• Published 10th Dec 2020
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No Longer Alone - NoLongerSober

Sass, science, and surviving shipping! Postage paid! The gruff captain put a certain pegasus professor to the test and learned that she just couldn’t quit. Now come the hard parts: an actual relationship and maybe a villain or two.

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Chapter 38 - The Trouble with Ultimatums

Tail idly poked a burning log with a long stick. The crackling flames popped for the mare, and her sights fell upon the shimmering embers at the bottom of the fire pit. Much like the small craters she had constructed with Barrier along the Trottingham Trail, this pit had been accented by hoof-sized stones placed along its rim. Unlike the journey along the trail, however, the ground beneath Tail’s hanches and hooves showed no sign of life.

The barren, black landscape stretched out until the perceivable darkness merged with the abstract notion of the beyond. Even the compacted dirt illuminated by the orange tongues appeared desolate and chalky-grey in color.

“So you’re the newbie.” A thick Appleloosan accent overcame the sporadic noises of the flames, and the rich, country timbre shattered Tail’s stupor. She snapped her focus from the fire and swung her head to the right. There, lazily sprawled across a repurposed log, was a bone-white unicorn that the physicist recognized immediately. His gunmetal mane dangled in an unkempt mess, including the locks that had been tied into a ponytail, and his blue eyes returned the inquisition while a calm smile sat upon his muzzle.

“River Styx?” Tail mumbled, leaning forward to get a good look at his triangular cutie mark. “That is definitely you, but what? You were Barrier.”

Tail drew laughter from the stallion once she started rubbing the side of her head with her forehoof. Confusion contorted her lips into an asymmetric smirk, and she squinted as though she had just taken a battle with a headache to a whole new level.

“Correction, ma’am, Cap’n Barrier did a horrible impression of me. Though, he did do a decent enough job gettin’ my likeness to an okay degree. All the same, that’s not what’s important right now. You seem to be sittin’ all by your lonesome in this-a-here place, and as a longtime member of the 1st Executor Squad, I can thoroughly state that we are not down with that shit.”

One word in River Styx’s delivery made Tail’s wings flutter open. She held the pose while curiosity quirked her brow—and while the warmth of the fire bathed her surprisingly weighty wings in a blanket of comfort. Still, she could not sustain the awkward fermata that she shared with the lieutenant. Eventually, her eagerness to decipher the mystery of his statement won out over simply being content, and the physicist dared to ask, “We?”

The question swiftly morphed into a high-pitched squeal when a cold pang bolted from her dock to the nape of her neck. Her coat bristled, and Tail jumped from the ground as a frazzled, twitchy appearance jarred her countenance.

“Got ‘er!” another stallion’s voice cracked to Tail’s left. Wrapping around her trunk, feathers—presumably belonging to the recent arrival—gently corralled the heaving scientist and shepherded her to the ground in a slow, peculiar, other-worldly descent. “Or whatever it is the youngsters say these days.”

Wanting to meet the source of ye olde Manehattan noisebox, Tail promptly faced the newcomer, a cold-blue pegasus with a snowy-blue mane. His goldenrod eyes snagged her attention like a lighthouse in the fog, and after she blinked at him a few times, he slowly retracted his wing and grinned.

“Er, hello, Silver Dust,” Tail guessed after an additional second of computation. When he gave an affirmative nod, the mare briefly checked on both the fire and River Styx. “Okay? I know the Feather Flu didn’t kill me, so why—”

“We’re just keeping you company for now, Ms. Tail,” Silver interrupted. He held a steady tone as he spoke, and he took a seat a leg’s reach away from his fellow flier. “You will be going to the front soon, and despite all the effort you have put into your training, a first deployment is a first deployment.”

“It’s okay to be nervous,” River Styx added after he lowered his muzzle and affixed his gaze to the dancing coals. “Cap’n knows I was a jumpy little shit first time I got assigned to his squad. Come to think of it, I’m pretty damn sure it was ol’ Silver who cleared my mind with an icy swat to the flank. Imagine Cap’n told her—what was it?—that you were a measured stallion when he took ‘er out on the Trottin’ham Trail.”

“Pfft, who’s to say it wasn’t calculated? And you already know that I was meticulous when it came to my battle preparations. I didn’t have to go out of my way by competing with Flash in contests of skill and speed. Besides, sometimes there’s value in uncovering the kindness in what a stoic pony often hides.”

Styx swished his dark-grey tail, shrugged, and rolled onto his back. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with havin’ a pony willin’ to do some brute force either, Bucko. Those challenges made me a better defender, and I wouldn’t trade ‘em for nothin’. Cap’n knew it too. That’s why he never stopped me from shovin’ the spade when the job needed to be done.”

“He didn’t stop you because he knew we could factor in your brazen antics and still be effective across an entire campaign. Also didn’t hurt that you were good at doing it either,” Silver Dust snickered. “Just think about how many times a griffon line got confused because its commander suddenly disappeared in the night. Though, perhaps we’re getting a bit off-track.”

Tail flicked one of her ears downward and pursed her lips. “Is there even a track for us to be on? I mean, we’re all just kind of sitting here in the middle of, well, nothing.”

Silver Dust nodded in River’s direction. “Why don’t you do the honors, Styxy? You always did the best job playing the bard for us anyway.”

“Another relaxin’ story with good ol’ Lt. Styx, huh? I can dig those vibes, Dusty,” River Styx replied before he wiggled to better address Tail from his upside-down sprawl. “It’s not too complicated, Colonel. The Matriarch’s been a busy lady, but she’s still found the time to make sure that we could get a say. We know what you did at Ember’s grave, and we know all the things a soldier can feel before goin’ out.

“It’s customary for the lieutenants of a squad to share some drinks with a new executor. Cap’n might not have said it yet, but that’s a fact as true as your word. You can’t quit, right? Well, neither could we. You’re one of us now, Darlin’, and I think you’ll find the fight is easier when you’re no longer alone. All we have to do is kick back, relax, and wait for Ember to get her filly flank over here.”

Princess Celestia entered a meeting room in the medical ward just outside the decontamination hall. The regal alicorn wore a stern expression as she eyed Amora, Barrier, and Trigger, all of whom had hastily congregated at her request. “How is she, and what do you think the prognosis for her recovery is, Major?”

Amora sat upon a grey mesh swivel chair directly adjacent to the head of a rubber-trimmed conference table. She had been idly chatting with the two stallions before Celestia joined, and her sightline obviously followed the pacing Barrier.

Marking his territory over the rear of the chamber, the charcoal-coated unicorn marched over the thin navy-blue carpet. He periodically eclipsed a whiteboard that another doctor had covered in mostly illegible gibberish, but with the way Barrier’s stare drilled into the approaching wall after each turn, it was clear to the others present that he would have much rather been back at Tail’s side.

Trigger reclined once Celestia’s question reached his ears, and he awkwardly looked over the top of his chair from his position closest to the door.

It took a few seconds for Barrier to recognize the royal presence, but once he did, he slowed his trot to a halt. An uneasy frown appeared on his face, and one of his hind legs repeatedly tapped against the floor as if his body fought to kick-start a new bout of pacing.

“Her fever is stable, and she’s sleeping a lot,” Amora answered as she leaned onto the laminate tabletop. “Her labs came back with Feather Flu as highly probable, well above our threshold for diagnosis, but I’m thinking about running them again. Her level of fatigue is not alarming in terms of her overall health. Sleep is good for her, but it’s also not typical for it to be this severe.

“I’ve sent out some memos to the Trottingham Guard and carriage companies to keep tabs as well. Haven’t heard anything from them yet, which is also a little surprising. Feather Flu is highly contagious, so Tail could be battling a different variant that’s emerging this season. That particular hypothesis has its own pitfalls, though, since Barrier hasn’t gotten sick, and he’s been with her for effectively the entire incubation period and beyond. While these points present some reservations, I don’t really see anything that suggests her recovery will be any different than other flu infections. If she keeps sleeping it off, she could be on her hooves again in a few more days.”

Making sure that the door was closed behind her, Celestia released a heavy sigh. “While I’m relieved to hear that Tail is on the right path, I have serious concerns regarding her readiness for Operation Loadline. Some take two weeks to heal from such an illness, which would place her availability well past Wing’s timeframe for the Temporal Drecht’s failure.”

Barrier bit his lip, closed his eyes, and lifted his muzzle towards the tiled ceiling before a hissing breath burst from his nostrils. His tail flicked against his thigh, and he shook his head in barely perceivable motions through the silence that followed.

“She could be ready when the moment comes,” Celestia spoke again after her attention settled completely on the protective captain, “but you already know that, in spite of my hopes, I cannot afford to think of anything other than the worst-case scenario when planning for Sombra. We saw the capabilities of Tail’s work with our own eyes, Barrier. You know what it can do, and she already expressed her trust. If Tail’s not fit for duty when the Drecht fails, then my order is clear. Either you or Trigger will wield that weapon. That is the only logical choice.”

Having tailed Barrier after the meeting with Princess Celestia and Amora came to an end, Trigger joined the charcoal-coated unicorn in Tail’s room. Most of the fluorescent lights had been turned off so the fatigued pegasus could maintain her aggressive sleep schedule. A lone exception in the interior corner cast gloomy shadows over the expressions of the two stallions. Though, it was Barrier who met that expectation with a torn grimace and trembling legs.

“Ya look a little tense, Barry,” Trigger commented quietly while he stood at the unicorn’s side. “Plannin’ to share with the class, or are ya gonna keep all your thoughts to yourself?”

Barrier stewed for a few more seconds, steeled himself, and exhaled. “It’s bittersweet, Trigsy. She spent all that time and energy bringing her combat skill set to a new level. What she’s made in her lab is out of this world, but after the stuff she did on the field with us—and after the way she tackled the trail—there’s not a single doubt in my mind that she could make a difference when we get sent out. When Celly told us about the mission, when I jumped on it for my family’s sake, she leapt at it with the same conviction that my squadmates did. She had my back, unconditionally.”

As long, tranquil breaths emerged from Tail’s slightly opened muzzle, Barrier lifted his left foreleg and ran his hoof through part of her unruly mane.

“And?” Trigger prodded after the captain had drifted off into his mental space long enough for the cowcolt creature of reverie to start fussing with his Coltston.

“And part of me is happy that she might not be there. I don’t want her to go to a warzone. I don’t want her to experience that pain or have to make that sacrifice. I don’t want her to have to endure something Faust-fucking-awful. I’ve had a lot of ponies die for me. The thought of it being her next—” Barrier clenched his jaw and grunted. “It’s selfish. It belittles her growth, and it makes me disappointed in myself to even think it. I know she’d glare at me too if she heard me imply that I should take the weight without her.”

“We can’t always get what we want. Can’t say I blame ya though. I’m not exactly thrilled about Tea, Amora, and Wing gettin’ sent out either. They’re all capable. Shit, I trained two of ‘em myself. Even when ya got someone who will fight tooth and nail for ya, it’s hard to ignore the memory of one of ‘em being a little shit who pulls your ass out of a nightmare—or that another’s your wife. It’s hard to measure your own feelings against how much they worked, but ya already know this so you’re just wastin’ time beatin’ around the bush.”

“I’m not taking it with me,” Barrier flatly answered in his gritty tenor. He peered at the physicist, and a soft, barely-perceivable smile started to erode the fear and disgust that his expression had betrayed. “I spent my entire career using my own body and magic as weapons. Introducing something new like that when I’ve never used it doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe we can get her up long enough to go over the details with you, and I’ve seen it in action enough to help fill in some gaps.”

Briefly glancing downward, Trigger adjusted his hat once again and cast his sights just below the brim. His eyes took on an argent hue, and he gradually lifted his muzzle higher and higher until he was staring contemplatively at the empty space above the hospital bed. “Hot damn, now he’s just bein’ stupid. I’m not takin’ her shit with me either. I’ll fake it in front of Celestia if I have to, but it’s not my part to play so I ain’t playin’ it.”

Jerking his hoof away from Tail’s head, Barrier whipped to face Trigger. He didn’t say a word to challenge the other stallion’s position, and for a moment, the only disturbances came from Tail’s steady breathing and the monitor tracking her heartbeat.

Trigger did not alter his posture at all. Resolute, he held the proud pose for his audience, and he kept his transformed, silvery gaze trained on the same spot. “It’s not really a surprise. Ya already know she’s going to be there. She will go north. Ya can just feel it in the air. I can’t quit, right? Flicker told ya herself, so there’s no real point in me takin’ her work to the front line. She’ll wake up and find her lab in proper order. Though, I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up meetin’ some friends on the way. Ya can’t always get what ya want, Barry, but ya can sum up everything ya have to tell this mare in three words. Which three words will it be?”

“Three?” Barrier interjected with a sharp whisper. He turned from Trigger and rested his chest on the mattress so his muzzle hovered directly above Tail’s nearest ear. “Heh, it would fit my habit of not being one for long speeches, but she deserves more than that. She deserves to know, in every sense of the word, that she’s earned being named my successor—or that she’s worthy of more respect than anyone else I know—or that she’s honored those who came before her.”

“I won’t argue that she doesn’t deserve to hear all that,” Trigger said, audibly stifling a budding laugh with a dribbling snicker, “but ya shouldn’t debate the power of three words. Sometimes those are the absolute best for helping ponies find resolve in the shadows.”

Out of thin air, a set of obnoxiously cartoonish, fluffy earmuffs suddenly appeared on Tail’s head. A thump radiated through the floor after a wooden crate dropped into place next to Trigger, and in a swirling, colorful mess of disintegrating confetti, Discord emerged from his realm of utter disorder.

“I’m sorry. Is this another one of your private parties? I didn’t mean to intrude, but I do have a priority package here for one Professor Tail.” Still airborne, Discord shimmied closer to Trigger before carrying on in a purposefully loud whisper. “Pssst, it’s her new armor. Also, are we still down for O&O with Wing after this whole derailed apocalypse thing ends?”

Glaring at the draconequus, Barrier retreated from the assaulting fibers of white fluff that reached over his snout and tickled his nose. “She’s recovering from an illness, Discord. Now isn’t the time for games.”

“Yes, I know,” Discord retorted while rolling his claws. “Why else do you think I put those earmuffs to good use? Did you think it was all just for show? Honestly, I have no idea why you keep assuming I’m up to mischief. Didn’t your mother ever teach you that assuming makes an ass out of you and me? And that’s just not a very nice way to treat me—or our donkey brethren.”

When Trigger chuckled at the witticism, a wily grin swept over the draconequus’s countenance. Having no shame in carrying out juvenile taunts, Discord continued dramatically, “See? Trigger gets it, and that’s why I can play games with him without losing my mind.”

Discord’s brain manifested atop the draconequus’s paw in a flash of bluish light. Another toony creation, the little pink mass with eyes, glasses, and stick-figure arms and legs marched down the lion-like appendage as it picked up the taunt at a pitch two octaves higher than Discord’s normal speaking voice. “But we’re not here to play games. Nooooo, we’re here to deliver something that you asked for yourself, but that must mean that we’re just trying to cause trouble and make a sick pony’s life miserable. Boohoo!”

“Oh, get back in here, you,” Discord mockingly scolded after he wrangled his brain with a tiny lasso and yanked the creature into his skull. “Sorry about that. He’s just a little flustered”—he sighed deeply—“but it seems as though you’re just not going to believe me, Captain Barrier. I guess that means I’ll have to be painfully, dreadfully, agonizingly clear.”

The Lord of Chaos abruptly replaced the lasso in his talons with a clipboard. His demeanor shifted with equal quickness, and his brow fashioned a scowl that effectively snagged Barrier’s attention. “This era has made Cay-Cay and Luna more fun than they’ve been in more generations than I can be bothered to count.”

Barrier’s coat bristled to the bass-heavy, serious timbre in which the draconequus spoke, and even Trigger’s tail flicked in response to the change.

“If you think for one second that I want some washed-up edgelord from before Luna’s tantrum to come and ruin all the fun, then you don’t know me well enough to make that call. If I wanted to toy with your marefriend, I could do it with ease, but I don’t because she was kind enough to give me an invitation to join her class. What I really want is for you two to win, and”—Discord lifted the clipboard into the air—“for you to sign this.”

Author's Note:

Dreams and nightmares are powerful things... They have the ability to stretch across the past and the future...

Happy Tuesday, folks! As always, thank you for your time, readership, comments, discussions, likes&subscribeslol. I think the chessboard has been finally set, so stay tuned for Chapter 39 - Knight to c3.

P.S. lolDiscord. He is fun to write in this universe. Gotta be the right kind of chaos after all.

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