• Published 2nd Sep 2012
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Harmony Theory - Sharaloth



Rainbow Dash awakens in a strange land and must discover why, and how to return home.

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Chapter 8: The Maul

Loyalty is the Binding Agent. It brings the other Elements together and holds them together. Honesty is the Connective Agent. It ensures that all the Elements are open to the influence of the others. Generosity it the Distributive Agent. It ensures that the energies of the Elements flow properly between them. Laughter is the Energizing Agent. It provides the impetus and energy that allows the other Elements to function at their fullest. Kindness is the Regulatory Agent. It ensures that the energies are balanced and that no single Element is overstressed or too heavily burdened. Magic is the Directive Agent. It decides what the application of the Magic of Harmony will be.

-From the third section of Harmony Theory by Twilight Sparkle

Chapter 8: The Maul

Dash was busy staring out the window of the car as it rolled along the streets of the capital. Their quick flight in the night before had shown her a vista of lights that she had been too tired to really admire. In the day she could properly see the scope of the city. Like the one she had spotted at a distance when she first woke up in the future, this city was enormous and dotted with clusters of incredibly tall buildings. When they crested a hill it spread out before her all the way to the horizon. It was like it went on forever. She couldn't even guess the number of ponies that would be living here.

"How are you doing?" Star Fall asked in Old Equestrian. She was seated between Dash and Astrid; it was a tight fit but she bore it stoically.

"I'm cool," Dash said, glancing at the other pegasus before once more staring at the window. "You guys do cities big in the future."

"Pressures of economy and space," Star Fall said. "I did think the vehicle would be very 'future' for you, but you barely reacted."

Dash shrugged. "It's a small train with no tracks," she said. "I get that, Star. It's sorta cool. Could be cooler."

Star Fall gave a quiet laugh. "Okay, it is not that good. Later I can show you more impressive things."

"Lookin' forward to it," Dash said, flashing Star Fall a quick smile.

She watched the ponies go past. Even Star Fall could easily fly far faster than this car was rolling, but this once she was content to sit back and watch. There were thousands of ponies in the streets they passed, and other beings too. She spotted Zebras and Diamond Dogs in groups, and a rare solitary Griffin here and there. She also saw guards wearing the same sort of livery that the pegasus patrol the night before had been.

The car headed into the heart of the city, where the buildings towered a hundred stories or more into the air. Dash felt like they were going into a canyon of metal and glass as they were surrounded by those pony-made mountains. The number of ponies on the streets were even greater here, crowds lining either side in living rivers.

There were a lot of earth ponies she saw, and plenty of pegasi too. By far the least represented were unicorns, though they were by no means absent from the throngs of ponies. Almost everyone wore clothes. Some were simple, a vest or a dress like the ones she and Star Fall wore. Others were the kind of elaborate fare that Rarity had loved to create. The most elaborate of these getups were without question worn exclusively by the unicorns. Dash remembered Star Fall saying that unicorn nobility was a lot more important now, and she guessed this showed it.

"How did you sleep?" Star Fall asked, still in Old Equestian.

"What? Fine, I guess," Dash replied. She wondered at Star Fall's continued use of the old language. She supposed it was to keep others from listening to them, but with mundane topics like how she had slept Dash was pretty sure it was unnecessary.

"You were having night fears."

"You mean nightmares," Dash corrected her. Star Fall frowned but Dash waved her off. "Yeah, I know. Same word, don't know why. Anyway, I don't remember any nightmares. I just went to sleep and then woke up and you guys were at the door."


Star Fall nodded. "Astrid is a very good listener, even when asleep," she said. "Normally I put up magic wards, but no paper means no wards."

"You guys took that really seriously. Do you really get ambushed in hotel rooms all that often? 'Cause if you do, then this spy thing is totally even more cool than I thought."

Star Fall laughed again. "No. No ambushes. Still, we have to be careful. There is a Changeling looking for you, and I could be in danger also. Caution is good."

Dash didn't really have anything to say to that, so she kept quiet and looked back out at the city. The car hadn't caught much of her interest, but there were things she was seeing out there that were definitely making an impression. They passed a storefront showing boxes filled with moving pictures. Dash recognized them as something similar to the movies she knew from her own time, and the smooth crispness of the image and lack of a projector made her think that they were probably illusion magic captured in the box. She made a mental note to find out more about them so she could tell Twilight when she finally got back home. The studious unicorn would love hearing about future magic and the two of them could always use more excuses to hang out.

Another thing that caught her attention was all the bright, neon signs. She'd seen similar in Canterlot, but the sheer volume of them was overwhelming. The further they drove into the city the more there were, until it seemed like the walls of the buildings were painted in lights up to the third floor. Dash wished she had learned to read Solar as she had been learning to speak it. Not being able to put a context to all those flashing signs made them all the more overwhelming.

As if the world outside were a projection on a curtain that someone had suddenly pulled aside the tall buildings vanished from beside them, giving way to a wide, open space. The sudden sunlight made Dash pull back and squint even through the shading tint of the window. When her vision cleared enough to see she let out a low whistle and leaned up against the glass.

Before them, in what had to be the heart of the city, was a palace. It gleamed in the morning sun, its walls a pristine white that glowed against the darker background of the tall city buildings. Pointed domes of red and gold capped towers that soared majestically upward while stained-glass windows decorated every wall. It had nothing as tall or as imposing as the skyscrapers of the city, but surrounded by a few square miles of terraced garden it was far more grand.

"The Court of the Sun," Star Fall said, switching back to Solar. "The seat of Solar government, and the home of the Royal family."

"Are we heading there?" Dash asked, watching a flight of Griffins take off from one of the palace's towers.

"No. We're heading to there." Star Fall pointed a hoof towards the front of the car and one of the skyscrapers that lined the edge of the palace's gardens. "When we're done there we'll head to the University, which is on the other side of the Court.”

“That place looks awesome,” Dash said.

Really?” Star Fall asked in Old Equestrian. “Skyscrapers and cars do not amaze you, but six hundred year old castle does?

Well, yeah. It’s a castle, Star. Castles are always cool,” Dash said, tearing her eyes away from the Court as they turned to head towards the building Star Fall had indicated. “Hey, what’s up with the language switching anyway? I get that you don’t want to have Agents Grim and Angry up there listening in to everything, but it’s not like it matters that they know I think the castle’s cool.

I do not want them thinking you don’t know about cars or other things not from your time. They are likely talking to Gamma right now. All we say will be heard by her. Until my teacher sees you...

I gotta stay on the down-low, right,” Dash said. “I don’t mind, I just feel kinda bad about leaving Astrid out of it, you know?

“Hey, Astrid,” Star Fall said in Solar. “Do you feel left out of the conversation?”

“Yes, Fall,” Astrid deadpanned, not bothering to look away from the window. “I am absolutely hurt by not being included in your circle of dweebs. It makes me wish that I had spent my youth studying every nerdy language until my eyes melted instead of learning how to be an unstoppable badass. That’s how much I feel left out.”

See, she is fine with it,” Star Fall said, grinning at Dash.

Rainbow couldn’t help but laugh. She was a hundred percent behind Astrid there, and under other circumstances would be the one delivering the sarcasm. The fact that she wasn’t was just the kind of thing that was making this trip to the future feel like an adventure, flipping situations on her and showing her things about herself and the world that she’d never dreamed possible. If only cutie marks hadn’t been a part of that.

The car drove into the underground parking lot of the building that housed the Royal Secret Service. Star Fall spent a few moments explaining to Dash what it was. Essentially it was a section of the Royal Guard that did all the sneaky spy-stuff that Dash had heard about, as well as basic undercover work and keeping watch for citizens who might make trouble for the Crown. It sounded absolutely cool to her, and she wondered at what kind of pony this Gamma was. Star Fall made it sound like she was high up in the service, maybe even in charge.

Remember...” Star Fall warned as the car stopped and the agents opened the doors.

Yeah, I got it, Star. Keep quiet, do as I’m told,” Dash said, sighing.

They got out of the car and the agents immediately escorted them deeper into the building. The halls were cramped and drab, with cheap laminate flooring that was heavily scuffed and tracks of lights that cast a harsh white light that made everything seem pale and stark. Doors were a uniform grey marked with letters and numbers in Solar that were almost, but not quite recognizable to her. It didn’t take more than a few turns and a couple staircases for Dash to realize that if she was left on her own in this building she would be hopelessly lost. There were ponies scattered throughout, some going from place to place with saddlebags full of files or other paraphernalia, others were obviously guards of some sort, carrying batons at their sides and watching every other pony with wary eyes. What was more, many doors required the agents to do something involving ID-tags and little gray boxes to open them.

Dash couldn’t help but be impressed. Even Canterlot Castle, with guards at every other door, hadn’t seemed as protected as this place. She figured it made sense, her Equestria hadn’t been in a real war for a long, long time, and with the Princesses in residence any sort of assault on the castle would have been foolhardy to the point of a farce. This place, though? It was expecting trouble from every quarter, and was designed to make life difficult for anyone not following their particular rules.

Finally they arrived at a small office foyer with a few hard-looking benches and a tired-looking unicorn mare sitting behind a desk and sifting though files. “Agent Fall and her escort here to see Agent Gamma,” said Agent Green said.

The secretary gave the group a long glance, and Dash didn’t see any of the bored disinterest she would have expected. Instead there was a hard professionalism to her gaze that reminded Dash of the guards she’d seen in the halls. “One moment,” the secretary said, her horn lighting up as she channeled a spell. Her lips moved and she cocked her head slightly as if listening to someone, but no sound escaped her. After a few moments of hurried and silent conversation the secretary’s horn went dark and she focused again on them. “Agent Gamma will be right out.”

It was barely a second later before the door to the inner office snapped open and a dark green unicorn mare with a black mane stepped out. The first thing that struck Dash was that she had the most intensely blue eyes she had ever seen on a pony. They weren’t bright, in fact they were a deep, dark blue, but they stood out so much it was like they were glowing. The second thing she noticed was that unlike almost every other pony she’d seen in the city, this one was mostly naked. Her sole scrap of clothing was a short black scarf with a red monogram around her neck, which wasn’t thick enough to keep Dash’s keen eyes from seeing that it was covering something up. Her lack of clothing left her Glyph on full display, the meaning practically assaulting Dash’s eyes as she looked at it. This had to be Gamma, her Talent was Intelligence.

“Agents Green and Case, well done,” Gamma said, her voice was resonant and strong, but there was a hint of a rasp to it. “You are released back to your usual duties. “ The two agents wasted no time and giving a curt nod and leaving. Gamma turned her gaze to Dash, and she could barely keep herself from stepping back under the intensity of that blue gaze. “Explain her, please.”

“She’s my hoofmaid, Firefly,” Star Fall said.

Gamma raised an eyebrow. “Is she? I was unaware that you had decided to embrace your position.”

“It’s a recent thing,” Star Fall said.

“Why did you bring her?”

“As my hoofmaid it’s her duty to accompany me wherever I go,” Star Fall said, meeting Gamma’s gaze and holding it. Dash could see her wings trembling. Star Fall wasn’t strong or confident enough to go up against that blue stare for long, but she was putting up a good fight.

“Yes,” Gamma said. It wasn’t a concession, it was a statement. “Shall I have Therese run a background check on her, or should we skip to the part where you stop bullshitting me?”

“Therese can run all the background checks she wants,” Star Fall said, rolling her eyes at the secretary who appeared to be taking no notice of the conversation at all. “Firefly’s off the grid, she won’t find anything.”

Gamma’s eyes narrowed. “Off the grid? You brought a pony with no verifiable history into the center of the Kingdom’s intelligence community? Why?”

“I trust her,” Star Fall said. “Completely.”

Without warning Gamma’s horn flashed a harsh blue and shot a bolt of energy at Dash. She didn’t even have time to react as it smacked into her, staggering her back a few steps. She flared her wings and dropped into a crouch as she glared at the unicorn. “What the hell was that for?”

Gamma watched Dash for a moment before looking back at Star Fall. “Not a Changeling, then,” she mused. “Fine. You will explain this, Agent Fall, but we have other things to discuss first. How much does she know?”

“Nothing important,” Star Fall said. “She’s got nothing to do with my mission, which is one of the reasons why I trust her so much. Astrid and I have been careful, she’s not a breach.”

“Nothing to do with it,” Gamma repeated dryly, intense eyes betraying nothing while seeming to speak volumes. “I suppose I will have to take your word for that. Fine, but since she knows nothing I will keep it that way. Both of you into my office. You,” she stared hard at Dash. “Take a seat.” Without another word she turned and strode into her office.

Dash unfolded from her crouch, pulling her wings in. She found herself actually wanting to like this Gamma pony. She had a real ‘hardcore spy’ vibe and that quick spellcasting had been awesome. If only those things hadn’t been directed at her she might have found herself admiring the green unicorn. As it was she was going to withhold judgement.

Star Fall stepped up to Dash and put a hoof on her shoulder. “We’ll be out soon,” she whispered in Old Equestrian. “Remember.

For the last freakin’ time, Star!” Dash sighed. “I get it! Just go talk to miss hair-trigger and we can get out of here and back to the important stuff, okay?

Star Fall looked like she wanted to say more, but closed her mouth instead and nodded. Astrid gave Dash a wink as the two of them followed Gamma. The door shut in a burst of blue magic and Dash was left in the quiet company of Therese and her paperwork. She took a seat on the bench.

Dash looked around, but there was nothing else in the room. No pictures, no magazines, no potted plants to poke at. Only two doors, a bench, a desk and a pony reading over papers. There wasn’t even a window she could gaze out of while imagining that she was flying or doing something other than waiting in the most boring room she had ever been in. There wasn’t even a clock to let her know how much time was passing.

Dash sat quietly until it became uncomfortable. Then she twiddled her hooves for a bit, but that only ate up a small amount of time before it got tedious. She stretched out her wings and gave them an examination. The hard pink color the dye had made them actually didn’t look that bad, she decided. Not as good as her natural blue, of course, but not bad all the same. She briefly considered doing a bit of preening, but there wasn’t a garbage can to put any feathers she pulled out, and leaving them all over the room would probably be no good.

“So, uh, Therese?” Dash said. The secretary ignored her. “You work for Gamma, huh?” No response. “Do you have any, like, stuff I could read. Or, uh, stuff with pictures would be better, yeah. Do you have stuff with pictures I could look at?” Nothing. Dash waited for something, anything to change, but the subtle sounds of shuffling papers were all that broke the excruciating stillness of the room.

Dash could feel the sweat beginning to break out on her body. She shifted uncomfortably, pulling at her dress in a vain attempt to get herself to cool down. It was like the empty walls of the room were closing in on her. The air was stifling, and she had a sudden and unpleasant flashback to that dark and silent place where she had woken up in this future world.

She leapt to her hooves. “Bathroom!" she barked out. Therese finally looked up from her
papers, eyeing the pegasus warily. “Uh, I need to go to the bathroom. Where is it? The, uh, the bathroom, that is. Which I need to go to. Now.”

Therese pointed at the door to the hall. “To your right, then take your first left, then another left. Six doors down on your right,” she said.

“Cool, thanks. You just keep on, uh, keep doing what you’re doing,” Dash said, then practically leapt out the door.

The cramped hallway wasn’t much of improvement over the office, but it at least had a sense of direction. A hallway was a place where you went somewhere, that room was a place where you sat and did nothing until you died of boredom. Dash turned right and started walking, watching for the hallway she was supposed to go down to get to the washroom. She didn’t need to relieve herself, but it was as good a place as any to go and splashing some water on her face would do her a world of good.

Several turns later and Dash was lost. Part of the problem was the needlessly labyrinthine layout of the building. A larger part was that she couldn’t read Solar, and thus had no way of telling which of the doors were the washroom, or if any of the infrequent signs on the walls were pointing to it. They apparently didn’t use simple pictures for common things like restrooms in the future, which made it really difficult on any stray visitors from the past.

She was just about to break down and ask one of the wandering guards for directions when a burly brown pegasus stallion in a black and red jumpsuit came around the corner and started stomping towards her. “You!" he growled at her.

“Uh, me?” Dash said, pointing a hoof at herself.

“Yeah you! Are you Firefly?" he snapped loudly enough for Dash to flinch back.

“Uh, yeah?”

“That sounded uncertain! Do you not know who you are?" he barked, stopping uncomfortably close to her.

“ No, uh, I totally know who I am,” Dash said, wondering what the hell was going on. “I’m Firefly. Yup, that’s me.”

“Then what the hell are you doing wandering around the halls like a foal off her mommie’s apron strings for the first time?” Dash actually felt spittle land on her as he shouted from only a couple inches away.

“I got lost,” she said, squaring herself. She didn’t know why he was yelling at her, but no one could spit on her and get away without a fight.

“You got lost,” he repeated in a high-pitched insulting voice. “You couldn’t follow the signs? Can’t you read?”

“Uh...”

“I don’t care!" he snarled before she could come up with a sufficient reason for why she wasn’t reading the signs that didn’t make her sound like an idiot. “I’ve got you now, so you’re not going to have any excuse when you fail!”

“Fail?” Dash frowned.

“Get a move on! You’re keeping a whole lot of important people waiting, and let me tell you they do not like being kept waiting!” He stepped behind her and gave her a shove.

“Hey! What’s the big deal?” Dash snapped back at him, refusing to move.

“The big deal is you are wasting my time!" he roared. “Now, are you gonna come and take your test like a mare, or am I going to have to get security to drag your ass down to the Maul!”

Dash wanted to buck him in the face, but Star Fall’s insistent words came back to her. Be quiet and do as you are told, she had said, and Dash had promised not to let her down. Causing a scene here would be letting Star Fall down, and Rainbow Dash never left a friend hanging. “Yeah, fine,” she said. “Point the way and I’ll take whatever test you want.”

“You just keep up that attitude, pigeon,” the Stallion said with a wicked grin. “Let’s see if you’re cooing the same tune once they’re done with you.”

Dash held herself back from replying with something snappy. She had a feeling that things were about to go crazy, and from the books she’d read protesting too loudly in a situation like this only made it worse. So she’d follow along and see what was up before she started shouting back. With a few shoves and more than a few insults tossed her way the stallion led her deeper into the building. She tried to keep track of the turns, doors and staircases they used, but once again the building defeated her.

Finally they came out in a huge room, easily large enough to fit most of ponyville into it with a ceiling so high that there were even small, thin clouds drifting in the upper reaches. Dash stopped in her tracks and goggled. There was no way a room this big had been attached to the building she’d seen above ground. Had they gone that far under the earth? Pegasi were usually good at telling when elevation changed by feeling the air pressure with their wings, but she had felt none of that.

The room was set up as an obstacle course. It actually looked a lot like the Royal Guard or Wonderbolt training camps she’d seen pictures of. There were ground-based obstacles and hoops raised on long poles for aerial stunts. Some parts of the course had hazards that would drop on or swing into a careless pony. Several of the hazards gleamed with wicked sharpness and she was sure that more than one of them had rusty stains that looked a lot like blood.

There were dozens of balconies ringing the walls at various heights, all of which had at least one pony on them, usually more. Dash also spotted several Griffins crouched back in the higher balconies. On the ground there were even more ponies, some obviously working the machinery of the course, others seemed to have no purpose at all, but stood patiently waiting. To the side, on a raised stage, stood a dozen ponies in the red-gold uniforms Dash was quickly coming to associate with the local version of the Royal Guard. Almost all of them were looking right at her.

What the hay?” she breathed.

“What was that?” the Stallion barked at her.

“Uh, where are we?” Dash asked.

“The Maul, pigeon,” he sneered. “And your last chance to prove you’re worth it to the Service.”

“Okay, yeah, I think there’s been a mistake here,” Dash said, deciding that now was probably the point where speaking up wouldn’t make anything worse.

“Damn right there has been,” he snorted. “I don’t know who approved this, but if they thought you had even one tenth of what it takes to finish this course they made one hell of a mistake.”

Dash’s mouth hung open for a moment as she processed that statement. Her initial intention to explain the obvious mistaken identity was immediately overridden. “Whoa, wait a minute, you think I can’t do this?”

“I know you can’t, pigeon,” he said. “A little pink girl like you? No way.”

“I totally can!” Dash said, puffing out her chest. “I’m Rai... Firefly! I can do this course with my eyes closed, and in half the time of the next-best guy!”

“Sure you can,” he said, waving a hoof dismissively. “Whatever. I’ve done my job and got you here. You wanna still take the course? Fine, your humiliation.”

“I’ll show you humiliation!” Dash growled, spreading her wings to take off even as a part of her that wasn’t focused on a new challenge warned her that this was just the sort of ‘everything going crazy’ stuff she’d been worried about a few minutes ago. She brushed that part aside. It was just an obstacle course. A scary-looking one, but nothing she hadn’t done a zillion times before. She’d get through this in a minute, tops, and then explain to the big brown idiot that he’d gotten the wrong mare to begin with and hopefully be back in the office before Star Fall and Astrid were done.

Actually, putting it that way made this sound a whole lot better than slowly killing herself with boredom. Her flying for the past few days had been simple for-travel stuff, nothing really fancy save for a few routines she could do without either of her companions getting nervous about being spotted. This was a chance to really flex her wings and show off to some jerk who didn’t think she could do it at the same time.

A lazy grin spread across Dash’s face. This was going to be fun.

“You really want to try?” he snorted, pointing with a hoof. “Fine, start line’s over there, tell them you’re ready and we can all watch you fail.”

“Oh, you’ll be watching all right,” Dash said, flapping her way down to the start line that he had indicated. “That is, if your eyes can keep up!” The ponies around her just watched, expressions professionally neutral as she took a ready position.

“Has the course been explained to you?” one of the unicorns asked.

“Sure, whatever,” Dash said, eager to start. The hazards were dangerous-looking, but the actual layout of the course was fairly simple. She could follow the route of it easily and it didn’t look like there were any weird twists or double-backs required.

“You understand that any resulting injury will not be...”

“I said I got it, okay?” Dash waved him off. “Let’s just get going!”

“Very well. Your time will begin at the flash,” he said, lighting up his horn so that it pulsed in increasing intensity. “Good luck, you’re going to need it.”

Dash chuckled and focused, feeling the burning anticipation of a race build in her. The pulses from the unicorn grew steadily brighter, then flashed with a sudden intensity that would have blinded her if she had been looking directly at it. She hadn’t been, and she took off. She skimmed the ground as she rushed towards the first obstacle, which was a series of poles she had to zig-zag through. Basic stuff, the kind of thing she did as a warm up when training. She started going through them, almost laughing at how hilariously easy this was going to be.

Then the ponies on the sidelines began shooting at her.

***

“Your mission was successful,” Gamma said the moment the door slammed shut. It hadn’t been a question.

“Mostly,” Star Fall said, taking a seat in front of Gamma’s desk. Gamma’s inner office was much like her outer one: blank. No pictures, no personal items, just what was needed for work. There was a tingle of magic that covered everything, though, and it led Star Fall to believe that the starkness of the office was for the benefit of visitors. Gamma wasn’t a Magic Talent, but she was still more skilled than most unicorns in a wide array of spells, including the illusions that would allow the office to appear considerably different when Gamma was alone. “We still don’t have any idea what he was digging for, but they definitely found something.”

“Why didn’t you get a look at what they unearthed?” Gamma asked, taking her seat behind her desk.

“There was no chance to. I got close, but then they started packing up and I had to leave. Astrid and I hopped the mountains into the Verge, but when they caravanned past there was nothing new on them. Whatever they took out of the ground has to be small enough to hide.”

“And important enough for Cash himself to oversee getting it,” Gamma mused. “Fine. What of the rest?”

“He’s definitely not working with the Republic’s open approval,” Star Fall answered. “He even went through the trouble of putting all his permits under James Bay’s name, but they were still rejected. I know he’s got a senator or two in his pocket, but they obviously don’t have the pull to let him act with impunity.”

“He’s beefed up security too,” Astrid spoke up. “The site had some real bruisers, Strength Talents and other heavy hitters. They were answering to the asskicker, too. If she had a hoof in recruiting them they’ll be top of the line, probably ex-military.”

“Did you engage them?”

Astrid snorted. “No way. I could handle three of them, maybe four, but there were a dozen of them around the site, and with their boss around I’d get my furry ass handed to me faster than you can light up your horn.”

“Then how did Agent Fall get close, as she said?” Gamma asked.

“I went in alone,” Star Fall said. Both she and Astrid cringed at the way Gamma quirked an eyebrow at that statement. “It was the only way.”

“You risked exposing yourself, and our entire investigation,” Gamma said, her voice as level and calm as possible, and all the more scary for it. “That is a grave risk to take. I do hope it was worth it.”

“Yeah, it kinda was,” Star Fall said. “I got into Cash’s personal tent. I found a lot in there that we are going to need to know.”

Gamma leaned forward, resting her forehooves on her desk and fixing Star Fall with an intense stare. “Tell me.”

“I need a pen, some paper, and a map of the Kingdom.” Gamma’s horn burst into a blue glow and compartments were opened in her desk and in the walls as the unicorn gathered the requested materials. “Okay, first thing, I’m going to write a list of names I found. These might be the names of ponies who may be working for Cash, and might also be working for our government.”

“That’s a lot of ‘may’s and ‘might’s in there, Fall,” Astrid said.

“No, that’s good,” Gamma interjected. “He’s laid traps like this before. Proceed.”

Star Fall wrote out the names, taking her time to be absolutely sure she was remembering them right. She wasn’t eidetic like Gamma, or Professor Shine, but she’d learned to compensate in order to use her magic and it meant that when she memorized something it would stick. She hadn’t had much time to commit all she had seen in Cash’s tent to perfect recall, though, so she had to take her time reconstructing it from the bits she had managed to capture. In the end she’d filled three sheets with names and various other notes that she’d gotten. Then she turned to the map.

“This is probably the most important thing I found,” she said, scribbling a few marks on the map. “I think whatever he found there was only the beginning. I think he’s come to the Kingdom because the next thing on his list is in one of these four places.” She poked a hoof at the marks she had made while she identified each one. “This one’s the Stalliongrad excavation. This is where we think the Crystal Kingdom had its capital, and we already know he’s got crews digging there. This one’s in the middle of nowhere, but I think he’s been doing secret digging there just like he was outside of Orion City. The last one I already know.” She pointed to the tilted square she had used to mark a place in the mountains to the west of the capital. “This is a Dragon’s lair. The Professor sent me to study with him about five years ago. It’s full of old stuff, pre-Schism relics and statues that he carved himself.”

“I know the one,” Gamma said. “I have one of his pieces at home. Exquisite work. He’s pre-Schism himself, too. Very powerful.”

“He taught me a lot of history, and how to speak Old Equestrian,” Star Fall said. Astrid gave her a look, but she ignored it, focusing on the map instead. “After I talk to the Professor, I’m going to arrange a trip to go out and see him. He might have some idea of what Cash is looking for if Cash thinks he has it. He might also be in danger, and he needs to know that.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Gamma said.

“Look, he’s a friend, and if I have to disobey orders...”

“Agent Fall, if I didn’t want you to help the Dragon you wouldn’t be able to,” Gamma said. There was no heat or anger in her voice, only cold certainty. “I do want you to help the Dragon, though, so we should not have a problem. However, instead of allowing you to go to him to warn of a possible danger, I think it will be far more expedient to have him, and his hoard, brought to us where we can protect both more effectively. Wouldn’t you agree?” Star Fall shut her mouth and nodded. “Good. Now, What else of Cash have you learned?”

“Just that he wasn’t with his crew when they crossed the Everstorm,” Star Fall answered. “Neither were his usual companions, which is odd. Usually he leaves Bay to oversee them at least.”

“I see,” Gamma said, leaning back into her chair and folding her hooves in front of her. “Then you don’t know that Bay is dead.”

“What?” Star Fall and Astrid asked in unison.

“James Bay was found dead in an empty room at the bottom of a long hole,” Gamma said. “The same hole you were watching him help dig.”

“He was alive when they started packing up,” Star Fall said, frowning as she thought over the implications of this revelation. “I saw him and Cash go into the excavation together before I left.”

“Apparantly he never came back out,” Gamma said. “The Orion police were tipped off about Cash’s illegal excavation. After an ... incident involving a pair of pegasus officers sent to investigate, one of their best detectives went out and made the discovery himself.”

“How did he die?” Astrid wondered aloud.

“I don’t know,” Gamma admitted, frowning as if it pained her. “My source wasn’t able to get the autopsy report to me. It was violent, however, and apparently quite gruesome.”

“Could they have found something that did that to him?” Star Fall asked. “A creature?”

“Perhaps, but that’s needless speculation,” Gamma pointed out. “The fact that Bay is dead, even the manner of his death, do not shed any light on what was in the chamber they found. It does, however, throw all our carefully constructed behaviour models into chaos. Did Cash kill Bay, his most loyal lieutenant and oldest friend? If so, why? Did what they find kill him, and if so why didn’t it kill any others? Was there a fourth party involved, not affiliated with us nor Cash nor the Republic’s intelligence forces? If so, who, and why have they waited until now to act?” Gamma shook her head. “I know it’s giving them headaches on the other side of the Storm, and I’ve got some of our best minds working scenarios right now so that we’ve at least done some preparation.”

“If we catch him at one of these sites, we’ll be able to ask him directly what went on,” Star Fall said.

“Yes," Gamma said, giving Star Fall a short nod. "Which is why I’m very glad you did find this information. While the risk you took was unacceptable, I am forced to concede that it was, perhaps, warranted." Her gaze turned sly. "I believe a reward is in order. Would you like your father to receive a promotion?”

“I...” Star Fall hesitated and swallowed hard. When she had first been adopted by Twinkle Shine she’d tried to use her new influence to improve her family’s lot in life. Her parents, however, had refused her every effort. They stubbornly insisted on making their way on their own with the hardheaded pride that only the chronically impoverished could afford. They weren’t serfs to be kept like pets by a noble, they had told her, they were free ponies who made their own way, even if that way left them with no savings and ever increasing bills as they aged. They were happy to see her succeed, of course, but saw all but the lightest assistance as impinging on their hard-fought-for independence. What Gamma was offering was a chance to help them out, and since it would be Gamma’s influence that did it there would never be any indication that such a promotion was anything but absolutely legitimate and won through skill and effort.

This was the one thing she really hated about working for Gamma.

“No,” she said. “If there’s any reward it should be some vacation time for Astrid. She’s been with me non-stop for over a year now.”

“Hey, Fall, come on,” Astrid protested. “I don’t need any vacation. It’s not like watching you draw spooky pictures is hard.”

“When’s the last time you spent time with your Clan?” Star Fall asked. “When’s the last time you tried to nest?”

Astrid shook her head in disgust. “Low blow, Fall.”

“While I would like to grant that request,” Gamma said before Star Fall could reply. “I’m not the one you would have to ask. Astrid was assigned to you by the King, Agent Fall, and while my opinion has some sway with him, he would be much more likely to grant such a request if it came from you personally.”

Star Fall cringed. “Right. Then how about you just tell me why you arranged for Professor Shine to be ‘unavailable’ this morning?”

“I didn’t,” Gamma said. She took in the disbelieving looks she was getting with a calm indifference before continuing. “I am not prevaricating. I sincerely did not have a hoof in the Professor’s being called to council with the Crown today. In fact, if I had not decided learning what you found out was more important, I would be there as well.”

Star Fall deflated a bit at that. “Oh. What happened?”

“A juvenile Dragon has gone missing. They think he went into his hoarding phase and slipped the watch to start collecting.”

Star Fall sucked in a hissing breath and winced at that. “Ouch, that’s one set of minders who are getting fired.”

“Indeed, they will be lucky if they are not charged with negligence and thrown in jail,” Gamma said. “This matter of course took priority over the Professor’s classes. I merely took advantage of it to speak with you sooner. Well that I did, otherwise I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to meet the young miss Firefly. Am I right?”

Star Fall winced again. “Yes,” she admitted, at this point there was no use in lying to someone who could pick out tells from far better actors than Star Fall would ever be. “I wasn’t even going to tell you about her.”

Gamma nodded. Not in the least surprised. “Good. Now that I know about her anyway. Let’s all have a nice chat and get to know each other.” She stood up from her desk and strode over to the door.

“What the hell, Fall?” Astrid hissed as quietly as she could while Gamma passed. “If I wanted to start another fucking nest I’d fucking tell you!”

“I know! I’m sorry,” Star Fall whispered back. “It’s just, I gave up a chance to help my family, the first thing that came to mind was giving you a chance to start one. All that talk about genetics last night got me thinking about it, and I just ... well, I’m sorry.”

“Think next time, Fall,” Astrid sighed. “You’re usually so damn good at it, why can’t you do it around Gamma?”

“She’s smarter than me!” Star Fall protested. “It makes me nervous.”

“Ahem!” Gamma said, catching their attention. “If you two are done, I’d like to ask your new companion some questions.” She opened the door, only to find the outer office empty save for her secretary. “Therese, where is the pink one?”

“Using the facilities,” Therese replied, looking up from her papers only for a moment. “She’s been a while though. I think she got lost.”

“Well, no alarm has gone up,” Gamma mused. “I suppose she hasn’t gone too far.” She stepped across the foyer and opened the outer door, only to be assaulted with noise as ponies rushed by in the hallway. The sound of rapidly trotting hooves echoed through the hall, accompanied by the babble of many ponies talking excitedly all at once. “Excuse me!” Gamma called out, one of them stopped. “What’s causing the excitement?”

“There’s a pony taking the Maul!” he said, bouncing on his hooves. “They say she’s winning!”

“Oh? Now that’s interesting,” Gamma looked back at Star Fall and Astrid as the stallion she had stopped took the opportunity to keep going. “I definitely want to see this,” she said with a small smile. “Don’t you?”

“Winning the Maul? Isn’t that impossible?” Astrid asked incredulously.

“Oh no,” Star Fall breathed, immediately knowing exactly what was going on.

Astrid’s eyes widened as her own train of thought quickly caught up with Star Fall’s. She shared a worried look with her pegasus friend. “Oh,” she said. “Yeah. That’ll be a problem.”

“Come along now,” Gamma said, turning back to the hallway. “I’ve got a theory I’m testing, and I’d like to hear your opinions on it.”

They joined the crowd making its way down to the massive subterranean chamber that was used for special training and tests, such as the Maul. When they got there the observation area was already packed full, and what they saw made Star Fall’s jaw drop.

***

Rainbow Dash dodged to the side, the enchanted bullets sending up little puffs of dirt as they impacted the ground behind her. She didn’t even have time to get out a protesting yell before she had to duck under another barrage of projectiles. The ponies lining this part of the course had hefted strange tube-devices to their sides, the shape of them reminding her of the dart-thrower that had been used against her just before she had met Star Fall. These weren’t shooting darts, though, and she had the feeling that getting hit with one would result in more than embarrassing unconsciousness.

An armored earth pony leapt out at her, forcing her to vault into the air to get over him. Immediately a pair of nets were thrown at her, trying to tangle in her wings. She dove, hitting the pony who had tried to tackle her and using him as a springboard to launch herself forward again. The air buzzed as more projectiles barely missed her.

Dash sucked in a heavy breath and picked up her pace, barely staying ahead of a blast of fire launched from a unicorn. This was insane! What kind of madmare would design an obstacle course where ponies were trying to kill you? She had to dart back and forth so quickly that the world took on a shuddering, seizure-like quality in her vision. She was forced to abandon normal flight procedure and move completely by gut instinct.

Which was fine, really. She did her best flying by gut instinct.

Her magic poured through her, enhancing her senses to deal with the incredible speed and precision with which she moved, lending strength to her muscles and decreasing her reaction time to almost nothing. This was the power of a pegasus, just as strength and resilience were an earth pony's, and the manipulation of matter and energy by thought alone was a unicorn's. The world slowed down, coming to a moment of calm as she made the choice between quitting the course and protecting herself, or continuing on and risking her life.

As time sped back up Dash's grin was as fierce as a hurricane. There was no way she was backing down.

She hit the ground running, ducking under a blast of small pellets that peppered the air above her. Her wings flared out, catching the air and pulling her to a sudden stop just in time to avoid a huge guillotine that cut across her path. The moment it was out of her way she was past it, dodging a trio of javelins thrown at her as she rushed towards the launching point that would take her into the first air-based leg of the course.

A sheet of fire erupted in front of the first ring she was supposed to fly through, covering it completely. She nearly flinched away, but something about the way the air felt on her wings made her decide to fly right through it. She plunged into the flames and felt their searing heat, but emerged from the other side unscathed, the phantom pain disappearing instantly. Just as she was congratulating herself on recognizing the illusory flame, a very real fireball burst in front of her, forcing her to swerve around it.

The fireball had only been cover for the approach of a trio of pegasi. Dash was forced onto the defensive as they assailed her. Their fighting style was something she'd never seen before, which made sense considering where and when she was. Still, while they were very good she was a dozen times faster than them, and the disparity in power showed. Even three on one she was untouchable, dodging blows and making insanely difficult maneuvers as she kept the pegasi between her and the charged unicorn horns below.

Eventually, once they realized that they couldn't hit her, the pegasi withdrew in unison, letting the unicorns have a clear shot. Dash abandoned the course for a minute, zipping all the way up to the high ceiling of the room. She eyed the thin indoor clouds with trepidation, but decided that they would do in a pinch. With speed that left a pink-blue trail behind as she moved, Dash zig-zagged across the ceiling, avoiding spells while also surreptitiously herding the small clouds into one area. She drew in the moisture from the air, adding it to the clouds until they gained volume and solidity. Once she decided there were enough gathered she looped around them, once, twice, three times until they congealed into a single, thicker mass.

Dash looped around to the top of her makeshift cloud and shoved. It hurtled down towards the group of unicorns that had been targeting her. Dash laughed as a few of them ducked or ran as if the cloud could actually hurt them. There was very little substance to the cloud, and while she could have maybe kicked one lighting bolt out of it, it would have been weak and no threat to anything bigger than a mouse. As it was, it did what it was supposed to do, which was break apart and spread out well before it reached the ground.

With an obscuring mist in the way Dash launched herself at the next part of the course, diving through a hoop and curling around to come at the next obstacle. Startlingly loud cracks rang out as the ponies with the tube-things continued firing, half aiming at Dash and half firing blindly. Dash ignored them unless they got too close to hitting her, intent on beating this next portion of the course and getting back in the air.

A field of razor-wire strung over a patch of loose dirt was her next challenge. She'd seen stuff like that before, she was supposed to crouch down and crawl through it. Flying over would be cheating, and might disqualify her. Dash used her wings for a lot, but unlike what a certain orange farmer might think she never used them for outright cheating. Still, if she tried to crawl she'd be set upon in moments by the burly Earth Ponies who were even now rushing to intercept her. So she resolved not to crawl.

Dash tucked into a somersault that took her to the razor-wire field just ahead of one of the charging ponies, then tucked her wings close, threw her hooves out to stretch herself into as straight of a line as she could, and rolled sideways into the dirt. The wire was still close enough to the ground that it caught at her mane, but none of it touched her as she rolled as fast as she could through the dirt. A hoof caught one of the poles holding the wire up, but she gritted her teeth through the pain and kept going. She burst from the other side of the field in a shower of dirt as she spread her wings and launched herself into the air, barely avoiding another blast of pellets that scarred the ground where she had been.

A wide net meant to be climbed was next up, with another launching point for the next aerial section at its top. She dropped back to the ground and snapped her wings closed, leaping onto the rope ladder and climbing for all she was worth. Climbing rope ladders, it turned out, was hard. What made it even harder was that the unicorns who had a clear view just would not stop chucking things at her. She was forced to twist and contort herself in a dozen very uncomfortable ways in order to dodge the projectiles thrown at her, some of which cut into the ropes and made it even harder to climb.

Finally reaching the top, she took to the air. She didn't know how much time had passed, but she was fairly certain it was more than a few minutes since she started. The fight with the pegasi and putting the obscuring cloud together had taken a while. She was breathing heavily and while she was sure she could go for a lot longer, the exertion was reminder her that her wings had been broken only a little over a week ago. As much as she hated to admit it, she wasn't back in top shape, and this was putting more of a strain on her than she liked.

She flew straight towards the next hoop, this one sticking straight out of the wall near the ceiling, barely paying attention as she mentally gauged how much more her body could handle. This lack of focus nearly killed her as a large shape dropped out of the sky, sharp raptor's talons flashing. Dash barely pulled back in time, but still received a trio of scrapes down her belly from a strike that could very easily have disemboweled her.

She wheeled to track the Griffin that had attacked her as it circled around, falcon eyes latching onto her as it was joined by three others. "Four against one?" Dash whined. "Aw, man, this is totally not cool." If they were anywhere near decent flyers the four of them could overwhelm her easily. From the way they were moving in the air, they were better than decent. While they couldn't match her speed, in a confined space like this room she was at a huge disadvantage.

A sudden thought brought a smile to her face. The cloud-mist was dissipating, but there was enough of it left that some of the ground forces still didn't have a good view, that included some of the pyrokinetic unicorns.

Dash flew straight into the formation of Griffins. They reacted like the war-trained soldiers they were, twisting to bring their talons to the fore and slowing while maintaining formation instead of scattering like pegasi would. Dash pushed out more speed, banking sharply in a pair of ninety-degree turns before tapping the lead Griffin sharply on the beak and diving towards the ground. The Griffin, surprised and angered, followed, his comrades dropping with him in pursuit.

Dash deliberately slowed her descent, letting the Griffins get within a feather of catching her. She aimed for a still-substantial patch of cloud just above a group of unicorns and turned so that her hooves were leading. With a feeling like she had just landed in hip-deep mud she hit the cloud. She tucked in one leg and rolled along its surface, getting out of the way as the unicorns below fired their combat magics up, and the Griffins hit the cloud and found it much less substantial than their quarry had.

The explosion of the fireball spells was still close enough to singe Dash's hair and send her tumbling off the edge of the cloud, but she caught herself with her wings and soared up. She knew she had to keep moving, but she couldn't stop herself from looking back at the damage she had just done. To her relief, all of the Griffins were alive. Three of them sprawled on the ground, nursing broken bones and burns, but none of them looked seriously injured and there were already unicorns carrying what looked like medical supplies rushing over to them. The last of the Griffins seemed to have escaped injury altogether, and was even now fixing on her position and flapping hard to catch up to her.

Dash grinned and threw that Griffin a quick salute before turning and rushing towards her goal. More pegasi were leaping from the balconies to harass her, and with the cloud cover almost completely gone the unicorns on the ground were firing off more and more spells that forced her to dodge in increasingly quick and complex ways. She relished it, tasting the adrenaline and demanding more. She could hear that voice in the back of her head, the one that pushed her on to greatness. It was giving her the pep-talk of a lifetime now, and she was eating up everything it had to say.

Rainbow Dash looked at all the forces that were arrayed against her, and smiled. "I'm Rainbow Dash," she whispered into the wind of her own wings, narrowing her eyes in a challenge to the world. "I'm the fastest pegasus in Equestria, past, present or future. You think you got what it takes to stop me? Bring it on!"

***

“Fascinating,” Gamma said, watching as Dash twisted through the air, avoiding projectiles and dodging attackers with a grace and speed that left trails of blue and pink hanging in the air. “Only one more test, I think.” She waved a hoof to one of the several ponies responsible for controlling the Maul, who trotted over. “Use the guided missiles, Sunlance class.”

“Ma’am?” the pony said. “Those are...”

“What I ordered you to use,” Gamma interrupted, fixing him with her gaze. “Is there a problem?” He gulped and shook his head before galloping off to relay her instructions.

“Sunlance?” Astrid said. “Those’re hunter-killers. Even with a training warhead they’ll kill a pony if they explode close enough.”

“Gamma!” Star Fall said, hopping in front of the spy. “What are you doing?”

“I told you, I’m testing a theory,” Gamma said, then looked back to the action as the ponies pursuing Dash dropped away and a trio of brilliant magic-infused missiles launched from the ground straight towards Dash.

“You’ll kill her!” Star Fall screamed.

“Will I?” Gamma asked, not taking her eyes off the pink-blue blur that was frantically trying to evade the missiles that were quickly closing in on her. “I don’t think I will. I think I won’t even come close. Keep your mouth open, Agent Fall, it will help.”

“Help with wha...” Star Fall didn’t get to finish as Dash broke the sound barrier. The shockwave pounded through the room, tossing flying pegasi aside and shattering lights and windows. More than a few ears bled from ruptured eardrums and the missiles were completely thrown off, exploding in small puffs of fire as their safety measures kicked in. Star Fall fell to the ground, clutching at the sides of her head. Most non-Earth Ponies did the same. Astrid stiffened and snarled at the pain, but refused to give in to it. Gamma didn’t even flinch as blood began to drip out of her left ear, a smile spreading across her face.

With the entire test crew in disarray Dash blasted through the remaining course in a few seconds, her etherealized trail showing rainbow colors through the pink and blue. With a final flourish and a looping victory circuit around the massive room she dropped into a hard landing right in front of the brown pegasus who had dragged her down there. “Who’s humiliated now, huh?” she crowed. “Oh yeah! I’m the best! Who’s up for a hoof-bump!” She raised her hoof, grinning widely, but was met only with disbelieving stares. “Uh, anyone? Anyone at all? Come on, don’t leave me hangin’ here!”

“I’ll take that offer,” Gamma said.

Dash turned to her as the crowd opened up, and her grin fell away. “Oh crap,” she said, noticing the very angry Star Fall glaring at her from Gamma’s side. “Uh. This totally wasn’t my fault.”

“Of course not,” Gamma said, then turned to the crowd. “Thank you all for attending!” she called out, her horn glowing as she enhanced her voice to carry across the whole room. “The demonstration today has been a wonderful success, and I hope to be employing the spells used to empower our test agent here in the field as soon as possible. Those of you who can hear, please relate this to everyone else, you are not to speak of what you saw today. You all know the secrecy drill. Please return to your desks or stations and try to contain your excitement. If anyone who wasn’t here asks, just tell them the Lunatics won’t know what hit them!”

A ragged cheer went up from the ponies who’s ears weren’t filled with a loud ringing. A chaos of shuffling ponies ensued as everyone tried to vacate the Maul chamber in one big rush. Gamma, Astrid and Star Fall made their way over to where Dash was standing and looking solidly at the ground.

Why did you do this?” Star Fall asked in Old Equestrian.

I’m sorry, I didn’t think it’d be a big deal,” Dash said.

Star Fall frowned, then shook her head. “I need healing,” she said.

Gamma waved over one of the many medical unicorns who were circulating through the crowd, he quickly applied a healing spell to Star Fall, alleviating the pain in her ears and allowing her some of her hearing back. Astrid refused a similar spell, saying that she was okay. Gamma allowed herself to take a minor healing spell before sending the unicorn off to tend to more ponies.

“Now, time for that talk,” she said, her horn lighting up in a weak privacy spell that would keep them from being casually overheard.

“Look, I can explain about this whole test thing,” Dash said quickly.

“No need,” Gamma said. “I think Agent Fall already knows what happened.”

“You set this up,” Star Fall accused, glaring at Gamma. “How? Why?”

“Wait, set this up?” Dash asked.

Gamma ignored her, opting to answer Star Fall. “How is easy, I made a few calls. You know how much pull I have, putting this together in half an hour was difficult, but not beyond my means. As to why? I told you twice now, I was testing a theory.”

“What theory?” Star Fall asked, pushing her anger to the side.

“I will answer that by asking a question,” she turned to Dash. “Did you kill James Bay?”

Dash blinked, taken aback. “Who? What? I’ve never killed anyone!”

Gamma nodded. “I didn’t think so. For all her faults as an operative, Agent Fall is a very good judge of character, and she trusted you implicitly. Yet you were there close to when he died.”

“Close to...” Dash trailed off, another flashback to the darkness, the feel of a pony’s blood beneath her hooves. She swallowed hard. “The guy in the tunnel. That’s who you’re talking about, isn’t it?”

“Tunnel?” Star Fall said. “You were in the tunnel? You were there when Bay died?”

Dash shook her head. “Look, I don’t know this Bay guy, alright? But, Star, when I... when I woke up here I was in a dark room, like pitch black, and there was this dead pony there. I ran, got into some trouble right afterwards, then you found me. It kinda slipped my mind. Sorry, I should have told you earlier.”

Star Fall opened her mouth, but no sound came out as she tried to think about what all this meant. She turned to Gamma. “How did you know that?”

“Remember when I said there was an ‘incident’ when the Orion police sent officers to investigate the site?” Gamma asked, then gestured to Dash. “She is that incident. She attacked the officers, beat them handily, and then retreated over the mountains into the Verge. So you were wrong when you said she had nothing to do with your mission. In fact, she has everything to do with it.”

“Whoa, those guys were cops?” Dash said. “I mean, well, I guess I kinda figured, but I didn’t attack them, they attacked me! Just started swinging with their batons after I tried to talk to them. I mean, I didn’t speak the language or anything, but...”

“Dash,” Star Fall said, then winced hard as Gamma’s eyebrow went up. “Firefly, don’t talk. You can explain later, I just want to hear what Gamma’s figured out before we start telling her everything else.”

“A wise desire,” Gamma said. “And one I’m quite willing to fulfill. The police report I gained on the incident had several very fanciful powers attributed to the mare who so easily trounced two of Orion City’s finest. Incredible resilience, perfect aerial maneuverability, etherealization, cloudwalking, and, my favourite, supersonic speed. The report concluded that a cabal of unicorns was empowering this mare, and why not? A single pony capable of all those feats together was impossible. I put the report aside and focused on Bay’s death and the chaos it made of our plans until I got word that you were back in the Kingdom, nearly a week overdue. Then the pieces started coming together. First Astrid goes into town and buys supplies, as well as a pair of dresses. Strange, but not knowing the reason for your delay it could mean anything. Then I get a report of you and an unknown mare coming into town, with said mare departing suddenly and leaving a very visible etherealization. That’s when I started to take notice. When I found you were in the capital, I sent for you this morning because I wanted to know for certain whether my suspicions were true.”

She grinned at Dash, who stepped back from the intensity of the look. “And you did not disappoint! When Agent Case reported that you were confrontational, I decided to risk that you could be goaded into a challenge, so I set up the best challenge I could for someone with the skill set I was hoping you had. I put this and two other backup plans together just so I could confirm that you were, indeed, the mare that the OCPD encountered. Right now? The resemblance is startling. The dye job is good, very unlike the description I have of you. But if I tore off that dress, what kind of Glyph would I find? I think it would be a cloud with a tri-colored lightning bolt shooting out of it. Shall I check my hypothesis?”

“No,” Star Fall groaned. “You’ve made your point.”

“Have I?” Gamma asked, turning to Star Fall. “I don’t really think I have. You see, I’m not quite done being clever. You chose to hide something from me, Agent Fall, an act that could potentially have a disastrous effect on our national security. I am going to hammer home the point that you do not do that.” She spun back to Dash. “You were in that tunnel, but you didn’t know who Bay was and denied killing him. I believe you, you don’t seem to have the wherewithal to lie well. Agent Fall didn’t know you were in the tunnel, and she also lacks the capacity for true deception. So, from these premises and the information contained in all your statements to each other I can surmise a few things:

“First, you are ignorant of the world, somehow. Unfamiliar with both the Republics and the Kingdom. Perhaps amnesia, perhaps whatever test tube you crawled out of hadn’t gotten around to implanting memories yet. You could be a foreigner from across the sea, but very little of the evidence supports that assertion. In the end what matters is that you are essentially an outsider. You didn’t speak Lunar, but you speak perfect Solar, and, from what I know of it, at least passing Old Equestrian. That implies that you were from this side of the Storm and were highly educated, which is extremely unlikely because if you were then I would know about you, and I don’t. You convinced Agent Fall to help you. More importantly you convinced Sergeant Steelwing to let you accompany them, which implies a great deal of sincerity on your part and a very believable story. Yet Agent Fall wanted to hide you from me, which means that your story, while believable, was fantastical. Hence why she wanted to bring you to Professor Shine. I have the resources to aid any endeavor or inquiry, except one that deals with the depths of esoteric magic. Twinkle Shine, however, is the master of that domain. If anyone would know how to deal with an arcane problem it would be her, while my own lack of understanding could lead to unnecessary consequences. Therefore you either have or are an arcane problem.”

“I, um, yeah, I guess?” Dash said.

Gamma punched a hoof out that stopped just shy of Dash’s mouth. “Don’t interrupt. Let’s put this together. You have incredible physical abilities not seen in over eight hundred years. You are an outsider to both the Kingdom and the Republics. You have or are an arcane problem. You are therefore either a magically engineered being, a legitimate pony who has been caught in some kind of magical event, or an engineered being who believes they are a legitimate pony caught in some kind of magical event. I will leave determining which of those is true up to Professor Shine. My sole concern is the safety of this nation, and for that I have only two questions, the answers to which will determine whether or not you ever get to see the Professor, or indeed the outside world ever again.”

Dash gulped. Gamma hadn’t even blinked throughout her entire tirade. The way she was putting the facts together reminded her of Twilight Sparkle, but her forceful tone was more like an angry Princess Celestia. The combination was extremely off-putting: smart but scary. “Okay, what are the questions?”

“First, what do you know about Max Cash?”

“Nothing?” Dash answered tentatively. Gamma gave no sign as to whether this was the right answer or not, but it was the only one she could give. She’d never heard the name before.

“I see. Regardless of your knowledge of Cash, you are involved in his scheme. As you said you ‘woke up’ in the chamber with Bay’s corpse, I can surmise that your current set of contiguous memories begin there.” Dash opened her mouth to ask a question, but shut it at a warning glare from Gamma. “You met Agent Fall soon after your escape from the Orion police. Sergeant Steelwing would have forced her to abandon or avoid you under normal circumstances, so she must have found you in a compromised position and either took pity on you, unlikely, or you quickly instilled in her a desire to keep you close. Your mysterious arcane problem would suffice for that. So now you, a pony deeply, if ignorantly, involved in the machinations of Max Cash, are travelling with the Agent responsible for a great deal of spying on Cash. An Agent who is also the pony most capable of entering and leaving the Republics without being noticed. I do not believe in coincidence, and even if I did this would strain credulity. Do you understand why keeping this from me was a grave mistake, Agent Fall? No, don’t answer, you’re smart enough to have figured it out a while ago.”

Gamma sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. “This will only cause more problems. Since you forced my hoof in breaking your deception I am inclined to be harsh with you.” Her eyes snapped open in a glare that made Star Fall shrink back. “I have a wide array of discipline options at my disposal.”

“Hey! Don’t be so hard on Star! She didn’t know,” Dash protested.

Gamma’s stare flashed to her. “Who should I be hard on, then? Are you volunteering?”

“If it’ll get you to leave her alone, yeah!” Dash met Gamma’s eyes and held them, refusing to flinch.

“Firefly, no!” Star Fall pleaded, trying to get Dash to look at her. “It’s okay. She’s right, I deserve this.”

“The hell you do,” Astrid said, snapping her talons to get the attention of all three ponies. “Gamma, stop screwing around and get to your second question.”

Gamma regarded Astrid for a long moment, then shrugged. “Very well. Miss Firefly, my second question is simple: what is your name. Your real name, not the one Star Fall gave you.”

Dash looked at Star Fall, who heaved a sigh and nodded. “I’m Rainbow Dash,” she said, staring Gamma in the eye and daring her to challenge it.

“Rainbow Dash,” Gamma repeated, and a slow smile spread on her face. “Well, well, isn’t that fascinating?” She turned back to Star Fall. “Agent Fall, I hope you’ve learned your lesson?”

“Yes,” Star Fall said, dejected.

“Astrid?”

“I didn’t have to learn crap,” the Griffin snorted. “You’re not the boss of me.”

“Fair enough,” Gamma said, then turned away from them. “I think it would be best if we continue this conversation in my office.” Without waiting for them to reply she began trotting towards the now-clear exit. She stopped suddenly, looking back over her shoulder at them. “Oh, and miss Dash? Welcome to the future.”

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