blasting his way through all the soldiers with that gun up there." She told them, pointing to the machine gun mounted on the roof. "Then the Guards the Renegades had taken prisoner somehow got out and helped him to massacre the lot of 'em!" She recounted. "We've been traveling alone together to Canterlot since then."
Dash sat back and pondered the unicorn's description of events, but said, "Ok, so maybe it was him, but that sure isn't the same James I know. Nowadays, he wouldn't hurt a fly if he could help it."
"Then I guess he isn't the same James you know anymore." She replied innocently.
Rainbow Dash reared up in anger, "What did you say!?" She shouted, waving a hoof threateningly.
Quick Fix recoiled, but the attack never came. Applejack put herself in between her and Dash and quickly led the pegasus mare off a ways to cool down. Twilight carefully approached the now frightened unicorn with the sea-foam mane. "You'll have to excuse our friend, she really cares about him. You also probably shouldn't have mentioned that the two of you were traveling alone together, Rainbow Dash can get jealous sometimes."
"I can see that..." Quick Fix said, staring over at Applejack trying to talk a still fuming Rainbow Dash down.
Getting Quick Fix's attention back, Twilight said, "I'm sorry to keep bothering you about this, but James was- is a very dear friend to us. Do you know where he might be right now?"
Now it was Quick Fix's turn to be embarrassed. "Well uh.. a short while ago we had a little falling out. I came back here to find a safe place to stay and last I saw, he was still at the place we stopped at to rest. Knowing him like I do though, he's already long gone from there now, heading for Canterlot. Said he's going to... well, it didn't sound good."
Twilight's face became grave, "Are you sure?"
"If you can show me that location on a map, I can have my bird in the sky and in that area faster than a dragon digging into a gem cave." Aria offered.
"No." Twilight told her, turning it down. "You know how he is, you'd never be able to find him in this darkness."
"Where is he!?" Twilight was suddenly aware that Rainbow Dash had wandered back, though still watched closely by Applejack. "I heard you say you were going to Canterlot, I need to go get him and bring him back!"
"I'm sorry RD, but we can't know for sure. It's best you stay here until we can figure this out." Twilight explained calmly.
"No! Aria, get with Sylver and his guys. Pool your knowledge of Canterlot and the area around it and see if you can find a way in the Renegades might not know about."
"Sugarcube, ya ain't plannin' on tryin' anythin' dangerous, are you?" Applejack cautioned.
"Maybe a little, but we can't hide here forever. Sylver's reports say that the fighting in Canterlot is spreading, that means that the Royal Guards still in there are fighting to take the city back. Now James is heading there too. We might not be able to help directly, but maybe we can do something."
The air hummed steadily as the airship cut through the darkened sky. Jackson sat on one of the benches inside, staring at a photograph. He ran his thumb up and down the worn edges of the picture of his daughter, a habit he developed before going on difficult operations in case he never got the chance again.
He wondered what Sophie would have thought of his whole situation, fighting in a strange world that wasn't his own. He felt a nudge and looked up to see Mayfield standing over him. "Almost time, mate. Garth's putting us in a hover over some clouds, gonna talk out a plan."
"All right, just a sec." Jackson carefully slid the photo into his left breast pocket, under his light armor and moved to the center of the cabin where the others were waiting.
All told, he and Mayfield were there with Iron, Redflare, Swift, Cray, Kai, Whirl, Strake and for some reason, Blackjack. It was already crowded enough with the ten of them in there, but a small squad of four Lotkin form Gen'da's tribe had elected to go with them, they sat in the back corner together, running rasping stones down the length of their wicked blades.
Earlier, Mayfield had tried to offer them a few rifles from the kit Garth had brought with him, but they spat at him in disgust and told him they would fight with their true weapons. Jackson was intrigued to learn that they saw killing with anything more technologically advanced than a crossbow was 'blasphemous' and 'cowardly' in their eyes.
They did, however, accept the body armor Garth had given to them, though after some debate. As it was now, the airship finally slowed to a stop and the cockpit door swung open as Garth passed through. Through the windshield, only the faint silvery haze of the moonlit clouds surrounding their craft could be seen. Jackson had everyone gather around a map of Canterlot's area, beckoning the four other Lotkin to join them.
"Ok, here's the deal." Jackson started. "From what we know, the Palace and most of the city are under Renegade control. Garth, you said the a bunch of the Royal Guards and some of the RSTG guys are in there playin' guerrilla, right?" Garth nodded with a grunt. "Then we need to get in touch with them. We still have our radios, hopefully they got theirs as well."
Whirl raised a hoof, "How're we gonna get close enough to do that?"
"Easy, Cray's gonna help us with that." Jackson said, pointing to the unicorn.
Cray moved forward and levitated a bundle of cloth into the middle of the group. "I took one of the spare radios and disabled the speakers and mic. Then I rewired it to be constantly sending and receiving without tieing up the line, like a mini-repeater." With a flourish, he undid the bundle, revealing the radio device attached to a large umbrella shaped cloth with multiple strings. "Redflare and Kai will fly ahead, under cloud cover provided by Redflare. All they have to do is switch it on and drop it over the city. From a high enough altitude, it should give us about ten minutes of talking time."
"Once we've made contact," Jackson cut in, "we'll explain our situation to who ever is in charge and organize a massive push to draw most of the fighting to them." He tapped the Palace on the map. "Gentlemen, we're going for the head of the snake. Whatever bastard organized all this is going down. Get ready to drop."