• Published 26th Sep 2019
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CRISIS: A Royal Affair - GanonFLCL



In an alternate Equestria, a young filly, Blackburn, was destined to be Queen of Hope's Point, a beacon of light in the darkness. See her grow alongside the friends and loved ones that made her the ever-watchful, iron-hoofed Queen she was born to be.

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Chapter Three: Secret Sojourn

Two Years Later

Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire had gathered in Gadget’s room at the royal palace in the early morning before anypony that could or would bother them was awake. The royals’ personal bodyguards, Gadget and Crossfire included, were granted meager private chambers on the palace grounds under the sensible justification that they needed to be available at a moment’s notice for their royal charges. Considering that Gadget and Crossfire were also friends with Blackburn, she’d pulled strings while Flashfire had been alive to have them furnished with everything they’d need to be both of better service to her, and more comfortable when alone.

The trio had at last grown up and out into mature adults. Blackburn had gotten taller but was still lithe and nimble, barely able to fill out her jacket; her scarf was no longer so long compared to herself that it risked dragging on the floor. Crossfire had filled out his armor, which over the years had been improved dozens of times by Gadget to accommodate techno-magic accessories; in full armor he was easily one of the largest stallions in service to the crown, and even without it he was bigger than all but the biggest; he’d also cropped his mane short. Gadget, meanwhile, had stopped growing taller years ago and didn’t look to be catching up. The tip of her horn barely rose past Blackburn’s chin; she had, however, generously filled out her coveralls.

At the moment, the trio were reviewing a checklist that Blackburn was reading aloud from.

“First order of business: supplies,” she said, shifting her attention to Gadget. “You have procured all we need?”

Gadget nodded. “Absolutely.”

With her magic she lifted up one of her floorboards to reveal a hidden compartment, which contained three suitcases. She lifted them out one at a time, and opened them one at a time to reveal their contents: sets of clothing for all three of them including dress clothes and more casual wear, passports, accessories - glasses for herself, sunglasses for Crossfire - a healthy supply of bits, umbrellas, toothbrushes, combs, and shampoo. Everything needed for a little vacation.

Then, Gadget lifted up a secret compartment in her case, which contained not-so-vacation-y materials: Gadget’s latest weapon, a magnum-sized sidearm with braces along the barrel; a set of surveillance equipment, including a camera, sound receiver, and motion detector; and a set of communicators, easily inserted into the ear. In Crossfire’s was a spare set of armor made of a lighter, softer material that, through some of Gadget’s ingenuity, could fold up to fit in the compartment and still function fully. In Blackburn’s, as well as her own and Crossfire’s, were another set of passports.

Blackburn nodded in approval at the collection. “Excellent, everything accounted for. Continue: falsified passports.”

Gadget lifted out the three other passports from within their hidden compartments, which had their photos on them just like their real ones, but they each had a different look about them. Each of them was dressed in simple casual clothing in their photos. Blackburn’s mane was tied back in a long ponytail; Gadget’s was tied up in a tight bun. Their expressions were more dour as well, as if they weren’t enjoying having their pictures taken. The rest of the information displayed was fabricated.

She passed Blackburn hers to look over first. “You are Thunderbolt, owner of a small tech firm called ‘Crown Spectrum’ that you operate out of your own home. You’re originally from Inner District, Arcadia, moved to Utopia with your parents five years ago, and are now moving back to start your business, which means getting a fresh start with a new office space and everything. Your parents were stockbrokers: High Roller and Diamond Chain. You were homeschooled by about a dozen private tutors.”

She lifted her own next to show it off; she’d already seen it. “I’m Tinker, your new assistant and tech specialist. I’m originally from the Mid-West District, West Plaza, but have been moving around for the last six years and never really settled in one place for more than a few months. We met at the C2 Convention last year and you hired me on the spot. I specialize in conductors and magnetics, but also dabbled in transistors. My dad, Goldwire, was an engineer for Akklaim Electric, now retired in Newhaven in Utopia; I never knew my mother.”

Last she passed Crossfire his so he could go over it. “And our big guy here is Fireblast, from Newhaven in Utopia, who you met en route to the city and hired on as a bodyguard since your parents told you that you weren’t likely to get a place to stay in the Inner Districts right away and worried for your safety. Family history is irrelevant but if anypony asks, they owned a restaurant.” She gave him a little wink and whispered: “Gave you the easy one.”

“‘Preciate it, Gadget,” he replied with one hundred percent genuine sincerity. “Never been much fer actin’. I can lie just fine but I ain’t gonna be able ta keep much o’ that kinda stuff straight like y’all can.”

“Confirmed that falsifications are in the New Pandemonium system?” Blackburn asked as she examined her false self’s photo, putting a hoof to her scar as she did. The makeup on her face, like that in the photo, hid it almost perfectly.

Gadget nodded as she started shuffling things back into the suitcases. “Affirmative. Hacked them into the system this morning before you got here, so the three of us are now officially citizens of New Pandemonium City. The groundwork has been laid and we’ve got most everything we need, so it’s just a matter of getting into the city itself now.” She turned her gaze to Crossfire expectantly.

“Excellent.” Blackburn also turned to Crossfire. “Our itinerary?”

“Our flight to Newhaven leaves at sundown,” Crossfire said, pulling three tickets - digital devices, not paper - with their real names out of his pocket. “We’ll arrive there early in the evening, stay the night ‘n’ most o’ the next day in town, then we catch the New Pandemonium flight at midnight the followin’ day. Can’t judge when we’ll arrive in though, their ships ain’t so precise, but I hear we’re lookin’ at like five hours or so.”

He then pulled out three more tickets - also digital - and set them down on Gadget’s bed so they could see that their fake names were on them. “Sure as shootin’ we’re all covered on gettin’ there.”

“Good call on the stopover, Crossfire,” Gadget said with a nod. “Ponies’ll see us arrive and get a place to stay, even hang around for a bit, but they won’t see us leave. Even gives us some time to get in the right state of mind.”

Crossfire smirked. “Yeah I thought y’all’d like that. Wasn’t easy to keep it hush-hush, but the two of y’all ain’t the only sneaky ones ‘round here.”

“Good, all preparations made for departure and arrival,” Blackburn said with a nod. “Last order of business: secret keeper. Saved for today, lessens risk of discovery. We move after breakfast.”

*****

Solarian was alone in his office, a simple affair with little more than a desk, a computer, and two chairs on either side of the desk. It only served the purpose of being a place where he could have peace and quiet so he could write his science papers. He still published articles in Pandemonium under a pseudonym, Moonsparkle, in an attempt to extol the virtues of science and drop subtle hints to attentive readers that they should move to Hope’s Point and bring their skills and talents with them. He wasn’t sure how many newcomers were the result of his efforts but he figured, if it was even one, he’d made a difference.

He preferred to be in his lab, but in the past year or so he spent less and less time there thanks to King Stormchaser’s attempts to subdue his influence and input on the council, mainly because he wasn’t developing much of use. But Solarian was not deterred, even when his greatest ally on the council, Evening Glitz, retired from her seat and was replaced by a know-nothing know-it-all, Gleaming Star, who was totally loyal to Stormchaser’s lax ideals. If there was one thing he’d learned from decades of experience in both Pandemonium and Hope’s Point, it was that diligence was key, and he was very diligent.

There was a knock at his door. “Enter!” In walked Princess Blackburn and her entourage dressed in their typical hooded jacket incognito attire. “Princess Blackburn. This is a pleasant surprise. To what do I owe the pleasure? Let’s see, you’re dressed incognito, so this clearly isn’t an official visit.”

Blackburn took a seat at the desk. “Will make this brief: planning secret excursion to New Pandemonium. Leaving tonight under pretense of ‘vacation’.”

Solarian raised an eyebrow and nodded. “And you trust me with the knowledge of your true location. An emergency precaution, I assume? You’ve anticipated the possibility of needing an extraction.”

“Correct.”

“Now, I can certainly venture a guess as to why you’re doing this, probably get it ‘right on the money’ as they say, but I’d prefer to hear it from you.”

“Father’s policies: mixed results. One hoof, prospering economy, burgeoning population; other hoof, increased security breaches, smuggling trade losing traction. Unacceptable compromise. Need your help.”

“So this is an attempt to fix the latter conditions without disrupting the former ones,” Solarian finished with a nod. “Understandable. Commendable, even. You need more than secrets kept, though, otherwise you’d have other options to keep this secret. My specific assistance is required. Not for the lattermost reason, no, it’s not my specialty. You need something from me.” He grinned. “The database constructor?”

“Correct.”

“Hmm… I never got funding for it. ”

Blackburn leaned in and smiled. “No, but possess plans. Have top-tier engineer on team.” She tilted her head towards Gadget, who gave a cocky smirk. “Will construct device ourselves. Falsified identities ideal for acquiring resources, materials. Won’t attract suspicion.”

Solarian gave a knowing smile, then reached into his desk, pulled out a small datapad, and directed his look towards Gadget as he placed the datapad on top of his desk. “Unfortunately, I am under royal orders not to provide these plans to anypony. The plans are certainly not on this datapad, since it would easy to steal them if the datapad were to be left unattended.” He rose from his seat and rounded the desk. “I think I’ll take an early lunch. I heard they have some new items at the cafeteria.”

He left the room without another word.

*****

Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire sat patiently as the elevator descended far, far down into the cliff of Hope’s Point. All they had with them were their suitcases; they were dressed in casual, comfortable, yet classy clothing in preparation for their “vacation”. Blackburn: a blue sun shirt and a white skirt, plus her lucky scarf; Gadget: a white floral sundress and big sun hat; Crossfire: an orange aloha shirt and sunglasses, otherwise unarmed and unarmored. They certainly looked the part they were playing for now.

The trio did not remain silent as they rode down, and in fact were in quite high spirits. There was to be a stopover in Newhaven after all, so even though they wouldn’t be long, they still planned on enjoying themselves.

“We won’t have a lot of time, so we’d better plan out our actual ‘vacation’,” Gadget mused. “Let’s see… if we wake up early tomorrow, say eight o’clock, we’d have about fourteen hours to work with before we return to the hotel to ‘sleep’.” She turned to Crossfire. “What can we do in Newhaven for fourteen hours?”

Crossfire rubbed his chin. “Well, I ain’t been home in a good many years, but I don’t imagine the hotspots have changed much. I know Blackburn wanted to try out lima beans, so either fer lunch or dinner we pretty much gotta go to Legume’s Legumes. Y’all’ll love it, trust me, best beans in all o’ Equestria an’ if I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’.”

“Okay, lunch plans, good, good. What else?”

Crossfire shrugged. “I say we plan out the rest o’ the stuff as we go, get a little spontin… spont… uh…”

“Spontaneous,” Blackburn said with a grin. “Agree. Usually not spontaneous. Makes for pleasant change of pace.” She hummed. “Approaching bottom. Remember story if asked.”

The elevator slowed and rumbled to a stop, opening up into a large underground tunnel that led to several dozen currently-closed hangar bays. The bay doors were about one hundred feet wide, large enough to allow the biggest ships in the fleet to fit through. One door, however, was open, and a young pegasus stallion, orange with a purple mane dressed in a black cadet uniform, stood beside it in nervous anticipation. He sprung alert when he noticed Blackburn and her entourage departing from the elevator.

“P-Princess!” he sputtered as he gave a hasty salute. “Good to see you, good to see you. The Lunar Spear is just getting the final flight checks ready and we’ll be departing in ten minutes.”

Blackburn nodded in response. “Thank you. Understand this was sudden. Needed vacation.”

“Yes ma’am, no complaints here ma’am, happy to help ma’am.” The cadet drew a small device from his pocket. “Um… well, uh… this is awkward but, Princess, do you have tickets? I know you’re Princess and all, but protocol--”

“No trouble, went through routine steps.” Blackburn turned and gestured to Crossfire, who drew their three tickets from his shirt pocket and passed them over without a fuss.

The cadet scanned each ticket with his device once, then pocketed them. “All set there, Princess, now I just need to, ahh… ch-check your luggage. I hope you don’t… you don’t mind, but it’s procedure and all, and--”

“Understand, wouldn’t have it any other way.”

She put her suitcase down and opened it, gesturing for Gadget and Crossfire to follow suit. The cadet held his device over the contents of the suitcases, scanning them with a greenish-blue glow. Nothing out of the ordinary to be found, so the suitcases were zipped back up. Blackburn didn’t consider it worrisome that he hadn’t detected the secret compartments; Gadget had designed them to be undetectable specifically by the Hope’s Point scanners, which only Hope’s Point had the specifications to as far as anypony knew.

“All clear, Princess, you’re ready to board,” the cadet said with a bow. “Please enjoy your flight. I’ll take your luggage on board while you’re getting seated.”

“Thank you, cadet,” Blackburn said with a nod. She gestured for Gadget and Crossfire to follow her as she trotted towards the Lunar Spear.

The ship was larger than the stunt flyers Blackburn was used to, about the size of a small house, and was shaped like a folded crescent with a large foresection and distended sides. The ship was colored a harsh black with silver and gold trim. A boarding ramp led into the ship; a yellow pegasus mare with an orange mane wearing a black-and-gold flight suit stood at the top to greet them.

“Princess Blackburn!” the pilot greeted with a wave. “It’s a pleasure to have you on board the Lunar Spear, ma’am. We may not be the fastest ship in the fleet but I’ll eat my flight suit if we’re not the coziest ride you’ll ever have.”

“Captain Flame Strike, thank you for having us,” Blackburn greeted with a nod. “Apologies for sudden flight plan. Desperate need of vacation.”

“Completely understandable, Princess, everypony needs a vacation from time to time,” Flame Strike said with a wide grin. She gestured into the ship. “Let’s get you inside, shall we?”

Blackburn nodded, and she, Gadget, and Crossfire boarded the Lunar Spear. True to Flame Strike’s claims, the interior of the ship was cushy and comfortable despite how many seats it accommodated. The seats were cushioned and clearly capable of reclining, there was a faint scent of vanilla and cinnamon in the air, and a screen at the front of the seating area was clearly set up for in-flight entertainment. There were enough seats to fit thirty, but only the three of them were aboard, so they sat right up in front of the screen.

Flame Strike saluted to the trio as they took their seats. “Well I’m off to the cockpit, folks. Cadet Rollerblade will attend to your needs while we’re en route to Newhaven. Thanks again for flying with the Lunar Spear!” And off she went to the cockpit.

The earlier cadet - Rollerblade - ascended the boarding ramp seconds later, closing it behind him. He saluted the passengers and recited his well-practiced speech: “Welcome aboard the Lunar Spear, fillies and gentlecolts! I’m Cadet Rollerblade and I’m going to be your flight attendant on tonight’s journey to Newhaven. While Captain Flame Strike preps the ship for take-off, can I get anypony any refreshments?”

Outside the ship, in the meantime, the Lunar Spear completed its take-off preparations, and the hangar doors leading inside shut tight. As soon as they did, another set of doors opposite those opened, letting in a flood of seawater that filled the entire hangar in mere seconds. The Lunar Spear’s engine sprung to life, and it gently set off through the water into a small tunnel just beyond before coming out under the ocean proper. It surfaced a moment later before making its way south, towards the horizon-spanning storm cloud that was the Belt of Tranquility, keeping its pace slow as it began flying parallel to the storm.

A hatch opened on the top of the ship, and a pegasus stallion and unicorn mare dressed in a flight suits similar to Flame Strike’s climbed outside. As they did, two panels on the sides of the ships folded open to form a pair of wing-like extensions, the undersides of which glowed with the same bright blue as the rear engine.

The unicorn strut over to a cylindrical device dead-center on the ship’s roof and pulled a small rectangular device out of it, which she stretched out into a belt-like band. She strapped the band around the pegasus’s midsection with a snap, then pulled two cords from it which she attached to the tips of his wings, letting them snap into place to follow the contours of his wings as he moved them. Then, with a nod, she descended back into the ship while the pegasus took off.

The pegasus flew loops around the Lunar Spear at a quick, precise pace, and as he did so the ship became slowly coated with a golden glow. It took him nearly thirty minutes of consistent flight before the glow solidified into an energy field that surrounded the ship, at which point he landed back on the roof and descended back into the ship, woozy and with a slight stagger in his step. As soon as he did, the Lunar Spear rocketed southwards towards the storm clouds at supersonic speed; nopony inside the ship could feel the effects of such a powerful acceleration, aside from just the slightest trembling of glasses of water on food trays.

The Lunar Spear reached the storm, a storm unlike any other that had ever existed before and would ever exist again. The clouds flickered with lightning that crackled outwards towards the Lunar Spear the second it entered the storm, not at random but with sinister, violent intent. The lighting arched against the energy field that surrounded the Lunar Spear, but could not pierce it. Deeper still within the storm were great pillars of fire, spiraling about like wicked whirlwinds that snaked through the air to bar the Lunar Spear’s path. The Lunar Spear barreled through them without a care; the flames licked its shield to no effect.

This was the power of the patented Diffusion System, invented and perfected by Briarpatch, a genius pilot and inventor and a close friend of King Flashfire and Solarian. Briarpatch and Solarian had worked together to make the defense shield used by the massive NPAF cruisers more feasible for smaller-scale ships, like the Lunar Spear, for use with crossing the Belt. And though Briarpatch never left New Pandemonium City alive, his work had been a major contributing factor in Hope’s Point’s prosperity and success for decades. Thanks to its shield, the Lunar Spear could cross the uncrossable unscathed; the shield could even withstand heavy weapon fire.

Within the ship, not a single pony had a care in the world about the raging horrors outside.

*****

It was early evening when the Lunar Spear crossed to the other side of the Belt and soared over what the southern ponies called the Sea of Hope. As tradition dictated, the Lunar Spear lowered its protective plating to let its passengers and crew see outside and get a good look at the southern lands in all their glory. Blackburn and Gadget had never been in person, and so flocked to the windows to gawk at the landscape below; Crossfire smirked as he took his time to join them - this was his homeland, after all, and he knew it well.

The southern continent of Utopia was as far separated from the miserable northern continent as possible, not just in distance but in essence. Up north, ponies could not see the real sky above them, choked as it was with an endless orange darkness that flowed from New Pandemonium City’s central tower. The earth of the Wasteland was rotten and barren, and the only life that existed there naturally were the monstrous Gargantuans, amalgamous insects of massive size with a disposition for violence. Other than Pandemonium, Hope’s Point was the only settlement capable of sustaining itself in such a harsh environment.

The Utopian continent, however, lived up to its name. The sky above was clear to see, and in this early evening the stars twinkled with splendor as Equestria’s twin moons drifted slowly through the cosmos. The earth was full of life and vigor: fields of green grass stretched as far as the eye could see across flat grasslands and gentle hills; trees dotted the landscape, and if they were not asleep it would be easy to see the plentiful birds and animals that called the countryside their home. Paradise.

The Lunar Spear approached the town of Newhaven, a settlement poised on the northernmost cliff of this southern continent. It was nowhere near the size of Hope’s Point, only large enough to be home to about a thousand or so ponies. The architecture was delightfully old-fashioned: wood and brick buildings, simple dirt roads, everything built far enough apart to give them room to breathe. Unlike the bustling nightlife of Hope’s Point, the town was the picture of tranquility; only a few dozen ponies walked the streets, most probably workers finishing up their jobs for the day before returning home to their families.

The port itself was a different story. It was about as advanced as Hope’s Point was, though still with a distinct old-fashioned charm to it despite the technological wonders. There were a number of large circular buildings, one of which had an open roof revealing a landing pad. The other similar buildings were clearly capable of opening their roofs to reveal additional such pads. A small central structure stood in the middle of the collection of landing pads, the Hope’s Point Embassy; there were plans to expand it eventually but those plans were on hold for now.

The Lunar Spear began its landing procedure, positioning itself over the open landing pad and slowly lowering itself down to ground level. It landed with a hiss and a thud, and the engines gradually died down to nothing.

Inside the ship, Cadet Rollerblade stepped out into the passenger area. “Fillies and gentlecolts, we have now arrived in Newhaven. Before disembarking, please return your seats to their original upright positions and ensure any valuables you’ve brought on board are in your possession.” He opened the boarding ramp. “Thank you again for choosing the Lunar Spear as your choice in transport, and have a pleasant stay.”

Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire did as they were asked and walked to the boarding ramp to disembark. As they descended, they saw that they already had a welcoming party in the form of Ambassador Concord himself. He bowed low as the trio descended the ramp; Blackburn gave him a nod when she reached the bottom. As they spoke, a small crew moved to retrieve their luggage from the Lunar Spear and load it onto a cart for them; Gadget and Crossfire were quick to shoo them off and collect the luggage themselves.

“Princess Blackburn, it is an honor to be able to receive you on your first visit to Newhaven,” Concord said with a smile. “I understand you’re here on vacation? This was all very sudden so we’re a little short on details.”

“Correct, Ambassador. Not expecting such a welcome,” Blackburn replied. “Needed to get away. Decided Utopia ideal.”

“And you weren’t wrong, Princess, the southern continent is a lovely vacation destination, perfect to relax and step back from whatever it is that ails you.” Concord gestured for her to follow him. “Come, we’ve already made arrangements for your stay.”

Blackburn nodded appreciatively as she followed, Gadget and Crossfire behind her. “Excellent. Convenient, saves us time. Well done, Concord.”

Concord looked at her with wide eyes, his lip quivering slightly. “Thank you, Princess.” He cleared his throat as he led the trio from the hangar into the terminal. “I don’t know what your plans are for the evening, so I took the liberty of having transportation arranged to take you to where you’ll be staying.”

Blackburn glanced back at Gadget on Crossfire in slight disbelief. She didn’t know Concord well personally since he spent almost all of his time here, her only interaction with him lately being listening to his voice over Solarian’s recordings, and he usually kept to himself in the Council meetings since King Stormchaser gave him a lot of autonomy. She didn’t realize he was so efficient and effective at his work.

Concord led them outside the terminal where they were greeted by a pair of earth pony stallions dressed in presentable clothes, and a chariot large enough to carry three plus luggage. Gadget and Crossfire loaded the luggage inside and waited for Blackburn to board before they did.

Blackburn turned to Concord and nodded again. “Thank you again, Concord. Will remember your effectiveness.”

Concord bowed low. “And thank you for the praise, Princess. It may be my duty to serve, but I also consider it my calling. Enjoy your stay here in Newhaven!”

Blackburn hopped up into the chariot, and Gadget and Crossfire did the same on either side of her. One of the two earth ponies - golden yellow with a brown mane - pulling the chariot turned around and gave her a polite nod. “It’s a pleasure ta have ya, Princess, ma’am. Y’all hang tight back there an’ we’ll have ya ta yer destination lickity split.” He reared his front legs briefly. “Hya!”

The two stallions sprung into a gallop, pulling the chariot along the dirt road that led from the port into the town itself. They wound their way through a few streets until, at last, they arrived at a large house near the western outskirts of town, looking more like a familial home than any sort of hotel. Blackburn turned to Gadget, then to Crossfire, to see if either of them found it as unexpected as she did; naturally, they did, moreso actually.

As the chariot drivers came to a stop, the one who’d spoken earlier turned back again and with a smile said, “And here we are!”

Gadget and Crossfire disembarked and withdrew their luggage, leaving Blackburn just to stare at the house in confusion. “This is our destination?”

“Yes ma’am!”

“Hmm…” She disembarked as well, then turned to the stallions. “Thank you.”

“No problem, Princess! It was a pleasure.” He reared up again. “Hya!” And the chariot drivers drove away, leaving a very confused Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire behind.

Then, before Blackburn could turn around and try to process anything further, a voice came from behind. “Right on time! Long time no see, Princess.”

Blackburn’s ears perked up and she turned around. She knew the voice anywhere. “Shining Steel?”

Shining Steel indeed stood behind them, still as tall and robust as ever, but no longer dressed in his old armor. He wore little, just a purple scarf trimmed with gold, the same colors as his shield-and-sword cutie mark, respectively. Blackburn trotted up to him, perplexed but glad to see him; he was quick to give her a slight bow, which she returned with a nod.

Blackburn took a moment to process everything, then cleared her throat. “Shining Steel, moved to southern continent after... passing of King Flashfire. No, ‘retired’ more apt. No longer employed by Hope’s Point in any capacity.” She looked at the home behind him. “You live here.”

“Of course, of course,” Shining said with a couple of nods, then gestured prously to the house. “This here is the ol’ abode. Built it with my own hooves, with the help of the locals of course, and me and the family have been living here ever since… since Flashfire passed. It’s beautiful down here, Princess, a wonderful place to raise a family.”

“Agreed.” She took a breath. “Ambassador Concord arranged stay with you, not hotel. Hmm… you insisted.”

Shining gave her a little grin. “Naturally. I might not be with Hope’s Point officially anymore, but Concord knows my history and seeks me out for advice every now and then. So naturally, not knowing you too well besides rumors and such, he came looking for me when he heard you were coming. I offered to take you in while you’re here in the south.”

Blackburn shared a brief look with Gadget. “Appreciate it, Shining. Needed vacation. Pleasure to spend it with an old friend.”

Shining gestured for the trio to follow him inside. “Let’s take this indoors, guys. No sense standing out in the chilly night air. Here, let me help you with your bags.” With his magic he was easily able to lift all three suitcases as he trotted for the front door. The trio followed and entered the house after him.

The inside of the house was a simple but comfortable affair, with plenty of room to move around and few decorations. Shining set the suitcases down and called up, “Honey! Our guests are here!”

“Coming!” called back Paramour, his wife.

“Make yourselves at home,” Shining said to Blackburn. “We’ll get you guys to your rooms in a little bit. Anypony hungry? I’ve got snacks in the kitchen.”

“No, thank you. Dined on the ride over,” Blackburn noted. “Lunar Spear has excellent meal service.”

“The Lunar Spear, huh? Good choice, good choice. Still captained by Flame Strike?”

“Yes.”

“She was a good mare, very forward-thinking. Her wife owned that scarf shop on Eighth Street, right?”

Blackburn was impressed. “Correct. Good memory.”

Shining smirked. “Thanks, Princess, I try. Learned a lot from your grandfather on keeping a keen eye on things. Never know when you’re gonna need a little bit of information somewhere.”

“Hmm… quite.”

A moment later, Paramour came downstairs and greeted the new arrivals. “Hi! It’s so good to have you here, Princess,” she said with a small bow.

Paramour was a hot-pink pegasus mare with a luxurious golden mane that she wore long and wavy. Like Shining she wasn’t dressed in much, just a silver bracelet around her left foreleg. Nopony was bothered by it; Utopian culture did not have the same stigma about nudity that the northern continent seemed to have, but for some reason the stigma only applied to ponies still living in the north. Nopony really knew why either side was the way it was or which was really the “original” belief, but nopony cared, either.

“A pleasure,” Blackburn replied with a nod.

Another set of hoofsteps came from the stairs, accompanying a young unicorn filly. Her coat was soft pink, somewhere in-between the colors of her parents, and her mane was curly and purple and tied with a floral ribbon. She took the stairs slowly, one at a time, but eventually reached the bottom.

Paramour immediately scooped her up and nuzzled her cheek, earning an annoyed grunt from the filly. “Mamaaa! Stooop! You’re embarrassing me!” she squealed as she tried to push herself out of her mother’s grip to no avail.

Paramour laughed and set her daughter down, then turned to Blackburn. “You never got to meet her after she was born, but this is our daughter, Crystal Heart. Crystal honey, say hello to Princess Blackburn.”

Crystal’s eyes widened and filled with stars, her jaw dropping in stunned awe. “Princess?” she gasped. “You’re a princess?

Blackburn smiled and nodded. “I am. Nice to meet you, Crystal Heart.” She turned to Gadget and Crossfire, and introduced them as well. “And these are my friends, Gadget and Crossfire.”

Crystal, still aglow with wonder, stared at the two of them with the same awestruck expression. “You’re friends with a princess?

Crossfire smiled brightly. “That we are, little missy. Best o’ friends.”

“Awesome! That is so cool!

“It is, isn’t it? You know, it really never does get old thinking about how cool it is that we’re friends with royalty,” Gadget added with a grin. “I guess we are pretty amazing.”

They spent the evening getting reacquainted with one another, though everypony knew to keep less fun things off the table until Crystal went to bed. So, they talked about how neat it was to live in a big city, how cool it was to work around airships, and how fun it was to be friends together with royalty. When Crystal finally went to bed at Paramour’s insistence, Paramour did not come back downstairs, leaving Shining Steel an opportunity to speak with the trio alone at the kitchen table.

“How have things been since your father ascended?” Shining asked. “I’m afraid I don’t keep abreast of things up north that much these days, besides what Concord tells me of course.”

“Cannot say entirely negative,” Blackburn snorted. “Policies improved infrastructure. More ponies arriving from air routes than past decade. Increases population, boosts economy. However, no improvements to security measures, risk of infiltration and sabotage increased. Nothing major yet, does not eliminate possibility.”

Shining nodded and leaned back in his seat. “He did always have a good mind for business, your father. Terrible judge of character though.”

“Quite. Also, has prevented me from attending council meetings.”

“Really? Well… I can’t say I’m surprised. I remember well all the ‘harrumphs’ Flashfire got when he first had you start sitting in. Everypony came around eventually, but still… I don’t suppose anypony was on your side on that whole thing?”

“Most were, but father is king; his word is law,” she added with a sneer. “Have had help from Solarian. Keeps me informed.”

“Solarian is still on the council?” Shining asked, amazed. “I thought for sure your father would’ve booted him off by now. He hates him for giving you the… y’know.”

“Indeed; however, Solarian critical member of hierarchy, difficult to replace.” Blackburn sniffed. “Fears well founded. Evening Glitz replaced; replacement, Gleaming Star, complete imbecile. Skyrocket clearly inferior in position to mother. Featherfree easily intimidated, but means well. Nearly half of council in father’s corner. Solarian set to retire within next few years… prospect disheartening.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure something out. Your grandfather never let anypony forget how smart you are.” Shining yawned, then sat up in his chair. “Well, it’s late, Princess. Let’s get you all to your room.”

He took their suitcases upstairs and showed them to their guest room, a fair-sized room with two small beds and all the accoutrements they’d need to be comfortable for a long stay. After letting them become acquainted with it, he showed himself out and left them to their own business. None of them bothered to unpack, save for grooming materials; they wouldn’t be here long.

Gadget, however, voiced a concern: “Golly, this changes things a little bit, Blackburn, don’t you think? We were supposed to be staying in some teeny-tiny hotel that nopony would bother paying attention to. Crossfire had a couple all picked out and everything.”

“Yeah, ta be honest this kinda puts a big ol’ kibosh on us sneakin’ out all easy like when the Pandemonium shuttle comes tomorrow,” Crossfire agreed. “Don’t it?”

Blackburn stayed silent a moment, hoof to her chin in thought. Then, she shook her head. “Not at all. Not impediment: benefit.”

Gadget raised an eyebrow. “How do you figure?”

“Shining Steel loyal to grandfather unequivocally. Distaste for father is palpable. Would be likely ally in this: second secret-keeper.”

Crossfire scratched his head. “Hmmm… shucks, I mean, yeah I don’t doubt that he’d probably be on our side in all this hullabaloo, but are ya sure he will? I mean, I don’t disagree wit’ ya, but what if, instead of thinkin’ it’s a good idea what we’re doin’, he thinks he’s helpin’ us by stoppin’ us?”

Blackburn raised an eyebrow. “Explain.”

“Well, look, me ‘n’ Gadget’re loyal ta ya sure as water’s wet. The three o’ us’re thicker’n blood, I say. We’d do anythin’ and everythin’ for ya, ‘cause we know y’all’d do the same for us. Well, Shinin’ Steel was like that fer yer grandpappy, an’ y’all know yer grandpappy wanted nothin’ more’n keepin’ y’all safe ‘n ‘secure. S’why he gave us ta y’all.”

Blackburn pondered this. “Sensical… Shining might consider mission too dangerous. Might consider it favor to grandpa to keep us here.”

“And besides that,” Gadget interjected, “say he is on our side and doesn’t want to stop us. Solarian is our secret-keeper because he’s not just loyal, but he had a practical purpose: his database constructor. As much as I like Shining Steel, what’s he gonna be able to do to be of actual help? If he’s just keeping our secret I feel like, I dunno, we’re basically admitting we screwed up.”

Blackburn pondered this as well, then had an idea. “Practical purpose: not just keeping secret. Expanding it.”

“Huh?”

“Consider: Shining Steel is our host. We leave tomorrow night. Anypony comes asking for us, Shining Steel directs them away.”

“Hmm… that would make things easier on the return trip, I suppose.” Gadget nodded in approval. “Okay, you sold me: when we leave tomorrow, we tell him.”

“And if he don’t want ta let us leave?” Crossfire asked.

“Won’t happen,” Blackburn said. “Worries well-grounded, Crossfire. However, other possibility: knows grandpa risked everything to make Hope’s Point reality. Honoring his memory risking selves to prevent fall. Would encourage, not impede.”

Crossfire rubbed his chin. “Fair ‘nough. Worst case scenario, we make a break fer the port. Agreed?”

Blackburn smirked. “Agreed.”

*****

The next day was as relaxing and spontaneous as the trio could possibly hope it would be, a fine way to prepare themselves for the coming storm they had planned.

It started simple: breakfast with Shining Steel’s family followed by a brisk morning walk around town, with Crossfire being more than happy to point out all the sights. Everything a calm, quaint little town with no advanced technology could ever need was here: a library, a town square replete with shops, a blacksmith, a tailor, a bakery, a seed shop, a schoolhouse, etc. There were plenty of places to eat, and the ponies here were all friendly and cordial; the ponies in Hope’s Point were, too, especially compared to Pandemonium, but Newhaven’s populace were overtly so.

For lunch, as planned: Legume’s Legumes. Crossfire had said the restaurant specialized in making every single bean-related dish possible, and had listed them all off diligently before they even reached the restaurant:

“--bean soup, bean stew, bean salad, bean chili, bean paste, bean salsa, beans ‘n’ rice--”

“Kill me now, please,” Gadget said to Blackburn, passing her sidearm over. “Just flip the switch to ‘instant kill’ and end my life.”

“--bean tostada, bean burrito, bean curry, bean pasta, bean bowl, bean casserole, plus there’s succotash--”

Blackburn pushed the barrel of the gun towards herself. “No, you do me first. Royal order.”

“--an’ y’all can eat ‘em plain, roasted, fried, refried, steamed, grilled, baked--”

Gadget snorted. “Tell you what, if we get close enough I think we might be able to go out together.”

Blackburn hummed, then nodded. “Acceptable. Been nice knowing you, Gadget.”

“I can hear y’all back there!” Crossfire huffed, turning sharply to face them.

Gadget snickered and swiftly placed her weapon back under her hat. “I’m sorry, what? We weren’t saying anything Crossfire, no sir, just listening to your startling appreciation for all things beans.”

“Uh huh.” Crossfire narrowed his eyes, then turned back to the path and gestured ahead towards a quaint building with several tables set up outside for ponies to dine at. A sign above the awning read Legume’s Legumes. “Well make fun all ya want, we’re here. See how much fun y’all’re makin’ after y’all eat.”

Once at their table, the trio looked at their menus, and Gadget and Blackburn visibly gawked at the selection and realized Crossfire must have memorized it. Every manner of bean dish imaginable was presented and could be prepared with any of the different types of beans there were. Crossfire, knowing it would be a long while before he ever got back, insisted on the trio ordering one of everything on the menu to split amongst the table; they settled on less than that but still split a fair amount of food amongst one another, from spicy black bean soup to creamy green bean casserole.

They ended up ordering too much and didn’t want to carry the leftovers around in doggy bags all day, but that was okay; the restaurant would deliver the leftovers to some of the dock workers to use for their own lunches if they didn’t have anything themselves. Blackburn marveled at the generosity and kindness these ponies showed one another for seemingly no reason whatsoever. The food was cheap, too.

Between lunch and dinner, the trio headed down the cliffs to the small beach that was there. While the cliffs of Hope’s Point were miles high, the cliffs of Newhaven were much less imposing, and a gentle trail sloped down the cliffside to give non-pegasi a viable route. The beach itself wasn’t very large, but more than enough to accommodate the three of them and the other few dozen ponies that had gathered to take in the afternoon sun. Crossfire, to Gadget and Blackburn’s slight embarrassment, took off his shirt while they were there, leaving him in the nude.

“When in Utopia,” he said.

They weren’t really embarrassed because of his behavior, of course, since not a single other pony on the beach except the two of them were wearing clothes, but because neither of them had seen Crossfire without clothes before, at least in this context. Blackburn was already in a relationship and merely muttered something about him not needing to ever be worried about attracting a mare; this was true, as a gaggle of younger mares that were at the beach together took keen interest in him for their entire stay.

Gadget, who’d never looked at him that way before, and never thought she ever would, did her best not to stare; within an hour, she’d gotten over it enough to remember who he was and that there was no way she thought of him like that. It was odd, how just removing a shirt - the only item he wore down here - had such an impact on her mental state, one that neither her nor Blackburn could understand or explain.

“Whatever, okay, so my best friend is a total hunk,” she said with a shrug as she set her sun hat over her face and lay back in the sand. “Nothing weird about that, no sir. I’m mare enough to admit it. Just don’t go getting any ideas, Crossfire - you’re like a brother to me, nothing more.”

Crossfire blinked in her direction. “What kind o’ ideas?”

“Don’t play stupid, you know damn well what I’m talking about, you big drink of water. Same ideas you’re thinking about when looking at all those mares over there,” she added, pointing off towards the grouping of mares that were trying, unsuccessfully, to get his attention.

Crossfire glanced their way for only a second. “Uh… no? I really don’t get it.”

Gadget groaned and buried her face deeper into her hat. “Golly, you’re just a typical brainless stud, aren’t you? Nevermind, forget it. I’ve suddenly lost all interest.”

“Thought you had no interest,” Blackburn said cooly as she sipped on her lemonade.

“Bite me, Blackburn.”

Crossfire stared at the two for a minute, then shrugged and turned his attention back to the ocean.

Once the sun touched the horizon, the trio returned up the cliff - Crossfire with his shirt on at last, to Gadget’s relief - and went to a different restaurant for dinner, this one a sandwich shop of some acclaim, according to Crossfire. He hadn’t steered them wrong yet and this was no exception. Blackburn enjoyed the chef’s special, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, and found it to be uniquely and bizarrely exciting; Gadget stuck with a grilled cheese, a staple of hers when she got the opportunity, having developed an inexplicable fondness for cheese as a teen despite the distinct lack of it in the north; Crossfire kept it simple and ordered a BLT: beans, lettuce, and tomatoes. Everything was served with a side of hay fries.

Outside of special occasions, the trio never got much real food, only the Dolor food substitute - a goopy paste-like substance stored in a plastic tube - smuggled in from Pandemonium. Dolor tasted good when prepared in particular ways, and there were plenty of cooks and bakers in Hope’s Point that were skilled at making delectable dishes from the many different colors.

Each color, incidentally, had a different “default” flavor when eaten straight: Red was overly ripe cherries; Green was overcooked broccoli; Yellow was extra-sour lemon; Orange was not-ripe-yet oranges; Purple was week-old blueberries; Blue was minty toothpaste; the new White was plain tart yogurt, but it was expensive; the original Brown was cheap and tasted like mud. There wasn’t a Black yet, but rumors were it was being worked on. However, when prepared certain ways, these flavors changed. Red, for example, could taste like tomato soup, chilled strawberries, raspberry jam, etc.

After dinner, the trio returned to Shining Steel’s home and spent some time with him and his family before everypony went to sleep. Gadget kept a close eye on the time - they knew they’d need an hour to get to the port without a chariot, and gave themselves an extra fifteen minutes to account for delays. So, an hour and fifteen minutes before midnight, the trio got themselves dressed in casual, drab attire that would fit in in Pandemonium and styled their manes to match their false passports, then grabbed their stuff and, with the aid of a quieting spell from Gadget, snuck downstairs.

It didn’t really come as much of a surprise though when they got halfway to the front door and heard a cough. “Awfully late, don’t you think?” Shining Steel said he nonchalantly flipped the page of a newspaper from his spot on the couch. “Where are you three off to this time of night?”

Blackburn steeled herself. “The port. Flight departing for Pandemonium at midnight. We will be on it.”

“I see.” Shining set down his newspaper and drew forth their three falsified passports; the trio bristled at the sight of their entire plan’s success in his grasp, but Blackburn kept her cool. “And what exactly are you planning on doing in Pandemonium City, besides putting yourselves in unnecessary danger?”

“What father won’t.”

“Which is?”

“Keep my city safe.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“Solarian’s database constructor: provides extensive background information, easier and quicker to verify ponies’ trustworthiness. Find rival smuggling kingpins, negotiate or destroy: improves Hope’s Point’s economy.” Blackburn took a deep breath. “Understand risks. Necessary.”

“For how long?”

“Four months. Enough time to lay groundwork, implant database constructor.”

“Hmm. I take it that means Solarian knows about this?”

“Correct.”

“Anypony else?”

“Just you.”

“Very good.” Shining shook his head. “Unfortunately, Princess, you, Gadget, and Crossfire aren’t going anywhere near New Pandemonium City.”

Gadget made to step forward, but Blackburn stopped her with a hoof, allowing Shining to continue.

“As your host for your vacation here in the south, the three of you are going to take me up on my offer to leave Newhaven with me, Paramour, and Crystal Heart tomorrow to take a vacation down to Deepgrove; Crystal loves gems, see, and those mines are the best source of gems in the whole world, outside of Goldridge Pass up north.”

Blackburn frowned. “Disappointing.”

“Chin up, Princess, Deepgrove is a lovely place. Might be good to talk with some of the mine leaders there, maybe get trade agreements set up. Certainly safer than scrounging around in Goldridge. Maybe you’ll stay for a while, who knows?”

Crossfire made to speak, but Blackburn gave him a terse look to keep him quiet.

Shining Steel waited a long moment, then placed the three passports on the table in front of him before getting up and stepping over to Blackburn directly. “However, I think that Thunderbolt, Tinker, and Fireblast have a flight to catch. I wouldn’t want to keep them,” he said with a coy grin.

Blackburn smiled back and stepped forward to give her grandfather’s former bodyguard a hug. “Thank you, Shining. Will make grandpa proud, I swear it.”

Shining returned the hug. “I know you will, Princess. Stay safe, and good luck. You’ll need it.” He broke the hug and made for the stairs without another word.

*****

Blackburn, Gadget, and Crossfire - or rather, Thunderbolt, Tinker, and Fireblast - arrived at the port at ten minutes ‘til midnight. A transport cruiser from New Pandemonium City was docked at the port, and it was a completely different sight than the Lunar Spear had been.

The cruiser was black like the Lunar Spear and trimmed with steel instead of gold, but it lacked the sleek contours and pleasing aesthetic the Hope’s Point airships did. It was more of a brick with points on the ends, and its wings folded up straight into the air like handles while grounded. Its metal exterior was charred and rusty instead of polished to a pristine shine. While the Lunar Spear, already a larger ship in Hope’s Point’s fleet, took up barely a third of the landing pad, this Pandemonium ship took up nearly the entire thing.

The crew, in particular, was different from the lively, polite crew of the Lunar Spear. They didn’t wear flight suits, just standard black and gold flight uniforms. One, a dull green pegasus stallion with a black mane, stood at the top of the boarding ramp, a tremendous scowl on his face as he ushered ponies in without a word; the other, a dust-gray unicorn mare with a pale pink mane, stood at the bottom and looked over the tickets and passports of the other ponies boarding, all of whom were dressed similarly to Blackburn’s crew in drab, casual clothes. The unicorn also looked over their belongings, but she lacked a tool to do so with and just used her eyes and hooves. There were no crew members loading luggage onto the ship; everypony carried it on themselves.

When it was their turn at last, Blackburn approached first and showed her ticket and passport to the unicorn mare.

The mare looked over the ticket and passport, grunted, then gestured at Blackburn’s suitcase. “Open it please,” she said in a near monotone.

Blackburn did so without a word. The mare looked through her stuff in the span of about ten seconds, then Blackburn was allowed to pack up and board. Gadget and Crossfire went through the same process, and soon all three were aboard the craft. No problems so far.

Inside, it was clear that this was not a luxury liner like the Lunar Spear had been. The seats were cramped together and couldn’t recline; the windows were small portholes barely big enough to see out of; there was no viewscreen with which to watch entertainment; the entire interior smelled of week-old body odor. Luckily the craft wasn’t full, so the trio were able to sit together in relative comfort. When at last midnight rolled around, the crew boarded and without a word from them, the ship lurched into the air and set off north, unfolding its wings as it did.

Unlike the Lunar Spear, it didn’t have to wait for anypony to activate a shield around it and did it completely on its own. As a consequence of this cheaper version of the Diffusion System, however, the ship was not quite as impenetrable, and thus the ride wasn’t as smooth and took much longer. There was no danger, of course, because having a faulty shield cause deaths deprived the city of taxpaying ponies and that was unacceptable.

However, the shield wasn’t entirely stable, so there was a lot of turbulence. Blackburn, as a pegasus, was used to the feeling and wasn’t bothered at all; Crossfire, who had a strong stomach and nerves of steel, merely gripped his armrests tight; Gadget, however, spent most of the three-hour-long trip across the Belt of Tranquility with her face buried in a paper bag.

When at last they reached the other side, the ship was allowed to open up the throttle again, making the rest of the way to New Pandemonium City in only a few hours. Blackburn, who'd insisted on the window seat, was able to get a semi-decent view through the too-small, dust-caked window.

New Pandemonium City encircled Equestria’s north pole, spreading out for hundreds of miles into the surrounding Wastelands. A large barrier wall, a mile high construct of solid durasteel, surrounded the city; spread along the wall were small platforms containing large gun turrets, and several of them tracked the transport cruiser as it approached. At the southwesern edge of the city was a large gate, taller than the walls around it, connected to a passage that led inside. There was a clear set of airdocks inside the outermost wall beside the gate, and it was these docks that the cruiser made a beeline for.

The buildings within the city were mostly tall, black structures, or at least it seemed that way from a distance. They were sleek and imposing, casting looming shadows on the city below. The city sky was choked with layer upon layer of smog and dark clouds; not an inch of the city’s airspace, save for the sections closest to the gate and sections closest to the center, was unclogged, and those that weren’t still had faint layers leaking over. From the air it was near impossible to get a good read on the city’s layout; it wasn’t any easier on the ground, for that matter.

Most striking was the city’s absolute center where there stood the massive Pandora Tower, poised directly on the north pole. It was a gleaming black monolith that towered above even the layers of smog. From the top of the tower came a piercing orange light that flowed straight up into the air above, spreading out across the entire sky as far as the eye could see. Having seen the southern continent with her own eyes, Blackburn wondered if the same sky could be seen above that orange light, or if anything could even pass through it. Nopony knew what it was, why Pandora Tower generated it, or what it did; the question had gone unanswered for centuries.

Blackburn settled back into her seat and took a deep breath to calm her nerves as the ship began its landing procedure. They were finally here. New Pandemonium City.

It was time to make a difference.

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