Pinkie had figured out the very limits of equine survivability, and taken about fifteen percent off that. Twilight’s bones would forever be a little wider than they had been, and her ligaments screamed through megaphones for her attention.
She clenched her thighs how Rainbow had instructed her and held. Her technique was flawed and imprecise, the result of learning through notes and not direct instruction, but it kept her vision as tunnels instead of blackness as she forced blood back into her brain.
They had been slowing down ever since they left the muzzle, the pressure getting easier and easier but the apex of their arc getting closer and closer.
They were far past the clouds already. What had been a slow and steady rise in the balloon was now a drunken, stumbling blur of motion, an acid dream not of flying but of dying and having your soul ripped to the heavens.
She felt the aether now. Not strong enough yet, but she knew what she was looking for through the throbbing of her temples and the tears streaming from her crushed eyes.
Another thing she was aware of, now, was that Dash was whooping with delight. Twilight didn’t turn her head, just darted her eyes as far to her left as she could until she could see the mad-pony, her face being stretched off her skull in the same way Twilight imagined her own, mouth open wide and eyes sparking with crazed joy.
It was contagious. For all the discomfort, all the panic, all the imminence of death... they were still the first two ponies in history to ever do this, to experience this, to survive this. Maybe even the last.
The adrenaline helped her stay sharp until the g-forces stopped crushing her down, the momentum disappearing. They were still moving fast — blistering speeds that heated the air in front of the capsule not through friction but from compression, from its inability to get out of the way fast enough — but they weren’t accelerating now.
The world fell further and further behind them, smaller now, and Rainbow’s cries of joy faded into stunned wonder.
Still moving up, still falling away from their world higher and higher, but now was the calm between crisis. The beauty of a frozen lake before you’re forced to test your weight on it, the moment between wonder and fear.
Rainbow broke the silence while Twilight started to tense herself for what had to come next. “It all looks so small from up here. Even when I’m flying, you just see Canterlot, the villages... Now I can see there’s the zebra lands, there’s us, there’s the griffons...” her voice cracked, maybe just from her shouts before but maybe not, “it’s all so stupid.”
“War. And stuff. Like, how many ponies died for that bit over there, which is about the same as that bit over there? And you couldn’t even tell what belongs to who. Like, when you look at a map, they draw the borders nice and neat for you.”
“You thought you’d be able to see them from up here?”
“No, I didn’t.” Dash tried to shake her head, her neck cracking for the attempt. A hoof rose to massage it as she winced. “I just... didn’t realize what that would be like.”
The radio crackled to life before Twilight could answer that, scattering Rainbow’s train of thought to the winds.
“Hello, Twilight, dear, all is well.”
In the cavern of a dormant volcano far below Twilight, Rarity smiled into a microphone as reassuringly as she could. Acting was a full-body effort, even if they could only hear her. “We’re all fine down here, darlings.” Another rifle shot pinged off the console above her head. Levitating a hand mirror up and over her barricade showed a lot of soldiers gathering at the scaffold, using it as a makeshift palisade, but advancing no further.
They seemed to be terrified of whatever they’d concocted down here. Rightfully so, but fear was the only thing keeping them from advancing at the moment. When that ran out, there’d be dreadfully little left to stop them, and nowhere to run.
This was the part of the plan simply listed as “Hostage Negotiation” in big, bolded letters. That they were the hostages being negotiated, and had no leverage to speak of, was just another little bump in the road that Rarity had to figure out.
Any second now. It would have been so much easier if she’d thought to ask Twilight beforehand, but it seemed like a bad idea at the time to lock into any plan when the whole ordeal would be so... chaotic. Plans are inherently rigid. An oak will snap under the weight of the falling snow where yew will bend, and Rarity preferred to be flexible in every way she could.
Stalling. All these thoughts were just stalling. She was still being shot at, another round whizzed over her head, cutting through the air with roughly the same ease it’d cut through her sternum...
Think, think, think.
“Twilight, do you have anything we could — and I don’t mean to alarm you, don’t fret if the answer is no — trade to the Princess for our lives?”
The answer was a long pause. Maybe it wasn’t all that long, and Rarity was just antsy because of all the bullets. Probably just the bullets, then. “This isn’t a hypothetical, is it?”
“Oh, let’s just say for the sake of argument that it is a rather urgent hypothetical. What would you suggest?”
“Give her the plans for the gun.” The radio crackled. Pinkie had never gotten around to making the full antenna; The original plan had been to act as ground control if anything went wrong, but when nobody could make a plan for how they’d be around to man it after Twilight’s breakout... it was mothballed. “Tell her you’ve shot me deep into the colonies, where I’ll be safe, and this is a weapon.”
“Your brother told me—”
“I said nopony else would die because of me, and that includes you. Especially you!” Twilight snapped. Snapped! Please, Rarity could keep her composure and she was being shot at. Well, Twilight had been shot, perhaps some nerves would be appropriate.
“Noted. Well, it’s been lovely talking to you again, Ms Sparkle. Remember everything I taught you. Fluttershy says hello. Try not to blow yourself up, we built the engine to your exact specifications, but it is untested, after all. Pity if all this were to end on a sour note. Fluttershy says hello! I’ll be switching communication to the loudspeakers now if that’s alright with you. Safe travels!”
“Good luck!” Rainbow shouted back as Rarity flicked a switch — with her magic, of course, no way was she raising her head — to change the input of the microphone from radio to loudspeakers.
“Attention, Royal Guard—” was as far as she got before a startled soldier took a well-aimed shot at the loudspeaker, destroying it in a shower of — she checked with her mirror — yes, definitely sparks.
Fluttershy raised a head out from under her hooves. “That pony was very quick on the draw.” She looked just as helpless as Rarity felt.
“Yes. And he didn’t miss either. Not particularly good for our chances.”
There was a loud hiss, a spitting flare rather than the crackle of electrical sparks, and Rarity’s eyes widened. Fluttershy just looked confused. Grenades were a fairly recent addition to the guard, but she had been fortunate enough to see some rather dashing officers being drilled with the ingenious devices. And now one of those handsome, daring men was lighting the fuse of one of those...
A metal sphere, like a cannonball with a candle wick, bounced over the top of the thick electrical console. Rarity grabbed it in her magic and pushed it as hard as she could, which wasn’t very far at all. Even with all her strength, it was like trying to stop a served ping pong ball by blowing on it.
As the fuse sank into the sphere, Rarity threw her body over Fluttershy’s, for what good it would do.
Rarity shuddered. Even covering her ears, her teeth rattled and her jaw clenched painfully down hard when it went off so close. She felt it, the shockwave hit the soft flesh of her gut, then rattled her bones like she’d been hit everywhere at once with a boxing glove. Fluttershy whimpered, though Rarity could barely hear it over the ringing.
There wasn’t enough magic left in her to do that twice.
She hoped the others were safe. Pinkie should have been helping the foals, Applejack making sure nothing blew up... Fluttershy and herself were downright expendable by comparison, all they were doing were negotiating the terms of surrender, and rather badly, at that.
“I don’t mean to alarm you, mon petite,” Rarity whispered, though it may have come out as more of a hiss really, “but we got lucky that time. If you have any brilliant plans, it would be more than I, I am afraid.”
“Hope they run out of ammunition?”
“Unfortunate. But it seems our best chance, yes.”
“Good luck!” Rainbow yelled into the microphone, before Twilight could respond. Then she pressed a button, and the radio went quiet.
“Radio’s off. We shouldn’t distract her.”
Twilight twisted her head as far as she could in the straps of her seat. “We need to go back and help them! I can... I can save them!”
Dash didn’t look convinced. If anything, she looked angry, furious, deep furrows of disappointment knotting her brow. She held eye contact with Twilight as she tapped a dial on their instrument panel. “Do you see this?”
She broke eye contact to look. It was an altimeter, still rising. Not as fast anymore...
“In about thirty seconds, you’re going to have to make a choice. This is about the last recorded height we got off your balloon before everything went scrap metal. We’re just about in the aether now, I reckon. Twenty five seconds now, you need to turn on that engine of yours or we’re going to start falling. We’re still slowing down. Twenty seconds, and you throw away everything we risked for you, because you’re scared.”
“But they’re in danger!”
“We just got shot out of a cannon! You’re not telling me,” Rainbow’s hoof smacked against the altimeter again, rapping it twice for emphasis with hard, loud clicks, “getting shot this high into the air by a ruddy cannon in a tin can was going to be safe?”
“Of course not!”
“But you did it anyway! And so did all of us! Ten seconds now, Twilight.”
It would be so easy. All she had to do was nothing.
All she had to do was shoot and miss.
Five seconds left, still rising, Twilight’s horn glowed and her magic scoured the vessel for parts she knew so well, even though she’d never seen them. She’d etched them out in their entirety, component by component, equation by equation.
She had a whole five more seconds to think, and her brain was working just as fast as when Twilight had a gun levelled at her face. Going through options and tables and flowcharts and it had all been for nothing, because Rainbow had been quicker, had been smarter in the moment.
Which is why she was sitting here beside her, instead of anyone else.
Second guessing her would have been a waste of a valuable five seconds.
Twilight’s awareness was projected in an intricate membrane, as wide as a photon, outwards in a disc. More and more magic poured out of her, pooling the disk outwards like pancake batter. The center around the ship thickened until the pulse of light and energy might have been molecules thick, stretched as far out in every direction as a locomotive engine and its coal car together were long.
The disc, an aura of purple-white that radiated in the space-between-space, bloomed down like a jellyfish’s body, pressing itself down into a parabola and pushing the aether with it, before pulling itself back into the thickened core and reforming at the top again.
This in and of itself was no great feat of magic. The precision to create it so thin, so as not to waste any of her strength, was still something that maybe the best fifty unicorns in the empire could accomplish, given enough time and an arcane focus. The strength to push against essentially vacuum? A foal could move so much of what was essentially a statistical-error away from “nothingness”.
What made the engine so important, however, was that she wasn’t just doing this once. She wasn’t even doing it at all, now that the spell was cast; Crystals fed into runes in the same way capacitors fueled a circuit. Once the spell was cast initially, once power was fed into the device, it would stay functioning for as long as Twilight kept it fed with mana from the aether. This was important; she would need to sleep, after all.
The real trick, and why the design of the engine was so important, was that it would be doing a full cycle, top to bottom to center to start position, dozens of times a second at maximum speed.
The theory, as she knew it to be, was sound. However, there was also the distinct realization that she had tried to invent the internal combustion engine after a lifetime around matches and having once seen a barrel of nitroglycerine go off, and surmising the two to be similar enough in theory.
All of this was an incredibly verbose way to say;
Don’t blow up, don’t blow up, please let the math be right and I don’t blow up.
The craft lurched forward again as beams of light eddied and rippled from the craft. Not fast yet, just two or three ripples a second, but also not exploding. No catastrophic failures. Just the gentle pressure of acceleration, like the first moments on the train as it left the station.
For the next thirty minutes, Twilight focused not on Luna before her or her friends behind her. She collected as much power from the raw aether, a force she had learned to recognize now that she knew it was even there, and poured it into her crystal batteries.
She called to the universe and was answered with power.
The craft pushed through space like a bullet pushing ripples through air. Or ripples pushing a bullet through the air.
Twilight pulled herself out of her deep meditation when she was satisfied with the energy she had stored. The planet was falling far behind them, the moon grew larger and Rainbow... was not in her seat.
“Yeah?” The voice was behind her. Twilight twisted in her seat, unbuckling herself.
“What are you doing?”
“Unpacking!” Rainbow declared cheerily.
“Unpacking? Unpacking what?”
Rainbow threw Twilight a significant look from down the tube, like Twilight was the weird one for even asking. Here they were, in a submarine fired out of a cannon, and Rainbow looked more at home here than she ever had in the library.
The only question was, why did that surprise Twilight in the slightest?
“We’re going to be up here for a week. Three days there, three days back, give or take a little bit to go around the moon itself. Well, I’ll be doing that. You’ll be crushing on your one true love or something boring like that. Seriously, I think I get the better part of the deal here. I’m gonna get to see what the dark side of the moon looks like. Only pony ever.”
For the briefest of moments, Twilight was seriously jealous. Rainbow noticed it, smiled a little. Seemed to think about it, then smiled a lot.
“So one of the things I’m unpacking is a camera. Also have... let’s see...” Metal crates had been strapped down to all sides of the ship, wherever space could be found. Things bumped and shifted oddly, like they were just detailed balloons that had been made to look like the objects they represented. It was just, so far from the planet below, things had a way of getting... lighter. So it was that Rainbow threw a deck of playing cards towards her and it drifted drunkenly through the air.
Twilight caught it, mystified. Low gravity environments were something she’d hypothesized, but to experience it was another thing entirely. She hadn’t even noticed while she was concentrating, strapped to her seat, but now... She fought back the giggle threatening to rise from her throat. This was a very serious scientific accomplishment, tremendous, and to giggle at it would—
Rainbow snorted, hoof deep as she was in one of the crates. Then Twilight saw Dash had one eye closed for concentration, tongue stuck out the side of her mouth, and so she giggled even harder at the ridiculousness of it.
“Alright! So in here we have the chess board, because apparently intrepid explorers need to have intense mind games while they adventure. So I’m told. Pinkie taught me how, anyway.”
“She did? She’s surprisingly good.”
Rainbow smiled happily to herself. “Yeah, she’s a clever clogs alright. Like you, you’re a brainiac and a half, and make no mistake, but you think straight. Pinkie’s just all... corkscrews and sidewinders.”
“Yeah. She’ll be alright though. It’s just a week. Besides—” Rainbow fished a brown paper parcel out of the crate and bit the twine binding it off with her teeth. Floating over to her, looking over Rainbow’s shoulder, Twilight saw it was filled with...
“Uh-huh. Supposed to read them in order, as the trip goes on, so we don’t get too lonely. Some for me, some for you. Oh! This one’s for you now.”
Twilight looked at the envelope flicked over to her. Caught it. The name on it said it Méliès. “Fancy name.”
“Spiffing little accents, right? Just dripping with foreign culture. Keep reading!”
To the Lady Twilight Sparkle
This was originally addressed to the Lady Rarity, but she insisted much of the credit was yours, so I am to oblige her. I will keep this brief, I’ve also been told you’ve been very busy. You have helped establish a record against Bright Spark that might save a humble director of cinematographical amusements.
Thank you, as well, for giving me inspiration for a film you might yet someday see. You’ll have to help me with the accuracies.
With Gratitude and Respect
“Apparently Pinkie Pie wasn’t the only pony Bright Spark was hurting... Who is this?”
“He’s a director! He does amazing stuff! Have you never been to a nickelodeon?”
Twilight snorted. “It’s just a dumb fad. The news reels lack the content of a newspaper, and there’s nothing that could rival the power of the imagination and a good book!”
Rainbow rolled her eyes at that, hard, and kept digging through the crates. “I was thinking of being an actress you know. Explore the wild new frontiers of cinema!”
“I don’t think I’m theatrical enough.” Twilight bit the inside of her cheek hard, because Rainbow’s sombre expression made her think it would be a very bad idea to laugh at that. “But we also have books!”
Twilight couldn’t bite her cheek hard enough to hold back the squeal of delight. Some pulp science fiction, submarines to the bottom of the sea, holes drilled to the center of the planet. “Interesting.”
“Huh? Oh no, these are for me.”
“Huh! Really?” Book-buddies!
“Yuh-huh! No, I got these ones for you.” Books on etiquette, on courtship, on banter. Different from the ones she’d already read through, a lot more informal. Twilight levitated a copy of one and read through the chapter index. One eyebrow rose, arched hard up. She flipped to a few of the more interesting chapters. The writing was in informal language, made no assumptions about the reader, made no mention of any items that might denote wealth or status... Now both eyebrows were up.
“Did Rarity pick this out?”
“Nah. The Cap’n did, actually.”
“Huh. Mirth picked these out for me? That... explains a lot.”
“He’s a good kid. Thought the stuff the Lady was going to pick out for you was too hoity toity la-di-da. So she said, ‘Let’s see you do better!’ and so he did. And then she signed off on it.”
It was all so lower-class! A method of courtship focused far more on wit and cleverness than on rehearsed gestures and practiced manners. Thanks, Mirth.
She hoped he was safe.
Rarity held Fluttershy close as the shots fell from deafening crescendo to trickle. Seconds later only the echoes rang through the cavern and in their ears.
Rarity was lifting her mirror again. Fluttershy tried to see into it herself. The soldiers had raised their guns and were standing at attention. Oh, no. No, no, no.
“What do you think, dear?” Rarity asked her, her nose wrinkling.
Rarity’s response wasn’t immediate, and it wasn’t verbal. Her body tensed and she winced in confusion. Then that confusion became realization and her whole body tensed, locked rigid, as if the Princess could detect movement. “Should we run?”
“They’d just start shooting at us again.” Hiding wasn’t doing anything either. “Hooves up?”
Rarity’s muzzle scrunched up in distaste. “I’d much rather run, honestly. If I’m shot in the back, I’d still be allowed an open casket.”
Fluttershy stood from behind their cover, hooves raised. Even then Rarity hesitated. A sharp glare was enough to draw a sigh out of her, and join her.
Fluttershy’s glare melted into a reassuring smile, just as it had so many times before for misbehaving children. “Well, you wanted to negotiate.”
The Lady said nothing, just faced their judgement.
It was a few more minutes they stood there, not being shot at, hooves held in the air.
Then the Princess of Mourning herself appeared from the scaffolding, wordlessly striding to the center of the cavern, moving to the great cannon in silent wonder. She rapped it with her hooves, and it rang out like a bell. Then she turned and locked eyes, not with Rarity but with Fluttershy herself. She didn’t expect that... A cold shudder ran down her spine, and she couldn’t look away no matter how hard she tried. It was like the Princess’s eyes had physically locked her neck in place.
She beckoned to them with her hooves. Fluttershy moved forward, teeth clenched hard so as not to cry out, and she heard Rarity follow behind her. Stare death in the eye and don’t dare blink first.
“You weren’t working alone. Where are the others? I remember more of you.”
Fluttershy sighed miserably. She was so far beyond fear now. “You’ll only kill them if we tell you.”
The Princess stood a little taller at that, so as to better look down her nose at the Matron. “No. I will kill them if they frustrate me unnecessarily. Killing you would be stupid. Admittedly, leaving you alive before was stupider...” A shadow passed over Celestia’s face. The madness in her eyes softened, and she looked... scared? Fluttershy had seen fear enough times to recognize it, but this kind of fear was almost childlike. “Why did I do that?”
It seemed like a bad idea to answer that.
Then the moment was gone, and the dark fires that burned behind those cruel eyes reignited, like a candle’s flame flicking back hard after a breath has passed over it. “No. So you will tell me.”
Fluttershy wanted to bite back, be defiant. Even say nothing. But she didn’t account for Rarity. “Applejack is beneath us, preventing this whole cavern from erupting. Pinkie is trying to get the foals to cover, since they’re relatively innocent in all this and it would be a shame if any of them were shot to death.”
Celestia didn’t flinch at the rebuke, but the guards flanking her certainly did. One of them looked downright nauseous. The ponies that were shooting her just minutes before weren’t monsters, then. That was nice.
“I see. And you stayed behind... why, exactly, Lady Rarity? And, I should say, accomplice.”
“To negotiate the terms of our surrender. We will tell you which of the colonies Twilight has been sent to, as well as detailed schematics on the operation of the device. This is, obviously, conditional on our survival.”
“I see.” The Princess’s burning eyes tore from Fluttershy’s for the first time, and it was like the steel rod through her spine keeping her straight had been yanked out through her front, and she sagged, catching her breath as it left. “What is stopping me from having our engineers study this over your corpses? Why not get the information out of you through torture? Tell me; What information do you have that I need you alive for?”
Fluttershy waited for Rarity’s clever retort. When it didn’t come, she turned to see Rarity afraid like she’d never seen her. The Princess of Mourning clucked her tongue.
“You have too little leverage to lie, Lady Rarity. I will take the schematics as a given. You have exactly one chance to survive this, the both of you. I will repay attempts at cleverness; yours with that of an artisan torturer, a particularly inventive one. If you are not going to tell me something I could not otherwise guess, then you better ask for the firing squad, as that is the only mercy I will extend to you.”
Fluttershy didn’t know who to look at, Rarity or the Princess. The tie breaker for Rarity was that she’d rather not see the bullet coming. The Lady looked so defiant, so ready to spit in the Princess’s face and call it a day, until she saw Fluttershy looking at her as well, and the rod holding her straight seemed to be yanked out of her too. Rarity sagged, and shuffled over to a filing cabinet. Riflemen kept a steady aim on her, though she didn’t pay them much mind. The false bottom was ripped out, and a sheaf of notes and schematics taken from them. She walked back, head held high, papers ahead of her offered in supplication.
“We sent Twilight to the moon. Here are the designs for the magical engine that would allow her to get there. I barely understand them, of course, but it’s all there, in my writing. Everything Twilight taught me of it.”
There was that flash of fear again! Longer, this time.
Celestia tore the notes from Rarity’s grasp with her own magic, and Rarity leapt back as if she’d had a hot pan held to her face. Her yelp was ignored by the Princess, who pored through the reams of notes, of sketches, of mathematics, her face growing more relieved by the second.
“And these notes are accurate to your design? Twilight never had time to fix these herself?”
“The dungeons hardly have a postal service.” Rarity snorted, with all the haughtiness she could muster with a gun pointed to her head.
“You answered around my question without addressing it. Don’t think I didn’t notice, and don’t think to try my patience any further. However. However, you were foolish enough to break her out with explosive charges and... what, some cell bars? No. This plan lacks any of the elegance I’ve come to expect from her. Evidence suggests she didn’t know of this...” Celestia’s magic circled some key numbers on several of the diagrams.
When she was done, the fear and fury had been completely replaced by something that wasn’t quite regret, wasn’t quite relief, but kept her expression balancing between the two.
“Guards, we’re done here. Escort these ponies off the premises and get the engineer corp in to study the work done here. Twilight Sparkle is no longer of any threat or consequence to us.”
Rarity and Fluttershy stared. Fluttershy felt numb from her scalp to her hooves. Neither of them asked why, and Celestia looked between them with a raised eyebrow. When she still got no prompt, she sighed in a bored and flat tone.
“No? Well, I suppose I might as well just say it. Your equations are wrong. These parentheticals are incorrectly placed, significantly changing the equation. As well, there seems to be some mishandling of proper distribution. The kind of algebraic mistakes I’d expect from a pony who had been taught well, but misplaced their tutor before the exam. No, with this information, I know that Twilight Sparkle is dead.”
Fluttershy flinched. But they’d been so careful! There had to be some way to warn Twilight, to—
“I’m not even going to execute you, my little ponies.” Celestia smiled warmly, smiled. “You’ve performed a great public service. I could not have thought of a more fitting execution myself. Oh, and how agonizing her final moments had been... Why, I might even have medals commissioned and delivered to your cells in the dungeon. Won’t that be nice?”
Guards surrounded Rarity and Fluttershy, guiding them back towards the hole they’d made in the wall, as a captain barked orders to find the others.
Dash still had one crate left to show Twilight, it seemed. A box of records, pressed vinyl discs with music on them. A recent technology, which made it one of the most expensive items on the ship, but much lighter than bringing a player piano, it was decided.
Clair de Lune was on top of the stack, which made it an easy first choice. Rainbow took to winding the gramophone while Twilight excitedly slotted the needle into the disc’s groove, anxious to see how it all worked. Excitable egghead had gone locked up way too long, and gadgets had moved on without her.
Dash had to admit, even though the music wasn’t her first choice, there was something appropriate about looking out the window of a spaceship while listening to classical music. Something right. Twilight told her to play “Flight of the Valkyries” next if she wanted something heavier. How’d she know that’d been picked out?
There was a surprise one Rainbow was holding, placed third from the bottom of the stack. If it was the bottom, it might be seen, and second from the bottom might be seen if a pony picked up the bottom. Third from the bottom was the safest place...
Viola and Sweetie Belle, Rarity’s little sister, had been practicing together, and while it cost an arm and a leg — she apologized to the Cap’n in her head for the expression — to get it made, they’d managed to get them an entire album to themselves.
She was saving it for the return trip though. It was a little too sombre for this early in, especially with their friends heavy on their minds. They’d be fine, though. Just... dreadful not knowing. Travesty. But Twilight was just going to worry if Rainbow showed any doubt, so no doubts at all. Their friends were spectacular, most daring blighters ever to walk the soil, they’d make it through just fine.
Just ruddy fine.
Dash looked out at the stars... a pony could have spent hours just looking out. To feel so detached, weightless and small in the vastness of the universe — to appreciate just how insignificant an individual was — was an indescribable experience. Twilight was trying her best to put it into words, of course, like “awe-inspiring” and “a moment of unrivalled serendipity” but...
Words can only create a sympathy or an idea in your head that relates to something you already know how to feel. Or an idea similar enough that you can put it together. The truth was, there just wasn’t a way to describe the feeling of this from whole cloth. The experience was so far removed from what any other pony had experienced, ever.
Dash could have spent hours just experiencing it, burning it into her memory so she could relive this for the rest of her life. However, they had days, which was rather too long. Twilight was getting stir-crazy too, didn’t seem to be much in a reading mood. Shocking!
Twilight carefully lit her horn every few minutes and the both of them played games together, with Dash talking about all the advances and world events that had gone on while Twilight was wrongfully incarcerated. Every time Twilight won a game of chess, Dash struck her down in a game of cards, to keep them both humble.
Sleeping without a natural sunrise was weird too. Twilight insisted they go to bed at 10 and wake at 7, to keep normal hours. It was hard to sleep though, Dash just couldn’t get tired like she usually would.
Life in the aether was weird.
Even food tasted weird. Nothing tasted right. Nothing felt right in her mouth. If Dash didn’t know for a fact AJ had cooked most of this, she’d have thought it was Rarity faffing about with some pots and pans. It tasted amateur, rookie. Bland. Dull. Like a daring adventure without a love interest and a villain. What was the point?
It was late in the second day when Twilight asked the harder question, over a game of chess.
“So, how do we land this thing on the moon?”
Oh. Uh, right. She was supposed to have explained this to the egghead by now.
“Actually, we don’t. We’re going to put you in a suit, drop you out the airlock, and I was going to steer this through the moon’s orbit and slingshot us back to Equestria, all neat and easy.”
“And pick me up on the return trip.” Twilight concluded, thoughtfully, pushing a pawn to attack Dash’s knight. But the pawn was in the open, so Dash moved her knight to attack it. Ha! “How?”
“How am I supposed to get back up to the capsule when I’ve gotten Luna?”
Dash had forgotten her knight was the only thing guarding her bishop, which Twilight took with her queen. Rats. Dash pushed her own pawn up to threaten it. “We, uh, never figured that part out. Bit of a blindspot really. We were sort of hoping you could magic your way back.”
“Magic my way back.” Twilight echoed, lamely. “Rainbow, it’d be like trying to fly by standing in a bucket and trying to pick it up.”
“Couldn’t you, like, try to throw the moon down instead?”
Twilight was so shocked by that, she moved her threatened pawn instead of her queen. Didn’t even flinch when Dash triumphantly took advantage, huzzah! “Dash, that might be the smartest dumb thing you’ve ever said.”
And just as fast as the inspiration hit, Twilight deflated again. “How would I take Luna with me?”
“Doesn’t she have wings?”
“If she could fly through the aether, I think she would have done so by now.”
“So what was the original plan, anyway?”
“Oh. Uh, Pinkie said ‘Twilight’ll think of something, she’s really smart’ and Applejack shrugged.”
Now Twilight flipped the board. Drat, Dash was finally winning for once! Bad sportsmanship all around. “Why didn’t you tell me! Or ask me?”
“We thought you already had a lot on your mind, what with the engine and prison and all!” Dash protested, scrabbling for the pieces. Now, what had gone where, did she remember? No? Darnit.
“So I have a day to figure this out!”
“Well. A day and eight hours for me to go around the moon, yeah.”
“If I go down there! Why would I trap myself on the moon if I had no way to figure out how to get back?!” Twilight was waving her arms frantically now, hyperventilating. Dash idly wondered how bad that was for their air. The carbon scrubbers had done well enough so far though, so it was probably fine.
“Well,” Dash thought, giving up on the board entirely and putting the floaty pieces back in the box, “if you don’t go, you can’t ask Luna for help, right?”
Twilight didn’t say anything, but Dash knew she’d said something dumb and important again.
She could take a hint at least. Some time to be alone with books would do them both good. Dash had just gotten to the good bit in this one, too...
Four ponies sat in the dungeons, unharmed, because Rarity had known to give Celestia her handwritten notes from before Twilight corrected them.
Math never was her strong suit in school. She much preferred theatre.
The first thing Twilight had done was figure out the velocity needed for lunar orbit with escape trajectory. Wasn’t nearly as fast as she thought, that would help.
The second thing she did was tweak the engine, so that the ship would slow down to that bare minimum. It’d give her more time on the moon with Luna, which might be bad if the suit didn’t have enough margin of error for how long she could be outside the capsule...
The third thing she did was try figure out how well Rarity’s suits could survive for. This was a wash, as she didn’t have Rarity to ask, or a safe way to test it, or a spare if anything went wrong with the testing, or written documentation...
She’d figure something out. That’s what everypony else had said, anyway.
What Rainbow did know was how fast a pony could accelerate safely. That was important.
She would also have Luna...
Twilight didn’t have to lift herself. All she had to do was push the moon down.
Armed with that knowledge, and having absolutely demolished the recommended reading list Mirth had provided her, Twilight stood at the airlock. In the suit she assumed would be fine for the next few hours. Ready for Dash to release her into the aether and just sort of...
To the moon.
Even though the moon was a lot smaller than Equus, it still looked really dang big right about now. Big enough to squish a pony flat. Squelch. Squashed. And nopony would ever know what happened, or find the squishy body.
That was probably worse.
Parachutes wouldn’t work though. So there was just the guess that the much lower gravity of the moon would make it a lot safer. Hopefully.
This was a terrible idea. She still didn’t know for sure how she’d get back, just a really, really stupid idea that worked mathematically, but just because it worked mathematically didn’t make it any less stupid. It was ridiculous. It was childish. It was something Dash would think of.
She was having second thoughts.
“Rainbow! I think I’ve changed my mind!” She shouted into the airlock.
Dash didn’t hear her, because it was an airlock. She just smiled, gave her a big hooves up, and pushed the button that dumped Twilight into the aether.
Twilight had just learned a very important lesson about vacuums: In the aether, nopony can hear you scream this is a bad idea.
The craft looked beautiful from the outside.
The brass, cigar shaped core with fins gleamed unnaturally bright in the light of the sun, in the light of the violet magic ripples. Like a bullet, travelling through the still waters of heaven itself. It felt almost wrong to Twilight that she didn’t leave a trail herself...
The moon, too, when she twisted to face it, was beautiful. She was falling to it faster than she’d hoped, but not as fast as she’d feared, which at least gave her enough time and presence of mind to appreciate the white sands. It really did look like what a pony would describe if they were asked to describe a place of pure night.
It looked like what it would be like to live inside God’s own hourglass, counting away the life of the universe.
Far below she saw a blue speck, running towards her. Racing towards her.
I’m really falling for her.
Twilight’s legs flailed a little more as she giggled helplessly at that.
This wasn’t like the last time she’d fallen from a great height. She wasn’t in shock. Her leg wasn’t broken. There wasn’t broken glass in her. She didn’t know she’d die. She wasn’t falling back under house arrest.
She was falling to the moon. To meet her girlfriend. Was that presumptuous? She was more scared of being presumptuous than the fall.
Now that she was closer, Twilight could get a sense of scale from Luna. She was running fast, far faster than any pony she had ever seen, but Twilight was falling far faster than she thought too.
Conservation of momentum. She hadn’t been dropped out of a motionless shuttle, even though it didn’t feel like it was going all that fast. It’s hard to get a sense of speed up here, like this. Twilight had essentially been thrown down. And, unlike Equus, there wasn’t air resistance to slow her down.
Okay, panicking now.
Strangely, panicking was what finally put her mind at ease. She’d gone through this before and survived. Not exactly this, but this all the same. It felt a lot better than waiting for the inevitable and hoping for the best.
Think, think, think.
Twilight grabbed out with her magic, channeling the monumental power of the aether, and tried to grab at all the nothingness that she could. If it worked for the magic engine...
It worked for the magic engine because she’d designed it specifically for that, she quickly realized. While it worked in principle, in practice it was like trying to knit a parachute out of rope. Maybe if she wasn’t so rushed and falling out of the sky.
Luna was getting closer, but the ground was faster. If Twilight didn’t do something now to slow herself down, Luna wouldn’t get to her fast enough to help.
Well, she’d already thought of the moon’s surface as looking like an hourglass. Except instead of the sand falling as the countdown... what a nifty last thought.
The stupid, terrible, dumb idea.
The Dash idea.
Twilight reached out with her magic again, but far down this time instead of around. She grabbed as large a chunk of the moon itself she could manage and pushed against it.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and so she felt to her satisfaction that pushing the moon down buoyed her up a fraction. She pushed down harder and spun down below her horn, her body the counterweight balancing itself has her center of mass shifted to a place it had no right to be. It hurt a lot, actually. The more pain she could take the safer she’d be, so with grit teeth, she tucked herself into a ball and prepared to cannonball the moon.
Twilight tried to work out where, exactly, her life had gone so awry that this was where it had ended up. It was hard to point to any one exact moment that led to her preparing to land butt-first on the moon with the force of a meaty meteor. Probably when she first saw Luna through the telescope was this fated to be.
There was a thump and Twilight felt a huge surge of force to her side. She was still falling, and that was the wrong direction for the ground, but it felt solid all the same. She opened her eyes, winced shut from concentration and fear, and saw blue. Dark blue mane like night trailing over her shoulder, a deeper, lighter blue fur like lapis lazuli surrounding her, pinning her to Luna’s chest.
She laughed, wildly and manically and happily and all those wonderfully wonderful ‘ly’s. Luna gave her an odd look, and asked... something. Something that Twilight couldn’t hear, but she could see her lips move as they fell, her mouth make the shapes.
And Twilight’s heart kept plummeting. She’d come all this way, all this way, and she still couldn’t hear her voice.
All she could do was be saved and cradled in her arms, and hold her close.
By the time they’d landed, Twilight felt far more than she heard. They’d hit the soft moon dust with a whumpf, spraying a cloud of white up and away. Luna hugged Twilight tight, not letting go for a few long seconds. Then she finally let go, and for the first time Twilight saw her face, brimming to burst with excitement and happiness and crying smiles, eyes shining as much with joy as with tears.
She was barely a step back when Twilight leapt forward and swept her up in another hug.
I came a long way for this, she whispered into the suit, I’m not done with you yet.
She couldn’t feel the warmth of the hug through the suit. As much as the distance between them still figuratively killed her, to remove it would be the literal death of her. It would have to do for now, and she’d make it count for every bit that she could.
Until Luna leapt away from her, terrified. Twilight looked behind her, trying to see what Luna was suddenly so scared of, and saw nothing. When she turned back, Luna was sitting stock-still, miserable, thirty feet away from her.
I am not safe. She wrote in the sands. In me there is a Nightmare.
This was my prison, until the Nightmare could be contained. I’m afraid—
It is a creature of dark magic that rots the mind. It makes a pony jealous and hateful. It is subtle, so subtle you do not even know it is there at first, but it makes you bitter, and hurt the ones you love.
And you do not feel it now?
It is most insidious like that. I fear—
Did Celestia banish you?
I tried to do such terrible things, to her, to our kingdom—
Did Celestia banish you?
Please forgive her, I—
The one good thing about communicating strictly by writing at each other was that it was much, much easier to cut somepony off. And dramatically repeating yourself just required a pointed underlining in the dust.
I think I understand now.
Luna’s head tilted to the side, confused, as Twilight scratched out everything else to give herself more space to write.
Celestia is mad.
I had not expected her to forgive me, as kind as she is—
She is not kind. She has a madness. A sickness. Paranoid. Warmongering. This is not the sister you remember?
No! Luna was shaking her head fiercely as she wrote. I was when afflicted with the Nightmare, but Sister w
Then Luna understood, and fell backwards, collapsing on her butt with the weight of the realization.
I did not take the Nightmare with me.
Celestia was once kind?
Even through the vacuum, Twilight could hear Luna’s heart break at the question, just by watching her spine sag, her shoulders slump.
But the Nightmare was not hers. Luna was safe. So Twilight approached her again, and Luna flinched for a moment when Twilight leaned in close. But that was before she realized, realized there was no longer a reason to be afraid. There hadn’t been for a very long time.
So for a little while, Twilight just held her.
That was nice.
They had hours together. Twilight’s greatest fear was that it would be awkward, that Rarity would have been right. They didn’t really know each other! How could writing letters, even for so long, amount to actually knowing someone. And love?
They wrote to each other, directly.
I’m glad I waited
I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner.
You’re here at all.
I can’t wait to get out of this suit and be close to you. Speak to you.
Luna started writing, hesitated. Then grinned mischievously and wrote it anyway.
I can’t wait to get you out of that suit either.
Twilight cheeks burned hotly, even in the cold. Then Luna decided to push it that little bit further still, and ridiculous smile on her face she wiggled her eyebrows. Twice. Emphatically.
That did it. The awkwardness, the amazingness, but above all the surrealness of it knocked Twilight on her side, kicking pinwheels in the air, laughing.
Luna seemed a little put off, actually.
Was I not smooth?
From lying on the ground, Twilight wrote.
A touch nervous.
Yet still so forward!
Luna smiled, genuinely. There was a nostalgic, wistful edge to it.
I am the Princess of the Night. Of art and of passion. Though I am long out of practice.
Well, we have hours. Practice on me! Twilight beamed through the visor.
Luna wiggled her eyebrows, twice, and again came the blush. Now it was Luna’s turn to fall over laughing while Twilight furiously erased her last message, scrawling over it—
You know what I meant!
She punctuated it with an indignant hoof stomp which seemed to make Luna laugh all the harder.
An exercise in honesty, then. In truth, I have long adored you for your mind, Twilight Sparkle. I had not expected such a warrior’s physique to love as well!
Prison was kind to me. She agreed.
Prison? Is that why I have not heard from you in so long? Oh, Twilight.
Oh. Right. Celestia arrested me for treason.
Luna considered that for a moment. She always was the strongest of us. Still I dread what the Nightmare would have done to her mind over a millenia.
We’ll save her.
I didn’t get this warrior’s physique to not use it. Together.
We shall use your warrior’s physique together? I have no complaints.
Twilight was about to reprimand her for that one, but there was no eyebrow wiggle. Luna just looked pensive, thoughtful, staring at her own writing. She’d just been flirting too... why?
Worried about your sister?
I do not wish to dwell. I had hoped my rescue be a more merry occasion. I had not thought of the Nightmare in so long, not until I thought of how it could have affected you here. To know it has already hurt you, to hurt so many, in my absence.
It was defeated before.
You know more now.
I am not enough
I was not enough to get here. I had help. You have help too.
I have you.
Twilight bounded forward in the low gravity again, and leapt into another crushing embrace with Luna, as if the sheer force of her hug would be enough to crush some reassurance into her. It seemed to work, at least.
How do we...?
Right. I have a ship.
Did it not leave?
Going the long way around.
Twilight drew a diagram of the moon on its surface, drawing the ship, trajectories, the equations for orbit. She didn’t expect Luna to understand, but it helped her explain the problem of getting back up.
She absolutely did not expect Luna to start copying her equations, rearranging numbers, rebalancing the algebra until it was a matter of solving for escape velocity.
This is how fast we need to be going?
Luna scored the ground in a line where she was standing, then took long even strides far away from Twilight. Twilight just watched curiously as Luna got further and further away from her, the same even steps each time.
Then, just as suddenly, Luna turned and ran, faster and faster, until she was the same streak that Twilight had seen while she was falling. The Princess took a leap, not up but ahead, and blazed across the line she had scored, head directly down.
She turned and cantered, long loping jumps in the low gravity of the moon, until she reached Twilight again, puffing a little. Breathing the aether...?
I could not either.
Solution is workable but silly.
Am okay with silly.
Remember you said that.
Twilight began drawing another equation, this one the moon, and two ponies... throwing each other. The Rainbow Dash solution. Though, as much as she meant it sincerely, it was really more a solution she had come up with when she was still a filly. Dash had just reminded her.
When Twilight was still in her early tutelage, one of her teachers, a nasty lady by the name of Ms Persimmon, had presented her with an interesting conundrum. She had asked; “Could a unicorn fly by standing in a bucket and lifting it?”
“No,” Twilight answered.
“And why not?”
“Because they’re not strong enough to do it properly!” She had answered, proudly.
The teacher whapped her desk with a yardstick, crack!
“No, Twilight, you silly girl. Try again.”
“But a unicorn could fly with a bucket, if they were strong enough!” Twilight insisted, the first hint of tears welling in her eyes.
“No, Twilight. Again.”
“It’s true though!”
Celestia had been brought in to mediate. The tutor was determined to prove that the Princess had made the wrong choice in her new prodigy. The Princess of Mourning regarded Twilight coldly, with a raised eyebrow.
“Very well. Whichever of you is wrong shall be flogged and thrown out of my school, and a more suitable replacement found,” she declared. “Should Ms Persimmon here agree?”
“Of course.” She hadn’t hesitated a moment.
“Twilight, then. Present your case.”
So Twilight had shown the solution she thought was so obvious. The unicorn who was strong enough didn’t need to stand in the bucket. They threw it very, very hard, then caught it. So long as they had put more energy into the bucket than would be lost by accelerating the pony up — and being the good little girl that she was, she had shown all her work — the pony would fly wherever she had thrown the bucket.
Of course, no pony could do it properly like that. None of them were strong enough. So it’d make sense to try it the way her teacher had suggested.
Ms Persimmon had been so smug when she declared the challenge. Now her sour-yellow coat had faded pale-white. “This isn’t standing in a bucket and lifting. This is—”
“I said that was wrong!” Twilight shouted, sick of Ms Persimmon ignoring her. “I said a unicorn could fly with a bucket if they were strong enough to do it properly! That’s how you do it properly!”
“I rather agree, Persimmon.” Celestia didn’t call her “Ms”, because she was even scarier. “Twilight, this solution is ingenious. You’ve truly applied yourself to your studies. I’ll be sure your teachers can keep up with you in the future. Persimmon? I believe you made a wager.”
Ms Persimmon didn’t run very far before they caught her. As much as Twilight didn’t like her, she didn’t show up to the flogging. She didn’t feel bad about it, but she didn’t want to enjoy it either.
She was just happy that the Princess had been so proud of her.
It was a bittersweet memory. She’d been happy at the time, but the filter of her adult memories tainted it, poisoned it.
Still, the equation she was writing now was very similar to the one she had written as a filly all those years ago.
Luna, of course, was a strong enough pony. What she hadn’t accounted for in the original equation, however, was what if the bucket was strong enough to catch the unicorn?
Twilight made for a pretty good bucket, mathematically speaking.
The equation was a little more complex. Take the velocity they needed to intersect the shuttle. Multiply that by their combined mass — not weight! It was different up here — to find the energy total. Then apply that energy to Twilight’s mass alone and solve for velocity, which would be much greater.
Then it was a matter of throwing Twilight up at that velocity, and her pulling Luna up to her until they were at the same velocity! Her velocity would decrease as the energy was shared between them.
It made complete sense on paper. Moondust? Try as hard as she could, she couldn’t see a reason why this wouldn’t work. And with the much lower gravity of the moon, it was even possible this was easier than she was suspecting.
She stared at it, Luna reading over her shoulder. She did her own calculations, coming to the same conclusion, before rolling onto her back laughing silently, her legs pinwheeling freely, kicking wildly.
Not the answer she was expecting, but at least it probably meant she understood, and the math checked out for her too. It was only funny because it would probably work.
If you fall I will catch you.
If I don’t, I will catch you.
Luna smiled and nodded.
There was a while until they’d need to do it, and it was getting cold, even through the heating and insulation of the suit. Twilight began to shiver until two large, feathered wings wrapped around her and held her close again.
If Twilight held her hoof to Luna’s chest, she could feel the gentle, nervous heartbeat through her suit. She focused on it, let it carry her into a timeless moment that was at once seconds and hours.
It lasted until Luna’s head snapped up, her eyes focusing on the moon’s horizon.
Now is the time.
You see her?
Feel her. I sense her mind.
I once walked the dreams of all ponies. Luna smiled, this is but nothing.
You always knew when I was watching
So you know I saw the calzone before you erased it, then?
Not until now, no. Luna’s stoic and stone-faced expression would have been unreadable if not for the fantastic blush that threatened to turn her whole face red.
Only one chance.
Unless we figure out how to do this all the way back to Equus...
Re-entry would be problem.
Plan B then.
Luna nodded twice, sharp and short, as her horn began to glow blue. Twilight was lifted up, feeling weightless and then heavy again as she accelerated, shooting up like she had from the cannon without the safety of the vessel around her. No atmosphere meant no air tearing at her, though, and she reached out with her mind to grab Luna.
She slipped once, twice, fumbled as she spun out into the void. Still, those flailing attempts had been enough to get some momentum behind Luna, and Twilight pulled again.
She felt herself pull towards Luna just as much as she was pulling Luna towards her, and the pain in her head and neck was intense. Equine anatomy was not built for this kind of use and abuse! There was no ground to dig her hooves into, to brace herself with.
Luna ploughed into her, wings outstretched, and they tumbled into the void together, Twilight held to Luna’s chest like the Princess was a parachute and her legs the straps. They stabilized slowly, spinning as a brass speck caught the light, its purplish shimmer looking like a pebble skimming the surface of the aether in all directions.
It was moving faster, but not impossibly so. It was higher than them, but not unreachably so.
Enough that Luna’s horn glowed again and, over the course of minutes, altered the trajectory of the vessel until they lined up. Twilight guided them the rest of the way, towards the ship’s airlock.
It felt that they drifted as lazily as two children on a slow river, even as they moved at speeds that would compress a pony into a two-dimensional object should they run into anything truly stationary.
After collecting on the side of the ship like barnacles — Twilight was a little disappointed when their mass didn’t even cause the hull to wobble, the tingling film of magical ripples breaking over them corrected the deviation so quickly — it became the simple, highly ridiculous task to shimmy their way along the brass plates towards the airlock.
It was fascinating the way she couldn’t hear the brass clacking against her hooves with her ears, but the sound seemed to travel dully through her bones. She caught only the bass tones of it, like a distant booming drum.
She opened the airlock with her magic, carefully. She didn’t need a repeat of the balloon incident. There would be no mattress awaiting her this time. The reinforced bulkhead opened into the room which seemed spacious when she left. Now, with Luna following after her, it was unusually intimate.
Luna jumped, back arching, when the light switched. She must have been able to hear the sudden hiss of air as the room repressurized. She all but jumped into Twilight’s arms at the shock.
There was no more moondust to write in. She just held her hoof and squeezed it reassuringly.
Luna’s eyes were wide, and her breathing shallow and fast. Her tongue smacked in her mouth, like the roof of her mouth had been coated in peanut butter. Twilight had seen enough of Pinkie’s panic attacks to recognize the signs.
A thousand years on that vast and empty ocean. Claustrophobia? When they were stuck in such a confined space? A problem. It looked like even getting used to something as simple as breathing air again was strange to her.
It was Twilight’s turn to hug Luna close, to reassure her. The Princess’s eyes were screwed tightly shut, and her head pressed so hard into the top of Twilight’s it was like she was trying to make them of one mind, and damn any skull or helmet that got in the way.
Slowly, Twilight’s suit began to deflate as the pressure equalized. Slowly she began to hear the air rushing in, herself.
As soon as the red safety light flashed green, she tapped Luna twice on the chest. The Princess paused in her hyperventilation just long enough to lean back, to see what Twilight meant. Just long enough for Twilight to unscrew her helmet and rip it off, throw it to the floor.
Her fur was matted with sweat. Her mane matted and unbrushed. Her breath surely smelled of the vodka solution she’d been using as mouthwash — but not swallowing!
It was still the first face Luna had seen in a thousand years. It was enough for the Princess to slow her breathing, for her eyes to focus again, blinking away the tears Twilight hadn’t seen until now.
“It’s okay, Luna. I’m here. You’re safe.”
And that was how Twilight was blessed with her first kiss.
She had no idea what to do with her teeth, or tongue, or lips, or anything. But Luna was very determined to lead, and Twilight was not going to protest. She usually prided herself on being a fast learner, but Luna was not of a mind to teach. This was not so much a conversation as a monologue.
That was fine. All high-order functions of her mind were black, blank, electric, and drunk in a way her recent foray into hardened alcoholism hadn’t prepared her for.
But unlike Luna, eventually she had to come up for air. She broke the kiss with a long, ragged gasp.
She pulled back, blinking sleepily. Her eyelids felt heavy for a moment, and the butterflies in her stomach were at gale force. She felt electric, tingly. Luna, her Princess, looked smug for a few seconds... then apologetic. Then almost panicked, again.
She thinks she’s done something wrong.
Luna opened her mouth to apologize, damn her!
And that’s why Twilight stole her second kiss, and this time she pressed the attack with vigor. It was sloppier, but no less fierce. This one Twilight broke with harsh, almost hoarse gasps, and a slight bruise on her bottom lip that threatened to break her down into a pile of giggles.
“Hey,” a rather amused voice caused the pair to jump, half up and half out of their skins. “So you both hit it off, it looks like? Rescued your Princess and all that.”
Mortified, Twilight buried her head in the nearest surface she could hide it in, namely Luna’s chest. Which didn’t... help the issue. She felt like a foal caught with her hoof in the cookie jar, except her hooves had fortunately been wrapped around Luna’s withers. Rainbow hadn’t caught anything too untoward.
Luna’s chuckles erupted through her chest, making Twilight all tingly.
“ALL SEEMS TO BE WELL.” Luna shouted. Tingles gone. If Twilight’s ears hadn’t popped from the depressurization they surely did now. “YOU WOULD BE RAINBOW DASH, I PRESUME?”
The force of Luna’s voice had forced Rainbow back a step, then another. Then further still, as she couldn’t find a purchase in microgravity. “Woah! Ah, Luna, right?”
“IT IS A PLEASURE TO MEET YOU.”
She’d been deaf for a thousand years.
Twilight tapped Luna on the chest, and her head snapped down quizzically.
“YES, MY LOVE?”
“Ah, Luna... Could you lower your voice a little, please?”
Luna’s head lowered, instead, down to Twilight’s ear height.
“IS THIS BETTER?”
Ohstarsthatwaspainful. “I mean, quieter. Softer.”
“SOFTE—oh. Softer. Is this better?”
“A little!” Rainbow shouted encouragingly, pressed into the back of her pilot seat on the other side of the craft by the force of Luna’s shouts.
“HOW ABOUT THIS? I CAN HARDLY HEAR MYSELF NOW!”
Alright now it was still painful, but less genuine concern for permanent tinnitus. A step in the right direction!
“I AM WHISPERING.”
“Try whispering softer.”
Luna’s eyes screwed shut in concentration for a moment.
“How... is... this?”
Her voice was beautiful and regal when it wasn’t being projected with the force of a locomotive.
“That’s just lovely. We’ll have to practice that.”
“I had... not anticipated... this problem... I’m afraid.”
“Neither did I!” Twilight reassured her, pulling her back down into another hug. Tall, dark and gorgeous, certainly, but she’d have to adjust to how much taller. She lowered her own voice. She’d been yelling over the ringing in her ears. Best not to start it all over again. “There’s a lot of things it’s going to take some getting used to.”
Luna looked around pointedly at the cozy interior of the spacecraft as Twilight topped up the mana reserves. The acceleration started again as the moon fell further and further away from them.
Luna frowned thoughtfully. “What was that?”
“Oh! That was the engine. Here, I’ll show you how it works.” Twilight kicked off the back wall, pushing up towards the center of the ship that was wrapped in the faintly-glowing wires, crystals and sigils. “See, this is the mana battery, these crystals, and it feeds into this spell matrix. If you’re familiar with a traditional hex grid, it’s a self-cycling net that focuses a levitation cantrip into a kind of—”
Luna’s horn lit up, and the engine glowed. There was another jolt as the ship lurched, and Luna’s eyes went wide with comprehension.
“You designed this?”
She answered after she was done being forced back against the opposite wall, making sure her hoof didn’t hit anything too fragile. “Yes?”
With a flap of her wings, Luna was beside her again, nibbling on one of Twilight’s ears in a way that made her melt just so. “You... have a beautiful mind, little one... I’d love to explore it. Just how creative would it be... if put to—”
“Hate to interrupt!” Dash added hotly, “But I’m still... here. There isn’t very much else I’d be able to go, I’m afraid. Not much options in terms of giving you two some alone time.”
The Princess of the Moon blinked, blushing like a hot coal. Oh, yes, they had an audience, didn’t they? And looking around for some privacy seemed to be causing the claustrophobia to rise back up again. Twilight was beginning to recognize it in the twitches of her wings, the tautness of her neck.
“This is... small. I had forgotten... what it was like... to be inside?”
Twilight smiled apologetically, reassuringly she hoped. “This was the biggest thing we could throw.”
“THROW?” Luna forced her voice lower again, “Sorry. Surprised. You did not build it in the aether?”
Twilight thought how much to explain. Cannons were fairly recent invention. As was gunpowder. As was the steam engine. Hrm. “A lot of fire.”
“TRULY? Continue to... astound. I suppose I can... forgive the... confined space. I just have... a request... for my nerves?”
Twilight smiled as warmly and reassuringly at her Princess as she was able. “You can ask me anything.”
“May I stick my head out the window?”
“It might... make me feel better.” Another pause, this one for thought as opposed to the usual lulls in staying quiet. “I don’t need to breathe.”
“Well. Yes. But we rather do.”
Rainbow shouted from her pilot’s seat again. “Sorry for eavesdropping, but there’s still no where for me to sod off to, yeah? Why doesn’t she just head back out the airlock and hold on, I guess? It’s not like she’s going to fall off.”
Luna beamed. “Oh, that would be wonderful. Doesn’t that sound like such fun?”
“Quiet out there too, I think.” Rainbow added chipperly.
Luna was already sitting in the airlock, sitting, looking nothing more than an excited puppy holding its leash, ready to be walked. It wasn’t a face Twilight could say no to.
“You should go with her.” Dash added, “Be romantic. Isn’t stargazing such a spiffing idea for a proper first date? And what a view for it!”
There was a little sniffle.
“Dash, are you... crying?”
“No,” she lied, wiping her eyes with the back of her hoof. “Maybe a little.”
“You are!” Twilight accused. “Why?”
Twilight looked at Dash, sitting in the pilot’s seat of the rocketship powered by happy thoughts they’d fired out of a cannon to meet a pony that didn’t need to breathe and lived on the moon that they’d collected by throwing themselves back into space, and the look dared Dash to find anything left to deem too stupid.
Dash cleared her throat, point taken. “The stars look different from the shadow of the moon, Twilight. You can see all of them. It’s not like... you look up at the sky, and you think maybe we’re just a pearl in a big ocean? But it’s more like... we’re the grains of sand on a world that’s a grain of sand for a sun that’s a grain of sand on a beach that goes on forever.”
“It is beautiful.” Luna agreed, and there was a breathlessness to her voice that was from a sense of sombreness rather than the forced carefulness, “I think I spent a hundred years at least trying to count them all before I gave up and deemed it a fool’s errand. It is a sight that changes you, though.”
“It’s humbling.” Rainbow agreed, wiping her eyes again. “It’s like you feel so small against all of that, but also like a giant, because you’re there, you’re all alone in a way that makes you feel...”
“Impossible,” Dash agreed.
And Twilight felt her heart tug at her, as she realized Dash and Luna were bonding over something that she would never experience, unless one day she came back. That seemed unlikely enough. But to see the stars in the shadow of the moon, with none of the sun’s light pollution?
They had shared something she couldn’t. She was jealous, she realized.
“You should go with her!” Dash exclaimed suddenly, pushing back off her seat and floating to Twilight cheerfully. “Stick your head out the window! You’ve already fallen out once and that went fine!”
“And it’d be an excellent chance for some privacy! You can talk with flashing your horn, right?”
“Right...” Luna continued to pull the puppy act, all but pawing at the rear airlock door. Twilight furrowed her brow. “But why don’t you go out and give us some privacy in here later? So I don’t have to wear the suit?”
Rainbow’s cheerful expression muted rapidly, almost instantly. “No. Not until we’re back on planet.”
“Why not?” Twilight all but whined. Luna’s puppy act was contagious.
“We don’t have showers. And as you said, we can’t open a window.”
“But—Oh. OH! I didn’t mean—!” Twilight protested.
“Sure you didn’t. So you’re saying you wouldn’t, if you got the chance?”
“Well—I mean—that’s a very—I can’t—”
Rainbow smiled back at Luna as she shoved the stammering Twilight towards the airlock, and her spare oxygen helmet. “It’s been an absolute pleasure meeting in the flesh, Princess. The world’s changed a whole heaping motza, it has, it has, and we’ll be sure to show you around once we’re there. But for now, I’m sure you have some stars to gaze at.”
For the rest of the long trip back to the planet, Rainbow was sure to throw the pair out the airlock whenever they got too... happy to be united.
Rainbow thought it was sweet, honestly. She was a little jealous herself. Sometimes she’d see the pair out the window, holding tight to the smooth brass hull however they could, Luna pointing out constellations, rapid flashes going on between the two of them as they talked how they’d gotten so used to... But she offered no mercy when the pair got a little too heated back on the inside of the ship, usually after Twilight had finished eating or sleeping or whatever it was that had distracted her from her paramor. No mercy indeed! Rainbow was captain of this mare’s ship, what ho, and there’d be order! No hanky panky under her roof, consarnit!
She wondered how Pinkie was.
Pinkie was starting to see things again. She thought she saw Gummy in her toolbox just now, before she remembered.
Rainbow wasn’t here to help. She just had a work crew, at the moment, and the boss yelled at her whenever she got too distracted from herself.
He was a nice pony, a lieutenant, dark blue with a silver mane, but if he didn’t yell at Pinkie, then Celestia yelled at him and that was really bad. She didn’t hold it against him. He was nice enough when she did thing right, but he still wasn’t... Dash.
He didn’t smile like she did. He didn’t wear the same silly outfit — his was too sensible. He didn’t give amazing hugs, or hugs at all.
Her other friends were still in the dungeons, even though Pinkie promised Applejack would be amazingly helpful. Too much of a risk, they said. They wouldn’t even let Rarity make clothes for her!
She’d been told black-and-white stripes were very slimming though. She hated looking like a zebra though.
She also hated that she was being asked to rebuild her laser as a weapon.
Mounted on top of the Palace, it would be the ultimate deterrent for the weaponized airships of the far continents. It was sort of okay, if she thought about it like that. They weren’t taking it to other ponies lands, it could only be used in self defense. But then she overheard some of the sergeants talk about putting it onto carriages...
The little pinheads of light crackled across her vision again, and the edges of her sight went black. She was about to—No, no! Deep, calm breaths.
Someone was yelling. Not at her, for once, but at the sky.
High, high above there was a streak of fire and light. A white pony gunnery sergeant jumped into the hard metal seat of the laser and began spinning it, keeping the laser aimed at the streaking light.
“Princess Protect,” he breathed, “Moving faster than any shell I’ve ever seen.”
The Lieutenant threw Pinkie a telescope, which she caught after only two or three teensy fumbles. It was big and unwieldy, and he seemed to keep forgetting she wasn’t a unicorn for some reason.
“I’m warning the Princess. Sergeant, keep it in your sights, this thing hasn’t been tested yet. Don’t fire unless you absolutely have to.”
“Pinkie, you spot for him. Keep your eye open for other salvos.”
“Yeppers.” Pinkie proudly saluted.
He cringed, like he was about to rebuke her, but thought better of it. He turned and ran, instead.
Deep breaths. If she ignored the creeping black at the edge of her vision until after everything was okay, everything would be okay.
“Sorry, I’m not feeling well.” Pinkie admitted. “But I’ll do my very best to tell you if it’s absolutely real or not.”
The Sergeant had the same expression the Lieutenant had before he ran off, but he quickly turned back to the laser and kept the fire in his sights.
“You have a better eye than me, Specialist Pie, what’s it look like?”
Pinkie squinted down the barrel of her telescope. It was big, certainly. And long, and a little bullet shaped. It was brass, and—
“Yes!” Pinkie screamed, hugging the Sergeant so hard he just about fell off his chair. “They’re safe, they’re safe, they’re—!”
He shoved her off him, grunting. “Who’s safe? What is it?”
“It’s Twilight and Rainbow Dash! They’re back! And—No! Stop!”
The gunnery Sergeant was powering up the laser in a hurry, trailing the ship, about to hit fire. “Oh, no way in Tartarus is that happening.”
Pinkie prised the telescope like a crowbar into some exposed gearing and levered, just enough to twist the laser off-course. It fired wide, harmlessly off into the aether. The telescope was ruined.
The Sergeant tried for another shot, but without a pegasus like Rainbow Dash assigned to the device yet — combat flying was a priority well and above weather management in the Guard — they still had to charge it the old fashioned way.
The second shot hit, but it wasn’t nearly as devastating as the first would have been. The great machine fell asleep, exhausted.
“No! No, no, no—”
The Sergeant tackled her, twisting her hooves behind her back. Now everything was going black, and her eyes screamed in twisting sparkles whenever he shifted his pressure.
“You fuckin’ traitor! What in the—What were you trying to do?!”
“They’re my friends!”
“No shit! One of them blew the top off the mountain getting up there!”
Well. Pinkie had helped, but she didn’t say that right now.
Big gold horseshoes appeared in front of her eyes, clicking on the stone of the parapets, resting in front of her eyes.
“Did you say that was Twilight Sparkle up there?” The Princess asked, warmly. “You’re saying she’s safe?” She sounded... hopeful?
“Yeah.” Pinkie nodded, because it was all she could do pinned to the ground as she was. Pew, more sparks, more fireworks. “She’s home!”
The Princess howled like a rabid dog, rearing up her hooves. Pinkie winced, she was about to come down right on her skull, squish her head like a grape under those big metal hooves.
Then there was a POP and she was back in her cell, all alone.
Her head was decidedly not squished. Just in a very bad place.
Pinkie crawled into her cot, wrapping the blankets tight around her so she couldn’t hurt herself too much when all the blackness swallowed her.
Maybe, when she woke up, her friends would be there this time! They were home!
Falling, Twilight thought, must have gotten too boring. This would have been the third time she’d been falling to her almost certain death.
The first time was novel. Falling from the upper atmosphere. But she had a parachute, so that was fine, ignoring all the injuries.
The second time things were escalated, sure. It’d been faster, much faster, and no parachute, and not even any air to slow her down.
So just falling back like the first time, with a huge metal capsule to break her fall, with one of her truest friends and her... girlfriend?... beside her? It’d almost be trite. No tension.
That was obviously why she had to be falling and shot at this time. Otherwise things ran the serious risk of getting too boring.
That being said.
That being said she wished Rainbow would stop screaming in her ear.
“—AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA—”
She was laughing.
That was different then.
Twilight really wished Rainbow would stop laughing in her ear.
“Pray tell, has she gone mad?”
“Ladies and... Ladies!” Rainbow hollered, tears in her eyes, as the air in front of them caught fire just as if the ship were a match head going down a tunnel of lighter strip, “If you could all brace for landing, that’d be spiffing of you!”
“We’re already strapped down, Dash.”
“The cargo hold is surprisingly comfortable, for the curious.”
“I mean, do the magic thing. A shield would be nice.”
“Rainbow, we can’t. We already modified the engine for... we can’t use it for this. We wouldn’t have enough aether left.”
“Please don’t scr—”
“Darn it, Dash.”
“AAAA—” Rainbow choked a bit on her own tonsils, spluttering her out of it. Ground was coming up faster and faster. She wiped off some spittle with the back of a foreleg. “Alright. So the airbrakes are bust. We try to use them like this, the models the girls made say we’d spin so hard our organs’d come out.”
“Let’s not, then.” Twilight agreed. Her mind was a blaze of formulas and calculations right now, of damage control.
“But if we open the parachute at this speed, it’d just shred.”
“So we need to slow down on something, and I can’t exactly get out and push.”
“You’re awful calm.”
“Good. You have a plan?”
“She’s so beautiful when she thinks, is she not?”
“Luna, you’re strapped in behind the seat. You can’t even see me.”
“As if I need to.”
Rainbow coughed again, more politeness than clearing her throat. “We’re still, you know—”
“Right! Plan. More of an idea. So the fastest way to slow down is to crash, right?”
“We don’t want to crash, Twilight.”
“Where’s your gumption, adventurer?” Twilight declared brightly, as now the trees were coming up to being the size of pinheads. “We just have to crash into the right thing. Something to slow us down.”
“Water landing’s no good. We’re too heavy, we’d drown, the impact’d kill us—”
“Exactly. That was my first thought, it was a bad one. Can you pull up a little more?”
“We’re as aerodynamic as a brick!”
“Bricks fly pretty well at, oh, fifteen times the speed of sound, I’ve heard.” Really, they were just below mach 8 at this point, but it was still enough to melt the hull in places. It was the force of the air compressing, and not the friction, that made it get so hot, interestingly enough. Her mind was going a mile a minute, even as the ship went a mile a second. “No, we just need to crash a little bit at first, and then we can open the parachute.”
“Crash a—And still be high up enough to open the chute?”
“Oh, yes. But we’d need a very good pilot. Are you up to the challenge of threading a needle faster than your eyes can see?”
“She does seem a worthy champion!” Luna cheered helpfully, smiling warmly from her place strapped to the wall. They really should have fit an extra seat for her...
“There we go. We both believe you can do this.”
“What? Do what?”
Now they could make out the colours of individual ponies. The vibrations rattled everything, teeth, bones, screws, hull plates...
“The Unfinished Palace, Dash.”
“What about it?”
“They never got around to reinforcing it all that well. And it’s still very high up.”
Rainbow was silent. It was coming up alarmingly fast, anyway...
“Luna? Help me hold the ship together?”
“Of course, my love!”
“Well, Dash. Take us through the Palace!”
She was sick of being scared about falling to her death, she had decided as soon as the laser struck. This time? This time let Celestia be scared about it.
The mountain was coming up. The ship twisted almost imperceptibly — Canterlot had always been the plan anyway, just not like this. They’d managed to pull almost horizontal. The glide ratio was atrocious, but if you come in fast enough then it takes a great deal of time for gravity to catch up.
There was no cheering, no screaming, no whooping like action heroes as the castle came into view. The two mages were doing their best to hold the ship. Shining had taught his little sister a lot about shields, but she’d never put in the practice. A clever mage would have made several fragile layers to break, one after the other, gradually growing stronger and slowing the ship down that way.
A desperate mage held everything tight and treated the whole enterprise like balling a fist, hoping the punch broke as few bones as possible.
Twilight was somewhere in the middle of the two: There were smart ways to throw a punch, too.
The Unfinished Palace, the monument to everything the Mourning Princess represented, was shot through its core by a righteous fireball. Chunks collapsed in the dust cloud left in its wake. Scaffolding erected to refurbish the charred court clattered like matchsticks under a mallet.
A small strip of cloth flagged in the fireballs wake and it slowed.
Another three followed in its wake, and the fireball falling towards the fields below revealed itself to be a great, melted weapon, like a slug fired from a mortar.
One final, last canvas strip wider than any hot air balloon cut along its diameter and spread burst out, and the great weapon began to drift downwards.
And the Mourning Princess, Sol Invictus, The Unconquered Sun, opened her dread wings to face it.