Sweetie Belle juggled the dozen sheets levitating by her side, all of them twirling through the air in a makeshift tornado as she trotted down the tight corridor. Stopping as she reached the intersection at the end, bathed in fresh dawn light pouring through the port holes, she dropped the sheets and began to organize them by hoof.
This was important, she knew. She couldn’t mess this up, because every little mistake she made put the life of another pony in jeopardy. Silently she cursed Arnaquer and those high ranking ponies that had come up with the plan, not that it was a bad plan. In fact, she could only see one major flaw it in. Why did they have to put me in charge of this?
A huff escaped her, a sound so similar to her sister’s own exasperated sigh that Sweetie Belle paused for a moment, biting her lip in embarrassment. She shook her head. “Right, I can do this, they’re trusting me. I have to do this!”
Scooping up the pages, she gripped them in her telekinetic magic and began racing down the ship once more, light splashing into her drowsy eyes every time she passed one of the tiny windows.
Sitting in the sky beyond the Furtif were three ships, including the Obedience class vessel they had boarded and one of the Imperial interdiction frigates that had survived the battle, even if just barely. As she glanced from the corner of her eye she could easily see into and through the hobbling airship, its frame exposed like the ribs of a wounded animal left to rot.
She had spent all night aboard that vessel, breaking down its communication devices and rifling through all the paperwork and passcodes hidden in it. The information was priceless, or at least it would be to some ponies. Sweetie was just glad to be out of the flying deathtrap.
Continuing down the corridor, Sweetie arrived at one of the many entrances to the Furtif’s hangar and barged in, blinking in shock at what she saw.
That door had opened to one of the rails above the main floor of the hangar room, a floor covered in ponies. Every able-bodied pony was there. Mechanics, soldiers, and pilots crowded around, talking in low whispers as they sat and waited. Sweetie Belle swallowed.
A few glanced up and waved to her or smiled expectantly as she pushed herself forwards and into the limelight. The crowd hushed, ponies calling out to each other to be quiet as all attention was driven up to where Sweetie Belle stood.
She licked her lips and looked across the crowd, staring around at the vaguely familiar faces one by one until she found her friends. Apple Bloom, Pipsqueak and Scootaloo were congregated together, the young couple sitting with tails entwined while Scootaloo made a show of glaring at anypony that came too close to her.
“Um,” she began, then took a deep, slow breath. I can do this. I've done far, far worse than talk in front of ponies I don’t know. “Hello, everypony. Today is an important day. As some of you know, we’ve stopped traveling forward and are now stopped some thirty kilometres from the outer reaches of New Appleloosa. Soon, we will enact a new plan, entitled Project Headphone.
“This operation will begin in”— she glanced at her hoof on which a watch was affixed.—”forty minutes.” Ponies across the room gasped or reeled back in shock. “Now, let me go over the preliminary phases of the plan. All of you will find details before you depart about your specific tasks but we’ll go over the group’s goal together.
“As you are all aware, New Appleloosa is the current staging zone for the Imperial Navy. They have well over an estimated one hundred airships of varioussizes, meaning a fleet equal to all the ships at the Battle of Ponyville, Imperial and Rebellion alike.” She could hear them gulping, but closed her eyes and went on.
“Our goal is to infiltrate New Appleloosa, meet up with the ground-based reinforcements and rebellion fighters, and make every moment of those Imps’ lives a living hell. Every group will be assigned a target to take down using any means necessary. You will also be given secondary goals that are broader, designed to whittle down enemy morale. Every pony will join a group with a single leader and each group will be given one of twelve targets.”
Twelve ponies trotted into the room below, each of them carrying long scrolls inscribed with a list of names and wearing long, colourful sashes. “When your name is called out,” Sweetie Belle instructed, “please find your designated team leader. Meanwhile, think about this:
“So far, the Empire has done nothing good for Equestria. Friends, family, and nations have all died or been obliterated by this cruel and evil force. Now, we will strike at them as they have hit us. Using the most underhoofed of methods and by manipulating fear with their every gesture.
“We will sabotage their efforts. We will make them question their leaders. We will draw out their reserves and trample their morale with each and every one of our movements. The ponies you are with today are the ones who will truly bring an end to the Empire and restore Equestria to its former glory!” Sweetie Belle shouted above them all, caught up in the fervour of her own voice.
The ponies cheered with one big “Hoo-rah!” that thundered across the hangar and made every wall shake and shiver.
Tears stained Sweetie Belle’s eyes, but she could do little other than smile as ponies ran to do the bidding of the Republic.
Sweetie Belle took her time descending to the ground floor of the hangar. She tasted the sweaty, tangy odour of the Furtif and realised, for the first time, that she was going to miss the vessel. It had carried her and her friends through much, and all of them had grown while onboard.
She reached the hangar where the doors had been left wide open and found the room not half as full as it had been when she was talking. Some ponies were returning already with large filled duffle bags over shoulders and backs, while others stood around in tight groups, hugging and trying to stifle cries as they said their goodbyes. Nopony had refused the mission.
“Sweetie!” Apple Bloom called from halfway across the room, waving a long, brass wrench in the air above her head. “Come on over!”
A few heads turned her way as she crossed the hangar, her own head held low as a blush spread across her very white cheeks. Her friends were all gathered around the Thunderbolt and the Expedite, both vessels parked beside each other at the far back of the takeoff ramps.
Scootaloo was upside down under the Expedite, a few loose cables held gingerly in her hooves as she looked out towards Sweetie and grinned. Wrenches was by her side, scowling as she gestured wildly and tried to explain something to the young pegasus.
Apple Bloom, meanwhile, was already aboard the Thunderbolt, the ship’s engine compartment open at her side while Pipsqueak was sweating bullets trying to keep the heavy lid opened above her bow-wearing head.
“Hi guys,” Sweetie called back as she slowed to a halt not too far away from both small groups. “Is everything almost ready?’
“Yup, Ah got some grub stashed up, Pip’s got some of our personal stuff, and Scoot’s got her plane all fixed up. She gave all of us a bunch of trouble for installing... a few things without giving her a heads up about it.”
Scootaloo slid out of under the Expedite to glare at Apple Bloom, but the glare hid an amiable smile. “A few things?”
Still smiling, although it was a little strained, Sweetie Belle tuned out the squabbling between the two mares as they fought over trivialities. From behind her came Mira, the mare placing a red hoof on Sweetie’s shoulder before grabbing her in a crushing embrace.
Tears were flowing off of the mare’s face, dripping all over Sweetie’s shoulder. “I’m going to miss you so much,” she said between wracking sobs. “You did such a nice job!”
Sweetie wiggled in her grasp, trying to break free enough to breathe until Mira finally let go. “M-Mira, you, you don’t have to worry, I’m okay. Everything’s going to be all right.”
She sniffled, then inclined her head backwards. “I don’t believe you!” she shrieked at the top of her lungs while Sweetie tried to console her with little pats along her back.
“I promise, I promise that everything’s going to be okay,” Sweetie said, biting her lower lip while blood pooled beneath her cheeks. That wasn’t part of the plan. I guess that it is possible that I’ll never see her again. I hope that’s not the case. Now teary eyed herself, Sweetie grabbed Mira and hugged her in turn, feeling her warmth as their coats mixed, red on white. “Mira, we’re going to see each other again. B-but you have to promise to survive for me too, okay? You might be a little crazy. And you go overboard often, but you’re my friend too, and I won't let any of my friends die without first giving them a good scolding, okay?”
Mira nodded, burying her leaky face into Sweetie’s shoulder. “Okay, I promise,” she said before separating and turning her face away. Her eyes were bloodshot but still filled with raw emotion as she gazed right at Sweetie. “Please don’t do anything silly.”
Sweetie smiled. “Of course not. Somepony has to be responsible around here.”
With little ado, Mira trotted back to the Thunderbolt, wiped away a few tears and hopped back in, immediately setting to work on the plane's equipment.
Apple Bloom and Scootaloo had stopped fighting, their good humour dying off a little as they stared at Sweetie Belle. She sat up. “Come on you two, get a move on! We’re leaving this boat soon and we’re not nearly ready yet. We have important things to do!” she said with a glee and excitement that she didn’t feel at all.
Her friends did not seem to notice as they jumped back to their work. Sweetie nodded to herself. They’re a good bunch, all of them, she thought as she stared at the still-closed hangar doors. We need to end all of this, we really do. For all our sakes.
Trotting forwards, Sweetie Belle hopped into the Thunderbolt, then found her way to the pilot’s seat. The voyage would be long and they were going to fly in tandem for a good part of it. She began playing across the controls with her forehooves, getting reaquainted with them when she heard two voices speaking.
Her ears perked and Sweetie held herself higher, looking out of one of the nearby windows.
Near the nose of the craft, Scootaloo and Wrenches had stopped their hasty repair work to talk, both in low tones that snuck into the craft. “Thanks, for everything,” Scootaloo said, averting her gaze from the mechanic pony.
“It’s no problem. You and your friends have repaid it ten times over. It’s just too bad that... never mind.”
Wrenches sighed, seeming to become smaller as she looked away. “I wish Kami Kaze were still here. He’d know what to say.”
Both mares grew quiet, staring at the ground below their hooves as they thought. “He liked you, you know?” Wrenches finally whispered. “He liked you a bunch.”
Scootaloo nodded then quickly brushed the tip of her wing by her eyes. “Yeah, I know.”
“Could you do me a favour?” Wrenches looked up, meeting Scootaloo right in the eye with a piercing, powerful gaze. “Kill as many of those assholes as possible. They did some terrible, terrible things, and they ought to pay for it.”