• Published 1st Mar 2019
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Haycartes' Pluperfect Method - Kris Overstreet

Twilight Sparkle has trapped herself in a shelf full of books. Will she survive- or will she lose herself to the story?

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BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 17: Battle

The morning sun beat down on the Luna Sea, on the two ships some four miles apart. The ship in the lead had a single ship’s boat towing it, twelve ponies with oars straining to shift the immense weight of the old, crippled ship even a little. A handful of pegasi also pulled on smaller lines, adding their best, pitiful as it was, to the effort. The crippled ship fought their efforts, turning first one direction and then the other on the low ocean rollers- “boxing the compass” without a strong wind to give it guidance or steering way.

Four miles to the west, another ship plowed its way through the otherwise airless seas. No foam curled atop the water that split past its prow, but the ship was indeed moving, thanks to the labor of dozens of ponies pouring water on the great sails that hung from every spar…

… and, even more so, to the sixteen pegasi who, in four lines of four, came streaking past the ship yet again, flying a spiral pattern up to the stern of the ship and then past it, barely clearing the yards and rigging.

With the pegasi came wind- not much wind, just a breeze- but it was wind Lydia had and Cumpleanos did not. The wind struck Lydia’s sails which, wetted down, caught that wind more efficiently, wringing a tiny bit of extra momentum out of the breeze.

It had seemed a brilliant idea to Twilight hours before, when she’d had it. But she’d underestimated the sheer mass of Lydia that an artificial wind would have to move. There were only seventeen pegasi, not counting prisoners or not yet trusted native recruits, on Lydia, and only four of them had serious weather training… and they couldn’t throw themselves through the air indefinitely.

In fact, since they were still more than an hour behind Cumpleanos, Twilight decided there was time for respite. The pegasi would need to reserve some energy to allow Lydia to maneuver once the two ships were within range- especially to reduce the dangerous time when Cumpleanos could fire on Lydia, but not the other way around. That would be a bad time no matter what. The less time Lydia remained under fire, the better.

“Mr. Thornbush,” she called out, “pick out rowing crews for the launch and cutter. Send them to dinner first, and once they’ve eaten, I want the launch and cutter to take us in tow. Once that’s done, recall the pegasi and send the rest of the crew to dinner. We’ll clear for action once everyone’s eaten.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

The launch and the cutter could each hold more than twice as many ponies as the sole boat towing Cumpleanos, but even with forty oars in the water Lydia would crawl across the waves, if she made forward movement at all. And forty ponies would have to sweat and gasp for every inch gained on the enemy ship, in a still heat and humidity that made even staying still a penance.

I’ll relieve the boat crews after an hour, Hornsparker said quietly. Celestia knows I couldn’t withstand half of that. And so many of these ponies came from the press, drafted onto ships with no more aptitude or interest in the sea than a vole. There must be a better way, even if Equestria has to strain herself to the limit just to withstand the Horsican tyrant…

Keep it up, Twilight thought pointedly, and there’ll be more than one pony on this course wearing dead pony skins and thinking they’re gods.

Dinner came and went, and with it the cry, “Up spirits!” and the rush for the grog barrel. Twilight kept the pegasi away from the rum, promising them a triple tot after battle. It was bad enough that the crew had to have their daily dose of dehydrating alcohol. She wasn’t going to compound the problem by allowing worn-out ponies, with great strain still in their immediate future, to make things worse.

She took her own dinner on the deck, while around her the crew rushed around preparing the ship, yet again, for imminent battle. This time, she thought, it won’t be put back until Cumpleanos strikes her colors. Too many ponies have died for this foolishness. It’s time to end it.

Noon came, and the launch and cutter crews were exchanged for new rowers. The two ships crept closer together, Cumpleanos losing ground by inches. One bell came in the afternoon watch, and then two, and the boat crews were exchanged once again.

And then, not long after the second changing of rowers, a white circle appeared on the distant ship. Twilight counted: one, two, three, four, five, sixboom.

“I saw two stern chasers on Cumpleanos when we took her,” Gerard said, standing next to Thornbush. “Sixteen-pounders, they looked like.”

Two guns, Twilight thought, and we have only one bow chaser we can fire in response- and that only a nine-pounder. And when Shadetree gives up on trying to run, we’ll be facing twenty-three cannon firing twenty-four or thirty-six pound shot. Not that the shots would be very accurate at this extreme range, but if they fired enough shots, with the sea growing ever calmer and with Lydia barely moving, some had to hit.

But Lydia was still over a mile away. The carronades of her single-deck broadside wouldn’t be able to respond effectively until they closed within a quarter-mile. Even if she started the pegasi back at making wind, it would be twenty minutes at least before Lydia could return fire.

Twilight trotted down from the quarterdeck to the gun deck, where the collected pegasi marines were sitting and waiting, along with the unicorns from the marine contingent. One pegasus and the unicorns would stand by through the operation to rescue any pegasus that fell out of the formation, either due to fatigue or enemy action.

“Windjammer,” she said, addressing the most experienced weather pony of the group, “we need another two hours of wind out of you. Can you do it?”

Hornsparker screamed in her head. Captains do not ask if their crews can do a thing. They order them to do it! By asking, you let the crew ponies decide if they want to do the thing or not! You undermine-

“We’ll get it done, ma’am,” Windjammer said, saluting hoof to forehead. “We’ll put you right alongside that old hulk if you want.”

“No, not alongside,” Twilight said. “I want us to close to four hundred yards and then try to maneuver around her stern.” At the longest effective range of her own guns, Lydia could maximize her advantages in accuracy and rate of fire over Cumpleanos’s more plentiful and powerful cannon. “But those ponies won’t make it easy, and they’ll keep towing their ship around to aim their broadside at us.”

“Want us to drop a couple balls into that ship’s boat of theirs, ma’am?” Windjammer asked.

“Absolutely not!” Twilight said, turning pale. “It’s bad enough we have to shoot that ship into submission. I will not fire on defenseless ponies! Those aren’t a boarding party, they’re just rowers!”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” Windjammer said, obviously disappointed.

Another distant boom came from the bow, and a few seconds later a pair of splashes came from just behind the ship. “Get ready,” she said. “I’m about to order the boats back in.”

“Just say the word, ma’am,” Windjammer said, smiling.

“Mr. Thornbush!” Twilight shouted. “Get those sails soaked down again!” She trotted up to the bow and shouted down to the sailing master’s mates in the boats. “Fishhook! Skip Stitch! Avast rowing and get those boats in!”

Twilight left the chore of getting the boats in to Wildrider and pass the word for the chief gunner. “Mr. Marshmallow,” she said when the old bearded pony came up from the magazine, “kindly take the bow nine-pounder and-“

The faint boom of Cumpleanos’s stern chasers reached them, and a couple of moments later came the crunching impact of at least one ball into the bow just above the waterline.

“Kindly take the bow nine-pounder and give Admiral Shadetree something to think about, if you please.”

The single nine-pounder wouldn’t do much more than annoy the enemy ship- maybe catching a single unlucky pony or spraying splinters into a few bodies if a hit came lucky- but it would make the crew feel better to think they weren’t just sitting and taking it. But some greater distraction seemed called for. “Shadetree wants to treat us to some music,” she shouted. “Let’s show her what music lovers we are! Pass the word for Emerald Fortune!”

The fiddler was brought up to the quarterdeck, and Twilight smiled. “Let’s have a lively tune, Mr. Fortune! A hornpipe!”

Please no, Hornsparker moaned in her head.

Twilight ignored it. “And you crew! Who’s the best dancer on the ship? Who’s best at the hornpipe?”

The crew shouted one name after another, and three eventually predominated. “All right,” Twilight shouted, calming down the crowd. “Let’s have Wickerbasket, Hallcloset and Shetland up here! Each of you dance a hornpipe! The best dancer gets a guinea!”

The boats were brought in, and the pegasi launched, as fiddle music screeched in Twilight’s artificially tone-deaf ears. Twilight forced herself to ignore the ponies flying overhead, the breeze in their wake which filled the sails again. She forced herself not to look at the enemy ship, still firing those stern chasers with the occasional hit, as the Lydia very gradually gathered way and began bearing down in earnest on the Cumpleanos.

And she forced herself not to throw up when one of those shot hit a poor pony in the head and sprayed brains all over Hallcloset before slamming into the starboard gangplank, smashing a hole in it. Hallcloset never missed a kick, and he walked away with the extra-large bit coin, to the cheers of the (surviving) crew.

Only then did Twilight look up to see Cumpleanos turning its broadside towards the oncoming frigate. “It seems our neighbors don’t like our music!” she shouted with a carefree courage she didn’t at all feel. “We’re going to have some stones thrown at us, ponies! We’ll show ‘em how much we care about that, won’t we?”

By now Marshmallow had found the range of Cumpleanos with the nine-pounder at the bow, and like clockwork he put a round into the enemy ship once every hundred seconds. But this success, such as it was, paled at the loud boom and the whistling sound of Cumpleanos’s starboard broadside passing around them.

And then something spun Twilight on her hooves, throwing her to the deck. In a moment of sheer terror she patted herself down, found a new tear in her workaday uniform, but nothing worse. The same couldn’t be said for two marine ponies who had been sitting near the taffrail when a cannonball had torn into the decking and sent chunks of wood flying. One of them was staring at the stump of his left rear hoof, while another had his forehooves to his face, screaming, as blood streamed from the splinter that had laid him open just below the eyes.

“Captain!” Thornbush came galloping up. “Are you all right, ma’am?”

“I think so,” Twilight said, getting to her feet. Could she be killed in this story? She was the main character, and she generally didn’t read authors with a record of killing off their protagonists. But if she changed things in the story, would that change the fate of the pony she replaced? Or could random chance alter the story, since the lucky pony who lived wasn’t there anymore?

“Lucky shot, ma’am,” Thornbush said, as if that was somehow supposed to be comforting. “I don’t think there were more than two hits in that whole broadside. And three more broadsides, and we can show ‘em what gunnery really is.”

Enduring those broadsides drove Twilight up the wall, and with Hornsparker whispering in her ear about the need for the crew to believe in their captain, she had to grit her teeth and take it. Shots skimmed through and over the deck, striking ponies, sending splinters flying. Wounded ponies were dragged down to the orlop for whatever Lowly could do for them, while dead ponies began to pile up by the mainmast.

But the pegasi with their made wind were having the desired effect. Lydia closed to three-quarters of a mile, then half a mile, as each broadside from Cumpleanos churned up more water than wood. Spurred on by approaching battle, the pegasi sped up their flights, spiraling tighter and pulling more wind with them, pushing Lydia along the waves just that little bit more.

And then, as Twilight looked at the enemy ship, Hornsparker whispered, Now.

“Helm hard to port!” Twilight shouted. “Ms. Freerein, fire as your guns bear!”

In the breeze made by the pegasi, Lydia couldn’t turn as swiftly or as surely as she would in a natural wind- much less so with a jury mizzenmast and a sail wrapped under her hull to slow the leaks in the ship. But she could turn under power, without a boat to haul at her bow. And even as one final broadside from Cumpleanos crashed into Lydia’s side and sails, the gunports opened, sixteen cannon slid out, and at the perfect moment of the ship’s roll Freerein and Gerard both screamed, “FIRE!”

The ship heaved under Twilight’s hooves. Fifty seconds later it heaved again, and fifty seconds after that. With little of the artificial wind reaching the decks, the gunsmoke lingered, clearing only reluctantly, making it difficult to assess the effect of the shots. Gerard and Freerein shouted at the gunners to target the lone remaining topmast rising up from Cumpleanos’s general location. But every minute or so another broadside erupted, with Cumpleanos firing two broadsides in the time it took Lydia to fire five- almost six.

“Hammer ‘em, lads!” Thornbush shouted. “Hammer ‘em! By Celestia, we’re beatin’ em!”

But Cumpleanos was still landing some shots. Splinters continued to fly whenever one of those wild broadsides flew. As Twilight ordered the helm to turn to starboard, trying to get at the enemy’s stern before they could tow it around, a particularly loud and prolonged crash from the starboard stern shook the ship. Twilight wondered what it could be, but couldn’t spare time to investigate. She watched as the pegasi continued to swoop past, visibly straining now, but still providing the only force that made Lydia’s victory possible.

One of the powder-foals- the young foals and fillies who ran messages or carried the cartridges up from the magazine- galloped up to Twilight and saluted. “Mr. Dowel sent me, ma’am. Starboard chain pump’s knocked all to pieces.”

That explained the crash. It was also bad news: Lydia had only just kept ahead of its leaks with both pumps in operation. “Anything else?”

“Yes’m- I mean aye, ma’am. He says he’s rigging another one, ma’am, but it’ll be at least an hour. An’ he needs more ponies, ma’am. Pret’ near the whole pump crew went down when that pump was hit, ma’am. Fourteen ponies. ‘Orrible, ma’am.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Twilight said gently. “But it’s not good to talk about such things right now. Go back to Mr. Howell and tell him the captain believes in him. Understand?”

“Aye aye, ma’am.”

The wind team swooped very low on the next pass, breaking up the acrid, stinking cloud of gunpowder smoke which had all but enveloped the ship, allowing Twilight to see. Lydia remained at between three and four hundred yards away, and Cumpleanos’s sole boat continued to turn the massive ship, keeping its stern away and keeping its broadside aimed more or less at Twilight’s ship. The higher-pitched roar of her guns came, bloom… bloom… bloom- and then the deeper sound of Cumpleanos’s broadside replied, BOWM. Again… and again… and again…

This is taking too long, Twilight thought. How long as it been? An hour? Two?

“I’ve never seen a Maredrid ship fight like this under th’ burros, ma’am,” Thornbush said. “They’re slow and aim poorly, but they fire together, and that after a ton of punishment, I believe, ma’am.”

“They’ve got to strike soon,” Twilight muttered. “They have to. They have to!”

And then she noticed she hadn’t heard the pegasi flying past for the past few minutes. She looked up. The sails were flapping a little, but they still drew wind, and Lydia still moved under power… “Windjammer?” she shouted.

“Up here, ma’am.” Twilight looked up to see all the pegasi- no, only fifteen, one had gone missing- sitting in the jury mizzen yards. “Wind’s pickin’ up, ma’am. Fair breeze out o’ th’ north, ma’am.”

Twilight noted the direction- more northwest than north- and made a quick calculation. “We need one more push,” she said. “Give me the strongest north wind you can when I give you the order. Just one pass should do it, and then you can rest.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

Twilight looked over the rail. There lay Cumpleanos, battered but still fighting… and with that lone ship’s boat and its twelve oars, still pulling its bows round to starboard while Lydia matched its motion like the end of a wheel-spoke with the hub.

Well, we’ll soon put a stop to that. “Hands to braces!” she shouted. “Prepare to come about!”

Even with the gun crews keeping up the fire on the starboard battery, even with ponies at the pumps, ponies taking the wounded down below decks, and far too many ponies piling up by the mainmast who would never see Equestria again, what seemed like a multitude of ponies swarmed up the rigging, grabbed lines, and awaited Twilight’s orders.

“All right, Windjammer,” Twilight said, “we’re coming before this new wind. When we’re square on, give us the biggest push you have left!” She turned to the helmsponies and shouted, “Hard a’starboard!” Then to the gundeck, “Crews to the port battery! Prepare to fire on my order!”

Lydia came about, turning as sharply towards Cumpleanos as she could manage. One final broadside erupted from the larger ship- and Twilight almost fell again as, for once, almost every one of Shadetree’s shots hit home, sending splinters flying and the hull creaking. But just as it is very difficult to start a heavy object in motion, so also is it very difficult to stop. With her crippled sails, Cumpleanos couldn’t catch the new breeze, and so it continued to turn, despite the sudden attempts of the rowers to reverse direction. Her bow kept coming around, presenting almost as inviting a target as the stern would have… particularly that ugly jury foremast and the improvised rigging attached to it.

And then Windjammer and her pegasi made their last effort, bringing a burst of real wind into Lydia’s sails, shoving the frigate down to less than a hundred yards off Cumpleanos’s bow.

“Back main topsail!” Twilight shouted. “Port battery, FIRE!”

The first round not only send splinters flying. It severed Cumpleanos’s bowsprit, leaving the heavy beam to dangle under the sails and lines it supported. Also severed was the tow-line to that single boat, which suddenly lunged away as its rowers failed to notice the absence of a load. Lydia spilled wind from her sails, maintaining position, pouring a second broadside into the bows, and a third.

And then the jury foremast collapsed onto the ship, taking most of what remained of the mainmast with it. After a minute, the mizzenmast followed, leaving Cumpleanos utterly helpless… except for two bow chasers, which fired almost laughably at Lydia even as the frigate poured more shot into her.

“Capn’,” Thornbush said, “that boat o’ theirs is comin’ to us.”

“Let them board, Mr. Thornbush,” Twilight said. “Make sure they’re not armed.”

“Also,” Thornbush pointed out, “she’s driftin’ into us,” He pointed a hoof at Cumpleanos. The two ships were now slowly drifting together. Lydia with her sails backed or furled to keep her target, Cumpleanos helpless before wind and wave.

“I know,” Twilight said. “CEASE FIRE!”

“Switch to canister!” Gerard shouted. Twilight paled at that order, but didn’t countermand it. Unlike solid shot, canister was meant for ponies- as a horrible weapon that shredded herds of ponies and broke up charges or boarding actions. But… it was just possible Shadetree might order a boarding action, and she’d kill as many of Lydia’s crew as she could until she was stopped. They had to be ready for that.

But… but Twilight couldn’t not give the enemy a chance. “Surrender!” she shouted over. “Stop this pointless death, for Celestia’s sake!”

“Never!” Shadetree shouted back, followed by a giggle. “There is no pointless death! Every death is a rebirth thanks to our god! Death is the one true freedom! And I shall see you liberated, Cap-“

Shadetree’s voice cut off suddenly. Twilight heard shouting from the other ship, a mass of pony voices, and then…

… then the flag of Xipe Totec went up what remained of the mainmast, then came back down. As it came down, something else came up…

… it was Admiral Shadetree. She kicked and struggled with the rope run around her neck… but not for very long.

Twilight turned her head away, disgusted, trying not to throw up.

A new voice came from Cumpleanos: “Senora captain? We are sinking. Our pumps are gone. We are one hundred twelve left. May we come aboard? We fight no more.”

Twilight sighed. “Mr. Thornbush,” she said quietly, “get the survivors on board. Secure them in the hold for the time being. And then get us the Tartarus away from here.”

Less than half an hour later, with some of her crew still clinging to ropes dangling over Lydia’s sides, Cumpleanos slid under the waves. The corpse of Admiral Shadetree, still wearing her resplendent tunic over her ragged shirt, remained on the surface until the rope round her neck bore her down with the rest of the wreck.

The sight of the cute young mare’s surprised face, staring blankly out of the water, remained in Twilight’s mind for a very long time afterwards.

Author's Note:

In the original book it was much, much worse than this. In the original, the rebel crew did not mutiny, and only eight men survived the sinking- out of over five hundred. And Lydia took far more of a pounding.

But by pony standards, this is more than bad enough.

Currently at AggieCon in College Station, TX. Wrote 200 words of this Thursday night, about 2000 words during dealer hours today (which tells you how slow it was), and the rest after 11 PM before going to bed.

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