• 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 2: The Coast of Nickeragua

Smoke or steam rose from near the peaks of two large volcanoes almost directly ahead, while a host of smaller peaks rose to left and right- port and starboard- building up to a great weathered mountain range that rose steadily like a fence around the horizon. So it seemed to Twilight, anyway, as she sat in the masthead and pointed a spyglass at the land not yet visible from the deck far, far below.

The two large volcanoes just to the west of a broad bay entrance told her all she needed to know, after a quick check of the charts and of Hornsparker’s phantom memories. The story had brought the Lydia exactly to Hornsparker’s intended destination- the Bay of Hornseca, on the western coast of the Forbidden Jungles- the treacherous Nickeraguan coast of legend.

“I thought I saw breakers there, ma’am.” One of the Lydia’s midshipmen- Potter Clay, Hornsparker muttered in Twilight’s mind- sat on the shrouds next to Twilight, his own glass pointed not at the mountaintops but at the seashore below. There, through her own glass. Twilight quickly spotted the brief, faint bursts of white foam on the blue-green ocean surface.

“Yep. Those are breakers all right.” Twilight had meant it as nothing but conversation, just an idle phrase. The surge of Hornsparker’s personality which nearly bowled her out of the masthead came totally by surprise, and her spyglass bobbed in her magic as the artificial personality poured its rage through her mind.

I will not be a babbling fool again! the false thoughts shouted. A captain cannot have their every decision questioned, but if I let my loose lips relax for even a moment that is exactly what will happen! It’ll be the Hotspur all over again! There must be a solemn distance between captain and-


The surge of mental pressure receded, and Twilight took a few calming breaths. “Mr. Clay,” she said, “you may go down now. Please give Mr. Gerard my compliments and ask him to send all hands to dinner.” The odd phrase give my compliments rolled off Twilight’s tongue without a hitch- in naval parlance, it meant this is an order, but avoided the bluntness and confrontation which might trigger tempers worn thin by long confinement together in a small space.

The idea to send the crew to dinner- only a couple of hours after their breakfast- had been more Hornsparker’s than Twilight’s, but after a moment of thought she understood. In a short while the crew would be put to many hours of hard labor to bring the ship into the bay ahead, and they’d need all the energy they could muster.

But the final order came not from the captain of the Lydia, but from the princess of friendship. “And Mr. Clay?” she asked, ignoring the mental screaming of Hornsparker. “My compliments to Mr. Thornbush, and please ask if he could take dinner in the cabin with me.”

As Clay departed, Hornsparker snarled in Twilight’s mind. Thornbush is a worthy pony, but he hasn’t the imagination or the initiative to carry out these impossible orders! And I certainly will not tolerate my every decision-

Look! Twilight thought fiercely, keeping her eye planted on the eyepiece of her spyglass. Do you have any closer friend than Thornbush? No! No, you don’t! Has Thornbush ever been anything less than absolutely loyal? No! You know he hasn’t! We are doing this MY way! And my way is: let your friends HELP!

For once the mutterings of the Hornsparker personality faded to absolute silence.

Right. Good. I’m glad we had this conversation, Twilight thought. Now I could stand some lunch. Breakfast wasn’t much to write home about.

Hornsparker’s voice revived just enough to return a dry, joyless laugh.

The less said about the green, smelly oatmeal and the maggot-ridden ship’s biscuits, the better. Twilight choked it down for two reasons: Thornbush, sharing the table in the main cabin, ate his with no great sign of revulsion; and Hornsparker’s memories warned that Axle Wheel would gossip to the rest of the crew if the captain, for whatever reason, skipped a meal. Loss of confidence in the captain was a dangerous thing, the phantom memories warned. Twilight didn’t argue.

Once Axle Wheel had taken the bowls away, leaving only a small wedge of ship’s cheese for dessert, Twilight unlocked her desk and pulled out the secret orders that Hornsparker had obsessed about… but which she’d not actually read herself until now. “Thornbush,” she said, “the time has come to show you what’s brought us halfway around the continent.” She gave Thornbush the wad of papers and waited while he read, a process which required a considerable bit of hoof-pointing and lip-moving.

Twilight didn’t really blame Thornbush for having trouble with the reading. The orders ran at least three times as long as they needed to. The pony who’d written them had described in horrible detail the blatantly obvious without missing any opportunity for redundant phrases. So far as she could tell, all the padding was meant to safely handle orders which ranged from the impossible to the indefensible to the downright nonsensical.

“Impossible” covered the first part of the orders, which told Hornsparker to sail clear around the continent without sighting land or other ships. Leaving aside how easy it was to get lost out of sight of land without modern navigation spells, what was to stop a pegasus patrol from the land from going out a hundred miles and seeing the ship? Ocean-going surprise was impossible given any warning or planning by the enemy, and any plan that relied on surprise belonged where it began- in the imagination of a fool. (Of course, since this was only a story, it obviously had to work.)

That was bad enough. The orders only got worse from there. Now that, by the miracle of lazy writing, the Lydia had arrived at her destination without giving any warning to the enemy, she was supposed to enter into alliance with a local donkey grandee, Don Sunstruck, who would declare Nickeragua independent from the king of Maredrid, who was the ally of Neighpoleon and, thus, an enemy of Celestia and Equestria. To make sure the rebellion succeeded, she was to turn over armor, spears, bows and arrows enough for an army of five hundred ponies- all currently sitting in the Lydia’s hold, along with fifty thousand bits which, on pain of court-martial, she was to spend only if it meant the difference between the success or failure of the rebellion.

Making a war where none existed- that was the “indefensible” part. Twilight Sparkle simply could not imagine that Celestia, finding out about the existence of such a plan, would have allowed it to go into operation. Hundreds of ponies would die from these orders, and for no better reason than- as the orders put it- “securing from Don Sunstruck treaties of commercial exchange with the sovereign principality of Equestria.”

The fact that the orders went on for a page and a half about the untapped wealth of the Forbidden Jungles told Twilight all she needed to know; this wasn’t about winning the war (the totally fictional war, she reminded herself). This was greed at work, nothing else. Some horrible pony back in Trottingham or Canterlot wanted to send ponies to fight and die so their merchant friends might make a profit on tropical woods, rare minerals and native spices. Her stomach turned at the thought. Why, she thought, why do authors always try to show the absolute worst in ponies? Isn’t war bad enough by itself?

But then the orders went into the nonsensical. Once the rebellion was successful, Twilight was free to send the Lydia against enemy shipping… but not if the shippers in question might be supporters of Sunstruck’s rebellion. She was ordered to explore the Bay of Hornseca in search of a waterway which, supposedly, crossed the entire Forbidden Jungle region, connecting CelestialOcean and Luna Sea. She was to capture the annual treasure fleet from the Kirin Lands, which every year brought rare and valuable goods to the colonies of Maredrid- she, with her one ship, was supposed to capture half a dozen galleons at once.

And, finally, a single paragraph was given to mention a fifty-gun two-decker man of war, the Maredrid ship Cumpleanos, which sailed these same shores, and which the Lydia was expected to “take, sink, burn or destroy,” all by herself. A fifty-gun warship would have heavier cannon than a thirty-six gun frigate like the Lydia, making Twilight’s ship a two-to-one underdog in any direct battle between the two- or so said Hornsparker’s knowledge of such things, provided by the spell to give its caster the full context of the story’s events.

Once all this was done- by some unbelievable miracle- Twilight was expected to open communications with the admiral commanding in the Celestial Isles- back in the Celestial Ocean, on the wrong side of the continent from where she was now- and await further orders.

Of course, Twilight knew, these orders only existed to make Hornsparker more of a hero. Under the burden of impossible orders, the captain was expected to win through somehow, being the hero of the piece. No such blatantly fanciful, insane, immoral orders could ever be issued to a captain in the real world!

Eventually Thornbush got to the end, saying, “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but these orders are a lot of nonsense.”

“I agree,” Twilight said. “I can’t imagine the princess would have allowed them to go out had she ever seen them.”

Thornbush looked even more confused than his normal expression. “Ma’am, what would the princess have to do with it?” he asked. “The princess never meddles with the admiralty, you know that, ma’am.”

Twilight stifled a groan. Well, I do now. Funny thing for the spell to not include in these fake memories. “I can’t imagine the Lordships saw them, either,” she said. “Sending a frigate to attack a ship of the line? Even if she is only an old fifty-gunner.”

Thornbush shrugged. “You’ve taken on worse, ma’am,” he said. “There was that Fancy frigate we fought in the Hotspur, an’ you sent ‘er running back to port, and us only a sloop! And o’course everypony heard about the Caballa.”

Hornsparker’s memories brought forth visions of both battles entirely at odds with Thornbush’s enthusiasm. Hotspur had the entire Griffon Sea fleet behind her just over the horizon, a fact which limited the Prench captain’s options while enabling Hornsparker to take awful gambles- gambles which had paid off with a full broadside fired into the Fancy ship’s helpless stern. And the Caballa was a case of boarding a ship already grappling with another ship- a bloody battle, but no great accomplishment in Hornsparker’s eyes.

But Twilight, unlike Hornsparker, decided not to quell Thornbush’s enthusiasm. “That’s true,” she said, making herself sound a little reluctant to admit it. “So what do you find nonsense in these orders?”

“Why, all this business about helpin’ a bloody burro rebel, ma’am,” Thornbush insisted, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world- which, to be fair, Twilight agreed with wholeheartedly. “We took months roundin’ th’ Cape. For all we know this Don Sunstruck’s already been hung, quartered, an’ turned into glue. An’ even if he’s still alive, I can’t think o’nothin’ less trustworthy than a Mexicolt pony, unless it’s two Mexicolt ponies.”

Ah, yes, Twilight thought to herself. Another staple of pirate romances: casual prejudice against anyone and everyone not from Equestria. Not that I didn’t see that in Canterlot growing up… “It could very well be a trap,” she admitted. “And even if not, it would be well to go into port ready to fight our way out if necessary. But we have to replenish our food and water, regardless. The closest friendly port is in the kirin lands, after all.” Because San Flanksisco won’t be founded for another forty years.

“Between the marines and the sailors, I can put two hundred armed ponies into that port, ma’am,” Thornbush said stoutly. “We can have all th’ food an’ water we want if you say the word.”

“I hope the word won’t be necessary,” Twilight said. “I’d much rather…” Her voice trailed off. Much rather be friends? That wasn’t going to happen. This was a novel, a story about adventure on the high seas. Friendship might be nice, but it didn’t make for exciting adventure stories. “Anyway, the safety of the ship comes first,” she said, putting a little of Hornsparker’s steel into her voice. “We have to be prepared in case Don Sunstruck and his followers turn out not to be friendly.”

Thornbush nodded. “We should go in with guns out and boarding nets rigged. Let ‘em know we’re ready for any of their tricks.”

Twilight sighed. This wasn’t what she wanted. She’d wanted to read about adventure, to watch somepony else making these hard decisions. This stupid spell. Stupid, stupid Twilight. “You know what to do, Mr. Thornbush. Would you see to it?”

From the outside, the Lydia might seem no different, but to Twilight’s eyes, the ship had almost been transformed in a mere fifteen minutes- “ten minutes twenty-one seconds” according to Thornbush. The internal bulkheads separating cabin from wardroom from other compartments had been cleared away, along with the personal effects of all the officers, even Twilight. The decks had been given a good soaking by the pumps, and then sand had been strewn across them to prevent the crew from slipping on the wet polished wood. Every gun was given a supply of powder cartridges, hauled up with careful haste from the magazine. The guns, formerly tightly secured to the deck, had been cast loose, dragged in, loaded with a first shot, and run out through the now-opened gunports.

From outside the Lydia was a princess’s ship as she had been before, but inside she had gone from a mere sailing vessel to a mighty weapon of war.

A completely inefficient and wasteful weapon, Twilight couldn’t help thinking, beginning with the fact that slightly less than half the ship’s guns could ever be brought to bear on any one target. Doing anything required dozens of ponies, and one or two well-placed shots could render the whole machine helpless…

It took a hard jolt from the false Hornsparker personality to jar Twilight away from imagining ways a sailing frigate could be made more secure and effective with fewer ponies. Shoal water coming up! Get a pony to the bow with the leads!

Oh, right. “Mr. Thornbush,” Twilight said, “a pony to the leads, if you please. And make ready to anchor.”

Ahead of the Lydia the land grew closer and closer, as did the bay, the island closing off the mouth of the bay, and the channel between the island and the western mainland, which according to the charts offered the best passage into the bay. Out ahead of the ship a flight of pegasi from the ship’s marines scouted ahead for the breakers, marking spots where a wooden ship might come to grief.

Twilight clambered halfway up the foremast rigging, spyglass tucked under one hoof. The afternoon sea breeze was building up behind the ship, pushing it steadily towards land and towards the entrance to the bay. No need to tack. At the ship’s bow the pony with the lead hurled the long line with its heavy weight at the end far ahead of the ship, then took the slack out of the line as the ship ran it down, calling out the depth based on a series of little objects tied into the line. The order of the objects had to be memorized, but (as the Hornsparker memories reminded her) they could be read by feel, in total darkness, by a completely illiterate pony working by touch alone.

Despite herself, Twilight found herself fascinated by the operations of the tall ship- inefficient as they were, ludicrous as its purpose was. Unicorns and even earth ponies crowded the masts, furling and reefing sails by hoof… but no pegasi, because most of the ponies had been forced into service, and you couldn’t prevent a pegasus from deserting except by shackling the pony in question. On the deck, teams of ponies were sent from one rope to another, shifting the sails by degrees, wringing maximum speed from minimum sail. Other ponies worked around the hawseholes- the gaps in the bow where the great cables that held the anchors ran over the sides- making sure nothing lay in the way of letting those cables runs to drop the anchors into the water.

A simple gesture from her was enough to order the helmspony to turn the wheel a point port or starboard, which in turn shifted a massive rudder six or seven ponylengths tall to turn the ship. Slowly, serenely, the Lydia sailed into the western passage into the bay, headland to port and island to starboard, entering the bay’s smooth, clear waters. Twilight listened to the soft rush of water under the ship’s keel, the gentle creak of the ship’s fabric, the intermittent cry of the lead-pony calling out the water depth every five minutes or so.

And then, with the ship in the middle of the bay, with more than a mile of open water on all sides and a small coastal village just in view on the eastern shore, Twilight gave the order to drop anchor. The last sails were furled as the rumble of the giant tackles, the splash of the two main anchors striking water, echoed across the ship.

This, Twilight thought to herself, is what I had in mind. Seeing all this, watching as if I were there. The only problem is, I really am here, and I don’t have time to figure out how to get out again…

“Sail ho!” The lookout at the top of the mizzenmast shouted down. “Boat putting out from shore on the starboard beam!”

Author's Note:

I'm skipping over the vast majority of the descriptions the book has on the workings of a tall ship of war in the Napoleonic era, giving you only small tidbits. For one thing, I don't want to lift entire paragraphs from the original; for another, I want to keep the word count down well below the original.

By the way, since I have a moment, here's my convention sales schedule for the months of March and April 2019 (i. e. what I'll be working around):

March 7-9 - Coastcon, Biloxi, MS
March 14-16 - GamExpo, San Antonio, TX
March 21-23 - AggieCon, College Station, TX
March 28-31 - (probably none; this is Texas Furry Fiesta weekend, but I'm deep on the waiting list, so likely not going)
April 5-7 - Nashicon, Columbia, SC
April 12-14 - CyPhaCon, Lake Charles, LA
April 19-21 - LouisiAnime, Baton Rouge, LA

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