They came and pulled her from her house, and they dragged her body through the street. The Sun was so hot she thought she’d catch fire and burn up in the spring air. Blood rushed to her face from the shame of it all, but she held herself with a quiet dignity in the chair. They weren’t announcing her arrest; it looked like she was just being escorted because of her infirmity.
What she allowed herself, then, was a brief look at Celestia filled with a deep and longing hatred. Many spoke of the glories of triumph over adversity: Few spoke of the darker joy of triumphing over the adversary.
"You know, Twilight," Celestia spoke casually, eyes not even looking at her, glowing mane drifting on unseen solar winds "I could have, and quite probably should have, done this at any time since our meeting at the palace.”
“Are you not grateful that I let you cling to your false hope so long?”
Twilight smiled, maybe in spite of herself and maybe not. This was actually an old game between them, and she had bittersweet memories of it. Sometimes she’d won. “Are you not apologetic for falsifying that hope?”
“Would it have been kinder to crush you at the outset?”
“You’re moving goalposts. Was it necessary to ‘crush’ me at all?”
“Clearly. Why did you make it necessary, Twilight?”
“Perhaps because, in your effort to take me by surprise and arbitrarily punish me, you didn’t actually warn me that I was crossing a line. How could I have known I was forcing your hoof, Princess, if you were trying to hide it from me?”
Celestia mulled that over for a moment. Nodded her acquiescence, admitting her defeat. It could have been a feint though.
“Touche. I admit, then, the fault is mine.” Twilight, sitting in her chair, smiled just a little. The Blame Game. Sometimes she won. Sometimes, though, you won a game of checkers to find that Celestia had been playing chess. “That child could not have chosen a better teacher, although I suspect you did his choosing. I’m very proud of you, Twilight. You’ve learned well from me.”
The worst part, the reason that Twilight’s stomach had taken up yoga all of a sudden, was that the Princess was speaking sincerely, with open pride. She really did think Twilight was emulating her, was using this child.
She wasn’t. Well, she was, but not like that. Well, she was, but it was to help him too.
Stars above, this is how the Princess sees herself, isn’t it?
The thought drew the blood away from her skin.
“I didn’t want to harm your friends, Twilight, I want you to know that,” the Princess said plainly.
The blood rushed back and she almost knocked herself out of the chair from the sudden anger and shock. “What did you do to them?!”
Celestia looked at Twilight equally surprised, eyebrows raised, and the gears in her head clicked together at last. “Oh! Nothing. I didn’t want to harm your friends, so I didn’t.”
“You just so happened to say it in the most ominous, awful way possible?” Twilight growled accusingly, looking down in her chair, trying not to make eye contact with the staring ponies.
Celestia seemed to frown herself, even sounded apologetic, genuine. “You’re right, my Advisor, I should have phrased that more cautiously. I admit, I’m used to being incautious in how I speak with you. I’ve always valued our mutual honesty, but even with our strained relationship it’s never come... it’s never come to this.”
“So long as you didn’t harm my friends.”
“I was hoping you’d see it that way. You understand, then, why I’ve ordered the guards to destroy your telescope then? And the additions to it nopony quite understands, but which put every lighthouse in Equestria to shame.”
It was strange but... “Because you could allow me my friends, or my equipment, but not allow me friends with my equipment?”
It was strange, but Twilight understood the logic, and realized that Celestia had done what she considered a great personal favour, maybe even an uncharacteristic mercy. Twilight was dangerous to her. Worse still, in ways Celestia couldn’t understand, not entirely and not yet. To eliminate only half the threat, the threat that Twilight herself would resent the least...?
The crowds grew denser by the second as they got closer to the unfinished palace. A spectacle was a spectacle, and the Princess herself was a rare enough sight even if they didn’t notice the manacles around Twilight’s legs. Her dress covered covered most of it, blessedly.
And as Twilight was wheeled through a public humiliation -- that wasn’t really all that humiliating -- to the dungeons, she felt her frown soften. She still had her friends. And the dungeons, the dungeons weren’t exactly where she wanted to be, but they were pretty close.
There were a lot of things the guards had that Applejack could see. Big hammers, wrenches, crowbars, all sorts of wrecking tools. The two things that she couldn’t see among the lot, though, were volunteers or a set of balls between them.
“Well, I didn’t build it. Sure as heck didn’t design it.” She said to the assembled guards, milling about the beautiful, gorgeous piece of design like it was going to bite them, or explode. “But I can tell you, it’s just a lump of metal and glass like any other.” Well. Not like any other. One of a kind feat of the modern world, most sophisticated piece of engineering she’d ever seen, but it’s not like these dunderheads cared a whit.
One of the ponies, a sergeant by the chevrons he wore, stepped forward and took her aside, walked her along the balcony. Applejack took the opportunity to look far down the towering bookshelves at the ponies gathered below. Rainbow was holding Pinkie as she cried, and Fluttershy was playing character witness for Rarity as she got interviewed by the guards for her little outburst. Where the foals were was anypony’s guess.
“Alright,” he said, grimacing, “we heard that this thing flash-fried a pegasus clean in half. Cooked him through-and-through. Word gets around.”
“Well,” Applejack admitted, rubbing the back of her head nervously, “we did give ‘em fair warning, for what it’s worth. It only does that when it’s powered up, and you’re standin’ in front of it. Gotta be pretty stupid to do that.”
The sergeant grunted, turned his head to the side as if to spit but thought better of it. Good, because if he had, Applejack might near have bucked him in the jaw for it. Sergeant or no, this was a place worth respecting. “And what if you’re breaking it down? Careless swing of the hammer? Would it still be safe?”
“Well, don’t rightly know. Never been stupid enough to try it.”
“And you didn’t design it.” The sergeant continued lamely.
“Terrific. And we can’t get a unicorn within fifty feet of it, because they’re scared of whatever traps the Former Advisor might have laid. Rightly so.”
Applejack grunted, not really sure where this was going. “So, what are you gunna do then? Just leave sleeping dogs lie, yeah?”
The sergeant, an older pony with a mottled brown coat that seemed to contrast well with the red uniform he wore, sighed and shook his head. “No can do. Princess wants the thing torn down.” They both seemed to realize, if for only a moment, they had been addressing each other as equals, or at least colleagues. No, it was time for them to be Soldier and Scum again, it seemed. “We’re going to throw some charges at it and detonate it from a distance.”
“Gunna dismantle it and take it outside first, though, right?”
“Nope.” Sergeant wassname said simply. “Shame about the collateral damage.”
And something in Applejack’s chest hurt, hurt something fierce. All them books, the shelves, everything below... the domed roof above, the history of the place... all gone because some soldiers couldn’t get their bollocks into gear.
“To hay with that,” Applejack growled, “You folks don’t have the stomach for it? Gimme a hammer then. Show you how it’s done down on the farm.”
The sergeant started walking her back towards the men, and suddenly she had a new-found loathing for these folks whose cowardice probably got Braeburn killed in the first place. She damn near snatched a sledgehammer from one of them, daring him to comment on it. When she wasn’t shot for it, she marched up to the telescope, the laser array, the capacitors, and stopped.
This here telescope was the finest piece of optics ever made, and she’d fixed it when it first broke. How she met Twilight in the first place. That laser was the reason Pinkie had been dragged out of hell in the first place, given a good new home. Those capacitors? Hell, she wouldn’t have known Dash to be anything more than a nuisance and a ruffian if it weren’t for them.
She’d built it, and what she hadn’t built she’d fixed at least once or twice.
Applejack gulped, put the sledge down a moment, and pulled her hat low over her eyes. She didn’t much have the stomach for this either. Had to be done, though, one way or the other, and she didn’t much care for the other.
She picked the sledge back up and held it high.
This piece was Twilight's. This one I made from scratch. This one I made later. This one broke, and I fixed it with my own two hooves. Now it's all one piece, cause I swung at it with this big ol' hammer.
The metal crunched hideously, and the stretching of metal plates sounded like a whining dog to Applejack, one that she had to put down. She’d try to make it quick.
Another hammer swing took out the levers and gears that worked the lens, sending the delicate controls flying in a shower of broken brass. Next one took out the gearbox under it, then she grabbed a crowbar and ripped out the seat she’d sat in to see Luna’s poetry for her own self, see the whole thing was as real as the nose on her face.
Pinkie’s additions crackled and ripped as so much fine glass fell like hailstones, rattling about in the dented metal casing that held them. The capacitors bent and buckled rather than broke, too solid. They were made to take a lightning bolt, after all.
She should know. She’d made that herself, too.
All her long months of hard work, stuff she thought at the time she just did for the money, she tore apart with her hooves because the cowards behind her were too chicken to do an honest day’s work.
She never realized how proud she was of this, of what she could do, until now, and wasn’t that the cruelest joke of all?
Three hours she’d been at it and the soldiers had still been too lily-livered to do much but gawk. “Reckon that’s as much as I can do it.” She panted, her voice hoarse. She attributed it to how much of a sweat she’d worked up, and not how much she’d been crying. “Good enough to not blow the whole dang place up?”
The sergeant stared at her, and AJ squirmed under it. Tried to lower her cap again, so he didn’t see just how puffy her eyes were.
Don’t be stupid, now, cowgirl. It’s only a thing. It’s only stuff. Don’t let them see you cry over a hunking heap of metal, now.
“We’ll be collecting the larger pieces, but that should be sufficient.” He agreed more at her than to her. “Thank you for your services to the crown, ma’am.”’
Fine way to toss a little salt to the wound.
AJ didn’t supervise that last bit. Just quietly started off back for the farm, for a little while. She’d be back tomorrow, maybe the day after if nopony asked after her, when being here didn’t hurt so much.
Deep in the Canterlot dungeons, Twilight had been left to her cell. The Princess herself had parted ways at the great gates, sauntering back towards the throne room. There was no need for more escorting, not when Twilight was so close to the literal seat of the Princess’s power.
She was surprised at the conditions. She’d been expecting something relatively spartan, but it seemed the Princess really did still have some small amount of respect for her, either for their former relationship or for her current threat.
The cell was as large as two train carriages pressed width-ways. On the masonry floor carved into the mountain itself rested a queen-sized bed made of expensive wood, with soft purple-velvet curtains for privacy. In the far right corner, beside a toilet with a privacy wall, a shower with a hot water knob and more curtains, though cheaper gauze. All the necessities set up so that the guards could see her at all times, but she would never have to feel violated.
That wasn’t the biggest surprise though.
Exercise equipment and weights adorned the right wall between her bed and the ‘bathroom’. Bookcases across from them, filled with books she hadn’t read. A large writing desk near the front entrance, where the guards could look over her shoulder. All things to keep her sane and entertained in the confined environment.
Still, not the biggest surprise.
No, that honour was reserved for what lay in the back left corner, the part of her cell that was a blind spot to the guards. A fully stocked, expensive-looking liquor cabinet filled with crystal decanters of very strong liquors indeed.
Twilight approached it in a haze of wonder, walking past even the books without a second glance, and looked upon the liquor as if it were a mirage. She poured herself a drink into a lowball glass, tasted it. Wished she had an ice chest.
It didn’t taste poisoned. No, Celestia would have just killed her and her friends by this point if that was her objective. The Princess might have had a fondness for poisons, but she had a greater fondness still for not leaving loose ends. She’d already made the decision to leave them alive...
Unless the whole imprisonment was a charade to get her to go peacefully, she’d lied on the walk here, and her friends were dead already now that she couldn’t help them.
She looked again at the glass in her hoof with a newfound terror rising up her throat like bile.
If this glass was not poisoned, it was because the Princess had lied about her friends’ safety and they were almost certainly dead. This had all just been to get Twilight to walk into a cell with minimal resistance and let her guard down, thinking she had already lost. Or, the Princess had been uncharacteristically lenient to her for sentimental reasons, her friends were fine, and this was just good scotch that the Princess had given her... why?
Because being drunk would make this easier for her?
If her friends were alive, she’d live. If they weren’t, she wouldn’t.
She downed the glass without a second thought.
When she didn’t die, she poured another one and downed that too.
They were still meeting at Twilight’s. Rarity had offered her own place for the new location but... Pinkie refused to leave, Rainbow refused to make her, and Applejack was just looking for any excuse not to deal with the potential innuendo being invited to Rarity’s. Fluttershy just stayed where the books were.
So, still, they found themselves meeting in a circle of bookshelves near the coffee engine while Fluttershy’s very sombre cohort, and Applejack and Rarity’s little sisters, studied quietly in sections around the library.
Around a circular table sat five drinks. Applejack stood with hooves resting on the table and a glass of apple juice between them; she’d brought a crate with her. Fluttershy and Rarity had cups of tea in front of them, Spike had baked fresh scones with clotted cream and jam which sat on a silver platter between them. Rainbow stuck to hot coffee, strong and sweet, while Pinkie had taken to an iced coffee, stronger and sweeter still.
Fluttershy enjoyed matching the drink choices to the ponies drinking them. It was just a small thing, but it was always the small things that she appreciated the most.
“It was a nice dream.” Applejack declared, leaning forward into her hooves, “But I think it’s time we debrief. I don’t think—”
“We’re giving up?” Pinkie and Rainbow protested in unison.
“Twilight’s arrested. The guard destroyed the equipment. Luna ain’t interested in us, and there ain’t a prophecy tattooed on our butts. I reckon we get ourselves a new plan.”
Rarity sipped her tea thoughtfully, a silver knife cutting a scone in half and dabbing jam and cream on both. A thoughtful look toward Fluttershy, who nodded and smiled. Half landed on both their plates, and Rarity took a bite of hers without a second thought. It was just a small gesture.
“Celestia obviously doesn’t know about the tunnels. Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy have legitimate reasons to remain, and I’m sure I can lead Celestia to think we’re just taking advantage of the locale for selfish reasons.”
Rarity scoffed again, giving every pony around the table a very bitter look as she sipped her tea almost aggressively. “Believe me, the Princess only stops looking when she finds selfish motivations behind actions. We have all the plans. We have the resources. We have an exiled monarch within reach who may just save Equestria. And I have never, ever, Applejack, failed to follow through on a romance this cliche. This is not the end of the narrative, and we all still have roles to play.”
It seemed the whole ritual had been done just so Rarity had something to nibble on thoughtfully when she made her next remark. She did that a lot, Fluttershy noted.
“This ain’t some dang story, Rarity.”
“Oh, have some poetry in your heart, I was speaking metaphorically.”
“Now, hang on, say this is a story,” said Rainbow, and Fluttershy smiled. She noticed Pinkie did too. “That’d make us the good guys -- the heroes! -- and the evil Princess is our villain, right? So we gotta win, right?”
Rarity grimaced. “In children’s literature, certainly. Modern literature seems to have taken a turn for the cynical I’m afraid...”
Applejack snorted. “This ain’t a story, though. Truth is, Twilight never finished the magic engine. She got close, I think, but we’re missing some crucial parts. We can’t do this without her, we got no reason to do this without her.”
Rainbow scoffed. “I still want to go explore the aether.”
“I still wanna send somepony to the aether,” Pinkie agreed.
Applejack sighed. “Look... I hate to say it, but with Twilight in those dungeons—”
Rarity’s eyes widened. The scone dropped from her magic as she made a little ‘oh’ noise. She didn’t even pay any mind to the crumbs in her white coat, so lost was she in realization. “Oh. Oh, clever, clever girl...”
Rarity continued, and she could feel the ideas click together in her head like puzzle pieces, each click sending electric signals of euphoria rocking through her. “Applejack, where are the dungeons? Twilight was very specific about it, and I have only now realized why.”
“Built beneath the palace, right?”
“Correct. Applejack... where were we planning to build the cannon?”
“In the caverns—”
Applejack stopped. Pinkie Pie’s breath caught in her throat. Rainbow looked as confused as Fluttershy felt, so she felt better about not having caught on herself yet.
Pinkie turned to Dash excitedly, and the words poured out all at once.
The flat cap got pulled over the farmer’s eyes. “You don’t think she...?”
But Pinkie had already started running off towards the tunnels, Rainbow Dash following after her. Then Rarity sighed and pushed herself up out of her chair as Applejack was practically climbing over the table to follow them, and all of them started tearing off towards the site as if... something. As if something were to happen, and if they didn’t run, they could very well miss it.
Fluttershy and Rarity kept largely to the back, however, as they didn’t quite have the athletic gait or boundless energy of the other three.
Fluttershy hazarded asking a question. “What do you think...?”
“That I owe Twilight enough to try this. That to get my hopes up is ludicrous, but they’re raised anyway, because it would not be the least ridiculous thing I’ve seen from the Sparkle family. That I seriously wonder why you’re still with us.”
“There’s more than enough good food for us here. The books are immensely useful. The worst case scenario came and passed, and while Mirth has been worse the wear for it, largely we seem... fine. We’re okay.”
Rarity hummed and nodded. “All very reasonable and rational, my dear. But nobody asked you to follow us down here again, you’ve just wordlessly joined the fray again. If it were just for the reasons you’d mentioned, ma petite, you’d have stayed back there, and not come down here, don’t you think?”
Fluttershy felt her brow knit in thought. “Well, you’re my friends, I suppose, and...” she trailed off.
Rarity’s smile was bright enough to lead the way. “I suppose we are, at that, aren’t we? And isn’t that remarkably peculiar.”
Fluttershy took a moment to note that Rarity had said it as a statement, not even as a rhetorical question. Rarity plowed on, putting her thoughts in the air between them, as if telling Fluttershy this would help her understand it better herself.
“Isn’t it strange that beyond everything else Ms Sparkle might have accomplished -- which is much, I assure you -- perhaps her greatest feat yet is bringing us all together? I don’t know why I think that, but after joining this merry Les Six of ours... it’s hard to think of life going back to how it was before, isn’t it? And, while it would make my life considerably simpler, I’m not sure I could imagine life after it either. It’s interesting. Applejack’s been there since the beginning, so I’m not sure she even notices, but we two...”
“It all sounds so silly, to hear you talk about it,” Fluttershy agreed. “Within hours of meeting her, she’d all but bought Applejack outright, helped Pinkie leave the only life she knew, somehow convinced Rainbow to assault her boss, and put the idea into your head that burning the court down was a good idea...”
“And what of you?” Rarity asked, obviously amused by the summary. “Your biggest fear, your most determined driving force, was keeping those children of yours safe. Yet somehow Twilight shows up, and it seems the best place for them is in a building surrounded by guards at all times, ready to execute its occupants when ordered. And soon enough they’re all helping the silly girl violate the terms of her parole, of sorts, because it seems like such a good idea at the time. Why do you think that is?”
Fluttershy frowned. She hadn’t considered it at the time, but Twilight hadn’t been the only one put in danger by her little expedition in the balloon. She should have thought of that... but Brass Tacks and Flatcap especially had been so proud and excited.
“I don’t know,” Fluttershy murmured thoughtfully, so quietly that Rarity only heard her because of the way sound carried in those narrow stone sewers. “But it really did seem like a good idea at the time.”
“It’s the strangest thing, isn’t it? I think we were meant to be together, all of us, in this time, in this place. I truly do.” There was a gleam in Rarity’s eye that Fluttershy wanted to believe was madness, but made far too much sense. “Which is why I know, waiting for us at the nexus of it all, the place we will build that damned cannon to the moon of all things -- see how ridiculous it sounds when you say it out loud? -- we’ll find Twilight, locked in the dungeons of Canterlot of which nopony has ever escaped with their life, still somehow able to be with us.”
What was really strange, what made Fluttershy squirm a little in her own skin, was that now that it had been pointed out to her, she found she felt exactly the same thing. “What does it mean if you’re wrong?”
“I think the real question we should be asking, my dear Fluttershy, is what does it mean if I’m right?”
The thing about being drunk, Twilight decided, was that it made even the most boring things somehow wonderfully amusing.
She’d found her toilet had exposed lead piping that led down and out into the walls, into the sewers below. And if she was right about where it led, and Rarity was as clever as Twilight thought her to be...
Twilight sat in the corner of her almost-palatial cell, her back against the wall, and kicked her hoof into the piping where the outlet pipe joined the floor, thinking of fun things to kick in dots and dashes.
For the last fifteen minutes she’d been giggling to herself at something she’d picked up from Viola and Spike -- transcribing sheet music. She was amusing herself greatly by kicking the morse code that would be the letters in simple nursery rhymes.
At the moment, she was figuring out how to kick out “Three Blind Mice” with just the notes. If she got bored enough, she’d figure out a way to signify the length of each note as well, but without an agreement from the receiving party she might just have to spell out words like “quaver” and “semi-quaver” for every single-letter note.
Actually, the hardest part was not clonging it out to the beat of the music she held in her head. Communicating a rhythm-based medium in a different rythm-based medium was a strangely counterintuitive task. Definitely an interesting mental challenge, like the next difficulty level up from rubbing your stomach and patting your head.
Maybe not the most fun thing in the world to most, but in her giggly inebriated state -- she lived! She lived! Her friends must as well! -- this was the most fun thing in the world to her all the same.
Three blind mice, three blind mice, see how they run?
Came out as:
Clong clong clong clong clong—
Maybe she’d spell out the lyrics next run through?
Applejack was staring through the plans. Rarity had made sure to provide data on how close they were to the palace, before, so they could be aware of how likely they were to be heard, but in this scenario...
“Rainbow!” She threw a piece of chalk up, and the pegasus caught it with her pith helm held only by the chinstrap as she swooped, “Up there! Where I’m pointing. Higher. Right, right there, mark that spot. Pinkie, get us some scaffolding up there. I’ll help. Rainbow, get a chisel. I want that piece of wall you just marked to be completely smooth to give us our best chance of hearin’ anything.”
It was high up, to be sure, but only about as high as a telegraph pole. Twilight had ladders that big already, and they’d had some set up for cleaning the area over the past few months. Pinkie wasn’t used to setting it up, but Applejack was a dab hand and gave good clear instructions. Rainbow plinked away above them, having hammered a piton into the cavern wall and hung a harness from it, so she didn’t have to keep flapping her wings while she chiselled it out.
Applejack looked up suspiciously. “Don’t think you set yourself in enough, Dash. You secure?”
“I still have wings.”
“Oh. Right. Carry on, then.”
The scaffolding went up, little bit by little bit, as pebbles clattered down from above. Rainbow was using her hooves as a mallet, punching the chisel up and along the wall. By the time Fluttershy and Rarity had caught up, Applejack was yelling at them to go back and grab a ladder and a nice tall glass of water. They headed back towards the library again.
“Can I have a drink too, please?” Pinkie asked, huffing and panting. They’d just got another stack up. Applejack tossed her a waterskin from a pile she kept underneath the ‘architect’s’ desk.
“Then why’d you ask for a glass?”
“Well, you think of anything more high-tech you can stick to a wall and listen through?”
Pinkie shook her head.
“I just asked for water so they’d be quick about it.
Pinkie took big thirsty pulls from the pouch as Applejack lobbed another high. Her aim was true, and Rainbow managed to catch it with her hindlegs, somewhat grumpily.
“More warning would be nice. I don’t really have anywhere I can put the chisel you know?”
“Heh. Sorry about that.”
“Just be glad I didn’t drop it on your head!”
The waterskins and work were both finished about an hour later. Ladders were put up, the wall was smoothed, and Applejack and Pinkie unhooked Rainbow from her harness standing next to their newly chiselled-smooth square of rock.
Applejack took the emptied glass that Rarity and Fluttershy had brought back and cupped it to the wall, pressed her ear to it, as the other two mad-ponies studied her.
“I hear some plumbin’ but that’s about it, I’m afraid.”
Rainbow frowned. “What? We did all that for—lemme listen.” Applejack was all but brushed aside as Dash pressed her own ear to the glass and heard just about the same thing. “Sounds like rats in the pipes... That can’t be it.”
“Lemme listen,” Pinkie pleaded. Rainbow passed her the glass, even as Applejack shrugged. Pinkie’s eyes widened. “It is the plumbing!” she said excitedly. “Rainbow, where’s the chalk?”
Rainbow passed Pinkie the white chalk Applejack had thrown up to her. Ear still pressed against the wall, Pinkie started transcribing dots and dashes with little pauses.
“It’s just random bangin’, Pinkie. Plumbing does that. Metal expands and contracts in the heat, sewers right there. Dunno why we were so excited, it’s not like they’d put Twilight right next to us, is it?”
“Rarity!” Pinkie yelled. “Help me with this!”
“There isn’t all that much room—”
Pinkie shooed Rainbow off the platform. Rainbow bristled, feather getting all up and in a huff. “Hey! Hey, there’s a ledge here.”
“Duh! You have wings. Rarity doesn’t. So, shoo! Shoo!”
Rainbow stepped off the platform, holding her own weight. “... oh, right.” She shot Applejack a glare when she heard her snicker.
Rarity climbed up, Pinkie still filling in dots and dashes as she went. Rarity looked over the chalk marks in surprise. “Oh, now what is this? It looks random at first, but... There’s some repetition, certainly, Pinkie, do you think—”
“Yeah! But you’re better at it than I am. It’s a languagey thing. So what does it spell?
“Well, do you mind if I borrow the chalk, then?”
“I might miss some though—”
Rarity took the chalk lightly out of Pinkie’s grip and snapped it in half, floating half back to Pinkie. “Carry on, dear, I’ll catch up from the start.”
Pinkie continued scrawling dots and dashes as she heard them while Rarity began assigning them letter values.
Applejack scowled at the letters as they appeared. “It’s just gibberish! Doesn’t even look like code.”
“Well,” Rainbow said slowly, squinting at the apparently random letters herself, “that doesn’t mean it isn’t. The best code doesn’t look like code, I guess, because that’s the first line of defense against the enemy! Subterfuge, what have you.”
“Can I see?”
Everyone jumped at Fluttershy’s voice. She’d flown up behind them very, very quietly. Applejack darn near lost her hat, put it back on her head with a disgruntled snort.
Fluttershy looked at the letters carefully before smiling. Beaming even. “Three blind mice...”
“Hey!” Applejack, Pinkie and Rainbow protested as one. Fluttershy shook her head, went white as a sheet as she realized—
“No! No, that’s what this is spelling! It’s musical notes!” The pegasus grabbed Rarity’s hoof with surprising insistence and tapped it to a place on the wall. Rarity put down the chalk and hummed the first three notes.
“La, la, la.”
Oh, criminey, it was.
“We gotta figure out a way to message back!”
Applejack didn’t know much about the science of acoustics, but she knew a lot about brute force. “Rainbow! Get me the biggest piton we got. Fluttershy, biggest hammer you can carry. Pinkie Pie, Rarity, either-or, gimme something to hammer out. Let’s see if we can’t get the whole dang wall shakin’ with this one.”
Rarity beamed, and shared a look of significance with Fluttershy that Applejack just didn’t understand yet. Seemed to creep the bejeebus out of the pegasus, but Rarity could have that effect on a pony, now, couldn’t she? “I have just the message in mind, dearest Applejack. What do you think of this?”
The chalk whipped back up onto the wall, on the other side of their listening-patch, and spaced out big, long letters so as to fit the morse dots and dashes beneath them:
“Can hear, still here.”
Applejack nodded. “Perfect.”
Things grew from there.
Twilight’s hoof thrummed off the pipe. The others had gotten all the way to the ‘i’ before Twilight found pen and paper to transcribe, but the rest of the message gave enough context for her to figure out the two letters she missed.
The joy from both sides of the wall was indescribable.
Applejack and Rainbow had taken to the wall like creatures possessed until they found the joining pipe. Fortunately it was so close to the cavern wall, or they might never have heard it. Rarity smirked whenever anypony, anypony at all, dared to call it a coincidence in her presence.
“Coincidences don’t happen in prophecy, nor love. You put the two together, and I’m afraid we’re dealing with fate and destiny.”
Reactions to that were mixed.
As Rainbow and Applejack dug through, Pinkie dug down, pushing pipe down deeper and deeper until the topmost was hot against her hoof. A dormant volcano didn’t mean a cold one. Rarity sent the plan to Twilight in code, and very specific instructions on times not to use the bathroom at specific periods, no matter what.
Valves were hastily constructed, prayers that a watertight pipe was also airtight, and a spring-loaded sphere designed to lightly maintain a seal. Inside could be sealed letters, written letters, that could be sent back and forth.
In less than a week they had attached the entirety of their modifications. If Applejack pulled a lever on the main pipe down, it worked as intended. But should the bright red handle swing back up, the sphere could be locked into place in the center of a Y pronged intersection of lead piping, and the connection was sent down to Pinkie’s valve. Should Pinkie then pull her own lever quickly enough...
There had been some misfires, and were it not from Brass Tacks’ constant scolding about mindfulness, Applejack might have ended up with worse scalding at one point, but if your prototype is safe it means it didn’t work. At the end of that week, though, a sphere could be blasted to Twilight, then sent back in the usual manner.
At 6pm every day, Twilight and her friends could exchange letters.
And on the moon, Luna watched for flashes of light that still would not come, running her long laps against the tide until they would again.
Brass growled as he strapped Rainbow back into the deathtrap. Thing spun faster than any pony had any right to survive, just to prove you could. Dumb display of hubris, if you asked him. But nopony did, so he took every opportunity to say it anyway until Scootaloo clapped him one upside the noggin.
First time they did this, Rainbow blacked out, and Matron had to get the smelling salts out. But they’d ruled no lasting damage, so now they wanted to do it again and see if the same thing would happen.
Bleeding mooks, the lot of ‘em!
Rainbow didn’t look scared to most ponies. Bravest face of all when she knew Scoots was watching, and wasn’t that just the jammiest of jams, but here in the cockpit of the whirlymagig where it was just him and her, he could see her true colours, no shortage of those.
He was just about to say something clever when Rainbow looked up at him, out from the fastened harness and the crash helmet, and glared. “Stop looking more nervous than me, kid, we’ve got boundaries to bust.”
He felt his face soften, in spite of this ludicrous bollocks. “You ain’t bad for a geezer, miss.”
That got an actual chuckle out of her. “Don’t write me off yet, lad. Remember, we’re doing this to find out how dangerous is too dangerous, then back away from that. We do this so we can fire me out of a cannon with the egghead safely, so o’course this is the scary bit. But you gotta tell me I’ll be fine so I believe it.”
“What did Pinkie say?”
Another chuckle out of Rainbow, weaker this time. “She shrugged. Said if she knew what was gunna happen, we wouldn’t need to do all this testing.”
Crazy, every one of these ponies. Safer on the streets most days.
“Well, just know you’re gunna be fine,” Brass lied.
Not even a chuckle that time, just a weak smile before she closed the windshield hatch on the centrifuge carriage.
“You know, Cap’n's a much better liar than you. Some might even accuse you of being an honest pony.”
Ooh, that one stung, right down to his crooked little heart.
Brass ran as he heard the thrum of the motors being charged again, and bolted for the observation gallery. No chance in Tartarus if something went wrong, these ponies would be taking him down with them.
From here, the whole thing looked like... there wasn’t really anything to compare it to that existed. Thick banded coils stood in the center, a metal arm jutting out in both directions. On one, a counterweight like a sledge hammer head. On the other, the capsule Dash sat in which bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the one that had exploded on Twilight, even though those were different circumstances. Seemed jinxed.
Everypony came down to watch the second test. Nopony was too squeamish to ignore the call for support, or the need for extra hooves on deck should the whole enterprise go belly-up. Even the prissy Miss Rarity had stuck around.
These were good ponies, and maybe they were being a good influence on him. He could feel his mercenary nature slipping away! He’d worked so hard to cultivate it too...
Sliding Rule had showed him all the maths he’d done with Pinkie. It all seemed to check out, he said. The centrifuge didn’t actually have to go all that fast because of all the centripetal force. Same thing that made you dizzy when you spun around.
When he’d heard that, he’d made sure to fit out the ‘cockpit’ with some wax-paper bags.
But still, end result was the whole thing was fun if you took it slow enough, and probably not all that dangerous if you were careful at the controls. Since Applejack was the one at the wheel, things looked good.
It lurched into motion, and the air thrummed with electricity and something else... Is this what it felt like to have history’s eyes on you? Felt like someone walking over his grave.
“Alright, Rainbow,” Applejack’s voice chipped like tin through the electronic loudspeakers in the cavern, “we’re going to get you up to near the same speed as last time, and see if you can hold it. If we can keep you there for five minutes, we’ll stop. After this, we’ll break for lunch.”
There two loud cracks of hoof against the metal floor of the cockpit, for ‘yes’.
Applejack chuckled as she slowly pushed a sliding dial up along a console. The whirring and high pitched humming the filled the air, that you heard more in your teeth than in your ears, grew louder.
Everyone watched as the centrifuge sped up to where it was before. Five times the force of gravity, then ten. The centrifuge couldn’t accelerate as fast anymore, the next few crept up, eleven times the force of gravity and still climbing, twelve times the force of gravity, when it got to thirteen Applejack pulled her hoof off the dial and they watched.
They’d pushed her to fifteen last time before she blacked out badly. This was only a little less than that...
Matron had the stopwatch in hoof. It had only been thirty seconds when Brass had already thought it had gone on too long.
Cor, blimey and heck if it didn’t look like the sort of thing that ought to kill a pony. Like a mad scientist’s torture device, only without the ‘like’.
Scootaloo looked amazed, though, bless her heart. Worked double time to make up for the head on her shoulders, he had to give it that, this wasn’t the sort of thing that should impress a pony. Should scare ‘em stiff.
But he’d checked every nut, screw, bolt and rivet himself, he’d watched Applejack do the same twice. The only way this would kill the damn loopy pegasus was if it worked exactly as intended.
Two minutes, and no one said anything.
Two minutes thirty and she heard a long, heaving gasp. He realized Pinkie had forgotten to breathe in all this time. Girl had lungs on her.
Three minutes thirty and still no one had said anything. Not even asking if she was going to be okay, nothing like that. Only thing to do was wait. Rainbow’s eyes were still open, though, in the flashes Brass could see of her. She hadn’t hit the panic button in any case.
At four minutes forty seconds, Applejack cut the power slowly and let the whole thing start winding down.
It came to a complete stop in less than a minute. Viola asked if Dash was okay, and Brass didn’t know how to answer, yet. Matron nodded as she hit the timer on the stopwatch. Pinkie and Applejack started hurrying over double-time to the cockpit, which had the misfortune of stopping as far from their observation post as possible.
Dash’s blue hoof kicked the glass door open, like she was about to make a big damned hero’s entrance, but then she fluttered out like a drunken butterfly. Killed the drama, just a little, but Brass still cheered just as much as every other pony around him.
Rainbow waved him over, as Applejack and Pinkie threw themselves against either side to hold her steady. What Pinkie lacked in AJ’s muscle, she certainly made up for with enthusiasm, and the top half of her head might slide off if she smiled any wider. Applejack herself just looked relieved as Brass ran up to them.
Rainbow slurred like Cap’n did after a whole bottle of rum, and was smiling almost as much as Pinkie, all shiny white teeth. “See? Um Fihne.”
“Nah, you’re just safe. Still something very wrong with you, geezer.”
Rainbow looked more seriously at Pinkie, though she was still swaying between the two ponies. “Is just like doing a barrel roll, I realized. Jus’ hadta tense same muscles and it was a lot easier. Dun thing Twilight could do it.”
Pinkie’s face fell. “But that’s the acceleration we need... we were so close. But if Twilight can’t stay awake, then she can’t do the magic stuff, and you guys’ll just fall back down...”
“Dun thing she could do it yet. We got time though. She ain’t gunna like what she’s gunna need to do though...”
Now that got Applejack curious, Brass could see it even from behind as they walked past him, her eyebrow shooting up the way it did. “Sugarcube, what are you going to be making our poor little prison pony do now?”
Now that she knew her friends were okay, Twilight’s days fell into practiced routine.
Get up at 7am to a hot breakfast from the guards. Not as good as Spike’s cooking, but what was? From there, pick up a bottle of scotch and not pour it. Simply look at it intently, then put it back down on the shelf.
After that, Rainbow Dash had written her an exercise plan. It had been intimidating at first, and she might have put it off if she were anywhere else. But she wasn’t, so she didn’t. Today she would be building bulk and muscle mass, tomorrow she would be doing cardiovascular training, then continue in that alternating pattern until... until.
That would normally take three hours. After that she showered, walked over to the liquor cabinet, took a small glass of brandy as her reward for behaving so well with exercise, then it would be time for lunch.
Lunch was eaten at her desk, where she’d take idle bits of whatever ploughmare’s lunch platter had been laid out for her while she tore furiously at pages with engineer’s square and quill. The chefs were cautious to serve her food that excelled in room temperature. Anything that only tasted good while it was hot was likely to be pecked at and eventually forgotten, much to their dismay.
At six pm every day, whenever she had finished the full schematics of a component -- sometimes three in one day, sometimes only one in a week -- she would remove the S bend at the back of the toilet and flush the tube, waiting for it to be pushed back up with a blast of pressure.
After that was reading until dinner. Trashy romance novels that Rarity had put her on to some nights, penny-dreadfuls and pulp-adventure from Dash’s influence the next. Whatever dinner was, it was forgotten as she refused to put the book down before bed, racing a candle.
Every day like this she felt a little bit stronger. She felt a little bit closer to completion. She felt a little bit closer to talking to Luna again.
On the moon, far from the usual poetry, a new message went unseen.
“Please be safe.”
As Pinkie Pie and Applejack built the breech of the cannon, Sliding Rule and Rarity interpreted the designs Twilight had sent. Truthfully, neither of them were even qualified to read Twilight’s notes, but Sliding Rule was meticulous enough to copy the designs precisely and Rarity did not let pride get in the way of asking for clarification or questions whenever even the slightest detail was found ambiguous.
The magic engine was to be treated as even more dangerous than the explosives. They still hadn’t found the satchel of blasting charges that Applejack had insisted ‘wandered off when she wasn’t looking’, so it wasn’t the high benchmark Rarity wished it were, but it was true all the same.
Circuit diagrams and arcane diagrams flowed into each other and past each other on the work site, and a pony wouldn’t be blamed for not recognizing which were which, both were such an indecipherable riddle to the uninitiated. And to those who could understand them? Both might as well have been true magic for what the parts represented.
Applejack had another job all on her own, thanks to Rarity, and that was fundraising. The Apple Family had lasted longer than almost any of the other farms in the area, and they’d been buying their land up on the cheap for years, stretching themselves thinner and thinner, just to stay afloat. Now, though, they were genuine suppliers of staples to the Equestrian military and of the larger trading companies, any pony that wanted a genuine taste of home. You couldn’t grow apples in foreign lands, nothing edible anyway, so Apple juice was a genuine luxury commodity when it was exported, just like coffee was on the home front.
Building so much farm equipment so fast to keep up with the flood of orders, and being the center of a one-pony economic bubble, meant a lot of the orders ended up going through Applejack; the beautiful thing about replaceable parts was that they worked about the same if they ended up in a tractor or an aethership, for the most part.
Rarity had walked Applejack home one night, escorting Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo with them for a sleepover.
“It’s not how things used to be,” Applejack had lamented. Rarity had jumped; they’d been silent for a long time, and Applejack had just startled her out of her own train of thought.
“No. I don’t suppose it isn’t.”
“You know, though, while I don’t care for this very much,” Applejack grumbled, casting a side eyed glance back at the foals trailing behind them, “I don’t think I liked it much before, either. Just... clinging to how things should have been, and they never really were like that, were they?”
Rarity remained silent. Sometimes being good at knowing what to say meant knowing when to say nothing, Applejack thought. Prompted her into filling the silence again.
“But now we got a chance of making things... better. Maybe not now, maybe not soon, but—” She jerked her head back towards the foals, who were deep in an argument over whether chewing candy or sucking candy was better, “—at least for them. I think you were right, Rarity.”
“You’re going to have to be more specific, darling.”
“Hah! I suppose I am. I don’t think it’s about saving the past. I think, at the end of the day, it’s about building for the future. Never was much good for saving, but heck if I ain’t good at building.”
The heavy breech was built and set in volcanic stone. The huge chunk of metal, swirling with different alloys to withstand heat and pressure, would be the firing chamber for two ponies sometime not too far away. The vessel came next, as soon as they had enough of a barrel framework to house it in..
The frame for the barrel started building up from that solid base, ponies constantly manning forges and smithing tools as Pinkie dug down, constantly reassessing the heat they had to work with below. Boilers and valves were built and refined as the younger ponies took to the work with a skill and pride nopony had thought them capable of.
Pinkie was tense, and anxious. She missed Twilight, even though she got to talk to her. She had drawn a portrait of Twilight with the mouth missing and sent it to her one time. Twilight had sent it back, drawn with a smile, and had written on the back; “Very pretty. But I think it was missing something, don’t you?”
Pinkie smiled at that. She hoped Twilight’s for-real face wasn’t missing it too. They were all there for her, like she had been there for Pinkie, and that... She hoped it didn’t feel like it did behind the chalkboards, without real friends to talk to. Knowing there were ponies so close that she couldn’t be with. It wasn’t a good feeling. Pinkie hadn’t felt like that in a long time, and just knowing that made her feel nice, and happy, and safe. How did it feel to not have those things? It was hard to remember, because she didn’t want to.
She had written a letter, didn’t tell anypony about it -- especially not Dash -- and had even figured out how to buy stamps and send it all by herself! She was very proud of that. Then she bought a few more stamps just for herself, because they were pretty and she could even stick them on things she didn’t want to send, just to make them pretty too.
It’s Pinkie! Hi! Thank you for the money and the electronics. I’m having a lot of fun putting them together! I felt bad about not drawing things for you any more, and I had to make a new kind of switch today, and I thought it was pretty simple but I don’t think anypony has made something like this before, so just in case it helps I put it in here for you.
I just wanted to ask... When I have an episode outside, or in front of ponies, my friends don’t apologize for me. Or get me to apologize to other ponies for upsetting them. In fact, Rainbow Dash gets really angry if a pony tells me I’ve upset them when I can’t help it. They tell me it’s not my fault, and give me lots of hugs, and I feel better.
Why did you always tell me to apologize? Like it was my fault? Are my friends wrong about me? I haven’t asked them because, even if they were wrong, I don’t think they’d tell me.
That’s all, I guess
She hadn’t got a response for a while, which was fine, because she didn’t know how long mail was supposed to take.
Come home. You’re very sick and you need help. You’re not safe to be around.
Your new friends are just that; new. They haven’t known you for as long as I have. They don’t know how dangerous you can be, that I was just trying to help you. If you stay, you are going to hurt somepony. Probably very seriously. That’s what they don’t understand about you.
I’ve respected your wishes, Pinkamena, because I had thought you’d come to your senses by now. I urge again; Come home.
Pinkie didn’t message him back after that. Rainbow saw the letter, threw it in a fireplace, and got really mad.
She thought Dash was mad at her, so she promised she was trying really, really, really hard not to hurt anypony. And Dashie said it was absolutely not her fault, so long as she tried her hardest and didn’t mean to, because that’s what really counted.
Rarity had asked what they were talking about and why Rainbow was yelling, and Rainbow said “read the letter”, and Rarity said “I can’t it’s on fire” and Rainbow said “oh right” and explained it.
And then Rarity had made Pinkie some hot chocolate very quietly, and told Dash not to leave her alone that night, so Pinkie got cuddles all night and felt a lot better, and the next morning Rarity wouldn’t let her read the newspaper like usual, but Pinkie’s stipend got a bit bigger, and Mr Spark didn’t try to message her again either.
Then she got back to building antenna, so she could talk to Twilight even when she was all the way in the aether.
So many sensors and electrical components needed to be built to keep the ponies inside alive, so Rainbow brought the power, bringing her full abilities as a pegasus to bear once more. In a room that didn’t lack for ponies with charisma, she showed leadership far above and beyond the call of duty.
It was months ago that she had hidden under her desk whenever anypony went looking for their manager, tending to her plants and dreaming of better things. It was hard to remember that, sometimes, as she flitted between worksite barking orders, and erupting raw electricity otherwise.
But her biggest role was yet to come.
Twilight woke up to being groped and rolled out of bed in panic, away from her assailant, ended up pulling half the bedspread over on top of her, tangling her. Being trapped in it and blind didn’t help the panic, so she flailed a little more.
“Relax, Twilight,” Celestia crooned from the bed warmly, “I just wanted to feel these new muscles of yours. The guards have been telling me the most interesting stories. And according to the quartermaster reports, you’ve cut back on your drinking? Even the chefs say you’ve been eating more.”
“I don’t hurt as much anymore.” Physically. “And alcohol is a dehydrant, made me feel awful after my workout.” She had cut back down to just her one glass of reward brandy, out of necessity.
“Mmm. So exercise is the new inebriant of the masses?”
“I don’t know much about masses, but for me, certainly.”
Celestia started deknotting Twilight, as if she were a friend, and setting the bed back neatly. It wasn’t just her voice up from the bed, Twilight could see now, but she actually dared enter Twilight’s cell herself. Without a guard, no less. Which just made her seem all the more dangerous.
“Came to feel me up, then?”
“Oh, your forelegs, certainly. I was trying to see if I could feel where the bone cracked, but imagine my surprise when I feel nothing but tight new muscle? You always were so soft, my little pony. Whatever would drive you to... all this?”
“What’s the matter,” Twilight tried to sneer but the effect was somewhat ruined by her still being sprawled on the floor in what sheets she’d fallen on, “don’t find me pretty anymore?”
“Quite the contrary. You’re even more beautiful now than ever before. Hardened, refined.” There was a soft, almost sad smile when Twilight recoiled at the compliment. “Don’t look so shocked, Twilight, you know not to ask questions you don’t want the answers to. Or you certainly should have learned by now. But that was a diversion, so please,” Celestia widened her hooves, as if to gesture to the empty cell around them as her witness, “answer my question.”
The best lies run parallel to the truth. “I want to be in peak physical condition when I break out of here.”
And Celestia smiled, as if Twilight had just told a wonderful joke, or... no, issued an interesting challenge. It was the same smile Celestia wore when another nation was suing for peace. “Is that it? Well, don’t let me of all ponies stop you. That would be the guards’ job, it’s what I employ them for. I will be very interested to see what you come up with.”
Twilight waited for the ‘but’. Or the ‘if’. But no, Celestia just sat on the bed, looking at her curiously. “That’s it?”
“No threats to my family? No warnings? No ultimatums?”
Celestia looked almost offended. Definitely disappointed, like Twilight had just failed some unknown test. “No, nothing of the sort. I’m genuinely interested to see what you come up with. You always were such a clever girl. Nopony has ever escaped the dungeons before, and I’ve ensured the residents have had long lives to make the attempt. If anypony would be the first, it might very well be you!”
Twilight snarled. “I’ll be sure not to disappoint you then.”
A far more genuine smile from the Princess. “Please, Twilight, if I’m to give you a condition at all, I would simply request that you do not make it boring.”
“My daring escape wouldn’t be interesting enough for you?”
“It’s not about about being enough for me, Twilight, it’s about being enough for you. You always find some way to exceed my expectations.”
Celestia finally unfurled herself from the bed, stretching, looking very much at home in the cell. Still, she was a visitor, and it was time for her to make her exit. She said one last thing over her shoulder as she sauntered towards the door. “So set them high, please. That way, when the guards find you and catch you again, I’ll know your second escape will be even more creative. And I will look forward to that as well.”
The door clicked open as Twilight said nothing, then slammed and relocked as she struggled to find anything witty to say. None came, even as the hoofsteps echoed further and further down the dungeon corridors. Today, Celestia would have the last word.
Forget the intrigues of court: the intrigues of magic and design pulled Rarity forward as she and Sliding Rule guided the construction of the aether-drive, the engine propelled by the sheer forces of magic. This would be her greatest romantic success yet, and it had all the added fun of designing some very special clothing indeed.
Working with Dash’s commentary on surviving incredible acceleration inspired her to design a suit that compressed the legs and chest, allowing a pony to stay conscious at yet higher accelerations! All about keeping the blood to the head, it seemed. Simply adding airtight seals to the neck, and a removable helmet, it would allow a pony to breathe in a vacuum! It was a whole new era of experimental chic, far ahead of its time, and oh did Dash look so... Dashing in it! Fortunately she had gotten Twilight’s measurements before. She hoped the new bulk wouldn’t throw off her design too much...
She had once hoped to spin the association with Twilight into material benefit in court, to cultivate a rebellious image. Counterculture, after all, was the most fashionable culture of all. But here she found that being creatively fulfilled meant so, so much more to her than her status ever had.
Considering how much she had hated everypony else in court, she wondered why the idea hadn’t occurred to her before. Probably because it was financially ruinous to realize it before. Hrrm.
The perks of her new career as a guerilla artiste-engineer were threefold.
1) Surrounded by ponies she actually liked, adored even
2) Creatively fulfilling in new and exciting ways, and magical artificery still required she use her favourite crystals and gemstones.
3) She got to stick it to that royal bitch.
And really, what more could a pony want in life?
“You know, Ms Matron,” Rarity had confided once while covered in ash and soot, not caring in the slightest much to everyone else’s shock, “I’ve assisted many romances that were destined to be, but for a little help. Captain Shining and Princess Cadance come to mind. But I must say, this is the first that was fated to be. And isn’t that something wonderful?”
The others had remained unconvinced, but Fluttershy had to admit... there was something strangely compelling about how the coincidences in their favour kept piling up. Now that Twilight was away, the days seemed to blur by, as if the world’s focus was off them.
“Not quite off us, no. This is the inhale before the sigh, my dear, and ah! If we aren’t in the eye of the storm. But I do mix metaphors now. Dreadful form. I blame Twilight, bless her heart.”
“Her bad poetry is contagious?”
“I meant the feeling of being in a spring as it is slowly wound tight, but that as well. See? Three distinct metaphors now. Atrocious.”
“A breath of spring wind,” Fluttershy said with a smile.
Rarity started at that, jumped. “Ooh, now that is a clever way to string them together. Would you like to do a reading with me later? I’m dreadfully out of practice.”
She was about to say no, that she’d have to look after the children, but that hadn’t been strictly true for quite a while now. She was still there for them because she was wanted, not because she was needed. It took some getting used to. “I’d love to.” Fluttershy smiled.
Oxygen tanks were filled and compressed. Toiletary systems implemented to work in a vacuum. Tins of soups and other foodstuffs that could survive launch were stacked high and strapped down. Thin walls reinforced with bulkheads. Thick windows installed, and cameras. The whole vessel pumped full to three atmospheres of pressure, creaking but never cracking. Sliding Rule’s insistence it not be shaped like a bullet, or a shell, but like a finned cigar.
Over a few short months, the aether-faring vessel was built.
Fluttershy and Spike packed lunches together in the kitchen, far away from the noise of drills and hammers in the library’s kitchen.
Mirth had left early with a packed sandwich and a bottle of juice. There was a university debate on today that he’d managed to find a way to sneak himself into, with a reference book. Tomorrow there was a trial he was very much interested in, and a cooked meal would just make it that much harder to sneak into the high court gallery.
It was definitely a change from having to take care of Viola, who sat practicing in the worksite with her instrument to the microphone, using the caverns as her own personal concert hall. There was an appreciation for her there that couldn’t be found on the streets.
Brass patrolled the other children with a hard hat and steely glare, berating anypony -- child or adult -- for carelessness, laziness, or anything that could put a pony at even the most theoretical of risk. Nopony complained—the foals here without exception had been victims at least once before. The new ones, whoever they could pick up off the street in the usual ways, were all given induction courses by him, corralled and sent to where their talents best lay.
Canterlot had no shortage of orphans with industrial experience, just a shortage of things to do with them.
For them she was cooking a hearty broth, far thicker than the ones she was used to, and for far more ponies than she could ever handle before. She had resources now, and work for them in a safe environment. An education and a future. And it was just a little bit illegal, which made her feel that much better about it. Any more perfect and she’d have been far too suspicious.
Flatcap and Scootaloo waited patiently in the kitchen for the next pot to take back to the caverns. An army of the poor, the hungry and the tired had come to Fluttershy’s doorstep over the years, and now she had a place for them.
Spike gave her a thumbs up, and Fluttershy loaded the big pot of fresh stew up between Scootaloo and Flatcap, who took off running for the tunnels, Scootaloo banging the side with a ladle to let the dinner cry ring out through the sewers.
And then she started asking Spike what there was for supper, and Spike showed her, for there was plenty to feed an army.
So, holding back tears she had held in for too many years now, feed an army is exactly what Fluttershy did.
The barrel was built around the vessel and built tall...
The heat of the volcano filled a steam reservoir beyond rational capacity...
The chamber was filled with valves that would allow the vessel to be launched evenly over the vast length of the cannon...
Electronic controls and monitoring stations and radios were erected...
Pinkie finally got to try building her reflective antenna idea she had doodled in a patent office long ago...
As money was poured into a hole in the ground...
And as Twilight prepared her body for the ordeal, day and night...
As the last rivet finally fell into place...
Luna took a deep breath of vacuum and stared up at something she couldn’t see, but she could feel, far above.
Twilight got her mail at 6:00pm as usual. The little sphere in the toilet was cracked open, she read the message inside.
Remember those satchel charges I told ya I lost?
Yeah, well. I found ‘em.
You might wanna cover your ears for this part. Duck and cover, fire in the hole.
See ya real soon, Sugarcube.
Twilight read and reread the letter three times. Yes, it definitely said what she thought it said.
A fourth time, it still hadn’t changed.
She dove under her bed, and was filled with a dreadful sense of anticlimax.
Nothing continued to happen as she stared out at the toilet from under her bed. There was a tapping from the door.
“Prisoner! What are you—”
Whatever he was going to say was cut off as an explosion ripped through the air, and tore a significant hole out of the cell wall. Twilight tore down it. The crude opening gave way to a short tunnel, mined out of the cavern walls. Behind it was a scaffold and beyond that she couldn’t see.
She nearly tripped as she ran over a divot in the floor, a neat line carved into the cave floor. As she ran over it, past it, metal bars fell behind her and slid into place, closing the passage off. In the time it took for her to turn and stare at it, a guard had caught up, slamming right into them.
Twilight didn’t stare a moment longer; he was already reaching for his firearm. She tore forwards, finding scaffolding with a spiral staircase, the walls covered with drop cloths. She held the center banister and barely touched the stairs in her descent, taking the stairs themselves as unwanted interruptions as gunshots tore behind her, kicking up ripples and billows as the thick canvas above her caught the shots.
Her hooves hit rock and she leaped forward as the guard above screamed to get the Princess. She dove through the opening of the scaffolding and saw it.
A great beast of brass and steel, reaching from the base of the volcano to the lip, tapering and narrowing just as it had in Pinkie’s model. Steam and heat hissed through the cavern, and a long and winding staircase rose to a bulkhead somewhere above the breech.
Rarity was standing beside her, looking as if none of this was strange in the least, greeting Twilight as she would an old friend and not as she would an actively escaping convict.
“Ah! So nice to see you! It’s been too long, hasn’t it? Now, give me a hug, there’s a good girl!” Rarity hugged Twilight when she couldn’t protest, being too busy being stunned and all. “Oh, my, you really have been putting on the bulk, haven’t you? It suits you, truly it does. Prison’s been very kind to you, I must say. Now, I have an outfit for you here, you can use the covered off area you just came out of as a changing room and then please proceed up to that—you already saw it, didn’t you? Yes, up there and through, and Rainbow will tell you the rest.”
Twilight stared openly, dumbstruck, as her aethersuit was thrust at her. Rarity’s warm smile became more of an annoyed grimace.
“Hurry, hurry, dear, your beau is waiting on you. It would be impolite to keep her waiting any longer? Oh! Also, we’re not sure how long we can hold off the guards. So there is that to keep in mind, as well.”
Twilight bolted back under the scaffolding, fumbling into the tight, rubbery clothing. She nearly shrieked when Rarity ducked in to help her but her tutting of disapproval waved off any actual objections she might have had.
It took a total of five minutes, with help, to get the suit completely on. Every second more and more guards could be heard from above, and she could hear they were trying to get explosive charges, trying to organize a search party from where she could have come up.
Every second the thought ran through her mind; This is where we all die.
But at least she would die with her friends, and that beat living alone in a gilded cage.
“There. Done. You look absolutely fabulous, Twilight, I’m sure Luna is going to swoon. All very dashing. You know, some stallions have bought fancy carriages to show off when they pull up to the lady’s gate, but I’m fairly certain you’re about to have them all beat, so, get to it then.” She started prodding Twilight’s flanks with her horn insistently, “Chop chop!”
Twilight ran again, focusing on the stairs. She heard an explosion, worried something had gone horribly wrong, realized it was probably just the guards breaking through the bars, realized that was only reasonably wrong, and kept running up.
The bulkhead opened and she crawled through a long, dark tube. There was light flickering at the end of it, humming. She came out into a cramped room with a padded chair covered in straps, windows looking out into a tunnel with light at the end of it, with instruments and dials and readings...
Rainbow sat beside her, buckled in, her own aethersuit equipped, smiling as widely as Twilight had ever seen her.
“Ah, our damsel in distress, what ho! Never fear, Twilight Sparkle, for the cavalry is here! We’re going to escort you somewhere safe.”
“This doesn’t feel very safe.”
“Oh, yeah, no, this is going to be stupidly dangerous. You’re probably going to pass out, everything’s going to hurt, we didn’t pack alcohol, I threw up in practice and you didn’t even get to practice, and we’re about to ride a chain of explosions right up into the aether.” Dash was grinning wildly, just about the most excited Twilight had ever seen her. “This is probably the most daft-barmy bonkers thing we’ve ever done.”
“But it’s going to be fun, and I’m here with you, and everypony’s with us in spirit. We’re taking their hopes and dreams up here with us, and I don’t think you’re about to let them down are you?”
“No!” Twilight said, before she could think about the implications, or how she could not explode through force of will.
“Darn right! Also, Pinkie told me to tell you that the only safe prototype is the one that doesn’t work. Oh! Right, remembered now—” Rainbow pressed a button on the golden console in front of them. Twilight had expected to see more wood, but none could be found in the cockpit, just a gold-grey rainbow of metals shining in the dim electric lighting. “Pinkie, AJ, start the countdown!”
There was a hiss and crackle of static, and speakers in the cockpit filled with noise.
“Hiyah Twilight! Ten! Sorry we couldn’t be there to say hello in person! Nine!” Twilight felt vibrations rolling up her gut, felt the cockpit rattling. Dash looked unfazed. “Or goodbye again! Eight!”
“Sorry, sugarcube, plan was to stay in radio contact, seven, but we couldn’t figure out how to do this and get away from the guards, six, so we’re probably not going to be around much longer.”
This was just like her dream.
She tried to remember what happened next.
There was interference blasted over the radio, like hail on a hot tin roof, a constant and irregular pattering of plinks and high pitched cracking.
“But Dashie knows the plan just fine! Five. And we’ll probably be fine, four! Rarity has a plan and everything, three. And we quintuple checked all the maths, so you’re going to be fine! Two. Probably absolutely definitely. One. All systems go. Fluttershy, you wanna hit that big red button for me please?”
“Ah, they’re shooting at us...”
“Oh, just stay down and reach your hoof up.”
What? Shooting at—
Twilight remembered what happened at the end of her dream:
Everything exploded, and then she woke up.