• Published 20th May 2017
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Brightly Lit - Penalt

The village of Brightly, British Columbia is a small, isolated place where everyone knows everyone, with a strong sense of community. A community that starts to include colourful little ponies.

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Chapter 14: Hymn to Breaking Strain

"So when the buckled girder,
Lets down the grinding span
The blame of loss or murder
Is laid upon the man,
Not on the steel, the man…."

- Hymn to Breaking Strain
Rudyard Kipling, lyrics by Julie Ecklar

While the battle for the tower was being raged, another smaller, yet no less intense fight was happening on the dam itself. Two ponies lay on the concrete walkway, looking down at the water below which was blocked in its intended path by a glowing wall of orange light. An answering orange flare came from the horn of the young unicorn pony, while her earth pony companion busied himself making sure that neither of them were blown off the narrow walkway by the storm that blew around them.

The unicorn had been tasked with holding back the waters of the lake for as long as she could. Every minute she could hold back the water was another minute her home would not be flooded by the rainwaters that were filling the lake. If she could hold her shield long enough the tower would be fixed, the floodgate raised, and everyone the pony cared for would be safe. Long minutes had already passed though, and cracks were showing in the shield.

“Billy,” she said, addressing the pony beside her. “I don’t think I can hold it much longer.”

“Code names, Shield Maiden,” Billy reminded her, automatically. “Use our code names.”

“Billy, it’s just...us,” Rowan said with a small groan as waves continued to batter at the wall, “and they all know who we are already anyway. Oh crap.” Another series of cracks appeared in the glowing wall beneath the pair, and water began to leak through.

“You can do it, Rowey,” Billy said, holding his friend close and shielding her a bit from the rain with his own body. “C’mon, just uh, zap it harder.” Billy could see that his friend was scared. Rowan wasn’t scared of getting hurt, or afraid for her life even. She was scared of failing, and Billy could see the truth of it in the tightly shut eyes Rowan had closed in order to concentrate better. He could see it in the tears leaking out of the sides of those eyes, and he could feel it in the shudders of her body that had nothing to do with the cold or wet.

“Oh no!” the yellow unicorn suddenly cried out, and Billy could see Rowan’s magical wall of force crack once more and then shatter completely, water pouring gleefully into the gap. “I screwed up, Billy. I put in too much power and broke it all up myself. I’m a total screw up. Everything is going to flood!”

As Rowan began to sob and cry at her failure Billy took a look at the hill where everyone else was. Something was going on there, and Billy could see his friend Zak hovering in mid-air for some reason. As Billy watched in amazement, the pegasus began to glow and then shine like a star, and as he did so the wind around them died and the skies cleared directly overhead.

“Look. Look at Darter,” Iron Hoof said, nudging Shield Maiden and directing her gaze toward the shining pegasus. “He’s still trying his best and giving it all he’s got. He hasn’t given up and neither should you.”

“But I can’t do it,” Shield Maiden said, crying as the water poured through beneath them. “I just can’t make a shield that can hold it all back. I tried, I really did, but the waves just keep banging away.” Iron Hoof thought for a moment, trying to think of something to suggest that might help, and after a moment he hit on it.

“Don’t make a shield,” Iron Hoof said in a rush. “Make a wall, make a fortress.”

“What?” Shield Maiden asked, confused. “It’s not going to make a difference.”

“Yes, it will,” Iron Hoof insisted. “It will matter, if you think it will.”

“What are you talking about?” Shield Maiden asked again, her eyes open and her tears drying.

“Don’t think of yourself as the only one trying to protect the town,” Iron Hoof said, explaining. “You aren’t a shield, you’re the front part of a huge wall that protects Brightly. Everyone is behind you, supporting you, backing you up.”

“Um, okay, but unless I come up with a different way to use my magic here, it won’t matter how much support I have,” Shield Maiden said, despair still in her voice.

“Think of a castle wall,” Iron Hoof said, putting a leg over his friend in comfort. “It’s all flat and hard on the front, but in back it’s got all kinds of supports and stuff.”

“Okay,” Shield Maiden said, flaring her horn again as she began to create a new construct.

“No, not yet. Stop,” Iron Hoof said, interrupting her effort. “See it in your mind first.”

“What?” Shield Maiden said, in a somewhat angry tone. “How is seeing a fortress in my head going to help me?”

“It’s what my dad always does before he starts putting an engine back together,” Iron Hoof said, looking toward where his father was among those struggling to re-raise the microwave receiving tower. “He imagines putting it all together in his mind first. Every nut, and bolt, and part. He says that way, when he goes to actually do it, it’s easier, because he’s already done it once before.”

“Fine, but how do I do that?” Shield Maiden asked.

“Close your eyes and just listen to me,” Iron Hoof said, sounding much more confident then he felt, but his companion listened to him anyway and closed her eyes. “Okay, just imagine a wall. See the bricks, and the cement holding them together. They go up higher than the water, and end at those up and down things that castles have.”

“Merlons,” said Shield Maiden, who had gotten an “A” in their medieval history section.

“Merlons, whatever,” Iron Hoof said, continuing. “Okay, behind the… merlons, picture the walkway behind them, and the stairs going up to the walkway. Then see all the stuff holding up the walkway and the stair. Then, finally picture in your mind the big round stone towers that anchor either end of the wall. Can you see all that in your mind?”

“Ya, okay,” Shield Maiden said, eyes flicking back and forth behind her eyelids. “I can see it.”

“Good,” Iron Hoof said, smiling slightly. “Now put your magic into it, then open your eyes and put what’s in your head down in front of the water.” Shield Maiden’s horn glowed bright with power, she opened her eyes and the power flowed from her streaming down into the water below, stopping it cold as it bridged the spillway gap and rose up in a towered parapet.

“It’s working!” Shield Maiden cried out joyfully, as the wall took on a far more solid appearance than the shields before it had. “How did you know it would work?”

“Like I said,” Iron Hoof said, a trifle smug. “It’s what Dad does all the time, and he taught it to me. I figured it couldn't hurt.”

Back at the top of the hill where the repaired microwave tower stood, a group of disheartened individuals looked up in despair. The vital receiving dish was pointing a full 120 degrees away from where it should, preventing the stream of command data from reaching the dam’s remote operable systems.

“Well, shi-oot,” Ben exclaimed, cutting off his expletive in consideration of the minor members of the team who were present. “We’re screwed now, completely—”

“Enough of that,” snapped Montcalm, interrupting the younger man, before turning to their paramedic. “Jessica, how are Darter and Skylark?”

“Barely conscious,” the woman said, looking up from where she was bent over one of the group's two pegasi. “I don’t know much about pony physiology, but they don’t appear injured. At a guess, I’d say they’re both exhausted.”

“Okay, this rain can’t be good for them in their condition,” Montcalm said, looking up at the water pouring down. “You and Kevin get them down to your truck. At least they’ll be out of the wind and the wet.” Nodding, Jessica bent down and scooped up Darter in a fireman’s carry.

“Nuh uh,” Darter moaned from Jessica’s shoulder. “Wanna stay, wanna help.”

“You’ve already done more than anyone could have asked,” Jessica said, starting her way carefully down the muddy slope. “Just let me get you to my truck and you can come back as soon as you’re rested.”

“Mm’kay,” Darter said, laying his head back down on Jessica’s shoulder. Beside them, Jessica’s partner Kevin had Darter’s sister Skylark in a similar carry. Skylark, unlike her brother, was wise enough to know that there was nothing more they could do and simply lay quietly over Kevin’s shoulder as he carried her.

“Right, that’s those two taken care of,” Montcalm muttered before lifting his satellite phone to his lips. “Brightly VFD to BC Hydro Control, we’ve identified the problem. I’m afraid that in our haste to re-weld the tower together no one noticed that the whole thing had rotated and the dish is now facing the wrong way. Any ideas how we can fix that?”

“One moment, Brightly VFD,” said the English accented tech on the other end, and Montcalm could hear the high-speed clitter-clatter of a keyboard go on for a long minute before the tech came back on the line. “I’m sorry, but checking the specs I can’t see any way to twist the dish around on its mounting so the commands can be received. I’ll keep digging though to see if I can find any contingency plans for this sort of thing.”

“Right, Brightly VFD standing by,” Montcalm said with a sigh as he released the talk button. “I’m open to ideas folks.” The rest of the firefighters looked around in thought, trying to think of a way to twist a tower of interlocking beams without breaking it, as they stood there in the rain.

“What’s wrong?” Seeker, the youngest of the group, asked as she tugged at Montcalm’s pant leg. “We got the tower up, right?”

“Well, it’s like this,” Montcalm said, kneeling down so he wouldn’t tower so far above the youngster. “The tower spun sideways and now the dish is pointing the wrong way. We’re trying to figure out how to get the dish pointing the right way again.”

“Can’t we just move it to the right place?” Seeker asked, her colour split eyes looking up imploringly at Montcalm. Montcalm felt himself sinking into those wide, wide eyes that were full of emotion and he had to force himself not to sweep the young pony into a hug to tell her everything was going to be okay.

“I’m afraid it isn’t that simple, Seeker,” he said, squelching down on the mud to sit beside her. “You can’t just spin the dish around.”

“Why not?” the young filly asked. Montcalm bit off the automatic response and thought for a moment. Could they just mount the dish on the proper side and be done with it? It was worth a shot.

“Brightly VFD to BC Hydro Control,” Montcalm said into the sat phone. “I’ve got a question for you.”

“Tech Shaushka here,” the voice of the tech came back instantly. “I’m still looking for contingency plans, what’s your question?”

“What would happen if we detached the dish from the side of the tower it’s on and mounted it on the proper side?” Montcalm asked

“Well there is no way it would work,” Shaushka replied back instantly.

“Why not?” Montcalm said back, just as fast, in imitation of Seeker a minute before. Montcalm grinned over at Seeker, who covered her mouth with her hooves to stop from laughing at the sputtering sounds that came from the sat phone.

“Well, because…” the tech’s voice trailed off, and Montcalm could again hear the clatter of keys as the person on the other hand worked their computer. “Huh, you know what, physically it should work. You should just be able to mount the dish on the southern face of the tower for it to work.”

“Terrific,” Montcalm said, levering himself off the ground. “We’ll get right on it.”

“Wait, there is one problem,” the tech said, quickly. “I was originally counting on the dish being at least close to its original position, but now? Unless you have some way to detect microwaves I don’t see how you will be able to get the dish into the path of the beam.”

“Start sending the beam,” Montcalm said, determination rising in his voice now that there was a plan. “We’ll just go with trial and error until we find the right spot.”

“Will do sir. BC Hydro Control, clear,” the tech said, cutting off the line. Montcalm felt a tugging on his leg again and he looked down to see Seeker looking up at him again

“What is it, Seeker?” Montcalm asked, again fighting off the urge to hug the young pony.

“I might be able to help a bit with that,” Seeker said, a little bashful. “I can find things, that’s why I’m called Seeker. My eyes and the pony magic let me see things.”

“They do, do they?” Montcalm asked, and then grinning he finally gave into his urgings and scooped the pony up into his arms.

“Hey, hey!” Seeker exclaimed, a little scared by the sudden movement.

“It’s okay,” Montcalm said, reassuring the small weight in his arms. “I just wanted to give you a bit of a boost. Look up to the tower, and tell me if you can see the microwaves going past it.”

Seeker reached inside of herself and touched the magic within. Montcalm could see something in her eyes shift as she looked upward and the pony’s wide eyes went wider still as she gasped in wonder at what she saw.

“It’s beautiful,” Seeker said, voice hushed in awe. “So many colours.”

“Focus, Seeker,” Montcalm said with a gentle, yet insistant voice. “Can you see a beam or something coming from the south?”

“Uh,” Seeker said, blinking a moment and letting go of her reverie. “Um yes. There’s something like that, I can see it.”

“Great,” Montcalm said, walking back toward the base of the tower, still carrying the slight weight of the pony. “Ben, grab your tool belt. We’ve got a plan.” The others clustered around the base of the tower looked at their chief, smiles crossing their faces.

“Sure thing, boss,” Ben said, charging down the hill to the fire truck. The rest of the firefighters clustered around Montcalm and Seeker.

“It seems little Seeker here can see microwaves,” Montcalm said, with a touch of pride in his voice. “I’m going to send her and Ben up the tower. Then Ben can take the dish off it’s mount and move it to the correct side. Seeker can steer him so that he gets the dish in the right spot.” Arnold, Ernest and John all looked at Seeker who shivered a bit in Montcalm’s arms.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Montcalm asked the little red furred pony, who was trying to hide behind her purple mane for some reason. “It’s okay, we’ll have a safety line on you and everything.”

“I—I’m scared,” Seeker said, shuddering. “I really don’t like being high up.”

The four men looked at each other in surprise. Their unexpected pony allies had been so brave, so daring, that it was sometimes easy for them to forget that they were children, all five of them. All four men were also fathers of children either grown or growing and so their automatic reaction was to gather around to comfort a child in distress. The four men did their best to reassure the young pony, up until the point Ben came back with his tools.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Ben asked, various implements clanking away around him. “Something wrong?”

“Yah, “ Arnold replied, his hand on Seeker’s mane. “Seeker here isn’t the biggest fan of heights.” Ben nodded in understanding, and came up to look the worried pony in eyes.

“Seeker, it’s okay to be scared,” Ben said, in a gentle tone. “I’m scared all the time. I’m always the one these guys ask to climb up high because I’m the lightest.”

“It’s just tho thtupid,” Seeker said, her eyes sad. “I know I won’t fall, but every time I get up high I look down and the world starts to spin, and it’s like I wanna throw up.”

“Then I’ll make sure that you’re looking up the whole time you’re with me, okay?” Ben asked, trying to smile confidently to make the young pony feel better.

“But we’ll still be up high!” Seeker wailed.

“Yes, we will,” Ben said, acknowledging the truth. “But I promise you, that no matter what, you won’t fall. You’ll be attached to me the whole time via a safety line.”

“But what if you fall?” Seeker asked, calming a bit to ask the question.

“I won’t,” Ben said, still oozing all the confidence he could manage to squeeze out. “And even if I did, I’ll be attached to the tower the whole time.”

“But what if—” Seeker began.

“If worst comes to worst,” Ben said, interrupting what he knew could be a near infinite game of “What-if,” “if the tower comes down with us on it, I’ll make sure that I’ll cushion your fall. I may not have a beer gut like these guys—”

“Hey!” came the reflexive protest from the others.

“—but I definitely have enough of a cushion to make you bounce,” Ben said, finishing. “Okay? You and me, together. For Brightly and all our friends.”

“O-okay,” Seeker said, pulling herself together and nodding. “For our friends.”

“Good girl,” Ernest said, patting the pony on the head. “Arnold and I will get you ready while…” He stopped talking as a brilliant flare of orange light came from the dam.

Shield Maiden and Iron Hoof had been doing well after passing their initial crisis. The improved magical construct was holding up well against the waves, its greater thickness able to absorb more of the momentum of each wave, reducing the stress on the magical pony who had created it. Even so, Shield Maiden would have already have lost her second fight with the storm if it wasn’t for Iron Hoof at her side.

“You’ve got this,” he kept assuring her, keeping up a constant stream of encouragement and advice. While Shield Maiden worked to keep a constant flow of power into the fortress wall Iron Hoof would advise her what parts looked to be weakening and needed shoring up.

“How are we doing?” Shield Maiden asked, as she repaired a spot that had cracked.

“Pretty good,” Iron Hoof replied, “if you can keep this up we should...oh crap.”

“What?” Shield Maiden replied, blurting the question out. “What’s ‘oh crap’?”

“Put everything you’ve got into the wall,” Iron Hoof said, urgency in his voice. “There’s a tree coming at us.”

“Oh crap,” Shield Maiden said, pushing all the power she could into her barrier.

For decades, the tree had stood on the edge of Carmanah Lake, drinking deep of the lake waters, providing shade close to shore for fish and seeding thousands of its kind downstream. However, like so many of its brethren during this once in a century storm, it had succumbed to wind and water, as the two combined to both cut out its anchors and push it over.

The snapped off roots had then acted like a sail, pushing the fallen tree toward the far end of the lake and the small current of the lake’s outflow had been enough to pull it in toward the dam. Normally, the spillway of the dam would be protected from such large pieces of debris by a large log boom, but like other items in and around the dam the boom had not been maintained for far too long and it had become waterlogged. The wind and rain action of the storm had been more than enough to remove the last traces of buoyancy from the wood of the boom and it had sunk a handful of feet below the waves. Over which the large fallen tree had easily passed continuing toward the dam without incident until Iron Hoof had spotted it.

“Any second now!” Iron Hoof called out. “Everything you’ve got!” Hearing his urging, Shield Maiden poured every ounce of energy she could into the wall. As energy filled the construct it went from translucent orange to completely opaque, an impassable barrier of force. A few seconds later several tons of cedar tree struck the barrier with thousands of pounds of force and Shield Maiden’s fortress wall disintegrated in a brilliant flash of orange light. The backlash knocked the unicorn out and she collapsed in a boneless heap onto the walkway.

“Shield Maiden!” Iron Hoof yelled out, shaking his friend, as water roared through the spillway again. “Wake up!” His friend didn’t respond though. He could tell from the rise and fall from her chest she was alive, but she was completely insensible. Gripping the back of her harness in his teeth, Iron Hoof began to carefully pull his friend back along the walkway to safety as the tree finished its plunge through the spillway.

“What’s wrong?” came a voice from behind Iron Hoof a minute, and a few feet toward safety later. Iron Hoof let go of his burden to look behind him. At the starting part of the walkway was Kevin, the rescue tech. He had mounted a bright LED flashlight to his helmet and he was just clipping a safety line to the handrail of the walkway.

“It’s Shield Maiden,” Iron Hoof called back. “A tree broke through her wall and I think something from it knocked her out.”

“Okay, don’t move,” Kevin said, nodding. “I’ll come to you.” Checking his line he moved out onto the walkway with slow, but steady and sure steps. Kevin Banta was well practiced in his craft and within a couple of minutes he had Shield Maiden over his shoulder and secured to him with a safety line. Together, he and Iron Hoof made it off the walkway.

“All units,” he said into his radio a moment later. “Be advised that Shield Maiden is down. A tree punched through her barricade and I’m guessing some portion of it hit her and knocked her out cold. Iron Hoof and I are headed to the rescue vehicle to assess her condition. Will advise when we know more. Banta out.”

The group on the hill looked up from their radios to the tower before them, and then to the young firefighter and younger pony who comprised their last throw of the dice to save their town from flooding. Over the past hour they had come together as a team, fighting back against everything Mother Nature could throw at them. However, as the prophet Murphy had once said, Mother Nature was a bitch and she had been up to the challenge of showing mere mortals what she thought of the flimsy workings of humanity.

Author's Note:

Hymn to Breaking Strain can be found here. It's originally a Rudyard Kipling poem that was set to music by Julie Ecklar and Leslie Fish.

As for our heroes, things are looking a little grim aren't they?

Also, an apology. I have a Patreon, which I stopped pushing or mentioning awhile back but my patrons, Luna bless them, have kept on supporting me. So, I'd like to again acknowledge the ongoing support of:

Canary in the Coal Mine,

and my newest patron,

Thank you. I probably couldn't do this without you.

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