• Published 24th Apr 2012
  • 5,354 Views, 107 Comments

Air - chrumsum



Wings are feeble, feathers are brittle. But yet it takes so much to fly.

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Part 1 of 4

***

Pound Cake craned his neck skywards, stretching his back muscles as he enjoyed this rare moment of free time. It wasn’t often that he didn’t have to go off on a job, and he fully intended to enjoy every second of simply sitting in the warmth of the sun. With a crisp breeze tempering the heat, it was a perfect state of comfort and relaxation. It’s silent here, he thought, smiling slightly as he scratched his straw colored fur. Then again, it was of little surprise that the dull roar of Canterlot didn’t reach to the roof of the thirty-floor office complex. It was the kind of absolute silence that only the runners were entitled to in the clamoring city. Funny how such a geometric white city, a false image of a utopia, could be so chaotically loud.

Grunting contentedly as he worked a kink in his shoulder, Pound Cake reclined against the bright red metal fence, his eyes traveling across the jungle-gym of rooftops sprawled out before him. To anypony else walking the streets below, the scenery was ugly and mechanical, the pipes and vents pockmarking the otherwise pristine rooftops with their bizarre shapes and twists. But to him, and all the others that took the dangerous lifestyle of running, these forms were opportunities. Trained eyes and skilled hooves could turn each corner, each pole, and each wall into speed and fluidity. This is what they did, and they were damn good at it.

Just as Pound Cake thought he would try to hunt the skies for an errant cloud, simply to smirk to himself about the city’s poor weather control, his earpiece beeped and came to life.

“Hey, Poundy, you there?” questioned the voice over the radio waves. Pound Cake rolled his eyes and sighed. There were two coordinators for the Rainbow Runners, and only one of them called him “Poundy”. He put a hoof to his ear and pressed the talk button.

“Yeah, yeah, Derpy, I’m here. What’s up?” spoke the brown-maned stallion.

“Sorry for buggin’ you while on break Poundy! But something came up, and Rainbow Dash wants you on this one,” apologized the gray mare from her radio station hidden within the sewers. If it wasn’t for the amateurish antennae that they had built, there would have been no way that they could get good reception this far from HQ. Pound Cake still remembered the multiple free runs he had to do so that Rainbow Dash could pull some resources to get the parts for the damn thing.

“Is this really that important?”

“I wouldn’t be calling you otherwise...sorry, Poundy!”

Pound Cake snorted in frustration as he pulled himself off of his comfortable spot on the fence. Loosening his shoulders, he hopped onto his hooves, shaking the treacherous numbness of laziness from his muscles. Stepping away from the edge, he turned to face the gap between his building and the next.

“Alright, alright. Not like I have a choice anyways. Am I picking up the package?”

“Nope. Scoots took care of pick-up, and you’re on for the trade-off.”

“Rally point?”

“Blue. No, no, wait! I mean Orange!”

“Be there soon,” said Pound Cake, as he burst into a gallop. Kicking off his hind hooves, and throwing his weight forward, he flung himself skyward.

It was impossible to explain what it was like to be airborne. When nothing lies below, and nothing above. Hanging in that perfect balance, the moment is eternal as life and death snatch at the flying pony at the same time. It made something in Pound Cake’s soul ache, and his wings twitch. There was a word for it...

As the rooftop rose to meet him, Pound Cake placed his hind hooves forward and, upon contact, let his momentum carry him into a roll. His legs coming back beneath him, he hurtled forward, hooves clattering on the hard mortar as he wove between the ventilation shafts and fans that spewed stale air from the streets below.

Freedom. Yeah. That was the word, thought Pound Cake with a smile.

A chain link fence surrounding the building’s electrical controls loomed forward and, with a leap and a grunt, he hurtled over it, playfully grazing the barbed wire with his hoof. Laughing as he ended his flying arch, he fell back down upon a generator; its warning hum was akin to Rainbow Dash’s grumbling back when he was only a trainee.

“Keep your legs tucked in! Running is half instinct, half skill! And if you don’t balance the two, you’ll end up being a splattered mess on the street!” she would reprimand.

Lost in thought, Pound Cake came to a screeching halt: the imposing white facade of another unmarked building that shouldn’t be there stopped him. He cursed under his breath. Wrong way. Scoot wasn’t going to let him forget it if he was late again. Trained eyes flicking across the wall, he spied a fire escape. Backing up to get some distance, he rocketed forward, his hooves a blur as he launched himself above the gaping maw of the alleyways. An outstretched hoof caught the bottom rung of the ladder with a clank. Quickly climbing upward, he grunted as he muscled onto the thin metal platform. Threading his way up the fire escape, he ducked around each corner of the stairs and easily reached the top of the building.

Pound Cake quickly gauged the position of the sun to make sure he was heading in the right direction. Satisfied that he was still on track, he galloped to the edge of the rooftop. If he was going to be on time, he was going to have to take a riskier short cut. A cable stretched from his building to the next, suspended by metal flagpoles.

Pushing his body to go as fast as possible, he jumped and latched his specially protected hooves around the cable. Kicking his hind legs forward to maximize his momentum, he zipped across the gap, the speed blurring his peripheral vision. An involuntary shout of excitement escaped him as he hurtled to the ground, grinning from the thrill of adrenalin.

Canterlot, since martial law was enacted 20 years ago, was a city constantly under construction. When the Gryphon War was sparked by their incursion on Equestria, the princesses had left with the mass of the Equestrian Army to meet the threat. The conflict had been raging for 20 years, and the absence of any rule had left a stallion by the name of Fancypants, who had become a strong political force since before the war began, to care for the land while the princesses were gone. His devotion to the development of military resources had led to an expansive recruitment campaign for the army, a crackdown on the flow of information and, more crucially, a massive reconstruction of Canterlot that led to the presence of these massive cranes, one of which was about to become a shortcut for Pound Cake. Swallowing hard, he pawed at the concrete, forcing himself to focus on the thick steel cable held taught by the hanging hook.

“This is stupid. This is stupid. This is stupid!” muttered Pound Cake. And yet, he ran, and he jumped.

Hooves outstretched, every second of wingless flight was a millennium. Just as it seemed that he wouldn’t reach, and gravity seized Pound Cake’s body in a cruel arch, his hooves grabbed onto the cable and swung forward with a nauseating twist. He gritted his teeth as it felt like his forelegs were being torn right out of their sockets. Beads of cold sweat pouring down his brow, his muscles screamed as he slightly loosened his grip, and slid down the cable. Reaching the bottom of his descent, he kicked his hind hooves backward, and threw himself downward towards the brick-red iron girders. Soon, these would be the foundation of a bank building, or an apartment. But for now, the zig-zagging network of the thin walkways were the perfect obstacle course for Pound Cake.

Weaving his way through the metallic jungle, the warmth of the noon sun toasting his fur, he swung from pole to pole, bouncing and balancing fluidly. With a small humph of effort, he leaped over the fence of the next fire escape and raced upwards. Its coat of orange paint confirmed his approach to the Business District. Nearly there, grunted the brown-eyed stallion, his heart pounding as he rounded the final bend, and emerged onto the rooftop. An orange stencil of a pair of pegasi wings adorned the wall of the rooftop stairwell. And leaning against the same wall was an unimpressed mare of the same color regarding him with an air of disappointment.

“Three minutes late,” she said matter-of-factly.

Pound Cake clicked his tongue in mock frustration. “Oh lay off, Scoots. I had to take a shortcut through the construction yard and everything!”

“Yeah, I saw,” snorted Scootaloo, amused, “Not only are you late, but you even try to show me up! Totally uncool, Pounds.”

“Deal with it. Got the package?”

“Yeah, of course,” said Scootaloo, pulling open the flat, specially designed saddlebag strapped to her back. Carefully pulling a manilla folder from the inside pocket, Pound Cake took it from her with his teeth. After he placed it in his own bag, Scootaloo passed him a slip of paper. It was common practice for runners to not speak out loud about assignment details. Their light-hearted banter was as genuine as it was an attempt to fool any potential taps or listeners. The fuchsia-maned mare gave him a slight nod as she bounced on her hooves.

“Alrighty then! See ya later back at HQ then, Pounds. And don’t be late this time!”

“What, no goodbye hug?” complained Pound Cake sarcastically. With a laugh, Scootaloo took off, scaling a wall and expertly flipping off the edge before vanishing into the white concrete jungle of Canterlot.

“Show-off...” muttered Pound Cake, unfolding the slip of paper. However, Scootaloo was his superior, he thought, both in skill and experience. After all, it was partially thanks to her that he was here rather than down there in the streets. Forcing the thought out of his mind, he looked down at the neat script.

“Red District, top of the Blue Blood Inc. building. Cash for the package.”

Crumpling the slip of paper in his hooves, Pound Cake swore under his breath. Red District, or the Government District, was not only one of the far riskier areas of Canterlot to go to, but also quite out of the way from where he was currently. It looked like it was going to be a long day, he thought dismally. Tossing the piece of paper into his mouth and swallowing it, he also cursed Rainbow Dash’s strict customer privacy policy.

Getting a running start, Pound Cake took off, soaring across rooftops; his hooves were light and quick as he wove obstacles into a single, fluid path. As the sun continued its slow, creeping descent towards the foggy horizon, the runner stallion’s ears perked as a rare sound arose in the silence of the skyline. A chirping sparrow, its nest comfortable in the crook of a satellite dish, ruffled its feathers and flapped its wings, taking to the air as it scolded Pound Cake for interrupting its rest. Refusing to stop, he tried to pay no attention to the bird as he leaped over a water cooler. But the sparrow’s song made his wings ache once more as they did when in the air.

Pound Cake was too young to remember when the provisional government enacted the Civil Protection and Assurance Act. Along with the ability to control the flow of information, enforce strict regulations on movements in and out of Canterlot, and the permission to detain suspicious individuals without any trial, the CPAA created a new policy: the Flight Retainment Regiment. It was a law enforced not by police forces, nor cameras, nor spies. It was enforced by the air itself, corrupted by an invisible magic force. Nopony knew where it came from, nor how it was powered. All they knew was that nothing larger than a hawk could fly through Canterlot without the most dire consequences. Pound Cake had heard rumors of pegasi that had challenged the field, rumors whispered in dark corners with hushed tongues and furtive glances.

The pegasi had suffered the brunt of the brutality as the unicorns took control of the government and police force. Their persistent outbursts and riots against their rulers had labeled them as revolutionaries and spies. Equestria was not a home for winged ponies.

The unsettling thoughts stirred memories that threatened to throw Pound Cake’s focus. He forced them out of his mind, and pressed onwards.

***

It was nearing nightfall when Pound Cake finally reached his destination. Panting hard, he finally heaved himself over the edge of the bank building, his hooves weary from from climbing the series of pipes. The bank building was obnoxiously well monitored, meaning that he had to take a far more contrived route than he would have hoped. Frustrated, he rolled onto his back. As the rising and falling of his chest became smooth and even, he propped himself upright, shaking off his exhaustion. Eyes sweeping the rooftop, he spotted his target. A robust black briefcase lay ominously on the cold concrete, waiting for him. Opening it, his eyes glimmered as he gasped in amazement.

It had been a long time since he’d seen this many bits for a single job. A slow grin spread across his face, and he unzipped his bag. Quickly making the exchange, he placed the manilla folder into the briefcase and swapped it for the heaps of bills. Since metal was now in short demand, paper bits were now more popular, and because of that much easier to carry. Satisfied, Pound Cake put his hoof to his earpiece.

“You there, Derpy?” he asked, and waited. There was a brief crackle of static, and the klutzy mare answered.

“Uh...yeah I’m here! Scoots just got back a second ago, she’s taking a breather. What’s up, Poundy?”

“I’ve dropped the package, and got the payment too. Could you get my coordinates and tell me the fastest way back home?”

“Gotcha, just give me a second!” she confirmed, and the sound of typing could faintly be heard. Tapping a hoof patiently, Pound Cake shifted the load on his back and stretched his wings.

“Say, Derpy, where’s Rainbow Dash? She’s gonna be pumped about this new haul!”

“Um...” started Derpy uncomfortably, “I think she’s asleep. Maybe. I haven’t checked, but I could go if you want...”

Reality crushed Pound Cake’s victorious high. The straw colored stallion sighed, a heavy weight tugging his flying heart back down. “She’s passed out drunk again, isn’t she?”

Derpy was silent for a moment, then spoke.

“Poundy, you know that--” she was cut off by a beep in the background, presumably by her computer equipment. “Oh, lookie there! There’s a water purification plant about half a mile north of your position, and it hooks up with our tunnel!”

“Derpy...”

“What’s that? I can’t hear you...ksshh...break...kssh...interfe...”

“I know you can hear me perfe--”

Derpy ended the call. Switching off his headset, Pound Cake shook his head with disappointment. Fueled by a twinge of anger, he leapt from the roof of the bank building, landing painlessly onto the next rooftop with a roll. The sunset giving him his sense of direction, it wasn’t long before he came to a wide, circular concrete pit nestled between the shadows of the tall buildings. Sliding his way down a drainage pipe, he trotted around the hole, eventually finding a ladder leading downwards to the network of large, empty tunnels. Their cavernous walls, stained with the black mark of running water, echoed with the sounds of distant water droplets returning to their pools.

Looking over his shoulder, Pound Cake made sure he wasn’t being followed, and, satisfied, was swallowed by the blackness of the sewers. He made his way along the sides of the passage, his hooves splashing into the cold, stagnant water. The smell no longer made Pound Cake gag each time it greeted his snout, simply from having been around it for so long. Dying fluorescent bulbs encased in thin metal wire cages provided a dim glow by which the runner pony could see. As the monotone scenery started to become more and more familiar with a good half-hour of trotting, eventually he found what he was looking for.

A lone door, embedded into the smooth walls of the pipe, was lit by a single, flickering bulb that swung lazily in the stale breeze. Its base warped by water and mildew, it was emblazoned with a decomposing sign that warned in large letters “Toxic Hazard: Nopony Allowed”. Pound Cake ignored it and entered. Shutting it behind him, he climbed up the rusty red ladder, cramped for space by the wire fencing surrounding pipes fiercely hot with steam and water. He reached the top, pushing aside a thin steel-plate hatch, and hoisted himself into the room.

“Oh, hi, Poundy!” said Derpy contentedly through a mouth full of crumbs. It was good to be home.

The base of operations for the Rainbow Runners, while seemingly stark, was actually very comfortable by runner standards. Nestled deep below the concrete, and shielded from the sunlight, it was nevertheless kept cozy by the rattling pipelines that radiated a warmth which kept the cold darkness of the sewers at bay. Poorly lit, the room was only illuminated by the blue glow of the wall-eyed pegasi’s computer screens. All the essentials were there, though: maps, spare clothes, food, and comfortable beds.

Pound Cake let his saddlebag slip off his back, and sighed in relief as he reclined into one of the sagging cushions that were haphazardly tossed about the room. The gray pegasus swiveled in her chair, away from her monitors, to face him.

“Fo ha deh eh go?” she said, her voice muffled as she chewed her favorite pastry.

“Come again?”

“Forry.” Derpy swallowed and cleared her throat. “Sorry. How did it go?”

“See for yourself,” answered Pound Cake confidently, tossing her the saddlebag. The mare missed the catch, and bent over awkwardly to pick it up. As she opened it to peer inside, her crossed eyes widened and sparkled in wonder.

“Oh...that’s a lot of muffin money!” she whispered in awe.

“What’s that now?” asked a voice. Scootaloo trotted in casually, twirling a hoof glove, with a curious look on her face. Derpy Hooves nodded excitedly, pointing inside the bag.

“Poundy hit the jackpot!” she cheered, “We got tons of bits from that last run. A few more like these and we’re set for life!” Scootaloo bumped Pound Cake on the shoulder amiably.

“I knew you’d be useful one day!” teased the orange mare, “Wait until Rainbow hears about this!” Then she stopped, and her bemused grin weakened into a thin, uncomfortable line. “So...who wants to tell her?”

Nopony volunteered. Derpy looked downwards at her hooves, brushing her blonde mane out of her crossed eyes. Scootaloo shifted her weight from hoof to hoof. Finally, Pound Cake sighed and pushed himself upright.

“Fine, I’ll do it.” Neither of them stopped him as he pushed aside a curtain that led to a dark room.

His snout wrinkled as he entered. The bedroom reeked with the bitter tang of alcohol, and hadn’t been cleaned in far too long. Bottles, clothes, and grimy fabrics littered the floor, and pieces of crushed glass made every step hazardous. Nothing was organized nor clean, and the only movement was the slight rising and falling in the corner of the room. The soft sound of Rainbow Dash’s breathing as she slept under a pile of ratty covers softened Pound Cake’s frustration. But only slightly.

Rainbow Dash hadn’t always been this way. She had had her on and off moments in the past, sure, but only recently had she gotten so attached to the bottle. It made her irritable, moody, and melancholic. And yet, watching her sleep, it could almost be forgiven. His hoof suddenly crunched on something, and he swore silently as he looked down to find that it wasn’t a bottle. It was a framed photograph, the one that Rainbow Dash always seemed to come to in her drunken rage or depression. Scooping up the face-down portrait, he found that most of the glass had already been cracked and fallen out. Gingerly smoothing the worn photograph within, his gaze flickered between the six mares. They sat together, posing for the picture with wide grins. He didn’t recognize four of them, and one of them was crudely scratched out of the image, but the last was clearly Rainbow Dash. He smiled slightly. Her mane and tail were far more vibrant back then.

As if somehow hearing this comment, there was a shuffle in the darkness, followed by yawn. Rainbow Dash groaned as she struggled to push away the covers. Her once rainbow mane was frayed and graying, the radiant colors now dull and unsaturated. The wide, eager eyes of the past were now sullen and creased with age.

“Mmm...whozat?” she slurred, slowly rising from her slumber.

“It’s me. Pound Cake,” said the stallion quietly, placing the portrait upright on a shelf.

The mare groaned, stretching her disheveled wings. Cringing as a shot of pain went through her skull, she rubbed her forehead. “Oh, sweet Celestia, my head feels like it got run over by a herd of buffalo...What time is it?”

“It’s eight in the evening, Dash.”

“Wow, eight already?” she mumbled, dragging a hoof down her face, “Where have you been?”

“I’ve been on an assignment,” answered the runner, nudging a bottle across the floor with his leg, “You know. The one you gave me this morning?”

“Um...right, right, I remember that. How did it go?”

Pound Cake tried to force a smile. “Great, actually. We made a lot of bits on this one, Dash. More than usual.”

Rainbow Dash mumbled something incoherent, rubbing her bleary, glossed-over eyes. She finally looked up at him, and cleared her throat before saying with disinterest: “That’s good.”

“Yeah...it’s good,” said Pound Cake quietly, looking down at his hooves in dismay. “It’s very good.”

The silence of the room was heavier than the stifling, cloying odor of alcohol. The two ponies waited uncomfortably for the other to speak. Rainbow Dash scratched her mane. “So...a lot of bits?”

“Yeah. At least ten thousand, I think.”

The weary mare whistled slightly. “That’s gonna do a lot of good around here. Get some leaks patched up. It can get a bit nippy in here.”

Pound Cake scratched at the floor. It was rare to get so much out of Rainbow Dash, even when she was sober. Nowadays, even that was rare in itself.

“So how’s the leg?”

The mare sniffed and pulled her leg out from under the mattress. Stroking it with her forehooves, she grimaced as she passed over the the joint, where the pale blue fur had grown sparsely to cover the old wound.

“It’s been better. Aches in the morning, but otherwise it isn’t too bad...How’s Scootaloo and Derpy?”

“They’re in the other room. Scoots did a great job on assignment, like always.”

Rainbow Dash nodded absentmindedly as she stretched her wounded hind leg out before her. “Yeah. She’s a good girl. Runs fast. Really fast.” Her bleary eyes remained focused on her knee. “Aches in the morning... The migraine doesn’t help either. Pound Cake? Can you do me a favor?”

“Sure,” said Pound Cake with a slight nod. Rainbow Dash waved her hoof dismissively towards a corner of the room.

“I think there’s some unopened bottles behind those empty ones,” she mumbled, rubbing her snout, “Could you bring me one...?”

The stallion didn’t say anything as he felt a weight come grinding downwards in his chest. Wordlessly, he complied, gently depositing the bottle before her. He turned his back on her, and walked out of the room, his head low to the ground as Rainbow Dash coughed and popped open the bottle. He stopped before Derpy and Scootaloo, neither of whom said a word as he stared at his hooves numbly.

“Pound Cake…” started Scootaloo before her voice faltered. The words needed would never come to her. She cast a look to Derpy Hooves, who was absentmindedly bending a photograph she always kept tacked to her monitor. Pound Cake remembered that photograph. He had asked her long ago who the purple mare was.

“That’s my Dinky. She’s waiting for me. One day, I’m gonna see her again. I’m gonna see my little filly.”

Pound Cake was silent.

“We all have our reasons for being here,” Scootaloo said finally.

Sullen, he trotted to his room, leaving the two mares alone. They exchanged glances, sighing as Pound Cake plopped into his bed, and stared at the ceiling until he fell asleep.

***

Pound Cake reclined and let the breeze chill the sweat on his fur. It had been a long day. Having one prolific assignment didn’t mean that he could take a break, and he and Scootaloo had just returned from finishing two separate assignments. Massaging one of his hind hooves, he let the other dangle off the edge of the building, precariously positioned over the chasm that led to the city streets. Silent, he enjoyed the refreshing air, his ears twitching slightly. He opened his eyes as Scootaloo sighed heavily, lying down on the concrete roof and staring at the drifting clouds. Pound Cake looked at her out of the corner of his eye.

“So what’s up?” he asked casually.

“The sky,” she responded with equal nonchalance. Pound Cake chuckled slightly, and Scootaloo couldn’t help but smile herself. “I don’t know really. Just thinking. Gotta get my wall jump a little more precise than it is. I keep losing momentum after about two of ‘em.”

“It’s all in how you place your first hoof,” said Pound Cake, remembering his own experience, “You need to get that contact right, or your balance and speed gets completely thrown off.”

Scootaloo nodded at the sound advice, but kept her wide, violet eyes concentrated on the ethereally blue sky. After a long, drawn out silence, she spoke again.

“Wouldn’t it be something? You know, to be up there?” she wondered out loud. Pound Cake gave her a sidelong glance.

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. To be up there, in the sky, where we’re meant to be. Flying alongside the clouds.”

Pound Cake frowned slightly, scratching the concrete with his hoof. “I don’t think about it,” he lied, “Some things aren’t meant to be, and wishing for ‘em won’t do us any good.”

“You don’t think about it?” said Scootaloo suddenly, rolling upright to look at him, “How can you not think about it? It’s in our blood, we’re meant to fly!”

“How would you know? Have you ever done it, before the field went up?”

Scootaloo blushed furiously, and she stammered: “Well...no, not exactly. But I saw Rainbow Dash flying before, and all the pegasi too, before all this insanity started. You were too young to remember, is all.” She stood up, her mane rustling slightly in the wind. “And besides, if you didn’t want to fly, you wouldn’t be here.”

“Running has nothing to do with flying,” protested Pound Cake.

“It has everything to do with flying. Whether you’re on the ground or in the air, it comes down to the same thing. It’s about--”

Freedom. The word completed itself in Pound Cake’s mind before Scootaloo finished it. She sighed again and shook her head. “Anyways, you think whatever you want. But keep in mind where you would be right now if it weren’t for running. If it weren’t for Rainbow Dash. I’m going back to headquarters; I’m starving.” With that, she backpedaled and took off, twisting through the air as her wings shimmered in the sunlight. Pound Cake watched her go, lost in thought. Pushing himself to sit on his haunches, he put his head in his hooves, looking across Canterlot’s glistening white rooftops, and the alleys that intersected them in grid-like patterns.

***

Pound Cake wiped the salty tears from his eyes as he sat against the dumpster. The sobs refused to come anymore, and his stomach ached from the crying. Sniveling and alone, the colt hid himself from the passersby that crossed the mouth of the alleyway, fearing that one of them might be more of his classmates.

“Dirty pegasi!”

“The war’s all your fault! My daddy’s fighting gryphons because of you!”

“Spy, traitor! No one wants you here!”

He pressed his hooves against his ears and whimpered, as if it could blot out the jeers and hateful glares that were trapped in the recesses of his mind. None of it was true, he told himself...was it? His daddy was off in the war, too. He’d been drafted and forced to leave him alone with sister and mother at the cake store on the corner. He missed daddy so, so much...and mommy too. But mommy was off at the big white hospital, because she was sick and she was “unfit to care for two young foals needing proper care and attention”. And that left him alone with sister.

Sniffling, he frowned, burying his head in his hooves. But what did she know? She wasn’t a pegasus; she didn’t understand what it was like. Nopony could understand. The pegasus sat silently in his corner, alone. Shivering slightly, he scrubbed away the tears on his cheek. That’s when an angel spoke to him from above.

“You alright, Pound Cake?” it said. Gasping, the colt leaped upright, his brown eyes flitting across the alleyway, and finally turning upwards. A mare with her pale mane loosely falling on her sky-blue fur was watching him, a kindly twinkle in her eyes. Reclining against the stairs of a fire escape, she was a good 10 feet above the ground.

“Who...who are you? And how did you--” stammered Pound Cake.

The mare’s eyes folded into a smile as she laughed, “How did I get up here? That’s my little secret. As for who I am...I don’t know if I should tell you that just yet. But what about you?” She punctuated this last sentence with a cock of her head.

“Why...why should I tell you anything...?” retorted Pound Cake with what little defiance he could muster, cautiously inching toward the street. In answer, the mare shifted her position slightly. The straw colored colt stopped dead in his tracks as the stranger unfolded her two broad wings. Fine and strong, they taperedelegantly.

“Does that answer your question?” she asked whimsically.

Jaw agape and eyes wide, the colt crept toward her in awe. The kindly mare folded her wings again, and in a fluid motion, swung off the fire escape, landing on the ground gracefully. One of her legs folded more heavily and moved more awkwardly as she stepped around him. “I’m more like you than you think, Pound Cake. I know what life is for you, the hell this city can put you through.”

“How...how do you know my name?”

“I knew your parents. Long ago, back when they still lived in a place called Ponyville. Before it was turned into a giant lumber mill, that is. You were just a little foal back then...”

Pound Cake felt a little uncomfortable asking so many questions, and yet every time another one came to mind. “But who are you?”

She smiled at him with an air of confidence. “Rainbow Dash, the greatest flyer in all of Equestria. Well...I was,” she added a little regretfully. Shaking off the thought, she patted the awed colt on the head with her wing. “And let me tell you something. Things are difficult, now more than ever. Despite everything, there’s one thing you can’t let them do, Pound Cake.”

She knelt down, looking at him with her wide, rose-colored eyes that seemed untouched by the weathering force that had dulled her mane and faded her fur.

“Don’t you let them beat you. Don’t you dare. If you believe what they say, if you believe the insults and the hurtful words, if you believe their lies and their force, they’ll win, and you’ll lose. Don’t let them do that, or they’ll break you.”

Pound Cake watched her as she hopped onto the dumpster, and leaped onto fire escape from whence she came. Just as she was about to climb upwards, Pound Cake cried out:

“Take me with you!”

The rainbow mare stopped, and turned. Her eyes were sad and forlorn. “I...I can’t do that, Pound Cake. You have a family that needs you, and I can’t take you away from them.”

“I’ve never had a family that needed me! I’ve never had anypony that needed me and I don’t want to be alone anymore. I don’t want to be beaten, and I don’t want to lose!” The colt’s eyes welled with tears once more, and he blinked them away. “I want to fly! I want to fly and leave this place behind, but I can’t!”

He breathed shakily, looking up at her. “You have to know what it’s like,” he implored, “don’t you?”

“To want to forget, and leave it all behind?”

***

There was a sudden vibration in Pound Cake’s bag. Snapping him out of his trance, he looked at it in confusion as it vibrated again. The majority of all cellular devices, an innovation brought about by Lulamoon Technologies, were bugged and tracked by the government. Phones that were tampered with were highly illegal, and their use carried massive consequences. Because of this, they were not only insanely expensive, but also very dangerous to carry. Pound Cake only used his for emergencies, and nopony, not even Scoots, knew that he had one. Only one other pony had the number to call it.

The phone vibrated again. Pound Cake picked it up, pressed the button, and put it to his ear.

“Pumpkin, why in Equestria are you calling me?” snapped Pound Cake.

On the other end of the line, his sister sighed with relief. “Oh, thank Celestia you picked up. I was so scared that you didn’t have your phone anymore.”

“Cut to the chase, Pumpkin. This call is risky, I thought you knew that.”

“I do know that. You know I wouldn’t try to talk to you this way unless it was an emergency.”

Something in the mare’s voice sent a shiver down Pound Cake’s spine. “And?” he asked. His sister was silent for a moment, breathing rapidly. Finally she spoke again, failing to suppress a nervous tremor in her voice.

“Pound…I…I’m in a lot of trouble right now. I need your help. Please, just…get over here. I need you with me, I just don’t know what to do…!”

“Calm down, calm down!” reassured Pound Cake, his eyes flitting around the rooftops to plan a quick route forward. “Where are you?”

“Red District. Capitol Building. Top floor.”

Pound Cake nearly dropped his phone. Stunned, he tried to quickly gather his thoughts before picking up the phone again.

“Don’t move an inch. I’m on my way.” He slid the device into his bag, and swallowed nervously despite himself.

The Capitol Building. Out of all the places Pumpkin Cake had to get into to trouble in, it had to be the office of Governor Fancypants, the de facto ruler of Equestria in the absence of the princesses. As he leaped into the air, the ache of panic was heavy in his chest.

What had she gotten herself into?

***

Pound Cake prodded the sewer door with his hoof, putting his weight into it. As expected, it hadn’t been reinforced after previous break-ins using the same route, and it gave after some convincing from his shoulder. Looking around, he discreetly closed the door behind him. The Capitol Building was well fortified, sure, but it was still fairly easy to get in when you had the correct sources; mainly, the say-so from the ponies that worked there. Pound Cake, among other runners, had done more than his share of transporting political secrets, blackmail, or letters from extramarital relations for the “illustrious” politicians of Canterlot. Guards were sometimes instructed to look the other way, but they wouldn’t hesitate to arrest a few runners just to keep up their quotas. And so the runners preferred taking alternate routes through the building.

A short trot found Pound Cake standing before a wide, rectangular hole in the white concrete wall. This service elevator had been out of commission for years, and the main cable provided an easy way to ascend the thirty-two stories of the Capitol Building. That is, if one had the endurance for it.

Exhaling deeply, the runner stallion sized up the climb, gauging the distance and the thickness of the cable. He spat into his hooves and rubbed them together, his eyes tightening in focus as he wrapped them around the interwoven steel threads. With a grunt, he placed one foreleg over the other, and began to climb. Swinging dizzyingly, he bit his tongue as sweat broke out on his brow. The strenuous climb was already putting a sharp pain into his shoulder muscles, and they began shivering from effort.

He looked behind him, ensuring his hooves stayed latched onto the cable, and panted. Only twelve stories? Groaning, he returned his attention to the climb. The pressure made every second last five as he hauled himself upwards. This whole thing had better be worth it, he told himself, trying to make light of the situation.

Finally, he had reached as high as he could possibly go. Muscles numb and aching, he contemplated his next step with a downward glance. The sheer drop stared back at him, seeming to silently beg for his hooves to slip or his grip to weaken. He ignored it, and latched his focus on the closed elevator doors ahead of him, a number thirty-two stenciled onto the concrete wall beside it, and the thin ledge below it. Exhaling slowly, Pound Cake called up what little of his strength he had left, and he kicked his hind legs forward, propelling himself into the air.

And he missed his jump.

For a single, horrifying moment, Pound Cake felt himself falling, the depths swallowing him up, and he lashed out with a hoof. By some miracle, it found the ledge, and held. Panting, he grabbed the small hoof hold with his second hoof, and hoisted himself up. Every cell demanding his surrender, he finally hauled himself upright and collapsed against the door. Letting the sweat cool, and the tremors subside, he slowed his heart and pried the old doors open.

Stumbling forward into another plain white service hallway, he swept his gaze across it, trying to figure out where in Equestria he was going. Scratching his chin, he quietly stepped through the hallway. In retrospect, it would probably have been smarter to figure out where exactly on the top floor his sister was awaiting him. But unfortunately, he had a sneaking suspicion as to where that was.

“It was unbelievable, I’m telling you,” came a sudden voice, echoing off the plain walls. Pound Cake’s ears perked nervously, swiveling about as another voice joined it.

“You’re kidding me. She said that right to your face?”

Panicked, the runner’s mind raced. Aside from a mop and a bucket, the hallway was completely empty. There were no vents, no boxes, and no way to escape back into the elevator shaft without the screeching doors giving him away. Pound Cake swallowed hard as two shadows spread themselves around the corner.

***

“Yeah, right to my friggin face. Can you believe it?” complained the earth pony stallion, waving a hoof in emphasis, “I bust my chops all day long in this place, and she tells me off for asking for one measly daffodil sandwich.”

His comrade shook his head in disappointment as he stopped and reclined against the wall. “I dunno. Maybe she’s got something on her mind? I mean, with the recent pregnancy and all, she’s probably pretty wound up.”

“Yeah…I s’ppose so,” admitted the other, sniffing, “I mean, I do my best to take care of the family, ya know? I have to take it on myself to feed a colt and filly, not to mention her. Couldn’t she cut me just a little slack?”

“Well listen. Here’s what you need to do.” The second guard stood up and twirled his baton absentmindedly. “You need to sit down and talk with her. Maybe she feels unappreciated. Mares tend to be like that, and all she does is sit at home with two kids. Just…I dunno, remind her that you love her or something.”

This advice earned the guard a cynical glance. “That’s got to be the…”

Before he could say more, he suddenly straightened to a small sound. Whipping his head around behind him, he found nothing but an empty hallway. His friend looked at him questioningly.

“What’s biting you now?”

“I coulda sworn I heard something…didn’t you?” said the guard warily, placing a hoof on his baton. His friend patted him on the shoulder and chuckled.

“You’re hearing things,” he reassured, “Now come on. Let’s get out of here. A few more rounds and we’re shifting off. Tell you what: we’ll stop by O’Mule’s, and get some ciders. They’re on me!” With that, they walked along, albeit to the suspicious guard’s reluctance. Together, they disappeared around the corner, leaving the lonely white halls empty once more.

Had they stayed for a moment longer, they would have heard the sound again as a heavy drop of sweat rolled off of Pound Cake’s chin and splattered against the hard floor. Spread eagled, he listened the their hoof steps as they left him where he was, several feet above the floor, pressing all four hooves against the narrow walls to keep himself up. Not daring to move until he was certain they had gone, he released the pressure and dropped to the floor as quietly as he could. Breathing softly, he waited for a moment. Reassured by the silence, he warily slunk off through the halls.

***

It should have been to no surprise that the top floor suite would be on a different level than the barren maintenance hallways, but Pound Cake still found himself overwhelmed by the luxury of the penthouse as he slipped inside through a ventilation shaft. Fancypants’ apartment was sleek and designed in the ultramodern style of the latest and greatest architects. Smooth, glossy white marble adorned the floors in geometric tiles, reflecting the rays of sunlight pouring through wide windows. Thin glass sheets intersected the room to create an illusion of greater space. Plush leather furnishings with minimalistic metal legs were organized around a glass and metal table. Along one smooth wall were a several tasteful abstract paintings lit by embedded fluorescent lights.

Pound Cake used this wall to his advantage, running and getting two hooves up on it in order to grab the black steel banister of the overlooking walkway that was connected by a spiral staircase. Trying to get his bearings, he strained his ears for the slightest sound. Finally, he heard something, like a panicked breathing, from behind a black wooden door at the end of the walkway. Pushing it open, he found himself inside Fancypants’ office. The same wide windows overlooked the sprawling cityscape, illuminating a large glass and steel desk covered in papers, quills…and blood.

The runner stallion drew a sharp breath. Fancypants, the Governor of the state of Equestria, was lying face down, dead on his desk with a blade sticking from the his back. And sitting in the same room was his sister, the unicorn Pumpkin Cake, tapping a hoof anxiously. Dressed in a loose fitting white vest, a navy armband indicated her as a member of the Canterlot Civil Defense. It had been a long time since he had seen her: not since he had watched her graduation ceremony from the Academy safely atop a distant rooftop.

Her sapphire-colored eyes rose to meet his, and her shivering ceased when she saw it was him. Scrambling to her hooves, she threw her arms around her brother and held him tightly. Pound Cake returned the embrace numbly, his eyes locked on the dead pony and his expression, frozen in mild surprise. A trembling whisper escaped the terrified mare’s lips.

“Thank the goddess you’re here. Thank you, thank you, thank you…”

Pound Cake spoke, finding his throat to be suddenly quite dry. “Sweet Celestia, Pumpkin….what happened? What in Equestria happened? What are you doing here!?”

The pale yellow unicorn didn’t respond for a while as she breathed rapidly, tears rolling onto Pound Cake’s shoulder. “I don’t know, I don’t know. I found him like this…oh my Celestia, what am I going to do…?”

Pound Cake took his sister by the shoulders and pulled her away, leveling his eyes with hers. His heart was racing furiously, but he forced himself to ignore it. “Sis, calm down. Breathe, and tell me what happened?” He gave her a forced smile. “We’re going to figure this thing out, alright?”

The mare nodded, and gradually composed herself. Her voice still quivered slightly as she explained. “I…I was pulled from the bureau about a week or so ago for a special assignment: one of the bodyguards for the Governor. I’ve been supervising him, keeping an eye out, doing patrols, the works…And sometime around noon, I think, I was sitting outside his office…and I don’t know what happened. I felt something hit my head, and it knocked me out.” She swallowed hard, blinking so as to force away any tears that might return. “When I woke up my…my knife was missing.” She gulped again, and her breath quickened. With a trembling hoof, she pointed to the blade in Fancypants’ back. “And then I found it.”

There are few words to be used in such a situation. However, Pound Cake found himself able to compress it down to one.

“Shit.” Struggling to think of what to do, he paced around the desk, giving a wide berth to the immobile body. “Who knows about this?” he finally asked.

“Only you. I called almost the minute I found the body.” Silent as she nervously sat down and rubbed the handle of the pistol loosely hung on her belt, she asked the obvious question. “So what do we do?”

The runner pony tried to think, his eyes uncomfortably coming to rest on the weapon she was carrying. Perhaps the most infamous invention of Lulamoon Technologies was the firearm. Designed to only be operated by trained unicorns, the weapons had taken the lives and careers of many good runners. He forced himself to look away from the glinting barrel, and rubbed his temples in thought.

“I don’t know, Pumpkin, I don’t know. This whole thing tastes sour. How the hell could somepony manage to kill the friggin Governor?” he muttered anxiously. “You didn’t see anything at all, did you? Or hear a voice?” Pumpkin Cake shook her head morosely, eliciting a sweat from the runner. Suddenly, his eyes were drawn to something on the desk. Beneath one of the dead pony’s forehooves was a manilla folder. And Pound Cake recognized it.

“What are you doing?” asked Pumpkin Cake as her brother gingerly pulled the document out from under Fancypants’ hoof.

“I’m not sure,” said Pound Cake thoughtfully. Flipping the file open, he found there to be only one sheet of paper. Covered in obscure diagrams, numbers, and lines, the only thing he could recognize was a symbol at the bottom corner of the page: a crescent moon and a wrench. The logo of Lulamoon Technologies. A sliver of ice slid down Pound Cake’s spine. To the surprise of his sister, he quickly opened up his bag and slipped the file inside.

“What are you doing?” whispered Pumpkin Cake.

“Acting on a suspicion. This isn’t just a murder, this was an assassination.”

“And the killer left me alive to take the blame. I’d already figured out that much, thanks. But why in Equestria are you taking that with you?”

Pound Cake hesitated. He didn’t want to tell her anything about his running. She already knew what he did, but he’d never given her any specifics, and he certainly wasn’t about to start now. Sister or not, she was Civil Defense. “You just need to trust me on this.”

“Trust? How the hell can I trust you, Pound? You abandoned our family, you abandoned me!”

“Pumpkin, please, this isn’t the time for--”

“Oh, it’s never the time for this!” snapped the mare, stomping a hoof in aggravation, “Mr. Big Shot ran off to join the dashing and dangerous life of the runner pony, and left his sister all alone to fend for herself! When’s the last time you saw mom, huh? Or even thought about visiting?”

“That wasn’t about any of you!”

“Well for something that wasn’t about us, it sure as hell tore us apart, don’t you think!?” shouted Pumpkin Cake, practically screaming. Panting hard, she glared at him, her sapphire eyes thin with anger. She kicked at the floor again in frustration. “You’re my brother, dammit. You’re practically all I have left, and you’re never there. How the hell am I supposed to feel about that?”

The straw colored stallion failed to find the words to defend himself. Sighing heavily, he trotted over to his sister, and placed an easy hoof on her shoulder. “Please...please just listen to me. I promise I’ll figure a way out of this. I won’t leave you all alone, I swear.”

Pumpkin Cake’s eyes were glistening with repressed tears as her eyes rose to meet his, and he smiled. “If you’ve ever believed me, if you’ve ever had faith in me, do it again now. You need to get out of here. Come with me.”

The wheat-gold mare nodded half-heartedly, and then shook her head. “I can’t come with you...I can’t.” Her eyes watering once more, she looked him in the eyes. “All the evidence points to me. If I run, they’ll only hunt me down and find me anyways. They’ll hurt whoever they have to to get me. What if they go after mom?”

Pound Cake sighed in frustration. “Dammit. Pumpkin, you can’t--”

The two of them jumped to the sudden sound of knocking at the door. A muffled voice came from the other side. “Mr. Fancypants, sir? Are you alright in there? We heard shouting.”

The runner stallion turned to face his sister, giving his sister the most pleading glance he could muster. Her eyes darkened in response, and her horn pulsed with a yellow aura as she levitated the steel-black firearm into the air.

“I swear to Celestia, Pound, if you don’t get out of here, I’m going to put one through your leg. Go.” She hesitated for a moment, then quickly wrapped her arms around him one last time. Making it last for as long as he dared, Pound Cake finally stepped away, his eyes downcast, as if saying “I’m sorry”.

“Sir? Alright, I’m com--”

The guard behind the door didn’t have time to finish as Pound Cake rammed into it with all his frustrated energy, blasting it clean off its hinges and slamming the pony to the floor in an unconscious heap amongst the splinters that rained down on his collapsed body.

Pound Cake bolted as a scream of “Hey, you!” that he had heard a thousand times before rang out. A couple panicked guards galloped behind him, their hooves clattering clumsily on the smooth marble. Sliding down, Pound Cake snagged the bar of the railing on the banister and swung his legs underneath in a fluid underbar.

“Stop! Stop!” cried out another. Stopping at the bar Pound Cake had lunged under, the guards contemplated leaping over themselves, before being intimidated by the sheer height of the fall. Nodding to themselves they scurried around, following him via the stairs. Taking every second of delay to his advantage, Pound Cake hit the ground galloping.

Pound Cake vaulted over a couch. His eyes locked onto the target: the air vent through which he had entered. Another angered outburst from the guards behind him pushed him onwards. Two doors were slammed open by another pair of guards. One, a unicorn, locked eyes with him, and something on his hip glowed the same color as his horn.

Pound Cake was just barely able to duck and avoid the bullet as it burned the air with an explosive crack. His ears ringing with the resonating echo of the fearful explosion, pieces of cracked marble flew across the room, stinging his coat where they struck him. Scrambling frantically, he changed direction.

Clearing the stairs, the two guards that had been pursuing him obstructed his path. Pound Cake’s eyes shot around the room for some sort of escape route, time seeming to slow as adrenalin pounded through his veins, raising his fur and sharpening his breath. The blinding light of the sun refracting through the tall glass windows seemed to sear an idea into his racing brain, and he focused on the two heavyset stallions blocking his way backwards towards his sister. To their surprise, he lunged towards them as they raised their billy clubs in warning.

Runners, as a general rule, avoid confrontation. It’s easier, safer, and far less expensive to run away rather than fight back and risk becoming overpowered and captured. However, this by no stretch of the imagination meant that they couldn’t defend themselves. And with the extensive training under Rainbow Dash’s strict regiment, Pound Cake proved this to the guards. With vicious force and deadly accuracy, the runner stallion’s toned frame stretched and sent an elbow slamming into the neck of the first. His eyes bulged, and with a feeble croak, he keeled over. Letting the momentum of the strike carry him, Pound Cake spun and struck the second guard in the gut, doubling him over. Snagging the dropped club, the straw-colored stallion whipped the weapon upward with as much force he could muster, cracking it under the jaw of the dazed opponent. The impact whipped back the stallion’s head, sending him falling backwards in a shattered heap. Throwing the club behind him in a whistling arc, the armed guard ducked to avoid the projectile, making him miss another shot at the runner.

Using every second to his advantage, he throttled forward, hooves flying across the marble. The flying blades of sunlight cut across his body as he closed his eyes and prayed to whatever deity might possibly be watching out for him.

There was a scream of anger, of surprise, of horror. But it lost itself in the furious crash of shattered glass. Translucent shards twinkled in the sun’s light as they cascaded through the air, following the form of the straw-colored pony as he tumbled forth into empty space.

Their fragments shimmered, and vanished into the blinding whiteness of Canterlot. They evaporated like ghosts, like fleeting spirits, like the runner.