Defense in Depth

by Fon Shaolin


Chapter 4

“Twilight.”

The voice was evil; it wanted her to do something. It buzzed around like an annoying fly that refused to be swatted, skittering around through her mind. Traipsing, even. Her head was rather loudly railing against that kind of treatment in the only way it could – with teeth-clenching, heart-wrenching pain.

“It’s time to get up, Twilight.”

No, voice, it was time for you to shut up. Shut up and go away!

“You’re crankier than your mother is when she has to get up early.” A beat. “At least you get it honest.”

Twilight felt herself being lifted by magic and found that resisting was simply far too much of a bother. Better to just groan miserably and weakly flop like a dying fish; her body was insisting that was the best course of action in this situation.

“It is useless saying this, but please do not be angry with me. I have little choice and time is of the essence.”

Stupid, annoying, babbling voice! Couldn’t it see that she was a mare distressed? “Glugh,” Twilight grunted, which was hungover mare speak for, “Put me back in my bed this instant, Voice, or else.”

The voice was quiet for a moment and Twilight felt herself being lowered. Apparently the voice spoke Hungover Mare. Good. Good for it and its family. Even though her bed felt far harder…and colder…than it normally did it was better than being prattled at. Really, after curling into a little ball it wasn’t that bad at all.

“Sorry about this, Sweetie.”

Before Twilight could work up the fortitude for another threat, a freezing blast of water showered her back. She bolted upright in the bathtub and landed with a wet smack flat on her back when her legs slipped out from under her on the slick porcelain.

And then she screeched when she slid down far enough that the cold jet of water hit her square in the face.

Standing a few feet away, out of flailing hoof range, Selenic Shine watched with only a slight tick of his eyebrow. “Really,” he said as his daughter dragged her top half over the rim of the tub, “the theatrics are a bit much, Twilight. I did ask you nicely to get up.”

Twilight’s response was to spit out a mouthful of shower water.

Selenic shook his head and gave the hot water knob a firm twist with his magic. “Better?”

“Better,” Twilight grunted. She pushed her sopping mane out of her eyes and kicked at the switch that turned the uncomfortable shower into a much nicer bath. Twilight heaved herself back into the tub and let her head slide into the pooling water. Her ears flicked when a clink came from the side of the tub. She cracked an eye open and saw the most glorious sight of her young life: a cup of steaming coffee sitting there, just waiting for her.  Her headache was not so bad that she couldn’t spare the magic to levitate it down to her lips.

“What time is it?” Twilight asked. Gods, but that coffee was good. Not good enough for her to forgive her father for this, but it was a start.

Selenic gestured to the tall window on the other side of the room. There was only the faintest blush of a sunrise on the night sky. “Early enough that I believe you’ll be able to get this hangover out of your system before your preliminary medical testing.”

A sharp spike of pain thundered through Twilight’s head as the previous night shoved its way to the forefront of her mind. The bar, the drinking, the job offer, the not-so-polite refusal, the going home…the…what? She couldn’t remember the going home leg of the journey. That wasn’t good, was it? How many drinks did she have? There had been two at the restaurant and only one at the bar, but how many refills? Had she ever looked down and seen an empty glass?

Goddess, but the bath felt good. Thinking was bad. She didn’t need thinking so long as she had this wonderfully warm water. Everything hurt – everything. Her back was achy and sore and her legs didn’t want to do anything but flop to the side. What logic dictated that a hangover should make your body hurt? If anything had a right to complain it was her liver, not her joints and muscles.

“I scheduled you twenty minutes to get washed up and completely sober before your mother comes to find you,” Selenic said, stepping toward the bathroom door. “Galaxy has a sixth sense for these kinds of things, so you should get it all out of your system before your brother’s distraction runs its course.”

“What kind of distract—”

What did you two do on my sofa?!

Twilight blinked owlishly. “They didn’t.”

Her father took a sip of coffee from his own cup. “Apparently your brother decided that it was a good idea to stay the night. In his state that was a good idea, but it seems Princess Cadence decided to keep him company.”

The bathwater rippled with Twilight’s stifled giggles. “I’m never sitting on that sofa again.”

Selenic smiled. “It will have to be burned,” he agreed. A crash from downstairs drew his attention. “Well, take your time to clean up. You have a big day today and I have to keep your mother from making you an only child.” With that, the older unicorn slipped out of the room and went to somehow mitigate the growing battle a floor below.

Alone, Twilight let her ears sink into the warm water. The big day, her father had said, but that didn’t do it justice. This was it; this was the end. Last day on death row and all that. Not that she wasn’t looking forward to it, oh no, but all that talk about no books and maybe not getting into the castle…

I could get on the train to the castle with Cadence. The conversation they’d had at the bar suddenly snapped into focus through the uncomfortable haze of her headache. Cadence had looked so hopeful that she’d take the job. All it would take is one decision, one different train, and her dream would be hers. A few years working as Cadence’s assistant and doing a good job at that and then maybe Celestia herself would notice. She could be Celestia’s assistant by the time she was twenty. How much closer to the princess could someone get?

Suddenly the bathwater didn’t feel so good; suddenly she didn’t feel so good. Twilight clenched her jaw and jumped up from the water so fast she nearly ripped the curtain down in her bolt for the toilet.

One stomach evacuation later, Twilight coughed and slumped down onto the cold tile. “Get it all out of your system,” her father had said. Now she knew what he meant, though her upset stomach couldn’t be blamed completely on the hangover.

Twenty-five minutes later Twilight stumbled down the stairs. She managed a laugh at seeing a sofa pulled up to the backdoor, but even that little bit of movement made the bile in her stomach uncomfortably shift. It was a great relief to get into a kitchen chair and simply rest for a few moments. Looking around, Twilight floated a peeled orange over to her and took an unenthusiastic bite. She needed something on her stomach no matter how much her body protested.

Selenic and Galaxy were sitting down as well, but Twilight saw that Shining Armor and Cadence had been banished to the bar. The back of her friend’s neck was still a ruddy red color and Shining was trying his best to stay as small as possible. Every time Galaxy Glimmer shifted the guilty pair jumped in their seats.

Such a scandal. After all that responsible talk from Cadence, even. Not that she was surprised; Twilight couldn’t count how many times she’d caught them fooling around when Cadence was her foalsitter.

Still. That couch had been her favorite.

“Have you decided when you want to leave?” Selenic asked, neatly folding his newspaper in half and setting it down next to his empty coffee cup. “When does processing begin?”

“Six sharp,” Galaxy provided. The matron of the house looked like a bird whose feathers had been thoroughly ruffled and the edge in her voice made both Shining and Cadence go rigid.

Six o’clock. Twilight glanced up at the kitchen clock and saw that it was a little before five. Well, it wasn’t cutting it that close just yet since they were already living downtown. Just two blocks down and there was the local train station. Very convenient, that.

Twilight cleared her throat. “Shining, processing is at the military hospital on the other side of town, right?”

He didn’t bother turning around. “Right, Twilie. Two trains away.”

“Well, when do you think we should leave? Do they want us there early or right on time?”

Shining dared to glance over his shoulder. “The sooner the better,” he said in a shaky voice, cautiously watching Galaxy Glimmer eat her breakfast.

Twilight nodded. She’d be the one helping Shining Armor get off the hook for once. “I think we can even head out now in case there’s any extra paperwork I need to fill out.” She smiled at her parents. “ROTC being what it is and such. You know how paperwork is.”

They both nodded, but Twilight could tell that her words had shifted the mood. Galaxy was still staring intently at her pancakes. Subtly, Selenic put his hoof on her leg and he mare sucked in a long breath of air through her nostrils.

Well, we’re all going to w-walk to the train station with you.” Twilight’s stomach lurched when she heard the hitch in her mother’s voice. “As a family. And…and we’ll be there when you get sworn in.” And when you leave Canterlot.

Twilight looked away, feeling foolish for rushing things. “Right. To the station.”

The morose atmosphere followed the five out the door. Twilight led the way, slightly a step ahead of her mother and father which had taken up places next to her. In a moment of clarity, Twilight realized that her unease was nothing compared to what her parents were feeling. She was it; after her, the two would be alone. She’d only been thinking about how getting into the Guard would affect her, but it was her parents that would have to immediately live with her decision.

Galaxy hadn’t wanted Shining to go. The night before he left they’d had a terrible fight. Twilight still remembered the shouting and the screaming, the horrible things her mother had said about Cadence and why Shining wanted to join the guard. She’d curled up in her bed and stuffed her head under the pillow, but it didn’t stop the sounds. The sobs. The pleading. Only Cadence had walked with Shining to the station that morning.

There’s still the job at the castle. The thought came back, unbidden, and Twilight had to force herself to keep looking straight ahead and not glance at Cadence. If she took the job, she could live at home for another few years. Even if she moved out her parents would only be a few blocks away.

Her steps went out of rhythm for a moment as she shook her head. No. No. She wouldn’t do that. The reasons, the feelings, she’d laid out the night before to both Shining Armor and Cadence had been true. Serving Celestia as a guard was her defining purpose in life. If she couldn’t be a student of magic under Princess Celestia then she’d put her magic to use for Princess Celestia. No matter what Shining Armor thought about the princess not needing to be protected – Twilight would do her part.

That comforting feeling of resolve filled Twilight with confidence as the train station came into view. The streets were still lit by lamplight, but this close to the station there were other ponies around. Office workers, lawyers, judges, and other high-profile ponies that lived this close to the castle were just beginning their journeys to work that morning when Twilight’s family stepped up onto the platform.

A train whistle in the distance distracted everyone. The morning train wasn’t running yet, but its arrival was rapidly approaching. Galaxy Glimmer leaned into her husband to bury a sniffle in his neck and Twilight’s body went stiff. If Galaxy begged her not to join, could she say no? If her entire family was against her joining the Guard then could she really go off anyway? Could she be Shining Armor if it came down to it, walking away from everything she’d ever known?

Galaxy’s hooves came up and Twilight felt the hairs of her back stand up. Was this it? Was this where they would spring it on her? Was this —

The mare draped herself around her daughter’s neck. “I am going to miss you so much, Twilight.”

Stunned, Twilight weakly returned the hug.

“I’ve taken you for granted,” Galaxy murmured. “I always thought that you would be there, that you’d always be our little filly, sitting around the library with your nose in a book. Before I knew it you were grown. How did I never see it before today?”

She pulled back, tears in her eyes, but smiling proudly. “You are our beautiful, talented, adult daughter and I’m sorry I didn’t see it earlier. Anything you do you will excel at, Twilight. I know you will.”

Twilight pulled her in again. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry for just…just leaving you two here alone.”

A hoof settled on her shoulder. “We’re not alone,” Selenic said. For once he had forgone the slight, restrained smiles and his lips were split in a huge, fatherly grin. He motioned his head toward Shining Armor and Cadence. The two were hanging back by the actual platform. “Your brother is here now and soon you’ll be back. You’re going to be a Royal Guard, aren’t you?”

“I’m not going to settle for anything less, Dad.”

He shared a warm look with his wife. “Straight from the horse’s mouth, Darling. She’ll be back just as sure as Shining Armor came back. When our daughter decides on something she gets it.”

Twilight realized that she didn’t deserve parents like this. She’d put them through so much though the years that it made her red in the face to even think about it. There was a number, somewhere, of how many times they’d gone to bat for her – they’d gotten her a chance to test at the School for Gifted Unicorns, they’d kept her from being kicked out of school when she’d spent years tormenting everyone, somehow they’d convinced the school to let her join ROTC a year early, and who knows what else.

And she was repaying that by leaving.

“Twilight. Twilight, Dear, too tight,” Glimmer croaked. Bashfully, Twilight let up her embrace but didn’t let go. She wasn’t ready yet.

“I love you two so much,” she whispered. “Somehow…somehow I’ll make up for all this. For everything. I’ll make you both proud of me.”

Selenic pulled back from the hug to look her in the eye. “There is nothing to make up for. No matter what, nothing you can do will make us any less proud of you than we are right now,” he said.

It was a look that Twilight felt ashamed to accept. She’d used her parents as ammunition against Shining Armor last night, knowing that he still felt they resented him for leaving. Just the same, Twilight realized that she didn’t have to accept their feelings – they’d feel it regardless.

That realization nearly made the distant gnashing and snarling of steel tolerable. Wide-eyed, Twilight looked over her mother’s shoulder at the distant puff of white smoke down the tracks. Across the train yard, the express that would take her across town was pulling away from the water tower that filled its boiler.

Galaxy Glimmer and Selenic Shine recognized the noise as well.  Galaxy wiped her eyes with the back of her hoof and took a shaky step back from Twilight. “I’m sorry if I messed up your mane,” she said, her voice somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

“It’s fine, Mom. They’re going to have to cut it anyway.” Her mother smiled in a sad sort of way and stared so intently at her mane that Twilight wondered if the mare was committing it to memory. The sudden thought made Twilight wish she’d taken a picture before leaving the house; she’d never look the same again. Her hooves, her legs, her mane – it was all going to change.

The train finally lumbered up to the platform. It was nothing more than a few passenger cars and a small locomotive, the ideal train for inner-city travel, but to Twilight it loomed in the distance like a massive iron snake, spitting fire and smoke and coming to devour her.

A strong hoof looped around her neck. “Mind if Cadence and I take it from here, guys?” Shining asked. “Cadence went and got her ticket and I have a few words of wisdom for Sis. Hush-hush information.  The best bars, dance clubs, tricks to sneaking off base – you know, the important stuff.”

Galaxy rubbed her muzzle, getting the rest of her sniffles out. “I swear, Shining, that if you get her into any trouble I’ll—”

The oldest stallion cut his wife off and gave Twilight a gentle push. “Go on, Twilight. We’ve taken up enough time like it is. I’m sure you want your best friend to see you off,” he said, nodding toward Cadence.

Dimly, Twilight heard her brother ask, “Am I chopped liver?” behind her, but she was already halfway across the platform. Cadence, her oldest and dearest friend, was standing a few feet over from the conductor and the other passengers slowly boarding. Her eyes widened when Twilight didn’t slow down enough to stop and she let out a puff of air when the small unicorn threw her legs around her neck.

“Oh Twilight,” Cadence sighed, returning the embrace. “You’re not going away forever.”

“But I am going away.” Twilight tucked her head in and sucked in a stuttering breath. “A-and I was worried I’d made you m-mad last night. At the bar. I don’t want to leave with you mad at me.”

Cadence pulled back and gave her friend a coy smile. “I remember that you got a little testy with me last night as well. I was worried you were still mad.”

Twilight grinned, happy that there were no hard feelings. “I figured between mom chewing you and Shining out this morning and having to buy us a new couch that you’d suffered enough.” Her grin widened when Cadence grumbled something and blushed. “What exactly were you two thinking? Fooling around in the living room?”

“It was Shining’s fault,” Cadence muttered, “and your mother will never, ever, let me live it down.”

“Neither am I. It’s going to get a lot of mileage: wedding toasts, Hearth’s Warming Eve anecdotes, Nightmare Night pranks, stories to tell the little nephews and nieces…”

Cadence gave her friend a flat look. “Would those stories come before or after I tell those same little nephews and nieces about Miss Smarty Pants?”

Twilight knew when she was beaten. Cadence had years and years of dirt on her. “Truce, truce!”

Cadence pulled her back in for one more squeeze before letting go. “There’s that clever young unicorn I know and love,” she said. Stepping back, she lit her horn and levitated out a train ticket. “You’re going to need this, aren’t you? The schedule says you change trains at Market Station and get off at Hospitaller.”

The ticket slipped out of Cadence’s magical grasp and Twilight locked her own magic around it. Her ticket to another life; the life she’d always dreamed about.

As she was committing it to memory, Cadence cleared her throat. “Twilight, I know you didn’t want to hear it last night, but—”

 “No, Cadence. No.” Twilight interrupted her; she had to interrupt her. “I shouldn’t have let it get to me. You were just…trying to help; you and Shining Armor both. I just got a bit too caught-up in it and the alcohol didn’t help. I shouldn’t have gotten snappy with you.”

“And I shouldn’t have gotten so pushy,” Cadence said, smiling.

Twilight smiled back and, for the first time that morning, felt like things were back to normal. “I thought about it, you know?” she said. “The job as your assistant.”

“Oh? And what did you think?”

“I think that only an idiot would turn it down. Working with you, in the castle, would be a dream come true for anyone. There are ponies that dream their whole lives for something like that.” Twilight’s smile slipped. “But…”

“I’m not the princess you want to work for.” Cadence didn’t look angry, only resigned; maybe even a tiny bit amused, like she had just understood the punch line to a joke everyone else had been laughing at. “How Auntie does it I’ll never understand,” she murmured.

The sudden lull in the conversation became punctuated with the long blaring of a train whistle. Cadence glanced over at the conductor who duly began another round of “all aboard!” with only five ponies in attendance on the platform.

Twilight took that as her cue. She pulled Cadence into another sudden hug which soon turned into a bit of a dog pile with Galaxy Glimmer, Selenic Shine, and Shining Armor joining in.

“I feel slighted in the goodbye department,” her brother whispered as he bullied his way through the various embraces. “You’ll remember your big brother when they offer to make you marshal or something, won’t you?”

“Count on it. I’ll make sure your namesake gets put to good use when I make you my official armor shiner.”

“Big words, little sister. You have to make it past the Generalissimo first.”

Generalissimo? The word wasn’t Equestrian and Twilight gave her brother a befuddled look. He met it with a smile and shook his head; she’d have to find out on her own.

The conductor zipped in front of the door when Twilight finally got onboard. Surprised, Twilight let out a few huffs of breath and opened her mouth to say one last thing to the four most important ponies in her life seeing her off, but the passenger car door slammed closed before it could get out. The stallion gave the side of the car a hard kick and hurried to the back, just scampering onto the caboose railing when the engine gave an answering whistle.

Cadence didn’t move back when the train began to roll. If she watched closely, she could make out the tip of Twilight’s snout poking out up from the bottom of the window as she tried to get a look out. It made her smile, imagining how flustered Twilight must be at being hustled off like that. The princess made a mental note to personally thank that conductor for waiting as long as he did; he was bound to catch it from the other morning commuters for the departure delay.

Perhaps sensing her mood, Shining Armor stepped up to the alicorn’s side and leaned into it. “Are you alright?” he asked. “She didn’t take it, did she?”

Cadence’s horn lit and another ticket floated out from her saddlebag. Unlike the one she’d given Twilight, this one was for a stop at the station closest to the castle. “I didn’t even have a chance to offer,” she said, balling it up and tossing it in a nearby trashcan. “We had a nice talk, though. She’s not going to budge on the career front.”

“She’s that set on it, huh? Nothing we can do about it now.”

The princess shook her head. She watched the train until it rolled out of sight. “That’s not true. We can do one thing.” She turned, smiling, and said, “We can hope for the best.”
        
*****

The Canterlot Guard Barracks and Depot served as a dumping ground for all manner of surplus military equipment. Though the city hosted the largest zeppelin squadron in Equestria, not everything in the sprawling complex was related to flying those giant hot air airships.

There was a good view of the main yard from the train station. Simple chain-link fence stretched acres and acres down the railroad track until it disappeared at the mountain’s edge. Inside were spare wagons, portable storm shelters, airship parts, and even a few old canons. Building-wise, there were three squat facilities beyond the storage yard. One of them had a bright red cross on the front façade.

Twilight took a deep breath and stepped out of her passenger car. She’d switched trains twenty minutes ago and there were far more ponies getting off with her than had got on at the start of her little journey. Most of them were in uniform – simple cut robes that designated non-guard military – but there were quite a few polished suits of armor in the crowd as well. Those ponies were taking up more than their fair share of space and Twilight found herself nearly stumbling as she awkwardly tried to shift out of their way. Before she realized it, she was off the platform and halfway through the station.

Ponies were chatting and laughing all around her. If she closed her eyes, Twilight could almost trick herself into believing she was back in a crowded hallway in school. Just a few weeks ago and she would have been. The smell of someone’s breakfast made her mouth water; she’d only picked at her food this morning, not wanting to put anything on her stomach that might upset it. Staying with the crowd, and following that delicious smell, she stepped out into the main thoroughfare to the base.

Well, technically it wasn’t a base. It was a depot/office headquarters. What the difference was Twilight didn’t know – it seemed plenty big enough to her! The main gate was wider than a train car was long and there were guards everywhere, checking the identifications of everyone going inside.

Twilight struggled with her duffle bag when she realized her tern to get checked was coming up. She only held up the line a moment while she fished out the papers she’d been given by her ROTC commander, Coalmane, to get her in. The guard that she flashed them at grunted and pointed with his hoof at a sign hanging on a column a few feet away.

It was a list of rules and general conduct for enlistees. Most of it was no-brainer such as no eating or drinking or wandering around, one line made Twilight realize why the guard had looked so put-out: “ENLISTEES – NO MAGIC OR FLIGHT WITHOUT PERMISSION.”

Twilight flashed him a sheepish smile and let her duffle bag drop to the ground. She picked it up by the handle with her teeth.

That earned her a curt nod. “You’ll want building G-2. Just follow the signs and you can’t get lost.” He gave her a look. “Good luck, Kid.”

Twilight had a new appreciation for earth ponies when she finally managed to lug her bag out the door. Thankfully, Shining Armor had given her the tip of picking a bag specifically made for ponies without magic when they were passing them out after ROTC graduation. The strap length was adjustable and Twilight slipped them over her front legs when she had the room. It was still unwieldy, but Twilight didn’t have to use her teeth anymore.

True to the guard’s words, there were signs up and down the depot’s road that pointed the way to the in-processing building. Traffic was sparse-but-steady and Twilight fell right in behind a gaggle of guards walking to work. Unlike the polished, gleaming barding of the Royal Guard, the average guardsman had practical armor suited to their jobs. Ponies that moved supplies had well-worn yokes integrated into their armor for hitching up to wagons; pegasi working weather for the crown had floppy flight suits with leather caps and goggles; average guardsmen that worked indoors sorting forms and files had only the barest of metal on – just little loops that settled on their necks and attached to a little cloth that covered their backs.

Suddenly Twilight saw them. Two royal guards moving against the flow of traffic, chatting with each other and completely unmindful of the way all the other ponies moved to get out of their way. Their armor was polished to a fine luster that sparkled in the dawn. It was the darker variant that showed these were night guards, but it was no less splendid than the day variant. Every Royal Guard had two “working” suits of armor, day and night, which they would wear depending on their shifts. As a matter of pure preference, Twilight thought the night variant looked better, but being a guard on the day shift was her dream position.

When they passed her, Twilight didn’t look away in time and one of them caught her staring. “New fish,” he said, smiling and nodding his head toward her. “When you get there, don’t sweat it. It gets better.” They were past her before Twilight could think of a proper response.

It was another few minutes of walking until G-2 came into sight. It was just another nondescript cinderblock building, but there was a giant “in-processing” sign hanging over the door. Other hopefuls were dragging their duffle bags inside with only Twilight and the earth ponies not having any trouble. A turquoise-colored pegasus trying to get her bag up the steps with just her teeth glared at her when she trotted right by.

Should have done some neck curls, Twilight thought. That was the problem with pegasi – none of them thought about any muscles other than the ones on their backs.

Inside ponies were being sorted into separate lines by guards in administrative barding. All the earth ponies were in a huge line that folded up and down the room twice over. Twilight knew that the guard was mostly made up of earth ponies, but there were more than she would have thought. Pegasi were next with about a dozen – most were sitting on top of their bags and chatting away.

Twilight followed the signs to her own line, of which she was one of three. The other two unicorns were small, weedy-looking things that were chatting with the admin in charge of them about different jobs.

“So, you see, your best options are in finance or logistics,” the older unicorn was saying as Twilight stepped up. “Material Management is very popular at the moment. Warehouses in Trottingham will always look at former guard first and the civilian pay scale is quite generous.”

One of the unicorns, a mare, clapped her hooves. “Oh, oh! That’s what my uncle did in the guard! I hope I can score high enough on the written exam to get it.”

“Contracting is better,” the other unicorn said, pushing his glasses up with his hoof. “The work is more challenging and there are more options in civil service after I get out. MatMare isn’t bad, though,” he added after getting a cross look.

Twilight ended the debate succulently when her bag thudded down next to the line. Unlike the other two, hers was clearly an ROTC bag that held her spare uniforms, training armor, and very little civilian clothes. Even though she was a small mare, Twilight was larger in the legs and barrel than even the administration guard.

She followed his eyes as they went to the top of her head and then down to her bag. It seemed to throw him for a loop when he noticed that, yes, she did have a horn and, yes again, that was an ROTC patch on her duffle.

“Well, that’s our third,” he said, not breaking the uncomfortable silence in the least. “We can start processing you three and getting you into career advisement. Come on.”

Twilight hauled her bag back onto her back and started walking quicker than the other two unicorns could get their saddlebags back on. They passed an open classroom full of earth ponies hunched over desks listening to testing instructions and then a classroom of pegasi doing the same. The door the unicorn guard opened was much smaller with only half dozen or so desks. Twilight was about to take a seat with the other two, but the administrator put out his hoof.

“This is standardized testing for ponies that are enlisting. You’re Twilight Sparkle, correct? We’ve already received your ROTC records. You can go straight to initial physical and magical assessment.” He nodded to the back of the room. “Leave your bag, though.”

That was all Twilight needed to hear. She swung the heavy thing off her back and tossed it across the room. The ensuing thump made the two civilian unicorns jump.

As it turned out, physicals were multiracial. Twilight cued up with ponies from other ROTC programs, a few of which she knew from her own high school, in a large gym and went through a series of basic stretches and movements. It was all trivial stuff to Twilight and the rest; Colemane made them do these same exercises every afternoon before real PT. This was simply the bit to weed out the ponies that weren’t really serious about joining, or so Colemane had told them all. Sometimes civilians really didn’t understand what it took to get into the guard.

After that, the group was herded to room after room. They got their ears, eyes, and lungs checked by various nurses and doctors. Twilight was poked in more places than she strictly felt comfortable being poked in, but everyone had to go through it so she sucked it up. She wished those doctors at least warmed up their hooves first, though.

All the exams and waiting took most of the morning. Lunch was nothing but cold boxed sandwiches for twenty minutes and then it was on to the blood work. By this time the non-ROTC ponies had caught up and a few were shuffled into Twilight’s group. To her annoyance, the two unicorns from before were with put with her.

An ancient unicorn doctor caught her right after she’d gotten her blood drawn. “Follow me. It’s time for the magical testing.”

“This is the part I’ve been waiting for,” someone said. As much as Twilight was starting to dislike being lumped in with these “civilian” unicorns, she couldn’t say she wasn’t looking forward to this as well. Earth ponies got to go outside and test their pulling strength, pegasi got an aerial obstacle course, and unicorns got The Rings.

It was a bit of a legend to ROTC unicorns. Magic was inherently difficult to measure. You couldn’t take a unicorn outside and have them levitate things until they passed out like could with an earth pony’s strength. Likewise, you couldn’t have them try precision movements like a pegasus in flight. The former could very well harm the caster and the latter was something most unicorns had been doing their entire lives anyway.

“I’m Doctor Iron Cross. For those of you who don’t know,” he began, stopping them in front of a large double door, “I’ve been working in this facility for thirty years now. You’re mine for the next two hours, got that?”

The doors swung open and several ponies gasped (Twilight among them). They were in a room larger than the exercise gym. As soon as they stepped in, Twilight felt something odd happen – her head felt heavy. She shook herself, but the feeling didn’t go away. In fact, the further in she walked the worse it became.

Iron Cross urged them on anyway and led them around the edge of the room to a waiting earth pony. There was another cue, which Twilight found herself near the end of due to her lingering and gawking. Only once everyone was neat and orderly did the unicorn examiner clear his throat.

“You’ve noticed by now that there is something unique about this room. Look down.” Everyone did so. Twilight instantly zeroed in on a discolored ring a few feet ahead of her. It ran around the entire room and a few feet further in from that ring was another, and then another, so on and so forth until the middle of the room was a small circle only big enough for a single pony to stand in.

“These are the ‘rings’ that you have all probably heard of. They’re worth almost as much as this entire base is so don’t go scratching at them.”

Twilight didn’t scratch, but she did tap her hoof against the closest one. It rang like a thick bell. “These are magical suppressors, aren’t they?” Her question caused a ripple of whispers to overtake the group.

“Indeed. Industrial strength. We use them in the prison system to keep unicorn prisoners under control. You lot are going to have to perform some minor spells inside the first ring to pass. Anything past that goes on your record and will help with your job pool. Certain jobs require more levels.”

A stallion raised his hoof. “How many levels do I need for—”

Iron Cross stomped up to him. He didn’t look so old with his wrinkly face drawn into a sneer and his horn crackling with energy.

“None of that hogwash! I said you’re mine for the next two hours and that means you don’t get to do a bare minimum and get by. Not in my Guard or you’re out that door for as long as I can keep you out. Got it?” There were no objections. Satisfied, the unicorn went back to the front of the line and kicked over a box. A dozen or so balls rolled out onto the ground.

“One each. Levitate it and start walking until you can’t walk anymore.”

Each of the unicorns grabbed a ball, but Twilight could see some of the others already struggling. One of the unicorns she’d been sorted with, the mare who wanted to go into material management, had to focus so much on getting her ball up that she looked cross-eyed. She took one step past the first ring and let out a croak.

“Not so easy, is it?” Iron Cross asked. “That first ring is the most general of suppression. There’s one around the minimal security prison in Hoofton. It’s not going to completely kill your magic, but the average unicorn shouldn’t be able to bust down a wall and walk out. Take a lap around the room and then go to the next ring.”

The mare looked at him like he was crazy. Her ball was already starting to wobble dangerously, but she clenched her teeth and started trotting. By the time she made it back her coat was soaked through with sweat like she’d just ran a marathon, though the ball was still floating there.

She took a step into the next ring. Instantly she collapsed to her knees and started dry heaving.

“That’s the second ring. Of course it works in conjunction with the first, so you’re getting a double measure. Two are enough for the worst of ponies at the supermax up in Stalliongrad. A third ring can be turned on in case of a riot.”

Iron Cross stepped up to the struggling mare and helped her up. Twilight noticed that he took the ball from her without much effort. His face was much kinder, especially when the unicorn tried to take the ball back. “You passed. To answer the question earlier, ninety percent of jobs only require you pass the first ring. After your test scores are figured, you get your job pool.” He turned to the group and raised an eyebrow. “Well? Next.”

One after another the unicorns took up the challenge. Nearly all of them managed to do their lap. The ones that didn’t were allowed a chance to retake it after three weeks. Apparently that retest had a high pass rate as well. A few unicorns had managed to do their lap around the second circle; two had even gone to the third and fourth circles. They were quickly whisked away by ponies in flowing robes that Twilight recognized as being from the Magisterium, that quasi-religious group of professional sorcerers that served the crown directly.

Shining Armor had gotten some attention from them. Apparently he’d gone as far as the third circle. Given his young age, they’d taken him in for an interview. Ultimately he hadn’t gotten an offer, but it looked good on his record and had helped him get into the Royal Guard later on.

“You, the purple one; you’re up next.”

Twilight gripped her little rubber ball with as tight a telekinetic hold as she could manage. Not for the first time Twilight wished she had an actual teacher that had taught her actual spells instead of just helping with her precision. She’d been told for years that she was special, that she needed direction, but no one had stepped up. Now it was just her, the most basic spell a unicorn could learn, and seven rings that could kill magic.

She stepped past the first ring. The weight she’d felt past the door of the room intensified. It felt like her four legs were the only thing holding up the roof and every step was like trying to gallop through a swimming pool. Twilight took it slow and walked around the track rather than run. When she got back to the starting point, she stepped over the next ring and repeated the lap.

It was the third ring that started tripping Twilight up. Now she had to walk instead of it just being a choice. Her pace didn’t slow from the last two, though. A unicorn in a Magisterium robe trotted over to Iron Cross as Twilight started walking on her fourth lap. Her ball started shaking halfway around, but Twilight fixed that by levitating it directly over the tip of her horn. The extra focus helped.

“Another completed the fourth circle. This is the best crop we’ve had in years,” the hooded unicorn said when Twilight got back around. “Are you positive that the rings are working properly?”

Iron Cross snorted. “Go and try them yourself. We just happened to have a lot of Princess School graduates this month. Of course they’re going to go this far.”

Princess School graduates: unicorns that had gotten accepted to Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. They thought she was one of those ponies? The unicorns that had already left were from there?

Twilight licked her lips. “How many rings do I need to pass to be a Royal Guard?” she asked.

The Magister looked at her like she’d started speaking French. “Royal Guard? You’re going to be in the Magisterium.”

That was not the answer Twilight wanted. She closed her eyes and refocused all her attention back on her little ball and stepped into the fifth ring. Iron Cross was saying something to her, but the new weight pouring down on her body washed it away. She just focused step-by-step and the background noise sorted itself out.

Twilight owed Colemane a lot. The big unicorn hadn’t believed in one area of focus for any of his cadets. Earth ponies would work on mental exercises, pegasi were forbidden from flying unless he allowed it, and unicorns did twice the PT. “It’s too easy for all of us to fall into comfortable ruts,” he would say anytime someone asked him why. “Equestria might love a specialist, but the Guard demands jacks of all trades.”

“I honestly don’t believe it,” Iron Cross muttered when Twilight met them at the starting line for a fifth time. “You shouldn’t even be able to stand still and light your horn. What the heck are they teaching you fillies at that school these days?”

Twilight ignored him. There was another lap. This time the old unicorn actually leapt out in front of her when she turned around. “No. Put the ball down and go sit for a few minutes.”

I’m not done,” Twilight growled through her clenched teeth. Test. Princess’s school. It was all starting to bleed together. Focus. She needed to focus. Had to pass this time.

“Let her go.” The Magister pulled back his hood and nudged the doctor out the way. “I want to see this. We need to see this.” Iron Cross opened his mouth, but it closed with a small smack a second later. Very reluctantly the old unicorn nodded his head.

The sixth circle was a beast. Even though it was only thirty or so feet in circumference every step felt like she was walking with a giant barbell chained around her neck. Twilight wanted to cast if off, but every step taken was one less she had to take. Just one more and she could stop. Then another. She was over halfway done now; it would be silly to stop. She could almost quit.

And then she was there in the middle of seven dampening circles. The seventh was so small that Twilight barely had enough room to sit. Once her rump hit the ground, her chest followed, and then her head, but the plastic ball didn’t touch the ground.

“How long can you actually hold it there?” the Magister asked. His voice was even and calm; Iron Cross had already run for the medics. “Can you levitate it higher? Make it move?”

Twilight tried to move it, but the ball was as immovable as a tidally locked planet with its star. Come on, just a bit, Twilight told herself. She clenched her eyes closed and searched for something to put behind her magic. Anything, even if it was just one more scrap of magic. If she could do it, how could they keep her out of the Royal Guard?

“There’s more in there, isn’t there? Just a little more focus, Twilight Sparkle.”

For just a moment Twilight thought the unicorn’s voice had changed. It had become softer, deeper, older than anything she’d ever heard. Did she have more? Was there anything left?

Twilight forced an eyelid open. The little ball of plastic was now a little ball of fire. It was spinning right in front of her nose, spitting little globs of burning rubber with every rotation. In its own way it was beautiful. Twilight smiled then and let her head fall back down to the ground. Her little ball was so warm, just like the afternoon spring sun on her coat.

She never wanted to wake up again.