• 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 40 - To Answer the Call

Philomena made figure eights around the Doric columns in the throne room as she claimed the airspace just beneath the vaulted ceiling. Far beneath her, ponies from Wing’s Transceiver Team scurried across the marble floor in a well-executed frenzy. Rubber mats were thrown down, producing a circular arrangement of surfaces that ponies could stand on without fear of slipping.

“Lattice pad inbound, Boss!” a grey-colored unicorn shouted a few meters from the formation. The stallion tossed tufts of his lime-green mane to the side before he opened a large plastic tub with some added zest. The lid rattled once it landed upon the marble, but the echoing clamor did little to delay the pony, or any other, from his mission.

An orange light wrapped around his horn as an enormous rolled sheet was lifted from the container and carried into the center of the setup. A clear plastic material comprised most of the structure, but as the pony unravelled the lattice pad, bands of embedded augurite became more easily identified. The metal strips drew a twelve-pointed star upon an area fit to hold at least ten outfitted ponies, and the vertices landed on the floor adjacent to a corresponding rubber mat.

Wing tapped his forehoof on the glossy stone and mumbled, “Whynnyapolis would have felt a shock wave by now. We’re past the ten-minute mark, folks. Let’s get it done.” Still wearing Trigger’s hat, the pegasus affixed his gaze to the observing Celestia and Luna, both of whom battled worrisome grimaces and anxious feather flicks.

Trigger closed the distance between Wing and himself and lightly nudged the stallion’s side. “They’re doin’ a fine job. Saved a lot of time by plantin’ that spellwork in advance.”

Jerking from the sudden push, Wing grunted and reclaimed his balance with a quick swipe of one of his namesakes. “Of course they are. I know that already. There’s just a lot riding on this. The sooner we have the data, the sooner we can act on it.”

The creature of reverie smirked and shrugged. “Phrase it however ya want, Kiddo. I know how ya science types get when your clocks are runnin’ too fast. Nu, nu, nu, but and because, S.U. Three generators! Heh, your team is almost ready to go, and we’re still congregatin’. There’ll be enough time to get your data.”

Mouth agape, Wing recoiled and turned to stare at Trigger. “Professor Arcade E. Pridestone is, and always will be, a national treasure. Don’t doubt the power of the penguin—”

Interrupting the feisty director, a multihued flash erupted from the main threshold of the grand chamber before Shining Armor and Cadance made their entrances. The former wore his typical, plated Royal Guard gear, and he had clearly polished the purple and gold kit until it shimmered under the palace chandeliers with a brilliance expected of the captain’s station.

Cadance provided a real surprise, however. The Princess of Love had abandoned her traditional regalia, opting instead for a brushed-metal kit that made Trigger beam on sight. The alicorn appeared as if she had stepped out of the annals of every ancient war epic that had ever been penned. Grit and toughness accompanied every sharp edge that the gear displayed, and the spectacle conveyed the notion that the princess had prepared for a true battle.

“We got here as soon as we could,” Cady informed effectively everypony who was actively listening. “Sorry if we’re late. I practiced getting into this a few times, but I’m not exactly used to it.”

“You’re not late. We’re putting the finishing touches on the setup now,” Wing answered after he fully spun around to properly address the new arrivals. “Once Barrier gets here, we can hopefully begin the process immediately.”

Upon seeing Cadance, Celestia’s concerned expression devolved into an agonized frown. Creases showed in the short fur around her brow after she took a single step towards her adopted niece. Her magenta eyes wavered, and for a moment, it seemed as though the towering alabaster alicorn had forgotten that nearly two dozen others were bustling about. “We really should be the ones going,” Tia muttered, managing to catch her sister’s ear.

The Princess of the Night finally took a few steps forward so she could lightly lean against Celestia’s side. “We’ve already been over this with Colonel Wing many times. You know the risk of us going is too great. No matter our feelings on the subject, Cadance is the one who developed the counter to the curse.”

“And Twilight and her friends are the ones who answered the Tree’s call. Yes, I know,” the older alicorn added in a subdued tone. “You’d think, after the hundreds of years, it’d be easier to watch them go out on my behalf, but it is really not.”

Luna briefly chewed on her lower lip while one of her dark-blue wings unfurled and draped over Celestia’s withers. “They will be going on our behalf this time, Sister. The weight of difficult decisions shall not fall upon your shoulders alone this time.”

“Well, at least I know Trigger approves of my style,” Cady commented, straining to add a little cheer to her timbre. However, the Princess of Love had noticeably scrutinized the expressions plastered on Celestia’s and Luna’s faces, and a lopsided, wincing smile served as a poor disguise for the mare’s empathy. Shuffling forward, Cadance made her way to the royals. “It will all work out. I’ll have Shiny to protect me, and we’ve spent a lot of time working on my combat skills too. I’m not going there to be a damsel in distress. I’m going for the sake of the Heart, and if the worst comes to pass, I’ll still have Trigger—”

“And she’ll still have me,” Barrier cut in as he entered the throne room. The unicorn scanned the chamber, sizing up the ponies in Wing’s Transceiver Team before glancing upward to trace Philomena’s flight path. He tapped the lifted faceshield of his helm after he came to a halt beside Shining Armor, and he set his determined focus on Celestia. “I knew him even better than you, and I have my own ponies to fight for now. Just leave it to us.”

Trigger stretched his neck, popped his shoulders, and walked onto the lattice pad. “We ain’t in a rush, but we shouldn’t spend the time exhaustin’ ourselves in emotional woulda-coulda-shouldas. This ain’t your fight anymore, Callie. Same way it ain’t Mes Étoiles’s fight. Ya passed the torch, so keep dreamin’ for our success. Plus, we now got Cady kitted out like an absolute boss. Captain Wind-Up-Toy over here should be inspired to put in the performance of his life. There’s no way we can lose.”

“I hate you,” Shining flatly countered before he trotted onto the mat and bumped one of his armor-covered haunches against Trigger’s side. “Making a quip literally fifteen seconds after saying not to waste time on stuff.”

“After seeing ya fight with Flicker, I know ya can take it. Besides, a little edge never hurt anyone, and I didn’t exactly hear a denial. She’s your battlefield, Armor. Time to show the shine.”

“Boys,” Cadance sighed, rolling her eyes before she snagged both Celestia and Luna in a tight hug. “I have faith in them. We’ll make it right for all the ponies who came before—and for all the ponies who live today.”

The sisters returned the hug with equally energetic squeezes, and the trio remained locked in a reciprocal nuzzling configuration until Philomena descended from the ceiling and landed on Cadance’s back. The sharp sound of talons on steel jerked the alicorns from their embrace, and the phoenix’s vibrant yellow eyes promptly met the attention of the startled Celestia.

“Of course, I know you’ll be watching her too,” the Princess of the Sun softly spoke as she let go of her niece. “We shouldn’t keep you any longer. Equestria and the Empire are in your hooves—and feathers.”

Wing moved to the 12-o’clock position of the array and released a slow, calm breath. The swirling flames of Aurora’s Eye rapidly appeared in front of his visage, and he smirked when Princess Cadance, Philomena, and Barrier immediately got the hint to get on top of the lattice pad.

“Assembly Crew, thanks for lugging all this stuff here and getting things set up for us. Move to standby positions! Mage Group, you’re up, and you know what to do.” Wing lifted his right foreleg and held it parallel to the ground. “Send them on my mark.”

Eleven unicorns, having loitered amidst the commotion, stepped forward and joined their commander in standing atop a mat at each point in the augurite formation. The team yielded a diverse mix of ponies with a composition that spanned the colors of the rainbow and covered various body types. Whatever their histories and backgrounds, all of them had their sights locked onto Wing.

The pegasus flicked his left namesake and reset his grip on the plastic cube he had taken from the E.I.S. Office. He created a slide out of his feathery appendage and guided the blinking box directly onto the nearest lattice point. Almost immediately, the ring of unicorns lit their horns in a picturesque display, and they began to channel their magical energies through the metal.

Aurora’s Eye started to rotate faster while Wing turned his focus to the augurite bands that stretched under the hooves of Barrier, Cadance, Shining, and Trigger. “Four and Six, increase your outputs by five and seven percent, respectively. Nine, drop yours three percent. Two, back off one percent.” Throwing his gaze down at the array box, Wing could see the spectra of casts that mingled in the enchanted star. Light, invisible to every other pony, washed over his transceiver in waves that became pristinely balanced in the wake of the minor adjustments. Finally flashing a satisfied smile, Wing looked up and peered upon the radiating form of Trigger that he could observe through the ocular power.

Arcs of amber and argent rippled along Trigger’s sturdy build, and an oppressively bright block of silvery fire covered his foreleg where the creature of reverie had created the illusion of Tail’s revolver. He met his best friend’s expression with a cocky grin of his own and a short chuckle. “Guess I’ll see ya in the frozen shithole. I’ll keep ya posted. Just do me that favor, Kiddo. We both know she’ll need ya.”

Both Barrier and Shining scrunched their muzzles and shared confused glances, but Wing beat them to the punch. The pegasus threw his lifted hoof to the floor and watched as the first wave vanished from the castle in a blinding release of technologically enhanced sorcery.

Heavy armor slammed against the icy tundra with a clamorous rumble. The outside world twirled around through the slots of a gunmetal visor, and raucous shouts reached out from the flank to offer both support and a safety check. Through the fog of war, an enemy limb was found when one sweeping foreleg struck against the lower cannon of another.

Snagging her prey with the cinching maneuver, Tail wrestled her opponent to the frosty dirt before taking a jab to a flank-plate for her efforts. She swiftly retaliated, barreling her spiked forelimb into the combatant’s sturdy armor with a couple thunderous punches.

“Oi, you’re gettin’ faster already, ya feisty li’l shit,” Ember spat. She wrapped her hind legs around the lavender pegasus, planted her hooves on the mare’s hips, and unceremoniously dumped Tail off her prone body. “‘Look after her,’ Barrier said. That stallion was ne’er the best with words when it came to the emotional lot. It’s not like ya haven’t trained a day in your life.”

Tail grunted upon enduring another hard collision with the ground. Her ears rang in the aftermath, and she struggled to refocus as Ember’s Trottingham accent bore through the slits in her helm. After a dozen seconds, the physicist got back on her hooves and heaved, “But I’m not fast enough, and if you keep hitting me like that, I’m going to start asking if you’re mad at me again.”

“Lassie, I told ya already. By Bonnie, I even left a damn message for Barrier ta find. I lived my life. We all did. Barrier’s still got his ta live, and he’s seen enough fuckers die. So if ya want ta live for ‘im and get used to that armor, then ya’d better be ready ta go another round with me. Besides, if I really didn’t want ta help ya, I’d be over there with the lazy lieutenants gettin’ drunk off my arse. Quit lollygaggin’ and show me what ya’ve got.”

Despite the arid climate, there was enough humidity earned through sweat that Tail could put to use. Fire shone in her eyes as she glared through the openings in her visor at the crouching Ember. If the yellow-cream flier wanted to see something that brazenly demonstrated her grit, then Tail would be happy to provide.

Vapor trails slithered through the joints in her ancient-style kit before they pooled around the spikes attached to her gauntlets. The growing cloud tufts whirled around the bases of the stout, sharp cones, and sizzling crackles tinged against the iron once Tail transformed the points into blazing, sparking Bullet Flashes.

Still sitting by the campfire, Silver Dust gradually lowered his half-filled tankard. His goldenrod eyes peeked over the wooden rim of his mug, and he quietly licked the froth from his lips while he observed Tail’s technique. “Looks like our spunky Ember tapped into somepony’s pegasus pride, wouldn’t you say so, Styxy?”

Flushed, the inebriated River Styx remained sprawled atop his log of choice in an unkempt daze. A hiccup escaped his muzzle after he lightly pawed the air in Tail and Ember’s general direction. “Did she call us lazy?” he asked Silver in a methodical Appleloosan drawl, but the drowsy colt did not receive an answer.

Ember lunged at Tail through a sudden release of energy she had packed into her thighs. The mare’s speed only increased thanks to an additional stroke of her mighty wingspan, and she swiftly moved to catch the physicist with her right forehoof.

While the Trottingham pegasus was one of the fastest strikers Tail had encountered, she had also spent weeks sparring against Barrier and Trigger. I can read teleport chains. I can read you. The thought stabbed Tail’s nerves into action, and she instantly jerked to her left to avoid the thrust.

Tail’s sights darted to Ember’s opened barrel, a vulnerability which the scientist could not leave unexploited. Sweeping her right foreleg up and out, Tail shoved her gauntlet into Ember’s stretched limb and pushed the appendage away. The result transformed the yellow mare’s initial jab into a poorly aimed cross, one which painted a glimmering bullseye on the nearest flank-plate.

Rolling her left side towards the ground, Tail slid her fetlock over the icy surface and sprang upwards once her gauntlet had slipped under Ember’s body. She whipped the scintillating spike against the iron slab and watched as her Bullet Flash devoured chunks of the armor. Spewed bits of shredded scrap showered the barren wasteland below to produce a low-resolution image of Tail’s partial shadow.

Ember yelped from the sudden inferno, but her spinal reflex snatched an escape from the searing heat. Her wings violently flicked, haphazardly catapulting the pegasus through the air before she stuck a rough landing. “Where ‘n fuckin’ Tartarus were ya hidin’ that?” she roared, circling herself like a cat to survey the damage to her gear in addition to her singed coat. “A lesser flier would just flop on that like a dead fish. Somepony might be destined ta have a mighty poor day on that one.”

Tail straightened her posture after her electrical attacks dissipated. Carefully removing her helmet, she tucked it beneath a wing before she pitched her muzzle slightly downward and directed her forthright, iridescent stare at Ember. “Don’t ever doubt that I’ll fight to live for his sake. Maybe you missed the memo, but I can’t quit. So do you still want to go another round, or is there something else you want to tell me?”

“A quick study after all,” Ember replied. She briefly glanced to her left and right after River Styx and Silver Dust teleported as close as they could without landing literally on top of her. “We’re about out of time, Lassie, but I think it’s safe ta say that we all got faith in ya. One of us now, for damn sure.”

“Hear, hear!” Silver and Styx chimed simultaneously as broad smiles swept across their muzzles. Of course, River Styx’s jovial nature could be easily explained by the refilled mug that remained ensnared by his levitation spell, but Tail appreciated the enthusiasm all the same.

Seeing the trio together like that emitted a warming wave that relaxed the physicist. A dreamy daze overtook her countenance, and the desolate world around Tail appeared more and more bleary as time went on. A pair of bright-blue bands cut across the tundra between the pegasus and the executors-of-old before a mist trickled in atop the snow. “I won’t forget,” she spoke through a sheepish smile.

“Ya damn better not! I expect more stories decades down the road,” Ember quipped as she and the stallions began to fade. Still, Tail could see her new friend reach out across the divide—along with the single yellow-cream feather that she clutched in her grasp. “You two are stronger together—”

Tail blinked, and they were gone. She no longer stood in the frozen emptiness of what she presumed to be the Crystal Empire. Instead, she stood in the private library—in front of the pegasus side of the fountain statue with the silly glyphs that she could not read—and she was not alone.

Blurred blobs of lime-green, pink, taupe, and greyish-white undulated around the other sides of the triangular pillar, but Tail could not make out exactly who they were. She merely assumed they had to be intelligent creatures of some sort, given the series of language-like noises that crept to her ears.

She seized up when something soft unexpectedly blanketed her withers. For a moment, her brain scurried to process the confirmation that she did actually have company, and the muscles in her legs stayed tense long after she blurted out a tangential, “My armor’s gone.”

A deep, cascading laugh emerged from Tail’s new companion, and the boisterous notes eventually instilled enough curiosity in the mare’s mind for her to loosen up and turn her head to the left. There, an absolute behemoth of a stallion dwarfed the physicist. Tail had never seen this midnight charger in her entire life. She had never met a pegasus who she felt could swallow her up in his span, and she had only seen such a square-cut, scarred muzzle in the pages of comic books.

Yet, she found a sense of tranquility in his teal eyes that reminded her of the calm that followed a storm. His gaze also generated a nagging sense of familiarity that made Tail grimace. Driven to acquire more data, she freed her focus and searched for other clues regarding the stranger’s identity. However, from her current vantage point, all Tail could really see, aside from his face, was the black, gold-trimmed helm that snuggly cradled his head.

Black and gold? Black, and gold. Tail nodded twice. Her jaw dropped, and her brow furrowed in a display of disbelief. She practically hopped beneath the colt’s mighty wing, and a surge of goosebumps besieged her body. “Commander Hurricane?”

“The one and only, Child,” the mighty pegasus answered in a bassy voice that rumbled like rolling thunder. He grinned and bequeathed a proud squeeze from his feathery appendage. “Colonel Tail, we knew you’d come.”

Author's Note:

The creature of reverie smirked and shrugged. “Phrase it however ya want, Kiddo. I know how ya science types get when your clocks are runnin’ too fast. Nu, nu, nu, but and because, S.U. Three generators! Heh, your team is almost ready to go, and we’re still congregatin’. There’ll be enough time to get your data.”

Mouth agape, Wing recoiled and turned to stare at Trigger. “Professor Arcade E. Pridestone is, and always will be, a national treasure. Don’t doubt the power of the penguin—”

Fun fact, the whole nu nu nu thing actually happened in one of my particle physics courses in gradschool. Good times.

Anyhoo, happy Tuesday everyone. As always, thanks for your time and all that good shtuff. It's always appreciated.

More mission-operation-writing-induced psychosis on display next week in Chapter 41 - LOADLINE.

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