• Published 11th Aug 2018
  • 748 Views, 133 Comments

Virga - Dave Bryant

Canterlot is burning. Enemy troops fan out across the land. Within days—even hours—they may sack Twilight’s tower. What if they discover the portal and, even worse, how to use it? Sunset Shimmer, Cookie Pusher, and Rose Brass can’t let that happen.

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“Cook, this is crazy!” Sunset kept her voice down, something of a challenge while she, the stallion next to her, and the procession they were following cantered along the highway from the palace. Fortunately, the buzz of the growing crowds prevented it from reaching any other ears.

“Yes.” The sober brevity of Cook’s acknowledgement, so unlike his normal voluble irreverence, drew a sidelong look from her. His gaze was fixed on the distance ahead, but somehow she suspected he wasn’t seeing the bedraggled airship toward which they beelined.

She and Glitter Drops had been panting heavily by the time they clattered into the telegraph station of the patrol headquarters. Sunset had left even before the telegrapher finished pounding out the urgent warning, bursting from the front door and galloping straight for the palace glittering like a needle at the valley’s center. She arrived, breathless and sore, to find the whole tower in an uproar. Shining Armor was all but shouting commands even as the rest of the council issued their own orders to staff and messengers. Cook, Rose, and Galea stood by, eyes of relative calm in the storm, and when she asked them between heaving gulps of air what was going on, the plan they described—particularly her assumed part in it—brought her to a shocked halt.

That they trusted her with such a vital role was flattering; that they didn’t bother to ask first was more than a little disconcerting. After a moment, though, she realized they didn’t have a lot of choice, and neither did she. The enemy airship already was visible from the sprawling town surrounding the palace tower, and the crystal ponies were edging toward panic. There was no time to spare for anything but proceeding with the wild brainstorm that, she strongly suspected, originated with Cook himself.

The suspicion was entirely correct. Only Cook’s intensive training kept the young diplomat from trembling like a leaf. Even if he—and the two companions he’d drafted into his plan without a second thought—survived the day, even if he succeeded in his desperate on-the-fly inspiration, he might end up unceremoniously fired after an excruciatingly long and painful official hearing, punted from the Foreign Service for violating all manner of solemn diplomatic protocols. But he simply could not stand by and allow a friendly nation, especially one about which he genuinely cared, to suffer a devastating battle when he believed he stood a chance of preventing it.

His mind ran back over the events that had such a galvanizing effect. A flurry of telegraph test messages from stations scattered across Equestria suddenly arriving in quick succession, capped off with the brief but clear airship-sighting report from the Arctic Patrol that started the stopwatch leading up to the current moment. A series of hurried surmises, some sparked by comments among the nervous council hastily summoned to conclave. Breaking in quite undiplomatically and, as needed, talking over ministers ruthlessly as he presented directly to the prince consort and general. In turn, that worthy’s mouth had firmed and he’d endorsed the scheme, insane as it was, having and hearing nothing better.

Now the general, along with a blowing and puffing Galea, led the cavalcade toward Comet, escorted by a flying wedge of guardsponies.

Fancy Pants and Fleur Dis Lee already were aboard, frantically levitating everything in reach to ready the little airship for flight. The same infantry platoon milled around, more than a skilled ground crew would, but at least they had the fresh memory of having dealt with the duty once already. The cavalry troop to which Lieutenant Sentry was assigned stood by, shifting uneasily as they waited in ranks. At his captain’s order, the lieutenant himself came forward, consulted briefly with the general, then shook his head and returned to his superior, apparently conveying orders that satisfied neither of them.

The five unicorns—including an unhappy but determined Sunburst—and one pegasus boarded quickly, booted or shod hooves thundering on the ramp and deck. Scarcely had Galea lifted the ramp before the pair already in the cockpit spooled up the engines and the infantry platoon started the launch routine. The interceptor rose to the occasion, literally and figuratively, straining her limited repairs still uncompleted. No cheers greeted her departure as they had her arrival.

Everypony aboard was silent. The ambient noise would have dampened conversation in any case, but none of the small herd felt inclined to idle chatter. Even Galea’s infrequent clipped instructions or commands were limited to the fewest words possible. The airship climbed as quickly as she could manage, already aimed like an arrow toward the larger warship approaching at a respectable cruise. Finally, as the keel-like gondola roughly matched the altitude of the other’s boat-hull, Galea stepped back and called out, “First mark!”

Instantly Fancy and Fleur moved forward to take over the controls again. Galea and Shining Armor, side by side, closed their eyes and lit their alicorns. Purple, then blue, glow became visible through the cockpit glazing, half the panes still starred and cratered, as first the general’s and then the colonel’s spells took form. Sunset, Cook, Rose, and Sunburst watched for a moment, then turned and filed out.

The four of them headed aft to the plaza. Sunburst turned around to face forward, but remained in the middle of the open space as the remaining three sidled out onto the half-ruined waist gun position. Rose faced aft, but didn’t open her wings. Just inboard of her stood Sunset and Cook, both of the latter facing forward. Then they all waited.

The minutes stretched as the other master attempted several evasions, radical course changes that surely tested the limits of the larger, less sophisticated envelope and dangling gondola. Even in her damaged condition Comet matched every one with a touch of her customary grace. Finally the two ships steadied down on exact reciprocals offset to the side only a little, not quite a collision course; the other ship’s master must have decided to accept action. Confirmation came when the enemy’s bow chasers flashed and boomed. Closer by, loud thuds and rattles followed, but no other apparent consequences. Sunburst, looking toward the still-open cockpit, winced.

The small muzzle-loaders, slow to service, fired only twice more with similar results before the two ships were nearly abeam. “Second mark!” Sunburst abruptly echoed, relaying the order. The purple and blue auras blinked out. A wide-eyed Rose took a deep breath; her powerful legs heaved her over the side into free air and her wings snapped out. Cook stood dead still, legs a little spread. Sunset squeezed her eyes shut, and in an instant her alicorn went from quiescent to blinding. With a flash and a bang of displaced air, the pair of unicorns vanished. Before the enemy’s broadside gunners could react, purple and blue sprang back into being between the two ships passing almost close enough to touch.

Rose fell for a heart-stopping second before her unpracticed wings and magic caught and she began flapping mightily. She climbed and banked, looping up and over toward the enemy topdeck. Any moment she expected to be blown from the sky by a shell or even a musket shot, but there seemed to be some command confusion, for which she was heartily thankful. Another flash and bang caught her attention, and she pulled a momentary mirthless smile. Time to see if this really would work.

Sunset and Cook reappeared a hoof-width or two over the wooden gondola’s forecastle deck, just within the angle at the bow. Retaining their initial momentum, they hurtled aft, falling deckward as they did. When their hooves, swaddled in sturdy boots, thudded onto the planks, they grunted and nearly fell, but the boots and their legs took the impact. They continued to skid, bootsoles on the decking scrubbing off speed, until their parka-cushioned chests thumped painfully against the railing at the fo’c’sle’s aft edge, bringing them to a halt. Immediately Cook’s alicorn lit, pulling a megaphone from a hook on the belt around his middle. Sunset stepped back from the rail and turned her head for a look around, her own alicorn glowing with promise.

The big pegasus made a separate entrance, swooping between the envelope and gondola above the pair of unicorns. One forehoof brandished what to the enemy crew would appear a brutally utilitarian-looking block of blued steel, slim and squared off, perched on the furniture that fitted it to her pastern; with an ominous mechanical racheting noise her other forehoof worked the slide, bringing the small firearm into battery. She swung the transformed but still deadly-looking pistol in an isosceles stance toward the chase gunners standing at the bow rails.

“Down to the main deck—now. Move.” Rose’s matter-of-fact tone and the scarred face from which it issued were more menacing than any scream. After a moment’s hesitation the hulking figures obeyed, their backs to the rails as they sidestepped to the ladderways at the outer rim of the fo’c’sle, port and starboard, then descended to join their crewmates looking up from the main deck.

“I am here to call for your surrender,” Cook blared through the simple but effective cone. “I require the ship’s captain to step forward and offer it.” As he spoke Rose lit on the deck beside him, on the other side from Sunset, and the two mares faced out, dividing the gondola’s expanse into areas of responsibility, watching the visible crew and hatchways.

Cook ignored his bodyguards, trusting them to do their job. His world narrowed to the deck, the scattered crew members on it, and the task he had assumed. Rose’s voice and the roar of wind was distant, joined in his ears by the beat of his blood and the breath in his lungs.

“Who is so arrogant?” The voice was creaky but did not lack for volume. Beyond the main deck, at the matching rail of the aftcastle, a wizened figure leaned on a staff. The oldster appeared for all the world as if one of the gigantic long-armed figures had shriveled in the sun, like a fallen fruit left too long on the ground. The yellowed ruffs of fur around throat and tail bore blue edging, though it was difficult to tell whether the bright color was natural or dyed. The coverall bore no armor but otherwise matched the usual dark uniform of the Storm King’s forces, though it did not flatter the aged body.

“I speak only to the captain,” Cook stated firmly, and said nothing more.

Even by the standards of the folk they faced, the new figure who stepped up beside the elder was large. Brilliant red stripes stood out against the white fur of the collar ruff, one on each side from neck toward shoulder; the same hue edged the tail ruff. Rather than a jack, the barrel chest was enclosed in a full cuirass, the Storm King’s insigne glowing in lambent blue across its face.

“Surrender now and you will be spared. Fail to do so and you, your crew, and your ship will be destroyed.” Cook’s words were hackneyed but simple and unequivocal. Clever poetic verbiage had its place, but not here and now.

The pair of figures turned their heads to each other. From their small movements it seemed plain they were conferring. When they turned back, the smaller one proclaimed with an edge of contempt, “You have not the strength.”

“There is strength enough.” Cook drew himself up. “Yonder airship carries two quick-firers. Her speed is greater. She is faster on the helm. She will dance rings around you, cross your T, rake you as many times as needful. It is what she was built to do.” That Comet was half-crippled and undercrewed he did not mention. He merely hoped they would not call the bluff. “Even should you swat her from the sky, she will have weakened you, and the cavalry and artillery who await will harry you. You threaten their home. They will not give way unless you slay every one of them, and that will be difficult at best.”

Another brief conference, and again the spokescreature turned back. “We will win through. We will lay waste to the cottages and fields. We will reduce the tower that stands so proudly.”

“And then what?” the diplomat asked. “Does your captain propose to rule over the ruins? Even if a crippled ship and the dregs of a crew were enough, the Crystal Heart would die. The valley would die. And you would die.”

A hand swept out from the staff, palm up. “We will move on. It is what we have always done. We break nations, feast on their remains, and seek new ones. There are many in the world.”

“The mountains are cold and harsh, and the northlands are vast, with few settlements,” Cook pointed out. “You may yet have a few broadsides in your magazines, but there is no food or water in your holds. You will end as a monument to hubris and folly, a scattering of fabric, timbers, and bones in the snow and ice for travelers to look upon with pity.”

That stung, he could see; knuckles stood out on the wiry fists that gripped the wooden shaft and the meatier ones that drew splinters from the rail. “Our magazines and holds are not open to your eyes. You cannot know what they contain.”

“I need not see them to know they are empty.” Cook leaned forward. “Your ship maneuvered too briskly to be laden, and even now her turn of speed is too great. Your topdeck is clear of barrels and crates. You failed to fire on us as we boarded. Your crew is uneasy, indecisive.” He paused, then added, “And I know more than that.” With that he stood straight again and waited. A long minute of relative silence held court, but finally the other creatures were driven to respond.

“And what is it you know, little pony?” The factotum’s voice attempted a haughty air, but to Cook’s practiced ear it sounded hollow.

The flush of fight-or-flight came over Cook as he laid his last metaphorical card on the table. “The Storm King is done. Killed, captured, fled, the result is the same. The telegraph is alive again with messages—not a great many, and only cautious tests, but that is clue enough. When the news arrived at Rainbow Falls far to the east, I would guess, they gave you the hardest and longest fight Equestria has offered you yet, and you were forced to break off. You flew west, draining what supplies you had left, to seek refuge here, where you hoped the news had not yet reached. Perhaps you thought to become warlords, perhaps you simply thought to gather hostages. I neither know nor care about the details. What matters now is whether you surrender and live, or fight and die. Choose now, and choose wisely.” He held his breath.

When at last the reply came, grudging though it might be, his first demand was, “Spike your guns.”

Author's Note:

“Yes, I understand that, Ma’am, but my orders are clear.” The colonel rubbed his forehead as his other hand gripped the handset tightly. “My forces are not permitted to approach unless there is an actual incursion in progress.” He sighed. “I wasn’t informed why, Ma’am, but the most likely reason is to prevent panic, or at least uncertainty and interference, in the neighborhood beforehand.”
  Another pause. “You can do that, Ma’am, but CCPD isn’t trained or equipped to deal with something like that. Besides, we already have a hotline to them, and we’re supposed to coordinate with them in the event of an incursion.” He closed his eyes briefly. “Yes, Ma’am, I know that, but as I said, my hands are tied. There is literally nothing I can—what’s that, Ma’am? Say again, please.”
  His brow furrowed. “What do you mean, ‘false alarm’? Who? Princess—” He broke off and, with his free hand, swept papers across his cluttered desk until he found what he was looking for. “Ma’am, according to our reports she’s—” The brows unfurrowed and rose. “You’re certain? I—all right. I need to kick this upstairs. I’ll get right back to you.”
  The officer hung up, then stabbed at the keypad with a stiff finger. He had a feeling this was going to get kicked all the way upstairs, but at least his part in that process would be over soon enough. With luck, there wouldn’t be too much bumbling around, the identity of the friendly young arrival through the portal would be verified quickly, and his boys (and a few girls) could stand down without being thrown in harm’s way. That was the best outcome any CO could ask for.

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