• 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 1: In the Horseshoes of Another Mare

Captain Hornsparker’s eyes blinked as she stepped out into the bright dawn sun shining down onto the quarterdeck of the Lydia. She nodded to Thornbush, her first lieutenant, who touched his hat in salute but said nothing else. That had been the routine that had held through the past seven months; during the first hour of the day, before her breakfast, the captain allowed no one to speak to her while she walked the quarterdeck. That time was her thinking time, and always had been.

Twenty hooves long, five hooves wide, her patch of the Lydia’s quarterdeck lay sacrosanct from intrusion by any of the crew or officers. She could think, as she usually thought in this sacred hour, before the burdens of commanding a ship of Celestia’s Royal Navy put an end to privacy. On a princess’s ship, this hour was a privilege only a captain could obtain, and Hornsparker needed it now more than ever.

Thornbush and the other ship’s officers retreated to the lee side of the quarterdeck, leaving Hornsparker alone with her thoughts- thoughts of absurd and impossible secret orders, thoughts of the unreliability of chronometers after seven months on a tossing, turning thirty-six gun frigate. And above all she thought about supplies. After spending seven months rounding the Great Southern Cape to enter the great South Luna Sea-

Wait, that’s wrong. I was in Canterlot last week, so why do I remember-

-spending the last seven months with only one brief sighting of land, of the cape itself, by orders from the Admiralty, the food and fuel had been virtually used up.

These ponies are depending on their captain, Hornsparker thought. This ship is out of lemon juice. We’ll have scurvy on our hooves soon, and the surgeon died rounding the great southern cape. The water ration has been cut from half a gallon a day to three pints per day, and what’s left in the casks is so bad it turns the oatmeal green. Of course, we may have to serve the oats cold and dry soon, considering the lack of fuel for the cook’s fire. And there’s only enough grog left for ten more days. And after that, the crew will mutiny, even if we had plenty of all the other things, which we don’t.

And it was up to her, Captain Hornsparker, to find replacement for all those things, and very soon…

That’s not my name…

… or else she risked losing the frigate entrusted to her by the Admiralty, by Celestia herself, through mutiny, through illness, or through enemy action. And even if Hornsparker was unfortunate enough to somehow survive that calamity, she would have to meet the princess of all Equestria for only the second time in her life, look into the face of disappointment, and-

That’s not so! I spent half my childhood with Celestia! I spoke with her just last week!

The captain’s hooves almost went out from under her at the sudden wave of confusion, rocking her cocked hat off her head entirely. As she levitated it back onto her head, she thought, What am I doing here? I’m not a naval captain! I’m…


What am I?

Recollection came slowly to her mind, and to her relief she found pacing made it easier.
She was a unicorn named Hornsparker- of course she was, whatever tropical disorder of the mind might say otherwise. She had attained command of the Lydia- her third commissioning as commander of a vessel of war, not counting prizes or field promotions- after a career begun fresh out of school sixteen years before. Virtually her entire adult life had been spent at sea on one ship or another, battling the forces of the Fancy rebels and their self-proclaimed emperor, Neighpoleon.

No, no, no! another part of her mind, which felt like it lay under several thick blankets, insisted. My name isn’t Hornsparker, it’s Sparkle… Twilight Sparkle. I’m the Princess of… of… of Friendship…

Hornsparker shook her head. The tropical sun must be cooking her brain, despite the relative cool air of the LunaSea compared to the roasting heat to be expected at the same latitudes in the Celestial Ocean. There was only one alicorn princess in all Equestria, and a pony would have to be truly mad to imagine wings where none existed.

That’s wrong, too! There are five princesses now- Celestia, Luna, Cadance, Flurry Heart, and myself! But I’ll tell you who doesn’t exist! Neighpoleon, that’s who!

Hornsparker shook her head again, harder, trying to shake out the annoying mental voice. The Fancy tyrant had practically dominated Hornsparker’s entire adult life, throwing all the pony nations and several of the others into a war without end-

The Fancy Revolution began in CR 789. Celestia recognized the independence of Prance immediately, and the Republic lived until CR 801, when it collapsed in internal disagreements. The last thing the Prench agreed on was naming Celestia as Protector of the Republic and putting her back in charge. There wasn’t any war, and there certainly wasn’t any Neighpoleon! The Neighpoleonic wars were total fiction, a device invented as a setting for pirate romance novels and-

Wait. Wait, wait, wait.

Something about a book, about books, tugged at the captain’s consciousness. She hauled at the mental line, dragging memories up from their depths into the same tropical morning sun which shone upon her now. There had been twelve- no, twenty- books, in a row, on a bookshelf just above her bed in-

-in my cabin-

-in my bedroom in the Castle of Friendship-

And the books meant… meant… She tugged at that line, but whatever was on its end fought and dove back into the depths. She gave it its run, working her mind around another line of thought.

There were books. And I was alone- that’s right, alone except for Spike, who had gone to bed.

Why was I alone? Starlight Glimmer had gone to visit Sunburst in the Crystal Empire. Applejack and Pinkie Pie were in Dodge Junction helping Cherries Jubilee with her harvest. Rarity and Fluttershy had gone to Manehattan to prepare for an upcoming fashion show. And Rainbow Dash was on tour with the Wonderbolts.

And with her closest friends out of town, away from… from Ponyville- she had to struggle to remember the name of the town she really lived in, rather than the countryside around Trottingham- it had been the perfect opportunity to…

… to…

Pain ran through the captain’s body. Hornsparker had slammed a hoof into the block of one of the carronades. For a moment her mind seemed to clear. I must not let these fantasies, these hallucinations, impede my judgment now! I am Captain Hornsparker, and hundreds of ponies depend-

Inside her mind, there was the sudden sensation of falling into deep water, of the waters closing overhead, the pressure pushing on muzzle, on barrel, on lungs, water pouring in-

Terror filled her thoughts, and with them a sudden strength and action. Something shoved something else down into the back of her mind, pushed frantically, kept pushing until resistance faded.

And Twilight Sparkle stood on the quarterdeck of the Lydia, panting for breath as she continued her pacing.

This is Haycartes’ Method, she thought. The spell that let you literally enter a book.

The caster appeared as an illustration on the page to others. Inside the book the caster could read faster and retain more, seeing aspects of the work that an ordinary reader might miss. And Twilight had gathered twenty works of fiction she hadn’t read before, including a couple loaned to her by Sunset Shimmer from the other side of the mirror portal.

But… Haycartes’ Method didn’t provide the smell of clean salt water (with no taint of the rotten-fish stink of the coast). It didn’t create the feel of freshly holystoned deck planks under the frogs of one’s hooves. It didn’t animate the other illustrations, nor did it create images (aside from the caster) in books which had none.

Twilight resumed her pacing. She could hear the conversation of the crew (quiet talking, the occasional laugh- good, since the Hornsparker part of her mind worried about mutiny). She could feel the sea breeze in her mane (only a few knots, just barely enough to allow the ship’s rudder to bite and steer with every scrap of canvas spread to catch it). She could reach a hoof out and touch one of the carronades next to her- over a ton of black-painted iron held in place by chocks and lines, ready to be loaded, run out, and fired on the enemy. Haycartes’ Method didn’t do any of this.

And then more memories worked their way to the surface, breaking through the walls erected within Twilight’s mind.

Unless a brilliant pony of incredible power modified the Method with etheric referencing, extending the spell’s reach into phase space to draw out the necessary details to truly immerse the caster in the story of the book. And it only works on fiction, because etheric referencing of almost any nonfiction work becomes infinite, since all true knowledge is interconnected. The spell breaks under the strain.

She’d modified Haycartes’ Method. She’d wanted to do more than read the books. She’d wanted to experience total immersion in the story. And another word for total immersion, she realized, is drowning. That was what had saved her- the fear of something worse than death, of being permanently submerged under the fantasy the spell created so that she could experience the story from the inside.

She’d collected the books she wanted to read- a weekend’s worth. She’d got into bed, made herself comfy, and cast the spell. Or, rather, she assumed she had- her memory more or less stopped with a vision of her about to get into bed, looking at the books, with the modified spell in her mind…

… a spell that, try as she might, she could no longer recall how to cast or cancel.

That… that was bad. She had to remember that spell, absolutely had to, so she could cancel it and get back out of the book. This was not at all what she’d intended. She had no idea what would happen next.

Oh no oh no oh no! This is worse than that Power Ponies comic of Spike’s! What happens if I forget I’m Twilight Sparkle again? Part of me still thinks I’m Captain Hornsparker- the part that knows that you don’t call a rope a rope on a sailing vessel, it’s either a line or a cable depending on thickness and usage. What happens if that part takes over? Will I be stuck in the book forever?

And this is a book about war- the oldest book in one of the most popular naval romances. Bray to Quarters, I remember the title now. Mom recommended it to me. What happens if I mess up the story somehow? What happens if I’m replacing a character who dies? What happens if I don’t do as well as the character did, and I die where the character would have lived?

The Hornsparker part of her mind answered that last question for her: Better to die performing one’s duty, than to live and be known by all as a coward. Better death than shame.

Yeah, that’s easy for you to say, Twilight thought. But none of this is real! This is only a story!

If the ponies take it into their heads that they can sail to the Sandwich Isles or Hayhiti, and they take over the ship, it will be a very short story.

Twilight shook her head. She needed more than a pace. She needed a quick flight to get away from the ship, to get away from-

And then it struck her.

I don’t have wings anymore. I’m not an alicorn.

The spell hadn’t just taken away her own memories and personality. The spell had taken away her magic, or almost all of it. Captain Hornsparker was an ordinary unicorn of no particular magic talent, and as long as she was in this story, so was Twilight Sparkle.

And unlike the wall which had blocked off her own memories and personality, Twilight didn’t have a clue how to break through the lock on her powers. For that matter, the spell continued to resist her thoughts, sporadically trying to override Twilight Sparkle with the shadow of Hornsparker.

It’s going to be a constant struggle just to keep my mind clear. And I need my mind clear if I’m going to get out…

… but that has to wait. While she had been pacing, pausing, and doing odd little things, the crew had been working around her. The wind had shifted slightly, and ponies (plus the occasional griffon) had been running here and there across the decks, picking up lines, hauling, releasing, conducting the complicated and laborious task of trimming sails to catch the wind a little better. Time had passed while Twilight had been locked up in her own mind.

And then- ting ting, ting ting, ting ting, ting. Seven bells in the morning watch. Her hour of privacy had run out, and now, even if this was only a story, she had to return to her role in it, until she could find time for total concentration on digging the modified Haycartes spell out of her memory. For now, it was time to play the captain- and only play, she thought savagely as the mental ball of thoughts which were Hornsparker pushed back at her again.

“Good morning, Mr. Thornbush,” she said, walking over to the first lieutenant standing next to the ship’s wheel.

“Good morning, ma’am.” Thornbush, the memories of Hornsparker supplied, was the closest thing the captain had to a friend. Lieutenants together under a mad captain just before the false peace, then commander and sole lieutenant of a sloop of war for three years of blockade duty when the false peace failed. Had been best pony, for lack of anyone else, at Hornsparker’s wedding to Plum Dumpling. And yet, because captains had to be aloof and unapproachable, Hornsparker had almost limited herself to grunting at her second in command ever since leaving home port seven months before.

Well, nuts to that. Twilight Sparkle might not be a princess in this book-world, but she was still going to be a friend. “Good morning, Thornbush,” she said as cheerfully as she could manage. “Anything of note on the log?”

“No, ma’am,” Thornbush said, presenting the slate for her to read. In an instant Twilight averaged out the speeds and headings and got a result of eighty-two nautical miles traveled since the previous morning, almost directly northeasterly, on a direct heading for the southern Nickeraguan coast. According to her calculations- Hornsparker’s calculations-the ship ought to be between one hundred and three hundred nautical miles from landfall.

“Very good,” she said. “We should be sighting land in a day or two,” she added, over an internal reluctance she knew came entirely from the spell and not herself.

“That’s a relief, sir,” Thornbush admitted frankly. “Seven months at sea, and the only land sighted being the Cape itself. I can’t recall ever being out of sight of land so long.” An additional look came into the stallion’s eyes, a look of unquenchable curiosity. “Of course,” he added, “I’m sure you have reasons for it.”

Twilight sighed, as Hornsparker’s memories provided the explanation without another struggle for dominance. “I’m sorry, Thornbush,” she said quietly. “But our orders are secret. I’m not allowed to tell anyone, and you’re not allowed to see them unless something happens to me. Otherwise…”

The rest of the sentence jammed in Twilight’s throat as the spell resisted once more; Captain Hornsparker almost never explained her plans, even when they weren’t dictated by secret orders. She said instead, “There’s none I’d rely upon so heavily as yourself, Thornbush.” That statement slid through the false memories without a bobble, so apparently it was true.

“Thank’ee, ma’am,” Thornbush said, smiling awkwardly. The first lieutenant wore his heart on his sleeve- easily hurt, easily complimented.

And loyal far beyond what I deserve, the gloomy thoughts of Hornsparker muttered under Twilight’s mental grip.

Shut up, you, Twilight thought. To Thornbush she said, “I should wash up, I guess. Carry on, Mr. Thornbush.”

“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush said, touching hoof to hat for the second time that day.

Space on a frigate of Celestia’s Royal Navy (at least according to novelists) ran at a terrible premium, with three hundred ponies crammed into a space that one hundred would find uncomfortably cramped. Technically the captain had a cabin to herself, barely two ponylengths on a side and almost half-filled with an eighteen-pounder cannon. Partition walls, cot and desk would be cleared away before battle to allow a six-pony gun crew to work the gun as part of the starboard broadside- one of the thirty-four broadside guns and the two lighter guns at bow and stern which gave the ship its thirty-six gun rating.

Between gun, cot, desk, bookshelf and sea chest, there remained just barely room for two ponies to stand, if one reared onto his hind hooves. When Twilight got there, one was already doing so, having brought a fresh uniform and a tiny amount of water for her washing-up. Axle Wheel- that was his name- was the captain’s steward, the crew member assigned to watch over the captain’s belongings and to ensure that, whatever happened, Celestia’s representative on the ship would put the best possible face forward for princess and country.

“Thank you, Wheel,” Twilight said as she stripped off the old, sweat-sticky uniform and slipped on the fresh linen shirt the earth pony offered her. As the steward took the old shirt away, Twilight picked up a brush in her magic and looked in the mirror. It was still her face- slightly older than she really was, but the same eyes looked out of more or less the same face, covered with the same mane. Lavender fur, purple mane with the lighter pink stripe in it, spiral horn with blunt tip- all as it should be.

Except, of course, it wore a linen shirt of a style more than a century out of date, and it was looking at her from a little shaving-mirror bolted to the bulkhead of the cabin, and it was on a ship that existed nowhere except between the covers of an eighty-year-old novel. Little details like that made the face in the mirror more disturbing, not less.

And then Axle Wheel was back, holding up her freshly brushed uniform coat, which she slipped back into with no difficulty. No words were exchanged; Axle Wheel and Hornsparker, Twilight recalled, had been doing this in silence for seven months now, to the point that each knew the other’s motions by rote.

That kind of certain knowledge made her shudder, which caused the steward to raise an eyebrow. Having false memories, even a false personality, in her head was bad enough. But getting used to them? Having them function as smoothly as the real thing?

I have got to get that spell back, somehow.

But it was time to go back out on deck. As she stepped back into the sun, the watch chimed eight bells- another hour gone already. Thornbush stood by the hatch, saluting. “Hands to punishment, ma’am?” he asked.

Ah, Hornsparker said in Twilight’s thoughts, poor Wranglin’. The fool will not learn to stop spitting on the deck, where someone or something might slip. With all the lines and cannons, that could cause another crew member to lose a hoof. But no punishment seems to help Wranglin’ learn, and I doubt any will. But the captain must back the discipline of her officers…

Pipes shrilled, hooves pounded the decks with a thunder that shook the frigate’s fabric, and hundreds of ponies crowded the main deck and the rigging. Twilight, Thornbush, and the other officers of the ship lined the quarterdeck as the scrawny, stubble-jawed Wranglin’ was brought up onto the quarterdeck. Twilight stood and watched in regretful silence by as Thornbush, sternly reminding the crew of Wranglin’s misdeed, decreed loss of his ration of grog for two weeks, plus- and this was the worst punishment available on one of Celestia’s ships- two weeks of duty on the bilge pumps.

By the time the sentence had been read out, Wranglin’ was in tears. He was assisted back down to the main deck by two of his fellow sailors, wailing loudly. As he was taken below, Twilight heard him cry, “I can take th’ pumps, but I canna take th’ cap’n’s face! ‘Tis like Celestia herself is disappointed with me!”

Thornbush leaned over and said softly, “Pardon my speakin’ out o’turn, ma’am, but you usually don’t get so upset at punishments like that.”

In Twilight’s struggle to think of a good response, Hornsparker managed to rise up enough to bark, “Hands to breakfast, Mr. Thornbush!”

Hooves pounded, and crew and officers dispersed. Twilight, regaining her composure, felt a moment of gratitude for the spell, which for once had been more helpful than terrifying. She even allowed Hornsparker to guide her steps back into the cabin, where Axle Wheel waited with her own breakfast.

“Coffee,” the steward said, setting a single place at the captain’s table. “And burgoo, ma’am.”

“Thank you,” Twilight said, though the smell told her she had little reason for gratitude. The coffee had never actually come any closer to a bean than the Lydia now sailed from land; it had been brewed mainly from burnt bread crumbs. The burgoo was a hideous half-stew, half-porridge of biscuit crumbs, hay and oats, all so salty as to be nigh-inedible. And beside it, of course, was the inevitable hardtack ship’s biscuit, full of weevils which would have to be gently coaxed out before she could eat the horrible thing.

This was another part of the “age of sail” romance; the same overcrowding that the authors justified by the need for fighting ponies also meant no room for proper food preservation systems. Everything was dried or salted and then left in the hold for months at a time, where rats and insects inevitably got into it and made it that little bit worse. In the real world, of course, the few ships of Celestia’s navy never allowed food this terrible, food that would wreck the long-term health of the ponies eating it and turn every meal, even a captain’s, into misery.

But the food and coffee were hot, which made them that little bit less disgusting, and somehow Twilight managed to get through them both. She had begun tapping the biscuit on the table with her magic, watching with nauseated fascination as the little pale crawling things worked their way out of their holes, when a shout from above deck saved her from the immediate necessity of eating it:

“Land ho!”

Author's Note:

Original book: BEAT TO QUARTERS by C. S. Forster, the first-written of the ten-and-a-half Horatio Hornblower novels.

I only have two chapters in the buffer, because this project, which I announced thinking it would be easy, kicked my ass. This is the fourth draft of the first chapter, searching like hell to establish the scenario and make it interesting without being a word-for-word rewrite of the original book. I still don't think it works very well- it certainly hasn't got the hook of my previous successes- but I'll press on and see where it leads, anyway.

It's going to be interesting to see if I can sustain a daily output on this one...

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