• Published 2nd May 2012
  • 5,106 Views, 250 Comments

Homebound - Retsamoreh



A space military captain, who believes that Equestria resides on the legendary, long-lost planet of Earth, attempts to save Twilight and her friends from an incoming invasion that threatens both Equestria and the galaxy while keeping them all sane.

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(20) Dutybound

-Gantoris Towers, Ophelius, Gantoris.
-Two days after landing.
-Higher Apartments.
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“Dear Twilight Sparkle.”

“Is this really necessary?” I asked, rubbing my eyes. The morning had yet to begin, and here I was, listening to a pony I could barely see through my tired eyes, read off of a letter that I had no idea how she got. “That’s rhetorical. It isn’t.” I flipped my legs off the bed and the slapped down heavily onto the floor. Twilight stood a yard away, bobbing in my vision. Beside her, floating an open parchment, which she read from, and a thick tome that I couldn’t guess the reason for. She laughed, rolling her eyes at me.

“Of course it’s necessary, Jackson. It mentions you in it. Anyways, er, would you just like for me to skip to the part about you, then?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at my deadpan expression. I let out a long, bored sigh, then nodded. “Goodie! Here we go... hope you’re safe, good trip, everything is fine in Canterlot, looking forward to a response from Jackson, and... there.”

“Go on,” I motioned, rubbing one eye with my fingers. “Actually, no, just hand it to me. I can read it.” She nodded, and I snagged the thin, old scroll out of the air and twirled it around to face me.

A message to Captain Amber, I read, from both myself and Commander Boyo. I hope you are treating my subjects well, as I have treated your crew well. They have been respectful and courteous to my ponies, and I hope Twilight and her friends have shown you the same kindness. In this package I have included a separate book of spells for Twilight to study, though I doubt she will find any lack of literature on her tour.

Also, Jackson, I would like to request more information in regards to allowing Wing ships into Equestrian space. Commander Boyo has briefed me on the “anomaly” surrounding our system, although I can assure you that my sister and I were unaware of this fact. Luna and I are eager to begin studying your technology and applying it to Equestria’s own, but we realize this may prove to be a problem for your ships and will be patient. The commander also requests that you send something described as a “Nexus detector”. I am unaware of what it does, but he assures me it will be in both our best interests.

“They don’t even make Nexus detectors anymore,” I muttered, flicking the paper back at Twilight. She caught it in her levitation, and it rolled up mid-air with narrowed eyes. I stared for a second, then looked at the floor. “And literally the only reason he would need that is if your entire system was about to collapse in on itself and be sent to another dimension. There was a bit of a scare when the Nexus theory itself was first discovered to be true, and an influx of those detectors being made, but the worries were disproved years ago... what’s he up to?” I slumped, and slowly turned to look outside the half-shut blinds. Through them, the purple glowing dawn of the Gantoris star, Orion, was being dragged above the horizon like a naughty child, and just as usual, streams of floating cars and transports flitted about the many towers in Ophelius.

I sighed, and tugged on my white muscle-shirt. “Mrrg. Twilight, have you been to the Gantoris Halls yet? I... nevermind, that’s a dumb question. I’m just tired.”

“I could’ve guessed,” she said, shrugging. The old hardcover tome she had received was placed next to the pile of other books she had snagged from my personal collection, and she turned to face me. “You came in at around two-thirty this morning, and I could smell the cupcakes from my room. I guess the ‘operation’ was a success?”

“Sorry for waking you up, though, but yeah,” I said, arching my shoulders back in a gratifyingly crunchy stretch; Twilight flinched at the sound. “She removed the grumpy gland and successfully implanted a cupcake where it used to be. She’s quite the surgeon, but she talks way too much. ” We looked at each other for a moment, and a laugh bubbled to the surface of our throats.

“That certainly sounds like the Pinkie Pie I know, and I went right back to sleep anyway. I kind of... played with your datapad thing, but I put it right back where it was. Sorry. Thanks for letting me borrow your bed again,” she said as I walked through one of the open glass doors and into the small kitchen space beyond. My flat feet echoed each time they slapped against the white tiles, bouncing off the dull grey walls and rebounding throughout the small apartment.

“No problem. And I just wanted to keep you girls all on the same floor as the rest of us. I’ve slept on worse than a soft, plushy couch, I promise,” I called back, already tearing off my sleeping clothes, briefly hopping into a new pair of underwear and sliding a white t-shirt over my head, all in record time. Twilight peeked her head around the corner, observing me as I haphazardly threw on my jacket uniform and put my socks on inside-out. One nonchalant gesture on my part later, and the dirty clothes were down a nearby chute labeled just for them. I stopped, leaning over to grab my shoes, and slowly stared up at Twilight.

She raised an eyebrow and said, “Do you always get dressed this fast? I wasn’t counting, but I think that was twenty seconds.”

I frowned. “Force of habit. I like being clothed,” I muttered, moving to strap my shoes on and wrap the datapad around my right arm. When I was done, I walked past her and out into the hallway, the little scholar forced into a canter to keep up. “Onward to the Gantoris Halls. You’re going to love them, Twilight.”

“They’re a library, right? I haven’t been able to check them out, but I can’t wait! TACT told me how many books you can store just on one holo-book, so if you’ve got a huge library full of them, I can’t even begin to fathom how many pieces of amazing literature you have. Er... why aren’t you going to eat breakfast?” she asked, trotting down the sleek hallway beside me. Doors and windows passed us by, offering a quick glance to the fast-rising sun.

“Well, sort of. It’s not exactly a regular library. There’s a reason it’s one giant hallway rather than a stuffy old room. Right in between the towers, that’s where it is. Absolutely ginormous, but trust me when I say it’s a surprise. As for eating... I’m not much for breakfast. I’ll snag a big lunch later, if it makes you happy.”

“It doesn’t really make me happy, but alright; it’s your choice, not mine,” she mused, and we stepped into a brightly lit elevator together. “Breakfast helps fuel you for the rest of the day, you know.”

“I know. It’s just a... force of habit, skipping breakfast. Halls level, please, AIA,” I said, glancing at the buttons adorning one of the walls. AIA’s figure appeared, and pulsed at me.

“Very well, Captain Amber,” the AI said. “It should be noted that, currently, Roland is supervising Rainbow Dash on the roof level. All other ponies left are still asleep, presumably due to the time lag they have experienced between their planet and yours. Premier Aaro is also requesting your assistance later today. Would you like me to schedule an appointment with the College?”

“Go ahead, AIA. I’m just introducing Twilight to the Halls, first. Are there guards stationed there?”

“Indeed. She will not be left unsupervised, sir.”

“Alright, good. Just checking. Twilight, do you remember when I showed you how the hologram device worked in my ship?” I asked, turning to the lavender unicorn next to me. She nodded.

“Yup. Why?”

“This is a bit like that. Except on a much, much bigger scale. It’s just holograms, though. Virtual reality simulation is in a different part of the building and after our last run, I don’t think it would be the best idea for you girls to start using it right off the bat. Besides, virtual reality isn’t nearly as great as holograms. Things tend to... glitch, if you say or do the wrong things. Nevermind.”

“It’s fine, Jackson. The headache wasn’t that bad, and it wasn’t your fault.”

“Still on that, eh? Alright. Name a topic, Twilight,” I said, leaning against one side of the elevator. I swear, it’s like the whole world stops while she’s trying to think really hard. Her face scrunches up all adorable-like. Brow furrowed, and lips pursed, she completely froze up, and an instant later, was the same as she always was. Bulbous pony eyes stared up at me, and she answered.

“Shields. I know unicorns can conjure them - even I can - and I’ve heard you mention them on the Homebound. I think it would be really interesting to know how yours work, and then-”

“Hold that thought,” I said, waving AIA back onscreen. “Excuse me, AIA, but do you think you could prepare a little presentation on shield technology for Twilight? Just to entertain her for a bit, of course.” The AI appeared mid-air, staring at me with its typical blank, emotionless face. Its voice was feminine, and high pitched as usual, but it felt like it was a bit deeper today.

“Jackson... are you sure? The Wing currently has the best shield technology in the galaxy. Ours rivals the Empirium, Allied Systems, and WIC Corporation’s own tech, and we’ve carefully protected it over the years. In revealing this information, you would be giving away Wing specifics to a core piece of our defenses. Please reconsider.”

“Nah, not ours. Just how they work in general. Empirium shields work differently, and the Corporation relies only on energy fields, not barriers. Personal shields, too, since we’ll eventually get down to that.”

“Very well, sir. I believe I can do that,” the computer voice responded, laying still. I nodded to Twilight when, a moment later, it glowed again. “Done, Jackson. It will be prepared when you arrive.”

“Ding,” I said, just as the elevator shuddered to a stop. The doors opened. Our breaths caught.

I recall my earlier musing on Canterlot not being all that spectacular, and this still, do this day, proves to be a correct assumption. I have seen bigger and better, of course, but I’ve also seem just some plain amazing things. First time I saw the Gantoris Halls was one of those times. The Halls themselves make up the bridge between the two Gantoris Towers, and consist of two floors, the top of which has an open railing looking down on the bottom. The windows are reinforced and usually blinded with thick black shades, putting the entire scene in a dim blue glow. Everywhere you look there are small black dots lining the wall, ranging from sheets of them on the ground, to picture-frame sized ones on the walls. Sometimes there was a wall jutting out from the clear area, filled to the brim with data storage or holo-books. This was the place where the Wing held all of its information. Calling it a library wouldn’t do it justice. It was our everything, all wrapped up in a nice little package.

And that’s without the holograms.

Jutting out from each black spot that adorned the Halls, stuck in the middle of the air like phantoms floating in space, were the mind-boggling forms of the holograms AIA had summoned. In one direction, there was a scale, blown-out model of a Mark I Victory shield capacitor - the things I came to rely on like brothers back in the day, and in another there was an active energy field surrounding a heavily armored Corporation shock trooper, the whole model spinning to show off the device on the back of the bulky suit. Sparkling like stars and reflecting off of surfaces, they juggled about the room in a fantastic light-show that even I was mildly impressed at. Twilight gaped.

“For the record,” I said, a huge grin plastering itself on my face, “this is the coolest library in the galaxy, and it’s restricted only to Wing members and select individuals because of its contents. You are one of those individuals, and I’m giving you free access to everything we know.”

Everything?” she sputtered, eyes looking like they were going to pop out of their head.

“Everything,” I agreed.

~=V=~

-10-1-3-11-19-15-14
-23-9-12-12
-5-14-4
-5-17-21-5-19-20-18-9-1

“Ah, if it isn’t the wolf come to the lion. Quite ironic, you know?”

“Save it, ‘your majesty’, I’m just here because you invited me. It’s more like... the lion can’t get his jungle under control, and he’s asking the wolf for help, but I didn’t come all the way from Han Wavel just to prattle on with dumb metaphors. The cannon fire doesn’t help my hearing, either. Price, job, then it gets done.”

“Heh, do not worry, Wolf. I know that anything you get pointed at tends to die very... fast. I’m counting on your leadership expertise during this battle. We can get you inside the compound, yes, but they will immediately counterattack. My men are good at blitzing, but you of all people should know the chaos that they revel in. We’ll be massacred if we try to keep the fortress.”

“Can’t you just... you know?”

“They have their own; they’re blocking me, Wolf. That’s another thing I need you to do. If you can find their psychics, kill them. I’ll pay you generously for each you take care of.”

“And what makes you think I’ll do it? I’ll do anything you can pay for, but taking a job that involves being put in command of troops isn’t what I do.”

“Do you not have your own mercenary crew? You lead them every day, I hear.”

“I do, and I have a ship, but they’re all on vacation for the next two weeks and it’s up to me. Point stands, I’ll do it, but I’m not going to be happy.”

“Ha! I do not need happiness, I merely seek results that I know you can give. And, naturally, I bare no hard feelings for your past transgressions against me. If I didn’t think you could lead so well as to defeat my own army... would I not hire you?”

“I... suppose not. Just know if you try and double-cross me, I-”

“You’ll what? You’ll kill me?”

“Oh, no. I wouldn’t dream of it. I’d do so much worse, you twelve-year old abomination. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a fortress to oversee.”

Slam.

~=V=~

“Twilight,” I muttered, eyes blankly staring out the window in front of me. A shadow briefly streaked over my face. The unicorn was in her own little world far behind me, taking in every ounce of glorious information she could shove into her brain at once.

“Twilight?” I asked again, turning to glance at her. She looked up, eyes glazed over, and blinked stupidly at me.

“Wah?” She shook her head, clearing away an invisible fog that was probably cluttered with lots of swirling factoids.

“First off, don’t stare too hard at the holograms. They can be bad for your eyesight if you do it too long.” I chuckled, nodding at something beyond the window. “Secondly, you were right about Rainbow Dash. She’s really enjoying the extra airspace a planet can provide. Although I’d appreciate it if she didn’t skim the sides of our towers. It takes a lot of wax to polish these things so they shine.”

“What’s she doing?” Twilight asked, trotting up beside me to look outside, where a very obvious rainbow-trailing, physics-breaking blue dot was speeding around the towers in a figure-eight faster than I would have liked. Someone coughed behind us.

“Er, Captain Amber of the Wing?” a gruff voice asked, and I turned to see one of the faceless tower guards looking blankly at us from behind his mask. “Some of the turret operators didn’t get the message not to shoot anything colorful. We told them not to do anything, but they’re still annoyed-”

“Right,” I interrupted, reaching for my arm-bound datapad and tapping a few buttons with lightning speed. “AIA,” I said into the device. “Contact Roland for me, please? Tell him to get down here ASAP.”

“On it, Jackson,” the AI replied, my datapad blinking off a moment later. Adopting a businesslike stance, I turned to the guard.

“Could you unlock the balcony door over there? And give me your sidearm.” He nodded, slowly, and tossed me the dark grey pistol that I recognized and suddenly didn’t want to be holding. On the side, blatant as could be, was a decal of a dragon intertwined with a gear. Dragon Tech, the arch nemesis of Kaiden Tech, and leading weapons supplier to the Wing. I looked up, ignoring Twilight’s curious gaze, to see the guard nodding toward an opened glass door that could look like a window on any other day.

The air whipped past us as we exited the building, the guard opting to stay behind in the relative safety of not being half a mile above the surface. Over the roar, I turned to see Twilight looking up at me with fearful eyes. “Are you sure this is safe?” she yelled through the gale, pointing with her horn at the tiny railing that made up the so-called balcony we were perched on. I shook my head, staring ruefully at the pistol in my hands.

“Nope, probably not. Do you have like, some sort of flare spell to get her attention?”

“Were you going to use that on her?” Twilight screamed, staring at the pistol in my hands. I followed her gaze, and shook my head.

“No! Well not really. Just with the energy output on maximum low. The worst that would do if it hit would make her a bit warm on the spot. Good for winter camping and preventing frostbite.” I frowned, and contemplated tossing the weapon off the building in order to save face. “Do you have something to get her attention or not?”

“Yes!” Twilight shouted, and just in time, Rainbow passed us; she didn’t get very far, because in another round of the screw-physics game, Twilight caught her in a levitation spell and stopped her mid-air. “Rainbow!”

“What,” I said dumbly.

“What gives, Twilight?” Rainbow shouted, struggling in her invisible bonds. “I was on my hundredth lap! That’d be a new record for me!” I frowned, turned, and slowly stepped back through the door.

“Sir?” the guard asked. I placed the pistol in his waiting hand, which he gladly returned to his holster. “What just happened? I’d heard those things were psychic, but-”

“Sir?” another voice called, and I turned to see Roland approaching. Ignoring him, I turned back to the other man. Twilight and Rainbow walked in from the balcony, taking places behind me.

“Not another word. And, well, thanks for not shooting her with an anti-aircraft turret,” I said, rolling my eyes at the guard. He saluted, the expression under his mask hidden from any interpretation, but the speed of his exit blatantly said he was mortified. Anyone in the Wing knows what happens to people who threaten my friends. Firing a hand warmer was one thing, but I wasn’t going to be the one begging for forgiveness when Celestia asked why I had returned her an overcooked turkey instead of a pegasus.

“And you know what? Why don’t you guys clean up your air, too? It smells awful way up high,” Rainbow complained, already up and bouncing from hoof to hoof like an athlete ready for a race. Roland stood a few meters to her right, hand covering his head out of exasperation.

“Excuse me, missy. You’re in the most advanced city in Wing space. Our air doesn’t get to smell like flowers or whatever,” I shot back, shaking my head at the absurdity of it all. I turned around to face Roland, raising an eyebrow. “And you look bit worse-for-wear. This bird running you dry?”

“You have no idea... but at least I’m not Dylan,” he replied, yawning. “And I’m tired, too. We stayed up pretty late last night.” I snorted, a smirk spreading along my lips. The ensign gagged, waving dismissively. “No, we were just talking. We’ve had a lot to catch up on, you know.” He shrugged wearily, and walked with stiff legs over to lean on the window.

“I can imagine,” I said, nodding and following him carefully with my eyes. “I can’t have my crew constantly worn out, though. You need to rest up.” I looked over at Rainbow Dash, who was chatting with Twilight about something I didn’t care to eavesdrop upon. “For the sake of things...” I started, frowning more and more the longer I looked at Rainbow’s energetic and enigmatic hoof movements in the air, body twirling in a wing-fluttering loop-the-loop once or twice. “I think that’ll be an order. I’ll take Dash off your hoo-... hands, and you can watch Twilight. Maybe take a nap. She’s just going to be absorbed in getting information, at least until her friends finish breakfast and join her down here. I’ve got to do some things anyways.”

“Really?” he asked, eyes wide. “I mean, I’ve heard from the other crew that Rainbow isn’t your biggest fan... are you sure, sir? I’d really enjoy a nap, though...”

“It’s no problem, Roland,” I assured him, smiling. “Just... make sure she doesn’t access anything that could corrupt her mindset on us. I’ve already told AIA to deny her whenever she gets to something particularly nasty, like Hazar or the BAI, or anything that might completely change her image of myself, like...”

“Blood Valley?” Roland offered in whisper, frowning.

“Exactly like Blood Valley. I trust AIA, since she’s one of our most advanced supercomputer AI’s, but a human-variant element would help too. Right? So don’t take a nap for too long.” I looked back to Rainbow and Twilight, who seemed to be more engrossed than ever.

“Yessir. Got it, sir.”

“Right. Rainbow Dash?” I called, full turning to the two ponies. Some of the window light glared into my eyes, and I squinted involuntarily.

“Yeah, Captain Amber?” Rainbow looked to me with a blank expression, most likely apathetic to whatever I might say. “What’s up?”

“I’ve talked with Roland, and you’ve worn him out pretty bad. I don’t like my toys broken, got it?” I smirked, already sensing the tension tightening in her chest - or barrel, whatever it was called, and my smile grew just to spite her. “Rhetorical question. Sorry, RD, but you’re on the bench and with me today. Twilight, Roland will look after you for now.”

What?” she exclaimed, wings and other limbs stretching out in surprise. “But I like Roland! He’s cool with whatever I do! Come on, buddy, have my back on this one!”

“Sorry, Rainbow,” Roland huffed, frowning, “but I’m dead-tired. I can’t run around the building like you’ve been making me do for the past two hours.”

“B-but-”

“And guess what I’ve got to do, Rainbow?” I asked, grin widening in sick satisfaction at her discomfort. She stared at me, eyes as big as plates. “Boring. Horrible. Desk work.”

“Oh, feathers,” she said, pupils shrinking to pinpricks.

~=V=~

Typically, I’m not cruel, I swear, but something about the times she had pushed me around in the ship sparked this little flame of revenge that I couldn’t put out. Unluckily for Rainbow Dash, what qualified as desk work for me probably was the same thing back home, at least by her reaction. Every once and awhile, I looked at my discarded datapad for the time. It seemed to be going awfully slow.

“Are you done now?”

“No.”

“Are you done now?”

“No.” I scribbled my signature on another piece of paper, having only glazed across it. Often times, when I was like this, I could just faintly block out everything I was seeing, but now I had to do it with every other sense.

“Are you done now?”

No,” I said, this time louder. I don’t know why I chose then to register annoyance, since it had been going on steadily for the past five minutes, but I did, and I lifted up the paper I was about ready to shove into another pile. “To the Wing Military College of Higher Ranks, as forwarded by the Gantoris Planetary Council. Yadda, with respect, the Teryn Dianateray of Feros Tyr and Ulwor Representing the people of the Delta Pi system. You must know we are in dire need of space navy reinforcements. The border between the Wing and Orglock militaries offers us both in our time of aid, but with the news that the warlord E is threatening the Wing once again, we are hopelessly outnumbered on the edge of Wing territory. Our people are scared and need reassurance that the Wing can support us. We have several teams ready to help crew ships that need it and our own garrison will be able to help however possible.”

“Why does this even matter?” Rainbow groaned, rolling on her back. My grey metal desk, which was, naturally, in my office, was small, gleaming, and the only other object in the room beside my chair was a small sofa.

If it is at all possible, please send at least one battlecruiser and two escort ships our way. The morale of our people depends on your response, but we understand the Wing is spread thin as it is, and have sent the same request to the Orglock military. Please respond.” I set the paper aside, doing nothing, and stared hard at Rainbow Dash. “Do you think I should give them some ships, Rainbow? Just one battlecruiser and two heavy frigates, all for them? Should I send more, do you think?”

“How should I know? You’re the one who has been doing this his whole life, apparently,” Rainbow said, shrugged from her awkward position on the lounge sofa. “Go ahead.”

“Ah, but that’s not all, I assure you,” I said, picking up another order form. “Thing is, you see, all of these get directed to me because I am the only Captain other than York and another to own not just a ship, but a whole fleet of ships. It’s called the Liberty Fleet, actually, sponsored and entirely built by Kaiden Tech, which is also my personal company. It is made up of sixteen different ships, only two of them battlecruisers. One, the Archangel IV, is located at Han Wavel with most of the other ships, while the other, the Golden II, is located right above Gantoris, the only current battlecruiser in orbit. I can’t move any of them without leaving one place greatly under-defended, but again, that’s not the whole story.”

“Alright...” Rainbow muttered, sitting up and looking at me inquisitively. “Go on.”

“I have a second requisitions form right here,” I said, holding up the paper. “It’s from the governing body of Draxis Ferys, in the Kelta system. The last time E attacked, we pooled most of our forces there at one point, and they still failed. The Capitol of the planet was destroyed and their pride and joy, the Tolos Station, was targeted next. Restoring their faith in the Wing has been a... troubling endeavor, but it’s a priority. However, they are far more protected than Delta Pi and Feros Tyr are as a whole. The draxians are a capable people, but they still need us.”

“Yeah, so what are you going to do?” Rainbow asked, tilting her head. I shrugged, and pushed both papers toward her. “Er-”

I’m not going to do anything. I’m letting you decide,” I said, grinning like a humble man at the gallows. “Out of the two battlecruisers, Archangel and Golden, which do I sacrifice? Frigates are nothing to produce, so that doesn’t matter to me. Which ship do I move where?”

“That’s not really a fair question, I didn’t... uh,” Rainbow swallowed, furrowing her brow. “How...?”

“Keep in mind that your decision will not affect millions of people. It will not affect billions. It will decide, most likely, the fates of trillions of people who are living in the four systems that could be directly harmed by your decision.”

“Well... uh, you could take the ship at the place where we’re at... and move it to the Fer- the first place you mentioned, since I guess that letter sounded kinda dire.”

“It’s a dire situation for everyone,” I said, nodding. “Very well. Gantoris will be left undefended, giving E ample opportunity to overpower us and take out the Wing’s heart, rather than a sliver of its ear. Feros Tyr will be well defended, and we’ll be sitting ducks. Oh, and the draxians will be undefended as well, so they might be conquered even before Gantoris is. Brilliant plan. ”

“But, wait, can’t you move the other ship to Gantoris, too?” Rainbow asked, gulping. “I mean, who the hay cares what the draxigon guys think, right? They should be able to take care of themselves.”

“Right. Han Wavel is now undefended and will most likely be taken over, removing one of the Wing’s best shipyards from its grasp. We are without means to produce more support ships, Feros Tyr is happy and protected, those draxigon guys all are enslaved, and we last just a little bit longer before we’re taken out. Think harder.”

“W-wait! Then don’t move them at all. Can’t you make a new battlecruiser if you have ship building places - I mean, I think you can build those there, right?” Rainbow rattled off, fumbling for ground. She stood up on the couch, forehooves propped on the desk. “Then everyone can be protected, right?”

“Possibly, if our enemy doesn’t attack for... a month or so. Probably longer, since it’s wartime. So if we hold off for about four months, then we can get everyone fully protected. I don’t think they’re going to give us those four months. Think. Harder. If you were me, what would you do? You have every single resource I do right now, including my friends in the Wing. Use them wisely.”

“Uh... alright then,” Rainbow said, biting her lower lip. A few seconds passed, and she started to tap on the desk with her left front hoof. “Hm... you don’t just have the battler thingies, right? You’ve got other stuff? Can’t you just use a bunch of them instead of a battle thing?”

“Possibly,” I mused, narrowing my eyes. “But it takes a lot of frigates and men to replace one battlecruiser. I’d reckon about ten would do it. Unfortunately, that’s about as much as the Liberty Fleet has. We can’t afford to put them anywhere else. Try again.”

“Something’s telling me you’re making this unwinnable just ‘cause you don’t like me,” Rainbow grumbled, plopping back into her seat. “I don’t want to play this game if you’re going to be like that.” I smacked my hand on the table, sitting up straighter and drawing her eye.

“This game isn’t a game. This is real life that we are currently going through right now. I know Twilight told you guys about what I showed her in the simulator, so you can take this as your test, Rainbow, except unlike with Twilight, this one is real, and it definitely is unwinnable by your standards.” I sniffed, and shoved my chair into the back wall as I stood up. “I know Equestria has a military. I’ve seen part of it, greeting me with pathetic pointed sticks as I got off my spaceship capable of faster-than-light speeds in armor that wouldn’t even be dented by your best weapons. This is the kind of stuff a leader like me has to deal with, Rainbow, and if you can’t deal with, at least respect the ones who can.”

“Hey! I do respect you, I just don’t like getting pushed around and lied to!” Rainbow yelled, jumping and hovering in the air so she could scream at me eye-to-eye. Maybe she had qualms with necessary white lies - even of omittance, but heck if they hadn’t gotten me out of hot water before.

“Well if you did respect me, you sure wouldn’t be talking to me in that tone,” I chided, marching around the desk. “You can know that you also failed the test, Rainbow. Twilight’s was a simple moral question. The others didn’t even get a test. Yours? All you had to do was use your brain a little bit. Think outside the box you put yourself in. I was told by Celestia that you wanted to join something called the Wondervolts or somesuch. I can tell you right now that if you can’t solve this test, you’re definitely not getting into any sort of job that requires cooperation.”

“Did you seriously just call me dumb?” Rainbow shouted, coming up to me and pressing her head against mine. “Permission to use that free punch to the face, Captain?”

“Denied,” I sneered, pushing my face against hers with equal force. “You want to fight me, you’re going to do it on equal grounds, in the hallway, duel style. Honorable fisticuffs. The whole jig.”

“Ooh, I’m going to honorably fisticuff you right into the ground!” Rainbow said, backing the two of us in a straight line, headed right for the door. She held her two forehooves up, swiveling them in adorable little circles. “I’ve got five years of martial arts training on you, buddy!”

“And I’ve got over ten years of military experience, and that includes martial arts and close-quarters combat,” I hissed back, tearing off my jacket uniform to leave my white t-shirt as my only top covering. The rainbow pegasus swooped backwards, did a quick loop-the-loop, and hovered a couple meters down the empty hallway, hooves held up in the most hilarious aggressive posture I’d ever seen.

“Pfft... well, I can fly.” She smirked, defying the laws of physics to stretch out her wings just to emphasize the point.

“I have opposable thumbs,” I bragged, waggling my fingers before returning them to their fist-form. “Basic rules: no crotch-shots, no aiming for the head, and don’t look to break bones. Just no fighting dirty in general. Think you can handle it, rainbow-butt?”

“Bring it on, paleface,” she replied, not even waiting for me to properly announce the start. With speed that I hadn’t thought would be possible to go into after being stationary, the mare zipped toward me with one hoof cocked back.

I blinked, and swung to the side at the last second, my left arm shoving her hoof away from my chest as I twirled around to face her exposed back. She sped away, missing me by inches, and on an instinctual whim I smacked her lightning-shaped cutie-mark with the back of my hand.

“Oi, no being mean. It’s not my fault I’ve got fair skin.”

“Yow! I thought this was a punch-and-kick kind of fight, not slapping,” Rainbow shot back, bobbing in the air with her aggressive hooves lifted up, smirking. “Or was that your punch?”

Dash swooped at me again, and this time corrected mid-flight against my sidestep. Cyan body barreling into me, hooves first, I did the only thing I could think of doing: clamp down on her wings with both arms. “Ow!” she yelped, and we both tumbled to the ground, reeling from both attacks. I got up first.

“Nice one, but if that’s your best, we’ve got a problem,” I laughed, rolling back to my feet in one practiced movement, only to be met with a quick hoof to the chest by Rainbow Dash. “Oof.” I blinked; she was already up and flying, and another hoof was heading my way. Right arm swinging upwards to block, my left swung in to clobber her exposed right side. Both connected on their marks.

“Poor form,” I said, reversing my arms to block a strike against my other side. My body jerked from the impact, and my arm stung, but it was nicer than being smacked around by that dark-matter hoof of hers. “I’ve seen cadets do better after a week of training.” I smacked her in the barrel with the back of my hand, grinning. “Serious- whoa!” I ducked under her, swinging behind her to dodge another wild kick.

“Stop moving and let me hit you!” she yelled, spinning around with a back leg outstretched. I brought up both arms, fists clenched, to shield myself. We connected, and I was launched into the wall with my arms screaming in protest. I slumped against the flat surface, arms drooping. “Finally!”

“That’s one heck of a bite...” I grumbled, shaking my head and ducking to the side just in time to avoid another kick to the chest. Using the bottom of my fists, I supplied two quick pounds on her exposed underside and backed off as she reeled away. “Come on, come on. If you’re such an expert, you’d have beaten me by now. Heck, Pinkie Pie or Rarity would’ve won at this point.”

“And what about Fluttershy?” Rainbow grunted, getting ready to rush me again. I put some energy into smirking.

“I’m insulting, not insane.” I shrugged, holding my own fists up. She charged.

Hiiyaah!” she roared. One arm blocking, I sent the other one swinging toward her side, only to be met with a block of her own; we were locked for the briefest of seconds, and then I threw my right arm back, swinging my left to the front in a blocking stance. Both of us, without a moment to spare, struck. The side of my first impacted her side, and her hoof grazed my chest. I jolted from the flash of pressure, but stood my ground, and then I swung again.

We repeated that cycle at least twice, I would block her attacks, she’d get slapped around a bit by my abnormally soft hits. In the classic struggle of power versus agility, I didn’t know how or when it would end. I would block, then slap her sides a bit, then be forced to block again. Eventually even my calloused and bandaged arms failed me.

“Oof,” I gasped, shoved back from a surprise blow. Somewhere inside me, I told myself I had just been toying with her; that I didn’t really want to hurt her. Well, my arms stung and it felt like the wounds under the bandages had reopened, and she was sitting pretty as ever, floating in the air with a big dumb smirk on her face. Gathering my strength and pushing my feet into the ground, I waited until she charged, and she inevitably did.

Rainbow Dash passed me, eyes bulging as I slid to the side, slapping her hindquarters with the bottom of my left fist. Eyes still wide, this time with a grin, Rainbow broke physics and changed direction mid-air, propelling herself off the wall with her forehooves a moment later. She bucked me.

Ponies are dirty cheats.

I groaned, rolling on my side fifteen or so meters away. Shakily, I stood up, and grinned despite the pain in my arms. “What? That’s all you got?”

“Seriously? I’ve taken down whole buildings before! You wanna bet that’s all I got?” Rainbow sneered.

“Yes,” I said a moment later, already calculating her trajectory as she readied her charge. If that was her end-game move, this would be mine, that was for sure. “Because, let’s be honest, you’re not very good at this. When was the last time you actually got to use those five years of martial arts training?”

“About a month ago,” she answered, planting her back hooves on the wall. “It was when the changelings invaded and tried to take over Canterlot. You can make all the bets you want, because I got to kick some serious flank that day!”

“What-” I started, stopping myself when the mare launched through the air and straight in my direction. Her forehooves were outstretched, ready to pummel me, but there was one thing she wasn’t counting on. Right when she got into arm’s reach, I balled my hands into one big fist and slid them up between her forelegs, slamming into her barrel and stopping her midair. I could swear I heard glass shattering when her physics-breaking rainbow trail stopped short.

Grimacing through the hot lava that my arms seemed to be dipped in, I separated my arms and swung them around to scissor-cut her body horizontally. My fists impacted, and from the strangled look on her face, I knew the fight was over.

By then, both of us were tumbling through the air and falling to the merciless ground. My initial move obviously wasn’t very effective at stopping her completely. I rolled on the ground, stopping next to her, and for a while we just sat there breathing so loud it was the only thing we could hear. Among the thumping in my chest, another problem was that my arms were hurting so bad they were going numb.

“My whole body hurts,” Rainbow said. I wheezed.

“You act like you’ve never been kicked back. What was that about changelings?” I asked, cringing and rolling onto my side.

“They were like, crazy bug-pony things that sucked emotion out of us or something,” Rainbow said, looking toward me from her sprawling position on the ground. “They tried to take over Equestria by taking over Canterlot. The girls and I kicked them around for a while, but there were too many of them so we kinda had to surrender.”

“And...?” I raised and eyebrow, pouring all my leftover energy into remembering what she would say next.

“We cheated, I think. Cadance and Twilight’s brother touched their horns and a giant heart blasted all of the changelings into next year. Don’t tell anypony else, but I thought it was kinda lame,” Rainbow chuckled, a stupid smile on her face.

“Princess Celestia never told me about that,” I said, shifting into a more comfortable position - which was still sprawling out on the hard metal tile floor. “She said you guys hadn’t had a major conflict in hundreds of years, other than that Discord guy.” Dash snorted.

“I bet she didn’t. No offense to her, but the changeling queen knocked her out in like... one spell. We were on our way to get the Elements of Harmony when the changelings ambushed us.”

“Oh. Well I can understand that one. I’ve rarely met a good enough leader who enjoys admitting being defeated easily, and I hope that with the Wing protecting Equestrian space, you guys can work out some sort of global alliance. It makes politics much easier on us, otherwise we get accused of favoritism over one nation, and it just....” I sighed, waving my hand wistfully in a downward spiral. Staring at Rainbow, I blinked. “She didn’t tell me a lot about what the Elements of Harmony were, other than that you six... er, sans Spike, represent each one. Is it some sort of religious thing or-”

“Whoa,” a new voice said, and while it took a second for me to recognize it, Rainbow Dash looked up behind me with an expression of annoyance. “Captain Amber, how unprofessional. You could at least do this kind of thing in your office and not out in the hallway. Or at the very least, let me watch and take notes.”

“Sorry, Admiral Uske,” I groaned, rolling over to face him. The tall, clean-shaven man with a heart made of gold and full of strobe lights reached out and offered me a hand; I gladly accepted it. “I, gah, will take your advice in the future, but I was afraid we’d break a window or something.” I stumbled to my feet, wobbling to the side while he went to help Rainbow up. I scrunched up my face. “Wait...”

“You gave him a good run, right? I hear he’s tough at times.” San asked, kneeling down to help the pegasus up. She silently nodded, proud for some reason, and I looked on with a blank expression. He laughed, scooped up my jacket, and tossed it to me with all the seriousness of a comedy relief performer in the middle of his act. “So which one of you came out on top?”

“Um, I think it was a draw.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding knowingly before facing me. “Well there’s a quick meeting going on in the briefing room if you want to come. Captain York and Captain Mity just arrived and we’re discussing fleet movements. I went down to look for you in the Halls, but it was only Twilight and her guard and no you. They’re actually waiting for us too, so if you don’t mind....”

“Captain Mity standing in for Sven, I presume?” I asked, slowly, because every movement made my arms sting worse, putting on my jacket. San nodded, waiting. “He still working on the Dark Fleet projects?”

“Indeed, although why he isn’t showing up, only Aaro and Clover seem to know,” the Admiral said, shaking his head and turning around. “Well you can come as you wish. Just, next time you two duel, try to do it somewhere where you won’t get hurt. I’d rather one of our best captains wasn’t severely injured because he got bucked out of a window. Virtual simulators are very popular this time of year.”

I blinked away something I couldn’t put into words even if I tried, and turned to face Dash. “Care to see the fun part of fleet management, then? It’s a lot nicer than signing papers.”

“Sure. Beats watching you in that stuffy office of yours,” Rainbow said, grinning. “Now, you wanted to know about the Elements of Harmony, right?”

“Yes,” I said, looking off to the side as we tailed far behind the Admiral. The blank, dull hallways opened up into a wonderful windowed view of the bustling Gantoris afternoon. Lunch would be soon. “A briefing on that would be nice, considering how important it sounds.”

“Right! Well, the Elements are basically these super-gem things that, according to Twilight and the Princess, each represent an element of harmony that... er, create harmony, I guess. That’s, uh, kindness, laughter, generosity, honesty, loyalty, and magic.”

“I can take six guesses and get each one right. You’re loyalty,” I said, smiling down at Rainbow, who trotted beside me in a way that would prevent anyone from guessing she’d just been in a high-stakes duel. The stakes being her pride.

“Yup! And together, if we all use the Elements with our friendship, it’s capable of blasting any enemy of Equestria or ‘agent of chaos’ we point it a- ac-oochhhf!”

I jerked to a stop, wide eyed as she burst into a strangled coughing fit. I knelt to one knee, and reached out - stopping only when the coughing ceased as quick as it began. With one last gurgle, she shook her head in exasperation.

“Rainbow, you alright?” I asked, a few more than helpful thoughts coming to the forefront of my thoughts.

“Yeah, it’s all cool. Just something in my throat I guess,” she said, and we were on our way once more. “Anyways, the Elements pretty much stop any bad guy that threatens Equestria. We’ve stopped Nightmare Moon, Discord, and... well... that’s it, I guess, but we only got them like two years ago!”

“So it... destroys them?” I asked, part of me regretting the question. She scoffed.

“No... well I didn’t really understand what it did to Nightmare Moon, since she was technically Luna or something. Discord got turned into stone, this time for good, and... no. No destroying. Wouldn’t that kind of go against the idea of harmony if it did? Twilight said something like that when I asked her about Nightmare Moon.”

“I guess so,” I muttered, part of my mind suddenly on the mental track of what the Wing could do with such a thing. With a weapon like that, we’d surely be one of the most well defended territories in the galaxy. Then, maybe, we could even expand our borders a bit.

I had to mentally slap myself for even wondering how to weaponize something incorruptible by definition. It was blatantly obvious that even attempting it could backhand me into nonexistence. Magic as the ponies called it, or psych as we called it, wasn’t something the Wing liked to involve itself in for good reason.

“Why didn’t Princess Celestia tell you about it?” Rainbow ashed, looking at me questioningly. “That’s like, the reason Twilight or any of us even met each other. We wouldn’t even be friends if we didn’t have to go find the Elements when Nightmare Moon returned. It doesn’t seem like her at all to leave them out.”

“I don’t know, Rainbow,” I said, shaking my head. “But I wish she would have. So I guess with the Elements of Harmony thing, you really have to rely on your friends, right?”

“Well, I guess so, but usually it’s them relying on me,” she said, grinning smugly.

“Well that explains it,” I said, rolling my eyes. “You’d think, even with all of that, you’d be able to pass my little test with ease.”

“I already told you I’m not answering your dumb unwinnable question,” Rainbow shot, her grin flipping in record time. “There’s no way I could pass it and you know it. I get it, alright? Being a leader is super hard and you have to make sacrifices and stuff. Lesson learned.”

“While that is true,” I said, smirking, “it wasn’t the lesson I was trying to get across. You know there’s a super, super easy way to pass it, right? It might’ve been a bit unfair for me not to mention it, but like I said, you needed to think outside of your box.”

“Fine, fine, I guess I give up. What’s the answer?” Rainbow asked, rolling her enormous eyeballs at me. I chuckled, and resisted laughing when they bugged out at my answer.

“Ask for help.”

“What?”

“Simple,” I said, waving my hand nonchalantly at the thriving city beyond. “Nobody in the military does anything by himself. Heck, not a lot of people get anything done without some sort of outside help. My own fleet isn’t capable of sacrificing any ships, mostly because it’s heavily specialized and very small, but that doesn’t mean another fleet isn’t able to spare a battlecruiser.”

“The orders came to my desk, but in the name of cooperation, I can just ask another fleet leader to send their ships off, and because they know I can’t spare ships, they can, and the homes and families that are depending on us need it, they will. At some point every leader needs to sacrifice their pride and ask for help, and then know when to ask for it.” I stopped, nodding at a dark gray door the Admiral had just walked through.

“Oh... I guess that makes sense... wow. I, er, kinda feel stupid now,” Rainbow said, rubbing the back of her head with one hoof. “And achey. I still hurt all over from that fight.”

“So do I.” I chucked, waving her off and silently thanking God she’d gotten over her snippyness. “Just remember that there’s no shame in asking for help if you really need it. Pride will only get you so far, but your integrity and humility will get you farther. And don’t roughhouse people who control your air supply and food. And talk to people if you think they’re being smarmy lying sods.”

“Right. About that last part-” she started, but stopped when the door before us opened and the hallway was filled with red lights. An alarm blared.

~=V=~