Twilight woke up and immediately regretted it.
Everything hurt so much, but she was too weak and broken to do anything other than let out a long, low groan.
Then everything hurt more because two ponies had jumped onto her to hug her.
She definitely had a broken rib on both sides, right where blue blur and pink splotch were leaning into her. Five ponies and a little dragon screamed her name and cheered and celebrated. It was probably very nice for them that she was alive, but she wasn’t feeling appreciative.
Not that she wanted to be dead indefinitely, mind. Just as long as it took to stop hurting.
Coma! Coma was the word she was looking for, as her broken ribs were crushed by a pair happy, crying ponies.
Fortunately they were shooed off her by the calm, clear and country voices respectively. Then a reeking drink was thrust under her nose and the calm voice told her to open up. Twilight kept tight lipped. It was pulled away. “Medicine?” she creaked, infuriated at the weakness of her own voice.
“Sort of.” Calm voice -- Fluttershy! that was her name -- told her. “Whiskey, strong.”
"I don’t drink,.” Twilight pouted.
There was a silence in the room, except for Fluttershy’s sigh.
“Well, I’m not a doctor, so this is the best anesthesia you’re going to get. You will hurt less.”
“O-oh.” Twilight downed it. She didn’t like being drunk, hated it in fact, but she hated hurting even more.
She recognized Rarity’s distinctive voice, now, too. “You’re not a doctor? I was under the impression...” she trailed off, and Twilight could feel Fluttershy’s gentle and shy smile even though she couldn’t see it. There was just a distinct impression of it being in the room.
“Everypony knows the nurses do all the work. We just don’t get the best tools.” She considered that a moment. “Although this is very nice whiskey, thank you.”
Rarity seemed to perk right up at that. “Ah. And you’re very welcome. Anything to help a friend.”
“Actually, it’s been a very long night... do you mind if I...?” Fluttershy gave the bottle a meaningful glance.
“Hrm? Oh, yes, go ahead. Pour me a double as well, if we can scrounge up the glasses. Would hate for Twilight to have to drink alone, poor dear. She seems to be having a rough enough time of it as-is.”
Twilight was trying to think of it as medicine, true, but calling it a social activity with her friends might be another step less unpleasant again.
“See? There’s her thoughtful expression. You three be joining us? I have another bottle spare. Rather good, I assure you.”
Dash gave Twilight another quick hug. “I’m spiffing thanks.” Twilight could hear the exhaustion in her voice, deep and haggard. “I’m really not in the mood. Now I know Twilight’s gone from ‘under’ to ‘under the weather’, I might go and catch forty winks or a few hundred more. S’nice seeing you up, Twilight. Had me terrified, you did.”
And with that, there was a slinking, slumping noise... out and away.
Pinkie’s response was a lot simpler, after her own hug was given and taken. “No thank you, Lady Rarity. Alcohol makes me sick.”
Rarity smiled a touch gingerly. “I assure you, if you just stick to a glass and drink plenty of water—”
“Not hangover sick. Head sick.”
“Oh. Oh, I see. Then I’m dreadfully sorry for pressuring you, dearest. Well done for the restraint on your part.”
Pinkie smiled weakly for a moment, before watching something past the door, eyes a little unfocused. “I might go look after Rainbow, actually. I don’t think she’s slept since... she felt really, really, really guilty about passing out before knowing for sure you were okay. I think she’s been by your side since! She taught me how to play checkers.”
Twilight gagged and spluttered down the last of her second glass of whiskey, which Fluttershy had silently refilled while Twilight wasn’t paying attention. “How long was I out?”
“Well, you landed about two hours before sunrise on Saturday, and it’s now about three in the afternoon Monday.”
Twilight choked on the last of the burning liquid going down, catching it in her chest. She reflexively tried to thump it with her right arm and that just sent fire and brimstone through her. When she had finally regained her composure, Fluttershy having rushed to her side to lift her head to a better angle... “That long?”
Rarity murred an agreeing noise. “And Pinkie’s right, Rainbow never left your side. We all paid our visits of course -- your brother especially was worried for you, but couldn’t see you yet. The Princess is apparently very suspicious your injuries are just a way for you to hide some unseemly antics, so visitation has been restricted. Not for us, mind, just for ponies she deems dangerous enough to conspire against you.” She swirled her own whiskey and stared into it sternly, like it was responsible for the slight. “Honestly, what are we, chopped cabbage?”
Great, now she was in incredible pain and furious. At least the adrenaline reduced the pain, even if the shaking had reignited some dormant embers of agony. “Charming.”
“He’ll be very relieved,” Fluttershy assured her.
“What about you, Applejack? Will you be joining us for a drink? I feel we’re all far too sober to properly discuss such depressing matters.”
“Oh, I’ll be joining you, thank you muchly, but I won’t be drinking. As much fun as it might be to knock back a bottle of hard cider with you, I reckon y’all are gunna need a designated sober pony ‘fore you do something you might regret.”
Rarity was absolutely deadpan when she said; “You’re worried if we’re both drunk, I might seduce you, aren’t you?”
Applejack didn’t even flinch or hesitate. “Wouldn’t be the dumbest thing Drunk Applejack did. Might have picked a fight with a barn once. Might have won it, too.”
Fluttershy asked so that Twilight didn’t have to. “How do you win a fight with a barn?”
“The answer to that one is simple; grit, determination, perseverance and a good buck. The harder question is; How do you explain it to Big Macintosh, in the morning, when he points out termites don’t leave no hoofprints.”
“Ah.” Twilight and Fluttershy said in unison.
Twilight pointed an accusing, trembling hoof at Applejack. “Angry drunk?”
“Only whiskey. Why I said I’d have hard cider. Then I’m a happy drunk.”
“And you’re not drinking anyway, right.” She pointed the accusing hoof at Rarity now, or where she thought Rarity was since she couldn’t quite turn her head. “Angry drunk?”
Right. At Fluttershy. “Angry drunk?”
“No, I don’t think so. Just giggly, apparently.”
Twilight pointed at herself. “Probably weepy drunk, let’s be honest here. But I’m the only one who doesn’t have a choice so... Alright let’s do this. I have a lot of pain in my system and not a lot of alcohol, and I’d like to flip that around.” She’d been reluctant with the first one, but a few minutes, an empty stomach, and two shots into her, this was seeming more and more like a great idea by the second.
“Gay,” Rarity declared triumphantly, swishing the ice around in her glass. Twilight had lost count of how many Rarity had to drink by now.
“Really?” Fluttershy gasped far too loudly, swaying a little. “Prince Blueblood?”
“Oh, absolutely, darling. His voice is more feminine than mine and he spends twice as much time on his hair. He’s a buffoon and a ponce but he’s utterly fabulous, I assure you.”
“What about the Wonderbolts?”
“In what particular order?”
Fluttershy went from giggly to a sort of dizzy, serious contemplation, her eyes rolling up a little and she tapped her hoof on the floor as she tried to recall all... “Spitfire, Fleetfoot, Soarin’, Rapidfire, High Winds, Icy Mist, Lightning Streak, Silver Zoom, and Wave Chill.”
"Gay, gay, straight, straight but cheating on his wife with her, who is also cheating on him with him, him, her and she wished me. In that order.”
“Rapidfire is sleeping with High Winds, Icy Mist, LIghtning Streak, Silver Zoom and Wave Chill, yes. High Winds with Fleetfoot and Silver, Icy Mist with Silver and Wave, and Wave with Lightning. Except they all believe the other to be monogamous, except for Rapidfire, who finds the whole situation delectable, as I certainly do as well. I apologize, this is usually a lot easier to explain with a chalkboard, or pins and coloured string...”
Fluttershy mouthed the words a few times to herself until she seemed satisfied, but Applejack had to jump on something. “Wait, you’re tellin’ me this lady’s got a whole athletic team jumpin’ into bed with her, and she still tried chasin’ your tail?”
“Of course she did, darling. I’m better.”
Twilight snorted on a sip of her own drink, and felt the burning go up the back of her nose and her eyes watered and it was just the worst. She coughed and spluttered a bit, and Fluttershy cooed and and pressed Twilight’s head into her chest, stroking her hair reassuringly. It was actually pretty nice.
Applejack was a bit more helpful, taking the glass of whiskey out of Twilight’s hooves and studying her carefully. “Bit go down the wrong way, huh?”
Twilight nodded woozily.
Applejack offered her a glass of something she was holding. “Drink this, you’ll feel better.”
Twilight took the glass and drank greedily and did, indeed, feel better.
Fluttershy’s head disappeared a few moments later, and Twilight missed the warmth, but the drink was doing enough to warm her anyway. Rarity had gone back to regaling them with gossip.
“Of course, that’s just a drop in the bucket. Jet Set and Upper Crust have been embezzling from their little charitable organization to host their fundraisers. Which isn’t technically illegal, because the fundraisers are officially an expense of the organization. It’s the self-perpetuating party in the name of the needy. Last few times they tried the trick, though, the caterers seemed to be sent to the wrong address... ended up going to some soup kitchen or another down the West End, I have it on good authority of the scheming vandal herself. Such a gorgeous and debonair--”
“Was you, wasn’t it?” Applejack smirked.
Rarity tittered. “Guilty as charged. Well. I would be if I were ever to be caught.”
Fluttershy sort of flopped onto the floor at Rarity’s hooves, eyes looking up to her. Rarity shifted in the red upholstered chair she was sitting in to watch the curious display more attentively. Fluttershy rolled onto her back to look up at Rarity and pinwheeled her legs a little. “You’re so brave!” she marvelled, “like Robin Hood, but without the arrows... and more flirty?”
And so Rarity downed her glass again. “Please. They’ve used seamstress as spies for centuries now, and for good reason. So little need for coercion, you’d be astonished what these nobles brag about during a fitting session. A little artificial intimacy and they drop scandal on you like, I dare say, mana from heaven. The juiciest dirt, I assure you.”
“Juicier than the Wonderbolts?” Fluttershy gasped, eyes wide as saucers.
“Oh, absolutely. For instance, I know which lecturers at Celestia’s School for the Gifted are soliciting their students—”
Twilight shouted excitedly, “Oh! Oh! I do too!” She was just happy to be part of the conversation again.
“Oh? Intimate knowledge, then?”
What, why intimate—Oh. Oh! Blushed as red as a very red thing indeed. “No! No, just... uh... I just know.”
“Disappointing. It would have been a salacious bit of gossip. But I digress, I could tell you which nobles are seeing escorts in the lower districts—”
Fluttershy rolled back onto her stomach, her expression serious again. “I know that.”
“Oh?” Rarity’s voice raised with her eyebrow. “Do you?”
“I see,” Rarity murmured, her tone making it clear that she didn’t. “And how about you, Applejack? Are you in on any sort of gossip, before I make more a fool of myself with redundancy?”
Applejack, the only pony in the room who wasn’t vaguely swaying at this point, snorted. “Nope, straight and narrow, through and through. All I can tell you is who’s the cheapskates round these parts.”
“Ooh. That might be useful to compare notes on. I’ll have to talk to you about it when I can jot it down in my little black book.”
Twilight frowned thoughtfully. It was a little more lopsided than her usual thoughtful expressions, and the right half of her face seemed more enthusiastic about the whole thing, but it was thoughtful nonetheless. “Isn’t a little black book traditionally for, uh... improper liaisons?”
Rarity tittered, a laugh that sounded reminiscent of cracks shooting through glass. “Oh, dear, it can be. No, mine is used exclusively for gossip. But perhaps the two might overlap, on occasion... Regardless, how’s your drink?”
Twilight’s face scrunched up a bit reflexively. She was about to say something, but Rarity cut her off with a wave of her hoof and a very understanding look. “Say no more, say no more. Here, drink this to wash the taste out of your mouth, hrrm? Dreadful stuff to a beginner.”
The glass by Twilight’s side floated away and was switched with Rarity’s own from Twilight’s perspective. Applejack, who had a side view, saw two identical glasses clink in midair from practiced levitation and get sent back to their respective owners.
Twilight sipped it and made a grateful ‘ah!’ noise. “Thank you Rarity, this is much better.”
“I think better when I drink, my scrumptious Apple pie,” Rarity explained.
Fluttershy lay on her back on the floor, limbs spread, sighing contentedly and giggling to herself. “You’re doing very... you’re very... you handle your drink very well.” She nodded emphatically, and upside-down. “I think I might be a liiiiiiiiiiiiiittle bit more tipsy than you, but you’ve drunk like...” her hooves made a ‘this big’ gesture above her head, whenever she could keep them still and co-ordinated long enough to hold it, “way more than me.”
“There are a few secrets to drinking, darling, a myriad and bountiful knowledge for those willing to dive to the bottom of a bottle and delve its secrets. For instance, at a social gathering, if you ask those darling little men in bow ties to top up your glass before it ever reaches half empty, no one can quite tell just how much you’ve had to drink. It’s a game of inches, you see. I can’t tell you how many Grand Galloping Galas I’ve managed to get through by virtue of being undetectably smashed.”
She barely slurred her words at all. Twilight gave a little round of applause. Fluttershy soon joined her, a little more emphatically. Applejack, on the other hoof, politely passed Rarity a bucket, which she took gratefully.
She smiled a little weakly. “I assure you, it’s because I am remaining perfectly still. Were I to try to move, I would fall flat on my face, vomit profusely, and pass out promptly. Practice, darling, everything is practice.”
Fluttershy’s eyes widened like big, moony saucers. “Oh! You poor baby!”
Rarity shook her head with a smile. “No, dear, it’s quite alright, really.”
“Noooooo.” Fluttershy disagreed emphatically as she unfolded herself from the floor, stretching like a cat. “Nooooo! You need hugs. Lots of cuddles. Yes.”
Fluttershy looked so earnest, and Rarity couldn’t quite figure out a way to say no to that pleading look. Applejack and Twilight watched with amusement. Finally Rarity relented. “I suppose some physical affection wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”
Fluttershy sauntered up, all liquid and wobbles, but she managed to keep relatively graceful. The hug that resulted was a surprisingly tender moment, and touched the heart of everyone in the room.
Then Fluttershy put some weight onto Rarity and squeezed a little too tightly.
Though Rarity’s comfortable seat was in the opposite corner of Twilight’s bedroom, a few flecks of vomit still splashed hard enough off of Fluttershy’s face to spray across the bedsheets and onto a very surprised Twilight’s cheek.
Applejack got a sizable portion of it down the back of her neck, as she’d been just a little too slow holding up the bucket.
Twilight was the only one to laugh, but she made up in quality what they were lacking in quantity.
There wasn’t a hangover. There was an awful taste in her cottony mouth, due to the antiseptic nature of the ridiculous amount of alcohol she was tricked into drinking, but she wasn’t hung over.
That surprised Twilight, but the needle stabbed into her leg horrified her.
She looked up at the bag hanging above her, followed the tube connecting a syringe taped to her foreleg.
For a few decades now, intravenous therapy had been used to treat patients dying of dehydration due to cholera. Apparently the treatment was remarkable at treating hangovers as well.
Also apparently, whoever had inserted the needle had not benefited from the treatment themselves. There was an alarming number of ‘misses’ around the vein, covered in colourful sticking plasters.
The regular aches and pains set in as well, and it was a pain genuinely to the bone. She felt it at her very core, except in her arm which burned itchy fire. It was an incredibly blunt pain that splinted up to her shoulder, and she could feel the edges, the blurriness, where the alcohol was helping.
She could feel where there was an absence of pain, it seemed.
Twilight was about to consider her staunch stance against drinking, then, until the memories of last night returned to her first like a fog, then like an impact.
Alone, she faced a strange conundrum.
She couldn’t... think like this. Everything was blurry, she couldn’t grab at the edge of her thoughts. She could clear the problem pain caused by the thinking -- the problem thinking caused by the pain -- by drinking, but then she’d be drunk.
Either way, she was significantly cognitively impaired.
She still didn’t know for sure the full extent of the damages, either.
The odds of the arm ever healing were remarkably low, as well, given what she knew of the injury. A nuisance. If gangrene set in, she’d have to lose it.
She looked down at it.
She’d miss it, certainly, but at the moment that honestly sounded appealing to her, if it meant no longer having to feel it. That would be nice.
It hurt a lot and maybe she was crying a little.
She turned her head to the side – her neck was better at least – and she could do that without getting so dizzy she lost herself for a few seconds, and saw Fluttershy and Dash sleeping over a poker game. Empty Apple apple juice bottles rolled on the cards, see-sawing back and forth by their snoring.
She could also hear Applejack and Pinkie Pie talking about something from around the corner.
Applejack was saying something... She strained her ears, feeling her skull tingle along that side of her head, from the tip of her skull to the hinge of her jaw. “—break the news to her that we might have to amputate.”
“We might not have to.”
“Well, yeah, but we might have to, and it wouldn’t do to spring it on her all at once, would it?”
Twilight smelled her leg. No egregious smell of gangrene, but there was also still a lot of booze and sick hanging in the air, so that wasn’t quite as reassuring as she hoped.
Twilight’s hearing strained against the silence, overcompensating against the natural lull in conversation. Then it all came at once.
“What if we made it a good thing?” “How’d you reckon?” “We’ll fix it.” “Limbs don’t grow back so easy, Pinks.” “So, we’ll replace it with something better.” “Better?” “Yeah!”
Oh dear. Oh no.
“What, like, a sword?” “I don’t think Twilight’s super into swords.” “Well you know what I mean. Like a, whatchamacallit it, fanciful prosthetic as opposed to just a crutch or something.” “Yeah!” “Reckon a cane’d suit her academic air, though.” “Well that’s a start right?”
She had to admit, a cane and a few silver hairs, maybe a battle scar or two, really would give her that scientist veteran look she’d been going for. Admittedly she’d have thought it would have taken her a few decades yet, of course, but it’s the use and not the age that puts stress on the engine...
“So what’d be super academic?” “We can’t replace her leg with a book, I don’t reckon...” “Nah. She’d get bored of it anyway. Replaceable book parts?” “That’d be a bookshelf.” “Right. But a cylindrical one!”
There was the rattle of a lot of loose stationary being swept off a desk so a blueprint could be unfurled in the heat of the moment. It was a familiar enough sound.
“So we have a solid iron core to hold the weight. Inch thick. Some phosphorescents in it and a lens here and she could use it as a booklight!”
“Rest of the circumference would just be empty space. Reckon two wooden platforms, shape it to house six scrolls each?”
“Ooh! Like the ammo part of a revolver right?”
“A cylinder, yeah.”
“Really? That’s what it’s called?”
“Huh. Thought it’d sound... gunnier?”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
“That’s sweet, thanks!
Actually that didn’t sound so bad. Twilight looked down at her excruciatingly painful leg. If it were made of books, that wouldn’t be too bad, would it?
“And we got the chloroform, didn’t we?” Pinkie asked excitedly.
“Eh. I’m a little iffy on the stuff. Make you loopy and all that?”
“Yeah! Which is kind of what you want, right?”
“Suppose it wouldn’t hurt. By definition.”
“And apparently a good surgeon can cut off the leg, sew it all up and bandage it in less than thirty seconds!”
“That a fact? Heard they got real good in the field hospitals practicin’...”
It was a weird thing to be reassuring about but... Twilight could hold her breath for longer than that! And it wouldn’t hurt anymore! And she’d get it replaced by books! A portable bookshelf and nightlight would be a part of her!
No more stubbing her hoof in the dark or banging her shin on a coffee table ever again!
“Flutters said that she’d be right as rain if we could get it properly splint though. So long as she doesn’t move it and gets plenty of bedrest, should be fine settlin’ for just a brace.”
“Yeah... I guess you’re right.”
“It’s gonna be a rough few months for her, though, ain’t it?”
Whatever they said afterwards, Twilight didn’t hear. She had gotten too busy trying to gnaw her leg off.
The sling itched. A week of bedrest and a permanent state of inebriation had done wonders to focus her, to inspire her. She was giddy, and elated, and so many ideas flowed to her now.
She had gotten Pinkie to look over some of her more recent notes and formulas but, as brilliant as she was, this was just one area that Twilight could go and Pinkie couldn’t follow.
Not being able to use her body had made her mind so much more in-tune. The numbing of the alcohol allowed her to push herself far longer than she had previously. She was able to use magic for everything now, so she did, because... because the numbers were far more achievable now.
Previously she’d worked out the velocity needed to escape -- 5 kilometers per second for orbit. But that was orbit! She needed far, far less than that simply to break the magnetosphere.
Once there, she could tap into the unrelenting power of the aether.
Twilight took another sip of whiskey. She’d acquired the taste for it, a glass with three ice cubes and some cherry syrup had become her favourite. Rarity called it an “Old Fashioned”. Twilight called it euphoria.
She’d covered her cast in shorthand and formula notes. Fluttershy had got grumpy with her but that was fine. Let her be grumpy. Wouldn’t need to have written on the cast if she’d had a scroll case for a leg, now, would she?
Not that she wasn’t grateful!
Another sip of whiskey.
She had ripped an entire sealed metal container apart with her magic just trying to spin the fan, a task that had proven a feat of endurance minutes prior. And she shredded her capsule like wet tissue paper! Imagine the potential, then, if that energy could be converted into velocity!
Well. She did have to imagine. She didn’t have the power, down here, to test any of her hypothesis. But she knew enough to make educated guesses and projections!
Maths, maths, another sip of whiskey, maths, empty glass pour another maths.
It was all so achievable, then.
Luna was within reach.
All she needed to do was develop a cannon that could launch a large, as yet undesigned engine at least four kilometers vertically, without killing its occupants, with a means of landing on the moon, picking up its passenger, and then falling safely back to Equus without exploding or crashing!
Another sip of whiskey, nibble on the sweet cherry garnish. She liked the cherry garnish, she had a little jar of them and another little jar of toothpicks by her bedside to make everything just so.
After everything else she’d been through so far... this seemed almost easy.
She stared at the empty toothpick, wondering where her cherry went.
Alcohol was obviously influencing her decisions, and she was in no state to go sober, or get out of bed. This was the best place to figure out how to convert all that raw, potent magical energy into velocity too...
No. No, she’d have to delegate to more sober-minded ponies.
She’d have to wait until the next time she talked to Applejack.
“You know I love the dear, truly, but is she in her right mind?” Rarity asked the five crowding around the blueprints, scrawled on like a cheap date’s phone number on a beer-stained napkin.
Pinkie’s little basement certainly wasn’t meant to double as an entertainment area, but she enjoyed the company. Spike had even brought down a little fruit-and-cheese platter for all of them, sitting on its own table to the side. It had gone relatively untouched, even though it was quite lovely.
“Nope. Drunk as a skunk, and a pickled one at that. Which is why I guess she’s not bein’ her usual control-minded self, and spreading the work around, for once.”
Rainbow smiled. “Yeah she uh, does have a way of taking everything on herself, doesn’t she? Good hussle and all that rot.”
Rarity, on the other hand, was staring down at the pictures and writing with eyebrows knitted together, had other words for it. Self-destructive, perhaps. Delusional, maybe. Still... “So she needs space then?”
“Eeyup, and plenty of it. Got the maths here for the forces we’ll need, and a cannon that big ain’t gunna be stubby, I’ll tell you that much. Supports alone...”
“What, you’re an expert on making cannons now?” Rainbow managed to get her voice balanced between disbelief and impressed, anticipating either answer.
Shaking her head, Applejack removed her cap and clutched it to her breast, eyes never leaving the specifications in front of her. “Nah, it’s just... You can work out what you need with the numbers, in a way. You need enough metal to withstand that much force—” she gestured with her nose, “—over a barrel long enough that the acceleration is even. Same with boilers and nozzles and all sorts of things.”
“And the more you need, the more you need to hold that up, and the more you need to hold that up...” Pinkie added thoughtfully.
“And we’re going to need a lot of energy...”
“Huge amount,” Pinkie agreed.
“And it must be secret,” Rarity emphasized, jabbing her hoof at the blueprint accusingly, the paper shifting under the weight of her disdain. “All of it.”
“Well...” Fluttershy murmured, as if to herself but loud enough for all to hear, “I’ve had very good luck underground. Would that help?”
“Underground... there’s an idea,” Applejack agreed, cap back on her head to free the hoof for rubbing her jaw. “Then we could just focus on the barrel itself.”
Rarity took this moment to wander over to the cheese platter. Some camembert on a fresh apple slice sounded wonderful right now... and she was rather lost in thought.
Rainbow wasn’t convinced though. “What, so how do we secretly dig out that much? “Oh, hello officer, cheery day isn’t it? ‘What, oh this mountain, it was always here.’ Coppers might be dense but—”
She didn’t finish her sentence. Pinkie had her jaw clamped shut with her hooves, looking into Dash’s eyes intently. “Say that again.” She let go.
Dash rolled her jaw around, wincing. “Coppers might be dense?”
“No, no, the bit before that.”
“Oh, hello officer, cheery—”
“This mountain was always here?”
Applejack got it, that much was obvious. Where Fluttershy and Rainbow’s eyes were dim, behind Applejack’s there was a lightbulb burning brightly. “Canterlot mountain.”
“Right. Except it’s not a mountain... It’s a volcano! Dormant—”
“—but with enough magma for a real big boiler... oh, stars above that’s...”
Rarity cut them off there, crunching into her apple slice loudly enough to draw their attention in the most accidental-looking fashion she could muster. Diplomacy, always diplomacy.
“Now, before we get too carried away, girls, let’s go over what we’ve established, hrmm? So you want to use the land below the royal palace... as a cannon... with months of construction and resource acquisition... and you wish to do so entirely in secret?”
“Seems the long and short of it, eeyup.”
The Lady shook her head, taking another long slow bite of her apple. She desperately wanted a smoke... “Do you realize how many guards you’d have to sweet talk? How much bluffing and misdirection one would need to handle to make such a feat feasible? Why, it would take the most brilliant scheming mind in Canterlot just to have a chance at it!”
Rainbow snorted. “You’re volunteering then?”
“Oh, yes, dear, I just wanted to make that understood. Modesty never suited me.”
Applejack cleared her throat pointedly, giving Rarity an amused glare. “A’ight then. So we need to be fast about this, and we need plenty of bits. We’ll... I’ll talk to Twilight about it. Noon’s when she’s not drunk, not hungover, right?”
“I’ll make sure of it,” Fluttershy agreed.
“Thank’n you kindly. It’ll take a lot. But... I’ll be darned. It looks like we might actually be able to do this. Pinkie—”
“I showed Twilight my prototype but... We still don’t know how fast we can accelerate a pony. I need hard data, or else somepony could get really, really hurt.”
Fluttershy nodded emphatically, which is to say she lowered and raised her chin slightly a few times, “This all sounds very dangerous. If something should happen again—” Pinkie’s ears lowered at the ‘again’. Applejack gave her a reassuring smile though, and Rainbow wrapped a wing around her, so she didn’t feel quite so bad. “I’m not sure I can fix it.”
“How about me?” Rainbow asked. Everypony looked at her oddly, Pinkie even shuffling out from under her wing. “Not... fix it I mean,” she admitted, “I can’t do that. I’m no sodding doctor what have you. I just mean... Use me as your guinea pig? I guess? If you’re going to push anypony here to the very limits to see what happens, well, what else is being an adventurer all about? I’m just... exploring a thing rather than a place.”
They were all silent a moment. Each lost in their own train of thought:
Rarity on how bravery and stupidity often conflated. Then, of course, on how to facilitate such madness as this whole scheme. It did seem such an entertaining use of her time, now.
Fluttershy on all the ways she was woefully untrained for this. How she’d do everything she could, anyway.
Applejack and Pinkie, they thought on the how of it. From what notes they could recover, oxygen deprivation, atmospheric differences, and impulse tolerance would all be important.
And on how Pinkie could make sure Dash wouldn’t hurt herself, no matter how hard she wanted to push her limits.
“Now, then,” Rarity announced, “before anypony else gets any clever ideas and quaint notions in their head, I suppose we ought to assign roles. By which I mean, I ought to assign roles.”
That ruffled Rainbow’s feathers. “Who died and made you Princess?”
Then there was that smile with teeth again, white and regal. “No one, yet.” That hung in the air a moment, and she punctuated the silence with another slice of apple with a smear of camembert. Bliss, all of it. “That being said, does anypony else in the room wish to bring upon themselves a position of authority?”
“Reckon we should hold a vote, keep things nice and democratic.”
“Eugh. Wherever did you learn such a filthy word?”
Applejack doubled down on her accent. “Learned it from watchin’ you, ma. Expandin’ mah vocabulary and suchlike.” Made the harsh syllables count.
“Fine, very well. A show of hooves, please. Who here thinks Applejack should be the leader of our merry little band, our motley crew, in the absence of one Ms. T. Sparkle?”
Pinkie giggled to herself as all ponies, besides Applejack herself, raised their hoof. “Misty...”
Only Fluttershy was unsurprised when Rarity herself had joined them. The Lady raised an eyebrow at them all. “What? I was going to assign the position to Applejack regardless. She is the most qualified mare for the job, she’s just far too damnably humble to have done anything about it.”
Fluttershy nodded emphatically. The mares in this basement, surrounding blueprints on a gunmetal desk, all looked at Applejack expectantly. In the guttering, grim light of the burning coal fires, it seemed like she was being ordained high priestess of some thrice-damned cult. Maybe that wasn’t so far from the truth.
“A’ight. Fine. I reckon Pinkie is best prototyping and doin’ the maths for us. I’ll pull foreman duty, delegate to where we see things fit. Fluttershy, that Sliding Rule kid of yours, you reckon he’d still want to do architect duty?”
Again, Fluttershy nodded. Frowned. “This is all horribly illegal, isn’t it?”
“Ah, mon petite chou-fleur,” Rarity oozed, “aren’t all the best things in life?”
Fluttershy’s voice was as flat and as a marble slab and twice as hard. “No.”
“‘Fraid we can’t bring conventional work crews down here. Myself, the kids, I can trust about that much. And they’re good hands. We won’t be taking any risks, here, you can count on that much. But right now we got plenty of time and about damned near nothing else.”
“They were so proud of that balloon basket... thing they made. Little Flatcap smiled for days...”
“Yeah but I ain’t gunna twist your arm on it. We’ve known Twilight a heckuva lot longer, makes sense for us to want to stick around. Just ‘cause she uprooted our lives in the name of friendship don’t mean she gotta do that to yours.”
“I keep forgetting I set fire to the throne room because of her...” Rarity smiled dreamily. “I stand by the best things in life being the illegal ones, by the by.”
She got a grunt from Applejack for that. “Noted.”
Fluttershy... frowned. Just frowned thoughtfully “I’ll ask the children. I won’t speak on their behalf one way or the other. I hope you all can respect that of me.”
“Well, I mean, roger roger and all that, all’s above board so long as you haven’t run shouting to the guard, right?”
“Yeah!” Pinkie agreed, being the first to actually understand what Rainbow had just said.
“Alright. Rarity, I’m putting you on full time espionage detail. Look at me, on a roll tonight with vocabulary shenanigans. Anyhow, you also handle the finances, whatever they may be, and make sure nopony can figure out what we’re doing, whatever that is. Reckon you can do that.”
“You didn’t phrase that as a question.”
“Knew you’d be offended if’n I did.”
“Now, is that an—”
“Not an invitation.”
Fluttershy coughed into a hoof while Rainbow smirked audibly, an impressive achievement. “We are still in the room, you two.”
Applejack glared Rarity down, who refused to look even a little embarrassed. “That just leaves Rainbow. ‘Fraid I got some bad news for you, sugarcube.”
“Bully! Whatever it is you got for me, I can take it!” Her breast swelled with pride and hot air, though the exact ratio was unclear.
“Need you to study. If we’re going to be working things out, we’re gonna need you to understand how to drive the damned thing. How it all works.”
Rainbow’s eyes bulged in horror. “Can’t I just be a crash test dummy?”
“Well, I got some good news for you there, sugar,” Applejack flashed a winning smile. “You’re gunna get to do both!”
Empty liquor bottles marked the days better than torn calendar pages, because Twilight might actually have forgotten to tear a new page every other day or so. She didn’t seem to have any trouble remembering to empty a bottle.
The creosote rubbed into her wounds had done wonders to preserve it from festering wounds. The miracles of modern chemistry and medicine! Just twenty, maybe even ten years before and amputation would have been a guarantee.
Another swig from a still-not-empty bottle as she wondered about what could have been with the book-leg. A librarian who could make a piece of her library a real tangible part of herself... and maybe a hidden flask. Or two.
She’d rather taken to liquor, and it had rather taken to her.
At first it had just been for the pain, but now? Now there was always this bubbliness to her. She felt lighter. She had stopped panicking all the time, stopped worrying. She was just... warm.
Normally her happiness was a warmth that never quite pierced the skin. Even at her best she could feel a weird hollowness, like an echo of something more. She could only really identify it now by its absence.
So much. She had written so much. The blueprint stretched out before her and, with it, her plan for Equestria’s first magitechnological engine. More of a thruster really. The aether was this wild whip of power that coursed in bands and torrents from the sun, or at least from its direction. Was the sun producing it, or was it just a quirk of gravity? More study was needed, always more study.
She took another sip of whiskey, ah. Smacked her lips.
That wild whip of raw energy wasn’t just raw energy, but it wasn’t a gas either. It wasn’t a something but it wasn’t a nothing. It was a lot of power, but you can’t just get velocity from force, you need to apply it. Ideally without destroying the vessel containing the engine. Thruster. Arcane focus. Thing.
She had been thinking of the vessel like a submarine, so why not call this the propeller then?
It could pull all of it like... it could focus her magic like a net, casting outwards, and grabbing as much of the aether as she could with it, and pulling backwards. Like a propeller against water, but with a much greater surface area.
The faster they went, the more aether she could push against per second, the faster they could go. Friction would be negligible, but so would traction. No, she’d have to be using this engine to focus her strength to grab every mote of energy in the aether that she could and push against it, like climbing a rope from the inside but with magnets. Wait, no, that simile was terrible...
Apt? Not helpful.
And there was absolutely no way to test it. The theory was sound, but she’d designed the theory herself, and probably no other pony on all of Equus was qualified to help. If they did, they weren’t allowed to know.
Oh this was all so thrilling. Normally the idea would make her so anxious, there’d be knots and gnarls forming in her gut, but now, through the heady haze of hooch, she felt indestructible, and all she felt was pride and excitement and wonder and joy.
A lot of flavours of the same ultimate happiness.
Maybe that’s what she should do, to bring Luna a pleasant. Take a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of moonshine with her to the moon and—
She shot up in bed, almost spilling her drink. “Luna!”
Twilight hadn’t messaged her in – she counted the bottles – at least ten days now. So much of her mind had been dedicated to saving Luna, but the light must have been right for messaging for days now! She’d be so worried!
She flailed for the crutch at her bedside, failing to find it. Her hoof smacked against it, sending it scraping down the wall and hitting the floor with a ‘clack’. She was looking right at it, her depth perception was just a bit off. Already she heard movement outside the room, but she had one leg over the side of the bed, and another, and then she was on her hooves and then she was on the floor, her teeth snapping together with another sharp ‘clack’.
Three legs were wobbly. The happy buzz had become a sick throb in her stomach, in her head. Was it even night right now? Her ribs crackled with blinding fire and she could taste bile rising in her throat. Why was she in a rush—
Fluttershy was helping her up, now, tutting in her ear. Twilight made a grab for the crutch, but she was just wobbled back into bed. Spike helped, the concern in his face less worn and more carved into it.
“Even if you weren’t drunk right now, Twilight,” Fluttershy scolded as she thumped the pillow seconds before letting Twilight down onto it, “you still have all sorts of injuries. How quickly do you think a rib heals? Not quickly enough, no, and definitely not now. Silly, silly girl.”
“Luna—” Twilight wheezed, coughing on the bile that burned as she swallowed it back down, not as much as her sides though. “—need to—”
“She’s fine,” Fluttershy chastised again. “We watched after her for you. Applejack controlled everything and Rarity sent a message explaining things for you. Apparently she was very worried about you. Rarity was in tears, I promise you, of frustration trying to console her in code. But Luna never blamed you, Twilight. Rarity offered to keep her company until she got better and do you know what Luna sent back?”
Spike burped a little, wiping his mouth and pulling from it a scroll, some of the paper Twilight kept by the telescope to scribe Luna’s responses with. It was in Rarity’s writing.
“Thank you but I will wait for her.”
She lay groaning in bed. “You didn’t think to tell me?”
Fluttershy and Spike exchanged a significant look. Spike spoke first, the concern hadn’t eased up at all. “We thought somepony else had, since you hadn’t asked about it.”
“No, I just...” Forgot.
The reassuring coo from Fluttershy made her relax muscles she didn’t even realize she’d tensed. “You’ve been focusing on getting better, is all.”
“And on figuring out how to get her back,” Spike pointed out. “You didn’t forget. You just get super focused when you’re working on a problem this big.” He tapped the scrolls with a claw. “You’ve been doing a lot.”
“You’re not a bad pony, Twilight. We were here for you, too. And I need to have a very stern word with somepony else... Spike, you look after Twilight for a little bit, please. Make sure she hasn’t broken anything again getting up.”
“How do I—”
Fluttershy walked out of the room calmly as Spike poked and prodded Twilight in various points until both were satisfied that Twilight had panicked without breaking anything.
The next day the library was filled with the sound of Applejack and Rarity fighting over whose job it was to tell Twilight the situation, both thinking the other was supposed to have done it. It was reassuring, actually, to hear that other ponies had dropped the ball as well.
Luna would wait for her...
Yes. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t write some messages for Rarity to send on her behalf, did it? Now that she knew what was meant to happen.
Replies would be slow from here, and Fluttershy made sure she was sleeping at proper hours these nights, but...
She took out a new scroll and began writing on that as well. It hurt not to be able to send them herself, but Fluttershy was right that she shouldn’t have been making the trip to the roof and... messaging Luna while inebriated seemed a very bad idea.
She looked at the collection of bottles at her bedside. Thought long and hard about it before she pulled herself another shot.
She wouldn’t be able to think through the pain either, at the moment. But she could still do maths, still design this engine. Work out the theory from every possible angle. The liquor helped her think creatively too, certainly.
Twilight could talk to Luna directly again as soon as she stopped hurting. Or as soon as not talking to her hurt more. Whichever came first.
Things were coming together, Applejack thought, nodding.
Canterlot mountain really was a dormant volcano. The entire city built around caverns and chambers funneling down into magma deep below the surface, but not as deep as the citizens above might hope. Something you couldn’t reach with a shovel, but with a drill? Too simple.
The sewers had been a perfect idea. Knocking out the wall behind Twilight’s bathroom, for maintenance of course, allowed them access to the tunnels below. The water level was too shallow and unpleasant to use rafts, but rollers could be used across the footways on either side of the tunnel which remained equidistant throughout. Like a masonry railroad.
That had been settled so far.
After that came a lot of digging. The current idea was to use as much of the natural caverns as possible, to create the least digging and the most stable structure possible. Second would be getting parts put together and assembled down here, piece by piece, through the sewers. Building in the library what couldn’t be done on-site.
Excavated materials could simply be washed down the sewers, poor toshers be damned. They’d waded through worse. The buildup would be spread along major arteries of the system, so the buildup wouldn’t be noticeable from the usual nightsoil. Rarity had come up with that particular detail after pointing out any risk of clogging the infrastructure would result in investigations.
The kids had scoped out the site. Applejack and Pinkie had brought tools and Rainbow had charged lightning special for batteries that littered the excavation site. A lot of rough edges, but surprisingly little need for digging. Twilight had called it a dormant stratovolcano with a large collapsed caldera topped with a cryptodome plug.
Applejack just called it hollow.
That left them in need of tools and materials. Left them in need of money.
She frowned. Pulled the brim of her hat low.
Tomorrow would be the day she talked to the girls about it. Today she was going to pick apples, breathe the fresh air of the farm. Been down in those caverns too long of late, was getting claustrophobic.
This though, was perfect.
So long as you could ignore the rumbling of a diesel engine and the clattering of the bottling machine disturbing the serenity. AJ reckoned that’d just be another skill that came to her in time.
Tomorrow. Let her have this one day first.
Pinkie and Fluttershy looked very seriously at Dash over the table in the library. They were all spending more and more time here, most notably Fluttershy. Twilight had been so devoted to her lesson plans, to guiding Fluttershy to the right resources, that the newly anointed students could educate themselves without her guidance for a while, though apparently they did miss it. For all her grouchiness with adults, Twilight did have a certain tenderness for children of all ages.
Maybe that was why Pinkie had been so focused lately, Rainbow thought. Or sad. Or... something. It was hard to read her, but it was clear she seemed so lost without Twilight. Pinkie didn’t make a point of it, but she wouldn’t see Twilight when she was drinking and, well, Twi was always drinking these days.
Pinkie’s episodes had been worse since. Even though the clever little cookie never seemed to remember them, sometimes Rainbow would hear a whimper and knew she’d be spending the next half hour at Pinkie’s side, just stroking her mane.
After that, though, Pinkie’d just take a long nap and then it was straight back to work without missing a beat.
Now she had to go and talk to Fluttershy about something, and they’d come to her super-seriously and sit her down in the main room... Fluttershy made her tea, and now she was just... waiting.
That sucked too.
“What are we waiting on, then?” Rainbow asked impatiently, exasperated.
“They were waitin’ on me, sugar,” Applejack drawled from behind her. An orange hoof reached around her with one of the many blueprints that had been floating around here lately, dropped it on the table. “When you two are ready. Rarity’s gotta yell at me again about subtlety or some such.”
“Since when’s she been subtle with you?”
“S’what I said too, when I heard.” AJ snorted. “But apparently I’m not allowed to use blasting charges anymore.” Another wry snort as she stormed off, and her follow-up was only audible because Dash was focusing on it. “Only lost one satchel and she gets all paranoid about it.”
“So this,” Pinkie pointed at the papers, tapping two distinct drawings with her hoof, “is what we need to do before we can do anything else. Spin you around really, really fast.”
“Isn’t the physical sciences more... Twilight’s thing?”
“Well yeah,” Pinkie admitted with a ‘moving on’ circle of her hoof, “but this is still basic math. Now, if we were getting into liquids, then I’d be having problems. Unless... Anyway! We’re testing acceleration right now, and the easiest way to test it is spinning. If we get the leverage out enough, we can see how fast you go before bad things happen. And that’s our limit! Much safer than firing you out of a cannon a bunch of times, and more reliable results too.”
“Which means,” Fluttershy intoned solemnly, “I’ll be recording everything, monitoring everything, and making sure you don’t push yourself too hard, no matter how much you try to show off, young lady.”
“Well, yeah. That’d be dangerous if we want Twilight to keep up with me,” Rainbow agreed.
“Not what I meant,” the other pegasus grumble-sighed, not quite wistful, not quite annoyed, “but it was something we considered...”
Pinkie’s eyes dimmed a little in worry. “Just don’t tell Twilight, please. It could hurt her feelings.”
“Piffle, not what I meant, but you have my solemn word. So, this... spinny doohickey. Why’d you bring this to me now? Why aren’t you just strapping me into a chair and watching me with clipboards and nodding your heads while you pull a lever to make it go faster or something?”
Fluttershy raised an eyebrow, and Rainbow thought of Applejack for a moment. “Oddly specific mental image.”
“I find them helpful!” Pinkie agreed cheerfully. “Well it’s because we haven’t built it yet. Or for a while. I spent most of my new bits on the hydrogen balloon stuff that... yeah.”
“So... you need money?”
“I’m saving up!” Pinkie promised. “We just wanted to let you know what the plan was as soon as possible so—”
“If you got the money now, how fast could we get this up and running by?”
“A lot quicker. It’s mostly just a big motor and a lot of metal, so Applejack and I can—”
Rainbow pushed her chair back from the table, it scraped harshly against the floor, shrrnk! Pinkie and Fluttershy couldn’t help but wince. “You just hold that thought.”
But she’d already taken a strong beat of her wings and was pouncing up the shelves towards Twilight’s room.
Two knocks, didn’t wait for an answer before she opened the door.
“Oh, hey Rainbow, it’s nice—”
“I’m going to help fund this thing, okay? I know you’d never ask, because you’re a top sort like that, but you can’t stop me either.”
Twilight sat bolt upright in her bed, didn’t even wobble. She must have been drinking less. Impressive, considering how slow some of her wounds were healing. “Rainbow! You can’t do that! I mean... you’ve barely been making rent, haven’t you?”
"Actually I have a lot of savings. It's just all in my expedition fund. I've saved up a lot over the years, but I want you to have it now. I have a condition, though." Hoof pointed in the air, to silence the inevitable objection. It didn’t work.
"Rainbow! You can't give that to me! It's your dream, it's all we've been trying to work towards."
"Right, which is why you gotta hear my condition. I want to be the first pony up into the aether. Your brother's been telling me a lot about what it means to be an explorer down here, so I thought to myself… why not be the first explorer up there? The first pony to see Equestria, all of Equus, from the outside. That's exploring. That's trail blazing. That's what's going to put me in history books.”
She seemed calm and confident. At ease. She'd obviously been thinking of this for a long time, and just looking for an excuse to say it.
“This is what you really want?”
“Yeah. Every pegasus gets to fly, Twilight, but… how many get to see the stars? I want this, and if you can give this to me, then I'll give up ever going to the unexplored Zebra lands. I'll get to see them, all of them, at once. Everything else too. Oh! Yeah, this is also conditional; you build a window into whatever you send us up there in. Otherwise I'm going to feel cheated.”
She could do that.
Twilight just stared at her for a long, slow second. Nodded once. “Alright. If that’s what you’ve decided, I can’t stop you. But—”
Rainbow didn’t wait to hear the rest of it. She was sure it would have been nice and sentimental and reassuring, but she didn’t have time for that. She was already gliding back down to a very surprised and confused pair of ponies still waiting for her.
She had one last important question before she went to make a large, possibly ill-advised cash withdrawal. Or a transfer from an old dream to a new one.
“Alright, so if we do this, I’m getting in a bunch of medical textbooks, right? Especially the ones for the brainy boffins?”
The door to her room slammed open. Rarity dove in looking for all the world like a fleeing rabbit, right until she saw Twilight watching her. The Lady’s back straightened, she dusted herself off, and a manic gleam remained in her eye as an unlit cigarette dangled from her lips. Still, not one hair out of place.
“Twilight, dear, I know you’re very busy and bedridden, absolutely tragic business that,” she oozed, trying to chew the tobacco out of the tube between words, “but the soldiers appear to be, well, leaving. All of them. They’re packing up their things and moving out of the adjacent buildings. I think your brother might be leaving with them. So I thought, well, you might want to say goodbye before they—”
Twilight had already wrapped the crutch around her shoulder and out of bed, rocking past Rarity and to the ladders—no, elevator. Definitely the agonizingly slow elevator.
It made its slow ascent up from the bottom, centimeter by centimeter. Twilight watched it anxiously. Her brother was leaving.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry up...”
The elevator clunked to a stop, and a hiss of excess steam rose from the pistons below. She jumped in and...
The elevator started its slow crawl back down to the bottom. She was practically in tears. She’d designed this for freight, not speed!
The ground inched closer and closer as she heard the whistles and shouts of the soldiers clearing out.
Clunk, again, as it reached the bottom. She slid open the brass grating and hobbled as fast as her good legs could carry her towards the door and was immediately swept up in a huge, all-encompassing hug. He spun her around a little and she smiled, even as her foreleg screamed its protestations, because he was still here.
“I don’t know what you did, little sister,” Shining smiled, wrapping her in one last especially tight hug. Twilight made sure not to complain about the sogginess of her shoulder, it would be hypocritical. “But I get to go home to Cadance now.”
“You’re going to write, okay?”
“Whenever I can. I nearly had to leave without saying goodbye, you know.”
“I’m sorry my elevator is so slow...”
They broke, standing apart, Shining standing far straighter. Twilight could see curtains being pulled back on windows for the first time in months, now. Figure out where the encampments had been only for their new absence. Quite a few soldiers here. Would have needed a lot more without her brother.
Twilight was stunned. “Did you send her a letter or...”
“Wouldn’t dare, beyond the usual.” Shining shook his head. “I didn’t want to risk it.” His face scrunched up thoughtfully, strangely. “Have you been drinking?”
Her answer was proud, and Twilight stood straighter. “Less than usual.”
“... usual? Twilight I’d say you’re sober as a judge, but I’ve met judges.”
“It’s a recent thing. I’m getting better. It’s fine.”
His expression of excitement and trepidation set into something harder, like honey crystallizing in the open air. “Wish I knew this before I was about to leave. Twily, I have a train to catch... and you wait until now to—”
She crushed another hug out of him. “It’s medicinal, I’m fine. You’re fine. Go give Cadance all my love.”
He tensed against her, all stiff and unyielding, until he again melted into the hug. “Okay. Okay, geeze, fine, I trust you. Just... be safe, okay? Don’t do anything too... I don’t even know at this point. Just whatever you do—”
“I promise to be the best at alcoholism, then.”
He didn’t appreciate the joke. She gulped. He was all stiff again. “Best at rehabilitation too?”
“...alright. Yeah.” He nodded. Behind them three soldiers in civilian clothing carried two wooden crates covered in warning symbols out of a neighbouring building. Seemed to be a lot of those. Apparently the library would have been an acceptable loss to get to her in an alpha strike.
She didn’t know whether to be appalled or flattered.
“Speaking of don’t miss,” Twilight smiled. “Your train, buster.”
“Oh. Right. Shoot.”
The soldiers nearly dropped the crates, and the flinching at the fragile stickers is probably what saved Twilight’s life. They might have drawn their guns, otherwise.
“Figure of speech, lads!” Shining called over his shoulder, swearing under his breath. “Really should be more careful to remember to swear properly around the men... you’re a good influence on me.”
She shook her head, the adrenaline tingling her. Later, deal with it later. “Train.”
“Cadance.” They both agreed simultaneously with awkward smiles.
There were a few more awkward pleasantries and back and forth but after that, he was gone.
They were gone.
And for the first time in a long time Twilight stood outside the front of her home... and she wasn’t at gunpoint doing so.
Realizing she still had nowhere else to go, Twilight wistfully returned to the library. Still, though, she stood at her doorstep and she lingered.
It’d been so long since she’d been on this side of the door.
She rang the doorbell as she entered and was greeted with silver chimes. The wondrous surreality of the moment, the newfound feeling of safety, made for a warm distraction from her brother leaving.
Twilight felt safe, now.
How angry it made her, then, that it was Celestia who made it strange for her to feel safe from her own family. A mistake on her part.
She wouldn’t miss.
Fluttershy’s long walk began in the build site, or at least as much of the mountain as they could clean out for now. She stepped through the hole they’d knocked out of the sewer wall and admired the stone cavern lit by dim but unwavering gas lights. The room was lit evenly with muddy light but whenever a flame licked, ah, how the shadows danced!
This was where Pinkie was set up now, since she’d taken such a shine to the little ones. The warmness seemed mutual. There was such an innocence to her that the children had never seen in an adult. Not naivety, no, that was something to be exploited, a weakness. Genuine goodness.
What Pinkie was teaching them was more than the science, how many loops of copper wire they needed to get this much resistance, how much voltage was needed to get that much force, all things that could get these foals a job. She was teaching them, in her own way, why they’d want to keep a job when stealing was so much easier. Honesty to kids who weren’t just confidence artists but confidence artistes with the proud inflection.
A little more cynically, too, she wanted to remind her wards of what a victim could look like after the con was over. Especially one that still refused to get angry about it, even now. It just helped others get angry on her behalf. Furious even. Absolutely livid.
Pinkie was a good pony and a good influence.
It was here that Fluttershy found Flatcap, happy as she’d ever seen him, cutting lines on beams of puddled iron that Applejack had taught him to weld. Still distrustful of the electricity, no honest heat to it. Welding, though, he took to like a duck to water.
Hovering around him like a mother hen was Brass Tacks, silly thing. Made sure everypony wore eye protection whenever they walked past the sewer exit they’d knocked out. Also made a set of caps he’d dipped in tar and hardened. Now, nobody had to wear a hard hat, but he would make a lot of very stern remarks about falling rocks and the like. Something he’d picked up from the dockyards, apparently.
He ferried to the center of the cavern long coils of copper wire which, like all the metal gathered down here, had been generously funded by the Rainbow Dash Exploratory Fund.
Pinkie and Sliding Rule sat at a folding desk overlooking the site, a cleared circle of stone floor about twenty meters from side to side now, talking advanced mathematics. Apparently electricity was just a way to turn education into momentum. The world moved for those clever few it listened to, and the angry little colt in the leather jacket looked... serious and thoughtful. Challenged. Relaxed, like he wasn’t just getting ready for his next fight.
It was here in the darkness that she could finally see a future for them.
Back out through the tunnels. Already she could see the cuts in the stonework, grooves, from where the wheels cut into them. Two of the older foals had been busy getting deliveries to Brass, and received in turn a lecture about lifting with their legs, not with their backs.
Up into the light.
Mirth – “the Cap’n” – was sitting at a table reading to Viola, and he’d gotten a lot better at it recently. Beside Viola was a stack of sheet music Spike had traced with his claws, so with a few brushes of her hoof, Viola would be able to read the impressions.
The pile Mirth had, though, was something perhaps far more interesting. A stack of books that Rarity, of all ponies, had picked out for him on elocution and formal debate. Mirth had taken quite the interest in politics. He had said that the changes Fluttershy could make were only so big. The things he could do with the right education were terrifying – when Mirth smiled and looked at you the way he did, he was dangerously charismatic.
Scootaloo, meanwhile, was somewhere off with Applebloom’s and Rarity’s sisters on the farm. Applebloom was teaching them carpentry in the hopes of building a treehouse. It would do Scootaloo some good to get so much open air.
Things were going... well. They were provided for here, and Twilight had a point that there was only so much she could do with the resources she had. The world may have been uncaring, and it was so hard to remember that there were good ponies in it.
Bam Bam Bam
The front door to the library buckled with three rhythmic pounds, sending sawdust flying from the stretched grain of the wood. Mirth stopped mid sentence, and Viola’s head jerked up towards it. Their smiles evaporated, cast to the air like the so much dust.
“Royal Dragoons. Please get down on the ground. Failure to comply—”
A cold and authoritative voice cut him off. “I’m sure they’re familiar, Captain. Quickly, quickly, get Ms Sparkle, before she thinks of anything especially clever.”
The Princess was here, here.
Mirth looked up at the guards with a horrified look. Fluttershy recognized it as Buying Time #3. “But officers, Ms Twilight said I wasn’t allowed to stop reading no matter what!”
The soldier should have been too old for it to work. And to try it on the Princess was utter recklessness.
The Mourning Princess seemed curious however. She stalked through the bookshelves to the table where Mirth sat. He looked confused, because an innocent foal would. “Is Miss Twilight getting an award for cleverness? Because she should.”
“Strange child, what are you doing.”
Stalling, Fluttershy thought. What he actually said was; “Learning, Miss.”
“After you cut her stipend, Princess, Twilight offered her assistance to me in teaching the disinherited and disenfranchised, ma’am.” Fluttershy didn’t know how to properly address a Princess, so she bowed as much and as low as she could.
The Princess seemed confused by this. “Cutting her funds made her turn to philanthropy, you say? Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it?”
“It’s strange what it takes to make us aware of those less fortunate sometimes, Your Highness, but I’m grateful for it.”
Twilight had to have heard. At the very least, Rarity had to have found somewhere to hide. Mirth had the right idea, stalling was... good. As long as she didn’t get too much attention doing it. Some of the children had a history with the good officers. Fluttershy, herself, actually, now that she thought about it. Oh, dear.
And the Princess was looking so suspiciously... She stood looking over at Mirth’s book, making a quick jerking motion with her head. Two pegasus soldiers swept in, flanking her and heading up.
Fluttershy’s heart sank. It was a good thought, but they’d only bought seconds at the most.
“Tell me, child, what are you studying?” The Princess paid Viola no mind. With her eyes closed and her head turned away, the blind filly passed for just another student. Her contribution to the conversation seemed to be to shrink into her Cap’n’s side and wait.
And Mirth smiled, now, bright and attentive. “Oh, this, Your Highness? Well, this is very embarrassing for me... politics, Your Highness, and a little bit of law. One day I, uh—” and here Fluttershy genuinely wasn’t sure whether he was acting, or sincere. But then, that was rather the point, wasn’t it? “—I’d be proud to represent this country, and help fix it.”
Fluttershy’s teeth clenched and her smile turned rictus. Dangerous...
“Fix it. Interesting. You think the country is broken, then?” The Princess was for all uneducated appearances genuinely interested, nothing more. To an educated observer, she was baiting a hook.
But Mirth had been studying, hadn’t he? “Oh, yes, Your Highness, rotten almost top to bottom, I suspect. Thank the stars we have you, Princess! I don’t know how the whole thing wouldn’t just collapse without you!”
Celestia’s smile was genuine, but there was a predatory look in her eyes. “How very clever we think we are. Do you think, young man, that I would not notice the intended meaning? The whole thing, being the rotten parts I suspect, would collapse without me. Phrased as if to compliment me. Cute.”
And that’s when Mirth winked, and Fluttershy knew they were all going to die. All of them, executed, up against the wall, firing squad, even the children. But before she could open her mouth, Mirth had opened his again.
“Ah, so you did notice.” He gestured at the book. “As you can see, I’m still learning, Your Highness!”
And the Princess was smiling. She turned that smile on Fluttershy as all the warmth in the pegasus’ body drained down through her hooves, through the floorboards, leaving her frozen.
“Forgive me my suspicions, my little pony, I just had to sate my curiosity. This is no front, Twilight Sparkle has indeed turned herself to advising children instead of myself.” She hummed. “No doubt she’ll make some witty remark about the situation being an upgrade. Tell me, child, what is your name?”
“Ponies just call me the Captain, Your Highness, but considering all these soldiers around, you might be better calling me Mirth for the moment.”
“Mirth then, tell me. What should my scathing reply be, if I were to wager you two bits on it?”
“Five bits and I won’t intentionally allow an opening for a riposte.” He’s only seen the word written down, so his pronunciation was a bit off, but the meaning was clear. Celestia nodded, agreeing. “I would make a remark that it does seem more suited to her level of abilities.”
“Two bits. Clearly she’d reply that the children actually ask better questions or some such. But you have a bright future ahead of you, young Mirth. Haggling to allay my suspicions, then sabotaging me anyway? Cunning. With just enough margin of error to plead genuine incompetence. A very bright future for you indeed. Especially as I believe the royal advisory position may have a vacancy in need of filling.”
Fluttershy stayed rooted to the floor. She noticed, now, that Mirth wasn’t holding Viola’s hoof tightly, to reassure her, it was the other way around.
Rarity was in the romance section when she heard the guards enter the library, looking for books on politics. There was method to her madness; the really interesting books on a lot of subjects were whatever Twilight happened to be carrying around with her around the library, and she had a very bad habit of getting distracted around this part of the library. And here, unless she remembered them, they would remain.
She was reading through “On Liberty” when—
“Royal Dragoons. Please get down on the ground. Failure to comply—”
Oh, dear. They’d caught up to her, then. The whole fire thing, the accident, and she had just been far too embarrassed to come forward about it. The Princess knew how Rarity was about her smoking, so—
“I’m sure they’re familiar, Captain. Quickly, quickly, get Ms Sparkle, before she thinks of anything especially clever.”
Far worse. Far worse by half.
She was up from them, near Twilight’s room. Could get there before they did, see if she heard. As soon as she thought this, she found her legs had already carried her there, holding herself low so as not to attract unwarranted attention.
“I heard, Rarity.”
Rarity panicked. Twilight looked... miserably determined. It did not inspire a lot of confidence, considering their current situation.
“I had planned for this eventuality. Fluttershy is already buying you time downstairs, or the Cap’n is, I saw that much, but I don’t know how much. The window – yes, that one – there’s a ledge. If you stay outside that, there’s also a laundry line about a quarter of the building around. It will hold your weight. It connects to an apartment across the street, recently abandoned by your brothers’ soldiers, with some supplies and a disguise kit. If you use the roller on the line, you should be able to – you’ll figure it out! I’ll buy you some time! Now, scarper!”
The Lady turned back as Twilight dragged herself out of bed, closed the door behind her. The Princess herself still had her eyes on the foal, almost hungrily, but some pegasii guards were flying up, searching... good, better in here than out.
She ran into the open, away from Twilight’s room, and threw herself to the floor, weeping uproariously, as pitifully as she could manage, as soon as the pegasii were within ear shot.
“Oh! Oh, guards, you have found me! And here I thought my crimes so perfect, so flawless! I left no evidence! How, oh, however did you find me?”
They looked confused. Good, confusion led to questions, questions bought time.
One of them, the left one for they were identical, asked; “What crimes?”
The one on the right seemed to want to just move past her. Rarity turned on the fluttering eyelashes, batted them as hard as she could. Suddenly, he didn’t seem so interested in leaving. She smiled internally; Not every day a girl could say her feminine wiles overcame military training. “Oh, such terrible crimes, officer! It was I, yes, I, the Lady Rarity, acting alone, who dared set fire to the royal palace in a fit of rage! Yes, it is true!” She thrust her hooves out. “Do what you will! I have run for too long now!”
The guards straightened, their hovering forms dropping in front of her side-by-side, and oh did they look so conflicted now. The arson was no small crime, and certainly famous – no, pride, this is not a good time to show yourself – so it made for a good distraction.
And trying to get away with it a little longer would have been so much fun.
She began to spin an epic tale of regret and woe about her actions, throwing herself at the mercy of such strong, kind officers who she was certain, absolutely certain, would treat her right. They seemed to be buying it right up until Celestia herself appeared beside them, not with a great flap of her wings like Rarity expected but...
Teleported. She actually teleported.
And the bottom of Rarity’s stomach fell right down to the planet’s very core, though she did an admirable job not showing it. Just regretted not having a mirror to quickly check her own performance. Pity.
“This isn’t Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia said simply.
“No,” the guard on the right agreed, “but it appears to be a known fugitive Ms Sparkle was harbouring.”
Celestia smiled, and Rarity’s stomach managed to fall further still at the sight of it. It was the smile of a cat that held a mouse’s tail beneath its paw, and was relishing the moment the claws would extend. “You are correct, men, but I would be genuinely surprised if you had not described just about every occupant of this building in some regard or another. Besides ourselves, of course.”
Well, there was always something to be said about war-crimes, but Twilight made no effort to harbor the Princess.
Then the door behind her opened. Twilight must have been caught but... no, a quick twist of Rarity’s head and she saw the librarian herself was standing there. She tried not to make her surprise too evident, she’d been doing so well with her act thus far. Probably.
Celestia’s smile remained unchanged, like she knew Twilight was there the whole time. Perhaps not ‘like’. “Would you care to explain the Lady’s confession, my Twilight?”
Twilight stood behind the door, levelling a defiant glare. “Rarity’s just being a good friend, trying to buy me some time for a daring and dramatic escape. You’re familiar with the Lady, she’s prone to bouts of dramatic heroism and other forms of romanticism.”
“Yes. It did amuse Us to have her at court.”
“But if this were to play out like a story, let me guess; I dramatically escape, using my great wit—”
“I would expect nothing less from you, my dearest little pony.”
“—and you’d expect this. You no longer trusted Shining after so long being corrupted by my influence—”
“—so he wasn’t actually dispatched home. Especially not so soon after making your move. I take it he’s held hostage?”
“You’d lure me back with threats of harm.”
“With evidence of Shining, yes. Don’t worry, he hasn’t been harmed yet. This is your reward for co-operation, dearest Twilight.”
Twilight sighed a breath of relief. She’d been anticipating... worse. A premature show of force. But no, Celestia knew Twilight would know this was not a bluff, and for all her faults of cruelty, malice was beneath her. Ruthlessly efficient apathy, certainly, but not malice.
“So, let’s skip the part of the story where I come back to protect my friends and loved ones, before they’re harmed in the first place.”
There was a silence. Rarity gawped at Twilight, at Celestia... this wasn’t how it worked in her books. In any of the stories. But then... those stories had happy endings.
“No. Let’s not waste anybody’s time here. I’m hoping, then, that the cast around your foreleg is genuine?”
“Wouldn’t do to annoy you, no. This isn’t a ploy. Not a question you’d ask if you were going to execute me now, then. Nor the method. Showing up in person, to see the look on my face? I’m aware of your fondness for snipers and poisoners. So that means you’re here to... what, imprison me and gloat? For what? Besides the usual treason. That never set you off like this before.”
“Yes, but this is an unusual degree of treason, Twilight, even for you. I have recently discovered your usefulness has been far outweighed by the risks you present, do you realize? The intense lights shining from the roof, repairs in the basement, strange guests, weather balloons... all that I could tolerate. Because it meant you weren’t yet trying to hide your activities from me. You were careless, reckless, and that brought comfort. So I thought I might still glean some usefulness from you, my dear Twilight, before you went rogue. Do you know what changed?”
Twilight grit her teeth. Her answer was perfunctory, as she agreed only to play her role in this conversation. Maybe it would help the others, from what Rarity overheard. “What’s that?”
“I stopped getting reports of strange activities. No more lights from the roof. Nothing suspicious at all. And you know what I think, my dear Twilight?” Celestia lowered her gaze until her eyes were level with Twilights and the cold, oh it chilled Rarity to the bone to see the coldness, something that lay in the gulf between utter madness and ruthless sanity, that lay behind those eyes. “I think it’s because you’ve gotten careful. It means you’re close to something truly dangerous indeed. Except now, now I no longer benefit from letting you continue. I no longer have anything to glean from you, Twilight, before you release the Nightmare from her prison and doom us all. I don’t know what you wish to gain from freeing Sister, Twilight... but I will learn it in time.”
Celestia herself levitated shackles onto Twilight’s back legs, and a pegasus guard was sent for a wheelchair. Twilight’s upper lip stiffened, and Rarity watched the librarian refuse to cry, not here, not now.
“The dungeons then?” Twilight sighed loudly, and now she was giving Rarity most interesting look as tears stubbornly denied her a moment of stoicism, “beneath Canterlot? Deep underground where I might never again see the night sky?”
“I’ve sent word ahead. It’s quite unusual for them to accommodate a guest of your status. They’re quite honoured indeed.”
“Would it be suspicious if I promised to go without a fight?”
The wheelchair was making its slow way up the elevator. When it arrived, Twilight would be gone, and Rarity was struggling for anything, anything she could say to make the situation better. To fix this.
But for the moment she seemed to be far too pre-occupied for not considering the absence of evidence being incriminating unto itself. The resulting shame-spiral was not conducive to deceptive thought.
Celestia snorted. “It would be incredibly suspicious.”
“Good. Then I’d like writing equipment, a desk, a good lantern, and access to notebooks. If I receive those provisions in my cell, I shall go quietly. Without fuss.” She sniffed.
“Already provided. It seems to be in our mutual best interests that you do not grow bored.”
Even as she sniffed and sniffled, Twilight managed to smile at that. An old joke between the two...? Curious. And the whole exchange had been so... almost amicable.
But then the wheelchair arrived. Twilight calmly sat in it, and went quietly as she had promised, moving only to wipe her eyes and snout with the back of an arm.
She was about to leave she was about to be taken from her, from here, Rarity you have one chance to say something—
“Ms Sparkle!” Rarity called, as professionally as she could muster, her own tears held at bay until she could process the shock of the situation, of failing, “Don’t forget to write! We must stay in touch.”
Then, that amicable smile evaporated from Celestia’s face. She turned from Twilight’s side to look at Rarity and again, those eyes, made the Lady feel so very, very small... “No. You won’t.”
And that was when Twilight began to cry properly, as she was taken away.